How Did CBS Get Suckered By the Vietnamese Propagandists?

Posted by Jason Van Steenwyk

Amazing Race VietnamWhen John McCain was shot down, grievously injured and bayonetted by his North Vietnamese captors, they didn’t expect him to survive for long. And they didn’t care… until they realized who he was. Lieutenant John McCain was the son of a prominent U.S. Navy Admiral. As such, John McCain was possibly a valuable asset to the communist regime – and so they made sure he got enough medical care to pull through.

Once he did, the North Vietnamese were ferocious in their attempts to use him to score a propaganda coup. They beat and tortured him severely in an attempt to get him to sign a confession of war crimes (they succeeded, on one occasion – an incident which McCain regretted for the rest of his life). They also tried to get McCain to accept an early release, despite a longstanding code that the first prisoners captured would be the first released in any prisoner swap or furlough. The North Vietnamese knew that if McCain took an early release, they could use the fact that McCain was the son of one of the most powerful admirals in the Navy to undermine morale among military troops. 

Propaganda was important to the North Vietnamese, as it was to fascist and communist forebears in Nazi Germany, Maoist China and the Stalinist USSR. Communist officials in North Vietnam were happy to have Jane Fonda, the young daughter of an American movie icon – as an honored guest and willing stooge for their own propaganda ministries. They even gave Fonda a chance to read a radio propaganda address for U.S. troops in 1972. 

I visited the (Dam Xuac) agricultural coop, where the silk worms are also raised and thread is made. I visited a textile factory, a kindergarten in Hanoi. The beautiful Temple of Literature was where I saw traditional dances and heard songs of resistance. I also saw unforgettable ballet about the guerrillas training bees in the south to attack enemy soldiers. The bees were danced by women, and they did their job well.

In the shadow of the Temple of Literature I saw Vietnamese actors and actresses perform the second act of Arthur Miller’s play All My Sons, and this was very moving to me- the fact that artists here are translating and performing American plays while US imperialists are bombing their country.

I cherish the memory of the blushing militia girls on the roof of their factory, encouraging one of their sisters as she sang a song praising the blue sky of Vietnam- these women, who are so gentle and poetic, whose voices are so beautiful, but who, when American planes are bombing their city, become such good fighters.

Fast forward to 2013. The producers of CBS’s The Amazing Race have issued an apology to veterans’ groups for offending them with a recent broadcast. Amazing Race is a reality television show in which teams of two competitors race through the streets of foreign cities searching for clues to bring them toward the finish line, decided to produce a segment in Vietnam. The country is still run by a communist totalitarian regime – and like their forebears in 1972, they were quick to seize the opportunity. Race competitors and camera crews were forced to sit through the same kind of pro-communist dog-and-pony musical revues that so captivated Jane Fonda four decades ago.

You can see a minute-long segment from the show here. In fact, I insist that you see it… and pay attention to the young contestants’ grinning reaction to it.

The result was a PR and propaganda coup for the communist North Vietnamese regime and the Ho Chi Minh personality cult – and our 20-something contestants – some of them may have been in their 30s but not much older than that – were apparently wholly unaware of what was happening.

How could this have happened? 

Consider: Some of these contestants in their mid-20s today were not even born until the mid-1980s. They were well under 10 years old when the Berlin Wall fell, and the Soviet Union collapsed. They have no personal memory of Flight 007 being downed by a Russian fighter jet over Sakhalin Island. They have no memory of the collapse of the Ceausescu government in Romania, nor any knowledge of the hatred the people had for his corrupt, totalitarian regime. They may have heard of My Lai, but not of the Hue massacres committed by Viet Cong and North Vietnamese regulars. They have no memory of the wanton slaughter of the Khmer Rouge killing fields in Cambodia. They have no memory of nuclear blast drills in school. All of this knowledge would have had to come from their parents (who themselves were probably too young to have fought in Viet Nam).

Where people in their 40s (like me) saw Red Dawn in theaters when it came out, and at least recognized the Russians and Red Chinese and their satellite states as the most existential threat to America in generations (even if we didn’t quite buy the jingoism in the movie’s premise), we could at least figure out who the bad guys were.

They certainly weren’t getting anything approaching Cold War history in school, though. History teachers tend to struggle to get through World War Two before the school year ends. If the Cold War is covered at all, it’s a May and June afterthought, with childrens’ thoughts already turning to signing each others’ yearbooks in class and comparing summer vacation plans.

Educators today, meanwhile, are actually quoting Mao approvingly in Government publications. There were Mao Tse Tung Christmas ornaments hung on the White House Christmas tree in 2009. The President also appointed a Green Energy Czar, Van Jones, who was a member, in the 1990s, of a socialist collective called STORM, short for Standing Together to Organize a Revolutionary Movement.

Most people in Middle America are able to get some Cold War history around the dinner table in their childhoods from older relatives. But remember where our media is headquartered: New York City – in a state that’s dead last in the number of military veterans per capita.

The fact is that few of the 20- and 30-something production assistance that actually put these shows together day-to-day have any educational or cultural frame of reference to grasp the significance of Communist iconography or recognize its propaganda. This is true enough today across the country – but it’s especially true among the generally affluent Northeastern kids who self-select to become CBS production employees.

Well, we expect that of very young people. That is why we have older, more experienced executives around who can take a broader view of activities going on in their organizations. You would think the show’s executive producer, Jerry Bruckheimer, would have flagged the program and at least re-edited it to omit the offensive stage show and the trip to the B-52 memorial, or make some insertion to recognize what had happened in Hanoi. He himself is the son of German-Jewish immigrants – so you would think he would have some cultural sensitivity to the idea that people are sensitive to careless portrayals of history.

He also lives in West Los Angeles, now, with his family – which has a lot of Russian immigrants and until time took them from us, a large number of Jewish holocaust survivors.

Furthermore, Bruckheimer is also the executive producer who gave us the excellent movie Blackhawk Down.

Les Moonves, the head of CBS, has no military experience. He’s New York media, all the way.

So CBS was in the wrong, yes. But they didn’t cause this offense on purpose. Nor did the young contestants grooving and laughing at the stage production – sung in a language they couldn’t understand. This happened because younger Americans have a historical blind spot. And we have tolerated it. We tolerate it every time we see evidence of Red chic on college campuses. We tolerate it every time we let Che Guevara t-shirts go unremarked upon and unchallenged.


So what are your thoughts on the actions of the Amazing Race and CBS? Were these intentional insults or a result of the education our younger generation has received? Tell us your thoughts below.


One response to “How Did CBS Get Suckered By the Vietnamese Propagandists?”

  1. Martha Robertson says:

    Spot on, Jason. I say that as a public high school educator for more than four decades. It’s not only the coverage of the Vietnam War that is barely taught, if at all. There is a general disinterest–by many students and teachers–in current world affairs. However, social issues are extremely popular–the homeless, same-sex marriage, abortion, guns, etc. Sound familiar?

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