BRIAN LAMB, HOST: Peter Arnett, after all these years of reporting, why did you decide to do a book?
Mr. PETER ARNETT, AUTHOR, "LIVE FROM THE BATTLEFIELD": I had an offer from
Simon & Schuster, Brian, that I could not turn down. In addition, there were
more questions raised by my Gulf coverage than at any time since the Vietnam
War and I felt I had enough under my belt in 1991 to write my life story, in a
sense, as a cautionary tale to young correspondents who want to become war
correspondents, pointing out the dangers; but also, in a sense, an explanation
of why people like me and many others--and you can go to Ernie Pyle or go
right back into the earlier years of the United States when reporters were out
covering conflicts, or to the young reporters of today--Christiane Amanpour,
some sense why we do this sort of thing and why we're out there covering wars,
getting the information back, even though it's dangerous and, in my case,
LAMB: Go back to the beginning: Where were you born?
Mr. ARNETT:I was born in Riverton, New Zealand, a little old whaling town in
the southern part of New Zealand and after a couple of years moved to Bluff,
which was a seaport--an oyster port, a raucous town with lots of bars, and it
was an interesting upbringing.
LAMB: What was your family like?
Mr. ARNETT:My father was very attentive to my needs. My mother was the
disciplinarian. My father was a dreamer. He looked at my two brothers and I
as--as achieving what he had hoped to as a youth. He wanted to be a
businessman. He wanted to travel. He was caught in the Depression with a
young family and--but he gave us a life. He gave us a good education and--and
always encouraged us to move on out of little Bluff, even though the neighbors
could not understand why we were going to get education way outside the town.
And in fact, even when I return today, many, many years later, I am asked,
`Well, when are you coming home? You know, the old family homestead's still
there. When are you going to come back to live here?' It's not easy to
explain to them why my sights were set long ago on a distant horizon and they
are still set on that horizon.
LAMB: You talk about your 92-year-old mother in the beginning of the book.
Is she still alive?
Mr. ARNETT:My mother is still alive, and she calls me in times like this and
says, `Peter, don't freeze to death. It must be so cold there.' So she's
still interested in my health, has always been.
LAMB: Has she been able to watch your career?
Mr. ARNETT:Fortunately, she has traveled somewhat in the later years of my
father's--my father died in hi--in his--in his mid-60s, but he did travel for
a decade. They came to Hong Kong during the Vietnam War. He met my wife and
kids. My mother came here a couple of years ago. I brought her over at age
89 and she enjoyed the travel. And, yeah, she's followed my career with great
interest and supported me throughout. I can do no wrong in my mother's eyes,
and I love having a mother like that.
LAMB: Elsa Arnett. You mention her up front, right away in the book, that
she played a role. Who is she?
Mr. ARNETT:Elsa Arnett is my daughter. She's 25 years of age, born in
Saigon. My wife was a Vietnamese woman. We separated a few years ago, but
we're still in touch. Elsa, a bright young lady, and she went to Stuyvesant
High School in New York, a--a--as an accomplished student, went on to Harvard
University. I never had a university education. Well, Elsa compensated for
that--for that by going to Harvard University and graduating with high honors
and, lo and behold, went into journalism, became a reporter, worked for
several months on The Washington Post as an intern and then joined The Boston
Globe; spent a couple of years there and, thank goodness, agreed to help me
get this book done. And as I say in the acknowledgement, without her support,
persistence and computer knowledge, I don't think I would have got through
that project. So I am grateful for her and she is now going to get back into
LAMB: Where's your son?
Mr. ARNETT:My son, Andrew, is in Seattle, Washington, trying to be a rock
musician. He's a guitar player. He dresses in old clothes and looks pretty
sloppy. I believe it's called the grunge movement. And he's in his late 20s
and wants to become a rock 'n' roll star, and I give him all the encouragement
I can. I think that's the one business that's tougher than war reporting,
trying to make it in rock 'n' roll.
LAMB: You left New Zealand when?
Mr. ARNETT:I left New Zealand in 1956. I went into newspaper work out of
high school. I joined the local newspaper, the Southland Times, an
old-fashioned paper with ads on the front page. And we covered local events.
I covered sports and the City Council. And I happened to join that newspaper
by chance. My older brother had--had joined the newspaper. He enjoyed it.
My father got me a job on the Southland Times and that--from the moment I
walked into the newsroom and saw those typewriters clattering and had my first
opportunity to write a news story--it was a paragraph about the weather that
the sub-editor, who was the editor in that case, who--the--who edited the
copy--he changed every word of that paragraph, but I still felt it was mine.
I still have that paragraph, that was my first creative work
and--professionally, and I just got such a thrill out of being in that
environment that--and--and I retained that thrill. I can't walk into a
newsroom without feeling the urge to phone someone up or--or get the story
LAMB: Is it true that you, at one time, worked for UPI, AP and Reuters all
at the same time?
Mr. ARNETT:That happened by chance in Laos in 1960. I went up there to
start a little weekly newspaper. It was for the Western community, mostly CIA
officials, who were under cover helping the Laotian government then. The
military strongman was in our corner at that time. There were many US
military people in civilian clothes. You could always get a tip-off when they
would be sitting in a bar with a group of, you know, young men with the shaven
heads, and an older man would walk in and they would salute him, even though
they're all in T-shirts. You can't avoid that military identification. It so
happened that I was an AP stringer, but I had a friend in UPI who said would I
help out coverage for them while they look for a new man, and the Reuters
correspondent in Saigon also got me helping out while they were trying to find
someone to fill in as stringer. And a big story happened: A Communist
chieftain, Prince Souphanouvong, who had been imprisoned in Vientiane, along
with his followers, escaped. And I found it necessary to file for all three
news organizations on that occasion.
