What Was so Wrong with the CBS Program, The Uncounted
Copyrighted by the VVI circa 1984
Professor Peter C. Rollins, Ph.D.; Department of English
Oklahoma State University
VVI Editorial comments: Dr Rollins was a USMC combat platoon leader in Vietnam and received his Ph.D. from Harvard University.
On Friday, January 21, 1982, major daily newspapers in Boston, New York, Washington, and Chicago carried a full-page advertisement for a Saturday night documentary on CBS. An artist's drawing placed the reader in a full, high angle position, looking down from the ceiling at a roundtable discussion chaired by a two-star general. Seven members of his staff surrounded the table over which was written in capital letters, "CONSPIRACY." Viewers were promised an expose which would reveal "a deliberate plot to fool the American public, the Congress, and perhaps even the White House into believing we were winning a war that we in fact were losing" (Benjamin, Fair Play, ill. 1). The advertisement certainly did not reach the masses; the program drew a very small audience, coming in dead last in the ratings for that week. However, The Uncounted Enemy: A Vietnam Deception was watched by an important minority audience: some, to include General William Westmoreland, the "heavy" of the show, were incensed by its distortions; many more were convinced by the program that CBS had caught people in high places betraying the public trust.
Shortly after the program, General Westmoreland began to receive calls from friends and family, asking him if the thesis of the program--that he suppressed information about Viet Cong offensive capabilities--were really true. Even his daughter called! Within days, veterans groups were denouncing their former commander. Quite understandably, the supreme commander in Vietnam (1964-68) began a slow, uphill battle to regain his honor. The counter-offensive would not come to a halt until February 18, 1985 when Westmoreland and his lawyer, Dan Burt, received a public statement from CBS attesting that, whatever the contentions of its programs, the network did not believe " General Westmoreland was unpatriotic and disloyal in performing his duties as he saw them" (Brewin, 345).
Some four years later, memory of the "Westmoreland Trail" is beginning to wane. Most people I ask about the struggle remember that the general withdrew and therefore assume that Westmoreland was guilty of the "conspiracy" which The Uncounted Enemy exposed. Few remember that CBS withdrew the charge of conspiracy some eight months prior to the out-of-court settlement of Westmoreland's $120 million suit. Almost no one has seen the documentary which precipitated the struggle. This paper will summarize the essence of the charges presented by The Uncounted Enemy (hereafter TUE) and then critique the program under some basic cinematic rubrics. Hopefully, the study will become a basis for a documentary critiques of the entire CBS-Westmoreland argon.
In his introduction, host Mike Wallace explains that the Tet offensive of 1968 was a surprise because neither the President nor the American public was aware of the true size of enemy forces prior to that climactic nation-wide offensive in the latter part of January.
...tonight we're going to present evidence of what we have come to believe was a conscious effort--indeed a conspiracy at the highest levels of American intelligence--to suppress and alter critical intelligence on the enemy leading up to the Tet offensive...
The remainder of the five act documentary attempts to trace the manner by which the "conspiracy" was carried out by General William Westmoreland and his staff at the Military Assistance Command Vietnam (MACV) between August, 1967 and March 1968.
Act one portrays consultant Sam Adams as an unheeded CIA analyst whose prescient readings of enemy strength figures were ignored. File footage shows that domestic political turmoil in the United States over an unpopular war makes Adams' news politically dangerous. General William Westmoreland is then presented in his role as a salesman of good news about progress in Vietnam to an impatient American public. While Westmoreland shows familiarity with the Sam Adams thesis, his dismissal of it on camera is halting and unconvincing. In addition, apparently disillusioned members of the MACV intelligence staff and introduced to question the wisdom of Westmoreland's use of their work. One source, General Joseph McChristian, goes so far as to state that, as a West Point graduate, he could not participate in the juggling of intelligence figures during wartime; it would be a violation of Military Academy' 5 code of honor. Wallace implies at the close of act one that McChristian was rotated back to the U.S. because of his opposition to Westmoreland's immoral effort to suppress intelligence concerning rising enemy strength.
Act two traces the details of suppression. George MacArthur reports that his estimates of enemy strength were arbitrarily cut by superiors. George Allen, a crony and supporter of Sam Adams, states that the CIA--indeed, the entire intelligence community--was making a grave error by ignoring the figures. Adams describes a meeting with the CIA's Board of National Estimates at which his good friend from MACV, Colonel Gains Hawkins, argued for Westmoreland numbers (called "the command figures") even though his work as an analyst had led him to much higher estimates. Wallace leads Hawkins through a series of reflections of the tragic fallout. The host speaks for Hawkins when he says "American troops are going to have to face a much larger enemy... a lot of them are going to get slaughtered" [in the Tet offensive]. Wallace's tone clearly emphasizes that the "command figures" are politically determined while the numbers projected by Adams, Hawkins, and McChristian are dispassionately accurate. McChristian ends the second act with the powerful statement of a West Point graduate's devotion to "Duty, Honor, Country" when confronted with a choice between political expediency and truth.
