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The First Televised War

Ronald Steinman’s press card, 1972
Ronald Steinman’s press card, 1972

I arrived in Saigon in mid-April 1966 as the new NBC bureau chief. My job, simply defined, was to supply NBC News with an endless story of the war. I understood there would be no letup, no relief day to day as our stories poured from the bureau.

Vietnam was the first truly televised war; the war and the medium through which millions of Americans experienced it were inextricable. To understand the war, one needs to understand how NBC — and our colleagues at CBS and ABC — shaped how that story was told.

Those of us in broadcast news understood our role clearly. We went all out. NBC News had bureaus around the world, but in size and scope, there was nothing like the one in Saigon.

Usually, a correspondent with one two-man crew and a small staff ran a foreign bureau. Saigon was different. We had five correspondents, five camera crews made up of a cameraman and a sound man, a full-time radio reporter and an engineer to keep the equipment running. My staff consisted of Japanese, Germans, South Koreans who had fled the north during the Korean War, French, English, Irish, Israelis — and even a few Americans. I had five Vietnamese drivers who owned their own cars, which they often drove out to cover the fighting, especially in the Saigon area. I used many freelance cameramen, often South Koreans who covered parts of the country where NBC News rarely went. With some 500,000 American troops in South Vietnam, there was only so much of the country we could cover.

As bureau chief, I had a full-time office manager, a young Vietnamese woman responsible for exit and entry visas to and from Saigon, who kept us in local supplies, paid the bills and served as a negotiator and translator when needed. I also had two experienced Vietnamese reporters on my staff, who wandered the streets and the halls of the Vietnamese government, reporting back what they learned. Much of what I heard from them helped me understand Vietnam, but little of what they told me found its way into stories. Still, they were invaluable.

Equipment was state of the art for the 1960s. We had heavy Auricon sound cameras with 400-foot magazines that held about 12 minutes of film, a thin strip of magnetic tape on it to record sound. In the field, crews carried extra rolls of film and newly charged batteries with a black bag to empty the used magazine and replace it with fresh film. (Reloading film in combat was, to say the least, particularly difficult and dangerous.) Including a shoulder brace, the whole rig might weigh as much as 36 pounds — formidable, especially in the jungle or on a mountain ridge during a firefight. Each cameraman also had a small, indestructible Bell & Howell 16 mm windup camera that held three minutes of silent film. Sometimes the sound man carried a heavy recording deck, often with reel-to-reel tape, and portable battery lights.

The Vietnamese on my staff would walk around the office for hours carrying the heavy Auricon camera on their shoulders in hopes they could eventually become cameramen, a job that commanded more money and prestige, but also more danger — and provided stories to tell around endless cups of Vietnamese coffee. Some made the transition. Others did not. Fortunately, I never had to carry a camera and its equipment. I marveled at how those men did it, especially the smaller among them.

Still, compared with news bureaus elsewhere, we had it rough. The American military phone system in Saigon was sporadic at best. The Saigon phone system was equally poor. Much of my information came from direct contact, with my military or diplomatic sources at their headquarters, sometimes over lunch, or dinner, or a drink, or coffee and pastry at my favorite spot, Givral.

Most days as early as 4 or 5 a.m. I met one or more of my crews in the bureau as they prepared to cover the latest American operation. There were no restrictions on where to go. If we could get to a military operation, we could cover it. Mostly, the American military was very cooperative. Our drivers might take a crew to a helipad at Tan Son Nhut Airport, where the men boarded a military chopper that took them to the action. Sometimes they traveled by airplane and then by jeep. Teams returned to Saigon when they had a story. Usually the correspondent wrote and recorded the script in the field.

When I had the details about a story, I composed a thorough Teletype message to our desk in New York. Because we couldn’t process or edit film in Saigon, I outlined the story and its meaning, listed the team and described what was on each roll of film. I told editors how to process the film and sent a copy of the script if I had it. Competition ruled, so I noted if another network was present.

The cameraman placed the film, instructions how to process it, the recorded script, any audiotape and other notes in the distinctive red NBC bag. If possible, the team dropped it off, or we in the bureau did, at a commercial airline at Tan Son Nhut for shipment. It was often carried by a member of the crew to Tokyo, Bangkok, London or elsewhere, where producers edited the story for broadcast.

We filmed street demonstrations and terror attacks, we produced political and social stories. But our most important job in the bureau was to keep America in touch with what we knew as the reality on the ground, meaning to show as much as possible American servicemen in action, their problems and the perils of war.

We rarely saw how editors and producers cut our stories. The quality and accuracy of our work was high, so that was not a problem for my staff. We knew which NBC shows used our stories, because I got a report each day, often with criticism that was sometimes helpful, sometimes not. Those reports were important for morale because this way the staff knew the show producers valued their work.

The truth is that much of what we covered in 1967 was the same day to day. By then, the American troop buildup to a half million men was complete. We covered almost everything that moved, especially when it involved big American operations. The weather hardly changed, except in rainy season. Working in the field was a constant slog for us as we lived and worked with the troops.

There were not what I would call great or memorable battles that year. There were early battles near Khe Sanh for dominance of the trails into Laos, a precursor of things to come. There were the intense hill fights in the Central Highlands, mostly around Pleiku and Dak To. There was Operation Buffalo with the Marines in bloody, trench-style fighting along the demilitarized zone, especially at Con Thien. There were operations near Cambodia such as Junction City, with thousands of troops and a unique parachute jump searching for but not finding Vietcong strongholds.

But still, we could sense something was turning — though not in the way the generals hoped. Instead of the arc of the war changing and showing progress, American deaths leapt to 5,373 in 1967, a jump of 2,000 more than the previous year. The war continued unabated, as if an odd inertia had set in without anyone realizing the end would ever come.

It was a grind year, and raw in the way that only war can be without letup. There was no glory. The war wore everyone down with hard-fought territory passed from enemy to enemy and no conclusion to the fighting, but which I believe prepared everyone for the Tet offensive at the end of January 1968. As a journalist, and for the American forces, everything in 1967 proved its value in how to cover a very mobile, increasingly ugly and increasingly unwinnable war.

Ronald Steinman is the author of the memoir Inside Television’s First War: A Saigon Journal.

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