Issue Date:  January 21, 2005


Richard Avedon/-- © 1971 the Richard Avedon Foundation

Kim Hoa and Thomas C. Fox in 1971
Tom Fox's path from Vietnam to NCR

By ARTHUR JONES

Tom Fox didn't have to be in Vietnam. He had volunteered as a civilian to work with war-displaced refugees. He had survived Vietcong shelling during the Tet offensive by lying low on a hotel roof in Tuy Hoa, provincial capital of Phuyen on the central coast of Vietnam. Now, in 1985 in a Washington hotel, he was under fire of a different sort -- from a board member who wanted him ousted as editor of the National Catholic Reporter.

The controversy centered on the newspaper's bold, front-page stories warning of a mounting crisis from clerical pedophilia in the United States. One board member, Jesuit Fr. Joseph Fichter, a prominent sociologist, was so incensed by the articles, which he regarded as ill-researched and anticlerical, he'd called for a vote of no confidence in Fox's editorship.

Whatever was said in that board meeting, its inaction spoke louder than words. Fichter could not get a second to his motion. Fox survived; the Jesuit quit the board in disgust.

Twenty years later, Fox, now 61, has relinquished the post of NCR publisher, in which he served for eight years after 17 years as the paper's longest serving editor.

What follows is an account of what went into creating Fox the editor, for his imprint on NCR is second only to that of founding editor Robert Hoyt, who ran Fox's byline with a Vietnam dateline.

Fox epitomizes the aspirations of the U.S. Catholic church in the late 20th century. All three of them -- the newspaper, the Catholic church of the Second Vatican Council (1962-65), and Fox -- matured together. He turned 21 the year the council ended.

Thomas Charles Fox was born in Milwaukee, the third in a large Catholic family. At Marquette University High School, he played football as a halfback and baseball as a pitcher and outfielder. He might have had a career in either sport. He was an All State and All American football player who had scholarship offers from 20 schools including Stanford, the Naval Academy and Notre Dame.

In baseball, his senior year team won the state championship, and he was wooed by two major league teams to join their minor systems. He took the football scholarship, he said, because he wanted to go to college.

Fox's father, Clement, was a neuroanatomist, later head of the anatomy department at Wayne State University, Detroit. He was a Commonweal-reading Catholic, a man of strong opinions, and, Tom describes him as "pretty eccentric" -- someone who, with the admonition, "If you lose your faith, you never had one," wanted his children to avoid Catholic schools and go to the best colleges they could. Tom said, "My mother, Alice, was pious, the soul of the family. We had a strong, well-knit Catholic identity."

There were six children: Jim, now an anthropologist living in Australia and working periodically in Indonesia; Betty, a real estate agent in Virginia; Tom. Then Mary, a housewife married to a former professional football player; Bob, a letter carrier in Milwaukee; and Ginnie, who has special needs and lives in a Minnesota group home.

Older brother Jim went to Harvard and was a Rhodes scholar. "I was coming up in my brother's shadow as an athlete and trying to find my own identity," Tom said.

He decided on Stanford, in part because of the climate and setting, but also because Stanford did not hallow football above academic excellence. Indeed, it encouraged all its freshman football players to apply for academic scholarships -- though they didn't all receive them.

At Stanford he found himself immediately drawn to the teachings of Dwight Clark, dean of freshman, a Quaker and a pacifist. "At that time I was a Catholic who believed, I thought, in just war." He learned about nonviolence, started reading Thomas Merton, and listened to the songs of a young guitarist, Joan Baez, who would stop by the dorm to play and sing. She and Fox's classmate David Harris eventually wed.

In the break after his freshman year, Fox was one of 20 students Dwight Clark invited to visit Asia as volunteers. Fox went to his football coach to ask if he could go. The coach said no, he'd be too out of condition to play football when he returned. The sophomore-to-be went anyway, ending his football career. Before summer ended, however, he had received an academic scholarship.

