Filed under: Viet Nam
From Volunteer to Activist: Resignation as Protest and Growth 1963 – 1967
It was only a few days after arriving in Viet Nam’s delta city, My Tho some thirty miles south of Saigon that I first came face to face with war. It was Sunday morning and my language study was plodding ahead. I had memorized the words and could chant the five tones of Vietnamese words but was not ready to hear or speak sentences. Overhead there was the sound of helicopters. I left the house and followed their movement in the air to a nearby athletic field. When I walked to the field I saw them disgorging the victims of war. I saw stretchers, blood, bodies and hurried people transporting victims. I had arrived in Viet Nam.
The scene festered in my consciousness. I would see it repeated in Saigon, Long Khanh, Nha Trang, Qui Nhon, Kontum, Da Nang and other airports over the next four and half years of my time with IVS in Viet Nam (July 1963 – October 1967). I came from a Mennonite home where we were not even allowed to play with guns. Childhood games of cops and robbers were safe at school far from the watchful eye of parents. I knew implicitly that I had crossed the line buried somewhere from the generations of Mennonites that preceded me. Those voices decrying organized violence and warfare fluttered within as my virgin eyes absorbed the impact of real victims in a 1960s style war. The context was set, “How do I make sense of life and death where the terms of survival, meaning and culture don’t forbid killing?”
THE IVS OF 1963
The organizational culture of IVS Viet Nam was never neatly summarized into a few easy rules. We were encouraged to learn the language, listen to the people, help the people, learn from their ways, drink lots of tea, think critically, and then go back and learn from the people again. That’s what came across to me and most of us internalized those notions within a few weeks of being in Viet Nam. What I learned from my time as a student of Vietnamese was that there is a complex vibrant world out there which I would never understand in full but glimpsed enough to give real life and content to my walk with the Vietnamese people. Years later my greatest compliment would be from the common people who overheard my speech and would say, “Good Heavens, that is an American and he speaks real Vietnamese.” That was what I wanted to hear. Only a few in the US Army, the press or the civilian advisers studied Vietnamese seriously.
In August 1963 when I was assigned to Long Khanh province, an hour north of Saigon where the rubber plantations were still producing latex, my confidence that I could fulfill the IVS culture of engagement with the Vietnamese people was still low. Quat, my translator accompanied me everywhere. I worried that he must be bored with my questions, my curiosity my inability to read the signs on people’s faces and bodies. My language was too underdeveloped then to ask him why he translated one sentence and not another, why he said it this way and not another. I later learned what they were doing when I watched the growing corp of Vietnamese translators scurry to keep up with the flood of American military and civilian advisers. I would learn that you gain as much insight from what is not translated as by what is translated. Eight months later when Quat left to join another IVS green horn I was still struggling to make sense of Viet Nam. I could only listen and listen and try to keep my need to get things done at bay long enough to get a picture of what was happening.
The American overseas culture, fed by persistent press reports in those days, told us the Vietnames were corrupt and their government couldn’t get things done. I was told by the local Major in the Long Khanh MACV compound (Military Assistance Command Viet Nam) “Watch out for these bastards! You never know if you can trust anyone.” We were told people everywhere, and especially government workers, would steal food, money, gasoline, construction materials, anything out there. I was encouraged to count every piaster that the cook took to market to purchase our food. Americans in Viet Nam were indoctrinated with an ideology of suspicion.
In IVS we knew of some corruption but we were told to listen to the people and build relationships and then work from there. We did not see a corrupt bureaucrat behind every program. We saw future friends who might be able to teach us how to help people, who might see us as the carriers of something besides money or goodies. Our halting conversations were the first stages of protracted negotiations with Vietnamese to build confidence. We learned other symbolic vocabulary of actions, body language that create the lubrication for relationships to happen.
However I was a young American pacifist in a hurry to get schools built with the proper amount of cement, and sand, and teachers selected by a fair process. We were in Viet Nam to do something, to leave something behind. In my case it was to build 22 tiny one room hamlet schools where newly trained teachers could get children started in the arts of reading, writing and modern Vietnamese life.
Early on I learned that US AID money for the construction of the schools went from the National Ministry of Education through the Province Chief’s office to the District Chief who administered funds and contracts for these government programs. In 1963 we were in the midst of the Strategic Hamlet program that organized dispersed families in the countryside into fortified villages often with bamboo fences around them. Many of the schools were targeted for these hamlets. People hated leaving their traditional cluster of houses or isolated farms and being forced into strategic hamlets. Each hamlet was to have a self defense force.
