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Voices from the Past:
The Search for Hanoi Hannah, Part II
I had been at the Mekahn Restaurant that Tung was talking about in his broadcast. The Mekahn was a floating restaurant tied up on the Mekong River dockside in Saigon. The bomb went off about ten o'clock when it was full of customers, many of them Americans. A Claymore mine tied to a tree was detonated three minutes later aimed at the survivors of the first bomb as they clambered down the gangplank toward shore. I arrived about 45 minutes after the blast, just in time to see 40 mangled bodies being loaded into ambulances and the Saigon Fire Department washing rivers of blood off the sidewalk with firehoses. Yes, Hanoi Hannah and her partner Nguyen Van Tung often knew how to invoke the images of war most painful to Americans in Vietnam.
The combination of his Peter Lorre delivery and the fact he hit the right buttons for me at the time in his psy-war commentary made him an enigma for twenty-five years. He didn't sound Vietnamese and many of the Special Forces Team listening that night guessed he was a turncoat Frenchman affecting an Oxford accent. I was to hear him many times during the course of the war, but never as clear as that night in An Lac and never with the same impact as that first broadcast.
I played the tape in Hanoi. They recognized his voice. Nguyen Van Tung was retired but known to be living in Hanoi. An address was found and I set off with my cyclo driver on a Sunday afternoon to face another voice from my past.
If I had been a man from Mars dropping in for tea, Nguyen Van Tung would not have been more surprised. He turned up his hearing aid and I played the tape of his broadcast heard in An Lac 25 years ago.
"Do you remember making that broadcast?" I inquired.
"Yes, of course, I was an announcer at Radio Hanoi. We made special programs for American GIs," he replied in his carefully enunciated style.
"Have you ever met any of your American listeners before?"
"No, sorry but I have not. It is a great pleasure to meet you here in Hanoi." His eyes glistened with tears. Who wouldn't wonder at a foreign stranger, an American in Hanoi, walking in playing back your words from a night's broadcast 25 years in the past?
Nguyen Van Tung is 67 and in good health except for his hearing problems. He lives comfortably in downtown Hanoi with his wife and son's family. From time to time he teaches English to private students. He had studied French and English as a schoolboy in Hanoi and then his father arranged for him to study English at the prestigious St. John's Boys School in Hong Kong, which explains the Oxford accent fighting against the earlier French.
Nguyen Van Tung remembers well the years when Hanoi was under siege and he broadcast daily to the enemy. Words of conciliation and forgiveness do not come easily to the old wordsmith who used to hector the American enemy daily during more than ten years of war.
To frighten, not to charm and seduce.
How are you, GI Joe? It seems to me that I escaped death many times in Hanoi... the planes, the bombs... the house next door to me was bombed out... even a room on my house was blown down. But my family escaped because they were out of town.
Don: Mr. Tung, what would you say if you had the chance to broadcast again this night to American troops? Go ahead, say what you want.
Tung: We were fighting for a just cause. All people want to be free and independent and do what they like. We know your history, Washington, Lincoln... great men. But those following them, well, we distinguish clearly between the American people and those who made the war. There's no reason the Vietnamese people and America can't be good friends. Our government changed policy and we are now glad to have friends cooperate in mutual understanding and benefit. However, the U.S. government has a responsibility to heal the wounds of war. We didn't make that war and I deem it reasonable that the U.S. government reconsider its policy and shake hands with Vietnam. There will be many benefits if we can be friends together on an equal basis. There is no reason to be enemies, the world should be in peace and we should enjoy our lives. Today the "Voice of Vietnam" still broadcasts from the same old ramshackle building at 58 Quan Su Street in central Hanoi. The equipment too has survived the war years and generation of patient repair. Only the announcers are new. A new staff of Hanoi Hannahs in their early twenties can be heard on Radio Hanoi's English service today. From 1600 hours Hanoi time until 2:00am, "Voice of Vietnam" can be picked up around the world on 12035 KHZ on the 25 meter band.
The Kampuchean people fully support the new policy of national reconciliation. The Kampuchea United Front for National Construction and Defense says the cessation of all foreign interference must be emphasized in order to guarantee the Pol Pot clique will not be permitted to return to power. ("The Voice of Vietnam," broadcast 1600 hours, Hanoi, 4 April 1989)
The broadcasts are certainly less strident these days, reflecting the fact that Vietnamese are not fighting anyone for the first time in 50 years. There is also a state of shock in the Hanoi leadership these days as "misguided comrades" from Poland to Rumania thunb their collective noses at Lenin.
Another reason for the lower decibel rhetoric being beamed out from Hanoi to the world may be the presence of an American advisor. Ms. Virginia Gift peers sternly over her bifocals at the confusion of Radio Hanoi's newsroom. Antique typewriters clatter in unison and outside the window carpenters pound hammers, shoring up the crumbling building. Ms. Gift is employed by the Government of Vietnam to improve the English skills of Hanoi civil servants.
This generation of Hanoi Hannahs, it seems, learned English from Russian textbooks. Twice a week Virginia Gift attempts to "de-Stalinize" the Radio Hanoi newscasts.
"The main problem with their English is they learned it from Russians. They use a lot of Stalinist terms and double -talk that mean nothing to most English listeners. So I try to purge the Marxist gobbledeguck and substitute straight English vocabulary. They learn fast and if it helps the world understand where the Vietnamese are coming from today, well then it's worth all my trouble."
