I met William through Kickstarter backer Adam Edwards. William motorbiked me around Vung Tau, to the locations of old French cannon, and historic religious sites. His delightful wife Mizen introduced me to her father, Dao Quang Hung, and we had four hours of sit downs in their living room. He lived through it all, from the Japanese occupation, French colonial oppression, the American War and even a bit of a conversion from Marxist scientist to Jehovah’s Witness. Here is the first part of our interview. Watch this blog for additional segments.
Tell me first about yourself. Where were you born, what did you study, what did you do professionally?
I was born in 1938, in Hanoi, during the second world war. I remember when I was 5 or 6 years old, we had to run back to the countryside to stay away from the bombs. In 1946, I turned 7 and there was already a big war in Hanoi against the French.
What are your first memories about being under French colonial rule?
At seven. of course, I did not understand politics. Only the memory of what I saw every morning when I opened the door and saw carts carrying dead people passing my house, their skin charred from the bombs.
When, as a young boy, did you develop a political sense or consciousness as to what was happening, a personal point of view?
What I felt was pity and love for the people that died in front of my house. One of my neighbors had three children, and I saw their starving mother lying and dying right on the street. I watched her husband take off her shirt and roll her body into a mat.
What were the reasons for the starvation?
The Japanese and the French both prevented the farmers from planting to have food. The Japanese came during WWII and instead of sewing the crops to make rice, they destroyed the crops and they wanted the farmers to plant to produce war materials. Two million died. You would go out of your house in Hanoi and see dead people everywhere. A lot of provinces around Hanoi, poor people died and had to move to Hanoi to live as beggars. My mother raised rice and cooked porridge to help these people and Hanoi provided them a place to stay.
Did the French carry out policies to continue the starving crisis?
The French negotiated with the Japanese to open the streets to allow Japanese troops to come in. Before the Japanese, the French already were here, invading, conquering, killing revolutionaries in Vietnam. The French should kick the Japanese out, but instead they negotiated, making Vietnam like a hard pressure rock from two sides, one neck with two shackles.
President Roosevelt insisted that the French would not be allowed to return to colonize Vietnam after the war. But he passed away before it’s conclusion.
FDR was a good man. He meant to free the colonies. But he passed away. Truman was different, he was an evil man, against independence.
First, communism is a choice for each country. Wrong or right? That’s a different story. Whatever the citizens desire. On the other hand, Ho Chi Minh wasn’t yet a communist.
But Ho Chi Minh joined the Comintern in the twenties while studying in Paris, went to Moscow and identified as a Marxist in much of his writings and statements.
In 1920, there was a monarchy, there was capitalism. We are an agricultural country. Monarchy, capitalism, each causes suffering and sorrow. Ho Chi Minh wants to relieve the suffering. Capitalism was good for rich people but not for the poor and farmers, who were treated like slaves, tortured. He wants to free everyone, no different levels, farmers and teachers, engineers all equal.
If the US supported Ho in 1945, would he be communist?
By the time Ho Chi Minh made that speech (famous Declaration of Independence to a half million people in Hanoi after the end of WWII), he was not communist yet. The top of the speech (which quotes the American declaration of independence) says democratic republic, freedom from the French, no more king, no more slaves.
Wouldn’t his membership in the Comintern, his travels to Moscow, his Marxist interpretations of history cause Americans to think he was a communist?
True communist theory is a beautiful picture about how people might live. How can they consider communists as enemies?
Americans saw millions dying under Stalin, Eastern Europe being invaded and controlled by the Soviet Union, Ho speaking the same rhetoric, and Americans now considered the Soviet Union a potential threat. Isn’t it logical that they see Ho in the same way?
The Third Communist International (Comintern) had the purpose of releasing colonist countries, so people seeking independence would go to Russia to find ways that they can be released from colonialism.
What do you recall of the French?
First, the deepest impression is of August 19 (1945) revolution, after the years of starvation, ninety percent of Vietnamese were illiterate, ninety-five percent were farmers, poor suffering farmers. They were treated like slaves, and worked like slaves. Their lives were worse than animals. Uncle Ho stood up and called for the people to fight the French and kick the Japanese out. I remembered I stood along the pavement and saws thousands of people, they are holding anything they had, a knife, a stick, a hammer to run to the provinces to the factories, to attack them. While they were marching, they were calling out “Defeat the French,” political chants. The French factories and offices were wiped out and Ho set up a new government.
What was your experience under French occupation from 1945-1954 as a boy, then a young man?
The French attacked Vietnam in 1885 with only 500 troops. They won because the Vietnamese had only simple weapons like knives and no guns. The monarchy negotiated with the French making it easier to be defeated. During that time Viet people tried to rise up and constantly pushed back against the French for a hundred years. They hated the French. They lacked a clear political way against the French. Uncle ho offered a clear direction.
