BRIAN LAMB, HOST: Malcolm W. Browne, what's the origin of the title “Muddy Boots and Red Socks”?
MALCOLM W. BROWNE, AUTHOR, "MUDDY BOOTS AND RED SOCKS": It came out as sort of a joke actually, and it kind of stuck. In Vietnam, where I lived for about eight years, they used to say that there were people who either listened to other people as to what the war was all about and those who went out and got muddy boots. I preferred the muddy boots. Red socks go back a good deal farther. Back when I was a soldier in Korea, I came to loathe the color olive drab. One afternoon, to my delight, at the 8th Army PX in Seoul, I discovered that they were selling a great bin full of red socks, so I bought the lot of them, figuring that by standardizing I could avoid the annoyance of losing socks in the wash when I got out of the Army, and I've worn them ever since. So these are the two sides of my life, the boots and the socks.
LAMB: What led to this book now?
BROWNE: I suppose the feeling that I'm probably nearing the end of my journalistic career and possibly my life, and while I still remember so much of the contemporary history that I was privileged to watch, I thought it would be nice to leave some of it behind. It might be useful to my grandchildren, if no one else. I'm counseling them to take up careers in burglary because I'm not sure that journalism has a future, but in case it does, why, that's something to think about.
LAMB: End of your life? How old are you?
BROWNE: I'm 62.
LAMB: What is your life expectancy?
BROWNE: I have no idea. Actually, my genes aren't all that great, so I think if I make it to 70, I'll probably be doing pretty well.
LAMB: Where do you live now?
BROWNE: I live in Manhattan in the shadow of the Empire State Building. I was born and raised in New York City. I think I'd be quite happy to move away from the city at this point if the opportunity were to present itself, but I work for the New York Times, which is a fond and loving family for me, and have done so since 1967, I guess it was.
LAMB: What's your beat?
BROWNE: I'm technically called a senior writer, and I have been covering science for the last decade, but I have interpreted this to mean that since science covers just about every aspect of human activity from crime to wars and so forth that I can sort of do what I please, within the limits imposed by my very indulgent editors, of course. So I went to the Gulf War. I expect probably to be in Yugoslavia at least for a while because I lived there for four years. I have a very, very lucky -- my life is terrific; it affords the greatest possible variety of experience. That, after all, is why I became a journalist.
LAMB: The W in the Malcolm W. Browne name is . . .
BROWNE: It stands for Wilde with an E at the end of it, and I know what you're getting at. My grandfather's first cousin was Oscar Wilde, who was famous for several reasons, one of them being his writing and another one being that he was a notorious homosexual at a time when it was very bad to be one. He was very much the family black sheep. Most of the other Wildes were respectable Dublin doctors. Oscar, who lived in London and was anything but respectable, and I'm afraid that as a kid I tried to avoid telling my classmates what the W stood for. The fact that I can tell you now shows that perhaps I have become a little more outgoing than I was as a child.
LAMB: Did you ever read him?
BROWNE: Oh, yes, absolutely.
LAMB: Do you like what he did?
BROWNE: Yes, very much. His plays are marvelous. He had a tremendous wit. I wish that I could emulate him in some ways. So now I'm proud to have him on the family escutcheon.
LAMB: Your mother was a Quaker.
BROWNE: Yes, a very dedicated Quaker who opposed war and killing in every way, shape or form. She was one of the few people during the late 1930s, when war was looming in Europe and when the Spanish Civil War was raging, who advocated no war. Most people in those days, most good people at any rate like Hemingway, Orwell, so forth, were saying that unless we go out and fight the fascists in the streets of Madrid and Barcelona, we're going to have problems with them elsewhere. Of course, we did. My mother was always against war in all forms. I fell away from that point of view myself as an adolescent. For one thing, it seemed to me that there are times when you do have to fight, when the enemy is a clear and present danger and if you don't fight him you're just going to have to put up with the consequences.
But I was living in Eastern Europe, in Belgrade as a matter of fact, during the period when Francisco Franco was dying in Spain. He, of course, was the archetypical bad guy; he was the head of the Falangists. He managed to extinguish by rather dirty means his enemies in Spain, and after he succeeded in 1939, he massacred anybody who had opposed him. All in all, I think there were about two million people killed in the Spanish Civil War. As he lay dying, I was there. I was back in Spain, because I speak Spanish, preparing myself to cover a new civil war. It just seemed to me inconceivable that with his passing that you could have anything else but a civil war, so many of the old communists coming back from Russia, for example, the Falangistas, who were his allies, coming up out of the woodwork to fight him. Yet he died, and what happened? Absolutely nothing. He died peacefully. Spain became a constitutional monarchy, and now it's a model democracy in Western Europe. So one can't help wondering, why did those two million people in Spain live? Why did they have to die in what seems to me now to have been a useless conflict?
LAMB: Let's take a close look at this cover. You see a typewriter there and you see some cigarettes and passports and I think a dog tag there and a camera.
BROWNE: There's a Russian driver's license and a Chinese press card too.
LAMB: Is all that stuff yours?
