65. Memorandum From the Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs’ Special Assistant (Jorden) to the Assistant Secretary of State for Far Eastern Affairs (Harriman)1


  • Press Reporting from Viet Nam


There is, I think, a serious misunderstanding of what has come to be called the “press problem in Viet Nam.” The impression has gained currency in official circles that “the real story” is not being told. The press has been described as negative, biased, naive, or worse. Some officials believe that American reporters in Viet Nam concentrate on criticism and pay slight attention to some of the promising and encouraging developments.

Periodically, a story appears from or about Viet Nam which causes official embarrassment. Often our reaction is to try to discover the source and plug the “leak,” to order our people not to talk about the subject concerned, and to think in terms of how we can “balance” the account.

Blame is variously ascribed—to the GVN’s lack of capability and skill in handling information problems, to the GVN’s official policy of regarding anything critical of itself as treasonable or pro-Communist, to the immaturity or irresponsibility of the American press, to the alleged proclivity of the press toward the sensational, the negative, and the critical.

Some Observations

  • 1. The Viet Nam story is one of great complexity and with infinite shadings and nuances. There is considerably more gray than there is black or white. In any situation as complicated as this, we have to expect reporting—whether official or in the press—that is good and bad, fair and unfair, balanced or one-sided, accurate or in error. We are getting far more of the former of each of these pairs than of the latter.
  • 2. To ignore the many negative features of the situation in Viet Nam is to dangerously delude ourselves. There is a vast multitude of problems and only by recognizing them can we hope to do something about them. A reporter who exposes such a problem may well be opening the door to its solution.
  • 3.

    The quality of reporting by American newsmen from Viet Nam is, in my opinion, exceedingly good. They are young, it is true. And they are still learning their trade. But they are doing so with energy and seriousness of purpose. They spend a considerable amount of time in the provinces and the villages and with the military forces in the field. They have both better information and a better feel for the situation than many military officers and officials in Saigon.

    They do not rush into print with everything they hear or know. Each one of them has on occasion not written stories he could have because he felt it would jeopardize military security or some larger interest.

    They have made mistakes. None of them probably would write each of his stories precisely as he did if he were doing it over. But the same is true of any good reporter. No one in whatever profession can be very active without an occasional mistake. In general, I think that errors of fact or judgement have been no greater in reporting from Viet Nam than on any major story of this kind.

    The relative youth of the reporters in Saigon is sometimes given as an explanation for alleged deficiencies in their reporting. Yet some of the most “critical” and “negative” reporting from Viet Nam in the past year or so has come from such reporters as Homer Bigart, Keyes Beech, Robert Martin, and Bob Trumbull—each of them mature, seasoned, and experienced reporters.

  • 3. [sic] We can understand the problems of the reporters in Saigon only by realizing some of the difficulties under which they operate. I refer here to the negative attitude of the Diem Government toward the foreign press. With their own press under total control, they find it difficult to understand why the U.S. press is permitted to travel freely and write freely. The highest officials in Saigon regard the foreign reporters as a kind of fifth column in their midst. The police keep careful check on where the reporters go and with whom they talk. The threat of expulsion hangs over them constantly.
  • 4. The editorials of many American newspapers have been far more intemperate and one-sided than any of the reporting from Saigon. A phrase or a sentence in a story from Viet Nam—probably accurate in the context in which it was used—is sometimes pulled out and used as the basis for the most sweeping generalizations about the country, its government or the military situation. There is a tendency [Page 171] to confuse reporting from and about Viet Nam with editorials and other comment and to bracket them all under the term “press coverage.”
  • 5.

    It is charged that the reporters have stressed excessively the role of American forces and personnel in Viet Nam and downgraded the Vietnamese effort. We must recognize a fact of life: any time we have 12,000 Americans in a country, particularly if they are under combat or otherwise hazardous conditions, there is going to be more interest here in how they are faring and what they are doing than in almost any other development. Also, a story from Viet Nam that mentions one or some Americans is much more likely to appear on the front pages here than a story that includes no such mention.

    Many stories are written from Viet Nam that do not mention Americans directly or indirectly. It is not the reporters’ fault that they often end up as four or five paragraphs on Page 15.

