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Thursday, 26 September 2019 06:39

Thomas D. Herman Smooches Halberstam and Sheehan

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Jim DiEugenio critiques Thomas Herman's recent Boston Globe editorial for its ignorance of contemporary research and perpetuation of false narratives concerning JFK and Vietnam.


Thomas D. Herman was a former producer for CNN. The editorial he published in the Boston Globe on September 19, 2019 shows it. If the reader can believe it, Herman writes there that the reporting of Neil Sheehan and David Halberstam from Saigon in the period of 1962-63 upset President John Kennedy, because they were exposing America’s growing involvement in the Indochina conflict. To say such a thing in 2019 is simply stunning. With all the documents that have been declassified on this subject, with all the contemporary research that has been written by authors like Gordon Goldstein, James Blight, David Kaiser, Howard Jones, Jim Douglass, and John Newman, this concept is so obsolete that its almost ludicrous. It is so opposed to the current factual record that one almost suspects that Sheehan and the heirs of Halberstam were behind it.

As the six authors noted above have proven with declassified documents, by 1963, Kennedy had decided that there would be no escalation of the war. In that year, he had issued a directive, NSAM 263, to begin removing all American advisors from the conflict. In fact, one could persuasively argue that Kennedy had made the decision to withdraw in the spring of 1962. This is when he had his ambassador to India, John Kenneth Galbraith, hand over a memo to Defense Secretary Robert McNamara recommending drawing down American forces there. (John Newman, JFK and Vietnam, pp. 236-37). One month later, McNamara forwarded that directive to General Harkins, the commander of forces in Vietnam. (James Douglass, JFK and the Unspeakable, pp. 120-21). This was the actual beginning of Kennedy’s withdrawal plan.

The basis of Herman’s nonsensical column is a documentary film called Dateline Saigon. This is a film that Herman produced and wrote in 2016, which has yet to find a distributor. But in his article, Herman tries to say that somehow Kennedy was angry with Halberstam for writing about the air operation Farmgate. These were combat operations which McNamara had approved as long as they were dual missions, that is, they consisted of both American pilots and Vietnamese trainees. The military had done what they could to cover up their individual missions prior to McNamara taking supervisorial command in December of 1961. (Newman, pp. 160-61). After this, they had to be dual missions. As John Newman makes clear, the Pentagon was not happy with this directive, most notably Curtis LeMay. He thought these dual missions were nothing but “diplomatic fiddling around.” (Newman, p. 162). LeMay said that the threat in Vietnam was being played down and it was a good place for a showdown with the communists. He pressed for the use of American might all the way up to atomic weapons. LeMay also advocated for an insertion of an Army brigade task force, a Marine division accompanied by an air wing, and three tactical Air Force units. These were needed to stop the loss of South Vietnam and ultimately all of Southeast Asia. One month later, in January of 1962, the Joint Chiefs passed on a recommendation to insert combat troops. (Newman, p. 163). If one adds in all the previous recommendations from the previous year, as enumerated by Gordon Goldstein in his book Lessons in Disaster, this would make 11 requests for combat troops that were all turned aside by Kennedy.

There is a secret that Herman keeps out of his column, namely, that Halberstam and Sheehan agreed with this escalation. How anyone can write a column about those two men and leave out the name of John Paul Vann is startling. For as anyone who understands the Vietnam story knows, Sheehan and Halberstam were acolytes of Vann. And Colonel Vann wanted more American involvement in the war, not less. Vann understood that the ARVN could not win the war on their own, but he did not want America to leave. He wanted direct US involvement to save the day. And he made no secret of this fact. (Newman, pp. 316-19). Much of the information that Sheehan and Halberstam wrote came from Vann and almost all their stories criticized the conduct of the war and said the USA and Saigon were losing. (David Kaiser, American Tragedy, p. 194) As John Newman notes in JFK and Vietnam, Kennedy was trying to conceal his withdrawal program under the mask of false intelligence reports saying Saigon was winning. Vann knew this was false. And he was using Sheehan and Halberstam to expose it. (Kaiser, p. 225) In fact, one could argue that Halberstam and Sheehan became conduits for Americans in Saigon who were opposed to Kennedy’s policies. In addition to Vann, that would have included Henry Cabot lodge. (Kaiser, p. 233, p. 255) The disapproval of what Vann, Halberstam, and Sheehan were doing went all the way up to the top levels of the administration, i.e. Kennedy, McNamara, and National Security Advisor McGeorge Bundy. (Kaiser, p. 261)

