Thieu vs. The People:
A Match He Cannot Win
Published in AMPO: Japan-Asia Quarterly Review, Vol. 7 No. 1, Winter 1975
[written in late November 1974]
By John Spragens, Jr.
“Thieu’s really in trouble,” said one western journalist. “I didn’t believe it before, but I believe it now.” That was on October 10th, when thousands of people surged past police lines to join a couple of hundred journalists demonstrating against Saigon’s repressive press laws.
Ordinary life is not suspended to await the outcome of the growing popular pressure for Thieu’s ouster, of course. People still go to market in the morning, just as they have all through the war. They get married and buried. And the bell-bottomed set with their tight tailored shirts and blouses still lounge in the air conditioned ice cream parlors and prance into downtown theaters to watch foreign films.
Since October 10th, though, it has been impossible to pretend that the downtown quarter is exclusively devoted to swinging. The police patrols there are doubled, tripled, even more. And coils of concertina wire leaning against lamp posts warn that these streets are no longer the pleasure preserve of the war profiteers and their young.
The journalists billed their demonstration as “Journalists’ Begging Day,” calling attention to those out of work because their publishers couldn’t continue in the face of requirements for large deposits with the government, or repeated confiscations. The begging struck a sympathetic chord among the people, who have seen life grow increasingly harder in spite of glowing promises from on high.
While the Americanized war raged over Viet Nam, the Saigon economy disintegrated, and all the economic specialists sent in by the US Agency for International Development managed on a practical level was to plug some of the more egregious holes with massive wads of dollars. The dollars bought Hondas and TV sets and all manner of goods to support a phantom consumer economy in the towns and cities. And such light industry as was set up during that period — plastics fabricating is a good example — is heavily dependent on imports of basic raw materials, and produces primarily for the local market.
What happened to rice farming illustrates many of the fundamental problems. The rich alluvial deltas of the Mekong in the south and the Red River in the north traditionally produced a surplus of rice, which was a major Vietnamese export. But to US war planners, rice fields and the farmers who tilled them were part of the enemy. They had to be “sanitized.” Where US and Saigon troops could not garrison farming areas, bombs and shells, chemical defoliants, and sweep operations were used to force farmers from their land into the urban areas.
American aid brought in rice to make up the deficit, and “green revolution” methods were encouraged to raise production on remaining lands. The high yield strains required mechanical cultivators and chemical fertilizers and insecticides — imported, because the Saigon economy had no such industrial base.
Meanwhile, the uprooted farmers were finding jobs in the towns and cities — more often than not working for the US troops, providing American soldiers with everything from shined shoes and swept floors to barrack and bunker construction. And around the fringes of the bases, where those who had the enterprise and enough money set up bars and massage parlors, it was often the young wives and daughters from farm families who serviced GI passions.
Those who had money to invest were far more likely to put it into apartments and bars and laundries, which could reap a fast, high return (some of it in solid green dollars) than they were to invest in the uncertain low-yield industries needed to support the agricultural base of the nation’s economy.
Now the American presence is reduced to one or two percent of the peak levels, the dollars the GIs brought are missing from the foreign exchange accounts, and the service jobs that once abounded around U.S. bases have all but vanished. At the same time the US Congress is getting tired of providing stop-gap infusions of dollars. The American economy can no longer afford it.
If the Paris Agreement had been implemented, the shock would not have been so severe. Families herded into the cities during the war could have returned to their lands and resumed production. But to Saigon those farm lands are still enemy territory, and people have been allowed to return only if Saigon can establish military control.
The human result has been massive unemployment, in spite of the fact that well over a million people are in Saigon’s armed forces, police and civil service. Inflation runs over 60 percent annually. The inflation is exaggerated by endemic corruption. Bribes exacted from rice truck drivers along the road, plus speculative hoarding by rice dealers often in collusion with government officials, hit the people’s rice bowls directly.
Many families can no longer afford to eat rice, and consider themselves lucky to get a bowl of gruel twice a day. Those hit hardest have been city slum dwellers and those kept as virtual prisoners in refugee camps — camps where no farm land is available, or where camp regulations allow too little time for field work. While there have been no reports of outright starvation, people have died from eating poisonous plants foraged to fill their stomachs. And parents who could not bear the suffering of their families, and could see no prospects for the future, have committed suicide, often taking their whole families with them in a final meal of poisoned gruel.
The US-Saigon response has been promises and pipe dreams (“We’re going to have oil. Everything will be great!”), coupled with requests for just enough more aid to shove Saigon’s economy past an ever-receding take-off point.
There was, it is true, a massive plan for post-war reconstruction, which relied primarily on providing labor to foreign companies at rates even lower than Hong Kong and Korea. That plan was based on the assumption that Saigon would be the only government in post-war south Viet Nam, and that the revolutionary forces would be reduced to a few isolated bands.
For the past two years, Thieu has continued to insist that his is “the sole legal, constitutional government in the south.” Both the Paris Agreement and the concrete situation disagree, and the revolutionary administration has remained strong and retained control over much of the country. That fact, along with the pervasive bureaucratic delays and corruption encountered by companies trying to invest in the Saigon economy, have discouraged all but a handful of firms.
The PRG has never yet had an opportunity to develop a full, well-rounded economy either. But the liberated zones have not developed the appetites for Hondas, cosmetics and other such luxuries which the US used in its attempt to buy support for Saigon. Instead, PRG stress has been on keeping the standard of living at a level which can be maintained on the basis of self-sufficiency. There are imports from the Saigon economy and from abroad — radios and the batteries for them, canned milk and other light industrial products. But these goods could be eliminated with relatively little disruption.
Since the US troop pull-out, the liberated areas as a whole seem to be producing a surplus of agricultural goods. The PRG uses several high-yield rice strains, which have come both from the Saigon side and from PRG and DRV research farms’ experimentation with the basic IRRI (International Rice Research Institute in the Philippines) seeds. To cope with these strains’ greed for fertilizer, farmers in liberated zones have copied their northern brothers and sisters in making maximum use of natural fertilizers. Pit latrines are sealed when full to sterilize and digest their contents into useful fertilizer, and various forms of composted green fertilizer are used. By mixing manioc and sweet potatoes with the rice they eat, farmers in PRG areas save a surplus of rice which is sold in the Saigon zone along with poultry and produce, and industrial products are bought with the earnings.
If it became necessary, however, this trade could be sharply curtailed or even eliminated without seriously dislocating the style of life. Partly, this is because improved roads within the liberated zones make trade with the north more practical, and partly it is because local production of utensils (from war scrap) and cloth is sufficient to supply minimum needs. During my visit to one such area, people pointed out that the only petroleum they used, to take one example, was in their tiny lamps. Even that could be replaced by locally produced vegetable oil if necessary.
This should not be taken as an indication that the PRG idealizes primitive self-sufficiency. They are mechanizing agriculture where conditions permit, but their civilian economy and their appeal to the people are not based on a phantom prosperity dependent on massive infusions of outside money. And by keeping as close as possible to self-sufficiency, they have given themselves a firmer base for future development — gradual but balanced.
As discontent on the economic front has increased in Saigon areas, the PRG has increased its pressure. Recent reports indicate that in at least some parts of central Viet Nam, the PRG is withholding its produce from markets on the Saigon side, and at the same time increasing efforts to enable people in the refugee camps to return to their old homes.
This “return to village” program has a military component — trying to knock out Saigon military blockades and provide sufficient security in the farming areas to which the people might return. (Refugees I talked with in Quang Ngai province earlier this year wanted very much to return to their old farms, which were often no more than ten kilometers from the camps where they were trapped. But they were afraid of raids by Saigon troops.) While this is one of the reasons for sharp strikes by PLAF units over the last several months, the basic cause lies deeper.
After a year and a half of maintaining a basically defensive posture, the PRG had seen between five and fifteen percent (estimates vary) of its territory eroded by constant Saigon attacks. Meanwhile, with Saigon insisting that the PRG was not a legitimate government, and thus could not legitimately claim territory or authority in the south, it was impossible for negotiations between the two southern administrations to make any progress. The PRG finally decided that Saigon needed a demonstration of what they can expect if they continue to opt for a military solution.
In mid summer PLAF troops launched a series of attacks in three areas of the country — Quang Ngai and Quang Nam provinces in central Viet Nam, the central highlands, and several provinces northwest of Saigon. These moves routed Saigon troops in the areas, and tied down virtually all Saigon’s available forces in attempts to hold on. If US intelligence reports can be believed, the revolutionary side still has over half its forces in reserve. Thus it would appear that US officials have been able to crow about success in the Vietnamization program only because, since the signing of the Paris Agreement, the PLAF has never put Saigon’s ARVN to the test.
