An American journalist visits Vietnam almost 50 years after his anti-war reports garnered the wrath of his compatriots
A bombed out village in North Vietnam, the victim of American aggression in 1965. Photo courtesy of Chris Koch
When US journalist Chris Koch first visited northern Hanoi in 1965, people were living in bunkers to avoid American bombs.
Koch was the first American journalist to visit north Vietnam during the war, and people he met told him he was the first American they'd seen since 1954.
He remembers the wartime north vividly.
Slit trenches and fox holes lined country roads, and bomb shelters lined city streets. Roads were filled with young people coming home from the fields armed with rifles.
People's clothes were simple and egalitarian and Hanoi's streets were jammed with bicycles and only a few motorbikes and military vehicles.
"There was an incredible spirit among the people of resistance," Koch told Vietweek upon returning to Hanoi for the first time after that visit 47 years ago.
"I was amazed at the resilience of the Vietnamese."
What struck him most were the smiles of the Vietnamese people and how even during wartime, there were hospitable and friendly to their supposed enemy.
"You [the Vietnamese] can fight very well, but you are not fighters, you are gentle," he told Vietweek.
Koch said he and his family were in Vietnam for the two-week spirit to see if that spirit was still alive.
Though people in Hanoi now "dress like Westerners, in jeans, shorts, and dresses, and many of them carry I-phones," according to Koch, the friendly atmosphere remains the same.
"Something about the feeling about the people is very familiar to me"¦ People are easy to get along with," he said.
But when Koch had returned home to the United States from that first trip in 1965, he became one of the first US journalists to conclude that America should withdraw from Vietnam, and his own countrymen were not nearly as easy to get along with.
|American journalist Chris Koch in North Vietnam in 1965; he had secretly visited the country against the wishes of the US government. Photo courtesy of Chris Koch
"When I lectured at a university in Plattsburg, they had to lead me out the back door because people were getting very angry and beginning to shout at me," he said.
In Denver, "they really got angry and they began coming up on the stage and I had to climb out a window in the back of the room and get in my car"¦Americans were not ready to listen to what I had to say, they really weren't."
The government took away his passport and though he worked for Pacifica, an alternative left-leaning radio station, he lost his job and no one would hire him. He couldn't get his radio stories broadcast nor his print stories published.
He was interviewed by ABC, CBS and NBC but none of them ran the interviews.
At that time, most newspapers and magazines in the United States were giving readers the impression that Vietnam was about surrender, and that the United States was on the verge of victory.
When he told them otherwise, "they were very angry," he said.
War and peace
So what was it he saw that made Americans so angry?
"One of the things we [the US] say every time we fight, and we said it in Vietnam, is that we're only hitting military targets, we're just taking out military targets," Koch told Vietweek.
"Well you come here and you look; hospitals, schools, factories, everything was being hit. Down in Thanh Hoa where I was, it was just rubble, it was leveled along the highway."
American journalist Chris Koch (L) and former secretary of the Thanh Hoa Youth Federation Nguyen Van Gia. Gia was Koch's guide while the American reported from Vietnam in 1965; this meeting, at the Thanh Nien Thanh Hoa bureau office, was their first in almost 50 years. Photo: Ngoc Minh
When he reported some of the first stories about Agent Orange, based on testimony of US veterans who were getting sick, most editors didn't believe him.
"Agent Orange doesn't hurt anybody," people told him.
By the end of the American war effort in Vietnam about ten years later, most mainstream American media had caught up with Koch and were publishing stories like his in a classic case of too little too late.
The popular belief that an anti-war media helped end the war is betrayed by Koch's story of that visit in 1965, when years after America had dispatched its military to Vietnam the media still wouldn't give his anti-war stories the time of day.
Koch is even skeptical that the American anti-war movement had too much to do with ending the Vietnam War.
"The peace movement didn't end the war, the Vietnamese ended the war by simply their continued resistance. I think the peace movement had a role in it, but I think Americans tend to overemphasize the influence of the peace movement."
Not all of Koch's stories about war-torn north Vietnam were as serious as seeing cities destroyed and describing the indomitable human spirit that survived among the rubble.
He also remembers some of the more lighthearted experiences he had there.
Just before Koch's visit, the US had had tried to firebomb Vietnamese forests to deprive its enemies of food and ground cover. But a major rain storm had swept in and put the fires out immediately.
Koch remembers discussing the development with north Vietnam's Prime Minister Pham Van Dong Ho Chi Minh's number two during a stroll through a Hanoi garden.
"For us communists god doesn't exist," said Dong. "But even if god doesn't exist, he's still on our side."
Koch also told Vietweek about his one Uncle Ho sighting during the trip.
Koch was sitting in row 15 at the Hanoi Opera House awaiting for a show to start when Ho Chi Minh entered the opera house with no guards and only a friend by his side.
"It was no big deal," said Koch.
Uncle Ho sat four rows behind Koch and said "excuse me" as he climbed over people to his seat.
"An American President couldn't go into an opera like that without 15 guards, and people would applaud. But Ho was just one of the people. What really excited me was to see his relationship with the people; he wasn't a king or dictator or tyrant, he was just an ordinary person."
Koch's most effective reporting about Vietnam provided inspiring and haunting portraits of the human face of the war: the villages who had built their own makeshift dams, the farmers teaching themselves to shoot down American planes, the kids he knew would someday be killed by bombs, an old man who scolded a US soldier for corrupting his country, all of whom were being "bled to death," as he wrote in a report published by the alternative paper I.F. Stone's Weekly.
This kind of humanism revealing the human suffering of the war was lacking in most reporting of the day.
"Even calling the Vietnamese "˜Viet Cong' was a way of saying "˜you're not really as human as we are,'" Koch told Vietweek.
He drew a parallel to how the US's expanding drone war also had a dehumanizing effect.
"There's something spooky about being able to sit in Austin, Texas and kill people in Afghanistan."
But for Koch, the most salient memories of Vietnam today and in 1965 are of the Vietnamese ability to remain human in the most inhumane conditions.
"There was a huge idealism in Vietnam in 1965. People in the north really loved Ho Chi Minh, they really felt that the kind of socialism or communism that he represented was going to be good for the country," he told Vietweek.
"They were very excited, everybody was very motivated to work for the country, and I came back here to see if that spirit still existed. Or have they joined the capitalist world and all you care about is making money for yourselves?"
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