One day when I made a first time visit to a hamlet where I had been told that a hamlet school was being built, the villagers were unusually silent and cool to me, not even a cup of tea. They weren’t even impressed with my halting Vietnamese. Then they showed me several bodies on the outside parameter, beyond the bamboo fences. “VC” they said.(VC referred to Viet Cong or Vietnamese communists) Quat my co-worker and translator said, “We better get out of here.”
“What happened”, I asked as we jumped into the car and sped away. “Last night there was a military engagement.” He said, “They probably think you are the enemy” We never went back and we never learned about the progress of that hamlet schools.
At that time I thought the VC were all on the outside of each strategic hamlet and that the friends of the government of Ngo Dinh Diem and his successors, the Generals were inside the bamboo fences. Later I learned to notice that something was up if I was not offered tea. I realized the neat divisions we had imported into Viet Nam by way of our media and government were blurred when we reached the strategic hamlet, a fortress set up to “save” the Vietnamese people. I learned that those stony faces, so unusual for Vietnamese peasants were probably due to the killing that had been visited on that hamlet by paramilitary forces or the Vietnamese military under heavy pressure from commanders and foreign advisers to show results.
In those early days I learned I had come to a nation that enjoyed more than 1000 years of history with an educated intellegentsia deeply rooted in Mandarin and Confucian values. By the time the French arrived in Viet Nam in the late 19th century, that system was showing signs of wear and ripe for reform. The nation was weak, and because of the failure of trained people, petty alliances were made with the colonial power. The crushing pain of foreign rule took hold. Despite this wound into the heart of Vietnamese culture, the value placed on education persisted.
Often I would go to traditional villages and find tiny bamboo schools, with worn and chipped blackboards, organized and paid for completely by local people. These independent initiatives had no connection that I could find with the national educational system. Their teachers received no subsidies and the schools were always overcrowded. Whenever I entered the village I was invited to the school. As I entered all the students stood to attention, much to my embarrassment. On the walls there were wise sayings from Confucius and other respected minds of the ages. Often the teacher would ask me to say something to the students. I would plead for the students to sit down and then tried to say something like greetings from American children.
As I began to understand this system, I was struck by the contrast. Here were villages with self supported, locally controlled schools bursting with students. In my program we wrung our hands trying to get hamlet schools built in a way that a portion of the cement and tin roofing was not stolen by a contractor. Everything moved so slowly. Once when I was visiting a construction site at the recommendation of a District Chief I kicked a school wall and a part of it fell down. “Wouldn’t President Johnson be proud of what U.S. dollars are doing here.” I thought.
Eventually some of the schools were built and teachers were developed under the guidance of the Ministry of Education. Often their pay was late and sometimes it didn’t come at all. I continued to be haunted by the contrast between dilapidated bamboo schools bursting with children in one village not targeted for “hamlet education” and the slow pace of the program that I was connected to. I came from a nation that prided itself in local control of schools, but when that nation went abroad the only way it could think of helping education was to push its help through a militarized bureaucracy that few people trusted. Several times I asked the local Provincial Office of the Ministry of Education why the new hamlet schools weren’t built like the traditional bamboo schools that seemed to be working so well. “We are developing a modern educational system” replied Mr. Thach, the branch chief of the Ministry of Education. When I asked the same question of the District Chief, usually a Army Captain, I was told that I didn’t understand how the Vietnamese system worked.
THE LANGUAGE OF WAR
Not all my time was spent drinking tea with villagers in the hamlet education program. Some twenty kilometers north of the agricultural experiment station where I lived with another IVSer, was Xuan Loc, site of one of the final battles of the war. Xuan Loc was the seat of the provincial government and for the twenty person MACV detachment. For many of us in IVS Viet Nam, it was a challenge to understand for the first time how the military operated. Occasionally I visited the MACV compound. Whenever I visited them they had a new list of villages that I should not visit. I learned quickly that I shouldn’t tell them everything I knew, because someone might bark a command at me and it wasn’t clear how much weight I should give to their generous advice. In an awkward sort of way they also respected me and coveted my civilian status, my flexibility and interest in helping the people. They were apparently not troubled by my pacifist notions. They learned somewhere in their systems that the pacifist position was a legal and accepted part of the American way.
