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Xuan Oanh and the Impact of People-to-People Diplomacy During the American War (Part 2)

Not only is Xuan Oanh renowned for penning the iconic song "August 19" which was performed at the Hanoi Opera House square on an unforgettable August 19th in 1945, but he is also regarded as a beloved people's diplomat.

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Part 1: Do Xuan Oanh and People-to-People Diplomacy During the American War

Writer Susan Sontag recounts her 1968 journey to North Vietnam, including extensive interaction with Xuan Oanh in her aptly titled and deeply reflective memoir of that mission, Trip to Hanoi.

She references Xuan Oanh throughout Trip to Hanoi, as early as page nine mentioning his leadership role with the escorting group, and gives extensive reflections, even musings on how Xuan Oanh would come to view things over time. Toward the middle of the book Sontag ponders about her impact on her hosts, questioning whether her presence is wasting their time. She remarks, “I sometimes have the feeling that my being here…is a big waste of our Vietnamese hosts’ time. Oanh should be spending these days writing music.”

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

Nonetheless, it seems Xuan Oanh’s openness with his guests was disarming, fostering good information sharing during these important people-to-people diplomacy meetings. Sontag records Xuan Oanh recalling childhood stories about working on his uncle’s fishing boat on beautiful Ha Long Bay, while also drawing comparisons between the natural beauty of the coastal region and the Grand Canyon, highlighting the importance of appreciating and understanding different cultures.

Xuan Oanh’s genuine connection with the visitors left a positive impression on them and helped shape their perception of the people of Vietnam.

Do Xuan Oanh and People-to-People Diplomacy During the American War (Part 2)
Songwriter Xuan Oanh

Peace activist Judy Gumbo also documented her experiences involving Xuan Oanh in her chapter of The People Make the Peace: Lessons from the Vietnam Antiwar Movement. She highlights the important role of the Vietnam Committee for Solidarity with the American People in facilitating these visits.

Gumbo’s account confirms the ongoing activity of people-to-people diplomacy during the Paris peace talks, with Xuan Oanh actively engaged in the process.

Do Xuan Oanh and People-to-People Diplomacy During the American War (Part 2)
Judy Gumbo (second from right) sits next to Lieutenant General Le Chi – son of Xuan Oanh – during a visit to Xuan Oanh’s house in 2020. Judy is the leader of the US hippie movement in the 1970s. She was inspired by Xuan Oanh and brought the Hippo organization to actively participate in the antiwar movement in the US. At that time, she was listed by the FBI as “America’s number one national security threat”.

In a later memoir of her life as an activist, Yippie Girl: Exploits in Protest and Defeating the FBI, Gumbo devoted a chapter to her six meetings with Xuan Oanh in 1970. She describes Xuan Oanh as a multi-talented individual who was widely recognized within the peace movement and known for his musical, political, diplomatic, artistic, and translating abilities. Others have made similar observations in their writings about Xuan Oanh. Sontag, in her book Trip to Hanoi, describes him as having a “personal authority” and possessing a charming American slouch, which contribute to his ability to establish genuine connections with people.

Some of the peace travelers to Vietnam sought specific information to challenge the Nixon administration on legal aspects of American intervention. Attorneys Mort Stavis and Peter Weiss, through Xuan Oanh’s arrangements, were able to continue their inquiry on war crimes in Hanoi.

In mid-November 1970, Stavis and Weiss traveled to Hanoi at the invitation of the Jurists Association of Viet Nam and the War Crimes Commission for a study on war crimes.

Do Xuan Oanh and People-to-People Diplomacy During the American War (Part 2)
The cover of the book “Yippie Girl”. From left to right: Nancy Kurshan, Judy Gumbo, and Genie Plamondon led a protest against the Vietnam War in 1971.

During his hosting of visiting peace activists over the years, Xuan Oanh often arranged meetings between the travelers and prisoners of war (POWs). These meetings varied in format and agenda, but Xuan Oanh played a crucial role in facilitating communication between the interviewers and interviewees. He explained the Vietnamese perspective on the POWs as both invaders who had caused devastation in their country, and as dutiful citizens who were following orders without fully understanding the Vietnamese culture. Xuan Oanh also highlighted the discrepancy between the Vietnamese government’s treatment of POWs and the portrayal presented by the Nixon administration and U.S. media.

