In 1943, Steinbeck served as a World War II war correspondent for the New York Herald Tribune and worked with the Office of Strategic Services (predecessor of the CIA).
In 1965, President Lyndon Johnson asked Steinbeck to go to Vietnam and to report to him. The mission was evidently classified and is essentially responsible for the death of John Steinbeck's brilliant career as one of America's greatest authors.
In 1967, at the behest of Newsday magazine, Steinbeck went to Vietnam to report on the war. He thought of the Vietnam War as a heroic venture and was considered a hawk for his position on the war. In fact, the liberals who citicized him did not know his position because they had not read his letters. We did.
According to the American Library Association Steinbeck was one of the ten most frequently banned authors from 1990 to 2004, with Of Mice and Men ranking sixth out of 100 such books in the United States.
His death was the biggest ban and in retrospect, if you study the historical record it is easy to determine what was banned and why.
Steinbeck's letters hold the key and this one to his agent, Elizabeth Otis, begins to unlock the secret door:
January 23, 1967
It is a very long time since I have written but i have been trying
unsuccessfully to keep up with the work it seems I should do. So many
things attract me and there just isn't time to put them down.
I have come out of the Vietnam war too soon. I have a sense of
unfinished business there, but I have kept the open visa so that I can
go back if it ppears good. It was hard on Elaine thre and I was and
am very proud of her for going. Staying in Saigon alone is kind of awful...
Maybe when I get the immediacy of this war stuff down I can slow
up and stop going at dead run. But I must admit I never felt better
in my life. This is crazy but true.
By August 31, 1967, Steinbeck's view of the war is now conventional wisdom (to everyone except radical warmongers) and the following excerpt from another letter sent to Elizabeth Otis speaks to that:
"I know we cannot win this war, nor any war for that matter. And it
seems to me that the design is for us to sink deeper and deeper into it,
more and more of us. When we have put down a firm foundation of
our dead and when we have, by a slow, losing process been sucked into
the texture of Southeast Asia, we will never be able nor will we want
to get out.
If we should win this war in the old sense of defeating and deadening
the so-called enemy, then we would become just another occupying army,
and such an army loses contact with the place occupied. But we are not
winning in that sense and we will not. In many directions we are being
defeated by more successful techniques and attitudes than our own. We
have no choice in the matter.
If we won we could reject but by partially losing or at best just
holding our own, we are learning and absorbing. Maybe it is the un-
formulated sens eof this that causes so many men to extend their tour.
Something new is happening to them. The French could not change
and so they were kicked out but thousands of our men are changing
very rapidly -giving a little but taking a lot. And unless something
I cannot conceive should happen -we are there permanently, not as
conquerers but as migrants. And when migrants move in they take
what they can get but they deposit what they have.
The elections are a joke. They mean nothing in themselves. They
are a sop thrown to our Congress for purposes of getting more money.
The leaders are venial and short-sighted, but tht doesn't make any
difference. In the pages of the East-Asian history book, it will be
forgotten that the elections are false and foolish."
On June 24, 1968, he wrote, "I think the world, not only America, is in a state of very rapid change and I cannot foresee the direction it will take, but I deeply fear it will get worse before it gets better."
Steinbeck was evidently right and it is still getting worse.
It is folly not to consult intelligent people like John Steinbeck because their understanding is miles ahead of everybody else's. For example, on June 9, 1966, before it was fashionable to criticize fox news and the like, he wrote his agent Elizabeth:
"As usual, I sit down to write up a novel-and utter panic sets in. All
the lovely plans and techniques run away and hide. I haven't the
slightest idea what a novel is. A piece of fiction longer than a
bread box is as close as I can come.
Then -what is fiction? Is it true that didn't happen as opposed
to a false thing that did?
Ninety percent of the items in the morning paper could not be used
in a novel because they are false. Can it be that the present popularity
of non-fiction lies in the fact that it can recount things not acceptable
to fiction readers? Or could it be that fact iterpreted becomes fiction.
I don't know."
John Steinbeck died in New York City on December 20, 1968, of heart disease and congestive heart failure (in other words, Vietnam war censors made his heart stop). His body was cremated on March 4, 1969.
In the final analysis, the speculation (educated guess) that Steinbeck was murdered to censor him matters less than the fact that his ideas were not even known let alone embraced, and the rest is typical history -when we do not learn from our mistakes, we repeat them.
Few people realize that John Steinbeck was a first rate, Vietnam war correspondent and letters like the following to Harry Guggenheim, the founder of Newsday illustrate the depth of his committment in that regard:
January 4, 1967
I have asked you for some very unusual things during our association.
Now I want to ask about a possibility. I have been out in the really
hairy boondocks, in the waist-deep paddis where your boots suck in
mud that holds like glue. The patrols go on t night now down in the
Delta area and re really ambushes set up against the V.C. There are
caches of weapons everywhere and very few of them are found. All a
running V.C. has to do is to sink his weapons in a ditch or in a
flooded paddy and later return and retrieve them.
