Friday, December 14, 2012

Malcolm Browne's Vietnam

Malcolm Browne, New York Times


I joined the Associated Press in 1960 and went to Vietnam in 1961. The foreign press corps in Saigon at the time consisted of one regular foreign staff correspondent each for AP and for UPI stringers for Time and Newsweek, a full time correspondents for Agence-France Presse and Reuters and three or four other stringers for assorted European and American publications. To the extent that Vietnam was covered by other organizations, it tended to be by correspondents who were based elsewhere, such as Hong Kong, or more particularly Washington.
Until late 1963 was a critical period during which John Kennedy more or less decided that it was worth waging what we call a grey war in Vietnam. It was a time essentially when the great events were being concealed as much as possible. We in Vietnam reported consistently what was happening, but obviously the weight of squawking was very much more on Washington at a time when we had perhaps less than a dozen full time correspondents working in Vietnam. There were some six or seven hundred working newsmen in Washington absorbing the Washington line. For example, November the first 1963, Keyes Beech of the Chicago Daily News, was reporting that the chances appeared extremely remote that a coup d'etat would ever develop to unseat Ngo Dinh Diem in Saigon and of course as that was going to print the coup was taking place.
One thinks of huge numbers of correspondents covering Vietnam, and at the peak there were about seven hundred there. But you can deduct ninety-nine point nine per cent of them as effective news people for a variety of reasons. Some were there merely as camp followers. Very few of them had more than a very tiny worm's-eye, American-oriented view of the place. The long-timers all spoke French and I guess most of us could manage enough in a little bit of Vietnamese so that we were not completely out in the cold. We recognized, I think, from the earliest time, that essentially the war in Vietnam was Vietnamese war in which the United States played an increasingly important role, but which was nevertheless and ancillary role from the beginning until the end in April 30th, 1975. Vietnam was essentially a civil war. That was something that I think tended to be forgotten.
As a newsman I was never critical of the American role in Vietnam. My job was never to make a judgement one way or another. Increasingly, however, I found what we were reporting from Saigon to be diametrically at odds with what was being reported from Washington. So that, for example, if Washington were to declare that a given body count over a period of say two months indicated that Viet Cong strength had been reduced by x percent, we would find something that was just completely the opposite, that in fact Viet Cong strength might have been increased by several hundred percent. The body count was totally specious. Essentially we were confronting the fiction emanating from Washington with fact. There were those who described this as criticism. Those of us there preferred to think of it simply as accurate data gathering.
I did have problems due to my reporting. My top commander was Wes Gallagher who was the general manager of the Associated Press. Wes had been a war correspondent throughout World War II and while covering Operation Torch in the landings in North Africa, his jeep had been forced off the road and knocked over and his back had been broken. And he had been rescued by a young Lieutenant Colonel William Westmoreland.
So Wes at first was exceedingly puzzled by the tone of reporting and type of reporting that was coming out of Saigon. It was inconsistent with any of his experience. At one point I suggest to Wes to come out here and look for himself, not expecting that he'd pick me up on it, but he did. He turned up in baggy pants and sport shirt and I told him that "I'm not going to take you to see the ambassador although you can see him too, but I'm going to take you out where the action is." So he piled into my red Land Rover and spent most of the following week wandering around the rice paddies talking to guerrillas and peasants and everybody else we could come across. And at the end of that week he'd seen the light. From that time on for the rest of the war he solidly and indefatigably backed the correspondents in Vietnam even against intense pressure from first Kennedy but later more particularly from Johnson who wanted some of us completely pulled out of Vietnam.
I was married in 1963. My wife is Vietnamese. When I went to Vietnam she was the Deputy Minister of Information and Chief Censor. It was her responsibility to call me in for my weekly chewing out. I became much more "Vietnamized" than a lot of others that I knew because Saigon was more home to me than any other place in the world.
After I won a Pulitzer in '64 I had all kinds of job offers and in late '65 ABC offered me a very lucrative and attractive job as chief Indochina correspondent, which I picked up. Then I began to fall into increasingly bitter disagreements with some of the ABC hierarchy and stayed with them only really for about a year. After which I stayed on doing a couple things. For one thing I was easily able to sustain myself as a free lance magazine writer. I also continued to report for ABC radio because of contractual obligations. And then at the end of about a year, in '67, I was given a Council on Foreign Relations Fellowship fellowship to come back and spend a fellowship year in the United States.
Having been one of the television correspondents for a certain period of time, I empathize with their problems. It's one of the things that really struck me. I remember one story I did was about the economic effect of the American presence, notably of the conversion from a traditional economy to an essentially black market economy, and the need in the course of a long "standupper," and this was a long one -- two and a half minutes -- to get some appropriate backdrop. And at some point we actually fell back on the usual line of howitzers firing and the kind of really interesting backdrop that completely nullifies whatever the correspondent is saying off screen. I think the television picture was far too strong in many cases in Vietnam. The locker room sidebar, the interview with the bleeding marine, was so powerful and even the setting afire of a hut with a lighter, was a powerful image, and yet in the context of that kind of conflict it really didn't make all that much difference. There were imponderables that can't be expressed by a picture. I'll say this, I think that some of those images probably did affect American public thinking to a very large degree and that in turn certainly influenced America's attitude and subsequent positions along toward the end of the war. To the extent that America really did get fed up with the war, television probably played some role. But I certainly wouldn't fault the medium for that.
And then there was my picture of the burning monk in 1963. An image is many things to many people. It was certainly used by the Chinese as anti-western propaganda. They distributed it in leaflets and all kinds of things showing the atrocious things that American imperialism can lead to. I think that Henry Cabot Lodge who was ambassador at the time told me that when he had gone back to Washington in late August of '63 to see Kennedy about the way things were going and the possibility of a coup, and so forth, that he found that Kennedy had a copy of that picture on his desk and was saying, "What the hell is going on here?" It certainly had an impact, again as one of those pictures that seems to mean a lot, but which divorced of all of its antecedents can be misleading.
Certainly there's no question that I was reaching vastly more people with ABC than I was with any of the print media, but at a vary much more superficial level. With the print stuff I was reaching fewer people but it tended to be penetrating. I guess I would have to say that in the long run, the print stuff mattered because that was what people in Senate Foreign Relations Committee or the White House or the Pentagon were reading.
In 1968 I decided if I was going to earn a living again I had better look for a job. So I came to the Times then which sent me to South America. Then when the war broke out in what was East Pakistan, which led to the independence of Bangladesh and the war between India and Pakistan, I was there for that. I got there well enough in advance that I covered that whole episode. Then in 1972 the North Vietnamese invaded the south, across the DMZ, and the Times felt I should really be there for that, so I was there then for most of the following year until I was expelled.
I was up in Hanoi in the spring of 1973 for the release of the American POWs. I came away from that thinking the North Vietnamese are even a nastier breed of cat than I had figured all along.
One of the main things that they wanted me to see particularly was the supposedly very humane conditions under which they had kept American prisoners. And I saw enough to become convinced that not only had the prisoners been mistreated psychologically, but had almost undoubtedly been tortured, that the conditions were effectively atrocious. I'll tell you another impression that I came away with. There had been a great deal of reportage particularly from leftist Americans, not press, but some of those who visited the North, that in fact the North was in ruins as a result of B52 raids. What I found in Hanoi was that that city was virtually intact. I found one city block that was effectively just cratered, the whole thing was gone, and it was clear from this, and I was actually able to confirm this later, that what had happened was that a B52 had come down with its full bomb load and just demolished that whole block.
Undoubtedly there was heavy damage in many of the cities and towns on the coast and close to the seventeenth parallel. They were certainly very heavily hit. But I think that the propaganda effort to the extent that it was aimed at the western press failed utterly with respect to Hanoi, because when objective Americans began to see what Hanoi really was like, and that in fact it hadn't been touched, or practically hadn't been touched, I think there was some reaction to that.
Eventually I was expelled because of the types of stories I wrote about South Vietnam. I uncovered a racket by which Vietnamese military officials were requiring kickbacks from widows and orphans of veterans, kickbacks for the sale of coffins, for putting through pensions, for the death benefits. I discussed this in print in a Times piece. And there had been some other things. Earlier I had reported that South Vietnamese military units in some cases had deliberately attempted to mislead Americans into situations in which they'd be likely to be killed or captured by opposing troops or find themselves in artillery boxes where they were likely to be killed. The South Vietnamese government didn't like these stories and they came to the conclusion that I should be expelled.
I went to Eastern Europe and then the Soviet Union starting in '73. I had problems there. By the time we left I had been expelled from most of those countries and been branded as a spy. Then in late February of 1975 it was clear that Vietnam probably didn't have much longer to go so the Times asked me to go back up to Saigon and more or less take charge of the bureau, partly to cover and also partly because at that point the Times had a rather large establishment in Vietnam which had to be dealt with in a variety of ways. We had financial obligations. We had property. And we had a staff with families amounting to I'd say thirty-five people, some of whom needed to be taken out.
I came in clandestinely and within a very short time the authorities found out that I had re-entered the country and put out, in effect, a warrant for me. However, what I did, since I knew a large proportion of the high officials in various ministries, I was able after stopping around in some of their offices and homes to in effect get the dogs called off. I think it was made easier by the fact that a lot of these guys realized that they were going to have to depend on me to get out of there.
In Saigon our staff got smaller and smaller as the days passed until finally at the end the only Americans left were Fox Butterfield and myself.
There was a very screwed up conclusion in Saigon. I'm not sure "White Christmas" was ever broadcast. I never heard it. I guess it must have been about one thirty or two in the afternoon I stumbled across a bunch of people with duffle bags waiting on a street for a bus. That's when I knew we were leaving.
So I got Fox and we got on a bus. I guess it was probably the last bus that went into Tan Son Nhut. It was sort of chaotic at the airport. The Marines were rushing little batches of people from sort of an improvised bomb shelter out to whatever chopper had momentarily touched down.
I was very sad to be leaving. Remember my sort of peculiar vantage point. To me Saigon was home. I was leaving home.
I looked down on the city was we flew out. The rear hatch was open. A minigun was set up in the rear hatch as cover, so I could look out. I guess my thoughts were that a way of life was about to disappear. And with all its faults there was a nice quality to that way of life. Bear in mind that I had spent about four years in the Soviet bloc too and so had a particularly bad taste in my mouth about collective farms and a lot of the other things. I had no illusions as to what South Vietnam could expect. They were in for a very disagreeable period.
Later, a lot of people blamed the press for what happened in Vietnam. There's a magazine called "Army" which is sort of a house organ of the U.S. Army. The letters columns are devoted to castigating the American press for its role in Vietnam and everywhere else and how the next time around we ought to control the press more and impose formal censorship and all that sort of thing.
What these people don't understand is, American reporters are no longer constrained to go out with the first waves of the good guys and land on the enemy beach. American reporters now are obliged to cover war as they would any other event, all of the principals, not just those on the "good guy" side. They are obliged to find their own transportation, to feed themselves. They are obliged to duck bullets on their own and to pay for anything that they take from the U.S. Army, such as transportation, or anything like that. And so in a very real sense war coverage has changed significantly since, say Korea.
Whenever it was appropriate or we could possibly do so in Vietnam we paid our own way. And that's a rule imposed by major news organizations. And by the way one of the rules that distinguishes real correspondents from hangers on. They used to come over in batches of hundred, brought over at Washington expense and sort of given the guided tour and all that sort of thing. The employers of organizations like ours felt that that was a travesty, that sort of automatically biases the reporting, as it did.
I would say by and large those correspondents again, whom I counted as real press corps, that is to say, true residents, called the shots as they materialized. Some of those who did not live in Vietnam failed to make the right judgements and were making predictions that never panned out. I think initially one of the big problems was that some of the people who were coming in were of the World War II & Korea generation who expected things to work in about the same way. They expected a Pork Chop Hill. They expected armor to play a role. They expected a kind of warfare that you get in a big old-fashioned traditional form of war instead of what was really going on. A battle like Ap Bac would catch a lot of headlines without really meaning a damn thing. None of the battles that occurred, and I can think of many at which I was personally present, really made all that much difference. The war was won and or lost by a wholly different set of criteria. The failure of some of these correspondents to recognize the criteria and to recognize what really was motivating the course of history there left some of them, I guess, embittered and feeling that it was a case of wish fulfillment on the part of those reporters who called it right.
I've never written anything about Vietnam since 1975. I have to admit that the close for me was a trauma in a lot of ways and I guess I have to say that in common with most of the rest of the nation I tried to close it out of my memory.
I should say that I went back there in '79 for the Times with the late and unlamented Kurt Waldheim.
I was accredited to cover his staff which was doing some interesting things. It was trying to patch up the war between Vietnam and China for one thing, which was extremely interesting because it meant attending military briefings up on the China border. And they were just the same as the briefers that had been doing it for the South in the old days. Being told body counts and shown captured weapons and Chinese helmets, and passing an airfield and watching the friendly MIGs take off for sorties against the bad guys --the very airfield that we bombed the hell out of when those were the bad guys.
It was very strange. They were the same type of bureaucrats and military officials and so forth that I was dealing with every day earlier, except for the change from red and yellow stripes on the flag to the red star. You hate to say deja vu but it's something like that.
And I visited the South again. It was a whole lot worse than before. I was not given freedom of movement. I was more or less locked up in a compound that was guarded. I was met at the airport when I arrived by an official who had been the same guy that I had dealt with when he was stationed at Tan Son Nhut in the final weeks of the war. And so we knew each other and he was very sort of extending the hand of friendship and red carpet and so forth. He knew I had family in Vietnam and he invited me to see those who could be seen, although the way it worked out it was quite odd. The adults were all sort of ferried out to the countryside so I was really only allowed to see the children in the group. He was also there to sort of conceal things.
Half of the city was deserted. Cho Lon, the Chinese half was completely empty and that was a very strange sort of surprise. As a matter of fact the Chinese had been simply driven out. The thing that impressed me most was a ceremonial dinner at the presidential palace. We were entertained by the Saigon Party Central Committee and I talked briefly I guess to just about everybody at the table, about thirty people, and I found not one southerner among them. We talked about things like, "How do you like it here?" And the answer was, "I'll be glad to get back to Hanoi. I hope I'm back there before Tet." "I don't like the food down here." "People are nasty." And so on like that.
You can imagine a table of Wehrmacht officers sitting in Warsaw in 1941. I sort of had the impression it was the same.
Today, I don't think that more than one percent of the Congress has the remotest idea of what Vietnam was about. Therefore it's very difficult to apply any lessons to what happened there. To be able to profit from your experience you must understand your experience. I don't see any evidence that that's happened.

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