277. Memorandum From the Counselor for Public Affairs of the Embassy in Vietnam (Mecklin) to the Ambassador (Lodge)1
- Press Relations
It is, of course, notably presumptuous for me to attempt to discuss press relations with a man of your experience in this field. I am nevertheless attempting to do so because the problem here is not only extraordinarily difficult but also unique. It is one of the toughest problems you must face, as I’m sure you have been advised by Ambassador Nolting.
Attached is a copy of the memo I wrote for Robert Manning, Assistant Secretary of State for Public Affairs, on the occasion of his visit here just over a month ago to investigate the question of GVN and US relations with the foreign press.2 What follows is an updating, plus some after-thoughts. Also attached is some comment on the press [Page 622]situation by Colonel Lee Baker, the MACV Public Information Officer.3
We are faced with a crisis of credibility such as seldom has happened before in a situation as critical as this. You will hear indignant contrary views, but my observation is that not only the newsmen here but also a good many Americans in relatively senior official positions believe very nearly nothing that any official U.S. Agency says about the situation in Vietnam.
Just a week ago, for example, I visited a MAAG outpost in the Delta. The senior officer told me that things were going exceptionally well. After he left, his deputy told me that the situation was rapidly deteriorating. The deputy, frankly, was more persuasive. This is typical. You are confronted here with a community of some 18,000 or 19,000 Americans who are torn by doubt, distrust of their own leadership, deep frustration in the face of personal danger, contempt for the GVN yet often a real affection for the low-level Vietnamese with whom they work, disgust mixed with a wonderful determination to win, and equally wonderful morale in spite of everything.
Which suggests an example: I said 18,000 to 19,000 Americans. There are just over 16,000 military personnel in Vietnam, plus 2,000 to 3,000 civilians. The military figure is scheduled to peak at 16,700 this fall. It is official policy (supporting documents on request) that there are “about” 14,000 military personnel here. Colonel Baker and I have been trying for more than a month to persuade the authorities to allow us to leak the true figure to the press-along with pleas not to make a story of it-but in vain. We are invited, in effect, to lie to the American people on this question. It is very nearly a certainty that the correct figure will be found out, resulting in another body blow to the credibility of the U.S. Mission here.
MACV says the war is developing favorably. David Halberstam of the New York Times recently wrote to the contrary.4 President Kennedy cabled MACV for an explanation.5 Very few objective Americans here-like Mr. Kennedy?-believe either Halberstam or MACV. This is symptomatic. MACV’s daily OPSUM does not regularly indicate facts and statistics that have been confirmed by American advisors, which of course means that one must assume everything in the OPSUM comes from Vietnamese sources. Result: the OPSUM has lost credibility, not only here but among a good many people in Washington. (I was present at a meeting of the Vietnam Working Group in May when this was said in so many words. Nobody objected.)[Page 623]
Recently an old-hand correspondent in Southeast Asia was here for a visit. After a fortnight, he told me he thought the war was going badly. I said: “If this is true, then the leadership of the American mission here is committing an astonishing mistake in judgment.” He said: “The French thought they were going to win, too.” This, of course, is glib. Drawing a parallel with the French is notably unjustified. But I was here, too, during the period of Dienbienphu, and I think it is true that the psychological atmosphere has a similar flavor. This seems to be characteristic of a Western nation engaged against guerrillas …6 to subsist on statistics of casualty ratios and weapons-lost ratios, reluctant to face up to the profound, unmeasurable unknowns of a quicksilver war.
These are intangible questions. The issue is not who is right. Nobody can prove an argument on any subject in Vietnam. The issue is the extraordinarily urgent need for the U.S. Government to recognize the reality that Vietnam remains in doubt, and to stop pontificating. In my opinion, the American people Don’t duck a struggle, nor setbacks, much less a candid admission of setbacks. But they do react to false optimism. One of the reasons for the present explosive reaction of the American press to the GVN, and to U.S. policy, is the fact that most American newsmen feel they have been misled. To put it bluntly, if it had been freely conceded that this is something less than the best regime ever, there would be a lot less bitterness now that the fact has been conclusively established.
On the question of your own posture vis-à-vis the press, my most urgent recommendation is that you attempt from the outset to engage the newsmen in your own problems. You face the immediate, indigestible possibility, for example, that thoughtful analysis of the political situation may lead to the conclusion that the U.S. must still support the Diem regime. If you will invite the newsmen, in effect, to share in the agonizing, and level with them on details of the problem (most of which they will find out anyway), there is at least a chance that you can carry some of them along in your eventual decision, as well as the subsequent pulling and hauling to make it work. My candid belief is that a decision reached in lonely, highly-classified isolation from the press is unlikely to be supported, however sensible.
Ambassador Nolting was an open-season target on the grounds that he was too “soft” with Diem . I was here as a correspondent in 1955 when Ambassador Collins was attacked by the press (including me) with equal ferocity because he was too “tough” with Diem . In both cases, the prosecuting correspondents argued that the Ambassador did not understand Asians. In both cases, the Ambassador was also reluctant to share his problems with the press. And in both cases, [Page 624]it worked out that the Ambassador’s problems were shared anyway with the press, via leaks in Washington on anything he did of much significance. As noted in my memo to Manning, experience has proved that secrets simply Don’t keep in a situation as explosive and vital as this.
Some specific suggestions:
Limit your public comment to an absolute minimum, and always avoid any kind of public judgment on how things are going. Most of all, Don’t be optimistic in public; American officials who talk about optimism in Vietnam remind most newsmen of Chinese Communists talking about “peace”. Don’t be too easily accessible to correspondents, but when you do see one, give him a lot of time and level to the most intimate degree possible. Never be defensive about U.S. policy here and emphatically not about the GVN; try to maintain a detached, gee-what-should-we-do atmosphere. Try to include a responsible correspondent in as many social functions as possible, including high-level dinners (you will do your business anyway in a talk in a corner after dinner when none of the guests can eavesdrop), but never invite all the press as a group, which makes it look like charity.
Most importantly, treat the newsman as an ally, never as an antagonist. Assuming the present line-up stays in office, you will find that you can negotiate, albeit with notable difficulty, on material issues, e.g. military strategy and economic planning, but that efforts to persuade the GVN to change its ways on domestic political questions almost always come a cropper. If nothing else, this is surely the lesson of the regime’s solemn commitment to Mr. Nolting to pursue a policy of conciliation with the Buddhists. Generally speaking, negotiations with hope of success should not be made public, but negotiations with no hope of success should be pursued, in part, through the pressures of stateside publicity.
Specifically, the latter means mainly the social and political reforms that are so badly needed here. If you level, I think most newsmen will go along with you in both cases. If you Don’t level, you not only fail to achieve the reforms, but it also looks as though you’re not trying.
Finally, a word on the mood of the moment among the 30 or 40 foreign newsmen in Saigon. Many of the visitors are here for the first time, or anyway for the first time in months or years, insensitive to the maddening complexities of the story, and determined to report whether Lodge looks good or bad. I think you can duck trouble with them simply by begging time to sort things out. Among the regulars, however, there is a mood that verges on hysteria. They are exhausted after three months of an extraordinarily difficult story, emotionally engaged in the most violent four-letter terms, full of extravagant hopes [Page 625]that Lodge can square things away, and scared. Three of them have been sleeping at my house for the past three nights for fear of raids on their homes.
This is a time to be cautious, to avoid any kind of opinion on controversial issues, e.g. who’s winning the war, but also a time to invite and share confidences and hopefully establish a new base of understanding between the newsmen and the official American community that is urgently needed.