Remembering Seymour Topping
Friday 12 February 2021
Seymour Topping, whose obituary has belatedly appeared in the London press, was a veteran New York Times correspondent who became the paper’s managing editor during the tumultuous years of the Watergate scandal, the Pentagon Papers and Middle East crises.
I met him in Laos, a Cold War battleground, in 1962. He proposed collaboration. “Give me what you have and I’ll give you what I have,” he said, adding: “You can probably give me more than I can give you.” To a young Reuters correspondent it was very flattering. He was The New York Times Southeast Asia bureau chief who had covered Mao Tse Tung’s conquest of China, the French Indochina war and the Khrushchev era in the Soviet Union.
The US ambassador to Laos gave exclusive briefings to American correspondents. Topping always returned to the Hotel Constellation afterwards to brief me on what had been said.
In Saigon in 1965 we shared a scoop on one of the military coups that wracked South Vietnam after the overthrow of president Ngo Dinh Diem. Communications out of Saigon were very limited at the time. Reuters had two daily 30-minute radioteletype transmissions to Singapore from the Saigon Post Office which also carried copy for The New York Times and The Washington Post correspondents. For urgent breaking news Reuters, like the other news agencies, had to rely on the overseas telephone system which consisted of two-hour circuits to New York, Tokyo and Singapore at different times of the day.
As the coup unfolded and with tanks under my window, I got through to Kevin Garry, Reuters chief correspondent in Tokyo. “I have an urgent story,” I said. “Okay,” he said in his nonchalant manner. “Just let me put some paper on my typewriter. How’s the weather down there?”
After dictating my piece I handed the phone to Topping and Kevin obligingly took down his story as well. The Tokyo circuit closed down immediately afterwards. The next overseas telephone circuit to Singapore was not due for another four hours. The next morning I received a herogram from London: “Coup Reuters Saigon three hours ahead of AP under Tokyo dateline.”
Topping left The New York Times in 1993 to teach at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism and serve as administrator of the Pulitzer Prizes. He lived just long enough to witness the disaster inflicted on the world by a virus from a country that was once his beat. ■