Tess Johnston is an amazing woman with amazing stories to tell. A native of Virginia, Johnston worked for the U.S. Government in various capacities for more than thirty years. She has lived abroad for nearly half a century, with seven years in Germany (both East and West), and forty years in Asia (thirty-three in Shanghai and seven in Vietnam.)
After a stint in Berlin with the U.S. Foreign Service, the Charlottesville native enrolled in the graduate program at the Curry School of Education at the University of Virginia in 1958, as did many other women prior to 1970. Women were barred from the males-only undergraduate programs at U-Va., but were allowed in the graduate schools.
Johnston went on to complete a master’s degree in German in 1963, and then taught German at Virginia and the College of William and Mary. In 1967, Johnston went to Vietnam to work for USAID, and stayed for seven years.
This experience inspired her to rejoin the Foreign Service, which sent her to Frankfurt, Berlin again, New Dehli, Tehran, and then to Shanghai. After thirty-three years in the Foreign Service, she faced mandatory retirement in 1996. Johnston stayed in Shanghai, and has written several book since then, including a coffee-table book, A Last Look: Western Architecture in Old Shanghai. Her other books include Shanghai Art Deco, and Permanently Temporary: From Berlin to Shanghai in Half A Century.
Tess Johnston returned to the United States in 2016, and has now published a new book, A War Away: An American Woman In Vietnam 1967-1974 (Earnshaw Books, 236 pp., $24.99, paper; $9.99, Kindle) It’s an interesting memoir that is in need of a good editor. Johnston took good notes while she was in Vietnam, but her writing style consists of plugging away with much too much detailed information.
There are two photos on the cover of her book. One shows her firing a gun at a practice range wearing a dress; the other is of the infamous John Paul Vann.
Vann was a military and civilian adviser in Vietnam until 1972 when his helicopter crashed while he was assessing damage after the Battle of Kontum. Vann’s life is the focal point of Neil Sheehan’s National Book Award-winning 1988 biography, A Bright Shining Lie, a detailed portrait of the man—and an incisive history of the Vietnam War.
A War Away provides a different picture of Vann, albeit in only two of the fourteen chapters. Vann comes across as demanding and charismatic, feared and loved by those whose lives he touched. Johnston provides some interesting anecdotes, though Vann is not a central character in the book.
The problem with A War Away is that there seems to be no central theme. Instead, we encounter a stream-of-consciousness style of writing, with too much focus on mundane details.
If you have the patience to sift through descriptions of the furniture in Johnston’s apartment and the phone system in her office, you will be able to find some items of interest. Her chapter on the 1968 Tet Offensive during her time at Bien Hoa, for example, is very interesting, as are her stories of other close calls with the Viet Cong.
Tess Johnston was clearly a level-headed, competent office assistant to Vann and others, and her story could have been be a compelling one if she pared it down a bit.