Sixteen years ago, a group of military veterans turned a presidential campaign upside down.
The Democratic Party had selected then-senator John Kerry as its nominee. His party positioned him as a war hero, backed with a glowing campaign biography by historian Douglas Brinkley. Inaccuracies in Brinkley’s account attracted the attention of Navy veterans who had served with Kerry in Vietnam. They formed a group called the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth and began to investigate and document Kerry’s activities during and after the war. They quickly found and publicized evidence that undercut Kerry’s mythology, including his oft-repeated claim that he had been illegally ordered by the Nixon Administration to fight clandestine battles in Cambodia.
But the real focus of the veterans was Kerry’s work as spokesman for the anti-military group Vietnam Veterans Against the War (VVAW). The Swift Vets noted that Kerry and the VVAW “worked closely with America’s wartime enemies, arranged multiple meetings with the North Vietnamese and Vietcong leadership, and consistently supported their positions. Kerry and his radical comrades also played a key role in defining the false, damaging image of Vietnam veterans as psychologically disabled alcoholics and addicts, haunted by the crimes they had been forced to commit in a ‘racist’ war.” John Kerry, the Swift Vets said, was unfit for command.
The message that John Kerry should not serve as Commander in Chief after smearing American troops as mass murderers resonated with the public. The leftist media tried to ignore Kerry’s veteran opponents at first, then labeled their charges as “unsubstantiated” or “discredited.” In the end none of it worked. The Swift Vets and their POW allies were the key to Kerry’s defeat.
After the Swift Vets went home, the larger pro-military movement they had inspired continued. Leftist efforts to recreate the anti-military sentiment of the Vietnam era using groups such as “Iraq Veterans Against the War” fell flat. Support and respect for the military had become the standard in America, with opposition now limited to fringe radicals and academics. Smearing the troops as baby killers had ceased to be an effective political strategy. After the election of Barack Obama, the Left gave up and shifted to attacking the military through infiltration. After 40 years, America’s most vicious anti-military disinformation campaign had finally been laid to rest.
Smearing the Troops
During the Vietnam War, leftist propagandists insisted that America was waging a racist, genocidal war against the Vietnamese people. Those who opposed the war were fighting for peace. In reality, the Left was working to undermine America’s ability to defend South Vietnam in full cooperation with its communist allies in North Vietnam and the Soviet Union.
To accomplish this goal, the Left accused American troops of routinely committing war crimes and portrayed them as unstable, traumatized drug addicts. This reduced public support for the war and for the military as an institution, weakening America’s ability to defend its interests. The peace treaty that ended American involvement in the war authorized the United States to respond to any violations by the communists, but the overwhelmingly leftist Congress elected in the wake of Richard Nixon’s resignation denied America’s former allies in South Vietnam not only military support and funding, but humanitarian aid as well.
Seeing that America had given up, the Vietnamese communists quickly launched the final invasion that conquered South Vietnam. Genocide throughout Southeast Asia followed. The success of this communist revolution was due in no small part to the Left’s successful disinformation campaign against our troops.
The damage to the reputation of the military lingered for decades. Many American soldiers returned home from the war to find they were reviled as baby-killers, and treated as pariahs by former friends. The image of the Vietnam veteran portrayed by the media and by Hollywood—murderous, filthy, addicted, and too psychologically damaged to cope with civilian life—became an archetype. Far too few people understood that this was disinformation rather than reality.
Smearing the Police
The death last spring of George Floyd under the knee of a Minneapolis police officer touched off a massive wave of activism based on the belief that racist white cops are routinely murdering black people. This has been used to justify nationwide violence, looting, arson, and destruction. Thousands of police officers have been injured, some seriously. Hundreds of statues and monuments were destroyed. There have been widespread demands to abolish or defund police departments, to pay trillions in racial reparations, and to change our very system of government.
There is significant evidence, however, that the claims of widespread police racism in America are untrue. In 2019, the only systematic, nationwide study of fatal police shootings by race found that white police officers are no more likely to shoot minorities than non-white officers.
The researchers catalogued every police shooting in the country beginning in 2015 and obtained the race, sex, and years of experience for every officer involved in each incident. They found that the best predictor of whether black or white citizens were shot was not the race of the officer, but the rate of crime committed by each racial group. One author wrote, “If you live in a county that has a lot of white people committing crimes, white people are more likely to be shot. If you live in a county that has a lot of black people committing crimes, black people are more likely to be shot.” Between 90 and 95 percent of the civilians who were shot by officers were actively attacking police or other citizens at the time, and about 90 percent were armed with a weapon.
Under pressure from leftist activists, the authors of the study “retracted” the research report after George Floyd’s death on the grounds that “misinterpretation of the findings that resulted from language used in the paper.” That, of course, is not the same thing as disavowing the findings themselves, but it served the useful purpose of hiding the study’s results from the public.
The Tactics of Disinformation
How was the public led to believe false claims about the military and the police? Social science research offers useful insights into the process that most people use to make decisions:
- Reasoning is only a small part of forming opinions or judgments;
- Judgments are often based on inadequate information;
- Early and negative information have a disproportionately heavy impact;
- Anecdotal, easy-to-remember information is also overly weighted.
Therefore, disinformation campaigns use simple, powerful, negative, emotional arguments that tell a story. Since people resist changing their minds about emotionally-loaded topics, this narrative must be spread quickly, before the facts have a chance to catch up to the claims.
The usual trigger for a political disinformation campaign is a violent event that fits the needs of its organizers, who then use all available resources to focus attention on its horror and injustice.
In most cases, the trigger event itself is falsely portrayed. For example, the wave of black church fires that launched a media storm in 1996 was a complete fabrication. Gay icon Matthew Shepard was murdered, but an in-depth investigation found that his killer was also gay or at least bisexual, eliminating homophobia as a likely motive. The deaths of Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown were fairly clear-cut cases of self-defense. And, appearances to the contrary, it is likely that George Floyd died from a self-inflicted drug overdose rather than the actions of the police.
Accurate reporting isn’t the goal. The goal is to make people accept the narrative and act on it in useful ways. The key to making this work is expanding and shifting the blame for the event to the larger target group. That sequence—set the emotional hook, transfer anger and outrage to the target, and then mobilize supporters—is how propagandists leverage and cash in on their stories.
Once the campaign has persuaded a large number of people, the organizers offer ways to channel their powerful feelings of injustice into political action. At this point it is extremely difficult to counter the campaign with facts or reasoning. Its supporters see any disagreement as either an attempt to defend the obvious injustice of the trigger event, or as a personal attack. Few people are capable of changing their strongly-held, emotionally-driven beliefs based on mere evidence.
Then and Now
Just as leftists used disinformation to attack the U.S. military during and for decades after the Vietnam War, so now they are using disinformation to attack the police—physically, politically, legally, financially, and psychologically.
If these attacks are successful, the Left will be able to destabilize the American political system using crimes and violence with little legal interference. This requires “high cover” from well-placed officials: mayors, governors, and prosecutors who will support the attacks, place unreasonable restrictions on the police, and release arrested criminals back to the streets. Demonizing and undermining the police is an integral part of a larger strategy of using domestic terror to intimidate and silence ordinary American citizens.
The Vietnam era revolutionaries wanted to “bring the war home.” Their modern counterparts have at last succeeded. The Left calls for “unity” as it politicizes American pastimes such as professional sports, now transformed into leftist fundraising and propaganda centers, and demands “justice” as it dissolves the principle of equal justice under the law. These attacks extend far beyond the police. The ultimate goal is to destroy public support for America itself.
This time, we may not have 35 years to correct the problem.