Act three narrows in on the debate over "the Order of Battle," the comprehensive estimate by the American intelligence community of the enemy's overall offensive capability. Late in 1967, General Westmoreland proposed that the Viet Cong's Self-Defense Forces--people in villages who could be used to carry ammunition, dig pungy pits, plant mines--be removed from the body of the Order of Battle and, instead, be carried in the narrative portion of the report. Looking very uncomfortable as he defends this decision, Westmoreland argues that the Self Defense forces had no offensive capability, that "this is a non-issue."
On the contrary, the issue would become, according to Wallace, "one of the most bitterly fought battles in the history of American intelligence." George Allen (CIA) and George Hamscher (Army Intelligence) return to discredit Westmoreland' s decision. File footage from 1967 resurrects the statements about good news just as the enemy is shown to be planning the nation-wide attacks which would be known as the Tet Offensive. The result is an impression that there is an enormous gap between irreducible facts and government fantasies.
Act four shifts the story for the Viet Cong strength figures to estimates of North Vietnamese main force units. The Westmoreland of 1967, appearing on Meet the Press, is shown disagreeing with the Westmoreland of 1981. Colonel Everette Parkins, we are told, was fired for defending accurate numbers to his superior. We meet the villain in the suppression efforts, General Daniel Graham, who is allowed twenty-two seconds in the program to defend his own and the command position. An apparently flustered and stammering Westmoreland contributes little to support Graham against a montage of criticisms by MACV and CIA lower echelon officers frustrated about the unwillingness of top commanders to accept their evaluations. Wallace concludes the act with an unavoidable insight:
"And so, the President of the United States, the American Army in Vietnam and the American public back home were destined to be caught totally unprepared for the size of the attack that was coming the following month." As the show moves to commercials, the central thesis about the origins and results of "conspiracy" have been made. What remains is to demonstrate the tragic consequences of the dishonorable effort by the military and political conspirators.
Act five and the epilogue of The Uncounted Enemy spell out lessons about the real reason for our defeat in Vietnam. The Tet attacks surprised everyone in Vietnam and set the Joint Chiefs of Staff into a tailspin; they begged for immediate reinforcements and for the President to mobilize the reserves. During a special report evaluating the impact of the Tet offensive, Walter Cronkite-- "articulating the sentiment growing in the country that Tet was a devastating setback"--called for a turnabout in policy and for immediate negotiations make the best of a "stalemate."
Westmoreland, in his interview with Wallace, cites incorrect figures which are then examined graphically on screen to accent the obvious fallacy of the command policy. Wallace asks rhetorically: "If so many Viet Cong had been taken out of action, whom were we fighting?" As in earlier acts, lower echelon analysts then discredit Westmoreland's claims that he had made the right decision. Sam Adams makes his last appearance to assert that, after Tet, his estimates finally reached the White House where they were used to brief a gathering of Johnson's council of "wise men," Dean Acheson, George Ball, Arthur Goldberg, Maxwell Taylor, and others. Realizing the magnitude of his error. Lyndon Johnson steps down from the Presidency. Less fortunate Americans cannot drop out: twenty-seven thousand Americans die before the inevitable Communist victory in 1975.
Truthfulness, a greater sense of duty, honor, and country could have averted the Vietnam tragedy. Furthermore, an informed public could have checked our war machine from continuing in an obviously futile direction.
The Initial Response--Laurels, Then Darts
Many intelligent viewers of The Uncounted Enemy: A Vietnam Deception did not see any problems with it. Immediately after the show, Burton Benjamin--who would later play a pivotal role at CBS in exposing the flaws of the program--turned off his television set with pride: "I felt that I had just watched one of the most remarkable documentaries that CBS News had ever produced. That this kind of maneuvering could have happened during a war so futile and pointless-~a war I had seen first-hand during two trips to Vietnam--sickened me...I told my wife that The Uncounted Enemy might well rank with two of the more celebrated CBS Reports of the past, Hunger in America and The Selling of the Pentagon. (FP, 36)
The senior CBS producer was not alone in his high opinion for the program. In an unusual editorial, the New York Times showed that the thesis of the program had been accepted unanalytically by America's "newspaper of record:" "Those captured documents 'of which he boasted were in truth packed with accurate information--but the summaries he received were doctored, to keep the press from drawing an erroneous and gloomy conclusion, in General Westmoreland's words" ("War Intelligence, and Truth, 23). In a review for The Wall Street Journal, Hodding Carter--who like Burton Benjamin, would later make a 180 degree volte-face-recoiled from the program's revelations; like the New York Times, Carter hoped aloud that similar machinations were not taking place in relation to Central America. Even William F. Buckley joined the short-lived bandwagon for The Uncounted Enemy in a syndicated column. Buckley described TUE as a "truly extraordinary documentary" which "absolutely" proved that Westmoreland had lied to Americans about enemy strength during a crucial period of our involvement. Lesser luminaries in the press and the Washington political scene followed suit until a series of protests highlighted problems with the methodology, content, and cinematic manipulation of the ninety-minute special.
