How to Lose A War: The Press and Viet Nam
By Robert Elegant
Reprinted from Encounter (London), vol. LVII, No. 2, August 1981, pp. 73-90
In the early 1960s, when the Viet Nam War became a big story, most foreign correspondents assigned to cover the story wrote primarily to win the approbation of the crowd, above all their own crowd. As a result, in my view, the self-proving system of reporting they created became ever further detached from political and military realities because it instinctively concentrated on its own self-justification. The American press, naturally dominant in an "American war," somehow felt obliged to be less objective than partisan, to take sides, for it was inspired by the engagé "investigative" reporting that burgeoned in the United States in these impassioned years. The press was instinctively "agin the government"—and, at least reflexively, for Saigon's enemies.
During the latter half of the fifteen-year American involvement in Viet Nam, the media became the primary battlefield. Illusory events reported by the press as well as real events within the press corps were more decisive than the clash of arms or the contention of ideologies. For the first time in modern history, the outcome of a war was determined not on the battlefield but on the printed page and, above all, on the television screen. Looking back coolly, I believe it can be said (surprising as it may still sound) that South Vietnamese and American forces actually won the limited military struggle. They virtually crushed the Viet Cong in the South, the "native" guerrillas who were directed, reinforced, and equipped from Hanoi; and thereafter they threw back the invasion by regular North Vietnamese divisions. Nonetheless, the war was finally lost to the invaders after the U.S. disengagement because the political pressures built up by the media had made it quite impossible for Washington to maintain even the minimal material and moral support that would have enabled the Saigon regime to continue effective resistance.
Since I am considering causes rather than effects, the demoralization of the West, particularly the United States, that preceded and followed the fall of South Viet Nam is beyond the scope of this article. It is, however, interesting to wonder whether Angola, Afghanistan, and Iran would have occurred if Saigon had not fallen amid nearly universal odium—that is to say, if the "Viet Nam Syndrome," for which the press (in my view) was largely responsible, had not afflicted the Carter Administration and paralyzed American will. On the credit side, largely despite the press, the People's Republic of China would almost certainly not have purged itself of the Maoist doctrine of "worldwide liberation through people's war" and, later, would not have come to blows with Hanoi if the defense of South Viet Nam had not been maintained for so long.
"You could be hard about it and deny that there was a brotherhood working there, but what else could you call it?" This is a question that Michael Herr asked in his Dispatches, (1) a personally honest but basically deceptive book.
"But . . . all you ever talked about was the war, and they would come to seem like two different wars at the same time. Because who but another correspondent could talk the kind of mythical war you wanted to hear described?"
I have added the italics, for in the words "mythical" and "wanted" the essential truth is laid bare. In my own personal experience most correspondents wanted to talk chiefly to other correspondents to confirm their own mythical vision of the war. Even newcomers were precommitted, as the American jargon has it, to the collective position most of their colleagues had already taken. What I can only call surrealistic reporting constantly fed on itself, and did not diminish thereby, but swelled into ever more grotesque shapes. I found the process equally reprehensible for being in no small part unwitting.
John le Carré (whose extravagant encomium adorns the cover of the Pan edition of Dispatches: "The best book I have ever read on men and war in our times") is, I feel, too clever a writer to believe he painted an even proximately accurate picture of Southeast Asia in The Honourable Schoolboy (1972). But he brilliantly depicted the press corps and the correspondents' Asia, an encapsulated, self-defining world whirling in its own eccentric orbit. Correspondents, briefly set down in the brutally alienating milieu called Viet Nam, turned to each other for professional sustenance and emotional comfort. After all, there was nowhere else to turn, certainly not to stark reality, which was both elusive and repellent.
Most correspondents were isolated from the Vietnamese by ignorance of their language and culture, as well as by a measure of race estrangement. Most were isolated from the quixotic American Army establishment, itself often as confused as they themselves were, by their moralistic attitudes and their political prejudices. It was inevitable, in the circumstances, that they came to write, in the first instance, for each other.
To be sure, the approbation of his own crowd gave a certain fullness to the correspondent's life in exile that reached beyond the irksome routine of reporting and writing. The disapprobation of his peers could transform him into a bitterly defensive misanthrope (I think here of one industrious radio and newspaper stringer who was reputed to be the richest correspondent in Viet Nam, except, of course, for the television stars). Even the experienced correspondents, to whom Asia was "home" rather than a hostile temporary environment, formed their own little self-defensive world within the larger world of the newcomers.
It was no wonder that correspondents writing to win the approbation of other correspondents in that insidiously collegial atmosphere produced reporting that was remarkably homogeneous. After each other, correspondents wrote to win the approbation of their editors, who controlled their professional lives and who were closely linked with the intellectual community at home. The consensus of that third circle, the domestic intelligentsia, derived largely from correspondents' reports and in turn served to determine the nature of those reports. If dispatches did not accord with that consensus, approbation was withheld. Only in the last instance did correspondents address themselves to the general public, the mass of lay readers and viewers.
It was my impression that most correspondents were in one respect, very much like the ambitious soldiers they derided. A tour in Viet Nam was almost essential to promotion for a U.S. Regular Army officer, and a combat command was the best road to rapid advancement. Covering the biggest continuing story in the world was not absolutely essential to a correspondent's rise, but it was an invaluable cachet. Quick careers were made by spectacular reporting of the obvious fact that men, women, and children were being killed; fame or at least notoriety rewarded the correspondent who became part of the action—rather than a mere observer—by influencing events directly.
Journalists, particularly those serving in television, were therefore, like soldiers, "rotated" to Viet Nam. Few were given time to develop the knowledge, and indeed the intellectual instincts, necessary to report the war in the round. Only a few remained "in country" for years, though the experienced Far Eastern correspondents visited regularly from Hong Kong, Singapore, and Tokyo. Not surprisingly, one found that most reporting veered farther and farther from the fundamental political, economic, and military realities of the war, for these were usually not spectacular. Reporting Viet Nam became a closed, self-generating system sustained largely by the acclaim the participants lavished on each other in almost equal measure to the opprobrium they heaped on "the Establishment," a fashionable and very vulnerable target.
The Cloud of Unknowing
For some journalists, perhaps most, a moment of truth through self-examination was never to come. The farther they were from the real conflict, the more smugly self-approving they now remain as commentators who led the public to expect a brave new world when the North Vietnamese finally "liberated" South Viet Nam. Even those correspondents who today gingerly confess to some errors or distortions usually insist that the true fault was not theirs at all, but Washington's. The enormity of having helped in one way or another to bring tens of millions under grinding totalitarian rule—and having tilted the global balance of power—appears too great to acknowledge. It is easier to absolve one's self by blaming exclusively Johnson, Nixon, and Kissinger.
I found few American correspondents to be as tough-minded as one Briton I knew who was very close to the action for many years in the employ of an American wire-news service. "I'm ashamed of most of what I wrote in Viet Nam," he told me recently. "But I was a new boy, and I took my lead from the Americans, who were afire with the crusading spirit of '60s journalism—the involvement, man, in the good fight. When I look at what's happened now, I'm ashamed of my ignorance—and what I helped to do to the Vietnamese...."(2)
As one West German correspondent has confessed (Uwe Siemon-Netto in the International Herald Tribune, reprinted in Encounter, October 1979):
"Having covered the Viet Nam war over a period of five years for West German publications, I am now haunted by the role we journalists have played over there.
