Who Stole My Country 70 – The Bombing Campaign

Hanoi-StreetHanoi was hot and crowded. Pedicabs, ox carts, bicycles and a few motor vehicles jammed the streets. The sidewalks and stores were full of shoppers. Fifty Thousand women and children had been evacuated from Hanoi, but the exodus didn’t seem to make a noticeable difference in population density and women and children made up their share of the crowds.

Men wore light cotton shirts and loose tan slacks. Women wore traditional baggy pants and tightly fitted dresses slit up the sides. Men and women sat at long tables in cafes under the glow of single, naked light bulbs drinking beer or tea and eating bowls of rice with fried meat and vegetables. Others rummaged about in the sparse merchandise or toiled in workshops over handicraft production. Our hosts told us that only half of North Vietnam’s goods were produced by modern industry.

The old native section of Hanoi was a jumble of homes and shops in a dozen imitation French styles, carelessly mixed together on twisting, narrow streets. The former French Quarter was still elegant with rows of 19th century French mansions sitting well back from shaded boulevards. They had become government offices or foreign embassies.

We stayed in the old Metropole Hotel, a meeting place for French colonialists until 1954.  In 1965 the colorful uniforms of French officers, the elegant dresses of their wives, the priests and western journalists were gone.  The Metropole, renamed the Unity, was full of Asians, a few Africans and some Eastern European technicians.

As I lay in bed before getting up at six, I could hear groups of young people singing as they returned from militia training in the countryside. Preparations for war went on all night and day. Groups of young people dismantled and reassembled rifles in parks. Others studied detailed models of U.S. aircraft and took aim at miniature, simulated American jets gliding down guide wires secured to rooftops.

North Vietnam, as her leaders were quick to point out, was poor. Her shops had essentials but few luxuries.  As a youth leader told me in Hanoi’s major department store looking at a pile of ugly suitcases, “consumer goods are neither of good quality nor fashionable.” Then he continued more proudly, “but we make 90% of them ourselves and preserve our foreign exchange for heavy industry.”

The division of Vietnam in 1954 confronted the North with a food shortage. Traditionally the South exported rice to the North and the North provided coal for the South. Without the South, North Vietnam had to develop its own agriculture. And it used agricultural surplus to fund industrialization. This required sacrifice. Party theoretician Le Duan gave some idea of how far this went when he said in 1962, “There will be no harm if we temporarily abstain from eating sweets made of groundnuts and export them instead to pay for machines.”

Leaders claimed food production had increased by 50% in the last 11 years and that the share of industry in total production had risen from 17% to 50% since 1955.  No one seemed to be starving in North Vietnam.

The destruction outside of Hanoi reminded me of the Germany I saw in 1955.   In fact, before it Bombed-Vietnam-Villagewas over we dropped more tonnage of bombs on tiny Vietnam that we dropped during all of WW II. 

I spent two days in Thanh Hoa province. Many of the roads and towns were partially destroyed. There were always planes and flashes of bombs or ack-ack somewhere in the sky. The Vietnamese called these areas under attack “the front.” There they applied their experience of more than twenty years of warfare against the French. Traffic moved at night without lights, cities were evacuated during the day.  Hospitals and schools were dispersed throughout the countryside.

We left for Thanh Hoa late one afternoon with two translators, Quy Du and Trung Hieu, and several others in two heavily camouflaged Soviet jeeps. Most Vietnamese are remarkably engaging people, personally kind and gentle. I frequently marveled at the smiles they used while telling stories of torture and destruction as if to say, “Yes, such things do happen, but we will not let the brutality of others destroy our humanity, will we?”

The old French military road to the south, lined with young trees, was crowded all night with carts, bicycles and trucks filled with produce. Water buffalo, tended by small children riding their backs, grazed on the strip of grass next to the pavement. Farmers in conical hats worked in the paddies. Fishermen flung nets over the ponds against a late afternoon sun. Modern and ancient tools were used side by side. In one field two young women stood with a basket suspended between them on a long rope. They swung the basket into an irrigation ditch, over the dike and into the field, rhythmically filling the paddy with water, a basketful at a time, as their ancestors had done for centuries. In the next field an electric pump did the same job in minutes.

NGS3475 61A

NGS3475 61A

The towns along the highway were bustling and cheerful. The Vietnamese seemed to take the American air strikes in stride. Nguyen Cu, the young chairman of the Thanh Hoa Youth Federation told me later, “We still try to live as we used to. On moonlight nights we meet outside to sing and dance. When it rains we meet inside with lamps. And if Johnson comes we have a special leaf we carry to conceal the light.” The Vietnamese call the bombing planes “Johnsons.” Cu added, “we live at night now, but we still have the cinema and more artists and singers come from Hanoi than before. So you see it is the same.”

But of course it was not the same. 

We drove through Nam Dinh, North Vietnam’s third largest city and a new industrial center at dusk. From the jeep I saw a bombed pagoda, a partially destroyed hospital and a school yard full of craters.  The famous Nam Dinh Textile Factory built by the French was a jumble of twisted, bombed out buildings. But I was most struck by the working class homes around the-factory which had been leveled to a pile of charred bricks and bamboo for blocks in every direction.

There are many bridges between Hanoi and Thanh Hoa. Three of the four major ones had been destroyed. One of these was almost rebuilt. Another has been replaced by a pontoon bridge that was floated out at dusk and hidden under the trees at dawn. The third, the Ham Rong rail bridge, was still serviceable. Traffic moved slowly but steadily to the front. The railroad paralleling the highway was busy all night.

Thanh Hoa province had been heavily hit. At Hospital Number 71 which was destroyed in three raids on July 8th, I talked with its Vice Director Nguyen That. That said the thirty building complex had been a research and treatment center for tuberculosis. Now it was a skeleton against the morning sky. Forty doctors and patients were dead.

We visited the Dai Thang agricultural co-op. It was simply a cluster of buildings in the middle of rice paddies far from any possible military target. Pham Van Ky, the old peasant who was chairman of the Party committee, reminded me of agricultural workers in California or rural Mississippi. He had a natural dignity and warmth, but his eyes never left your face as he watched your reaction. “Illiteracy has been wiped out,” he said, “the old people have a shirt on their back and they know they will get their bowls of rice. One out of every ten families has mosquito netting.” While we took notes, the other villagers looked on, shyly smiling in proud confirmation of what he said. “There were four raids in 45 days. Twenty children between three months and ten years were killed. Fifteen elderly people were killed. One hundred twenty-nine houses were destroyed; 200 were damaged. Three cows, one buffalo, and one horse were killed and we lost one bicycle.”

Every large building we saw in Thank Hao had been targeted in U.S. raids.  In response,  North Vietnam dispersed its hospitals and schools throughout small villages.  In one such small hospital we talked with a ten year old boy who had lost his legs above the knees while he was playing in his school yard; a 27 year old woman, seven months pregnant, caught on the highway during a raid, her back was broken; a young man who was planting rice when his insides were torn out.

I had expected to find great anger and bitterness in the Vietnamese.  There was surprisingly little, and most of it was directed against Taylor, McNamara, Rusk and Johnson.  Johnson took the brunt of it.  When the planes come the tiny children run through the streets shouting, “John ‘s coming!”  As one Vietnamese said to me with great compassion, “It must be so difficult to live in your country.”

One response to “Who Stole My Country 70 – The Bombing Campaign

  1. Great, visceral reporting! Time traveling, even. This is one of my favorite episodes so far.

    Saw TRUMBO on flight to Europe last month and thought of you.

    best, tim & jess & jordan

    >

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