Tag Archives: Vietnam

Surveillance State: An old-school leak of FBI docs

By Christopher B. Daly

History keeps happening.

Thanks to a new book by former Washington Post journalist Betty Medsger called The Burglary, 51HydAvzamL._AA160_Americans can now see another example of principled, patriotic, non-violent dissenters who made America a better place by risking jail to bring important truths to light. The New York Times has a good story today about it, including a terrific video. More is at NPR.

To set the scene:

–It was a time in American history when we were fighting an undeclared war halfway around the world.

–We were fighting against people whose history, culture, and language we did not understand.

–We could not tell friend from foe.

–With each passing year, the insurgency grew stronger and we never managed to “pacify” any territory.

–American citizens tried to stop the war and were castigated as disloyal, unpatriotic.

–The government engaged in a secret, illegal campaign to find and crush people it considered terrorists.

The year was 1971, at the height of the American war in Vietnam, not 2003 or 2004, at the height of the U.S. “war on terror.” (Instead of al Qaeda, the FBI was targeting domestic “terrorists” like the Weathermen and the Black Panthers) After years of peaceful protests, a small group of anti-war activists decided to try a new tactic: break into an FBI office, remove the files, and divulge the secret contents to the news media.

Here is a template for national security leakers. The break-in described in the new book took place in the Philadelphia suburb of Media, Pa., on March 8, 1971. That very same week, Daniel Ellsberg made his first contact with New York Times reporter Neil Sheehan to discuss divulging the massive secret files that became known as the Pentagon Papers. In both cases, people who found that they could not change policy through normal politics and who could not legally blow the whistle on wrongdoing decided to go outside the law — risking prosecution and jail — in the hope that disclosing secrets would lead to a desirable change.

The comparisons to Edward Snowden are obvious. As a contract employee for the NSA, Snowden learned that the government has built a vast spying operation since 9/11/01 that includes secret top-secret-stampsurveillance of millions of law-abiding Americans in peacetime and that officials hid and lied about.

The anti-war burglars in the Media FBI break-in hurt no one and did almost no property damage (they had to jimmy a lock to get in). As a result of their disclosures, no one died and the sky did not fall. Instead, the disclosures added fuel to the anti-war movement and provided vital clues to the wider disclosures that led to the Church Committee investigation and reforms.

In the Media break-in, the only apparent crime was simple burglary, and the statute of limitations expired long ago. So, there is no question of penalties as these American heroes emerge from the shadows.

 

 

 

 

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New AP book of Vietnam War photos

By Christopher B. Daly

Thanks to The Associated Press, there’s a new book of news photographs from the American war in Vietnam that will remind us of all the chaos, confusion, heroism, beauty, and tragedy of those years — as seen through the eyes of AP photographers and correspondents.

From today’s preview in the NYTimes:

Now, amid a flurry of anniversary commemorations of that tumultuous era and a surge of interest in war photography, The A.P. has, for the first time, culled its estimated 25,000 Vietnam photographs and reprinted some 250 in a book, “Vietnam: The Real War,” with an introduction by Pete Hamill, to be published by Abrams on Oct. 1.

Chuck Zoeller, the agency’s manager of special projects, said the dozens of rarely seen photographs in this collection include color plates of United States prisoners of war in a Hanoi prison in 1972 and historical images from the French colonial period. There is a photo of President John F. Kennedy in Florida, reviewing a commando unit back from action as early as 1962. And there are troubling scenes: Vietcong prisoners being kicked and subjected to water torture by South Vietnamese troops. A Vietnamese family of four, dead on a blanket, killed in a stampede as panicked refugees fled the advancing North Vietnamese in 1975.

Several of the most powerful photos from the era appear in my 2012 book, Covering America, because they not only documented the news but in several cases they also made news. They were that powerful. I am thinking of Mal Browne’s photo of a Buddhist monk burning himself to death in 1963 or the photo of the “napalm girl” in 1972 by Nick Ut. 

Here’s another heart-breaking photo from the new compilation, taken by the AP’s photo editor in Vietnam, Horst Faas (who died last year, as did Browne):

A Vietnamese farmer holds the body of his dead child while a group of South Vietnamese soldiers looks on.  Photo: Horst Faas.

