It should be emphasized that while both Thom and John IV went to the Vietnam War, it is the latter's writings about the war that offer unique opportunities for literary analysis.
John Steinbeck and the Tragedy of the Vietnam War
Version of Record online: 14 JUN 2011
© 2011 The Martha Heasley Cox Center for Steinbeck Studies/Wiley Periodicals, Inc.
Volume 8, Issue 1, pages 39–56, Spring 2011
How to Cite
GLADSTEIN, M. R. and MEREDITH, J. H. (2011), John Steinbeck and the Tragedy of the Vietnam War. Steinbeck Review, 8: 39–56. doi: 10.1111/j.1754-6087.2011.01137.x
- Issue online: 14 JUN 2011
- Version of Record online: 14 JUN 2011
In one of the most revealing letters of the Dear Alicia series, “Vietnam War: No Front, No Rear,”John Steinbeck writes:
This war in Vietnam is very confusing not only to old war watchers but to people at home who read and try to understand. It is mainly difficult because of our preconceptions accumulated over several thousand years. This war is not like any we have ever been involved in. (America 296)
He continues, “I’ll try to tell you some of the points of difference as I have observed them,” as he begins to spell out in twice weekly dispatches the dilemma the Vietnam War had become not only for the American people but for America's political and intellectual leadership as well. He addresses the readers in a question directed as much to himself as to them: “Does it make you feel hopeless that these wonderful troops plus the equally fine allied troops cannot bring this thing to a quick victory?” (America 296). It is telling that Steinbeck, who was extremely well read in military history and an experienced World War II correspondent, freely admitted his confusion about this war; he was obviously astute enough to realize that Vietnam was a war distinct from any other—it had no front, no rear, and, although he did not live long enough to see it, no graceful exit either.
Largely because of these factors, unlike previous experiences in American history, the war was arguably a tragedy of the first order for the entire nation. On the world stage, America lost much of the moral prestige it had accrued by saving the world from militaristic imperialism and fascism during World Wars I and II respectively. While history's final verdict about the Vietnam War is yet to be ascertained, certain facts are indisputable: America lost 58,000 lives before it turned the war effort completely over to the South Vietnamese, who subsequently frittered away all that the United States had hitherto invested on their behalf. The United States spent $150 billion on the war at a time when entire annual Federal budgets were about $350 billion. The Vietnam War was our longest war, twenty-five years total involvement, ten years as a war zone. While that war, in comparison, was Vietnam's shortest, they still lost an estimated three-million people. Our government's failure to recognize the problems inherent in trying to militarily defeat these seemingly indefatigable people—who fought the Chinese for 1000 years—cost the United States not only treasure and lives, but the connotations of that defeat continues to resound in our national psyche.
While the argument about the dimensions of the tragedy for our nation rages on, what is not arguable is that the war was calamitous for many of the individuals who had participated in it—from the lowly private to the exalted commander in chief. For John Steinbeck and his sons, particularly John IV, and for President Lyndon Johnson, the deleterious results of their participation are clearly chronicled and easily documented. The tragedy of the Vietnam War damaged the young men who fought in it and cast a pall over the last years of two great men, Johnson and Steinbeck, who were swept into the maelstrom. Lyndon Johnson was a president whose work on the Great Society and civil rights should have placed him squarely in the pantheon of great American Presidents. Instead, he left office diminished and depressed, dying within the decade.
The war also stained the reputations of many of those Johnson enlisted in its support, including John Steinbeck, who as a Nobel Prize winner and literary champion of the dispossessed, should have been immune from the “slings and arrows” of this kind of political backlash. The fact that Steinbeck had sons at the front is an important factor in analyzing his behavior during this period, for their participation added to the complexity of the war for him. The situation got even more complicated when the elder Steinbeck and John IV met on the battlefield, particularly when the son then later took up his father's trade and wrote about his own Vietnam experiences. This reunion of a famous American writer with his son on the same battlefield and the subsequent opportunity to read each of their separate accounts about their experiences is indeed rare. Such an occurrence is unparalleled in the world of American letters and presents a unique opportunity not only for Steinbeck scholars but also for those interested in the literature of war. The professional and personal implications—the tragedy—of this war experience for John Steinbeck and his son John IV are the focus of this essay.1
By definition, tragedy is the situation in which a great man is brought low by some mistake in judgment or personality flaw. In their editorial commentary in America and Americans, Susan Shillinglaw and Jackson Benson comment on one adverse outcome of Steinbeck's role in Vietnam:
Covering a war that polarized America, John Steinbeck took a side not congenial with the politics of the left—or, many thought, with his own liberal perspective… . Suddenly the people's bard was mouthing hawkish sentiments, denouncing protestors, writing jingoistic prose in support of American policy in South Vietnam, and slathering on details about the machinery of war. Photos of a gun toting Steinbeck in fatigues ran in many newspapers. Americans gagged on this new Steinbeck, seemingly a traitor to the downtrodden. (Steinbeck America 278)
Further reinforcing the tragic aspect of the experience and the good intentions behind his choice, Shillinglaw and Benson observe that the primary motivation for Steinbeck's going to the war's fronts in both World War II and Vietnam was that he “wanted to be involved, to offer advice, and to cultivate what was for him, the highest calling of the artist—helping people understand one another” (Steinbeck, America 274).
