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Kickin' Out The Viet-jams

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Note: Genie Plamondon, Minister of International Affairs of the White Panther Party, visited the Democratic Republic of Vietnam early this summer, along with two members of the Youth International Party, Judy Gumbo and Nancy Rubin (See SUN-DANCE, No. 1). The following was compiled from two interviews, one with LIBERATION News Service by Karen Kearns and Barbara Rothkrug the other by Frank Bardacke.

Q: Is the Vietnamese civilization a high civilization?

Nancy: We decided that it was one of the highest.

Genie: We told them that they should take over the world. Like it really is a whole new civilization because of the way the people relate to each other. The way they work with each other.

Nancy: But they are so civilized that they don't want to take over the world. They said, "We don't want to take over the world, we only want to unite North and South Vietnam." But they also smoke Thuoc Lao.

Q: Why don't you describe that.

Nancy: Thuoc Lao is Laotian tobacco. You smoke it in a pipe. Actually, on the trip over we discovered it. One of the most important officials in the Fatherland Front of Than Hoa Province turned us on to it. He had a pipe--a metal pipe made from a downed Amerikan plane. It was beautiful. And when he smoked, he was a really heavy toker. He really did it good--it just sang because it was like a whistle, you could hear it.

Q: When do they smoke it? On what occasions?

Judy: We have this conception that you smoke dope and it's a special thing and you got to be afraid of the pigs--all this paranoia. But not in Vietnam. You just go down to the store and buy a key of Thuoc Lao. It costs about 20 cents and everyone has their pipe. They carry around a little matchbox full of it.

Genie: You smoke it yourself or pass it on to the next person, but usually you have everybody doing their own pipeful. But it really brings people together.

Judy: We all coughed the first time, except for Genie. So Genie carne off as the super Thuoc-Lao toker of the year--a heroine. They talk about heroines and heroes all the time in Vietnam. We had this driver and they'd say, "He is a hero driver," or "She is a heroine farmer," or a "heroine production worker". I'm not sure exactly how it gets defined who's a heroine and who's a hero, but there are a lot of 'em.

Anyway, Thuoc Lao's a rush, that's the thing. It doesn't last long, but you get a real rush off it. We just thought there was one Thuoc Lao, but it turns out that there's three different grades of it--we smoked the weakest!

Q: Why was the White Panther Party and the Youth International Party invited to North Vietnam?

Nancy: The problem had been that the only people who had really been relating to the Vietnamese had been Mobers and liberals, so we had several conversations with the Vietnamese Committee for Solidarity with the American People in Montreal and Stockholm, particularly talking about the whole youth revolution, and as a result of those meetings they invited us to come to Hanoi.

Judy: It was really far out when we first got there. We landed when Sihanouk was there. The day he arrived he and Pham Van Dong and General Giap were just walking down the street in front of our hotel, surrounded by hundreds of people--it was really great-they were just six feet away from us. You know, no American politician would dare to walk down the street in the middle of the people.

Nancy: The policemen are really far out--they're like the people's militia. They'd say things like, "would the fellow from the country be so kind as to move back to the curb?" They didn't carry arms or anything like it. We'd stop to talk to them--they were very young and smiling, and very friendly--so opposite to a pig that you can't even describe it.

When Sihanouk was there they had all these lights up on the palace that they liberated from the French in 1945. And I said, "Gee, it looks really far out, really psychedelic." And one of the Vietnamese said, "When a prince joins the revolution, it's appropriate to do something psychedelic."

Genie: When we went to the Museum of the Revolution, they had models of different ways that they have to live, and the different battles that went on. And they explained how when the American soldiers come to the jungle that the jungle is just this horrible, awful place to go into. And how they always get caught. When a parachuter parachutes into the jungle they don't even go after him, cause they know he can't exist in the jungle. But the Vietnamese call the jungle their friend, because it hides them and gives them shelter. They have a song which is a song about a guerrilla fighter who was in the jungle for 20 years and as he goes down to the plains, the jungle sings this farewell song to him which says something like, "when you see a river remember the rain water and the jungle, when you see a tree remember me the trees, who sheltered you all these years." It's really far out.

It's incredible how much they used the word "love". Every song and poem they have is always about loving something. It's just incredible how much they love everything and everybody and want to come together on all levels. And they've integrated that idea into everything they're doing. Into their culture and their politics. And into their lifestyles, not only on a theory level, but putting it into practice. It's like a whole country of people where all the people are concerned with the needs of all the people.

Q: Were the Vietnamese freaked out by your being on an all-woman's delegation?

Nancy: No. They knew that we were especially interested in women, so they made an effort for us to meet a lot of Vietnamese women.

Judy: It was really good that we were a delegation of women because that meant that in many cases we met with more women than we would have if we'd just been a mixed delegation. We met two beautiful women from the South from the PRG, and we spent a whole day with them and that was really incredible and then we also met with the Women's Union. We tried to layout what was happening in the Women's Movement and talked about feminism and we were really up front about the whole thing--even our differences among the three of us. They really understood it--they really understood the kinds of things that were coming down. The thing I remember that they told us that really stuck in my mind was how when the women were organizing in pre-revolutionary Vietnam they had some organizations that were just organizing on women's issues and the Vietnamese called these bourgeois women's movements because they were simply organizing on women's issues and not relating to the fact of oppression by the French and French imperialism and colonialism. At the same time there were revolutionary women's organizations which were led by women who were active in the party.

Genie: The Party hadn't been formed yet--it was a Marxist-Leninist line, and a Marxist-Leninist analysis was how they looked at women's liberation, saying that all women can 't be free until all the people are free.

Judy: And they told us you have to organize women on women's issues that directly relate to imperialism and colonialism, and they understand why you can't simply organize for civil rights or more rights for women without talking about where that stems from, in terms of feudalism.

Q: What is the position of the women in Vietnamese society now, and do you see whether they feel they've won their struggle for liberation, in terms of women. Whether they feel the issues of the particular necessity of their own liberation.

Nancy: Well, there's not as many women as men on the front, you know. And there are a lot of women who would like to fight and who can't fight because they're needed in production back home, in their villages, or whatever. And I guess that's some kind of a contradiction, you know, I guess that's not total liberation, but the things is you have to remember what kind of background they came from, which was a feudal society, incredibly male supremacist, and a whole tradition of Confucius, which was just totally anti-woman.

Men had many wives and many concubines, plus they went to prostitutes. And there were very strict rules about men and women--unmarried women. If a man was coming to visit your house you had to go to your room. Wives were literally not supposed to look at their husbands during the day. Just incredible sexism and a super-dollhouse thing about women.

Confucius' Book of Rights about women ("Morals forbid her to step out of her room--her only business is in the kitchen.") and her duties of obedience: "She owes complete obedience to her father, after marriage, to her husband, and after the latter's death, to her eldest son." Confucian morals condemned freedom of marriage. The young girl was sold to the highest bidder, whoever and however old he might be. The concubine suffered even more humiliations.

But alongside this oppressive tradition was also a tradition of women fighting, heroines--that is the tradition that the Vietnamese honor. The Treung sisters led an insurrection against the Chinese in the year 40 AD, and the Vietnamese have a lot of memorials and pictures commemorating the sisters. They also talk a lot about Trieu, a peasant woman who with her brother led thousands of partisans to combat in 1248 AD, and drove the Chinese and feudal governors out of the country. The Vietnamese remember what she said to her brother: "My wish is to ride the tempest, tame the waves, kill the sharks. I want to drive the enemy away to save our people. I will not resign myself to the usual lot of women who bow their heads and become concubines."

Q: This woman with the medals in the picture--did you say she was a commander in the militia?

Judy: Her name is Lien. She's 28 years old and a deputy commander of one of the provinces in the South. We met her when she was in Hanoi visiting from the South. She's been in about 292 battles, her command has taken care of about 3000 American and puppet troops--no shit, she's totally far out.

Lien told us about her life--she came from a revolutionary family and she took part in the revolution when she was 11--her role was to guide cadre in Saigon. At 14 she had a smaller children's group, and for the first time she did mass agitation. At 15 she was the leader of the group, and played a leadership role in the "longhaired army struggle"--that's what they call the army of women on all levels. I told her that we have a long-haired army too, only there are men in it. She really dug that.

