Skip to content

Tunisia, Vietnam, Haiti, Iraq

January 17, 2010

related posts:  ( Farhat Hached and the Struggle for Tunisian Independence) , (Death of Fran Macy – Peace Corps Director, Tunisia)

Introduction to the Series

These four countries seem disconnected as if their names were just picked out of a hat. They were and they weren’t. Watching the news about the tragedy in Haiti and the growing US response, I could not help thinking about another time and place when in one part of the world the United States was bombing a country to smitherines, in the case of my youth, Vietnam, while elsewhere humanitarian and economic aid was being offered. Two seemingly contradictory faces of the same policy, intimately connected despite appearances to the contrary. For the moment, sticking to the Tunisia-Vietnam analogy, it is easy to think that policies are disconnected but in fact, that is untrue as some of us in the Peace Corps in Tunisia came to conclude. Indeed, if the United States is destroying one part of the world, mercilessly by the way, it is important that elsewhere it tries to conduct some kind of public relations campaign to confuse or neutralize anti-American sentiment both at home and abroad.

And while I am glad that the United States offers its young people a chance to serve peacefully rather than in the cockpits of F-16s (or is it now F-22s), firing Cruise Missiles from submarines or as a thousand Rambo wannabe’s… the fact remains: we Peace Corps volunteers were the sheep’s mask covering the wolf’s face of US foreign policy, a cover for war, little more. In the 1960s the US Peace Corps offered a different image of the country than the tv footage shown round the world of children being napalmed and Vietnamese put in tiger cages or eliminated by what was called the Phoenix Program, an early and chilling example of profiling. How can that be reconciled with a bunch of American college graduates – either architects (our program had a fair number), child care specialists or teachers with degrees in this and that liberal arts area. Most of us, the great majority, were liberal to left in our political orientation and were, like so many others of our time, `children of the sixties’. Placed in a Tunisian rural village, where many were and wanted to be, our impact was to soften the hard edge of US Imperialism. How could people like us be connected with the bombs and suffering being unleashed in Vietnam? It must have been confusing for Tunisians who got to like and respect us personally -as many did – while knowing that the other face lurked somewhere in the background. A Dr. Jekyl and Mr. Hyde foreign policy if ever there was one. And up to a point it worked.

Something like that is happening before our very eyes right now. Iraq destroyed – maybe a million dead, but opened to oil companies; Afghanistan getting worse; our drone attacks seemed have killed mostly wedding parties; Gaza blockaded and choked off as Leningrad was during World War 2 with the cancer of Israeli settlements overwhelming the geography of the West Bank – stuff that could not happen without decades of US economic and military support, and now a new front opening in Yemen based upon the same faulty pretexts that got us into Iraq and Afghanistan. But the biggest target yet to come: Iran. Will we invade? Will we nuke them as is floated by some – an idea once supported by candidate Hillary Clinton? Will it be with Israel or a solo operation? etc etc. And where we’re not bombing, we’re supporting governments whose human rights records make even moderate democrats tremble – Egypty, Saudi Arabia, Tunisia – usually in the name of fighting Islamic extremism because it would be too crude to say that it s about oil.

This is the beginning of a two part series. In part one, below, I want to compare what the US military was doing in Vietnam with what US Peace Corps was doing in Tunisia at the same time. Why Tunisia? Because I happened to have been there at that time. In the second part, I’ll explore the striking difference between the US invasion of Iraq and what could also be called a US invasion – even if it entails humanitarian aid – of Haiti.

Part One

Between 1966 and 1968, as the United States military was engaged in one of the cruelest wars of the 20th Century against the people and government of Vietnam, as the US Air Force was dropping more bombs over Viet Nam than were dropped in all of World War 2, in a war that at least 3 million Vietnamese and 57,000 Americans, I was serving with about 300 others as a Peace Corps volunteer in Tunis (and Sousse) Tunisia, a North African Arab and largely Islamic country, teaching at an annex of the University of  Tunis called L’Institute Bourguiba des Langes Vivantes, or as we simply called it `Bourguiba School’. Virtually all the males in our Peace Corps group were, to one degree or another, draft dodgers and proud of it. We were already vaguely anti-war and hoped to serve our country in other, more peace ways.

