Escalation 3

There and elsewhere, however, the North Vietnamese and Vietcong slipped back within months of being cleaned out of their sanctuaries. But the refugees, uprooted from the devastated land and fearful of renewed offensives, remained in the cities and towns—their disrupted, dispirited families aggravating the instability of South Vietnam’s al ready fragile society. Without their farms, they were condemned to hopeless poverty, and the traditional social structure was further shat¬tered as their children, tempted by the stupendous affluence that the Americans had brought to Vietnam, defied time-honored vows of filial piety and broke away from their parents in a frenzied quest for easy wealth. For young women in particular, the primrose path to relative riches was irresistible.
During the French war, organized vice had been largely confined to the Saigon suburb of Cholon, where the Binh Xuyen gang and its local Chinese confederates directed casinos, brothels and opium dens, kicking in a percentage of the profits to the puppet emperor Bao Dai. The French, sensitive to male frailty, also maintained an institution known as the bordel militaire de campagne, or BMC, authorized brothels that traveled with the troops. But the American establishment was too puritanical to sanction sex officially. Tawdry bars and nightclubs and “massage parlors” proliferated in Saigon, Danang and wherever else American soldiers congregated, staffed mainly by poor peasant girls lured into prostitution by the prospect of earning more in a week than their fathers made in a year. Several distinguished U.S. diplomats and officers discreetly adopted Vietnamese consorts—usually elegant Saigon ladies who used the liaisons to elevate themselves into luxury and to take out insurance in the event of future disaster.
A lively narcotics traffic developed as well during the American war, the petty drug dealers often fronting for senior South Vietnamese government officials with access to heroin refined from opium grown in Laos. Among those allegedly involved in the trade were Prime Minister Nguyen Cao Ky and his successor, General Tran Thien Khiem, said to have funneled the proceeds from the business into their political machines. By 1971, according to Pentagon estimates, nearly 30 percent of American troops in Vietnam had experimented with either opium or heroin, and quantities of drugs were also being ex¬ported to the United States. Periodic attempts by American agents to smash the elaborate smuggling network were thwarted by their su¬periors in the U.S. mission, since a crackdown would have exposed nearly every prominent member of the Saigon regime. But the nar-cotics trade was only a small part of the economic corruption that pervaded the upper echelons of Saigon—and which essentially owed its phenomenal growth to the fact that the United States, in its rush to prosecute the war, pumped more money into South Vietnam than the country could absorb.
One day in 1966, I was appalled by an incident that still sears my memory. Nguyen Cao Ky had then embarked on a drive against corruption by condemning to death a Chinese merchant, Ta Vinh, on charges of illicit steel transactions. Eager to demonstrate his zeal, Ky had arranged for the supposed culprit’s public execution in the square facing Saigon’s central market, and I joined the crowd that had as¬sembled to witness the gruesome sight. A chubby and surprisingly young man, Ta Vinh was dragged to the stake by Vietnamese soldiers as his wife and children, garbed in ritual white mourning dress, let loose bloodcurdling wails of despair. The spectators watched numbly as the firing squad performed its task, and dispersed just as silently when the episode ended. For they knew, the way everyone in Saigon knew everything, that Ky’s campaign was a sham. He had wanted to make a dramatic gesture, and the Chinese businessmen of Cholon had delivered him a scapegoat in order to protect themselves. Indeed, Ta Vinh was the only miscreant arrested during Ky’s hollow effort to stamp out fraud, and his punishment did nothing to discourage cor¬ruption. On the contrary, corruption spread wildly as the war esca¬lated.
One of the devices for channeling American assistance to South. Vietnam was the commercial import program, under which American imports were sold locally in order to generate the currency that would pay the expenses of the Saigon government’s bureaucracy and army. The system seemed to be rational on paper, but it went awry in practice. Entrepreneurs with the right connections obtained licenses to import such merchandise as television sets, motor scooters and refrigerators, which they sold principally to urban Vietnamese who were themselves reaping profits from the American presence and could afford luxuries. So the aid revolved in a narrow circle, with only a pittance reaching the peasants, whose allegiance was deemed crucial to the success of the war. And even the necessities that trickled down to the rural areas were frequently diverted into shady schemes. For example, speculators hoarded imported American fertilizer and created artificial shortages that sent prices skyrocketing. One of the most notorious speculators was the brother-in-law of General Nguyen Van Thieu, who superseded Ky as South Vietnam’s ruler. But he was a piker compared to Thieu himself, who carried away millions of dollars in gold when he fled Vietnam in April 1975.
Without an ideology or even a positive purpose to inspire loyalty, the Saigon leaders could only purchase fidelity—and they practiced a style of secular simony, trafficking in jobs that gave their subordinates the opportunity to make money. General Dang Van Quang, the Me¬kong Delta commander, was therefore accorded the rice and opium franchise in his region; later, assigned to Saigon, he increased his considerable fortune by selling passports for upwards of twenty thou¬sand dollars each. General Van T’oan’s infantry division, deployed among the cinnamon plantations near Dalat, devoted more of its time and energy to harvesting the precious spice than to fighting the enemy, while General Nguyen Huu Co, a defense minister, cashed in on lucrative real estate killings—and he even had the audacity to pocket the rent from the lease of government land to the U.S. army. Lesser South Vietnamese officers participated in the system as well, paying kickbacks to their superiors for a chance to share the plunder. The going rate for the post of district chief in 1967 was the equivalent of ten thousand dollars, payable to the corps commander. Officials in many regions also paid off local Vietcong chiefs, with whom they had arranged accommodations.

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