THE MAN WE NEVER CAUGHT

SoHa.Vn has kindly published my contribution on the occasion of the 100th birthday of Vietnam’s legendary Foreign Minister Nguyễn Cơ Thạch. Below is the the original text in English.

By Thomas Bo Pedersen

Hanoi, April 2021

At 66, Pham Tuan Phan’s resemblance with his father is striking. The fiery eyes with the same handsome facial features, the thick greyish hair. We are meeting at a Hanoi café to talk about Vietnams late Foreign Minister Nguyen Co Thach.

I decline the offer of a beer: “Phan, beer in the middle of the day makes me too sleepy.”

Phan’s pleasant laughter starts quietly, a bit on the deep side. Gradually, his laughter expands with a mild thunder and spreads to soften his sharp eyes. Phan is so much his father now that it catapults me in a flash, all the way back to the 2nd  of June 1984, my first meeting with the legendary Silver Fox, as we Western journalists called him.

This first encounter with the Silver Fox took off with that hearty laughter – his of course.

“So, what do you Danes prefer – Vietnamese or Chinese hospitality?”

The same morning,Thach had read an article in Nhan Dan (People’s Daily) describing my meeting with the not so friendly Chinese artillery at the border. The situation was tense, after the Chinese had shelled the small border town Ha Giang the week before. My photographer and I were on patrol with a Vietnamese reconnaissance team, when the Chinese suddenly opened up with artillery at us. We ran for our lives, and it had all been rather scary.

Flowers and grenades

The incident had taken place on my 29th birthday, which started very nicely with flowers and cakes from our Vietnamese hosts. The next day, the circumstances were shrewdly edited into a frontpage headline, where a Danish reporter was quoted: “Vietnam received me with flowers, China with grenades.”

Thach gave me a wink and another friendly grin.

At the time Minister Thach was one of the very few Vietnamese senior politicians who spoke excellent English. 

Once done with the friendly laughing about our Chinese lesson at the border, and the bitter green tea properly served, Nguyen Co Thach signaled with another welcoming gesture that he was ready for my questions. 

I barged right in.

“It is more than five years since the Vietnamese troops moved into Cambodia.  Your critics in the West are wondering if you are ever going to leave again. “

“The Vietnamese troops will not leave Kampuchea, until Pol Pot’s forces are totally eliminated. The struggle against Pol Pot is also a matter of self-defense in the same way as when the Soviet Union, the USA, France and England marched all the way to Berlin to crush Adolf Hitler and the Nazi regime.

Thach was in no mood to be interrupted and continued.

Nguyễn Co Thach at our first meeting: “Few other countries have been subject to so many attempts of foreign domination as Vietnam. Every time, we fought back at great sacrifice.”

“During Pol Pot’s terror regime, the entire population was at the risk of starving to death, and hundreds of thousands, even millions died. During the genocide, doctors, teachers and many others were executed. Neither hospitals nor schools were functioning when we arrived in Phnom Penh.

Now, it is only 5 years since the Pol Pot regime was brought down. 

The food situation still needs improvement, but no one are starving anymore.  As of now, 1,6 million students are back in the schools, and health care is improving as well.  We have been able to assist our neighbors coming back on their feet, even though Vietnam’s own resources are limited.  We are still poor. The US lost on the battlefield, but the Americans continued the war against my country with diplomatic, economic, and political means. This has grave consequences for Vietnam, but it will never stop us from assisting our friends in Kampuchea. 

In January 1983, a delegation of US senior diplomats visited Kampuchea. Of course, they oppose Vietnam’s military presence, but they had to admit that the conditions for the Kampuchea people have improved immensely in recent years.” 

Vietnam – a Soviet tool?

Nguyen Co Thach reached out for his tea, giving me a small window to charge back.

“Among western decisionmakers the situation is assessed quite differently. Some have claimed that Vietnam is merely a tool in the Soviet strategy to create a regional stronghold. Some even claim that in practice, you are now the foreign minister of a new Soviet Republic of South East Asia.”

The Foreign Minister responded with another shot of booming laughter.

