Nov 1 2003

How the New York Times Blew My Lai

What if a massacre had been covered when it mattered?

“I was in Paris with a delightful, interesting man who works for the Times, John Hess. John was in the Paris bureau, and hewas one of the people who sort of straightened me out about Vietnam. He bugged me about it and told me I had to learn more–and I did.

New York Times columnist Anthony Lewis, interviewed in Harvard Magazine (11/76)

John Hess

John Hess

It gave me a lift to learn that Tony Lewis thought I helped straighten him out on Vietnam, but I fear he flattered us both. I never did quite straighten him out, or persuade him to share my sense of guilt for our sins, such as our failure to report the massacre at My Lai. Conceivably we could have affected the course of the war.

That was in 1968. We were in Paris, and, yes, you could say it was the best of times and the worst of times, the year of the flower children and the year when the blossoms were crushed in Paris and Prague, in Memphis and Los Angeles and Chicago. It was a year of hollow talk about making peace, accompanied by the heaviest bombing in history. To cover the peace talks in Paris, the New York Times sent two of its best and brightest, Hedrick Smith from Washington to do the blow-by-blow and Lewis from London for the deep analysis.

For us in the Paris bureau, this turned out to be a break; we had more than enough real news to cover, including the student upheaval of May 1968. The error of the Times, and of Smith and Lewis, was to think that the peace talks were any more than a charade.

They should have known better. The pattern had long been set: Every hint of a move toward peace would be followed by an escalation. When Hanoi, on the first day of 1968, offered to negotiate if the bombing stopped, President Lyndon B. Johnson replied that he would stop bombing in the North if Hanoi would stop its aggression in the South; meanwhile, he stepped up his secret wars in Laos and Cambodia and sent the Americal Division on a sweep of Quang Nai Province. At the end of January, the Tet offensive proved to the world that this was a colonial war against people who were not about to surrender. Johnson responded by sending over another division.

At My Lai on March 16, our troops systematically slaughtered hundreds of defenseless women, children and old men. Americans were not told about that operation, but were told of a massacre by the Vietcong at Hue. Then LBJ, following the strong showing of Eugene McCarthy in New Hampshire, withdrew his candidacy for reelection, announced a halt in bombing of that part of North Vietnam above the 20th parallel, and offered to talk with Hanoi. After some fencing, the two sides agreed to meet in Paris on May 10. In flew Smith and Lewis.

Four days earlier, however, a secret order to American field commanders directed them to mount an “all-out drive.” In Paris, Hanoi’s delegate denounced the escalation and demanded a total halt to the bombing of the North as a condition for negotiation. LBJ’s “peace ambassador,” Averell Harriman, insisted that Hanoi first agree to withdraw from South Vietnam. He told reporters, “One day they will get tired and get down to constructive discussion.”

Plainly, that meant the U.S. would punish the Vietnamese until they quit fighting for the independence promised by the Geneva agreement of 1954. So the two delegations would not even begin to talk peace terms until LBJ did stop bombing North Vietnam—which he did on November 1, too late to save Hubert Humphrey, too late to stop Richard Nixon. The American public had been bamboozled.

The best and the brightest

In those critical months in 1968, the Timesmen in Paris could have played a significant role in exposing the charade; instead, they took part in it. Unwittingly, to be sure. These were, as I said, two of our best and brightest: intelligent, liberal and conscientious. Tony Lewis had earned fame for his reporting on human rights and Rick Smith would become famous for his reporting on the Soviet Union.

Smith was fabulously organized; in a large ledger he kept track of every phrase in the negotiating record, every shift in tense or syntax. Conscientious. One evening, as we headed out to dine, he surprised me by asking what I thought of the dispatch he’d just filed. I said perhaps the reference in his lead to the strident voices of the Vietnamese should have been balanced by mention of the nasal twang of the Americans. Rick stood there, expressionless, as the old wrought-iron elevator arrived, then told us he’d join us later. He turned back to file a new lead.

Conscientious. The problem was that these men identified with our side. At the briefings that followed each session of the talks, reporters for the major American media occupied the front right-hand pew and addressed the U.S. spokesperson (himself a former Timesman) by his first name. When, nearly a decade later, I caught Rick on a panel broadcast from Washington (“Were we notified that Sadat was going to do that, Rick?” “No, we weren’t.” “Well, what position will we take if . . . ?” “Well, our position is. . . .”), I was reminded of those news conferences in Paris. Among the neutrals, where I would sit on my rare visits, a French reporter punned that when my compatriots up front said “we” (pronounced of course “oui”) they meant non.

H.L. Mencken once wrote about reporters in Washington: “A few months of associating with the gaudy magnificoes of the town, and they pick up its meretricious values, and are unable to distinguish men of sense and dignity from mountebanks. A few clumsy overtures from the White House, and they are done.” I believe Tony Lewis once played touch football with the Kennedys, and he was undone; I could never dent his infatuation. The aura of power is especially inebriating in the foreign sector.

There was a savoring of that seduction in the Harvard interview in which Tony flattered me. In 1969 he was promoted from London bureau chief to op-ed columnist. “I got [executive editor James “Scotty”] Reston’s call—this is an elitist item—at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden. We were at the ballet, sitting in the director’s box. This is a very grand thing. You wear evening clothes; you dine between the acts in a sort of anteroom. And it’s very funny, very nice.”

He went on: “The first few [columns] I did were rather tentative and took a sort of Harriman line: We must have an agreed solution. A year later I was committed to a Vietnam position in total opposition to American policy.” That would be about the time of Nixon’s thrust into Cambodia and the killing of protesters at Kent State and Jackson, Mississippi, in April 1970.

