Friday, December 7, 2012

Morley Safer's Vietnam


Q. I think you are most famous for the Cam Ne story in 1965?


Q. That was your first tour then, in Vietnam?


Q. And that was your first big story?

No. It had an impact, but I can't divide stories up into big stories and small stories. If you regard it as a story, it is a big story, regardless of how it gets played, or who sees it, or reads it.

Q. When you left Vietnam your conclusions as to what the state of it would be.

When I left Vietnam for the last time, I think everyone foresaw the coming of the end. I think people except zealots perhaps, but I think people in the military and certainly people in the U.S. government did. And if they didn't see it before so-called Vietnamization, Vietnamization made it very clear that one version or another of what happened was going to happen. If you went back during Vietnamization, as I did, you really saw the cracks, which were always there, but were glaring cracks by the time you got to, say, 1971, 72, which as I recall was the middle of that Vietnamization period. And the idea that we left the ARVN a good solid viable country to defend and battle to fight is bullshit.

Q. Paris Agreement, did you believe the U.S. would be gone for good?

The Paris Agreement was the United States going on bended knee to get the hell out of Vietnam. Now if that doesn't foreshadow an ugly withdrawal, of course it was.

Q. Did you go back at all after '73?

Yeah. I'd have to go to my file for exact dates.

Q. You never changed your mind to think it would remain viable for years with our aid.

There was no question in my mind that it was going to be viable when you had probably the best trained, most seasoned army in Asia on a roll. There was no question.

Q. You had done a story on corruption. Was that a major consideration in the end as to why the country wasn't viable. Was it just military terms?

In the final analysis, what led to -- tanks coming Le Loi boulevard, were indeed simply military. A very well trained army, a determined army, willing to put up with its ordinary hardship and an army that was willing to be led. And ARVN who had pretty much the same kind of men from the same kind of background, peasant stock, whatever, but without any real motivation and very badly led. You had the United States' army there, well-trained, quite well equipped, terribly led as well. In the field I think they were quite well led, young officers, up to battalion commanders were quite good, but the command of the U.S. Army had it been any other country, there would have been a massive court marshal for what happened. The army was terribly led in Vietnam. That really accounts as much as anything for the so-called post-battle syndrome, the Vietnam disease, whatever people call it. I think that the Army was very badly led from the Washington and the Pentagon, and from Saigon.

Q. complaint about news media, Westmoreland said in Korea and world war II they were on our side. In Vietnam they wouldn't get on the team. On the other hand Westmoreland insisted and the marines insisted that they cooperated, bent over to help you get the stories. I remember you said there had been warnings, this is the first time I heard of a warning to a newsman --

Tempers were running pretty high that week. There's no question that cooperation was there, certainly early on and with a few exceptions the cooperation continued. We couldn't have covered that war without the military. You couldn't run your own helicopters, your own transport aircraft. There's no way we could have gotten around the country. Now occasionally we were thrown off military -- we got there anyhow. You pretty much got what you wanted to see. You weren't always necessarily shown what you wanted to see, you had to find what you wanted to see, but the way you got there, without the U.S. military cooperating either on an official level, this is our policy, or an unofficial level, because you had some shared experiences with some helicopter pilots that would take you when they weren't meant to, or weren't supposed to, in fact disobeyed orders. We all had our own relationships with guys, but there's no question we could not have covered the war without massive cooperation and aid from the military.

Q. DId you sense resentment from the stories? Did you ever feel when you came back here that the compacting of your stories was altering what you were trying to say.

I think that my copy was fairly treated here. I gave them a very precise way that I thought the story should be edited and go, beyond what I wrote. When I ultimately did see some of the pieces, they were pretty -- certainly they didn't do damage to what I was saying or to the facts. As far as quantifying truth by length, obviously Robert Shaplen writing a terminal piece in the New Yorker, mostly by the way, about the most arcane side of Vietnamese politics, incidentally, and I doubt very much whether Mr. Westmoreland ever got to the end of most of Chaplin's pieces. They just scanned it for their names and if they didn't say nasty things they thought it was a good piece.

With respect to Shaplen,a lot of it wasn't writing, it was typing. But having said that, obviously you can get more shades in a longer piece.

Q. Michael Arlen, writing about tv coverage was dissatisfied.

There's no question that what the editors back here had a very grand appetite for was all the bang bang, was action, was shoot 'em up. There was an appetite. Thus there was an appetite there for it because the point is to get on the air, not to do pieces that aren't going to be broadcast. I tried in my small way, and I suspect most of the other guys, not all, but most, did. You would go out on these various walks in the sun, and when you've done a couple of those you would pull back and try and do a story that had some more meat to it than simply the sexy stuff of firing and people dying. And generally speaking you got those stories on the air as well.

