Friday, August 1, 2014
"Journeys Towards Peace: Internationalism and radical Orientalism during the U.S. war in Vietnam"
How Does International Travel Impact Political Activism?
Individuals who live in the midst of war are commonly subjected to a culture of heightened nationalism. So, why do certain people reject a blind patriotism and instead imagine themselves as “internationalists,” as members of communities that transcend national boundaries?
This project argues that international travel played a crucial role in fostering opposition to the U.S. involvement in military conflict in Viet Nam (1945-1975). A focus on travel provides the opportunity to analyze the face-to-face contacts, the exchanges of ideas, which helped to form the political understanding, identities, and agendas of Americans antiwar activists. The reports of what they experienced and learned helped to fuel an antiwar movement, which in turn helped to end the U.S. War in Viet Nam.
This project focuses on three case studies: the life and political activism of Robert S. Browne, the U.S. People’s Anti-Imperialist Delegation that was led by Black Panther Party leader Eldridge Cleaver, and the Indochinese Women’s Conferences.
About This Site -
This site is based on a book project by Professor Judy Tzu-Chun Wu that is under contract with the U.S. and the World Series published by Cornell University Press.
U.S. People's Anti-Imperialist Delegation
"I led the forbidden exploration
To mysterious Asia Major
By the U.S. Peoples
A flock of peaceful geese
Sowing seeds against the war,
And resurrecting broken bridges
Over broken faith between
Wicked West and Inscrutable East."
-Eldridge Cleaver (1935-1998), “Gangster Cigarettes”
In 1970, Black Panther Party Leader Eldridge Cleaver led a delegation of American journalists and activists on a two and a half month tour of North Korea, North Viet Nam, and the People’s Republic of China.
At the time, the U.S. government prohibited travel to these socialist countries. However, the individuals of the U.S. People’s Anti-Imperialist Delegation were critics of U.S. military and political policies and skeptical of the mainstream media’s representation of America’s Cold War enemies.
Espousing a concept of “people’s diplomacy,” they challenged the ability of the U.S. government to represent their interests. Instead, they sought direct, people-to-people, contact with socialist Asian societies.
Who participated on the U.S. People’s Anti-Imperialist Delegation?
The 11-person delegation included a cross-section of American radicalism. They represented the:
* Black Liberation movement
* Antiwar movement
* Women’s Liberation movement
* Alternative Media
* Asian-American movement
Picture of delegation: Cleaver, Eldridge. Soul on Fire.
Why Did Eldridge Cleaver Initiate This Journey?
Cleaver had been living in exile since a police shootout following the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968. While abroad in Cuba and Algeria, socialist Third World forces, like the North Vietnamese, the Southern National Liberation Front, and the North Koreans, courted Cleaver to develop political partnerships. They subsequently invited Cleaver and representatives from the American Left to visit their countries.
To the left is a page from the Black Panther Party's newspaper showing the leaders of some socialist countries.
How Did the Cleaver Delegation See Socialist Asia Through “Anti-Imperialist” Eyes?
The concept of “radical orientalism” highlights the ways in which the Anti-Imperialist delegation sought out opportunities to more fully understand and critique what they regarded as the imperialist policies of the United States.
Radical orientalism was proposed by Professor Tzu-Chun Wu to "describe the phenomenon of American activists of the post-Second World War generation who subverted and reinscribed Orientalist traditions of understanding Asia. They continued the practice of cultivating ideas and fantasies about the “Orient” as the polar opposite of the Occident and using these projections to more clearly define themselves. Though they personally sought an identification and connection with socialist Asian countries, they nevertheless reconstructed and highlighted differences between “revolutionary” Asia and mainstream America.” [Footnote 1: “Eldridge Cleaver Goes to Pyongyang, Hanoi and Peking: Third World Internationalism and American Orientalism during the Viet Nam Era” Wu, Judy Tzu-Chun. 2004.]
In addition, they wanted to cultivate their identification with anti-colonial and socialist movements in Asia.
1) Witnessing the Impact of U.S. Warfare
One of the goals of the Delegation was to more fully understand the nature of U.S. military and political policies, particularly in Korea and Viet Nam. Rather than presuming western innocence and heroism, they observed the evidence of U.S. imperialist guilt.
As one of the delegation members, Alex Hing said: “Our country had committed so may despicable crimes in that country [Viet Nam] and yet these people were the warmenst, the most loving people that you’d ever meet… They made it very clear that even though they took us to these museums and things [about U.S. bombing in Viet Nam], and they showed us these sites where we couls see the devastation of what the U.S. did, they thay harbored n o ill feelings for the American people… You go back after that and you dedicate your life to ending the war.” [Footnote 2: Hing, Alex. Interview with Judy Tzu-Chun Wu.]
2) Observing the Development of Socialist Modernity
Traveling to socialist Asian nations like North Korea and the People’s Republic of China allowed delegation members to catch a glimpse of how these nations developed their economies, political systems, cultural values, and social structures. In essence, the delegation had the opportunity to examine a modern alternative to capitalism.
A member of the delegation, Elaine Brown, emphasized the development of the socialist countries they visited. In an interview, she said that in contrast to the U.S. “there were no homeless beggars on the streets of Pyongyang, no prostitutes, no hustlers. There were no gambling houses or cheap bars, no rundown houses or apartment buildings. Connected to every workplace were a free clinic and a free child-care facility or school.” [Footnote 3: Brown, A Taste of Power, p. 226]
Brown also explained that in rural regions of North Korea “the entire countryside has electricity… And in comparison to the United States… the people who live on cooperative farms actually live on a much higher living standard… because each person, for example, is provided already with health care and medical facilities, with childcare, with housing, with some clothing allotment, with a free educational system up through what we would call high school and even college education. So that the so-called peasant is not living at a low standard at all.” [Footnote 4: Elaine Brown Radio Interview]
When they travelled to Viet Nam, the delegation saw that the women were fighters as much as mothers. They viewed this position on women as another benefit of a modern socialist state. To the right is an image of a Viet Namese woman operating an anti-aircraft gun.
3) Revolutionary Women
The Delegation, which had 7 female members out of a total of 11, was also interested in the lives of Asian women. Instead of the passive, exotic image of Asian women, the U.S. delegation came to meet strong revolutionary women who were engaged in building socialist societies and fighting wars of liberation. With the Women’s Liberation movement growing in the United States, the Anti-Imperialist delegation sought out role models of female leadership and activism.
In China, Pat Sumi (shown wearing a Mao suit to the left) credited the Cultural Revolution for challenging social hierarchy and thereby transforming gender hierarchy. She said in China "[e]very human being is a creative and beautiful and complete human being able to make collective contributions to well-being of all the other human beings on the planet earth. Women in China have gone through this whole thing. They dress almost like men do, jackets and slacks, because it's more convenient. They have no fears in meetings about speaking up. It doesn't mean that all the difference between sexes have been erased or that romantic love has been erased. Politically and ideologically people are equal and united as a class." [Footnote 5: "Life in New Asia," Getting Together 1:6 (Nov-Dec. 1970), p. 16.]
The delegation encountered many women warriors in Viet Nam and Pat Sumi explained that "[w]omen in Vietnam have a tradition of being liberation fighters.. We met this 17 year old woman. In her village there was an all-woman guerilla unit that had shot down 2 American airplanes, while taking responsibility for the rice fields around the battery where the anti-aircraft guns are. They produced more on that rice field than any other comparable plot in the village. And the whole group sang poetry and songs for us." [Footnote 6: "Life in New Asia," Getting Together 1:6 (Nov-Dec. 1970), p. 15.]
Image of Anti-aircraft women: Bergaman, Arlene Eisen. Women of Vietnam. 1974
Impact on Delegation Members -
To the right is an image of a mother holding a gun and her baby. She is one of the women warriors of Viet Nam. (Image of Mother with Gun: Taken from Gidra magazine)
These women were thus fighters, farmers, and folk artists.
Visiting Asia and viewing the contrasts between the U.S. and socialist countries gave the delegates a better understanding of themselves.
As Pat Sumi, one of the delegation members, explained: “One of the things about being raised in an imperialist country is… somehow you are almost completely unconscious of your beliefs and values… You think they are so normal that you are unconscious of them. What happens when you go in a delegation like that to a foreign country is you finally become acutely aware of what it means to be American and what it means to be a non-American.”
Image of Pat Sumi in Mao Suit: Taken 1971 by Mary Kao Uyematsu
"Indochinese Women's Conference"
In April of 1971, approximately one thousand female activists from throughout North America gathered in Vancouver and Toronto, Canada to attend the Indochinese Women's Conferences (IWC). The Indochinese Women's Conferences represented the first opportunities for large numbers of American and Canadian women to have direct contact with their "Asian sisters."
Solidarity: Pulugal, Cindy. GIDRA magazine, May 1971, p. 9.
Who Were These Women?
The North American women who attended the IWC came from a wide range of backgrounds, and with a variety of experience in the antiwar movement and burgeoning women’s liberation movement. Some women had previously traveled to Southeast Asia while others empathized with Indochinese women through the antiwar movement newspaper stories. The North American cosponsors of the IWC were designated as the "Old Friends," the "New Friends" and “Third World” Women. The Asian women whom they met were representatives from anti-colonial struggles in North Viet Nam, South Viet Nam, and Laos.
The Old Friends -
The old friends were so called because of the history of friendship between themselves and the Vietnamese women. To the right is a timeline of contact between the Old Friends and the Vietnamese women. (Timeline of Contact: Memo The newsletter for WSP)
They tended to embrace “maternalist” politics, meaning that they believed that women’s roles as mothers and wives justified their involvement in the political sphere.
The New Friends -
The new friends were a younger generation of women who became politically active through civil rights, the new left and the women's liberation movements. (Cartoon of women: WSP, Found at Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe Institute, Harvard University.)
The Third World Women -
The Third World women were those from racialized groups in North America. They identified their status within the West as akin to the status of colonized women globally.
The Indochinese Women -
The Indochinese Women ages ranged from 29 to 50. The occupations of these women included a housewife, several teachers, a literature professor, and a physician. There were three teams of two women and one male translator each for North Viet Nam, South Viet Nam, and Laos. A fourth delegation from Cambodia had intended to travel to Canada as well but was unable to do so.
The Politics of Global Sisterhood -
Bringing so many women together of such different backgrounds resulted in many conflicts. The women were divided by their race, sexuality and nationality. These divisions reflected broader tensions within the women’s movement and within social movements more generally during the late 1960s and early 1970s.
The image to the right shows a woman holding a flag that says "Out Now," which summarizes lesbian women's stance on both sexuality and the Viet Nam war. (Out Now!: Image from The Furies newsletter, June-July issue)
How Did the North American Women View their Asian Sisters?
The Politics of Rescue -
Some women from North America continued a longer female orientalist tradition of wanting to “rescue” their Indochinese sisters. The delegates from Southeast Asia who tended to receive the most attention were the women who either suffered traumatic abuse or who could testify to wartime atrocities.
The brutality of the war and the sufferings of women and children tended to arouse a maternalist sense of compassion, primarily among the “old friends,” and encouraged them to intervene to try to end the war.
While these North American women viewed themselves as the saviors of their Asian sisters, the Indochinese women tended to highlight their own political agency. (The image to the left shows the North American women coming as angels to rescue the Vietnamese women.) (Politics of Rescue: Memo The newsletter for WSP)
Romantic Heroism -
The Third World women, women's liberation activists, and other maternalistic peace advocates also had a tendency to place the Indochinese women on an idealized pedestal. To them, the Indochinese women were models of revolutionary womanhood who engaged in armed and political struggle for the sake of themselves, their families, and their nation.
One activist noted that “[m]ost remarkable about these women were their gentle dignity, self command, and deep concern for others, both individually and as nations… Although their competence and dedication awed us, we felt that we, too, might cope better in future, as women and as citizens for having met them.” [Footnote 3: Gough, Kathleen. “An Indochinese Conference in Vancouver.”]
"The Indochinese never let us feel guilty of the crimes they described... Over and over the Indochinese women reiterated their confidence that if the American people only knew what was going on in Indochina, American would demand an end to atrocities and the war." [Footnote 1: "Impressions from the Conference of Indochinese and North American Women, April 1971, Sponsored by Voice of Women, WILPF, WSP," Memo 2:1 (Fall 1971), p.16]
The image to the right is of the seal to the War Remnants museum located in Viet Nam. Museums showing the atrocity of the war are common in Viet Nam, yet the Vietnamese people manage to separate the American government from its citizens. (War Remnants Museum image: Wu, Judy. Aug 20, 2009)
These women viewed the Indochinese as idealized revolutionary figures. The Indochinese women were recognized and respected for participating in the war efforts by working anti-aircraft machinery while still being mothers. The American women looked to the Indochinese women as examples of a new woman. Professor Judy Tzu-Chun Wu has defined this sensibility as radical orientalism. [Footnote 2: Wu, Judy Tzu-Chun. "Rethinking Global Sisterhood: Peace Activists and Women's Orientalism"]
To the left is an image of General Dinh, General of NLF, visiting her troops. Images such as these were very inspirational, especially to the New Friends.
Robert Span Browne (1924-2004)
“I was the one Black who had been connected with [the anti-war] movement before prominent Blacks like Martin Luther King, Julian Bond, and Dick Gregory eventually spoke out.”-Robert S. Browne.
Picture Credits: Thanks goes to Robert Browne's family and to Ed Smith for these images.
