Whitehead Senior Fellow
The New Leader
February 1, 2001
Bill Clinton's visit to Vietnam last November, during the closing months of his Presidency, revealed a split in the American elite over the interpretation of the Vietnam War. Democratic politicians, like Clinton, departing Vice President Al Gore and Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts, argue that U.S. intervention in Indochina was imprudent, but no significant figure then in public office any longer claimed that the war was immoral. At the same time, the major metropolitan book reviews and journals of the dwindling Left such as Dissent and the Nation persisted in trotting out Frances FitzGerald, George C. Herring and other relics of the '60s to put their stamp of approval on the steady stream of volumes produced by Leftist professors to repeat, yet again, the discredited dogmas of the antiwar movement- that Ho Chi Minh was a benevolent figure, that former Presidents Lyndon B. Johnson and Richard M. Nixon were sinister mass murderers who waged the war solely to promote their short-term political ambitions.
In a decade or two, however, after middle-aged editors bent on keeping this line alive have retired, even the liberal press and the academy will acknowledge the truth: The Vietnam War was not an aberration, it was simply one battle in the half-century Cold War that ended with the collapse of Marxism-Leninism.
This is the view of the greatest living Vietnamese poet, Nguyen Chi Thien. If you haven't read his name in the New York Times or the New York Review of Books or Dissent or the Nation, there is a reason. By the 1980s, it became socially acceptable in American liberal intellectual circles to support anti-Communist dissident writers, but only on two conditions. First, they had to be European (like Vaclav Havel and Joseph Brodsky) and second, they had to criticize Communism from Social Democratic perspective (this disqualified the Orthodox Russian nationalist Aleksandr I. Solzhenitsyn). Nguyen Chi Thien fails both tests-he is Asian (what white American liberal or Leftist has heard of any anti-Communist Asian dissidents, other than Wei Jingsheng?), and he rejects Marxism in all its varieties. To make matters worse, he reminds American intellectuals of a war in which many of them rooted for the dictatorship that imprisoned him. This explains the curious fact that Nguyen Chi Thien, who has been suggested repeatedly for the Nobel Prize, is well-known everywhere in the world except the United States, his adopted home.
Now living in exile alternately in Virginia and Paris, Nguyen Chi Thien was born in 1939 to a lower-middle-class family (his father was a court clerk), and received a good education in French and Vietnamese culture. In 1954, at the age of 15, he welcomed the Geneva Accords' establishment of Communist North Vietnam. But like many North Vietnamese, he turned against the regime during the ensuing reign of terror.
The Hanoi dictatorship instituted the Soviet and Chinese collectivization models as its disastrous "land reform program." A "Population Classification Degree" of March 2, 1953, assigned everyone to categories invented by the Soviets in the 1920s, e.g. "landlord" and "agricultural worker." Notwithstanding the fact that the average landlord in North Vietnam owned less than two acres of rice land, somewhere between 10,000 and 15,000 North Vietnamese were denounced as class enemies and shot.
During this period Ho Chi Minh and his colleagues were so impressed by Mao's large-scale class genocide that they brought in Chinese Communists to help them sort out who should live and who should die. Bui Tin, a former North Vietnamese official, described the case of Mrs. Nguyen Thi Nam. Although her sons were Communist Party officials, "the Chinese adviser concluded that she was a cruel landowner who had to be eliminated." This case was brought to Ho Chi Minh's attention, but he refused to intervene. "Mrs. Nam was quickly condemned to death on the advice of Mao Tse-tung's representative, who accused her of deceitfully entering the ranks of the revolution to destroy it from within."
Some peasants used the land reform process to settle scores, but as the imprisonment and murder grew in scale many were frightened into resistance. On November 2, 1956, villagers rebelled in Nghe-An, near Ho's birthplace, forcing the regime to send in the 325th Division of the People's Army to crush them.
As in Stalin's Soviet Union and Mao's China, in Ho's North Vietnam the land reform terror was called off when it had served its purpose of atomizing society and cementing the control of the communist party. Ho Chi Minh admitted that "errors" had been made, but blithely dismissed the victims of the mass murder: "One cannot waken the dead."
The atrocities of the North Vietnamese government appalled many intellectuals, including some in the Communist Party. Their protest took the form of articles in two publications, Nhan Van ("The Humanities") and Giai Pham ("Masterpieces"), from which the so-called Nhan Van-Giai Pham Affair (1956-58) took its name. The regime cracked down on the dissidents, but could not kill the spirit of dissent. Nguyen Chi Thien began composing poetry critical of the regime, which was privately circulated. The authorities jailed him in 1961.
In testimony before the U.S. Congress in 1995, the poet described what happened: "In 1961 Ho Chi Minh himself signed a decree ordering the re-education of several hundred thousand people, consisting of those who had served in the military or government of the Bao Dai regime, and those in the general population who were discontented with the regime, including Buddhist monks, Catholic priests, lay Catholics, bourgeois capitalists and intellectuals. They were all corralled in hard labor camps…The vast majority of these people were never brought to trial and their fate depended entirely on the dispositions made by the Public Security cadres."
