A publication of Vietnam Veterans of America, Inc. ®
An organization chartered by the U.S. Congress

October 2000/November 2000

Rendezvous With War

Reporters On The Front Lines: Careers Forged In Danger

Rendezvous With War, the April symposium sponsored by Vietnam Veterans of America and the College of William & Mary, examined the Vietnam War from many perspectives. In "Reporters on the Front Lines: Careers Forged in Danger," a panel of Vietnam correspondents examined reportage in Vietnam.

The panel was moderated by Marc Leepson, the long-time arts editor and writer for The VVA Veteran. His latest book is Webster's Dictionary of the Vietnam War.


Marc Leepson: Itís a true honor for me to moderate this panel. It is a great tribute to Vietnam Veterans of America to cosponsor this conference. It shows what a unique and good organization VVA is. Our organization is different from other organizations. This conference shows that difference.


This panel is made up of distinguished journalists who are going to share with you their thoughts about their roles as correspondents in the Vietnam War.


I am a former journalist myself. I worked as a staff writer for Congressional Quarterly after I came home from Vietnam. I have written a great deal about the war. For those 12 years I was at CQ, I was the only Vietnam veteran on the editorial staff. Although I had no intention of writing about the Vietnam War, as the stories started coming, I was assigned to write about them.

I was drafted into the Army a month after graduating from college in July 1967. The Army sent me to LRRP school and then I was a Green Beret and I was a SEAL. No, that's not true. Sometimes it seems that 90 percent of the guys who fought in Vietnam were in the Airborne, Green Berets, or Special Forces. I was a REMF and I'll say it out loud. I was drafted; I was made a clerk; and I was sent to Vietnam. I wound up serving my entire time at 527th Personnel Company in Qui Nhon. My job was a redeployment clerk. I sent people home the entire year I was there. It was a rough job, but somebody had to do it.


All of the men sitting at this table experienced the worst that the Vietnam War had to offer. Joe Galloway was on the ground at the battle of the Ia Drang. Peter Arnett slogged through the boonies with the troops. Zalin Grant, Wally Terry, and Stanley Karnow saw death up close and personal.


The Vietnam War has been described as a television war; it has been called the living-room war. It was a war in which print and broadcast journalists were given almost unfettered access to nearly every aspect of the militaryís role in Vietnam.


The role of the media in Vietnam was and continues to be controversial. Some believe that the U.S. media performed well in Vietnam, telling the story and the truth as they saw it. Others say that many reporters were biased against the American cause and purposely subverted the American effort. This argument also holds that this reporting turned American public opinion against the war.

Mr. Karnow, you arrived in the 1950s. How did you feel about the war before you went over there?


Stanley Karnow: I served in the Army in WWII. Then I was a reporter in Europe. I covered the Algerian War and, at the same time, covered the French War from Paris, and I covered the Geneva conference in 1954.

When I was in North Africa covering the Algerian War, somebody stuck a pin in a map and said, "Okay, we are moving you to Hong Kong." My whole territory was Southeast Asia. When I wasn't traveling, I would sit in Hong Kong and watch China.

I went down to Vietnam on my first trip in July of 1959. You know, some reporters are lucky. While I'm there, the first two Americans are killed. So there is my introduction to the shooting in Vietnam.


These guys were killed at Bien Hoa, just 35 miles north of Saigon. I went up to see the bodies. You look back and you think: God, these first two guys were followed by another 60,000. It seemed unimaginable.

Overwhelmingly, every American journalist was a product of the Cold War. They all thought Vietnam was important. But some of them do not want to hear about the things they wrote back then about the Domino Theory and how Vietnam was strategically vital

You go back and you look at the sort of guys who were being criticized, like David Halberstam who got in trouble with Kennedy. It was not because he was against the war, it was because he was criticizing the way the war was being conducted. Neil Sheehan did this marvelous book, A Bright Shining Lie, about how they got conned into this by John Paul Vann.


John Paul Vann was a con artist who believed, mistakenly, that the way to conduct this war was through counter-insurgency, which is idiosy. Who were to be the counter-insurgents? Americans disguised as Vietnamese? You couldn't even get the Vietnamese Army to fight a conventional war, much less go out there in the countryside and mingle with the peasants.


That was the original image that got pinned on the press. To this day, a lot of reporters revel in the idea that they were called antiwar, the early antiwar reporters. They weren't antiwar; it is a mistake to call them antiwar. They were critics of the way the war was being fought.


One other thing: Reporters are only as good as their sources. Reporters do not invent things. Some of them do, but most of them don't. We were being told this kind of stuff. If we were writing stuff that was critical, it was because we would go out in the field and we would talk to Vann--who was one of many advisers in the early days--who told us things that bore no relation to what Gen. Harkins, the head of MACV in Saigon, was telling everybody.

