Reporting Vietnam, Part One: American Journalism 1959-1969; Part Two: American Journalism 1969-1975
The Secret War Against Hanoi: Kennedy's and Johnson's Use of Spies, Saboteurs, and Covert Warriors in North Vietnam
Robert McNamara, secretary of defense in the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, is famously sorry about American responsibility for the Vietnamese war. When he wrote in his book of five years ago that “we were wrong, terribly wrong,”1 this was universally assumed to be an astounding public apology. In these pages Theodore Draper commented, “With this book, he has paid his debt.”2 Others were less forgiving. Anthony Lewis of The New York Times observed, “McNamara expresses no regret for his greater wrong: failing to speak the truth then, when it mattered.” Rejecting Mr. McNamara’s explanation that he owed loyalty to his president and to his constitutional oath, Mr. Lewis recalled Justice Robert Jackson’s ruling that the Constitution “is not a suicide pact,” and added that an official who foresees “‘a major national disaster’ …surely has a higher obligation to the country than to the President.”3
In one of his often anguished musings, in his recent book Argument Without End, about how the major national disaster in Vietnam might have been averted, Mr. McNamara regrets that during the 1950s and 1960s his adversaries in Hanoi learned about the US from international news agencies and weekly magazines—“not from sources like The New York Times.” But it was Mr. McNamara who could have done the learning. He might have found arresting the following comments in The New Yorker by the fiercely anti-Communist Joseph Alsop, who in late 1954 visited a Communist-controlled area in Vietnam as the French were disengaging after fighting nine years to retain their colony—a struggle 80 percent paid for by the US in its last phase—and Washington was creating its chosen regime under Ngo Dinh Diem in Saigon:
It was difficult for me, as it is for any Westerner, to…imagine a Communist government that was also a popular government and almost a democratic government…. The Viet Minh [Ho Chi Minh’s forces] could not possibly have carried on the resistance for one year, let alone nine years, without the people’s strong, united support.4
As for reading The New York Times, that would have encouraged Hanoi, not dissuaded it. Mr. McNamara, McGeorge Bundy, Dean Rusk, John Kennedy, and Lyndon Johnson, on the other hand, regarded the paper’s coverage of Vietnam as subversive, and regularly put pressure on its leading columnists and even on the publisher. Reading the two magnificent volumes of Reporting Vietnam, a collection of dispatches from the field and more discursive essays, reminded me why I came to oppose the war in the early 1960s. In The New York Times in February 1962, Homer Bigart, one of its most admired foreign correspondents, began his analysis from Saigon with these words: “The United States is involved in a war in Vietnam. American troops will stay until victory.” Bigart then noted, “Actually the United States has been deeply involved in the fate of Vietnam since 1949 when the decision was made to subsidize the continuation of French rule against the Communist Viet Minh rebellion.” He concluded:…
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