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In the early 1970s, two of the U.S.’s most notorious dictators were major players on the international stage. In South Vietnam, President Nguyen Van Thieu was a strong and fiercely loyal ally of the United States. North Vietnam’s dictator, Ho Chi Minh, had been the very first Communist leader in global politics.
At a time when the French Empire was showing signs of weakness, a rising Vietnamese nationalist, Ho Chi Minh (1890-1969) returned from his studies in Paris to play a leading role in the Indochina struggle for independence. For the next three decades, he was at the center of numerous conspiracy and betrayal, eventually becoming a prisoner of war in a French prison camp in the South of Vietnam.
Only a few rigorous constructionist historians will read memoirs written years after the event. Even recollections of significant and life-changing experiences fade after a period of time. Memories can also change with time because the mind alters events as they are replayed—akin to the children’s game of telephone, where you repeat something again and over and the exact details of what happened transform into something else.
Peace and Prisoners of War: A South Vietnamese Memoir, by former airborne officer Phan Nhat Nam, demonstrates the significance of a first-person account written in the heat of metaphorical battle. Following the signing of the Paris Peace Accords on Jan. 27, 1973, which ended direct American military involvement in the Vietnam War, Nam composed the passages in his book in 1973 and 1974.
During that time, Phan Nhat Nam was a South Vietnamese representative in diplomatic negotiations with his enemies, the North Vietnamese government and the Viet Cong—“a battle-hardened, thirty-year-old soldier,” in the words of Vietnam veteran and former US Senator James Webb, who wrote the introduction. It was a dreadful experience.
Nam spent his final active-duty years as a top-notch combat correspondent, and his dispatches for Peace and Prisoners of War were written shortly after the events he detailed. Because of this, and because of his skill as a writer, Nam’s testimony has a strong sense of immediacy, making the book a more useful historical document than a memoir written for a 21st-century reader.
After spending countless hours at negotiation tables with his adversaries, Nam had little nice to say about communism in general and Vietnamese communists in particular. He almost demonizes every adversary negotiator he encounters. He claims that one Viet Cong colonel, for example, had the mentality of a “sadist who delights in the sight of a prisoner screaming under torture” and the “total inhumanity and coolness of Goering and Rudolph Hess.” Another appeared to be “a beast awakening from a slumber after a bloody meal.”
General communist military officers, according to Nam, were “affected by debilitating mental disorders” and were “under the supervision of some devilish power, and I would even identify them with ordinary murderers.” Anti-war campaigners in both his country and the United States were likewise treated with suspicion by Nam. “‘Anti-war’ people crying for peace on the streets of Saigon or in the parks of America, mindlessly following the hot trousers of the strip-actress Jane Fonda, and happily mocking our dead,” he “looked with rage.”
He also despised the Paris peace accord, seeing it as a “disgusting fraud against the 15 million people of South Vietnam” by US national security adviser Henry Kissinger and key North Vietnamese negotiator Le Duc Tho.
The word “detainees” in the title refers to Nam’s lengthy, heated, and acrimonious discussions with the communists over the practicalities of exchanging tens of thousands of prisoners held by both sides. Nam was kidnapped by communists not long after those remarks were penned and incarcerated in so-called “reeducation camps” for 14 years. He spent eight years in solitary confinement, ironically and cruelly foreshadowing the title of the novel. Nam was allowed to leave Vietnam and relocate to the United States in 1993.
There have been few first-hand descriptions of the high-level negotiations that followed the signing of the Paris Peace Accords. Peace and Prisoners of War is a crucial addition to the Vietnam War historical canon simply because of this reality. V
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