Is Lam Ton a Communist Lackey?
Lam Ton put his foot in his mouth two months ago in the Tribune's Sunday magazine. A long profile of Chicago's best-known Vietnamese refugee ended with Lam's jolting reflection on war and peace:
"If I learn something in America, it's if you can't beat them, you join them. You know, it work."
By them he meant the Communist regime of Vietnam. His fellow refugees are in an uproar.
What Lam Ton meant, but stated extremely badly, makes obvious sense to almost anyone but another Vietnamese: The war is over. Now Hanoi, desperately poor, is making conciliatory gestures to old enemies, and America should respond. The Vietnamese people need our aid. They need to be reminded of what a free people can do.
But many of Chicago's Vietnamese took him literally: he has thrown in with Hanoi. And last month, when WTTW aired Vietnam: A Chicagoan Goes Home, a chronicle of Lam's recent visit to his mother and his native village, leaders of the local refugee community met almost nightly to debate measures. The ultimate response was both benign and bizarre: Lam's fellow refugees picketed WTTW and his two restaurants with signs that said such things as "Lam Ton, Hanoi's repressive regime advocate GO BACK TO LIVE IN VIETNAM."
Had these demonstrators even seen the show? When Vietnam's foreign minister, Nguyen Co Thach, gave him an unexpected audience in Hanoi, Lam could be seen informing him, "I am angered at the way the country was managed over the last 13 years. We should bring more happiness to our people. We should give them freedom."
Lam spoke incessantly of freedom. Yet as he traveled the length of Vietnam in the course of this remarkable documentary, he found reason to hope. "I am very happy to see that Minister Thach recognized all the grave mistakes that the Communists have committed over the past 13 years," he said on camera. "It took Russia 70 years to realize it. It took China 30 years to realize it. It took Vietnam only 13 years."
Many Vietnamese in Chicago cannot swallow this note of optimism. And Lam's concluding remarks went totally beyond the pale: "My original dream was to bring all my family to America. But after visiting my old country I say 'Oh boy! You stay there. Do the best you can, and hold your spirit high. Full life will return to Vietnam if just that element is given to the people--that is, the element of freedom."
Sixteen community leaders signed a paper accusing Lam Ton of statements that "betray the struggles of the Vietnamese community here and the suffering of those in Viet Nam." Even more ominous was a covertly circulated broadside from the shadowy "Special Brigade Apr/30th." It accused Lam Ton of betraying "the anticommunist struggle of Vietnamese in and out of VNam" and declared:
"All Vietnamese anti-communist refugees, all veterans, all former communist prisoners, please respond appropriately to the betrayal and the challenging, insolent attitude of a communist lackey, Lam Ton."
That kind of chilling language brought the FBI in and convinced Lam to recant. In a letter read at a community meeting March 5, Lam insisted he is still "in a Vietnamese patriot position" (the translation was prepared for us by the Vietnamese Association; Lam Ton called it "fair") and blamed WTTW for any offense given by his controversial audience with foreign minister Thach. They "edited only the parts which were useful to their purpose. . . . They cut out the parts in which I criticized the communist regime for the lack of freedom, the stupidity of the leadership, the detention of all real patriots in reeducation camps, and the imprisonment of a whole people into poverty and misery . . ."
Lam tapped an old nerve here. There is a lingering distrust of the American media, particularly TV, among Vietnamese refugees, who (like many Americans) are inclined to believe that coverage of the war in this country was slanted from beginning to end. But everyone already knew that Lam Ton had stood up to the foreign minister. Weeks earlier Lam, anticipating an uproar, had invited several community leaders to his home to watch the raw tape of the confrontation. The problem wasn't how Lam handled himself. It was that Lam and WTTW had given the smooth, mendacious official (so they see Thach) an opening "to appeal directly to the American public for sympathy and economic aid."
Lam Ton--who'd been a translator in the U.S. embassy--went to Vietnam fearing both his reception there and the one he'd return to in Chicago. But he felt he had acted cowardly once already, and once was enough. That first time was on April 30, 1975, when he escaped by helicopter from the U.S. embassy.
"Ambassador Martin left at two o'clock in the morning," Lam says. "I didn't leave until 3:45. He passed by me when he left."
