Thursday, December 6, 2012
Millicent Fenwick Remembers Vietnam
"WHO IS REALLY TELLING THE TRUTH?"
In my home town I had been a member of a peace group when President Kennedy sent those advisors to Vietnam in 1961. The first one was killed on December 14, 1961. Now, I remember it and the fact that I remember it shows how seriously I took that.
I thought, "This is just bound to be the beginning of something unfortunate."
But I left my peace group, because I got a letter from the International Red Cross in Geneva and took it down to my peace group and said we had been asked to request that Saigon and Hanoi to allow the International Red Cross to come in. And to my utter horror, the members of the peace group, "Oh, yes, they should visit Saigon, but why should they be allowed to go into Hanoi."
And I said, "Hey, wait a minute. Aren't we supposed to be fair in this?" And so I resigned from the group
In Congress I was not a dove. I always voted more money for soldiers in Vietnam. I think I was what you call a middle-of-the-road congressman at the time.
I don't know why they asked me to go to Southeast Asia during that last week in February of 1975. I was new in Congress at the time. But they did ask me and I went.
Before I left I had been visited by a certain Don Luce. He had a list of student leaders who had been imprisoned in South Vietnam. He said he wanted me to check on them. And so I picked the name of this man, Mr. Huynh Tan Mam, who was the leader of a national student group.
When we met with President Thieu I told him I was very much concerned about this student leader, Mr. Mam. I told President Thieu that I could not leave the country a until I had visited with this young man. There was this terrible silence. I really was serious because I would have let the others go and I would have stayed and taken my chances on getting back I was so concerned.
Well, they let me see Mr. Mam. And I took Bella along and we had to take a plane to go outside the city to visit him in prison. It was very inconvenient for them to get us there. We went up to a small country town north of Saigon and not far from the ocean. Mr. Mam had been the leader of the Vietnam National Student Union. Mr. Mam lived in a house with a veranda. It was somehow not the sort of prison that I had imagined. Behind this house was a dormitory there was where he was incarcerated. There was a long covered porch outside all the rooms. There was a circulation of air because of the way the place was laid out. In his room there was a chair, a table and a light bulb so he could read or write at the table.
He was accused of overturning and burning an American car. And he said he did not do that. He said it was the group he was with that did it but it wasn't him. I asked him why he just didn't say that he wasn't a Communist and they would probably let him out and go back to the capital. He didn't answer. I asked him to roll up his sleeve and there were no marks on him. I asked him if they tortured him and he said no. There were no marks on his back, either. He said they questioned him but they didn't torture him and I believed him because there were no marks on him. I asked him how often they let him bathe. And he said they let me bathe once a day in the ocean. "How often do they let you exercise?" I asked. "Every afternoon they let us have a ball game down in the yard of the dormitory," he said.
Well I was really annoyed, if you want to know the truth. I could have picked somebody else. Anybody else. But Mr. Luce had given me this man's name.
With all of the effort that we had made in Saigon, and then to get Bella to come along. And I started to ask myself, "Who is really interested in these people? Who is really telling the truth?" Who is it that cares, really, about making up another story about what is happening here?"
Then I went to see the people in jail and I was interested in that whole thing. They had a constitution guaranteeing certain rights and I wanted to see if the government was enforcing those rights. I had seen in the press anti-Thieu stories. But they were written by opposition members in the parliament. Members of the press were arrested but political figures could not be arrested for attacking the government in the newspapers.
In the jail we met some journalists and they told us they were very well treated. But one journalist obviously said it loud enough so that the guards in the corridor could hear. I don't know if they were tortured. He shook his head to signal "No! No!" after he told us that they were well treated. So it was perfectly obvious that Saigon was not paradise in those days.
We talked with Ambassador Martin when we were there and we had briefings at the Embassy.
Then we interviewed several Vietnamese who were opposition leaders, opposing President Thieu. And everybody we saw we asked if they wanted to see a Communist government, and they all answered the same," No. No, no, no," they all said. They said, "We want independence and we want to get rid of Thieu." That's what they wanted. They did not want a Communist government, that was very clear.
Then we went out to Tan Son Nhut to see representatives of the Provisional Revolutionary Government, the political wing of the Viet Cong. And I was robbed out there while I was sitting with a representative from the PRG.
The very nice representative of the Mennonites, a peace group, was very anxious for us not to meet with the PRG. He said it wasn't worthwhile. And when I met them I could understand why. They were like people from central casting at MGM. They looked and acted like absolute warlords! The truth is the head of the group looked and behaved like a gangster from Manchuria. And he was the head of the group! An absolute warlord would be a more attractive way of putting it.
I remember that my purse was next to my chair there on the floor, and I had cashed some checks at the Embassy before coming to the meeting. And I had money with me. And my purse then disappeared during the meeting.
After the trip I wrote to the New York Times and I said I don't think we can go on furnishing this war. Because the Soviet Union and China will go on funding it for 35 years and they have no public opinion to stop them. We count American dead and in the most terrible way we don't even count the Vietnamese dead. I mean people are dying all the time. And in a cause which America never set out really to win. I don't think you ought to ask people to die in a war unless we expect or fight to win it.
I was against any more money for the war. I said that in my opinion, if you want the honest truth, North Vietnam is in the same mood as Hitler's armies and Napoleon's armies, they are on the move! They are not going to stop. They have got something into their blood that is not going to stop when they get hold of Saigon.
I really felt like that. But I still didn't think we should go on with the war and getting people killed for nothing. And my God, when I think of them now all over Cambodia!
We went to Phnom Penh during the trip in 1975. We landed at that airport, and my God, the American there said that every one of the planes that comes in with a heavy load, they have to land on one of the adjunct parts of the airport where the concrete is very thin, and he kept asking, "Can it take another one or another one?" The rest of the airport was under fire and could not be used.
The Catholic Relief was working there. They backed up their trucks right to the plane and these big 100 pound bags of rice would come down on what looked like stretchers, right onto the truck, and the man who was in charge there said it would take only about a minute in a half to unload. The trucks and the drivers helped us go to a camp on a road nearby. The people there had come in from the country. They had four stakes in the ground with a plastic sheet over the top, that was home. The head of the family would have a bowl and they would get their rice rations. My God what misery. And of course mortar shells were coming over all the time.
I talked to some of the people. This woman told of a terrible thing that had happened to her husband. He ran away from the Khmer Rouge, and in a public circle they drove nails into his skull because they wouldn't waste a bullet on him.
We went to see a hotel that was being built and was going to be a pleasure dome for tourists. And there was this big basement floor of this hotel, and these poor families were huddled in on this floor. One or two had pigs and they were lucky. Then there was a clinic that was supposed to be the office for this luxury hotel. There was an enormous swimming pool there and the Mekong was flowing lazily by. In that clinic was a woman I have never forgotten, Alexandra McKay, an Australian working there. The stench was beyond belief. You can hardly imagine. They didn't have enough electricity and they didn't even have a fan. They had three or four Cambodian aids. The sick people were all over the floor. I said, "What are the illnesses here, Dr. McKay?"
She said, "Oh just the usual ones, like kwashiorkor" --when the children are so starved that their hair turns red and their stomachs bulge. "And malaria and cholera." I can't tell you how awful it was. It was just more than you could ever imagine.
When we met Lon Nol, he had suffered a stroke and one of his hands was paralyzed and lay on his knee. His three middle fingers were gray, I had never seen that before. He sat there like a statue of Buddha.
He said, "I will agree to any compromise that will spare my country from starvation." It was obvious that he was at the end of his tether.
I came away from the there not knowing what the solution to the problems of Southeast Asia were. But I believed that something had to be done to start negotiations for ending the war. With our money and our aid, we were just buying time, and very little of it, at that.
Millicent Fenwick (February 25, 1910 – September 16, 1992)