This is the edited text of a talk given by Quynh Dao on the 26th of May 2004. Quynh fled from Vietnam after the Vietnam War, having experienced the conflict and the ensuing communist regime. She is now involved in human rights organizations in Australia. This talk was presented by Perspectives on World History and Current Events, in conjunction with the Australia-Vietnam Human Rights Committee and the Vietnamese Professionals Society (Victorian Chapter).
Ladies and Gentlemen,
It is my honour to be here with Perspectives on World History and Current Events. Many prominent speakers were invited to your previous functions and so I do have reservations as to whether I'm up to the task. However I will try my best.
I share with Perspectives on World History and Current Events the worthy aspiration to aim for unique perspectives in world events, to go behind the news, to not take what is on offer by the media as gospel. I came to that point of view from my own dissatisfaction, to put it mildly, of the way the Vietnam War was and still is wrongly projected and understood by some influential people in the Western media. I'm here to share with you the other side of the story and an updated account about Vietnam, the Vietnam that I know. Many public figures have drawn analogies between the Vietnam War and the current Iraq situation. Before making comparison, before drawing lessons about the Vietnam War in any meaningful way, I think it is important to understand the Vietnam War from a factual and up to date perspective.
Vietnam War & Australia
The Opposition leader Mr Mark Latham recently referred to Vietnam when articulating his Iraq policy.1 He said we got into the Vietnam War to prevent communism spreading, but it turned out to be a civil war involving nationalists who wanted unification. He echoed Jim Cairns, the Labor leader of the anti-Vietnam War Moratorium movement during the '60s. The whole of the anti-Vietnam War movement sprang from the belief that the Vietnam War was essentially a national revolutionary movement against the South Vietnamese regime, perceived by them as unpopular, not one fomented or directed by the communist North which, in turn, was being instructed by communist China.2
Well, the anti-war protesters got their facts wrong. Mr Jim Cairns was wrong then. Mr Latham is wrong now.
The Truth About the Vietnam War
The Vietnam War was about preventing communism from spreading. The Vietnam War was fomented by the communist North. The communist North was instructed and abetted by communist China and supported by the rest of the communist bloc.
This is not just me saying this. This is what the Communist Party of Vietnam's website says.
What does it say? Allow me to quote from the Communist Party of Vietnam's official biography on Ho Chi Minh:
"Ho Chi Minh... felt the need for active propaganda and organizational work in order to step up the revolutionary movement in colonial countries, including Vietnam. He deemed it his task to spread communist doctrine in Asia in general and in Indochina particularly."3 [Emphasis added.]
In its internal party directive, the Chinese communist Party declared their task:
"to assist in every possible way the Communist parties and people in all oppressed nations in Asia to win their liberation.""4
That's why from 1950 to 1978, China gave North Vietnam at least 15 to 20 billion US dollars in economic aid, and sent at least 300,000 military and other personnel during the height of the Vietnam War. The famous battle of Dien Bien Phu in 1954 was fought largely with Chinese weapons and under Chinese direction.5
"The Soviet Union poured billions of rubles into Vietnam. . . During 1965-1975 military aid was central, and economic aid was geared entirely to the war effort. By the 1970s Soviet aid amounted to $1 billion or more annually, without which the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV) could not have continued the war."6
In his autobiography, Lee Kuan Yew says Singapore and other Asian countries were saved from communism by the Vietnam War:
"Although American intervention failed in Vietnam, it bought time for the rest of Southeast Asia. In 1965, when the US military moved massively into South Vietnam, Thailand, Malaysia, and the Philippines faced internal threats from armed communist insurgencies... and the communist underground was still active in Singapore... America's action [in Vietnam] enabled non-communist Southeast Asia to put their own houses in order. By 1975, they were in better shape to stand up to the communists. Had there been no US intervention, the will of these countries to resist them would have melted and Southeast Asia would most likely have gone communist. The prosperous emerging market economies of ASEAN were nurtured during the Vietnam War years."7
Time and again, events in Vietnamese history proved that Ho and his communist cohorts only used the patriotic feelings of the Vietnamese people to further their own ends.
