Rutland Herald and Montpelier (Barre) Times Argus
October 14th, 2017
To watch the entire ten episode, eighteen hours of Ken Burns Vietnam War, is a profound experience. Having lived through the era, and having spent time there, I considered myself reasonably well acquainted with the subject. But it turns out there was much that I did not know- and much more that I had forgotten. Reliving it again, in such agonizing detail was also an emotionally exhausting experience, but for thoughtful people who care about their history, it is very much worth the effort.
Vietnam was an early factor in my career as a foreign correspondent. When I was hired by ABC News in 1965, it was to cover the Vietnam War. My family was to move to Hong Kong, and I would go to work out of Saigon for at least a year. Before that I was to spend a few months working out of New York getting to know the people and their system. But everything changed.
While on a tour of ABC’s foreign bureaus, the Vice President of ABC News Jesse Zousmer and his wife, died when their Canadian Pacific Airlines plane crashed on landing at Tokyo airport. (Zousmer was Ed Murrow's Person to Person producer.)
In the staff changes that resulted, I was sent to Paris as the roving correspondent, And for the next decade, from there and later out of Rome, I spent most of my time covering the perpetual wars of the Middle East. The closest I got to Vietnam was reporting on the anti-American demonstrations that were then popular in Europe.
Then in the summer of 1974, a chance airport encounter with a senior executive of the Canadian Television Network (for whom I had once worked,) led to a job as co-anchor of CTV’s prime time, 60 Minutes- style Sunday news magazine. I committed to a year although after a few months I decided to accept ABC’s offer of a job in Washington, once my Canadian contract expired in August ‘75. But in February ’75 there was still work to be done.
In violation of the 1973 Vietnam Peace agreement, North Vietnam began a new offensive against the Saigon government. My proposal to my Canadian bosses to take our program to Vietnam was accepted. And so in March of ‘75, nine years after originally planned, I was in Vietnam.
With the departure of all U.S. combat troops and the grounding of all American combat aircraft, this was no longer the war that friends and colleagues like Ted Koppel, John Lawrence, Don North and many others had courageously reported for many years. What seemed apparent then was that Vietnam’s thirty year civil war had reached its final stage. The big question was, what form would that take?
Upon arrival in Saigon our small Canadian team moved into the Caravelle Hotel, where most foreign reporters stayed and where each of the three major television networks had their offices. Its roof top bar was still Saigon’s main journalistic watering hole.
As a former and future ABC news employee, I of course went to its bureau where they kindly shared their latest logistical and editorial knowledge. It was quite simple. The North Vietnamese and the Viet Cong were moving south. If we wanted to mark their progress we had to go north. And so off we went to Da Nang, South Vietnam’s second largest city and almost certainly Hanoi’s next major target.
From the moment of our arrival it was evident that this city of half a million, now teeming with at least twice that many refugees, had been seized by fear. There had been some shelling near the airport, but no big deal in a city at war for decades. Yet you could see it in the faces of the soldiers and refugees flocking in from the north, especially after the city of Hue had fallen. It was obvious in the chaos at the port - where thousands of U.S. Marines had landed a decade earlier - and where now tens of thousands of civilians and South Vietnamese troops were fighting each other for space on any means of water escape available.
Within the city, everywhere you went you could see soldiers tearing off their uniforms and in some cases throwing away their weapons. As we were filming one such scene our Vietnamese sound tech/interpreter yelled, “Out of here!” We immediately stopped filming and as we scurried away he told me, “They were going to shoot you.” which under the circumstances, I considered completely understandable.
It was now clear that Da Nang was going to fall very soon, So how were we to get out? Fortunately, my friend Tony Hirashiki, came to the rescue. Tony is a brilliant and brave Japanese cameraman who had covered the war for ABC for a decade and has recently published an excellent book titled On the Front Lines of the Television War. He told me news organizations were taking their people out the next day, and he would do his best to get us on that flight. He was true to his word. But getting to that plane was another matter.
Early that morning the total panic of perhaps now two million people was palpable – and contagious. At the airport there were many thousands of South Vietnamese and no commercial flights. Somehow Tony got us through this chaotic maze and aboard the international press plane to Saigon. Meanwhile, people were spilling out onto the runways. They were hanging from the wings of our plane and at least one was seen crawling into a wheel well. As we taxied for take-off there were heavy bumps which I hoped were not people- but fear they probably were. That, I believe, was the second last flight from Da Nang. The last, described in books since, was even worse.
The remaining weeks of the war, I spent in and around Saigon, reporting on the growing daily obsessive fear of most people over what seemed then as the inevitable arrival of North Vietnamese troops.
The end, when it did come, was not as bloody as expected, although many revenge killings did take place and a million and a half people were sent to indoctrination camps.
ABC News, led by bureau chief Kevin Delany evacuated all of its foreign nationals, its Vietnamese employees and many of their family members- 101 in all - and helped them find work in America.
Finally, if President Ford had honored President Nixon’s secret pledge to back Saigon with US airpower in the event Hanoi broke the peace agreement, it might have delayed the process. But based on what I saw in those last days when South Vietnam had lost the will to fight, it would not have changed the final outcome.
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