By Don North
Special for the Newseum
Wars are fought twice — once on the battlefield and again in our memory.
The Vietnam War was a battle of memory, history and truth — and the stakes are still high. Honest reporting can shape our destinies, both at war and at peace.
I belong to a group in the dwindling ranks of journalists who covered the Vietnam War. We call ourselves the “Vietnam Old Hacks.” We recently attended celebrations in Ho Chi Minh City marking the anniversary of the war’s end on April 30, 1975. After 40 years, I found there are many in Vietnam, as well as our fellow Americans, who are unwilling to accept an honest history of the war.
President Richard Nixon said in 1985: “No event in history is more misunderstood than the Vietnam War. It was misreported then and is misunderstood now.” The quote was a slur on the thousands of journalists who tried to honestly cover the war.
Four decades ago, we suffered defeat in an unwinnable war, fighting against a country about which we knew virtually nothing and in which we had no vital interests. One lesson the U.S. military did learn in Vietnam was that images and the written word can inform with devastating effect and can lead to demands for accountability.
It is unlikely that war correspondents will ever again find themselves with unfettered access to war that we had in Vietnam. I landed in the country in May 1965, an enterprising young reporter from Canada. I was like hundreds of other would-be-journalists going into the field to report the war as “freelancers,” as the counterinsurgency grew into a full-blown Asian war. Like so many of us, I bought Washington’s rational for the war — to save this little democracy from a Communist takeover and the start of falling dominoes in Asia. The truth, however, did not take long to learn.
Our country produces some brilliant journalists, and there was a spearhead of young, but experienced, men and women who blazed a trail for the rest of us in reporting Vietnam.
From the beginning, U.S. war strategy didn’t work — and at a terrible cost to both sides.
Nearly 3 million Americans served in Vietnam and were supported by some of the heaviest bombing in history. When the war ended, about 3 million Vietnamese civilians and military were killed, and 58,307 names are on the Vietnam Memorial Wall.
Returning to Vietnam for the 40th anniversary of the war’s end was a moving experience and brought back many vivid memories of the war years. The Vietnam Foreign Ministry treated us old hacks like people worth knowing and seemed interested in our knowledge of the bloody war we once covered. They put us up at a posh hotel, wined and dined us, and carted us around for five days to see the sights of Ho Chi Minh City, the new Saigon. However, meetings and discussions with various government, commercial and veteran groups yielded little new information beyond the official mantras.
The highlight of the visit was a parade that was stage managed by the Northern victors for a Southern audience that today remains largely indifferent to the rhetoric and bombast of Communist Party leaders in Hanoi. You had to be a journalist or VIP to witness the goose-stepping troops, dancers in traditional ao dai dress, and faux guerrillas in jungle fatigues marching by.
Perhaps the most telling moment of our encounters with the Vietnamese was at the National University of Ho Chi Minh City. We had been invited to meet and exchange views with professors and students but found only speeches by bureaucratic professors and no arranged contact with some 200 students.
Upon the conclusion of the program, students and old hacks rushed to greet each other and talk openly. They were mostly the grandchildren of those who fought for the Southern regime and the Viet Cong. Their English was excellent, and they admitted they knew little about what really happened in the war.
One girl, a journalism major, said her grandfather fought on the losing side. “I have to whisper,” she said. “There are sensitive problems we can’t really talk about just now.”
Our brief encounter convinced me that when these youths from families on both sides of the conflict take leadership positions, the suppression of free speech and thought will fade before another war anniversary is celebrated.
So, what about Nixon’s suggestion that journalists “misreported the war?” Am I satisfied with my own coverage? No. I think ignorance of Vietnamese history and culture and the limitations of TV news sometimes made my reports suffer. A minute and a half was about the max for a TV news report — not enough time to describe the complex events of the Vietnam War. So, the truth about the war often suffered, but not in the way Nixon’s quote suggested.
Much of the U.S. media reported the war in too rosy, not too harsh, a light. More accurate journalism would have more consistently challenged what Neil Sheehan later called “A Bright Shining Lie,” the upbeat public relations for a misguided war.
In spite of mutual suspicions, the old hacks left Vietnam feeling the people were yesterday’s enemies but today’s friends. It was good to bridge the 40 years by exchanging views and rethinking how we got into that bad war.
Carl Robinson, a former Associated Press reporter and organizer of the old hacks, best summed up our thoughts on this visit: “Go back to the scene of the crime. Make a new set of memories.”
Don North is a veteran war correspondent who covered the Vietnam War for ABC News and NBC News for more than five years, as well as 15 other conflicts around the world. He is the author of “Inappropriate Conduct: Mystery of a Disgraced War Correspondent” and is featured in the Newseum’s “Reporting Vietnam” exhibit. A version of this column also appeared on Consortiumnews.com.