I do not think I am exaggerating to say that for most of us, those were wonderful and rich years, reflected by the fact that 42 years later, thanks to the internet and the persistence of one of our members, my friend Phil Jones, – we remain in contact more or less, still visiting each other from time to time and keeping the human connection between us alive. We had shared a special time and place together – Tunisia in the early years of its post-independence, seminal years for that country and probably in one way or another most of us Peace Corps volunteers as well.

Humphrey in Europe

The war in Vietnam – half way round the world – was raging. We kept up with it as best we could, perhaps even better than many people back home in the USA because of our daily access to the French press, especially  Le Monde, possibly the best newspaper in the world in the 1960s, French or otherwise, with its extraordinary reporters and commentators like Jean Lacouture and Gerard Chaliand. The paper pulled no punches about what the US was doing in Vietnam and as our french language skills improved, we could get most of what was written. Besides, we’d meet – it was all informal – and frequently translate the articles together so that none of us missed very much.

Other things reminded us of Vietnam, even in Tunisia.

In January of 1968 – I can’t remember exactly but I know it sometime near the Tet Offensive in Vietnam – US Vice President Hubert Humphrey made a tour of countries allied to the United States in Europe, the Middle East and  Africa, that included a stop in Tunis. At the same time that Humphrey was making the rounds there, Secretary of State Dean Rusk had embarked on a similar journey to Asia. The war in Vietnam was not going well. The Vietnamese `Tet Offensive’ had exposed the notion that the US was winning the war and its adversary was almost defeated. Lyndon Johnson was at a crossroads. Should he send more troops? But there were already half a million American soldiers fighting in Vietnam and sending more troops would meet with growing domestic opposition

Years later I learned the the purpose of the Humphrey and Rusk trips was to gauge the level of support for the US war in Vietnam from the different allies by presenting different `scenarios’: could your country support us if…and there were a number of options presented. One of these scenarios went something like this: could your country support the United States if we (`we’ being Lyndon Johnson) escalated the war to include nuclear weapons? Humphrey was actually canvassing US allies to gain support for `the nuclear option’! Not even those closest to the US in those days could support that and the leaders of all these countries emphasized that if the US nuked Vietnam they, the leaders, could not be responsible for the level of anti-American protest that would break out in their countries. No, it didn’t happen, but it was seriously considered.

Humphrey in the Congo and Tunisia

Humphrey made the usual rounds to US allies. Everywhere, huge demonstrations broke out against the war in Vietnam, with especially large ones in London, Rome and in West Germany. The level of anti-war – and anti-American sentiment surprised and shocked him. His reception in Africa was as hostile as it was in Europe. In the Congo – then called Zaire – university students pelted him with eggs and tomatoes as he attempted to lay a bouquet of flowers at the Lumumba Memorial in Kinshasa. Besides being opposed to the US war in Vietnam, the students protested the U.S. role in Lumumba’s disappearance eight years before.  During the same trip he also came to Tunis to speak with Habib Bourguiba, the country’s president and at the time, an important US ally in the Arab world.

Just prior to Humphrey’s arrival in Tunis, a college student I knew informed me that the students at the University of Tunis were planning a protest rally against the war in Vietnam to greet the vice president. I remember thinking: hey – I should be doing that, not you. And it was then I began to understand a little that the term `international solidarity’ and `international peace movement’ were not empty phrases. I was told to go to the center of town, where Avenue Bourguiba intersected with Avenue de la Liberte right by what was then called the `Cafe de Paris’. With a couple of Peace Corps friends I ventured downtown about 15 minutes before noon to see the demonstration, and to add to its numbers protesting the war.

Anti-war Demonstrations – Tunisian Style

But my understanding of a peace rally or anti-war demonstration was based upon the few I had seen and in which I had participated in New York City; they were peaceful affairs at which I don’t remember being the slightest bit afraid. The angrier US anti-war demonstrations were yet to come. Tunisian anti-war demonstrations have something of a different flavor I was about to find out. At 11:50 none of the demonstrators had arrived to`set up’. I expected that combination of speeches, music, crowd cheering, leaflet distribution that are associated with such events back home. Thinking that perhaps I got the day, the place or the time wrong, my friends and I were about to leave when from the side streets hundreds of young Tunisians poured into the center with signs, leaflets, banners, chanting anti-war slogans, expressing their solidarity with the Vietnamese people, in Arabic and French. And then to my utter surprise, as quickly as they had come, they dispersed, running back up the side streets leaving their leaflets and signs scattered on the avenue. A few minutes after noon and they had all disappeared into the city.

