322. Memorandum From the Public Affairs Officer of the Embassy in Vietnam (Mecklin) to the Ambassador in Vietnam (Nolting)1

Press Relations

Saigon once again is full of brave talk about imminent GVN inauguration of regular press briefings. Besides the assurances you received Monday from Thuan, Counselor Nhu told me last week that briefings and other facilities should be instituted. Colonel Smith reports that General Khanh has volunteered to do the briefings temporarily himself. Khanh has even asked Smith for advice on creation of a DOD public information office.

Unhappily we have heard this tune before, always followed by endless delays. Already there is a taste of the same routine in the air. When I called Dang Due Khol today to ask what comes next, in view of Thuanʼs promises, he replied that immediate action is impossible because of “difficulties” in obtaining information from the field fast enough for the newsmen. He said he would speak to Khanh about it. [Page 744] This is exactly the stall we encountered on the last go-round, when we offered unsuccessfully to feed the GVN information collected through MACV channels.

I hope Iʼm wrong, but it seems to me almost certain that adequate improvement, if any at all, in GVN relations with the foreign press is not about to materialize. In anticipation of this and in view of the fact that these relations have presently reached an abysmal low, there follows a reassessment of the situation, and recommendations for relatively drastic action. I hope you may see fit to send a copy (attached) to General Harkins and that the three of us and Colonel Smith may then meet to discuss it.

Reason for a reassessment, in my judgment, is the fact that it has now become clear that the expulsions of Francois Sully last summer and of Jim Robinson a few weeks later were considerably more than isolated incidents. On the contrary, evidence accumulates that they signaled a major change in GVN press policy, and that this policy is being formulated and administered by Counselor Nhu, uncomfortably often at the whim of his wife. In my opinion, the policy is rooted in an emotional, almost irrational attitude which will prevail indefinitely, regardless of what comes of the current crop of promises. There is ground to doubt whether the newsmen of the US Mission can live with this.

Subtly but undeniably, evidence is accumulating that Nhuʼs attitude toward the US press reflects his attitude in general toward the US Government and people. It is surely significant that during my talk with him on November 19, which included considerable discussion of the press, Nhu made at least a half dozen openly contemptuous remarks about Americans. Variously he accused us of failing to “understand” communism, underdeveloped countries, Asians, India and cold war realities. As reported elsewhere, he capped all this with the reckless (and psychotic?) remark that the US should now mount an atomic attack on Peking.

If you relate this to the evidence that Nhuʼs personal power is critically increasing, I think it may be likely that press policy happens only to be one of the first of our forthcoming disagreements with him. It follows that the US Missionʼs reaction to this initial challenge quite possibly could set a pattern for future, much more difficult and important problems with him.

The Nhus’ influence almost certainly is the main reason why the GVN—despite repeated promises to you, the DCM and myself—has failed to date to institute a single one of the improved facilities we have suggested. There is even less doubt that the Nhus have been behind what amounts, contrarily, to a deliberate new campaign of [Page 745] harassment. It has been applied against all the newsmen, furthermore, friend and critic alike, and in a spirit of bitter contempt for their protests.

There have been continued public and private recriminations against the correspondents by the Vietnamese press and leaders, e.g. Mme. Nhuʼs remark in a taped interview this morning with a Mutual Broadcasting System correspondent that the American correspondents here are “intoxicated by communism.” (Copy attached)2 American newsmen in Saigon believe they are regularly tailed. They are threatened with reprisals if they fail to be properly “objective” (which means friendly by GVN definition), notably including recent publicized letter to the AP in New York personally attacking correspondent Mal Browne. The permanent ban on Newsweek continues, as well as intermittent bans of other American publications.

If there was any question whether all this was officially inspired, it was removed by General Tyʼs circular of October 13 (Embtel 536)3 requiring field unit commanders to talk to correspondents only through written questions and answers—which of course amounts to a ban on talking to journalists at all if literally enforced. We have not been able to confirm the origin of the Ty circular, but several newsmen claim to have information that it was suggested by the Palace; in any case Nhu endorsed the order when I asked him about it last week. The order has already resulted in several newsmen being kicked off American helicopters.

Hard on top of this came last weekʼs prohibition on newsmen covering the new operation in Zone D. This ruling also originated with the GVN. Some 30 or 40 American helicopters participated—which together with unit advisors meant perhaps as many as 150 Americans entering into combat conditions. The newsmen felt that the ban on reporting this to American readers was an outrage. Inevitably many of them found their own sources for information on the operation, notably including Neil Sheehan of UPI, whose story led to a MACV investigation, intensifying the newsmenʼs resentment. The Zone D order has tended to turn the newsmen bitterly against the US Mission—to a more serious degree, I think, than at any time since last winter.

Sheehan and Halberstam of the New York Times have both sent messages to their New York offices urging formal complaints in Washington because of the Zone D operation. Halberstam says he told his office that the MACV explanation of the ban (that the operationʼs objectives are classified) was “an insult to the patriotism” of the newsmen. [Page 746] Attached is a hastily written letter to you4 which Halberstam composed in my office and then threw on my desk in disgust last Friday,5 remarking “you can do any damn thing you want with it.” It is certainly true, as the letter notes, that Halberstamʼs initial effort to be detached and fair to the GVN, which indeed has been the tone of his copy, is fast disappearing. The process accelerated Sunday when Halberstam went on a trip with the junk forces, got what he called a first rate briefing from a US Navy officer only to be told later by the same officer that the GVN commander had rebuked him for giving the briefing and asked him to ask Halberstam not to use it. When he got back to Saigon, Halberstam was literally shaking with anger.

Our hope that the GVN would begin getting a better stateside press as it made progress with the war has been fulfilled. There has been a distinct, continuing improvement, a widening recognition that the GVN perhaps can win. But the GVN, instead of easing off its bitterness, is responding with blind vindictiveness for past criticism.

I said earlier Iʼm not sure we can live with this. Apart from the tactical problem of how to deal with Nhu, I think we must consider action because the issue itself has changed. We reluctantly accepted the Sully and Robinson expulsions, without resorting to sanctions, on the principle that the GVN is a sovereign country and thus has a right to move against unfriendly reporters, even though this is not the way we would do it. The difference now is that this time the GVN is deliberately harassing all foreign newsmen, and, even more seriously, deliberately attempting to establish a blackout on news from Vietnam other than official communiques, which are notoriously unreliable, including news about activities of US personnel in Vietnam.

The question of GVN sovereignty is less black and white in this case. This is not just another under-developed country, or banana republic or what have you, rocking along in the usual intrigue and petty chauvinism. This is 1) the scene of a confrontation between East and West which could be decisive to the fate of Asia, and 2) an area of massive US involvement. This is not in any way meant to invoke the weary argument that we’re spending millions here and the US thus has a “right” to special treatment by the GVN, which in effect is to confirm the communist line that Diem is a puppet, etc. The point is rather that the GVN is infringing on a root American right: the right of the American people to be informed of the facts on which the policies of their government are based, and on the activities of US military personnel committed to combat.

[Page 747]

All this, furthermore, is apart from the fact that continued criticism of the GVN in the US press for trying to suppress newsmen inevitably weakens the Administrationʼs political capability to maintain the present policy of support for the GVN.

There is a certain parallel here with the problem of the American correspondents who covered the Eastern Front in World War II under innumerable restrictions, with one very big difference: in Vietnam, the USG has the means to correct the situation unilaterally, at least partially. It is, furthermore, conceivable that this could be done without a direct clash with the GVN, i.e., without forcing a face-losing showdown which could lead to serious damage to our relations in other areas.

Accordingly some recommendations which I hope you and General Harkins will consider:

