Symposium Follow-Up & Comments

By Nguyen Manh Hung September 14, 2018

Thank you all for your excellent presentations. We have three papers on various aspects of the Vietnam War, one by an experienced practitioner and active participant in the war who gives us his view from the ground up, the others by younger scholars who reach their conclusions through meticulous documentary research and updated information.

Professor Asselin (Ideology, The Vietnamese Communist Revolution, and the Origins of the American War in Vietnam) looks at the American War in Vietnam through the perspective of North Vietnam. His paper highlights the importance of ideology and explains how
Marxism-Leninism and the influence of Mao and Stalin helped shape North Vietnamese domestic and foreign policies, from 1954 to 1960, which “effectively set Hanoi on an irreversible collision course with the United States.” While the bulk of the paper focus on those “six years period,” it lays a valuable foundation for understanding the causes of the war and Hanoi’s determination “to fight to the end, regardless of the sacrifice required. . . [until] final victory.”

The author faults “American standard accounts” of the war and American historians, with “limited language skill,” for “long understating or ignoring [communist] ideology as a motive force of the Vietnamese effort against Western intrusion,” therefore, leading to the mistaken conclusion that North Vietnamese leaders may be “avowed communists [but] they were really nationalists.” For him, Ho Chi Minh is not a nationalist, but a true communist who, together with his comrades, incited “class struggle” to reinvent society immediately upon gaining control of the north after the 1954 Geneva Accords. He points out that, as the first president of an independent Vietnam in 1945, Ho was “chiefly responsible for popularizing Marxism-Leninism in Vietnam,” and that “No single person played a more important role than Ho in adapting communist thought to Vietnamese circumstances and in spreading its ideas.” To the communists, national liberation is not as important as communist revolution.

Professor Asselin maintains that, for them, defeating the Americans and their collaborators in South Vietnam was necessary “less for the sake of the people of South Vietnam” than for the ultimate goal of “annihilating imperialism and capitalism” and to fulfill Vietnam’s “moral obligation” before the “international Communist movement.”

I have a few questions for Professor Asselin:

If documentary evidence clearly proves that the ultimate goals of Vietnamese communist leaders were to establish a Leninist state and serve as the “vanguard of world socialism,” and a “solid outpost of the socialist camp in Southeast Asia,” then why did many American scholars and American media reject the domino theory and perpetuate the myth that they were national liberators, and that Ho Chi Minh was the “Tito of Southeast Asia”? Could this mistaken perception be attributed only to their “lack of language skill” or to any other reason?

If ideology guided the foreign policy of Vietnamese communist leaders, how would one explain the cause of the Sino-Vietnamese border wars in 1979 and 1984?

In your presentation, you point out that China encouraged North Vietnam to sign the Paris Peace Agreement because it wanted to reduce aid to the country. The fact is, after the Paris Agreement, while the U.S. reduced its aid to South Vietnam drastically, China and the Soviet Union actually increased aid to North Vietnam. How would you explain this apparent contradiction?

You talk about the existence of antiwar feeling in North Vietnam in the early 1960’s abut communist leaders were able to deal with it successfully. In your research, do you find any evidence of an antiwar feeling in North Vietnam within the population or among communist leaders as a result of the Sino-American rapprochement, the Soviet-American détente, and the 1972 Christmas bombing?

Professor Asselin’s point about ideology is supported by the paper of Professor Tuong Vu and Sean Fear (Nation Building in War: The Experience of Republican Vietnam, 1955-1975), which maintains that “new scholarship since the end of the Cold War reveals that North Vietnamese leaders often placed communist ideology ahead of pragmatic nationalism.”

Professors Vu and Fear zoom in on the experience of Republican Vietnam as a process of nation-building in the midst of war, from 1955 to 1975. While their paper serves as the “introduction to a volume” about the personal experiences and views of a variety of South Vietnamese government officials and urban intellectuals about the war, it informs us of the challenges and major achievements of nation-building in South Vietnam, and argues that “far from puppets or incidental players in the conflict . . . the Republic of Vietnam and its constituents were committed to a robust nation-building agenda of their own,” and that the end of the Republic was not a foregone conclusion.

The authors refute the overwhelming U.S.-centric approach to the analysis of the Vietnam War and give voice to the argument that the Vietnam War is not a proxy struggle, but a civil war that started “long before American intervention in earnest and lingers among Vietnamese across the globe today,” a fact that tends to be obscured by “scholars who exaggerate American importance on the one hand and assume overwhelming Vietnamese support for the communists, on the other.”