BROWNE: Yes, that's all mine. The camera has been battered and beaten in many and many a conflict, and that was used to take a photograph of a monk who burned himself in Saigon in 1963.
LAMB: I want to show those pictures in just a moment. Was this cover your idea?
BROWNE: No, I had nothing to do with it. I'm very pleased with it though. My publisher Times Books of Random House I think did a wonderful job in putting it together. I like the type and the whole way it's arranged.
LAMB: You thank Peter Osnos in the opening acknowledgments, and then buried in your book you and Peter Osnos, when he used to be at the Washington Post, were on a trip together in Russia somewhere.
LAMB: Years later what's that friendship like?
BROWNE: It's been very close because our paths have crossed in several parts of the world. We were contemporaries in Vietnam at one point in 1972 before I was expelled from Vietnam. He was the Washington Post bureau chief there and was courting his wife, Susan, who at the time was our office assistant in the New York Times bureau, so there was a certain nepotistic connection between the two organizations. Then Peter was bureau chief for the Washington Post in Moscow at a time when I was covering Moscow in the summertime. My normal residence was Eastern Europe, but the bureau got kind of thin in the summertime and I'd go over and sort of help out.
LAMB: Did he have anything to do with your doing this book with Times Books?
BROWNE: Yes. He was my editor. Yes. He encouraged me to undertake it and suggested that when I wrote it that I keep my grandchildren in mind, which is exactly what I did. I found him a very tolerant and helpful editor who worked with me on one revision, a rather minor revision, but it certainly improved the book. I have nothing but gratitude and friendship for Peter Osnos.
LAMB: You mention your mother was a Quaker. What was your father?
BROWNE: My father was actually born and raised a Catholic but broke away from the Catholic faith when he sort of abandoned his roots in Los Angeles and came east to become an architect, which was a rather difficult thing to do during the Depression. He actually worked as an elevator operator and designing wooden squirrels for the park and anything that he could manage to do during the Depression.
LAMB: How many brothers and sisters?
BROWNE: I have one sister and two brothers, all of them younger than me. The youngest brother died a couple months ago.
LAMB: How long have you lived in New York City, and where did you go to school?
BROWNE: I was born in New York City, in Greenwich Village, which used to be sort of the bohemian and artistic quarter of Manhattan. In later years it's become a rather dangerous area in some respects. Because my mother was a Quaker, I went to school at a Quaker school from kindergarten all the way through 12th grade, called Friends Seminary. For me it was wonderful. It happened that that school had marvelous teachers, and the only objection I had was that they got me so interested in everything that it took me a while to settle down on a career.
LAMB: And then after school?
BROWNE: Then I went to Swarthmore College, also a Quaker school in Pennsylvania, where I studied chiefly chemistry. After college then I worked as a laboratory chemist for about four years.
BROWNE: In New York City for a consulting firm. Clients would come to us. I remember that a French chewing gum company came to us in 1954, I think it was, when Arbenz, the president of Guatemala, was overthrown in a coup that had been engineered by the CIA. Many Americans didn't realize at the time, I think, that Guatemala was the world's principal source of high-quality chicle, which is one of the ingredients in chewing gum. So part of my job was to devise substitutes for chicle for this French chewing gum manufacturer and that sort of thing. It was not very high-level science, I must say. When the time came for me to abandon it, I left with no serious regrets.
LAMB: How did you find yourself in Korea?
BROWNE: I was drafted. The Army actually taught me two trades. It first taught me how to drive tanks, both Russian and American, and sent me to Korea. In Korea, shortly after I arrived there, the Army, for reasons best known to itself, decided that I would probably do less damage writing for Pacific Stars and Stripes and military newspapers than I would driving a tank, and so I was taught the rudiments of journalism really by a little Army organization that I worked for.
LAMB: How long were you in the service?
BROWNE: Two years, the minimum for a draftee. That was the normal tour of duty for draftees.
LAMB: When did you go to work for the AP?
BROWNE: After getting out of the Army, I worked first for a small newspaper about a hundred miles north of New York City, with a very enlightened view. I conned them into sending me to Cuba just after the revolution. I spent some time in Cuba where I had a marvelous time getting my feet wet as a correspondent and filing, incidentally, for what had then become UPI. United Press had merged with International News Service to become UPI. I was among the correspondents who were there during the final days. Soon after that I was hired by the Associated Press, the archrival, sent to Baltimore for, oh, about eight or nine months and then miraculously got the very job that I wanted, bureau chief in Saigon.
LAMB: Go back to Cuba just for a moment, and I'm looking for the gentleman's name that you write up so much -- La Cabaa.
BROWNE: Herman Marks you're probably thinking of, the Yankee butcher executioner. Yes, he was one of the less savory characters there, and there were lots of unsavory characters. Like several other, I suppose probably a dozen other, Americans he was an adventurer and he decided to join forces with the Castro rebels out in the Sierra Maestra when the revolution was going on. He was of such help, particularly to Che Guevara, that after the revolution succeeded in January 1, 1959, he was placed in charge of La Cabaa, which was the big municipal prison in Havana where virtually all of the local firing-squad executions were conducted, and there were dozens of them every day. It was a time of great bloodletting, perhaps not as bad as the French Revolution but in the same spirit.