Before Harkins, there was a really marvelous, leathery old guy, "Hanging" Sam Williams, who put out these euphoric things about how everything is going great. Then you went out in the countryside and you saw that these poor South Vietnamese guys were getting chewed up.


There were other sources, too, not only the military. These were young civilians, State Department guys who went out there as province reps. One of my great sources was 22 years old, and he became a source for me throughout the war. At one point, we were going to write a Catch-22 novel about Vietnam and its idiocies. Today, Dick Holbrooke may be our next Secretary of State.

I would be sitting in a press conference in which someone--Bill Bundy or somebody--was giving some big plan, and I kept saying, "Gee, I canít understand what itís all about. What is it all about?" I would walk out; Holbrooke is standing in the corridor outside. I said, "I don't understand what this means." He says, "It doesnít mean anything."


That is what reporters do. They depend on their sources. You can not go in and out and develop sources. You have to stay and develop sources. The two-week wonders--who flew in, did two weeks of reporting, and left--didnít have sources. They hung out at the Embassy or they went to this thing called the 5:00 Follies. That was the afternoon briefing. This was later when we had great forces, and every afternoon they would have a briefing. Only we called it the 5:00 Follies.


Even that was interesting because the briefer--usually Barry Zorthian or his assistant, Paul Harry Kaplan--would stand up and spout all this stuff on the platform. Afterward, we would go to Kaplan's house for a drink, and he would tell us to ignore everything he said on the platform because he was reading from something they gave him. But you didnít quote him and you didn't get him in trouble.


I donít want to tell a war story, but there was a kind of lunacy about this whole thing. Guys who were out there making policy, conducting policy, and risking their lives: These guys did not believe in it for a minute, they knew it was all kind of crazy, and yet it went on and on and on. Even operational officers knew. They had a phrase: "There are no promotions for defeatists." So guys would gloss over things they knew.


The egregious Robert McNamara, who suddenly discovered it was a mistake, was putting out optimistic statements. And then when we got all the private stuff that he was saying, we knew that he was lying. We did not believe anything he was saying.


One last point about reporting. What you are reporting is the first rough draft of history. That is probably why all of us on this panel have gone back to write books, because when you write a book you can go back and find stuff. At the time, we were under deadline pressure. Now, we can go back and learn more about it. Of course, since the war we've been able to go back and interview the enemy side. I would feel like I hadn't really done my job if I hadn't written a book about it.

Peter Arnett: The so-called young, inexperienced journalists of the early Vietnam years, who were so criticized by many in the military and, later, historians, included David Halberstam, who was 27 at the time. He had gone to Vietnam, but he had served two years covering the civil rights troubles in the South, and had served two years in the Congo covering Africa.


Malcolm Browne, who was the AP bureau chief at age 28 when I got there in 1960, had covered the Cuban conflict and civil rights in the States. All of the younger journalists there, including myself, had had military service, interestingly enough. I had been two years in the New Zealand military compulsory training. We knew what the military was all about. We could distinguish ranks. We knew weapons.


As the war progressed, most of the company commanders were about our age. As we grew older, battalion commanders were our age. As Stanley was saying, the small coterie of reporters at the beginning intermixed with the American and Western community and with the Vietnamese community. Most of us were bachelors, and we had Vietnamese girlfriends. We knew many Vietnamese officials.


I have to emphasize that there was real competition within the media, which meant that there was very little potential for error or mistakes or corruption in the reporting process. At UPI, Joe Gallowayís predecessor was Neil Sheehan, a very smart young reporter who had just come out of military service and who has had a very notable career.


They competed with the Associated Press for headlines. AP and UPI dominated American newspapers. There were 1,600 to 1,700 daily newspapers. Our bosses back at home would pray for just a minute or two-minute beat on any development, anywhere, particularly in Vietnam. So, if there was a change in government or an action, if we were first, we would get congratulations. So, therefore, we were always watching the competition to see, first of all, how effective they were, and if any mistake was made in their reporting, we would be the first to point it out. That really survived during the whole war.


Eventually you had not only the AP and UPI, you had The New York Times, The Washington Post, then you had networks coming in--NBC, ABC, CBS--competing with each other, dealing with managements who would complain that they were not getting adequate quality. This was a factor that kept us all maybe foolhardily brave at times, but certainly honest.


The political attitude of the earliest reporters--mine, I must admit--was shaped by colleagues. I was from a little provincial town in New Zealand. I slowly made my way to Southeast Asia. At age 22, I was in Laos running a little weekly newspaper. I had spent time in Bangkok.

