STEINBECK IN VIETNAM: Dispatches From the War, edited by Thomas E. Barden. University of Virginia Press, 224 pp., $29.95.
John Steinbeck is best remembered for his "Dust Bowl" trilogy of the Great Depression ("In Dubious Battle," "Of Mice and Men" and "The Grapes of Wrath"), and several later works, including "East of Eden" and "Travels With Charley." If he's remembered at all for his writings from Vietnam, it's probably by the aging veterans of Newsday, where they were published late in 1966 and early in 1967. 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. They were, on the other hand, applauded by Harry Guggenheim, the paper's owner.
Thomas E. Barden, the University of Toledo English professor who edited "Steinbeck in Vietnam: Dispatches From the War," feels the writings still have immediacy and passion and says the Nobel Laureate's entire body of work should be available in print. That's a legitimate argument, and probably justifies cutting down the trees. But the columns, for the most part, were not particularly good when they were written and seem even less so in retrospect.
Steinbeck argued that the North Vietnamese couldn't move enough food and equipment along the Ho Chi Minh Trail to supply troops in the South (which they could) and that the Americans were seen as an army of liberation (increasingly, they were seen as occupiers). The columns were headed "Letters to Alicia" and were written as personal letters to Steinbeck's friend, Alicia Patterson, Guggenheim's wife and the founder of Newsday. But Patterson had died three years earlier, and Steinbeck in effect was describing the war to a corpse.
None of which means that the book is without merit. "Steinbeck in Vietnam" contains some vivid descriptions of the fierceness of American firepower, the hazards of night combat and the beauty of the Vietnamese countryside. It also reflects the scorn that many "hawks" and "doves" had for one another, with Steinbeck critical of the anti-war protesters as stupid and cowardly. "Their shuffling, drag-ass protests that they are conscience-bound not to kill people are a little silly," he wrote. "They're not in danger of that. Hell, they couldn't hit anybody. I think their main concern is that a one-armed half-blind 12-year-old V.C. could knock them off with a bunch of ripe bananas."
Steinbeck spent a good deal of time in the field, and wrote about the bravery of helicopter pilots in the air and of the multiple dangers -- not just hostile gunfire, but also snakes, malaria and tripwire explosives -- faced by infantry on the ground. Barden notes, however, that Steinbeck was escorted by high-ranking officers everywhere he went and mainly saw what they wanted him to see. He returned most nights to the Caravelle Hotel in Saigon and did his writing from there. "At night when we have drinks and dinner on the roof we can see the flares and hear the thunder of artillery all night long," he wrote.
Barden notes that one Steinbeck son was already in Vietnam and another was training to go there; and that Steinbeck had a deep affinity for the American military dating back to World War II, strong anti-Communist feelings and a personal loyalty to President Lyndon Johnson, whose "Great Society" goals he admired. "He considered the young men of the military exemplars of all that was right about American youth," Barden writes. "Given this web of factors, Steinbeck's support of the Vietnam War is not surprising."
Steinbeck came home to Sag Harbor and died of heart failure a year later, but not before reversing himself almost completely. While he did no more public writing about Vietnam (or anything else), he is known to have spent his last months privately questioning both the execution and legitimacy of the war. In describing this change, Barden notes that Steinbeck's most memorable work from the World War II years was "The Moon Is Down," a novel intended as anti-Nazi propaganda. In it, an invading army (unidentified but clearly German) occupies a coastal region (probably Norway), and finds itself beset by winter weather, sabotaged rail lines, destroyed machinery, short-circuited power plants and endless killings of soldiers by resistance fighters. One of the invaders is driven insane, led away shouting that by occupying the country "the flies have captured the flypaper."
Barden says that it had to have been painful for Steinbeck to finally realize near the end of his life that this was the same situation that the American GIs he so admired now found themselves in. And in fact, that's how James Reston of The New York Times described American involvement in Vietnam in February 1968, using Steinbeck's words from a quarter-century before to warn readers that "We are the flies that have captured the flypaper."
Anthony Marro was the editor of Newsday from 1987 to 2003.