Barry Zorthian, U.S. spokesman in Saigon during 1960s, dies at 90

Some Vietnam War reporters considered Barry Zorthian, shown in 1979, a trusted source.
Some Vietnam War reporters considered Barry Zorthian, shown in 1979, a trusted source. (Fred Sweets/the Washington Post)
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Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 2, 2011; 7:05 PM

Barry Zorthian, the chief U.S. government spokesman in Saigon during the 1960s, who won grudging respect from many reporters for the canniness and grace with which he responded to demands for a full accounting of the American effort in the Vietnam War, died Dec. 30 at Sibley Memorial Hospital. He was 90 and had a staph infection.

Mr. Zorthian believed in the war in Vietnam, he said, and thought Americans would come to support it if only the government could manage to explain the purpose of the bloody conflict.

"The most prominent aspects of the war communicated have been the deaths, the civilian casualties, the impact on the Vietnamese," he said in 1968, as he was leaving his public affairs post. "It is more difficult to communicate the imperatives for our being here, the reasons why we are going through this hell."

The gregarious, silver-tongued Mr. Zorthian had been sent to Saigon in 1964 to improve relations with journalists, who had become increasingly disgusted with U.S. officials and suspicious of the government's rosy version of events in Southeast Asia.

It was the United States' first war without censorship of the news media, and Mr. Zorthian had to try to establish credibility for the fight by controlling the flow of sensitive information rather than squelching it entirely.

"He faced a Sisyphean task," former U.P.I. correspondent Ray Herndon said in an interview. "All of his obvious charm and wit and skill in handling reporters couldn't make up for the fact that we were losing the war."

During his tenure in Saigon, Mr. Zorthian was privy to high-level discussions about U.S. policy and progress in Southeast Asia. He served as media adviser to Gen. William C. Westmoreland, the U.S. military commander in Vietnam, and to three U.S. ambassadors - Henry Cabot Lodge, Maxwell Taylor and Ellsworth Bunker.

Mr. Zorthian started a daily afternoon briefing for correspondents, which gave reporters a regular opportunity to question government officials but were so lacking in substantive and complete information that they eventually became known as the "Five O'Clock Follies."

Reporters knew Mr. Zorthian had to be shielding government secrets, former New York Times correspondent A.J. Langguth said in an interview, but many came to believe that the spokesman shared the information he could and took pains not to lie or mislead.

The spokesman "was ultimately somebody who was on the side of the truth and the public's right to know, but he was trapped in a job where he had to present the official line, and the official line in that era was not always accurate," Langguth said.

"He would answer our questions cannily and cagily, and if we didn't get the full information out of him, it was as much our fault as his."

Some reporters who dug beyond the daily briefing considered Mr. Zorthian a trusted source who would leak stories unfavorable to the U.S. government when he felt it necessary.

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