Morley Safer
Morley Safer
Blog
Flashbacks On Returning to Vietnam
ISBN: 0312924828
Flashbacks On Returning to Vietnam
Morley Safer discussed his book, "Flashbacks on Returning to Vietnam." In 1989, Mr. Safer returned to Vietnam after serving two tours in the region as a war correspondent in the 1960s. The book details his meetings and conversations with several Vietnamese, tells the stories behind his award winning coverage of the Vietnam War, and gives his observations of what was a fairly new politically unified country. Mr. Safer talked about his insights into the aftermath of the conflict both in Vietnam and in the United States. Mr. Safer also discussed his tenure at "60 Minutes" since 1970, and changes in journalism during his forty years of a journalist.
Search Audible
TRANSCRIPT
Flashbacks On Returning to Vietnam
Program Air Date: May 6, 1990

BRIAN LAMB, HOST: Morley Safer, author of "Flashbacks on Returning to Vietnam," you say in yourbook that Cam Nei is something that still follows you around today. Why?
MORLEY SAFER, AUTHOR, "FLASHBACKS ON RETURNING TO VIETNAM": I don't know precisely why. I can only guess. And I think that in a curious way that story, which too much attention has been attracted to it, at least I, as the reporter on the story, feel too much much has been made of it. But I think whatever has been made of it was because it showed the frustration, for one thing, of this kind of war, that Americans were not trained to fight.

People call it an atrocity; it wasn't an atrocity. It's overstating it. Americans have -- acting in a way other than the American public has -- has grown used to seeing them, which tends to be a kind of a movie version of troops in action. And here you had Americans acting in this brutal way on American television, being broadcast by an American network. This is not some cynical European anti-American; it was home stuff. And I think to many people -- certainly to the Marine Corps -- it was devastating to watch that and know that it was going out to millions and millions of homes.
LAMB: I can still see it. I think it was '65?
SAFER: August, 1965.
LAMB: A Zippo lighter in the village of Cam Ne. I know you've told this story lots of times, but in order to get through this book here, would you tell it one more time? How did it happen?
SAFER: It happened in the most routine way. We kept a little bureau up in Da Nang, which was the area which the Marines worked. And as was the routine, I went out one afternoon with the cameraman -- a Vietnamese cameraman named Ha Thuc Can. And we made the rounds of various Marine Corps units to find out what was going on, anyone had any operations going. And this one group said they were going out very early the next morning, and they said, "Please come along."

And we left about, I don't know, five in the morning, met up with them and went into this by amphibious amtrack vehicles. And along the way I asked an officer where we were going, the usual where were we going, what were we going to do. And he said, "We're going to -- it's a search and destroy operation in a village," which turned out to be, really, a string of hamlets, Cam Ne -- one, two, three, four. And we were going to punish the village because as he put it, "the head honcho," meaning the Vietnamese district chief, asked them to do it. And it really was unlike any search-and-destroy operation I had been on. There was no attempt to search it. They just simply went in and started leveling by fire. In the group I was with, which seemed to be the vanguard, there was no Vietnamese speaker. And the only Vietnamese speaker,as it turned out, was Ha Thuc Can -- the CBS News cameraman. The Marines weren't beating people up. They were getting them out of their houses and leveling the houses by either flamethrower or matches or cigarette lighters.

It seemed a heartless and pointless kind of operation, and the visual images, as I think I said in the piece at the time, demonstrated the kind of frustration of that kind of war, where here you had American assault units -- that's what Marines are trained to do. That's what they're best at, from the kind of romantic ideal of splashing ashore in the second World War. But, you know, these are our tough guys, go in under fire. And here they were part of something euphemistically called a pacification operation, a dreadful word that the French first claimedin Algeria, I believe, in describing that war, which involved very, very good programs -- building clinics and helping Vietnamese.

Good works, but totally untrained for picking their way through a civilian population. That's not what US Marines are trained to do. They're trained to assault.

And, in any case, the broadcast inflamed the White House, inflamed the Marine Corps. Lyndon Johnson was enraged by it. A lot of pressure on CBS to have me withdrawn from Vietnam, or the release withdrawn. CBS refused to do so, and the White House ultimately said, "Well, unless you pull him out" -- ultimately being over a matter of days -- "we're going to go public with the fact that, at the very least, he is a Communist sympathizer and probably is even a KGB agent and we've got the goods on him," which was just silly bluff.

