IN THE CROSSFIRE
Adventures of a Vietnamese Revolutionary
FROM ONE PRISON TO ANOTHER
On May 19, 1937, Marcel Gitton, of the Colonial Section of the French Communist Party, wrote to the Stalinist members of the La Lutte group: According to the directives we have received concerning you, we consider it impossible to continue the collaboration between the Party and the Trotskyists. We have received a letter from a comrade about the situation in Indochina and the collaboration with the Trotskyists. We are going to transmit this letter to Moscow, along with our personal judgment.
This secret message was delivered to La Lutte by a French sailor. But amusingly enough, he mispronounced the name of the person it was addressed to — the Stalinist Tao — and it fell into the hands of Thau, a Trotskyist.
At the end of May, the Stalinists left the La Lutte group and hurriedly launched the newspaper L’Avant-garde [The Vanguard]. In it, submissively echoing the line from Moscow and the French Communist Party, they wrote:
The Popular Front is not a form of class-collaboration between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie, as has been deceitfully claimed by the Trotskyists, those twin brothers of the fascists. . . . Our comrade Stalin, in his speech to the plenary session of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union on March 3, 1937, noted that Trotskyism has ceased to be a political current in the working class, as it was seven or eight years ago. . . . Trotskyism is the ally and agent of fascism.
This abrupt split between the Trotskyists and Stalinists in the La Lutte group profoundly disoriented their supporters, who knew little or nothing about the differences between the Third and the Fourth Internationals.
In June 1937 (just as I was released from prison) our newspaper Le Militant featured an evaluation of twelve months of Blum’s Popular Front government. It noted the budget of 30 billion francs for war, the failure to intervene in Spain, the seizing of revolutionary newspapers, the disbanding of the Étoile Nord-Africaine organization, and the repression of the strikes in Indochina. The article also noted that in March the police under Minister of the Interior Dormoy (a Socialist) had fired on workers demonstrating in Clichy [a Paris suburb], killing five and wounding more than 150, and that in Metlaoui in North Africa riot police had killed 21 strikers and wounded several hundred others.
In Saigon, we pounced on copies of André Gide’s Retour de l’URSS [Return from the USSR].* The poet Bich Khe even made a quick translation of it in quoc ngu. This book, which introduced me to Gide, also confirmed what the Moscow Trials had revealed and made me even more aware of the inevitably explosive nature of our relations with the Stalinists, despite the fraternal bonds formed with some of them in prison. ‘‘In the USSR today, wrote Gide, Trotskyism is referred to as the spirit of counterrevolution. Submission and conformity are the qualities demanded now. Anyone who expresses dissatisfaction is denounced as a ‘Trotskyist’.
I was looking for work and found a proofreading job at Le Flambeau d’Annam [The Torch of Annam], a French-language newspaper that had just been launched by the indefatigable Constitutionalist Nguyen Van Sam following the suppression of his previous paper, Duoc Nha Nam, its equivalent in the Annamite language. Anh Gia, who earned his living as a sign painter, offered me a bed at his place on Rue Lacotte in Saigon.
At the Rubber Manufacturing Company [Compagnie du Caoutchouc Manufacturé] the police had just arrested four worker militants in the underground labor union, in an attempt to prevent a strike in solidarity with the railway workers. I wrote a short article about this for Le Flambeau d’Annam. The boss calmly gave it back to me with the remark: By using this tone, are you trying to get them to close down our newspaper?
In the Flambeau’s review of the press, I discreetly inserted excerpts from French newspapers denouncing the judicial farce of the Moscow Trials. The Stalinists made sure that the Flambeau received bundles of the complete official reports of the trials, which I of course filed in the waste basket.
With a sense of urgency I wrote a pamphlet in Annamite, Vu an Moscou (The Moscow Trials), which violently denounced the murders perpetrated by the Stalinist legal system almost twenty years after the October Revolution. Anh Gia designed the cover, and we published it under the name Chong Trao Luu (Countercurrent Publications). The pamphlet, which was banned as soon as it appeared, narrowly escaped seizure and was distributed via the underground network. Later, the Sûreté would come upon copies during searches in Annam and Tonkin. In the same series Anh Gia and I issued other pamphlets (all in Vietnamese) on the topics of syndicalism and action committees.
