Robert Hager, an NBC News correspondent for 35 years, was a combat correspondent during the Vietnam War. He explains how the experience had a profound effect on him, as both a journalist and an individual, and how it helped shape the rest of his career.
What years were you in Vietnam as a combat correspondent?
I was there in 1969, the year after the Tet Offensive by the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong.
It was the beginning of the time when Americans were on the downside of the war, we were starting to lose. We were losing territory and we were losing a lot of people.
At the time I was there we were still losing about 300 Americans a week. So, that was an incredible toll.
Can you explain your role as a combat correspondent and how that differed from the embedded correspondents of today?
The difference in the way we covered the Vietnam War, and the way the modern embedded journalist have covered the war in Iraq, is remarkable. I feel like the way we covered the war then resulted in more multi-sided coverage.
I think when you are embedded, you tend to adopt the point of view of those you live with and are around all that time. We were much more independent.
The military — to its credit — gave us an incredible amount of independence. We could often travel without the company of a military public affairs officer. We had to sort of hitchhike on military helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft.
But, we could pretty much go wherever we wanted to, and report what we wanted to. The only rules were reasonable ones: we couldn’t report on an operation that was in progress because it might jeopardize American lives. But we could report on the operation once it was complete.
We were able to travel with Vietnamese troops. We were able to go into Vietnamese villages and we could talk to people. So, we had remarkable access to the Vietnamese people.
I reported from all over what was then South Vietnam — just scores of villages and towns all over the country.
What was it like covering the war? Can you describe the mood while you were there?
Not as a reporter, because you don’t put your opinions in your pieces, but as an individual I went in there as a product of my generation — a hawk on the war.
President John F. Kennedy had told us that it was necessary to draw the line against the advance of communism and it had to be stopped wherever it was found. That was the generation in which I was raised and I had that understanding.
After I saw what was going on there — how we didn’t seem to belong, how our side wasn’t motivated, how the average South Vietnamese citizen, for instance farmers in the field, cared only about tending to their own individual lives, tending their crops, and not about the political system that governed them. After I saw all that, I became a dove.
I underwent a personal transition in my thinking. As a journalist – you report the news straight – so that doesn’t come out.
But, reporting the news, you could see there was a marked difference between the military briefings in which our commanders claimed that we were winning and when we went out on the front lines. When we were with the troops, you saw that we weren’t winning the war; we were losing the war and that eventually we would lose it completely.
So, I could see that and those were the things I reported to try to give that truth to the American people.
I also found it a terribly emotional experience, seeing war first hand, for the first time. Vietnam is an absolutely beautiful country, extremely lush in some areas, very mountainous, just filled with beauty, and with people that are very outgoing.
To see this country in those circumstances, involved in such a terrible war and caught in the middle of international and political ideas — between communism and western democracy — that were not really a concern to these people trying to live their daily lives. All of that, I found extremely moving to see as a young reporter.
How difficult was it to make the transition back and forth between that particularly difficult war zone and seeing how hard soldiers had it, to be back in the U.S. and see the unpopular view of the war?
Since the people that I tried to do my stories on were the average GIs, rather than the commanders, they were very reflective of young Americans at the time.
As this was during the years of the draft, many of the GIs were not in favor of the war at all. Many had no idea why they were there and just sensed vaguely that they shouldn’t be there.
So, it was not a shock when I came back and found that to be the predominant thinking among young Americans at home because I’d already seen that among the GIs out there.
As I came back, the U.S. was rife with demonstrations and protests and big marches on the Pentagon. But, I sensed from there that was going on at home.
They often say that this war was the first, through television, to bring the horrors of war into American living rooms. I certainly agree with that.
The briefing with the military presented one view, which was usually a much rosier picture. But, to get pictures of the war from the front lines, the cameras didn’t lie.
The pictures of just how difficult and brutal war can be, they came through. They did go into American living rooms and they were important in forming American opinions.
Describe the mood once the war finally came to a close? Was there a sense of defeat?
More than a sense of defeat in the U.S., it was a sign of relief that it was over. Unlike World War II that ended dramatically with Americans rushing out into the street to celebrate, the Vietnam War sort of tapered off into nothing.
The final day of the war was certainly dramatic, when the North Vietnamese tanks rolled into Saigon and crashed through the gates of the presidential palace. But Americans knew that was coming, it was evident for months that the end was coming and it was going to be like that.
I don’t think Americans had a terrible sense of gloom, that this was an awful and sudden defeat, because the nation had been prepared for it and knew it was coming.
By the time we signed the peace agreements, the American leaders were still saying that this was a true agreement and that it was not a surrender, not a defeat. But that wasn’t true at all because the North had won. I knew it and I think most Americans sensed that and gradually, over the years, that was evident.
Once you retired, one of the first things you did was to take a trip back to Vietnam. Why did you feel compelled to do that? Can you describe what the trip was like?
It had been 35 years since I had seen Vietnam. I wanted very much to go back and see what had become of it, what had happened after all of that war and tumult so many years ago.
What I found was a nation that had not changed a lot. Certainly, it was wonderful to see it in peacetime where its beauty was not destroyed by bomb craters and constant fear for ones life. It was nice to see the country in a more tranquil time.
But, since it had not been exposed to western capitalism for so many years, Ho Chi Min City, or Saigon, was not a bustling Western-like city. There were for a few skyscrapers, but much of Saigon remained the same.
The Vietnamese people are indomitable. They have a tremendous amount of energy, so I did find that Saigon was bustling with people scurrying here and there and private enterprise was flowering in small stalls along the city streets.
It was very emotional for me to now see it in a peaceful time and to see people getting on with their daily lives. But, it’s not easy for them. It’s a poor country still and it’s hard to make a living.
I went to Saigon, and a few of the provincial towns that are about a day's drive from Saigon. I went to an area called Cu Chi that had been a very heavily contested territory. Now, as a point of national pride, the Vietnamese government has re-conditioned the underground tunnels that the Viet Cong rebels had lived in and fought from. That was very informative.