There was the case a of young boy who asked before being shot that the executioner spare his face because he wanted his body returned to his family. He had been in the forces loyal to President Batista, and Marks said, "Sure, kid, don't worry about it. We'll leave your face alone." Then after the execution Marks gratuitously went up and just emptied his .45 into this boy's head from all directions. He was that kind of a guy. He was a sadist. I made it my business to try to interview him. As far as I know, I was the first American newsman to interview him, to sort of try to capture the flavor of what this guy was like.
LAMB: He ended up coming back to the States.
BROWNE: Yes, he did. He and a girl who was working as a stringer for UPI and had become enamored of this guy -- and I'm ashamed to admit that I introduced the two of them -- long after I had left Cuba hijacked a fishing boat because both had been made aware that they were on a death list of some kind. What had actually happened was that Che Guevara in particular had decided that this guy was just too much, that he was giving the Castro regime a very bad image by being as brutal as he was, that it was time to stop the mass executions and to get rid of Marks. That's essentially what happened.
So he and Jean, this girl, hijacked a fishing boat and sailed it to the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico and wetbacked it up. He had been deprived of American citizenship for having fought in a foreign army. The two of them made their way back up into the United States and to New York, where this girl had an apartment. He took to beating her up, and Bobby Kennedy, who was attorney general at the time, took a very active interest in the case because this was such a high-profile lowlife that it simply wouldn't do to leave him loose in the United States, so he sicced the Immigration and Naturalization organization on him, among other things, and tracked him down to Jean's apartment. That began a very interesting legal tussle because the American Civil Liberties Union and some other organizations argued that you couldn't send Marks back to Cuba because he was under sentence of death there, and that would be sort of the equivalent of executing him. They also ruled that since there was no precedent for -- I mean they held that there was no precedent for expatriating an American citizen. It just hadn't been done before even if he had violated the rules.
So in the end they simply gave up, and he came to a bad end, I believe. He took to beating up this girl. By this point I was in Vietnam, and she sought refuge with my mother for a time. Eventually the cops got him, and he was tried for assault and battery and one thing or another. He was in and out of jails. The last I heard was in the late 60s. There was a little newspaper account in the Times that he had been injured falling out of a tree in which he had been perched with a pair of binoculars peeping on some female neighbor. After that he just sort of disappeared from view. But Cuba in the days just before and after the revolution was a very strange sort of never-never land. There were very peculiar people. There were assassins who made themselves available for a very low price. There was one guy that I met in a bar trying very hard to get a decent contract, and he offered me a 50 percent cut rate if I could think of somebody for which I would be willing to pay him $500. He would rub him out. Of course, thinking of what happened later, the stories that perhaps the CIA was working with some Mafiosi in Cuba to try to engineer the assassination of Castro made me think back of the episode. Of course, that came to nothing although there were several attempts made on Castro's life.
LAMB: How long did you work for the AP?
BROWNE: Let's see. I joined them in 1960, and I left them in 1965. In the interim I had won a Pulitzer and I had lots of job offers and I accepted the one from ABC-TV.
LAMB: How long did you work for ABC-TV?
BROWNE: About a year.
LAMB: Why so short?
BROWNE: I guess I became a little bit disenchanted. It seemed to me that there were a lot of things that I wanted to say about the Vietnam War, and it was very difficult to say them when I was doing a stand-up or against a background of howitzers firing or some other distraction that really didn't bear directly on what I wanted to say. I remember in particular I was trying to talk about the probable effect on the Vietnam economy of the great influx of American troops which seemed to me a very significant thing, and, by the way, that was a factor in the degeneration of the war in some respects. Inadvertently we destroyed the Vietnamese economy. In some ways that made Vietnam so dependent on the United States that we got into trouble. Actually it was a trivial incident that led to my resignation from ABC. I wanted to cover a military operation involving helicopters and small units that were going to be moving very rapidly. The ABC management in New York wanted me to cover a beauty contest, the selection of Miss Saigon, whatever it was -- 1966 -- and so I dutifully covered this beauty contest but sent off my resignation along with a can of film, so that ended my career in television.
LAMB: What was next?
BROWNE: I was doing free lancing for a while. Because of my ABC contract, I had to do a couple of documentaries for them, and I did some radio work for the radio network. I was free lancing magazine articles to True magazine, which is a long-defunct magazine for men but which I thought was pretty good. Then I had a year's fellowship back in the States at Columbia. It was a Council on Foreign Relations, which was a nice sort of little break in my career and let me study some interesting things -- Mandarin Chinese and Arabic politics and some other odds and ends. Then when the fellowship expired I realized that I would have to think about making a living again, so I joined the New York Times then at that point.
LAMB: There's a picture in your book of three people, including you. The gentleman on the left is David Halberstam. The gentleman on the right is Neil Sheehan. The gentleman in the middle is you. AP, UPI and the New York Times all in one competitive group there?
BROWNE: That was one of the rare times when we were actually on the same operation together. I don't even remember what the operation was. But of course we were all very active competitors out to cut each other's throats professionally, although we were good friends off the field. I think in some sense we've become better friends since we're no longer in competition than we were then.
