Sydney Schanberg
Sydney Schanberg  Photo credit: Beyond The Killing Fields

A Look Back at a Great Journalist Covering a War that Still Haunts

Sydney Schanberg on What it Was Like Covering Vietnam and Why it Still Matters


When we speak of the ‘60s, talk invariably centers on Vietnam. No one understood that conflict better than Sydney Schanberg, who died the other day. His insightful and honest coverage of the war set a new standard for the truth. In this 1999 conversation, Schanberg reminds us why he will be missed.

Sydney Schanberg died Saturday at the age of 82.  At the height of his career, Schanberg was a  correspondent for The New York Times, covering the war in Indochina.  He wrote honestly about it — and in 1975, was awarded a Pulitzer Prize for his coverage of the genocide in Cambodia. That work, and the riveting account of how his Cambodian assistant Dith Pran survived the bloodbath, became the basis for the acclaimed film, “The Killing Fields”

In an obituary, The Times wrote eloquently of him:

A restive, intense, Harvard-educated newspaperman with bulldog tenacity, Mr. Schanberg was a nearly ideal foreign correspondent: a risk-taking adventurer who distrusted officials, relied on himself in a war zone and wrote vividly of political and military tyrants and of the suffering and death of their victims with the passion of an eyewitness to history.

He was one of many correspondents of his time who covered the war. But he was perhaps first in his class in helping America see the truth of what was happening in Vietnam and Cambodia.

Schanberg, along with author and journalist Philip Caputo (“A Rumor of War”), spoke with WhoWhatWhy’s Jeff Schechtman back in February of 1999, in the final days of the Clinton administration.  Schanberg and Caputo reflected and reminisced about their Vietnam coverage and experiences.

In this podcast, Schanberg explains how Vietnam changed the role that journalists played in wartime. He also contemplates how it precipitated the breakdown of consensus that now characterizes the American political process. The conversation could not be more relevant today.

Editor’s Note: WhoWhatWhy was honored to have Sydney Schanberg on our Editorial Advisory Council. He will be missed. 

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Full Text Transcript:

Jeff Schechtman: Welcome to Radio Whowhatwhy. I’m Jeff Schechtman.

In Matthew 13, it says “You will hear of wars and rumors of war, but do not panic. Yes, these things must take place, but the end won’t follow immediately.” And perhaps it is, that even the end of the Vietnam War is still with us. There has been a lot of talk this week about reliving and re-litigating the sixties. Least we not forget that at the heart of the sixties division was the Vietnam War. War that was passionately covered by some of the greatest reporters of the time. One of those reporters was Sydney Schanberg; he died last week. Beyond his Pulitzer Prize winning coverage of Vietnam, Schanberg’s story for the New York Times Magazine, The Death and Life of Dith Pran was the basis for the movie The Killing Fields. Back in 1999, 17 years ago, I had the opportunity to sit down with Sydney Schanberg, along with another war correspondent and national book award winner Philip Caputo to reminisce and reflect on their Vietnam War coverage. The occasion was an anthology of Vietnam War reporting published by the Library of America. What’s amazing is how prescient so much of what they reported and said was in looking at the world today. Here is that conversation with Sydney Schanberg and Philip Caputo from February of 1999.

Jeff Schechtman: Sydney Schanberg served in the US Army from 1956 to 1958. He joined the staff of the New York Times in 1959. He was the Albany Bureau Chief in New York. He was the New Delhi Bureau Chief of the New York Times and he was the Southeast Asia Correspondent from 1973 to 1975. He won a Pulitzer Prize, the George Polk Award for Foreign Reporting and his article The Death and Life of Dith Pran in the New York Times Magazine section became the basis for the movie The Killing Fields. I have a guest, Philip Caputo; served as an officer with the US Marines in Vietnam from 1965 to 1966. He joined the staff of the Chicago Tribune in 1968 working as a foreign correspondent from 1972 until 1977. It is my pleasure to have them both here on the program today. Sydney, Philip, good morning. Thanks for being with us.

Sydney Schanberg: Thank you.