Those of us who had wanted to find out knew of the evil nature of the Hanoi regime. We knew that, in 1956, close to 50,000 peasants were executed in North Viet Nam. We knew that after the division of the country nearly one million North Vietnamese had fled to the South. Many of us have seen the tortured and carved-up bodies of men, women, and children executed by the Viet Cong in the early phases of the war. And many of us saw, in 1968, the mass graves of Hue, saw the corpses of thousands of civilians still festively dressed for Tet, the Vietnamese New Year.
Why, for heaven's sake, did we not report about these expressions of deliberate North Vietnamese strategy at least as extensively as of the My Lai massacre and other such isolated incidents that were definitely not part of the U.S. policy in Viet Nam?
What prompted us to make our readers believe that the Communists, once in power in all of Viet Nam, would behave benignly? What made us, first and foremost Anthony Lewis, belittle warnings by U.S. officials that a Communist victory would result in a massacre?
Why did we ignore the fact that the man responsible for the executions of 50,000 peasants, Truong Chinh, was—and still is—one of the most powerful figures in Hanoi. What made us think that he and his comrades would have mercy for the vanquished South Vietnamese? What compelled, for example, Anthony Lewis shortly after the fall of Saigon to pat himself on the shoulder and write, "so much for the talk of a massacre"?
True, no Cambodian-style massacre took place in Viet Nam. It's just that Hanoi coolly drives its ethnic Chinese and opponents into the sea.
Are we journalists not in part responsible for the death of the tens of thousands who drowned? And are we not in part responsible for the hostile reception accorded to those who survive? Did we not turn public opinion against them, portraying them, as one singularly ignoble cartoon did in the United States, as a bunch of pimps, whores, war profiteers, corrupt generals, or, at best, outright reactionaries?
Considering that today's Viet Nam tragedy may have a lot to do with the way we reported yesterday's Viet Nam tragedy, considering that we journalists might have our fair share of guilt for the inhuman way the world treats those who are being expelled by an inhuman regime which some of us had pictured as heroic, I think at least a little humility would be in order for us old Viet Nam hands. . . ."
Journalistic institutions are, of course, rarely afflicted by false modesty. They have not disclaimed credit for the outcome of the war, and their representatives have taken public bows for their successful intervention. The multitude of professional prizes bestowed upon the "big-story" coverage of Viet Nam certainly implied approval of the general effort.
However, the media have been rather coy; they have not declared that they played a key role in the conflict. They have not proudly trumpeted Hanoi's repeated expressions of gratitude to the mass media of the non-Communist world, although Hanoi has indeed affirmed that it could not have won "without the Western press." The Western press appears either unaware of the direct connection between cause (its reporting) and effect (the Western defeat in Viet Nam), or strangely reluctant to proclaim that the pen and the camera proved decisively mightier than the bayonet and ultra-modern weapons.
Nor have the media dwelt upon the glaring inconsistency between the expectation they raised of peaceful, prosperous development after Saigon's collapse and the present post-war circumstances in Indochina. Unquestionably, a number of those approvingly characterized by the New York Times columnist Anthony Lewis as "critics of the American war" have protested against brutal repression in Cambodia. Some (including Lewis, and the French journalist Jean Lacouture (3) even confessed that their expectations of the consequences of a Communist victory in Cambodia were mistaken. But none, to my knowledge, has suggested that he might have erred fundamentally in his vehement and total opposition to the U.S. role in Indochina. Instead, most partial confessions have concluded with renewed denunciations of American actions.
Jean Lacouture did offer a public mea culpa for having championed the Khmer Rouge. Reviewing a book on "Democratic Kampuchea," he confessed:
"Francois Ponchoud's Cambodia, Year Zero can be read only with shame by those of us who supported the Khmer Rouge cause. . . . And it will cause distress to those of us journalists who, after the massacre of seventeen of our colleagues in April and May 1971, tried to explain these deaths as part of the hazards of covering a disorganized guerrilla war. In fact, our poor comrades were assassinated—some, we know, clubbed to death—by the valiant guerrillas of Khieu Samphan, the "socialist" Khmer who now bars foreign observers from Cambodian soil. His people remain in terror-stricken confinement, one of his regime's more rational decisions: for how could it let the outside world see its burying of a civilization in prehistory, its massacres? . . ."
An illuminating example is Anthony Lewis, whose horror over abuses of American power apparently led him to the conclusion that similar abuses by America's opponents were not worth noting. Having earlier found almost as much to praise in Hanoi as to condemn in Saigon, Lewis was belatedly moved to outrage by Lacouture's observations—Jean Lacouture's chief qualification was apparently his having been so spectacularly wrong about the consequences of a Khmer Rouge victory.
'. . . Those of us who had been critics of the war [Lewis wrote] may have felt skeptical about some of the Cambodian reports because they came from right-wing (4) quarters that had been indifferent to the misery inflicted on Cambodia by American bombers. But these explanations wither in the presence of Jean Lacouture. He is a leading French expert on Indochina. And he was a profound critic of the American war.'
The reporters—and even the contrite Jean Lacouture—have continued to disregard the testimony regarding earlier North Vietnamese coercion offered by Prince Norodom Sihanouk, Cambodia's former chief-of-state. Sihanouk complained in 1973 that he had been forced to tolerate North Viet Nam using Cambodia as a supply route, training camp, and proving ground for its forces in South Viet Nam, although he knew the massive incursion was destroying his country. Preoccupied with their condemnation of U.S. intervention in Indochina, the "critics of the American war" have virtually ignored Sihanouk's indictment of the North Vietnamese just as they have ignored the fact that Sihanouk had, albeit under duress, tolerated American bombing of North Vietnamese strongholds in Cambodia, the "unilateral action" for which those critics still pillory Henry Kissinger. (5)
The same critics were not outraged at the final conquest of South Viet Nam in 1975 by columns of Russian-built tanks supported by batteries of Russian-made artillery. (That was Hanoi's second try; the first, in 1972, failed because the Saigon régime was still supported by U.S. air power and was still receiving adequate U.S. war matériel.) These righteous critics have taken little note of the detailed description of that final conquest published by North Viet Nam's Senior General Van Tien Dung in the spring of 1976. General Dung's account (128 single-spaced pages in English translation) proudly affirmed that the assault was ordered by the Political Bureau of the Labor (Communist) Party of North Viet Nam, planned by the Labor Party's Central Military Affairs Committee, commanded by Northern generals, supplied from the North, and mounted by regular divisions of the People's Army of the Democratic Republic of North Viet Nam.
Even before General Dung's report, it should have been clear that the remnants of the Viet Cong—the southern "guerrilla force" made up primarily of Northerners—were inherently capable neither of maneuvering 700 tanks in conventional formations nor, for that matter, of building and operating the double pipeline that fueled those tanks with petroleum from the North. Just as they subsequently passed over General Dung's explicit revelations, the "critics of the American war" ignored such empirical evidence that Saigon fell, not to an indigenous people in arms, but to an external invasion mounted by vanguard cadres who consider themselves ideologically superior to their Southern compatriots.
