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Dateline Saigon: 1961 to 1965
By John Crandell (reviewer)
The Journalist: Life and Loss in America's Secret War
by Jerry A. Rose and Lucy Rose Fischer
(Spark Press, 2020)
Minnesota author, artist and social scientist Lucy Rose Fischer has published a collection of her brother's writings and photographs in a new book titled The Journalist: Life and Loss in America's Secret War. Her brother's record has heretofore remained as a minor light within the vast body of published works regarding the US involvement in formerly South Vietnam. His name was Jerry Allan Rose and he died at the point where Lyndon Johnson and the American Minhress began their invasion of southeast Asia with ground combat forces. Rose first arrived in Nam in September 1959 having been retained by The Asia Foundation to teach english and literature at the University of Hue. Prior to his arrival the only reliable reporting on conditions in Saigon had been frenchman Francois Sully's dispatches for Newsweek magazine. Newsweek would be bought by the Washington Post in 1961. Ben Bradlee, the Post's managing editor, also an intimate friend of John Kennedy, would henceforth find himself sitting on a very hot commode.
Fluent in speaking French, Rose had earlier dropped out of MIT to proceed to study literature for a year at the Sorbonne in Paris. He rapidly fit in with the intelligentsia on the right bank of the Perfume River. The university had only been established two years earlier. On his first day there, Rose was introduced to Bui Tuong Huan of the political science department and their personalities fused. Huan had returned home from Paris in 1952 to join Vietnamese nationalists' in a three-way conflict against the French as well as the Viet Minh. Rose and Huan reminisced about their days spent on the left bank of the Seine. Existing conditions under the Diem regime would soon be succinctly illuminated for the new arrival. He makes friends with Americans in both the US consulate in Hue as well as the US embassy in Saigon. In the final week prior to the fall of the nation of South Vietnam, Huan would serve as both the country's vice premiere and the minister of defense, would spend four years in prison and die of malnutrition shortly after release.
In October of 1960, Rose and his friends would visit Saigon and witness an attempted coup against Diem. They attend the nerve center of the effort and are introduced to the leader. Corpses litter the streets surrounding the national palace. Diem having survived, Rose returns to Hue to write an article (to/for himself) describing the rebellion as well as the rampant corruption amongst the nation's governing class. The thought of a career in journalism dawns for him. With the end of his two year teaching contract in June of the following year, he visits Saigon, meets Time Life's stringer for lunch and the stringer suggests that he be his replacement. He accepts the offer, flies to Hong Kong and meets journalist Stanley Karnow to formalize his working relationship with the company owned and managed by Henry Luce, America's foremost proponent of waging war in southeast Asia. The disconnect did not dawn on him despite all that he had known and witnessed. This would become his very own "bright shining lie." For nearly two years he had been made fully aware of the foul ways of the Diem brothers and the incompetence and ethical miasma within the American embassy. Meanwhile he had been having an affair with the wife of an employee of the US legation, one which ended in sorrow.
At the meeting in the British colony, Rose cited the incompetence and corruption of South Vietnamese officials in Saigon. Karnow shrugged and responded "It's not an American problem." Eventually, Stanley would not be awarded a Pulitzer Prize for his opus on Vietnam circa 1983 [Frances Fitzgerald had already won the prize a decade before for her greater work on the culture of the Vietnamese and America's plunge into quicksand]. Eventually, reading Karnow's history of Vietnam, Rose's sister would recognize sentences originally crafted by her brother. In reviewing her brother's reports she found that Karnow had plagiarized whole chapters written two decades earlier. The reports had been channeled to Time Life via Karnow. As a stringer, Rose could submit work to other publishers. Ironic that Karnow had also once lived in Paris and attended the Sorbonne. Both men would eventually switch to reporting for the Saturday Evening Post and Karnow would sabotage Rose by assuming the political aspect of the Saigon story. Enmity arose and Karnow began to hover in Rose's nightmares. The first American combat battalion would come ashore in March of 1965. The US embassy was bombed at the end of that month and three days later, Rose accepted a position as an adviser to the country's newly appointed premiere. The job led him to step aboard the doomed plane at Quang Ngai less than six months later. One is now led to wonder whether or not Karnow ever visited the field or accompanied combat troops on patrol. In the preface to his noted work on Nam, he would frankly question the objectivity of such first hand reporting.
Early in 1963 in a cover story for The Saturday Evening Post, Rose had validated Sully's work. In the field he accompanies a patrol guided by Green Berets and they get caught in a firefight and then investigate a village. A woman suspected of being a Viet Minh partisan is interrogated and tortured. Rose's report from the field is canned by Time Life in New York. Big Daddy Luce does not approve. Thereafter he filed a dispatch regarding a nighttime battle between Viet Minh and South Vietnamese forces at a US special forces camp at Plei Mrong, American Green Berets were theoretically not involved in ground combat. As reported in the Post, Lt. Paul Leary joked grimly to Rose, "All I want is the Combat Infantryman's Badge." Rose noted, "Americans in Vietnam are ineligible because they are theoretically not fighting." That incident occurred over two and a half years previous to what became the first sustained engagement between North Vietnamese and American ground forces at the now famous Battle of Ia Drang. And two months prior to that battle, Rose would die at the age of thirty two in the crash of a C-47 Dakota brought down by the Viet Minh eleven klicks northeast of Quang Ngai. Likewise, the NVA would destroy a Huey carrying the equally astute Sully, five and a half years hence in An Giang province. Sully had been a storied Resistance fighter of the French underground of WWII who'd thereafter spent over two decades of a debonaire career reporting from southeast Asia.
Jerry Rose was not a trained journalist yet he was the authority, observed conditions on the ground, half away around the world from his gatekeepers—before Bigart, prior to the arrivals of Sheehan, Arnett, Halberstam, Mohr, Browne, Laurence and so many others—those reporters who became far more famous than he and he insisted on taking his own photos to boot. The size of his collection of papers now kept in the Hoover Institution nearly equals that of the legendary Sully housed by the University of Massachusetts. Sully had become famous for his reporting for the news outlet that had become the bete noire primary source of irritation for the Diem regime in 1962. The magazine did not edit Sully's reports and dragon lady of the era—Madame Nhu—the sister in law of premiere Diem done got her panties all in a twist as a result. Those panties would snap once buddhist priests began to burn in the streets of Saigon come the summer of 1963.
No amount of suffering and bloodshed would serve as a difference within such a fraudulent setup, a setup of ideological blindness on the eastern seaboard in America (religious and political), profits to be had and endemic corruption within the faraway country to which the United States was committing so much wealth and personnel. Now, Rose's work—as ghosted by his sister, particularly his early reports, have a magisterial ring which one finds in works by Michael Herr, Daniel Ellsberg and John Laurence. His contribution to the record of our involvement ought to be elevated by a major publishing house, perhaps in large format, one which would include his dispatches, photographs and journal entries. Knowing of Rose's ultimate fate, one feels a disconnect in reading his sister's consistent, finely honed sentences. The work is structured in episodic, easy to read installments varying from two to five pages each. Images of his friends, his forays into the bush as well as the woman he eventually married are interspersed. This is not meant to knock Lucy Rose Fischer's effort. In reading her book, rather, there is the ring of one amongst the finest of all symphonic works—Elgar's Enigma Variations. And if one is familiar with that eternal piece of music they can well imagine the value of Lucy's work illuminating the sacrifice her brother suffered in this country's grand delusion in southeast Asia.
Since retiring from the field of landscape architecture, John Crandell has been involved in propagation and growing exotic succulents from the southern hemisphere on the craziest, most whacked out once upon a time sheep ranch outside of Sacramento. He worked as a postal clerk in '69 for the 4th Infantry south of Pleiku. Thanks to having to listen to AFVN during the holidays that year, he still doesn't want to have to listen to a Christmas carol ever again.