In 1940, Alfred Hitchcock released a film loosely based on “Personal Affairs,’’ the autobiography of the brilliant and colorful journalist Vincent Sheean. The film’s opening dedication apotheosized the American foreign correspondent — “To those intrepid ones who went across the seas to be the eyes and ears of America.”
Now we have a memoir that takes the title of Hitchcock’s film and provides a thought-provoking counterpoint to it. In half a century of reporting abroad, its author, David Greenway, was eyewitness to wars not remembered as fondly as World War II. It was his fate, he writes, “to follow the sometimes tragic efforts of the United States to fill the vacuum of retreating empires.”
Throughout the 20th century foreign correspondents were, in the words of press critic George Seldes, “the nobility of American journalism.” Greenway, who came from a wealthy, well-connected family, almost effortlessly fell into the profession. While a graduate student at Oxford, Greenway worked as a campus stringer for Time. Henry Luce, the magazine’s famous owner, so liked one of his stories that he hired Greenway for the London bureau — and reprimanded him for having taken the second-class train to the interview. In those days, foreign correspondents traveled first class.
Time posted Greenway in Southeast Asia in 1967 at the height of the Vietnam War. He left the magazine for The Washington Post in 1972 for the same reason many reporters had over the years — the heavy handed, often capricious editing. He joined The Boston Globe as an editor and itinerant foreign correspondent in 1978 and carried on as a columnist after retirement in 2000.
Over those years, Greenway covered Phnom Penh under siege from the Khmer Rouge and the civil war between east and west Pakistan, traversed the jungles of New Guinea, opened the Post’s first bureau in Israel, and was on hand to watch the Soviet Union disintegrate.
Greenway scores high on the intrepid scale. Twice he was aboard helicopters shot down in Vietnam. He was in Saigon during the “inglorious and ignominious” American withdrawal.
Sheean’s character in “Foreign Correspondent’’ effortlessly crosses the line between reporter and participant (to thwart a Nazi spy). In keeping with modern rules of journalistic behavior, Greenway was more restrained. But one day in the heat of a heavy fire fight in Vietnam, he helped rescue a wounded Marine, was hit himself, and later awarded a Bronze Star.
Greenway’s memoir is liberally peppered with happy recollections of comradery with fellow correspondents, to whom he throws many bouquets. If these enliven the story, the book’s chief virtue lies in being a succinct primer on post-World War II American foreign policy.
Like many journalists, Greenway came to doubt the wisdom of United States involvement in Vietnam. His experiences elsewhere led to similar dismay. He is scathing on US prosecution of the war in Iraq. Whereas the first president Bush limited intervention to thwarting Iraq in Kuwait, Greenway argues, his son foolishly overreached.
Foreign reporting has changed in the course of Greenway’s career. The once opulent Time bureau in London is gone. “The last time I inquired,” Greenway writes, “Time’s sole London correspondent worked from home on a laptop.”
Greenway perceptively notes that computers and other components of modern instant communication are a curse as well as a blessing. When he was in Baghdad in 2005, he wondered how correspondents “ever had enough time to report if they were always updating for the website and twenty-four hour news cycles.”
More troubling, though, is Greenway’s ride into Baghdad from the airport. In Sheean’s time Americans were viewed as liberators, and American reporters, carrying little imperial baggage, were welcome and safe. Today correspondents in Iraq and too many other places travel with heavily armed bodyguards in vehicles with “bulletproof windows as thick as my thumb.”
Greenway offers a moral to his story: Avoid getting “mixed up in other people’s civil wars until they themselves are ready to end them.” It’s sound advice from one “who went across the seas to be the eyes and ears of America.”
John Maxwell Hamilton, a senior scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and a journalism professor at Louisiana State University, is at work on a history of US propaganda in World War I. His most recent book is “Journalism’s Roving Eye: A History of American Foreign Reporting.’’