LAMB: Have the three of you ever gotten together and talked about the war?
BROWNE: Yes, it happens quite regularly. In fact, just a few weeks ago the New Yorker magazine asked us to assemble, along with Peter Arnett and Horst Faas, to pose for a group photograph for a piece that they were doing, I think on the early 60s and Kennedy versus Vietnam, something of that kind. Of course, whenever we have some pretext like that, we do get together and we reminisce and tell war stories and act like old soldiers -- just as boring and obnoxious, I'm sure, to others.
LAMB: Do you agree on most things at this point looking back?
BROWNE: Yes, I guess so. The interesting aspect, I think, of our work at the time was that despite the fact that we weren't really cooperating with each other because we were going out and doing our own thing that we nevertheless came to very much the same conclusions about the way the war was going, the unlikelihood that America would be able to prevail there, perhaps even the undesirability of a continuing American presence there. In some details obviously we disagree, but by and large I think we view the Vietnam War in more or less the same terms.
LAMB: If the three of you were to walk into a room full of, let's say, "the Americans for Conservative Action" -- this is based on some of the things you say in this book -- what would the reaction be of that group to the three of you today?
BROWNE: I guess it would depend on what type of conservatives they were. If they were simply idealogues without any knowledge of either Vietnam or other world events, they might be inclined to throw rocks at us or something. If, on the other hand, they were conservatives who had served perhaps in the U.S. government or military or CIA during those years in Vietnam, they might say, "These guys had a wrongheaded attitude, but their reporting was essentially accurate." I would hope that that's what they would say.
Certainly none of the three of us were enemies of the armed forces per se. We were all loyal Americans. Neil and I were soldiers ourselves at various periods. I think that as happened in the Gulf War, when I was back in Dhahran, a lot of the soldiers and senior commanders that I had to deal with were Vietnam veterans, and they remembered my work and I certainly in many cases remembered them and their units, and we were friends essentially, despite the very high state of tension between the press and the military in the Persian Gulf. So I think that it really kind of depends on the person. Conservatives don't necessarily hate us. I think if they think of us in terms of simply having done the best we could to report a difficult and complicated campaign, they may say, "We should have stayed in Vietnam. We should have put a nuclear bomb on Hanoi or something like that, but these guys are not necessarily so bad." What I'm saying is that it's easier for us to get along with line officers and line troops than it is with the spin merchants.
LAMB: In your book you say very positive things about Chester Bowles.
BROWNE: He was a prince of a man. There's no question about it. He was sort of the archetypical liberal, I suppose, in the sense that he was a Stevenson Democrat, he was strongly for Humphrey and so forth, and he was a member in good standing of the Kennedy Camelot, and yet he was a very realistic fellow who believed that you should stick by your principles even in the face of political necessity. He felt that Kennedy was much too secretive in the way he conducted the prelude to the Bay of Pigs fiasco, in his attempt at concealment of the combat role that America was playing in Vietnam, things like that.
LAMB: Let me quote you quoting him: "The Cuban fiasco demonstrates how far astray a man as brilliant and well-intentioned as Kennedy can go who lacks a basic moral reference point." That's Chester Bowles. Then you say, "I think he sized up Kennedy to a T." What did you mean?
BROWNE: I think Bowles admired Kennedy tremendously for his overall humane point of view in the conduct of world affairs. At the same time, I think that he resented Kennedy's secretiveness and the less agreeable aspects of his political savvy. He realized, I think, also that Kennedy more than anyone else had kind of brought us into the Vietnam War, and by 1963 it was obvious to a lot of people that that probably was not where we should be. Bowles played an important role in an incident in my own life. He happened to be visiting Saigon in 1963, visiting Ambassador Henry Cabot Lodge and so forth and sort of doing some fact finding. He himself was ambassador to India at that point.
It happened that my AP colleague Peter Arnett and I were covering a Buddhist demonstration at that time at which the secret police beat up Peter pretty badly and smashed my camera and did some other nasty things and then finally accused Peter and myself of having assaulted them, which of course was nonsense, but I had taken a precaution to photograph these proceedings. Although my camera was smashed, fortunately the film inside survived. I didn't know how I was going to get it out of the country, but I knew I had to somehow or other to defend our position, to show that it was not we who had started this fight nor we who had struck any blows. Dave Halberstam was there too, by the way, and Dave very gallantly stepped in front of Peter and took some of the blows himself. So the question was, how was I going to get out this film? Well, I ran into Chet Bowles, and I asked him if he were leaving the country if he would mind smuggling this film out for me. He agreed right away. It went out, it went to the AP, it was distributed on the wires, and the case against Peter Arnett and myself was promptly dismissed on the strength of that because Washington said, “Look, this is nonsense. You do that and we're liable to cut off aid to you,” speaking to the Vietnamese government.
LAMB: How many years, again, did you live in Vietnam?
BROWNE: I figure about seven. It was five years continuously for the first stint, from ‘61 to ‘66, and then I was back a few times. I spent quite a long time in ‘72 and early ‘73 until I was expelled and then I was back for the end of the war in ‘75.
