William Prochnau
William Prochnau
Once Upon a Distant War
ISBN: 0812926331
Once Upon a Distant War
Mr. Prochnau discussed his book, Once Upon a Distant War: Young War Correspondents and the Early Vietnam Battles, published by Times Books. The book is about the six correspondents from various newspapers and news services who were sent to cover the Vietnam War in its early years. Peter Arnett and Neil Sheehan are among those covered.
Once Upon a Distant War
Program Air Date: January 14, 1996

BRIAN LAMB, HOST: William Prochnau, author of "Once Upon a Distant War," when did you first think you had a book?
WILLIAM PROCHNAU: (Author, "Once Upon a Distant War: Young War Correspondents and the Early Vietnam Battles"): Well, as you know, Brian, it was an 11 year project. I'd say people have asked me that, "When did you come up with the idea of this book?" And I've said, "About five years after I began." It was a real wrestle. The book started out as a totally different idea. I had gone to the Westmoreland CBS libel trial to cover that as a book about the flash back to the media and their battles with the military and vice versa in Vietnam. And that just sort of fell apart on me. So then it was a question of actually many years of trying to wrestle this thing into place and going from what originally had been called a book -- the working title was "The Last Battle" -- to essentially what is the first battle.

Then I was always intrigued by these half dozen or so young war correspondents in their 20s who caused such an uproar in the very early stages of Vietnam in '61, '62, '63. It was always going to be a couple of chapters in the book, and one day I just said, "Hey, this is your book." And so I made two start overs. At one point, I threw away 70,000 words and started writing again. So ...
LAMB: What were you doing to stay alive during that period?
PROCHNAU: Well, my wife has asked me that question, too. A lot of people have. But I was writing, occasionally magazine articles; some that spun out of this, some that didn't. I would just, obviously, have to stop at times and bring in some dough. I had some royalties coming in from "Trinity's Child," my novel which I had written prior to that. And, very luckily and very fortuitously, in the middle of the ordeal of writing this book, "Trinity's Child" was made into a movie by HBO and that was the biggest break. Also, an Alica Patterson Fellowship was very, very helpful in paying bills. But there were some pretty hard times in
LAMB: What time is this book set in?
PROCHNAU: It's set in the Kennedy years, the very first years. It's the part of Saigon and Vietnam that I think most of us have either forgotten or never really knew because people weren't paying that much attention then. It's before the combat troops went in. It's the time of the advisers. And in the book, I take you back to a Saigon that's still French, in a way. I mean, it was a fascinating and romantic place. I mean, it's hard to think of any war as being romantic, but these young reporters the Kennedy had decided to run first, a secret war over there.

We were violating the Geneva Convention by adding these advisers supposedly secretly. Reporters would have none of that. but they also got no cooperation from the government. So they would get their tips on battles and that sort of thing in little Saigon bistros along this romantic boulevard, Rue Catnat, which later that generation of GIs became known as Tudoe Street. And they would, literally, go out and hail a little French Renault and take the cab to war, which might be 10 miles out of town. Peter Arnett came in about six months later and revolutionized the whole thing he bought a white Karmann Ghia and he would watch the helicopters take off and chase them to war. I mean, it was that different from the war that we, came to know via Hollywood and via our experience.
LAMB: When you went in 1965 with The Washington Post, were you the first Washington Post correspondent there?
PROCHNAU: Well, actually, I went for The Seattle Times. I was still with the Washington bureau chief of The Seattle Times at that time. So The Post had an extraordinary reporter over there at that time, Ward Just. And he was their first real full-time corespondent there. The Post was still growing. It wasn't the paper that it is now. And they had very few foreign correspondents. And, actually, they played a little role in the time period that I write about.
LAMB: Let's go through the correspondents that you write about. Peter Arnett.
PROCHNAU: Peter Arnett was this brash, young New Zealander from the bottom of the world, no place to go but up, and came in to Vietnam turning his head at the swish of every Asian silk he heard in charging into battle and into combat the way few of the others did and became, of course, the probably the preeminent correspondent in Vietnam, especially. But at the time of this book, he was pretty much still the rawest. He was the rookie among rookies.
LAMB: How old was he?
PROCHNAU: He was 27, which, actually, was older than, say, Neil Sheehan. But he had been beating almost, you know, an adventurer in Southeast Asia. He had been in Bangkok and he'd been in Laos and he had which was all these places were very romantic places at that time, of opium smuggling and intrigues and little mini revolutions. And he had covered all those and then finally caught on with the AP and came into Saigon in '62.
LAMB: Malcolm Browne.
PROCHNAU: Well, Mal Browne is the wonderful eccentric of the book. He's the guy who wears, to this day, wears orange socks. He found red socks in Korea as a soldier. When he was serving in the Army, he found a couple of cases of red socks on sale at the PX and he bought them all and he wore them until he wore those out, and by that time, it had become a habit with him. He wore red socks beneath his combat boots. He wore red socks beneath his tuxedo when he went to accept the Pulitzer for the writing he did in this year. So ...
LAMB: How old was he when he first came to Saigon?
PROCHNAU: Mal, I think, was the only one that was 30. All the rest were in their 20s. And he was 30 exactly. He put however, he had had very little experience in the media. He had been a chemist and made a couple of very interesting inventions as a chemist. He had invented a rubberized blintz that wouldn't crack when it was frozen. Unfortunately, in one of his experiments, he blew up his laboratory and he was working for a chemical company in New York, and he and I think that helped propel him into this profession that made him famous.
LAMB: In the sequence of things, when did he come to Saigon compared to all the others?
PROCHNAU: First he the first. And there's a wonderful irony about it. He arrived, unplanned, with no knowledge of the real meaningfulness of the date, on November 11, 1961. It was also the date that in half a world away, in the White House, the National Security Council met with President Kennedy and they decided to begin escalating the number of advisers we had there. So it was the true beginning of the war in Vietnam the day that Mal arrived.
LAMB: Neil Sheehan.
PROCHNAU: Neil Sheehan was 25 years old. A sometimes brooding, sometimes absolutely wildly humorous and wonderful Irishman who had worked exactly two weeks for UPI in Tokyo before the Saigon correspondent for this, second rate, second best news agency. The Saigon chief quit. They rustled around in Tokyo to see who could speak French; he spoke French. And suddenly, after two week's experience, he was the Saigon bureau chief for UPI, and it was 30 years before he really rid himself of Vietnam after that.
LAMB: And the fourth in, the list that you focus on the most -- although, there's another one that's not alive -- David Halberstam.
PROCHNAU: Well, Halberstam I describe as a brilliant brat. I mean, he clearly was the driving force. He worked for The New York Times. The Times, at that time was clearly the dominant and most prestigious newspaper in the world at that time. And television was not what it is today. That television came in occasionally with stringers and part time correspondents and you'd see a little blip here and a little blip there about Vietnam, but Halberstam represented the most powerful media institution of all. He was 28 years old. He was a man of great passions, great angers. The lying and more deception of another kind, the self delusion and the self deception -- he felt was deluding itself as much as deluding the American people -- drove him to fits. At one point, in one very famous episode, he slammed his fist down on a table in a little cafe in Saigon and said that the commanding general, the American General Harkins, Paul Harkins, should be court martialed and shot. And everybody in the room turned around and looked at this 28 year old making this kind of announcement. He was clearly the drivingforce.
LAMB: So all four of them were either 30 or below?
PROCHNAU: That's right. Yes.
LAMB: All four of them have been interviewed on Booknotes. Actually, this show started out of the Neil Sheehan book, "Bright, Shining Lie." And I want to show a clip from each one in a moment, but I want to ask you, though, about "Bright, Shining Lie," because you say, in the liner notes here, that you talked to Neil Sheehan before his book was even finished.
LAMB: How much time did you spend with him?
PROCHNAU: Oh, I would say I probably spent 20, 30 hours of taping interviews with Neil, and then a lot of little spot phone calls and, you know, checking this and checking that. We would meet ... I did a long profile on Neil for The Washington Post Magazine at the time this book came out. And the title of the piece was "The Last Prisoner of Vietnam." He pretty much liked the article, I think, but he didn't like the title much. And I bumped into Neil a few weeks ago in New York and he looked at me and smiled and winked and said, "A ha! Here comes the real last prisoner of Vietnam." Because eight years later, I had finally finished my book about the subject.
LAMB: Did you get to be a prisoner of all this?
PROCHNAU: In a sense. In a sense, I did. I surely was a prisoner. I'm not sure so sure it was of Vietnam. I was a prisoner of the book. You know, you become a bit of a recluse; you pull off -- you can't get rid of it even when you do something else. I don't think it was an obsession in a normal sense. It was trying to pull this thing together properly. I am a bit of a perfectionist, and I wanted this to be something that I couldn't grasp for a long time. My wife says .... I think she has the best line. Some people ask if it was an obsession or what caused it. And she said, "Oh, Bill was Apollo 13," she said. "He got out there as far as he could go, everything blew up on him, and then it was just a question of getting back alive." And I did. And like the Apollo 13, I got back with a few interesting scientific bits and with a hell of a good story, I think. And that's really the obligation of a writer, is to bring back the good story.
LAMB: Why did you get out there, do you think? I mean, what was the driving force here?
PROCHNAU: Well, I think I kept trying to drive square pegs into round holes. I kept trying to drive the Westmoreland trial into a book about the media and Vietnam when it wen Westmoreland trial kind of fell apart in the middle. I then tried to do a book that that just focused on the media, but there were 5,000 reporters that went through Vietnam and it was a 12 year war. It was it became sort of encyclopedic rather than what I wanted this to be; a piece of history that also read something like that an adventure story. I needed a like a novel. I needed a constant set of characters, a controllable set of characters, and I kept coming back to this first six guys. And the two we haven't mentioned being Horst Faas, the German photographer, who's quite a ...
LAMB: Horst Faas ...
PROCHNAU: Yes, right and Charlie Moore, who worked for Time magazine and has since died. He's worked for Time. Quit Time in the middle of the uproar over what occurred during the time period that I'm talking about, and eventually worked for The New York Times.
LAMB: You live where?
PROCHNAU: I live here in Washington.
LAMB: And how long did you work for The Washington Post?
PROCHNAU: About five years, between five and six years.
LAMB: What years?
PROCHNAU: In the early '80s -- well, in the '80s. I went to work during the Reagan election.
LAMB: And where are you from originally?
PROCHNAU: Seattle. But my experience in Washington goes back -- oh, at this point, I hate to admit it, but all the way back into the early '60s. I came to Washington as the bureau chief of The Seattle Times, which is my home area, in 1963, just before Kennedy was killed.
LAMB: What is the name "Prochnau?"
PROCHNAU: It's German. It's German with a strong Polish side to it. My family, my ancestors only go back two generations, but we're caught in that area of Poland and Germany which constantly changes. You know, one side's battered back and forth. Every army since Attila the Hun has rolled through that part of Poland and Germany. It's the great plains of Europe. And my ancestors were just sort of rolled over, and one time, they'd end up in one country; the next time, they'd end up in another country. And eventually, they came here. My grandfather was German.
LAMB: How much time did you spend with David Halberstam? I think I read you had at least 100 hours with him.
PROCHNAU: Oh, I believe so, if not more. We spent a couple of long weekends together. David was very helpful. All these guys were very helpful. It was a great blessing to me as a writer. There were several things that were blessings to me as a writer in this thing, and one was how helpful these people were in exposing, you know, all areas of their life at this time to me. And two was that they were pack rats. They saved everything. I mean, great storage cases full of materials. Neil Sheehan has everything from his bounced checks on his $75 a week salary -- he was so broke in Saigon that his buddies accused him of drawing his checks on the Michelin rubber plantation, which was just up the pike from Saigon. And he has all that. He has all the cables to and from his headquarters in Tokyo and the battles with his editors in Tokyo. Halberstam, the same thing -- everything's in there, all the cables back and forth to The Times, all their stories as they wrote them rather than as they were edited.
LAMB: What about Malcolm Browne? How much time did you spend with him?
PROCHNAU: Spent less time with Malcolm, but I spent two good, long -- you know, three hour sessions with Mal and a long time with Arnett. Arnett, being the preeminent war correspondent our time, was very hard to pin down at times, but he would -- our phone calls are quite interesting, because most of that was done by phone; the others in person. But I talked with Mal for, like -- we'd get on the phone for three hours from Jerusalem or something like that. One of them was from Jerusalem and one from, of all places, I called him and he called me back while he was in Baghdad during the Gulf War and we talked for about 40 minutes on the phone. And we always joked afterwards that if I ever lost my tape recording or my notes of that one that we'd, you know -- Freedom of Information Act -- probably get it from any of 30 or 40 intelligence operations. That call, I'm sure, was monitored by everybody -- every intelligence organization in the world. And so I spent a lot of time talking to these guys and to the lesser characters and to some of the government characters that are involved and people that observed them.
LAMB: Let me show you this tape. All four of them have written books. The one that we interviewed David Halberstam for was "The Fifties" book, not the Vietnam book, "Quagmire," that you quote so often in the book.
LAMB: It is about two minutes. I want to watch that and give people a sense of who they are and we'll come back and talk more about them.
PROCHNAU: Terrific. [Excerpts from previous Booknotes] Mr. PETER ARNETT (Author, "Live From the Battlefield"): In Saigon in 1962, where I was assigned by the 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.

Mr. MALCOLM BROWNE (Author, "Muddy Boots & Red Socks"): In Vietnam, they used to say -- 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, and 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.

Mr. DAVID HALBERSTAM (Author, "The Fifties"): They find me a job as one reporter on the smallest daily in the state of Mississippi, the West Point, Mississippi, Daily Times Leader. And I go there and I work -- $46 a week, $45 plus a dollar because extra because I cover the Kiwanis Club every Wednesday; greatest experience probably of my life. Fresh out of Harvard, Jewish -- if you want to be in a different environment, my friend, you are in a different environment.

Mr. NEIL SHEEHAN (Author, "A Bright Shining Lie"): I was as impetuous as Robert McNamara in thinking at the beginning that I could do this work in three to four years. That is, write a biography of John Vann and history of the war, which is what the book is. It's the two combined: tell the story of the war through the man and tell the story of the man through the war. But it turned out to be a vastly greater task than I had imagined. And I also has some setbacks. I had an auto accident in '74 that took a year out of my life and I had to lecture to earn a living and that sort of thing. But basically, most of those 15 years went into that book.

[End of Booknotes excerpts]
LAMB: When those four men were in Vietnam in 1962, in 1963, after they had gotten through that period, what impact -- and we have a lot to go through here -- but what impact did they have on ... I mean, we went eight years more or so in the war.
PROCHNAU: Yeah. A dozen years, actually. We stayed till "73. The war was over in "75 for the South Vietnamese. So we were there 10 years, actually, after Halberstam left. Well, the impact that they had was that they -- the primary impact, I think -- well, there was a great myth that -- that has been deflated some, and I -- and I hope more by my book, and that is that they were the first of the anti war correspondents, and they weren't. They -- they were -- they were definitely children of the Cold War. They -- they believed that America had a reason to be there -- a good reason and a need to be there. They believed that the Vietnamese deserved our support and they believed in the -- I think, essentially, in things like the domino theory, which o -- is -- was the diff -- if Vietnam were to fall, all the rest of the little countries of -- of Southeast Asia would -- would tumble, too. But what they didn't -- what they didn't buy was the secrecy, the -- the attempt to hide it from the -- from the American public. There's a great scene at the -- at the beginning of the book in which Stanley Karnow, an old hand and wonderful correspondent from that -- that era, was sitting in a hotel inside -- downtown Saigon and -- and -- which is on a river, and there's a large...
LAMB: Majestic Hotel.
PROCHNAU: Yes, the Majestic Hotel on -- on the riverfront, the por -- it's a port, really, for the South China -- South S -- China Sea. And out around the bend comes this huge aircraft carrier -- American aircraft carrier laden with the first helicopters for...
LAMB: What year?
PROCHNAU: ...Vietnam -- this was -- is -- was still s -- 1961 in December. And, you know, this was to be the -- (imitates sound of helicopter) -- like, the -- the helicopter war, and it's identified with helicopters. It's the first set. And he was sitting with an Army information officer and he w -- he leaned over to him and said, `Gosh! Look at that carrier coming in." And the Army officer looks back at him and says, `I don't see no carrier." And it was -- it was that way. They were -- they really were trying to keep what was right in front of them a secret. That didn't last very long because it couldn't last very long. But it -- Kennedy was trying to run what he called the -- you know, counter insurgency war. That was the birth of the Green Berets, really.
LAMB: Who did Stanley Karnow work for then?
PROCHNAU: Well, at that time, he had worked for Time magazine and Charlie Moore replaced him. He left Time magazine and was working for Saturday Evening Post and doing some other things. I think he was writing a book as well and was stationed out of Hong Kong, which is why he really isn't a primary player. I focused on the guys, for the most part, who were actually resident correspondents in Vietnam, which is, as I say -- it's remarkable to think this war is starting looking at it from the standpoint of today's media and what we have today and that half a dozen. Half a dozen ... we'd send that many out to cover a fire today. A half a dozen was all that they had stationed -- all that the media -- American media had stationed in Saigon.
LAMB: In their 20s in 1962, '63, you say that they all.
LAMB: ... hooked up with Vietnamese women.
PROCHNAU: Yeah, they all, with the exception of -- let's see, Horst, who had ...
LAMB: What about Charlie Moore? I think he was in there ...
PROCHNAU: And Charlie Moore was married and did not. But the single ones -- the other four all hooked up with them and let's see ... one, two, two married them. And Mal Browne is still married to his wife that he met there. And Arnett was married for a good 25 years. They turned out to be very long term relationships.
LAMB: Did they all agree? Did they all have eventually have the same mission?
PROCHNAU: I think they agreed in general. But they were highly competitive. Between Mal Browne and Neil Sheehan, these two wire services, AP and UPI, I mean, if they were competitive to the point where they tried to beat each other by mere seconds or minutes because it made the difference in those days, of getting in the paper or not getting it in the paper. The first one that came across the wire desk in Des Moines got in the paper. And so their battles were intense. They were secretive. They were highly competitive. They were friends -- not close friends, but they were friends. But they definitely were competitive. And it sort of broke down into two camps. Halberstam eventually went into Neil Sheehan's office. They more or less worked together because Halberstam was on a different cycle. He had more time, didn't have to file on minute by minute deadlines. And, of course, Arnett worked for Browne. And Horst Faas, who did reporting as well as photography, worked for Browne. And Charlie Moore gravitated toward Halberstam and Sheehan.
LAMB: Let me read this, page 40, "Within a three day period in January, Ambassador Knowlting, American ambassador to Saigon, intentionally misled an executive committee of Congress and President Kennedy told his first overt lie about Vietnam to the American public. Both were covering up a new escalation known as Farmgate, which placed Americans directly into combat with only the faintest pretense of an advisory war." How often did President Kennedy, in your opinion, lie to the American people about Vietnam?
PROCHNAU: Well, overtly; perhaps not terribly often. Indirectly, over and over and over again. I mean, they lied all through this period that we were not involved in combat. And yet, this Farmgate program, which has not been very little written about and so some of the stuff in my book has only come out very recently because I have papers that were released after 30 years had passed.
LAMB: What was Farmgate?
PROCHNAU: Farmgate was an Air Force program primarily to fly combat missions in Vietnam. It started out as one in which they would assist the Vietnamese in flying these missions, but it quickly -- I mean, within weeks, became one that they just simply took over. The people who were the Air Force officers and men who were sent over to Farmgate were not even told what country they were going to. They were told it was country 77. They were asked a series of questions that and one of which was, "Will you agree to fly without uniform? Do you understand that if you crash or are captured, the government will disavow you?" I mean, it was that secret. And so the idea that we were -- that Kennedy was proposing to the public and laying on the public that, you know, we were only over there as advisors, that simply was not true, ever.
LAMB: In 1962, who ran South Vietnam?
PROCHNAU: A very fascinating, odd fellow named Ngo Diem. He was a Roman Catholic, which seems odd in a place as alien and foreign as Vietnam, but it was a leftover from the French colonial days. Diem was a bachelor. There were CIA reports that said he'd never had any kind of sex life at all, as a matter of fact. And...
LAMB: In that picture, he's the second from the left right?
PROCHNAU: He is the second from the left in his classic manner and outfit and clothing. And the others in that picture ... on his left is his brother, Brother Nu, on his right, I'm sorry. And off second from the right at the back is Madam Nu. They were the two other primary characters in the government. Madam Nu became known as the "Dragon Lady" at one point. When Buddhists became protesting against the government, she offered to -- and they were part of the protests -- firey suicides, she offered to give David Halberstam the match if he wanted to do the same thing. In other words, commit a fiery suicide on the street in downtown Saigon. She was the Dragon Lady not only to the Americans, but even the Vietnamese. In fact, the Vietnamese first named her that.
LAMB: Who was General Paul Harkins?
PROCHNAU: Harkins was the American commander in chief during this period that headed the advisory group of soldiers.
LAMB: Is he still alive?
PROCHNAU: No. No, he's not alive. He died some years ago. Most of this ...
LAMB: How did you get his side of the story in this?
PROCHNAU: Well, it was not easy, because he pretty much faded from view after this. And it was Neil Sheehan who reported that when he came back to Vietnam, he was in such a state of professional ruin that they called in Colonel Blimp. And, you know, Knowlting was able to tell his side of the story in a biography that he wrote, a kind of rather sad biography, memoir.
LAMB: Is he still alive?
PROCHNAU: No, he's also dead. So the chief source in the embassy who died after I interviewed him was Charles Trueheart, who was the -- or William Trueheart, excuse me -- Charles is his son.
LAMB: Charles with The Post.
LAMB: The reporter for The Post, Charles Truehart, is the son of William Truehart.
PROCHNAU: Yes. And Truehart was an excellent source for me. He was the deputy ambassador the charge d'affaires.
LAMB: What was the atmosphere in Washington in '62 and '63? And who was reading what these reporters were feeding back here?
PROCHNAU: The atmosphere in Washington?
LAMB: In the -- '62 and '63 and who was reading this material? I mean, in other words, how did these reporters end up making people so mad in the government?
PROCHNAU: Well, the chief reader was John Kennedy, and he was furious. And he was furious in a sort of contractory way. He was getting information from the reporters that he wasn't getting from his own people and that made him mad, but just simply the fact that they reported it and he thought they were ruining his policy in Vietnam pushed him to great lengths. He tried to have David Halberstam pulled from from Vietnam.

A famous incident in which he went to the publisher of The New York Times and Punch Sulzberger -- who had been publisher only a few months at that time; was one of Kennedy's rare open mistakes in handling the press. At that time, Halberstam was in some trouble at home. These guys got in trouble with their editors. They made their editors nervous. And there was talk of pulling Halberstam. But the minute the president went to the publisher of the Times and said, "Don't you think you ought to transfer this guy to Paris or some place like that?" obviously they got their back up and said, "No way. We can't do it now." So they had the exact opposite effect. But the papers are fascinating. The papers that have come out in the last few years and that I used in this book, the memos that went back and forth, the cables, the reports, the minutes, White House meetings -- I mean, it was just ranting and raving about Halberstam. The CIA was assigned to study his reports, his news stories for six month periods to root out the errors, etc. And they found very few.
LAMB: You talk a lot about Homer Bigart.
LAMB: And he's deceased, but you had a chance to spend some time with him. Who was he?
PROCHNAU: Well, Homer Bigart is just this wonderful character. And, I mean, Homer was 54 years old at the time. And the government accused the young Turks of being too young to cover the war properly. They accused Homer of being too old. He was distrustful of any authority figure, whether it be an editor or a general or an ambassador or a president. He had covered wars since the Second World War, been shot at in anger, as I have put it in the book. Every year for 20 years -- he was, at that time, was the preeminent war correspondent in the world, surely in the free world, as they called it in those days. He came in before Halberstam for a six month period -- it was the last war he would cover -- and hated the place; was perhaps more aggressive in his reporting than the young Turks were. They followed his lead. They called him the professor. And he's just a delightful character -- called his editors the clarks, British pronunciation for clerks.

And there's this wonderful story about -- after he left Vietnam and was back reporting in New York and he was on rewrite one night, which means that he was in the office taking the story from various younger reporters who were out in the field and there were riots going on in New York. And one reporter called in from a phone booth in the middle of the riots and said, I think, that they were rocking -- the rioters were rocking the phone booths and the guy was saying, "My God, this is terrible. I don't know what's going to happen to me." And Bigart just replied calmly into the phone -- he'd been fending off his editors all night long and he said, "At least you're dealing with sane people." And that was Homer Bigart's reaction to his editors…
LAMB: You say that his questions were so elemental, simple and persistent, they became known in the trade as Homer's All American Dummy Act.
LAMB: I want to ask you, though, because that -- what is a reporter's role? I mean, it's obvious from reading your book these reporters were deeply involved in trying to prevent the American government from continuing this secret situation.
LAMB: What's your take on what their role should be?
PROCHNAU: Well, I think their role should be to, you know, expose, keep after the government in any kind of situation. That's almost a quasi constitutional role -- that's not constitutional as the press sometimes say. I get irritated when the press starts quoting the Constitution every time they get in trouble. But there is a sort of quasi constitutional role that the press has to keep the government honest, to keep it talking to the people, to keep it telling the people the truth.

Obviously there are times when the government can't tell the people everything. It's clear that there are. I mean, in the Second World War or a war like that when you're vast movements of troops, that invasion of Normandy or something, my God, no one in his right mind would argue that the press has a right to say, "Hey, we're going to invade Normandy tomorrow." I mean, hundreds of thousands of lives at stake. But there has to be a certain trust between the government and the people as well.

I think Vietnam was the beginning of the mistrust and, in some ways, you could mark it right down to these days and these young guys who were -- they were being asked to say that the emperor was wearing clothes when he wasn't, and they wouldn't do it. They were the first group of correspondents since prior to the Second World War that really had done that in what might be even remotely a national security situation. And I think in that sense, while they were not anti war in the least, I think they were the platform off which much of the modern media has been launched.
LAMB: What role did Joe Alsop play in all this?
PROCHNAU: Well, Joe Alsop was a hawk. He was a -- go ahead ...
LAMB: Well, the reason I'm interrupting is because you just said these other fellows weren't -- they were pro American ...
PROCHNAU: Yeah. Right.
LAMB: ... and all that. But you say that -- what's the difference between Joe Alsop, the hawk, and the others?
PROCHNAU: Right. The old guard -- Joe Alsop, Marguerite Higgins, who was a famous correspondent in Second World War and the Korean War, a handful of others were sort of old Asia hands with a distinct interest in Asia. And they just simply thought that the young reporters should go along with the government. There was a tremendous split and a real battle open warfare between them in print and, you know, in private conversations and with editors and the whole works. They were hawks. And Alsop was a hawk in the sense of, "We should just go along entirely with what's going on. We should ignore this stuff." And, you know, the argument becomes, "OK. Should a reporter be an advocate?" And these young reporters were advocates. And I just posed the question, "Would we be better off in this situation either with being an adversarial, as they were, or would we have been better off doing what Alsop essentially wanted to do, which was ignore these things that were the self delusions?"

And, I mean, some of the stuff was really awful. I mean, McNamara would go over and just be blind to things. I mean, he was a man who heard but didn't see. I mean, those things would be right in front of him and he...
LAMB: Did you talk to him for this book?
PROCHNAU: No, I did not talk to McNamara. He wasn't talking about Vietnam at that time. He was writing his own book. My book came out just after his, of course. And there was not much point in talking to McNamara about it, because he just wasn't going to talk about Vietnam.
LAMB: You report that you distilled millions of words into ...
LAMB: Millions of ...
PROCHNAU: I've got my own -- I've got a room that's actually expanded beyond the room of a room, that's just a library of notes and shelf after shelf after shelf of paper notes, because I started before you could really do all this easily in a computer. And I used a computer, but you really couldn't file it easily in a computer. So I had to use written notes, and they're all there.
LAMB: You say that, "This made necessary scouring for morsels across so broad a landscape that my index alone to documents, periodicals and other written sources reached 54,000 words."
PROCHNAU: Right. Right. It was rather remarkable. One of the things that was very difficult about this book was that the press did not write about itself at that time. It was very unscrutinized. And even, while they did a little bit, because this became so highly controversial at the time, there was a little bit of writing about this -- it was just something that the press didn't do. So there's the written record is scattered through all kinds of places through documents and -- and various libraries to, you know, short mentions in memoirs and obscure books and that sort of thing. So you just had to go on a search and just literally had to scour everything in sight to get just the tidbits.
LAMB: You referred to states' history...
PROCHNAU: Right. .
LAMB: ... the State Department history.
PROCHNAU: Probably the most remarkable set of documents that outlining what happened and how blind we were as a government and in this era and ...
LAMB: Where do you find the State ...
PROCHNAU: You can actually buy it. You can buy it now from the government printing office. It costs a couple of hundred bucks. It was a set of four volumes of that time period. I'm not sure the later time periods are out yet -- '64 might be out, but '61, '62 and '63, the Kennedy years, are actually bound into books. And they include minutes of the meetings in the White House where they discussed it, cables to and from Saigon, cables asking the CIA to examine Halberstam's articles, the replies from the CIA, involvement in the coup d'etat that eventually fell to Ngo Dinh Diem, our ally, in which we participated and denied for a long, long time. They include all these various papers and cables that went back and forth, or I shouldn't say all of them.

A cross section, but I think it was a fairly done cross section. Whoever put it together did it fairly, because it really is a damning set of documents outlining foolishness -- you know, a degree of foolishness that is remarkable.
LAMB: Did you ever ask them how many people bought copies of this?
PROCHNAU: No. It would be very interesting to see how many people bought copies of it. Probably not very many, but I would say that any scholar, any writer that's trying to get at this era just you can't get along without that book now. It justthose books. It's just -- they're basic. See, over 11 years, I had picked a lot of these papers together out of the Kennedy Library, out of the LBJ Library, out of various other books and sources, but not all of them, by any meanings -- not even half of them -- and not organized in the fashion that it's organized. My book, in a sense, is two books, as I think you recognized. I mean, it's an adventure story in a way of these six young correspondents. I think it's meant to be that. It's meant to be history in a narrative adventure story form. It is two years of living dangerously. It's one of the more unusual periods in the history of journalism. But it also is a good look at how the government did what it did and why and and the mistakes that were made. That's the secondary part of the book. And it's not what I set out to do, but once I started looking at the stuff, I had to look at it to relate it to what the reporters were doing -- it clearly became a pivotal part of the story. And it was so staggering in a way that I spent a little more time on it in the book than I had planned.
LAMB: What do you hope will -- I mean, what do you want to happen with this book? I mean, you spent 11 years on it.
LAMB: How old are you now?
PROCHNAU: I'm 58. Started out when was 47.
LAMB: And when you went to Vietnam in '65, how old would you have been?
PROCHNAU: I was 27.
LAMB: So what do you want to happen with this book?
PROCHNAU: Well, the thing that any writer wants, I think. All the years I had in journalism, I never viewed -- people go into journalism for different reasons. Some go in to move society, to correct social evils, to become famous ... there's such a variety of reasons for going into journalism or writing. My goal has been a very simple one. It's more a writer's goal, I think. And it's to tell a good story, but at the same time, educate people about -- I mean, this book is important to read now while we're going into Bosnia. The situations are not the same, and I think it would be a real error to draw the parallel too closely. But I think it's important to see what can happen when two things happen with the government. One, it gets so cocky and so sure of itself that it really doesn't do it's homework. We knew nothing about Vietnam when we went in there. We knew nothing about their history. We misled ourselves about the Chinese role -- arch enemy of Vietnam and we thought we were fighting China and Vietnam. I mean, you know, you need to know those things about Bosnia, too. I assume that there are people -- we know a lot more about Europe than we do about Asia, but just as a general rule, we've been turned toward Europe. But you hope that it does that and you hope that you tell a very good story that people will learn from. I mean, I think especially these days, if you're going to deal with the written word, you better write well and you better tell a good story or people aren't going to get through 500 pages of a book; they're not going to pick it up. And this book, I think, is a good story. And that's about all a writer can come home with is a good story.
LAMB: You spent some time in the home of William Westmoreland.
PROCHNAU: Oh, yeah. Two days -- they were very gracious. The general and Kitsy Westmoreland were very, very gracious in helping me. That was back sort of in the first evolution of the book.
LAMB: What year?
PROCHNAU: That was in '64...
LAMB: You mean eight ...
PROCHNAU: ...'84, excuse me. I'm still back in that period. I signed my checks for a long time -- in 1993 I signed my checks 1963. And I have this sort of prison pallor from being up in my my office. And I could tell the look on the clerks' faces that, "Boy, this guy was in a long time, wasn't he?" And it was '84, right after the trial. Actually, it was '85. And they had promised to talk to me at length after the trial was over, and they did. With this book, I have had to acknowledge their help in a rather odd way. I acknowledged them and thanked them for two days of interviews and the hospitality of their home for interviews on a book that ends before they arrived in Vietnam.
LAMB: You did have a footnote about William Westmoreland which said that in the four years that he was there, he never called ...
PROCHNAU: Isn't that remarkable?
LAMB: ... Lyndon Johnson.
PROCHNAU: That's just remarkable. He told me that and I went back, I don't know, about three times. I couldn't believe it. The president of the United States and the general in charge of the Army in Vietnam never once talked on the phone while he was there. He would go home and talk to ... the main reason for that was not communications, either. It was the chain of command. The chain of command came from the president through the commander in chief of the Pacific, CINCPAC, who was in Hawaii, to Westmoreland.
LAMB: Harry Felt.
PROCHNAU: Yeah. Harry Felt at that time, right, who was an admiral, generally -- well, he always was an admiral. And...
LAMB: There was a different admiral when Westmoreland was in the...
PROCHNAU: I think Felt was out, and it might have been -- I can't pull it out right now. But, yeah, it was a different admiral. But that chain of command meant that Westmoreland had to go back through Hawaii to talk to the -- to make a proposal to the president, unless he was in the same room, obviously. That didn't help matters much, either.
LAMB: There's another -- this is just a side bar thing. "Deborah Susan Kalb unselfishly made her research interviews and unpublished Harvard University honors thesis available." Is she any relation to the Kalb brothers?
PROCHNAU: She's Marvin's daughter. She works for Roll Call -- or, The Hill, they call it now.
LAMB: Newspaper here on the Hill?
PROCHNAU: A new newspaper in the Capitol. And I saw her just the other day again, and she wrote a wonderful honors thesis about these reporters and interviewed most of them. And she very nicely let me, you know, use it, read it -- use it. And I am very indebted to her.
LAMB: Now why didn't she ever publish that?
PROCHNAU: I don't know. It seems to me that it's eminently publishable. I don't know why she didn't. I think she just decided, "Well, I did that and now I'll get on with the rest of my life, as people do," and off she went.
LAMB: Another -- near the end of your book, you say that Madam Nu is alive ...
LAMB: ... and lives where?
PROCHNAU: In the south of France. I've been told on the Riviera, but I'm not absolutely sure that it's on the Riviera -- the south of France somewhere. She hasn't been heard from much for a long, long, long time. For a fairly lengthy period of time, there were a lot of requests for interviews of her while she was living there, and she wouldn't grant interviews unless she was paid for them and people just turned her down.
LAMB: Now is there a second book out of all this?
PROCHNAU: Oh, boy, there probably is, but not by me. I'm going to go on to something else in life now. I might go back to -- I wrote novel before this. I may go back to a novel. I may write another piece of non fiction. Despite all the agonies on this book -- and there's no kidding that there weren't -- when I finally got the thing fixed and figured in my mind, I threw away those 70,000 words and I wrote it in about two years. Now that doesn't include any of the research. I just sat down and wrote it. I might do a similar sort of thing with a different subject the next time around. I'm looking at what I think is a very good idea for a novel. So we'll just have to see. I'm going to make up my mind in the next month or so.
LAMB: What have you done with all the archive materials, or all the materials you have? Are you going to archive it anywhere?
PROCHNAU: Well, I definitely am. I haven't decided where yet. And I think it's an incredible array of material that somebody can use and it should be available to other people. Not just the interviews -- I have the entire transcript of the Westmoreland trial. I have, you know, many of the early documents and all of my notes. And I just simply think it's something that should be made available.
LAMB: This is what the book looks like. It's called "Once Upon a Distant War." And the author is William Prochnau. Thank you very much for joining us.
PROCHNAU: Thanks, Brian.

Copyright National Cable Satellite Corporation 1996. Personal, noncommercial use of this transcript is permitted. No commercial, political or other use may be made of this transcript without the express permission of National Cable Satellite Corporation.