A Vietnamese farmer holds the body of his dead child while a group of South Vietnamese soldiers looks on.
Photo: Horst Faas.

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Stanley Karnow, 1925-2013

Today brings news of the passing of Stanley Karnow, who wrote one of the most-cited works trying to figure out what happened during the U.S. war in Vietnam. He was an exemplar of the journalist-turned-historian.

Here is the Times obit, which mentions that Karnow was also on the Nixon “enemies list.”

Here is the AP version, which notes that Karnow got his start in journalism on his high school newspaper and at the Harvard Crimson.

The ultimate quote:

‘‘What did we learn from Vietnam?’’ Mr. Karnow later told AP. ‘‘We learned that we shouldn’t have been there in the first place.’’

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Mal Browne, a great journalist, dies at 81

By Christopher B. Daly 

Today brings sad news: the death of Mal Browne, a real original and a great journalist. Probably best known for his famous photograph of a Buddhist monk burning himself to death in protest against the government in South Vietnam, Browne was also a terrific reporter and writer.

You can read the obituary by The Associated Press, Browne’s employer when he was in South Vietnam in the 1960s, in the NYTimes, which was his eventual employer. (Browne, who studied chemistry before becoming a reporter, later became a war reporter and science writer at the Times.)

Also not to be missed is Browne’s memoir, Muddy Boots and Red Socks: A War Reporter’s Life.

Browne also has some really worthwhile insights in this terrific PBS video.

You can also read about Browne in these excerpts from my book, Covering America.

In the early 1960s Halberstam was the only full-time reporter working in Vietnam for a U.S. newspaper, and since that paper was the Times, he was destined to become the most visible journalist in the country. But Halberstam was not the only American correspondent based in Saigon. There was a small contingent of other journalists, who were followed later by hundreds of reporters, photographers, television cameramen, producers, columnists, feature writers, spies, adventurers, and poseurs, along with brigades of military “public information officers” whose mission was the care and feeding of the vast and hungry press corps. But all that was still far off. In the early 1960s the Saigon press corps could have easily fit into one helicopter. They had a lot in common, this band of friendly rivals; as was typical of the era, they were all white and all male, and no one spoke Vietnamese.

 

 

Among the news agencies with a presence in Vietnam, two of the most important, because of the enormous size of their audiences, were the U.S.-based wire services the Associated Press and United Press International. The AP bureau was led by Malcolm Browne, who was raised a Quaker and began a career as a chemist but then was drafted into the army in 1956 and ended up driving tanks in Korea. He came home and worked for several newspapers in the States (including the Record in Middletown, New York, where he briefly worked alongside a young reporter named Hunter S. Thompson) before joining the AP and getting his wish—to become a foreign correspondent—in his early thirties. Tall, thin, and pensive, Browne might have been mistaken for a professor if not for his wide array of sources and the bright red socks he always wore. He shared a cramped office with Horst Faas, AP’s Saigon photo editor (who insisted that all AP reporters in the country carry cameras, just in case), and a young AP reporter from New Zealand, Peter Arnett. Fearless and relentless, Arnett became a legend in Vietnam. “He stayed longer, took more chances, and wrote more words read by more people than any war correspondent in any war in history,” notes one observer.9 At UPI, the AP’s major competitor, the bureau consisted of a single correspondent, Neil Sheehan, who had worked his way out of the old factory town of Holyoke, Massachusetts, and into Harvard, graduating three years after Halberstam. He then joined the army, went to Korea, and worked at Stars and Stripes before joining UPI. Like his rival Browne at AP, Sheehan was young and hungry. Nobody had ever heard of either reporter in 1962, but they would before it was all over. . .

 

As these correspondents went about their reporting in the early 1960s, they were on a fairly long leash. Given the state of communications, they were often hard to reach, so if their editors in New York had some brilliant idea, they might as well forget it, because by the time it arrived in Saigon, the reporter would probably be off somewhere else covering the action. Reporters thus had the happy burden of making up their own assignments. They also had pretty much the run of South Vietnam and could almost always get to the scene of any action. Sometimes the war would take place right in front of them, even in the middle of Saigon. In a guerrilla war, reporters soon realized, the battle was everywhere and nowhere. There was certainly no “front line,” as there had been since time immemorial. When fighting did break out, the U.S. military usually obliged with transportation, putting reporters into any available space aboard jeeps, armored vehicles, helicopters, ships, and jets. At other times, reporters could hire a car and driver or literally take a taxi to cover the news.

