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American literary legend John Steinbeck’s last work was a risky assignment as a war correspondent in Vietnam.

Nearly three decades after John Steinbeck wrote his 1939 masterpiece, The Grapes of Wrath, the 64-year-old Nobel Prize–winning author set out to see for himself the unfolding war in Vietnam, on assignment from Newsday publisher Harry F. Guggenheim. In a series of columns penned to Guggenheim’s late wife, Steinbeck’s dear friend and Newsday’s first editor and publisher,Alicia Patterson, Steinbeck offers keen observations of the war between December 1966 and May 1967. Widely regarded as a progressive—or even a subversive by some—Steinbeck’s strident support of the war and harsh critique of its vocal opponents was controversial at the time.Thomas E.Barden, professor of English at the University of Toledo and a Vietnam veteran, has compiled from Steinbeck’s original handwritten manuscripts a collection of his Newsday essays in Steinbeck in Vietnam: Dispatches from the War, published by the University of Virginia Press and excerpted on the following pages.

December 31, 1966, Saigon

Dear Alicia,

The Christmas truce is over and we are counting our dead and wounded products of the Viet Cong’s violations of the truce. They knew we would keep the truce. And they knew they would not. There is a mutter of anger from our soldiers and the soldiers of our allies. The Pope asked for peace and we gave it and did not receive it. In addition we know about the rush of troops and supplies southward from Hanoi. They knew we would keep the truce. And they knew they would not. There is a building hatred of the hypocrisy which we go along with. The DZ [Demilitarized Zone] is an example; it is nothing of the sort. It’s a staging area for enemy troops and supplies. It’s like the little kid in the schoolyard who punches another in the nose and steps back yelling,“King’s X.”Defeated enemy troops cross the line and are safe and free to regroup and re-equip. And we observe this nonsense. And by observing it our so-called“image”gets worse and worse. But the anger is growing and the New Year truce is coming up.

If I had the ear of authority, Alicia, and by this letter I am trying to get it, I would suggest with all conviction that the commands of our soldiers, of our allied soldiers and of the Vietnamese soldiers, should publish, broadcast, and by leaflet-drop proclaim the following and mean it—that we intend to keep the New Year’s truce, but if there is one violation, even one, we will instantly throw the works at them as they have never seen it thrown. We have the capacity. We have leaned backward to be fair and decent, and today we are sending home the bodies of our men murdered while they kept the truce.

Let’s face it; it hasn’t worked. The enemy forces and the VC have no respect for honor or decency. They consider these matters stupid and weak. So let us try another truth and keep our word to the letter. Our statement should not be a warning. It should be inevitability. We will keep the New Year’s truce, but with the first violation we will clobber them.

Maybe it’s like the old story of the cavalry mule trainer who spoke softly and was obeyed.Asked to demonstrate his method, he picked up a piece of lead pipe and knocked the new mule to its knees. The committee protested,“but we thought you used kindness,” to which the sergeant replied, “I do, but first I have to get their attention.”

For myself, I think it is time to get their attention.

January 5, 1967, Saigon

Dear Alicia,

Strange happenings are becoming commonplace here in South Vietnam. Yesterday United Press International gave me a piece from the Soviet youth newspaper Komsomolskaya Pravda in which I was accused as “an accomplice in a murder” because I rode in a U.S. helicopter during a mission in Vietnam. This is a staggering charge and an even more staggering piece of reasoning. It out-Joes McCarthy. It creates a new crime—guilt by observation.

Alicia, I know it is silly to answer because my answer would not be printed. Editorial comment is a one-way street in Moscow. The Komsomolskaya Pravda piece went on to say that a writer “must not remain a passive observer but must take a certain position.” Well, Alicia, I have taken a certain position but I don’t think it is the one the Komsomol paper had in mind. However, the Soviet newspaper is in a superior position to take “a certain position,” because it has no observers here to mess up its preconceptions.

