My time in Vietnam was brief: less than two years. This was not unusual, the normal thing was to move people in and out of that country before they got the hang of it, or even a proper handle on their jobs. Nevertheless, the immersion was intense—as counselor to the American embassy from 1965 to 1967, I conducted the daily press briefing—and I returned to a Washington already so obsessed with the war that it felt as if I were still in-country, as the military used to say. It is worth noting that everyone, including the military, insisted that our problem was essentially political; and everyone, including the Foreign Service people, used military jargon. By that time, well into 1967, it had long been officially decided that our friends and allies, the South Vietnamese, couldn’t hack it, an expression I first heard from General Richard Stilwell, as he emerged grim-faced from a meeting with General William Westmoreland, at MACV ( Military Assistance Command, Vietnam) headquarters. Our own military could and would.
In Washington nobody was interested in my desire to return to Europe, where I spoke the languages and could be expected to be of some use. Instead I was awarded the bombastic title of Deputy Assistant Secretary and given a new job: Vietnam. I read cables and briefed the press. Or I briefed Robert McCloskey, the State Department spokesman who briefed the press. Or I briefed people in the White House, who briefed the press. Once I lunched in the Fish Room, next to the Oval Office, with the President of the United States and his press secretary, George Christian . . . and a member of the press. Aside from some scabrous stories that LBJ told about his salad days in Texas, we talked about nothing but Vietnam and the “bloody-minded press.”
Having managed at last to get myself assigned to our NATO mission in Brussels, I had no sooner arrived—or so it seemed—than word came from Washington that Averell Harriman and Cyrus Vance were leading a delegation to talk peace with the North Vietnamese in Paris. They had commandeered various cooks and bottlewashers: Philip Habib of the State Department, General Andrew Goodpaster of the Pentagon, and William Jorden of the White House, et al., including me—once again to brief the press. So I went to Paris in time to greet “the Governor,” as we called Harriman, at the airport. Some 2,000 reporters—using the term generically—were on hand for the opening of the talks.
For the French, this rather opaque ceremony was soon overshadowed by the student upheavals of May 1968. But not for the others. Early on, at the end of a briefing, someone raised his nose from his notepad and inquired: “Sir? Can you tell us what is going on in the student quarter?” Obviously, I could not. Any damned fool (except me) could say what was going on. For me to say it might create a diplomatic incident. But the interesting thing is that few lingered in the hope that I would commit a gaffe and give them a headline. They were all filing out.
It wasn’t part of the Story.
Of the Story, more later. The point of the above is simply to declare my interest. As a Foreign Service officer and a spokesman, I took part in all that, on the government side. More precisely, I continue to take part in it, since historical events (once they have happened) have notoriously always happened. They also alter the past. To cite a trivial example: Mary McCarthy, offended by something I said about the North Vietnamese on French television, or at a party, stopped speaking to me in Paris. Whereupon I went back to her work and decided that she had always been feebleminded about politics. More seriously, after Vietnam it is no longer possible to see diplomacy as a morally privileged profession with an aura of arch but lovable cynicism about it, à la Talleyrand. “What is a diplomat? An honest man who goes abroad to lie for his country.” Alas, it doesn’t wash anymore. Nobody is conceded good intentions, the road to Vietnam being paved with them; and nobody is given the benefit of the doubt.
But if this is true of the Foreign Service, it should be true a fortiori of the journalists who were never supposed to lie for their country in the first place, but simply to see and report and make sense.
The daily press briefing, over which I presided in 1965 and 1966, was held in what came to be known as the JUSPAO (Joint U.S. Public Affairs Office) building in the center of Saigon. Originally an informal meeting with the small band of resident American correspondents, it focused on two subjects: the kaleidoscopic political situation that ensued upon the overthrow of Diem, with ministerial reshufflings, coups and counter-coups; and military action, i.e., the war against the Vietcong. Thus, even before American troops moved massively into the country, American officials were in the position of reporting and interpreting what was going on in Saigon and throughout the country, and specifically of confirming or refusing to confirm what Vietnamese officials were saying.