Jeff Schechtman: It is a remarkable collection of work of a very remarkable time. Talk a little bit about the camaraderie, particularly during the period that the both of you were there which were in the later years, in the ‘70s. Camaraderie that existed, or the relationship that existed between the journalists that were covering the war. Philip, why don’t you start?

Philip Caputo: Well, there was actually quite a bit of that. Let me point out, by the way that my coverage of the war was confined to the very final months of it. I wasn’t there, in other words, very long as a journalist, although I was there for a year and a half in the service. There was quite a bit of camaraderie there. A lot of the people that covered the final months of the war, the last campaign of the North Vietnamese that won the war, had covered Vietnam before, or as in my case, we had covered other conflicts in the Middle East and in North Africa. I recall being on the terrace of the Continental Palace Hotel and seeing just about everybody I knew in the trade.


Jeff Schechtman: Sydney, you were there during the later years and in fact, in one of your pieces you talk about the fact of being almost a newcomer there to the war. Talk about the experience when you first arrived.

Sydney Schanberg: Well, although I’d been in the army, it was peacetime. Unlike Phil, I had never seen combat and it is very surreal. In fact, you can laugh at things now, but my first experience with weapons fired in anger was in Laos in a little town that was surrounded by the Pathet Lao, the Communist guerrillas. I was just looking; the town was mostly deserted, and the group of journalists were flown down in a helicopter, and that was my first – that was 1970 – and our trip was over and a helicopter returned and I was taking a picture of everybody getting on the helicopter including. Some Laotians from the town we were trying to scramble on and hitch a ride, because the place was going to be taken later on by the Communists. Suddenly, there’s this puff of dust to the left of the helicopter. I had no idea what it was, and people are yelling at me. Something’s wrong, I don’t know what it is, and they’re yelling at me to get on – to run and get on the helicopter. And then there’s another puff of dust to the right, and what those puffs were were mortars being fired from the hills that were bracketing the helicopter, first left, then right. And the next one was obviously supposed to hit it and we just took off and got out of there, but I had no idea what they were. When I say I was green, that is absolutely right.

Jeff Schechtman: You were green but by 1972 when you got to Southeast Asia you had, I assume, some very strong preconceptions about the war there.

Sydney Schanberg: Well, I’d been there in ’70 in Cambodia and Vietnam and Laos and also Thailand. In 1972, I spent the better part of the year in Vietnam, and I think it was clear that the American side wasn’t winning the war and that the other side was and that they had their troops and their leaders were more committed to seeing it to the end; we weren’t committed in the same way. Also for a whole bunch of other reasons, I think the policy was terribly flawed and we were in the wrong place. We didn’t understand Vietnam, historically, culturally. I think we were destined to lose the war, although as many military men will point out, we didn’t lose the battles. American soldiers fought well but they didn’t know what they were fighting for and therefore by 1972 or so, when troops were being reduced, I think there was a lot of very low morale.

Jeff Schechtman: Philip, talk about the American soldier and your experience as a Marine Officer when you first arrived in ’65.

Philip Caputo: Well, at that time in 1965, confidence was running very high, I would say actually too high. The troops, including the brigade I was with were very well trained, highly motivated, and I would say very skilled as fighting men. As Sydney said I believe, that the American soldier with their green army or otherwise, fought at least credibly if not well, very well in Vietnam considering the circumstances but as was pointed out – has been pointed out many, many times – it was a war with a very large political, even cultural component, and military prowess was only part of the equation. It was, I think as Sydney suggested at least, it was the other parts of the equation that we never got. The other side, I can’t speak for Cambodia or Laos, but Vietnam was what I was familiar with, the political component was in the coherence, the cohesiveness of North Vietnamese society, and hence in its military actions as compared to the fragmentation and lack of common purpose say in South Vietnam, and there was really nothing we could do about it.

Jeff Schechtman: Talk about this cultural aspect, do you deal with it certainly in rumor of war, but talk about the sense or was there a sense or what the sense was of the cultural aspect among the soldiers fighting there in Vietnam. I mean we know what it was domestically, we know what was happening in the streets of America. What was the feeling like there?

