One of the most bizarre and disheartening experiences I had during my many years working in the peace movement was the passionate opposition I encountered from a number of fellow anti-war activists when I circulated reports I had received from Thich Nhat Hanh and other reliable sources of major human rights violations in post-war Vietnam. The reports led me to propose an effort be made by well-known war resisters to urge the Hanoi government to open its prisons and “re-education camps” to inspection by staff of Amnesty International or the International Red Cross.
Little did I anticipate the firestorm that quickly followed.
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(Apologies for any typos — this is scanned from a photocopy.)
Worldview magazine (NY) / April 1977
There will always be people to minimize violations of human rights and to justify those they acknowledge. This is happening now in the case of Vietnam.
Fighting Among the Doves
by Jim Finn
At the end of the war in April, 1975, there was no bloodbath, as some of the more harsh antagonists of North Vietnam predicted. That terrible possibility not having come to pass, many Americans were pleased to turn their attention elsewhere. But others, including some leaders of the antiwar movement in this country, did not let falter their interest in and their compassion for the cruelly tried people of Vietnam. They collected as much information as they could about what was going on in Vietnam. Much of it was admirable, even impressive. But gradually rumors, reports, unverifiable but persuasive testimony, foreign news stories, and the accounts from refugees forced some people to believe that there was also in Vietnam a substantial violation of human rights.
Those moved by this evidence mounted relatively modest efforts to place their concern before officials of the Vietnamese Government. At first they wrote private letters to Mr. Dinh Ba Thi, the Vietnam Observer to the United Nations, and when these went unanswered, they made a public appeal. But even as these efforts were going forward, they were attacked by people who questioned the accuracy of the reports and the propriety and usefulness of making them public.
It becomes increasingly clear that, taken seriously, the issue of human rights is divisive. It disturbs what might otherwise be stable relations between individuals, between organizations. between governments.
Having taken seriously the issue of human rights in Vietnam, the “peace movement” in this country has splintered into different and sometimes acrimonious factions. People who marched side by side in antiwar demonstrations and sometimes shared the same cell for their acts of resistance now approach quite differently the reports of human rights violations in Vietnam, the explanations and justifications offered by the Vietnamese, and the moral and political responsibility of American war resisters.
As trivial and unsavory as the exchanges between the factions sometimes are, the debate itself is important. It is important because its outcome will influence the attitudes of Americans toward issues of human rights, even more important because it may help determine the fate of political prisoners in Vietnam. On both sides of the debate are writers, publicists, and leaders in various organizations — people who influence attitudes and policies in this country and may even influence those in Vietnam.
That is what gives whatever significance it has to this debate on human rights.
The first organized efforts to get some response from officials of the Vietnam Government were begun last September, when Richard Neuhaus, senior editor of Worldview, in cooperation with Jim Forest, drafted an initial version of the Appeal. Forest, a prisoner some years back for acts of war resistance, a member of the Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR), and editor of its magazine, Fellowship, also wrote an article (“Vietnam: Unification Without Reconciliation”) in the journal detailing the charges with which he was concerned. The draft of the “Appeal to the Government of Vietnam Regarding Human Rights” was then reworked with the help of Tom Cornell of FOR; Laura Hassler, formerly with the U.S. Liaison Office for the Vietnamese Buddhist Peace Delegation; and Robert Ellsberg, managing editor of the Catholic Worker.
Before the Appeal was made public Jim Forest, wrote letters to the Vietnamese Observer to the U. N. asking for some response. These went unanswered. Among other unanswered letters to the Vietnamese Observer to the U.N. are a letter sent by over twenty Representatives to Congress and another sent last fall by Sanford Gottlieb, Executive Director of SANE. Citing the long history of that organization’s opposition to the war, the letter looked forward to the normalization of U.S.-Vietnam relations, but it also expressed concern about reports of hundreds of thousands of detainees, including Third Force parliamentarians, Hoa Hao leaders, and Buddhists who had staunchly opposed the Thieu regime — reports that had come from both the press and private Vietnamese sources.