The following Tuesday, Westmoreland, along with others in the intelligence chain attacked by the program, held a press conference at Washington's Army-Navy Club. For two hours, the press was treated to general statements about errors of concept and fact in the program in addition to a series of clips from the program followed by rebuttals. Ambassador Ellsworth Bunker defended the intelligence of his "country team." Colonel Charles Morris, the officer to whom Colonel Gains Hawkins reported, denied that Hawkins had voiced reservations during Order of Battle debates. Westmoreland's Chief of Intelligence during Tet, General Philip Davidson, dismissed the complaints of junior officers on the basis of their not having access to all relevant information on enemy strength and enemy intentions. General Daniel Graham took over the job of critiquing clips from the The Uncounted Enemy. Finally, George Allen's superior at the CIA, George Carver, revealed that it was he and not Westmoreland who had suggested dropping the Self-Defense forces from the numerical portion of the Order of Battle.
The press conference received wide coverage and set in motion a debate which would have two components: Vietnam and the American Press. Westmoreland was the dramatic player for the Vietnam veterans and officials; CBS took on the role of the press. Some observers like Stanley Karnow would laugh off the confrontation: "They were both losers from the beginning. CBS did a lousy program, and Westmoreland never understood what the war was about" (Benjamin, Fair Play, 202). Most Americans took interest in the standoff because they were still trying to sort out the meaning of the Vietnam experience and the relationship of the press to our country's perception of its first "television war" (Rollins).
A Survey of Errors and Distortions
Shortly after the Westmoreland press conference, Sally Bedell and Don Kowett of TV Guide began an in-depth examination of TUE from the perspective of fairness and balance. At least initially, CBS granted full access to interview transcripts, outtakes, and personnel. Bedell and Kowett also talked with those who had been interviewed for the program--whether their interviews had been used or not. When it appeared on May 22, 1982, the article was entitled "Anatomy of a Smear" and it came down hard on Producer George Crile. Immediately after TV Guide hit the checkout counters across the country, CBS called about Burton Benjamin to conduct an internal investigation to test the validity of claims made by Westmoreland, TV Guide, and a host of angry voices. The following critique is an amalgam of these findings, plus in findings from a research base I have accumulated over the last twelve years as a Vietnam veteran, media scholar, and television producer.
Producer George Crile's key error was his single-source dependence on Sam Adams, the retired CIA analyst. Even friendly students of the Westmoreland controversy agree that Adams was obsessed by the numbers controversy; his record demonstrated that he had gone to great lengths to get his reports to the top of the government chain and, when those reports had been rejected, had attempted a variety of ploys to force them on the next layer of bureaucracy (Brewin, 12-15).
Beginning in 1965, Adams was assigned to research enemy strength and morale in Vietnam. During the late summer of 1966, Adams received translations of enemy documents which caused him to question existing Order of Battle figures for his province and, by extrapolation, for the rest of Vietnam. In Gains Hawkins, a fellow low-level analyst, Adams found a kindred spirit. When his superior, George Carver, turned a deaf ear to Adams' speculations, Hawkins listened. In May, 1968, Adams was so frustrated at the insensitivity of his superiors that he filed charges with the CIA Inspector General. According to George Carver, "Sam wanted to get Richard Helms fired and Westmoreland court-martialed" (Kowett,AMH, 42). Adams volunteered to appear in defense of Daniel Ellsberg and Anthony Russo during their trial because he said it made no sense to "hang a man for leaking faked numbers" (Brewin,15). Much to the Colonel's dismay, Adams also volunteered the services of recently retired Gains Hawkins who swore under oath that there had been no "cap" on figures. During 1975, Adams carried his crusade to Congressman Pike's House Select Committee on Intelligence where he received a sympathetic hearing, but not on the issue of a conspiracy. Finally, with the help of an editor at Harper's Magazine-whose name was George Crile-Adams found a national forum for his theories ("Vietnam Cover-up"). When George Crile moved to CBS as a producer of documentaries, he recontacted Adams.
Crile was guilty of not revealing Adams' obsessive background to supervisors at CBS News, specifically Associate Producer Joe Zigman, Executive Producer, Howard Stringer, and the Vice President for Documentaries, Roger Coloff. Most critics of the process believe that any or all of these supervisors would have been turned off by the project had they known about the Pike Committee Report. Unlike the unbalanced assemblage of rushes screened for the news executives, the Pike Committee hearings allowed officials like George Carver to submit the Adams thesis to withering analysis. For example, when the Tet attacks came at the end of January, 1968, they revealed an enemy force of 80,000 men, not the 600,000-man juggernaut predicted by Adams (Kowett, 48).
Based on his work as a researcher for previous Vietnam documentaries, Howard Stringer, the Executive Producer, should have been aware of LBJ's thinking at Tet--especially, Johnson's awareness that an attack was coming and that it would be an all-out, nation-wide (Benjamin,FP,83). The manner in which Crile spoon-fed the Adams findings to executives precluded independent thinking on their part; the frequent intervention of Mike Wallace as a protector of Crile further interfered with the CBS oversight (Kowett,118). Finally, no one seemed willing to heed the warnings of the program's editor, Ira Klein. Klein went to Zigman on two occasions. In despair with the system, Klein went to TV Guide and became the key source for its explosive article (Kowett).
As General Phillip Davidson would point out after the broadcast, there were fundamental problems with research methods for the show. First, Davidson reminded CBS that it was not unusual for commanders to interpret and modify data submitted to them by the intelligence chain, sometimes as a matter of judgment and sometimes--as in Vietnam--because the commanders had access to secret information: "During the Vietnam War the dissemination of certain very sensitive intelligence was limited to a few civilian and military leaders in key positions. This was necessary to protect the source of the intelligence...Most of the junior officers who appeared on the program had no access to this sensitive intelligence. Their superiors, who did have access often disapproved the work of the junior analysts because the senior official knew... that the analyst's views were invalid, inaccurate, or incomplete." (Benjamin Report, 34532) Commanders in Vietnam had electronically-supplied information which gave them a special edge.
Second, Davidson pointed to a clear error of approach to the entire intelligence debate. Davidson, Carver, Westmoreland, Rostow, Taylor, and a host of government and military officials had acknowledged that there was indeed a debate within the intelligence community about enemy strength (BR, 34533). The debate was so well known, that President Johnson chided Rodger Helms and others about the inability of the experts to resolve it. In the fall of 1967 the proposal formulated by George Carver (not William Westmoreland) resolved the debate. Producer George Crile's excessive dependence on Sam Adams, together with his own need to turn the debate into a struggle between villains and heroes, led to a portrayal of the discussions as a struggle between self-interested officials and self-effacing researchers. In his program proposal to CBS News, Crile used the word "conspiracy" no less than twenty-four times. The term mirrored Sam Adams's obsession, Crile's own drive to find malefactors in high places, and the adversarial style of CBS' most popular news series, 60 Minutes.
The Westmoreland interview was central to the production--both as Wallace and Crile prepared for it and after they had succeeded in "rattle snaking" the retired general. First, Westmoreland was not adequately prepared for the interview. Crile gave him a list of five topics over the telephone, but really planned to discuss the numbers debate, the fourth item on the list (Benjamin,FP,54). After the interview, Westmoreland complained that he had not had adequate time to consult sources from the 1967-8 period; upon returning home to South Carolina, he sent Crile a large packet of materials and a cover letter asking the Producer to use his considered responses. (Both TV Guide and Benjamin later came down hard on Crile for this lapse.) When Crile saw the dailies from the Westmoreland interview, he yelled: "I've got you! I've got you!" (Kowett, 83). These do not seem to be the words of a journalist.
Some of Westmoreland's corrections are worth pointing out. When questioned about the relationship between the number of enemy killed to the number of wounded during Tet, Westmoreland in the New York City interview gave the standard textbook answer of 3:1. TUE then went into a long computational sequence with graphics to show the implausibility of these figures, given the pre-Tet estimate of enemy strength. Once back in South Carolina, Westmoreland realized that the figure actually used in 1968 was a ratio of 1.5 wounded for every 1 killed, a ratio with significantly different extrapolative consequences. In addition, Crile had on hand the official post-Tet report on enemy deaths and casualties, a document which validated Westmoreland's correction. As an advocate of the Adams thesis, Crile chose to stick with the incriminating film.
Westmoreland realized how badly he had performed on camera. In the hope that others might be more eloquent on his behalf, he urged Crile to interview officers in the intelligence chain who would deny the Adams thesis. Many of these experts later appeared at the Westmoreland press conference to reprehend TUE: Ambassador Ellsworth Bunker, Robert Comer, Lt. Gen. Daniel Graham, Gen. Walter Erwin, Jr., George Carver, and William Colby. Only Graham was interviewed by Crile and, from two hours of material, only 22 seconds were chosen. The three-hour interview with W.W. Rostow, LBJ's National Security Chief, never saw its way to the screen, although Rostow made it clear through letters to the New York Times and detailed memoranda for the record that he considered Crile's work poorly researched. Rostow and others would later have their day on TV when PBS broadcast its expose of TUE. Still, CBS guidelines require producers to allow accused figures like Westmoreland the opportunity to defend themselves, leaving the conclusions about guilt or innocence up to the viewers. When questioned by Benjamin about this lapse, Crile responded: "Westmoreland was not the show." Benjamin's retort was short and to the point: "He came out as the heavy, George" (Benjamin,FP, 115).
The imbalance in presentations was computed by Benjamin; those supporting the Adams conspiratorial thesis were given 19'19" to present their side (supported by narrator Mike Wallace), while the command position was barely sketched by Westmoreland for 5'37" and by Daniel Graham for an additional 22". Benjamin suggested that there was more room for balance in a 90 minute program. In the summary of his internal report, Benjamin began with a plea for balance: "The premise was obviously and historically controversial. There was an imbalance in presenting the two sides of the issue. For every McChristian, there [should have been] a Davidson; for every Hawkins, a Morris; for every Allen a Carver" (34511).
