Ramsey Clark is shown in a US media photo talking to people in northern Vietnam during his 1972 visit in to stop US bombings on the Red River dykes
Ramsey Clark became a hero to the antiwar movement and a pariah to the Nixon administration when he went to Vietnam in 1972 to try to prevent the US from bombing the country's northern river dykes.
Clark said he could not turn away from the antiwar cause after seeing hospitals and schools shattered by the US bombs with his own eyes.
Clark’s experience only emboldened his commitment to protesting the war. He witnessed with respect and awe the dignity with which the Vietnamese people attempted to survive the war, and was overwhelmed by the kindness they showed him.
He told the story of a Vietnamese family that gave him their only fish on the table to Lao Dong in an interview last month, when he was an honored guest in Hanoi to commemorate the 40-year anniversary of the signing of the Paris Peace Accords.
But before Clark became famous for rebeling against the establishment, he had been part of it. After a brief stint in the Marines, Clark became a lawyer and went on to be part of the Kennedy and Johnson administrations.
It was following his term as a US Attorney General under President Johnson that Clark became an active antiwar activist. He went to Vietnam upon learning of US plans to destroy all the dykes in the north, in an attempt to show the Nixon administration that the dykes existed solely to protect Vietnamese people from floods and served no military purpose.
He was the only American among the international delegation that visited Vietnam in August 1972 to witness the damage being caused by the US bombing campaign.
The US dropped more bombs on Vietnam than by all sides in all previous wars throughout history, and three times more than by all sides in the World War II.
Clark said bombing was nonstop and his delegation dared only travel at night by car, as the US military viewed all moving objects as targets.
He visited seven cities and provinces during two weeks in northern Vietnam, including a day and a night stay with his translator’s family.
The family did not speak English had never left their village and considered Clark the strangest living thing on Earth, but that did not stop them from being “very kind” to him, he said.
Clark said they knew he was from the US, but they still took good care of him, as if he did not come from a country in the midst of attempting to destroy their village and country.
At dinner, the whole family shared a pot of rice, some salt, fish sauce and one fish. They gave him the fish, though he was unable to accept the overly generous offer.
Then he talked with the family about life and when the subject of the war came up, a little girl in the family suddenly stood up, proclaiming that she would become a soldier to fight the US when she grew up.
Clark said he was startled and saddened hearing that. He said the American aggression had robbed Vietnamese children of more appropriate, commonplace dreams of becoming doctors, teachers or engineers.
Back to the US, he detailed the war crimes his country was committing in Vietnam to major media outlets like ABC and CBS. Many of his photos from northern Vietnam were printed in Life magazine, which also ran his article about his experience in Vietnam, Lao Dong quoted him as saying.
He said all he saw during his two weeks in Vietnam was the destruction of cities and villages, and that he did not want to witness so much death and misery ever again.
The 86-year-old recalled August 5, 1972, when he climbed up a mountain of debris from the recent bombing of Hai Phong, a Vietnamese air defense officer informing him that the US air strike had killed 25 people and injured 43 others.
He said many families in northern Vietnam had left cities to seek refuge in villages, and they often split up to various locations, not wanting to risk having the entire family killed.
Clark said he grew up in the era of World War II and had witnessed its devastation, but it was beyond what he could bear, seeing poor, gentle Vietnamese peasants living under terrible conditions amidst the largest bombing campaign the world has ever known.
He said he was most emotional seeing schools that had been destroyed, always have believed that education is a universal savior.
On a remaining wall of one of the six schools he visited which had been completely destroyed, he saw the words: “Respect your teacher, study hard.”
Clark said it was a hard truth to swallow that the US bombed schools and hospitals.
His article and photos sparked outrage against the war among the US public, and that helped force the US government to cancel the bombings on the Red River dykes. Clark was thus also dubbed the “Protector of the Red River dykes” by many Vietnamese people.
But it also earned him flak from the establishment and his compatriots who still supported the war. They called him a traitor, arguing that he had been manipulated during his trip to Vietnam.
Clark said this failed to anger him and that the accusations came from people who refused to accept the truth, while he was just acting according to the dictates of his conscience.
He said that right before his trip, he received a threatening call from an official with the US Justice Department, telling him that he might prosecuted for opposing the US policy.
But he was never prosecuted and said he has never regretted visiting Vietnam.
The only regret was that he should have visited the country sooner so that he could have helped relay the truth about what the Vietnam War was really all about to the people in his country sooner, he told Lao Dong.
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