The Tet Offensive and the Media
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David Halberstam: keynote address on Vietnam and the presidency (excerpt)

On March 10–11, 2006, the presidential libraries and the National Archives and Records Administration sponsored "Vietnam and the Presidency," a two-day conference held at the John F. Kennedy Library in Boston. Several well-known journalists and politicians who played important roles in the Vietnam War participated in the conference, including former New York Times foreign correspondent David Halberstam and former secretary of state Henry Kissinger. Halberstam won a Pulitzer Prize in 1964 for his coverage of Vietnam for The New York Times. In 1972, Halberstam published The Best and the Brightest, his highly acclaimed book on how the United States became embroiled in Vietnam. On the first day of the 2006 conference, Halberstam delivered the keynote address.


DAVID HALBERSTAM: I thought we would start with the tape. This is a true tape from the presidential library, October 2, 1963. President Kennedy meets with Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara and National Security Assistant McGeorge Bundy to discuss the war in Vietnam.

JFK: "What about the press out there?" McNamara: "Terribly difficult. There are two or three good ones, but Halberstam and Sheehan are the ones that are"—JFK: "Causing a lot of trouble." McNamara: "Just causing a lot of trouble. They are allowing an idealistic philosophy to color all their writing." JFK: "How old is Halberstam?" McNamara: "About 29." Bundy: "Class of '55." JFK: "At Harvard?" McNamara: "Mac was his teacher at Harvard." (By the way, that is not true.) Bundy: "I want you to know he was a reporter even when he was in college. And I dealt with him at the Harvard Crimson for two years. So I know exactly what you are up against." Lot of laughter. "He's a very gifted boy who gets all steamed up. No doubt about it. That was ten years ago that I taught him." JFK: "Is he one of those liberal, Harvard Crimson types?" Bundy: "Yes, sir."

Well, it's in the past now, isn't it? The President, President Kennedy who I greatly admire, telling Punch Sulzberger in October '63 that perhaps the publisher could find a place for me in Paris or London. And then a few years later, Lyndon Johnson telling Bob Sherrod, the great World War II reporter, I think mostly for The Saturday Evening Post that my colleague Neil and I, Neil Sheehan and I were traitors to the country. That's past.

Who'd have thought it? More than 40 years later, and we are still talking and arguing about Vietnam, the subject that never goes away, in part because those who should know the most have managed, in their memoirs more often than not, to tell the least.


Some of what I say will seem to be critical of the decisions of the men who were in office in that era. So I would like to say at the beginning that I admired John Kennedy as both a president and as a gifted working politician. That he was so modern and contemporary a figure, so good at making reeds on the fly, that he could see the change from politics governed by machines to the coming of television and balance those forces so well. He was so skillful. A cool, rational, fatalistic figure-

I also believe though that there is no empirical proof of it—and, in fact, the people who do try to prove it are always too selective in their dealings, in dealing with the record that he would not have sent American combat units to Vietnam in 1965. And I believe that was because he was too cool and too modern and too good a politician to waste his precious second term in the rice paddies of Vietnam.

And I believe also he would have had a better sense of the forces that were underneath the surface had we tried to challenge them. And I believe he would have probably tried to keep it on the back burner in 1964, run against Barry Goldwater, would have won big, and then would have tried to find some way out in 1965. But we do not know. There is no empirical proof. And there are people as gifted as I who studied the record longer than I have, like Les Gelb, former head of the Council of Foreign Relations, who would not take that view.

In fact, I suspect that what I believe is at the core of my own personal problem with President Kennedy or perhaps more accurately stated, his problem with me as a young reporter—that I was constantly taking a story of failure, of something that did not work, and moving it from the back burner to the front burner. And he wanted to keep it on the back burner.

And because I had the unique power of The New York Times at that moment and I was showing something that was on its way to becoming, if things did not turn around, a first-class foreign policy failure. No wonder that he was so furious at that small group of reporters.

A few things that probably go beyond the normal biographic note, which I think will serve us well in what I'm staying. I went to Vietnam 44 years ago. I was, as Deborah said, 28. I was, unlike what my critics said about me, an experienced reporter when I went. I had edited a very good college daily newspaper. I'd worked two summers with a metropolitan daily in Hartford.