This was not a healthy state of affairs. Under Diem, it would probably have got me png’d (i.e., declared persona non grata) forthwith. For American reporters, however, the daily briefing became a natural and inalienable right. It meant that the Vietnamese were no longer sovereign in their own country and could not be trusted to represent its reality, or even their view of it, to the American press.
After 1965, as our troops moved in and MACV assumed effective charge of operations, most of the reporters lost what little interest they had in trying to sort out the puzzles of Vietnamese politics. The afternoon briefing became an essentially military affair, although still formally presided over by an embassy officer. The news was military, the jargon was military, and the presentation was done in a military manner, by a colonel at first, then by a general, with the usual paraphernalia of charts, graphs, and slides.
As the press corps grew, so did the daily briefing. By the time I left Saigon, JUSPAO was accrediting as many as three to four hundred reporters a week, including the Diplomatic (sic) Correspondent of the Berkeley Stink Bomb and the usual mob of weirdos and adventurers who hung around the villa of the legendary guerrilla fighter Colonel Edward Lansdale. It was Joseph Fried, of the New York Daily News, who (if memory serves) invented the term: the Five O’Clock Follies. This was a rendezvous, a Happening, a frequently riotous simulation of a protest meeting in Hyde Park or Union Square. All came—except the Vietnamese—and a great time was had by all. Baiting the military briefing officers was more fun than poker and less dangerous than sex.
It is worth noting that the style and atmosphere of these sessions were born, paradoxically, of a common interest; better still, of a common obsession. The reporters and the briefing officers worked with each other in a spirit of friendly enmity, as it were, within mutually accepted ground rules and with a sense that the very tension between them was somehow required to authenticate the whole affair. They needed each other, resented each other, were resigned to each other, in Saigon as in Washington. The Vietnam Story was a work of collaboration from beginning to end.
Once started, the Americanization of the war—which followed inevitably on certain policy decisions—could not be stopped. The embassy stood on the beach, like King Canute, and commanded the tides. We persuaded the Vietnamese to set up a daily briefing of their own, in the hope that it would at least slow the process down. But it turned out to be a tedious affair, involving the interpretation of long-winded official communiqués. The reporters complained that there weren’t enough hours in the day; they sent staff assistants, arranged to be “covered” by colleagues, or simply checked the wire-service tickers in the JUSPAO offices, but there was nothing for it, the Story simply wasn’t there.
How long the Vietnamese briefings were continued after my departure I do not know. Nor do I know whether anyone carried on with what R.W. Apple, Jr. of the New York Times called the après-ski, a little rump session of more senior correspondents, regulars, old hands, that assembled in my office after the five o’clock briefing. All on deep background, so-called. Sol Sanders, then of U.S. News if World Report, or Bob Keatley of the Wall Street Journal would start with a bit of gossip. Keyes Beech of the Chicago Daily News would tell us what “Westy” or some lesser source had suggested the night before. Or, if nothing came of these probes, Jack Foisie of the Los Angeles Times would say: “OK, Curly, what have you got to confess?” It was typical of Foisie (who was notable for wearing a baseball cap and being the brother-in-law of Dean Rusk) that he invented nicknames for everyone—in my case a nickname no one else has ever applied before or since. The reporters professed to find these meetings useful, although the ground rules stipulated that they were to yield no copy.
I don’t know if they were useful. The newsmen must have picked up something they needed, or they would not have come. For me there was some comfort in being able to talk freely, to lecture and be lectured to in return. But in retrospect the interesting thing is not how useful but how natural, even inevitable, it was to develop this sort of club, this common ground, where professional considerations and antagonism could be suspended, as it were, temporarily—to what end?
That is the question. When historians of the future, after God only knows what cataclysms, study the ancient civilization that was America, I wonder whether they will notice this peculiar intimacy, not to say promiscuity, between government people and those who were trained and paid to torment them.
