Air University Review, September-October 1982

CBS News, General Westmoreland,
and the Pathology of Information

Lieutenant Colonel Evan H. Parrott, Jr.

It is often the most successful images that become the most dangerous. The image becomes institutionalized in the ceremonial and coercive institutions of society. It acquires thereby a spurious stability. As the world moves on, the image does not.

Kenneth Boulding
The Image

OVER the past ten years or so, military viewers of television programs from CBS News have not been given much reason to believe that the network could report or document military matters with the degree of thoroughness and balance one might hope for from a national network. We all remember "The Selling of the Pentagon," that flawed, poorly edited 1971 documentary tried to substantiate a charge that the Department of Defense’s public relations efforts were just that, designed to "sell" Pentagon weapon systems and projects to the public. Instead, and because it tended to focus on short, dramatic, manipulated quotes, it caused more criticism of itself than the target for which it was intended. Late in 1981, another CBS-TV News documentary, an ambitious and lengthy prime-time series called "The Defense of the United States," ran for five consecutive nights. It was called a "documentary epic" by some; many others (mostly outside the defense industry) were equally infatuated, terming it one of the best programs in TV news history.

The anchorman for the series was Dan Rather, who stated that he hoped the "Defense" series would "start the debate rolling in every town and city in America"1 about defense spending in general and the Reagan buildup in particular. Special antipathy was directed toward the nuclear aspects of defense. That this program caused the current debate over nuclear weapons is questionable. There is no question, however, that, very much like "The Selling of the Pentagon," it was awash in hyperbole and distortion, inadequately supported by a parade of so-called experts. "The Defense of the United States" series suffered from the same flaws that tend to plague numerous other news documentaries about the military: poor research, perceptual rigidity and analysis, unsupported statements by the narrator-reporter, simplistic and attention-grabbing statistics, and the headline approach to news. Although obviously expensive and slickly produced, the series came across to this viewer decidedly one-sided—that is, against the defense buildup—and intellectually narrow in its scope and explanation of the real issues facing the United States defense strategy these days.2

But a more recent effort by the network, despite almost instantaneous criticism, was a little more thorough. Actually, "The Uncounted Enemy: A Vietnam Deception" and featuring Mike Wallace as the principal reporter was quite remarkable.3 Although it has become extremely controversial since it was shown in January 1982, it met the general conditions of what a documentary should be: it had rather detailed and thorough research, highly qualified experts on camera with many statements pro and con, and, on balance, quite a good approach to a very difficult topic. It was a somewhat painful look back at events that, according to the telecast, led to the Tet offensive— the enemy attack that shook to its roots U.S. public opinion and determination to continue the fight. This topic has been probed deeply before, but this documentary’s central theme was that General William Westmoreland, for political reasons, withheld information from the political decision-makers in Washington. The information he allegedly withheld concerned new estimates of the strength of the Vietcong and North Vietnamese regulars, a strength that dramatically increased in the months just prior to the attack. According to the report, mere acceptance of those estimates, which included a previously "uncounted enemy," probably would have prepared U.S. forces better for the offensive to come.

Almost immediately, there was an explosion of public comment pro and con. A few days after the broadcast, General Westmoreland called a news conference to denounce the documentary, describing the whole effort as "a preposterous hoax." Convinced otherwise, columnist William F. Buckley called it a "truly extraordinary documentary" and called for a congressional investigation.4 Two weeks later, after apparently receiving some criticism for that stance, Buckley reiterated his call for a congressional review, stating he was

. . . prepared if necessary to be offended, surprised, outraged and to the extent possible. . . vindicated, in order to use the subpoena power of government to put these people on the witness stand and attempt to find out what went wrong.5

Just as quickly, other distinguished commentators came to the defense of General Westmoreland and hotly criticized the broadcast.6 TV Guide did research of its own and, with the help of inside-CBS sources who leaked unedited transcripts, titled its report "Anatomy of a Smear: How CBS News Broke the Rules and ‘Got’ General Westmoreland."7 TV Guide claimed that CBS began the project already convinced a conspiracy had taken place and "turned a deaf ear toward evidence that suggested otherwise."8

