I guess now that the statute of limitations has run out, the truth can finally be told. Nearly half a century ago, at the tender age of 22, I made a secret trip to Hanoi while my country was at war with North Vietnam. In those days, fewer Americans traveled to Hanoi than travel today to North Korea. My trip in May of 1968 was four years before “Hanoi Jane” Fonda made her way there. But Jane’s trip garnered widespread publicity – and notoriety in the eyes of some – while mine went altogether unnoticed.
Well, almost. One evening while I was in
Hanoi, my mother got a call from my grandmother in Brooklyn.
“What now? Your son is a communist?” she barked loudly enough to be heard in central Ohio without benefit of a phone.
“Who? What?” My mother struggled to put the accusation in context.
“I just heard on the CBS Evening News that your son is in Hanoi!”
So, it wasn’t entirely secret, just from the authorities. Such embarrassing anonymity would be hard to manage in this era of 24/7 surveillance. Indeed, even in 1968 there was plenty of surveillance, though it was quaintly confined to wiretaps and shuffling through snail mail. The Institute for Policy Studies, the liberal think tank in the nation’s capital where I hung my hat during that tumultuous year, was comprised of just eight “fellows” (the cofounders being disenchanted Kennedy administration staff) and as many students. But when under a Freedom of Information Act request the Nixon administration released the first ten thousand pages of IPS’s files, we discovered to our amusement that there had been 64 paid FBI informants eavesdropping on conversations, riffling through trash, and reconstructing lesbian love letters. This meant that nearly everyone who came in the door was spying on us.
And yet I was so innocuous as to have been virtually invisible. This gave me a certain freedom that fame wouldn't have permitted. I had been active in the antiwar movement since college days, when I signed up to burn my draft card during a Cornell campus demonstration during my senior year. I had marched down Fifth Avenue in April 1967 in the great Mobilization when half a million protesters flooded the fashionista streets and were counted by the press and police afterwards as just a quarter of a person apiece. I had joined thousands of demonstrators converging on the Pentagon in October 1967 while Allen Ginsberg sought to levitate the building. We spent two memorable nights in the parking lot at the front entrance, singing “We Shall Overcome” and “We Shall Not Be Moved” around campfires while young women threaded daffodils into the rifle barrels of stern-faced soldiers. And I had watched the capital burn from my office two flights up on Thomas Circle the night Martin Luther King was killed in Memphis and urban ghettoes ignited in rage and sorrow.
In a certain sense I was a Forrest Gump of the left, nearly as naïve but not quite as clueless. I’ve always had an uncanny knack for showing up in places and at times when history is being made. Sometimes my timing is a little off, as when I declined a ride east to witness the epiphany of Woodstock only to make up for it by attending the catastrophe that was Altamont. But when North Vietnam came beckoning, I heeded the call and leapt at the opportunity.
Well, I didn’t quite leap. It was a little
less heroic. I went to lunch in Washington’s Dupont Circle one early spring
afternoon with Cathy Wilkerson, then national coordinator of Students for a
Democratic Society (SDS), the New Left’s most influential organization, then in
its heyday. A few years later I was stunned to find Cathy’s mug shot on an FBI
Most Wanted poster for accidentally bombing her parents’ townhouse in Greenwich
Village while assembling an explosive device for use by the Weather Underground.
But the Cathy I knew in the spring of 1968 was a sweet, conscientious young
woman committed as I was to ending the war in Vietnam through nonviolent means. As we sat in spring grass
eating our sandwiches, she mentioned in passing that she had received an
invitation from the North Vietnam Union of Students for four young American
journalists to visit Hanoi about two months hence.
“Interested?” she asked casually. The way she said it I couldn’t tell if she was serious.
“Sure,” I replied, equally casually. “Got nothing special going next week.” And I promptly forgot about the conversation. So I was a little puzzled that evening when I got a call at my desk in the offices of Liberation News Service. LNS was a self-styled alternative press counterpart to the Associated Press that supplied twice-weekly mimeographed dispatches to the then burgeoning underground press in major cities and college towns around the country.
“Is this Mark?” a hushed voice whispered from the other end of the line.
“Yes,” I said, wondering why the whispering.
“This is Steve. Are you ready?”
“You know what.”
I paused for a moment, scouring my memory. “I’m afraid I don’t.”
“Hang up and ask around,” Steve whispered. We hung up. Within five minutes, as if on cue, my colleague Alan entered my office.
“Congrats!” He offered his hand to shake, a little enviously. “I hear you’re heading for Hanoi.”
“What!” I exclaimed. Visions of Monopoly danced like poisoned sugar plums in my head: “Go straight to jail. Do not pass Go.” I rang Steve back at his number in New York.
“This must be some kind of mistake. I’m not your man,” I protested. “I don’t wish to spend the next hundred years of my life in jail.”
“Nonsense,” Steve said with disarming certitude. “You’re just the man we need. Hang up and raise the money for a round-the-world ticket. Call me back in a week. Meanwhile I’ll buy the tickets and make arrangements.”
No one could tell me if what I was about to do was illegal. Since the United States was not officially at war with North Vietnam, I wasn’t officially consorting with the enemy. But thousands of American soldiers were dying and ultimately millions of Vietnamese civilians as well as soldiers. In every respect but an official declaration, we were at war and the North Vietnamese were our enemies. In traveling to Hanoi I was risking both jail time and blacklisting in a future professional life. At the same time, those publishers and magazine editors with whom I spoke about writing articles and a book on the basis of my trip weren’t worried about getting in trouble for publishing my reports. Harper and Row (now Harper Collins), one of the oldest and most respected American publishers, eagerly pitched in to help cover the cost of a world-spanning airline ticket. “Should I or shouldn’t I?” I asked friends, fretting about the consequences. “Gotta go,” they said, one and all. “This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. You can’t pass it up.”
As if to clear the way for a safe trip, just as I was pondering whether to go President Johnson gave a nationally televised address that astonished the nation. Facing ferocious opposition from the rapidly growing antiwar wing of his own Democratic party he announced that he wouldn’t run for a second term. He immediately ordered U.S. armed forces to stop bombing Hanoi and other population centers in North Vietnam and henceforth strike only those targets nearest the demilitarized zone, below the 17th parallel. Hearing the news, my housemates and I headed down to the White House high on the only piece of good news we’d heard in years of seemingly ineffectual protest. There we found hundreds of other demonstrators cheering, dancing and singing at the gates. “Hey hey, ho ho, LBJ has got to go!” we chanted, though his announcement had suddenly rendered our demand superfluous. It didn’t occur to me till years later, after reading a Johnson biography, that LBJ may well have heard those chants. How must it have felt to hear such rejoicing at one’s defeat for a man who had so long seemed impervious to public opinion but who was in fact hyper-sensitive to every slight?
The week before I was to embark on the trip, I received a message from Steve instructing me to meet him in Manhattan, where he said he would give me my ticket and other vital information. His directions took me to what appeared to be an abandoned warehouse south of Houston Street decades before it became hip Soho. I made my way through an unlocked door off an alleyway, then up two flights of stairs. There I found myself alone in a cavernous empty space with floor-to-ceiling pillars. I stood in the dim half-light listening to the silence and muffled sounds of distant traffic, waiting for something to happen. Just when I was starting to wonder if I’d come to the right place, a shadowy figure stepped out from behind a pillar and walked slowly in my direction.
“Mark?” he said quietly, offering his hand.
“Steve?” I said. Who else could it be?
He pulled a small sheaf of papers from the vest pocket of his jacket and handed them to me.
“This is all you’ll need,” he told me. “Tickets on UTA from New York to Paris on May 5 and from Paris to Phnom Penh via Colombo, Ceylon on the 7th. The North Vietnamese consulate in Paris will arrange passage for you from Phnom Penh to Hanoi. You’ll be in the North for fourteen days. Then you’ll be flown back to Phnom Penh on another courier flight and continue eastward on UTA by whatever route you choose back to the U.S. mainland. You can make as many stops as you want and stay as long as you like along the way so long as you keep moving east. Here are the names and phone numbers for the other three people who will be traveling with you. Make contact with them as soon as possible to set up arrangements to meet before heading for LaGuardia.”
We glanced quickly around at the empty space to be sure no one else was witnessing our transaction. Then I counted out $1500 in fifties and handed the pile of bills to Steve.
“Good luck,” he said quietly. “Have a safe trip.” We shook hands and departed by separate entrances. Steve and I never saw or spoke with one another again, but his tickets and instructions were good as gold.