 

 

On the whole, there was remarkably little censorship in Vietnam. Officially, there was no military censorship in the traditional sense, although the United States did issue “guidelines” to all correspondents that covered the basics. To be sure, first Kennedy then Lyndon Johnson tried to have individual reporters fired, and they counted on the South Vietnamese government to expel any real trouble-makers. Especially in the early years, the Diem regime made life miserable for correspondents, particularly if their reporting was critical of Diem’s government. But the fact was that the United States, as a guest in an undeclared war, fighting for freedom against totalitarian communism, was in a bind and could not impose official censorship.

 

 

As a result, the Pentagon brass and officials in the Kennedy and Johnson administrations felt the need to try to sell the war, using the techniques of public relations and news management. One approach involved the selective withholding of information. Until 1967, for example, American officials did not provide a total count of U.S. troops killed and missing. At the same time, officials made a great effort to encourage reporters, especially in the early years, to “get on the team,” as generations of journalists had done in previous wars. They also borrowed techniques from public relations to try to convey the message that the United States was winning and the enemy was losing. Halberstam, for one, had seen enough of the war firsthand so that he was not buying what they were selling. Neither were most of the other young resident correspondents.

 

Stories revealing the conflict between the military and the press abound. To take one notorious case, in December 1961 the U.S. aircraft carrier Core docked at the foot of Tu Do Street in Saigon, towering over the nearby buildings. Plainly visible on the deck were dozens of olive drab Sikorsky H-21 helicopters. Mal Browne was among a half-dozen reporters who wanted to know what was going on, since the United States was officially only advising South Vietnam, not arming it. The reporters went to the U.S. Information Service office and asked the director about the massive ship.

 

“Aircraft carrier?” he asked. “What aircraft carrier? I don’t see any aircraft carrier.”

VC spies, of course, managed to see the ship and even record the serial numbers of the aircraft as they were unloaded.

 

 

 

 

. . .As the reporters in the Saigon press corps could see, the strategy was not working. More evidence came in 1963 in a series of events known as “the Buddhist crisis.” The crisis began in May, when Diem traveled to Hue to celebrate the twenty-fifth anniversary of his brother’s elevation to the Catholic hierarchy. For the occasion, the streets of Hue were festooned with flags, both the Vietnamese national flag and the Vatican flag. The problem was that a majority of Vietnam’s people (70 to 80 percent) were Buddhists. A few days later the Buddhists of Hue were celebrating the 2,587th birthday of the Buddha, and they wanted to fly their own flag. When the Diem government said no, the Buddhists took to the streets. Someone threw a grenade, and the conflict rapidly escalated. Monks began to venture out from their pagodas, and they quickly spread the protests to Saigon and other cities. The Diem regime embarked on a series of clumsy crackdowns, which only made matters worse. Halberstam pounced on the story and pushed it onto the front page of the New York Times.

 

 

 

In the White House, President Kennedy, an avid reader of the Times, was still learning about Vietnam. After reading Halberstam’s report about the Buddhists, Kennedy asked an aide: “Who are these people? Why didn’t we know about them before?”

On June 11, 1963, the Buddhist monks of Vietnam took center stage. For weeks as the crisis built, the AP’s Mal Browne had been filing stories, and he had spent a lot of time in pagodas, interviewing monks and getting a good understanding of their cause. On the night of June 10 Browne got a call from a contact among the monks, telling him there would be an important development the next morning at a small Saigon pagoda. Several Western correspondents got the same tip, but only a few showed up, including Browne and, later, Halberstam. Only Browne, under the AP photo policy, was carrying a camera. After a while, a seventy- three-year-old Buddhist monk, Thich Quang Duc, went to a busy Saigon intersection and sat down in the lotus position, ringed by hundreds of other monks. Several monks doused him with gasoline, then he struck a match. As the flames rose, the monk never flinched. Browne kept working. “Numb with shock,” Browne later recalled, “I shot roll after roll of film, focusing and adjusting exposures mechanically and unconsciously, almost as an athlete chews gum to relieve stress. Trying hard not to perceive what I was witnessing I found myself thinking: ‘The sun is bright and the subject is self-illuminated, so f16 at 125th of a second should be right.’ But I couldn’t close out the smell.” Browne probably could not have intervened once the match was lit, even if he had been prepared. The hundreds of monks would have stopped him.

