Nguyen Ngoc Huy: The Gandhi of Vietnam
By Jackie Bong-Wright
A Prolific Scholar with a Great Vision
“I usually don’t read biographies. They often exaggerate the exploits of their subjects. But when I watched the fascinating two-and-a-half hour documentary on Dr. Huy, I was humbled by the huge amount of literary and political work he bestowed on posterity.” These were the words of Ly Van Phuoc, Chair of the Vietnamese Community in the Washington area.
A hundred people gathered to watch excerpts from the documentary and listen to remarks about the late Nguyen Ngoc Huy, who died in 1990 in Paris while chairing an international rally of the Alliance for Democracy in Vietnam (ADV). That was the political party he had established in 1980.
Prof. Huy came to the U.S. in 1975 after Vietnam became Communist, and worked as a research scholar at Harvard University. From that platform, he inspired thousands of his students and political disciples to follow in his footsteps and carry on his work. For many he left a lasting imprint. President George H. W. Bush called him the Gandhi of Vietnam.
Nguyen Ngoc Bich, chairman of the National Congress of Vietnamese Americans (NCVA) and a scholar in his own right, noted that Prof. Huy left, besides his political legacy, an enormous body of scholarly writings that would take future generations years to absorb. “ A prolific writer, he collaborated with Prof. Ta Van Tai of Harvard University and Tran Van Liem, a former Chief Justice, on the three-volume Code of Vietnam published by the Ohio University Press. He wrote a famous monograph, Penal Code of 15th-century Vietnam (Quoc Trieu Hinh Luat). And with Stephen Young, former Dean of the Law School at Hamline University (Minnesota), he co-authored the Tradition of Human Rights in Vietnam.”
“One can mention almost any topic, and be sure that Prof. Huy has touched upon it, and in a thorough manner,” Bich said. “For instance, you might be puzzled by the way Vietnamese names are made up. Well, there’s already a full monograph written by Prof. Huy on the subject. He has a two-volume study of the history of political theory in the East, mostly about China. He also wrote a book-length commentary on the major characters of the “chivalric novels” of Jin Rong, a contemporary Hong Kong author.”
At 20, Huy joined the Dai Viet Party and a year later went to work at Vietnam’s National Library. He devoured books, and wrote articles on youth, politics and poetry. At a young age, he composed the “Unknown Hero,” which was recited in the schools. It was later put to music, and sung to urge soldiers to fight to the end and to praise fallen heroes who had fought in silence, without fanfare.
When Huy’s Dai Viet Party was oppressed by the authoritarian Ngo Dinh Diem regime, Huy took refuge in Paris, where he continued his studies while working at odd jobs. He earned a Ph.D in Political Science at the Sorbonne in Paris in 1963.
Returning to Vietnam, he and his friend, Prof. Nguyen Van Bong, established a new opposition party – The National Progressive Movement. Huy held various high-level government positions and taught political science at the National Institute of Administration and at a number of Vietnamese universities. He also wrote many newspaper articles, seeking always to promote democracy and motivate young people to become active in politics.
Poet, professor, politician, author, Prof. Huy’s literary output comprises over 20 books in Vietnamese, French and English; 7 monographs; 9 lectures delivered at universities in Vietnam and the U.S. on Communism, U.S. military strategies, the Soviet Union and Vietnam, China and Vietnam; and a book of 115 poems.
Bui Diem, Vietnamese Ambassador to Washington in the 1960s, assessed Prof. Huy’s importance. “There is no need for me to talk about the vast contribution of Dr. Huy to the independence of Vietnam and its march towards democracy. I mention nevertheless a special trait of his personality that was so persistant that it became dominant over his whole political life. He was devoted to the idea of reform at every stage of his political activities and he consistently tried to put that idea into practice.”
“As a veteran member of the old Dai Viet Nationalist Party, he had already promoted, in the early sixties, the idea of tranforming that party into the “Tan Dai Viet” –“new” Dai Viet, with a new vision. Huy became one of its prominent leaders and, in the mid-seventies, right after we migrated overseas, he tried to unite the various factions of the party,” the Ambassador recalled. Thus, the Alliance for Democracy in Vietnam (ADV) was formed in the U.S. in the early eighties, and Huy, with only one dark suit and contributions from his disciples, went around the world a number of times to educate and recruit the hundreds of Vietnamese who became the ADV’s members. Central to his message was always the idea of non-violence.
Huy realized that, since refugees from Communism were dispersed all over the world with no military or financial resources, he had to rely on other people’s power to exert leverage on the dictatorial regime in Vietnam. Recruiting as members European, Canadian, Australian and American legislators, he founded, in 1986, the International Committee for a Free Vietnam (ICFV).
These congressmen and parliamentarians served as honorary members. They committed themselves to work for the restoration of human rights and basic liberties, such as freedom of religion, speech and association. That had not been the Communist government’s norm since they took power in 1975 in Vietnam.
Today, the ADV and the ICFV work hand in hand to produce, at their annual meetings, resolutions that call for Vietnam to free prisoners of conscience, open up fair trade with other countries, allow multiple political parties, and hold free and transparent elections.
Tran Thu, the person who for two years researched Dr. Huy’s life and spent another year working on the documentary, said, “Dr Huy’s passion for his mission touches everyone, young and old alike. His charisma transcends frontiers and races. Like the myth of Sysiphus, Dr. Huy struggled uphill to build a democracy for Vietnam, a thankless task that saw him fall back many times over. But he kept climbing. He never gave up, even eight years after he contracted cancer. His determination was a fire that lit people up like a lighthouse and guided thousands of us in the right direction. Let us pledge to follow his teachings on human rights and democracy until the end of our lives.”