The Wrath of Steinbeck: John Steinbeck on the Press in Vietnam, 1967

Today’s post was written by David Langbart, archivist in Research Services at the National Archives at College Park, MD.

On February 8, 1967, famed American author John Steinbeck, then in Bangkok, Thailand, sent Secretary of State Dean Rusk a letter.  In it, Steinbeck excoriated the performance of the press in Vietnam and criticized anti-war protesters.  Steinbeck is the author of major American literary classics such as Tortilla Flat (1935), Of Mice and Men (1937), The Grapes of Wrath (1939), Cannery Row (1945), and East of Eden (1952).  Grapes won the Pulitzer Prize.  He was was awarded the 1962 Nobel Prize for literature.

Based on his writings, Steinbeck developed a positive reputation as a social truth-teller.  In his work, he explored themes of fate and injustice, especially as they applied to the downtrodden.  As he grew older, however, he saw moral decline in the United States and his reputation changed as he expressed those opinions.

During World War II he served as a war correspondent for the New York Herald Tribune.  In late 1966 and 1967, he reprised that role by going to Southeast Asia for the newspaper Newsday.  His reporting from Vietnam reflected positive views on the war, a sympathetic portrayal of the U.S. military (one of his sons was then serving in Vietnam), and a highly critical attitude towards the press and antiwar protesters.  These views, seen as betraying his liberal past, formed the basis for some of the change is his reputation. 

Steinbeck died in December 1968.

Other than revealing that Steinbeck spoke with the Secretary of State before departing on his trip to Southeast Asia, Steinbeck’s letter to Rusk does not add anything new to what we know about his opinions.   The expression of Steinbeck’s views about the war in Vietnam and the role of the press there are found in other long-available sources, yet this letter is still worth noting as it may be hitherto-unknown; I have not been able to find any references to it.  Rusk does not mention speaking with Steinbeck or receiving a letter from him in his memoir nor does his leading biographer.  The same is true of Steinbeck’s major biographers.  The search has not been exhaustive, though.  I leave that to the Steinbeck scholars.

Because the source document is of such poor quality, a transcription follows the images.

