Peter Arnett

Peter Arnett
Born Peter Gregg Arnett
(1934-11-13) 13 November 1934
Riverton, New Zealand
Occupation Journalist, anchorman
Notable credit(s) Awarded the 1966 Pulitzer Prize in International Reporting for his work in Vietnam
Spouse(s) Nina Nguyen (separated 1983)
Children Elsa, Andrew

Peter Gregg Arnett, ONZM (born 13 November 1934) is a New Zealand-born journalist holding both New Zealand and US citizenship.[1]

Arnett worked for National Geographic magazine, and later for various television networks, most notably CNN. He is known for his coverage the Vietnam War and the Gulf War. He was awarded the 1966 Pulitzer Prize in International Reporting for his work in Vietnam from 1962 to 1975, mostly reporting for the Associated Press. In 1994, Arnett's book Live from the Battlefield: From Vietnam to Baghdad, 35 Years in the World's War Zones was published. In March 1997, Arnett interviewed Osama bin Laden.[2] The journalism school at the Southern Institute of Technology that was named after him closed in 2015.[3]


Some of Arnett's early days in journalism were in Southeast Asia, particularly Bangkok. He started out running a small English-language newspaper in Laos in 1960.[4] Eventually, he made his way to Vietnam where he became a reporter for the Associated Press, based in Saigon. Writing articles such as "Death of Supply Column 21" attracted the ire of the American government.[4] On 7 July 1963, in what became known as the Double Seven Day scuffle, his nose was bloodied in the widely reported physical altercation between a group of western journalists and South Vietnamese undercover police, while trying to cover Buddhist protests.

(L-R) Former CBS News anchor Dan Rather with Arnett at the LBJ Presidential Library in 2016

He accompanied troops on dozens of missions, including the traumatic battle of Hill 875, in which a detachment was sent to rescue another unit that was stranded in hostile territory. The rescuers themselves were nearly killed during the operation. In September 1972, he joined a group of U.S. peace activists, including William Sloane Coffin and David Dellinger, on a trip to Hanoi, North Vietnam to bring three prisoners of war back to the United States.

Arnett got into trouble writing in an unvarnished manner when reporting stories of ordinary soldiers and civilians. Arnett's writing was often criticized as negative. General William Westmoreland, President Lyndon B. Johnson and others in power pressured AP to get rid of or transfer Arnett.

Arnett wrote the following in one of his most iconic dispatches, published on 7 February 1968, about the provincial capital Bến Tre: "'It became necessary to destroy the town to save it,' a United States major said today. He was talking about the decision by allied commanders to bomb and shell the town regardless of civilian casualties, to rout the Vietcong."[5] The quotation was distorted in subsequent publications, eventually becoming the more familiar, "We had to destroy the village in order to save it."[6] The accuracy of the original quotation and its source have often been called into question. Arnett never revealed his source, except to say that it was one of four officers he interviewed that day.[6] US Army Major Phil Cannella, the senior officer present at Bến Tre, suggested that the quotation might have been a distortion of something he said to Arnett.[6] The New Republic at the time attributed the quotation to US Air Force Major Chester L. Brown.[7] In Walter Cronkite's 1971 book, Eye on the World, Arnett reasserted that the quotation was something "one American major said to me in a moment of revelation."[8]

Arnett was one of the last western reporters in Saigon after its capture by the Vietnam People's Army (NVA). Occupying soldiers showed him how they had entered the city.

Arnett was the writer of a CBC-produced 1980 26-part mini-series documentary, Vietnam: The Ten Thousand Day War.[9]

Soviet Invasion of Afghanistan

Following the Soviet Invasion of Afghanistan, Arnett was working for Parade and with a contact named Healy entered Afghanistan illegally from Pakistan, both dressed as natives and led by Mujahideen guides. They continued on to a Jalalabad hideaway of approximately fifty rebels. The trip came to an end when Healy fell into the Kunar River, ruining the pair's cameras. Later, Arnett would recount the story to Artyom Borovik who was covering the Soviet side of the war.[10]

The Gulf War

Arnett worked for CNN for 18 years ending in 1999. During the Gulf War, he became a household name worldwide when he became the only reporter with live coverage directly from Baghdad. His dramatic reports often had air raid sirens blaring and the sound of US bombs exploding in the background. Together with two other CNN journalists, Bernard Shaw and John Holliman, Arnett brought continuous coverage from Baghdad for the 16 initial intense hours of the war (17 January 1991). Although 40 foreign journalists were present at the Al-Rashid Hotel in Baghdad at the time, only CNN possessed the means — a private phone line connected to neighboring Amman, Jordan — to communicate to the outside world.[11] CNN broadcast Arnett's extended call live for several hours, with a picture of Arnett as video. Soon the other journalists left Iraq, including the two CNN colleagues, which left Arnett as the sole remaining reporter.

