Lyndon Johnson
Lyndon Johnson; drawing by David Levine

The morning I sat down to write this review, the Washington Post (March 25) carried the news that Malcolm W. Browne had been arrested and held for two hours by South Vietnamese Air Force officers at the big U. S. air and missile base at Da Nang. The incident is symbol and symptom of the steady degeneration in the conduct of the Vietnamese war. These two books by two newspapermen who won Pulitzer Prizes last year for their coverage of the war, Browne for the Associated Press, David Halberstam for The New York Times, record the agony of trying to report the war truthfully against the opposition of the higher-ups, military and civilian. The books appear just as the war is entering a new stage when honest reporting is more essential than ever, but now restriction and censorship are applied to black it out. Da Nang, the main base from which the war is being escalated to the North, was officially declared “off limits” the day before Browne’s arrest and newsmen were told they could not enter without a pass obtainable only in Saigon, 385 miles to the south. “Newsmen,” the dispatch on Browne’s arrest said, “doubted such a pass existed.” The incident occurred only a few days after the highest information officer at the Pentagon claimed that its policy on coverage of the war was “complete candor.”

What makes these books so timely, their message so urgent, is that they show the Vietnamese war in that aspect which is most fundamental for our own people—as a challenge to freedom of information and therefore freedom of decision. They appear at a time when all the errors on which they throw light are being intensified. Instead of correcting policy in the light of the record, the light itself is being shut down. Access to news sources in Vietnam and in Washington is being limited, censorship in the field is becoming more severe. Diem is dead but what might be termed Diemism has become the basic policy of the American government. For years our best advisers, military and civilian, tried desperately to make him understand that the war was a political problem which could only be solved in South Vietnam. Three years ago the head of the U. S. Mission spoke of the war as a battle for the “hearts and minds” of the people, and primarily the villagers, whose disaffection had made the rebellion possible against superior forces and equipment. To win that battle it was then proposed to spend $200,000,000 to bolster the Vietnamese economy and raise living standards. Though much of this money seems to have been frittered away, it was at least recognized that the military effort was only one aspect of the problem. Now we have adopted Diem’s simple-minded theory that the war is merely a product of Communist conspiracy, that it is purely an invasion and not a rebellion or a civil war, and that all would be well—in Secretary Rusk’s fatuous phrase—if only the North let its neighbors alone. This is the theory of the White Paper and this is the excuse for bombing North Vietnam.

While the war expands, the theory on which it proceeds has narrowed. Washington’s “party line” on the war has been shrunk to rid it of those annoying complexities imposed by contact with reality. The change becomes evident if one compares the White Paper of 1965 with the Blue Book of 1961, The Blue Book was issued by the Kennedy Administration to explain its decision to step up the scale of our aid and the number of our “military advisers” in South Vietnam. The White Paper was issued by the Johnson Administration to prepare the public mind to accept its decision to bomb the North and risk a wider war. The change of policy required that rewriting of history we find so amusing when we watch it being done on the other side.

Four years ago the Blue Book told us that the basic pattern of Viet Cong activity was “not new, of course.” It said this followed the tactics applied and the theories worked out by Mao Tse-tung in China. It said much the same methods were used “in Malaya, in Greece, in the Philippines, in Cuba and in Laos.” If there is “anything peculiar to the Viet-Nam situation,” the Blue Book said, “it is that the country is divided and one-half provides a safe sanctuary from which subversion in the other half is supported with both personnel and materiel.” This implied a conflict which was doubly a civil war, first between the two halves of a divided country and then between the government and Communist-led guerrillas in one-half of that country.

The White Paper disagrees. It abandons complexity to make possible simple-minded slogans and policy. It declares the conflict “a new kind of war…a totally new brand of aggression…not another Greece…not another Malaya…not another Philippines…Above all…not a spontaneous and local rebellion against the established government.” (Italics in the original.) The “fundamental difference,” the White Paper says, is that in Vietnam “a Communist government has set out deliberately to conquer a sovereign people in a neighboring state.” This implies that there is no popular discontent in the South to be allayed, no need to negotiate with the rebels. The war is merely a case of international aggression and the aggressor is to be punished by bombardment until he agrees to call off the invasion. The rebellion can be shut off, all this implies, as if by spigot from Hanoi. The truth about the war has been tailored to suit the Air Force faith in “victory by airpower.” This was Goldwater’s theory and this has become Johnson’s policy.


