Wednesday, February 4, 2015

A Voyage of Discovery – From Bloomington to Saigon

[On this the 4th anniversary of Searching for Jeff, the present post has been written by my collaborator on this blog, Karen Grote Ferb. Karen knew my brother Jeff well during their university days. In 2013 she and her husband Tom traveled to Vietnam where Karen retraced Jeff’s steps as a Vietnam GI during 1963-64.]

I first met Jeff Sharlet at a house party in early January 1966, a little over a year after he returned to Indiana University (IU) from his tour as a US military advisor in Vietnam.  It was a chance meeting.  One of my house mates had been invited, but did not want to go alone; she begged me to go with her.  I really didn’t want to, but she pleaded so long I finally gave in.  Jeff was there, sitting in a dark corner alone.  I’d seen him once before on campus, standing with a group of guys in front of Ballantine Hall.

I introduced myself, and we began a lengthy conversation in that corner, then got away from the general din to continue talking student style sitting on a pile of winter coats in the bathtub.  We talked about socioeconomics, racism, and the war in Vietnam. The war had been building dramatically since the Tonkin Gulf incident in August ’64 shortly after Jeff had returned stateside – culminating in the launching of a major bombing campaign over North Vietnam followed by the landing of the Marines at Danang in early ‘65. 

Our conversation continued over the next eight months until I left for graduate school, and more and more it turned toward the war, as was happening all over the country.  Why were we fighting in Vietnam was the question many were asking, and how could we stop it.

Fast forward to the digital age and 2004 when I finally
 learned of Jeff’s tragically early death in ‘69.

Although Jeff was clear that he had done something in Vietnam he couldn’t bring himself to speak of, he didn’t talk much at all about his experiences there that had soured him on our involvement in the war. At the same time, he had developed an admiration for the Vietnamese people, although not for their oppressive regimes beginning with Diem and his cruel brother Nhu, so he joined the IU chapter of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) during fall of ‘65; I too joined around that time.          

Antiwar protests grew exponentially from the mid-‘60s, not only at home, but abroad, and even in Vietnam itself.  The Buddhist crisis, in particular, had drawn worldwide attention as clergy began to set themselves afire in public places as a protest against the Diem regime.

Jeff at Indiana University, 1965

Fast forward to the digital age and 2004 when I finally learned of Jeff’s tragically early death in ‘69.  I had come across his namesake nephew, at the time beginning his illustrious career as a writer.  At first I thought he was the Jeff I’d known, but a little exploration proved it not so; the namesake was too young and did not resemble his uncle.  The truth was a shock.  Jeff had died of cancer at age 27.  I knew he had an older brother, Bob, so I set out to offer much-belated condolences.

As it happened, Bob, an academic approaching retirement, was determined to give his brother his rightful place in the history of the GI Movement against the Vietnam War by writing a memoir of him.  Jeff too had intended to pursue an academic career. He had begun grad school at the University of Chicago, but dropped out and used his Woodrow Wilson Fellowship funds to create the first GI-led antiwar, underground newspaper. Vietnam GI was aimed at GIs serving in Vietnam as well as on US bases in the States and abroad. 

Contacting Bob at that time was serendipitous because he had little idea of how to reach out and find Jeff’s friends and comrades from his IU days. We determined that, although I’d lost touch with my fellow IU antiwar activists, I could find them for him.

I began a voyage of discovery I could not have imagined when I last spoke
with Jeff just a few months before the first issue of Vietnam GI appeared.

Over time I did find many of those people as well as others from Jeff’s high school years, his Army days, and the time he spent in Chicago as an underground editor, which also took him across the country and abroad. Bob eventually interviewed over 150 people who had known Jeff to one degree or another, and I began a voyage of discovery I could not have imagined back in late 1967 when I last spoke with Jeff just a few months before the first issue of Vietnam GI appeared. 

In my wildest dreams I couldn’t have foreseen the depth of knowledge and understanding I would achieve about Vietnam and the war, nor that I would visit Vietnam, now unified, and walk in Jeff’s footsteps, seeing the places he had seen.

I found myself in Saigon’s cavernous Bến Thành Market, in front of which a massive nonviolent Buddhist protest had taken place on August 25, 1963, the very day Jeff arrived in Saigon for the first time. South Vietnamese government troops had opened fire, killing several people, including Quách Thị Trang, a 15-year old student. 

Bến Thành Market Protest and Quách Thị Trang, 1963

The traffic circle was subsequently renamed in her memory and now holds a statue of her in a space shared with a mid-15th century general, Trần Nguyên Hãn, a great poet, talented politician and strategist under Emperor Lê Lợi, and a hero revered for his role in liberating Vietnam from China’s Ming Dynasty.