Biographical Information -
African American economist Robert S. Browne (shown right as a child) is not widely recognized among the pantheon of black liberation movement leaders. However, he was among the first of any race to criticize American involvement in the Viet Nam War. He helped inaugurate the teach-in movement on American college campuses in 1965, often serving as the lead-off speaker and sharing the stage with prominent antiwar activists such as Professor Staughton Lynd and Doctor Benjamin Spock. He also traveled to Viet Nam multiple times to bring back eyewitness accounts of the U.S. War in Southeast Asia. Browne even attempted to negotiate terms for peace with the Vietnamese National Liberation Front in Paris in 1968 as part of a delegation including playwright Arthur Miller. As Browne transitioned away from the antiwar movement during the late 1960s, he became a dedicated activist for black nationalist causes and African independence.
[Footnote 1: Kalamu ya Salaam, “In the Black: A Portrait of Economist Robert S. Browne,” The Black Collegian (Sept./Oct. 1978), 32.]
Why is Robert Browne a Credible Spokesperson? He Was There -
“When I returned to the U.S. in 1961 and… told people that I had been living in Vietnam… the blank look on most people’s face betrayed the fact that they did not even know where Vietnam was. One individual even asked me, “Is that East or West Africa?” -Robert S. Browne [Footnote 2: Robert S. Browne, Unpublished Memoir.]
In April 1952, Browne (shown left with friends) liquidated all of his assets to fund a year long travelling expedition.
He travelled to more than twenty countries in Europe, the Middle East and Northern Africa. When he returned to the United States, he sought a job where he could work abroad. He finally found a position with the International Cooperation Administration (ICA), the predecessor to the United States Agency for International Development (USAID). He was assigned a post in Cambodia as a member of the U.S. economic aid program, designed to fill “the vacuum” left by the end of the French rule in Indochina. He worked in Cambodia from 1955-1957 and in 1958, Browne switched posts to Viet Nam.
After Browne’s return to the U.S. in 1961, he returned in 1965 and 1967 to observe first hand the impact of the war in South Viet Nam. Following the war, he travelled to Hanoi for the first time in 1978 as part of a humanitarian delegation that delivered wheat to help ease Vietnam’s famine.
“Between 1962 and 1964 I was virtually the only American in the country who knew Vietnam firsthand and who was prepared to talk honestly about what was happening there.” -Robert S. Browne [Footnote 3: Kalamu ya Salaam, “In the Black: A Portrait of Economist Robert S. Browne,” The Black Collegian (Sept./Oct. 1978), 32.]
He Had a Multicultural Family -
During Browne’s stay in Southeast Asia, Browne married Huoi and became part of a multicultural, multinational family.(Shown right) Huoi lived in Cambodia when they met and was half Chinese and half Vietnamese. She already had a daughter, whom Browne adopted.
Just as Browne’s years of living and working in South East Asia legitimated his views, his familial relationship also made him a more credible voice.
A woman who served as the coordinator for the Martha’s Vineyard Peace Center wrote to Browne in 1965, “Since you were there on our government-sanctioned business, stayed there for 6 years and married a Vietnamese girl will, I am sure make the people feel you are an authentic source of information.” [Footnote 4: Mary E. Macy to Robert S. Browne, 27 January 1965, Browne Papers, SCPC, Box 1, folder “Correspondence 1965 (January-May).”]
His Relationship with Thich Nhat Hanh -
When he returned to the United States, Browne began speaking out publicly against the U.S. government’s role in Indochina.
He collaborated with Thich Nhat Hanh, the sole Vietnamese Buddhist monk in the United States at the time when monks in Viet Nam burned themselves to protest their persecution by the Catholic and U.S. backed President Diem of South Viet Nam.
Left is an image of the three meeting together, left to right: Martin Luther King, Jr., Thich Nhat Hanh, Robert S. Browne.
Browne eventually facilitated a meeting between Thich Nhat Hanh and Martin Luther King, Jr. King subsequently nominated Thich Nhat Hanh for the Nobel Peace Prize.
Nhat Hanh attempted to communicate to western audiences the need for national self-determination and the importance of a “third solution” in Viet Nam. He explained repeatedly that “Communists want to save us from colonialism and under-development, and anti-Communists want to save us from communism. The problem is that we are not being saved, we are being destroyed. Now we want to be saved from salvation.” [Footnote 5: “Vietnam: Matters for the Agenda,” (A Center Occasional Paper Published by the Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions) 1:4 (1968), p. 5]
Browne’s support for Thich Nhat Hanh reflected his own call for the need to hear and respect Vietnamese voices rather than viewing the conflicts in Southeast Asia only through the prism of the U.S. Cold War conflicts with the Soviet Union and with Socialist China.
Browne’s personal and political partnerships with his family and with Thich Nhat Hanh reflected the call for Afro-Asian solidarity and Third World independence that was articulated at the 1955 Bandung Conference.