In the early '40s, Ho founded the Vietminh front, ostensibly to unite all anti-French forces to fight for independence but in fact it was under strong influence and direction of the Indochinese Communist Party whose role was carefully disguised to alleviate the concern of non-communist elements...8
The moment independence was within reach, the first people that he eliminated were other anti-French nationalist and religious leaders who refused to place themselves under communist command such as founder of the Buddhist Hoa Hao branch the Most Venerable Huynh Phu So, scholar Pham Quynh and nationalist leader and novelist Khai Hung. The method of eliminating these figures varied in its brutality. Many were bound hand and foot and thrown into a river. Some were buried alive.9 After the declaration of independence in 1945, Ho's troops placed "at least two hundred opposition figures... in detention camps"10
During the Vietnam War, the anti-war movement supported the The National Front for the Liberation of South Vietnam or the Vietcong, thinking it was a national uprising of South Vietnamese dissatisfied with what was perceived by them as the unpopular South Vietnam regime. The communist sympathisers in the West actively promoted it as "quite independent from Hanoi".11 It was in fact a product of the Party, led by a Party veteran, placed under the Party command and was first mentioned publicly in and address in the Party's Third National Congress by the Party elder Ton Duc Thang. Again, the Party directive was very clear that there would be no mention of communism.12
As such, the whole of the anti-Vietnam War movement let themselves be fooled by the communists. As such, the whole of the anti-war movement was based on a fallacy. And there were influential people in the West who were willing to propagate that fallacy.
Western anti-War Intellectuals
Novelist Graham Greene wrote "the Quiet American" in 1955 in which he denounced America and non-communist South Vietnam as engaged in acts of terrorism against the Vietnamese people. He could not provide any specific, verifiable detail about one such incident on which the whole book was based and which he asserted was a true incident. At the time he wrote that book, thousands of people in the North were killed in the so-called "Land reform" campaign initiated by Ho. Graham Greene was happy to skip that. Let's revisit that event.
In 1954, Vietnam was divided into the communist North and the non-communist South. The first thing Ho did when he took control of the North was to launch the "Land reform" campaign. Under this campaign, people deemed wealthy were summarily executed. (In the communist frame of mind, being wealthy or successful is a sin because you can only be wealthy or successful by exploiting the labourers. Wealthy means you belong to the exploiting class, enemy of the working class). In war torn impoverished backward Vietnam wealthy might mean owning a few blocks of land, a brick house or a fabric shop. This campaign was carried out following the Chinese Maoist model, under the directives of Chinese communist advisors, using Chinese statistics13 which set a quota of people who must be declared "class enemies". So there were people who were killed just so that the quota was reached. Estimated figure of people killed in this campaign ranged from tens to hundreds of thousand, including several thousand people who were Vietminh supporters.14
Noam Chomsky is the leading anti-war anti-american intellectual. He was described by his like-minded admirer John Pilger as "a humane, thoroughly moral man, someone who [is committed ] to the principle of free expression".15 John Pilger himself was described as someone who [uses] "the Truth in his hands [as] a weapon... in the struggle against evil and injustice".16 With these mottos, "Chomsky and Pilger saw it as their mission to support the Northern communists who persecuted Vietnamese intellectuals, who imprisoned poets and novelists, who silenced anyone who dared to speak out against the Party line.
