Among the anonymous hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese boat people are some whose stories are becoming known. And among these, there are a few special witnesses. One is Truong Nhu Tang, a founder of the NLF, minister of justice for the Viet Cong Provisional Revolutionary Government, one of the most determined adversaries of the US during the war.
There is no one whose revolutionary credentials are more secure, no one who worked harder to expel the US from Vietnam and to establish a revolutionary government. In recognition of his service, in 1976 Truong Nhu Tang was offered a cabinet position, vice-minister of nutrition, in the government of unified Vietnam, a unique honor for former NLF leaders. He is a man beyond the charge of CIA complicity. His story is a simple human tragedy, but beyond that, it provides unique historical insight into a tormenting war.
Truong Nhu Tang is fifty-seven years old and is now living in Paris, where he has recently founded the National Salvation Council (Uy Ban Cuu Nuoc) to rally his compatriots and gain support for the struggle against communist Vietnam.
—Doan Van Toai and David Chanoff
On May 15, 1975, I was standing on the official dais reviewing the first Victory Day parade in Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon until several months earlier). The crowd marching by waved the flags of both the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (Hanoi) and the Provisional Revolutionary Government of the Republic of South Vietnam (Viet Cong). The troops, though, bore only the North’s colors. I asked the four-star general standing next to me where were the famous Viet Cong Divisions 1, 5, 7, and 9. The general, Van Tien Dung, commander-in-chief of the North Vietnamese army, answered coldly that the armed forces were now “unified.” At that moment I began to understand my fate and that of the NLF. In Vietnam we often said: “Take the juice of the lemon and throw away the peel.” On that dais the years of communist promises and assurances revealed themselves for the propaganda they were. Victory Day celebrated no victory for the NLF, or for the South.
When I was a student in Paris in the late 1940s, I was tremendously attracted to Western liberal ideas. I studied the theory of democracy and saw at first hand something about how it worked. My own country had gone through such a different historical development: a thousand years of autocratic Chinese domination followed by an equally unenlightened French colonial regime. Ironically perhaps, I found I loved French culture and especially French political traditions. I wanted desperately for my own country nothing less than what France and other Western nations enjoyed: independence and a democratic political life. I felt elated and proud when Ho Chi Minh came to Paris to negotiate with the French, even more when the press hailed him as a hero of the Vietnamese people. I felt that I was touched by the glory reflected from this man. When I was invited to meet him I was overwhelmed by happiness. An idealistic and innocent Vietnamese youth, I became at that meeting a devoted follower of Ho.
During the late 1950s, there were not many Vietnamese intellectuals who had studied at Western schools, and I was among the few who had graduated from a French university. When I returned to Saigon in 1958, I was the controller-general of a bank and then was appointed by the South Vietnamese government director of the national sugar refinery in 1964. With this appointment I began following the path of those fortunate intellectuals who had been educated in the West and moved automatically into high government positions with secure futures. Often they were promoted to the position of minister, which they enjoyed fully. They paid great attention to their own luxuries and careers and no attention at all to what I saw as the needs of the people.
In time I came to feel that scarcely any of the top South Vietnamese leaders was a patriot and that I could not serve the country together with such corrupt generals and officials. In particular, there was no political freedom as I had seen it in the West. I became preoccupied with thoughts of my countrymen who were suffering in prisons and in the jungles for independence and for the political ideals I shared. Secretly I made contacts with these revolutionaries. Together we decided that my contribution would be most effective if I kept my position in the sugar refinery and maintained clandestine contacts with my new associates. Thereafter I began secret biweekly meetings with an agent of Huynh Tan Phat, the future prime minister of the Provisional Revolutionary Government, and I kept up these meetings for the next two years. During this entire period President Ngo Dinh Diem’s police never suspected my involvement with the Viet Cong.
In December 1960, at a memorable jungle meeting, my friends suggested that we form the Provisional Committee of the NLF. Subsequently a larger meeting was set up on a rubber plantation in Bien Hoa, twenty miles northeast of Saigon. Present were about twenty people, all of them Southerners and educated in France. Our first thought was to choose a president and Tran Kim Quan, a Saigon pharmacist, was proposed. Quan had been a leader of the 1954 peace movement and seemed the ideal candidate, but he refused. The second choice was a lawyer, Nguyen Huu Tho, who at that time was under house arrest in Qui Nhon. My comrades formed a commando unit to kidnap Tho, but on their first attempt they somehow managed to make off with the wrong man. Another raid was promptly organized and this time we succeeded. Shortly afterward, in February 1962, a second organizational meeting was held near Tay Ninh in the “Green Triangle” area near the Vietnam-Cambodia border. At this meeting we decided to form a Permanent Committee of the NLF and we officially elected the newly liberated Tho as president.
Throughout this period we had close support from the North Vietnamese communists. We were in fact dependent on them for weapons, communications, and especially for our propaganda network. But almost all of us were Southerners (along with a few Northerners who had moved south years earlier)—and many of us were not communists. Ours was not a communist movement and we believed that the North Vietnamese leaders, who had been fighting so resolutely against the French, would place the interests of the people and the nation above the interest of ideology.
The North Vietnamese on their part never indicated that they wanted to impose communism on the South. On the contrary, they knew, they said, that the South must have a different program altogether, one that embodied our aspirations not just for independence but also for internal political freedom. I believed, in addition, that the Northern leadership would have the wisdom to draw from the experiences—both good and bad—of other communist countries, and especially of North Vietnam, and that they could avoid the errors made elsewhere. North Vietnam was, as Ho Chi Minh often declared, a special situation in which nationalists and communists had combined their efforts. Clearly South Vietnam was no less special, and the newly constituted NLF Permanent Committee felt a certain amount of confidence in working with our Northern compatriots.
In 1964, I was arrested for the first time. I had been helping other Saigon intellectuals form the Self-Determination Movement of South Vietnam, an organization opposed to the South Vietnamese regime. For this offense, I was imprisoned for two years. In a sense, though, it was only a warning because there was no evidence at that time of my Viet Cong contacts. Unfortunately, in 1967 a Viet Cong agent, who had been arrested and tortured, disclosed my NLF identity to the Thieu-Ky police. I was arrested again and this time my imprisonment was harsher. The police used many of their favorite techniques to torture me. They forced me to drink soapy water and ran 220-volt electric shocks through my body. For a month I was held in a tiny cell less than two meters square. They forced me to confess that I was a communist (although I was not), and to describe my underground activities.
I was still in prison when the 1968 Tet offensive swept the country. At one point the police told us that if the Viet Cong got into Saigon we would all be killed. Shortly afterward the jailer ordered me to “take everything with you and follow me.” The expression was ominous; I was sure I would be shot, along with other Viet Cong prisoners who I knew were being executed in the streets. Two other NLF members and I were thrown into a security truck and then transferred to an American Red Cross van. To my surprise and relief there were two Americans in the van as well, and they brought us to a CIA safe house. Later I discovered that secret negotiations had been going on between the Americans and the NLF for a prisoner exchange and that I was to be traded for two American colonels.
Before I left the CIA safe house I was given a letter for the NLF authorities and pressed to accept a radio as well, which I refused, believing it to contain an electronic bug. A helicopter flew me and two other exchanged prisoners to Trang Bang, a small district about fifty miles northwest of Saigon. We were released at a soccer field where the Viet Cong security chief for Loc Ninh province (a Viet Cong-controlled area) was waiting for us. From this rendezvous we were taken by motorized tricycle deep into the jungle toward the NLF’s Central Office of South Vietnam, the famous COSVN headquarters from which the entire Viet Cong war effort was directed.
Traveling by night and sleeping by day to avoid ARVN hunters and American bombardments, we took almost two weeks to get there, even though COSVN was located on the Mimot plantation near the Cambodian border, only about one hundred miles from Saigon. COSVN’s nerve center was a simple enclosure built ten meters underground to shield it from B-52 attacks, although any hit within 500 meters would have been devastating. The headquarters was guarded by a single regiment, and well armed though they were, I could not help wondering at the vulnerability of the place.
The war that COSVN directed was by that time being fought by large numbers of Northern troops along with the Viet Cong guerrillas. In the early Sixties, before I was jailed, there had been quite a few North Vietnamese military cadres assisting us but not many soldiers. The great majority of our troops then were Southern resistance fighters many of whom were veterans of the French colonial wars. Others were peasants who joined us when the NLF was formed. Almost all of this latter group still lived at home. During the day they were loyal citizens of South Vietnam; at night they became Viet Cong.