I had spent five years in the South covering the civil rights movement, mostly in the days before it was a movement. And I would suggest, by the way, the civil rights coverage would be excellent preparation to cover a war like Vietnam in the sense that you were covering our colonial era here at home. And I went on to the Congo and covered the chaos there as the colonial era ended there. I joined The New York Times in November, the day after John Kennedy's election. And six months later I was in the Congo covering events there. I did well there, over more than a year. Found that I could deal with the sheer danger and terror involved in being a war correspondent and was runner up for the Pulitzer Prize that year to Walter Lippman. To Walter Lippman who never left his own house. Which just infuriated me. I had gone all those thousands of miles away to Katanga. Walter Lippman never left his house and he won.

I got on in the Congo. And, perhaps more importantly, very well with the ambassador, Ed Gullion who was one of John Kennedy's favorites. As a young State Department officer back in what was then called Indochina, it was Ed Gullion who had helped turn the young Congressman around. And turned him from a blind acceptance of the French position to a critical assessment which later enraged the French.

Gullion and I dealt very easily with each other because I did not have professional roots in New York or Washington, but had them in Nashville. I would not have covered America by only being in New York or Washington. So when I got to the Congo, I determined that I would move around the country, which I could do very easily. Gullion understood this. And when I went to see him, we swapped information. To get information, you give information, particularly when you are overseas. And we had a very, very easy, personal relationship. In fact, when I tried to do the same thing with Fritz Nolting, the ambassador to Vietnam in 1962—I had been out in the delta and I went by to see him. I was going to tell him rather casually of my pessimistic view of what was happening. I was physically and abruptly ushered out of his office by the Ambassador himself.

I volunteered for the Vietnam assignment. Started pushing for it in early 1962 and got it that summer. In part, I suspect, because I was The Times' only volunteer. I arrived in July 1962.

I mention all of the above because there was later a deliberate and quite systematic attempt from the White House, Pentagon, and State Department, to diminish and destroy my reputation and that of a number of my colleagues as we became more pessimistic than the official line. And to portray us as young, na·ve, and inexperienced and, in fact, as left wing wimps.

In fact, I was I think an experienced reporter when I arrived with the kind of experience, because of the nature of the assignment that suited me particularly well for a war that was being fought in the embers of another colonial war. I have two small places in history in the Vietnam War. The first is that I was the first "special" assigned there. For those of you who don't know what a special is, you are a full-time reporter. And it says when your byline comes in, "Special to The New York Times." I succeeded a great reporter named Homer Bigart who had been there on TDY. So that is one thing. The second thing, when I got there I went out to a tailor on Thu Du'c and I had a bunch of strips made that said, "Halberstam, New York Times." And I put them on all my fatigues because I didn't want anyone talking to me and not knowing that he or she was talking to a reporter from my paper.

The man I replaced, Homer Bigart, great, great reporter, legendary reporter, winner of the Pulitzer Prize in World War II, winner of the Pulitzer Prize in Korea. And I was honored to replace him. Perhaps the defining story of the early Vietnam War is of Homer with his young, then young pal, Neil Sheehan, only 25 years old, going down to the 7th division area in My Tho when the first American helicopters had come in as part of the Kennedy build-up.

The old, flying CH21s looked like giant flying locusts, held together, as the wife of one of my colleagues said, "with nothing but Elmer's glue." And they went down. There were going to be three days of great victories. The senior division advisor, about to leave the country, was Colonel Frank Clay, the son of the famous Lucius Clay.

And on the first day there was a little bit of a victory. And on the second day there was a sort of typical, pillow-punching operation where the ARVN very deliberately figured out how not to have contact with the VC. Followed by a third day with even less contact. And on the way back Neil Sheehan was gnashing his teeth and grumbling. And Homer said—I will not repeat Homer's stutter. Homer said, "Mr. Sheehan. Mr. Sheehan, what is the problem?" And Neil grumbled and said something about, "No story." And Homer said, "But there is a story, Mr. Sheehan. It doesn't work. That's your story." And that is the defining one. If you get there, what do you do? First off, I was disproportionately influential in the beginning for a couple of reasons. And it made me more important as a journalist. The first reason was that The Times itself, at that moment in 1962, was more important than it should have been. The television age had not yet arrived. That was the year I believe that the networks were going from 15 minutes to half-hour news shows. They didn't have resident correspondents there.