We should cease forthwith any further efforts to change the GVN policy toward the press by persuasion, especially in view of Thuanʼs categorical assurances to you yesterday, which were the most we can hope for anyway. Failure of the GVN to follow through this time will surely establish beyond doubt that persuasion on this highly emotional issue doesn’t work, and that further agitation can only exacerbate our relations.
MACV should begin now to give regular daily briefings to Western newsmen on a non-attribution basis. These in general should be limited to news about activities involving US personnel (which means virtually every action initiated by the GVN), but news of major developments involving only GVN personnel should also be “leaked” at the discretion of MACV. It would be preferable not to advise the GVN formally that such briefings have been started, thus avoiding a direct question of “face.” But if and when the GVN hears about them and inquires, we should simply say the pressure from the US press for adequate information became so intense that we could no longer resist it, and that of course the briefings will be discontinued once the GVN itself begins doing the job.
MACV should begin giving a limited amount of classified information to reputable Western newsmen to give them a true picture of whatʼs going on, and then request them not to publish or otherwise circulate those portions which would be damaging to operational security. This could not be done to the extent that correspondents were briefed during World War II because there is no censorship nor juridical control over them in this situation. (Censorship might be desirable here, but GVN application of it would unquestionably be so chaotic and politically motivated that itʼs not a reasonable consideration, in my opinion.) But I am completely confident that enough information could be entrusted with the newsmen to win their cooperation. It would, of course, be relatively simple to enforce their respect for classified information by instantly barring a correspondent who violated a confidence not only from the briefings but even from all American installations in Vietnam. If this is feasible, I think we should call a meeting of the American newsmen here to discuss how to go at it.
American advisors throughout the country should be instructed to ignore any GVN efforts to prevent them from cooperating with newsmen, to urge their Vietnamese counterparts to cooperate, and to insist that space for newsmen be provided in the plans of any operation involving American personnel or equipment. In application, the sense of this would be: no correspondents, no choppers. Again if this were done at the regional level, I think a showdown with the GVN could be avoided because the local commanders would be less willing to jeopardize US support by balking than would be the case in Saigon.

I think we should all accept the reality that the newsmen here will continue to find access to very much of the truth of whatʼs going on, regardless of what we may do. I think it is futile to try to “control” them, or cut off their sources. Americans, even in the military, simply donʼt work that way. If Sheehanʼs source for the Zone D story were located, for example, he would find somebody else next time. Similarly it seems rather pointless to me to try to prevent newsmen from obtaining such classified figures as the number of helicopters in an operation. Most of them find out simply by checking friends who live near Tan Son Nhut and count them as they take off.

There is hope of suppressing that kind of sensitive information, however, if we take the newsmen into our confidence as much as possible, i.e., honor their sense of patriotism as Halberstam puts it, and then ask them on the basis of their own good sense not to use certain specified items.

This kind of drastic shift in our policy vis-a-vis the press admittedly risks an unpleasant time with the GVN. It would verge on application of sanctions—especially in insisting on the right correspondents to go along on all operations as a condition to providing the helicopters. In my opinion, however, the long-term damage, if we permit the GVN to continue its present policy of deliberate harassment, would be appreciably greater. There is a good possibility, furthermore, that if the US applied this new policy swiftly and decisively, yet quietly, so nobody loses face, the GVN would go along with it in recognition, however reluctant, of the greater need for our help.

Subsequent (November 28) to typing of the foregoing, Colonel Smith advises that General Khanhʼs office had called to ask PIO/MACV to act temporarily as the outlet for ARVN military reports on a daily basis, pending inauguration of ARVN briefings. Khanh then delivered to the PIO a three-paragraph “bulletin” reporting on the resumption of the Zone D operation on November 27. Smith is releasing this to newsmen in writing. Khanhʼs office promised to deliver such bulletins daily around 5 or 6 p.m. Smith plans to follow the same procedure of release in writing, at least for the time being.

This, of course, is encouraging in the sense that Khanh is showing real interest in the project. It must immediately be noted, however, that the first bulletin was a day late. If this continues, the newsmen [Page 749] can be expected to continue tapping their own sources to get the news faster, with resulting continued errors and possible security breaches. Also, the bulletin was vaguely worded, omitting any indication of the size of the operation and similar details that newsmen will be sure to want.

The GVN will have to go vastly beyond this cautious first step if it hopes to bring about any appreciable change in the situation. My recommendation that MACV should begin its own briefings forthwith perhaps should now be amended to read that MACV should be prepared to do this if the present GVN experiment fizzles. But this does not change my opinion that MACV briefings will inevitably become necessary, nor affect my other recommendations.

  1. Source: Kennedy Library, Hilsman Papers, Hilsman Trip 12/62-1/63. Secret; Noforn. Moore sent a copy of this memorandum to Murrow on December 10 (Washington National Records Center, RG 306, USIA/I/S Files: FRC 68 A 4933, Field—Far East (IAF)), which was circulated by Forrestal to the Special Group on Counterinsurgency on January 28, 1963.
  2. Not found.
  3. Telegram 536, November 21, reported that reporters were required to submit their questions to field commanders in writing. (Department of State, Central Files, 951K.6211/11-2162)
  4. Not printed.
  5. November 23.