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January/February 2019
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Gloria Emerson
Photograph by Richard Avedon  © The Richard Avedon Foundation

In 1956 Gloria Emerson followed a young CIA officer to Saigon. There, she told Thomas D. Herman in an interview for his documentary, Shooting The Messenger, she found “a beautiful city that was full of optimistic CIA ‘boys’—the disciples of Ed Lansdale. They believed they could tidy up the world, and I thought they could. Of course, I didn’t see what was coming later.”

A Few Good WomenEmerson wanted to return. She lobbied for more than ten years to get a position in the Saigon bureau of The New York Times. She was fond of saying, “They finally sent me because they had run out of men.”

When she returned in 1970, she found a different Saigon: “The city had been deformed in a hundred different ways. It had a kind of sepsis. The war had gone into every corner of every life, and the Vietnamese value harmony very much. There was no harmony, there was no order, there was no calm.”

And the optimistic CIA boys were long gone. “The war was old when I got to it, and it often seemed preposterous, since few believed we could win. The mood was sour, angry, defiant,” she wrote in her introduction to War Torn: Stories of War from the Women Reporters Who Covered Vietnam. “There were no serious discussions of where this was headed. It was so absurd, it was such a colossal fraud, that any serious conversation would disintegrate immediately. The drug use when I was there had escalated severely.”

Seymour Hersh, in The Price of Power: Kissinger in the Nixon White House, wrote that while Gloria was renowned for her humane reporting of the war’s victims, she was also a skilled investigative reporter who had developed her sources. He cited her 1971 exposé in The New York Times in which she revealed how surveys taken by American pacification workers under the supervision of career CIA officer William Colby were turned over to South Vietnamese President Nguyen Van Thieu and his political advisers, who in turn, made use of these classified surveys in the 1971 election.

Two years after the massacre, she went to My Lai with Ron Ridenhour, the key whistleblower. Ridenhour had interviewed men who had been there, and they were warned that there was a $5,000 price on his head. Gloria slept in his room, she said, because, “if he was going to be killed, I wanted to be there to help.”

Between March 5, 1970, and June 23, 1972, she filed more than two hundred stories from Vietnam for The New York Times, for which she won a George Polk Award for excellence in foreign reporting and, later, a Matrix Award from New York Women in Communications.

Coverage From Vietnam

In their collection of portraits and interviews, The Sixties, Richard Avedon and Doon Arbus include Gloria Emerson. She told them:

“Vietnam is just a confirmation of everything we feared might happen in life. And it has happened. You know, a lot of people in Vietnam—and I might be one of them—could be mourners as a profession. Morticians and mourners. It draws people who are seeking confirmation of tragedies.

“Once I got so desperate—the Americans had started bombing Hanoi—I ran to the National Press Center where they give the briefings, a forty-year-old woman running through the streets in the middle of the night, and I wrote on the wall in Magic Marker, ‘Father, forgive. They know not what they do.’ And I don’t even believe in God. Who is Father? But there were no other words in the whole English language.

“If they found out it was me, they would have sent me home. New York Times correspondents must not go running around at two o’clock in the morning writing, ‘Father, forgive, they know not what they do.’ But afterward I thought how there’s no way and no one to whom you say we’re sorry.”

In 1972 Gloria Emerson left The Times to write her book, Winners & Losers: Battles, Retreats, Gains, Losses, and Ruins from the Vietnam War. In her self-penned obituary, she describes the book as “too huge and somewhat messy.” Still, it was the recipient of the 1978 National Book Award in Contemporary Thought.

Winners & Losers did not receive a good review in her former paper, The New York Times. It had been given to book editor Christopher Lehmann Haupt for review, whom Gloria mocked in the book’s introduction. In his review, Lehmann Haupt damned Emerson’s prose as “execrable.” She later commented, “That he was allowed to review a book that scorned him says much about the prevailing ethic of the paper.”

In her 1985 forward to Winners & Losers, Gloria wrote: “This is only a book by an American who witnessed the war for two years and came home with memories to harm the strongest heart, needing to love her country again and to listen to its people as she had never listened before”

Focusing on the War’s Aftermath

When the rest of the nation was quick to put the war in its rear-view mirror—and as Hollywood churned out Vietnam veteran villains—Gloria persisted in her coverage of the war, focusing on its aftermath and the young men and women who had served in it.

She gave voice to veterans, noting that “some men have a need to speak to stay sane, but more keep their silence. One man told me space should have been left [on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial] for the men who have begun to die from their exposure to Agent Orange.”

In 1983 the School of Journalism at the University of Southern California convened a conference on the Vietnam War, and Gloria was asked to chair a panel on the war and its veterans. “I had planned to speak for three minutes,” she announced. “I am now going to cut it because some of the men on my panel have been waiting for fifteen years to speak.”

She noted that “among us are people trying to finish off the war at last in a decent and intelligent way,” and she wrote of the “delegations of veterans, those who did the fighting, have returned to Vietnam, including members of Vietnam Veterans of America, the largest and most coherent of a score of veterans organizations.”

Continuing Her Work

We were at the VVA Leadership Conference in Nashville on August 3, 2004, when we learned of Gloria’s passing. Randy Barnes, Marc Leepson, Rick Weidman, and Mike Gaffney came together to toast her. “If you read my section of her book, you’ll recognize me as that ‘large, affable fellow,’” Randy confided.

That night, Randy was agitated. He was passionate, and he told me, “You have to write about them. You have to tell their story.” He was talking about the veterans of the Iraq War who were returning. That night, as I listened to Randy, it was as if he were channeling Gloria, and her message was clear. We must speak out for those without a voice, because that is what Gloria wants from us, for us to continue her work, and the work she had assigned to us.

Later Randy wrote, “She was such a sweetheart, and she loved us all. She loved her Vietnam veterans. God Bless you, Gloria, and I know that you are with the rest of our brothers. Just hope God allows smoking in heaven. My prayers for you, girl.”

We know that Gloria read every issue of The VVA Veteran from cover to cover. On occasion, as editor, I would receive directives from her. She insisted on the endless Platoon 1005 series by W.D. Ehrhart, chronicling the before, during, and after lives of his fellow Marine recruits from Parris Island. In 1993 Ehrhart had begun a five-year odyssey to reconnect with all eighty members of his platoon. The series appeared in The Veteran and later was published as Ordinary Lives: Platoon 1005 and the Vietnam War.

Gloria introduced us to Catherine Leroy, the French-born photojournalist who went to Vietnam in 1966 at the age of 21 and by 1967 had won the George Polk Award for News Photography. Leroy’s photos and accompanying essays ran in The VVA Veteran.

War tore at Gloria’s soul. Her Vietnam veteran friends would say that she had severe PTSD. I heard more than once of her being shoved into the door gunner’s seat in a helicopter. They would talk about all she had seen, recognizing that Vietnam was not her first combat zone. But despite her “prickly personality,” which we all excused, she was empathetic, wise, and generous to a fault.

Enraptured at the 1993 Convention

I first met Gloria in 1993 at VVA’s National Convention in Norfolk. There she was, six feet tall, dressed elegantly in black and white, her makeup perfectly applied. She had an air of nobility, and I felt I was in the presence of American royalty. I had heard that she was related to the essayist and poet Ralph Waldo Emerson.

We were enraptured. She told us stories about the war, notably about journalist Neil Sheehan’s writer’s block. She wanted to know about the political climate of VVA. She was preparing for the next day, when she would receive the VVA President’s Award for Excellence in the Arts and appear on a panel moderated by The Veteran’s Arts Editor Marc Leepson.

She understood men. In 1985, she wrote a book called Some American Men. Though she says in her prologue that “It seems as if all men were strangers until my late thirties when, as a New York Times reporter covering the war in Vietnam at its oldest, I saw huge numbers of American men as few women do: in unimaginable misery and peril. No other American men had ever spoken to me as they did. Knowing them, all camouflage between us put aside, taught me not only how to speak to other men but how to hear what once I might not have heard at all.”

At the Convention in Norfolk she learned of the first Veterans Initiative trip. It was 1993, and VVA was to send a team of veterans to meet with their former enemy with the mission of delivering fate-clarifying information—maps of mass burial sites, diaries, and other artifacts—that might help the Vietnamese locate the remains of their MIAs.

First, Gloria inscribed my copy of Winners & Losers, “To Mokie, Wishing her well on her great voyage to Vietnam.” Then she tried to talk me out of going: “Stay home and take care of your babies,” she said.

Shortly after, at home, and while settling in with my copy of Winners & Losers, the phone rang. It was Gloria. I was thrilled; I felt special. Gloria had a gift for making you feel that way.

She was following up on the Veterans Initiative. She gave me two names: Wayne Karlin and George Esper. Esper showed us what chasing a story meant when he and his photographer, Lois Raimando, gave 60 Minutes a run for their money when they tailed correspondent Steve Kroft to the location of the first mass grave site the Veterans Initiative team visited in Tay Ninh Province. And thanks to Gloria and George, the stories from the Associated Press reached 38 million households in the U.S. and were picked up by countless English-speaking newspapers around the world.  

In 2003 Gloria and I schemed for a way to get her together with her veterans. We came up with the idea of a gathering at the National Press Club. As fortune would have it, shortly thereafter Randy Fertel invited her to help host the Ridenhour Awards. Happily, her reunion with her veterans materialized, and I could tell it brought her great satisfaction to be among old friends.

The last time I saw her, elegant Gloria was pulling away from the National Press Club in a long black limousine. In the back seat, she and one of her adoring Vietnam veterans, Mike Gaffney, were deep in conversation about the war.

She took her life at 75. She left notes around her apartment. She had Parkinson’s and feared she would no longer be able to write. She suffered from ghosts.

A memorial service was held for Gloria Emerson in New York on September 29, 2004. Kevin Buckley, who had been in Cambodia in 1970 for Newsweek, called upon his friend: “Dear Gloria, Rest in peace, but never give us any.”

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