Viet Nam reporting: three years of crisis

“A trying and sometimes hazardous business”

While he may be best known for the photo he took of a Buddhist monk’s self-immolation, Associated Press correspondent Malcolm W. Browne’s Pulitzer-winning print work was one of America’s major windows to the Vietnam War. He told the story behind that picture in a Fall 1964 CJR article that surveyed the challenges and limitations of reporting on the conflict. His article explains the conditions he and other journalists worked under during the Diem regime: sneaking film and copy out of the country with the help of a diplomat, rumors of a list of reporters marked for assassination, and misinformation from both American and South Vietnamese officials. Most tellingly, he worries that body count coverage distracts from vital, but rarely run and hard to tell, stories about the mood and “social upheaval” of the Vietnamese. The below paragraph ran above the original piece.

Malcolm W. Browne, Associated Press correspondent in Saigon since 1961 and now senior member of the press corps there, presents here reflections on covering a period in which Southeast Asia became America’s most persistent overseas problem. This article was prepared for Frederick T. C. Yu of Columbia’s Graduate School of Journalism as part of a study of crisis reporting. Other segments will be carried in future issues. Last spring Mr. Browne shared with David Halberstam of The New York Times the 1964 Pulitzer Prize for international reporting.

I remember once having seen a newspaper picture of an elephant being towed on water skis under the Brooklyn Bridge. As I recall it, an advertisement for toothpaste was painted on the side of the beast, and it clearly showed in the photograph. It struck me at the time that it is really fairly easy to manipulate even the best intentioned news media, provided you have enough imagination and gall. After all, an elephant on water skis is news of a sort, advertisement or not, and most readers are amused looking at such a picture.

This kind of press manipulation is probably innocent enough in itself. Unfortunately for foreign correspondents, similar but infinitely more sinister manipulations are frequently directed at newsmen abroad.

On the whole, most of the correspondents I have met in various parts of the world are extremely suspicious professionals who are willingly taken in by such things only rarely.

But reporting in times of crisis can be a trying and sometimes hazardous business, particularly when elements in the story are actively hostile to the free press.

One of the major pitfalls any reporter faces is the possibility of becoming an element in one of his own stories—a cardinal breach of the rules of our game. Ideally, every reporter is a detached observer, setting down fact after fact with clear-sighted fairness to all.

A few newsmen allow themselves to become actively involved in their stories from the very start. Last year in Jakarta, a foreign news organization hired an Indonesian photographer to get pictures of an Indonesian mob attacking the British Embassy. The cameraman went to the riot as directed, but after a few moments he was so caught up in the patriotic fervor of smashing things that he dropped his camera and picked up a brick. The news organization fired him, of course.

In other instances, newsmen can actually become hors de combat covering crises. Last year, a French news agency correspondent covering a racial incident in the American South was shot to death.

On July 7, 1963, I had been taking pictures at a Buddhist street demonstration in Saigon when a brick smashed across my chest and shattered the top of my camera. Looking around, I saw my AP friend and colleague, Peter Arnett, on the ground. Blood was coursing down his face, five plain-clothes police agents were kicking him and grinding his camera to fragments.

The police squad broke on its attack as suddenly as it had begun, dashing off into the crowd of spectators like thieves. Uniformed police broke up the remains of the demonstration rapidly, and Arnett and I dragged ourselves back to the office.

The incident itself was an ugly one, and had drawn us involuntarily into the story we were trying to cover as detached observers. But worse was to come. A few hours later, uniformed police came to our office with a summons. Charges were being prepared to the effect that Arnett and I had assaulted and injured several police agents.

Our subsequent interrogation lasted about eight hours, and we were permitted no transcript of the testimony. The Saigon prosecutor’s office coldly informed the U.S. chargé d’affaires that eight depositions filed by newsmen who had seen the incident would not be accepted in evidence. All these depositions said, in effect, that neither Arnett nor I had lifted a finger against the plainclothesmen, whose attack appeared completely unwarranted.

Newsmen make news

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.

A few of us smelled a rat. The Viet Cong had never before let themselves get surprised into a jam like that, and it seemed an odd coincidence that the Americans were freed on May 1—a big Communist holiday. It turned out later that the Viet Cong had not only released the two men, but had sent a squad of escorts with them to make sure they got into no further trouble on the way back to the nearest government guard post.

For a long time, U.S. information policy tried to avoid publishing American battle casualties. On one occasion, U.S. military authorities reported to newsmen that an Army enlisted man had “slightly injured his arm” on “a training exercise with Vietnamese troops, when he accidentally tripped over a wire.”

But about one week later I learned that the man involved was a sergeant friend of mine, and I looked him up at a hospital. It turned out that he’d been on patrol with Vietnamese troops, all right, and he had tripped over a wire. He had tripped because the wire was connected to an electrically detonated Viet Cong land mine, which had blown away half his elbow.

