Who Stole My Country 72 – Reception in the United States

On the way back from Hanoi we made a direct connection with no layover in Peking, but we spent a day in Moscow waiting for a flight to New York.  I met several Soviet Asian specialists.  I asked why the Soviets were not giving the Vietnamese more sophisticated weaponry, such as jet fighters to challenge American air supremacy.  They replied that the Vietnamese refused anything they couldn’t operate by themselves.  They didn’t want Vietnam to find itself in the position of Cuba during the Missile crisis, with the Soviet Union doing all the negotiating.


1960’s Bra Ad

On the flight from Moscow to New York City, I was offered a copy of the New York Times, my first Western newspaper in six weeks.  I read the front page eagerly and then turned to the inside pages and experienced a cultural shock.  For six weeks I had lived in a world without advertising, marketing or commercial hype.  There before me, was a Lord and Taylor ad, a photograph of a sexy young woman in a matching bra and panties  next to a detailed report about the bombing campaign against North Vietnam.

The juxtaposition of the bombing and the young girl dressed in her underwear at that moment seemed obscene.  All the ads, in fact, spoke of a culture that was out of tune with most people in the world, a culture of promiscuous self-indulgence that could rain death down upon a tiny country in a far off land because it didn’t like its political ideology.  The passport control officer told me as he stamped my passport revealing only my trip to the Soviet Union, “Welcome back to the free world.”

We held a news conference shortly after our return.  It was well attended by the national press but did not generate many articles beyond two columns in the New York Times and a lengthy piece in St Louis Post Dispatch.  The AP wire picked it up, but I’m not sure how much play it got.  All four networks interviewed me, but not one frame of video ever aired. Bob Potts did the interview for PBS.  Bob had been my news director at WBAI and I called him when the piece didn’t air.  He told me a segment with my interview had been put into the show in Ne York, but it was pulled at the last-minute by “someone in Washington.”

Pacifica’s management claimed to be outraged that I hadn’t warned them about the trip in advance. They’d been caught by surprise.  As soon as I left for my presumed vacation in Paris, Trevor Thomas made one of WBAI’s marginal staff members acting station manager in my place.  Chris Albertson was an Icelander who became a naturalized US citizen in 1963, primarily because of his love for American Jazz.  Albertson had worked at a number of radio stations and was well-known for his interview with Lester Young, one of only two extant interviews ever done with the tenor saxophonist. He was the voice introducing my twelve part series, This Little Light, on freedom summer 1964.

On the air at WBAI - 1

Chris Albertson

Albertson had a long, angular Scandinavian face.  He dressed in gray and black clothes from the beatnik age tailored with a European cut.  He was stand-offish and self-conscious, like the character out of a Bergman movie.  He must have been the only available person working for WBAI who didn’t have a dog in the fight between Pacifica’s management and its staff.

The board ordered Albertson to review my Vietnam scripts.  He decided I had 113 errors of fact or exaggeration.  I tried to discuss the presumed errors, but probably did so in such an officious tone that Albertson collapsed in exasperation.  He dug his heels in and insisted I make ridiculous changes.  I asked to have the scripts reviewed by an area expert.  Pacifica found two journalists.  I don’t recall who they were.  They went over my scripts and reduced the errors … or unproven facts … to three.

I’d won the battle of the scripts but lost the war.  I no longer had the confidence of Pacifica’s Board of Directors and management.  If they didn’t have faith in my judgment then I had no business being their program director.  I resigned.

Most of the staff left with me.  Within six months subscriptions at WBAI dropped from a high of twelve thousand to only slightly more than seven thousand.  It was the end of an era.  My Pacifica generation already was on the way out.  Mike Tigar had returned to the law. Fred Haines had gone off to Europe. John Leonard was at the New York Times. Dick Elman had quit over the loyalty oath.  Jerry Shore was gone and Elsa was on the run. So was I.

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