In gathering corroborative evidence for the Appeal this ad hoc group relied upon the reports of experienced journalists such as Jean Lacouture and Patrice De Beer, whom the Vietnamese revolutionaries had respected for their reporting during the war years and who had spent considerable time in Vietnam since the war; on individuals who had been reliable sources of information concerning repression and torture during the Diem-Thieu regime; on the Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam, which, throughout the war, worked to bring it to an end, assisted draft resisters, and advocated political tolerance; and on the testimony of some refugees.
This Appeal was then signed by about a hundred people who shared opposition to the war and now share a concern for the violation of human rights in Vietnam. (See partial text and attached list of signers.) The Appeal calls for the admission of Vietnam to the U.N. and for aid to that country, and it ends, as it begins, on a note of hope. But the burden of the Appeal is to call attention to reported violations of human rights in Vietnam, the thousands in “re-education” camps, including named individuals who opposed Thieu, and the “tragic self-immolation of 12 monks and nuns in Can Tho Province” who burned themselves on November 2, 1975, as a protest against repressive measures.
This Appeal was sent to the Vietnamese Ambassador on November 16, with a request for a meeting. There was no immediate response, but the Appeal formed the basis for a well-publicized press conference held by The International League for Human Rights on December 29, 1976. The conference made public a letter from Roger Baldwin, a veteran fighter for the protection of human rights and Honorary President of the League. Formally requesting Ambassador Dinh Ba Thi to convey the Appeal to his Government, Baldwin’s letter said in part:
“As a non-governmental organization affiliated with the United Nations, we address you to convey our deep concern with reported activities of your Government which appear to be in violation of the human rights principles to which we assume your Government subscribes by virtue of its United Nations connection.
“These activities, supported by documentation, cover suppression of language held to be critical of the Government or its policies, thus contravening Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. In similar fashion, other articles of the Declaration appear to be violated in the detention of political prisoners solely for activities not involving violence or organized opposition. In this connection, we enclose a petition addressed to your Government and signed by 90 well-known Americans concerned with foreign affairs.”
The Vietnamese immediately responded publicly to this press conference, and early in February I received — as I presume all who signed the Appeal received — a letter from Ambassador Dinh Ba Thi saying he had been instructed by the Prime Minister, Mr. Pham Van Dong, to reply to the November mailing. The rather sketchy reply was in two parts: first, a one-page “aide-memoire” denying in general terms any violation of human rights and second, a one-page statement commenting on three specific cases, including “The ‘Immolation’ in Can Tho.”
The aide-memoire stated that those who had opposed Thieu now occupied “well-deserved positions in the new society,” and those who were misguided but have learned better and repented are now full members of the new society. “Being detained are only those who had done so much harm to the people and the country and now continue to sabotage activities against the laws and the peaceful life of the people.”
What is offered as a description of what took place in Can Tho deserves full quotation:
“According to the testimony of the witnesses, the following are facts on the so-called “immolation” in Thien Vien Duoc Su Temple, Tan Long A hamlet, Tan Binh village, Phung Hiep district, Can Tho province, on the night of November 1, 1975:
“1. Pham Van Co was a wrong-doer who claimed himself specialized in medical treatment for women but his only purpose was to give sexual stimulation. He disguised a s monk and had been twice admitted to live in temples but twice he was expelled for immoral conduct of promiscuity which is severely forbidden by Buddhism. April 1970, he set up for himself a pagoda in Tan Long hamlet named Thien Vien Duoc Su and called himself Duoc Su Nhu Lai (Buddha The Healer) where he admitted young women as disciples for his sexual satisfaction.
“2. 1972, a nun called Dieu Hau was pregnant with him. He killed her and burnt her corpse at midnight, then spread the news about her “immolation for peace.”
“3. 1974, another nun named Dieu Nguyen became pregnant. He also killed her and burnt her corpse to erase evidences of his crime.
“4. After the liberation of South Viet Nam, Co continued his immoral conduct and housed prostitutes in his temple. In face of being exposed, Co decided to end his life, burnt the temple and himself after killing 11 others including two youngsters. This incident however was described by some reactionary elements as an “immolation” to accuse the local authorities of repressing religion.”
This account of what is taking place in Vietnam and of what took place in Can Tho differs from reports offered by reliable journalists, refugees, and the Unified Buddhist Church. One might expect that a group of people who had learned to distrust official government statements would at least express cautious skepticism of reports from Vietnamese officials and lend support to the Appeal, which suggests that some independent international agency investigate discrepancies in the accounts of what is taking place in Vietnam.
The Appeal has generated such a response, but it has also provoked sharp attacks against those who initiated and those who signed it.
For his efforts Jim Forest has been accused of being an agent of the CIA, of needing to spend some time in a reeducation camp, of being a covert anti-Communist, of being a white bourgeois American — of anything that might undermine the legitimacy of his efforts. The present Chairman of Clergy and Laity Concerned (of which Richard Neuhaus was co-founder) wrote a letter to the Washington Post and the New York Times to dissociate the organization from the Appeal, in the course of which letter he criticized not Vietnam but the United States. In the first issue of Seven Days, of which he is a staff member, David Dellinger, a longtime pacifist, accused those who initiated the Appeal of “circulating for sometime now every remotely credible rumor it could get its hand on that, if true, would discredit the new Vietnamese government.” He states that the two major sources of their information are Thich Nhat Hanh (who was not allowed in Vietnam under Thieu’s regime and is not allowed in now) and Ted Jacqueney, both of whom Dellinger suggests are untrustworthy because they were long hostile to the National Liberation Front and Hanoi.
Another person who totally rejects the grounds of the Appeal is Gareth Porter of the Indochina Resource Center (which Graham A. Martin, the last U.S. ambassador in Saigon, bitterly credited with undermining essential support for the war — no small beer). Porter has organized a group that subscribes to the sentiment that there is no evidence that allows anyone “to impugn the good faith” of the Vietnamese Government in regard to human rights. He assesses the facts as he perceives them and concludes that they do not provide a warrant for investigative action. Presumably, if he were led to a different assessment or were presented with irrefutable evidence that serious violations of human rights do exist, he would change his stance.
For others, however, even hard evidence would not be sufficient to warrant investigation. Consider, for example, a longtime pacifist deeply engaged in Vietnamese affairs over the years. Writing from Hong Kong to take issue with Jim Forest, he stated:
“Even if I believed that there was a consistent policy of the violation of human rights, I just would not have the nerve — as an American — to tell the Vietnamese how to organize their society. Rather I would, I do — acknowledge and confess my own complicity in allowing the war to go on for such a long time …. If the Vietnamese had chosen the course of mass executions and plunder, of political prisoners and torture, it would have been our own strategies of terror and brutality which drove them to it.”
Not to have the nerve to defend those unjustly punished be cause one is an American is failure of nerve indeed. Rational discussion on these terms is difficult.
Other prominent Americans have both minimized the evidence that has been offered and shifted responsibility on thi s issue from Vietnam to the United States. A number of these people signed a statement (drawn up by Corliss Lamont and published in the New York Times on January 30 of this year), which estimates the number of people “detained in re-education centers” as 40,000 and states that many of these people are guilty of “rape, murder, torture, bribery and extortion.” That number of imprisoned “Saigon collaborationists” is smaller than almost all other estimates. (Early in February, 1977, Fox Butterfield of the New York Times estimated 200,000, and even Vietnam’s Ambassador to France put the number at 50,000.)
But the number is further diminished in importance by comparing it to the “several million Vietnamese involved in Saigon’s war effort.” If these people are being “detained” for the crimes imputed to them in this statement, one would like to know if they have been so charged by the Government and whether they have passed through even a crude judicial process. These are questions usually pressed by those who are concerned with human rights. The signers of this statement assert, however, that “Vietnam presents a very different case.” That, of course, is what is at issue.
