Sunday, September 6, 2009

Top Correspondent in Vietnam

Correspondent for the Los Angeles Times in Vietnam,
1969 1975
as told to
Larry Engelmann

I covered the Korean War for three years. Then I tootled off to
France so I covered part of the Algerian difficulty although primarily I
had a desk job there.
Then I'd roamed in and out of the Middle East and this that
and the other. This was for the AP. I was a fairly veteran and senior
type for the AP. And when Vietnam really broke out, I guess in late
'63 early '64, I was in Manila, bureau chief there. And they kept
calling back and forth, every time somebody'd get hurt, or for this, that
and the other, I'd have to go over to Saigon and sit there for a week,
sometimes two weeks, sometimes a month. I got tired of it. Make up
your mind. Either put me in Manila or put me in Saigon, because I
can't handle both jobs. The job in Manila was largely business,
chasing Chinese publishers and trying to get them to pay their bills.
The Manila bureau was literally going to hell. It needed
somebody to run it. And so when I told New York, I told Wes
Gallagher, "Send me to Saigon I don't mind, I like Saigon. It doesn't
bother me." It was a demotion but I didn't care. It was covering a
war and I liked covering a war. So he made the logical choice, he sent
me to Saigon and sent somebody else to chase the Chinese publishers
in Manila. So I ended up permanently in Vietnam in March of 1965.
I was there when the Marines came trooping in. That was
really the beginning. I date Vietnam from that thing in my mind. The
marines came trooping ashore that day, and they had not been told
the guys out on the boats that this would not be a combat landing.
And the guys on the beach, hell Danang was as peaceful as this room
right now.
So the ship, they had a ramp down there, they put one of these
metal ramps down the beach and the colonel in command of the
landing party was supposed to come up that ramp. And they had a
lot of little Vietnamese ladies there with the owl's eyes and the leis and
the whole thing. The warlord of I CORPS was there. All the brass
was drawn up, and at the last old Joe Fried, who was the
correspondent for the New York Daily News, you've heard of him,
he was the man who made an asshole of himself at all of the briefings
he was there talking into his little microphone. I got the whole
flavor of Vietnam right there. The colonel missed the ramp of course.
So they sent a runner down. "Get the colonel up here to get his
decorations and whatnot." The colonel made it all right, but the
colonel had a radio man who was about five foot two inches tall. He
had to get a waiver to get into the marines. And he was lugging that
thirty pound PRC 25 radio through the sand. You try running in
sand, that's rough.
So they came running up like a bat out of hell about fifty yards.
They finally got there, the little radio man is huffing and puffing, and
the colonel looks mad as hell. "My troops are out there, I've got to
take care of them." The troops are having a good time.
So they went through this ceremony and there's that little
asshole Fried talking into his microphone. And he's talking into his
microphone as though this is a combat landing. You know, "grim
faced marines, digging foxholes, storming across the beaches." And
Joe had none of the comic atmosphere if you will. This thing was
farcical and could only have been treated as a farce. You had to write
it as a farce when you did the story that day.
So I got an idea first that Joe Fried was seeing what he wanted
to see. I encountered that before, and I encountered it later many
times. And second, the marines didn't have their act together. They
didn't have all the balls in the air. Anyway, the colonel went back to
his troops. They all ran ashore, oh twenty five, fifty, hundred yards,
started digging foxholes. Right at Red Beach in DaNang, guys were
out there taking a bath having a good time, and Well the marines
got there, took up their positions around the perimeter, then they
marched up Monkey Mountain two days later, and the first marine
casualties were from heat stroke. They didn't get shot at. They went
off on this patrol up Monkey Mountain, didn't make it up to the top,
had two guys collapse of heat stroke, and came back. Those were the
first two marine casualties.
That was such a benchmark of what later happened in Vietnam.
Both the press and the military, it's all there if you in your mind
reconstruct that landing in DaNang, which was really farcical. And it
wasn't at all necessary, because Lyndon Johnson's rationale was he had
to have Marines up there to protect the air base. Well I was living up
there at the time with half a dozen other guys, we had a nice press
billet out there, right at DaNang. It was sort of Northern Headquarters
for the press. And there was no danger that we were going to lose
that base. There was no doubt they could have raided anytime. And
they were building up in the hinterlands a little bit. The air base at
DaNang was in no real danger, but what would have happened, and I
think this motivated those people, if the Viet Cong get in there and
blow up twenty five million dollar airplane? For them that's quite a
success. In terms of the overall war, that doesn't mean anything.
They had done that at Bien Hoa and they had done it over in
Thailand. Obviously they were going to do it some day at DaNang.
And I think that's what they were afraid of. The idea of losing the
base, or of the Viet Cong holding DaNang or seriously threatening
DaNang, that was balderdash.
Yet I don't think the optimism at that time was misguided.
There was a "can do" attitude, no question about that. And the
American arrogance was there. The disregard for the Vietnamese.
The veteran reporters there were excellent. I dispute anyone
who says they were not. Keyes Beech, people like that, before World
War II came along had been a cub reporter. He had worked on
newspapers, the usual cub reporter's education, which I consider far
better than the ordinary university education for the first couple of
years. The reporters that I had met in Korea and World War II were
better educated in my mind, than the kids who were coming out in
Vietnam, because the kids coming to Vietnam might have had a little
book learning, a little of this a little of that, a smattering in most cases.
But gee when I came out of college I didn't consider myself educated.
I didn't get educated for another ten or fifteen years.
You had a few people there like Halberstam with a fixed vision
of the war in '65. Most of the guys didn't have that. In 1965
everybody was still more or less just an ordinary reporter, go out and
tell 'em what happens, and we'll worry about it later. The idea of the
"journaliste engage" had not taken hold in America, although it had
in France and in Britain. But the early reporters were not the
journaliste engage.
Well, I had I don't know whether you'd call it an advantage
or not, but I'd gone through three years of Korea and a lot of time in
North Africa and places like that, but in Korea primarily, where we
had our difficulties. We had corrupt government. You name it and in
Korea we had it. We had the riots down on the prison islands. We
had mismanaged military. I took this as a matter of course. This is
the way wars are run. They're fucked up. So I never had but a lot
of the young kids had when they got out here a sense of outrage.
You can't do this. If they didn't get a jeep to go here, or if they didn't
get a helicopter to go there, they were pissed off about the whole
I was astounded at the degree of physical cooperation that we
got from the military. You know the idea of going out and covering
the war by day in a helicopter and being back in Saigon at night to
take a shower and get a decent meal. Now that, by my lights, was an
ideal way of doing business. And if I missed a chopper one day, or
didn't get to where I wanted to go, okay, they got other things to do
with their choppers, so fine, I missed the chopper. I wasn't happy
about it, but as I say, I wasn't outraged.
In Vietnam the marines were all volunteers. And statistics will
bear this out. You speak of education. This was the best educated
army we ever put in the field. They were almost invariably high
school graduates. Not always. But the impression I got was we had
the most literate army that anybody has ever put in the field. You
name it.
