"IT BECAME SINFUL"
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 Freed, 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 Freed 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 Freed 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 thing.
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 off.
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 happen.
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 time.
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 northerners.
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 concerned.
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 tears.
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 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 documents.
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 Cambodia.
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.
"Christ, Almighty, How Can They Do This?"
I should preface everything I say about Asia and Vietnam by stating that we are all products of our times and of our environments. My time was World War II, I belong to the World War II generation. And I much prefer to win wars than to losing them. That includes Vietnam. So maybe I'm a bad loser, but I still don't like the way things turned out there.
I don't like the way things turned out there and I don't think it needed to happen that way. But that is a long long story and I don't want to fight the Vietnam War all over again here.
I was somewhat of an anachronism in Vietnam in that I knew that war was hell long before I got to Vietnam. And most of the correspondents there, and they were nice guys and hard working, sometimes very brave and resourceful and all of that, this was their first war. And so I didn't get quite as excited about it. And I wasn't nearly as perturbed about the morality of it all as they were, I think all wars are immoral, but some are less immoral than others, perhaps. And I had been a Marine in the Pacific during World War II, I was a Marine combat correspondent, and I covered the Korean War and then I'd covered a number of other things, little revolutions and small wars, all in Asia. In East Asia for the most part. The Indo-Pakastani Wars, and I covered the last of the French War in Indochina. So I was not exactly a stranger to the scene.
I took up residence in Saigon in 1965. I was writing for the Chicago Daily News and the Chicago Daily News Foreign Service. I took a house rather than living in a hotel.
David Halberstam was out there about that time, and Mal Browne and Neil Sheehan and I. I was commuting between Tokyo, which was my home and Saigon up until 1965. That was when we committed combat troops and this was no longer a commuting story and I had to take up residence there. And I stayed there, except for brief leaves, up until 1971. Then I moved up to Hong Kong. But I never really left. You never really left Vietnam, it was still the only story, and I kept going back.
At the time when the terms of the Paris Agreement were made public, even the anti-war correspondents, the yong ones, said "Well, this is a sell out." And of course it was. All we were interested in at that time, what we were intensely interested in at that time, was getting our prisoners back. We didn't give a damn about anything else. Really. And so in return for getting the prisoners back, we legitimized the North Vietnamese presence in South Vietnam and arranged it so they could defeat the South Vietnamese at their leisure. That was really the beginning of the end. I saw no threat from the US for the North after that.
I don't think anyone was deceived by it or anything. It was clear we were getting out and the war had lasted longer than we wanted it to.
I thought it was not a very nice way to do business. I felt that we treated the South Vietnamese government, which was totally dependent on us, I felt we treated them rather shabbily. Thieu was not exactly your statesman type, but he was not, in my view, not nearly as bad as he was made out to be. I think that he was doing about as well as he could do in the circumstances. But I thought it was a pretty shabby way to treat him.
You see we were imposing our morality and our standards of conduct -- our rules for democracy -- on a country that wasn't even a country for god's sakes. That was simply the southern half of the peninsula that never had really ever been united except for about 15 years in its two thousand year history. And we were demanding that they shape up, hold elections, do all those nice things like we want all our good little allies to do, and observe civil rights and Christ, we're doing the same thing now in Central America.
I would never go that far as to say the press lost the war for us. I would say that the press did not lose the war, but they helped. In the sense not because they were trying to, but the relentlessly negative reporting without any regard to perspective, was in my view, something that contributed to an erosion of support of the war. There are many other factors, of course, that were more important than this. Such as the fact that Lyndon Johnson never really tried to tell the American people what the war was all about. He never really tried to get public support for the war. He was afraid that people would get all wrought up and it would cost him some of his Great Society Program.
I would also say that broadcast journalism had far greater impact than print journalism in Vietnam. A correspondent has no honor in the country that he is covering because you seldom see what your colleages are doing. You're out there, and you don't always see what they're writing or showing and so on. It always seemed to me that television, no matter how good the correspondent was, was still show business. Essentially. let me give you an example. I knew a very bright and very able AP reporter whose name I will not mention, who got fed up with AP and ABC offered him a job. He went to work for them. And I said, "So you're going into show business, are you?" And he said, "No, I'm not. I'm going to do it different, I'm going to do it straight." And said "It can be done, I'm convinced."
So one day there was a little demonstration, a "demo" we used to call them in Saigon, by a couple of Buddhists. And somebody threw a molotov cocktail to get the obligatory fire going and the police came in and chased them off. I don't think they didn't beat anybody up I don't think, I was just passing by and I stopped to watch it. It was like a fender bender or something like that in Saigon and it probably didn't involve more than a dozen people. In any event our man was there, the young ex-Ap reporter to record this on film. He shot it and then he panned the whole street, to be objective, to show that people were just going on with their daily lives, it was business as usual on that street in Saigon on that day. That was his way of being objective.
And of course he made the evening news. The flames, the Buddhists, but not the other stuff. Now that's the way it goes. That's perfectly understandable, who the hell wants to see a picture of a lot of cars going back and forth? They want to see the bang bang.
He put his narrative with the story and he did say that business was going on as usual in Saigon. But during those riots that were going on in Saigon back in the 1960s, when there were lots of riots and lots of demonstrations, you would have thought, and there were some of them that were pretty big demonstrations, that all of Saigon was going up in flames. But this involved a very few people. And yet there it was, in living color, right on the evening news on television.
I know that Morley Safer is quite proud of the job that Television did out there. And he is entitled to his opinion. The story that Morley did at Cam Ne in 1965[of Marines using Zippo lighters to set fire to villagers homes], it's ancient history now, but I think that was highly sensational. I thought that it was and I think that it is. As an ex-marine I am biased. I could be accused of bias, but I don't think I was. The fact is that this village had been a pretty tough village and these people had been warned repeatedly that the village would be torched if they continued to shoot at Marines when they went in there. And I think a Marine batallion commander, whom I knew out there, whom I had known in Korea years before when he was a young lieutenant, said after the Safer story was shown, he said, "Well, a Marine rifleman under fire is not a goodwill ambassador." But there was none of that in Morley Safer's story.
Shortly after that he came up to Danang and the Marines gave him a hard time and he came to me for help. Or for some information. And I asked him, "What do you expect me to do?" I wasn't very helpful. Anway, Morley is a Canadian of course, which is not to be held against him, I think that probably one thing, I resented the Canadian coming in and telling us how to run the fucking war. I think it seemed like that at the time.
I doubt that you can really tell the truth on television. There has to be a complete understanding between the correspondent in the field and the people back in New York where the film is going, I suppose. I think it could be done, I guess. And I know that it wasn't.
On the other hand, I think that it's very difficult to defend some of the Vietnamese officials. And it was not difficult to make them look bad, they made themselves look bad.
I think that they were greatly misunderstood. Some of the things that the Vietnamese were most condemned for, in their eyes, were not necessarily bad. For example, you take a province chief, a province chief's job was very much sought after. And all province chief's were by definition considered corrupt by the Americans. And by our standards they were because they took money, they would charge a village head man so much for that job, and the deputy province chief he had to pay the province chief so much for his job, and other people had to pay him. Well, the fact is that in many cases. It was nepotism. There was a great deal of that. But in Vietnamese eyes there was nothing so terribly offensive about that because the province chief would have been derelict in his duty to his famiy if he had not looked after them first. We call this nepotism. They would accept this in the Confucian tradition. Now, what happened, was this. To begin with the Vietnamese were probably no more corrupt than other ancient societies, but when we came in there with all of our money, and everything that went with the American presence, they were much much more corrupt than ever before because there was so much more to be corrupt with. And this was something that you don't get into a three minute segment on the evening news.