My three travel companions were also recent college graduates. Naomi Jaffe, from Columbia University, was an intense, inwardly focused woman, slight of build, with a fiercely militant view of the struggle for peace and justice that seldom permitted her to laugh or smile. Jon Stielstra, from the University of Wisconsin, was an unusually tall, gangly man who hardly ever spoke and divulged nearly nothing about his background or perspective. On those rare occasions when he did so, one had to lean in to hear what he had to say. David Tobis, a graduate student from Yale, was my saving grace. Easy to speak with and quick to find humor even when we were being shown the grimmest consequences of the American war, he brought a levity and humanity to our group that enabled me to stay sane in the midst of so much outrage and sorrow.
The first leg of our journey took us to Paris on no ordinary day. Arriving in Orly, we searched out transportation to the Left Bank. We’d been instructed to visit the North Vietnamese consulate located in the Latin Quarter to receive papers that would enable us to take a courier flight on the final leg of the trip from Phnom Penh to Hanoi. But we soon found that transportation to the Left Bank was not to be had. A student rebellion had broken out in the Latin Quarter and demonstrators dreaming of a second French Revolution were engaging gendarmes in open street battles. It was a classic reprise of the storming of the Bastille. It was, declared some observers, the most significant revolt in France since the political earthquakes of 1848, and ultimately it forced the resignation of the seemingly impregnable President Charles deGaulle. The Metro stations serving the Latin Quarter were all closed, we were told, and taxis were refusing to drive there for fear that their cabs would be pummeled with cobblestones.
We couldn't have been more thrilled. Congratulating ourselves on our timing, we took the Metro to the Right Bank, then lugged our suitcases across the Seine and made our way through the melee. In the narrow, winding alleyways of the Quartier Latin we found demonstrators swathed in headscarves, handkerchiefs covering their mouths. They used crowbars to pry up ancient paving stones and lobbed them at gendarmes armed with shields, helmets and billy clubs. Not to be outdone, the gendarmes were lobbing tear gas canisters at the demonstrators. Undeterred, protesters grabbed the smoking canisters in gloved hands and threw them right back at the police. Smoke everywhere, sirens keening, voices screaming. Everyone was having a marvelous time.
We boarded our flight eastward the next morning, reluctant to leave this classic Gallic cat-and-mouse game when it was just getting started. Our plane stopped to refuel in Colombo, Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), where we sat under palm fronds and sipped tepid sodas in the tropical torpor. Eighteen hours after leaving Paris, we landed in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. The low-slung skyline teemed with the vitality of a freewheeling Asian city where everyone was on the make. Surrounded by warring nations, Prince Norodim Sihanouk was cagily steering his country on an ostensibly neutral course, less principled than opportunistic, and it showed up in the street names. The broad boulevards leading from the airport into the city center were lined with the flags of both the United States and the Soviet Union. Emerging from our hotel after booking our rooms, I was besieged by a swarm of pimps eager to make a hookup.
“Numbah one? Numba one?” they beckoned hopefully. When I shook my head and brushed one away, he raised his hand dismissively. “Ah, numba ten!”
In the evening we followed a hotel butler upstairs to the roof of our four-story hotel and gazed out across the skyline to the west. Above the din of the city we could hear faint thunder rumbling like a distant storm and watch diffuse light fluttering on the horizon. “American bomb Vietnam,” he nodded matter-of-factly, as if pointing out the Northern Lights. We stood listening in silence, wondering what – and who – lay beneath those bombs.
After dark the following evening we boarded a single engine, eight-person prop plane with no markings on the fuselage. Twice a week, this solitary plane flew across enemy lines shuttling diplomats and couriers between Saigon in South Vietnam, Phnom Penh, Cambodia, Vientiane, Laos, and Hanoi. In addition to the four of us there were just two other passengers, middle-aged men in blocky suits, apparent bureaucrats speaking a language I couldn’t catch. Taking off from Phnom Penh, the plane flew low over mountainous jungle terrain. As the engine droned and my seat vibrated in tandem, the night swallowed all light and we flew in near total darkness. I leaned back and closed my eyes. I was suddenly struck by the fact that after months of preparation and days of transoceanic travel, we would soon cross over an imaginary red line indelibly stained by the blood of Vietnamese, Americans, and so many others, soldiers and civilians alike, to land in what my government had designated as “enemy territory.” What mix of fortune and chance had brought me here, and for what purpose? A twenty-two-year-old fresh out of college on the staff of no newspaper or magazine, lacking even the most rudimentary press credentials: Who was I to be crossing this forbidden boundary when seasoned foreign correspondents couldn’t get permission and would have died for the chance to enter this terra incognita? What was I to do with what friends and colleagues called a “once-in-a-lifetime opportunity”?
I felt a tap on my shoulder. David was whispering in my ear. “ Look down now. See that light?” he asked, pointing out the window.
Peering into the darkness, I could just make out an inconstant flutter of yellow orange light, then another and another scattered across the landscape.
“What are those?” I asked. “They don’t look like electric lights.”
David conferred with the flight attendant, a young Asian woman, and turned back to me.
“Pathet Lao,” he whispered hoarsely over the throbbing propellers, referring to the Laotian guerrilla movement allied with the Viet Cong. “Those are their campfires.” I gazed out the window into the night, my cheek pressed against the glass, imagining men younger than ourselves sitting on their haunches in shorts and little else, huddled around cooking fires. No more than a few thousand feet separated us. They could no doubt hear our plane passing overhead. Peering upward into the dark as we peered down at them, did they wonder who we were? Did they imagine us to be their enemies?
It seemed like we’d been flying for hours on end when the plane began a slow descent. I pressed my face to the window and made out a dim scattering of electric lights beneath the plane. Here was Hanoi, a city of a million or more, yet scarcely a trace on the nightscape. Then I realized, of course it would be so. Having endured years of bombing, the city had shuttered its lights in a near-total blackout to avoid revealing strategic targets to American and South Vietnamese B-52’s.
[Note: The following passages marked in italics and written in the present tense are drawn from journals written during my journey in 1968. All other passages are set in the past tense and are being written 45 years later from memory and notes taken during the trip.]
May 10, 1968: “We’ve arrived in advance of our welcoming committee; they were held up by traffic on the pontoon bridge across the Red River. The airport resembles a terminal in any small American town, only more austere. No neon lights, no ads, no rent-a-car booths, no flight departure announcements broadcast on loudspeakers. A bar at the far end of the cinder block building serves Vietnamese beer and limonade with a taste like the afterglow of Seven-Up. Several long rows of wooden benches and a few square café tables comprise the furnishings. The windows are decorated with newspaper clippings patterned in snowflake crystals in a climate that never sees snow. The terminal is empty but for a few beefy men in ill-fitting suits waiting for the ICC flight back to Phnom Penh. We wait, wondering for a few moments if we’ve landed in the wrong airport. Then we hear sudden scurrying and embarrassed laughter coming from behind a cinder block wall. A few faces peek cautiously around the corner, disappear for a moment, then enter again with more confidence. Five lovely young Vietnamese girls, maybe sixteen, line up in front of us in elegant ankle-length silk dresses, breathless from running. Each steps forward and presents us with her bouquet of flowers. A photographer scurries about with a flash camera to record the event.
Behind them our official welcoming committee arrives, also late and out
of breath. Tu, a slight, fiftyish Vietnamese man, no more than five feet tall,
is to be our guide, and Nien, a middle-aged woman with a broad smile and quiet,
firm voice, is our interpreter. Nien speaks broken English, probably
learned from a textbook. From our delegation only I speak French, which Tu and
other older Vietnamese also speak from the decades of France’s colonization of
Indochina. But by force of will and much hand gesturing, we manage to make
I feel for one brief, embarrassing moment that perhaps there’s been an error, that we are not in fact the delegation our hosts had intended to meet. We could hardly claim to represent anyone other than ourselves. But we are indeed [the ones] they were waiting for. We must deal with being public figures now. We must speak for the “good” Americans…honoring the noble and condemning evil. Subtle nuances of belief don’t always come through in translation.