CBS stood fast and nothing happened. I was 13,000 miles away at the time, meaning those few days and ultimately those few weeks. I had no idea of what was happening. And the first inkling was when Fred Friendly, who was then the CBS News president, wanted a detailed, practically moment-by-moment accounting by me of the events leading up to, during and after Cam Ne.
LAMB: Do you have any idea how many times since that day -- and we're talking 25 years, I guess -- you've been asked thequestion about Cam Ne? Any rough estimate?
SAFER: Hundreds of times. Hundreds of times.
LAMB: Any of those hostile?
SAFER: Occasionally when I'd been on stories peripherally involving Marines. The Marines really smarted over that one. It also should be said, as angry as the Marines were about the broadcast, in the subsequent months I've had probably two dozen calls or drinks or something with MarineCorps officers who thanked me for doing the piece and said, "You know, if that piece hadn't been done then" -- and since then, too, people have said, "If that piece hadn't been done then, it just would have gotten worse and worse and worse. I mean, you were keeping us honest. It's that kind of reporting -- we don't want to see it every day -- but it's that kind of reportingthat keeps us honest."
LAMB: Did that particular incident, do you think, had a lasting impact on the way anything was done, like the relationship between the military and the press, between the White House and CBS? I noticed at onepoint you say that some people were going around calling CBS the "Communist Broadcasting System."
SAFER: Well, some people were saying that even before Cam Nebecause -- we weren't on the team, so to speak. I think in the early days of the war the military establishment had a rather naive view of journalism that harked harkened back to Ernie Pyle and the Second World War and that sense of national unity, which included the press. And, of course, there were many brave journalists in World War II. But, generally speaking, it was very difficult for reporters to get to the front.In Vietnam, there was no front. Or what front there was, reporters and soldiers had equal access to. And as I say, I think they were naive and expected that we were going to be a kind of cheerleading squad. Well, journalism had changed. Warfare had changed. This was probably the only -- at least in the lifetime of the people fighting it, and we were reporting it -- the only war that Americans were engaged in that did not have a clear-cut purpose -- if not a strategic purpose, at least have some kind of moral base to it. And whatever moral base that the administration tried to apply to thatwar was so transparent--it was transparently propaganda, you know, "Protecting democracy in Vietnam" -- hardly a moral base for sending half a million men.
LAMB: You say that Fred Friendly ...
SAFER: Three million men, actually, almost, by the time it ended.
LAMB: You say that Fred Friendly still uses Cam Ne as a teaching device?
SAFER: Yes. Fred is given to hyperbole about this story, I think, in that it was some kind of turning point in the war. I don't think it was. He uses it as a teaching device, and it's a very interesting way. I'm pleased to say that he doesn't use it as some kind of example of either the brutality of war or the brutality of Americans or the "courage," quote, unquote, of reporters or any of that. He puts it up in front of his kids, many of whom weren't born when -- hard for us to believe, when that story was broadcast -- and he asks their reaction to it.

And what's interesting to me -- and I sat in once on his lecture on this. He asks their reaction to that piece. Now sometimes there's a ripple of shock by the kids, as I understand it, but barely. Generally speaking, they can't believe that that story caused the fuss it caused, now obviously because they've seen so much worse on television since that. I mean, that story -- I talk about it in the book -- is as mild a bit of military brutality as anyone could possibly imagine, given the stuff they've seen since from the Middle East, from Latin America and the brutalities committed in Nicaragua, El Salvador and everywhere -- Lebanon. So the kids wonder what the fuss was.
LAMB: Did you know at the time, when you shipped that -- in those days did you ship the film back on a plane?
SAFER: Yes. It was a long and tedious business. You shipped it from Saigon to -- depending which plane it caught, sometimes to Europe, generally speaking, to the West Coast of the United States, where it was than shipped to New York. And if the story was a good one, they would go to the expense of putting it on a line from the West Coast to New York.
LAMB: Did you know when you shipped it that you had something that was going ...
SAFER: I hadn't yet.
LAMB: ... to cause problems?
SAFER: I knew I had something that would cause, not so much problems -- I was looking at it purely journalistically. It was a damn good story. And communications were dreadful in Vietnam, but I did manage to get a Telex from Da Nang to Saigon to New York, describing the story and telling them it was coming. What I hadn't realized was that the day of Cam Ne and the day the Telex got there, they used the Telex on the air describing the story. So there was this 24-hour period between when the story was reported by -- I think it Harry Reasoner was doing the "Evening News" those couple of days; Walter was away -- there was this gap, and in the interim the Marine Corps denied the story. So in a curious way, they did themselves great damage. They walked right into it because, came the next day, there it was in living black and white.
LAMB: You didn't happen to find the Marine that ...
SAFER: No. No.
LAMB: ... lit the hut.
SAFER: No. I went back to Da Nang. I can't remember precisely -- yes, I went back to Da Nang about two days later when I was getting a sense of the reaction and interviewed that group of Marines that I was with, which further inflamed the situation,because I just asked these young troopers about their thoughts about civilians getting in the way. And, I mean, the Marine brass was with me there watching me every step of the way, and I did these interviews and sent them off. And what these kids said was, "Well, that's their problem if they get int he way. We're here to fight a war" -- words to that effect. Well, then the Marine Corps responded to that story by saying I'd primed these kids, I'd somehow fixed the interview, which was just the most silly kind of thing. You know, there were more captains, majors and colonels hanging over my shoulder when I was doing those interviews. It was just asilly thing to say.
LAMB: You mentioned Harry Reasoner. I want to read the last sentence of your acknowledgements and ask you why. "And most of all, I want to thank Harry Reasoner. Had it not been for his generosity, the journey back to Vietnam would not have been taken." Why do you give Harry Reasoner credit for that?
SAFER: Well, because the story that -- the "60 Minutes" story was a story that Harry was going to do.
LAMB: The book came from that trip back.
SAFER: The book came from the trip, indeed. Harry and a producer named Patti Hassler were going to Vietnam to do the story I ultimately did. Harry couldn't go. He had a small medical problem at the time, and he came to me and said, as did Patty, and said, "Look, would you go in my stead?"

And I did, obviously. But what was interesting -- I wanted to go back to Vietnam, but I had a lot of hesitation. While I wanted to go, I was in a certain way reluctant to go back. You know, we all want to revisit scenes of whatever lost innocence, youth -- I don't know. But in Vietnam, I think there's so much poignancy involved in so many people's lives about that place, that while I was curious, the lefthand side of my brain said, you know, "Aren't you curious?" And the right side said, "I don't care how damn curious you are, you're going to get -- it's going to be traumatic for you."

So I wanted to go and I didn't want to go. But, you know, they made the decision for me. I mean, there was no way I was going to say, "No, I can't stand the trauma. I can't stand the thought of doing it." So I went. And I advise anyone who has even the mildest case of post-Vietnam blues to go. It's an exhilarating thing to do.
LAMB: Got a little scratchy throat, talking --is that from making all of these programs or is it a cold?
SAFER: I don't think it's a cold. I think part of it's from making all these programs. And while I'm doing this book tour and while I was writing the book, I've not stopped doing my "60 Minutes" work. So I think it's just strain.
LAMB: The reason I wanted to ask you -- is it hard to go around and keep talking about this book? You're usually on this side of the interview.
SAFER: I find it extremely hard, although I seem to be surmounting it, to talk about myself, because it's something I normally don'tdo any more than you do. You generally are talking about other people's business. So it is interesting. It's different. And I think everybody should experience it once.
LAMB: Are you hearing anything, as you do call-in shows, that you don't like about the way you're perceived by some people?
SAFER: I'll tell you, I'm surprised to learn that almost all of the response has been positive. It's very interesting, and particularly on the call-in shows on radio. A lot of people who call in have read the book. And if they haven't read the book, they've been through enough of that particular program to know what the book's about and how I feel about certain things, how positive. I was talking to a young Marine who was at Cam Nei this morning.
LAMB: He was there the day you did this?
SAFER: He was there on that operation and said what I had said to you a minute ago. He was a corporal or something, 19 years in the Corps. And he said he still dreams about Cam Nei, because apparently he almost shot down a family. And he must have been on the other part where there's some Vietnamese troops. And a Vietnamese trooper stopped him, you know, pushed his rifle aside. He says he still dreams about that. Very complimentary about the Cam Nei story I did, although I doubt very much he ever saw it. But it spread through the Corps very quickly.
LAMB: How many people in your profession do you think made their life's place out of war and out of the Vietnam War? I'm talking about the Harry Reasoners and the Dan Rathers and people like that. I mean, if you didn't have that Vietnam War -- or how much did that Vietnam War influence where people are today?
SAFER: I don't know. I like to think that those guys, who were pretty good reporters in Vietnam, would have been pretty good reporters incovering anything else. No question that it was the central fact of journalism for really 10 years -- or at least eight of those 10 years of the big war, from '65 to '75. I really can't speak for anybody but myself. There's no question that the reporting that I did in Vietnam affected the perception of my bosses at CBS because it was one of those stories where you were on the air every night, sometimes seven days a week, and you were covering the most dramatic kind of human tragedy.

