1972: Reflections on Vietnam, the Press And America
[This article originally appeared in the March 1972 issue of Nieman Reports.]
God knows we are not perfect as professionals. To be honest, after eight years of covering the Vietnam War, after grinding out those thousands of words and seeing many of them build into big, black, bloody headlines; after agonizing over what to write and when to write it; after talking it all over with publishers and editors and senators and congressional investigators through the years—I am still not sure in my own mind whether what we did as reporters in Vietnam was enough or too much, whether we were neophytes or prophets, whether we performed the classic American press role of censuring government policy or whether we botched the whole job and aided and abetted the enemy. And it might be argued that we never really satisfactorily figured out who the enemy was.
But if I am to be judged, better in the broad context of the American press tradition than the narrow interests of venal politicians or partisan colleagues.
Saigon, 1962. Vietnam then was just a problem in counterinsurgency. You could sit at a sidewalk café with an aperitif, ogle the graceful girls strolling down the Rue Catinat, and talk politics into the warm evening hours. No signs that Vietnam would become a word synonymous with ugliness, horror and butchery.
I was 27, a gadfly in the journalistic backwaters of Southeast Asia, expelled from three countries in an area where you have not really made the grade with Old China hands until you have been expelled from at least six.
And here was the cubbyhole the AP called its Saigon bureau, cluttered, smelly. Malcolm Browne was the sole AP reporter in Vietnam then. He was beating a two-finger tattoo on his old Remington the day I arrived, trying to complete the daily 700 words of copy we used to send then to Tokyo by morsecast—a far cry from the batteries of teleprinters tied in directly to New York that would eventually grace a much expanded AP bureau.
Mal didn’t look up when I walked in. I surveyed the cluttered room. A withered hand hung on a wall, brought back I learned later by our Vietnamese photographer who had been to an ambush scene. Browne had hitched it to the wall to remind visitors that there was a war beyond the casually luxurious life of the foreign community in the Saigon of the early sixties. Hanging below the hand was a bloodied water container picked up at another ambush. I wanted to leave.
Mal looked up and grinned at my queasiness. He introduced himself and tossed across a mimeographed booklet entitled “A Short Guide to News Coverage in Vietnam.” He had authored it for the neophytes like me who came into Vietnam from time to time to assist him in his reporting task. What Mal wrote in 1962 applied up to the day I left late last year. Reading about the press problems in covering the Laos incursion, I guess it still applies.
“Coverage in Vietnam requires aggressiveness, resourcefulness and, at times, methods uncomfortably close to those used by professional intelligence units. You can expect very little help from most official sources, and news comes the hard way. Correspondents in Vietnam are regarded by the Saigon Government as ‘scabby sheep’ and treated accordingly. At the same time the Vietnamese people are friendly and agreeable, and private sources can be cultivated….” That from the introduction.
Here are some tips to stringers: “Avoid the crowd. Newsmen and newswomen come to Vietnam by the hundreds, and there is a tendency to gather in bunches—in bars, in offices, on operations and so forth. One of the best stringers we ever had never went to the Caravelle Bar, never went out on a story with another person. Blaze new trails, and do it alone. The fresh story, the new angle, the hitherto unreported—these are the things we want.…”
Here is Browne’s advice on first aid: “Battle casualties often die from loss of blood. Belts, ropes and field straps make good tourniquets, and the experts recommend thinking of tourniquets first if you are bleeding heavily. Whenever flying in a helicopter try to borrow a flak jacket from the crew—two, if possible. The second one is to sit on. You won’t be considered chicken. All crew members must wear them.…”
Here is his advice when encountering the enemy: “Carrying pistols is not condoned officially either by Vietnamese or American authorities, but American officers privately approve of the practice. Under no circumstances try to shoot it out with the Vietcong if you are alone. They also outnumber you and generally pack Tommy guns. If you are stopped by the Vietcong tell them truthfully who you are and what you are doing. Don’t try to throw away your identification papers—identity-less suspects are regarded with great suspicion and are subject to very bad treatment. If you are American and happen to speak fluent, accentless French you might get off with just a brief lecture.…”
In those early days the war was just an aspect of the story. Like foreign correspondents in other capitals we were obliged to make the rounds of the diplomats, and here is what Browne said about that:
“A resident correspondent in Saigon is invited to three to five cocktail parties a week, sometimes more. It is wise to attend as many as possible because while the faces and the subjects don’t change much the most influential people in town often go. People you can’t get to interview any other way you often can nail down at receptions. Here are some subjective judgments of news value of the various embassies in Saigon:
“U.S.—Variable, the higher the official the more vague he is likely to be. British—Generally close-mouthed but extremely well informed. Excellent sources. French—Except for the ambassador (who won’t talk at all) rather poorly informed. Deeply suspicious of the press, particularly American correspondents. German—Very good company, excellent press dinners, good on cultural developments but worthless for any other kind of news. Ambassador useful if German is kidnapped or killed, however. Japanese—Generally well informed and anxious to swap information with correspondents. Indonesian—Fairly well informed, extremely talkative, apt to be inaccurate. Korean—Friendly to press and well informed. Chinese (Nationalist)—Well informed but difficult to tap because of delicacy of its relations with Vietnam.…”
You could detect in that pamphlet the “probing, questioning, disputatious” attitude towards Vietnamese authorities and the war.
