Beatings by police and criticism from politicians and military leaders never intimidated war correspondent Peter Arnett.
“The bruises, the arrests, the hectoring by officials was nothing compared to my growing awareness that I’m doing the right thing,” Arnett said of covering the Vietnam War as he addressed a packed auditorium Wednesday at Fresno State.
That passion and dedication earned Arnett a Pulitzer Prize in international reporting in 1966. In later years covering other conflicts, he interviewed a number of infamous leaders, including Osama bin Laden, Saddam Hussein and Yasser Arafat.
Arnett’s morning presentation, “Vietnam: Where young reporters defied old press doctrines,” headlined this year’s Roger Tatarian Symposium hosted by Fresno State’s Department of Mass Communication and Journalism.
Arnett took photos and wrote more than 2,000 stories for the Associated Press over his 13 years in Vietnam.
“Vietnam was America’s last uncensored war, and we journalists were pushed between a rock and a hard place, browbeaten by government officials to present their optimistic views, their optimistic version of the war, while our news industry executives back home demanded we report the unvarnished truth,” Arnett said. “We chose the truth, sharing with our audiences the bitter realities of an unwinnable war, which to the Americans and South Vietnamese who fought came to an unbearable heart-rending end 40 years ago.”
Following his presentation, Arnett answered questions about interviewing Osama bin Laden in 1997 after bin Laden declared a jihad war against the United States. At the time, the notion of a man living in a cave threatening the United States seemed “nonsensical” to most, but Arnett’s sources working in intelligence told him otherwise.
“He came in, he was extremely polite, we had tea,” Arnett said of his interview with bin Laden. “He had asked for questions in advance, we had given him 30 questions and he answered them all through an interpreter and afterward we sat and chatted amiably.
“The thing is though, his responses to questions were sort of frightening. He said not only American soldiers would be destroyed in his campaign, but so would American people because they supported the government that sent the soldiers. He promised that there would be more violence in the future — and it happened. Within a year, there were bombings of American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania and an American destroyer almost sunk in Yemen and many Americans were killed. And, of course, 9/11.”
Arnett said war reporters numbered in the dozens when he worked as a journalist. “Now, there’s even fewer international reporters than there ever were and a lot of their reporting is diplomatic or from safe cities — and the demands are much greater. … Today, a reporter files morning, noon and night from wherever he happens to be.”
During the Vietnam War, Arnett recalled an exclusive story he wrote in 1965 about the first amphibious landing of the war by American troops. His photographs of injured and dead Marines who had been ambushed by the enemy — a “premonition of what would come of the war” — were printed in newspapers across the United States.
But to protect the “national interest,” U.S. military leaders initially insisted on the broad success of the mission. Later, Wes Gallagher, president and general manager of the Associated Press, defended Arnett’s reporting during a discussion with President Lyndon Johnson.
“He said, ‘Mr. President, I understand you have been critical of some of AP’s stories from Vietnam.’ ‘Oh no,’ the president replies, patting Gallagher on the back. Gallagher told him, ‘Well, I just wanted you to know, Mr. President, that the AP is not against you or for you.’ Johnson replied, ‘That’s not quite the way I like it.’ ”
In another instance, Gen. William Westmoreland tried to apply some pressure, asking that AP reporters not interview “ordinary soldiers in battle because they are not in the position to see the big picture and may be emotionally affected by the action.”
The Associated Press disagreed: “We are not a vehicle to serve the national interests as defined by politicians, but to publish the truth as we see it.”
In a letter to the Associated Press, an injured Marine who Arnett interviewed thanked him for his eyewitness reports “because American soldiers are not receiving enough credit for their sacrifices in Vietnam.”
But as Arnett worked to report the truth, he continued to run into obstacles, including a military police officer who once threatened Arnett and other war correspondents with a gun. A military official — seeing the photo in the Washington Post the next morning — assured the media it wouldn’t happen again.
But Arnett learned from his boss at the Associated Press that the military police officer’s office was considering charges against him anyway.
“ ‘What’s the charge?’ I demanded, surprised,” Arnett recalled. “His lips curled, ‘Assault against a peace officer with a deadly weapon.’‘What deadly weapon!?’ He responds with amusement, ‘Pen and pad.’ He was sort of right. Pens and pads and tablets were pretty deadly weapons in Vietnam.”