The Reading Room

John Steinbeck in Vietnam

Steinbeck’s Vietnam War despatches…

Between December 1966 and May 1967 the novelist John Steinbeck, at the age of sixty four, travelled across South East Asia witnessing and recording events as they unfolded during the Vietnam War. Working as a correspondent for Newsday, the Long Island daily newspaper, he visited Vietnam, Indonesia and Laos and was courted by the leading Generals of the war including the US Commander, General Westmoreland.

America needed Steinbeck’s voice, by 1967 the country’s opinion of its involvement in an increasingly destructive war was beginning to split and many struggled to make sense of the fatalities and casualties incurred by a people most Americans had previously never considered an enemy. Steinbeck’s astonishing narrative of the Depression of the 1930s ideally placed him as the moral compass for an American public torn between patriotism and peace. But Steinbeck’s voice was given in support of the war and his friend Lyndon Johnson’s policy of increased combat troops and a heightened bombing campaign which would devastate the country, its neighbour and its people for years to come.

What could have been Steinbeck’s finest swansong became something of a diatribe against those who opposed the war. He spoke out against those journalists who reported the ineffectiveness of the bombing of roads, bridges and oil installations and not the generals who exaggerated hits and suppressed American and innocent Vietnamese losses, and whilst his position may have softened later his Newsday reports never did. Steinbeck, a New Deal Democrat, believed Vietnam was a staging post for the great battle between East and West. He had, in 1963, on behalf of the previous Kennedy administration, visited the Soviet Union and its satellites and railed against what he considered a deeply oppressive regime. This deep sense of national loyalty came to the fore in a number of articles and an attack on the increasing number of anti-war protests:

I must believe that the plotting protest marchers who spend their days across from the UN and around the White House hate war. I think I have more reason than most of them to hate it. But would they enlist for medical service? They could be trained quickly and would not be required to kill anyone. If they love people so much, why are they not willing to help to save them? ….It might be dangerous to see this method of protest, and besides, if they left the country, their relief checks (benefits) might stop’

The letters were addressed to ‘Alicia’ who was Alicia Patterson, the first editor of Newsday and already deceased. She had been a good friend of Steinbeck’s and had overseen the rise of the paper to a circulation close to half a million. Harry Guggenheim, the paper’s president and husband of Alicia Patterson found in Steinbeck a key supporter of the war but by the end of 1967 with the advent of a new publisher, the paper veered to the left and both Guggenheim and Steinbeck would no longer be a voice on the board.

Steinbeck’s visit to Vietnam allowed him the opportunity to visit his son, John IV who was a serving soldier but the letters contain seldom few references to him. One can only assume it came from their very vocal disagreement about the war and the author’s reluctance to accept an alternative view. Whichever side of the argument one sits on for Vietnam, Steinbeck’s reports remain an important piece in its jigsaw. Some of the reports raise an eyebrow but many offer a sense of the time, the place and how the war divided the American people. That Steinbeck did not deliver the truly independent view he claimed is testament to that division. It would be a fascinating period if it weren’t so appallingly awful in the thousands of singular tragedies it inflicted.

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