Professor Vu and Fear bring up the issue of nation-building in South Vietnam. Nation-building was a popular concept among scholars and students of developing countries in the 1950’s. One of the most important factor underlying the process of nation-building is nationalism, the transfer of primordial loyalty from family and tribe to the nation as a whole. If this is the case,
nation-building as efforts to build a sense of nationhood and new institutions applies very well to post-colonial Africa where national boundaries were arbitrarily drawn by colonial powers without
regard for ethnic differences. It applies less well to old civilizations, such as China and Vietnam, where the sense of nationhood already existed, and the need was to discard old thinking and old institutions replacing them with new thinking and modern institutions to fight Western imperialism, to survive and develop. This is known as the modernization process.

In this context, the civil war between communists and nationalists in Vietnam is about the final destination of political modernization, one toward republicanism, the other to communism. This conflict began in the 1920’s, long before American involvement, with the establishment of the Viet Nam Quoc Dan Dang (VNQDD) and the Vietnam Revolutionary Youth League succeeded by the Indochinese Communism Party (ICP). The continuation of this conflict leads to the process of competitive revolution in both parts of Vietnam after 1954.

Six year ago, Cornell University held a symposium on the “Voices from the South” to give the “last leaders” of South Vietnam an opportunity to talk about their efforts to build “a constitutional structure of representative government during a war for survival with a totalitarian state,’’ which resulted in an edited book by Keith Taylor, titled Voices from the Second Republic of South Vietnam, 1967-1975.

Since Professor Vu and Fear’s forthcoming volume covers a longer period of time, perhaps, Professor Vu may want to share with us the differences, if any, between his book and that of Keith Taylor. Could he also tell us whether any one paper or combination of the papers delivered at the Berkeley conference amounted to a full critical post-mortem analysis of South Vietnamese domestic politics the way Mr. Rufus Phillips does to American foreign policy? What did they, the people who became part of the ruling class after the fall of Ngo Dinh Diem, think about the Buddhist crisis of 1963 leading to the overthrow of President Ngo Dinh Diem? What did they say about the causes of the fall of South Vietnam? What did they say about Vietnam’s response to the U.S.-China rapprochement in 1972?

Rufus Phillips (American Engagement in Vietnam –The Great Disconnect), unlike many American authors, does not engage in the practice of blaming the victims. His paper provides a critical analysis of U.S. policy. His attributes U.S. failure to the lack of knowledge about “ourselves, our South Vietnamese allies, and our North Vietnamese enemy.” His major points are:

We fought an unconventional war with a conventional war mindset;

We talk about the need to win the “hearts and minds” of the Vietnamese people, but we did not have the right people and the appropriate policy to implement it;

Edward Lansdale was the only person who understood the nature of the war and had the trust of President Diem to nudge him to carry out the necessary political reform but was not fully used by the government.

I hope Mr. Phillips, and perhaps Professors Asselin and Vu, would share with us their thought about these questions:

  1. What were the chances of success and how could the war be won if Edward Lansdale were appointed ambassador to Vietnam by President Kennedy?
  2. According to the testimony of a number of people, including Robert Thompson on the right and Wilfred Burchett on the left, “1962 was a year of defeat and setbacks for the Viet Cong.” What was the most important factor that turned victory into defeat: the Buddhist crisis, communist infiltration, the CIA-backed coup against President Ngo Dinh Diem, Diem’s shortcomings, or Kennedy’s policy? Could the war be won with Ngo Dinh Diem in power?
  3. If South Vietnam were a full fledge democracy or a fully open society, could it have won an unconventional war against a totalitarian enemy who was master of infiltration, psychological and intelligence warfare? If not, what was the alternative?
  4. Why did counterinsurgency fail in South Vietnam while it succeeded in the Philippines and Malaysia?
  5. What do you think of Harry Summers’ argument that ““Instead of focusing our attention on the external enemy, North Vietnam –the source of the war—we turn our attention to the symptom
  6. –the guerrilla war in the south—and limited our attacks on the North to air and sea actions only. In other words, we took the political task (nation-building/counterinsurgency) as our primary mission and relegated the military task (defeating external aggression) to a secondary consideration”?
  7. What did North Vietnamese leaders think about the disastrous 1968 Tet Offensive and the 1972 Christmas bombing? What was the impact, if any, of the Sino-American rapprochement and the Soviet-American détente on their war strategy?
  8. Why did an overwhelming number of antiwar American intellectuals and artists remain silent when their counterparts in Europe who had supported Vietnamese communists during the
  9. war--vcJean Paul Sartre, Jean Lacouture, Bernard Kouchner, Yves Montand, Simone Signoret, etc --turned against them after the war?