At this stage, we ourselves had become a story. And it fell to Arnett and me to write our own story, including complete details of the police charges, even though we knew them to be nonsense.
Ultimately, President Kennedy intervened in our behalf and the Vietnamese government charges were dropped, but the whole thing was touchy and unpleasant.
The point was that the Ngo Dinh Diem government considered foreign correspondents enemies. This situation is true in major parts of Southeast Asia. Indonesia’s powerful foreign minister, Subandrio, has publicly declared the Western press an enemy to his nation; Cambodia’s Prince Norodom Sihanouk has expelled all Western newsmen; Burma’s Premier refuses to grant press visas.
To be defined as an enemy is to become involved, if only to the extent of struggling for survival.
The common attitude of most Southeast Asian leaders is that the press is an element of psychological warfare and must, therefore, be rigidly controlled. Adverse reporting about a regime tends to give aid and comfort to the enemy and must therefore be eliminated.
The enemy is broadly defined as anyone or anything that tends to weaken the power of the regime. It may be a dangerous military enemy like the Viet Cong in Viet Nam, or it may be a single politician with only a handful of followers. Truly objective reporting and such official attitudes, I believe, are basically incompatible, and clashes are inevitable.
Even the reporter who has never taken sides in any of the local issues before is forced to side with himself in defense of his profession against official news repression.
Inducements and threats both are used to move the newsman in such circumstances. A newly arrived correspondent in Viet Nam used to find himself the guest at constant glittering dinner parties given by high state officials. Government guides were always at his service, and the red tape of existence was cut to the bare minimum.
Several months after I arrived here, the powerful and peppery-tongued Madame Ngo Dinh Nhu sent me a warm letter of thanks for an article I had written. The article had been a question-and-answer piece, quoting her extensively verbatim.
But correspondents who suggested in their articles that the war against the Viet Cong was not going as well as described in official communiques quickly felt the lash. At first we discovered that Vietnamese military sources who once had been highly cooperative now were under strict orders not to talk to us at all. In some cases, old news sources went on talking, and most of them were found out by the government. Many were relieved of commands or even jailed.
Normally, there was no official censorship, although copies of all dispatches in Viet Nam are reproduced and circulated among top officials. The only legal communication with the outer world is through the government owned and operated telecommunications center. It was, therefore, an easy matter for communications officials merely to hold up dispatches they regarded as offensive for 24 hours or more. As the Diem regime encountered increasing difficulties, news dispatches from Saigon were subject to longer and longer delays.
Police methods became increasingly harsh. Correspondents were tailed constantly, and the telephones of all newsmen were monitored 24 hours a day. Sometimes callers received sinister threats from the government. Visitors to news offices frequently were picked up and spirited off by plainclothesmen a few yards from the doors.
Madame Nhu’s orders
Correspondents were regularly expelled from Viet Nam, on the direct orders of Madame Nhu.
During the 1963 Buddhist crisis, Madame Nhu’s younger brother, Tran Van Khiem, let it be known that a list of foreign correspondents slated for assassination had been prepared by the government. No attempts ever were made on any of us, and the presumption was that this rumor had been put forth to rattle us. Unfortunately, many local American officials shared the Saigon government’s view that all press reporting from this country should be positive. Frequently, sins of dishonesty by the Vietnamese were compounded by U.S. officials.
As a trivial case in point, the Viet Cong released two U.S. Army prisoners on May 1, 1962, after holding them in the jungle for several weeks. The idea that the Communists would voluntarily release prisoners ran counter to the Saigon propaganda line, and its information directors let it be known that a detachment of Vietnamese troops had overwhelmed a Viet Cong camp and liberated the Americans.
This statement, with details about the valor of the government unit’s commander, was passed along to correspondents by the U.S. military information office. Some news stories spoke of the government troops “slashing their way into a Viet Cong camp,” and made the whole thing sound like a cowboy movie, in which the good guys wipe out the bad guys.