Bill Laurie: Very important commentary on an important subject typically ignored by far too many people pretending to be "scholars." Hoang Cam is sole surviving member of the "nhan van/giai pham" ground of dissident poets and writers Hanoi ideologues forcefully suppressed in 1956.
In English so grievously ill-informed American-born Americans can read and understand (it is to be hoped).
WORLD POLICY JOURNAL
Volume XX, No 1, Spring 2003
Barbara Crossette, the author of several books on Asia, was the chief New York Times correspondent in Southeast Asia from 1984 to 1988. She recently spent a month in Vietnam, beginning in mid December 2002.
What the Poets Thought
Antiwar Sentiment in North Vietnam
Hoang Cam is 82. His well worn jacket and the black beret set jauntily over his wispy white hair afford little protection against the relentless, cold drizzle of a Hanoi winter. He walks slowly, with a cane. But Hoang Cam is not about to surrender to old age. Keenly aware that he is the last survivor of a band of poets and writers known as the "humanist literature movement," which challenged Hanoi's Communist orthodoxy in the 1950s and 1960s and were quickly suppressed, he is at work on his memoirs. It is a story all but unknown not only in the West but also among Vietnamese of younger generations, and it deserves a wider hearing if history is not to impose a one dimensional, militaristic image over the remarkably cerebral, essentially humanistic society of North Vietnam.
In Hoang Cam's story, and those of countless intellectual contemporaries now dead, lie answers to some puzzling questions about why so many great writers and thinkers in a country where literary and scholarly attainment ranked higher than anywhere in Southeast Asia did not openly protest as Hanoi's Communist leaders squandered three generations of precious human capital on a succession of wars: against the French, the Americans, Cambodia, and, defensively, China. Now able to talk more freely about those times, veterans of war and repression or their surviving families recall long years of official isolation intended to abort any potential antiwar movement or political opposition before it could form. It may seem hard to imagine now, but long before satellite television and the Internet, even basic reporting from the front during the American war, or honest accounts of life in the south, could be, and were, routinely and easily suppressed in the north. There was no way to make contact with the "third force" of antiwar intellectuals and students in South Vietnam, short of chancing a letter routed through Paris, and probably censors.
"Everybody had to write about the war with revolutionary optimism so that more people would send their sons," said Vu Bao, an acclaimed novelist and short story writer who served in the American war as a communications specialist. "When we went south, we saw a lot but kept it in our hearts. Nobody could really discuss the war then -- though now everybody does, and they wonder how we could have sacrificed so many people. In the war, when we talked about how many died, we were told to write that they were wounded. But the night my own son went to the battlefield, I said to myself: `You have to write in a different way about this war.' When your son goes to the field of death, you learn how precious human life can be. That changed my way of writing."
Vu Bao, now 77, said in a conversation at a friend's country retreat that he had never been part of the humanist literature movement because its founders were highly educated stars and he learned most of what he knew in the trenches of the anti French war. But he was hounded by officialdom nonetheless because he had decided early in life that he would "have to choose between being a writer and a hired pen" and was forced after writing his first novel in the late 1950s to flee to the countryside and hide in a friendly village. He wrote prodigiously, surviving on the fringes of trouble, but maintaining his Communist Party membership. Among Vu Bao's most engaging short stores to emerge recently is one translated into English as "The Man Who Stained His Soul," a tragicomic title of an exhausted and traumatized battalion in the American war forced to reenact for the camera of a "foreign comrade" an assault on an enemy outpost, complete with a phony flag raising that became an iconic poster image worldwide. The "hero" the camera immortalized hoisting the flag was in fact a terrified soldier who had hung back from the real assault and wet his pants.