From 17 to 18 she was the commander of a guerrilla group in the village. At 24 she was in charge of an armed struggle group at the district level, and was political commissioner of district guerrilla warfare and then deputy commander of the People's Liberation Armed Forces (PLAF) in her province , and Deputy of the People's Congress of the whole of South Vietnam. She has two medals first class and third class exploit medals from the PLAF. She was so modest, she just said, "I am one of the many thousands of people who take part in the struggle."

Genie: They have three divisions of the military. They have the guerrilla, the militia, and the regular army. The militia is made up of mostly women, because the way they explain it, the women are usually in with the militia, they work with the militia, which is like a defense, a military defense at home. The reason they stay home, mostly, is because of family ties, you know, they have a kid so they stay home with their kid and they work as productive parts of the time, and when they're attacked, they are members of the militia so they can defend their homes. And the guerrillas and army are offensive, they go out and seek out the enemy and deal with the enemy out there.

They all help take care of each other. Like we would see in Hanoi very young kids carrying babies. And grandmothers, very often stay and live with the families. People who were too old to participate in production or in fighting stay and help take care of children.

Nancy: We had to talk about how we hadn't seen our birthright families for a long time, and the whole situation with young people and their parents in this country. Genie talked about it.

Genie: They understood us totally because during the revolution it was the same way for them. A lot of people talked to us about how before the revolution they had to turn on their parents, how there was a split between the young people and the old people, the same way that it is here now. They had to turn on everybody and they totally understood how there could be a split between families, old members and young members.

Q: Did you get the feeling from the trip that because of the massive technologizing of the war, and because of the incredible massive bombing in the South and all over Indochina, whether the Vietnamese now see even more than the role of the American anti-war movement and the American revolutionary movement. Do they really emphasize that that's part of the reason they are stepping up all these contacts?

Genie: I heard before that when people went over there quite a while ago they were saying things like they did not believe that there could be a revolution in America, that talking about having a revolution in America was foolish. But while we were there, they really treated us as revolutionaries and talked to us all the time about revolutionary theory and practice, and told us about the experiences they had in their revolution. How they went about it, telling us that "we can't tell you how to have your revolution", but knowing that we were on the way to finding out how to make a revolution, and doing it here in this country, and really honoring us because of it, because they felt so close to us, knowing that we felt the same way and that we were all part of the same revolution.

Q: Did they give you any specific anti-war strategy?

Judy: No. But one of the reasons I think they felt more and more that way is because after the invasion of Cambodia there was such an incredible response here from young militants. Not that there was the biggest march in history, but that all over the country people were street fighting, and I think that blew their minds.

Nancy: They really considered us as revolutionary comrades, they really did. Even though it was sometimes hard to translate, because the word for radical and the word for progressive in Vietnamese is the same word, and sometimes it was hard to deal with that.

Q: But there was not specific anti war strategy?

Genie: No, you see they don't suggest strategy to you because they know that we understand the United States a lot better than they do, and so they won't suggest strategy, they just discuss what the different effects are of different things, and they say things like, a demonstration for the sake of a demonstration is not the correct strategy. I mean, they understand a whole lot of things.

They talked to us about revolutionary principles, rather than telling us about what to do or suggestions, even if we sort of hinted that we would have liked them, or would have liked to find out what they thought we should do here in Amerika, or how they saw what would be a good thing to do. They would always come back and tell us, "Well, we can't tell you what to do, you have to learn for yourself, because we're not over there, we're not in that situation.

Q: How about sex?

Judy: Well, they're pretty monogamous basically. They're very loyal people, very loyal to their family and couples and things. But again I think you have to see where they're coming from to see where they're going to. You wouldn't see couples walking hand in hand in the streets of Hanoi, it was much more delicate. You'd see a man with a woman behind him on a bicycle, and you could just tell, like maybe she had her hand around his waist, that they were probably lovers. Or you'd be walking by a pagoda and you'd come across this couple, just two people together, sitting together or squatting and they wouldn't even be talking, they'd just sort of look at you and smile and you'd look back at them and smile, but it was a very delicate fragile beautiful thing.

Q: Is there a lot of physical affection between couples?

