Barry Zorthian ’41, an American diplomat who was the spokesman for the American government during the Vietnam War, died of a staph infection on Dec. 30 in Washington D.C. He was 90.
The Vietnam War was the first war fought by the American government without formal press censorship. Zorthian was tasked with providing an account of the American effort to the press during the war while also protecting state secrets.
During his tenure, he started daily afternoon briefings for press correspondents, which were dubbed “Five O’Clock Follies” by reporters frustrated by the lack of complete transparency. While he attempted to answer all questions, he still maintained a firm control of sensitive information, which “earned him respect, albeit reluctantly, from journalists,” said his son, Greg Zorthian ’75.
New York Times Correspondent, Gloria Emerson, declared him “a determined and brilliant liar” at a 1981 conference on the Vietnam War.
Despite the criticism, many still trusted him as an honest public official.
“He had a conscience. He believed in informing the American public,” Neil Sheehan, a Pulitzer prize-winning author and a former New York Times reporter in Saigon, told the Washington Post. “His problem was that he was trying to sell a bad war.”
‘’He encouraged reporters to travel throughout Vietnam to facilitate truthful reporting and provided transportation for them,” Greg Zorthian said.
By 1968, his four-year tenure had become the longest of any U.S. diplomat in Vietnam. After retiring from government service in 1968, he served as an executive at Time Inc. for 12 years. He also held the post of Vice President for Government Affairs in Washington D.C., and was a member of the Board for International Broadcasting for four years. In recognition of his service, the U.S. Army awarded him the Distinguished Civilian Service Award.
Born in 1920 in Kutahya, Turkey, to an Armenian family, he fled Turkey because of his Armenian heritage and eventually immigrated to New Haven, Conn. before World War II. Mr. Zorthian attended Yale on scholarship, where he was an editor of the News and a member of Skull and Bones. He graduated in 1941 and was a classmate of Kingman Brewster Jr., who was an American diplomat and later the University President from 1963-1977.
In 1953, Zorthian also earned a Bachelor of Laws degree, cum laude, by attending night classes at the New York University School of Law. He remained active in Yale through the Yale Alumni Association and was the head of the Yale Alumni Magazine for which he won the Class Award in 2006.
Zorthian is survived by his two sons, Greg and Steve, and two grandchildren.