Americans Still Traveling Down the Ho Chi Minh Trail

Stuart Elliott,
New America,
November 1977

Three thousand Americans including Ramsey Clark and ACTION director Sam Brown, crowded the Beacon Theater, a spacious New York rock concert hall, recently to give a cheering welcome to Vietnam’s delegation to the United Nations. While Cora Weiss, an organizer of the reception, was shouting, “Welcome in the name of the American people,” outside in a driving rain, three hundred Vietnamese protested the suppression of the Buddhist church in Vietnam, forced migration to the “new economic zones” and re-education camps, and they called upon the United Nations to force the new Vietnamese government to respect human rights.

Although the protest was largely organized by Buddhist Third Force leaders in the United States, Pranay Gupte of the New York Times nonetheless labeled them as former Thieu supporters. The tendency to characterize all Vietnamese critics of the new Communist dictatorship as Thieu supporters is an all too prevalent myth that is frequently accompanied by the related myth that those inside the Beacon Theater represented a peace movement. David Dellinger, the master of ceremonies for the reception, bragged to thunderous applause that when he visited Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), a North Vietnamese officer told him that the American peace movement had “inspired” the forces fighting in the jungle when they had almost given up hope. When the North Vietnamese delegation was introduced, they were greeted by what one reporter called an “emotional explosion.” With their hands clasped “above their heads, the Vietnamese acknowledged the tumultuous applause. The overwhelming majority of those inside the theater seemed not to be celebrating peace in Vietnam, but reveling the triumph of Communist totalitarianism in Indochina.

The reception was only a small part of a weekend designed to revive the antiwar movement in order to launch a campaign to win recognition and reconstruction aid for Vietnam. A more important event was a two-day conference sponsored by Friendshipment, a coalition of religious and political organizations which has sent over $5 million in aid to Vietnam. Billed as “Healing the Wounds of the War,” the theme of the conference was more accurately reflected by the words of the song that immediately preceded Saturday’s opening sessions:

Ho Chi Minh we sing your name
Through eternity no death will claim you
You’ll live forever though your heartbeat is gone
As we travel down the path you traveled on.

The keynote speaker for the conference was, Dinh Ba Thi, the new Vietnamese ambassador to the United Nations. He emphasized that the Vietnamese “are determined to struggle for full human rights which are fundamentally the right to independence of all nations, the economic and social rights of all men and women” and pledged that the Vietnamese are “determined not to be deceived by wreckers and rumor-mongers who shout about human rights.” Pressing business forced the ambassador to leave after concluding his speech, but he could have safely remained for there was no reason to fear shouting about human rights violations in Vietnam at the Friendshipment conference.

Over two hundred people from eighteen states attended the conference, representing seventy five organizations, with the largest delegations coming the United Methodist Church, the American Friends Service Committee, Church World Services, an agency of the United Church of Christ. The involvement of so many churchmen does not mean that the campaign for recognition and reconstruction aid is motivated by simple humanitarianism. In fact, the conference was highly political.

A primary focus was the need to play down the campaign’s underlying politics so as to make it palatable to the American people. Thus, the slogan adopted was “Heal the Wounds of the War,” not “Reparations for American War Crimes.” The latter, however, is closer to the real goal of the conference organizers. Cora Weiss, the coordinator of Friendshipment, told the conference that “The war in Vietnam was not a mistake... not a tragedy... not a conflict... not an unfortunate accident on the path of history. The war in Vietnam was a crime.” She also declared that “the legitimate struggle for independence and freedom from colonial rule waged by the people of Vietnam would not have proceeded so quickly without support from Americans who rejected the criminality of the White House and the Pentagon.”

So total was the identification of the conference with the Vietnamese Communists that when questions arose about strategy and tactics in the post-war period, the attitudes of the Vietnamese were constantly cited as grounds for adopting a certain approach.

Pat McCleary, executive director of Church World Service and a recent and friendly visitor to Vietnam, presented an argument that will undoubtedly be used in selling recognition and reconstruction aid. He assured the conference that not only were the re-education camps extremely successful in rehabilitating prostitutes, but that Vietnamese communism is “moderate,” “unique,” and based “on the Asian culture, the Asian value system.” Moreover, he argued that if the United States plays its cards right, that is, provides reconstruction aid, Vietnam will become an Asian Yugoslavia.

The conference gathered the leading ideologues and activists of the wing of the antiwar movement which is not bothered by gross human rights violations in Indochina. Among the most prominent were Gareth Porter, former head of the Indochina Resource Center and a leading American defender of the new Cambodian government; Noam Chomsky, another defender of the Cambodian government; Marcus Raskin, head of the Institute for Policy Studies; Richard Falk, David Dellinger, Barry Commoner, Don Luce of Clergy and Laity Concerned, Methodist Bishop James Armstrong, Henry Foner, of the Fur, Leather and Machine Workers Union, and Peter Weiss.

The conference was no more disturbed by the substantiated reports of what Jean Lacouture, the French biographer of Ho Chi Minh, describes as “auto-genocide” in Cambodia than it was by the mounting evidence of massive human rights violations in Vietnam. Official conference speakers generally skirted the issue of Cambodia. When the question was raised from the floor as to whether Friendshipment would do any “work on Kampuchea” (Cambodia), the answer was that “Kampuchea is a special problem in that their own interests in having the kind of relationships, in inviting Americans to visit, and so on has not been the same” as the Vietnamese. Friendshipment has sent one aid shipment to Cambodia, but the Cambodians would not provide an accounting of how the aid was distributed or even acknowledge receipt. Friendshipment believes it the “responsibility to counter the political propaganda in the media about Cambodia,” but tactically it would prefer to separate Cambodia and Vietnam.

One of the first actions of the Friendshipment conference was to go on record in support of sentence reduction for Karen Armstrong, whose “antiwar” bombing of a mathematics building at the University of Wisconsin killed a young researcher.

Friendshipment’s program for healing the wounds of the war is directed exclusively towards the American government. Their major goals include a campaign for food relief for Vietnam and Laos, lifting of the trade embargo, reconstruction aid, and full diplomatic recognition and normalization of relations.

There has been periodic speculation in the press about what happened to the antiwar movement. The Friendshipment conference and the reception for the Vietnamese United Nations delegation demonstrate that a segment of what was described as the antiwar movement is still alive. It also demonstrates that the Cora Weiss-Gareth Porter-David Dellinger crowd are not antiwar or peace activists. They have become partisans of the Vietnamese, Laotian, and Cambodian Communists and apologists engaged in the systematic cover-up of genocide and gross violations of human rights.