Vietnam’s transition: voices from the past

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“In 1965 when the United States intervened directly in the Vietnam War, the Communist Party created a working group to study the situation and provide recommendations on how we should confront what was for us a totally new situation.

“After having looked at every aspect of the situation, we came to two conclusions. First, we would never defeat the Americans militarily. Actually, we should not even try. They were just too strong. Second, we identified the Achilles’ heel of the Americans: It was their will to fight. So eroding America’s will to fight became our principal aim.

“This required a long-term strategy that would include maintaining, year after year, a constant level of hostilities that would ensure that the Americans, over time, suffered a casualty rate they could not sustain and which would bring them to the negotiation table.

“This strategy was not of our choosing. It was imposed on us by the situation we were in,” Colonel Tran Cong Man smiled.

I never would have met him had it not been for my interpreter in Hanoi, Monsieur Khoang, who had taken it upon himself, probably without any official authorization, to introduce me to some of his friends.

I had covered Vietnam as a journalist and academic, and the 1973 Paris peace agreements threatened to leave me without a job. But fate decided otherwise.

On May 1, 1975, Prince Sadruddin Aga Khan, then UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), asked me to be his representative in Hanoi and thus the first head of a United Nations agency in communist Vietnam. For me it was a unique opportunity to witness first hand the functioning of a victorious communist-ruled Vietnam. But the position carried its own frustrations.

While my interest in Vietnam extended far beyond my work for the UN, I was in Hanoi as a UN official, and it was difficult for me to justify an interest in things Vietnamese that extended beyond my official functions.

Fortunately, however, the authorities had assigned to me an interpreter-cum-liaison officer who was the opposite of what one expected a communist bureaucrat to be.

In his mid-50s, Monsieur Khoang came from one of the wealthiest families in Hanoi. In 1946 he had joined the communist Viet Minh and over the years had risen through the ranks to become the editor of the newspaper of one of the Viet Minh’s crack divisions. Acknowledging his dedication, he was invited in 1954 to join the Communist Party and was offered a government position. He refused both.

“I told them that if required I would give my life for my country, but the party had too many meetings and I would get bored, “ he told me. “Moreover,” he added, “I was interested in poetry, not in a government job.”

Over the following years Khoang, surviving on a meager salary, spent his time translating the classics of French poetry into Vietnamese. By then many of his friends had reached high government positions, but they had not forgotten him; their door was always open to him and, seeing him nearly destitute, they assigned to him a job as a liaison officer to the UNHCR delegation in Hanoi.

Khoang took a liking to me and the maverick in him understood my frustration at being obliged, while living in Hanoi, to restrict my interest in Vietnam to the confines of my UN status. “I have some friends,” he told me, “and I will see what I can do.”

How Khoang went at it, I never found out, but with no advance notice, on a rainy afternoon after working hours I was ushered into a shabby office in a nondescript building where a middle-aged man with a weather-beaten face was waiting for me. “This is Colonel Tran Cong Man,”Khoang said. “He speaks some French but to make things easier I will translate.”

Speaking in a low, measured voice, Colonel Man first proceeded to give me a historical background on the People’s Army of Vietnam (PAVN).

In 1930 the Communist Party had some small guerrilla groups in central Vietnam. These units were of little consequence, however, as the communists had decided that their main effort would be political and focused on propaganda.

Then in October 1941 the Communist Party decided to resort to armed struggle against the French. This led to the emergence of several small armed groups, some of which were actually operating full time.

But in the eyes of the Communists, if they wanted to defeat the French and seize power, relying only on guerrilla forces was not enough, and there was no substitute for a regular army. So the party decided to create one under the name of the People’s Army of Vietnam.

The party also felt that for historical purposes there should be an official date marking its creation, and December 22, 1944, was chosen. “It was purely an arbitrary choice,” commented Colonel Man. “Any date could actually have been chosen.”

The purpose of the PAVN, in the words of Colonel Man, was to enable the Communist Party to wage war. So in political terms there was no distinction between the army and the party and practically all army officers were also Communist Party members.

By August 1945 the PAVN had some 3,000 regulars organized in companies. By 1949 its forces were organized in regiments, and by 1950 in divisions. All of the soldiers were volunteers, none received a salary, and all were expected to serve for the duration of the war against the French.

The war came to an end in 1954 after the Viet Minh won the Battle of Dien Bien Phu, followed by the Geneva agreements that consolidated the Democratic Republic of Vietnam, which ruled the North from its capital, Hanoi.

For the PAVN it was a time of profound reorganization. Not only were the officers for the first time provided regular salaries, but the armed forces were restructured into three components, namely regular division, regional division and people’s militia.

“Actually,” explained Colonel Man, “regular divisions and regional divisions are the same. What changes is that the regular ones are under central command while the others are under regional command. And as for the people’s militias, they mostly man anti-aircraft weapons and coastal artillery.”

While they were consolidating their hold on the North, the Communists did not deviate from their ultimate aim, which was the creation of a “unified and socialist” Vietnam.

“For us,” explained Colonel Man, “regarding the South there were three stages. From 1954 to 1959 our main effort was to build a political infrastructure in the South. Then in 1960 we moved to the next stage, that is the military option, spearheaded by southern main force guerrilla units.

“By 1965 the Saigon government was on the point of collapsing, and the Americans decided to intervene. So the war entered its third stage, which saw a direct confrontation between us and the Americans.”

One of the main requirements of the long-term strategy adopted by Hanoi required a constant supply of new troops, but that proved not to be a problem. In 1954 the North adopted a Military Obligation Law, which provided that every youngster upon reaching the age of 18 was supposed to serve for three years in the PAVN. “That was the law,” commented Colonel Man, “but in practice it was never implemented.”

According to the system described by Colonel Man, each province was given a yearly quota of recruits that it was to provide to the army. As a first step, the province called for volunteers. As there were always more volunteers than the numbers set up by the quotas, there was no need to implement the draft. “So on paper we had a draft but in reality we had a volunteer system. And as the bombing increased people got very angry, and we had even more volunteers and it was understood that they would serve for the duration of the war.”

The adoption of a long-haul strategy required a corresponding adjustment of its tactical implementation. “For us,” said Colonel Man, “the first rule was that there is no rule. Sometimes we must plan an attack with a superiority of three to one. Other times the attacking force can be smaller in numbers than the defenders. Overall each situation is different and must be viewed accordingly. The same applies to planning. One must never become the prisoner of a plan.”

The most striking example of constant, low-level pressure interspaced with short, violent operations was the 1968 Tet Offensive. The dilemma for the Communists, as explained by Colonel Man, was either to attack everywhere and disperse their forces or to concentrate the attack on a few locations.

“We made several mistakes,” he said, “but our ultimate aim of politically destabilizing the enemy was reached. We also suffered considerable losses, but these were from the southern main force guerrilla units, which led the attack, and not from the regular divisions of the PAVN, which remained in essence intact. It was only after the Tet Offensive that we slowly started systematically moving them south.”

After the signing of the Paris peace agreement in 1973, the Communists started planning for a renewed offensive in the South, but before launching it they wanted to be sure that the US would no longer intervene in Vietnam.

“In December 1974,” explained Colonel Man, “we launched an offensive against the province of Phuoc Long, some 70 miles northeast of Saigon. Actually,” he added, “attacking Phuoc Long made no sense militarily, but when we took the province and the Americans did not react, we knew that they had given up on Vietnam, so we moved to the next stage, and in March 1975 we attacked Ban Me Thuot.”

The Communists had planned for a two-year-long offensive in the South but were caught by surprise by the ease with which Ban Me Tuot fell.

“Rather than following our initial plan,” said Colonel Man, “we decided to launch a probing attack against Quang Tri. The city fell literarily overnight, so we decided to push on toward Hue. When Hue fell, we then decided to disregard all our past plans and aim for Saigon.”

The Vietnamese Communists had carefully studied the Chinese Civil War and wanted to avoid at all costs a similar scenario.

“In China,” commented Colonel Man, “the Communists won the war but they did not totally defeat the enemy, who withdrew to Taiwan. Our strategy was to avoid at all costs the creation of a Vietnamese Taiwan in which the enemy would establish a line of defense around Saigon, which would include the [Mekong] Delta. So our forces had to keep their momentum to prevent the enemy from regrouping. For this we had no advance planning. For us it was now a question of improvising and charging forward.”

Saigon fell on April 30, 1975. None were more surprised by the speed of the collapse than the Communist Party leadership. To say that they were unprepared for their victory and for running the South is an understatement.

Compounding the problem, the Communist political infrastructure in the South had been decimated over the years and, except for its army, the party did not have the manpower to run the South. So it did what came naturally: Not only did the party import cadres from the North to run the South, but it sought to apply mechanically to the South the regime that was in force in the North.

It was only after they had brought the country to the brink of disaster that the Communists backtracked and came to realize that mechanical Marxism as conceived by Lenin was not a formula that could be applied to Vietnam.

I never saw Colonel Man again. Like Monsieur Khoang who introduced me to him, he must by now have passed away.

As for Vietnam, it soldiers on, a country bearing little resemblance to the Marxist utopia that Colonel Man and Monsieur Khoang stood ready to give their lives for.

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