The leadership I was not impressed by. And that was another
thing. Remember I had my baptism of fire, so to speak, in Korea. I
had been in World War II but I never got shot at. World War II was
the most peaceful war I ever went through. I was in the Navy, a swab
jockey. And I was on a transport, and literally, I never got shot at in
three years. I felt then and feel now sort of ashamed of the whole
thing. Three years of war and never get shot at is sort of hard to pull
I never got shot at until I was a correspondent in Korea. But in
Korea remember, a lot of the officer corps, even the young officer
corps, we had captains who were called back company commanders,
who had World War II experience. And they were rough on their
second lieutenants and the drain on the officer corps was not as quick
and as lasting as it was in Vietnam. Which is the essence of a war.
Company grade officers who were good, and your company
commanders primarily in Korea and everyone of your battalion
commanders was a World War II vet. Not only just a World War II
vet, but a vet with combat experience.
Korea was fought pretty much by a professional army.
Although a lot of those guys were reservists called back, and pissed off
as a result of it. But they were not green troops going out there. This
is the officer corps. The ordinary GI, of course was, but he was much
better trained, better led, and morale in Korea was far better as a result
of those organizational things.
So you get down to Vietnam, the very first thing I noticed in
Vietnam, was that the platoon leaders were by and large, lousy. I
knew a company commander out there named Mike Peck, who was a
very good guy. He operated down in the Delta for a year without any
commissioned officers in his company. He ran them out. He ran his
whole company with non commissioned officers. He was the only
officer in that company. Because these were kids coming out of OCS
with no combat experience and getting into a very grim area without
proper training, not being told anything. There weren't any
handbooks around there as to how you operate in the Delta, or how
you operate here each place had its own peculiar area. Mike ran all
his officers off. He said you stay back at the battalion cp. I don't
want you to endanger my troops.
That was very frequently the case. You didn't find many
company commanders running off their platoon leaders. But their
attitudes were quite similar. I had things happen to me down in the
Delta I speak a little French, because I've served in France. I went
out on a two company operation where they had to use me as an
interpreter because nobody else was with them. Not a soul in those
two companies could speak Vietnamese and we were sweeping up
there. So insofar as I could this early in the war I served as an
interpreter for that bunch.
Well, the Viet Cong, of course, at that time in '65 and this
continued through '68, were probably the best led and best indigenous
fighters the world has ever known. They were fighting in their own
country. They were southerners up until 1968, southerners to a man.
They were fighting for a cause. You might not have agreed with that
cause, but they were fighting for a cause. And their tactics were
superb. The old hit and run, nothing new about that. If you read
about guerrilla warfare, the Viet Cong began to make mistakes after
1968, some very serious mistakes. One of the things you do if you're
really a guerrilla and you're operating light, you don't capture
equipment and you don't capture people either. A fifty caliber
machine gun the Viet Cong's eyes would almost roll back when they
saw a fifty caliber machine gun. They wouldn't capture it. They
would destroy it. If they couldn't destroy it they'd leave it. They
wouldn't come in and pick up loot, or military equipment like that if it
didn't fit in with their commander's idea of "move fast, hit hard, and
get the hell out." They just didn't make mistakes like that. You could
see evidence of it everywhere. They didn't leave bodies in the field.
That was very rare. That's why the body counts got so screwed up out
there in the eyes of the military. They knew they'd killed a couple of
guys. You'd see the blood trails. They weren't panicked in combat all
the time. They'd go out after the fire fight and there'd be nothing
there. The platoon commander, or the company commander, he's got
to report himself some body count. And frequently he did. And the
body count in my opinion was not false. But the idea is, he couldn't
produce any bodies. Because part of the Viet Cong modus operandi,
they moved in an moved out, took care of their own.
And that was another thing just like the marines, you take care
of your wounded. No matter how rough it is, you get them out of
there. And the Viet Cong did all of those things by the book. It was
obvious they had superb field level commanders. That's about all you
could tell from the other side. I don't think in ten years in Vietnam,
that in a guerrilla situation down in the Delta, or places like that, that
I ever to my knowledge or probably, shall we say, laid eyes on a Viet
Cong. When you'd get up in Hue where the fighting later in the war
was organized, you'd see the occasional enemy soldier. Down in the
Delta, where I operated a good bit of the time, I don't think I ever laid
eyes on a Viet Cong in a combat mode. I knew some of those guys I
was seeing walking in the rice paddies as ordinary farmers, I knew that
they were Viet Cong. I couldn't prove it, nobody could arrest them.
But what I'm saying, in a battle situation you just didn't see those little
bastards unless you were right in the dugout, which I was not going to
be as a correspondent. Most GIs very seldom saw a Viet Cong in that
day and age.
In l968 in Tet we wiped out most of the indigenous Viet Cong.
So from 1968 on the enemy leadership was almost totally not only
North Vietnamese in terms of its motivation, but North Vietnamese in
terms of the ethnic guy on the spot. And there was a very noticeable
change in the way that Hanoi was fighting the war. They were using
big units, battalion size or better. They were using communications.
They would get themselves trapped because they would try and take
equipment that they couldn't really use, twenty millimeter cannon,
armed personnel carrier they tried to lug that stuff off and all it did
was burden them down. They couldn't use that shit. It was like the
most valued item for them to capture was an American officer's 45
pistol. When you captured a Viet Cong with a 45 pistol you knew he
was a ranking officer. That was their badge. The NVA I'm really
not qualified except in a very general sense to comment on the
leadership, but I can tell you a story that reflects more on that
leadership than anything else. And this had to do with the Ia Drang
Valley battle. Wilfred Burchett was communist to the core, but I had
been friendly with Wilfred. We were very good friends ever since the
days of Korea when he used to come down from the north to cover
the peace talks, and we'd come up from the south. There were two
attitudes toward the communist correspondents. Some of the guys
wouldn't even speak to them. Other of us would fraternize, if you
will, and pick up what we could. I belonged to the latter group and
became friendly with Wilfred and it paid me back many times over the
years. He gave me a lot of stories over the years. And the funny thing
about him is, he would never tell you anything that provably was
untrue. If Wilfred told you something, you'd know either it was true,
or you're damn well never going to prove it untrue. Those were his
parameters. So after the Ia Drang battle I happened to be over at
Phnom Penh covering something and Wilfred was stationed over there,
and he of course had the best relationship. So we're out drinking one
night, went out with his wife and got boozed up, as we figured we did
as both of us were given to the sauce, and so we were talking about Ia
Drang and Wilfred I said, "Well the body count was so and so, we
killed so many and Carpenter was a hero, the helicopter had proved its
ability in jungle warfare in moving troops from A to B with great
speed, and so forth." And Wilfred conceded all of that to be
absolutely true, but he said what Giap had done in Ia Drang, and if
you will remember this period of the war when they were beginning to
send in big units and we were beginning to send in big units, and it
was a situation on both sides where you had to sort of make up your
tactics as you went along, and test the other side to see what they
were capable of.
Wilfred said what Giap wanted to know was to find out if big
units, meaning battalions and regiments could operate under absolute
under absolute total American air superiority, helicopters, and what it
would cost them to do so. He squandered roughly about four
regiments up in the Ia Drang, but he found out what he wanted to
know, that he could do it, he could maintain his communications, and
he could inflict heavy losses on the Americans. So from Hanoi's point
of view, Ia Drang was a victory for them. They had learned what they
wanted to learn. They learned they could operate under a blanket of
American helicopters.
