The Vietnam Exposé That Wasn’t

The Vietnam Exposé That Wasn’t

The untold story of US-perpetrated atrocities in Vietnam and how the press killed it.


Although he was the son of a military man, Alex Shimkin went to Vietnam not as a soldier but as a civilian with International Voluntary Services (IVS), a nongovernmental humanitarian relief organization. Born in Washington, DC, and raised in Urbana, Illinois, Shimkin dropped out of college to work in the civil rights movement before finishing his degree and heading off to Vietnam in early 1969. There, while working on community development projects, he became fluent in Vietnamese. He left IVS in 1971, having earned a reputation for his ability to ferret out hard-to-find information and his encyclopedic knowledge of Vietnam, its people and the intricacies of the war; Newsweek‘s Saigon bureau chief Kevin Buckley soon hired him as a stringer. Shimkin ultimately planned to write the definitive history of the Vietnam War and, the very next year, was accepted into Princeton University for graduate studies.

Buckley, now a contributing editor at Playboy and adjunct professor at Columbia University’s School of Journalism, told me, “Alex Shimkin opened my eyes and showed me things about the war that I had missed even after nearly four years in Vietnam. Traveling with him and listening to him tell me what Vietnamese in the Mekong Delta were saying, especially when they did not know he understood Vietnamese, was one of the most informative and powerful experiences of my life.”

“Pacification’s Deadly Price,” a joint investigation into the slaughter of Vietnamese civilians by US troops during Operation Speedy Express [see “A My Lai a Month,” The Nation, December 1, 2008], was the crowning achievement of the two men’s working partnership. But the potentially explosive story was held for months and finally published only in gutted form on June 19, 1972. Further undermining their investigation’s impact, Newsweek allowed a former top US official in Vietnam, who had secretly learned of the existence of “hundreds” of examples of the very kinds of killings Buckley and Shimkin sought to expose, to critique the story in its own pages, without allowing for a full rebuttal. Recently, Buckley shared with me the unexpurgated version of the story and subsequent drafts, along with his and Shimkin’s original notes.

Although a Vietnam veteran, who identified himself at the time only as “Concerned Sergeant,” sought to expose the horrors of Operation Speedy Express, his protests never reached reporters. Instead, Buckley and Shimkin’s investigation began with Shimkin’s careful study of press releases and other official documents produced by the US Military Assistance Command, Vietnam, or MACV. In these documents, he found the first clues of large-scale slaughter carried out from December 1968 through May 1969. Acting on those leads, he and Buckley commenced a months-long investigation, interviewing US civilian officials and military officers, analyzing civilian hospital records and traveling, on foot and by jeep, boat and raft into the Delta to interview Vietnamese survivors of Speedy Express.

Buckley and Shimkin’s investigation revealed that the grossly disproportionate kills-to-weapons-recovered ratio of 14.5 to 1 achieved by the Ninth Infantry Division during Speedy Express was not due to a lack of weapons among the guerrillas, but the fact that thousands of civilians were killed. They learned that most of these deaths were the day-to-day result of civilians, individually or in small clusters, being fired upon at night and from the air. They uncovered multiple mass killings as well. Shimkin’s notes show that he found evidence of one massacre by US forces in February 1969 that left forty to fifty Vietnamese, mostly women and children, injured or dead. Interviewing an injured survivor as well as a woman who had lost her mother in the bloodbath, Shimkin learned that US troops had ambushed a flotilla of civilian sampans near the border of the Delta provinces of Kien Phong and Dinh Tuong.

In their analysis of disproportionate kill ratios, Buckley and Shimkin came across other atrocities, one of which would finally make waves some thirty years later. Shimkin’s review of official MACV documents found that on February 11, 1969, Ninth Infantry Division troops engaged three motorized sampans, reportedly killing twenty-one enemies, without any US casualties. On February 17, American ground and helicopter forces destroyed four sampans, killing ten, again with no US casualties. Then at 1 am on February 26, according to Shimkin’s summary of the MACV reports, “a U.S. Navy SEAL team was taken under fire by an unknown size enemy force…. Results: 21 enemy killed, two structures destroyed, and two individual weapons captured. There were no U.S. casualties.”

That last mission came to prominence when it was revealed that future Senator Bob Kerrey led the SEALs on that February 26 operation into the village of Thanh Phong. Kerrey later claimed that the civilians died in cross-fire, but Vietnamese from the village and the most experienced member of Kerrey’s team recall an outright massacre. What no one disputes is that members of the SEAL team first used knives then unleashed a fusillade of at least 1,200 rounds that left more than twenty civilians, many of them massed together in the middle of the hamlet, dead. Kerrey received a bronze star for his actions that night, and the civilians were added to the enemy body count.

In 1998 Newsweek killed a story about that massacre, by reporter Gregory Vistica. As Vistica wrote in his 2003 book, The Education of Lieutenant Kerrey, when Kerrey bowed out of the upcoming presidential race, a top editor at the magazine told him that publishing “a piece on Kerrey’s actions in Vietnam…would unfairly be piling on.” The massacre would remain Kerrey’s secret until Vistica, having left Newsweek, published an exposé in The New York Times Magazine in 2001.