Browne’s book sheds some sharp light on the White Paper’s thesis. The White Paper says the war is “inspired, directed, supplied and controlled” by Hanoi. But Browne reports that “intelligence experts feel less than 10 per cent and probably more like 2 per cent of the Viet Cong’s stock of modern weapons is Communist made.” He also reports that “only a small part of Viet Cong increase in strength has resulted from infiltration of North Vietnamese Communist troops into South Vietnam.” An astringent examination of the White Paper and its supporting appendices will show that it really proves little more than this, despite the sweeping headline impressions it was intended to generate. Browne also tells us that “Western intelligence experts believe the proportion of Communists [in the National Liberation Front] is probably extremely small.” He describes it as “a true ‘front’ organization appealing for the support of every social class.” Browne declares the Front a “creature” of the Vietnamese Communist Party and says it has “strong but subtle ties” to the Hanoi regime. For many Vietnamese, nevertheless “the Front is exactly what it purports to be—the people’s struggle for independence.” This is what our best advisers tried to tell Diem. This is what our bureaucracy now refuses to see rather than admit past error and defeat, preferring to gamble on a wider war.

The really terrible message in these books is not that the bureaucrats have tried to deceive the public but that they have insisted on deceiving themselves. The Vietnamese war has been an exercise in self-delusion. David Halberstam tells us in The Making of a Quagmire that when the first Buddhist burned himself to death, Ngo Dinh Diem was convinced that this act had been staged by an American television team. The Buddhist crisis, as Halberstam describes it, “was to encompass all the problems of the Government: its inability to rule its own people; the failure of the American mission to influence Diem…Observing the government during those four months was like watching a government trying to commit suicide.” The stubborn insistence of the South Vietnamese dictator on insulating himself from reality spread into our own government. The most important revelation these two books make is the unwillingness of the higher-ups in Saigon and Washington to hear the truth from their subordinates in the field.

South Vietnam swarmed with spies, but apparently they were only listened to when they reported what their paymasters wanted to hear. Halberstam says that at one time Diem had thirteen different secret police organizations. Browne provides a vivid picture of how our own intelligence agencies proliferated. The CIA, Special Forces, the Aid Mission, the Army, the Provost Marshal, the Navy, and the U. S. Embassy each had its own operatives. But they were not, in Browne’s words, “one big happy family.” On the contrary they “very often closely concealed” their findings from other agencies “because of the danger that the competitors may pirate the material and report it to headquarters first, getting the credit.”

All this fierce application of free enterprise to the collection of information seems to have been of little use because of a top level political decision. “Ever since Vietnamese independence” (i.e., 1954), Browne reveals, “American intelligence officials had relied on the Vietnamese intelligence system for most of their information.” This was “because of Diem’s touchiness about American spooks wandering around on their own.” In the interest of preserving harmony, “somehow the intelligence reports always had it that the war was going well.” We circulated faithfully in orbit around our own satellite. Diem’s men told him what he wanted to hear, and ours passed on what he wanted us to believe. Halberstam confirms this. In those final months before Diem’s overthrow, “CIA agents were telling me that their superiors in Vietnam were still so optimistic that they were not taking the turmoil and unrest very seriously.” John Richardson, then CIA chief in Vietnam, displayed a kind of infatuation with Diem’s brother Nhu and his wife. Halberstam describes a lunch with Richardson in 1962, shortly after The New York Times sent him to Saigon, in which the CIA chief dismissed Nhu’s notorious anti-American remarks as simply those of “a proud Asian.” As for the tigerish Mme. Nhu, Richardson thought her “sometimes a little emotional, but that was typical of women who entered politics—look at Mrs. Roosevelt.”


A persistent Panglossianism marked our entire bureaucracy up to and including the White House. General Harkins, our military commander in South Vietnam, said “I am an optimist and I am not going to allow my staff to be pessimistic.” Halberstam describes a briefing at his command post after the battle of Ap Bac in January, 1963, the kind of set-piece battle for which our military had long hoped and which they first described as a victory though it turned out to be a disastrous defeat. With “the government troops so completely disorganized that they would not even carry out their own dead,” “a province chief shelling his own men” and “the enemy long gone,” General Harkins told the press a trap was about to be sprung on the enemy!

The enemy was the press. When the facts about Ap Bac could no longer be concealed, headquarters became angry “not with the system” that brought defeat, Halberstam writes, nor with the Vietnamese commanders responsible for it “but with the American reporters who wrote about it.” Admiral Harry Felt, commander of all U. S. forces in the Pacific, gave classic expression to the bureaucratic attitude toward the press when he was angered by a question from Browne. “Why don’t you get on the team?” the Admiral demanded.

