Remarkable Vietnam War letters by John Steinbeck, suggesting inventions to aid the troops—the Nobel Prize winner's creative ideas for magnets, weather balloons, mines, drugs, and more
Unique archive of four handwritten letters by John Steinbeck to foreign correspondent Everett G. Martin, who spent his career reporting from some of the world's most turbulent locales. He was Newsweek's bureau chief in Saigon from 1966 to 1968, when he was expelled from the country for reporting on corruption within the South Vietnamese government. It was Ev Martin's daring reporting and wonderfully descriptive writing that led the writer John Steinbeck to contact him when visiting Vietnam as a correspondent for Newsday magazine. The trip also allowed Steinbeck to visit his son, who was fighting in the war. Ev and Steinbeck became fast friends, and the trip strongly influenced Steinbeck, who was chastised by his liberal friends for his pro-war views when he returned. In these letters, Steinbeck focuses on innovations and inventions that may aid the war effort—chiefly, he desired to drag the Mekong River with large magnets in order to attract any metal explosives that may have been planted there. He also makes suggestions for an improved "Steinbeck Claymore" and some clever tricks using weather balloons and tampered-with mortar rounds. The archive includes:
1. ALS signed "John," two pages, 8 x 12, January 26, 1967, written from the Oriental Hotel in Bangkok. In part: "Bangkok is wonderful and I will love it when I see it. So far I have been holed up writing about what I have left to write of about UN. And there was a lot, too much. I can’t write them all. Saw too much too quick. We’re going to the northeast on next Monday to this part where the VC are trying to get a fast hold. Be there until the following Sat. Feb. 4. Then we don’t know. The guy isn’t back in Cambodia yet so no use to wire him again until he does return. If we get a turn down we’ll hence to Laos and then move down on Malaya and Indonesia. What I want to tell you is that I could not find a magnet in all of Saigon. I told Gen. Westmorland the idea and he was very interested but whether he ever said anything about it, I don’t know. I might even try here but the results are likely to be nil. It’s crazy because there are plenty of them at home. Also had a report on scopolamine from my home office. No soap. Said it would not work. I know it would but am helpless here to give it a try. Such drugs don’t seem to be known here. I think the terror is that we might be charged with using drugs. Like the tear gas mess. Hell they used it on us and there was no outcry. So tell our friends that I have failed them. And I still think both the ideas are good. But I don’t know where to turn next."
2. ALS signed "John," one page, 8 x 12, February 5, 1967, in part: "We got back from the northeast provinces yesterday and found the enclosed letter. I know this company Edmunds and they are good. I am writing them to send the magnets to you at the address you gave me and I am sure they will get them there as soon as they can. Also I asked them for any ideas they might have for other detection equipment. These are very versatile and intelligent people and they might come up with something. I have work to do this week. Probably next we will go to Laos where you can contact me c/o U.S. Embassy Vientiane. They will know where I am. I’d like to go on some of the rice drops." The January 26th and February 5th letters are stapled together, along with both original mailing envelopes (one addressed in Steinbeck's hand), a carbon copy of a letter to Steinbeck regarding 5-lb horseshoe magnets made by the Edmund Scientific Co., and a photocopy of a letter of introduction for Ev and Linda Martin.
3. ALS signed "John," one page, 7.75 x 10, Raffles Hotel Singapore letterhead, March 8, 1967, in part: "Your wire was received and I was glad to get. Jack Stuart has been here and he seconded your opinion that nothing changeful is in the air except pausing on more of the same. I still don’t see how armor can be used in the paddys but maybe they do and I guess where they have been operating there isn’t any mud. I do hope the magnets have arrived by now. There is one thing I neglected to tell you and it is important. When you handle them, take off your wrist watch and put it in your pocket. Pass that word please. They are so powerful that they will magnetize the works and stop the things. Also compasses go nuts in their presence. We move on to Jakarta tonight. Should be interesting. Ol' Burg is fighting for his life and from all I can hear, he has a lot to fight with. You can reach us c/o U.S. Embassy there. I’ll be interested to hear what you have in mind concerning the sweeping. Our boy John is apparently back in Saigon at the 67RT Station. He is supposed to join us either in Hong Kong on the 20 March or later in Japan but we haven’t heard from him. But then we’ve been moving around pretty fast…I haven’t been writing much since Laos. That is really a crazy place. You can’t believe it. I applied for visas to China and North Vietnam there. Not that I expected anything but I had to try. I would be glad to hear anything you have to say in Jakarta. I’m going to ask to see Sukarno but hardly think I’ll make it. But they can’t kill you for trying." Accompanied by the original mailing envelope, addressed in Steinbeck's hand, including his full name, "John Steinbeck," written on the flap.