In developing his interview pool, Crile showed favoritism toward some sources while being harsh to others. General Westmoreland was not told about the true topic of his interview (see above), nor was Sam Adams present for the Westmoreland session--although he was allowed to sit in for many interviews and even conducted a few, himself. But Westmoreland was not the only witness treated harshly. Graham and Rostow were both interviewed in classic Mike Wallace prosecutorial style. In addition, the Benjamin Report found that supporters of the Adams thesis were given extraordinary attention. Sam Adams was rehearsed for an entire day before his interview; the Adams farmhouse in Northern Virginia was practically redecorated by Crile in an attempt to develop the right mise en scene for his key accuser. A transcript reveals that Adams was constantly stroked by Wallace with such expressions as "you're doing fine, Sam" and "That's a great response, Sam." Benjamin labeled such treatment as "coddling" (BR,57). Adams was never identified as a paid consultant for CBS nor was it made clear that he participated in a number of the interviews for the show.
Crile chose not to interview George Carver on camera. Instead, he focused on George Allen, a friend of Adams who shared the paid consultant's obsession. In violation of CBS guidelines, Crile brought Allen to the editing room to see other interviews in the "pool." Furthermore, Allen was interviewed over the same questions until he proved himself to be "convincing" witness (BR 57; FP, 113-4). The choice of Allen over Carver was clearly made to support Adams rather than expose the truth; after all, it was Carver who was in charge of the Vietnam numbers and not his subordinate. Benjamin was very unhappy that Crile had shown such solicitude to one side of the issue (FP,114).
CBS News under Frank Salant formulated guidelines for documentaries after a controversy surrounding its Selling of the Pentagon revealed a number of distorting editing tricks. Documented by Mann Mayer in About Television, these clever uses of cutaways, reverses, and transitional devices produced statements by Department of Defense officials which supported the thesis of the program, but did not represent what had been said (250-76). In his zeal to prove the conspiracy thesis of his program, George Crile committed some of the same tricks and with the same results--he was caught.
In the first act of the program, Col. Hawkins and Gen. McChristian counterpoint Westmoreland's statements. The program gives the impression that all three men are talking about the same meeting and the same report. Actually, Hawkins and McChristian are talking about two different events, at which only one was present; in addition, Westmoreland seems to be talking about one meeting, but the transcripts reveal that he is talking about two sessions, one in Saigon and one in Hawaii. The flow of images and patter is so deft that the naive viewer--even the expert viewer-assumes that all three men are discussing a single meeting after which an unacceptable report was suppressed.
The dramatic close of act two seems to address the moral implications of this meeting. General McChristian explains that, although the Uniform Code of Military Justice does not cover such matters, his faithfulness to the motto of West Point assures that he would not suppress intelligence figures. What viewers could not have known was that McChristian was responding to a hypothetical question. Clever editing of the hypothetical in a sequence of detailed responses to the numbers question provided a principled and focused analysis of the duty of a moral man at MACV during the latter months of 1967.
Events are manipulated to create an artificial flow at a second crucial moment in the narrative. Toward the end of act three, Col. George Hamscher appears to be talking about a meeting he had with Westmoreland during which the commander asked his intelligence staff to cut figures arbitrarily. Actually, the editing cleverly combines two unconnected events. Hamscher is commenting on a National Intelligence Estimate meeting of August, 1967 while Westmoreland is commenting on a Saigon meeting of September, 1967. In exasperation, Benjamin described this legerdemain as creating a scene in which "Westmoreland was put in the context of talking about a meeting he did not attend in a colloquy with an officer, Hamscher, he had never met" (FP, 81)
Editing is employed a few times to make Westmoreland seem mendacious. During the interview for act one, Westmoreland made as many as ten attempts to defend his decision to discount the Self-Defense forces and to put them into a special intelligence category. Rather than use these sound bites, Crile selected portions of the responses which made the General look confused and guilty. One of the points made by the documentary was that LBJ did not like to receive bad news from the field: the implication, of course, was that Westmoreland created a cap for the enemy strength figures to please his boss. Below (with portions used in italics) are Westmoreland's responses on the topic of "bad news:" "Well, Mike, you know as well as I do that People in senior positions love good news, and they don't like bad news, and after all, its well recognized that supreme politicians or leaders in countries are inclined to shoot the messenger that brings bad news. Certainly he wanted bad news like a hole in the head. He welcomed good news. But he was given both good and bad, but he was inclined to accentuate the positive." Later, in an unused sound bite, Westmoreland stated directly that Johnson was given a full picture of the enemy situation in Vietnam: "...that doesn't mean we didn't give him bad news. We did give him bad news." By omitting this last quote and by cleverly cutting into the block quote, above, TUE gave the impression that Westmoreland was playing to the moods of his Commander-in-Chief.
