IN THE CROSSFIRE
Adventures of a Vietnamese Revolutionary
TOWARD OTHER SHORES
In Saigon, Nguyen Van Linh took me to the home of one of his relatives, Dzu, a radical lawyer, who would be able to hide me for a while. But the lawyer’s bourgeois family were frightened to death by the presence of an “underground resistance fighter. I was confined to a small isolated room in their magnificent house. Dzu was never there. At midday and in the evening a servant came to call me for meals. A strained silence reigned at the table. I would eat, then quickly leave, setting down my chopsticks in the ritual fashion.
One day Sister Two came to visit me, bringing terrible news from our village. She told me that the Vietminh’s secret police in Thu Duc, before fleeing the French advance, had taken away an old black man we knew and killed him. He was a native of the Antilles. After having served in the Colonial Infantry, he had settled in our neighborhood, working the land with his Annamite wife.
Then one day at dawn the hamlet had awakened to shouts of “Tay toi! (The French are coming!) and “Tay di bo! (The French and the Terror are here!), followed by rocket blasts. Whole clumps of bamboo and pineapple trees were leveled. Everyone fled or threw themselves to the ground. The uniformed killers ransacked the little straw huts and other dwellings, searching them from top to bottom, breaking open cupboards, upsetting ancestral shrines and smashing the temple of the Guardian Spirit. Women, children and old people were herded to the side of the road. The men found hiding were taken to the Iron Bridge and shot, their bodies thrown into the water. Peasants at work in the ricefields were machine-gunned at point-blank range. Brother Twelve managed to get away, despite a bullet in his knee. That night, one of our neighbors tried to retrieve the body of his brother, who had been murdered in the pumpkin field. The corpse had been booby-trapped with a grenade, and the unfortunate man was blown to bits.
My sister had also seen severed heads impaled on the railings at the French military post opposite the Go Dua market. Apparently only one inhabitant had resisted the killers, charging at them with his machete. They shot him dead on the spot. Because of this constant terror, my sister urged me not to return to the village.
Eventually I was able to leave the awkward hospitality of the brave lawyer and be concealed in the home of Suu, a new refuge discovered by Nguyen Van Linh. It was a small upstairs room in the very center of the city (which continued to be under curfew). I felt more at ease here, in the company of two other underground activists. Sometimes at a meal our host would surprise us with some cheap red wine that he had obtained on the black market from the local eatery frequented by the French Expeditionary Corps. We had never before drunk any wine whatsoever.
By the beginning of March 1946, masses of French troops had been shipped back to Indochina. We learned from Suu what was happening in the cities. In Saigon, the postwar new France lashed out against the small number of French who sympathized with the native Indochinese peoples. Soldiers had beaten the editor of the socialist news-sheet Justice, which had denounced the crimes committed by the brutes of the Expeditionary Corps, completely destroying his home as well as the paper’s office and printworks. The “Marxist Cultural Group, a semi-clandestine French organization in Saigon, had issued a resolution in favor of the independence of Vietnam. A young French woman, a member of the Women’s Auxiliary Army Corps, was forced to walk down Rue Catinat at six in the evening between two paratroopers carrying whips. Her hands were tied behind her back, her head was shaved, and a placard was attached to her back that read: I signed the Marxist resolution.
At night, Suu would surreptitiously listen to the international news on his secret radio. Someone probably denounced him, because one morning at dawn the police burst into the house. I was getting used to this by now and managed to hide my documents. After turning the place upside down, the cops seized the radio and took us to the Sûreté. We were dumped in the yard along with about fifty others. Toward midday, after having checked our identities, they released us.
I saw Nguyen Van Linh again. He was temporarily staying with his elderly parents, who had escaped from their village after French soldiers murdered their youngest son and destroyed their home. I found shelter for a time with Nguyen Van Nam. This rebel son told me without comment of his father being put to death by the insurgents in September 1945. I was not surprised. His father, the Tiger of Cho Lach, was a mandarin notorious for having tortured rebellious peasants in the 1930s.
Nguyen Van Nam’s hut, set back from the street and surrounded by coconut trees and banana plants, provided us a semi-secret retreat. There I reconnected with Lu Sanh Hanh. He had been locked up by the Vietminh secret police in September and was waiting to be hauled before one of Tran Van Giau’s “People’s Tribunals when he got a lucky break: the British seized control of the Central Prison and handed him over to the French Sûreté, which released him a few months later.
Liu Khanh Thinh, a Workers’ Militia member newly returned from the Plain of Reeds, told us of the death of our friend Tran Dinh Minh in January 1946, and that our surviving comrades had dispersed after the conditional surrender of the Third Division at Sadec.
