[News] Back to Vietnam - The Legacies of War

Anti-Imperialist News news at freedomarchives.org
Mon Jan 13 11:33:33 EST 2014


*The Legacies of War: 1970-2013*

  Back to Vietnam


I am one among millions of people around the globe who protested the 
American war in Viet Nam. I am also one of perhaps 400 people from the 
United States who visited Viet Nam while the war still raged. I returned 
this past January 2013, part of a delegation of former peace activists, 
spouses, partners and supporters. We called ourselves the Hanoi 9, 
invited to help celebrate the 40th anniversary of the Paris Peace 
Accords. I had been ridiculously nervous before this second trip, which 
I put down to fear of losing my illusions. Would this country which once 
embodied my highest ideals still maintain its moral hegemony in a 21st 
century world of Starbucks and a Ho Chi Minh City stock exchange?

When I visited the former North Viet Nam in 1970, U.S. troops had been 
waging war in that country for over seven years. More 14,500 American 
soldiers had died, close to half a million military personnel had served 
in combat. Republican Richard Nixon had replaced Democrat Lyndon Johnson 
as president, yet the threat by Johnson's top general Curtis LeMay that 
the United States would bomb Viet Nam back into the Stone Age still 
resonated. Pro-war America labeled Vietnamese as gooks; demonizing 
combatant and civilian as a slant-eyed, black-pajama'd enemy who fought 
relentlessly by day and insinuated themselves by night into tunnels, 
encampments and nightmares of foot soldiers and Presidents alike.

At the same time, public opposition to the war had become a fact of 
life. Hundreds of thousands of anti-war activists like me idealized the 
North Vietnamese and their compatriots, the National Liberation Front of 
South Vietnam as Davids battling the high-tech killing machine of the 
American Goliath.  To my way of thinking, the chant "Ho, Ho, Ho Chi 
Minh, the NLF is Gonna Win" was not propagandistic wish fulfillment; it 
was inevitable.

I arrived in Hanoi in May 1970, along with fellow Yippie Nancy Kurshan 
and Genie Plamondon of the White Panther Party. We were a women's 
delegation of three. On our first morning, a dilapidated dark green 
school bus with the number 4709 stenciled on its windshield waited for 
us on Ngo Quyen Street outside the former colonial French Hotel 
Metropole, now renamed Reunification. Also waiting was Do Xuan Oanh, the 
man who had invited us to visit Viet Nam. Oanh, pronounced 'Wine' with a 
nasal intonation and /nnnng/ at the end, was more than just the go-to 
person for visiting peace activists. He was a composer, a poet in the 
romantic Vietnamese/French style, a watercolor artist and a translator 
into Vietnamese of Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn. Everyone from the 
inner core of the U.S. anti-war movement knew him. The writer Susan 
Sontag who visited Hanoi in 1968 had written: "Oanh had a "personal 
authority, (he) walks and sits with that charming "American" slouch, and 
sometimes seems moody or distracted." Oanh's brooding may have stemmed 
from his personal history. Oanh's wife, the granddaughter of the Chief 
of Staff of the French government in Indochina, had been arrested by the 
French in the early 1950s and held at the Maison Central, a concrete 
building in downtown Hanoi that would become infamous as the Hanoi 
Hilton. Oanh's wife suffered chronic headaches and fainted whenever she 
saw a snake. Only in 2013 did I grasp the meaning of Oanh's story when I 
saw on the wall of the War Remnants Museum in Ho Chi Minh City a 
depiction of a woman being held down by two burly, bare chested men who 
were raping her with a snake.

In 1970, Nancy, Genie, Oanh, three Vietnamese guides and I rode our bus 
south until we crossed the Ham Rong Bridge in Thanh Hoa province. A hole 
in the bus's rusted floor allowed a view of brown muddy river water 
rushing mere yards under my feet. Oanh told us the North Vietnamese army 
moved war materiel by train, oxcart, bicycle and foot across this bridge 
to the South. U.S. planes had made at least 400 sorties, each one laying 
down a carpet of bombs. "Every day this bridge is demolished," Oanh 
explained, "Every night it is rebuilt. The courage of the peasants is a 
local legend."

Anti-aircraft artillery fighters, Viet Nam 1970. Photo by Judy Gumbo 

/Anti-aircraft artillery fighters, Viet Nam 1970. Photo by Judy Gumbo 

The instant after I had conjured up a socialist realist image of heroic 
peasants combating their victim hood by rebuilding a bridge each night, 
a mountain loomed on my right. One-half of the mountain's top had been 
sheared away, as if some industrial-sized backhoe had strip-mined giant 
bites from it. I asked Oanh the meaning of the letters QUYET THANG I saw 
carved in white chalk into the mountain's top. He replied.

