Xuan Oanh and People-to-People Diplomacy During the Vietnam War

On August 19, 1945, the performance of Xuan Oanh's song "August 19" at the Hanoi Opera House square left an indelible impression. Described as a piece that "represents the heart of the whole nation, shows the excitement of the whole nation" by musician Do Hong Quan, the song was composed by Xuan Oanh (1923-2010).


August 19 is also recognized as the Traditional Day of the People’s Public Security, as well as the traditional day of the family of renowned songwriter Xuan Oanh. Within his family, his wife, Le Thi Xuan Uyen, holds the distinction of being the first female spy in the Hanoi Police. Xuan Oanh and his wife are proud parents to three sons. One of whom is pursuing a career in business, while the other two have chosen to serve in the police force as esteemed Generals, namely General Do Le Chau and General Do Le Chi.

However, his expertise lay in the realm of public diplomacy, where he excelled at understanding and rallying international public opinion. He even played a pivotal role in supporting American pilots who were held captive at Hoa Lo during the final stages of the war against the United States, working towards the ultimate goal of national unification.

Thomas Wilber, son of US pilot Gene Wilber, who was detained at Hoa Lo prison for nearly five years until early 1973, has written an article to provide a deeper understanding of Xuan Oanh’s life through the lens of American perspectives. This heartfelt piece aims to shed light on the “people-to-people diplomacy” aspect of Xuan Oanh’s journey. The article will be featured in the book titled “Do Xuan Oanh – the Oriole of the Revolutionary Spring,” which is scheduled to be published this autumn by the National Political Publishing House – Truth, coinciding with the commemoration of Xuan Oanh’s 100th birthday.

* * *

Do Xuan Oanh and People-to-People Diplomacy During the American War
Xuan Oanh (2nd from the left) interpreted for Uncle Ho and Prime Minister Pham Van Dong (Photo courtesy of the family)

The decision made by President Truman to withdraw from the progress towards a post-colonial and post-imperial world had a significant impact on the re-introduction of Western imperialism in Indochina. This choice went against the promises made by his predecessor Franklin Delano Roosevelt to work towards the eradication of imperialism in the post-War era. Truman, influenced by his advisors with European views and the reinstated French government led by de Gaulle, allowed France to regain control over its former colonies in the region.

President Truman approved the transportation of French troops to Indochina following the conclusion of World War II and the establishment of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam. This marked a resurgence of imperialism in Southeast Asia, aided by the United States government. The United States ultimately funded and supported a prolonged war, which resulted in the French defeat at Dien Bien Phu in May 1954.

The persistent and unwelcome intervention of the United States in Vietnam contributed to a highly divisive political climate from the 1950s to the 1960s. Over time, this challenging situation escalated to a horrifying extent, culminating in direct and violent military actions.

Do Xuan Oanh and People-to-People Diplomacy During the American War
Tom Wilber during a visit to Xuan Oanh’s house in Quan Su in 2023.

In response to the escalating military actions carried out by the United States against Vietnam in the mid-1960s, Ho Chi Minh sought the assistance of Do Xuan Oanh in advocating for international support. Their objective was to engage peace organizations and nongovernmental organizations in persuading their respective governments to exert pressure on the United States. This effort aimed to encourage the withdrawal of military forces and initiate negotiations to bring an end to the hostilities.

The prevailing pressure in the situation highlighted the unwarranted interventions carried out by the United States government, which hindered the implementation of the 1954 Geneva Agreement and obstructed the democratic elections of 1956. These actions, taken by the world’s most formidable military force, posed a severe threat to the sovereignty and liberty of Vietnam, a small, developing nation. Xuan Oanh was tasked with cultivating global advocates who sympathized with and championed Vietnam’s cause for independence and freedom. His specific objective was to persuade the United States to cease their undeclared and illegal military operations in Vietnam.

During the period from 1964 to 1973, Xuan Oanh played significant roles in various fields, such as diplomacy, coordination of international delegations, and management of prisoners held by the Democratic Republic of Vietnam in Hanoi prison sites.

Xuan Oanh was highly regarded in a variety of domains for his expertise, creativity, excellent communication abilities, tactfulness, and, above all, his compassion. He adeptly represented the Democratic Republic of Viet Nam and effectively conveyed its interests in a manner that was not only persuasive but also approachable to individuals from Western cultures.

It can be argued that Xuan Oanh demonstrated a remarkable level of emotional intelligence, combined with a formidable intellect that he acquired through self-education, without the aid of formal schooling.

About Thomas Wilber

Thomas (Tom) Wilber is a resident of Connecticut, USA, born in 1955. He is the son of the late US Navy pilot, Gene Wilber. In 1968, Gene Wilber’s plane was tragically shot down over Nghe An. Since then, Tom has dedicated his efforts to uncovering the truth about his father and fellow teammates.

Through multiple visits to Vietnam, Tom has tirelessly searched for witnesses, information, and documents to shed light on his father’s experiences. His aim is to prove to the American public that his father’s accounts regarding the humanitarian policy of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam government toward American prisoners of war were factual—a perspective that has long faced skepticism and criticism.

Upon returning to the United States, Wilber found himself alienated both from the US government and a significant portion of the American public due to his commitment to telling the truth. For a period of two years, from 1971 to 1973, Wilber encountered Xuan Oanh while incarcerated at Hoa Lo Prison.

Following the initiation of U.S. military airstrikes on North Vietnam in August 1964, Xuan Oanh assumed the role of a diplomatic representative for the Democratic Republic of Vietnam, navigating various international peace conferences and engaging with prominent diplomats across several nations. His primary objective was to encourage governments and their citizens to unite with the Democratic Republic of Vietnam in denouncing the actions of the United States government, which were currently being expressed through aerial assaults on the Vietnamese population.

During his travels, Xuan Oanh had the opportunity to meet various international peace constituencies, including American activists. Many of these activists later journeyed to Vietnam to express the solidarity of American citizens and gain insights on effectively communicating their peace concerns to both U.S. government officials and the general public. Xuan Oanh actively engaged with these peace groups, collaborating on different approaches aimed at ending the war.

During the 1960s and 70s, American authors documented their interactions with Xuan Oanh, a notable figure in North Vietnam. Despite the U.S. State Department’s ban on American citizens traveling to North Vietnam, adventurous travelers from America still made their way there as early as 1965. By the time of the American withdrawal, about 200 U.S. citizens had defied the ban and visited North Vietnam, with some even making multiple trips. One significant example is John McAuliff, a peace activist who coincidentally arrived in Hanoi on the day the Paris accords were signed. Over the span of seven or eight years, these peace travelers had the opportunity to engage with the people of Vietnam, facilitated by their host, Xuan Oanh. This shared experience of open and engaging interactions with the locals formed a common thread among these individuals.

In her book “Traveling to Vietnam: American Peace Activists and the War”, Mary Hershberger mentions that Xuan Oanh served as an interpreter for Aptheker, Lynd, and Hayden during their visit to Hanoi from December 28, 1965, to January 6, 1966. This trip is extensively documented by activists Staughton Lynd and Tom Hayden in their book “The Other Side: Two Americans Report on Their Forbidden Visit Inside North Vietnam” (New York: The New American Library, 1967). Lynd and Hayden acknowledge Xuan Oanh’s crucial role not only as an interpreter and communicator, but also as a guide to the rich culture and heritage of Vietnam.

Xuan Oanh’s presence greatly enriched the findings of the activists’ trip as he offered a valuable perspective on Vietnamese culture. Being well-versed in both Vietnamese and American culture, Xuan Oanh was able to effectively highlight and explain cultural differences, allowing the American activists to gain a deeper understanding of both Vietnamese culture and their own.

Lynd and Hayden’s observation highlights the remarkable qualities of Xuan Oanh.

Knowing Oanh provided us with a unique insight into Vietnamese culture and societal dynamics. With a strong sense of individualistic nationalism, he passionately shared his perspectives with us as we strolled alongside the lake one evening. Oanh delved into the intricacies of Vietnamese culture, emphasizing the beauty and poetic nature of their language, which transforms ordinary conversations into verses. Proudly asserting that it is far more challenging to master than the Chinese language, he underscored the delicate and invaluable nature of the Vietnamese language. Through our conversations, we comprehended the deep-seated desire of this culture to break free from years of obscurity imposed by dominant powers.

Lynd and Hayden were highly impressed not only by Xuan Oanh’s extensive knowledge but also by the effective manner in which he conveyed it to them, resulting in a deep understanding. In his 1988 memoir titled “Reunion,” Tom Hayden further elaborated on Xuan Oanh’s pivotal role, not only as a guide in forging strong relationships with peace movements and foreign visitors, but also as someone driven by a desire to present a positive image of America to his own country. During the debate with Xuan Oanh, Hayden gained insight into the strategic nature of educating to “reduce hatred.” By distinguishing American citizens from the policies and administration of their government, it became evident that this approach could wield a positive influence on public opinion.

During his visit to Hanoi in the spring of 1972, Bill Zimmerman reflects on Xuan Oanh as a sophisticated official with a Western education. Xuan Oanh frequently traveled to Europe and served as an ambassador to the antiwar movement. From 1965 to 1972, peace activists consistently praised the valuable information provided by Xuan Oanh during their visits. However, these interactions were not merely social gatherings. They represented the unwavering determination of a sovereign nation to liberate itself from oppressive powers.

Do Xuan Oanh and People-to-People Diplomacy During the American War
Cora Weiss, former President of the Association of American Families with relatives detained in Vietnam, a close friend of Xuan Oanh, secretly relayed correspondence between American pilots at Hoa Lo and American families in the 1960s-1970s.

The group of visiting activists were getting a firsthand experience of what Ho Chi Minh had envisioned when he established various “Friendship Associations” to promote people-to-people diplomacy. One of the earliest of these associations was the Viet Nam – America Friendship Association, formed just 45 days after the Democratic Republic of Viet Nam gained independence on October 17, 1945. A tea party reception was held to acknowledge this spirit of friendship between the two nations. This was just the beginning, as Viet Nam would go on to establish numerous bilateral friendship organizations with other countries. It is worth mentioning that the Viet Nam – America Friendship Association was the first to be established.

Unfortunately, the Viet Nam – America Friendship Association will soon cease its public operations. In the early stages of the Democratic Republic of Viet Nam, France, supported by America, forcefully attempted to re-occupy Vietnam, as well as Laos and Cambodia. However, the Democratic Republic of Vietnam successfully thwarted these efforts in May of 1954 at Dien Bien Phu. During this time, the Viet Nam – America Friendship Association was not actively involved, and it would only become active again during the Paris Peace negotiations in the late 1960s, under a new name that emphasized the vital relationship with the people of the aggressor nation – The Vietnam Committee for Solidarity with the American People. Xuan Oanh held the position of Secretary at the Vietnam Peace Committee, Vietnam Committee for Solidarity with the American People.

After the conclusion of the American War, the organization resumed its activities under a new name that remains in use today – The Vietnam-US Society, which is a part of the Vietnam Union of Friendship Organizations. Its primary objective was to establish favorable conditions for the normalization of relations between the two countries. This historical background, along with the past successes of cooperation with citizens of various nations, has become a fundamental aspect of Vietnamese diplomacy. It served as the foundation for Xuan Oanh’s interactions with American visitors, promoting the idea of solidarity with the American people.

During David Dillenger’s visit to Hanoi in 1966, he had numerous fruitful engagements with Xuan Oanh. With Oanh’s assistance, Dillenger had the opportunity to meet with various constituents of North Vietnam, such as the youth, women, labor, and agricultural organizations. These encounters led to in-depth discussions, spurred by Dillenger’s thought-provoking and challenging inquiries.

Xuan Oanh provided invaluable assistance to Dillenger by facilitating extensive access from various sectors, including farms, factories, and government entities at the highest levels.

“My close friend, Do Xuan Oanh, a highly talented poet, musician, and the renowned composer of the Vietnamese national anthem, served as my trusted interpreter during numerous trips to the countryside and various engagements. On that particular day, he was by my side as my interpreter once again.

While having a conversation with Pham Van Dong, to my surprise, Ho Chi Minh himself walked into the room, his presence immediately lighting up the space. With a warm smile, we engaged in a meaningful discussion.”

