Peter Arnett

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Peter Arnett
Arnett in 1996
Peter Gregg Arnett

(1934-11-13) 13 November 1934 (age 89)
Occupation(s)Journalist, anchorman
Years active1960−present
Notable creditAwarded the 1966 Pulitzer Prize in International Reporting for his work in Vietnam
SpouseNina Nguyen (separated 1983)

Peter Gregg Arnett ONZM (born 13 November 1934) is a New Zealand-born American journalist.[1] He is known for his coverage of 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 1965, mostly reporting for the Associated Press.

Arnett also worked for National Geographic magazine, and later for various television networks, most notably for nearly two decades at CNN. Arnett published a memoir, Live from the Battlefield: From Vietnam to Baghdad, 35 Years in the World's War Zones (1994). In March 1997, Arnett interviewed Osama bin Laden, leader of Al-Qaeda.[2] The journalism school at the Southern Institute of Technology in New Zealand was named for Arnett.[3]

Early life[edit]

Arnett was born in 1934 in Riverton, in New Zealand's Southland region. His first job as a journalist was with The Southland Times.[4]


During his early years in journalism, Arnett worked in Southeast Asia, largely based in Bangkok. In 1960 he started publishing a small English-language newspaper in Laos.[5] Eventually, he made his way to Vietnam, which the French had abandoned after being defeated at Dien Bien Phu by communists from North Vietnam.

Arnett became a reporter for the Associated Press, based in Saigon in the South, in the years when the United States began to get involved in the civil conflict and through the Vietnam War. On 7 July 1963, in what became known as the Double Seven Day scuffle, he was injured in a widely reported physical altercation between a group of western journalists and South Vietnamese undercover police. The reporters were trying to cover Buddhist protests against the South Vietnamese government. His articles, such as "Death of Supply Column 21," about an event during Operation Starlite in August 1965, resulted in raising the ire of the American government, which had been increasing the number of forces in the region.[5]

Arnett accompanied troops on dozens of missions, including the battle of Hill 875, in November 1967. An American detachment was sent to rescue another unit that was stranded in hostile territory, and the rescuers were nearly killed during the operation. In September 1972, Arnett joined a group of U.S. peace activists, including William Sloane Coffin and David Dellinger, on a trip to Hanoi, North Vietnam, to accept three American prisoners of war for return to the United States.[6]: 274–8 

Arnett wrote in an unvarnished manner when reporting stories of ordinary soldiers and civilians. Arnett's writing was often criticised by administration spokesmen as negative, who wanted to keep reporting of the war positive. General William Westmoreland, President Lyndon B. Johnson and others in power put pressure on the AP to get rid of or transfer Arnett from the region.[6]: 259–60 

In what is considered one of his iconic dispatches, published on 7 February 1968, Arnett wrote about the Battle of 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."[7] The quotation was gradually altered in subsequent publications, eventually becoming the more familiar, "We had to destroy the village in order to save it."[8] 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.[8] US Army Major Phil Cannella, the senior officer present at Bến Tre, suggested the quotation might have been a distortion of something he said to Arnett.[8] The New Republic at the time attributed the quotation to US Air Force Major Chester L. Brown.[9] In Walter Cronkite's 1971 book, Eye on the World, Arnett reasserted the quotation was something "one American major said to me in a moment of revelation."[10]

Arnett was one of the last western reporters remaining in Saigon after its fall and capture by the People's Army of Vietnam. Occupying soldiers showed him how they had entered the city.[6]: 305 

Arnett wrote the 26-part mini-series documentary, Vietnam: The Ten Thousand Day War (1980), produced by Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC).