They didn't have satellites. They didn't have color. The Washington Post was not yet what it became under Ben Bradlee, a truly national paper with foreign correspondents. Nor was The Los Angeles Times, nor was The Wall Street Journal. Both Time and Newsweek had stringers and Time resolutely kept the words of warning and pessimism of its stringers out of its columns. That meant that The Times reporter, at that moment, the collapse of The Trib was in full flight. The Times reporter, with the 30 or 40 thousand that The Times sold in Washington, I believe 30 thousand, the elite 30 thousand, was really very important. You were on the breakfast table of the President and everybody else. And your words had a resonance that really went beyond what they should have had. So that was one reason that I was important.

The second is, that the policy didn't work, as Homer Bigart said. And as it doesn't work, when a policy doesn't work—it is one thing when the policy works. The government says what is happening. It may or may not be happening. But the reporter becomes secondary. When the policy doesn't work, that's when the reporter becomes important, because the reporter then is the person who becomes the alternative source of legitimate, verifiable information.

When I got there, I thought, "How do I cover this place? This is a big country." And I decided again, using my Nashville training, to move around, get out of Saigon. Get out of the capital. And to also pick out four or five litmus test places where I would go a lot because then I could calibrate change. And also, if I kept going back, I'd begin to have some sense of connection with the advisors. And I thought there would be a growing trust, which turned out to be true.

But my main reason was to calibrate change. Now in those days, it was very hard to get on a helicopter. You put your name on a list and the people who controlled that deliberately tried to keep you away from as many battles as possible. But you could get to certain places. And you could do this, particularly My Tho, which was where most of the fighting was taking place, about 30 or 40 miles south of Saigon. You could get there by getting in a Vietnamese taxi, great gas-guzzler. And you drove through VC territory and you paid about 300 or 400 piaster and you hoped for the best. I later began to think that perhaps the drivers themselves were all members of the VC because they were a lot more confident about getting through than I was. But you could get to My Tho that way, and you could get there any time you wanted.

And by chance, the new senior advisor of the 7th ARVN division was the man who eventually became something of a legend, the Lawrence of Vietnam, John Vann. And John Vann was a brilliant, focused, regional advisor. And we became, in time, friends as I did with many, many other senior advisors. I saw General Haig earlier and his great colleague from when they were young aides to Ned Almond in Vietnam.

Fred Lad, one of the finest officers I ever met in my life, was the senior advisor to the ARVN 21st (audio unclear) was a senior advisor. (audio unclear) was a senior advisor for the entire Delta. They became friends. (audio unclear).

And I would plead guilty to Secretary McNamara's description of me as an idealist. I think journalists should be idealists. I think they should be skeptical idealists but the alternative seems to me to be a cynic. And I think a journalist who is a cynic is dead. I think it is very important to believe, that you believe in a kind of idealism. If you don't, if you lose faith in the truth, I think you lose faith in democracy.

But the great idealists of that era were these remarkable senior advisors in the field. They were marvelous men. I mean they all could have been school principals back home. They were educated. The United States Army was educating them. They believed in their mission. They had taken that great inaugural speech seriously. They thought of themselves as being on the cutting edge. And they found out soon, and they were really wonderful men.


They found out that Saigon was rejecting their reporting. And they became more and more frustrated because young Americans in their command were risking their lives and sometimes being killed. And as that happened, as their reporting was rejected by their superiors, they turned reluctantly to us. And they told us the truth. And as they did I, who had just so recently been Ed Gullion's great pal in the Congo, a most favored nation, most favored journalist, became the enemy of the people. And the reason was that Washington has created, and it is something that we really have to deal with—anytime we talk about Vietnam, it should hang over this conference Washington had created a great lying machine. And they and their truths were bouncing off it. How and why that lying machine is the key to what I want to say today. And it, of course, it always has its roots in domestic politics. No one likes to write about it, the roots of this thing, in their memoirs either.


A lying machine exists on a major issue when an administration has a policy that does not, for historic reasons, work out, but where the administration believes it is important to continue it for a variety of domestic political reasons and to pretend that it works so that it forces its own people at the top to be disingenuous and punishes those government employees who dare to tell the truth. And attacks the motives and professionalism of reporters who dissent. And gradually the lines harden and the lies dominate the policy and the lying machine has a dynamic of its own. It becomes as it did in Vietnam, an organic thing.


I am finishing up a book on the Korean War that Vietnam brought me to. So I have been writing and studying the fall of China and the impact of the fall of China on America domestic politics. Let us begin.


World War II has ended on a high note. The pressure for demobilization, instantaneous demobilization was overwhelming. And the great force that had triumphed in two theaters was gone almost overnight. Because we thought the atomic monopoly would do it. But it became a hard peace. A former ally became an aggressive adversary.

China, a much loved nation, which many ordinary Protestant Americans and some Catholic Americans wanted to turn into a Christian extension of ourselves, turned Communist as Chiang collapsed. And the British had passed the torch of leadership to a nation so recently isolationist, where much of the population was not sure it wanted to be internationalist and accept full responsibility for leading the West.

More, and this is very important, a vast part of the country, in the Midwest and on the right, had never entirely embraced the Franklin Roosevelt revolution either domestically nor, for that matter, the goals of World War II. There are a lot of people out there who thought maybe we were fighting the wrong enemy in Europe and a lot of people who thought that we should turn towards Asia, towards China. And that, therefore, China, as Chiang began to collapse, had become an issue, which the Republicans could seize on and whack at Truman and Acheson, who were Euro-centrists. There were probably any number of reasons why the Democrats lost in 1952. They had been in power for too long. They had been in there for 20 years. You accumulate a lot of enemies. It was surely time for them to go.

Dwight Eisenhower was a wise attractive figure, experienced, a military man who did not seem like a military man, a man who gave a comforting feeling at the height of the Cold War tensions. But in Washington, the effect of McCarthy, the sense that he had been the key was very important, disproportionate I think, in Washington. And the Democrats were on the defensive. American politics were going to get much harder edged.

No two men could have been harder lined in the Cold War than Truman and Acheson, and they were now accused of being soft on Communism. No figure had served his country better than George Catlett Marshall and he was said to have been, by William Jenner of Indiana, an agent of Communism. The effect of that on the Democrats in the Senate, seems to me, was immeasurable.

Truman-Acheson were accused of losing China. Lyndon Johnson used to like to say, "When they lost China, they lost the Congress. Well, I'm not going to be," he said, "the President who loses Vietnam, because then I will lose the Great Society." When John Kennedy ran for the presidency in 1960, he ran as a new kind of Democrat, one more hawkish and more profoundly influenced by the Cold War than Adlai Stevenson had in 1952 and 1956.


No country was to be lost to the Communists in this new era. Not because of geopolitical consequences, although to be sure there were some. But more importantly, because of the domestic, political consequences—lose a country and you might lose Washington. The evidence—and this is very interesting—there were intercepts, the National Security Agency, in the late fifties and early sixties, that the Soviets and the Chinese were really fighting each other. But they were suppressed, these intercepts, not fed to the country as a whole. Because if you followed them, they challenged the idea of the Communist monolith. And if you challenged them, if you put them out, then you had to adjust your own policies to the idea that the Communists were not a monolith. And you had to take a certain amount of heat for the change.

One of the cruelest ironies of the Vietnam War is that every soldier who fought there wore a red and yellow patch. And that patch showed a sword piercing a wall. We were the sword and the wall was the great wall of China. Even though Vietnamese nationalism is historically fearful of the Chinese and of China. And Ho once said, I believe, of the French and Chinese, "Better to eat the French dung for a century than Chinese dung for a thousand years."

So every country would have to be defended, even if it was as in South Vietnam in George Ball's days, an army instead of a country. And that led Kennedy eventually to his Vietnam commitment. As I said, he was a complicated, modern man, cool, rational, part hawk, part dove. He had as a young man given some very good speeches. I think Ted Sorensen is with us this weekend.

And Ted and Freddie Holborn, a much loved man, Fred Holborn, were some of the architects and speech writers on it, the speech which talked about the danger of the West being, you know, engaged in colonial wars in Indochina and Algeria. He knew nationalism, not Communism, was the more powerful force in those parts of the world. But he had begun his presidency poorly. The thin margin of victory over Richard Nixon, the debacle at the Bay of Pigs, the pounding he took from Khrushchev in Vienna—to counter that he had upgraded the commitment to Vietnam from 600 to 15 thousand to 18 thousand in advisory and support roles. He was careful, however, not to send combat units. But he did deepen the commitment, escalated the rhetoric, planted the flag more deeply, brought more press coverage. And more Americans got killed. And each death, in a way, somehow seemed to become a rationale for sending more.

And he created, like it or not and aware of it or not, the great new lying machine. What had taken place back in China during the civil war, would not do. Knowledgeable China hands who predicted the fall of Chiang, a brilliant, honest general like Joe Stillwell who told the truth about the weakness of Chiang's troops, then could not be employed by the administration. All of that had worked against the Democratic administration.

So the one thing you did not want to lose a country in Asia to the Communists and you didn't want your people out there being tarred as part of it. This time everyone would be on the team, everything would be controlled. People in the embassy would be hard liners if possible and, if at all possible, not have served any time in Asia.

Knowing when things did not work out and the other side showed that it had so much more skill and dynamism was to hear—have a background going back to the French-Indochina war and tie what was happening in '62 and '63 with what had happened from 1946 to 1954, when the other side took hold of all the nationalism in the country and drove the French out.

On the military side, Max Taylor was the key man. And he wanted to control all the reporting from there. So he made sure that his own man, Paul Harkins, commanded the American forces. Harkins was a man whose loyalty went to Taylor directly in the narrowest sense. And he would never step out of line. Loyal and ambitious in the narrow sense of career, he was honest. And wise and honorable in a larger sense to anything beyond his own superior, he was not.

In his mind he was there to report that the war was being won and, above all, to keep his subordinates in line and to suppress whatever evidence they came up with, that the war was being lost. That made him, though it was surely not the way he thought of himself, the most political of men. A Kennedy political operative, whether he liked it or not—just as Taylor was now a Kennedy political operative, someone who was going to report back, come hell or high water, the kind of success that they wanted.

It was a policy that corrupted those that went along with it. In his own mind, Harkins was the good soldier. He was not only fighting communism but he was staying totally loyal to his principle benefactor within the rigid, hierarchical framework of the Army. He was determined to do what Taylor, and seemingly the Army system wanted, and that was to suppress all other evidence. The orders from Taylor to Harkins, never set down on paper but they were very real nonetheless. We were winning.

There were to be no real defeats. Victory was inevitable. The policy and the politics demanded it. The Washington rhetoric demanded it because when you invest that much more, 600 to 15 thousand men, you have to have results and you have to have results quickly. So there was always going to be a light at the end of the tunnel.

In truth, you know what was at the end of the tunnel? There was a tunnel at the end of the tunnel and it was filled with VC and NVA. There was a marvel of modern engineering. Any officer, division advisor or anything else, was to know that if he did not play the game, did not get on the team, he would never get a start. You got on the team or you got out. I mention those extraordinary men that I knew, the wonderful men who were the lieutenant colonels and colonels of that era, the ones who told the truth and challenged the reporting, not one of them got a star.

Thus was the lying machine created. And there is a danger in creating one. It is like riding a tiger. The danger is you may end up inside. The only people you may end up fooling is yourself. The VC always, the NVA knew what they were doing. They knew they were winning. We fooled ourselves. Let me quote Secretary McNamara, page, I believe, 37: "We, none of us, the President, Dean Rusk, myself, Mac Bundy, could get the information we wanted." Well, that is a blood libel. It is a blood libel against any young American who served there in the CIA, the military, the idea the young Americans would not have given a chance to tell the truth could not get it right. That's shocking and it comes from a man who was the chief messenger slayer of the era who, if he saw you dissenting, would take out your career.

So, unlike the fall of China, when reporters and embassy officials and high military men like Stillwell were all friends and compared notes, the repressed became the enemy. Everybody else in the embassy was on the team. We were on the outside. We were the people who had to do what Stillwell and the China hands had done back in the China days. And we did okay.

We did it a lot better on the military side because we had great sources. Not as well on the political side because they cleaned out anybody who knew anything about the Indochina War and would connect it.


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