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[NOTE OF EXPLANATION: Duong Van Mai Elliott’s book, The Sacred Willow, is a well-researched account of her family’s long history in Vietnam. Particularly interesting for me are the historical narratives of political intrigue and corruption that rooted themselves in the Republic of South Vietnam. The following excerpt from Elliott’s book recounts the general situation during the last several years of President Nguyen Van Thieu’s regime (1967-1975). Bold is my emphasis.]


In a bid to extract more aid from Washington, Saigon claimed it was facing a severe shortage of ammunition and limited the use of ordnance across the board.

… No doubt the aid cutback forced Saigon to economize, but the measures taken were extreme and ill-considered. When the Pentagon sent its own logistics expert to assess Saigon’s needs in 1974, he reported that South Vietnam still had huge stockpiles of ammunition, and that much of its gasoline was being diverted into the black market. Even as its army began to fall apart in March 1975, Saigon still had two-thirds of the ammunition supplied by Washington during the massive buildup prior to the signing of the Paris agreement. Unfortunately, this ammunition was stored near Saigon and not available to field soldiers and officers.

The cut in aid made Thieu’s position precarious. As long as he could extract bountiful aid from Washington, the generals left him alone. But now, his usefulness was gone. Precisely because his position had weakened, Thieu became even more reluctant to clean house to win the popular support he needed to defeat the communists. He clung even more to officers whom he could trust, although they were incompetent or dishonest — or both. And the more he felt threatened, the less he tolerated opposition. The more he cracked down on dissidents, the more unpopular he became. It was a vicious circle, and he grew more and more isolated. Opposition to Thieu continued to intensify, fed by discontent over the economic crisis and also by war weariness. Even among the middle and upper middle class, among people who had the most to lose in a communist victory, more and more voices were rising to protest Thieu’s belligerence and intransigience. The yearning for peace grew, even among some Catholics. Encouraged by the Vatican’s 1973 endorsement of a policy of accommodation with the communists, a small group of Catholic priests came out in favor of peace. They joined their demand with that of Buddhist leaders, who had been their bitter political opponents in the past. …

Thieu refused to listen to these voices, dismissing those who demanded a negotiated settlement as “communist sympathizers” and “communist dupes.” … Thinking the United States had invested too much blood and too much money in Vietnam to simply walk away, they kept waiting for the cavalry to come to the rescue. The Americans themselves had created this dependency, which permeated not only the top leadership, but all levels of government. No one took the initiative to do anything, and no one was held accountable for not taking action. Passing the buck became a favorite pastime for everyone, from the militia in the outpost to the ministers in Thieu’s government. At the most critical times, when Saigon’s survival hung in the balance, Thieu would press his closest advisors for comments on a policy he was contemplating. Used to letting the Americans plan and execute for them, these advisors would be at a loss as to what to do, and would keep silent or defer to Thieu’s judgment.


[NOTE OF EXPLANATION: Duong Van Mai Elliott’s book, The Sacred Willow, is a well-researched account of her family’s long history in Vietnam. Particularly interesting for me are the historical narratives of political intrigue and corruption that rooted themselves in the Republic of South Vietnam. The following excerpt from Elliott’s book recounts the general situation during the last several years of President Nguyen Van Thieu’s regime (1967-1975). Bold is my emphasis.]


…When they left, the Americans had taken their dollars with them. The economy dried up. Jobs disappeared. … In all, two million people — 30 percent of the workforce — were thrown out of work. In the second half of 1973, inflation rose drastically, eroding income even more. … the ripple originated with the Yom Kippur war and the Arab oil embargo, which led to a fourfold increase in the price of gasoline. The cost of oil and other commodities that the South had to impart, such as rice, then shot up. With every dollar in economic aid that Washington continued to provide, Saigon could only import fifty cents’ worth of goods. To reflect its declining value, the currency had to be devalued almost monthly. This only made imports more expensive and inflation worse.

The Thieu government made some attempts to cope with the crisis. But lack of planning and sheer incompetence, combined with factors it could not control, such as worldwide inflation and the continuing disruption and instability caused by the war, doomed its efforts. Except for a few feeble initiatives, such as hiring workers to sweep the streets and clean the gutters of Saigon, the government had no strategy to cope with the worsening situation. Instead, it pinned all its hopes on foreign investments and especially on the prospect of striking oil off the coast of Vung Tau. But the continued fighting made foreign investors leery, and although oil was discovered, it was too little, too late. …

… Waste and corruption were also undermining their fighting capability, as vital supplies were siphoned off and even sold to the communists, and equipment left to deteriorate. The malfeasance reached the highest levels of government. General Nguyen Vinh Nghi, the army commander in the Mekong Delta, who was later dismissed for corruption, pilfered tens of thousands of small arms and sold most of the equipment to the Viet Cong. Some senior officers were even pocketing their units’ payroll.

Government corruption had been endemic and brazen. Bribery was the grease that kept everything running. Even getting a passport and exit visa required bribing the powerful. The daughter of one wealthy family was said to have paid President Thieu’s special assistant for national security six million piasters, which were delivered to him stuffed in a suitcase in exchange for a passport and exit visa to France. Government positions that could provide opportunities for graft, such as district and province chiefs, were up for sale through the prime minister’s office or Thieu’s own political party. Those that paid huge sums of money to get these positions could count or getting their investment back several times over through corruption and extortion. …

The corruption had become so widespread that even those who would normally shy away from doing anything that might undermine Saigon and bolster the communists were moved to action. A group of Catholic priests — usually the staunchest supporters of Saigon and the most ardent anticommunists — publicly indicted Thieu and his family as corrupt and accused Thieu and his prime minister of involvement in heroin traffic. They also demanded that Thieu’s wife be prosecuted for corruption. Thieu knew he could not ignore this movement, so he responded by firing two division commanders for selling rice to the Viet Cong and dismissing three of his four region commanders. In addition, he forced four of his cabinet ministers to resign. But this hardly scratched the surface, and left top officials like Thieu himself, General Dang Van Quang, and Prime Minister Tran Thien Khiem and their wives untouched. They continued to make their fortunes in real estate and other business deals.

[NOTE OF EXPLANATION: Duong Van Mai Elliott’s book, The Sacred Willow, is a well-researched account of her family’s long history in Vietnam. Particularly interesting for me are the historical narratives of political intrigue and corruption that rooted themselves in the Republic of South Vietnam. The following excerpt from Elliott’s book recounts the general situation during the last several years of President Nguyen Van Thieu’s regime (1967-1975). Bold is my emphasis.]


But the huge American commitment did blunt the communist drive and buy time for Saigon. Instead of using that time wisely to consolidate the gains against the Viet Cong, however, the generals were squandering it in endless squabbles. By this time, they had monopolized power in Vietnam. The only faction that could have challenged them — the Buddhists — had been squashed for good. In September 1967, a semblance of stability returned. General Thieu finally outmaneuvered his rival Ky and became president in an election held at the urging of President Johnson. The election produced a surprise for the Americans: A candidate who advocated an end to the war got the second largest number of votes. Thieu quickly had him thrown in jail for five years. The new government did not gain in stature or popularity. Yet it did not matter, because Thieu had the support of the Americans, who at this point were backing him by default, to avoid making a bad situation worse. And he could buy loyalty from his key commanders through a growing web of corruption. Province and district chiefs could buy their posts, rake in money by diverting funds or trafficking in military supplies — and in some cases even smuggling drugs — pay their kickbacks to those above, and still make a fortune. My father, watching the shenanigans of the generals and officials, would shake his head in disgust and tell me, “With leaders like these, I’m not at all surprised that we’re not making any headway against the Viet Cong. It must be terribly frustrating for the Americans to be the patrons of such greedy idiots. One of these days, the Americans will have enough and they’ll pack up and go home, leaving us to fend for ourselves.” …

It was not surprising to anyone that many of the foot soldiers were not willing to die for a regime with such cynical leaders, a regime that talked about democracy and clean government but never acted on its promises. They saw no point in trying to win the goodwill of the peasants for a regime in which they themselves did not believe. Often, when they went on operation, they stole from the villagers. (Once, Giu [one of the author’s brothers] saw soldiers coming back from a sweep pulling an ox at the back of an armored personnel carrier.) Other problems that plagued an unmotivated army were a high desertion rate and, after general mobilization came into force, widespread draft dodging. As a military prosecutor, my brother Luong saw a long parade of people who tried to get out of the fighting. … he had obtained a law degree, which allowed him to switch to the military tribunal, the harshest in the land — at least for those without the connection or the money to obtain a favorable outcome from the presiding judge. It tried criminal cases involving the military, as well as civilian cases that fell under the broad rubrics of “disturbing order and security,” “treason,” and “hoarding and speculation.”

Some of these clients had powerful connections or were rich, and usually prearranged the outcome of their trials. They hired Luong as their defense lawyer only to maintain the façade that justice was being exercised; yet my brother, and his colleagues in the legal profession, did not question the charade, shrugging it off as the way things were in Saigon. Fortunately, in his private practice Luong had opportunities to help people who did not have the wherewithal to engineer their verdict and for whom the trials were real, such as deserters and draft dodgers from impoverished families. He did not seek them out or become their champion, but for those who came to him for help, he would argue their cases for free and, since their guilt was evident, try to get them a reduced sentence.

[NOTE OF EXPLANATION: Duong Van Mai Elliott’s book, The Sacred Willow, is a well-researched account of her family’s long history in Vietnam. Particularly interesting for me are the historical narratives of political intrigue and corruption that rooted themselves in the Republic of South Vietnam. The following excerpt from Elliott’s book recounts the general situation during the last several years of President Nguyen Van Thieu’s regime (1967-1975). Bold is my emphasis.]


In that early period, some of the Viet Cong prisoners as well as defectors also joined out of dissatisfaction with the Saigon regime. Usually, what pushed them to acting on their sympathy for the communist side was the behavior of the government itself. In fact, at the beginning, Saigon was unwittingly the best ally the Viet Cong had in recruiting peasants. Landlords came back with soldiers to collect back rent at gunpoint; soldiers swept through villages stealing from and roughing up, even murdering peasants; artillery shells landed on the peasants’ houses, maiming and killing their relatives; officials conscripted villagers to build strategic hamlets and then coerced them to move there. I remember one interview with a woman defector who gave me a graphic description of the construction of the strategic hamlet into which she and her family were eventually relocated. It reminded me of a scene from one of my history books, of a time when a Chinese emperor forced a multitude of peasants to erect the Great Wall with their bare hands. Incidents like these convinced the villagers that the Saigon government was “tyrannical,” which angered them and made them receptive to the Viet Cong.

… I could understand why these southern farmers decided that they had to fight to get rid of a regime — backed by a foreign power — that treated them and their families this way. … One day, Martha Gellhorn, an American reporter, asked me to accompany her to a hospital and translate for her. On this visit, I saw for the first time what the weapons were doing to real human beings. I saw children and adults who had lost limbs. I saw eyes staring out of heads swathed in blood, bandages. I saw a woman who had been burned by a phosphorous bomb, with peeling skin showing pink and raw flesh underneath. … I left shaken and more convinced than before that it was unfair to make the peasants bear the brunt of the suffering to save my family and other middle-class families from a communist system they felt they could not live under.

[NOTE OF EXPLANATION: Duong Van Mai Elliott’s book, The Sacred Willow, is a well-researched account of her family’s long history in Vietnam. Particularly interesting for me are the historical narratives of political intrigue and corruption that rooted themselves in the Republic of South Vietnam. The following excerpt from Elliott’s book recounts the general situation during the last several years of President Nguyen Van Thieu’s regime (1967-1975). Bold is my emphasis.]


The city boomed, reaching a level of affluence that it had never known before… Life was so good for those who benefited from the money the United States was pouring in that, after the Americans went home, they would later refer to this period as the “golden age.” Imports financed by American aid continued to arrive. …Luxury goods became more widely available. …Unlike in the North, there were no acute wartime shortages and no rationing. Rice production was falling sharply as peasants fled their land, but the Americans replaced the lost supplies with imports. Besides the legal imports, we could get an incredible array of goods that were siphoned off from the bulging American warehouses and Post Exchanges (PXs) and sold on the street. …From this time onward, Saigon residents would become attached to American consumer products, clinging to their favorite brands like a marketer’s dream come true….

The newly affluent class included many who stole without qualm from the Americans. Some of the goods available on the black market had been pilfered from the U.S. military bases.… The American themselves were not immune to corruption, and some would accept bribes and turn the other way to let the Vietnamese carry out what they wanted. To the Vietnamese who got rich this way, taking from the Americans was not really wrong, first of all because they were foreigners and normal ethical principles need not be applied to them, and, second, because they had so much that they would not miss what they lost.

The upshot of billions of dollars circulating in a country the size of Texas was that people had more money to spend. Supply could not keep up with demand, and prices shot up. But although people grumbled about inflation, only those who were not benefiting financially from the war had a hard time making ends meet. The countryside and Saigon in particular became schizophrenic. At the bottom were the many peasants who were paying in lives and limbs lost, and in homes and fields destroyed by the war. At the top, life could not have been better for the corrupt officers and officials, for men and women working as clerks for the Americans, for building contractors, and for real estate owners. It was also good for those catering to the Americans’ needs, from prostitutes who could earn more than the head of a government ministry, to tailors, to cyclo and taxi drivers taking free-spending G.I.s around town on their furloughs, to the maids toiling for them. Some Vietnamese, watching greed displacing traditional values, complained that the American presence had turned society upside-down. In the old days, the social order was expressed in the saying “scholars first, peasants second, artisans third, and merchants fourth.” But now, according to these disillusioned traditionalists, this saying should be changed to “prostitutes first, cyclo drivers second, taxi drivers third, and maids fourth.” …This social upheaval finally turned some of these educated Vietnamese against the American intervention, although they knew it was keeping the communists at bay.

It is the proverbial elephant sitting in my room: my circumstantial birth to an American man and a Vietnamese woman during one of America’s most morally ambiguous wars. Just the thought of it brings forth so many loaded assumptions in both Vietnamese and American representations of the Other.

I wasn’t spared the rhetoric of competing political interests, so without any alternative on the horizon I fell into the clichéd storyline of the war orphan whose father was one of the roaming soldiers going around setting fire to thatched huts and raping the native women whenever he got the chance. With all the melodrama of a soap opera, my father became the enemy of my enemy. I demonized the man because he wasn’t here to defend himself and no one could tell me any different. No one presented any evidence to contradict my suspicions. His absence made it easy for me to dress him up in fatigues and stab him repeatedly, jerking his body back and forth, while shouting down at him. With such blinding anger, I went on holding the world up for ransom, demanding answers.

The addition of his DNA in the construction of my physical body subtly sickened me. Some days I couldn’t look myself in the mirror. Then, there were those odd days when I couldn’t stop glaring at myself in that same mirror wondering what parts of me I needed to cut off in order to feel whole again.

And, yet, intermittently, in one incarnation or another, he appeared in my thoughts and dreams as a smiling, doting father bending over to pick up his young protégé. As any proud little boy would do, I wanted to show and tell him what my new hobby was or what sport I was trying out for, or what I was thinking about at that moment. I not only sought his acceptance, but I also wanted to know that I was going somewhere and that I needn’t feel alone while on this journey. Instead, without him in the picture, and no one I could honestly trust, I felt as if I were always going astray and in desperate need of direction.

The appearance of normalcy and then the jarring absence of it affected in a deep way how I viewed and dealt with my adoptive father, as well as how he may have viewed and treated me. Out of respect and a healthy dose of fear, I didn’t want to tell my adoptive father how much I just wanted to be like all the other little boys I knew in my neighborhood who had fathers with looks that resembled their own. I was acutely aware of my illegitimacy among the other boys when I was with my adoptive father, especially when they looked from me to him and from him to me. My mind’s eye started viewing my adoptive father as a surrogate whom I wanted to replace with the man who sired me. I couldn’t stand being a paper son anymore. I vehemently wanted to erase the doubt in other kids’ minds as to whether or not I belonged to a family of my own.

There were times when I thought the only real emotion I possessed was anger. Although I was good at throwing it under the bed and hiding it, it would inevitably swell and regenerate into an inhuman beast that jumped out of nowhere at the most inconvenient times. It also didn’t help that the man who made me call him “dad” my whole life passed down his short fuse and barely tolerated my accidental infiltration into his household. Combine that with the feeling that there always seemed to be swaths of uncontrollable wildfires eating their way through my subconscious, and you can probably guess what kind of rueful young man I had become. I used to attribute some of those infernos to the man who, for reasons only known to him, didn’t come to claim me as his son when I was born.

Finding themselves directly in the path of my rage toward my biological father, my adoptive family simply became collateral damage when the emotional bombs came raining down all around me. My immature mind cut a deal between my pride and my insecurity that if my own father didn’t want me, and I couldn’t have him back, then I refused to allow anyone else to lay claim over me.

This exasperating thought may have been a contributing factor as to why I felt more and more pushed out of the clique that society liked to call my “family”. Looking anxiously back on it now, I believe it was me who was doing most of the pushing of my own Self out of their lives. I rejected their sphere of influence as a direct result of the man who made up the other half of my genealogy cutting himself off from me in order to eliminate me from his life.

Whenever people tried to convince me that my biological parents made the right decision to sacrifice their own happiness, and possibly their own lives, so that I would be given the chance to live a life in relative luxury, I wanted to string that obligatory gratitude around their necks and hang them with it so they could experience just how truly thankful I felt about being alive, as someone else’s property.

On those particularly harsh days and nights when I found myself being punished yet again for one of the myriad offenses I committed, I came to despise not only the family I was sent to live with, but also the very people who condemned me to live out this life without them even there to witness my falling star. With bitter tears running down my cheeks, I would lay my head down on my pillow and take up that whip and start flogging the whimpering mound of flesh I named ‘father’. I cursed this naked specter who filled my mother up with all his hatred for her people and her land. I tortured myself with the awful fake memory that my mother was simply in the wrong place at the wrong time, and got in my father’s way, and so he had his way with her.

I now have to face the probability that my own apple didn’t fall far from my father’s twisted tree. I’m his living legacy, whether I like it or not. But, that certainly doesn’t mean I have to follow in his footsteps. I can now tell the difference between my shadow and his.

Now that I’m an adult, I’m slowly coming to terms that I may never know who my father actually was. There never has been any name, any picture, nor any rumors of an old guy two houses down who is asking about a son he may have left back in Vietnam. The wildfires within me have been reasonably contained, but they still smolder with the thought that no one, and yet everyone, is to blame for keeping my father from me and that I may never find the culprit(s). I’ve been comforting myself with the matter-of-fact idea that his bones could be buried deep in the ground anywhere on this planet, or he could be alive and living a rundown existence in a small town somewhere. The possibilities of his whereabouts or identity are simply endless.

I’ve also come to the realization that I, too, am an endless set of possibilities because my father may not even know about me yet. And, he probably never will.

You may have stuck your dick into her

Pumped some lead into them

Declared yourself satisfied

The world is nothing without you, you bellow

But, you’re not the father of this country

Anymore than I’m a child of her abandonment


A blog by three adult Vietnamese adoptees as they move forward, reflect back and express their thoughts on just about everything in between. More...

Anh Ðào Kolbe

Kevin Minh Allen

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