Philip Caputo: Well, initially there would be like two components to that cultural aspect. One is that we were in an alien cultural sea in Vietnam, and we didn’t understand it, we had no idea what was going on. You quite often had the feeling when you went out on patrol that you were entering some kind of, as I say “hostile sea” surrounded by people that, truly were inscrutable to you. Then, among ourselves of course, in ’65, ’66, ’67, the troops were pretty cohesive in the sense that they felt like the war was right and that the war needed to be fought and won. It was only later, and this I only know vicariously through friends of mine, that you had the cultural divisions that were then fragmenting the United States that came over with the troops to Vietnam, especially after the Tet Offensive in 1968. And then there was, I gather, quite a bit of divisiveness especially between officers.

Jeff Schechtman: Sydney, talk a little bit about Laos and Cambodia and the American experience there.

Sydney Schanberg: Well, they were different insofar as they had not been at war. Although there were Communist guerilla forces out there, they didn’t amount to very much. And they were two little countries that were used by all the so-called great powers as proxy warriors. These were surrogate wars fought on other people’s ground, with other people’s soldiers and people. The Chinese supported the Khmer Rouge and the Soviets supported the North Vietnamese who were on Cambodian soil and everybody had their little army that was fighting. Laos was a little bit different; American CIA units trained the Hmong tribesmen to fight the Pathet Lao guerrillas, and at least 30,000 of the Hmongs died in the war. In Cambodia, we know Cambodia today as a ruined country, and that is because we set in motion – all the great powers set in motion – historical forces that brought to power the Khmer Rouge. You could call them radicals, but they go beyond radicalism. They decided they were going to create a utopia, a rural farming utopia in Cambodia by erasing everybody who came out of the bourgeois classes and the commercial classes, that is the cities and anybody who had an education. They were essentially committing genocide against the educated, urban part of the population and did so, and as many as 2 million people died out of a total of maybe 8 or 9 million people in just the three and a half years that they held power in the late ‘70s. Now, we’re 20 years later, and the country is still a toxic wasteland as a result of decades of civil war and massacre and genocide and disease, and then famine.

Jeff Schechtman: All of this with the perspective of looking back. Sydney you write in Volume 2 in Reporting Vietnam, you have a piece in 1972 about the relationship between the military and the press. Talk a little bit about that.

Sydney Schanberg: Well, that piece was really about one side of the relationship between the military and the press, that is the official side in Saigon. And there was this rather comic ritual that was held every day, first at 5 o’clock, and then they moved it to 4 o’clock in the afternoon where the American public relations officers and the South Vietnamese public relations officers would get up and tell us what had happened that day, and it was usually a very, very stilted account, very boiler plate. You really couldn’t tell who won or who lost except that they gave the most optimistic figures they could think of. So you really would have to get out of the city and see for yourself. In other words, every reporter knew that you couldn’t trust what you were hearing there as anything like a complete picture. Mostly, it really was just a circus kind of ritual, everybody went along with it, but very few reporters used it as their primary basis for stories. The language uses the kind of language we have developed to even greater heights now. Napalm was called soft ordinance and collateral damage came into a general usage. The public began to hear about collateral damage – that’s when civilians get killed – that’s collateral damage. All of these words that are designed to sanitize war, which is anything but sanitary.

Jeff Schechtman: Philip, how aware were American soldiers of what the press coverage was like back home of the war?

Philip Caputo: Early on, it was fairly sketchy. Especially if you were on an infantry battalion as I was, you were way out in the sticks, and you didn’t get much in the way of newspapers and usually that would be Stars and Stripes which is the armed forces paper, and tended to – not entirely – but tended to reflect the military point of view. All I would get would be stories that my parents sent back from home or they would write a letter and say that the paper said this was happening, that was happening. Even as a young platoon commander, as early as 1966, I saw there was a grave disconnect between a lot of the stuff that was reported and what was really happening except in those cases when you had a reporter who actually got out and saw the fighting firsthand, but whatever the news was based on as Sydney mentioned, that ritual, which was known as the “5 o’clock Follies”. It came off as a kind of looking through the glass kind of thing, it was pure Alice in Wonderland.