“Is that what they say about my country and myself? Few other countries have been subject to so many attempts of foreign domination as Vietnam. Every time, we fought back at great sacrifice. With a history like ours, how can you even think that Vietnam would give into domination from any foreign power.  China, France, and the US all tried without success. 

On the contrary, the Soviet Union respects the independence of Vietnam. We know who our friends are in this world, but we have no wish to have enemies among Western countries or elsewhere. Let me give you an example: In 1976, Vietnam became a member of the World Bank. The Western countries were very happy to welcome us in the bank.

In 1979, when the US and their allies instigated the economic blockade against Vietnam, we applied for membership of COMECOM, the organization for economic cooperation between the socialist countries. 

As a matter of principle, we would like to have a cordial relationship with the US and all other countries in the world. As of today, Vietnam is a member of the World Bank, even though we do not benefit from the programmes of the bank, and the COMECON.   

We are not isolating ourselves from other political or economic systems. Now tell me, what is the case of your own country, Denmark? I believe you are only member of the World Bank. So really, how can you insinuate that Vietnam represents a bias against the West.  The bias seems to be on your part, right?”

This time Thach’s laughter came with another friendly wink. Years later, I learned that the Foreign Minister had already submitted a strategy proposal to the Prime Minister under the heading: “How to get more friends and fewer enemies.” 

A Vietnamese puppet?

“Western critics are saying that the Heng Samrin government of Cambodia can only survive by the force of the Vietnamese army. They even call Samrin a Vietnamese puppet.”

“China, the US, and some Western countries are saying this as an attempt to cover up their own foolish decision to support Pol Pot. They know very well that Pol pot is a criminal and a mass murderer.  Heng Samrin oversaw the popular rebellion against Pol Pot from the very beginning in 1977. The broad resistance against Pol Pot has certainly not been fabricated by Vietnam.  You are looking at a direct result of Pol Pot’s genocide against his own people. 

China is giving massive military assistance to whatever is left of Pol Pot’s army. The Heng Samrin government currently has a huge task rebuilding Kampuchea. If Vietnam remove our troops prematurely, it will make the situation even more difficult for Kampuchea.”

While the Foreign Minister sipped his tea, I found another prepared question in my notebook.

“Vietnam’s military presence in Cambodia has provided the US and its allies with the pretext to establish the economic blockade against Vietnam.  Your own people are paying a high price for your support to the Heng Samrin government.”

For the first time during the interview, Nguyen Co Thach nodded in agreement. 

“We do indeed pay a very high price. We have an important issue in common with our friends in Laos and Kampuchea: We are struggling against ongoing Chinese expansionism. If we do not maintain our struggle for freedom and independence, we shall pay a much higher price in the future.”

Chinese provocations

Another round of tea gave me room for a new shot to fire against the Foreign Minister.

“Chinese leaders have stated that Vietnam bears the responsibility for the present conflict between the two countries because of Vietnam’s presence in Cambodia.”

“It could be that the Chinese provocations are an attempt to heighten the fighting spirit among Pol Pot and his loyalists. But, the current conflict is based on a long history of Chinese aggression towards Vietnam. It is no coincidence that many of the streets in Hanoi are named after heroes, who sacrificed themselves to stop the Chinese invaders. In the past 1.000 years the Chinese have invaded us at least 10 times, most recently in 1979.”

“We saw many Vietnamese troops during a visit to the border areas. Is Vietnam preparing for another invasion?”

“Well, you had your own experience, running from a Chinese artillery strike yesterday in Ha Giang. I am glad that our army brought you back safely from your encounter with the Chinese.

Let me assure you that it will not be easy for China to invade Vietnam. They only succeeded once; all other attempts have failed. I am an optimist by nature. We have also experienced long periods of peace with China, once even for as long as 350 years. Vietnam continues to work for the best possible relation with China, but history has taught us to prepare for the worst-case scenario as well. “

And human rights?

A discreet gesture from my escorting officer, Le Mai, signaled that time was up. But I could not leave without having brought up the human rights issue, a core element in the intense Western political barrage against Vietnam’s communist leadership. 

“Vietnam is often criticized for its human rights record. Some western observers have compared your re-education camps to Nazi-regime concentration camps?”

