[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.