Vietnam: A Television History; Interview with David Halberstam, 1979 [part 1 of 5]
You really stick with the kind where you would was involved in the enormous combat with the American mission and with the government you were clever and ordinarily dangerous war because the casualties and correspondents on that ship. American combat cowed was the highest in American history and every time he got on his helicopter. You're risking life or you were doing all that at the same time it was a wonderful assignment quite romantic it was a small group of press corps press corps about five times on my watch. Sorry. What would happen now was my watch alarm clock. I'm sorry I was trying to get up at 2:30 3:30. It was just talk. I'm sorry what happened in the family.
You might start talk a little bit about the city you know. When. You first went to Vietnam in the early 1960s what was it like there then. Well it was a really quite complicated slinger because it was it was romantic I mean there you were covering this exciting story. It's quite romantic City Saigon which had a you know wonderful touch of both being Asian and French culture and a sort of beautiful true tree lined streets and in Saigon in the sense of the
dark sense. Was to come with a huge American commitment had not yet come and there was there was a certain romantic quality and yet you were involved in combat with the American Embassy in constant combat with the government we were the enemy of the people in effect and we were. A very dangerous war I mean the the number of American correspondents killed in this war in proportion to American combat deaths I think is the highest in history. There's a very dangerous thing so that it was a curiously dangerous romantic assignment museums a cherished assignment and obviously things happened you were fighting for the freedom of speech you were fighting against great odds to tell it to give an accurate portrayal of a very complicated society in a war that was not being one fact barely being fought was a very moving time you're going to go up in the morning you go out to a concert to get on a helicopter three or four a.m. in the sun would roll up on the Mekong Delta river. My colleague course FOSS the great German photographer told me once he said you will not believe the mech on Delta you know the beautiful rice paddies the farmer the
water boss of the docks to the station the canal everything is at like a page out of the Bible and you go down there and you suddenly in this biblical setting you know be in a firefight and you come back that night you got a wonderful French dinner was a beautiful Vietnamese rabbit was it was at once romantic and real and very tough it was a very hard edge to some women and we were the enemy of the people and we have the government American and Saigon. Could you explain that a little more why was he and why were you considered the enemies. Well because during the Kennedy administration and later the giant industry and the ZM government had. Everyone else lined up in the ZM government was a kind of clumsy authoritarian or to politics in a state where nobody really spoke in opposition to the government. CM was always being re-elected by 99 percent and everybody in the American Embassy was I mean America the American government in Washington was had an essential policy of public relations if you could not win the war on the ground you could at least win it in public relations and make it look like it
was going well so there was a very calculated and orchestrated policy of people saying how well the war was going and you know someone with Iraq is at the airport and fly in a general they wouldn't fly the general in to learn what was going on they'd fly him in so he could come down the steps atonce a new airport and say I'm glad to be here in Saigon weather is a great movement towards victory a presidency and. As always people behind me you know editable victory light at the end of the tunnel that kind of stuff and my friend Neil Sheehan who's only about 25 years old to die would not be easy. Another foolish Westerner come to lose his reputation to achieve it anyway. It was so it was an orchestrated public relations account in which it was a lying machine. Washington would tell Saigon what it wanted to hear. And sure enough Saigon would very quickly tell Washington what it wanted here in Washington. Isn't it marvelous. It's all going as well out there as we thought and then the one
sour note the one thing that was not being controlled was just a small handful of American reporters and you know they would always say that McNamara was a one my only problem out there is the American press and the American ambassador once told me in Mr Hubbard's down you're always looking for the whole don't of course there was no Donat there was only this hole in the wood that they were done up there I mean we were the enemy at one meeting. Harkins I think in 1962 General Harkins the American. Commander rather ordinary men was meeting with Mr. McNamara Secretary McNamara 1962. Why are we doing well Mr. Secretary we're doing well on this program and we're going very well that's program a strategic hamlet everywhere really. The program is going well. No problem general. Well my one problem is the American press and it was a constant pressure trying to find or solutions try to stick it to us and it gradually became very personal they would try and find our sources they began to try to destroy our credibility politically. We got
our reputation and indeed our manhood and the stereotype of us we were to remember that we were very young to a small handful. None of us had big reputation when you talk about Neil Sheehan. And he's a distinguished reporter Peter Arnett. He's a distinguished reporter Malcolm Brown. Just I mean there have been Pulitzer Prizes are all famous was a legendary group then we were you know our average age was 26 27. Nobody had ever heard of us. So the idea was you know there who are these young men we can just you know we can crunch them know they're not famous. They sit around the Carousel Bar all day drinking and reinforcing their own doubts. But with all this opposition from the embassy and from the ZM government you succeeded Nevertheless in getting stories. How were you able to get where your sources were terrific sources we had all the people in the American embassy to the American embassy should have been listening to and we had a thousand and one Deep Throat I mean the phrase Deep Throat was not yet current But I mean I mean you had to you had two
levels of it in Saigon you had policy which Saigon was reflecting back to washing therefore you go into American ambassador unity and you know get reality you got policy you want to see General Harkins you've got a terrific four stars and you've got policy and then you went out into the field and there you get moving up what really was happening I mean a captain goes out and risked his life with a Vietnamese battalion and he's not going to come back and con you and suddenly you're a colonel advising the division American colonel divine advising a division he's got young captains going out risking their lives and he's not going to lie to you. So the moment you gain their respect that you will be straight you won't ruin their careers and you'll protect their names. I mean every passionate. Officer in Vietnam was our source everybody who cared. Those who cared more about reality and what was happening and the young men under their command than they did about their own careers. Those are our sources and we had them everywhere and they came to
trust us. They were trying to go through the channels and they would find it so I go on did not want to hear their report it would push it down and then rather reluctantly they would begin to talk to us and you. You would have a scenario almost somebody would come in the country and you go down and she she added John I have heard about you reported only part of you you guys are you are you're against or you're against a team or on a team you go three months later he said well you know it really isn't working as well. And by the fourth or fifth month and particularly if you kept going back and you went out in the field and shared the danger and shared hardship and took those rish they tell you the truth I mean if I went down to try to interview some battalion advisors in the vision area you can tell me it is the first time but if I go out in the field with them and we spend overnight and the the Arvin the Vietnamese army does not fight very bravely in fact catch and run via avoids battle as it was wanted.
