“Well and Truly Sold”
by Truong Nhu Tang
with David Chanoff and Doan Van Toai. Harcourt Brace Jovanovich. 350 pp. $17.95.
Of the many millions whose lives have been transformed by encounters with Communism, there is a special class of people whose experiences have been uniquely tragic. Members of this class have existed in every country where Communism has triumphed, and can be found even today in nations like El Salvador which face the threat of a Marxist takeover. They are nationalists and democrats who maintain a single-minded commitment to the replacement of corrupt despotisms by forces favoring liberal reform and an independent foreign policy. Their motives are honest and unselfish. Typically, they share roots in the intellectual and social elites of their societies, and their political activities often result in imprisonment and torture, the alienation of their families, and the abandonment of lives of respectability and affluence.
They are also, and this is what distinguishes them from like-minded countrymen, willing to collaborate with Communism in working to achieve a just social order. To be sure, they are not oblivious to the nature of Communism; they recognize that their allies are something more than mere agrarian reformers. Nonetheless, they rationalize their alliance with Marxism by arguing that no feasible alternative exists or by convincing themselves that the Communists’ solemn pledges of coalition government are genuine. Inevitably and unfortunately, they learn that the victory of the “progressive” forces and the expulsion of the detested foreigners bring not the promised era of peace and reconciliation, but a totalitarian system far more oppressive than anything imaginable under the old dictatorship.
In Truong Nhu Tang we have an ideal example of the liberal nationalist whose vision of an independent society was ultimately betrayed by his Communist partners-in-arms. Truong was a prominent figure in the National Liberation Front (NLF), the formal name for the Vietcong. He served as Minister of Justice in the Provisional Revolutionary Government (PRG), an entity resembling a shadow government which was formed at the height of the Vietnam war principally as a means of influencing world opinion, especially the burgeoning anti-war movement in the United States.
While today the NLF and PRG are but dimly recollected, during the war they were crucial exhibits supporting the argument that the American government was wrong to identify the Vietnam conflict as fundamentally a struggle against Communism. According to the war’s critics, it was the Vietcong, and not the North, who were chiefly responsible for the prosecution of the fighting. Moreover, the NLF was widely regarded as a broad coalition which included but was not dominated by Communists, with a vision of South Vietnam’s future grounded in democratic principles. Above all else, the NLF was thought to be an indigenous Southern force, fiercely resistant to the control of outsiders.
The perception of Vietcong autonomy was periodically reinforced by North Vietnamese denials of an intention to impose Communism on the South. The South, it was said, presented “a special and unique situation, very different from the North.” According to Le Duan, who succeeded Ho Chi Minh as leader of the North Vietnamese Communist party, “the South needs its own policy.” Another party official, Pham Van Dong, emphatically declared to Western visitors that “No one has this stupid and criminal idea of annexing the South.”
Such reassuring statements were meant not only for Western consumption. The North was also sensitive to the apprehensions of potential Southern sympathizers who were suspicious of the Vietcong because of its identification with Communism. Although the North’s propaganda did not entirely dispel the anti-Communist fears of reform-minded Southerners, the repeated disavowals of imperialist ambitions did have an effect, as many prominent Southerners began to support the opposition after the 1968 Tet offensive.
Truong himself came from the upper echelons of Saigon society. His father was a prosperous businessman who was relatively comfortable with French colonial rule. Truong became committed to the anticolonial cause while a student in Paris during the 1940’s; he was particularly impressed by Ho Chi Minh, who granted Truong and another student a private audience and whom Truong even today describes in saintly terms.
Following the collapse of the French, Truong took up the life of a respected businessman, and held a series of important positions in commerce and banking. He describes his political views at this time as vaguely liberal, strongly nationalist, and not notably anti-Communist. He continued to regard Ho Chi Minh with awe and reverence:
My years of struggle to understand the character of Ho Chi Minh had convinced me that at heart his motivations were similar [to Truong’s], and that the Leninism he espoused was an accretion that served the cause of Vietnamese nationalism. I would have been ready to accept almost any regime that could achieve real independence and that had the welfare of the people at heart.
Truong maintained his tolerance for Communism despite his familiarity with reports of Northern atrocities committed during the collectivization of agriculture and the brutalities inflicted in the name of “people’s justice.” But since the sources of these accounts were fervently anti-Communist Catholics who had fled the North, Truong dismissed stories of Communist terror as “not especially credible.”
Truong eventually joined the opposition in the South, exploiting his contacts in the government and Saigon society to further the Vietcong cause. He was eventually betrayed, jailed, and tortured by the Thieu regime and, except for a stroke of luck, might well have been executed. Instead, in 1967 he and several other NLF members were exchanged for two captured Americans, and Truong spent the rest of the war with other NLF political leaders in remote parts of Vietnam and Cambodia.
At first, Truong and his fellow Southerners were treated with a certain deference by his North Vietnamese deliverers. As Minister of Justice of the putative future South Vietnamese government, Truong spent much of his time preparing a new legal code focusing on such noncontroversial issues as workers’ rights and putting off such potentially contentious questions as land reform and civil liberties. Then, as the fighting began to turn against the Thieu government and the prospect of total victory drew nearer, the attitude of the North underwent a not-so-subtle shift. In 1971, with the war raging about them, Truong and other NLF officials were suddenly informed that they were to attend a three-month course in Marxist-Leninist theory. For Truong, the whole experience was traumatic. The Southerners were harangued about the significance of the class struggle and proletarian internationalism by dogmatic cadres who abused and insulted the pupils. Although Truong was somewhat mollified when senior Northern officials apologized for the behavior of their colleagues, he later admitted that the whole procedure amounted to a variation of the interrogation technique whereby a brutal questioner alternates with one with a friendly attitude.
In any event, all pretense was abandoned by the North once military triumph was secured. Non-Communists like Truong were to play no role in the shaping of the new society, which was to be “a single monolithic bloc, collectivist and totalitarian, in which all the traditions and culture of the South would be ground and molded by the political machine of the conquerors.” As added insult, the North moved posthaste to ensure that the war received its proper historical interpretation, an interpretation which belittled or ignored altogether the contribution of the NLF. A prominent party historian wrote: “The Provisional Revolutionary Government was always a group emanating from [North Vietnam]. If we had pretended otherwise for such a long period, it was always because during the war we were not obliged to unveil our cards.”
Truong now had good reason to recall the prophetic words of his father during their final meeting while the son was incarcerated in a Saigon jail. “You will see. [The Communists] will betray you, and you will suffer your entire life.” Even more distressing was the fact that the mass reprisals taken by the Communists reached into Truong’s own family, with two of his brothers sent off to a dreaded reeducation camp. Truong himself drove them to the camp, accepting on faith the pledge that the reeducation period would last only thirty days. Although Truong was able to use his influence to secure the release of one brother, the other, a physician and hospital administrator, was still languishing in the camps at the book’s writing, nine years later.
Truong also describes a gruesome party—he calls it a funeral—organized to take note of the official demise of the Vietcong, an obligatory step following the forced unification of North and South. The party official who organized the event hired the Rex Dance Hall, once a sleazy magnetic pole for the most corrupt of Saigon’s demimonde.
About thirty of us were present. . . . We ate without tasting, and we heard without listening as some revolutionary music was cranked out by a sad little band. . . . We even managed to choke out a few of the old combatants’ songs. But there was no way to swallow the gall in our mouths or to shrug off the shroud that had settled on our souls. We knew finally that we had been well and truly sold.
There is something profoundly sad about this book, and the sadness is, if anything, reinforced by Truong’s attitude toward his experiences. Today, living an exile’s life in Paris (where he eventually arrived after a typically harrowing escape on the high seas), he believes that the course he followed was the only one available. He remains convinced that Ho Chi Minh was not unalterably committed to Communism, and that Ho would have pursued a different policy had the French or the Americans made gestures of accommodation. On the other hand, his suggestion that Vietnam would have been spared a totalitarian future had the U.S. used its influence toward the creation of a coalition government is a bit more plausible. But even here, Truong underestimates the likely reaction of the Communists, who would have gone to extraordinary lengths to undermine any arrangement which they themselves did not control. The survival of a non-Communist coalition could only have been secured by massive American intervention, the very thing to which Truong was most fervently opposed.
Yet despite Truong’s lingering confusion about the ultimate nature of his country’s Communist oppressors, Vietnam Memoir contains a number of extremely important messages, which are altogether relevant to contemporary political debates. For the restive young elites of the underdeveloped world, there is the message that there is something far worse than corruption and excessive American influence—a brutal totalitarianism which provides neither social justice, freedom, nor genuine independence. For the non-Communists who have thrown in with Marxist forces in countries like El Salvador, the message is the suicidal folly of accepting Communist vows about pluralism and civil liberties. Similarly, for Americans tempted to accept Communist promises of domestic freedom and international nonalignment, there is the message of North Vietnam’s breathtaking cynicism in its dealings both with naive Westerners and with its own allies in the South.
One can sympathize with the choice made by Truong Nhu Tang, trapped as he was in a tangled web with no really appealing alternatives. But knowing what we know about Vietnam—not to mention revelations of Communist duplicity in countless other countries—one can only conclude that those who continue to argue that a society would be better off under Communist rule are at best engaged in a monumental act of self-deception.