I hesitate to even mention it because it is so outrageous to even mention these things in a news context. You can't do this story, you can't tell it on television, unless you're going to do a documentary on the manners and morals of the South Vietnamese. I don't think that would have gotten you to first base if you had even suggested it. I used to try to work it into my stories from time to time and I did get a lot of it in the paper but I don't know if anyone paid any attention to it.
Where corruption became a terrible problem in Vietnam is in that it permeated down to the lowest level. Originally, corruption in Vietnamese society was only very high level people. A wealthy merchant might want a special favor done and he could go to see the head mandarin and the mandarin would say, you're disturbing the flow of tranquility here, and it would be understood that he must be compensated, for this ripple in the tranquil surface in the stream of history that was flowing by. And it didn't effect many people.
I remember my cook, Ngueyn Van Minh, came to me one time he was very agitated and very angry. He said that the police had picked him up despite the fact that he had eight children and was over 45, they were going to draft him. And put him in the army. And because he didn't have birth certificates for all of his children. However, they said that they might be able to find birth certificates for them if he foudn 15,000 piasters. Well, Minh was angry not so much because they wanted a bribe, but because they wanted too much. He thought that 15,000 was entirely to much and he had tried to beat them down and they wouldn't come down. Well, I paid the bribe. And so he got off and he wasn't drafted.
It is difficult position for me defending the South Vietnamese, whom I have criticized myself. But still I think, what I am trying to say, really is that they weren't quite as bad as they were painted. Did they have any redeeming features at all? Well, a lot of them did fight and some units, as is evident from almost any book you read on the last days of the Vietnam conflict, some of the units fought extremely well. And some of the officers, rather than surrender, committed suicide.
It shouldn't be forgotten that when Congress cut back on aid, that this had a highly negative effect on the morale of the South Vietnamese troops. Here we were the country that was supposed to have such an abundance of everything to fight with, it would have seemed that the least we could do was to give them that. And yet in the end we cut their throats on that too. And I just don't think it was a very nice thing to do.
When Ban Me Thuot was lost in March of 1975 I felt that that was the beginning of the end. And I was in Tokyo at that time, as South Vietnam was going down the tubes, I was on my way back to the states, coming home on leave. I had left Hong Kong, and but I was keeping up with the story, and I suggested to my office several times that I should get back there because it was going obviously to be more than enough for one man -- we already had a man there. So I went back. And it was evident to me that it was going. This was it. Ban Me Thuot was the beginning of the end.
There were so many delegations coming over in the last days. I didn't cover them because I thought they were revolting, really. Actually, they weren't all that bad. Even Bella Abzug, I suppose, was moved by what she saw in Cambodia. They're not bad people. But I just don't believe in tourists around a war. I don't . Those people are exploiting the war, in a way. I remember when Ted Kennedy, for whom I have only contempt, really, I do, he came out, once, and he went up to Binh Dinh province, which was a very tought province, and a he was talking to some of the AID officials and some of the civilian Americans there, and he said , "Well gentlemen, is there anything I can do for you?" And this one guy, a guy named Krieger, he said, "Yes, you can stay home and leave us get on with our work out here." That's not the sort of thing you are supposed to say to a visitor, but that's how he felt.
I never foresaw it ending the way it did, leaving from the roof of the Embassy. I really didn't want to think about losing the war. I suppose intellectually I knew that we were going to lose it, but emotionally I found it very difficult to accept because we invested so much and it didn't need to have been that way, in my opinion. We didn't have to lose it. Although by that time we very clearly had lost it. In my view the war was lost here in the United States, not in Vietnam. I know it's a cliche, but it's true, we never lost a battle, but we lost the war. And I did not envisage, going the way it did, ending the way it did. I did not think that I was going to have to climb the Embassy Wall to get out of Saigon on April 29, 1975. No, I hadn't a thought of that.
I was out at Xuan Loc in mid-April. I never thought that they would hold out for long, I thought they were putting up a good fight, but I didn't think that it could last.
I wrote a story on April 14th, which was based on intelligence, CIA intelligence that we had, that said that Hanoi was going to come in and take the place, that they were not interested in any cosmetic solutions or any face-saving devices for the South Vietnamese. There was to be no political solutions, they were coming in to take the place. And so, that is of course what they did.
There were a number of correspondents who stayed, all together, about 80. I didn't stay for two reasons, one was I wanted, I knew that the big story, the main story was going to be the fall of Saigon. That story I wanted to get out. I wasn't sure that I was going to be able to get it out if I did stay. That was a practical matter. Secondly, and co-equally, I did not want to stay. No, thank you. Emotionally, I did not want to see the communists come in. I was not afraid of being shot or anything like that. I felt that it would be quite safe. I didn't think they'd come in and shoot all of the Americans or anything like that. As a matter of fact, there was a report aboard ship, after we left Saigon, aboard a carrier in the South China Sea, that all the correspondents, it was announced on the the ship's loudspeaker, that all the correspondents in Saigon had been executed by the Communists. And all the correspondents aboard the ship said, "Oh, bullshit." And nobody believed it and it wasn't true. I don't know where it came from, but maybe it was just wishful thinking on the part of the military.
I wanted to go to Saigon since the war ended. But they told me, "Oh, Mr. Beech, if you go to Saigon you're likely to run into some bad elements among your old friends down there." And I said, "I don't know why, all the bad elements I knew in Saigon are now in the United STates. I thought they all got out. They're safe, unlike you poor bastards who are sitting here wondering where your next meal is coming from."
I would like to have gone back to Saigon, professionally speaking. But I was not going to beg them to let me go back. I was a professional foreign correspondent. I had 33 years in Asia I was not some guy who's based in Washington or Los Angeles or somewhere else. I was not unknown in Asia. I didn't beg for things. I asked, politely. But I didn't beg.
I had known John Murray, the first Defence Attache, since he was captain in Korea, and he is a nice guy. Before he left Vietnam, he used to confide in me a lot, because we had known each other for a time, and John one day he just said, he got so emotional, he just sat there, with tears running down his cheeks. And he said, "Christ, Almighty, how can they do this?" He knew that they didn't have enough ammunnition, some of their units. One might say that in the end they would have been defeated anyway, that to give them more military hardward and more guns and more ammunition was simply prolonging the death agonies. But that isn't the way you look at it if you are there.
"Give Me a Limited Bullet and I'll Give You a Limited War"
I was born in Detroit in 1926. My life, like my career, is varied and checkered. I joined the military in World War II when I was 17. That was really my war, the war I fought in. I was in the Navy aboard a destroyer in the South Pacific. I was just a seventeen-year-old kid and that was a patriotic war, you've got to understand. That war was fought with love and fervor. Vietnam wasn't.
I was aboard a destroyer by the name of the Renshaw. We were torpedoed in the South China Sea and l lost eighteen people. Our skipper held that thing together with chain hoists. It was hit right under the torpedo tubes which was aft of the main part of the ship and it almost split in two. But he held that thing together until we got into Okinawa and then some minor repairs were made and we were towed all the way back to the United States.
