The year 1967 was a watershed for antiwar protest in the United States, from bold statements like the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s Riverside Church speech in April to the March on the Pentagon in October. Equally noteworthy, but less well known, is the student protest movement that emerged in South Vietnam. Vietnamese youth, of all political orientations, played an active and critical role in the politics of South Vietnam, at times acting like the official opposition with the ability to shape events on the national stage. And just like in the United States, 1967 was a momentous year for the movement.
On April 30, 1967, a few weeks after King’s speech, the Saigon Student Union election ushered in a slate of antiwar, left-wing leaders. Under the new union president, Ho Huu Nhut, and three subsequent presidents (Nguyen Dang Trung, Nguyen Van Quy and Huynh Tan Mam), the student union and its headquarters became the hotbed for antiwar activities. The Saigon Student Union was only one of many radicalizing campus organizations, including the Hue Student Union, the Van Hanh Buddhist University Student Association and the Saigon Confederation of High School Students. Under the influence of antiwar leaders, students staged rallies, marches, school boycotts and hunger strikes to protest the war, American intervention and various policies of the South Vietnamese government. Hundreds and sometimes thousands of students participated in the events.
Considering the brutal impact of the war, it is not surprising that youth, especially those of the draft age, wanted to see its end. At the same time, while they might have opposed the war, for the most part youth did not want to see the destruction of South Vietnam. Like most students in the United States, most South Vietnamese students only wanted the violence and fighting to stop.
But a small minority of South Vietnamese students did not share this perspective. Some student leaders were actually working covertly for the National Liberation Front (also known as the Viet Cong) and the Lao Dong Party, the official name of the Vietnamese Communist party during the war. As the party was outlawed in South Vietnam, these student leaders had to operate clandestinely; some managed to keep their Communist affiliation secret until the end of the war.
Huynh Tan Mam, a president of the Saigon University Union, started working for the underground Communist youth group, commonly known as the Thanh Doan, when he was 15. In 1966, at the age of 23, he was inducted into the party at a simple ceremony in Saigon. By contrast, Le Van Nuoi, the president of the Confederation of High School Students, had a more elaborate induction. Like Mam, Nuoi became a member of the Thanh Doan as a teenager. His entrance into the party when he was 18 took place at a secret Communist base deep in the jungle. (To be sure, Communist-affiliated students like Mam and Nuoi were few in comparison with the rest of the student body — a point Mam emphasized in an interview with me in 2010.)
Not all activism was antiwar; some students eschewed protests and politics, and chose instead to focus on social and civic work. Their choice probably stemmed from personal or philosophical preferences. For some, fear of police brutality probably also played a role. While not all demonstrations were met with state repression, there were enough cases of police brutality — use of clubs, pepper spray and water cannons — to make students think twice about participating. Mass arrests of demonstrators also acted as a disincentive. And for those suspected of being Communists, even if they were teenagers, the rule of law was often abandoned. Torture was, unfortunately, not an uncommon technique used in Saigon’s jails to extract information.
In any case, the war had created a profound need for relief work. Youth were often recruited through their schools, religious groups and social clubs such as the Girl and Boy Scouts to volunteer in disaster relief, community development and refugee resettlement.
One notable relief campaign took place in November 1964, after Typhoon Iris hit Central Vietnam. The South Vietnamese government, along with domestic and foreign NGOs, collaborated in an enormous relief effort that capitalized on students’ enthusiasm and energy. The Students’ Central Committee to Help Flood Victims coordinated participants from many student unions, Catholic and Buddhist student associations and numerous civic youth groups. Students helped with canvassing donations and organizing fund-raising events. Approximately 500 students were sent to the affected area, where they distributed aid, rebuilt roads, repaired houses and provided basic medical help.
Lasting several months, this campaign left a deep impression and spurred further civic activism. In the following summer students organized a nationwide summer work camp that brought 8,000 youth together to work in rural development. Others participated in long-term urban development projects in Saigon’s poor districts or in rural projects sponsored by the Voluntary Youth Association or the National Voluntary Service.
Students also helped with refugee resettlement. The Vietnam War created millions of refugees within its borders. During the 1968 Tet offensive 560,000 people required resettlement, and the Easter Offensive of 1972 alone displaced over 800,000 people. Students built shelters, distributed aid, ran literacy classes and provided basic medical care.
The United States government and affiliated agencies, such as the Asia Foundation and the International Volunteer Services, provided significant funding to these youth projects, part of an attempt to win the “hearts and minds” of students. It would be erroneous, however, to assume that Vietnamese youth were passive recipients of American aid and its ideology. On the contrary, Vietnamese voluntary groups were proactive in seeking out funding and setting their own agendas, rather than the other way around. Like the rest of South Vietnamese society, youth volunteers accepted American aid, but remained ambivalent and suspicious toward their benefactor.
When it came to aid, youth activists had a practical reason for their hesitancy. In highly polarized South Vietnam, being too closely associated with the United States was dangerous. It could taint an organization’s reputation. Worse, it could invite Communist reprisal, ranging from threats and physical attacks to assassinations.
For Vietnamese and American youth alike in the 1960s, the Vietnam War was an enormous burden thrust upon them. It impinged upon what should have been their carefree years and, for many, destroyed their future. It is no wonder that in both the United States and South Vietnam, youth became socially and politically engaged.
And just as in the United States, the diversity in the students’ responses reflected the plurality of South Vietnamese society, a diversity often underappreciated from the outside. While there were staunch supporters of the Saigon regime and its war policy, others rejected both Communist and American domination. Some were open to negotiation with the North; others yearned for the country’s unification under Communist leadership. This diversity highlights the complexity of South Vietnamese society. And it is precisely this complexity that needs to be explored in order to fully understand the Vietnam War and its legacy — both in the United States and in Vietnam.
Van Nguyen Marshall is an associate professor of history at Trent University.