LAMB: When did you first marry?
BROWNE: I met my wife in 1961. Actually the second or third day I was in Vietnam I visited her because she was the deputy minister of information and chief censor for the Vietnamese government.
LAMB: Her name?
BROWNE: Her name was Huynh thi Le Lieu.
LAMB: Are you still married?
BROWNE: Oh, yes, very happily so.
LAMB: How many years have you been married?
BROWNE: 1965 we were married, so whatever that is -- really a quarter of a century, most of our adult lives.
LAMB: Do you have children?
BROWNE: No. I do by a previous marriage.
LAMB: How did it come that you married a Vietnamese woman?
BROWNE: We were adversaries at first. Of course, it was her job. The government was furious at me most of the time, the Saigon government in the early 60s, and the information ministry felt that I had to be called on to the carpet for chewing out about once a week. As their English-speaking employee, Le Lieu was the one who had to call me in to take my licks. Eventually this ripened, at first into friendship and then into love, and she finally decided that she could no longer work for what was basically a rather totalitarian government. The Saigon government was modeled in many ways intentionally after the communist government in Hanoi, excepting that instead of calling it communism they called it personalism.
But in other aspects, they wore blue uniforms like the communists. The government officials had to attend weekly self-criticism sessions just as they did in the North. The theory of the warfare they waged was supposedly based on Viet Minh tactics, but of course they muddled it completely. They never really mastered that. Most of all, it was an atmosphere in which there was neither free speech nor -- I would just have to say it was not a free country. It was a country where arbitrary political arrests were commonplace and constant, and since my wife had been raised in France and England after her father, who had been a province chief, was murdered by the other side, she came back in the hope of working for a free and democratic Vietnam after having been recruited in Paris to come back and became bitterly disillusioned. After the break up, she couldn't leave the government just automatically -- you couldn't quit in those days. There was a loophole in the law that permitted her to emigrate to Australia provided she were working for a friendly allied information service, so she helped to set up the Vietnamese language service of Radio Australia, and then after a few months she was able to come back to Vietnam as a free woman.
LAMB: When did she become an American citizen?
BROWNE: When we went back to the States for my fellowship year, which would have been 1966, she became an American.
LAMB: You tell a story in the book where the two of you are in, I believe, North Vietnam and there's a passport problem. You come back in through Vientiane, Laos, back into South Vietnam.
BROWNE: Yes, that's right. It was a nasty episode and it really sort of illustrated the petty meanness that some American officials saw fit to vent on me and indirectly on Le Lieu. I had been expelled from South Vietnam in late 1972 for having reported corruption in their veteran's administration, having reported that the widows of Vietnamese soldiers killed in combat had to put some kickback money back in to the people who were responsible for paying for the funerals of these guys, so that for every funeral the officialdom of Saigon was raking in half the price of the funeral. It was a disgraceful thing, and it was one of the many aspects of the Vietnamese government that helped to lose the war.
At any rate, my wife, Le Lieu, and I at that point were sort of commuting. We had no place to live, but we had hotel rooms simultaneously in Vientiane in Laos, in Phnom Penh in Cambodia and in Bangkok in Thailand. One day we got the word -- this was in 1973 -- that a select group of American reporters would be permitted to fly to Hanoi to witness the release of the last of the American POWs, so naturally we jumped at the chance. Walter Cronkite was with us -- a lot of senior American correspondents and writers. Le Lieu was allowed to come as the photographer for the New York Times. She did a lot of photography for me, but her real value there was in being Vietnamese. She was the first Vietnamese American to arrive in North Vietnam, and it was a fascinating and important trip for both of us. It led to some wonderfully illustrative stories, I think, in the New York Times, but, at any rate, when we got back to Cambodia, Le Lieu noticed that there was a North Vietnamese visa stamp in her passport, which was the last thing in the world she wanted because she wanted to be free to travel to South Vietnam to visit her family and all that sort of thing. So she asked the American consulate there if they could give her a duplicate passport without the stamp. This was fairly common procedure at the time when Israel and the Arab states, for example, didn't recognize each other's visas. You could not go into an Arab nation if you had an Israeli stamp in your passport, and so, therefore, the State Department would issue duplicate passports. We thought it would be just a matter of routine, but they saw this as an opportunity to make trouble, so they just seized her passport on the grounds that as an American she had gone to Hanoi without prior approval by the State Department. Of course, we had all gone there without prior approval. There simply hadn't been time. We had only a few hours notice before jumping on the plane. The Times has some influence in Washington, and naturally they wouldn't put up with this, so we had the thing fixed quite rapidly, but that was the sort of petty thing that they would do sometimes. Without a passport, of course, you can't travel anywhere; you become a stateless person.
LAMB: What did you win the Pulitzer Prize for?
BROWNE: The Pulitzer committee doesn't ever say, but I think basically it was for coverage of the political events and war as they unfolded in 1963. It was a tempestuous year. Dave Halberstam was my co-winner. We were both awarded the prize for the same reasons. The same year I took a photograph of a burning monk, which was submitted for a Pulitzer in the photo department. The Pulitzer that year, however, was awarded for the famous Dallas Morning Herald photograph of Jack Ruby shooting Lee Harvey Oswald. But, at any rate, this series of pictures sort of made me famous overnight because they were simply so horrible and it happened that I was the only one present to photograph it.