It was evident even during the broadcast that CBS did not substantiate the allegation of conspiracy or deception by General Westmoreland or anyone else. That was a major weakness of the telecast and has since cast doubt on the credibility of the entire program. The network did, however, obtain the compelling statements of a group of mostly unfriendly retired military officers who were involved with the production of intelligence estimates at the time. The documentary claimed that new estimates on the enemy’s strength were massaged, manipulated downward in order to make them more palatable to General Westmoreland, the White House, and the Congress.9 One of the key intelligence officers serving at Military Assistance Command, Vietnam (MACV) at the time was Colonel Gaines Hawkins. When he brought the revised figures in question to General Westmoreland—figures which included guerrilla-militia members of the Vietcong organization— General Westmoreland allegedly asked Hawkins: "What am I going to tell the press? What am I going to tell the Congress? What am I going to tell the President?" General West-moreland then reportedly told Hawkins to "take another look at these figures."10

The MACV intelligence officers were said to have sympathizers at other organizations who were also trying to persuade their seniors of the "real" strength of the enemy. The intelligence officer who was central to this issue in the United States was CIA analyst Sam Adams.11 Adams claimed that, had his views been accepted, the United States would not have been surprised by the Tet offensive in 1968. The basis for Adams’s analysis, as with the analysis at MACV, was captured enemy documents which suggested that an additional 200,000 guerrilla-militia personnel ought to be counted in the armed strength of the Vietcong. These were the "uncounted enemy." Adams claims he attempted to report his findings through channels but, according to his 1975 article published in Harper’s:

Nothing happened. No phone calls from anybody. On Wednesday, I still thought there might be some terrible mistake; Thursday I thought the news might have been so important that people were still trying to decide what to do with it. Instead, on Friday, the memorandum dropped back in my in-box. There was no comment on it at all—no request for amplification, no question about my numbers, nothing, just a routine slip attached showing that the entire CIA hierarchy had read it. . . I was aghast. Here I had come up with 200,000 additional enemy troops, and the CIA hadn’t even bothered to ask me about it, let alone tell anybody else.12

There were major weaknesses in the CBS documentary, with that there is no argument. Whether it met or broke the rules of TV documentary will be debated for some time to come, perhaps in a congressional investigation. CBS has, in fact, admitted that some of the rules of journalistic procedure were indeed violated. Although CBS News Division President Van Gordon Sauter stated that the network still "stands by this broadcast," CBS admitted publicly there were some violations in the production. Sauter even said the term "conspiracy" was "inappropriate."13 One fascinating aspect of the telecast—but not a central theme—was the human tendency to avoid passing on bad news after a position has been firmly taken by the highest decision-makers. That was not treated in any depth in the 90-minute documentary but came out several times during interviews. For military members there is a lesson in this entire episode: if there was no "conspiracy," there was at least the very human trait of reluctance to accept and pass on the higher estimates of enemy strength—estimates that tended to challenge and weaken a previous position firmly adhered to by the MACV staff and possibly higher staffs.

Wallace: Was President Johnson a difficult man to feed bad news about the war?

General Westmoreland: Well, Mike, you know as well as I do that people in senior positions love good news. Politicians or leaders in countries are inclined to—to shoot the messenger that brings the bad news. Certainly he wanted bad news like a hole in the head.14

General Westmoreland appeared to put himself directly into the middle of the enemy strength controversy during the following sequence (which apparently was filmed in separate interviews):

General Joseph McChristian (U.S. Army, Retired): And when General Westmoreland saw the large increase in the figures that we had developed, he was quite disturbed by it. And by (the) time I left his office, I had the definite impression that he felt if he sent those figures back to Washington at that time, it would create a political bombshell.

General Westmoreland: I was not about to send Washington something that was specious. And in my opinion, it was specious.

Wallace: But General Joseph McChristian, a man whom you call a superb intelligence chief, he’s the fellow who comes in and says, General, we’ve been wrong. There are twice as many people out there.

General Westmoreland: Well, I—I have great admiration for General McChristian, and he did. . . a good job. But in this case I disagreed with him—with him, and other members of my staff disagreed with him.15

A bit later in the telecast, General Westmoreland stated he did not accept the revised figures because of "political reasons." In perhaps the most damaging and dramatic scene, he said on camera that "the people in Washington were not sophisticated enough to understand and evaluate this [militia-guerrilla] thing, and neither was the media."16 If this was not taken out of context, the former commanding general of all forces in Vietnam admitted in front of a national television audience that, for whatever reason, he rejected intelligence information that, with his imprimatur, could have had an impact on higher decision-makers, If true, General Westmoreland’s decision had, to say the least, a "chilling effect" on the production of more realistic and accurate intelligence, at least on the MACV staff.

