The news today will be the movies for tomorrow
And the water’s turned to blood
And if you don’t think so
Go turn on your tub
And if it’s mixed with mud
You’ll see it turn to gray
– Arthur Lee and Love, from their song “A House is Not a Motel”
At 6 PM EST on August 5, 1965, the report aired on the CBS Evening News. It was suppertime in America. Housewives were preparing or serving dinner. Husbands were relaxing after work. Children were tumbling inside after a day of play in the hot summer sun.
Those Americans who’d tuned their televisions to watch CBS anchorman Walter Cronkite – “the most trusted man in America,” according to many opinion polls – would see something they’d never seen before.
WATERS TURNED TO BLOOD
In early 1965, CBS had set up a news bureau in Saigon, South Vietnam. A 33-year-old Canadian-American journalist named Morley Safer headed the bureau. He was one of the first reporters to be permanently assigned to cover the Vietnam War, which, by the end of 1965, involved 200,000 U.S. soldiers.
On August 2, Safer was in the city of Da Nang in northern South Vietnam. He heard about a Marine Corps mission that was being sent to a complex of hamlets located south of Da Nang, in a place called Cam Ne. This collection of peasant huts was inhabited by families who, for generations, had survived by subsistence farming in the many rice paddies in the region.
Safer heard from one of the marine units that the mission planned for the following day was “search-and-destroy.” It was being referred to as “Operation Blastout 1.” Safer was asked if he wanted to come along… “Please come along,” said the marines.
The platoon left Da Nang early the next morning. It traveled in APCs (armored personnel carriers), and a few amphibious vehicles due to high water. Safer and cameraman Ha Thuc Can (“This wonderful man,” according to Safer) accompanied the troops. Ha Thuc Can was the only person who could speak Vietnamese.
During the journey, Safer talked to a captain. The captain told him that all the houses in Cam Ne were to be destroyed. The marines had supposedly been subjected to sporadic sniper fire from Viet Cong entrenched in Cam Ne, and the captain said the marines were now going to “really tear it up.”
Safer thought the captain was exaggerating. Never before had he heard of a “search-and-destroy” mission, against civilians, executed by a ground strike. Before August 3 – at least since Sherman’s torching of Southern homes in the American Civil War – such missions were directed at confirmed enemy targets and involved either artillery fire or air attacks.
When the marines arrived at the first “village,” they immediately began setting fire to the huts, which were made of thatch. Some used flame throwers, and others used cigarette lighters (later, some marines boasted they were the “Zippo brigade”). Other marines fired their weapons, although the only Americans shot at until then were struck “in the ass” from friendly fire.
One marine aimed his flame thrower down a hole in the dirt floor of one hut. Ha Thuc Can pleaded for him to stop. Ha Thuc Can bent over the hole, speaking quiet Vietnamese into the darkness. He eventually coaxed out a family of six, including an infant child. The family was in tears and, says Safer, “frightened stiff.”
Safer reported that, by the end of the day, one baby was killed, three women were wounded, one marine was wounded, and 150 houses were destroyed. He sent his report by telex to his bosses back home.
THE NEWS TODAY
When CBS News President Fred Friendly and anchorman Cronkite reviewed Safer’s report – which included filmed footage of Cam Ne’s destruction – they became very nervous. They knew this story would ignite controversy. Friendly contacted Safer twice to confirm its veracity. And, twice, Safer confirmed his story.
When Safer’s news report was digested by American families, perceptions of the Vietnam War changed:
I think [viewers] saw American troops acting in a way people had never seen American troops act before, and couldn’t imagine… This conjured up not America, but some brutal power — Germany, even, in World War II. To see young G.I.s, big guys in flak jackets, lighting up thatched roofs, and women holding babies running away, wailing — this was a new sight to everyone, including the military, I suspect.” (Morley Safer)
After Cam Ne, the Pentagon wanted Safer fired. The Defense Department began monitoring TV news broadcasts. President Johnson told CBS President Frank Stanton that CBS had “shat on the American flag.” He was convinced that Safer was a communist. When told that he was Canadian, Johnson replied “Well, I knew he wasn’t an American.”
The marines felt that Safer’s story was distorted and didn’t convey that Cam Ne had been fortified by the Viet Cong with trenches, underground tunnels, punji stakes and booby traps (though the VC had withdrawn by the time the marines arrived). They felt he downplayed sniper fire and (their contention) that the villagers were hostile to American troops. Initially, they claimed that only a few houses had been destroyed by artillery. “It was just blatant bullshit,” says Safer.
TURNING TO GRAY
But the legacy of Cam Ne has less to do with Viet Cong hostilities than with how the Vietnam War was being fought by the United States. And, as Safer observes, perceived by Americans at home. Things became murkier, more nebulous. American boys were, suddenly, no longer shining white knights fighting to protect freedom (however that concept may be defined). And, only three years later, the ugly reality of Vietnam would come crashing home after the massacre of unarmed civilians at My Lai, South Vietnam.
Today’s operation shows the frustration of Vietnam in miniature. There is little doubt that American firepower can win a military victory here. But to a Vietnamese peasant whose home means a lifetime of backbreaking labor, it will take more than presidential promises to convince him we are on his side.”
Safer was correct on all counts except one: there was no American military victory.
(Note: Morley Safer has been a “60 Minutes” correspondent since 1970 and has received numerous awards. His story on Cam Ne was voted by fellow journalists as one of the top 100 journalism works of the last century.