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Interview with Bui Tin [1], 1981

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Summary
Bui Tin, a former People’s Army of Vietnam Colonel and Vietnamese dissident recounts the arrival of the Chinese army in 1945 and the changes to the Viet Minh following the victory of the Chinese Revolution. Bui Tin also recalls his service in the 304th division and the victory at Dien Bien Phu which led to Vietnam being divided into south and north territories. Also discussed is the reasoning behind the eventual decision to escalate the war.
Topics
Land reform, China--History, Military--1912-1949, Vietnam War, 1961-1975--Personal narratives, North Vietnamese, Treaties, Logistics, United States--History, Military--20th century, United States--History 1945-, Vietnam--Politics and government
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Transcript

Early Chinese involvement in the Vietnam War

SR 2047
COL. BUI TIN
379, Take 1
Clapstick. Interview with Col. Bui Tin
Interviewer:
Well, you prepared for the Chinese in September of 1945?
Bui Tin:
It was during the first week of September 1945 that the Allies entered Vietnam. When we heard the news, the young people in Hanoi were very curious and came in droves to the Hanoi bridge to see what was going on. This was especially the case with young ethnic Chinese. They organized a big band which included a lot of drums, they wore white uniforms and they marched all the way across the bridge to the other side of the river in order to welcome the Chinese armed units.
But when the Chinese forces crossed the bridge to our side of the river, then the inhabitants of Hanoi realized that this was only a rickety army composed of emaciated soldiers, carrying each other along and wearing very few shoes and sandals. It was a miserable sight, and the ethnic Chinese were very disappointed and sad. It took only a couple of days before all of Hanoi knew that this Chinese army was composed of riffraff elements which had been hurriedly and indiscriminately slapped together in southern China.
Most of these Chinese soldiers were very young, many of them were children between the ages of twelve and fourteen. Most of them were inflicted by scurvy, were in rags and were carrying each other in hammocks and baskets. And many of them were really very ignorant people. For example, as they went down the streets of Hanoi and saw cans of red or green paints, they snatched these cans up, pierced the lids with their bayonets and drank the paints, thinking that they were condensed milk. They were really an unruly bunch without any discipline and any culture at all. They just poured down the streets of Hanoi and looted, taking everything they could get their hands on.
380, Take 1.
Clapstick.
Interviewer:
Let's now talk about the changes for the Viet Minh after the victory of the Chinese Revolution.
Bui Tin:
It was in late 1949 that the People's Republic of China defeated the Kuomintang. From late 1949 to 1950, there were very significant changes in the military situation in Vietnam. This was because formerly Vietnam was surrounded and severed from the socialist camp. After the victory over the Kuomintang and the establishment of the People's Republic of China, the way was cleared for communications between Vietnam and the outside world.
Subsequently, we did receive military aid from China, especially military equipment. These weapons included sub machine guns, machine guns, mortars and even 75 mm artillery pieces. Most of these were American weapons which China had captured from the Kuomintang. Hence, our fighting strength was increased, and very perceptively so. We used the new weapons in order to mount offensives against the French. An outstanding offensive was the Lang Son and Cao Bang campaign in which we were able to wipe out two large French units, Le Page and Charton, and capture all their weapons.
After that, China also sent us a number of military advisers. At that time our military experiences were still limited, and so we also accepted certain Chinese military experiences. But we quickly realized that we ourselves had to solve our own military problems, that we had to be our own masters, and that the suggestions of the Chinese military advisers were only for reference.
The Chinese could not understand the battlefield situations and conditions in Vietnam and, therefore, the suggestions were largely inappropriate. An example was Dien Bien Phu. At Dien Bien Phu the Chinese suggested that we should strike immediately and rapidly. But our strategy was to make our moves and to fight slowly but solidly. And finally, our own strategy which was worked out completely on our own, led us to total victory.