War is -- and some people get annoyed when I say this -- it's about the easiest kind of story to cover, really and truly, because it happens for you, generally speaking. I'm talking about the dramatic stuff, the bang-bang stuff, the stuff they want at CBS and NBC and ABC and the AP and everywhere else. The dramatic stuff is easy. It happensfor you. All you got to do is, you know, keep your head down, in one sense,and up in the other -- at least up enough to be able to report the story. And we all got praised. And some of us, certainly all of us accepted the praise, and some of us feel that we -- you know, no one came away clean from Vietnam -- no one. We, as every reporter on every story, exploited the story. And in this case, the story was hundreds and hundreds of thousands of deaths. I think we did a good job. I think I did an honest job. But there is a shadow of something over it.
LAMB: There were all kinds of rumors during those years about some reporters over there. And I'm sure you've heard these. It starts with -- you even acknowledge this in your own book -- about people accusing you of being a member of the KGB and things like that. How about these kind of rumors and wondered if you ever saw this. And, as a matter of fact, maybe in reference to that, I want to ask you about Dan Rather. I know that you singled him out in this book and you talked about a meeting at a hotel, and he had strapped a .38 to his -- I mean, why ...
SAFER: ...(Unintelligible). It ...
LAMB: I read somewhere, by the way, I read somewhere where you took some things out of an earlier draft because you didn't want to go too hard on him. Is that true?
SAFER: Listen, I will always maintain about a book as, the book is the book is the book. That's the book, not some other stage in the process of a book -- same as a newspaper and television and everything else, is what you put on the air, what you put in the covers is the book. I only mentioned it, really, because it was a kind of bizarre and humorous moment. I mean, it wasn't all death and tragedy in Vietnam. I just found it very funny -- I mean, odd at the time and funny in retrospect. A lot of guys carried guns, by the way -- not only a majority of reporters, but I carried a gun once. Among the reporters there were more than a few gun freaks, by the way, and Dan wasn't one of them. I don't mean to suggest that -- but guys got their kicks from artillery.
LAMB: But you do suggest that you found him with Army fatigues on and a gun strapped to him, and you say somewhere that that wasn't the normal way that a reporter dressed in the Caravelle Hotel at that time.
SAFER: No, no. Generally speaking, in the field, we wore Army fatigues. The Army preferred it that way. Obviously, they don't want some guy in a Hawaiian shirt walking through the jungle. But we hated those fatigues as much as the GIs did, and would get out of them at the first opportunity back in Saigon. It just seemed odd, that's all.
LAMB: The reason I bring it up is that the rumors I'm talking about are things like -- you hear stories all the time -- and I'm not sure where I heard these -- that reporters, in order to get on the air, they would have their sound man fire a pistol in the air while somebody's shooting the film, and they'd duck down and pretend like they're in battle and being fired at. And ...
SAFER: I've never heard that. There were some guys -- no names -- who would send cameramen out in the field to go look for combat, and then bring back the film and tell them what the film was about. And then they would go out to Tan Son Nhut and stand by a hunker down by a helicopter rotor or something, or go to the zoo. The zoo in Saigon is in a lovely park and, you know, just have the general palm tree background, as if they're wearing fatigues and that kind of thing. I'm not suggesting that anybody is -- by the way, I don't know anybody at CBS who fiddled it that way. The guys were, you know, John Laurence and Bill Plante and Dan and Murray Fromson and Peter Kalish and the list goes on. There's no question, CBS had, I think, probably the most distinguished coverage of that war. And very often, by the way, with many fewer facilities than NBC, for example, which we used to describe in those days. "NBC is CBS plus 10" on almost every story. We were outmanned, but I think we beat them most of the time.
LAMB: Did you ever get a sense that this was the careermaking time of a lot of people's lives? That ...
SAFER: At the time?
LAMB: At the time. And did you sense, when you were in Vietnam, and if it wasn't you that sensed it for yourself, did you sense that others said, "This is it, if I don't do it here, I'm not, you know, I'm not going to end up on "60 Minutes" someday and I'm not going to end up in the anchor chair someday?"
SAFER: No. No sense of that. We were all in our -- or I was in my early 30s, which was, relatively speaking, older than a lot of the guys. I think we all felt was that we had a great story in our teeth and we were going with that great story. I mean, we had, at least I can speak for myself, no sense of what happens after Vietnam. I mean, I never wanted to be anything more than I was, which was a foreign correspondent. It was a childhood dream come true.
LAMB: Were you happier then, than you are now in your day-to-day reporting life?
SAFER: I certainly had fewer responsibilities. No, I don't think happier -- not in Vietnam. No. As much as I loved the story, and I really liked the place. I liked Vietnam a lot. There was that shadow over every moment of your life there, no question. But it was a thrilling time and the blood was up and all of that. Not bored. I don't think I was happier, but certainly -- probably -- more occasions to be bored now than there were then.
LAMB: I want to ask you about some of the people you write about, but before I do that, in all the stories you've done in 20 years on "60 Minutes," is there another story like Cam Nei, that is the hottest thing you've done that you get the most criticism for and the most reaction to still, to this day?
SAFER: No. I think there's a story I'm most proud of having been involved in, which was the story of a young man named Lenel Jeter, who was in jail for life for holding up a Kentucky Fried Chicken joint in Greenville, Texas. And through the really very, very hard work by a producer of "60 Minutes," Suzanne St. Pierre Sevaride, Marti Galovic, who was the associate producer and to some extent myself -- and over months we meticulously put together, I mean, what was, I think, a brilliant piece of police work in reporting. And within three daysof the broadcast Lenel Jeter was out of jail. And we're all very proud of that story. It's so rare, people are always saying, "Well, what do you -- what kind of impact does your reporting have?" And, generally, not much. I mean, people might say, "Oh, my God, can you imagine?" on Sunday night and again on Monday morning at the office, but by Monday afternoon Geraldo has twisted them around to some other outrage.
LAMB: Right.
SAFER: But to be able to witness such an immediate and profound and important effect of a story is thrilling.
LAMB: Probably people in the television business and in the business you're in say, "That's the ultimate, "60 Minutes." But when you're there, there must be frustrations. What is the most frustrating thing about being an on-air "60 Minutes" correspondent? What can't you do that you wish you could do?
SAFER: Well, look, it's like anyone else on television. You can't make the kind of fool of yourself publicly that you would normally, whether you're getting into a row with a waiter or a cab driver. It's something that you tend to hold back, you know, because it's cool to be cool. I am not going to dismiss the advantages of public recognition. They're wonderful. For one thing, it's daily proof that people are actually watching the damn thing. I mean, sometimes you wonder. So that's nice. And, generally speaking, people are awfully nice about it. Even if they hate you, they're polite to you. And you tend to get restaurant tables and all of that stuff. And I'm not minimizing it. It's very important at the time. But at the same time we do get in the way of a story. We have to work our way around that kind of recognition of the awe that people have sometimes for a face that is part of the living room furniture.

I mean, I think that's the difference between the, quote, "celebrity" that people who work in news -- people like yourself have -- and the kind of celebrity that people in the movies are. You really are part of their home. You're part of the furniture. And you know, you're not Brian Lamb playing somebody, you're the genuine article, for better or worse, rough or smooth at the edge, it don't matter. You're there. And we do get in the way of that sometimes. They want to talk about you, not what you want to talk about when you go there. And they tend to be on their best behavior, which is not necessarily their true behavior.
LAMB: You mentioned a lot of people and you say some strong things about them. "The memory of this bloodthirsty, drunken Goldwater, this millionaire, rag-tag merchant with White House pretensions and the manners of a spoiled brat will always stay with me. A lot of revisionist drivel has been written about Goldwater in recent years. It is remarkable how easy it is for a man of Goldwater's limited talents to seduce the press and television into believing or anyway reporting that he is some kind of an unappreciated sage of the West." What brought on that rage?
SAFER: What brought on the rage was -- I don't remember the night of the week -- it was something like a Sunday night or a Monday night, and I had just come back to Saigon, and I went and I took a shower. And it was quite late, as I said, about 10 or 11 at night. And I went up for a drink to the bar of the Caravelle before going to bed. And there were, I don't know, half a dozen people there. Goldwater was on a bunkette along the side by the windows.

And whether he was railing at the world or somehow spotted me and recognized me -- although I doubt it, I was hardly a recognizable face -- or just assumed there were reporters in the room, I don't know. But he was doing this kind of loud barroom denunciation of the reporters, using a word like "gooks." It will always stay with me. I did not respond. I did not get really get engaged in any kind of conversation, just witnessed this thing. And now, some years later or you know, people pay this homage to this man, who really did not really achieve very much, in terms of the public wheel, for a man who'd been in the Senate and the government as long as he had, and yet was getting this reputation as being kind of an interesting,crusty, sagebrush philosopher. You know, when you examine it, it's pretty empty stuff.
LAMB: This next line, though, intrigued me. "It is inexplicable to me that Andy Rooney, among the most skeptical men I know, has fallen under this dullman's spell."
SAFER: Andy's done a couple of stories with him that were kind of "sage of the West" kind of stories. And it is inexplicable to me, because I cannot think of anyone -- you probably can't, either -- whose public and private persona reflect such skepticism.
LAMB: About this time I can hear the listener out there saying, "A-ha. He just read that paragraph. That proves it. I've always known Morley Safer was a card-carrying liberal. He hates Barry Goldwater." What do you say to that?
SAFER: I'm not a card-carrying -- I've never been a card-carrying liberal. I'm derided at home by my 20-year-old daughter as being a card-carrying -- huge capital C -- conservative. And, in fact, I come from a quite conservative background. I generally am conservative. I am conservative on most issues. I don't think Vietnam was a conservative-liberal issue. I think it was an issue -- the difference, I think, was between those who really thought about what this war was about and those who felt, and still feel deeply in their hearts, that when your government calls, you answer and you answer yes. I think the only things I'm liberal about tend to be human rights issues. Generally speaking, I'm a pretty conservative guy.
LAMB: Another person -- and I'm trying to find it here and, of course, I can't. I thought I had it marked ... Bill Moyers. Bill Moyers seems to have really irritated you. It seems, if I can find -- "Bill Moyers' role in the affair has since made me feel slightly uneasy in his presence." And you're talking about Cam Nei again and what happened in the wake of that. Couple of pages here about Bill Moyers.
SAFER: It bothered me, indeed, and I'll tell you why. More than anything, I can understand serving, being a good soldier to your president. And that's what you're paid for. That's what you're hired to do. And I can understand even maybe bending the rules and your own beliefs and something like the First Amendment. But there would seem to be a more shadowy role in this, and Bill has never talked about it or come clean about it. As I say, I think he's sometimes excessively pious about some of these issues. There's a kind of religiosity about his liberalism, if that's the word. But here is a kind of central issue in his life in which he was, if not a key player, certainly a key bystander in the White House that we never heard from him about. And the couple of times that I've asked him -- I mean, selfishly wanting to know about those days surrounding this incident -- he's always laughed it off as, you know, "Well, it was my job to calm the rages of this far-out president whose anger sometimes got the best of him."