In 1966, when Chomsky passionately vowed "to speak the truth and to expose lies" as a reason for his anti-American pro-Vietnamese communist stand,17 North Vietnamese poet Nguyen Chi Thien was imprisoned for doing just that; writing the truth and exposing lies about the communists. Nguyen Chi Thien was imprisoned for a total of 27 years.18 Intellectuals in the North had been silenced well before that. In the late '50s, intellectuals within the Communist party's own ranks, those who fought with the communists against the colonialists, thinking they fought for freedom and national independence, were crushed in a movement known as the "Nhan van Giai pham" affair. "Nhan Van" and "Giai Pham" are two literary publications, in which contributors spoke out against the bloody killing during the "Land reform" campaign and the oppression in the North, and were themselves denounced, terrorised and imprisoned.19
In the meantime, To Huu, the Party's favourite poet was elevated to the rank of Politburo member with such literary gems as:
I love you ten times more than I love my own father!
The Western media turned what was a military success on the part of the non-communist force in the South to a political victory for the communists in the crucial propaganda front in the West.
During Tet 1968, (Vietnamese New Year) the communists conducted a surprise attack in South Vietnam's major provinces and capitals. Arnauld de Borchgrave, at the time Newsweek's chief foreign correspondent and in charge of the Tet Offensive coverage reported that it was an unmitigated disaster for Hanoi. They lost some 50,000 and at least as many wounded. The South Vietnamese side had some 6,000 casualties.20
Yet the Western media only showed carnage of American bodies to a war weary home audience. They also showed, ad nauseum, the picture of a South Vietnamese soldier shooting a Vietcong, in civilian clothing, point blank. The message was loud and clear - this is the kind of atrocities that the South Vietnamese army did to its own people, with the backing of America.
The Western media did not report the massacre of some 4,000 unarmed civil servants and civilians in the old imperial city of Hue committed by the communists. Arnauld de Borchgrave wrote
"Several mass graves were found with some 4,000 unarmed civil servants and other civilians, stabbed or with skulls smashed by clubs..."21
The Western media did not show the human carnage which occurred daily in South Vietnam due to the terrorist acts of the communists.
General Nguyen Ngoc Loan, the South Vietnamese soldier in the picture, passed away in 1998. Neil Davis, the heroic Australian war correspondent killed on assignment in Thailand, set out the background to the killing when interviewed for David Bradbury's 1980 documentary Frontline. The Vietcong shot by General Loan had, not long before this picture was taken, led a team of communist terrorists in a killing spree, killing the whole family of a South Vietnamese officer in the process - including his 80 year old mother, his wife and his small children. How often is the background of this photo explained to you? Eddie Adams, the Pulitzer winning photographer who took that picture, apologised in person to General Loan and his family for the irretrievable damage it did to his honor. When General Loan died, Adams praised him as a hero of a just cause.
The famous photograph of Nguyen Ngoc Loan shooting Viet Cong commander. The full story behind this image is rarely told.
Another picture comes to mind every time the VN War is mentioned. That of a naked girl running away from a napalm bomb. In her biography,22 Kim Phuc, the girl in the picture, described how the communist regime brought her along on its money begging expeditions for her value as a perfect live display of American war atrocities and as a guilt trigger for the West, the way the Elephant Man is valued in a freak show. Kim Phuc escaped from Vietnam and now lives in Canada.
Kim Phuc, "The Girl in the Picture", was paraded by the communists as a propaganda tool, until she escaped to Canada.
General Vo Nguyen Giap, in his memoirs, admitted that news media reporting of the war and the anti-war demonstrations that ensued after the Tet Offensive surprised him.23 Communist colonel Bui Tin was among the North Vietnamese delegates who accepted the surrender of South Vietnam.
He made clear that "the anti-war movement in the US, which led to the collapse of political will in Washington, was essential to our strategy".24 Bui Tin defected to the West and now lives in America. He is now among the most outspoken critics of the Vietnamese communist dictatorship.