The 19-year-old toured several Japanese cities, went to Taiwan and then Hong Kong, where he worked laying cement for a tuberculosis sanatorium in Kowloon. "That was very, very physical work," he said. In his spare time he taught English to young Chinese refugees.

"That was probably the bug that started to get me interested in Asia," he said.

Back at school he concentrated on his course work. He was also active in Stanford's Newman Club, the gathering place for young Catholics and was president of the group in his senior year. He was becoming more and aware of and "more outraged by the events of the times."

In the break between sophomore and junior years he wanted to go to Selma, Ala., and join in the civil rights protests and voter registration drives. "My parents were just so frightened," he said, "and because they knew I was planning a junior year in France, they proposed my going to Quebec to study French as an alternative."

He agreed.

Fox was in France when he read in Le Monde that U.S. airplanes had bombed Haiphong in L'Indochine. "I was just appalled. But first I had to figure out where ‘L'Indochine' was to find Haiphong." Back in the United States in 1964-65, Berkeley, Calif., was the scene of strong antiwar protests and Stanford was making "pretty loud noises." He became "very, very deeply" committed to the antiwar movement.

Throughout these years Fox, a history major, assumed he would become a teacher in a high school or community college. Then, in his senior year, the Peace Corps accepted him to teach English in Thailand, and the International Volunteer Services, an organization started by the traditional peace churches, accepted him to work with refugees in Vietnam. On graduation, "I went to Vietnam immediately," he recalled.

Michael Novak, a beaded and bearded Stanford theology professor, learning that Fox was headed to Vietnam, suggested he contact NCR editor Hoyt. Hoyt asked Fox to be the paper's Vietnam correspondent.

International Volunteer Services flew Fox and the other volunteers to Saigon for a month of intensive Vietnamese training, and then Fox was sent to Tuy Hoa, to a camp with 40,000 refugees.

"They were peasants living in corrugated huts on sand along the South China Sea because their villages had been destroyed and no one would take them. Farmers living on sand," he said. "They weren't allowed to go to the cities. It was mainly women and children. The men were mostly fighting for one side or the other. They were supposed to get aid for six months, and be resettled. They never received any aid." Many of the young women worked as prostitutes around the nearby U.S. Air Force base.

Fox said he begged for cloth and scrounged sewing machines so the girls could learn to sew and avoid prostitution. He began teaching young children to make the traditional conical Vietnamese hats, so they would have something to sell. At the same time, working with a Korean medical team, he would identify children who needed cleft lip operations.

"In America we're hidden from life, hidden from birth, hidden from death," he said. "In Vietnam everything was immediate and real. So clear. So exaggerated. Ugly death up close. I was at the hospital helping with births. Burying children. Begging for food. Trying to do something to help the people. There was so much disease and crowding. They looked to me as if I had power, and I had so very little."

He and a Filipino shared an apartment in Tuy Hoa city. "War was raging all around and the situation was not very safe. Some of the scariest nights of my life were those when the Vietcong tried to take the city. One night a mortar shell came through the roof and exploded. I got bloodied. I was a 22-year-old in the middle of a war. During the day you did what you could, but it wasn't much."

He began writing to the U.S. Senate Refugee Committee to counter the official line that the Vietnam War was going well. The American media, he said, was saying, "Yeah, pacification is working." Fox was writing in NCR that it wasn't. "Ted Kennedy headed the committee and came to Vietnam. He asked if he could have dinner with me. I flew down to Saigon, I think just before the Tet offensive."

Two years later, in 1968, when Fox returned to America to pursue a graduate degree in Southeast Asian studies at Yale, he was still eligible for the draft. He told the draft board he was opposed to the war and would refuse to serve. The draft board's standard line with conscientious objectors was "a) you don't understand the situation, b) you're a coward and afraid to go, and c) you're avoiding service to your country." Said Fox: "I knew more about the situation than they did, and I told them I was willing to go back to Vietnam, just not in uniform." He got the deferment.

Two years later he was back in Vietnam. Accompanying delegations to the country while at Yale, he met Jesuit Fr. Robert Drinan, soon to be elected to Congress. The two became fast friends, not least because Fox made arrangements with the Saigon cathedral for an altar where Drinan could say a Sunday night Mass with Fox as altar server.

