TV programs dig deep into the `living-room' war

Vietnam is once again the centerpiece of network television news. Despite the fact that this is the 10th anniversary of the United States pullout, the Vietnam war is still a timely story because of the analogies being drawn between the beginning of our Vietnam involvement and the current Central American controversies. The anniversary has inspired a wide range of programming on TV, the medium which first brought that war into the living rooms and bedrooms of America. TV also seems to have somehow helped move that war out of the living rooms as well as out of the battlefields.

Although there has been and will be widespread coverage on all the morning and evening news shows, the main events seem to be tomorrow's Marvin Kalb-anchored NBC White Paper, ``Vietnam: Lessons of a Lost War,'' and yesterday's Cronkite-anchored CBS Reports, ``Honor, Duty and a War Called Vietnam.''

Lessons of a Lost War (NBC, Saturday, 10-11 p.m.) digs deep into the Vietnam war, examining the period of our early involvement as well as later miscalculations. Its most explosive material is what the documentary calls ``new evidence'' that President Lyndon Johnson knowingly lied to the American people about the extent of the war and the possibilities of winning it. NBC News' chief diplomatic correspondent Marvin Kalb focuses on how the US got into the war, why it lost, and how a military victory might have been accomplished. Matters more easily dealt with in hindsight than foresight.

Most explosive are the segments which seem to prove that the Tonkin Gulf incidents, which escalated our participation in the Vietnam war, were the result of misinformation as well as calculated distortion by President Johnson. Utilizing the Freedom of Information Act, Mr. Kalb and producer William Turque gained access to secret papers which reveal that Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, turning from hawk to dove, told the President that the war might be unwinnable and suggested a coalition government, including the Viet Cong. It was a suggestion never pursued by Johnson.

The attitude of the media to the Tet offensive late in the war is also reviewed. Mr. Kalb reports that ``Lyndon Johnson could proclaim that the Viet Cong offensive was a complete failure. But night after night, on television, some of America's most trusted and responsible newscasters came to a completely different conclusion.'' Kalb emphasizes the complexity of the matter: although the Viet Cong suffered a historic military defeat, it was somehow deemed a psychological victory for them and a psychological defeat for us. Peter Braestrup, once a reporter and now a scholar on Vietnam, says: ``There was probably some element of revenge in the press handling of the crisis. . . . The press overreacted to what was the [Johnson] propaganda campaign before Tet. They [said] after Tet, in effect: `We told you so. You were wrong. You were lying to us.' '' Mr. Kalb comes to similar conclusions as those Walter Cronkite reached in his documentary yesterday: The next time a president sends troops to a foreign country he will need a declaration of war; we will in the future fight to win; popular support and understanding is crucial.

In his summation, Mr. Kalb says: ``President Reagan, while considering options in Central America and the Middle East, operates in a world of strict limits on his use of military power. Many people feel this is a good thing.''

In Thursday's CBS Reports, Walter Cronkite presided over a disturbing review of the war from the points of view of surviving soldiers who now have the perspective of time to aid them in understanding what happened and why. An excruciating exercise in recollection, this CBS Reports tried to find truth and reason amid all the turmoil. There was more to gain from the war we lost than from all those we have won, Mr. Cronkite concluded, ``if there is a greater reluctance to send soldiers off to some uncertain war with obscure objectives; if no war can be considered without the consensus of the American people and government; if the selection of those who must fight future wars is made equitable; if instead of guns and butter, the civilian population is asked to share the cost of that war.''

Other highlights of television's on-the-spot Vietnam coverage during the coming week are Ted Koppel's ``Nightline'' (ABC, 11:30 p.m.), which started airing last night; Bryant Gumbel's reports on ``The Today Show,'' which started airing today; Cable News Networks reports from Pulitzer-prizewinner Peter Arnett; and continuing coverage by ABC's Steve Bell and Richard Threlkeld.

PBS, which last year focused national attention on the war with its widely acclaimed ``Vietnam: a TV History'' series, seems to be sitting this one out, although on June 26 PBS will air an ``Accuracy in Media'' two-hour response to that series. However, that will probably not end the flow of still-controversial Vietnam retrospectives on TV: PBS is scheduling the Vietnam series for rerunning in the fall.

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