Whether on the ground in Vietnam or 30,000 feet in the air on a B-52 bomber, reporter Howard Silber brought the story of the Cold War home to World-Herald readers.
The writing and photography of Silber, who died Aug. 23 at 91, will be featured prominently in “At War, At Home: The Cold War,” a World-Herald book that will be available this fall.
The 330-page book tracks the Cold War years from the establishment of the Strategic Air Command headquarters in Nebraska to the battlefields of Korea and Vietnam.
The book follows the newspaper's “At War, At Home: World War II,” published last fall, which told the stories of Nebraskans and western Iowans who served on the battle fronts and pitched in on the home front.
Silber served for more than 20 years as The World-Herald's military affairs editor, retiring in 1988, and frequently traveled abroad in search of news.
He first arrived in South Vietnam in 1964 to report on the quickly expanding U.S. role in that strife-torn nation.
One of his earliest reports pointed to what lay ahead, as he described Vietnam as a country “where confusion seems to be as impenetrable as the mid-peninsula rain forests and as persistent as the mosquitoes which rise in great swarms from the rice paddies and ancient canals of the rich Mekong River Delta.”
Silber, a combat soldier who was wounded in World War II, took to the servicemen he met in '64 and during a second trip in 1966.
“I got to be with the troops so much that I felt like I was part of them,” he said in an interview two weeks before his death.
Silber spoke in the highest terms of the fighting men who served in Vietnam.
“The quality of troops in Vietnam was much higher than would have been believed,” Silber said. “They earned my respect.”
He compared them to his own unit in Europe during World War II.
“My outfit was called up and was supposed to be very ready,” he recalled. “It wasn't. The soldiers in Vietnam were better prepared.”
But one difference was huge: “The overall fighting men's morale was much higher in World War II.”
He met with the top brass in Vietnam, including Gen. William Westmoreland, the U.S. commander. “I was one of the few correspondents who got along with him,” he recalled. “I was one of the few who listened to both sides.”
After talking to Westmoreland in 1964, Silber wrote: “There is no hope of putting down the Viet Cong and returning South Vietnam to normalcy without a stable government in Saigon.”
The assessment proved to be accurate, as the South Vietnamese government's lack of stability and lack of popular support eventually led to its demise after the United States pulled out.
Silber traveled in combat areas and rode along with a helicopter crew that fired rockets at an enemy position that had pinned down a U.S. infantry patrol. But part of the danger, even in Saigon, was in not knowing who the enemy was in a largely guerrilla war. “I was suspicious of everyone I didn't know,” he said.
Silber's trip to Guam in 1967 provided an up-close look at the air war in Vietnam, as he interviewed B-52 crews launching long-range missions.
He was back in the States in 1972 when the Strategic Air Command directed the Linebacker II bombing operation that was credited with getting North Vietnam back to the peace table.
Some Vietnam-era veterans believe the outcome of the war could have been different if the bombing had not been called off after 11 days, as B-52s had virtually eliminated communist North Vietnam's air defenses.
Silber said there is some truth to that.
“We had already won the war at the peace table,” he said of North Vietnam's willingness to negotiate. “We could have gotten anything we would have wanted if (the bombing) had continued.”
After the fall of Saigon in 1975, Silber eloquently summed up America's involvement in Vietnam:
“Few words in the English language can connote frustration as strongly as ‘if.' When that tiny word is employed by many Americans to introduce a supposition regarding the Indochina War, it combines that connotation with one of sadness.
“It is an especially important word among military people these days — both the brass in high-level command positions and the young man in the Veterans Hospital whose body was broken in Vietnam and never will mend. ... What if the United States had not committed its youth, its energy, its industrial resources and its standing in the world community to an internecine dispute half a world away? Once committed, what if the United States — the leaders of this country, at least — had implemented with deed and determination the lip service they gave to winning the war?”
The Strategic Air Command had a major role throughout the Cold War era, and Silber was there to report on much of it.
“SAC in the early days was like the Marine Corps originally was to the Navy. It was definitely an elite force,” he recalled. “They had distinctive uniforms. Very, very high morale. They were accomplishing something.”
But in the 1970s, SAC also provided an up-close look at a de-emphasized U.S. military after Vietnam. “I could see that the military was slipping by what was going on at Offutt,” he said. “SAC didn't have the morale it did in the 1960s.”
The decline was gradual but unmistakable, he said.
“I was on a military flight where the sergeants had to go out and buy fuses for the electrical box because they didn't have any,” he recalled. Where did they go? “A hardware store.”
While nuclear war might have been seen as more of a threat during the earliest days of the Cold War, Silber believed the danger was greatest in the 1970s, because the Soviet Union “had begun to catch up with us.”
“In the 1950s, the Soviets were not as much a threat as it seemed. They were mostly just bluffing.”
Silber authored a 1980 series on the nation's military preparedness and concluded:
“Commanders and men and women in the ranks expressed confidence in this nation's ability to defend itself and support its allies. But many of them said a public distaste of the military after the Vietnam War and what they see as inadequate spending through most of the 1970s have left in doubt America's ability to sustain a major war for more than a few weeks.”
New major weapons programs and changing global political forces combined to result in the collapse of the Soviet bloc in the 1980s. But as the tide turned in the Cold War, Silber said, “The Soviets remained a threat militarily, even while they were losing their political will. I think the Russians had more than we gave them credit for.”
His conclusion on the Cold War era: “We're lucky to have survived it.”
Silber retired from The World-Herald four years before the dissolution of SAC.
“I thought it was the end of a real era,” he said. “I was pretty well torn about it.”
He said he recognized that SAC's mission had changed, but he believed it would have remained an effective military command to counter the large nuclear force still maintained by Russia.
Silber said his experiences reporting on the military ranked “very high” in a career that also included coverage of the arrest of mass murderer Charles Starkweather and datelines from Korea, Singapore, Japan, the Aleutian Islands and the South Pole.
Covering the military was a sometimes humbling experience for the former infantryman.
“I finished World War II as a second lieutenant,” he said. “Suddenly, I found myself exposed to four-star generals just because of my job. I never quite got over that.”
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