Those northerners who tried to reach out to their southern counterparts in a spirit of reconciliation were jailed. Hanoi's leaders also kept independent minded intellectuals well away from American critics of the war, so that there could be no discovery of common ground. Seminars staged for Westerners and delegations sent to peace meetings in Western Europe and the Soviet bloc included only "safe" poets and writers. As late as 1987, Hoang Cam was refused permission to travel abroad after the Musée Guimet in Paris, one of the world's greatest centers of Asian art and culture, had invited him to talk about the poetry of Vietnam "When the government finally allowed us to leave the country, we were too weak to go." he said over lunch at the home of friends. He and other writers I met over three weeks in Hanoi spoke in Vietnamese through a skilled former foreign ministry interpreter, Phan Thanh Hao, a multilingual journalist and translator of the 1991 novel The Sorrow of War by Bao Ninh, published in English in the United States by Pantheon in 1993. Phan Thanh Hao's father, Phan Khac Khoan, was another poet accused of being a dissenter. He went to jail in 1965.
Officially, there was no antiwar movement in Hanoi in the 1960s because every one was expected to be foursquare behind the Communist leadership's decision to impose its doomed socialist dream on the south at whatever cost. Hoang Cam argues now that he would have been an unlikely antiwar activist in any case, since as Vietnamese nationalists he and his friends felt they had no choice but to fight the French and the Americans. But he also suggested that the American war "is a tragedy visited on Vietnam through the manipulative talents of Le Duan, the Communist leader at the time. Le Duan had "trapped" President Lyndon Johnson into a wider war in Indochina, Hoang Cam said. Among the provocations was the attack on the American destroyerMaddox in the Gulf of Tonkin in 1964, which (with a more controversial, apparently false, report of a second attack on another destroyer) persuaded Congress to grant President Johnson wide powers to wage war.
It is startling to an outsider to hear how widespread the conviction is among Vietnamese intellectuals, young and old, that for both sides the Gulf of Tonkin incident was part of a lethal game. Y Ban, a 41 year old fiction writer who grew up near the gulf, picked up early in life the prevailing wisdom that Hanoi had lured the Americans into a firefight. She remembers this well because it became linked in her childhood mind with the bombs that soon fell on her town, where there was little stomach for war. Draft evasion was common. In a short story, "A Worthy Résumé" she writes how a man who broke his kneecap in a construction accident (a thinly disguised portrait of her father) was refused treatment ac the local hospital because it was assumed he had a self-inflicted injury.
However the Tonkin Gulf incident was sparked, it allowed Hanoi to portray the growing conflict as a foreign invasion, not the coldly calculated, ideologically motivated grab for the south chat it was. Many in the north would have opposed a war waged solely against fellow Vietnamese. "We were killing blood brothers," Hoang Cam said, adding that he still suffers in retrospect. "That was the biggest tragedy of our revolution."
"If there hadn't been a war, it could have been much better, because in the north and the south, 4 million, maybe 5 million, died," he said. "If those 5 million were sacrificed for a more beautiful Vietnam, a happier Vietnam, then I would not be suffering so much. If we didn't have the war, if we didn't lose our 5 million people, then maybe now we would not be ranked among the poorest countries in the world. 'That is unacceptable."
Half a century ago, the poetry of Hoang Cam inspired Viet Minh soldiers battling French colonialism. The Communist army had an Office of Art and Literature that sent writers and poets to the front with most military units in both the French and American wars, and Hoang Cam was a political officer who used his verse in pep talks on the eve of battles. But after the French defeat at Dien Bien Phu in 1954, victory was nor sweet. Hoang Cam and other intellectuals became the targets of the Communist leaders they had trusted. On their return from the battlefield, many writers were deeply dismayed to see Hanoi sliding into Stalinism. Thousands of peasants were being dispossessed, arrested, tortured, or executed in a brutal land reform program, and individual opinion was no longer tolerated if is deviated from the party line. In this atmosphere, Hoang Cam and a handful of others began to circulate collections of their writing and pooled their money to start a magazine, they called Humanist Literature. Though the publication's life was short and troubled, it gave its name to a movement that Hanoi's newly entrenched Communist government found threatening.
