Remembering Zorro's Vietnam Legacy
Barry Zorthian, who died last month at the age of 90, was one of the last surviving U.S government officials who shaped America’s role in the Vietnam War, a man who also stood at the shadowy intersection between press management and psychological warfare.
Zorthian, called Zorro by his friends, was what many outsiders might view as a contradiction. Though serving as the U.S. government's chief information officer in Vietnam, he palled around with the same Saigon-based war correspondents who were at odds with the U.S. military command and its rosier assessment of the war.
Yet, there was logic in Zorthian’s approach. He built his relationships with the press by making frank admissions about the war’s problems, which gave him credibility when he sought to cast the conflict in a more favorable light. He advocated wooing the press by letting them see more, rather than less.
In many ways, Zorthian was the kind of source that journalists love, someone with enough access to the upper echelons of decision-making that he can offer a view of the inside game – and someone who would occasionally speak out of school.
Using his mixture of charm, sly wit and straight talk, Zorthian presented himself as the voice of sweet reason in what was often a hostile environment for journalists.
To further get on the reporters’ good side, he would arrange transportation for them at difficult moments and would lean on reluctant mission officials to talk to the press.
All of this, of course, was being done so Zorthian could better make the case for the beleaguered U.S. war effort and to shape the journalistic message that was going back to the United States.
So, it was a game of using and being used. Zorthian needed to keep his credibility with key journalists covering the war if he hoped to influence their reporting, and they benefited from the access that Zorthian could provide as well as his insights into the conflict’s challenges.
But there was another side to Zorthian, still. He was the official in charge of running psychological operations to demoralize the Viet Cong and win over the Vietnamese people. Psy-ops is known for the darker arts of propaganda and disinformation.
So, while Zorthian could be a passionate proponent of being straight with the press, he also was a master manipulator of information, making him one of the most mysterious and complicated figures of the war.
A Clique Around Zorro
Though Zorthian acted -- and even looked -- like a Middle East carpet merchant who had just received a new shipment of Persian rugs, the press corps admired him nonetheless for his silver tongue and his persuasive abilities.
“A clique grew up around Zorro,” said Frank McCulloch, former Time Magazine bureau chief in Saigon. “He would invite six to eight journalists to his villa every Thursday evening. He’d serve drinks and we would listen to whatever key figure from the mission or from Washington he had arranged to brief us. Zorthian often invited a few of the reporters to stick around for an all-night poker game.
“While there was a definite element of manipulation to Zorthian’s modus operandi, he was genuinely interested in journalists and understood them on a personal level. His employer was the U.S. government, and his duty was to present that government in the best possible light. Given that criterion he was a pretty good public servant.”
Typically, Zorthian would maneuver in the gray area between divulging what was really going on and not leaking genuine secrets.
“Barry’s door was always open and although he never shared a classified thought, he left you feeling that he had,” noted former CBS reporter Bernard Kalb. “Even when he told you nothing, he was always persuasive.”
Some reporters, however, were more skeptical. At a conference on Vietnam in 1981, Gloria Emerson, a New York Times correspondent, called Zorthian “a determined and brilliant liar.”
For his part, Zorthian denied that he had ever lied or that he had ever been told to lie. He acknowledged only that he had withheld sensitive information relating to military security or diplomacy.
Despite the sometimes clumsy dance between the journalists and this source, Zorthian survived his four-plus-year stint in Vietnam, from 1964 to 1968, as a person for whom many top journalists retained a deep fondness and respect.
“I can never recall him misleading me, even though he straddled a fine line of loyalty to the government and the public’s right to know, which he strongly believed in,” said George Esper, a former Associated Press bureau chief in Saigon. “He was always accessible and always knew what he was talking about.”
But there was only so much that Zorthian could do in spinning the war to the press.
“He had a conscience; he believed in informing the American public,” said former New York Times correspondent Neil Sheehan. “His problem was that he was trying to sell a bad war.”
“He faced a Sisyphean task,” said former U.P.I correspondent Ray Herndon. “All his obvious charm and wit and skill in handling reporters couldn’t make up for the fact that we were losing the war.”
Many of those now-graying Vietnam War correspondents, including me, remained Zorthian’s friends until his dying day. Some of us “old hacks” attended a birthday party for Zorthian in Washington last October on the eve of his 90th birthday. Others sent messages and tributes from around the world.