His accounts of civilian damage caused by the bombing were not well received by the coalition war administration, who by their constant use of terms like "smart bombs" and "surgical precision" in their public statements, had tried to project an image that civilian casualties would be at a minimum. White House sources would later state that Arnett was being used as a tool for Iraqi disinformation, and CNN received a letter from 34 members of the United States Congress accusing Arnett of "unpatriotic journalism".

Two weeks into the war, Arnett was able to obtain an exclusive, uncensored interview with Saddam Hussein.[12] The Gulf War became the first war to be seen truly live on TV, due to Arnett's reporting from the "other side", for a period of five weeks.

About halfway through the war the CIA approached Mr. Arnett. They believed that the Iraqi military was operating a high-level communication network from the basement of the Al Rashid Hotel, which is where Mr. Arnett and a few others from CNN were staying. The CIA wanted him out so the Air Force could bomb the hotel, but Mr. Arnett refused. He said he had been given a tour of the hotel and denied there was such a facility.[13]

Operation Tailwind

In 1998, Arnett narrated a report on the joint venture (between CNN and Time magazine) program called NewsStand, covering "Operation Tailwind".

The report, titled The Valley of Death, claimed that the United States Army had used sarin against a group of deserting U.S. soldiers in Laos in 1970. The men allegedly involved were an elite Green Beret A-Team. The report was expressly approved by both CNN Chairman Tom Johnson and CNN President Rick Kaplan. In response, the Pentagon commissioned another report contradicting CNN's. CNN subsequently conducted its own investigation, which concluded that the "journalism [in the Valley of Death] was flawed" and retracted the story. While all 12 men of the Green Beret A-Team were wounded in action during Operation Tailwind, no sarin was involved.

Due to the US Government's insistence that the CNN report was flawed, three or more of the individuals responsible were fired or forced to resign.[14] Arnett was reprimanded, and eventually left the network.[15][16]

The co-producers of the report, April Oliver and Jack Smith, were dismissed. They sued Time Warner, the parent company of CNN, claiming they had been wrongfully fired, and Time Warner ultimately paid millions of dollars to settle their lawsuits, along with other suits brought by military personnel who claimed to have been libeled in the Oliver/Smith report. Senior producer Pam Hill and others resigned. Oliver was later quoted by the World Socialist Web Site (International Committee of the Fourth International) as saying that:

[Arnett's] firing was a direct result of Pentagon pressure. Perry Smith [a retired USAF major general and former CNN consultant who resigned in protest over the Tailwind report] told the Wall Street Journal last July that CNN would not get cooperation from the Pentagon unless Peter Arnett was fired. [...] They will do anything to stem the flow of information.
April Oliver[15]

Interview in Iraq

On assignment for NBC and National Geographic, Arnett went to Iraq in 2003 to cover the U.S. invasion. After a press meeting there he granted an interview to state-run Iraqi TV on 31 March 2003, in which he stated:

[N]ow America is re-appraising the battlefield, delaying the war against Iraq, maybe a week, and re-writing [sic] the war plan. The first plan has failed because of Iraqi resistance[;] now they are trying to write another war plan.

Earlier in the interview he said:

[O]ur reports about civilian casualties here, about the resistance of the Iraqi forces, are going back to the United States. It helps those who oppose the war when you challenge the policy to develop their arguments.
Peter Arnett[17]

When Arnett's remarks sparked a "firestorm of protest", NBC initially defended him, saying he had given the interview as a professional courtesy and that his remarks were "analytical in nature". A day later, though, NBC, MSNBC and National Geographic all severed their relationships with Arnett.[18] In response to Arnett's statement on Iraqi TV, NBC stated:

It was wrong for Mr. Arnett to grant an interview with state-controlled Iraqi TV, especially at a time of war and it was wrong for him to discuss his personal observations and opinions.

Arnett responded:

My stupid misjudgment was to spend fifteen minutes in an impromptu interview with Iraqi television. I said in that interview essentially what we all know about the war, that there have been delays in implementing policy, there have been surprises.
Peter Arnett

Later that day, Arnett was hired by the British tabloid, The Daily Mirror, which had opposed the war. A couple of days later he was also assigned to Greek television channel NET television, and Belgian VTM.

Academic career

He retired as a field reporter in 2007. He now lives in Los Angeles and teaches journalism at Shantou University in China. The now-defunct Peter Arnett School of Journalism was named for him at the Southern Institute of Technology in New Zealand.[19][20]

Personal life

In 1964, Arnett married a Vietnamese woman, Nina Nguyen; they had two children, Elsa and Andrew. In 1983, Nina and Peter separated. They divorced more than 20 years later.

