SGM Herbert A. Friedman (Ret.)
Note: this entire article was reprinted in the spring 2019 issue of Perspectives, the Journal of the Psychological Operations Association.
This past month I have been slowly going through my Vietnam files and cataloging the Propaganda leaflets. Thousands of different leaflets were prepared by American forces during the Vietnam War and the vast majority was on subjects like the Tet New Year or the Chieu Hoi (Open Arms) defection program. I did notice one oddity that I had noticed in the past. There were a lot of leaflets that used poetry as the propaganda text. I had almost 50 of them. What could that mean? It would seem to indicate that the Americans believed the Vietnamese had a deep and abiding love of poetry and could be manipulated through it.
My friend Nguyen Tuan Trung explained:
From a propagandist point of view, your subject doesn't need much education to understand popular poetry, and a message embedded in such poetry would penetrate a much boarder audience, far better than say, a Party resolution which typically uses a lot of Chinese-Vietnamese words. Poetry also helps your subjects to remember the message longer.
Another Vietnam vet added:
A poem can also bring tears to anyones eyes. Bumper sticker phrases are catchy but do not create emotions.
A young Vietnamese named Phong Lan told me:
I grew up with my grandparents and I remembered my grandpa, my dad, and my mom used to recite poems daily... in lullaby, after telling a story they heard in market, or even when they lectured me. They memorized poems so well and a lot of ancient poems or quotes became their guidelines of life principles.
Digging around in my files I found The Joint U.S. Public Affairs Memorandum 48 dated 15 December 1967 titled Lessons Learned from Evaluation of Allied PSYOP Media in Vietnam:
Do try to make use of the medium of poetry. However, the quality of the Poetry must be at least better than mediocre. More enthusiastic and favorable responses have been obtained from messages in the poetic medium than any other form. Poetry is particularly as a medium for emotional and/or sentimental appeals. To insure the quality of the poetry, a well-known, popular poet should be employed, and the resulting product should be field tested before it is distributed. Although good poetry seems to elicit favorable reactions, bad poetry appears to be capable of eliciting the most unfavorable reactions of any medium.
Sometimes music and poetry were combined. Such an example is found in the PSYOP Newsletter, 11 December 1967. An article titled Addition of music to Chieu Hoi Loudspeaker appeals says in part:
North Vietnamese Army defectors felt that an extremely effective device to maintain attention would be to set the appeals to the music of popular Vietnamese folk songs, sung by a North Vietnamese girl. Another device the defectors thought would be effective would be to write the appeals in the form of short poems and have them read by a North Vietnamese girl. There is a traditional manner of reading poetry (Kieu style) in a special musical tone which is very popular among the North Vietnamese. Four separate tapes in the style of Kieu poetry were prepared for use against North Vietnamese troops.
I do feel the need to write sort of a disclaimer here. We Americans enjoy poetry because of the rhythm and the rhyme. I am sure these poems have that attribute in the Vietnamese language. Unfortunately, when translated to English that is all lost and the emotion and intellectual connection is lost. So, although an American reader may find the poems not emotionally pleasing, I think we can assume that they would be extremely emotional and enriching to a Vietnamese.
I mentioned this to Phong Lan and he said:
You're so right. The translation sometimes killed the meaning and the emotion embedded inside a Vietnamese poem. These poems affected the Vietnamese soldiers because they touched the deepest corners of their hearts. Americans who can only read the translated version will find it difficult to understand the emotional effects. But to a Vietnamese, the words could cut thru stone and got to the deep center inside a soldier, which often was hidden well beneath the tough layers. Most of these poems in the leaflets that you posted targeted the natural emotions of the love from a son to a mother, the yearning to go home to his birthplace, his town, a peaceful life filled with happiness without sounds of gunfire and images of dead bodies.
I agreed of course and answered:
As long as the poem is correct in Vietnamese, how the Americans translated it does not really matter. It does not matter how Americans read it, what is important is how the Vietnamese read it. We could butcher the translation of the poem, but as long as it moved the Vietnamese and perhaps worked toward the end of bloodshed and the coming of peace it was worth doing.
Sergeant Allen Feser of the 23rd Military Police Company, Americal Division, told me that he knew about the importance of poetry to the Vietnamese. He worked with a Vietnamese Military Policeman named Sergeant Phuong, who taught him about Vietnamese customs and language in 1968:
An educated and patriotic young man, we patrolled together as Military Police in Quang Nam/Quang Tin, and practiced each others language. He could recite classic Vietnamese poetry and told me then that it could never be translated to English because it would not be passionately understood by a non-Vietnamese speaker.
One of the many conversations that Sergeant Phuong and I had during our patrols was when we talked about my girlfriend Nguyen Thi Mai. As our relationship deepened I found that her Vietnamese nickname was Kieu. He told me that she was so unfortunate to have that nickname early in life and that someone must have known that her fate was to have a sad and unhappy love. He told me briefly of the classic poem The Tale of Kieu and that it would be difficult for me to understand the drama and tragedy of this work. The poem, In 3,254 verses, called the most important piece of Vietnamese literature, is the story of a young Vietnamese girl's attempt to right the wrongs of her past lives by enduring hardship in this life. She is sold into prostitution and continuously deceived by men promising her love.
Kieu and I eventually parted ways and I found out many years later that she returned to her village where her family attempted to force her into a marriage. Later as the war ended she fled south with a column of refugees, survived it all and got married to a man in Ben Tre, had children and grandchildren, and was eventually betrayed by him with another women and the theft of all her money.
I had read about the Tale of Kieu in English, knowing I would never get the whole drama and sadness of it but my meeting with Kieu again after all those years lent a certain personal poignancy to the tale. My old comrade in arms Sergeant Phuong had it right all those years ago. That is my Tale of Kieu.
An Australian soldier saved this drawing of Phan Thi Vu from a burning
house in Vietnam in 1967 and returned it to the family after more than 40 years
Before I leave the personal stories of Vietnam veterans I want to mention one from my old Australian buddy, former Sergeant Derrill de Heer, who was a member of the Australian 1st Psychological Operations Unit in 1969 and 1970. Since leaving the Army he has made a point of trying to find the graves of Viet Cong and North Vietnamese soldiers and tell their families where their bodies were buried (often in haste) and taking part in the return of pictures and personal effects of Viet Cong and North Vietnamese soldiers killed in the south. He recently sent me a story that fits right into this article. An Australian had found a book of poetry on the body of a dead enemy soldier and kept it for decades until finally returning it to the family of its owner:
Laurens Wildeboer was supporting a squadron of tanks sent from an Australian base to an American one when he stumbled upon some notebooks that infantry had captured from the Viet Cong. Australian troops were told to extract from captured or killed enemy forces all notes, maps, books anything that could potentially offer information about weapons, strategy or battlefield plans.