For months, I had been urging Zorthian to write about his amazing life. He said he thought he would do so when he got his papers in order.
But time caught up with him on Dec. 30, three months after his 90th birthday when he died in Sibley Memorial Hospital in Washington from a staph infection. Now I feel compelled to write about his life myself.
A Troubled Start
Baryoor Zorthian was born in 1920 in Kutahya, Turkey, to an Armenian family that was experiencing turbulent times. His father, a writer, had been imprisoned by the Turks at a time Armenians were being massacred. But the family escaped and settled in New Haven, Connecticut, where his father found work at a dry cleaners.
The young Zorthian did well in the local Hillhouse High School and was awarded a scholarship for local boys to go to Yale, an Ivy League college far above the means of an immigrant family.
At Yale, Zorthian first practiced journalism – along with the art of schmoozing the rich and powerful. He was editor of The Yale Daily News and became a member of the secret campus society, Skull and Bones, a controversial fraternity whose members included both Presidents Bush and other American powerbrokers.
Upon graduation in 1941, Zorthian served in a U.S. Marine artillery unit in the South Pacific and came out a captain. After the war ended, he took a job at CBS radio in New York. He received a law degree from New York University but instead of practicing law preferred journalism and spent 13 years with the Voice of America as a reporter, editor and program manager.
In 1961, Zorthian joined the State Department and became a deputy public affairs officer in the U.S. Embassy, New Delhi, India. Three years later, in February 1964, U.S. Information Agency Director Edward R. Murrow appointed him as head of the Joint U.S. Public Affairs Office in Vietnam (JUSPAO).
Shaping the War
Arriving in Saigon, Zorthian was part of the shake-up in the mission that followed the assassination of South Vietnamese President Diem. Because of the timing and his personal talents, Zorthian had input into many of the policy decisions that shaped the war.
At first, Zorthian wasn’t very welcome because U.S. Ambassador Henry Cabot Lodge considered himself an expert in dealing with the press. He ordered Zorthian to stick to routine information programs.
However, soon both Lodge and Gen. William Westmoreland recognized Zorthian’s special talents and recommended that he be appointed the policy coordinator for the media, making him what became known as the “information czar” in Saigon.
Eventually, Zorthian headed a 500-person staff at JUSPAO. His tasks included serving as media advisor to Westmoreland, the U.S. commander, and to three U.S. Ambassadors – Lodge, Maxwell Taylor and Ellsworth Bunker.
Zorthian also became head of psychological warfare operations, though he lacked any classic training in the field.
In that post, he butted heads with the legendary psy-war pioneer, Air Force Lt. Gen. Edward Lansdale, the model for manipulative characters in Eugene Burdick’s and William Lederer’s The Ugly American and Graham Greene’s The Quiet American.
By the mid-1960s, Lansdale already was famous for his pioneering work on psy-war tactics, methods that were used to undermine a peasant insurgency in the Philippines in the 1950s and later in the early stages of Vietnam. His specialty was in exploiting local superstitions and cultural inclinations to augment military campaigns.
Yet, when Lansdale returned to Vietnam in 1967, he found the psy-war policy territory more crowded and met resistance from an Embassy faction that included Zorthian.
In his book Why Vietnam Matters, Rufus Philips, a veteran consultant to the CIA and the U.S. Agency for International Development, described a poisonous atmosphere between competing American diplomatic and military officials in Saigon.
“There was a great deal of empire-building or turf-building,” Philips said, recalling the opposition that his friend Lansdale faced.
The tone of the resistance to Lansdale was captured by a Washington Post article that observed, “Like Lawrence of Arabia, Lansdale has inspired admiration, ridicule and above all, controversy. His unorthodox manner may incur the opposition of certain American officers.”
Zorthian sided with the anti-Lansdale faction headed by Philip Habib, the powerful political officer of the U.S. Embassy. Zorthian and Habib regarded Lansdale as a loose cannon. They believed the war had changed dramatically since Lansdale’s previous tour when he was advising Diem at an early stage of the war.
In 1967, Americans were operating in battalion strength, having replaced the smaller-scale counterinsurgency programs favored by Lansdale.
“I thought Lansdale was living in the past,” said Zorthian. “If Lansdale had come back two years earlier, maybe. But by the time he got back out there he was irrelevant. He didn’t think so. But I did.”
Lansdale admired Zorthian’s press relations, but felt he was out of his depth as psy-war chief. Whatever the merits of the argument, Lansdale was sidelined and left after a year.
Although untrained in the art of psychological operations, Zorthian was responsible for coordinating these tactics designed to erode the morale of the enemy and win the allegiance of the Vietnamese people through “hearts and minds” programs.
Zorthian invested in excess of $10 million a year in dropping tons of leaflets; staging plays in which the Viet Cong were always the villains; and rounding up peasants at gunpoint for propaganda lectures.
Some of the more bizarre techniques that didn’t prove to be very successful were having local fortune tellers deliver false predictions at the expense of the Viet Cong and broadcasting funeral music from helicopters to enemy positions, followed by a child’s voice crying in Vietnamese, “Daddy, Daddy, please come home!”
The most successful psy-ops initiative was the Chieu Hoi or Open Arms program which Zorthian supported and greatly expanded in 1967. Several times, I saw Viet Cong emerging from the swamps in the Delta with fistfuls of “safe conduct” passes dropped from aircraft.
The Chieu Hoi program promised economic aid, jobs, and relocation of families to safe areas. It is estimated to have caused 250,000 defections from 1963 to the last months of the war in 1975.
Frank Scotton, who served from 1962 to 1975 as an agent in Vietnam field operations for pacification and psychological operations, said the efforts were always undercut by the fact that “we never did have a chief of unified, all, psychological operations” in Vietnam.
“Barry did not have authority over all psychological operations; if that authority had been provided he would have had to spend every ounce of his time just on psychological operations” when he had other duties like press relations, said Scotton, who ostensibly worked with the United States Information Service.
Many Hats to Wear
Zorthian agreed about the lack of coordination.
“There wasn’t a hell of a lot of teamwork in the mission,” Zorthian observed. “Everybody was ready to blame the other guy. The CIA thought the military was too conventional, and the military thought the CIA were a lot of cowboys running around getting into its business. Our U.S. Information Service was regarded as a puny bunch playing psychological warriors.”
At the time, Zorthian’s dual role did draw some criticism as he tried to balance the secretive world of psy-ops with the supposedly transparent world of press relations. But Zorthian, the great juggler seemed to handle it.
Zorthian also was the father of the daily Saigon press briefings that became known derisively as “The Five O’Clock Follies.” At the briefings, officials presented battlefield reports and answered questions in a process that often degenerated into shouting matches.
Still, the briefings lasted a decade and were the only regular forum in which U.S. and South Vietnamese officials spoke on the record. The “Follies” became a road map for Vietnam War journalists.
Zorthian also was responsible for fielding reporters’ complaints and did so with pragmatism and wit.
Once, Peter Arnett of the AP complained about an American military policeman threatening to shoot him during a 1965 Buddhist street demonstration in Saigon.
Arnett recalls, “Zorthian shook his head at me in mock concern, and said ‘Damn it, Peter, you threatened him and he was just responding.’ ‘What,’ I replied. ‘Yes,’ Barry said, ‘you were aiming your pencil at him and that’s more dangerous around here than a .45.”
Coaching the Brass
Beyond those duties, Zorthian also served as the media advisor to Ambassadors Henry Cabot Lodge, Maxwell Taylor and Ellsworth Bunker, as well as William Westmoreland, probably the Vietnam War’s most controversial general.
Zorthian instilled in Westmoreland a grudging appreciation of – and sensitivity to – the media. At the drop of a press card, you could usually get an interview or even a helicopter ride with “Westy.”
I recall one time when AP’s Arnett wrote a news feature titled “Viet Diary: A Day of War and Fun. Story of Contrasts; Fighting in the Field, Frolicking in Saigon.” The story depicted Lt. William Howard up to his ass in mud as Viet Cong bullets zinged around. Meanwhile, back in Saigon, Gen. Westmoreland was playing tennis in starched white shorts at the posh Circle Sportif.
The story became a sore point for Westmoreland who bristled at the notion that he was living the high life in cosmopolitan Saigon while his junior officers were slogging through rice paddies and facing constant danger.
