US cover design


The New York Times, March-July, 1963

“All the news that’s fit to print”

Copyright Bertrand Russell Peace Foundation Ltd. - with permission

UK cover design

The role of the Western press in the Vietnam controversy has been important and revealing. It is from Western newspapers that I derived my earliest understandings of the involvement of the United States, and it is from these same reports that I first became aware of the barbarous character of the war.
      On October 21, 1962, for example, the New York Times reported:

      ‘Americans and Vietnamese march together, fight together, and die together, and it is hard to get much more involved than that.’

Earlier, Mr Homer Bigart, a leading correspondent of the New York Times, had spoken of the ‘senseless brutality’ of the war. In an article which appeared on July 25, 1962, Mr Bigart stated:

      ‘American advisers have seen Viet Cong prisoners summarily shot. They have encountered charred bodies of women and children in villages destroyed by napalm bombs.’

      Indeed, the use of chemicals in the Vietnam war had been reported in the New York Times as early as January 1, 1962. On January 26, 1962, the New York Times went so far as to refer to the use of chemicals as a ‘crop-killing programme’, in the manioc and rice fields of South Vietnam.
      Although many of these highly revealing articles were buried in inside pages of the newspapers, a careful reading of the Western press every day made it possible to assess the character of the war from evidence and documentation which could not be easily dismissed. My method in accepting this material was the familiar procedure of ‘evidence against interest’. I assumed that when the New York Times stood to gain nothing from the publication of an article, it was likely to have no other motive than a desire to print a truthful account. Rarely does anyone fabricate reports an evidence which are inimical to his interest.
      I was soon to discover, however, that although some newspapers were prepared to publish isolated pieces of horrifying information, they had no intention of forming a coherent picture of the war from these reports and every intention of preventing others from doing so. The informed press knew that there was something seriously wrong about the war, but restricted themselves to pedestrian comments and peripheral criticisms. This course preserved their ‘responsible’ stance but prepared the ground for a later volte face when their earlier attitude was widely discredited. (Anyone who thinks this a far-fetched description of how the fourth estate goes about its business would do well to recall the press’ attitude to dissenters in other fields - for example to early critics of the Warren Commission report.)
      Repeatedly the press gets away with such disgraceful behaviour through the helplessness of the public. Most people have no access to facts in matters about which their suspicions are aroused nor the resources to gather information independently. Even if they can remove these formidable obstacles, they still have no means of communicating their findings to the public. I have tried to overcome these difficulties in three ways: first, through a thorough study of the war as reported in Western, Vietnamese and other publications; secondly, by sending observers regularly through the Bertrand Russell Peace Foundation to travel widely in Indo-China and return with first-hand reports; [One such report appears at the end of this book] and thirdly, by raising my voice whenever possible.
      Meanwhile, I have learned certain rules that must be observed in reading the newspapers.
      1. Read between the lines.
      2. Never underestimate the evil of which men of power are capable.
      3. Know the jargon of ‘terrorists’ versus ‘police actions’, and translate wherever necessary.
      Experienced newspaper readers may care to compile their own glossaries of terms used for ‘our’ side and ‘their’ side.

As the war in Vietnam escalated, slowly and steadily, the New York Times came under increasing pressure not to print articles which exposed the lies and distortions of the American Government. An important suppression of vital information occurred as early as March 1962, for example, when the New York Times (as well as every other major American daily newspaper) declined to publish an article sent over the wires of the Associated Press by Mr Malcolm Browne, later a recipient of the Pulitzer Prize in journalism for his reporting from Vietnam. Mr Browne described in some detail the first national congress of the National Liberation Front of South Vietnam, held from February 16 to March 2, 1962. That such information should be denied to the American public is criminal. The article spoke for itself, and people in the West must have access to such information.
      The reaction of the editors of the New York Times to my own efforts to make these facts known is shameful, but not unique. I choose it from many examples to illustrate these points because it proudly proclaims that it publishes ‘all the news that’s fit to print’. The following exchanges on Vietnam and journalistic standards were in the spring of 1963.