As I watched them operate I noticed officers had their area and enlisted persons another. This struck me as peculiar because I thought that such separation introduced the possibility for mistrust in crisis. At that time I didn’t realize civilians like myself could hang out on either side of the divide but usually they would join the officers. I noticed that a certain black sargent seemed to do most of the work around the compound so I thought since he seemed so competent and friendly, he would soon move up in rank and join the officers. When I asked him when that would happen he said. “Stoltzfus let me take you aside and explain some things to you.” He showed me his arm patch with an insignia which he called Specialist Five. He told me if he moved up, he would become a Specialist Six but he would never become a Second Lieutenant, the lowest officer rank.
So began my education in military command structures, platoons, companies, regiments, divisions, corps and Generals and of course the units that didn’t quite fit anywhere like the Special Forces. By the time I left Viet Nam I became very good at recognizing how it worked and that everything came from the top down. I also learned that military compounds had lots of movies and they spent massive amounts of time doing paperwork to the blare of the ever present two way radio in the background. I thought if they would turn off a bit of their technology they might learn something worth putting in all those reports.
My relationships with the military detachment became more cumbersome in October 1963 when they insisted that we IVSers at the Experiment Station take two of their Thompson Submachine guns to our home to protect ourselves. They had information, they said, that there were VC in the area.
I had never even shot a gun let alone a machine gun. I couldn’t imagine shooting at someone else. Besides how could I justify a machine gun in the hands of pacifist? This was a new crisis thrust on me with no time to think it through. The two guns came to our house. I remember carrying mine from the jeep between my two fingers like a poison spider that would be better off dead. The gun was hidden away and forgotten until the MACV soldiers hurriedly came to rescue us in the wake of the coup that swept the Diem family from power in November 1963. I never allowed another gun in the IVS houses where I had responsibility.
In 1964 when I moved up the coast to Nha Trang I made many new friends with military people who were part of the build up following the Ton kin Gulf incident and learned to distinguish soldiers by their personalities and not only by their rank, or specialization. I was shocked by the number of soldiers who were just doing their time, apparently devoid of any sense of mission or conviction. Some of the military, held me in higher regard because of my pacifist position even though I did not carry the label on my uniform.
My ancestors going back generations had been ordained for church work. From an early age I was curious and interested in the work of the clergy and had completed almost two years at Goshen Biblical Seminary (Indiana) prior to going to Viet Nam. Occasionally I attended a local Evangelical Protestant Church in Xuan Loc but found it difficult to understand the Vietnamese church language so when Major Hayden at MACV invited me to join the military for worship one day I accepted. The military chaplain, a Lieutenant Colonel, flew in by helicopter with his little black bag of altar instruments and set them up in the compound. “What an amazing contradiction!” I thought, military people sent out to kill and maim Vietnamese gathered for worship of the Prince of Peace. I can’t recall a single word of the service but was struck by the colorful altar, not an accepted part of the worship formula in my rural Mennonite church. When it was over Major Hayden sauntered up to the Chaplain and in a deep booming voice said. “Colonel that was a hell of a worship. We needed that out here!” Well, I thought, that sure isn’t the way we ended worship services in Aurora, Ohio. Later in my time in Viet Nam I tried unsuccessfully to work with the Chaplains to find ways to improve the growing discontent among the troops, particularly as it was reflected in the avalanche of new bars, sexually transmitted diseases and
The experience of working with the U.S. Government military and civilian structures in Viet Nam was daunting. Every new unit, new adviser, new program meant new priorities and someone somewhere always thought that the IVSers should fit into the scheme. For every hard liner in the system I learned that there was a person with a heart. For every new counterinsurgency initiative, I learned that mostly things just continued to go the same way as they were before, no increased respect for the Vietnames, no increased ability to learn from the Vietnames, and little appreciation for the sense of national destiny of the Vietnamese people. During these times my convictions about pacifism and my search for less violent ways to get things done expanded.
THE LANGUAGE OF RELATIONSHIPS
One way in which some IVSers spent their evenings was visiting Vietnamese families. Those visits reminded us of the never ending need to perfect the language. We were not unmindful of the alluring qualities of Vietnamese women but of course no respectable Vietnamese women would ever be seen in public with a foreigner. That meant that our quest for feminine companionship was limited to the home. It was a neat fit as we learned to visit our special friends on a regular basis. We called our visits Vietnamese lessons. They were dutifully accompanied with books, tea and proper supervision from the parents.
