Vietnam: The Cadres and the Villagers

A month after the peace accord was signed in early 1973, a colleague, David Greenway of the Washington Post, and I crossed the lines of the Vietnam war to meet the soldiers and cadres of the National Liberation Front (NLF)–their leadership since 1969 known as the Provisional Revolutionary Government (PRG). These are the people Americans have known as the Viet Cong. It had occurred to us that we were the first Americans to walk through that region of the Mekong Delta–Chuong Thien province–without orders to kill. The PRG had a strong military force in the area, and the fighting had been almost constant since the cease-fire. As we walked from the road controlled by the Saigon regime (the Government of Vietnam–GVN) into the countryside, we could see GVN helicopters and tactical jets bombing and strafing a few miles away. We eventually found the local guerrillas, and, after some hesitation, they received us with courtesy. After darkness fell, a squad of them accompanied us through a forest and up a river to the headquarters of Ba, the PRG commanding officer for the area.

Whatever rank these officers held, they appeared completely informed about national and international issues as they affected the PRG. Ba did not talk politics with the finesse of the civilian cadres I and other journalists had met, but he seemed to have an education in Vietnamese history and literature as it is taught in Hanoi and the PRC–controlled zones of the South–the liberated zones, as they are called. He and the others spoke of themselves as members of the People‘s Liberation Party, the Southern branch of the Vietnamese Communist Party. During a break for coffee, biscuits, and cigarettes, Ba pointed out four framed inscriptions that hung high on the walls of his quarters. One inscription read: “For our soldiers and civilians, loyalty to the Party, love and respect for the people are two duties of equal importance. We must overcome all difficulties.” Another one read: “We must remember the contribution of Chairman Ho Chi Minh. The Lao Dong Party forever!”

One capital

The fact that they emphasized this last inscription, with its reference to the Communist Party of North Vietnam, indicated that they saw no reason to maintain the distinction between the Northern and Southern branches of the Party. The explanation was that there were Northern troops in the area; the PRG had admitted to the North Vietnamese presence in the South since October, 1972. Also, judging from their age and education, I thought it probable that most of these officers had spent some time in North Vietnam. At one point the commander asked us rhetorically if we had ever heard of a country with two capitals. Realizing that a negative answer was indicated, we gave it. “You see,” Ba said triumphantly, “Thieu is an uneducated man if he thinks Vietnam has two capitals. There is only one, and that is Hanoi. So if the North Vietnamese soldiers come to help the liberation in the South, how can you say they are aggressors?”

At 2 A.M. we had yet another meal of noodles, chicken soup, and coffee served by one of the officers. The men of the cadre were clearly ready to talk all night long, apparently noticing the hour no more than they did the clouds of mosquitoes that rose from the river. But as Greenway and I were showing obvious signs of fatigue, they prepared their wooden beds for us with blankets and American mosquito netting, bidding us sleep for the few hours before our departure. We went to sleep and woke again at seven to the music of the NLF station that one of our hosts was quietly listening to on a small radio inside his netting.

The cool morning light revealed another lattice and thatch shelter a few yards away across the clearing and in front of us a massive earthen bunker covered with straw upon which a brightly colored cock stretched to its full two-foot height and crowed loudly. In high spirits, the commander leaped on top of the bunker, took the cock in both hands, and waved it toward us, laughing, “It’s a soldier’s cock. A real fighter.” Releasing the bird to join its hens, he picked up a bunch of yellow fig bananas from the hay and sprang down again to offer it to us. Later during breakfast I told him that I had heard about the use of coconut milk as blood plasma by the National Liberation Front doctors. Ba pulled off his fatigue shirt to show us a large scar on his chest and another on his back. A shrapnel wound, he said. The coconut milk had saved him, for his blood pressure had been very low by the time he had gotten to the hospital. “You have to climb the tree and bring the coconut down very carefully so as not to disturb the insides; then you clean the outside and draw the milk out with a sterile needle.” Later he said, “When real peace comes, all the fruit trees will grow back again.”

