The New York Times recently published an article by Elizabeth Becker, a well-known author and journalist, entitled The Women Who Covered
Vietnam. Although the article highlights the experience of Kate Webb, who was recognized this year on an Australian stamp to commemorate Australia's Veterans Day, Elizabeth Becker utilizes Kate's experiences as well as those of herself, Sylvana Foa, a reporter for U.P.I. and others to highlight the difficulties for women breaking into what was truly regarded as a man's world. The fact that Vietnam was not designated as a U.S. war prior to 1967 enabled women to jump into the void of not only Vietnam but Cambodia as well where they proved to be quite courageous.
Representing the Washington Post in Phnom Penh in 1973, a critical period in the war, Elizabeth Becker's credentials are shown below. Women correspondents had to prove themselves not only to the chauvinistic "gung ho" men around them, but even to someone presumably more refined such as Ambassador John Gunther Dean who asked a reporter to repeat a question saying he had been "distracted by Miss Becker's legs."
A few dozen women correspondents over a period of some ten years left a remarkable impact relative to the countless men of the press corps who passed through. Frances Fitzgerald of The New Yorker wrote Fire in the Lake: The Vietnamese and the Americans in Vietnam, a very popular book on the war. Elizabeth wrote When the War was Over: Cambodia and the Khmer Rouge Revolution, which is a classic history of Cambodia and the genocide there. She testified some thirty years later in the war crimes tribunal of the Khmer Rouge.
Elizabeth is one of two living western correspondents to interview the Khmer Rouge leader, Pol Pot. Elizabeth did so when Pol Pot was a young man in power. Many years later an acquaintance of the author, Nate Thayer, interviewed Pol Pot in his final days. Not surprisingly, Elizabeth said women would only partner with men they could trust. Koki Ishiyama, the resident Kyodo News correspondent, was her first war buddy. Thanks to him, she broke the story that Solath Sar, a.k.a. Pol Pot, was the real leader of the Khmer Rouge. Koki was later killed by the Khmer Rouge digging into the story.
Sylvana Foa, a reporter for U.P.I., broke the story that the American Embassy in Cambodia was illegally directing the air campaign. She is shown below with a couple of mighty Lon Nol soldiers before being expelled from the country following her discovery.
Ignoring her story, Sydney Schanberg of The New York Times, wrote basically the same story a week later and took credit for 32 years before admitting Sylvana had originally written the story which changed the conduct of the war in Cambodia. In fact, a CIA operative once related to the author that Sydney Schanberg, shown below, had caused the loss of countless lives by his disclosures. Seems to say something about our intelligence capability or chauvinism that Sylvana was not recognized as the one who unmasked the CIA. She became the first woman to be foreign editor at U.P.I. and later the first spokeswoman for the United Nations secretary general.
Reporters like Kate Webb, shown below, and Elizabeth had to buy their own tickets to Indochina and then find someone to give them a job in the battle zone. Kate paid a dear price for her enthusiasm as she was captured by the North Vietnamese and held for twenty-three days under awful conditions. Despite the publication of her obituary by The New York Times, she survived and published her accounts in her book On the Other Side: 23 Days with the Viet Cong. Kate pursued a long career in journalism until her death in 2007 following many wars and countries in crisis. A movie of her experiences is being filmed with Carey Mulligan playing Kate which will be the first of a woman war correspondent.
Below is an image of Elizabeth Becker published in The Cambodia Daily testifying as an expert witness in the war crimes tribunal of the Khmer Rouge in 2015. In a future blog, we will cover her motivation to do so and what has happened to The Cambodia Daily since that time.