Rice Fields Resound with Songs … and Bombs
This January 2012 marks the 40th anniversary of the signing of the Paris Peace Treaty that nominally ended the war referred to here in the United States as the Vietnam War or, as it is known in Vietnam, the American War.
As a 26 year old co-founder of the Youth International Party, the Yippies, I traveled in May of 1970 to North Vietnam with 2 other women on an anti-war delegation. We were accepting an invitation from a Vietnamese delegation we encountered at an international peace conference in Stockholm.
I had just lived through the Chicago 8 Conspiracy Trial in which 8 men were charged with causing the disturbances at the 1968 Democratic Convention. My partner at the time, Jerry Rubin, was one of the defendants.
Upon my retirement a few years ago as a social worker in the Chicago public schools , I wrote the following piece as part of a longer memoir. The piece does not discuss in detail the full destruction and devastation the U.S. unleashed in this David and Goliath war. That is the subject of a more comprehensive story. Suffice it to say that in addition to between 2 and 4 million Vietnamese who were killed in that war, in addition to all those who were injured and maimed and tortured, the U.S. used 19 million gallons of various herbicides including Agent Orange which continues to have profound negative effects on the lives of generations of Vietnamese men and women. Exposure has been associated with cancers, immune deficiencies, reproductive illnesses and severe birth defects, not just to those directly exposed but to future generations of children and grandchildren. Vietnam estimates that 400,000 people were killed or maimed by Agent Orange and 500,000 children were born with birth defects. The Red Cross of Vietnam estimates that up to one million people currently living are disabled or have health problems due to Agent Orange.
I believe that historical memory is extremely important. When the Vietnamese war ended, I hoped that we would never again see such a devastating war by the U.S. military. For some years the so-called “Vietnam Syndrome” seemed to serve as a brake on at least outright overt warfare. Those days have receded into a faint memory while the U.S. involves itself in what appears to be perpetual warfare now centered on the Middle East.
HANOI, NORTH VIETNAM–MAY 1970
“Nothing is more precious than independence and freedom.” Vietnamese proverb
We left from New York and traveled through Prague to Moscow. The journey from Moscow to North Vietnam was far from an express trip. We stopped in Ulan Bator (Mongolia), Tashkent (Uzbekistan), Karachi (Pakistan) and Calcutta (India), letting passengers off, picking up new ones, and refueling. On every leg of the journey we were fed chicken, lots of chicken, repeatedly. In Ulan Bator, we saw nothing of the world outside. We sat in the airport restaurant that had the feel of centuries of civilization behind it, surrounded by ornate and colorful filigree, tapestry and tiling. We deplaned in Calcutta but never left the airport. Nonetheless, we could see through the floor-length windows the tiny shanties and the dire poverty that was literally right across from the airport. In the Rest Room there were women dressed in traditional saris, begging for small change.
And then, finally, we flew into Hanoi. Suddenly the black and white world was transformed into glorious Technicolor and I felt like Dorothy landing in Oz as Genie, Judy and I climbed down from the small Russian Aeroflot plane and were greeted as dignitaries, with scores of school children presenting each of us with multicolored gladiola bouquets and banners of welcome. We were taken to a lovely old French-style hotel, a legacy of the past colonial era, in the center of Hanoi. There were guests from around the world, most notably a large delegation from China and a number of individuals from the Soviet Union. We each had a room, a bed with mosquito netting, a ceiling fan, and our own bathroom. It was 1970. I was 26 years old. To us youthful yippies this felt like the lap of luxury.
Instructed to take our meals in the hotel restaurant, we protested, hoping to eat off the streets and share in the food that Vietnamese, not tourists, consumed. In the end, their instruction as well as our protest was irrelevant because we spent almost every minute of our waking time with the Vietnamese and meals became part of our adventures. On the few occasions when we did take meals there, the food in the hotel restaurant was wonderful– Vietnamese influenced by French cuisine. In the morning we were offered either a bowl of Pho, a soup with a hodgepodge of varying ingredients, or eggs French style.
As to clothes, we were immediately fitted for Vietnamese “black pajamas.” These were not really pajamas, but loose-fitting outfits that had come to be identified as the uniform of the Viet Cong, the guerrilla forces of South Vietnam– baggy pants with an elasticized waist and a slightly tailored, long-sleeved button-down shirt. We were told that in the past when resources were less scarce there had been cloth of various colors but during the war black was the best option. Thus the term “black pajamas.” The material was black silk and had a delicate patterned weave. We were also fitted for sandals that were fashioned out of rubber tires that we wore our entire time in Viet Nam and for years after in the U.S. They were comfortable and indestructible. The final item of clothing was a conical hat to keep us safe from the sun.
