Author and Journalist
“In Vietnam…I was one of the first reporters to warn that the American policy did not work”
I am lucky enough to belong to two remarkable groups of reporters from that time, those reporters who at great personal risk covered the tumultuous domestic revolution in civil rights and those who at more obvious risk covered the war in Vietnam. I was by no means, I think, the best reporter in either venue, if there is such a thing as a best reporter on any given story, for there are in each press corps different people with different talents. But for a variety of reasons, the fact that early on during the Vietnam War the United States government singled me out as its most important journalistic enemy, the one person whose credibility it wanted to destroy, and the fact that more than thirty years after those events have passed that I have continued to write books, I have become something of a signature figure–or a poster boy–for the era.
But, it should be noted, I was just one of several of the group of reporters who brought distinction and honor to their profession at a critical time when journalism, because of the compelling nature of both those stories, became unusually important.
In the South, to tell the truth, I was somewhat on the periphery, my tour there interrupted by my assignments to report for theTimes in both the Congo and Vietnam. The great figures there are almost surely reporters you have never heard of–the nonpareils, I call them–Claude Sitton of the New York Times, Karl Fleming of Newsweek, John Herbers also of the Times, and Jack Nelson of the Los Angeles Times. They took uncommon risks over the course of more than a decade covering what was a truly terrifying story. Targeted by the leaders of the white segregationist resistance, threatened again and again with raw mob, Klan violence, they remained steadfast in their sense of duty. Worse, it should be noted, they faced these risks not on some foreign soil at the hands of some armed foreign force, but on native soil at the hands of well-armed fellow Americans who thought of them as sworn enemies. In 1964, after I had returned to America after almost two years in Vietnam, I was more frightened in Mississippi than I had been in Vietnam.
Comparably, in Vietnam, where I was one of the first reporters to warn that the American policy did not work, there were others, like my beloved friend Charley Mohr as well as friends like Peter Arnett and Neil Sheehan, who stayed far longer and took great risks and whose reporting made us all proud.
In addition there were all kinds of remarkable journalists and editors from that generation like my friend Bill Kovach, who is here today (Bill, stand up, please), who tried to do something perhaps even more difficult. Bill tried to bring those standards of independence to places singularly unaccustomed to that kind of journalistic freedom–he tried to reinvent the Atlanta papers and for a few brief years actually succeeded. I would like to speak for all those journalists tonight.
“We were by and large born during the Depression to parents of limited and on occasion marginal means. Almost none of us knew wealth or privilege when we were young. “
I would like to talk today about who we were and what drove us and perhaps even what in some way set us apart, these young journalists taking such uncommon risks for what seems like, in retrospect, precious little money. For sure it was not financial betterment which induced us again and again to risk so much. I am still not sure all of us know why we really did it. We were, it should be noted at the very outset, not without our weaknesses: we were almost all male; the few women in our profession in those days were almost always consigned to the ghetto of the women’s pages. What we did was not perfect; we did not always see the fullest implications of every story. The greater historical implications of what I was doing in Vietnam–and what I represented–regrettably dawned on me incrementally in the years after I left there.
We were in some ways quite ordinary. We were by and large born during the Depression to parents of limited and on occasion marginal means. Almost none of us knew wealth or privilege when we were young. Our educational levels varied greatly. None of us was a brilliant student. I was luckier than most, having gone to Harvard from a public high school, but having failed dismally as a student there, graduating in the bottom third of my class and being told in my senior year that I should not bother to write a senior thesis. My friend Karl Fleming was at the other end, the product of an orphanage in North Carolina. We were not favored in the early part of our lives by our looks, academic brilliance or athletic ability. We were neither the best looking, nor the most popular, nor, for sure, the most likely to succeed in our high school classes. Though later in our lives we would be credited with bravery and courage, my memory of myself when I was young and in high school is of someone exceptionally timid, easily frightened and quite fearful of any physical confrontation. I think it is one of the ironies of my life, and I suspect of those of many of my colleagues, that I found courage in representing the Nashville Tennessean in the South and the New York Times in the Congo and Vietnam when I had the magnificent purpose generated by this profession, a courage which I could never have summoned on my own in my own behalf. My professional life, I am suggesting, greatly enhanced and strengthened me as a person.