Jeff Schechtman: You both write extensively about the final days of the war. Philip, watching the final days in ’75 of the war, what were your thoughts as somebody that was there ten years before at the very beginning of the exercise?

Philip Caputo: Well, it was very strange to me that I was there ten years later and it was as though the intervening ten years of my life had not happened, and I was suddenly transported back to where I was, and that the situation would be rather a huge exception that most of the American troops, all of them actually, were out by the time I came back in ’75. But the situation on the ground was not any different than when I had been there in ’65. But the other, and I think the feeling that affected me deepest was although in my own mind by that time I had come to oppose the war, come to think of it as a really grave mistake, I mean bordering on criminal behavior on part of some of our political and military leaders. I was never emotionally attached to the men that I had served with, many of whom, 15 of whom I could count their names on the wall in Washington who had been killed in action. So to suddenly see this whole effort collapse in defeat was a very personally painful experience for me and I had a lot of difficulty trying to be objective in my reporting about it and trying to suppress my own emotions about it although I did write one, sort of like an op-ed piece, very, very highly personal, emotional piece. It’s not in this book, but it was in the form of a letter to the first two men in our battalion who were killed in action, and I sort of wrote to them as to what was going on in Vietnam and what I thought about it.

Jeff Schechtman: Sydney, as you watched the end of the war, particularly the fall of Cambodia, what were your emotional responses?

Sydney Schanberg: I guess what I was doing was hoping for the best, some kind of reconciliation between the warring parties because now the great powers would disappear now that they’d had their use of the country. I mean, the country really was just used as a pawn and as I say, I hope, virtually every Cambodian whom I knew, whom I talked to hoped that the Khmer Rouge once having had victory would not have any need for vengeance and reprisal and so forth. That didn’t turn out to be the case, obviously. It was depressing, more than depressing. It was wrenching to see your friends marched off into the countryside for this “glorious revolution” when you knew that most of them were not going to survive. They couldn’t survive under the conditions that we knew that they were going to be placed under. They were frightened and weeping and that truly was what it was: a frightened, weeping time. The foreigners that were there, including myself were spared by taking refuge in the French embassy although it wasn’t regarded as a sanctuary by the Khmer Rouge. But anyway, it’s a very, very hard thing as Philip pointed out to watch a culture to which you become attached or a mission to which you become attached if you were hoping for victory, say in Vietnam and to watch the whole thing fall apart and not know what was going to come next, because we didn’t – we certainly didn’t know in Cambodia.

Jeff Schechtman: At what point, if at any point did you come to believe that victory was impossible?

Sydney Schanberg: In Cambodia, it was the first year I was there: in 1970. I began to believe that, it wasn’t a firm belief because it was clear that we and the Soviets and the Chinese were simply using this country to divert attention as an ancillary battlefield for Vietnam. In America’s case, we were using it to divert attention, in other words, we were building up this Cambodian army, as a light infantry army to engage North Vietnamese divisions, in other words to take them away from activity in Vietnam so that we could withdraw our soldiers in a safer environment. So I never thought the goal was to win. I think it was simply to use them so that Vietnam, the main ring of the circus, could come out in some face-saving way.

Jeff Schechtman: Philip, did you ever think was victory was possible?

Philip Caputo: Only when I went there in ’65. I mean I had become skeptical about the chances of victory as early as ’66 but by 1970, by which time I was already out of uniform, I was by then working as a newspaper man. With the Cambodian invasion and what resulted from it, I became convinced at that time that victory was impossible and that to pursue the war any further – to repeat something I said earlier – would be to take the policy from a grave mistake I thought into one I regarded as criminal behavior. I don’t mean the kind that you can be indicted for, but I meant the kind that’s just morally wrong, not just a mistake, but morally wrong. And as a fact I said so. I wrote a letter to President Nixon telling him that and I joined the Vietnam Veterans Against the War and sent my medals back to the President, that kind of thing. I became persuaded at that time that we were just…. It was almost like that old song from World War I: “we’re here because we’re here because we’re here because we’re here”, except that people were being killed at the same time.

