One of the major events at this Year’s Marlborough LitFest will be Sir Max Hasting’s talk about his new history of the Vietnam War which is published by William Collins on 20 September 2018.
His book is titled Vietnam – an Epic Tragedy, 1945-1975. He believes the war caused most tragedy for the Vietnamese people – 40 of whom died for every American killed.
How, at the time, did we learn about that war? How did we get the ‘first draft of history’ that journalists provide? Max Hastings reported from Vietnam – now he has written a history of that war.
Julian Pettifer OBE – who was educated at Marlborough College and now, aged 83, lives in the town – reported for the BBC from Vietnam and then from the USA as the anti-war movement grew. He was voted BAFTA Reporter of the Year in 1968 for his work in Vietnam. He knew about war – he had served with the British army in Korea. He has written this account for marlborough.news:
During my lifetime the reporting of war has three times been transformed by technology. I grew up during World War II. Perhaps my earliest memory is of sitting around our big bakelite radio, listening to the Prime Minister telling us that we were at war with Germany.
“What is war, Daddy?” piped an infant Julian. He was soon to discover. A couple of years later Daddy plucked me from my bed, carried me into the garden, pointed to a blood-red Western sky and explained: “That’s Bristol burning”.
Throughout that war my father, who was a World War I veteran, tried to explain to us, with the help of maps and the BBC Home Service, what was going on in the various battlefields.
Radio reporting blossomed during the war. Even now I recall the voices of Richard Dimbleby, Wynford Vaughan-Thomas and Frank Gillard telling their tales from the frontline.
My most vivid visual images of the fighting came from visits to the little Athelstan Picture House in Malmesbury, where newsreels were sandwiched between cartoons and cowboys. Those newsreels were, I later learned, censored by the Ministry of Information. Television was in its absolute infancy and was closed down during the war.
Fast forward twenty years and little Julian, now big Julian, found himself reporting a very different war in very different circumstances.
During the fifties and sixties, television ownership had grown rapidly. In developed countries, most households had at least one set to view entertainment and news, at first in black and white, but increasingly in colour.
When I arrived in Saigon in 1966 – to cover the Vietnam War for the BBC – we still had to airfreight our film reports back to London.
I suspect that the media circus assembled in Saigon during the Vietnam War was the largest, most varied, multinational bunch of hacks ever to cover any war, before or since. In those days, before the internet, newsprint was still flourishing.
International publications like Time, Newsweek, Life magazine and Paris Match all had permanent offices in Saigon and employed scores of writers and photographers. As for the American TV networks – ABC, NBC and CBS – they were the Big Beasts in the circus: the lions and tigers and bears among us lesser fauna.
To have a ringside seat, to see the show at its best – or worst – you had only to attend the daily press briefings in downtown Saigon. These were held by JUSPAO – the Joint U.S. Public Affairs Office – and significantly they were known to all of us as ‘The Five O’Clock Follies’.
We were briefed by military spokesmen (they were all men) on the conduct of the war. Very rarely was there any bad news. Mostly it was heartening tales of how well ‘our brave American boys’ were doing in defeating the Commies.
Among the press corps there were a number of clowns whose daily ambition was to pour ridicule on the briefing officers by asking awkward questions and contradicting them. This was not difficult.
When we left those briefings, many of us went to see for ourselves, out to the various battlefields to check the action. Often it was a very different story that appeared in newspapers and TV services throughout the world.
This was what became notorious as ‘the credibility gap’: the gap between the victory the U.S. government claimed to be winning and what the public was seeing on their television screens night after night in their homes.
It was this yawning credibility gap that nourished the anti-war movement and led eventually to the U.S. withdrawal from Vietnam. It happened partly because the U.S. authorities imposed little or no control over where film crews went, what they filmed or what they said or wrote.
There was no censorship of any kind. Hence, TV was able to bring the true horrors of war into people’s living rooms, day after day for years.
