Vietnam: Story Without an End

The bigger the story the longer it takes to reach the front pages of major newspapers and TV screens. That maxim is probably nowhere more evident in recent times than in the example of the War in Vietnam.
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The bigger the story the longer it takes to reach the front pages of major newspapers and TV screens. That maxim is probably nowhere more evident in recent times than in the example of the War in Vietnam. For years, The New York Times, The Washington Post and the three networks -- NBC, CBS, and ABC -- didn't cover the actualities of the Vietnam War. Indeed, the White House and the Pentagon refused to see or to say what was obvious to most international news media: that by 1968 the United States had lost the war on the battlefield.

From 1965 to 1975, American presidents, from Johnson to Nixon, and American generals, from Westmoreland to LeMay, insisted that U.S. troops were victorious. The mass media mouthed the official line. Then, in 1971, came publication of the Pentagon Papers; secrets were revealed and the American public woke up.

The People Make the Peace: Lessons from the Vietnam Antiwar Movement -- a new collection of essays about Vietnam by activists who opposed the war -- is packed with news that's personal, national and international. It's a welcome addition to a large library of books on the subject that includes Yen Le Espiritu's Body Counts, Nick Turse's Kill Anything That Moves, and Marilyn Young's The Vietnam Wars, 1945-1990.

There isn't an essay in The People Make the Peace, which is published by Just World Books, that doesn't offer surprises, shocks and illuminations. The editors, Karin Aguilar-San Juan, a Filipino American writer/ activist, and Frank Joyce, a Detroit union organizer, have assembled a volume that arrives on the fortieth anniversary of the end of the War in Vietnam. Just in time to look back at a war that divided the nation and threatened to unleash a civil war in the United States.

In "Journey to the East," Alex Hing, a Chinese American from San Francisco, describes a visit to Southeast Asia and concludes, "Vietnam is now like the United States." He adds, "It is a modern country with modern problems." He goes on to explain that Vietnam and the Vietnamese have served as his moral compass. "Whenever I have faced difficulties, I looked at how the Vietnamese conducted themselves during their struggles for liberation," he writes.

Most of the other authors in this book have done much the same, though they have also held on to their identities as patriotic Americans who remained true to the spirit of the Founding Fathers.

In an essay titled, "The People's Peace Treaty," the three authors, Jay Craven, Doug Hostetter, and Becca Wilson, take readers behind the scenes of the 1968 election when Richard Nixon narrowly defeated Hubert Humphrey, then LBJ's vice president. They claim convincingly that Nixon "sabotaged Lyndon Johnson's progress in the Paris Peace talks," and that while LBJ "learned of Nixon's back-channel sabotage" the president did nothing for fear that he "would sully his own reputation."

Egos and power politics trumped morality; American troops and Vietnamese soldiers and civilians died on distant battlefields.

In "A Pacifist in the War Zone," Doug Hostetter, a Mennonite classified in 1966 as a conscientious objector, provides highlights from his three-year experience as a teacher in a Vietnamese village in the 1960s. "The National Liberation Front (NLF) took over the village about a dozen times," he writes. "It was always terrifying. There would be a firefight. You could hear the South Vietnamese soldiers firing their U.S. manufactured M-16 rifles and the NLF guerrillas firing their Russian-made AK-47 rifles."

The essays in The People Make the Peace draw back and look at the big historical picture and they zoom in and examine the war on the ground up close and in slow motion. The American filmmaker Jay Craven writes cinematically. In "Journeys to Remember," he describes a flight to Hanoi as he peers through the plane's window and feels "a sense of intrigue, mystery, and a little danger."

Craven remembers a curious meeting with Donald Rumsfeld, then serving in the Nixon administration, who invited him to become an informant: "come to Washington from time to time, to tell us what you think and what you're seeing on campus." Craven declined the offer and continued to protest against the war.

Years later, during a 2013 trip to Vietnam, he met a veteran named Danh who had fought against U.S. troops, and a Vietnamese woman poet named Le Minh Khue. Craven concludes that they both suffered from "what we call Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)," though neither knew anything about PTSD, "its diagnosis, or possible treatment." He adds, "Their experience adds to my sense of the destructiveness of war."

In the afterword to this volume, Madame Nguyen Thi Binh -- now 88-years old -- offers "a Vietnamese perspective." One of the founders of the NLF and the head of its delegation to the Paris Peace talks with the U.S. she was and still is an inspiration to Americans and Vietnamese.

When a U.S. film crew in Vietnam asked her if her country "profited from the divisions with the U.S.?" she provided a one-word reply, followed by a succinct explanation. "No," she said. "We didn't think that way. The work that we did took advantage of the American people's spirit which prizes peace and justice."

Vietnam, the contributors to this volume seem to say, is both like and unlike the U.S. It's very far away and very close, its history entangled with the history of the U.S. Forty years after the end of the war, in 1975, that history is still unraveling. In The People Make the Peace history unravels in a series of profoundly personal and intensely dramatic essays that bring the past into the present.

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