Jeff Schechtman: Gentlemen we were talking a little bit about the optimism and pessimism that was part of the experience. When we look back at it, this sort of knee jerk reaction, the thing that comes immediate to mind is all the negatives. The negatives in terms of the attitude here, the failures there, but there were periods of time it seems to me as one reads these stories that there was a sense, at various points, of some optimism over there about the war. Sydney, talk about that.

Sydney Schanberg: Well, I don’t recall a time in my own personal experience where there was a lot of optimism. There was official optimism. In 1972, I covered the Easter Offensive, when the North Vietnamese came across the DMZ and several other places into South Vietnam with tanks and artillery and so forth, and almost took the country then, and were held off really by massive airpower: B-52s and all kinds of planes, Cobra helicopters. And really literally bombed from morning ‘til night. It was really around the clock bombing to hold off these troops from taking province capitals and possibly Saigon. There was, I think a feeling of success when that was over, that military power had won the day. But I never felt any optimism as you wandered around battlefields or talked to your Vietnamese friends, that victory was at hand.

Jeff Schechtman: Philip, was there ever for you over there the experience of what I think it was McNamara that called the light at the end of the proverbial tunnel?

Philip Caputo: I can’t say that, no. But in the early days of our involvement, there was a feeling of optimism that we would win. And a lot of that optimism was a carryover from the high tide of the Camelot era of President John Kennedy. But by 1960, with the Tet Offensive in 1968, I think that was the great dividing line. It became obvious that after three years of optimistic and sunny pronouncements by Secretary of Defense McNamara, from Lyndon Johnson, from General Westmoreland, none of these men, it turns out, believed in anything they were saying to the American public. All of a sudden, this enemy that the American public had been told was on its knees and ready to cry uncle, rises up out of nowhere and is able to attack targets throughout the entire country of South Vietnam. It turned out to be a horrendous military defeat with the Vietcong and the North Vietnamese, but it really was a psychological triumph for them, but we, through this false optimism of ours that was promulgated through the pronounced political and military leadership, built the foundation for that psychological victory. I think a lot of people in the American public said, well what the hell is going on if these guys were ready to be defeated or what’s going on here? I think that was really the end of American optimism, not only insofar as the war goes, but I think some of the optimism that’s almost part of our American nature, not all of it, but some of it was diminished and has remained so.

Jeff Schechtman: Sydney talk a little bit about this sort of lack of clarity in the American mind, in terms of what this war was about, this moral ambiguity. Even though there was the evil empire in a different form, there was great ambiguity. Talk a little bit about that.

Sydney Schanberg: Well, I mean you really follow the public pronouncements of our leadership group, I mean at one point the Russians were our primary enemy and then it was the Chinese. We kept changing the rationale as we went along because we clearly didn’t have a coherent notion. Vietnam was never a strategic interest. It wasn’t a matter of nationalism. If you look back – hindsight is 20/20 – but it’s easy to think: well if the French decided to get the hell out and they had a much stronger cultural connection with Vietnam, then what were we doing running in “where angels fear to tread”. I think it’s partly because we as Americans believe that we can overcome any obstacle and if the French can’t do it we’ll show them how it’s done. We’re the “can do” people, and all of that just fell apart in the midst of a culture that was at many times impenetrable for us. We should not have imagined that we were going to understand this generation-long war. We were cocky and that defeated us, as Philip pointed out, not military prowess. Any day as a journalist that I felt I was able in writing my stories to get inside the mind and the thoughts of the Vietnamese or the Cambodians or the Laotians. By say 20% I thought I was successful. People say 20%? That’s nothing. But it’s not nothing because you’re talking about a huge culture gap and even my friend Dith Pran will say to me, one time when we were together – we were having a debate about what something meant and I said, “Well you told me everything, didn’t you? You didn’t hold anything back.” He said, “look I tell you 80%. 20% I have to keep to myself.” And that’s a man responding in a way to his colonial heritage, saying “I have to keep 20% to myself.” I think most of the time it’s closer to 80%.

