The Vietnamese Gulag <i> by Doan Van Toai and David Chanoff (Simon & Schuster: $18.95; 312 pp., illustrated) </i>
Two months after the fall of Saigon, Doan Van Toai, a longtime Viet Cong sympathizer who had cheered the communist victory, found himself being pulled out of an orchestral concert by soldiers and brought before a North Vietnamese lieutenant. The officer asked, “Are you Ngo Vuong Toai?"--who had been the head of an anti-communist student organization. Toai indignantly denied it and with some pride ran through his curriculum vitae. Not only had he been a Viet Cong supporter, he was currently on the finance committee of the People’s Revolutionary Government, the ghost-state Hanoi set up in the South, a state which vanished a year later when the full Northern takeover was accomplished.
The lieutenant meditated for a moment and then said, “Take him in and we’ll check it out.” Thus began almost three years in various jails: It was a sequence right out of Kafka. In fact, to get ahead of the story, when on Nov. 1, 1977, he finally emerged from prison, he was given a release document which had two lines left blank: “Reason for Arrest” and “Reason for Release.”
Toai is not, nor would he make any pretense at being, a Vietnamese Solzhenitsyn. He was a young man, quite candid about his ambitions, frank about his fears and weaknesses, but totally lacking the demonic ideological intensity of the Russian novelist. In truth, he had no strong ideological convictions--he just knew he disliked Diem, was appalled (as was I) by the impact on Vietnamese society of the Americanization of the war, and figured that maybe Ho Chi Minh was a bastard, but at least he was an independent Vietnamese bastard. Only in prison when he had the chance to meet old revolutionaries did he realize the extent to which he, and many like him, had been duped by the myth of Ho’s autonomy from Moscow.
As the recent shoot-out at the South Yemen politburo meeting suggested, the international communist movement may have more in common with the Mafia than is generally realized: There is a gangster international. This was brought home to me some years ago by an Israeli friend who had worked for Mossad in Cairo under cover as a German businessman. One day in a store, he looked up and saw an East German colonel--an intelligence adviser to Nasser--whom he recognized instantly as having been his Gestapo torturer in Bremen in 1938.
Toai’s introduction to this odious world came when, for a breach of discipline, one of the prisoners was sentenced to 30 blows with a rattan cane, administered by a specialist who had originally worked for the French, and had administered beatings to some other prisoners in Toai’s unit on behalf of Diem and Thieu. He was briefly arrested but, as Toai dryly puts it, “talents such as his do not lie fallow long,” and he resumed his profession.
He also met men who had spent most of their lives in jail for opposing the French and subsequent Saigon regimes, including one 82-year-old who helped Ho found the ICP in 1931. As best he could figure it out, the old man was there because, while Ho had spent his revolutionary career in Moscow, Hong Kong, and other places, the old man had been underground in Indochina. As Stalin demonstrated with the Moscow Trials, and Castro with his savage treatment of Huber Matos, no Supremo wants witnesses to his lack of revolutionary activity around to undermine his self-made persona.
Toai set out to save himself from inner capitulation and collapse by memorizing the histories of the men he met and the episodes he witnessed. It is a moving narrative of a young Vietnamese idealist’s unanticipated trip to a world of grotesque suffering and despair. Initially a naif, a believer in Ho Chi Minh’s “progressive nationalism,” he learned the hard way the hidden totalitarian agenda of the Leninist mafia.
Those of us in the United States who supported the war because we did not want to see the South Vietnamese turned over to the barbarians, who predicted the Asian Auschwitz that is Cambodia and the more subtle butchery of the installment plan instituted in the “reeducation camps” in South Vietnam, can find no joy in the accuracy of our predictions. But how could we have conveyed our knowledge of the Marxist-Leninist modus operandi to a Mekong peasant kid who, wholly on his own initiative, walked into the trap? More to the point, how can we convince our own young people, who have all the historical records at their disposal, of the ultimate moral corruption of Marxist-Leninism as a masque for the power drives of a self-anointed nomenklatura ? Does not the fact that Fidel Castro rode into Havana in January, 1959, wearing a rosary at least turn on the radar of “liberation theologians?”
Toai’s memoir--written with a striking lack of self-pity--shows that he paid in blood for his education, but can the lessons he learned the hard way be disseminated? I hope so: It may help a lot of serious, well-meaning people to take a close look at the backgrounds of, for example, the Sandinista capos and their “progressive nationalism.”