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The Invisible Country

Vietnamese Anticolonialism 1885-1925

by David G. Marr
University of California, 322 pp., $3.65 (paper)

Hô Chi Minh, le Viêtnam, l’Asie

by Paul Mus, edited by Annie Nguyen Nguyet Hô
Editions du Seuil, 256 pp., 21F

War Comes to Long An: Revolutionary Conflict in a Vietnamese Province

by Jeffrey Race
University of California, 299 pp., $11.95

A few months ago a friend of mine, a Vietnamese journalist from Saigon, visited a hamlet in Kien Hoa province—a hamlet that like so many of its neighbors had been ravaged by the American operations of 1968-1969 and the subsequent GVN attempts at pacification. Houses lay in ruins, most of the inhabitants had fled, and the defoliated coconut groves looked like fields of telephone poles. As there were Government troops throughout the hamlet and almost no other young men, the journalist concluded that the pacification had finally succeeded. But at ten o’clock at night the Government troops retired to their outposts and there appeared at his doorway a man with a pistol under his shirt who introduced himself as the hamlet chief for the National Liberation Front.

The man led my friend out to a lonely garden and questioned him about his business in the hamlet. Having satisfied himself about the journalist’s intentions, he went on to talk about himself and about his village. An elderly man, he had fought with the Viet Minh during the first Indochina war, survived the Diemist repressions of the former resisters, and joined the Liberation Front soon after it was formed. During the past decade, in which the Government conducted four separate pacification programs, he saw the tide of war change many times in his village. Looking about at the empty houses and the overgrown gardens, the journalist asked the old man whether he thought that this time the revolution had finally been defeated. The old man considered the question for a moment and then said, “No. You see, as long as the people have grievances, the struggle will continue, and as long as there is a struggle, there will be a revolution.”

In 1965, only a decade after the close of the first Indochina war, the United States began bombing North Vietnam on a graduated schedule designed to force the North Vietnamese and the NLF to negotiate the surrender of the resistance in the South. Now, after nearly seven years of bombing, after more than seven years of large-scale warfare, the schedule is approaching its end, with daily attacks on an almost unrestricted list of military targets, accompanied by the destruction of villages, cities, and dikes.

The Vietnamese resistance is one of the extraordinary phenomena of the twentieth century; to Americans, at least, it is also one of the most mysterious. What drives the Vietnamese and what sustains them? Is it ideology? National character? A particular stage of development? Certainly American officials do not know. Their policies have never been designed to deal with the resistance, and the explanations they give of it are patently absurd. (As Jeffrey Race points out, the argument that only an authoritarian government forces a people to fight leads only to the conundrum of who coerces the coercers.)

But American officials are hardly unique, even after all the reporting on Vietnam, all the years of debate on the two Indochina wars. Now, in 1972, even Jean Sainteny, the French envoy to Ho Chi Minh and long-term opponent of his country’s policies, writes of Ho’s “oriental inscrutability.”1 Even Anthony Lewis, after a visit to North Vietnam, wrote with bewildered respect of “fanaticism.” The incapacity or unwillingness of the Western public to think about the subject has its parallel—though not, I think, its cause—among scholars. During the past decade Vietnam analysts sponsored by the US government succeeded in making analytical molehills out of mountains of data, while most American universities, for their part, have taken the refuge of the ostrich and refused to support independent Vietnamese scholarship. The three books under review are therefore exceptional, for they are among the few scholarly books on Vietnam written in America, and among the handful of books of any kind on the Vietnamese resistance itself. They deal with Ho Chi Minh’s Vietnam from three completely different perspectives and their achievement is not to close the subject but to open it.

David Marr’s Vietnamese Anticolonialism is an account of Vietnamese resistance movements from the time of the French conquest to that of the rise of the mass-based nationalist parties in the late 1920s. More specifically it is a history of those generations of intellectuals who opposed French rule even while they felt the profound, almost paralyzing, shock of Western colonialism and culture. At the time of the first French military victory in Vietnam in the mid-nineteenth century, no one, neither French nor Vietnamese, guessed that France would make vast changes in Vietnam—even though changes had already begun to occur. The first Vietnamese anti-colonialists were members of the scholar-gentry whose patriotism sprang from their loyalty to the emperor and their sense of Vietnamese ethnic and cultural identity. Seen in the light of history their cause was doomed from the beginning; for both sources of their patriotism were already obsolete.

Even during the early nineteenth century European penetration of Asia had raised an insoluble dilemma for the Vietnamese empire. On one hand (as certain mandarins recognized) the empire had to assimilate European science and military technology if it were to survive. On the other hand (as the monarchs themselves saw) to adopt even one new science would call into question the whole of Confucian education and, by extension, the legitimacy of the Confucian monarchy and the high culture by which the Vietnamese had always differentiated themselves from the “barbarians.”

At least partly in response to this European threat the restoration monarchy of the Nguyen dynasty retreated in the early 1800s to a deliberate archaism, building its government on a classical Chinese model that was illsuited to the politics of a country still rapidly expanding into Southeast Asia. Preoccupied by internal troubles, the court gave no support to its southern mandarin-gentry who were resisting the French advance across the Mekong Delta in the 1860s. The court dealt with the French simply by giving way to them, ceding its southern provinces outright in 1867, giving up the north in 1883, and finally accepting a French protectorate for itself in 1885. Nevertheless, the loyalist mandarins raised local resistance movements and fought on against the French for another decade. But as they had no solution to the dilemma that the court had already faced, the loyalists gradually succumbed, some of them committing suicide, others dying in the last redoubts of jungle and swamp, and still others retreating into private life and the villages where the French would not follow them. Until 1946 the anti-colonialists were to be, as Ho Chi Minh later put it, the citizens of a lost country.

The period of French rule not only subverted Vietnamese sovereignty, it altered Vietnam itself beyond recognition for the Vietnamese. For such loyalist resisters as Phan Chu Trinh and Phan Boi Chau the search for their own country was to be something like the Arthurian quest for the Holy Grail: in all their years of travel and struggle they were never to achieve their goal, but they were to transform themselves.

For Marr, Phan Chu Trinh and Phan Boi Chau represent two opposite approaches to the search. Born in central Vietnam before the French pacification, both had taken part in the resistance as very young men and then followed the traditional vocation of Confucian scholar-bureaucrat. In his mid-thirties, Phan Chu Trinh had, according to Marr, a “spiritual conversion” from the ideas of the Chinese classics to those of Montesquieu and Rousseau, which he read in Chinese translations. In 1904 he left his post at the Board of Rites and began to criticize the entire traditional system of government through which the French ruled in northern and central Vietnam. As his ideas evolved, he came to the conclusion that the Vietnamese could only save themselves from French rule by undertaking a complete reform of all institutions along Western lines. He had, however, no precise notion of what that reform should be and, worse, no hope that anyone but the French could carry it out. For all his reading of Rousseau, the West was still to him a mirage.

Phan Boi Chau arrived at the same reformist position, but much later on. He had only one preoccupation throughout his long career and that was to build an armed resistance movement inside Vietnam and to secure foreign support for it. To do so he traveled to Japan in 1905 and during the following two decades he set up military training courses for Vietnamese students, went to China and Siam to make foreign contacts, and returned to Vietnam to write and propagandize. Meeting the leaders of the new Japan, the Chinese reformers and revolutionaries, he realized more thoroughly with every year and every journey he made how much farther his country had to go before it could make itself independent.

As Marr points out, both scholars faced insuperable difficulties. Phan Chu Trinh could offer only the vain hope that the French would reform Vietnam and return it to the Vietnamese. Phan Boi Chau, for all of his plotting and for all of his ideological drift from monarchism to republicanism to a vague socialism, had no political strategy that would enable the Vietnamese to mount a successful rebellion against the French.

Both men were in a sense failures. Their lives (Phan Boi Chau died at seventy-three in 1940) brought them only poverty, imprisonment, exile, and the deaths of many of their comrades by the violent—often excessively violent—French repressions. At the same time they kept alive the idea of resistance and the sense that French rule was abnormal for the Vietnamese. It was not their intention, but it was their achievement to have been “transitional figures.” Some of Phan Boi Chau’s heirs were nihilistic putschists; some of Phan Chu Trinh’s became bourgeois collaborators, such as the reformist landowners who came to dominate Saigon politics. But the heir to both was Ho Chi Minh. As in the legend of the Grail, the only one to succeed in his quest was the one who metaphorically died, the one who left his country, his class, and his traditions in order to reform them.

As Marr says in his introduction, Vietnamese Anticolonialism is only the beginning of the history of the early Vietnamese resistance. Nevertheless his book is important, for the primary data of the Vietnamese nineteenth century does not exist in Western languages, nor are any adequate histories available. For lack of these, those government-financed professors using Vietnam as their “laboratory for the social sciences” (as Ithiel de Sola Pool once put it) have been like Fiji Islanders writing on American politics from a Book of Knowledge account of Jefferson and Jackson. Marr’s work on the lives of these barely known Vietnamese not only adds considerably to American knowledge but restores a perspective that seems to have been lost in the United States.

In the future, one hopes, scholars—including Marr himself—will supply some of the historical background that is missing from his book. The traditionalist anticolonial movements of the Mekong Delta which took different directions from those Marr discusses require study.2 So does the Vietnamese collaboration with the French, for collaboration is not only a subject in itself (as Ophuls’s film The Sorrow and the Pity shows) but the necessary background to the resistance—it was the real problem for men like Chau and Trinh. Furthermore, Marr only briefly explores the intellectual universe of the Vietnamese elite on the eve of the French conquest and the process by which the scholars changed as they came in contact with the West. To investigate this question more deeply than Marr has done may, however, be difficult for, as Paul Mus shows, profound philosophical problems accompany any attempt to describe the impact of one culture upon another.

  1. 1

    Sainteny was the French emissary to the Democratic Republic of Vietnam in the critical periods just before and just after the French Indochina war. Because he had the opportunity to know Ho Chi Minh as few Westerners have, it was to be hoped that his new book Ho Chi Minh and His Vietnam: A Personal Memoir (Cowles, 1972) might contain some new ideas, or even some new facts, about the Vietnamese leader. But no such luck. The book is a parade of clichés translated from the French by someone with a very superficial acquaintance with English.

  2. 2

    Milton E. Osborne’s The French Presence in Cochinchina and Cambodia: Rule and Response, 1859-1905 (Cornell, 1969) deals with those rural sects whose successors were to be the Hoa Hao and the Cao Dai. Mention should also be made here of Alexander Barton Woodside’s excellent new book Vietnam and the Chinese Model: A Comparative Study of Vietnamese and Chinese Government in the First Half of the Nineteenth Century (Harvard, 1971).

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