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Not So Much a Book as a Way of Life

The Making of a Quagmire, by David Halberstam, New York: Random House, 1965, $5.95

By Michael Churchill

Damn, but I'm jealous! War-correspondent. Attacked personally by Time and Joe Alsop (before the honor was diluted). Author of his autobiography, disguised as a book about Vietnam. Hero of a book (his autobiography). All before he was 30.

There he is, David Halberstam '55, former Crimed, charging through the jungles of the Congo, relaxing in the coolest bars in Saigon, winging from Elizabethville to Nairobi to Geneva to Saigon. Always on the firing line. Always in the known-ahead of ambassadors, general, CIA agents. Always on the front page of the New York Times.

This is the stuff of dreams, and rightly it fill the center of this important book about covering the war in Vietnam. There are high-minded attempts to discuss American war policy, and some of them have a bearing on the current debate on or role in Southeast Asia, but they never succeed in pushing Dave Halberstam, boy reporter writing about the fun and toil of reporting, into the background.

And that is fortunate, Americans know little about what they read in the papers or how it got there. "If it was in the paper it must be true, Printed words don't lie."

This book shatters such naivete. By showing us the working pre-occupations of reporters, it startlingly reveals the pressures influencing what we read and the fragility of the foundations on which our implicit faith rests.

Often it is difficult enough to report a simple event correctly. Halberstam relates how nearly every correspondent in Ndola, Rhodesia reported Hammarskjold's safe completion of the plane trip which killed him.

When it is a complex "even" like the crackdown on the Buddhist pagodas the reporter's job gets even more difficult. The problem is not only the physical one of finding out the raw facts or the intellectual one of understanding what they mean. A journalist must decide whether publishing will endanger his informant, whether it will dry up other sources, whether the chance of being overshadowed by other stories will make the risk too high. And have to be done with minimal sleep, under marital law, and facing a deadline.

Even worse, everyone tries to use a reporter in order to get his side across. This particularly bedevils a Times man, since he is usually the most influential man on the spot. Tshombe grants an interview. Halberstam writes a favorable piece about Tshombe; the State Department thinks it is owed a favorable piece about Adoula. Everyone is conscious of the newspaper's power: even the Buddhist priests learned to call in newsmen to ward off arrests.

The danger of these pressures distorting the news is heightened by the scarcity of reporters-for most of the time Halberstam was in Vietnam he was the only full-time correspondent of an American daily newspaper on the scene.

In Vietnam, however, the attempt to manipulate reporters went much further. For reporting that the war was being lost-contrary to the views of senior American advisors-Admiral felt rebuked them for not "getting on the team." It reached a point in October of 1963 that Jack Kennedy queried whether Halberstam wasn't due for a transfer.

It was a bitter lesson in the first rule of journalism (as true in International politics as in University affairs): All officials distort if necessary in order to defend decisions they have made. To defend the decision to stick with Diem, embassy, CIA, and military officials reported to Washington a wrongly optimistic picture of the state of the war.

The drive to appear right went to ludicrous lengths. The morning of November 1 the embassy reported to Washington a coup would occur that afternoon by that the military intelligence did not agree. The coup occurred. Later in the afternoon an officer called the embassy and asked that the military statement of dissent be stricken. As Halberstam notes in another context, Westerners are very sensitive about losing face.

This vice infected all three branches of the American mission in Vietnam. Junior officials in the field reported the situation as they saw it. Senior officials in Saigon more committed to Diem revised, sanitized, and in some cases buried their dispatches completely. Dissenting officers did not get to talk with visiting brass not have their views heard when they returned to Washington.

It wasn't until the arrival of Ambassador Lodge, who was not tied to backing Diem, that any other view started flowing to Washington from Saigon. Any other, that is, except for the reporters'. In touch withe the American field advisors, they were calling them as they saw them. When Time magazine disregarded the reports of its two men and attacked the journalists for not following the Time and American line, they resigned.

The traditional right of American journalists to report what they see was at stake here, even though the situation was a particularly sensitive one; ambiguous involvement in a wretched war with a ruthless enemy. because the news was bad, there were many people who for varying reasons did not want it exposed. Yet an American reporter must believe, if he believes nothing else, that the United States has never sur- vived in times of crisis by playing ostrich. Too much policy and too deep a commitment had already been made in Vietnam on the basis of too little factual information.

Halberstam got his sweet reward for being right: the Pulitzer Prize. But the recent State Department "White Paper" on the North's direction of the Vietcong indicates that many officials have not yet learned he was right.

Does the book tell us anything about what policy we should be following now? Its strong point is an excellent analysis of the weakness of the Diem regime and its effect on our inability to win the war. That, of course, no longer applies.

Even though Halberstam accepts Washington's view that the Vietcong are controlled from the North, he sees the war as nationalistic and anti-colonial and therefore our position doomed to failure. We are the heirs of the French he tells us. The more troops we pour in, the more we rely on eagle strikes which leaves the villages in the hands of the Vietcong, the worse it becomes.

Withdrawal and neutralization are unpalatable alternatives in his opinion; the ramifications for the rest of Southeast Asia would be unpleasant, the danger to those who have been loyal to us for so long would be great. We still have the support of many elements in Vietnam society.

It may be too late for success, but if it isn't the price will be high and not payable with gimmicks. Any intelligent newspaper reader should know that by now. Halberstam does not provide us with any litmus test for determining what is the right price or whether it should be paid.

The enduring point of this book lies in its description of the process of shaping American policy abroad, and the harsh price exacted from well meaning men who only see what they want to see. To formulate a foreign policy which will reach its goal, the landscape on the way must be closely observed. The caution Halberstam learned slogging through the jungles of Katanga is relevant to policy makers attempting to plot America's course abroad: "The relationship between African maps and African landscape is extremely haphazard.

Even worse, everyone tries to use a reporter in order to get his side across. This particularly bedevils a Times man, since he is usually the most influential man on the spot. Tshombe grants an interview. Halberstam writes a favorable piece about Tshombe; the State Department thinks it is owed a favorable piece about Adoula. Everyone is conscious of the newspaper's power: even the Buddhist priests learned to call in newsmen to ward off arrests.

The danger of these pressures distorting the news is heightened by the scarcity of reporters-for most of the time Halberstam was in Vietnam he was the only full-time correspondent of an American daily newspaper on the scene.

In Vietnam, however, the attempt to manipulate reporters went much further. For reporting that the war was being lost-contrary to the views of senior American advisors-Admiral felt rebuked them for not "getting on the team." It reached a point in October of 1963 that Jack Kennedy queried whether Halberstam wasn't due for a transfer.

It was a bitter lesson in the first rule of journalism (as true in International politics as in University affairs): All officials distort if necessary in order to defend decisions they have made. To defend the decision to stick with Diem, embassy, CIA, and military officials reported to Washington a wrongly optimistic picture of the state of the war.

The drive to appear right went to ludicrous lengths. The morning of November 1 the embassy reported to Washington a coup would occur that afternoon by that the military intelligence did not agree. The coup occurred. Later in the afternoon an officer called the embassy and asked that the military statement of dissent be stricken. As Halberstam notes in another context, Westerners are very sensitive about losing face.

This vice infected all three branches of the American mission in Vietnam. Junior officials in the field reported the situation as they saw it. Senior officials in Saigon more committed to Diem revised, sanitized, and in some cases buried their dispatches completely. Dissenting officers did not get to talk with visiting brass not have their views heard when they returned to Washington.

It wasn't until the arrival of Ambassador Lodge, who was not tied to backing Diem, that any other view started flowing to Washington from Saigon. Any other, that is, except for the reporters'. In touch withe the American field advisors, they were calling them as they saw them. When Time magazine disregarded the reports of its two men and attacked the journalists for not following the Time and American line, they resigned.

The traditional right of American journalists to report what they see was at stake here, even though the situation was a particularly sensitive one; ambiguous involvement in a wretched war with a ruthless enemy. because the news was bad, there were many people who for varying reasons did not want it exposed. Yet an American reporter must believe, if he believes nothing else, that the United States has never sur- vived in times of crisis by playing ostrich. Too much policy and too deep a commitment had already been made in Vietnam on the basis of too little factual information.

Halberstam got his sweet reward for being right: the Pulitzer Prize. But the recent State Department "White Paper" on the North's direction of the Vietcong indicates that many officials have not yet learned he was right.

Does the book tell us anything about what policy we should be following now? Its strong point is an excellent analysis of the weakness of the Diem regime and its effect on our inability to win the war. That, of course, no longer applies.

Even though Halberstam accepts Washington's view that the Vietcong are controlled from the North, he sees the war as nationalistic and anti-colonial and therefore our position doomed to failure. We are the heirs of the French he tells us. The more troops we pour in, the more we rely on eagle strikes which leaves the villages in the hands of the Vietcong, the worse it becomes.

Withdrawal and neutralization are unpalatable alternatives in his opinion; the ramifications for the rest of Southeast Asia would be unpleasant, the danger to those who have been loyal to us for so long would be great. We still have the support of many elements in Vietnam society.

It may be too late for success, but if it isn't the price will be high and not payable with gimmicks. Any intelligent newspaper reader should know that by now. Halberstam does not provide us with any litmus test for determining what is the right price or whether it should be paid.

The enduring point of this book lies in its description of the process of shaping American policy abroad, and the harsh price exacted from well meaning men who only see what they want to see. To formulate a foreign policy which will reach its goal, the landscape on the way must be closely observed. The caution Halberstam learned slogging through the jungles of Katanga is relevant to policy makers attempting to plot America's course abroad: "The relationship between African maps and African landscape is extremely haphazard.

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