Then, in Saigon in July 1937, a hundred dock workers appeared on Rue Catinat, fists raised, marching on the Board of Factory Inspection to protest against firings. And 150 workers at the Saigon Navigation Company downed their tools in reaction to the dismissal of three comrades. And sixty workers from the Stacindo factory demonstrated in front of the 3rd Arrondissement police station to demand the release of workmates who had been arrested. Strikes started breaking out everywhere.
I offered as much support as I could to the women strikers at the Guyonnet Delicatessen, whose delegates asked me to help them formulate their demands in French.
The Sûreté — to which Cochinchina Governor Pagès had given carte blanche to carry out all the searches and arrests it considers necessary — swooped down on the militants of the La Lutte group, which was now entirely composed of Trotskyists since the departure of the Stalinists. Cops also searched the office of the labor union committee led by Tran Van Thach at 133 Rue Lagrandière, where 45 factory delegates were holding a secret meeting (June 22, 1937). The Sûreté also descended on the L’Avant-garde group. All of them, Trotskyists and Stalinists, had to appear in court and were hit with prison terms for taking part in illegal gatherings.
But the repression had not stopped the railway workers from launching a general strike over the whole rail network, from the north to the south of the country. For the first time ever, from July 10 to August 9, 1937, the Trans-Indochina line linking Saigon and Hanoi was at a complete standstill. The strikers won a 15-percent increase in wages and an end to punishment for “damage to tools, but they had to concede to the employers’ refusal to reinstate several hundred of their fellow workers. Governor Brévié refused to recognise workers’ delegates and refused to grant any labor union rights. Chinese workers at the Saigon rail depot who had come out in solidarity with the strikers were deported. This struggle marked the culminating point of the 1936–1937 strike wave.
In August 1937, as Governor Brévié was on his way to Can Giuoc, a thousand peasants presented him with petitions for the abolition of the capitation tax and a demand for democratic liberties. Brévié threw their representatives in jail, as he had done when he arrived at Rach Gia. During the evening of August 23, an enormous uproar emanating from the Central Prison shook the streets of the city. The prisoners had revolted against the chaining up of a young man, yelling: Down with repression! Free the peasants of Can Giuoc! A hail of truncheon blows followed by jets of water from the fire hoses reduced them to silence.
Also in August, the 500 workers in the municipal workshops and depots went on strike against dismissals, and won their demands. In October and November 300 coolies working for Texaco and Socony in Nha Be stopped work. The dockers deserted the port. Outside the city, the carriage drivers of Trang Bang (Tay Ninh) struck against bullying by managers.
* * *
The dawn light was still faint when violent blows smashed through our door and loud shouts jolted me from sleep. Cops burst into the room. A French cop grabbed me by the arm and dragged me out of bed. My head was still in a fog. My body trembled and he asked:
“Have you got a fever?
Meanwhile, his henchmen clapped handcuffs on Anh Gia and his partner, both still half-asleep, and on two other young comrades. They turned our place upside down, confiscated our forbidden pamphlets, and took us in a covered truck to the Sûreté on Rue Catinat.
Herded into the yard, we found a dozen other comrades together with their families, who had all been rounded up the same night. Among them I recognized Vo Buu Binh, Ta Khac Triem, Doan Van Truong and the young Nguyen Van Soi. In the partition wall of the latter’s straw hut, the cops had discovered duplicating materials and copies of the Appeal of the Saigon-Cholon Workers Federation, along with a list of money collected (about 1000 piasters) in different workplaces and at the Arsenal. A record of the time from the Sûreté, which continued to be worried about Trotskyist influence among the workers, mentions these judicial operations carried out in Saigon on September 2, 1937, against members of the Fourth International in Cochinchina.
We were taken to the Central Prison. I passed the night with a dozen strangers in the cell of those condemned to death. A tiny spyhole at the top of the steel door was the only opening. A weak electric light faintly illuminated the huge dungeon.
The next day I was placed in solitary confinement. When I was pulled out to be presented to the judge at court, the French screw announced in an aggressive tone: Prison clothes. With a sense of déjà vu, I donned the rough canvas prison overalls, which as always were too small. And I couldn’t help chuckling to myself at the sight of my pal Anh Gia in the same ridiculous get-up, as the prison guard dragged him across Rue Lagrandière to the court.
