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A crowd of several hundred students and other protesters in Radhus Square in Copenhagen on an October afternoon in 1965 quieted as a North Vietnamese student stepped to the podium. His comments were expected to validate the demonstrators’ opposition to US involvement in Vietnam, and that seemed to be the case as he declared in German that the United States must get out of South Vietnam. When he followed that statement with “after, of course, the Communists get out of South Vietnam, for it is they who started the terror and the war there,” confused chatter from the audience rose to a din as protest organizers scrambled to make sense of what was going on. The Vietnamese student made several more pro-South Vietnam, pro-American statements before organizers pulled him from the podium. US Embassy Copenhagen officer Cord Hansen-Sturm was parking his car at the square and saw it happening. He had arrived to meet a Vietnamese student who had called the embassy seeking a German-Danish translator because the student wanted “to talk to the demonstrators and enlighten them to what was really going on in Vietnam.” The turnaround was too quick for the embassy to deliver a translator who could not be traced back to the Americans, but Hansen-Sturm and other embassy officers thought the student might be a good contact to have. As Hansen-Sturm watched the protest organizers drag him off the podium, he knew their meeting would have to wait.1
It was a tense week in Saigon in October 1974, when a South Vietnamese university student slipped into the office of the city’s archbishop to deliver a letter addressed to North Vietnamese youth. Archbishop Nguyen Van Binh was headed to the Vatican for an international meeting of Catholic leaders, and he promised the student he would hand the letter off to his Hanoi counterpart when he saw him at the conference. The letter implored North Vietnamese students to join southern youth in demanding an end to the fighting that the 1973 Paris Peace Agreement was supposed to have halted. Both the archbishop and the student risked arrest for circulating the letter. Authorities had raided the offices and shut down the operations of four newspapers that had published it. That the leader of South Vietnam’s Catholics would be involved in clandestine communication between North and South Vietnamese students would have been surprising in the early 1960s, but by the mid-seventies, many Vietnamese Catholics had grown weary enough of the war that they saw peace and reconciliation, even if under Hanoi’s control, as the better alternative to endless violence.1
It had been more than a week in May 1965 since Dang Nguyet Anh had learned that the Viet Cong had launched an attack in Phuoc Long province, where her husband, Second Lieutenant Nguyen Thanh Trac, was stationed at a military training center. In the time that passed, she did not hear from him, and the waiting soon became more than she should bear. So she took a local bus to the town of Dong Xoai in Phuoc Long province, and from there, she got a lift on an army vehicle heading to the training center where she believed her husband to be. On the way, VC troops attacked the vehicle, and Mrs. Anh was shot in both arms and suffered a broken foot. From her hospital bed in Saigon, she wrote a letter to South Vietnam’s Ministry of National Defense, asking that her husband be transferred to the city so that he could help take care of their six children, the oldest of whom was eight. Mrs. Anh was still nursing the youngest two, and she had no relatives to help her with child care. While recovering from her war wounds, she needed help more than ever.
In the final weeks of 1974, Catholics and journalists in Saigon caused President Thieu to call in his riot police again. The alliance of church and press stemmed from a common desire to expose alleged corruption of Thieu and his family. Several Saigon newspapers had published Father Tran Huu Thanh’s accusations of corruption against the president, including suppression of the press and rules making it difficult to form political parties so as to enshrine a one-party system and prevent the opposition from wresting control from Thieu. Thieu had the publishers of those papers arrested and placed on trial. Anti-government activists had planned a massive demonstration to take place on the first day of the trial, and when word of the protest reach Thieu, he warned citizens that 20,000 officers were preparing to put a damper on the march. When police and anti-Thieu protesters had clashed back in October, Fr. Thanh and some other Catholics gathered at Tan Sa Chau Church on the edge of Saigon and composed a statement in which they demanded that the president “return power to the people so that they can refashion the life of the country and reconstruct the independence of the nation.” The two groups in trouble, Fr. Thanh’s People’s Anti-Corruption Movement and the Committee of Struggle for Freedom of the Press and Publications, did not want to tear down the Saigon government. They simply wanted Thieu gone. Fr. Thanh took abuse from all sides. Members of the Provisional Revolutionary Government called him an “American stooge.” Thieu accused him of having the support of both communists and colonialists.1 In the midst of the chaos and suspicion that marked Saigon in the seventies, it was difficult for Fr. Thanh to prove that he was an anti-government, anticommunist, anti-colonial nationalist.
When the members of the CBC Band embarked on an eighteen-month world tour in 1973, they did not realize it would be the last time they would ever see the Vietnam that they knew. The band, and the Phan siblings’ lives in Vietnam, were casualties of war. Tung Linh, the guitarist, received his draft notice in 1973, and he entered boot camp for six months of training. But his mother, Hoang Thi Nga, in the role she had played his whole life, did what she could to help her son play music, which was what made him happy. She paid a handsome bribe to a high-ranking officer to secure her son’s release from the army, arguing that she was old and needed him at home, and in any case, two older sons had already served in the navy.1
At a dinner party in early 1965, a group of Saigon elites decided to submit a cease-fire petition to the government of South Vietnam. The party was held in the Saigon suburb of Gia Định, at the villa of forty-two-year-old Trương Như Tãng, director of Hiệp Hòa sugar company. The attendees recognized their privilege, that, as “educated patriots and industrialists,” they were at the top of Saigon society. They lived the good life but believed it should not be just for them. Twenty years of war had brought so much sorrow to the Vietnamese people that it was now time to figure out how to end the bloodshed and bring lasting stability to Vietnam. The group assembled at the dinner party included doctors, lawyers, engineers, professors, wealthy industrialists, and government officials. Nguyen Long, a lawyer who had been active in the peace movement of the 1950s and whose son had joined the National Liberation Front in 1962, led the discussion. In 1964, Long had founded the Movement for People’s Self-Determination, and most of the people at the dinner party were members.1 A Catholic in the group noted that Pope Paul VI had sent a message to bishops and priests throughout the world urging peace, an encouraging bit of news as they thought about how they might shape Vietnam’s future.2
One morning in early November 1965, student leader Nguyen Huu Thai visited US Embassy officer Melvin Levine at his Saigon apartment. Thai was the president of an architecture students’ organization at Saigon University and former Saigon Student Union president, and he hoped to explain to Levine why there had been so much student unrest, not just in Saigon, but in Hue and other cities as well. Thai had made a trip to Hue to try and get a clearer sense of the student perspective there, and what he found was that the war was more real to students in Hue than it was to their peers in Saigon. Hue students were concerned about and frustrated by the large American military presence in Da Nang, and the fighting in the I Corps rural areas felt closer to them than perhaps the fighting in the Mekong Delta felt to Saigon students, Thai explained. Thai wanted to see the rural areas for himself, so he took a car trip through Quang Ngai and Quang Nam, and he talked with peasants who believed that the ongoing artillery fire and air strikes were indiscriminate rather than targeted at known NLF areas. Peasants also felt squeezed by the growing refugee population and accused refugees of harvesting their crops; that American troops often took their farming tools, suspecting that they were weapons, compounded the peasants’ frustrations.1
On January 31, 1968, the night the Tet Offensive began, Sally Vinyard thought the noise she heard outside her villa in Saigon came from firecrackers. She had been in Saigon as a civilian employee of the US Navy for a year and had experienced Tet 1967. So she ignored the booms and went to sleep. The next morning, Vinyard and her husband, John, who worked in Army intelligence, heard an announcement on the radio that Saigon was under attack. At first, they treated it like a lark, thinking they were getting a free day off for no good reason. The radio report advised listeners to stay indoors, but it was not until three or four days later that Vinyard knew what was happening. Her husband went to work the next day, and she did not hear from him for several days after that. Many of the city’s phone lines had gone out, and so she had no idea if he had even made it to his office. Meanwhile, he was trying to call Sally’s office but could not get through. A few days into the offensive, a bullet struck the wooden shutters on the outside of the Vinyards’ villa while Sally was out in the courtyard. They had lost electricity, and inside the villa it was stagnant and stale without the fans going, so she had stepped out to get some fresh air.