Living at the expense of my friends had made me extremely ill at ease. Liu Khanh Thinh rescued me from this situation, getting me a job as an interpreter and clerk with a Chinese merchant who wanted to open an office in Saigon. This Chinese man found me a lodging on Rue Richaud, near my new job. Setting himself up as an import-export firm, my boss managed to obtain a monopoly on the distribution of the salt produced in Phan Thiet, in connivance with the French Resident Administrator of the region. He also trafficked in various rationed goods; by corrupt means, he secured a quasi-monopoly on the transport of foodstuffs from Saigon to Phan Thiet by train (at that time, all trains traveled with military escort); and he colluded with an inspector from the Sûreté, who filched and stored at his place various humanitarian aid shipments, such as sacks of flour and bundles of blankets.
I had never lived so close to the world of the enemy, the world of money and power. Once, when my boss had a meeting with the Adjunct Resident of Phan Thiet, I found myself sitting at the same table as this big shot of the colonial administration. My Chinese boss gave him a sumptuous Swiss watch . . . and received one piaster in return.
Our group was anxious to know what had happened to the “Commune that the miners had established at Hongai-Campha in Tonkin. Liu Khanh Thinh, a native of the North, managed to receive some information: the movement had remained isolated and thus terribly vulnerable. Troops of Ho Chi Minh’s Provisional Government had been sent out under the command of Nguyen Binh to encircle the mining district. Nguyen Binh called on the miners to respect national unity, but eventually, in order to win them over, he promised to more or less maintain the status quo. This pretense did not last long. Not only did he have all the elected workers’ delegates arrested (including Lan, Hien and Le), but he also replaced the workers’ councils with a new Vietminh hierarchy. After three months of popular self-management and creativity, the militaristic police state of the Democratic Republic reigned over the district.
The independent peasant movements in the North suffered a similar fate. In the provinces of Bac Ninh and Thai Binh in Tonkin, and Nghe An and Thanh Hoa in northern Annam, the peasants, under the pressure of an unabated famine and remembering the 1930 ICP slogan, The land to those who work it! had rejected the Vietminh’s national alliance with the landowners and had pressured the people’s committees to confiscate the property of the rich and give the land back to the peasants. In this way, they themselves would be able to make the land productive, and the harvest would not be turned over to speculators. Here, as elsewhere, Ho Chi Minh lost no time in quashing these initiatives. A November 1945 circular to the Provincial Committees decreed that ricefields and cultivated land should not be divided up. Decree No. 63 on the organization of popular power proclaimed the reestablishment of a pyramidal hierarchy conforming to that of the Vietminh: the Executive Committee of each region would be responsible for carrying out government orders, and each level of the pyramid would control the level directly beneath it. In this way the Vietminh hierarchy brought in its police and imposed by military means the restitution of land and property to the landowners.
From the same sources we learned that during this period the Stalinist party had put out a call for us to be murdered. The Trotskyist gang must be smashed immediately! screamed Co Giai Phong (Banner of Liberation), the Hanoi Communist Party newspaper, in its issue of October 23, 1945. The Party was following the line put forward by Nguyen Ai Quoc (the future Ho Chi Minh) when he was in China in 1939. In three letters to his cherished comrades in Hanoi he had, in words reminiscent of the Moscow Trials, unmasked the ugly face of Trotskyism and of the Trotskyists. And in a report to the Comintern he had stated: As for the Trotskyists, no alliances, no concessions. They must be unmasked for what they are: the agents of fascism, and they must be politically exterminated.
The activists sympathetic to the Fourth International were being systematically assassinated in the North.
In the South, Duong Bach Mai, the chief of the Vietminh secret police, before fleeing from Bien Hoa upon the arrival of British and Indian troops in October 1945, had ordered the Trotskyist Phan Van Hum to be shot, the same Phan Van Hum who had been his prisonmate in Poulo Condore. Our friend Nguyen Van Vang, who had attempted to form people’s committees, and Le Thanh Long, a La Lutte correspondent, had also both been shot. Other supporters of the Fourth International had been murdered by Duong Bach Mai’s henchmen in the underground resistance in Ben Suc, as I had learned myself when I passed by the site of the massacre.
In Saigon, in order to consolidate his exclusive power, Tran Van Giau had liquidated the nationalists as well as the leaders of the various sects. When the historian Daniel Hémery interviewed Tran Van Giau in 1979 he asked him about Ho Van Nga, the leader of the National United Front, who had been executed by his secret police. Tran Van Giau had the gall to claim that Ho Van Nga was one of his friends. They were nationalists above all, he said. “They weren’t traitors, they were decent men!