The criticism of television, the compacting nature of it, is a valid one On the other hand, if you take this action footage, say, and Westmoreland might fairly say that that little action that Safer was part of on an operation in the Delta that led the evening news bore such little relationship to the actual progress of the war, one little fire fight down in the Delta, in which four Americans were wounded, and eight VC, doesn't have any great bearing on the overall movement of the war. There's a certain validity to that. If he also said that the emotions generated in that little concentrated moment of impact, that fifty people were part of that is then seen by fifty million, they get a totally skewed idea of what's going on. There's a certain validity to that.

However, those fire fights in the Delta, those fifty people, that impact of fifty people, was an accurate portrayal of what that war was, on two counts. One is, war for a soldier or a reporter because they are both doing the same thing, basically in that situation, trying to save his ass, his one main mission in life, that moment when fire breaks out, and 99 times out of a hundred, we were attacked rather than attacking, on routine search and destroy missions. We were being attacked. The fire was incoming fire. What happens the moment you start taking fire, is absolute utter panic. I don't mean people weren't courageous and doing their job, they were. But the fact is, you panic. The main thing about all battle is confusion. You may have a plan. The plan goes out the window the moment the incoming -- I mean, you take cover. That's not part of the plan, that's instinct. You shoot back. That's not part of a plan either. That's also instinct. Then you start thinking about what's the best way to extricate yourself from this situation. So that panic that seemed to be the war on television, that Westmoreland and others resented so, was the truth. They produced maps of Vietnam, enough maps to make you ill, of where these units were and those units. But there was no front. They tried to create a front or create the idea of a front. But there was no front. Up until Khe Sanh, the most casualties were taken in an individual situation, when barracks were blown up in so-called secure areas.

Q. That was genuine fright. You were in danger in all those situations.

Whether you are in danger or not, if you think you are in danger and you are seeing guys who are paid to be in danger, like soldiers, running like hell or getting into drainage ditches, then you are in danger.

Q. Were you glad to be there?

I went back about four times actually.

Q. What would make you go back and put yourself in that jeopardy again?

I certainly didn't want to do that anymore, but the reason I wanted to go back, at the time, it's hard to explain -- I wanted one more look, I suppose. It had an effect on me, that time in my life in that place, there's no question. It was not the first war I'd covered. I covered the Middle East wars, I covered two wars in Cypress and the Congo.

It had some influence on my career at CBS, but in terms of what the military were trying to say about some of the guys, was that you send a bunch of inexperienced greenhorns, people who have never heard a gun being fired in anger, and what do you expect to get? That's rubbish.

Q. "Vietnam is where journalists made their reputations and generals lost theirs.

I think that's a fair statement. And probably both richly deserved.

Q. You said you had friends there. When your friends left, did many of them get out to --

The one or two that I was interested in seeing got out. The ones I particularly wanted to see.

Q. Did you actually envision the tanks rolling down . . . .. Boulevard, going into the presidential palace, or did you you expect something less humiliating to the south?

No. I don't think you could read the history of that country or follow the modern history of South Vietnam and foresee any other outcome. What wasn't corrupted by the very nature of Vietnamese politics before get in there, was utterly corrupted once we arrived. When you add American bribery, money, generosity, choking embrace, on top of a working system of corruption, how are you going to come out with any other outcome?

Q. Were people here receptive -- I saw Cronkite after Tet saying we had done the best we could and so on -- was much of the public receptive to that type of analysis?

I don't think I was butting my head against a wall. One or two friends I had in the mission, and they really were only one or two, and since they were friends I thought therefore they were among the most interesting and thoughtful and smartest people, probably agreed with me. They would never admit to it, but guys working on various programs, whether it was on the intelligence side, or pacification side, which were often the same thing, or the political side, where I really did know some people, were going about their work with such a heavy heart and going about explaining it with such little passion that in the watches of the night over endless bottles of PX scotch, it really wasn't an argument, it was discussion among people who agreed about something.

Q. When you mixed in with people who watched television, did you get the feeling that people were informed?

What confused me when I arrived back here, I never lived here, I lived in England, so I was going from Saigon to New York and back to London where I was running the Bureau when I wasn't in Saigon. What I never saw any of was the home front, so that's what I felt -- if people here felt they weren't being fully informed about the war, as a correspondent I felt I really wasn't being fully informed about the war going on here. The most I would see was an aged Herald Tribune with a picture of a sit-in on the front page. That was about it. I got none of the passion of what was going on here. Except second or third hand.