LAMB: How did this event take place, and how did it happen that you were there taking photographs?
BROWNE: The Buddhist monks had been conducting anti-government demonstrations for about a month and a half prior to this incident, demanding certain changes in what they regarded as kind of a pro-Catholic bias on the part of the government which made it difficult for Buddhists to hold high-ranking jobs and all that sort of thing. It was essentially a political protest movement rather than religious. They conducted these street demonstrations virtually every day, and I think most of the resident correspondents in Saigon got thoroughly sick of having to get up at 5:30 or 6:00 every morning and march around with the monks when nothing much was happening, but the monks had threatened some time in advance that unless they got their way in some of these political matters that they would commit some protest suicides, either by disembowelment or burning.
I think after a while my brother correspondents simply couldn't take them seriously because nothing ever happened, but as a wire-service man I couldn't afford to take that chance so I just kept covering them day after day. On this particular occasion I was the only one there. There was a procession of, I guess, about 2- or 300 monks, all of them on foot excepting for those at the head who were riding in an old gray Austin. There was a driver in that car, two younger monks and this old monk named Thich Quang Duc, all of them in orange saffron robes chanting. We marched as far as one of the street corners in Saigon, the corner of Phan Dinh Phung, and all at once the whole group stopped and formed a circle. Thich Quang Duc and his two acolytes got out of the car, walked to the center of this intersection, put down a little cushion. Thich Quang Duc seated himself in the lotus position on this. The two young monks then got out a jury can of gasoline from the car and poured it all over him, and he lighted a match and set himself afire, and the rest of us watched in horror. I think it was one of the worst things I've ever seen. I've seen a lot of death. Thich Quang Duc, I think, took about eight or ten minutes to die. It was not a rapid death. His face was clearly in agony. The whole region was just pervaded by the smell of burning flesh by the time he finally collapsed and fell over. I was able to, I guess, continue watching just by refusing to perceive what I was seeing and concentrating on the details of making sure that the exposure of my film was correct, that the camera was working properly and so forth. That's one of the things you do, I think all journalists do when they are confronted with something really ghastly. They can sort of defend themselves by working and trying to not be conscious of the thing that they're recording.
LAMB: What was the impact of that, and who published it?
BROWNE: It was published all over the world. Many morning newspapers in the United States refused to publish it on the grounds that it was just too awful a picture, the New York Times among them, by the way. The Times did not publish it.
LAMB: Never published it?
BROWNE: Never published it, no. Some interesting surveys were done by I think the Columbia School of Journalism was one of them to sound out newspapers as to whether they had run this photograph or not and why, whichever way they answered, and I think it was sort of interesting. I think possibly today the Times would run it, but I do know that it made an impact on the White House. Ambassador Henry Cabot Lodge told me later that while he was being briefed by President Kennedy to take up his new assignment in Saigon that he had noticed this photograph on Kennedy's desk and that Kennedy had commented that this is really bad -- we're going to have to do something about that regime. In fact, Washington did do something about that regime. This immolation took place in July, and it was on November the 1st of 1963 that Diem was overthrown by his generals, most of whom had been in touch with the CIA's Lou Conein and some of the other senior CIA officials who had made it clear that the United States would not oppose a coup, so it's been argued that that photograph had an indirect role in destroying the Diem regime. How true that may be how can one tell historically after the fact? I certainly don't know.
LAMB: In your opinion when you were in Vietnam what people whom we would know played it straight with you and who didn't?
BROWNE: Certainly, Lodge, I think, was more honest than most of the U.S. officials that I had known.
LAMB: Who was he?
BROWNE: Henry Cabot Lodge had been Nixon's running mate in their unsuccessful campaign against Kennedy. Lodge had remained in politics and paradoxically was appointed by Kennedy, his old foe, to take over as ambassador in Saigon during that critical summer of 1963.
LAMB: Who was the most dishonest?
BROWNE: I guess I would have to say that the person I disliked most was not actually in Saigon; he was in Washington. His name was Arthur Sylvester; he was assistant secretary of defense under McNamara. When he said that every government has the right to lie to defend its interests, he meant it.
LAMB: Did you ever confront him?
BROWNE: Oh, yes. Frequently. Particularly when I was on occasional home leaves, I'd be on the same speaking platform with him -- I remember at Cornell one time and various university places. I found him a thoroughly disagreeable guy in every sense, and I couldn't imagine that he had ever been a journalist or pretended to be a journalist in his earlier life because he would lie gratuitously, it seemed to me.
LAMB: Was he editor of a Newark paper?
BROWNE: That's right, yes. Newark News.
LAMB: Let me read something you say in this book: "The real problem of aging is one's loss of humility and a corresponding gain in one's intolerance of errant foolishness." That just didn't pop into that book, did it?
BROWNE: No, it certainly didn't.
LAMB: You've thought about that.
