Prof. Tran Van Dinh (1923-2011) a native of Vietnam, served in the Vietnamese diplomatic corps in Thailand, Burma and Washington D.C. A professor of international politics and communications, he taught at Temple University, where he chaired the Department of Pan-African Studies for several years. Prof. Van Dinh published two novels and several books on Vietnamese history, international Buddhism, communications and Third World independence movements. He contributed hundreds of articles to professional publications as well as to The New York Times, The Nation, The Christian Science Monitor and other journals. As a scholar he was especially concerned about building human community through a visionary educational process.
The Lotus flower has long held a prominent place in Buddhist thought for its symbolic power—a pure and delicate blossom arising from swampy roots. The metaphor of beauty arising from the mud of human turmoil is an apt one for Tran Van Dinh and Nuong Van Dinh Tran, not only for its obvious parallels to their heroic work for justice and peace amidst the violence of their native Vietnam, but also for the creativity they bring to both politics and art.
After serving for 10 years in the Vietnamese diplomatic service in Southeast Asia, Tran Van Dinh joined the Embassy of Vietnam in Washington DC in 1961. From their post in Washington, the Van Dinhs took in the events of the growing Civil Rights Movement, in particular the 300,000 person March on Washington led by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. These events would have a profound impact on their relationship with the United States, and would foreshadow their own immersion into the ongoing struggle for liberation around the globe.
In 1963, Tran was in charge of the Vietnamese Embassy in Washington DC as well as non-resident Ambassador to Argentina. He resigned at the end of 1963 to pursue full time his passion for peace and social justice work. This included teaching courses in Asian Humanism at the State University of New York/Old Westbury and the DagHammarskjold College at Columbia, MD. From 1971 to 1985, he taught International Politics and Communications and chaired the Department of Pan-African Studies at Temple University. Throughout his tenure, he wrote numerous books and contributed hundreds of articles to scholarly and popular publications alike.
While Tran was pursuing his work in the political and academic arenas, Nuong was exploring her many interests in the world of visual art. Trained as a painter and printmaker at the Corcoran School of Art and George Washington University, her talents in a variety of printmaking media and her love of international travel combined to make her work renowned around the world where it is displayed in public and private collections from Moscow’s Pushkin Museum to Library of Congress’ Fine Arts Collection.
In 1988-89, while the Berlin Wall was being torn down half a world away, the Van Dinhs returned to VietNam to break down the barrier that had separated them from their homeland since the war ended. Documenting their trip in an issue of National Geographic, the Van Dinhs were moved as much by the devastation as by the spirit of strength and resistance in the country. They saw the striking contrasts of American soldiers returning to VietNam to disarm mines left in aftermath of the war, and the Vietnamese people welcoming them back as if they were long lost friends.
Through their many decades of work in the cause of international peace and reconciliation, Tran and Nuong Van Dinh have truly become citizens of the world. Their allegiance to the common struggle for justice in the world makes them an ally of all nations. They are examples of what is possible when the creativity and beauty of the human spirit is able to rise in the midst of conflict and be celebrated in all its diverse forms.
Staff Writer, The Veterans of Hope Project
Short of a good argument
Tran Van Dinh: You see, nonviolence is a very important factor in all countries and civilizations. Why is that? Why are people violent? Just take a very simple example between two persons. Most of the time you are violent because you are short of a good argument. Yes.
That is why I have learned, you see, that in order to be nonviolent I have to develop into myself a good argument for my activities. When you are very near violence, you have only two choices. Either to be more violent or to reassess yourself. That is a moment of truth. That moment is called the spiritual moment. Every one of us, even in the family, there is a moment when you are so clear and so near to being brutal to someone, but somehow you have to find the spiritual… and, in other words, spirituality is a bank account. You have to pile up every day so that when the moment you use it, you have it.
Crime Behind a Wall
Tran Van Dinh: You can be non-violent for example. I will give you an example during one time when I was in Hue, in my home town. At that time, you see, we are around the city but inside there is a French Occupation Force and the directive from my superior, is that we should try to poison everyone who attends the birthday of the daughter of that French commander in that address and that address. He said, “Prepare one person to do that, you are the local area commander. You must give the permission.”
So I go with a lamp. I saw a big building. I saw a lamp and all this. I asked the young officer. I said, ”Do you want to do it?” He said, “If you order.” I said, “Suppose I do not order? What will you do?” So he said, “Well, it’s up to you.” So I said, “Why don’t we go together and find out.” So I was in the kitchen and I saw a very young girl, actually it’s her birthday, very well dressed. The cook is a Vietnamese who is a part of the underground. They saw us and the girl asked in French, the cook, “Who are these people?” The cook said, “Oh, they are my brothers. They come.” At that moment I told my deputy commander, “No, we cannot do it.”
What does it mean to see the image of a young innocent person in front of you on their birthday? Unless you are a criminal, or you are insane, you have be moved. In other words, what I feel about the question of violence is — always personalize the situation, never depersonalize or demonize the situation. When you abstract anything you become very violent. In our life we always have to look at all persons as that he or she is a human being. We may disagree. We might not like and all that, but when you abstract, “Oh she’s Black. She’s White. She’s Irish. She’s Vietnamese.” We create a wall and behind it we commit a crime.
Supposedly Our Enemies
Tran Van Dinh: I have a great deal of affection for the American soldiers fighting in Vietnam, not because of my nonviolent position. In 1998, when I went back to Vietnam for the National Geographic magazine, one morning I just sat in the lobby and I saw three White Americans and two Black. I said what are you doing here? They said we came here to take out the mines for you. I said, what?
Vincent Harding: Oh, taking out the mines.
Van Dinh: Yes, and the story is very beautiful. He said “We were throwing a party and we looked at the TV and they described why some mines blow up and kill peasants.” They said that is the mines placed by us. And here is the beauty of America — he called the Pentagon. He asked for the maps and he collected some money from neighbors and he came. It’s an incredible story. These are the people who are supposedly our enemies.
Vietnamese Are Peaceful People
Nuong Van Dinh Tran: The Vietnam veterans when they went back to Vietnam, what they expected was hatred by the Vietnamese for what the bombing did to that country. But on the contrary, not like what they were thinking, the Vietnamese completely welcomed them with whole heart and just like long-time friends. They could not, I mean the American veterans, could not explain to themselves, why the Vietnamese had such kind of attitude. I will tell you why and you will understand why.
Actually the Vietnamese basically are a peaceful people. The whole people is very peaceful. What they want is just to be left alone to work in their rice fields, to have enough to eat, to raise their children, to have a comfortable life. According to the history, the Vietnamese history, fighting against invaders, they only fight when they have no other way to keep their land independent. That’s the last thing they have to resort to, violence against the invaders to push them out of the country.
Slavery is Outside Intervention
Tran Van Dinh: In 1978 when I was at Temple (University), one day a professor of Korean descent came to see me and said that he was having some problem with what he called the Black community there. They wanted to destroy his business or something like that.
I said, “What is the reason?” He said that most of the Blacks say that we come here, we do business in the community, we go back to Bryn Mawr and we never do anything about the community. So I said jokingly to him, I said “I hope I can join those people and do something against you.” So I told him why that was important. Because Black people want people to commit to the community where they live and work and suffer. They do not want somebody from outside. And I told him, and he really was very shocked. I said “Slavery is always an outside intervention.”
Music of Our Ancestors
Vincent Harding: We came out of a movement where people took the songs from the churches, which was in a sense, their ancestral songs and transformed them into songs of struggle. So it’s really very much the same kind of process — taking that which the ancestors have given to us and re-using it now in a new level of struggle for change.
Nuong Van Dinh Tran: Yes, exactly.
Tran Van Dinh: Yes, but that leaves a very important clue. How come Black songs became international, when the Communist “Internationale” is never heard? Everywhere in the world where people object to something very clearly they say, “We Shall Overcome.” So you see we have neglected a lot about how we discuss this song and all this but it’s extremely important. I was amazed in every situation in the world when the people are in trouble at the root cause, of course, they say, “We Shall Overcome.” So I must say that the contribution of that song is enormous. You can find in Tianenmen Square, in the small places and everywhere, “We Shall Overcome.”
That is why I feel that we now have a question of how the current mass media tries to distort and all this trash like the rap which I feel is very important. Because why? Because the subject matter is no longer ancestors, nothing at all, but the satisfaction of human desire. Which is totally unacceptable because people are not born for just the fulfillment of human desire but human nobility as well. But entertainment and communication without history and hope become very self destructive, you see. So if you can combine, you see, the history of the movement, the history of the music into the new dimension of entertainment and communication in this country we may create a very different situation in this country.
Singing Sustains Resistance
Nuong Van Dinh Tran: Of course, it’s very depressing. After a bombing nothing is left. Everything was rendered in powder, in dust. There was nothing left. But, they had to keep the spirit and I must say that they really have a very, very strong spirit.
Also, I must say that what sustained them, what supported them really during all of that very unhappiness, is they have a very long history of resisting, resisting against invasion. When the Vietnamese first success against the French to regain some part of the land’s independence. Just only one part in the north. Then, our main, some of our artists put out a song. You can call it a patriotic song. That song stimulates you, sustains your resistance. Renders you more courageous and more brave to do the thing that maybe without that song you are not able to do it. I think it’s very strong that way.
Books and Articles
Tran Van Dinh. Blue Dragon, White Tiger: A Tet Story. Betram Korn, 1983.
Tran Van Dinh. Communication and Diplomacy in a Changing World. Ablex, 1987.
Tran Van Dinh. Independence, Liberation, Revolution: An Approach to the Understanding of the Third World. Praeger, 1987.
Quan Manh Ha. An Early Voice of the Vietnamese Diaspora in Vietnamese American Literature, in the Southeast Review of Asian Studies, vol. 29 (2007) pp 56 -72 link
Vanderbilt in the 1960s. Clips of Tran Van Dinh’s 1966 lecture at Vanderbilt University. link
Soundcloud. Portland State Library. Tran Van Dinh address to faculty and students, discussing America and Vietnam. May 1, 1968. link