"During the French war, we didn't talk about these things, because we just wanted to fight the French," Hoang Cam said. "But within only three months of returning to Hanoi, we recognized what was happening. We were astounded that our authorities were imposing land reform and killing people. We really loved communism, and we loved this country, but communism didn't teach people to kill like that. I visited many places and learned that many people were shot only because they were rich peasants. Because they had built a brick house, they were called landlords, and then they were killed. So many people were killed. They were only peasants, illiterate, but they were working hard and knew how in make a little money." He wrote a touching poem about a little girl starving to death because giving food to a landlord's child was prohibited..
"Our magazine came out saying: 'We want our right to be human beings. We want democracy. We want our freedom to write.' Other writers had the same idea." As many as several hundred intellectuals may have suffered for their opposition in the years that followed.[i] "After the fifth issue of our magazine, I thought we had succeeded, but I was wrong," Hoang Cam said. Circulation of the magazine was rising exponentially. However, before the sixth issue appeared, a quarrel broke our among the founders over how antigovernment the journal should be. The editor in chief, Nguyen Huu Dang, wanted to take a strongly critical political line and wrote an editorial demanding the right to public demonstrations. Hoang Cam thought that it would be wiser to "go more slowly, more smoothly. There were other problems. The magazine could no longer buy newsprint in Hanoi. The business manager took the publication's remaining money and went to Haiphong to find paper. While he was away, the regime struck. "There was a public order from the prime minister to close the magazine," Hoang Cam said. "Publication stopped in December 1956.'" By then the writers knew they had been incriminating themselves right from the start.
"In the first issue, there were two time bombs," Hoang Cam recalls. The group had published a poem by Tran Dan, a well-known writer outspoken in his resistance to the simpleminded literature of upbeat socialist realism that was being forced on his generation. Roaming Hanoi after hundreds of thousands of Roman Catholics and others had fled to the south to escape what was becoming a harsh police state, Tran Dan saw familiar streets disturbingly deserted. The long poem that resulted included these lines:
I am wandering in the capital as if in no man's land.I see nothing but drizzle falling on the red flag.
"The two sentences were criticized," Hoang Cam said. "We were told that we were against the people, against the nation. Only a sentimental pair of sentences, and they interpreted it as a reaction against the regime! The second piece in that first issue, an article of mine, was in support of my colleague [Tran Dan] and in criticism of the leaders for ill treatment of him," he said. "There was a drawing of him wearing leaves around his neck to cover his throat. He had been arrested, and tried to commit suicide, and there was a scar."
Ngo Thao, a former political officer with the rank of lieutenant colonel during the American war who had accompanied Hoang Cam to the lunch with friends, interrupted the older man's story to explain that the state's most famous "correct" poet and top cultural commissar, To Huu -- a figure now openly ridiculed by younger writers -- may have acted out of envy for Hoang Cam's greater reputation as well as opposition to the demands for democracy made by Humanist Literature when he led the political assault on the dissenters. In Hanoi, intellectual rivalries are intense. Whatever the prime factor, "To Huu wanted to teach them a lesson," said Ngo Thao, who now edits Theater magazine and is deputy director of the Theatrical Artists of Vietnam. Bizarrely, Hoang Cam was asked by a government publication to write an obituary of To Huu when he died late last year. Tongue in cheek, Hoang Cam wrote that the death of his nemesis was "a big loss to the Communist Party and his family." Editors added, "and the people." Hoang Cam was indignant. "I would never have written that," he said.