Keeping in mind that Westmoreland had not briefed himself on the numbers issues prior to his interview, it is not surprising that he had problems with details. Toward the end of act four, Wallace (apparently) catches the General making a revealing slip. Act four begins with narration about the infiltration of North Vietnamese regular troops immediately prior to the Tet offensive. Col. Russell Cooley comes on camera to state that there were as many as 25,000 moving south, a number confirmed by Westmoreland during the New York interview. After a narrative transition, the program cuts to a Meet the Press clip from 1967 in which Westmoreland says that infiltration is at a rate of 5500-6000 per month. When confronted with the disparity of his statements, Westmoreland is confused: "Sounds to me like a misstatement. I--don't remember making it. But certainly I could not retain all these detailed figures in my mind."
Close examination of this juxtaposition of statements reveals some problems for TUE. In his full response to the Meet the Press panel, Westmoreland had actually said that: "I would estimate between 5500 and 6000 a month. But they do have the capability of stepping this up." When screening this response to CBS executives, Crile, according to Benjamin, "went into a frenzy" when he discovered that the qualifying remark had been left in for the editor as a trim. Subsequent screenings for superiors and subsequent renderings of the quote would leave the qualifier out. In his post-interview letter to George Crile, Westmoreland documented his original response and asked that CBS not use his New York figure. When pressed on this matter, Crile told Benjamin that he did not see the correction, because it was not mentioned in Westmoreland's cover letter; in addition, Crile said: "the fact that we ambushed him a little doesn't bother me" (FP.145). Furthermore, neither TUE's narrator not its interview sources explained that infiltration figures were typically "soft" until three months after the fact--which meant that Westmoreland would not have precise figures for November infiltration until sometime in January.
It has been rumored that one of the most feared secretarial announcements in the corporate world is, "Mike Wallace is here for your interview." For TUE, Wallace was employed to grill the "hostile" witnesses: Westmoreland, Rostow, and Graham. To get him into the picture with CBS' paid consultant and whistle blower, Wallace was also asked to interview Sam Adams. Beyond that, Wallace did very little research on the show and was in his own words, "mostly cosmetics." Almost all who have written about The Uncounted Enemy have speculated on the Mike Wallace approach to this controversial program against the backdrop of the CBS tradition of E.R. Morrow, Fred Friendly, Charles Collingwood, Douglas Edwards, Eric Sevareid, Walter Cronkite, and Richard C. Hottelet. The "old school" at CBS News was concerned with investigative journalism and the understanding of twentieth century history. As the lead on-camera talent for 60 Minutes since 1968, Wallace had developed an effective style of interviewing which, through the showmanship of Producer Don Hewitt, had made the Sunday night program one of America's favorite pastimes--not to mention a profit-maker for CBS. George Crile counted on the draw Mike Wallace would bring to 'TUE and relied on the Wallace interview style to "break" Westmoreland
Mike Wallace was not a journalist in The Uncounted Enemy; he was a hired gun. Just as Crile was totally dependent upon Adams for the thesis of the program, so was Wallace dependent upon Crile for his understanding of the issues. When Wallace did ask questions, he was invited by Crile to view carefully edited sequences from interviews pruned of information which would contradict the program's thesis. Wallace did not read the Westmoreland letter and packet of supporting information; rather, he relied on Crile's assurance that "Westmoreland doesn't bring anything to our attention that is particularly relevant. Certainly nothing that causes concern and requires a new look at anything we have been asserting" (Benjamin,FP, 115)
Mike Wallace was willing to take credit for the program while it was riding high. During the post-production phase, he was often brought into discussions with supervising executives to back up Crile's editing decisions. When the program became a cause celebre, Wallace used his personal contacts with Abe Rosenthal, executive editor of the New York Times to assure that the newspaper of record would undercut a review of Hodding Carter's Inside Story (PBS) investigation of the controversy. In these actions, Wallace threw his weight around as an influential, neglecting, in the process, to consider the substance of in-house and peer criticism. When Ira Klein, the film's editor, brought up the editing problems discussed in this paper, Wallace quickly left the room; on the other hand, when rumors began to point to Klein as a "leak" in CBS News' effort to stonewall investigation of TUE, Wallace visited Klein's editing bay for a few memorable finger-pointing minutes. Such behavior was more in the spirit of Watergate than the tradition of Murrow.
Despite his lack of understanding of the issues and despite his lack of research, Wallace added a considerable aura of authority to the expose. Viewers would naturally associate his role in the program with the countless investigations he had conducted during his fourteen years with 60 Minutes. Crile placed the host in a library setting with books, lamps, and subdued lighting. The speaker was supposedly reflecting upon the results of intense research. As narrator, Wallace would provide bridges between interviews; such bridges were not merely neutral. Hostile witnesses could be introduced or followed by commentary and interpretation which could negate the significance of their statements. On the other hand, friendly witnesses could be presented as authorities. The omnipresence of Wallace as on camera host, as interviewer of the most important friendly witness, Sam Adams, and as disembodied voice of history was an essential factor in the program--both in getting it on the aid and, once broadcast, making it an effected exposure of malfeasance in high places.