One booklet had the name of the author and had beautifully illustrated handwritten poetry which, at the time, immediately connected with me, he recalls. Moved by the beauty he found amid the death and destruction of the war, he kept the documents. The creators name was Phan Van Ban, and his family lived outside Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon) Wildeboer returned in 2012 to meet Nguyen Thi Hieu, Bans mother, who told him that Ban died in 1970, a year after Wildeboer found his work. Hieu told Wildeboer that he gave them the only remaining records of Ban they had destroyed all his other records in case South Vietnam government officials discovered he had joined the Viet Cong and raided the house. She was extremely grateful.
The tradition of poetry is long and respected in Vietnam and a poem is the perfect way to send a propaganda message to the enemy. Leaflet SP-2263 is depicted in the Joint U.S. Public Affairs Office November 1968 publication Communicating with Vietnamese thru Leaflets that says:
This leaflet uses poetry as a medium of communication. In fact, some of the best leaflets ever used in Vietnam have consisted of emotion-provoking poems, with suitable illustrations related to the thematic content of the poem. Poems frequently express nostalgia, sorrow and longing more effectively than is possible in prose. But the poetry must be good, or it will be scorned.
Communicating with Vietnamese thru Leaflets
Communicating with Vietnamese thru Leaflets was a 1968 publication on the creation and distribution of propaganda in Vietnam. It was produced by the Field Development Division and the Office of Policy, Plans, and Research of the Joint United States Public Affairs Office (JUSPAO). The 62 page illustrated booklet was written by Monta Osborne with illustrations added by Phil Katz. Monta L. Osborne was the Chief of Field Development Division in Saigon in charge of the Chieu Hoi (Open Arms) program during the Vietnam War. The booklet was issued to Military Assistance Command - Vietnam (MACV) to be issued to field PSYOP personnel. Also offered to Civil Operations and Revolutionary Development Support (CORDS) and additional copies printed for all new PSYOP officers and civilians assigned to Vietnam.
Do not use amateur poets; employ or use material from popular and well known poets.
The leaflet shows a sobbing mother at top left and her son in the South below. On the back the son is shown dead and alone in the jungle. It was prepared in November 1967 for distribution in I, II and III Corps areas. Some of the long poem is:
A POEM TO MOTHER
A North Vietnamese Youth Spills out his Heart
From the day I left you, mother,
to follow my companions on the trip to
Central Vietnam through Laos,
I have endured the hardships of
climbing up the green mountains
And marching through rain and shine,
Although with my young age
life should blossom like a flower.
For the sake of peace I dont mind
Enduring hardships and danger.
For several months I marched during
the day and rested at night.
My shoes heels have worn out
And my jacket's shoulders
Were rubbed thin through which the cold slips in
The poem ends with a denouncement of the Party and the invasion:
But why did they order me to burn
The villages, destroy the bridges,
Explode the mines and sow death around?
Often my hand trembled
When I had to lay a mine
Only to later witness people being blown up
And blood sprayed around
Whose blood was it?
It was the blood of people like you, mother, and myself.
That night, my eyes were filled with tears
A small box at the lower left in the back of the leaflet contains the text:
The above letter in poetry form was found on the body of a dead soldier of the Hanoi regime killed in the battle of Duc Co.
This poem has been considered one of the best produced for Vietnam. What is interesting about this poem is that it was memorized by a Vietnamese officer heading south. This was verified in a debriefing of Second Lieutenant Nguyen Van Thong, a soldier in the 320th Regiment, 1st Peoples Army of Vietnam Division, who fought in Kontum Province in March-April 1968. The poem was so moving that many North Vietnamese soldiers remembered it. The lieutenant said:
The Americans should let the Vietnamese write them as they know how to put the story or what you want said into poetry; the Vietnamese are a very poetic people The best way to tell of good will is with a poem. All of the men in my unit knew the lines of a poem used in South Vietnam and we thought of it often. The poem that we remember is for our mother.
My old pal Lieutenant Colonel David Underhill of the 7th PSYOP Group told me about his experience preparing and having that leaflet printed:
When I visited Laos during the war, the CIA wanted to know who published it. My group did. The CIA said every North Vietnamese body they found carried the leaflet. If they captured a solder, he could recite the poem. My unit mass-shipped a load to IV Corps and I was able to initiate action to ship them to the CIA in Laos.
The Ho Chi Minh Trail
The 1969 document Employment of U.S. Army Psychological Operation Units in Vietnam says about the Ho Chi Minh Trail campaign:
Approximately ten percent of the propaganda leaflets [At the time] were directed against the military and civilian personnel who used and maintained the Ho Chi Minh Trail. The PSYOP objective of this out-of-country Trail Campaign was to weaken the will of military target audiences and encourage them to rally upon arrival in the Republic of Vietnam. Along the Trail, the vulnerability of loneliness was attacked by using leaflets with nostalgic poetry written by NVA soldiers about their life at home. The themes of hardship and probable death were constantly brought to the NVA soldier's attention as he moved down the Trail. Once in the Republic of Vietnam, the NVA soldier was confronted with the Safe Conduct Passes urging him to rally.
There were a half-dozen poems used by the soldiers heading south on the Ho Chi Minh Trail. Those leaflets are identified by the T for Trail at the start or end of their code.
The Poem to Mother was used again on this Trail leaflet. Leaflet 78T is bright red on the front and depicts happy scenes of life in North Vietnam. The back is blue and depicts a sad North Vietnamese soldier thinking of death and destruction in South Vietnam. This leaflet was dropped on troops coming down the Ho Chi Minh Trail. The poem is printed as a legacy and warning to other young men who have been sent south to die.
Note that this poem was considered so important that it appeared on several different leaflets in black and white and in color, and in various sizes such as 3 x 6-inches, and 5 x 7-inches. Two of the leaflets using this poem dropped on North Vietnam are 29, and 78.
Dave G. Underhill
David G. Underhill enlisted in the United States Air Force in 1951. He volunteered for Korea and was assigned to the 4th Fighter-Interceptor Wing Headquarters. He later enlisted in the United States Army and was deployed to Japan in the Office of the Commander-in-Chief, United Nations and Far East Command. He was recommended for OCS and studied Korean at the Army Language School, now called the Defense Language Institute. During the Vietnam War he served as a U.S. Army officer in the 7th Psychological Operations Group in Okinawa, rising to the rank of Lieutenant-Colonel. He was PSYOP liaison to the 1st Special Forces and trained and jumped with them in Okinawa and Korea. Prior to 1964 he was sent to Vietnam to access the needs of PSYOP units. He recommended a Battalion and four companies. He was awarded Legion of Merit awards in 1967 and 1973. In 1968 he was awarded a Bronze Star for his service while serving as Psychological Warfare Officer, Development Branch, Psychological Operations Directorate, United States Military Assistance Command-Vietnam. He wrote the Bible of leafleting, The Low, Medium, and High Altitude Leaflet Dissemination Guide.
Retired Lieutenant Colonel Dave Underhill told me about the use of poetry for psychological operations:
The Vietnamese loved poetry. We reproduced a poem written by an enemy soldier that was taken from his body on the field of battle. It was based on his experiences in the war and the fact that he had been deceived by the authorities. It was a very sad and sentimental poem.
When I was in Laos to write a strategic leaflet program for the American Embassy, a Central Intelligence Agency representative mentioned the leaflet. He said it was a very powerful leaflet and every prisoner taken could recite the entire poem from memory. He wanted to know who produced it. When I mentioned that our organization had produced it, he wanted to obtain the leaflet in quantity. I was able to immediately divert to him a shipment of several million copies that was destined for IV Corp, an area where there were few North Vietnamese regulars. The CIA representative was appreciative and impressed with our efficiency.
We produced several nostalgic poem leaflets for use at Tet in the 6x3 size for use throughout Vietnam and the Ho Chi Minh Trail area. My Vietnamese advisor helped develop poetry leaflets. He was Catholic, a former college professor, and had to flee North Vietnam when the French left. After US troop withdrawal we hired him and placed him in charge of leaflet development.
This leaflet bears the code T-26L. It was also printed as T-26. L at the end of a leaflet indicates it was printed on a light paper to make use of light prevailing winds (16-pound paper instead of the normal 20-pound paper). This leaflet is in the form of a poem. On one side there are two photos. The top photo depicts a Viet Cong member being arrested by an ARVN soldier in Cholon. The second photograph shows some women and children in Saigon running from a street where the Viet Cong terrorists had infiltrated.
The poem is on the back. The poem is satiric and depicts the Viet Cong as liars who keep bragging about their invincibility in combat and how easy it is to liberate the South while they are regularly defeated and hated by the South Vietnam Army and population. The poem is well written and one Vietnamese told me that the way it is written the writer seems to be a Southerner, while a second said that a poem with all that trash talking seems more likely to be written by a northerner:
The Viet Cong use their big mouths again,
They only win and never lose.
From the dry to the rainy season,
The big, the middle, and the small size battles - they win them all.
The General Uprising was totally defeated,
90 thousands troops were killed on the field.
Then they got hunger, got cold and depressed,
No choice left, they surrendered in humiliation.
Then some even hid in bushes,
Spotted and dragged out by the southern people.
Some went "Chieu Hoi" to the National Army,
Crying and telling ridiculous tales.
Boasting: "Four fifths of the population,
Three quarters of the land in the south,
Are under the people's control.
Now we will advance for the final time."
Now we finally see the truth,
The Southern people originally hate the Communists.
No one gives them food,
Everyone just moves away from them.
The truth is so crippling,
The whole Party is a bunch of liars.
What an insolent bunch, yes?
Victory is a bubble, and the puncture is sudden.
I looked through my files for an example of what Dave was talking about in his last paragraph and here is a Tet-themed poetry leaflet dropped along the Ho Chi Minh Trail. I note that some other poetry leaflets dropped over the Ho Chi Minh Trail about the same time are: T-42 (New Years Day); T-43 (Longing for the North); T-50 (Village Gate); T-52 (My Native Village) and T-53 (My Home). All were obviously produced to invoke nostalgia and homesickness.
Leaflet T-44 depicts a lonely wife and child watching other children play at a Tet celebration. Some of the text is:
I burn the incense and think of you
Spring returns and cites your merits
Father died in prison leaving mother sad
You left when you were only fourteen
How could you know what revolution is?
Taking advantage and speculating in politics
Merchants of slaves with black market prices
Caught in a trap which tightens the more you struggle
If you are mad then stand up and cry
I suffer to see our people as insensitive as stone
This leaflet has a romantic poem on the back. The front depicts a North Vietnamese wife and children walking through their home village. The poem has six stanzas. I will just add the first two:
The evening with cool air greets the village gate
The breeze softly propels the clouds
The countryside shimmers on the horizon
People return to the village along the sinuous path
In the rosy morning hang red clouds, the melodious birds
The village gate opens noisily
The peasants walk slowly into the morning sunlight
Summer moons, the shadows are quiet, the heat sweltering
This is a very sad and yet romantic poem. A Northern soldier has been wounded and sees his life coming to an end. He thinks of the woman he loves and makes the supreme sacrifice, telling her to find another man to marry and have a happy life in his absence. On the other side the young wife sits and although we cannot see the tears in her eyes, we know she is weeping. Some of the six-stanza poem is:
LISTEN TO ME MY LOVE
Take a husband my love, for my life is fast ebbing.
Although I must lie to myself when giving you this advice.
But, my darling, I must think of your future.
Have courage my love.
Dont delay because the fires here in the South burn fiercely.
My arm is torn from the body and with my lifes blood I write this last plea?
Leaflet T-85 depicts a modernistic drawing of birds in a nest. It is actually using the sentimental Tet holiday as a theme. The back is all text and a parody of a North Vietnamese poem. It says in part:
A Letter to my Comrades at springtime
Now I stand here on the three-fourths of the land
Now I live among the Fourteen million people, but not as a liberator.
No longer do I live in the darkness of the silent jungle.
Dear Comrade, sweet spring approaches and the memories are so vivid!
I remember the springtime when we were still together.
