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Salisbury’s Stake

Behind the Lines—Hanoi

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

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 are prolix and repetitious, his reports from the scene are journalism of the best kind: The observer is invisible; the style is spare and the tone understated; the narrative flows through a series of images clearly seen and simply told. In the best of Salisbury’s dispatches there is a sense of immediate communication, not only of events, but of the ambiance in which they took place:

HANOI, NORTH VIETNAM, DEC. 27—Just before 2:35 P.M. yesterday, there was a muffled distant roar, 10-foot windows in this old French-built hotel rattled and heavy gray curtains gently swayed inward.

At the count of three there was another tremendous distant rumble and again the windows shook and the curtains swayed. Moments later came a third.

The wail of a siren then sounded the alert, and the hotel’s defense staff scrambled for tin hats and rifles.

Guests emerged from their rooms and hurried down the great marble staircase, through the long lounge with its slightly bedraggled tropical Christmas tree, its bar with a remarkable collection of liquors of all lands—including Stolichnaya vodka from Moscow, rice wine from Peking and Gordon’s gin from London—and out across the interior court-yard, where shelters are situated.

By the time the guests had begun to descend into the sturdy concrete bunker, little waitresses in their black sateen trousers and white blouses stood ready with rifles to fire at any low-flying planes.

Salisbury’s detailed descriptions of the bombing of North Vietnam, especially of the damage to civilian areas, created a great uproar in America and elicited quick denials and recriminations from all branches of the Administration. This was ironic, because, as Salisbury himself points out, most of the information that created the controversy had long been known and available to the public. For months Warl Peace Report, Liberation. The Progressive, and other magazines of the Left had been publishing articles about the bombing by European journalists and by American semi-professionals who had been to Hanoi. But most Americans did not read these magazines and would not trust them if they did. It was the enormous prestige of The New York Times standing behind Salisbury’s reports that made the facts credible.

Still, it was Salisbury’s own reportorial skill that made his dispatches so effective. We had let ourselves be lulled into believing what we were told: that we were dropping bombs with “surgical precision” exclusively on targets of “concrete and steel.” Salisbury’s articles made us face the reality which subconsciously we had suspected all along: a great many people were being killed. Of course, that is mainly why the Pentagon and its supporters in Congress gave Salisbury such a virulent going-over. He had, momentarily at least, destroyed their chief advantage—the apathetic indulgence of the American people.

UNFORTUNATELY, Salisbury’s reporting contained one flaw which was legitimately criticized by the Pentagon chiefs and the dons of journalism: in certain instances he gave figures about damage from US bombing raids without stating that they came from North Vietnamese sources and could not be verified. It was a temporary lapse, but one that seems unaccountable in an experienced reporter—doubly so because his first dispatch from Hanoi, dated December 24, 1966, was beyond reproach in that respect:

Five persons were reported killed [in a bombing raid over Hanoi] and 11 injured, and 39 families were said to be homeless…. The North Vietnamese say that almost simultaneously about 300 thatch and brick homes and huts…were hit. [Italics mine.]

The trouble began in the second dispatch, written the following day, after an overnight trip to Nam Dinh. Nam Dinh, North Vietnam’s third largest city, had been heavily bombed, and many civilian areas were devastated. The evidence perhaps shocked Salisbury into carelessness:

The textile plant has been bombed 19 times…. Almost every house on the street was blasted down April 14 at about 6:30 A.M., just as the factory shifts were changing. Forty-nine people were killed, 135 were wounded on Hang Thao St. and 240 houses collapsed. Eight bombs—MK-84’s accomplished this…[etc. etc.]

The problem is that Salisbury is writing about things he cannot verify. He had not been in Nam Dinh on April 14, 1966 and thus could not know how many people were killed or wounded then. Nor had he ever been within 100 miles of the Seventeenth Parallel, although he wrote that US bombs had leveled the whole countryside there, while “movement continues by night with little impediment.” Salisbury must have received cables from New York about these lapses, for in the fifth dispatch (datelined December 28) a description of a visit to an evacuated high school is interrupted by a laconic statement:

It should be noted, incidentally, that all casualty estimates and statistics in these dispatches are those of North Vietnamese officials.

Yet the controversy did not die down. So, in his seventh dispatch (December 30), Salisbury wrote an entirely new article about the bombing of Nam Dinh. In it, he repeated almost exactly what he had written in his second dispatch, listing the same statistics but prefacing each paragraph with such phrases as “According to the officials,” “The officials said,” “The officials contend,” etc.

Salisbury, a proud man, is plainly annoyed at those US officials, “notably civilians in the Pentagon,” who attacked him for failing to cite his sources and thus “diverted some attention from the essence of what I was able to garner.” Of course the information came from the North Vietnamese, he complains—“what other source one might have in a Communist country I really don’t know.”

The point Salisbury misses is that though the figures may very well be authentic, he needlessly left himself open to attack by neglecting to identify his sources. The Administration had been lying about what it was doing in North Vietnam, and Salisbury was in a position to demolish that lie singlehandedly. Instead, through carelessness, he gratuitously created a little credibility gap of his own, which inevitably dulled the impact of his on-the-scene observations.

ANYONE WHO DID NOT READ Salisbury’s original reports from North Vietnam will find this book interesting, because all the material is there. Those who did read them, however, will find it disappointing. A journalist who attempts to rewrite a series of dispatches into a book is usually playing with trouble. In turning articles into chapters, Salisbury has fluffed up the descriptions and slackened the pace of the narratives with a great many personal anecdotes and asides. We don’t even get to Hanoi until Chapter Five. More deplorable is the jarring shift in tone. In the Times reports the observer was unobtrusive and the emphasis was on the story. In the book the first-person singular has become dominant, and the story often takes second place. Salisbury tends to see himself as the protagonist in a life-and-death drama of cosmic proportions. In the opening chapter he subjects us to a soliloquy spoken, ostensibly, as he walked down Fifth Avenue a week before Christmas and forty-eight hours before he was to depart for Hanoi. He would miss Christmas with his family, for he is going off to:

a world where the germinal issues of our day were being delineated in shapes and forms such as even Goya had not imagined, a world of primitive drama, new experience, new adventure and blinding conflict.

Fortunately, there is considerably less of this sort of thing once he gets inside North Vietnam.

Arriving in Hanoi, Salisbury took a tour of the areas damaged during the air raids of December 13 and 14 and found that bombs had indeed fallen on civilian quarters in various parts of the city, destroying homes and schools and killing people. He concedes that most of the damage may have come from missed targets. But he criticizes the Pentagon for having convinced America that new advances in bombing techniques had made it possible to drop bombs on “military” targets with “surgical precision.” The target areas themselves were small and nearly impossible to hit; moreover, their military importance (a nearly empty truck park, a railroad overpass, etc.) was slight when compared to the risks, in such a heavily defended area: the bombs could fall on people; our two million-dollar airplanes could be shot down and their pilots captured. In fact, Salisbury concludes, the pilots who had bombed Hanoi had been under “orders which lay on the far horizon of their capability.” In other words, he implies that the military leaders who selected the targets had understood perfectly well that civilian areas would almost certainly be hit.

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