The Best Picture winner at this year’s Academy Awards was Spotlight, which seemed an excellent choice to me. That powerful ensemble performance showed a handful of daring investigative reporters at The Boston Globe taking on the political and cultural establishment of their city, breaking the story of how the Catholic Church had long shielded its numerous pedophile priests. The focus was less on the scandal itself and more on the obstacles faced by the journalists, including the widespread disbelief that a cover-up so vast could have remained in place for so long.
A couple of decades earlier, a college friend of mine then living in DC would occasionally regale me with stories of the bizarre lunatics he encountered in his neighborhood. There was one gentleman who regularly occupied a particular street corner with a home-made sign, declaring that he had been sexually molested by a Catholic priest and denouncing his church for protecting such individuals by concealing their abuses. Sometimes all that separates the discounted ravings of street madmen and a long series of international headlines is merely the willingness of a few bold journalists to ask some probing questions.
These thoughts came to mind as I read the various public tributes to Sydney Schanberg, whose distinguished journalistic history came to its end a few weeks ago. Naturally, the majority of the coverage focused on the years he had risked his life during the war in Cambodia, since those had led to his Pulitzer Prize, and later gained him permanent fame in the Oscar-winning film The Killing Fields. But his career spanned more than half a century, of which only a few years were spent overseas as a foreign correspondent, and in many respects those other, later years provide a story every bit as interesting, and perhaps even more relevant today, given the ills that currently plague our society. The plot lacks an uplifting happy ending, but that just makes the tale a more realistic one.
Soon after his return from Cambodia and his Pulitzer Prize, he was named Metropolitan Editor at the New York Times, with one-third of all the newspaper’s journalists serving under him. But just a few years later, he was gone, and his lengthy Times obituary devoted only a couple of sentences to his post-Cambodia years at the newspaper, though his longtime friend Charles Kaiser provided far more of the details in a recent Vanity Fair piece.
In one of our conversations, Syd casually mentioned that although major newspapers are very eager to uncover corrupt practices in distant lands such as Afghanistan or Bosnia, they are less happy when their employees undertake similar efforts closer to home, especially in their own city. And although I never pressed him to clarify what he meant, I sensed he was speaking from personal experience.
According to my late friend Alex Cockburn, the long-time Press Clips media critic at The Village Voice, Schanberg’s focus on the more sordid aspects of his newspaper’s editorial support for the West Side highway project eventually outraged top management, leading to his removal. He had spent 26 years at the Times and the 1984 triumph of The Killing Fields had established him as one of the world’s most famous journalists, perhaps only trailing Woodward and Bernstein of Watergate fame; but in August 1985 he was supposedly escorted from his desk out the front door in the course of a single day.[See below]
Even while still at the Times, he had grown concerned at the decline of journalistic rectitude in the face of financial temptations, such as the growing possibilities for vast wealth opening to those newsmen who seized a lucky opportunity while never rocking the political boat. For example, he once told me the story of a newly hired network news anchor, just arrived in New York City, who joined a group of prominent local journalists for lunch. The newscaster’s entire conversational focus was on the remarkably luxurious interiors of some of the Upper East Side co-op apartments he’d recently seen on a visit, and the chance he himself might have to live in such splendor. The anecdote was prompted by the case of a different network anchor, ABC‘s Peter Jennings, who’d spent his entire career in the news business but managed to leave an estate worth $50 million to his heirs, an outcome that an old-fashioned reporter might view as unseemly.
Certainly, the remaining thirty years of Schanberg’s own career demonstrated a very different lodestar. For years he had received reports from his military contacts of American POWs still held after the end of the Vietnam War, but his beat was the domestic politics of New York City and State, so he turned those tips over to his Times colleagues, who made little effort to energetically investigate them. However, once the Senate POW Committee hearings began in 1991, he immersed himself in the issue, eventually publishing dozens of columns and articles on the topic over the next couple of years.
The great irony was that although the hearings actually caused the release of a vast quantity of new evidence, much of it strongly supporting the case for the abandoned POWs, the American political establishment instead seized the opportunity to end the nagging controversy by declaring the POWs a myth and the issue closed once and for all, with nearly our entire mainstream media following their lead. Thus, Schanberg began pursuing the massive scandal at exactly the point at which the American media had suddenly lost almost all interest, and he spent the remainder of his life doggedly pursuing a topic that caused him to receive what he later called the “Silent Treatment.”
