[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.