24. Letter From the Assistant Secretary of State for Far Eastern Affairs (Harriman) to the Ambassador in Vietnam (Nolting)1

Dear Fritz: I can imagine that the flood of unfavorable news stories about the helicopter operation of January 2-32 has given you as much pain as me, particularly those stories alleging that American military spokesmen made such statements as, “It was a miserable damn performance.” I know that press relations is one of your biggest headaches.

The purpose of this letter is to explore with you what further steps can be taken in Saigon & Washington to improve the situation. I realize that a great deal has been done by you and your able PAO, John Mecklin, but more objective reporting in the U.S. press is of great importance. I know I don’t have to emphasize to you the need for support and understanding at home for the expensive, continuing and sometimes dangerous programs which we are carrying out in Viet-Nam.

I suggest we take a look at the problem under three heads: the handling of foreign journalists by the Vietnamese Government; critical statements made by American advisers in the heat of battle; and the amount of news that American officials themselves should make available to U.S. journalists in Viet-Nam.

As to Vietnamese briefings of the press and restrictions on the press, there does not seem to be much chance of an adequate improvement. You have done a great deal to encourage the Vietnamese to tell their story of their war and should continue to do so. However, since this is also a war which involves very important American policies, commitments and risk to American personnel, the American public has a right to the best possible American information even if this does [Page 68] offend Vietnamese sensitivities. It is for you to decide whether this should be explained to the Vietnamese or whether we should simply take the initiative to increase our briefings and contacts.

As to the U.S. military policy towards the press, I have noted the excellent guidance which General Harkins gave to American military advisers on press relations (Airgram 327, December 193).1 think the ground rules which he set forth should certainly help the American advisers in their contacts with the press. In order to further clarify this situation I would suggest that all American correspondents while on operations with United States forces might well be clearly identified by a name tag or by other means. I think the most damaging aspect of our press problem is alleged quotes of American military advisers criticizing their Vietnamese comrades in arms. Nothing could be more destructive of the cooperation we must have with the Vietnamese or more helpful to the Communist propagandists. I know this is difficult to lick. However, I was glad to learn that the new PIO, Colonel Bazil L. Baker, who will be coming to Saigon as Colonel Smith’s tour comes to an end, is highly regarded. I would recommend that more assistant PIO’s be sent to Saigon so that journalists may be given better service and coverage in their contacts with our military personnel in the field. Also, I would like to know what is done to explain to U.S. personnel the importance of not insulting the Vietnamese publicly. We are guests in their house and we have come to help them. I believe this simple point might be reiterated frequently to our official personnel in Viet-Nam.

Finally, I want to encourage you, General Harkins, and such other responsible members of your staff as you think appropriate, to increase your official and informal contacts with the American press. I know that you do this kind of thing very well and even if there is no hard news to give, regular contacts with you will enable the correspondents to vent some of their frustrations, which in itself will be helpful. If the official Americans can take the initiative in providing the press promptly with the facts and with sufficient perspective, we are likely to get a good result in the long run. However, I would caution against over-optimistic statements to the press and to public officials. This will be a long struggle, with many frustrations. (Senator Mansfield’s report4 will probably mention U.S. officials who believe [Page 69] we can win in a year or two, whereas it was originally announced as a long pull.)

In Washington I understand that action is being taken to see that returning officials, such as General Wheeler, are given the opportunity to tell the press and public how things are going in Viet-Nam. Obviously, one problem is that, although this is a Vietnamese war, the stories the U.S. press are interested in are largely about Americans. The success stories of Vietnamese operations have little U.S. news value, whereas the setbacks involving planes shot down with U.S. casualties, are headline material. Attempts will be made here to encourage experienced reporters to go to Viet-Nam and write stories about their overall observations. Through these feature articles, perhaps a better and more accurate understanding of the war can be obtained.

We have a mutual problem and I ask for your views and suggestions. We want to try to do all we can to help you from this end.5


W. Averell Harriman6
  1. Source: Department of State, Vietnam Working Group Files: Lot 67 D 54, PR-11 Press Relations. Secret. Drafted by Wood and Harriman.
  2. See Document 1.
  3. Not printed. (Department of State, Central Files, 751K.5/12-1962)
  4. Senators Mike Mansfield, J. Caleb Boggs, Claiborne Pell, and Benjamin A. Smith visited Vietnam December 1-3, 1962, as part of a fact-finding trip undertaken at the request of President Kennedy. On December 18, Senator Mansfield submitted a report outlining his assessment of prospects for U.S. policy in Vietnam. For text of that report, see Foreign Relations, 1961–1963, vol. II, Document 330. The term Mansfield report was popularly applied, however, to the composite report on Southeast Asia which was transmitted by the four Senators involved in the trip to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on February 25, 1963. Part 2 of that report dealt with Vietnam and differed somewhat in emphasis from the report submitted to the President in December. For text of the report to the Foreign Relations Committee, see Viet-Nam and Southeast Asia: Report of Senator Mike Mansfield, Senator J. Caleb Boggs, Senator Claiborne Pell, and Senator Benjamin A. Smith (Committee print, Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, 88th Cong., 1st sees.) For a summary of the report, see Document 42.
  5. Nolting responded with a letter to Harriman on February 4 in which he stated that he shared the concern over the problem of adverse press coverage in Vietnam, and he proposed that he should be called back to the United States for several weeks of consultation, which he would devote largely to public relations work concerning Vietnam. (Department of State, Vietnam Working Group Files: Lot 67 D 54, PR-11 Press Relations)
  6. Printed from a copy that bears this typed signature.