It was on the eve of Tet when we mined that bridge, and it was on the day of Tet when we crawled out to recover the bodies of our dead comrades
Note: The three-fourths of the land and the Fourteen million people are quotes from a famous NVA propaganda poem about coming down to liberate the South. One soldier who worked in intelligence and spoke Vietnamese told me that he picked up this leaflet in I Corps near the DMZ.
Other Ho Chi Minh Trail leaflets in the form of a poem are: T-42 (New Years Day); T-43 (Longing for the North); T-52 (My home); T-53 (My village); and 82T (To the other side of the front lines).
The Tet Holidays
Tet Nguyen Dan is the Vietnamese lunar New Year Festival and the most important Vietnamese holiday. Literally, Tet Nguyen Dan means the first morning of the first day of the new period. Tet falls sometime between the last ten days of January and the middle part of February. It comes at a time when there is a pause for the farmer after twelve months of labor. The Vietnamese Tet holiday is an occasion for an entire people to share a common ideal of peace, concord and mutual love. The Tet holiday is officially three days long but is often celebrated for seven days. During this holiday the people take extra care to be kind and not show anger or act in a rude way toward anyone.
Every year the American PSYOP Teams would prepare dozens of propaganda leaflets using Tet as a theme. We show some below.
This leaflet depicts a Vietnamese woman carrying baskets. Her husband is clearly fighting in the South, She is alone. The text on the front is:
Happy New Year. Dont miss our lives together
The back has a poem and a short message. The poem is:
This spring is the third sad spring
My heart is uneasy with sweet regrets
Tet still has flowers, incense, lamps and cakes
But missing you, how lonely I feel
This leaflet was prepared by the 8th PSYOP Battalion in Nha Trang in 1968. 300,000 leaflets were requested by the PSYOP Adviser in Phu Yen to cause nostalgia, home-sickness and a drop in morale among the NVA and VC. The front of the leaflet looks like a standard Tet greeting card and depicts a young woman near a flowering tree. The text on the front is:
Best wishes for a Happy New Year
There is a long poem on the back and I will just quote a few lines:
You have followed the Viet Cong since that year
Hamlets and villages were forgotten under evening sunshine
You have been gone about 10 years
Previously, my tears soaked through a dream pillow
I feel I am alone and my soul is cold
Return to enjoy life
Come back for a charming and deep love
As anyone else, we need a son to carry in our hands
The leaflet above was produced by the 8th PSYOP Battalion. By coincidence the 8th Battalion was involved in annual poetry contests which brought the Vietnamese in contact with the U.S. Army in a friendly way, and also produced content for the propaganda leaflets. The Monthly operation Report for January 1969 tells us about the project:
While conducting research for the Tet campaign, it became apparent that the Vietnamese people have a highly developed appreciation of poetry. The 8th Battalion has in the past used the works of some of the better known Vietnamese poets in Chieu Hoi appeals, but good poetry of a contemporary nature was not available. To obtain some contemporary poems, the Battalion is sponsoring a poetry contest in cooperation with the 20th Political Warfare Battalion and the Regional PSYOP Coordinating Center. The contest offers cash prizes for poems with patriotic themes, the best of which will be used in developing PSYOP materials. The response so far has been greater than expected, and several usable items have already been received.
The Monthly operation Report for March 1969 continues:
The poetry material produced as a result of a contest sponsored by the 8th PSYOP Battalion has been printed. At present the booklets are being put together by the 204th Vietnamese Political Warfare Company for distribution by selected Armed Propaganda Teams within the coastal region of the II Corps Tactical Zone. Examples of these booklets have been distributed to various Vietnamese units resulting in a generally favorable reaction. The first run was limited to a press run of 5,000 copies but more runs will be made if the project proves successful. The limitation on production is due to the fact that the folding and stapling of the booklet must be done by hand.
The 8th PSYOP Battalion use of poetry as propaganda was mentioned in the 1st Field Force official magazine TYPHOON of June 1969. Specialist 4 Vaughn Whiting wrote an article titled Madison Avenue, Vietnam, in which he said in part:
It's what you say and how you say it that counts at the 8th PSYOP Battalion. The Propaganda Development Center of the 8th PSYOP Battalion forms the American contingent of a larger, more comprehensive PSYOP organization called the Regional Propaganda Coordination Center, which is housed and supported at the battalion headquarters. The center is composed of Vietnamese civilian employees of the U.S. government and soldiers from a Vietnamese political warfare company, the Korean PSYOP/Civic Action Company and the U.S. 8th PSYOP Battalion.
Recently, the ARVN representative at the center helped sponsor a contest among secondary school children in Nha Trang for original, patriotic poetry. The five poems judged best were printed on leaflets along with a sketch of an attractive young lady or a mother and child. "Some returnees have reported that they and their comrades actually memorized a few of our better poems," said Captain Maurice M. Monihan, Chief U.S. Representative at the Center.
The leaflet depicts flowering branches and birds on the front. The back bear a Tet Poem meant to encourage the Viet Cong in the field to return home. Some of the text on the back is:
Do you remember that today is Tet, The only happy day of the year?
But you are away.
Your wife is yearning for a sight of you, and your children are burning to see you.
Our cozy home feels cold and lifeless as ashes in a burnt-out oven.
This leaflet talks about the Northern soldiers being home before Tet. It starts with a poem and follows up with a text message:
Home before Tet
Do you remember the lines from this poem?
My village lies beside the river bank
At the entrance to hamlets of thatched houses
The bamboo has swayed rhythmically for years.
The people of all Vietnam are touched by these words of home. This peaceful scene is about to become a reality. Within 60 days of the signing of the cease fire agreement, all American forces will leave Vietnam. The soldiers of the North will be home long before Tet of the Year of the Buffalo.
Leaflet 4606 is one of a series of 5 consecutive TET holiday leaflets bearing poems. The others are:
4604 A poem titled The First Morning of Tet.
4605 A poem titled My village.
4607 A poem titled Going home.
4608 A poem titled To enjoy peace.
A JUSPAO document dated 18 September 1969 is entitled Poem by North Vietnam Deserter. The document states that the poem was written by a Hoi Chanh who did not ask for money. The poem, written by Hoai Thanh was entitled Letter to my Comrade at spring time. The defectors description says in part:
I suggest that this be considered for use on radio, television, magazines, newspapers and leaflets. This, after all, is a nation of poets.
A few lines from the six-stanza poem:
For I know that your heart is bleeding and your weeping soul longs for life at springtime.
Oh come dead liberation soldier, do not deny that which is most precious to you.