Time and again correspondents were told by American authorities that U.S. information channels were kept plugged to avoid diplomatic friction with the Vietnamese government. “If they say one thing and we say another, where does that leave us?” a U.S. spokesman said. “We can’t offend our allies.”

These official attitudes and the evidence of our own senses led to a high degree of skepticism in the foreign press corps about all official statements.

But difficult as conditions were, they were destined to become much worse. On May 8, 1963, a crisis erupted—the Buddhist upheaval. It is quite possible that the Ngo Dinh Diem regime would have survived a lot longer than it did against the Buddhist insurrection but for the role of the foreign press. Involuntarily, foreign correspondents became potent political tools—a role the dictates of our profession strictly proscribe.

Some of the key leaders of the Buddhist revolt were educated in Japan or in the West (for example, the Venerable Thich Quang Lien, a 37-year-old monk with a degree from Yale) and had a keen insight into American public opinion.

They were aware that one of Diem’s major strengths was his ability to control the press strictly, keeping the less attractive aspects of his regime out of print. They also knew of the prevailing official American view, which tacitly approved of Diem’s system of press control. Key Americans felt, with considerable justification, that a well publicized Buddhist crisis could only divert energy from winning the war against the Viet Cong.

But the Buddhists were determined to override Diem’s press blackout—a blackout that had permitted him to crush nearly every anti-Communist political opposition group in the country without any particular press attention. Obviously, it was a time when only the most drastic measures could have any effect against a regime flanked with tanks, a modern army, and a huge secret police apparatus. The Buddhists desperately needed the eyes of the world in support of their cause, and sought an appropriate eye-catcher.

A human sacrifice

The eye-catcher turned out to be an affable, 73-year-old monk named the Venerable Thich Quang Duc, a Buddhist school teacher. On June 11, 1963, Quang Duc burned himself to death in the middle of a busy Saigon intersection, surrounded by 350 chanting, wailing, banner-waving monks and nuns. The police were too stunned to do much about it.

The Buddhist leaders were aware that a ghastly human sacrifice like Quang Duc’s would be pointless unless the Western press—the only free press in the country—carried the word to the outside world.

Chief monks had told all correspondents in Saigon several weeks earlier that two monks had volunteered for death if Buddhist demands were not met. One monk was to burn himself, and the other was to disembowel himself. The days dragged on, and there were many street demonstrations in which nothing significant happened. Press interest lagged. It happened that I was the only Western newsman present during the street procession in which Quang Duc died.

I have been asked why I didn’t try to do something to stop that suicide once I realized what was happening. Actually, I probably could have done nothing in any case, since the monks and nuns had clearly rehearsed their roles for the ceremony many times, and had prepared methods for blocking interference. Police fire trucks were halted by monks who threw themselves under the wheels.

But frankly it never occurred to me to interfere. I have always felt that a newsman’s duty is to observe and report the news, not try to change it. This attitude may be subject to criticism, but that is how I reacted on July 11, and how I would react again.

As a matter of duty, I photographed the whole horrible sequence of Quang Duc’s suicide, and relayed the pictures and story as fast as possible into The Associated Press network. It is difficult to conceive of any newsman acting otherwise.

But reaction came swiftly as, I am sure, the Buddhists had anticipated. At a single blow, they had won their battle to focus world attention on their campaign. It is significant within the scope of this article that had a Western newsman with a camera not been present at Quang Duc’s suicide, history might have taken a different tum.

Millions of words had been written about the Buddhist crisis, but the pictures carried an incomparable impact. I have been told that when Henry Cabot Lodge was called in to see President Kennedy about taking over the ambassadorship to Viet Nam, the President had on his desk a copy of my photograph of Quang Duc.

Buddhist leaders made huge enlargements of the photograph, most of them colored in by artists, which they carried at the heads of processions. Men and women, tears streaming from their eyes, bowed in reverent prayer before the photograph. Letters reached me that back-alley vendors of “feelthy pictures” in towns as distant as Lisbon and Dar-es-Salaam were hawking copies of the photograph.

Communist China printed up huge volumes of the photograph for distribution throughout Southeast Asia. Captions described the suicide as the work of “the U.S. imperialist aggressors and their Diemist lackeys.” A wave of suicides in Quang Duc style was reported from Burma, Ceylon, India, France, Japan, Korea, and elsewhere.

In the United States, a group of prominent clergymen used the photograph in full-page advertisements in The New York Times and The Washington Post, over the caption: “We, too, protest.”

In short, that picture meant many things to many people, but none of those things did the Diem regime much good.

Diem and his family felt strongly about the matter. Madame Ngo Dinh Nhu, his sister-in-law, again denounced the Western press, and government rumors began to spread about the credibility of foreign correspondents. Diem himself asked former U.S. Ambassador Frederick E. Nolting Jr., if it were true that I had bribed the Buddhist monks to murder one of their number by fire for the purpose of getting a good picture.

Heavy-handed though Diem often had been with foreign newsmen, I was stunned by this particular tactic. The president was surely well informed about all my activities, since his men had kept me under the strictest surveillance for many weeks past, and, in any case, I had never attempted to hide anything.