He also met Sam Brown, who had organized the 1969 candlelight vigil in Washington, when 100,000 people in front of the White House called for a moratorium in Vietnam. In Saigon, Brown asked Fox if he could arrange a meeting with a Vietnamese family.

Fox did, and was introduced to Kim Hoa, a Can Tho, Mekong Delta-born social worker with the Committee for Responsibility. The committee transported seriously war-injured Vietnamese children to the United States for treatment unobtainable in Vietnam. "She was beautiful, educated by the French nuns, and knew the language of the Second Vatican Council. It was pretty amazing." Tom and Hoa were married in January 1971.

Later that year, the famous photographer Richard Avedon traveled to Vietnam and selected Fox as a subject, and one of those works eventually was published in a collection. The artist also photographed Tom and Hoa together and later gave them two of the portraits, one of which is reproduced in this issue.

Tom and Hoa couldn't travel together, or even go out together much, because the Vietnamese, particularly the youth, had a fixed idea about young Vietnamese women who went with Americans.

Fox was surviving as a Saigon-based journalist -- a correspondent for NCR and a stringer for TIME magazine and The New York Times. "Those two [publications] liked me because I could speak Vietnamese and they didn't have to rely on interpreters," he said. "I was cheaper. They paid me $200 a month, if they paid me. Both TIME and the Times liked the idea that I would jump onto a plane and go into dangerous areas because I was foolish."

Stan Cloud, TIME Saigon bureau chief, said Fox "was the best hire I ever made. His ability to empathize with Vietnamese of all kinds and classes, his dedication, his tirelessness, and, above all, his moral sensibility. I used to call him ‘Jiminy Cricket' because he was always there, sitting on our shoulders, whispering in our ears, ‘Don't get carried away with the so-called Big Picture. People are out there dying and being maimed. Don't forget them.' "

Cloud and Fox journeyed through Vietnam doing interviews, hitching airplane rides and renting Honda motor scooters, staying in fleabag hotels, eating local foods. There was a saying in Vietnam attributed to both The New York Times Vietnam correspondent Gloria Emerson, and to Cloud: "When you travel with Fox, it's always third class."

Craig Whitney, today a New York Times assistant managing editor, then a Times Saigon bureau reporter, remembers Tom in his sandals, carrying his black Buddha bag, "earnest and idealistic, with a religious sensibility but not being forward about it, an open, winning smile, a somewhat naive or innocent sense of humor. He could get tearfully enraged about the atrocities the Thieu government was visiting daily on the Vietnamese people. He and Hoa were a lovely couple; I thought that after Saigon he might go to university back in the Midwest and teach Vietnamese and sociology. But it turned out journalism was what he was really passionate about."

The Foxes were not planning to leave, but a dangerous situation grew more dangerous. Hoa was pregnant. One evening when Tom was away, a close Vietnamese friend, a progressive Catholic, part of a Vietcong cluster, went to see Hoa one evening. Said Fox, "He told her that the communist cluster he belonged to planned to either kidnap or kill me because for some reason they believed I was CIA. I'd never had any connection with the government, my reporting was always very antiwar. My stories had the same theme: Students, people, all Vietnamese were getting screwed."

Hoa asked the young man to return when Tom came back. He did. Fox asked the Vietnamese to tell the cluster if they would give him two weeks, he and Hoa would leave the country. "I was targeted. You can't say, ‘Where do I hide?' I was just too vulnerable."

The bargain was sealed. They flew to the United States in December 1972 "during the U.S. Christmas bombing of Hanoi." They went to his parents' home. "I was unemployed, no job prospects, a pregnant wife, no money and in Detroit."

He went to see the editor of the Detroit Free Press with his clips.

Bill Mitchell, then a Free Press general assignment reporter, later an NCR board member, remembers managing editor Neil Shine walking Fox around the newsroom to introduce him.

