“Light at the End of the Tunnel”? The Vietnam War, the Credibility Gap, and the COVID-19 Crisis

Simon Toner | 15 May 2020

Modern History | North American History | Political History

Situation Room: Walt Rostow shows President Lyndon B. Johnson a model of the Khe Sanh area

Wartime analogies abound in the fight against COVID-19. In the United States, the Surgeon General warned that the nation faced a “Pearl Harbor moment” and Donald Trump, who declared himself a “wartime president”, has invoked the Defense Production Act, a piece of Korean War era legislation which grants the federal government greater control of the economy. Plenty of analysts have commented on these analogies; they work better for some than for others.

But one of the most striking and perhaps overlooked evocations of wartime thus far were Trump’s statements and tweets in April claiming to see “LIGHT AT THE END OF THE TUNNEL!” Trump was not alone in his use of this phrase. Bill Gates, Boris Johnson,[1] Dominic Raab, and Keir Starmer, to name a few, have recently made similar statements. But absent from much of the commentary on Trump’s use of the phrase, and almost certainly absent from his understanding of it, is that it is most closely associated with American hubris and defeat in the Vietnam War.

During the early years of the American war in Vietnam, U.S. government officials frequently employed the phrase “light at the end of the tunnel” both publicly and privately to suggest that the United States was making slow, steady progress toward a successful resolution of the conflict or, for the less sanguine among them, that the government and the military at least needed to convince the American public that this was the case.

Yet by 1967, the U.S. had deployed over 400,000 troops and there was little indication of a resolution in sight. Although anti-war protests grew throughout the United States, public opinion polls indicated that many Americans continued to support the war effort, but they were not convinced that the United States was making progress and were not happy with President Lyndon Johnson’s handling of the conflict. In the summer and autumn of 1967, Johnson’s team therefore launched a public relations offensive to sell the war and requested that top American civilian and military officials in Vietnam “search urgently for occasions to present sound evidence of progress” to the American people. Walt Rostow, Johnson’s National Security Advisor, suggested that the administration could employ “ways of guiding the press to show light at the end of the tunnel”.

Ellsworth Bunker, the U.S. Ambassador to South Vietnam, appeared on CBS’ Face the Nation and once again used the phrase to convey progress, although when pressed on the matter, he refused to say how much of the tunnel remained to be traversed. The U.S. military commander in Vietnam, General William Westmoreland, also returned to the U.S. to make several public appearances. On 21 November, he told an audience at the National Press Club that the war had reached a point “where the end begins to come into view”. A few days later, Westmoreland sent a cable to his deputy saying that he thought it was an appropriate time to “portray to the American people ‘some light at the end of the tunnel’”.[2] Although there was skepticism among the American press corps in Vietnam about these pronouncements, the PR campaign did temporarily boost public support for the American war effort.

Then, in late January and early February 1968, came the Tet Offensive, the massive, coordinated North Vietnamese and National Liberation Front attacks on South Vietnam’s towns and cities, including an attack on the U.S. embassy in the heart of Saigon. The light at the end of the tunnel, some joked, had been an oncoming train. The prominent CBS anchorman Walter Cronkite speculated that the United States was now “mired in stalemate” and the fragile consensus within the Johnson administration fell apart. The offensive also shattered the progress narrative that Johnson’s team had tried to promote and the so-called “credibility gap”, between how the government presented the war and how the American media and public witnessed it, widened even further.

In late March, amidst plummeting public support, Johnson announced a partial bombing halt of North Vietnam, indicated his willingness to engage in negotiations, and announced that he would not stand for re-election. The light at the end of tunnel, if it had existed at all, rapidly receded and the war would grind on for another seven years.

It should perhaps come as little surprise that American political leaders are so quick to employ wartime analogies. As the late Marilyn Young argued, war is “the substance of American history”. Although the United States has not formally declared war on another nation since the 1940s, it has engaged in near permanent military conflict for the past 75 years.[3] War has also served as the dominant metaphor in major policy campaigns against poverty, drugs, cancer, and terrorism.

Of course, American political leaders usually consciously invoke such metaphors. What is remarkable about the recent usage of this phrase is the apparent ignorance of its historical baggage. While “light at the end of the tunnel” is an idiom with an etymology and application that extends beyond the Vietnam War, the expression is now freighted with irony due to its close association with that conflict.

More than a month has passed since Trump first promised “light at the end of the tunnel” but a conclusion to the crisis does not appear in sight. As the U.S. and U.K. governments prepare to lift some restrictions amid confused messaging and unclear evidence of progress, they are at risk of widening the “credibility gap” even further.

Simon Toner is a Lecturer in Modern American History at the University of Sheffield.

[1] In a confusing twist on the metaphor at a 30 April press conference, Boris Johnson claimed the UK had “come through the peak. Or rather we’ve come under what could have been a vast peak, as though we’ve been going through some huge alpine tunnel. And we can now see the sunlight and pasture ahead of us.”

[2] Westmoreland is often thought to have used the phrase publicly, but I don’t think this was ever the case. However, his association with the phrase was fixed in the popular memory during a 1984 trial in which he sued CBS for libel. CBS had produced a documentary which claimed Westmoreland had misled the Johnson administration about the true strength of enemy forces in Vietnam in order to indicate progress in the war. During the trial, Westmoreland claimed never to have used the phrase “light at the end of the tunnel”. When a lawyer representing CBS showed him the above cable, he said that he had been optimistic, but he had not forecast the end of the war. The case was eventually settled out of court.

[3] Most American military engagements since 1945 have occurred under Congressional and/or UN resolutions authorizing the use of force following a presidential request, rather than formal declarations of war.