Debating War and Peace: Media Coverage of U.S. Intervention in the Post-Vietnam Era

By Jonathan Mermin | Go to book overview
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WHEN THE United States invaded Grenada in 1983, the Reagan administration conducted a campaign to convince the public of the wisdom of its action. In speeches, press conferences, and interviews, administration officials declared that American medical students in Grenada had been in danger, that international Communism had been on the verge of expanding into Grenada and toward the United States, and that democratic rule on the island had to be restored. The situation in Grenada, the White House asserted, justified military intervention.

The Bush administration orchestrated a similar campaign to win support for U.S. intervention in Panama in 1989. The White House argued that Americans in Panama had been in danger, that Panamanian leader Manuel Noriega had to be arrested on drug-trafficking charges, and that democratic rule in Panama had to be restored. The U.S. bombing of Libya in 1986, U.S. intervention to counter the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in 1990–91, and U.S. intervention in Haiti in 1994 also were the focus of major White House efforts to win public support.

Presidents have good reason to work hard to win public support for their foreign policies.1 The political damage Harry S Truman and Lyndon B. Johnson sustained when public opinion turned against U.S. intervention in Korea and Vietnam testifies to what is possible when such efforts fail. On domestic issues, the White House is often able to deflect blame for unpopular policies onto the opposition party in Congress. When the president acts as commander in chief of the armed forces, however, there is no confusion about who is responsible. For this reason, presidents are extraordinarily interested in influencing public opinion on questions of war and peace.

Presidents exert this influence through the news media. For citizens who are the object of White House public-relations campaigns, the news media are of great significance, as most Americans get no information on U.S. foreign-policy initiatives except what is reported in the news.2 Mili

On presidential efforts to shape public opinion, see Samuel Kernell, Going Public: New Strategies of Presidential Leadership (Washington, D.C.: Congressional Quarterly Press, 1986); and Jeffrey K. Tulis, The Rhetorical Presidency (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1987).
On the agenda-setting power of the media, see Walter Lippmann, Public Opinion (New York: Macmillan, 1922); Bernard Cohen, The Press and Foreign Policy (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1963); and Shanto Iyengar and Donald R. Kinder, News That Matters (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987).


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Debating War and Peace: Media Coverage of U.S. Intervention in the Post-Vietnam Era


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