After I moved to Nha Trang I got to know my neighbors, one of whom was a school teacher my age who seemed more than willing to help me with my Vietnamese while her parents sat at the distance or brought me snacks, coffee or pho, a wonderful Vietnamese noodle soup often eaten for breakfast or like fast food along the street. I knew the relationship was becoming very comfortable, but was not aware of just how far it had progressed until I prepared to leave Nha Trang for my home leave in the summer of 1965. Co Truc’s father went to a common friend and discreetly inquired of my intentions. “Did I?” he asked “intend to return to Nha Trang and marry his daughter.” I was in over my head but in my crude diplomacy tried to say that I would return to Nha Trang but that this was not the time to be married. I still think of Co Truc. She was really a good teacher and friend.
Earlier when I still lived in Xuan Loc I came to know another Vietnamese woman through work camps, a program of the National Voluntary Services. Co Nga came from a Vietnamese family with deep French connections and family members in France. It was a new experience for their family to meet a Westerner who could not speak French, tried to speak Vietnamese and was the same age as their youngest daughter. Co Nga had plans of going to France to study. With deep roots in Viet Nam’s colonial Catholic aristocracy, the family shared the profound strains they felt in trying to be good Vietnamese in the face of communist ideology and the cultural distance they felt with other Southern Vietnamese.
The victory of the Viet Minh under the leadership of Ho Chi Minh in 1954 led to the family’s flight to the south. The family prided itself in its French education and apparently enjoyed uncommon wealth, the source of which remained a mystery to me since the father was a recently retired government mid level manager. Families like Co Nga’s were in for a very hard time in Viet Nam. Their time had passed. The usefulness of their French connections were marginal. Some transferred their loyalties to the Americans. Others left for Europe as the war increased. Most were ill prepared for the long transition of Viet Nam from a highly politicized battlefield that lasted from 1945 to 1975 and the first real wisps of a reenergize unified Viet Nam apparent in the 1990s.
Already in 1963 I wondered if the Americanized Vietnamese would face as much difficulty as their French ancestors had in an earlier generation. In fact their situation was probably worse. Implicit in these thoughts was the acknowledgement that I was a citizen of a powerful colonial empire whose time had come and who would now enforce its own rules on the world order. All our talk of listening to the Vietnamese might be window dressing, for larger designs beyond the scope of my imagination. Co Nga wrote me lovely letters but my Vietnamese was not good enough to begin to understand the nuances. For help I turned to Quat my translator who advised me that if there was too much more talk of the moon in the letters this could get serious. That was a nice way to think about the moon, I thought.
By the summer of 1965 my confidence in being at home in Viet Nam and my enjoyment in the dance of relationships with Vietnamese people was at an all time high. We continued to follow the hamlet education program, but it was becoming increasingly apparent that we were being overwhelmed by a great tide of destruction that none of us could completely understand. One day I visited a hamlet school in a remote part of Kien Hoa province and was shown newly written signs all over the building, “Go Home American Imperialists! Viet Nam for Vietnamese!” I wondered if that was meant for me and if it was, I knew whoever wrote it was not distinguishing me from the other Americans, just like the Americans could not distinguish between Vietnamese. Despite being called an “imperialist” I decided to return to Viet Nam for another two year term, this time as the Team Leader or Coordinator of some 40 IVSers in the Southern Part of Central Viet Nam, then referred to as II Corps. The word “Imperialist” stuck in my throat. Was the hamlet education program an imperialist venture? IVSers were not imperialist, I insisted. We were a-political, and here to help the people.
By the time I returned from my home leave, preparations needed to be made for a large influx of IVSers in a planned major expansion. For years the IVS team in Viet Nam hovered between thirty and fifty people. Pressure from the U S government and the contracting agent, USAID, led to generous expansion of available funds and an influx of new volunteers. Many arrived fresh from campuses that were already deep into the discussions about the Viet Nam war. A few refused to register for the draft but many were represented a broad spectrum of young educated Americans with an occasional Canadian who came because they wanted to do some good in an otherwise dreadful situation. They were exceptional human beings and as we grew together in our knowledge of Viet Nam a profound tie of common purpose that mixed critical collaboration with the American government with deep connections to the Vietnamese bound us together.
