End of War Scoop 1972
By Arnaud de Borchgrave
The message delivered to Newsweek’s Paris Bureau came from the North Vietnamese Mission in Paris. It said that my visa application had been received. In order to expedite matters I should submit to them “my desires for my visit to the People’s Republic of Vietnam.” Since I had never applied for such a visa, imagine my surprise.
Known as a war hawk – one of only three or four among hundreds – my first reaction was that Hanoi had something important to say and figured it would achieve more impact from a hawk than from a pro-Hanoi dove. There were quite a few of those, too, primarily among non-American journalists.
I called Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, who had just arrived in Miami Aug. 22 for the GOP convention, to get his take on Hanoi’s invitation. He disabused me of any notion of a scoop. Kissinger thought North Vietnam simply wanted a hawk to report on the damage done by U.S. bombers to their dikes, which had caused major flooding.
The Letter: I had not been to Hanoi since covering the original French paratroop landings at Dienbienphu in Nov. 20, 1953 for Newsweek. I filled out the visa form and attached a letter that said my only interest in visiting was to interview Pham Van Dong, the North Vietnamese leader who had succeeded Hi Chi Minh. The visa came through in record time, along with a letter advising me to fly to Hanoi via Moscow. I replied I’d rather fly Pan Am to Bangkok and pick up Aeroflot in Vientiane, Laos, on its last leg into Hanoi. They agreed without referring back to Hanoi.
Once in Hanoi, I was greeted by a “Peace” delegation made up of small boys and girls and a generous bouquet of flowers. The lady in charge spoke impeccable English. In the car on my way to the Hoa Binh (Peace) Hotel, she informed me that I would be leaving at 6:30 a.m. for a ten-day tour of North Vietnam.
A Standoff: When I asked her for the purpose of such a trip, she said, “so you can see for yourself the terrible damage caused by your bombs.” I replied that I knew all about bombs
and the terrible damage they cause from my days in London during the blitz in September 1940. I reminded her that I was here to see His Excellency Pham Van Dong with no other purpose in mind. She made clear “No trip no interview.” In that case, I responded, I will wait in my hotel until the next Aeroflot flight to Vientiane.
Later that evening, the same woman knocked on my hotel room door and said with a smile, “the Prime Minister will see you at 10 a.m. tomorrow. He also wants you to submit any Q&A to him before sending anything to New York."
Before leaving Paris, Osborn Elliott, a personal friend of long standing, had called me to say that the next issue of Newsweek is the semi-annual ABC issue, for which they had a dynamite cover story all ready to roll. Unless I had a world scoop, I shouldn’t bother filing until the following week.
Big Story: The interview, entirely in French, was a huge scoop, providing the terms of agreement between Hanoi and the US side to end the war. Even more, our conversation lasted three hours, about half of which was off the record. Van Dong asked me to resubmit whatever I wrote to make sure the off the record had been respected.
Back at the hotel, I typed for six hours and produced about 5,000 words in Q&A form. The off-the-record parts were clearly marked in my English translation of the original French. The woman in charge of my visit picked up the text from my room at 8 p.m. and returned at midnight without a single correction or deletion.
Hold the Presses: Next morning, I cabled Oz Elliott from Hanoi’s main post office: “I have found precious jackpots that came from the Plain of Jars. They were expensive but worth it as they will look sensational on your cover table. I will arrive in Vientiane Saturday and you’ll get a full description before you put your minions to bed.”
U.S. Ambassador to Laos Mac Godley, an old friend from the Congo in 1964, met me at Vientiane airport and no sooner in his limo, I asked him to drop me off at the post office as I had to file immediately to meet Newsweek’s Saturday night deadline. I gave him the main headline, which was Hanoi’s acceptance of a three-sided coalition with Hanoi, the South Vietnamese government and a bloc of neutrals.
Henry K: My heart sank when Mac said that the post office was closed on Saturday. But couldn’t I use a back channel through the Embassy? I asked. As we weaved in and out of oxcart traffic, Mac picked up the phone and asked the embassy to patch him through to Secretary Kissinger. Kissinger had just arrived in Saigon to brief South Vietnamese President Thieu on the peace terms which the U.S. had secretly struck with Hanoi.
In less than a minute, Ambassador Godley was through to Ambassador Sullivan in Saigon. He had Kissinger standing next to him. Mac explained the situation and Kissinger then got on the horn and asked to speak to me. I gave him the highlights in quick sound bites. He then told Godley to go ahead and use the “White House back channel.”
Before we got to the Embassy residence, the CIA station chief was summoned and both our cars were side by side. The CIA chief took my copy for top priority transmission. I then called Washington Bureau Chief Mel Elfin and asked him to contact the White House to arrange a quick relay to New York.
The Scoop: The interview was not only Newsweek’s cover story, but Oz released it to the media as we went to press, producing banner headlines in the New York Times, Washington Post, Washington Star and scores of newspapers at home and abroad.
Oz also awarded me a $20,000 bonus [something like $100,000 in today’s dollars]--the first and only one while he was editor.
The postscript, of course, is this: the deal collapsed as Hanoi kept shifting the goal posts and South Vietnamese President Thieu, who had never been consulted, cried betrayal. This led to the “Christmas bombing” of Hanoi and Haiphong during the last week of 1972 – and only then to the final Paris Peace Accords of Jan. 1973.
Arnaud de Borchgrave joined Newsweek as Paris Bureau Chief in 1950 and served as European correspondent, foreign editor, and chief international correspondent until 1980.