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Holding the Line at Credibility Gap

By Don North
11/14/2017 • Vietnam Magazine

As father of the Five O’Clock Follies and chief of psychological warfare operations, information ‘czar’ Barry Zorthian had to walk a fine line.

Barry Zorthian looked and acted the part of a Middle East rug merchant who had just received a new shipment from Persia. He possessed a silver tongue and could be very persuasive. Zorthian was the longest serving U.S. diplomat in Vietnam and the last surviving member of the original diplomats and military leaders whose policy decisions shaped America’s war in Vietnam. Until his departure in 1968, few major U.S. policy decisions were reached in Saigon without his input. “Zorro,” as he was affectionately called, was one of the shrewdest, hardest working and sophisticated government officials to serve in Vietnam. He headed a 500- person staff as director of the Joint U.S. Public Affairs Office in Vietnam (JUSPAO), and his tasks included the very public role as his country’s principal spokesman in Saigon, serving as media adviser to General William Westmoreland and three headstrong U.S. Ambassadors—Henry Cabot Lodge, Maxwell Taylor and Ellsworth Bunker—and, remarkably, overseeing U.S. psychological warfare operations.

For months, I had been urging my friend and fellow journalist, Barry Zorthian, to write about his years in Saigon in the mid-1960s, and describe the shadowy intersection of his duties in press management and psychological operations. He said he would when he got his memories in order. Sadly, time caught up with Barry on December 30, 2010, three months after his 90th birthday, when he died at a hospital in Washington, D.C.

Baryoor Zorthian was born to an Armenian family in Turkey in 1920—at a time when Armenians were being massacred and deported. The family escaped and settled in New Haven, Conn. Barry did well in high school and was awarded a scholarship for local boys to go to Yale, where he first practiced journalism. Upon graduation in 1941, Zorthian served in a U.S. Marine artillery unit in the South Pacific and finished World War II as a captain.After the war, he took a job at CBS radio in New York. He received a law degree from New York University, but instead of practicing law he preferred journalism and spent 13 years with Voice of America as a reporter, editor and program manager. In 1961 he joined the U.S. State Department and became a deputy public affairs officer in the U.S. Embassy, New Delhi, India.

Three years later, in February 1964, U.S. Information Agency (USIA) Director Edward R. Murrow appointed Zorthian JUSPAO director in Vietnam as part of the shakeup in the wake of President Ngo Dinh Diem’s assassination in November 1963, the ongoing power struggle in South Vietnam and a strengthening Viet Cong. At first U.S. Ambassador Lodge, who considered himself an expert in dealing with the press, ordered Zorthian to stick to routine information programs. Before long, however, both Lodge and General Westmoreland recognized Zorthian’s special talents and urged Washington to appoint him the policy coordinator for all the media. Soon he was being described as the “information czar” in Saigon.

Zorthian used a mixture of charm, sly wit and straight talk to establish credibility for the U.S. war effort, releasing what seemed a veritable flood tide of information in comparison to past practice. He reportedly told U.S. officials, “We cannot exist without reality as a base,” and he leaned on reluctant mission officials to talk to journalists. He also won the gratitude of reporters by arranging transportation at difficult times, and by presenting himself as the voice of sweet reason in an otherwise hostile mission. Zorthian was also a sincere advocate of what he saw as a noble cause, telling Life magazine in 1967: “I believe in what the U.S. is doing here. We are trying to help the Vietnamese ignite a social revolution.”

Although he was untrained in the science of psychological operations, he was charged with coordinating the U.S. Information Agency’s “psy ops” effort to win the allegiance of the Vietnamese people and erode the morale of the enemy through what was called “hearts and minds” programs. The $10 million-a-year program dropped tons of leaflets, staged anti–Viet Cong plays and lectures for villagers and a raft of other, sometimes bizarre, campaigns directed at both the population in the South and the enemy lurking among it.

By far the most successful psy ops initiative was the “Chieu Hoi” or Open Arms program, which Zorthian supported and greatly expanded in 1967. Several times while I was a reporter in Vietnam, I saw Viet Cong emerging from the swamps in the Delta with fistfuls of “safe conduct” passes that had been dropped from aircraft. With promises of jobs, and relocation of family to safe areas, the Chieu Hoi program is estimated to have caused 250,000 defections during the course of the war.