I've thought about this and wondered why I lingered so long over the war in Vietnam and wondered if it didn't have something to do with it. You see I stayed in Vietnam really longer than any other television correspondent and produced more television news stories out of Vietnam than any other correspondent except one. Don Webster of CBS did three or four more stories than I did in Vietnam. But I've often wondered if it wasn't some relationship maybe between the fact that I had war experience, coupled with my fascination for what was happening in Vietnam.
They weren't parallel situations, I was aboard ship in World War II and all of my experience in Vietnam was on land. But the simple fact is that it did fascinate me to the extent that I stayed on so long, right until the final collapse.
After the war I went back and finished high school in an accelerated veterans' program. And then I went on to the University of Rochester. But I did not complete my university education. I went for two years and then I knew what I wanted to do with my life. I knew that I wanted to be a newsman. There wasn't any doubt about that.
So I got a job on a newspaper and it really got my career launched. I worked for the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle. My career as a newspaperman, was a sixteen year journey, which took in several newspapers until I finally ended up at the Los Angeles Herald Examiner. Then KNBC television, which is the NBC "Owned and Operated" station in Los Angeles, was looking to expand its news staff. It was expanding its newscast from fifteen minutes to half an hour and I had been interviewed by a newsman, Bill Brown, who had been on the Examiner at one time. I was president of the Los Angeles Newspaper Guild, and we had gone on strike. And he interviewed me when the strike was settled. Brown was the news director also for KNBC. About a month later he called me and asked me if I had ever thought about getting into television. I had not really thought about getting into television, but I figured my career at the Herald Examiner, having been president of the guild which took them out on strike, was about over.
So he hired me along with -- over the course of the year it turned out to be -- a very fine news staff. Among them was Tom Brokaw, and some others. So that's how I got into television. That was in 1965.
On the Herald Examiner I had applied many times to be a foreign correspondent. But the Hearst organization didn't maintain any foreign news bureaus at all. It had Bob Considine and William Randolph Hearst Jr., who really kind of formed what they optimistically called their "Hearst Foreign News Service". It really was comprised of those two diddie bopping around the world having a good time and doing stories. And that really was about the extent of the reporting. There wasn't a chance in hell of
really becoming a foreign correspondent for them. And I thought my best root really would be through television.
Those were the very early years of our involvement in Vietnam. And it was really beginning to emerge into a major news story. That was The Story. I could see that it was going to be the story of that generation. What young virile red-blooded newsman wouldn't want a piece of that story? That was where newsmen made their reputations. And I wanted a piece of it.
By that time I was an old line staffer with NBC, domestically, and one of their top newsmen on the West Coast. But there was still the separation between being a staff member for an Owned and Operated and working for the network. When they finally did put out a call for volunteers to go to Vietnam, there weren't many. David Burrington who had been in Los Angeles, too, went, and I really very badly wanted to go at the same time. But they only took one. Then a couple years later, in 1967, they issued another call and I volunteered to go.
That time I made it. I was there twice. The first time it was only to be for six months. The tour of duty at that time was for six months, but you couldn't bring your family with you. So it meant a six month separation. Families weren't allowed in by any of the networks at that time.
That turned out to be a pretty successful six months for me. I completed my tour, which some of the newsmen weren't doing. There were some crazy things that were happening. I guess Vietnam had a tendency to make boys out of men and men out of boys in a lot of ways. A lot of correspondents, young reporters who went, couldn't hack it and terminated their tours very early.
I think basically it was because Vietnam wasn't what they expected it was going to be. Secondly I would imagine that -- I'm talking about television -- it required the separation from the family. A lot of them brought their families over and kept them in Hong Kong and Singapore, and Bangkok. We had the R & Rs every eight weeks -- we got ten days. A lot of them managed to maintain it that way. But some of them bombed out.
And I think a lot of them went for the wrong reason. I don't think they necessarily went because the story attracted them as much as they saw an easy way to gain fame and fortune, and when it turned out you had to do something to gain the fame and fortune, to actually really cover the thing, that's when I think a lot of them became discouraged and bombed out and came back early.
That was the trouble I think the networks were having. So I successfully completed my tour, and came back, but I wasn't satisfied. Sort of "how you gonna keep em down on the farm after they've seen Paree", I guess. A short while later I was ready to go again.
There was probably was a lot more innocence at the time among almost all of us who were there. It hadn't yet really dawned on us at that point that this might be a losing proposition. More and more there was the escalation. We were still buying in to "the light at the end of the tunnel." There was a real air of optimism, I think on just about everybody's part. There were a few who were skeptical and beginning to question whether this was a viable situation for us to be involved in. I don't think during that first six-month period that I had really come to that conclusion myself. I came away, as I say, with a feeling of dissatisfaction that it was a job undone. I hadn't had enough. I hadn't seen enough to come to any conclusion.
There were a lot of dangerous incidents then. And that bothered me to the extent that maybe the thought crossed my mind, I don't particularly want to die in some foreign battlefield without at least having seen my family one more time. I desperately missed my family. On my first tour I brought my wife over to Hong Kong and I went on my R&R over there, but then I snuck her into Saigon. What the hell, she'd come that far, paid a lot of money, and she wanted to see Saigon, so I snuck her in. They finally found out about it, I only had her there for a few days. She had to go back to Los Angeles, because my three kids were back here. But it created a hell of a stir within the hierarchy in NBC to the extent they sent somebody out from New York to find out what the hell was going on, and how come I'd broken the rules.
At the end of six months I did want to come home because I had three children back here. I was reluctant to leave, but I wanted to come back because of my family. But I think in the back of my mind even then, I thought I'm going to come back here and see this thing through one way or the other.
Then NBC changed its policy. And they changed it with me. I was back about six months in '68, when Bob Mulholland who was then the West Coast Director of News came to me and asked me if I would like to go back. And I said, well, I would consider it for a longer tour. He wanted to know if I would go back for an eighteen month tour -- and I said yeah, I would, but I wanted my family this time. I couldn't possibly be gone for that long without them.
And they changed the policy and let my family follow me a few weeks after I had departed. I think I was the first television correspondent who arrived in the country with his family and that kind of broke the ice and the other networks followed suit. Steve Bell came with his family. Dick Threlkeld came with his family. And I think that was really the first breakthrough. The networks were getting tired of those six months tours because they had to feed that machine every six months and I think that was the reason why they finally broke loose because it had been a very firm policy.
So I came back right after Tet in 1968 and it was still hot. That's why my family was delayed in coming over. My family didn't really arrive until July. There was a delay there so that I had enough time to persuade myself that it was going to be okay and that they would be safe enough and that it wasn't going to be that bad. It was a dicey situation, but my family wanted to go into it. I suppose that isn't quite fair to my kids. They weren't really old enough to be participating in decisions of that magnitude, but certainly my wife did. And we had discussed it pretty thoroughly and I had enough time over there before they came to make up my mind that this was not going to be all that bad as far as they were concerned.
By 1968 the situation in Vietnam had changed in a lot of subtle ways. There was a hurry to get someplace -- everybody was rushing around very frantically trying to make a name for himself because they didn't think it was going to last much longer. Then they began to see that the tunnel was a hell of a lot longer and you couldn't see any light at the end of it anyway, and it was then that I think a lot of the other things that were disillusioning as far as Vietnam itself were happening. Young draftees were being shoved into the ranks of the military at a great rate. The entire attitude was changing on the part of the military, and there was much more cynicism developing in the press corps than I had known was there before.
