IN THE CROSSFIRE
Adventures of a Vietnamese Revolutionary
IN THE CENTRAL PRISON
As though we had a silent rendezvous, every morning I was one of the prisoners who pressed their faces against the bars overlooking the small yard of the women’s quarters as the female prisoners emerged, two by two, carrying out the waste pails. Among them were Chi Nguyet, a tall slim silhouette, her face a pale full moon, and her companion, the delicate-featured Chi Day. Both of them would throw us quick, radiant glances, and every morning they smiled at us. Innocent paradis plein de plaisirs furtifs . . . [Innocent paradise full of furtive pleasures].*
Nguyen Trung Nguyet, whom we called Chi (sister and comrade), was 29 years old. She was the longest held of the female prisoners, having already been in confinement for seven years. She was born into a family of literate peasants. Breaking with tradition, when she was still a teenager she disguised herself as a boy and stowed away on a ship to Canton to join the Revolutionary Youth League (Thanh Nien Cach Mang Dong Chi Hoi). Under the name of Bao Lan, she wrote in the Women’s Tribune section of the League’s newspaper. Her radiant charm and the freedom of her relations with men were worrisome to the Thanh Nien leadership, who issued numerous warnings against the disturbing influence of frivolous love affairs. This did not prevent several comrades from falling madly in love with her. Back in Cochinchina, she was arrested on June 7, 1929, at the age of 22, for involvement in the much-publicized Rue Barbier crime.
During the night of December 8–9, 1928, the leadership of the Cochinchina section of Thanh Nien had passed the death sentence on a comrade named Le Van Phat. His crime was his love affair with the female comrade Thi Nhut and his consequent inability to put aside personal considerations in order to devote himself totally to the revolution. The revolutionary tribunal, presided over by Ton Duc Thang, the hero of the Black Sea (so named for his part in the mutiny of April 1919 on board a French warship, where he had raised the red flag), designated three of the youngest Thanh Nien members to be the executioners. The hidden motives behind this premeditated crime — wounded pride and/or amorous rivalry — naturally remained obscure. This Rue Barbier tragedy made me sick at heart, showing as it did how readily a party of professional revolutionaries can end up imposing authoritarian control over every aspect of life.
Once the body was discovered, the French justice system entered the drama. On July 15, 1930, the Saigon court condemned the three young murderers to death. Ton Duc Thang, who had presided over the Thanh Nien tribunal, was sentenced to twenty years’ penal servitude. This dark episode in the life of the historic hero Ton Duc Thang, who in 1969 became the successor to Ho Chi Minh as the leader of the country, has completely disappeared from the official history of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam. Pham Van Dong, Ho Chi Minh’s future prime minister, was condemned to ten years’ imprisonment during the same trial.
The particular role of Nguyen Trung Nguyet in this affair is not known, but she was a Thanh Nien member and a relative of Ton Duc Thang’s wife. She was sentenced to eight years’ incarceration.
Chi Day (Nguyen Thi Dai), her companion, was 23 in 1935 when she was sentenced to five years in prison and ten years of restricted residence for having produced political leaflets. And their fellow women political prisoners Le Thi Dinh, Nguyen Thi Ba, Nguyen Ngoc Tot, who were sentenced at the same time — what became of them?
I remembered the big May 1933 trial of those other women combatants at the heart of the anticolonial revolts, who were also tortured in the chambers of the Sûreté and condemned to harsh sentences. Were they still there, invisible, somewhere behind those walls? Nguyen Thi Sau, 21 years old, who printed underground leaflets and newspapers; Nguyen Thi Nho, 25, and Pham Thi Loi, who had taken part in the revolutionary tribunal that condemned to death the police notables of Huu Thanh; Nguyen Thi Nam, 22, who was active in the peasant demonstrations in the Cao Lanh region; Tran Thi Hanh, originally a teacher in Vinh Long, and Tran Thi Day, both of whom got jobs at the Franco-Asian Oil Company in order to carry out revolutionary action among the women coolies.
The monotony of confinement was broken twice a month by visits on the first Tuesday of every fortnight. Our close relatives, who mostly came a long distance in from the countryside, arrived in Saigon the night before and improvised a lodging as best they could so as to be at the prison early the next morning. The comrades from La Lutte helped them fill out their visit requests on stamped paper to present to the office at the earliest hour and gave them food to bring to us.
The guards made those who had visitors squat down along the inside of the courtyard wall, facing the Head Guard’s office and the wire barrier. The visitors would squat on the other side, each one across from their prisoner, and put their packages on the ground in front of them. The guards rummaged through the food packages from top to bottom, fingering our cigarettes and eavesdropping on our conversations. Head Guard Agostini himself took part in the surveillance and made our visitors move off as soon as the search was complete, with no regard to the amount of time officially allotted for visits.
