Toan Truong

Toan Truong as a UCSF medical student.

This Date in UCSF History: Vietnam’s Elusive Truth

Monday, February 27, 2023

Originally authored in February 25, 1988 by Toan Truong as a third-year medical student.

I have been blessed in many ways. I am alive, my family is intact, and we have not had to go hungry. I am here in America — thank God for that, too.

I grew up in Saigon in a well-to-do family during the war. We left on April 30, 1975, two days before the Communists took the city.

It seems that Vietnam has been at war forever. During most of our tumultuous history we had to fight against China for our survival as a nation. At other times we brought war to our smaller neighbors and took their land.

Some people believed that the Vietnam War resulted from a curse invoked by a Chiam prince who ruled the Mekong delta.

I was 15 when I came here so I was old enough to remember. It was hard for me to understand where my memories fit in the context of what actually happened. Living in Saigon meant that I was relatively sheltered from the war. Sure, I saw things on the news, heard rumors, and had relatives maimed and killed just like everyone else. But I didn’t have to dodge bullets every day. You could live rather well then and not let the war affect you too much. Many people did just that.

So when I came to this country I suddenly became an “expert.” I was the eyewitness. I had the impression that when people looked at me, they saw napalm bombs exploding and Lieutenant Calley shooting at babies in My Lai.

They had an understanding look in their eyes, shook their heads and said: “You must hate us for doing what we did to your country.”

I was confused. I was in the United States, a country generous enough to take me and pay for my education; yet many of “the best and the brightest” thought that the fight against Communism — which I had been taught to fear and loathe — had been a mistake.

There was no question in my parents’ mind that we would have to leave Vietnam. Although they treated their employees well, my mother had some personal experience with what happened to people who had “exploited the proletariat.”

We were in fact tried in absentia by a people’s court. What happens to justice in such a court is interesting. One of the court personnel later told us that they knew we were safe, so they did not hesitate to make up things to please the “judge.”

Safe in America, I wasn’t sure what to think. Who were the good guys? Every Vietnamese I knew hated the Communists. I would venture to guess that 95 percent of Vietnamese-Americans are rabidly anti-communist, 4 percent are more moderately so, and 1 percent are pro-communist and laying low. Very low.

I saw “Good Morning, Vietnam,” starring Robin Williams, the other day. This movie had a character, played by a young Vietnamese, who was a communist terrorist. I thought to myself that it would be a shame if the actor were hurt by someone in the Vietnamese community who thinks he really is a communist sympathizer.

I set out to educate myself about Vietnam. I started to read and talked to my parents and Vietnamese refugees from all walks of life. America gave me the opportunity to do this easily. We were all in the same boat, no pun intended.

I found out that our society had been even more corrupt than I had thought. It probably was because of all the dollars floating around and everyone out to make a fast buck.

We might have started going downhill when the French came and people stopped living by Confucian ethics.

There was a time when public officials were willing to die for saying to the king that he was wrong. This was held as the highest standard of conduct to which one could aspire. Not that corruption in our society was a new phenomenon. The traitorous and corrupt official was a much-hated character present in every classical opera and had his own recognizable makeup and costume.

The Americans brought prosperity to many. Those were heady times. People were scrambling to become a “contractor for the Americans” (thau cho My), which meant they would provide some goods or services and be paid large sums of money.

It would be an understatement to say that the American dollar had a favorable rate of exchange with respect to the Vietnamese dong. Prostitution became a growth industry. This happened in Thailand too, I gather.

My own nanny, may God be kind to her, quit and became a bar girl. Drugs also became a problem, especially among young people. Perhaps the Pentagon should have taught GIs to just say no.

I discovered the elusiveness of truth. I remember Tet 1968 well. Tet is Vietnamese for Chinese New Year, which we celebrate, too, because we use the same lunar calendar. We always had a cease-fire during this time. Many soldiers had passes to go home and pay respects to their ancestors.

That year, the Communists (North and South) infiltrated every major city. On New Year’s Eve, when kids were setting off their firecrackers, the shooting started. They tried to occupy installations such as radio stations, post offices and military bases.

They also went into private homes. They were able to hold the imperial city Hue for days. There they took anyone with the remotest link to the government or military, had them dig large holes, tied them together, and buried them alive.

Thousands of people died. My uncle, who was there for a funeral, narrowly escaped. This was a national tragedy for all of us. This was my idea of evil.

I was curious about how the massacre in Hue was handled in the American press, so I looked up old microfilms of the New York Times. News of the massacre was reported, but not prominently.

Many Vietnamese feel that the My Lai massacre, which received so much media attention, paled by comparison to the events in Hue.

Reading the Times, I got the impression that the South Vietnamese armed forces didn’t exist. In fact, our troops did most of the fighting and dying. Our casualties were in the hundreds of thousands.

I’ve often wondered why “the other side” — another slang term for the Communists — fought so well and so hard against such odds. You only have to see the tunnel system running all around Saigon and stretching to the Cambodian border to appreciate the mind-boggling work that went into it.