“Really? Let me remind you that several senior Nazi leaders were executed after the VWII. Even today, 40 years later, Israeli Nazi-hunters are trying to track down the remaining Hitler era criminals.  Maybe this is why the former US Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger, chose to predict in public that we would create a blood bath after liberating Saigon.

 I suggest you look at facts rather than western allegations. In Vietnam no US collaborator was executed, even though some of them committed the cruelest crimes against the Vietnamese people.  Instead, we sent them for re-education, and most have been released already. 

There is still a few remaining in custody, people responsible for massacres against innocent civilians during the war. From time to time, we receive requests from the US government to release them.  We have even offered to release them for resettlement in the US.  The Americans said no thank you. They did not want to have these criminals roaming freely in their own country. “

Nguyen Co Thach: “Go to Kampuchea and see for yourself.” The when met this mass grave a few kilometers outside Phnom Penh.

Nguyen Co Thach wrapped up the interview by offering me a plane ride to Phnom Penh to see for myself that Cambodia had not been turned into a Vietnamese prison camp. 

“If you dont believe me, go look for yourself, he said with a final laughter.

“Excuse me, I have to go borrow a suit from the government storage – I am due for a meeting with a UN delegation. We have to save on everything – even my clothes – because of the Western embargo.”

The mass graves of Cambodia

We did take Thach’s advice and later visited Cambodia. By coincidence we met a truly gruesome sight a few kilometers from Phnom Penh. From a distance it looked like some farmers were watering white cauliflower. As we got closer, we realized that they were cleaning skulls – thousands of skulls. Bones were neatly stacked all over the area. Vietnamese army medics and Cambodian workers were cleaning up yet another shallow mass grave.

As always, my photographer Ole Johnny Sørensen did what he had to do. While his camera shutter clicked away, I vomited behind our car.

Some Western editors wrote our reports off as communist lies when we returned with the documentation – just a couple of naive Danish reporters stuped by the Vietnamese propaganda machine. The same editors responded similarly to our Agent Orange material.

Then – and now – let Ole Johnny’s pictures speak for themselves.

Over the coming years I had the privilege of another two sessions with the Silver Fox. I never managed to corner him. Not even when his government signed a deal with the Shell corporation on oil-exploration in the Vietnamese offshore oilfields – at a time when many countries shunned Shell because of their activities in Apartheid South Africa.

“It is easy to be choosy for rich countries like your own, we have 65 million people to feed,” Thach shot back with his familiar fiery eyes.

The same fiery eyes, I recognized again almost four decades later in a mug shot, taken by French police in 1940 after they arrested the 19-year-old Thach in Nam Dinh, his home province a 100 km, south-east of Hanoi.  

19-year old Nguyen Co Thach photographed after his arrest in 1940.

French torture

His young face is battered from the brutal beatings. Incredibly, there is no trace of any fear in his eyes.

The French prison guards almost beat him to death, followed by days and nights of brutal torture in a futile attempt to make the young Thach disclose the identity of his comrades.  

As a matter of fact, he did not even know the real names of his comrades. The leader of the party cell had given him the cover name ‘Co Thach’meaning ´corner stone’. 

Actually, Thach was born as Pham Van Cuong, in one of the thousands of desperately poor families of rural Nam Dinh. 

During his five years in French military prisons, Nguyen Co Thach was secretly trained by senior fellow revolutionaries, among them Le Duc Tho, who later became Vietnam’s chief negotiator, with Thach as his assistant, in the 1968-73 marathon peace talks with the US in Paris. 

It was in those days that the US Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger, singled out Nguyen Co Thach as his greatest concern because of Thach’s superb diplomatic skills. Mr. Kissinger probably had no idea, how Thach had been trained the hard way during decades of underground political activity against the French, subsequently serving as one of the key decision makers since the beginning of the war with the US backed Saigon regime. 

Self-taught in English and French, Thach was also more eloquent than Kissinger himself, putting the hot-tempered US chief negotiator at a basic disadvantage at the negotiation table.  

Nguyen Co Thach’s distinguished career is well known in Vietnam.  During and after the war with the US backed Saigon regime, he held numerous key posts within the party apparatus and in the government and rose to become deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister, the same dual senior responsibility being held by his son Pham Binh Minh for the past decade. 

“More friends – fewer enemies”

After my last interview with Nguyen Co Thach, I continued to follow him at distance. He continued to make his in mark on the diplomatic scene and in international media, pursuing his ‘more friends – fewer enemies’ strategy. Obviously, improving relations with the US was a key element. He personally engaged himself in the MIA issue, making it a key priority for the Vietnamese government to assist the US in finding the remains of Americans killed in action and repatriating their remains to the families in the US.

Nguyen Co Thach made himself available to an endless stream of American delegations, visiting Vietnam: War veterans, business delegations, senior politicians, and many others. Traveling abroad, he was seen shaking hands with the US Secretary State James Baker, and prominent senators John Kerry and John McCain, who had spent seven years as a prisoner of war in Hanoi in Hoa Lo, one of the former French colonial prisons, where Thach and thousands of other Vietnamese revolutionaries had been incarcerated. 

John Kerry’s senior assistant, Frances Zwenig later put Nguyen Co Thach in the league of South Africa’s president Nelson Mandela, the Israeli Prime Minister, and the US civil rights hero, senator John Lewis. 

Behind the scenes, Nguyen Co Thach, worked tirelessly to develop Vietnam’s diplomatic apparatus to be able to cope with all the challenges, coming with Vietnam’s new international role. In the dual role as deputy Prime Minister, he was involved in the domestic strategies to develop Vietnam’s economy. 

Into retirement

In 1991, Thach retired suddenly, officially because of ill health. 

According to the rumors he was asked to step aside to make room for a more flexible and pragmatic generation of shrewd Vietnamese politicians, who took charge in taking Vietnam further down the road of reform – ‘doi moi’. 

Personally, I consider this rumor false, Nguyen Co Thach was one of the very first senior Vietnamese leaders to investigate, what Vietnam might be able to learn from Western economic management models. 

Other rumors had it that Thach had been removed to pave the way for improved relations with Beijiing – Thach had been a very harsh and very public critic of China, possibly since 1972 when chairman Mao cut a deal with President Nixon – at the expense of Vietnam.

Whatever, the real reasons behind his retirement, ill health was certainly a factor soon to become disruptive in his life. A complicated heart surgery marked the beginning of the end.  On 10 April 1998, he was laid to rest at the Mai Dich cemetery along with other famous Vietnamese leaders. 

The belated honors

Surprisingly, in February 2007 the Silver Fox resurfaced posthumously, when his widow, Phan Thi Phuc, received The Gold Star on his behalf, one of the highest honors of the state for ‘comrade Thach’s lifelong contributions to the revolutionary cause’. The ceremony was chaired by Vietnam’s President Nguyen Minh Triet. 

Thach’s son is visibly moved, when I ask him how he felt to be there, when his father was belatedly honored for his lifelong service to the revolution. 

Phan tells me that not everyone would find it appropriate to name his father The Silver Fox. During the colonial war, the Vietnamese applied the same nickname for the Head of French military intelligence, and that was no compliment. 

In return, I share with Phan that Thach’s own staff called him the Silver Fox as well. The nick-named had apparently been re-introduced by Australian journalist Wilfred Burchett, known as very sympathetic to Hanoi during the war. 

As my own tribute to Nguyen Co Thach, I now have a photo in my office of dong chi Thach in front of the Bo Ngoai Giao – the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, probably the most beautiful of all the beautiful colonial buildings still to be seen in Ha Noi.

Thach stands there grinning with me and a fellow Danish journalist, Jørn Ruby. That morning Jørn and I had joined forces to catch the old fox. He escaped again without too much effort, even taking the trouble to walk us to our car. 

The Co Thach family in 1964.

His father’s son

Back at Luk Lak restaurant this splendid spring morning, Phan shows me a beautiful photo of the Thach family from around 1964. Mother, Father and the three children dressed up for the event. Thach is incredible handsome and his wife more than a match for her husband. Surely the clothes are rented for the occasion.

