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The Vietnam Women's Movement for the Right to Live: a non-communist opposition movement to the American war in Vietnam

Pages 75-102 | Received 30 May 2018, Accepted 27 Oct 2018, Published online: 11 Nov 2018


This article examines the political and diplomatic struggles in urban South Vietnam from the perspective of women in the Vietnamese Women’s Movement for the Right to Live (WRL) during the Vietnam War. This movement was a timely response to the American war of aggression, which had destroyed the fabric of South Vietnamese society and drastically diminished women’s position within it by 1970. Under the leadership of Mrs. Ngô Bá Thành, the WRL fought for peace and women’s liberation through political action and shrewd diplomacy. Unlike female guerrilla fighters, the WRL maintained political autonomy and neutrality throughout the conflict. As a result, it was violently repressed by the Saigon government and quickly disbanded after the communist victory in 1975. Nevertheless, studying these politically sophisticated women’s anti-war efforts is crucial to understanding the symbiotic yet destructive relationship between Third World women and American imperialism during the twentieth century. It also helps dismantle essentialist assumptions about Asian women as inherently submissive and politically naïve. The WRL is a sterling example of Vietnamese women’s ingenuity in their dual struggle for national liberation and gender equality.


Sincere thanks to CAS editor Robert Shepherd, two anonymous CAS reviewers, and Ngô Vĩnh Long, Elizabeth McKillen, and Mazie Hough for their incisive and invaluable comments on earlier versions of this article. The author also thanks Phạm Thị Xuân Quế for sharing her experience and memories about the war.

Disclosure statement

No potential conflict of interest was reported by the author.

Notes on contributor

An Thuy Nguyen is a Ph.D. student in history at the University of Maine. Her research interests are the history of U.S.-Asian relations, women’s history, and feminist theory. Her current research investigates the detrimental and lasting impact of American foreign policy on South Vietnamese socio-political infrastructure during the Second Indochina War. This research reflects her interest in the role of non-state actors in delivering peace and change in general, and in influencing U.S. foreign policy in particular.


1 Thành Citation1974, 112–115.

2 These included the Vietnamese Women’s Association, Federation of Vietnamese Buddhist Women, Buddhist Women Teachers Association, Saigon Thirty-Six Markets Women’s Trade Union, Women Teachers Coordination Committee, Women of the Hồng Môn Religious Congregation, and the Vietnamese Women Buddhist Congregation, among others. For a complete list of member organizations, see Mrs. Ngô Bá Thành Citation1974, 133.

3 Thành Citation1974, 115.

4 Phong Trào Phụ Nữ Đòi Quyền Sống in Vietnamese.

5 Ngô Vĩnh Long Citation2011, 3. According to Le Monde correspondent Jean-Claude Pomonti, the earliest use of the term “third force” appeared in 1960 to describe a group of South Vietnamese political elites who endorsed the anti-Diệm Caravelle Manifesto. The Third Force was not a unified organization as such, but a collection of pro-peace organizations and personalities who believed the U.S.-led war was obliterating South Vietnamese society. Members of the Third Force included South Vietnamese students, intellectuals, women, workers, veterans, religious leaders, professionals, and progressive politicians. Also included were Vietnamese anti-war movement activists in France, the United States, Japan, and many other countries. During the last few years of the war the term “Third Force” was replaced by the term “Third Component” (thành phần thứ ba) to reflect the changing political realities in South Vietnam and at the peace negotiations in Paris, as will be discussed later in this article.

6 Thành Citation1974, 342–343. According to the WRL’s Manifesto, this postwar vision would comprise an “independent national economy without financial obligation to any foreign country” and a “scientific and progressive culture.”

7 Long Citation2009, 304. According to Ngô Vĩnh Long, as soon as the war concluded, “northern bureaucrats and party members [began] claiming the lion’s share of power,” first by promptly disbanding all organizations previously belonged to the politically neutral Third Force, including the WRL. The few studies – most of which are written in English – that recognize the existence and influence of either Mrs. Thành or the WRL do so within the scope of one or a few paragraphs. See for example Taylor Citation1999, 92 and Foster Citation1989, 67–69.