We are supposed to be a conservative force in the world, a bastion of reaction. In Moscow, the dictatorship of the proletariat, the revolutionary government of workers and peasants, is awesome and unapproachable, surrounded by mystery, protected by protocol, police, high walls, shuttered limousines. Even in the countries of Western Europe, the distance between power and people has scarcely been attenuated by the transition from the old regime to democracy. Only in America do Presidents and Ambassadors, not to speak of lesser bureaucrats, call reporters by their first names.
For better or worse, this is the way we are. It would be utopian to suggest that we attempt to surround our government with walls and ditches to isolate it from the press. At the risk of heresy, however, I would submit that since most of our officials are visibly unable to cope sensibly and effectively with the media, and create nothing but confusion or worse in trying to cope, it would make sense—especially in foreign affairs—to limit the damage, establish as much distance as possible, reduce the number of authorized and available spokesmen and, above all, tone down. It would be a great thing for our nerves, not to speak of our policy, if only our government could learn again to “speak softly and carry a big stick.”
Now the torch is burning again. El Salvador. It used to be said in newspaper circles that Americans were prepared to do anything for the countries south of our border but read about them. These days they are reading a great deal about them, whether they like it or not. There’s an uneasy here-we-go-again feeling abroad in the land. And since the Vietnam disaster still haunts the national conscience, questions are being asked about the quality and tenor of what we are reading now, and what we read then. How did the press perform in Vietnam? Can the media be trusted to tell us what we need to know about a complex imbroglio in an impoverished little country whose culture is exotic to us, and where all the options are bad? The Wall Street Journal has raised the issue again, charging that the Vietnamese war was misrepresented and the American public misled.
On the record, the Journal is right. There is opprobrium enough to go around. Having suffered under Pontius Pilate and at the hands of the multitude, we ought at last to arrive at some serenity of spirit and find ourselves able to say: “Forgive them, they knew not what they did.” But the fact is that the Vietcong Robin Hoods depicted by so much of our press turned out to be just plain hoods. The South, which was said to be yearning only to reunite with the North, with which it had never been truly united, is being treated like a conquered country. “They have made a desert and called it peace.” The unspeakable massacres in Cambodia, the boat people, the genocide of the Hmongs—all this cruelly exposes the gullibility and the shallowness of those who contested the moral right of the Republic of (South) Vietnam to defend itself and, when we tried (however ineptly) to help, consistently presented our adversaries as brave little agrarian reformers pitted against a soulless Moloch. Since Cambodia we have heard a few mea culpas, especially from some of our European critics, but not from the chief culprits in this country. So the Wall Street Journal has good reason to worry that the El Salvador affair will subject us to another barrage of foolishness from romantic reporters who dream of John Reed’s laurels, or perhaps of receiving (as Mary McCarthy has told us she still does) Christmas cards from Pham Van Dong.
But it would be too easy, and fruitless, to limit our strictures to the left-wing reporters who flourished in the atmosphere of frustration and anger created by a situation where “all was to be borne and nothing to be done.” The beginning of political wisdom is to avoid creating such situations, and it cannot be denied that this is what we—through five American administrations—invariably did. There were serious objections to our Vietnam policy, inside and outside the government, and persuasive arguments were made on prudential national-interest grounds. These were also reflected in the press. So the reporters with whom I spent those years, in and on Vietnam, can hardly be reduced to a common denominator. They came, as they always do, in a wide range of attitudes, aptitudes, and interests, and they reflected—the pundits no less than the paparazzi—genuine insight occasionally, as well as the confusion and bias our flesh is heir to.
So what else is new? Perhaps this: if we are to profit from a review of the question that agitates the Wall Street Journal, i.e., how the press contributed to our disaster—which I believe it demonstrably did—we must not only return to the war itself but reflect a bit on how government and media actually work together, paradoxically, to produce what we call events.
In Vietnam, as everyone knows, officials and media were constantly at odds. Or were they?