Xuan Oanh’s ability to explain and bridge the gap of understanding on a people-to-people basis was instrumental in dispelling misperceptions and promoting empathy.

Do Xuan Oanh and People-to-People Diplomacy During the American War (Part 2)
“A memoir – Reunion” by Tom Hayden

In May 1972, peace activist Bill Zimmerman traveled to Hanoi with three others after the Nixon administration renewed massive bombing and mining in Haiphong harbor. Despite the tense atmosphere, Xuan Oanh made sure Zimmerman’s group had the opportunity to meet with captured American pilots.

The eight POWs, through their spokesperson naval aviator David Wesley Hoffman, expressed their shock at the “futility of the action that was taken in the bombing raids against Hanoi and Haiphong…that civilian targets are in fact being hit, with civilian casualties, both injured and killed…there can be no reason or excuse for that.”

Xuan Oanh’s role in facilitating these meetings and raising awareness about the impact of the bombing on civilians helped to counter the Nixon administration’s narrative about the POWs and contributed to a more nuanced understanding of the situation.

A result of Zimmerman’s interview with the POWs was that his film of the meeting was broadcast on a national news program two weeks later. This interview of healthy and vocal POWs criticizing the U.S. bombing campaign challenged the Nixon administration’s narrative and led to a shift in public opinion regarding the treatment of POWs.

During the later stages of the war, Xuan Oanh had the additional responsibility of engaging with captured Americans in the Hanoi prisons. With his political officer position in the Army and his cultural knowledge, Xuan Oanh helped facilitate communication between the prison staff and the prisoners. He provided support and helped address their concerns during their captivity.

In September 1972, Xuan Oanh played a crucial role in the release of three POWs as a gesture of peace. This brought together peace activist Cora Weiss and Xuan Oanh, who had collaborated on multiple occasions from 1969 to 1973 in both Hanoi and Paris. Weiss, along with other individuals, traveled to Hanoi to accept custody of the released pilots.

Xuan Oanh was known for his sensitivity, easygoing nature, and concern for the well-being of his guests. His assistance was vital in ensuring the safe return of the POWs and facilitating their reunion with their families.

Former POW Bob Chenoweth, who had been a part of the group released in September 1972, expressed his gratitude for the Vietnamese people in shaping his perspective and making him a better person during his captivity. Chenoweth’s words reflect Ho Chi Minh’s hope that prisoners would leave Vietnam with a better understanding and a commitment to peace and humanity.

Xuan Oanh’s legacy of people-to-people diplomacy lives on through the positive effects he had on individuals and the broader peace movement.

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9. Wilber and Lembcke, Dissenting POWs, 68.

10. Zimmerman, Troublemaker, 277.

11. Tom Wilber and Jerry Lembcke, Dissenting POWs: From Vietnam’s Hoa Lo Prison to America Today, (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2021), 92-4

12. Zimmerman, Troublemaker, 267-8.

13. McEldowney, Hanoi Journal 1967, 100.

15. Politburo Resolution No. 194-NQ/TW, 20 November 1969, On Policy Toward Captured American Pilots in North Vietnam

16. Gumbo, Yippie Girl, 192-214.

17. Sontag, Trip to Hanoi, 13.

18. Gumbo, Yippie Girl, 193.

19. Susan Sontag, Trip to Hanoi, (New York: Noonday Press, 1968) 34-5. Sontag’s reflections revolve around Xuan Oanh’s perspectives and the Vietnamese people’s impressions of American visitors.

20. Sontag, Trip to Hanoi, 79.

21. Judy Gumbo, “Viet Nam Time Travel, 1970-2013”, Chapter 2 in Karin Aguilar-San Juan and Frank Joyce, editors, The People Make the Peace: Lessons from the Vietnam Antiwar Movement, (Charlottesville: Just World Books, 2015), 65.

Thomas (Tom) Wilber