8 Trần Hữu Quang Citation2013. Trần argues that postwar policies such as re-education programs of former Saigon officials only further perpetuated the polarization among Vietnamese within Vietnam and abroad. For an insightful analysis on the consequences of the communist military victory in hindering national reconciliation, see Ngô Vĩnh Long Citation2013a, 475.

9 Trần Thị Liên Citation2013, 446.

10 The only post-1990 monograph on the Third Force is Quinn-Judge Citation2017.

11 Frazier Citation2017.

12 See Gottschang Citation1998 and Taylor Citation1999.

13 Narayan Citation1998, 92.

14 Mohanty Citation2003, 52.

15 This is not to deny the historical contradiction within the entanglement of Third World nationalism and feminism, which has concerned feminist scholars and historians alike, but simply to promote the importance and usefulness of conducting contextual analysis in investigating Third World feminism and its relationship to other forms of political struggles.

16 Oka Citation1974, 1.

17 Thieu Son Citation1975.

18 Ủy Ban Bảo Vệ Hoà Bình in Vietnamese.

19 Malloy Citation1974, 53. According to Ruth Malloy, a correspondent for the American Friends Service Committee, the signatories included “mainly writers, lawyers, professors, businessmen, engineers, students, monks, and trade-unionists,” many of whom were “well-known non-Communist patriots.”

20 Thành Citation1974, 56. Mrs. Thành’s father, Dr. Phạm Văn Huyến, meanwhile, was deported along with two other leaders of the VPC (Professor Tôn Thất Dương Kỵ and the journalist Cao Minh Chiếm) to North Vietnam in March 1975, after having been branded as communists by the Saigon regime.

21 Thành Citation1974, 43.

22 Thành Citation1970b.

23 Nhất Chi Mai burned herself to death in Saigon on May 16, 1967, as a protest against the war.

24 Thành Citation1974, 149–151. In this speech at Ngọc Phương Pagoda on March 7, 1971, Mrs. Thành invoked examples of past nationalist heroines such as the Trưng Sisters who had led Vietnam in a rebellion against Chinese domination during the first century C.E.

25 Thành Citation1974, 70–78.

26 Thành Citation1974, 30.

27 Thành Citation1974, 61–63. Mrs. Thành disclosed this in her interview with Canadian journalists in Saigon on November 30, 1968.

28 Thành Citation1974, 59. This view was shared in Mrs. Thành’s interview with German journalists in Saigon on November 11, 1968.

29 Thành Citation1974, 48.

30 Yarborough Citation2005, 4.

31 This insight was shared by Doctor Phạm Thị Xuân Quế, the President of the WRL’s branch in Huế, in an interview with the author on November 10, 2014. A native of Đà Nẵng, Quế moved to Huế during the war and remained a medical doctor and important leader of the movement in the former capital city until 1975.

32 Thành Citation1974, 342–344.

33 Interview with Phạm Thị Xuân Quế 2014. Members of the Huế chapter, for instance, were mostly Buddhist tradeswomen, whose husbands had left to fight for the NLF at a significantly higher rate than other Southern cities due to President Ngô Đình Diệm’s brutal repression of Buddhists in 1963. Meanwhile, many female workers joined the WRL in Saigon, where industries were considerably more developed.

34 Lý Chánh Trung Citation2000, 69.

35 Ngô Vĩnh Long Citation1974, 52. Widely considered the first feminist movement in modern Vietnam, Phụ Nữ Tân Văn failed to produce comprehensive reforms due to its members’ initial refusal to address the sentiments of peasant and lower class women during the French colonial period.

36 On January 30, 1968, North Vietnam Army (NVA) and Viet Cong forces launched a widespread attack across South Vietnam. More than 80,000 troops participated in attacks against more than one hundred South Vietnamese cities and towns, including Saigon. Although American and South Vietnamese forces eventually regained control of the situation, the scale of the offensive is widely credited with helping turn American public opinion against the war.