The correct answer is yes and no. In Washington there was (and still is) a peculiarly incestuous form of government-press relations that used to astonish my foreign colleagues when they were assigned to our capital: an intense loving-hating mutuality and dependency, a cumulation of personal and professional involvements and interests that exists (so far as I’ve been able to observe) nowhere else. In my time it reached its heyday during the administration of John Kennedy, who had many close friends in the media world; but the phenomenon hardly depends on presidential predilections. It is built—at all levels—into the Washington scene. The atmosphere it creates is that of an armed and wary familiarity which does not exclude—if anything, it exacerbates—the famous “adversary relationship” that is supposed to keep government and press honest, and clarify things for both sides.
Inevitably the American style of government-press relations was transferred to Saigon, where the two sides were even more than normally dependent on each other. They ate, drank, and often lived together (as when David Halberstam, then of the New York Times, took refuge from Diem’s police in the house of one of my predecessors, John Mecklin), and they postured, growled, and snarled at each other at briefings, parties, poker games, restaurants, and less respectable places. Together they produced the peculiar and unforgettable atmosphere in which the Vietnam Story was bathed—moral ambiguity, uncertainty about the facts, confusion of purposes—from beginning to end.
Policy, as always, was laid down from on high; and the business of the people on the ground—very far from on high, in this case—was both to carry out policy and to inflect it in one direction or another, as these government officials saw the situation. The reporters, of course, were an important part of what they saw; and the intimate involvement of the reporters in the entire process, far more than any deliberate intention on the part of officials, is what created the Five O’Clock Follies, from which the Vietnamese were conspicuously absent: the body counts, the bickering and the booby traps, the daily shoot-out, someone called it, at Credibility Gap.
Lest I be misunderstood: the mechanics of this collaboration, the anecdotal trappings—all this is petite histoire. But it is important. “When the people cease to respect,” said the French grammarian, Rivarol, “they cease to obey.” Clearly, the larger determinants of the Story were the great turning-point decisions: to break with Diem, to Americanize the war, to fight it under certain geographical restraints, to withdraw American troops, etc., and these cannot simply be explained by, much less reduced to, the way in which it was crafted, the story of the Story, as it were.
Still, I make a point of all this for two important reasons. First, it tells us something about ourselves, our modus operandi, our attitudes toward power: we are not an imperial nation and cannot operate like one on distant ground, with a trained, homogeneous, and practically unaccountable governing class licensed to impose our will. Not, in any event, where large interests, expenditures, efforts, forces, and risks are involved. Secondly, since our interests and the weight we carry in the world inevitably do involve us on distant ground, and in dubious circumstances, our leaders must learn that the media-government nexus is no sideshow. It is intrinsic to the art of governing this country. It requires at least as much insight, talent, and attention as the problem of winning elections.
In matters of national concern, whether it has a position to defend or a program to carry out, the government must turn to the public for support. The public is informed and conditioned by the press which, in turn, is dependent on government for information and ideas. All this is obvious enough. What is perhaps less obvious is how the result of this interplay—the Story—eventually takes on a momentum, a life, of its own. It is an intricate process that ends by affecting not only the formulation of policy but its substance. But there is really nothing mysterious about it. If laymen find it so, it is because they tend to think of government as machinery—a metaphor singularly misleading in a society like ours. Organizations in America, even when (as with the army) they deliberately attempt to assume the appearance of machines, are made up of American people.
The larger contradictions between ends and means, between declarative policy and operations—for example, the preferential use of artillery and air power on one’s own territory, in what was proclaimed to be a political war—were obvious to reporters and civilian officials alike. These things have always happened in war, and notoriously in World War II—but then they were not part of the Story. In Vietnam they became the clichés of incoherence, the symbols of insincerity, the Catch-22 that new reporters automatically inherited, whether or not they had an opportunity to experience it themselves, and sometimes long after the offending practice had stopped. But this is a twice-told tale. What is less well-known, perhaps, is how American government officials operated not, as one might expect, to put an end to such contradictions or to hide them but to insure that they received the most vivid representation.
The result, sometimes, given the commercial competitiveness of our press, was massive distortion. The classic example was the attack on the American embassy during the 1968 Tet offensive.