It was a relatively big story and, as I say in the book--I talked about two or
three days later, communications being slow, I got three cables for me in the
Hotel Constellation, which was my headquarters--the first from the AP,
said, `Congratulations. You were seven minutes ahead with story on Prince
Souphanouvong's escape.' UPI said, `You lagged on initial break, but amply
made up in detail,' because I'd added a few paragraphs. And Reuters said,
`Thanks for helping out.'
You couldn't get away with it more than once, however, and I soon joined the
Associated Press as a full-time correspondent and assigned to Indonesia. That
was in 1961.
LAMB: The biggest chunk of this book is devoted to Vietnam. How come?
Mr. ARNETT:When I started writing this book, I wasn't quite sure where it
would go. I started writing about my beginnings and it was exciting to talk
about my early newspaper jobs. It was when I got to the Vietnam section,
though, that I felt it--that the meatiest part of my life began to emerge.
The Vietnam War was the defining experience of my life. I spent basically 13
years there, from '62 to '75. And even though the Gulf coverage was
controversial, the real--the real questions that remained in American
society--and within American journalism and government today--revolve around
the Vietnam War, the nature of that commitment and the coverage of that
conflict. So I had good reason to write in depth about the war. And this was
encouraged by my editor, Alice Mayhew at Simon & Schuster in New York. She
said, `Write as much as you can about the Vietnam War. You know, people need
to know more about what went on. And try to define, in your eyes, what really
LAMB: Stacked up here on this table are books that we've done for BOOKNOTES
in the last five years--actually a couple of them in the last year or so. The
top one is Malcolm Browne's book, the middle one is Neil Sheehan's book and
the bottom one is David Halberstam's book called "The Fifties," but he also
wrote "The Best & the Brightest" a number of years ago. And we brought these
out here because you are mentioned in their books and you mention them in your
book. How come?
Mr. ARNETT:We were sort of a journalistic cabal 30 years ago. I had the
good fortune, early in my career, to encounter those three gentlemen whose
books you have there. I was a young reporter, enthusiastic, headstrong,
poorly trained because Commonwealth journalism was not particularly strong on
adequate analysis, on having a--a very deep factual base for your stories.
Australian journalism, in particular--in Sydney, it was hit and run to some
degree--headline-happy newspapers. In Saigon in 1962, where I was assigned by
the Ace--Associated Press, Malcolm Browne was my bureau chief. Neil Sheehan
and David Halberstam also covered Vietnam in those days. From them I learned
of the principles of American journalism--freedom of expression, the need to
delve into stories, to question decisions made by government, you know, to
present the obverse side of the story. And the intellectual courage of all
three men, in addition to their physical courage, impressed me and made an
imprint on me that is--that has lasted to this day.
LAMB: In Neil Sheehan's book, he even has a subtitle on it about John Paul
Vann and he writes a lot about the battle of Ap Bac. You do, too. Give
us your version of--why is Ap Bac important and who is John Paul Vann?
Mr. ARNETT:Up to the time of Ap Bac, Vietnam was a small counterinsurgency
operation, several thousand American advisers, a couple of companies of
helicopters involved in a very distant war that was hardly controversial.
President Kennedy was trying to figure out a strategy in that area. The
few--the handful of newspeople there at the time were writing stories
questioning Allied policy, but there was not a great deal of attention upon
Vietnam. Laos had been the--the critical legacy that President Eisenhower
left to President Kennedy. In fact, President Kennedy had written that in the
conferences he held with--with Eisenhower and the changing of command,
Eisenhower talked about Laos much more than Vietnam.
So in late 1962, in a--a distant war, Ap Bac brought all the--the--the
questionable nature of the conflict into focus, because on that occasion a
force of Vietnamese--South Vietnamese soldiers with armor, support--and
American helicopter support, encountered a Vietcong unit that, instead of
running as they normally did, and--and just hiding out in the--in the jungles
and along the paddy fields and the canals, stood and fought. Several American
helicopters shot down; several Americans killed; Vietnamese infantry units
In addition to all that an outspoken American adviser, a--a colonel called
John Paul Vann, who was so angry at the ineptitude of his Vietnamese--of the
Vietnamese soldiers he was advising, that he talked freely to the press. He
talked to Sheehan. He talked to Halberstam. He talked to Browne and he
talked to me. We quoted him at length, and in writing of this debacle in
Vietnam, the story made headlines. It was a quiet weekend in early January of
1963, not much other news--suddenly headlines, the name of John Paul Vann
propelled into the spotlight. Great concern in Washington about what was
going on. We had thrown the spotlight on the war in a negative way, and from
then on in, the questions came even more--even more loudly phrased and--and
more vehemently phrased, about whether or not we should be in Vietnam and, if
we're there, what should--the nature of our commitment would be. So Ap Bac
was really the opening shot of the American war in Vietnam.
LAMB: You write, `I had lost my best news source and also a good friend, and
I had difficulty coming to terms with his death.' How come?
Mr. ARNETT:You're talking about John Paul Vann.
LAMB: John Paul Vann.