My work was to seek out viable placements for these new workers, as English teachers, refugee workers and community development facilitators. The IVS experience in agriculture was firmly established. English teaching came later at about the same time as hamlet education which by mid 1965 had been pretty well absorbed into the National Ministry of Education. The Strategic Hamlet program had been absorbed by new waves of counterinsurgency initiatives all coming down through the chain from Washington.
As I traveled in the 10 provinces of II Corps, usually by Air America to support the IVS team, I was struck by the expanding U. S. presence. It seemed like every time I visited a province, the civilian USAID advisory group had expanded. Two way radio communication hissed in the background as I made my obligatory visits to those offices. Many of the offices were staffed by former IVSers, but as time went on other civilians, often persons with little experience in Viet Nam or former army officers began to fill the positions. I couldn’t help but notice that in several provinces there were villas where closed mouth American dressed in civilian clothes came and went. Neither Vietnamese nor Americans were quite sure, what they were doing. Their numbers also grew. Consciously, we had nothing to do with what was apparently one tip of a mountain of a vast intelligence gathering and covert operation taking root in Viet Nam.
When I entered these offices I tried to have quiet personal conversations with the Vietnamese staff from whom I would learn what all these folks were doing through the eyes of Vietnamese which I presumed to be the eyes that counted. Before long they would give me a crisp, humorous and frank evaluation of each person and program. They told me which officers or American personnel to be careful about. Often they would tell me what the local Vietnamese leadership thought of selected individuals. Because of the relative powerlessness and grass roots nature of IVS, the Vietnamese often found us to be curious permutation on the landscape of foreign influence. Our reputation as somewhat trustworthy allies sometimes preceded us.
Often I cautioned Vietnamese not to take jobs with the foreigners knowing all to well that this could lead to jealousy and eventual alienation from more nationalistic elements in the community. By this time, I learned the most vocal critics of American war policy in Viet Nam were often my most trusted advisers and friends. I learned that the people who operated out of a firm nationalist stance reflected a moral center which provided them with a framework to be consistent critics. One night during a long discussion in Saigon with a trusted non-communist nationalist friend I found myself saying something that even shocked me. I said, “I think that if I was a Vietnamese I would have to join the Viet Cong now that I see on every side the ugly face of my country’s intervention and what it is doing to the people morally, spiritually and physically as the refugee numbers grow.” These thoughts had been churning within me for some time, particularly after I personally witnessed the military build up in Nha Trang in the spring of 1965. That discussion led to a new bond of companionship.
During the next years I had time to sort out the dawn of this startling conviction. I had many questions. As a Christian pacifist was it any more inconsistent to critically ally oneself with the Viet Cong than it was to cooperate with my own government? By this time I had developed some criticism of my own for the pacifist tradition out of which I sprang, which so often defined pacifism narrowly as the decision not to enter the military. When I read the Bible I saw Jesus doing creative interventions, healings and actions that made the moral choices visible. I began to ask myself if I was as willing to die for my convictions as Vietnamese and American soldiers all around me were being asked to do. I was looking for a way to say yes to life instead of operating by static lines drawn by our church over the centuries. Later when I returned to theological studies, I realized my question was not a new question. During the most dynamic periods of creativity our churches had tried many ways to point to a different path. In fact many had died for their choices. I was coming to see myself as operating in that stream.
This dawning realization and conversion to active nonviolence (a term we did not use at that time) within me and among my colleagues in IVS, each of whom operated with their own unique framework, led us in the quest to define boundaries to our connections to the U S government. In the period from the summer of 1965 to 1967 as we witnessed the US presence grow to a half million soldiers with off shore Navy support and vicious bombing raids from as far away as Guam, the lines began to be drawn.
Social change often begins in small sometimes silly symbolic forms like draft card burnings, tiny demonstrations, animated conversations or petitions. For the IVS people the earliest symbol of our growing dis-ease were occasional discussion about our PX cards. PX privileges were automatically granted to IVSers by way of USAID and they provided access to cheap high quality merchandise through Defense Department operated stores set up primarily for GIs. Most of us didn’t live near PX stores but we found them tempting sources for cheap, well built goods or other supplies when we came to a major centers like Saigon. Many of the GIs sold PX items to Vietnamese to earn a higher rate on currency exchange. Vietnamese in turn sold the supplies in the market so most PX material was available anyway. The system contributed to corruption which Americans claimed to be against. This was at least one thing we could make a choice about. We felt that the PX and its accompanying black market led to dependency by Vietnames on the outside and undermined self-help features of the local economy.