A few weeks after the story ran, “Westy” bumped into Arnett and told him:”Mr. Arnett, you will be interested to know I have resigned my membership in the Circle Sportif.”
“Oh,” responded Arnett, “I’ve been on the waiting list for years. When a vacancy came up recently I was able to join.”
Despite the frequent tensions between the military command and the press, Zorthian admonished his staff – and particularly Westmoreland – to deliver free-flowing information with “maximum candor and disclosure.”
Zorthian’s goal was to shape the press assessment of the war through “positive thinking.” It was often said in Saigon that it was easier to flee the clutches of an amorous bar girl than to escape the tentacles of Zorthian’s information agency.
But Westmoreland was not an apt pupil regarding the need for subtlety in making this strategy work. Apart from granting reasonable access to journalists and providing long self-serving interviews, Westmoreland often “didn’t get it” in terms of understanding what journalism is all about.
In mid-1967 a memo signed by Westmoreland was delivered to most news agencies in Saigon, including to the ABC News bureau where I worked as a correspondent. The memo suggested that negative news reports about inefficient South Vietnamese troops were not helping the war effort.
“If you give a dog a bad name, he will live up to it,” Westmoreland observed, recommending more positive reporting on the Vietnamese allies.
Both Zorthian and the military command’s chief of information, Major General Winant Sidle, strongly – and futilely – urged Westmoreland not to issue the memo, which was largely ignored by Saigon news bureaus.
Westmoreland also didn’t grasp the PR damage that can be done by understating a problem, when it turns out to be much worse.
On the first day of the Tet offensive in 1968, a key turning point in the war, Westmoreland declared the attack on the U.S. Embassy “a relatively small incident” and reported all 19 Viet Cong attackers had been killed, when in fact three of them survived.
The same day he reported enemy troops had been been cleared from Hue. In fact, U.S. Marines had to spend the next 24 days driving the enemy out of the Hue Citadel.
Tensions with Westmoreland
In the post-war years, much to Zorthian’s chagrin, Westmoreland became the “point man” for the “media lost the war” view, declaring that somehow the journalists betrayed the troops in Vietnam. Zorthian often countered Wesmoreland’s blame of the media.
“Sure, the press was a discomfort then,” Zorthian said in 1986. “But the postwar charges that the press lost the war are completely unwarranted. Our efforts on the ground lost the war, not the press.”
Despite their differences, Zorthian always defended Westmoreland when some journalists pursued Westy into his grave in 2005. In response to the obituary and other stories in the New York Times, Zorthian wrote a letter to the editor.
“I do not recognize the pasteboard portrait of the man Johnny Apple draws in his piece of the criticisms of his record in the obituary,” Zorthian wrote. “I knew the man as a friend and admired him as a person of conscience and devotion to country and mission. If journalists write the first draft of history, your copy now after 37 years of perspective -- needs heavy editing.”
Zorthian said another reluctant pupil on managing the press in Vietnam was President Lyndon Johnson. “Goddam media, why can’t you handle it better, Zorthian?” LBJ was quoted as complaining on one occasion.
In a 1978 interview with the National Archives, Zorthian traced Johnson’s frustrations to an older generation’s expectations from the press. He said:
“I always felt all through the war, one of the drawbacks was that LBJ would speak about the war in the rhetoric of his generation and World War II. The flags were flying, the troops were marching, you came aboard and you saluted. And that worked in World War II, it didn’t in 1965 with a new generation.
“Theirs was a questioning, a skeptical, and challenging generation of journalists. In Vietnam we reached a stage where the government’s word was to be questioned until proven true, whereas in the past it had been the government’s word was valid until proven to be wrong. That’s a very critical, significant difference I think.”
After four and a half years in the Vietnam cauldron, it was time for Zorthian to go home in 1968. Zorthian had seen the war escalate from 20,000 American troops when he arrived in 1964 to 560,000 in 1968.
By then, big changes in war policy were afoot as President Johnson turned his attention to negotiating an end to the war and repairing some of the political damage at home.
A few weeks after the Tet offensive, President Johnson invited Keith Fuller, the AP’s chief of personnel for a meeting at the White House. The AP was aware Johnson was not happy with the reporting of Peter Arnett.