We watched startled by what we had just witnessed.

A few minutes later – like five – the place was crawling with Tunisian police armed with night sticks, tear gas, mace and some with submachine guns. But the students were gone, leaving the police especially frustrated as they had come to break heads, nothing less, and now could only stand around looking foolish. It might even have been amusing – I remember initially chuckling at the scene – had it all ended there, but it didn’t.

The students had embarrassed the Tunisian president before the international media (who were there for Humphrey’s visit). They might have – probably did – express the anti-war will of the Tunisian people, but Habib Bourguiba did not find the demonstration amusing. To show `who was in control’ he let the police loose on the university itself and the adjoining neighborhoods for the next three or four days. Students and youth in general were hunted down; many were badly beaten, hundreds were arrested and several, if I recall right – were killed in police custody.

Michel Foucault Humiliated

At the time, Michel Foucault, the famous French philosopher, was teaching at the University of Tunis. The student activists sought his council and support. As I understand it, Foucault did not `organize’ the demonstrations, he simply refused to discourage the students from engaging in what amounted to freedom of expression. He was supportive of the demonstration and its goals. For that he was arrested by the Tunisian authorities, seriously mishandled – by some accounts tortured – taunted on account of his homosexuality and expelled from the country.

All this touched many of us in the Peace Corps in Tunisia deeply. Tunisian students and French philosophers had the courage to stand up for peace. It spurred us into action as well. We wrote a petition against the war, circulated it to Peace Corps volunteers throughout the country with the intention of giving it to Humphrey. 42 years later, I remember the theme that it was difficult for us to build bridges in Tunisia while the US military was blowing them up in Vietnam. Almost the entire Peace Corps community in Tunisia signed it as several of us were delegated to present it to the Vice President. We tried several times, but his security staff – a couple of military types with no necks, took the petitions and tore them up right in front of us. Slighted that we could not present our Vice President with a simple petition, and convinced that if only Humphrey read Le Monde he would understand and be against the war as we were, two of us decided to `escalate our actions.

This didn’t mean that much.

Two of us, Phil Jones and I, made posters to protest a talk that Humphrey was scheduled to give in the embassy garden. Mine said – it was the first poster I ever made – `Napalm Kills Children’. Not so brilliant. I have been informed it also kills adults. I don’t remember what Phil’s said. We hid them under our sports jackets, went into the embassy garden with other guests. When Humphrey started his remarks, we both pulled out our signs. Humphrey was really shocked and disoriented so much so that he immediately called off the meeting, and fled the premises. So did everyone else leaving Phil and me alone in the garden with our signs which we left in the branches of  an orange tree as I recall and walked out.

But it wasn’t over for Humphrey who by this time had had enough of Tunisia. He headed for the airport. Unbeknownst to us, another Peace Corps volunteer – and life long friend – Dan Cetinich had gone to the airport to say good bye to the Vice President in his own special way. As Humphrey walked through the terminal – it was a rather small one –  Dan hollered `Humphrey – murderer of Vietnamese’. It was a touching send off. Humphrey steamed off and Dan Cetinich spend a few days in a Tunisian jail where his interrogators tried to make much of the fact that he had studied Russian literature. With the intervention of our director, Fran Macy, Dan was released and like the other Peace Corps demonstrators, finished out his term.

What’s it all about?

Later we learned (from Le Monde of course) that while we, Peace Corps volunteers were demonstrating against the war in Vietnam in Tunisia that our compatriot volunteers in Morocco and several west African countries had, spontaneously and simultaneously joined us. The director of the program in Morocco at the time was a man named Richard Holbrooke – who has proven how easily he can switch from peace to war making. (He’s Obama’s special envoy to Pakistan and Afghanistan). There were other things going on too that we were all trying to absorb – like the 1967 Middle East War, and the recently ended violent revolution next door in Algeria against French Colonialism.