The trip from the airport to downtown Hanoi is twelve kilometers along a narrow, tree-lined road that lapses into mud in places after this evening’s shower. We ride in a Russian Bosca like an early fifties Fluid Drive Dodge past large factories bombed out by American pilots, with only steel girders left standing in the moonlight. We have to wait for quite some time for the pontoon bridge across the Red River to clear. It’s especially crowded on Friday nights when workers are leaving Hanoi to visit their families in the countryside. We stand by our cars in the darkness, talking among ourselves about the bananas by the side of the road, about languages learned, about where each of us comes from. The traffic along the road is very heavy – trucks with lattice works of leafy camouflage covering their engines, few cars but hundreds of bicycles being wheeled through the mud by students returning home to Hanoi after spending their weekdays working and studying in the rice fields. There is a quiet, chatty familiarity among the travelers along this patch of one-lane road. Bicycle riders, their vehicles loaded with books and clothes, stop to talk with riders moving in the opposite direction. There are lots of jokes about the long lines, occasional reports of progress, students singing. One young man carries a sleeping infant strapped flat to the seat of his bicycle. The child, explains Tu, turned one year old last month and is the little brother of the student. The two are on the way home to visit their parents.
We cross the pontoon bridge into the city around midnight. The original bridge, we’re told, was bombed and repaired three times before being abandoned. It’s been replaced by a set of floating barges loosely linked together lengthwise to form a cumbersome alternative. As our car wheels land on each pontoon, it sinks below the one behind. The resulting rising and dipping effect is exhilarating if your stomach holds. At the halfway mark we must de-board and drag a few more wooden planks from the water onto a small gap in the bridge – a kind of do-it-yourself crossing. On the tip of one pontoon, out of the way of the traffic, a young couple sits with feet dangling in the river, heads leaning close, faintly discernable in the moonlight.
May 11, 1968: The old French colonial Hotel Metropole, made famous by Graham Greene’s novel, “The Quiet American,” has been rebaptized Thong Nhat (Hotel of Reunification) by the Vietnamese authorities. It has undoubtedly faded over the years but the building retains a certain grandeur without the rococo elegance of colonial times. The front marquee is now bare, painted an unappealing pink. The Vietnamese have replaced the giant “M’ tile inlay in the lobby floor with a superimposed “T” and “N”. The furniture is massive and unmovable, like that used in Eastern European embassies in Washington. There is a bar at the end of the lobby serving drinks till 11 p.m. and a modest display of liquors, all from socialist countries.
During air raids the hotel shakes off its tropical torpor. Sirens shatter the stillness of a sweltering afternoon. The floor manager bustles about rousing guests. “Go, please, downstairs.” Shutters are closed with crisp efficiency. As we make our way downstairs to the shelter the hotel staff smiles reassuringly, pointing the way as if we were being ushered to our seats at the symphony. In the lobby, permanent residents – Russians, Chinese, Cubans – continue to sip their afternoon aperitifs, unmoved by the air raid sirens and reluctant to budge for another American reconnaissance plane.
The long, narrow, low-ceilinged shelter is more like a corridor than a room. It’s populated with short-term guests, no more than ten in all, a smattering of Western Europeans and Americans of whom the hotel staff are very protective. Susan Sontag, whose rapier-sharp pen has earned her a reputation as a pre-eminent cultural critic among Manhattan’s literati, sits with her companion, Bob Greenblatt, a Cornell professor and antiwar activist I’ve seen on campus. The German playwright Peter Weiss is also here, hunched beside me in our cramped quarters. His most recent play, “Marat/Sade,” a commentary on the American involvement in Vietnam by way of the French Revolution, has provoked a storm of controversy. Then there’s Miss Universe 1964, a Filipina woman of rare aesthetic charms still evident four years after her coronation, offering smiles all round. I’m reminded of Paul McCartney’s classic line, “Her Majesty’s a pretty nice girl but she doesn’t have a lot to say.”
The Thong Nhat is a Noah’s Ark of foreigners, two-by-two, four-by-four – journalists, intellectuals, students, technical advisers, opportunists with their trophy consorts. Each has been invited by a different Vietnamese host, each led around by a different team of guides. Groups cluster by national and cultural affiliations – Europeans with Americans, Chinese with Mongolians, Japanese, Albanians, and Russians largely on their own. Only the Cubans seem ready to speak with strangers; they smile warmly whenever we enter. The Chinese appear only at mealtimes, usually before or after other residents. They never smile, seldom speak, and are hardly ever to be found in the lobby. They look fiercely militant.
The Russians, on the other hand, are always in the lobby, usually with drinks in hand, loudly informing the other residents of their presence. By ten o’clock each evening they’ve reached the higher stages of inebriation and start slapping one another on the back. By their manner they indicate that they find Vietnam a crashing bore and are counting the days till they return home. Both they and we feel that the other is befouling the ideological air. We’re offended by what we take to be their crass behavior and they undoubtedly wonder at the nerve we have to appear in Hanoi while our country bombs Vietnam to ground level. In such ways is the cold war renewed here in Hanoi in a recycled colonial manse the Vietnamese call the Hotel of Reunification.
It’s curious that we hotel guests could all be supporting the North Vietnamese and yet be so far apart from one another. The Thong Nhat serves as a ship with an assemblage of passengers who never expected to be thrown together and for lack of a more open-minded response have fallen back on their inherited national and cultural identities. All, that is, except for us Americans, who try in our embarrassment and shame to pass for any nationality but our own. None of the delegations fully trusts the motives of the others, but rather than rupture our carefully cultivated solidarity we choose to glide over one another with polite smiles and distant greetings.
May 13, 1968, Commission on War Crimes, Hanoi: Mr. Nguyen Nang An has delicate hands and a fine-featured face. When he speaks of American war crimes in Vietnam, he speaks slowly and carefully, without visible emotion.
“We make a clear distinction between those who are our friends and those who are our enemies. If we feel hatred for the U.S. aggressors, we feel great friendship for the American people and American students.” We’re sitting in the reception room of the Commission on War Crimes and the furnishings are much like those in the Thong Nhat – parallel rows of stolid brown chairs facing one another, a small table with a tea setting, bananas, and several packs of Dien Bien cigarettes. They’re named for Dien Bien Phu, the climactic battle between the French and Vietnamese that drove France out of Indochina in 1954. We’re speaking through our interpreter Nien, who sits hunched over a notebook jotting down what is being said.
“We consider you our heartiest friends,” Mr. An continues, “who are standing on the same battlefront to safeguard what is most beautiful and noble in the world – freedom and independence.”
A Vietnamese woman who looks to be in her thirties, dressed in a white blouse and black cotton slacks, enters carrying a teapot and pours another cup for each of us. Naomi leans forward and starts to speak. She smiles, but it looks oddly pained and sad.
“We would like to say that the victory of the Vietnamese people is a victory for us too. It is our knowledge of your struggle which has given us in the Movement the strength to continue our political work.”
Mr. An continues: “The crimes of the Americans in Vietnam surpass those of Hitler. These crimes fall in five categories: crimes of aggression, crimes against peace, war crimes, crimes against mankind, and genocide. The greatest American crime is aggression. The most savage crime has been genocide.”
I light another Dien Bien, my third since the meeting began fifteen minutes ago. Each of us diligently writes notes on the crimes of the Americans.
An air raid alert. Short, then long blasts from sirens set in trees along the street outside. Mr. An smiles. Tu, our guide, gently laughs. “I invite you to come to the shelter with me,” Mr. An says calmly, with no sense of urgency. “But are you sure you don’t want more tea first?”
The alert is over in five minutes – a long constant siren marks the all-clear signal. We pass a few jokes about the omnipresence of American imperialism but for the moment the threat feels somewhat remote. We see no American planes, hear no anti-aircraft guns, see no one running for cover. Since the bombing moved south of the 17th parallel residents of Hanoi seldom bother to interrupt their work. If they do, they simply sidle up to one of the single-person shelters that line the streets and wait there for the all-clear siren to sound. Embedded vertically into the soil between the sidewalks and streets of the city, concrete cylinders three feet in diameter and maybe four feet deep offer minimal protection and can only accommodate the diminutive frames of Vietnamese. Once inside, you must somehow drag an immensely heavy concrete lid over the cylinder to shield you from flying debris, then somehow push it aside once the raid is over. I try to wedge myself into a shelter but find that my lanky 6’2” frame is too ungainly to fit.
Settling back into our seats following the all clear, I ask Mr. An what the bombing of Hanoi and the North have done to the morale of the Vietnamese people. “The American objective with these bombardments is to intimidate the government and people of Vietnam. Some people were indeed frightened at first because they didn’t know what would happen to them. But our hatred for the American aggressors got greater and greater. People took courage from our victories. In Hanoi we had only rifles at first, but we found that we could shoot down planes with rifle bullets.”
