American journalist Marguerite Higgins (1920-1966) gained respect among fellow reporters, the U.S. military, and the American public for her courage and determination as a war correspondent. She was most recognized for her front-line reports of the Korean War in the 1950s, which earned her the Pulitzer Prize for international reporting.
American newspaper journalist Marguerite Higgins gained a reputation for her courage and talent in reporting stories from the front lines of battle. She began her war writing by providing eyewitness accounts of the liberation of German concentration camps at the end of World War II. In the 1950s, she worked alongside soldiers in the field to produce vivid reports of the Korean War. For her Korean War stories, Higgins became the first woman to receive the Pulitzer Prize for international reporting. In addition to her newspaper work, she was also the author of several books that recount her journalistic adventures in Korea, Vietnam, and the Soviet Union.
Higgins was born in British-controlled Hong Kong, on September 3, 1920. She was the only child of Lawrence Daniel Higgins, an American who had served as a pilot in World War I, and Marguerite Goddard, a French woman he had met while in Europe. Early in her life, Higgins contracted malaria and was taken to Vietnam to recover in a treatment center there. When she was three, her father left his job with a Hong Kong shipping company and took his family to Oakland, California. Her family did not fare well in their attempts to adjust to life in suburban, middle-class America. After losing his job as a stockbroker, due to the stock market crash of 1929, Lawrence Higgins secured a position as a bank manager. Dissatisfied with his life, Lawrence Higgins began to drink heavily. His wife went to work as a French teacher to help boost the family income, but she too experienced distress that manifested itself in fainting spells. Their daughter, meanwhile, distinguished herself as an excellent student. Already fluent in a number of languages due to her international background, she received a scholarship to attend the Anna Head school in Berkeley where her mother taught.
At the age of 17, Higgins enrolled in the Berkeley campus of the University of California. In her first year at the college she began to work on the campus newspaper, the Daily Californian, which was known as one of the top university papers in the country. Higgins was enthralled by the world of journalism and set her sights on becoming a professional foreign correspondent. She graduated with honors and a degree in journalism in 1941. Unable to land a job at that time, she entered a master's program in journalism at Columbia University in New York City. During her graduate studies, she also held a part-time position for the New York Tribune as a college correspondent.
When Higgins graduated with her master of science degree in journalism in the summer of 1942, she found a much more receptive job market. Many men in the newspaper business had joined the armed forces to serve in World War II, providing new opportunities for women in positions previously unavailable to them. Higgins was hired full-time by the Tribune and set her sights on top assignments. Her ambition was aided not only by wartime shortages of reporters, but probably also by her numerous affairs with men on the staff. Her reputation as a temptress willing to use her sexual allure to gain professional favors did not do much for the success of her first marriage. She wedded Stanley Moore, a Harvard philosophy professor, in 1942, but shortly afterward, her husband was drafted. The separation caused by war and the public reports of Higgins's romantic escapades brought a quick end to the relationship.
Higgins's work earned her the use of a byline in the Tribune by 1943—she was one of the few staff writers to be so recognized. But, despite her success in New York, she was unable to convince her editors to give her the foreign correspondent assignment for which she longed. More interested in seeing the war than abiding by professional policy, she finally went over the heads of her editors to Helen Rogers Reid, the wife of the paper's owner. Reid had a hand in the operation of the Tribune and she also was known for her support of feminist issues. She sympathized with Higgins and arranged a post for her in London, England, in 1944. But covering events in London still did not satisfy the reporter's desire to be on the battlefront. With much persistence, she finally received permission to travel to Paris, and in the beginning of 1945, she landed an assignment at the Berlin bureau.
Although she did not get to the front lines until the very end of the war, Higgins's reporting still had an impact. She was one of a group of reporters that were allowed to tour parts of Germany decimated by bombing raids, she was on hand to cover the arrival of Allied forces at the Nazi concentration camps of Dachau and Buchenwald, and she witnessed the fall of Munich. Her work earned her a number of awards following the war, including an Army campaign ribbon for distinguished service, and the New York Newspaper Women's Award for best foreign correspondent of 1945.
Higgins remained in Europe in the late 1940s, covering such events as the Nuremburg war trials and the Berlin blockade. She was promoted to bureau chief in Berlin in 1947 at the age of 26, but it was evident that supervising a news office was not one of her strengths. Higgins became obsessed with staying ahead of competitors on every story, placing a great deal of stress on herself and her staff. Her personal life of this period was somewhat happier, but no less controversial; she began a relationship with Major General William Hall, the director of Army intelligence, who at that time was married with a family of four children back in America. Their attachment proved to be a strong one, however, and the two were married in 1953; they would later have two children of their own.