Soon after The Benjamin Report was rendered in July, 1983, Van Gordon Sauter issued a public memorandum about the failures of The Uncounted Enemy. While standing by the substance of the broadcast, Sauter focused on the absence of significant involvement by Mike Wallace. Sauter asserted that "The greatest asset of CBS News is its credibility" and linked that credibility to the role of its journalists in major documentaries. Sauter explained that, "on projects of a complex and controversial nature, the full involvement and collaboration of the principal correspondent is vital. Future assignments will take this essential need into consideration" (Kowett, 222). This was a public slap on the wrist for Mike Wallace. Just prior to being called to testify at the Westmoreland trial, the despondent correspondent collapsed in his apartment from an overdose of prescribed medication (Boyer,193). Evidently, public exposure was not so easy to receive as to give. In any case, TUE should have taught CBS that the Murrow tradition of serious content was more reliable than the Wallace/6O Minutes mini-tradition of address. The public tuned in for the entertainment provided by the latter, but would, in the long term, respect only the former.
5. Script--factual errors
During act three, Mike Wallace confronts General Westmoreland at the New York interview with "his cable" in which Wallace says, the General talked about the problems of numbers within the context of good news: "We have been projecting an image of success over recent months." Wallace comes back to the cable at another point. Two problems of fact detract from this segment in the inquiry. First, Westmoreland was not the author of the cable; it had been written by his deputy, Gen. Creighton Abrams. Second, Wallace's reading from the cable was selective for the cable had actually said: "We have projected an image of success over recent months and rightfully so." Further study of the entire cable would have contradicted in detail the thesis that MACV felt it was losing in Vietnam. What viewers were left with, however, was a portrait of a sweating and lip-licking General caught with his hand in the intelligence cookie jar.
At the end of act one, Wallace gives the impression that Gen. McChristian was creating too many waves at MACV. The act ends with Wallace explaining that "Shortly after Westmoreland suppressed his intelligence chief's report, General Joseph McChristian was transferred out of Vietnam. It was at this point, we believe, that MACV began to suppress, and then to alter, critical intelligence reports on the strength of the enemy." Viewers are left with the impression that the last opponent to manipulation was McChristian.
In fact, Westmoreland had asked to have McChristian's tour extended as J-2 for MACV. In keeping with Pentagon personnel practices, the general was rotated out to a command billet at Fort Hood, Texas. As McChristian later explained, "I didn't want to remain just an intelligence specialist" (Benjamin, FP, 83). Transcripts of McChristian's interviews reveal that he Repeatedly denied being pressured to manipulate figures. Even the response used in TUE was edited to ignore McChristian's qualifications. Uncited was his remark that "nobody ever asked me that" [to keep figures down]. Thus, the script was wrong on a major point, the reason for McChristian's transfer, while editing his statement to support this incorrect interpretation. Facts were not allowed to interfere with the program's thesis.
If the primary thesis of TUE was that General Westmoreland suppressed true estimates of enemy strength from the public and the President, the secondary theme of the program was that Tet was such a great surprise because of inadequate information. The basic question was: "Did Lyndon Johnson know that the Tet attacks were coming?" Act five of TUE makes a number of claims. Repeating the errors of newspaper reporting in 1968, it asserts that Westmoreland requested 206,000 troops as reinforcements: "it seemed to be an admission that half-million American soldiers already in Vietnam couldn't cope with the enemy." The whole matter of the 206,000 man troop request--and the press misunderstanding of its purport--has been treated at length by Herbert Schandler in his Unmaking of a President, a book published some five years prior to the broadcast of TUE. Schandler explains that The Joint Chiefs of Staff were attempting to replenish the strategic reserve under the guise of helping Westmoreland in his time of need. The full number was not needed in Vietnam. George Crile and Sam Adams should have known that by 1982 (Schandler, 105-20). Instead of clarifying a confused historical incident, TUE exploited a 1968 misunderstanding to advance its thesis.
Immediately after the troop request fallacy, TUE claims that the inner-circle of "wise men", who shared Tuesday lunches with President Johnson, finally saw the light about Vietnam because Sam Adams figures finally got through to them. As a result, they urged that the President to find a negotiated solution--not so much because of developments on the battlefield, but due to the impact of Tet on the American public (Schandler, 262). The wise men told Johnson "to begin to reduce the American involvement in Vietnam and to find a way out" (Schandler, 262). By way of the juxtaposition of footage, it is implied that Lyndon Johnson withdrew from the Democratic primary because of his shame over Tet. This assertion seemed correct in 1968, but many sources published since--by Dean Rusk, Walt Rostow, and others--have shown the tenuousness of that connection.
Act five concludes with a dramatic statement about America's defeat in Vietnam. Footage of the April 30 invasion of Saigon by North Vietnamese troops, to include the assault on the Presidential palace, is shown over commentary by Mike Wallace. Filmmakers know that the conflict between visual and aural elements will always work out in favor of the visual; this principle is important because it shows the intent to undercut Westmoreland and to draw connections between his villainy and the suffering that would inevitably follow his suppression of truth: "Two months after the President's speech, General William Westmoreland was transferred back to Washington and promoted to become Chief of the Army. To this day, General Westmoreland insists that the enemy was virtually destroyed at Tet. Be that as it may, the fighting in Vietnam went on for seven more years after the Tet offensive. Twenty-seven thousand more American soldiers were killed; over a hundred thousand more were wounded and on April 30th, 1975, the same enemy entered Saigon once again, only this time it was called Ho Chi Minh City.