I’m feeling restless. Mr. An seems to have found formulaic responses to all our questions. Doesn’t he wonder at all what manner of civilization would destroy his country, his home, hate him and his ideas without ever having known them? How can he study and recount the destruction of Vietnam by Americans, then tell us Americans with no apparent irony that we are his “heartiest friends”? Maybe I’ve taken the schoolbook rhetoric too seriously. Does government “by the people” mean that I somehow helped create this madness? I’ve certainly sought to distance myself. I’ve said no to it enough times in public and in writing. But all the while I’ve also continued to live off the spoils of the American Dream – eaten well, dressed warmly, been well-educated…at whose expense? Maybe Mr. An should not be letting us off so easily.
“We know that there are many Americans who have lost their humanity and are inflicting great damage on our country,” he’s saying. “But you are different. You have not lost your humanity. And you are our friends.”
Returning to the Thong Nhat, I run across Susan Sontag in the hotel lobby and share with her my conflicted feelings about the way we’re being viewed or portrayed by our North Vietnamese hosts. “I’m amazed that the Vietnamese retain so much of their humanity in the face of the American bombing,” I tell her. “We Americans by and large don’t make any great distinctions between the Vietnamese people and their leaders. How are they able to see us more clearly?” Susan waves her hand dismissively.
"Their humanity has never been in question,” she says with more than a touch of irritation in her voice. “It’s ours that has been destroyed by this war.”
In retrospect, it seems to me that both their and our humanity were being challenged by the enemy images that nearly all conflicts, be they political, ideological, or violent, inescapably engender. We sat through many more such formalized recitations of American crimes during that first week in Hanoi and I began to feel strangely detached from them. Naomi soldiered on in her militancy, ready to echo every formulaic denunciation from our Vietnamese hosts as a demonstration of her solidarity with their struggle. But despite our best efforts, David and I increasingly found these exercises predictable, unpersuasive, and oddly lacking in feeling despite the horrific nature of the crimes. In our frustration we turned to humor to leaven the leaden atmosphere of these carefully scripted meetings. During breaks allotted to us after lunch each afternoon to shelter from the tropical heat, we retreated to the vast room we shared and lay sweating on beds under canopies of mosquito netting. Even the sounds of the downtown streets outside our window were muted in mid-afternoon by the labor of breathing through the thick, unmoving air. All the world seemed stuck in suspended animation, waiting to be released by the cool of evening.
Out of nowhere, David spoke. “I have the sneaking suspicion that we’re not actually in Hanoi,” he said. I lay staring at the ceiling fan, which was rotating lazily without producing any discernable air circulation.
His statement hung in midair for a time, requiring too much effort to respond to. “What do you mean?” I finally asked almost too late to be considered a response.
“I think when we took off from LaGuardia we landed in a stage set. We’re actually in Jersey now, not far from Hackensack, and they’ve hired a bunch of Chinese extras to impersonate Vietnamese.”
“It’s your turn to do the cac ban speech,” I said. “Cac ban” meant “dear friends” (or so we surmised) and was the phrase we heard most often in meetings with our Vietnamese hosts. A cac ban speech was the obligatory response expected from us to balance the one recited by the Vietnamese. It wasn’t that we were becoming cynical, just that we were suffering from jet lag, culture shock, and tropical climate change to boot. Somehow we’d come hoping for something more spontaneous than issuing companion press releases.
To relieve my boredom and frustration I began quietly sneaking out of the Thong Nhat during afternoon siestas when our minders assumed we were resting. Camera concealed in my pocket, I strolled casually through the lobby, then scooted out the door and headed down one or another side street. Once outside, I felt a heady sense of freedom. From here on nothing was programmed. There was just enough risk of being found out to perk up my senses. In the afternoon heat the streets of the old city were virtually empty. A solitary cyclist carrying a heavy cargo pedaled down the broad tree-lined boulevard in front of the hotel. In a park across the street, a young man lay on his back, knee up, his bicycle leaning against the trunk of a tree. I turned the corner and found a smattering of market vendors chatting with one another, women with baskets of produce and scales to measure with. I rounded another bend and came upon a gaggle of young boys maybe eight or ten years old wearing shorts and flip flops. Pointing at my bare arms, they giggled in amazement. So much hair! In short order they attracted a small parade of curious onlookers who followed me down one street and another, a minor celebrity in their midst.
“Russky?” one offered.
I shook my head. “American,” I said, not certain what their reaction would be. They glanced at one another, not knowing what to make of it. Weren’t these the people who were bombing them? They stood back briefly, examined me again, then drew closer. One edged forward, reached forth a hand, and grazed my arm with a few fingers like the pursuer in a slow-motion game of tag. I took a step toward the group and offered my arm to be touched. One after another, they stepped forward, placed a few fingers on my hirsute arm, then darted away again, gazing at the hand that had just touched me and savoring the admiring gaze of friends as if their arms were suddenly either radiant or radioactive.
What was in some ways most striking about that first week in Hanoi was the startling difference of atmosphere in this capital under siege from the mood back in the nation's capital back home. In the view of both observers at the time and historians in retrospect, 1968 was the most revolutionary year since 1948, a time of epochal change, torment and turmoil in the United States and Mexico, Western and Eastern Europe, China, and more. The April assassination of Martin Luther King and the insurrectionary riots that followed not only burned the ghettoes of many American cities but with them the dimming hopes raised by the Sixties civil rights movement. The assassination of Bobby Kennedy in June, followed by chaotic street demonstrations in Chicago during the Democratic National Convention in August, added to a sense of political apocalypse. Abroad, the student rebellion we encountered in Paris in May, the massacre of students in Mexico City’s Tlatelolco Plaza, and the Prague Spring and its repression by the Soviet Union generated a cascade of not so coincidental events that built on one another into a whirlwind where the center could not hold. When we boarded our plane in Washington, D.C. heading for Hanoi, the atmosphere in the nation’s capital was as tense as a tripwire lashed to an i.e.d.
Yet when we landed in Hanoi, we were
astonished to discover that virtually no trace of this global upheaval had
infected the Vietnamese. Granted, we were not on the front lines of battle,
which had moved south in the weeks preceding our arrival. In the place of daily
bombings, local residents were experiencing an unforeseen holiday, their own
Hanoi Spring. Outside our window in the heart of the city, first light at 4
a.m. brought birdsong and the whir of bicycle wheels. Young men pedaled one-speed
bicycles while their girlfriends or sisters in conical hats perched side-saddle
over the back wheels, often reading them the morning paper. Old men practiced
t’ai chi to the sounds of martial music blaring from low-fi loudspeakers. During
the day, streets were uncrowded; no one seemed in a hurry to get anywhere. How
different not just from the stress-ridden streets of D.C. and New York but from
Hanoi today, where you almost literally take your life in your hands crossing
the street amid a continuous torrent of motorcycles and cars. For a vivid sense of how much more dangerous the streets of Hanoi are today than under the bombs in May 1968, see this article and video from The New York Times of September 27th, 2012.
On our first evening in Hanoi we strolled around Hoan Kiem Lake (Lake of the Restored Sword) in the heart of the city. Tu took my hand and guided me across arched bridges and past candlelit teahouses while young couples sitting on benches leaned in to whisper to one another. The loudest sounds were murmurs of conversation and falling water. Like Prague’s “second spring” following the Velvet Revolution in 1989 (which I also witnessed), Hanoi in May 1968 was a city on holiday breathing a collective sigh of relief.
After five days of ponderous meetings, sitting in stolid armchairs smoking Dien Biens and drinking lukewarm, low-fizz sodas, David and I approached Tu and asked him politely if it might be possible for us to take the second week to tour the countryside. He thought about it for a moment. “Is possible,” he replied with a noncommittal smile. Little did we realize how much we were asking and how hard it would be to fulfill our request. It would be no simple task locating two cars in an impoverished, embattled country with virtually no private transportation other than bicycles; plowing through a confounding bureaucracy with a request from a delegation of unknown Americans while fighting a war of existential survival against their nation; and arranging with communes in the countryside to host and feed nine guests (including two guides, two drivers and a translator) for a week of wide-ranging travel. Nonetheless, Tu never let us know just how hard it must have been for him to pull off. In response to our continuing queries he just kept saying, “Is possible, is possible,” until one day when he sat us down with Nien and said simply, “Is happening.”
After nearly a week in Hanoi we headed out into the countryside to visit agricultural communes and schools in Thai Binh province. As in other rural regions around Hanoi, students often spent their weekdays on such communal farms before returning home to Hanoi to visit with their families on weekends. Miraculously, Tu had commandeered not just one but two cars, old Russian Ladas that looked like ’53 Chevys, to accommodate the four of us and the three of them plus two drivers. I was embarrassed to be riding in a car when no ordinary Vietnamese had access to anything other than a bicycle. My embarrassment deepened when our drivers, savoring their newfound power and authority, persistently leaned on their horns to scatter lightly sandaled or barefoot pedestrians and cyclists alike laden with loads of food, clothing or building materials. When, through Tu and Nien, I protested this high-handed behavior, Tu spoke with the drivers, but to little audible effect. He shrugged his shoulders and they continued to blast their way through throngs of people, bicycles, and livestock with gleeful aggression.
Our two-car caravan drove narrow dirt roads through rice fields lined by canals. Thai Binh province, a coastal district about a hundred kilometers from Hanoi, became our base of operations for several days. A few hours into our trip Tu asked our driver to stop the car.
“This is Thai Binh City,” he said. We stepped out into high grass and listened to the silence in the heat of midday. I glanced in all directions but could see no habitation, no shops, no vehicles, no people. I thought for a moment that I’d misunderstood what Tu was telling us. Other than an occasional crumbling remnant of a wall or an empty lane bordered by lush vegetation, it was a pastoral scene of graceful trees and grassy fields with cattle grazing among the ruins. Most of what Tu told me was a once bustling textile center of 40,000 inhabitants was now rubble no larger than a human foot. The Americans had pummeled it with their B-52’s starting in early 1966 and had continued to pulverize the debris long after the last resident had fled. Now a profusion of native plants had returned to bury all traces of the city’s ever having been there. Only decades later did I read that Thai Binh province and the city at its heart had played historic roles in the development of a distinctive regional culture and had produced some of Vietnam’s greatest leaders, writers and dissidents, dating back to the Middle Ages. Standing in a field among birdsong and butterflies, I struggled to imagine the enormity of the crime. Yet I also marveled at the fecundity of nature in the face of such destruction. It reminded me that in the first spring following the atom bombing of Hiroshima, wildflowers bloomed with unparalleled splendor from the radioactive ash. Today Thai Binh city has a population of over 200,000, many times the size it was before its destruction. And few of its residents in the years leading up to its sudden extinction are around to tell their grandchildren what happened there.
through the ruins on a quiet afternoon, you wonder what targets here could have
occupied the careful attentions of American bomber pilots over a two-year
period. Most of the buildings lie in a rubble of individual bricks and
concrete. The bombers have left a few buildings half-intact, as if to remind
passersby that Thai Binh did indeed once exist. The post office is still there,
for example, but the doors and windows have been blown out and the roof has caved
in. Even had the post office survived the bombings it would serve no purpose
anymore. The residents of Thai Binh were all evacuated soon after the
Farther up the road is Phu Ly, formerly a handicrafts and rice city of 30,000, now empty. As you walk through the town, down criss-crossing streets distinguished from buildings only by the absence of rubble, you have to think very hard to conjure up images of a thriving city just two years ago because your first impression is that you’re making your way through a recent excavation of an ancient ruin, a tropical Pompeii erased by a volcanic eruption.
The Vietnamese themselves don’t stay long in the ruins and our guides show no visible emotion when showing these places to us. They don’t seem to grieve the loss of their cities anymore. They’ve moved elsewhere and built new homes and lives. When we stop the car for a moment to take pictures, Tu and the two drivers settle down on their haunches and light up smokes at the side of the road under the shade of a bunker that still stands. They chat quietly among themselves, then gaze silently into the distance. When we wander back to the car a short time later, Tu asks, “Assez?” in French (“Enough?”). We nod without words and step inside. None of us speaks again till we’re back among rich green rice paddies.
May 18, 1968, Thai Binh province: We’ve been staying near a small village deep in the countryside for three days now, spending our days visiting hamlets and communes in the province and our nights over leisurely dinners that stretch late into the evening. Our residence is the provincial guesthouse, formerly a French colonial headquarters, in a genteel pastel building surrounded by bamboo groves and banana trees. We’re something of a phenomenon here, being the first Americans to visit the province and the first Westerners since the French evacuated more than twenty years ago. The two winsome young Vietnamese peasant girls who tend the guesthouse stand at the doors to our rooms during the early afternoon siesta. They stare at us with frank curiosity and amusement. At one point I decide I want to smoke. Finding no match, I gesture to the girls with my unlit cigarette. They scurry about in all directions and soon return with three boxes of Vietnamese matches. Taking turns lighting them, they ignite perhaps fifteen before one produces sufficient heat to burn the tobacco. The girls are laughing madly all the while, grinning openly at one another and shyly at me. I’m laughing as well.
Yesterday during a siesta at the guesthouse of another small village, I awoke in a heavy sweat, my limbs aching from the hard mat, my feet entangled in the mosquito netting. I sat down at the tea table at the center of the room and began to write. David, also unable to sleep, joined me soon after. A Vietnamese girl with rounded face and black hair to her waist entered and served us hot tea. With hushed deftness she replaced the flowers in the vase and smiled with quiet deference. We made a lame attempt at conversation but our vocabulary was limited to “hello,” “goodbye,” and “thank you” and she knew no French or English (why should she?). When our efforts to communicate collapsed, David and I began to joke with one another somewhat callously, knowing that the girl understood nothing we were saying. “What the hell are we doing out here in East Jesus?” I asked rhetorically. “They don’t understand a damned thing we’re saying and we don’t understand a damned thing they’re saying. Here we are, privileged, over-educated college graduates who think we’re radical trying to make nice with a poor peasant girl who’s never been out of her province.”
The young woman smiled again and poured more hot tea. Flies buzzed listlessly, circling our heads. My eyes burned with sweat.
“Gimme another shot,” David asked the young woman, offering up his cup. She filled it with touching grace, gentle and uncomprehending. I was suddenly ashamed of myself for making fun of her, or rather of the situation, but in contrast to her refinement I felt hopelessly big and awkward. I wanted to say something to her – anything, even just small talk – to put an end to this polite miming and convey something of real substance. But even had I known her language I would have had little to say to her. For to me she had become most of all a symbol – of struggle, courage, and resistance -- virtues that most of us lack and strive for back home in my own tormented culture. And to her likewise, I was most probably a symbol – in her case, of solidarity and support. We must also have seemed like some kind of extra-planetary species that had miraculously landed in their midst. I couldn’t imagine what she and her friends must think when they see smiling Americans given the other face of my country they encounter through bombs dropping with equal mystery from the sky. Which image, which truth are they to trust?
May 19, 1968: We visit a young women's military training camp nested among rice fields. I'm surprised that our hosts are being given permission to show us anything of military value, but it feels more like summer camp than boot camp. They're holding an Olympics, genially competing with one another in contests like who can swim across a river fastest with a full pack strapped on her back and a rifle cradled in one arm. At one point, a phalanx of women who look to be still in their teens line up in formation with pith helmets and wooden sticks to simulate the rifles they don't possess. Beside them a cat contentedly crouches, apparently oblivious to military discipline. I wonder if such feline insubordination would be tolerated in a men's training camp. Much laughter accompanies their drills, a refreshing antidote to the regimented tone of military life. We're a long ways from the front lines, so perhaps it's not as essential to hold to strict discipline. As if to reinforce their seriousness of purpose, we're finally shown an anti-aircraft battery where four women operate the controls with suitably grim faces. But behind them I think I detect secret smiles.
May 20, 1968: We’re sitting in a family’s clay and bamboo hut in Quynh Huing village drinking hot tea again in the sweltering afternoon, but it’s almost cool inside. We ask Tu why in such heat the villagers still drink hot tea. “Of course there is no refrigeration here,” he explains as Nien translates. “But it also makes more sense than you might imagine. When you drink a cold drink on a hot day, it throws off your system and you end up hotter afterward. But when you drink hot tea on a hot day, you sweat and your body eventually cools down.”
Young children from the neighborhood, barefoot and dressed in shorts, peek around bamboo shades into the hut. Tu turns to hush their breathless whisperings. The patriarch of the house, a toothless peasant who looks to be in his seventies, answers our question about what it was like before the communist revolution.
“I had a very hard life,” he recalls, gazing at the floor. “I had no land of my own. I had to move from village to village to get work. I worked in the coal mines. When the French came to the road near here they burned our whole village – nothing was left. We all had to leave.” Nien translates. The old man continues.
“Since 1954 the tillers in this village own the land. We are our own masters. We don’t have much rice but we have enough now to feed ourselves. We have mosquito nets and warm clothing in the winter.”
His wife hangs tobacco leaves up to dry. She looks to be in her fifties and her teeth are blackened from the juice of betel nuts. She pauses to speak.
