An Thuy Nguyen. Critical Asian Studies. Volume 51, Issue 1. March 2019.
This article examines the political and diplomatic struggles in urban South Vietnam from the perspective of women in the Vietnamese Women’s Movement for the Right to Live (WRL) during the Vietnam War. This movement was a timely response to the American war of aggression, which had destroyed the fabric of South Vietnamese society and drastically diminished women’s position within it by 1970. Under the leadership of Mrs. Ngô Bá Thành, the WRL fought for peace and women’s liberation through political action and shrewd diplomacy. Unlike female guerrilla fighters, the WRL maintained political autonomy and neutrality throughout the conflict. As a result, it was violently repressed by the Saigon government and quickly disbanded after the communist victory in 1975. Nevertheless, studying these politically sophisticated women’s anti-war efforts is crucial to understanding the symbiotic yet destructive relationship between Third World women and American imperialism during the twentieth century. It also helps dismantle essentialist assumptions about Asian women as inherently submissive and politically naïve. The WRL is a sterling example of Vietnamese women’s ingenuity in their dual struggle for national liberation and gender equality.
On July 26, 1970, more than one thousand Vietnamese attended a political seminar on “The Sufferings of Vietnamese Women in the Present Situation” at the headquarters of the Saigon Student Union (Tổng Hội Sinh Viên Sài Gòn). They heard women from across South Vietnam testify about American war crimes. These included, “rapes and other atrocities committed against women and children, massacres, and the indiscriminate destruction of villages and homes.” Identifying women as “the person[s] bearing sufferings and sacrifices the most” due to the conflict, Mrs. Ngô Bá Thành, a lawyer and eminent anti-war advocate, announced the establishment of the Vietnamese Women’s Committee for the Right to Live (Ủy Ban Phụ Nữ Đòi Quyền Sống). Joining Mrs. Thành in founding this organization were representatives from seventeen religious, political, social, and professional women organizations in South Vietnam. The Committee’s objectives were the protection of Vietnamese women’s lives and dignity, the total withdrawal of American troops, and the creation of a democratic coalition government in South Vietnam. While the last two objectives affirmed the Committee’s position as a non-communist anti-war group, the first conspicuously set it apart from other pacifist urban movements of the time.
Three months later, on October 18, 1970, the Committee was renamed the Women’s Movement for the Right to Live (WRL). By the end of November, the WRL had become one of the most active and eminent organizations within the Third Force (Lực Lượng Thứ Ba) movement, an informal coalition of anti-war and neutralist elements in urban South Vietnam. The Third Force demanded an immediate end to the war and aimed to act as a facilitating force between the Republic of Vietnam (RVN) government and the National Liberation Front (NLF). As the only women-led urban peace movement in the country, the WRL sought a democratic post-war society, in which Vietnamese women would be able to “match their political maturity and [position to those] of women of advanced countries.” This feminist vision attested to the movement’s desire to improve Vietnamese women’s lives and socio-political positions within the context of the bloody conflict and in the democratic society they hoped would eventually emerge from the ashes of war.
Despite its significant role in South Vietnamese civil society and the anti-war movement, the history of the WRL has hitherto been largely neglected, both in Vietnam and abroad. This historiographical paucity stems largely from the post-1975 Socialist Republic of Vietnam’s efforts to monopolize the history of the conflict. The state has sought to eviscerate from national history and popular memory any wartime contributions by non-communists, whether as part of the NLF or the urban coalition. Meanwhile, many members of the anti-communist Vietnamese diaspora remain suspicious, even today, of neutral elements in the Vietnamese peace movement, both as a consequence and a manifestation of the post-war polarization. As a result, Third Force organizations, including the WRL, continue to be considered by many Vietnamese-Americans to have been “at best naïve and unrealistic, at worst as instruments of the Communist Party.” Their history thus remains largely unappreciated and lightly examined. Moreover, the glorification of Vietnamese women guerrilla fighters by the current Socialist Republic of Vietnam inadvertently has discouraged foreign scholars from exploring in detail Vietnamese women’s involvement in the war. Those who have studied the role of women have assigned more significance to the better-known Vietnam Women’s Union (VWU), the official representative of women in the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV), and the NLF’s Women’s Union for Liberation (WUL).
By investigating the historical role of the WRL, I illuminate the political and diplomatic struggles in South Vietnamese urban areas from the perspective of non-communist women. I argue that despite its eventual disbandment following the collapse of the RVN in April 1975, the WRL is an exemplary example of Vietnamese women’s fervent engagement in a dual struggle for women’s liberation and national independence during the Vietnam War. Their persistent pressure on the RVN government and their impact on the international media were of special significance since women guerrilla fighters, though described in many historical sources, never gained comparable attention in Vietnam or internationally before the conflict concluded.
Second, a closer look at these urban women’s struggle is also pertinent to understanding the impact of American policies on the people and socio-political infrastructure of its supposed ally, the Republic of Vietnam. Instead of containing communism and building popular support for the Saigon regime, American pacification programs destroyed the fabric of South Vietnamese society. Revealing this scarcely examined facet of the war is especially urgent in the current political climate, when discussions about American foreign policy among policy-makers are often imbued with belligerent rhetoric and little consideration of historical lessons. At the same time, a focus on urban struggles also lays bare the inadequacy of popular historical narratives of the Vietnam War. In reality, while most of the fighting took place in the countryside, the most vibrant and consequential political debates occurred in urban centers where women and Third Force members received the strongest support from the general populace. Illuminating this Vietnamese perspective on the struggle for peace is critical, as it was both American and Vietnamese anti-war diplomacy that helped bring the war to its eventual end.
