In the mid-nineteen sixties, as the American War in Vietnam ground on in all its ugliness, a war correspondent named Martha Gellhorn came to Vietnam. She had been married to famous American author Ernest Hemmingway, and had accompanied him to Spain where they reported on the Spanish Civil War as witnesses to the tragedy of Spain’s democratic government being overcome by a fascist dictator who would rule Spain for many years: Francisco Franco. Franco was aided by Hitler and Mussolini who used Spain as a testing ground for the war machines they would use in World War II.
In Vietnam Gellhorn destained the comfort of U.S. military briefings and wrote about the real war, and in particular the suffering of civilian children. For telling the truth about the war she was kicked out of what the Americans considered South Vietnam – but not before her writings were spread around the world by the Manchester Guardian.
In 1966 a young attorney in New York City working high above the skating rink in Rockefeller Plaza read what Gellhorn had written and was horrified by her vivid description of the real impact of the war. Gellhorn’s images were burned into his mind, and talking about it with another attorney in the firm he learned of a renowned plastic and reconstructive surgeon named Arthur Barsky.
Arthur and his brother Edward, were also veterans of the Spanish Civil War. Concerned about the defeat of democracy by fascist forces, they joined what was called the American Abraham Lincoln Brigade. Arthur and Edward set up a medical unit in the midst of the fighting and bravely served as volunteers treating thousands of soldiers who were wounded fighting a losing battle for democracy. Then, after World War II, Dr. Barsky was the chief surgeon of the Hiroshima Maidens Project, led by American Quakers and an American named Norman Cousins. Barsky operated on young Japanese women who had been horribly disfigured by the atomic bomb.
It happened that Dr. Barsky, now in his 70’s, lived a short distance from where the young lawyer, still in his ’20’s, worked and it was not long before the lawyer went to Dr. Barsky and showed him what Martha Gellhorn wrote. The two of them went to Vietnam where they witnessed the destruction, and were particularly moved by the war’s horrific effect on children. They founded Children’s Medical Relief International and together raised funds to finance and build a hospital whose mission was to bring highly qualified doctors and medical personnel from around the world to teach and treat war-injured children. This included horribly disfigured infants who had been born in areas which mothers said had been “sprayed with the mist” from American airplanes – Agent Orange. Many hundreds of children were treated before the war came to an end.
That the hospital continues today is testimony not to its founders, but to the many people who have worked so hard to save the hospital at the end of the war and continue its high standards turning it into the modern world-class institution it is today. In particular, thanks is owed to chief nurse, Lien Huong, who spent her entire professional career at the hospital, and, for his work as a social worker during the war, Le Nuoi, who rescued injured children and brought them to the hospital. Also, one should not fail to mention Rowen Story, who, because of his interest in the history of the hospital is the reason we are all here today. But a final thanks goes to Martha Gellhorn, the brave reporter who revealed to the world the children’s suffering as a result of an evil and unnecessary war.
- U.S. Treasury “Frequently Asked Questions” update published June 4th, 2019
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- Bob Kerrey and the ‘American Tragedy’ of Vietnam
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