Vietnam Christian Service house in Tam Ky. Photo: Lance Woodruff
When I learned that Vietnam had invited a group of 15 U.S. antiwar activists to come to Hanoi in January 2013, to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the signing of the Paris Peace Accords that ended U.S. direct involvement in the Vietnam war, I realized that it was time for me to return to Vietnam.
I had first gone to Vietnam back in 1966, soon after graduating from Eastern Mennonite College in Harrisonburg, Virginia. I had received conscientious objector status from the military, and then volunteered to do my Alternative Service in Vietnam, at the height of the war, working for the Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) in Vietnam with Vietnam Christian Service (VNCS). VNCS was a joint program in Vietnam of the Mennonite Central Committee, Church World Service, and Lutheran World Relief, but was directed by MCC.
As a Mennonite I understood that I had no enemies, but was called to use the “weapons” of love and truth in the struggle to build a just and peaceful world. Our Mennonite vision of the world clashed sharply with that of our government. The United States had designated the North Vietnamese and the guerillas active in South Vietnam as the enemy – but those guerillas were the same Vietnamese peasants who had fought the French during the colonial era, when they were known as the Viet Minh. During the U.S. war, they were called the National Liberation Front (NLF); Americans sometimes called them the Vietnamese Communists (VC). Having visualized an enemy, the U.S. government deployed a vast array of weapons and troops against it. When I arrived in Saigon in 1966 there were hundreds of thousands of U.S. military personnel were already deployed on the air, land, and sea of Vietnam.
I was the first VNCS volunteer sent to Tam Ky, a village in Quang Tin Province in Central Vietnam, about 100 miles south of the Demilitarized Zone. Two years before I arrived, the U.S. military had lost control of most of the province. With the exception of Tam Ky and two other small towns near the coast along Route 1, the NLF controlled the entire province. The U.S. military strategy at the time was to drive the civilian population out of the areas controlled by the NLF and into the towns controlled by the U.S. military and the Saigon government. When I arrived in late 1966, Tam Ky was teeming with refugees.
I was surprised to learn that the primary interest of most of the refugee families was for their children to be able to go to school. After the NLF took over the rural areas of Quang Tin Province two years earlier, the U.S. military responded by destroying the infrastructure: the clinics, marketplaces, and schools. It was obvious to me that I was ill equipped to teach Vietnamese children. If I were going to organize classes for these young refugees, I would need to find local Vietnamese to be the teachers. I had started teaching English in several of the high schools in Tam Ky while developing my Vietnamese language skills. I was able to use contacts in the high schools to find students who would be willing to work as volunteer teachers for classes of refugee children. We started with sessions on weekends and during summer vacation, and later expanded to year-round classes. By the end of my three years in Tam Ky, we had 90 high school students teaching over 3,000 refugee children in villages all across Quang Tin province how to read and write.
Tam Ky was in the middle of the I Corps Tactical Zone, the much fought-over northernmost military section of South Vietnam. When I first came to Tam Ky a CIA briefer explained, “You can go a kilometer east or a kilometer west of Tam Ky. Beyond that you are in VC territory. We control Route 1 north and south of Tam Ky during the day, but at dusk, that also reverts to VC control.” The U.S. government officials and military officers in Tam Ky all lived in heavily guarded military compounds flanked with guard towers, encircled by high walls topped with barbed wire, and surrounded by land mines.
I rented a small bungalow in the center of village, just across the street from a high school where I taught. When I first moved in, my landlady told me, “The National Liberation Front often overruns Tam Ky. I have only a four-foot wall around the house, but if you get yourself a few rolls of concertina wire, a sturdy steel gate, and a 50-caliber machine gun for the front yard, you should be able to hold off the NLF until the Marines can come and rescue you!” I explained to her that Mennonites as people of peace do not use weapons or even set up defenses for ourselves. “We try to live at peace with all peoples and trust in God,” I said. I did put up a sign with a peace dove, a cross, and the name of our organization in Vietnamese so people would know who I was and where I lived. But I never put a gate in that four-foot wall, and everyone knew that I didn’t have a weapon.
