The War As It Was

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JOHN F.STACKSIt was the summer of 1959, and the number of American military advisers to the South Vietnamese government was only a few hundred. In the town of Bien Hoa, 30 km north of Saigon, six U.S. soldiers settled in to watch a movie.As reported in this magazine, here's what happened next: Communist terrorists (who obviously had cased the place well) crept out of the darkness and surrounded the mess hall. Two positioned a French MAT machine gun in the rear window, two pushed gun muzzles through the pantry screen, the other two went to the front of the building to cover the Vietnamese guard. When Sergeant Ovnand snapped on the lights to change the first reel, the Communists opened fire.Despite the attack, TIME was upbeat about the effort to defend South Vietnam against communism: The presence of the Americans symbolized one of the main reasons why South Viet Nam, five years ago a new nation with little life expectancy, is still independent and free and getting stronger all the time--to the growing chagrin of Communists in neighboring North Viet Nam. The two Americans who died in the ambush were the first of some 58,000 to die before the hurried American evacuation of Saigon 16 years later.By then, the public and most of the American press, including TIME, had turned against the war. That was due in no small measure to the words and pictures from the correspondents sent to Vietnam to cover the conflict. Many of them went to Southeast Asia convinced of the rightness of the struggle and grew first into skeptics and then critics. For their trouble, many were killed or wounded, and most were criticized as biased at best and unpatriotic at worst.The most remarkable of that reporting and writing has been collected in a two-volume compendium called Reporting Vietnam: American Journalism 1959-1969 and 1969-1975, published last month (Library of America). To read from the beginning (the TIME story in 1959) to the war's end (Malcolm Browne's account in the New York Times of the fall of Saigon) is to relive America's war in all its agony, heroism and, finally, failure.PAGE 1  |  
The work of 80 journalists is included, with a nice sampling of memorable reportage from the home front: Norman Mailer on both the 1967 march on the Pentagon and the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago; James Michener's intricate reconstruction of the Kent State killings; Michael Kinsley on the revolt of the Harvard intellectuals against their friend and colleague Henry Kissinger, to name a few.From the field, there are stories by the New York Times' David Halberstam and Neil Sheehan that peel away the optimism of American officialdom. Or read the devastating comparison by the Washington Post's Richard Harwood of inflated, official battle reports against the accounts of correspondents on the scene to understand the origins of the credibility gap.In fact, Reporting Vietnam makes one wonder at America's ability to sustain the war effort as long as it did, given the grim news and harsh truths that were being sent home from the front. Was no one listening? Was the power of the government information machine so vast as to overcome the real news from Vietnam?But in the end, it is the combat reporting--including that of Peter Arnett of the Associated Press, John Saar and Don Moser of LIFE magazine, Jonathan Schell of the New Yorker, Ward Just of the Washington Post, Sydney Schanberg of the New York Times and scores of others--that is most moving, both for the horror seen and the risks taken. Tom Wolfe's reconstruction of a carrier-based bombing run over North Vietnam still makes one's palms sweat.The final pieces in the collection are about the mad scramble of the Americans to leave Saigon in April 1975. Keyes Beech of the Chicago Daily News was one of the last reporters out, leaving aboard a helicopter that took off from the roof of the American embassy as thousands of fearful South Vietnamese begged to be taken out of their country. Beech clawed his way through that crowd and, as Vietnamese clung to his limbs, was finally pulled over the embassy wall by a U.S. Marine. My last view of Saigon, he wrote, was through the tail door of the helicopter ... Then the door closed--closed on the most humiliating chapter in American history.  |  2