Douglas Hostetter

Douglas Hostetter

Douglas Hostetter was born in 1944 in Harrisonburg, Virginia, as one of America’s great conflicts came to an end. Nearly two decades later, as the Cold War led the U.S. to engage in the Vietnam War, Hostetter felt an obligation to serve. Having been shaped by the nonviolent values of his Harrisonburg Mennonite community and his alma mater, Eastern Mennonite University, Hostetter became a conscientious objector. Rather than support the perpetual war machine, Hostetter chose another path and performed his alternative service under the Mennonite Central Committee, forging personal relationships and utilizing the power of education. With his Mennonite faith guiding his actions, he worked as an English teacher for Vietnamese children across Vietnam. After returning home, he advocated for his philosophy of nonviolence and peacebuilding through education. Mr. Hostetter currently serves as the United Nations representative for the Mennonite Central Committee, continuing to spread the ideals that shaped his experience in Vietnam.

Douglas Hostetter interview by Brianna Broderick, Alexi Kaur Sandhu, George Schouten,Benjamin Wynter. July 19, 2017, The Vietnam War Oral History Project, New- York Historical Society, New York, New York

Douglas Hostetter briefly describes the history of the Mennonite Christians in their objection to war. He continues to elaborate on a Vietnamese proverb that calls for compassion and not revenge on an enemy.

Doug Hostetter:  I come from a long line of Mennonites, for the last 500 years, none of my direct ancestors have participated in a war, because we have always felt like our love for our fellow human beings transcends the requirement of a government that you serve in the military.  So, for many years, Mennonites would be imprisoned or sometimes killed because they refused to fight for any government.  In this country, starting with World War II, the government finally, after many years of trying to draft Mennonites and Quakers finally gave up and said, “Well, all right, we will allow them to do alternative service,” which is — you do two years of [civilian] service.  If the military service is two years, then you have to do two years of alternative service.  I remember that when I was doing it, it had to be at least 50 miles away from your home and it had to be for a non-government organization like a hospital or a school, or the forest service or a medical research center.  Something for the benefit of humanity.  So, you could choose to do anything.  I decided that for my alternative service, I would do it with the Mennonites in Vietnam, in the middle of the war zone, in the middle of a war.  But instead of coming as a soldier and bringing guns and bombs, I would go trying to help the people.

The Vietnamese are an amazing civilization.  They have a saying, and I don’t know the exact wording on this, but it’s when you have defeated your enemy, build a golden bridge to help him to retreat.  It’s the exact opposite of what Americans usually try to do.  We try to surround the enemy and destroy them.  Vietnamese are a small people, a small civilization between the huge Indian civilization, which goes back thousands of years, and the Chinese civilization, which goes back thousands of years.  And yet, they have maintained their independence from both of those huge empires because they realized, after you defeat your enemy, you don’t humiliate them.  You build a golden bridge to help them to return.

During this portion of Mr. Hostetter’s oral history, he goes into depth about his living arrangements in Vietnam and how his pacifist values allowed him to live unarmed among locals.

So, when I first went there, I stayed in the USAID compound and it was really uncomfortable. At night, in the evening, at sundown, no Americans were allowed to leave the compound.  So, you couldn’t go and get “vịt lộn,” your duck eggs, in the evening.  You couldn’t chat with people in the evenings.  You had to be inside the military compound.  And no Vietnamese, except for prostitutes, were allowed in the AID compound after dark.  Even the Vietnamese guards who guarded during the day were replaced by American guards at night. I stayed there for a few days when I first came, and I went back and told MCC, “I can’t live in the USAID compound.  It’s surrounded by barbed wires and landmines and big walls and machine gun posts.  And you can’t have relations with the people.”  So, I then rented a little bungalow in town, across from the high school where I was teaching English.  When we rented this bungalow, the woman who rented it to us said, “Look, we’ve got a little four foot wall around this house.” And she said, “If you get some rolls of concertina barbed wire and put it on top and get yourself a .50 caliber machine gun for the front yard, then when the NLF come in, you will be able to hold them off until the Marines can come down and rescue you.”  And she said, “And we don’t really have a gate in this wall yet, but if you get a good, strong steel gate with your barbed wire and your .50 caliber, you’ll be all right until the Marines can get there.  You’ll only probably have to hold them off for 20 minutes, half hour, and the Marines will come and get you.”  I said, “No, Ba An, that’s not how we’re going to live.”  We never put a gate in our four-foot wall.  We never put any barbed wire.  We never had any machine guns.  We had a little, small sign outside that said “Tổ Chức Xã Hội Tin Lành” and that was Vietnamese for “Vietnam Christian Service,” and it had a Christian cross, but it also had a peace dove on it so that they understood that we were Christians but we were there for peace and we were there for relief and development.  So, that little sign was all that protected me when I was there.  And because I had no protection, they did not feel threatened by me. They always attacked the military compounds, they always left my house alone.

Mr. Hostetter describes his initial introduction to the Vietnamese language and culture. Additionally, he goes into depth about the problems he faced when attempting to explain his Mennonite faith to the Vietnamese people in ways that didn’t involve conversion and subsequently the solution he developed.

Doug Hostetter:  We had two months of language training in Saigon when we first came.  There was also an orientation to the language and the culture and the people.   After two months of language training, I was sent to Tam Kỳ.   By the time I got to Tam Kỳ, I learned just a little bit of Vietnamese I spent three years in Tam Kỳ, and I came back totally fluent in Vietnamese.  The difference is there were only two Vietnamese who spoke English.  So, I was forced to learn the language from living in the culture and working in it.  And by the time I left, actually, I was quite fluent in Vietnamese, to my surprise. You find that if you are immersed in a culture and it’s the only way to communicate, you will learn the language, and communication was really, really important for me.  I wanted them to understand who I was, why I was there, how I was different from American soldiers who were bombing in the countryside around them.  I wanted them to know that I was not their enemy I was there as a friend.  So, it was really important for me to learn the language.

The organization I worked for, the Mennonite Central Committee, is a relief, development, and peace organization.  It is not a missionary organization.  There were separate Mennonite missionaries that worked in another part of the country that actually did come to do missionary work and start Mennonite churches in Vietnam. But my job there, doing alternative service, was to help the people.  It was relief, development kind of work. I knew that I was there to do relief and development and service, not to evangelize.  But as a good Mennonite, you know, you also wanted to help them to understand what it was like to be a Mennonite Christian.  And I remember thinking, well, how am I going to do this with the Vietnamese?  And I thought for a while and I said, well, think maybe I’ll start with the Old Testament. So I remember preparing, and I studied a little bit and looked up in my dictionary the Vietnamese word for Jew, because, you know, the Jewish people were God’s Chosen People.    So, I had a group of high school students in my room and I started talking about the Jews.  Everybody looked confused.  “What are you talking about?”  And I said, “The Jews.”  They didn’t know who the Jews were.  And this is in a little village, in Tam Kỳ, in central Vietnam in the middle of a war.  .  So, I realized you had a real dilemma.  These people never even heard of the Jews.  How was I going to explain to them who the Mennonites are?  Some of the missionaries had a solution for that, you know?  You just teach them a few Bible verses here and there, you know, John 3:16 and a few others and get them to repeat a few Bible verses and say that they give their heart to Jesus, and then they can Baptize them.  They’re Christian?  But I realized there was something really phony about that, because they didn’t really understand Christianity. And actually, many of the Vietnamese who became Christians did so because there were certain advantages to being Christians.  Actually, there’s a Vietnamese proverb that goes “Hết gạo, lấy đạo nuôi con,” “When your rice bag is empty, adapt your religion to feed your children.” But I realized that that creates what they call in Asia “rice Christians”: people who became Christians for economic advantages.  And many of them, when you got to know them, you realized they were opportunists. And that was not what I understood Christianity to be.

