Decades after he penned the enduring literary classics Of Mice and Men and The Grapes of Wrath, 64-year-old John Steinbeck traveled to Vietnam in December 1966 to write about the war raging there. Steinbeck spent five months among the troops and sent back dozens of dispatches, which were published as a series of letters in Newsday and haven't been fully reprinted until now. In the new book Steinbeck in Vietnam: Dispatches From the War, scholar Thomas Barden collects all of the author's accounts, which constitute his last published writings before his death in 1968. While Steinbeck publicly expressed his support for the war and was criticized for it, his private feelings were more conflicted, says Barden, a dean and professor of English at the University of Toledo in Ohio. Barden, a Vietnam veteran himself, recently spoke with U.S. News about Steinbeck's take on the divisive conflict and its relevance today. Excerpts:
Why have these dispatches remained uncollected for so long?
I think when the wounds were still sort of raw, there was a whole sort of conspiracy of fans of Steinbeck to say let us never speak of these again. They really were very unpopular when they came out. Steinbeck was about maybe a year behind the curve, still thinking everybody was for the war right as the opposition was really heating up. He says, from time to time, there are people who hate the war who haven't been here. His main defense was, "At least I'm here." I find that pretty admirable.
Why did the novelist take on this war reporting assignment?
He really supported Lyndon Johnson, not just as a personal friend, which he was, but as his president. And he had a deep loyalty to the administration and this idea of the domino theory. He believed it. In that sense he was like a clone of Lyndon Johnson—he was a New Deal Democrat, he had wonderful social values and all those things, but he also deeply believed this war was right and communism had to be stopped. But then the problem with all that was once he got there he got a more nuanced view of things, but he didn't ever really go public with it.
How did his feelings about the war change?
I quote his biographer saying there was kind of an arc from thinking it was a big mistake to being behind it to then thinking it was a mistake again. The public face of the letters is when he's sort of trying to almost convince himself as well as the country. But under that is, what he said earlier—I don't think this is going to go well—and then trying to make the best case he could for it. By [the last dispatch] he says, I'm ending now and going home, but if I could shorten the war by one day I'd go back and stay with a one-way ticket. To me, what was really important about that is he doesn't say if I could "win" the war. He just says "shorten it." He's no longer thinking about this as winnable, he's talking about just shortening.
Is there one letter you find particularly compelling?
There's one that sticks in my mind a lot. It's when he's coming back from one of his field sorties and he's on one of the big transport planes and they start taking antiaircraft fire. He really seemed scared. There was never a sense to me that he felt in fear of his life, but this one you can feel it.
Do the dispatches have any resonances today with Iraq or Afghanistan?
There's one letter, I think he's in Laos, where he goes into a village and nobody will look him in the eye. He says, he knows that the [Viet Cong] are in the bushes watching and if anybody makes nice with the Americans they'll be maybe killed and their families will be in trouble and all like that. I'm reminded of how hard it is to get people to cooperate in Afghanistan. Three cups of tea isn't going to cut it. Although a lot of people would like to say it is, that we can go over there making friends. I think that's preposterous; we're not making any friends. Every time we make a mistake and kill another family, there's four more terrorists.
What could President Obama learn from reading Steinbeck's accounts?
I think an important cultural lesson we've learned since then: You've got guys coming back from Iraq and Afghanistan and they're not being blamed for not finding weapons of mass destruction, you know, it's not their fault. These are the people who just carry out the will of the higher-ups. One of Steinbeck's greatest lines about the military is back to his World War II book [1942's The Moon is Down], when the Nazis can't understand why [their military occupation] is not working, one of their lieutenants sort of loses it and yells at his commanding officer, "The flies have conquered the flypaper." And I think that's what I would like for Obama to envision as he lingers in Afghanistan. Here we are; the flies have conquered the flypaper.