It was only when I came to Saigon as a reporter for the AP that I met Halberstam, Sheehan, Karnow, and Malcolm Browne--all Ivy League graduates. At that time, journalism was not a fit profession for the Ivy League.

I certainly learned a lot from them and their attitude towards information.That attitude was as simple as this: The U.S. Embassy and the Vietnamese authorities treated us as total idiots.


I'll give you one example. Just a month before I arrived, a small aircraft carrier arrived at the Saigon Harbor, in front of the Majestic Hotel. It started unloading helicopters, one of the first aviation support battalions to come to Vietnam. So Malcolm Browne calls the Embassy and says, "What the hell is happening?" They said, "What do you mean? There is nothing there."


Karnow: I am sitting in the cafť at the Majestic. The thing comes in and I turn to PA officer. I said to him, "Hey, see that aircraft carrier?" He says, "I don't see no aircraft carrier."


Arnett: So when Malcolm Browne and Stanley take pictures of it and write stories, the Embassy got irritated. They said, "It is sort of security." We were not meant to know about that. We said, "What do you mean? The VC know about it. It comes through the middle of Saigon, they know about it." Well, they did not want the American public to know. A lot of that attitude pervaded during the war.


The first major action that any of us covered was the January í63 action at Ap Bac that Neil Sheehan superbly analyzed in his great book. That was a small action in which a Vietnamese unit, supported by track vehicles under American advisory help and American helicopter support, got ambushed by the Vietcong in the village of Ap Bac. Three Americans were killed. A dozen Army vehicles were blown up. Many Vietnamese died and the VC got away.

The commanding general at the time, Gen. Paul D. Harkins (a glamorous Hollywood-type figure), arrived at the scene. He says, "I don't know what you guys are complaining about. We won. We are still here; the other side is gone. We won the battle."


Zalin Grant: I would like to go back to what Stanley Karnow and Peter have said, to point out why you should look at journalists skeptically and look at all of us skeptically. Peter Arnett said that David Halberstam was a brave guy. He was the editor of the Crimson at Harvard. This is a very high position. Malcolm Browne graduated from Swarthmore. He was in the Army. He had been around. Neil Sheehan: he just raved about Neil Sheehan, what a good guy he was. He was a graduate student from Harvard. These were smart guys. They had been around. They weren't young kids.


I knew John Paul Vann quite well. John Paul Vann was a grouch, a short, gravelly-voiced guy who didn't drink. He chased women, and he was one of the bravest men to come out of the Vietnam War. He was flexible, he was ready to change. He didn't have much formal education. I think he was from West Virginia.


Stanley Karnow says, "John Paul Vann was a con man." Peter Arnett shakes his head, "Yeah, John Paul Vann was a con man." Tell me how John Paul Vann conned David Halberstam, Neil Sheehan, and Malcolm Browne. I met all three of those guys. In retrospect, John Paul Vann was now on the side of the war--at the end of the war--where Sheehan was. If you recall, Sheehan took the Pentagon papers from Daniel Ellsburg. So now the story is that John Paul Vann was a con man. B.S.


Karnow: That is what Neilís book is all about. The Bright Shining Lie is the discovery that John Paul Vann was conning him.


Grant: In what way? His ex-wife gave Sheehan a lot of information about his extramarital affairs, but when did he con him? Did he ever con you, Stanley? You are a smart guy. Did John Paul Vann con you? And if he did, tell us how he conned you?


Leepson: I'm the moderator. Can we talk about the media?


Karnow: It just shows you: The media is a real monolith, isn't it?


Leepson: We are not going to talk about Vann right now. If we could talk about him in the context of the media, I think that would be great. Zalin, you did not tell me your feelings about the war when you started reporting: Was it good, was it bad, what did you not know, what did you want to find out?

Grant: I didn't know anything. Who knew something? I spoke Vietnamese. You had to learn Vietnamese. But speaking the language didnít mean you knew the culture, didnít mean you knew how they fought the war, didn't mean you knew what the war was all about.

Americans said we were there to stop Communism. I talked to lots of rice farmers, and they were against the government because the government was not doing anything for them. They did not seem like Communists to me. I would have gone against the corrupt government, too. That is all it is.


Leepson: I know Joe is going to tell us how he felt about the war when he started covering it.


Joe Galloway: I was sitting in Topeka, Kansas. I was the UPI bureau chief. I had been there for two years. It is 1963, I was reading dispatches on my wire from Neil Sheehan from a place called Saigon. I was reading dispatches from David Halberstam, and I was seeing Malcolm Browneís pictures of the monks burning in the streets of Saigon.