Certainly like all young men we were driven by ambition. But ambition alone can hardly explain why some young men in the fullness of their youth might give over almost a decade of their lives to such danger and might also become targets for so much social opprobrium. Therefore I think it is a good idea to pay attention to the nature of the ambition: we did not, unlike most ambitious young men of that time, hunger to be powerful or rich or to be in charge of whatever institution we worked for. We lacked that kind of ambition, the ambition of those young men who vie to be most likely to succeed. Young men like that are instinctively geared up to give back to their superiors what their superiors want to hear and to pass on, at all times, conventional attitudes, and above all else, never to go against the grain; to them there is no terror so great as their terror of being out of step with their superiors. We were different, I think. We hungered to be a part of events, and we were curiously immune to traditional career advancement. Unpopularity did not faze us. What we did, we did by instinct. More often than not what we did made us unpopular; that later in my life, what we did would be seen differently–that our early eccentricity would one day become fashionable–and that we would be honored for our reporting and independence in those years, is a bonus, but it had nothing to do with our decisions then. We did it because we could think of no honorable alternative.
We were, despite attacks on us, neither particularly liberal nor particularly conservative, though by what are contemporary standards of ideological division, we were perceived as liberal. That presumes that believing in the Constitution of the United States is a liberal act, that a reporter who believes that all fellow Americans have a right to vote is a liberal, and it supposes as well the idea that there was a liberal position on Vietnam (where an allegedly liberal political administration, for reasons of its own political future, systematically lied about both its intentions and its successes). All of this, I think, is dubious.
What we did have, even when we were young–a common sinew which bound us–is that we were all probably a little different from the norm; even in high school we were, I think, outsiders looking in. We were the ones who were a little strange and who when we went to college were not likely to be invited into the best fraternities. Even worse we might not even have wanted to be in the best fraternities. We were probably just a little suspicious of those classmates who, when we were all young, seemed to bask so readily in the reflected warmth and admiration of fellow students and faculty alike; comparably, we remained just a little suspicious of the high-school history-book version of America, we suspected there was a considerable gap between what the society said that it was and what it actually was. We were, to use a word which accurately described us, but which I did not know until well into my twenties, alienated.
I think that quality came from different sources in different homes. In my own home, which was one of the new Americans–my parents were the first generation of my family born in this country–we believed in the concept of American democracy and egalitarianism with an almost religious intensity. Or as the father of my grade school classmate Ralph Nader once said, “When I first arrived in this country and I saw the Statue of Liberty I took what it meant seriously.” (I always loved that quotation. That was true of our home as well.) Sometimes a favored teacher had helped kindle the flame in us, letting us know that it was all right to be a little different. Often it was an important book which helped heighten the edginess we felt. In my own case nothing contributed so much to my innate iconoclasm as the writings of Sinclair Lewis, perhaps one of the most underestimated writers of the past century.
We most demonstrably did not seek wealth, nor, for that matter, fame, at least not fame as it is measured today in a world of celebrity journalism where certain television journalists who have become personalities and are skilled at doing soft interviews with all sorts of marginal celebrities not only have multi-million dollar contracts but personal hair stylists and personal publicity agents. What we wanted, perhaps more than anything else, was to escape boredom. Journalism was probably attractive because it meant using words, one of the few things most of us were reasonably good at, and because if we were lucky and successful, it might offer a chance to be witnesses to great events. In time what we came to share was a high sense of purpose, a great belief in a free press, a willingness to challenge the comfortable assumptions of the moment and a somewhat innocent belief–one by the way that I still cherish–that if people are well informed this country will function better.
In my own case I have often pondered what drove a young man of twenty one who had been managing editor of the Harvard Crimson to leave all he knew behind and set off for a job in Mississippi and to end up on the smallest daily in that state. A few months ago I sat in South Hadley, Massachusetts, with my wife and a black doctor named Rodney Powell, one of the eight young black sit-in leaders who I have written about in my new book, The Children. These are young people who I first met 37 years ago when they dared to challenge the existing Jim Crow laws of the South by eating at otherwise segregated lunch counters in downtown department stores and five-and-ten stores and who a year later took their struggle into the Deep South during the Freedom Rides. My wife was with me and she had never met Rodney before, and we were talking about what drove the young people who took such great risks in those days. Mostly, we decided that night, it was a deep, bedrock religious faith which came out of the Baptist homes they had been raised in. Then Rodney turned and asked, “What was it that drove the ninth person?”
“Who is that?” I asked.
“You,” he answered. “Why were you there when you could have been so many other places? Why did you care so much what happened to us?”
It was an interesting question, but I did not have the answer at the moment.
I pondered it, however, and the next morning when I woke up I turned to my wife. “It was about simple justice for me,” I said, thereby answering Rodney.
“I know,” she answered. “I always knew that.”