Another important aspect to keep in mind about the CBS documentary is that rejections of reality are not isolated events. Cognitive dissonance occurs rather frequently in the intelligence business, or in any other career field where imperfect information must be filled in with estimates. And, although U.S. intelligence has a pretty good track record, this system is buffeted by the bureaucratic windstorms that face any large organization which has acquired information that could cause the leadership to "lean forward in the foxhole." The intelligence process is a system of complex and sophisticated relationships. It is fundamentally strong, but there are parts of the system that have inherent weaknesses that can lead to, or directly contribute to, intelligence failures.17 The intelligence system is much like a cobweb, strong as a whole for its purpose but with linkages and connectivity only as strong as each of its major strands. The anchors of the system are the "ints"—like PHOTINT, HUMINT, or SIGINT— that make up the inputs for analysis which is usually the final intelligence product. One of the most common weaknesses in this environment is the tendency to be human. The incapacity of decision-makers, for whatever reason, to handle the nature and flow of information coming to them can be characterized as a human response failure.18 The key ingredients here are perception and predisposition, and they can be affected by changing situations and circumstances. This tendency does not in itself constitute conspiratorial leanings. It is well known—and well developed in psychological and political-science writings—that perceptions and predispositions govern the way decision-makers, indeed all people, react to events around them. But these misperceptions and predispositions can be the pathogens of any information system. None of this is new; however, understanding these natural human frailties is fundamental for understanding why the MACV senior staff may have acted the way it did when confronted with information that undermined not only the military capability to deal with an enemy but also a personal and public image.

Wallace: . . . put yourself in General Westmoreland’s shoes in the troubled spring of 1967. He had just used very specific figures to assure the President that the enemy was losing strength, that we were winning the war of attrition. And now the President was forcing Westmoreland to put that message on the record [to Congress] for the American public, to assure them that General Westmoreland believed we were on the road to victory.19

Despite the label of "deception," the most that can be said about General Westmoreland’s statements is that he probably did what commanders around the world do every day—make decisions. Commanders, business leaders, and ordinary people make decisions based on information available to them, imperfect as it is, and on their images of reality—perceptions formed over and affected by time, circumstances, and situations. Was it logical and rational to expect the commanding general, a professional soldier deeply committed to and probably firmly believing he was winning a war, to accept another quarter-million pajama-clothed, lightly armed "political cadre" as constituting any real additional threat to his modern American forces? And what about those captured documents that gave the "lone analyst" at CIA his new evidence? It is not too farfetched to note that almost everyone in Vietnam at the time could produce a captured document to "prove" anything. Even another winter-spring offensive was well known. (What apparently was not known was the scope and intensity.) In the brilliance of 20-20 hindsight, many are inclined to say that General Westmoreland should have accepted the new figures and been better prepared for the Tet offensive. But then again, no one could have predicted the consequences of that enemy campaign, at least in terms of the damage to U.S. public support. Would the outcome of Tet-68 have changed if General Westmoreland had accepted the analysis of his intelligence officers? Is that to say that the Johnson administration would have accepted the revised figures or, more important, would he have accepted the impact those figures could have had on U.S. troop levels? All of that is conjecture and unimportant at this time. We did win the battle, as General Westmoreland insists and informed military analysts acknowledge, but it was a massive "defeat" in the view of the press. Most important, American public opinion, which had only been slightly removed by the drawn-out fighting and remained firmly supportive of U.S. goals in Vietnam, took a fateful and decidedly downward turn after Tet 1968. It is a rather sad fact to note that, when Walter Cronkite declared the war over, the "home front" was effectively lost.20

Several other important observations can be made in reviewing the CBS documentary. First, television news and documentary can, if properly researched and presented, be very effective—even devastating—in impact. Although heavy criticism has been leveled at the program, "The Uncounted Enemy" presented a very substantial case, violations of journalistic procedure aside. It was astonishing to see so many presumably reliable high-ranking witnesses to Vietnam history recount on camera how critical information was weighed, measured, manipulated, absorbed, or discarded.

Even following the Tet offensive, "CBS Reports" claims the official myth of enemy strength persisted for a while.

