Letters from West Berlin, Part 4, by Kitty Kroger. December 1966: Awakening to the Vietnam War

13 Jul

Berlin.Kitty.East.1967In the summer of 1966 upon graduating from Colorado College, a friend had arranged a summer  job for me in a youth hostel on Sylt, a German island  in the North Sea off the coast of Hamburg. After two months, I left by train to see a bit more of Europe before returning to the U.S. My first stop was West Berlin. Maybe I thought the divided city would be especially interesting, or was it just the first place on my route?

Whatever the reason, I ended up living there for four years. Following is the fourth of a series of selections from detailed letters to my parents during that time. As you will see, over time I was altered by my experiences in 1960s West Berlin and ended up a different person from the politically naive girl who first arrived there.

FOURTH IN A SERIES
December 1966

December 10, 1966
Dear Mom and Dad,

Today I took part in a demo against the war in Vietnam. I feel strongly about it although there are still so many gaps in my knowledge. But the more I learn, the stronger I feel.

 

Dec. 10, 1966
Dear Charlie,

Berlin.U.S. Campaign2I’ve recently become part of a study and action group of American students who are against America’s presence in Vietnam. We may start marching in January. Meanwhile we’re learning. We have a lot of literature on Vietnam, and we read all we can. All the kids in the group are clean-cut types, no beats at all, which should impress the conservatives at least. Today I joined a group of Free University students, about two to three hundred, in a short march and protest speech in the heart of Berlin. I was very disappointed that the group got rowdy at the end so that the police had to disperse them from blocking traffic and even had to haul off three or four students bodily. But the interaction of discussions between students and bystanders was very profitable. At the end, however, the students burned a Papier-mâchéhead of Johnson, shouting Johnson Murderer, etc., which probably doesn’t do anything at all to advance anything at all. About ten Americans took part in the march itself, not in the aftermath.

 

Monday, December 12, 1966
Dear Parents,

I’ve been reading a lot about Vietnam and also a novel Steppenwolf by Herman Hesse in German.

I read a good article saying that Vietnam can’t be compared with Hitler’s conquest of Europe because China is not able or willing to move in and overtake another country Blitzkrieg style. [At the time one of the arguments for the Vietnam War was that China wanted to take over the world like Hitler did.] She [China] works through internal subversion and exploits national unrest and revolution, which is occurring in South America, Africa, and Asia. America is outdated, unenlightened, and immoral if she thinks she can prevent Communism by distribution of military support to governments all over the globe “whose main virtue is often their anti-communism” and whose vices are greed and exploitation of its own people’s poverty and an eagerness to take American money into its own pockets.

Here according to my limited knowledge is what I think is happening in Vietnam and elsewhere. America pours money into many foreign countries to support the governments in the status quo. In doing this we disregard the fact that we are making these countries extremely dependent upon us industrially, which the people and leaders of the people resent. America promises support and protection of the ruling regime (like Batista) against communism and revolution in return for the raw materials of these under-industrialized lands. America buys these goods out, cheaply develops them in her own factories and with her highly developed industry, then in return sells them back to the countries at a tremendous profit. The people don’t receive even the initial price for the raw goods. The government in power receives this money, which it uses to build palaces, great monuments to its own glory, to support mistresses, and for an army to defend itself against its own people. Thus the money doesn’t go to build factories, to enable the people to produce their own finished products. The lands remain backward and poor, and the people grow more and more dissatisfied.

So the communists support revolutionaries who overthrow (or try to) the government, and then America is forced to send military supplies—and in Vietnam and elsewhere—men to suppress these uprisings. It’s a fallacy for us to assume that these virgin governments, which are just beginning to attain independence, will simply become puppets of China or Russia. They want to be independent, to be allowed to develop their own industry. Look at Ghana and Indonesia and Cambodia. They are not communist, although they have sharply dealt with America. They have succeeded by themselves in setting back communism and they want to be left alone to develop, to be neutral, to trade with both the east and the west. But first they have to have a period of isolationism, just as we did in the nineteenth century, to build themselves up. If we put pressure on them to accept our way of government, then the communists react with counter-attacks and the country may even become a battlefield.