In 1975, while the anti-war camp cheered on the communist victory, North Vietnamese poet Nguyen Chi Thien, in his dark cell, wept:
O South Vietnam ever since that day of your loss
I have experienced a thousand, ten thousand agonies!25
When the so called "Liberation army" of the communists came to South Vietnam, their first act of "liberation" was to conduct mass arrest and mass persecution of South Vietnamese. They put more than 1 million of their "unified brothers" in the horrible concentration camps
"Over the past three years, we have liberated more than one million people who were guilty of collaborating with the enemy one way or another"26
Millions of South Vietnamese women and children suddenly became husbandless and fatherless. The "Liberation army" appropriated people's properties, shops, factories, nationalised all means of production, evicted people from their own home in the name of the revolution. The authority conducted two surprise money exchange operations to ensure people were stripped of all their life savings. No matter how much you were worth before the communist invasion, the maximum amount of new money you could exchange in the first money exchange operation was 200 Revolutionary dong or 400 kilos of rice at official price. A ration card regime was introduced, you can only buy your starving ration at designated state-owned stores, the only place you can legally stay overnight is the address on that ration card. With that piece of paper, the authority controls your stomach and your every movement.
In 1979, a BBC news bulletin reported that Vietnam held more political prisoners than any other country in the world.27
When North Vietnam was put under the control of the communists in 1954, 1 million people fled the North to the South. When the whole country was taken over by the communists in 1975, nearly two million Vietnamese refugees from both the North and the South fled the country by boat. An estimate of half a million people, or even more, perished at sea in their desperate journey for freedom. I am among the survivors of those perilous journeys.
Before the communist invasion, South Vietnam was far from a fully-fledged democracy, but a framework for democracy was established, with the four governing institutions, constitution, executive, legislative and supervision operating independently. With all the difficulties, the limitation and the set-backs of a country at war, even in times of most political unrest, South Vietnam's free market economy was growing, the right to private property was respected. Society was guided by the rule of law. There were basic freedoms, including freedom of information, freedom of the press. Several dozen newspapers were privately run, Chinh Luan, Saigon Times, Le Journal D'Extreme Orient (French for Far Eastern Journal) were known for their independence, the equivalent of Melbourne's Age. An army of foreign correspondents was given full freedom to cover the war. Political freedom was allowed, a pluralistic, multiparty system was in place, parties other than the ruling party were allowed to operate. But a clear line was drawn in relation to communism: Communist activities were outlawed and communist elements were harshly dealt with. The Western media did not like it. The communist sympathisers in the West made a big deal out of it. The anti-war protesters saw it as an excuse to denounce the South Vietnam government as repressive. They forgot South Vietnam was in a life or death battle with a most dangerous and ruthless enemy. If I could relate this to Australia during World War II when people of German, Italian and Japanese extraction were detained. Those were harsh but necessary measures in times of war, where national security is of utmost priority. If I could relate this to our current situation with the threat of terrorism. Freedom does not include freedom to engage in terrorism.
Thirty Years of Peace
After thirty years of peace, what has it brought to the Vietnamese people?
Vietnam now slides to the rank of the poorest and most corrupt countries in the world. Before the end of the war, South Vietnam was at par with other developing countries in the region. Its annual per capital income was $500. Now, after 30 years of "liberation", the annual per capita income declines to $470. Hanoi has money to send two military divisions to Laos to crush anti-communist uprisings but Vietnamese children have no food to eat. Unicef reported an alarming number of Vietnamese children, some as young as 5 or 6 years old, are forced into prostitution.
After thirty years of peace, intellectuals, artists, Buddhist monks, Catholic priests, religious followers, tribal people, communist veterans are subject to summary arrests, torture, killing, harassment, imprisonment for their peaceful demand for freedom. The Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam was banned from operation, church properties were confiscated, the church's 84 years old patriach the Most Venerable Thich Huyen Quang was arrested and has been in internal exile for over 20 years. A 32 year old journalist for The Journal of Communism, Nguyen Vu Binh was sentenced to seven years in prison for advocating democracy and individual liberty. Easter this year, 280 Christian highlanders were killed in a peaceful mass prayer protest for religious freedom and for the return of their ancestral lands appropriated by the authorities.