To take note of these obtrusive facts would have called into question the very nature of the war in Indochina—as it would to have taken note of them during the conflict. Any searching analysis of fundamental premises has remained as unthinkable to "the critics" as it was during the fighting. They have remained committed to the proposition that the American role in Indochina was totally reprehensible and inexcusable, while the North Vietnamese role—and, by extension, the roles of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia and the Pathet Lao in Laos—was righteous, magnanimous, and just. Even the growing number who finally deplored the repressive consequences of the totalitarian victory could not bring themselves to re-examine the premises that led them to contribute so decisively to those victories. Thus William Shawcross, before his sententious book, Sideshow, (6) wrote of the Communists' reshaping of Cambodian society: "The process is atrociously brutal." Although "the Khmer people are suffering horribly under their new rules," this is how Shawcross unhesitatingly assigned the ultimate blame:
"They have suffered every day of the last six years--ever since the beginning of one of the most destructive foreign policies the United States has ever pursued: the "Nixon-Kissinger doctrine" in its purest form. . ."
The Eye of the Beholder
Most correspondents on the scene were not quite as vehement. But they were moved by the same conviction of American guilt, which was so fixed that it resisted all the evidence pointing to a much more complex reality. Employed in the service of that crusading fervor was, for the first time, the most emotionally moving medium of all.
Television, its thrusting and simplistic character shaping its message, was most shocking because it was most immediate. The Viet Nam War was a presence in homes throughout the world. Who could seriously doubt the veracity of so plausible and so moving a witness in one's own living room?
At any given moment, a million images were available to the camera's lens in Saigon alone—and hundreds of millions throughout Indochina. But TV crews naturally preferred the most dramatic. That, after all, was their business—show business. It was not news to film farmers peacefully tilling their rice fields, though it might have been argued that nothing happening was news when the American public had been led to believe that almost every Vietnamese farmer was regularly threatened by the Viet Cong, constantly imperiled by battle, and rarely safe from indiscriminate U.S. bombing.
A few hard, documented instances. A burning village was news, even though it was a deserted village used in a Marine training exercise—even though the television correspondent had handed his Zippo lighter to a non-commissioned officer with the suggestion that he set fire to an abandoned house. American soldiers cutting ears off a Viet Cong corpse was news—even if the cameraman had offered the soldiers his knife and "dared" them to take those grisly souvenirs. (Since the antics of the media were definitely not news, the network refrained from apologizing for the contrived "event" when a special investigation called the facts to its attention.) Cargo-nets full of dead South Vietnamese soldiers being lowered by helicopters were news—even if that image implicitly contradicted the prevailing conviction that the South Vietnamese never fought but invariably threw away their weapons and ran.
The competition in beastliness among the networks was even more intense than the similar competition among the representatives of the print media. Only rarely did television depict peaceful fields in which water buffaloes pulled ploughs for diligent farmers—undisturbed by air-bursts, rockets, infantrymen, or guerrillas. One special report was, however, devoted largely to depicting bucolic scenes and untraveled roads when Prince Norodom Sihanouk invited a television correspondent to tour the border areas of Cambodia to prove that his country was not being used by the North Vietnamese as a base for operations against South Viet Nam. A few years later, Sihanouk of course acknowledged that the North Vietnamese had at the time been—and had remained—intensely active in precisely those areas. But television could "prove" either a negative or a positive proposition—depending on where the camera pointed and upon the correspondent's inclination. (7)
In fairness, a number of newspaper correspondents also endorsed Sihanouk's contention that there were no North Vietnamese soldiers in Cambodia. Since the correspondents had seen no invaders, there were, patently, no invaders to be seen. The assumption of omniscience that lay behind so much of the coverage of Indochina remains awe-inspiring.
One tale involving the aerial jeep of Viet Nam was so magnified that it lost any connection with actual events. That was the story of unwounded Vietnamese soldiers bandaging themselves in order to swarm on to helicopters for evacuation from their raid into Laos in 1971.
That raid on the North Vietnamese installations and supply routes that were called the "Ho Chi Minh Trails" was no great success. But, as I found after two weeks of my own intensive investigation, it was hardly the debacle described by most of the press. South Vietnamese planning for their command's first major independent military operation was faulty; some units deported themselves badly; but others fought well. Nonetheless, descriptions of a "South Vietnamese rout" were made graphic by repeated reports of soldiers bandaging imaginary wounds.
On close questioning, one Western journalist (a wire-service man), who was shaking with indignation at South Vietnamese pusillanimity, admitted that: (1) he had seen no soldier bandaging unbroken skin; but (2) he had seen soldiers bandaging "mere scratches." He finally conceded that: (1) he had seen no soldier bandage a scratch and then "swarm aboard a helicopter"; and (2) having never marched through a jungle, he did not know how rapidly untreated "scratches" could become severe infections in that malignant environment. However, his stories of South Vietnamese cowardice had already been widely published, and he, quite naturally, did not wish to provoke his home office by filing a correction. If he had, the correction might have been filed to the wire-service's world-wide clients. If it had been "moved on the wire," it might not have been printed widely or conspicuously. What had not happened was simply not news . . . even if it had already been reported as having happened.
Television reports had one distinct advantage. A picture of nothing was, obviously, more convincing than a printed report of nothing.
One of the most persistent "horror stories" was retailed by the Western newspapers and magazines because television could not, obviously, take pictures of torture. Did interrogators ever push an uncommunicative prisoner out of a helicopter to encourage his fellows to talk? No such atrocity has ever been confirmed, despite the swarms of investigative reporters and the many eager informants among officers and diplomats, whose indignation against stupid and inefficient policies was transmuted by the press into indignant protest against the war itself.
One such "incident," staged with a corpse, was turned up by the meticulous research of Günter Lewy for his book America in Vietnam, (8) which should be required reading for all war correspondents. A U.S. soldier acquired a photograph of that grisly incident, and went on to invent an account of how a prisoner was killed by being hurled from a helicopter. The imagined event was given wide coverage. (9)
Interrogation by macabre example did make a great story, though it probably never happened and, certainly, has never been proved.
The Imaginary General
Such skewed reporting occurred frequently; it was sometimes major and sometimes trivial. Since I am discussing motivations, not drawing up any kind of indictment, a catalogue of such incidents would be superfluous. But a few striking examples may help to make the general point. First, the case of the imaginary general told by a British colleague.
An American correspondent who was later to write a highly praised book on Viet Nam was chuckling over a telegram in the terrace cafe of the Hotel Continental, known to habitués as "the Continental Shelf." His editors had asked him to confirm that it would be neither libelous nor vexatious to quote the U.S. general who had in the correspondent's last dispatch been highly critical of the entire American effort—on the Continental Shelf (which generals, by the way, did not frequent).
"Of course," he told his questioner, "I cabled them to go ahead and not worry. Why should they? After all, I made that general up." The imaginary general in the dispatch made a repeat performance in the correspondent's book.
