Salisbury’s Stake

Behind the Lines

by Harrison Salisbury
Harper & Row, 243 pp., $4.95

Harrison Salisbury
Harrison Salisbury; drawing by David Levine

Among the many anomalies of the Vietnamese war none has been more startling than the experience of opening our newspapers last Christmas Day and reading the first of a series of dispatches by Harrison Salisbury, filed directly from Hanoi, describing life in North Vietnam and the effects of the US bombing. During the following ten weeks, the Hanoi government granted visas to half a dozen American journalists, including myself, to visit North Vietnam. All of us were given facilities to travel, were allowed to take photographs, and those who cabled their reports from the scene were not subjected to censorship of any kind. It was as if US reporters had been welcomed in Berlin or Tokyo during World War II or even as if German news-men had been invited to London in 1940 to cover the Battle of Britain for the Volk back home. One can think of no precedent for these visits in recent history.

The motive behind Hanoi’s action was clear. North Vietnam was slowly being bombed into rubble, yet the American people knew very little about it. On December 13 and 14, American planes had bombed civilian areas in Hanoi itself. Yet both the Pentagon and the White House denied it, and because of the reluctance of the US press to give credence to reports by European newsmen on the scene, the public generally accepted the denial. The North Vietnamese leaders themselves, frustrated and under increasing pressure from their Soviet-bloc allies, concluded that they had nothing to lose by bringing in American newsmen to see for themselves.

The first American journalist to be invited was Harrison Salisbury, the Assistant Editor of The New York Times. Hanoi’s choice of the Times, America’s most influential newspaper, was premeditated and obvious. The choice of Salisbury may have been accidental, yet it could hardly have been more fortunate. Not only is Salisbury a good, professional reporter, but he is undoubtedly one of the most prolific journalists on the current scene. He spent only two weeks in North Vietnam, during which he was able to leave Hanoi only twice—once on an overnight trip to Nam Dinh, and once for a half-day visit to Phat Diem. Out of this relatively meager experience Salisbury produced eighteen separate news dispatches filed directly from Hanoi; eight long articles recapitulating his entire trip (all of which he cabled to the Times from Hong Kong a mere three days after he left North Vietnam); and now a 243-page book, Behind the Lines—Hanoi, completed only weeks after his return to New York. Between December 25, 1966 and January 18, 1967—a period of three-and-one-half weeks—there was at least one Salisbury article on North Vietnam in every issue but two of The New York Times.

ANYONE WHO reads Salisbury’s early dispatches from Hanoi must be impressed by their cool clarity and completeness of detail. Although the eight longer articles from Hong Kong…

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