I thought to myself, "There is going to be a war there. It is going to be our war, or we will make it our war. It is going to be my generationís war and, by God, I'm going to cover it." I knew that 30 or 40 years later, it would be a lot easier to explain why I went there and covered it than it would be to explain why I did not.


So I raised holy hell with my bosses at UPI. For a year I sent a weekly letter to all of them in New York, and I harassed them to the extent that either they gave me a transfer or they fired me. They decided to transfer me to Tokyo. I got off the plane in Tokyo, and I had a meeting with my new boss. I walked in and I said, "I want to go to Saigon." He laughed. He said, "No, thatís not going to happen."


I knew something. I knew UPI was the cheapest outfit there ever was, and they just spent $3,000 flying me to Tokyo. I said, "You are going to send me to Saigon because if you donít, I'm going to quit and pay my way down there. Iíll hire on for a lot less money with the AP, and Iíll kick your ass." He said, "Thatís blackmail." I said, "Yes, and it's effective, too."


So as soon as the 1st Marines landed in March of í65, I got my papers and I was on my way to the war. I didn't know much. I was in a hurry to get there because I thought the Marines are landing. All I knew about the war was based on a careful study of John Wayneís movies. And I knew I needed to get there in a hurry because with the Marines on the ground, it was going to be over with in a hell of a hurry.


I landed in Saigon. I signed a very simple declaration, I think eight principles, the kind of information that I would not release within certain timeframes. It made sense to me that you do not do these things. It would cost peopleís lives in combat. They gave me a press card and I was turned loose.


Vietnam was the greatest free-press exercise in the history of this country. You had that press card, and you had agreed to a simple list of rules. That press card would take you anywhere. You could go anywhere and stay as long as you wanted to--as long as you had the cohones to go--and you could go anywhere. I was sent to Danang to cover the Marines. God, I love them. They taught me many things. I sort of was taken in hand, like a Marine recruit, and I learned that there is a right way and wrong way and the Marine way, and if you are traveling with the Marines, you do it the Marine way. I am probably one of the few people around who has ridden in on a Marine combat amphibious assault.

It was an intense learning experience. The Marines, I found, walked to war. I wore out three pair of combat boots in six months. Then I heard about this wonderful experimental Army division that had 435 helicopters in their TO&E. And I thought, what a wonderful thing it would be to ride to work. So I went up to An Khe and got acquainted with these guys. The next thing I know they got me in a world of shit.


I ended up in the Ia Drang Valley with Hal Moore. I rode in there on a helicopter loaded with ammo. I was actually seated on a case of hand grenades, which in retrospect was not the smartest place to sit, but it did not matter. If something got hit in that helicopter, we were all a puff of greasy smoke.


I got off and nobody was there. Even if you don't know anything about the wire services, you know the level of competition.


Peter Arnett was my competition. We sharpened ourselves on each other. If I bailed off a helicopter and I saw Pete there, and they looked like they had been there for a couple of hours, my heart sank. I knew I was screwed. Conversely, if Pete bailed off that helicopter and I was standing there scratching behind my ear and fanning myself with a fat notebook, you knew what had happened to him, too.


But I landed in Ia Drang and there was nobody there but me. It was dark. I could smell gunpowder and hear the shells. I got a little briefing from Col. Moore. And I sat back against a tree trunk and I thought, "You know, Galloway, you got the world in a jug and a stopper in your hand." It couldnít get any better than this. That feeling stuck with me until daybreak.


About that time, there was a two-battalion enemy attack against our southwest perimeter, which was held by a very thin string of company dug in shallow holes. And in very short order they had overrun two platoons out of the three. The company commander was down in his hole, shot. It looked like they were breaking through the perimeter, and we were the next line of defense.

I was laying flat on my belly. It is one of the defining moments of my life. I felt this thump in my ribs and I looked down. The bullets were just everywhere. This foot was there, and it was attached to a leg, and the leg was attached to the trunk, and the trunk belonged to Sergeant Major Basil L. Plumley, who came out of West Virginia about 6 foot 2 inches tall. He had

made all four combat jumps in WWII with the 82nd Airborne Division. He made one with the 187 RCT in Korea. He was working on his third combat infantry badge.


He leaned down at the waist, and he yelled over the noise, "You canít take no pictures laying down there on the ground, sonny." And I thought, you know, this Sergeant Major is right--they always are. Besides, I think we may all die here anyway, and I might as well get up and take mine standing alongside Sergeant Major.


The Sergeant Major turned around and pulled out his 45. He leaned over, and he shouted at the battalion surgeon: "Gentlemen, prepare to defend yourselves." The doc, who had been drafted and made an honorary captain and didnít even know which way to wear his brass on his collar, his mouth fell open.