Soviet invasion of Afghanistan[edit]

At the time of the Soviet Invasion of Afghanistan, Arnett was working for Parade magazine. With a contact named Healy, he entered Afghanistan illegally from Pakistan; both men were dressed in traditional clothing as natives and led by Mujahideen guides. They continued 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 journalist Artyom Borovik, who was covering the Soviet side of the war.[11]

Gulf War[edit]

Beginning in 1981, Arnett worked for CNN for 18 years, ending in 1999. During the Gulf War, he became a household name worldwide as the only reporter to have live coverage directly from Baghdad, especially during the first 16 hours. His dramatic reports often were accompanied by the sound of air raid sirens blaring and 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 neighbouring Amman, Jordan — to communicate to the outside world.[12] 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. Its spokesmen had emphasized terms such as "smart bombs" and "surgical precision" in their public statements, in an effort to project keeping civilian casualties would be at a minimum. White House sources would later attack Arnett, saying that he was being used as a tool for Iraqi disinformation.

Two weeks into the war, Arnett was able to obtain an exclusive, uncensored interview with Saddam Hussein.[13] Due to Arnett's reporting from the "other side", for a period of five weeks, the Gulf War was the first to be broadcast live on TV.

About halfway through the war, representatives of the CIA approached 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 Arnett and other staff from CNN were staying. The CIA wanted him out so the Air Force could bomb the hotel, but Arnett refused. He said he had been given a tour of the hotel and denied there was such a facility.[14]

Interview with Osama Bin Laden[edit]

In March 1997, Arnett of CNN interviewed Osama bin Laden, leader of Al-Qaeda, after Bin Laden declared jihad on the United States. Asked by Arnett, "What are your future plans?", Bin Laden said, "You'll see them and hear about them in the media, God willing".[15][16]

Operation Tailwind[edit]

In 1998, Arnett narrated a report on the joint venture (between CNN and Time magazine) programme called NewsStand, covering "Operation Tailwind" in Laos in 1970.

The report, titled The Valley of Death, claimed that in 1970, the United States Army had used sarin, a nerve agent, against a group of deserting U.S. soldiers in Laos. The men who allegedly conducted the attack were an elite Green Berets 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 that of CNN's. CNN subsequently conducted its own investigation. It 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 a number of rebuttals claiming the CNN report was flawed, three or more of the individuals responsible were fired or forced to resign.[17] Arnett was reprimanded, and left the network in April 1999, apparently due to "lingering fallout" from Tailwind.[18]

Invasion of Iraq 2003[edit]

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 it he said:

[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[19]

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.[20] 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 also received work from Greek television channel NET television, and Belgian VTM.

Academic career[edit]

Dan Rather and Arnett discuss the role of the media in shaping perceptions of the Vietnam War at a panel discussion presented by the LBJ Presidential Library (April 2016)

After retiring as a field reporter in 2007, Arnett lives in Los Angeles.

He also teaches journalism at Shantou University in China. In New Zealand, the Peter Arnett School of Journalism was named for him at the Southern Institute of Technology; the journalism school closed in 2015.[21][22]

Personal life[edit]

In 1964, Arnett married Nina Nguyen, a Vietnamese woman. They had two children, Elsa and Andrew. Nina and Peter separated in 1983, divorced more than 20 years later, then reconciled in 2006.[23]

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.[24] She worked with her father on his 1994 memoir about his reporting life. Elsa Arnett is married to former White House lawyer John Yoo.[25]

In the 2007 New Year Honours, Arnett was appointed an Officer of the New Zealand Order of Merit, for services to journalism.[26]

In popular culture[edit]

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. Arnett joined the team as 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 16 January 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.