Casualties never bothered Hanoi. And it doesn't bother them
today. They've got too many. They had too many people. So losing
people was never of any concern. Losing trained people, sure that was
always of some concern to the people up north, but losing cannon
fodder, they had it and they were willing to use it. And quite cynically
and callously in the Ia Drang they used it. My recollection is that they
lost four regiments up there. And Wilfred did not deny this over in
Phnom Penh during our boozy conversation. They took horrendous
casualties. Of course Wilfred would never give me a figure or
anything like that, because we didn't talk like that. But he conceded
the fact that yes, the carnage had been absolutely terrifying. But no
matter, they had found out what they wanted to know.
The press corps grew over the years in Vietnam. I think the
peak was about fourteen hundred. But a lot of those were geeks, and
hangers on and anybody and everybody who came out there. All you
had to do was present a letter from any newspaper anywhere in the
world and you could be accredited as a free lancer. So all these guys
on the left wing, they would invent organizations, sometimes they
didn't have to invent them. The Indochina Resources Center, I think
Pacifica Press was one. If you had graduated from UCLA, hell if you
had matriculated or even passed by the school, you could go out to
Saigon and get yourself technically a job with Pacifica News Service.
They'd write you the letter and you'd go down and get your
accreditation, which entitled you to whatever a quote "bonafide"
correspondent was getting, because the army in its beautiful wisdom
was not going to get into that fight of sorting out who was and who
was not a correspondent. They were very pissed off about this,
understand. They didn't like it, but they considered there was nothing
they could do about it. If the "Press", that peculiar entity said that
this guy was a journalist, he was a journalist. So they'd give him the
necessary cards, he could go to the PX you'll excuse me, I don't
want to use any names, because some of the young kids were very nice
young kids. There were kids who came out there, stayed high for
eighteen months, made a living at the PX where for all practical
purposes you could buy a carton of cigarettes, swap that for a good bit
out there, the black market flourished. A kid using his PX
connections could subsist in Saigon. And Saigon at that time,
marijuana was, and to this day is, I'm sure, so plentiful that it was like
buying cigarettes from a machine. And for those kids, seventeen,
eighteen, nineteen years old, this was one long high. And in addition
to being high, they were being moral. Good god, that's almost as good
as sex.
They would write for outfits like Pacifica News Service. There
was a great left wing underground, semi underground press and it was
absorbing all this material. These kids never got paid for it, because
this stuff never generated anything. It was not really that good. And
in point of actual fact, they never even turned up any stories. I mean,
My Lai was laying there to be picked up for years. And this vast
coterie of young kids, of radical left wingers they were not newsmen
in that sense.
And the television newsmen all got their ticket punched out
there. And for most of them that's what it shaped up as. And what
people did, they got their impressions from television. Such real news
as they got they got from the printed word. But television guys will
tell you this, their phrase was they go out for the "boom booms".
Most of them would come out there three months, six months, the
good ones and some of the bad ones would come back for a tour
say three months later. They'd go off and rest up from the horrors of
the war and then come back. But most of the tv guys out there, the
guys out in the field, and I'll give them credit for this, they were
taking chances that a print journalist wouldn't take because he didn't
have to take. I don't have to stand up with a ball point in my hands
and impress my readers. They do. They've got to have something in
the background. Well, usually you can get something in the
background that's fairly safe, but occasionally you can't. Artillery's
always going off in a war, so you get yourself properly positioned and
the background looks fairly ferocious. But they did take an awful lot
of chances, but they went for the boom boom. And when you've got a
determined young man whose career is on the line out to get boom
booms, he's going to get them for you.
I'll give you a perfect example of the boom booms and this type
of reporting. We're out at the pagoda I can't even remember the
name of the pagoda during one of the buddhist crises, because there
were about six. And the police had teargassed the joint and the
buddhist had left, and then they formed up again with a lot of street
kids and they were marching down the street and they were heading
down toward the palace, which was about a mile away. I ran over on
a side street because I wanted to get ahead of the procession. I got on
a side street parallel to the main street roughly a hundred yards away,
and I was so fascinated I said, I'll do this as a story. I walked that side
street all the way while the procession was going on a hundred yards
away. There were Vietnamese leading their daily lives, doing the
cooking, repairing bicycles, paddling the kids, washing their laundry.
It was as though that thing a hundred yards away was not transpiring.
And that side street personified symbolized the rest of Saigon, a
city of about three million people, of whom maybe say five thousand
were wrapped up in the events on that little street and the other two
million or so were leading their daily lives. And that is pretty much
what went on in Vietnam for ten years. The reporting back here was
the boom booms. All those varying periods of big battles would take
up say six months of time in a ten year period. The other nine years
and six months most people were like us considering the current
political campaign in the United States.
In Saigon a war is going on but it doesn't affect me right now at
this precise moment. It might next month, and when it does I'll pay
attention to it, but not until then. And that is the way most
Vietnamese lived. You can't live ten years at war. That doesn't
Also there's another aspect of this about the television. People
say that America was impressed because the war was brought into
their living rooms. My contention is precisely the contrary. I assure
you that if war was brought into your living room every night for ten
years, you'd do something about it. You would not accept war in your
living room every night for ten years. Until you've heard those things
going off, boom, boom, boom, and the smell and the stink and all of
that, you don't have any impression of what war is like. You couldn't
get it from a television machine. It won't even approach the decibel
count of a fire fight. And then you get a real battle going on and that
thing would phhewww. And then you get the smell, the blood
dripping down. You can't get your hands dirty on that thing. That's
my feeling. What television was bringing into America was a vicarious
mini circus which was obviously bad, but had no relation to war,
because if it had a relation to war, America would have waked up.
You don't sit in your living room and watch a war. You sit in your
living room and watch theater. And that's what America saw for ten
years, was theater. As concocted by these young kids on three month
jaunts, with never any depth to it, never any meaning to it, never any
correlation with even American policy world wide, and this that and
the other.
And then of course you compound that by the stupidity of your
leadership in Washington and elsewhere and the ordinary bungling of
war, which, as I say, I was conditioned to as any GI is conditioned.
The fact that things are fucked up is not going to really upset you.
But you combine all those factors and all of them are very serious
factors in this war, and what do you get back here, a feeling of disgust
more than anything else. That was my impression. I was over there,
not here. And I'm sort of glad of that. But it gave me a view of the
war that's totally different from anybody's back here, because I saw a
war. There's never any mistake in my mind that that was a war.
I went up to Hue in 1968 during the Tet offensive. Once again,
it's very easy to do. Because I was in Korea I had a different attitude
towards the military than a lot of the guys did. They were so openly
critical. And I make no bones about the fact that I was, am, and will
remain anti communist. I don't like the communists, period,
paragraph. And so I was prepared to see things that they weren't
prepared to see. And when I got up into Hue I was actually up in
Khe Sanh when it started and I flew down and got into Hue real
quick. I had known from my own reading and knowledge of the area
what was going on up there politically speaking. This was a situation
that the communists were not going to pass up.
