Obituary: General Tran Van Tra

The north/south divide in Vietnam was supposed to have ended in 1976 when the country was officially reunited a year after the Communist victory in Saigon. But to many southerners, it seemed and still seems as if they were conquered by the dogmatists in Hanoi and their northern henchmen who proceeded to impose their dominance over every aspect of life in the South. This feeling of resentment is not restricted to those who opposed the Communist take-over. It is shared by many southerners who actively fought against what they used to call the American puppet regime in Saigon. Amongst them, one of the most prominent figureheads was General Tran Van Tra, who died last weekend in Ho Chi Minh City, or rather Saigon, the place he always regarded as home. And it is there and throughout southern Vietnam that his death is likely to be most deeply mourned.

Without a doubt, General Tra was one of the most experienced battlefield commanders Vietnam has known, having started his career by opposing the French on their return to Indo-China in 1945 and then contin-uing on to fight the American and South Vietnamese forces until the conquest of Saigon in April 1975. Yet although imme-diately after this victory he was appointed head of the Military Management Committee of Ho Chi Minh City, Tra was never accorded the full honours many of his troops thought he deserv-ed. He had clashed too often with the policy-makers in Hanoi and the men they sent south to guide the course of the war.

True Tra was a Communist. He joined the party in 1938 and was twice arrested by the French colonial authorities for his political activities as a student in Saigon before and during the Second World War. As such he was typical of the generation which grew up in southern Vietnam or Cochin-China as it was then known during the 1920s and 1930s. Educated at French-administered schools, they learnt about liberty, fraternity and equality, but could only dream of such ideals being applied in Vietnam. It was only natural therefore for Tra to join the Viet Minh resistance movement as soon as it emerged in 1945, when he was soon appointed a local commander in the area surrounding Saigon.

During the next nine years of hit-and-run guerrilla skirmishes against the French, he inevitably acquired a great deal of knowledge of the terrain and the most suitable tactics to use there and throughout the south before the Geneva Agreements in 1954 ended the first phase of the Vietnam War and resulted in the partition of the country. It was then that General Tra first went north where, because of his rank and reputation, he was appointed one of the Deputy Chiefs of Staff of the Armed Forces. However it was a desk job in which he was subordinate to several northern generals who owed their positions more to their proletarian origins than their prowess on the battlefield.

Only when the war recommenced in the South in the early 1960s was Tra able to escape Hanoi and return to the territory where he felt at home. Even then, although he was responsible for rallying and training local forces in the South, which became known as the Viet Cong, he was not given overall command. It was generals and political commissars from the North who decided policy and dictated how the war should be fought on the ground. Thus the decision to launch the Tet Offensive in 1968 against the major cities and towns in South Vietnam as well as the American embassy in Saigon, was made in Hanoi without General Tra being present, but it was his forces which took most of the casualties when it largely failed in its objectives.

He was determined therefore that no similar mistakes should be made when planning got underway for another major offensive in 1975. Defying orders from Hanoi, he made his way north to explain the situation on the ground to the Politburo and Chiefs of Staff whom he considered to be very ignorant of the realities of the struggle in the South. As a result, he did manage to bring about some changes in Hanoi's strategic planning, but ultimately it was the northern generals who claimed credit for the victory in Saigon where their troops triumphantly entered Independence Palace to enforce the surrender of the South Vietnamese regime whereas all the groundwork for this achievement had been carried out by local forces led by General Tra.

Even his elevation to become head of the Military Management Committee in the former South Vietnamese capital had a bittersweet taste. He spent only a few months in the post before being transferred once more to a virtual sinecure in Hanoi. After a couple of years there, he could stand it no longer particularly after his main northern bugbear, General Van Tien Dung, published a boastful account of how he personally had masterminded the final victory in the South. So General Tra returned to Saigon to write his own memoirs in five volumes starting with the last one about the events of 1975. As soon as it appeared in print, it was banned and Tra himself was banished to the countryside to look after a pig farm.

But his former comrades in arms did not forget him. In 1987 when Vietnam embarked on an open-door economic policy, ironically enough led by southerners who resented Hanoi's previous iron-fist tactics, many veteran members of the Viet Cong met together to form the Club of the Former Resistance Fighers with General Tra as one of its leaders. This apparently autonomous southern movement soon alarmed the leadership in Hanoi which moved quickly to ban it and create dissension between General Tra and his friends. This is now the subject of much of the samizdat literature now being circulated in Vietnam and abroad on the Internet by aggrieved southerners who still resent Hanoi's heavy hand and the treatment meted out to General Tra.

Indeed, by those who knew him he is likely to be remembered not only as a brilliant and brave general, but also an educated and well-read man who got on well with the troops under his command and appreciated that the Vietnamese are undoubtedly one nation but that the North differs from the South in many respects.

Tran Van Tra, soldier and politician: born Quang Ngai Province, Vietnam 1918; died Ho Chi Minh City 20 April 1996.

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