Mr. ARNETT:Well, this is a man who, for me and for other reporters, was a
beacon of realism in Vietnam. John Paul Vann, after Ap Bac, left the US
military service, for various reasons that Sheehan details in his book, but
mainly because he was a critic of Vietnam policy. He did return as a civilian
adviser and lived in various provinces, and was an acute observer of what was
going on. But John Paul Vann, by 1965, had learned his lesson about going
public to the media. But he wanted the truth, as he saw it, to come out. So
he used reporters such as myself. He leaked information. The leak is a
standard ruse in Washington to--to--to--to put out information into the
mainstream. John Paul Vann would meet with me. I would ask him questions and
I could always believe he would give me candid assessments of what was going
on. Were the South Vietnamese really effective? What was the level of
corruption? Should American troops be fighting? In fact, when American
troops were committed, what were they doing? You know, what about tactics?
What about strategy? And I would look upon him several times each year, as
the war got bigger and bigger and more violent and bloody and more
controversial--he was a beacon of rea--realism for me.
When he finally died in 1972, shot down in a helicopter outside Kontum, by
then he had become nationally well-known because he was--basically had become
the last hawk left in Vietnam--the last American hawk, because in the end he
did believe that maybe--the war could be won. When he was shot down, I
thought I'd lost a friend and a great news source. And it was with genuine
sorrow that--that I learned of his death. I'd flown with him a couple of
weeks earlier. And I wrote an obituary with Horst Faas, our photographer,
about John Paul Vann, and was probably one of the more emotional stories from
Vietnam that I wrote.
LAMB: You also say that Vann's favorite companion is a brill--a brilliant
quirky former Marine named Daniel Ellsberg. Now you know that the name
Daniel Ellsberg sparks in this country a lot of reaction, depending on what
political side you're on. Are you ever worried, when you look at all these
different books, that people that see you so close to John Paul Vann or Daniel
Ellsberg suggests that that whole group traveled together, thought the same
way and that's why we got the kind of reporting we got?
Mr. ARNETT:That's a very good question. And my answer is that we--that in
my case, definitely--I can't speak for my colleagues--but I--in this case I
think I can speak, that while I looked upon John Paul Vann as a beacon for the
truth, I did not pal around with him. I did not socialize with him. I didn't
go drinking with him. And he was a news source whom I valued, that I would
visit him, officially, as a correspondent. I would talk to him and then our
lives would move on--on--on their way.
Daniel Ellsberg is--is--is very much the same. I encountered him, in a story
I mention in the book, in a small village south of Saigon. He was very
active, at that point, in trying to improve the performance of the South
Vietnamese and the US military. He was at the forefront of an American unit,
urging them to tactically move forward. They were all bo--they were bogged
down in elephant grass and not very willing to move. It was a hot day. There
were snipers. But Ellsberg was out there egging them on and telling them, you
know, `Let's get this war won.' He was very gung-ho. I rarely saw him after
that. And--and I was not the recipient of the Pentagon papers that, of
course, he later became famous for distributing--papers he gave, ultimately,
to Neil Sheehan.
But I don't feel I was a fellow traveler. Again, in the case of Ellsberg, I
would bump into him occasionally. I--I would learn from these people, but
they were simply two of the many sources that we used in Vietnam. And as I
point throughou--on--throughout the book, not only in Vietnam but elsewhere,
my main sources of information were my own two eyes, and my ability to get to
where the action was and to make assessments of the nature of the war and its
direction from my own experience and observations.
LAMB: Did you ever think you were going to die while you were reporting on
the Vietnam War? Was it ever close?
Mr. ARNETT:Put it this way: I wouldn't have been surprised at any point
that death would have taken me--not surprised at all. At the end of my
Vietnam experience, I suppose I was surprised that I had not been injured,
that I hadn't even sprained an ankle in the war. But anyone who gets close to
combat has to know that a bullet will have their name on it or a piece of
metal will have their name on it, and so it should not come as any surprise to
those who do the kind of things I do.
LAMB: How often did you go out in the field?
Mr. ARNETT:From the time I arrived in Saigon, in the early '60s, to the time
that I left, when everyone else left in late--in the middle of 1975, I made it
a point to be out in Saigon, in--in--in the war theater and out of Saigon 75
percent to 80 percent of the time. I had the good fortune to be part of the
Associated Press bureau in Saigon. We had, at the height of the war, 20
members of that bureau--10 reporters, 10 photographers. The duty fell on
others to go to the 5:00 follies military briefings, to interview General
Westmoreland and others, to cover the activities of politicians. I was there
early. I had won the right to go and cover the big actions, so I felt it was
a privilege, really, to be out of Saigon and in the field with the troops. It
was a responsibility that I would--I wanted to bear and I also realized, as
the war became more controversial, that my reporting had to be accurate, right
on the button, or my career would be destroyed if I was ever wrong, if my
assessments were inaccurate.
In fact, Wes Gallagher, whom I talk a lot about in the book--he was the AP
president at the time, a wonderfully strong-willed man, a veteran of World War
II, a firm believer in the First Amendment and freedom of speech--he backed
me, but he would tell me, when I would run into him every year or so, `Peter,
Don't ever make a mistake in your reporting. You're so controversial we won't
be able to support you, so just be correct in everything you say.' It was an
onerous task to face daily, reporting--and I wrote 3,000 or 4,000 stories from
Vietnam--knowing that every one had to be accurate or every story I wrote was
required to pass the test of close supervision by the Pentagon, by military
people, by government. And I endeavored to do that, and I hope I succeeded in
LAMB: You got married when you went to Vietnam, to a Vietnamese woman. How
did that happen?