Dien Bien Phu

SR 2048
COL. BUI TIN
Beep tone
Roll 48 of Vietnam Project
381, Take 1
Clapstick.
Interviewer:
Now we are at Dien Bien Phu. Which division you were in, and so on?
Bui Tin:
During the battle of Dien Bien Phu I was in the 304th Division, a fairly strong division which fought on the southern front of Dien Bien Phu. This was a very strong French base. At that time we organized a large siege of the base. In term of weapons, we did employ some of the military equipment supplied us by China, especially the mortars and the 75 mm artillery pieces. There were a number of Chinese military advisers around to give us suggestions on the plans for encircling and attacking Dien Bien Phu.
But what were the basic Chinese views? This was employ the human wave tactic, which meant to charge the enemy's positions with large forces very rapidly. We were forced to try out this tactic, but only very briefly. We realized that this tactic, these suggestions, were inappropriate and were extremely dangerous. There would be a lot of sacrifices and no victory over Dien Bien Phu. At that time the Command of the Campaign was headed by General Vo Nguyen Giap who made the decision to put an end to this attack based on the human wave tactic.
The entire plan was changed. The attack was stopped and all the heavy artillery pieces were pulled back to a distance. Then strong trenches and tunnels were dug and the morale of the troops was rebuilt based on the slogan: "Advance solidly, Fight solidly." Hence, the shovels became extremely important weapons. All the cadres and soldiers had to put most of their time and energy into digging trenches and tunnels. Sometimes, when you hit an area of hard soil, you could only dig about four to six meters of each tunnel or trench a day. But in this way we slowly surrounded Dien Bien Phu with a network of trenches which, when added together, were several hundred kilometers long.
It was precisely because of these trenches that we slowly tightened the noose on the necks of the French, cutting in half their air strip and attacking them ever closer. And finally, because of this solid advance, we achieved our victory over Dien Bien Phu. This military tactic was entirely created by the High Command of the Campaign and by General Vo Nguyen Giap who was the commander and who personally formulated and directed it.

The Geneva Accords

382, Take 1
Clapstick
Interviewer:
Please describe your reactions after the victory.
Bui Tin:
After the victory and the signing of the Geneva Agreements, all the units, and particularly my own troops, were very happy. We were happy because we had liberated half of the country, had put a temporary end to the war and created the bases for future gains. At that time we were also happy because our troops did not have to fight in the war anymore and the situation was poised for a period of political struggle.
But looking back, I should frankly admit that we were somewhat simple minded at the time. We thought that having signed the Agreements, the French would now be forced by world opinion to carry out the stipulations of Geneva Accords. And we strongly believed that there would be a general election held in two years. If an election were held in the South, the revolution would certainly win. So at that time we greeted each other: "In two years." We expected to have a general election and reunification in two years.

Bui Tin's mission to South Vietnam

383, Take 1
Clapstick
Interviewer:
Now your mission in the South in the end of 1963, after the downfall of Diem.
Bui Tin:
During the last months of 1963 we had the shooting of Diem and the assassination of Kennedy. Hence there were changes in the situation in the South. I was at that time a member of a group which was sent south to study the situation in the South. The road south was extremely arduous. There was only a very small trail. We had to carry knapsacks weighing about sixteen to twenty kilograms each on our backs. We also had to carry stuff bags filled with rice.
We had to use walking sticks to help us climb the mountains and ford the streams. During the five week trip, I only had on a pair of shorts. This was because we had to climb the mountains and cross the rivers quite often. Along the way, we studied the capacity of the terrain in the South in helping us defeat the Americans and the Saigon forces. At that time, the best one could do in that kind of terrain besides walking and carrying things on your shoulders was to push bicycles with up to 70 kilograms of supplies such as ammunition, weapons and food.
384 Take 1
Clapstick
Interviewer:
Now, what were your conclusions after your mission to the South, in 1964?
Bui Tin:
After the research trip, we recognized that there were significant changes in the South. It was precisely at this time that President Ho Chi Minh called upon every Vietnamese to double his or her effort to help the people in the South. Our research indicated to us that all out support and supplies had to be given to the struggle in the South. The armed forces in the South were still very weak and ill equipped. And in certain areas there was difficulty in getting enough soldiers.
Therefore, we decided that well equipped and larger forces had to be sent to the South. Hence the decision to widen the Ho Chi Minh Trail to move large military supplies and infantry units into the South. Before this, the Chinese military advisers told us not to escalate the war. Instead, they said, we should employ guerrilla tactics only in order to enable us to liberate the South.
But we regarded these as inappropriate and incorrect suggestions. We came to the conclusion that in order to liberate the South you had to defeat the regular armed forces of the Saigon regime and the regular armed forces of the United States once they decided to intervene. Therefore we had to build up strong and well equipped units to be sent south to coordinate with the Liberation forces in the consolidated effort to gain final victory.

