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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?

YET THE NORTH VIETNAMESE attach great importance to this formula. You can read in the daily English news bulletin a dispatch from Reuters or UP: “The South Vietnamese [puppet, Ed.] government met this afternoon to discuss a draft of eighteen-year-olds.” Conversely, when a US agency quotes Radio Hanoi, you read: “The puppet [South Vietnamese government, Ed.] forces suffered heavy losses today at Bien Hoa.” At that point, it becomes a war of words on both sides, a fight between blue pencils conducting search-and-destroy operations on a daily basis.

One awkwardness for a Western writer in a Communist country is that he is committed to a convention of freshness, of making it new. In antiquity, originality was not so highly valued, and it has occurred to me that the set phrases of North Vietnamese diction are really Homeric epithets. Compare “the insolent wooers,” “the long-haired Achaeans,” “cloud-gathering Zeus,” “the hateful Furies” with “the American aggressors,” “the American imperialists,” “the war of destruction,” “the air pirates.” And no doubt too they are Oriental ideograms; some, like the “just cause,” are the same in the South as in the North, though with different referents, of course. There is also a prescribed, quite angry Marxist language in the Eastern European countries, but behind the Iron Curtain, as opposed to the Bamboo, it is not a spoken language; the Izvestia correspondent in the Thong Nhat hotel used the ordinary vernacular when he drew up a chair to our table, like party members in Warsaw, Cracow, Budapest, but probably when he wrote for his paper he used the official language, just as a man in the Middle Ages wrote in Latin and spoke in the vulgar tongue.

Anyway, it has to be acknowledged that in capitalist society, with its herds of hippies, originality has become a sort of fringe benefit, a mere convention, with accepted obsolescence, the Beatnik model being turned in for the Hippie model, as though strangely obedient to capitalist laws of marketing. Not only that; the writer’s “craft” is more machine-tooled today than the poor scribe likes to think. How could he compose without his apparatus of dictionaries, thesauruses of synonyms and antonyms, atlases, glossaries, Fowler, Follett, to direct him to the right word? In prose our industrial revolution dates back to the Flaubert process, invented about 1850, which can be defined in the simplest terms as the avoidance of verbal repetition: do not use a word (excluding prepositions, pronouns, articles, and connectives) that you have already used a few pages back; find another, i.e., a synonym. Application of this unnatural process is now all-but-automatic with us—second nature. This may be because we keep on describing the same old things—that is, bourgeois society—and some stylistic variation is needed or everyone would die of boredom. A magazine like The New Yorker is especially nervous about the repetition of words and phrases; underscoring and marginal question marks call the contributor’s attention to the fact that an adjective he has used (“employed”??) on Galley 3 reappears on Galley 8. Similarly, a phobic dread of clichés is manifest in the jittery styling of Time, whose whole editorial policy is to reduce people and events to filler and boilerplate.

NEVERTHELESS, an American is what he is, and a writer perhaps more than most, in that he has to stick close to his language, listening to what it will let him say, and it will not let him talk in readymade phrases except in jest or mockery—mockery of authority and the sacrosanct. The American language is selfconscious, like a young person. Hence the cat sometimes got my tongue during long car-rides with my friends of the Peace Committee, and when we conversed I tried to bypass subjects that would oblige me to say “the Americans” or “We” while’ they were saying “the neo-colonialists” or “the Johnson-McNamara clique.”