When Halberstam, Browne, and Neil Sheehan,1 then with the UPI, visited the Mekong Delta in the summer of 1963 and saw for themselves the deterioration of the war, their reward for reporting it was a campaign of denigration. Rusk criticized Halberstam at a press conference. President Kennedy suggested to the publisher of The New York Times that Halberstam be transferred to some other assignment, a suggestion Mr. Arthur Hays Sulzberger, to his credit, rejected. The bureaucracy counter-attacked through Joe Alsop, who insidiously compared the reporters on the scene to those who a generation earlier had called the Chinese Communists “agrarian reformers.” The New York Journal-American wrote that Halberstam was soft on Communism. A friend in the State Department told Halberstam, “It’s a damn good thing you never belonged to any left wing groups or anything like that because they were really looking for stuff like that.” Victor Krulak, the Pentagon’s top specialist on guerrilla warfare, was vehement in his criticism of the press: “Richard Tregaskis and Maggie Higgins had found that the war was being won, but a bunch of young cubs who kept writing about the political side were defeatists.” The official attitude was epitomized by Lyndon Johnson, then Vice President, on his way back from Saigon in 1961. He had laid the flattery on with a shovel, calling Diem “the Churchill of Asia.” Halberstam reports that when a reporter on the plane tried to tell Johnson something of Diem’s faults, Johnson responded, “Don’t tell me about Diem. He’s all we’ve got out there.” A brink is a dangerous place on which to prefer not to see where you’re going.

The hostile attitude toward honest reporting is made the more shocking because reporters like Halberstam and Browne, as their conclusions reveal, were critics not of the war itself but only of the ineffective way in which it was conducted. The forces for which they spoke, the sources on which they depended, were not dissident Vietnamese but junior American officers. Their books disclose little contact with the Vietnamese. The battle between the press and the bureaucracy arose because the newspapermen refused to report that the war was being won, but there was not too much reporting of why it was being lost.

For Halberstam the war was a lark, a wonderful assignment for a young reporter; his pages reflect his zest and are full of graphic reportage, though also marked by some egregious errors, such as locating Dienbienphu in Laos and attributing the origin of the agro-villes to the French whereas they really sprang from Nhu’s mystical authoritarianism. For Browne the war was less romantic. The life of a wire service reporter on call twenty-four hours a day in so tense a situation is no picnic. His book is written in flat agency prose. Both men acquitted themselves honorably, in the best tradition of American journalism, which is always to be skeptical of any official statement. But both books are marked by that characteristic intentness on the moment; the idea that the past may help explain the present appears only rarely. There is no time for study, and American editors do not encourage that type of journalism in depth which distinguishes Le Monde or the Neue Züricher Zeitung.

This defect is most damaging in reporting on the origins of the revolt against Diem. The average American newspaper reader got the impression that this was brought about by esoteric and long-distance means, by Communist plotters activated from Hanoi to engage in that mysterious process referred to in our press as “subversion.” This is the closest modern equivalent to witchcraft. Halberstam’s account of the origins is better than Browne’s, but the real roots of discontent are touched on only peripherally. We get a glimpse of them in Halberstam’s report that General Taylor after his first mission in 1960 recommended “broadening the base of the government, taking non Ngo anti-Communist elements into the Government; making the National Assembly more than a rubber stamp; easing some of the tight restrictions on the local press.” The prescription was for a little of that democracy we were supposed to be defending, but Diem would not take the medicine. The accumulation of grievances, the establishment of concentration camps for political opponents of all kinds, the exploitation and abuse of the villages, the oppression of the intellectuals, the appeal of the eighteen Notables in 1960, and the attempted military coup that year, “the long standing abuses” which finally led to the revolt, are not spelled out as they should be2 and would be if U. S. reporters had more contact with the Vietnamese. In a flash of insight Halberstam writes:

Also, though we knew more about Vietnam and the aspirations of the Vietnamese than most official Americans, we were to some degree limited by our nationality. We were there, after all, to cover the war; this was our primary focus and inevitably we judged events through the war’s progress or lack of it. We entered the pagodas only after the Buddhist crisis had broken out; we wrote of Nguyen Tuong Tam, the country’s most distinguished writer and novelist, only after he had committed suicide—and then only because his death had political connotations; we were aware of the aspirations of the peasants because they were the barometer of the Government’s failure and the war’s progress, not because we were on the side of the population and against their rulers.

This accounts for how poorly these reporters understood the central problem of land reform, how few realized that from the standpoint of the peasants, particularly in the Delta, Diem’s land reform policy like his hated “agrovilles” and our equally unpopular “strategic hamlets seemed to be mechanisms for reinstating the rights of the landlords who had fled during the long war against the French. Diem’s downfall, and the rebellion’s success, were largely due to the fact that he tried to do what even the Bourbons in France after the Revolution were too wise to attempt. He tried to turn back the clock of the revolutionary land seizures. In the name of “land reform” many peasants found themselves being asked to pay rent or compensation for land they had long considered their own.