North Vietnamese logistics in relation to the Ho Chi Minh Trail

385, Take 1
Clapstick
Interviewer:
Briefly, why was it necessary to escalate the conventional war?
Bui Tin:
At that time we realized that in order to gain victory we had to be able to defeat large Saigon military units as well as large American armed forces which could possibly enter the war. Besides the guerrilla war which provided the basic background, we had to have heavy blows that is to say, regular army units which were well equipped to deal with the enemy. For this reason, we concentrated our resources in building up these large forces in order to help the struggle in the South.
And in order to do this, we could not retain the Ho Chi Minh Trail just simply as a trail by strict definition. The Chinese advisers told us to keep the trail as it had been originally because they only wanted us to wage a small scale guerrilla war. They only wanted us to carry supplies down south on our backs and our shoulders according to the principle of "ants filling up their anthills." They told us that if we widened the Trail then we would expose ourselves to American bombing, would help escalate the war and would invite casualties and eventually defeat.
They said that there was no way we could defend ourselves against such a formidable American power, that the Americans would certainly destroy the trail and that only very small actual trails hidden under the forests could help protect us. But our opinion the opinion of our Party, our leaders and our Supreme High Command was to widen the trail into a modern communication system capable of supporting the movement of regular army units. To this end, we had to have an Army Corps of Engineers to build a long and complex system of roads composed of crisscrossing trails.
The other thing was that we had to have an air defense unit along with this communication system which could fight the American air power effectively. And then we also had to have a very effective communication network capable of giving precise information to all the units along the trails and to the convoys on those trails. On top of all these, we had to have a strong and effective transportation unit composed of very good drivers who could drive all day and all night long and who could put up with all the stresses and strains created by the very difficult terrain and the bombings and shellings. In addition, we had to have a system of tunnels, trenches and underground storage facilities where ammunition and weapons could be kept and could be distributed along the way.
386 TAKE 1
Clapsticks
Interviewer:
Could you tell us very briefly about your second trip south?
Bui Tin:
In 1970 I was again sent on a mission to the South. By that time the Ho Chi Minh Trail had already become a system of wide roads. We were driving then. All our troops were now transported to the South by motor vehicles, moving in convoys and in stretches, that is to say, from one military station to another. There were air defense positions and tunnels to protect them. There was a system of short cuts and by paths. And so whenever the American airplanes attacked us, all we had to do was to make a short detour and hence our movement was never actually stopped.
Interviewer:
Were you afraid of the bombing when you were going south by car?
Bui Tin:
At first I must admit that there was a feeling of fear, what will all those bombs exploding around you. But when I saw that everybody around me was so calm, I got used to it. By the second and third day, even though the bombing was all around us, I managed to take naps inside my moving vehicle.
Interviewer:
Where was the COSVN located?
Bui Tin:
At that time we called it the Central Office. The CO was mobile. A lot of the time in the South, sometimes along the border and at times over in Kampuchea. We were always moving around. So when the Americans came into Kampuchea in search of the Central Office, they could not find anything. We were very vigilant, our organization was very tight and yet flexible and we were very mobile, so there was just no way the Americans could ever locate COSVN.

The Tet Offensive

387, Take 1
Clapstick
Interviewer:
Now let's talk about the Tet Offensive of 1968, what were the objectives, and so on?
Bui Tin:
The objective of the Tet Offensive was to destroy an enemy force. We always set up a consolidated objective. And the most important part of this was to destroy enemy forces since this would create impacts behind the enemy's line, in the United States, on the diplomatic front and, consequently, force the United States to de escalate the war. As it turned out, Johnson had to resign and the Paris talks were held. We never had the idea that the Tet Offensive would solve all the problems right away. Not at all.
We recognized at the time that there had to be many offensives and many uprisings before we could mount a Final Offensive and a General Uprising. Hence, the main objective at the time was to destroy enemy forces. But wherever we could hold territories then we should do so. It was important for us to hold on to places whenever we could in order to suck in enemy forces to destroy them. An example was the situation in Hue. We did occupy Hue, hold on to it and suck in American forces to inflict casualties and damages to them.
And after we had inflicted the necessary damages and had created the necessary impacts on the United States, we withdrew our forces because it was not yet time to occupy territories. The same thing was true for Saigon. After we had occupied the city, created considerable damage to the enemy and gained the necessary political and diplomatic aims, we decided to withdraw. Of course, at the lower echelons there has been a misunderstanding or an imprecise understanding of the directives of the Central Committee.
Therefore, there have been some people at the lower echelons who understood this as the final battle. But this was not the idea. And in some places the fighting was unnecessarily prolonged in the urban areas. Therefore, there were heavy losses in some places. The mistakes were subsequently corrected with the withdrawal of the troops from the urban areas to prepare for other future offensives.
So that was the crux of the Offensive of Tet 1968. We still regard that offensive as an important landmark marking the changes in the balance of forces of the two sides and the severe blows on the aggressive designs of the United States, forcing the United States to go to the negotiating table in Paris. This offensive also caused Johnson to resign just at about the time when the American election was kicking off.