Our host, the U.S.-Vietnamese Friendship Association, was accountable to the North Vietnamese government and in charge of relationships with American visitors. They attempted to tailor the trip to suit our interests. We traveled around in a large van that held the three of us plus our guides. There were four Vietnamese, one a woman, who were with us most of the time including Oanh, our good friend from the Stockholm conference.
Xuan Oanh had joined Ho Chi Minh and the Viet Minh Front in 1945 at the young age of 22. The Viet Minh was the national liberation movement that led the struggle for the independence of Vietnam from French colonialism, through the 1940s up until the 1954 Battle of Dien Bien Phu where the Vietnamese finally defeated the French. The primary organization within the Viet Minh was the Indochinese Communist Party. However, there were other patriotic individuals and groups that participated in the struggle as well.
A poet, composer, musician, expert translator and patriot, Xuan Oanh participated in some of the seminal diplomatic events surrounding the American War including the Paris Peace Talks. In Vietnam he is best known for composing what became a revolutionary anthem, “August Nineteen,” inspired while attending a Viet Minh mass meeting:
“All the people of Vietnam rise up this day and contribute their force,
Swearing to sacrifice bone and blood to resolutely fight for the future
The light of the star of freedom shines
Flags fly everywhere.”
Our driver, our “hero driver” as we called him, was also our provider, bringing back to us whatever we told him we needed. This team of Vietnamese translated for us and provided for our every need. We felt we were unnecessarily pampered but at the same time we were appreciative.
As an all-women’s delegation we were particularly interested in the role of women in the revolution and in Vietnamese society, and as a youth delegation we were interested in cultural aspects of life such as music, art, and theatre.
However, we did not consider ourselves tourists or even students of Vietnamese society and culture. First and foremost we wanted to understand Viet Nam better in order to grapple with what it meant to be anti-war activists inside the belly of the beast. In this context we requested to go to the front, as far south as possible, to the DMZ (the demilitarized zone between North and South), both to see different aspects of Vietnamese life and also to get as close to the fighting as possible.
When the Vietnamese defeated the French in 1954, the Geneva Conference divided the country in two. The dividing line ran east to west, around the 17th parallel. It was a demilitarized zone that came to be known simply as “the DMZ.” The Viet Minh would control North Vietnam but South Vietnam would be under non-Communist control. In theory this would be a temporary arrangement and within two years there were to be elections and the country would be unified. However, it was soon clear to everyone that Ho Chi Minh, the leader of the Viet Minh, would win the election by a landslide. Even U.S. President Eisenhower acknowledged that “I have never talked or corresponded with a person knowledgeable in Indochinese affairs who did not agree that had elections been held as of the time of the fighting, possibly 80 per cent of the population would have voted for the Communist Ho Chi Minh as their leader.” (Eisenhower, p. 372) Unbeknownst to the American people, the U.S. began covert actions in South Vietnam to assure that there would be no elections and no reunification of the country. (Pentagon Papers) Fifteen years later, in 1970, we were mired in this now overt as well as covert bloody war and it was a daily front-page conflict around the globe.
Although North Vietnam had experienced the war directly with severe bombing campaigns, it was South Vietnam that was taking the brunt. What Americans referred to as the Viet Cong (Vietnamese Communists) was actually the National Liberation Front of South Vietnam (the NLF). The NLF led the struggle in South Vietnam. Like the Viet Minh the most dynamic force within the NLF was the Communist Party but many other patriotic elements participated as well.
So we requested to go to the front. The U.S. was currently bombing the two most southern provinces of North Vietnam and we felt it was important to document it. We wanted to be able to describe the military destruction to people back home, to honestly say we saw it with our own eyes.
The U.S.-Vietnam Friendship Association welcomed us because we were anti-war activists; they hoped to strengthen our ability to fight the U.S. war machine and end the war. However, they viewed our desire to travel south differently than we did. They did not want us to die in Vietnam. Their goal was to have us back in the U.S. better prepared to continue the fight against the war machine. So they said no, we could not go as far as the demilitarized zone; it was too dangerous. However, they would take us to the province of Thanh Hoa, a rural area about 150 kilometers from Hanoi which had endured air attacks in the past but was quiet at the time. There we could see a very different way of life than in the city of Hanoi, more representative of Vietnam as a whole.