Quách Thị Trang & General Han, 2014

No longer there to see were street-side execution posts as well as the trenches which Jeff could not have failed to notice; they surely would have added to soldiers’ anxieties about the dangers that too often erupted.

Trenches in front of Saigon City Hall, mid-‘60s
Nor were the famously well-known Buddhist self-immolations the only evidence of a profound cultural conflict and repression in the cities of South Vietnam.  Widely reported, the images of monks engulfed in flames stunned the world, although the root cause was not widely known. 

The Catholic Diem regime had retained a French colonial rule that Buddhism was not a religion, but an association, which severely limited the rights of Buddhists as opposed to those of the Catholic minority. A request to fly Buddhist flags on the occasion of Buddha’s 2,507th birthday in 1963 had been turned down while the Vatican flag flew on the occasion of the consecration of Diem's older brother as the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Hue.

A protest in the ancient capital of Hue of about 3,000 Buddhists was fired on by government troops.  The regime, attempting to minimize the damage and even pin the blame on its civil war adversary, the Viet Cong, was hotly contested by a huge protest march the next day of more than 10,000 demonstrators.
The protests and self-immolationssix in all, including a Buddhist nuncontinued throughout the summer of ’63, resulting in several clashes between Buddhists and troops, as well as hunger strikes—over 10,000 participated in Saigon alone—sit-ins, and street fighting between Buddhist and Catholic civilians.  All during the summer the great gong at Saigon’s Xa Loi Pagoda’s tolled, while in Hue the violence had left the main pagoda, Tu Dam, nearly a complete ruin.

Although President Diem had insisted he was pursuing a policy of conciliation, the tragedy in the streets of Saigon in August of ’63 would discredit any notion of it.  Having declared martial law, the president had given the police under his brother Nhu free rein starting that August.

Nhu’s police plundered, looted, beat, and brutally murdered 
Buddhists with abandon, killing no fewer than 100 in Hue alone.

Nhu’s police plundered, looted, beat, and brutally murdered Buddhists with abandon, killing no fewer than 100 in Hue alone. The overall number murdered or ‘disappeared’ was in the hundreds.  Thousands of Buddhists across the country were arrested and tortured by forces under Nhu, Diem’s brother, who also headed the special forces.  On August 25th, 6,000 monks, nuns, civilians, and students were arrested followed by many thousands more over the course of the following month. 

A war that had had not yet received much attention back in the States suddenly had many Americans asking questions that before long would result in massive demonstrations against it. The rest of the world began to wonder what our objectives in Vietnam actually were.  In the end, Washington declared, “… it appears that the government of the Republic of Vietnam, has instituted serious repressive measures against the Vietnamese Buddhist leaders…The US deplores repressive actions of this nature.” 

In spite of this, the American media were not quick to pick up on extent of the underlying conflict between Buddhists and the Catholic regime; that is, within the overarching civil war between Communist North and non-Communist South Vietnam, a religious civil war was raging in South Vietnam between Buddhists and Catholics.
Soon after the police attacks against Buddhists and their pagodas, the commander of the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) announced military control over Saigon, instituted censorship of the press, and cancelled all commercial flights into the city.  As the US Government began to lose confidence in its client Diem, Jeff and fellow Vietnamese linguists were quickly rushed to Saigon.

As the US Government began to lose confidence in its client Diem, 
Jeff and fellow Vietnamese linguists were quickly rushed to Saigon.

Washington had finally recognized that the Diem regime was behind the attacks and had no intention of reconciliation with the Buddhists, a direct violation of a promise made. President Kennedy was also aware that a group of South Vietnamese generals were planning a coup.
The ensuing events in September and early October ‘63, to which Jeff was privy in his position of clandestinely eavesdropping on the ARVN General Staff, led on November 1st to a successful military coup and the execution of Diem and Nhu. 

Coincidentally, a year later in ‘64 – also on August 25 – a group of 10,000 Buddhists attacked and burned to the ground a Catholic village near Danang, after which horrendous bloody clashes erupted between Buddhists and Catholics killing and mutilating each other in the streets.  The violence soon spread to Saigon and other urban centers, creating an atmosphere of anarchy in the entire country.*

Violent clashes between Buddhists and Catholics, August, 1963

Contemporary Vietnam: Now a single unified country under Communist rule, the situation from the early-mid ‘60s has been reversed – the officially atheist Communist government now persecutes Christians, but allows Buddhists to practice their religion, although only a single sect, the Buddhist Church of Vietnam, intended to encompass any and all Buddhist sects firmly under state control.
* R J Topmiller, The Lotus Unleashed:  The Buddhist Peace Movement in South Vietnam 1964-1966 (2002), 19