“There wasn’t a hell of a lot of teamwork in the mission,” Zorthian later observed. “Everybody was ready to blame the other guy. The CIA thought the military was too conventional, and the military thought the CIA were a lot of cowboys running around getting into its business. Our U.S. Information Agency was regarded as a puny bunch playing psychological warriors.”

In his book Why Vietnam Matters, Rufus Philips, a veteran CIA and U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) consultant, describes the poisonous atmosphere between competingAmerican diplomatic and military officials in Saigon. “There was a great deal of empire-building or turf-building,” Philips said, describing the opposition to the storied counterinsurgency advocate Maj. Gen. Edward Lansdale when he returned to Saigon in 1967.

Zorthian sided with the anti-Lansdale faction headed by Philip Habib, the powerful political officer of the U.S. Embassy. Zorthian and Habib regarded Lansdale as a loose cannon and a maverick upsetting things without discipline. They believed the war had changed since Lansdale advised Prime Minister Diem, and that an era of Americans in battalion strength had replaced the counterinsurgency programs favored by Lansdale. “I thought Lansdale was living in the past,” said Zorthian. “If he had come back two years earlier, maybe. But by the time he got back out there, he was irrelevant. He didn’t think so. But I did.”

Lansdale and others believed that although Zorthian was tops in press relations, he was out of his depth as a psywar chief.

Frank Scotton, one of the longest-serving American agents in Vietnam field operations for pacification and psychological operations, spent 12 years working with the USIA. He often worked in the shadows and was a close friend of Lansdale, Lucien Conein, Daniel Ellsberg and William Colby. Assessing Zorthian’s role as chief of psychological operations, Scotton said:

My sense is that we never did have a chief of all psychological operations. JUSPAO generally set policy and provided guidance. If that authority had been provided to him, Barry would have had to spend every ounce of his time just on psy ops. I do think he was a perceptive “reader” of others’ abilities, intentions and motivations. He was a clear-thinking, quick learner. I never needed to describe or explain something more than once.

Whatever the realities and in-fighting among the American advisers, Zorthian survived for 41⁄2 years, while Lansdale was sidelined and left Vietnam after a year. Mixing the shadowy world of psy ops with the transparent world of the communications officer drew criticism from some quarters. But Barry Zorthian, the great juggler, seemed to handle it.

Of all his achievements, Zorthian remained proud of creating the daily Saigon press briefings that became known derisively as “The Five O’Clock Follies,” in which officials presented battlefield reports and answered questions. Though they often degenerated into shouting matches and were widely ridiculed, the press briefings lasted a decade and were in fact the only regular forum in which U.S. and South Vietnamese officials spoke on the record. In spite of all of its flaws, the Follies became a road map for Vietnam journalists. These daily briefings, actually scheduled for 4:15 p.m., were the only forum in which reporters could hold military commanders directly accountable and on the record. They were held in a 100-seat theater on the ground floor of a seedy JUSPAO office building on Lam Son Square, a block from the Caravelle Hotel, across the street from the Eden Building and adjacent to the Rex Hotel. For the Saigon-based news media, the Follies were the social and information highlight of the day, an opportunity to mingle, compare notes and hear what the U.S. Embassy, Military Assistance Command Vietnam, and the South Vietnamese military had to say about the course of events.

“Barry’s door was always open, and although he never shared a classified thought, he left you feeling that he had,” said former CBS reporter Bernard Kalb. “Even when he told you nothing, he was always persuasive.”

“A clique grew up around Zorro,” said Frank McCulloch, former Time bureau chief in Saigon. “He would invite six to eight journalists to his villa every Thursday evening. He’d serve drinks and we would listen to whatever key figure from the mission or from Washington he had arranged to brief us.” McCulloch added that Zorthian often invited a few of the reporters to stick around for an all-night poker game. “While there was a definite element of manipulation to Zorthian’s modus operandi, he was genuinely interested in journalists and understood them on a personal level. His employer was the U.S. government, and his duty was to present that government in the best possible light. Given that criterion he was a pretty good public servant.”