Exposure

Our departure had been fixed for 8 A.M., and at 7:30 two ARVN helicopters passed high overhead–presumably on a reconnaissance mission. As for safety’s sake we did not wish to return the same way we had come, the cadres detailed two new guides to take us out. Both of them were dressed in the light-blue uniforms with the soft-brimmed hats and loose, long-sleeved shirts that dated from the early days of the NLF. Both carried M-16’s and ammunition belts slung like bandoliers across their chests.

The first leg of our journey on the narrow paths and the log bridges of the forest led past four or five more latticed shelters identical to the one in which we had spent the night, each of them containing ten or more men in full uniform with weapons stacked and ready to go. The path also led by a small cemetery with gray wooden markers–some old, some very recent– and a sign above the archway reading CEMETERY RESERVED FOR THE BRAVE MEN WHO GAVE THEIR LIFE FOR THE PEOPLE. After half an hour of marching, we emerged into a vast open stretch of paddy land. Our guides took us half a mile further and then, saying good-bye, pointed us toward a house with a shining metal roof some two kilometers distant, which they said lay on the main road to Can Tho. As Greenway and I walked on alone, our feeling of exposure, already preoccupying, became even more acute with the appearance of one, two, and then three GVN helicopters overhead. There was nothing to do but keep on walking straight ahead in the open. One and then two more helicopters appeared over us, a total of six. all of them circling at a fairly high altitude. All of a sudden the lead gunship peeled off from the circle, dropped to a few hundred feet, and, firing rockets, made a run on the hamlet in the far treeline to our right. The artillery sounded from across the road, and a puff of smoke rose from the hamlet. As the other helicopters dropped to make their runs, bursts of machine-gun fire started up in the hamlet, interspersed by the thuds of an M-16. From where we stood, it was impossible to tell whether the PRG was returning fire or whether the GVN attack went unopposed. We kept on walking and, reaching the road without being spotted by GVN troops, hailed a civilian bus traveling in the direction of the spot where we had left our car the day before.

It was ridiculous to hope that we had evaded the GVN troops completely. There were just too few foreigners in Chuong Thien province, and even fewer white Volkswagens parked out overnight on a secondary road in the middle of the countryside. At the first crossroads, a GVN lieutenant in the camouflage fatigues of the Special Police invited us to get out of the bus. We were taken to province headquarters and. after an hour or so of polite conversational fencing with an army major and a captain, we were driven to Can Tho in a convoy of two jeeps with six armed policemen. The major had promised us that we would be taken to the American Consulate, but. once in Can Tho, the jeeps drove right by it to the regional headquarters of the police Special Branch–the organization responsible for the torture of a number of my Vietnamese acquaintances.

There the deputy chief for the region, a short, round-faced man in civilian dress, took us up to his office and began to ask questions. Where had we been? Where were our camera film and our notes? He spoke in English with a breathy, Peter Lorre voice, a threat lying just under the surface. “Wouldn’t you like to go free? It’s so easy, just give me your film. ... If you’d like to go free, all you have to do is give me your notes and the secret documents they gave you.” Greenway gave him the new roll of film he had just put in his camera, but then seeing that one concession only led to more demands, he played the part of an irate American tourist and refused to answer any questions until someone from the American Consulate arrived.

I think it was the shouting that the police chief could not stand, for after an hour an American Foreign Service officer, a Mr. Harrington, appeared, dressed in suit and tie and looking quizzical at the sight of us in our dirty blue jeans and mudcaked shoes. With the help of an interpreter (Peter Lorre had ascribed our inconvenience to a nonexistent language barrier), Mr. Harrington and the police chief proceeded to define the issues with the most exquisite drawing-room diplomacy. Discovering that it was the notes we wanted to keep– that we had no important film or secret documents– Harrington negotiated what the police chief thought was a compromise, tipping the balance with an elliptical phrase about the delicacy of the international position of the Republic of Vietnam at that particular time. There ensued a scene in which Greenway unpacked his airline bag, beginning with a filthy shirt, an even filthier washcloth, and an old piece of bread, laying each item carefully on the police chiefs desk, and finally stripping off his encrusted shoes and sweat) socks and dangling them, one by one, in front of the police chief‘s nose. By the end of the performance there were about twenty policemen in the room, all of them doubled over with laughter, hands covering their mouths.

The loss of face to the Special Police was clearly not to be borne. The next day, our American sources reported, the police chief entered in his report that he had found secret documents in Greenway’s shoes.