Before taking off for Thanh Hoa, we spent quite a few days getting acquainted with Hanoi and immediately fell in love with the people and the city. In those days it appeared to be a bustling, thriving city but not in the ways of the West. There were few cars and buses on the streets as the dominant mode of transportation was the bicycle. There were thousands and thousands of bicyclists going every which way. Bicycles often carried more than one person as well as fairly large quantities of goods. Despite the fact they seemed to be going every which way, people somehow understood the rules of the road and avoided accidents. There were also bicycle cabs with a seat for one or two people in the front and a bicycle that powered it from behind.
People were all dressed simply, crisp and clean, similar to the outfits for which we had been fitted, although most of the women wore light-colored shirts, perhaps in contrast to the black “pajamas” of the Viet Cong. Genie at about five feet ten inches towered over most of the Vietnamese who were generally small in stature. I, on the other hand, at just under five-feet, felt like I had come home and was charmed by the idea that these small people were able to go up against the American Goliath. All over the city people were sitting in doorways or on the streets, talking or selling their wares, or just holding their babies in their arms. And they frequently seemed quite comfortable squatting on their haunches. I don’t think we saw an obese person the entire time we were in Viet Nam. Neither did people appear hungry, underfed or malnourished. Generally speaking, the population appeared healthy, energetic and yes, even happy, despite the fact that they were in the midst of this brutal war.
We walked around Hanoi, just taking in the scene. In the middle of the city we came upon the park surrounding the Hoan Kiem Lake (Lake of the Restored Sword). It was a weekend, and all combinations, young and old, men and women, were out and about, strolling leisurely though the park, as were we. Walking the paths and crossing the wooden bridge with the pagoda-like structures at either end, we took in the simple pleasures of several schoolgirls walking arm-in-arm, and an elderly man in a simple hammock basking at the water’s edge with a look of serene contentment on his face. Everywhere we went people stopped to inquire as to who we were and wide-eyed children followed along beside us.
The streets of Hanoi seemed safer than the streets of any big city I had ever been in and have ever been in since. As three women, and foreigners without the benefit of common language, we still felt comfortable walking around the streets of Hanoi alone at night. Additionally, the level of organization left us feeling as fully protected as I did as a young child in the presence of my parents. One day we were saddened by the loss of Judy’s camera, but the next day it suddenly appeared, returned to us by our hosts. It was picked up by somebody and passed on until it found its way back to us. No one along the way had thought to keep it for him or herself despite the fact that it would have been quite a prize.
We visited a first grade in an elementary school, quite spare by our standards. There were dolls and trucks and other toys in a cabinet but not the surfeit of materials that you might see in some American classrooms. There was a large chalkboard on the wall and at each desk sat two children. The girls wore short dresses and the boys wore the typical dark pants and light shirts. Most of the girls had short bob haircuts. The children performed songs and dances, boys and girls alike. Perhaps they had weeded them out for our benefit, but it seemed there were no children with “behavior problems” as you would see in American schools, both then and now. We had tea with their young teacher whose face had that clean, fresh glow that we saw on so many of the faces of young adults in Hanoi. Everywhere we went we were served tea. The Vietnamese way of dealing with heat was different than what we were used to. Most people wore long sleeves, protecting as much of their bodies from the sun as possible. They drank soup and tea frequently, making sure to keep hydrated and also with the idea that hot things cool you off, perhaps by causing you to sweat. Flowers were the other constant in the way we were greeted, usually bouquets of gladiolas similar to the ones bestowed upon us when we first arrived at the airport.
In North Vietnam, different sectors of the population were organized into unions. Xuan Oanh was a member of the Musicians’ Union and we had the good fortune to have dinner with members of the Union where I recorded many traditional and contemporary Vietnamese musical pieces.
We also met with a group of young medical students, among them a young woman from the Thanh Hoa minority who presented us with a bouquet of gladiolas. Wearing the colorful woven dress and headdress of her tribe and traditional jewelry, she explained that there were 60 different minority tribes in Vietnam, most speaking their own language. I shared with the medical students my story about obtaining the inoculations I had received in preparation for the trip. I had called the State Department to find out what shots were required to travel to South Vietnam since North Vietnam was not even on their radar screen. They told me Yellow Fever, Bubonic Plague, and Typhoid were all necessary and so I obediently got inoculated for everything all in one sitting since time was short. Needless to say I didn’t feel too well for a period of time. The medical students had a good laugh and informed me that such diseases had been wiped out in North Vietnam.
