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Reconsidering Vietnam

Vietnam: Citizens Detained for Peaceful Expression

Asia Watch/Human Rights Watch, 11 pp., $2.45

A Vietnam Reader

by Walter Capps
Routledge, 316 pp., $14.95 (paper)

The Dynamics of Defeat: The Vietnam War in Hau Nghia Province

by Eric M. Bergerud
Westview Press, 383 pp., $32.00

Strange Ground: An Oral History of Americans in Vietnam, 1945–1975

by Harry Maurer
Avon, 634 pp., $12.95 (paper)

The Vietnam Wars: 1945––1990

by Marilyn B. Young
HarperCollins, 386 pp., $11.00 (paper)

War by Other Means: National Liberation and Revolution in Viet-Nam 1954–60

by Carlyle A. Thayer
Allen and Unwin, 256 pp., $24.95 (paper)

Vietnam at War: The History: 1946–1975

by Phillip B. Davidson
Oxford University Press, 838 pp., $16.95 (paper)

Romancing Vietnam: Inside the Boat Country

by Justin Wintle
Pantheon, 466 pp., $25.00

Remembering Heaven’s Face: A Moral Witness in Vietnam

by John Balaban
Poseidon Press, 334 pp., $21.95

1.

That war cleaves us still.” On January 20, 1989, George Bush included these words in his inaugural address. He followed them with the plea, “But friends, that was begun in earnest a quarter of a century ago. Surely the statute of limitations has been reached.” Then came advice: “The final lesson of Vietnam is that no great nation can long afford to be sundered by a memory.”

If there were any Vietnamese listening in front of the Capitol they would have been puzzled by the phrase “a quarter of a century ago.” For them the war began no later than 1945, when the French returned to reclaim Indochina, and Vietnamese Communists might date it yet earlier, to an insurrection of 1930.

Here we begin to see the scale of the problem. There were plainly many wars, with many millions of memories—well over eight million Americans, including civilians, went to Vietnam. There would be the memories of the 58,000 Americans who died, and, according to General Giap’s staff, the one million Vietnamese soldiers who died. In the admirable anthologies put together by Walter Capps and Harry Maurer we encounter the memories of soldiers who say they loved the war, and of whom some were drunk during most of it. Some believed we won most of the battles but lost the war; some feared they had entirely lost their sense of morality. The last is a common feeling among Vietnam veterans, twice as many of whom have committed suicide since the war as died during it. Many suffer, as Peter Marin notes in A Vietnam Reader, from what Sartre, in Being and Nothingness, called ” ‘bad faith,’ the underlying and general sense of having betrayed what you feel you ought to have been.”

But what do the Vietnamese feel about the war? We hear a few of their voices in the two collections by Capps and Maurer, and in the books by Justin Wintle and John Balaban. The leaders in Saigon and Hanoi spent their citizens’ lives freely, while few died themselves. When Dean Rusk was asked by his son why the Vietnamese kept coming, he replied, “I really don’t have much of an answer on that, Rich,” and General Giap, when told by Morley Safer that some of his still-crippled veterans weren’t sure whether the war was worth the suffering, “made a movement across the face…as one would discourage a pesky gnat.”1

And what of the result? In Kyoto this April, Robert S. McNamara, secretary of defense between 1961 and 1968, when asked to explain his support of the war, admitted to several hundred journalists at the International Press Institute’s annual meeting, “I was wrong.” William Westmoreland still thinks we were right, and lost because we didn’t go “all out.” Clark Clifford, in his recent memoir, Counsel to the President, writes, contrary to his public statements at the time, that we should never have gone in, but might have succeeded to some degree had we fought harder.

Apart from Truong Nhu Tang, the Vietcong’s former minister of justice, until very recently few if any important Vietnamese in the struggle against the Americans said publicly that the war was a tragedy. And yet, what if the Vietnamese Communists had declined to fight the French in 1945? It is likely that many Vietnamese North and South who died would still be alive. Or what if the Americans had not attributed such cosmic powers to communism? According to Clark Clifford, McNamara assured President Johnson that a Communist victory in Vietnam would reverberate across to Greece and down to Africa. None of this happened; victorious Vietnam is isolated, extremely poor, is begging for international help, and is condemned for its violations of human rights by both Amnesty and Asia Watch.

But prominent Vietnamese Communists are beginning to question the very legitimacy of the regime which fought so tenaciously and successfully for so long against France and the United States. This is more difficult for some of Hanoi’s admirers in the West. In her long and well-researched polemical survey of Vietnamese history in this century, Marilyn Young, who devotes a page and a half to Nixon’s nocturnal visit to the Lincoln Memorial in 1970, where he lectured bemused students about the war, manages only a sentence or two, in her postwar chapters, on how Vietnam now treats its citizens. She apparently has not talked to such Vietnamese as Colonel Bui Tin, the deputy editor of the Party’s newspaper, Nhan Dan, and a veteran of Dien Bien Phu, who twenty-one years later personally accepted the surrender of Saigon. In late 1990 while visiting Europe he stated that “our house is on fire” and called for a government of national reconciliation composed of exiles, refugees, and those at home. The colonel’s remarks, hardly seditious except in a people’s democracy, made him wary of returning to Vietnam. “Prison is possible, and my wife and children have already been interrogated by the police.”2

Another bold critic from inside the regime is Nguyen Khac Vien, a leading Vietnamese historian and editor of a series of booklets on Vietnamese history much studied in the Sixties by the American antiwar movement. This March, in Hanoi, Vien described the state apparatus as

completely impotent, leaving the entire society chaotic and impossible to develop…. Surrounding each leader is a group of self-serving toadies…. The people, cadres and low-level party members have lost all faith in the upper echelons.

Vien suggested that “top leaders should voluntarily resign from the central bodies at present…. If these leaders persist in retaining their old positions, then their entire glorious pasts will fade away and they will bear responsibility for the collapse to come.” He called for “freedom of the press, association, petition, demonstration, strikes, voting….”3

It is precisely the loss of the “glorious past” that disturbs Hanoi’s old men. Like their geriatric counterparts in Peking, they cannot bear scrutiny of the national myth, which, as in China, has two parts: all achievements of the past fifty or more years must be credited to the old Party heroes, and the Party disasters are someone else’s fault; although sometimes the grandees do admit mistakes, which only they can correct. The new Party General Secretary, Do Muoi, emphasized in his first official speech, on June 27, that “our party and our people are unshakably determined to follow the path of socialism, the path chosen by President Ho Chi Minh, our party, and the people, the only correct path.”4

New ideas are frightening to these men, unless such ideas are confined to improving the economy without seriously weakening central control. In their concise but penetrating study of reform in Vietnam, Vietnam and Doi Moi: Domestic and International Dimensions of Reform,5 Professor Michael Leifer of the London School of Economics and John Phipps, a former research fellow at Chatham House, note the leaders’ anxiety

that some of the [180,000] Vietnamese workers returning from Eastern Europe will bring back with them “dangerous” ideas…. Developments in the communist world since 1989 seem likely to ensure that a confused and somewhat frightened party leadership will make no swift moves towards major political reform in Vietnam.

Far from backing away from this possibility, the Hanoi regime is tightening its grip on intellectuals. Michael Leifer told me recently that the Chinese model is once more dominant. In its report of a few months ago, Asia Watch sums up the most recent crackdown on Vietnamese intellectuals and includes a list of sixty-two people in detention. “Vietnam,” the report begins,

continues to arrest and imprison its citizens for peacefully expressing views not sanctioned by official policy or for practicing religion outside official religious associations.

This should be read together with the equally revealing Amnesty International report on human rights in Vietnam, April 1, 1990, reviewed in these pages on August 16, 1990, and the section on Vietnam in the carefully compiled Information and Censorship: World Report 1991, published by a group called Article 19. The report notes that with one exception its list does not include the names of many Southerners associated with the previous government, who have been detained since 1975, and thus have spent more than fifteen years in prison.

One distinguished writer on the Asia Watch list is the poet Nguyen Chi Thien, who has already spent more than half his life in prison; he was first jailed during the Vietnamese version of the Hundred Flowers in 1958. In 1979 he handed a group of poems, called Flowers from Hell, to the British embassy in Hanoi, which refused to give him asylum. Another intellectual, Dr. Nguyen Dan Que, who had already served ten years in prison between 1978 and 1988 for speaking out on human rights, was rearrested on June 14, 1990, for signing a petition calling on the government to respect human rights and “to adopt a pluralistic political system.” Asia Watch has requested comment about his case from Hanoi, but has received no answer.

Vietnam’s long war in the second half of the twentieth century, the regime’s ultimate explanation for virtually all subsequent failures, is now being questioned by writers in Vietnam and the retribution against them has been swift. According to the Paris-based International Federation of Human Rights, in an appeal dated June 17, 1991, the woman novelist Duong Thu Huong was arrested in April for “collecting and sending out of the country documents harmful to the State security.” The real reason for her arrest, the statement says, is that she sent abroad the manuscript of her latest novel, The Triumphal Arch, which, according to the federation, describes the Vietnamese war and

the useless sacrifice of successive generations of young Vietnamese in the name of ideological and political goals which have led the country to the total economic, cultural, and moral devastation it suffers today.

Huong is not a class enemy. In 1967 she was sent by the Ministry of Culture to a particularly dangerous front-line post to “sing louder than the bombs,” and in 1979 she went to the front again, as a film writer, in the war against China. Now she has been expelled from the Party.

As in China, writers with their “sugar-coated bullets” are a main target for the Party (although Chinese writers have been more brutally treated). In an unpublished paper written in 1990, Professor K. W. Taylor of Cornell, one of the most perceptive students of Vietnamese intellectual life, observes that

Authors are at the forefront of the current ferment in Vietnamese intellectual life, testing the limits of the forbidden and opening up mental space for the ongoing process of reform in the economic, political, and cultural life of the country. Newly published novels and short stories are quickly read by millions of Vietnamese in all parts of the country, especially those written by authors known to be “interesting.”

  1. 1

    See “The War That Will Not End,” The New York Review, August 16, 1990.

  2. 2

    The New York Times, December 29, 1990.

  3. 3

    Text of letter to Nguyen Hu Tho, President, Fatherland Front, dated January 6, 1991.

  4. 4

    Library Association Publishing (London, 1991), pp. 236–239.

  5. 5

    RIIA Discussions Papers No. 35 (London: Royal Institute of International Affairs, 1991).

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