Boston lawyer Tom Herman was a kid when the U.S. was going to war in Vietnam. He remembers being at summer camp, arguing with the camp's director: She thought the conflict was wrong, he said it was right.
Fast forward about a decade. Herman was in college protesting the war. Fast forward a few decades later, and Herman decided to explore that change of heart he and so many Americans had about Vietnam. So he embarked on a feature-length documentary film, "Dateline-Saigon," that took 12 years to complete.
It's about the first reporters to cover the emerging conflict in the early 1960s.
The reporters in Vietnam were young and idealistic and groundbreaking and they never dreamed that the Kennedy administration would hear their firsthand reports of American and South Vietnamese missteps and defeats just to ignore them and consider the journalists unpatriotic.
"Dateline-Saigon" was named the audience's favorite documentary at the Woods Hole Film Festival earlier this month. WBUR's Lisa Mullins met with the producer/director to discuss the film. Here's the conversation, lightly edited:
Lisa Mullins: Tell me a bit about the film.
Tom Herman: The protagonists of the film David Halberstam, Neil Sheehan came to a patriotic consciousness during World War II. They were children of the Cold War, and it took them a long time to overcome their preconceptions. In fact, when I talked to David and Neil in a number of interviews, they told me how their initial reports were very positive, even when they were seeing things that weren't so positive. So they had to disenthrall themselves.
They assumed that the government would be telling them the truth until they saw with their own eyes what was happening?
They assumed the government was telling them the truth and they looked on the bright side and then the facts on the ground contradicted that. These young men went through a crisis of conscience which is part of what I wanted to get in this film.
Because you went through the same thing?
Because I went through the same thing, and the country went through the same thing. These men went through the crisis of conscience, losing their innocence a number of years before the rest of the country did.
You know there was a further loss of innocence when it turned out that some of these reporters who were young, paving their way in the business, found that they could not even trust the judgment of some of their journalistic heroes. David Halberstam provided a really vivid example of this.
Richard Tregaskis was a great World War II correspondent. Tregaskis came over to report in Vietnam, and David Halberstam took Tregaskis out into the field and introduced Tregaskis to Halberstam's sources and explained why the facts on the ground were not as rosy as the Kennedy administration was advertising.
And Halberstam was very proud of what he was doing?
Very proud of what he was doing. When a reporter introduces another reporter to his or her sources, that's a pretty special moment.
A clip from Halberstam in "Dateline-Saigon":
"The people I introduced him to were in awe of the great Richard Tregaskis. And we're going back to Saigon by boat and he looks to me and he says: 'If I were doing what you were doing, I'd be ashamed of myself.' It was like someone took a baseball bat and just whacked me in the stomach."
He was almost in tears. It was a very difficult moment for David.
So what was going on with Tregaskis? That he's still bought into what he was being told by the government versus one of his fellow reporters on the ground?
Well back in World War II, the situation wasn't as gray as it was in Vietnam. We were on the right side, Tregaskis thought the role of the journalists was to support what the government was saying and the government thought that's what the role of the journalist was. Halberstam, Sheehan and others were outliers. It wasn't until Halberstam, Sheehan, Peter Arnett and the others laid the groundwork of skepticism and criticism that the tide began to turn and the journalists who arrived in Vietnam were inoculated with skepticism.
One of the differences between World War II and Vietnam is that the reporters in World War II felt as though it was a matter of national security what they said. Was that not the case in Vietnam — that if they contradicted what the government was saying then national security might be at risk?
Not at all. There were rules that reporters couldn't report on troop locations, operations and so forth. But the reporters didn't feel that national security was at risk in reporting critically. In fact, they felt if they didn't report the truth it might adversely impact national security.
Let me make one other point: There is a subnarrative among some people feeling that it was the reporters who lost the war because they reported critically, their critical reporting undermined national confidence, and so forth. And I have talked to a number of historians including the principal United States Army historian who say: "That's ridiculous. The journalists were doing their job. They did not compromise national security and it was not the journalists who lost the war."
The attacks that we hear on the media right now — to what extent do you think are they successful in undermining public opinion about what reporters do, about how they cover things, about whether they put the U.S. in a less secure position?
I think the attacks on the media are having an effect. And that's one of the reasons it's so important that journalists report accurately and expose the truth because we are not getting it today from the White House. And it's that continual struggle. It's not just the Trump administration. Even then, under President Kennedy who had always and still remains in many ways a hero of mine, he and his administration hid the truth, distorted the truth.
It's happening today and future generations will also have to face this struggle and overcome efforts to hide and distort the truth.
This article was originally published on August 17, 2017.
This segment aired on August 17, 2017.