HO CHI MINH CITY, VIETNAM -- Americans and South Vietnamese foresaw "a bloodbath" if the Communists won the Vietnam War. One calculation publicized by the United States Information Agency in 1970 predicted that 3 million people could lose their lives after a Communist victory.
Nguyen Huu Co was one of the predicted victims. Co was briefly South Vietnam's defense minister in 1965, and was for many years a general in the army -- positions that made him a prime candidate for a bloodbath.
Co actually held no important job after 1965, because he and Nguyen Van Thieu, South Vietnam's last president, did not get along. Co was a retired general by the time the Communists took over the south in 1975. Nevertheless, he was one of 32 South Vietnamese generals who were taken as a group to "reeducation camp."
The euphemism was an important one to the Vietnamese authorities in Hanoi. They have insisted since 1975 that they killed no one who fought against them in the war and did not use prison camps to punish their old enemies. Instead they "reeducated" the men once known as "puppets" in their propaganda. In fact, thousands are thought to have died in the camps, but there have been no reports of systematic execution of prisoners.
It is difficult to keep in mind the distinction that the Vietnamese made about the treatment of their former enemies while listening to Co describe his 12 years of reeducation, which he remembers almost month by month. He told the story with care recently while sitting at a small table on a terrace in his large house in Ho Chi Minh City, formerly Saigon. He spoke carefully in French while members of his large extended family bustled about.
Co's first stop after his arrest was a military camp not far from Saigon, where the generals were rigorously lectured by instructors sent from Hanoi. Conditions in those first three years were not too bad; his family could send a 22-pound parcel of food or clothing once a month.
The reeducators gave seven, week-long political lessons, Co recalled, following each with reading and discussion among the generals. The instructors were not interested in back talk. "We couldn't say frankly that we had not fought against our homeland," he said.
"Or the instructor said the Americans came to South Vietnam as invaders. I couldn't say, 'No, the Americans came to help protect South Vietnam.' Well, I could insist on my point of view, even for two or three months, but the instructor would never give in. ... He would agree to discuss, but never to agree with me. Eventually I had to agree, yes, I collaborated with the Americans who invaded Vietnam."
Was he or any of his fellow South Vietnamese generals ever really convinced by the lecturer? "No, not once," Co replied.
After the first three years, Co's situation deteriorated sharply. He and his fellow generals were moved to a new camp in northern Vietnam, near the border with China. There they faced forced labor and short rations. No packages from home were allowed for the first year in the new camp; one every other month was permitted in the second. Letters were permitted once every two months. "That camp was the hardest," he said.
Then the generals were moved to a succession of camps run not by the military but by Hanoi's Interior Ministry. Conditions improved; occasional family visits were permitted. But the dreary reeducation continued, with no end in sight. It was difficult to know what to make of the situation.
"At the outset I was sure I'd be killed," Co said. Survival was better than that -- but life in the camp was profoundly depressing.
Several of the 32 generals died in camp, but there were 28 alive when Co was released in 1987. Eight of them were held until 1993, when the last of the camps was closed. Some 300,000 people had spent from a few weeks to 18 years in them.
When Co was released, he thought he would move to the United States, as many former South Vietnamese officers had. The government would let him go, but only with his wife.
The other 21 members of Co's immediate family would not be allowed to accompany them, at least initially. "We discussed it in the family," Co said. "We decided to stay."
He still had his fine house in Ho Chi Minh City, and a number of his children could work for foreign firms just coming to Vietnam after the government changed its economic policies. Now he enumerates their employers: "Two for French companies, one for a Japanese, one for a Taiwanese. ..."
Co is now an old man, his hair nearly gone, his eyes surrounded by circles of darkened skin. His biography tells an extraordinary story: born in the Mekong River Delta in 1925, recruited into the French army at 18, drafted into service to the occupying Japanese in 1944, escaped and returned to the Delta, recruited by the Communist Vietminh in September 1945, fought against the French but rejoined the French army when it prevailed in the south.
"I was young, I had no ideals -- I didn't reflect on it," Co said when asked if it was hard to switch loyalties so often. "I went where the wind blew me."
In 1954, he was at Dien Bien Phu -- on the losing side when Vietnamese divisions routed the French. Then he fought for the new South Vietnam.
Looking around now at visiting Americans, at his family, at the young woman from the Vietnamese Foreign Ministry who arranged this interview and who sat passively through Co's account of his years in the camps, the old general smiled.
"Now the world has changed so much!" he observed. "It's time to turn the page, to start a new page."