In the middle of the night, while attacks are being launched throughout the country, a Vietcong sapper squad of about 20 men has slipped into Saigon and broken into the embassy compound. During the initial assault, the two marine guards at the gate and two members of the Vietcong are killed. In the darkness, the remaining members of the squad take cover behind shrubs and fire into the embassy until dawn, when they are located by an American paratroop unit and wiped out. Long before that happens, however, Barry Zorthian, a high-ranking member of Ambassador Ellsworth Bunker’s staff, has called the embassy and made contact with the switchboard. Having briefly shared quarters with Barry, I have no trouble visualizing the scene that ensued. Sitting on his bed in his boxer shorts at 3 A.M., he patiently dials the numbers on his urgent press list, alerting the wire services and networks to a great opportunity. If they fail to get their asses, and their cameras, over to the embassy they will miss the story of the year, in which case they will hardly be able to blame him for flacking or covering up—the sins of which American officials were routinely accused by the newsmen.
But of course they did not miss it. Some of the first wire-service flashes on the Vietcong attack were dispatched within fifteen minutes of the break-in. They were imperfect, since Zorthian’s communications with the embassy were imperfect, to say the least. But they were sensational, and they wildly distorted the military significance of what was going on.
This is not to say that the services would not have functioned without the help of Barry Zorthian. They were well organized to cover events of this kind. But American editors, who were setting their stories in type before most people in Saigon had heard of the attack, would have been served a little later—and perhaps a little better. The great coup was the television footage which one of the networks actually managed to get out of Saigon and onto the next day’s evening news program. It was confused, disconnected, grainy, the commentary ad-libbed by a man (in Tokyo) who was obviously seeing it for the first time; but it was powerful stuff. What effect it had on the public I can only guess. I was in Brussels at the time. But I know that it had an extraordinary effect on Lyndon Johnson. After all those years, all that blood, all those billions, we could not even keep our embassy secure!
In fact, the attackers never got into the embassy, lightly guarded as it was. The Tet events are replete with ironies, and most of them are spun out of the way our press covered the story. For the Vietcong, Tet was a catastrophe. Hanoi sent the hitherto carefully husbanded “People’s Army” to attack 32 towns and cities in a single night. These were Southerners, including the cadres who had been “repatriated” from the North. They did not all die, like the sappers in the embassy compound, but most of them did. And with them died the myth of the General Uprising which was supposed to happen when the Vietcong gave the word. Not only was there no uprising, but the South Vietnamese troops in those 32 towns and cities acquitted themselves extremely well. Furthermore, Hanoi dealt its Southern allies a terrible political blow by sending its own divisions to occupy Hué the ancient imperial capital, and massacre thousands of civilians before they were destroyed or driven out.
What was a catastrophe for the Vietcong, however, was merely a temporary setback for Hanoi—if it can be called a setback at all. It meant that when they took over the South they would have to administer it directly, which they may well have intended to do in any event, so that it hardly surprised me a few years later to hear from a refugee from Saigon, alias Ho Chi Minh City, that even the traffic policemen spoke Vietnamese with Northern accents. Nor does it matter much now how we add up the final score on Tet’s effect on the people and politics of Vietnam. Our newsmen would need time and effort to uncover all that, and anyway it was no longer an important part of the Story. The Story by then was centered on Lyndon Johnson and the American Congress. An election year was coming up. For Johnson it was the end of the road.
Thinking back to the beginning, when the bough was bent and the Story began to take shape, we have some help from David Halberstam, one of a pleiad of young reporters who found fame and fortune in Saigon. In a reply to the Wall Street Journal’s editorial about press performance in Vietnam, Halberstam has reminded us that he and his colleagues were not, at first, opposed to the war. And this was certainly true for the period during the early 60’s—when Halberstam, Neil Sheehan, Malcolm Browne, and others were worrying John Kennedy with reports that flatly contradicted the optimistic statements emanating from official sources. On the other hand, as Halberstam points out, his reports also came from official sources, in particular from the American military who had been assigned to advise and live with the Vietnamese troops in the field
Within the larger (but still incipient) war, in short, there was a mini-war between the government of Ngo Dinh Diem and the American reporters, some of whom were being harassed or expelled by Diem’s police. The American establishment in Vietnam, diplomats and military advisers, were deeply divided on the subject of Diem. During this period, when he compounded a long series of mistakes and worse by taking on the Buddhists, his popularity plummeted and the National Liberation Front, with its Communist core, made rapid inroads not only in the countryside but in the cities as well. Since it, too, made mistakes, its gains were not destined to last, but it was still seen as an essentially Southern movement. If there ever was a time when the Front might have received a significant share of the vote in a free election, this was it.