37 Ngô Vĩnh Long Citation2011, 6.

38 Porter Citation1993, 27–29.

39 Porter Citation1993, 29.

40 Ngô Vĩnh Long Citation1972b, 11.

41 Hassler Citation1970, 158. An excerpt from a South Vietnamese student’s letter to his American counterparts illustrates this point: “Do not believe that the danger of a communist takeover justifies continuation of the war. We believe we are strong enough to form an independent government. The decision, however, should be ours, not yours, when it is our lives and our country that are being destroyed.”

42 Committee for the Reform of the Prison Regime Citation1972.

43 Ngô Vĩnh Long Citation1972b, 11.

44 Tự Quyết [Self-Determination] Citation1970, 4. Tự Quyết was a monthly magazine published in South Vietnam until 1975.

45 Ngô Vĩnh Long Citation1972b, 14.

46 Ngô Vĩnh Long Citation1972b, 14.

47 Điện Tín [Telegram], October 3, Citation1973, 1 and 4. The Provisional Revolutionary Government was not a homogeneous communist bloc but a coalition of nationalists, communists, and indigenous religious groups who opposed American intervention in South Vietnam.

48 Ngô Vĩnh Long Citation2011, 8.

49 Announced on January 27, Citation1973, the “Agreement on Ending the War and Restoring Peace in Vietnam” was signed by representatives of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (North Vietnam), the Republic of Vietnam (South Vietnam), the United States, and the Provisionary Revolutionary Government. Under the Accords, the United States agreed to withdraw its forces in exchange for North Vietnam returning all American prisoners of war (POWS). All parties also agreed on the territorial integrity of Vietnam, and the eventual unification of the country.

50 Quinn-Judge Citation2017, 4.

51 Turse Citation2013, 53.

52 Pepper Citation1970, 114. “Việt Cộng” is a misleading term as it suggests NLF homogeneity, when in reality this was a coalition of anti-government forces. For example, non-communists and members of indigenous religious sects held important positions within the PLAF.

53 Valentine Citation1990, 216.

54 See Lang Citation1969. As journalist Nick Turse puts it, “sexual violence and sexual exploitation became an omnipresent part of the American War” in Vietnam (Turse Citation2013, 164). Ingrained racism and sexism in U.S. military training also helped justify the murder of and sexual violence against Vietnamese women, who were often considered sub-human. See Taylor Citation1970; O’Brien Citation1973, 51; and Sturr Citation2011, 53. Associated Press correspondent and Pulitzer Prize winner Peter Arnett explained in an interview that, because “Americans were trained in the buddy system for security,” gang rapes were preferable to the “style” of individual sexual assaults observed among ARVN troops. See Brownmiller Citation1993, 98.

55 Thành Citation1974, 116.

56 Thành Citation1970a.

57 Camp Citation1974, 145.

58 Ackland Citation1972, 76.

59 New York Times Citation1967. By 1967, only 168 out of 12,537 rural hamlets were under the complete control of the Saigon government. 3978 hamlets were controlled by the NLF, while the rest were officially “contested.”

60 Ackland Citation1972, 77. Official U.S policy was stepping up “refugee programs deliberately aimed at depriving the VC of a recruiting base.”

61 War journalist Jonathan Schell recounts an example of such announcements as follows: “Attention, people of Ben Suc! The Republic of South Vietnam and Allied Forces surround you. Do not run away or you will be shot as V.C.” The leaflets, on the other hand, were designed by the Psychological Warfare Office to invoke fear among the peasants. Depicted on these leaflets were graphic images and threatening messages targeted at civilians. See Schell Citation1967, 24.

62 Former war correspondent for the London Times Wilfred Burchett summarizes such scenarios as:

to try to escape death in any other than the approved method of fleeing to Saigon-controlled areas was evidence of guilt. For any villager to flee the bombs or machine-gun bullets during a bombing raid was evidence of guilt and justification for being cut down; anyone who hid in a shelter during the aerial and artillery bombardment that preceded American entry into any village was automatically a “Vietcong” to be gassed like a rat in a burrow.

See Burchett Citation1968, 103.

63 Sống [Live] Citation1967, 1 and 4; Schell Citation1967, 61. Official reports of the South Vietnamese government led Schell to estimate that there was only “one latrine for every 214 people, one school for every 3000 children (calculating the number of children as roughly two-thirds of the refugees), and one medical dispensary for every 4543 people in a refugee camp.”

64 See Ngô Vĩnh Long Citation1993, 334; Gibson Citation2000, 64; and Sturr Citation2011, 53. The proliferation of prostitution in Vietnam can be directly traced to French colonialism and the American occupation. By the war's end, South Vietnam had approximately 500,000 prostitutes, in a population of eighteen million. Furthermore, the nature of sex work during the war was highly susceptible to violence. Sexual encounters often tragically ended in the shooting and killing of women by frustrated soldiers. In addition to threats of violence, these women also suffered from enormous social stigma and degradation. In a Confucian society that highly praises a woman’s chastity and sexual abstinence, sex work is regarded as immoral.

65 Đuốc Nhà Nam [Southern Torch], March 9, Citation1971, 1 and 4. According to government statistics cited in this article, prices of food commodities had increased by an average of 800 percent between 1961 and 1971. Another reason behind this escalation in food prices was increasing consumption taxes on essential commodities to compensate for lost revenue from concurrent tariff cuts on luxury goods. See also Dân Chủ Mới [New Democracy] Citation1971, 1; Tin Sáng Citation1971, 1.

66 According to investigative journalist Seymour Hersh, Agent Blue, or dimethyl arsenate, was sprayed by the U.S. Air Force to destroy rice and other food crops. According to a report of the Agronomy Section of the Japan Science Council, by 1967 the American spraying of herbicides and defoliants had destroyed more than half of the arable cropland in South Vietnam (more than 3.8 million acres) and directly killed more than 13,000 heads of livestock and nearly one thousand peasants. See Hersh Citation1968, 354. The South Vietnamese National Assembly’s Committee on Agriculture issued a report that estimated defoliants had destroyed sixty percent of all crops by 1970. Tin Sáng [Morning News] Citation1970, 1 and 4.

67 Dân Chủ Mới [New Democracy] Citation1972, 1 and 4.

68 Đuốc Nhà Nam [Southern Torch] Citation1971, 1 and 4.

69 Ngô Vĩnh Long Citation1972a. By decreasing the cost of supporting American soldiers, this policy enabled the United States to expand the war into Laos and Cambodia. Massive conscription of young men under Vietnamization also helped keep the male population away from VC recruitment. These ARVN soldiers were frequently assigned directly to the front, where they were forced to “fight defensively and shoot blindly thereby causing massive and indiscriminate destruction.” See Trinh Pho Citation1969, 4.

70 Time Citation1968, 32. According to this article, in 1968, 250,000 of the 330,000 members of Saigon’s workforce were women.

71 Mayer Citation1967; Rusk Citation1965.

72 Duffett Citation1968, 479.

73 Fitzgerald Citation1970, 144. According to journalist Gloria Emerson, “forced urbanization” generated over ten million refugees out of a total population of eighteen million from 1965 to 1973. See Emerson Citation1976, 357.

74 Fitzgerald Citation1970, 146.

75 Cited in Galston Citation1968, 583.

76 Homan Citation1969.

77 Galston Citation1968, 584.

78 Đồng Nai Citation196 Citation9, 4. Its June 26, 1969 issue included a photograph of what historian Ngô Vĩnh Long described as “a dead deformed baby with a face like that of a duck and the section around the stomach shrunken and twisted.” See Ngô Vĩnh Long Citation1970, 60.

79 Lê Thị Nhậm Tuyết and Johansson Citation2001, 159.

80 Thành Citation1974, 158–161; “Saigon Women Appeal” Citation1971.

81 “Memorandum for Record” Citation2010.

82 Thành Citation1974, 163.

83 WILPF Citation1973.

84 Thủ Đức was South Vietnam’s all-female prison.

85 See New York Times Citation197 Citation1; Shaplen Citation1971, 77.

86 “Memorandum for Record” Citation2010. This statement was recorded at a secret National Security Council meeting on September 20, 1971.

87 Vietnamization and the Church-Cooper amendment also limited, at least in theory, Washington’s support for Thiệu to economic and humanitarian aid.