Vietnam, however, was not the first time Steinbeck's patriotic response to a President's request incurred criticism and condemnation. His standing had suffered during World War II as a result of two works, The Moon is Down and Bombs Away, both written at the behest of then President Franklin Delano Roosevelt.2 As Shillinglaw and Benson point out, it was Steinbeck's idea in the first place to set up an office of propaganda, and he had expressed that idea directly to FDR himself. Though it may not have enhanced his literary reputation, the positive impact of The Moon is Down was verified when, in 1946, the King of Norway presented Steinbeck with a medal for his distinguished service to the war effort in that country (Coers 44). Although Steinbeck was primarily a writer of fiction, he believed in being actively engaged in the service of his country and democracy, and so it was that a generation later, his patriotic impulses would once again damage his literary reputation.3 And the negative reaction to his World War II writing was inconsequential in comparison to the controversy that his Vietnam War involvement would engender.
In 1967 John Steinbeck and his son John IV met in a Vietnam war zone a half a globe away from home.4 The two men, who could not have been at more disparate stations in life, had come to learn firsthand about the quagmire that was Vietnam. Steinbeck was there as a war correspondent for Newsday. As noted above, this was not the first war he had personally witnessed. He had reported on the Mediterranean theatre during World War II and witnessed combat firsthand while assigned to a special army unit commanded by Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. He was with that unit when it raided the island of Ventotene, off the coast of Italy and when it waded ashore at Red Beach near Salerno during the Allied invasion of Sicily. He had seen combat—“the action he craved”—and “he did not flinch” (Steinbeck, America 276), but, of course, he had been a younger man then.5 At the time of his Vietnam assignment, Steinbeck was sixty-five years old, retirement age for most of his generation, and his health was deteriorating. He was physically on what biographer Jay Parini describes as a “downhill slant to death” that had begun with small strokes in 1959 (501). This alone should have excluded anyone from the physical demands of a combat zone. One could also say that his morale was in decline as recent years had taken their toll on his inner circle of friends and family. This included the deaths of his sister Mary, his life-long editor and friend Pat Covici, and Adlai Stevenson, whom he admired most among political figures. In 1954 a landmine in Vietnam had taken the life of his friend, the noted photojournalist Robert Capa, with whom he had collaborated on A Russian Journal. Writing from the Far East as he returned from Vietnam, Steinbeck remembered how they had met for dinner in Paris and Capa had expressed fear about this Vietnam assignment that he did not want. Steinbeck defined the toll of these losses in a letter to Max Wagner in May 1966, explaining that he felt “we die little by little in our friends” (Letters 830). Like many people his age, he was losing friends and family and having health problems, which raises the question of the advisability of his being on the front lines of a combat zone. Yet he chose to go.6 His motivations were complex.