Wallace: . . . . MACV intelligence, meanwhile, went ahead and produced its first official estimate of enemy strength after Tet . . . . And this is Commander James Meacham, the officer in charge of putting out that report. . . . I quote from his letter [home to his wife after allegedly faking the first Order of Battle report after Tet]: "We started with the answer, and plugged in all sorts of figures until we found the combination which the machine could digest. And the we wrote all sorts of estimates showing why the figures were right which we had to use, and w continue to win the war."21

There have been other "CBS Reports" documentaries about the military. Some of them like the examples cited earlier in this report had elements of hucksterism and show business, rather than the major elements of thorough research and hard news. CBS News deserves major credit for bringing history up close—some of the personalities, pressure, am lessons of a difficult time in American history. And it is encouraging that CBS launched at internal investigation in response to criticism about the broadcast and hung out some of its journalistic dirty laundry for all to see. It is most unfortunate, however, that the name and distinguished career of an outstanding combat commander have been besmirched by the rather indiscriminate use of the words "deception’ and "conspiracy." That is a journalistic excess that should have been caught and changed long before TV Guide obtained excised transcripts from the CBS News cutting-room floor. It will be helpful, however, when CBS News answers all the charges against it for "Uncounted Enemy." The network reportedly is preparing a special broadcast in response to all the charges against its original documentary.

For the military member, the filmed interviews do cause us to focus on yet another important example of the impact of perceptions and predispositions on the decision process. These cognitive processes are formed and fine tuned over many years and throughout many difficult, problem-solving situations. Success has often been an indicator of previous good judgment and balanced reasoning, not to mention successful estimations using imperfect information. But the desire to achieve unity and making the decision-maker’s job as smooth as possible are psychological factors that often play crucial roles, especially in times of crisis They are also key contributors to the pathology of the decision process. In Vietnam, for example, the American public had been promised on several occasions that U.S. forces would be home by Christmas.

It is possible that some on the MACV staff had become so deeply obligated to his previously stated positions that they grew increasingly inflexible—closed to new information that seriously challenged the foundations of the past. The MACV staff’s perceptions of the record of U.S. forces and their future capabilities undoubtedly had an effect throughout the estimative process and the combat operations that occurred as a result of those estimates.

It is also important to note that no special group, whether scientists, intelligence officers, or weathermen, is immune from the same pressures of internal politics, organizational structure, and decision-maker perceptions. "CBS Reports" at least tended to document how particular mind-sets can be manifested in, or the result of, a weak decisional process. Personality traits, the establishment of a cognitive reality that is closed to new and challenging information, the distortion of events—all can so condition or affect an organizational structure that it is precariously perched on a foundation of loose gravel.

Decision-makers need some kind of mechanism that will enable competing ideas and analyses to be scrubbed down, dissected, accepted, rejected, or accommodated, no matter how bad the news is in final product. One well-worn idea is the devil’s advocate. Aside from its impracticality in modern military life, there is no assurance that the challenge of any "staff devil" will effect the emergence of the correct information.22 Depending on one’s own hang-ups, there is likely to be more confusion and useless information weighing on the decision-maker’s mind with such an approach.

A recent contributor to Air University Review has suggested a "counterpoint staff" which "would be allowed to create comprehensive assessments and freely question orthodox assessments . . . .23 Such a concept is tempting and intellectually appealing but also subject to the vagaries of bureaucratic politics. Witness, for example, the fate of the "Team B" concept that in 1977 challenged and changed U.S. intelligence assessments about the Soviet Union. "Team B" was called together by the President’s Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board (PFIAB) and took a friendly adversary stand against a soon-to-be-published National Intelligence Estimate. Although the estimate caused a tougher and more realistic view of Soviet capabilities and intentions, the Carter administration later disestablished the PFIAB, setting an uncomfortable precedent for devil’s advocates, counterpoint staffs, or anything else that dares to challenge current policy. The Reagan administration has reestablished the PFIAB.

There remains, however, the need for any decision-maker to be at least exposed in some detail and depth to certain independent ideas and evaluation without being flooded with dubious multiple advocacies. Periodic independent policy assessment can set up the necessary feedback loop for the mature decision-maker to stop, look at the past, challenge the future, seek new ideas, and then chart a new course or press on with the old.

A controlled adversary relationship in a few key policy areas could generally serve the decision-maker well. If such a competition of ideas leads to the same conclusions, the decisionmaker’s confidence is reinforced. However, when the feedback loop becomes clogged with significant disagreement, the decision-maker should take this as a cue that all may not be healthy organizationally. Sometimes this will be as tough as describing the emperor’s new clothes or changing the intelligence estimate, but it is a necessary function of a staff and should be an aid to any decision-maker.