We were hosted as well by the Women’s Union. We knew that the leader of the Provisional Revolutionary Government (PRG) was a woman, Madame Binh. That alone impressed us because there were very few American women in public positions of power at that time. We were happily surprised to see so many Vietnamese women involved in political as well as military life. The Women’s Union members spoke to us about the important role of women in the struggle for independence, both historically and in the present. We were told that Ho Chi Minh said, “Women make up half of society. If women are not liberated, then society is not free.” In 1930 a woman named Minh Khai formed the Viet Nam Women’s Union at the same time as the creation of the Indochinese Communist Party. She has been called the founder of the long-haired army, the civilian movement composed largely of women who carried out much of the legal political work in the movement for national liberation. She was eventually tortured and executed by the French.
A woman from South Vietnam presented us with large silk scarves in the blue, red and yellow colors of the Vietnamese flag. I still have this scarf. It is framed and hangs on my wall, reminding me of my experiences in Vietnam. The four quadrants each contain a drawing of a Vietnamese woman, representing a different segment of the national liberation struggle. Two are armed with rifles, one in the uniform of the regular standing army and the other dressed in the black pajamas of the guerrilla fighters. The third wears the traditional garb of one of the minorities, carries a baby on her back as well as a bow and arrows. The fourth is dressed in a blue and white Ao Dai, a beautiful Vietnamese outfit made up of a long tunic and pants. She wears the familiar conical hat and carries the Vietnamese flag. She represents the patriotic civilians who participate in the political struggle. All four are honored equally. In Vietnamese, English and French is written “South Viet Nam Women’s Union for Liberation.”
We were also introduced to a young woman who was part of the Army of the Provisional Revolutionary Government (PRG). She was wearing her army uniform with several medals pinned to her shirt. She described the torture she had undergone at the hands of the U.S.-backed South Vietnamese Army (ARVN) and how she relived her torture nightly. As with the Vietnamese Ambassador we had met in Moscow who had undergone a similar experience, we were reminded that beneath the good will and laughter there was a profoundly dark side to the experiences of these people.
We visited a military museum exhibiting the history of warfare in Vietnam dating centuries back to the invasion by the Chinese, the French colonial occupation and up to the present American war. The fight for independence was not new for the Vietnamese nor was it a fleeting preoccupation. The Chinese had occupied Viet Nam for about a thousand years until the Vietnamese reclaimed their independence in 967 A.D. The museum housed ancient instruments of torture utilized by the Chinese. An elaborate model of the Battle of Dien Bien Phu took up much of one room. The Vietnamese were especially proud of their defeat of the French as it was the first time a non-European independence movement was able to defeat an occupying European power in a pitched battle. We also viewed remnants of U.S. planes that had been shot down by anti-aircraft artillery fighters in the current war and as well as useful household items that had been made out of the metal remains.
Our experience at the museum was one more reminder that the Vietnamese commitment to independence was deep-rooted in centuries of struggle and their people were formidable opponents even for a superpower like the U.S. They seemed to be fighting with the voices of their ancestors encouraging them to persist until victory. Their tenacity in the face of larger powers was legendary and unlike anything we had ever encountered.
Hanoi itself was peaceful while we were there but we knew it had experienced terror in the ’68 U.S. bombing campaign. Bach Mai Hospital, the primary medical institution in Vietnam, was bombed and severely damaged. Back in the States there was a serious campaign by the peace movement to raise funds to rebuild the hospital. We witnessed the craters that stood as a reminder of the deliberate bombing of civilian targets and were told about the times they had had to evacuate all the school children from the city to the countryside.
