A reader recently noted that the character of Pham Ngoc Thanh in my novel, Last of the Annamese, is remarkable for his lack of corruption in a society riven by corruption. The reader was right. South Vietnam during my years there was a nation in which corruption was a way life. The habit of private citizens giving money to public servants for their carrying out their obligations went back centuries. The accepted way of doing business was that the government paid functionaries so little that, to survive, they were forced to sell their services. It was so commonplace as to be unremarkable.
Pham Ngoc Thanh’s pay as a colonel is paltry. He is expected to siphon off the salaries of his subordinate soldiers, exact taxes from the civilian population, and accept payment for protection. But Thanh, a monk turned warrior, refuses to participate in such practices. As a consequence, he is dirt poor. He’s used to poverty. His family, before the communists murdered them, were poor dirt farmers.
One of the causes of the fall of South Vietnam was poverty driven by corruption. The North Vietnamese exploited the situation with great success. Some U.S. personnel in-country, as early as the beginning of the 1960s, saw what was happening. They were at a loss to ameliorate the situation. The loss of South Vietnam to the communists was inevitable.