So, the only other solution that I came up with is that I had to live my faith, my understanding of God, as authentically as I could in that situation.  And they would understand that, in their own culture, in their own language.  And that’s what I did. And it was interesting, when I left Vietnam, one of my friends wrote an epic poem.  Vietnamese write lots of poems, and so he wrote an epic poem about me coming to Tam Kỳ and how much they appreciated that work and he ended the poem by saying, “Your work and your life has been like a tear in the eye of Buddha, crying for the people of Vietnam.”  And I thought, yes, they understood as my Christian witness.  I realized that my Mennonite congregation in Harrisonburg, Virginia, probably wouldn’t appreciate that the Vietnamese understood my work as a tear in the eye of Buddha.  But I understood what they were saying is, “We experience compassion from you.  We experience love from you.”  And that’s what I understood my Christian faith to be.

In this clip, Mr. Hostetter explains one of the greatest threats he experienced while in Vietnam. A threat not from environmental disasters, rampant diseases, or even North Vietnamese Army, but rather from his own government.

Doug Hostetter:  I had this incredible experience when I was in Tam Kỳ.  I started this literacy program, I was helping kids to learn and read and write their own [language], and the CIA wanted me to meet with them and tell them what I was learning from all these people.  And I said, “No, we’re Mennonites.  We don’t cooperate with intelligence agencies.  We’ll tell the U.S. government where we have schools so there isn’t duplication, but we won’t go to joint meetings and share information,” because I didn’t want to be seen in meetings with CIA, because I learned that there were people sympathetic on the other side, and so I tried to keep my distance from soldiers and CIA agents and just did my work.  It turns out that this was difficult for American soldiers.  I would occasionally talk to soldiers when they would come through, and they were blown away.  I had no side arms.  I had no weapons.  And I was living in Tam Kỳ in a house without any protection.  And when we started opening schools outside of Tam Kỳ, it turns out that I could go on a bicycle in places where they couldn’t go in a tank, because I had schools in those areas and I was welcomed.  The first time that I met some of these soldiers they said, “No, you can’t go there.  That’s really dangerous, you know.  Just a few weeks ago, one of our armored personnel carriers hit a landmine or people were taking potshots at us out in that area.” I would say, “This kid who is behind me on the bicycle, he’s one of my teachers.  We have a school out there and we’ve never had any trouble.”  So, it turns out this is really hard on the morale of American soldiers, to realize that if they were coming with schoolbooks and education instead of with guns, they might be treated differently.

