Thursday, July 26, 2007

South Vietnam, The American Waterloo: The Petard

From November 8, to 28, 1966, The Star published one of my columns almost every day. I read them closely at home searching for signals from management. Some editing had been done on them, but nothing I deemed important to my future intentions had been deleted or altered. Reading the articles as they were published caused many sensations and emotions to recur, but they were not as sharp as they had been that first day.

Co-workers, with whom I discussed the Vietnam war before getting my assignment, after reading the columns, believed America should get out. My remarks to them were guarded. Bo Mooney, the political writer, was the most supportive. He said he was going to urge all the politicians he knew to read the articles.

Between October 16 and Nov. 28, 41 columns were published. In early December, after checking my duplicates, I determined four columns remained unpublished. I considered only one, which dealt with the absence of a public health program in Vietnam, important to future articles.

As the columns were published, a private concern began to grow. The city editor had not, on even one occasion, talked to me in general about the situation in Vietnam or discussed a single ramification of a particular column. Neither did he ask questions regarding the articles I told him I planned. Those actualities, coupled with the fact that during my tour of Vietnam neither he nor any of the Star management had sent me a note or issued any instructions, were indications of two possibilities: either a lack of time or disinterest.

It seemed impossible that the city editor and management could fail to realize the unique and opportunistic situation of the newspaper. The Star had sent a representative to a foreign nation to cover a war, and it was the only Hoosier newspaper to do so.

Readership of the articles was good, and a departure from the news provided by the wire services and other larger newspapers with Far East bureaus. It seemed the newspaper should be more eager to capitalize on the situation than it demonstrated.

In early December, after it was obvious none of the remaining four columns were going to be published, I waited for an opportunity to speak with the city editor. I knew my initial presentation had to be brief. I'd be able to judge his degree of interest by the number of questions he asked, and expand my remarks accordingly.

Connor came to my desk early one day to discuss an assignment. When he finished the current matter, I asked him why the final four Vietnam columns had not been published.

"'ve been back a while, been seen circulating around. Just thought it was time to wind them up," he said.

Unwilling to sacrifice my main objective for those articles, I nodded and said I understood.

I asked him to have a seat and reminded him he owed me a talk.

He sat down and said, "Shoot."

Without hesitation, I said, "America should get out of Vietnam as rapidly as possible."

Connor's face betrayed no emotion.

As briefly as possible, I delivered my assessment of the facts and described the horrendous situation in South Vietnam.

"I'm sure people who have read all the columns have reached the same conclusion, but I'd like to draw matters into focus," I said, almost breathless after the staccato delivery.

Connor neither smiled nor frowned. "Isn't what you want to do just a rehash? Readers have probably reached the same conclusions you have," he said. "I don't believe we ought to tell them what their opinion should be. I think your standing to make such a pronouncement might be questioned, and that of the paper." After a pause he added, "It doesn't seem timely either."

I expected an argument...probing questions at the least. What I failed to anticipate was a total kiss absolute rejection. Had I been so intent in my delivery, that at some point I'd failed to hear the click as his mind snapped shut? Was he following a policy decision, or had he given an honest, if ill-founded opinion? Had my remark to Padev finally come home to roost? Had I invaded Padev's domain? Did I step on the owner/publisher's toes, who was a close friend of President Johnson? A cataract of questions tumbled through my brain.

Momentarily struck dumb, I said nothing. Connor rose to return to the city desk.

Rising from my chair, I sifted a few thoughts from the turbulence of my mind and managed to say, "Thousands of boys have died there and God only knows how many more are going to die. We've got to get out. We're walking down a dark alley in a strange country. We're getting mugged, killed, and robbed, and paying like hell for the privilege. It won't get better or go away if we close our eyes."

"Is something I've done or said caused you to do this? Is it a matter of policy?"

Connor reddened slightly and said curtly, "It's my opinion." He returned to the city desk and quickly clamped the telephone to his ear.

Internally I was writhing. I felt humiliated. Anger had risen in me to the extent I became numb. I went to get a cup of coffee, noticing as I did so, the customary din of the city room was inaudible. My mind, however, clattered with ricocheting thoughts. One word..."rehash"...was repeatedly spit out, and with every carom became louder and more objectionable. Everything I'd planned to write...was wrecked, fragmented, and scuttled.

I'd always believed one man in the right is a majority. That being so, the righteous voice of even one newspaper was an even more potent force. Without assaying the journalistic qualities of the Pulliam newspapers, I knew the elder Pulliam was an influential and powerful man. If one or all of his newspapers came out against the war in Vietnam, other publishers would might be forced to take a closer think, investigate for act.

From experience, I knew there was nothing I could do or say to change Connor's decision. If the pronouncement was a his and his alone decision, management would fully support him. If he had been ordered to issue the judgement by upper management, a veil would drop. He would shoulder the load and make the edict his. Then, if an underling complained about the matter, management would support what was, in fact, their decision and their man.

The veil was impenetrable. The judgement was irreversible. I had entered professional eclipse...unable to exactly identify which body blocked the light.

It was my belief that the lives of Americans justified any personal risk. It was impossible for me to comprehend that any friendship or loyalty was so rigid that the the moral and journalistic issues involving Vietnam could be ignored. Obviously, I was wrong.

For many days I felt wounded. A tightly woven shroud of bitter disappointment, anger, depression, and disgust coiled about me.

At home, Phyllis and I discussed the events at work. She gave abundant support and understanding. I talked to my brother Hunka, and told him what happened. He said he was sorry, but he wasn't surprised.

"Buck up. You're tough enough to take it. You've been through tough times before," my brother said.

It sounded easy.

The only way I could cope with the professional and personal defeat was to bottle up everything I knew and believed about Vietnam, cork it tightly, and wall it up in my mind. I forced myself not to think about anything connected with Vietnam...past or present. I made no speeches, joined no protest movements, and talked to almost no one about the war.

No effort was made to interest any other newspaper or news organization with my work. I reasoned if my own paper rejected all I knew and could write about in regard to Vietnam, what credence was possible in discussing the matter with other publishers.

It took several days before I was able to harness all the emotions, bore a hole in my subconscious, and store Vietnam away. Day to day it worked fairly well, but there were times the hostility and disappointment burst forth. The first incident came during the 1968 Democratic Convention at Chicago, which was marred by a riot between war protesters and the Chicago police. The second came after Ohio National Guardsmen killed four students during a protest at Kent State University.

On those occasions, many staff members voiced their support of the police and the National Guardsmen.

Angered at the violence triggered by those who were supposed to keep the peace, and with my compatriots reactions, I said, "You folks would be right at home in North Vietnam or with the Viet Cong. If anyone dares protest or object to anything they do or say, it's fine to beat, torture or kill them. This is America," I said. "Everyone has a right to dissent, or have you jerks suspended the Constitution and declared martial law?"

My outbursts on those occasions drew wary looks and caused rapid withdrawals from the area of my desk.

The third occasion came at my home when I picked up an edition of Life Magazine which contained the photographs of all the young Americans killed the previous week in Vietnam. After only a few glances at those pages, my vision was blurred by tears. I could not help but think about those dead young men I'd seen at the Army morgue. For many weeks after the article in Life, I had a nightmare about that visit. In that dream, grief stricken, I clutched my boss by the neck, forced him to look at the dead men while I screamed at him, choked him and shoved him around the huge morgue and declared him responsible for all their deaths.

Obviously, I was unable to completely accept what I deemed a professional stab in the back. In my attempt to cope, I'd withdrawn the dagger, but it left a deep, slowly healing wound. Much of my zest for newspapering was lost as a result. My relations with the city editor, never ideal, became icily professional.

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