LAMB: Let me read it again: "The real problem of aging is one's loss of humility and a corresponding gain in one's intolerance of errant foolishness." What do you mean?
BROWNE: As one gets older, as I get older, I find that I have to be brought up short every now and then or I sound off a little bit too positively. I think that the world is never a simple place. If one ever starts to assume that one knows what's going on, either because of past experiences or just by instinct, we tend to get ossified as we get older. We tend to say, "Well, it doesn't matter. These are a few facts here and there that tend to conflict with my perception of things, but I know I'm right." As soon as you do that, you're no longer an adequate journalist, I think, and there's a great danger. I've seen it happen time and again. It happens certainly to some but by no means all the reporters that covered World War II and Korea, some of whom we had to confront in Vietnam when I was young myself. I think that some of them despised us as being young and inexperienced. That was the favorite description of the so-called young Turks there. Now as I grow older, I see the dangers of becoming one of those old fogies, I suppose, who can really cause a lot of damage. It doesn't necessarily happen. There are some great people. I happen to think that Homer Bigart of the New York Herald Tribune and then later with the New York Times who won Pulitzers is one of the really great ones. He was a bit snappish in his old age, but I think that he was always receptive to new ideas and changes in perception, and that's what makes the difference between a great correspondent or reporter and one who merely ossifies with age.
LAMB: You were talking about people who appeared on the platform with you during the war period. Did you have a lot of unhappy experiences?
BROWNE: Certainly, when a discussion is organized at a college campus, you are frequently posed against somebody else to balance the thing, although I remember there was one session in California at which I was seated at the same table with Martin Luther King and Robert Vaughn and Senator McGovern and . . .
LAMB: Ernest Gruening.
BROWNE: Ernest Gruening, yes, who was, to my mind, one of the great figures of the Vietnam war. He and Wayne Morse were the only two members of the Senate to oppose the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, and they turned out to be absolutely dead right because that resolution was based on a lie, an imaginary North Vietnamese torpedo boat that had supposedly attacked an American destroyer in the South China Sea, and which has evidently never happened. It was later shown that this had just not occurred. At any rate, Gruening and Morse, the rest of the Senate heaped contumely upon those two guys, and they were declared to be erratic mavericks and know-nothing liberals and who knows what, but they were right. So I admired them.
LAMB: You talk about Herman Kahn, who's deceased but used to be with the Hudson Institute says -- or one of the other Vietnam crusaders, "Hearing my colleagues described as young and inexperienced, taken in' by the Viet Cong, selling our great fighting men short, undermining our loyal allies in Asia and generally comporting ourselves like traitors." Later you have a quote, "You're the kind that would have let Hitler run over this country, Browne." People said those kinds of things to you?
BROWNE: Yes, oh, yes they did. Of course, there was a replay of some of that after the Persian Gulf business, not that there was any implication that we had betrayed military security, but just the suggestion that we were objecting to military constraints, that we objected to the Pentagon's keeping us running on narrow tracks. The fact that we should object to the Pentagon at all is what ired some people.
LAMB: You talk about how people would say negative things about you. On the next page you talk about your friends being Martin Luther King, Pat Brown, Robert Vaughn, Ernest Gruening. You say, "For once I could shake hands amicably with everyone at the speaker's table." Would people listening to this think then that you were friends with those guys, and the other people didn't like you so then you really were on their side.
BROWNE: I was on their side to some extent, but
LAMB: "I took years to come to terms with the trauma those last days of the war left me, and even now I try not to think about that cruel April 1975." On the next page you say, "I have not visited Vietnam since then. Saigon was home to me for a long time, but it's probably true, as Thomas Wolfe observed, that you can't go home again." Is it still traumatic for you and will you ever go home?
BROWNE: Oh, it is. Yes, I might at some point. I'd like very much to go back. For one thing, I think the hatreds have disappeared to some extent. But for me what the end of the war meant was the wrenching apart of families, these terrible, cruel separations. It was a bit, I suppose, like the erection of the Berlin Wall. All of a sudden families that had been together were divided. My wife's family was divided by that final end. As the panic erupted, as people were scrambling over the embassy fence to get on the last helicopter or trying to get on a Jeep or bus or anything to get into Saigon airport and get on the CIA's black airlift, it was pandemonium and the worst in everybody was being brought out in many cases. Huge bribes were being offered to Americans to try to get them on a list of some kind. There were Americans who were fraudulently advertising themselves as purveyors of these golden passports, in effect, who would sort of haunt Saigon airport or some of the downtown bus stations spotting senior Vietnamese officers that they knew would probably be wanting to get out and say, "I can probably arrange something for you, but it's going to cost you." That went on. The wretchedness of human behavior really came to the fore.
At the same time there was nobility in some cases too, people who made tremendous personal sacrifices to see their families survive. Vietnam has been no bed of roses since the end of the war either. There were the reeducation camps in which tens of thousands of people were imprisoned for a long period of time. The economy of the country is completely shot. There has been no liberalization of the political regime, particularly in the South, which has continued to be ruled as a colony by the North. North and South Vietnam are ethnically quite different. Their languages are differently accented, they eat different foods, they have different social customs, so South Vietnam has been ruled as a colony since then. These are all things that combine to have made me reluctant to think about going back to Vietnam.