To the very left in the photo, Phan’s youngest brother, Pham Binh Minh is standing at the age of five.

These days,  Pham Binh Minh is serving in his father’s former position as Foreign minister and deputy Prime Minister. Occasionally, I meet him.

Once I waited with him in line for the restroom, on the airplane from Vientiane to Hanoi.  I showed him a screenshot of my blog with a few photos of his father and myself in the meeting room, next to his office in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. He was very surprised to meet a Danish former journalist, who had stories tell about his father. 

In another and more memorable occasion, Pham Binh Minh, represented his government at the celebrations the 20thanniversary of diplomatic relations between the US and Vietnam. The Minister delivered a very cordial speech highlighting the friendship between the former enemies.  

During the gala dinner, we chatted a bit about his father.

Pham Binh Minh just smiled, when I asked him, what his father might be thinking, watching from above, while his son congratulated Thach’s old adversaries in Washington D.C. 

In the absence of a reply, I imagined that laughter once again, and Nguyen Co Thach saying with his customary chuckle:

“Well, my youngest son still has one more challenge to solve, left for him by me: How to deal with China?”

Nguyen Co Thach’s oldest son Pham Tuan Phan in April 2021.

A goldmine of knowledge

Thach’s upcoming 100-year birthday 15th May has opened a virtual gold mine of new bits and pieces, shedding light on his life and times. 

There is an abundance of articles about him in Vietnamese press, interviews with people, who knew and worked with him. The director of the Vietnam Program at Harvard, professor Thomas Vallely is crediting Nguyen Co Thach for the ultimate success to reestablish relations with the United States. Scores of senior diplomats from around the world have come forward with their praise of what they call a superb diplomat.

In Vietnamese media the praise is of course abundant as well, disclosing new details about the difficulties, Nguyen Co Thach were facing during more than a decade of economic embargo and isolation. I thought it was a joke, when Thach told me had to borrow his official clothes from the government storage. It was not. 

Nguyen Co Thach’s former assistant Dinh Thi Minh Huyen still remembers, how Thach’s delegation struggled with the financing during the UN General Assembly in 1980. Especially the female members of the Vietnamese delegation, suffered from the cold. To save hotel cost Nguyen Co Thach had insisted to stay in an apartment with his staff. 

“Our minister saw how miserable we were. He decided to allocate USD 150 for each of us three women to buy warmer clothes. That was a month salary for me as a diplomat in those days.  One day, Nguyen Co Thach tip toed into our meeting room without his shoes on. He did not mind at all that we could see the holes in his socks,” ba Huyen told a reporter in an interview, celebrating Thach’s 100th year birthday. 

Suddenly, by chance I become one of the contributors. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs  has learned that there is a foreigner in Hanoi, who spoke with Thach on several occasions.  Next, I find myself being filmed for a documentary about Nguyen Co Thach. 

Who else on the world scene would you compare Nguyen Co Thach with”, the film director asks me.

“When it comes to Thach’s style in dealing with adversaries, the former US president Bill Clinton represents something similar – always covering sharp messages with a disarming, easygoing manner. Intellectually, Nguyen Co Thach was in the league of Mahatma Gandhi and Nelson Mandela.”

“If you could speak with Nguyen Co Thach today, what would you say to him?”

Right there between the glaring spots and the cameras, I have now idea how to respond.  

In the following days the question keeps coming back to me: What would you say to him?

I decide to pay another visit to Nguyen Co Thach’s grave at the Mai Dich cemetery, where he was laid to rest with state honors along with other prominent leaders of his generation.

I have been told that according to Vietnamese legend, you can communicate with the dead, if you burn incense for them. When you light up the incense sticks, the dead will listen to you until one third of the incense is left. This will give you a window of opportunity for several minutes to pray for their well-being in the after-life as well as your own and the well-being of your loved-ones.

Standing there among the hundreds of graves in the beautiful Mai Dich cemetery, I understand that this is neither the time nor the place to chase the Silver Fox with more questions. I should have done my job, when I had the chance with him many years ago.

Nguyen Co Thach is resting in peace now, just like it should be. 

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