Genie: We tried to explain to them about what's going on over here with our culture and how we're living communally in large communes, and how very often someone will fall in love with one person and live with that one person but then you can also have a really heavy relationship with a lot of other people because you're so into loving so many different people, and trying to pull everybody together, really deep into that, and breaking off the nuclear family, and doing that whole thing. It was really hard for them to understand.

Judy: They were really surprised...

Genie: A lot of them didn't go through a marriage ceremony, signing it over to the state. They just got married because they didn't feel that ceremony was necessary--they just lived with each other, but they just had this incredible sense of loyalty and when we spoke to them about what was happening over here, with people breaking open the nuclear family and starting to live in tribes and things, their question was, don't you feel a sense of loyalty to the person you love?

Judy: One of the reasons for that is they live so collectively anyway, they live just as a collective, they live in neighborhoods, there'll be four or five families living in a house so they in fact have that tribal thing.

Q: What about young people, who aren't married yet or haven't chosen mates to live with? Did you get any idea of what their social relations are? Is that frowned upon?

Nancy: I think premarital sex is not, and does not happen. Especially because they have this whole thing about how they have to postpone marriage anyway, and postpone having kids because of the war.

Q: Do they postpone children because of the war?

Nancy: Well, they really never say it, they really love children, they really dig children, so it's really great when someone has a kid. But on the other hand it also means that you have to give up your job, so they love pregnant women, and they love children.

Genie: They also told us that even today when people are friends or when they've gone somewhere to talk to or visit somebody, they always leave on good terms, even if they've been having an incredibly high-energy argument. They always leave best of friends because they know that there's the chance that they might never see each other again.

I've never seen a whole country that lived under that consciousness before.

Q: Tell us about the schools that you visited.

Judy: They 're great. I've got this really far out picture of this little kid shooting a plastic gun at an Uncle Sam Poster. The kids are incredible. They have all kinds of schools. They have schools for the kids and schools for the adults and everyone was very happy to see us. Most people now have at least first level education, and then you go on, and if you want to be an artist you can be an artist and so on--it's a very permissive education--there's no punishment. The discipline problems they have are basically problems of energy--the kids are so energetic that they want to do shit. There's a lot of singing and dancing but also a lot of mathematics and science.

When we'd come to the schools little 6year-olds would come up with little bouquets of flowers and sing Ho Chi Minh songs and "welcoming the guests" songs and clap their hands and do dances for us--it was really far out!

Q: I understand they asked you to sing songs, after they would sing a song they would ask you to sing one for them?

Nancy: We attempted it.

Q: What did you sing?

Judy: We taught them "Power to the People, Off the Pig!"

One night we and a few musicians were sitting at this table and this one guy was really far out, like a peasant type, bigger than most Vietnamese, with a wide face and a booming voice. He appeared in Moscow and all these places--he was a really far out dude. He wanted to learn some of our songs and mentioned something like "We Shall Overcome". We tried to explain that that was not a politically right thing. So we taught them, "Power to the People, Off the Pig!" instead. And so then we stood up with this guy and everyone else sat around and we all sang, "Off the Pig!"

Nancy: Going back to schools, I remember two things about the schools. One is that teachers really seem to dig it. We would say to them, "Man, you are such great teachers," because they just had so much life and energy and music about them. And they would sort of look wistfully at us and say, "Well, some day we hope to be able to teach all the children of Vietnam, including the children of the South." And they were always seeing things in that way--everybody was, but especially teachers.

And the other thing was a quote I wrote down about Saigon schools and universities: "Now within this political system the schools are more dangerous than the prisons," which I thought was pretty analogous to the situation here because the curriculum is reactionary and they are trained to do ridiculous things and the whole educational system in South Vietnam is totally corrupt.

Judy: The history textbooks in the South are compiled and printed by a U.S. company, and they're introducing a lot of CIA agents as teachers. The examinations cost a lot of money so only a few can afford to take them.

Nancy: Ten percent of the children in Saigon go to school--that's all. Outside Saigon there's only one state-run school for a population of like 100,000 people on the outskirts.

