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Vietnam War Era Journeys

Recovering Histories of Internationalism

Michele Hardesty is Assistant Professor of U.S. Literatures in the School of Humanities, Arts, and Cultural Studies at Hampshire College. Her publications can be found here.
Judy Tzu-Chun Wu, Radicals on the Road: Internationalism, Orientalism, and Feminism during the Vietnam Era (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2013), 346 pages, $26.95, paperback.

The cover of Judy Tzu-Chun Wu’s Radicals on the Road features a sepia-toned photograph of Eldridge Cleaver raising his fist in a Black Power salute behind three Vietnamese women in combat helmets, one of whom is kneeling behind an anti-aircraft gun. While you have probably seen a similar photograph of Jane Fonda from her North Vietnam trip in 1972, images like that of Cleaver are less common, if circulated at all. In this second book by Wu, she documents three sets of journeys, like Cleaver’s, that have remained at the margins of both the scholarship and the popular memory of the antiwar movement.

The first section of the book, “Journeys for Peace,” Wu’s subject is Robert Span Browne, an African-American intellectual and activist who “spent the middle decades of his life in the midst of the Cold War and the black liberation struggles in the United States, and the decolonization movements of the so-called Third World” (16). Wu traces Browne’s life from his childhood on the South Side of Chicago in the 1920s and ‘30s, and into the 1970s. Using Browne’s unpublished memoir and interviews with living relatives, Wu shows how his early exposure to black internationalism and his frustration with Jim Crow America prompted Browne to leave the country on an extended trip in 1952. After traveling in Europe, North Africa, and the Middle East, Browne returned to the United States and served in the Army, then took a position as an American aid adviser in Cambodia and South Vietnam in 1955. During this time, he met and married his wife Huoi, a Cambodian woman of Vietnamese and Chinese ethnicity. After returning to the States in 1961 with Huoi and their children, Browne “would discover his political voice and purpose” (63), writing critical editorials about U.S. foreign policy for the New York Times, collaborating with peace organizations opposed to the war, and, after becoming a professor of economics, helping to launch the teach-in movement.

This biography is fascinating on its own account. Yet the most compelling chapter of this section is where she discusses Browne’s opposition to U.S. foreign policy in Southeast Asia and his peace activism. In editorials, Browne developed a critique of U.S. policy that focused on its limited Cold War framework and its mentality of “white superiority” (73). In contrast, Browne insisted that developments in the third world must be understood in terms of decolonization and self-determination of people of color. On the basis of Browne’s writings, but also his status as an African-American peace activist with personal connections to Southeast Asia, he was recruited by a number of mostly white peace organizations, like Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR) and Women Strike for Peace (WSP), to take part in their antiwar delegations to South and North Vietnam. He also became a “desirable resource” (76) for African-American antiwar activists, and in essays like “The Freedom Movement and the War in Vietnam,” published in Freedomways in 1965, he proposed commonalities between Vietnamese and African Americans that warranted their solidarity against the war.

Browne also insisted that Vietnamese voices be heard in antiwar campaigns. He developed an early partnership with Thich Nhat Hanh, the Vietnamese Buddhist monk who opposed the war, and facilitated Hanh’s connections with peace organizations like FOR. The record of Browne’s impact in this era of activism is considerable, but Wu not only recovers these obscured facts but also shows us how Browne, his wife Huoi, and Hanh became symbols of (highly gendered) authenticity and credibility that were actively managed by other players in the peace movement, and sometimes by Browne himself. In particular, Wu shows how “Browne’s paternal masculinity as an African-American man and Hanh’s effeminate asexuality as an Asian monk contributed to their ability to communicate with audiences across cultural boundaries” (65). Wu brilliantly links these gendered understandings of Browne and Hanh to an image of a Vietnamese mother and child often used by FOR in events and mailings: the feminized Hanh, she argues, “both embodied and served as the surrogate voice for the victimized women and children of Vietnam.” Browne, as father to a “Vietnamese family,” was also linked to the image, but as a paternal protector (94).

I have done research of my own in this area, and before reading Wu’s book I had no inkling of Browne’s pivotal role in introducing Hanh to the U.S. peace movement, their dual role in encouraging Martin Luther King, Jr. to take a stand against the Vietnam War, nor the extent to which FOR’s Alfred Hassler strategically managed Hanh’s activism and the publication of his book Vietnam: Lotus in a Sea of Fire. Finally, one of the more impressive aspects of this chapter is the attention Wu pays to Browne’s wife Huoi, who had to negotiate a difficult transition to living and raising their children in the United States while Browne was on the road. Considering that Browne and others used the symbolic power of his misrecognized and orientalized “Vietnamese wife” in their political work, this account of Huoi’s actual experiences is an important corrective.

Wu’s next section, “Journeys for Liberation,” follows the route of the U.S. People’s Anti-Imperialist Delegation, spearheaded by Black Panther Party (BPP) leader Eldridge Cleaver and Ramparts editor Robert Scheer, on a two-and-a-half month tour of North Korea, North Vietnam, and China in 1970. This group was “a cross-section of the U.S. radical left” (163), different in composition, politics, and itinerary from the kinds of peace delegations organized by FOR and WSP. It was made up of four men and seven women, and four members of the group were people of color: Cleaver and Elaine Brown of the BPP, and Asian-American activists Alex Hing and Pat Sumi. Browne and Hanh’s story is wrapped up with a more traditional orientalism or savior politics, while the Anti-Imperialist delegates identified their struggles with those of their hosts or espoused what Wu calls “radical orientalism.”

