MISREPORTING THAT DOOMED MILLIONS
On July 26, 1977, a man who was until recently a member of what passes for a legislature in Hanoi testified before a subcommittee of our House of Representatives. He had just flown to Washington from Japan, after having fled from Vietnam by fishing boat. He abandoned his family and risked his life in a small boat on the open seas, because, he said, he felt impelled to tell the world about the tragedy that had befallen his country, South Vietnam.
This man, Nguyen Cong Hoan, had previously been a member of the National Assembly in Saigon prior to the Communist takeover of the South. He had been opposed to the Thieu government, opposed to the war and sympathetic to the Communists. The Communists had rewarded him by selecting him as one of the members of the legislature in Hanoi. He became a member of the privileged class, but he soon became disillusioned and alarmed by the Communist policies and practices.
The much feared but generally unreported Communist bloodbath was carried out in his province, Phu Yen, in the early days of the takeover, he said. He estimated that 500 people were killed in the early stages and 200 since then. He said that so many of his friends and acquaintances had been arrested that he could not count them. One such acquaintance, a communist sympathizer, was arrested simply because he had received a letter from abroad, even though he immediately reported it to the local authorities. All the private schools had been closed, and all the religions were being persecuted. The most serious violation of human fights, he said, was the constant threat to human life. Anyone could be killed at any time for the most improbable reunion.
For example, a Buddhist monk who had been an adviser to the Vietcong was executed as a CIA agent because he had received a letter of appreciation from the American Consul- ate for having helped in the search for American MIAs.
Mr. Hoan said that as much as the Vietnamese hate war, they are now ready to continue the struggle for many more years to try to liberate themselves from "the most inhuman and oppressive regime they have ever known."
Just before Mr. Hoan testified, Congressman Donald Fraser's subcommittee had heard testimony from Assistant Secretary of State Richard Holbrooke and from Charles Twining, a State Department expert on Cambodia. Mr. Holbrooke officially confirmed what has long been known about the incredible suffering of the Cambodian people under the Communists. Mr. Twining, who said that he had interviewed thousands of escapees from Cambodia, said that the policy of the Cambodian Reds is to kill everyone with a seventh grade education or more. He said be had never heard of a single trial. People were simply taken away and murdered, usually by administering a blow on the back of the bead with a club. Mr. Twining said that the number of deaths from disease and starvation was a large multiple of the number killed by the Communists directly. Many of those deaths could have been prevented if it had not been for the harsh and inhumane policies of the new rulers of Cambodia.
They Gave Their Lives In Vain
Over 50,000 Americans gave their lives to prevent this disastrous development in Southeast Asia. We spent billions of dollars to honor a commitment to defend the freedom of the Vietnamese people. We owe those who gave their lives in vain at least an honest effort to understand why we failed to achieve our objective.
One reason was that there were in Vietnam too many people like Nguyen Cong hoan who did not understand what a Communist victory would mean. Hoan, an educated man, has said that he honestly thought that things would be better under the Communists than they were under Thieu. He could learn only from bitter experience.
But another reason for our failure has been laid out for all to see in a new book about the performance of the American news media in the Vietnam war, and specifically about its handling of a crucial turning point in the war, the Tet offensive.
The book is called Big Story. It is the work of Peter Brae- strop, who was a reporter for the Washington Post in Saigon at the time of the Tet offensive in 1968, and who previously was a correspondent for The New York Times. In this richly documented work, Braestrap shows how the military defeat suffered by the Vietcong and the American media into a political defeat for the United States transformed North Vietnamese in the period January 31 to March 31, 1968.
After the communist takeover in April 1975, James Reston of The New York Times wrote proudly that American correspondents and cameramen had forced the withdrawal of American military power from Vietnam. Braestrup has taken one of the key periods in the war and has shown just how the power of the media offset the power of our arms.
Ben Tre: Did Being Destroyed Save It?
One of the most famous quotes of the Vietnam War was a statement attributed to an anonymous American major by AP correspondent Peter Aroett. Writing about the provincial capital, Ben Tre, on February 7, 1968, Arnett said: "'it became necessary to destroy the town to save it,' a U.S. major says."
Braestrup says of this much used and abused sentence: "Arnett's quote passed quickly into the overheated rhetoric of the Vietnam debate back home. It was cited, paraphrased, reshaped, misattributed, and used for years as an all-purpose description of the war . . . Senator Albert Gore restated it: 'A military victory can only be achieved by the destruction of what we profess to seek to save.' Abe applied it to the battle of Hue: 'Marine officers concede that it may be necessary to rip apart, destroy the beautiful Citadel in order to save it.' Drew Pearson used it: 'In other words, to save Vietnam we must almost destroy it.' The New Republic reworked the quote and attributed it to Major Brown: 'Helicopter and bomber attacks on Ben Tre were directed by Maj. Chester L. Brown of Erie, Pennsylvania, who said to the Associated Press that 'it became necessary to destroy the town in order to save it' and 'a pity about the civilians.'"
