SAN FRANCISCO – Joan Baez has a tape recording that she made while she was in Hanoi as a guest of the Committee for Solidarity with the American People. Other voices on the tape, recorded in the lobby of the Hoa Binh (Peace) Hotel, include the three other members of her party: the Reverend Michael Allen, anti-war vet Barry Romo, and Columbia law professor Telford Taylor, an ex-brigadier general and American prosecutor at the Nuremburg war crimes tribunal.
It was recorded at 7:30 on a cloudless Christmas eve. Reverend Allen begins the American’s personal Christmas services with an invocation. Joan Baez starts to sing the Lord’s Prayer in her familiar, soaring voice. Suddenly there is an immense concussion, the unmistakable sound of a bomb. The guitar falters, then Joan’s voice comes back strong and brave.
“Quiet,” someone shouts.
Another, louder voice yells, “No, sing on.” An air-raid siren screams nearby, cutting directly into the verse about for-giving trespasses.
(“They were Phantom Jets,” Joan said later in a San Francisco coffee shop. They had swept out of the cloudless skies just under radar range and dropped tons of Christmas surprises on the people of Hanoi.)
“Get your helmets,” a Vietnamese calls in English. The tape ends with the sounds of confusion: running, scuffling feet and the howl of the air-raid siren.
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Forty-eight hours after the United States broke off the Paris peace talks, American warplanes – Phantom Jets and giant B-52 strategic bombers – carried out 12 days of bombing raids against Hanoi and the port city of Haiphong. This marked the first time in the history of the war that B-52s have been used against North Vietnam’s two major cities. While the Phantoms are designed to hit a specific target and carry only a few tons of bombs, the huge B-52s carry up to 30 tons of bombs and devastate whole square miles of territory. In the 12 days between December 18th and December 30th, the North Vietnamese News Agency estimates, some 100,000 tons of bombs were dropped on the two cities and nearby populated areas. No figures were available from American military spokesmen though The New York Times quoted a military officer at Guam, where the B-52s are stationed, as saying that the Christmas raids were “the biggest aerial operation in the history of warfare.”
One hundred thousand tons of bombs is more than the total tonnage dropped on England during the six years of World War II. It is the equivalent of six Hiroshima-sized atomic bombs. As a guest of the North Vietnamese, Joan Baez spent 12 days under the bombs, and saw first-hand the devastation they caused.
“It was interesting how they eased us into it. The first place we saw was across the river and we didn’t see bodies as we did later. We could see the ruins and the Red Cross workers. We saw the people with white mourning bands around their heads, which means that they lost a loved one. We saw the devastation. But it wasn’t so terrible. A girl came by on a bicycle and said something in Vietnamese. I asked the interpreter what it was she said and he told me that she said, ‘Did the Americans come by to look at Nixon’s peace?’ I said, ‘Tell her yes.’
“The second thing we saw was the roughest for us all. That was the day Michael Allen stopped eating. We were about to have breakfast and they rushed in and told us it was time to go see a bomb site. We went with the press in a caravan of cars to Kham Tiem Street. It’s a district in downtown Hanoi where the houses are very small – mud and brick, jammed close together. As we toured the district, a North Vietnamese war crimes commissioner stands behind you and tells all the figures: the dead, the wounded, the number of raids.
“The first thing I saw there was everyone carrying their bicycles, because there was no way to walk through the rubble. There was an old man who was trying to walk through the mud and brick, but he was hobbling and having a great deal of trouble moving through the wreckage. I reached over and took his hand. He looked up at me with his exquisite old man’s face, those lines, the little white wispy chin beard, and I could feel he was trembling. We held on to each other for some seconds, and both our eyes filled with tears. He mumbled some things in Vietnamese that I couldn’t understand then he looked up at me and said, ‘Danke schoen.’
“The next thing that made a deep impression on me was a woman sitting on the rubble and sobbing hysterically. They don’t cry very much, Vietnamese women. They cover their faces with their hands or a veil if they do; but this woman was to the point where she would stand and clench and unclench her fists for several minutes, then sit on the rubble and just wail. Her face was bloated from crying and her husband was trying to get her to calm down and stop weeping. I sat next to her and she took my hand. There was a girl sitting next to her holding her other hand and she was crying too, only she wasn’t making any sound. The woman squeezed my hand. Behind us the war crimes commissioner was just droning on and on: ‘215 killed, 257 wounded . . .’
“Nearby there was a bomb shelter that had taken a direct hit. Everyone was dead.