Wu notes that Asian socialism served both as a revolutionary model and a counterweight to U.S. imperialism for many on the left in the 1960s and ‘70s. However, she is particularly interested in what socialist Asia meant to the African-American and Asian-American members of the delegation. For delegates like Elaine Brown and Alex Hing, experiences in North Korea, North Vietnam, and China—selective and packaged as they were by their hosts—tended to enforce a “radical orientalism” that turned the traditional orientalist logic on its head. According to this logic, socialist Asia was (in the words of Hing) “probably the bastion of world civilization” (150), either representing an alternative form of technological modernity or, as was the case in the North Vietnam, a successful effort “to combat U.S. technological might with limited resources” (152). For African-American and Asian-American delegates in particular, these ideas about North Korea, North Vietnam, and China were a powerful inspiration for their own struggles.

This radical orientalism took other forms as well. One of these, of particular interest to the majority-female delegation, was the role of women in these revolutionary nations. “The women’s organizations in socialist Asian countries did not reinforce the dragon lady depiction of Asian women,” writes Wu, “but instead emphasized the revolutionary potential of peasant and working women” (155). This emphasis was particularly evident in Vietnam, where the figure of the revolutionary woman departed from other figures like the dragon lady and the Vietnamese mother and child mentioned above. She crystallized in an image that circulated widely both in Vietnam and in U.S. movement publications like Black Panther and the Asian-American Gidra: a vigilant Asian peasant woman, cradling an infant in one arm and a rifle in the other. For Wu, this image—in its U.S. context—becomes a key example of “radical orientalism,” but by identifying it as such she does not seek to dismiss its power or the complex meanings it had for activists of color in the United States. Not only was the woman not in need of saving by western travelers, the image also resonated with Elaine Brown’s own self-conception as a female member of the Black Panther Party, and with Pat Sumi’s sense of herself as a “model revolutionary,” whose own likeness, in the wake of the tour, would appear on the cover of the Asian-American movement publication Rodan (187).

Given that Wu’s examples of both traditional and radical orientalism tend to employ images of Asian women, it is fitting that the last section of the book is called “Journeys for Global Sisterhood” and examines the Indochinese Women’s Conferences, which in Vancouver and Toronto in 1971 hosted a delegation of nationalist women leaders from North and South Vietnam and Laos. Wu is very conscious of the stakes of discussing “global sisterhood,” which might bring to mind “another form of Western domination, this time by well-intentioned champions of women’s rights who see themselves as the saviors of oppressed women in non-Western societies” (193–94). Her history of the conferences, however, challenges that notion of Western feminist solidarity. First of all, the North American sponsorship of the conferences was characterized by difference and “political variety” rather than unity. The sponsors constituted three groups: “traditional” women’s groups like the WSP, women’s liberation activists, and “Third World” women (women of color), and the conferences themselves became a space to “air and accentuate differencesparticularly along the lines of ideology, race, sexuality, and nationality” (194).

Additionally, Wu makes it clear that the idea of fostering a global women’s movement did not solely, or even primarily, originate in the West. Instead, the Vietnamese Women’s Unions actively promoted such a movement and sought North American women’s participation in it. In the context of these efforts, Vietnamese women leaders, not North American women, often employed a female universalism and cultivated “a sense of commonality and purpose” among women (194). Wu urges us to understand this “female universalism” as not monolithic or ahistorical but rather welcoming of a broad array of voices to build a strong coalition with a purpose—to end the U.S. war in Southeast Asia. For many, the Southeast Asian delegates seemed to embody the radical orientalist image of women warriors.

With this book, Wu has made a very significant, and long overdue, contribution to the scholarship on internationalism during the Vietnam Era. Her work uncovers the efforts of traveling radicals who consciously crossed national borders and made coalitions across race, ethnicity, gender, and sexuality in order to build an international antiwar movement. She has gone far to seek out interviews, unpublished sources, and movement periodicals to document activism that is not widely known. Additionally, it is refreshing to read a book that chooses neither to venerate uncritically, nor to excoriate these traveling radicals based on their destinations, and that accepts the complexities and inevitable messiness of these attempts at internationalism.

In addition, Radicals on the Road shows how raced and gendered identities of activists sometimes became authenticating markers and other times rendered these women activists and activists of color invisible to their fellows. There are examples of exclusionary planning and tokenism among American and Canadian activists in each of Wu’s case studies, and she takes care to air these grievances while insisting that “by more fully understanding the difficulties of achieving solidarity, it becomes possible to appreciate the rare moments of mutual understanding and inspiration” (184).

At the same time, Wu demonstrates how internationalists themselves—both Asian leaders and American travelers—sought political communion but often employed essentializing or even inverted orientalist tropes that venerated socialist Asia and the image of the woman warrior. “There is a tension,” she writes, “between radical orientalism, which posits a binary sense of opposition between the Orient and the Occident, and internationalism, which emphasizes the possibility of genuine dialogue and collective identification among people across various borders.” Wu argues that this “tension” itself is at the heart of activists’ “difficult work of crossing borders and reimagining political possibilities” (11). The book might have more clearly and consistently examined the implications of radical orientalism, especially when it amounts to activists romanticizing Asian socialism and Asian revolutionary women. It also could have further conceptualized those moments when collective identification and radical orientalism are not in tension but rather seem to go hand in hand. Nevertheless, Radicals on the Road is a powerful work of scholarship that gives readers tools to interpret the book’s own cover image with a critical understanding of both its history and its visual rhetoric, where Black Power internationalism and “radical orientalism” come together in complicated ways.

2014, Volume 66, Issue 05 (October)
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