The extent to which psychological warfare was used by all sides in the Vietnam War is staggering and so multi-faceted it almost seems like a barometer of the chaos and shifting strategies that occurred throughout the war.
There were leaflets—smuggled over borders, dropped from airplanes and fired from howitzers; radio and television campaigns; messages broadcast from helicopters and C-47s; newspaper accounts; disinformation and behavioral modification efforts by medical aid teams and brutal assault squads; blocks of ice dropped by parachute to persuade the enemy that troops had swept in overnight.
By the end of the war, psyops teams were employing thousands. Leaflets were distributed by the millions. And the goals were as varied as the methods.
There were efforts to boost defections; to destroy morale; to build support; to alter perceptions of success or failure; to taint image and credibility; to foment dissent or encourage resistance; to persuade opponents their war was being lost, and supporters that theirs was being won.
Mervyn Roberts III wrote The Psychological War for Vietnam, 1960-1968 (University Press of Kansas, 432 pp., $39.95) originally as a doctoral dissertation after a career in the Army. He served two tours in the war in Afghanistan and was a psyops specialist. He’s a professor of history at Central Texas College and a reserve instructor at the Joint Special Operations University at MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa.
In his book, Roberts quickly traces the evolution of psychological warfare from its early use in the Revolutionary War through World Wars I and II and the Korean War. He shows that in the Vietnam War, psyops grew in fits and starts and that its uses shifted like the wind in a confusing cacophony. Why? Mainly because of inconsistent U.S. policies, bureaucratic chaos, and political instability on both sides of the border.
The American effort focused on selling the idea that U.S. troops were there to protect the country from communism and to bring peace and prosperity. From the North came the message that U.S. medicines were laced with fishhooks and that villagers could avoid being drafted into the South Vietnamese Army if they amputated their trigger fingers.
There were battles over messaging and debates over psyops’ effectiveness. Roberts traces that evolution in enormous detail. He looks at campaigns that started and stopped and others that shifted emphasis and grew to unprecedented proportions. In the spring of 1965, for instance, U.S. teams were distributing 500 million leaflets per month to support a war Lyndon Johnson wanted no part of.
There were successes, such as the U.S. Chieu Hoi campaign to encourage Viet Cong defections, and the North’s assault on the Americans’ use of defoliants, calling it a toxic campaign designed to kill livestock and crops and force the population into concentration camps.
Roberts details the shortcomings. In addition to the constantly shifting priorities, there was inadequate training, a lack of cultural understanding, and a lack of language skills and inadequate measurements to assess what worked.
On both sides troops who behaved badly fed new material to the other side’s propagandists. Plus, in Vietnam and in the U.S., support for the war shifted constantly.
Roberts’ grasp of the historical context is impressive, although some readers may find the treatment somewhat academic. But, as he points out, there has been no truly comprehensive look at psyops tactics and their role in the Vietnam War until this book.
The author’s website is https://mervynroberts.com/about-the-author/
Michael Ludden is the author of the detective novels, Tate Drawdy and Alfredo’s Luck, and an upcoming collection of newspaper remembrances, Tales From The Morgue.