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The Vietnam wars.

Steinbeck in Vietnam: Dispatches from the War

By John Steinbeck

Edited by Thomas E. Barden

224 pp. Illustrated.

University of Virginia Press (March 2012). $29.95 hardcover and ebook; $16.95 paperback.

Those of us who went to Vietnam during the war know there are as many versions of events as there are testifiers. Perhaps no account rouses more curiosity than John Steinbeck's in Steinbeck in Vietnam: Dispatches from the War, especially for those of us who revere his great novels. Careful editor Thomas E. Barden, dean of the Honors College and an English professor at University of Toledo, and the 2012-14 Phi Kappa Phi Scholar, compiles the letters the Nobel Laureate wrote about this complex subject between December 1966 and May 1967 when he was in his mid-60s.

Steinbeck begins these singular missives with a salutation to "Alicia": Alicia Patterson Guggenheim, the deceased wife of his friend Harry F. Guggenheim, cofounder (with Alicia) of Newsday, the Long Island, N.Y., newspaper in which they appeared. Steinbeck's tone is folksy and often attempts humor in the style of the legendary World War II correspondent Ernie Pyle. "I have never made a smart military appearance, but this is ridiculous," Steinbeck says of his fatigues lined with pockets. "I look like a green plum pudding that has been struck by soggy lightning."

But the Vietnam War was not like World War II. In the jus ad bellam terms that Steinbeck knew as a war reporter for the New York Herald Tribune in 1943 and as an advisor to President Franklin Delano Roosevelt on war propaganda, Vietnam was clearly terra incognito--as it was for many. In Vietnam, frontlines were not to be found. The enemy was not in uniform, did not have armor in the field, and could not be distinguished from the civilians whose "hearts and minds" the U.S. tried to win.

Before going to Vietnam, Steinbeck visited the White House and introduced his newly-drafted son, John Steinbeck IV, to President Lyndon B. Johnson. The writer's older son Thom had already enlisted. Johnson, losing support for the war, delighted in John Steinbeck's public backing, and the author went abroad to further the cause. In Vietnam, Steinbeck was treated like a celebrity. Given military gear and an M-16 (which real reporters did not carry), he could travel anywhere by plane, chopper, or patrol boat. Some resonant writing occurs in such expeditions: pilots airlift 105-mm. howitzers around Saigon "the way Santa Claus delivers packages," Steinbeck observes.

Gen. William Westmoreland, commander of U.S. military forces in Vietnam, talked with him about Sun Tzu's The Art of War. One doubts, however, that Steinbeck was ever in mortal danger. He stayed with his third wife, Elaine, at the plush Caravelle Hotel in downtown Saigon. Still, he imagined peril everywhere, usually in the form of a lone Viet Cong irregular throwing a grenade into a restaurant. The only real threat occurred when Steinbeck visited his son John, a broadcast specialist setting up a television van at an outpost that got mortared.

Steinbeck opts for boosterish prose throughout the letters:

  Alicia, I wish I could tell you about these pilots.
  They make me sick with envy. They ride their vehicles
  the way a man controls a fine, well-trained quarter
  horse. They weave along stream beds, rise like swallows
  to clear trees, they turn and twist and dip like swifts
  in the evening. I watch their hands and their feet on the
  controls, the delicacy of the coordination reminds me of
  the sure and seeming slow hands of Casals on the cello.

One wonders, reading this intriguing if problematic collection, what happened to the incisive chronicler of The Grapes of Wrath, East of Eden, and Of Mice and Men. Indeed, Steinbeck intends to experience the war directly since the only way to learn "about anything was by seeing, hearing, smelling, touching."

He describes "our new hospitals" and what Americans did for civilians. Those hospitals--in which I worked for two years of the war--were not new or "ours." They were barely staffed; most Vietnamese doctors were either drafted or had fled to France. Roughly 100,000 South Vietnamese civilians died each year during the 10-year war, in which the U.S. dropped more munitions than in all of World War II.

A helicopter pilot, whose chopper is "painted with bright green shamrocks," asks, "I hear you want to go hunting leprechauns?" Steinbeck replies: "That I do sir."

He wishes "fervently for the company of good writers of any nationality." One thinks of American reporters working in Vietnam then, including David Halberstam and his 1964 Pulitzer Prize-winning articles on the war for The New York Times, and Orville Schell and his eye-opening firsthand report "Vietnam: A Day's Work" in The New Republic in March 1968.

Steinbeck wrote in favor of a war which he seems never to have really encountered. How could this be? His son John, a friend of mine at the time, told me that his father was unwell and exhausted from the genetic disease they shared, hemochromatosis, a condition worsened by alcohol. The debilitating effects first showed up, John explained, in the 1962 Travels with Charley, Steinbeck's last attempt to get in touch with America.

The great writer died some 18 months after returning home. I visited his widow about a year later with John Steinbeck IV and his then-wife, Crystal. Elaine was glad to see us but had other guests. One of them, learning I spoke Vietnamese, asked, "They don't speak English over there, do they?" No, I confirmed. "Then how," he wondered, "do they understand each other?"

Barden provides a service with these unusual letters. Perhaps the war will always be unfathomable.

John Balaban has authored 12 books of poetry and prose, including two collections of Vietnamese poetry in translation. Honors include the 1974 Lamont Poetry Selection for After Our War and the 1998 William Carlos Williams Award for Locusts at the Edge of Summer. Professor of English and Poet-in-Residence at North Carolina State University, his Phi Kappa Phi chapter, Balaban earned English degrees from Penn State (B.A.) and Harvard University (M.A.), was the 2001-04 Phi Kappa Phi Artist, and serves as founding president of the Vietnamese Nom Preservation Foundation. Go online to Or email him at
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Author:Balaban, John
Publication:Phi Kappa Phi Forum
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jun 22, 2013
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