Trip to Hanoi
What are the North Vietnamese like? A difficult question, perhaps, but it is curious that in all the reams of newsprint, all the miles of television tape devoted to the war there appeared not so much as a caricature. Until Mary McCarthy and Susan Sontag went to Hanoi, no American journalist had attempted the subject. During the angry months of the domestic debate over the war even those Americans most concerned seemed to regard the Democratic Republic of Vietnam uniquely as an object of American power. For the Johnson Administration it was a collection (seemingly inexhaustible) of military “installations,” bridges and harbors; for those who opposed the war, it was, on the other hand, a place which had lost not only “installations” but whole cities and thousands of civilian lives. In limiting themselves to the “hard news” of the bombing damage and the peace proposals, Americans who went to the DRVN, from Tom Hayden to Harrison Salisbury, only contributed to this important but nonetheless totally reflexive debate. Like a patient in psychoanalysis, the United States seemed preoccupied with the significance of its own actions.
But perhaps the debate was only symptomatic. As the Vietnamese themselves had never been the subject of American journalism, so they had never really been the subject of American policy. That officials of the Kennedy and Johnson Administrations continued to issue victory statements for seven years suggests that, in spite of all their talk about the complexities of Vietnam, they had made a picture of the country so simple as to exclude not only their enemies, but also their own “allies.” Though the contours of the picture were not at all clear, presumably the officials, too, had followed Jean-Luc Godard’s advice to make a Vietnam inside their own heads—and left it at that. Less inhibited, perhaps, the radical right has always regarded the DRVN as a modern Pandora’s box which, if opened at the 17th parallel, would spew the evils of Communism into their own backyards. In an equal and opposite reaction the radical left has tended to view it as a container for all the virtues which had fled from or never existed within the United States.
Miss Sontag thought she knew a good deal about Vietnam before she went there—only to discover what perhaps never occurred to Secretary Rusk, that the Vietnamese were absolutely foreign. Of the two titles, Hanoi and Trip to Hanoi, hers is the more accurate, for the subject of both books is not so much the DRVN as the American encounter with it. And quite rightly, for the subject of the war has not been Vietnam itself, but the American perception of it. In search of common ground between themselves and their hosts, both writers took journeys of inspection which ended as journeys of introspection: in discovering the limits of their own vision, they began to discover something about the Vietnamese. The subject of both books is, in a sense, the process of negotiation.
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