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Interview with Ton-That Tung, 1981

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Summary
Dr. Ton-That Tung grew up in Hue, the seat of the Nguyen Dynasty. He recalls the Forbidden City and the plush lifestyle of Bao Dai, the last Emperor of Annam. He describes his youth under French colonial rule, his decision to join the Viet Minh after meeting Ho Chi Minh, and his wartime coordination of medical supplies. He discusses his research on the long-term health effects of Agent Orange. Finally, he recalls a famine in Hanoi under Japanese rule, and describes his patriotism and loyalty to Vietnam.
Topics
Vietnam War, 1961-1975, United States--History--1945-, Vietnam War, 1961-1975--Personal narratives, North Vietnamese, Vietnam--History--1945-1975, War--Medical aspects, Military hospitals, Nationalism, Indochina War, 1946-1954, Medical supplies, Bombing, Aerial--Vietnam, Morale, Agent Orange, Vietnam War, 1961-1975--Chemical warfare, United States--Politics and government, Vietnam--Politics and government, Vietnam (Democratic Republic)
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Transcript

Early years

SR 2001.
Ton That Tung.
Buzzing sound.
This is roll 1 of Vietnamese Project, production no. 7860, on the second of February 1981...
Take 1, Clap stick.
Interviewer:
Could you tell us a little about what it was like in the royal family of Hue in the days of your youth and also a little bit about your impression of Bao Dai.
Ton That Tung:
As far as my impressions of Hue as a young man are concerned, I must make it clear at the outset that I did not live inside the Forbidden City. I lived in my own house. This was because people with my surname of Ton That all belonged to mandarinal families who had large houses in the villages surrounding Hue. But the few times when my mother took me into the Forbidden City I was struck by the plushiness there because the difference with the world outside the Forbidden City was really fantastic. They seemed to have everything in the Forbidden City. Their clothes and their lifestyle were extremely luxurious, beyond the imagination of the ordinary people. As for Bao Dai, I never met him personally. But I knew about him through others. To us, Bao Dai was a very secretive person and you never know what was in his mind. He was very secretive. It seemed as if he was only making merry all year round. I only saw him go hunting and chasing after women. This was his forte. This caused us to wonder whether Bao Dai was really a very skillful person who was able to hide his feelings or just a fool given in to a live of pleasures. Later on, when I was in Hanoi and before the Viet Minh took over power, Bao Dai proclaimed independence for Vietnam under Japanese tutelage and sent Ton That Thien to Hanoi to meet with me and asked me to join the new administration as the Minister of Health. But I declined, knowing that this regime would not last for long. And in the long run I became convinced that Bao Dai was only a pleasure-seeking person. During my various trips to France in recent years, people told me that Bao Dai still maintained his habit of fooling around and chasing after women. Hence, in the final analysis it is clear that Bao Dai is a fool and not a wise man.
Clap stick, 2 Take 1.
Ton That Tung:
I recall that when I was young I lived in a great big house in Hue, a tile-roofed house which had belonged to a princess and which had three separate buildings and a kitchen quarter. It was on the Huong riverside. We had servants waiting on us then, and we never had to do anything for ourselves. To the ordinary people, this was a luxurious life because we never had to do any household chores. All we did was to go to classes. Of course at that time we had to walk to school and did not drive there in a car. We walked to school like everybody else. During the French colonial period the good thing was that kids from mandarinal and common families went to the same school. Rich and poor kids played with each other, and we did not notice any difference at all. But as kids walking and playing out in the streets, we were all scared stiff of the French. This was because we frequently saw French troops beating up Vietnamese in the streets. This was the first bad impression in childhood.
As I grew up I became more and more aware of the difference between Frenchmen and Vietnamese. The French kids went to their own schools, and us Vietnamese kids went to separate ones. But when we went to the exams, the Vietnamese kids were given harder exams. It was infinitely more difficult for Vietnamese to become doctors than for the French. This is not to mention the fact that while still in medical schools the Vietnamese students had to give private tutoring in order to make a living. But in my case, once I became an expert surgeon the French began employing in important positions, promoting me quickly through the ranks. I can remember that when I left the French side to join the revolutionary government my monthly salary was 2,000 dong a month. This was a huge sum of money at that time. Therefore, although the French discriminated against us, once we became successful the French wanted to buy us off in order to have a group of pro-French Vietnamese. But this policy was to no avail because as soon as we heard of the call by the Viet Minh, we joined it immediately.

