The Significance of Ton That Thien
Although the literature on Vietnam in the twentieth century is vast, Ton That Thien’s voice as a fiercely independent commentator remains distinct. His opinions and insights were drawn from diverse personal resources. Most importantly, he had a thorough grounding in both Eastern and Western thought. Although – like his father – he was a life-long Confucianist, his formal education was Western. He studied at French language schools in Vietnam and then the London School of Economics. In 1963, he obtained his doctorate in political science at the Graduate Institute of International Studies in Geneva. As a presidential aide, government press official, journalist, newspaper publisher and professor, he had a remarkable range of acquaintances and contacts, both Vietnamese and foreign. He knew or met almost every significant political actor, journalist, diplomat, spy, military leader, academic and social reformer who can be found in the histories of the 1945 – 1975 period. Significantly for a writer, this personal experience included direct contact with Presidents Ho Chi Minh, Ngo Dinh Diem and Nguyen Van Thieu in whose administrations he served in different capacities. This is an experience unique to him. Finally, fate and perhaps luck caused him to be present as a participant or observer at every significant historical event in Vietnam in the three decades ending in 1975: the establishment of the first national government in Hanoi in March, 1945, Ho Chi Minh’s declaration of independence in Hanoi in September, 1945, the Geneva Conference negotiations in 1954, the establishment of the government of the South Vietnamese republic in 1954, the Geneva Conference on Laos in 1961/1962, the military coup that overthrew Ngo Dinh Diem in 1963, the Viet Cong occupation of Hue in Tet, 1968 and finally the fall of Saigon in 1975.
Professor Thien shared in the personal tragedies of most Vietnamese of his era who were caught up in the conflict: the loss of family, including his mother, and the loss of friends as a result of Communist political war. Though he never served in the military, like all Vietnamese he lived in dangerous times. As a political warrior, he was at risk of assassination on four occassions. In the end, as South Vietnam fell to the Communist assault, he knew the sorrow of exile abroad as a refugee.
Few if any Vietnamese or foreign writers had such a diversity of personal resources to bring to their work. In addition, as his writings consistently show, he wrote with conviction, independence of thought and a passion for the truth, no matter the personal consequences. In 1968, the American ambassador, Ellsworth Bunker described him in a cable to Washington as “one of the best economists and one of the most articulate and intelligent of all Vietnamese in Saigon”. That same year he resigned from the Cabinet of President Nguyen Van Thieu on a matter of principle. Also in 1968, he was awarded the Magsaysay Award for Journalism, Literature and Creative Communication Arts in recognition of his reformist achievements as Minister of Information in ensuring a free press by lifting all censorship on the media in South Vietnam. The Magsaysay Foundation recognized him as an “Asian Libertarian”. He saw himself, however, as primarily a follower of the ideas of the nationalist leader Phan Chu Trinh in his belief that development was a necessary precursor to true independence and universal democracy.
As his books, articles and editorials reveal, Ton That Thien approached the ideological contest between communists and nationalists with an intellectual rigour that spared neither foe nor ally when facts were uncovered. He could be equally critical, when required, of all of the combatants in the Vietnamese conflict. For some he was anti-American. For others he was a socialist sympathizer. Although an adherent of Confucian philosophy, he was entirely comfortable supporting, and working for, the Catholic President Ngo Dinh Diem who he saw as a true nationalist. The son of the second-last Minister of Rites in the Emperor’s cabinet in Hue, he nevertheless embraced the modernization and development of Vietnam and in particular all efforts to learn from the West. If there was a common theme in the wide range of his interests that included politics, culture, history and economics, it was an inner drive to understand and make public the truth about what was happening in Vietnam. As one of the first Vietnamese to realize, in 1946, that the seemingly nationalist Viet Minh was a classic Leninist cover for the Communist Party of Vietnam, he was especially interested in disseminating how Ho Chi Minh and his followers eventually prevailed in taking power over the whole of the country.
As a Confucianist, it was inappropriate for him to write anything as self-serving as a memoir; in his writings he rarely referred to his personal experience. Of those who were his journalist contemporaries in the 1960s and 1970s, many of them owed at least some of their insights into Vietnamese political dynamics from their talks with him, or reading his columns in The Guardian or, later, The Saigon Daily News. His personal aversion to self-promotion, and perhaps his status as an exiled Vietnamese on the wrong side of victory, may give some understanding why he never attracted the attention, post-1975, within Western academia that he did with the Vietnamese public. And too, Western writers enthralled by the David and Goliath image of the conflict may have been intimidated by the ideas of someone who wrote about political leaders and events from the perspective of an in-the-room participant. His writings make clear however that he never saw himself as on the wrong side of history. As is evident today, his convictions were proven right as the tide of history turned in the post-1975 period. The post-colonial future of Vietnam is, in the end, not Communist. It has a vibrant capitalist economy. The inexorable movement away from ‘democratic centralism’ and toward individual political freedom continues.