Hanoi, meanwhile, was testing the waters, infiltrating the Delta, systematically assassinating Diem’s village leadership, establishing command centers in Eastern Cambodia, and stepping up arms shipments through Laos and Sihanoukville. Halberstam and his colleagues had heard Kennedy denounce Nixon for failing to come to the aid of Laos, and later, in his inaugural address, proclaim to friend and foe that we would “bear any burden, pay any price,” and so forth. And now they were confronted with the spectacle of little ragtail bands of men in black pajamas moving in and out of South Vietnam at will, collecting tribute and recruits, bloodying an army equipped and advised by us, and demonstrating to the people that it was they who had the “mandate of heaven,” i.e., that the future belonged to them.
This, as Halberstam saw it, was the crux of the situation. To report it was a public service. But the plot thickens as he goes on to tell us that the burden of his reporting at the time was that Diem was “rigid, isolated from his population, and would not let his troops fight the Vietcong.” The problem was not merely that “all other judgments flowed from this,” as Halberstam now says, but one judgment in particular: that if Diem had been closer to his people and his troops he would have been more gung-ho.
I do not believe this was true. I was not there in Halberstam’s time, but I arrived shortly thereafter and raised the question with many Vietnamese. They felt that, given time, they could manage the Vietcong, either through war or accommodation or a combination of the two, but they could not handle Hanoi. If we could not make Hanoi abandon its project to take over the South, the Republic had no future.
No one has ever accused Halberstam of political genius, but it would also be unfair to suggest that he was as simpleminded or as ignorant about Vietnam as the thundering herd of short-timers who followed in his footsteps. How, then, can he fail to see that his strictures against Diem stand in utter contradiction to the treacle he spreads in the latter part of his Wall Street Journal piece (as in so much of his writing on this subject) to the effect that “guerrillas should be allowed to make their own mistakes” and that the South Vietnamese people (not to speak of “elemental social and economic justice”) were on the Communist side?
It shakes one’s faith in one’s fellow man to read such stuff in 1982. Even in Halberstam’s time the evidence to the contrary was overwhelming. The South Vietnamese were a hodgepodge of conflicting movements and sects who could agree on almost nothing but this: they did not want Communism or the domination of Hanoi. The millions of refugees who invariably moved toward the government side during the war, and those who took to the sea in peril of their lives after 1975, are a phenomenon without precedent in the history of a people whose religion and sense of identity bound them to their village homes.
Hanoi itself had no illusions on this score. The North Vietnamese knew that, with the exception of the enclaves and “combat villages” they had left behind around Danang, in the Camau, and in a few other areas, the population was indifferent or hostile to them, and increasingly so as word got around about how they were dealing with the peasants in the North. This, in fact, is why Hanoi created the National Liberation Front instead of trying to rally the people to the Communist banner; and this is why they repeatedly promised that they would not impose Communist rule (or immediate reunification with the North) after the Front took over. Unsurprisingly, they had a more intimate knowledge of the South than our diplomats and reporters; and their political sophistication compared favorably, to put it mildly, with that of the American military advisers whom Halberstam cites so proudly as his sources today.
This brings me to an issue that is even more crucial than the question of who—in Halberstam’s time—was winning. In focusing so fiercely on the American military advisers, those can-do guys who were so good at counting bodies, Halberstam and his colleagues were producing good and important copy, but they were also missing the point. Not that it was an excessively subtle point or that it did not have a military aspect, but it was an essentially political problem and beyond the ken of soldiers operating on the tactical level, however brave and intelligent they might be.