Service with the Viet Minh

Clap stick, 3 take 1.
Interviewer:
Since you had been well-paid and respected under the French, how come you went over to the Viet Minh?
Ton That Tung:
This is something peculiar to the Vietnamese. We, intellectuals at that time, felt that we had been deprived of something. We were people without a country, and we felt very frustrated as a result. Even when we were still in grade schools we had been following the movements and the newspapers which opposed the French. Of the various newspapers which we read very carefully, there was one published by a man named Nguyen Ai Quoc which we came to respect quite a lot. When the Viet Minh came into being, people came and asked me to go and treat an old man, an old comrade. I did not know who this man was, but when I met this man I was immediately struck by his very bright eyes. There was something in him which attracted me right away. It was only later that I knew that this man was Chairman Ho Chi Minh. Ho Chi Minh and I talked often with each other, and through our conversation I realized that he was a true patriot who wanted to save the nation. So it was easy for me to leave the French. And with me, all those who were close to me. I had just been married then, and my son was only three months old. But we went into the jungle, leaving our luxurious house and everything else behind. I did not forget to take with me all the surgical tools which I later on brought back out of the jungle to equip this hospital here. My wife was sixteen at that time, and my son was only three months old.
Clap stick, 4 take 1.
Interviewer:
Could you give us your impression of Ho Chi Minh as your patient at the time? What was he like?
Ton That Tung:
At that time I had the impression that he was an extraordinary man. He left a deep impression on me. He never talked politics with me, only morality and ordinary things in life. I suspected that he was indeed Nguyen Ai Quoc and I often resolved to ask the old man whether that was the case. But every time I met with him face to face, I did not dare to bring the question up. There was some kind of attachment and respect which made me feel very close to him. And he never complained about anything. He was afraid of injections, but I knew that only injections would make him well again. So I just waited him out until he came to me for the injections. I remember one day just as he was going to meet with General Lu Han, his malaria acted up and he was terribly feverish. I immediately brought one of my students, Dr. Hoang Dinh Cau, to Ho’s side to keep a watch on him. We gave him injections, and the next day he was better. While in pain, he never groaned nor complained. Ho Chi Minh was an unassuming person and always treated others as his equals. When I was with him I never felt intimidated or afraid, only love and respect for him.
Later on, during the Resistance, he went north to Thai Nguyen and I went south to Thanh Hoa. Still later on, when he asked me to join the government as the Deputy Minister of Health, he made time to visit with me once a month.
Clap stick, 5 take 1.
Interviewer:
Could you describe a little bit about your activities in the Viet Minh as a doctor? With some anecdotes?
Ton That Tung:
First of all, I had to organize a network of surgical teams for the battlefront southwest of Hanoi. This battlefront stretched from Cu Da to Ha Dong province. The very first thing we had to do was to bring medicines out from the Hanoi hospitals and transported them all the way to the Viet Bac base area for safeguarding. At the same time I had to operate on those who had been wounded in the battle of Hanoi. Our organization was like this. We operated on the wounded in the Cu Da area, then we used to river to take them further inland to Ha Dong. We had three surgery stations then: One in the Cu Da area, one on the northern side of the Ha Dong River and one on the southern side. When I was in this latter area, the French fought their way down and cut off our communication. I sent someone out to try to re-establish communication. When he was unable to do so, I set out at once. When I returned, a French armored unit arrived with lots of tanks. They shelled us from across the river. As I had succeeded in re-establishing communication, I ordered that all equipment and patients should be moved at once that night to Son Tay, Phy Tho, Tuyen Quang and Tuyen Hoa. As a result, we were able to save all of the patients, the equipment and my entire medical staff. When I arrived in Tuyen Quang, Ho Chi Minh sent me a card personally written by himself on his own typewriter (which I recognized very easily because of its purple ribbon and certain irregular keys) which stated: “Dr. Tung: I’ve heard of your good work and I am very pleased about it. I want to tell you that we will certainly succeed, that we will regain our independence. Once independence comes, those good and dedicated children of Vietnam will never be forgotten.” I still keep this card as a reminder of how Ho Chi Minh usually took personal interest in our work.
In the base area we surgeons had very few facilities. When we performed abdomen operations, for example, we had to use threads taken from the cords of the captured American parachutes in order to sew the stitches. Each captured parachute supplied us from six months to a year of threads for our operations. And we used the nylon of the parachute to make a canopy under which we performed our operations. As far as shortage of medicine was concerned, we made use of herbs. When we did not have the necessary herbs and when the patients had stomachaches, for example, we just made them lie still. It was easy to make the patients lie still in the jungle, and this eased their pain. When the patients had stomach ulcers which required operations, then we had to do so. And the surprising thing was that there was never any infection from the operation. This was also true during the Second World War period. Whenever we performed the operations in the rural areas, and not in the urban areas, we never had any kind of infection. We performed operations under a thatched roof.

Survival and morale during the Second Indochina War

Beep tone.
Roll 2 of Vietnam Project, 2nd of Feb., 1981.
Clap stick 7 take 1.
Interviewer:
Could you describe a little bit about life here in Hanoi under bombardment during the war? What were the psychological, physical, and medical conditions of the people like?
Ton That Tung:
We can say this about life under bombardment: It was a terrifying scene after every bombing, what with people carrying the dead and the wounded running to the hospitals. But those who were working in the hospitals were all enthusiastic in our work. We had no fear. At that time we realized that there was only one choice, and that was to remain in Hanoi to treat the people. If we left for the countryside, then there would be nobody take care of the wounded. As the bombs were falling down, our hearts naturally throbbed with fear. But when that happened, we either carried the stretcher out to bring in the wounded or went out to visit the injured and hence our fear dissipated as a result. My experience was that fear arose when you just sat there worrying about things. But when you keep yourselves occupied with various tasks, then you did not have fear at all. All my students felt likewise. None of them went to the countryside although the Department of Public Health said that some of them had to do so. At the hospitals, when the bombs came down we ran to the shelters. But after the bombing stopped, we came up again to perform surgeries for our patients.
Now, concerning the bombing we had this very funny observation: the American pilots were very bureaucratic. We always knew when they were about to drop the bombs. For example, in the morning they usually came around about 10 o’clock, just after breakfast. Then they took a break and went back to their bases for lunch. Then they came back to drop the bombs again around 3 p.m. Since this was the routine, we tailored our schedule to it. We started with our operations around 5 o’clock in the morning, and took a break around 9 or 10. After the Americans finished with their first waves of bombing, then we continued with our surgery until about 3 p.m., when they would bomb again until about 5 p.m.
Clap stick 5 take 1.
Interviewer:
You said you adjusted your hours to the bombing. Could you give us a little more detail about it?
Ton That Tung:
Even when our American friends came to visit us, we would start operating around 5 o’clock in the morning. We would finish with our operations around 9 a.m. when we would take the patients down to the shelters or the underground operating room. By around 10 a.m. the airplanes would come by to drop the bombs. We would wait until they finished with the bombing when we would start operating again until 3 p.m. We would then take a break until 5 p.m., and then start working again until 8 p.m. Therefore, we adjusted our schedule and our activities to the bombing routine. In fact, our bodies also adjusted themselves to the bombing schedules. Sometimes when the bombs did not come on time we felt extremely uncomfortable. We wondered why they hadn’t been dropped yet. This was not because of fear but because we wanted the bombing to be over with so that we could come back to our work. At that time we were filled with fervor. I can tell you that there is something really strange about the Vietnamese. They could never stay for too long in the bomb shelters. Whenever an airplane was shot down, everybody, including doctors, rushed out there to look at it. There was an extraordinary fervor. The Americans had thought that the more bombs they dropped, the quicker we would fall down on our knees and surrender. But the bombs heightened rather than dampened our spirit. This was something quite strange. Since after the end of the war, and without all those bombs dropping down on us, we have lost much of our former fervor. We are now complaining about housing shortage and food shortage, but during the war years you couldn’t hear anybody complaining about anything at all. I did not make any different to the people how much they ate and how well they slept. All they cared about was to get their work done. But things are different now. I remember, however, that when China attacked us we quickly regained our former fervor. Just prior to the Chinese invasion, there were a lot of complaints as we are having now. So the Chinese are threatening us with another invasion by building up their forces along the border. But we know that once the Chinese attack us again, the old fervor would come back again and the many petty daily things we are having now would abate. This is a paradoxical thing.