Mr. ARNETT:I guess I fell in love. In Saigon in 1962 and '63, I met Nina
Nguyen. She was a young Vietnamese woman who had been educated in the United
States, University of North Carolina, as a medical librarian, worked in
hospitals in New York. Had returned to Saigon to work in the government
hospital as a librarian there. I met her. We had a lot in common. We
married in 1964 and had a couple of children. And she--her family was in
Saigon. They had come down from the north. They--they had fled from
the--from the Communist occupation of Hanoi and the rest of North Vietnam.
Her father had been associated with an independent political movement. He was
looked upon with disfavor by the Communist side. He brought his family to
Saigon where, in fact, he became the secretary-general of the national
assembly in Saigon, a bureaucrat there. And I met Nina, and we married and we
lived in Saigon.
LAMB: How long were you married?
Mr. ARNETT:For 20 years. We separated a few years ago, but I'm still in
touch with Nina. We get along fine. The children keep us together, and it
was a relationship which I delighted in and particularly the kids. I think
they've done very well.
LAMB: Where does she live now?
Mr. ARNETT:She lives in New York City and often visits her relatives in
LAMB: But you say in the beginning of the book that she cooperated with you
in putting this book together.
Mr. ARNETT:Sure, we're all friends together. We--we did not break up in
animosity. The children are the heart of our relationship. We look at them
as our joint responsibility and they help keep us in touch. So Nina did, in
fact, cooperate, and for that I'm very grateful. I'm grateful to other
members of the Vietnamese expatriate community who also helped me and
also--who also trust me. Even though I was a controversial reporter, I do
have quite a few friends from South Vietnam who believed in the cause but also
realized that it was hopelessly flawed from a very early time and that it was
a--the hope of a South Vietnama--Vietnam remaining free was a--was a dream,
not a reality.
LAMB: Your marriage to a Vietnamese woman ended up playing a role when you
were over in Iraq. Senator Simpson had a few things to say about your
Mr. ARNETT:Yeah. Well, I didn't learn about that until I got out of Baghdad
because CNN did not want to trouble me with too much of the criticism. There
was a lot in many areas and--and I--my son rose to the occasion--my son
Andrew--and wrote a--a defense of the family for the op-ed page of The New
York Times, for which Senator Simpson later apologized. I think the incident
is behind us. He was--he had erroneous information about the political
attitude of Nina's family, and he apologized for it and I feel that it's water
under the bridge.
LAMB: At one point in the Vietnam War, you took your nine-year-old son,
Andrew, on a little 10-day trip from Saigon north. What was that all about?
Mr. ARNETT:This was in 1973. There was a lull. This was when American
troops had left and the optimists were saying, `Well, Vietnamization has
worked. South Vietnam is strong. You have a government in Saigon. President
Nguyen Van Thieu is there. He has the support of cabinet. You can travel in
the countryside, and basically the Americans have left and, hey, we're--we're
home free. You know, we're he--we've held the Communists at bay.' And the US
had promised continuing aid and all seemed well. The pessimists said, `Now
wait a minute. This is sort of a decent interval'--the title of a book later
by Frank Snepp, by the way. `This is just a ruse by Henry Kissinger,
President Nixon and the North Vietnamese to allow America to get out, to allow
the American public to get used to the idea that American troops are no longer
ler--there, and then allow it all to crumble.'
So in 1973 I returned after the American withdrawal. The AP said to me,
`Look, have a look at it. Can this work? Can what we hear about the optimism
of that time prevail?' So I went back to Saigon with my family and I decided
to drive from Saigon to Hue in the north, along provinces and roads that I'd
often visited during the course of the war--early, middle and later. And I
wanted to take Andrew to give him a sense of, you know, what his
country--because he was half-Vietnamese--half-South Vietnamese--what his
country was going to look like, because I felt there would be change and I
wanted him to get a sense of--of a country about to change forever, to be lost
forever. So we made this trip for 10 days up the coast in a van with an
interpreter, a lot of Coca-Cola and canned food. And along the way I sort of
gave him a tour. He had a look at battlefield weapons, destroyed tanks. We
interviewed Vietnamese commanders. We interviewed Polish peacekeepers who'd
come in to replace the Americans.
At the end of that trip I wrote a very, very negative assessment of the war.
I quoted Vietnamese commanders in the field as saying, `It's finished. We
cannot hold against the determined North Vietnamese offensive.' I learned
that the North Vietnamese had, in fact, moved deep into South Vietnam; they
had constructed roads, they had constructed oil pipelines. They had whole
communities established, ready to spring out at the appointed time in the
final attack. And I quote an American there, a friend of mine, as saying,
`Vietnam--South Vietnam is a river of ice. It's a frozen river. The surface
is firm, but underneath, the river is flowing swiftly and soon the ice will
crack.' As it was, 18 months later, in March of 1975, the ice did crack. The
determined attacks from the North Vietnamese came in the highlands and they
were to conclude a month or so later in the fall of Saigon.
LAMB: What does your son remember from that trip?
Mr. ARNETT:I quote him in the--in the book as saying something about,
`Daddy, Daddy, tank, tank.' And he--he claims he never said it. He said he
had a better command of the English language than I credit him for. But he
does remember the trip and I took many pictures of him on that trip,
and--which he has in an album. I think he recalls quite a lot of when--of
what went on and I'm glad I took him.
