'Reeducation' camp survivors

Vietnamese refugees in 1975 told of relatives who had been instructed by their new communist bosses to pack a lunch and report for an ''orientation'' trip. They got on a bus and never returned. Speculation about their destination and how long they would be tolerated was a common discussion.

It appears now that the journeys these people took led them to ''reeducation camps'' - camps the communists now want to close, if the United States will take the survivors.

I was the commanding officer of one of the refugee camps established at Camp Pendleton, Calif., in May 1975. One of the refugees, a former political science professor at the University of Saigon, outlined to me those classes of people in South Vietnam who would be subject to retribution from their new masters. His prediction was based on his knowledge of what had happened when the communists had taken over North Vietnam and on what he had studied and observed since.

In order, they would be: (1) those who had worked for the Americans, (2) anyone who owned land, (3) members of political parties, (4) active-duty military police officers and NCOs, (5) clergy, (6) those who had turned their backs on communism in 1954 by moving south during the truce period negotiated by the departing French, and (7) retired military and police officers and NCOs.

Whether the identified enemies of the state would all be killed was a point of additional debate, hinging on guesswork about the approach to be taken by the late Ho Chi Minh's successors.

A second University of Saigon political science professor explained that Ho was a ''romantic'' and, as such, would have ordered the deaths of the mind-polluters. The current regime was assessed, however, as being more ''pragmatic'' and, thus, more likely to allow reeducated citizens to return to society.

Those who chose to leave were convinced that Ho Chi Minh or not, their best chance for survival was outside Vietnam.

One 108-year-old woman felt strongly enough to flee in a small fishing boat with her 18-member family. A North Vietnamese by birth, she had moved her family south in 1954. When I asked why she had left South Vietnam and her farm, she answered, ''They would not have let me live.''

That first wave of emigres is a major reason that communist Vietnam has been unable to regain its econ-omic/organizational feet in the more than nine years since the communists' military and political victory. South Vietnam's smartest and toughest - the tenacious, creative survivors so necessary for the life of a nation - left. And are still leaving. By the thousands.

Of those who stayed, estimates of the number placed in reeducation camps run upward from 50,000. Of those, between 6,000 and 15,000 remain alive and apparently unconvinced that communism is best for Vietnam.

Now the Vietnamese have offered to hand over these survivors. The United States should open its doors - and not only because we helped set up the situation that led to their internment. A look at the professor's list of potential prisoners shows that these are active, educated leaders - and idealistic to boot.

It is no accident that more and more ''success stories'' about once-refugee Vietnamese in this country are showing up in the newspapers. The reeducation camp survivors would be more of the same.

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