To the Editor:
In an article about Wilfred Burchett [“A Scandalous Journalistic Career,” November 1981], Stephen J. Morris writes that in the course of my visit to North Vietnam in 1966-67 I reported that the United States was “deliberately bombing not military but civilian targets” and that I “did not tell [my] readers that [my] source for this charge was not direct observation but North Vietnamese officials and one of their published propaganda booklets.”
Mr. Morris is evidently unaware of the fact that I visited Nam Dinh (the city where the controversial bombing occurred) and made an extensive personal examination of the locale and the bomb damage which was extremely extensive. As my dispatches noted, whatever the cause, large numbers of houses and apartment house blocks had been destroyed.
The actual controversy over Nam Dinh related not to destruction but to civilian casualties. The Pentagon contended that the figures I reported were the same as those contained in a Hanoi handout which had been circulated in Moscow. The figures which I reported came from the mayor of Nam Dinh. As Clifton Daniel, managing editor of the Times, pointed out at the time, it is hardly surprising that the two figures were identical; nor, of course, was there any other source available.
The fact is that the casualty figures (89 dead, 405 wounded) were by no means very impressive considering the city’s population, the number of raids, etc. In fact, a few days later the Pentagon took to citing the figures themselves as evidence of the care which was being taken to avoid hitting civilians in the course of attacks on military objectives.
For a clearer picture of the Nam Dinh affair I would refer Mr. Morris (and the reader) to the actual dispatches which I filed at the time from Hanoi and the comprehensive summary series filed from Hong Kong after my departure from Hanoi.
Harrison E. Salisbury
Stephen J. Morris writes:
In my article on the Australian Communist journalist Wilfred Burchett I pointed to Harrison Salisbury as an important friend and promoter of Burchett. Since World War II Burchett has published countless books and articles defending and praising a series of murderous totalitarian regimes from Joseph Stalin’s and Mao Tse-tung’s to Ho Chi Minh’s and Pol Pot’s. In spite of this incontrovertible record of Burchett’s odious public stands, Mr. Salisbury persisted in maintaining his friendship, even going so far as to write a laudatory introduction to Burchett’s memoirs. In this introduction Mr. Salisbury described Burchett not as a Communist propagandist, but as a “humanist” and an “iconoclast” motivated by sympathy for the underdog.
In his letter, Mr. Salisbury has not mentioned, let alone explained, why he chose to be an accomplice in the scandalous career of Wilfred Burchett. Instead Mr. Salisbury deals with the side issue—albeit a serious one—of his own misleading reporting of the American bombing of North Vietnam. Even in dealing with this particular event, Mr. Salisbury skirts the central issue. I did not deny that he visited the bombed town of Nam Dinh. Nor did I deny that he witnessed bomb damage. What I did question were his grounds for suggesting that the United States was bombing purely civilian rather than military targets in North Vietnam. To substantiate such a charge something more was needed than figures of civilian casualties provided by the mayor of Nam Dinh and that mayor’s assertion (which Mr. Salisbury cited in his dispatches but not in his letter) that the town contained “nothing of military significance” (New York Times, December 27, 1966).
But once again, my basic criticism of Harrison Salisbury concerned his long-standing and current support for Burchett’s career and reputation. Does Mr. Salisbury believe that Burchett’s writings are irrelevant to any evaluation of the man? Does Mr. Salisbury believe that KGB defector Yuri Krotkov was lying to a U.S. Senate subcommittee in 1969, and lying again to an Australian court in 1974, when he described how he helped recruit Burchett to the payroll of the KGB? Does Mr. Salisbury believe that seven former prisoners of war (from Australia, Britain, and the United States) were perjuring themselves in an Australian courtroom when they testified that during the Korean war Burchett had appeared in Chinese Communist-run POW camps wearing a Chinese army officer’s uniform, or when they testified that Burchett had assisted their Chinese Communist captors in interrogations? Does Mr. Salisbury believe that British ex-POW Derek Kinne was perjuring himself when he testified that in those same camps in Korea Burchett threatened to have him shot?
If not, then Mr. Salisbury’s role as a friend and promoter of Wilfred Burchett remains to be explained.