THE PAINFUL ART OF RECONCILIATION 7

“Only a small percentage of the people I saw had had any involvement with the war,” Peterson said. “Most were born after we’d left. And I said to myself, ‘Why should we disallow them the better life they want and deserve? Why should we disallow them the well-being of Vietnam?’”
Peterson was shot down by antiaircraft fire in 1966 on his sixty-seventh mission, a nighttime bombing run against the rail line just north of Hanoi. His arm and leg fractured, his plane in flames, Peterson para¬chuted into the village of An Doai east of Hanoi. He heard the voices of angry villagers approaching through the rice paddies. He took his .38 re-volver from its holster and considered blowing his brains out. “Everyone mobilize,” yelled militiaman Do The Dong, who was in charge of the vil¬lage loudspeaker that day. “Find the American!” His eyes unfocused, squinting, Peterson could see the outline of a peasant mob pushing close, armed with rifles, sticks, knives. Enemies everywhere, not a friendly for a million miles. Never had he felt—or been—so alone. Many of the vil¬lagers wanted to beat or kill the American, Dong later recalled, but did not because Ho Chi Minh had said many times that captured Americans were to be turned over to the authorities, not killed. After a night in An Doai, Peterson was dumped into a motorcycle sidecar and paraded through villages where peasants pelted him with rocks. It took several hours to get to Hanoi. There in the old French-built prison on Hai Ba Trung Street Peterson would begin the “most terrible, disgusting, sad event of my life”—six years as a POW.
Thirty-one years to the day of being shot down, Peterson returned to An Doai. I went to meet him, but I got lost on the ninety-minute drive from Hanoi. I stopped at villages along the way to ask directions, and smiling farmers would point this way and that, usually giving entirely contradictory instructions. Finally I happened upon a town where local officials had gathered in the dirt courtyard of the People’s Committee headquarters, and I knew I’d arrived at the right place. The new U.S. am-bassador pulled into An Doai an hour later, in a Toyota Land Cruiser that flew an American flag. He stepped from the vehicle, smiling, right hand extended, and greeted his former enemies in Vietnamese. If the event wasn’t exactly a homecoming, it was at least a symbol of the reconciliation that would become Peterson’s trademark as ambassador.
Peterson walked out along an earthen dike and stood by the mango tree where he and his copilot, Bernard Talley (who was captured, unin¬jured, the day after Peterson and now flew DC-ios for American Air¬lines), had landed by parachute. He didn’t say much at first. Most of the village had gathered around him, and he asked if anyone had found the revolver he had ditched in the paddies as the militia approached. “I did,” said seventy-year-old Nguyen Danh Xinh. “I found it and turned it over to the People’s Committee. It had all six bullets in it.”
“And my necklace. Did you find the necklace?” he asked, referring to the Christ medallion he had worn since he and Carlotta had purchased it at a church shop in Florida years earlier. That too had been found, Xinh said, but no one knew where it was any more. Peterson, clearly disap¬pointed, let the matter drop.
One of the first militiamen to reach the downed Air Force captain, Nguyen Viet Chop (chop means “seize” in Vietnamese), had assembled his three daughters and four grandchildren for Peterson’s return. Now seventy and a shopkeeper, Chop wrapped both his hands around the am¬bassador’s right hand in greeting. He led him past a shed where a water buffalo was tethered and into his one-room home. Grapes and tea were on the table, and incense burned on the altar. The air was heavy with heat and humidity. Chop and Peterson came from such different worlds that there wasn’t a great deal to talk about or many memories to share. But Chop said Peterson was the most important foreign visitor to ever come to An Doai; he would always welcome him in his home. Peterson spoke about progress toward reconciliation and told Chop to drop by the U.S. Embassy and say hello if he were ever in Hanoi. (One imagined Mr. Chop was not a man who left his village often. But a few months later, a puzzled U.S. Marine guard at the embassy called Peterson’s secretary and said, “There’s a Mr. Chop down here. He says he knows the ambassador and wants to say hello.” Peterson came down to the lobby, and they chat¬ted for fifteen minutes.)
During his more than four years in Vietnam, Peterson became a walk¬ing billboard for reconciliation. He could have harbored anger but didn’t. He could have been a career POW but wasn’t. He never apologized for the war or his involvement in it—Vietnamese officials never asked him to—but he never stopped thinking that a firm and lasting friendship was within Vietnam and the United States’ reach.

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