Academic journal article New Zealand International Review

Media and War: Reflections on Vietnam: Nick Turner Recalls His Experience as a War Correspondent during the Vietnam War

Academic journal article New Zealand International Review

Media and War: Reflections on Vietnam: Nick Turner Recalls His Experience as a War Correspondent during the Vietnam War

Article excerpt

My posting to Saigon was really an accident. After entering journalism on the Auckland Star at the age of 17, and then doing a stint with the New Zealand Press Association in Wellington, I had gone to London and joined the Reuters news agency with the aim of becoming a foreign correspondent. In due course, Reuters assigned me to its large Singapore bureau. But then there was a sudden change of plan, and I was sent instead to be the sole-charge correspondent in Saigon, a role for which I was totally unprepared.

This was in 1962, before Vietnam had become big news, and like most people I knew little about it. I was just 27 with no experience as a correspondent in the field. My bosses saw South Vietnam as a good spot for a young correspondent to learn the ropes. For good measure I also had responsibility for neighbouring Laos and Cambodia, making visits to coordinate the activities of our part-time local correspondents there. But like Vietnam, these were places Reuters did not expect to hear much from.

On my PanAm flight into Saigon I picked up the latest issue of Time, which had a picture of US General Paul Harkins on the cover, with a headline something like: 'Vietnam, the World's Next Flashpoint'. Well, thanks.

At this time the foreign press corps in Saigon was small. In the Reuters bureau I was alone apart from a Vietnamese assistant journalist and an office boy who spoke little English. Reuters competed fiercely with its two American rivals, AP and UPI. UPI's man was Neil Sheehan, a young Harvard graduate also on his first real posting. The AP was better off with an American, Malcolm Browne, and a New Zealander, Peter Arnett, who had just arrived in Vietnam after being kicked out of several other countries in the region. The New York Times had Homer Bigart, one of the doyens of journalism and a Pulitzer Prize winner from the Korean War. David Halberstam, a dynamic young reporter with recent experience in the Congo, soon replaced him.

There were also a handful of part-time 'stringers' for publications like Time and Newsweek, and three or four French correspondents who kept pretty much to themselves. The big television networks had no staff correspondents in Saigon, and sent people in from Hong Kong whenever a big story broke. Actually the NBC did have an American there for a while, who turned out to be a CIA man using media credentials as a cover. He eventually came clean and worked openly for the CIA.

Small group

This group of less than a dozen correspondents were the eyes and ears of the world in its next flashpoint. In those days the world's media took most of their news from the three wire services, AP, UPI and Reuters, staffed in Saigon by two Americans and two Kiwis. We were in our late 20s and far from experienced. None of us spoke Vietnamese, and I was the only one in the group with competent French, the second language of most Vietnamese in high places.

Another advantage I had was my Vietnamese assistant, Pham Xuan An. We all relied heavily on our Vietnamese assistants, as translators and as interpreters of Vietnamese politics and the developing military struggle. My man was regarded as the best in Saigon, very well informed and shrewd. He was my intelligence officer. It later turned out he was also an intelligence officer for the Viet Cong, with the rank of colonel. Working for Reuters gave him a perfect cover to move around and pick up information.

The eventual revelation of his undercover role surprised many of my colleagues and has been much written about, but it did not surprise me. I always had suspicions and told him so, but said it did not concern me so long as he did his job for me. However, I was cautious about sharing sensitive information with him, and he clearly resented this and eventually moved to the Time bureau.

Excellent example

This was an excellent example of how things in Vietnam often were not what they seemed. …

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