Finally, an examination of the WRL’s political efforts will help repudiate the cultural essentialism that often portrays Vietnamese and non-white women as “ignorant, tradition-bound, family-oriented, victimized,” and their nationalism as a mere product of male nationalists’ manipulation. To eradicate such dangerous misconceptions about the hegemony and superiority of “Western” and white feminism in global gender politics, Third World women historians have advocated for the need to “decolonize feminist theory” and examine the “complex interrelationships between feminist, antiracist, and nationalist struggles.” This article is a response to this historiographical call. I portray the WRL’s political struggle as an important historical juncture where nationalism and anti-imperialism were imperative to achieving feminist goals. Since the American war of aggression dealt the most devastating blows to women and children, any effort at attaining gender equality short of ending the war would have been futile. Understanding these urgent historical circumstances, Mrs. Thành and the WRL prioritized their battle for peace and change and, through their political action and activism, epitomized Vietnamese women’s political awareness, resourcefulness, and audacity beyond the battlefield.
Mrs. Ngô Bá Thành and the Peace Combatants
Over the past decade, Mme. Thành gradually had become a symbol as well as an embodiment of opposition politics in South Vietnam. She exemplified how far opposition could be carried without becoming a Communist and without fleeing the country.
Born Phạm Thị Thanh Vân in Hanoi in 1931, the founder of the WRL was the wife of veterinary Doctor Ngô Bá Thành, who was Director of the Saigon Fishery Service, and the only daughter of Doctor Phạm Văn Huyến, the High Commissioner for Refugees in South Vietnam. After earning doctorates in law from the University of Barcelona and the University of Paris, as well as a Juris Doctor degree from Columbia University, Mrs. Thành became a professor at the University of Saigon.
After 1965, Mrs. Thành became increasingly popular among South Vietnam’s urban population due to her prominent participation in South Vietnamese politics. Mrs. Thành’s first official involvement in anti-war politics was with the Vietnamese Peace Committee (VPC), founded by her father in the mid-1960s to press for the restoration of peace in South Vietnam. In 1965, Mrs. Thành was among 4000 intellectuals who signed the VPC’s Peace Petition, which called for an immediate cease-fire between Saigon and the NLF. After Mrs. Thành, her father, and ninety-eight other signatories were detained as reports of the petition circulated in the press, the VPC destroyed 3000 signatures to avoid further arrests. Despite her ultimate acquittal, Mrs. Thành and her husband lost their jobs before she was arrested once again on June 16, 1966 and imprisoned for twenty-five months without trial. On June 29, 1968, Mrs. Thành was offered “conditional release,” marking her third acquittal from jail in a period of three years.
A patriotic intellectual and a mother of four, Mrs. Thành consistently questioned the roles of women in the “mission of seeking peace.” In an article commemorating the Buddhist nun Nhất Chi Mai’s self-immolation in protest of the war, Mrs. Thành explained why Vietnamese women were uniquely important in the struggle for peace and national reconciliation. Not only were women direct and indirect victims of the ongoing conflict, Mrs. Thành argued, but their subordinate positions within a Confucian society also gave them a better understanding of the need to eradicate all systems of violence and oppression. Considering women’s liberation and gender equality as inseparable from “the self-determination of the nation,” Mrs. Thành encouraged South Vietnamese women to follow their foremothers’ examples and participate in the political battle for peace. At the same time, the feminist lawyer emphasized the need to embrace the “growing and positive influence of Western feminism” and to formulate an “international center of understanding and mutual assistance” with progressive women around the world. Seeking to incorporate these feminist and nationalist ideals into a more coherent framework for change, Mrs. Thành resigned from the presidency of the International Women’s Association of Saigon in 1969, and established her own movement of women “peace combatants” in 1970.
The newly founded WRL quickly became the fulcrum of women’s advocacy and protests in urban South Vietnam. Unlike the communist-oriented VWU and WUL, the WRL remained politically neutral in its anti-war struggles, reflecting its leader’s commitment to non-violence and neutralism. Indeed, as a refugee from North Vietnam who was not a Marxist, Mrs. Thành viewed both capitalism and communism as “alien ideologies” that had caused insurmountable pain to the people of Vietnam. Despite openly protesting against the despotic Nguyễn Văn Thiệu regime and the American-funded “fratricidal war,” Mrs. Thành consistently refused to be branded as a communist. She instead insisted that a “national ideology” which promoted Vietnam in an upward tendency and ensured peace could be realized through the withdrawal of U.S. troops and the establishment of a democratic government in South Vietnam. Fulfilling these two conditions, Mrs. Thành believed, would allow for both an end to “Communist propaganda about US imperialist aims in Vietnam” and the assurance of an “American presence [in the region] through post-war economic aid.”
While acknowledging the NLF as a “political reality that must be counted” in the future reorganization of the RVN, Mrs. Thành regarded immediate unification as impossible due to inherent differences between the two socioeconomic systems. For Mrs. Thành and other Third Force leaders, communism was thus neither a preferable nor an inevitable outcome of their anti-war efforts. The reason they took to the streets to protest the war was less ideological than the Thiệu government and its post-war supporters claimed. Instead, it was her patriotism and moral obligation as a “servant of justice” that propelled Mrs. Thành to the forefront of the urban battle for peace by the end of 1970.
WRL’s Structure and Membership
In addition to Mrs. Ngô Bá Thành, another important leader of the WRL was the Buddhist nun Ni Sư Huỳnh Liên, revered in South Vietnam for her important role in conducting many anti-war protests and for her influential charitable programs. Her monastery, Ngọc Phương Pagoda, was a well-known venue for the WRL’s and Third Force’s important events throughout the war. The WRL’s headquarters was in Saigon, with additional chapters in major South Vietnamese cities, such as Cần Thơ, Đà Nẵng, and the former imperial capital of Huế. Each of these chapters was led and organized by local women who maintained close contact with WRL leaders in Saigon, either through letters or personal meetings. The WRL also assigned representatives to establish formal and informal alliances with groups in the United States, England, France, and Japan.
Eventually becoming a coalition of thirty-six women’s organizations across South Vietnam, the WRL embodied the most diverse representation any Vietnamese women’s movement had ever witnessed. The WRL included intellectuals, professionals, workers, merchants, students, religious believers, relocated peasants, and government employees. As Lý Chánh Trung, a philosophy professor and prominent member of the Third Force, observed:
Overall, the [WRL]’s composition was representative of different classes, generations, and localities. For years, this was the first time such a wide connection and cooperation among women had been established, and that alone was a success. Most of the people on the committee were older and committed to family responsibilities, belonging to all sorts of communities and most did not look rich.
The WRL’s ability to unite women from all walks of life, especially at a time of divisions and dislocations, was both a political success and a transformative moment in Vietnamese women’s history. Unlike its counterparts in the DRV and the NLF, whose agendas were influenced by official political directives, the WRL retained political autonomy and diversity. The movement’s inclusion of poorer women also sharply deviated from the bourgeoisie-dominated Phụ Nữ Tân Văn (women’s newspapers) feminist movement of the early 1930s.
The success of the WRL was more than either a matter of chance or a result of Mrs. Thành’s charismatic leadership. Instead, the war had become so cruel that it compelled all women, regardless of class, age, and personal background, to resist and demand peace. On the other hand, many Vietnamese women had also acquired sufficient political maturity and awareness to realize that peace could only be attained through non-violence and reconciliation of all sides. Despite their myriad differences, WRL members were bound together by a shared anti-imperialism and desire for peace. The founding of the WRL, as such, was significant not only in its unprecedented representation of Vietnamese women from all strata of society but also in its offering of an organized framework, within which women could fight for peace and self-determination without engaging in combat or adhering to communist doctrine.
Alliance with the Third Force
Since its inception, the WRL had self-identified as part of the active urban anti-war coalition in South Vietnam. By 1965, military destruction and pacification efforts in the countryside had generated a massive influx of refugees in Saigon and other cities. There, overcrowding and poor public infrastructure culminated in disease outbreaks and widespread hunger that increasingly frustrated urban intellectuals and professionals. To protest American policies and government corruption, people resorted to demonstrations, hunger strikes, and signing the aforementioned VPC’s Peace Petition. President Thiệu’s determination to brand any political opposition as communist, however, deterred the formation of an assertive Third Force identity until after 1968. The January 1968 Tết Offensive exposed the urban population to the war’s ferocity that had long ravaged the countryside. Subsequent urban anti-war efforts were significant in altering American public perception, by revealing the general undesirability of American policies among all segments of Vietnamese society.
On April 20, 1968, non-communist peace groups across South Vietnam united in the “Alliance of National, Democratic and Peace Forces” (Liên Minh Các Lực Lượng Dân Tộc, Dân Chủ, Hoà Bình) to oppose the Nixon Administration’s Vietnamization of the war. Originally seeking to reconcile opposing political segments in the country, the Alliance ultimately cooperated with the NLF to form a Provisional Revolutionary Government (PRG) in June 1969. Mrs. Thành and other leaders, however, refused to participate in this alliance and continued their campaign under the banner of political neutralism. Their aim was not to compete for power with Thiệu and the PRG, but to demand a non-violent and democratic solution to end the war. Cooperating with different Third Force groups, the WRL organized labor strikes to demand better working conditions, press conferences to condemn the rape and murder of Vietnamese women, and hunger strikes against the illegal detention of students and peace advocates.
To further expand its sphere of influence, the WRL became one of the thirty-three founding members of the Vietnamese People’s Front Struggling for Peace (Mặt Trận Nhân Dân Đấu Tranh vì Hoà Bình) on November 7, 1970. As the most comprehensive representation of the Third Force in South Vietnam, the People’s Front demanded immediate peace and the elimination of “every form of dictatorship, whether it be military or civilian.” Not only were these demands more radical than those of the NLF and the DRV, they also attested to the political neutralism espoused by members of the Third Force. From this point on, urban anti-war efforts in the country were well-coordinated and organized almost every day.
Like the WRL, the Third Force coalition represented groups from across South Vietnam’s political spectrum. Its conservative elements included leaders of the Catholic-led anti-corruption movement, such as Father Trần Hữu Thanh, and anti-Communist military officials like General Dương Văn Minh. Its progressive wing encompassed politicians, trade unionists, and influential pro-peace personalities. These included student leader Huỳnh Tấn Mẫm, Catholic journalist Ngô Công Đức, National Assembly member Hồ Ngọc Nhuận, Father Chân Tín, and Mrs. Ngô Bá Thành, among others. Despite their fierce opposition to the war and relative sympathy for the PRG, leftist members of the Third Force maintained a politically neutral position and envisioned a democratic future for post-war Vietnam. Due to this uncompromising anti-war stance, these leaders suffered the most from the Thiệu government. Huỳnh Tấn Mẫm, for instance, was tortured until he was “partially deaf, crippled, and blind” after his Saigon Student Union demonstrated against conscription and the war’s expansion into Laos and Cambodia. In June 1970, American troops fired bullets, rockets, and grenades on the School of Agriculture in Saigon, and protesting students retaliated by throwing Molotov cocktails and burning vehicles. On June 22, 1970, the National Student Congress in South Vietnam issued a public statement that concluded, “The shortest way to solve Vietnam’s problems is to end [the] barbaric and genocidal war immediately and have a total revolution in every aspect of national life.”
In addition to student protests, workers organized a general strike on June 25, 1970 to protest economic conditions and the war. This effort was vehemently supported by the WRL, the Disabled Veterans Movement, the Ấn Quang Buddhist Church, and other civic organizations. In response to this drastic escalation of urban anti-war sentiments, President Thiệu vowed to “beat to death the people who [demanded] an immediate peace.” He did so by intensifying the Accelerated Pacification Program (also known as Operation Phoenix). Established, funded, and supervised by the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), Operation Phoenix sanctioned the arrest and torture of thousands of Thiệu’s political opponents. Many of these prisoners were politically neutral, but, according to President Thiệu, “all Third Force groups were traitors with their strings pulled by the Communists.”
The DRV and NLF consistently voiced their support for the Third Force’s participation in a coalition government as early as 1968. They believed that this neutralist voice could “play a crucial role in attaining a peaceful solution during the [peace] negotiation process.” Third Force members also recognized their own importance in the delivery of a peaceful end to the war via national reconciliation between the PRG and the Saigon regime. Indeed, by the time the Paris Peace Accords (PPA) were signed in 1973, the Third Force had “become an important element in the architecture of peace” by acting “as a buffer between the two opposing parties” within the National Council of National Reconciliation and Concord. This hope for a non-violent outcome never materialized, however, due to President Thiệu’s refusal to abide by the PPA and continued repression of political dissent with American aid. The urban movement’s eventual demise, caused by Thiệu and affirmed by the communist military victory in April 1975, confirmed both the Third Force’s potential as a post-war democratic force and the total disappearance of a civil society in South Vietnam.
In this light, the WRL’s identification as part of the Third Force movement was both dangerous and politically imperative. On the one hand, by allying itself with the Third Force instead of the PRG, the WRL remained vulnerable to the Thiệu government’s brutal repression. Unlike NLF guerilla women who could retreat to the jungles, mountains, and forests, WRL members had to operate in the cities where state security forces were strongest. The WRL’s and Third Force’s commitment to a middle-ground solution also meant that whatever symbolic support they may have received from the communists would not last if the NLF and the North won the war. On the other hand, the WRL could not have survived, or been as effective, by operating independently of the Third Force movement. Solidarity with other opponents of the war added weight to the WRL’s arguments for peace. It also augmented their relationship with American women’s movements by convincing the American public that the war was unjustifiable, whatever one’s political position was.
To achieve its objectives, the WRL employed a range of strategies, from embracing traditional rhetoric and organizing charitable programs to conducting radical protests and a letter-writing campaign targeting policy-makers and American peace activists. Their efforts were organized around four approaches: healing the wounds of war, sustaining strategic alliances with domestic and international groups, educating the public (in both South Vietnam and internationally) about the war’s impact, and engaging in direct public and private protests against the RVN and US policies. To understand the historical motivations and significance of the WRL, I next examine the ways in which women were victimized by the American war.
Women’s Sufferings during the War
From 1965 to 1972, U.S. forces routinely conducted search and destroy operations to deprive the NLF of rural support. These operations systematically eradicated entire villages and “sometimes everyone in them.” While having little impact on the NLF’s infrastructure, these operations resulted in an inordinately high number of civilian casualties, the majority of whom were women, young children, and the elderly, since most able-bodied men had already left their villages to join either the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) or the NLF’s People’s Liberation Armed Forces (PLAF, also known as Việt Cộng). Furthermore, the common American use of body counts as an important measure of military progress encouraged deliberate killings of civilians, who would then be classified as Việt Cộng (VC) casualties. US Air Force Captain Brian Wilson, for instance, described this reality as follows:
It was the epitome of immorality. One of the times I counted the bodies after an air strike – which always ended with two napalm bombs, which would just fry everything that was left – I counted sixty-two bodies. In my report I described them as so many women between fifteen and twenty-five and so many children – usually in their mothers’ arms or very close to them – and so many old people. [Later, the official tally of dead listed them as 130 VCs killed.]
Moreover, women also suffered from sexual violence perpetrated by American and allied forces. Due to the fact that most women in rural Vietnam did not speak English and had little to no recourse to the law, official reports of rape and gang rape incidents were scarce. However, historians have highlighted numerous occasions on which women and young girls, after having been gang raped by American troops, were murdered and counted as enemy deaths.
Under these circumstances, the WRL attempted to abate some of the war’s effects by organizing various charitable and social programs. In August 1970, WRL members visited hospitals and prisons across South Vietnam to help war victims celebrate Vu Lan, a Buddhist holiday that venerates lost souls and filial piety. Women offered food, clothes, medicine, and mosquito nets to the wounded, refugees, and political prisoners. Buddhist women also held pray ceremonies for victims of the conflict, as Mrs. Thành urged women to demand the “right to live for the thirty million innocent Vietnamese souls.” On December 20, 1970, the WRL organized a public seminar on the “Miserable Status of Vietnamese Orphans in the Present Life” at the Long Thành War Orphans Village, a private institute run by Buddhist nuns. These orphans, Mrs. Thành argued, were a direct result of the massive foreign military presence in Vietnam. They were forced to endure various “life evils: death, misery, humiliation, disease, illiteracy, robbery, prostitution, and youth criminality,” she said. Appealing to maternal love, Mrs. Thành encouraged women to join the anti-war movement and rescue war orphans, child victims of napalm attacks, and children of mixed race.
Viewing this as a dangerous anti-regime initiative, President Thiệu ordered soldiers to turn away women who brought gifts to the orphanage, while harassing the orphanage itself with “accidental mortar fire” and threats of destruction. Refusing to give in, WRL members “went to the steps of the National Assembly for a sit-down protest – peasants, poor, and intellectuals, for the first time together.” Such demonstrations would continue to be organized almost every day, in defiance of government bans on strikes, meetings, and sit-ins.
Impact of Pacification Programs and Women’s Responses
Pacification programs in South Vietnam, which began in 1959, were aimed at asserting control over the rural population and building support for the Saigon regime. From 1959 to 1967, countless peasants, along with ethnic minorities in the mountainous regions, were forcibly relocated to government-controlled “strategic hamlets” in the lowlands. When this program failed, it was replaced by “forced urbanization,” which sought to deprive the NLF of food and potential recruits by relocating people to urban cities. The escalating number of refugees in government-controlled areas was used by the American government as an indicator of an alleged peasant desire to support the Saigon government.
Despite propaganda about the “civilizing” experience of the forced relocation programs, the actual process was often violent, with American bulldozers and bombers razing villages to the ground. While helicopters often warned villagers about incoming raids via English announcements and leaflets, “only a tiny minority of the peasants was literate enough to read them at all.” As a result, many people were promptly killed as they tried to flee advancing American troops. This indiscriminate violence inevitably antagonized the rural population, most of whom women and children. Even if these civilians had believed in the bona fide intentions of American forces, the utter decimation of their homes and villages compelled them to think otherwise.
Refugees further suffered from poor living conditions in relocation camps. In spite of the constant inflow of American financial aid, little money was spent on supporting basic needs. Even Sống [Live], a Saigon daily newspaper created by the government to justify pacification programs, reported that, while 170 million piasters (roughly US$1.5 million) had been allocated to resettle people in Quảng Ngãi Province in 1967, less than 70 million (US$598,000) actually reached people. As a result, women refugees were forced to turn to all kinds of work, including prostitution, to support their families. Their struggles were exacerbated by the constant increase in food prices. An American crop destruction program and the removal of massive numbers of peasants from the countryside drastically reduced South Vietnam’s agricultural capability. By 1971, the once rice-exporting country was importing one million metric tons of rice every year. In addition, the Nixon Administration’s Vietnamization strategy, which was designed to replace U.S. ground troops with a well-equipped South Vietnamese army, contributed to hyperinflation by late 1970. While creating additional burdens for working women, many of whom were breadwinners in their families, these problems dealt even more devastating blows to the women and children who constituted almost all of South Vietnam’s unemployed refugees. The result was severe hunger among refugees, especially among the camps’ smallest inhabitants, who at times “fought like animals for the garbage” in order to survive.
These calamities were not confined to smaller towns. Saigon and other cities constituted the “real strategic hamlets of the war,” and faced a staggering one million refugees every year after 1966. Widespread corruption and a government focus on military spending left an estimated one dollar per year to be spent on each Saigon resident. The lack of state funding and an antiquated colonial-era sewage system turned Saigon into “one of the least healthy cities in the world.”
Finally, women were also victimized by the 1962-1971 U.S. defoliation campaign. Aside from destroying the country’s ecology, the indiscriminate spraying of defoliants caused diseases and birth deformities. By 1969, the American Air Force was spraying “enormous amounts of an anti-crop chemical which [had] been known for three years to cause deformed births in test animals – at a rate of one hundred percent.” Despite similar findings and warnings from American scientists, the Nixon Administration refused to expand its domestic ban on the herbicides’ use to the war in Vietnam. Furthermore, issues of Vietnamese newspapers that dared report on cases of birth deformities were swiftly confiscated by the Thiệu government for having “interfered with the war effort.” Nevertheless, Tin Sáng, one of Saigon’s largest newspapers, continued to report on this predicament.
Given these circumstances, it was hardly surprising that the WRL fought for both Vietnamese women’s lives and dignity. The movement astutely understood that women’s sufferings were not only physical but also psychological and generational. Aside from sexual violence and exploitation, women risked being shattered by an inability to bear healthy children. In a country heavily influenced by Confucian ideals, infertility or having children with birth defects could mean enormous social stigma and immeasurable pain.
It was within this context that the WRL sent a letter to the U.S. Senate’s Foreign Relations Committee on May 7, 1971. In this letter, Mrs. Thành delineated the myriad political and economic problems devastating Vietnamese women and children. She exhorted the Senators to revise current U.S. policies to avoid further casualties on all sides. American prestige and honor, she wrote, could only be safeguarded by pursuing a political solution to the war. The WRL requested that the United States end its financial support for the Thiệu government. This support, Mrs. Thành pointed out, had been largely spent on expanding the state’s police force and constructing a formidable prison system. Significantly, the WRL also urged the U.S. to refrain from interfering in the forthcoming South Vietnamese elections. For many activists and opponents of the government, the election represented a long-awaited opportunity to finally replace Thiệu with a more democratic and representative government.
Their fears were realized when the government banned opposition presidential and lower house candidates shortly after the WRL’s letter was sent. Mrs. Thành and other WRL members lodged a protest and appeal to the RVN’s Supreme Court on July 13, 1971, whereupon they were swiftly arrested. Upon their release, Mrs. Thành declared that her organization would join the newly formed “Movement against Rigged Elections” (Phong Trào Chống Gian Lận Bầu Cử) in hopes of reversing this unconstitutional law through public pressure. These efforts failed.
Thành’s Arrest and a Transnational Feminist Alliance
On September 18, 1971, Mrs. Thành was arrested for having allegedly assaulted a judge, despite witness testimonies indicating that the latter had simply stumbled on his own. She was sent to Thủ Đức prison, where she began a tormenting twenty-five-month prison journey without trial. Many others who had protested Thiệu’s electoral victory were also jailed for similarly arbitrary reasons. While Thiệu’s breach of democracy caused no small amount of embarrassment for the U.S. government, President Nixon refused to change American policies, insisting that only by endorsing Thiệu could the United States ensure victory and, hence, credibility:
Whether there will be a referendum or elections, and the people vote for or not for, Thiệu is the only one there … [It] is doubly important that the U.S. not fail in Vietnam, otherwise those ninety-one little countries are going to say: “My God, can we depend on the U.S.?”
By late 1971 both the Thiệu and Nixon administrations had lost significant credibility, while the war had become so destructive it had become implausible to rally South Vietnamese behind either the dictator or the war without coercion. In addition, opposition groups such as the WRL had garnered enough popular backing to seriously threaten Thiệu’s power. He no doubt understood that the immense international support enjoyed by these non-communist activists made them more dangerous to his position than either the NLF or the distant DRV.
Indeed, Mrs. Thành’s arrest generated outrage among international organizations, including the WILPF’s U.S. Section (USWILPF) and the Women Strike for Peace (WSP) organization. A transnational feminist alliance of these American women’s movements and the WRL had been formed during a fact-finding mission to Saigon in January 1971. Having witnessed the war’s harrowing impact upon Vietnamese women, USWILPF had signed a Joint Peace Declaration with the WRL on January 5, 1971. This announced that “a state of peace” existed between Vietnamese and American women and demanded the immediate withdrawal of American troops from Indochina. This transnational relationship became the principal vehicle through which the WRL’s anti-war messages reached the American public. More significantly, it helped increase pressure on elected American officials and bolster international support for the movement.
For instance, WILPF protested Mrs. Thành’s imprisonment by organizing demonstrations and a letter-writing campaign. In their letter of protest to President Nixon, WILPF President Marii Hasegawa and USWILPF’s President Kay Camp argued that Mrs. Thành’s case had “greater implications than most,” due to her impressive educational achievements and her international reputation as a tireless peace advocate. Moreover, Mrs. Thành’s family’s affiliation with the Saigon government had also lent “additional credibility to her critical views” of policies in Vietnam. Outside the United States, national WILPF sections jointly sent over 8000 hand-written anti-war postcards to President Nixon. Meanwhile, Congresswoman Bella Abzug led a WSP delegation to “voice their profound concern and inquire about the well-being of Mrs. Thành” at the South Vietnamese Embassy in Washington on September 18, 1971. To protest her imprisonment, Mrs. Thành refused to salute the RVN flag and went on a hunger strike. Due to her asthma and ill treatment by authorities, she suffered from multiple health complications, including “vomiting and internal bleeding”.
1973 Paris Peace Accord: A Missed Opportunity
After North Vietnam launched a spring offensive in March 1972, the South Vietnamese government responded with a massive campaign of arrests. On November 1, the WRL and other groups took to the streets to demand a peace treaty. In response, the government banned demonstrations and decreed that anyone who voiced support for a coalition government would be considered “pro-communist neutralists” and face capital punishment. A month later, President Thiệu signed a decree that banned opposition politicians. By early 1973, even staunch domestic supporters of U.S. policy in Vietnam were coordinating with the Third Force to oust Thiệu and end the war. Such overwhelming public pressure and the Watergate scandal finally compelled President Nixon and a furious President Thiệu to sign the PPA on January 27, 1973.
Because it stipulated that a national representative government be created with “three equal segments” in South Vietnam, the treaty was welcomed by the WRL and its Third Force allies. Yet, the euphoria proved ephemeral when the ARVN, with American support, began military offensives against PRG-controlled areas and escalated its repression of domestic opposition. In open contravention of the agreements, the Thiệu government refused to release political prisoners and, instead, systematically re-registered them as criminals. In protest, Mrs. Thành continued her hunger strike. As a result, she was dragged to the Police Hospital and back to Biên Hòa prison by thirty security officers numerous times. Other Third Force members who were “neutralist, those who publicly sided with the communists, and those who [were] actively politically” were also arrested. Given these circumstances, it was unsurprising that from 1973 to April 1975, much of the WRL’s efforts were focused on demanding the release of political prisoners and the implementation of the Paris Accords.
WRL and the Issue of Political Prisoners in South Vietnam
By 1973, an estimated 200,000 political prisoners were being held by the Thiệu government. President Thiệu’s press secretary and nephew, Hoàng Đức Nhã, boasted that his uncle had arrested 55,000 “Communist sympathizers” and killed 5000 others since the announcement of the PPA. According to a high U.S. official, Thiệu’s paranoia and determination to silence his opposition became so severe that he was arresting practically “anyone [with] a third cousin on the other side.” Even pregnant women and children were not excluded. According to two French teachers who had been imprisoned from 1970 to 1972:
Chí Hòa [one of the main prisons in Saigon] is like South Vietnamese society in miniature. There is everything from former presidential candidates, Buddhist monks, women and children who have never committed any offense, to the most hardened criminals and drug addicts. There are countless children in South Vietnam’s prisons. Often a mother is arrested too quickly to find anyone to care for her children, so the children are arrested and imprisoned, too.
Thiệu classified “all those who disagreed with the regime, whatever the degree of disagreements,” as communists. Even those who could not have possibly disagreed with him, like “babies of several months old,” were imprisoned along with their mothers. Women, who constituted nearly half of all political prisoners, were detained for obscure reasons, from walking around after curfew time to buying too much rice. Many female prisoners were not involved in any political activity and “had no idea why they had been made prisoners” in the first place. Child prisoners, meanwhile, suffered from a lack of food and medicine, with many having been born under unsanitary conditions inside their mothers’ cells.
Political prisoners were tortured and frequently killed. Women prisoners were often undressed, beaten, and raped, and suspected Viet Cong were victims of “variations of genital abuse.” As a result, many female prisoners died or suffered mental illness. A typical case was that of Cô Lang, a young woman who was arrested for having rejected the advances of an ARVN officer. Lang was given electrical shocks under her finger nails, causing extraordinary pain and blood to flow from her vagina. Despite their sufferings, most prisoners were prevented from obtaining medical care. Jane Barton, a volunteer for the American Friends Service Committee, was barred from treating the prisoners in Quảng Ngãi Hospital and described their conditions as follows:
I focused on the women. They were not only chained to their beds, they were also chained together, in pairs. Twice a day they were released so that they could go to the bathroom, I learned, but their ankle chains were not undone so that they had to hobble clumsily, dragging their chains between them.
To prevent international outrage, the prisoners always received an extra meal and more food at each meal before visits by the Red Cross or other humanitarian groups.
But to solely blame President Thiệu for this tragic reality is inadequate. Given the deteriorating economy and the destruction of natural resources in South Vietnam, Thiệu could not have maintained either the war or his repressive machine without massive U.S. aid and encouragement. Indeed, for the Nixon Administration, signing the PPA did not mean surrendering American imperialist ambition in the peninsula:
During the last two years [1973-1975], the Americans have poured an additional eight billion dollars in aid into Indochina, six billion dollars of which has been military aid. Ninety percent of the remaining two billion dollars, termed as aid for postwar reconstruction in Vietnam, has been used to maintain the war.
According to Lower House Deputy Hồ Ngọc Nhuận, 21 national prisons, 513 provincial prisons, and an “untold number” of secret jails had been constructed in South Vietnam by 1973, thanks to American support. Meanwhile, the 120,000 member National Police Force was funded mainly by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID).
Understanding this intricate connection, the WRL since its inception had undertaken a two-pronged mission to demand both the release of political prisoners and the termination of U.S. funding. For instance, on August 27, 1970, the movement met with eighty women whose children had been unjustly imprisoned and wrote a letter to U.S. Vice-President Spiro Agnew to denounce U.S. funding for the Phoenix program. On September 24, WRL’s senior members, most of whom were older than seventy, began a hunger strike to demand their children’s release. A month later, the movement joined a delegation of the Committee for Prison Reform (Ủy Ban Cải Cách Chế Độ Lao Tù) in publicly condemning the use of tear gas and toxic gas against women political prisoners.
During her incarceration, Mrs. Thành arranged Tết holiday celebrations and organized protests whenever women were tortured. On behalf of the WRL, she wrote numerous letters to Vietnamese and American policy-makers. In one such letter to Senator Vũ Văn Mẫu, Mrs. Thành denounced the Executive Branch for having “bluntly trampled on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the Constitution, and the Laws of the State” by brutally repressing demonstrations and exiling thousands of innocent women to the Côn Sơn islands. She urged the National Assembly and the Senate to “open an investigation and take proper action” to avoid injuring the RVN’s prestige and “providing a good excuse for [communist] propaganda.” In September 1972, she met a U.S. Public Health delegation during their visit to the prison hospital where she was being held. At the meeting, she criticized the lack of medicine and the inadequate living conditions for prisoners.
Thanks to popular support, Mrs. Thành was finally released on bail on September 21, 1973. Her homecoming reception was attended by over 200 well-known Third Force figures, who applauded her call for the PRG and United States to honor the peace accords. She resumed her correspondence with international allies and offered USWILP helpful suggestions about programs the latter could undertake to demand the release of political prisoners. One such program was the screening of the documentary “Vietnam: A Question of Torture” at WILPF branches and on Capitol Hill in September 1973. Another was public demonstrations with actual tiger cages to expose the role of American funding of political repression in Vietnam. Most significant was a “prisoner adoption campaign,” during which each WILPF member “adopted” a South Vietnamese political prisoner. The member then wrote letters to her Congressperson to request the prisoner’s release and an immediate end to U.S. aid to the South Vietnam government. Finally, WILPF demanded Mrs. Thành be permitted to travel to the United States, to take a teaching position at Columbia University Law School and continue her anti-war advocacy. For their part, the WRL continued to raise funds for regular visits to prisons across South Vietnam. For instance, on June 14, 1974, a delegation visited and gave presents to thirty-seven women political prisoners who had been wounded by a shell in Tân Hiệp prison a week earlier.
Continued Repression and the Communist Victory
Despite domestic and international pleas for an end to the conflict and the pacifist nature of women’s efforts, President Thiệu maintained the same repressive policies. Insisting that anyone who claimed to be “a neutralist or pro-communist will not survive five minutes,” he ordered Saigon police to pester the WRL and other charitable organizations. In November 1974, police destroyed religious shrines, imprisoned many nuns, and garrisoned around Ngọc Phương pagoda and Mrs. Thành’s residence. Other Buddhist nuns responded by soaking themselves in gasoline and demonstrating with signs that read, “We will burn ourselves in opposition to the imprisonment of the nuns.” In one such protest led by Mrs. Thành, plain-clothed policemen grabbed the nuns’ banners and drenched them with bike exhaust. In face of these attacks, Mrs. Thành attempted to safeguard valuable materials about the Third Force by giving these to foreign agencies, including the American Friends Service Committee. She also held a press conference at her home to emphasize “the need for South Vietnamese to reject both communism and right-wing extremism.” Policemen, however, barred many journalists from attending and arrested Mrs. Thành’s son when he went out to speak with journalists.
Later, in March 1974, Mrs. Thành’s car was impounded by the police to prevent her from meeting with Hartono Dharsono, President of the International Commission of Control and Supervision (ICCS), about the South Vietnamese government’s violations of the PPA. Enraged, scores of WRL members organized a protest in front of the ICCS office in Saigon. Instead of conceding to popular sentiment and pressuring the Thiệu government to uphold the PPA, Washington provided Saigon with over $1.1 billion in assistance in 1975. Perceiving this funding as a renewed commitment to Thiệu, North Vietnam launched a massive campaign in April, beginning in the Central Highlands. Thanks to colossal popular assistance, DRV forces advanced without suffering heavy casualties. On April 30, nine days after Thiệu had resigned and fled the country, his successor, Dương Văn Minh, ordered the unconditional surrender of South Vietnam.
North Vietnam’s military victory led to the disbandment of all Third Force organizations and the PRG. Thanks to her vociferous anti-war efforts, Mrs. Thành was one of the few Third Force leaders given a position in the new government. She was elected to the National Assembly four times, serving from 1977 to 1997, and chaired the Legislative and Judicial Committee during her first term. But she became increasingly alienated and eventually was expelled from her position for her vocal criticism of Vietnam’s lack of legal justice and socioeconomic freedom.
In this article, I have attempted to fill the historiographical gaps in the history of Vietnamese women’s anti-war advocacy efforts during the Vietnam War. By recounting Mrs. Thành’s and the WRL’s political struggle for peace and women’s liberation, I have illuminated an important historical juncture in which nationalism and feminism converged. Vietnamese women were victimized by a sexist and racist war initiated by the United States. This war marginalized women in an already prejudiced society, all the while reinforcing traditional interpretations of women as members of “the weak sex.” The WRL’s emphasis on the inseparable ties between national independence and women’s liberation demonstrated their understanding of the political reality facing their country. The movement’s incessant struggle against a system that deprived women of freedom, security, and human rights illuminated its strong commitment to progressive feminist ideals. Finally, this analysis of the WRL’s anti-war politics demonstrates that communism was not the sole vehicle through which Vietnamese women became involved in anti-imperialist efforts.