Mitchell, while at Notre Dame, had been an NCR stringer and was familiar with the "Thomas C. Fox" byline from Vietnam. Fox was assigned to City Hall. He covered county courts, the jails, the homeless. Mitchell was named City Hall bureau chief and they worked together in the 11th-floor bureau of the then City-County Building across the corridor from the offices of Coleman Young, Detroit's first black mayor.

"I learned a lot from Tom in terms of source development," Mitchell said. "He got to know all the judges, called them regularly, worked it well. He was also something of a force in the newsroom, in the way that he has been at ease at NCR challenging the hierarchy. There was some foreshadowing of that the day when he walked into office of editor Kurt Ludtke at the far end of the newsroom.

"Ludtke, who later went to Hollywood -- he wrote 'Absence of Malice' and 'Out of Africa,' " said Mitchell, "was a classic hard-bitten newspaper editor. Chain-smoker, talked out of the side of his mouth, hard-edged. Fox walked in and asked Ludtke, who had his feet on his desk and a cigarette hanging from his lips, for a bicycle rack near the loading dock. He then demanded a nonsmoking section in the newsroom. That demand was about 25 years before its time. I think he got the bike rack."

Fox was at the Free Press for five years until Cloud, by then an editor at the Washington Star, encouraged Fox to move to Washington and take a Star editor's job. A year later, Fox was lured to NCR as editor.

The headlines on the National Catholic Reporter front page took on a fresh tone: "Minorities, women gain liberation leadership," "Conservative Christians spread influence, attract attention," "Jesuit superior Arrupe takes first steps to resign," "U.S. Vietnamese face identity questions," "Reagan links to Paraguay worry rights advocates," "NCR writer detained six days in Bolivia," "Suit may force nuclear weapon sites disclosure."

Tom Fox, the new NCR editor, was in town.

Arthur Jones is NCR editor at large. His e-mail address is arthurjones@comcast.net.

Thomas C. Fox

Viewing the world from both East and West

Tom Fox didn't so much leave Vietnam as bring a part of it with him. If Stanford University's Dwight Clark and the peace churches moved Fox toward pacifism, the Vietnam War etched it into his soul. The country was then stitched into the fabric of his being with his marriage to Hoa and the birth of their three children.

Vietnam and its Catholics became his gateway into the church in Asia, a threshold from which he has reported on its struggles, and compiled his 2002 book, Pentecost in Asia (Orbis).

He understands, through the couple's three children, that the world viewed from both East and West is a refracted vision dependent on the eyes of the beholder. The children, Daniel, Christine and Catherine, Americans born and raised, were often told in the United States how much they looked like their mother. When they visit Vietnam, people remark how much they resemble their father.

In Pentecost in Asia, Fox reworks that. Seen from Asia, the Catholic church is Christianity rooted in an amalgam of European cultures, driven by U.S.-European aspirations, operating in a factual U.S.-European global hegemony unaccustomed to creatively coexisting with myriad non-European cultures, religions or spirituality.

The book reveals how, seen from the standpoint of the Vatican-based Eurocentric church, this pontificate reacts against that creative coexistence, particularly against a coexistence that would acknowledge other religions as believing equals with different paths to the same God. That possibility, it contends, threatens the Vatican's claim that Roman Catholicism is primus inter pares, first among equals.

Michael Leach, who published Pentecost in Asia, has remarked that Fox "is more than a journalist with integrity, more than a publisher with vision, and more than a writer with clarity and verve: He is a prophet." Jesuit Fr. Raymond Schroth, who writes for NCR and has jogged with Fox, suggests there's a new pulpit for modern prophets. Schroth, a fan of one of Fox's earlier books, Iraq: Military Victory, Moral Defeat, remarking on a seminar Fox addressed at Loyola, New Orleans, focused on Fox's ability to delve knowledgeably, deeply and entertainingly into complex topics. "His talent is under a bushel," said the Jesuit. His true métier "is television, as a regular on the 'NewsHour with Jim Lehrer' and similar shows. Perhaps there's still time."

-- Arthur Jones

National Catholic Reporter, January 21, 2005