Debate, Diplomacy, Doubt 5

The experience of Time and Life magazines exemplified the change that the news media organizations underwent when their editors, along with everyone else, gradually perceived the futility of the war.
During the early 1960s, when I served as their senior correspondent in Southeast Asia, the sister publications paid only occasional attention to Vietnam, often treating it condescendingly as an exotic area of colorful people with unpronounceable names. Henry Luce, the boss, was passionately concerned with China, his birthplace, but in the spring of 1960, when we traveled together in Asia, he spurned my suggestion to visit Vietnam. His principal worry, he snapped at me in his staccato style, was “the danger of bombs falling on Chicago.” As the American intervention in Vietnam grew, however, his top editors could not ignore the war. They opened a bureau in Saigon— where, until American combat troops landed in Vietnam, only the wire services and The New York Times had maintained permanent offices. Frequently, though, the magazines distorted the dispatches of their reporters and relied instead on guidance from White House, State Department and Pentagon officials—and from the president himself. True to their tradition, Time and Life stood up for America.
Luce’s successor as chief editor, Hedley Donovan, went to Vietnam in late 1965 to see for himself, and his reactions were predictable. After the usual round of official briefings and a look at the battlefield, he wrote in Life that “the war is worth winning” and that victory was within sight. Eighteen months later, following another trip, his views began to alter. He now observed the widening gap between the official U. S. claims of progress and the realities of the situation, and his doubts were further intensified by what his correspondents told him—most notably Frank McCulloch, Saigon bureau chief and a rugged former marine sergeant who had long before understood the hopelessness of the American cause. Back home, Donovan also listened to his Long Island neighbors, solid conservatives who were troubled by rising casualties and higher taxes for a war that seemed to be going nowhere. He ventilated his misgivings to a New York University graduating class; if America failed in Vietnam, he said, he and other optimists ought to avoid recrimination and “admit that we had attempted some¬thing beyond our powers.”
Then, under his direction, the magazines took a quantum leap. In October 1967, a Life editorial enunciated a new corporate policy to¬ward the war. The United States had gone into Vietnam for “hon¬orable and sensible purposes,” it declared, but the undertaking had proved to be “harder, longer, more complicated” than America’s lead¬ers foresaw. No longer was the conflict “worth winning,” as Donovan had written. On the contrary, the commitment was “not absolutely imperative” to the defense of strategic U.S. interests—and thus a difficult challenge “to ask young Americans to die for.” “Hedley Donovan has betrayed me,” complained Lyndon Johnson, as if the magazine had assaulted him personally. Two years later Life’s editors were to illustrate the Vietnam tragedy even more starkly by publish¬ing, in a single issue, the portraits of some of the two hundred and fifty young Americans who had died in Vietnam in one routine week; the faces staring out of the pages were a dramatic reminder that anony¬mous casualty figures were in fact the sons, brothers and husbands of neighbors.
Johnson had already gone to battle with the august and authoritative New York Times at the end of 1966. After much deliberation, the North Vietnamese leaders had finally decided to permit an American jour¬nalist to visit North Vietnam, and, on the advice of Wilfred Burchett, a pro-Communist Australian writer, they selected Harrison Salisbury, the Times’s assistant managing editor. The U.S. air strikes against North Vietnam had recently been stepped up, and Johnson had insisted that the bombing was aimed strictly at military objectives. Salisbury reported differently. In a series of detailed dispatches he disclosed that cities and towns had been hit and many civilians killed. His accounts confronted the administration with what a Pentagon spokesman, Phil Goulding, called a “credibility disaster.”
As Goulding later conceded, Salisbury’s stories presented a “rea¬sonably accurate picture” of the bomb damage—though Salisbury had initially failed to attribute his information to Communist sources, and he conveyed the wrong impression that the United States was indis¬criminately trying to destroy North Vietnam. But the Johnson admin¬istration was concerned less with the truth than with the effect of the report on opinion. Administration officials had been trying to depict the air offensive as a “surgical” endeavor that miraculously spared North Vietnamese people, knowing full well the raids frequently struck civilian targets. So, as Goulding put it, the Salisbury dispatches made the Johnson entourage appear to be “liars and deceivers.”
For a while in early 1967 it seemed that Salisbury had replaced Ho Chi Minh as the administration’s prime adversary. Hundreds of Pen¬tagon researchers were assigned to prepare line-by-line rebuttals, and their findings were leaked to rival newspapers like the Washington Post, which triumphantly reported that Salisbury’s accounts matched a Communist “propaganda pamphlet.” The Post’s chief diplomatic cor¬respondent, Chalmers Roberts, who often took his cue from senior government figures, bmbellished the campaign against him by calling Salisbury’s invitation to Hanoi a new enemy weapon—as “clearly conceived” as the Vietcong’s “poison-tipped bamboo spikes.” An advisory board composed largely of publishers overruled a jury of newspaper editors that had voted to award Salisbury the Pulitzer prize. And Johnson himself entered the controversy to refute Salisbury; the bombing, said the president, was “the most careful, self-limited air war in history.”
Despite the fuss over Salisbury’s articles, however, the U.S. news media trailed behind public opinion—and Congress lagged even far¬ther. The legislature’s main instrument was its constitutional authority to appropriate money for the war, but senators and representatives repelled by the Vietnam conflict consistently balked at using that pre¬rogative, lest they be charged with shunning their patriotic obligation to furnish funds to the fighting men in the field. The president could also penalize them for dissent by withholding federal grants from their constituencies or denying federal jobs to their friends. Indeed, Johnson even co-opted many congressmen merely by inviting them to bask in the pomp and glory of White House functions—just as medieval monarchs tamed unruly barons in the splendor of their castles. For all their qualms about the war, members of Congress were long on rhet¬oric and short on action.

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