These PLAF attacks weakened Thieu’s position, but not yet enough to embolden the people to express their discontent. As one former activist told me earlier this year, “The people need to feel that they have some chance of success before they will be willing to take the risks of demonstrating.” Since the student movement of 1970–71 was squelched, Saigon’s 120,000 police have been enough to keep the lid on.
But at the same time the PRG was counter-attacking on the battlefield, the US Congress was taking unexpectedly large hunks out of administration requests for aid to Viet Nam, and it was becoming more likely that Nixon would leave office. Opposition political forces knew that Nixon’s departure, coupled with the aid cuts, would leave Thieu in a weakened position, and they began to prepare. When Nixon did resign, Ambassador Graham Martin (whose enthusiasm for Thieu prompted Senator Kennedy and others to ask just what government he was representing) was back in the US, and remained there for two months in all, stirring up still more rumors which gave no comfort to Thieu. Within a month of Nixon’s departure from the White House (and three weeks before Martin returned to Saigon), protests began.
The most active movement in the opening months of protest has been the “People’s Movement Against Corruption to Save the Country and Create Peace.” This group is almost entirely Catholic, initially led by 301 priests who were strong supporters of Ngo Dinh Diem when he was in power. Their first public statement came as early as June 18, but at the time was greeted with considerable skepticism because of the priests’ background, because their statement was very vague, charging simply that a number of people in positions of authority were corrupt, and because the government had just made one of its periodic statements of determination to eradicate corruption. The suspicion was that the priests would only provide window dressing for another ineffective government charade.
The priests’ motivations went deeper, however, and are widely believed to be related to a confidential report made by a conservative Italian priest, Fr. Peiro Gheddo, to an official of the Vatican State Secretariat after a late 1973 visit to Viet Nam. In closing his report, Fr. Gheddo noted, “... as it is inevitable that in the future Catholics will have to live with the Communists in a coalition government, the Church should move from now on in that direction, prepare the people, look for contacts with other forces, operate on a conscientious level in regard to social justice, etc. An alternative to the present regime must be contemplated and prepared.”
On September 8, the anti-corruption movement fired its first heavy gun. At a meeting in Hue of some 5,000 Catholics, they brought out their “Indictment No. 1,” aimed straight at Thieu and his family. It charged them with corruption in six areas ranging from buying and redecorating an inordinate number of lavish houses at public expense, to involvement in the speculation in rice and fertilizer which has directly affected the livelihood of all but the richest throughout the country. “The war which now continues to kill our troops and people is caused by the greed of Mr. Nguyen Van Thieu, who has considered his own position more important than the fate of the nation,” the indictment charges.
The leading personality in the anti-corruption movement is Fr. Tran Huu Thanh, a solidly built, greying priest, quite handsome in a fatherly sort of way, who has an entertainer’s sense of how to talk to a crowd. He mixes serious observations about how it has been over a year and a half since Thieu’s representative signed the Paris Agreement, and yet peace has not come, with oblique sniping, asking why at a time when the country needs to economize, the police send four cars following him everywhere he goes around the country. He reminds people that corruption runs from top to bottom (and the money from corruption runs from bottom to top) through the whole governmental system, and then he jabs straight at Thieu: “He said he was going to clean up corruption in the armed forces in a month. Well, it’s the 20th. He only has ten days left, and we haven’t seen anything yet!”
The promise to get rid of corruption came in a televised speech on October 1. The anti-corruption movement had been joined in the struggle by other groups. A Buddhist sponsored National Reconciliation Force had its formal coming out on September 15. The People’s Front Against Starvation was founded on the 22nd. On the 26th came the Committee to Protect the Rights of Workers. The Struggle Committee for Freedom of the Press and Publishing, founded on the 6th, had its first confrontation with the regime when three papers tried to publish the text of “Indictment No. 1,” then publicly burned their editions rather than allow the police to confiscate them. And leaders of the People’s Organization for the Implementation of the Paris Agreement, founded in December 1973, have given direct support to the developments. Thieu had to respond, and in the days before his speech there was speculation that he might announce a harsh, Korean-style step-up of repressive measures, or proclaim major reforms.