They slogged around the rice paddies with Diem’s troops and came back saying: “These little fellows are doing everything wrong. The Vietcong are winning. Let’s get this show on the road!” And this is exactly what we did. Long before Halberstam had learned to “let guerrillas make their own mistakes,” we encouraged some ambitious South Vietnamese generals to make theirs: to get rid of Diem with no prospect of replacing him with a credible successor. This was, pace Talleyrand, worse than a mistake: a crime. It confused, disrupted, and demoralized the people and the fledgling administration of the Republic. For South Vietnam, which previously had a genuine if embattled existence as a potentially viable country, more prosperous than the North, analogous to South Korea and West Germany, present at the UN and maintaining diplomatic relations with most countries of the free world, the overthrow and murder of Diem was the beginning of the end, however happy it made our military advisers and the reporters who admired their gung-ho spirit.
Talking to some of the Vietnamese generals a year or so later, I had the impression that they simply assumed that we would provide. Cochin China, after all, had been administered directly by the French. They were used to having a protector. They would be happy to devote themselves to the little problems they had with each other, including the Vietcong, and leave Hanoi to us. Thus began the process of making a non-country of South Vietnam. It was accelerated by the hordes of American reporters who now descended on Saigon. Since they spoke no Vietnamese, knew little or nothing about the country, and assumed (correctly, no doubt) that their readers could not care less, they wrote all but exclusively about American efforts, American issues, American personalities, subjects they could understand. In so doing, even when they were sympathetic to American purposes, they were worth many divisions to Hanoi.
For the Communists, the delegitimizing of the Republic was a major problem, perhaps the major problem, in the early years. It is clear from their propaganda that they expected that it would take much longer than it did. We helped them solve it because our government and our press failed to see Vietnam as anything other than a cluster of American problems—out of a blinkered national egocentrism that would have been comprehensible if not justifiable in a colonial power, but made no sense at all for us whose only purpose was to leave, once the Republic’s existence had been secured.
Could we not have refused the inheritance in 1963? We could have and should have: it is easy to say it now. Morally, it would have been difficult, because of the Diem affair, but hardly the felonious betrayal that Congress committed in 1975. Politically, in any case, it turned out to be impossible. The public, since no one explained that we were going to set up ground rules that would make the war unwinnable, was clearly in favor of standing firm.
But I am not going to rehearse the dreary story that lay ahead. The point that concerns us here is simply that, after the anti-Diem reporters had their way, South Vietnam largely disappeared from the Story, which became the great American Media Event that we all came to know so well. There were Vietnamese on our side, of course; they surfaced occasionally, as during the paroxysm of Tet, when they took four or five casualties to every one of ours, or as a minor irritant during our negotiations with Hanoi; but on the whole they were relegated in our press to certain stereotyped roles, ranging from the comic to the repulsive, but invariably minor. Ces pêlés, ces galeux, d’où vient tout le mal.1
This in fact had already begun happening early in 1965, when I arrived in Saigon. There is a wire-service story, a composite of many, that sticks in my mind, to the effect that Staff Sergeant John Doe had been wounded in an engagement between South Vietnamese troops and the Vietcong, somewhere in the Delta. That is called the lead, after which the ticker says more. Sergeant Doe, adviser to General Nguyen Van Manh’s Fourth Regiment, was from Doeville, say, Illinois, where his parents lived at 453 Main Street. He was a graduate of Lincoln High School and had been in the army for 15 years. Doe, the nth American in Vietnam to earn the Purple Heart, took an active interest in the Orphanage of the White Fathers in Can Tho. There followed three or four more paragraphs, each preceded by the word more, all about John Doe.
The story ended with a paragraph to the effect that 245 Vietcong were killed in the same engagement, according to the South Vietnamese. Their own losses were given as 24 dead and 65 wounded.