But, in fact, you know, a couple of days afterwards, or, you know, weeks after, Murray Fromson, who was then a CBS News correspondent, who'd gotten to know Bill in the '60 campaign, I guess, was sent by CBS to the White House to talk to him. Nobody wants the White House angry at you all the time, and he was sent to calm things down, have a word with Moyers and shoot the breeze. And Moyers was as -- and I believe Murray was as tough-minded and, "Why do you have to have this guy working out there? Why do you have to have a Vietnamese cameraman?" And Moyers was present during some of this showdown stuff about me being a Communist, clearly knew it was a bluff. As I say, there are limits, I think, even to being a good soldier. And even if one does, I think there is a time to come clean.
LAMB: The Vietnamese -- do you like them?
SAFER: I have great affection, great respect for all things Vietnamese, including some of the aspects of Vietnamese life that many people find very frustrating. Extraordinarily stubborn people, determined people, but at the same time I have not witnessed, or rarely have I witnessed such connection between a man and his land. I mean, the earth as being absolutely sacred. I suppose it comes of so many centuries of people trying to take it away or destroy it. But there is this connection which one can only admire.
LAMB: Let me just interrupt because we got a picture, here. You seem to be taken by this young lady in this book. I mean, who is this person?
SAFER: Miss Mai was a minder assigned to us in Hanoi who was wonderfully bright and attractive kid. And I say it reminds me more of an Orange County cheerleader, really, than the public voice and face of this Marxist regime. There, she's horsing around with one of the statutes at the Cham Museum in Da Nang. But she was the face and the voice and the eyes of Hanoi, in terms of following the CBS caravan around the country.
LAMB: January, 1989.
SAFER: January of 1989. But she had a wonderful sense of humor, spoke brilliant English, trained at probably the best Foreign Language Institute in the world, I think, which is the one in Moscow, of all places.You know, the evil empire had a lot of people to bring in and wanted to train them and for all kinds of reasons, from espionage to diplomacy, whatever. It's a great institute. And I think it's for eight years that they go. So by the time they get out they are speaking colloquial English-English, American-English, whatever. And we couldn't have done the story without her. She had what Icalled the magic pass. It said who she represented, which was the Foreign Relations Committee, I think, or the foreign office in Hanoi. And that pass just melted bureaucrats. And yeah, she was good company, and bright and very formal, I mean, in that way that Vietnamese men and women are. I mean, they're good company, they're very warm, but they're always a half-step back.
LAMB: Did the American soldier -- any of you, from the generals on down, like the Vietnamese when we were there during the war?
SAFER: I don't think they saw the Vietnamese. I don't think Lyndon Johnson saw the Vietnamese. I don't think General Westmoreland did. I think the Vietnamese were almost -- if they weren't invisible, they were cardboard characters against this vast panorama of America going to war. No one took anything they did very seriously. As far as the military was concerned, they often felt the Vietnamese were really in the way. In terms of the government being weak -- created a series of governments. And every time the Vietnamese got rid of it themselves, in fair means or foul, we would then support that government. So the Vietnamese were not important players, I think, in the mindset of the administration or of the Pentagon.
LAMB: You quoted, I think, it was General Westmoreland as saying when it came to death, that the Vietnamese looked at it differently than we Westerners -- seemed to irritate you.
SAFER: Well, I can't imagine anyone saying that and particularly in Vietnam, where you're surrounded by it all the time and witnessing families grieving. And to suggest -- look, we celebrate birthdays or mark birthdays. In Vietnam, people mark death days. Death is a very, very sacred thing and knowing when the person died, which is interesting to me, because there are hundreds and hundreds of thousands of, quote, "MIAs" in Vietnam --Vietnamese MIAs. And knowing where people are buried and when they died is a very, very important thing in honoring them. And so it's produced this extraordinary emptiness among so many families because they don't know anything to honor a son or a husband or a brother.