I want to make an offer to Komsomolskaya Pravda,and I’ll bet its readers never hear of my offer and my suggestion. I suggest that one or more good Russian writers, good but honest observers, brave men and true Russian patriots, not likely to defect to the corrupt West (I know at least a dozen such men personally)—I beg that some of these men be sent as observers to South Vietnam. I am quite sure they would be admitted and allowed to move about freely, even in booby-trap and ambush country. I can promise that their observations and copy would be neither censored nor read at least until it came to your editorial desk.

Such men might find this war more shocking than they had thought. They might see new hospitals where none were before, houses for refugees from the harassment of the Viet Cong. They might see, if they looked, revolutionary development developing in the villages, paddy peasants beginning to learn to defend themselves after 20 years of being pushed around. It’s not all good, nor far along, but it is a start. Your representatives might see some blood shed, even possibly some of their own, but they would not see women and children as U.S. or ARVN [Army of the Republic of South Vietnam] military objectives.

Anyway, this is my suggestion, Komsomolskaya Pravda, and since “Pravda” means truth, you should be delighted to have access to some of it. And please don’t think your representatives would be led through a set piece. The Potemkin village is not an American invention.

I promise to try to get your writers admitted here and I have every hope of success. But in return I would like to ask that you get me admitted on the same terms to North Vietnam, so that I can observe the other side. Turnabout is fair play.

By the way, Komsomolskaya Pravda, do you have an observer in Hanoi? Can you get one there? If so, does his copy come to you uncensored? It would be interesting to know whether or not you base your “certain position” on what you have seen or only on what you have been told.

I know very well that you will see this letter, Komsomolskaya Pravda, but I’ll bet 10-1 you will not pass it on to your readers. They must continue to think of me as a murderer—because you have said so. It is truly a dialectic dementia.

January 7, 1967, Pleiku

Dear Alicia,

I would like more than anything to be able to plug in so that this letter might carry the feel and sight of things but more the deep throbbing glory-feeling of being alive in a world of living things. And I suppose part of this exquisite aliveness grows in the steady reminder that at any moment you may not be.

Let you be aware of these statistics. Michael Shaughnessy, commander (Shamrock Flight), D Troop, First Squadron, 10th Cavalry, from Tacoma, Wash., a major of very un-Irish gaiety, perhaps because he has never been to Ireland. The Huey choppers of his flight are painted with bright green shamrocks, the result of a can of green paint sent by Michael’s wife. News, or rather a feel, of this man precedes him, so that when his chopper dips down on the pad like a skipped stone and he leans out saying, “I hear you want to go hunting leprechauns,” I reply:

“That I do sir.”

“Well it just happens we found a fairy ring in the hills.Hop in!”

Hopping in for me in fatigues and field boots is more like clambering, but I manage and pull the buckle straps tight near the door seat, which I like because you can look straight down. I nod to the door gunner on my side and pat the twin handles of his weapon, now down-pointed and unloaded. Airborne, he will swivel up the muzzle, flip up the breech block and lead the first shell up the belt into the chamber, slam the cover down, move the gun up and down and from side to side and then settle back to watch for any movement on the ground. It is a joy to have him there. His potential burst of tracered fire may well be a deterrent to the casual part-time sniper who can take it or let it alone.

I know about the leprechauns. In this case they are called Charley and high in the jungley hills, D troop has found their crock of gold, this time an extensive cache of rice, and we are going up to look at it.

Shaughnessy lifts the Huey from the pad, backs up in a kind of curtsey, wags it like a tail and off we go. We go fast and low, taking cover in water canyons, and when we breast a ridge we graze the trees and instantly drop down on the other side. You can either fly high above the range of small-arms fire or you can cut low and tricky like a snipe. We drop into a forward supply camp (I am not supposed to mention places or units if an operation is still in process. This sits fine with me and my faulty, this time gifty, tendency never to remember a name or a date or to forget a face or a place).

Settling in, our rotors kick up a smog of fine red dust so that our faces seem to have a sunlamp pleasure burn. We are to move to the Huey of Major James Patrick Thomas of whom it is said that he has changed the classic sophist’s question to how many choppers could Thomas sit on the point of a pin.