In comparison, John IV's motivation for going to Vietnam was simple, if not naïve, and the national conflict about the war did nothing to prepare the young man for what he would encounter. John IV remembers the occasion of the war as an antidote to an unhappy situation in which he found himself. He was drinking excessively and coping with his mother, whose alcoholism made her act more and more like a “trapped animal” (Other Side 96). In later years when he recalled his state of mind upon receiving his draft notice, John explained, “I even became convinced that the war might help me where I couldn't help myself” (Other Side 96). He saw it as an opportunity to travel, something he loved to do. Also, he saw it as a “somewhat unique solution to the impasse in the two John Steinbeck's relationship” (Other Side 96). Ever his father's son, he shared the desire to see for himself. As he put it, “… I wanted to know what was going on there, rather than hear the name mentioned a thousand times a day by people who had never breathed Vietnam air” (In Touch 16). Sent to Ft. Bliss, Texas, for his basic training, he prevailed upon his father to use his influence with the President to get him assigned to Vietnam for the duration of his service. President Johnson subsequently invited the two Johns to the White House in May 1966. A photograph of the occasion is inscribed: “To John Steinbeck Jr. from his friend Lyndon B. Johnson.”7
For the two Steinbecks, their visit to the White House and time together before the son's deployment was a rare period of bonding, a prelude to their battlefield connection some months later. While the son's decision to go to Vietnam inspired his father's pride, it was also a cause for concern for his safety and his courage. In a 16 July 1966 letter to John IV, Steinbeck gives his son, who was in Vietnam at the time, some fatherly advice about how to act in battle, based on his own personal experiences as a correspondent in a World War II combat zone:
I do know what you mean. I remember the same feeling when there were areas of trouble. “What the hell am I doing here? Nobody made me come.” On the other hand, when it was over, I was usually glad I had gone. And one other thing. Once it started the blind panic went away and another dimension took its place. Thinking about it afterward I became convinced that there is some kind of built-in anesthesia that balances and sets the terror back. Another thing that helps is the fact that you weren't alone. (Letters 835-836)
During World War II, Steinbeck had distinguished himself as a war correspondent. At least from an observer's viewpoint, Steinbeck knew what he was talking about when it comes to the feelings one gets anticipating combat. In his collection of journalism about that war, Once There Was a War, Steinbeck writes about these feelings:
These are green troops. They have been trained to a fine point, hardened and instructed, and they lack only one thing to make them soldiers, enemy fire, and they will never be soldiers until they have it. No one, least of all themselves, knows what they will do when the terrible thing happens. No man there knows whether he can take it, knows whether he will run away or stick, or lose his nerve and go to pieces, or will be a good soldier. (111)
From all accounts the elder Steinbeck had been “a good soldier.” Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., who led one of the commando raids in which Steinbeck participated, remembers his behaving in a way that won the “everlasting respect” of the combat troops (Benson True Adventures 532).
Hindsight is always twenty/twenty and in retrospect, it is easy to fault Steinbeck (and many other fathers at the time) for the heedlessness with which he supported his sons in this war, despite their admitted confusion in understanding the circumstances of the conflict. For example, Steinbeck ends the above letter to John confessing discomfort when his son asked him for help in getting assigned to Vietnam:
I was horrified when you asked me to get you orders to go out, but I couldn't have failed you there. Do you know, that is the only request I have ever made of the President? The only one. And I was not happy about making it. But if I had had to request that you not be sent, I think I would have been far more unhappy. (Steinbeck Letters 836)
The very complexities of this father/son relationshp are inherent in the language of Steinbeck's text. It presages similar contradictions in the ensuing tragedy. As in the classic tragic situation, in seeking to do right, he found himself in an untenable situation. While Steinbeck was politically connected enough to keep his son out of harm's way, because of his public support for the administration's war policies, it was easier for him to ask that his son be sent to the front instead.
On the one hand, Steinbeck was obviously troubled and deeply conflicted by the war, as noted in his letters and dispatches. On the other hand, John IV's depiction of the pre-war situation takes a more mocking tone. He recalls in the 2001 memoirs that after his basic training he went east to visit his father and “tour his personal study of the psychology of war and manly patriotism, mostly based on John Wayne movies” (Other Side 97).8 He attributes to his motives for wanting to get to Vietnam a need to prove himself to his father. Looking back, he comments cynically on their interaction during that pre-Vietnam time together, analyzing it as a romantic male bonding, which he likens to “a kind of manhood embroidered only in daring dreams of childhood glory” that he calls a “fantasy” (Other Side 98). He writes that they “[w]hipped each other into an extraordinary sentimental froth” (Other Side 99). Notwithstanding the cynicism of this description, one seasoned by reflection and the distance of over twenty years, at the time John IV's views of the war were as complex and conflicted as his father's. In his 1969 memoir, In Touch, a recollection that is much closer in time to John IV's war experience, the son writes about the reasons he went to war then:
My family heritage had been a rich and wise one. Often I had felt more allied to adults than I did to my own generation. I think back now and smile at what must have seemed to other young people to be my pseudo-sophistication. Whereas their idea of sophistication led them to evade the draft by whatever means, mine led me to accept the draft. I was not quite ready to enlist; that would have seemed unsophisticated to me. But if I were called I knew that I would go. If this was the war for my generation I would accept it, let it happen to me, and also satisfy my curiosity about Vietnam and myself. Perhaps I would find answers there which would seem more than just mouthings. (5)