  • 6. It also is unfortunately true that “bad news” is likely to get more space and prominent display than stories of progress and hope. A defeat is likely to win more attention than a victory. The determination of space and display is made in the home office, not by the reporter on the spot.
  • 7. We cannot hope to get 12,000 Americans scattered widely over the Vietnamese countryside to stop talking to reporters. It is sometimes possible, particularly in the Saigon area, to limit discussion of a single matter for a limited time period. Control is also possible on matters to which a very limited number of people have access. But efforts to get all Americans to avoid discussing this or that subject are likely to prove ineffective.

On the whole, we are likely to have more success in keeping sensitive matters out of print if we give reporters the details on an “off the record” basis accompanied by an explanation of why publication would adversely affect our interests. This is not foolproof, of course, but it is likely to be more effective than efforts at mass muzzling. This approach should not be used to conceal bad news but to protect information in which very real security interests may be involved.

Some Recommendations

We should encourage the GVN by every available means to improve its information policy and techniques and to avoid excited and vocal reactions to every story it considers critical of itself. This is not an easy task. The present and former Public Affairs Officers in Saigon have worked hard and with some success on this matter. The effort should be continued. As much as possible we should encourage the GVN to do the kind of job it did this week on the “germ warfare” charges.
The desirability of getting the best possible Public Information personnel into MAC/V cannot be exaggerated. It is essential that the PIO’s, particularly the chief PIO, be competent, imaginative and forceful and that they have the confidence of both their superiors and of the press.
There should be the closest possible working relationship between the PIO and the press attache in USIS. They should share information and ideas and consult daily. Sensitive matters or policy questions should be referred to the Public Affairs Officer and, as he deems necessary, by the PAO to the Ambassador. All concerned should try to promote as fast and as free a flow of information as possible.
The Embassy should give its full support to the PAO, the press attache and the cause of freer and fuller information. I suggested in Saigon that the Embassy consider setting up a weekly meeting between the resident American correspondents and a responsible Embassy officer. These sessions should be a two-way street-an opportunity for the Embassy to provide background and perspective but also to get information and to discover and respond positively to the correspondents’ problems or complaints. An occasional session with the Ambassador serves the good cause of promoting better mutual understanding, but the reporters understand he is a busy man.

In Saigon and in Washington, news stories from Viet Nam should be read more as a source of information than of possible embarrassment. Time and energy devoted to correcting weaknesses or mistakes would be better spent than that devoted to stopping leaks or criticizing the reporters.

There will be times when we will want to comment on a news story with a statement aimed at providing balance and perspective. But we should avoid rushing into print with public disclaimers or denials. These have at times been just as wrong or misleading as the reports they sought to balance.

It would be useful if high officials here would take appropriate opportunities to clarify U.S. policy in Viet Nam and to put the total situation in focus. It would be helpful to give Viet Nam particular attention in the useful series of regional background sessions which the Public Affairs Bureau has developed. Any presentation of the situation should, of course, include a realistic balance of positive and negative aspects.

Here and in Saigon, we should view with considerably more equanimity, the occasional appearance of stories that appear to be “negative” or “embarrassing.” This situation can never be eliminated. We can and should do those things within our power. especially in [Page 173] Saigon, to introduce balance and perspective. But this can only be done on a basis of mutual trust and confidence between reporters and officials.

We can hope to deal with a problem as difficult as that of Viet Nam only with the fullest possible information. In my opinion, the American reporters in Viet Nam are making a valuable contribution in providing us and the American people with many of the facts we need.


To anyone interested in the press situation in Viet Nam, I would commend highly the very thoughtful report2 prepared for Ambassador Nolting last November by Mr. John Mecklin, the PAO in Saigon.

Finally, I would say that the U.S. Government is fortunate in having in Saigon men with the intelligence, drive and understanding of press problems of Mr. Mecklin and the new press attache, Mr. Paul Garvey. Hopefully the new PIO in the military command will have similar qualities. If their advice is sought and followed, we should be well on the way toward handling a problem that can never really be solved.

  1. Source: Department of State, Vietnam Working Group Files: Lot 67 D 54, PR-II Press Relations (Moss Comm). Confidential; Eyes Only. Harriman indicated on the source text that he was sending copies of this memorandum to Hilsman, Rice, and Wood, and intended to brief Rusk on it verbally. He wrote: “I accept these comments & recommend they be adopted as guides.” In circulating the memorandum for this purpose, however, Harriman indicated that numbered paragraph 8 of the Recommendations section should be omitted.
  2. Dated November 27, 1962; for text, see Foreign Relations, 1961–1963, vol. II, Document 322.