At some point, it was late in the game, towards the end of our stay, we began addressing a more fundamental question: what were we doing here in Tunisia? Of coures on a personal level, most of us could answer that question quite easily: we were avoiding the draft., hoping that by the time our Peace Corps stint was over, the war in Vietnam would be too. That didn’t happen by the way. But our focus shifted from our concerns about our own skins to the deeper issues – that contradiction between our country working for peace and development in Tunisia and while pursuing a cruel war in Southeast Asia. Some of us began to get it – or thought we got it – we were out there as `bait’; the more cynical of us thought it really didn’t matter what we actually did in Tunisia – our mission – or at least that assigned to us by US foreign policy was simple and clear: good public relations. Counter the image of the ugly American, of all those bombs dropping from B-52s over Indochina, be the liberal make up on body of US militarism. It is not that what my fellow Peace Corps volunteers did was irrelevant. Many did fine work and made a contribution to the country.  They/we were a wonderful lot. It’s just that on another level, we were being used.

Harsh? Perhaps. Inaccurate or overstated? I doubt it.

On some fundamental level – the Tunisia-Vietnam `paradox’ is being played out today in Haiti and Iraq, but even more cynically and cruelly than it was 40 years ago. More on that in `Part Two’.

6 Comments leave one →
  1. January 19, 2010 5:06 am

    Terrific article, Rob! Thank you from a fellow Tunisia PCV!

  2. Bob Kinsey permalink
    January 19, 2010 11:11 am

    Interesting. Do you think Rob that this was part of a conscious plan like Psyops for Americans, or is it just the result of our schizophrenic self image (self-organization) as Warriors against what threatens corporate capitalism (“Freedom”) and our “Good Neighbor” humanitarian instincts. The PC was kind of Kennedy’s stated realization that peace and national security were the result of just and supportive relationships and on the other had to long twilight struggle. I know there are those who think when he moved more to the first principle they had him shot. Obama talks about nuclear abolition and getting out of Iraq but keeps Gates, employs Hillary, affirms war on terror and proposes more supplemental support for ME war when he claims to have included it in his 632 billion military budget.

    • January 19, 2010 2:00 pm

      the way you put it Bob is interesting. Frankly I am not certain what the original motivation was.. just exploring what seems to be the gulf between what the United States is doing in different parts of the world at the same time, then and now. But the contrast has stayed with me all these years. My friend, Dan Cetinich, cited in the piece, just sent me a long commentary below (in the comments section) which you might find interesting too.


  3. January 19, 2010 1:56 pm

    This from Dan Cetinich (who is mentioned in the blog and adds alot of texture to my entry and a few corrections – concerning the reporters from Le Monde at the time):

    I read your interesting blog—it brought back to life distinctly that
    whole era in our lives. And, of course, you can mention me in the
    context of Humphrey’s visit.

    Here is what happened that January 1968. It’s true that I didn’t tell
    anyone what I was going to do. I decided to take a taxi to the airport
    when Humphrey arrived, not when he left. The route had police every
    hundred meters; and when I arrived, I met a Yugoslav friend of mine at
    the airport and I told him what I was going to do. I placed myself near
    the wire fence before the little terminal and waited for the black
    limousines to approach.

    When Humphrey’s was close, I shouted “Stop the murder in Vietnam” a
    number of times. Immediately, I was surrounded by plain clothes
    security police. They took me to a car at the terminal entrance, and
    just then the Peace Corps doctor, whose name escapes me, came up and
    asked if I were all right. He had come to greet Humphrey. They whisked
    me away to the Surete National building near the suburban train line.

    They brought me to a room with a chair in the middle that had a round
    wire attached above it. I thought, they’re going to torture me. But
    instead they sat me down on it and simply took my picture. I don’t know
    what the hell the wire was for.

    Then they brought me into a room for interrogation. What they really
    wanted to know was if I knew any Tunisians who had Communist sympathies.
    I did, but if I told them, he would be imprisoned and tortured. I kept
    telling them that I didn’t know any. Also, they wanted to know what
    Left newspapers or magazines I was reading. I said I didn’t read any of
    those, only L’Express, the Tunisian paper. I actually read Le Monde,
    but I didn’t want to tell them that. And I also didn’t tell them that I
    was getting at College Beshir Sfar, where I taught, the National
    Guardian, the Maoist paper. To this day, Robbie, I have no idea who got
    me a subscription to it. It gave me a lot of good information about
    what was really happening in Vietnam (thanks to Wilfred Burchett, the
    Australian journalist), and the situation at Columbia University. They
    got nothing out of me except that I was against the colonial war in
    Vietnam. And then the strangest thing was that what I said about
    Vietnam might have stirred their own memories of French domination.
    They seemed a little sympathetic, despite the fact that these were
    national security types.