The Sergeant Major was gathering up the odds and sods, and the clerks and jerks, including one scared reporter. He was forming a battalion reserve because he thought they were coming to get us, and we were going to go down to the last man. This was, after all, the 7th Cavalry, and that thought passed my mind, too.


But I learned things those days. I learned the obligation. I learned that you cannot be, as a reporter, simply a witness. In times like those, you may have to take up a rifle. You may have to carry the wounded or the dead. You may have to bring water in. You may have to take up a rifle and kill other men.


What I also learned was a sense of obligation; that brotherhood came to me, too, that day. What I knew going out of there was that 79 young Americans had died and 130 had been wounded, many of them severely. They had died and suffered so that I might live. I took it very personally, and I do to this day. Had any of those men faltered in his duty, had Col. Moore not had the brilliance and clarity of mind that he had and has--had those things not held up, we would have all died there, just as Custer's men died in another river valley.


So I left, knowing that I owed an obligation. Now, how you handle that obligation is another thing. The Army considers me a friend and I consider myself a friend to the Army. But they know that if I see them doing something that I think will needlessly cost the lives of soldiers in combat, I will rip them a new ass. And I have done so, and I will do so again.


I want to tell you one more story. This is a war story of a different war: the Gulf War. I had ridden in the back of a Humvee for 27 straight hours across the western Iraq desert, making the great left-hand sweep into the river valley.


We pulled, finally, into a locker, and we sat there in a stupor. It started raining, in the middle of a desert where it never rains. Another Humvee pulled up, the driver yelled over, "Is there a Mr. Galloway in that vehicle? The general wants to see him." The captain looked over his shoulder and said, "This is going to be the shortest interview in history because that brigadier general don't talk to no media pukes."


Well, three hours later in the generalís trailer, we had talked for about 30 minutes about the Gulf War, and we had talked for two and one-half hours about Vietnam. I asked him what Vietnam meant to him and he said, "You know, it was one of two defining moments of my life. Itís a filter through which I see and judge events that are happening in front of me. I know now how to judge men, based on what I learned there."


Then I had this feeling. I said, "General, what was that other defining moment in your life?" He looked a little shocked. He said, "Raising my second daughter who is a Down Syndrome child. Iím a professional military man, and the pursuit of perfection is what we are all about. But raising that child taught me there is more than one way to judge perfection."


So in the middle of the desert, I sit there with a tear rolling down my cheek, thinking how well we are served by the men who were lieutenants and captains in Vietnam. They were cannon fodder, and when their turn came to command they were determined that no man who had served under them would be cannon fodder ever again.


Wallace Terry: I was being trained, unwittingly, for Vietnam in places called Southern Birmingham, Newark, Watts, and Harlem. I was based in the mid-í60s in the Washington Bureau of Time Magazine, very comfortably located on Connecticut Avenue, sharing business lunches with new sources at fancy restaurants and not giving much thought to Vietnam, until it began to get in the way of the domestic policies of the greatest leader of black people at that time, Lyndon Baines Johnson. It was also getting in the way of my coverage of the civil rights movement, housing, and urban affairs.


It jumped into my mind that I needed to tie it somehow to Vietnam. In 1948, Harry Truman had ordered the armed forces integrated. I thought now would be a good time to see how far toward that goal we had come, so letís take a look at it through the spectrum of Vietnam.


I suggested the story to our editors in New York. They came back and said, "Let's do it. Weíd like you to go to Vietnam to see it first hand." That is not exactly what I had in mind. I thought that bullet-proof correspondents like Joe Galloway and Zalin Grant could handle that, and Iíd take a cab over to the Pentagon. But, having put my foot forward, I could not get my foot out of it.

So I was over there in 48 hours and went across the battlefields, and I was actually proving a point: Base camp by base camp, black people were fighting in every aspect of the war, every possible position. They were handling scout dogs; they were involved in programs to get the enemy to come over to our side; they were doing everything.

I also needed the womenís angle, so I arranged with a black information officer to interview a nurse at the 25th Evac hospital. When I was introduced to her I was struck by the fact that she was very fair skinned. She looked very, very light, but I figured Leroy, the information officer, knew what he was doing and that she had to be black.

Then as I talked to her, I began to realize that she might not be. So I turned to Leroy and said, "Do you know for sure?" He said, "I don't know for sure." I said, "Well, Leroy, you better find out, or I am going to be in big trouble."

So he called Dottie Harris, a black nurse, and Dottie said, "You better get that guy from Time out of there as fast as you can. Not only is she white but she plans to stay that way for a time to come." I said, "Leroy, how could you do this to me?" He said, "Wally, you proved your point. The Armyís got so integrated, we can't tell the black people from the white people."