I didn't share in that cynicism at first. I couldn't quite come to grips with the fact that this tremendously powerful military machine could not take the measure of this country, this little country. Never mind the dedication on the part of the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong. I didn't quite understand it at that point. It took me a little bit of time to come to grips with that. Maybe that does harken back to my own time and my belief in the military machine, if you will, as a viable way. I didn't understand the extent of the politicizing the war back here in the states. I didn't understand how far that had gone.
One of the last stories I did before I went back that second time to Vietnam was the assassination of Senator Kennedy and he was really beginning to formulate the anti-Vietnam stance. Of course with his assassination other people had to pick up the pieces and carry it forth. So I didn't quite understand the depth or the extent of how bad it was back here. It took me a little time to catch up to that. Now others who had been there and -- I'm thinking of Peter Arnett and some of the other people who had been there for a long long time -- they picked up on it pretty early, but I guess I was kind of a latecomer to that.
We had everything in place. There wasn't any reason why this military machine as it had been built up to almost five hundred thousand men with all of the sophisticated weaponry we had and all of this great technology capable of literally wiping out the enemy, why it didn't do that. But the military was constrained and they couldn't fight beyond a certain limit. It couldn't use its great technical ability. A couple of bombs in the Red River Delta in North Vietnam would have settled the whole thing in a great hurry. That's what I mean. And I didn't understand what the constraints were. Why couldn't we do those things, go beyond the Seventeenth parallel?
I remember going up to the DMZ several times, and I knew that we were honoring that DMZ. We were not infiltrating north--maybe some of the long range patrols and things like that, the Green Berets may have been carrying out some clandestine affair behind the lines, but those were Special Forces events. But there was no mass movement of our troops that was going on. That was the DMZ and we were honoring it. But I remember standing just yards away, looking through the night scopes and you could see the movements that were going on at that time by the North Vietnamese using the DMZ as an infiltration route. I thought that was a very perplexing thing. Why should we honor this if they're not honoring it? When you're in a pissing contest with a skunk, don't bring Chanel #5 to the fight. And when you've got the best tools available, there's no such thing as a limited war. You can not have a limited war. You give me a limited bullet and I'll give you a limited war.
No, I saw these great young men who were willing to give their best and to lay it on the line, but they had nothing to back it up. Nobody was reinforcing them. They were not being given any reasons for it. It was a war that was being fought in name only. They understood probably earlier on than maybe some of the people in the news business did that they were being shackled. And I looked at them and understood that here they are over here and willing to put it on the line, but they don't really quite understand why. What does this mean in the overall context of things, what does it mean to us? They didn't understand things like domino theory and they were just told they were fighting communism. That's not enough reason.
Some of them were over there thinking, "What the hell am I doing here? I'm not mad at these people, it's not my country." And I think that's when things began to come apart. That's when the disillusionment really began to set in.
When you're in a war, they are fought to be won, not to be lost. And when the politicians began to shackle and hinder this machine that we had put together to win the war and put restrictions on it so it couldn't win the war, then I began to have a very different view of things -- maybe my antiwar feelings begin to come out at that point. I started to think, I'm going to burn my kid's draft card before I'll let him get involved in this kind of a situation. I'm not going to let him be ground up in this kind of machine.
Corruption was rampant in Vietnam. Rampant. But it was corrupt before we got there. There was a black market with the French. They were just as corrupt under the French as under the Americans. But who among the Americans didn't participate in the black market? What the hell. Reality dictates that we would be participants in it when your own organization was telling things like when they were orienting you to go over, what to look for, and if you wanted a housing allowance, "You will be living off the economy, and there is the black market." They didn't really go much beyond that, but they made you aware of the fact that there was black market and you probably could participate in it. And there was only one person that I know that ever pulled the plug, and that's because he got in a bind. That was AP photographer who finally testified at some congressional committee about the media being all involved in the black market insofar as exchanging currency. I knew people who made a bundle, made a business out of it. And you could do it by just going back and forth from the money man, "the Indian" as they used to call him -- the Indians were the great currency black marketeers. Going back and forth from the Indian in downtown Saigon out to the airport and change your piasters into dollars, and then take your dollars and go back and buy piasters and take the piasters back out -- it was a business and they had a regular shuttle service going. And many newsmen participated in that.
And remember, there were a lot of bad newsmen in Vietnam along with the good newsmen. There were those who were very very good and there were those who were very very bad. And some of the very bad represented some major news organizations that, for whatever reason, didn't feel like they had to send their best or didn't feel like they had to have the best representation possible. Maybe they didn't take the story that seriously. When you had organizations like the Chicago Tribune, the New York Daily News -- these are major news organs back here, for God's sake -- represented by some people who never even left Saigon, then you've got a problem. One of the great stories of all time, I think, was that the correspondent for the New York Daily New only left Saigon once. And he was there for years and years and years. He didn't even have an office, he used the press room in the MACV building and he considered it his own -- God help you if you wanted in there to use any of those typewriters. That was his newsroom. And it was supposed to be available to wandering correspondents coming in and out of the country. His newspaper once ordered him to go out to go up to I CORPS, to go up to DaNang and do hometowners for over the holidays this one year. Absolutely ordered him. He had never been outside the city limits, and this man was reporting every day. And he was reporting the line that was delivered at the daily follies every damn day, that the military was coming out with.
So what he did, he called up and he told the IO officer up in Danang that he was coming up to do hometowners and he wanted twenty-five people from New York City or New York State. He wanted them at the airport. He flew up on a military flight, got off that damn plane and the IO had them all lined up, and he went down the line, got the names, addresses and a quote, interviewed the whole twenty-five of them--and this is a true story--got back on the airplane and was back in Saigon that night. That was the extent of that man's experience, of his total experience of honestly reporting the war in Vietnam.
The size of the press corps itself was horrendous. You couldn't possibly keep tabs on everybody. Yet there was a sort of club atmosphere --not in a protective sense, but in the sense that newsmen tended to think, "Yes it is our little war and god damn it don't intrude too much. We've got a good thing going over here." And also it was a great party war. I remember being amazed at the number of parties that used to go on in Saigon. That makes it sound as if I spent all my time in Saigon, but God knows I didn't. Over all those years, I had my family there. But you could go to a press party given by somebody --a fellow journalist--every night there'd be a party someplace you could go if you wanted to. And if you could hold up under the gaff of partying all the time, you could go to a party every damn night. That kind of faded away as things got tougher. But the fact of the matter is that it was a great party war.
The Marines for some reason fascinated me just tremendously. And they were up in I CORPS and I became something of the I CORPS specialist for NBC because I used to spend as much time up there as I could because I liked to operate with the marines. I could never quite understand the marine mentality. I love the marines, don't get me wrong, but I never could quite understand what their mentality was. Or I did understand it, maybe that's it. More importantly I did understand that what they were -- this magnificent fighting machine, introduced into this country and willing to do anything and everything to gain so little, but that was the nature of the beast. We weren't there to gain ground at all. If we did win it, we gave it back. I think somebody pointed that out in what became the Battle of Hamburger Hill. There we wanted the top of the god damn hill and we got it at great expense and the next day abandoned it. We never were there to take territory and hold it.