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 [Pablo] Casals on the cello. They are truly musician’s hands and they play their controls like music and they dance them like ballerinas and they make me jealous because I want so much to do it. Remember your child night dream of perfect flight free and wonderful? It’s like that and sadly I know I never can. My hands are too old and forgetful to take orders from the command center, which speaks of updrafts and side winds, of drift and shift, or ground fire only indicated by a tiny puff and flash, or a hit and all of these commands must be obeyed by the musician’s hands instantly and automatically. I must take my longing out in admiration and the joy of seeing it.

Sorry about that leak of ecstasy, Alicia, but I had to get it out, or burst.

You will gather that we are now in VC country, where every tree may open fire and often does. Major Thomas dips into a stream bed cascading down a twisting canyon and you realize that that low green cover you saw from high up is towering screaming jungle so dense that noonday light fails to reach the ground. The stream bed twists like a snake and we snake over it, now and then lofting like a tipped fly ball to miss an obstruction or cutting around a tree the way a good cow horse cuts out a single calf from a loose herd.

Low as we are flying, we are gaining altitude rapidly because the mountains are steep and high and our stream is cascade and waterfall. I wonder how the pilots find their way. On the hillsides are little fields chopped out of the jungle by Montagnards farmed for a season or two and left to overgrow. And these cleared places are not close together but separated and random with dense growth between.

Suddenly, up and ahead there is a burst of purple smoke, our landing signal, and we loop over to a chopped out clearing so small that our rotor blades barely clear the giant bamboo.

Out of the undergrowth, thicker than any I have ever seen, faces, or really only eyes, appear. Mottled helmets and fatigues disappear against the background. Faces black or white from sweat and dirt have become a kind of universal reddish gray. Only the eyes are alive and lively. And when we settle and the rotor stops, their mouths open 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? I suppose it is the opposite of the shiver of shame I sometimes feel at home when I see the dirty clothes, dirty minds, sour smelling wastelings and their ill-favored and barren pad mates. Their shuffling, drag-ass protests that they are conscience-bound not to kill people are a little silly. They’re not in danger of that. Hell, they couldn’t hit anybody. I think their main concern is that a one-armed half-blind 12-year-old VC could knock them off with a bunch of ripe bananas.

I didn’t mean to get off on that. I guess D troop set me off. They smelled of sweat, hard-working sweat. On the back of every helmet, under the strap, was a plastic spray bottle of insect repellent. I went into a VC trail so deep and covered with jungle that you are in perpetual steaming dusk. It was one of the VC transport trails over which they force the local people to carry their supplies. The rice cache was fairly large, a stilted structure deeply screened and disguised. The weary men were sacking unhulled rice to be airlifted to the refugee centers, a good haul, 300 or 400 bags. Once it would have been destroyed. Now if possible at all it is saved and distributed sometimes to the very people from whom the VC have taken it.

I started down the dark cave of a trail and a sergeant quite a bit bigger than a breadbox called, “Don’t go far. It’s booby trapped.” P.S. I didn’t go far.

February 11, 1967, [Nodateline]

Dear Alicia,

Don Besom of JUSPAD [the Joint U.S. Public Affairs Department] invited Elaine and me to look at Long An Province, southeast of Saigon in the Delta country, where the process of pacification is moving slowly forward. And since this action is a blueprint of what must be done in all of the Communist dominated parts of South Vietnam, I want to tell you about it in some detail.

But first, and by no means parenthetically, let me apologize for something I don’t remember saying. Some magazine quoted me as saying that my lady wife was not about to fly in choppers. If I did say it, I’m sorry. She loves choppers and has covered a sizable chunk of the territory in them. What she does not do is to try to get into combat areas where her being there would deflect manpower for her protection, and this I approve of. Some young women have recently gone into forward areas for thrills and for publicity and have been damned nuisances to men who had other work to do. One young lady correspondent has disappeared for the second time. The rather cynical betting is that she will show up with a story and an increased price. But it is possible that she may this time be gone. It can happen.

