Steinbeck's Last Assignment: The Vietnam War
When the name John Steinbeck is heard, most of us think of his great works of fiction such as The Grapes of Wrath, or East of Eden. Few people are aware of his extensive work as a war correspondent during World War II, and fewer still of his work as a correspondent during the Vietnam War. In a whirlwind trip lasting from December 1966 until May 1967, he toured the war-torn countryside, observing and writing about the people and troops in Vietnam. His publications proved to be as controversial as they were enlightening. To the America that was quickly becoming polarized about the war in Vietnam, Steinbeck’s pro-war position spurred both support and anger.
Steinbeck wasted no time as a correspondent in Vietnam. After spending time with his son in Saigon, he took a flash tour of the foreign country. In an eight-day trip, he covered many of the key areas and points of interest, comparing his fast paced tour to “the #11 bus in London” or “the boat trip around Manhattan” (Steinbeck 570). Traveling primarily by helicopter, Steinbeck saw firsthand the beauty of Vietnam and the destruction caused by the war. He found that the situation was far more complex than he had imagined, and felt he was right in doubting the coverage of others. Soon after finishing his initial eight-day sprint, Steinbeck began his more thorough tour of the country. Moving from sight to sight, he met top officials from both the United States, and ARVN (Army of the Republic of Vietnam), and even frequently traveled with them. He also spent time on the front lines, patrolling with troops through the scarred countryside, and flying sorties with Marines. Through this he was able to gain a broad and sweeping sense of the war, and the reports from these experiences form the majority of his dispatches, titled "Letters to Alicia."
Just as he had during World War II, Steinbeck felt a strong desire to observe and connect with the ordinary soldier and citizen. His pride in the soldiers of his country swells during the many passages describing the soldiers who lived with him. After traveling to an active forward supply camp with Major Michael Shaughnessy, he says this of the soldiers he finds there: “and they are men, and what men. Can you understand the quick glow of pride one feels in just belonging to the same species as these men?” (Steinbeck 747). To Steinbeck, these soldiers were examples of what was good in the world, men who risked their lives for the liberty and dignity of others. Steinbeck’s affection for the side he supported did not stop at its people. He was often amazed and enamored with the incredible technology employed in the war, going so far as to say that the “the chopper is the greatest invention since the wheel” (Steinbeck 667). He went through basic training after arriving in Saigon, which included becoming familiar with the use of the M-16, which fascinated him. Carrying his rifle dutifully while in the field as he did in World War II, he wrote, “The M16 is a beautiful thing when you need it” (Steinbeck 616). His other endeavors ranged from firing grenade launchers and a 105mm Howitzer to flying a mission on “Puff, the Magic Dragon,” a modified C-47 with three Gatling guns protruding from one side.
Steinbeck’s pro-war stance proved controversial. His dispatches came at a time when many celebrities, and public sentiment, were all swinging against the war. The number of protestors and anti-war activists were growing daily. Steinbeck’s position troubled many of them, who previously saw Steinbeck as a bastion of the disenfranchised. Scholar Jackson Benson said, “Suddenly the people’s bard was mouthing hawkish sentiments, denouncing protesters, writing jingoistic prose in support of American policy in South Vietnam, and slathering on details about the machinery of war.” (Benson 4542-4544). Russian poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko wrote a poem to Steinbeck challenging his stance on the war; Steinbeck’s public response elegantly captures his position:
In your poem, you ask me to speak out against the war in Vietnam. You know well how I detest all war, but for this one I have a particular and personal hatred. You know as well as I do, Genya, that we are bombing oil storage, transport and the heavy and sophisticated weapons they carry to kill our sons. And where that oil and those weapons come from, you probably know better than I. I hope you also know that if those weapons were not being sent, we would not be in Vietnam at all. If this were a disagreement between Vietnamese people, we surely would not be there, but it is not, and since I have never found you to be naive you must be aware that it is not. This war is the work of Chairman Mao, designed and generaled by him in absentia, advised by Peking and cynically supplied with brutal weapons by foreigners who set it up. I beg you to use your very considerable influence on your people, your government, and on those who look to the Soviet Union for direction, to stop sending the murderous merchandise through North Vietnam to be used against the South. For my part, I will devote every resource I have to persuade my government to withdraw troops and weapons from the South, leaving only money and help for rebuilding. And, do you know, Genya, if you could accomplish your part, my part would follow immediately and automatically (America and Americans).
The hate poured in. Steinbeck said, “…and finally there is the hard core of those who use the mails to defile, to injure, to destroy. I’ve had a large number of such letters since my open letter to Yevtushenko” (Steinbeck 330). Steinbeck saw the war as a necessary evil. He felt those who had not seen the war, or didn't know war in general, were ignorant and misguided to pass the judgments they did. His unfailing desire to uphold life and dignity can be seen here. He often cited the cruelties and lack of humanity or respect for life displayed by the opposing side as cause for war. In one of his examples, two men walk past a restaurant where families often take their children, and they each throw a grenade inside. One fails to detonate, but the other explodes on the ground nearest the children. American doctors struggle to save dying children as the grenade throwers admit gleefully to the act.
Steinbeck had other more personal connections to the war that shaped his views. The most compelling for him was having both his sons (Thomas Steinbeck and John Steinbeck IV) in the army; John was already in Vietnam. Seeing his son in Vietnam became of utmost importance to him, and his stance changed substantially once his son had been deployed. Another reason for his support was his connection to the White House. Lyndon Johnson had been a friend of Steinbeck’s leading into the war, and by the time he was writing from Vietnam, Steinbeck was a close friend of Johnson. He shared his passion for social justice and his hatred for communism, which fueled his final point of contention. Steinbeck was a believer in the domino theory, and saw the war in Vietnam as the fight against communism on a global level. In his mind, Americans had an obligation to intervene and rollback communism.
Steinbeck’s position did eventually change, however. As both the war and his tour of Vietnam continued, a shift in his tone became detectable. He realized that this war was different from others, saying it had “no fronts and no rear” (Dispatches from the War 887). The crushing certainty of the purity of America’s cause became harder to find, and subtle doubts began to emerge. He held onto his passion, but began to play with the idea that perhaps America was still not handling the war appropriately. He said, “To me all war is bad. There are no good wars, and I can find no soldier to disagree with me. But I do not understand those who think that by turning their backs and looking away, they have become innocent, for those who look away have found one kind of war bad and the other good.” (Dispatches from the War 1332-1334). In spite of all this, in his final letter to Alicia, he ended with a message that captures the sense of compassion and dignity he spread his whole life: “What I have been celebrating is not war but brave men. I have in a long life known good and brave men but none better, braver nor more committed than our servicemen in the far east. They are our dearest and our best and more than that— they are our hope” (Dispatches from the War 3314-3316).
Benson, Jackson J. John Steinbeck, Writer. Penguin, 1990.
Steinbeck, John. America and Americans and Selected Nonfiction. Edited by Susan Shillinglaw and Jackson Benson, Viking, 2002.
Steinbeck, John. Steinbeck in Vietnam: Dispatches from the War. Ed. Thomas E. Barden. University of Virginia Press, 2012.