Were these guidelines adequate? Working in Vietnam over all those years, I could never understand the drumfires of antagonism that reverberated about our reporting. I won’t go into the gory details here, because in retrospect they were not important: You stuck by us, you published our material. And that was all that mattered.
The press did not send American troops into Vietnam and is not bringing them out. The official cries of anguish about our reporting were the classic syndrome of blaming the bringers of bad news rather than the news itself. The most famous example in history being Peter the Great, the Czar of Russia, who strangled the man who brought him the news of the defeat of Russian troops at Narva by the Swedes under Charles XII. We were never strangled, and thanks again.
Before making a few remarks about the war as I see it, and where it may be heading, I would like to mention the “new journalism.” This is sometimes called the activist approach which is essentially determining which side is right and then becoming the advocate of that side. A journalism student corralled me last week in Urbana and brought up Neil Sheehan’s article in The New York Times Book Review that [said that] American commanders might be guilty of war crimes in Vietnam. I was asked, “Why didn’t Sheehan write about war crimes when he was in Vietnam: why now, four years later?”
I bring this up because the intensity for the “new journalism” disturbed me. I am all for involved journalism, but not for the AP: We deal in facts. So I mentioned that I accompanied Neil Sheehan on some of those military operations he wrote about; I watched hooches burning down; I saw the civilian dead. I didn’t write about war crimes either.
We took pictures of those burning buildings, we told of the civilian dead and how they died, but we didn’t make judgments because we were witnesses, and like witnesses to robbery, accident or murder surely it was not for us to be judge and jury. I said my attitude might be broadly classed as objective, but I would prefer to consider it more experience, an intelligent approach to our craft. I said that the way I saw it, if we are to believe in popular decision-making, we have to believe in a responsible press that will provide the information upon which those decisions will be based.
Then how do you remain objective, or better, intelligent about your copy? That is the test of your professionalism, to be able to observe with as much professional detachment as possible to report a scene with accuracy and clarity. I said it might be called a sense of mission, and in the AP it must take precedence over national patriotism in war, regional propaganda or municipal boostering back home. If you fail in this professional detachment you become an advocate, a worthy enough mission but not journalism.
One example of my attempted detachment:
I stood one hot noon outside the Saigon market and watched a Buddhist monk in brown robes climb from a taxi and squat on the pavement. He squirted gasoline over himself from a rubber bottle and flicked a cigarette lighter. Here was a political immolation a few feet in front of me. I felt horror and disgust as his body blackened and puffed out like burned pastry.
I could have prevented that immolation by rushing at him and kicking the gasoline away. As a human being I wanted to. As a reporter I couldn’t. This monk was one of many who committed suicide to dramatize the iniquities of the Diem regime in Saigon. If I had stopped him, the Secret Police who were watching from a distance would have immediately arrested him and carried him off to God knows where. If I had attempted to prevent them doing this I would have propelled myself directly into Vietnamese politics. My role as a reporter would have been destroyed along with my credibility.
What did I do? I photographed him burning on the sidewalk. I beat off half a dozen Secret Police trying to grab my camera. I raced to the AP office, wrote the story and sent a radiophoto. It was on America’s front pages the next morning. Three months later, mainly because of the monk immolations, the Vietnamese public unrest, and the worsening war, the American government gave the signal for the Army to overthrow Diem.
What will happen when the Americans leave? The South Vietnamese are doing most of the fighting now. If they kept it up they could hang on indefinitely. But this situation must be looked at in its entirety: Compared to North Vietnam, the South is a fragile entity. It is vulnerable to political change, it is economically imperiled. The population is war weary. On the other hand North Vietnam is politically stable and has successfully mobilized the population for us. The occasional rumbles of war discontent from the North are insignificant compared to the cries of anguish in the South.
So what will happen? The American withdrawal from the war will not end it. What it will end is effective American participation in a political settlement. The Communists have made it quite clear they will fight until a compromise is reached, and that will mean putting neutralists or Communists in the Saigon government. I think the Communists will fight until that objective is reached, that they mean what they say.
I can see the South Vietnamese army after American withdrawal fighting with decreasing enthusiasm, losing control of one remote district after another, until the Saigon government will have to make a deal or go under totally. Only then will the war end, and it could come in three years or come in 10. And I don’t think it can be looked at as a victory for the Communists or the neutralists, or a defeat of America or the free world.
If there is any victory, it will be the victory of good sense.
Mr. Arnett is an Associated Press correspondent. These excerpts are from his address at the Pennsylvania Press Conference.