There were in fact many Hanoi Hannahs who worked here at Radio Hanoi during the war between 1965 and 1973, but Thu Houng was the senior and most frequently heard Hannah. Together, with Nguyen Van Tung, they wrote and taped three commentaries a day for broadcast to the American troops.
After the war, Hannah, or Thu Houng moved to Ho Chi Minh city in 1976 with her husband, an officer in the North Vietnam Army. Hannah began her career with Radio Hanoi in 1955, when North Vietnam as an independent country began broadcasting to the world in several languages. She had been an English student at Hanoi University and was hired as the first English voice of Radio Hanoi at age 25. Her broadcasts directed toward American soldiers began in 1965 just after the U.S. Marines landed at Da Nang.
She does not like being compared to Tokyo Rose of World War II. Yes, she had read about Tokyo Rose but never studied her broadcasts or tried to emulate her style. Tokyo Rose was Iva Toguri, an American-born Japanese caught in Tokyo after Pearl Harbor and forced to broadcast. (As with Hanoi Hannah, there was no single Tokyo Rose. Twenty -seven different English-speaking Asian women, most Americans, broadcast to American troops during the Pacific War. But it was Iva Toguri who was singled out by muckraking journalist Walter Winchell and with the enthusiastic support of FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, she was convicted of treason. Iva Toguri spent eight years in prison before being pardoned by President Gerald Ford in 1977).
Tokyo Rose had been folksy and down-home American in her broadcasts. Hanoi Hannah maintained a friendly but correct and distant approach with her listeners. There was always a Vietnamese formality just under the surface of her voice as she suggested defection might be a good idea.
Interviewing Hanoi Hannah was like being Dorothy parting the curtains hiding the Wizard of Oz. The great and terrible Hanoi Hannah behind the façade we constructed turned out to be a mild-mannered announcer who spoke English and read Stars and Stripes.
As they say, in wartime, truth is the first casualty. By zapping the truth through an ostrich-like policycensorship, deletions, and exaggerationsU.S. Armed Forces Radio lost the trust of many GIs when they were most isolated and vulnerable to enemy propaganda. It wasn't that Hanoi Hannah always told the truthshe didn't. But she was most effective when she did tell the truth and U.S. Armed Forces Radio was fudging it. If we didn't know before, Vietnam should have taught us the communications are now so pervasive in this shrinking world that suppression of information is impossible. Accuracy and honesty in broadcasts are essential, not just because it's morally right but because it's practical, too.
After the war there was little recognition in Vietnam of her contribution to the war effort. Few of her countrymen have ever heard of her, there were no medals or honors and she herself modestly plays down her role in the war effort.
Don: You know, you're better known in the U.S. than you are here. Has the government ever recognized your work? Did you ever get a medal?
Hannah: Everybody got a medal.
Don: What did you hope to accomplish by your broadcasts?
Hannah: Well, I think that our earnest hope was the GIs would not participate in this war, that they would demand to go home. That they would see this war is not in the interests of the United States. I mean the people, the GIs, the families.
Don: And what effect do you think you really had?
Hannah: Well, we think the broadcasts did have some effect, because we see the antiwar movement in the U.S. building up, growing and so we think that our broadcast is a support to this antiwar movement. It's been over twenty years now. I am happy with what I've done.
Don: How do you see Vietnam and its place in the world today?
Hannah: It's an interesting stage. We are approaching normality. Things are much improved. There's a policy now of opening the doors to the outside world. It's better for Vietnam and the world. Because our fight has been for such a long time we are isolated from the world, even after reconstruction we don't have much attention from people outside. Things are better now between the U.S. and Vietnam and I hope relations will continue to improve, to normalize.
Don: Do you see any role for yourself to better relations with the U.S.?
Hannah: Well, I'm taking retirement now, but I'd be happy to do something to help relations between the U.S. and Vietnam. I would like to see America some day.
Don: What are you curious about in the U.S.?
Hannah: It's difficult to tell you. I just want to be a tourist and see the people and the land. I have always compared our traditions of liberty, like those of Abraham Lincoln and Ho Chi Minh. I just want to see it with my own eyes.
About the Author
As a features writer for the Hong Kong China Mail , Don North's first assignment as a war correspondent was in North Borneo with the British Royal Marines and Gurkas fighting the Army of Indonesia. For two years he was a freelance cameraman and writer in Vietnam and Indonesia and became Vietnam Staff Correspondent for ABC News in 1966. The Mel Gibson role in the feature film The Year of Living Dangerously is in part based on North's experiences in Indonesia. In 1967 he won the Overseas Press Club Award for his reports of Vietnam combat. During the Tet Offensive in January 1968, his report of the Viet Cong attack on the U.S. Embassy was the first broadcast on television in the United States.
In 1970, North was named Cairo Bureau Chief for NBC News and specialized in covering terrorism in the Middle East. He returned frequently to Vietnam. During the 1973 Arab-Israeli War, he covered the advance of Israeli forces in the Golan Heights and at the Suez Canal. For three years North worked as a producer on the 26-part series, The Ten Thousand Day War, a television history of the Vietnam war which was first broadcast on the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. This series has been shown in many countries around the world and on Arts & Entertainment and commercial broadcast outlets in the United States. North has appeared as news anchor for CBC Montreal, KTTV Los Angeles and as host of numerous documentaries. He established Northstar Productions, Inc, in Washington, DC in 1983 and has produced television news and documentaries about El Salvador, Nicaragua, Afghanistan and Lebanon.