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PART I 1945–1956
HO CHI MINH'S REVOLUTION
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ON SEPTEMBER 2, 1945, a 55-year-old Vietnamese man stood in Bao Dinh Square, Hanoi, before a crowd of 400,000 people. He was about to deliver a speech that would alter the course of history. He began with the following words: "All men are created equal. They are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights. Among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness."
Who was this man, and why was he quoting the American Declaration of Independence? He called himself Ho Chi Minh, and he was attempting to bring about his own nation's independence.
That wouldn't be easy. During the 19th century, the French had struggled long and hard to make Vietnam their colony. Finally, in 1887, after a decisive military victory, they claimed it for their own. It was now, they said, part of an Indochinese Union that also included Cambodia (and, six years later, Laos). They named southern Vietnam Cochin China, the central area Annam, and the northern region Tonkin. To further erode any sense of Vietnamese nationalism, they called all Vietnamese people Annamites.
The French built roads, railroads, and shipping ports in Vietnam, but they didn't pay for these projects themselves; they taxed the Vietnamese people. These taxes were so high many middle-income families could pay them only by selling their land, which had been in their families for generations. This was a tragedy on many levels. Most Vietnamese worshipped their ancestors, who were buried on their lands, and tending their graves was considered a sacred duty. And once landless, many families' survival often meant working on French-owned plantations for low wages and in brutal conditions.
Some Vietnamese people, however, fared well during the French occupation. The French conquered the South first, and when they did, Southern officials — the revered mandarins who were highly educated officials trained in the Chinese tradition — fled north. The French chose and trained new Vietnamese men for positions of authority. These new officials spoke, dressed, and thought like Frenchmen, and were completely dependent on their colonial overlords not only for their identities but for their often lavish incomes as well.
But the French found the rest of Vietnam much more difficult to conquer and, once in their control, more difficult to rule. This was especially true in the North, an area they had conquered last and where they had to constantly battle nationalistic movements, such as that led by Ho Chi Minh.
Born with the name Nguyen Sinh Cung (and later taking the name Nguyen Ai Quoc), the man who would come to embody Vietnamese nationalism began, in the early 1940s, to call himself Ho Chi Minh, meaning "he who has been enlightened." As a young man he had traveled to Paris, where he met other expatriate Vietnamese who were interested in setting their nation free from French colonization.
After spending some of the 1920s and 1930s with the Communist Party in China and the Soviet Union, Ho returned to Vietnam in 1941, during World War II, to lead a Communist force determined to win Vietnamese independence. This force was the Viet Nam Doc Lap Dong Minh (Vietnam Independence League), or Vietminh for short.
The Vietminh saw major growth during this time, perhaps in part because they then had an additional enemy to further spur their resistance: the Japanese, who since September 1940 had ruled Indochina through a puppet government led by Vietnamese emperor Bao Dai. In 1945 the Vietminh gained stronger support and became folk heroes among the Vietnamese when the Japanese — through their policies and seizure of crops — caused a national famine, killing approximately two million Vietnamese people, and the Vietminh robbed Japanese storehouses and gave grain to the people.
The Vietminh had powerful international allies as well. American intelligence agents of the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), seeking to undermine the Japanese, parachuted into Vietnam and provided the Vietminh with arms and training. The Vietminh, in turn, rescued downed US airmen and provided Americans with intelligence on the Japanese.
OSS agents were in the audience when Ho Chi Minh gave his powerful speech in Hanoi on September 2, 1945, declaring Vietnamese independence and the establishment of what he called the new Democratic Republic of Vietnam. On this same day, Japanese officials formally surrendered to the Allies in Tokyo Bay, thus officially ending World War II. The Vietminh had already forced Bao Dai to abdicate, and Ho was trying to fill the power vacuum before the French could return and reclaim their possessions. By peppering his speech with references to the US Declaration of Independence, Ho hoped to continue his alliance with the Americans and gain their support for his cause.
But at that very moment, US Merchant Marine ships transporting American servicemen home received orders to transport French soldiers to Vietnam. After nearly five years of a humiliating German occupation, France was determined to regain some national dignity by reclaiming its colonial possessions in the Far East. Assisting its wartime ally to accomplish this was more important to the United States than allowing another Far East nation to fall to Communism, the ideology that had become the new enemy to Western democracies.
If Ho's speech didn't inspire Americans in any significant way, it had a bracing effect on the Vietnamese people who heard it. Their idea of a government was always the "will of heaven"; that is, they believed they were destined to follow whoever was in charge. Up to that point, they'd believed French rule had been heaven's will for them. But when Ho mentioned that the French had not once but "twice sold our country to the Japanese," it seemed to most Vietnamese people standing there that the French were no longer conquerors to be feared and obeyed. Ho and the Vietminh were clearly destined to lead Vietnam.
The French didn't see things that way. On September 22, 1945, French paratroopers and legionnaires swarmed into Saigon, Cochin China's capital city. Despite the fighting that immediately broke out between the Vietnamese and the French, both soldiers and civilians, war was not Ho's aim. He tried to negotiate with the French. Negotiations broke down. He tried to gain support from US president Harry S. Truman. President Truman didn't answer Ho's communications. More fighting erupted between the Vietminh and the ever-increasing number of determined French soldiers who branched out from the South in their quest to regain complete control over Vietnam.