Instead, I asked them about the flora and fauna of the regions through which we were driving. In that way, I learned something about the native trees, flowers, birds, folk remedies, how the rice seedlings were transplanted, the difference between Vietnamese tea and Chinese tea. Like the geometry lesson on the blackboard in the school in Hung Yen Province, botany and zoology reassured me with the promise that they would be there when the war was over and the last “Johnson” had been shot down from the skies. My companions probably thought me quite a strange person—superficial—and indeed I felt myself that to be so concerned about the names of flowers and trees (the dragon’s eye—Nephelium longanum; the early-flowering bridal ban tree, slightly reminiscent of the New England shadbush; the red-flowered kapok, the abrasin, an oleaginous tree whose product is used to polish airplane parts and gun bores) was a luxury typical of a capitalist author, who could afford the pedantry of nomenclature, just as if North Vietnam were still Tonkin (another unmentionable word, of colonialist memory, like Annam, which made it tricky to discuss the Tonkin Bay incident), and Frenchmen in tropical helmets were still exploring the upper reaches of the Mekong, looking for the shortest route to China, and Englishmen were writing in the Britannica (eleventh edition): “In the wooded regions of the mountains, the tiger, elephant, and panther are found, and wild buffalo, deer and monkeys are common. The delta is the home of ducks and other aquatic birds. Tea, cardamon and mulberry grow wild…. The natives are skilled at enamelling and the chasing and ornamentation of gold and other metals.” If only that were all, but the unnamed ethnographer had more to contribute: “The Annamese (see ANNAM) is of somewhat better physique than those of the rest of Indo-China…. (ANNAM)… The Annamese is the worst-built and ugliest of all the Indo-Chinese who belong to the Mongolian race. He is scarcely of middle height and is shorter and less vigorous than his neighbors…his hair is black, coarse, and long; his skin is thick, his forehead low…. Though fond of ease the Annamese are more industrious than the neighboring peoples. They show much outward respect for superiors and parents, but they are insincere and incapable of deep emotion.” The old Britannica would not be spared if we white people began our cultural revolution; that doubtless whiskery Edwardian who looked on the “natives” as zoological specimens was a cultured ancestor of the GIs who cut “Charlie’s” ears off as souvenirs—it was just a fad, they say. But the tea, the cardamon, and the mulberry? Must the mind be forbidden to collect them in its neo-colonialist trunk?

FORTUNATELY Mr. Phan shared my (let me hope) harmless interest in the names and properties of things in Nature, and he was always happy to acquire an English word, “seedling,” for instance, in exchange for a Vietnamese word, and to reprove me when I kept saying “betel,” when I ought to be saying “areca.” “The betel leaf,” he wrote firmly in my notebook, and “the areca nut.” The point is that the betel leaf, which comes from a pepper plant, is chewed together with the areca nut, which comes from a palm. Or used to be chewed. In the North that bad habit (betel acts like a drug or intoxicant) has practically disappeared; only once or twice, to my surprise, did I see the blackened teeth and gums so familiar in the South. Mr. Phan confirmed my observation. Small, sturdy, dark-skinned, with a wide, confiding grin (“They say I am a Stokeley Carmichael”), chain-smoking, in a brown leather jacket, he was something of an explorer himself. We compared travel notes. He knew China, Russia, Poland, Cuba, where he had stayed at the Havana Hilton. He showed me a short piece he had written in English about a trip he had taken last summer through his own country in which he had carefully set down the good points and the bad of what he had seen. He gave me “the Vietnamese man-of-letters recipe for making tea”: the pot must be scalded, and the water just below the boiling point—first the bubbles coming to the surface will be the size of a crab’s eye; wait till they are the size of a fish’s eye, then pour over the tea-leaves. Mr. Phan was a harbinger and a bustler and often prepared our “visits.” His great ambition was to visit France.

Clearly in these conversations, while searching for common ground, I was trying to hold onto my identity—a matter of loyalty, refusing to betray oneself. But this could be read two ways. In that very refusal was I not betraying myself in the unpleasant sense of showing my true colors? Having been an anti-Stalinist ever since the Moscow Trials, I had remained, I thought, a socialist of a utopian kind. In North Vietnam, the vocabulary repelled me precisely by its familiarity. I had heard that jargon before, and too many lies had been told in it: “the people’s democracies.” Yet were they all lies? I suddenly recalled the comfortable American joshing of US officials in Europe a few years back: “You old capitalist war-monger, you!” Ha ha. But if it was not true at the time, let us say up to 1960, it was already in the process of becoming true, prophetically, as those decent, amiable men were confidently laughing it off. The Bay of Pigs was waiting in the wings. And from the Vietnamese point of view—a point of view which I must say I gave little thought to until it was too late, i.e., until 1964—the United States had been capitalist-war-mongering at the side of the French practically since the death of Roosevelt and right up through Dien Bien Phu. And the current term “the American imperialist aggressors,” like it or not, expressed the current truth. Whatever the motives, originally, behind the US intervention in Vietnam, at present there was no doubt that it had turned, as if by itself, perhaps with nobody in particular propelling it, into a war of aggression, and capital investments were waiting to follow the flag, personified at a low level by the would-be real-estate developers piloting airplanes I had met in the South and at a high level by Mr. Lilienthal and his Mekong Valley Development project.

