Sunday, March 23, 2014

The Vietnam war viewed from Hanoi

The U.S. war in Vietnam was the back drop of my youth. Like so many of my generation, I assumed during early escalations that our authorities must know what they were doing. The grinding, meaningless carnage and a rising sense that the Vietnamese had a right to choose their own direction made me a student protester by 1967. Participation by the U.S. on the ground endured for another six years ... somehow the war just kept claiming more victims and spreading further in South East Asia.

Yet for all that, I know comparatively little about this war that seared my early consciousness. In part, that is because what my generation learned was not to trust the confident voices of men in charge who kept telling us lies; reading the mainstream media about Vietnam or listening to politicians and generals made a person less informed rather than more. So for some decades, I stopped consuming mainstream news about foreign places. This lifelong habit has served my shit-detector well.

Fifty years later, Professor of History (U. Kentucky) Lien-Hang T. Nguyen provides a new narrative: Hanoi's War: An International History of the War for Peace in Vietnam. Having acquired access to some (but not yet all) of the archives of the victorious Vietnamese state, she reconstructs a war history in which the North (DRV -- Democratic Republic of Vietnam), the various Saigon-based Southern regimes (RVN -- Republic of Vietnam) and southern insurgents (NLF-PRG -- National Liberation Front, later Provisional Revolutionary Government) take center stage.

The perspectives of the Vietnamese parties ... constitute three-quarters of the story and the United States only one-quarter. Despite that obvious, albeit contrived, ratio we know much more about America's war than we do about the Vietnamese sides of the conflict.

She aims to redress the balance in our collective picture of what happened.

Central to Professor Nguyen's reconstruction is that the North Vietnamese leadership did not function the way the outside world long believed. We even had a very incomplete apprehension of who was calling the shots in Hanoi.

The key to unlocking these puzzles lies with one individual who has managed to escape scrutiny: Le Duan. Despite being the architect, main strategist, and commander-in-chief of communist Vietnam's war effort, the former first secretary somehow resides on the historical margins of that conflict ....

... Dominating the highest rungs of Party power, Le Duan identified Vietnam's most visible leaders -- Vo Nguyen Giap and Ho Chi Minh -- as the greatest threats to his authority. Although credited with leading Hanoi's war against the United States, Ho and Giap were sidelined by Le Duan and Le Duc Tho at nearly all key decision-making junctures. In 1963 and 1964, Le Duan blackmailed Ho into silence when the aged leader attempted to oppose the first secretary's decision to escalate the war and attempt all-out victory. In 1967 and 1968, Giap became the target of a large-scale purge when Le Due Tho arrested the general's -- and Ho's -- deputies and friends. The two leaders thus paid dearly for voicing their disagreement with Le Duan's plans for what would become the Tet Offensive.

On both occasions, however, Ho and Giap proved correct in their call for moderation: Le Duan's 1964 and 1968 offensives exacted enormous costs on the revolution. While Ho died in 1969, Giap continued to be the recipient of Le Duan's scorn. In 1972, the general found himself once again on the losing side of the military debate, this time over the Easter Offensive.

... The common notion of the Vietnamese struggle for national liberation as a unified war effort comprised of North and South Vietnamese patriots led by the Party conceals a much more complex truth. In reality, Le Duan constructed a national security state that devoted all of its resources to war and labeled any resistance to its policies as treason. Although there was vast support for the communist war effort on both sides of the seventeenth parallel, especially in the early years of the fighting, opposition and later war weariness also existed. ... While "North-first" moderates in the DRV objected to Le Duan's southern war as a means to reunification, local southern communists resented orders from Hanoi that often put the insurgency in peril.

This book is the story of how the uncharismatic, somewhat unimaginative, Le Duan led the Hanoi government through Washington's deadly assaults, encouraged competition between Russia and China in their support, and built international sympathy. These were all elements in the DRV victory in 1975 after the U.S. finally pulled out. She believes the last element tipped the balance in favor of the DRV:

The key to Hanoi's ultimate success in the war lay not in launching general offensives or even winning hearts and minds in South Vietnam; rather, it resided with its world relations campaign aimed at procuring the support of antiwar movements around the world. ... The Vietnam War ... witnessed the pinnacle of power enjoyed by the revolutionary Third World on the international stage, and Vietnamese communist diplomacy during the war constituted the key catalyst to this "diplomatic revolution." Hanoi tapped into a revolutionary network of relations that managed to bridge the Global South with the progressive segments of the West. In the end, Hanoi's radical relations -- fueled by the global antiwar movement taking place in the streets of Washington and Paris, Havana and Algiers, and even New Delhi and Tehran -- as well as its shrewd small power diplomacy, managed to blunt not only Saigon's regional relations but also, and more important, Washington's superpower diplomacy. This is perhaps the greatest legacy of Hanoi's war.

... Hanoi and Saigon were not only active agents in their own destinies, but they also heavily influenced the terms of American intervention and ultimately the outcome of their war.

Oddly, I feel less equipped to assess whether Professor Nguyen has written a "good" history of the Vietnam war than I might if she'd written about some more distant conflict. What was really going on then outside Washington is still not common knowledge or assimilated understanding, at least in the U.S. Those who care to revisit that agony still have to wait for more Vietnamese points of view. This 2012 volume has been well reviewed by the experts. Though Professor Nguyen's style takes on some of the turgid qualities of the Party prose she so diligently explores, she is offering a fascinating new vantage point.


Rain Trueax said...

I think it's where a lot of us lost our faith in the mainstream media or our government to tell us the truth. It could have come with the Cold War as well but this was a brutal engagement that found many of us fighting or with family and friends fighting when they didn't want to be. We elected people who said they'd get us out and then they wouldn't. We thought it was wrong but found ourselves powerless to end it until 'they' decided they wanted it done. It impacted my generation in a lot of ways whether we found ways to avoid going or went.

What gets me still, and it's minor, I guess, but anytime I see Jane Fonda's name anywhere, there are some who will denigrate her for her protests and her going there and trying to get attention for the plight of the North Vietnamese. She was right and it doesn't matter to those who still insult her and besmirch her reputation based often on lies. I think it was really the beginning of the true division in this country that has only gotten deeper. Not being able to admit you were wrong means you cannot go forward and a sizable part of this country cannot even now with all the evidence that the domino theory didn't happen, that lives were literally lost for no reason. It brought a sense of violence as a solution, that I realize we'd had before but it came home in a way we hadn't. It's not over what Vietnam did to us a culture.

Anonymous said...

I read this book from a perspective of a Vietnamese American - 20+years in Vietnam and 40+ years in the US: while a good read with revealed facts, Prof. Nguyen appeared to emphasize on 1 or 2 big break-through significances and/or person(s) but neglected the totality of various contributors big and small. For example, Le Duan may have been the dogged architect of the Vietnamese war but, the legend of Ho Chi Minh galvanized such mass commitment and heroic image of Gen. Vo Nguyen Giap solidified winning attitude of soldiers and militia. Like any other prolonged and horrific struggles, internal divisions and differing strategic viewpoints... always exist but at noises level and did not derail big picture.
In short, "The Vietnam war viewed from Hanoi" is 1 of 100 frozen frames looking back and each frame is 1 of 1,000 moving pieces, some still moving today.

Hattie said...

It will be a long time before anyone can view this war with any degree of objectivity. What I know mostly is the impact it had on life in the United States.

janinsanfran said...

@Anon: thanks for your comment. I shared a strong sense that Professor Nguyen's research was only a beginning -- that there are many additional angles to come.

I was struck that one of Nguyen's primary sources seemed to be a memoir by Le Duan's second wife, a southern woman whose relationship with him was not well received in Hanoi. There are certainly wrinkles upon wrinkles.

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