I was astonished at the freedom I enjoyed. My Press Accreditation Pass, issued on my arrival in Vietnam, gave me the notional rank of a Captain in the U.S. Army and allowed me and my cameraman to travel, by right, on any military aircraft, wherever we wished to go.
We would turn up at Tan Son Nhat airport in Saigon, check the departures and make our needs known. It never failed.
With dozens of TV crews scouring the country for news, with few restrictions to hinder them, it’s little wonder that the grim story they told soon turned the world against that war. In the comfort and security of their homes, Americans watched their sons, brothers and fathers do terrible things: massacre civilians in the little hamlet of My Lai or take out their Zippo lighters and torch villages in the Mekong Delta.
Much greater devastation fell from the skies. The U.S. had total air supremacy. They dropped more bombs on North and South Vietnam than fell on the whole of Europe during World War II.
It was not only explosives they dropped, but poisons. In the course of the quaintly named ‘Operation Ranch-hand’, 20 million gallons of herbicides and defoliants were sprayed from the air on half a million acres of crops and forests. The object was to deprive the Viet Cong of food and places to hide.
In the short term it may have worked, but the long term impact on the Vietnamese people – on innocent civilians – was devastating. Inevitably the poisons, some of them dioxins, entered the food chain.
An estimated three million Vietnamese fell victim to a range of health problems including severe birth defects that are evident to this day. I reported on Operation Ranch-hand for the BBC. The American TV networks were there too. These reports added to the ever growing dismay at the conduct of the war.
Anti-war sentiment was already simmering when I visited the U.S. in 1967. In 1968, following the TET Offensive, it came to the boil.
TET was a major Communist push that was supposed to lead to an uprising to overthrow the Saigon government. There was no uprising and Hanoi suffered severe losses. Militarily it was a failure. But, for the Communists, TET was a propaganda triumph.
Day after day American TV viewers saw their new Embassy in Saigon under siege by the Viet Cong, Marine guards lying dead in the compound. Fighting raged in more than 50 provincial capitals. Hue was held by the Communists for weeks.
One of the most infamous images of the whole Vietnam war was of a South Vietnamese police General killing, in daylight in the streets of Saigon, a ragged youth thought to be a Viet Cong infiltrator. In front of camera General Loan blew the boy’s brains out, thus confirming in the minds of the American public that they were allied – at least in part – with vicious thugs.
As far as American public opinion was concerned, the crucial moment was when Walter Cronkite, the loved and respected news anchor of CBS Television, left his armchair and flew to Saigon.
In several on-the-spot reports, he made it clear that he much disliked what he saw and heard. Even at the time, many regarded this as a turning point in the conflict. President Lyndon Johnson himself admitted that when Cronkite turned against the war it was a severe setback.
It has often been said that Vietnam was the first ‘television war’. It was also the last. No war, before or since, has been so thoroughly documented. Never since then have television crews enjoyed such free and uncensored access to battlefields.
Many of you will have seen the 18-hour, American documentary series The Vietnam War [shown in Britain on BBC4] which made such excellent use of the huge film archive.
The nature of war and the reporting of war have both been transformed by technology. Never again, I assume, shall we see a major war fought on a frontline between opposing forces. It will be waged largely in cyberspace using weapons I cannot even imagine.
Sadly I fear we shall continue to see civil wars and limited wars against ‘terrorists’ – and these conflicts will continue to be very difficult and dangerous to report.
In an age of the internet, social media and ‘fake news’, when everyone has a recording device in his or her pocket, I am so glad I do not have to report war. My admiration goes out to those who try.
Sir Max Hastings will be at Marlborough Town Hall on Saturday, September 29 at 10.30am.
LitFest tickets can be bought: in person at The White Horse Bookshop, Marlborough High Street (cash or cheque only – from 9am).
Or by phone to Pound Arts – 01249 701628 or 01249 712618 (from 10am). And also online at Pound Arts
You can see some of Julian Pettifer’s reports from Vietnam and later when he specialised in programmes about the environment and wildlife, on his YouTube channel.
[Click on photos to enlarge them]