Presidential Rhetoric During War

For my project I decided to use the Vietnam War as a case study for the way in which President’s use rhetorical strategies to control war enthusiasm. It is a simple thing to say but not all wars are the same and not all enemies are portrayed to the public in the same manner. For example, the way in which the American government spoke of the Axis powers during World War II was categorically different from the way in which it spoke of Saddam Hussein during the Iraqi wars. The main difference is that presidents are often leery of invoking total war due to geopolitical and economic factors. To make a case for war by demonizing the enemy is essential, but the degree to which an administration levies their charges varies from conflict to conflict.

During the Vietnam War, President Johnson preached to the American public the idea of a limited war for a variety of reasons. First, Johnson was a democrat and knew that the war was not as popular with liberals as it was with conservatives. He had to constantly resist pressure from the right to escalate further out of fear of alienating his base. Second, the war was expensive as funds spent in Southeast Asia were publicly perceived to be funds not spent on advancing Johnson’s Great Society program. During the endeavor, Johnson sought to keep the commitment low in order to give him freedom to pursue the largest aggressive domestic improvement project since the New Deal. Third, the United States had recently fought in Korea and provoked the Chinese into fighting. Combat between the two powers devastated American forces to such a degree that the war had to be fought as far from the Chinese border as possible to avoid future confrontation. Threats by the Chinese to unleash a giant “volunteer” army into Vietnam to fight against the Americans meant that total war was not a viable option. Thus, the United States had to maintain a limited war to avoid unenviable options.

To make my project more interesting, I looked at how the rhetorical commitment to limited war allowed a New York Times reporter, Harrison Salisbury, to enter North Vietnam and report their side of the story. Salisbury traveled to North Vietnam in late 1966 and found physical evidence that the American bombing campaign had not been as successful as the Johnson Administration portrayed it to be. Salisbury went further to explain that the United States misunderstood the enemy’s character; a fact that squandered a viable option for peace. Shocking the public, the articles ran on the front page of the Times, sparking debate across the country. During his three weeks of fame, Salisbury had set himself as a legitimate rival to the president in the arena of information.

As the affair played out, many weighed in the wisdom of Salisbury’s endeavors. But the greatest takeaway is that a limited war opens a loophole for legitimate criticism against an administration. Efforts to avoid total war often involve not fully demonizing the enemy. As such, critics are free to portray the enemy in a positive light and weaken the legitimacy of a presidential administration.


About neilbooher

Vanderbilt University 2012 History, Political Science Researching the relationship between the media and Presidency during wartime
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