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

By Emma Brown
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.

"He had a conscience. He believed in informing the American public," said Neil Sheehan, a former New York Times correspondent in Saigon who later won a Pulitzer Prize for reporting on the Pentagon Papers, the Defense Department's secret history of the Vietnam War. "His problem was that he was trying to sell a bad war."

When Mr. Zorthian left his post in 1968, he had served longer than any other senior U.S. official in Saigon.

He had long been critical of what he saw as journalists' tendency to emphasize the negative in Vietnam. But in the years after the war Mr. Zorthian admitted that "very often the government was not as forthcoming as it should have been."

"I don't think we communicated as successfully as we might have," he said in an interview for a 2004 book, "Patriots: The Vietnam War Remembered From All Sides."

"But I'd like to give us a B. A lot of the journalists would probably give us an F-minus."

Barry Zorthian was born Oct. 8, 1920, to Armenian parents in Kutahya, Turkey. He was a young boy when his family immigrated to the United States and settled in New Haven, Conn.

Mr. Zorthian graduated in 1941 from Yale University and then joined the Marine Corps. After serving as an artillery officer in the Pacific theater of World War II, he continued in the Marine Corps Reserve until retiring as a colonel in 1973.

Mr. Zorthian followed his war service with a job at CBS Radio in New York. He received a law degree from New York University and spent 13 years with Voice of America as a reporter, editor and program manager.

In 1961, he moved to India to work for the State Department as a deputy public affairs officer. Three years later, he was tapped by Edward R. Murrow - the renowned broadcast journalist then serving as director of the U.S. Information Agency - to head the Joint U.S. Public Affairs Office in Vietnam.

In addition to handling inquiries from the press, Mr. Zorthian was also charged with coordinating psychological warfare operations.

His agency dropped tons of propaganda leaflets; tamped down anti-U.S. rallies by ordering local palm readers to tell their customers to avoid crowds; and attempted to frighten Vietcong troops by using loudspeakers mounted on airplanes to broadcast funeral dirges throughout the jungle.

After leaving Vietnam in 1968, Mr. Zorthian worked as a senior executive for Time and moved to Washington in 1976 to head up Time's government affairs division.

He left Time in 1980 and became head of Ronald Reagan's inaugural merchandise committee, enlisting crooner Frank Sinatra and comedian Johnny Carson to hawk 44 collectibles. Those included a replica of one of Reagan's favorite sculptures (Frederick Remington's "The Mountain Man" for $1,875) and a sliver of wood from the inaugural platform where Reagan was sworn in (encased in Lucite for $28).

Since 1984, Mr. Zorthian had been a partner at Alcalde and Fay, an Arlington County-based public relations firm. He was secretary of the Armenian Assembly and a member of the Congressional Country Club and Burning Tree Club, both in Bethesda, and of the Metropolitan Club.

His wife of 62 years, Margaret Aylaian Zorthian, died in July 2010.

Survivors include two sons, Greg Zorthian of Greenwich, Conn., and Steve Zorthian of New York; and two grandchildren.

Over the years, Mr. Zorthian was an outspoken opponent of censoring the media during wartime.

Writing in The Washington Post during the Persian Gulf War, he urged the military to "realize that it is better served in the long run by putting out an accurate and candid report of information, both good and bad, sooner rather than later, complete rather than selective."

Mr. Zorthian shrugged off the suggestion that the failure of American policy in Vietnam could be blamed on damaging media reports.

"Sure, the press was a discomfort then," he said in 1986. "But the postwar charges that the press lost the war were completely unwarranted. Our efforts on the ground lost the war, not the press."

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