After a night in solitary confinement, I found myself once more in the cell of political prisoners. I was very moved to see again the friends I had left in June. I also met four workers from the Rubber Manufacturing Company — Duong Van Tu, Nguyen Van Tien, Nguyen Van Man and Nguyen Van Nho.
We were together for about a month. Then one morning a guard came for Anh Gia and me. We barely had time to say goodbye to our comrades.
My new prison friends received heavy sentences at the trial of November 18, 1937: Le Van Oanh got two years in jail and ten years’ restricted residence; Duong Van Tu, Nguyen Van Tien, Nguyen Van Man, Doan Van Truong and Ta Khac Triem each got one year plus five years’ restricted residence; Nguyen Van Nho, Nguyen Van Trong, Duong Van Tuong and Nguyen Van Soi were sentenced to six months in prison. All of them had been totally involved in the strikes and the illegal labor union movement of 1937. Le Van Oanh and Ta Khac Triem, who had been very active in the railroad workers’ strike at the Trans-Indochina Railway Company, had formed groups of comrades in Quang Ngai, Annam and Tonkin.
When I was released from prison, Vo Buu Binh’s partner Chi Sau, who sold beansprouts in the Central Marketplace, gave me a generous welcome. Her small house often served as a haven for quite a number of comrades in difficulty.
My sole immediate preoccupation was obtaining my daily bowl of rice. I walked the city looking for work. Eventually a hardware firm, Indochina Trading Posts [Comptoirs Généraux de l’Indochine], offered me a place in their Cambodian branch at Phnom Penh. I was upset at having to leave the friends I had only just rediscovered upon coming out of prison, but breathed more easily knowing I would no longer have to live at their expense. I was also relieved to be eluding police surveillance by leaving town. This was foolishly naïve: I had scarcely arrived in the Cambodian capital (at the end of 1937) when my landlord, a young Annamite who owned a bicycle company, warned me that the Sûreté had their eye on me. Soon afterwards my French boss told me: You know that you’re being watched. I’m going to help you to work here, but don’t try any agitation; you would risk being deported from Cambodia. I was surprised at his sympathetic attitude, which was very rare among the colonists. I later learned that he was a radical socialist and that his wife was Laotian.
In 1938 I made the acquaintance of the typographer Tu Van Hon and some other readers of the newspaper Tranh Dau–La Lutte and the journal Thang Muoi: Diet, who worked at the customs; Huong and Binh, two young men who worked at the Phnom Penh branch of Descours & Cabaud; and finally a journalist. All of them were pro–Fourth International.
Despite our efforts, our circle was not able to make contact with native Cambodians. Language was the main barrier, but there was also an instinctive distrust inherited from the Annamites’ conquest of the south during the seventeenth century, when they seized Khmer land in Cochinchina and established their rule over the whole kingdom. Cap youn (cut off the Annamites’ heads), an expression of revenge still fresh in their memory, evoked the massacres of Annamites by the Cambodians during the 1920s. The colonial regime intentionally encouraged this hostility by giving better jobs to Annamites than to indigenous Cambodians, who were generally less educated. We were among the estimated 27,000 Annamites living in Phnom Penh, serving as functionaries, commercial employees, workers, craftsmen and merchants. There was a Catholic neighborhood that was exclusively Annamite, where the old French priest lent money to his flock. If any of them was unable to pay it back, he had the ownership of the debtor’s fishing boat transferred to himself, so that the expropriated unfortunate was completely at his mercy.
I met the lawyer Lascaux, who was looked upon with ill favor because of his criticism of those in power. Alluding in conversation to the absurd confessions of the old Bolsheviks at the latest Moscow Trial, he remarked, It’s as absurd as if they had confessed to having stolen the bells from Notre-Dame! Since I knew nothing of Notre-Dame, this only deepened the mystery for me. When we parted company, he made me the gift of an old typewriter.
A comrade who worked on the ferries plying the Mekong River between Saigon and Phnom Penh brought us banned newspapers and pamphlets from time to time. And Lu Sanh Hanh often came to see me, keeping us informed about events in Cochinchina.