Twenty-six years before its editors killed Vistica’s article, Newsweek held, and then eviscerated, Buckley and Shimkin’s story on much the same logic. In January 1972, Buckley cabled the first draft of his and Shimkin’s article from Saigon to New York. The piece exposed killing on a massive scale and appeared to conclusively answer the question that the reporters asked in the story’s lead: “Was My Lai only a particularly gruesome application of a policy which in fact killed many more civilians than were killed in that small village?”

The inside word, at MACV and the Pentagon, was that the military was deeply concerned about Buckley and Shimkin’s findings. But instead of rushing the story into print, Newsweek pushed back on the piece, with New York editors objecting to Buckley’s linking of My Lai and Speedy Express; claiming that articles about civilians killed by “indiscriminate” fire were nothing new; and requesting that the draft be radically shortened. Buckley–in heretofore private cables–responded by pointing out that the military was afraid specifically because the article dealt with command policies. “[D]ay in and day out,” Buckley wrote, the Ninth Division “killed non combatants with firepower that was anything but indiscriminate.”

Shimkin headed back into the Delta for further reporting, where he turned up more Vietnamese witnesses, and Buckley rewrote the article striving to get the piece into print before his scheduled departure from Indochina. At the opening of the new draft, Buckley wrote: “Four years here have convinced me that terrible crimes have been committed in Vietnam. Specifically, thousands upon thousands of unarmed, non-combatant civilians have been killed by American firepower. They were not killed by accident. The American way of fighting this war made their deaths inevitable.” He presciently predicted that with the Vietnamization of the war, it was likely that “there may never be an accounting for these crimes.”

Buckley handed over the reins of the bureau and took a long vacation with the article still in limbo. When he returned to New York in the spring of 1972, he again pushed for its publication, finally asking for the right to freelance it. The Newsweek editors said no, fearing it would seem as if they were too fainthearted to publish it. “At last I got a reason out of the editor Kermit Lansner,” Buckley said a few years later in an interview with Phillip Knightley, author of The First Casualty: The War Correspondent as Hero, Propagandist, and Myth-Maker, from the Crimea to Vietnam. “He told me that it would be a gratuitous attack on the [Nixon] administration at this point to do another story on civilian deaths after the press had given the army and Washington such a hard time over My Lai.”

The story of Speedy Express should have been more explosive than Seymour Hersh’s expose of My Lai, but it wasn’t. Buckley and Shimkin’s original 4,700-word draft was whittled down to 1,800 words. The lost material included the final paragraphs from their original draft, which closed with a series of questions they had posed to the US military that went unanswered–and a challenge:

“The facts which are readily available suggest answers to many of Newsweek’s questions. And the answers suggest that ‘Speedy Express’ was a success at a criminal price. [MACV] said that if Newsweek could provide information to indicate civilians were killed in large numbers ‘the command would like the opportunity to follow up on it.’ It has that opportunity now.”

Pacification’s Deadly Price,” was devastated by editing that excised much of Buckley and Shimkin’s reporting, including an entire sidebar of Vietnamese witnesses. In the end, military officials were never pressed on the findings of the investigation and were able to ride out the minor flurry of interest it generated. Had the Army been called to account; had a major official investigation, akin to the Peers Commission that unraveled the details of the My Lai massacre, been carried out; had the claims of the Concerned Sergeant, the Speedy Express whistleblower, surfaced in the process; the story of Speedy Express might have transformed how the American way of warfare was understood.

That never happened.

John Paul Vann, a retired Army lieutenant colonel who became a high-ranking civilian official in Vietnam, ducked Buckley and Shimkin as they investigated Speedy Express, and he died in a helicopter crash days before their story was published. His Newsweek obituary, with a laudatory quote from Robert Komer, the former US pacification chief in Vietnam and deputy to MACV commander Gen. William Westmoreland, shared page two of the article. At Vann’s funeral, Komer delivered the eulogy, and Westmoreland, who had received a detailed letter from the Concerned Sergeant two years before, was a pallbearer.

About a month after Vann was buried, Alex Shimkin accidentally crossed North Vietnamese Army lines in Quang Tri Province. A July 24, 1972, report in Newsweek noted that a colleague saw him fall to the ground as grenades landed near him. He was, according to the article, the magazine’s “fourth major casualty in the war in Indochina.”

A week later, Newsweek published a letter by Robert Komer that critiqued “Pacification’s Deadly Price” on the grounds that Speedy Express was, in his eyes, “not part of the ‘pacification’ program,” as Buckley contended, while largely disregarding, in Komer’s words, “whatever the U.S. Ninth Division allegedly did.” Although it was well known that military and pacification efforts were inseparably linked, Komer accused the magazine of tying Speedy Express to such efforts “to get a striking headline,” and he even invoked Vann’s name to paint the piece as a “slur” on “American pacification workers.”

Buckley later told Knightley, “I pressed Newsweek to run a second piece. I wanted to expose the Pentagon’s defense and demolish [Komer’s letter]. But Newsweek refused to carry a second article and I was allowed only a tiny rebuttal to Komer.” Neither Buckley nor Newsweek knew that more than a year earlier, in April 1971, Komer had written a personal note to Vann about allegations of civilian slaughter by US helicopters in the Delta in which he confided that the reports sounded “all too true.” And in May 1971, Vann, who that month became the third most powerful American serving in Vietnam, responded that “literally hundreds of horrible examples have been documented by irate advisors, both military and civilian.” Needless to say, Komer never mentioned this in his letter to Newsweek.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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