Peace identity in war time

[Individual articles from the Spring 2017 issue of Intersections will be posted on this blog each week. The full issue can be found on MCC’s website.]

Mennonite Central Committee began its ministries in revolutionary Vietnam in 1954, immediately following the signing of the Geneva Accords that ended the French Indochina War. Partnering with the Christian and Missionary Alliance and the Evangelical Church of Vietnam (ECVN), MCC provided humanitarian assistance and medical services within the
context of Cold War realities. From the beginning, church and mission leaders, as well as top South Vietnam government officials, understood that Mennonites eschewed participation in military service. This article traces how, over the course of the next 20 years, MCC worked to maintain its identity as a peace organization in a country at war, weighing competing interests from North American leadership, North American constituency, other international non-governmental organizations (INGOs), United
States (U.S.) government agents and MCC personnel present in Vietnam.

Military engagement renewed in 1959 as the two major parties in Vietnam failed to pursue a political resolution. Paul Peachey, representing the MCC Peace Section, visited Vietnam in March 1960. By late 1961, Saigon President Ngo Dinh Diem was calling the conflict a “real war.” Early in 1962, the United States formed the Military Assistance-Command Vietnam and began directing military activity against the insurgency in South Vietnam. Unable to control the insurrection in the South, the U.S. prepared to launch bombing raids on North Vietnam. Its naval forces provoked the August 1964 incident in the Tonkin Gulf, which in turn provided the rationalization to begin the massive bombing raids that continued for several years.

Earlier that year, anticipating an expansion of social work ministries, MCC invited Paul Longacre to direct the Vietnam program. Typhoons and catastrophic floods in central Vietnam quickly engaged Longacre’s time. Cooperating with U.S. and Vietnamese government agencies, MCC workers soon realized that military strategy was determining who received relief assistance. Declaring that “MCC must speak out” against such policies, Longacre sent a letter to the deputy prime minister and shared his concerns with other INGOs working in Vietnam.

The first U.S. Marines came ashore in Vietnam in March 1965. As the number of combat troops steadily rose, the MCC Executive Committee asked Executive Secretary William Snyder to write to President Lyndon Johnson expressing “deep concern” about the burgeoning war bringing suffering to the Vietnamese people. Throughout the summer, major American Mennonite church bodies also protested the expanding war, while the missionaries working with Eastern Mennonite Board of Missions and Charities (now Eastern Mennonite Missions) prepared a statement of concern.

The growing American military involvement stirred the American Protestant and Orthodox churches collaborating under the umbrella of the National Council of Churches (NCC) and Church World Service (CWS) to respond to the needs of an increasing number of displaced persons, with the NCC proposing that MCC coordinate and lead a joint relief effort with CWS. In January 1966, MCC, CWS and Lutheran World Relief (LWR) signed an agreement to form Vietnam Christian Service (VNCS) “to serve refugees and other people in the emergency situation in Vietnam.” There was strong support for VNCS within MCC, but some supporters began expressing concerns about possible unintended consequences of the VNCS response. These dissenting voices noted that caring for those
displaced by the war seemed to facilitate America’s military escapade and wondered if MCC should even operate in Vietnam.

Atlee Beechy became the first VNCS executive director. Beechy told the head of the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) in Vietnam that VNCS senses “a responsibility to work toward peace.” He wrote letters to U.S. congressional representatives and made a point to “preach peace” as he interacted with American officials. In July 1966, Snyder and C.N. Hostetter, Jr., the chair of MCC’s Executive Committee, wrote a letter to President Johnson and led an MCC delegation to the White House, expressing “our opposition to escalation of military efforts which increase the dimensions of human suffering,” and calling for “some bold initiative” to end the bloodshed.

Frank Epp, editor of the weekly Canadian Mennonite, visited Vietnam in March of 1966, bringing with him serious reservations about MCC’s presence, but returned home convinced that MCC belonged in Vietnam. Throughout the war, critics within MCC’s constituency frequently suggested that MCC was too closely associated with the United States’ Vietnam policy and should leave. Defenders of MCC’s Vietnam program countered that for MCC to leave would deprive MCC of a powerful base of legitimacy in speaking against U.S. policy.

VNCS provided food, medical and other assistance to displaced persons in central Vietnam. VNCS workers were committed to helping war victims, but many struggled with feeling like they had become cogs in the massive U.S. war machine. President Johnson’s decision in May 1967 to combine all U.S. agencies, including USAID, into one operational body—Civil Operations and Revolutionary Development Support (CORDS)—under
General William Westmoreland’s military command exacerbated these reservations. CORDS viewed VNCS personnel as part of their pacification team.

Pleased with VNCS’s service to displaced persons in central Vietnam, USAID proposed contracting with VNCS to care for affected people in other areas. MCC’s Executive Committee initially gave authorization for the partnership, but before the planned signing in July 1967, MCC asked the VNCS director to desist, in order to “maintain a VNCS identity and integrity to the greatest degree possible in the face of stronger military control of South Vietnam by the United States forces.”

Questions arose within MCC and VNCS more broadly about whether VNCS should continue its already existing programs. There were two schools of thought. One group believed the war and/or the U.S. presence in Vietnam was wrong and immoral. They came to Vietnam believing that the independent, Christian, and church ownership of their agency would be emphasized. They refused to be “on the U.S. team,” did not want to be associated with U.S. efforts and believed it was their Christian duty to express the difference. Others, meanwhile, felt just as strongly that they were in Vietnam to serve the Vietnamese people in any way possible, regardless of the limitations. They wanted to serve the suffering and needy and did not want VNCS personnel engaging in secondary activities that would jeopardize the working relationship of VNCS with ruling authorities, including the U.S. military, in Vietnam. They did not care who received the credit for their help, including the American government.