Agent Orange and the impact of war on medicine in Vietnam

Clap stick, 9 take 1.
Interviewer:
Could you tell us a little bit about those medical problems which were created by the war and which still continue until today?
Ton That Tung:
Now and then we have children who pick up steel-pellet bombs in the paddy fields, cause these bombs to explode, and, consequently, got their faces, their noses and their eyes blown off. This is quite a painful thing to see. In this hospital we have a case every six month. These steel-pellet bombs dropped into the mud and so they did not explode. But when you try to dig them out of the fields then they would explode. This is a problem which still exists in the northern part of the country.
Clap stick, 10 take 1.
Interviewer:
How did you find out that Agent Orange was being used (garbled) and what did you do after that?
Ton That Tung:
It was not until 1970 that we realized the magnitude of the problems created by Agent Orange. Through the victims of Agent Orange who came to us from the South and through other reports we came to realize that in the Long Dien area, for example, Agent Orange had caused miscarriages to human beings as well as to cattle and water buffaloes. Even pigs aborted, and hens laying no more eggs. All these caused me to think and to investigate further into the problem. We conducted a statistical study of the patients who came to us from the South and found out high incidents of miscarriages and deformed stillborn babies, known as “monster fetuses”. In 1970 when we first called attention to this problem at a conference in Paris people attacked us as being unscientific. Some said that this was only anti-American propaganda. Later, in 1972, a first-class Vietnamese scientist and another member of the royal family, Buu Hoi, and I found out that Agent Orange was very similar to an agent which created cancer. So we focused our attention on the problem of cancer and found out that among the ammunition transporting units returning fro the South there were high incidents of liver cancer. We found out that Agent Orange, in particular the dioxin, acted as a carcinogen. Therefore, in 1972 in a conference in Copenhagen, we brought attention to the fact that dioxin was probably carcinogenic. Foreign scientists at that time said that we were only spreading anti-US propaganda and that we were only kidding them. But subsequent experiments on animals made people realize that there was indeed some problem. And recent studies made by Swedish and West German scientists have revealed that there is a marked difference in the incidence of cancer in a controlled group of patients who had been exposed to Agent Orange and those who had not. Therefore, although people rejected our original hypotheses based on observations of our patients, eventually they realize that the problems created by Agent Orange are present not only in Vietnam but also in the United States and in Australia. It is clear from empirical studies that there is a problem. However, people say that this is not enough. They say that you must have experiment made on human beings. But this is very difficult because such experiment on human beings is quite complicated. Furthermore, in order to obtain a valid study on human beings you need to conduct experiments on as many as ten thousand persons. This is clearly beyond the ability and means of us in Vietnam at the present time. However, as we are conducting studies at the present time, we have found that Vietnamese soldiers who have come home to the North from the South and who have gotten married, have fathered high incidents of deformed babies. The wives of these soldiers have also shown high incidents of miscarriages and of giving birth to stillborn babies. We have seen the same symptoms on Vietnamese soldiers which have been found on American GI’s who had been exposed to Agent Orange. I am sure there is the same problem in Australia. I have recently read an article in The Journal of American Medical Association in which an American doctor claims that of the 87 American GI’s studied, the incidents of miscarriages were 16%, which are really high because we have often observed that incidents of miscarriages are normally about 3.5% at the highest. Hence, there is a real problem here. But it is no easy task to try and prove this.
Beep tone.
Roll 3 of Vietnam Project, Production No. 7860 on the 2nd of Feb., 1981.
Clap stick 11 take 1.
Interviewer:
Could you give us further details on the question of Agent Orange?
Ton That Tung:
The problem with Agent Orange now is that the companies which produce it say that the concentration of 245-T is below 0.5 p.p.m. (parts per million), which means that for each metric ton there is not as much as half a gram of dioxin. However, the 245-T used in Vietnam had a very high concentration of dioxin, having about 30 grams of dioxin per ton of Agent Orange. Each gram of dioxin has a trillion...Now, this is very difficult to explain. Based on experiments cancer can be caused with a concentration between two to three thousand p.t.t. (2,000 – 3,000 parts per trillion). A p.t.t. is a thousandth of a millionth of a gram, and yet this is enough have some influence. Hence, thirty grams of dioxin in a ton of Agent Orange would create that much more problem. At the present time there is, first of all, a confusion over the type of dioxin used in Vietnam and the one used in the United States. Secondly, the companies which produce dioxin and a number of scientists claim that no problem was created at all as a result of the accident at Seveso, Italy. They maintain that the agent was so toxic that it killed human beings and animals there, but it could not have produced cancer. This is to say that in Seveso the agent was toxic but it had no effects on the human bodies. This was because it caused people to die or because the symptoms appeared on the skin. But in reality there is a difference between Seveso and Vietnam. In Seveso people were exposed to dioxin for a period of only 5 days. The inhabitants of Seveso a11 evacuated after 5 days. After that, they used various methods clean up the area and did not allow the inhabitants to come back until a couple of years later. But this was not the case in Vietnam. From 1962 until 1970, the airplanes came spraying several times a day. For a period of close to a decade of many applications daily, the Vietnamese population below was exposed to the chemical without knowing anything about its impacts. It was not until 1970 that they were told of the toxicity of the agent. So there is a difference of ten years of continual exposure in Vietnam and only five days in Seveso.
Now, with regard to the effects of dioxin, it has been proven clearly by experiments on animals. But people argue that dioxin may not have the same effects on human beings. This is something that will be argued over for a long time because, by and large, scientific experiments have been conducted on animals. Now, although experiments on animals are valid, there are questions which still have to be posed when extrapolating the results on animals to human beings. Therefore, more research is still needed on the problems created by dioxin.
Twelve, Take 1.
Clap stick.
Interviewer:
Could you tell us what happened during the famine under the Japanese?
Ton That Tung:
The famine in Hanoi during the Japanese occupation has left extremely deep imprints in my mind. I can now recall very vividly, for example, that as I was walking along Truong Tien Avenue (which is right in front of us here) I saw that one out of every three persons walking the street just fell down and died. These people were extremely emaciated, only skin and bones, and they all had huge heads like those of babies. And babies were just lying next to the corpses of their parents. One day I saw a baby who kept on pulling and sucking at its dead mother’s breast. This is a sight that I will never forget. I also saw children with huge heads and only skin and bones writhing on the pavements of the streets. I personally picked up about a dozen of these children and brought them to this hospital to try to save them. Some died, but others survived. What I have just described occurred on all the streets of Hanoi. My students and my friends all told me of similar stories of people dropping dead while walking along and of babies writhing on the pavements of the streets. It was indeed a terrifying sight for me to go to the morgues and see corpses piled up there.