And I thought, you know, Westmoreland didn't sound -- I wouldn't accept that remark from anyone, but, OK, if somebody who's never been away from home, has some vague idea of inscrutable Orientals or something. For God's sake, Westmoreland is a seasoned, four-star general, a man responsible in some way for American foreign policy. He should be interested. He should be something of a scholar -- or at least student -- of the culture he's living in and been licensed to "defend," quote, unquote. And it just seemed, you know, some Midwest service-club luncheon character. I think Westmoreland's a decent man. I think he took to heart the loss of every one of the people under his command of the almost 60,000. There's no question. He's not a bloodthirsty man, not a terribly bright one, either.
LAMB: We showed some pictures of some of the Vietnamese you talk about, that you met when you went back there. How long were you there?
SAFER: Only eight days.
LAMB: Spent most of the time in any one city?
SAFER: No, it really was a pretty hectic eight days. I was all the way from Hanoi. I did not get to the Delta, to my regret. I would have loved to have gone -- or much time in the Highlands. So it really was Hanoi and the environs, Da Nang and environs, and Ho Chi Minh City and ...
LAMB: When ...
SAFER: ... and the area around it.
LAMB: When did the "60 Minutes" program air?
SAFER: March of '89.
LAMB: What was the impact? Did you get a lot of letters? Did you get a lot of Vietnam veteran reaction?
SAFER: It was very interesting to me. There was a big reaction. Almost all of it, I would think, I recall was from Vietnam veterans. I mean, I never count these things. I'm just by impression. More than half of it was annoyed with us for doing the piece, for showing these people, the human-side of the enemy, if you like. But that other third, shall we say, came from veterans who said, "It was wonderful to know that the enemy had flesh and blood and problems and worries and even is suffering some of the same things we are." To finally put flesh and blood into these -- as I say -- "invisible people." I mean, to that extent, this invisibility was shared by both the friendly Vietnamese and the unfriendly Vietnamese during the war and ultimately reduced to that dreadful word "gook," which generally speaking, it started out describing the bad-guy Vietnamese and ultimately was used to describe all Vietnamese.
LAMB: How would you describe the difference between -- and you went to Hanoi and you also went to Ho Chi Minh City, which used to be called Saigon. What's the difference between the North and the South today?
SAFER: The difference between Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City, I think, is probably the difference between Hanoi and Saigon back in the glory days, to the extent that Saigon's very much a kind of a wise guy city, a certain amount of elegance and a certain amount of honky-tonk, kind of New Orleans feel about it. A feeling always of possibilities, that kind of thing -- very open people. I found Hanoi a much more closed, more formal city, utterly decrepit. I mean, nothing's been done to it for probably, I don't know, 50 years or more, so it's crumbling. And I think people in the North, anyway, are a little more stand-offish, a little more formal, a little less outgoing.

A man I got to know, Professor Hung, who's an English professor at the Foreign Language Institute in Hanoi, who is a Northerner, does have family in the South, as most Vietnamese do. And Hung said that he didn't like going to Saigon. I mean, there were many more goods available because the people are extremely inventive and very entrepreneurial. He said he didn't like to go because there were too many distractions and people kind of lived slightly loose lives, he felt.
LAMB: Which of all these people that you talked to made the biggest impression on you on your return visit?
SAFER: I'll tell you, each was so distinct -- a colonel named Bui Tin made a great impression on me, because I found him almost something out of some French, overly intellectual novel written about the war. Bui Tin would have been a central character as the kind of philosopher-soldier. A man, I'm sure, capable of killing, probably without remorse and without glee. But at the same time, a terribly thoughtful guy who was amazed -- and is to this day, and Bui Tin fought roughly, I think, 48 to '75 -- amazed by the resiliency and determination of the men he led. And he was wounded about four times, I think, both in the French and the American war, and wonders what it would have been -- "What would I have made of my life if this hadn't happened?"

And he had this ambition at 17 or 18 to go to France and study philosophy, which is a great ambition in old colonial Vietnam, to go to Mother France and be exposed to that great, wonderful, endless parade of French intellectual history. And he's very much that, and he wears a beret. And I mentioned, just as we finished talking, I'd asked him about the dead, and he said, "You know, it's a very unnatural thing, war, for a young man to go and give his life. It's the most unnatural thing. And we should never forget those things that these young men did."