Perhaps no words did more to change attitudes about the war than this single sentence, born out of Tet. The AP headquarters loved the Arnett story. Their in-house publication, AP Log, said: "One of the most graphic of the week's stories was Arnett's account of the destruction of Ben Tre 'to save it,' and his photos added to the story's impact..."
But was it true? William Touhy of the Los Angeles Times wrote a story six weeks later in which he said: "Only 25% of the city-rather than the reported 80%-was actually destroyed by the Vietcong attack and the Vietnamese artillery and U.S. air strikes that followed. And the U.S. advisory group doubts that the (Arnett) statement was actually made in that form. 'It sounds too pithy and clever to have been made on the spot,' says one U.S. civilian advisor. 'It just rings wrong.'"
Arnett refused to tell Braestrup whom the alleged major was who made the statement, claiming that he is still in military service. He said: "So I will keep my silence until I run into him again and get his clearance."
Braestrup says The Washington Post was considering running Touhy's debunking of Arnett, but Lee Lescaze, one of their two men in Saigon, (Braestrup was the other) recommended against it on the ground that there was a great deal of damage done and "whether it is less enormous than first thought seems a quibble."
Was Our Embassy Taken?
Many Americans still think that the Vietcong at the height of the Tet offensive occupied the American Embassy in Saigon on January 31, 1968. That is what both our wire services, which provide the news to most of our news- papers, radio and TV stations, reported. In their early reporting, both the AP and UPI had the Vietcong occupying the supposedly attack-proof embassy building. The AP reported that the enemy occupied parts of the building for six hours and that they had to be driven out by paratroopers who landed by helicopter on the roof of the building. The UP! Had the Vietcong reportedly occupying five floors of the embassy. They referred to a six-hour battle through "carpeted" offices.
The fact was that there were neither Vietcong nor carpets in the embassy offices. Nineteen Vietcong sappers broke into the embassy grounds in the early hours of the morning. Their mission was to blow up the building. Not one got inside the building, and by 9:00 A.M., 17 of them had been killed and 2 had been captured. Damage to the building was minimal, and the ambassador was back at work in his office before noon.
Top officials in both Saigon and Washington so informed the press, but the newsmen, reflecting their distrust of their own government and perhaps a willingness or even eager to believe the worst, wrote their stories in a way that cast doubt on what the officials said. The impression lingered on that the embassy had been occupied, and though the record was eventually corrected, the psychological damage done by the initial horror stories was immense.
Building Up the Vietcong
Braestrup shows that another tendency of the media was to exaggerate the strength and accomplishments of the Viet- cong. The little men were often made ten feet tall. They were bold and daring, unafraid to die. They were every- where. Their planning was presented as being faultless and they were supposed to have weapons as good as ours, and their techniques were even better.
The main trouble with all this was that it simply was not true. While their attacks were bold, the fact was that in Saigon they failed in virtually all of their missions.
A common theme of stories in The New York Times was sounded by Tom Buckle), on February 2, 1968. He wrote: "Despite official statistics to the contrary, no part of the country is secure either from terrorist bombs or from organized military operations . . . Most important, after years of fighting and tens of thousands of casualties, the Vietcong can still find thousands of men who are ready not only to strike at night and slip away, but also to undertake missions in which death is the only possible outcome."
Charles Mohr reinforced this the next day, blowing up the Vietcong achievements, saying: "The courage and motivation of the guerrilla units that struck Saigon, Dad Nang, the provincial capitals and many other towns and installations were important factors in the havoc they created... The attacks also showed excellent planning and valuable support by communist agents within the towns and cities."
Braestrup notes that Mohr ignored the holiday laxity of South Vietnamese leaders which had contributed to the enemy successes, and he left out the fact that the attacks on key installations in Saigon, whose planning he lauded. Had, for the most part, been failures.
The Times played up a story that claimed that the Vietcong were so good with mortars that they could often hit their target with a single round and then slip away before the helicopters could seek them out. The headline was: "Foe Giving Warfare Lessons With Simple Mortar." Braestrup noted that mortars were not precision weapons and that even in daytime when the crew was firing at a visible target direct hits were rate. Lie notes that the Vietcong usually fired at night and in a hurry and that they wasted most of their rounds in their hit and run attacks.
Braestrup points out that for all the noisy firing, not a single allied air base had to suspend operations, and that even Khe Sanh which was under siege for 77 days continued to receive big C-123 transports on its airstrip. "Few news- men noticed," he adds dryly.
