The Dispatch War
ARNOLD BEICIIMAN writes from Saigon : I am unsure about a layman's right to intrude Aristotle into a discussion about the State of journalism. Risking all, I cite the Metaphysics, in which he offered two concepts of truth—dis- closure was the first and concordance the second. I offer an example of the difficulty of arriving at 'disclosure' and `concordance' in South East Asia.
The Associated Press dispatch from Saigon dated July 14 began: A ranking US military spokesman denied Tuesday that there were indications regular North Vietnamese Army units were moving into South Vietnam.
The United Press International dispatch from Saigon dated July 14 began :
The headquarters of the US military here announced tonight that Communist North Viet- nam had accelerated its infiltration into the South and that the stepped-up Communist ac- tivity 'has introduced a certain amount of danger in the four provinces nearest North Vietnam.'
Both correspondents, as I did, had attended the same press conference given by the same US mili- tary spokesman on the same afternoon in the same hot, smoke-filled office. Both had heard the same official statement to the press and had heard the spokesman's replies to questions. The result was two contradictory reports.
I intend no criticism of either of the two American agency reporters. They were victims of a military spokesman who was carrying out an assignment from on high—to mislead the press and public opinion. Had he confirmed that there was substantial infiltration by Hanoi into South Vietnam, he would have been faced with an in- evitable query—what is the United States pre- pared to do about a violation of a national border, particularly as it has international guarantees?
North Vietnamese infiltration exists and con- tinues with the help of at least two Russian troop- carrying helicopters. To have ignored this chal- lenge on July 14, the eve of the Republican con- vention; might have been embarrassing indeed. The way out, then, was to issue a statement with phrases like 'reportedly received some native North Vietnamese replacements,' unconfirmed reports indicate the probability . . . that a few of the personnel of this unit are native North Vietnamese,' 'false initial impressions,' etc.
This sort of official misrepresentation and re- sulting press reporting is, of course, what has done more to confuse American public opinion about the war in South-East Asia than any amount of Communist propaganda. Last fall, there were innumerable press reports that if the Diem regime were overthrown, the South Viet- namese people would be so inspired that they Would be reinvigorated and cast out the Viet-Cong. Nothing of the sort happened.
And with two national elections this fall— British and American—public bewilderment and perplexity is bound to grow. The war in South Vietnam, it is agreed on all sides, is far more Political than military, by which .I mean the rice- Paddies are as important as the vague and far- flung battle sectors. (`The only real battlefront here,' an American counter-insurgency expert
\ said to me, 'is eighteen inches wide.' With his right hand he touched his left shoulder and then his right shoulder.) And the question is whether newspapermen are prepared to cover the political aspects of this 'war of national liberation' ac- Cording to the doctrines of Vo Nguyen Giap and Mao Tse-tung. It is always easier to cover a distant battle second-hand than write about the politics of total war first-hand.
I write this on the Sunday when Saigon Memorialised the tenth anniversary of the Geneva accords which divided Vietnam across the 17th Parallel. Everybody- was so busy tracking down rumours about possible riots between Buddhists and Catholics and terrorism by the Viet-Cong during the mass meeting in Saigon's public square that a rather remarkable news event went largely unnoticed—a general strike on Saigon's water- front, which ,had begun at dawn the day before. What happened, why it happened and how it is related to the internal weaknesses of General khanh's Government, I will detail in a subse- quent dispatch. The strike is not yet over and there is much to learn about it. I venture to say that this strike has as much to do—perhaps more
with the course of the war as an accrochage in the Mekong delta.