Once Upon a Distant War by William Prochnau is a completely fascinating look at journalism coverage of the Vietnam war in the early 1960s. Remember how Napster disrupted the music industry? A handful or journalists did the same.
In 1959 Malcolm Brown arrived in IndoChina having earned his war reporting in Korea for Stars and Stripes.
A number of young journalists stationed in Saigon from 1961-1963 had the same effect on the newspaper industry at a time when television was about to eclipse print in news reporting to middle America.
They even faced off with their editors who were Korean War reporters themselves but now lived and worked in Washington, New York and LA. The young turks were actually in the jungles with American advisors. They experienced first hand the early failures.
Critical reporting of the US war effort brought them into conflict with General Paul Harkins, commander of the US war effort in Saigon. Yet Prochnau identifies three events within the two year span that reset the war for America: Ap Bac, The Buddhist Crisis and the American coup against Diem. It was interesting to have understood how Halberstam was commanding the stories out of Siagon and establishing strong relationships with John Paul Vann leading into Ap Bac. All while being misled by US General Paul Harkins in Saigon who was commanding MACV.
Prochnau illustrates the history of the American war effort for the two years leading to the coup against Diem.
For as much difficulty each found reporting on the war Malcomb Brown, David Halberstam and Neil Sheehan each won a Pulitzer for their reporting. You also catch the passing names of television reporters including Charles Kuralt and Bernard Kalb.
When the Buddhist crisis convinced the world that Diem was truly out of touch, his brother Nhu who ran the secret police in Saigon began to harass and physically attack and intimidate US reporters critical of his brother. The harassment escalated to hit lists. To no surprise Halberstam, Sheehan, Browne and the new US Ambassador Henry Cabot Lodge were all marked for assassination the the government we were supporting in the field.
At the time the US was spending over one million dollars a month. Kennedy’s ramp up of advisors, money and arms continued on a monthly basis. The view that lingers by Prochnau is those American journalists and then the military on the ground knew the war could not be won.