By John Balaban
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 Presi-
dent 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 uni-
form, did not have armor in the field, and could not be distin-
guished 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,”
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 hap-
pened 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, smell-
He describes “our new
hospitals” and what
Americans did for civil-
ians. 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.
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
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 Nôm Preservation Foundation. Go online to www.nomfoundation.org.
or email him at email@example.com.