Despite the guards, we managed to pass prison news to La Lutte. Conversely, the pieces of local newspapers that the food came wrapped in provided us with bits of news of the outside world.
One evening, two weeks after we had been incarcerated, about forty men appeared one by one in the yard, their faces marked more deeply than ours by longer or more severe imprisonment. They were political prisoners brought back from Poulo Condore. Many of them had been sentenced the year before, militants of the ICP or simply members of the clandestine peasant unions. Our first contact with them was silent and guarded — they knew we were Left Oppositionists.
I knew them by name from the newspaper articles I had read during their trial in June 1935. Here was Tran Van Giau, 25 years old, trained in Moscow, a professional revolutionary as he had proudly described himself before the tribunal on June 24. His vivid, piercing eyes shined with the fierce energy of rigid adherence to his cause. Nguyen Van Dut, a tall, gaunt figure, taciturn and prickly. ( “It’s the convict labor that made me this way, he would say in his defense.) Tran Van Vi, with his prominent red cheeks, former scribe to the Council of Notables in Vinh Kim village, had a certain arrogance, perhaps because he was an alternate member of the Central Committee. I still remember some of their faces: Chau Van Giac, who showed his prominent canine teeth when he laughed; Nguyen Huu The, who looked like a provincial schoolteacher; Pham Van Kinh, whose dark complexion gave rise to his nickname An Do (the Indian).
Among the Poulo Condore returnees was a group of peasants from Mo Cay (Ben Tre) who, the previous year, had refused to stand up in the Court of Appeals to hear the verdict and had raised their clenched fists and shouted: Down with French imperialism! The judge immediately added five years to their sentence, to which they responded by shouting once more: Down with French imperialism! Despite the fury of the club-wielding police, the shouting continued until the prisoners were returned to the prison. As they were led back, they were surrounded by a crowd of passersby who had rushed there to show their solidarity.
Still waiting to be judged, the peasants of Duc Hoa were held with us in Cell 6, while the Poulo Condore returnees were confined in Cell 5. But during the hours when the doors were opened, everyone met in the little yard and it was there that contacts, cautious but often sincere, were established between us. They, adherents of Stalin, and we, inspired by Trotsky, tacitly agreed that we should not provoke tension between us in the territory of our mutual enemy.
Ton Thanh Nien (Ton the Young), as his friends called him, cheerful and full of laughter, humorously recounted to me his stay at the Sûreté prison in Ben Tre. The detainees had been put on a diet of rice cooked in salt, and deprived of water. After a session when they were beaten on the soles of their feet with rattan canes, they were forced to run over the sharp stones in the Commissariat yard under the burning midday sun. Tortured with thirst, Ton stopped and despite the blows that rained on his body drank the repugnant pond water polluted by ducks.
I liked to talk with one blind old man, whose eyes were completely veiled by opaque clouds. I admired both his youthful enthusiasm and the serenity and firmness of his face. Accused of having raised a red flag one night on a coconut palm tree in his hamlet, he was sentenced to three years in prison plus six years’ restricted residence, then sent to Poulo Condore. People called him Van Tien, the name of the hero of the popular epic poem Luc Van Tien, about a young educated man who loses his sight through weeping over the death of his mother.
Tran Van Giau told me about the hunger strikes and the strikes against forced labor on Poulo Condore to protest the rotten food and the brutal treatment. Those strikes had suddenly appeared on March 1, 1935. The prison guards, armed with clubs, had burst into the cells like a pack of dogs, yelling, We’ll make you bastards see reason! beating them mercilessly with all their strength. The cries of Down with imperialism! shouted in chorus grew weaker and weaker under the violence of the blows. The guards cleaned the blood off their clubs in the basins in the yard, then resumed their savage attack on the split skulls, the lashed backs, and the broken arms and legs until the clamors of the victims died down into silence. Nguyen Van Nu, his head shaved like a young Buddhist monk, would later give me his Memories of Poulo Condore, written in a sort of notebook put together with pieces of coarse brown toilet paper.
On August 6, 1936, our twelve peasant companions from Duc Hoa were taken to trial. Upon their return to the prison, in response to our anxious questions, all they could tell us was that they had declared in court that they had been tortured and that they had confessed whatever their torturers wanted. As witnesses, the court had simply called upon the inquisitors themselves: the Administrative Delegate from Duc Hoa who had had them arrested and Political Police Chief Gélot, who had tortured them. Moreover, the accused had no way of understanding the witnesses’ statements, the prosecution’s indictment or the speech for the defense, since they were all conducted in French. Nobody translated for them, as if it was none of their business. Nguyen Van Sang, a great strapping man, was sentenced to a year in prison plus five years’ restricted residence, and the eleven others to between three and six months.
