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.

Like bomber pilots or AID advisers to the Saigon government, both writers undertook to go to Vietnam out of a sense of duty to the United States and to themselves. Miss Sontag did not expect to write about her trip, but saw it as a continuation of the March to the Pentagon, not a journey at all but a demonstration to give form to the Vietnam she carried inside her head. Hanoi was a shock to her—like that of “meeting a favorite movie star who has for four years played a role in one’s fantasy life, and finding the actual person so much smaller, less vivid, less erotically charged and mainly different.” Of the first evening she remembers only the distraction of the airport, the awkward chats with the Vietnamese, the undistinguished architecture of her hotel—and her disappointment that Hanoi was so ordinary.

In 1968 Hanoi was much less exotic than Saigon. With its yellowed French buildings, its neat stacks of rubble, it reminded Miss McCarthy of “a bathtub which has been scrubbed with abrasive powder until the finish has worn off.” Functional and extremely plain. The North Vietnamese seemed to have wasted nothing—not even the war itself. In forcing them to decentralize, the war has actually helped them, as the officials explained with pride, to spread doctors and teachers into the remote regions of the countryside and to involve all of the people in the life of the nation. Visiting hospitals, factories, grade schools, and war museums, the visitors found much to admire: the puritanical industry, the courage and gaiety of the Vietnamese, their optimism and their obvious feeling of community. And yet…the country was so monochromatic, the Vietnamese so single-minded in their virtue. As Miss Sontag complained to her journal:

Everything here is on one level. All the words belong to the same vocabulary…. Even when I’m in conversation with someone who speaks English or French, it seems to me we’re both talking baby talk…. The four Vietnamese from the Peace Committee who are seeing us around act as our nurses, our teachers. I try to discover the difference between them, but can’t; and I worry that they don’t see what’s different or special about me.

In Eastern Europe Miss McCarthy had managed to break through the shell of official Communist language to discover her guides as private people: but Mr. Hieu and Mrs. Chi remained impenetrably hidden behind their slogans. US imperialist aggressors. People’s Liberation Army. War of destruction. Not that they were hostile. On the contrary, they treated their visitors with what seemed like excessive fuss and ceremony. But the flat language seemed to speak of a people lacking a dimension of sensibility and, worse still, one so authoritarian, so dedicated to official truth at the expense of private expression, as to have nothing in common with young radicals in the United States and Europe. Both writers were faced with a dilemma, not only in their conclusions about the Vietnamese, but in their attempt to communicate with them. While in good faith they could not use the slogans, they knew that not to use them would seem to contradict them: as “friends” of the DRVN, they would have to accept the omnipresent portraits of Stalin along with the decentralized schools, the public virtues of the Vietnamese along with their dogmatism.


The dilemma forced them back on themselves. Looking over their reactions, both writers realized that in insisting on their own “objectivity,” they were sitting in judgment on the Vietnamese and acting as their superiors, not morally, perhaps, but intellectually. Repelled by the Communist jargon, they wanted the DRVN, for the sake of its own citizens, to develop into a freer society. Not with the same spirit but by extension of the same logic, Dean Rusk judged “democracy” to be better for the Vietnamese than Communism—a logic brought to its conclusion by the American GIs, who, sent to defeat Communism, landed on the shores of Vietnam to discover that all Vietnamese were “gooks.” Yet, as they condemned themselves for such a patronizing attitude, they were driven to the opposite conclusion, that to act in good faith toward the Vietnamese they would have to renounce their own standards of behavior and judgment.

In the final chapter of her book, “First Principles,” Mary McCarthy describes the painful crisis of conscience she suffered on analyzing her first reaction. She had gone to the DRVN, she realized, less for the sake of her country than for the sake of her own conscience. Though no longer a practicing Catholic, she had nonetheless believed the individual “soul” to be a universal constant. But what did “the salvation of her own soul” mean in secular terms except the achievement of “peace of mind”? And what was “peace of mind” worth as a moral absolute? By contrast to the North Vietnamese ethic of absolute devotion to society, her own ethic seemed not only arbitrary but indefensible. She wrote,

My avowed purpose in going to the North was to judge, compare and report back;… Yet after a few days with those single-minded North Vietnamese, I found my claim to being a disinterested party starting not exactly to disappear, but to shrink from showing itself, as if ashamed…. [I had the sense] that my detachment and novelistic powers of observation were not only inappropriate but also a sort of an alibi. The plea of being elsewhere, at my blameless typewriter, when the crime was committed would not stand up any more for an American writer; opposition to the war was not a sufficient credential to permit me to circulate here as a pure recording sensibility noting down impressions, which, however, I was doing, and could not help doing short of jumping out of my own skin.

