Televised for the first time as a window to the world outside of American borders, the Vietnam War is often referred to as the first “television war.” The war was never far away; it was with Americans in their own living rooms. The impact of media coverage influenced the perceptions of ordinary citizens and even affected higher-level foreign policy decisions. The media’s involvement in shaping sentiments persists well into modern times through selective usage of images of war-torn Vietnam and the decrepit Vietnamese body in recollection events such as news outlets, documentaries, and other similar forms of coverage. As the “leader of the free world,” America’s humiliating defeat by the hands of an underdeveloped, third-world Communist country could have dethroned its status as a world superpower. How come it didn’t? If history is always written by the victors, how is the media manipulating the scene to paint Vietnam the loser? By considering the veteran and refugee narratives in tandem, their stories legitimize the unpopular war by establishing the rescuers along with the rescued. With the US as a savior of Vietnamese refugees from the evils of their own country, the Vietnam War became just and necessary with the US as the ultimate victor.
Since the World Wars, the US has been afflicted with the “white savior complex.” The US rhetoric of going to war as a way of rescuing desperate people from their tyrannical government, ushering them into a modern and advanced capitalist society, was actually imperialism under the veil of democracy. Its loss in the Vietnam War threatened to topple their narrative. Following the war’s end, there were no liberated people nor justification that the war was ever necessary. By using the image of the liberated and transformed Vietnamese refugee and the benevolent and masculine veteran, the media produced a moral and victorious US, legitimizing the unpopular war and reinvigorating its interventionist military rhetoric.
The reshaping of veteran perceptions was pivotal in the rebranding of the War. Emerging as the losers against a country they outnumbered, outgunned, and out-funded, the US was deeply emasculated. Prior to the war, their national superiority against Vietnam was reflected in the countries’ statuses as economic and diplomatic world powers as well as in more nuanced undertones of race and class. The big, menacing, healthy American soldier was pitted against the small, malnourished, diseased, effeminate Asian man, and lost. Hence, restoring US masculinity meant restoring the masculinity lost by its veterans. As a response, the media capitalized on veterans’ personal and family lives. Drawing on scenes of their old yearbook pictures with friends, books they have read, family heirlooms, and at times, the Bible, the media highlighted the story of human tragedy over the politics of going to war. Bringing in themes of domesticity, marriage, fatherhood, and piety, Vietnam represented a disruption to the heteronormative nuclear Christian family that America knew so well. With focus shifted from their defeat to their familial impact, the masculinity of veterans, and thus that of the US, was restored.
Conversely, the loss of American innocence is a common trope attributed to the Vietnam War as well. The war pulled American boys from the safety of America into the hellish unknown. Vietnam was the foil of America in space and time. A place where violence is inherent, troops get on planes to travel thousands of miles back in time to a society that predates modern civilization as they know it. Propelled into a place without American comforts, Vietnam was depicted as a literary hell by both journalists and veterans alike. According to the media, it was up to the US to save the Vietnamese people from their own hell. The Fall of Saigon was objectively a US defeat, yet the media expertly spun the story into one of bravery and heroism. By exploiting pictures of last-ditch efforts to evacuate the fallen capital and last stronghold of resistance from the Viet Cong, American pilots were revered for risking their lives to save the frantic and desperate Vietnamese refugees. Climbing on top of each other and clinging to helicopters like ants, they would rather risk falling to their death than be left behind. Totally bypassing the US’ role in bringing about the Fall and its consequent last-ditch evacuation in the first place, the media reappropriated the situation to better fit the “white savior” narrative of the US military by stepping up as the valiant rescuer of the fleeing Vietnamese. Essentially, the US praises itself for helping the people it put in danger. In reality, this was a failed attempt to secure a geopolitical stronghold in Southeast Asia. Crafted narratives like these perpetuate the US as fundamentally altruistic in protecting democracy worldwide while at the same time draw attention away from its underlying geopolitical, military, and economic motivations.
While veterans were used as justification for a necessary war, the refugees were used as proof that it was worth it. Juxtaposed with previous naturalized notions of Vietnam, the assimilated Vietnamese refugee is seen enjoying life in America far from the confines of Communism. Although refugees are the focus of media coverage, they serve as props to elevate the white American way of life. As an example of the invisible social body of refugees, their body was not their own to control. They only become most visible to the American public as witnesses to the horrors of Communism and for their gratitude towards the US government for saving them. With their lives reduced to objects to legitimize the war, there was no discussion by the Vietnamese on suffering and what they had to endure. Tropes of their transformation from the poor rural villager to a successful professional, showcasing upward motility through economic growth and private property ownership, are not enough for them to be American. Going to good colleges, having high-ranking jobs, driving nice cars and living in a big house are all accessories to cover up something that is deemed inherently ugly by American standards. For them, the problem is Vietnam itself, as education, opportunities, and social motility are impossible without democracy. Furthermore, the overrepresentation of the “rags-to-riches” narrative inaccurately portrays the economic situation of many Vietnamese American families that are characterized by unstable, minimum-wage employment and welfare dependency. Spurred on by the model minority myth, they are grouped together with the successes of other established Asian American groups like the Chinese, Korean, and Indian-Americans.
The masculinity discourse surrounding veterans is also tied with refugees. On the topic of family values, the US is where women can freely choose who to marry regardless of race. As Vietnam was represented as untouched by time and progress since primitive society, a Vietnamese woman’s freedom to discover love and choose her own husband was an American privilege. Otherizing Vietnam as destitute, it is incapable of nurturing its people’s true potential. The rhetoric affirms that marrying a Vietnamese man is similar to being frozen in time: a time before progress and democracy, and a time of the past and suffering. The celebration around a Vietnamese woman’s freedom to have a mixed-race baby can be drawn to US sentiments on global expansion as well. For the US to nurture a liberal multicultural America, it needs to establish global hegemony through an interventionist and imperialist military. Acknowledging the positive outcomes of such imperialist ideals also acknowledges those from the Vietnam War and thus furthers its legitimacy.
Routinely ignored in most US discourse of the Vietnam War, Vietnamese refugees became the literal embodiment of evidence in the necessity of US military intervention. Juxtaposing tragedies of suffering in Vietnam with the successes of America portrayed a narrative of the American savior against the perils of Vietnam, effectively burying the US’ role in causing the forced migration in the first place with its interventionist foreign policy. The successful and anticommunist refugee served as an object to save veterans and the US from emasculation. They retold the Vietnam War as one that was necessary, just, and successful as proven in the model minority. The media played with themes of race, class, family, and transnationalism to repaint the cultural disgust against the Vietnam War. In doing so, it gave the US the moral right to global hegemony by establishing political, military, and economic power around the world.