America’s Mandarin 7

I myself watched an interrogation in a Mekong Delta town on a blistering hot day in the late 1950s. Soldiers had brought in a lean youth in black cotton pajamas who looked like any peasant. He squat¬ted impassively, as if stoically awaiting a fate he could not avoid. The soldiers wired his fingers to a field telephone, then cranked it as an officer spoke with surprising gentleness to the youth, trying to extract either information or a confession. The youth gritted his teeth, his facial muscles taut as the electricity coursed through his body, and he finally blurted out a few words, perhaps only to stop the ordeal. I was relieved when he talked, but the officer refused to tell me what he had said or where the youth was being taken as the soldiers led him away. He may have been released. He may have been executed. He may have been banished to Poulo Condore, the island prison formerly used by the French to cage Vietnamese nationalists. I also knew that Diem’s police frequently shot prisoners—reporting that they had been killed attempting to escape.
The cruelty worked. By 1956, Diem had smashed most of the former Vietminh cells in the Mekong Delta, and those that, survived retreated into remote swamps. They moved constantly and furtively, covering their tracks and contacting nobody. Ultimately, though, Diem’s severity probably created more enemies than it crushed. For his indiscriminate offensive against former members of the Vietminh drove back into the underground many who would have preferred to live in peace and might have even rallied to his colors.
Such was the case of Tran Van Bo, a captured Vietcong cadre whom I interviewed at length in the early 1960s in his Saigon prison cell. Then in his late thirties, he was educated and articulate, though it took days of quiet persuasion before he consented to relate his experiences. Bo scarcely fit the image of the “oppressed” peasant portrayed in Communist propaganda. He had grown up in Ba Xuyen province, a lush area of the Mekong Delta, where his father owned twenty-five acres of farmland, a sizable holding. After graduation from high school, he went to work for his uncle, an affluent rice wholesaler. Uhder other circumstances, he might have become a wealthy mer¬chant. But the French presence aroused his nationalistic sentiments. He resented their possession of vast estates by virtue of their colonial status, and, besides, they had slighted his family. “They were rude and overbearing when they came into our village,” he recalled. “They looked down on us even though we were rich.”
He welcomed the Japanese troops who occupied the area during World War II because, for the first time, they made the French appear inferior. Soon after Japan’s defeat, he quit his uncle’s business and returned to his village, where the Vietminh had already set up an assortment of peasant, religious, youth and other associations. Many of his relatives belonged to one or another of the groups. One, who called himself a Communist, urged Bo to join his youth organization. That started Bo’s career in the khang chien, or resistance, as he referred to the Vietminh.
His village, Long Dien, comprised twenty-two hamlets, and its population swelled to some twenty thousand as refugees streamed in to escape the war in other parts of the Mekong Delta. The local Vietminh leader, a peasant named Hoa, assigned Bo to mobilize meet¬ings and spread propaganda, a function known in Communist jargon as agitprop. Bo formed a team of three men, none of them armed. They distributed books and leaflets sent to them from the Vietminh province committee or passed out tracts, which they ran off on a crude mimeograph machine carried from place to place to avoid detection. But most peasants were illiterate, and Bo delivered speeches that usu¬ally stressed the importance of unity in the struggle against the French. He lived in an ordinary hut; sympathetic villagers fed him, and his family furnished his clothes. He had become a professional revolu¬tionary.
Bo rose rapidly in the movement. After a year, he was selected for membership in the Communist party, which still existed covertly despite its official dissolution. He attended classes in Marxist theory held at the Vietminh regional headquarters in nearby Bac Lieu prov¬ince, and not long afterward he. became a delegate to the Youth Lib¬eration League for the Nambo, as the Communists had designated the Mekong delta. He married the daughter of a prominent dignitary in his native village. She had also become a Vietminh militant and, with some misgivings, her father had thrown in his lot with the resistance. By the early 1950s, the whole village had come under Vietminh control. As Bo explained it to me, “There was no way for anyone to remain neutral.”
But about that time, presumably anticipating an early victory, the Communists imposed class distinctions on the movement. The phase coincided with an agrarian reform then being conducted by the Viet¬minh in the regions under its domination, and Bo fared badly as the son of a big landowner. Demoted because he lacked a “poor peasant” background, he quit to take up farming in the Camau peninsula, a remote sector at the westernmost end of the Mekong Delta. Surpris¬ingly, the Vietminh did not harass him for his decision. “I claimed that my health had failed, and they left me alone,” he recalled.
The Diem regime would not leave him alone, however. One night in 1956, four years after his resignation from the Vietminh, a platoon of Saigon government troops arrived at his house to arrest him. He had gone fishing, and neighbors warned him. He sent a message to his wife, telling her to go to her father’s place, and he fled to another hamlet, where he hid with friends. Before long, he received a visit from a couple of old Vietminh comrades, who spent hours describing the iniquities of the Diem regime and its American supporters. Bo listened intently and finally agreed to return to the fold, for a mixture of motives: “As a Vietnamese, I was saddened by the partition of the country and Diem’s refusal to discuss reunification. That was wrong, and I figured that the Americans were to blame for backing him. So the resistance was correct to oppose him. But I also joined out of self- preservation. Diem’s soldiers would have killed me if I had simply tried to continue living as a simple peasant. I really had no choice.”

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