During a captivating conversation, Dillenger provides further insight into this remarkable dialogue. Picture an American advocate for peace seated in a room with Xuan Oanh and Pham Van Dong, engaged in a constructive discussion with the esteemed President Ho Chi Minh. From this interaction, Dillenger takes away two significant points. Firstly, Ho Chi Minh expressed genuine concern for the prisoners of war, expressing a desire to treat them well and hoping that they would leave with an improved sense of citizenship or understanding. Secondly, Ho Chi Minh made it clear that the administration, not the American people, was the source of their dispute. Dillenger observed how this message had permeated the various organizations he had encountered during his visit, leaving a lasting impact. This firsthand experience serves as a testament to the rewards of people-to-people diplomacy, which formed the foundation of the initial Viet Nam – American Friendship Society and was a mission diligently pursued by Xuan Oanh, even during these turbulent and hostile times.

Do Xuan Oanh and People-to-People Diplomacy During the American War
Merle Ratner, a member of the US Communist Party, holds a photo of Xuan Oanh at her home in New York, USA, in 2022. Ratner has dedicated her life to Vietnam. She is the co-founder and coordinator of the Vietnam Agent Orange Relief & Responsibility Campaign (VAORRC). (Photo taken at Ratner’s home in New York, USA, 2022).

In 1967, Tom Hayden led a delegation of American peace activists to attend a conference in Bratislava, Czechoslovakia. The conference aimed to bring together U.S. antiwar advocates, representatives of the North Vietnamese government, and the National Liberation Front (NLF). Notably, Madame Nguyen Thi Binh was part of the NLF delegation. It was Xuan Oanh who extended an invitation for the American group to visit Hanoi after the conclusion of the Bratislava Conference. Six individuals, including Hayden, accepted the invitation and traveled to Hanoi. Carol McEldowney and Vivian Rothstein among them, both documenting their experiences and interactions with Xuan Oanh during their visit to gain first-hand knowledge about Vietnam.

During their travels, McEldowney and Rothstein, like many other peace travelers, observed the exceptional qualities of Xuan Oanh that greatly enhanced their experience. Xuan Oanh possessed a unique ability to effectively introduce and elucidate Eastern culture to Westerners, enabling them to gain a deeper understanding. Particularly, McEldowney recognized certain attributes of Xuan Oanh that resonated with Westerners, highlighting his humane nature. One instance she mentioned was his decision to bring his young son, Chi, to a music troupe concert on October 1, 1967. These personal interactions with the Vietnamese people contradicted any negative stereotypes perpetuated by American propaganda, ultimately humanizing the Vietnamese population in a subtle, yet profound and enduring manner.

Contact Us

Contact Us

If you have any questions or inquiries, please feel free to reach out to us using the form below. We will get back to you as soon as possible.

1. Carol McEldowney, Hanoi Journal 1967, (Amherst and Boston: University of Massachusetts Press, 2007), p.36.

2. James W. Clinton, The Loyal Opposition: Americans in North Vietnam, 1965-1972. Niwot, Colorado: The University Press of Colorado, 1995, p. 48.

3. Zimmerman, B. (2011). Troublemaker: A Memoir from the Front Lines of the Sixties. New York: Doubleday. p. 267.

Reunion: A Memoir by Tom Hayden is a book published by Random House in 1988. The book is on pages 184-5 and is written in a font size of 14px.

5. Mary Hershberger, Traveling to Vietnam: American Peace Activists and the War (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 1998), 41.

Staughton Lynd and Thomas Hayden, The Other Side: Two Americans Report on Their Forbidden Visit Inside North Vietnam (New York: The New American Library, 1967), 61.

Aguilar-San Juan, K. and Joyce, F. (2015). The People Make the Peace: Lessons from the Vietnam Antiwar Movement. Charlottesville, Virginia: Just World Books, p. 22.

8. Judy Gumbo, Yippie Girl: Exploits in Protest and Defeating the FBI, (New York: Three Rooms Press, 2022), pp. 192-196. Gumbo provides a specific figure just below 200, stating that “Only 174 individuals from the United States traveled to North Vietnam during the ongoing war.”

Thomas (Tom) Wilber