It never stopped haunting Lam that he'd left at all. "I said to Nguyen Co Thach, 'All the South Vietnamese soldiers you put in the reeducation camps--I have respect for them. They are the real patriots.' It's on the tape. I was a civilian there but I could have pulled a gun to fight."
Now, newer refugees who did endure the camps say Lam never saw the Communist cruelty firsthand and speaks ignorantly of Vietnam today. It's a hollow, visceral charge; Lam knows many survivors of the camps, including his own brothers.
The denunciation of Lam Ton reflects classic tensions of a refugee society. Entwined with the industriousness of an uprooted people determined to make their way are an adamant refusal to let go of the past and a romantic faith that history can correct itself. (Dubious forces have raised millions of dollars from refugees by claiming to finance a rebel army inside Vietnam.) Lam is not alone in what he thinks, but no other Vietnamese has dared to stand beside him. There is a right line to be toed; it is enforced by intimidation and in larger part by the grim solidarity of the displaced.
We watched the demonstrators gather last week at the Vietnamese Association in Uptown and then set off by bus, posters in hand, for Lam Ton's fancy Mekong restaurant downtown. Ngoan Le, the reflective executive director of the association, asked us to please write generously. She understands how unfathomable the uprising against Lam Ton--model anti-Communist and capitalist--must seem to anyone but a Vietnamese, and she agonizes over the refugees' inability to make us understand.
"I saw the story in the Tribune yesterday where Lam is bringing the coffees to the veterans at the Art Institute. He's a pretty amazing guy. . . . I remember one of the comments, that he has a way with the media. He got to know a lot of the media and he was interviewed a lot.
"That's one part of our anguish. We don't know if we can ever convey our own point of view. We make a statement and we are automatically branded a right-wing reactionary. For me as a person, a very hard part of my struggle is how to communicate in the American way, and I don't mean language but how can I communicate so people will listen?
"It tears our heart apart to see the situation shown on television"--she meant the poverty on display in A Chicagoan Goes Home--"but we feel a responsibility to keep the sense of perspective. You don't deal with the symptoms, you deal with the cause. And if we only talk about the cause, people say 'How can you be so coldhearted?' We have family back in Vietnam and we know, sending money, on the one hand it's helping our people, but on the other hand it's helping the government. You send ten dollars back they get one, the government gets nine. [Lam flatly disputes this.] It's very painful."
Ngoan tried to explain it better. It is like South Africa, she said. Bishop Tutu calls for economic sanctions although his own people will suffer most. But they suffer already, and in the long run sanctions might help set them free.
But Lam wants to do business with Hanoi, say his critics. He must keep his hands off and let the regime wither away.
"The response that you're getting is not rational," said Leonard Aronson, who accompanied Lam to Vietnam and produced the WTTW program. "Some sincere people who are bitter are living in the past and will never forgive the Communists for winning and for punishing those who lost. Lam has broken ranks. There are many who have gone back quietly and privately. But he's gone back openly and publicly and so he's put himself on the firing line."
Aronson is rightly proud of his show. Yet he's discovered "we barely scratched the surface of all the layers of feeling and reality there are." The show scratched an open wound.
As a cub reporter, Herman Kogan saw Carol Frink MacArthur pleading to judge and jury that wicked Helen Hayes had come between her and her devoted Charlie like a tire iron prying off a hubcap. Fifty years later, we were working on a play about Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur, and Kogan told the story. He told us how Ms. Frink, shooting for $100,000, sat in the box with a tear in her eye remembering how Charlie used to race alongside her trolley home and recite poetry through an open window.
At which Helen Hayes, seated beside MacArthur in the courtroom, stuck a finger into her husband's ribs and whispered, "You devil, you."
When Frink gave up her alienation-of-affections suit, MacArthur took his wife back to New York. He and Hecht and so many others down the years have lit up our sky for a night and been gone. Herman Kogan, author, editor, critic, was a polestar. What he carried in his head amounted to our city's literary and cultural heritage. Now there's nowhere to find all that but books, many of them his.
Chicago should fly its flags at half-mast. Herman Kogan has left town.