He was talking about Americans, he was talking about everybody, but I specifically asked him about Americans. And then he said, "I was so touched by going to the Vietnam Memorial in Washington and New York." And it surprised me. And, anyway, we talked for a few minutes more. And I said, just in passing, "What did you make of the United States?" And he said, "Oh, I love going to the United States, especially California, where I was able to visit my sister." I mean, we didn't know this enemy, or if we did, we didn't want to know. We dismissed him as being part of that faceless Asian horde or something. The fact is that virtually everyone I talked to -- every soldier, former soldier I talked to had a relative in the South.

Poor Sergeant Hung, who was a graduate student when he was pulled out of school and sent South to go shoot Americans or anybody who got in his way, has a cousin in Saigon. And he said, you know, "We can't look at each other. We can't look at each other in the eyes. Very uncomfortable for my aunt." Bui Tin had family in the South; sister in California. Major Be, prettyhard-nosed soldier I talked to there. He's in Da Nang, or was in Da Nang. Family all through the South. We tended, as I say, to divide this country between kind of the good invisible Vietnamese and the bad invisible Vietnamese and without realizing that they really were related to each other.
LAMB: Would you recommend that those who are having problems still, and I think you mentioned somebody in here that didn't even go to Vietnam, that worked at Dover Air Force Base ...
SAFER: A nurse, yes.
LAMB: ... that still has nightmares.
SAFER: A nurse told me about a man at Dover Air Force Base, an Air Force sergeant at Dover Air Force Base who all he did was unload bodies.
LAMB: Dover, Delaware.
SAFER: Dover, Delaware.
LAMB: Never went to Vietnam.
SAFER: Never went to Vietnam.
LAMB: Still has nightmares.
SAFER: Still has nightmares.
LAMB: Would you recommend that people who still have problems with this go to Vietnam now? And how hard is it to do it?
SAFER: It's very easy now, and you know, the United States government still discourages it, but does not make it impossible. And the Vietnamese now are encouraging it. They didn't for a long time. But it's really quite simple, I think. As they say, go to your travel agent and you go to Bangkok and pick up a visa and you pick it up, generally, the same day. And then go the next day. They do tours of eight days to two or three weeks. And they are opening up even more. I think they've opened up a visa office in Kuala Lumpur and possibly even Hong Kong. I'm not sure. So they're encouraging. They need the currency, is one reason they're doing it. But I think they are trying to -- they want reconciliation for very obvious selfish reasons. And I think it would really take the measure of this great nation to make that gesture.
LAMB: This may be presuming something. You can tell me if I have presumed the wrong thing. Has writing this book and talking about this as much as you have helped you work out problems from those days?
SAFER: If I say I had problems, it's going to sound overly dramatic. And I didn't and don't have problems, but the answer is yes, it helps. And not just me. I've watched it help other people, to go back. The United States doesn't recognize Vietnam in any way, virtually. But what's interesting to me is the people who most recognize Vietnam are American veterans. And there are all kinds of small individua lprojects. Guys are over there now building a children's hospital. Primitive, I'm sure, but much better than anything that's there. And there are these small projects, generally speaking, and some of them done by the old peaceniks of the '60s, but a lot of them by GIs. And I watched a group of guys in Vietnam, and I think the soothing effect of returning, of looking at that enemy in the eye, and talkingto him and shaking his hand -- I think I really do feel, for an awful lot ofguys, it finally ends the war for them.

Bill Baldwin, a lovely -- I was going to say young man; he's not such a young man anymore -- was absolutely brokedown twice because he lost a friend in Vietnam and feels terrible guilt, or felt terrible guilt because he couldn't remember his name. He was a close buddy. And what was interesting: We had an interview with Bill on the "60 Minutes" broadcast, and he broke down and said, "I can't remember his name. I can't remember his name." By Monday morning he had four calls from guys who did remember his buddy's name. And he went to the wall about a week later. And, really, that ended his war, that small rediscovery. But in any case, I think all Americans should go to Vietnam. I think it's a very interesting history lesson too late.
LAMB: We're about out of time. How long is Morley Safer going to do "60Minutes"?
SAFER: I honestly can't think of anything else I'd rather do, week in, year in, year out. I was told my reporter's blood still gets up, not as often as it did before, but still enough to make me want to do it. It pays very well. It's a very popular broadcast, which is good. It's popular without speaking down, which is good. I mean, what more does a reporter want? Writing this book, however, was a bit of a diversion for me and to realize there is another life out there that's very, very satisfying, as writing this book was. And I'd like to do it again, you know, perhaps in a year or two.
LAMB: Morley Safer, "Flashbacks," thank you for joining us.
SAFER: Thank you, Brian.
Copyright National Cable Satellite Corporation 2004. Personal, noncommercial use of this transcript is permitted. No commercial, political or other use may be made of this transcript without the express permission of National Cable Satellite Corporation.