Let me tell you a story about a moment in my life I’m not likely to forget even if, with the passage of years, so much around it has grown fuzzy. It involves a broken-down TV, movies from my childhood, and a war that only seemed to come closer as time passed.
My best guess: it was the summer of 1969. I had dropped out of graduate school where I had been studying to become a China scholar and was then working as a “movement” printer — that is, in a print shop that produced radical literature, strike posters, and other materials for activists. It was, of course, “the Sixties,” though I didn’t know it then. Still, I had somehow been swept into a new world remarkably unrelated to my expected life trajectory — and a large part of the reason for that was the Vietnam War.
Don’t get me wrong. I wasn’t particularly early to protest it. I think I signed my first antiwar petition in 1965 while still in college, but as late as 1968 — people forget the confusion of that era — while I had become firmly antiwar, I still wanted to serve my country abroad. Being a diplomat had been a dream of mine, the kind of citizenly duty I had been taught to admire, and the urge to act in such a fashion, to be of service, was deeply embedded in me. (That I was already doing so in protesting the grim war my government was prosecuting in Southeast Asia didn’t cross my mind.) I actually applied to the State Department, but it turned out to have no dreams of Tom Engelhardt. On the other hand, the U.S. Information Agency, a propaganda outfit, couldn’t have been more interested.
Only one problem: they weren’t about to guarantee that they wouldn’t send a guy who had studied Chinese, knew something of Asia, and could read French to Saigon. However, by the time they had vetted me — it took government-issue months and months to do so — I had grown far angrier about the war, so when they offered me a job, I didn’t think twice about saying no.