The death of legendary CBS News reporter Morley Safer has brought renewed interest in his most famous news report, one that forever changed how Americans look at their country’s military power.
On August 3, 1965, Safer, who was one of the first broadcast journalists to be permanently assigned to Vietnam, accompanied a group of Marines to the village of Cam Ne. The village was suspected to be a Viet Cong stronghold, and the Marines were ordered to seek and destroy. Instead, the village was filled with women, children and the elderly.
Safer’s crew rolled the cameras as the Marines ordered the villagers out of their homes and set 150 huts ablaze with the villagers’ possessions still inside. The operation captured four prisoners, all of whom were elderly men who did not understand English.
“Today’s operation is the frustration of Vietnam in miniature,” Safer said at the conclusion of his CBS report. “There is little doubt that American firepower can win a military victory here. But to a Vietnamese peasant whose home means a lifetime of back-breaking labor, it will take more than presidential promises to convince him that we are on his side.”
The report sent shockwaves through Washington after it was broadcast on Walter Cronkite’s news program. It was the first time that Americans had seen the military portrayed in a less-than-favorable light on TV.
Some Americans were not ready to accept what the report was showing them. In his 1990 book “Flashbacks: On Returning To Vietnam,” Safer wrote about how CBS News was inundated with letters from viewers criticizing Cronkite and his team for airing the story. CBS News head Frank Stanton received a vitriolic call from President Lyndon B. Johnson, who accused him of desecrating the American flag. The Pentagon demanded that CBS pull Safer out of Vietnam, but the network refused.
Military officials argued that Safer’s report did not note that U.S. troops had taken casualties near Cam Ne in the previous month, but they nonetheless saw the report as a reminder that their use of force could cause Vietnamese civilians to pledge their support to the Viet Cong.
Back at home, the story made Morley Safer’s career, kicking off a tenure at CBS that earned him 12 Emmys and a senior position on the staff of “60 Minutes.”