We went from Tan Son Nhut by the Huey chopper I have learned to love. It carries six passengers besides two door gunners and pilot and co-pilot. From the airfield we rose quickly to 2,600 feet, which is out of range of small-arms fire. At that range Charley under a bush does not ordinarily open fire because the door gunners would instantly open on his muzzle flash with their M-60 machine guns and with their tracers they can rake a wide area and make a sniper’s lot not a happy one.

Below us the Delta was spread like a patchwork quilt of oddly squared rice paddies. Rivers curled like snakes on the level plain and ditches cut straight as a string across the blanket of wet little fields. The rice harvest is nearly over now and the tree-surrounded squares of houses and villages stand out dark green against the browning paddies.

Our destination was Tan An, the largest town in the area with a bridge over the wide river. There are 35,000 people in Tan An but at 5 in the morning, when the boats of all sizes swarm in with market produce, the population rises to 45,000. It is a lovely town reasonably secured as is evident from the coveys and clusters of new small houses built by refugees who flee from the domination of the National Liberation Army or VC.

Tan An is the end of the secure road from Saigon. Ahead are blasted bridges and the old road cut to pieces with ditches and littered with land mines. By these methods the VC have for some years blocked the flow of rice to the capital. Now Americans at battalion strength together with pacification teams of Vietnamese troops, village leaders, school teachers, knife on ahead, secure another town and rebuild the road.

Colonel Sam Wilson, a very personable Virginian of long experience, commands this operation. We have heard a lot about Sam Wilson, who is more or less inventing his operation as he goes along. Don Besom, bless him, gave us his room, twin beds, and reading lights and inside plumbing.

We had lunch and then the colonel took us on a chopper tour of Long An Province, which lies along an extending dogleg of Cambodia. The towns and villages forward of Tan An were very different. The bridges were invariably down, the roads broken and a kind of dilapidation, like a skin disease, spread over the land. The fields looked untended and many of the houses were unoccupied. The river, teaming with traffic in the secured areas, was empty. At night of course Charley moves in the darkness and even in the daytime he brings a brooding darkness with him.

We cruised over the whole province, saw the new-built triangular outposts guarded by ARVN troops and subject to constant harassing fire. These outposts, their corners in redoubt form and surrounded always with deep moats and perimeters of barbed wire, are the first feelers toward security, a lonesome and dangerous business for their defenders.

That night, after dinner, the Tan An Music Lovers gathered. Five officers had bought quite good guitars for $7 apiece. Sam Wilson, who is an accomplished player, was giving this earnest group beginning lessons. The results were horrid but spirited.

We got out at 5 in the morning to see the market come into being. Hundreds of boats crowded the river banks and they were heavy-laden with fruits and vegetables, with fish, with small pigs in baskets and with thousands of white ducks. The Delta is duck country. From the air you see white clouds covering the wet country, ducks to make Long Island seem duckless. The street as the dawn came was completely covered with produce in little squares with only narrow paths between the individual stalls and each stall had its square sunshade of woven palm leaf.

A lovely Vietnamese girl, Miss Dang My Ha, explained to us the many fruits and roots and spices this rich land produces. A busy vital place Tan An, glowing with children.

May 20, 1967, Tokyo

Dear Alicia . . .

…I have tried to write what I saw and felt and thought in this part of the world. My letters have by necessity been simply impressions, perhaps neither profound nor permanent but as true as I could make them and I’ll back them against the granite convictions of those who have never been here.

I’m moving in on an ending now. I know what I want to say but not quite how to say it. I’ve been accused by the interested but uninvolved of being a warmonger, of favoring war and even of celebrating it. I hope you will believe that if I could shorten this war by one hour by going back to Vietnam, I would be on tonight’s plane with a one-way ticket.

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.

John Steinbeck, whose two sons served in Vietnam, began to have growing concerns about the U.S. role in Vietnam, and by late 1967, Barden contends, “had finally grasped the great intractable predicament of the war…that the American presence was, in the eyes of the Vietnamese people, an army of occupation.” But the great writer could write no more. Suffering for months of severe heart disease, Steinbeck died on December 20, 1968.


Originally published in the August 2012 issue of Vietnam Magazine. To subscribe, click here.