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Interview with Pham Van Dong, 1981

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Summary
Pham Van Dong was an associate of Ho Chi Minh, and served as Prime Minister of North Vietnam from 1955 – 1976, and then as Prime Minister of reunified Vietnam from 1976 – 1987. Mr. Dong recalls life under French colonial rule, his imprisonment, and the early work of the Viet Minh. He describes the negotiations with the French to end the Indochinese War, and the failure to implement the Geneva Accords. He details the negotiations of 1972 and 1973, and the final offensive that led to the fall of Saigon. He concludes with a summation of the lessons and consequences of the Vietnam War.
Topics
National liberation movements, Nation-building, Vietnam War, 1961-1975, United States--History--1945-, Vietnam--History--1945-1975, Imperialism, France--Colonies, Indochinese War, 1946-1954, Vietnamese reunification question (1954-1976), China--Foreign relations--1949-1976, Soviet Union--Foreign relations--1945-1991, United States--Foreign relations--1945-1989, France--Foreign relations--1945-1958, Vietnam--History--939-1428, Geneva Conference (1954), Vietnam War, 1961-1975--Personal narratives, North Vietnamese, United States--Politics and government, Vietnam--Politics and government, Vietn Nam doc lap dong minh hoi, Ngo, Dinh Diem, 1901-1963
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Transcript

Historical context of Vietnamese national resistance

SR 2053/1
PREMIER PHAM VAN DONG
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412 Take 1
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Interview with Premier Pham Van Dong.
Interviewer:
Mr. Prime Minister, would you give us some broad review of Vietnamese history and maybe some of the figures who influenced you most in your career?
Pham Van Dong:
This is a very interesting question. Our history, from the time of the Hung kings to the Trung sisters to Ly Thuong Kiet to Tran Hung Dao to Nguyen Trai and Le Loi to Quang Trung and to the era of President Ho Chi Minh has been a history of great struggle.
Throughout their history, the Vietnamese people have always done their utmost to defend the country and nation build. They have always looked forward into the future, and today they are looking toward a new horizon. As to that part of the question on which historical figures had the greatest influence on me, I must bring to your attention that recently the world (UNESCO) celebrated the 600th birthday of Nguyen Trai. This is a good thing. And I am certain that in the near future we will be able to introduce other figures so that people elsewhere in the world will have a better understanding of our history.
Interviewer:
Could you tell something about your recollection of the French colonial period, your education and your experiences in the nationalist movement?
Pham Van Dong:
I started to do revolutionary and patriotic work when I was still in high school. I participated in the Youth Organization created by President Ho Chi Minh. It should be mentioned here that at that time a young person moved from nationalism to socialism. And this was also the necessary road of the Vietnamese people as well as of other patriotic peoples in the world.
Interviewer:
Could you say something about your experiences in prison what were the conditions in Poulo Condore in the 1930s and some of the recollections of how your fellow prisoners and revolutionaries endured the imprisonment there?
Pham Van Dong:
I must say that the penal island of Con Son as well as many other prisons in our country at that time were places where the French colonialists exiled and killed untold numbers of our revolutionary fighters. But we must also see the other side to this. The prisons were schools, were places where revolutionary combatants trained themselves in every way. Let me tell you an interesting thing which happened at Con Dao.
Under extremely poor and harsh conditions, we had the complete works of Lenin accepted by the prison post office and transferred to us by the prison guards who sympathized with us. As many people know, the survivors of Con Dao include President Ton Duc Thang, Comrade Le Duan, Comrade Nguyen Duy Trinh, Comrade Le Thanh Nghi, Comrade Hoang Quoc Viet and many others.
Interviewer:
Could you tell us about your first meeting with President Ho Chi Minh and your impression of him?
Pham Van Dong:
As far as my first meeting with President Ho Chi Minh as well as the extended period when I was living and carrying our revolutionary activities side by side with him are concerned, I have very deep impressions and unforgettable memories. I will mention very briefly a few things here. He was a man who dedicated his whole personal life and his work to the revolution and to revolutionary ideals. He let nothing else interfere with this.
As regards revolutionary work, President Ho Chi Minh stressed the importance of unity within the Party, in the various strata of the population and at the international level. Another thing that should be said is that President Ho Chi Minh was a very simple man both while he was engaging in clandestine activities under extremely difficult conditions and while be was serving as President of the country.
He was simple in his personal life, simple in every situation and simple toward everybody. And this is an indication of greatness in President Ho Chi Minh. We will forever remember this thing. And, after President Ho passed away, we tried our best to carry out his testaments, to continue with his work and to accomplish the things that he had wanted to have accomplished.
Interviewer:
Could you describe some of the early organization and activities of the Viet Minh?
Pham Van Dong:
When President Ho Chi Minh founded the Viet Minh in the Viet Bac base area, I was present. The thing that needs to be pointed out here is that, after the establishment of the Viet Minh Front, in Cao Bang and other border provinces virtually everybody had become members of the various Cau Quoc (National Salvation) organizations. There were National Salvation Organizations for workers for peasants, for women, for senior citizens and for young people.
It was through this activity (of getting people to join the various National Salvation Organizations) that Comrade Vo Nguyen Giap, I and many other comrades were able to create a military base area called the Viet Bac base area in Cao Bang, Lang Son, Bac Kan and a number of other border provinces. This was a very important base area which led to the success of the August Revolution.

