Sir Max Hastings and the Vietnam War, 1971
We all jumped out of the helicopter and ran for the nearest trench. Then we heard laughter
MY WIFE SAID this photo made me look ridiculous, but back in 1971 I thought I was terribly cool with the sunglasses and the drooping cigarette. Nowadays one would be embarrassed to look like that at all.
I was learning how to be a television reporter, making films for a BBC current affairs programme. My father, Macdonald Hastings, who had also been a television reporter, gave me a tremendous ticking off after I appeared on camera wearing sunglasses. He said, ‘When you’re talking to an audience, however hot and sunny it is, you should never wear sunglasses because they can’t see your eyes.’ He was absolutely right. I never wore them on camera again.
I was 25 when this picture was taken and was still finding it a thrilling experience to do that kind of reporting. My producer, Bill Aaron, was a wonderful man – he’s on the left of the picture. Bill was the most talented director I ever worked with, but hated war zones. He was almost constantly blaspheming at how I’d dragged him to this terrible place. Despite that, we made some of the best films I ever made for television on that trip.
In the photo we were on an army base called Firebase Six, which was up in the west of South Vietnam. When we arrived the base had been under continuous communist fire for days. In fact our helicopter had a few fragments blown out of it just before we flew in, which scared us a good deal.
We landed and, assuming the base was still under bombardment, we all jumped out and ran to the nearest trench. Then we heard sounds of uproarious laughter because we’d arrived in the first lull in the firing for days and all the South Vietnamese troops were standing around laughing at the spectacle of us, cowering in a trench.
We filmed for a few hours and then got out before the communists reopened fire. Firebase Six was eventually lost to the communists. One felt desperately sorry for those soldiers you can see in the background – it was the first time in weeks that they’d been able to come out of their trenches, walk around and resupply and so on.
Working in those sorts of places, one was always in the same state: hot, filthy and exhausted. But for my generation of war correspondents it was one of the most, if not the most, vivid and frightening experiences of our careers. Vietnam was where every ambitious young journalist wanted to be. I carried on going almost every year from 1970 until the end of the war, when I left Saigon via the American embassy compound in the final evacuation in April 1975, at about six in the evening. That was about five hours before the Americans abandoned the embassy.
I got to Vietnam fairly late in the war, yet it was obvious from my first day that there was no chance that the Americans were going to win it. But I never felt like the other side deserved to win.
The American evacuation in 1975 signalled the end of the bloodshed, but it didn’t signal the end of the misery because the communists imposed such a ghastly regime on the whole of the country. For all of us who came away from Vietnam it was over, but for the Vietnamese people it never really ended.
— Interview by Jessica Carpani Vietnam: An Epic Tragedy 1945-1975, by Max Hastings (William Collins, £30), is out now
Sir Max Hastings (right) with producer Bill Aaron (left) in Vietnam