John IV here echoes some of the same convictions that his father felt about the young Americans who refused to go to Vietnam: “I got in some furious arguments because I was upset with the large numbers of young people who seemed to refuse to accept the fact that Vietnam even existed, beyond the knowledge that they didn't want to go there” (In Touch 5). Tim O’Brien articulates a similar emotional dilemma in his war memoir, If I Die in a Combat Zone: Box Me Up and Ship Me Home. O’Brien, too, was more afraid of severing ties with his father and family than he was of dying in Vietnam: “Piled on top of this was the town, my family, my teachers, a whole history of the prairie. Like magnets, these things pulled in one direction or the other, almost physical forces weighting the problem, so that, in the end, it was less reason and more gravity that was the final influence” (18). By the time John IV was writing his memoirs in the late 1980s, his attitude about the war had changed significantly:
… In the end, like the rest of the walking wounded, I came home to a country filled with anger and shame. The general population tried to hide its killing with ignorance, thus killing many more of its own with neglect… . Though the war co-emerged with so many other things in the middle of this century, it remains singular in its illusive moral. Even now, I try to fathom something of the purpose of this minefield which tore so many lives apart. For so many of us, Vietnam was like a spiritual concussion grenade. For some the ringing in the ears will never clear. (Other Side 100)
Inherent in the tragedy that Vietnam was for the two Steinbecks is that the father did not have time to rethink his public positions—to write with the reflection that his son was provided in writing two memoirs about the war experience.
Thus, Steinbeck died with a hawk-like image strong in the minds of the leftist literati. While he was in Vietnam, the Russian poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko had written a poem, translated and printed in The New York Times, that described Steinbeck as “an old wolf” and called on him to oppose the Vietnam War. With the benefit of hindsight, Steinbeck's old friend “Genya” could reevaluate the situation. Many years later, Yevtushenko wrote a sympathetic appraisal:
Unfortunately, many American leftists, who hadn't done a tenth of what Steinbeck did for his own people, began to cruelly insult Steinbeck for this perhaps only moral mistake in his life. The liberal terror at that time was little better than the medieval Inquisition. (66)
In assessing the tragedy of Vietnam for the Steinbecks, father and son, the reader must always keep in mind that, unlike Yevtushenko or his son or any of his myriad critics, Steinbeck did not have the luxury of knowing how the war would develop, what the aftereffects would be.
The younger John Steinbeck, with the understanding of a soldier as well as a journalist, was able to process the experience, to write about it a number of times at different geographical and generational perspectives. Most of the critical accolades John IV's writing would receive spring from those works that deal with the Vietnam experience. Moreover, his exposé of the drugs used by the military forced Washington to focus on the deleterious effects of this ill-defined conflict for the common soldier. John IV's feelings about the war changed once the aftermath coalesced negatively for him and the nation. Of course, this change was created by time and the opportunity to revisit the experience that his father was not able to have. Again, one must keep in mind that although both men were in Vietnam at the same time, they both wrote about their experiences at different times. Steinbeck's wrote columns for Newsday and, therefore, was informed by the immediacy of the experience. He was sending in his observations as they happened, writing columns that were published regularly in the newspaper. He was a working journalist, with a deadline. He did not live long enough to write about the experience through the filter of reflection and from an historical or artistic perspective. In In Touch, John IV wrote at a geographical and psychological distance, which was further increased with the publication of Other Side of Eden, written decades after his involvement in the war.
It can be said, then, that comparing the two Steinbeck's writings about Vietnam is like comparing similar things but from entirely different species; yet it is essential to do so for a clearer understanding of that period and the watershed experience it was for the father and for the son as well. On the one hand, having won every conceivable award for his writing, Steinbeck at the time was finding it increasingly difficult to accomplish any sustained writing project. He may have sensed that he would never again write a major novel; his last one was published in 1961. The “Dear Alicia” columns were among his last published writings. John IV, on the other hand, was at the beginning of a writing career that never achieved its full potential, although his natural writing ability was already discernible then. Steinbeck would not live long enough to read the positive reviews of John IV's first (and only book finished and published in his lifetime) book In Touch, which had been dedicated: “For my father.”9 John IV would go on to win an Emmy for his writing on the CBS documentary The World of Charlie Company. However, after that initial burst of creativity, there is a long fallow period due to serious dysfunction in his personal life, until he began writing his long anticipated memoir, originally titled Legacy. Unfortunately, he never finished that book; what he had written was incorporated into Other Side of Eden, after his premature death, by his wife, Nancy. The tragic implications for both the father—who was just beginning to change his mind about the war when he died—and the son—who came back from the war even further down the road to serious substance abuse and dysfunction and never fulfilled the early promise he demonstrated—are significant and important to contemplate, providing a crucial context for this assessment.