“After such knowledge, what forgiveness?” Obviously none, but if there is anything we can be said to know as a result of the Vietnam experience it should be this: that ours is a society incapable of protracted warfare in a peripheral place, in which the prospect of victory (i.e., the destruction of the enemy’s capacity to continue the struggle) is deliberately ruled out—as we did by making it clear that the North Vietnamese forces, no matter how badly they were mauled, could always retreat into Cambodia, Laos, or across the 17th parallel, to rest, regroup, and prepare to fight another day. Their arsenals were in Russia and China. Their supply lines could be harassed but not interdicted. Their manpower was, for all practical purposes, inexhaustible. Throughout the world they were represented as a brave little people fighting off a big bully, instead of the nasty little orthodoxy they were. For the leaders of a movement that had murdered its political opponents, repressed its peasantry, and destroyed the country’s economy, the war was a godsend: their existential project, the one great and glorious thing they had to do. For us, as we fought it, it was an exasperating and bloody distraction, detour, waste.
In short, it was a hopeless situation, and it would be a gratuitous insult to our military leaders to suggest that they were unaware of so patent a fact. Yet they said little or nothing about it because their business was to obey, because optimism (as in corporate life) is equated with loyalty, or because the larger perspectives were “political,” hence off-limits. Apparently, Clausewitz is not taught in our military academies anymore. The professionals could console themselves with the thought that they were training men, trying out systems; it was a lousy war, they said, but the only one they had. But they were whistling in the dark and they knew it.
What astounds the retrospective observer is that this matter of sanctuaries was never, or almost never, raised in the press. Millions of words were devoted to the struggle in the South and none, or almost none, to the obvious fact that its source was across the border and could not be destroyed from the air. During the early years, when Hanoi was behaving with some caution, it was possible to argue that it would be enough to destroy the Vietcong, or even make some accommodation with it, but even before Tet 1968 these arguments had lost their point. Why then was it never suggested that the war be carried to North Vietnam?
The answer, of course, is that memories of Korea (and of our near disaster there, when the Chinese came pouring over the Yalu) were still painful and fresh. “We seek no wider war,” Dean Rusk kept intoning, a signal to all and sundry. But the effect of it was to inform all and sundry that we were going to make the war excruciating to South Vietnam, unbearable to ourselves—but sustainable (and finally unlosable) for Hanoi and its allies.
My point is simply that if we were not prepared to accept the risk of Chinese intervention and “go North,” the only lasting and useful effect of introducing half-a-million American troops into South Vietnam—useful, in the event, to Hanoi—was to make the Republic, our ally, disappear from the face of the earth. But our reporters, those tireless investigators, never missed it. Few seem to have noticed. The South Vietnamese were not very helpful anyway. Who needed them? As sources they were doubtful or inscrutable. They staged no Five O’Clock Follies, provided no helicopters to move you around the country. And they never called you up in the middle of the night to let you know that something was going on.
For my part, I did miss the South Vietnamese. I still do. Not simply because I believe it unhealthy for us to let the idea get around that our embrace is fatal, or that we fink on our friends, but because the South Vietnamese really deserved better than they got. Their revolving-door governments were corrupt and incompetent, they were hopelessly divided, politically naive, with no neat ideology (like the Marxism-Leninism-Stalinism of their brothers to the North) to explain reality away. There were times when the entire male population seemed affllicted by a suicidal mania, but they could also be gentle and very bright. And the women were moving, lovely, all Mother Courage—from the age of two up.
All this is hideously sentimental, I know, but we made promises to these people. True, they were not passionate about counting bodies for the benefit of the Associated Press, and few of them would spend much time drinking with our military advisers and the reporters, who agreed (on background, of course) that the little fellows just couldn’t hack it. Under the circumstances, to hack it was simply to keep things going, like rats on a treadmill. There wasn’t much in that game for the South Vietnamese. Yet they kept fighting, still lying about their casualties in the time-honored way, but taking an incredible number of them. My own surmise, reinforced by the spectacle of the boat people, is that they might still be fighting if our distinguished Congress had not decreed that there would be no help from us if the North Vietnamese violated the agreement that Henry Kissinger negotiated with Le Duc Tho, and no more resupply of their troops—an event which, if memory serves, was duly reported but made little of in our media, that being Watergate time.
1 “Those mangy fellows, who've brought us the plague,” from La Fontaine's fable, Les Animaux Malades de la Peste.