Which it was, a simple belief that our society should be fair and just and free, that everybody’s children should, if at all possible, have the same start, and that everyone should have the right to vote, that everyone should be able to sit wherever he or she wanted on a bus. I thought it would take for a better country. In addition, I thought it made it unnecessarily hard to love a country where segregation was still backed by the law.
I think all of my colleagues in the civil rights days felt much the same way. I think we all took he Constitution seriously. As such we were willing to take the requisite risks which went with the story. More, if what we did wasn’t worth the risk at a moment when journalism seemed to matter so much, then why be a journalist in the first place? We downplayed and, I think, tried to camouflage that part of us that felt so passionately about justice and the rightness of what we thought the Movement leaders were doing. It was not something we talked about and we tended, when we talked at night at dinner, to hold back from talking about the moral imperatives which drove that leadership and in a lesser way drove us. If anything our humor had a certain sardonic, self mocking–even mordant–quality, as though the last thing we wanted for anyone to know was how passionately we believed in what was happening. It was as if our humor proved that we were not, as some of our enemies suggested, that vilest of all groups, do-gooders. We wanted to show that we were tough and thick-skinned, which, of course, we were not.
Vietnam was in some ways different from the civil rights story. The civil rights story was about elemental justice; Vietnam was about elemental truth and the right of ordinary people in a free society to know things which their government did not want them to know. What was important in both cases was the willingness of reporters to resist the easy temptations of conventional opinion. In the South it was the willingness to have almost all the white people in a given town turn on you–with varying degrees of ugliness. In Vietnam we took on, instead of mayors and sheriffs and the Chamber of Commerce president and street mobs, the president of the United States, the very attractive and seductive Mr. Kennedy–he who had so skillfully dazzled the Washington press corps–the entire American embassy in Saigon, the Pentagon and a vast number of our older colleagues who, either for ideological or generational reasons, felt a need to denigrate our reporting–often, of course, without deigning to come to Saigon.
If you were willing to be unpopular–something that has always come rather easily to me–then what we did was not particularly hard. The evidence of failure was everywhere: that the war was not only not being won, that in fact it was barely being fought. That the American officials in Saigon were lying every day about the alleged progress. What could be more important for a reporter than to try and penetrate the deliberate official mendacity? Any primal sense of duty–of being a free reporter in a free society–demanded that we turn away from the official optimism when everyone we knew out in the countryside thought the American public relations machinery in Saigon was propagating nothing but lies–or at least was engaged in massive self delusion. So if we were not invited to dinner parties by the ranking American officials in Saigon, so be it. If the American ambassador literally threw me out of his office one day, so be it. If the entire Defense Department launched a vindictive campaign trying to show that I was a coward who never covered any battles, so be it. And if the president of the United States took the time from his other demanding duties to ask the publisher of the Times to pull me from Saigon, so be it. It went with the territory. The price of behaving with some degree of honor struck me then, and it strikes me now, as being very small.
It was, to let you in on a terrible secret, not that hard to cover Vietnam in those days. In some ways it was a very easy place to work. The evidence of failure was all around us. My colleagues and I had our most difficult struggle in trying to gain access to the battlefield. The only important journalistic ingredient was to me a simple one–an essential one, particularly for all of you young people out there: the ability to put loyalty to the truth above loyalty to a government of men. That demanded, I think, a higher definition of patriotism than one promulgated by John Kennedy, Dean Rusk or Robert McNamara, men who were telling us to get on the team and who were concerned not about the truth in Vietnam, about which they cared nothing at all, but about John Kennedy’s 1964 election plans. So the decision to report pessimistically was not a decision at all; it was something purer than that, an instinct.
In later years much was made of all this; the moment when John Kennedy tried to have me pulled is now what is called a defining moment. Of course it eventually greatly enhanced my career (I am here tonight, thank you very much). Many people thought it must have been shattering for a young man barely 29 years old to know that the president of the United States, an extremely popular president much admired by most of my professional colleagues, was unhappy with my reporting. So let me tell you, if I may, a story about what happened and how I heard about Mr. Kennedy’s request. For I remember the day I learned of Kennedy’s displeasure with great clarity. My friend Bernard Kalb told me about it; he was a former New York Times reporter who had gone to work for CBS, and he had just come back to Saigon after a visit to New York and a dinner with Punch Sulzberger, the publisher who had been the somewhat unhappy recipient of President Kennedy’s request. Back in New York everyone was stunned by what had happened, and everyone was very nervous indeed about it.
It was the fall of 1963, and Bernie told me about it at lunch at the Aterbea, a restaurant favored by working reporters in Saigon. The interesting thing is that the story barely dented my mindset. I felt neither diminished nor enhanced. With the arrogance of the young I thought it a bit odd that the president would care so much about what I was doing, and I was intrigued in addition that he could be so wrong about the accuracy of my–and my colleagues’–reporting. But I also thought, and this was crucial: so what? And then I thought: too bad about him. After all, Washington was 12,000 miles away, and I was in no way anxious to be a part of the inner Kennedy circle and dine with him and the first lady. Most importantly, because my sources in the field were so good and so dedicated, I was absolutely sure of the accuracy of my reporting. Vietnam, where people I knew were dying, was real– that was my universe; Washington and the world of spin, no matter how exalted the spinner, were not. I left Bernie that day barely burdened or upset by what he had said. There is in this story, I think, the purity of youth, and it is what makes, on certain occasions, young people very, very good reporters.
I would like to tell one more story here tonight about an incident which also took place in Vietnam in the fall of 1963; it is something I am unduly proud of and which seems to be an essential story to my belief in a free press and is worth mentioning on an occasion of honoring Elijah Parish Lovejoy. This incident took place at the height of the tension between the reporters and the American mission. We had already been identified as the only problem between that mission and, it was said, certain and imminent victory. On this particular day there had been a major battle in the Mekong Delta, inevitably an ARVN (Army of the Republic of Vietnam) defeat, and the MACV (Military Assistance Command Vietnam — the American command) commanders had tried to keep us out of the battle area. My impassioned young colleague Neil Sheehan and I had tried very hard to get down there but had been blocked at every attempt. We had finally called General Harkins, the American commander, and Ambassador Lodge, who was in charge of the embassy, to ask for help, but to no avail.
Later that afternoon there had been a briefing scheduled at MACV headquarters, given by Major General Richard Stilwell, a rising star in Saigon and the smoothest operator in MACV, a man who was already a master of what is now called spin. He was a man self-evidently hungry for title and promotion–and he eventually got his third star, although it struck me that the price for his promotion was nothing less than his honor.
Normally briefings were small affairs conducted by captains or majors in a room where the only audience was the working reporters themselves. On an important day we might be briefed by a light colonel. But this occasion was from the start different. It was clearly an attempt to draw a line against us and to deny us access and, perhaps most important of all, to intimidate us. Not only was the briefer a two-star general, but the room contained about ten reporters and in addition, clearly, every colonel and every general in Saigon; there were about thirty senior officers there as part of an amen chorus as we began. General Stilwell began by giving us details of what the ARVN commander had had for lunch that day and how good his English was and which American army training schools he had been to; but his information about what had actually happened in battle was predictably scant. That was bad enough. But then he segued into a highly condescending lecture to the reporters present, and particularly Neil Sheehan and me, whom he referred to by name–we were the two bad boys of Saigon–for daring to bother Ambassador Lodge and General Harkins. They were very busy men, he said, with a great deal on their minds and a lot of other things to do. We were not to bother them in the future, he added. It was as if he was giving us orders.
And I, without even thinking of it, found myself on my feet–I must add here that I hated then and still hate confrontations of this sort in briefings, (I have always felt that if you did your work properly you did not have to harass some poor press spokesman, some poor captain who was only doing his duty). And I heard my voice telling General Stilwell that American helicopters flown by American pilots had carried Vietnamese units into battle that day, along with their American advisers. And therefore we had a right to be there. Perhaps some had been wounded or killed, but we did not yet know. And I said that the American people who were paying for this had a right to know what had happened and that they would in the long run–I had no illusion about who would win a popularity contest early on between a general with lots of ribbons and a brash young reporter, but I knew something about the future–and I said that they would in the long run agree with me, since these were their sons. And therefore, unpleasant as it might seem, and as busy as Ambassador Lodge and General Harkins were, we would continue to call them if we were blocked from access again. More, I said, we might be young, but we did not work for him, and we were not his privates and corporals; we were representatives of the New York Times and United Press and the Associated Press, and if he did not like our reporting, he had a perfect right to write to our employers and complain that we were being too aggressive in asserting our right to cover a story. He could even ask for replacements. (I always thought of his letter to my publisher: “Dear Mr. Sulzberger, your Mr. Halberstam is too aggressive and always wants to go to the scene of the battle–can you please send us a more malleable replacement?”) But until we were replaced, I said, we would continue with our historic obligation to those who had gone before us in this profession and to those who read our papers every day.
I think it’s a moment that Elijah Lovejoy would have understood, and I would like to think that today you have honored the young man who stood up that day in that briefing room even if he has a little more gray hair 34 years later. Thank you all very much for having me.