When I got back to the States, we blew this thing up into a big cover story. On the cover we put a black guy who was leading an all-white LRRP by the name of Clyde Brown from Montgomery, Alabama. We couldnít have invented a better guy from a better place. Smack on the cover. Then I was summoned to the White House. It was the first good news that Lyndon Johnson had heard about the war in months. He said, "Sit down, son. Tell me about Vietnam."

He did not ask me whether or not the war was going right or wrong. I think if he had, I would have told him what I told the guys back at the bureau--that is, I think in ten years it is all going to collapse because I saw enough of the ARVN and I heard enough about the ARVN that the South Vietnamese people could not possibly, on their own, stand up against the North. Eventually, if the North wanted it, the North would take it.

I knew I was in big trouble when the New York editor decided I had done such a good job he wanted to send me back. I had to call my wife and get permission because this meant the entire family would be moving East. But Janice was more than willing and she took great risks coming to see me after parking the family in Singapore.

I went there because it was the biggest story in the world at the time. I guess, in the back of my mind, it was an adventure. It was exotic. It was different. Maybe, too, I was restless. But more than anything, it was a big story and I knew it was the war of my generation and I had to be a part of this coverage.

There were a lot of other reasons that we went out there. Some of us had a book in the back of our minds that we wanted to write. Others wanted to see the world. Others wanted to find some good pot. We had quite a mix. We had reporters at different levels, in terms of experience, in terms of commitment, in terms of responsibility. You had professionals who had been in the game for many years, like Stanley Karnow. Even in my case, I was not a freshman or novice journalist. I was considered a seasoned, experienced Washington correspondent who was expected to make good judgments. And I think most of my colleagues did the same.

I knew I was in trouble when I wanted a uniform to wear in the field because you want to look just like everybody else. You donít want to look different. You donít go in the field in a business suit or wearing a tie because then you become a number-one target for the sniper. So you want to have a pair of fatigues and look just like everybody else. Well, in World War II, our correspondents were issued uniforms by the American command. This was not true in Vietnam. But they were also censored, which we were not. As a matter of fact, we were given permission to go anywhereand get ourselves killed if we wanted to.

Thirdly, in World War II we traveled with large units. In Vietnam, you could walk around the corner in the street and get killed. The war was, really, in effect, everywhere. In order to get a uniform, I had to go to the black market. I went through one of our Vietnamese employees. I gave him 20 or 30 bucks and he bought an American uniform on the black market from his cousin.

One day during the Tet Offensive, I sent out a correspondent, a Vietnamese correspondent of ours by the name of Nguyen Nguyen. He was supposed to be our military man. I had heard there was going to be some trouble and I said "Nguyen, go to the pagoda and come back and tell me if anything happens." He came back, sat on the sofa, and began reading the newspaper. He said nothing to me.

Then Charlie Mohr of the New York Times ran into me. He said, "Wally, did you see what happened? Could you believe you eyes?" Of course, journalists lie to each other in order to get information from each other.

I said, "Charlie, I sure did. That was one hell of a battle." I had no idea what he was talking about. But he had his copy and he was going to put his copy on our telex and send it to the New York Times because their telex machine was out and ours was working. So I am pretending I know what he is talking about.

As soon as Charlie got out of there, I ran to the telex room and I snatched the copy back. I am reading an account that Charlie is giving of that incident where Gen. Loan, who is chief of Vietnamese police, executed a Vietcong right in front of Eddie Adams's camera. That became one of the three or four symbolic pictures of the war.

So I turn around to Nguyen and I said, "Did you see Gen. Loan kill a Vietcong in front of American cameras and American reporters?" "Yes, yes, Mr. Terry." I said, "Why didn't you tell me?" "Why, Mr. Terry, Gen. Loan does it all the time." And this gives you some idea of the huge cultural gap that we were trying to deal with.

Then, of course, our top Vietnamese employee was Pham Xuan An. I thought this guy walked on water. He spoke English, he read English, he was an excellent interpreter, and he was our intelligence and political expert.

I would take him along when I needed a briefing. I took him right into the palace for a briefing with the head of ARVN Intelligence, South Vietnamese Army Intelligence. I would ask my questions and he would translate them because the intelligence guy would prefer speaking in Vietnamese or French. I did not speak either one, so I am sitting there, feeding the questions and then I turn to An. He really makes me look good.

"You ask a few more questions," I say. He scratches his head. "Okay, Mr. Terry, I will give you a few more questions to ask." He asks those questions. I wrote them down, I came back, and I wrote my story and sent it to New York along with all the other background information. An was helping us collect this and he was proofreading all of this.

When the Communists took over, he reached in his closet and pulled out the uniform of a colonel in the Vietcong army. He did so well by us that he became a general. He is still living in Saigon.

It was a very different world. I'm often asked, was I scared? That's a dumb question. I was scared every moment I was there. Did I carry a weapon? Now that is not such a dumb question because according to the Geneva rules, we are not supposed to carry weapons. We are noncombative correspondents. Did I carry a weapon? I carried every weapon I could get my hands on.

The bloods--the black guys--gave me a carbine with the stock cut off so I could put it in my backpack. I had an M-16. I wore a 9mm Smith & Wesson under my shoulder. I didn't know how to shoot any of these weapons, but Iíd scare you to death if you saw me.

I was out in the fields, and I was allowed to do anything and everything I could to get myself the story. I am always thinking the story first, not realizing that I'm endangering myself and I'm endangering my family's hopes and future.

I did see something else I understood. I understood that if I'm out in the field I did not want my escorts, or the men that I am with, to worry about me if there was some trouble. If I am carrying a weapon and they are escorting me, they are not going to think, "We got to save this guy, we can't lose a journalist, especially the one black journalist out here."

I guess I knew that if the VC show up, they are not going to say, "Hey, are there any journalists over there with you Americans? Oh yeah, the black guy with his hand up. Could you move over here and then we will start to fire." I knew this was not going to happen.

One night on the roof of the Embassy Hotel, the journalist John Cantwell and I talked about the war and what would happen if we lost our lives. We decided this was not where we wanted to lose our lives. There was so much about Vietnam that was conflicting. It was not like the Good War. You could see losing your life to stop Hitler or Tojo, but you didnít want to lose it here. I think that was a vital concern for all of us.

Fifty-nine journalists lost their lives in Vietnam, more than lost their lives in WWII because it was so long, it was so ugly, and the war was around each and every corner, each and every paddy rice, and the VC were there. They were waiting for you there.

One day my wife came into Saigon from Singapore and she had dinner with John and me. The next morning they hit Saigon again. I did not want John to go anywhere because he had had two close calls and he was already slated to go to Taiwan. But I asked John to go to the office to call the AP or call Joe over at UP and get the latest of what is happening across the country.

John said,"No, Wally, you do that. Iíll go out and look around." I gave in to that, but I warned John not to go to Cholon, which was heavily infested with Communist activity. He loaded up a jeep that drove right into the enemy.

Word got back that they had been massacred. Well, I did not want to report that to anyone-- especially his family--until we knew that it was true. I needed somebody to go with me. Janice knew this man, Zalin Grant, and she called him and said, "Look, Zip, Wally needs you. Youíve got to go." It took us the better part of that day to get to them. I owe my life to Zalin Grant; I could not have driven alone. I'm a black guy and I grew up in Indiana. He's a white guy who grew up in South Carolina.

On that day, the same experience happened for us that happened for so many in uniform in Vietnam. We became brothers and we have remained brothers.

There is another point Iíd like to address. The press, from time to time, gets accused of having lost the war and having been inimical to American interests in the war. By and large, most of the reporters that I knew felt a responsibility to be fair and to get the truth to the American public.

Underneath all of this, I have a serious identity relationship with the man in uniform. They were my fellow Americans, and I would not have reported anything or done anything that I thought would hurt or damage an operation in which American lives were at risk. But I did think it was my responsibility--as a reporter in a fair and open society where we pride the importance of the press--to tell it like I saw it.

Now, I'm going to mention just two incidents tied to Tet. Tet is often referred to as a seminal event in press reporting. The late Peter Braestrup, another excellent journalist, wrote a two-volume set called The Big Story, in which he raised the issue whether or not we, as reporters, covered Tet properly.

There was criticism that the press jumped the gun by saying the American Embassy was invaded by the Vietcong. Now this became very important because of the fact that if Americans cannot defend their own embassy, then we are in a mess.

Well, several hours into that morning fight, the grounds were recovered and considered secure and the brass held a press conference in front of the entrance to the embassy and they said, in effect, that early reports from the wire services were wrong, that the Vietcong could not penetrate the embassy and then we had to go along with this.

It was unfair because the press was right, initially. It was not because we were looking to embarrass the Americans. It was that we were trying to tell the truth of what had happened. Our people covered up with a lie and then further castigated the press by saying we erred in our early reporting and, thus, we were irresponsible when, in fact, we were not.

The second point I want to make is that initial reports about the Tet Offensive gave the impression to the American people that because the Communist forces could attack all the major cities simultaneously that somehow we were losing.