So I started going around interviewing people and it very
quickly became apparent they had gone the Viet Cong had gone
from door to door, usually the man had a clipboard, usually he had
brief dossiers on people who were in certain houses. They were
prepared, district by district in Hue, to go and search for certain
people. And I quickly found that out. I got two old Catholic priests
up there, and an American diplomat who had hidden out, so at the
end of about six days I had enough put together of what they were
doing to these people, taking them off, shooting them. Actual
eyewitnesses to executions, stuff like that. Don't misunderstand me. I
didn't have the definitive story, but I had the story about massacres in
Hue, I knew that the massacres had taken place, I knew that the Secret
Police had come in and had really finetooth combed that portion of
the city they controlled, which was almost all of it, and had carted off
literally thousands of people. They never reappeared, and the mass
graves, in the sense they found them later I had one grave with
about three hundred people in it. That's my recollection.
As I say, I'm anti communist, and if you're anti anything, the
primary rule is to know your enemy. So I was prepared for that kind
of thing. It's like, I read Mein Kampf before World War II also.
That's just the way I am. Most of the correspondents who went out
there, they totally ignored that. They wouldn't be caught dead reading
that stuff on the other side. But I did. I am a voracious reader. But
they didn't want to know. They had their mind set and to them the
Viet Cong conformed to certain ideals and whatnot, and the idea that
that group of people could have an absolutely fatal flaw which to my
mind they did which came out after the war, that didn't occur to
most of the correspondents. So when they would encounter
something like this, they didn't know how to handle it.
Now back in the United States it was even worse. So the story
of the Hue massacres, it practically had to be sold over a period of
time, and to this day it's not accepted. The idea, shall we say, that the
Hue massacres overshadow My Lai, when in my mind, the Hue
massacres were done systematically by an evil system. They went in
there to literally slay their enemies in cold blood. In its worst
construction, My Lai is not like that. My Lai is a bunch of
incompetent troops who lost their heads. It had no reflection
whatsoever on the political leadership of the United States although it
says a great deal about the flaws in the leadership in the U. S. Military.
I can understand green kids under a bad company commander going
apeshit. People go apeshit in a war, I've seen that happen too many
times. I've shit in my pants myself. You understand that kind of
thing. You might not like it, but the crime of My Lai was the coverup
engaged in by the U.S. Army.
In 1968 after Tet we won in the South, but the military will
tell you this, you have to reinforce victory. If you don't reinforce
victory it goes right through your hands. We did not reinforce victory.
Westmoreland, you'll excuse me, was a very nice fellow, but he was a
boy scout, he was a by the book soldier, and although I liked the man
personally I don't admire him, but I like him personally he didn't
know what the hell was going on out there. He never did, really. He
fought a good war by his lights, he was an honorable man. But that
doesn't alter the fact that he didn't know what was going on, and to
this day he doesn't know that he didn't. I've talked to him from time
to time. I'm polite to him, and I like him, and I've got an inscribed
copy of his report over there, autographed. But he didn't know what
was going on.
In addition to that he had to work through the South
Vietnamese military. If we had gotten off our ass after TET the Viet
Cong would have been eliminated in the Delta area, but we sat on our
ass for two months, and they sat out there in the jungle in
wonderment that we were leaving them alone. At the end of two
months, being, as I say, a very competent people, they had rebuilt
their structure. NVA fillers were coming into the Delta. So in two
months they had a military structure back in business. If we had
moved out and the South Vietnamese had moved out, the South
Vietnamese were in a state of shock. They weren't going to move out.
They were safe. They had lived through it and actually they had won
a victory, so they were drinking an awful lot of beer and having a good
But you could drive roads in the Delta at the end of TET that
you would not have dared to drive six weeks before. And I drove all
the way from Saigon down to My Tho and over to Can Tho in a jeep,
absolutely untouched, unthreatened by anybody.
So we let that victory just fritter away.
Well, that's precisely it. If you don't have a mission in any
particular sense, then your mission is to survive. Military commanders
are pretty good on that one and surviving doesn't necessarily mean
taking the fight to the enemy. If not so much a mission, there was no
philosophy. The philosophy out there, insofar as there was a
philosophy, if you are in the field against an armed enemy, then your
goal is to destroy that man's fighting capability. And you don't rest
until you've done so. You don't declare little pauses and recesses. You
go out and fight until you've destroyed his military ability to destroy
you. That philosophy was doubtless known to Westmoreland, he'd
gone to West Point. But he'd been so institutionalized by the time he
got his fourth star, and remember out there you were fighting a war in
every province that had an individual character to it. It required two
things, one of which Westmoreland had to have that concept and he
had to work at it twenty four hours a day. He had to fight it was
like playing multi dimensional chess. And Westy is not a multi
dimensional man. He just can't handle it. He could handle the
supplies; he could handle the logistics; he could handle body count;
and a war of attrition, and this that and the other, but ask him to
make a rug out of all the varying threads is to ask more than the man
is capable of doing.
Now Creighton Abrams was in my mind, the best general that I
have ever known. He was a superb man. But Abrams, was also,
unfortunately for him, probably one of the smartest four star generals
we ever had, and by the time Abrams took over, he knew that the
opportunity for a military victory had probably gone. I say he knew
that, I deduced that he knew that, but he would never confess it to
me, although he's confessed a great deal to me. He took over and he
started waging the individual fights. Fred Weyand who followed him
was then his deputy, and Fred Weyand also was an up from the ranks
general, and they knew that America was not going to sustain the
losses that would have then been required. Abrams very first act, and
this is something that reflects on his capacity as a commander in a
negative way, but not as a human being, but his very first order was to
Fred Weyand. There was a fight going on in the outskirts of Saigon at
that time and Fred Weyand in compliance with Westmoreland's
directive was getting ready to storm the area and take it and get them
out of there. Abrams countermanded Abrams took over at noon,
and within the hour had Weyand on the phone and countermanded
that order. He said go in there slow and easy and save the kids. In
other words, don't take casualties.
Well, when your four star commander out there, his philosophy
has become "don't take casualties", you have a man who is being
guided, excuse me, by negative principles. Commendable as it is, to
save people's lives, winning the war is what you are after. And that
was what displayed to me that Abrams from that point on was no
longer dedicated to "winning the war". And certainly not by the
tactics that Westmoreland had employed. He stopped a lot of this
search and destroy stuff. He concentrated on pacification, and once
again, by late 1971 and early '72, which is one reason they went to the
peace table we had the war won again. At that point it was so
costly for the North Vietnamese to operate in the South, the air power
was hurting them so much on the trail and it's popular nowadays to
sneer at air power on the trail, but that's not true. And the B52s were
sometimes monumentally effective. Whole regiments would disappear
from the order of battle up in Hanoi and they knew that a B52 had
gotten them. So in 1972 we had it once again we had won the war.

Vietnamization would have worked but it required, and
historians will argue, but it required a will on our part to continue to
support the South Vietnamese. That will was obviously lacking. It
required on the part of the Vietnamese an organizational governmental
structure that at least made some sense back here in Washington. If
we had continued to give them the arms, the ammunition, that war
would have still been going on. Those were very funny people. They
didn't sustain the casualty rates they did for ten years by not having
any idea what they wanted. They had a pretty good idea of what they
wanted, and what they wanted was for those assholes to go home.
