Black April

UNTOLD STORY section –



     by Can D. Le

     Thirty years is a long time, yet the images of Vietnam in March and April 1975 are still vivid: precipitated withdrawals of South Vietnamese troops from Quang Tri, Hue, and Da Nang in the north to Kon Tum, Pleiku, and Ban Me Thuot in the highlands; thousands of civilians with their meager belongings and in tattered clothings fleeing the incoming Communist troops on National Route 1; desperate parents, holding children in their arms, trying to swim to the ships anchored offshore; total chaos in Saigon (the capital of South Vietnam, now officially called Hochiminh City); and finally on April 30, a long line of people climbing on helicopters on the rooftop of the U.S. embassy to get out of the doomed country. The Vietnam war finally came to an end. After years of bitter fighting, South Vietnam was forcibly taken over by the Communist North.

     The Vietnam war is often portrayed as an imperialist war which started when U.S. marines landed in Da Nang in 1965. In fact, it started in 1961 when the Communists assassinated Colonel Hoang Thuy Nam, the head of the South Vietnamese delegation to the International Joint Control Commission. This group was set up following the signing of the Geneva Accord of 1954 to monitor the cessation of hostilities between the Communist North (Democratic Republic of Vietnam) and the non-Communist South (Republic of Vietnam), and many assassinations of government officials, guerilla ambushes against the army that followed. The Geneva Accord called for a national election in 1956, ostensibly for people to decide on the political future of the country. The South Vietnamese government, however, did not sign this agreement. Believing that it would never be possible to organize fair elections in Communist-dominated areas, the South Vietnamese refused to fall into this trap, hoping that the country would eventually become strong enough to defend itself against the Communist onslaught. The election, therefore, never took place. Having failed to take the South by the much hoped-for election, the Communists started to make plans to eventually realize their dreams by force, at all costs. Thus began the Vietnam war, which eventually led to an estimated three million deaths on both sides, hundreds of thousands of former members of the Armed Forces and government of South Vietnam, as well as numerous intellectuals, religious leaders, as well as other civilians killed in revenge or imprisoned for years in concentration camps officially called "re-education camps"; and thousands of refugees losing their lives in the perilous and pirate-infested South China Sea in their quest for freedom elsewhere.

Over the years, the South Vietnamese army strongly resisted the Communist invasion but with dwindling U.S. aid following the Paris Agreement in 1973, the writing was on the wall: with full support–in terms of both military personnel and weapons–from China, the Soviet Union, North Korea, and other countries in the Communist bloc, the North Vietnamese Communists were determined, and would eventually succeed in taking South Vietnam by force.

As the end of the war was looming, some elements of the South Vietnamese army still fought valiantly, and refused to surrender to the invading Communists. Following the heroic tradition of famous heroes in Vietnam's history such as Tran Binh Trong in the 13th century who refused to surrender to the Chinese invaders (his famous quote before being executed: "I'd rather be the devil of the southern country than the king of the northern one"), and Hoang Dieu, Nguyen Tri Phuong, Phan Thanh Gian in the fight against the French colonialists in the 19th century, some of the military commanders chose to commit suicide rather than surrendering to their enemy. These include: Generals Pham Van Phu, Commander of the II Corps; Nguyen Khoa Nam and Le Van Hung of the IV Corps; Le Nguyen Vy of the 5th Infantry Division; and Tran Van Hai of the 7th Infantry Division. In addition, hundreds of officers, non-commissioned officers as well as simple soldiers all over South Vietnam also took their own lives to avoid being taken prisoners by the Communists. Their heroic deaths marked only the beginning of the tragedy that befell millions of South Vietnamese for years to come after the end of the war. The Vietnam war was never a "war of liberation" fought by a bunch of black pajama-clad guerrillas against the mighty U.S. army as commonly thought. It was a full-scale invasion of South Vietnam by the well-trained North Vietnamese army, hardened through years of fighting against the French, and equipped with the most modern weapons that the Communist bloc was able to offer at the time. The Communist strategy of invading the South was well documented in the book "The Great Spring Victory" by North Vietnam's commander Van Tien Dung who oversaw the last stage of the war in early 1975. The National Liberation Front (NLF) set up by North Vietnam to make the war look like an indigenous uprising movement against "a corrupt government backed by U.S. imperialists", was discarded soon after the war ended and all the key positions in the re-united country were held by members of the Communist Party. It's too bad that many well-meaning people who opposed to the war in the 60's and 70's were duped into believing this propaganda. Duong Thu Huong, a well-known dissident writer in Hanoi–who participated in the war as a member of North Vietnam's "Liberation Army" and later was expelled from the Communist Party and imprisoned for some time due to her harsh criticisms of the regime–was interviewed by Little Saigon Radio (in California, U.S.A.) on April 30, 2001 on her thoughts on the war. Huong said that when she came to visit Saigon one week after the fall of the city, she realized that she was totally wrong about it: what she and her comrades had fought against was indeed the model of a civilized society, while what they fought for was the model of a barbarian one. Thirty years after the war ended, the myths about the "war of liberation" and the glorious "people's victory" start to fall. In a recent interview by the newspaper "Quoc Te" (International) in Vietnam, former Prime Minister VoVan Kiet cautioned the government against bragging too much about the victory in 1975, since it was costly on both sides. "While millions of people can be happy about it, millions of others can equally be unhappy", he said. Kiet also suggested that it's about time for people to recognize the hard work and great contributions to the country by patriotic Vietnamese under the former regime, who are currently living in Vietnam or overseas.

Dang Phong, an economic professor with the Vietnamese Economic Institute in Hanoi, admitted in an interview broadcast by the BBC early this month that the economy in South Vietnam before 1975 was much more advanced than the government led people to believe after the war; it was not an economy wholly popped up by American aid, and the wealth in South Vietnam was certainly not "artificial wealth". According to Phong, it was the entrepreneurial spirit of South Vietnamese people which eventually led the Hanoi government to change its course from a centrally-controlled economy to a market-oriented economy, not the official "doi moi" (reform) policy announced by former Communist Party General Secretary Nguyen Van Linh in 1986. This change eventually saved Vietnam from economic disaster and widespread starvation in the late 80s. Thirty years after the war ended, has the Communist paradise finally emerged? Apparently not, according to Le Dang Doanh, an economic adviser to a succession of Vietnamese Communist leaders, including the late Prime Minister Pham Van Dong, former General Secretary Nguyen Van Linh, and former Foreign Minister Nguyen Duy Trinh, and until recently, head of the Central Institute for Economic Study and Management. In a secret 32-page briefing to a top-secret meeting of members of the Politbureau on November 2, 2004, in preparation for the Tenth Party Congress in 2006–which was revealed by U.S.-based Radio Free Asia (RFA) in early April 2005–Doanh candidly admitted the errors and shortcomings of the current regime, and called for drastic measures to fix them. Citing international economic figures, Doanh stated that while in 1950, Vietnam's per capita income was about 80.5% of that of Thailand, in 1999 it dropped to 20%. Compared to South Korea, the similar proportion fell from 85.5% to about 11% - 12%. One of the factors responsible for this low performance is widespread corruption. On this scale, Vietnam ranks 102nd out of 145 countries assessed by Transparency International. Brutally frank as it is, Doanh's assessment did not go far enough. He did not mention that throughout Vietnam's history, never before people had to leave the country "en masse" to work in other countries. Yet that's what is happening now, with hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese workers toiling in other countries under the guise of "labour exportations". Nor did Doanh mention that due to economic hardships at home, thousands of Vietnamese young women have to work as prostitutes in Cambodia and Thailand, far away from their homes and families. Again, this is unprecedented in the history of the country. Admitting that the current Communist regime is unable to find solutions to the fundamental and long-term problems faced by the people and the country, Doanh did not hesitate to point out the most serious flaw of this regime: it is controlled by the Communist Party, it is authoritarian, and it is utterly undemocratic. "Absolute power leads to absolute corruption", Doanh quoted French philosopher Jean Jacques Rousseau. He observed that the top leaders of the country, General Secretaries, are never elected and therefore cannot be held accountable by the people. Instead, they are chosen by a handful of people in the Politbureau, and subsequently rubber-stamped by Party members.

As such, it is difficult for them to deal on the same footing with other world leaders, who are usually elected by their own people. To remedy this situation, Doanh called for the selection of leaders through an explicit, transparent, and open method and based on the real choice by Party members and by the people. Thirty years after the imposition of the Communist regime on the whole of Vietnam, it is refreshing to hear candid talks by some prominent members of this regime–admittedly from those who don't currently hold positions of power. At least these talks reflect the undercurrent desire to let the truths be spoken openly, and the realization that something is obviously going wrong in the country and needs to be fixed, fast. Vietnam belongs to all the Vietnamese people, and not to a particular group of individuals who happen to hold power at the time being. It has the potential to become a democratic, free, and prosperous country, if only its people can work together to rebuild it. However, this will not be possible until the wounds of the war finally heal, in other words, until there is a true spirit of national reconciliation–similar to the spirit promoted by President Nelson Mandela for South Africa many years ago–not only among its people, but also, and especially, between the current Communist leaders and their past and current opponents, both inside Vietnam and overseas. Unfortunately, so far, there has been no sign that the Communist leadership in Hanoi is ready to make this move.

Can D. Le is a past President of the Vietnamese Canadian Federation. April 2005

"Never put the fate of our nation into the foreign hands."
Bui Diem (former South Vietnam Ambassador to The USA)

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