From the newspapers that wrapped the food our visitors brought, we soon learned that the subversive plots in Nguyen Van Sang’s case were limited to his intention to hoist a red flag in a school on May Day, while his companion Lo allegedly distributed leaflets in the ricefields. They were also accused of holding meetings to discuss the redistribution of land and of having belonged to an association whose subscription was one centime per person per month.
News reached us that a Commission of Inquiry was to be held under Colonial Minister Marius Moutet, and we wanted to make our voices heard. The Poulo Condore returnees proposed that we conduct a hunger strike to demand the status of political prisoners.
During the night, by short sharp taps of a small stone on the cement floor, the strike project was communicated in Morse code to the women imprisoned in the cell underneath us.
Nguyen Van Sang, the most combative of the Duc Hoa peasants, proclaimed firmly, Whatever happens, I will go the whole way! As for me, I couldn’t help thinking of the popular saying: Nam that nu cuu (A man dies after seven days of starvation, a woman after nine).
On Tuesday, August 11, 1936, about eight o’clock in the morning, Head Guard Agostini arrived as usual, accompanied by a French guard with a revolver in his belt and the jail-boy. At the end of his inspection of the cells — nothing abnormal about the ceiling, nothing unusual on the walls — just as he was about to leave us in peace, we came out with our declaration of war. Nguyen Van Dut, our delegate (diplomatically appointed in my stead because of the Head Guard’s hostility toward me), went up to him and announced: We all demand that the government give us political prisoner status, and to back up this demand we are refusing all food from today on. Without saying a word, Agostini gave us a pencil and paper and agreed to convey our list of demands. Those demands were: application of the same political prisoner status as in France; return of all the political prisoners deported to Poulo Condore, Lao Bao, Son La, Guiana and Inini; improvement in food (the daily ration for European prisoners was 80 sous’ worth of food, while that of the Annamite prisoners was only 6 sous’ worth). We also asked to be allowed to receive newspapers and books and to be allotted paper, pens and ink; and that sick prisoners not be shaved and shackled when in the hospital.
As usual, at mealtimes the tubs of rice were set out in the yard by the nonpolitical prisoners. We remained inside, lying down. Three-quarters of an hour later, the untouched food was taken away. No one went out into the yard during the period when the doors to the court were open.
The first days of the fast, I felt profoundly empty, and sweated profusely at mealtimes. The following days, I felt very weak, but the hunger pangs diminished — except for the day they brought us tubs of rice accompanied by eels fried in citronella, with its appetizing aroma. But nobody flinched. On the fifth day, Nguyen Van Sang, without saying a word, led some of his companions to the row of rice tubs, to the silent indifference of those who remained inside.
The days seemed longer to me than the nights. At the seven-day mark, I could see that none of us, even the elderly Van Tien, were on the point of rejoining our ancestors. To the oldest and to those who looked about to faint, we gave a little sugar that we had hidden in the walls.
Every morning around eight o’clock Agostini came and took an impassive glance at the bodies stretched out flat on the floor like sardines.
Day eleven, still no reaction and the strikers were reaching the limits of their strength. We decided to announce the end of our strike to Agostini the following day. In the morning, the guards brought us tins of condensed milk and boiled water. Our exhausted bodies immediately sprang back to life and a certain fraternal euphoria took hold of us all, even though it seemed that our strike had failed.
Around midday, we doused ourselves abundantly with water in the tank used for washing, and water gushed out of the pipe in the outside wall on Rue Filippini. That was the signal to the La Lutte comrades that we had ended our action. (They had their meeting place next to the prison, and had kept watch at this time every day since August 11, when we had begun the hunger strike.)
On Monday, August 30, 1936, we went to trial. Together, we had tried to prepare a minimal response to the judges, while at the same time trying to avoid making statements that could be used against us by the Stalinists. Handcuffed and escorted by armed militia, we crossed Rue Lagrandière to reach the Hall of Justice, which was just across the street. Large numbers of plainclothes and uniformed policemen were posted all around.
We were seated in the front rows of the benches in the courtroom. The room was packed with cops and journalists. In front of the black row of magistrates — Presiding Judge Lavau, with his emaciated, masklike face and Charlie Chaplin moustache, and Public Prosecutor Bouin, brawny with bloated pink face — the white-clad Annamite interpreter sat behind his little table, puffed up with self-importance.
This ritualistic stage setting left me feeling strangely detached. I even allowed myself a certain measure of carelessness. The Presiding Judge looked over his glasses at me and grunted, What’s wrong with that one? Is he ill? A lawyer came up to me and discreetly urged me to uncross my legs and sit up straight; then, going up to the platform, he said something to the judge as though imploring his indulgence.
