This article from CJR's archives is presented as part of our 50th anniversary celebration.
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.