25 years after Tet, poet visits U.S. EASTERN SHORE

November 18, 1992|By William Thompson | William Thompson,Staff Writer

SALISBURY -- He was a 26-year-old soldier when, on the eve of the 1968 Vietnamese New Year, tens of thousands of his fellow Communist troops simultaneously attacked hundreds of populated targets in the south.

"I was very excited and very anxious. I felt as if horns and bells were going off in my chest," he recalls of the bloody Tet Offensive that marked what many historians agree was the beginning of the end of America's involvement in the Vietnam War.

Nearly 25 years later, Pham Tien Duat, a former member of the People's Army of Vietnam, a builder of the Ho Chi Minh Trail, a survivor of eight years of American bombing missions and one of the best-known poets in Vietnam today, finds himself strolling beneath the colorful explosion of fall foliage on the campus of Salisbury State University.

"I want to forget about all that," he says through an interpreter when asked about the war that ravaged his native country and divided the American public.

"I want to start being friends," he adds, his dark eyes growing brighter behind a plume of smoke from a cigarette held in the Asian style, between thumb and forefinger.

"The Vietnamese people want to forget the past and start the future."

Forgetting about the Vietnam War won't be easy this week at Salisbury State. Starting today, about 100 scholars, writers and film makers will assemble here for what is believed to be the first conference in the country focusing on the 25th anniversary of the Tet Offensive.

Mr. Pham, who is visiting the United States for the first time, is scheduled to read his war poetry tomorrow afternoon with American poet Bruce Weigl, a Vietnam veteran who now teaches writing at Pennsylvania State University.

The four-day retrospective will include diverse political and historical studies and is designed to provide the public and students with a greater understanding of the war that remains such a dominant part of the American psyche.

U.S. and South Vietnamese military forces repelled the Communist attack that began Jan. 31, 1968, and lasted through February, the first month of the Vietnamese New Year.

But Americans at home, who had seen graphic television footage of fighting at places called Khe Sanh and Hue, grew steadily opposed to the war.

Aware that the war ignites controversy even years after its end, conference organizers expect passions to run high. But they say there is no underlying political agenda.

"Some people want to forget about this war and there are others who want to refight it, show how we could have won," says Dr. Harry Basehart, a Salisbury State political science professor who organized the conference.

"I don't think we'll ever reach a consensus on what the war meant," he says. "But somehow we have to pass on to our students what it was all about. Given that the Vietnam War has not gone away, we decided we wanted to see what writers and scholars on the war think at this time."

Mr. Weigl, who has returned to Vietnam twice since he left the embattled country as a soldier with the 1st Air Cavalry in 1968, says Vietnamese today are "baffled" by America's obsession with the war.

"They ask me why all the time," he says in a telephone interview. "I try to tell them it gave a whole new meaning of America to a generation growing up at the time."

Mr. Weigl says Mr. Pham's appearance here is a coup for the conference committee. The poet, whose works have been translated to French, Russian and English, is revered in Vietnam today, Mr. Weigl notes.

Mr. Pham was so popular among the North Vietnamese during the war that the nearly legendary general Vo Nguyen Giap exempted him from military service and allowed him to continue writing poetry and dispatches from the front lines.

Unlike the Vietnamese soldiers who fought the French in the 1950s, the soldiers who fought the Americans were better educated, says Mr. Pham.

They were literate and enjoyed reading poems about peasant life and everyday occurrences, even when nearly all events had a backdrop of war.

His writing largely ignored Communist ideology and instead captured images of romance and suffering.

Party leaders once censured him for writing that "there is no greater loss than death."

Mr. Pham said he was studying literature and reading the poems of Walt Whitman when he enlisted in the military to oppose U.S. forces. He is currently editor of Van Nghe, a Hanoi-based magazine on art and literature.

Of his selection of poems to read at the Tet conference, he says, he tried to be sensitive to American feelings about losing the war.

"I tried to pick something more peaceful for 25 years later," he says. "I don't want to create a war in their minds."

READING TOMORROW

Poets Pham Tien Duat and Bruce Weigl will read their works about the Vietnam War at 3:30 p.m. tomorrow in the Wicomico Room of the Guer- rieri Center at Salisbury State University. Admission is free.

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