LAMB: Since then you have lived in Yugoslavia and South America and Pakistan, and you've been to Bangladesh and you've covered Central America. I can go on and on, but there's a paragraph about the Third World. I want to read you a paragraph and ask you to expand on it. "The brutal fact is that most of the people of Bangladesh, indeed most of the people living in the Third World, are unneeded and unwanted by the rest of the human race and living in lands that simply cannot sustain them." Is it hopeless?
BROWNE: I certainly have not seen any grounds for hope, particularly in Bangladesh or in some African nations or in some other south Asian nations simply because population is outrunning resources, and it's a logarithmic curve. The worse it gets, the worse it gets. Bangladesh has -- we calculated at one point just after their revolution against Pakistan and a monsoon that they had lost about a million people in the space of about three months, I guess. The U.N. demographers calculated that it would take only 83 days to grow back another million people in Bangladesh. Now I think the number's down to 50 or something. There are simply too many people and no resources, and there's no check on the population. I have to say that overpopulation I think is the single biggest problem that confronts all of us. I would love to see more in the news about this. We are now writing about environmental problems for the first time -- the greenhouse effect, what do we do with nuclear waste, how about the ozone hole caused by chlorofluorocarbons? All of these problems are intractable, almost inevitably and permanently intractable unless we do something about population, which underlies all of them.
LAMB: We're jumping all over the place because we have just a little time left. Prague -- the most beautiful city in the world?
BROWNE: No question about it, with some very bad memories. During the Husk regime some of the worst human rights abuses happened in Prague. I can't help forgetting being arrested with Pavel Kohout, the playwright, and having had a lot of trouble with the Prague police during the bad old days. I've been back there recently, in November, and it's now a very changed place, so it's a wonderful tourist spot. Beautiful city.
BROWNE: Near the end you write, "There's Antarctica, a gleaming, white continent that seems the more beautiful for its resistance to human colonization. I return there every few years to recharge my spiritual batteries, such as they are." What do you mean by "such as they are"?
BROWNE: I'm not a spiritual person, and I guess it's the sort of release from the heavy-handed politics of the outer world. I think that a region has to be judged in terms of the number of people and the number of penguins that it may have. The fewer people and the more penguins, the better it is. There's a spirit of exploration there. It's like living at the edge of outer space, at the fringes of human civilization, where the only things that seem to matter to most people are the science and the beauty of the place. I love it. I can come back from Antarctica and be friendly with my fellow human being once again.
LAMB: Have you missed anything?
BROWNE: In Antarctica?
LAMB: No, in your life.
BROWNE: Yes, I guess I missed the stability of having raised a family, I suppose, in the conventional way. I've missed . . .
LAMB: These are your kids?
BROWNE: Yes. I've certainly missed the kind of career that I suppose I could have made if I had opted to be an editor or go up the journalistic ranks rather than remain as a reporter, which is what I've done. On the other hand, I would have missed the tremendous variety of experience that attracted me to journalism in the first place, so on the whole I've been, I think, marvelously lucky. I've had my cake and eaten it too, so I don't think I've missed much.
LAMB: What is your favorite chapter in this book?
BROWNE: Probably where I'm trying to draw some conclusions about where the world ought to be going right now. I think, at the risk of sounding a crank, I worry a lot about overpopulation. I think that, my own paper included, doesn't devote enough space to looking into the real horrors that await us unless we do something about it.
LAMB: Another book in you?
BROWNE: Not for now. Maybe at some point. If so, it will probably be on some scientific matter rather than politics, I would guess.
LAMB: Was this book hard to write?
BROWNE: Parts of it were very hard to write because there are things in there that I've never really told anyone. It's like going to a father confessor or to a psychoanalyst, I suppose.
LAMB: What are the things you've never told?
BROWNE: Some of my feelings about leaving Vietnam. For one thing, after the fall of Saigon I hadn't written about Vietnam at all. This is the first time I've girded up my loins to do it.
LAMB: Any reaction to the book so far that surprises you from friends or reviewers or people that read it?
BROWNE: The reviewers have been very kind. It's only been out in the stores, I guess, for about a week now, so I'm waiting for the verdict to come in, but my daughter professes to like it, and so I'm pleased with that.
LAMB: What do you hope the book does?
BROWNE: I hope to leave something of value for my otherwise worthless life to those who come after me, not just my own family but other journalists. I found, for example, that in the Persian Gulf that I had advantages that my younger colleagues didn't and I was able to share some of them with them. They were grand correspondents, by the way. The new generation of reporters in this country I think are just terrific. If I could give some advice to young journalists as I did to some of my colleagues in the Gulf, then that might be useful. I have no illusions, though, that I'm doing anything of lasting worth here. Perhaps it just feeds a monstrous ego.
LAMB: This is what the cover of this book looks like. The title is “Muddy Boots and Red Socks”, and the author is Malcolm Wilde Browne. We thank you very much for joining us.
BROWNE: Thank you very much for having me.
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