by Doug Hostetter,
MCC Vietnam, Tam Kỳ 1966 – 1969
I grew up in a large family, with two older sisters and five younger brothers in a tight-knit Mennonite community in Harrisonburg, Virginia. Mennonites are a peace church that teaches that everyone was created in God’s image. Mennonites believe that God commands us to love one another, even those who hate us, and prohibits us from ever taking the life of another, even in self-defense. I can confidently say that none of my direct ancestors have fought in a war for 500 years. When I graduated from Eastern Mennonite College in 1966, I knew that I could not participate in the Việt Nam War. Since World War II it has been possible for Mennonites and other U.S. citizens who are conscientiously opposed to all war to register with the Selective Service—the organization that recruits U.S. citizens into the military—and receive ‘1-W,’ or conscientious objector (CO), status. COs were required to do two years of “alternative service” working for a school, hospital, or some other public or non-governmental institution to fulfill a “civilian capacity contributing to the maintenance of the national health, safety or interest.” I decided, since most of the young men of my generation were being sent against their will to fight and kill in Việt Nam, that I would volunteer to do my alternative service in Việt Nam working with the Mennonite Central Committee (MCC), the relief, development, and peace organization of the Mennonite and Brethren in Christ Churches in the U.S. and Canada, which was working in South Việt Nam to help the victims of war there.
After a few months of Việt Namese language training in Sài Gòn, I was sent as the first MCC volunteer to work in the village of Tam Kỳ, in a Central Việt Namese province called Quảng Nam. I worked there from 1966 to 1969. Tam Kỳ was in the middle of the war zone, with a number of camps filled with refugees from the war. I remember watching the U.S. Air Force bombing “enemy” villages only a kilometer or two away from Tam Kỳ, and then seeing the wounded civilians being brought to the Tam Kỳ Hospital. In the refugee camps I spoke with peasant farmers who had been driven from their communities to the east and west of Tam Kỳ and learned how U.S. planes had sprayed their fields with Agent Orange, an herbicide that instantly destroyed their fields of rice or vegetables. Understanding the evil of war was not difficult when working in Tam Kỳ.
MCC knew that the Tam Kỳ area was overwhelmed with civilian refugees driven from their homes by the war. The MCC program director in Sài Gòn suggested that when I arrived in Tam Kỳ, I should meet with the refugees, find out what their greatest needs were, and then, using MCC resources, work with them to try to meet those needs.
As in most wars, it was the infrastructure—schools, clinics, and marketplaces—in “enemy” territory that was first destroyed. The schools in the rural areas of Quảng Nam Province had been destroyed two years before I arrived, and the refugee children in the camps had missed two years of education. I was surprised to learn from the refugees that their greatest desire was for education for their children. A Việt Namese friend in Tam Kỳ explained to me that, historically, Việt Nam was a nation in which a child from any village in the country could become a Mandarin in the royal court simply by passing the right examinations.
As an American just learning Vietnamese, it was clear that I could not be the person to teach the refugee children how to read and write their own language. I desperately needed help. Although my Vietnamese language proficiency was very low at the time, my skills in English were excellent since I was a native speaker. I volunteered to teach English in the three high schools in Tam Kỳ, and I used my contacts in the high schools to recruit high school students to volunteer on the weekends and summers to teach refugee children how to read and write Vietnamese.
We realized that in a war zone even education could be considered political, so we chose not to use any government texts. Instead, MCC bought carefully-selected books that concentrated only on teaching reading and writing and that were free of political bias.
The program started small in Tam Kỳ in a few buildings in the refugee camps that were unused on weekends, where our high school volunteers could organize classes for the refugee children. Word spread that we had excellent literacy classes in the refugee camps, and soon the leaders of villages and hamlets near Tam Kỳ came to ask if we would organize classes for their children. We responded that we could only send teachers—high school students—during the summer, during their break. We promised to send a teacher to any village that would provide a room for the children to meet in and that agreed to feed and house the high school student who would come to teach their children.
As word of our schools grew, our locations spread further from Tam Kỳ, reaching to the villages that local people often called “Xôi đậu”—literally meaning sticky rice and beans, a common breakfast food with the ingredients mixed together, but here used as a colloquial term to refer to villages controlled by the Sài Gòn government by day that reverted to National Liberation Front (NLF) control at night. I still perfectly remember the conversation I had with one village chief who was requesting that we set up a class in his xôi đậu village. He had already prepared a room where the students could meet, but I regretted to have to tell him that I had exhausted my supply of volunteer teachers. He turned to me and said, “If you send a high school student to my village, I will guarantee that he will not be drafted into either army. We need teachers more than we need soldiers.” With that kind of promise, it was easy to find a high school volunteer, and the village chief kept his promise!
The literacy program in Tam Kỳ grew to include more than 90 high school student teachers who taught over 4,000 children how to read and write their own language. The literacy program also helped me to make deep friendships with the high school student volunteers and their families, and also with the families of the children, both in Tam Kỳ and in the surrounding rural hamlets. The literacy program and those friendships helped me to build a very different relationship with the people of Việt Nam than the U.S. soldiers who were occupying the country. Tam Kỳ was in the middle of the war zone—in fact, it was overrun about a dozen times during the three years that I lived there. Usually, the NLF would be in Tam Kỳ for only a few hours in the middle of the night on moonless nights, or during heavy monsoon rain. Whenever the NLF took over Tam Kỳ, they would attack the three locations where the Americans lived in heavily guarded compounds: MACV (Military Advisors Compound, Việt Nam), USAID (U.S. Agency for International Development), and the Embassy House (the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) headquarters in Tam Kỳ). I, though, lived in a completely unprotected house, marked clearly with the MCC symbol—a dove, representing peace, and a cross. My home was never attacked, even when the NLF held Tam Kỳ for more than a week during Tết 1968.
I never had any personal problems with American soldiers while I was in Việt Nam. They seemed to give me grudging respect when they learned that I was paid even less than they were, and they were astounded to learn that I lived in Tam Kỳ without any weapons. The military officers, however, did notice that I was able to live peaceably in Tam Kỳ while their compounds were always attacked. The American Provencal advisor also noticed that I was able to travel safely on my Honda 50 motorcycle to our schools in rural villages, villages he was afraid to travel to in an Armored Personnel Carrier. The Provincial Advisor complained to his superiors in Sài Gòn that it was “hard on the morale of U.S. soldiers” for them to see an American civilian living safely in the middle of a war zone. The U.S. Embassy in Sài Gòn then asked MCC to re-assign me away from the combat zone of Central Việt Nam.
As I was traveling to Sài Gòn to consult with MCC leadership, I met an American journalist in the Quảng Ngãi airport who asked about my situation. I explained to him what was happening, and he wrote a story that got picked up by the New York Times. The journalist pointed out that the U.S. military, which was destroying Việt Nam, was requesting the transfer of a literacy worker and an agriculturalist who were actually helping the Vietnamese people (the agriculturalist worked for International Voluntary Service in Huế). His article further noted that in a democracy the government is not supposed to tell non-governmental agencies where to deploy their staff or religious organizations how they should do their charitable work. The article was an embarrassment to the U.S. government, and the Embassy quickly retracted their reassignment requests.
A few months after my return to Tam Kỳ, one of the high school teachers in our literacy program asked that I meet with her father, not an unusual request; however, she told me to meet him at her aunt’s house on the outskirts of Tam Kỳ. When I arrived, her father informed me that he worked for the American CIA and had been charged with organizing a dis-information campaign about me. He explained that the CIA had informants from the rural NLF areas who would come into town each month to tell the CIA who the local officials in the NLF areas were, so that the CIA and could then try to find and kill them.