In February 1947 the French reached Hanoi. The Vietminh retreated into the jungles to wage a guerrilla-style war, destroying all other nationalist movements without Communist roots. Meanwhile, Ho sought to gain more followers by downplaying the Vietminh's Communist ideology. Instead he presented it as an organization solely dedicated to Vietnam's liberation. He changed the name of the Vietnamese Communist Party to Lao Dong, or the Worker's Party. Northern Vietnamese from all walks of life joined the Vietminh to support what they called the French War.
Ho convinced his followers that fighting the French for Vietnamese independence was a sacred duty that might take years. Then he held out for a long war, telling one French visitor, "You can kill ten of my men for every one I kill of yours. But even at those odds, you will lose and I will win."
By 1953 France was feeling the impact of those losses. Ninety thousand French soldiers of the Indochina War were dead, wounded, missing, or being held prisoner. And the end was nowhere in sight. The French people now referred to the Indochina War as la sale guerre, or "the dirty war." Despite heavy French losses, Ho still knew that for the French to negotiate on his terms, he would have to gain some sort of impressive victory.
In November 1953, in a small Vietnamese village called Dien Bien Phu located near the Laotian border, that victory looked surprisingly possible. The general in charge of the French forces in Indochina, Henri Navarre, ordered Dien Bien Phu occupied and held. The battle that followed would forever alter the course of Vietnamese history but would affect far more than Vietnam and France. Those on the outside would see it as a battle in the Cold War: Communist China and the Soviet Union were both supporting the Vietminh. The United States was supporting the French.
The day after the French surrendered to the Vietminh, representatives from several nations began the Geneva Conference, meeting to decide several issues, one of them a peaceful resolution to the Indochina conflict. Vietnam was divided into two military "regroupment zones." This temporary division was to be resolved in 1956 after a nationwide election. That election was never held.
The First Indochina War was over. The second would soon begin.
XUAN PHUONG WAS BORN IN 1929 in Hue, a city in the central portion of Vietnam that the French called Annam, but she grew up farther south in Dalat. Her family was affluent, a direct result of its connection to the French government: her father was the supervisor of a French school.
When Phuong was in grade school, her uncle Hien came to live with her family. Phuong's parents warned her and her siblings to not mention his presence to anyone, and Phuong quickly discovered why: Uncle Hien constantly criticized the French. After one week's stay, Phuong's father sent Hien to work as overseer on the family's coffee plantation, 70 miles away. When Phuong went to visit during the summer, Uncle Hien showed her the crude shacks that housed the mois, the local plantation laborers. The French government, Hien explained, had given the plantation to Phuong's father with instructions to hire only mois, as they could be paid cheaply. The memory of a sick old mois man too weak to work but too poor to purchase necessary medicine would forever haunt Phuong.
In 1945 Phuong went to live with relatives in Hue in order to attend high school. There she met her uncle Tay, another relative with dangerous political views. He told her about the Vietminh and their revolutionary aims for Vietnamese independence. And at her new school, called Khai Dinh for the father of Vietnamese emperor Bao Dai, Phuong learned even more when she was selected to join a club called the Association of Patriotic Students, run by Vietminh recruiters. Here Phuong first heard about someone named Nguyen Ai Quoc. She would later know him as Ho Chi Minh.
Her teachers were divided along sharp political lines: two were loyal to the Vietminh and three to the French. As enthusiasm for Vietnam's independence intensified, students who actually wanted to study were viewed with contempt by those who were increasingly fascinated by the idea of revolution. Phuong began to do resistance work for Uncle Tay, creating propaganda leaflets and Vietnamese flags and carrying messages past Japanese sentries.
Toward the end of World War II, as the Allies were defeating the Axis powers, the Japanese (part of the Axis) and the French (part of the Allies) struggled for control of French Indochina. On the night of March 9, 1945, Phuong was awakened by the sound of gunfire. Her uncle burst into the house crying, "The Japanese have disarmed the French!" He went off to join the Vietminh, who sent Phuong and four other female students north to Hanoi to study midwifery. The girls would never know exactly why they had been chosen for this particular training, but they felt honored to have been singled out.
In August Phuong and the other young midwife trainees were told they must return home to Hue because the fighting around Hanoi would soon become intense.
Back in Hue, on August 25, Phuong witnessed the public abdication of Bao Dai, the Vietnamese emperor who had been a puppet ruler during first the French and then the Japanese occupations. Emperor Bao Dai stood in front of his palace dressed in his ceremonial robes, surrounded by his weeping family and three Vietminh officials. A man's voice cried out, "From this day on, royalty is abolished in Vietnam."
Many in the audience cheered. Others wept. The emperor handed his royal seal and his ceremonial sword to one of the Vietminh officials, who waved both items in the air before placing them on a table. A cannon fired 21 times. The emperor's yellow flag was lowered and removed and the Vietminh flag raised in its place. The cannon fired again. Then the crowd ran into the royal palace and plundered it.
