Vietnam’s Lesson: Seeing Is Believing

A.J. Langguth is a professor at USC's Annenberg School for Communication and author of "Our Vietnam."

In his recent speech to the United Nations Security Council, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell presented satellite imagery from a rocket engine test site in Fallujah and a missile assembly plant in Musayyib as proof that Saddam Hussein’s regime had lied about its weapons programs. But when journalists visited the two locations, they came away uncertain about Powell’s claims.

The discrepancy between what reporters on the scene observed in Iraq and the accusations made by Powell reminded me of my own attempt to verify wartime information from the CIA.

That brush with CIA surveillance methods came early in American involvement in Vietnam. Then too the country was being assured that the White House had access to more accurate data than were available to us civilians. Then too we were told that we must trust our leaders.

In that spirit, I was invited one evening in late 1964 to the house of Barry Zorthian, the ranking information officer in Saigon. After years of barring the Western press from Cambodia, Prince Norodom Sihanouk had recently announced that reporters would be allowed to accompany a high-ranking Chinese official on his goodwill visit to Phnom Penh. I would be making the one-week trip for the New York Times. Before I left, Zorthian had two men he wanted me to meet. When I arrived, Zorthian asked that I not report the source of the information the two agents were about to share. I’d had dealings with the CIA in Saigon before, of course, including a session on the veranda of the Continental Hotel I still remember because the agent sat on his briefcase the whole time we drank a beer.


On this night, the agents got quickly to the point: The CIA had amassed irrefutable proof that Sihanouk was allowing Cambodia’s border towns to be used as training bases for Viet Cong guerrillas. They would supply the names of five such locations, and once inside Cambodia I could file a story listing them. I’d have a good story, and Sihanouk’s protestations of neutrality would be discredited. I made no commitment, took the list and left a few days later for Phnom Penh.

The junket did not begin well. After a few days, I filed a story about signs of dissent within the country, largely among the educated young Cambodians I was meeting who were impatient with Sihanouk’s autocratic rule. The day after the story appeared in New York, I was ordered expelled for affronting the dignity of the Khmer people.

I was dismayed. The rare chance to visit Cambodia had barely begun, and there was so much left to see. I wrote to the palace explaining that it had not been my intention to insult the Cambodians, who had received me with only warm hospitality. The next day, my letter -- in English -- dominated the front page of a local newspaper, I’m sure to the puzzlement of its readers. I was also notified that my apology had been accepted and that, in fact, my visa would be extended for another week after my colleagues in the press had to leave the country.

The next few days were filled with memorable ceremonies, including a performance by the Cambodian Royal Ballet -- Sihanouk’s daughter as prima ballerina -- dancing at midnight before the illuminated ruins of Angkor Wat. When Sihanouk’s guest had returned to China and my friends had gone back to Saigon, I asked for a tour of the countryside. By that time, a strange reversal had occurred, and my requests were quickly granted. A Cambodian army helicopter was assigned to me for the day.

Once aloft, I pulled out the CIA list and told the puzzled pilot that these were the five villages I wanted to visit. We located four of them on his map -- the fifth did not appear under any variation of the name I’d been given -- and flew off to the first location on the list. Our arrival created the stir that was usual in the villages of Southeast Asia. Because roofs of the thatched huts were not always fastened securely, our helicopter’s blades blew off a couple of them, and laughing boys chased after to retrieve them. But the settlement was clearly a simple farming village like thousands across the border in South Vietnam. The difference was that Sihanouk had managed so far to keep his country out of the war. That meant that his villagers weren’t being bombed regularly as suspected Communists. The same scene was repeated at each of the other sites. One village had a long irrigation ditch running through it, and I wondered whether aerial shots might have suggested that it was some sort of guerrilla trench. Otherwise, there was nothing at any location to indicate Viet Cong bases.

I returned to Saigon and filed my story: Four villages had been identified by U.S. intelligence as Communist bases, but an on-the-ground inspection had yielded no evidence. At the time, every reporter and U.S. advisor knew that the Viet Cong often slipped into Cambodia to evade American and South Vietnamese pursuit. But the villages on my list were not the Communist installations I had been told I’d find.

Afterward, I wondered whether the mistake had been made in good faith. Or whether the agents thought I might take them at their word and, without checking, file an expose based on their assurances. When I ran into Zorthian, he was philosophical about the agency’s gamble. “Well,” he said, “we won’t be doing that again.”

Does that one minor anecdote suggest that Saddam Hussein does not have weapons concealed from reporters as well as from the U.N. inspection teams? Not at all. It simply reminds me that the American people must continue to apply to our own government what Ronald Reagan recommended in dealing with the Soviet Union:

“Trust,” Reagan repeated constantly. “But verify.”