Judy: At the examinations in the South the students aren't asked questions about the things they're taught. In 1969 65.4 percent of the students failed the exams in secondary school. Twelve thousand at the college level took the exams and only 25 passed! And the point is that once you fail the exam you're drafted into the army immediately. So they deliberately set it up so only a few pass and they can get people for the army. That's why all the shit's going on in Saigon now, why all the students are fighting because they just can't relate to that kind of system.

Judy: It's very hard for a girl student in the South to get a job when they fail their exams. To qualify they have to be virgins, have a height of 1.58 meters, and have big breasts and hips and this is just to get an ordinary job in a textile mill. And they're press ganging women into the South Vietnamese military.

Q: What was the food?

Judy: They have little egg roll type things. The Vietnamese have soup and Vietnamese vermicelli noodles really a lot. They don 't eat it first or last, they eat it whenever they want with the meal.

Q: Do they eat a lot of brown rice?

Nancy: It's not brown rice. They say they don't have brown rice. We tried to ask them about it. They say that they eat regular white rice for dinner and at lunch they eat sticky rice, which is white rice without something, I don't know. It's sticky and it looks brown.

Judy: And they also put this thing on top of it that's made of brown peanuts, sesame seeds, which is salty. You take sticky rice, you roll a bowl of it and you dip it in a bowl of sesame seeds and stuff and you eat it.

Genie: Another thing, this one visit we went to a hospital and it was far out, because they showed us their pharmacy. And it was a pharmacy of herbs--they had an herb for bad stomachs, and a birth control herb--whatever.

They grew most of the herbs in fields behind the hospital and they would just go out and pick their herbs and make the stuff.

They also had western medicine too. They had both. But like they were really proud of their traditional medicine and there was this really old, old man who sort of ran it, and you could tell he just really dug it, a far out druggist.

Q: The people of Vietnam are enormously devoted to Ho Chi Minh. How do they relate to him now that he's dead?

Nancy: They talk about him all the time--not like he was the dictator of the country or any thing but in a very personal way. They tell this story about how one of the men on the committee went to an all women's meeting as a journalist and Ho was addressing the meeting. Ho looked at him and said, "What are YOU doing here?"

Genie: They told us this really beautiful story about when he was dying, and he was lying on his bed and everyone from the party and the central committee was around him. And his eyes were open--he wouldn't close his eyes. They suddenly realized what he was thinking and they all linked arms--because the whole thing he had been doing all his life was trying to get people together to carry on the struggle. And after they did that, he closed his eyes and died.

Q: You say that people can essentially choose whatever they want to do in North Vietnam--but they must have a draft.

Judy: Yeah, but people want to join the army. In other words, people will say, "I'm bringing up my son to join the army..." I mean, we never asked them that question as to whether they had a draft or not, because I don't think they do in that sense. People join the army, period. You see, fighting isn't different from production. Everything is geared toward the war effort, the whole economy, the whole society and the whole thinking. So that if you're working in a city desk job, it's the same thing as the army. There's a saying of Ho's that they go by. "We want to turn 31 million Vietnamese people into 31 million fighters." And that's what's happened. That's what they do.

Pick UP the gun to put DOWN the gun!

STATEMENT FROM DUONG DINH THAO, member of the delegation of the Provisional Revolutionary Government of South Vietnam to the Paris Peace Talks.

July 15, 1970

First, I ADMIRE THE COURAGE OF THE American youth and students who have been demanding an end to the war and the withdrawal of all GI's from South Vietnam.

It is precisely those American youth who are really patriotic people in the U.S. not only fighting to end the suffering of Vietnamese people but also to end the suffering of youth and women in the United States.

If the Nixon administration is tarnishing the prestige of the United States, these youth who are opposing the war are making people understand that there is a new American nation who want peace and want friendship with all the peoples.

We wish to them every success and we are sincerely grateful to them.

Write to the Vietnamese. The representatives of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam want to get letters! They would really dig finding out about what people are doing. The right wing has an organized campaign to send them hate letters, and we must let them know how their sisters and brothers really feel, and what we are doing. Write:

DRV Embassy
8, Avenue General Leclerc
94, Choisy Le Roi

Genie Plamondon, Xuan Thuy (the DRV's chief Paris negotiator), Nancy Rubin, Judy Gumbo.