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North Vietnam: Language

Communication was no problem with the North Vietnamese. Though only a few interpreters spoke English, some officials read it, and everybody I met of middle-class origin over the age of forty—ministers, poets, critics, museum workers, doctors, specialists in information, the head of the Supreme Court—spoke French fluently. Even those who had no second language, a factory manager, for instance, were remarkably well informed about the United States. Coming from the West, eagerly bearing news of American political developments, we found they knew it all already: the New Hampshire primary, the dollar crisis, the latest editorial in the Wall Street Journal. Nor were they dependent on “peace” sources; I kept seeing old copies of US News and World Report. They were familiar with the voting records of Congressmen whose names I had barely heard of. The head of the Writers’ Union referred to Noam Chomsky’s work in linguistics and helped me out while I was groping for the author of “Nihil humanum mihi alienum puto”—Terence. You did not have to explain to them what a primary election was, a just-about hopeless job with French political intellectuals, nor sit squirming as I had done recently at a Paris press conference on the draft-resistance movement while speakers invoked “Samuel Bellow” and “William Thoreau.” The events that happened during my stay in Hanoi—the reassignment of Westmoreland and Admiral Sharp, Johnson’s April 1 speech, the Wisconsin primary, the murder of Martin Luther King—were instantly known in the Thong Nhat hotel; I heard Johnson, live, on the Voice of America, and our friends from the Peace Committee came to tell us, with a delicate sympathy—“Perhaps it may not be true”—of the death of King. As I established when I got home (my husband had saved the French and American and English papers), no important happening in the West had missed us in Hanoi or been distorted in the reporting. The only gap was in news from the East: Poland and Czechoslovakia.

Yet there was a difficulty in the sphere of communications—a sort of speech impediment. Though we talked of the same things, we did not always use the same language. Take “Viet Cong.” This name, which started out as a derogatory, derisive label, like “Commie” a few years ago in the United States, has passed into popular currency in the Western world, becoming the normal straightforward term for the insurgent forces in the South. If the term were taken away, nobody in Saigon could write a newspaper dispatch. In the South last year it had no pejorative sound, any more than “Gothic,” originally injurious, for a cathedral. The derogatory word was “Charlie”: “We caught Charlie with his pants down,” “Charlie is hurting bad.” By contrast, the abbreviation “VC” was a half-affectionate diminutive, like “GI.” But in the North, as I quickly perceived, the term “Viet Cong” was impermissible, since “Cong” was short for Communist, which was what they insistently denied about the leadership and inspiration of the movement. The right expression was “the People’s Liberation Army.”

I could not use it. For one thing, it was too long. For another, it was too heavily sloganized, like our “Free World Forces” to describe the Australians and Koreans in the South, which I could never use either, not if they gave me the water-torture while a US soldier watched. Maybe it is a literary prejudice to dislike such words as “free” and “people” when what they refer to is uncertain. When Johnson talks about “the American people,” he means the supporters of his war policy, and when the North Vietnamese talk about “the American people,” as against “the Johnson clique,” they mean the opposite. Are the American people the majority or the workers or the peace movement or who? Perhaps they are a Platonic Idea.

On the other hand, I found it perfectly natural to say “the Front” or “the NLF,” meaning the political entity. The National Liberation Front was its name, and one does not argue about the names of political parties and organizations. Such names, by common consent, have turned into simple signs, and only a sinister demagogue like Senator Joe McCarthy, who made a point of talking about “the Democrat party,” instead of the Democratic party, will try to smear them. But a political entity is abstract, unlike guerrilla fighters in Ho Chi Minh sandals and black pajamas. For me, “the VC” is the human and evocative term. Finally, on my tongue “the People’s Liberation Army” would have been horribly hypocritical, considering how often last year on the other side of the parallel I had been saying “Viet Cong” and “VC.” One cannot use language as a sort of reversible raincoat, wearing the side out that is best suited to the political climate where one happens to be at the time.

THIS “BLOCK” gave rise to problems, which in retrospect have their amusing aspect, I being the embarrassed comedian doing the splits. In the North, people were curious to hear about my experiences in the South, particularly the Southerners by origin, some of whom, trustful of the Geneva Agreements, had left their families behind in 1954, like Mr. Ngo Dien of the Foreign Ministry whose seventy-six-year-old mother was living in a village somewhere south of Saigon—he still hoped to see her before she died. The separation of families, assumed at the time to be temporary, is one source of the bitter sense of betrayal felt in the North and directed toward Diem and his memory as well as toward the Americans. When the men of the Viet Minh went north, they counted on the elections, promised for 1956, to reunify the country; they also counted on postal service between the two halves, which Diem abolished. The theme of separation plays a great part in the war literature of the North, and two volumes, Letters from South Vietnam, have been translated into English: these letters, mostly from women, reached their addressees, the reader is told, through divers channels; wife writes to husband, sister to sister, daughter to mother. And even if they may have been considerably edited to suit the popular taste (“My darling, Today is the happiest day in my life. That is why I must write to you. I have just been appointed to the leading committee of self-defense groups in our village!”), the popular taste is there, and reading them, as the Preface explains, will give comfort to the many familiies without news. Of course I had no news of a family kind to tell, nor of guerrilla defense units either, but I could name off the towns and villages I had visited, and even those former Southerners who had left no close relations behind wanted to hear about their native places. “What is it really like in Saigon now?” “When you were in Hue, did you go to see the Emperors’ Tombs?”

The last question, simple enough to answer, you would think, led immediately into difficult terrain. “I saw one.” “Only one?” “Yes. Americans weren’t supposed to go there. They said the tombs were full of Viet Cong. But a young German took me one Sunday in a Red Cross station-wagon to visit Tu Duc’s tomb; it was very peaceful actually. Only ordinary people from Hue walking around the little lake with parasols. It was sad; the little pools on the terraces were covered with green scum. But we didn’t try to go to the more remote ones, which I guess really were in VC territory.” Such sentences, I found, were possible because very light, almost invisible quotation marks were placed, as if by agreement, around the words “Viet Cong” and “VC.” Implied was a faint dramatic irony, which permitted the listeners to smile indulgently as though hearing a disembodied voice coming from AID or JUSPAO. Similarly with “What is the attitude of the students in Saigon University?” “They don’t like the Americans but, being middle-class, they’re terrified of the Viet Cong. As your President Ho Chi Minh said once, speaking of students and intellectuals, it is a confused milieu.” Laughter. Or “In Saigon, everyone is nervous, looking over his shoulder. They say, for instance, that all the pedicab drivers are VC.” No doubt the North Vietnamese, who are intelligent, perceived my discomfort. Perhaps they would have found it ludicrous to hear: “The tombs are full of People’s Liberation Army cadres.” Or “The pedicab drivers are all militants of the People’s Liberation Army.” Or perhaps not.

Those hovering quotation marks were a convenient traffic device for circumventing obstacles, and I sometimes had the impression that the Vietnamese with whom I was talking, especially when they were men of my own age or older, rather enjoyed the rapid navigation around enemy words and expressions. And it is not clear to me, looking back, whether the quotation marks were put there weakly by me or whether they sprang up all by themselves. Sometimes a sudden hesitation or gulp, as when, not looking where I was going, I arrived at “Viet Cong” big as life in a sentence and could find no way around it, produced that effect of framing or distancing—an alienation effect.

A worse problem was “the war of destruction,” for here there was no question of light humor. But I was averse to using those words to describe the thing; to my ears they sounded like one agglutinated word, stuck together once and for all so that you could not unstick it. If emotive phrases are wanted, I prefer to put them together myself—bourgeois individualism. Yet to avoid the expression involved painful circumlocution when the simple word “bombing” would not fit the case; I would have to falter out something like “The bombing and shelling of your country which began in February 1965 and is still going on,” as we chatted in the shelter waiting for the All Clear. Still less could I say “the US imperialists,” “the US imperialist aggressors,” or “the neo-colonialists.” My word was “We.”

Quite early, and with violence, I resolved that never, no matter what, would I hear myself reciting “the puppet government,” “the puppet troops” when called on to speak of the Thieu-Ky government and the Arvin. It was no better in French. “Le gouvernement fantoche.” “Les fantoches.” Nor could I explain why that word led all the rest on my aversion list, especially in the mouth of a Westerner; I did not mind it so much when the Vietnamese said it, except that it made reply awkward. When somebody has been talking steadily about “the puppet government,” you cannot chime in with “the South Vietnamese government,” since their point is that Thieu and Ky are not a legitimate government but American tools. The same with the army. My solution was to talk of “the Saigon government” and “the Arvin.” Yet why all the inward fuss about that word? It could not be mere American touchiness. I do not care for the word “satellite” when applied to the Eastern countries of the Soviet bloc. Perhaps it is because men, even if they do not fight very well and are corrupt and steal chickens, are not puppets; a puppet is made of cloth. It is quite possible to say or write “The Saigon government is a puppet of the United States.” Agreed. But to reiterate the notion every hour on the hour, far from making it truer, awakens the critical spirit: for a puppet, Ky, for instance, has been quite a handful. A figure of speech, overworked, takes its revenge by coming to life, and you wonder who is the puppet, the Arvin soldier or the orator who does not tire of calling him that, mechanically, like a recording?

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