|Download PDF of this full issue: v50n2.pdf (24.8 MB)|
The Life of a Stringer in the Early Stages of the Vietnam War
By Ed White (reviewer)
The Journalist: Life and Loss in America's Secret War
by Jerry A. Rose and Lucy Rose Fischer
(Spark Press, 2020)
This is a book about an American teacher in a Vietnamese university who stays in Vietnam to be a stringer for multiple publications. But, it is much more. Jerry Rose is a very articulate observer of Vietnam. His short essays—they are called 90 chapters—bring the reader along as he shares his thinking and reflecting on the situation in Vietnam in the early 1960's, a time when there were few on-the-ground reporters with a personal commitment to tell the real story.
One of the insights Rose provides the reader is the life of a stringer, a writer pitching stories to the media. From his two years as a professor of English at the University of Hue, Rose developed a keen sense of the Vietnamese through his students, colleagues, and other reporters. At the end of a contract with the Asia Foundation, one reporter was leaving Vietnam and suggested Rose take his position. Rose said yes, and he stayed until his death in 1965.
Jerry Rose's essays bring us into his life in a very intimate way. He vividly describes an affair with an American Consul's wife; his meeting of his future wife; connection to his family stateside; marriage and kids; and, particularly his reporting. To add to his talents as a reporter, Rose was an artist, photographer, and fiction writer. Icing on the cake!
A stringer pitches a story line to publications. In Rose's case, the publications included Time Magazine, The Saturday Evening Post, the Washington Post, the New Republic, and the New York Times, to name a few. If he got permission to write the story, Rose would do the research, and send his article off. The editors could reject it, edit it, or ignore it. He also included a pitch for photography to be included with the story. In many of the stories, the publication had their own photographer. The publications generally paid no living expenses, but they did provide office space. And after all the work put into an article, it could be rejected.
Rose brings us through the relationships with other known reporters in the region. His particular nemesis was Stanley Karnow, who later became his boss in Hong Kong. More on that later. If Rose got an assignment, the editors would pay for transportation to other countries in Asia. Oftentimes, his love for the Vietnam war story got pushed back as "So What" from editors who were far away from the events on the ground in Vietnam.
Rose had many contacts in the Vietnamese society in Saigon and Hue. All of this brought him in the end, 1965, to being a Special Advisor to Dr. Phan Huy Quat. OK, a five point quiz: who is he? Quat was the Prime Minister of Vietnam in 1965 and served in that capacity for several months. South Vietnam had gone through many variations of short time leaders. Rose first met Quat when he was sick in Hue, and while a professor at Hue University. Quat was his doctor. Fast forward to when the government asked him to advise them, and to write speeches and do investigations, among other duties. The US government agreed with the arrangement, and actually after Rose died in 1965, the government gave his widow, Kay, a pension.
What is interesting to me is the amount of freelancers that were in Vietnam in the early 1960's. Overall, sixty-three journalists died in the 20 year period from 1955 to 1975. Jerry Rose is included in this number. Earlier on, they were freelancers with no formal connections as employees; yet, they wrote great insights on the war. What is also interesting is that all reporters could go anywhere in the country. Rose convinced the Time-Life bureau in Hong Kong to travel in the countryside around Saigon, and into the hills, a dangerous venture at the time. His fifty-three page report of this travel was sent to Stan Karnow, his boss, who considered it "creative writing," even though the article went into the despair of the country with the Saigon government.
When you look at the Library of America's impressive compilation of a two-volume set on Reporting the War, Jerry Rose is not listed. Yet, his story with photos in the Saturday Evening Post on March 23, 1963 made people sit up and notice, not only his photos and writing but informing Americans about the war, a real war. Rose eventually wrote two books: Reported To Be Alive, and Face of Angels.
I found it interesting that in the Chapter 64 essa,y Rose casually remarks that he has seen a secret report indicating JFK wanted to leave Vietnam at the end of 1963. And Rose was in Vietnam! This is the planned withdrawal that LBJ rejected when he got into office and is the beginning of the US total involvement in Vietnam. This is something I emphasize in my classes.
This book came to my attention because Jerry Rose's sister, Lucy Rose Fischer, an accomplished writer, saved his writings and photos. She aptly calls this a "memoir/quasi-novel." All of the Jerry Rose material is at Stanford University. Fisher had a dispute with Karnow over not citing Rose in his book: Vietnam: A History. Actually, Rose had agreed to help Karnow write the book, but Fisher cites sentences that came directly from her brother. These were not acknowledged by Karnow.
I find this to be well worth the read because it offers a view from the eyes and experience of an early and passionate journalist who witnessed the many problems that eventually the United States could not solve.
Ed White is a Marine Vietnam Combat vet with memberships in VVAW, VGP and VVA. He has taught courses on the Vietnam War at Triton college in Illinois.