Lu Sanh Hanh was interrogated first. He was accused of having formed, in 1935, a group called the League of Internationalist Communists for the Construction of the Fourth International, whose aim was to overthrow the government and set up a communist regime; and of having published the journal Cach Mang Thuong Truc (Permanent Revolution) and distributed Tien Dao (Vanguard), a paper printed with a French mimeo machine. And we were all charged with membership in a secret society and with subversive activities for having taken an active part in the wagon drivers’ strike of December 1935. Lu Sanh Hanh declared that we simply wanted to help workers and peasants gain the freedom to form unions. The Prosecutor returned to the charge, quoting French translations of excerpts from our newsletter indicating that the League aimed to destroy the colonial regime by insurrection and to establish an internationalist communist regime.
Then it was my turn. As a member of the League, I was accused of having organized the printshop. Asked about my activities at Descours & Cabaud, I replied that I had tried in vain to organize a labor union among the coolies and drivers. The judge pointed out that I had abandoned my job the previous year to go on a merchant ship. Then he asked, Is it your intention to overthrow the government and set up a communist regime in this country?
“We haven’t thought about that yet. We are struggling to obtain democratic rights . . .
From the rest of the interrogations I sometimes learned more about the occupations of my co-accused: Trinh Van Lau, whom I had never seen except during our secret three-person meetings in the little Chinese eateries on Rue Paul-Blanchy, was pursuing his secondary studies while giving lessons in a private school; Ngo Chinh Phen was a commerce clerk; Van Van Ky, the baby of our group, was a typesetter at the Nguyen Van Cua Printshop (from which he “liberated metal letters and ink for our clandestine printshop); Vo Van Don, a coolie at Descours & Cabaud, was wise enough to keep silent about our fraternal association and confessed only to having sold newspapers and having put up a red banner one night on the road to Giong Ong To on the opposite bank of the Saigon River, a route that many workers and coolies took to their work in town early every morning. The banner had called for a general strike.
When it was his turn in the witness box, our torturer-in-chief, Superintendant Perroche, talked about our group as though it was a vast subversive organisation with considerable influence. He concluded that to destroy our group, at least 500 people would have to be arrested.
“Well, there are only eight of them here, interrupted a lawyer. What have you done with the other 492?
“We couldn’t arrest any more of them because we lacked material evidence, the cop replied.
Then Prosecutor Bouin took over. He recalled how at the previous trial only poor peasants of Duc Hoa had been involved, whereas now the Tribunal was dealing with people who were more educated, and therefore more dangerous. He quoted articles from our agitational paper Tien Dao, translated into French, emphasizing the passages in which we had denounced all nationalism and advocated the transformation of anti-imperialist war into civil war. On those grounds, he demanded heavy sentences.
Trinh Dinh Thao and Le Van Kim, the lawyers for the defense, expressed their surprise at the Prosecutor’s use of the term Communist virus, considering that Communists were part of the current Popular Front government in France. They argued that our demands for labor union rights should not be punishable because at that very moment throughout the country action committees were drafting lists of demands to the government without being prosecuted (alluding to the Indochinese Congress movement that was then under way).
The French defense lawyer Loye continued the same argument: “You see before you eight poor wretches with no money, no resources and no weapons. What have they done to disturb public order except to meet at the Saigon library, or at Descours & Cabaud, or in a cheap eatery?
The arguments for the defense ended at nightfall. I was worried about Lu Sanh Hanh because he was a repeat offender. The verdict came fifteen minutes later: Lu Sanh Hanh, 18 months; Ngo Van Xuyet, one year; Trinh Van Lau and Ngo Chinh Phen, eight months; Van Van Ky, six months; Pham Van Muoi and Vo Van Don, six months suspended sentence; Van Van Ba, acquitted. Not as bad as we had expected.
It was dark when we left the court. A group was waiting for us on the pavement outside, opposite the prison. With a surge of emotion, I recognized the slender silhouette of my mother. She looked lost in the dim street light, so far from her village. I could only murmur some words of reassurance to her as I passed.
A silver-white moon shined above the prison walls. The heavy iron door clanged shut behind us.
As a delayed response to our hunger strike, in September 1936 we were given a blackboard in each room (instead of the paper, pen and ink we had asked for, with which we could have put together leaflets) and allowed to receive occasional newspapers from France. This was how we eventually heard the astonishing news of the first Moscow Trial of the 1917 revolutionaries.* We were utterly stunned and bewildered by those abject confessions, 19 years after the revolution:
ZINOVIEV: We burned with hate against the Central Committee of the Party and against Stalin. We were convinced that the leaders should at all costs be replaced by us, in collaboration with Trotsky.
KAMENEV: The terrorist plot was organized and led by me, Zinoviev and Trotsky. . . . What led us to this point was our hatred for the leadership of the Party and the country.
PROSECUTOR VISHINSKY: Liars and fools, pathetic pygmies, wretched little dogs yapping at an elephant! . . . I demand the death penalty for these mad dogs! For every last one of them!
(Moscow, August 19, 1936)
The sixteen accused were shot.
We refrained from referring to this event in our conversations with the Stalinists. But we were profoundly disturbed, troubled by a thousand unanswered questions.
On September 27, 1936, I learned that Nguyen An Ninh and Ta Thu Thau had arrived. They were incarcerated in Cell 7, which was cleared of all the other prisoners. But during the hours when the cell doors were open, we could meet them in the yard. On October 3 Nguyen Van Tao joined them.
The program of the French Popular Front included sending a Parliamentary Commission to look into the aspirations of the colonial peoples. Ta Thu Thau and La Lutte had therefore called for the formation of action committees and for the designation of delegates to an Indochinese Congress,* which was seen as the first step in forming a local Popular Front. A campaign for this Congress was launched and thousands upon thousands of leaflets were distributed. The action committees spread like wildfire. In the Saigon-Cholon region they were set up at the French Streetcar Company, at the cigarette factory, at the Indochina Distilleries in Binh Tay, at the Nha Be oil depots, on the railways, in the printworks, among the coach drivers of Tan Son Nhut . . . A popular ferment was building up like a sweeping tide. The colonial administration took fright and alerted Paris. On September 8, Colonial Minister Moutet prohibited the holding of a congress in Saigon of many thousands of persons, because of possible disturbances. A new wave of arrests followed. This was why Nguyen An Ninh, Ta Thu Thau and Nguyen Van Tao had joined us in the Central Prison. With its leaders behind bars, the Indochinese Congress movement was beheaded. Cochinchina Governor Rivoal ordered the dissolution of the action committees.
During the same period the seventeen peasants from the Ben Luc action committee also joined us in prison.
* * *
Neither the Stalinists nor the Trotskyists sought out Nguyen An Ninh. To both sides he was only one nationalist among many, a man of the past who represented an outdated tendancy. But for me his arrival was a great event: perhaps I would have the opportunity to get to know the man whose battles had gripped and enlightened me for ten years. In my eyes he was the person who had chosen to give his combative newspaper the title of a poem by Baudelaire, La Cloche Fêlée, the person who had sown the seeds of disrespect for the colonial regime, the person who had shaken a corner of the southern sky, striking terror into the hearts of corrupt, servile sycophants as though an axe had been hurled down at them from the heavens (a description I had been thrilled to read in Phan Van Hum’s In the Central Prison).
One day I saw Nguyen An Ninh alone and silent, leaning against the bars. He seemed to be contemplating the tops of the tamarind trees that rose above the prison walls, and the clouds farther off in the distance. Burning with naïve curiosity, I went up to him and blurted out: Brother Ninh, could you tell me about your agrarian program?
He turned his head in surprise, looked at me for a few seconds without saying a word, then, apparently ignoring me, he raised his eyes again toward the tamarind trees and began to sing:
Dans les jardins de mon père les lilas sont fleuris,
Tous les oiseaux du monde viennent y faire leur nid.
Auprès de ma blonde, qu’il fait bon, fait bon, fait bon,
Auprès de ma blonde, qu’il fait bon dormir.
[In my father’s gardens the lilacs are in flower, all the birds of the world come there to nest. Lying beside my darling is sweet, so sweet, lying beside my darling, that’s the sweetest sleep.]*
I no longer remember how I extricated myself from that wretched first encounter.
But a few days later, a small, simple human thing brought us together and overcame the silence. Nguyen An Ninh had perhaps noticed that I was reading Malraux’s Le Temps du mépris,* which had showed up in the prison soon after its publication. Reading in French was not too common.
“Here, read this! he said to me, handing me Céline’s Voyage au bout de la nuit [Journey to the End of the Night] in two faded, square-shaped paperback volumes, their covers decorated with attractive woodcuts.
My heart leaped with joy — he had not, after all, taken offense at my awkward questioning the other day. I took the book as a special message from the moment I read the epigraph on the first page:
Notre vie est un voyage
Dans l’Hiver et dans la Nuit,
Nous cherchons notre passage
Dans le Ciel où rien ne luit.
[Our life is a journey through winter and night, we seek our passage in a sky without light.]
For me it was a revelation, this speaking in everyday French to express the essentials, the poetry of the world and all the deadly hypocrisies of the prevailing society. I drank in these words that so splendidly debunked patriotism and religion:
La religion drapeautique remplaça promptement la céleste, vieux nuage déjà dégonflé par la Réforme et condensé depuis longtemps en tirelires épiscopales.
[The religion of the flag soon replaced the cult of heaven, an old cloud that had already been deflated by the Reformation and reduced to a network of episcopal money boxes.]
It exploded like lightning, flashing through the monotony of prison life, a formidable howl of rage:
Je vous le dis, petits bonshommes, couillons de la vie, battus, rançonnés, transpirants de toujours, je vous previens, quand les grands de ce monde se mettent à vous aimer, c’est qu’ils vont vous tourner en saucissons de bataille.