They were incapable of bringing that about, but they didn't want those
assholes down there. Even the French agreed that popular opinion by
1972, '73 was overwhelming pro nationalist, pro American if you will.
But in Saigon itself and among the Buddhists, that small segment of
the population, the communists were able to exploit that in what must
be credited to be a masterful fashion. Every time we'd win something
on the ground they'd take it away on the other field.
You get yourself into a philosophical battle there on how can
you win under those circumstances and then you have to accept a
certain number of givens which are not necessarily there. But when
people say the war couldn't be won, bullshit. Curt LeMay would have
won it. He would have won it in a way that I found unacceptable, but
he would have won it. Theoretically that war was winnable in ten
jillion different ways. But we didn't.
I don't think there's any doubt about the press demoralizing the
American public. Have you been to the Vietnam memorial? I don't
know whether you've noticed, but you know that the names are up
there in chronological fashion and when you walk down into that pit
and you get right at the angle you are in an area in space and time
when we were losing 500 kids a week. I weep when I go down there,
I can't stand it, to walk into the depths of that wall and you can see
casualties going up, casualties going down. When you realize that
America was losing five hundred kids a week, well, that's pretty grim
stuff you're talking about.
With that to work with, you can argue, did the press prepare
America for 500, for the price? No. Once again, anecdotal evidence.
The New York Times sends Gloria Emerson to Vietnam as a
"correspondent". She had a press card just like mine. And for one
year Gloria Emerson writes for the New York Times, and her stories
are never labeled opinion, editorial, you name it. For one year she
systematically sets out to denigrate anything and everything South
Vietnamese. She never found a single thing in Vietnam which she
liked. Nothing. She never found anything that was going well. She
never liked a single South Vietnamese military officer. She never liked
a single American military officer. She never found anything out there
of which she approved. You go back and read one year of Gloria
Emerson. And she was presented as a correspondent. This was not
labeled. This is not Tom Paine the pamphleteer. This is Gloria
Emerson the correspondent for the New York Times.
Gloria Emerson is my favorite example of preparing the
American public for this. Well, that kind of stuff, in New York, it has
its effect. My point is that Gloria Emerson's one year coverage of
Vietnam, from her point of view, was accurate. But I'm damned if I
want that kind of history taught to my kid. And if you consider
journalism as instant history, I don't want that instant history to be
taught to the American public. I find it objectionable.
I wanted to go North and do some reporting from Hanoi. But
the likelihood of my being invited into the North was very remote.
Wilfred Burchett was the man who got visas into the North for
everybody. If you wanted to get a visa into the North go see Wilfred
Burchett. Wilfred Burchett and I are the best of boozing pals, and I
mentioned going to the north and Wilfred laughed. It was not
something we seriously discussed, because we knew that I was not
going. He was going to stop me because we talked communism, anti
communism, all the time. And we were up front with our biases,
prejudices, beliefs, or what have you. And Wilfred would have shot
me down the very minute I filed the application, and said so. It was
ludicrous to think about it. Harrison Salisbury, sure, I think I'd let
him in. I'm not going to pass judgement on Harrison Salisbury, but if
I'd been in Wilfred's position, letting correspondents in, I want to
accomplish certain purposes, I would let them in. And I'm sure that
for the North Vietnamese, they accomplished the purposes that they
were sent in for, which I think in retrospect, in my opinion, was
simply to show that those people up there are not ogres.
So why are the Vietnamese likely to fear something from us?
We send correspondents up there, they say well you know their
economic policies don't make much sense, and so on, but that's bland
poppycock to those people up there. It doesn't bother them at all. It's
not even as bad as their saying about themselves in their own papers.
Then there were the other Americans going up North and
favoring the other side. It happened in one sense in Korea, too. You
remember there were twenty one Americans who would not come
back, and I happened to be in a fortunate position of interviewing all
twenty one, because I was friendly with Wilfred and he set it up. That
was the kind of benefit you got. It would serve his purpose, and it
served my purpose. So I interviewed all those twenty one.
But you know about Jane Fonda and Tom Hayden. I know
Tom Hayden. Tom Hayden is a slave dealer, and I'll say it in public
and to his face.
I went over where I first met Tom Hayden, once again
Wilfred was mixed up in that they had arranged the return of two
or three captured Americans, and Tom Hayden had set it up back
here. I've forgotten what the propaganda ploy of the moment was, but
Tom Hayden showed up at Phnom Penh to majordomo this affair and
to get maximum press coverage out of it. He would appear down at
the Hotel Royale and have his little miniature press conferences and
this that and the other. And as I say, he was literally selling those
three GIs. If that's not a slave trader, I don't know what is. He was
dealing in bodies.
But he was also staying with Wilfred Burchett, and I'm nothing
if not a competent correspondent, excuse me for blowing my own
horn, so I got to know Tom Hayden. Tom Hayden had to borrow a
suit from Wilfred. It didn't fit him very well. Because he'd come out
in such a hurry from New York
I covered that thing throughout, and once again, there was a
little press conference at the end, and it was restricted to oh, a half a
dozen of us who had had our noses up Wilfred's ass for years and he
was paying back old friends. And one of the high points of my career
six of us had the staged press conference he knew I was going to
write it was rigged, but he didn't care. They were getting the mileage.
That was my first experience with Tom Hayden. In 1969 I
went to work for the Los Angeles Times, and Tom Hayden used to call
the Times at least once a week and speak to the boss and try to get
him to fire me. And he called all the executives in the Times, trying
to get them to fire me. To no avail, obviously.
The Paris Agreement cemented the feeling in my mind that it
was down the tubes. I think that I made up my mind it was about
that time. I say I made up my mind but I never made up my mind
completely. I was up and down depending on the evidence of the day
at any given moment as to whether it could or could not be done. I
always felt that it would be nice if we could pull it off because there
were about twenty five million people there that, as I say, didn't want
the bad folks to come trooping down and impose upon them a
government they didn't want. I just decided we didn't have the will
and a lot of this came from General John Murray. General Murray had
a lot to do with my own thinking because I was on very good terms
with Murray and he was telling me about the ammunition and how
things were going, and it was going very badly. I then came to the
conclusion, which I sort of held until the end at that point, that, all
right, if we're not going to pull it off, then let's get the hell out of here
totally, and in toto. Because at that point it became sinful. You're
simply killing more people and you're not accomplishing anything.
I felt up until about 1972, I can't pin it down exactly, that
something might be accomplished, that a southern entity outside of the
Hanoi orbit might be maintained. And you didn't find anybody in a
position of responsibility in Saigon outside of idealogues like Graham
Martin he might give you his grand scheme for the war ordinary
people thought of it in terms like I've just enunciated, that we're trying
to salvage something out of this horrendous wreck and the only thing
that was salvageable would be some kind of entity that would allow
these people to flourish, and some kind of a free enterprise society,
because they are a tremendously industrious people. They don't fit
into anybody's mold. The southerners are totally unlike the
And you couldn't write that during the war either. If you wrote
that there was an ethnic difference in Vietnam itself, you were laughed
out of town in Washington. The French were much more
sophisticated about this. They knew it. They knew that the
northerners had certain characteristics and the southerners had certain
characteristics and part of my current belief, and my belief then, and I
came to the conclusion as Ambassador Merillon the French
Ambassador at that time, who was one of the more perspicacious men,
that the northerners are going to find the south indigestible. And that
is precisely what has happened. No matter, they still cannot refrain
from supping the forbidden fruit. But the North is not going to digest
the South. It's just not going to happen.