Arnett's interview with Bin Laden in 1997 became the subject of the movie 'A War Story' produced for television. Arnett's role was played by John Leigh.[27]

Selected works[edit]

External videos
video icon Booknotes interview with Arnett on Live from the Battlefield, 20 February 1994, C-SPAN
  • Live from the Battlefield: From Vietnam to Baghdad: 35 Years in the World's War Zones. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1994. ISBN 0671755862
  • Saigon Has Fallen: A Wartime Recollection by the Pulitzer Prize-Winning Journalist. New York: Rosetta Books/Associated Press, 2015 ISBN 978-0-7953-4643-9

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "Peter Arnett". RosettaBooks. Archived from the original on 20 September 2016. Retrieved 13 September 2016.
  2. ^ Arnett, Peter (5 December 2001). "Peter Arnett: Osama bin Laden and returning to Afghanistan". CNN News. Archived from the original on 7 December 2009. 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. ^ Harvey, Kerry (16 August 2019). "When Arnett met bin Laden". The Press. p. 11. Retrieved 16 August 2019.
  5. ^ a b Halberstam, David (2006). "The Death of Supply Column 21 (Nov-Dec 2006)". Columbia Journalism Review at Columbia University. Retrieved 12 September 2007.
  6. ^ a b c Arnett, Peter (1994). Live from the Battlefield: From Vietnam to Baghdad: 35 Years in the World's War Zones. Simon & Schuster. ISBN 0-671-75586-2.
  7. ^ "Major Describes Move". The New York Times. 8 February 1968.
  8. ^ a b c Keyes, Ralph (2006). The Quote Verifier: Who Said What, Where, and When. St. Martin's Griffin. ISBN 978-0-312-34004-9.
  9. ^ 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.
  10. ^ Cronkite, Walter (1971). Eye on the World. Cowles Book Company.
  11. ^ Borovik, Artyom, The Hidden War, 1990. International Relations Publishing House, USSR
  12. ^ McDOUGAL, DENNIS (25 January 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.
  13. ^ Arnett, Peter (16 January 2001). "Peter Arnett: A look back at Operation Desert Storm". CNN News. Retrieved 12 September 2007.
  14. ^ Rosenkranz, Keith, Vipers in the Storm (McGraw Hill), p. 299
  15. ^ "Peter Arnett: Osama bin Laden and returning to Afghanistan". CNN. 5 December 2001. Archived from the original on 24 January 2013. Retrieved 30 November 2009.
  16. ^ "Arnett interview transcript" (PDF). Archived from the original (PDF) on 9 June 2021. Retrieved 16 May 2020.
  17. ^ "American Journalism Review". Archived from the original on 6 June 2013. Retrieved 4 May 2013.
  18. ^ Adalian, Josef (20 April 1999). "Arnett will leave CNN". Variety. Retrieved 13 September 2016.
  19. ^ "Transcript of Peter Arnett interview on Iraqi TV". CNN News. 31 March 2003. Retrieved 21 September 2016.
  20. ^ "National Geographic Fires Peter Arnett". National Geographic News. 31 March 2003. Archived from the original on 11 April 2003. Retrieved 12 September 2007.
  21. ^ Richard Horgan ( 13 July 2012 ), Peter Arnett Talks About His Chinese Journalism Students, 13 July 2012,
  22. ^ Lara Farrar (10 June 2012), Treading a Fine Line by Teaching Journalism in China, The New York Times
  23. ^ Ben Stanley, "How NZ’s Peter Arnett, the world’s greatest war correspondent, found peace at last." From The Spin-off, 22 March 2016.
  24. ^ Arnett, Peter (20 February 1994). "Live from the Battlefield: From Vietnam to Baghdad, 35 years in the World's War Zones". Booknotes. Retrieved 9 February 2018. 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.
  25. ^ "Defending John Yoo" Archived 25 September 2009 at the Wayback Machine, TribLIVE (Pittsburgh), 15 March 2009. "Dateline D.C. is written by a Washington-based British journalist and political observer."
  26. ^ "New Year honours list 2007". Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet. 30 December 2006. Retrieved 12 September 2020.
  27. ^ "A War Story: Kiwi journalist plays second-fiddle to Osama Bin Laden in TVNZ's Sunday Theatre". 23 August 2019.


  • Rosenkranz, Keith (1999). Vipers in the Storm: Diary of a Gulf War Fighter Pilot. New York: McGraw-Hill. ISBN 0-07-134670-8.

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