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Paradise lost: the Vietnamese gulag.

Paradise Lost: The Vietnamese Gulag.

Doan Van Toai with David Chanoff. Simon & Schuster, $18.95. Doan Van Toai and I were born 10,000 miles and a few months apart at the end of World War II. It's possible, however, that our paths crossed in Vietnam in the late 1960s. He was a young Saigon student leader sympathetic to the National Liberation Front; I was a U.S. Army intelligence case officer gathering names for Operation Phoenix, the CIA-run program that "neutralized' communist agents. Toai spent three years in prison for his activities against the U.S.-backed regime. I could have helped put him there.

It was abhorrence for the devastation and corruption of the war and disgust for the dictatorial puppet government of Nguyen Van Thieu that put me on the same side of the political street as Toai by the time he was out of jail and I had come home from Vietnam in late 1969. Ho Chi Minh himself had put it best in his famous slogan: "Nothing is more precious than independence and freedom.'

Fewer than two months after North Vietnamese tanks had "liberated' Saigon (as we put it), Doan Van Toai found himself reading Ho's famous dictum off a prison wall inside the Socialist Republic of Vietnam's vast political reeducation system. Who had written it, he wondered, and in what year? During Thieu? After liberation? Toai had been arrested by the communists without any charge placed against him, and he never found out why he had been picked up. The revolution, of course, never makes mistakes, so everyone--the police, party hacks, and jail guards-- agreed he must have been arrested for some good reason.

As prison memoirs go, this one is arresting, if fairly standard, with its cast of cruel, sad, and pathetic characters inside the prison--the former South Vietnamese Army officers turned stool pigeon, the stoically persevering Buddhist monks, the bewildered teachers, lawyers, and students like Toai who' had long championed the National Liberation Front. One particularly poignant portrait is drawn of a former nightclub comedian who used to satirize Thicu's admonition about the communists: "Watch what they do, not what they say.'

"Many of these new-era prisoners,' Toai writes of his former cellmates, "are traumatized by what has happened, by the consequences of the victory they and their comrades have fought 30 years to bring about. Some, especially the old communists, are too shell-shocked to do anything but cling pathetically to the tattered remnants of their faith.'

Toai' story should trouble, if not sicken (as it did me), anyone who once believed that a social democratic government led by communists could succeed in South Vietnam --or anyplace else--if only America would leave it to itself. This and other testimony coming out of Vietnam today has inescapable ramifications for liberals trying to figure out a sensible position for the U.S. elsewhere in the world. Along with A Vietcong Memoir, a riveting inside account that Toai earlier co-authored with Truong Nhu Tang, the former Viet Cong minister of justice who defected in 1978, The Vietnamese Gulag is disturbing evidence that Hanoi's leaders never intended to share power in the south, certainly not with liberals or even with the southern communists.
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Author:Stein, Jeff
Publication:Washington Monthly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:May 1, 1986
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