Morley Safer, a Canadian by birth, had worked for several years as a correspondent for the Canadian Broadcasting Company. In the summer of 1965 he had just gone to Saigon for CBS. He was thirty-five that year, and he was not, by journalistic standards (it is a young man’s profession), a kid. He had covered combat and guerrilla warfare for the better part a decade, first in the Middle East, then in Cyprus, and then again for several prolonged tours in Algeria. He was not naïve about the harshness and cruelty of political warfare, knowing that it was infinitely more personal and bitter than great global warfare. He had joined CBS in the spring of 1964, assigned to the London bureau and expecting to cover England and the Continent. But then Vietnam began to heat up and CBS asked him to go to Saigon for six months; he was, after all, experienced in covering warfare, he was new at CBS (and thus expendable), and he was single (thus even more expendable). It was Safer’s impression that he was chosen because no one really expected the war to last that long; that the idea of sending a young Canadian was attractive on the premise that no one else in the office was likely to be interested. In retrospect, what struck him most about the American military mission in Saigon when he first arrived was its innocence. The American public information officers were helpful, little aware of the change in the nature of war and the complexity in press relations that this war would produce. They were graduates of previous wars, wars of survival, and they thought the rules were same: our side, their side. Oh, yes, there had been dissident print reporters in the past, but there was an assumption that they were the exception, and that once the flag was truly planted, it would be the good old days again.
In August, 1965, shortly after Johnson’s dispatch of American combat units to Vietnam, Safer had gone up to Da Nang, the Marine staging area. He had no precise idea why he had gone there; it was simply that he had not covered the Marines lately. In the trade Safer was known as having exceptional combat luck, two kinds of luck—the luck that wherever he went he found plenty of action, and the luck to live to narrate it. He was having coffee with some Marine officers, trying to get a feel for the area and the kind of action that was going on. A young Marine officer said he had an operation going the next day; would Safer like to go along? Safer would. So the next day they went on amphibious carriers o a place called Cam Ne, a complex of villages. On the way the young lieutenant confided to Safer that they were going to level it, really tear it up. Safer asked why, and the lieutenant said because they had been taking a lot of fire from the goddamn village, and the province chief wanted it leveled. (Years later another reporter who had studied that area told Safer that reason Cam Ne was leveled had nothing to do the Vietcong; rather, the Vietnamese province chief was furious that the locals had refused to pay their taxes, and he wanted the village punished; and the Americans, who were to do the punishing, were not aware of that.) The Americans walked toward the village in single file along a small tributary, everyone firing. One fact stuck in Safer’s mind: it was all friendly fire, and though three Marines were wounded, all three, as often happened in this war, all three were wounded in the back by their own men. But this added to the American anger nonetheless, and when they finally took the village, with no hostile fire, the Marines did in fact tear the place apart, setting fire to the hutches and leveling the village. Safer, surprised by the destruction, remembered feeling how senseless it was.
Years later, he was not bothered by the impact of the story he filed; to the degree that he was worried at a professional level, it was about whether the story, explosive as it was, had been too soft, and whether he should have done a harsher story. For the facts were uglier than what he reported: the Americans were throwing grenades down into shelter holes and using flamethrowers on the deeper holes, where cowering civilians were either burned to death or asphyxiated. At one point Ha Thuc Can, a Vietnamese cameraman who worked for CBS and who was fluent in both French and English, saw a group of Americans about to fire a flame-thrower down a deep hole. The sounds of women and children could clearly be heard, and Can started arguing with the Marines, screaming at them not to do that; there were Vietnamese women and children in there, he cried. He argued with the Marines for several minutes, and since he was the only one present who spoke both Vietnamese and English (Safer asked the Marine officer why he had no one in his group who could speak Vietnamese, and the lieutenant said he didn’t need anyone), Can began to talk the Vietnamese out of the hole. It took some time and risk on his part, but he finally did it, saving perhaps a dozen lives (for which heroism Arthur Sylvester, the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Public Affairs, tried to have him fired, complaining that one of the keys to this evil story was that CBS had used a South Vietnamese cameraman, a sure sign of alien influence).
For Safer, no innocent, this was something new: part of it was that it was Americans who were doing it. He had become accustomed to French cruelty in Algeria, but these were Americans, and like most people, including most Americans, he thought Americans were different. And part of it was the senselessness of it all, for even when the French had applied torture they had usually done it very deliberately; this seemed, in addition to everything else, haphazard, sloppy, and careless, and therefore perhaps worse than French habits of war. He filed his story on the spot, a decision he later regretted, thinking that if he had taken more time he might have made it better and tougher.
When Safer’s report came into CBS in New York there was an immediate awareness of the force and danger of it. Fred Friendly was called and awakened at home. At this point all CBS had was Safer’s radio broadcast, which they were about to use on the Morning News Roundup. Friendly was groggy and not entirely enthusiastic about the prospect of the story, but he asked one question: Is Morley sure of his facts? The CBS desk man at the other end of the phone answered: “Not only is he sure of his facts but he’s on the Q circuit [a kind of hold line] and they’ve just talked to him, and not only does he have it right—but wait until you see the film.”
Friendly felt nervous and frightened. He was going to have to decide whether or not to put this film on the air, and he knew the implications. CBS had not assigned the story. CBS, God knows, did not want American boys to burn down Vietnamese hutches. And if the hutches were to be burned, most high CBS officials probably would have been pleased if Morley Safer had missed the helicopter that took him there.
Friendly called Stanton to warn him about the story, and then he called Arthur Sylvester of the Defense Department to tell him to listen to the CBS radio station in Washington. Sylvester did, denied the story, and called it inaccurate. At this point the CBS news executives decided to hire a line to Los Angeles so they could look at the film. In those days a line cost three or four thousand dollars, and they were usually reluctant to hire one, but in this case the money looked very small. Fred Friendly, now joined by associates including Walter Cronkite, sat in a small room in New York and watched on screen a film of American Marines setting fire to Vietnamese thatched huts, Americans leveling a village. They knew they had to go with it. It was not so much that they wanted to go as that they simply could not fail to use it. They looked and they were shocked. But once the film was in, they were the prisoners of it. The only talk was about whether Morley had gotten the context of the story right, and so they called back to Safer to be sure that they had the full explanation for why something so terrible had happened. And then they went with it. It was an eerie evening for Friendly. He stayed at his desk that night to answer the phone calls, and he noted that the evening news has an interesting effect. Response to it comes in ripples because it goes out at different times to different time zones, and so, each hour on the hour or the half-hour, a new time zone’s of good Americans called in to scream their at CBS for doing something like this, portraying our boys as killers; American boys didn’t do like this. Many of the calls were obscene.
Among the obscene phone calls was received the next day by Frank Stanton, president of CBS, member of President Johnson’s Advisory Commission on the USIA, an agency whose mission is to promote the image of the United to foreign countries. The call came from Stanton’s great and good friend, the President of the United States. (Stanton, asked about the call years later, said he could not remember it, but the call and the reaction to it remained vivid in the memory of other CBS officials.)
“Frank,” said the, early morning caller, “are you trying to fuck me?”
“Who is this?” said the still sleepy Stanton
“Frank, this is your President, and yesterday your boys shat on the American flag,” said Lyndon Johnson. Then he administered a tongue-lashing to Stanton for letting CBS employ a communist like Safer and for being so unpatriotic as to put on enemy film like this. Johnson was sure that Safer was a communist; he sent out a search party to check his past; it was arranged that the Royal Canadian Mounted Police would check out everything about Safer. The conclusion was that he was above suspicion and law-abiding. Johnson was not happy about these findings, and he insisted that Safer was a communist. When aides said no, he was simply a Canadian, the President said, “Well, I knew he wasn’t an American.” He was also convinced that Safer had bribed the Marine officer in charge of the operation. “They got one of our boys,” he told his staff. He immediately called through to the Joint Chiefs to launch an investigation of the officer in charge, to make sure that he had not been bribed by a communist reporter, that he had not taken money. Even after the investigation returned a report that there was no bribing, that it was just one of those things, that those tricky newspaper people had tricked a green young officer, the President of the United States believed there was a conspiracy involved. Some of his underlings in the Defense Department kept up background noise claiming that Safer had staged the incident.
Safer’s film helped legitimize pessimistic reporting for other television correspondents (and made sure that if they witnessed a comparable episode, they filmed it). It illustrated the different dimensions of print and television journalism. A print report on a comparable story might have produced a brief flurry of reaction, but this was different. It marked the beginning of the end of a myth: that Americans were special, that American soldiers gave out chewing gum, and that American cowboys rescued women and children from the savagery of Indians. It also helped prepare the way for a different perception of the war. Now there was a greater receptivity to considering darker news about Vietnam, and to sensing that, despite all the fine words of all the public relations men that the Defense Department and the President employed, and all the fine posturings of high Administration officials on Meet the Press, there was something wrong going on out there. Sooner or later someone like Morley Safer was bound to stumble into something like Cam Ne, and when it happened it was electric. Overnight, one correspondent with one cameraman could have as much effect as ten or fifteen or twenty senators turned dissident.
CBS executives, talking to Stanton in the days following the incident, knew that he had it in for Safer. He would dearly have liked to dump him. For several days they thought that you could actually hear Lyndon Johnson’s voice in Stanton’s mouth. Then it became more subtle, reflecting Johnson’s doubts as distinguished from his rage: What do we really know about Safer? How did he get with us? What’s his real background? At CBS in the next couple of weeks there was an effort to get more positive stories on the air to balance the Safer report. But the Safer story had had an effect.
The problem for Frank Stanton was considerable. He was straddling dual roles: with the decline of Murrow, he had, ironically, been drawn more and more to the news department, and privately he believed it was the most important part the giant corporation. But the other Frank Stanton was still the establishmentarian and lobbyist who worked at getting on with the big boys, knowing the inner corridors of power, and never revealing what was inside them. As the sixties passed, the conflict between the two roles became irreconcilable. It became impossible to stand for a good public service broadcasting network and be the closest friend of the liberal and well-intentioned President of the United States. The raw edge of power was too harsh to permit Frank Stanton the luxury of both roles.. On the one hand Frank Stanton grew cold at the mention of Morley Safer’s name, and he was not, to say the least, a champion of Safer’s career. On the Other hand, Safer himself never knew it. The other news executives at CBS protected him, and he remained in Vietnam, a respected-figure among working correspondents.
A few days after the broadcast, Frank Stanton, he of the Establishment, whatever his complicated private feelings, went before a meeting of advertisers and defended the right of CBS News to cover stories as negative and as ugly as Safer’s. It was, some of his colleagues thought, the making of Frank Stanton. He was a different man after it; he was more independent and had somehow cast himself more with the news department than with the presidency.