Report from Vietnam III: Intellectuals

Il faut une REVOLUTION!” Major Be said, letting the r roll like a cannon ball in the school at Vung Tau. The Italian general listened with an air of dawning surprise. The short broadfaced Vietnamese major was not a military chief of the NLF, but the head of the government school for Revolutionary Development, training anti-Communist cadres. The former Italian Chief of Staff and I were being briefed in French by Major Be in a small classroom, while in the next room a group from NBC was being briefed in English by his assistant, Mr. Chau. Thin, slight Mr. Chau, dressed in flowing black calico trousers and a tight black tunic resembling an alb, had taken a degree in English literature at the Sorbonne—he had done his doctoral thesis on Virginia Woolf. Major Be, less at home in foreign languages, wore a black shirt open at the throat and black trousers cut like Army fatigues. Their costumes were symbolic of the aims of the program. The 3000 cadres now in the school (a cadre is one person), when they graduated, would start “constructing” hamlets in teams of fifty-nine, wearing the black-pajama garb of the Viet Cong, which itself had been copied from the dress of the poor peasants. Actually, the peasants today in government-controlled areas wear a medley of clothes, including baseball caps, shorts, and tee-shirts; and the RD get up, I heard from a Vietnamese medical student, was regarded as ludicrous in the hamlets he had been staying in—“If they would only take off those silly pajamas, the people might not laugh at them.”

Vraiment une revolution,” Major Be insisted. The Italian general cast an inquiring look at me. “Qu’est-ce qu’il veut dire par ça?” he murmured. I did not know what Major Be had in mind when he said that his country had to have a revolution, though I agreed with him, whatever he meant. It was monotonous to hear everywhere the same stories of graft and thieving at the expense of the poor; only yesterday an unusually frank OCO man had been telling about what had happened with a distribution of clothing donated through AID—the best clothes had been pilfered by the authorities and never reached the needy. To receive aid at all, he said sadly, poor families had to qualify as needy with the government. “You mean they had to pay to qualify as needy?” He looked at me in silence, by way of an answer.

Still, the briefing I had already had in Saigon on the RD program had hardly prepared me to meet a doctrinaire theoretician of the type of Major Be, who, warming to his subject, was now assuring us that Vietnamese society was “complètement corrompue“: the ruling classes, he said, as the general’s eyes widened, had always used the laws to serve their own interests. Then, glancing at his watch, he switched to facts and figures.

The program had been started in December, ‘65. Twenty-eight thousand …

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Letters

Out of Limbo June 29, 1967