30. Telegram From the Embassy in Vietnam to the Department of State1

726. CINCPAC for POLAD. Task Force message. Deptels 729,2 731.3 Quality of reporting by US newsmen here is probably as good as average reporting of stateside story like earthquake or Hollywood divorce. Difference between Vietnam and that kind of story is not only that accurate information more difficult to come by (and accuracy far more important), but also that balanced judgment on extraordinarily complex and mixed situation in this country is inherently difficult to reach. Latter is in fact perhaps too much to hope for from young reporters with limited facilities for coverage and research.

We do not think, either, that newsmen here now are deliberately trying to undermine US effort (though their work can certainly have that result).

There was no malice for example in early Agency report that Captain Good was killed at Ap Bac while trying futilely to get Vietnamese to fight. Newsmen got this version from American advisors who believed it true themselves at time and were understandably [Page 99] bitter. Impact on US public opinion apparently was incendiary, with damage irrevocably done when correct version was available next day. Withholding an angle like this to major highly competitive story to take time for difficult double-checking requires very high degree reportorial restraint and judgment-which it not realistic to expect from average Agency reporter-rests in fact that major US news organizations like UPI,AP and NY Times use men (average age 27) with approximately same experience to cover Vietnam as they do routine stateside police beat. These three, furthermore, are only US organizations that consider story important enough to station full-time staff correspondent in Saigon. Other outfits use part-time stringers and sporadic visits by staffers stationed elsewhere, usually Hong Kong or Tokyo.

Explanation contains implicit comment on state of American press as institution and perhaps goes even deeper. Older, more experienced correspondents are not stationed here because editors apparently cannot persuade such men to live in Saigon, and in fact often have difficulty finding anyone at all who will agree to come, for essentially same reasons that US agencies in Saigon have chronic recruiting problems. Legendary American dream of frontier, seeing world, adventures in far off lands seems no longer to have pull it once did among newspapermen.

Perhaps equally significant, there are only three staff correspondents stationed Saigon because this has never been consistently what editors (and/or readers) rate as big story. Despite dramatic increase in American involvement, visiting editors and reporters repeatedly advise us that stateside public simply hasn’t been stirred by Vietnam, perhaps because remoteness, perhaps obscured by more pressing understandable crises like Cuba, perhaps, as they claim, by routine optimistic statements from American visitors here. This has meant that so called “positive” stories got relatively little play, if they make papers at all, while bad news often hits page one. Same time correspondents deliberately searched for “angles” to dress up story and one of best of these inevitably was peculiarities of Ngo Dinh family.

On top of all this, reporting from Saigon has been immeasurably complicated—as Mission has reported frequently in past—by built-in incompatibility in personalities of GVN and American newsmen. Like most new, inexperienced regimes in less-developed countries, GVN has poor press facilities, often tries to conceal shortcomings by deceit, tends to confuse US press with US Government, and pridefully resents hostile criticism. Same time, GVN also has rather recklessly adopted policy of harassment of foreign press and reprisals against specific newsmen whom it considered insulting and/or unacceptably hostile to GVN cause.

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This is not unparalleled in other new countries. Older, more experienced correspondents who come here usually accept harassments with all other characteristics of this war and are able to take the larger view of what’s at stake here and logic of US policy under circumstances. Younger men, experiencing situation like this for first time and often finding news sources among equally young American advisors-tend to be shocked, angry, indignant because they think US is being “suckered”, though most of them also accept basic US policy intellectually when considered in calmer moments.

Such young reporters, and young advisors, have yet to learn that the mark of a great nation is tolerance and understanding of such tortured people as Vietnamese and their petty, often rather pathetic, maneuvers to save face. And they forget that the face of the government has vital bearing on support of its people in conduct of war.4

This is further complicated by reality that these particular American newsmen and this particular regime dislike each other to degree that verges on neurotic. Besides their public dispatches, newsmen have reported at length by mail and private cable to editors back home on indignities of working Vietnam. Chances are when Ap Bac story broke,GVN had hardly friend in any editorial room in United States. What happened looks from here like savagely emotional delayed reaction to ousters of Sully and Robinson, Mme. Nhu’s charge that whole American press is “communist” and every other harassment over past six months.5 Ap Bac was reported as major GVN failure at cost of American lives, and it appears from here that American editorial writers, commentators, columnists licked chops with delight and reached for simplest adjectives they could muster.

About reftel comment war going better than reported to US public, this is collective judgment of US Country Team, and of most senior American and foreign officials here. But this judgment is still not unanimous among informed observers in Saigon. There is still debate about outcome this struggle, newsmen report this, always at risk of over-emphasizing minority viewpoint. Mission has been reporting for some time that GVN performance, decisively proving its capacity to win, will be ultimate and in fact only solution to foreign press problem. To date performance is not yet that convincing, at least to man who must give his major effort to reporting front-page material.

On what to do, Mission sees no panacea. GVN daily press briefings continue, but Americans seldom bother to attend because news is so old. Freshest information available is passed privately to GVN by MACV/PIO but is sometimes cut by GVN despite US advice. US [Page 101] Mission continues operate on principle it can release news only on military events involving American personnel-or risk GVN irritation and possibly even cutoff of reports to MACV. There are no formal MACV briefings for same reason,6 but in practice, MACV is able provide news on almost all events except some VC-initiated actions like attacks on strategic hamlets, and Mission has found that adequate news even of these can usually be passed discreetly to newsmen. Senior members of Mission, including Nolting and Harkins, are regularly available to US and other journalists, and spend much time on this.

Plentiful US air transportation is available to correspondents to go anywhere they want in country pretty much at will.7 Newsmen are generally satisfied with facilities available. Their main complaints are GVN news blackouts on specific military actions or deceit and absence of reliable GVN news sources.

Mission has been trying to pass word discreetly to GVN that Ap Bac press eruption was result its ill-considered policy toward newsmen. This apparently has had some success. Except for relatively mild attacks in Saigon press, there have been no new harassments in wake of Ap Bac, and Nhu assures us none is planned. It’s even conceivable eruption will have healthy long-term effect.

Reftel’s invitation for Mission’s ideas on ways to alleviate situation at Washington end is much appreciated. Again we can see little that will really change situation other than long held GVN performance. [sic] As one-shot move, however, it might be useful to consider sending planeload of relatively senior newsmen to Vietnam for tour of country which Mission would be happy to arrange. Generally our feeling is that Ap Bac explosion was as much fault of US editors and pundits as that of reporting from Saigon. If not already being done, perhaps Department would consider series of off-record briefings for [Page 102] top editors to clarify true considerations in US policy here vis-a-vis undeniable problems of application. Conceivably, this could lead to sending of more seasoned correspondents for full-time duty Vietnam.

Mission is attempting to generate more news about GVN social and economic progress. USIS-Saigon plans soon to assign officer full-time to USOM to act in effect as press attache to encourage such stories in foreign press (where possible with minimum emphasis on American role), and to generate news on such subjects for dissemination through USIS facilities.

While this should help shift press attention toward real progress being made socially and economically, it must be recognized that this sort of thing is secondary news compared to death of single American serviceman from enemy action. Unhappily it must also be noted that if correspondent is set on spotting GVN shortcomings, he can find them just as easily in civil activities as military operations. To repeat, there are occasional one-shot opportunities to counter unfavorable reporting (e.g., making available captured VC document showing internal difficulties), but in general there can be no lasting solution until it is clear to even relatively casual observer that GVN is winning.

  1. Source: Department of State, Central Files, PPV 7 S VIET-US. Confidential. Repeated to CINCPAC. This document and all subsequent documents cited in the PPV file should be cited as PPB. A copy of this telegram was placed in the President’s weekend reading file, February 9-10. (Kennedy Library, National Security Files, Vietnam Country Series, 2/63-3/63)
  2. Document 17.
  3. In telegram 731 to Saigon, January 24, the Department of State and USIA inquired if U.S. officials in Vietnam were giving daily military press briefings. (Department of State, Central Files, 951K.6211/1-2163)
  4. A marginal notation in Wood’s hand at this point reads: “Not alone in forgetting this.”
  5. See Foreign Relations, 1961–1963, vol. II, Documents 133, 310, and 322.
  6. On February 10, Admiral Felt, after consultations on the press problem in Washington, cabled General Harkins that the Departments of Defense and State and the White House Press Secretary had agreed that Harkins should conduct briefings for the American press on the military situation in Vietnam. Felt added: “It is recognized that the GVN might not be happy about this at first, but we believe they will get used to it. The important thing is that we must improve press relations despite possible GVN sensitivities.” (CINCPAC telegram 01014Z to COMUSMACV, February 10; Washington National Records Center, RG 84, Saigon Embassy Files: FRC 67 A 677, 350 GVN)
  7. In telegram 749 from Saigon, February 13, the Embassy reported that recent press accounts emphasizing U.S. combat air activities in Vietnam grew out of the practice of allowing journalists to accompany interdiction missions. Ambassador Nolting indicated that he and General Harkins would continue to respond to questions from the press relating to the Farmgate operation by referring to its operational training role, but he added: “With GVN and US joint air effort now reaching over 1,000 sorties per month, and with U.S. casualties from Farmgate operations coming into print, there is more and more chance that reporters will feature Farmgate role.” (Department of State, Central Files, DEF 19 US-S VIET)