Fr. Chan Tin, a Catholic Redemptorist priest in his fifties, had played the role of confessor often; it was part of his vocation. So he sat and listened as a young woman described how the guards at Thu Duc prison tortured her. They began by blindfolding her and asking her if she worked for the communists. They beat her with a night stick as she tried to respond, and the beating only increased when she said no, that she did not work for the communists. Unsatisfied with her responses, the guards then applied electric shock treatments to her armpits, breasts, and vagina. They were especially brutal on the days when she was menstruating. The woman believed the torture she endured in prison had caused her infertility.1
During the rainy season in southern Vietnam, afternoon storms give way to breezy evenings that beckon people outdoors to enjoy a touch of cool in the thick tropical air. Friday, June 25, 1965, was one of those nights in Saigon. The riverfront across from Bach Dang Street and the Majestic Hotel, not far from the US Embassy, was alive with parents chasing children, young lovers strolling by the water, street merchants selling food and drink, and customers arriving for dinner at the My Canh riverboat restaurant. My Canh was packed that night, and Saigon businessmen dined on fresh seafood and drank French wine alongside American GIs and their Vietnamese girlfriends. Seated at a table with friends, trying to talk above the din of conversation, laughter, and silverware on dishes, a diner would not have noticed a bomb that was set to go off at 8:15pm. After it exploded, stunned patrons who were able to stumble down the gangway to get off the ship would not have noticed a second bomb attached to a bicycle that was leaning against a cigarette stand on the riverbank near the end of the gangway. It exploded shortly after the first bomb. Of the nearly fifty people killed by the two blasts, more than half were Vietnamese, mostly women and children. The bombing was not random; it was part of a broader National Liberation Front strategy to destabilize the political situation in Saigon. The city was a war zone, and the urban war was hot long before the Tet Offensive.
During South Vietnam's brief life as a nation, it exhibited glimmers of democracy through citizen activism and a dynamic press. South Vietnamese activists, intellectuals, students, and professionals had multiple visions for Vietnam's future as an independent nation. Some were anticommunists, while others supported the National Liberation Front and Hanoi. In the midst of war, South Vietnam represented the hope and chaos of decolonization and nation building during the Cold War. U.S. Embassy officers, State Department observers, and military advisers sought to cultivate a base of support for the Saigon government among local intellectuals and youth, but government arrests and imprisonment of political dissidents, along with continued war, made it difficult for some South Vietnamese activists to trust the Saigon regime. Meanwhile, South Vietnamese diplomats, including anticommunist students and young people who defected from North Vietnam, travelled throughout the world in efforts to drum up international support for South Vietnam. Drawing largely on Vietnamese language sources, Heather Stur demonstrates that the conflict in Vietnam was really three wars: the political war in Saigon, the military war, and the war for international public opinion.
Beyond Combat investigates how the Vietnam War both reinforced and challenged the gender roles that were key components of American Cold War ideology. Refocusing attention onto women and gender paints a more complex and accurate picture of the war's far-reaching impact beyond the battlefields. Encounters between Americans and Vietnamese were shaped by a cluster of intertwined images used to make sense of and justify American intervention and use of force in Vietnam. These images included the girl next door, a wholesome reminder of why the United States was committed to defeating Communism, and the treacherous and mysterious 'dragon lady', who served as a metaphor for Vietnamese women and South Vietnam. Heather Stur also examines the ways in which ideas about masculinity shaped the American GI experience in Vietnam and, ultimately, how some American men and women returned from Vietnam to challenge homefront gender norms.