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`Must read' books about Vietnam war

A Vietcong Memoir, by Truong Nhu Tang. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich. 364 pp. $17.95. To Bear Any Burden, by Al Santoli. New York: E. P. Dutton. 400 pp. $17.95. The Fall of Saigon, by David Butler. New York: Simon & Schuster. 510 pp. $17.95. Faulkner once remarked that the past is never past; it lives only in the present. The Vietnam war takes on new urgency in three recently published books: ``A Vietcong Memoir,'' by Truong Nhu Tang, whose title suggests the historic importance of the work; ``To Bear Any Burden,'' by Al Santoli, an oral history made up of interviews with Vietnamese and American participants in the war; and ``The Fall of Saigon,'' by David Butler, a nonfictional account of the last month and a half of the Republic of South Vietnam.

The author of A Vietcong Memoir was a high-ranking member of the Provisional Revolutionary Government, the ``third force'' organized with the help of the National Liberation Front (the Viet Cong) and the North Vietnamese. Tang had been an active Vietnamese nationalist since the early 1950s, his patriotism aroused not at home but in Paris, where his father had sent him to study chemistry. Tang's political commitment cost him two marriages, no small loss in a country where family is a hallowed institution.

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His greatest sense of loss came after he had been imprisoned and tortured, after he had fought for years with Viet Cong cadres, after he had spent his adult life in ``political-action groups.'' Victory in 1975 proved to be the ultimate loss.

Within a year, he realized the self-determination the North Vietnamese had promised their southern ``brothers'' was a sham. No one other than longstanding Communist Party members (with strong connections to the north) had an effective say in the ``new order.'' The ``reeducation camps'' were a cruel hoax. Originally conceived to last no more than 30 days, the camps still have ``internees,'' one of them Tang's older brother.

A sense of betrayal is equally strong in To Bear Any Burden, its title taken from John F. Kennedy's inaugural address in 1960. Al Santoli interviewed former Viet Cong members, former South Vietnamese government officials, former American Foreign Service officers, wives of US prisoners of war, and a number of American veterans. The Vietnamese were in exile either in Europe or the United States.

It is impossible to cover the breadth of subjects Santoli's interviews addressed, but the more important include the number of executions carried out by the communists that went unreported in the US; the ways the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese Army took full advantage of US proscription of ``illegal'' targets (Cambodia, Laos, supposed ``civil'' structures inside North Vietnam, such as pagodas and hospitals, which were used to store ammunition); and statements made by Vietnamese and American government officials -- off the record, of course -- that US POWs are probably still alive in ``associate'' countries such as the East-bloc nations, the Soviet Union, and North Korea.

The Fall of Saigon has a similar impact. It reads like a novel -- an epic full of danger and intrigue and convincing, sympathetic characters. Missionaries, diplomats, politicians, soldiers, secret agents, young children, the news media -- they all mesh in this dramatic r'esum'e. But the book is not fiction, and this makes it even more compelling. David Butler, who was a stringer for NBC in Saigon and a former Playboy editor, writes with passion -- perhaps too much passion. His book would have benefited from tighter editing.

These books are required reading for anyone interested in seeing the past in a new light.

Kenneth Harper reviews literature of the Vietnam war for the Monitor.

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