Personal Responsibility

By Linda Agerbak


It was 1964, during a time of sex, drugs, rock and roll. Also of the Civil Rights movement, the Berkeley Free Speech movement, gays in the Haight-Ashbury district of San Francisco, and the war in Vietnam.


I was marching for the Congress of Racial Equality and registering voters in the ghetto neighborhoods of Oakland. In my spare time I was studying English at UC Berkeley and attending Friends Meeting. One day a college friend commented that what we were doing in Vietnam had similarities to what the Nazis did to the Jews. This flummoxed me. I felt shocked, ignorant and defensive, wanting to justify my country.


After moving to the UK and France, I became used to Europeans criticizing US imperialism, and just said that I wasn’t personally responsible for everything done by my government.


In 1975 our family moved to Singapore. The Vietnamese war had just ended, but by 1977 the Communists were starting to crack down, and boat people began to flee Vietnam. One day I got a phone call from a stranger who said he had worked with Quakers in Paris, and could we now please help him again. This turned out to be Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thich Naht Hanh, who wanted our help to rescue boat people.


On the weekends, some of us began to help Vietnamese refugees living on the Malaysian island of Pulau Tengah. I organized English schools there and got books donated to start a small library. One day, while training refugee teachers on the island, I was suddenly summoned to see the local Malaysian chief of police. I found him accompanied by the prison guards who ran the island. He interrogated me, accused me to being a CIA spy, and barred me from coming back to the island until I had been investigated.


After 6 months, I was cleared and allowed to return, but I had to report to the police chief each week, before boarding the boat. “Why are you doing this?” he asked.

“As an American,” I said, “I feel implicated in what happened to the Vietnamese.”


In the Sixties, when Thich Nhat Hanh visited the US to speak against the war, someone called out, “Why don’t you go back to Vietnam, if you’re so concerned?” The monk had to pause and take several deep breaths to calm himself. He answered quietly, “I’m here because the roots of the war are here.”


After returning to California in 2000, I saw that my Quaker friends were extremely critical of US policy. I finally worked out that I AM personally responsible for everything done by my government, and that I can criticize it while still being a loyal American.