[I tell you, little men, life’s fall guys, beaten, fleeced to the bone, sweated from time immemorial, I warn you, that when the princes of this world start loving you, it means they’re going to grind you up into battle sausage.]
In Céline’s clear and brutal evocation of the life of workers, I recognized all the meaning of my own revolt:
Ça ne vous servira à rien ici vos études, mon garçon! Vous n’êtes pas venu ici pour penser, mais pour faire les gestes qu’on vous commandera d’exécuter . . . Nous n’avons pas besoin d’imaginatifs dans notre usine. C’est des chimpanzés dont nous avons besoin . . . Un conseil encore. Ne nous parlez plus jamais de votre intelligence! On pensera pour vous mon ami! Tenez-vous-le pour dit. . . . On en devenait machine aussi soi-même à force et de toute sa viande encore tremblotante dans ce bruit de rage énorme.
[“Your studies won’t do you a bit of good around here, son. You’re not here to think, you’re here to make the movements you’re told to. We don’t need imaginative types in our factory. What we need is chimpanzees. . . . Let me give you a piece of advice. Never mention your intelligence again! We’ll think for you, my boy! . . . We ourselves became machines, our flesh trembled in the furious din.]
And in the peculiar peace of the prison, I continued the Voyage to the land of dreams:
Ferme tes jolis yeux, car les heures sont brèves . . .
Au pays merveilleux, au doux pays du rê-ê-ê-ve.
[Close your lovely eyes, for the hours are short . . . in the wonderful land, the beautiful land of dr-e-a-ms.]*
That was my last and only meeting with Nguyen An Ninh. He returned to prison in 1937 for two years, then was placed under house arrest at My Tho in 1939. In 1940 he was deported to Poulo Condore, where he died on August 15, 1943, at the age of 43.
I had first seen Ta Thu Thau at meetings during the 1933 Saigon municipal elections. I had also listened with enthusiasm to his talks on dialectics at the Center for Mutual Education, along with a crowd of office and factory workers and high-school students.
I was pleased to meet him, though I knew that he had taken issue with the action of the underground League we had formed at the time of the Laval-Stalin Pact in 1935 (he had referred to our League as infantile). He was an open-faced man, full of cheerful energy, who refused to let imprisonment get him down. Once I get settled, he said, I can stay here as long as it lasts. From the beginning we got along very well. He helped me compose a French-language letter to the judge that was both dignified and firm, requesting — for form’s sake — the return of my books that had been seized by the Sûreté, on the grounds that they constituted my entire fortune. He also helped us understand certain economic issues more clearly.
One morning, a discussion about the Popular Front drew together all the prisoners at the far end of the yard. In a veritable aping of Vishinsky, the prosecutor at the Moscow Trials, the Stalinist Tran Van Giau called the Trotskyist Lu Sanh Hanh a mad dog. Ta Thu Thau tried to calm things down. The Stalinists agreed that we should be allowed to speak, and my comrades asked me to speak for our group. Not an easy task. I tried to explain how the French Communist Party, in making an alliance with the Radical Party and the Socialist Party on the pretext of preventing the rise of fascism, had broken the revolutionary momentum of the working class after the huge wave of strikes and factory occupations. As we saw it, it was the Popular Front that was paving the way for fascism by preventing a revolutionary mobilization, the only force capable of bringing about a definitive victory. And in Indochina, as in all the other colonies, wasn’t the Popular Front government carrying out the traditional policy of colonial repression? Wasn’t our own situation a living proof of this?
Some in the Stalinist camp seemed to agree with me, but their leader Tran Van Giau defended the Popular Front, talking about conjunctures and realism . . .
At the end of October 1936, Ta Thu Thau, Nguyen Van Tao and Nguyen An Ninh left us, being evacuated to the hospital at Cho Quan after a hunger strike. I can still see all three of them, stretched out side by side on a straw mat on the cement floor in the gloom of the small Cell 7. I can hear Ta Thu Thau shouting at the French doctor brought in by Agostini: Get the hell out of here!
Sometimes, inside our four walls with our imagination aroused by the agitation outside, we were like caged wolves. The price of a liter of rice had jumped from 40 to 70 centimes. We were delighted to learn that strikes were erupting throughout Indochina. In the ricefields, the rice planters were on strike for higher wages. The coolies in the workshops for the unemployed in Bac Lieu refused to work in protest at their ill treatment. At the Michelin rubber plantations in Dau Tieng, Quang Loi and Binh Truoc the coolies had stopped working in protest against low wages, the brutality of the overseers, the use of private prisons on the plantation and the beating to death of escapees. At the Société des Plantations in Ben Cui a spontaneous strike broke out, an explosion of anger provoked by the news that an escaped worker had been beaten to death. In November and December 1936 actions were begun in the woodworking shops, brickworks, sugar refineries and soap factories.