Sgt. John Ashe (brother of the world-famous tennis player) was a Marine assigned to public relations duties. He delivered a biting indictment of the young wire-service correspondents and the "war freaks" who frequented Da Nang (which was a remote outpost to the media, though not to the military). They would, he recalled, rarely go into the field and never spend the night when they did; would deport themselves as if they had never heard a shot fired with intent to kill before that moment—to their own and the Marines' peril; and then file stories that "bore little or no relation" to what he—and they—had seen. They didn't want to know, Ashe added, what was really happening in the First Corps Area, where the Marines had winkled out the Viet Cong by stationing squads in villages.
Instructive on a larger scale is the contrast between the coverage of the American massacre at My Lai and the Viet Cong massacre at Hue. At My Lai, a junior American officer allowed his men to kill dozens of presumably uninvolved farmers in full violation of standing orders. At Hue, the former imperial capital, the Viet Cong killed several thousand community leaders, including a number of Europeans, in accordance with standing orders to "destroy the bourgeoisie." The U.S. military's attempt to suppress reports of the My Lai massacre, of course, made it even worse when the story was finally released by the Dispatch News Agency, a curious organization that came into existence in Viet Nam with unknown financial backing and vanished once its purpose of opposing the war had brought Hanoi victory. But the Hue massacre was, somehow, uninteresting. Few correspondents reported that clear signal of the real policies the North Vietnamese would pursue once they had conquered the South.
By the same token, American restraint was not news, even to the experienced correspondents, because it was a "non-event." Flying in a command helicopter of the Ninth Division over the Mekong Delta, another U.S. correspondent and I heard the brigade commander countermand his battalion commander's order to the infantry and the helicopter gunships to attack some 100 enemy who were pouring out of a surrounded village, still firing.
"Do not, repeat do not, attack," the colonel directed. "They're using women and children as shields."
Neither my colleague nor myself thought the incident worth reporting; that was a palpable error of judgment induced by the atmosphere in which we were working. If the Ninth Division had killed the civilians, we would have filed copiously.
Equally lamentable was the failure of the Western press to cover with any thoroughness the Army of the Republic of South Viet Nam, which over the long run was doing most of the fighting. Correspondents were reluctant to commit their safety to units whose resolution they distrusted—sometimes for good reason, more often because of a kind of racist contempt—in order to get stories that interested their editors so little. Coverage of Vietnamese politics, as well as social and economic developments, was sporadic—except for military coups and political crises, and those were often misreported.
Examples of misdirected or distorted reporting could be amassed almost indefinitely. The war, after all, lasted some twenty years. A former Washington Post and New York Times correspondent, Peter Braestrup, has published a two-volume study of the coverage of the Tet Offensive of 1968. (10) Quite significantly, it attracted little interest compared to, say, William Shawcross's Sideshow or Michael Herr's Dispatches.
The Power of Self-Deception
Nowadays, Jean Lacouture, Anthony Lewis, and William Shawcross (among some other "Viet Nam veterans") clearly feel deceived or even betrayed by the Communists of Indochina; yet surely, they voluntarily adopted the ideological bias that allowed Hanoi to deceive them. The Vietnamese Communists—unlike their Cambodian confreres—had, after all, openly declared their intention of imposing totalitarian rule upon the South. Why, then, were the "critics of the American war" so genuinely surprised by the consequences? More crucially, why did a virtual generation of Western journalists deceive itself so consistently as to the nature of the "liberation" in Indochina? Why did the correspondents want to believe in the good faith of the Communists? Why did they so want to disbelieve the avowed motives of the United States? Why did so much of their presumably factual reporting regularly reflect their ideological bias?
The obvious explanation is not as ingenuous as it may appear: the majority of Western correspondents and commentators adopted their idiosyncratic approach to the Indochina War precisely because other journalists had already adopted that approach. To put it more directly, it was fashionable (this was, after all, the age of Radical Chic) to be "a critic of the American war."
Decisive in the case of the Americans, who set the tone, was the normally healthy adversary relationship between the U.S. press and the U.S. government. American newspapermen have often felt, with some justification, that if an administration affirmed a controversial fact, that fact—if not prima facie false—was at the least suspect. As the lies of successive administrations regarding Indochina escalated, that conviction became the credo of the press. The psychological process that began with the unfounded optimism of President John F. Kennedy's ebullient "New Frontiersmen," who were by and large believed, ended with the disastrous last stand of Richard Nixon's dour palace guard, who were believed by no one.
The reaction against official mendacity was initially healthy but later became distorted, self-serving, and self-perpetuating. A faulty syllogism was unconsciously accepted: Washington was lying consistently; Hanoi contradicted Washington; therefore Hanoi was telling the truth.
The initial inclination to look upon Hanoi as a fount of pure truth was intelligently fostered by the Communists, who selectively rewarded "critics of the American war" with visas to North Viet Nam. A number of influential journalists and public figures (ranging from former cabinet officers to film actresses) were feted in North Viet Nam. They were flattered not only by the attention and the presumed inside information proffered by the North Vietnamese but by their access to a land closed to most Americans. The favored few—and the aspiring many—helped establish a climate in which it was not only fashionable but, somehow, an act of courage to follow the critical crowd in Saigon and Washington while praising Hanoi. The skeptical correspondent risked ostracism by his peers and conflicts with his editors if he did not run with "the herd of independent minds," if he did not support the consensus.
The larger reason for the tenacity of the consensus went much deeper. It welled from a new view of this war, which was quite different from the press's view of other wars—and from a new messianic approach to the role of the press in wartime. The alteration occurred in three stages, beginning with World War II, proceeding through the Korean War, and culminating in Viet Nam.
World War II was generally considered a crusade against evil. Allied and Soviet atrocities normally went unreported, since their publication to the world would have besmirched the anti-Nazi crusade. The bestial aims and deeds of the Nazis, reinforced by the bestial deeds of the Japanese, compelled correspondents and officials to agreement on the nature of the war and, therefore, to substantial agreement on the way it was fought. The press might criticize tactical errors; it might even cavil at certain strategic decisions. But it was bent neither upon revealing every possible error or mis-statement made by the authorities nor upon questioning their fundamental purposes.
The Korean War was not a universal crusade. A few correspondents questioned the wisdom of committing U.S. troops to the peninsula, while many questioned the strategic decisions of General Douglas MacArthur (particularly his dash to the Yalu, which directly challenged the Chinese, whose industrial plexus lay in Manchuria just across that river). The character and administration of President Syngman Rhee of the Republic of Korea were often criticized by those correspondents whose interest extended beyond military hostilities. Nonetheless, a limited consensus did exist. No one—except the Stalinists—doubted seriously that North Korea had attacked South Korea. Aside from those ideologues, no one contended that the Pyongyang régime was an exemplar of virtue simply because it opposed the Seoul régime, whose faults were manifest. Moved neither by basic antagonism towards official aims nor by unthinking commitment to those aims, a surprisingly youthful press corps offered surprisingly objective reports. Aside from a marked weakness in covering internal politics in both the South and the North—a weakness that presaged a disastrous disability in Indochina—Korea was, in my view, the best-covered American war of modern times. Besides, the conflict was, by and large, straightforward and simple to understand.
Indochina was never simple or straightforward but was arcane even before the commitment of U.S. ground forces. Afterwards, it became so complex that it was virtually impossible to understand it in all its ramifications; and, I must add, it was absolutely impossible to convey those ramifications to the public. Today I recall with chagrin my rather condescending amusement when a television producer argued in the mid-1960s: "We shouldn't be in Indochina because the American people can't understand the war—and the people won't support a war they can't understand." He was, of course, right (even if the American press helped to prevent any proper understanding).
