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Whose Country?

In response to:

The Meddling American from the June 7, 2018 issue

To the Editors:

Robert Kaiser, in his review of Max Boot’s The Road Not Taken: Edward Lansdale and the American Tragedy in Vietnam [NYR, June 7], states that “South Vietnam never was a real nation. Vietnamese in every region seemed to understand that they lived in one country.” Ken Burns’s popular documentary on the Vietnam War makes the same statement, even more bluntly. It is absolutely and obviously false. The separate southern Nguyen regime began in 1558 when the Nguyen Prince went south with his entourage and established himself in his capital at Hue. That separation was formalized in 1611 when the Nguyen dynasty stopped paying taxes to the northern Trinh “Lords” who pretended to represent the dysfunctional Le regime.

For nearly two hundred years the two regimes, the Trinh in the North and the Nguyen in the South, operated completely independently. In fact, they fought against each other the whole time. The southern regime flourished partly because of the vigorous international trade at its port at Hoi An, which became the major port of all of Southeast Asia. It completely overshadowed the northern regime.

Anyone who pretends to believe this fantasy might read Li Tana’s Nguyễn Cochinchina: Southern Vietnam in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries (Cornell University Southeast Asia Program, 1998), or, for that matter, pretty much any reputable history of Vietnam. As to what “Vietnamese in every region seemed to understand,” Kaiser may, of course, have his opinion. That is not my impression after sixty years of formal study of and contact with Vietnam and the Vietnamese people, including knowledge of the language.

Donald E. Voth
Professor of Rural Sociology, Emeritus
University of Arkansas
Fayetteville, Arkansas

Robert G. Kaiser replies:

Professor Voth reminds us of some of the complexity of Vietnamese history in the centuries before the French made Vietnam their colony in the mid-nineteenth century. But does the history he describes provide a cultural or historical basis for a twentieth-century political entity called the Republic of Vietnam, located on the Indochina Peninsula below the 17th parallel? I don’t think so. In a brutal century of colonialism, the French transformed Vietnam and stimulated a pan-Vietnamese nationalism that ultimately led to France’s defeat at the hands of the Vietminh, the movement of Ho Chi Minh and his comrades. A Vietnamese sense of nationhood made that victory possible, and the victory itself made Ho and his comrades heroes of Vietnamese wherever they lived. Edward Lansdale understood this, ironically—he realized Ho’s Communists had better credentials as nationalists than the South Vietnamese generals whom the US supported in the war, who were nearly all former members of the French army. My essay focused not on the history of Vietnam before 1800 that interests Professor Voth, but on the period that began in 1954, the period of American involvement.