Zorthian was candid about the adversarial relationship he found himself in the middle of, saying in 1967: “Government and press interests always are in conflict. Sometime I wish we could control the press, but it’s good that we cannot.”

“I can never recall him misleading me, even though he straddled a fine line of loyalty to the government and the public’s right to know, which he strongly believed in,” said George Esper, a former AP bureau chief in Saigon. “He was always accessible and always knew what he was talking about.”

Zorthian often fielded reporters’ complaints with a pragmatic view and some wit.

Peter Arnett of the Associated Press once complained about an American military policeman who Arnett claimed had threatened to shoot him during a 1965 Buddhist street demonstration in Saigon. “Zorthian shook his head at me in mock concern,” Arnett recalls, “and said, ‘Damn it, Peter, you threatened him and he was just responding.’”

“What?”Arnett replied. Zorthian said, “Yes, you were aiming your pencil at him and that’s more dangerous around here than a .45.”

Some reporters considered Zorthian a trusted source who would leak stories unfavorable to the U.S. Government when he felt it necessary. “He had a conscience. He believed in informing the American public,” said former New York Times correspondent Neil Sheehan. “His problem was that he was trying to sell a bad war.” Some reporters were skeptical at the time and remained so after the war. The late New York Times correspondent Gloria Emerson called Zorthian “a determined and brilliant liar” at a conference on Vietnam in 1981. Zorthian denied he had ever lied or that he had ever been told to lie, and acknowledged only that he had withheld sensitive information relating to military security or diplomacy.

Zorthian admonished his staff and particularly Westmoreland to deliver free-flowing information with “maximum candor and disclosure.” The key to Zorthian’s approach to the press was to persuade them in “positive thinking.” At the drop of a press card, you could usually get an interview or even a helicopter ride with “Westy.” But Westmoreland was not an apt pupil.Apart from granting reasonable access to journalists and providing long selfserving interviews, Westmoreland often “didn’t get it.”

In mid-1967, Westmoreland sent a memo to most of the news agencies in Saigon suggesting that reports of inefficient Vietnamese troops were not helping the war effort. “If you give a dog a bad name, he will live up to it,” Westmoreland observed, recommending more positive reporting. Zorthian strongly urged Westmoreland not to issue the memo, which was largely ignored—or ridiculed—by Saigon news bureaus and only served to highlight the general’s failure to understand the role of a free media.

In later years, much to Zorthian’s chagrin, Westmoreland became the “point man” for the growing claim that “the media lost the war” and that somehow the press betrayed the troops in Vietnam. Zorthian often countered Westmoreland’s blame of the media. “Sure, the press was a discomfort then,” he said in 1986. “But the postwar charges that the press lost the war are completely unwarranted. Our efforts on the ground lost the war, not the press.”

Despite their differences, Zorthian, always a loyal friend, defended Westmoreland when some journalists pursued him into his grave in 2005. In response to an obituary and other stories in The New York Times, Zorthian wrote a letter to the editor. “I do not recognize the pasteboard portrait of the man Johnny Apple draws….I knew the man as a friend and admired him as a person of conscience and devotion to country and mission.”

Another reluctant pupil of journalism according to Zorthian was President Lyndon Johnson. “Goddam media, why can’t you handle it better, Zorthian?” Johnson is quoted as once saying. In a 1978 National Archives interview, Zorthian expounded on the conflicting perceptions of the media:

I always felt all through the war, one of the drawbacks was that LBJ would speak about the war in the rhetoric of his generation and World War II. The flags were flying, the troops were marching, you came aboard and you saluted. And that worked in World War II; it didn’t in 1965 with a new generation. Theirs was a questioning, a skeptical, and challenging generation of journalists. In Vietnam we reached a stage where the government’s word was to be questioned until proven true, whereas in the past it had been the government’s word was valid until proven to be wrong. That’s a very critical, significant difference, I think.

By the summer of 1968, after the Tet Offensive and after his request to Johnson for an additional 250,000 troops, it was time for Westmoreland to come home, where he was promoted to Army chief of staff at the Pentagon, Likewise, after surviving 41⁄2 years in the Vietnam cauldron, it was time for Zorthian to go home. Barry Zorthian had seen the war escalate from 20,000 American troops when he arrived in 1964 to 560,000 in 1968.