We had the honor of sharing tea with Xuan Thuy, Chief Negotiator for the North Vietnamese at the Paris Peace Talks, a friendly, gracious grandfatherly man with a broad smile. An American diplomat described him as a “top drawer negotiator, a dreadful fellow to face across the table day after day.” (Wikipedia)
THE GULF OF TONKIN, THANH HOA PROVINCE, & THE THAI NOIR
After several days in Hanoi, we set out in our mini-bus for the countryside, the three of us and our four Vietnamese friends. In route to Thanh Hoa Province, we made a stop at the Gulf of Tonkin, the site of the infamous Gulf of Tonkin incident of the summer of 1964. The U.S. claimed that North Vietnamese gunboats opened fire on two U.S. destroyers without provocation. (Note: One might ask what were U.S. gunboats doing way out there in the Gulf of Tonkin. Can you imagine Vietnamese gunboats in the port of Manhattan?) The U.S. claimed it then launched “retaliatory” attacks. Most significantly, President Johnson and Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara used this incident to pass the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution that gave the green light to all future major escalations of the war by Johnson and later Nixon. The House of Representatives voted unanimously to pass the resolution and only two Senators opposed it, Wayne Morse of Oregon and Ernest Gruening of Alaska!
Noam Chomsky and many other historians have now revealed that active U.S. involvement in Viet Nam had begun much earlier in 1961 and 1962. The Gulf of Tonkin incident was invented to fool the American people into believing the North Vietnamese had initiated hostilities so that the war could be seriously escalated.
In 1995, retired Vietnamese General Nguyen Giap met with former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara and categorically denied that Vietnamese gunboats had attacked American destroyers. A taped conversation was released in 2001 of a meeting several weeks after passage of the 1964 Gulf of Tonkin resolution revealing that Robert McNamara expressed doubts to President Johnson that the attack had even occurred.
And so we sat with our Vietnamese friends, not another soul in sight, on the peaceful white sands of the Gulf of Tonkin and had long talks about Marxism-Leninism and our mutual work. They wanted to understand our ideology and our strategy and how we analyzed the forces at work in the U.S. They struggled with us to generally become more ideological as well as more systematic in our approach to our anti-war work. We also explained our idea for an American-Vietnamese conference and developed our collective plans. We would organize a meeting between cultural workers in the United States—artists, musicians, cartoonists, writers, actors, poets, playwrights—and a Vietnamese delegation. They suggested we broaden it out to an Indochinese delegation that would include Cambodians and Laotians since the U.S. was expanding the war into the entire region. We agreed to hold such a conference at the end of the summer in Havana, Cuba. In a week we would leave Vietnam and return to New York to begin the work.
After hours of such discussion, we continued inland on our journey towards Thanh Hoa province about 93 miles from Hanoi. In Thanh Hoa we stayed overnight in a small guest house, a modern one-story building with a series of rooms. It was clean and comfortable. We took refreshing showers in a sheltered outdoor area, using a big ladle to scoop out water from a large bucket.
In Thanh Hoa it was clear that women of all ages and experience were playing an important role in the life of the village. The Mayor was a woman, about 35 to 40 years of age, and she served as our tour guide. She introduced us to a group of young women, anti-aircraft artillery fighters, who were all dressed in the black pajamas and military helmets that were commonplace. They showed us their artillery and proudly described how they had shot down two planes that had come to attack their community.
We learned that in the year 248 A.D. right there in Thanh Hoa Province, a 23-year-old woman named Trieu Thi Trinh and her brother led thousands of people to drive out the Chinese invader. At first successful, they later were unable to hold back the Chinese invasion and Trieu Thi Trinh took her own life rather than live as a serf. Her iconic and inspirational words were, “My wish is to ride the tempest, tame the waves, kill the sharks. I want to drive the enemy away, to save our people. I will not resign myself to the usual lot of women who bow their heads and become concubines.” (Vietnam Studies, Vietnam Women, No. 10, 1967, Xunhasaba, Hanoi 1966.)
This was just one of the stories that are passed down from generation to generation in Vietnam about women and resistance. Even earlier, in 40 A.D., the Trung sisters attempted to end the Chinese feudal domination as well, leading the first national insurrection. One of the sisters slew a killer tiger inspiring other Vietnamese to follow her. The sisters then trained 36 women to lead an 80,000-person army.
We left the village of Thanh Hoa and proceeded on a journey to visit one of the ethnic minority groups, the Thai Noir (or Black Thai). When we met with the medical students in Hanoi, a young Thai Noir woman had presented us with flowers and we were eager to see how her family lived. Traveling through some breathtaking landscapes, we crossed rivers and climbed up, up, up into the mountains. Leaving our mini-van behind, we were ferried over a river on a wooden platform, alongside a water buffalo that was pulling a cart loaded down with big barrels. One young man pulled out a Vietnamese musical instrument–7 thin bamboo poles of different lengths strung together–and played sweet, haunting flute-like sounds. There was music everywhere and I recorded it all– among the school children, of course the musicians, and now out here, in the middle of a river, on a ferry. After disembarking, we hiked a ways and then took a VERY narrow ferry across the next river. It was basically about 15 or 20 thick poles of bamboo strung together, just a bit wider than each of us. We sat on our haunches in true Vietnamese fashion and took the short trip to the other side.