San Antonio, Texas

Notes

1. Joshua Muravchik and John E. Haynes, "CBS v. Defense," Commentary, September 1981, pp. 44-55.

2. Ibid. This article is especially caustic in its analysis of the one-sided CBS documentary. It even accuses CBS of misappropriating the phrase "Iron Triangle"—meant to mean the Pentagon, the Congress, and the defense contractors, see p. 46. Overall, according to the authors, the "documentary" would have more accurately been called an editorial.

3. Many of the quotes to follow were taken from a transcript of "CBS Reports ‘The Uncounted Enemy: A Vietnam Deception,’" as broadcast over the CBS television network, Saturday, 23 January 1982, 9:30-11:00 p.m. EST, with CBS News correspondent Mike Wallace, copyright MCMLXXXII CBS, Inc. Hereafter referred to as "CBS Reports."

4. General Westmoreland is quoted from an article written by Robert G. Kaiser in a reprint from the Washington Post, January 27, 1982, p. 3. William F. Buckley, Jr., "The Uncounted Enemy," as reprinted from the Washington Post, February 2, 1982, p. 15.

5. William F. Buckley, Jr., "Westmoreland’s Vietnam Numbers (Cont.),"as reprinted from the Washington Post, February 18, 1982, p. 23.

6. See, for example, the highly critical opinion on the merits of the CBS documentary in "The Uncounted Enemy: A Vietnam Deception, A Dissenting View," Washington Journalism Review, April 1982, pp. 46-48. In fact, the article alleges willful manipulation and one-sided interviews as "Ambush Journalism." Author Peter Braestrup states that several pro-Westmoreland witnesses were refused TV time by CBS. See also General Maxwell D. Taylor’s answering editorial to Buckley’s first column in "The Hatchet Job on Westmoreland," Washington Post, February 5, 1982, p. 21.

7. Don Kowet and Sally Bedell, "Anatomy of a Smear: How CBS News Broke the Rules and ‘Got’ General Westmoreland," TV Guide, May 29, 1982, pp. 3-15.

8. Ibid., p. 4. In summing up, TV Guide stated "The inaccuracies, distortions, and violations of journalistic standards . . . suggest that television news ‘safeguards’ for fairness and accuracy need

tightening, if not wholesale revision," p. 15.

9. "CBS Reports," pp. 6, 11.

10. Ibid., pp. 5-6.

11. Adams first received publicity for this attempt to bring the "cover-up" to light in "Vietnam Cover-up: Playing War with Numbers," Harper’s, May 1975, pp. 41-44, 62-73.

12. Ibid., pp. 42-44.

13, "Autopsy on a CBS ‘Exposť’," Newsweek, July 26, 1982, p. 40.

14. "CBS Reports," p. 3.

15. Ibid., pp. 5-6.

16. Ibid., p. 6.

17. Major Evan H. Parrott, Jr., "Intelligence Failures: A Typology and Model to Avoid Misperception," Unpublished Research Study 1955-77 (Maxwell Air Force Base, Alabama, 1977).

18. Ibid., p. 61.

19. "CBS Reports," p. 3.

20. The Tet offensive was extremely important in the sense that changed forever American perceptions about the "wily Viet Cong. See, for example, David Halberstam, The Powers That Be (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1979), pp. 510-14.

21. Ibid., p. 23.

22. For an excellent treatment of how psychology plays a major role in all decision-making, see Robert Jervis, Perceptions and Misperceptions in International Politics (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1976). An intriguing one-page article in a recent journal suggests how even "science" has its major precept challenged and changed. See J. Richard Greenwell, "The Dinosaur Vote," Science, April 1982, p. 42. For a more thorough treatment to how science evolves, see Thomas S. Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1970)

23. Colonel Alton L. Elliott, "The Gatsby Effect in U.S. Strategic Affairs," Air University Review, November-December 1981, p. 88


Contributor

Lieutenant Colonel Evan H. Parrott, Jr. (B.A., West Kentucky University; M.A., University of Southern California), is currently a student at the Air War College. He was Director, Personnel Resources and Distribution Electronic Security Command and has served as a squadron commander, executive officer for the National Strategic Target List Directorate, and in intelligence positions in Japan, Vietnam, Europe, and on the Air Staff. Colonel Parrott is a Distinguished Graduate of Air Command and Staff College.

Disclaimer

The conclusions and opinions expressed in this document are those of the author cultivated in the freedom of expression, academic environment of Air University. They do not reflect the official position of the U.S. Government, Department of Defense, the United States Air Force or the Air University.


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