"Determined to win. So American pilots will see this as they fly over."

I did not question why the North Vietnamese believed American pilots 
could translate this slogan. Then I realized mine was an Americo-centric 
point of view; the slogan was much more to inspire resistance among 
peasants undergoing bombing than a deterrent to pilots. By the time the 
bus stopped, I was feeling no small measure of guilt and remorse, as if 
I was in some way responsible for the destruction I had witnessed. A 
woman in a stained lightweight patterned shirt, visibly pregnant, led us 
through a narrow passage into a low ceilinged cave hollowed into the 
mountain's core. Bare bulbs attached to wires flickered orange; tons of 
mountain earth above us tamed Vietnam's humidity. Seven or eight women 
and men bent over lathes that resembled oversize sewing machines. Oanh 
said that despite daily bombings this munitions factory had remained in 
continuous production.

I shivered, not from fear or from my cooling skin but because the air 
around me felt infused with such resolve I could not help but sop it up 
like a sponge. I told myself if Oanh and his compatriots could make a 
life amid such devastation, I could re-make myself. I would act more 
like my heroes: Mme. Binh, Che Guevara, the Trung Sisters and Emma 
Goldman. I'd become less self-centered! I'd learn empathy, compassion 
and determination! I would sacrifice my happiness for the good of 
others. The vows I made in that factory cave in 1970 in feel Utopian to 
me now, but at age 27 they changed my understanding of myself and thus 
my life.

Genie Plamondon, Nancy Kurshan & Judy Gumbo Albert protesting the Viet 
Nam War outside the U.S. Consulate in Moscow, 1970. Photographer 

/Genie Plamondon, Nancy Kurshan & Judy Gumbo Albert protesting the Viet 
Nam War outside the U.S. Consulate in Moscow, 1970. Photographer unknown./

Forty years later, Thursday, January 24, 2013, was the second day of 
Nancy's and my second trip to Hanoi. Instead of holes in the floor, our 
2013 bus came equipped with upholstered dark blue seats, wide windows 
and an up-to date microphone and speaker system. We were to tour the 
Garco 10 factory on the outskirts of Hanoi. During the war, this factory 
had produced uniforms for the North Vietnamese Army. Today it 
manufactures shirts and suits for men, plus a line of clothing for women 
and children for companies like Pierre Cardin, J.C. Penney, Perry Ellis, 
Liz Claiborne, Tommy Hilfiger, DKNY and Target.

Our delegation climbed three flights of stairs, past a green sign 
promoting compact fluorescent bulbs, solar power and recycling. We 
waited in a conference room whose major difference between it and any 
American corporate office appeared to be its bust of Ho Chi Minh. Than 
Duc Viet, Garco 10's Director recited her list of Garco 10 
accomplishments: employees who own stock shares which their children can 
inherit; pre-school for worker's children; on-site dental care; 11,000 
workers with wages of $200 a month, well above that made by most 
Vietnamese factory workers. To me this factory felt like a 21st century 
embodiment of Pete Seeger's Taking Union: "shorter hours, better working 
conditions, vacations with pay, take your kids to the seashore." Still, 
I had to wonder: how many workers in modern Viet Nam have access to such 

I'd studied up on the Vietnamese economy before my trip. I knew that the 
Vietnamese government promulgates what they call a "socialist-oriented 
market economy." The day after I visited Garco 10, I had an opportunity 
to ask Deputy Director Sung of the Vietnamese government's Americas 
Department, "What does the phrase socialist-oriented market economy 
mean?" In a reply that was perhaps more candid than the usual diplomatic 
"open and frank" discussion, I understood him to say he hopes that Viet 
Nam will maintain socialist ideals in a way that allows it to function 
in global capital markets and, at the same time, avoid the systemic 
economic collapse of the former Soviet Union.  Director Sung did not 
allude directly to the enormous political pressures being brought to 
bear on Viet Nam by market forces, except to explain that "political and 
economic stability is a high priority so countries can put their trust 
in us. If we fail," he concluded, "it will be our fault." I am a child 
of Communist Party parents. I long ago renounced what I experienced as 
Communist authoritarianism for Yippie anarchism, yet I came away 
thinking that if Viet Nam's state-owned and private enterprises can 
figure out how to extract surplus value (i.e. profit) from their workers 
while at the same time achieving workers' control of the means of 
production, more power to them.

*          *           *

All the photos I took in 1970's Viet Nam are black and white, yet the 
vivid greens and earth tones of my memory are closer to my actual 
experience.  One photo I have from Thanh Hoa province shows eight women 
lined up in formation, four abreast. They are a platoon of artillery 
gunners. Each wears a pith helmet and those ubiquitous black silk pants. 
They appear as short as I am and look in their mid-twenties. One is 
barefoot; the others wore black sandals recycled from used rubber tires. 
A second photo shows me in a tie-dye tank top, hair braided to ward off 
the heat, seated in a Russian anti-aircraft gun mounted on what looks 
like a two-wheeled tractor spattered with mud.  Jane Fonda had her 
picture taken in this same model gun when she visited North Vietnam two 
years after I did. Jane's enemies used the photo to brand her a traitor; 
the record of an act Jane says she now regrets. Her friends have told me 
the fallout from that photo made the task of winning mainstream 
Americans to the anti-war cause more difficult. I have never regretted 
looking through those gun sights, but I do remember feeling like a 
fraud. My life was one of privilege. How could I compare myself to women 
for whom making it through one day meant shooting a gun mounted on a 
tractor at sophisticated airplanes out of whose belly fell canisters 
filled with shrapnel, white phosphorous or napalm jelly engineered to 
stick to clothes and skin?

The barefoot soldier handed me a gray-green half ball made of metal as 
if it was detritus of little value. It was round, hollow, two and a 
quarter inches wide, ¾ inch deep with a jagged hole in one side as if a 
single tear had burned like acid through its metal casing. It was the 
exploded remnant of a U.S. pellet bomb or "pineapple." It had once 
contained 250 steel pellets, now dispersed, except for a few still 
caught like pomegranate seeds inside its metal skin.  Between 1964-71 
the US military had ordered at least 37 million such pellet bombs or 
pineapples. Pineapples were housed inside "mother" bombs dropped by B-52 
Stratofortress bombers. A single B52 could drop 1000 pineapples over a 
400 square yard area.

War cannot help but leave its remnants behind; the Viet Nam I visited in 
2103 remains polluted by bombs dropped between 1965 and 1973 in over 
126,600 sorties made by B52 bombers. At the Mine Action Center in Quang 
Tri province, once carpeted by 3,000 bombs per square kilometer, I 
encountered display case after display case of exploded pellet bombs 
like mine; whose unexploded cousins remain buried, only to rise up from 
the soil, unbidden and undead, to kill or maim children who mistake the 
bombs for playthings. Hand held hoes are available for clean-up, as are 
metal detectors, supplemented by bright red signs warning: Danger! with 
a graphic of a skull and crossed bones.

During the war, at the former U.S. airbase at Da Nang, American G.I's 
offloaded barrels of the toxic herbicide Agent Orange; today the airbase 
is the most contaminated area in the world. I met Walt, a bearded former 
marine with orange hard hat and wire-rimmed glasses now a United States 
Agency for International Development tech hired to help clean up the 
airbase. He said 100,000 cubic meters of earth are being dug down ten 
feet; then placed in concrete boxes, like a mountain of giant Legos. The 
soil will be heated to 300 then to 700 degrees, changing the chemical 
nature of Agent Orange and, Walt claimed, rendering it non-toxic, usable 
for roads. Although despising protestors when he was in the Marines, 
Walt acknowledged he would not want to grow anything in this soil. Or 
breathe in its fumes.

I learned a simple formula: dioxin is a byproduct of Agent Orange. 
Dioxin adheres to earth. Contaminated soil gets incorporated into 
grasses on which cattle graze or into ponds and streams where ducks swim 
that are later eaten. The consequences to human health are not so 
simple: lung cancer, diabetes, lymphoma, leukemia, kidney disease and 
mental disorders. I stood beside a creek and felt my mouth burn. Could 
this be real, I asked myself, or just a hypochondriac over-reaction?

After leaving the Da Nang airbase we passed rice paddies that reminded 
me of chessboards of green squares. In many, three-sided boxes that 
looked like brightly painted dollhouses were mounted on poles; 
traditional markers for graves of family members to keep them close to 
their fields. At Quang Tri's Cemetery of Fallen Combatants, white 
gravestones each with gold star emblazoned on a red circle brought to my 
mind a poem from World War I I'd memorized in grade school: /We are the 
Dead. Short days ago we lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow, loved and 
were loved but now we lie in Flander's fields./ I became a widow in 
2006.  I've been best friends with inconsolable grief. In 2013 and now 
remarried, I wandered the cemetery remembering the 3,000,000 Vietnamese 
and 58,000 U. S. soldiers who died. But even the graveyards of Quang Tri 
could not prepare me a classroom at Friendship Village, one of many such 
complexes throughout Viet Nam. Strung on a blue banner across the front 
of a classroom into which we were ushered, these words appeared in 
capital letters,




/Da Nang 31/01/2013/

This trip had been fast paced but now time slowed. I hate the word 
victim but in this case it felt apt. The Center director, a man half my 
size, legs bent and body contorted, informed our group that 1,400 
intellectually disabled children lived in the Da Nang area. I sat among 
them: girls and boys, faces and backs of heads flat, eyes slanted in 
that recognizable way, some with feet deformed and four toes and one 
little girl, her body perfect but she was at best three feet tall. This 
girl appeared ageless, with an expression under her straight brown hair 
and pixie face of such unbearable sadness it broke my heart. The other 
children laughed and clapped, she did not join in or smile, as if she 
understood she had been cheated of a normal life by toxic chemicals 
leeched into and poisoning the soil of her community two generations 
before she had been born. I believe, although I have no evidence of 
this, that this girl realized whatever chance at normality she may have 
possessed had she been born into another body had been cruelly taken 
from her by military decisions made in the United States forty years 
ago. I was unable to join the raucous Gangnab style dance the other 
children and my compatriots enjoyed. The girl disappeared, as if unable 
to tolerate the fun-loving intensity disabled children can muster. I am 
responsible for the tragedy of this life, I told myself. Yet I felt 
powerless to act.

Judy and Nancy at the Ho Chi Minh Mauseoleum, Hanoi, 2013. Photo by 
Steve Whitman. 

/Judy and Nancy at the Ho Chi Minh Mauseoleum, Hanoi, 2013. Photo by 
Steve Whitman./

*          *          *

Like his male compatriots, Oanh had dressed for our farewell celebration 
in June of 1970 in his usual gray pants and white shirt; our women 
guides wore carefully preserved au dai's of faded reds and blues. I knew 
the population suffered war-related food shortages yet the banquet in 
our honor felt sumptuous; a traditional gesture of gratitude. Spring 
rolls fried a delicate brown, bright red prawns, steaming bowls of Pho 
served concurrently with fish braised in brown sauce plus a beige 
vegetable cut in fantastical shapes that gave off what was to me an 
alien scent. A dessert of ripe yellow pineapple came accompanied by 
slices of fruit, its white flesh speckled with tiny black seeds as if an 
ironic Mother Nature had created a pellet bomb of peace and friendship 
just for us.

I also knew my job when I returned to the United States would be to 
bring back what I'd learned about the humanitarian consequences of war. 
But how to do that? I was especially bothered by how I would negotiate 
the factionalism and identity politics that were creating necessary but 
to my mind unfortunate splits within peace movement ranks. As if 
anticipating my confusion, Oanh answered in his goodbye speech, telling 
Nancy, Genie and I to keep the long term view in mind. He said,

"Be good to friends who are good to you; also be good to friends who are 
bad to you, for only friends will go with you on the long road to 

To this day I try to follow Oanh's advice; the first is easy, it's the 
second part remains a challenge. Oanh went on to recount a story told to 
him by his father. "You must not wait until the score is achieved to 
know who is the real hero," Oanh's father had said. Oanh had repeated 
this sentence when he buried his father and, as he put it, "pledged to 
look at life with the same eye."  He concluded, "I would not wait until 
revolution is achieved in America to know that you represent the 
future." In 1970, I could not have asked for a more inspirational farewell.

On Friday, January 21, 2013, the 40th anniversary of the Paris Peace 
Accords, Nancy and I emerged from our bus to the music of a military 
band, then were guided past an honor guard, up a red carpet into a vast 
auditorium. Across the aisle from me sat a group of older men in white 
uniforms, all gray haired and balding, plus one woman in green military 
garb. Medals, ribbons and red stars gleamed on every chest.  An 
impromptu peace ambassador from the former Woodstock Nation, I made my 
way down their row and shook each hand. "Thank you, thank you," I said 
in English. They beamed with delight.

