Steinbeck in Vietnam by John Steinbeck

John Steinbeck died shortly after he produced the contents of Steinbeck in Vietnam: Dispatches from the War (University of Virginia Press, 216 pp., $29.95), a book that is composed of columns he wrote for Newsday while he was in Southeast Asia between December 1966 and May 1967. The book, edited by Thomas E. Barden, is one of a recognizable genre, that of the famous American writer traveling to a war zone to write a book about what he sees there.  One big difference with this book is that it didn’t appear in the 1960’s. The writing did not become a book until 2012.

While reading this book, I could not resist comparing it to a similar one written by another great American novelist, James Jones, who published Viet Journal in 1974 based on his visit to the war zone. Both are handsome books, well produced and well edited. Steinbeck in Vietnam has many fine photos of Steinbeck, but I was disappointed that there was none of him standing next to General William Westmoreland.

While I read Steinbeck in Vietnam, another book that often popped into my mind was his Travels with CharleySteinbeck in Vietnam seemed like an extension of Travels with Charley, but with a wife in tow, rather than a dog.  Steinbeck keeps harping on the same subject that he harped on in Travels: that America’s moral fiber was not what it once was.

Steinbeck often goes off on the war protestors at home and how weak and unproductive they are compared with the U. S. troops in Vietnam, and how the folks protesting the war were on “relief”—his antiquated way of referring to welfare checks he accuses them of receiving. Steinbeck also wishes that there was a way to transport the war protestors to Vietnam and place them on the Ho Chi Minh Trail to see how they’d do there. I got the impression he would not have shed a tear if they all died there.

This book was of special interest to me because I remembered John Steinbeck’s trip to Vietnam, having seen him being interviewed on television while he was in-country. The AFVN programmers sandwiched some news in between showing us episodes of Combat and Star Trek.

I was in Vietnam the same time as John Steinbeck was, but for a much longer period of time, However, I did not hobnob with dignitaries or get out into the boonies.

John Steinbeck IV, his famous father, and LBJ in the White House in 1966.

Steinbeck’s son, John IV, was also in Vietnam at that time, and he and his father were able to spend some time together. The elder Steinbeck is never very clear in this book as to what John IV’s role in the war was. If you wish to read more about that, I highly recommend John IV’s classic book, In Touch, and his much later book, written with his wife, Nancy, The Other Side of Eden: Life with John Steinbeck, which was published ten years after his death, in 2001.

John Steinbeck was brave to travel to Vietnam in his mid-60’s and to spend five weeks there. He found himself in harm’s way more than once. He was much impressed with America’s war technology, especially the helicopters and “Puff the Magic Dragon,” with its awesome firepower. It led him to ask: How could we lose a war against peasant rabble when we had all the modern advantages?

I recommend Steinbeck in Vietnam to Vietnam War-oriented readers. However, if you’ve never read anything by Steinbeck and are looking for a place to start, this is probably not the book. Grapes of Wrath is not that book either. I’m still fond of Of Mice and Men. Perhaps that would be a good starting point.

—David Willson