Vietnamese resistance during WWII and its aftermath

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Interviewer:
Why did the Viet Minh fight the Japanese while so many other nationalist movement in Southeast Asia collaborated with them?
Pham Van Dong:
(Laughter) I apologize, hut this is very funny question for the following reason: At that time the Japanese had already overthrown the French and begun to dominate our country, so naturally we had to fight the Japanese.
Interviewer:
Could you give your recollections of the August Revolution and the famine that was raging in Vietnam at that time?
Pham Van Dong:
I think the August Revolution was an extremely important event in our history. This was one of the first national democratic revolutions in the world. It opened en a new era in the history of our country, the era in which our country is moved from a national democratic revolution to a socialist revolution. Therefore, we regard the August Revolution very highly.
As for the famine at that time, I must say that it was an unavoidable thing under the French colonial system. Starvation was the common disaster which was visited upon the Vietnamese people. And when there was a severe natural catastrophe, up to a million person could then die as happened in August which you, friend, just referred to.
Interviewer:
Could you, describe Vietnam's relations with the Allies during the period immediately alter WWII?
Pham Van Dong:
I do not have too much to say on this. But there is one thing which I need to tell. When we were still operating in our Viet Bac military base, we had the occasion to rescue an American pilot named William Safe [unidentifiable] . His plane was probably hit by the Japanese. We rescued him and took him to the closest American post in China. Even so, our relations with the Allies were minimal because these were imperialistic countries and colonial countries. And if you gentlemen paid attention to what happened after the August Revolution, then you would know everything there is to know on this subject.
Interviewer:
Could you describe your recollection of the Viet Minh' s entry into Hanoi? And the Declaration of Independence day?
Pham Van Dong:
These were glorious days. This was an uprising whose momentum overwhelmed everything. This was an uprising by the inhabitants of Hanoi as well as by people in an parts of the country. This was a big day of celebration for the Vietnamese people. It brought indescribable joy to the hearts of many. In reality, there are no words which can describe the joy and ecstasy and expectations of the people in those historic days.
Interviewer:
What about the Kuomintang occupation of Hanoi after World War II? What do you remember of that?
Pham Van Dong:
It must be stated that this was no army. This was only a horde of starving people in rags who could commit every possible crime against the Vietnamese population in whatever place they happened to stay. Therefore, we had to make gigantic patient efforts in order to kick them out of our country eventually.
414 Take 1
Interviewer:
Could you describe the negotiations with the French at Fontainebleau and your feelings of the results of the negotiations? And what hopes were there for further negotiations after Fontainebleau?
Pham Van Dong:
Let me just tell you an anecdote to illustrate this When the meeting began, the chief of the French delegation, Max André, said to me: "We only need an ordinary police operation in a period of eight days in order to clean all of you out." (Laughter) With this kind of attitude, there was certainly no need for any negotiation.
The French colonialists at that time only wanted war. They thought that war would bring to them the things they wanted. And it goes without saying that after that the war erupted. Naturally it did not last only for eight days as Max André had said. It lasted for nine years and it was terminated by the resounding victory at Dien Bien Phu, marking the collapse of French colonialism and of colonialism in general all around the world.

