Ho Chi Minh presided over the founding congress of the Vietnamese Communist Party in Hong Kong in February 1930. In his book Under¬standing Vietnam, Neil L. Jamieson quotes a French military report on how pervasive Ho Chi Minh’s organizational apparatus soon became. It included:
youth groups, groups for mothers, farmers, workers, “resistant” Catholics, war veterans, etc. It could just as well have included associations of flute players or bicycle racers; the important point was that no one escaped regi-mentation and that the territorial hierarchy was thus complemented by an¬other, which watched the former and was in turn watched by it—both of them being watched in turn from the outside and the inside by the security services and the party. The individual caught in the fine mesh of such a net has no chance whatever of preserving his independence.
In recruiting rural peasants for the resistance in South Vietnam, Flo’s cadres were not entirely honest in sharing their goals. They were in¬structed not to talk about ideological purity and never to mention com¬munism. “Nationalism” was the only word in their political vocabulary. Neither did they ever speak of Party plans to collectivize the farms—an idea that could well have turned many peasants against the revolution. The truth is most Southern farmers didn’t care whether their leader was Ho Chi Minh or Ngo Dinh Diem, whether they lived under communism or under a regime that purported to stand for democracy. They just wanted to survive and know that no one would shoot their water buffalo.
Vietnam was run by a troika during my time in Hanoi—a president, a prime minister, and the chief of the Communist Party. But President Tran Duc Luong’s job was ceremonial, and Prime Minister Phan Van Khai, a decent, reform-minded man respected in international circles, didn’t have much power. He could decree that Vietnam Airlines paint its planes blue but not that Vietnam accelerate economic reform or increase steel pro¬duction. Many of his tasks were mundane. When, for instance, an infes¬tation of rats nibbling through precious rice fields struck the North, it fell to Khai to issue the battle cry, “Kill rat; grow cat” and to urge the citi¬zenry to collect the tails of dead rats it had hunted down and killed.
The rat decree was issued shortly after I arrived in Hanoi, and I was surprised such affairs of state fell on the prime minister’s desk. But his of¬fice had determined that there was a good reason for the explosion in the rat population: Vietnam had eaten—or exported to China to be eaten— most of its cats. So Khai ordered the closure of Haiphong’s “little tiger” restaurants, which specialized in cat (boiled or grilled), and urged the na¬tion to start raising cats as predators. One zoo got so caught up in the antirat campaign that it released its snakes into the rice fields. Some were poisonous, raising many complaints among farmers.
A man from the agriculture ministry, Nguyen Van Tien, told me: “I know growing cats may seem a long-term solution to the rat problem. They take a long time to grow up, they don’t have many children and they can run away or die from disease. But they don’t like rats so it’s an impor¬tant option.” Still, I was not convinced that cats had become eat-proof, and ours, Boomer and Paka (the Swahili word for “cat”), remained re¬stricted to quarters in our ninth-floor apartment.
I went with Tien to Thanh Xuan, a village an hour’s drive from Hanoi, where the mobilization of the citizenry had been impressive. Rats had been smoked and flooded out of their holes, chased and clubbed to death and poisoned. The confirmation of each kill was a severed tail. Just as Americans used to save green stamps, farmers were collecting rat tails in plastic bags until they had enough to warrant a trip to the local rat re¬demption center. Their reward for each tail was 200 dong, or about two U.S. cents. One man biked into the Thanh Xuan with 2,000 tails and went home with more money than he normally earned in a month. “This is easy work,” he said. “There are rats everywhere.” The national rat body count reached 20 million before I stopped paying attention.
The fact that Khai had taken the long-term cat approach to the rat problem was very much in keeping with the national character. Patience was Vietnam’s long suit. It’s how the Vietnamese outlasted the French and the Americans, how they played China and the Soviet Union one against the other. Patience, the older Vietnamese believed, was their key weapon. “How long do you Americans want to fight?” Pham Van Dong, a founder of the Viet Minh and one of Ho Chi Minh’s closest allies, asked an American reporter in 1966. “One year? Five years? Twenty years? We will accommodate you.”
Dong, who had headed the communist delegation at the Geneva peace talks that followed France’s defeat at Dien Bien Phu, was prime minister of North Vietnam, then of the reunited Vietnam, from 1955 to 1987. The political apparatus he and Ho oversaw served Hanoi well in time ot war. Patience, endurance, and single-minded focus were virtues. The politburo made decisions by consensus in collegial meetings with few disagree¬ments. As in the United States during the 1950s and early 1960s, the peo¬ple trusted their political leaders to do the right thing and make the right decisions. North Vietnam and its population were manageable. Disci¬pline and orderliness were valued. The wisdom of elders was respected, unquestioned in the tradition of Confucianism, and Ho, Dong, and Gen¬eral Vo Nguyen Giap were already old by the time the American War started. Decisions were reached quietly, privately. The politburo, a small group of fifteen or twenty men—occasionally a woman found her way into the fraternity—didn’t have to explain, cajole, or ask for anyone’s ap¬proval. They were like a corporate board of directors with no shareholders to answer to.

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