And I suppose you're right. All dissemination of information that does not include the experience of that news by a reader is whatever Halberstam said -- you're learning of something rather than about. I think all news is that. He's absolutely right. There's no question in my mind that the impact of the evening news on CBS particularly but NBC and ABC as well, probably to a lesser extent, night after night after night, broken up in late hours by endless documentaries on all those levels, had an effect, but it would have had zero effect if the audience had not been receptive because as far as I understand it from the war that was going on here, some point after, probably even before TET, before '68, people were saying, what the fuck are we doing in that war which we are clearly losing. We are not helping the Vietnamese win the war. We're not winning the war ourselves. We're spending thousands of lives to no point that anyone in the army or the White House can explain.

Q. Did you ever arrive at the conclusion that Vietnam is not worth a single American life?

I think looking at it -- I can't look at it as parochially as Mike Mansfield -- what is worth a single life? I don't know. And I don't mean to sound abstract, but I don't quite know what he means. That could be the Gook Syndrome.

Q. You've gone to the Vietnam memorial?

I did a story on it and then I went to it privately.

Q. It affected you?

I was wiped out by it.

Q. You think the design is appropriate, the design?

If one can use such language for such a thing. It's the most -- two things in my life touched me that way. One is the Vietnam Memorial and the other is the military cemetery in St. Mary ...? in Normandy. But the more powerful was the Vietnam memorial, partly because I was there and one's instinct is to go and look for names and touch them. Everyone does it. Families do. Anyone can go look for a name and touch it. And you see yourself doing it.

Q. What about the lessons of Vietnam, what we learned? Phil Caputo said the lesson is never get involved in a fight against the North Vietnamese in South Vietnam again, and that's it.

I couldn't agree more. I think that's a perfect analysis.
I don't see any similarities at all (between Nicaragua, etc). because one analysis you can make -- I think Caputo's lesson is precisely the only lesson that has been learned.

Q. On the news media, if you had had more latitude in assigning and managing newsmen there, would you say things would be done differently? Is there a lesson for the news media?

There probably isn't . ...

I'll tell you something. I'm not one of those who will cry foul when the military decides to run the war their way. And if that way doesn't include reporters, that's their business. Nowhere in the Constitution of the United States does it say you've got to take reporters to war. Nowhere anywhere does it say that. From the beginning, I'm guessing, it was probably their idea to show the home front how their dollars are being spent by these brave young lads . . .

End of side A.
Begin side B.

Q. . . . on the same team and then in a sense felt betrayed when you didn't say what they wanted you to say.

What lessons to be learned for us, from Vietnam, probably none, except -- the technology has changed so much, so that if they think Vietnam was a horror story versus the administration, imagine it now where each guy in the field can broadcast directly practically. If they were capable of doing it then we would have had a satellite up over Vietnam and there would have been no shipping involved. Wouldn't even have to go back to Saigon, probably to transmit. You could watch a fire fight live. Think about that for a minute. At least in Vietnam that time lag for you as a correspondent, for them as editors, whatever, did allow you, even if it was only an hour or two or half a day, a chance to think back and think about what it is you saw happen, reflect on it, write it more thoughtfully. The next one is going to be an ad lib war.

Q. The tyranny of the moment --

If you have time to reflect, even hours, I think it's a more accurate story. You can check your facts. You can do all kinds of things that enhance the validity of the story, or detract from it -- look this was just a meaningless fire fight. For example, if you were having live coverage, a story I did when we took a lot of casualties, and it was friendly fire, we ended up getting mortared by ourselves -- we didn't know that at the moment it happened. We knew it rather quickly, but supposing we knew it an hour later rather than in the case of that story, five minutes later. There would have been this scene of dead GIs, terrible broken bodies, inflicted by the enemy. But in fact it was inflicted ourselves. So that the chance to reflect whether it's for even twenty minutes, allows you to --

Q. Do you think television is an anti-war medium, insofar as it shows the horror of war? Did you ever think that the simple coverage of violence itself, turns people off to it?