But the marines' mentality was that the enemy's on the top of the hill and we're at the bottom. There's fifteen different ways to really take that hill. You could bring in tac air and soften it up before you make your charge. You can attack it from two sides and split their forces at the top. But with the marines there's only one way with the marines and that was charge right straight up that hill and God help you if you didn't take it.
After the battle of Khe Sanh, many many months afterwards, after the big battle, which was their big "Saipan" or "Tarawa" of Vietnam, they staged events where they flew a big contingent of newsmen back to Khe Sanh for a ceremony and part of that ceremony was a flag raising ceremony. Now you understand they had been out there maybe a day or two before. I'm telling you there were hundreds of us that they flew out there. Just think of all the C-130s they had to tie up to fly I bet there were two hundred of us at least. To fly us out to this old abandoned air strip at Khe Sanh. There wasn't anybody there. Maybe a few VC around, but they weren't making any trouble anyway. But after this horrendous battle they flew us all back there several months later and part of the ceremony amongst the speeches and the bands playing, and banners waving, was a flag raising ceremony. They had these marines lined up to face this flag in the precise exact manner that the flag had been raised at Iwo Jima. They had gone to all that trouble. And those boys had rehearsed and rehearsed how to raise that goddamn flag. It was the damndest thing I ever saw in my life.
I reported that. I sure as hell did. That's one I did. Don Webster, as I recall, was with me and I was near him at the time, and we both just absolutely guffawed. And we both had got it on film -- in those days it was before video. It was just hysterical. They had to have an event. That's the marines, bless their hearts. I'm not talking them down, I love them dearly. But they had to have an event in this war that they could put in the history books and Khe Sanh was it.
Then I reported on Lam Son 719 in 1971. That was the worst one of all. That was a bad one. It was then obvious that we were pissing into the wind on Vietnamization. It was a joke. They did try to ban us from going into Laos and it was very very difficult to get in. But you could find the odd chopper pilot who would take you in, but it was very very dicey. That's where the three newsmen were lost at one time, Larry Burrows, Ken Potter, Henri Ewett -- that was the worst of all. I think that one operation turned me around all the way. I could see there wasn't any hope after that. I knew that we were, as I say, pissing into the wind.
That's when I started thinking of the US getting out. Oh, yeah. Why spend any more? Maybe I was even a little bit vitriolic about it. To my own credit, and I don't mean to make this sound self-serving, I did try to maintain a posture of objectivity. I'm not sure I did. I'd have to go back and see what I really did. But it was a frustrating operation. We were all put into this one compound, I think probably for control purposes. But anyway they had confiscated this one compound that belonged to the First Air Cav, as I recall, and I don't know where those poor guys were moved, but there were several quonset huts and we were all jammed into these huts. They had a briefing in the morning and in the afternoon -- the Americans did. And they did bring over the Vietnamese to brief us on their part of the operation. The Americans were strictly in support. We were just supplying the helicopter support and the logistical support for the thing.
I remember one day, Steve Bell and I were making a dash for the border by land, the only way we could see to get there. We had a hell of a time. We finally got to the border of Laos and that's where the road stopped. It was just impenetrable jungle from that point on. There wasn't any way of getting in. So you were really at the mercy of the chopper pilots if you really wanted to get in. And I think what happened with Larry Burrows and Ken Potter, who was my bunk mate, had the bunk next to me -- nice young kid, always hungry, a lot of us brought our own food and he was always after me -- he was a growing boy, I guess -- he was only about twenty-two -- he and Henri and Burrows stayed by the helicopter pad for days waiting to get the trip in and when they finally did they were shot down. I think that got the rest of us. I made a lot of helicopter flights over it and I got in one time on the ground, but boy I'll tell you, I didn't stay on the ground, no sir. I came right back out on that same helicopter, because the South Vietnamese were bailing out as fast as they could and anything that landed they were jumping on, and the American pilot --thank God I hadn't gone with a Vietnamese--says we have to go. Dozens of them, hundreds of them were barreling towards anything that landed and grabbing the runners to the extent where some helicopters couldn't even take off.
You could see a lot of things happening on the ground, but most of the American pilots in the First Air Cav wouldn't set down. This one group did, but I got the hell out, I came right back out. I didn't even get a story.
One thing I think that kept me alive through all of Vietnam was I knew when to keep my head down. I could recognized a dicey situation and get the hell out of it.
A lot of my reporting was outside of Vietnam. A lot of my years were spent in Cambodia. And to my mind the blackest mark on America's record will be Cambodia and what we did to those people. They were tossed into the maw of the war machine without even knowing what the hell was happening to them, for the sole purpose of trying to protect Vietnam, no other purpose whatsoever. That whole episode was perpetrated with an eye towards trying to pull the war in Vietnam out of the bag for political reasons. The Cambodian people were sacrificed for that. And we still to this day won't recognize it or admit it.
Here's a nation of what, seven million people, who probably will never be a nation again. And I think that we were largely responsible for that.
I could see it happening day by day. When American newsmen were first in Vietnam and Sihanouk was in power, we were restricted from going in. Some did manage to sneak in under the guise of being everything but journalists. But for a television newsman it was impossible. You couldn't get in there with a camera or anything. But finally after the overthrow of Sihanouk we all piled over there. By that time I had left NBC and joined ABC and my assignment with ABC was Cambodia from that point on. That was in 1971.
I worked in Vietnam an awful lot, but I actually moved my family and everything over to Phnom Penh. And we were there for well over a year. But I would go back to Vietnam periodically. They'd reassign me back there for special events and stories and if they needed to beef up the bureau.
I did watch the tragedy of Cambodia unfold every day, and it was a tragedy. They didn't understand what had happened. They thought this was a great event. They didn't have any military establishment as such. I think they had an eighteen thousand man palace guard sort of standing army and it was really nothing more than a palace guard. It was more or less ceremonial troops that would function around the country. They weren't fighters. They didn't have any military equipment and we weren't giving them a hell of a lot. They originally went off to war on Pepsi Cola trucks, which Nixon had introduced, if you will, when he was between gigs after his abortive attempt for the Presidency and Kennedy beat him. He became the legal representative for Pepsi Cola and he went around the world selling Pepsi Cola plants and he had set up the one in Cambodia. And believe me, I mean this literally, when they actually went off to war, the only troop vehicles they had were Pepsi Cola trucks.
Then of course some of the vehicles, the military equipment, did start to filter in, but very limited. They were never given anything -- they didn't know how to fight a war. Certainly they were up against the crack troops of North Vietnam who had developed this magnificent machine, the Khmer Rouge. But I saw those people turn from this beautiful race of gentle sweet-natured people into savages. They literally were. At the end they were beheading each other. On any given day, if you dared venture out, if you wanted to, you could get a scene of -- they used to cut each other's liver out because they felt that the spirits of war lived in the liver and if you ate the man's liver it would make you a braver person. I used to have shots of them carrying heads by the hair down the roads. And that's what the race of people had degenerated into as the war progressed over the years.
Then in Vietnam a lot of other things had happened, too. I lost a cameraman in Vietnam. He was killed. His name was Terry Khoo. He was a Singaporean Chinese. And the other young fellow that was with him that day -- that was during the Easter offensive in I CORPS -- was Sam Kai Faye -- and that was a strange set of circumstances. Both were Chinese. Both from Singapore.
I had been up in Hue. The whole press corps had moved out of Da Nang and up to Hue and we were operating out of there and going north for all of the fighting every day, out of Hue. Terry Khoo was one of the top cameramen, in the world for that matter, but one of the top cameramen in the country, and had been with ABC over there for years, to the extent that he was being transferred to Rome to get him out of there, he had done enough, had been there for years and years. This was his last day. We had been up there in Hue for I think two weeks, and we were being replaced. There was a new correspondent, Arnie Collins, who came in. He'd just walked in the front door and they put him on an airplane and slapped him up there and he didn't have any equipment at all. He came off the plane with sandals on.
The night before that Terry and I had had a big fight. He wanted to take Sam up the next day and I said,"No", he was supposed to leave country, to fly back to Saigon and leave the country and I didn't want him to go. And we had an argument over it and I said, "No, you're not going out. We're going to make this transition as easy as possible and you're going to get back to Saigon and you're going out. They don't want you doing anything more."
Well, there was some stuff going on up north and the following morning, here's poor Arnie. I said let's go over to the black market and get you some boots. You can't walk around in shower shoes, for Christ's sake. And he didn't have any fatigue pants or anything. So when I was gone Terry and Sam and the sound man, T.H. Lee, geared up and went off. I didn't even know they were gone. And when we finally go back I found out they had left and I didn't know where they had gone. And a couple hours later T.H. Lee came bursting through the door at the hotel and he said that they had gotten into a situation, right off Highway One north of Hue about ten miles or so, where they'd come across a gun battle and Terry and Sam and he had cut across a field -- he thought they were going around and coming in from behind to go in with the South Vietnamese troops and they were walking across this terrain when out of a clear blue sky they were ambushed. He said he saw Sam go down and he saw Terry go down and he hit the deck. He wasn't hit and he laid there for a while and he could hear Terry still moaning, then finally he said he got up and ran and got away. That's when he came back to get me.
So we went out there and we couldn't even get to them. There was a very serious battle that was going on. The worst part was they were calling an air strike. If there was any opportunity to get to them at all, they called in an air strike and blew up the whole terrain. If they were still alive they were not alive after that. We never did get to them until the following day.
And a few weeks before I had gotten kind of close to Sam and I was close to Terry too, but when Sam first came into country which was about six months before I had kind of taken him under my wing. We'd been up there before. He and I had been up in Hue before. And we did a marvelous story that I kind of thought more or less typified what was happening during that particular offensive, which was a losing proposition. We were coming back, having been up to the front, so to speak, and here was this long funeral procession with two or three caskets being carried and the wailing families were trailing behind and they were going down the road and they started to cut across the open field. And it was a very dismal dim drizzly day, cold and dank and death was in the air, about the only way I can characterize it. What they were were three ARVN soldiers who had been killed in one of the recent battles. It had to be recent because they believe in burying the dead on the same day. It was a Catholic ceremony too. The priest with the altar boys were trailing behind in this procession. And I said, "Let's shoot this Sam. I think this story tells a hell of a lot, because there were three of them.
Well, we went over, he grabbed the hand camera, with the three lenses on the front, Bell & Howell, and I was going to wide track it, get the wide sound. I wasn't going to do any interview, but we did need natural sound. It was great sound with the wailing and so forth going on. So we followed them over and they were going through the liturgy there at the grave site and they started to lower the caskets into the hole in the ground. And I'm standing on the opposite side from where Sam was filming, and I looked up at Sam, and my God, he had his lens cap on. And Jesus I just came apart. And I just screamed at him, jerked him around and really landed on him terribly. He felt so bad.
Well he managed to recoup. He got his lens cap off. There was enough of the ceremony going on that I got it. It did make a marvelous story. It typified what I was trying to show of what was happening. The lost cause and the look on these people's faces and the entire atmosphere was so symbolic of what was actually happening in those days. And I did manage to get an excellent story. One of the best ones I think I did.
Sam felt so bad about it and I really just couldn't get over the fact he had his lens cap on. And then, when he went like that, I never had a chance to even say I'm sorry.
So I quit. I quit and moved my family to the island of Penang off the coast of Malaysia. I put my kids in school there. I stayed down for about three months. I just had to have time off I guess. But I literally had quit.
One day David Jayne who was the Far Eastern Bureau Chief in Hong Kong and a good friend of mine, the one who had really gotten me over to ABC when I came to the parting of the ways with NBC, called me and asked me if I'd go back. It was a little over three months and I was getting edgy. I had done some radio work for them over in Malaysia. I had done a few assignments for them and some radio reporting for them. For about four months I managed to stay on the beach, but then when David called I had to go. I still hadn't seen it through.
The Paris peace talks were going on then. And I think that was the crux of it. He said all these years of the war that you've covered, do you want a piece of the peace, don't you want to see what it's going to be? That did kind of attracted me I guess. American troops were leaving. The war was grinding down. It looked like maybe peace was going to come, at least the peace treaty was about to be signed after all that Paris bullshit that went on there. So that did appeal to me and I said I'd go back. But you know, peace was worse than the war. There was no peace.
Then ABC scaled down in Vietnam. Steve Bell became bureau chief in Hong Kong and Frank Mariano was named bureau chief in Saigon and I was transferred over to Hong Kong as senior correspondent under Steve. That lasted for maybe four or five months. My main assignment out of Hong Kong was to reinforce Frank, although I did go all over Southeast Asia and other assignments, Australia and India, and things like that, but if anything big popped up, I was supposed to float in and out of Vietnam, which I did with great regularity.
Then Steve was sent back to the States. They tapped him for "Good Morning America," as I remember. So they named me bureau chief in Hong Kong at that time. That was '73.
I think everyone was amazed that we were giving up on our commitment in Vietnam in 1973. As I say, the peace was really worse than the war, for God sake. But in any event, they finally decided after a while to close that bureau down entirely. They closed out Vietnam and moved Frank over to Hong Kong and then he became senior correspondent in Hong Kong. Frank was very unhappy. He wanted very badly to either be in Vietnam, which he dearly loved, or he wanted to be back in the States. He didn't take to the Hong Kong assignment at all. He'd had enough of the Far East unless he could be in Vietnam. And they weren't about to do that.
Then the came 1975 and we could see that the end of the war was approaching and they would not send Frank back, and they sent me back. That's when they made me bureau chief in Saigon. I had to reopen the whole god damn thing.
They reopened in Saigon right after the fall of Ban Me Thout.
I floated back and forth between Phnom Penh and Saigon. Actually the way I did it, the rice flights were going on then, into Phnom Penh on World Air. So I'd fly back and forth that way. Or I'd either fly back to Hong Kong for a couple of days and then fly out to Saigon out of Hong Kong. Getting in and out of Phnom Penh was getting hairier all the time. It was getting to be a desperate situation. That was the assignment I wanted the most, to tell you the truth. I wanted to spend more of my time there because I really could see that the end was coming there and I knew that there wasn't any hope for those people. Cambodia did something to me. I felt very acutely for those people, what we had done to them.
I helped get some people out -- some "little people." But there wasn't as much of that going on in Cambodia. I helped get out a driver and his family, and a middle-aged woman who had been our cook and housekeeper when we were living there.
The permanent press personnel were very protective of each other in Cambodia, much more so than ever happened in Vietnam. And we were all pretty much of a mind about things. While it was competitive to the extent of, if you knew something that you knew somebody else didn't know, you didn't share that, but it was a deadly situation. The Khmer Rouge took no prisoners and there was no doubt about that. They made that abundantly clear. And just going down the road was an extremely dicey situation. But we would check with each other who'd been down that road before. And you'd let each other know where you were going. We had a kind of an unwritten rule that everybody was supposed to be back at the hotel by three in the afternoon. That was kind of the cutoff time. And those who were not there, inquiries were made as to their whereabouts. It was that kind of thing because it was very -- there were no front lines. Well there weren't any front lines in Vietnam for that matter, but you never knew whether the something was under government control or Lon Nol's control, his troops, or whether it was under control of the Khmer Rouge. I remember once I went out with some government troops and I don't remember entirely the circumstances, what the story was about or what the objective was, but I remember we went out with this squad of Cambodian government troops. We went in our own vehicle following them and we all stopped at some point in the road, paddy fields on either side. And we got out, and they got out. They stood around and we stood around. And we started to walk a little bit and they started to walk a little bit. We stopped and they stopped. They didn't know where the hell they were going, they though we knew where we were going. And we didn't have any more of an idea who was controlling this territory, and you just didn't walk beyond the control. Believe me it got to be a very spooky feeling. I didn't know what the hell was going on. They didn't know what the hell was going on. They thought we did. We thought they did. And finally we all just packed it up and said screw it. We got back in and came back to town.
So it was that type of thing. When I got back, I shared that information. "We went this far, fifteen clicks down this highway, and it was safe up to this point. We didn't know what was beyond that." And that was the kind of information you shared with each other.
We had lost too many people in the press corps in Cambodia. There were nineteen missing. And we had formed what we called the Committee of Nineteen, to do as much as we possibly could to investigate. And we even got Cronkite, and it got to be a broader thing. Cronkite finally became the head of this committee. We tried to interest the world, if you will, into trying to find out whatever happened, because we never really knew. Welles Hengen was missing, the great NBC correspondent, whom I followed, as a matter of fact, over there. I was still with NBC at that time and went over the day after he went up missing.
He was never found. His wife had to stay down in Hong Kong -- Welles was out of Hong Kong at that time-- for many years always believing that he was alive. But I don't know.
And others disappeared, too. Sean Flynn, Errol Flynn's son. Dana Stone, who was a CBS cameraman. They all went down the road and they just never came back.
Now there were some that we know were killed. They were killed in battle. George Sieversten of CBS being one of them. I remember Brian Ellis had a nice ceremony, a service for him at the hotel, over which Brian presided. But there weren't many of those occasions when you knew. Dieter Bellendorf was a cameraman for NBC News and I'd known Dieter and he was a tough one, a German, tough as nails. He'd been my cameraman on occasion during the early days when I was there in Saigon. Dieter loved it. He was another war lover. He loved the din of battle, loved the smell of the smoke and he loved the smell of blood and he just loved the whole nine yards of it. He ate it up alive. And if you weren't going to go out with serious intent to cover a gunfight, screw you. He wanted to go out and cover the gunfight.
This was the kind of guy that he was. Like everybody else he traded on the black market and I guess whatever funds he had, it behooved you to trade large amounts so you didn't have to go back to the well too often. And he would keep his bundle in a suitcase and when they would send him up to Hue, or I CORPS, or down to the Delta, he went of for maybe two or three weeks at a time on those assignments. He'd put his money in this suitcase in which he also kept a python. He'd feed the python a couple of rats or chickens. This is true. I'm not kidding. And the thing bit him once. His theory was that anybody who opened up that suitcase and tried to get his money, they were going to get that damn python when they did.
He was a close friend of Dana Stone. Dana had gone with Sean Flynn and they -- well nobody really knew where they went, but they went to some part of eastern Cambodia on some story. Young Flynn was really a macho type. I knew him and worked with him and everything, but I didn't know him all that well. I wasn't that close a friend of his. But I think he felt that he had something to prove because of his dad. His dad was a great macho movie star and had been the great macho adventurer, soldier-of-fortune type before he became a movie star. And Flynn's career in the movies was abortive. He didn't even like to refer to it, to the few films that he was in. I guess they were pretty bad. But he was a bit of a loner. And he and Dana just went off and never came back.
Dieter came over to Cambodia some time after that. And he said, "I'm going to go down the road. I've got a motorcycle, and I'm going down the road, this way," which ever way it happened to be. And a correspondent said, "No, I don't want you going out unilaterally on your own. What are you going to do?" He said, "I heard that maybe Dana might be injured or wounded in this village down here." And the correspondent couldn't argue him out of it. And Dieter went off on his motorbike and never came back. Never. He just disappeared into the mist. Now whether he ever found Dana or Sean, we'll never know. His remains have never been found. He's obviously dead, but they say he was a very tough little guy.
I had been sent over from Phnom Penh to Saigon and I was in Saigon and the orphan plane went down. And so that day they called from New York and told me they wanted me to fly back to Hong Kong to do a live report with Peter Jennings by satellite. The only facility for live broadcasting was in Hong Kong. I flew out that day, on the flight just preceding the orphan flight. I didn't know about it until I got into Hong Kong.
I watched the fall of Saigon, then, from Hong Kong.
Oh, God, I wanted to get back into Saigon. They then sent me from Hong Kong to Bangkok, Thailand, because the fall of Cambodia had come about. So I went over to Thailand to go up along the border to see what was happening. There was an awful lot of fear that there would be an invasion of Thailand. Everyone was thinking that now the domino effect is real, they're not going to stop. It isn't going to stop with just the fall of Cambodia. Now the domino theory is really going to take effect.
Then I went back to Hong Kong and interviewed Americans and refugees coming out of Vietnam. I was aware that this was an important moment in history. I knew that. But I think also my feeling was one of relief. My story had come to an end and I had seen it through. By that time I was fully conditioned that the end was going to come and it was going to be -- I referred to it as the "fall". Now you can talk to other people who refer to it as the "liberation". And I guess it will always be in my mind the fall of Vietnam, because our participation was so heavy and it was such a heavy commitment that became a cropper. There wasn't going to be any victory for us. And I was bitter. Bitter. There was a real feeling of bitterness, I think, towards the politicians. Who could I really blame for not having prosecuted the war successfully? Johnson? Nixon? I remember especially my feeling of utter frustration when that last congressional delegation came over with Bella Abzug of all people. And Pete McCloskey was with them, too. Ford was seeking an additional appropriation of something like three hundred or five hundred million dollars, and they were a fact finding committee that was coming through to determine whether or not any more funds should be going into Vietnam. And so here was Abzug, this ridiculous woman, for Christ's sake, in her silly hat, and some other politicians who went around talking to God knows who, trying to make a determination on the future of this country. Of course, I will have to admit, the infusion of three hundred million more dollars was not going to make the difference. Probably three hundred billion more dollars would not have made the difference at that time. The cause was lost. But these were the representatives of the United States who had made the determination that the cause would be lost all along. And those were the people that I was bitter against.
I remember my closure on that particular one, because it was one time when I had purposely let my objectivity slip away from me, and I said something to the extent that this committee had come all the way to Vietnam to find the courage of their convictions. They had obviously made up their minds even before they had come there and their coming there was just a sham and a show and that they had to come all the way to Vietnam to find the courage of their convictions of not releasing any more funds to Vietnam. And that report made the air. Either nobody caught it or somebody must have agreed with it. But I do remember that.
And my bitterness was Jane Fonda. My bitterness was Senator Fulbright. My bitterness was Bella Abzug, maybe because she was the closest target. As I say, this ridiculous fat little woman who was not dumb, I don't mean that, but who the hell was she to be deciding these momentous things? Why weren't they being decided in other places, in other areas of more importance than some little congresswoman from Brooklyn, New York? What did she know about the sacrifices that had been made there? What did she know about Sam Kai Faye? What did she know about all of the people, how we had perverted and subverted a nation like Cambodia? My bitterness, I think, was really directed that way. Probably because there wasn't anybody else I could hate or be bitter against.
I do recall, when the fall came I went on a monumental drunk to the extent that I ended up in the hospital, the Queen of Angels Hospital, in Hong Kong. I just came apart. My wife had to put me in.
Well, those closing days in Vietnam capped off with that horrible crash with those orphans, the futility of it, it all just kind of got to me. What the hell was it all about? What the hell did we do here?
I have two grown sons now who were there, not that they really remember all those years, don't get me wrong, but I have two grown sons and we have had discussions about it and I have said to them that "I would burn your draft cards before I'd let you be drafted." When my youngest son turned the age to go register, I wasn't going to let him. I was not going to let him register for the draft. And he said, "But I've got to if I want to continue on in school." And I told him, "Okay, but by God if the situation ever arises like Cambodia or Vietnam, I'll burn your God damn draft card before I let these sons of bitches take you. I'll take you to Canada myself."
Strangely enough, he said to me, "That's my decision. I may not feel the same way, Dad. Maybe I will want to go. It's my country too." And you know I had to stop and reflect on that too. Who the hell am I to determine what my sons will feel at any given moment in a crisis involving the country?
When I came back to the states, I found that the country had changed drastically. It changed in the ten years that I was gone. It wasn't the same country that I had left.
Vietnam had changed it. The upheaval, I think, of Vietnam put this country on an entirely different course than it had ever had. A little of it had maybe emerged after Korea where the concept of limited warfare was first promulgated by Truman and he really kind of won that debate and that battle with MacArthur, who said there was no such thing as a limited war. Then came Vietnam. The country had not bought this war, the politicians and the Presidents had not sold this war to the country. They had not made a patriotic thing out of it so that we went to war feeling good about the cause, because there really was no cause there for us. We were there because we were defending a theory. You know in those days they were finding commies under ever god damned bed in town. But really there weren't any commies under the bed. We were just chasing shadows. There was some point in time, I think, when we could have had Ho Chi Minh in our hip pocket. We probably could have owned the god damn country if we had wanted to, but we weren't smart enough to do it that way. We were too worried about commies. Commies!
And then to have expended such a tremendous amount of life and limb and effort -- well, that upheaval changed this country to the extent that now you'd have a hell of a time selling a patriotic war, even if it did involve us directly. And that's kind of a frightening thing. What is the sense in maintaining this horrendous military establishment if it is not to be used? What is the sense of getting involved -- call it a police action if it's going to make you feel better -- what's the sense in getting involved in a police action if you are not going to attempt to emerge victorious from it? Why not take that money that we're putting into a military establishment and do good with it? Feed starving people.
When I came back here there wasn't any great interest in Vietnam. I felt that very acutely. I thought, Jesus, this is a good chance for me to hit the lecture tour. But I couldn't peddle it for hell or high water. When I came back and even some of my colleagues who preceded me back all said, "You're spitting into the wind on this, Jim. Nobody really cares about it. They don't want to hear about it."
In the end after all the smoke and the din of battle has cleared away over the years, I'm not really satisfied that we in the media, in television news, did really a good job of reporting the Vietnam war. I came away from that feeling that almost everything I did was very peripheral. I'm not going to speak for anybody else but myself. It just seems to me that television overall more or less lurched from one gun fight to another and never really got involved very deeply in any --never showed any of what it was all about. I think the print media had -- certainly Arnett, Halberstam, Mal Brown -- had the vehicle. We impacted the war a hell of a lot more on the American public than the print media ever did, by the very nature of television news. It still does, even to this day, impact the American public a lot more, vis a vis the latest figures, sixty-five percent or seventy per cent of the public depend almost totally on tv for their news. Which is ridiculous of course. Nonetheless, I don't think we in television news really did much more than impact them, incite them, but we didn't really inform them.
And that was always my feeling when I came away. There were times when I thought, Geez, I'm doing a hell of a job over here, but then in the long run we just seemed to lurch from one gun fight to another.
Horst Fass, the chief photographer for the Associated Press, had been over there for years and won a Pulitzer prize. He's a German, great photographer, very tough guy, and he loved it. He made this famous statement "I love der Boom Boom". When somebody asked him why he had stayed all the years he did, that was his reply, "I love der Boom Boom." And that's what the newsmen did want, the blood and the guts. But how do you put that into context? That's the problem.
It's always been my position that not one major story of any importance was ever really uncovered by the press in Vietnam. Take the My Lai massacre, that was broken back here by Seymour Hersh. The stories on the doping that was going on really originated back here through complaints, congressional committees and so forth. The fragging that was going on. Almost all those stories had their origination back here and the press corps in Vietnam didn't originate those. We followed up and we impacted, yes, and we showed them. But we didn't discover them.
And when I think back it's really kind of strange. We were there. We saw these things and we never did pull the plug on them.
I visited the Vietnam Memorial in Washington once. My wife and I went up there about a year ago. I just kind of walked around. I couldn't get to it. I tried to go to it, but I couldn't get there. Never made it. I couldn't look at it.
I walked along the outside of it and came around the other side across from the Lincoln Memorial. And I did see the statue of the three soldiers. It was sure as hell lifelike. It brought back memories. I used to be a pretty good drinker in my day. I don't drink any more, but those were my drinking days and I used to carry a canteen of booze and a canteen of water. And the troops were always glad to see old Bennett come down the road. If it was a repeat performance with any particular outfit, they knew I had the booze. They used to call me, I can still hear them say, "Here comes that guy with the funny canteen."
I was operating with group, I hadn't been with them before, and it was on a search and destroy mission in the Central Highlands. I don't remember the outfit. It was the Army. And we had gone into what we thought was going to be a hot landing zone but it proved to be cold, and we were going into what we thought was going to be a headquarters area that they had uncovered and we'd thought we'd get in and ambush them. We landed four or five miles away from it, maybe even farther, and we had to hike through this horrible jungle area to get to this triple canopy where they thought this headquarters complex was. But by the time we got there they had long since gone and it was cold. But my cameraman, sound man and I had been up and down the lines and there was really no big action, and we were at the back of the platoon when they finally arrived at the site. We were all strung out. You had to be, they wanted a good separation between bodies. So by the time I got up there they were blowing the tunnels. And some of them were sitting around shooting the shit. And I can hear this grunt, I can see him, and he had the bandolier over his shoulder, bare chested, hot, wearing his floppy campaign hat pushed back on his head. And he says, "Hey guys, here comes John Fucking Wayne."
It was beautiful.
And I had my canteen of booze, and in no time he was my closest buddy. I thought of him when I went to the memorial because he looked just eactly like one of those kids in that statue.