The Press and Vietnam
To the Editor:
In his article, “With the American Press in Vietnam” [May], H. J. Kaplan appears to attribute to Talleyrand a well-known definition of a diplomat that is more accurately to be attributed to Sir Henry Wotton (Reliquiae Wottonianae): “An ambassador is an honest man sent to lie abroad for the commonwealth.”
Since this historic remark is often misquoted, as well as wrongly attributed, it can do no harm, I trust, to insist upon the correct source and version.
New York City
To the Editor:
H. J. Kaplan is lenient in his criticism of David Halberstam, whose unreliability has long been obvious. In the “Author’s Note” at the end of his book, The Best and the Brightest, Halberstam wrote: “Instead of believing that there was a right way of handling our involvement in Vietnam, in the fall of 1963 I came to the conclusion that it was doomed and that we were on the wrong side of history.” But in the concluding chapter of his book, The Making of a Quagmire (published in 1965), Halberstam described Vietnam as “a strategic country in a key area . . . perhaps one of only five or six nations in the world that is truly vital to U.S. interests.” In a list of his objections to abandoning South Vietnam, he included the warning: “Withdrawal means that throughout the world the enemies of the West will be encouraged to try insurgencies. . . .” On the other hand, he argued, “an anti-Communist victory in Vietnam would serve to discourage so-called wars of liberation.”
Halberstam’s subsequent misrepresentation of the views he was championing in the mid-1960′s impairs (or ought to impair) his credibility as a reporter.
It should also be noted that in 1963 Halberstam’s anti-Diem version of Vietnamese developments was challenged in the New York Herald Tribune by a much more experienced journalist, the late Marguerite Higgins. In a series of articles that appeared during late August and early September, two months before Diem’s overthrow and murder, Miss Higgins drew attention to the danger that the fall of Diem might cause a serious setback in the war. She made it clear that Diem’s opponents lacked the unity to provide an effective alternative government.
Shortly before her death Miss Higgins returned to the issue at greater length in her book, Our Vietnam Nightmare (1965), in which she criticized the tendency of some of her colleagues to emphasize the defects of friends like Diem while indulging in “romanticism” about revolutionary enemies. In his All the News That Fits (1969), a work attacking liberal bias in the New York Times, Herman H. Dinsmore praised Miss Higgins as “the most perceptive journalistic observer that America has sent to Vietnam . . . so brilliant she outshone every writer around her.” Certainly she was exceptional in her realism about the folly of trying to impose American concepts of “reform” on Third World allies.
Mr. Kaplan’s article makes many valid points, especially about the Tet offensive and the enemy’s sanctuaries, but fairness to the American press requires that Miss Higgins’s writings be taken into account along with those of Halberstam and his ilk.
Kenneth H. W. Hilborn
University of Western Ontario
To the Editor:
I had just finished the first volume of Peter Braestrup’s Big Story when the May issue of COMMENTARY arrived. I was struck by the way in which H. J. Kaplan’s “With the American Press in Vietnam” and the Braestrup book supplement, complement, and support one another. . . .
American media people are apparently the same wherever they happen to be. With minor deviations, the Braestrup-Kaplan critique applies to the Middle East-Israel situation as well. American reporters and columnists are almost to a man without the languages and without any special training for the locality; they shun anything of complexity and reduce all to the simplest terms; they avoid contact with any sources that might raise doubts and questions in their own minds. Any interest in furthering their own education seems entirely lacking in these journalists. As in Vietnam, the coverage supplied by the media people is shallow, skewed, and often inaccurate.
H. J. Kaplan writes:
I am grateful to my learned friend Frank Hercules for restoring to Sir Henry Wotton an honor of which I was unaware of having deprived him. This adds antiquity to the aphorism as well as a pun that would not be possible in French.
I also appreciate Bernard Cohen’s letter and Kenneth H. W. Hilborn’s reminder that a number of excellent journalists, like Marguerite Higgins, refused to allow themselves to be stampeded by the anti-Diem herd. It was the latter, unfortunately, who won out, and then went on to fashion the conventional (media) view of the war.