The Phoenix Program

388, Take 1
Clapstick
Interviewer:
Please talk a little bit about the Phoenix Program and what it did to the cadres in the South.
Bui Tin:
The Phoenix Program was a very dangerous program. Its method was chiefly assassinations. It also tried to buy off people. But mainly assassinations, though. The assignations were carried out against our cadres at different levels: village cadres, district cadres and provincial cadres. So it should be stated that the Phoenix Program was a really devious and cruel program. It caused the loss of thousands of our cadres at the local level. At the same time, however, it elicited anger among the population and caused them to help re enforce the losses on a continual basis. Therefore, it can be concluded that although the program did create losses to us, it failed keep the revolution from flourishing each day.

Determination of the North

389 Take 1
Clapstick
Interviewer:
How was it that the Vietnamese troops could endure so much sacrifice?
Bui Tin:
Our struggle was really very arduous. There were untold sacrifices. I have witnessed many comrades killed. But their sacrifices signified the really solid spirit of the struggle in face of incredible difficulties and trials. This solid spirit came from their love for the country. This is not just a general and abstract concept. This love for the country means love for one's own family, one's own village, one's own birthplace and one's own people. This was what enabled us to put up with all difficulties.
And we always trained our soldiers to love their country and to hate the aggressors. We were not invading any country and we were determined not to allow any country to invade us and trample on our forefathers' land. The other thing was that our organization was very tight in the armed forces. We had Party cells within the Army to instill political consciousness and morale into our forces. We had youth organizations within the armed forces which tried to maintain the spirit of the fighters.
And the spirit of sharing everything between the officers and the troops was also an important contribution. We officers carried the same weight as the soldiers, we ate the same food like them and we suffered the same fate under the bombs and the shells. In brief, this spirit of sharing all the hardship and suffering, the love for the people, the concept of faithfulness to one's country and hatred for the aggressors created a fighting spirit in every soldier, allowing them to make all the sacrifices which led finally to total victory.
390, Take 1
Clapstick
Interviewer:
Looking back through these thirty years of war, do you think there had been missed opportunities when there could have been peace or a negotiated settlement could have been reached? Were there diplomatic mistakes too on your side?
Bui Tin:
It was a very long struggle. It lasted for thirty-five years. I myself have also been fighting the the army for more than thirty-five years. There were a lot of hardship and suffering. Looking back, however, you must realize that we are a very peace loving people. We never want anything more than to live in peace in our own country. Wars were always imposed on us from the outside. The French colonialists and the American imperialists waged war on us.
Therefore, we were forced to take up arms. All of us wanted to contribute the the building of our nation. Looking back we can certainly see that there had been lost opportunities. If the French government and the various American administration had been more reasonable, more understanding and more intelligent, then the war could have been avoided and, consequently, damages to the United States and to France could also have been avoided. We never wanted to have a war. Looking back at our struggle, we can certainly see that there had been temporary setbacks and difficulties. There were defeats in certain battles.
But in general, our strategies and policies were correct and, therefore, we were able to surmount even the most difficult problems. We defeated the French Army, which was a large army for Europe. Then we defeated a force of half a million American troops, supported by such a gigantic military machine. These trials showed us that our struggle was successful because we were right and we had the support of the peoples in the world, including progressive people in the United States.

Lessons from Vietnamese land reform

SR 2049
COL. BUI TIN
Beep tone
Roll 49 of Vietnam Project
391, Take 1
Interviewer:
Could you talk about the land reform? There were errors. What really happened?
Bui Tin:
With regard to the land reform program, we had little experience at the time. So we mainly relied on the Chinese advisers. For this reason, at the beginning there were critical mistakes committed in the land reform program. There were people who were unjustly executed, imprisoned and fired from their posts. But immediately after that, our leadership recognized the mistakes and, therefore, organized a whole movement to correct the mistakes.
We were determined to correct the mistakes. We publicly admitted to the general population that there had just been a very painful lesson in that we had committed the mistake, the wrong perception, of seeing only enemies around us. People saw enemies in the Party, in the Army and in the administrative organizations. There were enemies everywhere. But after that this perception was recognized as wrong.
The quotas put forth by the Chinese advisers were extremely wrong and dangerous. Our Party was different, our administration was different and our people was different. Therefore, the Party at once ordered rectifications of the mistakes committed. This meant compensations to and reinstatements of all those who had been unjustly treated. An all out effort was made to clear the names of these people and to restore their honor and prestige. It was a very critical and painful, yet very useful, lesson to all of us, teaching us that every problem had to be solved from the Vietnamese perspective, from the concrete Vietnamese conditions, and that we could not utilize and apply anybody else's experiences wholesale.
For that last interview, it was from Slates 375 to 391
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