A handful of strict constructionist historians will not touch memoirs that are written years after the fact. Human memories fade after many years, even memories of momentous and life-changing events. Memories also may change over decades because the mind tends to alter events as they are replayed—kind of like a kids’ game of telephone where you repeat something over and over and the exact details of what happened morph into something different.
Former airborne officer Phan Nhat Nam’s Peace and Prisoners of War: A South Vietnamese Memoir shows the value of a first-person account written soon after the heat of metaphorical battle. Nam wrote the words in his book in 1973 and 1974 following the signing of the Paris Peace Accords on Jan. 27, 1973, ending direct American military involvement in the Vietnam War.
During that period, Phan Nhat Nam—“a battle-hardened, thirty-year-old soldier,” in the words of Vietnam veteran and former U.S. Sen. James Webb, who wrote the introduction—was a South Vietnamese representative in diplomatic negotiations with his enemies, the North Vietnamese government and the Viet Cong. It was not a pleasant experience.
Nam spent his final active-duty time as a first-rate war correspondent and wrote the dispatches published in Peace and Prisoners of War soon after the events he described. That fact and his skill as a writer bring a strong sense of immediacy to Nam’s testimony and make the book a more valuable historical document than a memoir written for a 21st century reader.
After countless hours across from his enemies at negotiating tables, Nam had few good things to say about communism and Vietnamese communists, in particular. He all but demonizes virtually every enemy negotiator he encountered. He writes that one Viet Cong colonel, for example, had the temperament “of a sadist enjoying the sight of a victim writhing under torture” and the “absolute inhumanity and coolness of the likes of Goering and Rudolph Hess.” Another looked like “a beast waking up from a doze after a bloody meal.”
Nam characterizes communist military leaders in general as people who were “affected with mental disorders of a debilitating nature” and acted “under the guidance of some satanic power, and I would even identify them with plain murderers.” Nam also had little tolerance for anti-war activists in his country and the United States. He “looked with rage” upon “‘anti-war’ people who were clamoring for peace in the streets of Saigon or in the parks of America, blindly following the hot pants of the strip-actress Jane Fonda, and joyfully insulting our dead.”
He also disdained the Paris peace agreement, calling the work of U.S. national security adviser Henry Kissinger and top North Vietnamese negotiator Le Duc Tho “a disgusting deception against the 15 million people of South Vietnam.”
The word “prisoners” in the title refers to the long, tense, bitter negotiations Nam conducted with the communists over the logistics in the exchange of tens of thousands of prisoners held by both sides. Not long after those words were written Nam was seized by the communists and held in so-called “reeducation camps” for 14 years. His imprisonment included eight years in solitary confinement—ironically and tragically presaging the book’s title. In 1993, Nam was allowed to leave Vietnam and move to the United States.
Very few first-person accounts of the high-level negotiating that followed the signing of the Paris Peace Accords have been published. That fact alone makes Peace and Prisoners of War a valuable addition to the Vietnam War historical canon. V
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This article appeared in Vietnam magazine. For more stories from Vietnam magazine, subscribe here and visit us on Facebook: