| CHAPTER 12
David Halberstam, whatever his faults, was never accused of being excessively subtle. The night he arrived in Saigon in 1962 he attended a going-away party for Newsweek's François Sully, a Frenchman who was being kicked out of the country for offending Madame Nhu. "The most striking quality about the gathering, "Halberstam recalled, "was an atmosphere which reminded me strongly of my working days as a reporter in Mississippi: we all seemed to be outsiders. There was no one there from the mainstream of the American embassy or the American military mission--just as in Mississippi comparable gatherings of reporters never included the leaders of the Chamber of Commerce, the mayor or a local legislator." Halberstam quickly got the feeling that Saigon was another case of reporters versus rednecks. This seemed to be verified when he talked to officials at the American embassy and discovered, he wrote in The Making of a Quagmire, that "they were not a bit unhappy to see François go. He was, as one of the highest embassy officials at the time told me, just a pied noir, a derogatory phrase implying that he was something of a half-breed."
Actually, pied noir didn't mean that at all. The American official was really implying that François Sully was a redneck and the embassy staffers were the good guys. Halberstam's misinterpretation, though, of what itself was a misinterpretation by the official, was symbolic of the situation that existed between the press and the American mission, with both sides considering the other the redneck, and neither side understanding very clearly what it was trying to define. With pied noir (black foot) meaning a Frenchman who was born in Algeria--his foot in Africa, so to speak--one could be a pied noir and a redneck, or a pied noir and a Nobel Prize winner like Albert Camus.
The press, in this case, measured in terms of influence in the United States, mainly consisted of three reporters--Halberstam of the New York Times, Malcolm Browne of the Associated Press, and Neil Sheehan of United Press International. They were relatively young--Halberstam and Sheehan were in their mid-twenties, Browne a little older--and largely untested. How three young reporters came to play such a major role in the evolution of the Vietnam War could be attributed to one of the quirks of the trade. In the business world, assignments fraught with financial danger and needing considered judgment were usually handled by older, seasoned executives. But in journalism the reverse was often true. Reporting a fast-breaking story involving personal hardships and separation from families called for the kind of energy and enterprise that a journalist over forty could seldom muster.
Few young reporters, however, ever had as much power to influence events as did Halberstam, Browne, and Sheehan. Until they arrived, the story had been covered by the over-forties from their bureaus in Hong Kong and other settled places, or by locals like François Sully, who had lived in Vietnam for seventeen years and who started as a part-time reporter. The old Asia hands would fly to Saigon, interview their contacts at the American embassy and among Vietnamese politicians, and return home to write their stories in tranquil surroundings. The visiting journalist was not liable to become personally involved with the story, and his work usually reflected the viewpoint of the American embassy officials who were his chief contacts and, in effect, his bread and butter. But after Colonel Nguyen Chanh Thi's aborted 1960 coup, followed five months later by the Bay of Pigs disaster in Cuba, interest in Vietnam stirred the journalism establishment to open Saigon bureaus with regular staffers.
If Halberstam, Browne, and Sheehan were young, they also had unusually good academic credentials for three reporters assigned to cover what was still considered a backwater story. David Halberstam graduated from Harvard, where he was managing editor of the Crimson, Neil Sheehan had also gone to Harvard, on an academic scholarship; Malcolm Browne attended Swarthmore. They were, in a sense, the best and the brightest of the young American reporters in Saigon, and they had great confidence in what they were doing, the most can-do of reporters who were seldom anything but enthusiastic--and all realized they would be replaced, their careers stymied, if they failed to nail the coonskin to the wall: A Damn Good Story.
By virtue of the fact that the Associated Press serviced most of the daily newspapers in America, Malcolm Browne, who was personally though not professionally shy, with an idiosyncratic dressing style, preferring bright red socks to go with his limp khaki slacks, should have held the top position of influence. Second place should have belonged to the other wire service reporter, Neil Sheehan, an affable Irishman who projected an air of distraction that made him seem vaguely off-key. In reality, though, it was David Halberstam who dominated the threesome.
David Halberstam arrived in Saigon at a confluent moment in the history of the war and the New York Times. John F. Kennedy had rejected Maxwell Taylor's recommendation on introducing combat troops, but had given the go-ahead to increase military aid in a piece-meal fashion, providing the Vietnamese with thirty or so banana-shaped CH-21 helicopters and pilots to ferry them into combat, along with a few aging fighter-bombers for air support. To handle the buildup, a new military organization was formed--the Military Assistance Command, Vietnam (MACV)--with General Paul Harkins as its head, a few months before Halberstam arrived.
At the same moment, the New York Times was approaching the height of its influence, owing to a ripple effect that washed over to the television networks, which were expanding their news coverage. Several years later, the situation would begin to reverse itself, and it would become not uncommon to see Times reporters huddled around the tube, taking notes. But when Halberstam arrived in Saigon, it was the Times that greatly helped set the news agenda for the networks, and thus for America. If the men who had their hands on America's communications levers did not exactly believe the Times emanated from a burning bush, they did treat it with the utmost respect as the country's newspaper of record.
In David Halberstam, the Times had a reporter who was not afraid to set his own agenda. Well over six feet tall, with a broad-shouldered angularity that made him seem even taller, the bespectacled Halberstam was capable and energetic. While the average journalist was distinctly not meek, Halberstam was propelled by an ego as bright as a strobe light. He had talked his way into the Vietnam assignment after reporting from the Congo and was not easily intimidated by anyone. He set out to cover the Vietnam story with complete independence.
The thrust of Halberstam's reporting, and that of Browne and Sheehan, was not antiwar by any means. Basically what they were saying was that the fight was going badly. In fact, they were exercising the critical function of modern journalism, which held the implicit belief that anything going well did not merit much reporting. This brought them into intellectual conflict with men like William Colby and Stuart Methven, who were equally as well-educated and knew as much about Vietnam as the journalists, and who believed, despite all the problems, that the fight against the communists was progressing, and that too much criticism might turn into self-fulfilling prophecy. Reduced to the essentials, whether the war was going well or not at this point was a matter of interpretation, since facts could be accumulated to support either point of view. But the point of view that was going to receive the widest attention, as all but the most naïve knew, was that of the journalists.
It was in this atmosphere that government officials launched a campaign to discredit the reporting of Halberstam, Browne, and Sheehan. The easiest charge made against them was that they were young and inexperienced and "trying to make a name for themselves," which, of course, they were. No one would have questioned a young businessman's ambition to make money, and making a name for oneself was the journalistic equivalent of making money and should have carried no implication of a lack of integrity on the part of the reporters, as government officials clearly intended.
More infuriating, as the newsmen saw it, was the campaign that was begun to call into question their courage. Taking the lead from Ngo Dinh Diem, who had earlier ridiculed his opposition as "the Caravelle Group," embassy and military officials suggested that reporters got their stories in the ninth-floor bar of the Caravelle Hotel, from the French-tainted Vietnamese who hung out there, and that they seldom ventured to the countryside, where they might find themselves in harm's way. The theme was picked up by older visiting newsmen such as Washington columnist Joe Alsop and relayed to journalists back home.
Being a reporter in a war and having the military cast aspersions on your courage was like being a piano player in a brothel and having the girls suggest you were impotent, with all the winks and smirks that involved. The fear of being so labeled drove some reporters to take such chances that they would up in body bags, thereby making the point moot; and few journalists, no matter how self-assured, took the question of courage lightly. The matter finally reached a head when Time magazine, directed by its hawkish managing editor Otto Fuerbringer, ran a press story supporting the Caravelle charge against the reporters, prompting Time's own correspondent in Saigon, Charles Mohr, along with another friend of Halberstam's, to quit in protest. Mohr was not against the war; in fact, he continued to believe, long after many of his colleagues had changed their minds, that the cause was just. As his resignation from Time indicated, the vicious fight going on between the press and the mission cut across ideological lines.
In David Halberstam's case, the word was passed that he had actually cried on an operation when he saw dead bodies, presumably the ultimate put-down from the military point of view. Halberstam, an urban Jew who had already covered two reportorial macho stories--civil rights in the South and the war in the Congo--might not be expected to take such aspersions lying down--and he didn't. For every charge made against him, he reported the story ever more aggressively, and he wore it as a badge of honor when John F. Kennedy asked the New York Times publisher to transfer him out of Saigon, which the Times refused to do.
"We all personalized the struggle," Neil Sheehan recalled. "But Halberstam personalized it more than anyone else."
There was truth to the charge that the reporters spent an inordinate amount of time in Saigon and not in the countryside, where the war was going on. That had to do, at least in part, with the nature of the conflict. In World War Two and Korea, newsmen had been assigned to major American units and left there. They were bound to be in on the action. But how did one cover a guerilla war that was fought with sporadic incidents? It was a question that reporters would be asking long after Halberstam was gone. Moreover, newsmen covering the war in the early days were without the helicopters and planes for ferrying journalists around the country that accompanied the big buildup in 1965 and were left to their own means of securing transportation. Sensitive to the charge that they were not getting out of Saigon, which government officials suggested was due to cowardice, and forced to fend for themselves on matters of transportation in a country without much transportation, the Saigon reporters hit on their own expedient.
"In those early days of my Vietnam assignment I was trying to decide how to evaluate this perplexing war," David Halberstam recalled in The Making of a Quagmire. "How do you add up thirty minor engagements each day, almost all of them in places you've never been to, and with no substantive information to cast light on the significance of the situation? It was very quickly obvious to me the story could not be covered from Saigon briefing room, despite all the multicolored arrows on the maps. The Seventh Division struck me as being as good a litmus paper of the war as any: the problems were all there, the Government had a fair chance and it was unlikely that things could go badly there and well elsewhere, or vice versa. Besides, My Tho, the division headquarters, was only forty miles south of Saigon on a good road, and we reporters could drive down, talk with friends and participate in operations."
The American adviser to the Seventh Division was Lieutenant Colonel John Paul Vann. So it was almost a coincidence derived from the technical difficulties of covering the war and the need, both personal and professional, to get out of Saigon that the young reporters, especially David Halberstam and Neil Sheehan, fell under the influence of Vann, one of the bravest and smartest men to serve in the war. John Vann was as close to an Ed Lansdale as the army produced, and he had the same fearlessness in seeking to promote his point of view. But whereas Lansdale was relatively closemouthed with the press, John Vann was determined to use newsmen as his weapon against the bureaucracy.
And what John Paul Vann had to say made a damn good story. Almost alone of the military careerists, Vann contended that the war was being fought badly and as a consequence being lost. Like Ed Lansdale, John Vann believed totally in the justness of the cause. He was probably more conservative than Lansdale and certainly less flexible. Vann simply wanted to change tactics and policies to conform with his own ideas--good ideas, indeed--about how the war could be won. The Saigon reporters made sure he was heard loud and clear, which drove General Paul Harkins, the commander of MACV and the jut-jawed picture of can-do optimism, up the wall. In journalistic terms, as always, by the nature of business that responds to salients and not subtleties, the key point of Vann's thinking reflected by the newsmen was things going badly, not things had to change.
Six months after he arrived in Saigon, David Halberstam was one of several reporters who got together over lunch with Senator Mike Mansfield, who was on a fact-finding trip, to give him an informal briefing on how they saw the situation. "Mike already had his doubts," Halberstam recalled, "and, of course, by then we were all very, very discouraged and pessimistic and we had become the enemies of the mission and of the regime. . . ."