                         Bangkok                 8 February 1967  
Dear Secretary Rusk:             
When we spoke together just before I came out here, we discussed what I considered the bad reporting from Vietnam.  It is more than bad.  It is resentful.  At that time you asked me to look into the reasons for this and to advise you privately by the means I am using–the good offices of Ambassador Graham Martin, who by the way is a fine and valuable man.             
Mr. Secretary, I was six weeks in Vietnam, nearly five of them in the field.  But about the reporters, I did look and listen and what I am about to write is opinion, informed opinion, but still only that and as such I hope you will regard it as privileged.  If I set these down as conclusions, they must be regarded as my own speculation.  
1.   There are far too many correspondents assigned to Vietnam.  It is not surprising that there are only a few good ones.  There are only a few really good anythings in the world.  I believe there are nearly 400 covering the war.  Many of them are from other nations, but by far the largest number are from the U.S.  
2.   No rule for disciplining this group of newsmen and women has been laid down.  I don’t know about Korea, but I was a war correspondent in the E.T.O. during World War II.  On being accredited we were given serial numbers, simulated rank (for P.O.W. purposes) and by general understanding we subscribed to the Articles of War.  We entered a theatre on permission of the commander, and any breach of security, or discipline, or act which could be construed as giving aid and comfort etc, was instantly punished by the theatre command with expulsion.  Expelled from one theatre, another was not likely to find such a correspondent acceptable.  And since a war correspondent without a war has little value to a news medium, a naughty or dangerous correspondent usually lost his job.  However, there was singularly little discipline needed.  We disciplined ourselves through the Press Association, pooled some stories, assigned others and generally did a pretty good job and kept our house in order.  In only two cases did General Eisenhower call us in and ask that we hold back a story in the national interest, and those stories were never sent.  They broke because of leaks in Washington not from us.  Our papers gave us hell but they understood it.  With these two exceptions, we had complete freedom of communication and were not censored.  And the breaches were remarkably few.       
I hadn’t meant to go on at such length except to make clear that what we had then does not exist now. At five o’clock (they call it the five o’clock Follies), two hundred or more news men and women file into the briefing theatre, picking up the hand outs as they come.  From then on it is a game and one I find disgusting.  The trick is to catch the briefing officer in an error, any kind of error.  It sounds like a crossexamination [sic].  And this is done by correspondents who have not left their apartments in Saigon for months.  All of their information comes from leaks, from other newspapers, from rumors and gossip and from the military hand outs.  The questions deal almost exclusively with casualties, with body counts and with discrepancies in the issued information.  A suggestion that they keep a reasonable decorum would draw screams of muzzling the press.       
Please do not let me imply, Mr. Secretary, that there are no good reporters here.  There are excellent reporters. I know a number of them and have been in the field with them.  They are correspondents in the great tradition. I have read their copy; I know what they send.       
And here we find perhaps the worst pitfall.  Many of the editorial desks both of newspapers and news magazines are not interested in truthful reporting.  They are interested (1) in selling papers, by which they mean peddling sensation and (2) in cutting and warping the news to fit their editorial policies.  When a fine reporter risks his life and sends in a truthful and well written story and sees it so changed, cut and distorted that he cannot recognize it, he fights on for a while and sooner or later gives up.  The Saigon commandos on the other hand never had anything to give up.  They cultivate a sneering cynicism about our participation meanwhile living very comfortably with P.X. privileges, officers’ mess and cheap domestic help.  Their dispatches sound as though they had been written by the propaganda organization of the enemy.  They have no pride nor discipline in their profession.  They have complained to me that I was getting special treatment by being allowed to live on the firing lines with soldiers, and to fly with our air forces.  Now this is a lie.  Anyone of them could go anywhere he wished and report anything he saw, short of divulging an uncompleted tactical operation.       
I have gone on at this length, sir, because I must believe you wanted me to tell you what you asked. This is the way it is and the next question is why is it this way.  I don’t know that you are interested in my opinion but at no time in my life has such a consideration inhibited me.       
I believe that we have become too concerned with our image to the point of forgetting our purpose.  We have thought of these slobs–both in Saigon and on the editorial desks as having some control over the image.  And they have taken the ball and our image is lousy.  We have become so worried about what the rest of the world thinks of us, that we have seesawed so that the world thinks the worst.  We have given our soldiers an almost impossible job to do and they have done it magnificently.  Meanwhile, we have made no demands on our citizens and where they have not goofed, they have spoken and written in a manner that seems to me treasonable.  In our anxiety about liberty we have spawned anarchy.  I have not the slightest doubt that the protest marchers, the full page advertisements, the attacks on what is called our “foreign policy”, the shrill and fully reported cries that we get out of Vietnam and leave this people and the rest of south east Asia to mass murder, I believe that these activities, and the political main-chancing have prolonged the war and have been responsible for the deaths and the crippling of our finest and bravest.  Mr. Rusk, I seem to be shouting at you–but I have been with these men when they fought and have sat with them when they died.  And I’m angry at the bastards who find patriotism a dirty word and gallantry in bad taste.  Sorry to blow, or am I?  I have no fear for the nation in the hands of these soldier citizens and no hope for it if the peaceniks should take over.       
A national magazine reported that I was always free with my advice and so I am.  Why not? I am not running for anything nor subject to profit and I have never had much faith in honors, nor at my age much fear of punishment.       
And so at the risk of sounding ridiculous, I offer my suggestions.  Unless there is a great mass of information unavailable to me, which I do not believe, I think my advice is as qualified as Lippmann’s although he has the advantage of never having been near the war or the people involved.       
For this is a war, Mr. Rusk, not an election and it should be treated as a war.  If one of our soldiers conducted himself as millions of our citizens do, he would be shot.  If we lose this war, or worse, piddle it away, we are permanently lost.  If we had not been in Korea and were not now in Vietnam and Thailand and other neighboring areas, all of Asia would by now have disappeared into the grinder and Red Guards would be marching in Bangkok, in New Delhi, in Singapore, and the monster would be moving like a mud slide toward Australia.  You have seen the plans, sir.  You know this is true, and you must also know, that a bunch of 20 year old kids, among them both of my sons, have stopped this monster cold.  But if we relent or withdraw it will move on.       
I am truly sorry about Mr. Salisbury.  I knew him in Moscow in 1947 and I knew his “vision” then and even then I could not agree with it.  I am afraid Messianic powers will elude him.  I am sad, but God damn it he is helping to kill our kids.       
Sir, this may all seem a very far cry from what you asked me to explore for you. But I believe it is all part of the same thing.  I think we should pour in the bombs with everything we’ve got for two weeks.  Then we should stop for a week and make no move by air, then pour it in again.  Then wait a week.  And again and again.  It is said we are killing civilians.  Hell, if we lose this war, whole populations will be slaughtered.  The V.C. do not hesitate to kill civilians and they are the National Liberation Front.  They are not a nation, are not for liberation.  I grant they are a front but for whom.       
Maybe I should not have written this–but why not.  I hate war and I have seen a lot of it.  I have nothing to lose but my heart–all of my heart.  So lets get on with it.  If we do not run, the war will never be over–never.         
And if the emotion is unseemly, it is at least informed and involved.       
Sunday I go to Vientiane for a week or ten days.  I can always be reached through your embassy.                                 Yours,                                   
/s/ John Steinbeck  

P.S.  We have the best armed force in our history.  And I have yet to come across a peacenik in it on any level.  Due to the rotation plan, this army is renewed every year.  This means that every year the reservoir of battle wise American soldiers at home jumps by at least a quarter of a million.  I am told that voluntary extensions of the year’s tour is up to nearly 20%. That is remarkable.  Would it not be possible, sir, for some committee of the Congress to investigate publicly the morale of our troops as a result of the attacks on that morale by groups and organizations at home?  If soldiers on all levels could testify publicly, the papers would have to print their testimony.       
Furthermore, I think it possible that such testimony would not only show the people the incredible spirit and morale of our troops but would do much to balance the purely negative and defeatist effect of the Fulbright menagerie.  I wish you could discuss this idea with the President.  I am sure an excuse for such an investigation could be easily found.          
Meanwhile, sir, if I can be of service to you, I am available.  From Laos, we move to Malaya, Indonesia, Manila, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Korea and Japan.                                     

Source: John Steinbeck to Secretary of State Dean Rusk, February 8, 1967, file Department of State-Rusk, RG 59 Entry P-219: Records of Under Secretary of State Nicholas Katzenbach (NAID 3325466), RG 59: General Records of the Department of State.

4 thoughts on “The Wrath of Steinbeck: John Steinbeck on the Press in Vietnam, 1967

  1. Steinbeck’s insights into the press’s role in Vietnam in 1967 are hauntingly relevant today. His observations offer a timeless reminder of the complexities and responsibilities inherent in journalism during times of conflict.

  2. It’s a fascinating read that offers valuable insights into both Steinbeck’s mindset and the complexities of war reporting during that era.

  3. “These views, seen as betraying his liberal past…”
    Needless editorializing by the author of the article. Steinbeck was exactly where most Americans, including most liberal Americans, were on this issue. The “betrayal” was by the US press.

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