In mid-December 1952, a plane from the United States Embassy in Singapore landed in Saigon, Vietnam. The passenger aboard was Henry R. Luce, head of Time Inc., who was there to see what was increasingly becoming another front in an expanding war against Communism. Luce spent a couple of days in Vietnam, visiting both the north and the south, meeting the Vietnamese Emperor Bao Dai, General Linares, the French Commander in Tonkin, and General Salan, the French Commander in Chief, among others.
Just days prior to his arrival, the French forces were able to defeat a larger army of the Viet Minh at Na San, in the north of the country. Although the same tactics used at Na San would spell disaster less than two years later at the Battle of Dien Bien Phu, the situation in 1952 appeared hopeful and Luce came away believing that the following year would decide the issue:
“In Indo-China in 1953 the situation must change for substantially better or worse. The United States is already paying directly for about a third of the cost of the war and indirectly for most of it. The decisive thing that can be done in 1953 is to make clear that our side, Vietnam, is going to win: there must be no more talk of a ‘hopeless war’.”
In 1957 Luce joined the American Friends of Vietnam (AFV), a lobby group for South Vietnam, in welcoming Ngo Dinh Diem, President of the Republic of Vietnam, who was on tour of the United States. At a dinner presided by Luce, held at New York’s Ambassador Hotel, Diem received an award commemorating Richard E. Byrd, the polar explorer, for the monetary contributions his government had made to the International Rescue Committee (IRC) to assist Hungarian refugees. Diem went on to thank his early American supporters, including friendly journalists and publishers such as Henry R. Luce.
Vietnam became a major cause for Luce and he encouraged his publications to follow his lead. An ardent interventionist, he supported greater involvement in the conflict. Speaking before a group of Time Inc. staff after a 1960 trip around the world he stated:
Luce continued his support for U.S. involvement in Vietnam, even after retiring from running his publishing empire in 1964, believing that the investment would eventually bear fruit. The same year he made another trip to Vietnam, commenting that the consensus of many of the individuals he spoke with while there was that “We’re in a tough spot but we’re a long way from being licked, and it is absolutely necessary that we continue to hang on.”
Many of his later speeches bear witness to the fact that Vietnam remained on his mind. In one such speech, made before the students of College of Wooster, he said of Vietnam that “The returns are not in on that . . . but I believe that it will prove to be one of our most significant achievements.”
When he died on February 28, 1967, among the letters found on his desk was one from Hugh Sidey, a Time Inc. correspondent. Sidey had recently spoken to President Johnson at length and wanted to convey some of the conversation to Luce:
“The other night I spent three hours with the President and all of a sudden about half way through as he was discussing Viet Nam he looked up and declared, ‘I’d like old Henry Luce to come out of retirement down there in Arizona. I’d like him to get in there and fight for me.’ (Johnson doubled up his fist and punched the air a couple of times.) ‘I’d like him to help carry the battle.'”
Following Luce’s death, Time Inc. publications became increasingly more critical of U.S. involvement in Vietnam: LIFE published widely read stories on the My Lai Massacre (December 5, 1969) and the growing list of casualties (June 27, 1969). This growing exposure helped to tip popular opinion and eventually led to the U.S. withdrawal from Vietnam.
Processing of the Henry R. Luce Papers is made possible through the generous support of the Henry Luce Foundation.