The voice of protest against the grave violations of human rights in Vietnam can be heard around the world. Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, United Nations, Rome, Pen International, Journalists without Frontiers, the Montagnard Foundation, the US Congress, Australian parliamentarians, European Parliament, German Parliament, Italian Parliament, Russian activists, Cambodian Opposition Party.
Amid all these voices of protest, the silence from the anti-war camp is deadening. The heartfelt sentiments expressed in the anti-war protests - to fight for freedom from oppression, to put an end to exploitation - are nowhere to be heard now that the acts of oppression and exploitation are committed by the communists.
Those who supported the communists during the war out of ignorance still refuse to see the stark evidence stacked right in front of them. Their doggedness is astonishing.
SBS Broadcasts Hanoi News
Last year Nigel Milan, manager of SBS TV, decided to show communist propaganda to the Vietnamese refugee community, the majority of whom are first, second, or third generation victims of the communists. Mr Milan found it incomprehensible that these people did not appreciate communist propaganda.
Communist Party members, even communist war time heroes such as General Tran Do, Ho Chi Minh's former bodyguard Tran Dung Tien, Director of the Marxist-Leninist Institute Hoang Minh Chinh have been locked up, persecuted, put under house arrest for advocating real democracy. They are typical of the life long revolutionaries who have come to regret the policies of the Vietnamese Communist Party and the wasted sacrifices for the war and socialism. Duong Thu Huong was a Communist Party member until she started writing novels on government corruption and the abuse of power. She was imprisoned and now is an outspoken dissident. This is what she had to say about the communist government in an interview with ABC Foreign Correspondent's reporter:
"The good people who upheld ideals have all died away. Their successors today are all mean and cunning thieves. People in power are involved in drug trafficking and smuggling and use the regime's power to grab people's properties. They embezzle public funds and national assets to monopolise the business market... Each of them has buildings to rent to foreigners and a lot of wealth."
"I myself choose to be a rebel... That's my revenge for those who died unjustly, in vain in the anti-American war."28
In the meantime, Philip Noyce, Australian film maker and a self-confessed "dyed-in-the-wool" leftie, went to Vietnam in 2002 to a red carpet treatment from the Vietnamese dictatorship for his remake of the film The Quiet American with its out of date and out of place propaganda sanctifying the Vietnamese communists as their nation's saviour.
In the meantime, Amnesty International's request to visit hundreds of prisoners of conscience in Vietnam has been consistently knocked back.
It was the pressure from the anti-war movement that forced the US administration to pull troops out of Vietnam. Largely because of their action, 80 million Vietnamese people are now doomed in slavery. Are we going to let this happen to Iraq? There should be an exit strategy for Iraq. The troop pull out should be a process that happens gradually and not before the Iraqi national security is built up and its governing institutions are strengthened.
Building a democracy is not an overnight undertaking. It should not be subject to a deadline. After decades under Saddam Hussein's brutality, after so much destruction from the war, the Iraqi people deserve something better than a society run by fundamentalists. The escalation of violence in Iraq means more help is needed so that the Iraqi people can build a society which respects freedom and human rights and is based on the rule of law. These are universal values which should rise above the traditional left-right division and should not be caught between the simplistic pro- or anti-American labeling in political discourse.
Iraq means more help is needed so that the Iraqi people can build a society which respects freedom and human rights and is based on the rule of law. These are universal values which should rise above the traditional left-right division and should not be caught between the simplistic pro- or anti-American labeling in political discourse.
Prisoner Abuse Scandal
The recent Iraqi prisoners scandal is a disgrace, the way the My Lai massacre in Vietnam was a disgrace to the American army. Are these acts excusable in any way? No. Are they justifiable in any way? No. Does this incident shake my belief in a free and democratic system in any way? No. Because thanks to that system that these details are aired in public, this is a confirmation that we have freedom of the press, freedom of expression, we have a justice system to hold those responsible accountable, we extend justice even to our enemy, the kind of justice Saddam Hussein and the Vietnamese communists denied their own people.