Released in 1963, Nguyen Chi Thien was arrested again in 1966 and was imprisoned until 1977. Like Solzhenitsyn in the Gulag, he had to compose his work and commit it to memory. Whether he was in the city jail of Hoa Lo (the "Hanoi Hilton" where many American POWs spent time) or hard labor camps in the countryside, he spent days reciting his poems to himself. His greatest fear was that if he lost his memory his life's work would be obliterated.
After being released in 1977, he lived with a friend and wrote down almost 400 poems from memory. He chose Bastille Day, 1979 (July 14) to smuggle his work to diplomats in the French Embassy in Hanoi. Unfortunately, the Vietnamese security detail standing guard deterred him. Two days later, pursued by another security detail, he plunged into the British embassy, shouting in English, "I am not a madman, I am a poet and I have something important to give to you." To their credit, three British diplomats shut out the Vietnamese guards and asked him what he wanted. He gave them his manuscript and three photographs of himself, to establish that he did not seek to hide in anonymity. On leaving the embassy he was arrested. He spent 12 more years in prison and composed a second collection of poems. In 1991 he was released and emigrated to the United States.
Alluding to Baudelaire's Les Fleurs du Mal ("Flowers of Evil"), Nguyen Chi Thien titled his first collection Hoa Dia Nguc ("Flowers of Hell"). In the letter accompanying his manuscript, he wrote: "Most of [the poems] were written during my years of detention. I think it is incumbent upon us, the victims, more so than upon anyone else, to show to the world the incredible suffering of our mercilessly oppressed and tortured people. Of my broken life there remains but one dream, that is to see the greatest possible number of people realize that Communism is a great calamity for mankind."
By 1980 poems from the first collection began to circulate among the Vietnamese in the U.S., France and other countries. In 1982, an article in Asiaweek, headlined "A Voice from the Hanoi Underground," followed by a BBC broadcast, brought wider attention to the dissident poet. He was awarded honors or membership by PEN clubs in the United States, France, Sweden, and Japan. His poems were translated into English, French, Japanese, German, Chinese, Czech, and Spanish. Some of his lyrics have been set to music by the Austrian composer Gunter Mattisch and the Vietnamese exile composer Pham Duy.
The poet's oeuvre consists of more than poems of political protest; it includes love lyrics, landscape scenes and poetic meditations. The originals are in rhyming meters from Vietnamese tradition, some of them complex, others simple folk forms. The nearest comparison might be the combination of political content and traditional prosody in the work of Bertolt Brecht (who was hardly a critic of Communism). Regrettably, the English renditions by Nguyen Ngoc Bich give no idea of the delicate form of the originals, but the content is clear.
These poems make hard reading, not only for pro-Communist Leftists but for the older generation of anti-anti-Communist liberals who rolled their eyes when President Ronald Reagan described the Soviet Union as "an evil empire" and predicted that Marxism-Leninism would soon end up on the trash heap of history.
From his early adulthood, Nguyen Chi Thien concluded, as the French authors of The Black Book of Communism did recently, that (in their words) "crime-mass crime, systematic crime, and crime against humanity" must be "a central factor in the analysis of Communism." In one of his "Scribblings" the poet wrote: "Oh, doleful Marxism-Leninism!/By the time you get here, to Vietnam, you've become a real crime!/ No matter how shameful you've been in Europe/All your crimes amount to but a thousandth of what took place here in Asia!"
Here is an early poem from 1960, "Should Providence Exist": "Should Providence exit and there remain a tomorrow/I will tell the stories of this horrible night/ So that the present generation and the next and the next/would wake up to this suffering/And animated by rightful anger, they would pool their forces/To kill this poisonous red snake, smashing its brain/ Thus liberating one third of mankind/Which is currently in its grasp, more dead than alive."
In 1973, when most of America's academic experts were insisting that Vietnamese Communism was an indigenous outgrowth of Vietnamese patriotism, Nguyen Chi Thien offered a different theory in "Under Party Guidance": "This Party in fact is nothing more than a gangster mob/…/Made possible by Russian and Chinese arms and the weapons of arrest..."
"Red Power" was composed in prison in 1975, shortly before President Jimmy Carter dismissed what he called an "inordinate fear of Communism": "Red Power: We must be of one mind to crush it/For if we let it roam, catastrophes will follow/…/One must write, thousands of us must write /About its colossal crimes, however subtly camouflaged /…/Knowledge then will be its destroyer, its grave."
Generation after generation of Westerners, taken on Potemkin village tours of the Soviet Union, China, North Vietnam, North Korea and Cuba, were fooled into thinking that Marxism-Leninism offered a way out of poverty for developing nations. For example, Barbara Tuchman and John Kenneth Galbraith, visiting the People's Republic of China in the early 1970s, both declared that Mao had overseen remarkable economic progress (we now know that tens of millions of people had starved to death because of the Great Leap Forward only a decade earlier).