Higgins was assigned to Tokyo, Japan, as Far East bureau chief in May of 1950. She took the transfer as a professional affront because stories on events in the Far East rarely appeared in the Tribune. But international events soon made it clear that she couldn't have been in a better place as a reporter. That June, communist North Korea invaded the U.S. supported country of South Korea, launching the Korean War. Higgins traveled to the South Korean capital of Seoul, recounting the events in the final days before the fall of that city to North Korean forces—barely escaping before the arrival of the communists. When the Tribune sent the more experienced war reporter Homer Bigart to cover Korea, Higgins was instructed by the paper to return to her Tokyo post. She refused to leave the action in Korea, however, and continued her coverage of the growing hostilities, beginning a rivalry with Bigart to get the best stories. Her ability to cover combat was threatened when American Lieutenant General Walton W. Walker banned all women from the front, stating that females could not be accommodated by facilities at the battlefield. Higgins, who was quite willing to don combat fatigues and join in the hardships of a soldier's life, again turned to Helen Rogers Reid for assistance. Reid contacted Walker's superior, General Douglas MacArthur, and permission was granted for Higgins to resume her front-line reporting.
Her reporting during the Korean War firmly established Higgins's image as a glamorously daring war correspondent. She won the respect of soldiers and male reporters alike for her pursuit of information under the most difficult and dangerous conditions. She gave readers a personal view of the war by working alongside military men, going so far as to join the Marines in landing in enemy territory at Inchon. The Tribune ran her stories on a regular basis, sometime placing them side-by-side with reports by her competitor, Bigart. Her popularity reached even greater heights when she was the subject of an article in the October 2, 1950, edition of Life magazine featuring photographs of Higgins outfitted in battle fatigues. She capitalized on interest in her wartime exploits by publishing War in Korea in 1951. Documenting her experiences as a reporter in Korea, the book became a best-selling hit in the United States.
Higgins's war correspondence was honored with a number of awards in the early 1950s. In 1951, she became the first woman to win a Pulitzer Prize for international reporting when she shared the prize with five other journalists. The same year she was named Woman of the Year by the Associated Press news organization. Her other honors included the George Polk Award of the Overseas Press Club and the Marine Corps Reserve Officers Award.
In 1953, Higgins covered the defeat of the French in their colony of Vietnam at Dien Bein Phu, resulting in the formation of North and South Vietnam. During the fighting there she narrowly escaped injury when the photographer Robert Capra was killed by a land mine just a few feet from her. Despite the harrowing experience, Higgins did not relent in her work. About this time, she received a visa to travel behind the Iron Curtain in the Soviet Union. Cold War tensions were at a high point, and she was the first reporter allowed on such a visit in many years. She traveled the nation extensively, covering 13, 500 miles and getting a picture of life under Communism that had been previously unavailable to the West. The journey became the basis for another book, Red Plush and Black Bread, published in 1955. The same year she released another volume, News is a Singular Thing.
Over the next decade, Higgins continued to cross the globe, following her instinct for newsworthy international developments. In 1961 she reported on the civil war in the Congo, becoming the first member of the Tribune to cover the central African region since the search for David Livingstone by Henry Morton Stanley in the 1870s. She returned to Vietnam in 1963 and documented her concerns about American military involvement there in the 1965 book, Our Vietnam Nightmare.
Higgins ended her association with the Tribune in 1963 and began contributing weekly columns to Newsday. She established a home in Long Island, New York, at this time, but continued to travel, returning to Vietnam in 1965. There she was stricken with leishmaniasis, a tropical disease, and returned to the United States to be treated at Walter Reed Hospital in Washington, D.C. She fell into a coma and died on January 3, 1966, at the age of 45. Higgins's outstanding career as a journalist and her service to her country as a war correspondent were honored with her burial at Arlington National Cemetery.
Edwards, Julia, Women of the World: The Great Foreign Correspondents, Houghton Mifflin, 1988.
Kluger, Richard, The Paper: The Life and Death of the New York Tribune, Knopf, 1986.
May, Antoinette, Witness to War: A Biography of Marguerite Higgins, Beaufort Books, 1983.
Mydans, Carl, "Girl War Correspondent, " Life, October 2, 1950, pp. 51-52. □