Review – Steinbeck in Vietnam: Dispatches From the War

11/14/2012 • Vietnam Book Reviews

Steinbeck in Vietnam: Dispatches From the War, edited by Thomas E. Barden, University of Virginia Press, 2012

In 1966, John Steinbeck, America’s best known and most widely read author, chose to hurl himself into the maelstrom of Vietnam. At age 64 and in failing health, he risked his reputation and his life to report on the controversial war. It was a bold move near the end of a brilliant career. Winner of the Nobel Prize for literature and a Pulitzer for his novel Grapes of Wrath, he was no stranger to war. He had served as a war correspondent in North Africa in World War II for The Herald Tribune.

Vietnam had become the nation’s top news story and controversy, and Steinbeck’s friend, President Lyndon Johnson, pressed him to go to there as a U.S. government observer. Steinbeck declined. Although he supported LBJ’s conduct of the war, he preferred his independence, so Steinbeck arranged to write a series of columns for Newsday and planned a five-month tour of Southeast Asia, with six weeks in Vietnam. It also afforded him and his wife a chance to see their 19-year-old son, John Steinbeck IV, who had been drafted and was serving in Vietnam.

Although most of us covering Vietnam had wide access and transportation for the asking, World War II correspondents or friends of LBJ often got their own aircraft and were escorted by generals. In his six weeks in Vietnam, Steinbeck traveled widely, often escorted by the U.S. commander, General William Westmoreland, and was constantly being briefed by self-delusional U.S. officials eager to win the hearts and minds of visiting VIPs.

In one of his columns, Steinbeck raged against current press reports from Vietnam: “There are so many uninspected statements which we print and absorb as truth. One is that in spite of our bombing of roads, bridges, trucks and oil, the flow continues uninterrupted. Nonsense.”

Reflecting Westmoreland’s bookkeeping on enemy strength, Steinbeck wrote, “Enemy strength is down eighty percent,” a calculation Westmoreland reached after removing 130,000 Self Defense Force enemy troops from the “order of battle.”

Steinbeck had a fascination for Vietnam weaponry. He carried an M-16 in the field and spent a lot of time practicing on military rifle ranges. In 1967 many of us reporting on Vietnam were interviewing troops about the constant jamming and malfunctioning of the M-16. For all his time on the range, this scandal was never mentioned in Steinbeck’s Newsday articles.

The author was impressed with American war technology, especially the helicopters and the gunship they called “Puff the Magic Dragon,” which could saturate a football field in a few seconds with .50-caliber bullets. It never occurred to him that, in an insurgency, such a wide swath of death in heavily populated areas would not enhance the winning of “hearts and minds.” He asked incredulously: “How could we lose a war against peasant rabble when we had all the modern advantages?”

Many reporters tried to answer this question by talking with grunts, with that “peasant rabble” or by observing the dysfunctional South Vietnamese Government and Army Republic of Vietnam , instead of constantly hanging out with U.S. generals.

Steinbeck often salted his columns with insulting remarks about Vietnam War protesters, suggesting they were all on “relief,” meaning welfare, and should be transported to the Ho Chi Minh Trail.

In Steinbeck in Vietnam, editor Thomas Barden, professor of English at the University of Toledo, has opened a 45-year-old time capsule. Steinbeck’s columns are mostly superficial and mundane; he writes about Vietnam with naive awe, the way hundreds of us did, proving that conventional journalism could no more effectively deal with the war than conventional firepower could win it.

Barden’s Afterword, sharing Steinbeck’s private letters following his return from Vietnam, is particularly telling and insightful and shows the author suffering over what he had seen and his failure to write about it clearly and truthfully. In a despondent letter to Newsday publisher Harry Guggenheim, Steinbeck made it clear he no longer trusted General Westmoreland or his lieutenants and that he had no faith in the new Vietnamese leader, Nguyen Cao Ky.

Writing to his longtime agent Elizabeth Otis, Steinbeck finally is in touch with his true feelings but admits he is incapable of writing about it: “We seem to be sinking deeper and deeper into the mire. It is true that we are. I am pretty sure by now that the people running the war have neither conception nor control of it. And I think that I do have some conception, but I can’t write it.” Steinbeck died from congestive heart failure in December 1968.

What a sad coda to a brilliant writer’s career, especially at a time the truth about Vietnam from a respected journalist would have been so valuable.

Strangely missing from Steinbeck’s columns or letters is any substantial mention of his son John IV and their violent disagreement about the war. The author meets up in Vietnam with John, who worked with Armed Forces Television, and they even experienced a Viet Cong attack together on a base near Pleiku. But Steinbeck never acknowledges his son’s virulent antiwar attitude in his writing.

—Don North

Originally published in October 2012 issue, Vietnam magazine

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