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John Steinbeck: Vietnam Hawk

For admirers of John Steinbeck’s fiction, a new volume of his newspaper columns may come as a shock.

Between December 1966 and May 1967 the then-64-year-old writer contributed 58 columns on the Vietnam war to Newsday, the Long Island, NY, newspaper. In them, the 1962 Nobel Laureate in literature came out strongly in favor of American actions in Southeast Asia.

Reporting from various theaters of the war, Steinbeck had 400,000 readers at Newsday, and millions more at the 29 other papers that syndicated his columns.  Now, as its lead title this season, the University of Virginia Press has issued Steinbeck in Vietnam: Dispatches from the War. This is the first collection of the columns and their first publication in 40 years. The dispatches “infuriated the doves and delighted the hawks,” says Thomas E. Barden, the collection’s editor and a professor of English and dean of the Honors College at the University of Toledo. Publishing them permits readers “to consider from this distance how important the essays must have been to the large number of readers who were undecided and bewildered about the war and who considered Steinbeck a reliable moral witness.”

Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men (1937), Grapes of Wrath (1939), East of Eden (1952), and other novels had provoked awareness of social injustice. Far less well known was that he had intermittently written war correspondence since the 1941 Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. The American incursions into Vietnam and its neighbors prompted him to renewed expressions of patriotism and support of the military. So, too, did his and his wife’s close friendship with then-President Lyndon B. Johnson. Steinbeck applauded his “Great Society” initiative, and in 1964 accepted the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the country’s highest civilian award.

With those qualifications, Steinbeck enjoyed unusual access to the war. High-ranking officers squired him about Vietnam, Laos, and northern Thailand. Evenings, at the Caravelle Hotel in Saigon, he wrote up what he had seen.

Steinbeck praised American soldiers as “glorious knights” standing against advancing Communism: “I have not been celebrating war, but brave men. They are our dearest and our best and more than that – they are our hope.” The would-be soldier emerged in the author when he fired a 105-mm. howitzer from a helicopter and referred to North Vietnamese soldiers as “Charlie” and “leprechauns.” Steinbeck also ventured out with river patrols on the Mekong, trained on the M-79 grenade launcher, witnessed a B-52 bombing run, and flew on reconnaissance missions. He offered such tactical suggestions as shipping homeless Saigon street boys to rural areas to serve as spies.

The author heaped scorn on anti-war protesters back home: “Their shuffling, drag-ass protests that they are conscience-bound not to kill people are a little silly,” he wrote in January 1967. Barden says that Steinbeck believed that the true motivation of “the hippies, folksingers, and self-indulgent college students who opposed the war while hiding behind their 2-S draft deferments” was cowardice.

Protesters branded Steinbeck a warmonger who had betrayed progressive politics just as opposition to the war peaked on American campuses and streets. His columns perturbed journalists at Newsday, too, according to Anthony Marro, its editor from 1987 to 2003. In a review of Barden’s volume, he recalls that “the columns caused much muttering in the newsroom at the time, not just because they were so fiercely hawkish but because many staffers considered them too unequivocal even for commentary.”

Marro observes, however, that Harry Guggenheim, the paper’s owner, applauded Steinbeck. The author had labeled his dispatches “Letters to Alicia” in reference to Guggenheim’s wife, who had died three years earlier after serving as the paper’s editor since 1940.

The columns also put paid to doubts about Steinbeck’s patriotism. In 1943, the U.S. Army’s intelligence service had declared him unfit for military service; indeed, the Army rejected Steinbeck several times. A Federal Bureau of Investigation dossier spoke of “substantial doubt as to subject’s loyalty and discretion” due to associations with the Communist Party which amounted only to some Communist publications excerpting his writing, notes Barden.

The scholar says such aspersions unfairly tarred Steinbeck. He says Steinbeck was “basically an enthusiastic and liberal New Deal Democrat” who had gone to work without pay during World War II at the Office of Strategic Services, the predecessor to the Central Intelligence Agency, to combat Nazi propaganda. With his “emphatically anti-collectivist mindset,” he had traveled to the Soviet Union for the State Department and penned a scathing indictment of Soviet oppression.

Steinbeck did come to question the war, but never publicly. Barden quotes from a Steinbeck letter: “I know we cannot win this war, nor any war for that matter. And it seems to me the design is to sink deeper and deeper into it, more and more of us.” He admitted the war could not be made “decent.” Writes Barden: “By the end of the summer of 1967 Steinbeck had actually grasped a great intractable predicament of the war, the thing that the best and brightest military strategists kept missing—that the American presence was, in the eyes of the Vietnamese people, an army of occupation.”

Barden regrets Steinbeck’s silence. During the years when the novelist’s opinions might have altered American attitudes towards continued engagement in Southeast Asia, Barden himself was drafted into military service, and deployed to Vietnam. But the professor thinks well of the columns: “Many of them still have the spell-casting power of Steinbeck’s great works of fiction.”

Other critics are less convinced. Kirkus Review ridicules the writing: “Sometimes Steinbeckian in texture and bite, but often tone-deaf, tendentious, and surpassingly sad.”

Marro, the former Newsday editor, agrees: “The columns, for the most part, were not particularly good when they were written and seem even less so in retrospect.”

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