THE AMERICAN DEFEAT in Indochina is being celebrated, by both sides, with great hoopla. The networks are converging on Ho Chi Minh City, spending fortunes which will finance the parade which the Vietnamese are going to put on for them, and reporters from Walter Cronkite on down will be standing on Saigon street corners where, perhaps, they dodged crossfire before, telling us how they feel and how things have changed, and what it all means 10 years after.
All that is fine enough -- it could not happen in France where generals get even more upset than poor Westmoreland over any criticism of their performance even longer ago -- but it would be a pity if this year was seen only as the 10th anniversary of the end of the war. Its more like the 40th anniversary of a war that is continuing still today. Peace did not come to Indochina when the Americans flew away and it has not come yet.
The publishing industry is just as gung ho as the networks about the anniversary -- the 10th if not the 40th. These are only two of the dozens of books timed to appear on or about April 30, the day North Vietnamese armor captured Saigon, 13 days after the Khmer Rouge took Phnom Penh. One merit they share is that each of them covers at least the 40-year period, if not more.
Al Santoli's To Bear Any Burden is a sequel to his successful Everything We Had: its subtitle is "The Vietnam War and Its Aftermath in the Words of Americans and Southeast Asians." Like his previous book, it uses the technique of oral history perfected by Studs Terkel: it is a series of long interviews, cut and juxtaposed chronologically, of Americans, North Vietnamese, Viet Cong, South Vietnamese, Cambodians, Laotians and others. Most of them have stories which are interesting, moving or both. One of those interviewed is Truong Nhu Tang.
Mr. Tang is also the author of the second book under review, A Viet Cong Memoir. He is well placed to write such a book because he was the minister of justice in the Provisional Revolutionary Government of South Vietnam, from its inception in June 1969 to its absorption by the victorious North, to his surprise and dismay, after April 1975.
Tang's book is beautifully written -- with the help of David Chanoff and Doan Van Toai. He begins with the beginning -- his childhood and youth as the dutiful son of a rich Confucian family in Saigon. He was expected to be part of a world "blessed in every way -- with money, position, well-chosen wives, virtue -- a rich harmonious family organism, bonded together by filial piety." One brother was to be a doctor, another a banker, others engineers and Tang a pharmacist.
In 1946, together with other privileged Vietnamese students, Tang went to study in Paris. There he met Ho Chi Minh who "exuded a combination of inner strength and personal generosity that struck me something like a physical blow. He looked directly at me, and at the others, with a magnetic expression of intensity and warmth. Almost reflexively I found myself thinking of my grandfather." But there was a difference. "Grandfather's text had always been morality. Ho's was politics and revolution." Tang immediately became his "fervent partisan."
When his father discovered his revolutionary commitment, he was cut off from both love and money, and his pregnant wife was ordered home by her own father. The parents then broke the marriage completely.
Paris was for Tang an intellectual awakening or, as he puts it, a "rebirth." He had arrived a superb product of French colonialism, but left with a much greater understanding for Vietnam. "I felt Vietnam's humiliation, its misery and its backwardness as my own." He was not, he says, a communist but a nationalist. Born-again communists out of Paris could be a problem -- it was where the future leaders of the Khmer Rouge had their intellectual baptisms too.
Back in Saigon, he became a bank official and a covert organizer of the National Liberation Front. In 1962 he was elected a member of its secret Central Committee. The NLF was divided into a cell structure which, "for the Vietnamese, with their long history of secret societies . . . is practically second nature." He was arrested by Thieu's secret police; his description of his time in the cells is terrifying -- his jailers tortured him to confess that he was a communist as well as a member of the NLF. Eventually he submitted. Then in 1968 he was part of a pprisoner exchange and made the long journey by trails towards the Cambodian border and COSVN, "the famous Central Office of South Vietnam, which the Americans spent so much energy trying to locate and erase." It was a series of small cottages but "was, and always had been, people rather than a place. . . . When circumstances required it, the various members would be called together by the permanent staff, occasionally at different locations but commonly at the headquarters area," in the Mimot rubber plantation, straddling the Vietnam-Cambodia border in the Fish Hook area.
By this time, "the entire country was embroiled in a vicious all-out war, which had already ripped apart much of the fabric of society. A Northern army was operating in the countryside (the NLF would not have admitted that at the time), the cities had swollen with homeless refugees, the Americans were subjecting their enemies (and anyone else who got in the way) to state-of-the-art methods of extermination. . . . It was a situation that cried out for involvement." And so the Provisional Revolutionary Government was formed under a roof of parachute silk in the jungle near the Cambodian border in June 1969.
After the fall of Cambodia's Prince Sihanouk in March 1970, the B52-ing of the border area increased. One night, "the concussive whump-whump-whump came closer and closer, moving in a direct line towards our positions. Then as the cataclysm walked in on us, everyone hugged the earth -- some screaming silently, others struggling to suppress attacks of violent, involuntary trembling. Around us the ground began to shake spasmodically, and we were engulged in a monstrous roar." The marching bombs stopped one kilometer away; no one in their group was hurt in that attack. "But we knew that the time had come." They moved into Cambodia, to the west bank of the Mekong.
Inside Cambodia they did what they could to get the support of the local people. They were helped immeasurably by Sihanouk's espousal of the revolutionary cause, which gave them a legitimacy Vietnamese rarely enjoy in Cambodia, and by the B52 strikes which began to spread across Cambodia too. "To the Cambodian villagers, these bombings brought an incomprehensible terror, precipitating the more militant into the ranks of the Khmer Rouge and leaving the rest increasingly sympathetic toward the Americans' enemies." It was at this stage that tension between the Northerners and the PRG first began to appear. Tang reckoned that after the death of Ho in 1969, Hanoi's ideologues were asserting themselves and they were not inclined to waste effort on their junior partner, whatever they might be broadcasting to the rest of the world. He noticed that other bourgeois members of the Front like himself began to become more dogmatic fanatics in order to ingratiate themselves with the new party line.
When Saigon was captured, Tang and many other PRG members were in Hanoi. They were overjoyed and began to plan an immediate return. Instead the Hanoi government sent its own cadres ahead of them; the PRG leaders were not allowed back for a fortnight. Dismay and disillusion increased when at the victory parade the Viet Cong troops marched under a North Vietnamese flag. "Seeing this I experienced almost a physical shock."
Tang asked General Dung, the North's commander, what was going on.
He replied, "'The army has already been unified.' As he pronounced these words, the corners of his mouth curled up in a slight smile."
From then on, Northern cadres began to take over everything, often brutally, locking up hundreds of thousands of people in the process of betraying the frequent promise to respect the differences between North and South and instead imposing Stalinist reunification on the South. Eventually Tang could stand it no longer and fled by boat, the most senior functionary of the other side to do so. He leaves behind hundreds of NLF colleagues as equally disillusioned with communist rule as he.
THE PROCESS is well described in Al Santoli's vivid, depressing collection of historical reminiscences from known and unknown participants of the war. Amongst these witnesses you will find Kassie Neou, Cambodian survivor; Tran Van Luu, boat person; Anne Miller, USIS writer; Dan Pitzer, POW; Frank McCarthy, rifleman; Edwin Lansdale, adviser; Nguyen Tuong Lai, Viet Cong; Peter Braestrup, correspondent; Lu Mong Lan, ARVN general, and many more, including Santoli himself. They do not include any of those Americans who were known for their opposition to the war. He says in his introduction that "the common humanity of the 48 people here is a shared triumph of the human spirit." In any case, I found many of their stories riveting and well told. Santoli says his book is about values, and about the complicated realities of Indochina that have often been overlooked. He thinks the experience of Vietnam should be "a watershed of wisdom that teaches us how to apply more skillfully our power -- political, economic and military -- in an increasingly interdependent and volatile world." He says also that he and his other witnesses believe that the continuing struggle in Southeast Asia should remind one that "the values and dedication to freedom" expressed in John F. Kennedy's inaugural address "remain universally valid."
There can be no quarrel with the principal thesis that Santoli and his witnesses put forward -- namely that the aftermath of the American-South Vietnamese defeat has been infinitely more gruesome than opponents of the war hoped or communist spokesmen promised. The real bloodbath has been in Cambodia not, as some American officials warned, in Vietnam. Even so, treatment of the vanquished in Vietnam has been far harsher than expected -- Santoli thinks that the Vietnamese reeducation camps are as bad as Nazi concentration (not extermination) camps -- and the promise of reconciliation has been long forgotten. Six years after liberating Cambodia from the Khmer Rouge, Vietnam is still occupying the country and imposing its own system (which has more tolerance of former Khmer Rouge than of noncommunists) while the Khmer Rouge, and more representative noncommunist groups, receive diplomatic and military support from Vietnam's enemies to continue fighting the Vietnamese.
During this last dry season, the Vietnamese have launched massive attacks on the Thai border camps of the resistance, and about 250,000 more refugees have been pushed into Thailand where their future is still undecided. Today inside Cambodia the Vietnamese are in the middle of a forced labor project. Tens of thousands of Cambodians are being press-ganged into cutting trees and digging long ditches just inside the border with Thailand to create a sort of free-fire zone or no man's land designed to prevent infiltration by the Khmer Rouge and noncommunist resistance which have hitherto been based along the Thai border. They are being compelled to work in areas known to be mined. Relief officials in Phnom Penh recently reported that there are about 1,700 patients in Battambang hospital: most of them are casualties of this new, latest zone of the war which began 40 years ago. The mentality of Hanoi which is evident in both these books is still much in evidence on the ground.