January 15, 2011 1:45 am

US spokesman who fronted Saigon’s theatre of war

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Government spokesmen do not usually behave like impresarios but Barry Zorthian, who died this month at the age of 90, most certainly did. He had his own show, which ran for four and a half years and appeared on the toughest theatre in the world, that of war, before the most critical audience imaginable, an inquisitive, restive press corps.

The stage was not on Broadway or the West End but on top of the Rex Hotel in Saigon as the Vietnam war reached critical mass. It soon became known as “The Five O’Clock Follies” and it starred not only Zorthian, the chief US spokesman in Vietnam, known to the hacks as Zorro, but a revolving cast of American and South Vietnamese soldiers and officials whom he put in front of microphones trying desperately to spin the line to the press that the conflict was not the debacle they increasingly thought it was.

Vietnam was the first conflict without formal military censorship and where live television coverage became a serious factor. The Follies were entirely Zorthian’s invention to deal with these new realities. Sent to Saigon by the head of the US Information Agency (and patron saint of American journalism), Edward R. Murrow, which counted for something, and given a free hand by General William Westmoreland, the field commander, and US ambassadors Maxwell Taylor and Ellsworth Bunker, which also mattered, Zorthian took an expansive and combative view of his brief, putting out information including daily “body counts” of the enemy, suspect though the data often was.

The sessions often descended into shouting matches. One illustrious correspondent called Zorthian “a determined and brilliant liar”. Richard Pyle, then Saigon bureau chief for the Associated Press, described the Follies as “the longest-playing tragi-comedy in South East Asia’s theatre of the absurd”. Mr Pyle was very much a member of a tough school in American journalism covering the war, replete with famous names – Halberstam, Apple, Arnett, Kalb, Karnow – several of whom made their reputations in Vietnam.

But, as Mr Pyle noted this week, “journos recognised that Zorro’s word was good. It was de rigeur to scorn the Follies as useless – no self-respecting hack would dare do otherwise – but for all their absurdities and faults, the briefings were important as the only opportunity for us to get US military spokesmen on the record. Whether they fudged, withheld or even lied was another matter. We often had the opportunity from our own field reporting to contradict the official word.” The difference between the two became known as “the credibility gap”.

There eventually emerged a kind of mutual respect between the spokesman and the media, so much so that a group of survivors of the Saigon days – reporters, diplomats and spies – gathered last October for a 90th birthday “roast and toast” for Zorthian. Among those present was Richard Holbrooke, who was himself to die a few weeks later and who earned his diplomatic spurs in Vietnam.

Baryoor Zorthian was born into conflict, on October 8 1920, in Katahya, Turkey, the child of Armenian parents. His father, a writer, was imprisoned in Turkey but escaped. His mother, refusing to divulge her husband’s whereabouts, was herself sent to jail, along with their son.

They eventually migrated to New Haven, Connecticut, the father working in a dry cleaners. Barry went to Yale, where he edited the student newspaper and joined the secretive Skull and Bones society. He served in the marines in the Pacific in the second world war, did some print and radio journalism, and then worked for the Voice of America for 13 years, rising to number two there, before a diplomatic posting in India.

His secondment to Saigon, Murrow’s last recommendation before retiring from USIA, was so sensitive that it required President Lyndon Johnson and the secretaries of state and defence, Dean Rusk and Robert McNamara, to sign off on it. With that backing, American generals and ambassadors had no choice but to give him free rein (though, after Vietnam, he turned down LBJ’s offer of an ambassadorship to Congo).

He was not confined to the Follies. Few policy decisions on the ground in Vietnam did not involve him. Mr Pyle recalls his role in covert “psy-ops” (psychological operations) to assail the Viet Cong (but not the press) with propaganda and “dirty tricks”.

But it helped with reporters that he also liked to drink martinis with them and play poker and squash, without ever divulging state secrets. He fitted into the “anything goes” atmosphere of wartime Saigon, where, as a military officer stationed there, later a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist, once noted: “This is the only town on earth where alcoholism passes as social drinking.”

It was, in effect, the Wild East and it played into his cowboy tendencies. In a later manifestation as a Washington lobbyist, he took on clients others were reluctant to touch, like Big Tobacco and the military government in Pakistan. As another old Vietnam hand, turned lobbying colleague, said at last October’s roast: “We would have accepted the Viet Cong and the Taliban if they could have afforded our billable hours.”

For a man of many words, Zorthian did not leave much of a written record. In a 1982 oral history, he defined the problem he faced in Vietnam. “We reached a stage where the government’s word was to be questioned until proven true, whereas in the past it had been the government’s word is valid until proven to be wrong.” In getting out that word, he always insisted he had never lied or been ordered to lie, though he might occasionally have been economical with the truth.

His wife of 62 years, the former Margaret Aylaian, died last year. He is survived by two sons.

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