88 Their demands for an immediate peace had also been, and would continue to be, more radical than those of the DRV/NLF, which issued “Seven Points” that emphasized only a negotiated peace.

89 Thành Citation1974, 130–135.

90 Hasegawa and Camp Citation1974, 168.

91 Foster Citation1989, 67.

92 Thành Citation1974, 174.

93 Salient Victoria University Newspapers Citation1973, 10.

94 “Backchannel Message from Kissinger” Citation2010, 1112. According to National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger, signing the treaty was not a step toward peace, but a prerequisite for continuing war: “a refusal by Thiệu’s government of reasonable peace terms would make it impossible [for Congress] to continue aid.”

95 Kiều Mộng Thu Citation1974.

96 For more on Thiệu’s violations of the PPA, see Long Citation2009.

97 Thành Citation1974, 198–201.

98 Young Citation1975.

99 Ngô Vĩnh Long Citation2013b, 24.

100 Ngô Vĩnh Long Citation2013b, 25.

101 Ngô Vĩnh Long Citation2013b, 25.

102 Liberation News Service Citation197 Citation3.

103 Hồ Ngọc Nhuận Citation1973, 14. Hồ Ngọc Nhuận was a leading member of the group of Catholic deputies in the Saigon Lower House, as well as editor-in-chief of various daily newspapers in Saigon.

104 Hồ Ngọc Nhuận Citation1973, 14.

105 Indochina Peace Campaign 1973, 18.

106 According to Phuong Que, a former prisoner, a typical meal at the National Police Headquarters consisted of “less than a bowlful of hard, brown rice mixed with sand and gravel.” Each prisoner received less than six ounces of rice every day, while children received half rations and were denied of milk and medicine. See Phuong Que Citation1970, 54.

107 Brownmiller Citation1993, 90.

108 Hồ Ngọc Nhuận Citation1973, 4; Trương Thị Kim Liên Citation1973, 72.

109 Barton Citation1973, 10.

110 Barton Citation1973, 11.

111 Luce and Brown Citation1973, 19.

112 Trần Ngọc Giao Citation1975. This report was written by Trần Ngọc Giao, the Deputy of the Saigon Lower House.

113 Hồ Ngọc Nhuận Citation1973, 1.

114 Vietnam Resource Center Citation1973, 31; Shipler Citation1973. Disguised as humanitarian aid, USAID money funded military and paramilitary expenses; less than one percent was allocated to public health, education, and agriculture programs. See Thành Citation1974, 111.

115 Thành Citation1974, 111.

116 Camp Citation1973, 18.

117 Thành Citation1974, 181.

118 Thành Citation1974, 183–192.

119 Emerson Citation1974.

120 Thành Citation1974, 233.

121 RVN, however, refused to grant this request.

122 Đặng Văn Ký Citation1974, 309–312.

123 Foreign Languages Publishing House Citation1975, 22; This statement echoed Kissinger’s earlier claim that U.S. policy after the PPA would remain against “the imposition of a coalition government” on the people of South Vietnam. See New York Times Citation197 Citation3.

124 An example of such repression occurred on March 29, 1974, when Thành and other members went to the airport to pick up medicines donated by the Catholic Movement for Peace in France. Despite the labels that read, “Reserved for war orphans, flood victims in Central Vietnam, and for the sick among the prisoners,” police confiscated the medicines and detained the women. Mrs. Thành was reportedly slapped and beaten. Thành Citation1974, 289–293.

125 Điện Tín Citation197 Citation4, 1 and 4; Chính Luận Citation197 Citation4a, 1 and 4; Sóng Thần [Tsunami] Citation1974, 1 and 4.

126 Đông Phương [Eastern News] Citation1974, 1 and 4.

127 “Third Force Demonstration Witnessed by Quaker Representative” Citation1974.

128 Lazer Citation1974, 277–278.

129 Emerson Citation1974, 22. At a press conference in early 1974, Mrs. Thành distributed copies of a book called, “Non-Communist Opposition to the Government of South Vietnam.”

130 Oka Citation1974, 1.

131 Thành Citation1974, 296–298.

132 Courtney Citation1992.

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