“When the French dominated our country I was very young. I only recall that I had no shirt, only a small slip of cloth to cover me. I would catch crabs from early morning to late at night. I had no energy left but to sleep. Under the French I was illiterate. Now I’m very busy,” she adds proudly. “ I’ve just finished my exams for fourth grade. I know my husband’s story too,” she adds, gesturing in his direction. “In the past we slept on the floor on boards. Now we have a good standing bed that we bought from the village store. My husband has just finished second grade and I’ve promised myself to finish seventh grade.”
Her granddaughter, nine years old, has listened restlessly while her elders have spoken. Now she whispers in her grandma’s ear. She climbs on a stool and reaches for something high on a shelf. She opens a homemade songbook, dog-eared and soiled from passing through many hands. Standing in front of us, she starts to sing while her family and friends look on.
“Our uncle army men
Are protecting our blue skies for us
Building trenches and shelters…”
Standard patriotic fare, but sung with such earnestness as to be touching nonetheless.
When at the end we applaud she bows and smiles in embarrassment. She buries her face in her grandma’s breast.
As we walk back to our cars at the end of the afternoon, utterly drained by the heat, we’re surrounded by what seems like every child in the village. They scamper alongside us, less than half our height, stumbling over makeshift dirt bomb shelters. They laugh and dance, coming close to us but never quite touching. Several times I offer my hand. The boys stop, cluster around it, study its impossibly large bone structure. I grasp the hand of one boy in mine and shake it. Startled at first, he looks up at me as if to appraise my intentions, then returns my gesture with a harder grip. When we finish shaking hands, he trails off and turns to the other boys, displaying his shaken hand with stunned pride. As we pull out of the village a few minutes later, he’s standing at the front of the crowd bidding us farewell, still holding the shaken hand with his other and smiling broadly.
May 21, a school in the rice paddies: It was after dark when we arrived at a communal farm located deep in the countryside. Our hosts led us by lantern light along narrow levees between rice paddies flooded with water. In the darkness we could hear conversation and laughter and see the fluttering of pants legs in lantern lights as students made their way along other levees in this vast rectangular maze. A palpable excitement filled the night air. At length we reached an open-sided, thatched roof shelter nested among the rice fields and flooded with bright lanterns. Stepping inside, we blinked at the sudden illumination. We found ourselves in a makeshift chemistry lab filled with two or three dozen students who appeared to be high school age. They looked up from their work and turned to us with fresh-faced enthusiasm. I flashed back to my own experience in high school chemistry and recalled few reasons to smile at the time, but then my lab wasn’t located in a rice paddy.
Coached by their instructor, who himself looked no older than his early twenties, students described for us the experiment they were conducting. We nodded admiringly. After their presentation they gathered round and eagerly peppered us with questions. But rather than ask about the war and recite the crimes of the Americans, they were more interested in hearing about the Beatles. “The Beatles?” we responded incredulously, glancing bemusedly at one another. “How do you know about the Beatles?”
“Everyone knows about the Beatles!” they laughed in one great chorus. So much for the Iron Curtain.
“What’s life like for teenagers in the U.S.?” asked one.
“What do you do for fun?”
“What other music do you listen to?”
Famished for contact with the outside world, they resembled no one so much as teens anywhere, but with one crucial difference. Unlike ours, they didn’t assume they already knew it all.
May 21, returning to Hanoi: The road leading back to Hanoi is a tree-lined lane, sometimes paved and sometimes dirt, that passes between rice paddies and fields of sweet potatoes. It’s lined on both sides by canals with wading water buffalo. Young girls in conical hats sit on high wooden benches pedaling waterwheels to circulate water through a network of canals encircling the paddies. In the distance improbably steep mountains spring forth from the flat plain, precipitous karst cliffs that resemble the misty mountains found on murals in the Chinese-American restaurants of my youth. Along the hard-packed one-lane road, bicycle traffic moves in both directions, laden with wicker baskets of food and supplies, often too full to be ridden. Others walk, sometimes barefoot, carrying loads balanced with a pole resting across both shoulders. Our drivers are having a field day blasting their horns to scatter pedestrians, cyclists, fowl, oxen and wagons, and I’m slinking deeper into my seat wishing I weren’t the beneficiary of such rudeness.
It’s starting to rain. Outside the car the wind is picking up dust and loose leaves and swirling them across the road. Women with handkerchiefs tied across their mouths scurry for cover, children in tow. The narrow canals running on both sides of the road churn furiously but several kids are still frolicking in the waves.
I’ve asked Tu what it was like during the French Indochinese war and whether the French were as brutal as the Americans are now. For a long moment he doesn’t answer. He looks out the window with a distracted gaze. For the first time in the two weeks I’ve known him his expression grows taut, severe. He starts to speak without interruption, his voice tinged with bitterness.
“The Americans have been far worse. They have every modern weapon and they’re using them all. When the French were in Vietnam they slaughtered people in some places. Some small villages were destroyed. But the Americans want to eliminate us as a people. They want to wipe us out. The Vietnamese people will never forget what the Americans have done to us. The damage hasn’t been simply material. We can repair those things in several years,” he says as we pass over a pontoon bridge. “It’s not even most of all the loss of human life. It is the irreparable damage to the people, to the spirit of the people of Vietnam. When this war ends, all the countries of the West will offer us aid. The United States will offer reparations. But we will never accept them; we can’t accept them after what they’ve done to our people.”
I want to ask Tu in what ways the war has deformed the spirit of the Vietnamese people. It’s struck me most of all during these two weeks in North Vietnam that while the war is rotting out the insides of most Americans and forcing us to cough up the ugly bile of our collective crime, it has seemed to leave the Vietnamese with their souls intact, their spirits surprisingly resilient. For the Vietnamese there are undoubtedly consequences I can’t see. Nor am I seeing all there is to see of what crimes are being committed on their side.
Tu pauses and continues to gaze out the open car window toward the oncoming storm, the breeze riffling his hair. I have the feeling that for the first time since I’ve known him, he hasn’t spoken for my benefit. In fact, he hasn’t been speaking to me at all. For once, thank god, my presence changes nothing; the fact that I’m an American is of no consequence.
We lapse into silence, watching the storm sweep across the rice paddies and wet the hard-packed dirt road. Pedestrians and cyclists cover their heads with whatever they find available to shield them from the pelting rain. My mood mirrors the storm, shifting here and there in a maelstrom of conflicting emotions. I feel the greatest anger I’ve yet felt towards those aspects of my country that cause such unjustified pain and wanton destruction. I didn’t make my country what it is today; I only grew up in it. I benefit from the immense wealth it enjoys at this moment in its history and I grieve at its profligate waste of its potential. I wonder how long this waste can continue before it begins to make victims of our own people as we are making victims of unknown multitudes of others today. At what point will the war come home?
As the wind riffled through the rice grasses, I turned to Tu and haltingly asked him a question in French, our one shared language.
“Might it be possible for me to stay on awhile in Vietnam?”
Tu turned away from the window and gazed in my direction, his face softening into a bemused smile.
“Hm!” he said. “What would you do here?”
“I don’t know,” I replied. I hadn’t really thought practically about what it would involve. “Maybe…maybe I could teach English?” I suggested gamely.
He chuckled. “I just hope we never have to learn it.”
“Why do you want to stay longer?” he asked.
“Because I’m so ashamed of what my people are doing to yours.”
“Ah!” he said, “there’s your first mistake. You can’t change your own people till you first learn to love them.”
We lapsed into silence again as I struggled to understand what he’d just told me. It was so utterly unexpected coming from a Vietnamese, a victim of my country’s assault on his. Here I had traveled deep into “enemy territory” all the while expecting for someone, maybe in a phone booth or a secret meeting in a dimly lit parking garage, would hand me a message about how to subvert the American war effort. But it never happened. Instead, the message given to me to pass on to others in “the struggle” was to learn to love my own people. And the message was all the more powerful for coming from one who felt so strongly that my country was destroying the soul and spirit of his homeland. Sometimes when you hear or read something, some particle of insight that’s beyond your comprehension, you must simply file it in the back of your mind and wait for your life experience to catch up with its wisdom. I placed it there to ripen into a fuller understanding of its truth.