In the Christian Science Monitor there was an interview with
the editor of Hanoi's intellectual journal, and the upshot, the thrust of
that there's a very knowledgeable man, speaking very candidly, says
it's going to take another fifteen years to get their act in order.
Remember that's a North Vietnamese saying that, not George
McArthur. What he's saying is, we've got a severe case of indigestion
now, and I don't see it going away.
One thing I did I think everybody did at the time that having
given up hope, and a lot of the Vietnamese gave up hope too, but not
all of them by any matter of means, but I felt the North would be a
little bit more understanding when it came down, because there was a
feeling in Saigon at the time among those who stayed, "All right, we
gave it our best shot, and we lost. Now let's see what we can do to
build the country and to get over this. And if we're going to have to
put up with these asshole communists we'll do it. We'll take orders,
we'll do whatever they please, if they're just reasonable men in any
shape, form or degree." The South was ready, almost to a man, to
cooperate with any kind of reasonable occupation. And the North
squandered that opportunity for stupid ideological reasons. They felt
they had to engage in a certain amount of education, this that and the
other. They took off more of their friends than their enemies.
I stayed in country until '75. The final night. I continued to do
my reporting. Oh, yes. I wouldn't have lived there for ten years if I
felt my life was in imminent danger. You accept a certain amount of
hazard but I was a fairly cagey old goat by then, I knew how to take
care of myself, and I avoided getting into a pitched battle with the
North Vietnamese. I never saw much point in that.
I flew up to DaNang in the spring of 1975. I flew up to Hue in
that period. But when the final collapse started up, I was back and
forth and all over the country.
In that situation, your timing had to be good. And that's
something that you had to be sort of a baseball player. You get in
and get out. If you get out twenty four hours before the place
collapses, your timing is good. My timing was always superb.
I covered the Congressional delegation that came through.
Millicent Fenwick and Bella Abzug. I was over in Phnom Penh and
they were there the day the last civilian aircraft left Phnom Penh.
They had a military aircraft down at one end of the field and this was
Bella and Phil Habib, McCloskey, Millicent with her pipe, that whole
bunch. They were over there. That place was well down the tubes.
But I went out to the airport to catch my plane and the damn
thing had been cancelled. In addition to cancelling the plane, me and
my driver got rocketed on the way out there, so I wasn't in any good
mood. But I went back into that back corner of the field where I
knew the C47s were. Phil Habib is an old friend of mine, so I said,
Phil I've got to have a ride on that plane to get back to Saigon. So he
says, Okay, we've got plenty of room. So I clambered aboard the plane
and I was sitting right behind Bella Abzug, the Washington Post guy,
McCombs, and two or three other guys it's only a fifty minute flight
back to Saigon, and they were saying things up there I didn't join in
the conversation at all. But they were so shallow and vapid, and had
nothing to do with what was going on over in Phnom Penh. There
was no doubt that they were right that the place was going down the
tubes, but it made me so mad when I came back and filed my story.
That night I had a ruptured ulcer. I went around to a friend's house
with my wife and had a drink and keeled over. And I'd lived with that
ulcer for twenty years. So that night it got me. And I always blame it
on Bella Abzug. Perhaps I'm being uncharitable.
Remember also, if you look into this, at the time the final
offensive began, Graham Martin was back in the United States, and my
wife Eva Kim we were married after the war was his secretary.
Graham and I got to be friendly enemies, and we're still friendly
enemies. The night before he left for the states, he said there is no
way that South Vietnam can be defeated militarily. And although I
phrased it more politely I told him he was full of shit.
Having left me with that pearl of wisdom, he then departed for
the United States. He was gone for about four weeks, is my
recollection. Didn't even leave word where he was. Washington is
trying to find him. Eva's calling all over Carolina from Saigon trying
to locate him. So he comes back and DaNang is in the process of
collapse at that time. Graham's first reaction to anything is, "I'll go
there and I'll personally lead the troops." He would be the worst troop
leader the world has ever known. But his first reaction was to get up
to DaNang. I want to go up to DaNang, I'll bring order. And he was
argued out of that by the calmer heads in the embassy.
A half a dozen other times he wanted to do that. The final day
when the whole knows that Tan Son Nhut has been blown to shit, he's
got to get in his limousine and go ride the runway out there, serving
no purpose whatsoever, but he had to report to the President, "I've
seen the runway and it's unusable." I could have told him that from
five miles away. The god damn rocketing jolted me out of bed that
night. You didn't listen to that without knowing precisely what is
going on, if you've been around it. And Graham knew, but he had to
grandstand. So he comes back right in the middle of that shit.
In retrospect I'm inclined to agree with part of what he said.
He said we, the Americans, couldn't give the impression that they were
bugging out. So he gave everybody orders, disregarded politely in
many instances, that they were not to ship their goods out. They were
not to do a damn thing. So life at the embassy maintained its regular
pace. And I'll say one thing for Graham. He lost ever damn thing that
he owned. His wedding pictures, things like that, silver frames you
know the stuff, you go into an ambassadors house and all those
pictures of him and Harry J. Horseshit, signed "to my dear friend
Graham." All of that was gone. Everything that Graham had in terms
of mementos. I'm positive.
I don't make any claims to prescience as to the exact date that
Saigon would fall, but let's say I knew that within two weeks that it
was going to happen. I didn't know how it was going to happen. At
that time I still felt that I'd fly out on a C130 from Tan Son Nhut. But
I didn't know. I knew also that all the guys in the press corps were
making up their own minds. And those guys that made up their
minds to stay, bless their hearts, I'm all for them. The were very brave
guys. At that time, remember, I had just come out of the hospital
where I had that ruptured ulcer and I could barely hobble around the
last month I was there. So I delude myself that perhaps I would have
stayed if I had been in reasonable shape. I made up my mind two
weeks before the end that when the time came I was getting out. And
Eva of course helped me in that decision. Despite the fact that I did
not feel there would be a blood bath in Saigon, I didn't think it was
going to be too gentle either. I was rather surprised at how gentle it
was toward the newspaper type.
Eva and I were living together. It was no great secret. And I
knew I was going to wait until she got out. As I say, it just never
entered my mind. I never attended a briefing or that kind of thing. I
knew that Brian Ellis, the CBS guy, was doing Trojan work in getting
out Vietnamese employees. I was aware that these things were going
on. But in terms of my own personal departure, I simply wasn't
We spent the night of April 28th at Eva's house and got up
that morning we got up at three o'clock in the morning when they
shelled Tan Son Nhut. And we both had had shoulder bags ready for
a week and we knew that was it. So Eva being Eva, she went in and
got an extra pair of shoes ladies can't go anywhere without shoes, and
she took her shoulder bag and she drove off to the embassy about five
thirty in the morning, because she knew it was going to get started
early. Then I followed her about half an hour later, went by my
house, had a little breakfast, and gave my cook all the money I had,
and then I drove to the embassy in my little Volkswagen. This was
about six thirty and it was still wide open there. So I parked the
Volkswagen and went out in the city with an embassy type. He and I
patrolled the city until about noon. And when we came back we had
trouble getting in the embassy. He had the big official car and pass,
and so the marines cooperated to get us in. They were keeping
everybody else out.
Then about twelve o'clock I got in there. I didn't go out again.
By that time it was a sea of humanity. Eva was up on the seventh
floor. I stayed downstairs. I didn't want to bother her, and I didn't
want to bother Graham, although I could have gone up there any time
I wanted. So I stayed down there taking notes and watching all
manner of funny things. The Filipinos whom we were evacuating
showed up in two big vans and had all their stereo equipment. They
had a bass fiddle and all that shit. Well the security guy, Marvin
Garrett, he said, "Junk that shit." And the Filipinos were practically in
The Japanese ambassador drove up to pay a courtesy call, and
came up, he was wearing a bullet proof vest and a white helmet. It
was a hilarious day. It was a farcical day. It was just like the
beginning. They wouldn't cut down the big tamarind tree in the
embassy yard can we cut down the tree no, you can't cut down
the tree. Well finally they said, well we're going to cut down that
fucking tree, I don't care what Graham says.
I avoided Martin's office. Finally about 9:30 in the evening, it
was dark and obviously the circle was getting tighter and tighter all the
time, and there was nobody coming and going and I couldn't do
anything, so I said, well, I'll go up to Eva's office and spend the rest of
the time with her and see what's going on. So I went up to her office,
I'd say it was about nine thirty, and there were a half dozen guys in
there. The consul, who had an old guardsman's moustache, I've
forgotten his name, he went over and got half a bottle of gin, and
some guy brought about that much in a bottle of scotch. They raided
the embassy liquor supply. This was no cocktail party. This was a
wake. We were sitting there with paper cups having a drink, and we
all needed it bad. I don't think anybody had more than two.
In the end Polgar and Graham hated one another. Polgar had
been the faithful servant for a long time and in the end he said, "I
better put some distance between myself and that man, because that
man is trouble." So Polgar began to go his own way. Graham, on the
other hand, was trying to blame everything on Polgar. And he called
me into his office and he started to talk about Polgar, and he says, "If
it hadn't been for that son of a bitch Polgar, . . .." Polgar down at the
end of the hall saw me go into Martin's office and he came running
down there, and at that point Graham cut off the conversation.
When we got out on the troop ship it was the same thing.
Polgar spent half of his time on the troop ship where we were when
we were evacuated, watching Martin. Martin didn't get to the press to
poison the press with stories about Polgar, and vice versa. Martin left
with all the Embassy documents you know about that. Well, he got
those because he was afraid he was going to get into a pissing match
with Kissinger or with the CIA and those documents had the
ammunition that he felt he would need. That's why he stole those
Well, I wrote several stories at that time saying this is what's
going on. You got the Kissinger camp. You got the CIA camp. The
Martin camp. And they're all dumping on one another. And
everybody is trying to blame everybody else. When we get back to the
states, of course, you quickly discovered back here that nobody wanted
an investigation of anything. The idea that a major defeat in Britain
we'd have had an Imperial Commission in the United States you
didn't even have a congressional hearing. Not one. Nothing.
I mean, you've got malefactors, people who fucked up, no
question about it, and that includes Polgar and Martin and the whole
bunch. It would have made Watergate look pale. They all had dirty
linen that they wanted to hang out. Everybody was ready to blame
everybody else. As it turned they didn't have to blame anybody,
because neither the Congress, nor the Presidency, nor the press, nor
anybody else wanted to investigate. And they never have.
After that experience with Polgar, Graham and I come out and
once again I go over and stand by Eva's desk, Polgar disappears,
Graham goes back into his office, he comes back and it's about ten in
the evening. And he turns to my wife and he said, "Miss Kim, I don't
think I'll have any more dictation today. Why don't you go?" Those
were his parting words to Eva that night.
Well, after that she got her bag. The evacuation chute was a
stairwell right by the office so we just went over and got in that
stairwell and went up. I was going to get out with her. One of the
guys who was with us was Lacy Wright.
Lacy was a real Terry and the Pirates type. That little fellow
had been doing fantastic things. He's a brave little bastard. He sat
there and had a drink with us in that office, and then we all got into
line together. Martin's poodle is tied up in there and I'd learned to
like that poodle a little bit, named Nit Noy. Thai for little bit. Nit
Noy was a great favorite of Janet who is his daughter, who was a good
friend of mine, and Dorothy, Graham's wife, and that son of a bitch
Graham was going to leave Nit Noy there. He denies it, but I knew he
was going to leave Nit Noy there. I said, "Do you want me to take the
dog out?" He said, "I'd sure appreciate it." So I got Nit Noy on the
leash and I didn't feel bad about displacing somebody else. I knew
that the doctor downstairs had a miniature doxy he had put in his bag
and he kept the little miniature doxy doped up all day long because he
didn't know when he was going to have to leave and they didn't want
the dog barking. So the little doxy was sleeping in the bag, and I
knew the doctor. Well he showed me the doxy because he knew I had
doxies too. Slept right through the evacuation.
When we went through the chain and finally got up and got
aboard our helicopter, then Eva was sitting on my right and Lacy was
sitting on my left, and I was holding Nit Noy in my lap. Incidentally,
Nit Noy is black. They didn't even see Nit Noy. I mean I could have
carried a 105 howitzer on there. People did not see details at that
moment. I could have carried your mother in law, I could have
carried an elephant on there. It wouldn't have made any difference. It
was just get aboard that chopper and get out. So I took out the
Ambassadors dog, which caused me grief on the carrier, but that's
something else again. When we got on the chopper and it took
off, and of course I'm a newspaper type and I'm looking down at the
streets and there was literally a ring of fire around Saigon. The dumps
out at Bien Hoa were going up. It was a fireworks display surpassing
anything that you're ever going to see. And I'm checking out spots on
the ground, this that and the other, thinking what I'll do if we go
down. We have to circle for about five minutes because they sent us
out in pairs and we were waiting for the second chopper to get off the
roof, say five minutes probably was sixty seconds but it seemed like
a longer period.
But as we're circling there and I'm drinking in this spectacle
which is the end of ten years of my human experience, and the
adrenalin was flowing through me, I couldn't have gone to sleep, and I
didn't sleep at all that night, as a matter of fact. I look over, the
minute we took off, Lacy Wright passed out. He was so tired that
when the emotional tension, he didn't have to work any more, there
was nothing more for Lacy Wright to do he hadn't slept in about
four days, that tremendous scene that overwhelmed me, Lacy couldn't
have cared less. He went to sleep and all he wanted to do was sleep.
And if we hadn't waked him up at the carrier he'd have slept on the
way back. We got him off and he was a sleep walker when we got
him off on the carrier, I believe the Midway.