My heart aches as I write to you for we are both so far from our native land.
Together we came to face death on the battle field but it was for the benefit of just the few
Each year Ho Chi Minh would send his troops fighting in the South a poetic Tet New Years greeting. He did so in 1968. The Americans thought that a bit of satire was needed so took Hos message and placed it on a card and directly underneath changed a few words so that it spoke of defeat rather than victory. The leaflet featured the Chieu symbol on the front and the back had Hos original message and a new one below it. The text at the top is:
Tet Greeting From Chairman Ho
This New Year will be better than past new years
Victory and good news will sweep the nation
South and North vie with one another in fighting the Americans
Advance - total victory is ours
Ho Chi Minh
The text at the bottom is:
This spring is significantly worse than the last few ones.
Sad news of defeat throughout the homeland.
The North and the South both protest
A doomed future is inevitably there for us.
This small July 1968 5 x 8-inch booklet was titled Patriotic poems. It contained a collection of three patriotic poems and three full color illustrations reflecting the theme of each poem. 500,000 copies were printed was done by the USIA Regional Service Center in Manila. The objective was to promote identification with and love for their country by the citizens of the Republic of Vietnam. It was not to be disseminated alone, but instead placed with 11 other items in a plastic kit authorized by JUSPAO. The second of the three poems was called Map of Vietnam, written by Dang Minh Tri. The first few lines are:
The Map of Viet Nam
Yesterday I practiced drawing a map
My teacher drew neat squares on the board
The border was made with easy-to-find yellow chalk
From Southern Gate to Ca Mau
He knew each place by place
This was Dong Thap, this was Hien Luong Bridge
The East Sea was with a deep shade of blue
The mountains were drawn with brown spots
His hand moved and curved
Drawing the arcs of rivers and the swaths of jungles
Then he spoke with a deep voice
"The race of Dragon and of Fairy/God shine all the jungle and the mountain
They have seen growth, fall, lost, prosperity
Have brought their blood to water each and every tree
To make up the air we now breathe
To make the road we walk and the house we live
Much bitter our ancestors have tasted
To leave this land to us
Cover Sheet 2980
This November 1968 cover-sheet contained A Collection of Poems in the Chi Linh Forest. It was meant to motivate the members and friends and family of the Revolutionary Development cadre. The Vietnamese originated the concept and it was sent to the U.S. Joint Public Affairs Office and from there to the 7th PSYOP Group for printing.
I hesitate to call this public health announcement leaflet a poem, though it was made to rhyme to help the reader remember all the points. It was developed by JUSPAO in September 1968 and titled Plague Kills People Rat Poem. So, we know that the Americans considered it a poem. A Vietnamese friend said:
This is a four lines instruction against the plague. They are rhymed to help the reader memorize them. (trung - vung and the intonation sequence). Yes they are definitely a short form of poetry in Vietnamese.
The front features two Vietnamese men spraying insecticide. The text is:
Fleas carry plague. Use insecticide to destroy fleas
Let health agents spread insecticide in your home in order to protect your family
The back is the poetic side and this is why we show it above. It features drawings of farmers, a rat trap and dead rats. The Vietnamese text rhymes and says:
Four points one should remember to avoid plague
Pick up garbage; bury or burn it
Kill all rats
Take the anti-plague vaccination
Later in the war, poems were even used on leaflets telling the people about the peace talks presently going on. The American leaflets would constantly tell the Vietnamese that there would be peace except for the Lao Dong (Communist) Party. In late 1972, as the Allies and the North Vietnamese began to talk, a major propaganda campaign was created to inform the people of the north of the peace talks. One of the earliest leaflets using this theme is 4583. One entire group all printed with a green vignette run from 4587 to 4591. In all, there are several dozen leaflets with the theme of informing the people of North Vietnam. We illustrate leaflet 4588 dropped on 8 November 1972.
One side depicts a water buffalo and text:
Within 60-days of the signing of the peace agreement, all American forces will be withdrawn from Vietnam. North Vietnamese soldiers should be home long before the Tet Quy Suu (The Year of the Buffalo). This will be the happiest Tet in memory.
The other side bears a poem and text:
In my village there is rice and mulberry.
There are flocks of white storks and flirting words.
There is a banyan tree and a temple roof.
There are flocks of pretty, graceful country girls.
In the autumn there are village festivals.
In the spring crowds of children play with swings.
The wind whistles a kite-flute song.
Soothing the soul of the Shepherd boy on the dyke.
Long before spring and well in time for Tet Quy Suu you should be home with your loved ones. Within 60-days of the signing of the cease-fire agreement, all American forces will be withdrawn from Vietnam. The North Vietnamese soldiers can return home.
Leaflet 4588 is one of a series of five TET leaflets that bear poems. The others are:
4587 A poem titled The First Morning of Tet.
4589 A poem titled Home before Tet.
4590 A poem titled Going home.
4591 A poem titled To enjoy peace.
Some of the Poetry leaflets are extremely romantic. This one depicts a young girl thinking of her soldier far away in the South. Some of the poem is:
COME BACK HOME TO ME, MY LOVE!
This evening, in the cold and dark forest,
when the evening mist is brooding over the hills.
When birds are anxiously calling to one another,
and monkeys are singing sorrowfully.
Do you feel the acute pang of homesickness?
Do you feel hope lingering in your heart like the evening mist hanging over the trees?
Do you feel sick thinking of your home and your native place?
Do you know that spring has come bringing Tet?
Do you feel downhearted at the thought of separation my love?
I like this leaflet because of the image of the North Vietnamese soldier deep in the south thinking of his girl back home. He looks rather sad. The first two stanzas of the poem are:
TO THE NVA SOLDIER
Oh you, soldier of the North Vietnamese Army!
How very young you still are,
how many springs since you left?
Hear! Spring is here again this year.
Do you still remember the country girl of that evening?
With tears glistening in her eyes,
she bade you farewell.
With hopes of seeing you again when spring comes
Many of these leaflets are either from a son to his mother or a mother to his son. The Vietnamese told me that the mother is a very powerful symbol and they will tear up just thinking of her. This leaflet depicts a lonely mother looking out the door wondering where her son is and how is doing. The first two stanzas are:
A MOTHER TO HER SON
Son, Oh my beloved son! The days of separation are passing by,
my heart breaks and I cry whenever I think of you.