We shall lose economically when a country “breaks away” from us, but we shall not necessarily lose it ideologically.

Yes, there is no doubt that Vietnam will become communist under Mr. Minh.

Berlin.Ho Chi Minh[Ho Chi Minh led the Việt Minh independence movement from 1941 onward, establishing the communist-ruled Democratic Republic of Vietnam in 1945 and defeating the French Union in 1954 at the battle of Điện Biên Phủ. He officially stepped down from power in 1965 due to health problems, but remained a highly visible figurehead and inspiration for those Vietnamese fighting for his cause—a united, communist Vietnam—until his death. After the war, Saigon, capital of the Republic of Vietnam, was renamed Hồ Chí Minh City. when (if) we pull out, but Vietnam has had an unhappy history of horrible colonial exploitation by the French, which was finally ended by Ho Chi Minh and the communists. Then the bungling and cruelties of Diem, who was apparently set up by America, caused the National Liberation Front to arise within South Vietnam itself. In other words, Vietnam is not a Nazi situation and is no test case for America and its desire to check the flow of communism. (Source: Wikipedia)]

Please comment if you have time.

Love, Kitty

 

[December 1966]
Dear Family,

Thanks for your letter, Dad. I’ll answer it soon. Hope you had a great Christmas.

People were very nice to me at Christmas. My landlady brought me a huge plate of assorted fresh fruit and chocolate. She still keeps bringing me homemade applesauce with lemon rinds, cranberry sauce, homemade potato soup, and other goodies. For Christmas Eve I went to the home of a German friend Elizabeth. The family stems from Bayern (Bavaria). They speak a strong Bavarian dialect among themselves, and it was wonderful to hear them all talking excitedly among themselves and brutalizing the German language. The mother played “Silent Night” on the piano and we all sang. We had carp—boiled and fried—and a delicious sour cream dessert. They gave me a huge plate of nuts, fruit, and cookies. I gave Elizabeth a bright red and blue plaid tablecloth. We watched part of “A Christmas Carol” auf deutsch on TV and then an exhibition of religious frescoes and oil paintings from the Middle Ages and Renaissance—also on TV—while the father, a psych prof at the Technical University, explained some of their typical characteristics to me. The whole family (three daughters and a son) all walked to Midnight Mass through falling snowflakes. They light the candles on the tree for the first time that year. (All Germans have candles instead of colored lights, which they first light on Christmas Eve.)

On Christmas day I went to Wicclair and Mierendorff’s apartment for supper and wine and bloody Marys. I gave Mr. Wicclair a theatrical calendar which I bought in East Berlin and I gave Mrs. Mierendorff a copy of Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast because it deals with his life in Paris during 1920-1924 or so and because Mrs. M. spent time there after the Second World War and fell in love with it just as I did. She gave me a book of German poetry and he gave me a huge box of chocolates.

On the 26th, I went to Frau Kern’s [she had employed me to babysit and houseclean] for a delicious half-chicken lunch and schnaps and wine. I brought the kids a “doctor set” and they gave me a wonderful “Care” package, which consisted of fresh fruit, Wurst, candy, eau de Cologne, tea bags, and canned mandarin oranges. I discussed “life at the University” with Herr Kern, who is an assistant physicist there, working on his doctorate.

Berlin.Wall.www.bbc.co.ukMy friend in East Berlin is an elderly man about 70 years old. He invited me and a friend to hear some Beethoven on his record player, and he treated us to an egg liqueur and he and I played Mozart for four hands on his piano. He was very warm and cultured and dignified and sweet—and somehow so tragic too because of his isolation in only half of what used to be his whole city.