We then entered the Thai Noir village. Hundreds of people came out to greet us—men, women and children. Escorted by the whole village over to a thatched roof house on stilts, we climbed the stairs and were greeted by the elders of the village, two women who were far more slender and petite than we were. We sat on mats on the floor and exchanged greetings. They were wearing the traditional garb of their people, bands of colorful woven material worn around their waists. Their teeth were a brownish-red from chewing beetle nut and they shared with us their rice wine that we sipped from a large common jug through multiple straw-like instruments. They also offered us thoch lao which seemed to us to be a mild form of marijuana. We were told that it was mostly the elders who enjoyed thoch lao these days, an interesting reversal. (Note: thoch la is the word for tobacco.) They told us that the village was very excited by our presence and very rarely had they had visitors from other countries. In fact, the only people that looked like us had been two Russian reporters, so most of the people believed at first that we were Russians. A young woman from the Communist Party, not dressed in traditional garb, served as a translator from the language of the Thai Noir to the majoritarian Vietnamese language and then into English. So the conversation proceeded quite slowly but nobody was in a hurry and we were all delighted to be together.
We then toured the village where we saw the studios where they wove the colorful cloth, and were entertained by several youths drumming on large drums suspended from a pole and struck with sticks. Here in this village, high in the mountains, we saw beautiful young women dressed in traditional garb with rifles slung over their shoulders. We were told that one of the tasks of the revolution was to integrate the 60 different minorities into Vietnamese society in a way that would preserve their culture and language, yet allow them to advance. It may have grown out of a Marxist ideal of equality for all, but it was also a military imperative. Discontent among some groups, known as Montignards, had been exploited by the French to sow opposition to the Communists. In this village, at this time at least, there seemed to be cooperation between the communist government and the Thai Noir. Again we recalled seeing Thai Noir people in Hanoi, participating in the various groupings we had encountered, for example the musicians and medical students.
SPEAKING THE TRUTH TO THE GIs
On our return to Hanoi, Judy and I addressed the American GIs on Vietnamese radio. The station played contemporary American music interspersed with occasional commentary. We went on the radio to discourage the GIs from risking their life and limb in an illegal and immoral war. There were technical challenges at the radio station. Electricity was at a premium and every now and then it would cut out. We were reminded how remarkable it was that an “underdeveloped” nation with limited resources could present such a challenge to the U.S. We learned over and over again that it was not technology but the power of the people that was enabling them to persist.
An acquaintance of mine once admonished me as a representative of the 60s peace movement for refusing to date returning GIs. As far as I’m concerned those kinds of social pressures were completely appropriate. This wasn’t a matter of rival fraternities. We were not flippant critics of the GIs. Even though we knew most of the GIs had been drafted, we believed that as human beings they were still responsible for their own actions. We were children of World War II and my own father had fought against the Nazis. Those of us who were Jewish had lost many extended family members and knew that many German people claimed they were “just following orders.” Taking to heart the Nuremberg war crimes trials, we vowed that such a defense would never again be admissible and we would never be “Good Germans” who quietly went along with the program. Silence was complicity as well, and so we had an obligation to speak truth to the GIs. We challenged them to ask themselves what they were doing in a foreign land attacking a people who had done no harm to the U.S. or to them as individuals. We encouraged them not to suppress their own doubts about what they were doing and not to risk their lives in an illegal and immoral war. In general, the anti-war movement challenged the GIs, tried to offer them options and embraced them when they resisted. Movement people provided counseling and sanctuary, set up GI coffee houses and published underground newspapers near the bases, in places as far away as the Philippines.
The GIs themselves were far from passive bystanders. The resistance within the U.S. Army as well as that of returning veterans was one of the key elements in the anti-war movement. As early as June of 1965 Richard Steinke, a West Point graduate, refused to board an aircraft to a remote Vietnamese village, was court-martialed and dismissed from service. Captain Howard Levy, an army doctor, refused to teach the Green Berets, elite special forces. He stated that the Green Berets were “murderers of women and children” and “killers of peasants.” He was court-martialed and imprisoned. Susann Schnall, a Navy nurse, was court-martialed for participating in the anti-war movement, demonstrating in uniform and dropping leaflets from a plane over a naval installation.