Though simplistic television coverage accelerated and intensified popular disillusionment, it was not the decisive factor in determining the collective opinion of the press. The television people went along with the fashion; they did not set the fashion or formulate its conventional wisdom. In any event, Viet Nam was covered by a press corps that was bitterly distrustful of Washington and harshly antagonistic towards Saigon. The press consistently magnified the allies' deficiencies—and displayed almost saintly tolerance of those misdeeds of Hanoi it could neither disregard nor deny.
It is possible that the "Viet Nam Syndrome" will recur; it is not unlikely that Western foreign policy, with the United States as its faltering—or even resurgent—leader, will again be forced to operate in an environment dominated by a hostile press. The personal experience of one journalist is not normally pertinent to such a high political question. However, I was, as a correspondent and commentator, perforce a participant as well as an observer in the Viet Nam imbroglio from 1955 to 1975. When "the media became the war," everyone associated with the media became part of the war, however reluctantly. An account of my experience, therefore, may illuminate this discussion and help the reader weigh my historical assessments.
From 1955 through 1965 I was opposed to U.S. military intervention despite my personal sympathy for the Indochinese peoples. Having in 1955 sailed from Haiphong in the North to Saigon with several thousand among almost a million refugees from the Democratic Republic, I was moved by their justified fears. Besides, I detested Hanoi's Stalinist repression. Nevertheless, I felt that Indochina was a strategic backwater that should not be transformed into a vital interest by committing regular American troops to a disadvantageous Asian battlefield. Because of my concern with the effect of events in Indochina upon developments in China and elsewhere in Southeast Asia I did, however. feel that the West should not turn its back on Indochina, though it should avoid entrapment.
Such reservations made me popular neither with official Americans nor with those journalists who urged deeper involvement. Many correspondents and commentators were enthusiastic about the creeping U.S. commitment, while the administration of President Kennedy reacted strongly to my judgment (in Newsweek in late 1961) that President Ngo Dinh Diem could not preserve South Viet Nam. In December 1962, when I was stationed in Europe, a Newsweek cover story concluded that Diem was doing well and that the Kennedy commitment to Indochina was fundamentally sound. That replay of the optimistic Washington view was published over my editorial opposition. (I was, incidentally, not in Indochina during the battles between Diem and the dissident Buddhists, or during the succession of short-lived regimes that followed Diem's murder.)
When I returned early in 1966, matters were radically altered. The United States had in 1965 brought in major armed units to prevent the South's collapse under the North's intensified subversion. Despite the U.S. intervention, that collapse had clearly only been forestalled, not averted. Direct involvement had, moreover, made Indochina an area of primary strategic interest to the United States in the eyes not only of apprehensive allies but of potential enemies as well. The United States was committed to the enterprise that had earlier broken the French will, that is, preventing Communist conquest of Indochina.
China was already launched upon the cataclysmic "Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution," a virtual civil war fought to determine whether Maoists or moderates would rule the world's most populous country. Foreign policy was already a major Chinese issue, and the collapse of South Viet Nam would have strengthened the extremists, who advocated internal suppression and China's diplomatic isolation. While continuing to urge U.S. recognition of the People's Republic, I felt that American firmness in Indochina had to demonstrate to the Maoists that guerrilla warfare could not prevail. Otherwise, the People's Republic might espouse a wholly Maoist foreign policy, that is, dedicate herself to "world-wide liberation through people's [guerrilla] wars."
Moreover, Peking had just exploded its first "atomic device." The prospect of a messianically Maoist China brandishing an increasing nuclear arsenal appeared a threat to the survival of civilization.
If Hanoi were blocked in South Viet Nam, I contended, the more cautious moderates would in the long term triumph in Peking, and the threat of a holocaust would recede. After all, Mao believed (as he told Edgar Snow) that a nuclear war would "destroy the world . . . but not us."
China, of course, worked out well. The danger of nuclear war has receded. Today Peking stands against Soviet expansionism—in good part because what happened in Indochina before 1975 intensified the Sino-Soviet conflict and contributed to the destruction of Mao's strategic doctrine of "the inevitable victory of people's war."
But there was, in 1966, no justification for even guarded optimism regarding South Viet Nam's prospects, and there was to be no such basis until mid-1968. My first report from Saigon after four years of absence described the shocking confusion—in both purpose and execution—of the already bloated American establishment, as well as its isolation from the realities of both the villages and the ministries of Viet Nam. But Washington had forced its own hand; South Viet Nam, defended by the Americans, had become a major piece on the international chessboard. The United States had, I felt, no choice but to remain until the South Vietnamese could effectively defend themselves—or the global balance of power altered radically.
That attitude was not shared by a new corps of foreign correspondents who were newcomers to Asia, though most experienced correspondents agreed. (It did improve my relations with American officialdom, a boon that made me somewhat uneasy.) Having been called a "Communist sympathizer" for advocating recognition of "Red China" in the early 1950s, I was attacked as a "journalistic storm-trooper" for arguing that we could not simply disengage from Indochina in the late 1960s. (Reverse McCarthyism? Perhaps.) (11)
The Reasons Why
The main question persists. Why was the press—whether in favor of official policy at the beginning or vehemently against the war at the end—so superficial and so biased?
Chief among many reasons was, I believe, the politicization of correspondents by the constantly intensifying clamor over Viet Nam in Europe and America. Amateur (and professional) propagandists served both sides of the question, but the champions of Hanoi were spectacularly more effective. They created an atmosphere of high pressure that made it exceedingly difficult to be objective.
In Korea, senior officers who were incensed by unfavorable reports would sometimes demand: "Who are you for—the Communists or us?" Most correspondents were detached and could answer honestly: "Personally for the U.N. and the United States, but professionally for neither side. Just trying to tell the true story...." In Viet Nam that response was virtually impossible amid growing Western horror at the "dirty, immoral war." Correspondents were almost compelled to become partisans, and most became partisans for Hanoi, or, at least, against Saigon and Washington.
Revulsion in Europe and America sprang as much from the nature of the correspondents' reporting as it did from the belligerents' direct manipulation of public opinion. Some of my senior colleagues had learned wisdom on a hundred battlefields, having covered World War II, the Chinese Civil War, the Viet Minh campaign against the French, and the Indonesian revolt against the Dutch. I had at least been through Korea, the Malayan "Emergency," and the fighting between Chinese Nationalists and Chinese Communists for Quemoy. But most correspondents had never seen war before their arrival in Indochina. Many confused the beastliness of all war with the particular war in Indochina, which they unthinkably concluded was unique in human history because it was new to them.
This much must be said: the best of their reporting accurately conveyed the horror of war—all war. Yet it presented the suffering, barbarism, and devastation as somehow peculiar to Indochina. It almost made it appear that other wars had been fought by mailed champions on fields remote from human habitation while in Indochina, for the first time, carnage brutally involved both massed military formations and the civilian populace. Since a guerrilla war is inherently not as destructive as a conventional war, human suffering and material devastation had, in reality, been markedly greater in Korea than in Viet Nam—and much, much greater on both Asian and European fronts in World War II.