During my three years in Tam Ky, the NLF took over the village about a dozen times. Usually it would be for only an hour or so in the middle of a moonless night after a brief exchange of fire with the local Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) soldiers of the Saigon government. During the Tet Offensive in 1968, however, the NLF, with the help of North Vietnamese soldiers, took over and stayed in Tam Ky for more than a week. It was always terrifying during a takeover. There would be a fire fight in the street and you could clearly hear the ARVN soldiers firing their U.S. manufactured M-16 rifles and the NLF guerillas firing their Russian-made AK-47 rifles. In our houses everyone would crawl into a bomb shelter if they had one, and if not, get on the floor and stay as low as possible. After some time there were usually fewer shots from M-16s, and more from the AK-47s, and finally the M-16s would disappear completely and we knew that the NLF was in control of the streets of Tam Ky. The NLF would always then attack the heavily defended armed compounds at the edge of town where US government-related officials stayed: the US Agency for International Development, the Military Advisory Command-Vietnam headquarters, and the “U.S. Embassy” compound where three or four CIA agents lived.
The VNCS staff were the only Americans in Tam Ky who were not in a military compound, but our house was never attacked despite the fact that we lived in the easily accessible center of the village.
It is fear that drives much violence. In combat, soldiers often kill out of fear of being killed. When a peacemaker renounces not only offensive weapons, but even the capacity for self-defense, it can diminish the fear that propels violence. Yet volunteers in Vietnam knew that commitment to nonviolence was never a guarantee of safety. Three pacifists lost their lives during the Vietnam war. Daniel Gerber, a Mennonite, was abducted in Banmethuot, Vietnam, 1962, and never heard from again. Ted Studebaker, from the Church of the Brethren, was killed in Di Linh, 1971. Rick Thompson, a Quaker, died in a plane crash in Quang Ngai, 1973. In the end we knew that our survival depended on common sense, careful planning, and God’s grace.
I did feel very vulnerable in Vietnam. I realized that despite my good intentions, I looked very American to most Vietnamese, and I was in the middle of a combat zone in the middle of an American-initiated, ill-fated war against the people of Vietnam. I was very thankful to have survived during my time in Tam Ky, and quite frankly, by the end of my three-year assignment, I felt guilty that I had survived a war that had taken so many friends.
Three years ago, one of the high school students who had been a teacher in my literacy program in Tam Ky emigrated to the United States. When he came to New York, he filled me in on what had happened in Tam Ky when the war finally ended in 1975, six years after I had left. I learned of many friends who died, and others who survived, during that long and difficult war. But perhaps the most surprising bit of information was that my best friend in Tam Ky had had a few secrets.
Le Dinh Sung, a local artist, had been my closest friend and advisor while I was in Tam Ky. His father, who lived 25 miles north of Tam Ky, had been killed while I was there by South Korean troops working with the U.S. military. Sung had introduced me to his younger sister and his mother, who had fled the violence that had killed his father. When the war ended, neighbors discovered that Le Dinh Sung also had an older brother who was a high-level official in the NLF during the war. At war’s end, the brother had returned and was appointed Province Chief in the new government. Le Dinh Sung himself had been named the new Education Chief for the province.
Through a Vietnamese acquaintance, I was able to get in touch with Le Dinh Sung’s family by email. I was saddened to learn from his daughter that my artist friend had died two years earlier, but she and her brothers remembered me well, and invited me to visit them when I was able.