He didn’t do either. Instead, he sat in front of the TV camera for nearly two hours and rambled. My informal survey indicated that no one but politicians and journalists bothered to watch the whole performance. As many had presumed, Thieu spent a lot of time talking about The North Vietnamese General Offensive and The Communist Threat in general. But he appeared nervous and uncertain, angry but afraid to act. And in the course of the speech, which appeared almost totally unprepared, he made a handful of statements which have come back to haunt him since.
The most often repeated has been his closing statement: “If, as the Communist propaganda says, the whole army and people have lost confidence in me, please let me know.” People have been letting him know.
Police reaction to the protests has been uneven. At first the harshest measures were directed against the press, which Thieu charged with being a “megaphone” for communist propaganda. Since the bonfire protests against confiscation, the police have sent parties of a hundred uniformed and plainclothes men, more or less, to carry out confiscations, in order to prevent protests and insure that the confiscations are thorough. Some newspapers involved in the press freedom struggle have lost as many as four editions in a single week — more than enough to wipe out a year’s profits. And the regime has forced the regular printing shops of two papers to close. This move obliges the papers to rotate their printing among other plants, and take second place to the paper regularly printed at the printer of the day. Costs are higher that way, and the papers get to the streets later in the day. Several papers have been forced to suspend publication for various lengths of time, and some of them will almost surely be forced off the streets altogether before the struggle is over.
The other strong police response has been in trying to guard against expression of military discontent. Within the space of a week an army sergeant, Dao Vu Dat, and a young airman, Ho Vuong Tuan, made early morning appearances on the steps of Saigon’s National Assembly building, and under the protection of opposition deputies, held impromptu news conferences saying they had no confidence in Thieu as president. After the first incident, 100 percent restriction to base was ordered for military personnel not on official leave, and unit commanders were made responsible for the actions of troops carrying passes they had issued. After the second protest, several jeep loads of M-16 toting military police were put on permanent duty in the area around the assembly building.
In dealing with demonstrations, the police at first seemed concerned to avoid bad press. The only strong repression came at times and places where there was no foreign news coverage, notably in Quang Ngai on October 17, when the first meeting of the province’s National Reconciliation Force was dispersed with tear gas. In Saigon, the tactics called for relatively few uniformed police, mostly used to keep the people away from the demonstrators by diverting traffic and herding bystanders onto sidewalks at some distance from the action. Beatings and harassment have been assigned to “people wearing ordinary clothes,” as Thieu’s party newspaper has called them.
These tactics proved inadequate. In the journalists’ demonstration, thousands of bystanders broke through police lines and surged across the major downtown intersection of Le Loi and Nguyen Hue to help the journalists break through a three-deep cordon of uniformed police to continue their planned march. And the thousands stayed with the march all morning — and hundreds of them were still in the streets long into the afternoon.
The police now have new orders. Just how far they will be told to go is not yet clear. They have quietly begun to arrest people who have been doing behind the scenes organizing work — arresting them on the streets to avoid reaction from family and neighbors. This is in line with methods outlined in a document, circulated in the opposition underground in Saigon and alleged to be a top secret police plan — the Comet Plan. Also, in line with directives in the Comet Plan, university openings have been delayed, though that maneuver has been played out about as long as it practically can already. The Ministry of the Interior has sent formal warnings to struggle organizations that they are “illegal,” but no direct action has been taken so far.
Opposition politicians had suggested, hopefully, that Thieu was afraid to use his police too harshly for fear of further antagonizing the US Congress. But on October 31 it became obvious that the show of police restraint was over. To prevent demonstrations planned for that day, police carried out a brutal midnight raid against a group of journalists spending the night in the press club, and severely injured one of the National Assembly deputies who intervened. The downtown area of Saigon was cordoned off all day, and all that could be seen in the streets was barbed wire blocking every intersection and hordes of police. Meanwhile, helmeted riot police and plainclothesmen attacked supporters of the anti-corruption movement who had held an all night vigil at the suburban Tan Sa Chau Church. The clash began about dawn, and the people fought back with sticks and stones until early afternoon, when they were allowed to disperse.
