Travel Stories

The American War

         It is impossible for me to write about my visit to Vietnam without first speaking of the American War against the Vietnamese people in the 1960's and 1970s.  Opposition to the American War shaped my life and the choices I made in the 60s that have had consequences for my life and the lives of my children ever since.  And for most Americans who opposed the war the American War against the Vietnamese people remains a source of profound shame and regret ... an unfathomable set of war crimes as barbaric as any known ... crimes and horrors that went unpunished and forever will, crimes that cost the lives of 58,000 young Americans, and murdered more than a million - that is not an exaggeration - more than a million Vietnamese children, women, and men.  I hated the war.  It was wrong, immoral, and what I viewed as a holocaust against the Vietnamese people ... and I had lived through one holocaust, thank you.  How the bulk of the German people had stood idly by while Jews, Gypsies, Communists, gays, and disabled people were systematically exterminated was one of the most pressing moral questions I'd ever thought about.  What would I have done?  Would I too have been a good German?  And here was a war that in every conceivable way seemed equally as immoral to me as the war against the Jews.  And, in fact, I was just standing by.  
         At first I participated in and organized protests and demonstrations against the war, it was all I could think of to do. I was not rehired at my teaching position at Hunter College in 1966 because I made the war and opposition to the war so large a part of the curriculum in my courses.  I next found work at the State University of New York in Plattsburg, home of a Strategic Air Command U.S. Air Force base, and promptly began picketing the draft board there, each day at lunch time walking back and forth in front of their downtown offices with a sandwich board sign that read, “Stop killing our children,” with pictures of recently killed American servicemen on the front of the board and pictures of Vietnamese children killed by U.S. forces on the back.  Dozens of students ultimately joined me in my vigil, a story appeared in the local newspaper with a picture of me and my sandwich board, I was invited to speak before the local Chamber of Commerce on Memorial Day.
         I though long and hard about what my subject would be and ultimately focused on the issue of what a patriotic citizen should do if he or she felt there was a conflict between his nation, by which I meant his or her ethical and societal values, and his state, that is the institution empowered to carry out the wishes of the people of the nation.  I cited historical examples of this conflict in my talk, most notably about slavery. I referenced the good German question.  I explained why in relationship to the Vietnam War my values, which I thought were eminently patriotic - I had after all served in the U.S. Army in 1960 and 61 - necessarily required me to oppose the actions of the state in Vietnam by whatever means I could.
         The Chamber of Commerce applauded me.  They shook my hand.  They gave me a commemorative certificate. They went to the president of the college and said, “get rid of him.”  And he promptly did.
         I dropped out of teaching.  I defined myself as a revolutionary.  I actively supported third world liberation struggles in all the ways I could without being jailed. I advocated violence against my government and aided and abetted those who carried out such violence.  I helped begin a commune in Vermont where I lived for years, initiated in part by a desire to assist in stopping the war, of dropping out, of not paying taxes, of helping resisters get to Canada.  There is no doubt in my mind that internal American opposition to the war contributed to its ending.
         Of course, it goes without saying that the American War is immensely prominent in the minds and hearts of every Vietnamese person I've evet met.   How else can it be?  For the Vietnamese young, there is the unfathomable fact that Vietnamese brother and sister fought bitterly against brother and sister.  And while for older Vietnamese people there is both genuine forgiveness and genuine pride - winning as a David against Goliath helps with both - the consequences of the war, of land mines, of the cancer inducing banned chemical weapon attacks with Agent Orange - and of literal decades and generations of war against the imperialistic Americans, French and Chinese - are seared into (what appears to me) a remarkably militant national consciousness, repeated in museum displays, songs, flags, names, propoganda, tours, and iconography.  That the Vietnamese can be as tough as they obviously are, as determined as they are, and as warm, kind, and smiling as they are moves me immensely.  As Uncle Ho reminded and advised us, "What could be more natural?  After sorrow comes happiness."