Ton That Tung's devotion to his country

Thirteen, Take 1.
Clap stick.
Interviewer:
Professor, for thirty years you have stayed and struggled in Vietnam. You could have gone to Paris and the United States to work. How come you have remained in Vietnam and have not left?
Ton That Tung:
My life has really been tied up inseparably with Vietnam. Formerly, I was only a doctor without a country of my own. Now I am a doctor with my own fatherland, my own country. And this makes a great deal of difference. I feel that I can never leave the Vietnamese people. I feel that I must help them in every way I can. This is because my whole life and that which is most beautiful of my ideal are so closely connected with Vietnam. I can never leave her. This is the simple truth. At my age wealth and luxuries do not attract me, and the pleasures of my life are simple. The most precious things in my life have been my work and the decision to abandon everything in order to follow the revolution. Therefore, it is impossible for me to leave Vietnam now.
Fourteen, Take 1.
Clap stick.
Interviewer:
For thirty years how come you did not leave to avoid the war and all the difficulties?
Ton That Tung:
I must tell you frankly this: I can never entertain the idea of leaving Vietnam. A Vietnamese like me did not have a country of his own before. Now that he has regained his country again, it is impossible for him to leave her. Furthermore, I feel that I have so much attachment with Vietnam, emotional and otherwise, that it is impossible for me to entertain the idea of leaving her. This is the truth. But it is difficult for me to explain to you the many reasons for this. I simply can never leave Vietnam, and that’s all. All the things I had to go through during the period in the base areas in the jungle, during the war years, during the bombings, and so on, make it impossible for me to think of leaving Vietnam. I am inextricably tied up with her.
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