Some Vietnam War veterans believe that you could count civilian war correspondents who supported the American war effort in Vietnam on one hand. Whether true or not, that group included AP photographer Eddie Adams and Peter Braestrup, the Washington Post’s Saigon bureau chief. And the novelist John Steinbeck wrote a series of positive dispatches on the war for Newsday in 1967 at the behest of President Lyndon Johnson.
Another prominent Vietnam War supporter was the famed World War II combat correspondent Richard Tregaskis, the subject of Ray E. Boomhower’s new biography, Richard Tregaskis: Reporting Under Fire from Guadalcanal to Vietnam (University of New Mexico Press/High Road Books, 356 pp; $34.95, hardcover; $19.22, Kindle).
Tregaskis, a fierce anti-communist, wanted “a firsthand, eyewitness look,” he said, “at the strange, off-beat, new-style war in which we find ourselves engaged in the miserable little jungle country called Vietnam, which our nation’s leaders have decided is pivotal and critical in our Asian struggle with Communism.”
Though he had been in Vietnam before—on assignment for True magazine in 1948, during which he covered the battles between the French and Viet Minh forces, and in 1957, during the Diem regime–Tregaskis got a third chance in 1962. His aim was to do research for a book to be titled Vietnam Diary, following in the tradition of his best-selling World War II book, Guadalcanal Diary.
While Tregaskis’ endeavors in Vietnam take up a small portion of his book, Boomhower does a very good job comparing the differences between war coverage during the Vietnam War and in World War II. The most famous WWII war correspondents were, most famously, Scripps Howard News correspondent Ernie Pyle, Stars and Stripes reporter Andy Rooney, and radio correspondent Edward R. Murrow. None of those journalists would have dared to criticize the American efforts during World War II.
Vietnam War reportage was very different. And Tregaskis didn’t like it, once telling New York Times correspondent David Halberstam, “If I were doing what you are doing, I’d be ashamed of myself.”
For his part, Halberstam “believed it was his job and the responsibility of other journalists in Vietnam to report on the news, positive or negative,” Boomhower notes. “We were finding out stuff we didn’t want to find out. We wanted the Americans to win,” Halberstam said.
The civilian press corps soon understood, though, that MACV wanted only good news from the press and, “any other interpretation was defeatist and irresponsible.”
Tregaskis’ spent much of his time in Vietnam in 1962 close to the action, as he did during World War II, flying on sixty assault missions on a variety of helicopters. Falling back on his memories of covering WW II, of Vietnam he wrote, “There was no one big D-Day; every day is D-Day and the front is everywhere.” No doubt the civilian press corps with which he was at odds and he could all agree on that.
Richard Tregaskis: Reporting Under Fire from Guadalcanal to Vietnam would make an excellent addition to the libraries of students of World War II and the Vietnam War.
–Marc Phillip Yablonka is the author of Vietnam Bao Chi: Warriors of Word and Film