On March 28 I addressed the following letter to the Editor of the New York Times:

      The United States Government is conducting a war of annihilation in Vietnam. The sole purpose of this war is to retain a brutal and feudal regime in the South and to exterminate all those who resist the dictatorship of the South. A further purpose is an invasion of the North, which is in Communist hands.
      The real concern which brings the United States to pursue the brutal policy abandoned by France in Indo-China is the protection of economic interests and the prevention of far-reaching social reforms in that part of the world
      I raise my voice, however, not only because I am in profound disagreement with American objections to social change in Indo-China, but because the war which is being conducted is an atrocity. Napalm jelly gasoline is being used against whole villages, without warning. Chemical warfare is employed for the purpose of destroying crops and livestock and to starve the population.
      The American Government has suppressed the truth about the conduct of this war, the fact that it violates the Geneva agreements concerning Indo-China, that it involves large numbers of American troops, and that it is being conducted in a mariner reminiscent of warfare as practised by the Germans in Eastern Europe and the Japanese in South-East Asia How long will Americans lend themselves to this sort of barbarism?

Yours faithfully,
Bertrand Russell

This appeared on April 8 (April 10 in the International Edition) along with the following editorial:

Bertrand Russell’s letter on this page reflects an unfortunate and - despite his eminence as a philosopher - an unthinking receptivity to the most transparent Communist propaganda. It stems from the delusion that communism is no longer a menace and the real threat to world peace comes from the West’s efforts to check Communist aggression.
      This newspaper has repeatedly made it clear that it does not mirror the Kennedy Administration’s viewpoint about American policies in Vietnam. We have criticized its too rigid support of the autocratic Diem regime, which has insufficient popular backing, and we have urged greater freedom for the individual and more rapid social and economic reforms. We have been deeply concerned, as most thinking Americans have, about the increasing military commitment in South Vietnam, and we have not shared Washington’s excessive optimism about American successes.
      But Lord Russell’s letter represents something far beyond reasoned criticism. It represents distortions or half-truths from the first to the last sentences.
      The United States Government is not supporting a ‘war of annihilation’ in Vietnam. There are some 12,000 uniformed Americans there as advisers and trainers, whose bearing, moderation and judgment have done a great deal of good.Their purpose is not to ‘retain a brutal and feudal regime in the South and to exterminate all those who resist’, but to prevent an armed takeover of the country by Communist guerrillas, encouraged, and in part supplied, trained, led and organized from North Vietnam or Communist China or both. In the never-never land in which Mr Russell lives, he twists the Communist infiltration of South Vietnam into an imagined US programme to invade the North.
      Napalm has been used by the South Vietnamese air force against real or imagined havens of Vietcong guerrillas. Its use has certainly killed innocent people - as other weapons have done in all wars. American advisers have opposed its employment, on both moral and practical grounds, against all except clearly identified military targets.
      Defoliation chemicals (common weed killers) have been employed largely in attempts, so far with limited success, to strip leaves from heavy jungle growth near lines of communication and base areas.
      Lord Russell’s statement that the ‘real concern’ of the United States is ‘prevention of far-reaching social reforms’ is arrant nonsense, as even he in his heart must know.
      There are many questions to be raised about the extent and the wisdom of the American commitment in South Vietnam, and about the need for reform of the government that the United States is supporting there; but to call the United States the aggressor and to say nothing about the Communist push for domination against the will of the inhabitants in Vietnam is to make a travesty of justice and a mockery of history.

My reply of April 12 appeared in the Times on May 4, but the section which I have bracketed here was omitted:

      Your editorial of April 8th calls for a reply from me on various counts.
      You accuse me of an ‘unthinking receptivity to the most transparent communist propaganda’. In fact, I base my remarks about the war in South Vietnam upon careful scrutiny of reports in Western newspapers and in publications of the British and American Vietnam Committees. My belief, derived from this study, is that US support of Diem is driving more and more of the inhabitants of South Vietnam into the arms of the Communists - a result to be deplored.
      You accuse me of distorting the truth or of speaking only half truths, but this is a charge which may be turned against you. I agree with the point of view that you express in your second paragraph. But, in my letter, I give reasons for my point of view:
      It is, I suppose, these reasons to which you take exception. They are: (1) that the purpose of the war is to retain ‘a brutal and feudal regime in South Vietnam and (2) to exterminate all who resist Diem’s dictatorship’; (3) that the US is pursuing a brutal policy (abandoned by France in Indo-China) in order to protect economic interests and to prevent far-reaching social reforms in South Vietnam; and (4) that the war is an atrocity. It is an atrocity because such things as napalm bombs are being used - bombs which do not simply kill, but which burn and torture, and that chemical warfare is employed to destroy crops and livestock and so to starve the people of South Vietnam. I did not mention innumerable appalling atrocities carried out by Diem’s Government because for these America has only the indirect responsibility involved in the continued support of Diem.
      You say in your fifth paragraph that napalm bombs have been used, but only against ‘real or imagined havens of Vietcong guerrillas’ and have ‘certainly killed innocent people’. You say, however, that ‘American advisers’ have opposed the use of these bombs. This may be true, but it is less than a half truth. You have said in your fourth paragraph that Americans are in Vietnam only as advisers and trainers. This is not true, and invalidates your explanation concerning the napalm bombs. I suggest that you read the report of Richard Hughes on conditions in Vietnam in the (London) Sunday Times, January 13, 1963 - a journal by no means pro-Communist, anti-American or even very liberal - in the course of which he speaks of ‘the Washington fiction that no United States troops are involved in combat and that United States officers and "trainers" are on the scene merely to "advise, observe, support and assist".’ He says, also: ‘The Americans are now operating more than 200 helicopters and scores of reconnaissance and troop transport planes in the combat areas. Probably half of all bombing and strafing missions by the South Vietnam air force are undertaken by Americans serving as pilots and co-pilots.’
      [In your fifth paragraph you also endeavour to minimize the effect of ‘defoliation chemicals’ by calling them ‘common weedkillers’. If sprayed, as they must be to achieve the end for which you say they are intended, certain common weedkillers would destroy many crops and animals. But, in fact, chemicals other than common weedkillers have been used (some of these were once used as ‘common weedkillers’, but were found to be too dangerous). The US Government has been charged by the South Vietnam Liberation Red Cross, after a year’s study by them of the chemicals sprayed in South Vietnam and their effect upon the health of human beings, animals and crops, with using weed killers which, in the large doses used, are harmful; with using white arsenic, various kinds of arsenite sodium and arsenite calcium, lead manganese arsenates, DNP and DNC (which inflame and eat into human flesh); and calcic cyanamide (which has ‘caused leaves, flowers and fruit to fall, killed big cattle like buffaloes and cows, and seriously affected thousands’ of the in habitants of South Vietnam); with having spread these poisonous chemicals on large and densely populated areas of South Vietnam.
      Admittedly, the South Vietnam Liberation Red Cross is, as its name suggests, allied with those opposing the US-supported Diem regime, but its published findings cannot be ignored since it has urged international investigation of the situation. The use of these weapons, napalm bombs and chemicals, constitutes and results in atrocities and points to the fact that this is ‘a war of annihilation’.]

      I criticize ‘atrocities’ where I find them. I was considered too anti-Communist by the liberals of the US in Stalin’s day for objecting to the atrocities that occurred in Russia at that time I have recently been carrying on a correspondence concerning the hardships suffered by Jews in Communist countries I see no reason to suppose that atrocities are to be condoned when committed by Western Governments. It is not I, but you, who, in attempting to whitewash US action in South Vietnam, are speaking half-truths and are thereby doing the very thing of which you accuse me: ignoring the Communist push for domination. Moreover, the emulation of what the West says it considers most dastardly in Communist behaviour is unlikely to win support for what the West says it stands for anywhere in the world It makes a mockery of the phrase so beloved by the West - ‘The Free World’.
      Two other accusations you make against me: you say that ‘to call the US the aggressor and to say nothing about the Communist push for domination against the will of the inhabitants in Vietnam is to make a travesty of justice and a mockery of history’. The latter is a fine peroration. But I would call to your attention the fact that you yourself had already said (paragraph 2) that you have criticized the US Government’s ‘support of the autocratic Diem regime which has insufficient popular backing’. I would also call your attention to the following bit of history: the Geneva Conference of 1954 proposed a compromise concerning Vietnam which was admirable and which would have solved the problems of that country if it had been observed. The signatories were Molotov and Selwyn Lloyd who signed as co-chairmen representing East and West respectively.
      The agreement reached by this Conference was, with the backing of the US, not observed by South Vietnam. A new regime was established in South Vietnam under a dictator named Diem of whom Time says (November 21, 1960): ‘Diem has ruled with rigged elections, a muzzled Press, and political re-education camps that now hold thirty thousand.’
      I can only deduce that, in your failure to face the facts, and to publicize them, concerning the war in South Vietnam you are, to use your own phraseology, indulging in ‘arrant nonsense as even you in your heart must know.’
      Yours faithfully,
      Bertrand Russell

Noting that the crucial evidence supporting my defence against the editorial of April 8 had been omitted in the Times’ version of my letter, I wrote in protest:

      I am profoundly shocked by the journalistic standards of the New York Times. I have been engaged in a public controversy with the New York Times concerning a matter of international importance, namely, the atrocities presently being carried out by the Government of the United States in Vietnam. You attacked me in an editorial, accusing me of arrant nonsense and of stating things without evidence to substantiate them. In my reply to that attack, I presented the evidence in the course of a long letter. You published my letter, omitting my evidence and without even an indication by means of dots to suggest that the letter had been cut or shortened. I have had correspondence and controversy in the pages of Izvestia and Pravda and I wish to point out to you that never have I been so shabbily treated, never have Izvestia and Pravda behaved in a manner comparably dishonest.
      I am writing to request you to publish the evidence which you omitted from my last letter . . . [Here followed the text which appeared in brackets above.]
      Yours faithfully,
      Bertrand Russell

None of the remainder of my correspondence with the New York Times on this matter was published in the Times. It is published here without further comment since it speaks for itself:

May 17, 1963 My dear Lord Russell:
      The New York Times’ journalistic standards, which you denounce, need no defence from me. The fact is that the Times has given you more than ample space in which to air your views.
      Your second letter (published May 4) was longer than the maximum we allow. We will not permit even you to monopolize our letters columns. In accordance with our long standing procedure, we reserve the right to cut without notice - and in this instance we did find it necessary to cut an overly long letter of yours to bring it down to the required length. The excision was made solely on account of excess length of the original and for no other reason, nor did it in any way alter the sense of your letter. We exercised our own judgment in selecting the paragraph to cut. The one selected contained detailed allegations relating to the general charge of chemical warfare. I haven’t the slightest doubt that you would have objected equally as vociferously no matter which paragraph, sentence or phrases had been cut. In respect to the dots you mention, we never use them in our letters column. Permit me to remind you that in our editorial of April 8, replying to your first letter (which was also published that day), we fully acknowledged that chemicals - specifically napalm - had been used in South Vietnam by the Government forces. This is not and never was the point at issue. The phrase ‘arrant nonsense’ was specifically applied to your (and the Communist) allegation that the United States’ ‘real concern’ is to prevent social reforms in South Vietnam. That charge still stands as the arrant nonsense we said it was
      Sincerely yours,
      John B. Oakes
      Editor of the Editorial Page

June 5, 1963

Dear Mr Oakes,
      Thank you for your letter of May 17th. I note that you now maintain that what you denied emphatically in an editorial in your newspaper was entirely known to you. I suggest therefore, that it is not the journalistic standards of the New York Times which need denouncing, but the integrity of its Editor.
      You say that you have not the slightest doubt that I should have objected equally no matter which paragraph or sentence or phrases had been cut. That is not so. The reason it is not so is that you took such care to omit precisely those sentences which specify the chemicals used and the absence of which provoked an attack upon me by the New York Times previously. The further point that these chemicals were not merely weedkillers, but destroyed livestock, crops, and killed human beings, was never admitted by the New York Times.
      I further point out that the New York Times of January 19, 1962, states that of 2,600 villages in Vietnam, nearly 1,400 have been destroyed because of military action by the United States and the Diem Government, in which both chemicals and napalm were used. You take exception to my designation of this conduct as ‘a war of atrocity’. You attack me publicly for making such charges without substantiation. You omit the evidence in my reply to your attack when publishing it, and you write me a letter in which you say that you allow me ample space in which to air my views. You say, further, that you need make no defence of the journalistic standards of the New York Times. I am impressed by your confidence and, therefore, request permission to publish this correspondence forthwith.
      Yours faithfully,
      Bertrand Russell

July 3, 1963

Dear Lord Russell:
      Your letter of June 5th is again full of the kind of ‘distortions or half-truths’ which we correctly ascribed to you in our editorial of April 8th. For example, we did not deny in our editorial that napalm was used; we specifically admitted it. We did not deny that defoliation chemicals were used; we specifically admitted it. We did not challenge you to specify the other chemicals, if any, that were used; yet you insist that this is the question that ‘provoked’ our editorial attack on you.
      What ‘provoked’ our editorial was your own letter of March 28th, sent to the Times for publication, and published on April 8th, in which you accused the United States of ‘conducting a war of annihilation’ in Vietnam, the ‘sole purpose’ of which was ‘to retain a brutal and futile1 regime in the south’, to protect economic interests and to prevent ‘far-reaching social reforms in that part of the world.’ As I have already informed you in my letter of May 17th, this is the kind of language that we described in our editorial of April 8th as ‘arrant nonsense’; and arrant nonsense, I repeat, it is.

Apropos of your comment about Pravda and Izvestia, do you honestly believe that they would have published a letter attacking the USSR, written in terms comparable to those you used about the United States in your letter of March 28th?
      If you publish this correspondence, I trust you will also publish with it your letter to us of March 28th and our editorial reply of April 8th., as well as this letter.
      Sincerely yours,
      John B. Oakes
      Editor of the Editorial Page

1[sic] I wrote feudal, not futile.

July 27, 1963

Dear Mr Oakes,
      Let us consider where the ‘half-truths’ lie. You did not deny that napalm was used but you did deny that Americans were involved in its use. In your editorial of April 10, you state:
      ‘American advisers have opposed its employment, on both moral and practical grounds, against all except clearly identified military targets’. This is not true. Your own reports of January 19, 1962, refer to the destruction of nearly 1,400 villages. Napalm and chemicals were used in the course of this devastation.
      You state that chemicals employed were common weedkillers and were intended solely to strip leaves from jungle growth. This is untrue. The evidence in my letter which you suppressed establishes its untruth which is, of course, why you disallow it.
      Considering that my charge of atrocity is based upon the ruthless use of chemicals and jelly-gasoline, the wholesale devastation of civilian populations in their villages and the use of concentration camps, it would appear that these are the facts to which you object when you refer to my statement as ‘arrant nonsense, distortion and half-truth from the first to the last sentence’. Clearly, ‘the first to the last sentences’ is at least inclusive of my remarks on chemicals and napalm. You chose to cut my paragraphs on the specific chemicals used because these paragraphs served to show that the chemicals affected human beings and animals and were not merely weedkillers. You are not honest when you contend that this information was already acknowledged by the New York Times. It is precisely the distinction between chemicals which are weedkillers and chemicals which rot human flesh and kill those who come in contact with them that I have sought to make in the course of making clear to the American public the nature of the barbarous war conducted by their Government in South Vietnam.
      That Diem’s regime is ‘futile’ and serves American economic interests, I should be willing to stand by before any impartial mind.
      I agree that Pravda and Izvestia might well suppress a letter attacking the USSR as forthrightly as my letter on Vietnam attacks the United States. This, however, was not the point I was making, as you well know. Never have Izvestia or Pravda purported to publish a letter of mine while omitting surreptitiously the very evidence in dispute in the course of an exchange. This form of dishonesty is, to my mind, more pernicious than the absence of publication of a letter. It is conscious fraud.
      Yours faithfully,
      Bertrand Russell.

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