That being said, despite these differences between father and son, there are striking similarities in their sensibilities, especially in their love of travel and observing other cultures, which particularly shows up in their writing about Vietnam. For the son, arriving in Saigon was curiously like coming home “by going someplace else” (In Touch 18). He saw it as a “paradise of potential crystallized experience” (In Touch 18). But he also observed the sense of not really having arrived at the front. Trying to find an analogy, he reached back for a comparison to the war his father had covered: “It was more like what arriving in London during the ‘40's must have been like” (In Touch 17). His father would have known that experience. The elder Steinbeck's similar perception is described in his “Dear Alicia” headline mentioned earlier: “Vietnam War: No Fronts, No Rear.” The war was, he explains, “everywhere like thin ever present gas” (America 296). While the son sees opportunities for experience, experiences he likens to waves he wants to throw himself in front of, even if they might kill him, the father sees the danger of even the most mundane activity. He writes that Elaine, his wife, was in as much danger “walking in a civilized street to post a letter” as he was out in the countryside with the “hard bitten sand bag redoubts,” thus emphasizing the lack of definition for the front (Steinbeck America 297).
Another instance of similarity between John Steinbeck and his son is in their ability to charm the people they meet. Dean Phillips, who had occasion to be with the two John Steinbecks during the Vietnam War, remembers the wonderful impression the elder Steinbeck made on the men. In the heart of a war zone, this world-renowned author got up, made pancakes for everyone, and then helped to serve them. In Phillips's reminiscence, there were no pretensions about him.10 Analyzing his father's people skills, John IV describes it as a quality that “made people feel as if they were part of a wonderful conspiracy of imagination and action that might be a little risky” (Other Side 105). From all accounts the son had like qualities. In her account of her early impression of John IV, Nancy Steinbeck writes of his “most memorable talent, the uncanny ability to meet your mind.” Her daughter Megan described her stepfather as “Prince Charming the fourth” (Other Side 36, 58).
A sense of humor was another quality father and son shared.11 This trait is evident in their writing in a variety of ways. John senior was a great lover of gadgets, which were to him funny in themselves, not unlike Rube Goldberg creations. The son remembers “hysterically silly inventions … covered with glue and leather” (Steinbeck IV“Adam's” 106). In Vietnam, writing about this love of gadgets coalesced with Steinbeck's sense of humor when he wrote about wanting to steal one of the telescoping pointers used by the officers who were briefing him. This, he explains, would be useful for “pointing out girls or calling waiters.” In the same column of January 7, 1967, Steinbeck writes about how much he liked the helicopters in which he traveled: “In my opinion, the chopper is the greatest invention since the wheel” (6). Even in a war situation, he is able to find some fun. Similarly, the son's humor is evident in his telling of being summoned to the Criminal Investigation Department office of the Military Police in In Touch. The scene he depicts leading up to and during his questioning by the two investigators would transfer easily to a parody. John IV accomplishes this parodic effect by characterizing their gestures “as if they were going to cross themselves” (In Touch 66) and then describing how “in unison, they repeated a litany which told me they were both narcotics agents and two badges flashed briefly as they fairly saluted me with them.” So that the reader gets the full comic effect, he concludes: “Almost as if lighting an ancient torch, the Olympian games of federal interrogation commenced” (In Touch 66). Like his father, he could find the humor in a serious situation.
Both men also flavor their tragedy with small dollops of comic relief. Their tones range from quixotic to sardonic. In his 28 January 1967 “Dear Alicia” column, “Necromancy Works for Detachment No. 3,” Steinbeck writes “I came up here to visit the Pussi Mt. Garden Club, as motley a crew of talent as ever got shook out of a dice box” (“Necromancy” 4). Steinbeck then names and describes the men of the unit, including his own son, “who is generally called ‘Hemingway,’” a moniker that obviously tickled Steinbeck as he, too, refers to his own son as “Hemingway” a number of times throughout the column. John IV's unit (which was stationed in Vietnam's Pussi Mountains) had been awaiting the arrival of a new television van from which they were to “spread news and culture throughout southwest Asia” (“Necromancy” 4). In his memoirs, John IV writes about their first night together on Mt. Pussi as a time of drinking, taking drugs, and talking into the night—a special male-bonding session. The second night, however, was quite different. John IV narrates that the field radio reported an attack on nearby Pleiku City, and then a trip flare shot up into the night to warn the unit that their perimeter had been penetrated. To make matters worse, they were not in a fortified position, so there was little protective cover to be found. Steinbeck states that the “situation was hairy,” explaining that “there were weapons enough, but nothing to get behind,” and there was especially a shortage of sandbags. Steinbeck, the noncombatant, then justifies his being armed as self-defense: “I long ago discovered that I can observe much better if I have some means of self-defense handy and real handy” (“Necromancy” 37). The dispatch goes on to detail the remaining activities of that intense evening, especially noting the vulnerability of the van that held the cultural nerve center and the newly arrived TV station. The group waited in their assigned positions and Steinbeck noted that his was “high and unprotected,” but he stated that he was wearing a flak vest and helmet. As the father tried to get as flat to the earth as possible, he concentrated on his son's position below and overheard his son say to someone: “Who in the world could imagine that on a night like this, my dad would be up above me with an M79 covering me.” Steinbeck responded with the exclamation: “And who in the world would” (“Necromancy” 37). This particular Steinbeck column ends with an explanation that the expected attack never occurred and that with the dawn he found himself cold and aching all over.
In his reconstruction of the event, John IV begins the narrative similarly: “I saw my father behind some sandbags overlooking my position with his M-60 at the ready” (Other Side 106). However, John IV's 2001 recollection presents a host of differing details from his father's. John IV writes that there were sandbags, the very items that his father bemoaned the lack of, and the son also observes that his father was armed with a machine gun of an entirely different caliber than the one Steinbeck had previously identified in his column. These differences underscore the fact that the son was recollecting these events after much time had passed. And while that may account for mistakes in a few details, this distance also allows for a greater depth of perspective, something the elder Steinbeck did not have time to develop in a bi-weekly column but surely would have pursued had he had the time. Whereas the father probably was more accurate in terms of the details, the son may later have developed the richer point of view, having the time to reflect on the significance of the experience for his relationship with his father. As such, the son found the whole incident “incredibly touching” and “hilarious,” almost an operatic experience (Other Side 106). He further comments: “I mean, who, in God's name, was producing this movie?” (Other Side 106). For him, it was a “rare and oddly distinguished moment” in his life, the sine qua non of the two men's relationship (Other Side 106). When it became clear the enemy's probe of their perimeter would not actually lead to a battle, the two men shared a “brief moment of nondiscriminating awareness for each other” (Other Side 106). The son then states: “When I recall it into the forever present, my greed and longing for a feeling of connection with my father disappears. In those moments everything is enough” (Other Side 106). It seems only fitting, then, that John IV was back in Vietnam (this time as an independent news correspondent) when he got the news that his father had died on December 20, 1968; he was not able to attend the funeral.
Maybe Steinbeck could have sifted through all his contradictory feelings about the conflict and created a literary masterpiece that would have transcended the events of the day, as he had done brilliantly with the Dust Bowl Migration and The Grapes of Wrath. Regrettably, all the reading public has to go on are the columns Steinbeck wrote for Newsday. The bottom line is that despite his hawkish rhetoric and militaristic sentiments in public, Steinbeck's thoughts about the war had all along been far more conflicted in private communications. For example, in a letter to John Valenti, Steinbeck writes that
the real reasons for the war will never come to the surface and if they did most people would not see them. This is primarily a power struggle… . Unless the President makes some overt move toward peace, more and more Americans as well as Europeans are going to blame him for the mess, particularly since the government we are supporting with our men and treasure is about as smelly as you can get. (Letters 826)
This letter to Valenti is not the only evidence that Steinbeck had serious reservations about Vietnam. Yevgeny Yevtushenko recalls a conversation he had with Steinbeck after the publication of a poem that was critical of the “Letters to Alicia” columns. In this conversation, Steinbeck acknowledged being hurt by his friend's chiding, but he also told Yevtushenko that “… we are both wrong in this story… . In such situations one shouldn't take either side because both sides are guilty of something” (66). For his side of the story, Steinbeck was guilty of nothing more than a serious mistake in judgment, but he was also clearly not alone. Other writers, such as Vladimir Nabokav, James T. Farrell, John Updike, Ralph Ellison, and John Dos Passos also supported the US war effort at the time (Brinkley, “The Other” 27). However, as Brinkley points out, “it was John Steinbeck who bolstered Johnson's morale on Vietnam. A friend of L.B.J. since the Depression, Steinbeck strongly supported the GIs, particularly as his son was among them; to him, they were heroes like those during the Dust Bowl he celebrated in The Grapes of Wrath” (“The Other” 27).
