The two letters arrived the same day in spring 1967. One was from the Peace Corps, offering to send Peter Prichard to Micronesia as an English teacher, the other from the Selective Service System, instructing him to report to an induction center. Prichard called the Peace Corps, mentioned the two letters and accepted the agency’s offer. The Peace Corps said, Sorry, the Defense Department takes precedence. After his tour in Vietnam, Prichard took a job in 1970 as assistant to the editor of Greenwich Time in Connecticut. He was one of the founding editors of USA Today in 1982 and its top editor from 1988 to 1994.
Born: Dec. 18, 1944, Auburn, California.
Residence: Essex, Connecticut
Education: Bachelor’s degree in English, Dartmouth College
In Vietnam: January 1968 to May 1969, intelligence analyst, Military Assistance Command, Vietnam; Bronze Star Medal for service; left the Army as a specialist 5
Today: Chairman, the Newseum, a museum in Washington, D.C., devoted to journalism and First Amendment topics
Did your experience in the military affect your attitudes as a journalist? I had a lot more respect for the military than some of my colleagues did. What I saw was phenomenal: dedication to the mission, tremendous teamwork, esprit de corps, the best technology in the world to fight a war.
What did the press do right in Vietnam? I think the press of that day was generally interested in getting to the truth and writing fair stories. However, the various administrations were trying to manage the press to maximize Viet Cong casualties and minimize U.S. casualties and emphasize only the good news and hide other stuff. Over time reporters began to believe they were being, at a minimum, deceived and if not deceived, lied to. That changed the tone of the coverage, which also changed because you had wide-open access. People could take a helicopter just about anywhere they wanted to go. And they went lot of places where things weren’t going so well.
What did the press get wrong? The way they portrayed the Tet Offensive affected U.S. policy. At the end of January 1968, the VC made coordinated attacks across Vietnam that wreaked momentary havoc but it turned out to be a big military defeat for the Viet Cong that was portrayed as a great defeat for the U.S. Army, mainly because the VC got into the embassy for five minutes or something. But it was a political turning point. That’s when it was clear the war was lost because people were just sick of it. If the VC could do [mass] attacks, where’s the light at the end of the tunnel? If they can invade our embassy, how could [General William] Westmoreland say we’re winning?
Was Tet portrayed as a defeat because the press had turned against the war or because the situation initially looked worse that it was? Well, it took a long time to clean up the cities, particularly Hue. And it was reasonably bloody. So it appeared for a long time that we were really losing.
What is the legacy of the Vietnam War? It was the beginning of the end of the idea that America is the champion of freedom and democracy that can be applied anywhere in the world. For a long time people said, We’re never going to commit troops anywhere because of Vietnam. The military said, We don’t want to go anywhere unless the mission is clear. The military also said, We don’t want to give the press that kind of access again. There also was the loss of faith in institutions.
Is there anything we could have done differently that would have “won the war”? I don’t think we ever could have won it. It’s kind of like Iraq is today. You have it one day, and if you don’t solve the
underlying issues, you lose the territory the next day. You could have blown them back to the Stone Age, but they still would have had guerrilla units. Training the Vietnamese probably was the best idea, but they had their own political problems. They had a lot of corruption. They didn’t really have the populace behind them.
Have we learned the lessons of the Vietnam War? I would say we’re still learning. In Iraq, there are very complex issues that are very difficult to solve. We’re not going to win the war against terrorism by killing people with drones. I don’t think it’s a bad idea to go after these guys, but it’s like the Vietnam War in the sense that it’s a war for hearts and minds. It’s got to be done through education and by changing their point of view about the West, and that’s a big project.
Which books about the war do you like? I think the best book from a policy perspective is Graham Greene’s The Quiet American. I like Dispatches [by Michael Herr]. Tim O’Brien’s Going After Cacciato and The Things They Carried are both good. Laura Palmer’s Shrapnel in the Heart is very good.
Which political or military leaders do you admire? I really admire John McCain. He was a POW for all that time. He had a chance to get out early [an offer his captors made because his father was a high-ranking Navy officer], but he didn’t do it. He forgives the Vietnamese, and he’s been a big campaigner against torture. People say he has a temper, he’s a loose cannon, whatever, but I think he’s a great American. Colin Powell is a great American. A lot of great people served in Vietnam.
What is your favorite music from the era? I love Motown. We all collected it over there. You could buy these big Akai Japanese reel-to-reel tape recorders, and people made mixtapes. And there were Vietnamese tribute bands that did Motown music. It was great.
Is there anything you wore during that period that you would be embarrassed to wear now? I had pretty long hair and a mustache after the war. That was the ’60s. Everybody looked like a hippie.
Any other thoughts on the war you would like to share? In Vietnam there were a thousand different wars. Everybody’s experience is different. One of my good friends, my stepmother’s brother, was a pilot. He had a completely different experience than I did. He flew F-4s at one time and surveillance Cessnas on a second tour, which was a lot more dangerous. Somebody who was a door gunner has a different experience than a grunt does, or a medevac guy. Or a Navy guy.
During the Vietnam War’s 50th anniversary, Vietnam magazine is interviewing people whose lives are intertwined with the war and asking for their reflections on that era in American history.