On May 11, 1978, I took a bus to the airport for the weekly 5 P.M. Air France refugee flight from Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon) to Paris. In the same sports bag that had accompanied me on the last plane from Qui Nhon to Saigon three years earlier, just before Saigon fell, I packed underwear, some family picture albums, and a pair of socks; from the side flap my tennis racket stuck out. I also carried a small cylindrical aspirin tube wrapped in plastic and inserted deep into my rectum. Inside was a tightly rolled-up United States hundred-dollar bill that I had bought on the black market, and several closely written sheets of paper on which I had recorded the Declaration of Human Rights drawn up by my former cellmate, the heroic lawyer, Tran Danh San.
Inside the terminal building I joined a long line of people waiting to be processed. With mounting apprehension I saw as I drew closer to the front that the guards were inspecting each person and each article of clothing meticulously. They felt along the seams of shirts, searching for items that might be sewn into cuffs or collars. They made people open their mouths so they could check inside. “Anything to declare?” they asked threateningly. “Any lies and you won't leave, now or ever!”
With each person they took five to ten minutes, looking carefully at their papers and asking questions. By the time my turn came, I had calmed myself enough to put on a show of innocence and nonchalance. I was not immediately concerned about the aspirin tube; they were obviously not doing routine body searches. But I was shaking inside about what they might find in my papers, all of which were proper except for the Ho Chi Minh City residence permit with its order to return to my wife's native village.
When they took my documents away, obviously for a closer look, I almost fainted. As far as I could see, they had not done that to anyone else. But the fright passed when after a time they brought them back and resumed the questioning: “Anything to declare? The truth! Dollars? Gold?”
“Absolutely not! Go ahead and search.”
They did, but cursorily. And then I was through.
At Ton San Nhut Airport we waited for hours, repeatedly glancing out the window for signs of the Air France jet that would take us out. Finally, at four in the afternoon, the room filled with excitement as the giant plane taxied into sight. A short while later the French pilots walked through the waiting room and were immediately accosted by people asking them about the departure—people who in fact simply could not control their urgent desire to talk to a foreigner, to some personal symbol of life outside. Their enthusiasm, however, was cut off sharply by a guard's curt command: “Hey! You! No talking! Just sit down!” The waiting room was still Vietnamese territory, and no breach of discipline would be tolerated regardless of the fact that in another hour the passengers would be talking about anything in the world they wanted to talk about.
This last reminder of the giant prison camp Vietnam had become faded quickly as we boarded the plane and took our seats. Then the engines built to a rumbling crescendo, and we were racing down the runway, the airport buildings flashing past outside the window. As the jet lifted off the ground, a tumultuous round of applause swept through the plane, a spontaneous outburst of relief and joy that we, the fortunate, had broken free at last.
But I for one did not join the applause, thinking to myself, “Just because we've left Saigon doesn't mean we've landed in Paris.” It wasn't until some time later that I began to feel safe—after the captain's deep voice had come over the public-address system, announcing in French: “Ladies and gentlemen, we have now left the airspace of Vietnam. Congratulations on your new freedom!” Early the following morning we arrived at Charles de Gaulle airport in Paris.
The next few days I spent meeting with political leaders and student activists in France's large Vietnamese community. The émigrés had supported the Vietminh against the French and the Vietcong against the Americans. They had provided money and supplies, and had agitated vigorously for an end to both conflicts. Over the period of two wars they had played the same role in France as the antiwar movement in the U.S. did during the latter years of American involvement.
These people were the audience I wanted. It was their passion and commitment, and that of others who believed as they did, that had clarified and focused for the outside world the issues of Vietnam's struggle for independence. And it was their efforts that had been so callously manipulated and betrayed by the revolution.
But for the most part, I was greeted with confused embarrassment. These people had cheered the revolutionary victory, and now they were doing their best to believe that under the new order the nation was prospering. During the war I had been one of them, but now I brought unpalatable news. Even the few Buddhist monks and antiwar people who had begun to understand the nature of the new order were dispirited and tired, unable to think about the implications of what had happened.
Finally the Que Me (Homeland) group, previously an antiwar organization, now increasingly concerned with human rights, heard that I was in Paris and worked hard to give me a forum. A press conference was set up for May 30, 1978, to which they invited all the leading French newspapers and a group of East European dissidents and human-rights activists.
We rented for the conference the same hotel at which Nguyen Thi Binh, the National Liberation Front's Foreign Minister,1 had given her famous press conferences during the Paris negotiations. To our relief and surprise the room that morning was as crowded as it had ever been for Binh. The entire French press, radio, and television seemed to be there. They listened intently both to my long statement describing the betrayal by the Communists of everything we Vietnamese had been fighting for, and to my recitation of Tran Danh San's Declaration of Human Rights. Then they asked question after question. The next morning, the facts of the Gulag into which Vietnam had been turned by the Communists were on the front pages of Le Monde and many other papers of both the Left and Right.
Coverage, as always, attracted more coverage. Conferences and interviews followed one another—the Observer, the BBC, L'Express, even Newsweek—and I was invited on a speaking tour by the various Vietnamese organizations in France, Germany, Holland, and Belgium. At first I was surprised by the size and intensity of these audiences, then I realized the reason for all the agitation. Fate had made me the first articulate messenger from the new order, and one, moreover, who had experienced its workings on his own flesh.
For thirty years the motivating passion of the Vietnamese people had been to free themselves from a shameful colonial heritage. Against the French, the issues had been clear and morally certain. Against the Americans and their protégés, they had been less so. But to my generation, at least to those who had not seen life in the post-Geneva “democratic” North, the outlines of the issues had remained the same. We saw ourselves as part of a heroic struggle to assert our Vietnamese identity against the backdrop of a century of Western domination.
But shortly after the complete victory of that struggle in 1975, the Vietnamese in Europe began to receive intimations that the promise of a new flourishing of Vietnamese life had been built on lies. People had discounted the stories of those Vietnamese who had fled in 1975 when South Vietnam fell (much as I had discounted the reports of Catholics who had fled south in 1954 after the Geneva agreement which divided the country into North and South Vietnam). And they tried hard to avoid believing the scattered and incomplete reports from refugees who had begun to escape by boat after the new order had established its apparatus. But now the French papers were headlining news about the hard-labor camps and prisons, and about rule by starvation and blackmail, and the Vietnamese in France found it impossible any longer to avert their eyes.
The understanding hit them that what they had believed was a heroic struggle for independence, on the same order as the historic struggles against the Chinese, had been manipulated from the start by the architects of an insidious inhumanity, far worse than that of the foreign oppressors on whom they had poured their hatred. At each of these meetings I shared my perception that we—those of us who had supported the cause—had been condemned to contribute to the tragedy. And now we were condemned to recognize and bear witness to the nation's fate. We (that is, the Vietnamese people) had fought magnificently against our outside enemies, but we had been powerless to protect ourselves from the enemy within.
From the Newsweek interview and other reports, the story of the Vietnamese Gulag made its way to the United States. I exchanged letters with my old friend Jerry Tinker, for whom I had worked as a student interviewer back in 1966 and 1967 when he came to Saigon as part of a student research project initiated by Senator Edward Kennedy. He wrote that he was now an assistant to Senator Kennedy. He had read one of the articles and was happy to learn that I had gotten out. From the United States too came invitations to speak at meetings sponsored by various Vietnamese refugee associations and by American colleges and universities, Harvard University Law School among them.
In the late fall of 1978, I left France for America. I spent two months in Canada talking about Vietnamese human-rights issues, then I traveled to the United States. Everywhere I went, the story was covered in newspaper articles and interviews. Following the Harvard speech, I was invited to address the National Press Club in Washington. There, sharing the dais with me, was the Buddhist philosopher and translator, Nguyen Huu Hieu, whom I had first met when he was a fellow prisoner in the sinister section of Le Van Duyet prison known as Zone C. Hieu too had been released and had escaped Vietnam by boat at about the same time I left.
After an enthusiastic reception from the Press Club audience we flew together from Washington to California. I had been invited to speak at Berkeley, where I had also spoken seven years earlier, though this time my lecture was to be sponsored by the Institute for East Asian Studies, rather than an antiwar group.
In San Francisco I met Nguyen Cong Hoan, the Buddhist opposition Assemblyman under Thieu. The news of his escape from Vietnam in 1977 had sparked hope among us prisoners who thought Hoan's message to the West would focus international opprobrium on Vietnam and force improved conditions in the prisons and labor camps. That hope had died quickly when after a month or two nothing further had been heard of Hoan or his quest.
Hoan and I had known each other slightly during the student movement days of the late 60's when the Buddhist student groups had often cooperated closely with the student union in organizing demonstrations, marches, and sit-ins. Now we felt something like a sense of shared destiny. Chosen as one of the southern delegates to the 1976 Unified Assembly in Hanoi, he had grown disgusted by the rubber-stamp conformity demanded of representatives in Hanoi. In the Saigon Assembly, he said, at least you could speak your mind and represent your people—if you were willing to stand up to the intimidation and abuse. But in Hanoi you were simply an automaton whose presence and vote were required to stage the show of unanimity ordered by the party.
Unable to stomach the hypocrisy, and sickened by his insider's knowledge of the party's policies of revenge and brutal social reorganization, he had fled in a fishing boat from his coastal province of Phu Yen. Making his way to Japan, he gave a press conference that attracted international coverage, then was invited to Washington to testify before a congressional committee investigating human rights in Vietnam. For that testimony the Hanoi authorities had sentenced him to death in absentia.
Like the prisoners, he had believed that the West must be told about the monumental deception being carried out by the Communist regime. Specifically, the Western antiwar movement with all its energy and commitment to the cause of Vietnamese freedom must be educated to what was really taking place. Once they knew, he had thought, they would begin pressuring Vietnam's leaders back inside the pale of human conduct.
Hoan smiled wanly as he told me this. “Believe me,” he said, “you will get nowhere substantial with these people. Vietnam to them was a fad, or something they did out of anger at their own government. Now they don't care, I doubt if they ever did. It's not their fight.”2
As if to reinforce Hoan's remarks, my reception at Berkeley, while not unfriendly, was a good deal cooler than it had been in 1970 when, as a delegate from the Vietnamese student opposition, I was shouting about self-determination and getting the United States out of the war.
Nevertheless, at Berkeley I had one of those chance encounters that have important consequences. In the audience was a representative of Amnesty International who was a friend of the singer Joan Baez, formerly a leading antiwar figure. Through this woman a luncheon meeting was arranged for Hieu, myself, and Baez. We discussed the prison and camp conditions in Vietnam, and Hieu and I described the system of oppression that had settled onto the nation's people. As we parted, I told her, “If your cause was the suffering of the Vietnamese people, then that is still your cause.”
I did not yet know whether Hoan's perception of the antiwar movement was generally accurate, but as a consequence of our discussion, Baez at least began a more thorough investigation of the Vietnamese human-rights record, an issue most Americans were happy to ignore.
Finally, Baez wrote an open letter to the New York Times (May 30, 1979) addressed to the Socialist Republic of Vietnam and signed by 78 other former antiwar activists. It read in part:
We appeal to you to end the imprisonment and torture—to allow an international team of neutral observers to inspect your prisons and reeducation centers.
We urge you to follow the tenets of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant for Civil and Political Rights which, as a member of the United Nations, your country is pledged to uphold.
We urge you to reaffirm your stated commitment to the principles of freedom and human dignity . . . to establish real peace in Vietnam.
For her efforts, Baez was attacked by Jane Fonda in a letter circulated among a large number of former antiwar movement people. She was also excoriated in an open letter entitled “The Truth About Vietnam” (New York Times, June 24, 1979) and signed by another group of antiwar people who “recognize and acknowledge the remarkable spirit of moderation, restraint, and clemency with which the reeducation program was conducted.” This letter continued:
Vietnam now enjoys human rights as it has never known in history as described in the International Covenant on Human Rights: the right to a job and safe, healthy working conditions, the right to join trade unions, the right to be free from hunger, from colonialism and racism. Moreover, they receive—without cost—education, medicine, and health care, human rights we in the United States have yet to achieve.
When I saw this letter some months later, I was especially taken by the absolute conviction of the writers, although to my knowledge none of them had ever seen the inside of a Vietnamese reeducation camp or prison, and none had ever experienced the “free health care” or the “right to be free from hunger” guaranteed by the Socialist Republic of Vietnam.
Even more striking in the letter was the burning hatred the signers evinced for their own government. And it was this emotion, still red-hot six years after the 1973 pullout of American troops from Vietnam, that got me to thinking about the psychological consequences of Vietnam for future “nationalistic” conflicts. The letter combined an utterly simplistic understanding of Vietnamese issues with a deep antagonism toward American motives—obviously a potent mixture. I wondered how pervasive that orientation was in American public opinion and whether it would permanently debilitate United States policy toward Vietnam.
I came back to France overflowing with images of the United States. My chief impression was of the country's vitality and intellectual excitement. I had spent months talking with specialists on Vietnam, former antiwar people, and thousands of students who wanted to know what had happened, and what was happening now. (Vietnam was front-page news again with its invasion of Cambodia.) I also found that the experiences I had had on the tour had pushed my own thinking in new directions.
It was not that my personal shock at the revolution's betrayal had worn off; it never would. But I now began to understand that the plain fact of the betrayal was less important than the method of the betrayal, which had been the single most potent weapon in the arsenal of the Vietnamese Communist party.3 My trip to the United States had helped me to distance myself from the personal dimension of the tragedy. And it helped me toward an understanding of the more global significance of what had happened.
Motivated by my hatred of the dictators and by my view of myself as a Vietnamese nationalist, I had played a role in weakening the American-backed regime and isolating it from domestic and international support. Now I understood that the passion of my ideals, combined with a belief in my own political intelligence, had led me down a trail at whose unforeseen end lay terror and destitution for my country. And I had walked that trail in company with millions of other passionate idealists, Vietnamese, French, and American.
Together we had been caught in a “people's war,” the kind of struggle that gave precedence to the techniques of psychological warfare. As the American military had belatedly recognized, the battlefield was also the minds and hearts of those who created public opinion in Vietnam and in the West. And the way to those minds and hearts, the Communists saw, was through their ideals: a hatred for colonialism, an abhorrence of violence, a belief in social welfare and liberal democracy.
That was why, from the beginning, the Vietnamese Communist party had built its strategy, not on the forthright social promises of Marxism (the rock upon which the Russian and Chinese parties had built their revolutions), but on the Vietnamese people's fierce desire for national independence. That was why in two wars the Vietnamese Communist party had hidden itself in the background and created in its place two “fronts,” the Vietminh and the NLF, whose appeal was to the grass-roots longings of the Vietnamese—and to the ingrained ideals of the very Western nations that were the party's bitterest enemies. (In 1945 Ho Chi Minh had proclaimed the independence of the Vietnamese people in the following words: “We hold the truths that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights, among which are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.”)
All of us, Vietnamese and Americans alike, could see the venal habits, political suppression, and common brutality of the Saigon regime, along with the war's human carnage and the grotesque social impact of the American army. But the heart of the other side remained hidden. Neither young nationalists like me in South Vietnam nor most Americans reading their newspapers and watching television could see the secret strategy that made the American people themselves the chief target of this “people's war” or the iron social theories and alien disregard for human decency that animated those whose target they were.
I now realized that Vietnam was not an isolated incident on the stage of world affairs, that the “people's war” techniques that had been developed there were applicable to every Third World conflict in which the West had an interest. Vietnam was a casebook for revolutionary strategy—a casebook to be studied with the greatest care by the world's democracies and by the world's emerging nations, for whom the Communist road to national liberation is in fact a road to national desolation.
1 Technically the Foreign Minister of the Provisional Revolutionary Government.
2 Nguyen Cong Hoan's personal crusade, however, was not entirely unsuccessful. Shortly after I met him he was invited to Holland to address the Dutch parliament. Following his speech, Holland withdrew its aid to Vietnam over the regime's violations of basic human rights.
3 During the war years the official name of the party was the Dang Lao Dong, the Workers' party.