I know of no other individual who better represented, and articulated, the proper response to the complex political and moral challenges that Vietnamese faced in the twentieth century. Someone once said that the most important thing in one’s life is to get the big questions right. Ton That Thien did.
My friend Ton That Thien
Through the several decades that I knew Thien, in Europe, in Vietnam and in Canada, one thing always remained constant in the world of dramatically fluctuating events: Thien was always the one Vietnamese I knew who could and would talk to everyone.
That was not an easy thing, for often, the bitterness of quarrels over sometimes long forgotten issues, were as intense within the anti-Communist side as they were between those of us like Thien advocating an independent, democratic Vietnam and the monstrous conspirators in Hanoi.
That was one reason when my memory did not serve, I always went to Thien to remind me of who someone was and where he had been at a certain moment of crisis, or just how to spell his name. Actually that happened not too long before his death when I could not remember the name of a very well-known member of Ho’s Paris “embassy”. The gentleman in question had been very prominent, in part, for he was one of the few in the Paris group who was completely fluent in English. Thien not only came up with the name immediately, but told me an anecdote I have never heard, of how that individual had helped him at one point get from Paris to London in his days as one of the tens of thousands of Vietnamese displaced from their homeland. After discussing him a bit, we both commiserated that his prominence in Paris, and briefly back in Southeast Asia, where he tried to persuade Indonesian friends of mine he was not a Communist, had gone by the board after 1965 when he and another member of his family were victims of one of the innumerable Party purges.
I guess the only regret we can have for a long life filled with service to others and a remarkable career is that Thien did not live to see the defeat of the old enemy in Hanoi. For despite his veneer of courtesy and his role as an objective analyst more than a partisan, it was what we all had hoped might happen sooner rather than later. But somehow, somewhere, I feel certain that my friend, Thien, will one day know that future for which we have all worked and waited, a free and independent Vietnam.
Sol W. Sanders
Sept. 20, 2015
When Thien applied for a position at UQTR, I was head of the Modern Languages and Translation department and, consequently, the first to read of his experience and background. I was fascinated because here was a candidate with a vast and demanding professional background, one who could bring to our program translation skills based on reality and not only literary creativity, and who had very wide experience in practical and political domains. Bringing him into our group meant that our students would benefit from Thien’s international knowledge and from professional translating experience–such as being called on by his President at midnight to turn a document into both French and English and have it ready for journalists by seven o’clock in the morning! A professor with such experience and talent completed the learning requirements of our students, balancing out the other approaches to their training.
The students loved him…though they were often inclined to make teasing remarks about his more oriental approach to student-teacher relationships. They were convinced that once you knew and liked a male professor, it was normal to “tutoyer” him, which was not Thien’s teacher-student attitude!
As for his colleagues, they recognized both his skills and his ability to negotiate problems without ever using the “Me, I know more than you” strategy –even when he did indeed know more! One of his interesting aspects was that he did NOT push his ideas as if they were barrels running down a hill and outstripping those of his colleagues. Indeed, he rarely contradicted his colleagues in public… which made me wonder how on earth he had managed to be a celebrated politician!
Another aspect of Thien that I found to be quite exceptional was his human generosity. When I was invited to spend my first sabbatical at the University of Nice, as a guest professor in legal translation, Thien advised me that the city of Nice was not the best place to stay with young children. He then arranged a generously inexpensive year for my family and myself in a fabulous house in Cap Ferrat… thanks to his call on the kindness of other members of his family. Several years later, when he heard that I was planning to spend a sabbatical year in Vietnam – sent there by a Canadian government organization to seek out a domain where they could provide help- he put me in touch with his family there, and when I arrived I had his nephew as a guide. He and his family found me a position in which I advised the Saigon tourist section, which was then looking forward to building up international tourism. And, thanks to Thien and his family’s support, a complete advisory and education project was set up and later taken over and expanded by the World University Service of Canada (WUSC).
This kindness and concern with his colleagues – I was most certainly not the only friend of his in my department – together with his personal and intellectual cooperation, made him someone with whom one could share both friendship and work. One example of this was his contribution of a chapter on Economics, in “Guide de la Traduction Appliquée” written jointly by five professors of our department and published by the Presses de l’Université du Québec.
All of which leads me to a conclusion. Our great friend Ton That Thien has passed on, leaving behind him memories of affection, honesty and loyalty, all of which are continued, cherished and illustrated by his family.