04/02/2014 03:26 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Good Morning, Vietnam

Sam's last and only other trip to Vietnam was in 1970. He came with a delegation from the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the Fellowship of Reconciliation, church leaders and one student, his friend, Charlie Palmer. The purpose of the trip was to meet with the so-called Third Way -- Buddhist monks and students who generally favored a peaceful settlement to the war. It had about as much chance as the many previous incarnations of the same idea between 1945 and 1970 -- which is to say none. There was simply no compromise for either the Viet Minh in Hanoi nor for the U.S.-installed government in Saigon. The North could not compromise on their 25-year struggle for an independent Vietnam. The U.S. still held, at least publicly, in the second year of the Nixon Administration, to the illusion that victory was possible. So, although peace talks were being conducted in Paris, the war was unabated.

To hear Sam tell it, Saigon was an island, the most secure place in Vietnam but dreadfully unsafe. And, although the daily illusion of control was repeated at press briefings (the Five O'clock Follies), no one in the press gave any credit to what they were told. There was a 9:00 curfew, strictly enforced, so wherever you were at 9:00 p.m., you would have to spend the night. And the motorbike riders with their attractive women on the back circling the Continental were happy to suggest a comfortable place to do just that. Meanwhile, the bars there, at the Metropolitan and the Rex did a land office business on the expense accounts of every media outlet in the world. Many of the reporters were very intrepid about covering the news and some paid for it with their lives. Sean Flynn from Time and Dana Stone from CBS had disappeared just weeks earlier, as had five other CBS staff members. But nothing kept reporters from regularly placing themselves in harm's way. In the evening they often ended up in one of the Saigon bars sharing their disdain for the military leadership, their nearly-universal admiration for the soldiers who fought and their disgust for the political leaders who had sent them there.

On Saturday there was an anti-war demonstration by monks and students at the U.S. Embassy. Sam was present, along with Paul Moore, then the Episcopal Bishop in Washington and others from the delegation. It was dispersed by police using tear gas. Sam was somewhere near the front of the crowd, but it is clear from the picture below (look just to Bishop Moore's right) that he was moving at high speed to get out of harm's way.


The following morning the Vietnamese police showed up at his hotel room offering him a deal: He could be on the afternoon Pan Am flight to Guam or he could be in a Vietnamese jail. It was a pleasant flight.

The old hotels are still there and the bars are just as well-stocked. In the city there is little sign of the war or its Agent Orange casualties. We were told today by our friend Christine Doudna that Brennan Jones, the producer of Hearts and Minds, the Academy Award-winning documentary about Vietnam, died recently of cancer due to massive exposure to Agent Orange from his service as an aid worker in Vietnam with the Council of Churches.

Here, there are evident victims commonly in the countryside. In the city there is evident wealth; in the countryside, while people appear to be well-fed, most are poor. But, most remarkably, we have experienced no anti-American sentiment. It was thought by the French from 1945 to Dien Bien Phu in 1954 that they could hold onto their colony. They did not want the United States to be in charge of military strategy for fear that Vietnam would become "Americanized" and the French relegated to second class status. They were also afraid we would, at least on paper, free Vietnam from its colonial status -- though that wasn't going to happen as long as they remained communist. Of course it turned out that neither France nor the United States could control the political destiny of Vietnam by war. But, what the U.S. could not win by war, we have won by other means. The alternative currency, readily accepted, is the U.S. dollar. The street corner music is American -- mostly from the '60s and '70s. American movies dominate the satellite and cable movie channels, at least in the cities. American fast food is creeping into the country. English is clearly and predominately the second language.

Without Roosevelt's untimely death, Eisenhower's obsession with the domino theory, Kennedy's untimely death, Johnson's unwise deference to military and diplomatic advisers, largely inherited from Kennedy, and Nixon's duplicitous nature and slavish devotion to Henry Kissenger's criminal escalation, we might have saved millions of lives while still ending up more or less where we are now.

The thing that strikes me most powerfully is how foreign this country remains. I cannot imagine how totally frightening it must have been for kids from small towns in the Midwest and south to find themselves in a land of rugged terrain in a sea of hostile forces not knowing what would lie around the next corner. I thought then and think now that the soldiers were themselves victims, more to be understood and forgiven, while the guilty parties were our political leaders who sent them off to die for no reason.

It seems a simple enough lesson. It's remarkable that we have to relearn it every few years.