In the ongoing debate between those who signed what has been labeled the Forest Appeal and those who criticize it, the national office of the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) has played an important role. Staff members, working from this Quaker office in Philadelphia, have circulated letters and statements sharply criticizing those who shaped that Appeal and challenging the validity of the evidence that has been offered. Louis W. Schneider, the Executive Secretary, wrote a letter to all signers of the Appeal saying that the evidence offered “is either open to serious question or is insufficiently substantiated in order to be able to make particular allegations concerning certain individuals who may have suffered a loss of human rights. Indeed, in certain instances, including the alleged immolation, there is contradictory information. Until such questions are dispelled or more authentic documentation is adduced, our colleagues demur to subscribe either to generalizations or to representations on behalf of particular individuals who may have been cited.” The judgment of AFSC, he concludes, is that the government of Vietnam is acting with extraordinary humaneness.
From the Quaker International Center in Paris, the Director, Joseph Heflin, “after much investigation into international law concerning the protection of human rights,” wrote to ask that his name be withdrawn from the Appeal, which he had originally signed, for the following reasons:
First, “Since the United States Government has failed to ratify a single United Nations Convention on Human Rights, I am no longer in a position to sign any appeal as an American citizen which is addressed to another Government….”
Second, “I also believe it to be most presumptuous of me to have taken this stand when the U.S. Government has still not officially recognized the Republic of Vietnam at the United Nations.”
The rationale of the first reason would, one presumes, hobble even President Carter and that of the second once again places responsibility on the U.S. And, in the meantime, about those political prisoners in Vietnam, well….
That reasoning does not, however, permeate Quaker activities in this country or in Vietnam. During the war, some members of the national staff talked with representatives of the Provisional Revolutionary Government (PRG) and publicly supported, not simply peace, but a North Vietnamese victory. Soon after the war the AFSC circulated a letter in which a staff member; describing the killing of looters in Vietnam, implicitly endorsed the execution of such summary justice. These staff members continue to be sympathetic to the victors in that war. Nothing criminal about that — even if it does suggest a political orientation most people do not associate with the Quakers. But it helps to explain why some AFSC staff members are skeptical of those whom they regard, correctly or not, as anti-Communist. (In this debate, perversely recalling some of those in the 1950’s, the charge of being anti-Communist is exactly that — a charge.)
One could spend more time threading the byzantine corridors of this potentially significant debate. But we only arrive, finally, at what in these circumstances is the overwhelming question: Presented with the evidence available and the argument that swirls around it, how can most of us reach a practical decision? Morally and politically, what are we to do? Ignore the alleged violations, accept them as the inevitable if regrettable concomitant of Socialist reconstruction, or urge their investigation and possible mitigation?
Each person who signed the Appeal — or refused to — must speak for him or herself. Joan Baez, for example, correctly pointed out that the letter was not an indictment but an inquiry as well as an appeal. And she added:
“Although there is doubt concerning the political prisoners in Vietnam, I would rather err in unintentionally offending government officials anywhere in the world, to whom I would apologize later if I have been mistaken, than to offend one political prisoner whom I might now conceivably help and whom later I may never be able to reach.
“In offering my own reasons for signing the Appeal I acknowledge that one moves in an area in which facts are inseparable from judgment and a degree of uncertainty is inevitable, that one relies upon reports from those one has earlier learned to trust. Many of us during the war relied upon the journalistic reports of Jean Lacouture. When he now reports on the number of prisoners in Vietnam, I know of no particular reason to distrust him. During the war some of the information I received came through the good offices of Jim Forest, Tom Cornell, the Catholic Peace Fellowship, and their sources. It checked out. Although they are not infallible, I see no reason to distrust them now. And there are others I could name whose help I have received. For fear of reprisal some of these sources cannot be named, but that, too, was true during the war when we relied, many of us; on publicly unnamed sources.
“There is, in addition, the general attitude and expectation that one brings to bear on postwar situations. I don’t mean a possible ideological approach that might obscure — or clarify — one’s observations. I mean the kind of thing that forces one to feel with a heavy heart the truth of Lacouture’s remark, itself the expression of deep sadness, that ‘it is better for someone trying to preserve intact his admiration for a revolution not to know its victims.’
“This recalled to me when I first read it Camus’s reference to ‘justice, that eternal refugee from the camp of the victor.’ I have a general expectation that grave injustices will be inflicted upon the defeated after almost any war, and almost certainly after one fought under the banner of revolution. That expectation may be dismissed as undue skepticism or cynicism, as insufficient faith in and reliance upon the goodness inherent in humankind. I would like to be persuaded that this were so and that Vietnam today could be the instrument of my conversion. But the melancholy history of wars and their aftermath, to which recent decades have contributed a possibly undue share, seems not to point in that direction. My own hope is that the injustices that occur will be limited, and finally brought under civilizing control. That is my hope concerning Vietnam.”
And what of those visitors to Vietnam, some of whom are obviously intelligent, sincere, concerned, diligent, who bring back highly favorable reports, contradictory to harsher views? Are not they to be trusted? For the most part, the efforts of these people are to be honored and their sincerity respected. But we know that honorable people have traveled through other countries and brought back glowing reports, unaware that they had passed through and around areas that were scenes of extensive misery and horror. I know that I could guide a stranger, even an English-speaking foreigner, through the streets of New York (skipping Harlem and South Bronx) and lead him to make a report of this city that Mayor Beame himself might find unduly fulsome. I cannot think the Vietnamese leaders are less skilled than I, and I consider it natural that they would like to display the most attractive aspects of their new society.”
There is one other point, which for Staughton Lynd was critical. In an open letter to Dave Dellinger explaining why he and Alice Lynd signed the Appeal, Lynd wrote that “Any revolutionary government finds itself much less threatened by the ordinary adherents of the overthrown regime, who often enough have opportunistic motives for throwing their support to the new men of power, than by persons who opposed the old regime for principled reasons other than the reasons of the victors. It is this kind of person who fares worst the day after the revolution. In Russia, the Social Revolutionaries, the Workers Opposition, the Kronstadt rebels were persons of this kind. This is a point I keep in mind when I read, for example, of the people described by Ted Jacqueney in his accounts of Vietnamese prisoners.”
What then is to be done? The Appeal itself is modest in that it asks only for an examination of the mounting charges of serious violations of human rights in Vietnam. The work of reconciliation should go forward, but we should not avert our eyes from possible abuses that we would object to in other countries tor whose people we felt special concern. As it was well expressed at the World Council of Churches meeting in Nairobi, “it is impossible to have zones of silence in the area of human rights.” It is not impossible to have some impartial international body investigate, with the help of the present Government of Vietnam, the questions that are being raised and that, if left unresolved, will continue to fester. Since it is not impossible, and since it is desirable, we should work to bring it about.
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APPEAL TO THE GOVERNMENT OF VIETNAM (Partial Text)
Beginning soon after the victory of North Vietnam and the Provisional Revolutionary Government in the Spring of 1975, and sharply increasing in recent months, reports have reached us indicating grievous and systematic violations of human rights by your government. The evidence is too specific and persuasive for us to ignore.
Especially with regard to those imprisoned or otherwise detained, in May a Vietnamese official stated that 200,000 were being held in re-education camps. while some respected foreign journalists in Vietnam have estimated 300,000 detainees — the actions of your government constitute a great disappointment to all those who expected not the “bloodbath” so eagerly predicted by the American White House but rather an example of reconciliation built on tolerance. We realize that those held include individuals responsible for aspects of the war and the repressive mechanisms of the former Saigon government. But, having believed your fervent past expressions of commitment to human rights, we are deeply saddened to hear of the arrest and detention of a wide range of persons. including religious. cultural and political figures who opposed the Thieu government despite considerable personal risks, such individuals as Bui Tung Hum, Doan Quoc Sy, Luong Trong Tuong, Fr. Tran Huu Thanh, Tran Van Tuyen. Tran Ngoc Chau, Vu Hoang Chuong, Hong Hai Thuy and Duyen Anh.
