While I was in Mississippi, a United States destroyer in North Vietnam’s Tonkin Gulf had a run-in with three North Vietnamese patrol boats. President Johnson was looking for an excuse to send more troops into South Vietnam and to start bombing the North. The day after the run-in, he gathered congressional leaders and accused North Vietnam of “open aggression on the high seas.” On August 11th, Congress authorized him to take “all necessary measures to repel any armed attack against the forces of the United States and to prevent further aggression.” Only two senators voted against the Tonkin Gulf Resolution. Every major media organization except Pacifica and the far left press whipped up a frenzy of support.
On February 7th, 1965, Johnson began bombing North Vietnam on the long discredited theory that you can bomb a nation into submission. World War II military studies on the effect of massive bombing campaigns showed that civilians become more dependent on their governments when they are bombed. Massive bombing also didn’t stop the production of German war supplies. In fact, Germany produced more tanks and machine guns in 1945 than at any time during the war. They couldn’t get them to the front, because the super highways and railroads they used for transport were susceptible to bombing. North Vietnam moved its war supplies on bicycles and elephants on the Ho Chi Trail. Bombing elephant trails with B-52s was like swatting mosquitos with sledge hammers.
International observers, particularly the French, said the United States’ escalation was a mistake. North Vietnamese leader Ho Chi Minh was popular and South Vietnam leaders represented a tiny corrupt, opium dealing oligarchy in league with the Catholic Church. If elections had taken place in 1954 as mandated by the French/Vietnam peace agreement, no one doubted that Ho Chi Minh would have won the whole country. The same was true in 1964.
The French fought the Vietnamese for ten years before withdrawing in 1954. As colonial masters they knew the culture, had an administrative apparatus and local contacts. It didn’t do them any good. French journalists pointed out that Vietnam’s northern neighbor, China, had invaded repeatedly for a thousand years, but the Vietnamese kicked them out every time.
The United State media told an entirely different story, based on the usual handouts from the State Department. According to them, Ho Chi Minh was not popular and North Vietnam was on the verge of economic collapse. Time Magazine announced that Ho Chi had ordered people to work only a half day, because hunger was so pervasive.
In March, the first US combat troops went into Vietnam, 3, 500 marines. Students for a Democratic Society held their first teach-in against the war and later that spring the first march on Washington to oppose the war. With 25,000 people, most of them students, SDS called it the largest peace march in American history.
I wanted to talk to the North Vietnamese, but they had no representatives in the Unites States. When WBAI was given a grant to cover a Women Strike For Peace’s delegation attending the 1965 World Peace Congress, I jumped at the chance.
The conference was held from July 10 through 15th in Helsinki, Finland. Delegates representing every communist country and party in the world attended: bearded revolutionaries from the mountain of Latin American and rain forests of Asia, artists, poets, writers, members of parliament from Western Europe. Of the 500 people from 98 different countries, the largest delegation was from the United States, almost 100 Quakers, Episcopalians, Methodists, members of Women Strike for Peace, the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom and a few union members.
It was a heady experience for the Americans who attended. The delegates I met seemed ordinary, middle class American housewives. One of them whispered in exasperation after endless speeches denouncing US foreign policy, “If I hear ‘aggressive American imperialism’ in one more foreign language, I think I’ll scream!”
Members of the North Vietnamese delegation told me that tales of a country on the brink of collapse were nonsense. They were doing fine. I asked why, if things were so great, hadn’t North Vietnam allowed Western reporters in to see for themselves. No American reporters had been to North Vietnam since the Vietnamese kicked the French out in 1954.
The head of the youth delegation asked me if I would like to visit. I said I would. Other members of the delegation told me this was no idle comment. They had been thinking of opening up and my request would be taken seriously. I should wait for word but not tell anyone of my plans. “Don’t expect a decision quickly. We are taking the train hack to Hanoi. The head of the delegation hates airplanes.” They would travel across Asia on the Trans Siberian railway, and then down through China and across the mountains into Vietnam, a two-week rail trip.
As the hot New York summer dragged on, I came to believe that no invitation would be forthcoming. Then, in mid August, I received an unsigned international telegram. “Be at #6 Rue de Venuse at 5:00 pm on August 15th.”
I called Victor Rabinowitz, a progressive attorney whose family ran a foundation that provided funding for progressive causes. I hinted that I had an invitation to “a communist county.” Victor stopped me before I could say any more and asked me to meet him at his law firm on 42nd Street.
Victor knew of my interest in Southeast Asia. He appeared the moment the receptionist announced me and motioned me back into the elevator while holding a finger to his lips to keep me from speaking. We rode down silently three floors where Victor led me into the men’s room. After we inspected the stalls, I explained the situation in front of the urinals. Victor already had figured it all out and he handed me $5,000 in cash and advised me to tell no one about the trip.
I told the staff at WBAI that I was burned out and needed a break. I was going to Paris for a couple of weeks and would take a tape recorder with me just in case. It was a difficult time at the station and everyone was super pissed that I was leaving.
I flew to Paris on Saturday night, checked into a hotel Sunday morning and slept until noon. With time on my hands until the five o’clock meeting, I savored the sense of coming adventure. I felt I was being given an opportunity like that given to Edgar Snow, who followed Mao Ts Tung on the Long March in China and returned to the United States to write about it, shifting some opinions about the nature of the communist rebellion. I was not fearful. The possible consequences of violating the State Department’s explicit ban on travel to North Vietnam seemed trivial compared to the journalistic scoop I was about to get.