After dropping out of Harvard Law school, quitting a job at a large corporation, and serving his time in the military as part of the newspaper staff, Sydney Schanberg finally realized his true passion-reporting for a newspaper. Upon arriving back to America after his time in the military, Schanberg applied to many newspaper companies and landed a job with The New York Times. During the Vietnam War, Schanberg was assigned to report in Cambodia which allowed him to see everything that was happening in the northern areas; however, American troops were soon pulled out of Cambodia, allowing Vietnamese troops to push further into the country that was trying to stay neutral. Along with the U.S. troops, Schanberg was also pulled out of Cambodia and assigned to report from India. Though he was assigned to report on nearby countries not involved in the war–the Philippines, Indonesia, Thailand, Singapore–his interest still laid within Cambodia. Yearning to report full time on the events in Cambodia, Schanberg’s editor soon allowed him to be re-stationed in the country, and Schanberg went to stay at the U.S. Embassy in Phnom Penh.
When the Khmer Rouge, a brutal Communist regime of Cambodia, first entered Phnom Penh, there was a celebratory mood, but citizens soon realized this invasion was quite the opposite of a celebration. The Khmer Rouge ordered everyone into fields, and they led Schanberg and others from the U.S. Embassy to the banks of the Mekong River. Many believed they were going to be shot and thrown into the river, and they were right. However, Schanberg’s colleague Dith Pran talked the leaders out of killing Schanberg, and the American’s life was spared.
When the peace accords were signed in 1973 and all troops were pulled out of Vietnam, Schanberg and others still believed that there were U.S POW’s left behind, specifically in Laos. Though many confronted President Nixon about it, he acknowledged it but made minimal effort to try to rescue the Americans. He was more concerned with pulling the U.S out of Asia and devoted no attention to these POW’s. Information about these POW’s stills arises today, but finding any that still exist is almost impossible.
I found this interview interesting because this was the first kind of interview I’ve heard from the experience of a newspaper reporter. While my grandparents left Vietnam after the fall of Saigon and I have heard a few stories from them, most of the information I’ve learned about the Vietnam War has been through history class. I have read and watched a couple documentaries over the war, but most of these interview people who served in the military or were civilians directly involved with it. Oftentimes when we cover this topic in school, it is covered only briefly and details are not elaborated. However, the interview with Sydney Schanberg exposed me to another aspect of the war that often does not receive much attention–American POW’s. The reporter doesn’t just talk about any American POW’s, though; he reveals a frightening story about American POW’s knowingly left behind by the U.S government. The fact that President Nixon knowingly left behind these men who were dutifully serving their country appalled me the most from this interview. Though I know Nixon was desperate to pull troops out of Vietnam due to public pressure and the breaking of Watergate, I was surprised at what little he did to try to recover the missing men from Laos. Recordings and documents show that he discussed the issue, but he never acted to rescue these captured Americans.
From this interview, I also realized the bravery of American reporter Sydney Schanberg. While I know many involved or affected by the Vietnam War have courage and strength, Sydney Schanberg was courageous in a similar but also different sense. The Khmer Rouge is one of the most ruthless regimes in history. Though their actions are not as well known as others, such as Adolf Hitler and the Nazis, in a span of four years this regime killed millions of people. Schanberg confronted these cold-blooded killers face-to-face while on the banks of the Mekong River. Though his life would probably have ended that day, he managed to be freed. While Schanberg doesn’t elaborate on the events that happened on the river banks that day, his survival from this incident is amazing. When he returned to the U.S. he did not immediately begin researching the POW’s that were left behind. Nevertheless, he did a few years later and was one of the few who tried to research the American government’s actions. In his interview, Schanberg says that many reporters try to brown nose officials, so many were unwilling to report on the story of the left-behind POW’s for fear of losing access with officials in Washington. Because of this attitude, the public doesn’t always receive full disclosure on stories. Though his attitude has caused much animosity towards him, I admire Schanberg’s attitude that journalists owe it to the public to report on any story-good or bad-as it happened. Disheartened yet inspired, horrified yet amazed, appalled yet reassured from this interview, I am taken aback by the uncompassionate actions of the U.S government toward the American POW’s left behind in Laos but admire the courageous actions of Sydney Schanberg during the war and his defiance against mainstream reporting.
Here is the link to the interview with Sydney Schanberg: