In response to:
Life in the New Vietnam from the March 17, 1977 issue
To the Editors:
My own background—academic work in East Asian Studies and a number of years of living and working in Vietnam including the months during and after the change of government in 1975—looks enough like that of Father André Gelinas (NYR, March 17) to suggest we might share a similar outlook on postwar developments in Vietnam. There are, in fact, a few points on which I would have little quarrel with Gelinas, although I find his account so fraught with error and misinterpretation as to cast the validity of his reporting into serious question.
I do agree with Gelinas that the Communist-held elections of April 1976 in Vietnam could best be described as “a general mobilization of people’s minds.” Clearly the revolutionary authorities chose the candidates which would be acceptable and “safe.” The results were cut and dried from the beginning. All the same, it might have been helpful for Gelinas to remind us that this was not the first rigged election in Vietnam. In October 1955 Gelinas’s coreligionist, Ngo Dinh Diem, held a referendum in which he arranged to “win” 98.2 percent of the vote. In the 1971 presidential elections in Saigon people were not even given the privilege the Communists gave of crossing a few names off a ballot of candidates. Then Nguyen Van Thieu arranged to be the only candidate.
I would also share the concern that the bureaucratic apparatus in Vietnam may become so controlling that it will hinder the fulfillment of even its selfdeclared goal of rapid economic recovery and growth.
It is my judgment, however, that Fr. Gelinas allowed himself to be so possessed by negative a priori feelings about the Vietnamese revolutionaries that his ability to report postwar events became seriously impaired. For example, Gelinas asserts that you had to have a sales receipt for your bicycle in Saigon after the change of government or you would be “found in violation of some rule and made to feel guilty of something.” He implies that cadres or soldiers delighted in creating arbitrary harassment for the common person who would ride a bicycle.
My understanding of the situation was somewhat different. Immediately after the takeover in Saigon, with the absence of the old police order, there were numerous thefts of personal property, especially of bicycles which were relatively valuable and easily stolen. In order to protect bicycle owners the new authorities called for bicyclists to carry their receipt papers with them. Very quickly, however, many people raised complaints that they had lost their original sales receipts of their bicycles which, in many cases, were purchased years before. As a result of these complaints the government shortly retracted the first measure and said it was not necessary for bicyclists to possess papers. It may be there were a few people who chose to interpret these measures as did Fr. Gelinas: an opportunity for the authorities to harass the people. It was my evaluation, however, that most folks saw things less conspiratorially, that this was simply an attempt—ineffective, albeit—by the authorities to reduce bicycle thefts and a willingness on the government’s part to shift the policy when the people expressed their strong displeasure.
In discussing the medical situation in postwar Vietnam, Fr. Gelinas asserts without qualification that “doctors have left or been sent away for ‘re-education.”‘ Implication: no doctors available. Well, many doctors did flee Vietnam with the American evacuation and many of the remaining ones were officers in the former Saigon army and for that reason were sent for a period of “re-education.” But many, if not most, of those doctors had already returned to their families and medical services before Fr. Gelinas left Vietnam. One such army doctor who had previously spent some time serving in a Mennonitesponsored clinic in Pleiku had gone through his “re-education” and was back in Saigon by October 1975. He was working in a narcotics rehabilitation center set up by the new regime. His specialty was to use his acupuncture skills to relieve the withdrawal pains of some of the thousands of young drug addicts in Saigon. In addition to these, there was a large number of doctors from the revolutionary zones in the south and from the north who began serving in the city hospitals and clinics immediately after the change of government.
Fr. Gelinas maintains that “we had to burn” a large number of books in their Alexander of Rhodes Educational Center in Saigon. The insinuation is that the new government ordered many books burned. It is true that the new government forbade the sale or circulation of any pornographic materials and literature which was judged overtly anticommunist in content. It is also true that some persons held such terrifying expectations of what the Communists might do that they did burn their personal libraries when the Liberation Army came into the city. But not only did the new government not call for book burning, on May 28, 1975, the Minister of Information and Culture of the Provisional Revolutionary Government (PRG) held a meeting to declare specifically that there should be no burning of any books. One is left wondering if Fr. Gelinas’s library did not fall victim to his own paranoid and exaggerated fears of the new government.
At the war’s end at least one million persons, primarily from the old army and civil service, who had been directly dependent on the steady inflow of American dollars were suddenly jobless. Many more were affected indirectly. Most of these folks were crowded into the cities which had doubled or tripled in size during the war with its “forced urbanization” of many country farmers. After the war it quickly became obvious that the employment and production capability of the cities would not be able to support so many people. If nothing changed, there would be no way to avoid a severe depression and widespread hunger. The only option for this country with relatively little industrial development was to provide livelihood for these people in agriculture. For this reason the new government created the “new economic zones” in the countryside where it would give a tract of land for farming to any city family that would take up residence there. There is no question that conditions in these areas during the first years of building houses and bringing the fallow soil into productivity are extremely arduous. But is Fr. Gelinas really trying to be accurate when the only explanation he offers for this movement to the countryside is that the government is trying to “disperse [the city] populations in order to control them better”?
Gelinas’s most tortured attempts to fit events into his preconceptions come when he tries to persuade us that the Vietnamese revolution was nothing but a domination by the north over the south and that “Northerners…hold all the key posts.” In fact many key leaders not only in Ho Chi Minh City but in Hanoi as well, such as Premier Phan Van Dong and Education Minister Madame Nguyen Thi Binh, to name the two best known in the West, are from the south. I traveled in nine provinces of the south after the change of government and most of the officials I encountered were native southerners, many were native to the province where they were now serving.
Gelinas would have us believe, however, that there was a “systematic elimination” of the “old revolutionaries of the PRG” in the summer of 1975. In fact he brings us news of a startling development hitherto unreported in the West: the North Vietnamese “conqueror” carried out a “coup d’état against the PRG” on July 19 and 20, 1975. He backs up this amazing revelation with the “evidence” that on those days there were additional soldiers on the streets and “on the rue Vo Tanh the central police office, where the PRG had its headquarters [sic: the Vo Tanh office was An Ninh Nhan Dan, People’s Security, while the main PRG headquarters for Saigon was in the Dinh Doc Lap, the Independence Palace], was surrounded by armored cars.”
In fact something quite different was happening. A bit of background: July 20, 1954 marked the conclusion of the Geneva Accords between the Hanoi government and the French. In the north and the revolutionary zones in the south the day was annually celebrated as marking the victory over the French colonialists. Each year the northern daily, Nhan Dan, would carry commemorative editorials on that day. The Saigon government, however, had always labeled July 20 as the National Day of Shame, Ngay Quoc Han, because the Accords gave international recognition to the Hanoi government. The Saigon government would regularly organize demonstrations with loyal civil servants on that day to stir up anticommunist fervor.
So in mid-July 1975 when rumors began spreading around Saigon that the “National Day of Shame” might produce widespread demonstrations and violence against the new government, the authorities went on the alert. (It is noteworthy that the daily Saigon Giai Phong made no mention of the Geneva anniversary, an attempt, no doubt, to avoid inflaming any anticommunist emotions.) Although there were some additional security forces in evidence on July 19 and 20, it would not have occurred to me to say that on those days “the city woke up in a state of siege,” as Gelinas tells us. Quite to the contrary, no demonstrations were held and life went on quite normally. Friends and I rode bicycles freely around town during those days.
Fr. Gelinas says at the time he did not understand what was happening “because nothing seemed to justify this deployment of forces.” In his mystification, Gelinas creates an explanation out of thin air and tells us that “in fact we had been present at a coup d’état against the PRG.”
Throughout the whole article I was left with the feeling that the father was trying just a bit too hard to make his case.
To maintain, as I am inclined, that André Gelinas has seriously eroded any basis he might have had for serving as a credible witness is not to suggest that life in postwar Vietnam is comfortable and easy. According to all indications there are acute economic problems, including food shortages, especially in the cities. During the war, with the influx of American dollars, an artificial economy had developed in the cities of the south. At the war’s end that bubble suddenly burst, leaving many people with no means of livelihood. The agricultural base of the economy was severely damaged in the war with once-fertile fields being claimed by tough grasses and deadly unexploded bombs and shells. The war left a legacy of bombedout irrigation systems, dams, and dikes, as well as literally millions of craters in the fields and forests. Many water buffalos, the draft animals, were killed in the war and tractors are in short supply. With little foreign exchange the country has not been able to import sufficient antibiotics and other essential medicines. In short, the human needs in Vietnam today are very great indeed.
While there certainly have been cases of official mismanagement, ineptness, and even corruption, the fact remains that the primary economic and social difficulties Vietnamese experience today are direct consequences of the war itself. And I believe that many Americans, while not totally approving of every aspect of Vietnamese society today, are ready to accept some responsibility in contributing toward the rebuilding of that war-scarred land.
P.S.: Under the auspices of the relief and service agency, Mennonite Central Committee, I worked with war refugees in Vietnam from 1966 through 1969 and 1973 through 1975.