Fox Butterfield is a former national and foreign correspondent for The New York Times, and author of In My Father’s House: A New View of How Crime Runs in the Family. Before taking part in a Zócalo/KCRW “Critical Thinking with Warren Olney” event, titled “Do Americans Misunderstand the Roots of Crime?” at the National Center for the Preservation of Democracy in Little Tokyo in downtown Los Angeles, he spoke in the green room about how he got his first name, how he wound up studying Chinese, and what he would do differently if he covered the Vietnam War again.
Your name is a great byline for a reporter. How’d you get it?
So that was my father’s doing. My father named me after a historical figure who was one of his favorite people, very obscure. My father was an American colonial historian, and there was an English leader of parliament who, during the American Revolution, actually sided with the American colonists. His name was Charles James Fox. And there were a lot of English people at that time who wanted to take the same position, and favor the American colonists over the king. So they named their sons “Fox” as a first name. My father liked that. And I have a grandson named Wolf.
What are you reading now for pleasure?
I’m reading Ron Chernow’s biography of Grant. That’s my big book.
Was there a teacher or professor who really influenced you?
There were two. I had a history teacher in high school who was fantastic. He was a very charismatic guy and very tough on his students. And then I was lucky enough to go to Harvard, and started studying Chinese. And really the dean of Chinese studies in America was a man named John Fairbank. And when I started I was the only undergraduate at Harvard studying Chinese language. But he was very influential.
What made you want to study Chinese?
Well, it’s ancient history now, but at the beginning of my sophomore year, in 1958, Chiang Kai-shek was still running Taiwan, and he had a good deal of his army on these two little islands at the mouth of mainland harbors. He put most of his army there so [one] could walk across at low tide. And in August and September of 1958 the Chinese Communists began shelling these islands and threatened to invade them, and they would have taken over Chiang Kai-shek’s army. So John Fairbank gave a public lecture—this was just a few years after the Korean War—and he warned about the danger of going to war with China again, and over these two little ridiculous pieces of land. So he was really interesting and I realized, “Oh my God, here’s this country that’s so old and has so many people, and I don’t know a thing about it.” So I started taking his general introduction to East Asian history. And then the next semester I added another class, and then another class. And then the next spring he summoned me to his office and said, “Have you ever thought of majoring in Chinese history?”
And then you spent many years reporting from Asia.
I spent 15 years in Asia for The New York Times, including in Tokyo and Taiwan. I had worked on the Pentagon Papers for The New York Times, and that was my reward for working on the Pentagon Papers—they sent me to Vietnam, as a correspondent. I had been a student protestor against the war, so I’d never really intended to go there. And as soon as I arrived I had to go out in the field for a week with American troops. My first week in Vietnam was spent on patrol. And that was a shock to me, but it was a very useful shock.
And then I spent three years in Vietnam as a correspondent; I left on the last day of the war, on a helicopter, Tuesday, April 29, 1975. And then I found out from my editor in New York that he wanted me to go to Hong Kong. So I spent four years in Hong Kong. Then we normalized relations with China in ’79, and I got to go and open the bureau there.
Is there a particular moment that crystallized your experience covering the Vietnam War?
There are several. I had a lot of regret, because it became clear that the end was coming after all those years, and the Vietnamese were very surprised that this was happening, and they didn’t want to make preparations. And in the last two weeks, people got very nervous and wanted to get out. And I had many Vietnamese friends, and they came to me and they offered me anything—money, and one man offered me his wife and his girlfriend—but I said, “No, I can’t do that.” And then on the last day, with the North Vietnamese already inside the city [Saigon], we scrambled to get the airport, and it was under attack. And it was only then that I realized I probably could’ve just put these [friends of mine] in the car with me and driven them out to the airport and we would’ve gotten on a helicopter, and nobody would’ve asked a question—it was sufficiently chaotic. So that was a regret; that was poignant. And then, the last few days, there was constant shelling, and we didn’t know what was going to happen. And just before I took off on an American Navy helicopter, with two companies of Marines around us, protecting us—because the North Vietnamese were just a few hundred yards away—the two helicopters that took off just before ours were shot down. And a South Vietnamese fixed-wing plane also was shot down just before we took off. And there were several of us who’d been correspondents in Vietnam for quite a while, and we looked at each other and said, “We’ve survived in Vietnam all this time, are we going to get killed leaving?” That’s a memory.
If you could time-travel, where would you go?
I might even go back to Vietnam and see what I could do differently. Because I think the story has never been told properly.
What’s been lacking?
This sounds off-the-wall: I think the American military, for better or for worse, killed so many North Vietnamese soldiers, communist soldiers, that by relatively late in the war, you could go anywhere. So there was a game that a number of us reporters engaged in, in those last two years, that we would go out to some village that we knew was a communist village, and we’d try to get captured. But we didn’t get captured because the Viet Cong were gone, the North Vietnamese had been killed off. And it wasn’t until 1975, when they came across from North Vietnam in great strength that they were able to reconstitute an army. But there was a period of a couple of years at the end when if the Americans had stayed they probably would’ve won.
But what would you personally have done differently if you could go back in time?
Well, I’d learned to speak Chinese very well, but my Vietnamese was rotten. So I would’ve liked to have learned to speak much better Vietnamese. And, to the extent possible, I’d have liked to have covered the Vietnamese rather than the Americans, which was not something that the American correspondents did. So I would learn more Vietnamese [language] and be able to cover the Vietnamese people.
I haven’t been back since ’75. But my wife has prevailed on me. We’re going back in December to Vietnam and Cambodia.
Why haven’t you been back?
Emotionally I couldn’t really take it. I watched too many people die. I watched too many friends either get wounded or killed, and then too many of the South Vietnamese that we knew, if they didn’t escape, they ended up in prison camps and their lives were ruined.