Friday, December 14, 2012

Keyes Beech Remembers the fall of Saigon

Keyes Beech.

Beech, left, April 29, 1975, in Saigon, on the left in white short sleeved shirt and glasses looking down.

"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 young 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 colleagues 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 battalion 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. Anyway, 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 found 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 tough 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 ammunition, some of their units. One might say that in the end they would have been defeated anyway, that to give them more military hardware 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.

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