In February 1938, 4000 striking porters totally paralyzed the rice-mills of Cholon, refusing to unload the sacks of rice from 300 junks, which were immobilized in the harbor. After three days, the bosses capitulated. Sporadic strikes continued to break out during 1938 in the workshops manufacturing bricks, pottery, glassware and soap products, and on the river ferries.
That year — the Year of the Tiger — rice plants were attacked by mildew and the harvest was catastrophic. The specter of famine haunted the poor peasants in western Cochinchina. In September 1938, 1500 peasants, including women and children, demonstrated at Phuoc Long, demanding work and food. The Annamite Administrative Representative alerted the Administrator of Rach Gia, threw together some relief workshops for the poverty-stricken, distributed some emergency rations, then blocked his door and posted a sign: Closed due to illness. In the province of Bac Lieu, in one week hundreds of starving people emptied dozens of granaries belonging to local landowners. On October 4, 1938, 500 peasants demonstrated at Ca Mau. The militia responded with violence, wounding many of them. Those ricefield slaves were then sentenced to months and years in prison for challenging the sacred right of property and the established order.
I shared a lodging with my friend Diet very near the market. Amazingly enough, he had a gramophone! We could never get enough of listening to the tunes of Louis Armstrong and the songs of Tino Rossi:
Apporte-lui l’écho des beaux jours,
Va lui chanter pour moi
La chanson de mon rê-ê-ê-ve . . .
[Guitar of love, bring him the echo of the good times, go and sing to him for me the song of my dr-e-a-m-s . . .]
One Saturday night, Diet took two other friends and me to a nightclub with the sign RO (Régie d’Opium, indicating a state-licensed opium house). He got us in free because the Chinese owner had business with him at the Customs House. As soon as I stepped inside, I breathed in the sweet, soothing, incomparable aroma of the drug. There was no other illumination but the glow of the oil lamps, which cast a wan light on the faces of the smokers. The owner considerately led us to a quiet corner apart from the regulars. We stretched out on the wooden benches, our heads resting on perforated porcelain headrests, murmuring rather than talking. Along with the smoking apparatus, we were brought a teapot and four small cups. The opium pipe was made from a tube of varnished wood about 50 centimeters long, closed at one end. Two-thirds of the way down its length was the terracotta bowl of the pipe with a tiny hole in the middle. Diet, already initiated into the ritual, dexterously held the viscous brown ball at the end of a long needle, so that it sizzled over a flame protected by a thick cone of glass. He kneaded it on the polished convex edge of the bowl, reheated it, then mixed it again, until it took on the colour of a cricket’s head. Then, with a deft twist of his hand, he pushed the ball into the bowl of the pipe and pulled out the needle. He held the bowl over the flame again and handed me the pipe. I took several puffs, coughing out smoke. My more experienced friends breathed in a whole pipeful at once, then chugged down a small cupful of strong tea before exhaling the smoke. I was overcome with euphoria.
In February 1939 I became a correspondent for Tia Sang (The Spark), a Vietnamese-language paper published in Saigon. In April, under the pseudonym Tan Lo, I wrote an article there entitled Ta Thu Thau and Bolshevik-Leninist Politics, which dealt with the ruinous contradictions within the old La Lutte group and harshly criticized Ta Thu Thau and the legal Trotskyists for having formed a bloc with the Stalinists.
One day, I asked my boss for permission to go to Saigon for a few days to see my family. He agreed, commenting wryly: Yes, and the elections also just happen to be taking place . . .
He knew as well as I did that there was no prospect of my voting in the election for the Colonial Council, since only taxpayers could vote; but I was anxious to join my comrades for the pre-election agitation that was creating turmoil in Saigon in April 1939. The Stalinists, with their newspaper Dan Chung (The People) and their Democratic Front slate of candidates, were leading a campaign for democratic reforms in exchange for their support of the colonial regime’s policy of defending Indochina. The Trotskyist Tranh Dau–La Lutte group opposed this and denounced all compromise with the colonial regime. They based their propaganda on the need for a united front of workers and peasants against war, against the setting up of a national defense fund, against the raising of taxes and the creation of armaments taxes, and against the forced conscription of more infantry troops. They put forward their revolutionary project: set up factory committees and peasant committees to control the activity of the banks, industries, businesses, and agricultural companies; put the management of transportation and postal services in the hands of the workers; divide up among the poor peasants the lands belonging to the banks, the Church and the big landowners; entrust peasant committees with the task of abolishing feudal exploitation; and oppose war by working toward the eventual formation of a soviet federation of Asia.
