Before we left the front, we spent the afternoon in a pine forest in the hills of Thanh Hoa with a group of young people who asked us about the peace movement in the United States. They had a surprisingly detailed knowledge of it. Everyone knew of Alice Herz, the American who burned herself with gasoline, emulating the Buddhists, to protest the war in Vietnam. They vastly over estimated the strength of the American peace movement.
That evening we sat under a crescent moon together. We talked about many things, barely mentioning the war. I asked one girl what she looked for in a man and she replied, “a fighting spirit.” They took our hands later and sang us songs, mainly about love., “You see our girls are very militant,” Hieu said, “but when it comes to music they prefer romantic songs.”
We had our nearest aid raid that evening. They rushed us over to a shelter and we stood by the entrance watching the brilliant flares in the sky and the bursts of rockets and ack-ack. It made us realize that some of these young people would be dead before the war was over. We said goodby in the middle of the night on the edge of the Song Chu River. The stars were bright and clear as they usually are only from the highest mountains. We could see rockets and flares in the distance.
Someone in Vietnam discovered that a rifle bullet can bring down a jet. Now the
Vietnamese put scores of people in trenches and fill the air with bullets when planes pass over. I have no idea how much military value these rifles have, but they have an enormous psychological effect. Everyone can now take part in the national defense. There is no question but that most do so willingly.
The only complaints I heard against the government were from young people who wanted to be released from school to join the Viet Cong. There is an intense nationalism in Vietnam today. The intellectuals go back into Vietnamese history and glorify the heroes of the resistance against the Chinese, the first a woman who defied the Chinese in 400 AD. The youngsters long to emulate the revolutionary exploits of their ancestors.
The Vietnamese proudly wear a shirt made of their own, domestically produced cloth. When the textile factory that made the shirt was bombed it was a personal affront. The dams that are bombed were built by hundreds of people who worked for days with shovels and baskets to create an irrigation system. A dam is part of the community in a way that no power company dam built by bulldozers can ever be.
I asked many people how they thought the war would end. Most were confident of ultimate victory. Victory, a university student told me, “means that we want to be left alone to settle our own affairs.” The Vietnamese that I met were in no mood to negotiate. There was a story making the rounds in North Vietnam attributed to Ho Chi Minh. “Look, a bandit breaks into your house, steals half your belongings, kills part of your family, and then sits down and says, ‘let’s negotiate.’ Well, do you talk to him or kick him out?”
We saw Ho twice, once at the 20th anniversary of independence where he sat on the stage with his jacket open and his sandals off in amazing though dignified informality. The second time we were at the opera and Ho came in without causing any disturbance and sat in the last row of the first section of the orchestra. You see fewer pictures of Ho in Hanoi that you see of Johnson in Washington. While there seems to be no “cult” around him, there seems to be deep affection.
We were unable to meet Ho, but we interviewed Premier Pham Van Dong for about an hour. Dong, who extended the President’s apologies to us, is one of his closest and oldest associates. He was waiting at the bottom of the steps to the Presidential Palace when our car arrived, dressed like every Vietnamese in a cotton shirt, pants and sandals without a tie or jacket. We had tea in the grand reception room, but the Premier soon took us back outside where he answered our questions while we strolled through the gardens. He was very much the French intellectual, extremely urbane and witty. While he made no new statement to us, he spoke with conviction about the course of the war and insisted that the United States must accept the principles of Vietnamese unity, sovereignty, and independence before negotiations could take place.
As we drove to the airport early on the morning we left North Vietnam, Truc, the head of the Youth Federation, said, “you will tell the American people about Vietnam.” I nodded. “You know,” he added, “this war can only be ended by the people of both our countries.”