I don't know. I agree with some of what Arlen says, and I see Caputo's point. But looking at it in a much broader way, the whole country. The sight of body bags coming sliding down the ramp of a transport at Fort Bragg, coming back from Vietnam, or a a big load of ???? ctr 58???? in Saigon is appalling to everyone. Now some, if the national character of the moment is a unified one and it said for reasons of whatever, patriotism, security, sympathy for a likeminded nation is worth that price and more, and that cost, devastating sight of those young men's bodies is what it takes, we are prepared to spend more. I suspect that if there were photographs of the death march, Bataan, live or television, or some similar thing in World War II, the rush of patriotism would have been extraordinary. There was a national will. And the response for the most part, or shall we say, half of the response to these sights from Vietnam was "WHY?" Somebody tell me why. We couldn't tell them why. The President couldn't very successfully tell them why. The military brass couldn't tell them why. And what they ended up saying to the people on the assumption that the public is an ass, is precisely what would have been said, had it been necessary to say it in World War II when it wasn't necessary to say it. If you have to say it, it's lost. If you have to explain in the kind of detail they felt necessary, and did so badly why we were spending this blood, men, you've lost it.

Q. The ability to speak the language of the country, for the correspondents, would that be a good plus. I know you had access to many Vietnamese, cameramen, etc. Beyond that did you find yourself cut off?

Yes and no. In 1965, 66, and 67, I found at least from the military side of things, French was a very good tool in dealing with the Vietnamese military from the sergeant level up, particularly the older sergeants. I would have loved to have spoken Vietnamese because from what I know of the language and from a few good translations of things, it's so rich and formal at the same time, that yes, I felt crippled by not being able to walk into a village and talk to some head man.

Q. Does CBS put much requirement on that (language) say in Central America, or countries where individuals go? Language training?

No. I think that the networks pretty much -- the nature of network television unfortunately, the nature of network television new, I should say, has been and is more so now, is to work on the basis that we may not be in this business next week. So in some areas, if they send a guy to Moscow, they may send him to Berlitz or something. But as far a Vietnam is concerned, no one ever even suggested it. I would have loved to have taken six weeks off for some intensive training. French was much more of a Lingua Franca in Cambodia than in Vietnam.

Q. Your nationality, Johnson concluded you were Canadian. Mike Marriott is Australian, Brian Ellis is English. Was that much of a legacy, beyond Johnson? Did anybody figure that out --

I certainly didn't feel it was an Achilles heel.

Q. You're less patriotic because you're Canadian?

I never knew that patriotism was a requirement for journalism. They may have a point. Peter Arnett was a New Zealander, --

Q. Do you have flashbacks ever?

Yeah, certainly. There's one curious quality. I am not a particularly touchy kind of person, embracing people, except for oldest closest dearest friends and family. There isn't a person I know in Vietnam, talking about -- if I'm walking down the street, I was down in ??Howson St.?? was the first time this happened, I was with my wife. And some guy came up to me -- "Do you remember me, I was with the Twenty-fifth Division -- I find that I'm embracing a man that I had only the most casual brush with. There is a shared something. There's no question. I'm curious whether anyone else has said this. But I find that everyone, not so much some of the correspondents that you've kept up with and see, but people you have not seen since then, there is that. And that's a kind of flashback. That's a kind of affirmation of having survived it.

Q. So the comradeship was shared by all --

There's no question. I should say with the exception perhaps of some of the senior officers who I would feel unclean touching, frankly.

Occasionally there are dreams.

Q. Have you become acclimated to pictures of violence having been there? Or abhor it more?

I won't go (to movies) or if I go and didn't know it was going to be this, I just can't watch it. I've never been able to watch violence secondhand. I found the sight of some of horrors of the battlefield and after-battle field I could watch and occasionally be part of and help with whatever was necessary at the moment. I cannot bear looking at it on film. I feel like a voyeur.

I had to be dragged to see Platoon. Someone who had seen it said, You really should see it. There are a couple things that you really should see. It's important for you to see it." So I did go and I thought it was an interesting movie. The one thing I liked about it, this is in a purely artistic sense, is that the man who made it, Oliver Stone, captured it awfully well. At no point felt it necessary to explain to his audience. There's a kind of positive arrogance that I liked about it. For example, he worked on the theory that those who were there will understand what I'm talking about and if there are a few lapses for the general audience, that they don't know what I'm talking about, they'll get the message anyway. Just some of the language of the guys, using Vietnamese phrases, calling the captain the Dai Wy? , they didn't have to cut to another scene to explain what the Dai Wy was. There was an honesty about it, without some giant creaking machine that had to explain to you through some way more cumbersome than subtitles.

Q. I found many people who liked Rambo like it.

Same reasons, I suppose.