Several weeks later, on January 2, 1963, a battle occurred that the newsmen covered with all the resources at their command. It involved John Paul Vann and the division he advised. The operation began as an attempt to knock out a communist radio transmitter and what was thought to be a company-sized force guarding it. From the moment the first helicopters took off, everything went wrong. The communists apparently had been tipped off and were waiting in battalion strength, armed with heavy machine guns and mortars. John Vann displayed his usual courage, but the battle of Ap Bac was lost and five helicopters were downed, three Americans killed, largely because of the incompetence and cowardly behavior of Saigon army officers who were supposedly leading the operation.
Major General Charles Timmes arrived at the scene with his boss, General Paul Harkins, about the same time as newsmen from Saigon. Timmes, a gentle man who had jumped into Normandy with the 82nd, like John Vann, whom he considered "sometimes brave beyond good sense, but highly effective." Harkins was already outraged by critical comments in the press that could be traced to Vann.
"The difficulty at Ap Bac," Charles Timmes said, "began when Vann yelled to Harkins when he saw him, 'Those bastards didn't fight worth a -------.' He was very critical that the Vietnamese were cowards. A lot of press people were around when Vann yelled this out, and they heard him. Harkins, as I recall, relieved him. He was going to send him back to the States. I said 'Don't do that. It will give you a black eye with the press. Let me take care of this.' I made Vann my special assistant, and sent him around the country. He left not long afterward and then resigned from the army."
The battle of Ap Bac, examined in isolation, was militarily significant and indicated the serious problems facing the Saigon army, with the Viet Cong now standing and fighting in battalion strength. But it didn't necessarily signal the end of the world. Nevertheless, the press portrayed the battle as being truly earthshaking, not in small part because it involved John Vann, who was ready to speak his mind about it to reporters like David Halberstam and Neil Sheehan, to whom he had become a hero. The newsmen believed they had found ultimate proof of how ineffective were Diem's forces and thus Diem himself. In a biography of Vann written many years later, Neil Sheehan all but admitted as much. "Ap Bac was a big picture that discredited the big picture [General] Harkins and [Ambassador] Nolting were projecting," Sheehan wrote. "We exploited the battle as much as we dared for this reason, and when Vann, out of his anger and a shared interest, tacitly offered an alliance afterward, we entered it eagerly."
The newsmen were made all the more determined to advance their view after the press conference held by General Paul Harkins and Admiral Harry Felt, Harkins's superior from Honolulu. Harkins looked the newsmen in the eye and called Ap Bac a victory for the Saigon army. But Harkin's fatuity was merely banderillas to the bull. It was left to Admiral Felt to act as the picador. He urged the newsmen, particularly Malcolm Browne, "to get on the team." That exhortation, as it continued to reverberate among journalists in Saigon over the years, lost none of its power to enrage, which probably bewildered Admiral Felt, who was simply asking the newsmen to return to the way it used to be in the old days.
After Ap Bac, the focus of the story shifted to the political situation, the Buddhist crisis, and a critical examination of Diem's policies, deepening the feud between the reporters and the American mission, which had become bitterly personal. It was the Buddhist crisis that brought Diem down, and Neil Sheehan had a few candid words about the role the press played. "Halberstam and I and the other correspondents had seized on the Buddhist crisis as we had on Ap Bac," he said.
"We had been holding it up as proof that the regime was as bankrupt politically as it was militarily."
Barry Zorthian, a government official generally liked and respected by reporters, who was later brought in to smooth relations between the press and the mission, believed that the newsmen were closer to the truth in describing the situation than were the embassy and the military. But Zorthian believed too that Halberstam, Browne, and Sheehan played what amounted to an extrajournalistic role in the destruction of the Diem regime--which almost every government official, including some who forgot how they felt about Diem at the time, came to regard as the crucial error of the war.
"They were characters in the story," Zorthian said. "They were so involved and so intense about it that they became, if you will, actors on the stage. I don't mean to say they did that maliciously. They almost were dragged into it, almost forced into it."
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