Seymour Hersh on the US civil rights movement and the Vietnam War

Seymour Hersh recalls his career as a journalist covering the political and social stories that defined 20th-century America

Crowds march through the streets of Chicago to hear Martin Luther King speak at the Illinois Rally for Civil Right on 21 June 1964

Born in 1937, Seymour Hersh began his career as a journalist in Chicago in the late 1950s. Across the ensuing half-century he reported on major episodes in US history, including the evolution of the civil rights movement, military atrocities in the Vietnam War and, in 2004, the torture by US personnel of detainees in Iraq’s Abu Ghraib prison. His writing has appeared in leading publications such as The New Yorker and The New York Times, and has been recognised with awards including the Pulitzer Prize for International Reporting.

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My parents came to the United States from eastern Europe, Jewish immigrants – that’s a very bad word these days, but I can assure you they weren’t in any gangs – and they didn’t communicate much. Neither of them spoke much about what led them to come to the US.

My father got cancer when I was 15, and I took over the running of the family business, a cleaning store in Chicago’s black ghetto, until I was 22. That experience meant that I knew the African-American world well and had some empathy for the fact that, if your colour was ‘wrong’ in the 1950s, there was nowhere to go. Things are still bad for black people in the United States now, but nothing like they were then.

Seymour Hersh pictured in 1982, won a Pulitzer Prize for International Reporting for his work reporting on the massacre of Vietnamese civilians at Mỹ Lai by US troops
Seymour Hersh pictured in 1982, won a Pulitzer Prize for International Reporting for his work reporting on the massacre of Vietnamese civilians at Mỹ Lai by US troops. (Photo by James A. Parcell/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

Eventually, after dropping out of law school because I hated it, I got a job in 1959 as a street reporter for City News. It was a crime newspaper agency, set up in 1890, that later reported on the heyday of gangsters such as John Dillinger in the 1920s and 1930s. That was a period during which newspapers and radio stations simply couldn’t cover all of the crime that was being committed in Chicago. We covered the police and the courts, and I worked on the street as a reporter. That’s when I first fell in love with the newspaper business.

There were rules for reporting crime in Chicago. You did not report on cops killing black people, which happened a lot

There were strict rules on reporting crime in Chicago in the early 1960s. You did not report on cops killing black people, which happened a lot, and you did not report on cops taking care of the mafia. I learned two things about reporting in that period – the first about tyranny, the second about self-censorship, which is all over my profession.

As an example, I heard a cop radio in the fact that he had shot a black suspect as he fled. I ran down to the underground parking lot of the police headquarters to talk to the cop about what had happened. As I was walking towards his car, he got out and started talking to one of his friends, who was also a policeman. He said: “Nah, I told the nigger he was okay, told him to beat it – and then I shot him.”

When I called the story in to my editor at City News, he said to forget about it – it would just be my word against the cop’s – and if I pushed it, I’d have to be moved out of that station. Eventually I left and, in 1963, became a correspondent for the Associated Press news agency.

This was the period during which the civil rights activist Martin Luther King led marches in Chicago. The fact that he was standing up and doing something about institutional racism terrified many white people: they thought it would lead to violence, or to black people taking their jobs. People threw stones at him, but he kept on walking even though he was frightened. There’d be news conferences where we’d be so worried that somebody was going to hit him in the head with a stone. He’d finish the conference, and because I was the guy from the Associated Press – at that time you had the AP in every newspaper around America – he’d give me a look, crook his finger at me, and I’d know to wait for ten minutes before dutifully following him around the corner. He’d give me a lot of good quotes – something that he hadn’t said previously. I used to get great stories from him. I guess you could call it love at first sight.

After about six to eight months at the Associated Press, my job was simply to come to work and find something to write about every day. I didn’t have to edit stories; I didn’t have to work on a particular ‘desk’. I owned the city! I wrote about civil rights, I wrote about the Vietnam War – which by then had been going on for a decade – and, eventually, they transferred me to Washington to cover the Pentagon.

I soon got into a lot of trouble there because I felt my job was not to let people such as Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara dictate our policy as journalists. Our job was to go beyond. I was new to the Pentagon, new to Washington, and I was just cheeky. For instance, I phoned up the vice president, Hubert Humphrey, when he was at home in Minnesota for Christmas in 1965. He’d had a few drinks, and talked about a peace agreement with the North Vietnamese. That was particularly amazing because nobody else was even talking about anything like it at that time.

Even though I’d been assigned to cover the Pentagon, I had been reading up a lot about the Vietnam War. By this time, various church groups had started to write about the underside of the war, talking to kids coming back from fighting, that kind of thing. So I began writing critically about it – began nipping at McNamara’s heels. That didn’t go down too well. Eventually I was reassigned to write about social issues, which are fine – but the move came as something of a message to me.

The managing editor of the AP, particularly, didn’t like what I was doing, and thought I was taking a stand against the war. I tried to explain to him that the only stance against the war was that it was crazy. I always had a streak of not wanting to accept the diktat of editors! So, in 1967 I left to become a freelance journalist.

In the fall of 1969, I got a phone call tipping me off that a GI was being court-martialled for killing civilians in South Vietnam the previous year. Even though there was not much to go on, and no public mention of the scale of the massacre the source spoke about, I thought it was worth following up on because other people wouldn’t. Once I got the story – and that’s a story in itself – I just worked my head off.

Despite reports that just one young officer, Lieutenant William Calley, did all the killing, in the village of Sơn Mỹ in Quảng Ngãi Province, I still couldn’t make sense of it. I tracked Calley down, indirectly via his lawyer, along with other people in the unit who had shot and killed people and admitted to it. In total, hundreds of people had been killed in what became known in the west as the Mỹ Lai Massacre.

Once I’d done all that, I thought the story was in good shape, but nobody wanted it. I couldn’t get anyone to buy the story, so eventually I gave it to a news service. I wrote five stories in five weeks, won various prizes, and convinced the public I had something to say.

Today, the fact that the media underestimates Donald Trump as president worries me. He knocked down 16 candidates during the nominations, ended two presidential dynasties – the Bushes and the Clintons – and all with no political experience. That’s a pretty amazing feat. He tweets stupid, ridiculous things, but the press are caught up following that. They let him lead them by the nose. Just publishing everything he says is a stupid way to run a newspaper business.

Seymour Hersh is an investigative journalist and political writer. His autobiography, Reporter: A Memoir is out now, published by Allen Lane

Interview by Matt Elton

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This article was taken from issue 12 of BBC World Histories magazine