Susan Sontag managed to find a way to resolve this dilemma. Rather than avoid the set phrases—“pirate aggressors,” “victory,” “struggle”—as Miss McCarthy had done for reasons of conscience, she used them in order to communicate with her guides and interpreters. After days of worrying about her own “bad faith,” she began to realize that the phrases sounded quite different to the Vietnamese. What she had understood as Communist jargon, platitudes at best, had for the Vietnamese profound implications in a dimension of thought and experience entirely foreign to her. For example, the statement of Ho Chi Minh, which the Vietnamese repeated to her over and over again: “Nothing is more important than liberty and independence.” In the context of Vietnamese history—a thousand years of Chinese domination, sixty years of French rule—the statement was hardly a truism: on the contrary, it contained all the hope of the revolution and the two resistance wars.


But it was not only a matter of history: the familiar rhetoric rested on the surface of an entirely different culture, one that included emotional and intellectual perceptions which she could hardly appreciate, much less share with her hosts. While the Vietnamese had literally translated their own words from Vietnamese to English, they had left her with the task of a poet who wishes to render a difficult foreign poem in his own language. She had been transposing their words directly into her own experience, judging them on the basis of whether or not they would sound well or badly in the mouth of an American. Now she faced the real problem: to write about the Vietnamese at all, she could not simply report what she saw, she had to recreate their culture for herself by an act of imagination.

Had Mary McCarthy or Susan Sontag (or Dean Rusk, for that matter) gone to Pago-Pago instead of to North Vietnam, the sheer exoticism of the “natives” would have warned them to prepare for another culture. The DRVN in 1968 gave few such warning signals. Not only were the North Vietnamese in the process of building a modern nation, but they had successfully resisted attack by the most powerful country in the world. And many of them were a great deal more cosmopolitan than their visitors: not only did a number of the officials speak English or French, but they spoke of medical research, Arthur Miller’s plays, and the strategies of the nuclear powers. Most deceptive of all, they used the international Communist symbols. For the short-term visitor, it was not at all easy to see that the Vietnamese might have entirely altered the meaning of this familiar iconography. Miss McCarthy, for instance, found disconcerting the portraits of Stalin which hung alongside those of Marx, Engels, and Lenin in all the public buildings. And yet the significance of the portraits to the Vietnamese is difficult to ascertain; as a group, they refer back not to a European iconography of saints and princes, but to the Confucian tradition of sages and dynasties of the distant past, which acted not as models of behavior but as guides—signposts, as it were—along the endless Way (Tao) of civilization.

When a Westerner looks at a portrait of Stalin, he thinks immediately of the heavy brutality of his regime; when a Vietnamese looks at the same picture, he may have a different reaction—either because he lacks the same information or because he finds significant a different group of facts (such as Stalin’s success in building the Soviet Union into a strong, independent power). With respect to the portrait of Karl Marx, there is now a good deal of evidence to show that Ho Chi Minh has rejected the dialectical theory of history and drastically revised the definition of “class struggle”: the Communist revolution in Vietnam was (and is) after all, a peasant revolution. Ho Chi Minh has, in other words, taken from Marxism-Leninism only what he has considered appropriate to Vietnamese society. As he once said, “…though we have the rich experience of our brother (socialist) countries behind us, we cannot apply their experience mechanically, because our country has its own peculiarities.” While the portraits of Stalin in the DRVN may also mean that its officials approve of state brutality (they led, after all, a disastrous purge in 1955-56), it is not something which a Westerner can be certain of a priori.

Before she left Hanoi, Mary McCarthy learned that Premier Phan Van Dong had said that he admired her “honesty” in refusing to tell him whether or not she would write a book about North Vietnam. Gratefully Miss McCarthy took his remark to be the “universal pardon”—which it was, but only, one suspects, in the sense that an anthropologist may understand and admire a tribe he has come to know. Rather than sanctioning the “integrity” of an artist as a universal value, Pham Van Dong was making an accommodation for the different culture of his European visitor. With the same generosity the Vietnamese Emperor Ming Mang once commuted the death penalty of a Moi tribesman by deciding to judge him according to his own tribal law—because it was the law “natural” to him.

Although Mary McCarthy’s book has much richness of detail, she does not consider the Vietnamese in so generous a perspective. Having ended her journey at a compromise between “objectivity” and polemical commitment, she cannot—as she herself points out—carry out either purpose. On the one hand she does not do the work of a careful ethnologist, by keeping close watch over her evidence. From her account, the reader might gather that the North Vietnamese have no acne, and the Southerners neither hot water nor classical music. On the other hand, she “excuses” the Vietnamese for what will not fit within her system of values. When she calls her guides’ orthodoxy a sad result of the war, she is assuming that the Vietnamese would aspire to her definition of freedom if the war had not intervened. (The same difficulty occurs in her previous brilliant and funny book about South Vietnam. To call a South Vietnamese official a “Fascist” is as precise as to condemn Walt Rostow for being a Cao Daist.) Still, Miss McCarthy tells us a great deal about North Vietnam: I found particularly interesting her insight that, seen against the ancient tradition of Vietnamese animism, the leaf camouflage used throughout the country and the elaborate underground shelters symbolize the Vietnamese hope for national rebirth.

In the second section of her book—a journal no longer, but an essay—Miss Sontag deals directly with the problem of interpretation: she sets up her own guideposts for understanding the Vietnamese. In discussing patriotism in the DRVN, she perceives the orthodoxy of the Vietnamese as a function of their very different uses of speech and conception of society. Unlike Westerners, the Vietnamese do not have a sense of themselves as isolated consciousnesses, cut off by walls of flesh from their neighbors. (In Vietnamese there is no word which adequately renders the Western first person singular, I, je, ich. There is a word indicating body, several which indicate the spirits of the body, but the reference to a social self is that of a relationship: “your younger cousin,” “your comrade,” “subject of the king.”) For the Vietnamese the sense of personal identity comes from the possibility of identifying with, and participating in, their society. A Chinese “Hero of the Revolution” once said that his desire was to become “a rustless screw” in the great work of the Revolution. Though the North Vietnamese are not given to such hyperbole—probably because their society is in any case more intimate and homogeneous than that of the Chinese—the example is pertinent.

For the Vietnamese—Confucian or Communist—virtuous behavior consists in the constant effort to reduce the gap between the private and the public self—the difference between the two “ideologies” being, in this case, that while once the public sphere of life extended only to the gates of the village, it extends now to the borders of the nation. If, therefore, Miss McCarthy’s guides respected their government, they would not experience the official Communist language as repressive of their personalities. Or at least not in the sense that Westerners would. For the Vietnamese the goal of speech is not so much to express the individuality of the ego as to arrive at a harmonious relationship with others; “truth” is not a conquest of “objective” reality, it is an ethical goal. As Miss Sontag observes:

Though a visitor is tempted to attribute the extraordinary discipline of this country in large measure to the influence of Communist ideology, it is probably the other way around: that the influence of Communist moral demands derives its authority from the indigenous Vietnamese respect for a highly moralized social and personal order.

A lyrical appreciation rather than a study, Trip to Hanoi tries to show a way into North Vietnamese culture—and a way back from it into American political life. “For in the end, of course, an American has no way of incorporating Vietnam into his consciousness…the virtues of the Vietnamese are certainly not directly emulatable by Americans; they are even hard to describe plausibly. And the revolution that remains to be made in his country must be made in American terms, not those of an Asian society.” Rather than a set of instructions, Susan Sontag found that the DRVN had offered her a new perspective from which to look at her own society. In the course of her visit she discovered what is so difficult to conceive in the abstract: that there are other, and possibly better, forms of human organization on this planet.

This Issue

March 13, 1969