The Vietnam War as You've Never Seen It ... From Hanoi: Interview with Lien-Hang Nguyen

David Austin Walsh is the editor of the History News Network.

North Vietnamese First Secretary Le Duan and Prime Minister Pham Van Dong in Hanoi in 1969.

Few historians can can claim that their first book was met with near-universal acclaim, received prestigious national prizes, an offer to write an op-ed for the New York Times, and an invitation to speak at the National Book Festival in Washington, D.C.

Lien-Hang Nguyen, however, can. Her book Hanoi's War: An International History of the War for Peace in Vietnam has been widely praised (Marilyn B. Young called it "one of the most important books published on the Vietnam War in the last thirty years"), received the Edward M. Coffman Prize from the Society for Military History, a New York Times op-ed, and, of course, a speaking engagement at the National Book Festival on the National Mall (the video is available at C-SPAN's website).

An associate professor at the University of Kentucky, she received her PhD from Yale University in 2008, where she studied under Cold War historian John Lewis Gaddis.

I sat down with Prof. Nguyen at the National Book Festival to talk about Hanoi's War.

When reading the book, I got the impression that there were -- and perhaps still remains -- distinct regional identities between northern and southern Vietnam, even predating division in 1954.

That's a good observation. There definitely is a strong sense of regionalism in Vietnam and it predates the war. In fact, it's a divide between three regions (and most Vietnamese identify themselves with one of those three regions): there's Tonkin (the north or "mien bac"), Annam (the middle region or "mien trung"), and Cochinchina (the south or "mien nam"). This is how the French divided Vietnam, but these distinct regions predate the French. They came about mainly because of the way that Vietnam and the Kinh people -- the Kinh are the ethnic majority in Vietnam -- expanded southward and pushed out the Khmer, who were in Cochinchina and the Mekong Delta region.

So, when partition came in 1954, although there were strong regional identities, the North/South political divide replaced whether or not you identified with the northern or southern region.

So the basis of Communist power in North Vietnam … it sounds like even during the war with the French, Hanoi was the basis of power.

Yes, during the period of the French Indochina War, the Communists were much stronger in the north, alright in the center, and... well, I wouldn't say weak in the south, but they were jockeying for power with so many different groups -- Buddhist sects, paramilitary groups, Chinese syndicates, not mention the French and later on Ngo Dinh Diem's forces, they were one group among many. And even then, the Communists weren't a monolithic group at all -- there were Communists who were competing and jockeying for power within the party. That's why I label the south the “wild South,” especially because the later first secretary of the Workers Party of Vietnam (the name of the Communist Party until 1976), Le Duan, operated in the “wild South” during the period when it was very tumultuous, and he had to be very ruthless because the Communists were not the strongest power in that area.

Le Duan, the central figure of your book, is fascinating. When I was reading the book, I almost felt like he was a Stalin without the cult of personality, very a much a schemer who managed to get himself into a position of power. Before we get into that, though, I wanted to talk a little bit about the collective leadership style of the Vietnamese Communist Party and how that came about, because that seems to be a very important thread throughout this entire period of history.

There's a debate within the field of Vietnam studies -- was there really a cult of personality around Ho Chi Minh? I think the party was trying to do that, but with de-Stalinization they found themselves in a sticky situation. That's when you can pinpoint this idea of collective leadership -- but under, of course, the benevolent guidance of Ho Chi Minh. By the mid-50s, the Communist Party has moved away from the notion that Ho Chi Minh is the one and only leader to the idea that "Ho Chi Minh guides us," the us being the collective bodies of the Politburo and the Central Committee.

When Le Duan stepped into the picture, he saw that there wasn't going to be a cult of Le Duan -- and on top of that, he wasn't charismatic, and there were plenty of charismatic figures within the Politburo -- Ho Chi Minh, General Giap, even Pham Van Dong. So he hid behind the idea of collective leadership, which the Politburo and the higher-ups were pushing anyway, and so instead what he did was to rely on his other talents, which were much better suited to a man who would stay behind the curtain, wielding power that way.

One of the reasons he was able to do this was that Giap and Ho were both discredited by failures of land reform in North Vietnam in the 1950s. You argue in the book that the land reform played a critical component in the formulation of North Vietnamese policy in the '50s and early '60s, but most Americans have no knowledge of it. So, drawing on other communist analogies -- collectivization in the Soviet Union in the 1930s, the almost-contemporaneous Great Leap Forward in China, how does the North Vietnamese land reform campaign compare?

What happened with the land reform was that, there was a time in the mid-1950s when the Vietnamese Communists made a conscious decision to mimic Chinese-style land reform -- as opposed to Eastern European-style land reform, which would have been much more moderate. What happened was it became much more violent as the years went by. By 1956 the most radical wave of the reform crested. Basically, the Communists redistributed power within village society, so they took the most dispossessed and gave them power within village party cells. This proved to be very unpopular and politically damaging.

But it wasn't, in fact, Ho Chi Minh and General Giap who lost most of their power -- though their images were also hurt -- but it was the general secretary at the time, and his name was Truong Chinh (a revolutionary nom-de-guerre which means “Long March” -- he adopted that name in honor of Mao). He was the one who was most identified with the land reform policies, and he was pushing for giving more power to the mass organizations. No matter what, the Communist Party was going to remain firmly in control, but the question was which group within the Party was going to rise to the top and wield the most power. Was it going to be the state apparatus (under Ho or Pham Van Dong, prime minister from 1955 to 1976), the Army (which was under General Giap), or the mass organizations (under Truong Chinh) I argue it was the rise of the apparachiks, which Le Duan and Le Duc Tho were able to really promote. The land reform took down the power of the mass organizations, and Truong Chinh in particular, but Ho and General Giap also got hurt in the process.

And these people all had different ideas about the situation in South Vietnam and how to proceed forward.

Yes. Truong Chinh switched sides when he lost his position as general secretary -- he was demoted. But the difference between the Vietnamese Communist Party and the Soviets and the Chinese was that he wasn't purged of his position in the Party -- he just became an ordinary Politburo member. But he still remained very, very important, and he threw his lot in with Le Duan.

Ho and Giap were much more moderate, and a lot of that is due to their experience in the French Indochina War. They were following Mao's three-stage revolutionary war strategy: first, defensive war (characterized by a reliance on small-scale guerilla attacks), then the equilibrium stage (incorporating larger-scale attacks), then the general counteroffensive. General Giap took most of the blame for this shift to a premature third stage -- they were fine to go from protracted to equilibrium, but they weren't ready yet to go from equilibrium to counteroffensive. 1950 was supposedly when the transition began to occur, and all of the border campaigns near the Chinese border, with all of these human wave attacks, were so costly, and I think Giap had that in his mind during the American war, and that's why militants like Le Duan thought he was so timid.

As for Ho, his problem was that he always tried to minimize casualties and wanted to try negotiations first, and again that was a very unpopular position to hold because of what happened in the war with the French. Le Duan used what's called the "theory of two mistakes" against Ho -- the first was to negotiate with the French in 1945, and again in 1954.

Those were some of the ways in which Le Duan was able to silence his biggest detractors. Ho and Giap had very different views than Le Duan on how to deal with the Southern resistance. They just didn't think North Vietnam should go headlong into a war that could become a huge quagmire, and that's exactly what it became.

Le Duan seemed to be drawing on multiple different communist war-fighting strategies. There was the Soviet thought, there was the Chinese/Maoist thought, and I think he even referenced Castro at one point, in order to justify attacks on the cities. But was there an original Vietnamese element? Was there such a thing as Le Duan-ism when it came to fighting the war?

Yes, I would say so, even if he appropriated certain aspects of Soviet, Chinese, Cuban military thinking, there was definitely a Le Duan original stamp to it. I think that was born from his reading of modern Vietnamese history, especially the August Revolution, the successful revolution of 1945, in which he saw the party pretty much bloodlessly take power after the Japanese surrender -- before the French were enabled by the British to regain control in Cochinchina. What he saw was the way the masses came out in support of the party's call to occupy government buildings, and that's why he made such a subsequent emphasis on cities and the idea of a political uprising.

Secondly, though he wasn't at Dien Bien Phu, it showed him the power of the masses to overcome huge physical challenges. What happened there was that the Viet Minh, with the help of the masses, were able to conquer the terrain and deploy heavy artillery to lay siege to the French garrison. He wanted to do that in the American war, and that's what really underpins the General Offensive-General Uprising (GOGU) strategy that he came up with. What he believed was that he could jump over that pesky equiilibrium phase that was the main problem for General Giap during the French war. So yes, even he borrowed a bit from other military strategies -- Soviet, Cuban, Chinese -- there's very much an original Vietnamese and Le Duan-centric component to all this.

I want to jump into the actual course of the war, because you describe very vividly in the book how in 1964 Le Duan rolls the dice. He says, "We can implement this GOGU strategy and topple the South Vietnamese government before the Americans become heavily involved." And that doesn't work. Johnson comes up with Tonkin as an excuse to intervene, and the U.S. enters in force. And then the bombing campaign starts. Given all of this, how does Le Duan survive politically? (He stayed in power until his death in 1986.)

I think that by 1963, he had pretty much established his police/garrison state. There is a period from 1963 to 1967 when his detractors become more vocal and foreign powers start to come into the equation and pull the Vietnamese in different directions. But nonetheless, by 1963 he's really able to control the situation. When the 1964 gamble failed, he fell back on his police state and in particular the Ministry of Public Security under Tran Quoc Hoan, to clamp down on any criticism that could damage his position or his ability to dictate war policies. That's the reason he was able to stay in control -- by 1963, everything is in place to allow him to dominate in the North.

That's how he was able to stay in power, despite having failed each time he tried to implement his GOGU strategy -- the first time having given the Americans the excuse to intervene directly in 1964; the failed Tet Offfensive in 1968, despite its ultimate failure to delivery victory and costing the Southern insurgency something like 80 percent of the guerilla infrastructure, and even the 1972 Easter Offensive didn't result in better terms at the negotiating table. But because he'd already laid in place his police state, he was never pushed out of power the way that Truong Chinh was.

What brought Le Duan and the North Vietnamese to the negiotating table in Paris, with Richard Nixon, of all people?

Le Duan's decision to enter into negotiations with the United States wasn't really a sign that he was ready to throw in the towel. He had to do it because there was no other choice. The roll of the dice failed, but the North Vietnamese did read what was taking place in the U.S. and Le Duan knew that time was essential on the North's side. The Americans were definitely going to leave, so the question was, were they going to make the South strong enough so that the South could endure? Would there end up being a permanent division, like Korea? That was the big fear.

And so Le Duan never actually changed his ultimate goal of toppling the Saigon regime. It wasn't to defeat the United States militarily. That was obviously impossible. But by continuing to place toppling Nguyen Van Thieu's South Vietnamese state at the top of his list, he created problems for himself at the negotiations. I think it would have made more sense to negotiate a speedier American withdrawal, and then deal with Thieu later. That's what the Chinese were telling him, along with moderates in North Vietnam. But he consistently opted to try to topple Thieu and his regime through a military offensive, the GOGU. He only backpedalled in the summer of 1972, after the Easter Offensive failed.

Le Duan never put faith in negotiations, and he tried to buy time at Paris so he could vindicate his military strategy. He sent Le Duc Tho, a Politburo member and one of his closest supporters -- to the point where I've heard them described as "frenemies." There were mutual rivalries and jealousies, but at the same time they had such a close working relationship. I don't think they were Nixon/Kissinger -- I don't think it was that venomous. Still, it's very interesting interesting that he sent Le Duc Tho to Paris, for if negotiations failed, it wouldn't be Le Duan's neck. The other obvious candidate to head the North Vietnamese delegation was Pham Van Dong, the prime minister who had negotiated the Geneva Accords. He was the logical choice, the most experienced, but Le Duan didn't trust him -- he trusted Le Duc Tho.

Even after coming to the negotiation table, and even after the military defeat of Tet, Le Duan didn't really allow Communist forces in South Vietnam to relent until 1969. The Communists then switched to a policy of equilibrium, which was really a defensive posture.

I did read some North Vietnamese documents that said, basically, we [North Vietnam] would get better terms if Hubert Humphrey was elected, we should try to help Humphrey. Nixon is “ngoan cố” -- stubborn is the English translation -- and we'd have a much tougher time with a Republican administration. Even though these papers kept saying that, Le Duan in the end stuck to very rigid negotiating terms -- because basically, he wasn't serious about negotiating.

How was the North able to stay mobilized for war under the crushing weight of American aerial bombardment and the massive casualties sustained under the GOGU strategy?

Well, there was dissent. It was so interesting reading the records of the Ministry of Public Security. The speeches of Tran Quoc Hoan, the minister of public security -- he was basically Le Duan's “henchman” -- are so scary because he goes on about how North Vietnam needs to wage its own counter-counterrevolution against dissenters. But the dissenters weren't counterrevolutionaries. In one case, the police went after musicians who were playing “yellow music,” which was music that wasn't patriotic -- romantic music, pre-1950s music, foreign music, etc. A lot of people fell under this counterrevolutionary label when, in fact, they weren't. By the 1970s Hoan starts talking about a perpetual war, that the NLF [the National Liberation Front, also known as the Vietcong] has been “tainted” by interaction with the West. Essentially, he was giving his ministry carte blanche to conduct a perpetual war.

That's not to say the only way North Vietnam stayed in the war was because the state was bearing down on the population -- that's not the case at all -- but we don't read as much about the hiccups on the way because the state's been very good at silencing dissent, both then and now.

We are, though, starting to hear how difficult it was through the works of novelists. Their message, basically, was that war is hell. The Party was corrupt, people were dying -- and a lot of these novelists were in the military. Bao Ninh's an example with The Sorrow of War. Duong Thu Huong is another one – she just Vietnam left for Paris. Her most recent novel, The Zenith, is about Ho Chi Minh and how Hoan raped Ho's wives and all of this treachery in the Party. These writers came forth after 1986, when the Vietnamese government – the Party – enacted Doi Moi – the Renovation program, moving towards a market economy. They also promised social reform, which never came. But the writers came out and started talking about all the sacrifices they made during the wars, and the corruption of the society afterwards. During the wars, it's kept under much tighter wraps.

You describe in the book the relationship the North Vietnamese government had with the Soviets and the Chinese, and how there was this constant equivocation between the two. How did the North Vietnamese pull this off?

North Vietnam was really good at navigating the Sino-Soviet split until 1969. They had a really good balancing act. In 1963 Le Duan took advantage of the Sino-Soviet split by moving closer to Mao, who was pushing a radical line of world revolution and violent confrontation with the West. But Le Duan never outright insults Khrushchev or the Soviets -- he knew they may need Soviet aid one day and didn't want to burn that bridge. This is the point when it's the most clear that North Vietnam is tilting one way or the other because by 1964, definitely by 1965, it's clear the United States will get involved in the war. They swing right back to equilibrium between the Soviets and the Chinese. Le Duan was able to do that because he didn't burn bridges. You can see, in the "77 conversations" put out by the Cold War History Project many years ago, that it's that period from 1965 to 1968 where the Chinese just get angrier and angrier at the Vietnamese for moving closer to Moscow. In 1968, they remove their hundreds of thousands of engineering troops from North Vietnam. That's not to say that relations were severed -- they weren't at all -- but they just become much more problematic.

1969 is when this all falls apart on the North Vietnamese, because that's when the Sino-Soviet border clashes begin. At that point, there's just a major geostrategic shift in Beijing's calculations, and now the Soviet Union is the number one enemy and not the United States. So after that what you get is a competition between the Soviets and the Chinese for America's favor, and that becomes more important than ensuring influence in Vietnam.

How impactful, from the North Vietnamese perspective, was the Sino-American rapprochment?

It was huge. So, too, was U.S.-Soviet detente, but the Vietnamese had always been closer to the Chinese. I mean, China picked up North Vietnam's war bill for the First Indochina War, much in the same way the U.S. picked up the bill for France. Even though relations had been deteriorating since 1968, worsened with the expansion of the war into Cambodia (by now, the Vietnamese believed that the Chinese saw them as a long-term threat in Southeast Asia) to the point where they were no longer acting like allies, Sino-American rapproachment was seen as a huge betrayal. With the massive amounts of aid North Vietnam got from China, I think they (the Vietnamese) were lulled into a false sense of security vis a vis their relationship with the Chinese.

It was at this point that North Vietnam resorts to “small-power” diplomacy, where they scream out to the rest of the communist world that big-power machinations were betraying the revolution. They really browbeat the Chinese and the Soviets with this. This meant that each time the Chinese and the Soviets talked to, say, the Cubans, they were going to hear about Vietnam.

The North Vietnamese also resorted to being really intransigent, which forced them to focus on the military balance-of-power on the ground. If they could topple the Thieu regime with a military victory, who cared if the Chinese and the Soviets were talking to the Americans? But this also made them more paranoid and more susceptible to taking extremist measures -- this may have been one of the reasons why they gambled on the 1972 Easter Offensive. They launched it right between Nixon's visit to China and Nixon's visit to the Soviet Union.

One last question -- what's it like doing historical research in an authoritarian country like present-day Vietnam?

I loved the experience, and I hope that Hanoi's War doesn't end my research days in Vietnam! Yes, it can be frustrating. I think you need to have a positive attitude and be patient. I went over thinking I wouldn't be able to see a single thing -- maybe they'd let me see documents from the Ministry of Health or something. I didn't have high expectations. So I just let myself have as much time over there as possible.

I think that when most researchers go over they want to get things done quickly. I can understand that, because you may only have enough money to spend a week, or two weeks, over there, but that really doesn't work. You need to spend at least a year. You get your research visa sponsored and your letters of introduction prepared, and everything takes two weeks longer than you think it will because of the (ha ha) red tape, so patience is key for anyone who wants to research in Vietnam or – presumably – other communist or authoritarian states.

And there's another way, too, if you don't get access to the documents that you'd like -- there are still so many former officials who are still alive, and they have so many good stories that they can tell

But it's so worth it to carry out research in such a difficult enviroment like that. When you do find something, it's just so much more rewarding.

Any advice you'd like to give?

If you are going to do research in Vietnam, it behooves you to read up on what's going on over there currently, so read up on current affairs and politics. I imagine anyone trying to research on the Sino-Vietnamese War is not going to be able to see a thing. You'll probably be able to see more things related to the United States, but you'll have to phrase things in a certain way. Back when I was doing research, you had to call the Americans the “invading” Americans, but now they're dropping all of that. The language isn't as strict. But you can't do anything about the Sino-Vietnamese split, because of the current situation with the Spratlys. As an historian, you need to be aware of contemporary politics, because it will have a huge impact on your research.

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