In November 1936, in the hellish coalmines of Hongai-Campha in the north, more than 20,000 miners started a strike against physical cruelty, beatings with rattan-canes, blackjacks, fists and feet, and for improved wages. Similar events occurred at the Haiphong cement works. Our visitors told us excitedly that in Saigon itself more than 1200 workers and coolies from the Arsenal had gone on strike. They were being supported by villagers in the surrounding countryside, who brought them food. More than a thousand railway workers, mechanics, drivers, train guards and coolies from the depots in Saigon and Di An were joining in at the same time that the strike was spreading to the streetcar workers and bus drivers. To the north of Saigon, 400 coolies and workers in the sawmills in Bien Hoa had stopped work and occupied their workshops! This had never been seen before in Indochina — it demonstrated the depth of the agitation and made us delirious with joy.
In France, the Popular Front government of Blum and Moutet hypocritically changed one article of the Labor Code, so that the compulsory public service work that was unpaid in Indochina was renamed community work. The Code did not provide for any labor union rights or recognition of workers’ delegates. Just as before, any Indochinese labor unionist could be imprisoned for membership in a secret society.
On January 11, 1937, when the new Popular Front–appointed Governor-General Jules Brévié arrived, we began a hunger strike to obtain better food, the right to read newspapers, and the end to mistreatment in the prison infirmary and at the Cho Quan hospital. But above all, we intended it as a gesture of solidarity with the agitation outside the walls.
As was reported in La Lutte of January 17, 1937, on the day of Brévié’s arrival the local governor of Cochinchina had put hundreds of workers into preventive detention in the Botanical Gardens and stopped the multitudes of peasants at the outskirts of Saigon who had come to demonstrate in the city from Gia Dinh, Hoc Mon, Thu Dau Mot, Ba Diem, Ba Queo, Ba Hom and Cholon. Police roadblocks were everywhere. Streetcars had to turn back to the station. Buses were searched. Despite all this, in midafternoon ten thousand demonstrators, under banners proclaiming Full amnesty!, Democratic and union rights! and Aid for the unemployed! streamed onto the wharfs. When the Aramis appeared, bearing the Governor-General, the police and soldiers attacked the crowd, beating people with incredible brutality and forcing them back into the nearby streets. Everyone they arrested was taken to the Sûreté headquarters, where they would be tortured.
Thus began the rule of the new satrap of the Popular Front. Ten days later, as strikes were spreading throughout the country, he summoned four comrades from the La Lutte group and tried to win them over with vague promises of reforms.
The workers in thirty-five rice-mills of Cholon greeted him with a work stoppage, demanding pay raises and the implementation of social laws. The bosses gave in after ten days of total paralysis in the mills. In a sign of the times, the Chinese coolies came out in solidarity with the Annamites. Strikes also erupted at the Indochina Distilleries in Binh Tay. In the countryside, angry peasants destroyed rice threshing machines.
Less than a week later we ended our hunger strike in the Central Prison.
At the beginning of February, we prepared to celebrate the new year, the Year of the Buffalo, which began with the new-growth leaves on the tamarind trees surrounding the prison. We shared between us the food, Tet cakes and cigarettes that we received in abundance from our visitors.
As is done by peasants, who decorate their houses for Tet with strips of red paper bearing calligraphed good-luck sayings, Tran Van Vi, an old village scribe, designed and mounted two sentences in Chinese characters: “In community we can build without relying on the outside world. With the right skills, we can produce everything. The first words of these two phrases, Cong and San, when joined together, read communist.
For New Year’s Day we constructed a huge game of chess with pieces moulded out of breadcrumbs and cardboard. The game was played in the yard between two teams — my friend Vo Van Don and I on one side, and two peasants from Ben Tre on the other. Our tactic was to confuse our opponents by discussing our game plan out loud, but in a convoluted manner. They, on the other hand, discussed their moves out of earshot. Then, following the saying in Sun Tzu’s Art of War, we attacked where the adversary was not protected, suddenly, when it was least expected.
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The festivities were over. Terrible news for our group reached us of a new trial of the old Bolsheviks in Moscow, held on January 23, 1937, a trial brought against the Anti-Soviet Trotskyite Center, which was allegedly implicated in a conspiracy of sabotage by leaders of the transportation and coal industries. The same sort of full confessions appeared: Piatakov went into detail about relations between the conspirators and Trotsky and between Trotsky and the Nazis; Radek, toward the end of the trial, shouted: If they do not learn from our example, the Trotskyists of France, Spain and other countries will pay dearly! The tragedy culminated at dawn on February 1, 1937, with thirteen executions.
The Trotskyist-Stalinist united front in La Lutte now seemed to us more than ever a total paradox. In Moscow, Russian Trotskyists were being treated as poisonous vipers, imprisoned, deported, or massacred. How long could the Trotskyists in Indochina escape the condemnation of Stalin and his local followers?