On April 30, 1939, I was in the Place de l’Hôtel-de-Ville, which was jam-packed with people waiting to hear the results of the election. Suddenly a shout went up: The whole Fourth International slate has been elected! There was an explosion of joy. Spontaneously, a procession moved toward the La Lutte offices, shouting Long live the united front of workers and peasants! Down with the Democratic Front!
One might have thought that the subversive program of the supporters of the Fourth International would have estranged lots of voters; but many people seemed to have been primarily motivated to protest against the new taxes for National Defense. Hence the paradox of Ta Thu Thau, Phan Van Hum and Tran Van Thach from the La Lutte group being elected to the ruling Colonial Council by a suffrage based on income tax. On the other hand, the Stalinist candidates Nguyen Van Tao and Duong Bach Mai ended up losing, despite (or, rather, because of) their second-round collaboration with the bourgeois Constitutionalists. Some of the disgruntled voters went so far as to characterize their slate as pro-government.
It should be remembered that a year earlier (May 1938), when the Daladier government had launched a bond measure of 33 million piasters for the defense of Indochina and decreed the conscription of 20,000 additional indigenous infantry troops, some in the ICP went so far as to propose offering bonds of 5 and 10 piasters (rather than 100) so that poor people could afford them! An ICP circular dated July 1, 1938, explained to members: The covetous glance Japan is casting toward the island of Hainan directly threatens the security of Indochina. In the face of these fascists’ territorial designs, the Indochinese Communist Party approves of the measures taken [by the government]. In other words, the colonial regime had become a possible ally for the Stalinists. The ICP’s Central Committee, sensing the unpopularity of the bond measure, ended up by abandoning their ardent propaganda for it, but continued to support the government: If we don’t do that, our position will be confused with that of the Trotskyists, who protest against the strengthening of our country’s defenses.
In the Dan Chung of April 1, 1939, the Stalinists proclaimed: The Trotskyists have sold out to Japan and fascism. Phan Van Hum replied, in the Tranh Dau of May 19, 1939: As long as the people suffer poverty and misery, there is nothing to defend. They point to ‘our’ ricefields, land, houses . . . but on looking more closely we can see that the splendor and beauty and wealth all belong to the big bourgeoisie. The ten categories of new taxes include taxes on sugar and matches, two daily necessities. . . . Why should the burden of ‘National Defense’ be loaded onto the backs of the poor?
There were disturbances in the recruitment centers, where 20,000 infantrymen were being press-ganged into the army by a system of drawing lots, including instances of self-inflicted mutilations and arrests for inciting others not to sign up.
On May 20, 1939, Governor-General Brévié sent a telegram to the Colonial Minister expressing his appreciation of Nguyen Van Tao’s position: “While Nguyen Van Tao and the Stalinist Communists have understood that the interests of the Annamite masses require them to ally with France, the Trotskyists under the leadership of Ta Thu Thau have not hesitated to incite the natives to revolt so as to take advantage of a possible war in order to gain total liberation.
* * *
The Sûreté at Phnom Penh had not lost sight of us. On the eve of July 14, 1939, Tu Van Hon and I were summoned. I was first taken into Arnoux’s office. As the door closed behind me, I found myself standing in front of the chief cop, who was deeply settled into his leather armchair behind a vast empty desk. To his left stood Inspector Brocheton, whom I recognized from having seen him occasionally when he called on my boss. To his right, his hands resting on the edge of the desk, was Inspector Ouvrard, a Tonkinese half-caste who used to speak to me in Annamite when he came to the Trading Post to buy cartridges for his hunting rifle. The trio stared at me in silence, undoubtedly trying to intimidate me.
“We have left you in peace, Arnoux said at last, in a deliberate and monotonous voice. We’re asking you to leave us in peace too.
“But I don’t see . . . He cut me off and continued: You know that Cambodia is a peaceful country, and we will not tolerate any disorder or any agitation.
“I’m here to work and earn my living. Besides, I can’t speak Cambodian and I have no contact with people in this country . . .
“But, interrupted the Tonkinese, you have held meetings among yourselves?
