Showing posts with label Vietnam. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Vietnam. Show all posts

Tuesday, March 1, 2016

The More things Change

The more they stay the same.  Well, not exactly.

I’ve been winnowing my old files.  The stuff I come across sometimes amazes me, things I wrote that I don’t remember or don’t remember saving or why.  Two recent discoveries remind me that over the decades I have witnessed an amazing span of history, technological developments, a world that has evolved with increasing complexity and interconnectiveness.  Yet, still, some of the old political issues are not old at all.  They have merely festered and changed their spots.

I found copies of two letters I wrote in my salad days, the first to the New York Times commenting on their editorial on Barry Goldwater’s nomination, a man who, in retrospect, seems tame by today’s conservative / tea party crowd. However, at the time of his presidential candidacy in 1964, he had not ruled out the use of tactical nuclear weaponry against our Cold War nemesis, the Soviet Union, and anyplace where communism was being supported.  Johnson beat him badly in 1964.  Interestingly Goldwater moderated in his later years as a statesman, and in my mind redeemed himself, although always a staunch conservative in the classic intellectual sense, not the bible-thumping variety of today.

In any case, at the height of Goldwater’s rise to the nomination in 1964, the twenty one year old me wrote the following to the New York Times:

                                                                July 19, 1964

The Editor
New York Times
New York, New York

To the Editor:

“Disaster at San Francisco,” indeed, may yet become a disaster for America.  Your firm editorial stand against Senator Barry Goldwater must be continued to help defeat this dangerous radical, so that we may prove to ourselves and to the rest of the world that “it can’t happen here.”
As Hitler made use of Germany’s post-World War One frustrations, Senator Goldwater is a political demagogue who similarly, but more subtly, intends to capitalize on the frustrations of many Americans, frustrations that have arisen in the ashes of domestic racial problems and the tensions of the Cold War.  Goldwater tells us, as Hitler told Germany, that we are the strongest country in the world and we should stand up to the opposition (who he vaguely refers to as “the Commies”).  This simple, but realistically absurd suggestion, appeals to those who are unable to bear the responsibility of living in these modern times.  Unfortunately, there are still many “good citizens” of America who believe that if we act as if it is still the “good old days,” we will recreate those days.
If we are to preserve democracy in our country and continue to encourage democracy abroad, we must condemn political extremists who present oversimplified, irresponsible, and inherently contradictory solutions to complex issues, solutions which would isolate us from our friends abroad and which, conceivably, could destroy the world as we know it.

Its contents mention some of the same issues Americans face today, particularly as espoused by Donald Trump and Ted Cruz.  The latter of course bills himself as a true conservative, but he is the very kind of conservative who I think Goldwater himself would have condemned.  In fact where is Barry Goldwater when we need him : -)?  Here is something Goldwater said to John Dean in 1994: “Mark my word, if and when these preachers get control of the [Republican] party, and they're sure trying to do so, it's going to be a terrible damn problem. Frankly, these people frighten me. Politics and governing demand compromise. But these Christians believe they are acting in the name of God, so they can't and won't compromise. I know, I've tried to deal with them.”  How profound is that, Mr. Rubio, Mr. Cruz?

And my files coughed up a letter I wrote three years later to Senator J. William Fulbright during the height of the Vietnam War.  Again, different times, different war, but still relevant in many ways:

                                                                                August 6, 1967

Senator J. William Fulbright
Chairman, Senate Foreign Relations Committee
United States Senate
Washington D.C.

Dear Senator Fulbright:

I am just finishing your book THE ARROGANCE OF POWER and I felt obligated to immediately express my support of your thesis.
The Vietnam situation is truly tragic.  The noble ideals of our great country are belied by our actions.  How can we expect the world community to look to America for leadership while we drop millions of tons of bombs on a small country of mostly peasants, support dictatorships, even as we seem incapable of resolving many of our own domestic problems?
                While I do not feel that we can just abandon our Asian commitments, we need to discard our military’s “search and destroy” philosophy in favor of seeking a solution over a conference table – which may demand compromise, but ones also compatible with democracy.
                In addition, I believe that the United States has more to lose by endeavoring to become the world’s policeman.  An Asian conflict should be resolved, in the most part, by the Asians and/or the United Nations, with the encouragement of the world’s great powers.  Our military involvement in the affairs of other nations only tends to weaken the fabric of the U.N. and secures the animosity of other nations toward us.
                I encourage continuing your efforts to reestablish the system of checks and balances provided for in the Constitution so a more realistic foreign policy can be devised and implemented.
                With great admiration of the courageous and sensible stand which you have taken, I am,
                                Sincerely yours,

So, there you have it: the “mini- me” of some five decades ago writing about some of the same issues of today. 

And now the present brings us into a political environment ripe for extremism, as evidenced by the unexpectedly strong primary showings of Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders, polar opposites but in many ways playing to the same base, the disenfranchised. In early December I wrote a piece It Can’t Happen Here? (the very words I wrote to the NYT fifty two years earlier) suggesting that Trump was merely a Trojan horse for Ted Cruz.  Still might be (or for Rubio), but now two plus months later Trump is not only still in the Republican race, he’s in command of it, and in fact could be much closer to becoming the Republican nominee after today’s primaries. 

And who knows where Hillary might be if her email morass deepens, but assuming she is the nominee, what if some of Sanders’ supporters, particularly the disenfranchised young, join up with the Trump crowd (who Trump now likes to celebrate as being the short, the tall, the skinny, the fat, the rich. the poor, the highly educated and the poorly educated – making a particular point that he LOVES the poorly educated). Those two groups could become a potent base.

Trying to connect all the dots in my mind – how can a phenomena such as a Trump come into being?  An epiphany: I remembered my long-ago reading of Eric Hoffer’s classic The True Believer: Thoughts On The Nature Of Mass Movements.  For a more detailed recollection, I went to Wikipedia’s description.  Hoffer is eerily on the mark.  It could serve as a textbook explanation of Trump’s appeal, other than the merger of “reality TV” and the presidential primaries. From Wikipedia…..

Hoffer states that mass movements begin with a widespread "desire for change" from discontented people who place their locus of control outside their power and who also have no confidence in existing culture or traditions. Feeling their lives are "irredeemably spoiled" and believing there is no hope for advancement or satisfaction as an individual, true believers seek "self-renunciation." Thus, such people are ripe to participate in a movement that offers the option of subsuming their individual lives in a larger collective. Leaders are vital in the growth of a mass movement, as outlined below, but for the leader to find any success, the seeds of the mass movement must already exist in people's hearts.

While mass movements are usually some blend of nationalist, political and religious ideas, Hoffer argues there are two important commonalities: "All mass movements are competitive" and perceive the supply of converts as zero-sum; and "all mass movements are interchangeable." As examples of the interchangeable nature of mass movements, Hoffer cites how almost 2000 years ago Saul, a fanatical opponent of Christianity, became Paul, a fanatical apologist and promoter of Christianity. Another example occurred in Germany during the 1920s and the 1930s, when Communists and Fascists were ostensibly bitter enemies but in fact competed for the same type of angry, marginalized people; Nazis Adolf Hitler and Ernst Röhm, and Communist Karl Radek, all boasted of their prowess in converting their rivals

It is unlike any presidential election cycle I’ve ever known, even the Goldwater era which from this point in the future looks placid, even sane.   The macho trash talking of the Republican “debates” leaves me bewildered, but that testosterone also extends into policy – make America “great again” by building up the military (we should be building our infrastructure instead).  A highly recommended read on the topic is written by an ex-military man himself, Jim Wright: The Latter Days of a Better Nation

An afterthought, the relevancy of art as expressed in Your Beliefs by Jani Leinonen -- displayed at the recent Palm Beach Jewelry, Art & Antique Show.

                                           Your beliefs become your thoughts,
                                           Your thoughts become your words,
                                           Your words become your actions,
                                           Your actions become your habits,
                                           Your habits become your values,
                                           Your values become your destiny.
                                                             ― Mahatma Gandhi

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Ancient Kingdoms -Vietnam

This is the final installment of Ann’s wonderful account of her “Ancient Kingdoms” trip to SE Asia.  For the first entry covering Thailand, click here, for Laos, click here, and for Cambodia, click here.

When we first arrived in Ho Chi Minh City on Feb. 12th, we were met at the airport by an adorable, loquacious and high spirited young woman, Anna, who was to be our local guide.  There were also about 3 million Vietnamese at the arrivals gate picking up about 1 million family members arriving for Tet, the Vietnamese New Year beginning Feb. 19th, which is the most celebrated festival of the year.  This holiday usually lasts about 7 days with families traveling from all over to be together. Since Tet occupies an important role in Vietnamese’s religious beliefs, they will begin their preparations well in advance of the upcoming New Year. In an effort to get rid of the bad luck of the old year, people will spend a few days cleaning their homes, polishing every utensil, or even repaint and decorate the house.  The ancestral altar is given special attention, decorated with five kinds of fruits and votive papers, along with many religious rituals. Everybody, especially children, buy new clothes and shoes to wear on the first days of the New Year. People also try to pay all their debts and resolve all the arguments among colleagues, friends or family.  Sounds like a wonderful idea to me!   
I was fortunate to be in India during Diwali, one of the biggest festivals of Hindus, celebrated with great enthusiasm and joyfulness. This festival is observed for five continuous days in a very similar way with scrubbing the house, an exchange of gifts, lots of cooking, buying new clothes and firecrackers being set off day and night!   