Braestrup says that "there were few hints in Times analyses or battlefield reporting that the foe was anything but shrewd, tenacious, ascetic, infallible, and menacing."
One of the devices of our newsmen was to subtly impute greater presence to the Vietcong than was actually the case. For example, on the CBS Evening News of February 16, 1968, the viewers were informed that North Vietnamese truck convoys, operating at might, were unloading their cargoes at Communist-held entrances in the wall of the Citadel of Hue, the heart of the city. Accurately, the trucks were stopping and unloading well short of the city of Hue, but the CBS report gave the impression that the enemy control was far greater than it actually was.
NBC aired a captured Vietcong propaganda film purporting to show how they operated. The Vietcong claimed the film was made in the town of Cu Chi. NBC said: "It's doubtful these scenes were actually filmed in Cu Chi, since the is not an enemy stronghold now and U.S. officials insist it was not last year when this f'dm was produced." Braestrup notes matter of faculty: "There was nothing for U.S. officials to 'insist' upon; Cu Chi was a garrisoned district capital in Hau Nghia province less than two miles from the U.S. 25th Division base camp, which was established there in 1966.
Don Webster of CBS on March 4, 1968, proclaimed that "the enemy now has weapons every bit as good as the Americans." He said, the enemy "was attacking with new boldness and daring" and that Vietnam was a much more dangerous place than ever before." Braeamp notes that this statement about weapons was true only if Webster meant just small arms, and he said the "boldness and daring" had already noticeably decreased by the time Webster spoke.
Of Time magazine, Braestrup says that it presented the Tet attacks as demonstrations of "Giap's genius," the communists' "split-second timing" and "resiliency of communications and command, the quality of their weapon and their ability to strike at will anywhere in Vietnam. News- week also gave the impression of a "foe without setbacks or flaws." However, he does give Newsweek credit for an independent post-mortem of the enemy's performance at Tet. In this, Newsweek noted communist failures that caused their inability to reinforce their initial gains. Key bridges were not blown, they failed to capture the Saigon radio station, and they failed to commit major units, letting the momentum of the early attacks die.
However, Newsweek insisted that the attack was no failure despite these mistakes. It said: "Despite the fact that the communists did not achieve most of their objectives, their offensive was far from a failure ... it caught the (allies) by surprise and made a mockery of numerous allied claims that the enemy was too weak to stand up and fight..." Braestrup comments that the latter was a journalistic straw man, since Westmoreland and Wheeler had been promising more enemy initiatives and hard fighting, not claiming that he was too weak to fight.
Civilian Destruction and Deaths
Braestrup notes that the correspondents in Saigon were shocked by the fact that the war had come close to them. The dramatic picture was the one showing destruction and the pathos of refugees. The mini was that the world was given a picture of death and destruction in the cities that did not reflect reality. "All Vietnam," Braestrap says, judging from the film shown at home, "was in flames or being battered into ruins and all Vietnamese civilians were homeless refugees." He says this was not the case even in Hue, where the fighting lasted three weeks. Had reality been anything like what the American people were given to believe, "urban recovery could never have occurred."
In placing the blame for the destruction and deaths, our newsmen, Braestrup found, tended to blame the allies. The Vietcong tended to be exonerated.
An important mutation of this tendency was the lack of media interest in the massacre by the communists of civilian in the city of Hue during their three-week occupation of that city. Most newsmen showed no interest in the announcements in late February and March of the discovery of mass graves of tour-dared civilian on the outskirts of Hue. The first news of the massacre broke on February 11, 1968, when the mayor of Hue charged that 300 civilians had been executed by the Communists and buried in a mass grave south of the city.
The AP covered the story in seven paragraphs. The Washing- ton Post ran a six-paragraph story--on page 11. The New York Times put the story on page one, but devoted only three paragraphs to the massacre.
On February 28, the UPI put out a story about the discovery of 100 bodies in a common grave near Hue, and on March 3, the UPI reported that survivors of this atrocity reported that the victims had been forced to dig their own graves and were shot as they begged for mercy.
On March 6, William Ryan of the AP did a story about Hue. He noted in passing that "about 1,000 civilians have died." He said that the enemy forces had executed many of them and that mass graves had been found. Neither the Times nor the Post used this story, and Ryan was not enough interested to visit the graves.
On March 9, the U.S. Embassy issued a press release putting the number of murdered civilians at 400, saying that prisoners had admitted under interrogation that their commanders ordered the execution of almost 400 civilians around Hue. This attracted little media attention.
Stewart Harris for The Times of London wrote the first story with any detail on the massacre. The New York Times printed it on page 4 on March 28, 1968. Harris had actually taken the trouble to look at some of the graves and see the mutilated bodies. He reported for the first time that some of the victims were said to have been buried alive. However, Harris used a very conservative figure for the number executed-only 200.