Elsa Arnett attended Stuyvesant High School in New York and Harvard University. After graduating, she went into journalism, became a reporter, worked for several months on The Washington Post as an intern and then joined The Boston Globe.[21] Elsa Arnett is married to former White House lawyer John Yoo.[22]

Peter Arnett appeared in Robert Wiener’s book Live from Baghdad. He appeared as a character in the 2002 HBO film of the same name where he was portrayed by actor Bruce McGill.

The book, as well as the film, features Arnett’s work as part of Wiener’s crew in Baghdad, which he joined after tensions between Iraq and the West were escalating toward an imminent military encounter. CNN sent Arnett to Baghdad because of his experience in covering military conflicts. Arnett was part of the live coverage beginning on January 17th, 1991, the start of the Gulf War air campaign, where he and colleagues Bernard Shaw and John Holliman kept broadcasting from their Al-Rasheed Hotel room amid extensive aerial bombing by the Western Coalition forces.

Selected works

See also


  1. "Peter Arnett". RosettaBooks. Retrieved 13 September 2016.
  2. Arnett, Peter (5 December 2001). "Peter Arnett: Osama bin Laden and returning to Afghanistan". CNN News. Retrieved 12 September 2007.
  3. "NZ: 'Peter Arnett' journalism school forced to close over lack of students". Pacific Media Watch. 23 April 2015. Retrieved 11 September 2016.
  4. 1 2 Halberstam, David (2006 Issue 6: November/December). "The Death of Supply Column 21". Columbia Journalism Review at Columbia University. Retrieved 12 September 2007. Check date values in: |date= (help)
  5. "Major Describes Move". New York Times. 8 February 1968.
  6. 1 2 3 Keyes, Ralph (2006). The Quote Verifier: Who Said What, Where, and When. St. Martin's Griffin. ISBN 978-0-312-34004-9.
  7. Braestrup, Peter, Big story: how the American Press and Television Reported and Interpreted the Crisis of Tet 1968 in Vietnam and Washington, Volume 1 Freedom House (U.S.) (Westview Press, 1977) via Google Books.
  8. Cronkite, Walter (1971). Eye on the World. Cowles Book Company.
  9. negativeions101. "The Ten Thousand Day War (TV Mini-Series 1980)". IMDb.
  10. Borovik, Artyom, The Hidden War, 1990. International Relations Publishing House, USSR
  11. McDOUGAL, DENNIS (January 25, 1991). "How CNN Won Battle for a Phone Line : Television: A 'four-wire' system allowed the all-news network to achieve a coup in its war coverage from Baghdad.". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved 15 May 2016.
  12. Arnett, Peter (16 January 2001). "Peter Arnett: A look back at Operation Desert Storm". CNN News. Retrieved 12 September 2007.
  13. Rosenkranz, Keith, Vipers in the Storm (McGraw Hill), page 299
  14. "American Journalism Review".
  15. 1 2 Grey, Barry (22 April 1999). "Fired CNN journalist on dismissal of Arnett: "They will do anything to stem the flow of information"". pub. Retrieved 12 September 2007.
  16. Adalian, Josef (20 April 1999). "Arnett will leave CNN". Variety. Retrieved 13 September 2016.
  17. "Transcript of Peter Arnett interview on Iraqi TV". CNN News. 31 March 2003. Retrieved 21 September 2016.
  18. "National Geographic Fires Peter Arnett". National Geographic News. 31 March 2003. Retrieved 12 September 2007.
  19. Richard Horgan ( 13 July 2012 ), Peter Arnett Talks About His Chinese Journalism Students, 13 July 2012,
  20. Lara Farrar (10 June 2012), Treading a Fine Line by Teaching Journalism in China, New York Times
  21. Arnett, Peter (20 February 1994). "Live from the Battlefield: From Vietnam to Baghdad, 35 years in the World's War Zones". Booknotes. Retrieved 12 September 2007. Elsa Arnett is my daughter. She's 25 years of age, born in Saigon. My wife was a Vietnamese woman. We separated a few years ago, but we're still in touch. Elsa, a bright young lady, and she went to Stuyvesant High School in New York, as an accomplished student, went on to Harvard University. I never had a university education. Well, Elsa compensated for that by going to Harvard University and graduating with high honors and, lo and behold, went into journalism, became a reporter, worked for several months on The Washington Post as an intern and then joined The Boston Globe; spent a couple of years there and, thank goodness, agreed to help me get this book done.
  22. "Defending John Yoo", TribLIVE (Pittsburgh), 15 March 2009. "Dateline D.C. is written by a Washington-based British journalist and political observer."


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