This lack of contact with the Vietnamese people, and this fellow feeling for the junior officers who were sure they could win the war if only HQ were different, also accounts for the weak way both books fizzle out when the authors try to supply some conclusions. Both oppose negotiation and neutralization. Halberstam is indignant with the indifference to Vietnam he encountered on his return home. He believes Vietnam “a legitimate part” of “our global commitment.” He feels “we cannot abandon our efforts to help these people no matter how ungrateful they may seem.” For the “ungrateful” majority, the American presence had only succeeded in polarizing the politics of the country between authoritarian Communists and authoritarian anti-Communists; the former at least have the virtue of being supported by native forces. The anti-Communist minority was grateful, of course, and feared that with American withdrawal they would be treated as mercilessly by the National Liberation Front as Diem had treated veterans of Vietminh after 1954, although a specific provision of the Geneva agreement forbade persecution of those who had fought against the French. The files of the International Control Commission from 1955 onwards were full of complaints that ex-Vietminh had been thrown into concentration camps or executed without charge or trial. In any eventual settlement in Vietnam, the future of minorities must certainly be a matter for concern, but the notion that we have a mandate from Heaven to impose on an unwilling people what we think is good for them will strike few Asians or Africans as an object lesson in democracy. Browne’s feeble ending is even worse. “Perhaps in the end,” he writes, echoing the clichés of the counter-in-surgency experts at Fort Bragg, “America will find it can put Marx, Lenin, Mao and Giap to work for it, without embracing Communism itself.” This was the delusion of French military men like Col. Lacheroy and Col. Trinquier, who returned from Indochina thinking they could apply Communist ideas in reverse to the “pacification” of Algeria. When frustrated, they tried to turn their borrowed techniques of conspiracy and assassination against De Gaulle and the French Republic. To apply Communist methods in reverse, the favorite formula of our “counter insurgency” experts, does not make them any less unpalatable or dangerous to a free society. The basic tactic confuses the effect with the cause. To see “wars of liberation,” the Pentagon’s dominant nightmare, simply as a reflection of conspiracy, to overlook the social and economic roots which make them possible, to prescribe counter-conspiracy as the cure, is not only likely to ensure failure but it tends to shut off debate on peaceful alternatives. Here the growing tendency of the Johnson Administration to make it seem disloyal to question the omni-competence of the Presidency is reinforced by the natural tendency of the Pentagon to see doubts about resort to force as unpatriotic. There is the danger here of a new McCarthyism as the Administration and the military move toward wider war rather than admit earlier mistakes.


“Some Vietnamese regard Americans as hypocritically softhearted. ‘You don’t like the methods we apply to prisoners and the way we do business in the field,’ a Vietnamese commander told me once. ‘But you have nothing against the use of artillery barrages, and air strikes using heavy bombs and napalm. Have you ever visited a hamlet hit by napalm after your planes have finished?’ ”

—Malcolm W. Browne in The New Face of War


“The Vietcong never used the word Communism. Once Paul Fay, Undersecretary of the Navy, came to Saigon and delivered a rip-roaring speech on how to teach the peasantry about the evils of Communism. A CIA friend of mine who heard the speech said, ‘God, wouldn’t that be lovely! These people have never heard of Communism, but if we went around preaching against it, they might decide it was a pretty good thing and want some of it.’

—David Halberstam in The Making of a Quagmire


“You have always managed to back the wrong men here, the ones whose only qualification is being anticommunist, the ones who think like you because they have been rich enough to spend most of their lives in the West, and who will losethe most if the Viet Cong wins. They are not Vietnamese, except their faces.”

—Malcolm W. Browne quoting a “highly educated and worldly Vietnamese
friend of mine” in his book, The New Faceof War.


“Of the thousands of Vietnamese officials I have known, I can think of none who does not more or less hold the Vietnamese people in contempt.”

—Malcolm W. Browne in The New Face of War


“In my opinion Mc Namara may well be this country’s most distinguished civil servant of the last decade. Brilliant and tireless, he rides herd over the vast and tangled responsibilities of the Pentagon…Yet one of Mc Namara’s most fervent admirers among the Pentagon ‘whiz kids’…notes that his chief is interested in everything but ‘men and ideas.’ Unfortunately, the war in Vietnam was little else.”

—David Halberstam in The Making of a Quagmire

This Issue

April 22, 1965