At any rate, strictures on the Western press grew increasingly severe. Getting any news or photographs out of Viet Nam became a major smuggling operation. On one occasion, I found myself completely without resources and appealed to an American ambassador (to another country) who happened to be passing through Saigon to carry out some film and copy for me. He willingly agreed, having seen what these items were.

I will not mention his name, but if he should happen to read this, once again, I thank him with all my heart. There were all too few people willing to help newsmen in those days.

These are some of the pitfalls of reporting in crisis—physical censorship at the source, or of actual news output, harassment by authorities, and the dangers of involvement in stories, even when such involvement is wholly involuntary.

In large measure, I am convinced they can be overcome by attention to detail, hard work, and most of all, fairness at all cost. On the whole, I believe the reporting from South Viet Nam was essentially fair and complete during 1963.

But there are other difficulties besides those described above.

The flow of news from the event to the reader, listener, or viewer is essentially a two-way street. It depends not only on the news itself but on the demands of the news consumer.

The news consumer in America is a busy man or woman. He or she is leading a life of his or her own, in which news may be consumed as entertainment, as information, or a combination of the two. There is little time for detailed study of issues and complicated situations like those that pertained, for example, in South Viet Nam in 1963.

Readers and editors therefore demand their news in the simplest capsules available, sometimes limiting their consumption to mere headlines.

Having once been a newspaper desk man, I have a keen appreciation for the exacting and difficult work of the headline writer. He must pack as much information as possible into a very small space. Numbers are ideally suited to headline writing.

The number of home runs, the number of weekend traffic fatalities, and the number of delegates pledged to a given political candidate all are apt subjects for headlines. So are battle casualties in Viet Nam, or the number of Buddhists, or the number of square miles controlled by the Communists.

But, unfortunately, Viet Nam does not lend itself well to numerical reporting, or even to the kind of simple, narrative statement required of the average newspaper lead. There are too many uncertainties, too many shades of gray, too many dangers of applying English-language clichés to a situation that cannot be described by

Alien social patterns

Obviously, there are human elements in Viet Nam that can be described adequately in simple terms, because they are universal. But there are other things so alien to American social patterns and thinking that they cannot be reported simply.

War reporting in itself, for example, is technically fairly simple. Reporting a single clash with X number of casualties is not unlike reporting a sports event. By an adroit use of verbs, the writer can create an impact that comes close to reproducing reality.

But in Viet Nam, the actual clashes are probably less important than the subtle thinking of people and, the social upheaval of the nation. These are difficult to capture in words, and for a reader to digest.

There is nothing very dramatic, for instance, about a water shortage and the red tape in which a well-drilling project was bogged down. Yet this situation probably has a more far-reaching effect on both the military and political status of the area than all the battles fought there to date.

This kind of thing is called “feature material,” or “the news behind the news,” generally published deep inside newspapers, if at all. This is reasonable, since editors know their readers are much less concerned with water shortages than with more spectacular developments.

In short, I believe one of the deficiencies of reporting is in the news consumer himself. He gets exactly as much substantial information as he asks for—neither more, nor less.

Still, the main responsibility for news falls on the correspondent, and part of that responsibility is in keeping his readers interested enough to read on.

Foreign correspondents must work harder than other kinds of newsmen, because they have so much more to cover. Even with the largest staff of assistants of any news organization in Viet Nam, I still have found a seven-day-a-week schedule necessary. This is a country where communications are primitive, and in which different conditions apply in every one of the forty-three provinces.

Many newsmen here have no assistance at all, even though South Viet Nam has dominated headline play for years. Most correspondents wish all news organizations would expand their foreign staffs. But for practical, financial reasons, this usually is impossible. Correspondents are expensive.

Another problem is that newsmen sometimes lack the necessary background in covering foreign assignments, particularly when the newsmen are only given a few days or weeks in a particular country. Resident correspondents have the advantage of on-the-job training and eventually become qualified to do the basic investigation and research themselves. Visitors must rely on translators, official spokesmen, and dozens of other second-hand sources who may or may not be trying to sell them a bill of goods.

I think it is significant that the late President Diem, who so deeply disliked and distrusted the Western press, frequently received visiting newsmen and women, but never granted interviews to resident correspondents. He knew that they knew too much.

The problems that have beset correspondents reporting the crises of Viet Nam are not new, and they will continue in various forms here and throughout the world. Reporting will, at times, be inaccurate, deficient, or misleading. But despite his or her shortcomings, the foreign correspondent, in my mind, is one of the most fundamentally honest and dedicated human beings in the world. He loves the challenge of a really tough story more than any other opportunity, and has given up a lot of comforts to grasp this challenge.

As long as there are men and women who fit this pattern, reporting from abroad will always drag the basic truth from the snares of crisis.

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Malcolm W. Browne was a reporter and photographer for The Associated Press. He shared a Pulitzer Prize in 1964 for his coverage of Vietnam. Tags: