A Gift of Barbed Wire
eBook - ePub

A Gift of Barbed Wire

America's Allies Abandoned in South Vietnam

Robert S. McKelvey

  1. 280 pages
  2. English
  3. ePUB (mobile friendly)
  4. Available on iOS & Android
eBook - ePub

A Gift of Barbed Wire

America's Allies Abandoned in South Vietnam

Robert S. McKelvey

Book details
Book preview
Table of contents
Citations

About This Book

A Gift of Barbed Wire is a penetrating look at the lives of South Vietnamese officials and their families left behind in Vietnam after the fall of Saigon in 1975. A former Marine who served in Vietnam, Robert McKelvey went on to practice psychiatry and, through his work in refugee camps and U.S. social service organizations, met South Vietnamese men from all walks of life who had been imprisoned in re-education camps immediately after the war. McKelvey's interviews with these former political prisoners, their wives, and their children reveal the devastating, long-term impact of their incarceration. From the early years in French colonial Vietnam through the Vietnam War, from postwar ordeals of re-education camps, social ostracism, and poverty to eventual emigration to the United States, this collection of narratives provides broad and highly personal accounts of individuals and families evolving against the backdrop of war and vast social change. Some of the people interviewed for the book eventually reached the United States as boat people fleeing Vietnam in unsafe vessels; others arrived, after rigorous screening, through U.S. Government-sponsored programs. But even in the safety of the United States they had to begin anew, devoting all their remaining energies to survival. While crediting the courage and resilience of these families, McKelvey holds a critical mirror up to our culture, exploring the nature of our responsibility to our allies as well as the attitudes that obscured the reality of war as "a grinding, brutal interplay of complex forces that often develops a sustaining energy and momentum of its own, driving us in directions that we neither anticipated nor desired."

Frequently asked questions

How do I cancel my subscription?
Simply head over to the account section in settings and click on “Cancel Subscription” - it’s as simple as that. After you cancel, your membership will stay active for the remainder of the time you’ve paid for. Learn more here.
Can/how do I download books?
At the moment all of our mobile-responsive ePub books are available to download via the app. Most of our PDFs are also available to download and we're working on making the final remaining ones downloadable now. Learn more here.
What is the difference between the pricing plans?
Both plans give you full access to the library and all of Perlego’s features. The only differences are the price and subscription period: With the annual plan you’ll save around 30% compared to 12 months on the monthly plan.
What is Perlego?
We are an online textbook subscription service, where you can get access to an entire online library for less than the price of a single book per month. With over 1 million books across 1000+ topics, we’ve got you covered! Learn more here.
Do you support text-to-speech?
Look out for the read-aloud symbol on your next book to see if you can listen to it. The read-aloud tool reads text aloud for you, highlighting the text as it is being read. You can pause it, speed it up and slow it down. Learn more here.
Is A Gift of Barbed Wire an online PDF/ePUB?
Yes, you can access A Gift of Barbed Wire by Robert S. McKelvey in PDF and/or ePUB format, as well as other popular books in Historia & Historia asiática. We have over one million books available in our catalogue for you to explore.

Information

Year
2012
ISBN
9780295802848

1 / Introduction

When the Vietnam War ended, thousands of former officials and soldiers of the Republic of South Vietnam fled their homeland with their families and whatever possessions they could carry. They were well connected, had foreseen the impending defeat of their country, and had laid plans to escape and create a future for themselves abroad. Most Vietnamese, however, were not so lucky. The precipitous collapse of South Vietnam surprised both the victors and the vanquished by its speed and totality and led to a period of great uncertainty immediately after the war during which neither side knew how the other would behave. Initially it was the avowed policy of the People’s Revolutionary Government to deal leniently with its former enemies through a policy of “national concord and reconciliation.”1 It was stated that victory had been so complete, and the need for talented and well-trained people so obvious, that only a brief period of rehabilitation and “re-education” would be necessary for adherents of the former “puppet” (ngụy) regime. Depending on their standing and importance in the South Vietnamese government or military, individuals would be required to participate in re-education ranging from three-day training sessions at locations near their homes to thirty-day stays at residential camps.2 However, this seemingly humane policy turned out to be a masquerade for the new government’s true intentions—to remove potentially subversive individuals from the fabric of Vietnamese society until it was deemed safe for them to return.3 Instructed to bring along to the camps enough food and clothing for seven to thirty days, these men were separated from their families and incarcerated for up to twenty years.
The lives of the Vietnamese former political prisoners and their families portrayed in this book are linked by a number of common themes. All grew up against the backdrop of war and political turmoil in Vietnam. Most were well educated and came from relatively affluent families. They entered into the service of their country because they had to—the nation was in peril and all young men were being drafted. Serving in various capacities—as army officers, air force pilots, military doctors, politicians, and spies—they had a fairly comfortable lifestyle during the war, supported in part by American largesse. Following the fall of Saigon on April 30, 1975, however, their lives changed radically. The men were incarcerated in re-education camps, some in South Vietnam, others in the North. Many entered the camps, if not enthusiastically, at least initially believing the Communists’ announced policy of “forgive and forget.” They hoped that they would learn about, and be reconciled with, the new government and then be free to get on with their lives. However, they were quickly disillusioned and soon came to see the Communists as evil manipulators and liars interested only in controlling people for their own ends. This recognition, and the realization that they were in the camps indefinitely, led many into a period of depression and hopelessness.
Life for the prisoners in the re-education camps was very severe. “Most who endured would remember only an all-consuming hunger, maneuvering for a chance to drink the water their food had been cooked in, trying to catch birds and rats, scrambling to sneak a mouthful of wild berries on a work detail. . . . Many died in these camps. Many more were broken there, either mentally or physically.”4
Following the men’s departure for the re-education camps, their wives and dependents experienced a precipitous loss of social standing and a rapid descent into poverty. They were ostracized by former friends and neighbors and discriminated against educationally and vocationally by the government because of their connection with the old regime and the Americans. The wives, most of whom had led sheltered lives as stay-at-home mothers, often assisted by servants, now faced new and unaccustomed roles as the primary providers in their families. As their savings ran out they were forced to sell off their possessions on the streets, and when everything they owned was gone, to buy rice in one marketplace and then try to resell it for a small profit in another. They also faced a lengthy, if not permanent separation from their husbands, who were incarcerated without trial and detained until the government decided that they were ready to come home. Like their husbands in the camps, they too experienced periods of depression and despair.
Somehow, most of these resilient men and women found ways to cope with their bleak and uncertain future. Their strategies for coping varied. The wives struggled on for the sake of their children and to provide some emotional and material support for their starving, tormented husbands. The men tried to focus on the here and now, fought not to succumb to depression and suicide, and grasped at any shred of philosophy that might sustain them through the brutal monotony of the camps.
The men were released from the camps unpredictably and usually as a great surprise to themselves and to their families. The average length of stay in the camps was between seven and eight years,5 and ranged from one or two years to over twenty years. Various factors appear to have influenced their release. If they became too sick to work, or if they had illnesses from which it appeared that they would not recover, they were released to go home and die. This spared the government the expense of their burial and also allowed it to claim that people did not die from being incarcerated in the camps. Sometimes external political concerns played a role. A number of physicians were released from the camps in the late 1970s as a precondition for French medical aid to Vietnam. Many other prisoners attributed their release during the late 1980s to General John Vessey’s presence as the president’s special emissary to Vietnam between 1987 and 1990 and to the subsequent improvement in relations between the United States and Vietnam. Internal reforms, such as the economic changes that occurred beginning in 1986 under the policy of đổi mới (renovation), also influenced life within the camps and may have led to the release of prisoners in order to transfer their upkeep from the state to their families. The government also released prisoners on special occasions, such as Independence Day (September 2d—the date in 1945 on which Ho Chi Minh declared Vietnamese independence from France and Japan), to demonstrate its magnanimity. At other times the prisoners’ release followed no rationale or event discernable to them and may have been related to local or regional economic or political factors.
When the men finally were released they returned home to find a world turned upside down. The country was impoverished and isolated. Police were everywhere. Their wives were exhausted from the daily struggle to put food on the table. Their children wore rags and had often adopted the manners of the street, where many had been forced to raise themselves because their mothers were busy working. Some of the former prisoners’ families had already left the country, fleeing as boat people or immigrating under the Orderly Departure Program (ODP) to the United States. Those former prisoners who were not too sick to do so tried to rebuild their lives. Some were relatively successful and able to return eventually to occupations similar to those they had pursued before the camps. Most, however, had to work as laborers or found no employment at all. Many of the men continued to experience symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), a psychiatric condition that may develop after exposure to overwhelmingly traumatic events.6 Hyperaroused, the former prisoners would be startled from sleep by a scratch at the door or the singing of a bird. They had nightmares about leading patrols against the Viet Cong or hearing the re-education camp’s bell summoning them to work. They feared that at any moment the Communists might change their minds and come to take them back to the camps. Some remained quite depressed and hopeless, even considering suicide. Others recovered, at least in part.7
Eventually, almost all the former political prisoners came to the conclusion that there was no future for them or for their children in Vietnam. They began to search for ways to escape. Despite the dangers inherent in becoming boat people—drowning, death from exposure, starvation or thirst, murder or rape by pirates—many chose this desperate alternative. Others tried to secure the sponsorship of relatives already resettled abroad so that they could emigrate legally as refugees. Still others took advantage of a special subcategory of the ODP, officially designated as the Special Released Re-education Center Detainees Resettlement Program. Better known by its unofficial name, the H.O. Program,8 this was an agreement negotiated bilaterally between the U.S. and Vietnamese governments and implemented in August 1989. It was reserved for those Vietnamese former political prisoners who had served during the war in the South Vietnamese government or military and who had spent at least three years in re-education camps. Under its terms eligible former political prisoners and their immediate family members were permitted to immigrate to the United States at U.S. government expense.
By the time they left Vietnam, the former prisoners and their wives were no longer young. Most were in their late forties, fifties, or sixties. They undertook a painful, often perilous migration, leaving behind the graves of their ancestors, their relatives, and their homes to find freedom for themselves and a future for their children. Once safely resettled in the United States, however, their difficulties were not at an end. They now had to turn their attention and remaining energies to survival. Most were too proud to see welfare as an acceptable option. They found jobs—sometimes two or three at a time—usually at levels far below their previous training and experience. Some were discouraged or embittered by underemployment and racial and age discrimination. Others were happy for any opportunity to support themselves and their families and to be independent. Whatever their feelings, most struggled on, pushing their children to attend college and graduate school so that the young might achieve the goals that war and its aftermath had denied their parents. In reflective moments they tried to come to grips with and accept their fate—“being born in the wrong time and place.” Some were able to let go of the past and forgive those who had tormented them. Others held on to their hatred of the Communists and continued to denounce them.
Approximately 165,000 Vietnamese former political prisoners and their families live in the United States.9 Now in late middle age or old age, the former prisoners and their wives are beginning to pass from the scene. The memory of what they have experienced and overcome is being lost, even to members of their own families. This book is an attempt to honor their courage and determination, to share their experiences with those who do not know them, and to learn what we can from their long ordeal.
The lives of the former political prisoners and their families played out against the backdrop of modern Vietnamese history. To understand their experience it is important to have some understanding of that history’s main events. Americans are familiar with the Vietnam War, or at least the role of the United States in that distant, twenty-year struggle. However, we are often ignorant of anything prior to the war or of Vietnam’s course after the departure of American troops in 1973. A large number of histories of modern Vietnam are available, including Joseph Buttinger’s A Dragon Defiant: A Short History of Vietnam (New York: Prager, 1972) and Stanley Karnow’s Vietnam: A History (New York: Viking, 1983). The following brief overview is derived from Nguyen Khac Vien’s Vietnam: A Long History and the Federal Research Division’s Vietnam: A Country Study.10
Prior to the French capture of the city of Tourane (Da Nang) in 1858, Vietnam was an independent country ruled by a feudal monarchy. Between 1858 and 1883, France conquered Vietnam and divided it into three administrative regions: Annam, Cochinchina, and Tonkin. These regions were administered separately as parts of French Indochina, which also included Cambodia and Laos, and not as parts of a unified Vietnam. France developed its three Vietnamese colonies economically, taxed their inhabitants, and established within them French cultural, educational, and political institutions. French power was supported by military force, including the Foreign Legion, African soldiers, and native militias recruited at the provincial level. The production of rice, Vietnam’s principal crop and main export, was controlled by wealthy Vietnamese landowners. These landowners held more than 80 percent of Vietnam’s agricultural land and exploited the labor of the landless peasant farmers, who comprised the majority of Vietnam’s rural population.
Despite the appearance of nationalist movements against French rule, including the formation of the Indochinese Communist Party by Ho Chi Minh in 1930, French colonial domination of Vietnam continued until World War II. With the fall of France to Nazi Germany in 1940, the Vichy French colonial government was forced to sign a treaty with Japan permitting the Japanese military to transport troops across Indochina and to post an occupation force in Tonkin. In 1941 a number of Vietnamese nationalist groups, dominated by the Communist Party and led by Ho Chi Minh, formed the Viet Minh (formally Việt Nam Độc Lập Đồng Minh Hội—the League for Vietnamese Independence), to oppose both the French and the Japanese. In March 1945, as Japan’s power over East Asia and the Pacific began to wane, the Japanese disarmed the French and allied with the Vietnamese Emperor Bao Dai, last representative of the Nguyen dynasty, to establish a puppet Vietnamese government under Japanese control. Following the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945, the Viet Minh organized and led a nationwide popular revolt (the August Revolution) against the Japanese and their Vietnamese government and established the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV). On September 2, 1945, in Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh declared Vietnam an independent nation. “The French have fled, the Japanese have capitulated, Emperor Bao Dai has abdicated. Our people have broken the chains which fettered them for nearly a century, and have won independence.”11
The newly independent Vietnam was immediately threatened as France, with the assistance of Britain and the Nationalist Chinese, moved to re-establish its colonial authority. In September 1945 French military forces began to retake urban areas in southern Vietnam. By December 1946 they had retaken central Hanoi, the capital of the DRV, and in February 1947 they captured Hue, the former imperial capital. While the French came to control most urban areas in Vietnam, the Viet Minh held much of the countryside, where the majority of the Vietnamese population lived. In 1949 France granted Vietnam “associated statehood” within the French Union and established a Vietnamese government under Bao Dai.
Despite the appearance of independence, France retained ultimate control over Vietnam. In 1950 the United States recognized the Associated State of Vietnam, a move countered by the People’s Republic of China and the Soviet Union, which formally recognized the DRV. Ho Chi Minh and the DRV continued the military and political struggle for independence from France (the First War of Resistance), decisively defeating the French in 1954 at the Battle of Dien Bien Phu. This victory led to the Geneva Accords of 1954 and a resultant cease-fire between the French and Viet Minh forces. Vietnam was divided provisionally at the 17th parallel, with a final political settlement of the conflict to be determined by a national election. French forces were withdrawn from the North, and Viet Minh forces from the South. The civilian population was given 300 days to migrate freely between the northern and southern zones, with many Roman Catholics and anti-Communists choosing to resettle in the South. In the North the DRV was established as an independent Communist-led government under the leadership of Ho Chi Minh. To counterbalance the Communist North, France and the United States supported the government of Bao Dai and his prime minister, Ngo Dinh Diem, in the South. Diem, a prominent nationalist, overthrew Bao Dai’s government and in 1955 established the Republic of South Vietnam. He rejected the national referendum, called for by the Geneva Accords, which was intended to reunify Vietnam politically. His decision to do so was supported by the United States, by then Diem’s main patron.
And so the lines were drawn for what Americans came to know as the Vietnam War and the North Vietnamese, the Second War of Resistance. For the next twenty years North Vietnam, working with Communist political and military forces in the South and supported by China and the Soviet Union, fought to overthrow the Republic of South Vietnam and to unify Vietnam under Communist control. U.S. military involvement in the conflict, which began in February 1955 with the arrival of American advisors to train the South Vietnamese army, escalated in 1965 with the landing of Marine Corps units in Da Nang. From this point on U.S. troops assumed an ever-expanding role in direct fighting against the North Vietnamese Army and the Viet Cong. This continued until 1970, when a lack of political support for the war in the United States led the Nixon administration to begin the gradual withdrawal of American troops and to shift the burden of the fighting back on to the South Vietnamese. The signing of the Paris Accords on January 27, 1973, led to the withdrawal of all U.S. forces by March 1973. Over the next two years the South Vietnamese military fought a losing battle against the North Vietnamese Army and Viet Cong, culminating in the final defeat of the Republic of South Vietnam and the fall of Saigon on April 30, 1975.
The end of hostilities, however, did not bring an end to the suffering of the Vietnamese people, who over the next decade experienced a painful social and economic transition as the Communist North sought to integrate the capitalistic South into a unified and independent country. Economically, Vietnam grew very slowly in the period after the war, becoming one of the poorest countries in the world and “one of the few countries in modern history to experience a sharp economic deterioration in a postwar reconstruction period.”12 This was the consequence of a number of factors: disastrous postwar economic policies, a series of natural disasters, and the Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia in 1978, which resulted in a loss of international aid. Private ownership was eliminated along with the Southern entrepreneurial class, consisting chiefly of ethnic Chinese living in Saigon’s Cho Lon (“big market”) section.
Socially, there was a concerted effort to develop a new order in the South resembling that in the North. Targets of this forced transition to a Socialist system were those considered exploiters of the peasants and workers, the large landowners and capitalists. A number of approaches to social control were utilized. Thought reform, such as mandatory “study sessions” for all adults and the much more intensive and extreme re-education camps, attempted to indoctrinate the Southern people in proper Communist thinking. The number of members of the former South Vietnamese elite who were still incarcerated in re-education camps in 1982, seven years after the war, has been estimated at about 120,000, with almost 40,000 still there by 1985.13 The Hanoi government also instituted mass migrations of people from more densely populated areas such as Saigon to the remote and sparsely inhabited “New Economic Zones.” While ostensibly an effort to r...

Table of contents

  1. Cover Page
  2. Title Page
  3. Copyright Page
  4. Dedication
  5. Contents
  6. Preface
  7. Acknowledgments
  8. 1 / Introduction
  9. Part I. Former Political Prisoners
  10. Part II. Former Political Prisoners and Their Families
  11. Notes
  12. Glossary
  13. Index