Since you went away, I havent been able to stop worrying about you from morning till dusk,
and missing and yearning for a sight of you every passing minute.
Spring is already here and today is TET.
In front of our ancestors altar I earnestly pray for you.
I pray that with their blessing you may be safe on the distant battlefield,
so that you may stay alive and return to your parents.
Some other JUSPAO leaflets in the form of a poem are: SP-1737 (Remember you); 2610 (Poem from the diary of Ha Phong); 3588 (Some lines to my beloved husband); 4129 (Except you); 4435 (Disenchantment); 4435B (Evening Sky); 4459 (Letter to my comrade at springtime); and 4474 (No place to hide).
The Trung Sisters
The Trung Sisters Propaganda Poster
Because the Trung sisters were national heroes in Vietnam, they were often placed on PSYOP leaflets and posters. The Trung sisters were Vietnam's first real national heroes. The husbands of the Trung sisters were Vietnamese nobles who opposed Chinese rule. After the Chinese executed the husbands, their widows took over leadership of the rebellion. Legend says that in 39 AD they gathered an army of 80,000, led by 36 women generals and within a year drove the Chinese occupiers from 65 cities. Because they had liberated their country, they were named co-Kings. The Chinese returned with a huge force about three years later and after defeat on the battleground the sisters committed suicide by drowning themselves in 43 AD. Many temples are dedicated to them and their death is commemorated each year.
A Fifteenth Century poem (In the Great Southern Kingdom of the Drama) tells the entire story from the time the older sister was born until she jumped from bridge after her mission failed. In some way the poem is almost feminist, showing that in that ancient time the Vietnamese people were open minded, had a democratic system and could choose their leader, regardless of sex.The legend of the Trung sisters was passed down from generation to generation thru this historical folktale poem to teach the younger generation that the Vietnamese are fighters, and never to surrender, no matter who the enemy might be. The poem starts:
The Lady Trung was born in Chau Phong,
angry against the cruel, murderous enemies,
never forgetting how her husband was killed,
the Trung Sisters vowed together
to raise the flag to command the troops in place of the late General.
Thousands of trees in the western forests stirred up ready for battle
echoing the horses' galloping toward the capital Long Bien.
The Sisters fearlessly lead the troops
They swept Chinese leader To Dinh out of the capital.
The national flag was raised high in the Me Linh sky.
they led the country to an independent government
The text on the poster is:
Oppose the Communists' aggression in defense of our liberties as descendants of the Hong Lac race.
Do as the two Trung sisters of the Trieu family did.
The Bombing of North Vietnam
This leaflet depicts two sad North Vietnamese soldiers on the front and a happy soldier with family on the back. The poem is quite long and credited to Nguyen The Ky. It says in part:
TO THE OTHER SIDE OF THE FRONT LINES
Dead larvae mark the passing of autumn.
The northern wind announces the changing of seasons.
Clouds cover four corners of the sky and rain is drenching everything.
Winter has come and my heart is throbbing with emotions.
I think of my friends still on the other side of the front line.
Whose clothes are in tatters, whose bodies are thin because of exposure
15,000,000 copies of Leaflet 82 were ordered in November 1967 and 6 million of these leaflets were dropped on Cambodia. I have some interesting notes on this leaflet that add:
The leaflet is called New Poem and another 3,000,000 copies were ordered by the 6th PSYOP Battalion to be printed by the 7th PSYOP Group on Okinawa. To be delivered to Plieku by surface shipment only. Do not ship earlier than the required delivery date, 5 January 1968, as adequate storage is not currently available.
So, apparently the 6th PSYOP Battalion had so many leaflets in storage that they had no room for any more.
Leaflet 116 is printed in blue on the front and depicts a peaceful scene of farm life in North Vietnam. This leaflet was dropped over North Vietnam in April of 1968. The military says:
A poem calling for the return of peace which existed prior to the Northern invasion of the South.
There is a long poem on the back. We translate the first and last stanza:
Bring back the peace of yesteryear
The early morning bursts with streaks of red.
The evening rain drops crystal droplets.
The gusting breeze softly sings a lullaby.
The mist lingers by the river side.
Bring back peace to our country. Return the old happiness to the people.
Don't send Northern lives to die in the South.
Another leaflet dropped on North Vietnam is: 29 (From the day I left you mother). The image on Leaflet 116 is also depicted on JUSPAO leaflet 2564.
The VCS code was used by American Intelligence. Troops in the field would find these enemy leaflets, make a written report on a Propaganda Work Sheet and then forward them to Intelligence. It is also very early in the war. Americans were just appearing in 1962. The report says in part:
Found at map location YT 420042. They were probably disseminated within the past half hour. Written by hand several shots were fired Saturday 25 August 1962 0900 picked up by G-2. Not very effective picked up within an hour after distributed. 1st Lieutenant, Armor, Long Khanh Detachment.
The leaflet is in the form of a poem. My translator said that the poem was effective. It is in such bad shape that I am amazed that he could translate it:
Calabash gourd please take care of wax gourd
Even though you're different, you're on the same shelf*
Our blood is Vietnamese blood
Why shall we turn a glorious page of history into mud?
Our relatives and our neighborhood
Are all one big family**
If our hands are cut, our blood shall shed and our gut shall be painful
Our homes shall be destroyed and our minds will be sad
You still have a conscious and your mind
How dare you follow the United States and carry out atrocious acts?
Dear soldier of the southern region
Please pick the glorious path soon
* The first two lines are so strange, mentioning two types of gourds, but they are a literal translation of a Vietnamese saying that means that people of the same village or region or country should unite and take care of each other, no matter who they are or what they believe.
** Literally Are all relatives of each other.
The Cry of the Military Families
This Viet Cong poetry propaganda leaflet was found in 1966 and forwarded to U.S. Intelligence where it was filed as VSC-1027. It was called The Cry of the Military Families, It discusses the battles of My Hoa and My Ho in June of 1966 and claims that about one hundred members of the South Vietnamese Regional Forces and Popular forces (often called the Ruff-Puffs by American troops) and the 3rd Battalion of their 9th Division were killed by the Liberation Troops. The troops were killed because they served the American and Thieu-Ky regime. They died leaving behind their families with no one to take care of their wives and children. My Vietnamese translator says that the poetry is just so-so. It says in part:
THE CRY OF A SOLDIER'S FAMILY
(After the battle of My Hoa - My Bo, on 22 and 25/6/1966, hundreds of soldiers of security, militia, and the regular 3rd Battalion of 9th Division were found by the Liberation Army)
My dear son! Whom do you die for?