Because Viet Nam did not attract many senior correspondents for extended tours, at any given time a majority of the correspondents were new to the complexities of Indochina. Some could not even look after themselves in combat, the sine qua non of a successful—and surviving—war correspondent.
One afternoon in May 1968, when the Viet Cong were attacking the outskirts of Saigon, six young correspondents piled into a single mini-taxi to drive to the shifting "front." They were startled when advised to take two or three taxis so that they could get out faster if they came under fire. A tall, rotund neophyte wearing a scarlet shirt paraded up and down the road the Viet Cong were attacking. He was dismayed by the pained abhorrence with which South Vietnamese paratroops regarded him, until it was explained that he was drawing rocket fire. The six clustered around a twenty-four-year-old U.S. first lieutenant, just out of the Military Academy at West Point, who was struggling to communicate with the Vietnamese major commanding and, simultaneously, to direct the gunships that swooped low, firing their machine-guns. While shells burst around them, the correspondents tried to interrogate the lieutenant on the morality of the U.S. presence in Indochina.
A Naive Expectation
Many newcomers were shocked to find that American and Vietnamese briefing officers did not always tell them the truth even about a minor tactical situation. Despite their pose of professional skepticism, in their naiveté they expected those officers to tell not merely the truth but the whole truth. Far from feeling the deep mistrust of officialdom they affected, the newcomers were dismayed by the briefing officers' inability (or unwillingness) to confide in them unreservedly. Older correspondents did not expect candor from briefing officers. They had learned several wars earlier that the interests of the press and the interests of the military did not normally coincide. They also knew that the briefing officers were themselves often uninformed—concerned, perhaps sometimes excessively, for military secrecy—and resentful of correspondents’ badgering.
Nevertheless, the candor of U.S. officers astonished experienced correspondents from other nations. Shortly before he was killed in another war, Nicholas Tomalin of The Sunday Times reported with amazement the reception given several British correspondents who arrived unannounced at an American airfield. Though he obviously wished them a thousand miles away, the U.S. colonel in command not only made them welcome but answered all their questions. If it had been a British airfield, Tomalin observed, the group would not have been allowed to land—and if it had landed would have been bustled off within minutes. No supporter of the U.S. endeavor in Indochina, Tomalin marveled at the openness with which the foolish Americans conducted their wars.
Senior U.S. officers did, of course, lie to make a case or extemporized when they did not know the answers. From those practices sprang the bitterness that corroded relations between the press and officialdom. No one likes to be treated as a fool even in the best of causes (and no one thought Indochina was the best of causes). The military were in turn bitter at the unfairness they attributed to correspondents.
Beyond the unremitting drumfire of mutual criticism, two matters rankled particularly: the "Body Count," which for the press notoriously symbolized the military's callousness; and the unavoidably misleading maps delineating the areas under the control of Saigon or the Viet Cong. The military said they released estimates of enemy casualties after each action primarily because correspondents demanded concrete evidence of the progress of a war that was not fought along clearly demarcated battlelines. The officers contended that the maps, which could in no wise accurately depict a hazy, fluid situation, were prepared at the correspondents' request. Officialdom felt there was too much, rather than too little, openness in Viet Nam.
Oscillating between excessive candor and bald falsification, U.S. public-relations policies made the press and the authorities not merely adversaries but enemies. However paradoxically, some of the most popular officials were the most mendacious. A senior public-affairs officer who always had an answer for the press once offered an eloquent analysis of Hanoi's weakness based on a captured Viet Cong order. Since his projection of a general Viet Cong retreat seemed askew, even on the basis of that document, I checked with a number of specialists on North Viet Nam available in Saigon. The official, I found, had consulted no specialist but had offered his own off-hand analysis—presumably to hold his credulous audience. Gratuitous contributions to confusion in Viet Nam itself were much surpassed by the egregiously misleading opinions offered in Washington.
Esoterica like "enemy intentions," however, did not interest one group of correspondents. They were moved primarily by neither the horror nor the portentousness but by the thrills of Indochina. They were nicknamed "the war freaks," since they were fascinated by the atmosphere rather than the substance of the war. Cambodia was a favorite resort of theirs. It offered a dangerous little war, abundant opium, marijuana, and heroin, as well as the gracious Royale Hotel, its French cuisine unspoiled by the American incursions that had ruined Saigon's restaurants. Reflecting the delight of the war freaks, Michael Herr wrote in Dispatches that he never went to bed once in Saigon not "stoned," and added: "Viet Nam was our substitute for a happy childhood." One's first war, the veterans could have told him, is usually an extension of—if not necessarily a substitute for—a happy childhood.
Official deceit was thus exacerbated by incompetent journalism. (12) While complaining about the press, many U.S. officials, who knew they were fighting "a media war," sought to manipulate—rather than inform—correspondents. But they were not skilled at manipulation. While complaining about the government's duplicity, many editors assigned correspondents who were not qualified to fill a normal foreign post, much less to thread the labyrinthine complexities of the Indochina War. Some editors told their correspondents what they wanted, while many correspondents had made up their own minds before they arrived "in country." Only a few, I trust, were in the unhappy position of the correspondent of an aggressively liberal U.S. FM-radio station who, as he confided to me, was told: "Not every story has to be anti-war."
A Crippling Ignorance
Beyond the pressures exerted upon them, most correspondents—serving six-month to two-year tours—were woefully ignorant of the setting of the conflict. Some strove diligently to remedy that crippling deficiency by reading widely and interviewing avidly. Many lacked the time or the inclination to do so—or any real awareness of how crippling their ignorance was to them professionally. Most, as I have noted, knew little about war in general from either experience or study—and less about the theory or practice of guerrilla war. They were untutored not only in the languages but also in the history, culture, ethnography, and economics of Indochina, let alone of China and Asia. Since so many were also untroubled by acquaintance with Marxist theory or practice and were hazy about the international balance of power, they were incapable of covering effectively a conflict involving all those elements.
Not even the "old hands" were necessarily well qualified to cover the conflict—who could have been? Arthur Waley?—but, considering our divergent backgrounds and political convictions, the old hands' general agreement about the nature of the war was remarkable. Most deplored the ineffectiveness and the corruption of successive South Vietnamese governments, but judged native (i.e., Southern) disaffection incapable of mounting an armed rebellion without direction, reinforcement, and weapons from the North. Most concurred with the thesis Robert Shaplen advanced in The Lost Revolution (1966), agreeing that ineffectual leadership had failed to foster latent nationalistic and reformist enthusiasm in the South, by default ceding those dynamic forces to the North. We did not deceive ourselves that the South enjoyed even marginally good government; but we believed that Northern rule would be much worse for the mass of the people. (13) We knew that the North and the South, though not necessarily two separate countries, were distinct entities because of the strong regional feelings of the Vietnamese. Although most of us had opposed major U.S. involvement, we saw no way the United States could withdraw unilaterally.
