Passages: Tran Do

For most Americans, the word “Vietnam” is just shorthand for an ugly war that we managed to botch. Which is a shame, because the Vietnamese have a long and fascinating history, in which America’s involvement plays only a minor part. They categorize their war against the American Army as just one part of their decades-long struggle for independence from foreign rule. Considering how our own nation was born by tossing off the shackles of colonialism, the fact that we did not support the Vietnamese in their fight to do the same thing — that we actively fought to prevent that — is pretty shameful.

But once the Vietnamese had won their liberation, they had to do something with it. And being ruled by a Communist oligarchy didn’t make that easy. That was the conclusion that one Vietnamese, Tran Do, came to in 1997, when he wrote a daring open letter in which he predicted that Vietnam must democratize or slide into chaos.

Now, just the fact that anyone would have the guts to write and distribute something like that was striking enough. What made Tran Do’s gesture even more powerful, though, was his credentials; he was General Tran Do, a hero of the wars against the French and Americans who had fought beside Ho Chi Minh and Vo Nguyen Giap in the earliest days of their struggle. And after the wars were over, he served in government for many years. Nobody could doubt Tran Do’s commitment to a vital, thriving Vietnam — a commitment that he felt was being endangered by the shortsightedness of the Communist bureaucrats who ran the nation.

When his letter resulted only in public condemnation from the government, Tran Do could have stood down. But he continued to write and speak in support of democracy for the Vietnamese people. And he never fled the country to preach his revolution from the safety of a plush Western office building, either. He essentially dared the government to come after him, to drag him off into the night like the other political prisoners the regime has taken. They never did, though they eventually expelled him from the Vietnamese Communist Party in frustration.

On August 9th, Tran Do died of natural causes at age 78. He left behind a legacy of brave soldiering, able governance, and devotion to his people. It is too early to tell if his last campaign, to save the spirit of the revolution he helped launch, will be judged a success. But for the sake of the people of Vietnam, who have suffered so greatly over the last sixty years, let’s hope that in the end history adds this one to his long list of victories.