Nguyen Thi Dinh (1920–1992)
Nguyen Thi Dinh (1920–1992)
Nguyen Thi Dinh (1920–1992)
Vietnamese revolutionary, considered the outstanding woman in modern Vietnamese history and known as the "general of the long-haired army," who led the insurrection against the French colonial regime in Ben Tre Province (1945), as well as the Ben Tre uprising against the U.S.-backed Diem regime (1960), and became deputy commander of the South Vietnam Liberation Forces. Name variations: Madam Dinh. Pronunciation: Wen Tee Dingh. Born Nguyen Thi Dinh on March 15, 1920, in Luong Hoa village, Giong Taom District, Ben Tre Province, in the Mekong Delta of southern Vietnam; died on August 26, 1992, in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam; daughter of Nguyen Van Tien (father) and Truong Thi Dinh (mother); married Nguyen Van Bich, in 1938 (died July 12, 1942); married Nguyen Huu Tri (referred to as Hai Tri in Dinh's memoir No Other Road to Take), in 1945 (died 1990); children—first marriage: one son, Nguyen Ngoc Minh (referred to as On in Dinh's memoir, May 10, 1940–May 4, 1960).
Married the revolutionary intellectual Nguyen Van Bich (1938), who was arrested three days after the birth of their son, Nguyen Ngoc Minh (1940); Bich died in French prison, Puolo Condore (July 12, 1942); arrested by the French (July 19, 1940) and spent three years in Ba Ra prison camp; released to house arrest (1943); led a Viet Minh takeover of the provincial capital of Ben Tre (August 1945) and elected to the executive committee of the province; served on a delegation to Hanoi and transported a large shipment of arms to the South, running through a French naval blockade (1946); led the uprising in Ben Tre Province against the Diem regime (January 1960) and appointed to the leadership committee of the National Liberation Front (NLF) in Ben Tre; became a member of the presidium of the NLF Central Committee (1964); elected chair of the South Vietnam Women's Liberation Association (1965) and appointed deputy commander of the South Vietnam Liberation Armed Forces; elected president of the Vietnam Women's Union (May 1982), where she served until retirement (April 1992).
On March 15, 1960, over 5,000 women and children from six different villages marched on an army post in Mo Cay district town, Ben Tre Province. The women wore mourning bands in memory of 20 youths who had been arrested, killed, then buried in conspicuous graves around an army post at Phuoc Hiep village. Carrying their children and wearing ragged clothes, the women surrounded the district headquarters, demanding an end to brutality against the peasant population and compensation for the families of the dead. "The district chief was scared out of his mind and shouted to the soldiers to shut the gates tightly and not to allow anyone to enter," recalled Nguyen Thi Dinh in her memoir No Other Road to Take. "The people stayed in front of the district headquarters, defecating and urinating on the spot, and refused to go home." For five days and five nights the women stayed, among them a blind girl who "sang guerrilla songs which left the soldiers reflective and less arrogant." As the days passed, more women arrived to join the demonstrators, singing and encouraging the soldiers to desert. In the end, the district chief agreed to the demands of the people and withdrew all the army troops from Phuoc Hiep village. The successful struggle of the women in Mo Cay district initiated other women's actions, and Nguyen Thi Dinh, an organizer of the demonstration, came to be known as the general of "the long-haired army."
Nguyen Thi Dinh was born in 1920 in Ben Tre Province, an area of the lower Mekong River to the south of Saigon, with a strong tradition of anti-colonial struggle. The French colonization of Vietnam began with a naval attack on Danang in 1858, and by 1893 the French navy had conquered the entire Indochina peninsula. However, the Vietnamese had a long history of struggle against more powerful invaders, beginning with the Trung sisters of the 1st century ce, who rode into battle against Chinese invaders on elephants and later drowned themselves in the Hat River, refusing defeat. Nguyen Thi Dinh was the daughter of a peasant family in which everyone worked hard in order to have enough to eat. As a ten-year-old, she woke up at two or three in the morning to take fish by a small boat, or sampan, to the market to sell. At night, neighbors gathered at her family's house to hear her brother read from "Luc Van Tien," an epic by the 19th-century scholar Nguyen Dinh Chieu, author of patriotic poems written during the early period of resistance to the French conquest. Ben Tre Province had been under foreign occupation for over 50 years.
Both of Nguyen Thi Dinh's parents were devout Buddhists and supporters of the Communist movement against French colonization. Her beloved brother, Ba Chan, joined the Indochinese Communist Party in 1930, the year it was founded. According to historian Christine Pelzer White , for Dinh and her family, Buddhism and Communism coexisted. In fact, "Dinh thought that they were the same thing since several of her brother's comrades lived in a pagoda disguised as monks." Dinh was drawn into the revolutionary movement by her family; she cooked for Communist meetings at her parents' house and hid leaflets under her fish to distribute on her way to the market.
At the end of 1930, Dinh's brother Chan was arrested by the "puppet" village officials, who were governing for the French. Because Dinh was the youngest of the family, and least likely to excite suspicion, she rowed her sampan over two miles each day to bring Chan food. While visiting him at the prison, she witnessed scenes of brutality against old and young people alike. Dinh wrote in her memoir:
Many men were beaten until they passed out, blood trickling from their mouths, heads and feet, and dyeing the cement floor a greyish and purplish color. I loved my brother and I hated the soldiers so intensely that I wanted to run out to hold them back and defend my brother, but I was too frightened and so I just stood there, frozen, and wept in anger…. And it was at that moment that a thought sprang into my innocent mind: "Why are good and capable men who are loved by the people and their families, like my brother Ba Chan, suddenly being beaten so savagely?"
Though Chan was released after half a year, his imprisonment impressed upon Dinh the necessity for an uprising against the French and their local officials. She had decided to become a revolutionary.
Conflicts arose with her family when Dinh reached puberty. She began spending a great deal of time away from home on dangerous missions and often returned late at night. Concerned about her safety and virtue, her parents pressured her to get married. Dinh, however, refused, declaring that she wanted only to work for the revolution. If she had to marry, she said, she wanted to marry a revolutionary—a man who would support her desire to devote her life to revolutionary work. When she was 17, she had a meeting in her parents' garden with a friend of her brother, a famous intellectual and revolutionary, Bich Thuan. In her memoir, she later described his playful questioning:
—Let me ask you truthfully, why do you want to marry a revolutionary?
I plucked a few tangerine leaves and then said:—Because I want to leave and work for the revolution as you're all doing.
—In your opinion, what kind of man should your husband be?
I was so embarrassed I did not know what to say, but out of respect for him [I had to come up with a] reply:—He must permit me to work for the revolution, he must treat my parents well and love me for the rest of his life….
—If your husband is in the revolution, he might be killed, and sometimes he might even be jailed for nine or ten years, do you think you can wait for him that long?
I lowered my eyes, my cheeks were burning with embarrassment, and then I said hesitantly:—Yes.
They were married at the end of 1938.
In 1940, three days after Dinh gave birth to their only son, Bich was arrested and sent to the notorious French island prison, Puolo Condore. Haunted by memories of her brother's internment, Dinh feared for her husband's safety. Then, on July 19, 1940, when her son On was only seven months old, Dinh was also arrested and sent to Ba Ra, a prison in the mountains near the Cambodian border. "When I thought of our situation—my husband in jail in one place, me in exile in another, and the baby separated from both his parents—my heart broke to pieces." Forced to perform corvée labor, Dinh and the other prisoners were whipped and tortured. At the end of 1943, suffering from cardiac disorder, she was sent back to her home where she was put under house arrest. Three months later, she was told that Bich had died in prison.
In 1944, the anti-colonial Viet Minh movement had become strong. Dinh made contact with the Viet Minh and was assigned to organize the women in Chau Thanh district. When the people seized power from the provincial French authorities in Ben Tre in August 1945, Dinh carried the flag, "leading thousands of people armed with knives, sticks, flags, bright red banners and placards, pouring into the province town." During the uprising, the prisoners at Puolo Condore were liberated. Dinh went to greet the returning prisoners, still hoping that Bich might be alive.
I felt close to tears, but at the same time my heart was filled with happiness because I had done exactly what Bich had told me when I went to see him in jail with On in my arms. Now I also found out that during the entire time he was in Puolo Condore, until his death, he had always expected me to do just that.
After the successful uprising in Ben Tre Province, Dinh was assigned to the Province Women's National Salvation Association. She worked at the village and district levels to build up the women's network, and at the end of 1945 she was elected to the executive committee of the Women's Association. The same year, she married her second husband, Nguyen Huu Tri. As husband and wife, they performed revolutionary tasks and production labor, farming their share of rice fields. Dinh described him as a productive farmer who excelled at clearing forest land. "Our life was hard but happy."