* * *
I was invited to be part of the U.S. Anti-War Delegation to Vietnam in January 2013 because of work that I had done with the People’s Peace Treaty, and with Medical Aid for Indochina, after returning from my alternative service work in South Vietnam. It was a great honor to return to Hanoi with 14 other antiwar activists. Nine of us had participated in peace delegations to Hanoi during the war years. We were treated royally by the Vietnamese government. We were honored international guests at a grand celebration of the 40th aniversary of the Paris Peace Agreement held at the National Convention Center. A few of us were and were hosted by Vietnamese President Truong Tan Sang in the Presidential Palace and invited to participate with him in planting a “peace and friendship tree” in the Hanoi Peace Park.
In addition to celebratory visits with mayors and provincial officials in many cities, we were also invited to visit the organizations and institutions that are dealing with the legacy of the Vietnam war: Agent Orange and unexploded ordnance.
The United States used over 15 million tons of bombs and explosive ordnance during the Vietnam war. Approximately 10% of the bombs and other explosives used during the war failed to detonate on impact, leaving thousands of tons of unexploded munitions scattered throughout the country, both on the surface and underground. These deadly explosives have killed or injured more than a hundred thousand civilians in Vietnam since the war ended in 1975.
The other significant legacy issue of the Vietnam war is Agent Orange/Dioxin. Agent Orange is the name of one of the herbicides and defoliants used by the US military in Vietnam. Agent Orange was manufactured for the U.S. Department of Defense primarily by Monsanto Corporation and Dow Chemical. It contains an impurity, dioxin, one of the most toxic compounds known to science. Between 1961 and 1971 the U.S. military sprayed nearly 20 million gallons of chemical herbicides and defoliants in South Vietnam and the eastern portions of Laos and Cambodia. Vietnam estimates that four hundred thousand people were killed or maimed and half a million children have been born with birth defects due to dioxin in Agent Orange.
While in Vietnam, I also took time to return to Tam Ky for the first time in over four decades. There I visited two of the children of my artist friend, Le Dinh Sung. It was a deeply moving experience to meet with Phuong Long, who had been about 11 when I had left Vietnam, and her older brother Viet, who had then been 15. They both remembered me well, as I had spent much time in their home with their father. They are both grown now, and have children of their own who are the age that they themselves were when I left Tam Ky. Phuong Long is a classical musician who plays the 32-string zither with the Dang Xuan traditional music group in Hoi An, the ancestral home of the family. Her brother Minh is now a building contractor in Tam Ky.
It was a wonderful reunion after 43 years of separation. We reminisced about the war years, and about the times that I had spent them when they were children, during the height of the war. When I asked about their father’s older brother, I was astounded to learn that Le Dinh Sung actually had not just one brother, but four. All of them had fought with the NLF, but stayed in touch with their family living on the other side. Two of these brothers had been killed in the war. The eldest, who had returned to become Province Chief in Tam Ky when the war ended, was now too old and infirm to receive guests. However, I did meet the other surviving brother. He had spent the war years on the “other side,” as a cultural worker with the NLF.
My path of return to Vietnam was a continuation of my original journey to learn peacebuilding. As I relished the renewal of relationships from nearly half a century ago, I began to comprehend that a critical element of peacebuilding is authentic friendship. Peace is founded upon relationships that transcend the national, racial, ethnic, religious, and political boundaries that usually separate humanity. I came to realize that Le Dinh Sung and his family were true friends to a young American who had made a sincere attempt to live at peace in the midst of a bitter and deadly war. I also realized that on the many occasions when the NLF took over Tam Ky while I was there, God’s protection had received some assistance from Le Dinh Sung’s brothers on the other side.
Doug Hostetter is director of the Mennonite Central Committee United Nations Office in New York City. As a conscientious objector during the Vietnam war, he did his alternative service working for Mennonite Central Committee in Vietnam from 1966 to 1969. He was a member of the National Student Association delegation to Saigon and Hanoi that negotiated the People’s Peace Treaty in 1970. Doug was executive secretary of FOR–USA from 1987–1973, and international/interfaith secretary from 1993–2001. Doug has published widely on the issues of war, peace, and nonviolence.