Jeff Schechtman: From your historical understanding, obviously Sydney you served in the military in peacetime and Philip, you’re too young but how was the journalism that came out of Vietnam do you think different than the kind of journalism that came out in the Second World War?

Sydney Schanberg: Well, the stuff that came out of Vietnam, one thing is that I think it was a lot more candid about what battle or what combat is really like. This was not due to some difference in the telling of the writers by any means, but this was due to the listing of censorship that occurred during the Vietnam War. The one thing is that there wasn’t a journalist in Vietnam that operated under any censorship whatsoever, or, if any, it was minimal; certainly nothing compared to what they did in World War II. I think that was one of the big differences. The other one, perhaps larger, is that in World War II, the journalists were on the side of the country. The country in the sense of the government and the military. It was my impression, I was born then; I wasn’t conscious of what was going on, but my sense is that everybody thought of themselves all engaged in one single national effort. And interestingly enough, there have been books about this. One that’s called Once Upon a Distant War by William Prochnau about several, but mainly three famous journalists: David Halberstam, Neil Sheehan and Malcolm Brown and Peter Arnett also. In the early part of the war, the journalists tended to be on the side of the US and the Vietnamese government, and the US and the Vietnamese military. It was only when this disconnect between what they were being told was happening and what they saw happening with their own eyes that you began to get a real division between the press and the establishment, the authorities, and so consequently, you eventually got the kind of dissident sort of journalism in Vietnam.

Jeff Schechtman: Sydney, would you expand on that?

Sydney Schanberg: Well, I think Phil is absolutely right. For the top brass, not the field officers, not the majors and the colonels in the field and the captains because there were few officers; the professionals were usually quite proud to display the discipline and commitment of their troops. When you arrived, they didn’t greet you as an enemy or an adversary, they welcomed you and you spent time with them. But the brass at the top, in the headquarters in Saigon, they began to treat the press as enemies; as people who were betraying the goal. In Cambodia, even though there weren’t American combat troops there, the embassy would say; I mean the acting ambassador Tom Enders in 1973 or 4 said to me “you’re not being helpful to us.” And I said “but that’s not my job: to be helpful.” In other words, I wasn’t supposed to have written something because it wasn’t helpful. It was accurate, he wasn’t complaining about its accuracy, but it wasn’t helpful. A lot of material wasn’t helpful in the Vietnam War and it was, as Philip points out, different from World War II. Really, in World War II, did you ever see a picture of a really gravely wounded American soldier? You saw lots of those, still pictures and on television in Vietnam. They were lasting images; they were very powerful. In World War II, you must remember that not only was it viewed as a common effort, but journalists also were given officers ranking and uniforms and traveled with units as military officers even though they didn’t carry out military duties. They were – I don’t know what the minimum rank was, I think it was captain or first lieutenant.

Jeff Schechtman: While you were over there, did you have an opportunity to read what other journalists were writing? Did you have an opportunity to see some of the other dispatches that were coming out of Vietnam?

Sydney Schanberg: Mostly no. At least in my case, you would sometimes see a summary, a version of it on USIS, the information agency, you’d see something like that at the embassy. But that would be just a paragraph. Most of what’s in this anthology I have never seen before and that’s what makes it sort of an interesting experience for people like me and Philip.

Jeff Schechtman: Before I let you both go, I’d like you both to comment on something we touched on a while ago, which is what do you think we’re still coming to grips with as a country from the Vietnam War? We were talking before about the fact that there is still a cultural upheaval somewhere in the body politic out there from this war. Sydney, start with you.

Sydney Schanberg: Well, I think that cultural chasm is still here, and I think that there are still lots of people like the top brass in Saigon during the war who still feel somehow this country has been betrayed by loose-living moral relativists and as you say, we saw some of that in the impeachment trial. I think Watergate and Vietnam were the start of the politics of vengeance and bitterness and we’ve reached new heights, and I don’t know where they’re going. I think it’s tainted everybody who’s involved. It’s an angry, nasty kind of dialog. It doesn’t get you anywhere, and I think we’re still chewing on each other because we haven’t resolved these issues. I think Vietnam is still very much in the air. This is not a country that takes losing in stride, and so we still haven’t digested that meal.

