By UWE SIEMON-NETTO
I am flattered to have been asked to speak to you today almost half a century after I first arrived in Vietnam as a West German war correspondent. That was before the first American combat forces landed in Da Nang. It was then that I developed a passionate love for your country and its people who honor us Germans by calling us “Đức,” which also means virtuous.
One day, a member of a band of homeless newspaper boys living on Tu Do Street in Saigon, approached me and said, “You are Đức, my name is Đức, so we are both Đức, and I have a deal for you. If you allow my friends and me to sleep in your car, we’ll protect it and keep it clean for you.
I had rented on a semi-permanent basis a Citroen 15 CV, a “traction.” This was a huge and very thirsty French car built in the year I was born. Its door locks had gone. So it was just as well somebody watched over it. Sometimes seven or eight children slept in this machine, keeping it immaculately clean inside and outside.
I always parked it on Tu Do opposite the Continental Palace, next to the Café Givral, if you remember it. It became more than just my means of transportation; more importantly it became a vehicle of friendship between Đức, the newspaperman, and a bunch of wonderful kids led by Đức the itinerant vendor of the Saigon Daily News, the Saigon Post and many other papers.
This friendship lasted on and off until my traction became a casualty of the Têt Offensive in 1968 and the street kids disappeared from Tu Do for a while.
I wonder what has happened to Đức since then. Maybe he is now living in the United States, perhaps he is sitting right in this room. It would be wonderful to speak and laugh with him again; he was a great kid.
Not that I spent all that much time in Saigon; I often accompanied your troops into battle. And there I observed ARVN doctors and medics intrepidly trying to save the lives of wounded men. Perhaps some of you and I have met -- near Quang Tri, Hue, Pleiku or Plei My, Nha Trang, or in the Mekong Delta, or at the POW camp on Phú Quốc Island.
This was in early 1965.
Later that year I compacted my spine when an American MedEvac chopper I traveled on was shot down west of An Khe, and so American doctors looked after me. But never mind the nationality of military doctors and medics: In my five years in Vietnam I greatly came to appreciate the sacrifice, courage and professional expertise of all of you, Americans, Vietnamese, Koreans and Australians.
So you and I might have met. I was hard to miss when I visited your units, for during those early stages of the war I was often the only West German correspondent in South Vietnam, and my badge identified me as a German.
For one brief moment I even became your comrade-in-arms by capturing a Vietcong.
This was actually quite amusing. Here is what happened:
In February of 1965 I attached myself to an American Special Forces A-Team and participated in a parachute exercise west of My Tho. I hit the ground. I rolled up my chute and noticed that the ground gave under my feet. I stepped back. The surface popped up again. I hopped with both feet forcefully on that small spot. The surface sank. I heard a groan. Again I stepped back, removed a layer of grass and discovered the camouflaged plastic helmet of a VC and the nozzle of his antique M-1 rifle.
First I lifted the gun out of the hole, then the VC. He was a slim little guy in black pajamas, and he was shivering. I told him: “Courage, camarade, pour toi la guerre est fini.“ I don’t know if he spoke French but he surely understood what I was saying: “Take courage, buddy, for you the war is over.” Now he smiled.
I turned the VC and his rifle over to the Americans but kept his plastic helmet as a trophy. For the next 46 years it lived in my library until my friend Dr. Quy van Ly and his wife Chau came to my house in France last October. So I gave the helmet to them as a souvenir. Not that I had performed a great heroic deed.
Still, I was glad to help out. So here it is – the helmet. This was my trophy. Now it’s yours. It will be in your war museum here in Little Saigon.
Now, this was a benign incident whose memory I cherish. A few weeks later, I had a distressing experience west of Nha Trang. But it was significant for my understanding of my assignment. For it showed me the true face of the Vietnam War. The reason why I will now elaborate on this event is that it illustrates why so many Americans have never quite grasped what this conflict was all about.
President Richard M. Nixon later cited my report about this incident in his book, The Real War. So pardon my vanity if I quote a United States President quoting me: Nixon wrote: “…German journalist Uwe Siemon-Netto provided a vivid illustration of how communist guerilla groups use terrorism to effect their purpose. Siemon-Netto, who accompanied a South Vietnamese battalion to a large village the Vietcong had raided in 1965, reported: "Dangling from the trees and poles in the village square were the village chief, his wife, and their twelve children, the males, including a baby…"
The Vietcong had ordered everyone in the village to witness this family first being tortured, and then hanged. "They started with the baby and then slowly worked their way up to the elder children, to the wife, and finally to the chief himself. ... It was all done very coolly, as much an act of war as firing an anti-aircraft gun…"
All these were Nixon’s excerpts from a story of mine.Nixon explained that this is how the Communists won the hearts and minds of the rural population. They did not win hearts and minds by acts of compassion but by the most merciless forms of intimidation. The villagers told me that the Vietcong cadre had entered the village several times before and warned the chief that if he did not stop cooperating with the South Vietnamese government there would be severe consequences.
