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A Special Supplement: In North Vietnam

The ICC flight to Hanoi spirals upward around Vientiane until it reaches its assigned altitude, and then passes through a protected corridor over an area that has received some of the most intensive bombing in history. A Phantom jet streaked close by—much to the annoyance of the crew and regular passengers—but apart from that we saw nothing in the heavy clouds until the lights of Hanoi appeared below. The passengers on the flight were a curious mixture: Chinese diplomats; Russian journalists, an Italian novelist, several Poles, and three American visitors.

We arrived on April 10, and departed on the same flight, a week later. Since my visit to Vietnam was so brief, my impressions are necessarily superficial. Since I do not speak Vietnamese, an interpreter was usually necessary, and although the interpreters were highly skilled, the process of translation is time-consuming and certainly retards communication. I will describe what I saw and what I was told. The reader should bear in mind the limitations of what I am able to report.

For a country at war, North Vietnam seems remarkably relaxed and serene. We took long walks, unaccompanied, in Hanoi and in the countryside. Occasionally, we were asked not to take pictures—for example, at the entrance to a cave in which a factory shop was hidden. Our Vietnamese hosts did not ask to develop or check any of the pictures that we took, including color photos. There was also very little security, as far as I could see. We visited Premier Pham Van Dong in a retreat outside the city, but noticed no guards or police anywhere nearby. In the city there were many soldiers sitting by the lakes, walking through the streets, or among the dense waves of cyclists. Their appearance was that of soldiers on leave. There were also many young men in both city and country in civilian occupations. I noticed only a few police, mostly directing traffic and apparently unarmed.

In the countryside a crowd of children collected around us as we walked through a remote village some distance from the administration buildings of Thanh Hoa province, where we spent the night. They assumed that we were Russians, as did the children who waved and shouted “Soviet Union” as we drove through towns and villages. We were invariably greeted with friendly smiles, and in the more remote areas, with some show of curiosity.

Everywhere we went, people seemed healthy, well-fed, and adequately clothed. There was no obvious difference between the living standards of the city and the country. Commodities were scarce. Except for a bicycle, a thermos bottle, perhaps a radio, most people probably have very few consumer goods. I don’t think I saw more than a few dozen cars in Hanoi. The center of the city looks not very different from the outskirts. The city is clean and quiet, except for the honking of the horns of trucks, warning bicycles to clear the way. I had heard that there were loudspeakers everywhere blaring news and announcements, but I recall only one, playing music in a downtown park. The appearance of the city is drab. The scarce resources of the country are largely diverted to the countryside. Some day, if the war ends, Hanoi will be a beautiful city, for it has tree-lined streets and many lakes and parks.

The most striking difference between Hanoi and the countryside is, of course, the devastation and ruin caused by the “air war of destruction.” Hanoi itself, as far as I could see, has not been badly hit, except near the Red River, where the bridge and surrounding areas must have been heavily bombed. But as soon as we left the city limits, we saw enormous destruction. We traveled along the main highway to Thanh Hoa, about ninety miles to the south. The effects of the bombing were visible everywhere. From the road, we could see the entrances to caves where the population, particularly children, had been dispersed during the bombing. Temporary wooden dwellings clustered at the base of the conical hills. The craters became more dense when a bridge lay ahead—sometimes the “bridge” proved to be barely a few yards long. Where there was a bridge, there was often a village. The road and the nearby rail line were also heavily bombed, and the railroad stations remained a mass of debris. Of course, the stations are invariably situated in town or village centers.

US Government propaganda tries to give the impression that aerial bombardment achieves near-surgical accuracy, so that military targets can be destroyed with minimal effect on civilians. Technical documents give a different picture. For example, Captain C. O. Holmquist writes:

One naturally wonders why so many bombing sorties are required in order to destroy a bridge or other pinpoint target…. However, with even the most sophisticated computer system, bombing by any mode remains an inherently inaccurate process, as is evident from our results to date in Vietnam. Aiming errors, boresight errors, system computational errors and bomb dispersion errors all act to degrade the accuracy of the system. Unknown winds at altitudes below the release point and the “combat degradation” factor add more errors to the process. In short, it is impossible to hit a small target with bombs except by sheer luck. Bombing has proved most efficient for area targets such as supply dumps, build-up areas, and cities. [Naval Review, 1969, p. 214.]

The American claim that the bombing of North Vietnam was directed against military targets does not withstand direct investigation. But even if one were to accept it, considerations such as those mentioned by Captain Holmquist indicate that this is to a large extent a distinction without a difference.

Some of the names along the road were familiar to me from reading, for example Phu Ly, about ten miles south of Hanoi, which was visited by French and Japanese newsmen shortly after a particularly savage bombing raid. I asked my traveling companion—Professor Mai, formerly a professor of French, Vietnamese, and Chinese literature and now chairman of the Association of Arts and Letters—to point out the town center when we reached it. The former market place was a flattened field of rubble in a bend of the river. A few of the buildings of brick and stone were still standing, but the rest of the town was wiped out. Much of the population had by then returned, and wooden houses were scattered among the ruins. The same was true of the village of Phu Xuyen not far away.

Thanh Hoa itself is a rich agricultural province. Rice fields, a pattern of many shades of green, stretch far into the distance along the road, which also winds through foothills and the fringes of heavy jungle where tigers are said to roam. The vegetation, wild or cultivated, is lush. Watching the peasants working in the fields, the young boys leading their water buffaloes, we almost forgot the war until a sharp reminder came—a cratered field, the rubble of a village, the twisted wreck of a railroad car. We stopped to eat lunch on a wooded hillside where a few peasant women were collecting pine needles. Our hosts warned us to look carefully if we walked too far, since there are still many unexploded bombs.

The capital of Thanh Hoa province—a city of 70,000, I was told—was heavily bombed. The details were related by Professor Mai, who was province chairman in 1947-8 and had been a clandestine member of the Communist Party since its formation in 1930. We passed the wreckage of the provincial offices, now totally destroyed. One wall of a large hospital remains standing. A factory in Thanh Hoa city was also demolished; its separate shops are now dispersed in the surrounding countryside, hidden in caves. A nearby power station was severely damaged, but, I was told, never ceased to function. In the city itself there has been little reconstruction of the original buildings, but here, too, most of the population has apparently returned, and there are wooden structures everywhere alongside the ruins and buildings that remain.

Thanh Hoa is near the sea and we drove to an attractive beach. Not far offshore, we were told, ships of the Seventh Fleet have been stationed and there has been much naval shelling as well as aerial bombardment. Saboteurs and spies were landed in the area, but quickly caught, so we were told. Wooden fishing boats lined the beach. There had been a resort area in the surrounding hills, but it was demolished by the bombardment.

Near Thanh Hoa city, the Ham Rong bridge spans the Ma River. The largest of the bridges we crossed, it is now a rickety structure of twisted steel and shattered concrete. Traffic inches across in a single lane. We were told the story of the bridge one evening in the dim, flickering light of the provincial offices, now hidden near a village some distance from Thanh Hoa city and indistinguishable from other clusters of dwellings. Later, we were shown a film recording the same events. The narrator was Miss Ham, twenty-five years of age, the chief of the militia of Thanh Hoa township. Five years ago she was the militia chief of the village at the site of the Ham Rong bridge.

The bridge was attacked daily from early 1965 until the suspension of the bombing—in this region, in April, 1968. The bridge and the surrounding area were bombed with high explosives and aerial torpedoes, and shelled from ships offshore. Ninety-nine jet planes were downed in these attacks. A steep hill alongside the bridge was reduced to one-third its former size by the bombardment. The village nearby was destroyed, with many casualties.

We returned to the bridge the next day, this time accompanied by the head of the local branch of the Vietnam Fatherland Front, which is essentially the successor organization to the Viet Minh. To me he looked thirty at most, but he must be considerably older, since his seventeen-year-old son is a university student in Hanoi. He related the outlines of the story again as we stood at the bridge in the chilling wind of the monsoon. The hill alongside the bridge, a flag planted on its summit, was, indeed, far smaller than in the films we had been shown the evening before, Its rocky slope was torn and shredded. From where we stood to the hilly ridge in the distance, the fields were barren. There was no trace of the former village. The area was bombed so heavily that even the craters were not delineated, as they generally are along the road. Only the shell of the building that houses the power station remained in the battered plain. Carved in the hills beyond, just visible from where we stood, were the words: “Quyet Thang“—“determined to win.”

The bridge still stands, severely damaged but proud and defiant, a symbol of deep significance to the people of Thanh Hoa. This scene summarizes, more than anything else, the mood of the people I met, from the Premier to students in the university, factory workers, and peasants in the villages. So far as I can tell, the country is unified, strong though poor, and determined to withstand the attack launched against Vietnam by the great superpower of the Western world.

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