“Not even on your bicycles?
I realized then that they must have followed us everywhere — even on our Sunday bicycle trips in the outskirts of Phnom Penh to Bak Touk, the Chinese area, and perhaps also when we took a sampan on the streams of the Mekong to the Chroui Changwar peninsula, the fief of the Malayan Muslims.
World events moved swiftly in the following two months: Stalin signed the German-Soviet Nonaggression Pact; German troops invaded Poland; France and Britain declared war on Germany; and mobilization was decreed in France and in Indochina.
In Phnom Penh, early in the morning two days after the posting of placards in the city announcing the general mobilization, the cops came to search my house and carried away my letters and books. The next day I had to present myself at the Sûreté to witness the unpacking of the seized material. I felt trapped like a game animal and wished I could disappear somewhere. But where?
Summoned once again to the Sûreté on October 4, 1939, our journalist friend Tu Van Hon and I found there another twenty or so people, most of them Annamites living in Phnom Penh, including a school principal, and also several elderly Chinese people, probably suspected of belonging to a secret society. An inspector, a customer at the Trading Post where I worked, barked at me:
“Are you involved in these affairs?
“They tried to implicate me . . .
A heavy door swung shut behind us — we were in their power.
In the evening, we received food and blankets from the outside. We slept on the concrete floor, pressed tightly against each other. Family members brought us food toward the end of the following afternoon; messages and news from outside reached us in scraps of paper hidden in the duckweed packing.
The days passed, and after one and then two weeks we were all asking ourselves why we were being held in indefinite detention.
Kha, the school principal, recited classics of French literature to us all day long. The image of “un ver de terre amoureux d’une étoile [an earthworm in love with a star]* has stayed in my memory.
One day a Frenchman was introduced into our ranks. He had been arrested for opium dealing, and was happy to talk to us in French.
During my third week in prison, I was called one morning to the Public Prosecutor’s office. Despite the handcuffs, I was pleased to see the streets and people once more in the town where I had lived for two years.
The prosecutor was Indian. We have a warrant to press charges against you, from the Prosecutor’s Office in My Tho. Do you agree to appear before the tribunal of My Tho?
“And if I do not agree?
“We’ll take you there by force.
My Tho was in the western part of Cochinchina. Why was I being sent there? I didn’t understand. I was taken to the prison in Phnom Penh to await the next transport to Cochinchina.
It was afternoon. The sun was beating down. The Head Guard, a hideous wreck of an old colonist with bristling hair, was stretched out and rocking on a hammock in the midst of a nap. He suddenly jerked up, furious that his siesta had been disturbed. My escort went up to him, stammering something.
“No, no, no! he shouted. Get the hell out of here! No ‘politicals’ here! So I was taken back to the Sûreté.
At dawn the next day, I was loaded onto a truck already full of prisoners. Squeezed into the same space were baskets of rabbits and huge semi-spherical latticework cages in which ducks, roosters and hens fluttered about, which the Commissioner in Phnom Penh was sending his colleague in Saigon (because they were less expensive here than in Cochinchina).
We stood, handcuffed in pairs, crammed against each other like sardines and holding on as best we could with our one free hand to the iron frame that supported the tarp. The guards wouldn’t let us sit down on the cages. We crouched down as much as possible to avoid being hit in the face by branches, and the truck set off. I realized with regret that I was leaving Cambodia without ever having seen Angkor.
In Saigon, I was taken to the Sûreté headquarters on Rue Catinat, with its familiar odor of urine and fear. I met again the opium smuggler, my French fellow-prisoner from Phnom Penh. He shared his midday meal with me, ordered from outside (a privilege accorded to French prisoners). The next day, a military escort took me in handcuffs to the train to My Tho.
*See Translators Notes.
Chapter 5 from Ngo Van’s book In the Crossfire: Adventures of a Vietnamese Revolutionary (AK Press, 2010).
In the Crossfire is a translation of Ngo Van’s Au pays de la Cloche fêlée (Paris: L’Insomniaque, 2000) and of excerpts from Ngo Van’s Au pays d’Héloïse (L’Insomniaque, 2005). It has been edited by Ken Knabb and Hélène Fleury and translated by Hélène Fleury, Hilary Horrocks, Ken Knabb and Naomi Sager.