If the evidence advanced above is not enough for Mr. Herman, I would then offer up Halberstam’s first book on Vietnam, which he would have much preferred that everyone forget. It was called The Making of a Quagmire and was published in 1965. As I have stated previously, that book is probably the single harshest blast issued against American policy in Vietnam written up to that time. It was quite comprehensive, attacking just about every single element of the American mission. It attacked American backing of the Diem regime, the ineptness of the ARVN, and especially Colonel Hunyh Van Cao, since Vann really disliked Cao. Halberstam praised Vann and recommended him since he knew how to win the war. (See Chapter 11). If one needed to make it clearer, Halberstam does. Towards the end, he writes that “Bombers and helicopters and napalm are a help but they are not enough.” (p. 321) In other words, combat troops were needed. A page later, he concluded with the following: “The lesson to be learned from Vietnam is that we must get in earlier, be shrewder, and for the other side to practice self-deception.” In other words, Kennedy had blown it by not escalating the war. When, in fact, the real problem was that Eisenhower, Nixon, and the Dulles brothers—Secretary of State John Foster and CIA Director Allen—should have never broken the Geneva Accords back in 1956.

The problem for these three hawks was this: they got their wish. Johnson expanded the war in the air and inserted tens of thousands of combat troops in the very year Halberstam published his book. It ended up being a horrifying debacle. All in pursuit of a goal that could not be achieved. Kennedy was correct on this. Vann, Sheehan, and Halberstam were wrong. But the two enthralled reporters could never admit that. It took them years to even understand that military escalation was not going to work. In fact, it was not until 1971, when Sheehan was confronted with the Pentagon Papers, that he began to understand what he had done. Just the year before, he had been sent out by his New York Times editors to attack Mark Lane for exposing Vietnam atrocities in his book Conversations with Americans. He dutifully did so and called the My Lai Massacre only a rumor. (Mark Lane, Citizen Lane, pp. 220-21)

In 1972, Halberstam published his fallacious and pernicious book, The Best and the Brightest. I have examined that book at length and in depth. That volume broke a basic rule of scholarship, in that not one statement was footnoted. Beyond that, the author did not even list his interview subjects. This allowed him to make some of the most fraudulent statements ever in a book about the Vietnam conflict. For instance, on page 214, he writes that McNamara “became the principal desk officer on Vietnam in 1962 because he felt that the President needed his help.”

Everyone makes mistakes in a journalistic career. They are acceptable in dealing with complex subjects. As long as not too many are made. But this reviewer has a problem when someone gets an important episode precisely wrong. When someone does that, it indicates 1.) The writer was gulled by an unreliable source, or 2.) The writer had an agenda. Today, I think both factors applied for Halberstam’s inflated phantasm of a book. In the second paragraph of this article, it is revealed that McNamara did not go to Kennedy. Kennedy went to McNamara and it was not about conducting the war. It was about implementing a withdrawal plan. It is hard to believe that Halberstam could have missed this key point in all those interviews he did. But it was this piece of hokum that began the myth that Vietnam was McNamara’s War. (For my original review of this pathetic book, click here)

Can Mr. Herman have really not been aware of any of this material? The idea that Halberstam and Sheehan were journalistic heroes on Vietnam is a sick joke. And the idea that Kennedy planned on escalating the war is also ersatz.

The conclusion of the piece is also seriously compromised. The Pentagon later learned a lesson from the coverage of Vietnam. But the lesson was not learned under Kennedy. When Johnson escalated the war to almost unimaginable heights and reporters were allowed to roam free and expose the utter futility of General William Westmoreland’s plan to win the conflict, that is when the true horror of the conflict reached into the homes of the American public. Which is why it ended up being called The Living Room War. This was especially accentuated during the Tet offensive, with films of Viet Cong guerillas running through the American State Department compound with rifles, while American diplomats fired at them with pistols. Those kinds of reports went on for four years, night after night, week after week, month after month. This is how Vietnam really became a quagmire—after Vann, Halberstam, and Sheehan got what they hoped for. There was nothing like it under Kennedy. And it was those later images which ruined LBJ’s presidency and poisoned the support for the war effort domestically. It also caused the incoming president after him, Richard Nixon, to understand that the war was a losing effort and it could not be escalated on the ground any further.

The Pentagon learned its lesson from this ordeal. Therefore, beginning with Ronald Reagan, the idea of guided press caravans began. The alternative was to only allow certain press representatives to report back to a larger group of reporters as to what was happening. Sometimes, as in Fallujah, Iraq, there was virtually no American press allowed at all. And that was the real significance of the press coverage in Vietnam. The only way Halberstam and Sheehan caused this was in encouraging escalation in service of John Paul Vann.

Tom Herman is making sure that no one learns the real lessons of Vietnam.

Last modified on Friday, 04 October 2019 06:43
James DiEugenio

One of the most respected researchers and writers on the political assassinations of the 1960s, Jim DiEugenio is the author of two books, Destiny Betrayed (1992/2012) and The JFK Assassination: The Evidence Today (2018), co-author of The Assassinations, and co-edited Probe Magazine (1993-2000).   See "About Us" for a fuller bio.

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