Numerous former military officers like Ngo Thao, many of them intellectuals who volunteered or were drafted into the army during the American war, have put some distance between themselves and the government. Tran Do, a former northern general who died in August 2002 at age of 78, was expelled in 1998 from the Communist Party, where he had been head of the culture department, for circulating a proposal advocating that the party give up its monopoly on political power. Somehow, the proposal got on the Internet, drawing the special wrath of the Communist leadership reserved for those who advertise the country's problems abroad. In 2001, multiple copies of a manuscript thought to contain more trenchant criticism were confiscated from him as he left a photocopy shop in Ho Chi Minh City. Last summer, around the same time that Tran Do died, 21 influential Vietnamese issued a petition demanding a constitutional court to deal with violations of fundamental freedoms. Among the signers was a respected military historian, Col. Pham Que Dong, and the former dean of the Hanoi Marxist Leninist Institute of Philosophy, Hoang Minh Chinh.
When Humanist Literature died in 1956, the lives of its founders were changed forever, and intellectuals ducked into the semi-underground or hid behind pseudonyms. "Officially, four of the writers were not allowed to write or publish anything for three years;" Hoang Cam said. "And me, I was not allowed to write for one year. But in reality, the order lasted 30 years. No newspaper could publish me. But I didn't keep writing to put things in a drawer. For 24 years I was in and out of trouble because the poems I wrote were being circulated orally by young people. In 1982, they put me in prison because my poetry was so well known. I was in jail for 18 months with a young poet who had taken my collection of poems to Saigon. He was in prison for 3l months.
Hoang Cam said that the poem that caused him the most trouble was a bittersweet lyrical account of his rural boyhood and his obsession with a young woman eight years older, who promised to marry him if he brought her a rare du bong leaf. Each time he found the special leaf -- which existed only in his poetic imagination, he confessed -- she rejected it. The poem dwelt on the lovesick boy's fascination with her grace, with the way her ao dai floated behind her as she walked through the rice fields. After Vietnamese troops were sent to neighboring Cambodia in 1978 to oust Pol Pot, who had been attacking border areas of Vietnam, the soldiers, perhaps missing their Vietnamese village homes and fields, were heard reciting the poem by heart. "In prison, I had to write in my self-criticism why I wrote that poem," he recalled. "They said, How dare I compare the hem of her dress with the curve of roof on the communal houses And did I mean to imply that the party tricks people all the time, like the woman clicked the boy?"
The editor in chief of Humanist Literature Nguyen Huu Dang -- a once-loyal Communist to whom Ho Chi Minh himself had given important political tasks -- was exiled from public life altogether during the American war. "He never knew anything about the war," said Ngo Thao. "He never heard the B-52s, or anything. When the war started, the government was afraid of him shaking hands with people like you -- Americans -- and he was sent to the distant border and put in jail in a forestry area. He had a special cell. All he could see was the deep jungle. When he was released he had no idea where he was. He didn't know what had happened to him. He was like Robinson Crusoe."
Just as Vietnam's party leadership was forced to apologize in the 1960s for the excesses of the merciless land reform program. which was followed by a "rectification of errors" campaign, so in the late 1980s and 1990s the government began to make amends to the generation of free spirited intellectuals it had suppressed for decades. Now, though the founders of the humanist literature movement are nearly all gone, others still alive who shared their ideals and were also silenced can meet foreigners, travel, appear at seminars and be interviewed on television. In the mid 1990s, an unknown number of writers were each given payments of 4 million Vietnamese dong (about $500 at the time), ostensibly to help them publish their once suppressed work. Nguyen Huu Dang, the disgraced editor of Humanist Literature also got a new house. Apart from Hoang Cam, he is the only other survivor of the journal, but his mind and memory are gone and he can no longer write. "The government seems to want to send a message of apology," said Phan Thanh Hao, the translator. Her father, Phan Khac Khoan, never lived to see his poetry published. A book of his writing appeared after his death in 1998. For many, the gestures of forgiveness came too late.
