The Associated Press bureau that operated out of Saigon starting in mid-1965 was a great one — a place of legends, a bureau created by arguably the most underrated editor of that era. Wes Gallagher was new at his job as general manager of the AP, and determined from the start to show that this story and this war, whether his constituent papers liked it or not, and whether the news was good or not, was a very important one. All three of the bureau members, Malcolm Browne, Peter Arnett, and Horst Faas, would go on to win the Pulitzer Prize, Browne in 1964, Faas in 1965 (the first of two), and Arnett in 1966.
They were very good, the men and in time the women of the AP bureau. Like the other reporters in Saigon in those days, they lived the life of the obsessed. No one had a personal life. No one ever took a day off. Vietnam was a great crucible for anyone who wanted to become a serious journalist, not just because it was dangerous and you had to calibrate the value of every operation you went on, but because of the immense political pressures involved. Washington had invested so much in the appearance of the war that you were always under scrutiny. Since the war did not work, not from the beginning, any story that was important, and that had any significant dimension of truth, was bound to draw the anger of both Saigon and Washington. That meant any reporter working in Vietnam knew it was important to have your facts beyond dispute every time you filed.
For the ten years he was in Vietnam no one drew more anger than Arnett. He seemed to be a lightning rod for the Johnson administration, in part because he was so good and in part because he was from New Zealand; the White House was filled with young men and women studying his stories, looking for mistakes. “Peter, you’re a great reporter,” Gallagher told him as they were leaving the luncheon where Arnett had been awarded the Pulitzer, “but don’t be wrong on a story — there are too many people out there just itching to get you.”
Arnett had seemed like something of a journalistic hitchhiker in the beginning, taking whatever job was available. He started out running a small English-language newspaper in Laos in 1960, and first got the AP’s attention during one of those inevitable Laotian coups that brought down all communications for a couple of weeks. With all the news agencies cut off from the news on the Thai side of the river, Arnett had swum the Mekong, carrying his and other reporters’ stories in a plastic bag so they wouldn’t get wet, and filed them from a post office on the other side. It was a swim, as much as anything else, to a better job, and in time the AP offered him one.
Arnett met Faas when both men were on assignment for the AP in Laos in 1962. Faas, who had worked previously for the AP in the Congo, thought Arnett had a certain cockiness he had seen before — quick and brave and boisterous. “There was a lot of Fleet Street in Peter when we first met, and I could see him getting an offer from one of the British papers and ending up there.” But as Faas said, Arnett kept getting better and better, wanting to know why things were happening and why the war was not being won; in addition, he had an almost pure instinct for combat reporting — like a man with his own personal radar that told him when and where to go. He had two kinds of courage, the courage to go into battle again and again, and the rarer kind of courage to report stories that the American mission and Washington hated because they went against the official optimism.