So one of the first things we learned is that most Vietnamese, especially in the south, continue to refer to Ho Chi Minh City as Saigon.  Why?  We were told Saigon sounds so much more romantic! And I certainly agree.  And thanks to arriving just before Tet, the streets were exquisitely adorned with vibrant street decorations and there was certainly a buzz of happy anticipation in the air.  What a contrast to the sad days we had just spent in Laos and Cambodia.

We were driven directly to the heart of the city and the bustling square in front of the most famous landmark, the Notre Dame Cathedral, completed in 1880 to establish religious services for the French Colonialists.  Notre-Dame Basilica to be exact is a magnificent building attracting not only Catholics but also many tourists for its neo-Romanesque style architecture and sacred atmosphere.  Just next to it, also facing the square is the grand Central Post Office, not what you usually think of as a post office.  This is another of Saigon’s most popular attractions, being the largest post office in Vietnam. Built between 1886 and 1891 by renowned architect Gustave Eiffel (of Eiffel Tower and Statue of Liberty fame), the vaulted roof and arched windows are reminiscent of early European railway stations. You don’t need to have postcards to send back home to enjoy the magnificent interior with its lineup of old fashioned working phone booths and hand painted maps on the walls that depict Saigon from 1892.  I bought a beautiful paper fan here that is decorating one of my glass credenzas.

Shortly after this stop, we were driven to our hotel, finally, to check in and relax a little before meeting for dinner where we enjoyed our first bowls of Pho!  We were one of the luckiest groups on this particular tour to actually stay at the glorious Hotel Continental.  Although OAT has tried for years to book rooms here, it is only recently that the Hotel finally released some for our use!  This was the first Hotel built in 1880 in Vietnam in the French style of luxury and has been refurbished and remodeled on numerous occasions, but still exudes that old world charm that so captivated Graham Greene who used to stay in room 214, just down the hall from my own room in fact. The hotel features prominently in Greene’s novel, The Quiet American and in the two film adaptations.  During our three night stay, Margaret and I arranged to sit outside those evenings and enjoy a glass of wine or beer in or near the very seats which both Michael Caine and Michael Redgrave occupied in their movies!  And as others in our group drifted down before dinner, they all ended up joining us as well.

The next day, we drove off for a two hour bus ride out to the countryside.  Under normal circumstances, this drive should have taken us approximately 45 minutes!  Ole tried to warn us about the madness of the traffic:  thousands (and this is no exaggeration) of people on motorbikes whizzing past, three deep and packed from front end to rear, reminiscent of Deli but not nearly as insane.

We were off to the Historic Relics and Cu Chi Tunnel Complex where we are going to see the Ben Duoc Tunnel, a unique architectural structure, a system of deep underground tunnels having several floors and alleys and branches like a spider web.  These tunnels extend more than 157 miles underground with dining, living, and meeting rooms plus kitchens so it was possible to stay hidden for months at a time.  The Official Brochure states that this tunnel system embodies the strong will, intelligence and pride of the Cu Chi people in resistance to the American enemy.  Several of us, including myself, actually squeezed down (in my case very carefully) the very narrow entrances to one of these tunnels, and crawled on our hands and knees in the dark on hard packed dirt for several minutes coming up at another opening.   I was covered in dirt from head to toe when I was finally helped out of the tunnel.  It was a very claustrophobic experience, the ceilings so low that you couldn’t lift your head, although other rooms were large enough to comfortably sit military personnel around a large table during strategic war talk meetings. One tunnel had a fully equipped hospital.

Traffic is so horrendous that a normal 45 minute drive again took over two hours to return to city center which is sophisticated and teeming with young people enjoying life, full of beautiful parks & stunning flowers everywhere you look.  Saigon is a marvelous city, with magnificent French Colonial buildings including the stately Opera House directly across the street from my hotel.

After a quick shower and change of clothes, we took a bus to the 45 minute Vietnamese Water Puppet Show, really for children, but with all the seats being filled primarily by adults.  There was a lot of splashing around by a gazillion wooden puppets, colorfully painted, with wonderful Vietnamese music and singing accompanying all the theatrics.  After the show, Ole escorted us back behind the theatre and there we saw how it was actually done because up until then I had been really trying to puzzle it out.  Boy was I relieved to see that no one actually drowned executing all those ballet maneuvers with the puppets!