The discussion about PX cards led to heated exchanges. Those informal discussion were raised in staff settings by me and others. Mostly the arguments occurred among IVS workers who were experiencing the effects of the war daily. Projects stalled because of a mixture of changed priorities and engagements on the battlefield.
The war came home to us even more in late 1965 when Peter Hunting, a member of the same group with whom I came to Viet Nam was killed in an ambush near Can Tho. Peter and I were as close as friends could be at the time. Our growth as people and in our walk with Vietnamese spanned the same period. Peter shared my disgust with the degradation of the Vietnamese people by what we felt were the worst characteristics of Americans. His loss broke my heart. The flight to Saigon for his memorial service on a C-123 was bathed in tears. Now I knew the feeling behind those wails and screams of Viet Namese families when they were informed of a loved one’s death on the battle field.
Finally, several of us destroyed our PX cards. A few others may have turned them in to the IVS administration to be returned to USAID. The final act of ridding ourselves of PX cards led to some angry exchanges and some polarization among IVSers. Now from the vantage point of more than thirty years I recognize in that relatively minor action, the seeds of human growth and change that often surround a nonviolent campaign; frustration, moral outrage, discussion, action, polarization, and more discussion. In IVS the feelings were very intense because people believed in what they were doing and anger some times spilled over. However as the stakes rose and the boundaries to our work continued to be drawn, we were always able to talk with each other.
Some time later many who were on completely opposite sides of the spectrum came to a common table to enjoy one another and the memories of how our convictions during that period unfolded. I learned an important lesson applicable for all my work for peace that followed my departure from Viet Name in October 1967. Every person must be given room to make their own decisions from their own center of strength. When we engage with one another we are each part of that longer term process. People change at their own pace. As one who has the gift of being in a hurry this is one lesson I am still learning.
LEARNING TO NEGOTIATE
The PX controversies receded into the background as more important issues impinged upon us. Our friends among the Vietnamese students, teachers and peasant communicated more of their outrage over the course of events. I was not directly involved with the students in Hue, the former imperial center of Viet Nam. In the wake of student protests and anti American demonstrations there, IVS was told by U.S. government authorities that we would no longer be permitted to place volunteers at the University. This came as a shock, but there was little we could do until the University opened again. Our friends at Hue University invited IVS to place another teacher there with the faculty. This led to direct confrontation with the U.S authorities and protracted negotiations carried on by Don Luce our IVS Viet Nam director with the U.S. embassy. Our position was that we were in Viet Nam to help the Vietnamese and to respond to their requests. Don argued that we were being forced to abandon our a-political stance if we did not respond positively by placing a teacher with the University. Eventually the decision was reversed and messages went up and down the line to keep U.S. official hands off the IVS people.
This was followed by a series of confrontations in the field where either senior military advisers or USAID officials grumbled about the failure of IVS people to cooperate with the “provincial team”. In Phan Thiet, Garson Sher, who later became an economist was directly ordered not to go to specific villages or to engage in certain activities. In his quiet firm way Garson brought his dilemma to me and Don Luce. Once again we took the matter to the US embassy and insisted on our operational independence in order to serve the Vietnamese people. Again the order was revoked.
Sometimes these matters rumbled all the way to IVS headquarters in Washington where Authur Gardiner, the executive director of IVS would bring them to his board and sometimes interceded in our behalf with senior authorities at the State Department. Gardiner, a former businessman and USAID official, had many friends in government who trusted that he would not allow his IVSers to get too far out of line. The absence of unified respect for the behavior and competence of USAID and the military in Viet Nam no doubt helped significantly in this process. Also by 1966 and 1967 there was clearly a rising tide of peace activity across the U.S. which created a new element in our equation.
Occasionally organizers and church leaders came to Viet Nam to get a first hand view of what was taking place. Often they had been advised to be in touch with the IVS people. Our connections with world wide criticism of US policy began to grow, although we carried cautious criticisms and confusion about the peace movement as we had come to learn about it in the media. We were also critical of the church for failing to take stronger critical stands regarding the treatment of Vietnamese people. In that early period we were generally unconnected with the peace movement. Our paths to critiquing the war were disconnected. We found an authentic appreciation for the Vietnamese either exaggerated or completely missing in the peace movement. They were legitmately responding to contradictions in American society.