Just what secret document the police chief had in mind we never discovered, but quite possibly it was the text of the Paris peace accords. From the time of the cease-fire, the Saigon government had treated the accords virtually as a subversive document. In Saigon, only the American Embassy had printed copies of the text. To its officials the Thieu regime had given out only Ministry of Information tracts, which interpreted the unobtainable text as a great victory for the Thieu regime, and booklets of instructions on how to deal with the cease-fire. Neither of these pamphlets mentioned the political sections of the accords or the chapter on the future reunification of Vietnam. The GVN officials saw no point in telling the people what they did not know, since none of it concerned the civilian population. The PRG, by contrast, did all in its power to inform people about the accords. The Front cadres carried copies of the text around in their pockets–the soldiers carrying in addition copies of the military protocols–and the NLF radio broadcast sections of the text every day. By March, those villagers who were NLF sympathizers could cite the accords, article by article, in defense of their claims of cease-fire violations by Saigon. Knowledge of the peace treaty became a perfect litmus test for the political sympathies of any individual. It was also, therefore, a new means of discovering the political, as opposed to the military, geography of the war.

Since 1960, the beginning of the second Indochina war, the map of military and administrative control over Vietnam has changed from year to year, but, roughly speaking, there have been three major shifts: First, the rise of the Southern guerrilla movement, 1960-1965, by the end of which period the NLF controlled all but the major cities of South Vietnam. Then, the American war and the military pacification of the country, 1965-1971, that put most of the country back under the control of the Saigon government. Finally, the North Vietnamese offensive of 1972 that once again divided the country between two armies and two administrations, and permitted the North Vietnamese and the PRG to negotiate on the basis of a standstill cease-fire.

When the peace accord was signed in January, 1973, the North Vietnamese and the PRG controlled some two-thirds of the territory of South Vietnam, including most of the Central Highlands, the northern half of Quang Tri province, about half of the long narrow littoral of central Vietnam, stretches of territory along the Cambodian border, and a swath of the Mekong Delta running from the Ca Mau peninsula up through Chuong Thien and the rich farmlands of Dinh Tuong province. These territories had a high strategic importance in that they assured the North Vietnamese and the PRG of a nearly impregnable infiltration and supply route from North Vietnam to all sections of the country. But they gave the PRG control over a very small percentage of the South Vietnamese population. The mountains had always been largely uninhabited, and the war, in particular the large-scale use of American firepower, had driven most of the population into the cities, towns, and roadside settlements.

Worldly villagers

Drawing from this new population base. President Thieu‘s Saigon regime had, by the time of the major American troop withdrawals, managed to recruit an army of over a million men (the population of South Vietnam is only 18 million) to stand guard over the rest of the population. The question was, of course, whether the lines of military control corresponded to the political sympathies of the people. American officials argued that they did, with qualifications. Those who had spent a long time in Vietnam would claim not that the majority of the country people felt any love for or loyalty to the Saigon government but only that those living in GVN-held villages at least preferred the government to the NLF. Yes, they would say, the pacification had worked. For reporters the point was difficult to argue, since, quite obviously, no NLF supporter in a GVN-held village would announce himself as such to an American. But after the cease-fire, the contrasting use to which the PRG and the GVN put the peace agreements allowed me to test that claim in the villages that the United States and Saigon thought were models of pacification.

The successful example of pacification that I knew best was a village called Due Lap, a series of scattered hamlets and farmhouses in the center of one of the old NLF territories, about twenty miles west of Saigon. Because the village had the misfortune to lie at the crossing of an NLF and a GVN communications route around Saigon, the fighting in it had been continuous, though not always intense, for a decade, beginning in 1962. In 19641965 the Front forces had successively overrun three ARVN battalions quartered in the central hamlet, and the American planes had each time responded by bombing, and finally flattening, the hamlet. Many of the inhabitants of the village fled to Saigon; the rest lived in shacks, and, in continual danger from the fighting, eked out a miserable existence. In 1967-1968, the military balance in the region turned in favor of the American forces, and except during the 1968 Tet offensive, when the Front once again overran the central hamlet and American aircraft once again bombed it to the ground, the fighting gradually diminished in the village. There was less artillery, there were fewer operations, and the refugees began to return.