Little did I know we were about to literally take our lives in our hands as each of us hopped up on a seat on the single passenger rickshaw bicycle with one gentlemen pedaling behind us as we headed into the crush of traffic just as dusk was approaching.  With motorbikes, buses, taxis & cars whizzing all around us, riding in the front of the bike, unlike in Varanasi where our driver biked in front, felt far more dangerous from my perspective.  It was hair-raising as we drove what felt like an hour clear across Saigon, but was probably more on the order of 20 minutes.  I became deeply religious in those few moments when I thought someone was surely going to crash into me.  We were finally dropped off on a street teeming with people, shops, food, and motorbikes again; here they are simply referred to as Hondas!

We made our way into an alleyway and stepped into a restaurant where the owner was waiting for us.  I don't think Tauck Tours takes their 5 star clients into places like this.  There several of us took turns chopping & measuring ingredients for the chicken marinade which was one dish of many being prepared for our dinner.  We also had a very excellent soup, a salad with indescribable vegetables and a stir fry platter of vegetables along with our chicken. Everything was very delicious.

As soon as our bus dropped us back at the hotel, I went to the front desk and ordered a Hotel car to take me to the airport on Sunday – my last day, very reasonably priced, with tax in US dollars: $11:55.  Everyone will be leaving at the crack of dawn; I'm the last to check out.  That gives me a leisurely morning to pack and then stroll around a little as I haven't had a spare moment to even stand in front of the Opera House or walk around the block. Diagonally across from my hotel and the big square is a Louis Vuitton & up the street all the boutique stores you see on Rodeo Drive or Worth Avenue, a very "tony" neighborhood for sure.

Our last day began with an interminable bus ride but as always, we pulled off the highway to visit “The Happy Room” as Ole always called our restroom stops, as well as sampling a delicious Vietnamese coffee.  Who could resist, I had to bring back a small bag. We finally arrived at a local market where we took a 2 minute ferry ride so we could board our boat for a cruise on the Mekong Delta River, stopping after half an hour for a lunch in a private home built in 1883, the fourth generation still living there, now a guest house which also caters to small groups for lunch.  Lunch was served al fresco and featured a huge whole deep-fried fish and lots of side dishes.
We continued the afternoon cruising on the Mekong, passing an enormous wholesale market floating on the water in full swing where retailers were loading up their boats to take back all kinds of food, fruit and other items to sell in their local areas.

It’s a surprise where we're going for our Farewell Dinner, but after a glorious 10 minute hot shower, and a fast change of clothes, I ran down to meet Margaret for a drink in front of the hotel, before we meet the others.  Ole presented each of us with a fully illustrated diary in detail of every day of our trip with his very own remarkable pen & ink drawings!! His colorful map of our four countries begins and ends this write up.  We had a private room for our last dinner together where we all remarked on what a wonderful time we had and how much we appreciated Ole for all of his hard work.

Afterwards, back in my hotel room, it felt bittersweet to realize it is all over.  I am certainly relieved on the one hand as I am so ready to return home and see my husband and get back in the routine of my life.   I have met some really wonderful people on this trip and hope to keep in touch.  I just found out that Hiroko and I are the only two spending a good part of the day in the hotel the next day, so we have made plans to meet for breakfast, do a little sightseeing and shopping and have a bite of lunch before my car arrives.  Her flight to Tokyo doesn’t leave until much later that evening.  It was terrific meeting Margaret, my beer partner who said the nicest thing to me, “thank goodness you were on this trip as I really enjoyed your company”.  I fell in love with Joan and Frank, lovebirds from California who had the most remarkable story to tell and exemplify how wonderful love is the second time around!  Margie also said something so sweet to me, that it was fun being on this trip with me because I added such liveliness to the group.  Others like Anne and Kevin and Dr. Frank and Hiroko, extended invitations to visit and I did in return.  I enjoyed getting to know Ed and Silvia as well as Karl and Patty.  What a pleasure it was to be on this journey with such kind and engaging fellow travelers!

Just before I left on this trip, I was suffering from my Vertigo and had undergone some draconian spinning to help relieve it which really didn’t, and had a shot in my knee so I could walk.  My poor Chiropractor was working so hard to help my back stay in shape before this trip knowing how strenuous it was going to be.   Amazingly, for the dizziness I just needed an arm to go up or down steps and the old knee held up remarkably well as did my back.  I actually flew home in good shape, no pain anywhere.   That’s what I call a successful adventure!


Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Ron's Vietnam Trip

I met Ron in 1985 when my company acquired a publishing company of which he was the editor-in-chief. During the due diligence he looked me in the eye, shook my hand, and introduced himself. He didn’t fit the stereotype of a scholarly/professional editor and later I learned why. Although he had the requisite academic training as a graduate of William and Mary and was a student of military history, particularly the Civil War period, he was also an ex-marine, and served in the Vietnam conflict. He was extremely personable, while his demeanor was all business.

In addition to being colleagues, we became friends, and later in his career he left our company to lead the Naval Institute Press, an ideal position that combined his professional expertise as well as his passion for military history. He ultimately retired from that job and we remain friends to this day.

During company picnics Ron and I would “throw the pill” around before the requisite softball game. We both played baseball in our youths, we’re both lefties, and, we would like to think we can still throw a ball as we did in the “old days.” But now in retirement, he has been working on golf and he is a very good golfer. So good in fact, he was asked by a national golf magazine to serve as a consultant for a story about golf in Vietnam today as seen through the eyes of a U.S. veteran going back there to play. The Vietnam tourist agency wants to try to promote golf so they and the magazine supported the trip.

Ron accepted and recently returned from the assignment. Barbara, his significant other, met him there for part of the trip. I had sent Ron pictures of our recent southwest tour, which I wrote about in a prior blog entry. This is how Ron responded. It is such a remarkable, thoughtful document, with interesting observations about his trip to Vietnam, how America is now perceived there, that I include it below. Consider it a “guest blog entry:”

Enjoyed the photos of your trip. Your pictures are so well composed. The vibrant colors and magnificent landscapes/architecture of the SW were so alive. Lots of real postcards in the group. They brought back memories as my first job in publishing was a college traveler for Prentice-Hall based in Albuquerque. I drove most of the highways in NM, Eastern AZ, and West Texas. It was a fun job because out there and in those times professors were happy to talk to a salesman about books. They felt kind of cut off from mainstream academic American; and in their eyes, I represented the intellectual East. While this was certainly a misperception of me, I had great access to profs and sold lots of books.

I’m decompressing from my Vietnam trip. Vietnam is zooming down the market economy road (on their 80cc Hondas) with not a commie in sight! I had a wonderful trip on a number of levels (emotional, informational, etc.) and the golf courses I played were fabulous. While in Vietnam I celebrated my 65th in the same place I turned 25. Nice symmetry. Didn’t even think about Medicare! The magazine put me up in the most fabulous hotels (the Caravelle in Saigon where the journalists watched the fall of Saigon in ’75 from the rooftop bar, a former colonial French mansion/Emperor Bao Dai retreat in the 5,000 foot cool, alpine climate of Dalat, and a beautiful new beachside resort at the site of our old China Beach in country R&R spot near DaNang. Here I had a spectacular cottage right on the water. So there I was in a country where thousands of Americans died and hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese were killed; and, 40 years after the war, I’m playing golf!! And the Vietnamese like us and surprisingly bear no ill will towards Americans! So what was it all about? Nothing! Iraq, of course, will be the same. Those who believe the surge is working (or even ultimately relevant to the situation) need to review the history of the Vietnam War. We “surged” from 150,000 troops (same as Iraq) to 500,000 and it ultimately did no good. How quickly they forget.

I was able to spend some time in I Corps (around DaNang and Hue) and visit the places where I served. I even sat down in a village and talked with a former Viet Cong. His life has been tough because of Agent Orange but he was very polite. Once we determined that we were fighting each other in the same area at exactly the same time (Tet), a sort of bond developed between us. Over 70% of the population of Vietnam was born after the war and have no memory of it – only old farts like me and the VC! After the golf, Barbara came over and we spent a week touring places I never saw during the war e.g. Saigon, Hanoi, etc. Hanoi was terrific with lots of French Colonial architecture and large, beautiful lakes scattered throughout the city. Barbara and I ambled all through the old quarter of the city. We also took in a number of interesting and surprisingly good museums. Throughout the Barbara/Ron portion of the trip, we stayed in wonderful colonial hotels and ate in great restaurants with terrific food. You would have liked the hotel bars. In the evening they always had a pianist (accompanied variously by a saxophone, violin, singer) who played haunting “love and life” numbers from the 40s and 50s. The French influence in music still survives as many tunes were of the melancholy Charles Aznavour café type. It was quite nice, relaxing, and romantic.

PS Attached is a picture of the old convoy commander at the top of the Hai Van pass on the road from DaNang to Hue – a route I ran many times. Notice the old French fortifications in the background. We always felt briefly safe when we got to this spot as it was manned by a platoon of marines.