Nguyen Van Chuyen, a Workers’ Militia comrade who had returned to Saigon, told me about his dangerous journey across the zones in the Mekong Delta controlled by the Hoa Hao. After Leclerc’s troops had entered Can Tho, the Hoa Hao — regrouped under their leader Nam Lua, whom I had met once by chance when I was working in the Delta — engaged in mass killings and drownings of Vietminh troops, in revenge for Tran Van Giau’s repression of the Hoa Hao after his failed attempt to arrest their Master, the Mad Monk, in September 1945. This, however, did not prevent the Hoa Hao from also fighting against the French and organizing ambushes against them. The sect set itself up as the de facto power along the Bassac River, in the regions of Can Tho, Sadec, Long Xuyen and Chau Doc, up to the Cambodian border. But in April 1947, after the Vietminh assassinated the Mad Monk, the Hoa Hao rallied to the occupying power and joined the auxiliaries of the French Expeditionary Corps.
In October 1945, at the moment when the armed groups of the Cao Dai were confronting Leclerc’s tanks in the Tay Ninh forests, the Vietminh secret police arrested their leader, Tran Quang Vinh. The number-two man in the Cao Dai hierarchy escaped, then rallied to the colonial regime in May 1946. Shortly afterwards, thousands of his followers, trained in killing by French instructors and organized into flying columns, took part in the pacification operations alongside the French troops.
The Indochina War, which began in September 1945 in Cochinchina, did not spread to the North until December 1946.* The treaty of March 6, 1946, a fool’s bargain signed by Ho Chi Minh through which the new France recognized Vietnam as a free state within the French Union, enabled Leclerc’s troops to enter Hanoi without firing a single shot and to install themselves at strategic points in the country. As for national unity — the union of Tonkin, Annam and Cochinchina into a single nation — that was supposedly to be decided by a referendum. In reality, the conquerors were maneuvering for the separation of Cochinchina. In Saigon, High Commissioner Thierry d’Argenlieu called together a group of hardened French settlers and bourgeois Annamites and formed them into an Advisory Council charged with designating, from among its members, the head of the provisional government of the Republic of Cochinchina — a new façade for the former colony.
We could only follow the events, waiting to learn which sauce we would be eaten with and where the next attack would come from.
In Saigon, now under the tight surveillance of the French Sûreté and policed for the French by the separatist Cochinchinese bourgeoisie, the Vietminh began a campaign of sabotage and terror. In April 1946 the Pyrotechnie explosives factory blew up. For three days an inferno raged along the banks of the Arroyo de l’Avalanche, where four thousand tons of munitions had been stockpiled. The neighboring areas were burned to the ground.
Two members of the Advisory Council were shot down. This did not prevent Dr. Thinh from proclaiming the Republic of Cochinchina on June 1, 1946, from the square in front of the cathedral, presenting his government to the bourgeoisie of Cochinchina in the presence of the French officials. Its ministers were an assortment of old guard dogs of the colonial regime: Examining Magistrate Tran Van Ty (my judge in 1936) became Minister of Justice; Nguyen Van Tam, the Tiger of Cai Lay and notorious torturer of peasants during the 1930s revolts, was put in charge of Internal Security. The hostility and open contempt by the colonists toward this rump Annamite government with nonexistent powers soon overwhelmed Dr. Thinh. In November 1946 he hanged himself. Another bourgeois, Dr. Le Van Hoach (a Cao Dai dignitary), took his place. For one year this government played the role of backup police support for the reinstalled colonial regime.
In Saigon, day and night, we would often hear the distant sounds of explosions, the rattle of machine-guns, and the muffled echoes of confrontations between guerrillas and the soldiers of the Expeditionary Corps. Neither the police surveillance nor the curfew could prevent grenades from going off from time to time in the hotels, cinemas and cafés used by Europeans.
Police mopping-up operations spread terror in the Saigon-Cholon region. Once, as I was going to Cholon with a convoy of salt, I passed a camp surrounded with barbed wire where the French killers were piling up the prisoners they had captured during these raids. They shot them in batches of ten at a time, like hostages. Among the corpses was a boy, still holding a piece of paper, probably indicating his name and address.
One morning at dawn, near where I worked, I came across a scene of absolute horror: the removal of bloody corpses from an Annamite lodging. The rumor was that these assassinations had been carried out by the commandos of Nguyen Binh, whose real name was Nguyen Phuong Thao, a Vietminh envoy from the North. Having recently rallied to the Vietminh, he was the man assigned by Hanoi to destroy the miners’ Commune in Hongai-Campha at the end of 1945. Now he was in charge of the resistance in the South.