The underground network was complete with a hospital, storage for food and material, sleeping quarters, multiple exits and booby traps.

Many Americans argue that it’s because they believed in a just cause. It was true that they were highly motivated.

In the North, people were taught that the people of the South were crying to be liberated from the Americans and their puppet government. That the United States was running the country was probably not far from the truth. The United States certainly encouraged the coup d’état that toppled and killed President Diem and helped install a more pliable successor (Thieu).

The North Vietnamese regulars who participated in the Tet uprising believed that all they had to do was show up, fire a few shots, trigger a mass uprising, and be received with open arms. This did not happen.

When this became clear, they fought purely to establish a socialist society in the South. I think that at least part of the North Vietnamese will to fight was due to effective political education and brainwashing.

Their discipline was harshly enforced and when this was not sufficient, other methods were used. I have seen pictures of their troops chained to machine gun nests and tanks so they had to fight to the death.

On the other hand, our troops’ morale was not so good. Many generals were busier dealing in contraband and keeping mistresses than planning strategy. Signs of conspicuous consumption and decadence were everywhere. It would have been hard for the average soldier not to doubt the worthiness of what he was fighting for.

Somewhere along the line, we lost the battle for hearts and minds. Many of our own soldiers stole livestock and property wherever they went. The average communist soldier was apparently polite and did not touch what did not belong to him. I did not mean to use the word “brainwashing” disparagingly. That was what it took.

Who could have foreseen that the Communist government was to be even more corrupt than the last one?

The refugees I’ve spoken with say that corruption is the reason so many people were able to leave. Each little government official is master of his domain and answers to no one. Nothing gets done without bribery.

Rice production used to depend on the weather. Now the farmers refuse to plant more than they have to because the government takes it away. Life is so hard that in order to survive, people have had to cheat and steal.

This I consider worse than starving people. Trust is hard to come by and the secret police are everywhere. People are afraid to say what they think for fear of being sent to a “work” camp.

Unfortunately, concentration camps still exist in Vietnam even though the Western press rarely mentions them. This is well known to organizations such as Amnesty International.

Perhaps we are so ruled by images that without a live broadcast from such a place on the evening news, it does not exist.

To their credit, the Communists did not massacre people wholesale after the war. According to my refugee sources, people were brought to primitive gulags in the jungle, told to improvise some shelter, and to start cultivating.

Many have died from the harsh conditions and lack of food and medical care. And they die quietly after some work has been squeezed out of them. Much better public relations.

If a detainee is lucky, his family is notified of his whereabouts. Then begins a whole cycle in which the family pools its resources, perhaps supplemented by money sent home from abroad.

Someone is sent there to bring food and medication, perhaps to bring back the prisoner if the right people are bribed. It is the rare Vietnamese here who does not know someone or is related to someone who disappeared in this way.

The Vietnamese government has recently been sued in front of the United Nations, of which it is a member, for human rights abuses.

In 1985 I went to a debate at UCLA in which one of the speakers was Anthony Russo, a prominent critic of the U.S. role in Vietnam. He sang the praises of the present regime and said a number of outrageous things.

The audience was about half Vietnamese, mostly students. The Americans in the audience obviously agreed with Russo (who happened to be a much better speaker than his opponent, a former assistant secretary of state). The atmosphere was very civilized. No one threw any blood or tried to disrupt the talk.

I could feel my own frustrations mount as the Vietnamese students there tried to pin Russo down during the question period. He was such a smooth talker and made everything sound so plausible.

At the end of the debate, I tried to explain to an American woman that most Vietnamese did not think the present regime was wonderful. The lies she had heard flew in the face of so much suffering. I started crying uncontrollably and could not say another word.

It is estimated that one boat person dies for each one who makes it to freedom. My roommate, who is a boat person, says that it is better to die than to live as he had.

Another friend of mine walked from Vietnam to Thailand after trying four times to leave by boat. He was sent to the same concentration camp each time he was caught. By the end, the guards would call him by name and say laughingly: “It’s you again!”

One of my uncles left with his family relatively early, before the Thai fishermen became full-time pirates. The other was not so lucky. His boat was stopped five times. Each time the fishermen relieved the refugees of any valuables that they were able to hide from the previous ones.

All women except children and the elderly were raped. The prettiest were either gang-raped or taken away, never to be heard from again. My aunt was saved because she was seven months pregnant.

I believe that the present system in Vietnam is fundamentally dehumanizing and dishonest. Yet I admire the strength of its organization. It is extremely well suited for the rigors of war. In peacetime, its inefficiency becomes more glaring.

The ideal of a classless society is just as remote as ever. The privileges now belong to a hereditary aristocracy of party members. Although the rich are less rich than before, the poor are much, much poorer.

Meanwhile the police state reigns supreme. I do not intend to sound like an “evil empire” Reaganite. I just happen to know how the idea of communism is being implemented in Vietnam.

Some of the lessons to be learned here are to carefully choose the source of our news and to remember that things are always more complicated than they appear.