In 1974, Nguyen Chi Thien analyzed Socialist economics in "A Cut of Pork": "What a miracle, a cut of pork!/A double miracle, a beef cut, my friend!/Lime, banana, orange, sugar, peanut, bean, rice, yam/Everything and anything that one can chew on/At the Party's magic touch becomes a miracle hard to find…"
For writing such verses the poet spent most of his adult life in prison and had his health permanently shattered. Ho Chi Minh's government preferred poems like the one written by the party poet To Huu on the death of Stalin in 1953: "Stalin, oh Stalin, alas He is gone!/Do Heaven and Earth still exist?/Devotion to father, to mother, to husband/Devotion to Him ten times more than to oneself." (In The Flowers of Hell, Nguyen Chi Thien mocks such literary toadies as "pen pals" of the dictators).
The North Vietnamese dictatorship made sure that its prisoners (a category that included Vietnamese outside as well as inside the jails and re-education camps) knew of the latest statements and actions by anti-Vietnam War activists in the United States and Europe. Naturally, the participation of Bertrand Russell in the farcical Stockholm tribunal that judged the U.S. guilty of war crimes was a boost to the regime. Nguyen Chi Thien composed a response, in prison in 1968.
"Letter to Bertrand Russell.": "The world respects you as a philosopher/But in politics, you are only a novice./ After all your noisy defenses of the Vietcong,/Can you in truth say you really know them?/Please come and have a look at our country,/Come and see for yourself our system of slavery,/Come and visit our countless prisons/Where even pigs and cows fare better than people./Just come and seek one angry testimony:/ You will learn how we have been hushed forever./Only then will you understand them, your allies,/Whom you will want chopped into many pieces./My dear Sir, you're a hundred years of age/But in 'Communistology' you're a mere babe."
Also in 1968, while students on campuses across the U.S. and Europe were demonstrating in favor of the Vietcong, Nguyen Chi Thien composed "I can Eat," a poem whose meter, though not its content, suggests a folk song by Bob Dylan or Peter, Paul and Mary: "I can eat a few kilos of raw manioc/And enjoy them as if they were chocolate! / Aren't you impressed that I can outdo a hog?/It's because I am living in a Vietcong jail./In the winter when blow wintry blasts/I am half submerged in water gathering sharp bamboo./Do you think that I have copper skin and iron bones?/No, I am just living in a Vietcong jail./My bed is a piece of mat about two feet wide./On one side is a leper, on the other a TB case! /What do you think that I should do?/I am living, though, in a Vietcong jail."
In his testimony to Congress in 1995, Nguyen Chi Thien explained his views on the Vietnam War: "In actuality, this "war of liberation" was nothing more than a struggle to impose Communism, or its Marxist-Leninist brand, on the whole of Vietnam as a stepping stone to the domination of the rest of Southeast Asia. After the fall of South Vietnam in 1975, hundreds of thousands of people were sent to the Vietnamese Gulags. There was no need for a bloodbath, since that would be too obvious. Instead, under the new regime, hundreds of thousands of people died of hunger and cold, or simply died without notice in godforsaken corners of the jungle."
The dissident poet continued: "Mr.[Robert S.] McNamara's recent book on the war in Vietnam [In Retrospect] shows how little he understands Vietnam and the Vietnamese people. Furthermore, he insulted the memory of those who have fought and sacrificed for the cause of freedom and democracy in Vietnam, which is closely linked to the same ideals in the world and in the United States itself…In retrospect, the war in Vietnam can be compared to a battle-a major battle if you want-that was lost, but in the end contributed to a victory on the grandest scale!"
The rapture with which young Vietnamese greeted President Clinton during his November trip to Vietnam suggests that Marxist-Leninist dictatorship in that impoverished, unfree nation will not outlive its gerontocratic Vietnamese leadership by more than a few years. But the future is likely to see the return of political evil elsewhere in the guise of new movements and ideologies. The most dangerous and misleading of these will, like Communism, appeal to the ideals of progress and enlightenment. The intellectual heroism of Nguyen Chi Thien, Solzhenitsyn, and the many other unarmed prophets who confronted the most lethal lie of the 20th century, will be needed then, to inspire their successors in countries battling other kinds of tyranny. Nguyen Chi Thien's "They Exiled Me" (1972) can serve as a timeless anthem of survival for dissidents everywhere:
"They exiled me to the heart of the jungle/Wishing to fertilize the manioc with my remains/I turned into an expert hunter/And came out full of snake wisdom and rhino fierceness./They sank me in the ocean/Wishing that I would remain in the depths/I became a deep sea diver/And came up covered with scintillating pearls./They squeezed me into the dirt/Hoping that I would become mire/I turned instead into a miner/And brought up stores of the most precious metal./No diamond or gold, though/The kind to adorn women's baubles/But uranium with which to manufacture the atom bomb."
Reprint with permission of Michael Lind, White Head Senior Fellow.