[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.