This incident, like much else that correspondents saw in Vietnam, dramatizes a problem that might be called the Journalist’s Dilemma. For obvious reasons, journalists often witness tragedies and catastrophes. In the course of reporting or shooting photos, they are sometimes confronted by an apparent conflict between continuing to work or stopping to render assistance. Should the journalist step out of the traditional role of observing news and try to help? If the journalist intervenes to prevent a tragedy or to offer aid and comfort to victims, does he or she thus enter the story as a historical actor and give up any claim to practicing journalism (and along with it, perhaps, any First Amendment rights)? Close examination of many cases reveals that the Journalist’s Dilemma is often an illusion. In most instances, the action unfolds so quickly that there is no time for decision making, while in others, the journalist is in fact able to observe the news, record it, and still rise to at least a basic level of humanitarian action. Still, it is in the nature of a dilemma to have no ultimate solution.

 

Browne’s photos, which were flashed worldwide, dominated the coverage and reached the desk of President Kennedy, who was clearly upset by what he saw. The president turned to a visitor and said, “We’re going to have to do something about that regime.”

 

While Kennedy pondered his relations with Diem and the Buddhists expanded their campaign against the government, Browne and Halberstam and the rest of the reporters in Saigon pressed on. . .

 

 

 

 

. . . By the mid-1960s television had become nearly universal in U.S. homes, and it was that change that made Vietnam the first “living room war.” Television also shaped the thinking of policymakers, including President Johnson, who had three TV sets installed in the Oval Office so he could keep an eye on the network news reports, which were reaching a combined audience of some 35 million Americans every evening. From the correspondent’s point of view, the technology of television was still crude. Mal Browne, after leaving the AP, worked for a few years for ABC Television and continued to cover Vietnam. Although his photos of the burning monk became a famous symbol of the war, Browne never considered himself a photographer, and he quickly came to appreciate the television cameramen, the guys who humped around the heavy equipment that made it possible to film the fighting in the field. He wrote: “A network of electric umbilical cords connected the Auricon to the soundman and his recording controls, and to a microphone clutched in the hand of the correspondent. Joined together as a cursed trinity, a television crew would leap together from an alighting helicopter and run in cadence through ground fire like three monkeys holding each other’s tails.”

 

 

 

Thanks, Mal.

 

 

 

 

 

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JFK on Vietnam

By Christopher B. Daly 

The folks at the JFK Presidential Library in Boston have announced the completion of the task of transcribing and releasing the secret recordings that Kennedy made in the Oval Office while president. (Kennedy, not Nixon, first came up with the idea of secretly taping his conversations — no doubt with the intention of writing his memoir someday.)

Can we really be sure that the keepers of the flame in these presidential libraries really divulge everything? I don’t know.

But for the time being, here is a tidbit from the Library’s newsletter featuring some of the fruits of what was probably one of JFK’s last discussions of Vietnam:

During a meeting on September 10, 1963 regarding the civil
war in Vietnam, President Kennedy expressed frustration
with the conflicting reports provided to him by his military
and diplomatic advisors. General Victor Krulak and State
Department Advisor Joseph Mendenhall were reporting to
the President on their four-day fact-finding mission to South
Vietnam. Krulak’s view, based on his visits with military
leaders, was generally optimistic, while Mendenhall, a
Foreign Service Officer, shared his impressions of widespread
military and social discontent.
These vastly different viewpoints caused President
Kennedy to pause and then comment: “You both went to
the same country?”
After nervous laughter, the President continued, “I mean
how is it that you get such different—this is not a new thing,
this is what we’ve been dealing with for three weeks. On the
one hand you get the military saying the war is going better
and on the other hand you get the political (opinion) with its
deterioration is affecting the military…What is the reason
for the difference—I’d like to have an explanation what the
reason is for the difference.”

 

 

Hard to say definitively, but this sounds like a man with serious doubts. Even all these years later, I think a lot of people would like “an explanation what the reason is for the difference” between the military advice and the political advice. If any president asks any military figure, Can we do X? The answer will certainly be, Yes, Sir! Is that really advice?

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