John Steinbeck's Letter From Vietnam

Madeleine Crum, The Huffington Post: Though John Steinbeck is best known for chronicling the woes of The Great Depression, his raw, journalistic accounts of later human tragedies are written with the same poignancy as "The Grapes of Wrath" and "Of Mice and Men." In "Steinbeck in Vietnam," [University of Virginia Press], we are offered glimpses of the author's last works. "I am writing this in a comfortable hotel room in Saigon," he pens in the below excerpt. "Which was once a beautiful city and now has a worn and sagging look like a worn-out suit that once was well tailored."

January 14, 1967 / Saigon

Dear Alicia,

This war in Vietnam is very confusing not only to old war watchers but to people at home who read and try to understand. It is mainly diffi cult because of our preconceptions accumulated over several thousand years. This war is not like any we have ever been involved in. I’ll try to tell you some of the points of difference as I have observed them.

It was easy to report wars of movement, places taken and held or lost, lines established and clear, troops confronting each other in force and fighting until one side or the other lost. Big battles are conceivable, can be reported like a bullfight. You could see if only on a map all previ ous wars—on one side of a line our friends, on the other our enemies. Vietnam is not like that at all and I wonder whether it can be described. Maybe the inability to communicate its quality is the reason for the dis content and frustration of the press corps here. Many of the fine report ers here understand this war, but their readers don’t and often their editors demand the kind of war they are used to and comfortable with.

Maybe I can’t tell you what it is like, Alicia, but I’m going to try so you can feel it. It’s a feeling war with no fronts and no rear. It is every where like a thin ever-present gas. I am writing this in a comfortable hotel room in Saigon, which was once a beautiful city and now has a worn and sagging look like a worn-out suit that once was well tailored. And the war is here—in the street below, on the roofs, always pres ent. When I leave my wife here and go out to the hard-bitten sandbag redoubts in the countryside, she is in as much danger as I am and per haps in more because I am armed with alertness while she, walking in a civilized street to post a letter, may run into a murderous exchange of fire.

At night when we have drinks and dinner on the roof we can see the flares and hear the thunder of artillery all night long, and very often the quick-sharp rattle of automatic small arms fire. Both she and I know the sound of mortar fire and we are conditioned, if it comes close, to roll off the beds pulling the mattresses over us with one motion to veer off fragments and flying glass. This city is heavily fortified, but the bridge you cross to go to a small restaurant may be blown up before you return. The smiling man in the street selling colored etchings from a bulging briefcase may have a gummy lump of high explosive under the pictures—and he may not. There is the problem—he may be simply a smiling man selling pictures. That is the feeling all over the city. Any person, any place may suddenly erupt into violence and destruction. You have it with you every minute. You avoid clots of
people in the streets and are prepared almost automatically to fall to the sidewalk or the street and to be perfectly still. Bob Capa’s first instruction to me years ago was, “Don’t move. If they haven’t hit you they haven’t seen you.” No better advice was ever given.

I realize that this account makes it seem that we are surrounded by thousands of enemies and that is just not true. The armed forces radio and television station was riddled with about 200 rounds from auto matic rifles, by just two men. The airport, the largest in the world and surely the most guarded, was penetrated recently by 15 heavily armed teenage boys, and they would have done great damage if the guard dogs had not smelled them out. You see, it isn’t that the enemies are many but that you don’t know which ones they are. And three with modern weapons can do the destruction of a hundred. One man, sauntering slowly past with a basket of fruit on his head, can slaughter half the peasants in a village market with one grenade and he does not hesitate to do it. In many areas, we completely control the place by day, but no one moves about by night. Then the secured road is mined. Then a dreadful claymore mine is aimed to be exploded by the first man who opens the village gate.

On Christmas Day General [William] Westmoreland took me with him to visit the farthest outposts. The 101st Airborne has not been to its base camp for nearly a year. The Special Forces, Green Berets, are dug in redoubts far in the hills. They range the countryside day and night like casting setters [hunting dogs] and very gradually they clear out the snakes. We called on the Special Forces at Plei Mrong and Polei Klong, elements of the 25th Division and the Eighth Infantry at Pleiku, the airborne and three battalions of infantry at Kontum and the First Cavalry at An Khe. The General must have rabbit blood. I had to run to keep up with him. The finest Army we have ever had, he said, the best trained, most experienced soldiers in our history and with a morale that clanged through the valleys like a struck gong.

Does it make you feel hopeless that these wonderful troops plus the equally fine allied troops cannot bring this thing to a quick victory? I find I am very hopeful but not for a quick victory. It is a large subject and I’ll try to tell you more about it in my next. There is far too much to try to get in one letter.

Reprinted with the permission of University of Virginia Press.