Nayan Chanda Interview: Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley
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Now that you've been a journalist, and a very successful journalist, for quite a while, what does it take to be a journalist? What are the skills that make this work doable?
I think the most important skill or quality you need is curiosity. You have to be really curious about things, wanting to find out why and how, and who. And in order to do that, you do have to have a background in history. I think especially political journalism you simply cannot do without a historical context, understanding the context in which things are happening. So majoring in history and the research in history was very helpful to me.
Your beat, so to speak, has been the world and Asia. That means that your preparation in history requires a lot of different kinds of reading, moving beyond national histories of what is happening. Is that the case?
Yes, and history not only of one particular country, but history of the neighboring countries, understanding interrelationships, and, of course, reading politics and sociology, economics, because all these play a role in shaping events. In 1974 I was working on a thesis in the Sorbonne on the domestic roots of Cambodian foreign policy under Sihanouk -- that was the subject of my dissertation -- when the Far Eastern Economic Review offered me a job as the Indochina correspondent of the magazine, based in Saigon. I had written some freelance articles for their magazines before that, and I could not resist the temptation of this job, because the Vietnam War officially had ended, the Paris Peace Accord was signed in '73, and U.S. troops had withdrawn, but the war was still continuing. I arrived there just when the war was reaching the last stage. [On] April 30, 1975, when the North Vietnamese tanks entered the palace in Saigon ending the war, as luck would have it, I was in Saigon. I had decided to stay on in Saigon when the Americans pulled out and journalists mostly pulled out. I had decided to stay on; I forced my wife to leave, my newly married wife, and I stayed on in Saigon to watch the last act of the drama. The Reuters news agency had sent out their own staff, because they were concerned about their safety, but since I had decided to stay on, they asked me whether I would file for them as well. So I was also filing for the Reuters news agency, and Reuters's office was just diagonally across from the Presidential Palace. At 11:30 the morning of April 30th, I was writing a story about the American Embassy being looted after the last helicopter left, and saying that the end seems to be near. I heard a huge sound. I looked through the open door and I saw a tank crossing the frame of the door. And at the back of the tank from the antenna, a red flag hanging; and I said, "Wow, they're already here!" So I rushed out to take pictures of the tank and filed a one-sentence flash to Reuters about the war being over.
So your dream was fulfilled, just as you started.
A turning point in history. What were your feelings at that moment? On the one hand you must have been terribly excited about the opportunity, but then, I guess, awed by the fact that you were the eyes and ears for the rest of the world.
Yes, it was a truly tremendous responsibility I felt, because, of course, the telex link was cut within half an hour. After a week they restored a cable link -- no longer telex, but we could write stories and give them to the post office, the cable office. So what I filed for Reuters, I could hear in the evening on the BBC Bulletin, because that was the only story they were getting out of Saigon.
So were you the only reporter left?
About fifty journalists, all together, mostly Japanese, a few Americans, Europeans.
This is a good way to understand the work of journalists. So you have these emotions, you are a witness to history, but then you've got to put it all down in words. Did you have to struggle with the words, beyond the short sentence announcing what had happened?
Yes, I think the struggle was to decide which were the most important facts that I needed to tell, because I had a budget and could send only one story a day. What was I going to tell the world about what was happening in Vietnam under the Communist rule? And so, selecting: there are so many things happening around you, and finding the most important or salient point that, perhaps, gives a bigger picture.
What did you choose? Do you remember from that story or the other stories that you filed?
Yes, I think it was the sense of relief, rather than celebration. Because the Saigon population, generally, were terrified that the communists were coming and that they would "tear out the polished nails of our girls, and cut the long hair of the hippie youth, and arrest all the old regime." And, initially, the behavior [of the North Vietnamese soldiers] was actually exemplary. They were shy country bumpkins, wearing baggy green uniforms, very polite. They would look at a little compass to find out where they were, without asking anybody, "How do I get there?" They were too shy to ask anybody. The South Vietnamese, initially, were terrified of the North Vietnamese, and then they became friendly, and then almost kind of mocking that these people were really illiterate country bumpkins. "We can make fun of them." So you'd see South Vietnamese trying to sell them wristwatches, you could see people holding a glass of water, putting a wristwatch in it. And North Vietnamese soldiers were watching with amazement that the hand is still moving underwater. So they would sell this stuff at a high price to these people, who have never seen a waterproof wristwatch. And the Saigonese returned to their old tricks of being very ...
Taking advantage of the bumpkins.
Taking advantage, right. And so the changing reaction of the Saigon population toward the victors was one story. And then how the new government was trying to establish its control, all kinds of laws and resolutions they were passing. And slowly, but in a methodical way, the North Vietnamese took control. And it was quite amazing to see how they did it, without any violence. They started asking people to come to report for a week, or maybe a few days, of "re-education," they called it. Many of the former generals and officials disappeared for years. They were taken on a false premise that this was going to be a week of study of Marxist manners, Ho Chi Minh's thought, and you'll be back with your family. By doing this, the North Vietnamese avoided any resistance. Nobody protested. They said, "Oh, well, you know, this is a small thing." And so this was a very astute and an insidious way in which they established control.
I'm curious about your thoughts at this time, both on the one hand in being critical, as you said, of American policies there, but on the other hand, coming from a free society like India and being aware of the implications. Talk a little about those ambivalences and how they affected your writing about what you were witnessing.
The experience of living under a Communist regime was very salutary, because when you are looking at the war just from outside, you see a big power expending a huge amount on a poor countryside, common people, poor people being hurt. The ideological aspect of the war -- what the communists were trying to do -- was not evident from outside. And, obviously, there are many books; if I had read those books, I would have, perhaps, been more aware of those issues. Now, living in Vietnam in those times and, eventually going back to Vietnam on many trips to Communist Vietnam, seeing how the society is regimented, how the Party controls your life, gave you a different dimension. I think the kind of education we get by being in a society like this is far more interesting than reading it in a book.
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