When Neil Sheehan arrived in Saigon in April of 1962 to cover America’s new war in Vietnam for UPI, he had no idea he’d soon become the enemy.
Sheehan, a 25-year-old rookie reporter on his first overseas assignment, fully bought into the conventional wisdom of the day: If one country “fell” to the communists, the rest would follow.
“We were filled with all the myths of the Cold War,” he told me. “The domino theory was real. You had to stop these communists, or they were going take over all of Southeast Asia. We’d end up fighting them in California.”
Until Vietnam, reporters were expected to “be on the team,” to report the story the way the government wanted it reported, and by and large they did. But as Sheehan came to witness the corruption and incompetence of our South Vietnamese ally, and the false Pentagon “body counts,” he began to question not only our military strategy but whether we should be there in the first place.
His stories, and those of The New York Times’s David Halberstam and a few others, infuriated President Kennedy, who was trying to hide the growing US military involvement from a public skeptical of another land war in Asia. When a reporter asked Kennedy, in January 1962, if US troops were involved in combat in Vietnam, he responded unequivocally, “No.” That same month, the AP reported US pilots flew 229 combat missions over Vietnam. One day President Kennedy summoned the publisher of The New York Times, Arthur Ochs Sulzberger , to the White House and suggested that he take Halberstam off the story and out of Vietnam.
Some in the conservative media back home accused Sheehan and Halberstam of lying.
“They tried to get us fired,” recalled Sheehan. “I was very glad that I had briefly joined the Republican Club at Harvard, because I knew they were going to try to show I was a pinko.”
As more stories raised more questions, the attacks on journalists escalated. Reporters were beaten covering anti-government demonstrations; some were arrested. The South Vietnamese government compiled an assassination list that included reporters’ names.
Yet these reporters, the subject of my documentary “Dateline-Saigon,” were not deterred. The Pentagon Papers confirmed their reports were accurate. Both Halberstam and Sheehan would go on to win Pulitzer Prizes for their Vietnam reporting.
Reporters in conflict zones today, whether in the Middle East, Afghanistan — or Washington — do a better job of bringing us the ground truth because of the example set by Sheehan and Halberstam.
“They taught us great lesson,” says Dexter Filkins, who reports today from conflict zones for The New Yorker. “And that is, truth is not just a point of view. Truth does not adhere to the person who shouts the loudest. And truth does not necessarily belong to the people with the most power.”
Not everyone learned the same lesson, however.
“Vietnam is taught to young information officers today as the great mistake,” the late Morley Safer, who reported from Vietnam for CBS news, told me some years ago. “How they screwed up by letting us cover the war the way we covered it.”
In Vietnam, reporters were free to go anywhere and report with little censorship. In Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere today, the Pentagon regularly requires journalists to be embedded with troops and tries to limit their information to that disseminated in government briefings.
Yet the best of today’s reporters approach their jobs with a healthy skepticism because of the lessons of Vietnam and what they have learned from Sheehan, Halberstam, and other intrepid reporters of that earlier era.
As consumers of news, we are all in their debt.
Thomas D. Herman wrote and produced “Dateline-Saigon,” which has won the Best Documentary Feature award at the Woods Hole, Middlebury, Newport Beach, and Coronado Island Film festivals.