Schanberg’s story might surely make a very powerful film or documentary, demonstrating the darker realities of contemporary American journalism, but only if the huge hidden scandal that he had spent a quarter century seeking to reveal were actually true. The evidence of the abandoned POWs seems overwhelming to me, but I am hardly an expert on Vietnam, and must simply weigh the facts and opinions presented by others.
For example, a few years ago Schanberg’s journalistic integrity and excellence were hailed by Joseph Galloway, an award-winning military affairs writer specializing in the history of the Vietnam War, who included this appraisal:
More recently, Schanberg’s was among the few voices calling to account two U.S. senators, John McCain and John Kerry, both Vietnam veterans, for manipulating the findings of a special Senate committee to cover up the truth: that the Nixon White House, directed by President Nixon and his war planner, Henry Kissinger, left hundreds of living American POWs behind in the hands of their captors when we evacuated Vietnam.
On the other hand, I also recently discovered a totally contrary view advanced by Rick Perlstein, a highly-regarded author of books on the conservative political culture of the Goldwater and Nixon Eras, who denounced belief in the abandoned POWs as a ideological myth born of rightwing paranoia, tainted with sharp racialist sentiment. He favorably cited the views of H. Bruce Franklin, a Maoist cultural historian, whose 1991 analysis I have already rejected as factually shallow, but he more heavily quoted from the conclusions of mainstream historian Michael J. Allen, whose work Until the Last Man Comes Home he described as “the definitive book on the subject.”
Through the modern miracle of Amazon.com, Allen’s book was soon in my hands, and I spent a day or two carefully reading it, hoping to decide how effectively the author refuted the factual claims of Schanberg and others.
In most respects, Until the Last Man Comes Home seems a fine work of academic scholarship, well-written, published by a university press, and featuring glowing blurbs from other historians. The main text runs 300 pages with over 100 additional pages of footnotes and bibliography, along with a lengthy index. But when I turned to that index, the name “Sydney Schanberg” was nowhere to be found.
The absence of any reference to the most prestigious figure in the pro-POW camp troubled me, but I explained it away. After all, Schanberg’s remarkable 8,000 word expose on the POW cover-up had been rejected by every mainstream publication and had only been released on a website in late 2008, perhaps after the Allen’s 2009 book had already gone to press, while nearly all his numerous earlier pieces from the early 1990s had either run as newspaper columns or otherwise appeared outside of mainstream outlets. Allen may have just disregarded these as superseded by later analysis.
However, the next lapse I discovered seemed completely inexcusable. The most comprehensive recent presentation of the pro-POW case is surely An Enormous Crime by former U.S. Rep. Bill Hendon, who also worked as a Pentagon intelligence analyst specializing in POW issues and as an investigator for the Senate POW Committee. Given Hendon’s background, he seems well suited to provide an inside perspective on the topic, and his 600 page volume exhaustively documents the factual details and entire history surrounding the alleged abandonment of the POWs, providing a cornucopia of evidence, much of it seemingly persuasive. The hardcover edition was released in Spring 2007 by an imprint of Macmillan, a mainstream publishing house, but although Allen’s very extensive bibliography lists some 250 books, Hendon’s is not one of them. Refuting Hendon’s arguments is one thing, but simply ignoring them is quite another.
As I started to read the actual Allen text, I better understood why including those missing works might have constituted a problematical distraction from the central flow of Allen’s narrative. Although Allen thoroughly explores the political, ideological, social, cultural, psychological, and historical aspects of the Vietnam POW movement, he devotes relatively little attention to the factual question itself: did the abandoned POWs actually exist? Page after page is given over to the complex internal politics and interpersonal disputes of the various POW activist groups, but it would also be nice to be able to decide whether their basic beliefs had indeed had merit.
Consider, for example, the claim that soon after Reagan took office in early 1981, Canada passed along a diplomatic overture by Hanoi offering to return the remaining American POWs they held in exchange for a payment of $4 billion, representing the cash they had been secretly promised in the original peace agreement but never received. Schanberg devotes several long paragraphs to this vital piece of evidence, and Hendon’s book gives it four full pages. Together, these sources provide the names of several former government officials attesting to the reality of this crucial incident, including with sworn testimony, but it receives no mention whatsoever in Allen’s book. On the other hand, Allen does devote nearly a dozen pages to the American Civil War and the stories of the missing soldiers and POWs in that 19th century conflict.
Going down the list of the major evidentiary findings provided by Schanberg, few of them are mentioned, let alone effectively refuted by Allen, who seems equally ignorant of the 600 pages of material provided by Hendon. If one side in an ongoing historical debate provides a vast quantity of seemingly persuasive evidence, while the other side simply avoids the argument, what conclusions should be drawn by a fair-minded outside observer? Attempting to debunk a controversial hypothesis by ignoring all the most powerful “smoking guns” then casually dismissing the remaining evidence as merely circumstantial is unlikely to persuade any neutral third-party who is provided the two opposing arguments. Perhaps this explains why the mainstream media has been so reluctant to offer space to both sides of the POW argument, and has instead declared the entire matter “Case Closed.”
Allen’s apparent unwillingness to pursue leads found in non-mainstream publications may have caused him to miss important and persuasive evidence. For example, he correctly emphasizes that Sen. John McCain played an absolutely pivotal role at the Senate POW Committee Hearings: he was only former POW among the members and also the most ferocious opponent of the POW activists. Indeed, Allen argues that McCain alone possessed the “moral authority” to defeat the POW advocates in the important arena of public opinion. Then, near the very end of his book, Allen separately mentions “the furious smear campaign” McCain later endured at the hands of some of those activists and veterans groups, who accused him of wartime treason and all sorts of other moral failings, but dismisses these charges as the unsubstantiated attacks of extremists, who typified their ideological movement.
This might seem a plausible analysis, but additional facts change the picture. In an article last year, I pointed out that there seems to be overwhelming evidence that McCain did indeed spend his time as a POW doing enemy propaganda broadcasts for Hanoi, which would surely mark him as a “traitor,” and that he very likely later invented his tales of torture as a preemptive defense against the risk of a court martial upon his return. McCain’s wartime behavior was apparently quite well known in POW circles, and a short wire story in a 1969 edition of Stars and Stripes magazine described his radio broadcasts on behalf of his Communist captors. Indeed, I now possess a recently located audio file of one of McCain’s wartime Hanoi broadcasts, which seems absolutely genuine to me.
The former top-ranking officials of the Nixon Administration and their Pentagon allies were obviously the persons most eager to expunge the widespread popular belief that they had abandoned American POWs, and these same individuals surely not only knew of McCain’s true wartime record, but also possessed the hard evidence to prove it and destroy him politically. These hidden facts may easily explain why McCain acted as such a ferocious bulldog at the hearings, regularly denouncing both his opposing senatorial colleagues and even the relatives of unreturned POWs in extremely harsh and personal terms. Under such a reconstruction, the senator’s “moral authority” may have been considerably less than what Allen assumes.
There are times when a concerted alliance of powerful American elites are determined to establish a particular narrative history of events, facts be damned, and under such circumstances the mainstream media often serves as their handmaiden. A massive and perfectly-timed cover story in The Atlantic Monthly, sharply slanted coverage in major newspapers, and selective statements by influential public officials may have succeeded in achieving this during the Senate POW Committee hearings. And once such an official narrative has been established, later editors may easily be persuaded that any attempts to reopen the issue are either just “old news” or instead are based on wild “conspiracy theories,” long since debunked. Under such circumstances, even an individual of Sydney Schanberg’s stellar journalistic reputation may find it impossible to break through these thick walls of silence.
Meanwhile, Michael J. Allen may be a perfectly fine young scholar, but he was apparently still untenured at the time this book, his first, appeared in print, and I suspect his academic career path would have become considerably more difficult if he had suggested factual conclusions totally divergent from those of nearly the entire American political and media establishment.
These sorts of practical realities must be considered whenever we analyze controversial topics upon which our elite establishment has already proclaimed its definitive and final verdict. Principled journalists and historians may seek to speak truth to power, but the converse may be a more typical outcome.
[Correction: I have been reliably informed that elements of Alex Cockburn's account of the circumstances surrounding Sydney Schanberg's departure from The New York Times were seriously mistaken. Although his Times column was cancelled, he was actually offered another position at the paper by the publisher, but preferred to leave instead and soon began writing a column for NY Newsday, where he remained for the next ten years.]
For Further Reading:
- Was Rambo Right? — Ron Unz
- Silent Treatment — Sydney Schanberg
- John McCain and the POW Cover-Up — Sydney Schanberg
- John McCain: When “Tokyo Rose” Ran for President — Ron Unz
- Our American Pravda — Ron Unz
- The Legacy of Sydney Schanberg — Ron Unz
- Relying Upon Maoist Professors of Cultural Studies — Ron Unz