It is long past time that the US treated Cuba like the sovereign nation it is.
By William M. LeoGrande, Professor, American University, Washington, DC
FEBRUARY 13, 2023
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.
Features Columnist San Francisco Chronicle
In 1967, while the war in Vietnam was raging, Tom Miller, who was practicing law in New York, read a report by MarthaGellhorn about the effects of napalm on the Vietnamese, especially children. He left his New York law practice to become a founder of Children’s Medical Relief International, a nonprofit with the aim of establishing a hospital in Vietnam.
By 1969, after two years of operation in temporary headquarters, Miller and physician and Abraham Lincoln Brigade veteran Arthur Barsky had overseen the construction of the Center for Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery, a modern medical facility that treated victims of bombing and napalm, as well as children born with birth defects as a result of the use of Agent Orange. It was that center that treated Kim Phuc, the girl pictured running from her burning village during the war.
In 1973, Miller was working with victims in Vietnam when he met Tran Tuong Nhu. They were married that year. (And she later became press secretary to Oakland Mayor Jerry Brown.) They’re planning to travel to Vietnam next spring to mark the 50th anniversary of the center, and are raising money through Green Cities Fund (greencitiesfund.org) to buy equipment and support for what’s become a national teaching hospital.
The facility recently expanded from two floors to 11, one of which will be dedicated in honor of Miller and Dr. Barsky.
Sandra was a wonderful guide for the four of us Americans, because she is a happy, cheerful, honest, person who know Havana like the back of her hand. The four of us who hired her wanted to take her home with us. She’s just lovable.
She really knows good restaurants and good food in Havana, which took us by surprise, and she arranged for an amazing tour (by a curator) to the Art Museum. She was also willing to make arrangements on the go, which was very important as our group didn’t want to be locked into a plan. We recommend her highly.
We had an amazing trip under the aegis of Green Cities. Cuba is wondrous, but especially so due to the fantastic organizing by Sandra Vazquez and her wonderful family and team on the ground in Havana. Sandra knows everyone and can arrange anything. We are by nature stubbornly independent travelers, but putting ourselves fully in Sandra’s hands gave us keen insight into Havana’s history, architecture, art, music, food and more. Perhaps most important, she and her team are fun, engaging and smart. We cannot recommend Sandra and the Green Cities cultural-exchange organization highly enough, and are plotting a return to Cuba in the future.