How the 1962-1963 New York Newspaper Strike was a Major Contributor to the Vietnam War
During the Kennedy Administration, American military advisors flooded Vietnam to help the South Vietnamese win the war. The American strategy to win where the French before them had failed was based on two ideas. The first was that the US was helping the South Vietnamese to be independent instead of keeping them as a colony, so the South Vietnamese soldiers would be grateful and fight for their freedom. The second was that the increased mobility provided by helicopters and the greater firepower of American airplanes would enable the Vietcong to be defeated in short order.
The Vietcong were fighting a guerrilla war, so the tactics of the Americans and South Vietnamese was to try and get the communists to come out and stand and fight so they could be destroyed by superior American and South Vietnamese firepower.
On December 28, 1962, US intelligence detected a radio transmitter and about 120 Vietcong soldiers in the hamlet of Ap Tan Thoi. Immediately after New Year's Day, 1963, the South Vietnamese and Americans set out to destroy the enemy forces, converging on the hamlet from three directions using supporting artillery, M113 armored personnel carriers, and helicopters. But on their way to Ap Tan Thoi, the lead elements of the force were pinned down near the hamlet of Ap Bac by a well-entrenched Viet Cong force that had been informed of the South Vietnamese battle plan.
In the course of the battle, not only did the Viet Cong not flee, but they stood their ground and defeated the South Vietnamese and the American advisors. The South Vietnamese lost 83 dead and more than 100 wounded. Americans lost three dead, eight wounded. Five helicopters were lost. The Viet Cong lost 18 dead and 39 wounded.
Up to this point in the war, the American/South Vietnamese strategy and assumptions were that if they could get the Viet Cong to stand and fight at a time and place of our choosing, they would be defeated. The fact that this American/South Vietnamese initiated battle had ended in defeat set alarm bells ringing. Further complicating the situation, neither the South Vietnamese government nor the leading Americans in Saigon; General Paul D. Harkins nor Ambassador Frederick E. Nolting, Jr. would admit to the defeat and claimed the battle had been a victory.
American newspaper reporters, who learned of the battle and spoke to Colonel John Paul Vann, an American advisor to the South Vietnamese, reported the defeat and described the South Vietnamese troop's lackluster performance. The news of the Battle of Ap Bac, with pictures of the five downed helicopters and reports of the 3 American dead appeared on page 2 of the January 5, 1963, New York Times. In the paper two days later, Arthur Krock's "In the Nation" column quoted President Kennedy's speech on the Senate floor in 1954 when he said, "I am frankly of the belief that no amount of American military assistance in Indochina can conquer an enemy which is everywhere, and at the same time, nowhere, 'an enemy of the people' which has the sympathy and covert support of the people."
The report of the Battle of Ap Bac remained essentially secret for 25 years until it was featured in Neil Sheehan's book A Bright Shining Lie: John Paul Vann and America in Vietnam. The reason that this important information never made it into the debates over the war is that the pressmen and the distributors of New York Times were on strike from December 8, 1962 until March 31, 1963. The article about the Battle of Ap Bac ran only in the international and newly inaugurated West Coast editions with their small circulations. Had the New York Times, considered the newspaper of record for the federal government especially on international affairs, been printed and distributed in its usual millions, the opinion leaders in media heavy New York City and the decision-makers in Washington, D.C. would have known about the Battle of Ap Bac.
Great historical events often turn on small twists of fate.