Writing from the vantage point of 1989, a time when most of the networks have made documentaries conceding that Tet was a military defeat for the Viet Cong, it is easy to see the error of TUE's concluding statement. Still, there were significant works of journalism and scholarship in book form in 1981-2 which, had Crile performed responsibly as a journalist. would have thrown this concluding assertion into question. The producer came down to a decision about whether to print the facts or the myth; since the myth supported his theses, he chose the latter course.
All this leads back to the basic question posed by history and the documentary: "Did the President know and when did he know it?" The answer is clear. Lyndon Johnson's White House was plugged in to all sources of information, to include those sources feeding MACV. Walt Rostow, the National Security Chief, had been an OSS officer in World War II and took a special delight in being a whiz on battlefield statistics. Rostow's enthusiasm and prescience has a special pertinence to TUE. A lower echelon CIA functionary named Joe Hovey is interviewed in act four. The show gives Hovey credit for predicting the Tet offensive as early as fall, 1967. According to the program, this insight did not move up the intelligence chain, giving evidence that the "diffuse machinery of American intelligence......... breaking down." The program neglects to mention information Crile had on his unused, three-hour interview with Walt Rostow: Hovey had conducted his special investigation at Walt Rostow's request! In other words, the White House had a better grasp of the likely developments than either MACV or the CIA! Naturally, such a possibility had no place in Crile's expose. When questioned about this problem, Crile dismissed Rostow: " He was intellectually dishonest in the academic community, which is why he wasn't able to get any positions with Northeast universities" (Benjamin, FP, 118).
The bottom line on Presidential foreknowledge of Tet attacks is that Johnson certainly knew about them in advance. In fact he briefed his allies in a secret talk to the Australian cabinet on November 27, 1967. Johnson, Rostow, the Joint Chiefs, Westmoreland all saw Tet-correctly--as a Battle of the Bulge effort, a sign of desperation rather than strength. The ultimate difference between the Bulge and Tet, of course, was that the Tet offensive was successful in destroying America's will to fight. What seemed to frustrating to American leaders was that it was a massive military defeat for the Viet Cong, but an enormous psychological defeat for the American efforts in South Vietnam.
Many have blamed Lyndon Johnson, retrospectively, for not giving the American people his Australian briefing and for not going on television after the attacks to bring the country together for the next phase of the struggle. If there was an error committed at Tet by Lyndon Johnson, it was an error in public relations and leadership--not intelligence. Certainly the war went on and, sadly, more Americans were killed and wounded, but the onus lies more in a combination of factors: Lyndon Johnson did not perform as a President should in a time of crisis; on the other hand, the American press misreported the Tet offensive and gave the American public melodramatic impressions which truthful, official statements could not contradict. As a result, America began a long process of disengagement from Vietnam after Tet, 1968.
The two major premises of The Uncounted Enemy: A Vietnam Deception were invalid. Not only did the Johnson White House know about the Tet offensive in advance; staff members knew about the forthcoming attacks before any other government agency. Second, the Tet show of force did not discredit Westmoreland or Johnson as liars undone by history; rather, the media impact of those attacks--especially on television--created a conventional wisdom which could not be refuted (Rollins). The basic fallacy of these two pillars should remind readers of a notion which surfaces early in TUE: General Westmoreland wanted to readjust the Order of Battle because "the people in Washington were not sophisticated enough to understand and evaluate this thing, and neither was the media." By fixating with Sam Adams on a bogus issue (how to count the Self-Defense Forces), by projecting that issue forward in time as a central factor in our defeat in Vietnam, George Crile's ninety-minute documentary proved not the validity of its two arguments, but the wisdon of General Westmoreland's prediction.
More serious for CBS as an institution was the public rancor inflamed by the Westmoreland controversy. From the Left, influential writers like Tom Shales castigated CBS for assigning Burton Benjamin to conduct an internal inquiry. Many other commentators shuddered over the prospect of a "chilling effect" on future crusading documentaries. More dangerous rumblings came from the Right. In January, 1985, associates of Jesse Helms filed papers with the Securities and Exchange Commission, declaring their desire to join with others to become "Dan Rather's boss." Two months later, Ted Turner began to orchestrate his "junk bond" assault on CBS. Ivan Boesky's name echoed in the upper-story halls of "Black Rock" where CBS executives, in defending the corporation, amassed considerable debts (Bover). Finally, in desperation, the company turned to Lawrence Tisch, a tough-minded businessman who promised to favor CBS News. The news division begged for Tisch; unexpectedly, once in power, her ordered mass firings and cut the news budget by $33 million.
Where there were many factors leading to the demise of CBS, certainly the Westmoreland episode did much to strip the network of its aura of fairness, balance, and trust. An arbiter of American life became just another interested party in the marketplace of ideas (Boyer,Joyce). In the down sizing of a great institution, George Crile's program was, indeed, the most dangerous "uncounted enemy" of all.