- Steinbeck in Vietnam: Dispatches from the War ed. by Thomas E. Barden
Thomas Bardens Steinbeck in Vietnam is an example of why Steinbeck studies remains such a vibrant field of inquiry. The book does two very important things: first, it collects, for the first time, all of the dispatches John Steinbeck wrote on the Vietnam War while serving as a correspondent in the 1960s for Newsday; and second, it provides thorough annotation, background information, and context to make them accessible to current readers. It is organized into three sections: “Introduction,” “Dispatches from the War,” and “Afterword.”
Many readers, both serious scholars and the kind of devoted readers Steinbeck continually attracts, are surprised by Steinbeck’s reaction to the Vietnam War. Steinbeck the uberliberal, Steinbeck the radical, Steinbeck the champion of the dispossessed, Steinbeck the author of The Grapes of Wrath—many wonder, essentially, “How can THAT John Steinbeck have championed the American involvement in Vietnam?”
The answers, as explained in Barden’s excellent “Introduction,” are complex. First, Steinbeck hated communism. Unlike many intellectuals whose support of that particular system was purely intellectual or philosophical, Steinbeck’s familiarity with communism came out of close observation during his involvement with workers’ causes in the 1930s. While working on In Dubious Battle, Steinbeck wrote to a friend, “I don’t like communists either. I mean, I don’t like them as people” (xi). Although Steinbeck was staunchly in favor of workers’ rights, the end of that novel clearly expresses his horror at the way communism [End Page 81] favors adherence to abstract causes over the value of an individual life. Steinbeck was also a personal friend of President Lyndon B. Johnson, whose administration prosecuted the war in Southeast Asia (although Steinbeck resisted going to Vietnam as a representative of the White House, not wanting to be “Johnson’s man,” caught in the position of officially endorsing the war).
The timing of Steinbeck’s visit to Vietnam must be understood. Most of the events that turned large numbers of Americans against the war had yet to happen. Although the 1965 escalations (including bombing campaigns and greatly increased troop levels) caused “intellectuals and celebrities” to “turn against the war,” many if not most Americans supported U.S. military action in Southeast Asia at that time (xv). Steinbeck went to Vietnam during the period from late 1966 to early 1967. The Tet Offensive (which included the massacre at Hue, with its mass graves that many suspected the “democratic” South Vietnamese of filling) and the Mai Lai massacre all occurred in the first three months of 1968. Steinbeck’s visit occurred prior to many of the major events that undermined widespread support for the war among American citizens. In private, he found the war “troublesome” and was “explicit about his reservations,” but his personal loyalty to Johnson ensured his public support (xvii).
Most significant, both of Steinbeck’s sons were on active duty in the U.S. Army at the time of his visit. His younger son, John, had volunteered for service and was already “in country” in Vietnam. His older son, Thom, was undergoing basic training. Whatever private reservations Steinbeck may have had, both his sons were in uniform, and he could hardly have condemned the war without undermining his support for them.
Dispatches from the War
The main part of the book comprises Steinbeck’s columns from Vietnam written on behalf of Newsday. Barden underwent considerable effort in collecting and presenting these essays. Rather than simply transcribe what was published, Barden went back to Steinbeck’s original handwritten notes, and he arranges the essays based on the date of composition rather than on the date of publication. The net effect is twofold—Steinbeck’s original intent is restored, and, by restoring the essays to their original order of composition, the reader gets a narrative sense of events as Steinbeck experienced them. Newsday published the work in a different order and did not publish everything Steinbeck sent. By restoring the complete record, Barden has provided the...