During the 1960s, events could sweep past politicians since television reached everyone, not just the Elites, and sometimes events overwhelmed both the government and protesters. LBJ set things in motion with the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution in 1964, but he couldn’t control what occurred afterwards in 1965; and LBJ couldn’t control Morley Safer of CBS News in South Vietnam. Safer (35 years old) was an experienced foreign correspondent that was familiar with global military and political conflicts.
In August 1965, Safer went to Da Nang, which was the staging area for the US Marines in South Vietnam, for the main reason that he hadn’t recently covered the Marines. Safer was known to have “combat luck” by his fellow reporters, which meant that Safer often witnessed and reported on combat; he also had the luck to survive to narrate what he had witnessed. Safer was asked by the Marines if he wanted to accompany them to Cam Ne, which was in actuality a complex of villages. On the way there, Safer was told that the village would be leveled since they had taken fire from the Viet Cong at that location.
Safer was worried that he hadn’t portrayed the reality of Cam Ne is it really was; Cam Ne was far uglier than Safer reported. Marines used hand grenades and flamethrowers where villagers were cowering in fear. The only real hero on the US side was Ha Thuc Can, a South Vietnamese cameraman that worked for CBS. Can was fluent in Vietnamese, French, and English, and he stopped further carnage by arguing with the Marines about what they were doing, which saved the lives of at least some of the villagers.
Safer asked the Marine commander why he didn’t bring along an interpreter, and the lieutenant stated that he didn’t need one. Can saved at least a dozen people, and as a reward, the man in charge of public relations for the Defense Department tried to make CBS fire him, saying that using a South Vietnamese cameraman was a sure sign of “alien influence”.
(Below: part of a Vietnam documentary focusing on Safer and Cam Ne)
When Safer’s report come to CBS, there was an immediate understanding of the power and danger as far as broadcasting the story. CBS News executives watched the film of the Marines burning village huts (but they didn’t see the footage of the worst of the atrocities), and after checking with Safer to make sure the facts were correct, the decision was made to broadcast the story CBS fielded many phone calls from angry citizens that cried foul, since it was obvious that US soldiers never have, and never did, anything like that . . . ever.
The next day, LBJ called one of his closest allies that was an upper-level executive at CBS and read him the riot act over the phone (among the phrases was, “you just s&%# on the American Flag”). LBJ was certain that Safer was a Communist, and how could CBS put someone like that in the field. LBJ ordered a thorough background check on Safer. Safer was originally from Canada, so that meant LBJ needed the cooperation of the RCMP (Royal Canadian Mounted Police); it was discovered that Safer was beyond above-board in terms of any loyalty or security risks. LBJ was sure nonetheless that Safer had somehow convinced the Marines to do what they did at Cam Ne, which was just a hint of LBJ’s excessive paranoia to come in the succeeding years. Despite intense pressure from President Johnson, CBS stood by Safer, and broadcast his story.
Safer helped legitimize accurate reporting in Vietnam by other TV correspondents, with all resolving to capture what they witnessed on film. From that moment on in 1965, there was a greater receptiveness to the darker news coming out of Vietnam. For an increasing number of Americans, there was this sense that the War in Vietnam wasn’t going right, despite what the government and military stated.