Then they took us to the Blue Ridge and then they took us
back to the Midway because the Midway was going to be one of the
first ships into Subic and obviously all the correspondents wanted to
be on the first ship to Subic. They were losing our copy like mad.
When I got to Subic they hadn't received one damn word that I'd filed.
The Navy said they were going to provide communications and
never believe that. Don't file your book by Navy communications. So
I was lucky I had saved my "backs" so as soon as we got to Manila I
just started refiling all that stuff. I stayed busy for two days refiling
stuff that I had filed from the ship.
Of course then there was a big emotional let down. It lasted
for a year or longer. And almost everybody who had been there in
that period experienced it remember I'd been there for ten years.
Eva had been there for twelve. George Jacobson had been there for
fifteen. Our good friends were people who were not the fly by nights,
but people that we had known, dedicated people most of them, who
had been there a long period of time. So among that group of people
are those who are still wrapped up in the Vietnam thing. It wasn't
what the GIs call post stress whatnot, but when you've devoted ten
years of your life to a story and the story ain't no story anymore,
you're going to have a tremendous let down. That's one of the reasons
I retired. I can't write about Vietnam to this day. I've tried and can't
do it.
I don't think any of those people will ever recover. Define the
word "recover" a little bit better. They'll certainly not get over it.
They'll carry it to their grave and it will affect them. It affects me and
the way I treat people. My tolerance for certain things, intolerance for
others. It changed my character, not 180 degrees, but I took a sharp
turn. I don't think it was toward or away from any specific things. I
suffer fools less well now than I did before.
The other side of the coin, I don't get angry anymore. I don't
get angry since 1975. You couldn't make me angry. You could hit me
on the head with a baseball bat and I'd call you names, but you
wouldn't make me angry. I just don't get angry. I don't think I have
the capacity for that kind of emotion.
I've always been a fatalist, but I'm sure it deepened that
tendency in my psyche. And I'm more patriotic than anything.
Patriotic in the sense I never want to see that happen again. I know
we betrayed them. I know the promises we made to the Vietnamese
and the promises we were unable to keep. The betrayal may not have
been intended, but it still was there.
Personally, I had not a sense of betrayal so much as the deepest
kind of disappointment, that you've committed something when you're
a kid that's just so bad that you're ashamed to face your mom and pop,
you want to go out and hide, you want to run away. I didn't want to
face myself, I didn't want to face a lot of people. I felt an awful lot
like the CIA man I talked to out there who left fairly early in the
game, and he said he left because he'd reached the point that he didn't
like to talk to anybody about anything that he knew what they were
going to say already anyhow about Vietnam. Because he was a
really knowledgeable man. He knew where the bodies were buried. I
belonged to that group of people like Charlie Timmes, we talked to
one another in a form of code. You didn't have to go through great
convolutions to explain that the NVA and the VC were bad people.
You didn't have to go into great philosophical convolutions that
communism is not necessarily a beautiful system in government. This
code that a lot of these people had was simplified and also helped you
get by with people like Graham Martin. I could talk to Graham
Martin when other people couldn't, because I accepted about fifty
percent of his givens. I wasn't going to argue with Graham Martin
about whether communism is good or bad. I know that Graham is no
arch reactionary, he stands about a hundred degrees to the right of me,
but no matter. We didn't have to argue about it.
As for my fellow journalists, I was disappointed. I had lived
with this condition for five years at the time. Remember I had been
bureau chief of the AP and restraining some of my younger colleagues
had just been a pain in the ass. I remember one young kid came out
there and he turned in a lead one night that just said, "Surrounded
Saigon . . so and so." And then he got into a long argument with me
about whether Saigon was surrounded or not. I said, "Look, I'll get in
the car and drive you down to My Tho, that's forty miles south, right
now. I says if they're surrounded, it's a pretty big ring. But he
insisted that since the Viet Cong controlled the countryside by night
and they were then lobbing shells into Saigon, that the city was
surrounded. I said, Well you're not going to say it. So he had to
soften it.
I had fights like that all the time with people who were not
trying to write things that were wrong, but who were just convinced in
their own mind that certain simplifications were acceptable. And I
wouldn't accept them as the bureau chief in AP. Then when I went to
work for the Los Angeles Times, and I won't go into names in this
particular instance, but I had an experience with a member of our staff
who wanted to do certain things and I was not going to permit that, so
I didn't.
This had been a running battle with me for five or six years.
I've never been one to accept the conventional wisdom, but there was
a journalistic wisdom that permitted certain people to say anything
they wanted about Vietnam. And it persists to this day. Errors in fact
were accepted. You can refer to the embassy compound out there as
"gold plated" use the phraseology they used to describe well I
considered that slipshod and slapdash reporting. The press was
generally guilty of a vast amount of that.
But the other part of the trail of disgust I'm not particularly
proud, as I said earlier, of people like Gloria Emerson and there were a
lot of them out there. Morley Safer is not one of my heroes. Walter
Cronkite is not one of my heroes. When he broadcast in Hue during
Tet he arranged to have a shelling of the ridgeline behind him. This
was his famous trip when he changed his mind. Bullshit. He'd made
up his mind before he ever came out there. But the Marines staged a
shelling at four in the afternoon and he's up on top of our mission
building in Hue doing his stand upper, wearing a fucking bullet proof
vest and a tin pot. And I'm up there doing my laundry. Shit. It was a
four story building and you had to hang it out to dry and nobody else
was going to do it for you.
Why did they do it? That's one of the questions I ask myself
repeatedly and continually. Why I see things from a certain
perspective and Harry Horseshit over there sees them from a totally
different perspective, I don't know. But I know that a lot of those
guys went out there and covered a far different war than I covered.
I continued to write. I went back out to Southeast Asia and I
covered Bangkok, and I did the refugees out of Phnom Penh which
people wouldn't believe either. I went to Thailand because that was
the center, and I wanted to tidy up the story, so to speak. I stayed in
Thailand for three years and then I retired. But I didn't do a good job
in Thailand. I just didn't have much zip. People weren't believing the
stories I was writing. They wouldn't believe Pol Pot's tendencies in
This was public knowledge a year before somehow or other
America exploded with it. All you had to do was read AP and UP.
They were filing virtually two or three paragraphs a day. I was filing
it. A lot of other people were filing it. It didn't mean anything
because the mindset in America at the time was, well, we lost the war,
one, we don't want to pay any attention, and two, other communists
are not that bad. Pol Pot has to be a nice little fellow, crackpot
maybe, but can't be all bad. I'd written stories about the ruthlessness
of the Khmer Rouge and this too is a part of the public record way
back, I guess about '66,'67,'68.
I'd been reporting that stuff all along. I had not been reporting
it, I think, with the vigor I should have. When I went to Thailand
one reason I retired is that I didn't feel I was doing a good job
anymore. I wanted to go somewhere else.
I've gone down to the Memorial. I cry every time I go down
there. I take people down there regularly. In fact if I have a visitor in
this town, I'm going to take him down to the Vietnam Memorial. It's
just on my tour. If you live in Washington, people come to see you. I
take them down there on a regular basis. I don't have any feelings
about avoiding it. And when I go down there I cry.

No comments: