IN SEARCH OF A PEACE DIVIDEND 6

With the Americans gone in the early spring of 1975, Hanoi had a golden opportunity to achieve reconciliation between the war-weary peo¬ples of North and South. “It wasn’t that I wanted communism, but when Saigon fell, I thought, ‘Thank God, no more fighting. Now everyone will join to rebuild the country.’That was our dream,” said Hoang Van Cuong, a Saigon photographer who had thrown his arms around a group of NVA soldiers at the Presidential Palace on April 30. But the dream was an illu¬sion. So was true reconciliation. A lifetime of struggle had made the Hanoi leadership paranoid. What it wanted was conformity, a country of true born-again communist believers, and to achieve it Hanoi instituted unforgiving policies that would set Vietnam back thirty years or more.
“At every station the loudspeakers blared, blasting the ears of the wounded, the sick, the blind, the mutilated, the white-eyed, gray-lipped malarial troops,” Bao Dinh wrote of the time he and other NVA soldiers left Saigon on a train that would carry them home to Hanoi. “Into their ears poured an endless stream of the most ironic of teachings, urging them to ignore the spirit of reconciliation, to beware of the ‘bullets coated with sugar,’ to ignore the warmth and passions among the remnants of this fallen, luxurious society of the South. And especially to guard against the idea of the South having fought valiantly or been meritorious in anyway. But we ‘meritorious’ and victorious soldiers knew how to defend ourselves against this barrage of nonsense. We made fun of the loud¬speakers’ admonishments, turning their speeches into jokes, ridiculing them.”
Based on the scores of conversations I had, as well as everything that my instinct says, I am sure in the heart of virtually every ordinary Viet¬namese, Northerner or Southerner, civilian or soldier, was the spirit of reconciliation. But for officialdom, that was not a high priority. Part of the problem was that Ho Chi Minh was dead by the time Saigon fell. He was a dedicated communist and no soft touch, but he was a pragmatic man and, above all else, a nationalist. I think he would have turned over in his mausoleum if he had known of the disastrous path his hand-picked successor, Le Duan, decided to follow.
Four hundred thousand South Vietnamese—soldiers, teachers, writers, student activists, businessmen, intellectuals, along with some common criminals—were sent off to reeducation camps. Conditions varied widely. Executions were rare, and systematic brutality was not a pattern. But thousands of prisoners died before seeing freedom, and mistreatment was common. Recalcitrants were kept in wooden boxes that served as isola¬tion cells, measuring six feet long, three feet wide, and six feet high. A single lightbulb shone overhead throughout the night. A pith helmet in each cell served as a toilet. Prisoners were manacled, the right hand cuffed to the left ankle, the left hand to the right ankle.
“I am not sure how many days I stay; ten or twelve, I think,” Doan Van Toai wrote of his time in solitary confinement. Toai was a Saigon student activist who supported the Viet Cong but was arrested after refusing to cooperate in the expropriation of all property in South Vietnam alter the fall of Saigon. “I remember noticing the symptoms of beriberi: my legs seem to be asleep or partially paralyzed, and I am afraid I will never be able to move again. At first hallucinations come sporadically, Ho Chi Minh appears, then my mother, then gray-skinned, long-haired ghosts. At some point I begin to feel a fever coming on. I know I am going un¬conscious for periods of time. I vaguely remember being unlocked and propped up in a standing position, my legs buckling under me. Though I can’t seem to sec, I know I am being carried across someone’s shoulders. Then a familiar, nauseating smell overwhelms me, and just before I lapse into darkness I remember where I smelled it before. It’s the smell that wafts out of the Zone C cells when you open the door to hand in their pail of rice.”
A number of antiwar activists in the United States had an unusual take on all this. In an open letter published in the New York Times in June 1979 and signed by, among others, Harry Bridges, Corliss Lamont, and Karen Ackerman, they praised “the remarkable spirit of moderation, restraint and clemency with which the reeducation program was conducted” by the communist authorities. The letter went on to say: “Vietnam now en¬joys human rights as it has never known in history as described in the In¬ternational 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.”
That may have been true for those in the communist ranks of True Be¬lievers. Everyone else was shortchanged—-even the Viet Cong, who had played a crucial role in reunifying Vietnam even though their ranks had been decimated in the 1968 Tet Offensive and by the CIA-sponsored Phoenix assassination project. (The phoenix, or phuong, symbolized all things virtuous and graceful in Vietnam; it is the emblem of queens and a sign of peace.) The VC fighters were thanked and sent home to their vil¬lages, denied any significant say in Vietnam’s future. Hanoi’s men arrived by the planeload to take over every aspect of society. On Hanoi’s orders 2 million people were involuntarily moved into ecologically unfriendly “economic zones” for cooperative farming. Food production soon plum¬meted. Another order was to take over the administration of the educa¬tion system and revise the school curricula and textbooks. Vietnam’s new world view was through the lens of Marxism, and in this new society jobs went to Northerners, university slots to the children of Northerners.

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