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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.

A professor at Yale University and the Collège de France, a distinguished scholar of Southeast Asian civilization, Paul Mus died in 1969, his works almost unknown in France as well as the United States. His obscurity owed partly to the fact that his works did not fit into any current academic category, and a great deal to the fact that he simply did not care whether or not they were published. In the last few years he would refuse even to read over his own manuscripts, preferring to use his failing eyesight to continue writing. Hô Chi Minh, le Vietnam, l’Asie is the edited version of one of the dozens of handwritten manuscripts that were discovered in his study after his death. Annie Nguyen Nguyet Hô deserves considerable credit for her editing.

This book is about Vietnam only in the sense that Mailer’s Why Are We in Vietnam? is about Vietnam. Mus’s subject is the intellectual landscape behind Ho Chi Minh and his revolution—a landscape that is largely invisible to Westerners. The book is a complement to Mus’s earlier work on the first Indochina war, Sociologie d’une guerre, but it is very different. A literary as well as a scholarly undertaking, it is less an intellectual history than a study of perception—an attempt to describe how the Vietnamese think about such central issues as legitimacy, historical continuity, democracy, and free will. Mus’s purpose is not to reduce Vietnamese culture to abstractions but to illuminate what actually happened during the Vietnamese revolution. What is the appeal of Ho Chi Minh to the Vietnamese? How have the Vietnamese assimilated Marxism-Leninism? For Mus the answers to these questions lie in the physical world and the culture that is lived rather than in the one consciously taught and learned about.

Because Vietnam lies at the crossroads—or the crossroads within the crossroads—of the two great Oriental civilizations, Mus, in order to reconstruct his landscape, has had to go back to sources as remote as Indian Buddhism, the rituals of ancestor worship, the structure of the Indonesian family, and the popular poetry of Ho Chi Minh’s native Nghe An province. Superficially the book seems to be a series of random reflections, but this is merely a measure of the breadth of Mus’s scholarship and his originality: the reader cannot see clearly where Mus is going until he has arrived. His book is full of brilliant distractions, or apparent distractions, such as a reinterpretation of the ways in which the Hindu gods are portrayed and a description of the ancient Chinese map of the world.

Mus was convinced that a Westerner is already lost from the beginning, that because the central ideas and symbols of Oriental thought have no direct equivalent in Western languages, to translate them correctly a Westerner must re-create the entire world from which those ideas and symbols come. The idea is hardly a new one to philosophers and anthropologists, but it is one that social scientists usually neglect in interpreting Oriental politics. As a result they tend either to miss the inner logic of events or to ignore those events which do not fit their own perspective. By reexamining—recreating—these central ideas and symbols, Mus clarifies such questions as the significance of Ho Chi Minh’s many aliases and the political differences between Mao Tse-tung, U Nu, and Ho Chi Minh. He also does much to explain the extraordinary strength of the Vietnamese resistance, ignorance of which permits Americans to speak of the “fanaticism” of the Vietnamese and to believe that they “put no value on human life.”

According to Mus one important source of that resistance is the view that the Vietnamese take of the relation between man and society. For the Vietnamese the individual is not an isolated being who travels through eternity in the metaphysical box of a “soul.” He is a part of his community, and his immortality comes from the continuous re-creation of that community on earth. The traditional Vietnamese community was, of course, the family—extended not only in life but in time through past and future generations. The rites of ancestor worship knitted the generations so that the relationship of uncle and nephew, of grandfather and grandson, represented not simply a progression but a unity in which the single term “ego” was merely a fraction of the whole. Mus quotes the formula of a French ethnologist: “Thanks to the rites, the Vietnamese believe in the dead—while Westerners believe only in death.” The ego lives as long as the continuity is maintained.

