Remembering our Heroes – Madam Nguyen Thi Binh
February 5, 2013
Before the negotiations between the U.S. government and Vietnamese representatives in Paris, the American public had a blurry image of Vietnam’s elusive fighters. No one had ever seen a Viet Cong. Press accounts left the impression of a ‘rag tag’ guerrilla gang dressed in black pajamas. If there was any public expectation, it was that a hardened political ideologue would show up in Paris. No one imagined the official representative of the South Vietnamese National Liberation Front would be a woman, much less the enchanting and elegant Madam Nguyen Thi Binh. When she first stepped onto the world stage on November 4, 1968, her beauty, warmth and presence took the public by surprise. A wise, sensitive and articulate spokeswoman dressed in a traditional ao dai Vietnamese dress, her first appearance in Paris stunned and inspired the world. As hundreds of delegations made their journey to Paris to meet her, she won their hearts and minds with her sincerity and kindness as she patiently explained the deeply flawed and brutal American war policy.
Her grandfather was a beloved national scholar and early advocate of democracy. Visiting Madam Binh’s cousin who lives today in Ho Chi Minh City, I noticed the street in front of her home had been named after the famous grandfather. Madam Binh’s father was a surveyor with the French administration who moved to the Mekong Delta when she was a child. She lived with her family on a boat growing up. She later attended a French school in Cambodia where she excelled in math and sports, competing in both cross-country races and basketball. Her eduction was halted, however, in April 1951 when she was seized by the French and imprisoned.
Madam Binh spent three years in the most notorious French prison of the time after someone brutally tortured gave up her name. As a result of that horrific experience, she determined that under torture she would say whatever was required about herself but would never say another person’s name even if it meant giving up her own life.
Describing her torture in her autobiography she wrote, “I was cruelly beaten without stopping because an earlier arrestee had broken down under torture and given my name. First, they tortured us by savage beatings. Then they submerged us in water, then with electricity, then–I wanted to die so they would finish–I was most worried about breaking under torture and giving names, leading the enemy to arrest others…. Fortunately, the tortureres saw they couldn’t wrest any informaton from me.” In recalling those brutal years, she said it gave her strength–the strength “to survive the most intense conditions imaginable.” The North Vietnamese representative in Paris, Le Duc Tho, was also a survivor of intense prison torture.
Why was Madam Binh selected for Paris? Ho Chi Minh, the president of Vietnam at the time, had traveled abroad and lived in America. The time he spent in New York City and Boston was during the days of the woman’s sufferage movement before World War I. He came to deeply hold the vision that a woman should represent Vietnam to the world. He also knew that Madam Nguyen Thi Binh possessed the intelligence, openness and kindness to win over the skeptics.
When the Vietnam war ended in 1975 and the country was reunified, Madam Binh became Vietnam’s minister of education working to integrate two very different systems of education. Then from 1992 to 2002, she served as Vietnam’s vice president with oversight of state diplomacy, health, education and judicial reform. When she ‘retired’ in 2002 at age 75, her close friends watched her become busier than ever. About her retirement she said, “I can’t be still. I must continue to take a full part in life” until Vietnam is “truly democratic, equal and cultured.”
The night before I left for Vietnam, an email arrived stating that Madam Binh requested a private dinner and reunion with me as “mother and son.” At this dinner with so many courses they were too numerous to count, she introdued me to her own son and grandson. Throughout the evening, we held hands. It didn’t matter that I was all grown up–she kept insisting that I ‘eat, eat.’ She autographed her autobiography at the dinner as we shared fond memories of our times together. During the years she was in Paris, Madam Minh melted my heart. Returning to Vietnam 40 years later, she still melted my heart.
Her appreciation for the millions of Americans who opposed our government because the war was brutally wrong was deep for her and heart felt. In her book, she acknowledged the many US groups that came to Paris during the war from Congressional delegates to families of American prisoners of war to anti-war activitists. She wanted the people of Vietnam to remember the names of Americans who fought to end the war, especially those who sacrificed their own lives setting themselves on fire to protest the war. She remembered the work of Dave Dellinger, Tom Hayden, Jane Fonda, Cora Weiss and Benjamin Spock as well. About me she wrote, “I have an adopted son in Reny Davis, an American youth who used all his strength in the movement to support Viet Nam. Davis was a very sensitive youth, who worked tirelessly in the U.S. anti-war movement. At the end of 1969, he came to Paris, where we met and where he asked me to accept him as an adopted son, although “mother” and “son” had not yet had the occasion to know each other well. The following year, Davis met me again and asked why, after so lengthy a struggle, the war had not ended. I explained and encouraged him to believe in our ultimate victory….”