But he remained loyal, so they returned in the middle of the night and woke everybody in the village to witness the massacre during which a propaganda officer told the people: “This is what will happen to you if you don’t join us; remember that!” I am ashamed to admit that I can no longer recall the name of that village. But that doesn’t really matter because this sort of thing went on all over South Vietnam every night back then.
Yet the American public was largely unaware of this because their media did not tell them. In the daily press briefing in Saigon—the infamous five o’clock follies – episodes like this were reduced a mere statistic. The briefers would routinely inform correspondents of the huge number of “incidents” that occurred in the previous 24 hours.
This sounded like a sales report: “I Corps, 184 enemy incidents; II Corps, 360 incidents; III Corps, 225; IV Corps, 480.” That was that. No details were given. That would have been impossible anyway, given the large number of this kind of incidents in 24 hours.
We journalists had no way of researching all these particulars, unless we stumbled into such an event as I did when I accompanied a battalion of the 22rd ARVN division. Yet what I saw there near Nha Trang was actually enormously significant because it represented the essence of this particular stage of the Vietnam conflict.
Acts of terrorism to cow the civilian population were characteristic of the second phase of the guerilla warfare strategy developed by Gen. Vo Nguyen Giap, the defense minister of North Vietnam.
I seriously doubt that so many Americans would have turned against the Vietnam War, had their media continuously described of these acts of inhumanity that occurred everywhere in South Vietnam. They didn’t, partly because journalists did not have the means to do so, partly also because many reporters and their editors simply had another agenda. I said: many –not all.
Three years later, during the Têt Offensive in Hué, I stood with my colleague Peter Braestrup of the Washington Post at the rim of a mass grave and overheard him ask an American television cameraman: “Why don’t you film this scene?” The camerman answered: “We are not here to spread anti-Communist propaganda.” This showed a shameful mindset of many of my colleagues, a mindset that I believe was instrumental in shaping the desire of the American public to end this war almost at any cost.
Gen. Giap knew that this was going to happen. He knew that American voters would tire of this war. For he knew the weaknesses of a free society very well, notably its short attention span. Sixty years ago, he wrote: “The enemy” – meaning in reality all Western democracies – “does not possess the psychological and political means to fight a long drawn-out war.”
He prophesied the war fatigue, the peace moment, the hypocritical inclination of ideologues to overlook the hideous nature of a totalitarian revolutionary movement; the inclination to accentuate the shortcomings of one’s own side; the allegedly corrupt nature of the “allies” democratic societies are sacrificing their young men for; and eventually the desire to “seek an honorably way out,” and “peace with honor,” and an equitably negotiated settlement.
What was so remarkable about the media’s role in Vietnam was that some American correspondents, who later became strong antiwar advocates, were well aware of this danger. On January 13, 1965, the celebrated American columnist and historian Stanley Karnow quoted Giap’s statement about the inability of free countries to fight protracted wars and warned his readers about the consequences of this dire flaw in the fiber of any democratic system.
And yet before long, Karnow led the pack of writers agitating for a so-called “peace with honor,” knowing all too well that a truly honorable settlement was unobtainable.
Today we hear echoes of this with respect to Afghanistan. Again we hear calls for a negotiated settlement. We hear about secret talks between the United States and the Taliban. No thought is given to what compromise this totalitarian movement could be expected to stick to.
What would such a compromised entail: That instead of being forbidden to learn how to read and write, women will be allowed to learn half the alphabet? That for the first five years after a Taliban takeover only half as many alleged adulteresses will be stoned to death as used to be the norm before the Taliban were chased from power? That women will receive only half as many lashes as they used to when their ankles to be seen under their chadors?
A dozen years ago, the leading American feminist group, the National Organization of Women, published dramatic accounts of he Taliban’s ghastly human rights abuses against women on its website. Today it wastes no thought on the high probability that these abuses will be repeated once NATO has withdrawn its forces because these abuses are as much inherent in the ideology of radical Islamists, as gulags were inherent in Communist ideology. Those of you who experienced Vietcong internment know what I am talking about.
I believe that all of us have mission to be witnesses to history – you, the veterans of this war, and we who covered it. We must keep the memory of historical truth alive for the benefit of those who follow us. We must keep reminding the media in our host countries of their pivotal role in the preservation of freedom. We must warn those who come after us of the dreadful consequences of bad journalism, academic hypocrisy and a bored electorate’s lack of resolve. You are in the best position to do this. You have seen and often suffered so much.
Let me add something here: I am a Christian, and an amateur historian. As a Christian I know who is the ultimate Lord of history. And as an amateur historian I know that history is always open to the future. Putting these two factors together gives us hope – hope for Vietnam, hope for Afghanistan, hope for mankind. We are not the masters of the future. But we have a calling to help make this a better future.
Therefore we have not seen great evil deeds in vain, nor have we suffered gratuitously. There is a reason for all this, and the reason is that we are able to tell future generations what really happened, regardless of the many lies that are being told about Vietnam over and over again.
Uwe Siemon-Netto, the former religious affairs editor of United Press International, has been an international journalist for 55 years, covering North America, Vietnam, the Middle East and Europe for German publications. Dr. Siemon-Netto currently directs the League of Faithful Masks and Center for Lutheran Theology & Public Life in Capistrano Beach, Calif.