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Vietnam War 'a colossal waste,' author says

By Alice Bishop


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ARLINGTON, Va. — The Vietnam War serves as a lesson to those contemplating the use of force: Know what you're doing and exhaust all alternatives, free-lance reporter and author Arnold Isaacs says.

The war was a "colossal, total waste" he said during an Inside Media program at the Newseum on Aug. 4.

Isaacs criticized the Johnson and Kennedy administrations for assuming their enemy was communist China. "[The war] was a desperate, bitter and violent struggle over who would rule Vietnam, and that totally escaped American foreign policy-makers," he said.

Isaacs, author of Vietnam Shadows: The War, Its Ghosts, and Its Legacy and Without Honor: Defeat in Vietnam and Cambodia, covered the last years of the war and the collapse of South Vietnam and Cambodia for The (Baltimore) Sun.

He recalled that, without any safety training, he arrived in Saigon in the spring of 1972 but immediately felt comfortable. "I realized that for my generation the landscape of war was part of our world since earliest childhood," said Isaacs, who was born in 1941, the same year as the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.

After the withdrawal of American forces in Vietnam, Isaacs covered the South Vietnamese army. "It was a new story even for old, more-experienced journalist hands," he said.

And although he did not encounter official censorship, he said, the Vietnamese could yank a journalist's visa if they didn't like a story.

Unlike today, Isaacs recalled that he wrote in a vacuum because he had no feedback or comparisons. "That was a normal condition of foreign correspondents — I had no way of knowing how readers reacted, nor did I see what my colleagues wrote," he said.

Ultimately, Isaacs said the human devastation for the Vietnamese was a thousand times worse than for the Americans fighting there. He once figured out that if a wall similar to the Vietnam Memorial in Washington, D.C., were erected to honor the Vietnamese who died on both sides, it would be two miles long.

"Those are not wounds that disappear in one generation," he added.

On the POW/MIA issue, Isaacs called it a "fantasy" that American GIs were ever held captive in Vietnam after the appointed date of release. "There is not, and never has been, a single piece of credible evidence that any American prisoners were deliberately held back," he said.

Journalists who wrote stories about new claims of Americans still held in Vietnam were "credulous in their reporting of the original claims but careless in not reporting when the claims were shown to be false," he added.

Isaacs also criticized politicians and others for using the POW/MIA issue as a way to obstruct the normalization of relations with Vietnam.

The discussion was one of a series of programs in conjunction with the Newseum's War Stories exhibit, on display through Nov. 11.


War Stories events coverage
Coverage of discussions relating to Newseum's War Stories exhibit.  07.31.01