[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.]
For almost 500 years, Anabaptists have refused to participate in war. After World War I, diverse groups founded MCC as an inter-Anabaptist institution to assist victims of the Great War. Since then, MCC has continued to assist people globally, often in post-conflict situations. MCC initially worked only in areas controlled by the U.S. military and the Saigon government of South Vietnam. However, Jesus’ command to “love your enemies” called some within MCC to assist all Vietnamese people in need—including those in communities “on the other side.” In this article, drawing on my experiences working with MCC in Vietnam in the late 1960s, I examine the risks involved in acting on Jesus’ command to “love your enemies” in a conflict zone and the results that flowed from
answering that call.
In Tam Ky, Quang Nam Province, where I worked in Vietnam from 1966 to 1969, I built friendships and trust with many Vietnamese friends. Together, we developed a literacy program welcomed by parents and children on both sides of the conflict. The literacy program started in displaced person camps in Tam Ky, but soon spread to villages beyond the U.S./Saigon government perimeter. This expansion enabled me to work
and make friends with a broad spectrum of people in both Tam Ky and also communities deemed “unsafe” and “hostile” by the U.S. military. In a letter to my parents in 1968, I wrote: “Tonight Tam Ky is beautiful and peaceful. It is really kind of great to go out at night because at night I own the whole town. The GIs and CIA may use it during the day, but at night it is their enemy. But for me, it is my friend both day and night.” The same span of Vietnamese friendships that enabled me to live and work safely in both Tam Ky and with marginal communities proved threatening to the U.S. military. War is fueled by fear and hatred of the enemy, so for soldiers to see their fellow countrymen making friends and living peacefully with both sides in a combat zone is, as one U.S. official explained, “hard on the morale of the U.S. soldiers.”
The first reaction of American officials in Tam Ky was to ask the U.S. Embassy in Saigon to pressure Vietnam Christian Service (VNCS) leaders to have me transferred out of the war zone. [MCC was the lead organization of VNCS, which also included Church World Service and Lutheran World Relief.] That effort failed, after a chance meeting with a U.S. journalist led to an article in the New York Times pointing out that the U.S. government—which was destroying Vietnam—was attempting to kick out volunteers who were trying to help Vietnamese people. (A worker from International Voluntary Service was also on the list of people the U.S.military wanted removed.) The article further noted that, in a democracy, the government cannot tell non-governmental organizations (NGOs) how to deploy their staff, while the separation of church and state is supposed
to protect religious organizations from government interference.
Several months after the effort to remove me from Tam Ky backfired, a student who taught in our literacy program asked me to meet her father at her aunt’s house. Her father informed me that he worked for the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and that he had been assigned to spread disinformation about me in the Tam Ky area. He explained that the CIA had informants from rural National Liberation Front (NLF) areas who would come monthly to Tam Ky and report to the CIA about local officials in their area, so that the military could attempt to kill them. The CIA plan was to tell the informants that I was a covert CIA agent. The assumption, he explained, was that when the rumor took hold, the NLF would “solve the Doug Hostetter problem” the next time they infiltrated Tam Ky. When I asked Vietnamese friends how I should respond to the warning, they advised me to pray and trust my friends. If I were to leave Tam Ky just as the rumor was spreading, they said, it would be believed, and MCC could never again send volunteers to Tam Ky. Several months later, my literacy teacher asked me to meet with her father again. He reported that the campaign had been a failure; the informants had spread the rumor, but the people did not believe it and now I was likely safe.
All of the Western NGOs in Vietnam claimed that they were there to love and assist the Vietnamese people. But most of them only assisted Vietnamese who lived in the areas controlled by the Saigon government, protected by U.S. troops. Some Mennonites and Quakers tried hard to expand our work to assist people on both sides of the conflict. In 1975, 130 international NGOs were operating in South Vietnam. When the U.S. troops withdrew, only MCC and the American Friends Service Committee remained as witnesses to a God who is bigger than the United States and who loves all Vietnamese people, regardless of where they live or whose military is in control.
Doug Hostetter is MCC’s United Nations Office director. He also served with MCC in Tam Ky, Vietnam from 1966 to 1969.
Hostetter, Doug. The People Make the Peace. Charlottesville, VA: Just World Books, 2015.
Martin, Earl. Reaching the Other Side. New York: Crown Publishers, 1978.