The Tet Offensive then becomes this event, this kind of turning-point event, that drives Lyndon Johnson out of office because Walter Cronkite, in response to this, says, "You can no longer depend on my support of this war."

Johnson said, "If I've lost the trust of Walter Cronkite, then I've lost the trust of the American people." Well, what really happened?

What really happened is what I sent reporters at the Time Bureau out to see what did take place. Sure there has been an attack, simultaneous attacks, but what was the cost to the enemy? With the exception of the old imperial city of Hue, all the attacks were repulsed and all the ground was taken immediately within a day or two. We wrote this as a follow-up story the second week. But this got lost in the tremendous political reaction to the early reports.

If we had read more carefully, if the politicians had not jumped the gun, if those people who were against the war had not seized on what the press said initially and had looked at what the press had followed with, they would have gotten a clearer picture. The entire Vietcong Army was defeated and was virtually wiped out. Perhaps the North Vietnamese wanted to wipe them out so they would not have them to deal with when they eventually took over, as a threat from within.

I have mentioned this to tell you that there were those of us who worked very hard to present a balanced, fair, accurate picture of what was taking place, and to dispel the myth that we jumped the gun and did not tell the truth on the Embassy attack, and that later we did not follow up and show the full military results of what took place in a tremendous American battlefield victory.

Galloway: I would like to say that the idea that the press lost the war is totally fallacious. We did not lose the war by telling the American people the truth. The war was lost by a political leadership and, to a lesser extent, a military leadership that told the American people lies. I wish--and I think a lot of my colleagues wish the same--that at various points in the early days of the war we had been able to write so powerfully the truth that we would have ended that war.

God knows I could live with that as an epitaph if at the end of November 1965 I could have written so powerful a story about what I had seen in the Ia Drang Valley in terms of suffering and sacrifice and dying, on both sides, by brave men, that our political leadership could have seen a way to get out.

Had that happened, there would be fewer than 1,200 names on one black granite panel on The Mall in Washington and I could be very proud. I think anybody sitting at this table would agree with me.

Karnow: Joe, the converse is not true. If you are saying the critics say the press lost the war, you are turning it around and saying press influence could have avoided the war. In other words, you are saying the press had influence. I would like to suggest to you the press had much less influence.

Galloway: They had, obviously, almost none.

Karnow: Television even didn't have the influence that people in television like to think they had or the politicians like to think they had. Someone mentioned the famous February 28, 1968, broadcast of Walter Cronkite. Walter was a member of the extreme center. Walter is a lovely man; he is very moderate. So, in a mild kind of way, he expresses doubts about where this war is going. Then, Lyndon Johnson ballistically says, "Walterís double-crossed me; now I have to change public opinion."

Well, public opinion had turned against the war three or four months earlier.

So, Walter, in a sense, reflected opinion and--if I could just project that one step further--most of us did, too. We were covering the war. But we were Americans. When we first got in, most of the press corps supported the war. As the public turned against the war, so did the press.

We weren't out ahead very much. With the possible exception of I.F. Stone, I don't know a single journalist who had open opposition. Oddly enough, the first newspaper to criticize the war was the Wall Street Journal.

Arnett: What you had, Stanley, that was different from previous wars is the fact that (because there was no censorship) more photographs began to appear in American papers that would not have appeared in World War II. For example, Malcolm Browneís pictures of burning monks. In World War II they probably would have been suppressed. Eddie Adamsís picture of the execution of a Vietnamese would not have made it.

Also, the stories that we did. Joe Galloway's pieces from the Ia Drang were so dramatic and were, basically, indictments of the war. They dealt with bravery and with great heroism, but on the other hand, they just showed the crisis and brutality that Americans could face.

Karnow: I am not saying the press had no influence at all. But I think the fundamental element that changed public opinion at home was the relentless, hopeless futility of the war as it went on and on and on.

I had a conversation once with Dean Rusk who had been one of the great hawks as Secretary of State. He said, "Iíll never forget one of my cousins calling me from Sheraton County, Georgia, and he said, `Dean, when is this going to end?í And, you know, I couldn't rightly tell him."

That is what everybody was asking and nobody knew.


E-mail us at TheVeteran@vva.org


     Home | Membership | Publications | Events | Government Relations | Contact Us
Press Releases | Benefits | Meetings & Special Events | Collectibles | Contributions and Sponsorships | Site Index

Vietnam Veterans of America ģ 
8719 Colesville Road, Suite 100, Suite 400
Silver Spring, Maryland  20910-3710
301-585-4000, Fax 301-585-0519, 1-800-VVA-1316  

Copyright © 2005 by the Vietnam Veterans of America. All rights reserved.