As for the air war against the North, it was certainly a war of destruction and not of interdiction, as was at first pretended, unless the two terms are synonymous; you could “interdict” the flow of men and supplies to the South by destroying all life in the North, a program, I hear, that is within the technical capacity of the US but is not contemplated because of the damage foreseen to the American “image.”

WHAT THE UNITED STATES calls propaganda is in fact reiteration. Our officials, like our writers, want to “make it new.” Give us a little variety, the US delegates at the Paris conference and their echoes, American newsmen, moan after the North Vietnamese delegates have said, once again, that all acts of war against the DVN must cease. Meanwhile in reality US policy has remained undeviating, though clothed in seasonal changes of words as the years have rolled by. Johnson “limits” the bombing by announcement April I while actually intensifying it; his speech-writers design new wardrobes for the corpus of his Baltimore address, which keeps popping up in Manila, San Antonio, Washington, thickly disguised in woolly presidential “offers,” which seem to blind the American electorate but not the Vietnamese, who have no difficulty seeing through to the old naked proposition: reciprocity.

It is reiteration that even sympathetic Americans find wearisome in the North. “Are they still harping on that leper colony?” an American said to me when I mentioned the subject in the Thong Nhat hotel; he had heard all about it last year, on an earlier visit, and his attitude was that they ought to change the phonograph record. “Well, actually I asked them about it,” I replied, defensive. “I’m interested in lepers because of the ones I saw in the South.” He accepted the excuse, but there was no doubt that he felt that the North Vietnamese were over-exposing their cause. As though they could use some lessons in public relations, the soft sell.

YET, to be fair, it was natural to get bored and impatient sometimes when obliged to listen to what you already knew—otherwise, why would you be here? Tangible facts never bored me, facts of destruction and counter-facts of growth, nor did real exchanges of ideas or snatches of autobiography, but it was different with formal speeches, feature films, documentaries, plays, playlets, songs, poems, lithographs, oil paintings, which were all implacably about war and defiance. The documentaries were interesting in themselves, and the feature film they showed us was superior to most Hollywood war movies, yet after the third or fourth private screening, it was understandable for a Westerner (especially one who is not very fond of movies) to suffer a loss of affect and then immediately feel ashamed, for example, to look around restlessly in a projection room during a sentimental sequence—the heroine was leaving her father to risk her life clocking a delayed-action bomb—and find a Vietnamese girl silently weeping in the next seat.

They are moved by their films, by their graphics, by the endless photographs and mementos in the Museum of the Revolution. They delight in the animated relief model of Dien Bien Phu displayed in another museum whose name I forget—a panoramic history of the battle with little trucks and troops moving, cannon firing, lights winking on and off, which in fact was delightful and extremely ingenious, like the electronic crêche I had seen in Sicily last winter with the Magi arriving on camels and shepherds grazing their sheep around the Eiffel Tower, the Colosseum, the Taj Mahal, and the Empire State Building. Pop devotional art, combining the reverent and the playful; people’s art in the real sense.

Some of the weariness I felt was unselfish. If I longed for a change of theme, that was partly for my companions’ sake, for the whole Vietnamese population. But the North Vietnamese cannot get enough of this material, which to them is, quite simply, true to life. If a magic carpet were to transport them to a performance of Don Giovanni, they might find it false and tedious. The girl who was crying at the movie had been telling me, apropos the pellet bombs we had seen in the War Crimes Museum, about one of her friends, a school teacher, who had been walking along a country road with a pupil when the planes came; she flattened herself out to cover the child and was lucky—she got the pellets only in her back. Next year that story, emblematic, could be turned into a movie with newsreel shots of real bomber planes already on film and available to the scenarist. Such shots did not have to be faked. And indeed in the war art of all kinds that I saw there was nothing that to me was recognizable as untrue.

One-sided, you might argue, except that in my opinion the Americans do not have a side in this war, that is, do not have an excuse, surely not that of ignorance. This war is no Antigone, where both Antigone and her uncle Creon are right according to their lights. No Iliad either. Furthermore, the Americans as shown in North Vietnamese feature films and animated cartoons are not so much villains as merry caricatures; they are meant to be laughed at, like the French colonialists, who, in their day, were satirized in witty colored prints. Nor are they only targets for humor. At the Writers’ Union, a young writer described the idea of his new novel: to present in alternate chapters two points of view, that of a simple GI and that of a North Vietnamese soldier—both would be sympathetic. At the War Crimes Commission, Colonel Ha Van Lau, a delicate-featured, slender, refined officer from Hue, of mandarin ancestry (he reminded me strongly of Prince Andrei in War and Peace) discussed the problem of conscience for the US pilots; some, he thought, were aware of what they were doing and some were naïve or deceived. The pilots in North Vietnamese hands are brought to repent (if in reality they genuinely do) not by being fed lies or, in my judgment, mysterious drugs but by a simpler method: shortly after their capture, or as soon as they are able, they are taken to see some bomb sites—the first step, it is hoped, in their reformation.

