• Email
  • Single Page
  • Print

A Special Supplement: In North Vietnam

The Vietnamese see their history as an unending series of struggles of resistance to aggression, by the Chinese, the Mongols, the Japanese, the French, and now the Americans. Over and over this history was recounted to us. A dozen times we were told how the Chinese had been beaten back, how the Mongols, who conquered most of Asia and Europe, were unable to cross the Annam mountains into Vietnam because of the fierce resistance of the Vietnamese peasants, unified, even in feudal times, in opposition to the aggressor. The director of the Historical Museum led us through exhibits beginning with the Stone Age, while the members of our entourage listened, with obvious fascination, to his account of Vietnam’s ancient culture and the details of each battle, each campaign. In the Military Museum, the same was true. It was impossible to guess that those who were with us had been through this countless times before, for they listened with rapt attention to each familiar detail.

The Vietnamese see their history as a series of victories, each after a long struggle. A less optimistic view of the same events is that there have been periods of independence in a history of occupation by outside powers. It is striking that they do not interpret their past in this way. I am sure that had I suggested any such interpretation, it would have struck them as bizarre and perverse. There is also no mistaking the confidence with which they approach the future.

We spent an afternoon discussing the present situation with the head of the “Special Representation” of the Provisional Revolutionary Government of South Vietnam.1 There we met several war victims, hideously maimed, from the South, who were in Hanoi for extended medical treatment. The PRG representatives in Hanoi expect a long and bitter war in the South. They expect the United States to leave an army of 200,000 to 250,000 men, while providing direction and logistic support for a “puppet army” of about 800,000, and continuing or even extending the technological war. They calculate that under Johnson, about two million tons of bombs were dropped in South Vietnam, while the Nixon Administration has already reached the level of 1.2 million tons while intensifying the chemical war.

They see the aim of “pacification” as the concentration of the population in areas that can, it is hoped, be controlled by armed force, areas surrounded by a “no-man’s land” of devastation and destruction. They believe that this policy cannot succeed, that there will be internal decay within the region administered by the increasingly authoritarian and repressive Saigon authorities. They look forward to a coalition government that can organize free general elections and elect a national assembly. In our talks they mentioned such people as Duong Van Minh and Tran Van Don as representatives of a possible “Third Force” with which, if I understood them correctly, they feel they can cooperate. But they see no present sign that the United States would be willing to permit a representative coalition government in South Vietnam.

I believe that the DRV leadership also expects a long, continuing war, and sees no indication that the United States intends to abandon its effort to subjugate South Vietnam and dominate the Indochinese peninsula. They do not see any sign of American seriousness in Paris, and interpret each American proposal—quite correctly, I believe—as one or another scheme to maintain the American “puppet” regime in power in South Vietnam. They expect that the bombing of the North may be resumed as the American position erodes elsewhere in Indochina. They anticipate, with confidence, that the American position will deteriorate.

Partly because of the likelihood of resumption of the air war, cities are not being reconstructed and factories remain dispersed. Although North Vietnam has considerable potential for development of hydroelectric power, no dams are being built. Quite apart from the toll taken by the war itself, the threat of further war is a great barrier to development and industrialization.

We spoke one evening to Hoang Tung, the director of Nhan Dan, the major newspaper of North Vietnam, and a member of the Central Committee of the Lao Dong (Workers) Party since 1950. In the 1930s he took part in the youth movement and was jailed from 1940 until 1945, when the Japanese overthrew the French colonial government. He was in charge of the Hanoi section of the victorious insurrection in August, 1945, and then took part in the First Indochina War against the French, fighting in the Red River Delta region. He too outlined for us the course of Vietnamese history, and described the present political and social organization and the plans for development. He spoke softly, with great feeling, about these long struggles, about the suffering of the people, and about the problems that still face them in the future.

The aggressors [he said] have forced the whole of the population to fight or accept death. Our country and other Indochinese countries have experienced all kinds of policies and war methods. Our countries have been a testing ground for the French, the Japanese, and now the Americans. We think that in the whole of history there has not been a people that has had to undergo so many kinds of war.

Take only the United States. They have tried strategic hamlets, the special war of Kennedy, the local war of Johnson, the special-local war of Nixon. We have had to deal with all kinds of theories and doctrines. Our people have not been destroyed. In fact, the US imperialists have put into use all of the forces they can gather. Take the strategic hamlets. This was a great effort. They destroyed tens of thousands of villages and carried away millions of people. Then, they brought in half a million troops. They undertook the air war against the North. We cannot find in history such a concentration of bombardment. In South Vietnam alone, three million tons of bombs, and in addition other kinds of ordnance. It far exceeds World War II. The Vietnamese are a small people. Only 37 million. Now we have reached this stage. We can go to the end.