There were numerous casualties October 31. The most serious was Fr. Truong Ba Can, an advisor to the Young Catholic Workers, who was beaten by secret police outside the organization’s office and suffered serious internal injuries. Of greater political consequence, the 31st marked the first direct attack on Fr. Thanh. During the Tan Sa Chau fighting a plainclothesman hit him in the face, breaking his glasses and bloodying his nose.
Since then Thieu has lashed out more strongly than ever at the nascent third force. In a November 12 speech he charged that the movement is a tool of the communists, then in almost the same breath claimed French plantation owners and business men are funding it. The Saigon press took special note of his warning that: “Senators and Deputies enjoy parliamentary immunity within the headquarters of the Upper and Lower Houses, but they are not entitled to bring politics to the streets and to disturb public security and order.”
As if to demonstrate the seriousness of the threat, that very morning Deputy Nguyen Van Ham narrowly avoided death in a traffic “accident.” Deputy Ham has been active in organizing for several of the opposition movements in his native province of Quang Ngai in central Viet Nam. He was riding on the back seat of one of the Hondas-for-hire that are a common substitute for taxis in Saigon when the construction-helmeted driver swerved in front of an oncoming Citroen touring car, jumped free, and fled. Although Ham will survive, he suffered a broken right leg and a crushed shoulder and left leg. He will be out of commission for months.
The directions the mass movements take, and how much strength they are able to mobilize in the face of such intimidation will be of great importance. So will the attitude of the military, especially the mid-levels in the officer corps, and the attitude of the US government.
There are already more opposition organizations and personalities than an outside observer can hope to keep up with, including the well-known lawyer, Mme. Ngo Ba Thanh and an order of mendicant Buddhist nuns who have been in the streets together off and on since early in the year, when no one else dared demonstrate, and two committees campaigning for the release of political prisoners. There will be more as events progress, doubtless including attempts by the Thieu regime to form counter-organizations. But the two major focal points will be Fr. Thanh’s anti-corruption drive and the Buddhists’ National Reconciliation Force. Although the two groups are offering each other guarded support, the contrast between their positions rather well sums up the two sorts of reasons why people are trying to get rid of Thieu.
The People’s Movement Against Corruption etc. wants, basically, to reform the regime so that the anti-communist struggle can be carried out effectively. Whether this anti-communist struggle is to be military or peaceful is left ambiguous, though there seems to be a suggestion that if the “nationalist” side had a clean effective government, it could defeat the “communist” side without necessarily resorting to military force. A point made more explicitly is that the current Saigon regime will never defeat the other side, even militarily, because they’re too corrupt to mobilize the support of their troops.
The National Reconciliation Force stresses that peace is the basic issue — that the problems of hunger and corruption will not be solved until the war is ended, and that the best way to end the war is through implementing the Paris Agreement and working toward the national reconciliation outlined in that agreement. The National Reconciliation Force has devoted a great deal of time to preparing its organization, a process rendered more difficult by the divisions that have been sown within the Buddhist church over the last decade, with some of the major leaders in the struggle against Diem now considered dubious or even bought off.
One of the most watched events in the Buddhist calendar was their national student congress. The students, Catholic as well as Buddhist, are considered a crucial force, but they were seriously weakened when their 1970–71 struggle was put down. Many of the leaders from that period are still in prison. Others were forcibly returned to the PRG during the prisoner exchanges last year and earlier this year. The infiltration of campuses by police agents is also at a higher level than it was then. And for the men, the threat of conscription remains a constant shadow. But the youth and enthusiasm of the students will be important to the success of a popular struggle.
The mid-November convocation of representatives of Buddhist youth from all over the country set a determined theme. Among other things, they drummed out Hoang Van Giao, the layman who had been in charge of youth affairs for the Unified Buddhist Church. Giao had enraged the young people by trying to disrupt a presentation by Senator Vu Van Mau, leader of the National Reconciliation Force. Giao was widely believed to be a key agent whom the regime hoped to use to defuse the youth movement.
The discontent within the military goes deeper than the two individuals who have protested on the National Assembly steps, and it reaches higher in the ranks. Only vague rumblings reach the press corps, but they include reports of officers as high as full colonel who believe the question is not whether Thieu will go, but how and when. An interesting aspect of the situation is that Fr. Thanh has taught ethics (anti-communism, in other words) to a large segment of the mid-level officer corps at Saigon’s staff college.