4. ALS signed "John," six pages, 7 x 8.75, The Mandarin (Hong Kong) letterhead, March 24, 1967, in part: "Yesterday I wrote a cable to you, took it to the desk here to file and found your letter. We hadn’t heard from John for five weeks. He was supposed to meet us here. But word got through from Jack Stuart that he would meet us in Tokyo April. The frustration of mail…! From Laos or to Laos and likewise Indonesia—forget it. People have just stopped using the mails. They don’t work…Those magnets have now been on the way air mail for over 30 days. Being heavy some one probably stole them or lost them. I don’t know how mail is going from here to Saigon. Yours got here in three days. If you should see my knuckle brained son, tell him we expect him in Tokyo at the hotel mentioned on April 3. And if your weapon plan works and he can carry it without being arrested, he can carry it. If the weapon has to be defanged like having the firing complex removed, please save them for a later time. On my hat rack at Sag Harbor I have lots of strange hats…the hard hat I wore at the Mohawk Project, a captain’s kepi, 1st Paris Artillery, the cap with general’s piping, I…wore as a correspondent in N. Africa. If John could bring me a beat up camouflage helmet for the hat rack, I would be glad. I don’t know why I didn’t think of it. Apparently John has been moved back to Saigon to A.7.R.T. then. I’ll write him there but who knows. I am intrigued by your Wilkinson jungle knife. Even inquired whether they had an agency here in Hong Kong but they don’t. Would be fine for trimming the suckers from our oak trees at Sag Harbor…This has been a most interesting tour. And it should be nearly over unless there is a break in Saigon. Jack Stuart asks when I am going back. But in Penang I told him I would go back only if there was a change. The change seems to be increased action. I wish you wouldn’t push your luck. You’ve had just about every limit there is. Don’t push it! I don’t know what to do about the magnets. They will get there for the next war. If they aren’t there when I get home late in April, I’ll put a couple in McNamara’s hands and tell him to send them by courier. Incidentally, I’ll be seeing the President, Rush and McNamara. Any messages.
The truth serum matter I am going to pursue. I have a friend, a Spaniard, Dr. Juan Negrin. (yes, his father was the last premier of Republican Spain). Juan is a neuro-surgeon, a psychiatrist and has dealings with the best biochemists. He is also very bold in experiment. I am going to tell him the problem of do it yourself interrogation and see if he can come up with an idea and put something together. Better, I’ll write him so he can be thinking about it. I’ll bet he can find something or make something. In Bill Egan’s letter…the balloon idea is this—get a weather balloon, inflate it with gas and weight it with buck shot so that it barely clears the ground. Then release it to move on the wind over infested country. The shot should give it an eccentric motion and I don’t think any V.C. could resist shooting at it, and then he could be pinpointed. I have another idea I gave Gertz but I am sure he won’t do any more about it than he would about the dynamite loads. I’ll have to take these things to Washington and there they will really be lost. One of my nastiest is this and you might tell Col. Hyatt about it. At booby trap school I was showed how the VC trim the delay fuse of a grenade so that it blows instantly. Then they use it for a trap. Well we often capture grenades. The cores and the fuses come down separately and are assembled in the area. If any are available, they should be trimmed and left around. Then the thrower would kill himself. The same could be done with mortar rounds. I know they use ours when they get them. Why not doctor them to blow in the tube and let them be captured. Or doctor some of theirs. I have also designed the Steinbeck Claymore. You know the shape—in profile it is ((+ direction of fire. Mine is like this -) (+ The marking should be subtle. It would only blow one way but the V.C. wouldn’t know which way so it would be sufficient to creep up in the night and turn them around. Are you interested in this stuff. The things the Edmunds people are working on at my suggesting include a lightweight but powerful electronic scanner that would indicate metal to be carried on trails to locate booby traps ahead of patrols.
If it is to be done, it would be kind of like radar to pick up grenades, claymores, trip wires etc. It would also be useful for tunnels particularly if they had ammo stores or rifles. Those Edmunds people are very clever. But I’ll keep you informed. I have often felt that the meaningless is most terrifying. So I am designing some distractions. I’ll send them when I can. But some of the stuff could really be used. The cheap little crystal set that can only pick up our stations, costs about 2 dollars. Remember them? They have an ear plug. We could drop a thousand of them for the cost of a bomb. And with the ear plug, people would listen. Remember those red lights (flash light battery) that flash on and off. Trick stuff. One of those on a low flying weather balloons would surely draw fire. I know the army won’t do this stuff, but the guys in the field would. Anyway I’m trying.
Now here is a suggestion I wish you would take to Jerry Gertz or who ever is head of psy war now. We know the incidence of malaria in both VC and NVM troops also of infections particularly stomach infections. I suggest that our…psywar message drops be printed and their envelopes in which there is a small amount of brine or quinine and or antibiotics. One side should have the message, the other the nature and use of the medicine. Tell psywar that I am going to write a piece about this and that it would be better if they put it in the works, because they are going to have to when my readers get on their backs…it is the best counter propaganda.
Ev, I wish I had put the arm on Col. Hyatt for a helmet and flack vest. Tell him if he ever gets the magnets, that’s my price. And give my regards—(it’s more like admiration) to all the guys out there. We go to Hong Kong the 3rd of April. Address me as follows—John Steinbeck, c/o James Wiltshire, U.S. Times Co., 71 Yamasheta-Cho, Naka-Ku, Yokohama."
In overall fine condition. Accompanied by a photocopy of Steinbeck's article 'Waist Deep in Moat With Camera Addict,' published in Newsday on January 24, 1967, documenting his journey through a rice paddy with Ev Martin and the 4th Battalion, 9th Infantry.