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A Peripatetic Fellow

CABBAGES AND KINGS

By Gay Seidman

WILFRED BURCHETT does not look like a radical journalist. In fact, he looks more like a conservative businessman. But when he opens an interview by pointing to a nearby poster of Ho Chi Minh and says, "Ah, my good friend," it becomes easier to recognize in him the man who has been covering revolutionary movements sympathetically since the late '30s.

The Australian-born Burchett embarked on his career early in 1939 when he responded angrily to an article in an Australian paper that praised the Nazis. In a long letter he described what he had seen in a visit to Nazi-governed Germany. Since then he has covered the globe, concentrating on leftwing movements and struggles for national liberation. Most of his work has dealt with Asia, particularly Indochina, but he has also written about struggles in Africa and Portugal. By remaining a freelancer, he has escaped the pitfalls that most journalists run into: he contributes regularly to The Guardian in this country and to other independent left-wing papers in Europe, but has generally avoided editorial constraints by generally avoiding editors.

He also writes books--prolifically. He has published at least 27, and is now working on a 28th. At the moment, he is on a national tour to publicize his latest, Grasshoppers and Elephants (Urizen Books, 256 page, $4.95), an account of the two months preceding the liberation of Saigon. It is not the first book he has written on the Vietnamese struggle. One of the others, Viet Nam Will Win(1968), was widely circulated by the anti-war movement in this country, and it will not be the last (he is currently working on a history of the Vietnamese people and their struggle against 2000 years of would-be colonists).

Grasshoppers and Elephants is important, because it is perhaps the only book in English that describes the military tactics of the Vietnamese guerrillas during that final offensive. On the whole, Burchett says, the Western press failed miserably to cover the war--and this argument has been supported in a series of books by American correspondents, who agree that their inability to speak Vietnamese and their location in Saigon kept them from one whole side of the war. The Western press "never understood the nature of the war," Burchett says, and it is hard to take real issue with him.

Burchett, on the other hand, spent most of the Indochina war on the other side, with the Vietnamese and Cambodian troops who were fighting the Americans. He travelled mainly on foot or by bicycle, in traditional Vietnamese clothes, but the U.S. authorities were clearly aware of his presence. A reporter for the London Sunday Times told Burchett recently that he was with an American battalion that tried to capture the Australian correspondent alive, by covering an area where Burchett was supposed to be with nerve gas. (Apparently, the U.S. authorities thought Burchett could disclose the whereabouts of American prisoners of war.) Burchett is aware of the risk he ran: he refers several times in Grasshoppers to Paul Leandre, a French journalist whom Burchett claims the Saigon police killed because he revealed the use of particularly hideous weapons against civilians. But he shrugs off any claims to heroism, saying simply, "Well, I didn't find out 'til long afterwards [about the attempts to capture him]."

At times, Grasshoppers and Elephants is hard reading, as when Burchett goes into long accounts of Vietnamese troop movements, which require at least a basic understanding of military strategy. But most of the book is for popular consumption, so the technical details are played down. Instead, Burchett emphasizes the role the Vietnamese people played in supporting the guerrilla troops, the popular uprisings, the lies to Saigon authorities. Villages developed their own home-made weapons, like the two-meter catapult made of ordinary rubber bands that could silently toss grenades into a nearby fort.

"What Thieu had was a facade of control maintained by an unprecedentedly powerful machine of repression," Burchett writes. "But the waves of organized resistance lapped right up to the walls of what seemed to be bastions of Saigon power and seeped under those walls to erode at the centers of power within." Burchett is one of the few Western writers who has had real access to the organization of that resistance, and he describes it carefully, movingly, in Grasshoppers.

More than anything else, it was the people's uprisings that forced the Thieu government out of power--uprisings that were not covered at all in the Western press. The uprisings had been planned for years, Burchett says; it was only a matter of waiting for the general offensive.

Burchett last visited Vietnam in the spring of this year, and is completely optimistic about the nation. "There are all sorts of problems of reconstruction," he says, "but these are just short-term. On the whole they've done a fantastic job" cleaning up defoliated areas--43 per cent of South Vietnam's arable land was destroyed by chemicals and bombs--and rebuilding a peacetime economy.

Burchett scoffs at the recent charges that former Thieu officials and army officers have been placed in what amount to reeducation camps: "Reeducation is just what the name says it is," he says, an effort to explain the war to people, "to try to reintegrate them into the community so they can play a constructive role." Vietnam has had some setbacks this year, largely because it was hit by floods in the south, droughts in the north, and a severe typhoon in the middle. But he repeats, "These are just short-term problems. In general, they're doing a fantastic job."

The Hearst chain of papers has recently begun an editorial campaign against Burchett, using old charges that he was once a KGB agent to discredit him. Burchett denies these charges furiously, as he did when they were first made in the '50s. The establishment press does not like Burchett's way of covering stories; for years he had trouble getting his books published, and had to go to what he calls "the unorthodox press." For 20 years, starting during the Korean war and ending in 1971, he couldn't get anything at all published in Australia.

Those days seem to be over. Burchett has his own audience now, people who have come to know and respect his work; in fact, The Guardian has a special fund for him, through which donors can help sponsor his work. At this point, Burchett appears to be a well-established unestablishment journalist. If anyone deserves that position, he does, if only because he has spent almost 40 years faithfully covering the world's revolutions from the side of the oppressed.

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