Reporting Vietnam: American Journalism 1959-1975 Library of America. Two vols. 1,715 pp. $70.00
On a July evening in 1959, a Viet Cong raiding party killed two American military advisers and two South Vietnamese soldiers who were watching a movie in the mess hall of an army base outside Saigon. It was an unassuming start to a war, or more precisely to the American part in that war; but bigger things would soon follow.
War between North and South in Vietnam had been inevitable since the partition of the country in 1954 after French imperial forces were routed at Dien Bien Phu and France relinquished control of Indochina. Communist North Vietnam, led by Ho Chi Minh, was determined to bring the South under its dominion, and in 1959 began to supplement its policy of “political struggle” with “armed struggle.” Serving as the North’s principal agents were the Communist insurgents in the South—the Viet Cong. As for Saigon, its guide and protector had become the United States.
We had 900 soldiers in South Vietnam in 1960. In 1968, the number stood at 536,000. In 1973, we withdrew our troops, proclaiming “peace with honor.” War with ignominy continued until April 1975, when Saigon fell to the North Vietnamese army. Now come these two burly volumes of American wartime journalism that not only record the fighting in Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia, but also chart the effects the war had on Americans at home and suggestively document the way that writing about the war influenced the war’s very course.
Reporting Vietnam comprises pieces by some 80 writers—newspapermen, magazine reporters, and novelists trying their hand at stories they have not made up. The collection would thus seem to have things pretty well covered. That, however, is not the case.
What is in these volumes? In July 1962, as Hanoi gears up for “Hate America” month, Bernard Fall interviews Ho Chi Minh, who predicts a long fight and ultimate victory for the side of justice. Malcolm W. Browne witnesses the self-immolation of a Buddhist monk who is protesting the persecution of his faith by South Vietnam’s President Ngo Dinh Diem. In Washington, Meg Greenfield attends a national antiwar teach-in. Don Moser shows a village in the South digging in against a Viet Cong terror campaign. Tom Wolfe goes to a Berkeley antiwar rally with Ken Kesey, who notes a featured speaker’s resemblance to Mussolini. Specialist 4/C Jack P. Smith describes how his company was caught in a Viet Cong ambush. Martha Gellhorn details the effects of napalm on the flesh of children.
In 1967, Norman Mailer joins the march on the Pentagon, managing to leave in time to get back to New York for a party. Mary McCarthy goes to Hanoi in order to experience the American bombardment from the receiving end, but not a single bomb lands on her. Covering the 1968 Democratic convention in Chicago for the Village Voice, Steve Lerner runs wild through the Loop with the street-fighting men who to him are the real American heroes. An anonymous reporter for Baltimore’s Afro-American bites back his anger as the corpse of a black Green Beret paratrooper is declared unwelcome in the cemetery of his hometown in Alabama.
After the Tet offensive of 1968, Walter Cronkite pronounces the war a stalemate. In 1970, James A. Michener narrates the events leading up to the killing of four college students by National Guardsmen at Kent State University in Ohio, and peruses letters to the editor of the local paper after the shootings. Michael Kinsley, boy-reporter for the Harvard Crimson, debriefs several dovish professors after their meeting with a hawkish former colleague, Henry Kissinger.
Then there is John E. Woodruff lamenting the fate of the Hmong tribesmen of the Laotian hill country, who fought for the CIA and lost a quarter of their population to the war. Tom Buckley spends some time with General Nguyen Ngoc Loan, who became one of the era’s most notorious figures by shooting a Viet Cong prisoner in the head for all to see on American television. At the Republican convention in Miami in 1972, Hunter S. Thompson denounces the main body of antiwar protestors as worthless doped-up scum. Sydney H. Schanberg reviews the Five O’Clock Follies, the daily briefing of Saigon correspondents by the American colonels responsible for public relations. In April 1975, Peter Arnett watches thousands of South Vietnamese loot the abandoned U.S. embassy in Saigon, right down to the document-shredder and the kitchen sinks.
If I have conveyed a sense not only of abundance but of variety in this anthology, that is a misimpression. To the contrary, there is a uniformity to it that soon becomes numbing. A few exceptions aside, and I have included almost all of them in my list, the entire business is seen from basically a single vantage point—the vantage point of those for whom an American defeat would spell moral victory, even a victory for morality itself.
