On today's New York Times op-ed page, USC Annenberg professor emeritus Murray Fromson for the first time discloses the source of his 1967 report for CBS that a top American general considered the Vietnam War unwinnable. The report from Saigon, which also ran under Johnny Apple's byline in the NYT, was the first to suggest that senior officers believed the U.S. could lose. It enraged President Lyndon Johnson and Gen. William Westmoreland, the Army's chief in Vietnam, and altered the politics of the war. Fromson describes the scene then and what has changed:
The general pledged us to absolute confidentiality. Later, when Johnny and I compared notes to ensure we had understood him correctly, both of us were stunned. His article was published 24 hours later. Mine, in the era before satellites, reached CBS News in New York days later. Here, in essence, is how we quoted the general for our reports:
"'I’ve destroyed a single division three times,’ a senior American general said the other day. 'I’ve chased main-force units all over the country and the impact was zilch. It meant nothing to the people. Unless a more positive and more stirring theme than simple anti-communism can be found, the war appears likely to go on until someone gets tired and quits, which could take generations...' "
In 1995, on the 20th anniversary of the war’s end, I was invited to participate in a Freedom Forum discussion in Oakland, Calif. With Johnny’s knowledge, I called our source to ask whether he might release us from our pledge of confidentiality so that we could set the record straight. He was hesitant. “Westy is an old friend,” he said, “and I would not want to hurt or embarrass him. Let’s wait until he’s no longer with us.”
Westmoreland died in 2005. The officer in question, then a three-star general, now 90 years old and retired and living in Hawaii, is Frederick Weyand. General Weyand was a distinguished combat officer and commander of III Corps in the Mekong Delta who later supervised the American withdrawal from Vietnam and then became United States Army Chief of Staff. Last week, in the interest of historical accuracy, I called to tell him about the coming memorial service for Johnny. I told him Johnny had described the “stalemate” piece as the most important story he’d ever done, and I was renewing my request for a release from the pledge of confidentiality we had given him 40 years ago. He agreed.
I believe both Johnny and I were struck, in 1967, by General Weyand’s sober, intellectual analysis of the problems facing both the Americans and the Vietnamese. So many years later, I suspect there may be other officers of his caliber who are thinking about the contradictions in yet another war.
There is, of course, no way of determining how much of an impact the “stalemate” story had on Lyndon Johnson’s decision to abandon plans to seek re-election in 1968. The daring of the Communists’ Tet offensive undoubtedly swung American public opinion irreversibly. But to me, writ larger, our reports demonstrated how important it was and is for journalists to offer pledges of confidentiality to credible sources in order to report the kind of stories officials normally are reluctant to discuss. It was essential during the Vietnam War, as it is essential today in Iraq.