My third day at LIFE Magazine, in January, 1968, I was being introduced to various staff, and was taken to the Text Department as part of my orientation. The Text Department did long analytical articles on subjects of importance –Vietnam, the Cold War, the Mafia and organized crime. There I met a man with a game leg named Gene Farmer, and he was grumbling resentfully to me about having to take a train to New Haven to interview some `goddamn Frenchman.’”
I was curious. I asked him who the goddama Frenchman was, and Gene replied it was Paul Mus. I was blank. Who the hell was Mus? Farmer gave me a pitying look, and explained that Mus had signed three peace treaties with Ho Chi Minh on behalf of French government. He was teaching up at Yale because he’d had a falling out with de Gaulle. He was an Oriental Scholar.
So I said I’d go, and I did. It was an extremely cold, rainy night with gusty winds. I made my way to Mus’s office and entered. No one was there, but then he came striding in. Mus was the first man of genius I had ever met. Mus was a short, dark haired man; he wasn’t handsome, but he was all personal force and he was extraordinarily intelligent. But he had a giant ego too, and he began right away to brag about how, in Paris during the Nazi occupation, and how, at the age of twelve, he had razored off gold buttons from the Nazi uniforms while riding the subway in Paris. It was crime punishable by death, but he hadn’t cared. In fact, he ended up having more gold buttons than the other boys.
You might comment that he wasn’t a modest man, but no great man was ever modest. He told me that he didn’t like LIFE Magazine, and said he despised its founder, Henry Luce, and said he wouldn’t cooperate with him in any way. I was watching him very carefully. I was very, very shy at that time. I was puzzled as to why he would agree to an interview with a publication he despised.
I was pathologically shy, but I liked to take risks. I saw this man, I knew he taught diplomacy in Southeast Asia, and I knew that with his personality, he completely dominated his students. You could tell that right away. So I thought, if I am to succeed here, I must be rude, to subvert the usual.
I told him, that, with all due respect, I found his remark about Mr. Luce to be “obtuse” because Luce had been dead for 18 months, and I was merely representing his organization. I remember the careful, measuring, challenging look he gave me. I went cold for a moment, but then, all of a sudden, his whole manner changed. I guess he had seen that I wasn’t the usual submissive toad-eater, and therefore I had become an object of interest to him. He suddenly, very abruptly, asked me if I knew French literature. I told him I did.
By luck, the previous year I had read through the French novel, doing it chronologically, beginning with the Princess of Cleves, Manon Lescot, Benjamin Constant, Stendhal, lots of Stendhal, and Flaubert, lots of Flaubert, three volumes of Proust and ending up with the novels of Mauriac. Mus looked at me as if I had two heads, but he still had his high school principal manner, and considered me for a bit, and then asked me, ‘Out of all that reading, what book did I like best?’ My mind went blank, but finally, I said Baudelaire’s notebooks, especially the part where he wrote about the Belgians. You see, Baudelaire said that the Belgians were a people “born to think in unison,” and I told Mus that I feared that this pitiable conformity was likely to be America’s fate.
It was like a hole being broken in a jar – all kinds of history came gushing out. Details of Ho, how Ho Chi Minh had visited President Wilson, his love of the Declaration of Independence, how the French had tried to assassinate him, how France had betrayed him by bad faith and by breaking treaties with him. It was remarkable. Mus talked about Ho’s cooperation with the OSS which was trying to extricate American flyers downed by the Japanese. Mus had handled France’s negotiations with him from 1945-47. He talked for three hours non-stop. I was scribbling notes as if I was deranged. I remember one of Mus’s observations. I asked if Ho was a genius, and Mus replied, "Ho is above genius…the greatest man I ever met. Ho had the manner of Gandhi and a mind of steel. Ho was utterly intractable. He had a thin voice that almost suggested a lisp."
Mus made clear that Ho had never fully committed himself to Moscow or Peking. He was more of a Vietnamese nationalist.
I cannot remember all the details. But I remember one peace conference with the French where the Vietminh were not invited. On Sept. 14, when ho signed this basically hollow document, he was heard to murmur, “I am signing my own death warrant.” But to a colleague he concluded, "there is noting else to do but fight.” Ho returned to Vietnam, but then fighting broke out in Haiphong, Mus said, that Ho had been betrayed, adding, “I use the word betrayed with full knowledge of what it means.” After that, Ho never placed faith in negotiations.
At one point, Ho went to Paris for talks again, but the French put him aboard a very slow ship while behind He’s back, they tried to install a French puppet government in his absence.
In another attempt to negotiate, Mus met Ho 1 April 1947 in an attempt to avoid war. They met in a hide out. But Paris has limited Mus’s negotiating power, and he was ordered to give Ho an order to surrender. Ho replied, "There is no place in the French Union for cowards,” and rebuffed the ultimatum. Seven years of war followed.
I went back on Monday and typed my notes, but I got in trouble. I had applied to LIFE for a position of war correspondent or reporting on riots. Instead, my job was covering movies and plays. I was told that war correspondents could come and go but they needed to have people who had read a lot of books and could write well.
By going up to see Mus, I had exceeded my authority. I got bawled out.
But without my knowing, I had scored an exclusive. I was never praised, of course, but my interview notes were copied and sent to the magazine’s correspondn3t in Saigon, a tough ex-Marine, Frank McCullough.
In early March, LIFE did a cover story on Ho based on McCullough and my notes. The cover story appeared on March 22, 1968: A Study in Intransigence.”
I knew a French photographer, Charles Bonnet, who took the cover photograph. One day he appeared in my office. Ho liked it so much, he was passing it out to his friends and he agreed to talk to me. Ho said I could go and see him, which of course, everyone was trying to do.
My son’s godfather, Mike Huberman, lived in Paris on the Rue to Clichy in the 9th quarter, and he hung out with a lot of leftist ad communists in the city. We came out with a plan. I was to fly to the Philippines where I would meet a guide who would take to me Hanoi. It meant that the two of us to parachute into Laos and make our way on foot to Hanoi. I was convinced the plan would work.
It was in August of 1968, when my doctors in New York told me I had to be hospitalized for nervous exhaustion. I had been living with a 4500-member black gang, dealing with a lot of death threats, plus my tonsils were so infected they were pearly white with pus.
But then a telegram came in ordering me to Chicago to cover the 1968 Democratic covention, and assigned to the street violence. I developed asthma from being tear gassed, my tonsils had to be taken out, and I was sick for three months. Early the next year, Ho died. I kept thinking of that line from Lord Jim, “What a chance missed. What a chance missed.”