News & Politics

Nat Hentoff: Hey, New York Times, Quit Calling the North Vietnamese “The Enemy”


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June 29, 1972, Vol. XVII, No. 26

Know your enemy
By Nat Hentoff

–New York Times, May 28

–New York Times, June 6

Like many of you, I have long resented the routine use of “enemy” to describe the North Vietnamese and the National Liberation Front. Hearing the term on radio and television seeing it in newspapers and magazines, I get angry; and through all these years, the anger has not worn off. Quite the contrary.

First of all, personally , the North Vietnamese and the NLF are not my enemy. Second, since this undeclared war is unconstitutional — and I believe a future Supreme Court will in retrospect so declare — and since American actions in it have persistently violated international law and specific international agreements, the automatic use of “enemy” by American media gives protective cover to grossly illegal — not to speak of immoral — acts by a succession of American governments.

Third, it is much easier for Americans to distance themselves psychologically from the daily atrocities done in their name if they keep seeing their victims — including children — normatively referred to as part of “the enemy.”

Not all journalists are guilty of complicity in this murderously unthinking use of newspeak. I haven’t seen this usage in the works, for example, of Anthony Lewis. After visiting North Vietnam, moreover, Lewis wrote in the June 16 New York Times that the United States had indeed “burned bodies, bombed hospitals, used anti-tank bombs on a farm village. I told myself that the Communists had killed many of their own countrymen, with bullets and rockets and shells. But could that justify the pellet bombs and napalm, our application to Vietnam of all the massive technology of modern war, dealing death at large?”

In North Vietnam, Lewis was shown films taken after a B-52 raid on Haiphong on April 16: “…infant bodies laid out in a row…A pregnant woman dead. A school bombed while children were taking an exam.”

Were these corpses your enemy?

“How many Americans,” Lewis asks, “had any idea what was being done in their name? How many would care if they did know?”

It is, in part, a rhetorical question because Lewis, of course, is aware that the majority of the country is against the war. But he is also aware that only a minority of Americans feels sickened, day after day, at what is being done in their name. Fro the majority, however momentarily disquieting the photographs of burning Vietnamese flesh, there is an enemy; and while what happens to enemy civilians is unfortunate, that’s what war is, even an unpopular war.

The President (whether Kennedy, Johnson, or Nixon) tells them there is an enemy; and much more effectively, their “objective” news sources tell them, day after day, that there is an enemy.

Finally, one newspaper, Boston After Dark, has forced a number of news “communicators” to examine their usage of Boston After Dark was:


Beneath the banner was an analysis by Carl Oglesby of the new rise in American aggression in Vietnam.

As BAD’s editor, Theodore Gross, wrote me, that headline was intended as an attack “on papers which putatively oppose the war, yet insanely use ‘enemy’ and ‘foe’ in their headlines.”

The next week, in Boston After Dark, Kerry Gruson and Derek Shearer reported that they had “queried newspapers, radio, television, and wire service editors around the country for their policy on the use of such words as ‘enemy’ and ‘foe’ in describing the North Vietnamese and National Liberation Front. And their use of ‘ally’ for the South Vietnamese. In only a few instances did we find editors who had given thought to the issue of using such potentially loaded words in an undeclared war.”

From the responses:

Bob Healy, political editor, Boston Globe: “It never occurred to us before…I guess it is inconsistent with our editorial policy. Thanks for reminding us.”

“Reached at the end of the week,” Gruson and Shearer reported, “Healy said the Globe had decided not to use ‘enemy’ or ‘foe’ in headlines, and editors were still discussing what to do about editing wire service copy.”

At the time of the queries, the Boston Herald-Traveler was still publishing, and its news director, Ralph Long, a conservative, said: “Since the war started in ’61 or ’62 I’ve stayed away from those words. I’ve always insisted we use the proper nomenclature. In the absence of a declared war, I don’t feel we can use those words. From the point of view of objectivity, I don’t feel it’s right. Using those words gives it the connotation of a declared conflict.”

Remember that reply when you come to the response of the New York Times’ A.M. Rosenthal below.

“The Christian Science Monitor,” the report continued, “had the most explicit policy against using the word ‘enemy.’ On April 6, 1972, Earl Fel, the managing editor, issued a memo on Vietnam terminology to his foreign and national desks which stated that there had been some ‘back-sliding,’ and reminded writers and editors that it was Monitor policy to eliminate references to ‘the enemy’ and to ‘the allies’ in Vietnam coverage. These terms are to be described accurately, such as the North Vietnamese, the NLF, or pro-Saigon allies.

“‘Occasionally, something slips by,’ said Fel in a phone interview, ‘but this has been our policy for a long time. I’m still amazed when I see these words used in the New York Times.'”

…I have saved for last the statement by A.M. Rosenthal, managing editor of the New York Times.

The Times’ response to Boston After Dark: “The paper has received many letters on the issue and reviewed its policy a week ago, according to managing editor A.M. Rosenthal. The term ‘enemy’ is used in military but not political reporting. From the point of view of the soldier on the ground someone firing at him is an enemy. We’re not taking sides. Your question implies we should. Most wars are not declared these days.”

From the June 19 New York Times:


That’s not taking sides?

If you feel, as I do, that the routine media use of “enemy” ought to be seriously and persistently questioned, you might consider writing to each radio or television station or newspaper that goes along with this practice. You might ask whether there is an explicit policy. And how it is justified.

As for the Times, it might be useful to circle each use in that newspaper’s Vietnam coverage of “enemy” or “foe” and send the clipping directly to A.M. Rosenthal. As his collection grows, he may consider again whether it actually is true that in its news columns and headlines, the Times is “not taking sides.”

I would also like to hear from people in the media — at all levels — with regard to their experience and views on this question. And not only with regard to Vietnam. To what extent and degree do routine uses of pejorative terms in news stories and headlines condition the citizenry to accept governmental interpretation of the news?

As James Higgins has pointed out in the Phoenix (June 14), we hardly see any more references to “Red China” in the news these days. It’s the People’s Republic of China. Nixon is responsible for that change in usage. Why did the press wait for him to make the change?

With regard to who “the enemy” is in Vietnam, this is precisely the kind of issue on which reporters, if sufficiently troubled, can organize to request a dialogue with editors and management. If any such action does take place, I would appreciate being informed.

Does everybody at the New York Times for instance, agree with A.M. Rosenthal on the current proper usage of “enemy” in that paper’s news stories and headlines?

[Each weekday morning, we post an excerpt from another issue of the Voice, going in order from our oldest archives. Visit our Clip Job archive page to see excerpts back to 1956.]


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