Hopes and Disappointments of the Anti-Corruption Special Investigator

Invaluable Archived Documents

While researching on documents related to General Hieu, I was advised by archivists at the President Ford Library that it possesses approximately ninety pages regarding the anti-corruption efforts of Vice-President Huong's office. The majority of these documents consist of telegrams the American Embassy in Saigon sent to the Secretary of State to report the efforts and opinions of General Hieu, Special Assistant to Vice President Tran Van Huong, in charge of Anti-Corruption. The following telegrams are posted on General Hieu's Page:

01. Report on SMASF Scandal (07/14/1972)
02. General Hieu's Talk on Corruption (07/15/1972)
03. Corruption in South Vietnam (07/19/1972)
04. General Hieu's Talk on Special Decree on Corruption (08/17/1972)
05. Translation of 14 July Speech by MG Hieu (09/01/1972)
06. Corruption in Judicial System (09/14/1972)
07. Three Corruption Cases: Dung, Judicial Police and Phung Hoang (09/20/1972)
08. Seven Colonels Were Punished in SMARSF's Scandal (10/27/1972)
09. General Hieu's Review of Anti-Corruption Work (03/05/1973)
10. Corruption Case of Colonel Tran Trong Nghia (05/24/1973)

The first factor that makes these documents invaluable is that the contents of these telegrams are reports American embassy reporting officials wrote after their interviews with General Hieu. Therefore, these documents reflected accurately General Hieu's own words, thoughts, and feelings, and not of someone else about his anti-corruption efforts.

The second factor that makes these documents invaluable is that they covered almost the entire period General Hieu assumed the position of Anti-Corruption Special Investigator. Therefore, one can follow General Hieu's anti-corruption activities from the beginning to the end.

The third factor that makes these documents invaluable is that they took place in an impartial and straightforward environment between General Hieu and American officials (evidently, General Hieu was fully aware that his words would be reported to the highest American authorities). From his part, General Hieu was not afraid to talk frankly; from the reporting officials' side, their duties were to report accurately.

The fourth factor that makes these documents invaluable is that without their existence, the younger generation would never know the truths pertaining to General Hieu's anti-corruption campaign, because all the witnesses of that period - based on my contacts - are not willing to talk about this issue under the pretext of respect of others' sensitivities or fear of personal harms.

Salient Points of Archived Anti-Corruption Documents

The following are salient points about General Hieu's anti-corruption efforts, based on documents at President Ford Library.

Initial euphoria

General Hieu left the position of I Corps Deputy Commander in Danang at the end of January 1972 to assume the position of Special Assistant to the Vice President in charge of Anti-Corruption in Saigon at the beginning of February 1972.

The fact that the American Embassy only began to report Vice Presidency's anti-corruption work with it first telegram dated July 15, 1972 shows that the American authorities, like the general attitude of all avenues, considered Vice President Huong, when he was entrusted by President Thieu with the mission of eradicating corruption in November 1971, to be only a mere "paper tiger". The same day General Hieu announced his preliminary findings on the Soldiers Mutual Aid and Savings Fund's scandal on April 4, 1972, the Los Angeles Times' reporter wrote that Lieutenant General Nguyen Van Vy was very honest, and there was no evidence which would implicate the Defense Minister, "that he was anything more than the luckless man in the middle". The American Embassy, like everybody, only started to pay attention when General Hieu's televised speech was delivered on July 14, 1972, and rushed in to interview him the next day on July 15, 1972.

It is certain that when Vice President Huong proposed to President Thieu to detach General Hieu from the I Corps to assume the function of Special Assistant to the Vice President in charge of Anti-Corruption, Thieu did not suspect that General Hieu could be the "steel clutches" of the "paper tiger" and consequently he did not care to be on the defensive, and General Hieu enjoyed great latitude in his investigative works at the beginning period of his job.

Because nobody paid attention, General Hieu was able to quietly accomplish his investigation of the Soldiers' Mutual Aid and Savings Fund's scandal within three months. He did not hesitate to choose as his first attack, a target amounting to more than ten millions dollars, belonging to the most powerful agency (the Defense Ministry), headed by the most prestigious military personality (Lieutenant General Nguyen Van Vy, "the 54-year-old soldier has qualifications matched by few of South Vietnam's generals".) and extremely complex (a seven tentacle octopus: a bank and six commercial companies: COGIVINA - paper processing, SICOVINA, VICCO - construction, VINAVATCO - transportation, ICICO - insurance, and FOPROCO - food processing; involving specialized expertise in accounting, financing, stock market, management, ...).

General Hieu was clever in taking steps to make his case of the SMASF's affair directly to "people of the nation, generals, and fellow soldiers", on a televised presentation first, then "the records of investigation of the first phase carried out by the Special Investigation Team will be submitted to the President of Viet Nam with recommendations for necessary sanctions for his final decision," afterwards, creating a "fait accompli" which would prevent the dossier from being dumped into oblivion. This forethought forced President Thieu to oust the Defense Minister and seven colonels in this SMASF's affair.

General Hieu was elated when several of ARVN officers called in by phone to compliment him on the report after the TV broadcast.

Another source of General Hieu's satisfaction was that Vice President Huong was all ears toward his ideas. In one instance, Vice President Huong repeated General Hieu's idea of attributing corruption as the cause for the demise of the Chinese Nationalist Party of Chiang Khai-Shek vis-a-vis the Chinese Communist Party of Mao Tse-Tung to President Thieu.

When Vice President Huong stated to the two American Ambassadors, Bunker and Whitehouse, "that it was in part thanks to his efforts that Generals Lam [I Corps Commander] and Dzu [II Corps Commander] had been replaced; he also drew attention to the recent removal of the Vinh Long Province Chief on charges of corruption", one can clearly see General Hieu's influence and behind-the-scenes engineering in these three dismissals in April 1972.

In the euphoria of success at the beginning of this task, General Hieu envisioned and made big plans to attack all directions. He mentioned the Power Company, Air Vietnam, the Presidential Special Advisor, Lieutenant General Dang Van Quang, the Judicial Branch, the Judicial Police, and Phung Hoang Program.

Accumulated Disappointments

But then very quickly, General Hieu was disappointed when he found out that the following obstacles prevented him from fulfilling the anti-corruption mission he had been given.

The first obstacle is the lack of personnel and funds to do the job. It appeared that besides General Hieu, Vice President Huong was not able to recruit anyone else: "He pointed out that it was hard to find incorruptible and bold officers to work in this field". No one would dare to confront corrupt heavyweight officials such as Thieu, Khiem, Quang... "General Hieu stated that some pressure had been exerted from various quarters against investigators of SMASF. Some military security service officers working on the case were reminded by persons in the Ministry of Defense that after the investigation was concluded they would still be under the Ministry of Defense discipline. This was taken as a threat by the Military Security Service officers involved. Hieu said these threats did not impede the investigation."

Furthermore, the operational funds of the Anti-Corruption Committee - which "got some financial support from President Thieuís secret funds," were minimal. Ambassador Bunker's opinion was the following: "it seems to me unlikely that he will be able to do much more in this field than he has in the past, given his lack of staff and funds unless these conditions are remedied. This can only come about through vigorous backing and support from President Thieu." Thieu's supports for the anti-corruption campaign remained only words.

The second obstacle that rendered the anti-corruption task difficult was the interference of feelings. In the SMASF case, General Hieu felt cornered into an awkward situation when his father, giving in multitude requests made by many of his old friends, intervened with his son on behalf of General Vy. Also, in this case, General Hieu had to put aside his feelings to denounce General Le Van Kim's embezzlement activities, who was a close friend and brother-in-law of General Don, a longtime direct superior and good friend of General Hieu (from 1953 to 1962). In his book, Viet Nam Nhan Chung, General Don did not harbor resentment against General Hieu on this issue and merely commented that "General Nguyen Van Hieu was straightforward." Because General Hieu was very approachable, always a good listener, condescending, ready to receive whoever wanted to talk to him, he even did not mind to receive relatives whom he knew were merely seeking some favors, "General Hieu said that he spent much of his time attempting to fend off the introduction of such factors into consideration of corruption cases." A Vietnamese proverb describes well General Hieu's attitude in this issue of feelings and duty:

Loving you, I keep it inside me
When it comes to my official function, I am only guided by my sense of responsibility.

General Hieu, however, added that Vice President Huong was not as strong as him: "Vice President Huong himself sometimes felt obliged to give these factors weight." And General Hieu was somewhat disappointed that Vice President Huong was wary when it came to going head-on against President Thieu and General Quang. "He cited as an example a member of the lower house who had clearly been involved in corrupt activities. Hieu said he took the dossier to Vice President Huong, who noted that the legislator was a member of the pro-administration bloc and the day before had had dinner with the President. Huong advised not pursuing the matter. Another example, Hieu said, was police Colonel Pham Kim Quy, chief of the judicial bloc, national police. According to Hieu, gross corruption in the National Police Immigration Service, a branch of the judicial bloc, has been traced directly to Col Quy, who is known to be close to Presidential Assistant Dang Van Quang. Vice President Huong is also reluctant to pursue this case."

Another obstacle General Hieu frequently encountered was that members of the Special Committee on Anti-Corruption always took the side of their owns, like in the case of the Minister of Justice Le Van Thu casting his vote to exonerate Judge Nguyen Khac Dung or the Director-General of Police Nguyen Khac Binh attempting to take the Judicial Police off the hook with mass transfers.

General Hieu was also discouraged when Vice President Huong listened to one of his colleague who was also an Assistant to the Vice President, Nguyen Thach Van's advice and gave order to a government committee to draft an anti-corruption decree-law because it would be only an exercise of futility that would lead to nowhere. General Hieu bluntly said: "If you really want to attack the problem of corruption effectively, you don't need the new decree. According to Hieu, as long as persons involved in corruption continue to receive protection from those higher in authority, little progress can be made."

Another obstacle was that after the SMASF's scandal was exposed, President Thieu limited the power to investigate to the level of a district or lower. For the level of province or above, a prior approval had to be granted by the President to start an investigation. If a district chief wanted to bribe, he had to share his loot with the province chief; if the province chief wanted to bribe, he had to share his loot with the corps commander; if the corps commander wanted to bribe, he had to share his loot with the special presidential advisor; as demonstrated by General Hieu in the following example:

Hieu said that Col. Mach Van Truong, recently appointed Province Chief of Long Khanh, had in the last few weeks made a number of approaches to Major Sung, one of his district chiefs, demanding that Sung extort money from lumber operators in his district and provide Truong with a significant portion of the proceeds. Hieu said that Major Sung, who had been Commander of the 8th Regiment, 5th Division, when Hieu was Commanding General of the 5th, was well known in ARVN for his strict honesty. Sung had reported to Hieu the approach made by Col. Truong, saying that he had told Truong that he could not accede to the request and therefore wished to be transferred. Hieu commented to the Embassy officer that Truong was an old associate of LTG Nguyen Van Minh, CG MR 3, and that Hieu was convinced that Minh had appointed Truong as province chief partly in order to ensure his hold over the lucrative lumber trade in Long Khanh. Hieu was recommending that this case be investigated but noted that this depended on President Thieu and on the outcome of contacts between Thieu and LTG Minh.

What is evident here is that Thieu intended to tie General Hieu's hands, preventing him from tracing the links of corruption plague to its roots, to squash the corruption animal at its head (Thieu-Quang-Khiem).

Therefore, when he reviewed the results of his anti-corruption efforts, "General Hieu said he considered the results so far disappointing. What successes had been achieved were in no way commensurate with the dimension of the problem." Having faced the NVA in the battlefields, General Hieu knew it was clear that the ARVN would never defeat them, and vice versa. He was convinced, therefore, that when everybody was tired of fighting each other, a political solution would be eventually sought by everyone. When it came to that point, South Vietnam would fall into the Communists' hands:

Either we correct our faults, or the Communists will fix them for us.

[ comment: it seems that this sentence of General Hieu sounds better than the following slogan of President Thieu: Don't listen to what the Communists say. Instead, examine what the Communists do. Which advice would have had more chance in saving South Vietnam from falling into the hands of the Communists? To win a battle, you must know both your enemy's and your strengths and weaknesses. General Hieu's advice reckoned both. President Thieu's advice only emphasized the enemy's.]

Hieu said that his own experience over the last year and the close-up view which it had given him of the workings of corruption throughout the Vietnamese society had convinced him that if no means is found to attack the problem effectively, it could well become a decisive factor in swinging the population toward the Communists in a future political struggle. He said that although the Southern Vietnamese generally do not like the Communists and view their possible accession to power with varying degrees of apprehension, there is a widespread inner anger among the population at the regularly encountered evidences of misuse of power for personal profit, of corrupt practices, and particularly of extortion, which the people face in their daily lives.

Nguyen Van Tin
25 July 2002.

Updated on 08/16/2002