Jeff Schechtman: What is it going to take for that to happen? What is the therapy that we’re going to have to go through to do that?

Sydney Schanberg: Well, I honestly don’t know. I think that we have to understand a great deal more about suffering and sacrifice, and that would probably take some kind of upheaval on our own shores, and I’m not going to wish that on anybody.

Jeff Schechtman: Philip, the same question in terms of the social underpinnings of all this, and what we’re still feeling from it and how we can come to grips with it.

Philip Caputo: Two things that just sort of reverse the order of your questions. In my own view, your questions to me and Sydney about how we can come to grips with this, so what sort of therapy could we undergo as a nation for this is a very optimistic American attitude. It’s very much of the idea that there’s a kind of 12 step program you can go through and somehow set this right. So one thing I came out of Vietnam with, and I have to say too some of my other experiences in the Middle East and North Africa as a foreign correspondent, that’s not very American as I feel I came away with a sense of the tragic; that there are things about which you can’t do anything. That doesn’t mean that you lie down and go passive, but it does mean that there are things that one must accept sometimes in life and you live with predicaments rather than trying to solve problems constantly. That said, there were cultural divisions in America, bubbling and brewing in the 1950s, you kind of saw that in the Beat Generation underground. Those all came exploding to the fore during the 1960s and the detonator was this confused, morally ambiguous war which the establishment was bent on pursuing and to this day, we have not been able to comprehend the fact that we lost this effort and that we lost it for a lot of reasons that I couldn’t go into right now. We started to play the blame game. It was the fault of the press, or as Sydney pointed out, it was the fault of the sexually loose, moral relativists and so forth. I agree with Sydney; that the politics of vengeance, the change from a politics of consensus that existed during World War II and those early years of the Cold War really began to break down in the early ‘70s with the Vietnam War turning sour and with Watergate, and it’s gotten worse; that’s the thing that troubles me. So now to speak about a possible solution; I touched on one in an article I did recently in George Magazine about the number of Vietnam veterans that there are currently in the Senate and the Congress, and I believe, if I can recall it’s 21 or 22. These are combat veterans by the way. Men who had actually been under fire and I got a letter from one of them: a conservative Republican from Nebraska, Senator Chuck Hagel. I had said that possibly the common experience that these men had in Vietnam could bring them together even while they may be divided over certain policies of whether what do we do about Social Security or tax cuts, since that’s legitimate political discourse, but this kind of ideological warfare that’s going on would be diminished at least, as these men mature in their offices and begin to run the country. I have a hope for that, but I do think a lot of the divisiveness we see in our body politic now does go back to the ‘60s.

Jeff Schechtman: Well, as somebody once said: “the beginning of wisdom is knowing where to find it.” Certainly, there’s no better place than these two volumes Reporting Vietnam: American Journalism Volume I: 1959-1969 and Volume II: 1969-1975. Two of the men that covered that war: Sydney Schanberg for the New York Times and Philip Caputo, who served as a Marine officer and later covered it for the Chicago Tribune, I thank you both for sharing your thoughts, your ideas, thank you so much for being with me this morning. I appreciate it.

Sydney Schanberg: Thank you.

Jeff Schechtman: And thank you for listening and joining us here on Radio Whowhatwhy. I hope you’ll join us next week for another Radio Whowhatwhy podcast. I’m Jeff Schechtman.

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Related front page panorama photo credit: Adapted by WhoWhatWhy from Sydney Schanberg (CSPAN Screenshot), book covers (Beyond The Killing Fields) and Vietnam scene (National Archives and Records Administration / Wikimedia)


  • Jeff Schechtman

    Jeff Schechtman’s career spans movies, radio stations and podcasts. After spending twenty-five years in the motion picture industry as a producer and executive, he immersed himself in journalism, radio, and more recently the world of podcasts. To date he has conducted over ten-thousand interviews with authors, journalists, and thought leaders. Since March of 2015, he has conducted over 315 podcasts for

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