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By Beth McGough, Communications and Creative Services Manager
Acclaimed journalist Morley Safer, a correspondent on CBS 60 Minutes, sadly, passed away May 19, 2016; before Safer’s long career on 60 Minutes, he reported on the Vietnam War as head of the CBS Saigon Unit (1964-1966).
In August 1965, Safer reported on the burning of Vietnamese hamlet Cam Ne. His account, which aired on CBS Evening News with Walter Cronkite, was groundbreaking because it lacked the censorship of previous TV news stories. The uncensored report showed Marines torching thatched huts as women, children and the elderly fled their burning homes.
Safer’s reporting had a lasting impact on journalism. On 60 Minutes Overtime he remarks “In those days you wouldn’t pitch stories, you went and did stories and told them what was news. That is how foreign reporting has really seriously changed.”
The story on Cam Ne was pivotal but, as a result of the report, Safer and CBS faced backlash from the White House, Marines, and Department of Defense. They were furious.
The backlash begins
A Department of Defense report (1) outlines the differences between Safer’s account and the official DOD report, such as discrepancies between the number of houses burnt and people wounded. The official report and background contained in the report explained the burnings targeted homes connected to underground tunnels used by the Vietcong and from which the Marines received fire. But the report background includes details of the collateral damage, “Others were burned incidentally as a result of flame throwers,” which bolsters Safer’s account.
Echoes of the DOD’s official report appear in a Los Angeles Times editorial by William F. Buckley. He writes, “The Viet Cong’s highly developed techniques for conscripting parts of the local population to co-operating in the conspiracy to deprive the whole of their freedom is one aspect of the military problem: to be met by techniques studied and developed in places like Parris Island, not at the executive suites of television offices.” (2)
Backing up Buckley’s piece, journalist Martin Gershen of the Newark Star-Ledger but writing independently noted, “But it wasn’t true. The fact is that it is doubtful if newsmen ever would have seen the village razed if it weren’t for the U.S. Marines inviting them to the burning…The real reason for burning Cam Ne, of course, was that it was a Vietcong stronghold and William F. Buckley, Jr., who also was quoted in the Rustin article, made this point clear.” (3)
Acknowledging the impact of Safer’s story
The Marine Corps recognized the negative effect the TV report had on the perception of the Marines in Vietnam but they lacked evidence to counter the story.
A summary report on Cam Ne (4) states, “The fact that some of the news pictures were out of context is unfortunately beside the point. The important point is that our own system did not provide an equally prompt visual record of what really took place at Cam Ne. So far as I know, CMC still does not have our photographic version of the affair to use as a counterattack. This is a situation we have to clear up.”
One of the arguments against Safer’s account was that it endangered American lives. This veiled call for censorship turned out to be unfounded. Reflecting back on the event, Press Officer Barry Zorthian could barely recall the charges against Safer. In an oral history interview, he remarks “…I remember that I felt the charge was simply misdirected. It just wasn’t legitimate.” (5)
Seeing is believing
Despite efforts by the Marines and Department of Defense to explain away the events at Cam Ne CBS stood by Safer. Safer recalls, “They believed in my belief that this was precisely what the story was.”
Safer’s account was included in The New York Times Vietnam War coverage on August 4, 1965. Adding impact to The New York Times coverage on August 4 was a photo of a Marine, young boy, and his dead mother. The headline read “War in Vietnam Continues to Take its Civilian Toll.” (6)
General William C. Westmoreland “hit the ceiling” when he learned about the burning of Cam Ne. Safer gave Westmoreland a private showing the footage to back up his commentary. After seeing Safer’s films Westmoreland ordered troops to stop burning suspected Viet Cong villages or taking other actions that could hurt innocent people. (7)
Safer went on to win the George Polk Award and Sigma Delta Chi Award (8) for coverage of Cam Ne and became one of the most important television journalists of our time.
Libraries that don’t currently have access to these resources may also request trials for deeper exploration.
(1) ProQuest History Vault, American Politics and Society from Kennedy to Watergate, Confidential File of the Johnson White House, 1963-1969, Part 2: Confidential Reports File.
(2) “U.S. Troops in Vietnam Shouldn't Be Sniped at From Behind, Too,” William F. Buckley, Los Angeles Times, Aug 16, 1965, p. A6, ProQuest Historical Newspapers™.
(3) ProQuest History Vault, Law and Society Since the Civil War: American Legal Manuscripts from the Harvard Law School Library, Albert Levitt Papers.
(4) ProQuest History Vault, Vietnam War and American Foreign Policy 1960-1975, Records of the U.S. Marine Corps in the Vietnam War, Part 1. Fleet Marine Force, Pacific Command Histories, 1964-1973.
(5) ProQuest History Vault, American Politics and Society from Kennedy to Watergate, Oral Histories of the Johnson Administration, 1963-1969, Part I: The White House and Executive Departments.
(6) “Burning of Village Described,” The New York Times, Aug 4, 1965, p. 2, ProQuest Historical Newspapers™.
(7) "Marines Ordered…’Don’t Burn Villages,’” Jack Fosie, Boston Globe, Aug 23, 1965, p. 4, ProQuest Historical Newspapers™.
(8) “Morley Safer given award for coverage,” The Globe and Mail, Apr 15, 1966, ProQuest Historical Newspapers™.