As I gazed out the window at the rice fields and the mountains beyond, my mind returned to the scenes that had struck me most during these two unforgettable weeks. What stood out was the very ordinariness of what I saw here, and just how extraordinary that was. A man sleeping in the midday heat in a city park, two boys peering inquisitively at my camera, a phalanx of young women in pith helmets standing at attention with sticks as stand-ins for rifles while a cat sat beside them with serene aplomb. I went to Hanoi imagining a city in desperate turmoil and found there a peace and tranquility that I've rarely witnessed in my own or any other country. It was as if I had entered the calm eye of the hurricane, a place where time stood still, safe for a fleeting moment from the depredations of history while the world wheeled in chaos around it. This in a city and country under siege during the most intense bombing campaign in military history. My timing had been fortuitous. How different would it have felt to be there when the bombs were still falling just six weeks before or as they did again afterward for seven more years?
It also struck me as no small irony that a four-thousand-year-old culture was under attack by a two-hundred-year-old country whose culture is still in the process of formation. Is it purely coincidental that the United States has engaged in wars with other, equally ancient cultures in more recent years, among them Iraq, Iran and Afghanistan, insisting that it was bringing modernity and democracy to primitive barbarians? Why was it that the Vietnamese made subtle and important distinctions between American policies and the American people while by and large we referred to them all simply as "gooks"? The notion that an upstart adolescent would taunt an elder twenty times its age for being hopelessly backward struck me as a bit presumptuous. Tu's sage advice to learn to love my own people came not, I think, from the tenets of communism, itself an upstart ideology, but from a Buddhist practice with much deeper roots in Vietnam and Southeast Asia. In four thousand years you can't help but learn something about how to make good use of adversity. Our Vietnamese hosts told me that in the long view of Vietnam's history, the American war was a mere blip. Long before the French and the Americans, the Vietnamese had fought off the Chinese to remain Southeast Asia's only nation to remain continuously independent for four thousand years. With such a long-term perspective, they were well prepared to outlast the Americans and take whatever happened to them in stride. Half a century later I still marvel at their resilience, how quickly they recovered, and how they did so without passing on a legacy of bitterness to succeeding generations.
On our final evening in Hanoi, the five flower girls who had first greeted us at the airport two weeks earlier returned to say their farewells. We had seen them a few times in between and I had begun to make a connection with them through the universal language of music. Struck by the fact that Hanoi is located in the Red River Valley and that we had crossed it numerous times on pontoon bridges, I recalled an old chestnut of a classic American cowboy tune also called "The Red River Valley." With Nien's help I taught them the words and melody. They laughed excitedly as they began to catch on to the lyrics. Each time we saw one another they provided a new rendition, so that by the time we met for a final farewell they lined up with flowers in hand, brimming with anticipation. It had been just two weeks but had felt like a brief lifetime. They were more self-assured than when they'd peeked around the corner of an airport wall an dashed in to greet us when we first arrived. Counting down in Vietnamese -- mot hai ba -- they began to sing:
From this valley they say we are going
We will miss your bright eyes and sweet smile
For they say you are taking the sunshine
That brightened our pathways awhile
I could hardly see them for my tears. My voice was muted by a knot in my throat. Embarrassed by my own sentimentality, I briefly turned away to pull myself together. I wiped my eyes, stepped forward, and bowed deeply to each of them, then to Tu, Nien and Nguyen. I committed the moment to memory, and in the half century since, it remains as fresh as if it were mere months ago.
On my return to the States, the plane landed at San Francisco International and I lined up to have my baggage inspected by U.S. Customs. As I stood nervously behind throngs of Japanese tourists, my mind raced thinking of all the contraband material in my luggage. Our North Vietnamese hosts had loaded us up with books featuring drawings by children of the effects of bombing on their towns and villages and others with itemized lists (mercifully in Vietnamese) of American war crimes. I was wearing rubber sandals I'd been told had been made from the tractor tires of U.S. tanks and a ring forged from a downed U.S. fighter. I had in my luggage unhidden from the authorities, three hundred photographs I'd taken in Hanoi and the countryside. Vietnamese officials had developed them as negatives to review for possible breaches of military security and had then handed them back to me along with my unstamped passport. I had had the negatives developed in Tokyo on my way home.
I felt like a veritable beacon broadcasting disloyalty in the eyes of the U.S. authorities. At the same time, I was slightly proud of what I had just done, though still uncertain of the consequences. When my turn came to step up to the glass booth, I approached the customs agent with a flutter of exhilaration and trepidation. I was carrying in my heart that puzzling yet precious message given to me by Tu, my secret agent. Here in SFO, in the wake of hearing that message, came my first encounter with a fellow American on home ground.
The customs agent was a middle-aged man with a friendly smile. He took my passport, opened and reviewed its data, glanced up at me and compared the photo with the face he saw before him.
“From Columbus, eh?” he remarked with a smile. “Couldn’t be doing anything too bad if you’re from Ohio.” He stamped my passport and handed it back to me, waving on my luggage without opening it.
I wish I could say that was the end of the story, but it wasn’t. The Vietnam war ground on for another seven excruciating years, killing thousands more American soldiers and millions more Vietnamese, most of them civilians. When, in 1975, it finally came to an end in a desperate, inglorious exit by U.S. Army helicopters from the rooftop of the American Embassy in Saigon, the victorious Vietcong and North Vietnamese surged through the city in triumph while Americans averted their eyes from their first-ever loss of a war to think (or not think) about other things.
In the four decades since the war, relations between the two warring nations have steadily warmed to the point where despite remaining ruled by an avowedly communist regime, Vietnam is one of the U.S.’s friendliest allies and one of its most active Asian trading partners. More than 70 percent of Vietnamese now view the U.S. favorably, a rare level of popularity in a world where American power and influence are widely resented. While the sandals given to me by the Vietnamese had been made from U.S. tank treads, the tires on the vehicles we Americans drive today may well have been manufactured in North Vietnam. The children of Vietnamese youth who 45 years ago shyly inquired about the tastes of American teens today mimic their musical styles and avidly adopt their latest fashion trends while manufacturing many of their designer clothes. One of my daughter’s best friends was born in Hanoi 25 years after my visit there, raised there, and graduated from my daughter’s charter high school in Northern California. While I marvel at how the world turns, my daughter takes this turnabout for granted. “No big deal, Dad,” she says. “It’s strictly non-political.” For her part, Hanh now says she doesn’t want to return to Vietnam. She’s disgusted with what she views as her generation’s hopelessly materialist and retrograde attitudes about women.
For the post-Iraq generation of American youth, Vietnam is ancient history, much as the Second World War was for the Vietnam generation. This historical amnesia, abetted by a declining American public education system that is itself in part a casualty of Vietnam, Iraq and other unnecessary wars, produces both positive and negative results. On the one hand, for many youth in both countries today, the trinkets of global capitalism are far more alluring than ideology or national identity. Given the damage done to humanity in the name of ideology and nationalism over the past two centuries, it’s something of a relief that they no longer captivate the youthful imagination. On the other hand, what has displaced them is greed-is-good gonzo materialism ungrounded in any deeper value system. Peace didn’t turn out to be as transformative as we hoped it would be. The communists won the Vietnam war but the capitalists won the peace in the form of the biggest piece of the action. Politics and history can’t be understood without a healthy dose of irony.
Some legacies still fester like unhealed wounds. Half a century after American jets saturated much of Vietnam with Agent Orange and other lethal toxins to defoliate jungle cover, birth defects, cancers and other illnesses from U.S. chemical warfare continue to afflict millions of Vietnamese. Like a biblical curse on the innocent, these chemicals pass down through the generations, now reaching the grandchildren of the children who were first exposed. For its part, the U.S. government has repeatedly refused to assist in more than the most token ways in the task of caring for thousands of Vietnamese whose families are too poor to gain access to the specialized medical care required to deal with their ailments. For more information about a unique Vietnamese-American, public-private-nonprofit effort to address this issue, see the Aspen Institute's U.S.-Vietnam Dialogue Group on Agent Orange/Dioxin.
Nor is the U.S. government’s refusal to take responsibility for its unconscionable actions confined to the Vietnamese people. Many American veterans who served in Vietnam ended up homeless on the streets of U.S. cities, unable to make the arduous adaptation back to civilian life after the horrors they witnessed and were ordered to commit in Vietnam. A government that was only too willing to ship largely poor minority men off to war has proven to be only too willing to let them languish on sidewalks and under bridges while it spends its tax dollars waging new unnecessary wars.