Several months later, one of the high school students who worked for me came to me, and she said, “Would you come and meet with my father this weekend?” I said, “Sure, I’d be glad to.”  She said, “Don’t come to my house.  I want you to go to my aunt’s house.”  I said, “Sure.”  So, instead of going to her house, I went to her aunt’s house, clear at the edge of the village.  I went in and there was this Vietnamese man, who said, “I work for the American CIA.” A lot of Vietnamese bullshit, they try to tell you how great they are and all that. I thought he was bullshitting me so I said, “Really, do the CIA have a file on me?”  He said, “Of course.”  I said, “Well, have you ever looked at my file?”  And he said, “Of course.”  I asked, “What’s in my file?”  This is in a little house at the edge of Tam Kỳ in 1967.  He says, “Well, you’re pacifist.  You’re a Mennonite.  You’re not really a communist, but you’re making friends with people who are communists and you’re bad for the morale of American soldiers.  You went to college at Eastern Mennonite College, and you majored in sociology.”  Here’s a Vietnamese person in Tam Kỳ telling me what was in my CIA file.  I said, “Do they have pictures of me?”  And he said, “Yes, of course they have pictures.”  I said, “Well, where were the pictures taken?”  He had no idea where they were taken.  So, I don’t know where they got the pictures, but they had pictures of me.  He said, “They are starting a disinformation program to try to get you killed.”  I said, “Oh?” He said, “We have agents that come in from the communist areas, the rural areas near Tam Kỳ each month, and they bring information to us on who are the officials in the National Liberation Front areas, the areas that the Americans don’t control, and then we try to kill them” — it was called the Phoenix Program.  If you want to learn about a really nasty program, it tried to kill elected officials who were on the other side, the National Liberation Front.  These are locally elected officials, but we killed lots of them.  So, the agents come in and tell us who are the local officials and the U.S. would try to kill them in various kinds of ways.  He said, “The strategy is that we will tell our agents, who are coming in to give us information, that you are a deep cover CIA agent.  Deep cover means that you look like you’re working for the Mennonites but you are actually working for the CIA.  And because they believe that you are a deep cover CIA agent, once the rumor gets around, next time the NLF comes in and takes over Tam Kỳ, they will solve Colonel Briarton’s problem.”  I asked, “Do you have any advice for me?”  He said, “No, my daughter is very fond of you and thinks highly of the work that you’re doing, but I have no advice for you.”  So, I left and went back and talked to my Vietnamese friends and one of the local pastors, who said, “Well, you can’t leave Tam Kỳ now, because if you left Tam Kỳ now, just when the rumor is going out that you’re deep cover CIA agent, that will prove to everybody that you actually were a deep cover CIA agent. When the word started to spread, you left and the Mennonites could never send anybody back to Tam Kỳ, because everybody would know that the Mennonite Central Committee is being used as a cover for the CIA.” I asked, “What can I do?” He said, “Pray.”  He said, “We will all pray with you.”  Then, I went to my artist friend and I said, “Lê Đình Sung, what should I do?”  I didn’t understand his advice until 50 years later, but he said, “Trust your friends.  Trust that your friends really know who you are.”  A few months later, the student came to me and said, “My father wants to meet with you again.  Would you come to my aunt’s house again?”  So, I went to her aunt’s house again and her father said, “Yes, I was in charge of this program and we sent out this rumor that you were a deep cover CIA agent.  But the rumor never took.  The people never believed it.”

In this clip, Mr. Hostetter explains an extremely controversial and deadly tool of War, Agent Orange. On top of his personal experiences with the weapon, he elaborates on its far reaching impact on Vietnam and long term consequences.

Doug Hostetter:  I could sit on my front porch and watch American Phantom jets bombing villages that were five kilometers away.  The refugees that would come in would tell me about the bombing in the areas where they were and that they would initially bomb the area, and some of the people would come in and some of the people would actually dig tunnels and live underground.  I remember the American soldiers saying they couldn’t understand, they cleared everybody out of a valley up in the foothills of the Annamite Mountains there, a year and a half, two years ago, and the rice keeps coming up.  What they didn’t know and I knew from talking to refugees is some of the people decided to stay, and they would live underground.  They would dig burrows and underground bunkers and live underground and then, they would come up and they would plant the rice fields.  They actually learned what kind of plants grow best in what kind of bomb craters.  When you have a bomb crater, some of them have phosphorous, some of them have nitrogen, depending on what explosive they use.  So, certain craters are really good for growing certain kind of crops, and other craters are very good for growing other crops.  But you have to live underground, because it’s a free fire zone.  They supposedly have moved all of the civilians out.  So, if the Americans see a person, anything moving in a free fire zone, they will shoot it immediately, because supposedly the civilians have all been moved out.  But actually, many of the civilians are living underground and then coming up and farming at night.  So, when the Americans finally figured out what was going on, then they came in and they defoliated the rice.  Defoliation is a chemical herbicide called Agent Orange.  They would spray it on jungles to make the leaves all drop off the trees so that they can see the guerillas there.  Or you spray it on rice fields and it will destroy the rice.  So, the farmers would tell me after they came through and sprayed Agent Orange, the rice was completely gone.  Anything that was above ground was killed.  If you had sweet potatoes or peanuts that were fully formed, you could dig them up.  They were still good underground, and as long as you could live on them, you could survive.  When they were gone, you had to come in as a refugee.  We have used hundreds of millions of gallons of chemical herbicides to destroy vast swathes of Vietnam.  One of the tragedies of Vietnam — and actually, for many of the American soldiers who were involved in that program — is what Americans probably didn’t know when they were using it, is that these herbicides have one of the most toxic chemicals ever known to man.  It’s called dioxin, and it’s not an intentional part of the herbicide.  It’s not something they put in specifically, but it happens through the process, and it causes all kinds of cancers and actual deformity of children.  It probably also affects the chromosomes of people who have been exposed to it.  It took a long time, but American soldiers have joined together and filed suit against the U.S. Military.  Finally won a suit that — I think there are 14 different maladies — that if you worked with Agent Orange or you were in an area that was sprayed Agent Orange as a soldier and have any of these 14 different cancers or skin conditions, you can now get reimbursed from the U.S. government for this.  We have never reimbursed any of the Vietnamese for this.  One of the projects that the Mennonite Central Committee is doing in Vietnam now is we are working with the children, grandchildren, and great grandchildren of people who were sprayed by Agent Orange.  These children are horribly deformed, some of them without hands, some of them without legs, some of them with serious mental disabilities.  But in working with rehabilitation with anybody who is disabled, you can help them to develop a higher level of what they can do for themselves, so they can get along.  That is one of the things that we are doing in Vietnam.  If you go to the Mennonite Central Committee website,, and search Agent Orange, you’ll get articles and pictures of the work that we’re doing in Agent Orange with the victims today. Actually about 50 kilometers south of the village where I worked is the clinic that is working with people who are affected by Agent Orange.

In this clip, Douglas Hostetter reviews the history of Vietnam as an ethnic group, fighting with the Chinese for thousands of years for its independence. He also mentions how the stereotype of what a communist leader was, led the United States to take action the northern half of the nation.

One of the things that I learned when I was learning Vietnamese they were really careful to point out, there are some Chinese words within the Vietnamese language, and occasional French words within the Vietnamese language.  And my tutor, this artist who would often work with me, he would explain to me, he said, “There were 100 different tribes of people south of the Yangtze River in China 1,000 years ago.  In the last 1,000 years, all of those tribes of people have been incorporated into China, with the exception of one.  And that was the Vietnamese.”  He said, “We fought the Chinese for 1,000 years to maintain our independence.  And after we fought the Chinese, then the French came in and tried to colonize us.  And so, we fought the French for 100 years and finally defeated the French.”  The French were defeated in 1954 and there was a treaty that ended the French war, the French were supposed to withdraw their troops through the South.  The Việt Minh, which were the precursor to the National Liberation Front, the Vietnamese who were fighting against the French, were to withdraw through the North.  Within two years, they were supposed to all withdraw, and the French leave, and in two years, there were supposed to be elections to have a unified Vietnam of all the Vietnamese people.  This is back during the Eisenhower administration.  And Eisenhower, in his memoirs, wrote, “We realized that if we allowed the elections to take place in 1956, when they were supposed to, [80][1] percent of the Vietnamese people would have voted for Hồ Chí Minh,” Hồ Chí Minh was the leader of the Việt Minh that was fighting the French. Hồ Chí Minh had been a member of the French communist party when he was in France.  He wanted to be friends with the United States, and actually drew from the American Declaration of Independence, put in some of their own founding documents, and tried to get recognition from the United States.  But we decided, because he was a communist as well as a nationalist that we couldn’t trust him and that communists were all alike, the Vietnamese and the Chinese and the Russians, and so, we actually not only did we not allow the elections, but then we started a separate government in the South.

[1] During the interview, Mr. Hostetter had said 90% but corrected it to Eisenhower’s estimation of 80%