DRAWING THE LINE
In the fall of 1966 our IVS staff gathered in Nha Trang for one of its regular staff gatherings to review plans, personnel placements and discuss policies. Some staff felt we were becoming too politicized. Don Luce explained a major proposal from Asia Foundation that would provide IVS with several million dollars over a multi year period to develop training centers for the tribal people in the highland provinces. IVSers had worked with tribal people since the beginning in 1955. Some spoke the language and several agricultural programs enjoyed considerable success. IVS currently helped direct one such center in Plaiku. I was familiar with the proposal and deeply suspected the proposal was another part of the counterinsurgency program. In IVS we were familiar with Asia Foundation work, and for years we visited their offices in Saigon where we were provided useful books for our projects and given encouragement in our work.
This proposal however seemed like a monumental step for us in terms of money and program responsibility. Why, I wondered after all these years had Asia Foundation discovered an interest in the mountain people. I knew of no particular history of Asia Foundation involvement there. While the Foundation occasionally provided small grants for projects, particularly at Universities and perhaps small development grants this seemed like a quantum jump. Would this change our relationship with the Vietnamese and the tribal people? Why would we want to handle so much money? Would this mean more oversight from the American government? Was this something the tribal people had asked for? Was it something the Vietnamese government wanted? Was there a hidden hand in this offer?
Our discussion about the offer regarding Asia Foundation dominated an entire day of the meeting. The discussion ranged from money, to relationships with Vietnamese to the gathering storm of the war. Our discussion was fair but animated. One argument long held by IVSers was that the source of money didn’t matter. We could take it and clean it up. Some questioned the wisdom of us handling so much money when we felt we could accomplish what we set out to do without big money. The day wore on and there was no agreement. There were thirteen of us in the meeting. Finally Don Luce our Viet Nam director suggested that we vote on the matter so that we could move on to other things. We agreed to vote. I argued strongly to turn down the Asia Foundation offer.
Six people voted for accepting the money. Six people voted against accepting the money. “The vote is evenly split,” said Don, “That means that I will have to cast the deciding vote. I feel that it is best for IVS not to take the grant from Asia Foundation.”
The particular discussion was over, but polarization over IVS work would not end. The decision added more heat to our discussions in IVS. Years later we learned that Asia Foundation was one of several institutions set up and completely controlled by the CIA. I believe our a-political stance gave us more wisdom to read the signs of the times than we even credited ourselves for at the time. We made this decision based on our relationship with the Vietnamese people. We were learning to follow our hunches even when those hunches could not yet be put into crisp intelligible phrases.
The decision on Asia Foundation combined with the rising pressure for IVS cooperation in the provinces and the growing tide of war criticism from outside and from volunteers, gave us courage that we may survive with a special identity even in the midst of the war. The old guidelines of listening to the Vietnamese, making suggestions based on their priorities continued to serve us well. We often found ourselves dreaming of the day when Viet Nam would be at peace, when we could travel unmolested by military operations or security concerns to any village. We even dreamed of the time when we could travel by train from Hanoi to the delta. We envisioned a time when we could do real development in partnership with the Vietnamese. As the war intensified our dreams became even more disconnected from reality. The war and American insistence that it must make things come out right just grew. There seemed to be no end, no voice of reason coming down from Washington, no sense of connectedness to the Viet Nam we knew.
In the months before my home leave in 1967, I became Interim Director of IVS while Don spent two months in the US strengthening the resolve of our Washington office to support us in our quest for independence from the American invasion. We sent occasional emissaries to IVS Laos to keep them abreast of our work as one confrontation with the US authorities led to another. On the face of it, Laos was much quieter but IVS there was more integrated into the total American “mission”.
With my move to Saigon I felt the daily pressure of IVSers as they passed through our offices to get with the team. Many assignments simply did not work out due to the war. Some IVSers talked of leaving early.