Needless to say, even we old hands were not always accurate in our reporting or correct in our judgments. Reacting against the spate of negative reports, I myself tended to emphasize the positive aspects, sometimes excessively. No more than the newcomers were the old hands immune to irritation at the duplicity of the American establishment, though we were not as dependent upon press officers. That irritation undoubtedly affected our reporting; so did smoldering anger (which sometimes flared into fury) at the Vietnamese, who were always difficult, often unavailable, regularly evasive, and routinely deceitful. But the old hands knew they had to live and work with the Vietnamese, and they understood the insecurity that haunted Saigon officials. After generations of colonial rule and internal conflict, no Vietnamese really trusted any other Vietnamese except those within his immediate family (and them neither invariably nor wholly). The newcomers either could not or would not understand what moved the Vietnamese or why they so often seemed to be behaving so badly.
The atmosphere "in country" was heavily oppressive, as was our awareness that we were writing for a public that had virtually prejudged the war. My Lai was not reported at the time because the military effectively camouflaged that atrocity. Other allied excesses were reported, while many reverse My Lais were not reported; and Viet Cong atrocities were often discounted. Myths flourished because of the journalists’ bias and the contempt they felt for the Vietnamese.
By innuendo and mis-statement the Army of the Republic of Viet Nam was reduced in the public eye to a corrupt rabble, far, far less effective than the Republic of Korea Army during the earlier war. In reality, the ARVN was strikingly more effective than the ROKA had been; but correspondents were friendly to the ROKA and antagonistic to the ARVN.
That tale of hundreds of Vietnamese soldiers bandaging non-existent wounds in order to be evacuated as casualties was just one example. That graphic and erroneous story reinforced the general impression that the cowardly South Vietnamese were unwilling to fight in defense of their own cause. That misleading conclusion undoubtedly encouraged U.S. reluctance to supply Saigon's forces adequately after the American withdrawal. That reluctance, which contributed decisively to the final collapse, was then "proved" correct.
Despite their own numerous and grave faults, the South Vietnamese were, first and last, decisively defeated in Washington, New York, London, and Paris. Those media defeats made inevitable their subsequent defeat on the battlefield. Indochina was not perhaps the first major conflict to be won by psychological warfare. But it was probably the first to be lost by psychological warfare conducted at such great physical distance from the actual fields of battle—and so far from the peoples whose fate was determined by the outcome of the conflict.
The "Viet Nam Syndrome"
When I drafted this article, I had not intended to dilate upon the possible consequences in the future of the new role of the press in war. Those consequences seemed too obvious. Besides, I did not wish to arouse contention but to evoke dispassionate consideration. After all, the passage of time should by this time have appreciably cooled the intense emotion that moved both the reluctant supporters and the vehement critics of the "American war."
I felt, moreover, that I had adequately demonstrated that the press acted—and could well again act—as a multiplier of the prejudices of the Western intelligentsia, whose tender conscience moves it to condemn the actions of its own side while condoning related deeds of enemies who are either "immature" or "feel themselves threatened." It did not, for example, seem necessary to demonstrate at length that World War II could well have been lost by the Allied powers if the press had wished—and been allowed—to denounce almost all the purposes and virtually the entire conduct of that conflict. (Surely, for example; Churchill would have been prevented from helping Greece—because of Metaxas.) It did not seem necessary to labor the obvious point that no Western power can conduct a foreign policy that, of necessity, relies in part on the threat of military power and, upon occasion, on the exercise of military power if the media reflexively denounce almost any use of armed force. I believed it would suffice to offer the brief warning already stated above: Western foreign policy could again be forced to operate most precariously in an environment dominated by a hostile press. It did not, finally, seem necessary to point out that the effective prohibition of limited, conventional war by an inflamed public opinion could lead to either political surrender or nuclear holocaust.
Since the article was written, events have denied me the luxury of refraining from underlining the obvious. The predicament I suggested was likely has already become a reality. It is exemplified in El Salvador, about which, I must acknowledge, I know nothing directly, and indirectly no more than any other reasonably diligent reader of the press. Nonetheless, the recrudescence of the "Viet Nam Syndrome" in the media is not merely unmistakable, but distressingly blatant. (14)
"Viet Nam" has become not merely an invidious comparison but a magical incantation. The woolly-minded need only declare vehemently that El Salvador is already—or could become—"another Viet Nam" for the enterprise to be condemned and, probably, blighted. Throughout the Western world, commentators and reporters have invoked the specter of Viet Nam to arouse detestation of a Washington initiative. That rush of the journalistic lemmings includes not only the heavyweights of the media but many cartoonists and, as well, humorists like Art Buchwald and Russell Baker, whose satire is often striking and effective. Prominent among the lemmings are television personalities like Jon Snow of Britain's ITV, who recently presented one film "report" that continually cut from vaguely delineated political and military developments to heart-rending scenes in a refugee camp. In that and a drum beat of subsequent "reports" the conclusion was not implied but hammered home time and again: U.S. policy was, presumably by direct intention, rendering tens of thousands homeless and killing hundreds of women and children. El Salvador, the viewer could not but conclude, was a deliberate replication of Viet Nam. And "Viet Nam" had become synonymous with absolute evil—practiced, of course, by the United States.
The "Viet Nam Syndrome" is compounded of a variety of symptoms, none unique in itself, but unprecedented in combination and devastating in their totality. Wars have been badly reported in the past. Facts have been mis-stated, and their interpretation has been biased. Emotions have been deliberately inflamed, and reporters have ridden to fame on waves of misrepresentation. But never before Viet Nam had the collective policy of the media—no less stringent term will serve—sought by graphic and unremitting distortion the victory of the enemies of the correspondents' own side. Television coverage was, of course, new in its intensity and repetitiveness; it was crucial in shifting the emphasis from fact to emotion. And television will play the same role in future conflicts—on the Western side, of course. It will not and cannot expose the crimes of an enemy who is too shrewd to allow the cameras free play.
As long as the "Viet Nam Syndrome" afflicts the media, it seems to me that it will be virtually impossible for the West to conduct an effective foreign policy. It is apparently irrelevant that the expectations of paradise after Hanoi's victory evoked by "the critics of the American war" became the purgatory the Indochinese people have suffered. Just as many denizens of the antebellum American South did not know that "Damyankee" was really two words, an entire generation in Europe and the United States behaves as if "the dirty, immoral war in Viet Nam" were an irrefutable and inseparable dogma. Merely equate El Salvador (or any other American intervention) to Viet Nam—and not only the American public but all "liberal" Europeans will condemn it without reservation. That is all they need to know. In its final effect—what has over the last decade been called "the paralysis of political will"—it will make it especially difficult for the United States to honor any political commitment anywhere in the world where small and threatened nations may expect American support for their independent existence. Before they fall to an aggressor, they will have been victimized by "the Viet Nam Syndrome."
It has long appeared to me that the medical and legal professions enjoy one enormous advantage. If they err, doctors and lawyers may be blamed. Yet, except in the most flagrant cases, the client or the patient pays them again for correcting their mistakes—if they can, and if he can. But the media on Viet Nam, it has become blatantly obvious, have enjoyed even greater advantages. Even in the most flagrant cases, they have not been blamed. They have, rather, been acclaimed for their errors. Who can, ultimately, prove it otherwise? The peoples of the non-Communist world have paid dearly for these errors—and may well continue to pay.
