It was a reunion of sorts. Nearly seven years have passed since the war ended. Passions have cooled--somewhat--and, oddly enough, these old ideological adversaries now almost seem part of the same Vietnam-era fraternity.
"Well, here we go again," began Barry Zorthian in his keynote address. For four years in the mid-1960s, Zorthian was the top U.S. spokesman in Saigon, and his Joint U.S. Public Affairs Office (JUSPAO) became famous for its sanitized version of American efforts in the war.
Gloria Emerson, who covered Vietnam for The New York Times and later wrote a book on veterans, Winners and Losers, rose to the occasion by calling Zorthian a "determined and brilliant liar . . . . Barry Zorthian shouldn't be allowed to speak at a conference like this."
"I really don't feel I have to justify myself to Gloria Emerson," said Zorthian later. "She long since left the realm of reality and accuracy about Vietnam."
Zorthian was helping former U.S. ambassador to Saigon Ellsworth Bunker with an overcoat. Bunker, like so many others, is writing a book on Vietnam. Zorthian advised him to have Washington Post columnist Philip Geyelin help with the book because "he's basically sympathetic and would do a good job."
Geyelin, another keynoter at the conference, apologized for lifting much of his speech from part of a book that he wrote many years ago.
Daniel Ellsberg, the former government official who turned the Pentagon Papers over to the press and became the symbol of protest against the failing credibility of government, gave a speech saying America is staying out of El Salvador because of the lessons learned in Vietnam.
Ben Wattenberg, the neo-conservative co-author of The Real Majority, charged that Ellsberg is "profoundly isolationist" and said polls show the American people don't agree with their so-called opinion-makers that the government is basically a liar and that America is the bad guy on the international scene.
It was an unlikely mixture of soldiers, scholars, diplomats, radicals and journalists--many eminent, some former, some still current --who met here for a day this week under the auspices of the World Without War Council, a private liberal think tank, to see if they could reach any consensus on the meaning of the Vietnam experience they had shared.
There were no Vietnamese in sight, few combat veterans and only two or three blacks among the hundreds of participants.
Dean K. Phillips, a Vietnam combat veteran who now works in the Veterans' Administration, said, "We got all these flippin' experts here. I just got one question: how many of these mothers actually picked up a rifle? "
In another room, William P. Bundy, now the editor of Foreign Affairs and a key figure in the State Department during the war, explained the 1964 Gulf of Tonkin incident to a rapt audience.
"I came back on Aug. 4 summoned by Secretary of State Dean Rusk from Martha's Vineyard," he recalled dramatically.
In another seminar, panelists showed the part of the movie "Apocalypse Now" where Col. Kilgore (played by Robert Duvall) says, "Napalm, son. Nothing else in the world smells like that. I love the smell of napalm in the morning."
After a discussion, a blond woman jumped up and said loudly to Emerson and other panelists: "I am shocked there's no veteran on this panel. My husband was a Green Beret. He came back and shot himself in the head."
This woman was Chris Noel, who between 1964 and 1968 was a top radio personality on the Armed Forces Vietnam Network (AFVN), the official station for U.S. troops. Later Noel gave this imitation of one of her famous radio spiels: "Hi love, welcome to a date with Chris. This is Chris Noel and I'd like to dedicate the first song to the guys of the 101st and especially you fellows with the 1st LURPs."
She remembered visiting the troops in South Vietnam and how she would "go to a hospital and try to make some kind of sanity out of the mangled bodies."
The conference title was "Vietnam and the Opinion Makers." The idea was to sort out which was the worst liar--government or the press: a time-honored American question. Geyelin: "The government attitude was that the press had an obligation to support the war." Zorthian: the press contained many ignorant "one-week wonders and six-month veterans."
At one point, NBC State Department correspondent Bernard Kalb was recalling in his speech the "5 o'clock follies," daily government press briefings held by JUSPAO in Saigon.
Historian Barbara Tuchman, another panelist, leaned over to Ellsberg and whispered audibly, "What's JUSPAO? "
A slight smile crossed Ellsberg's sensitive, habitually troubled face as he waved his hands in the air and tried, in whispers to explain JUSPAO to the author of The Guns of August, The Proud Tower, Stillwell and the American Experience in China, and A Distant Mirror.
In her speech, Tuchman said most newspapers had opposed FDR's continued reelections so, "I'm not so sure about the impact of the media." She said the press did a good job reporting Vietnam and that Americans weren't deceived on the subject. Rather the problem was that Americans really thought they could stop communism by fighting in Indochina.
"It is not a fault of opinion-makers. It is ourselves."
Former Green Beret Larry Mitchell, a black who said he nearly committed suicide after returning from the war, said, "Vietnam was a class war in every sense of the word . . . . When I went, it was unthinkable for a black youth not to go . . . . This is our way of buying into the American dream."
Another black Vietnam veteran, James W. Credle, said black veterans "are excluded in all levels of the media." He noted, for example, that blacks play few major roles in movies about the war, although their share of the combat duties was disproportionate to their numbers in the U.S. population.
Van Hammarstedt, a 28-year-old graduate student at Syracuse University who had nothing to do with the war at home or abroad, said in the afternoon: "I'm pooped. I've had enough Vietnam for one day. There's still a lot of confusion by a lot of people who are supposedly experts."