While Ta Thu Thau and his comrades persisted in trying to maintain unity within La Lutte, we learned in March 1937 that our comrade Ho Huu Tuong, in opposition to their enforced silence, had relaunched Le Militant, organ of proletarian defense and Marxist struggle, and in it published Lenin’s Testament, with its warning against Stalin’s brutality and deceitfulness.*
We were somewhat heartened by news of a strike at the Arsenal, brought to us one day in May 1937 by Ta Thu Thau. (I should mention here that he and Nguyen Van Tao were once again back with us in prison. Although both had been reelected the previous month to the Saigon City Council, Governor Pagès had had no hesitation in locking them up in response to the new wave of workers’ struggles triggered by the Arsenal strike.)
The strikers held out for five weeks, from April 6 to May 12, 1937, supported by their comrades in other factories and once again fed by the surrounding villagers. They succeeded in obtaining the reinstatement of fired workmates and the promise of higher wages. In Nha Be, the coolies of the Franco-Asian Oil Company went on strike against the firing of one of their comrades. A thousand coolies rebelled at the Michelin rubber plantation in Dau Tieng. In the countryside, the peasants of Can Duoc and Ba Diem demonstrated against new regulations governing tobacco production.
One Sunday morning I was very moved to see that one of the new prisoners was my old friend Anh Gia, whom I had not seen since 1932. He had received a one-year sentence in 1933 and been sent to forced labor in the quarries at Chau Doc, where he had led the nonpolitical prisoners in their refusal to do forced labor, and then in their subsequent hunger strike.
He told me that his arrest had happened during a large secret meeting organised by the Trotskyists on the evening of May 29, 1937. For the first time, delegates from some forty factories and workshops in Saigon-Cholon (including the Arsenal, the Artillery workshops, the railways, the streetcars, the ship repair yards [Forges, Ateliers et Chantiers d’Indochine], the Post Office, the East Asiatic Company, the Rubber Manufacturing Company, the Water and Electricity Company, the Portail, Ardin and Union printing companies, the city’s three big garages, the Indochina Distilleries, and porters in the ricefields of Hiep Xuong, Duc Hiep, Hang Thai, and Extrême-Orient at Cholon, etc.) had gathered together to set up a Syndicalist Workers Federation (Lien Doan Tho Thuyen). In the midst of the meeting Anh Gia, along with the sixty-odd worker delegates present, was seized in a brutal police raid by the Sûreté.
Among those imprisoned with Anh Gia were Ta Khac Triem and Nguyen Van Kim, who had been active in the strikes at the Arsenal, and Vo Buu Binh and Nguyen Kim Luong, whose house in the north of Saigon had been the venue for the secret meeting. Vo Thi Van (Lu Sanh Hanh’s partner) was also incarcerated.
The Trotskyists were making their presence felt in the workers movement as never before, and the Sûreté was alarmed: The influence of revolutionary agitators sympathetic to the Fourth International has increased in Cochinchina, particularly among workers in the Saigon-Cholon region. . . . The workers are supporting the Trotskyist party more than the Indochinese Communist Party. The Stalinists did not want to go against the Popular Front policy by setting up labor unions, and argued instead for the creation of fraternal societies.
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When I was finally released from the Central Prison, it was with a sense of joy mixed with sadness for the friends I left behind. It was a sunny June morning. A prison guard escorted me to the Sûreté headquarters, where an inspector asked me what I was going to do now, and warned: Watch your step! We’ll have our eyes on you!
I returned to our village to see my mother. A burden having been lifted from her heart by our reunion, my mother made an offering of thanks to the Guardian Spirit of the village. In her distress, the human world had seemed to her entirely without recourse, and she had often turned to invisible spirits. Then I went to visit Sister Five, who lived on the outskirts of Saigon. Her husband, who suffered from asthma, worked as a stonemason. They had trouble making ends meet but, as always, they welcomed me with generosity.
In a poor quarter of Cholon, I met Ho Huu Tuong again at his home in company with another comrade, a modest, reserved man. Ho Huu Tuong introduced me to him, saying simply, He’s someone in the background, without revealing the identity of this third man. We shared a meager roast pigeon with our bowls of rice. This was how I first met Phan Van Hum, the man whose narrative In the Central Prison had so moved me. It was also to be the last time I ever saw him.
*See Translators Notes.
Chapter 4 from Ngo Van’s book In the Crossfire: Adventures of a Vietnamese Revolutionary (AK Press, 2010).
In the Crossfire is a translation of Ngo Van’s Au pays de la Cloche fêlée (Paris: L’Insomniaque, 2000) and of excerpts from Ngo Van’s Au pays d’Héloïse (L’Insomniaque, 2005). It has been edited by Ken Knabb and Hélène Fleury and translated by Hélène Fleury, Hilary Horrocks, Ken Knabb and Naomi Sager.