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NGUYEN VAN THIEU: An Echo from America’s Last Big War

8 minute read
Walter Isaacson and Nguyen Van Thieu

Q. Now that the Soviets have quit propping up regimes in Europe and elsewhere, do you see change coming to Vietnam?

A. My collaborators and informants in Vietnam tell me that even the rulers in Hanoi realize they must make dramatic reforms soon. They know that the political and economic discontent is serious, even within the armed forces, and also inside the party, where there is growing opposition to the Old Guard.

Q. What are you doing to encourage this?

A. For two years I have been traveling around the world to keep my fellow expatriates updated. We are also organizing to tell the people in Vietnam who want change that we are ready to support them from overseas, morally and financially.

Q. But what makes you think you have any right to play a role in Vietnam’s future?

A. I do not seek any leadership position in the overseas community of Vietnamese refugees. And I would not seek to come back to Vietnam as the President if we were successful. I am old, too old to take power again. But I believe I can encourage the struggle of those who want democracy and freedom, especially for the younger generation, and after that I can use my experience to promote reconciliation and guard against the chance that we could lose our freedoms again.

Q. Aren’t you partly to blame for the animosity in Vietnam? What makes you think you could help with reconciliation?

A. There have to be some leaders on the people’s side of the struggle who will seek to calm down the rage and tell people not to take revenge against the communists. I do not advocate annihilation of the Communist Party. I do not advocate making them go into exile like we had to do.

Q. Who is pushing for reform?

A. Many new political organizations are being formed in Vietnam — I have been in contact with some of them — and they include religious groups, student groups, the middle-class Catholics and even former members of the National Liberation Front. They include anyone who wants to join together to rise up against the Hanoi authorities.

Q. The National Liberation Front? That was the Hanoi-backed communist movement in South Vietnam that your government fought. Are you saying they have joined with your supporters?

A. Many former N.L.F. leaders in the south would be willing to join us. They were betrayed by the North Vietnamese leaders in 1975 ((when Hanoi’s troops took over Saigon)). They realize the time has come to work with the people to struggle against those who retained power in Hanoi.

Q. Does the Hanoi government take this resistance seriously?

A. Yes. In fact, Hanoi is no longer confident that it can trust its security forces. Not long ago, the Hanoi leaders created a special regiment from people very loyal to them and sent it down to Saigon. That is because they realized that if the people in the south rose up, the regular security forces and even the military there might not be on the government’s side, just like in Romania.

Q. Do you think the Communist Party in Hanoi might agree to real reforms?

A. I think that the next session of the Communist Party Congress, scheduled for April, will bring change. We know that there are deep divisions, and if the younger reform faction fails — I don’t believe it will — then there would be an open party quarrel. Most of the army commanders and most of the province leaders are with the reform faction.

The Communist Party in Vietnam is like a big tree. But the roots are loose, and the trunk is hollow. There are people within the party who realize that the challenge is not how to maintain the tree, but how to make it fall in a way that will cause the least damage.

Q. Do you still see a difference between north and south in Vietnam?

A. In any country, even the U.S., there is some difference between north and south, or east and west. But it is not so serious. The resistance to Hanoi is greater in the south, but the people in the north are becoming more aggressive. You have to realize that the hatred of the Communist Party has been growing in the north for 45 years; in the south it has only been 15 years.

Q. So you don’t think that Vietnam might be divided again, do you?

A. No, absolutely not. Vietnam must definitely be one nation from north to south. The decision to divide Vietnam did not come from the people, it always came from the foreign colonizers, and from the communists in 1954.

Q. Why then did you fight so hard, and enlist the U.S., to keep South Vietnam sovereign?

A. We fought because we were faced with an invasion from North Vietnam. It was an invasion pushed by the Chinese and the Soviets, who wanted to control Indochina. We resisted. And the U.S. troops came to Vietnam to defend freedom and preserve stability for the whole of Southeast Asia.

Q. You say that you want a multiparty democracy. But Vietnam does not have a tradition of democracy and did not when you were in power.

A. That is not true. Vietnam has had a strong democratic tradition for centuries. No single king or emperor has ever been feudal. “The order of the king must stop at the village gates,” is an old Vietnamese saying. That represents a strong democratic tendency at the grass-roots level. Under my regime, even in wartime, we applied democracy in a Western style by having not only an elected national assembly and provincial councils but also at the hamlet and village level.

Q. Do you foresee a renewed war?

A. It depends on Hanoi. I do not advocate any war, any civil war. We do not want any more killing or revenge. If the Hanoi government agrees to carry out radical change in a timely fashion — maybe over a year or two — then it will all be smooth. We could go to a multiparty system and elect a new government without bloodshed. There could be national reconciliation.

Q. And if Hanoi doesn’t agree to change?

A. If they continue like this, there is no doubt that they will face a struggle. If they use force like in a Tiananmen Square, then certainly blood will be answered by blood. Whether there is a civil war depends on how stubborn and tricky the Hanoi government will be. At the moment they are playing tricks, creating false political parties so they can say that there is democracy.

Q. Do you think Hanoi’s relations with China will improve?

A. Yes, the Chinese might support the Hanoi leaders in order to lure them away from Moscow. The Chinese may not want too much reform because they fear a contamination of China through their underbelly. On their side, the Hanoi rulers feel isolated, and they need to be protected like a chick under the wing of a hen. But the Chinese, they do not forget easily. They will remember how the Vietnamese communists betrayed them in 1979. Among the communist regimes in the world, the Hanoi one is the trickiest. They can deceive even the Chinese communists. So the Beijing-Hanoi relationship might get better, but with suspicion. It could be a game of dupery, with neither side trusting the other.

Q. Isn’t it about time that the U.S. opened diplomatic relations with Vietnam?

A. No. As long as the current people in Hanoi continue their dictatorial system, you should not encourage them to strangle the people of Vietnam any more. Certainly the U.S. has some interests — geopolitical and strategic — in Vietnam. You have a need to be present in that area to achieve stability and economic development. But that can only occur when there is no longer a communist and dictatorial government in Vietnam.

Q. But it must be obvious to you that the Bush Administration is about to establish closer economic ties to Hanoi?

A. I hope the Americans will not be lured in. That would be yet another failure: they would be condemned for encouraging the communist dictatorship to last forever and to strangle the people forever.

Q. What should the Americans do?

A. I don’t ask them to make another war. But Vietnam needs Western economic help. That gives the U.S. great leverage. They should agree to end their embargo only in return for political and economic reforms in Vietnam. Let the economic ties go step by step.

Q. Why do you think the climate is ripe for change these days?

A. The U.S. has the chance to work with the Soviets, the Chinese, the French and even the Japanese to say that all economic dealings with Vietnam should be curtailed until there is change. What are you waiting for?

Q. Do you think you will be back home soon?

A. I think so. I hope so. It should take four or five years if the change comes peacefully. And then we could all go back. Like after a hurricane, we could all go back and rebuild.

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