A short time later Phuong heard that the Allies had defeated the Japanese. Hue was overrun by representatives of the victors: bedraggled, emaciated Chinese soldiers from Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek's armies. After they left, soldiers of another nationality appeared in Hue. They were French. And they clearly intended to stay.
Phuong desperately wanted to help drive out the French soldiers. She left home and joined a small cadre, a group of trainees, young men and women who, like her, were educated and French literate. Their base was a large hut in a remote area, and their mission, under the guidance and training of a Vietminh leader named Sung, was to create propaganda leaflets. They disguised themselves as vendors and carefully distributed the leaflets to French soldiers at the local market. Phuong's leaflets explained her background and motivations, why she and her comrades had left their comfortable lives to fight for their nation's independence.
One evening the young women in the cadre placed some straw and peppercorns under a window of a hotel that was housing French soldiers. When the women set fire to the straw, it produced an enormous amount of smoke. The young women yelled, "French soldiers, do you know for whom you are fighting?"
The soldiers answered, "It is for you, Mesdemoiselles!" Then they shot into the darkness, but the young women all escaped unharmed.
Later the cadre traveled from village to village putting on simple theatrical productions that they hoped would inspire locals to embrace the revolution and support its fighters with food and shelter. The young actors had very little food to eat and no money; they were each supplied with only one rice ball per day. They slept in temples or on untraveled railroad tracks.
Phuong grew weary of the difficult, nomadic way of life, so she was relieved when she was eventually allowed to stay in one place with a group of former Hue students who were making explosives. From Hue, in March 1948, she was ordered to join Vietnam's first national research institute on weaponry in the jungle near Mount Khe Khao, in the Bac Kan region. These 50 physicists and former students lived in a real house, the first Phuong had stayed in since leaving home. Still, her life remained difficult in many ways. For instance, the only available food — rice carried through long jungle treks to avoid French outposts — was often rotten by the time she and the others received it.
But they didn't mind. Fascinated by the research, the team enjoyed a strong camaraderie and was thrilled to be directly useful to the resistance. Phuong also began to gather and edit articles for the institute's newspaper, Dong, a Vietnamese word meaning "detonation."
In September the institute was given orders to resettle in the jungle, about 125 miles from Hanoi, in Tuyen Quang Province. Because the new location was a populated area, local workers and volunteers joined the resistance workers, and the institute became more productive than ever before.
Five months later, on February 4, 1949, an accidental explosion ripped the hand off one of the workers. Phuong was deeply shaken. Hoang, the assistant director of the institute, found her alone after work hours. The two had long harbored secret romantic feelings for each other, and Hoang had come to tell Phuong he would soon be leaving for the war front. This news was too much for Phuong, and she burst into tears.
"Why are you crying?" Hoang asked.
Phuong told him that she was so upset by the accident that she had lost the will to remain in the resistance.
In response, Hoang proposed marriage, saying, "This way there will always be two of us to face it all."
Phuong agreed, and the two were married on February 28. Phuong became pregnant, but before their son was born, Hoang was ordered to China for officer training and suggested she stay with his sister. Phuong gave birth to her baby boy, then traveled through the jungle on foot to her sister-in-law's house. She was shocked when her in-laws treated her not as a relative but as a household slave, this while still expecting her to find employment outside the home. Phuong began to work at the Finance Service, the Vietminh's financial headquarters. Then she left her in-laws and went with her baby to live in a dormitory with other Finance Service workers.
Ho Chi Minh lived nearby, and one day in 1951, Phuong met him. His appearance surprised her. "Nothing we had heard about him corresponded to this man in his fifties who was nothing but skin and bones," she wrote later. "With piercing eyes and a small beard, he dressed in the way of ethnic minorities, with brown shirt and pants, and his famous sandals."(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Courageous Women of the Vietnam War"
Copyright © 2018 Kathryn J. Atwood.
Excerpted by permission of Chicago Review Press Incorporated.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Foreword Diane Carlson Evans, captain, Army Nurse Corps, 1966-1972 xi
Part I 1945-1956: Ho Chi Minh's Revolution 7
Young Revolutionary Xuan Phuong 13
"I Only Did My Duty" Geneviève de Galard 24
Part II 1957-1964: Ngo Dinh Diem's Civil War 37
"Freedom Is Never a Gift" Le Ly Hayslip 42
Witness to History Bobbi Hovis 54
Part III 1965-1968: Lyndon B. Johnson's American War 65
American Survivor Kay Wilhelmy Bauer 72
"What's a Woman Like You Doing Out Here? Jurate Kazickas 84
Australian Relief Worker Iris Mary Roser 95
Part IV 1969-1970: Richard M. Nixon's "Peace" 107
"I Knew in My Heart That I Had to Go" Anne Koch 113
Communist Field Surgeon Dang Thuy Tram 125
"Why Do They Have to Die?" Lynda Van Devanter 137
Part V 1971-1975: Endings And Beginnings 149
Captive Journalist Kate Webb 156
Protest Singer Joan Baez 167
"They're the Story" Tracy Wood 178
Running from War Kim Phuc 188