    Then they began to make telephone calls, one of which was to the
    omphalos of the world, the American embassy. That was my ‘get out of
    jail card.” They warned me that if I went to the embassy the next day,
    where Humphrey was to speak, they would arrest me on the spot. I was
    taken home by the number two man in charge of security for Bourguiba’s
    African trips. He was very gracious, and even politely asked for
    another photo of myself. I gave him my passport picture. That was it;
    I did not spend any time in jail.

    A number of days later, an angry Fran Macy called me to the Peace Corps
    office and wanted to know why I hadn’t talked to him. I probably told
    him I didn’t think it was necessary, or something to that effect. At
    the end, he asked me if I were going to join any Leninist organization
    in the U.S. Of course, I told him no. As he escorted me out of the
    office, no longer mad at me, he gave me a little pat on the back. I
    remember in the spring of 1967, Al Brooks and I went to the cinema in La
    Marsa to see the Russian film Hamlet, and Fran was there with his wife

    I agree, Robbie, that Le Monde was one of the best papers in the world
    at that time. It was Decornoy who covered Southeast Asia, and Michel
    Tatu wrote brilliantly on the Soviet Union The coverage of the Cultural
    Revolution was superb as well. And there was a great reporter on the
    Middle East.

    Some of what you’re writing in your blog will be dealt with in my new
    novel, “A Woman of Carthage,” which has to do with 1967 and 1968. For
    reference, I need the Guide Bleu for 1966,

  4. Phil Jones permalink
    January 31, 2010 9:00 am

    Hi Robbie, It’s both nice and disturbing to read about those days in Tunis. Nice to remember old friends. Disturbing to realize, as you point out, that nothing – or at least not much – has changed. One thing that particularly bothers me is the destructiveness of the American way of fighting its usally pointless “wars.” From the napalm of Vietnam to the Predator drones of Afghanistan, we seem to be constantly using hammers when it’s entirely likely that we shouldn’t even be using fly swatters. So many people needlessly die in these technocratic killing sprees! So much waste of everything! So much dull-witted, aggressive policy that understands no culture but our own and, in the end, doesn’t help us at all – as Hubert Humphrey eventually learned!


    • January 31, 2010 9:47 am

      Hi Phil,
      Interesting response.
      Just finished one of John Hersey’s books, `The War Lover’. It’s about a co-pilot in an American World War II bomber who over time begins to understand that his job is to kill people from 30,000 ft – people he’s never seen, nor has he seen the damages. His pilot is into the killing – a classic macho jerk-ass – and that is what separates the two of them emotionally, psychologically, whatever.
      The issue – moral issue – all his life Hersey dealt with modern moral issues – is how in modern warfare death is `delivered’ from a distance with the killers removed from seeing the results of their work – the wounded, the death, the guts spilling out – the horror of it all.
      At least in World War II the bombers had to deal with flak, with enemy enemy fighters – ie, were on some level themselves threatened with death and pain
      I remember reading about B-52 air force crews who would wake up on Guam, kiss `the wife’ good bye for the day, drop the kids off at school, climb into their jets for a bombing run over Vietnam 3 hours a way – drop whatever – napalm, phospherous, the older version of `daisy cutters what have you – and then turn their planes around and head back to Guam, pick up the kid from school, and go home to a nice quiet evening watching tv or whatever.
      Even a few of these guys were blown out of the sky.
      Drones of course, take the process one step further to abstraction, with some computer nerd Air Force jerk in Tampa Florida getting messages from satelittes about the position of movement on the ground in Afghanistan or now Yemen, and based upon that, pushing a button that sends a signal to space and then back down to earth for the drone to let loose with a bomb and `neutralize’ yet another wedding party.
      On some level all this suggests a deep fear of war even on the part of the perpetrators and the need to reduce casualty levels to `acceptable’ (which means less than Vietnam) levels. Less soldiers on the ground except for special forces assholes and the growing core of Blackwater-like paid mercenaries…
      From the small size of the anti-war movement, it seems to have `worked’ in the sense that the opposition here in the US of A has been shrunk. Nothing like those Vietnam era demonstrations in size and militancy.

      Cheers – thanks for writing.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: