THE MAN WHO HAD THE GUTS TO STAY

Vietnam’s “Victory Day”, 30 april is also a great yearly opportunity to pay respects to my long time friend, the late Jens Nauntofte.

He was one of only a handful of Western journalists who chose to stay behind, when Saigon fell on 30 April 1975. He could not bring himself to leave behind, what he believed would be the greatest story ever to file to national Danish Broadcasting.

The following weeks became an experience of a lifetime as the new regime emerged, but also the ultimate frustration for a journalist, when all international communication lines were cut off. Jens were unable to share these great historic moments with his audience back in Scandinavia. In stead, he noted down all that he witnessed in his personal diary.

His observations were not for the faint hearted. One morning he witnessed a former officer from the army of South Vietnam, pouring gasoline over himself. Next the officer torched his body in a horrific demonstration, reminding the spectators of the famous buddhist monks who sacrificed themselves in the streets of Saigon in vain protests against the repression of Buddhists during President Diem’s infamous regime.

In 2013, Jens posed for my fun-shot below with a wartime photo of himself in front of his old hang-out, the Continental Hotel on Lam Son square. Jens had at times been able to secure for himself the same room as author Graham Greene did in 1950’ies, while he worked on his great novel ‘The Quiet American’.

Later that night Jens and I went to Augustin, his favorite restaurant – drinking too much wine, while Jens once again shared his treasure of memories from the longest war in modern history.

The 2nd photo is of a VNA cabin attendant en route to Saigon posing with the published edition of Jen’s 1975 diary “Yellow Star over Vietnam.”

This souvenir shot was my greeting to Jens in 2015 on the 40th anniversary of the end of the war in Vietnam. Coincidentially, the cabin attendant’s name was Nhu, just like the enigmatic young Vietnamese woman, who worked as an assistant for Jens in the final days before the fall of Saigon. In the diary, Jens refered to her as his ‘Mata Hari’, because he suspected that she reported his activities to the underground communist network in Saigon. Nevertheless she was a very good fixer for a young foreign journalist trying to find his way through the chaos in war torn Vietnam. Nhu disappeared suddenly without a trace, and Jens often wondered about her fate.

Jens is sorely missed today, professionally, and even more, personally.

HOW THE CHINESE GAVE ME A DEADLY BIRTHDAY GIFT

The SOHA magazine has kindly invited me to share these memories from the Chinese-Vietnamese conflict. Here is a link to the Vietnamese version. Below is the original English text.

The Chinese aggressions against Vietnam did not end in 1979, when China withdrew from the war in Lang Son. Here is what happened 5 years later, in June 1984, when a Danish journalist suddenly found himself under fire from Chinese artillery in Ha Tuyen

By Thomas Bo Pedersen

Photos: Ole Johnny Sorensen

BOOOOM, BOOOOM, BOOOM.

I begin to understand that we are under fire, when the young Vietnamese soldier throws me on the ground, covering my body with his own. A whistling sound above our heads and then the detonations some 20 meters to my left. My heart is racing, my adrenaline surges crazily trough my body as panic takes over. My first time ever under fire.

As pieces of stone, wood, leaves and dust settles around me, I look for my photographer. He is also on the ground a few meters to my right. Like me, his body is covered by a young Vietnamese soldier, who is holding on to his arm, with blood seeping through his fingers. He must have been hit by shrapnel from one of the grenades.

Just an hour before, I had posed this question to the Vietnamese official, now lying there on the ground next to me, vice-chairman Pham Dinh Di:

“In interviews with Western media the Chinese government has claimed that China needs to defend itself against Vietnamese provocations?”

Now I realize, why Pham Dinh Di had looked at me in absolute disbelief.

******

We had left Hanoi very early the same morning with our Vietnamese military escort. To my surprise, our interpreter Le Hoai Phuong and her colleague from the foreign ministry presented me with flowers and a cake, to celebrate my 29th birthday – at 4.00 am. 

“We saw in your passport that it is your birthday, so we wanted to celebrate with you, since you are a far away from your family,” Phuong said with a shy grin. 

Little did I know that I was to receive another birthday surprise later that same afternoon, a deadly gift from the Chinese army. 

Vice chairman Pham Dinh Di and myself after the attack.

As we leave Hanoi and drive through the Red River delta, it looks like it will become a typical hot and humid summer day in Northern Vietnam.  

It had taken us more than one hour to cross the famous Long Bien Bridge, crammed with thousands of bicycles, other thousands of people walking on their feet, and just a few cars.  In those days Long Bien was the only bridge connecting Hanoi with the provinces, a lifeline supplying the capital with food and commodities.

The destruction of war is still very visible in the Red River delta that morning, nine years after the end of the war.  Here and there the green rice fields are scarred by barren moonscapes with huge circular holes, some turned into ponds. 

The soil had been pressed so hard by the detonations of the American bombs that it was impossible to grow anything there.  The bombings in Vietnam had escalated into incredibly numbers: Four times as many bombs had been used in Vietnam than during the entire WW II.

A few hours on the narrow country roads, and then we leave the delta and head into the first range of green mountains, our car comes to a halt at a military control post. Once approved for onward traveling the remaining trip will be in a military convoy.

Into the war zone

“It looks like we are heading into a war zone,” my photographer notes with a nervous grin, as we slowly move forward on the narrow mountain road towards the Chinese boarder. The landscape is stunningly beautiful with green mountains all around us, contrasted by the deep red soil of the dirt road we are riding on in a military convoy with dozens of trucks carrying young Vietnamese soldiers and military hardware to the border.

Back in Hanoi, we had heard the rumors of recent Chinese attacks across the border, mainly by artillery barrages. 

“The Chinese generals remember the lesson we taught them in 1979, when many of their soldiers were killed by our strong border defense. Now, it seems they only harass us from time to time with medium range artillery fire over the border. I have a brother, who just came back from the border on a short leave. He says that it has become much more intense in the past couple of weeks” a Vietnamese source had told me a few days before over very strong coffee and the customary cigarettes back in Hanoi.

It had taken some persuasion to get permission from the authorities to visit the border areas. During an interview with the head of the international department of the Central Committee, Le Mai, I tried my luck with some very direct questions on the status of the Chinese-Vietnamese relations, including a request to see for myself, what the situation was really like in the border areas. Le Mai agreed to bring forward our case to the military command, and just a few days later, we got the permission to visit and took off before daybreak on June 1, 1984.

******

“BOOOM, BOOOM.”

Suddenly, we are hearing distant explosions. 

“I hope it is just a training exercise,” interpreter Le Hoai Phuong says with a nervous grin. The tense looks of the soldiers around us tell us that Phuong’s hopes might be all too naive, but after a few more explosions the guns become quiet again. 

We stop for lunch at a small village, the villagers are obviously poor, but they take good care of us, with fried chicken, vegetables, and rice. A bit of fresh sugar cane with the bitter green tea, and then we are off again to cross the last mountain range to reach Ha Giang, the border town which has been repeatedly under fire in the past couple of weeks according to the rumors.

Pham Dinh Di one of the many damaged houses.

10.000 people evacuated

Ha Giang seems totally deserted. The streets are empty, the shops are closed. There are no sandals or well-worn shoes on the doorsteps, the normal evidence that people are at home.  A small group of men in civilian clothes are waiting for us at the provincial chairman’s office. Deputy chairman Pham Dinh Di greets us with a grin all over his handsome face.

“Welcome to Ha Giang. You are the first foreigners visiting us here. I am afraid we cannot show you how lively our town really is. After the artillery shelling has become more intense, we have evacuated almost everybody – about 10.000 people.”

We are invited to sit down in a very simple office on bamboo stools, having the customary green tea along with the dry green bean cake, which is always hard for foreigners to swallow. 

“During the first attacks two weeks ago, we had to rely on our local self-defense militia, in case the Chinese would launch a real invasion attempt. But so far, we have only suffered artillery bombardments. In the past week several units from our Quan Doi Nhân Dan have arrived. I promise you it will become very costly for the Chinese army, if they try to invade our country again.”

“In your opinion what are the reasons for the present conflict between China and Vietnam?”

“You should ask that question to the Chinese! I assume that they are frustrated to see that their ideological and economic war against our country has failed completely. So now they are trying to increase the pressure on us by military means, just like they have done many times before for the past 2.000 years. They never succeeded, and we will do everything we can to make sure that they will also fail this time.”

Pham Dinh Di invites us to join him for an inspection tour to assess the damage of the bombardments that we heard from a distance on our way to Ha Giang.  We join him in a military jeep. We follow an army truck full of armed soldiers, assigned for our protection. As we move closer to the border, half destroyed houses start to appear. 

The dead children of Lang Suu

We make a stop in Lang Suu village, 4 kilometers from the Chinese artillery positions.

“This is the site of the very first surprise attack. The kindergarten was hit, three children were killed, and four others seriously wounded.”

Pham Dinh Di points towards a big burned-out spot. The structure on it is almost completely gone, except for some blackened pieces of wood and a few charred bricks.

“This was the central food storage of the village. Unfortunately, it was full, so almost the entire spring harvest was lost, “says Pham Dinh Di.

He takes out his notebook and reads aloud.

“This is my record of the destruction in the past 3 months due to the Chinese bombings. 28 of the 31 villages have suffered major damage. 15 percent of the harvest has been destroyed. 38 civilians have been killed, 36 people seriously wounded.”

Pham Dinh Di takes us to the local power station. 

“This is one of the most frequent targets. We just finished repairing it once again, and now our electricity supply is back. I am sure we will see a new attack soon on the power station. The Chinese know of course that it is of vital importance to us.”

Photo: Ole Johnny Sorensen.Artwork: Pham Trinh Phuong Thanh.

Running for our lives

This morning, my photographer is doing the only shooting in the seemingly peaceful mountain valley. If not for the clicks of his Nikon, it would be a blissfully quiet afternoon right there in the beautiful green scenery. Pham Dinh Di is pointing to the mountain range right in front of us. 

“There is a Chinese artillery unit right there, I….”

He is interrupted by a BOOM, one more BOOM, and then the third one.

“Xuong!” a soldier yells, and we don’t need the translation at all, but get down on the ground immediately, before the grenades come whistling and detonates some 20 meters away.

After that first artillery barrage, we huddle together in a ditch. The water immediately soaks my pants. Pham Dinh Di offers us a survival training course on the spot. 

“We need to get away from here before they are able to adjust the shooting to hit us directly. When the soldiers give the signal, we run as fast as we can. If we hear the boom again, you need to stop running and lay down flat. You will have a much better chance of avoiding the shrapnel. Most people get killed when they try to run away in panic.”

“Go, go!”

Somehow my sandals get stuck in the muddy ditch, and I run like crazy on bare feet.  All too soon, the pain of the sharp branches on the ground slows me down too much. Two soldiers grab my arms and forces me to stay on my feet at their pace. 

Then the BOOOM, BOOOM, BOOOM again.

I am down on the ground on a dirt road with my face buried in red soil and my bodyguard on top of me. As soon as the detonations are over, we get on our feet again. Then two or three more times, until our ordeal is finally over.  

I look at my watch, but have no real idea, for how long we have been under fire. “Around 45 minutes,” my photographer estimates. He has lost a very expensive camera lens somewhere during our frantic escape; Two soldiers are slightly wounded by shrapnel. Today’s modest casualties.

From somewhere a couple of bottles of warm beer appears. We toast each other.

“Congratulations. You had your first war experience today. I could see you were scared. Honestly, I think we all were. I don’t think you ever get comfortable with enemy fire,” Pham Dinh Di says with a grin.

One more event, a pleasant one, is awaiting us in Ha Giang: A simple but very delicious birthday dinner with live performance of the local militia. Men and women.  It is all about glorious victories in historic battles against the Chinese.

******

Two days later, I find myself back in Hanoi, I have been granted an interview with Vietnam’s legendary foreign minister Nguyen Co Thach.

He receives me with a hearty laughter:

“Tell me please. What do you prefer: Chinese or Vietnamese hospitality?

Co Thach knew all about our border experience from that morning’s edition of the Nhân Dannewspaper. 

Phuong laughs just as heartedly as the foreign minister when she translates the headline for me:

DANISH JOURNALIST: THE VIETNAMESE RECEIVED ME WITH FLOWERS, THE CHINESE WITH GRENADES.

Nhan Dan newspaper on the attack.

THE FOREVER TALE OF NEPENTHES

Today, I happily hand over my blog to gallerist Hoang Minh Chau.

Two years ago, I chased the elusive carnivore Nepenthes plant and finally spotted it in the jungles of Borneo. Then only yesterday, I spotted the Nepenthes again in Chau’s new gallery in the 123 alley of Nguyen Din Thi street, this time in a collage called ‘Oblivion’ made by South African artist Nachita Taranto.

Oblivion by Nachita Taranto

Here is the interpretation of Oblivion in Chau’s own words:

“Ah something mischievous and playful going on here! Nepenthes is a very strange and interesting plant, known for its ability to attract a variety of preys including insects, lizards and even rats. In this quirky collage, it’s not the insects but the two sexy girls (one in tartan skirt and one in sequin tights) who seem to have fallen and get trapped in the pretty-looking vase-shaped pitcher plant.

It’s very common that each flower or plant is given its own symbolic meaning and the pitcher plant is no exception. It symbolizes emotional healing, protection of oneself, dreams and illusions. The name “Nepenthes” itself in Greek means “No sorrow”.

So what’s happening here with the two chicas? Are they purposely taking a break and hiding from the world? Are they trapped in their inner world of illusions? Are they trying to forget everything and having no clues what’s going on? Are they intoxicated and indulging in delightful decadence? Are they looking for something special inside and trying to escape from the the mundane of everyday life? Were they seduced, fallen and then trapped in their own fantasy world of love and dreams? Will they still come out sane and purified?

Like any other modern artwork, the interpretation is yours to come up with. It’s an unexpected quick play of painting and imagery that creates a super eye-catchy, off-beat surrealist vibe artwork. Probably, Nachita’s cleverness and sense of humour is something we appreciate the most from seeing this recent creation.”

The Nepenthes predator as I found in the jungles of Borneo in 2020.

WHATEVER HAPPENED TO TIGER

– This morning 30 years ago a young Karen guerilla, called ‘Tiger’, smuggled photographer Ole J. Sørensen and myself into Burma, taking us to Manerplaw, the legendary stronghold of the Karen guerillas. They had fought the Burmese army since World War II. 10.000 figthers were living in a primitive bamboo village on the slopes of The Mountain of The Sleeping Dog.

During World War II, The Karen had fought the Japanese army in Burma, and in return for their support, the British promised the Karen to support their claim for their own homeland, once the war was over.

Just like the US broke their promise to Ho Chi Minh and the Vietnamese guerillas to support Vietnam’s independence in return for their support against the Japanese, the British broke their promise to the Karen in Burma. 

When I met the Karen in 1991, they had tenaciously fought the Burmese military for more than 40 years.

During the following days Tiger took us deeper into jungle to visit the Burmese students, who had fled the massacres in the streets of Rangoon, when the army had cracked down on their protests against the harsh military rule. The memory of these starving and frightened youngsters has stayed with me ever since.

Like many other guerillas, Tiger was sick with malaria and frequently shook with nasty fever attacks. Nevertheless he insisted to stay with us on the muddy trails in the damp and cold mountain forest.

A few weeks later after Tiger had taken us back to safety in Thailand, the Burmese army launched a surprise attack on Manerplaw, and many Karen guerillas died in the vicious battle. I have often wondered if Tiger survived the slaughter, but I was never able to obtain any information about his fate. 

VIETNAM’S WAR AGAINST COVID

Prime Minister Pham Minh Chinh

My remarks to Vietnam’s Prime Minister Pham Minh Chinh at a dialogue meeting in Hanoi 9 September 1021

Excellency Prime Minister Pham Minh Chinh,

Distinguished representatives of the Government of Vietnam,

Ambassadors of the European Union memberstates,

Fellow company representatives,

Ladies and Gentlemen,

I am grateful for the opportunity to share with all of you my experience in these challenging times as managing director of Mascot International Vietnam.

First of all, I would like to thank the authorities and people of Hai Duong province with all my heart for the assistance Mascot received to get through COVID wave 3 in February, when we were the epicenter of the pandemic in Vietnam.

At Mascot we will never forget what Hai Duong did to help us through the crisis in those days. As a result, our losses were reduced to a minimum, because we were able to maintain production with a minimum loss and keep the entire supply chain running, including import of raw materials and export of our finished goods. We got clear and consistent advice from the Hai Duong authorities on the necessary preventive measures. Even though we were right there in the epicenter, we managed to run our business, without a single infection among our staff. Once again, thank you to our friends in Hai Duong. What we managed to do during the 3rd wave, saved us a lot of trouble in the 4th wave.

As we all know, the challenge at hand now is much greater. The numbers, especially in the South, are staggering. The potential threat to the rest of the country is real and frightening to us all. Understandably, we are all very tired of this pandemic, after dealing with COVID for more than 1,5 years. Whether you look at it as a company or as one of the millions of people, suffering the consequences in this country and elsewhere, it is easy to get frustrated and even angry with the restrictions imposed on us.

Therefore, we should all keep in mind, that there is only one enemy in this war, the virus! All of us in this room have the same shared interest to do our part to win this war, no matter where we are coming from.

Prime Minister, let me assure you, that as a company we shall follow to the letter the measures, decided by your government. We understand that it is in our own interest to do so. I am confident that the government of Vietnam is considering carefully, before they take action to impose restrictions that may make life even more difficult for the companies and our staff. Today’s dialogue is evidence that you are willing till listen to us as well. Therefore, please allow me to share some observations and ideas with you all.

Prime Minister, I think we all agree with your statement that in this pandemic the health of the people comes first. I would like to put it to you that ‘economic health’ is a very important second. We need to ensure that Vietnam will continue to have the strongest possible economic foundation to get back on its feet from this pandemic.

In the short term it is essential to keep production, including the international supply chains, running as best as we can. Whatever happens, please keep the ports of this country open for the sake of all. The 3s-principle is not applicable to large scale manufacturing for very practical reasons. We cannot accommodate thousands of workers 24/7 and keep them separated from their families for weeks or months.

It makes good sense to focus vaccinations on the major industrial and population centers as a way forward towards normalizing the situation in order to stay healthy – physically as well as financially. A comprehensive vaccination plan must also include the required documentation, vaccination passports, so that fully vaccinated people are able to move around. In Europe they are now very successful with a digital solution. The passport is never more than one click away on your smartphone. This would also be a very useful tool, if the government decides to re-open air traffic for vaccinated travelers.

Hopefully, Vietnam will soon have the enough vaccinations available. At our company 95% of staff have registered for vaccination already, and I think you will find the same kind of positive response in most other companies. 

Basically, the most efficient means to secure economic health is to make it possible for businesses to function as normally as possible. 

Prime Minister, this brings me to my final point for your consideration. How to ensure the economic health in the business sector. My concern is not so much the larger FDI’s, such as the company I represent. We will be the last ones to go under.

My immediate concern is our small and medium-sized suppliers here in Vietnam. They fought as hard as anybody in the war against COVID, and most are still with us. I am afraid that many of them will not be able to survive much longer, unless massive support becomes available.

It is my hope that the Government of Vietnam will give top priority to a relief package for the SMEs in this country along with the normalization of the economy. It could be a CIT/PIT tax holiday, suspension of VAT or postponement of payments to social security funds. Or even salary subsidies from the Government to certain badly hit sectors under very specific and strict conditions. I know that it will be a cost in the short term, but the long term costs of not doing it, can be of much larger proportions.

I understand that the government of Vietnam is frantically busy addressing the immediate health risks of the pandemic. Nevertheless, I ask you to consider the economic health issues, while we still have time to safeguard the more vulnerable parts of the business sector in Vietnam.

Prime minister, excellencies, ladies and gentlemen.

Thank you very much for your time.

DANIDA HVAD NU

Lukningen af DANIDAS enorme bistandsprogram i Tanzania er en oplagt anledning til at diskutere hvad der egentlig kommer ud af udviklingsbistanden.

Den forestående lukning af Danmarks ambassade i Tanzania og det gigantiske bistandsprogram (Ialt DKK 17 mia. gennem årene, tror jeg) kalder minder frem:

Pudsigt nok sluttede min journalistiske karriere i 1994 med denne artikel om DANIDAS bogstaveligt talt livsfarlige projekt med Tanzanias statsbaner. Kilden til historien var Danidas egen dybt bekymrede miljø-ekspert, der så blev sparet bort i den følgende nedskæringsrunde, men bistanden til Tanzania fik lov at fortsætte i yderligere 30 år.

Tanzania er om noget især socialdemoratisk arvegods i dansk ulandsbistand, understøttet af Mellemfolkeligt Samvirke, en af Danmarks mest magtfulde ngo’er, og det går helt tilbage til salig præsident og frihedshelt Nyrere’s regeringstid. Det siger meget om inertien i Ulands-tankeren Danida, at det har taget så mange år at justere kursen.

At det sker, skyldes i høj grad ‘hjælp’ ude fra i den forstand, at det er blevet helt umuligt at forsvare udviklingsbistand under Tanzania’s nuværende autokratiske præsident Hassan og såmænd også dennes forgænger Magufuli. Når alt kommer til alt, bør diskussionen om hvad der skal med dansk ulandsbistand handle om mere end blot enkelt korrupt og udemokratisk land som Tanzania. Det kunne være nyttigt med en gennemgribende diskusssion af, hvad der egentlig er opnået med Danmarks storstilede ‘programsamarbejds-koncept’ med nogle få udvalgte udviklingslande.

Ideen var fantastisk: At vi ved at fokusere bistanden, kunne opnå reelle og bæredygtige resultater – ikke bare bekæmpelse af fattigdom, men også fremme af demokrati og menneskerettigheder, herunder kvinders rolle i udviklingsprocessen, bedre miljø m.m.

Som tidligere embedsmand i Udenrigsministeriet skal jeg ikke skjule mit personlige medansvar: I Bangladesh baksede jeg med et transportsektorprogram til DKK 1,2 milliarder og i Vietnam et tilsvarende program til et par hundrede millioner. Jeg vovede aldrig pelsen og sendte en kritisk rapport hjem.

Hvem tør holde de flotte mål op mod den faktiske virkelighed hos Danmarks samarbejdspartnere i: Tanzani, Kenya, Eritrea, Mozambique, Sydafrika, Niger, Burkina Faso, Bangladesh, Vietnam, Nicaragua, Bolivia – det var dem jeg lige kunne huske. En fordomsfri og grundig analyse heraf skylder man de skatteydere, der betaler gildet.

CHASIN’ THE LOSERS

Flash backs to the collapse of the Soviet Union 30 years ago and how I tried to find out, what a victory looks like, when you are on the losing side. In this essay, meet the KGB-general with no regrets, and the communist party officials, seeing their world collapsing. 

“You are lucky to catch me here. In an hour or two, I will be gone. Fired after serving the people for more than 30 years. I will not give them the satisfaction to see my sadness when I walk out. I accept my fate. No matter what they say about me, I have done nothing wrong. I have done my best to protect our country and its citizens from the criminals, I have caught over the years.”

So, this is what a monster looks like”, I thought, while the general paused and lighted up a cigarette.

Here I was with Latvia’s KGB top general Edmunds Johansons, possibly the most feared, the most hated man in the entire Latvia, the tiny Baltic country and the first republic to declare its independence from the Soviet Union the week before. Less than five feet tall, smoke-stained uneven teeth, balding, dressed in a cheap looking suit and tie. I wondered if the general would have looked more impressive in his uniform.  

Get the losers to talk

It was the great idea of a unique angle, which had brought me to the KGB general’s office that morning. Admittedly the great idea belonged to my mentor and chief editor, the late Jørgen Flindt Pedersen, who once told me:

“Anybody can find the winners, getting the losers to talk is true journalism.” 

This morning in August 1991, Jørgen’s advice proved to work surprisingly well in the turmoil of Latvia’s capital Riga. I presented myself to the guard at the entrance of the KGB headquarters at the corner of Friedrich Engel Street and the Lenin Boulevard. My interpreter had refused to enter the building with me. Fortunately, the guard knew enough English to understand that here was a foreign journalist wanting to speak to the general himself. Less than 10 minutes later, I was led from the gate to the general’s office, a big darkish room with heavy curtains and the air stale from cigarette smoke and human sweat.

A group of officials are busy emptying the cabinets of files, stacking them on a big conference table. Some of the documents are put on the general’s work desk for scrutiny, piling up next to an impressive array of telephones in different colors of black, green and red. The general himself is standing at a window, looking at his lost city, a foul-smelling Russian cigarette in his hand. He greets me with a handshake and an attempt of a smile.

“I love Riga. I spent my life here. This is where I met wife and my children grew up. Can you imagine how it feels to see it all fall apart in over just a few days.”

The general points at the streets below us. 

“The other morning, I was standing here and looked on, while some criminals burned our flags down there. I never imagined this would happen. They should have been arrested and punished severely for this insult to the symbol of our nation.”

The city has become quiet now, after two weeks of violent chaos. The barricades, built by the civilians to protect the government buildings from the Russian black berets, are still in place. But the shootings, mostly in the air, and the savage beatings of civilian demonstrators stopped. The black berets have retreated to their base outside Riga.

The only loud noise this morning had come from the huge Lenin statue crashing down on the main square in front of my hotel. The demolition workers were cheered like heroes of a war when they chopped off pieces of the statue and handed them to the on-lookers. 

A failed coup

The showdown in Riga had been a direct result of a failed coup attempt in Moscow, more than 800 km away from Latvia.  A group of hardcore communist leaders and generals had staged a coup attempt to stop the dramatic reforms, spearheaded by general secretary and president Mikhail Gorbachev. The coup not only failed but also unleashed a chaos, ultimately leading to the collapse of the Soviet Union. 

In the aftermath of the coup the general secretary of Latvia’s communist party, Alfreds Rubiks, was arrested a few days before by forces, loyal to Latvia’s new government. Rubiks, also known as a hawkish member of the politbureau, was accused of participating in the attempt to overthrow Gorbachev.

“I have not in any way been involved with the coup in Moscow, and I think I would have known, if Rubiks has had any role. We worked together very closely for years. In the present situation I would not be surprised if I am the next one to be arrested. But I am not worried. A fair trial will prove my innocence,” the general said, lighting up another cigarette with the butt of the one he just finished.

A black beret throwing a smoke grenade to cover the retreat of the Russian elite soldiers from the street fighting in Riga.

General, why did you agree to see me?

“You told my staff, that you come here as an impartial observer, offering me an opportunity to tell my side of the story. I am happy to share the truth with your readers. I want to stand up against this anti-communist witch-hunt, instigated by the enemies of our Soviet Union. I have done nothing but my duty to our fatherland.” 

A call from the president

The general is interrupted by his assistant, whispering in his ear.

“Excuse me for a minute, I have a call from the president of Latvia.”

The general picks up one of his phones. For the next 10 minutes or so a lively exchange takes place, with me becoming increasing frustrated that I did not manage to persuade my interpreter to accompany me to the interview. She could have filled me in later, what this was all about.

For whatever reason, general Johansons decides to share a little from his conversation with Latvia’s president, after he put down the phone.

“President Gurbonovs would like to meet me to discuss with me if we can work together to ensure peace and stability in Latvia. He is worried that common criminals, not least the Mafia, will exploit the situation. Even though we are on opposite sides now, we have known each other for many years. The president knows I am not an enemy.”

The general might have been right in his assessment of the president. Latvia’s new president at the time had a long past as a chief ideologist in the communist party before he joined the popular movement against the party.

“If our security organization is dissolved, it will be very easy for the Mafia to operate in our country.” 

Knowing the risk that ‘impolite questions’ might lead the interview to an abrupt end, I decide to take my chances and confront the general with the public reputation of his organization. 

I understand that a special investigation committee of the Latvian parliament is expected to soon publish a report, which documents close ties between the KGB and the Mafia. The chairman of the committee, Linards Mutinsh, told me yesterday, the committee will present evidence that security agency staff has been involved in smuggling and selling illegal narcotics and prostitution racketeering.  I also understand that the Hotel Latvija, the biggest in Riga where I am staying myself, is a kind of joint venture between KGB and the Leningrad mafia. Hidden cameras and listening devices have been found there. According to rumors, the equipment was used to blackmail guests after their encounters with prostitutes.

“Nonsense and lies. You have seen too many bad movies. We are here to protect the nation and the people, and that is what we have been doing all these years. As a matter of fact, I myself, have been a supporter of the reform process. I have served with loyalty, even to him,” the general says pointing to a portrait on his wall, framed in gold, of Mikhail Gorbachev.

You have been the head of Latvia’s KGB for 20 years now. You do not have any regrets? You never made a mistake?

“In hindsight, you can always find something, that should have been done differently.  But my personal mistakes are really nothing compared to the ultimate and catastrophic mistake when our party leader and president Gorbachev got his way and forced through the abolishment of paragraph 6 in our constitution. After that the Party lost its leading role in our society.”

You told me this is your last day in your office. What future do you imagine for yourself?

“With the call this morning from the president, I have some confidence that I will be allowed to hand over this organization to my successor in an orderly fashion. At present, I do not have any specific ideas what to do next.  And now, you will have to excuse me.  I do have some important things to deal with before I leave.”

My interpreter is waiting for me outside on street.

“I am so relieved to see you again. You know what we say about this building. If you go inside, you will never be seen again. You have no idea of what the KGB have done to us over the years. Thousands of people have been imprisoned and tortured by them. Many have simply disappeared. We believe they were sent to Gulag, the prison camps in Siberia.”

A presidential denial

Later the same afternoon, I take the floor at a press conference with Latvia’s president Anatolisj Gurbonovs. The entire press corps, including journalists who have flown in from all over the world, have been invited to a presidential presentation of the future plans of independent Latvia.

I understand that your government is trying to establish agreement with the KGB on maintaining security in your country.  Do you think this will be accepted by your people with all the sufferings that the KGB has inflicted on them over the years?

“Where on earth did you get that idea, that we would have any collaboration with the KGB,” the president shoots back.

Because you called the head of the KGB this morning in his office. I know because I was there interviewing him.

The president sends an irritated look in my direction and does not respond to any further questions on the topic. 

“A victory no one celebrates” – one my original reports from Latvia.

A party in distress

I decided to follow my mentor’s advice further. Next was a visit to the headquarters of Latvia’s Communist Party to see if anyone there would be willing to talk to me.

As I arrive at the enormous building, I just walk in. In the courtyard a couple of soldiers are arguing with a handful of civilians, pressing their IDs on them.

“They are party officials trying to get in. They say they want to collect their personal belongings, but the soldiers refuse to let them in,” my interpreter explains. She is not scared this time, entering the party headquarters with me.

“The communists are all gone. I want to see what it looks like inside.”

No one seems to pay any attention to us, as we enter the grandiose lobby, including a pompous spiral staircase.

“Look at all the marble on the wall and these beautiful carpets. I had no idea Latvia is such a rich country,” my interpreter observes. Next, she approaches a soldier sitting at the lobby desk, explaining our desire to have a closer look at the party headquarters.

“Sure, and welcome. I am sergeant Starasts Aivars. You want to see the general secretary’s office.”

The friendly sergeant motions us to follow him up the stairs to office 602 on the top floor.

“The general secretary was sitting in his office when we first got here. We informed his security detail that we were here on orders from the government to arrest him. They just nodded, and we went inside and announced his arrest. Rubiks did not say a word nor resisted us, when we took him downstairs and put him in an army truck, taking him to the prison, where he is held now.”

The sergeant let us peep through the door into the general secretary’s impressive office. 

“The office has been sealed now by the court, but you can go inside for a quick look, as long as you don’t touch anything.”

Former party chief Alfreds Rubriks.

Stench of destroyed documents

A strong smell of smoke is coming from the back of the office, as we look around. I push a half-open door leading to the private bathroom of the general secretary and proceed inside to locate the light switch. Once the light is on, I find myself standing on half burned documents. The staff were obviously interrupted before they had a chance to finish the job.

The sergeant moves forward to stop me, as I pick up some of the half-destroyed documents to take a closer look.

“You need to leave now. You are not really allowed to be in here. You can have this little souvenir.” 

The sergeant hands over one of the general secretary’s business cards. On our way out, we stumble on a cart, just standing there with a messy pile of red membership books, intended for newly approved party members.

“Here are a couple more souvenirs for you.” Sergeant Aivars hands over a membership book to both of us with a friendly grin, waving goodbye. 

In the courtyard the small group of former party officials are still pleading with the soldiers.

“You might as well go home. Everything in here is now the property of the government.”

“I have an official ID-card and even keys to the building. You have to let me in.”

The elderly, well-dressed man put his hand on the soldier’s arm, only to be pushed away with disgust. 

“You might as well hand over your keys, all of you.”

“You call this democracy. It looks to me that fascist bandits have occupied our country.”

“You better watch it old man,” the soldier pushes him so hard that he almost falls down. 

A woman in the group is crying now.

“How can they do this to us. We have served the country and the people all over lives. We have done nothing wrong. How will we survive? Are they going to arrest all of us?”

This morning she has no chance of knowing that only the general secretary himself will be convicted for his involvement in the coup attempt. Almost four years later, on 28 July 1995, Latvia’s supreme court hands out an eight-year jail sentence to Alfred Rubiks.

“This is not a verdict. This is the beginning of a new repression,” Rubiks shouted as security guards escorted him out of the court room, as he reportedly muttered: “I will take power in Latvia again, shortly.”

Rubiks did not get his way. Latvian law prohibits him to this day running for public office, but he found new ways to engage in politics. After being released in 1997 for good behavior, he became chairman of The Socialist Party of Latvia, which had been founded on the ruins of the communist party.  In 2009, Rubiks succeeded to become elected to the European Parliament. 

He is now retired. His two sons are members of the Latvian parliament for The Harmony Party, known to represent the Russian-speaking minority in Latvia.

During these extraordinary days in Latvia, I made a third and successful attempt to implement the advice of my mentor and get one more important losing group to talk: The Russian elite troops, known as Black Berets, who had terrorized the citizens of Riga during these tumultuous events.

However, this essay is already too long. So, I will keep that part for my memoirs if I ever get around to writing them. I have tried in vain to trace KGB general Johansons. He would be 85 years old now, if still alive. 

Hanoi, August 2021

HOW THE US BECAME VIETNAM’S BEST FRIEND

President Obama: Ted Osius and his family is a walking Benetton add.

Former US Ambassador Ted Osius has an extraordinary story to tell in his new book ‘Nothing Is Impossible´.

After dealing with Vietnam for the better part of four decades, I tend to think that I have seen it all, read it all too. When students ask my advice what to read to understand the complex relations between Vietnam and America, I suggest Stanley Karnow’s ‘Vietnam’, Neil Sheehan’s ‘A bright shining lie’, Richard Butler’s ‘The fall of Saigon’, Robert McNamara’s ‘In Retrospect’, and of course Larry Berman’s entire works on Vietnam. 

From now on I will certainly add former US Ambassador Ted Osius’ new book ‘Nothing is impossible’ to that eminent list. If a student complains to have too little time for all these favorites of mine, I might say: “Start with Ted Osius then, and you will be motivated to read on.

Osius has some important, objective advantages to other foreign writers on Vietnam:

  •  For the past 25 years (on and off) he has been actively involved as a professional career diplomat in the uphill struggles to turn two bitter enemies into friends.
  • He is fluent in Vietnamese and has a deep understanding of Vietnamese culture, history, and the very complicated politics. 
  • He has more mileage in Vietnam on his bicycle than in his ambassador’s armored limo. He has shaken hands with anyone who matters in Dang Cong San’s Politburo, but he has spoken with even more farmers, fishermen, workers, Buddhist monks, Catholic priests, and students. 
Ted Osius is seen on the right during Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright’s visit to Vietnam in 1997. At center is the first US Ambassador to Vietnam, Pete Peterson, former pilot and prisoner of war in Hanoi.

Behind closed doors

Karnow, Sheehan, Berman, and many others have written great accounts on the US-Vietnam showdowns from their positions outside the closed doors, always depending on whatever their sources might be willing to share. On the contrary, Ted Osius is reporting from the inside (and as eloquent as any professional writer).

The take-away is a book of fascinating authenticity. As a reader you are there with Obama’s team, when it dawns on Osius that the Vietnamese government is not going to deliver on their commitment not to interfere, when Obama is to informally meet with ‘civil society members’, i.e. critics of the regime, during his official state visit in 2016.

With some difficulty Osius had negotiated a quiet deal in advance that Obama would be free to speak with regime critics, provided they had not broken Vietnamese law. As the visit unfolds the critical voices start to disappear before Obama has a chance to meet them. Some of them calls the US Embassy in panic, because they are threatened by police.  

Secretary of State John Kerry gives Osius the quiet advice not to burn any bridges and try to reason with the Vietnamese leaders that a US president cannot consider the visit successful without access to whomever he would like to have a dialogue with. 

After Osius makes some tense phone calls with top Vietnamese leaders, four of the critics manage to make the meeting with Obama, among them Vietnam’s ‘Lady Gaga’, singer Mai Khoi, originally a darling with the Ministry of Culture but now a fierce critic of the Vietnamese government.

Obama takes the incident nicely with the remark that things should always be seen as a process, but Osius is not happy with himself: “Still, I thought the president had been too generous to me. I had been naïve in believing that my deal with the senior leader would hold. I followed Kerry’s advice and let the Vietnamese know I would not forget the betrayal. I did not slap the Vietnamese on the back after the president’s visit, nor did I burn bridges. Too much was at stake in the area of human rights in Vietnam, including reconciliation.”

Encounter with Trump

Similar candor of the surprising kind is found in one of the last chapters, when Osius shares his astonishing encounter with President Trump in the oval office before a meeting with Vietnam’s Prime Minister.

“So who are we meeting,” the president asked.

“The Prime Minister of Vietnam,” McMaster (chief of staff, tbp) replied.

 “Whats his name?”

“Ngyuen Xuan Phuc…rhymes with book.”

“You mean like Fook You,” President Trump asked. “I knew a guy named Fook You. I rented him a restaurant. When he picked up the phone, he answered ‘Fook You’. His business went badly. People didn’t like that. He lost the restaurant.”

Moments later Osius goes on to brief Trump and his staff on important issues, among them the US plans to build a new embassy in Hanoi. The president’s son-in-law Jared Kushner apparently thinks that this would be some kind of gift to the Vietnamese and says: “If they are going to get that embassy, we need something in return. Tell them we’ll built it, if they bring our trade deficit to zero.”

The exchange demonstrates the utter ignorance of Kushner. Co-incidentally, some 15 years go, I asked one of Osius’ predecessors, ambassador Michael Marine during a dinner what his biggest headache was in dealing with the Vietnamese.

“The same as my predecessor. Getting permission to expand the embassy. They keep telling me that there are enough American diplomats in Hanoi. They seem to think that we just want to bring in more CIA.”

Until this day, the US embassy is still stuck on the narrow and overcrowded Lang Ha Street, too small and very much exposed, should any terrorist group target it. Luckily, the ambassador and his staff can continue to count on the fact that the very efficient Vietnamese security agencies would never let any foes near the US embassy.

Vietnam’s best friend

As fascinating as they are, the above anecdotes are insignificant, compared to the real important substance of this book. Osius has a very serious objective to explain why ‘nothing is impossible’ in terms of reconciliation between the US and Vietnam. 

Only a generation ago, American planes threw three times more bombs on Vietnam than they did on the Nazi Germany during WW II. Millions died in Vietnam. Nevertheless, recent surveys indicate that 92% of the Vietnamese today consider the US as Vietnam’s best friend. Obviously, China’s increasingly aggressive regional policies have added another important reason for the present day warm and friendly relations between the US and Vietnam. 

Osius has taken it upon himself to document how this amazing development has come about, including sharing his personal encounters with the men and women on both sides, who made it happen. There are many, many factors in this painstaking process. To mention a few:

  • Laborious confidence-building on both sides as a very difficult precondition, not least in the relations between Vietnam and the overseas refugee communities in the US and elsewhere.
  • Dealing with the legacies of war, including the lingering and devastating consequences of Agent Orange exposure and unexploded bombs and mines, making millions of hectares hazardous in Vietnam (and Laos and Cambodia) for generations to come. 
  • Development of the framework for international cooperation, including investment and trade.
  • Large scale cooperation within regional security, health, education, and culture. 

The US-Vietnam to-do list is much, much longer, and it is eloquently elaborated by Osius in his book. Admirably, he has managed to get it all down in less than 300 pages. 

Ted Osius at a ceremony to celebrate the completion of the clean-up project at the former Da Nang Airbase.

Dealing with Agent Orange 

On a personal level, I am happy to note that Osius gave top priority to the Agent Orange issue during his tenure as ambassador with ever increasing US financial support for the clean-up, possibly amounting to USD 500 million at the time of writing. Though still not sufficient, it is dramatically different from Osius’ first tenure as a junior diplomat in Vietnam.

In those days the US vehemently denied any responsibility for the devastating consequences on human beings and the environment in Vietnam and among the American soldiers who served in the contaminated areas. Osius notes that he and his fellow diplomats were told never to comment on Agent Orange. I may add my personal experience that American diplomats went further than just denials, remembering how the US Embassy in Copenhagen worked very actively to damage my credibility with my editors, when I reported in the early 1980’ies in Danish media about the Agent Orange tragedy in Vietnam.  

I do not believe, readers will find a single boring paragraph in this complex and fact-filled book. Osius has succeeded in making the many people involved come very much alive in his book. 

In this multitude of personalities, the first US Ambassador to Vietnam, Pete Peterson, stands out, a former prisoner of war in Vietnam, and Osius’ boss during his first tenure in Vietnam. In the words of Peterson himself, when receiving the Presidential Citizens Medal for his services: 

“I bombed Vietnam during the war. Then, I had the opportunity to come back and do good things. Few people have that opportunity.”

The walking Benetton add

During Osius later tenure as ambassador, he also stood out in a different way, paving the way for a much broader public acceptance of the LGBT community in Vietnam, traditionally frowned upon in Vietnamese culture.

As one of USA’s first openly gay ambassadors, Osius and his husband Clayton Bond, used every opportunity to promote the core issues of the LGBT movement claiming their rightful place in modern society, making the ambassador and his family all the more admired among the Vietnamese. As noted by President Obama when he first met Osius, Bond and their two adopted children of Mexican origin: “You are a walking Benetton add.”

After more than 30 years serving his country, Ted Osius has resigned from the Foreign Service in frustration, maybe even in disgust. The reason was President Trump’s decision to forcibly repatriate Vietnamese (and other nationalities), even for the slightest criminal offenses committed at any time. Osius refused to carry out his instructions to take this matter to the Vietnamese authorities, explaining his reasons live on CNN.

Osius’ own legacy in Vietnam is lauded by former Secretary of State, John Kerry in his foreword: “Ted won over not only Vietnam’s leaders but also its citizens. He made full use of his moment in history when it was possible to create meaningful friendships for the United States.”

John Kerry has personal reasons to be grateful. Osius and his staff helped Kerry to locate, decades later, one of the surviving Viet Cong guerillas, who confirmed Kerry’s testimony from an incident during the war. Kerry had shot and killed a guerilla, who was aiming his rocket launcher at Kerry’s swift boat on patrol in the Mekong delta. Years later, some of Kerry’s political enemies at home had successfully circulated the story that Kerry had shot an unarmed teenager on the run, leading to the demand that Kerry should be stripped off his wartime medals. The story became very harmful to Kerry’s presidential campaign in 2004.  Even though Kerry did not become president, he got his name cleared eventually with the assistance of Osius.

After three years working as a vicepresident for Google in Singapore, Osius recently moved back to D.C. with his family. I wonder in what capacity we shall hear from him next.

Ted Osius: Nothing Is Impossible. Rutgers University Press. 2021.

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.