After reminiscing about the war, Johnson said, “Look, we’ve moved Barry Zorthain out of Saigon after four or five years there. Now, isn’t it about time you moved that Peter Arnett back home?” The AP didn’t.
Westmoreland also had been pulled from Saigon and promoted to Army Chief of Staff at the Pentagon. It was expected, too, that Zorthian would be rewarded for his service, at least by being named Ambassador at an important embassy.
However, there were voices in Washington suggesting that Zorthian was too friendly with the impudent scribes of Saigon.
The call finally came for Zorthian’s next assignment. Yes, the President had an Embassy in mind for Barry in a nice little country with a river running through it. It was Niger, the former French colony, one of the poorest nations on earth, with little importance to the United States. It didn’t even have a newspaper.
Zorthian believed it was Secretary of State Dean Rusk who blocked his advance in the Foreign Service.
A Private Life
Spurning the helm of the U.S. Embassy in Niger, Zorthian left the Foreign Service and became a senior executive for Time-Life Broadcasting for 12 years, including five years as Time's VP for government affairs.
Easily traversing political party lines in Washington, thanks in part to his friendship and old Yale ties to George H.W. Bush, Zorthian worked on the inaugural committee for Ronald Reagan and later joined the heavily Republican public relations firm Gray and Company.
Since 1984, Zorthian was a partner at Alcade and Fay, an Arlington public relations firm.
Drawing from his years of experience in Saigon, Zorthian also became an advocate for government candor in dealing with the media. He often criticized repressive government policies toward the press by stressing that a successful democracy depends upon access to complete, explicit and responsible journalism reported honestly and fairly.
During the first Gulf War, Zorthian advised the Pentagon and Defense Secretary Richard Cheney “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.”
As another Middle East war approached, Zorthian strongly advocated creating an “embedding” policy for journalists for the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003.
“The military and the media have different roles and different cultures,” Zorthian said. “There will always be some adversarial elements between them. But the ‘embedded’ system seems to be the best formula to reduce this tension to a minimum and meet the interests of both.”
On Oct. 7, 2010, on the eve of his 90th birthday, Zorthian was guest of honor at a dinner at the National Press Club hosted by 13 self-described Vietnam “old hacks” who had known Zorthian in his Vietnam days.
Included in the group was Richard Holbrooke, U.S. Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan who had started his diplomatic career as a USAID field officer in the Mekong Delta in 1963.
Reflecting on a more recent media dispute involving the Afghan War, Holbrooke regaled the group describing a spirited and humorous conversation with Gen. Stanley McChrystal who called Holbrooke at 3 a.m. to apologize for what he would be quoted as saying about Holbrooke in an about-to-be released issue of Rolling Stone Magazine.
The Rolling Stone reporter had accompanied McChrystal and members of his staff on a train trip that involved a layover in Paris where McChrystal’s aides let their guard down in disparaging some of Washington’s political leadership.
Zorthian commented that during the Vietnam War if a trainload of U.S. diplomats and military officers had been dispatched to Paris along with plenty of liquor and asked by a journalist what they thought of President Lyndon Johnson, the answers would have been much worse. (Holbrooke died two months after the dinner, on Dec. 14, after suffering a massive heart attack in Washington.)
Following an evening of birthday toasts and roasts for Zorthian, e-mails were read from Vietnam “old hacks” who could not attend. Writing from his current post as visiting Professor of Journalism at Shantou University, China, the ever-eloquent Peter Arnett wrote what would become an epitaph for Zorthian three months later:
“We all know that in the post-war years Barry Zorthian has remained steadfast to his conviction about the significant role the media must play in a democratic society. His patience was tested in Vietnam, as was all of official America in that first uncensored modern war.
“But as much as anyone still alive today, Barry understood the principled motivations of the journalists working in Vietnam, which is why his presence is always welcome wherever the dwindling band of Vietnam old hacks meet.”
Don North is a veteran war correspondent who has covered conflicts from Vietnam and Central America to Kosovo and Iraq. North's most recent documentary, "Guazapa: Yesterday's Enemies," examined the lives of FMLN guerrillas both during and after the civil war. [You can get a copy of North’s documentary by signing up for a $10 monthly donation to Consortiumnews.com, just click here, set up your recurring donation and follow up with an e-mail to email@example.com telling us where to ship the DVD.]
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