In 1946, Dinh was chosen by the Province Party Committee to travel with other delegates to the North, meet with President Ho Chi Minh, and ask for weapons to supply the struggle in the South. Ho granted their request, but told them that the country was poor; in order to arm themselves to fight well against the French, they would have to seize more weapons. Dinh, along with two 50-year-old men and two youths, loaded the weapons onto a small boat, and, running a French naval blockade, smuggled them to the South. She continued to operate in Ben Tre Province.
In the years 1950–54, French repression was fierce in Ben Tre. Many of Dinh's comrades were killed in battle or captured and killed in detention. Dinh faced death many times, but always managed to survive using her wits and various disguises to evade enemy detection. Once, discovered hiding in a bunker, she smeared herself with mud and said indignantly to a French soldier, "Please pull me out, young man! I'm just a woman hiding down here." Seeing that Dinh had been apprehended, an old woman "ran over, her face distorted with weeping and scolded me: What kind of a daughter are you that you don't listen to me! I told you to stay home." The woman then turned to the commander and pleaded, "Sir, my daughter is an innocent person, please let her go back to take care of her baby." When the soldiers were distracted, Dinh and the old woman were able to escape. In 1954, in concert with the decisive battle of Dien Bien Phu, guerrilla war erupted violently in the South, and the French were defeated. The Vietnamese war of independence had been successful, and peace came temporarily to Vietnam.
Accords were signed at the Geneva Conference, which ended July 20, 1954. The agreement contained a ceasefire and divided Vietnam at the 17th parallel into two separate political territories, the Democratic Republic of Vietnam in the North, and the State of Vietnam in the South. Viet Minh troops who had fought against the French were asked to move to the North, and French Union Forces were asked to regroup to the South. General elections for reunification were scheduled for July 20, 1956. In the North, Ho Chi Minh remained the popular leader; in the South, the United States supported the regime of Ngo Dinh Diem.
For the first time in five years, Nguyen Thi Dinh was reunited with her son and husband. The family had to decide whether to regroup to the North or stay in the South. Dinh's son, On, wanted to go to the North to study. Though Dinh wanted him to remain with her, she also wanted him to become educated "and later continue the unfinished work of his father." So On went to the North, while Dinh stayed behind in the South with her husband, who was ill. Soon—as a result of the repression in the South against former Viet Minh activists—Dinh and her husband had to separate in order to continue the struggle. Now, the struggle was against repression from the Diem government and for implementation of the Geneva Accords, which had promised elections.
Beginning in July 1955, the most significant development of Diem's rule was the large-scale, protracted, bloody persecution of the Communists and other ex-Viet Minh members. The oppression escalated in January 1956 with an ordinance which legalized concentration camps. By 1959, persecution reached its peak; thousands of people were arrested, a high percentage of them shot. According to Marilyn Young in The Vietnam Wars: 1945–1990:
Tens of thousands of those who had, one way or other, fought against the French under the banner of the Viet Minh were arrested, jailed, sent to "reeducation camps." … Agitation for the 1956 national elections was taken as proof of subversion, and perhaps as many as twelve thousand people were executed, upward of fifty thousand imprisoned.
Elections were not allowed to take place. During this period, Dinh had to disguise herself and operate from various hideouts. She once took on the guise of a trader; another time, she assumed the cloak of a nun to escape soldiers. Her brother's son, Di, was arrested, tortured, then shot. The time came when political struggle was no longer adequate, and armed military action seemed necessary.
In the face of this enormous and imposing force of the people, I felt like a small tree standing in a vast and ancient forest. For me there was no other road to take.
—Nguyen Thi Dinh
Early in 1960, Dinh and her comrades in Ben Tre Province began to plan for an armed uprising. They had very few guns, so they produced knives, machetes and other handmade weapons, including "sky-horse" rifles: steel pipes which shot pellets and glass shards dipped in snake poison. On January 17, 1960, the attack began. They tricked the enemy by making fake guns and creating explosions to frighten government troops; one of their objectives was to capture weapons from the government. At this time, women began a campaign of face-to-face political confrontations with government troops, denouncing brutality and urging soldiers to desert.
In 1960, North Vietnam began to actively direct and assist the guerrilla warfare in the South. In September, Ben Tre launched another wave of uprisings, which was even more successful than the first. It spread throughout the entire province and lasted 22 days. In December, the National Liberation Front (NLF), a Southern mass organization with Communists at its core, was founded. Derogatorily called the "Vietcong," the organization would carry on a war that would increasingly threaten Diem and his American supporters. Six days after the founding of the NLF, a rally was held in Ben Tre Province. Ten thousand people attended, and the NLF Committee for the Ben Tre Province was introduced; Nguyen Thi Dinh served as its representative at the rally. The armed units had expanded, and Ben Tre had almost a full battalion of troops. There were now many battalions of women, "long-haired" troops dedicated to political struggle. As the deputy commander of the South Vietnam Liberation Forces, Nguyen Thi Dinh continued to organize women in villages and hamlets. She was elected to the ruling presidium of the Central Committee of the NLF in 1964. The two-pronged (political and military) struggle for the liberation of the South was to continue until victory in 1975.
Attempting to halt the spread of Communism, the U.S. began bombing North Vietnam in 1964, and in 1965 began sending ground troops, escalating the war. By the end of 1967, 500,000 American troops were in Vietnam. General Nguyen Thi Dinh led the People's Liberation Armed Forces (PLAF) in the war for the Mekong Delta. As noted by Jerold Starr in the Lessons of the Vietnam War, all PLAF members were volunteers:
Women constituted one-third to one-half of the main-force troops and forty percent of the PLAF's regimental commanders…. PLAF's regional fighting units had an even higher percentage of women. These full-time fighters operated only in the region where they lived. Another group, militia women, made up local self-defense units which fought when their area was attacked. These women also kept the villages fortified with trenches, traps and spikes.
There were a number of all-women platoons. Women specialized in commando operations, reconnaissance, communications and nursing. Women were in special forces and also dug tunnels, carried supplies, set booby traps, evacuated the wounded and buried the dead.
In 1975, the People's Liberation Armed Forces and the North Vietnamese Army achieved victory. The war left two million Vietnamese killed and four million wounded; 131,000 women were left widowed in Vietnam, and there were 300,000 orphans, approximately 15,000 of them Amerasian. As many as 300,000 Vietnamese still remain missing, and there are 360,000 disabled war victims. The task of rebuilding the country has been immense.
In 1982, Nguyen Thi Dinh became president of the Vietnam Women's Union, which merged the women's organizations of the North and the South. For the next ten years, she used her skill as an organizer to help establish the Union at the village, district, province and national levels. By the time of her retirement as president in 1992, the Vietnam Women's Union had achieved a membership of 11 million.
In a meeting in Ho Chi Minh City on July 26, 1992, one month before her death, Dinh reflected:
How did I survive all those years? You've got to be extremely alert, sensitive, clever and resourceful in order to turn an adverse situation to your advantage…. Had we been fearful, we would have either been killed or died of nervousness. In 1960 the South Vietnam government declared a reward of $1,200,000 for anyone who could get hold of me. They thought that if I were arrested the revolution would lose its force. They didn't realize that the revolution was carried on by the whole people, not only me.
Nguyen Thi Dinh died on August 26, 1992, in Ho Chi Minh City. The Women's Union continues to organize and to act as a powerful advocate for Vietnamese women, representing women in the government, designing new laws, serving to protect women's rights, and insuring implementation of policies which protect women.
Eisen, Arlene. Women and Revolution in Viet Nam. London: Zed Books, 1984.
Elliott, Mai V., trans. No Other Road to Take: Memoir of Mrs. Nguyen Thi Dinh. Ithaca, NY: Department of Asian Studies, Cornell University, 1976.
"Meeting with Nguyen Thi Dinh and U.S. women's delegation." Transcript translated by Bich Thu Doan. Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, July 26, 1992.
Starr, Jerold M., ed. The Lessons of the Vietnam War. Pittsburgh: Center for Social Studies Education, 1991.
White, Christine Pelzer. "Love, War, and Revolution: Reflections on the Memoirs of Nguyen Thi Dinh," in Indochina Newsletter. Issue 68. March–April 1991, pp. 1–8.
Young, Marilyn B. The Vietnam Wars: 1945–1990. NY: Harper Collins, 1991.
Correspondence, papers, and memorabilia are located at the Museum of Vietnamese Women, Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City, and the Vietnam Women's Union, Hanoi.
Kathryn McMahon , Ph.D., author of Heroes and Enemies: War, Gender and Popular Culture for the series "Gender and Political Theory: New Contexts" (Lynne Rienner Publishers)