At our reunion dinner in Hanoi, I reminded her that we first met in Bratislava where a group of 42 anti-war activists met with a Vietnamese delegation from North Vietnam. It was late 1967 and North Vietnam was experiencing intense U.S bombing of their country. We also met representatives of the Provisional Revolutionary Government of South Vietnam that was in full resistance to American occupation of their country. Madam Binh headed the PRG delegation. Reviewing business cards from both delegations, an historian would discover the Vietnamese attending this extraordinary conference were the highest ranking Vietnamese delegation to meet outside of Vietnam since the Geneva Conference in 1954. From that meeting, I was invited with Tom Hayden and five others to North Vietnam to see the American bombing ourselves. It was such experiences that helped me to realize the unique history, amazing people and deep resolve of the Vietnamese for independence from foreign invaders. I also came to appreciate the importance Vietnamese placed on our own American ‘rag tag’ anti-war movement.
Ho Chi Minh was to Vietnam what George Washington was to America. He lived for a while in the United States and would later make the case over and over that Vietnam made a distinction between the American government that waged its deadly war and the American people. Vietnam had learned through centuries of foreign invaders that the people who lived in the country invading Vietnam would one day turn against their government’s war. Whatever group became the clear representative of that emerging peace sentiment became the official representative of that country for the Vietnamese. Our U.S. coalition was the largest gathering of anti-war and civil rights organizations of that era so we were seen by Vietnam as representing the American people. For my role in that coalition such as at the 1968 Chicago Democratic Natonal Convention, I was invited to certain affairs by Vietnam. For example, when Vietnam wanted to release the names of Americans held as prisoners of war in North Vietnam as a peace gesture, I was invited to Paris. I received the list of names from North Vietnam’s ambassador to France and then spent several wonderful hours with Madam Binh. One month before I went on trial for my part in the Chicago demonstrations, the Vietnamese decided to release American prisoners of war to me, by-passing our government’s channels by inviting me to make the journey to Hanoi in August 1969 and bring American POWs back to the United States.
On the 40th anniversary of the signing of the Paris Peace Accords, Vietnam hosted a grand national event with invitations to past and present political and military leaders including leading members of the national assembly, chief justices, members of the secretariat and politbureau, the minister of foreign affairs and other ministers along with diverse representatives of foreign governments, NGOs and organizations that had supported Vietnam during the war from around the world. Using movie excerpts taken by cameramen who clearly risked their lives to get this footage, the historic triumph of a poor country able to successfully resist the world’s most advanced military power was told with breathtaking images of B52 carpet bombings of rural villages and the largest chemical warfare campaign in world history. In an artistic production that included hundreds of singers and dancers portraying both the hardships and joys of this extraordinary history, the stage was set for the President of Vietnam, Thruong Tan Sang, to welcome the Vietnam and international guests and present the historic significance of the moment. He described the January 1973 event as the ultimate achievement in Vietnam’s ‘history of diplomacy.’ Acknowledging the work of Madam Binh as the last remaining living signator to the Agreement, he evoked thunderous applause. She was then invited to the stage and given the country’s highest recognition, the military’s hero award. Now in her mid-80s, I was impressed by her articulate, passionate and moving acceptance speech.
Most Americans know that our country lost more than 50,000 soldiers in South Vietnam. We may not realize that Vietnam lost more than 3 million people in this war. For the untold victims of chemical Agent Orange and unexploded ordances, the Vietnam war continues today. Nevertheless, a new generation of Vietnamese young people does not fully understand the enormity of what happened. For two weeks, I was one of nine American anti-war activists who traveled to Vietnam during the war and decades later had been invited to return. We traveled from Hanoi to Hue to Da Nang to Ho Chi Minh City as our meetings and activities were watched on television. In Ho Chi Minh City, a second grand event was organized with live connections between Hue, the MeKong Delta and Ho Chi Minh City telling the story again through music, dance and dramatic performances in a simultaneous broadcast to the country. Hundreds of war heros were honored at these presentations, many of them in their 70s and 80s.
Watching Vietnam establish its own legacy of this historic period for a new generation made me wonder if our own anti-war movement could do the same. Young people today don’t realize that our demonstrations in Chicago were watched by more people on television than watched the first man landing on the moon. When students went out on strike in the spring of 1970, 90% of American colleges and universities shut down protesting the war. When we gathered for massive civil disobedience demonstrations in May 1971 to ‘close the government’ conducting the war, 100,000 people of every age signed up to be arrested. It was the largest arrest in American history. A D.C. football stadium was turned into a temporary prison to hold the protestors. Our movement against the war grew into a thunderous opposition that eventually had the suport of a majority of the American public and represented one of the great chapters of democracy in our own history. Celebrating the millions of Americans who had the courage to oppose our own government as it lost its moral compass and abandoned the principles of our own Constitution is a legacy that should never fade away.