The secrets and deceptions used to sell the Vietnam war, and still more the Iraq war, have fatally corroded our faith in the democratic process and our trust in our leaders and public institutions. Yet this distrust has not always been exercised with the discernment required to make essential distinctions. What we have today is not a healthy skepticism but a cancerous cynicism. Instead of becoming more skeptical of politicians pumping up peacetime military budgets to levels higher than the next ten nations combined, we’ve allowed ourselves to be bamboozled into believing that the ostensibly overwhelming threat of “terrorism,” deftly substituted for communism, justifies stealing our children’s future. Instead of bolstering institutions like public education and accessible healthcare that strengthen the foundations of our national prosperity and provide direct benefit to individuals and communities, we fall prey to the specious argument that only the private sector is capable of performing such functions efficiently.
I note these trends not in condemnation of this country but in indignation and sorrow. Our patrimony is being not primarily by any foreign power or terrorist group but by a political and economic system of our making that has no loyalty to its own people. Whereas in 1968 I distanced myself from my American identity in a futile attempt to shed responsibility for actions taken by my government that I could not abide, today I heartily embrace my identity as an American and accept that as a citizen who loves many things about this country I am committed to doing all I can to turn these trends around. Not by protesting in the streets or sabotaging some crucial governmental function (never my way in any case) but by celebrating those qualities in many Americans that I most appreciate – the resilience of so many in the face of so much adversity and injustice; our pragmatism, ingenuity, and inextinguishable optimism; our receptivity to new experiences, ideas, and cultures; and the essential decency of most Americans.
And I have my Vietnamese secret agent to thank for having helped me realize that the only way to change my own people was to first learn to love them. Crossing over was an essential prelude to coming home. In the decade following my return I performed some 23 jobs, ranging from bicycle messenger and tobacco harvester to trucker, cab driver, baker and cook. In each I sought to immerse myself in the everyday lives of ordinary Americans rather than the rarefied atmosphere of dissident intellectuals. By grounding myself in the gritty realities of the workaday world, to my surprise I found grace there too – resilient spirits able to draw forth the sweet nectar at life’s bitter core in the face of so much that is cruelly unjust.
Yet I found that I couldn’t love “America” in the abstract. Besides, we are just one among many millions of other Americans who hail from elsewhere in the Americas north, central and south and can just as justifiably claim that mantle. I don’t love in the abstract but in the particular I cherish the friends, neighborhoods, foods, values, cultures, traditions, and music that sing to my idiosyncratic soul. I don’t particularly love our flag (I’ve seen prettier); I don’t love Congress (who does?); I don’t, as a rule, love ticks or hedge fund managers. But there is much else to love in this endlessly frustrating, often heartbreaking cacophony of cultures and races we call the United States. In the early seventies I spent time in Canada, even applying for landed immigrant status. I wrote to my father, who was himself an immigrant to the United States at the age of 17, that given my opposition to the Vietnam war I was considering renouncing my American citizenship. He wrote back, underlining his script in red pencil:
“Don’t do it. Like you, I disagree with many American policies. But you’ll never feel at home anywhere else. And if you want to change those policies, you can only do so from within your own country and culture.”
In a certain sense, my secret agent Tu in Hanoi saved me from a potentially fateful folly stemming from my youthful revolutionary romanticism. Like many of my friends in the antiwar movement, I was so angry at my country’s policies that I came close to hating the country itself. It took going over to the enemy’s side in an act of intended renunciation and having them send me back home with a very different mission to realize that there is no running away from who we are. There is only making peace with it, embracing its broken heart with all its failed promises and shattered dreams, and doing everything we can to revive them.
I guess my clandestine contact Steve was right after all when he said I was just the right person to send to Hanoi.
From the perspective of half a century later, two one-time antiwar activists recall their secret trip to Hanoi in 1968. David Tobis was one of three young students with whom I traveled to North Vietnam in the spring of 1968. David and I then lost touch for the next 45 years. After completing my memoir of that journey in the summer of 2013, I googled David's name on the outside chance that he might still be reachable. I found him there, sent an email, and to my surprise and delight discovered that while we had lived for the intervening years on opposite ends of the continent, he and his family had migrated to Northern California just months before and we now lived just a few miles apart. We picked up our conversation right where we'd left off. I invited David to sit down and reflect together on the memories and meanings of that remarkable journey from the perspective of half a century of subsequent life. This video conversation is an edited version of that reunion.
About the Author
Mark Sommer is an explorer and adventurer, an author, and an award-winning, internationally syndicated radio host and columnist. He is the founder of the Mainstream Media Project, a nonprofit organization that brings new voices and fresh ideas to commercial and public radio on a wide range of issues. From 2001-2011 he was host and executive producer of A World of Possibilities, a one-hour weekly radio program highlighting promising new approaches to longstanding national and global challenges. In its ten years of production, the program won six major international awards, including from the United Nations, for its in-depth coverage and emphasis on innovative solutions. For the past twenty years his columns on world affairs have been syndicated to a hundred countries in several languages by Inter Press Service in Rome. These days he gathers stories of resilient spirits – individuals, groups, communities, and natural systems – that turn adversity and misfortune into opportunities and gifts. He publishes these “true tales of grit and grace” in varied multimedia formats for public viewing on the website, Hearts Broken Open, at www.heartsbrokenopen.com. Mr. Sommer lives in Northern California.
About this Book
This photographic memoir came into being quite by serendipity. Most of the photos and journals I produced during my journey were published only in the alternative press of that era. While major magazines and publishers contributed small advances that enabled me to buy a round-the-world ticket, all ended up passing on the accounts I wrote for them, finding them lacking in the melodrama of conventional war dispatches. Reading back at the manuscripts I submitted, I can see how, in the fierce tumult of the Sixties, a more reflective, self-questioning account was not in keeping with the strident tone of the times. I myself was too close to the experience to sense the enduring significance of the paradoxical truths I found there. It has taken a lifetime to distill the raw material I gathered into life lessons that extend well beyond the war itself.
I might never have turned back to this archive had my daughter not discovered it in a dusty box she found in the attic while reorganizing it as a sleeping space for herself at age sixteen. She knew practically nothing about the Vietnam war. I had seldom mentioned my trip in conversation, though it had lingered in my thoughts more as a question than a memory. To my surprise and delight, my daughter papered the sloping walls of the attic with dozens of the photos she found. When I asked her about what had triggered her interest, she said she was more drawn to the images than the story behind them. Now in college studying documentary photography, she proposed this summer that she create a book from the best of them. Climbing into the attic, I rummaged through my papers and found, along with the photographs, an abridged version of the journals I had kept while in Vietnam. It’s something of a miracle that they remained in my possession through all the moves I made in a highly itinerant early adulthood.
Taken in black and white with a camera (probably a Minolta) I had borrowed for the trip and have long since forgotten, these photographs have been scanned from the original prints; the negatives seem to have been lost in the shuffle. This helps explain the low resolution of some of them, which is further degraded by the textured paper on which they were printed. Our North Vietnamese hosts had them developed into negatives and examined by their censors for possible infringements of military security. All three hundred were returned to me intact and I had them printed in Tokyo on my way home. For the purposes of this memoir, my daughter has edited the photographs to optimize their quality. If you click on any image, it will zoom in and expand.
Having had only a set of tightly curled 2”x3 ½” prints to examine for these many years, I never realized how evocative these photographs really are. I had no professional experience in photography. My only previous camera had been the family Kodak Brownie – 12 photos per roll, usually taken of the four of us doing nothing more momentous than standing beside a lake or sitting on horses on a summer vacation. To the extent that these images transcend that genre, it is not so much the camera or the photographer as the subject and the timing. As I gaze at these photographs, I’m reminded of black and white images of street scenes in Paris taken at the turn of the twentieth century. What strikes me as I examine these images is the very ordinariness of these lives amid the tumult of the times -- a man sleeping in a park in midday heat, women squatting on their haunches selling vegetables. Maybe this is what peace looks like, even if it be at the epicenter of a war everyone else is fighting about.
I would like to express my heartfelt thanks to my daughter, Maya Serena Sommer, for bringing this archive back to my attention and proposing to make a book of the photographs. Her editing skills have taken the images from the attic’s obscurity into the light of day and out into the world. I would also like to thank Cathy Wilkerson, who first offered me this most unusual invitation to travel to Hanoi at a pivotal moment in its history, and to Steve Halliwell, who provided the tickets and contacts that made for a surprisingly smooth journey. I would also like to thank Nien, our interpreter, Nguyen, our assistant guide. Most of all I would like to thank Tu, my "secret agent," for having given me a crucial insight that has informed and transformed my life in ways that extend far beyond the Vietnam war. I suspect that Tu has long since passed away, but the wisdom of his counsel lives on in my memory. May it do so as well in the hearts and minds of those who read this memoir.