The Geneva Conference and the failed implementation of the Accords

Interviewer:
Could you describe the Geneva conference of 1954? Why did you decide to negotiate at that time? The development of the conference and the results of the conference?
Pham Van Dong:
There are many things to he said here. It must be stated, first of all, that the Geneva conference was convened right after the victory at Dien Bien Phu. This meant that the victory at Dien Bien Phu would be a determining factor to the success of the Geneva conference. At the conference, the Western countries were having very close relations.
This was only a natural thing. But the thing that needs to have one's attention focused on here is the fact that the Chinese delegates also cooperated with the Western countries and hence had less than desirable actions against us. And this fact has been written about in a book by Francoise Royot which I think you must have already known. As far as the content of the conference was concerned, there were two issues under discussion. One was the temporary demarcation line between the two regions.
And the other was the date of the general elections for the reunification of Vietnam. These two issues were clearly closely connected. Another thing which also needs to be emphasized here. That is the attitude of the United States. As everybody knows, the United States opposed the conference and tried her best to sabotage it. When the conference produced some results, the United States refused to sign the accords. This attitude explains the subsequent actions of the United States.
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Interviewer:
What were the roles of China at the Geneva conference in 1954?
Pham Van Dong:
The role played was to coordinate their activities with those of the Western countries in the effort to bring about a long term division of Vietnam. This was a very furtive yet very transparent scheme. They tried their best to carry out this scheme and we knew about it very clearly.
Interviewer:
In your view, why was the 1956 election cancelled?
Pham Van Dong:
I have lust given you the reason for this. After the Geneva conference the United States shoved the French out of the southern part of Vietnam and brought Ngo Dinh Diem back to organize a government there. Ngo Dinh Diem was an extremely reactionary and cruel tyrant.
He employed many extremely barbaric means to repress the revolutionary movement and the struggle movement to demand implementation of the Geneva Agreements. That is to say, reunification of the country by July 1956. This was an extremely arduous struggle. Another point should be added to this. Ngo Dinh Diem, with the support of the United States, also had the ambition of invading the North. In short, the American scheme was to sabotage the general elections and to prepare for the attack against the North.
Interviewer:
This is not on the list of questions submitted but do you think that the French could have stayed longer in Vietnam?
Pham Van Dong:
This is out of the question. They knew that they could not stay. They knew they had to leave. So they very willingly turned over their place to the Americans and left.