When I visited the village in 1971, the GVN armed forces and police were combing it for the last of the NLF cadres. They were also arresting and beating up a large number of people more or less indiscriminately, to extort money, or to fill their arrest quotas under the “Phoenix” program. The villagers I spoke to complained bitterly about the Saigon government, and not only about the behavior of the local forces but about the rigged presidential elections and Thieu’s refusal to enter into peace negotiations. Still, as the conditions of life in the village had improved and there were very few armed NLF cadres left, it was difficult to say whether this hostility to the government implied any real support for the NLF.

Eighteen months later, in March, 1973, Due Lap had become for all intents and purposes a pacified village: no military activity, no known NLF cadre, and a full government administration. Saigon had withdrawn its ARVN fighting units, leaving only the militia to make routine patrols. The rice was growing, and the people who had lived for years in temporary huts along the road had almost all moved aw’ay to rebuild their wooden houses, raise milk cows, and cultivate their traditional secondary crops of tobacco and peanuts with new irrigation pumps. The roadside merchants had built concrete houses and stores. The Saigon government’s primary school burst with children. From the air, only the absence of coconut palms and red-tiled roofs indicated what had happened to the village in the course of a decade.

As was usual when I came to see him, the village chief had his hands full with paper work: requisitions, permits, identity cards, and this time tax forms with which he hoped to raise enough to pay three-quarters of the salaries of the village officials. (The rest of the village budget came from Saigon which, in turn, had received it from the United States. The United States now, as always, contributes 85 to 90 percent of the whole GVN budget.)

The government’s irrigation scheme had failed owing to poor planning, but the cease-fire had brought the chief several new tasks. For one, he had been ordered to remove the identity cards from all the people in the six outlying hamlets and to renew their receipts for these cards every ten days. And he was in charge of recruiting for Thieu’s Democracy Party and the government‘s Front for Peace and Self-Determination. That morning he had held a village meeting in the province capital to denounce the crimes committed by the Communists from 1967 to date–crimes which, he said, comprised thirty-six people killed and eight vehicles blown up by mines. Given the American air attacks and the one hundred civilian casualties of the Tet offensive he had told me about the year before, it was a curious piece of addition. But three thousand villagers, he said, attended the meeting and shouted anti-Communist slogans.

The villagers told me a different story. Those people I questioned about the incident said that the soldiers had come around the night before and seized family identity cards from a number of households, promising to return them only if one member of each family came to the propaganda meeting. Three hundred people had shown up at the meeting, and the journey to and from the outlying hamlets had cost them a whole day’s work. They had shouted anti-Communist slogans because the soldiers were watching them. “But there are Communists in Cu Chi!” one woman told me scornfully.

Apolitical politics

The phrase surprised me since it meant that the woman knew that there were North Vietnamese and PRG representatives in the Joint Military Commission compound not many miles away–a piece of information the government officials were doing their best to suppress. But then, as I walked through the village, I began to hear a great deal more subversive information about the peace. Two or three farmers cited the peace accord article by article while others accused the GVN of cease-fire violations. Interestingly, the villagers’ concerns seemed not to be very parochial. People whom 1 had met on previous visits would grudgingly admit that life was better in the village than it had been for years; but then they would complain about President Thieu’s importation of military equipment via Japan or discuss the larger issues of war and peace. Some were more guarded than others, but all were enthusiastic about the prospects for peace under the accord. As to where they got the information about it. some said “a friend” and others “the Liberation radio.”

In this manner and by the use of certain arguments the PRG used with the uninitiated, the villagers gave me to know not only that they sympathized with the other side but that they were carrying on an active psychological warfare campaign against the GVN officials and soldiers. (“But,” said one woman after hushing her children with a threat that “the soldiers will get you,” “some of the soldiers are our friends.”) The questions I could not ask were why they did it and how they managed to continue after all these years. For the people I talked with were not young men–the only young men in Due Lap were the soldiers and police–but an old farmer who had lost all of his sons in the war. a woman who supported a brood of grandchildren by selling rice, and an old woman whose husband had died the year before of torture by the Special Police.

For some twenty years, most Americans have believed the Vietnamese farmers to be apolitical, uncommitted. desirous only of being left in peace and security to till their fields. This notion, of course, originated with American officials and counterinsurgency experts who argued that the NLF was nothing but a terrorist outfit whose success lay in its ability to coerce a passive peasantry. Less logically, the belief was adopted by many liberal American congressmen to support their view that U.S. troops should be withdrawn from Vietnam. But to visit the villages of Vietnam during the years of war was to see that nothing could have been farther from the truth. In the villages.I have had discussions of subjects ranging from the Pentagon Papers to corruption as a structural problem in the Saigon government, to the economics of the American import program. In talking with farmers, shopkeepers, and local officials, it has always seemed to me that the Vietnamese were a much more political people than the Americans. The NLF farmers played a noncommittal game for the sake of their own security. Before the signing of the cease-fire, they preserved their anonymity behind words as behind the clothes common to all farmers. After that time I saw them shed anonymity like an old skin. Not far from the site of My Lai IV, I was talking to a group of people, survivors of the massacre, when an old man said, “We are sick of war and sick of the Communists.”

“Sick of the Communists?” I asked, to test him.

“Sick of war,” he said.

And a younger man, standing nearby, reassured him, “Sick of war. You don’t have to say anything about the Communists now.”

In Due Lap the villagers indirectly revealed the outlines of the whole political struggle in the village. Elsewhere, where government control was not so tight, they would on occasion speak directly of the Front and of the cooperation that existed between the civilians and guerrillas. In the contested zones it was possible to catch a glimpse of what life was like in the maquis and to hear the history of the war from a new perspective.

“Fruit of our sweat”

Another press colleague and I went one day to Truong Lap, a small town just off the main road to Saigon and near the important ARVN (formerly American) base of Cu Chi. Truong Lap had been built in the mid-1960s by the U.S. Twenty-fifth Division for those people who had fled from the surrounding embattled countryside. Until the spring of 1972, it had been a model resettlement town with schools, churches, maternity clinics, and low-cost housing units. But just six months after the American division moved out, the North Vietnamese and NLF forces had hit the town hard, three times, in their attacks on the ARVN Twenty-fifth Division battalions quartered behind it. Now the town lay in ruins, and half the population had fled, some people taking refuge in Saigon and others moving back into the countryside from which they had come.

Since the cease-fire date, the main job of the government militia and police, in accordance with national GVN policy, had been to prevent the rest of the civilians from moving back into the country beyond their security perimeter. Their task was a difficult one since, with the departure of the American troops, there was no more money in the town and no alternative for the people except to return to farming. The officials allowed the people to go out to their fields each day and return at night through police checkpoints. lance and the long daily journeys. Since the cease-fire, the NLF had come in small groups to the town each night to broadcast the peace accord provisions on liberty of movement and to urge the people to return to their land. When some went, the officials reacted by sending troops out to destroy the new houses or shelters they had built. The soldiers ran over the huts with tanks and set fire to the farmers’ belongings. When we arrived in Truong Lap, the soldiers were firing artillery and small arms almost at random into the fields where the people were working. An old man said that one day the soldiers had shot two people and several buffalo and blamed the incident on a Viet Cong attack.

As we left the town, two women appeared on the pathway from the countryside, a toothless crone with one eye and a younger woman carrying two baskets on a pole. The baskets must have weighed sixty pounds each, for they were filled with twisted metal from expended napalm canisters, rockets, and artillery shells. The crone said proudly that she was the mother of a Liberation fighter and that she had come to town to exchange the shrapnel for betel and cooking oil.

Though there were people willing to lead us, the outpost towers around Truong Lap were too closely placed for us to walk out into the countryside unobserved to check on the burned houses. So the next day, we returned to a place just short of Truong Lap, a group of mud and thatch huts by the side of a dusty road. There we found a farmer willing to take us to see other farmers and, necessarily, the local guerrillas. Setting off from the road at a point midway between a tank emplacement and a militia outpost, we followed him for several miles across ragged scrubland, where there was no cover at all except for a few saplings growing along old hedgerows. With a hoe over his shoulder and a mongrel pup at his side, the farmer walked rapidly, never looking up at the L-19 spotter plane that circled overhead. “I know that plane. It’s just a training aircraft,” he said. Arriving finally at a roofless hut with an earth bunker, we waited only a minute before five young guerrillas appeared. They were a ragged lot; one had an eye missing, and all were dressed in a miscellany of civilian clothes and ARVN uniforms. Before we had a chance to exchange half a dozen words, a woman called out from the next field that the soldiers were coming. The guerrillas dispersed quickly, and, leaving our guide, we walked back in the direction from which we had come, taking care to follow a slightly different route.

The road back to Truong Lap led through the same treeless landscape. Here and there, we noticed, the fields had been put back under cultivation, and, it being the dry season, they abounded with tobacco, peanuts, watermelons, and vegetables. We passed a number of peoplewomen watering the fields, schoolchildren pushing their bicycles, and a whole family riding on a buffalo cart all of whom spoke to us without hesitation. Near the road and the zone of GVN control, we noticed two small pieces of paper stuck on cleft sticks by the side of the path. The first, a note in a child’s handwriting, read, “Soldiers of the Saigon regime, we implore you to spare our harvest, for it is the fruit of our sweat. And please do not burn our houses down.” The second was a small, printed message about the need for reconciliation between Vietnamese.

“Why so different?”

Not far from these signs, and a few hundred yards from the road, we came upon a house set in a garden of mango trees, papayas, and lotuses. The house had no walls; it was just a stone floor with mahogany pillars topped by an old redtiled roof. But the breezes blew through it, and the garden blocked out the sight of the scrubland and the tank-rutted road. A middle-aged couple, the woman with her hair twisted in the graceful turban of the Delta, invited us to come in and rest in the shade. The news that we had seen the guerrillas worried them at first. But finally, contented by our explanations and the arrival of our guide of the morning, who was a friend of theirs, they began to talk quite openly about the National Liberation Front and about what had happened to their community over the years of the war.

The plain we had walked through, they said, had once supported Phuoc Thanh, a village of twelve thousand people. That village had been liberated early in the Viet Minh war and had remained with the resistance until 1965. “No one from Saigon ever came in here before,” the farmer said. “Not the French, and not even the soldiers of the Diem regime. It took the Americans two years to get in. They brought in tanks, and certain families disappeared completely. All of their members died, and they had no future generations. The Americans then took all of the people out, but the Liberation forces remained. Finally the Americans cut down the bamboos, so the guerrillas had to leave. There used to be a forest of bamboos between here and the road.”

Most of the people from Phuoc Thanh had moved to Truong Lap; others had moved into Cu Chi or. like our guide, had built temporary houses of mud and thatch near the road. “For years I have lived this way,” our guide said, “coming out to the roadside when there was too much bombing and going into the country when there was nothing to eat by the road. But it is better since the Americans left. There is less bombing and artillery fire.”

The farmers spoke of the constant harassment by the government troops, and particularly by the militia forces responsible for local security. “I don‘t understand the mentality of these soldiers,” the owner of the red house said. “They are poeple like ourselves before they put on uniforms, but then they take up a gun, and they are furious with us. They rape women and they steal.” Once, he said, the soldiers had come to his house and stolen all the fruit from the trees, including the green mango he was saving for an ancestral cult offering, insulting his ancestors into the bargain. In answer to my question he said that the “Liberation men” were different: they never took anything, and they respected the cult. “They even come to help people in their gardens. When I was alone, they came for a day to help me sow my peanuts, taking the hoe themselves. If they’ve worked all morning, they’ll consent to eat with you. but if you prepare a large or special meal, they’ll go away.”

Both farmers then began to tell stories about the Front, how one time when the people had fled during a bombing attack the guerrillas had let all the livestock out of their pens so they would have a chance of survival and how, when they remained in charge of an evacuated house or hamlet, they would make lists of every bit of crockery to show that they had stolen nothing.

The farmer laughed. “Yes, they caught a thief once that way. The Liberation men were guarding a village that had been evacuated by the civilians. While they were there, a man came along and said he was the owner of the tailor shop. He took away two bolts of cloth, and they made him sign for it. But a few days later he came back and said he owned another shop, and he wanted something from it. So they arrested him and made him give the cloth back.”

“Why are the two armies so different,”one farmer asked, “when they are both Vietnamese?”

-FRANCES FITZGERALD

This is the second part of a threepart article .