Differences among us on what could be hoped for in the revolution’s victory did not in the past hamper our solidarity in opposing America’s intervention. Our agreement, then and now, transcends difference in ideology and analysis, being firmly grounded in our concern for the lives of the Vietnamese people. We have recognized that the credibility of our witness is related to the candor with which we demonstrate our concerns and our commitment to certain ethical precepts regardless of politics….
We therefore call upon you to honor the concern for human rights which you have expressed both in formal agreements and in countless conversations with peace activists. We call for a complete public accounting of those detained or imprisoned indicating as well, the charges for which they are held. We call on the government of Vietnam to facilitate on-the-spot inspection by the United Nations, Amnesty International or other independent international agencies in order to assure that those in the government’s charge are treated in accord with international covenants regarding human rights. We call on you to release any individuals who are held purely because of their religious or political convictions. We call for government recognition of the right to open and free communication.
We recall the tragic self-immolation of l2 monks and nuns in Can Tho Province last November 2, protesting administrative orders redefining and drastically restricting their religious practice. We have noted reports that many service projects of the Unified Buddhist Church (An Quang), including those assisting war orphans. have been closed, their funds frozen and properties confiscated….
James K. Aiu
James V. Albertini
Joan C. Baez
David R. Brower
Angie O’Gorman Calvert
Arthur W. Clark
Community for Creative Nonviolence
Thomas C. Cornell
The Rev. Frederick Johnson
R. Scott Kennedy
Bishop John J. Dougherty
Bishop Carroll T. Dozier
Congressman Donald M. Fraser
Bishop Thomas J. Gumbleton
Mary Ellen Hombs
Wallace J. Inglis
Homer A. Jack
Bernard S. Lee
John E. Muior
Richard John Neuhaus
Ira J. Sandperl
Rabbi Steven Schwarzschild
Abbie Jane Wells
Rabbi Arnold Jacob Wolf
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VIETNAM: A TIME FOR HEALING AND COMPASSION (Partial Text)
… some Saigon collaborationists have been detained in re-education centers, perhaps 40,000 at present. But such a number is surprisingly small considering the several million Vietnamese involved in Saigon’s war effort. it is well to recall the savagery with which the Saigon regime pursued its war policy before condemning the new Vietnam leadership for taking steps to punish and re-educate the worst wrong-doers. Many of those detained engaged in crimes against their own people, including rape, murder, torture, bribery and extortion. On balance, consider the terrible difficulties left behind by the war and made worse by America’s continued hostility. The present government of Vietnam should be hailed for its moderation and for its extraordinary effort to achieve reconciliation among all of its people.
We share the view that American citizens should be gravely concerned about abuses of human rights, whether they occur in our country or abroad. This concern is especially appropriate where our government supports a foreign regime that is engaged in flagrant abuse of its own people — abuses including systematic torture. But Vietnam presents a very different case. The present suffering of the
Vietnamese people is largely a consequence of the war itself for which the United States bears a continuing responsibility.
James Armstrong, Bishop, United Methodist Church
Richard Barnet, Co-Director, Institute for Policy Studies
Norma Becker, Chairwoman, War Resisters League
Atlee Beechy, Mennonite Central Committee
Robert McAfee Brown, Professor Union Theological
Robert S. Browne, Director, Black Economic Research
Mrs. Eleanor Brussel, Educator
David Dellinger, Seven Days Magazine
Prof. Richard A. Falk, Milbank Professor of Law,
Howard Frazier, Executive Director, Promoting Enduring
Rev. Stephen H. Fritchman, Unitarian Minister
Don Luce. Co-Director, Clergy and Laity Concerned
John McAuliff, Coordinator, Appeal for Reconciliation
Paul F. McCleary, Executive Director, Church World
Grace Paley, Author
Dr. Paul Sweezy, Co-editor, Monthly Review
George W. Webber, President, New York Theological Seminary
Cora Weiss, National Coordinator, Friendshipment
Corliss Lamont, Author, Coordinator
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James Finn is Editor-in-Chief of Worldiew and author of Protest, Pacifism and Politics, a study of the antiwar movement.
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