Pay no mind

Now scroll back to June 1968. Martin Luther King has been assassinated in Memphis and Robert Kennedy in Los Angeles. American campuses are in revolt, peace advocates are girding for the Democratic convention in Chicago. At the Times offices on Rue Caumartin, columnist Cyrus Sulzberger writes in his diary on June 16: “Lunched with Harriman. . . . Averell says there is not a chance of Hanoi’s making any concessions at this time in exchange for us halting the bombing. We must be patient and tough.”

Rick Smith has borrowed the desk next to mine to share my splendid view of the jeweled dome of the old Opera. Rick asks Tony, who is standing, whether they ought to cover a hearing of the war crimes tribunal founded by Bertrand Russell and headed by Jean-Paul Sartre. Tony replies with the hauteur of a London clubman (think of William Buckley) that he made it a rule to pay no mind to anything “Bertie” ever did. I remember the scene vividly because I chose not to butt in, and that came back to haunt me.

A year and a half later, I was alone in temporary charge of the bureau when the tribunal met again. The second page of its news release was a shocker. It recalled that its 1968 session had described the Son My (or My Lai) massacre—which had only then, in late 1969, penetrated our media and shaken the American conscience. I sent for the published proceedings. Sure enough, there it was in unmistakable detail, the systematic extermination of a village, whose name now entered history alongside those of Lidice and Oradour.

What if the Times had exposed My Lai during that summer of rage in 1968?

One can of course imagine many other what-ifs (e.g., what if Dr. King had survived, or Bobby Kennedy?), but my concern here is with our work in Paris. Timely news about My Lai would surely have set off a shock wave, as the revelation did when it came a year and a half later. It might well have caused LBJ and Humphrey to reconsider their positions, and a shift of 260,000 votes (less than half of 1 percent) could have reversed the outcome of the 1968 election.

An objection presents itself: Readers today may find it hard to believe that a single war crime could have made that difference. A generation of forgetfulness and falsification has done its work. In the mid-1990s, the Times—the newspaper that had published the Pentagon Papers—could report a consensus that “we have done all we can” for Vietnam, which lingers in poverty because Hanoi, in 1954, “decided that the conquest of South Vietnam, not national development, was the top priority” (6/22/97); a book reviewer could wax indignant at the suggestion that our planes deliberately bombed hospitals (11/7/99); Malcolm W. Browne, revisiting Vietnam, could detect “a predatory undertone . . . beneath the outwardly friendly curiosity toward Americans” (5/18/94) and a survey of American opinion could be headlined: “Forget Vietnam? No. Forgive? Perhaps” (2/2/94). In the year 2000, the Times (3/5/00) could endorse for the Republican presidential nomination John McCain, an unrepentant bomber of people he persisted in calling gooks.

But it was different in 1968. Many of us then were haunted by the images of a little girl burning with napalm, of a Saigon general killing a prisoner, of an American officer destroying a town to save it, of monks in flames, of tiger cages. Belief in our righteousness had been damaged by revelations about the CIA’s campaign of disinformation. I referred above to the storm of outrage that hit the streets when the story of My Lai broke in November 1969. (Cy Sulzberger told his diary that the protests frightened his dinner guest, the Duke of Windsor.) So it does not seem out of the question that exposure of that massacre in America’s most influential newspaper in 1968 could have tipped the electoral balance.

“A transaction of commerce”

Another story that we missed surely would have. On the campaign trail Nixon was proclaiming that he would end the war even as he was lobbying the Saigon regime to stall the peace talks, to avoid an “October surprise.” Henry Kissinger was in Paris that summer, counseling Harriman and secretly coaching Nixon. Lyndon Johnson learned about Nixon’s treason from the FBI but chose not to let on. So a malignant conspiracy was being acted out in Washington, Saigon, New York and Paris—and the Times blew that story, too.

Now, to have missed it need not embarrass a common journalist who is outside the loop, but the Times has always prided itself on its intimacy with the movers and shakers. In his autobiography, Max Frankel gloried in the access; he bragged, for example, that Kennedy’s secretary of state, Dean Rusk, confided to him that “Laos is not worth the life of a single Kansas farmboy.” Later Rusk and Frankel would come to hold publicly that Indochina was worth many Kansas farmboys, but Max could not share Rusk’s earlier vision with readers because it was off the record. “We respected confidence,” he explained, “not just as a matter of ethics, but as a transaction of commerce.”

The balance of that trade has always been overwhelmingly one-sided. Reporters deliver sympathetic coverage; they are commonly paid back with tips on news that would become public in any event. In his memoir, Turner Catledge of the Times

nostalgically recalls helping one of his Senate drinking buddies to bury a peccadillo; the one scoop he mentions getting in return was beating FDR to the announcement of a trade meeting with either Belgium or Holland, Catledge could not remember which.

Such commerce remained a staple of the Washington bureau. Scotty Reston practiced it with succeeding administrations, enjoyed splendid access, and got lots of exclusives, but their value was questionable. The assassination of Kennedy struck him as ironic because “his short administration was devoted almost entirely to various attempts to curb this very streak of violence in the American character”—this about an administration that began with the Bay of Pigs, gave birth to the Green Berets, seethed with assassination plots, risked a nuclear war, and ended with the execution of Ngo Dinh Diem.

LBJ occasionally consulted Reston on how his Vietnam policy would play and found him “quietly approving.” (See Robert Dallek’s Flawed Giant.) It appears that the president never shared with Reston his doubt whether Hanoi had actually made unprovoked attacks on two U.S. destroyers in the Gulf of Tonkin, reports of which led to a virtual declaration of war; Reston and his colleagues never doubted the story. A Timesstaff bulletin gave kudos to all hands (Winners & Sinners, 8/13/64) for their coverage of a battle that never happened.

This article is excerpted from My Times: A Memoir of Dissent, John L. Hess’s memoir of his 24 years at the New York Times (Seven Stories Press).