As the years went on, these individual acts turned into waves of resistance, much of it from Black GIs who understood Muhammad Ali’s observation that “No Vietnamese ever called me nigger.” Dr. Martin Luther King Jr, as far back as 1967, had given a profound speech that is little-studied today—“Beyond Vietnam. A Time to Break Silence.” Outlining the history of the Vietnamese struggle, he stated that, “I could never again raise my voice against the violence of the oppressed in the ghettos without having first spoken clearly to the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today—my own government.” A Le Monde reporter wrote that, “A common sight is the black soldier, with his left fist clenched in defiance of a war he has never considered his own.” (Zinn, Howard, A People’s History of the United States)
There were literally thousands upon thousands of desertions by U.S. soldiers. Many went to Western Europe and even more sought asylum in Canada. By 1970 there were also thousands of members of Vietnam Veterans Against the War. Our radio appearance was far from a pivotal event but we wanted to do our small part to tell the truth and to encourage and nurture the resistance.
The night before we left Vietnam, a banquet was held in our honor. All forms of wonderful seafood dishes appeared on our plates and there was wine in abundance. Our hosts would have had us stay on and see more of their country, but as wonderful as the experience was, we were eager to get back home and on with the work of fighting against the war. Therefore, after two amazing weeks in Vietnam, we headed back to the States.
However, our route required us to return via Aeroflot to Moscow and then on to the U.S. from there. In Moscow we had a single-minded agenda. We were going to have a demonstration against the war that we had contemplated on the way through Moscow en route to Vietnam. We contacted all the media, particularly all the Western media, utilizing the contacts we had made earlier, and let them know about the protest. We tried to involve some of our Russian friends but they reiterated their fears of repercussions. We naively said, “Yeah but this is against the U.S., not Russia.” “You don’t understand,” they insisted, “the Russian government does not tolerate spontaneous demonstrations of any sort, regardless of the content.” OK, we thought, if there’s to be a demonstration of three people, so be it. But how could we make it as dramatic as possible? We decided to wear the black pajamas of the Viet Cong, along with our conical hats, and carry big signs saying: “We are the Ameri-Cong! End the war in Vietnam” and “Ho, Ho, Ho Chi Minh, the NLF is Gonna Win.”
All the Western media turned out and the Associated Press splashed our picture across the world in papers everywhere, well, everywhere but Moscow. Across the street our friends watched from semi-protected locations. And sure enough, the KGB of Russian intelligence was there as well. As we left the scene, we were followed for a while by a man in a green suit wearing one-way glasses. He probably left us when we entered our hotel and got ready to leave Moscow the next day.
Judy and I flew into Canada. Judy would stay to see her family and I would travel on to New York. The Canadians, allegedly politically independent of the United States, immediately confiscated all the gifts the Vietnamese had given us. Later, thanks to some legal action, we would recover most of them but we never did recoup our conical hats. Subversive, damning hats!
When I disembarked from the plane in New York, I was immediately detained, brought into a room by myself. I waited for someone to come in and thought about what I would say. This great big, beefy FBI agent entered the room. He looked taken aback to see this miniature, young girl who was supposed to be some kind of threat. But that didn’t stop him from grilling me about where I’d been. “Moscow,” I responded. “And where else?” he retorted. “Nowhere,” said I, “you can check my passport.” How clean it was since no one had stamped it with any evidence of Vietnam. I feared some future ramifications but there were none. It was the first time I traveled illegally but it would not be the last. It’s a funny thing, I have never been to a country where I was not welcomed, and yet I have traveled a number of times to places my own “free” country has forbidden me to go.
The FBI intimidation could not stop me from my anti-war activities. I was fired up and ready to go. Inspired by the Vietnamese experience, I was more emboldened than ever to pursue an end to the war in particular and to fight for equality and justice in all areas of life.
NANCY KURSHAN can be reached at: Nkurshan@aol.com
Eisenhower, Dwight D. Mandate for Change, 1953-56. Garden City NY: Doubleday, 1963, p. 372.
Zinn, Howard. A People’s History of the United States. New York: Harper&Row, 1980.
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