Saigon-based VNCS administrators believed its personnel could oppose U.S. policies in Vietnam by writing and talking with U.S. citizens involved in policymaking. They asked: Would VNCS not contribute to alleviating suffering in Vietnam if it could influence the policy-makers to de-escalate or withdraw from the country? James MacCracken, the CWS executive director who respected MCC’s peace concerns, said VNCS staff should remain neutral, referencing that the CWS parent body, the National Council of Churches, spoke forthrightly against U.S. escalation and warfare: “It is not in line for Church World Service to become political and associate itself with either a hawk or a dove role. We are endeavoring to minister regardless of the accident of geography, race or religion to acute human need. It is this and this alone in the name and for the sake and for the love of Jesus Christ that we have turned to the Mennonite Central Committee and requested that a ministry of service be undertaken.”

In September 1967, VNCS leader Paul Leatherman and representatives of three other agencies critical of U.S. policy met with the American ambassador in Vietnam, who stated that voluntary agency personnel had no right to oppose U.S. or Vietnamese government policies. When key leaders of International Voluntary Service (including two Mennonites)
resigned a few days later in protest of U.S. policies, the head of CORDS Refugee Division stated that it was against U.S. policy to control the programs or statements of voluntary agencies. MCC Executive Secretary Snyder also pressed the matter in an October 6, 1967 memo to USAID officials in Washington, saying that CORDS put pressure on VNCS to relate its programs “to immediate military objectives.” This led to a USAID directive that CORDS personnel assist the Vietnamese government in coordinating participation in provincial relief programs “in such a way to preclude charges of interference in and control of Volag [voluntary agency] activities.”

The coordinated attacks on Tet in 1968 proved to be a game-changer, precipitating a change of U.S. military commanders and President Johnson’s readiness to pursue “peace through negotiations.” Shortly before the Tet military offensive, Mennonite missionaries in Vietnam had released their “Letter to American Christians” calling for an end to U.S. military activity in Vietnam. That summer, Beechy contacted the diplomatic missions of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV, commonly referred to as North Vietnam) and the National Liberation Front (NLF, or the Viet Cong, a political organization and army operating in South Vietnam and Cambodia during the Vietnam War), introducing Mennonites and their concerns for peace and proposing possible relief programs. Following Richard Nixon’s inauguration as president in January 1969, the war continued with the Saigon government’s military forces expanding as U.S. troops withdrew. MCC personnel in Vietnam signed statements calling on the U.S. to withdraw its military forces.

In January 1970, MCC transferred VNCS administration to CWS. That summer, Beechy began a nine-month-long peacebuilding role on behalf of MCC to DRV and Provisional Revolutionary Government (PRG) emissaries in Europe and Asia. [The PRG was an underground government established in 1969 in opposition to the South Vietnamese regime.] Beechy’s final report in 1971 to MCC emphasized the urgency of ending the fighting in the “deeply fragmented, fearful, and hostile” climate of South Vietnam. “All MCC personnel should be reconcilers,” Beechy urged. “We must remain in the midst of the suffering and division as long as we can work effectively and with a sense of integrity. A second imperative is that we do everything possible to stop U.S. military participation in this manmade hell.”

MCC separated from VNCS in January 1973 and returned to its pre-1966 status of administering its own programs. On January 27, the U.S. and the DRV signed the Paris Accords, an Agreement on Ending the War and Restoring Peace to Vietnam. While this enabled the U.S to withdraw its military forces, the war continued at a lower intensity.

Leaders of the ECVN claimed an apolitical stance, though most identified with the policies of the Saigon government. MCC personnel working with the church’s medical programs chafed at the ECVN’s position. The ongoing MCC Vietnam program placed more emphasis on ability to communicate with and engage Vietnamese people than on the development of specific programs, encouraging MCC workers to “find ways to express Christian love and concern to help bring about real reconciliation and peace.” In the spring of 1974, MCC Vietnam defined “peace and reconciliation” as its main objective in Vietnam. While continuing to support ECVN medical programs, MCC personnel also assisted released political prisoners, prepared written materials for North American churches and directed attention to the problem of unexploded ordnance. In May of the same year, 16 MCC personnel and several Mennonite missionaries signed a letter to U.S. Congressional leaders urging a reduction of U.S. armaments to Vietnam and a political resolution to the conflict.

The war ended in April 1975. Four MCC men stayed for a time. An MCC delegation visiting Vietnam in November of that year negotiated for an ongoing MCC program with the Vietnamese people. MCC’s strong commitment to peace and reconciliation throughout the war has enabled MCC to continue working in Vietnam with the blessing of the Vietnamese
government.

Luke Martin worked in Vietnam from 1962 to 1975 with Eastern Mennonite Board of Missions and Charities (now Eastern Mennonite Missions). He works as an author, pastor and Vietnamese interpreter.

Learn More

Martin, Luke. A Vietnam Presence: Mennonites in Vietnam During the American
War. Morgantown, PA: Masthof Press, 2016.

Ediger, Max. A Vietnamese Pilgrimage. Newton, KS: Faith and Life Press, 1978.

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