In 1954, he added, “We were not vigilant enough; we did not expect another war.” But now, he said, it is understood that the US ruling forces do not wish to leave Asia to its own people. Nixon may succeed in gathering the reactionary forces of Asia, but the forces opposing imperialism will also gather together. There will be a long struggle: the reactionary forces against the popular forces in Asia. But the feeling of nationalism runs very high, and the reactionary forces cannot win.

Premier Pham Van Dong spoke in a similar vein. President Nixon, he said, seems to want to expand the war. Cambodia is an example.2 But “the sorceror is not always in a position to control what he has created.” Prince Sihanouk has called for armed struggle, and the three peoples of Indochina will now combine their patriotic struggles. “In the end, justice is the decisive factor, and justice will prevail.”

We asked whether he conceived of some kind of federation of the peoples of Indochina in the long run, and mentioned Senator Fulbright’s recent statement that North Vietnam, as the strongest and most dynamic society, would be likely to dominate the region. The Premier agreed that North Vietnam is stronger than its neighbors in Indochina, but he vehemently dismissed any possibility of its dominating the region and rejected any thought of federation in the foreseeable future. Even for the reunification of Vietnam, he said, it is impossible now to provide a specific plan, a “blueprint.”

The Indochinese peninsula must be free and independent. South Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos will be neutral. Given the present situation, this is a likely prospect. Only Nixon is opposed to this.

It is interesting that Pham Van Dong reiterated the formula proposed by the NLF in 1962 and ignored, in fact suppressed, in the United States: namely, that South Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia be neutral. Then, as now, this was a very reasonable proposal, and a likely outcome if the United States were to withdraw from the region. Then, as now, there were no prospects for achieving the neutralization of South Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia because of the American insistence on retaining these countries within the American orbit, along with the periphery of the Asian land mass.

The Premier also expressed confidence in the future. “B-52s and computers can’t compete with a just cause and human intelligence,” he said. The Vietnamese people and the other peoples of Indochina must still undergo great suffering, but ultimately they will win.

It is, of course, not surprising that the leaders of the country should appear confident before foreign visitors. However, I sensed no deviation from this mood in discussions with other Vietnamese. The people I met exhibited no bravado, only a quiet confidence in the justice of their cause and the eventual achievement of independence and the defeat of foreign aggression.

The personal stories they told were sometimes unbearably painful. We had a few hours to spare on our last afternoon in Hanoi, and were taken on a tour of the city. In “Reunification Park,” near a lake surrounded with newly planted trees that are characteristic of the southern part of Vietnam, my interpreter told me something about his life.

He is a native of the South, from Quang Ngai province. He had joined the Viet Minh as a young man, and then came North with his father in 1954, leaving his mother and sisters behind. He expected to return in 1956 after the promised elections that were to reunify the country. Since that time, he has not heard a word from any member of his family in the South. The United States not only prevented the elections, but moved at once to block all communication, even mail, between North and South Vietnam.

He can only guess what his family and friends have suffered since. With some reluctance, I told him what I knew of the recent history of Quang Ngai province, which was more savagely attacked than any other part of Vietnam. Now that I have returned home, shall I send him Jonathan Schell’s book on the American destruction of Quang Ngai province? Or the reports by Dr. Alje Vennema, director of a Canadian TB hospital in Quang Ngai province until August, 1968, when he left feeling that he could do nothing useful there any more, that “my service was futile”?

Dr. Vennema reports that he did nothing about the My Lai slayings, which he knew of at once, “because it was nothing new”:

They were being talked about among the Vietnamese people, but no more than other incidents [for example a massacre at Son-Tra in February of 1968 and another similar incident during the summer in the Mo-Duc district]…. I had heard this type of story many times before, however, and had spoken to US and Canadian officials about the senseless killings of civilians that were going on…[the] senseless bombings.

  1. 1

    The PRG does not have an embassy, I presume, because they hope to join in a larger coalition government for South Vietnam.

  2. 2

    The reference is to the March 18 coup and the subsequent attacks in Cambodia by the Saigon army. The date of this interview was April 16, two weeks before the American invasion of Cambodia. Some form of direct American intervention in Cambodia was clearly anticipated, though it may be that the scale of the American invasion came as something of a surprise.

  • Email
  • Single Page
  • Print