Phan Thanh Hao, who had been my interpreter on several occasions when I reported from Vietnam between 1984 and 1988, is also a writer. She recently completed a book about the last half century of intellectual life in Vietnam using the story of her own family as its vehicle. She was an impressionable 13 years old, one of five children, when her father went to prison "for 8 years, 9 months and 12 days," she says -- all of her teenage years. The family believes that he was swept up in a paranoid government's roundup of intellectuals in 1965, the year the American Marines landed near Danang and the Vietnam War shifted into high gear. Phan Khac Khoan was a poet and teacher from a scholarly family in the Imperial city of Hue who had taught Prince Bao Long, the son of the last Nguyen Dynasty emperor Bao Dai, in the 1940s before joining the Communist resistance against the French.
Phan Khac Khoan was not part of the humanist literature movement, his daughter said. He had, in fact, tried to warn its founders of the folly of stepping too far out of line. "He was arrested because he was a romantic and thought he could go to the south and persuade people not to go to war;" she said. His case was complicated by student informers who had falsely accused him of acting against the regime in Hanoi. Phan Thanh Hao said her father was well-meaning but naïve. "The writers didn't know in 1965 that the two sides had already decided to go to war, and that behind both the north and south were outside powers," she said. For the North Vietnamese, that power was initially China, and later Russia. Just as many southerners are still angry that the Americans deserted them in 1973, with Hanoi's army advancing on the south, many North Vietnamese are bitter because they sense they were being used by the Chinese. "We say now that China would help Vietnam fight the United Stares until the last Vietnamese," Phan Thanh Hao said.
A public rethinking of the war years became possible only in the late 1980s, when doi moi, or "renovation' became the new motto of Vietnam's leadership and it was acknowledged in the face of a moribund economy that the entrepreneurial energy of the south should have been encouraged rather than repressed. "Your success in the marketplace is no less glorious than a victory on the battlefield," Prime Minister Phan Van Khai recently told a group of young business people in Hanoi. Writers soon seized new space for expression. If doi moi was intended to be largely an economic policy, intellectuals were prepared to push it beyond those bounds, and they got support at crucial moments from Nguyen Van Linh, the Communist Party leader at the time. Plays, short stories, documentary films, and poetry tested the limits of criticism with irony and saint, as well as stark reporting. In 1988, a privately made video documentary titled Kindness, capped scenes of poverty and despair in Hanoi's streets with this concluding comment: "Only animals turn their backs on human suffering to save their own skins. Do you know who said that? Fortunately, it was not one of my friends. It was Karl Marx." In a short story based on a real event in a rural village in the north, tax collectors forced an old woman to turn over a small state of rice she had hidden in her coffin, her insurance against indignity in death. Her cry of anguish ricocheted around the intellectual salons of Hanoi. "Oh, government! Oh, party!' she wailed, "Look at us!"
At about the same rime, a spate of what looked like delayed-reaction antiwar books began to appear. In Bao Ninh's novel The Sorrow of War, still the best known of those novels outside Vietnam, the central character, Kien, moves through scaring scenes of battlefield horror. Then, after the guns are silent, he is ordered to return to an eerie devastation to collect the remains of the dead. Everywhere he is haunted by ghosts and spirits, and wracked by nightmarish memories. The author wrote from experience. He was a member of the 500-member Glorious Twenty-seventh Youth Brigade sent to battle in 1969. Only ten of those young men survived.
Unlike American veterans, the North Vietnamese knew that families at home were also suffering, nor only from American bombs or the deaths of soldiers bur also from the hardships the political system had inflicted on them. Duong Thu Huong made civilian life the theme of her powerful novel, Paradise of the Blind, which the Women's Publishing House in Hanoi first printed in 1991.[ii] Although Paradise of the Blind was set mainly in the 1980s, the author links the dysfunction of one northern family to the tumult that began in the 1950s, when the social structure of the countryside was shattered and development stymied by an anticapitalist campaign. By the time many young people were sent to war against the Americans, their families were living in hunger and terror. City teenagers were accosted by the police for wearing faddish clothes. "I hid behind a lamppost, shivering with fear, waiting for my turn," a young man in Duong Thu Huong's book tells an aging party hack. "Where does it come from, your need to humiliate us? In the name of what?"