Being here in Europe has made me terribly proud sometimes of America and our schools and art and spirit and friends. After [I was] held by the East Berlin officials [one] day and discussed politics briefly with [an] official, I was especially proud of our freedom of expression and of my liberty to express to that man my own political views without having to worry about whether I was expressing ideas in accordance with the ruling party of my government or not.

The East Berliner expressed only ideas that were in the strictest harmony with the “party line,” but by so doing he didn’t impress me as being either sincere or even rational. The only impression I received was one of stupidity that he could defend his government so blindly with the same responses to whatever I said. Or I felt pity that he was so afraid to discuss openly with me both the mistakes and the progress made by his government. Not that I would expect him in any case to condemn his government, but he couldn’t even admit the possibility that perhaps the mess that Germany is in today is the result of many complex factors involving errors on both sides. And not just on Germany but on every single issue he assumed the same sort of stereotyped attitude of black and white. It was impossible to discuss solutions to problems with him—he was too concerned with making East Germany and the communist-block countries appear golden.

Berlin.Map1Once during the conversation I mentioned that my interest in politics had quickened after I’d been in Europe a few months, and that for the first time I was beginning to actively study the Vietnam War and take issue with some of my government’s policies. The official responded in the most sincere manner, “That’s understandable. Of course you couldn’t criticize the U.S. policy when you were in the states: you’d be put in jail.” I was shocked, but he was very sincere; I think he really did believe that. I said, “Where did you ever hear that? That’s completely false. you couldn’t be more mistaken. I can criticize the government as much as I want to.” He shrugged his shoulders and said, “Oh yes, the American freedom.” Then he changed the subject.

We are losing face all over the world by our stand in Vietnam, because of the way we are handling the war. If I am sincerely against the war for intelligent, well thought out, and largely moral grounds, then I can’t be so hypocritical as to appear otherwise, and I can’t do any service to my country regarding its image in the eyes of the world if I either verbally support or at best refuse to discuss outside of the family the topic. The world has got to know, Johnson has got to know, that a large number of Americans intelligently, not blindly, and strongly follow what they believe to be their moral responsibility in opposing the continuation of the war. Johnson is not the only American. I am an American too. And I think, Dad, that the information is available to the layman, to the non-specialist, to the public.

Kitty

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3 Responses to “Letters from West Berlin, Part 4, by Kitty Kroger. December 1966: Awakening to the Vietnam War”

  1. Roselva Ungar March 27, 2017 at 8:28 pm #

    Very well done! Your intelligence showed through. Are you returning to your writing? Is the group in touch again? I really enjoyed the pressure it put on me to continue writing. All these crazy things happening since the elections have kept me from doing anything apart from the news and the resistance, and resting after my exercise classes. I would love to get back to writing and doing something about getting my history of organizing for Head Start out to wherever there is interest. Any ideas? I think UCLA and, of course the union might care about it. Happy to hear from you. Love,

    Roselva Ungar

    “We can’t have education without revolution”, Helen Keller

  2. Iris Edinger March 29, 2017 at 9:47 am #

    Kitty,
    I especially empathized with your last discussion with the man from East Germany. Eddie and I were in Prague in about 1960 and got into a conversation with a couple in a restaurant. I later realized they must have been police. We told them just a bit about our trip around Eastern Europe (Kruschev had just come into power and opened Eastern Europe to foreign travelers, including campers (we had a VW bug and a tent). In any case, when asked, I explained that I was a teacher in the U.S. and that we were touring during our summer vacation. They absolutely DID NOT believe me! Apparently they though employees in the West lived under conditions approaching slave labor. That incident always remain with me.

    I wish I could take advantage of your wonderful assignment. I was born in 1029, and so was a child during the l930’s but remember hearing thunder and thinking it was the Fascists bombing us (a la Mussolini and Hitler during the Spanish Civil War.)

    I always read your and your readers’ essays with great interest. Keep it up.

    Iris

  3. riamanetta April 6, 2017 at 6:25 pm #

    I love this photo of you …. ‘back in the day’. 😀

    Sent from my iPhone

    >

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