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Vietnam was here

Brazilian press used wars in Asia to talk about internal conflicts

It was the 50s: TV sets started to invade houses in the United States, France and Great Britain. The impact of the images transmitted by television was so great that it caused a radical change in the printed media. At a very delicate moment, since the world was to watch, in a short space of time, conflicts in Korea and in Vietnam whose images of which, on the television screens and in the printed media, were to mark for ever American hearts and minds. But the marks of this change in the press did not take long to arrive here, although, at the time, the war under way in Brazil was another one, with nationalists, who wanted the country to become industrialized with its own resources, and liberals, who dreamed with an agricultural power and Brazil’s inclusion in the world scenario. The national press would appropriate the Korean War to strengthen one side and the other of the discussion. Years later, right in the military dictatorship, the same happened with the Vietnam war, used by the press at large toreinforce the external and internal myth of the “communist peril” and by the left wing papers to denounce imperialism and torture.

This is the analysis defended in O imaginário e as guerras da imprensa [Imagery and the press’s wars] (Papel Virtual Editora, 293 pages), a doctoral thesis transformed into a book by Orivaldo Leme Biagi, who studies how these two conflicts came to be appropriated by the Brazilian media. He took advantage of the work to show also how television ended up changing printed journalism in the United States, and then here. The Korean War was the first to be accompanied by TV, and Vietnam, the first war broadcast live.

This new element revolutionized the way of covering a war. In Korea, for example, anchorman Walter Cronkite, before the TV camera, uses a map of the Koreas, blackboard and chalk, to show the advance of the troops, and makes an enormous success. His transmissions and the news of the death of the first American soldier stimulate the recruitment of youngsters. In Vietnam, the images of the conflict were to have the opposite effect, feeding the counterculture and protests against the intervention of the USA.

It is because of the weight of the images of the cinema and TV that the American press runs to adapt itself and invest heavily in graphic modernization and, in particular, in the use of photographs. Over there, magazines like Life, and, over here, O Cruzeiro, Fatos&Fotos and, particularly Manchete. Brazilian newspapers, which used to follow the French model, abandon their long articles with their affected texts, and turn to smaller stories, with more photos. “Those who know today’s newspaper editors, know today that the big discussion is not always about what article is going to make the headline, but which photograph is going to come out on the first page”, he says.

The researcher observes that, with the beginning of the Korean War, the differences between nationalists and liberals became more marked, including in military circles. The election of Getúlio Vargas threw more firewood onto the bonfire. “It was an ugly dispute. There was even a discussion as to whether Brazil should send troops or not to support the United States in their action in Korea, with the nationalists taking a stance against this and seeing in the conflict the oppression of the American government”, says Biagi, for whom the press at large simply decided not to report facts from the government.

Vargas was identified with the nationalists, and these, on account of their positions, with the communists. Biagi recalls that only the owner of the newspaper Última Hora , Samuel Wainer used to report the decisions of the government. The debate between nationalists and liberals only came to an end with the fall of president João Goulart.According to the researcher, before making their military presence in Vietnam official suppressed all the governments that, for their political or economic line, could in any way contest their ideals. “It is no coincidence that the military coup in Brazil occurred on March 31 and that the military intervention in Vietnam started in August. First they resolved the Latin American situation and then set off for open war in Asia.”

In his book, the researcher shows how the American media immediately embraced the cause, and the Brazilian media followed its example. Little by little, though this was to change. If the right wing used the Vietnam War to show the heroic Americans in the fight against international communism, the left used the torture of the Vietcong to say that the practice was commonplace here too. But this scenario changed apidly in 1968, with the occupation of the American embassy, in the Tet offensive. “Vietnam came to be so popular that in the strikes in Contagem and Osasco the country’s name was a watchword, images of the war appeared even on Channel 100, which only used to show football”, says Biagi.

Vietnam was the first war and the last to be showed on the TV with its blood and pain. And the result was that public opinion was mobilized, in the USA and in the rest of the world, against the military offensive. According to the researcher, there are three marking images of the conflict: the photo of the Buddhist monk immolating himself in protest, in 1963; the one of the American agent exploding with a rifle the head of a Vietcong kneeling at his feet, and the unforgettable photo, from 1972, of the naked girl running, burnt by napalm.

The media and the American government learned the lesson. In the first Gulf War, in the 1990s, the TVs transmitted colored images of the so-called surgical bombing attacks, which supposedly hit only military targets. This time, in Iraq, the same thing. But it seems that it is no longer working. “There is a new fact, which is the Internet and the plurality of opinions and information that it makes available”, the historian says. Press coverage was favorable to the action in Vietnam from 1964 to 1971, and only then did the tide begin to turn.

“Only three years have passed since September 11 and the American press itself has already started doing its mea culpa and is pointing out serious problems, both with the decision to go to war and in the military occupation of Iraq.” Multiplicity of sources and speed of information make the difference. “The Bush government went to war promising to do away with a dictatorial regime that made use of torture, but succeeded neither in transforming Iraq into a democracy and, worse, also resorted to torture”, he says.

In the book, Biagi reports the ascensions and falls of the Brazilian press: how technology determined the survival of Manchete and the decadence of O Cruzeiro, all because of the quality of the images. How the alliances with the government and sources of finance, like the Bank of Brazil, for example, were fundamental for the survival of one or other vehicle. How lavish investments at the wrong moment led media companies into financial difficulties. His research is a good analysis of how wars on paper and in images can be almost as violent as the real ones. After all, as someone has already said: in a war, the first casualty is the truth.

The Project
Imagery and the Wars of the Press: Study of the Coverage Given by the Brazilian Press to the Korean War (1950 – 1953) and to the Vietnam War in Its So-Called “American Phase” (1964-1973) (nº 96/09417-4); Modality
Doctoral Scholarship; Supervisor Italo Arnaldo Tronca – Philosophy and Human Sciences Institute/Unicamp; Scholarship holder Orivaldo Leme Biagi – Philosophy and Human Sciences Institute/Unicamp