Frida Knight on Vietnam at the time of the Tet Offensive in 1968 – two years before she returned to Cambridge with her husband

Musician, anti-fascist, communist, and peace campaigner Frida Knight (previously Frida Stewart) had long since settled in Reading where her husband Prof Basil Knight worked at Reading University. She penned this piece in the midst of one of the most violent offensives of the Vietnam War. This from the Reading Evening Post in the British Newspaper Archive. (See here)

I never met Frida – something I regret given that she lived in Cambridge throughout most of my childhood, and perhaps could have been invited to our school to give a talk. One of her last interviews was given to the Cambridge Evening News in 1995 which I’ve transcribed here. A book about her was recently published by Angela Jackson, which includes a lovely piece about Frida campaigning on homelessness in the early 1990s in Cambridge. You can read my review here.

“ANYONE who has had the luck to meet Vietnamese people will agree that they are among the most charming. courteous and gentle on earth people who deserve peace and stability to live their lives their own way and build their society according to the wish of the majority. Instead they have suffered non-stop war for over 20 years, defending their country, as they see it, from foreign invaders supporting puppet governments.

“For all their gentle courtesy they are tough, stubborn and intensely patriotic. It was on a journey to China that I fell in with a group of students from Hanoi. The Trans-Siberian train journey took nine days, and that gave ample opportunity for conversation, even though carried on in pidgin French. [Frida was an almost native speaker of the language – her father, Hugh Fraser Stewart, the Dean of Trinity College Cambridge being a well-known Francophile].

“I noticed them in the corridors of the express. They were different from everyone else, fragile and small compared with the Russians and even the Chinese. They looked wan and rather hungry. But, talking to them. one got the impression of great confidence in Vietnam and its future “once we have won our independence” (no question of being run by Russia or China). The were students, mainly of engineering at Moscow University, and were going home for two months’ holiday. I asked if they didn’t expect to be called up for military service. “Oh no” said one “Of course we have volunteered, but it’s much more important for our country that we should be trained as technicians and scientists, for reconstruction, than as soldiers.”

“To the question had the Russians and Chinese been helping Vietnam, they answered that in spite of “the rift” [between Russia and China at the time – one that a year later would escalate into military conflict] both had stood by them well I said how much I’d like to visit Vietnam and they immediately invited me warmly to their homes! Why not call on the embassy in Peking and ask for a visa, they, suggested. Why not As I would probably be returning to Britain via Canton only two hours by air from Hanoi decided – maybe crazily —to try.

“As soon as we arrived in Peking I wrote to the North Vietnamese ambassador, and a few days later took a taxi to the embassy in the diplomatic quarter of the city. I was courteously received, first by an attendant who spoke nothing but Chinese, then by a French-speaking secretary, who gave me jasmine tea, sitting on a brocade sofa under a benign portrait of Chairman Mao. He told me my written request for a visa was being considered and they were telephoning Hanoi. Would I come back next day? This I did, with reasonably good hope. As I arrived a high official was waiting at the entrance. He took me inside and offered me tea and cigarettes. “We telephoned Hanoi,” he said. “They would gladly receive you, but. . .” My hopes dropped to rock bottom. “Madame.” he went on, “for the moment there can be no visitors. The bombing of the city has been intensified and we don’t want to risk foreign lives”

“I swallowed my regret, and asked him about things In general in his country. He was from South Vietnam. “The must stupid mistake the West makes” he said, “is to think of North and South Vietnam as different countries. We are brothers, longing to be united again.”

I asked what we in England could do to help the Vietnamese people. “What do you need in the way of medical supplies. surgical equipment. drugs?” He answered that they were grateful for all that was being sent to help the wounded and the children, but what they needed more than anything was support for their struggle. “Parlez, madame, parlez” [“Speak, madam, speak!”] Tell everyone the true story of Vietnam.”

“I wish I could repeat the story as he told it to me, with intense feeling in his black. piercing eyes, and convey the Vietnamese conviction that they are fighting against a foreign invader, for the unification of their country. their freedom and independence.

“The trouble is, that the West talks a different language: what the American “hawks” call “aggression.” the North Vietnamese call “a sacred duty to help their brothers;”- what LBJ [Lyndon B Johnson, the President of the United States of America 1963-68] calls “Communist tyranny” they call their right to free elections under the terms of the Geneva Agreement. Although I didn’t get to Hanoi I had had a glimpse into the Vietnamese mind, and in other parts of China I also met and talked to Vietnamese. I promised to pass on their messages, and to work for peace in Vietnam; and since then I have tried to do something, however little.”

Ends/

Around the same time, Frida’s daughter Sofka was living and working in China as a teacher. She was featured in an article in the same newspaper a year earlier.

Above – Sophia Katherine “Sofka” Knight in the Reading Evening post on the Great Wall of China, in the British Newspaper Archive. Her personal papers are held at SOAS in London. She died tragically young in 1982 – she was only in her late 30s.

It’s worth noticing that alongside the piece, the newspaper put a counter-article damning communism.

It’s easy to forget that at the time it was only just over five years after the Cuban Missile Crisis when it seemed that the world was going to be destroyed in a nuclear war. Sensible heads prevailed. But the communist takeover by China in the revolution of 1949 created a fear in Western circles that the rest of South East Asia would fall to communist regimes and fall like dominos. Hence after the French defeat in 1954 in Vietnam (They were the former colonial power who tried to return after the Second World War), and possibly the ongoing insurrection in the re-taken British colony of Malaya throughout the 1950s at a time when both the colonial powers were declining vs the superpowers, may have concentrated military minds in The Pentagon. This was also the time of the Prague Spring of 1968 which had not yet been put down by the Soviet Union. It was also the year of the assassinations of both Martin Luther King and of Robert F Kennedy. The latter, Attorney General under his older brother JFK, appeared in a number of interviews before his untimely death. The interview below is the type we very rarely see in contemporary politics today.

…and below, with then Governor Reagan (later President) being cross-examined by a panel of students from across the world studying in London, representing countries including the USSR, India, Pakistan, Kenya, Greece, Ghana, France, Holland, as well as England and the USA.

Some of the issues raised are still issues today.

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