Critical analysis of Steinbeck's Vietnam experience has been relatively scant, but what there is highlights Steinbeck's inner dilemma. Tetsumaro Hayashi's monograph John Steinbeck and the Vietnam War” lists eight beliefs that undergirded Steinbeck's thoughts about this conflict that demonstrate the internal conflict that the war posed for him: (1) Steinbeck believed that all war was immoral; (2) that communism was evil and democracy was good; (3) that the US was mistaken for being involved in the civil war that had been going on in Vietnam; (4) that President Johnson and the US government were trapped in the conflict and could not win the war decisively and had to end it honorably; (5) that he recognized late the misguided idealism that got America involved in the conflict in the first place; (6) that there was no easy solution to the American involvement in Vietnam; (7) that he could not tolerate the youth of America who attacked President Johnson and the soldiers in Vietnam; and (8) that no victory in Vietnam could preclude a viable democratic government in South Vietnam (15-17). The obvious contradictions and antithetic nature of these tenets help define the opposing horns of Steinbeck's dilemma. In addition to the philosophical conflict that the war caused for him, there was the conflict based in relationships, not precepts. On the one hand, he could write his friend Jack Valenti in 1965, expressing pessimism: “There is no way to make the Vietnamese war decent. There is no way of justifying sending troops to another man's country” (Letters 826). Yet a year later, he was optimistically reassuring President Johnson that the protestors against the war were not unlike those in the past who had not wanted any “part of Mr. Adams’ and George Washington's war” or “denounced and even impeded Mr. Lincoln's war” (Letters 831-2). However, despite his private misgivings about the war, he could not publicly express them then, particularly since he had pulled strings to get his son John IV to the front.
The Vietnam War was the most divisive issue in America since the Civil War; its bitter legacy remains even today. In America, the war not only destroyed lives and careers, but it also broke apart homes and exposed many impressionable young people to the worst life has to offer. The war's aftermath turned a large number of veterans into existential wrecks, who were unable to turn away from the horrors they witnessed or even participated in, unable to turn from the drugs and alcohol that had been readily available to make them feel better. John IV himself battled severe substance abuse throughout his life, though Vietnam was not the sole culprit. His family history had predisposed him to addiction. Ironically, despite or perhaps because of what he had experienced in Vietnam, John IV was launched onto a writing career. Thus, inspired to write, he is forever linked with his father. A small irony of this tragedy is that while it wreaked havoc and probably contributed to the early deaths of both his father and President Johnson, it provided John IV with subject matter, a life-long affinity for oriental philosophies, and the direction in life he had been seeking. As he aptly puts it, “I grew up in Vietnam” (Other Side 120). And, as one would imagine, his writing about Vietnam is rife with the ironic tensions of both pain and attraction. He credits the experience with enriching him, while at the same time he describes Vietnam as “a spiritual concussion grenade” (Other Side 120).
Reviewing the Vietnam experience not only of the whole country, but also of the two John Steinbecks, in particular, makes for poignant reflection. It is hard to fault the father for his mistake in political judgment about the war—after all Steinbeck wasn't a politician. He was a writer trying to do his duty as a father and a citizen. Even his wife, Elaine, remembers that he was in the process of changing his mind about the war when he got home from the front. Her husband, she explained, meant to spend all of his time writing about Vietnam when he returned, but instead he spent it dying (Steinbeck, America 281). The echoes of Shakespearean tragedy are unmistakable. The times were “out of joint,” and John Steinbeck did not live long enough to put his house right, thus leaving, like Hamlet, a “wounded name.” Steinbeck's strong sense of loyalty to his Democrat president; his belief in traditional values, with a sensibility both romantic and realistic; his strong sense of masculine responsibility; his disdain for communism; and his personal commitment to the war—with his own sons in the killing field—compelled him to support the war effort publicly. However, his sense of fairness and sympathy for oppressed people and his love of America made his private feelings about the war a matter of personal torment. Steinbeck got involved in a war that even the shrewdest of political leaders found troubling and that even the world's most powerful army found to be disabling. As a result, among those who had traditionally seen him as a champion of the underdog, his literary reputation, was tainted. Revisited with the benefit of hitherto unpublished materials and the perspective of historical distance, the tragedy that Vietnam was for John Steinbeck is a compelling tale that, regrettably, he was never able to finish.
Peter Buitenhuis chronicles the roles of Archibald MacLeish, Robert E. Sherwood, and John Steinbeck as writers during World War II, concluding that they “sacrificed some of their reputation because of their services to the government” 29.
Hemingway and Faulkner had declined such assignments (Benson 505).
Although both Steinbecks got to Vietnam in 1966 (John IV in the summer and Steinbeck in December), they didn't get together until 1967. Steinbeck's “Dear Alicia” columns began appearing in January 1967.
An exploration of the comparative World War II dispatches of Steinbeck and Hemingway is in War and Literature, volume 15, editions 1 and 2 (2003). See “Mr. Novelist Goes to War: Hemingway and Steinbeck as War Correspondents” by Mimi R. Gladstein.
It is significant that he did not go alone, but was accompanied by his wife, Elaine.
Though John Steinbeck could not have known it then, Lyndon Johnson was already deeply conflicted about the war, convinced that it was a lost cause. Lady Bird Johnson's diaries describe his deep depression (qtd in Turner 170). Reaching for Glory: Lyndon Johnson's Secret White House Tapes 1964-65, edited by Michael Beschloss, reveal his sense of doom and foreboding about the war. This idea is replicated in a number of instances.
It should be noted that while this book was not finished in John IV's lifetime, the author and not his wife, Nancy, provided these particular reflections.
In an interview for A&E, John's brother, Thom, stated that his father did read In Touch in galleys. He remembers that his father said it was a much better book than he could have written at the age of 21.
Interview between Dean Phillips and Mimi Gladstein, Austin, Texas, March 9, 2002. Phillips was with the 4th Infantry Division Artillery in Pleiku and had gone up to the Mt. Puissi AFRTS position to scrounge some music when he was invited by the younger Steinbeck to have breakfast with them. He retired from the Army as a Lieutenant Colonel in 1987.
In his reminiscences for an A & E special, Thom Steinbeck observes that “their humor was so identical.” He also comments on their shared love of study and scholarship. This interview was published as “My Father, John Steinbeck,” in John Steinbeck: A Centennial Tribute, ed. Stephen K. George. Westport, CT: Praeger, 2002, 3-12.
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- Beschloss, Michael, ed. Reaching for Glory: Lyndon Johnson's Secret White House Tapes, 1964 - 6 . New York : Simon and Schuster, 2001.
- The Other Vietnam Generation. New York Times Book Review, 28 February 1999: 27. .
- Prelude to War: The Interventionist Propaganda of Archibald MacLeish, Robert E. Sherwood, and John Steinbeck,” Canadian Review of American Literature, Winter 1996, Vol. 26, Issue I, 1-30. .
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- Pleiku Similar to Texas Panhandle,”“Letters to Alicia. Salina Californian January 7, 1967: 4, 10. .
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- “Adam's Wound.” Cain Signs: The Betrayal of Brotherhood in the Work of John Steinbeck. Edited by Michael J. Meyer. Lewiston : The Edwin Mellen Press, 2000. 99-110. .
- In Touch. New York : Knopf, 1969. .
- The Other Side of Eden: Life with John Steinbeck. New York : Prometheus Books, 2001. , and .
- My Father, John Steinbeck,” John Steinbeck: A Centennial Tribute, ed. Stephen K.George. Westport , CT : Praeger, 2002, 3-12. .
- Lyndon Johnson's Dual War: Vietnam and the Press. Chicago : U Chicago P, 1985. .
- Full Body Wine from Grapes of Wrath,” John Steinbeck: A Centennial Tribute. Ed. Stephen K.George. Westport : Praeger, 2002, 59-67. .
Mimi Reisel Gladstein's work has been honored with an American Book Award, a Southwest Book Award, the John J. and Angeline Pruis Award for Teaching Steinbeck and the Burkhardt Award for Steinbeck Scholarship.