Among the newspapermen represented in Reporting Vietnam, most worked for the New York Times, the flagship of disaffection with the war. There are several long, very long, articles from the New Yorker—and, to quote its then-editor, William Shawn, “We do not like war here.” Michael Herr’s Dispatches appears in full; widely considered the best book to come out of the war, it is a long howl of loathing for the supposed feral viciousness of American fighting men. And so forth.
The reader of Reporting Vietnam is directed on a progress toward salutary disillusionment. The opening entry, a brief and fatefully ingenuous article from Time about the first U.S. advisers to be killed, characterizes South Vietnam as a country “still independent and free and getting stronger all the time—to the growing chagrin of Communists in neighboring North Vietnam.” Over the course of the next 1,700 pages, Time‘s moment of unabashed patriotism, anti-Communism, and admiration for the South Vietnamese is proved archaic, benighted, doomed.
“Americans, because they are Americans, arrive in Vietnam full of enthusiasm and with the best of intentions,” wrote Neil Sheehan of the New York Times, who came to Vietnam in 1962. By October 1966, this particular American, having been graced with a saving lucidity, was setting out to make his countrymen see as clearly as he. Where they may once have thought that South Vietnam, under American guardianship, would grow straight and true, prosperous and free, now they were to understand that the South’s ruling class had cooperated with the Americans only in order to preserve its own traditional privileges, and that the one hope of social change lay with the Communists. The whole dismal spectacle of the war—villages bombed flat, orphans hustling to stay alive on the streets of Saigon, hospitals full of women and children burned by napalm—provoked Sheehan to wonder
whether the United States or any nation has the right to inflict this suffering and degradation on another people for its own ends. And I hope we will not, in the name of some anti-Communist crusade, do this again.
Reporters like Sheehan were not the only ones to exchange the illusions they came to the war with for the illusions the war would leave them with. Media coverage made sure that nobody at home missed the point that the war itself was hell, or that our side was chiefly responsible for the hellishness. In a ricochet effect of the television age, revulsion against the war at home spread back to the troops in the field, and the troops’ disillusionment then proved to the journalists that their own disillusionment was honorable and sage. John Saar, writing in Life in October 1970, quotes a young Army captain who does his duty but cannot resist calling his country’s purposes into question: “Is there such a thing as a moral war? I don’t know. I think about it, and the doubt has been raised in my mind by the protest in the U.S.” In a 1971 Newsweek piece by Karl Fleming, a young veteran who has just come home to his small Michigan town declares that the war is pointless—“It’s not worth anybody getting killed for”—and that he wishes he had never gone. Later that year, Donald Kirk of the Times spends a month looking in vain for just a single young GI in the field who supports the war; what he turns up instead are widespread drug use and racial unrest, just like back home.
Although American heroism was surely no less common in Vietnam than in previous wars, in these volumes it is scarcely to be found. There is, to be sure, a thrilling testimonial by Tom Wolfe to the courage of Navy fighter pilots, who, even when their countrymen “seemed to have lost heart for the battle,” continued to fly their missions against merciless odds. And there is a characteristically plainspoken account by John McCain, Navy fighter pilot and now Senator from Arizona, of the five-and-a-half years he endured as a prisoner of war in Hanoi, under conditions of all but lethal barbarity. But that is about it. To judge from this collection, an American soldier was far less likely to fall on a grenade to save his comrades than to throw one at his commanding officer for cutting off the outfit’s heroin supply.
One sometimes wishes that American innocence were some purely literary notion, a quaint confection out of Henry James. Instead, it is a perhaps ineradicable trait of our national character, one that appears to be renewed with every generation and that affects the cynical no less than it does the truly innocent. During the Tet offensive of 1968, Michael Herr writes, he and some colleagues complained about “how terrible it was.” A correspondent who had been covering wars since the 1930’s laughed at them: “What the fuck did you think it was?”
It was what it had always been. Before Vietnam, the United States had fought three major wars in this century. In the worst of them, World War II, we allied ourselves out of necessity with a tyranny more savage than any other in history except the one we were fighting against; we bombed great cities to rubble, and a couple of lesser cities to radioactive ash. Even so, when we went to war again less than twenty years later in Vietnam, we could not do so without replenishing our cherished illusions about who we are and what war is.
The truth about our wars—that they always involve brutality and that they sometimes involve defending nasty regimes from being crushed by regimes far worse—may be more than a people that prides itself on its peaceableness and decency can bear. Is it a surprise, then, that books like Reporting Vietnam, the work of writers who think they have seen through the last of our national illusions, should perpetuate so many fatal ones of its own?