Obviously with the exceptions of the things like My Lai. There's a very interesting thing about that war. In all wars, in order to motivate troops, and motivate populations to support the war, all countries do this, you've got to dehumanize the enemy. You can't make them people. You've got to make them lice, or mice, or rats, or monkeys, or something. German swine, Japanese rats -- not just the conscious propaganda. There's a kind of national psyche that has to reduce the enemy to subhuman before you can ask men to go out there and kill them and ask people to support the killing and win the war. They were never able to do that in Vietnam. Whatever the enemy was, he somehow kept his humanity in the psyche and minds of Americans. They were never able to get a propaganda machine going about these dirty little yellow men, for example to quote World War II.

Now maybe that says something good about us, about this war. And maybe it says why we lost it.

Q. What about the boat people coming out. Obviously you don't see the loss of Indochina as a turning point in Western History or anything.

We have long and dishonorable record in that country because we didn't believe in the Geneva accords of 1954 and we didn't support that boundary ever. We decided in a certain arrogance that it really couldn't mold this little country so they propped up its yen and decided that its yen was no good, or too corrupt. Or we decided that the people, the Diem?? had no popular support so we would get rid of Diem and find somebody who had more popular support. Basically doing what the Russians did in Afghanistan. We had not had much of a talent for spotting the natural leaders in these countries at all. So we take a look at who is the natural leader and then try to find someone who is an unnatural leader and clothe him in constitutional robes, call him a democrat. What did Johnson call Diem, the "Winston Churchill of Southeast Asia". We just don't have much talent for it. Partly through naivete, I think.

Q. The everyday, common Vietnamese people, was this an unavoidable tragedy for them?

Well they're a remarkable people. If you spend time with them you know that. Resilience we can only envy. They are so Vietnamese, have such a strong identity, South, North, such a strong sense of stubbornness and ability to impose their own character on events, even if they can't control events. I ran into a guy down in the south somewhere, he asked me to take his picture, in a state capital somewhere. He was a Vietnamese guy. He was just standing. We were shooting and he wanted his picture taken in front of the state capitol. He said, "Don't I know you?" He was a doctor, boat person, somebody I had met briefly years ago in Saigon. And we got to talking. He has American kids now and I said are you concerned about loss of language, values, and he said, Oh No. I know they are Vietnamese inside.

Q. You are glad you went?

Of course I would do it again. I think given that we look on this thing as a kind of tragedy , maybe morality tale is too strong and not quite accurate, you've got to stay through all three acts.

I saw acts One and Two and part of Three.

Q. Seventh fleet picking up the people, you watched?

I went cold. I was practically ill watching that stuff. It wasn't unexpected, but when you see it, you see the guy clinging to helicopter skids, helicopters being pushed overboard --

Q. Did you turn off the tv?

I watched it. You watch it looking for faces too.

Q. Did you do any special stories with the correspondents who were there in the last days?

No, I did some pieces about the collapse. We did some kind of special.

Q. You didn't go back for the 10th anniversary?

No. I spent that year -- I wanted to go before the mob. And I couldn't get a visa. I didn't want to be in there when it became a circus as it was. I wanted to go two or three months before. And I almost did. A guy from the U.N. said where do you want to go, and I gave him a list and he said why do you want to go here? I just wanted to go to places I'd been to. Look I said, this is for CBS, but I confess it really is for myself.

Q. You had done a story on My Lai -- a really good story, no violence, just you walking across the graves.

That's television -- somebody with something interesting to say.

Q. It's too bad there wasn't more of you guys going back to where you had been and walking over it rather than just being in Saigon. Ed Bradley going back to Cambodia was a good story.

I have not been able, I will not go -- I keep telling my wife I will go and see it because she did and said I should see it, but I will not go see The Killing Fields.

Q. You were in Cambodia?

I didn't cover Cambodia. I was in Cambodia once when Sihanouk was still there. What a beautiful place. Spectacular in the sense of being a perfectly preserved little bit of French colonial life, pace of life, no rush, no noise. Because coming from Saigon where the buildup had started all the trees were ripped out to widen the streets to accommodate? trucks. None of that, when you go back to Phnom Penh, there's this wonderfully sedate, sun dappled calm city with everybody going about his business, wonderful hotels.

Q. Bill Johnson said American's never understood the Thais or Cambodians. He felt there was a violence underneath the surface that we didn't see.

I don't know if that's true or not. If there is such, I'm always hesitant of those kinds of descriptions of national character. If that was the part of the character of the Cambodians, I have my doubts about it -- but if it was, what the hell unleashed it? Who provided that grim little key to unlock that? Guys like --

end of side B

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