My own struggle was a more personal one, that first surfaced when I admitted to my Vietnamese friend that I respected the struggle of the VC (now more correctly referred to by me and others as the National Liberation Front). A voice within me began to beg for a stronger clearer condemnation of the war, an action that might reach inside the offices of Congress, maybe even the Oval Office. Our message was not getting through. The media still liked to write about us as the good Americans in an otherwise confusing situation. We never thought of ourselves as morally superior but we did want to do what was right. But how were we to say it without being dismissed like the rest of the peace movement? How could we speak with the special authority given to us by way of the voices of the Vietnamese people?
Nothing within the parameters of my personal training or experience had prepared me for this. I called upon my faith. I wrestled with what the right thing to do would be. I found myself taking more and more quiet walks. I could leave quietly and melt back into American society? I could try to gain the attention of the Saigon press corps but I was not a writer and media was foreign territory to me. Did I really want to give up the responsibilities and opportunities of IVS Vietnam? What about all the lucrative government job offers? What did I have to go back to? There was no clear way. I only knew that I was moving somewhere into the unknown. Early in the summer of 1967, I confided to Don Luce that I may need to take some action to resolve my troubled conscience. All of this was occurring while I agreed to return to Saigon for a third two year term with IVS. The decision I was struggling with, had little to do with IVS. I liked IVS, my co-workers and the Vietnamese. I even enjoyed flexing my muscles occasionally with US officials. My growing conviction was that I needed to make the strongest, most effective statement possible to draw attention to the tragedy of US policy in Viet Nam. That’s what I had to do.
Before I left for vacation in Laos by way of Bangkok in August 1967 I at least knew what the question was. I didn’t know the next step. I traveled by train, third class from Bangkok to the border town across the Mekong from Vietienne and then I hitched a series of car rides and buses to the Southern Laotian city of Pakse. Nestled along the Mekong river Pakse was one of those international oddities of the time. Laos was ostensibly neutral and that meant that goods from both sides of the world, communist and noncommunist were available there in the market. I looked at those cans of food and other products and saw how they peacefully awaited their appointed customer beside one another evidently without fuss or war. As the day for my departure drew near I went to the rooftop of my tiny provincial hotel and began to think about my next steps. I watched the American war planes circle overhead. After they passed going towards their bombing runs on the border with Viet Nam in the distance I could hear the bombs explode, a jolting contrast to the peaceful marketplace of Pakse. Then I would see them return. On and on it went all day long. This was a perspective on the war that I had never seen from inside Viet Nam. Now I could see in stark reality how the nations of the world were being drawn often against their will into this war that I could not believe in.
I remembered the stories of my Christian forbearers, in the early church and in my own Anabaptist history. I wondered if their choices were so neatly differentiated from politics as I was led to believe. I wondered if I chose to act now if I would be carrying on a flame of protest, prayer and peace that stretched far back into the long stream of human history. I wondered if I was welcome and at home in that stream.
On a Sunday afternoon late in August I boarded an old C-47 of the Air Laos for Saigon. My decision was made. I would resign from IVS and figure out from there what came next. When I landed in Saigon I went directly to my office, wrote my letter of resignation saying briefly that I could not stomach the war any longer and took it to Don Luce. I wanted him to be the first to know. It was settled. He took it, read it and in his calm Vermont style simply said, “I understand. I think I may join you.” What seemed a life time, my only adult life time, was coming to an end and I had no idea where this would lead me.
What followed is documented elsewhere. Eventually four IVS staff people in Viet Nam resigned and more than forty volunteers signed a stinging letter of protest to President Johnson. We released the letter to the international press in Saigon. The White House answered our letter of protest with one sentence, “Anyone can write a letter and run it off with a mimeograph machine.” We knew the letter had gotten through. I then helped to organize my co-workers in IVS and encouraged them to stay on. I had no idea how I could carry on without the support of my Vietnamese friends and IVS co-workers.
Immediately following the publication of our resignations, Vietnamese come to our IVS compound to meet with us. They discussed things with us that they never felt safe discussing with us before. They told us that although they were not sure, they suspected we might be CIA until we resigned. Nothing could have been a more powerful blessing. People in government, students, priests, monks, young and old came to us, often discreetly to tell us how much they appreciated our action. My relationship with the Vietnamese people was not over. It was a new day and it felt right. My new life as peace worker was launched. I was learning the most basic lesson of peacemaking. Actions speak louder than words.
August 29, 1997 Gene Stoltzfus, 1619 W. Warren, Chicago, IL 60612
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