In one spontaneous demonstration of sympathy, four paratroopers, including one officer, attacked the contingent of plainclothes police following Fr. Thanh on the night of November 15. They injured two ranking police officers, and chased one of the policemen into a church toilet where he was given asylum by the nuns at the church.
The US government attitude remains the biggest puzzle. The US embassy here apparently was slow to realize the importance of the mounting pressure against Thieu, and has no ready solution. They are trying to meet opposition figures to see where matters stand, and are putting pressure on Thieu to institute some dramatic reforms. Their first success in this area has been a cabinet purge that includes ousting Hoang Duc Nha, Thieu’s cousin and Minister of Information — the only person in the whole government he really trusts. As of this writing, though, the purge remains theoretical. No new appointments have been announced. And the difficulty of finding anyone who wants to take over the posts is read as an indication of the deterioration of Thieu’s position.
At the same time, the US Deputy Secretary of Defense, William Clements, has said (October 8, after a whistle-stop tour of Asia that included 24 hours of conference with high level Saigon and embassy officials), “It is inconceivable to me that ... we will not help them.” He suggested that the use of US air and naval forces might be considered, and it is known that earlier this year the US reactivated its system of radar guidance beacons in Indochina.
But the US Congress has been determined to cut back in Indochina, the supplemental appropriation that Clements wants to get from Congress is not likely to come through, and the Congress will be on the look-out for attempts to shift money to Saigon through obscure back doors. Cuts already imposed have forced the withdrawal of some American aircraft and computer maintenance crews, and the curtailment of training for Vietnamese pilots. Departing American technicians say that within six months Saigon’s air force will not be able to fly. And Vietnamese sources report that pilots are already being recommissioned as infantry officers.
It seems that, on a concrete level, all the US has is the vague hope that some acceptable new leader will emerge from the process now in motion. Meanwhile it seems they hope Thieu can be maintained in power until his current term ends in 1975. Thus any change could be made through elections under Saigon’s current constitution, and need not shatter the US hope of expanding Saigon sovereignty over all of the south.
The PRG has, with barely disguised glee, supported the urban movements, and said that they have abandoned all hope of reaching a political solution with Saigon while Thieu remains in power. They have backed the urban movements’ demands for a new administration which stands for peace, and said, “Only such a Saigon administration can really negotiate with the Provisional Revolutionary Government ... to insure the application of the provisions of the Paris Agreement.”
The PRG will probably keep its military pressure at current levels — just enough to keep Saigon’s troops tied down — and direct its political cadre in urban areas to help mobilize support for the protest movements. This makes far more sense than the general offensive that the US and Saigon charge they are planning, because the kinds of people leading the urban movements are in a better position to bridge the gaps between the revolutionaries and uninvolved urbanities than PRG cadre are. A gradual transition would be less painful for all concerned than a direct military takeover by the PRG.
Although few people still believe that Thieu will be able to hang on, there are no obvious candidates to replace him. But if the final shove does come from a military coup — and that would have to come from the mid-levels, because higher ranking officers are simply too corrupt to be acceptable — then Fr. Thanh will be in an excellent position to guide the formation of such a government, or at least to help avoid the sort of merry-go-round governments that followed the coup against Diem.
Third force figures would be pre pared to play a role in a new government, too. General Duong Van (“Big”) Minh, for example, has said that he is willing to play any role the people want him to in a government that really represents the people. But third force participation on the Saigon side is not absolutely necessary. If a rightist administration seriously interested in implementing the Paris Agreement comes to power, the third force will still have its role in the National Council of National Reconciliation and Concord prescribed by the Agreement.
It is obvious that people in Saigon controlled areas need some solution to their basic problems of survival. American aid will no longer fill the gaps. And non-communist opponents of Thieu feel this is their last chance to set a progressive but not communist course for South Viet Nam. In a curious convergence of views with US intelligence observers, they think that if no solution is reached by the first months of 1975, PRG patience will be exhausted and the Paris Agreement will be abandoned.
At this point the happiest solution for all concerned would probably be for Thieu to fly off to Paris for medical treatment. But so long as he tries to hold on, things are likely to grow increasingly nasty. The next few months will almost certainly be punctuated by further bloodshed.
Copyright John Spragens, Jr.
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