Mme. Nguyen Thi Binh and a frail diplomat named Van Loi were escorted to 
an oversized stage, where they stood behind by red velvet curtains on 
which hung a giant gold star, hammer and sickle. A gold bust of Ho Chi 
Minh, three times their size gazed down. As a 'red diaper baby,' I 
understood the symbolism: If Ho's bust resembled a Hollywood Oscar, the 
Heroic Award of Armed Forces Mme. Binh and Van Loi received would be 
equivalent to a Lifetime Achievement Award. At 86, Mme Binh is now the 
only living Vietnamese signer of the Paris Peace Accords. She had been 
foreign minister of the Provisional Revolutionary Government of South 
Viet Nam, headed the PRG delegation at the Paris Peace Accords, had been 
a leader of the Viet Nam Women's Union and my personal hero.

Judy and Mme Binh, 2013. Photo by Nancy Kurshan. 

/Judy and Mme Binh, 2013. Photo by Nancy Kurshan./

To the accompaniment of a classical orchestra, images began to flash on 
a giant screen: young Ho with wispy beard; destroyed buildings and 
pagodas surrounded by metal remnants of B52 bombers; peasants in rubber 
tire sandals guiding war materiel down the Ho Chi Minh trail; Mme Binh 
signing the Accords; devastation caused by Nixon's subsequent carpet 
bombing of Cambodia and Laos, and, to conclude, victorious tanks from 
the North entering Saigon.  As the film unfolded, dancers filled the 
stage like red, blue and yellow butterflies. The music slowed. A line of 
young women and men appeared; they were not Vietnamese, they were 
dressed as hippies, one of whom played an air guitar as if he was Bob 
Dylan. The group began to sing, in English, the international anti-war 
standard, 'Ho Ho Ho Chi Minh. Such public recognition of our movement's 
efforts made me understand my job in 2013: to convey as best I could the 
thanks and gratitude of the Vietnamese government to everyone who 
protested the American war in Viet Nam.

After the ceremony, I attended a banquet. As did Mme Binh. Her walk was 
steady; her eyes shone behind her glasses. I had carried with me from 
the United States a black and white photograph of a women's anti-war 
demonstration at the 1972 Republican Convention in Miami. /Women In 
Revolt, Sisters Unite!/ I'm in the front line of demonstrators, pounding 
out a militant beat on a wooden drum I'd slung over my shoulder. To my 
left is a woman later identified as a police agent. To my right is Patty 
Oldenberg (then wife of the artist Claus Oldenberg.) Patty wears what I 
once called the Mme. Binh Livlikker t-shirt. Above a graphic of Mme. 
Binh's head, the word 'LiveLikeHer' appears: an outcome of a volunteer 
designer squishing the words 'Live Like Her' into a single silkscreened 
slogan. It may be a cliche but as I approached Mme. Binh's table, I 
changed into that young woman in 1970 in the presence of my hero. I 
handed Mme. Binh the photograph, and told her that my female anti-war 
compatriots and I had done our best to live like her. I said, "Thank you 
for all you have done."

"And we will continue to do it," she replied, then squeezed my hand.

A socialist-oriented market economy with Starbucks and a Ho Chi Minh 
City stock exchange may not be the type of independence I'd envisaged 
for Viet Nam when I first demonstrated against the war. Still, if I 
follow the example set by Mme. Binh, I will hang onto my ideals of the 
Vietnamese as revolutionary heroes, yet stay open to whatever future 
they determine for themselves.

/*Judy Gumbo Albert* who was recently identified in the San Francisco 
Chronicle as "one of Berkeley's well-known traditional rabble-rousers," 
published her award-winning piece "Bugged" about being surveilled by the 
FBI in The Times They Were A-Changing: Women Remember the 60's and 
70's, She Writes Press (2013). Judy was an original member of the 
Yippies, co-authored The Sixties Papers: Documents of a Rebellious 
Decade (1984) with her late husband Stew Albert, contributed to Sean 
Stewart's On the Ground, P.M. Press (2011), has written for Counterpunch 
Magazine and Rag Blog and is currently completing Yippie Girl, a memoir 
in progress about love and conflict among the romantic revolutionaries 
of the late 1960s. /


Susan Sontag: Trip to Hanoi, Fararr, Strous and Giroux, New York 1968

Nick Turse: Kill Anything That Moves: The Real American War in Viet Nam, 
Henry Hold and Company, New York 2013

Susan Hammond, War Legacies Project www.warlegacies.org 

Freedom Archives 522 Valencia Street San Francisco, CA 94110 415 
863.9977 www.freedomarchives.org
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