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.