1. Michael Herr, Dispatches (Pan, 1978).
2 I note in the British press a controversial reconsideration of what the war did to the Americans, especially the GI veterans of the Viet Nam battlefront. In an Associated Television documentary, John Pilger made a damning indictment of the treatment of its returning soldiers by the United States, left to their alcoholism and drug addiction, without pension, perks, and the honors of war memorials, etc. One critic (Philip Purser, Sunday Telegraph, 17 May 1981) called attention to the "whopping irony of Pilger's whole thesis," for "no commentator had worked more untiringly to promote that verdict [disgrace and ignominy] than Pilger himself...." John Pilger objected on behalf of "those suffering and betrayed young American patriots." To which Purser replied:
So they are "American patriots" now. I don't remember Mr. Pilger regarding them in that light in his despatches and documentaries during the Viet Nam War, or its immediate aftermath. As I said, no commentator worked harder to discredit American involvement in Viet Nam, and foster the attitudes to which the ex-servicemen have fallen victim. My rage was directed solely at this hypocrisy [Sunday Telegraph, 31 May]. The bitter conclusion of one foreign correspondent, the late, Marguerite Higgins, writing from Viet Nam, was: "Reporters here would like to see us lose the war to prove they are right ..." (quoted in Philip Knightley's history of "the War Correspondent as Hero. Propagandist, and Myth Maker" entitled The First Casualty . p. 380).
3. See, in Encounter, Jean Lacouture's "The Revolution that Destroyed Itself" (May 1979).
4. Note the self defining definition. Those who saw the realities, predicted them and reported them, became a priori "right-wing" because they had been "insufficiently critical" of the American role in Indochina.
5. Cf. Peter W. Rodman's "Sideswipe: Kissinger, Shawcross and the Responsibility for Cambodia," in The American Spectator (March 1981).
6. William Shawcross, Sideshow (Andre Deutsch, 1979).
7. Newspaper and wire-service correspondents were the de facto public relations officers of the Buddhist monks who immolated themselves in protest against the Saigon regime in the early 1960s, and television pictures deeply moved decent men and women. Television could, upon occasion, also be a factor on the battlefield itself because of the correspondents' heady conviction of omnipotence. A minor (but characteristic) incident occurred when a TV correspondent set up his camera on a road beside which a South Vietnamese battalion was dug in against the Viet Cong. The camera's lens pointed out the battalion's positions for the enemy's snipers. The correspondent's courage there was beyond dispute, but his good sense was open to question.
8. Gunter Lewy. America in Viet Nam (Oxford University Press, 1979).
9. "I don't believe the military could ever have resorted to that practice." an experienced correspondent pointed out to me. "The helicopter units were always separate, always under their own command, not the ground commander's. The chopper crews were proud of their record and would never have permitted intelligence officers to indulge in such a brutal interrogation. Besides, it would have been too dangerous. A chopper is a delicate, unstable craft, and the attendant turmoil could have forced a crash. Could it have happened with the CIA, who controlled their own choppers with civilian pilots? But I never had an inkling of such an incident. And, believe me, I was looking hard for a long time. It would have made a great story!"
10. Peter Braestrup, Big Story (Westview Press, in cooperation with Freedom House, 1977).
11. Certainly the "liberal" press was no longer interested in my views. When I suggested to an editor of The New Republic that I write on Viet Nam, he replied, "Sorry, but I could never get your position into the magazine." The Nation had asked me for an article on China, which it duly published. When I suggested a divergent view of Indochina, the editors regretted that they had just run a special issue on Viet Nam. I would hear from them, they wrote, when the opportunity presented itself. I am still waiting. My new employers, the Los Angeles Times, were tolerant, though one prominent California citizen regularly called upon the publisher to demand that I be fired. In 1970, the Times assigned me to write a thrice-weekly column on world affairs. Shortly thereafter, difficulties arose, mostly centered on Indochina. I won my third Overseas Press Club Award for Best Interpretation of Foreign News in early 1972, a distinction then shared only with Walter Lippmann, and I was told by the manager of the Los Angeles Times/Washington Post News Service that my column was "a major selling point." In June 1972, however, I was reassigned to Hong Kong as a correspondent for an indefinite term. The new editor said I had not shone as a columnist. The attrition finally forced my disengagement from the Los Angeles Times and, indeed, from regular employment in the newspaper business. Other possible employers expressed polite approbation of my professional ability but doubted that I would "fit into" their organizations. Since several had sought my services a few years earlier, I could not help feeling that my position on Viet Nam had something to do with their decisions.
12. The insouciance of some correspondents was summed up in a review of my novel Dynasty, which, perhaps characteristically, added almost a decade to my age and, simultaneously, assigned me to a non-existent flat in Saigon while moving my family from New Delhi to Hong Kong:
I first met Bob Elegant more than 21 years ago in Saigon. He was fast becoming an old Asia hand at 35 ... working for Newsweek while commuting between an Elegant apartment in Hong Kong and digs off Rue Catinat. He had mastered Cantonese and Mandarin and was fluent in Japanese and Newsweekese. A dedicated scholar-observer, Elegant knew more about the Orient than seemed necessary [Tom Stryce, "Book Score," The Torrance (California) Breeze, 16 September 1977 (my italics)].
13. Worse in every way, economically as well as politically, although there were those—from Messrs. Tom Wicker and Seymour Hersh to Mmes. Frances Fitzgerald and Mary McCarthy for the New York Review of Books—whose steadfast ideology led them to believe that Revolutionary Liberation would mean Social Progress. They had a vision of the Viet Cong future, and it would work.
Well, the future is working even worse than the past. According to a report in The Observer (London, 14 June 1981), starvation is now rampant, and the Minister of Health in Saigon said that "a whole generation of Vietnamese is at stake...." The reporter was William Shawcross (and one notes that, for a change, the name of Dr. Henry Kissinger is conspicuous by its absence among the causes of the tragedy):
Food production and distribution has been one of the Government's greatest failures since 1975 ... Floods, typhoons, and droughts have caused serious losses. So has ineffective socialist [sic] management. Recently the Government in Hanoi has admitted planning effort and introduced incentives for private enterprise in both industry and agriculture The collectivization of agriculture in the south has also been stopped. There it a rice surplus in the south but the Government appears unable to transport it to the north and those who need it in the south cannot afford to buy it....
During the Viet Nam decade a whole American generation of journalists and intellectuals unlearned the experience of Stalinist society—its incomparable inefficiency; its thick-headed, dogmatic compounding of error and miscalculation; and, not least (so obvious in Eastern Europe and the U.S.S.R.), its intolerable burden of a costly military machine superimposed on an old-fashioned, hard-pressed, "underdeveloped" economy. As Shawcross notes, with a vague touch of bitterness:
The other principal cause of Viet Nam's food shortage—and that which most angers potential Western donors—is its diversion of resources to the military. About 47% of the national budget is now said to be spent on defense.
14. As Richard West has recently written (Spectator, 11 May 1981, p. 11): To those who describe El Salvador as "America's new Vietnam," I recommend visiting Viet Nam as I did last year. The war goes on as hard as ever—this time against the neighboring Communist Chinese and Cambodians. The Americans have gone, only to be replaced by hundreds of Russian advisors. The streets of Saigon are loud with old American rock music. The Yankees are loved and missed.