When Ho Chi Minh took on the familiar title bac or “uncle”—bac means the elder brother of the father, the respected head of the family—he was doing something very important. He was, as Mus shows, establishing the traditional relation of succession and unity, only in a different form: the nephews and nieces implied by the term bac included not merely his blood relatives but all of his countrymen. In doing so he was, as Mus writes, “decoding the Marxist revolution for the Vietnamese.” Ho was “rectifying names,” and his new name implied both a theory of history (revolution as a natural progression, the old society giving birth to the new) and a political doctrine (sovereignty resides with all the people, not just those of a certain family). In the future, or so Ho Chi Minh proposed, the community and the transmission belt of immortality would no longer be the family bound by the practice of ancestor worship but all the people bound by the practice of Marxism.

When they made “estimates of the Vietnamese Communists’ will to continue,” US officials would have done well to consider the analysis of Paul Mus. For, as he suggests, there is a superhuman, though not a supernatural, aspect to the Vietnamese resistance. Those who have accepted Ho Chi Minh’s political transformation see their fulfillment as individuals and their immortality as dependent on the survival of the community that has emerged from Marxist revolution. Conversely, the defeat of the resistance would mean alienation and a break in history for its members—a final, collective death for the dead as well as the survivors. American officials have counted every supply truck and measured every mile of roadway in North Vietnam, but they have never considered what is at stake for the Vietnamese.

In fact US officials will be more likely to read Jeffrey Race’s War Comes to Long An, since, unlike the books by Marr and Mus, it deals directly with US policies in Vietnam. The book is an attempt to explain the success of the revolutionary movement from 1954 to 1968 by comparing the strategies of the Vietnamese Communist Party, the Saigon government, and the United States. Race wisely concentrates on one critical province southwest of Saigon, but much of his analysis bears on the entire conflict in the South. His analysis is somewhat misleading—like one’s desk when someone else has cleaned it up, it has a tidiness that conceals a fundamental disorder. But there is still much to be learned from his book.

For those who consider Vietnam something more than a US policy question, by far the most important part of the book is its history of Long An province from 1954 to 1965 as seen both by the Communist Party cadre and by Saigon government officials. Race rightly warns that much of it is “journalistic material,”3 and his narrative contains some debatable points.4 But he has written a revealing account of the issues in the province and the outlook of the principal actors in the conflict. His interviews with the province chiefs of the Saigon government (who were then Diemist) are the most original part of his research. While the RAND Corporation and the like have interviewed thousands of NLF members, few American researchers have ever listened to the views of those people the US claims to support. The Saigon government officials are, in every sense, the lost people of the war. Race shows great sympathy for them even as he demonstrates how mistaken or irrelevant their views were.

The Vietnamese Communist Party, Race says, had “a comprehensive view of revolution as a stage-by-stage social process” based on such concepts as those of class, of contradiction, and of social force. These concepts, in his view, permitted its leaders to understand the balance of power not merely as a crude ratio of armed forces but as a sophisticated equation that included such factors as the economic situation, the quality of social organization, the state of morale, and the relations among the great world powers. In light of this analysis the party put forward redistributive social policies, such as land reform and a bureaucratic system of promotion by merit, that led a decisive proportion of the society to support them and allowed them to carry their armed struggle to victory without using outside force.

Race’s analysis of party strategies should not come as any surprise to serious students of revolution or Marxism-Leninism, for it deals with few attitudes and methods that are peculiarly Vietnamese. Yet his study is valuable in view of all the garbage that has been written about Vietnam, not only in the press but in documents marked “secret” and “top secret.” Race’s analysis at least permits him to refute most of the usual official shibboleths—particularly those explanations that assign communist success to a single cause: whether “the use of terror,” or “underdevelopment,” or “corruption in government.”

It also permits him to show the contradictions within the US-GVN counterinsurgency strategies. Race points out that the aim of conventional warfare is to destroy the enemy armed forces and to prevent their regeneration by cutting off their access to recruitment and resupply. The aim is a plausible one when the two armies draw on territorially and socially distinct bases, but it is not a winning strategy when there is a single recruitment and supply base, and that base has already been captured by the enemy. Without any social strategy to recapture this base, the US-GVN concepts of “security,” “control,” and “pacification” in Long An entailed the logically impossible task of concentrating all military forces everywhere at once.