A few weeks after the Tet Offensive, President Johnson invited Keith Fuller, the Associated Press chief of personnel, for a meeting at the White House. The AP was well aware that Johnson was not happy with the reporting of Peter Arnett. Fuller reported that the president talked with him about the war and controversial news coverage. Then he said: “Look, we’ve moved Barry Zorthian out of Saigon after four or five years there. Now, isn’t it about time you moved that Peter Arnett back home?” The AP didn’t.

After being pulled out of Saigon, it was expected that Zorthian would at least be named ambassador in an important embassy. However, there were those in Washington who suggested he had been too friendly with the impudent scribes of Saigon.Yes, Secretary of State Dean Rusk had an embassy in mind for Zorthian in a nice little country with a river running through it. It was Niger, the former French colony, one of the poorest nations in the world, with little importance to the United States. Niger didn’t even have a newspaper with journalists that Zorthian could “spin.” Zorthian always believed Rusk sabotaged his career as payback for being too friendly with the Saigon press corps.

Spurning the offer, Zorthian left the Foreign Service and became a senior executive with Time, Inc., for 12 years, including five as vice president for government affairs. Easily moving across party lines in Washington, he later joined the heavily Republican public relations firm Gray and Company, and in 1984 became a partner at Alcade and Fay.

With his long years of experience honed in Saigon, Zorthian became an advocate for government candor in dealing with the media. He often criticized repressive government policies toward the press by stressing that a successful democracy depends upon access to complete, explicit and responsible journalism reported honestly and fairly. During the first Gulf War, Zorthian advised the Pentagon and Secretary of Defense Richard Cheney “to realize that it is better served in the long run by putting out an accurate and candid report of information, both good and bad, sooner rather than later, complete rather than selective.” He called for creating an “embedding” policy for journalists in the invasion of Iraq. “The military and the media have different roles and different cultures,” he said. “There will always be some adversarial elements between them. But the embedded system seems to be the best formula to reduce this tension to a minimum and meet the interests of both.”

On October 7, 2010, on the eve of his 90th birthday, Zorthian was guest of honor at a dinner at the National Press Club hosted by 13 self-described Vietnam old hacks. Included in the group was the late Richard Holbrooke, U.S. special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan, who had started his diplomatic career as a USAID field officer in the Mekong Delta in 1963. Reflecting on more recent media disputes in the Afghan War, Holbrooke regaled the group, describing a spirited and humorous conversation with General Stanley McChrystal who had recently called him at 3 a.m. to apologize for what he would be quoted saying about Holbrooke in an about-to-be released issue of Rolling Stone magazine. A Rolling Stone reporter had accompanied McChrystal and members of his staff on a train to Paris, where the general and officers disparaged some of Washington’s political leadership with comments such as that President Barack Obama “didn’t seem engaged” during his first meeting with McChrystal, and that Holbrooke “was like a wounded animal.”

Zorthian remarked that during the Vietnam War, if a trainload of U.S. diplomats and officers had been dispatched to Paris, along with plenty of liquor, and asked by a reporter what they thought of President Lyndon Johnson, the answers would’ve been much worse.

Following an evening of toasting and roasting Zorthian at the Press Club, e-mails were read from some of the Vietnam old hacks who could not attend. Writing from his current post as visiting professor of journalism at China’s Shantou University, PeterArnett wrote what would become an epitaph for Barry Zorthian three months later:

We all know that in the postwar years Barry Zorthian has remained steadfast to his conviction about the significant role the media must play in a democratic society. His patience was tested in Vietnam, as was all of official America in that first uncensored modern war. But as much as anyone still alive today, Barry understood the principled motivations of the journalists working in Vietnam, which is why his presence is always welcome wherever the dwindling band of Vietnam old hacks meet.

 

Don North was a freelance photographer and later staff war correspondent for ABC and NBC in Vietnam for more than four years and is a frequent contributor to Vietnam and VietnamMag.com.

Originally published in the June 2011 issue of Vietnam Magazine. To subscribe, click here

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