Role of the Diem Regime in the Vietnam War

Interviewer:
How was your evaluation of Ngo Dinh Diem? And your assessment of the possibility of a rapprochement with the Diem regime, including the initiative by Ngo Dinh Nhu in 1963?
Pham Van Dong:
There is nothing more I want to say about Diem. As far as Nhu is concerned, knew thoroughly of his activities, I think what you, friend, would like to refer to here is a trick by Nhu to scare the United States. But this was the wrong move on their part. Servants can never out finesse their masters. Therefore in the end the Ngo brothers were gotten rid of by the Americans.
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Interviewer:
What was your view of the situation in the South after Diem's assassination? And the background of the so-called Tonkin Gulf Incident?
Pham Van Dong:
Let me talk mainly about this Tonkin Gulf Incident. Everybody knows that it was only a ploy by the United States government to persuade the American Congress and the American people to allow it to start a war in Vietnam, especially through the use of bombs and artillery shells to destroy the North. It should be reminded here that General Curtiss LeMay had said that the United States would bomb Vietnam back into the Stone Age. But they were greatly mistaken.
The destruction of the North, with all the efforts and all the barbarity by imperial America only caused the population in the North to be more resolute and more resilient in their efforts to resist and to win. In this connection, I would like to tell you chat in the evening of August 4, 1964 when I was in Quang Ninh I suddenly saw a formation of airplanes coming from the sea and flying straight to the mining area.
Subsequently there was a fight between the American airplanes and the Vietnamese air defense. Shortly thereafter, an American plane was down and a pilot captured. I met with this pilot, named Everett Alvarez before going hack to Hanoi. This was the first American pilot captured in Vietnam. This destruction by the United States lasted for many years and, as I have just said, it required the Vietnamese people to be more determined and to increase their forces and their resistance on all fields.
And a determining factor in this struggle was the opening up of a trail, which was appropriately named the Ho Chi Minh trail, to connect the North and the South. Naturally the United States used every means at her disposal to block this trail. But all to no avail. The Ho Chi Minh Trail developed day by day and became a system of roads over which weapons, ammunition and military supplies were transported and tens of thousands of soldiers were moved into the South for combat.
It should also be pointed out that this road system not only connected the North and the South but also Vietnam, Laos and Kampuchea. Therefore it helped consolidate the common struggle of the three countries of Indochina against a common enemy and for a common goal. This road system contributed significantly to the development of the resistance of the Vietnamese people, of the peoples of the three Indochinese countries, and to their final victories.

American and North Vietnamese strategy in the Paris Peace Talks

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Interviewer:
Could you tell us something about the content and the meaning of the four-point proposal which you made in April 1965 for a negotiated settlement of the war?
Pham Van Dong:
This was our peace offensive. It proved our goodwill. And all the points were just and fair. But, as everybody knows, they were not accepted. This was because at that time the American side wanted to escalate the war in the hope of winning it.
Interviewer:
What were the political objectives and the results the 1968 Tet Offensive?
Pham Van Dong:
This was an important event that marked a new development in the war in our resistance and created a shock to the American public and an awakening to the perception of progressive people. This was an important political and psychological victory which opened up better prospects for our resistance.
Interviewer:
What were the backgrounds to the agreement to adopt the peace talks in May of 1968?
Pham Van Dong:
It was precisely the offensive which I have just referred to that created the conditions which forced the American side to sit down and talk.
Interviewer:
What were the impacts of Ho Chi Minh's death on the nation and on you personally?
Pham Van Dong:
This was such a painful thing to the nation and to me personally that there are simply no words which can describe it. But to us, it was not just a painful thing only. The question was how to continue with his work in a deserving way, how to maintain unity in order to continue and to strongly develop the struggle so as to achieve victory and how to accomplish all the things he wanted us to accomplish especially those which he mentions in his testament.
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Interviewer:
Did you anticipate any change in the replacement of the Johnson Administration by the Nixon Administration?
Pham Van Dong:
Everybody knows what kind of a person Nixon is, and so there is no need for me to say very much about him. To us and to our resistance, Nixon was the man of the Vietnamization of the war, after the Special war and the Limited War had failed.
Interviewer:
What were the impacts of the visits of Nixon to Peking and to Moscow in 1972 as far as relations with Vietnam were concerned?
Pham Van Dong:
It must be said that the impacts of the visits to these two nations were totally contradictory. In China, it was a matter of course that Nixon was able to persuade the Chinese leadership to support the United States and to create tremendous problems for us and for our resistance. In Moscow, Nixon ran into a strong affirmation of stable and solid support of the Soviet Union toward the resistance of the Vietnamese people.
Interviewer:
Could you give us an account of the negotiations in late 1972, including the status of the talks and the Christmas Bombing, and your own reactions to the B-52 bombing of Hanoi?
Pham Van Dong:
This is an important question. In October of 1972 the talks had reached such a stage that it was considered that the negotiations could be terminated with good results. But Nixon has something else in mind. He had very dangerous schemes worked out. As a result, he ordered the B-52 bombings of Hanoi and other areas in the North. They hoped that with their B-52s they could reduce Hanoi into rubble and could, as a result, get an upper hand in the war and in the talks. But they were greatly mistaken.
Interviewer:
Could you describe the circumstances which led to the talks after the bombings had ended and the signing of the Agreements in Paris in January 1973?
Pham Van Dong:
Let me say again that the bombing was a failure. And I must tell you that during the twelve nights of this bombing campaign all our anti aircraft gunners fought very valiantly and produced great results. Many B-52s were downed. During this period I went to visit our gunners and asked them how they could shoot down so many B-52s considering the fact that they were dropping down so many bombs? And the answer was that although the B-52s could drop so many bombs and could avoid being detected by radars, our people could nevertheless detect them and shoot them down.
They became bundles of fire, lighting up the whole sky over Hanoi. The inhabitants of Hanoi called those nights "the battle of Dien Bien Phu in the air." And so they failed in the end. Even the B-52 pilots refused to go on bombing missions over Hanoi again. It was under these circumstances that Nixon was forced to come back to the Paris conference to continue with the negotiations
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Interviewer:
Could you describe what were the expectations after the 1973 ceasefire was signed and the background of the failure of the Agreements afterwards?
Pham Van Dong:
The Paris Agreement signed by the four parties should have been implemented. On our part, we readily implemented the Agreement with all our goodwill. After the signing of the Agreement, however, we realized that the United States and the Saigon regime did not want to implement it.
On the contrary, the Nguyen Van Thieu regime took advantage of the ceasefire situation to increase the war preparations and then to escalate the war itself, creating great difficulties for us in the South. Their plan was to greatly step up the war. Under this situation we, the inhabitants of the South and the people of the whole country, had to fight back. And we did just that.