Nothing more was said for a month.
On May 1, The New York Times reported that the United States Mission had upped its estimate of the number killed to 1,000 civilians. This story reported that indications were that nearly half of the victims had been buried alive and that many had been beaten unconscious before being buried. Only the first three paragraphs of this story were carried on page 1, under a one-column headline.
The Washington Post put this story on page 19, using a UPI dispatch.
That seems to have been the end of reporting on the Hue massacre until late in 1969, when the AP put out a story about the continuing search for bodies, revealing that the tell was up to more than 3,000. The Times carried this story on page 3, on November 13. On November 25, they carried another AP story reporting that a captured North Vietnamese document stated that they had "eliminated" nearly 2,900 people at Hue, including 2,720 civilians.
The story carried the suggestion that this information was being released to counter the growing furor over the allegation that U.S. troops had massacred 125 civilians at My Lai.
The Washington Post took notice of a study by a USIA official, Douglas Pike, "The Vietcong Strategy of Terror," in December 1969, in which he discussed his Findings on the Hue massacre, exposing the calculated policy that lay behind it. Pike reported that 2810 bodies had been found and 1,946 persons were still missing. The New York Times did not mention this study until May 17, 1970, and then only briefly. This was a few days after Tom Wicker, a columnist for The Times, had written that careful research had revealed that the executions had taken place "in the heat of battle and as the revenge of an army in retreat," not as deliberate policy. This was the exact opposite of Pike's carefully researched findings.
Braestrup advances several possible reasons for the media's lack of interest in the massacre. The best clue, however, is this statement: "In a sense, newsmen and their editors may have been as mentally unreceptive to reports of the Hue massacre as was much of the U.S. public later to reports in 1969 of the My Lai massacre." Stewart Harris, who wrote about the massacre for the London Times, was opposed to U.S. policy in Vietnam, and Time quoted him as saying of that story: "My instinct is not to sustain it (the war) by writing propaganda."
In November 1969, when the story of the My Lai massacre by American troops broke, the suspicion of atrocity stories and the reluctance to write "propaganda" vanished. In the space of six weeks The New York Times carried so many stories on My Lai that the listing of them required nearly three and a half pages of small type in the Times annual index.
Recently Reed Irvine, chairman of AIM, discussed this contrast with Arthur Ochs Sulzberger, the chairman of The New York Times, and Sydney Gresen, executive vice president of The Times. Mr. Gruson said that My Lai was given so much attention because it was an important story for the American people. Mr. Sulzberger turned to him and said quietly, "But what he is saying is that it was important because we made it important."
A Disgraceful Performance
In summing up his detailed study, Braestrup concludes:
"Rarely has contemporary crisis-journalism turned out, in retrospect, to have veered so widely from reality. Essentially, the dominant themes of the words and film from Vietnam . . . added up to a portrait of defeat for the allies. Historians, on the contrary, have concluded that the Tet offensive resulted in a severe military political setback for Hanoi in the South. To have portrayed such a setback for one side as a defeat for the other-in a major crisis abroad- cannot be counted as a triumph for American journalism."
Braestrup asserts, not convincingly, that ideological bias was not a dominant factor in the misrepresentation of the true facts of Tot. He shows that because of the defects in the way the news business works, the original false impressions of a Vietcong triumph got very heavy play, while the evidence that later came in to show the contrary got much less attention. "At Tet," he says, "the press shouted that the patient was dying, then weeks later began to whisper that he somehow seemed to be recovering-whispers apparently not heard amid the clamorous domestic reaction to the initial shouts."
There is reason to believe that ideology played a role in this. Braestrup points out that there was plenty of evidence of the true state of affairs in late February, but in mid-March CBS, NBC and Newsweek were still showing the North Vietnamese troops holding the initiative. NBC and CBS had both aired specials in which their news stars came out in opposition to the war, and Braestrup found that Newsweek had been strongly against the war long before Tet.
And as Edward Jay Epstein has told us, when Jack Fern of NBC approached executive producer Robert Northshield with the suggestion that they ought to do a special on Tet to set the record straight, because it had really been a victory for our side, Northshield refused. Later, when asked why, Northshield explained: "The public perceived it as a defeat, and therefore it was a defeat."
Big Story is a big and very important book. It will have to be read by our military tacticians, as well as by journalists, because it is a major contribution to the study of warfare. It proves the maxim that the pen in mightier than the sword, since the media treatment of Tet turned a military victory into a defeat. It helped bring about the results that Twining and Hoan described in their testimony before the House subcommittee.
Freedom House financed big Story. We owe them and Peter Braestrup our thanks for throwing a spotlight on this dark comer of our history.