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Not to Celebrate or Rehash Battles, but to Remember : Vietnam Correspondents Gather for Reunion

November 23, 1986|DAVID LAMB | Times Staff Writer

NEW YORK — The first casualty when war comes is truth. --Sen. Hiram W. Johnson, 1917

For the 4,000 men and women who covered it--as well as for the nearly 3 million Americans who fought in it--the war in Vietnam is engraved eternally in the memory as a shared moment of exhilaration and anguish, as tangled as it is vivid.

On Friday--25 years after Army Spec. 4 James Davis of Livingston, Tenn., became the first American killed in the war and 11 years after the final evacuation of Americans from Saigon--more than 230 correspondents and a handful of government and military officials gathered in New York to remember. Their reunion, under the auspices of the Overseas Press Club, marked another step in healing the wounds of a war in which 254,257 South Vietnamese soldiers, 47,381 American troops and 56 correspondents were killed.

Came to Remember

They came from Tokyo and Moscow and London, from Maine and California and New York. In a mood that was neither festive nor somber, they came not to celebrate a war or to rehash battles in places like Dak To and Ben Het and Dong Ha, but just to remember--to remember those whose Vietnam pictures and stories had been their last, to remember and embrace friends they had not seen in years, and to remember what it had been like to be young and courageous and to be obsessed by the most important story of their generation.

America's longest war gave birth to a new breed of war correspondents, who, unlike those of World War II, did not consider themselves part of the military mission, and who found there were no certain truths or clear lines to distinguish victory from defeat.

They were the protagonists of the nation's first television war and its first without censorship. Their coverage was often critical enough to make skeptics say, as Secretary of State Dean Rusk did in 1968: "There gets to be a point when the question is, 'Whose side are you on?' "

'Benefit of the Doubt'

When Vice President Hubert H. Humphrey went to Vietnam in 1967 to spend a day with U.S. troops in the field, he called aside 30 American reporters in Chu Lai to ask them a favor: "When you speak to the American people, give the benefit of the doubt to our side. I don't think that's asking too much. We're in this together."

And retired Gen. William C. Westmoreland, former U.S. troop commander in Vietnam, recalled in a telephone interview: "In World War II, correspondents wore the same uniform we did. They went into battle with a notebook and pen and wrote stories that went through the censor so as not to give the enemy information. All the troops knew they were on our side, that they wanted us to win.

"In Vietnam, they didn't wear any uniform. They dressed in all manner of garb--they could have been beer salesmen for all you knew. Instead of a pen, they had TV cameras and there was no censorship and their stories reflected the prejudices they represented. The soldiers became very disillusioned with the media. Their attitude was that the media didn't want us to win and the media, I think, had an adverse effect on morale."

'We Should Have Won'

On Friday, in the 7th Regiment Armory on Park Avenue, men and women were still debating how the war was fought, whether it even should have been fought and what the role between the news media and the government should be.

"I think the great mistake of Vietnam was that we should have won the war," said Keyes Beech, 73, who reported from Asia for 33 years and covered World War II, Korea and Vietnam.

"There's one simple truth in Vietnam--we never should have gone in and we never should have fought the war," said David Schoenbrun of Independent News Network, who was in Dien Bien Phu during France's decisive defeat in 1954.

"Those of us who understand the complexities of Vietnam should fight against simple interpretations," said retired Admiral Elmo R. Zumwalt Jr.

'Feisty as Ever'

Barry Zorthian, chief spokesman for the U.S. Mission in Vietnam from 1964 to 1968, told the reunion: "You really do look older, but you're just as feisty as ever."

Zorthian, sometimes criticized by the media during the war as a purveyor of Washingtonian half-truths, wore a lapel button that said, "Ambush the Credibility Gap," and urged the media to continue to demand access to U.S. military operations. The 1983 attack on Grenada--launched without the presence of journalists--was not an encouraging sign of what the future holds, he said.

"It's been almost 20 years," he later recalled, "and I suppose I've mellowed--or at least gotten mellower. I don't want to overstate it. Sure the press was a discomfort then. But the postwar charges that the press lost the war were completely unwarranted. Our efforts on the ground lost the war, not the press. There's also no doubt the government lost a lot of credibility in the war."

Assessment Revised

Military historians, who are revising their assessment of the press's role in the war, tend to agree.

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