"Everybody Loses Something"
Although once beleaguered intellectuals say that the young, in their rush to consumerism and pop culture, will quickly forget about the lives and careers sacrificed for intellectual principles, a critical examination of the past goes on. In January, a haunting new film, Song of the Stork, opened in Hanoi. The film, due to be released in art houses in the United States this year, tells the story of a diverse group of young men from North Vietnam headed south along the Ho Chi Minh Trail for battle in the American war, each with his own dreams and fears. It treats all sides with a humanistic touch: northerners, southerners, and the Americans. One of the film's two co directors is Nguyen Phan Quang Binh -- Phan Thanh Hao's son and the grandson of Phan Khac Khoan, who went to jail believing in reconciliation. "In war, nobody wins," a soldier says in Song of the Stork. "Everybody loses something."
The line echoes a poem that Nguyen Duy, a North Vietnamese war correspondent in both the American and Cambodian wars and a screenwriter for Song of the Stork, wrote after visiting the Khmer temples at Angkor. He called the poem, "Old Stones":
I stand in meditation before Angkor's ruinsIf stone can be so shattered, what of human life?Old stones, let me inscribe a plea for peace.In the end, in every war, whoever won, the people always lost.
One of the most impressive landmarks in Hanoi is the eleventh century Temple of Literature, originally a university. Its very existence testifies to Vietnam's -- in particular, northern Vietnam's -- traditional veneration of scholars and writers. To walk there among the monuments to ancient sages makes one think what a fleeting aberration in Vietnam's history the anti-intellectual campaign may one day seem to be. In the late 1980s, a dissident video in Hanoi warned in its narrative: "If you shoot the past with a bullet, the future will mow you down with artillery." But Hanoi's zealous Communist leaders, while abusing human rights to inflict their political orthodoxy on writers and artists, never went to the extremes other regimes did to obliterate to shoot the intellectual past. There was not, for example, a Chinese style cultural revolution or the return to the Year Zero of the Khmer Rouge. Vietnamese churches, pagodas, and museums were neglected and sometimes shuttered or reassigned to other uses, but they were not sacked, and many are now restored. There are, to be sure, still political limits on expression in Vietnam. Dozens of dissidents, including monks, are in detention or under house arrest. Online commentary is policed. But at the Temple of Literature, in the recently recreated Thai Hoc Courtyard, a voice from the fifteenth century can still offer a lesson for those in power. On the wall of a small museum is this excerpt from a 1442 examination paper:
Virtuous and talented men are state-sustaining elements: the strength and prosperity of a state depend on its stable vitality, and it becomes weaker as such vitality fails. That is why all the saint-emperors and clear-sighted kings did not fail to promote men of talent and the employment of literature.
As the long lunch with Hoang Cam and his friends wound down, and the Cognac bottle was all but drained, I asked the writers if today's rulers would finally subscribe to that old conviction that writers were essential to a nation's vitality. Or are "men of talent" still feared? There was laughter all around. "Poets and writers have been fighting authority for centuries," Hoang Cam began. One of his friends cut in with the illustrative story of a nineteenth century author who managed even posthumously to enrage an emperor. The writer's tomb got 36 lashes. "The politicians are not afraid of us," said Hoang Cam. "They just hate intellectuals, and would still like to put all of them in jail."
[i] The extent and impact of this intellectual reaction to burgeoning totalitarianism are detailed by Kim N. B. Ninh, an American scholar of Vietnamese descent, in a new book, A World Transformed The Politics of Culture in Revolutionary Vietnam, 1945 1965 (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2002).
[ii] Paradise of the Blind appeared in English in the United States in 1993, under the Perennial imprint of HarperCollins, translated by Phan Huy Duong and Nina McPherson.
Bill Laurie, Phd, Historian chuyen