“When the informants come into Tam Kỳ next month,” he explained, “we will tell them that you are a deep cover CIA agent, and the next time that the NLF takes over Tam Kỳ, they will solve the Doug Hostetter problem.” I asked him if he had any advice. He said that he had no advice, but that his daughter thought highly of me and the literacy program she was teaching in, and she had insisted that he tell me about the CIA campaign to get me killed.
I asked a Vietnamese pastor friend in Tam Kỳ what I should do. He responded, “you cannot leave now. If you leave Tam Kỳ, just as the rumor gets out that you are a deep cover CIA agent, it will confirm the rumor, and MCC could never send another volunteer to Tam Kỳ. We will pray for you and your safety.”
I also asked my friend, the artist Lê Đình Sung, for advice. He responded. “Yes, you need to stay, and must trust that your friends know who you really are.”
A few months later, the high school literacy volunteer asked me to meet again with her father at her aunt’s house. He explained, “We tried to spread the rumor, but it was not believed. You are probably safe now.”
It was almost 50 years later, when I returned to Việt Nam to visit the children of my friend Lê Đình Sung, that I finally understood the significance of his comment that I should “trust that your friends know who you really are.” Lê Đình Sung had died a few years earlier, but his children remembered me as their “uncle,” who was always visiting their father, and they welcomed me into their homes. They revealed to me what Lê Đình Sung had never told me during the war—he had four brothers, and all were with the NLF. Two were killed during the war, and, after being told this, I was quickly introduced to the two who survived. I hadn’t even known that they existed, but they knew all about me.
Back in 1969, when my term with MCC ended and it was time to leave Tam Kỳ, my friends organized a farewell party. I will never forget a toast given by a teacher friend from one of the Tam Kỳ high schools. "You have loved the people of Tam Kỳ for the last three years. But you have been like a man at the bottom of a waterfall with a small bucket, trying to throw the water back to the top. Please go home and build a dam across the top."
I returned to the U.S. and began graduate studies in Sociology at the New School in New York City. I was then living safely in New York City, but my Vietnamese friends were continuing to be wounded and killed in a war that was being waged by my country. The words of that farewell toast burned into my soul. I now had a responsibility to try to stop the war my country was waging on my friends.
I threw myself into the U.S. anti-war movement. Hundreds of thousands of Americans were marching in New York, Washington, and other major cities, protesting a war that we knew was immoral and unjust. When the invitation come in late 1970 to join the U.S. National Student Association (NSA) delegation to travel to Việt Nam to negotiate a peace treaty between the U.S. students, the Sài Gòn Student Union, the Việt Namese National Student Union in Hà Nội, and the South Việt Nam Liberation Student Union, I readily accepted. The NSA delegation was made up of student body presidents or campus newspaper editors from 14 U.S. colleges and universities. I was added as the 15th member of the delegation when it was learned that I was fluent in Vietnamese. The State Department had originally offered to assist the NSA Delegation in securing visas for South Việt Nam, but when it learned that North Việt Nam was planning to grant visas to the delegation, the State Department ended its cooperation and notified the Sài Gòn government, which blocked all visas for students traveling to Việt Nam. As I had been added to the delegation quite late, my name was not on the list which had been shared with the State Department, and I was able to travel separately, as a Sociologist on vacation. I received a visa without a problem and was quickly able to locate the leadership of the Sài Gòn Student Union, which was already excited about the concept student peace treaty we were calling the People’s Peace Treaty. After they had signed a copy of the People’s Peace Treaty, they knew that I would personally take the treaty and join my colleagues in Hà Nội.
The leadership of the Sài Gòn Student Union wanted to hold a press conference before I left to announce the signing of the treaty in Sài Gòn. I explained that this would be dangerous for me—if we did a press conference while I was still in South Việt Nam, I could permanently disappear the next day when going through customs at the Sài Gòn airport. They countered that if we did not hold a press conference in Sài Gòn, the Americans and the Sài Gòn government would say that the People’s Peace Treaty had never been signed by the Sài Gòn Student Union, but had only been negotiated by American students in Hà Nội. Our compromise was to hold a “secret press conference” in Sài Gòn with one trusted journalist from the U.S. and one from Việt Nam, both of whom promised to hold the story until I was out of the country. The press conference went well, and the next day I left from the Sài Gòn airport with no problems.