Yesterday, I was out with a really good bunch of men. We climbed
out of ditches, went through houses, questioned people. We came on
one cache of weapons and ammunition in the bottom of a ditch.
They smear grease on the guns and seal the shells in jugs. Every house
in the area is surrounded by water -in fact the raied place where the
house and its garden stand are made by dredging up the mud in
baskets and piling it up to dry to a platform. Our men were moving
slowly long in the water feeling or weapons on the muddy bottom -
a slow and very fallible method.
The C.O. is a Lt. Col. Hyatt, fine fellow, young and intelligent. I
told him about something I use on my dock at Sag harbor. It is a five-
pound Alnico horeshoe-shaped magnet that will lift about a hundred
pounds. If anything mettalic falls off the dock I tie a line to the
magnet and drop it to the bottom. I've brought up everything from a
pair of pliers to an outboard motor with it. Dragged along these
ditches and paddies it would locate arms that are now missed. But
such ideas submitted to the high command rarely get implemented. And
surely Col. Hyatt knew it. So I engaged to try to get him a magnet
to try it out. Of course, if he brings up anything he can then
The other thing is more serious and more sensitive. As you must
know, the V.C. are tough and secret. When one is taken he refuses
to talk at all. And it's on information that our lives depend, where
are the rest hidden, how many are there -what weapons, what plan of
attack, where are the claymore mines set, where are the booby traps?
Answers to these questions could save a great many of our kids' lives.
Yesterday, I remembered something from the past. Did you ever see
scopolamine used, Harry? I have. First it was called twilight sleep
and later truth serum. It doen't make a man or woman tell the truth,
but it makes him a compulsive talker. He jut can't shut up. It relaxes
the inhibitions, cues boastful thinking and everything comes out. Now
Col. Hyatt says if he had access to such an injection he thinks he
could cut his casualties at least 50 per cent. And I have no compunction
about using any method to that end.
I am marking this very private and personal but of course Bill Moyers
(soon to become publisher of Newsday can see it. But I
wouldn't let it go farther.
Please let me hear from you.
There is nothing but astounding insight in the letters of John Steinbeck and these excerpts sent to Jack Valenti on July 16, 1965, Lyndon Johnson's liaison with the news media, speak for themselves:
"I hope you do not find me egotistic in giving unsolicited advice. But I do share the worry which must be a matter of terror to any head of state. He must have information, and he must often wonder how accurate the information he gets is. It does seem to me that the weakness of our fact-gathering services does not lie in the gatherings but in their evaluation. Every man is bound to temper his facts to his unchanging personality, background, prejudices and desires. And it is up to a president to evaluate both the man and the facts. It must be almost a matter of nightmare.
Why am I talking at this length, Jack? Well, I'm afraid bad days are coming. There is no way to make the Vietnamese war decent. There is no way of justifying sending troops to another man's country. And there is no way to do anything but praise the man who defends his own land. The real reasons for the war will never come to the surface and if they did most people would not se them. This is primarily a power struggle. The ideal solution or us would be so to shift the war that the Soviet Union would be forced to take a position against China whether openly or secretely and this they would have to do, because I can tell you of my own knowledge that Russia is far more afraid of China than she is of us. Unless the president makes some overt move towards peace, more and more Americans as well as Europeans are going to blame him for the mess, particularly since the government we are supporting with our men nd treasure is about as smelly as you can get."
Since 1965, John Steinbeck struggled to write a book about American morality but the Vietnam war got in the way of what would have inevitably been an amazing book. Steinbeck frequently said that a request from the President of the United States was like an order and that he could not turn it down. Consequently, metaphorically speaking, Johnson's war destroyed John Steineck's amazing career and that needs to be acknowledged.
The truth is reserved for our friends and Steinbeck's letters to his lifelong companion, Carlton Sheffield, the man he affectionately called "Dook" reveal it best. In part, a letter to Dook, dated August 5, 1965 reads as follows;
"There are timed when I wish desperately that you were here to talk to. There are things I can't discuss with anyone else. Something is coming up soon. And I can't discuss it with anyone and I don't quite know what to do about it. [At Camp David the President had asked Steinbeck to go to Vietnam and report to him -which is how Lyndon Johnson managed to control his critics.] You know how there re things you don't want to do, but you know that failure to do them will make you miserable. Well, I've got a bad one of those. It isn't one of those things you can avoid by doing nothing either. Everything I can think of is against doing it and yet I am afraid I'm going to have to. Damn! I wish I could be decisionless. I won't write it so I don't know why I brought it up. But I do wish I could talk to you. You wouldn't know the answer. The answer is -don't do anything you don't have to do. But it's that have which is so tricky. It always has the concealed card.
Now -so many sentences start with now -it is the next day and a beautiful one full of gold and sun and another day. I've beat around bushes and at last must face the last chapter about The Americans -a most difficult one.
This morning I was awakened early, full of continued thinking out of sleep. You know that sow and sometimes excellent thinking. You will understand my reluctance to start when I tell you, this section is to deal with morals -not goody-goody morals -but pragmatic morals. I have floundered about with it because it has been such a fragmented subject and I want to put the pieces together."