Book Review: Guerilla Nation brings to life the challenges faced by the first western journalist reporting from North Vietnam
Michael Maclear is not as well-known as he should be, writes David Common, host of CBC’s World Report, in this review of the journalist’s latest book Guerilla Nation. But that’s a shame because Maclear’s tales of North Vietnam, as well as his struggles with Canada’s public broadcaster, are riveting.
Michael Maclear | Guerilla Nation | Dundurn | Paperback $19.99
Reviewed by David Common, host of CBC’s World Report
With all its lies and misinformation, the history of the undeclared Vietnam War might well be different were it not for Michael Maclear. With unprecedented access to the north, Maclear revealed the conflict's impact on America's stubborn adversary. His timing could be defined only as incredible, arriving just days before Ho Chi Minh's death on his first visit to Vietnam in 1969. As the sole western journalist present, the Canadian was in demand by the major American networks and dailies.
As a current CBC journalist, I have had some of the same travel experiences as Maclear. And yet, I was born after his Vietnam saga began. Truth be told, I'd never heard of the guy. It's a shame. I'm very glad to have done so now, through the pages of Guerrilla Nation. It is no less relevant to someone who did not live through the pain of Vietnam. On the contrary, it is likely a more important read for those of us who did not.
It became the defining assignment of this well-travelled correspondent. And Guerrilla Nation documents a history only Maclear experienced. Who knew it would begin by breaking the rules – by using a honed source first to obtain a visa, then ignoring a message indicating the visa has been cancelled.
Guerrilla Nation transports the reader to the bombed-out ruins, the fields of bodies and the nothingness of a terrain battered daily for years by American bombs from the sky. But he does so from an era long past, when reporters were not subject to the demands of a 24-hour news cycle. It was accepted back then that he would disappear from view for two or more weeks, virtually incommunicado, to work on a documentary. He was not tied to editors by satellite phones and the demands for content by a network as ravenous for new content as a braying donkey.
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But the “network” becomes a bad word in Guerrilla Nation, a synonym for an unprofessional, bureaucratic and vengeful CBC. It’s not at all reflective of today's public broadcaster, but relations with the CBC devolved into Maclear's own war—surpassing the apparent stress from the actual conflict raging in Vietnam. Decades later, Maclear is clearly bitter, and it’s one of the riveting points of friction in the book.
Maclear gained extraordinary access first to Hanoi and later to the North Vietnamese leadership. He eventually became the first western journalist to interview American POWs. Demand for that story was immediate and occupied a third of U.S. television networks’ evening broadcasts. That made Maclear a target of the U.S. Defense Secretary, who dismissed the Canadian's work as little more than propaganda, a staged event that was not indicative of the near-constant torture the American people were being assured was a daily routine for every prisoner.
And so began the difficulties with CBC. Already inclined to trust a wire report over their own reporter in the field, editors became increasingly suspicious of Maclear. Because he showed his documentaries to American agents before broadcast (a clear contravention of today's widely held ethical standards), Maclear’s work was dismissed as “pinko crap.” Maclear was made to defend his work in response to the American criticism, with no official support from his employer.
The relationship degraded sharply, and while CBC profited from his work handsomely by selling Vietnam stories to ravenous American broadcasters, it did little (in Maclear's account) to make him feel wanted. In the face of that, Vietnam became Maclear's personal calling and his accounts, even all these decades later, are precise and gripping.[node:ad]
Along the way, we meet Knowlton Nash, Morley Safer and Henry Champ. And the CBC bosses who punished and suspended Maclear, even as his work was being celebrated by others.
The book is an account of Maclear’s visits to Vietnam, including his most recent one, which provides a contemporary context to his narrative. The sole regret for the reader is that the book has only appeared now. Maclear is in his 80s. It makes the book no less relevant and no less fascinating, but it was a story worth telling ages ago.
That’s not to say Maclear hasn’t been busy. His documentary film Ten Thousand Day War consumed his attention for years and has proven to be a seminal account (for both sides) of the lasting conflict.
Maclear did not bring about the end of the conflict. But there is little doubt his work had global consequences, bringing the enemy into the living rooms of the American public, which experienced the war largely in government-imposed ignorance. Maclear's memory of the characters he encountered is surprisingly clear four decades later. He was a central figure in coverage of the conflict, and at long last, we have his behind-the-scenes account of a unique adventure, which made history.
David Common is the host of World Report on CBC Radio 1 and a correspondent to CBC News. He has previously been based in New York, Paris and across Canada and has traveled extensively to more than 60 countries.
*Due to an editing mistake, an earlier version of this review incorrectly identified Knowlton Nash, Morley Safer and Henry Champ as CBC management. Nash was a senior anchor at CBC, Safer was a correspondent for CBS News and Champ was a correspondent for CTV News.