...in the early sixties was a curious kind of thing, where you were at once involved in this enormous combat with the American mission and with the government, you were covering an extraordinarily dangerous war. Because the casualties among correspondents in that war in relationship to ah, American combat casualties I think is the highest in American history. I mean every time you got on a helicopter, ah you were risking your life.
So you were doing all that. At the same time it was a wonderful assignment, quite romantic. It was a small group of press corps, about five...
Well it was a really quite complicated assignment because it was at once romantic, I mean there you are covering this exciting story, this quite romantic city, Saigon
, which had a...you know...a wonderful touch of both being Asian and French culture and sort of beautiful tree-lined streets in Saigon
The sense of...the dark sense that was to come with the huge American commitment had not yet come, and there was a certain romantic quality, and yet you were involved in combat with the American Embassy constantly, combat with the government - we were the enemy of the people in effect - and we were covering a very dangerous war. I mean, the number of American correspondents killed in this war in proportion to American combat deaths I think it's the highest in history. It was a very dangerous thing.
So that it was a curiously dangerous, romantic assignment, I mean it was a cherished assignment. I mean...and obviously things happened and you were fighting for the freedom of speech, you were fighting against great odds to tell, to give an accurate portrayal of a very complicated society in a war that was not being won, in fact barely being fought. It was a very moving time.
You get up in the morning and you go out to Tan Son Nhut
and get on a helicopter at three or four a.m. and the sun would roll up on the Mekong
Delta. I remember my colleague, Horst Faas, the great German photographer, told me once, "you will not believe the Mekong
Delta. You know the beautiful rice paddies, the farmer, the water buffalo, the docks, the the fish in the canal, everything," he said, like a page out of the Bible." You go down there and then suddenly in this biblical setting, you know, be in a fire fight and you'd come back that night and you go out to a wonderful French dinner with some beautiful Vietnamese girl.
I mean it was at once romantic and unreal and very tough. I mean it was a very hard-edged assignment. And we were the enemy of the people. Enemy of the government. American and Saigon
Well, because I think the Kennedy Administration and later the Johnson Administration, and the Diem government had everyone else lined up. I mean the Diem government was a kind of clumsy, authoritarian or totalitarian state where nobody really spoke in opposition to the government. Diem was always being reelected by 99 percent.
Everybody in the American Embassy was...I mean the American government in Washington was, had an essential policy of public relations. If you could not win the war on the ground, you could at least win it in public relations and make it look like it was going well. So there was a very calculated and orchestrated policy of people saying how well the war was going.
You know, someone would arrive with the airport, they'd fly in a general. They didn't fly the general in to learn what was going on. They'd fly him in so he could come down the steps of Tan Son Nhut Airport
and say "I'm glad to be here in Saigon
where there is a great movement toward victory...President Diem has all his people behind me...inevitable victory...light at the end of the tunnel..." that kind of stuff. My friend Neil Sheehan who was only about twenty-five years old at the time would nudge me and say, "ah, another foolish Westerner come to lose his reputation to Ho Chi Minh."
Anyway, it was an orchestrated public relations account in which it was the lying machine. Washington would tell Saigon what it wanted to hear. And sure enough Saigon would very quickly tell Washington what it wanted to hear and Washington would say isn't it marvelous it's all going as well out there as we thought.
And then the one sour note. The one thing that was not being controlled was this small handful of American reporters. And, you know, they would always say...McNamara would say, "my only problem out there is the American press." And the American ambassador once told me, "Mr. Halberstam, you're always looking for the hole in the doughnut." Of course, there was no doughnut, there was only this hole. I mean, would that there were a doughnut there.
We were the enemy. At one meeting Harkins I think in 1962
, General Harkins who was the American commander then, a rather ordinary man, was meeting with Mr. McNamara or Secretary McNamara in 1962
. "Ah, we're doing well, Mr. Secretary, we're doing well in this program and we're doing very well in that program, and the strategic hamlet...I mean, we're really...the program's going well." "No problems at all, general?" "Well, my one problem is the American press."
And it was a constant pressure trying to find our sources, trying to stick it to us. And it gradually became very personal, they would try and find our sources, they began to try and destroy our credibility politically, they...it got...our reputations, indeed our manhood, I mean, the stereotype of us.
Remember, we were very young. A small handful. None of us had big reputations. I mean, you talk about Neil Sheehan now, and he's a distinguished reporter. Peter Arnett, he's a distinguished reporter. Malcolm Browne, I mean they all won Pulitzer prizes, they're all famous. It's a legendary group.
Then, we were young. Our average age was twenty-six, twenty-seven. Nobody had ever heard of us. So the idea was, you know, who are these young men. We can crunch them. They're not famous. They sit around the Caravelle bar all day drinking and reinforcing their own doubts.