Is it for the USA that the father is not here?
Why do you heed the words of the villain Lanh Ho
Being a pawn of fire, being a dead body.
Why didn't you remember:
"The US is a villain, Ho is traitor"
Blood is spilled and bones are broken
But the US takes the benefits and Ho takes the wealth
Now you must sacrifice
So that parents remember you dearly
You die without a coffin
The grave unknown, the incense dead cold
You youth have the blood of heroes
With a strong body you should have completed great deeds
Yet why do you follow the killers?
Picking up the US guns will make you forever vilified
You are dead! And your family will be empty
Your parents are old, and who shall take care them?
Your family is still poor
The US bombs are still killing your people
My son! Deep beneath the ground
You die because of the US! Don't forget that.
Can you can see this mistake early!
Fight alongside the people against the US, how glorious that shalt be.
Now you are awake, but you are not here!
District Commander Lanh and Local Official To Ba Ho are the top two ringleaders and traitors of My An.
Published by Communication - Culture - Education Board of Kien Phong
YOU WILL EVENTUALLY CONTINUE TO LIVE ON YOUR ANCESTRAL LAND
This Viet Cong poetry leaflet was found in Vinh Long in July of 1966 and filed by U.S. Intelligence as VCS-906. The poem asks the South Vietnamese troops to stop serving with the Americans, because when they lose the war the Americans will all return home. The Vietnamese Army veterans will have nowhere to go. Vietnam is their country. The leaflet argues that the Vietnamese troops should return home to their villages and families. My translator says that this one sounds better than 1027 above as a poem, although it is clearly addressed to illiterate peasants. Some of the text is:
YOU WILL EVENTUALLY CONTINUE TO LIVE ON YOUR ANCESTRAL LAND
Should the Americans lose, they will go away back to America.
Where will the local village soldiers on the American side go?
Should the Americans lose, they will retreat to America.
And the Viet traitors will swiftly follow.
But you, you are a common low ranking soldier
Where can you go then?
Betrayed, would it be better to remind yourself of your compatriots?
How can you depart the land of your father, your ancestors?
Your wife and children stay here.
Even a falling leaf will stay near the roots, where would you go?
Be considerate and think it over!
Cease to be a soldier, return home!
Your field and garden await you
Your wife and children long to the reunion!
Care for your land laboriously.
Live a life innocent and free of worries!
This leaflet was discovered on a Viet Cong raft being floated toward friendly troops. Its condition is terrible. It was written by hand using ink and we assume that while floating it got soaked and the ink gradually faded away. American Intelligence was able to translate it at some point and that in itself is amazing. What I find amazing is that there were about 3,000 copies, all hand-written. The information on the work sheet is:
Viet Cong leaflets received at provincial town on crafts, drifting from Hoa Thanh, two miles from town, Camau Province, on 11 September 1966. 3,000 copies estimated on the float.
This propaganda leaflet was written in the form of a poem to the soldiers of the Republic of Vietnam:
TO SOLDIERS OF THE REBELLIOUS AUTHORITY OF THE SOUTH
Our village had a long bamboo hedge
where people lived their calm happy lives.
Who came to destroy and cause pain and misery?
The old bamboo hedge was lost.
The calm happy lives became bitter.
Americans are not our people.
Why have you followed them for so long?
Americans and American guns coming from foreign countries,
with which you killed and harmed the people.
Change your lives as quickly as possible.
Kill Americans with American guns; save the people, save yourselves.
Soldiers: Study closely the ways and the injustice of the American Imperialists and their servants. The Front is just. Americans destroyed our native country and killed our people. Their airplanes dropped bombs over our beloved native villages. That caused an enormous hatred of our people toward the Americans.
The Front is calling for you to shoot at Americans in order to get revenge for our people and our country. Your return will be welcomed.
THE NATIONAL LIBERATION FRONT OF HOA THANH VILLAGE
Viet Cong Anti-Government Booklet
This 24-page Viet Cong booklet depicts a Viet Cong holding ripped-out barbed wire standing over a caricature of an American soldier and a Vietnamese with a dollar sign on his shirt, obviously their concept of a collaborator. In the background we see a burning building and this would seem to be a strategic hamlet that the Viet Cong have raided and freed the prisoners. The entire book is filled with patriotic and anti-Government poems. The text on the front cover is:
Poetry Volume: STEEL FLAME
Issue No. 2, My Tho Artists Group
To give an example of how much Vietnamese loved poetry we need only look at a catalog of Viet Cong leaflets disseminated in 1962 and filed in a United States Information Service booklet entitled National Liberation Front Propaganda. A brief look at some of the enemy leaflets discloses: A poem aimed at a soldier away from home and family; a poem entitled A Mothers Words to her son in the army; Three poems taken from a collection called The Bright Road from the wife of a guerrilla to her husband; A book of poetry entitled Slash the Barbed Wire about Vietnamese trying to escape from government Strategic Hamlets; A poem entitled A Mothers Heart; A passionate poem that includes the words How inhumane is Diem and the United States, how tyrannically they betray the people, how miserable are the peasants and works; A poem from the wife of an ARVN asking him why he supports the wrong side; and a poem dealing with the cruelties of war entitled The Rice Field is the Reason for Existence. I could add many more, but this should give the reader an idea of the Viet Congs use of poetry in propaganda.
While looking through my files I found a 28-page report titled: 1968 Spring Prose and Poetry. There was no description of what the report was or who prepared it, but looking at the poems it became clear that this was a listing of Viet Cong poems used during the failed Tet uprising of 1968. I will mention just a few:
SPRING SONG OF 1968 says in part:
Bravo the Liberation soldier. Our respectful greeting to you, the most handsome and heroic man!
UPRISING SONG said in part:
How often Saigon flared up in anger, with bare hands the people broke bayonets. Trees fell down to stop enemy vehicles; Boulevards were changed into battlefields.
SPRING OF SAIGON; THE SPRING OF VICTORY says in part:
Hey Saigon! The fire is already opened! My chest palpitates at the rhythm of the firing. Our ranks stretch throughout 4,000 years. This is the offensive we expected since the days we slept on the ground and in trenches.
I will end with REMEMBER MY WORDS that says in part:
You advanced forward and held up your head despite the pain in your legs. Your clothes were pure white. Your skinny body was stronger than death. Among the swarm of hired killers and writers stood on both sides, equipped with guns and bayonets. You went forward quite calm; and saw them as if you were a judge.
Nguyen Van Troi
This last poem is about the execution of the martyr Nguyen Van Troi. Here he is moments before his death.
It seems that the Viet Cong entered Tet with confidence and the assurance that they would be victorious. Over 30,000 deaths later that movement was crippled and the North Vietnamese Army started coming down the Ho Chi Minh Trail to replace them.
Nguyen Van Be holds a 10 kilo tank mine over his head
Drawing by Huy Toan
One of the most unusual psychological campaigns of the Vietnam War concerned the martyred hero Nguyen Van Be. Born in 1941 in Chau Thanh, he joined the guerrillas in 1961, and according to the legend, the young Viet Cong guerrilla was on a mission with his comrades on 30 May 1966 transporting explosives when they were attacked and Be was captured. Rather than submit, he chose to sacrifice himself and died a martyrs death. The American and Vietnamese troops demanded that he instruct them on the workings of an unknown explosive mine. Be did so. He picked up the mine high over his head, and shouted, "Long live the National Front for Liberation. Down with American Imperialists." He then smashed the mine against an armored vehicle, killing himself and 69 American and Vietnamese officers and soldiers.
The problem is, none of this ever happened. Nguyen Van Be was found alive and well in a Vietnamese prison camp. Be agreed to cooperate with the Government of Vietnam and told the true story of his capture in a 13 March 1967 interview. He said that the battle lasted just a few minutes and he had never fired a shot. Instead, he dove into a canal in an attempt to escape, but was captured when a Vietnamese soldier grabbed him by the hair.
This started a propaganda war between the Allies and Hanoi, leading to endless poems about Be.
In October 1966, Tran Nguyen Van wrote a poem about Nguyen Be:
The heros eyes were dark and enormous,
which reflected the emerald green of our Fatherland
At the age of twenty you had seen,
Our beloved villages and hamlets suddenly turned into decaying ashes .
The North Vietnamese Army publication Van Nghe Quan Doi involved itself with poetry. Just as the 8th PSYOP Battalion ran contests for patriotic poetry, so did the Communist newspaper. Its 1972/1973 Poetry Contest, was held from 19 May 1972 Through 19 May 1973. It explained the contest:
We celebrate the famous feats of war of our army and people in both the North and the South We accept both professional and semiprofessional poets and those of you who are carrying on combat, production, and assignments and simultaneously writing poetry enthusiastically. Respond and take part.
On the anniversary of President Ho Chi Minh's birthday, in the new, extremely encouraging situation of the Vietnamese Revolution, in an atmosphere of enthusiasm in which the entire country looks toward the front, and doing everything to completely defeat the bandit American aggressors, the poetry contest has the goal of stepping up and heightening the quality of poetry and song creation in support of the above tasks.
Concentrate the substance mainly on combat and production topics with the spirit of "everything for completely defeating the bandit American aggressors and successfully building socialism," and carrying out President Ho's sacred appeal: "Nothing is more precious than independence and freedom."
The North Vietnamese Army publication Van Nghe Quan Doi printed a poem about Nguyen Be written by Thanh Tinh in its 11 November 1996 issue. I quote the first few lines:
Do you hear the explosion of mines to destroy the Americans?
The chorus of hatred resounds all over
During a battle, three times you showed your gallantry
The Hanoi Weekly Van Nghe of 5 May 1967 added a poem about Be written by Duy Khan. It is two pages long so I shall quote a few lines from the heroic part:
And from the bullet splattered sound of your battles,
Nguyen Van Be, rose the great roar of your explosion.
An explosion that shattered those evil American night-flying crows
We shall live like you, you who knows not retreat.
And every battle shall be fought as your fought it forever.
We shall follow your shining example.
Another poem appeared in the Hanoi monthly magazine Van Nghe, May 1967, written by Nguyen Dinh. It consists of six very long stanzas so I will just quote a few lines from one stanza:
It is necessary to arrest those who wont sell their souls.
It is necessary to fabricate photos, to collect false Bes.
Millions of dollars, billions of leaflets. Ah! Such cheating.
Leaflets have been scattered all over the two parts of Vietnam.
The radio stations, all the publications, crow and crow:
Nguyen Van Be is still living here! Nguyen Van Be surrendered.
But the lying mouths have received thousands of blows
A Black American Prisoner of War Writes a Poem
This is interesting because it is a leaflet bearing a poem allegedly written by a black soldier. We know the Vietnamese loved poems so it is possible that they wrote the poem. It is not signed, and if legitimate the Viet Cong would have certainly mentioned the authors name, rank and unit. The Viet Cong often used American politicians as useful idiots to advance their cause and on the back of this leaflet they quote Floyd B. McKissick, National Director of CORE (Congress of Racial Equality) in which he compares the plight of the Black American to the plight of the Vietnamese.
What is particularly interesting about the Vietnamese love of poetry is that long after the war was over, American politicians and even Presidents seem to have quoted their poems in speeches to the Vietnamese. It was almost a way to give some credibility to what those officials said.
My old friend Nguyen Tran Trung told me:
For your information, all of the American Presidents speeches while visiting Vietnam - Clinton's, Obama's, and I think Bush's as well) cited a verse or two from Truyen Kieu, the trademark Vietnamese great poetic masterpiece. After they left, the Vietnamese would long comment on those verses, much longer than any part of those speeches.
Phong Lan told me exactly the same thing:
If you recall the speeches of American presidents or Vice presidents to the Vietnamese people after the war, they quoted the Truyen Kieu poem. Although that poem is lengthy (it was an entire book written as poetry), many Vietnamese memorized it. Every single verse, every single line reflected an action, a decision, a choice, a destiny, a moral of life... So when a politician quoted a few lines of that poem, every Vietnamese from young to old, could relate to what he wanted to say. It created a sense of connection.
Both President Obama and Vice-President Biden used poetic quotes from the Truyen Kieu poem in their speeches to the Vietnamese. Let me quote Obama from a 24 May 2016 speech in Hanoi here:
Please take from me this token of trust so we can embark on our 100 year journey together.
This article is just a brief look at the use of poetry as a psychological Operations theme during the Vietnam War. Readers that wish to comment about this article are encouraged to write the author at email@example.com.