The plan was for me to fly to Bangkok, where I would catch a flight to Vientiane, Laos. The following day, I would catch the once-a-week Soviet Aeroflot flight that starts in Moscow and ends in Hà Nội. The flights to Bangkok and Vientiane were uneventful. I had checked into my hotel in Vientiane and walked to the nearby Constellation Hotel, where I had arranged to meet a journalist friend. As soon as my friend saw me, he rushed over and asked if the Laotian police had found me yet. I explained that I had just arrived and checked into my hotel. I asked how he knew that I was being sought by the police, and he explained that a few minutes earlier, three Loatian police had gone up to an American at the bar and asked him if he was Doug Hostetter. The man said no, but the police insisted on inspecting his passport to confirm. “If you are carrying anything that you would not like the Laotian police to take, you might want to get rid of it quickly,” my friend suggested. I thanked him and asked if he would be willing to hold the signed copy of the People’s Peace Treaty and return it to me the following day before I boarded my flight to Hà Nội. He readily agreed and accompanied me to my hotel to take the treaty.
Ten minutes after he had left there were three Laotian police at my hotel room door. They asked to search my luggage but seemed unsure of what they were looking for. None of the police spoke Vietnamese, and only the leader, a police Colonel, spoke any English. After seizing a half dozen documents from my briefcase and taking apart my ball point pen to look for a hidden document, the Colonel said proudly, “We search just like the Americans. I was trained in Fort Bragg.”
My journalist friend returned the signed copy of the People’s Peace Treaty to me the next morning as I was boarding the flight to Hà Nội. The meetings in Hà Nội went very well, with everyone agreeing that the American military forces should leave Việt Nam, all prisoners of war and political prisoners should be released, and the Vietnamese people should determine their own future. The student “diplomats” were then all hosted briefly by North Vietnamese Prime Minister, Phạm Văn Đồng , before the U.S. NSA delegation caught the Aeroflot flight back to Moscow and then on to Paris, where we held our first press conference announcing the People’s Peace Treaty.
When we returned to the U.S., we received a beautiful letter from Madame Nguyễn Thị Bình, the Foreign Minister of the NLF, addressed to American friends, youth, and students. Her letter stated that the People’s Peace Treaty “voiced not only the aspirations of all Vietnamese and American students, but also the earnest aspirations of the Vietnamese and American peoples as well. . . I hope that students in all universities throughout the United States and throughout South Việt Nam will endorse and respond to this peace declaration in the most effective way.”
During the spring semester of 1971 I worked almost full time in the People’s Peace Treaty office in New York, and we spread our campaign to campuses all across the U.S. In an April 27, 1971 report, our office listed 177 colleges and universities in the U.S. that had organized around the People’s Peace Treaty that semester, with the vast majority of the campuses ratifying the treaty in either a campus-wide referendum or ratification by the student government. On April 29, 1971 eight members of the U.S. Congress introduced a Concurrent Resolution in the U.S. House of Representatives that stated: “Resolved by the House of Representatives (the Senate concurring), that it is the sense of the Congress that the People’s Peace Treaty embodies the legitimate aspirations of the American and Vietnamese peoples for an enduring and just peace in Indochina.”
Unfortunately, the Nixon Administration was not yet ready for peace, and there would be hundreds of thousands more casualties, both Vietnamese and American, before Henry Kissinger was willing to sign the Paris Peace Accords in 1973, which closely mirrored the People’s Peace treaty that Việt Namese and American students had negotiated two years earlier.
It was in Việt Nam in the late 1960’s that I learned not only of the horrors of war, but also of the power of friendship across national and religious boundaries that allowed us to work together to end animosity and heal a world broken by war.