WHAT YOU SEE on the stage, in films, and street posters is not untrue or viciously biased, unless you think that rubble of a school, church, hospital, TB sanatorium, is biased. On the screen and in graphics, you are shown heroes and heroines, but the Pentagon itself would not deny that the North Vietnamese people are heroic, though “tough” would be the word preferred. Even if the figures of planes shot down are exaggerated (and I have no way of testing this), their defense of their land has the quality of an epic, i.e., of a work of art surpassing the dimensions of realism. Seen in movie terms, it is a thriller, a cowboy-and-Indians story, in which the Indians, for once, are repelling the cowboys, instead of the other way around. No normal person, set down in a North Vietnamese rice field beside an anti-aircraft unit manned by excited boys and girls, could help being thrilled, whereas in the South, beside an artillery battery, surrounded by sandbags, you share the sullen gloom of the population and the sardonic resentment of the soldiers.

Nevertheless, the Westerner in North Vietnam, stirred and convinced by the real thing, finally resists it in art and falls back on some Wordsworthian preference for emotion recollected in tranquillity. Besides, hortatory art has the troubling property of resembling all other hortatory art, which makes it difficult to distinguish, for instance, fascist architecture from Stalinist architecture or socialist realist painting from Roman Catholic oleographs. In the visual field, North Vietnam is no exception to this rule; the declamatory painting and sculpture seem to be reliving, phylogenetically, the history not just of socialist realism but of allied species including US post-office murals and paintings of Pope John. A war monument in Hanoi is almost the twin, stylistically, of the war monument in Saigon, and neither has any relation to Vietnamese tradition, which in the North survives only in folk art—charming decalcomania-like designs of fish, birds, roosters, who exceptionally have not been recruited to the war effort.

OBVIOUSLY, in a short official stay in North Vietnam, I was not in a position to meet dissenters, if they existed. But I was able to use my eyes and when feeling bored during long speeches in Vietnamese, film showings, protracted visits, I could look around me, seeking a fellow-sufferer. Boredom is one of the hardest of human emotions to conceal, and the Vietnamese are the reverse of inscrutable (though they sometimes leave you to guess the cause of the lively emotions that are passing across their faces), yet it only happened twice that I noticed a sign of flagging interest except in myself. Every member of the audience was following what was said or shown with evident absorption and content.

The exceptions stand out. One was in the Hanoi feature film studio, where a young director was openly, obdurately bored while his chief was talking. Artistic “temperament”? Hostility to US intellectuals, regarded scornfully as tourists? The other was during a visit to an anti-aircraft unit in Hanoi when the blushing young political commissar of the battery read aloud an especially long speech of welcome he had evidently written out that morning, with great pains, in a round schoolboyish script. It was the day the bombing stopped north of the 20th parallel—April 1. Glancing over the boy’s shoulder, the lieutenant of the outfit, a somewhat older man, ascertained after fifteen minutes or so that he still had two closely spaced pages to go (a point I had been checking on myself from the other side of the table) and kindly but firmly indicated that the speech should draw to a close. “That’s enough,” is what he said, in Vietnamese. Everybody smiled broadly, with grateful relief and perhaps especially the boy, as he folded up the sheets of paper and tucked them back in his pocket.

Not only were there no signs of disaffection; the announcement, on March 21, of a decree against “counter-revolutionary crimes” took even long-resident foreign journalists by surprise. Nobody could understand what or whom was aimed at. The list of fifteen counter-revolutionary crimes punishable by jail or death comprised treason, espionage, plotting, armed rebellion, sabotage, defecting to the enemy, disrupting public order, making propaganda, intruding into the territory of the DVN. The last perhaps offered a clue. The decree may have anticipated a US invasion, which was then being discussed as a serious or semiserious possibility in the American press; the Hanoi government was warning future collaborators of the punishment that would follow. But who were those future collaborators, unheard and unseen until this moment and now produced like a photo-negative by the law formulated against them?

Perhaps they were a mere apprehension in the mind of Hanoi. What was striking here in comparison to other Communist countries was the utter, total absence in conversation, movies, plays, pictures, short stories, of the theme of treason. Not a word about backsliding, incorrigible elements, “former” people. The figure of the “wrecker” or evil counselor never cast his shadow. There was no question of any villain or faint heart opposing the war; at most, there could be a problem of priorities, whether, as in a play they took us to, it was more important for a young medical student to continue his studies at the University or go to the front. Mr. Phan decided that two acts were enough, so we never saw the end, but it was clear that the hesitant student would finally choose action over inaction: he was basically a “good” boy.

Former” people must exist in North Vietnamese society (“My uncle in Hanoi,” said a lady in Saigon, “used to own eighty houses; now he has only one”), but they are spoken of, when at all, in terms of the distant past. Once they agree to work with the various councils and cooperatives that past is forgotten. If an ex-landowner were to appear in a film script, he would be already reformed. No, there is another possibility: he might undergo a conversion from “former” to present, bad to good, as he saw the bombs falling on the irrigation project, the dikes, the sweet-potato field—a perfectly plausible story which no doubt could be documented by many real-life examples.

Conversion, from bad to good, or the other way around, which was the great theme of Western nineteenth-century fiction and of early movies, is never represented in Western novels these days and seldom on the screen. It is as though the West had agreed that people were incapable of change. You do not see Bonnie and Clyde decide to become mass murderers; no choice seems to be offered them. In the Free World, to judge by its artifacts, nobody is free to make a decision to be different from what he is. But in the unFree World, the opposite is assumed, and one indication of revisionist tendencies in a Communist country is the gradual disappearance of regenerative themes in popular art. By this criterion, Hanoi, unlike Belgrade, Prague, Budapest, even Moscow, is a bastion of anti-revisionism.

Nor is this found only in movies and plays. While Novotny, say, in Czechoslovakia has been given up as a bad job, the North Vietnamese still have hopes of converting even their worst enemies. The idea of forgiveness and rehabilitation is underlined by North Vietnamese and NLF officials in discussing the government functionaries of the South. “Anyone who wishes to come over to us is welcome.” Once in a conversation with Ngo Diem, the small, gentle, slightly mournful Press Chief of the Foreign Ministry (the one whose mother is in the South), the topic came up, and I, half teasing, tried to test him, choosing the most horrendous example: “What about Ky?” “Even Nguyen Cao Ky,” he said, gravely nodding his head up and down while at the same time smiling at the enormity of the thought.

WHETHER Nguyen Cao Ky would have to do penance—and how much—is another matter. What I am trying to describe is a state of mind I found in the North, at once categorical and in a strange way indulgent. People say of Communists that they see everything in black and white, which is certainly true of the North Vietnamese rhetoric: “bandits,” “dark maneuvers,” “pen hirelings,” besides the terms already mentioned. But beneath the forbidding rhetoric there is something else. Unlike Western liberals, they do not accept difference, but they accept change axiomatically as a revolutionary possibility in human conduct—which Western liberals do not; that is why liberals have to be tolerant of difference, resigned to it.

The North Vietnamese reiteration of their “correct position” implies the conviction that their enemies, if they hear it stated often enough, will un-understand; it is so clear, they seem to be saying. “Johnson,” officials repeated, “can call off the bombing in five minutes and have talks. Why not then?” This was said with genuine mystification, in the plaintive hope of getting an answer to a puzzle. Johnson was pursuing a mistaken policy; even the stock market was telling him so. Why not correct it? Far more than his American critics, the North Vietnamese officials put themselves in the President’s place. They spoke of offering him “an honorable exit,” an idea repugnant to me. Their questions, in short, rested on the proposition that Johnson was free, like any other human being, to change his course. The contrary is pretended and possibly believed by Johnson, who acts like the honest prisoner of circumstances, locked into a bombing policy that now bears the name of “a first step in unilateral de-escalation.” In the Stalinist days, we used to detest a vocabulary that had to be read in terms of antonyms, “volunteers” denoting conscripts, “democracy,” tyranny, and so on. Insensibly, in Vietnam, starting with the little word “advisers,” we have adopted this slippery Aesopian language ourselves, whereas the North Vietnamese, in their stiff phraseology, continue to speak quite plainly; although we complain of the monotony, the truth, renamed by us ‘propaganda,” has shifted to the other side.

(This is the fourth in a series of articles on North Vietnam.)

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