The Vietnam War was a 20-year conflict in Southeast Asia (1955?1975) between the government of South Vietnam and the Communist government of North Vietnam. The North Vietnamese sought the reunification of the two countries under its form of rule. The United States, determined to prevent Communist aggression, supported the government of South Vietnam and in the early 1960s became increasingly involved militarily in the conflict. By 1965 U.S. involvement had escalated, and U.S. armed forces had been introduced. Opposition to the war in the United States grew steadily, resulting in one of the most divisive periods in U.S. history. The United States ultimately withdrew its forces in 1973. Within two years the North Vietnamese defeated the South Vietnamese armed forces and took control of the country.
On January 23, 1982, CBS television broadcast a 90-minute documentary entitled The Uncounted Enemy: A Vietnam Deception. The program was produced by George Crile and based in large part on the reporting of Sam Adams, a Pentagon analyst who had acted as a CBS consultant for the program. Mike Wallace from 60 Minuteswas the narrator. He also conducted some of the interviews.
The documentary reported charges by a number of U.S. Army and CENTRAL INTELLIGENCE AGENCY (CIA) intelligence sources, who claimed that prior to the surprise North Vietnamese-Viet Cong led Tet Offensive in January 1968, the U.S. Military Assistance Command in Vietnam, also known as MACV, conspired to mislead President LYNDON B. JOHNSON, the American public, and the rest of the military about the enemy's actual strength. The witnesses interviewed for the documentary stated that MACV carried out this deception to make it appear that progress was being made in winning the war of attrition against enemy forces, that the war could be won, and that there was "some light at the end of the tunnel" in what was the longest war in U.S. history.
The documentary made clear that not only was MACV under the control and command of General William C. Westmoreland but that the conspiracy to understate enemy troop strength was carried out at least with Westmoreland's knowledge, ACQUIESCENCE, and tacit approval. The documentary then charged that the Tet Offensive might have been less surprising and demoralizing had MACV been providing accurate information. Since many historians and military experts consider the Tet Offensive to be the war's final turning point, the documentary suggested that Westmoreland played a significant role in the U.S. defeat in Vietnam.
In the preface to the broadcast, correspondent Mike Wallace stated: "The fact is that we Americans were misinformed about the nature and the size of the enemy we were facing, and tonight we're going to present evidence of what we have come to believe was a conscious effort?indeed, a conspiracy at the highest levels of American military intelligence?to suppress and alter critical intelligence of the enemy in the year leading up to the Tet Offensive."
Three days later, General Westmoreland held a press conference attended by former CIA special assistant George Carver, former senior CIA officials, a former ambassador to Vietnam, and some of the general's principal intelligence people during the war. Westmoreland and his supporters denounced the program as filled with lies, distortions, fraudulent statements that constituted a hoax on the public. Westmoreland and the others criticized the documentary on four grounds. They alleged that (1) one of the interviews had been rehearsed; (2) one of the witnesses was interviewed after being allowed to see the interviews of the other witnesses; (3) there was insufficient notice to General Westmoreland of the scope of his interview; and (4) certain answers were improperly spliced and edited.
CBS News decided to conduct an internal investigation, appointing senior editor Burton Benjamin to coordinate it. On July 7, 1982, Benjamin submitted his findings to Van Gordon Sauter, the president of CBS News. Eight days later Sauter issued a statement expressing regret that the documentary had failed to comply with certain journalistic standards ordinarily followed by CBS. However, Sauter emphasized that the program contained no falsehoods or distortions of the truth. In September, CBS offered to General Westmoreland 15 minutes of unedited airtime to respond to the documentary, which was to be followed by a 45 minute panel discussion about the criticisms and merits of the broadcast. The general declined the offer.
On September 13, 1982, Westmoreland filed a $120 million lawsuit against CBS, alleging that the Vietnam documentary had made 16 libelous statements against him. But statements that accused the general of having conspired to understate enemy troop strength constituted the centerpiece of the lawsuit. Although Westmoreland filed the lawsuit in his home state of South Carolina, CBS successfully moved the case to a federal district court in New York for trial. Westmoreland's suit was funded in part by the Capital Legal Foundation, a conservative think tank headed by Dan Burt, who also served as the general's lawyer. CBS was represented by the law firm of Cravath...