Victory and post-war nation-building

Interviewer:
Could you describe the decision which led to the final offensive, the Spring Offensive?
Pham Van Dong:
You already know how the final offensive came about. Many books and newspaper articles have dealt in some detail I with this. All I want to say here is that the offensive came about at a very appropriate time and proceeded very rapidly. There were very clear objectives and the results achieved were extremely great. All these led to the historic Ho Chi Minh Campaign in which our forces moved directly into Saigon, occupied the Independence Palace, and controlled the Saigon situation as well as the entire situation in the South.
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Interviewer:
Could you describe the climate during the final offensive, the ups and downs and surprises, the important decisions that were made and your personal reaction to the victory?
Pham Van Dong:
(Laughter) It was naturally a great joy, an indescribable joy, a joy after so many years of arduous and courageous struggle, a joy for an entire people and, together with the Vietnamese people, a joy for people who love peace and justice and who are our friends all around the world. At this moment, looking back at the entire struggle, we can see that final victory had to be ours. There was simply no other way. We had thought so from the very beginning, and on the day of victory we realized that we had been correct in our thinking.
During the struggle we did everything we could in order to have the victory of today. We knew that our enemies used all kinds of means and thousands of schemes in order to win. They escalated the war. And they escalated the war because they had failed. The higher they escalated the war, the heavier the defeat. Until their final defeat, they poured into the war all kinds of means, weapons, ammunitions, and other war making gadgetry. In money terms, this was huge. They poured over half a million troops into the southern part of our country, armed with the most modern weapons.
They used nearly eight million tons of bombs to destroy our country, mainly the North. They also used what they called defoliants but which, in reality, were very toxic chemicals. They also dragged their allies, their friends and their servants, into the war. And they did not stop short at any effort to making use or these people to aid them in the war. But all these schemes did not bring them the desired results. The war was fought on three fronts: political, military and diplomatic.
And on these three fronts, the enemy were met with failures. Therefore, our victory was an extremely great victory. In our view, this was a historic victory of our era. Through this victory we were able to solve and to accomplish the things which we were unable to do during the resistance against the French. Hence, this was a complete, a total victory. Therefore at the time of victory I... we thought of our friends who are the French people and progressive people in the United States, the people who supported us and opposed the unjust war which their government had conducted.
We regarded the support of these friends as an exhortation to give us more strength. At the same time we also remembered the untold friends all around the world who had supported us all through our years of resistance and who had contributed to the victory of today.
Interviewer:
What were the expectations for the post war period and the realities of the post war period?
Pham Van Dong:
After the war, we were confronted with so many things. And it has been only a few years since after the war ended yet we have been able to accomplish a number of extremely important things which display the spirit and momentum of our nation. And I can tell you that never in our history has our country been more stable and strong than it is today. Of course we still have many problems. At the present time the main things we have to do are to build socialism and to defend our socialist fatherland. These are casks which have tremendous difficulties. But we believe that we will able to accomplish them.