The question Race’s book raises is, of course, how so many otherwise intelligent men—Vietnamese and Americans—managed to invent such nonsensical counterinsurgency theories and to propagate them for more than two decades. While Race does not answer that question directly, the titles of his two analytical chapters, “Lessons from Long An” and “Ignoring the Lessons,” suggest he believes they could have used some advice. Near the end of his book he states flatly that there were other strategies the Saigon government and the United States could have followed—the strategies of the Communist Party in Long An.

This suggestion is astonishing, for, unlike General Edward Lansdale, Sir Robert Thompson, and other professional tinkerers with the Saigon government, Race does not merely mean that ARVN soldiers should have been dressed up like Front cadre or that a new police force should have been organized. He suggests that the entire communist social and political program, as he interprets it, should have been adopted by the GVN. Taken to its not very distant conclusion, his argument is simply that the GVN officials ought to have turned communist and the American officials (for he completely ignores national distinctions when he discusses policy making) ought to have turned Vietnamese communist.

This absurdity—so startling in the midst of what appears to be a lucid explanation of why the counterrevolution could not succeed—illuminates the central error of Race’s approach. He sees the conflict as an essentially intellectual problem amenable to an intellectual solution. His analysis of the revolutionary strategies assumes that the Communist Party deduced its social policies—its land reform, its championship of the poor—from its theory of how to win a revolutionary war. The revolutionaries were more successful than the Saigon government, by his account, largely because they used a “preemptive” strategy, capturing the allegience of the countryside, as opposed to a “reinforcement” strategy. Here Race has not only got the cart dragging the horse but the cart dragging an imaginary horse. Revolutionaries do not create the dispossessed, but vice versa, and the purpose of revolutionaries is to make a revolution, not to defeat a counter-revolution.

Similarly, counterrevolutionaries do not adopt revolutionary strategies not because they are too stupid to do so but because it is contrary to their interests. This disregard for the facts leads Race to some odd contradictions, but allows him to avoid concluding that the US government has been guilty of something more serious than stupidity. Race says, for instance, that the Saigon government represented a tiny minority and that even in the years 1954-1958 it had little control over the countryside. How it has managed to survive for all these years remains a mystery in his book, for nowhere does Race mention the decisive factor of American aid or discuss the impact of the American presence on the Vietnamese.

Race concludes with the following sentence: “A decade and a half of killing and destruction in Long An provides evidence of the superhuman sacrifices which some men…will endure to redress their deprivation; yet it also provides a melancholy example of the lengths other men will go…to perpetuate their privilege.” This is all the recognition the soldiers of the Saigon government get for fighting an American-directed war. Had Race acknowledged the economic and military hold of the United States over Vietnam or the nationalist appeal of the revolutionaries, he might have arrived at a simpler explanation for US-GVN theories and strategies. That is: with the decisive majority of the Vietnamese opposing their foreign-supported government, the US fought the war in the only way it could—by attacking the “supply and manpower base” of both Vietnamese armies.

Similarly the US officials concerned with Vietnam have explained the war in the only way available to them as officials. To have admitted, as Race does, that the Vietnamese revolutionaries in Long An had gained the support of the population would have been to acknowledge the immorality of their own undertaking. To have replaced the nonsense words “security,” “pacification,” and “development” with the real names for US policies would have been to acknowledge the commission of war crimes as defined at Nuremberg.

Letters

Common Sense February 8, 1973

  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).

  3. 3

    Unfortunately he does not introduce a similar caveat when he uses GVN statistics.

  4. 4

    One of these points is his contention that the higher echelons of the Communist Party delayed its directive to initiate the armed struggle until it was almost too late for the lower echelons. When the directive finally came in 1959, the Diem regime (so Race argues) had nearly destroyed the Long An party chapter, and there was much resentment within the party ranks.

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