His mission was to bring into line the armed groups of Binh Xuyen pirates, who, while still holding their own against the Expeditionary Corps, maintained their independence from the Vietminh. Their leader, Ba Duong, had made contact with the nationalist leaders. In 1946, his troops in the underground numbered twelve or thirteen hundred well-armed men organized into seven companies led by Ba Duong, Muoi Tri, Bay Vien, Nam Ha and Tu Ty. In an attempt to bring the Binh Xuyen under his control, Nguyen Binh nominated Bay Vien as second-in-command of the Resistance Army and incorporated Vietminh political commissars into the ranks of the Binh Xuyen. A large part of the Binh Xuyen under Bay Vien soon nevertheless rebelled against Nguyen Binh’s authority and retreated into the swampy forests of Rung Sat. Nguyen Binh sent in his troops to annihilate them. The survivors then followed Bay Vien in joining the Expeditionary Corps.
In September 1947, my former boss, the Constitutionalist Nguyen Van Sam, editor of Le Flambeau d’Annam, died at the hands of Nguyen Binh’s death squads. He had been trying to regroup the nationalist formations that were independent of the Vietminh into a new National United Front.
During this same period I was relieved to learn of the return to Saigon of our friends Ngo Chinh Phen and Anh Gia (Dao Hung Long), who had been exiled to Madagascar since 1941. This news appeared in the Tranh Dau news-sheet, which some survivors from the La Lutte group were trying to relaunch as an organ of the proletariat under the emblem of the Fourth International. In it they published a translation of the Communist Manifesto and reported the arrest of Ta Thu Thau in Quang Ngai and the disappearance of other veteran group members in the Thu Dau Mot underground resistance. The new Tranh Dau was banned after its second issue.
I brought Chi Nam Thin and her two young boys into my lodging. She was fleeing from Ben Tre, where she had been ordered to live after three years in prison at My Tho. Her sons went to school with my three children, Do, Oanh and Da. I also converted my place into a kind of bookshop, called Tim Hoc (Research and Study), which in reality served as a meeting place and a letter drop. Among the books that arrived from France were Jean Malaquais’s Planète sans visa [World Without Visa]* and a number of subversive pamphlets. As internationalists caught in a crossfire, we survived as an informal group, striving above all not to lose hope.
Liu Khanh Thinh managed to make contact with the Communist League of China in Hong Kong. That was how the communist opponents of Mao Zedong — Peng Shuzi, his very active partner Cheng Bilan, and Liu Jialiang — would later join the group in Saigon. Peng Shuzi, who was born in 1895, was one of the founders of the Chinese Communist Party; and Liu Jialiang had translated into Chinese Harold Isaacs’s book The Tragedy of the Chinese Revolution.
One day, I learned that the cops had been snooping around my “bookshop. The next day the gentlemen of the Sûreté paid me a visit. They found nothing to seize, since most of the books and pamphlets had been securely hidden the day before, but they continued to return from time to time. Soon after this, Lu Sanh Hanh and Nguyen Van Nam went into exile in France.
Harassed by the Sûreté in the city and denied refuge in a countryside dominated by two terrors, the French and the Vietminh, I too decided to leave the country. I entrusted my small savings — often realized at the expense of my boss — to the safekeeping of a sympathetic friend, a fish-sauce merchant. He promised to support my family as best he could. Chi Nam Thin would look after them when I had gone. The Sûreté refused to give me a passport for France, but I managed to convince my Chinese boss to falsely declare that he was sending me on a business trip to Paris, which enabled me to obtain a three-month round-trip visa.
Thus it was that in the spring of 1948 I embarked in the hold of an old Messageries Maritimes freighter, heading for Marseilles. Standing on the back deck, my heart gnawed by melancholy, I watched the foam in the wake of the ship disappear, along with my past life. Before me stretched a horizon obscured with fog and clouds. And what would become of those I had left behind?
* * *
Devastating and heart-breaking news. In 1950, Nguyen Van Linh, Liu Khanh Thinh and the Chinese comrade Liu Jialiang were invited to take part in a secret meeting in the Vietminh military zone of Bien Hoa, supposedly organized by Trotskyist sympathizers to discuss the participation of Trotskyists in the resistance. In reality it was a trap set by the Vietminh. Nguyen Van Linh’s partner went to look for them, accompanied by Chi Nam Thin, who had fought in the ranks of the Vietminh. The Vietminh in Bien Hoa detained the two young women, tortured them by suspending them from the roof beams, slitting their calves and stuffing flaming gasoline-soaked rags into the wounds in order to extract information about their friends, those Trotskyist traitors to the Fatherland. Chi Nam Thin was able to write to me later; in this way I also learned that our three comrades had been put to death, and that the Vietminh radio station, the Voice of the Plain of Reeds, had naturally accused them of being agents of French imperialism.
Of all those who had taken part in the revolutionary opposition movement and who had remained in the country, hardly a one survived.
*See Translators Notes.
Chapter 8 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.