Vietnam: An Exercise in Self-Delusion

The New Face of War

by Malcolm W. Browne
Bobbs-Merrill, 284 pp., $5.00

The Making of a Quagmire

by David Halberstam
Random House, 312 pp., $4.95

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…

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