Lessons of the Vietnam War

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Interviewer:
Could you give us a summary of the lessons of the Vietnam War in retrospect?
Pham Van Dong:
This is a very big question which requires a whole book to be able to fully discuss the lessons of and the thoughts on the war. But I will briefly mention a couple of things here. First of all, it has to be said that this was a war of aggression by the French and the United States. And we definitely had to carry out a resistance against aggression until we could gain final victory. And we did win final victory. This was an inert table thing.
It could not be any different. Throughout our history, this has always been the case. It was so in the past it will be so in the future. This is something we can be definite about. But having said this, I want to remind you that the Vietnamese want peace. Our nature, the nature of the Vietnamese people, is to want peace and to have solidarity with all nations and all peoples in the world. Racism and xenophobia are very alien to us Vietnamese. You can look at our history and our activities, the political activities of the Vietnamese People, and you can see that we do not have these undesirable characteristics.
And we need peace in order to rebuild our country. We need peace in order to develop our culture and our economy. We need peace in order to improve the living conditions of the population. More than anyone else, we know the value of peace. More than anyone else, we need peace in order to do the things I have just mentioned. As to that question of whether we had missed any opportunities, I must say that, on our part, we did everything we could possibly do in order to have peace, the sooner the better. Concerning the French, President Ho Chi Minh and I tried our best to accommodate them. There was nothing more we could do.
But as I have said, the French only wanted to restore colonialism in our country. As far as the United States is concerned, it must be said that the United States supported the French throughout the Resistance War, throughout the French colonial war in Vietnam. And the United States did not want to have the Geneva conference and refused to sign the Geneva Agreements. On the contrary, the United States replaced the French in the South in order to continue with the war of aggression through Ngo Dinh Diem and other puppets.
And then the United States participated in force directly in the war. Even so, we tried our best to get the United States to negotiate with us and, finally, got the United States to talk with us at the Paris negotiating table. But it was not until after Nixon failed completely with his B-52 bombings of Hanoi and other places that the Paris Agreement was finally signed in 1973. I have said all these to show you, friends how much we wanted peace.
I must also add here that after our Spring Victory, we had a new war. It should also he stressed here how much we wanted peace in this case. The Pol Pot regime in Kampuchea, a puppet regime of Peking, invaded our southwestern border areas and committed unforgivable crimes on our own territories. Even so, we patiently asked them to negotiate in order to have normal relations between the two countries.
But they thought that this was a sign of weakness and so they stepped up the war even further, forcing us to strike back. And once we struck hack we had to fight to the degree which we deemed necessary to fully defend the security of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam. These things are quite evident. Therefore, at the present time, while we have to concentrate all our energy to building socialism we also have to be vigilant and he ready to fight at any time to defend our beloved country. And I must add that peace cannot he piecemeal.
Therefore, we are trying our best to contribute to peace in this whole region. And this is the objective, the direction, of our diplomatic activities at the present time and also in the past as I am sure you all know very well. In short the Vietnamese people at this period have the greatest determination to do their utmost to protect freedom and independence and to build socialism and, at the same time, to do their best to contribute to peace, national independence, democracy and social developments in this region and elsewhere in the world. Thank you, friends. (Laughter) I'm glad that its all over!
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