Morley Safer in Vietnam

The recent death of Morley Safer, veteran correspondent for the CBS news magazine program 60 Minutes, has led to an outpouring of tributes such as this one. Long before he became the genial avuncular reporter of human-interest stories that viewers were familiar with, Safer made his name for his hard-hitting reporting from Vietnam where, rather than depend on the sanitized and dishonest press briefings given by the US military, he and a few others went out with the troops and reported on the horrors being committed by the US military on hapless innocent Vietnamese villagers in angry retaliation for attacks on the US forces by the Viet Cong, something that came as a shock to American TV viewers who like to think of their military as always acting righteously and wholly on the side of angels.

Here is one story that Safer reported in the early days of the war.

In 1965, Safer was a young foreign correspondent for CBS News, bringing stories of the Vietnam War into America’s living rooms. On August 5 of that year, Safer filed a controversial story from the hamlet of Cam Ne. The footage showed U.S. Marines torching thatched huts — using flamethrowers, Zippo lighters, and matches — as villagers stumbled from their homes in shock.

“The Marines went on a search-and-destroy mission, but it really was a destroy mission,” Safer told Ann Silvio of 60 Minutes Overtime in the video player above. “What was in the village were a lot of old women and men, young women and babies, and the Marines went in shooting and burning.”

The government was, of course, furious about the truth being told and president Lyndon Johnson gave the head of CBS news a tongue-lashing and accused CBS of being unpatriotic and Safer of being a Communist and Safer feared for his life.

This story strongly parallels, in its depiction of wanton murder by US forces and government anger when it is revealed, the Collateral Murder video obtained by Chelsea Manning and released by WikiLeaks in 2010 that shows a US gunship massacring Iraqis in the streets as they walked along. The Obama administration responded viciously against both Manning and WikiLeaks because the Obama administration is as zealous as Johnson was in trying to hide its war crimes.

Jon Schwarz writes that the fact that the government treat reporters and the truth with open contempt could be seen by Safer’s description in 1965 in a newspaper column of the extraordinary behavior of Arthur Sylvester, then the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Public Affairs and thus the head of the government’s public relations effort on the war, came to Vietnam and had a meeting with reporters to lay the ground rules for how the war should be covered. He made no attempt to hide his contempt when he addressed the press in Vietnam.

“I can’t understand how you fellows can write what you do while American boys are dying out here,” [Sylvester] began. Then he went on to the effect that American correspondents had a patriotic duty to disseminate only information that made the United States look good.

A network television correspondent said, “Surely, Arthur, you don’t expect the American press to be the handmaidens of government.”

“That’s exactly what I expect,” came the reply.

An agency man raised the problem that had preoccupied Ambassador Maxwell Taylor and [U.S. spokesman] Barry Zorthian — about the credibility of American officials. Responded the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Public Affairs:

“Look, if you think any American official is going to tell you the truth, then you’re stupid. Did you hear that? — stupid.”

One of the most respected of all the newsmen in Vietnam — a veteran of World War II, the Indochina War and Korea — suggested that Sylvester was being deliberately provocative. Sylvester replied:

“Look, I don’t even have to talk to you people. I know how to deal with you through your editors and publishers back in the States.”

At this point, the Hon. Arthur Sylvester put his thumbs in his ears, bulged his eyes, stuck out his tongue and wiggled his fingers.

The key point to note is the statement that the government prefers to deal with the higher ups in the news media because it knows how to put pressure on them. It is even worse now since so many beat reporters also seek to curry favor with the government and are eager to serve as propagandists.

As Schwarz says:

But in the 50 years since, from essentially everything the Nixon administration said about Vietnam, to the Reagan administration’s claims justifying the invasion of Grenada, to the George H.W. Bush administration justifying the Gulf War because Iraqi forces were massed on the border of Saudi Arabia, to the Clinton administration’s wild exaggerations about Serbian violence in Kosovo, to essentially everything the Bush administration said about Iraq, to Obama’s Director of National Intelligence James Clapper denying the National Security Agency gathers data on millions of Americans, most of the U.S. media has been, as Sylvester put it, “stupid.”

Time and again, members of the Washington press corps have credulously accepted officials’ lies and misinformation and passed them on to their readers as the truth. Their real-time skepticism is almost nonexistent. And they keep doing it.

Do the reporters keep doing it because they honestly cannot see the truth in front of them or are they more cynical and do it because it is a good career move? The answer may straddle both reasons. As Upton Sinclair once said, “It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.”


  1. raven says

    I grew up watching the Vietnam war on TV. It turned me and millions of others anti-war rather quickly.

    It also turned me against Lyndon Johnson and the Democratic party. To this day, I’m a registered Independent even though I send the Democratic party money every year and won’t vote for a Republican even if jesus shows up.

    And made me into an active anti-Vietnam war protester. With an FBI file, which I consider one of my most notable achievements.

  2. stevendorst says

    Nice article -- but I must take exception to 1 word in your opening paragraph: hapless.
    When applied to a person, “hapless” has, at least to me, a negative connotation that it is impossible for the person to act in any way differently. I read it, in this case, as a slur on the Vietnamese villagers.
    Given what I’ve read from you over the years, I doubt this was your intention. Might I suggest changing it to “powerless”?

  3. John Smith says

    I was born during the Clinton years, so Vietnam doesn’t have the same weight, but I do think that press was a lot freer then than it is today.

    I think there is certainly willful ignorance and negligence on the part of political insiders of all stripes. There is rationalization that even if they’re doing a bad thing it is necessary. The ends justify the means -- and if they don’t they at least are the lesser of two evils. It doesn’t matter how many innocent people are killed -- we got Bin Laden. It doesn’t matter if journalism is silenced -- the country needs good PR.

    This is an interesting watch.

    @2 I think you’re just reading too deeply. Hapless means unfortunate and the villagers were definitely that. “Hapless” encapsulates more than “powerless”.

  4. moarscienceplz says

    stevendorst #2
    Before you criticize someone else’s vocabulary choices based on your subjective interpretation of what certain words mean, I think you should make sure your interpretation matches what the consensus interpretation of the word is.

    Hapless literally means what you’d expect it to mean: “without hap”-“hap” being another word for “fortune” or “luck.” Hap derives from the Old Norse word for “good luck.” (“Happen” and “happy” are also descendants of the same ancient root word.)

  5. Nick Gotts says

    At this point, the Hon. Arthur Sylvester put his thumbs in his ears, bulged his eyes, stuck out his tongue and wiggled his fingers.

    If only we had government spokespersons with that degree of honesty now!

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