I mean he's not going to come back and bullshit me. I mean he's going to tell me straight so we had terrific sources but a great little intelligence network of our own. What about among the Vietnamese is now a very good choice there. I'm sorry that I got that story just as long as you say don't say I want to make this perfectly clear and that I love her with the car I'm glad to have you know I thought I was. That's a question that's bothered you can I when I when I see Mr. jump jump jump right to your White House with President Carter I'm going to bring that up by the waters. I repose a question but get me switched. But try to remember to start off. Your hands so that I can get out. I got a very small ego you know what I want to be listening. We go yeah.
Yeah. You might mention a few names but when I get a little bit like well like to get at them they would go back to noting that they know it or deserves whatever none of you are sure you guys do. I mean we'll go back I'll go back and as a matter of fact before I get to get the resources I'll ask you about. You might get a characterization or are we going to get an old thing on the show. Well I think you get it. I was thinking about office interface has to do. Does University Virginia lost her teaching economics. God save the economy. Yes you're
right he was the Virginian of Virginia gentleman actually. What about I mean since we're talking history here. If you want to mention some names of people in the embassy who are good sources go ahead and get some credit for your love. OK. What was it like dealing with the American mission in those days. Well I think that Michigan restricted over I think you have to remember that Ambassador no team saw us as the enemy to the ambassador. The press corps was the enemy he wanted to see as little of. Possible. He had no understanding at all of what we were doing or why he was not a man who had any roots in Asia himself I think you understand the American embassy there you have to understand the devastation but the McCarthy period had had and wrecked upon Asian officers in the State Department. These things I mean
everybody in 1900 you want if you do it the coming of the Kennedy administration whom McCarthy was in the McCarthy years and it was seven years since the Senate had censured. The damage that he had done by his assault and and dollars his acquiescence to and in taking anybody out of the far far eastern area who had any background who knew what had happened in China the coming of a modern China over a fuel China and the replacing it with people who had in effect a European vision of Asia of communism and economies because that's what Milton was he was a man of neato you know we don't have an alliance or a tight all these countries together and the idea of communism as a kind of border crossing threat as opposed to that which it was in Saigon Vietnam nationalism I mean he was very much a product of the era and the American Embassy was was very much a product of the era one of the things that always struck me about our reporting in Vietnam was that those of us who were young although we were political reporters not military experts on our military reporting really
was better. It was more prophetic and more accurate and the reason was our sources were better reporters can't be any better than his or her sources. And and the problem you had. Politically what if there were no good political sources in the embassy I mean because anybody who might have said Vietnam is like China. It is a modern society on the rise against a feudal one and we are on the wrong side and the French took all the nationalism from day one when they defeated you know the the Viet Minh took the Nationals over when they defeated the French. And therefore we are always going to be on the wrong side. That kind of person didn't exist. I would in retrospect. I thought my reporting more on the failure to make the connection to the French era and what that period did to the nationalism than anything else I did but we had no sources. The embassy was devoid of people like that. I mean they were all people who in fact wanted to obliterate the past not understand it. What about the Vietnamese and how did you work with them where were your sources among it.
Well Vietnam in 1962 the golden Hume's of Vietnam was a feudal society in the final stages of collapse. Kept alive really only by enormous injections of American aid and finally American blood and manhood. And as it came apart I mean it was a very divided society that which divided them was far more powerful than that which united them as opposed to the modern communist nationalist Vietnam that was on the rise of everything the things that united them were far stronger than the petty jealousies which meant that you had terrific Vietnamese sources although they were not always motivated by the highest ideals you were getting factionalism brother against brother cousin against cousin tribe against tribe Catholic against you had terrific sources your only problem was sorting it out but the one thing you realize was that that society did not hold that it was very thought that the only people who defended the society were Americans. The only people who defended GM were Americans. That was a society without a
center. In the end that the only energy was being supplied by the Americans. That's a very dangerous statement in particular if you're in a political war. When you look back on that period. And you yourself have the reputation of being a dove on Vietnam war there really doves among the reporters. Well there would in I think most of us start to start over again. I mean when we started over. The thing you have to understand first about Vietnam in 1968 253 was that there were not doves and hawks but they didn't exist yet. But most reporters in fact accepted the American presence by the way I'd like to footnote in that considered I'm not sure that in fact reporters should be hawks or dogs or should have the New York Times should have had a correspondent out there who was against the presence I that's like saying that Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward have been doing Watergate and Truman saying Nixon should be impeached. I think their job was to come up with the evidence as our job was to come
up with the evidence. But what is interesting is how in effect in terms of the larger policy how mild what we were reporting was we were saying we should have been there of them in my heart of hearts you know retrospective which I had were saying was it doesn't work. President GM is despite the American propaganda machinery a terrible clumsy instrument we are losing the war in fact we're not even fighting it with the enemy the other side the Vietcong is getting steadily stronger day by day. There's got to be perhaps a better way. I mean if anything we're saying there ought to be a better way. I fault us not for the double talk saying because I think finally the American press out there performed pretty well I think anybody who wanted to know whether what we were doing and why we were doing it had a pretty good idea really I mean I think that the reporting is really remarkably accurate in retrospect. I fault us much more on not tying it to the French Indochina War. I am haunted by that. If I could change every story I wrote I would do it and I would add this
one paragraph the second paragraph would say this and this happened in the paragraph would say none of this makes any difference anyway because the Americans are here in the same footsteps as the French. They are fighting in the footsteps of a colonial war it is neo colonial war the French War managed to give the other side all the nationalism of the country and therefore what we do and how we fight makes no difference. I wish I could insert that paragraph in. It was a walk not so much of a hawk or dove it was a walk of one extra level of political analytical penetration. What. Is that the. OK. Oh sorry.
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- WGBH (Boston, Massachusetts)
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- Episode Description
- David Halberstam was a New York Times reporter in Vietnam during the War. He describes American press as a threatening presence for both the American and Diem governments. He recalls a wealth of anonymous sources willing to share their stories and describes a tension between the anti-communist, Cold War attitudes of news editors and accurate reporting from Vietnam - which would change after the Tet Offensive. He recounts President Kennedy's attempt to have him removed from his post in Vietnam, and Ambassador Lodge's visit to Saigon. Finally, he discusses the evolution of war reporting from a focus on the Vietnamese to a focus on the Americans and the dramatic effect of television news.
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- Raw Footage
- United States--Foreign relations--Asia; War in mass media; journalists; United States--Armed Forces; Vietnam War, 1961-1975--Influence; Vietnam War, 1961-1975--Public opinion; Vietnam War, 1961-1975--Personal narratives, American; United States--Politics and government; United States--Foreign relations--1945-1989; United States--History, Military--20th century; France--Colonies--Asia; Imperialism; Economic assistance--Vietnam; Military assistance, American; France--History, Military--20th century; Vietnam War, 1961-1975--Mass media and the war; Journalists--United States--Biography; War correspondents--United States--Biography
- Rights Note:1) No materials may be re-used without references to appearance releases and WGBH/UMass Boston contract. 2) It is the responsibility of a production to investigate and re-clear all rights before re-use in any project.,Rights:,Rights Credit:WGBH Educational Foundation,Rights Type:,Rights Coverage:,Rights Holder:WGBH Educational Foundation
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Publisher: WGBH Educational Foundation
Writer: Halberstam, David
Writer: Karnow, Stanley
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Identifier: 3cad8c6f2cd95547b353d508636c1a291c86e38f (ArtesiaDAM UOI_ID)
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- Chicago: “Vietnam: A Television History; Interview with David Halberstam, 1979 [part 1 of 5],” 1979-01-16, WGBH, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC, accessed March 3, 2024, http://americanarchive.org/catalog/cpb-aacip-15-br8mc8rj0f.
- MLA: “Vietnam: A Television History; Interview with David Halberstam, 1979 [part 1 of 5].” 1979-01-16. WGBH, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC. Web. March 3, 2024. <http://americanarchive.org/catalog/cpb-aacip-15-br8mc8rj0f>.
- APA: Vietnam: A Television History; Interview with David Halberstam, 1979 [part 1 of 5]. Boston, MA: WGBH, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC. Retrieved from http://americanarchive.org/catalog/cpb-aacip-15-br8mc8rj0f