There are bad apples among us, this system of ours is not perfect, human beings are not perfect, but under our system, there is the chance for progress, for improvement, for rectification. An Iraqi society based on the principles of freedom, human rights and the rule of law will allow the Iraqi people to progress.
For the Vietnamese people, the My Lai incident and the rest of the smear campaign conducted by the anti-Vietnam War camp against American involvement in Vietnam cannot blight the truth: that our struggle against communism is a just cause. To strive for freedom, democracy and human rights is a worthy aspiration. The Vietnam War against the communist invasion is a just war.
The national flag of Vietnam.
50,000 American soldiers, 504 Australian soldiers, 185,000 soldiers from the South Vietnamese army did not die in vain. They are heroes in the hearts of the Vietnamese people. They died to defend the yellow flag with three red stripes, the flag of free Vietnam. Statues to commemorate their sacrifice have been erected in US and in Australia by the Vietnamese community.
A memorial to the Vietnamese and Australian soldiers who fought side by side to defend South Vietnam from dictatorship.
After so much suffering, the Vietnamese people deserve some happiness. That's why the Vietnamese communities are joining hands with human rights organisations around the world to demand human rights and to continue our struggle to reclaim freedom and democracy for the Vietnamese people. We are fervent believers in freedom and democracy. Because we have experienced the alternative.
Member of the Australia-Vietnam Human Rights Committee 26th May 2004
|1 ABC Radio, 8 April 2004.
2 Paul Strangio, Keeper of the Faith, Melbourne University Press, 2002, p141.
3 Communist Party of Vietnam's website, English version
4 4Qiang Zhai, China and the Vietnam Wars 1950-1975, University of North Carolina Press, 1999, p21.
5 Immanuel C Y Hsu, The Rise of Modern China, Oxford University Press, Inc., 1995, pp795-796.
6 Spencer C Tucker, Encyclopedia Of The Vietnam War, ABC-CLIO, 2000, p415.
7 Lee Kuan Yew, From Third World to First The Singapore Story: 1965-2000, Harper Collins, 2000, pp467, 573.
8 William Duiker, Ho Chi Minh, Allen & Unwin, 2000, p245.
9 James Banerian, Losers Are Pirates: A Close Look at Pbs Series "Vietnam": A Television History, Sphinx Publishers, 1984, p69.
10 Duiker, p386.
11 Robert Manne, The Shadow of 1917, The Text Publishing Company, 1994, p86.
12 Duiker, p527.
13 Duiker, p477.
14 Duiker, p476. Nguyen Chi Thien, Flowers of Hell, VCANA, 1996, p19.
15 John Pilger, Distant Voices, Vintage, 1992, p341.
16 Pilger, back cover intro.
17 Noam Chomsky, The Responsibility of Intellectuals essay, cited in Chomsky, American Power and the New Mandarins, The New Press, 2002, foreword, p v.
18 Nguyen Chi Thien, pp19, 21.
19 Que Me, Let 100 Flowers Bloom, Paris, 1983, p38.
20 Arnauld de Borchgrave, A mini-Tet Offensive?, The Washington Times, 16th April 2004.
21 Arnauld de Borchgrave
22 Kim Phuc, The Girl in The Picture, Viking Press, 1998.
23 Arnauld de Borchgrave's article.
24 Arnauld de Borchgrave's article.
25 Nguyen Chi Thien, p397.
26 Interview with then Prime Minister Pham Van Dong by Jean-Claude Labbe, Paris Match, September 1978.
27 Johathan Power, Like Water on Stone: The Story of Amnesty International, 2001, Allen Lane/The Penguin Press, p149.
28 Daring to Speak Out, Foreign Correspondent, Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC), 28th October 2003.