Interestingly enough, I--I've been criticized for what some believe exposing
my children to unnecessary risk. Some in the AP bureau at the time said, you
know, `How can you take your son on a journey like that?' And I was
criticized in the early '80s for taking my daughter--then 15-year-old--years
old--to Salvador and Nicaragua to have a look at what was going on. But my
philosophy has always been that if you can--you can travel through areas of
relatively heavy population with impunity. I mean, you were very unlikely--I
would have been very unlikely to be hurt on that long drive up the coast of
Saigon, in and out of villages and cities. Why would anyone want to harm us?
And I felt the same in Central America, that--and--and--where I had taken my
daughter. And neither of them, by the way, feel that they risked their lives
when they'd been with me and they're glad for the experiences.
LAMB: A couple of months ago there was a picture in The New Yorker magazine
of you, I think Neil Sheehan, David Halberstam, Malcolm Browne and I--Horst
LAMB: ...was he in there also? Do you all ever get together and talk about
these experiences in Vietnam?
Mr. ARNETT:We actually do. I was talking to David Halberstam the other day
and he said, `We really are a gang, aren't we?' We--we--over the years we
have gotten together, often on--in Vietnam reunions. We did get together when
Neil Sheehan's great book was--was--was--was published and--a few years ago.
And we got together for that particular picture that--that Avedon did for The
New Yorker. We've been together on some other occasions--Vietnam reunions.
We don't get together enough. But, interestingly enough, when we are sitting
at the same table, it's like we are back in Saigon at the Caravelle Hotel
or the Royale Hotel, and we can bring back the flavor of those days almost
instantly. I think it's interesting that four of us have now written books
and Horst Faas is threatening to do a photo book. So maybe all of us would
have added to the Vietnam literature, of which--which already is--which is of
LAMB: Where does Horst Faas live?
Mr. ARNETT:Horst Faas is a photo editor in London. He spends a lot of time
planning Olympics Games coverage, sen--summit coverage, and he's a busy man
LAMB: One of the controversial things you were involved in in the Vietnam War
is--revolves around this picture of some POWs and Cora Weiss, and I believe
that's her right there. Would you tell us that story? That's you.
Mr. ARNETT:Not only is Cora Weiss there, but David Dellinger is there, a
prominent peace activist, Richard Falk, an international lawyer who wrote
against the war and argued that it was illegal, in terms of international law,
and ther--the older woman there is Minnie Gartley, and she was the mother
of Mark Gartley, who was second from the right. And the others--two other
young men there---there were--three of those--the three men on the right were
American pilots, two from the Navy, one from the Air Force, who had been shot
down in North Vietnam, captured as POWs but who, in September of 1972, were
released to an anti-war group that traveled to Hanoi. I was invited to go
with that anti-war group to report on the--on the handover of prisoners.
Included in that group that Cora Weiss led was the Reverend William Sloan
Coffin, the--the--the--the--the Harvard preacher who was very prominent in
the anti-war movement and later in the anti-nuclear movement.
What was controversial was that the US government was opposed to this group's
going to Hanoi. They felt that an independent American delegation taking
delivery of POWs was usurping the diplomatic role of the US government. The
US government was negotiating with Hanoi at that time to end the war. But the
Hanoi government just went ahead, anyway, and this group of Americans went
ahead with their journey. This was a trip monitored from the beginning by the
FBI, by other US intelligence services, as many people were in those days. It
was a trip in some degree clandestine because the impression of--by the
delegation was that the US government would attempt to take those POWs away
from the group as soon as they could. And, in fact, when we left Hanoi on a
trip to the west, circuitous through Beijing and Moscow, at Moscow the consul
general--the American consul general met us at the aircraft and basically
demanded that these POWs--excuse me, it's been a long day. Excuse me a
second. He basically demanded this P--these POWs turn themselves over to
embassy control and into the hands of the US government for debriefings and to
Richard Falk, the international lawyer, argued that under the terms of the
release of these men, they had the right to continue on to the United States.
And it was a struggle really between the anti-war group's desire to get
maximum publicity for this--this journey and--that would benefit the North
Vietnamese, in a sense, but also help bring nego--negotiations to an end, and
the US government's desire to get these men out of the limelight and to be
debriefed. It was up to the men, in the end, and they decided in Moscow that
they would stay with the group and go all the way to New York to fulfill the
conditions the North Vietnamese had done. And they did, indeed, go to New
York, where they were taken over by the US government.
Interestingly enough, at Moscow--when we left Moscow in an SAS plane, an
American who described himself as a physician got on the plane with a huge
suitcase, and it turned out to be filled with military uniforms, so that when
these men got off the plane in New York they were dressed in official
military uniforms with their ranks. A controversial story, it made headlines
but I think it also helped bridge the gap that existed between the US
government and Hanoi, and helped bring the war to a conclusion. The peace
agreement was signed relatively soon afterwards and all Americans were out of
LAMB: Where you ever worried that the Cora Weiss group picked you because
they thought you'd report on this favorably?
Mr. ARNETT:No. I never figured that because there was no way I felt would
I have allowed myself to be used in that manner. But I did talk to them at
some length beforehand. Wes Gallagher, the AP president, said, you know,
`It's your reputation and mine,' he said, `on the line.' Because he was
concerned because earlier trips by Jane Fonda and Antho--Anthony Lewis of The
New York Times that year had been very controversial. I talked to Cora Weiss.
I talked to David Dellinger and they convinced me that they were interested in
a full--a comprehensive account of what was going. That was the only
requirement they had and that suited me. I filed two, three, four stories a
day. I'd never worked so hard in all my life, but it was a wonderful story.
I was exclusive for two weeks. I like being exclusive, Brian, in stories. As
I point out in the book, the journalism that I know is totally competitive,
and I like being exclusive and that was an example of where every story in any
newspaper you read was by me.
LAMB: By the way, where's this picture from?
Mr. ARNETT:That picture is from Binh Dinh Province in Vietnam in 1965. It
was taken by Huen Tan My, a wonderful AP photographer--Vietnamese who was
killed in the Mekong Delta two or three months later.
I also tell a story--not only do I recount his death and funeral, but I tell
the story about his brother--Nick Ut, we named--who came to the AP bureau
after his brother had died and begged to learn to be a photographer.
And a request that Horst Faas, who knew his brother well, did not take
seriously. He said, `You're too young and I don't want to risk you. Your
family would never forgive me.' Nick Ut persisted. He learned to be a
photographer. In 1972 he came back to the bureau one afternoon with a
dramatic picture of a group of young children running down a road, including
that of a--of an unclothed young woman who'd been burned by napalm and she was
crying. And that picture won him the Pulitzer Prize for that year--the
brother of an AP reporter who had died a few years earlier.
LAMB: As a way of transition, there's a picture here in the book from your
Vietnam days, of a bunch of your colleagues at AP. And this gentleman right
here, Richard Blystone, popped up in your life a number of years later, in
Iraq. How did that happen?
Mr. ARNETT:Well, he popped up before Iraq because I was covering a story in
Atlanta in 1981. It was the story of the missing and murdered children--the
28 or 30 young children had been murdered in Atlanta. There was a manhunt for
the perpetrator of those murders. National attention was focused on Atlanta.
I'd been there a couple of times with the AP, writing in-depth stories about
the--the issue down there and the search. One morning, staking out a source
who was living in a motel, emerging out of the morning fog was a familiar
figure and it was Richard Blystone. He had been with the AP in Saigon. He
had been with the AP in Phnom Penh. And he--I knew he had joined this
fledgling news organization called CNN. All I knew about it really was that
Richard Blystone had joined CNN, and we all sort of giggled and says, `You
know, does he think he can do television? And, anyway, who is Ted Turner and
what is CNN?' He greeted me on the street and he insisted that I have a look
at CNN headquarters in Atlanta, which was in a--in a former businessmen's
club. I went in there. I had a look around. I met Burt Reinhart, the
executive president--vice president. I spent a couple of days in and out of
there and they convinced me to join them. I didn't need too much persuasion.
I had a sense that CNN was going somewhere. It was television and Blystone
helped get me on that news organization.
A decade later Blystone came into my life again because he was covering
Baghdad with a group of CNN personnel. His family was very concerned about
his well-being. He was concerned about their well-being. He made the
decision to leave Baghdad with the last of the US Embassy personnel a few days
before the bombing began. Because he had decided to leave, the international
editor of CNN called me up, and I was in Jerusalem covering that end of the
story. And they asked me if I would go to Baghdad, which I did. And the
rest, as they say, is history.
LAMB: What I found interesting, when you got to the story about Baghdad,
about how many of the personnel had trouble staying and what you wrote about
Richard Blystone I want to repeat here. It says, `By nightfall, it was clear
that few were willing to share our fate. CNN correspondent Richard Blystone
had left earlier in the day with the last American embassy personnel. His
departure had damaged morale.' How come?
Mr. ARNETT:Yeah, well, I guess--it's very hard to write about issues
of--you know, decisions like what, in a sense, could be life and death or
personal decisions involved in such crises. In the fall of Saigon, most
correspondents left and--and I stayed. But it was a call that anyone at
the--at the time and place had to make themselves. I mean, I don't--I've
never believed that management can order a reporter, you know, to risk his
life on a story. It has to be a personal decision. I also question, however,
whether management can order reporters out of a crisis area, even though it's
done routinely and, in fact, was done in Baghdad and, in fact, was done in the
fall of Saigon. Management did, in fact, instruct the correspondents to leave
the scene. Many did.
Sydney Schanberg was instructed to leave Phnom Penh in 1975, and he defied
management wishes and stayed to the greater glory of Sydney Schanberg and
journalism, and he justly won his Pulitzer Prize. In the case of Blystone I
mention morale because--because Bly was the veteran. There was a whole bunch
of young people there who looked upon him as being their guide and instructor
and inspiration. And they'd made the commitment to stay. His
departure--his--his--his departure confused them and worried them. I got in,
as I say in the book, `Who is Peter Arnett?' I hadn't built up any rapport
with these individuals. In television it is the group that is all-important.
The individual is less significant because there is no television news story
that can be produced without a cameraman, a sound man, editors and producers.
We all work together and the--the group is extremely important, and if the
group disintegrates in any way, everyone is affected. So that initial core of
individuals who had made a pact, in effect, to stay in Baghdad for CNN began
to break up, for valid reasons--I mean, family concerns, other considerations.
And--but it was too late for me to convince my colleagues to stay with me. I
was eventually alone. I didn't have a cameraman or a sound man or an editor.
Through the miracle of modern technology, I did have a satellite phone. But,
you know, I fully understand their decisions, and I hope in the book I did not
ridicule anyone for doing it. I tried to be as accurate as I could, because
let me tell you, Brian, there have been occasions when I have left
battlefields, too. There have been times when I've left the scenes of stories
if I thought I was endangered. And, as I say, it's a personal call.
I mentioned Blystone's case simply because that was one of the reasons why,
three days later, I was alone in Baghdad with no one else around me. And that
was one of the reasons that contributed to it. What I tried to explain in
that case, and in the fall of Saigon and at other times is sort of the
motivation that I felt that--about--what--what motivated me to make decisions
which many others were foolhardy. I mean, I quote Robert Weiner as saying to
me, I'm the last of a dying breed. When he was leaving--Robert Weiner was our
producer and he says, `Peter, you're the last of a dying breed.' And this
upset me at the time, because--because I don't think I'm the last of a dying
breed, just as Ernie Pyle and--and war correspondents in earlier wars--Korea
and ….Beach and many other correspondents of my generations,
we're falling--fulfilling a long tradition.
And as we speak here, American--reporters of other nationalities are in Bosnia
and it's cold in Bosnia and it's dangerous in Bosnia. They're on the streets
of Kabul, covering the story there--AP, AFP, Reuters. Reporters are in
Mogadishu, so there's a--willing to risk their lives to get information back.
So I'm not the last of a dying breed. I just happen to be old, but I'm not
the last of a breed. I don't want to be the last war correspondent, in the
sense that I think information is too important. We need to gather more
information. We need to be out there, getting back to the public in the
United States and elsewhere, getting back to our government insights into
what's going on in the world because there is no one shot fired in the world
that doesn't echo ultimately in America.
LAMB: By the way, where are you living now?
Mr. ARNETT:I'm living in McLean, Virginia.
LAMB: And what's your current assignment?
Mr. ARNETT:It's--I've--CNN has named me what they call an international
correspondent. I was recently in Afghanistan and I did an hourlong special.
And I'll be on the road again, once this book tour is over, and I'll be in
Latin America and Europe and elsewhere. You know, I like to get--I like to do
as many stories as I can and--and get out there and compete with all those
LAMB: You said that you--CNN gave you two years off to do this book. How did
you go about writing the book? And--and I kept wanting to know, as I read it,
how did you remember all these details?
Mr. ARNETT:How do you go about writing? Well, I had never written a book
before in my whole life, and I began by writing about the Gulf War. And I
wrote 70 or 80 pages and I sent them to New York. And my editor, Alice
Mayhew, says, `Ah, you know, this is no good. Try again. Start with your
youth.' And I thought, `Well, I won't start at my youth. I'll start with my
forefathers,' the--the family legend that goes back--went back to the sealers
and whalers, the progenitor of the family who arrived in a whaling ship in
Riverton in 1834, came ashore with a group of settlers, you know, married a
local Polynesian woman and they built a family--the family line 150 years ago.
And when I started writing that, Brian, I felt I ha--I found a voice. I sort
of started to learn who I was, just this kid from New Zealand who wasn't quite
sure where his destiny would take him, but knew that he had to go somewhere,
that he was--felt very confined by the little community he was brought up in.
The details--fortunately I was a prolific letter-writer when I was a kid. My
mother kept everything I ever wrote her. And years ago I'd got all the mail,
so a lot of what my early years--I was able to describe in my early years came
from my own letters to her a long time ago. I've klep--kept every clipping I
ever wrote and I've kept carbons of every story I ever did in Vietnam. So
every quote you see in that book from--has been published before and every
incident, you know, I--I can verify from my own notes and--and my own stories.
And it was a long and painful experience, digging out all that color and
information and anecdote, but each section I finished, I had a degree of
satisfaction. I thought, `Well, hey, it's down on record.' All the
tor--stories I've told in bars, all the stories over dinner, all the times
that Halberstam, Browne and Sheenan and I and Faas have got together and
talked--told stories about each other--most of them are there. All the
publishable ones are there. And it was a great delight to slowly go through
And one of the joys of this book was to talk about my colleagues. George
Esper--who's ever heard of George Esper? He's an AP reporter who spent 10
years in Vietnam. He wrote more about the Vietnam War than any other
journalist. George is back in Hanoi now, in fact. He is the AP bureau chief.
He a--he opened the AP bureau in Hanoi a few months ago. I was able to talk
about George at length. And I was able to talk about people like Ed White and
Hugh Mulligan and other characters from that period--many who--of whom appear
in that picture. They're the reporters and the photographers who bring
America their bread and butter news day after day.
LAMB: This is George Esper, right here?
Mr. ARNETT:That is George Esper.
LAMB: Hugh Mulligan over here?
Mr. ARNETT:Hugh Mulligan. It's people such as these who bring
America--American newspapers the bread and butter pictures and stories.
Their--their relatives, their nephews are out there today covering the news.
It's a--I was attracted to the American media because of
their--be--be--because of the--the great appetite for information that
American news organizations have. The Associated Press--you could never write
too much about anything for the AP, particularly about the Vietnam War. And
so at the end of a long week in the field, I could come back and write through
my notebooks and it would go on the AP wire. American newspapers--The Times,
The Post, The Boston Globe, the Christian Science Monitor--they were writing
volumes. They're still writing volumes. It is a thrill to be a journalist in
America, where you can spill out so much of what you see. And, ultimately, if
you're lucky, you can write a book. But that's what attracts me to the media.
I know that the public has mixed feelings about the media today, and questions
our mission and our motive, but I think in the field that I specialize in--you
know, foreign correspondence--I think you've got really dedicated people
there. You've always had them and they're still there now. And I think
they're largely unsung and I think most of them would prefer it that way, but
I am really proud of what they do. And I hope this book, when they read it,
they'll grin and say, `Hey, that's what we're doing right now.'
LAMB: Couple of personal questions. Are you still a New Zealand citizen?
Mr. ARNETT:I became an American about a decade ago. I felt that--I was
living in this country and I felt sufficiently committed to what America meant
to become a citizen. Up to that time, you know, I just didn't want to go
through a pro forma citizenship. I wanted to feel like an American. And I
really do feel like an American, even though my accent suggests otherwise.
LAMB: Have you remarried?
Mr. ARNETT:I have not remarried. I'm planning to remarry.
LAMB: And one of the things that comes up periodically in this book is that
you have a fiery temper. You had others saying that but wh--whe--when--give
us an example of when you used your fiery temper.
Mr. ARNETT:Well, I really believe in getting along with people and being
persuasive, and a temper can be very disruptive and can--and outbursts can be
remembered. And I guess, during the whole of the Vietnam War, only on a
handful of occasions did I have, you know, exchanges--differences of opinion
with bureau personnel that led to out--outbursts of indignation. I mean,
we're talking about a handful.
However, in television, I came up against--I was in circumstances which were
unfamiliar to me. It was the team effort that I was not well adjusted to. As
a print reporter, as an i--wire service reporter, I've traveled with a
notebook and a pencil, sometimes a camera. I was an independent being. I
would write my dispatches. They'd be edited a little and then they would go
onto the wire. In television I was very dependent on what the cameraman got
in his lens--the video. Was the audio usable? In an interview, could you
hear what the--the subject was saying? Was it well-edited? And I found very
early on at CNN that the assessment of my performance would depend very much
on what others were doing. And that led to an--an exchange of feeling
occasionally and a couple I detail in the book.
On one occasion--and--and I am not--I am not proud of either occasion--one
time, in El Salvador during a national day ceremony by the Salvador
military--this was in '82. This was a country in crisis. There were death
squads loose. And the national army was parading. There were thousands of
people in the national stadium. It began to rain. My cameraman, a freelancer
from Florida, had a new camera. He was worried about it. He put a cover on
it and says, `I'm not shooting anymore. My camera could get hurt.' And I
said, `What do you mean, you're not shooting anymore? You're hired to get the
pictures.' He argued with me. He put the camera down, shaped up and I'm
afraid we're having fisticuffs in the middle of a stadium. I mean, it was--I
had an audience of thousands. And marching by us were Salvadoran marines and
rangers, and they were--I'm sure they were wondering, `What the hell are
these--these two Americans doing, punching each other out?'
One other occasion, with the same cameraman, unfortunately, in Belize.
Independence Day and it was actually a midnight ceremony in the--again, it
started to rain and he was again reluctant to use his camera, and again
we--we--we had fisticuffs. As I point out in the book, we did make up and we
did get along fine, unless it rained.
LAMB: There's one last little incident I want you to explain. I'll quote you
here. You say, "I wanted to punch him on the nose, but that was impossible.
I wanted to scream a profanity at least, but broadcast discipline restrained
me. I spoke slowly, `There's no way this could have been a staged event,
John.'" And you're talking to John Holliman, day nine of the Iraqi war.
You're in Baghdad. He's back, at that point, at CNN headquarters. What was
that all about?
Mr. ARNETT:OK, that was John Holliman, one of the boys of Baghdad who, with
Bernard Shaw and I, covered the first 17 hours of the war live. And--which I
detail in great--in--with--with many pages in the book. And it was a team
effort. We handed the microphone back and forth. We crawled around the floor
and described for an American audience and international audience what we were
seeing outside the window, which was horrendous bombing and destruction. John
left Baghdad a couple of days later and he returned to the United States. And
he was doing some anchoring in Washington.
And on this occasion I had visited a village in the north--Al Dur in the north
of Baghdad. There'd been 40 to 50 homes destroyed. There were huge craters
in and near these homes. There was a military installation five miles away,
burning, that had clearly been destroyed, and it was--you know, it was clear
to me that some of those bombs aimed at the military installation had hit
this, in fact, bedroom community to the military installation. And there were
a lot of homes destroyed and--and neighbors and other officials said many
people had died.
So I went back and reported this, and John heard out my report and then he
said, you know, `How do you know you're not being duped by the Iraqis?'
And--and it sort of shocked me, because this was several days into the war and
I was aware of criticism and I was hoping for a little more support by my
anchors. But on the other hand, I--they--they were justified, I suppose, in
questioning some of my accounts, but I thought that Holliman was going beyond
the pale and--and John occasionally does that. But I--I dearly like him.
I've worked with him for 10 years. But I felt that he was being a little too
critical of what I was doing. Now this is not just my assessment, because Tom
Johnson, the president of CNN, who supported my being in Baghdad and who runs
our news organization today, did tell me that at one point during the war
Peter Jennings wrote him a note and said, `Hey, Tom, your anchors are tougher
on Peter Arnett than Senator Simpson.'
But you know, the CNN viewers--hey, we had to assure our viewers that you were
accurate, that were being as independent as you could be in your reporting,
and that--and that we were watchful about any propaganda content that got into
the dispatches. But in that--on that one occasion, I--I guess I sort of lost
LAMB: Here's what the book looks like and it sells for $23 in your
bookstores, and it's got over 460 pages. Peter Arnett, "Live From The
Battlefield," and we thank you very much for your time.
Mr. ARNETT:Thank you, Brian.
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