So, you had no weapons. You had no unifying ideology and Ho came along and offered one. Something that explained colonial capitalism, its behavior, its exploitation of labor, virtually enslaving your people, often controlling via starvation and brutality.
Yes, that’s what I’m saying.
The French were attacked by Japan, and had no power over Indochina; they ran away. During that time, the Japanese had the power. The Viet Minh (Vietnam Doc Lap Dong Minh, or Vietnam Independence League), stood together, with the (US) Allies to oppose the Japanese. The Vietnamese took power from the Japanese, not the French. In 1945, Ho proclaimed independence, then the French tried to attack a second time. During that time, the allies allowed the Chinese to come to Vietnam to get the weapons from the Japanese. That ended up destroying the newborn government from Uncle Ho because they want to set up their own government system. I saw the 200,000 Chinese soldiers as they came to every corner of the North, saw them in Hanoi.
In the south, the English troops came over to get the weapons from the Japanese. and Vietnam’s army was weak, still young, as was the government system. Ho does not want war, after the war with the Japanese, so Ho had to be very skillful in handling them. Ho had to be patient and swallow his anger, even though Chinese killed people in Hanoi, raping women and killing children. President de Gaulle, during these transitional moments, was supported by America and England.
(Grandfather Dao’s daughter Mizen, our translator, exclaims, “It sounds like an 18-year old getting repeatedly raped.”).
Stalin’s forces brutally controlled and repressed eastern European countries like Czechoslovakia, Poland, Hungary, Bulgaria, so there was a sense among American and western European democracies that the Soviets and their expansion had to be resisted.
Russia had 20 million people killed and 2,000 cities destroyed. When Russia invaded, it was to attack Hitler. And the fascists were not only in Germany. So to oppose fascism, those countries have communist groups as well. Russia came over to help and kick ass on Hitler but also expand the battle where Hitler invaded. There were then no governments, so of course the communist cells wanted to run the government, and of course they were supported by Stalin.
In 1945, Americans supported the French to come back to Vietnam. Vietnam tried to have a policy communication with the US, but the US put it aside. In 1950, the French kept losing battles and the US provided more money to pay for the French to create a south Vietnamese army. The more the French fought, the more they fell. The US kept providing funds, eighty percent by the end, and then it was finished at Dien Bien Phu. US General Taylor said no one can take that base and the French military brass said no one can defeat them. But General Giap defeated the French there.
When Dien Bien Phu was going to fall, the French asked help from America. The military war-mongers intended to drop hundreds of bombs to kill Vietnamese, but they couldn’t do it (dropping an atomic bomb to save the besieged French troops was proposed at one point by a senior American military official). If they did, it would expand the war to Russia and China and it would be another Korean War. America would have loved to join the battle, as it was a way of opposing communists, and Uncle Ho was now a communist.
Was there an economic purpose as well as political purpose for Americans to join the fight?
Sure, we have an oil industry here, it was all basically about economics. I have a question for you. What does the word politics mean to you?
I paused and said, “It is the way individuals, organizations and governments maneuver for there own self-interest or position.”
In Vietnam, we have a saying, nothing comes for free. Yes, the Russians got access but they helped the revolution against the French, while the Americans opposed it. The US spends a hundred billion dollars here, sends half a million army troops to defeat VC, not just simply to help the South Vietnamese government. As well, when the Chinese helped the northern government before, they had their own agenda.
If the US conquered Vietnam, all of Southeast Asia would be in US hands for sure. And they would threaten China. US military bases in Vietnam, nuclear weapon bases. According to Marx, politics, for both Marxists and capitalists, politics is using different methods, even devious ways, to protect your own rights. On the theory, causing war ends up protecting your own rights or self-interest.
What do you think the US was thinking, why did they not support that 1954 Geneva peace agreement, why did they support the war between 1954 and 1964, when President Johnson began to increase troops?
We have a saying here. Buffalos and cows hit each other and the mosquitos and flies die. The domino theory was true based on the theory of communism that once you are free you want to help free countries from capitalism.
A similar situation happened in Nicaragua. As soon as the Sandinistas won, they wanted to support the guerrillas in El Salvador, even though it ultimately destroyed their relationship with the United States.
(Our translator Mizen jumps in, “Why do you have to put your nose in your neighbors’ business, you don’t really know what is happening in that house.”).
China invaded Vietnam many times. It became like a national enemy, a traditional enemy. Vietnam can still separate who is the enemy. The Chinese people are not the enemy to us, it is the political war-monger who likes to conquer, to invade Vietnam (in 1979). Chinese people are nice, gentle people. Our enemy is not them, but the government. And the same for America. American citizens love peace, they don’t want to invade another country. But those in power are the enemy.
Part Two of the interview will be posted shortly.