Understanding the Vietcong

Le Viet Nam entre deux paix

by Jean Lacouture
Editions du Seuil, 266 pp., 17 N.F.

High strategic themes, bureaucratic interests, intellectual baggage and many other kinds of junk have been piled on to the war in Vietnam. It has been called a fatal test of will between Communism and freedom. It has been described as the critical battle in the struggle between China and the United States. It has also been described as the critical battle in the struggle between China and the Soviet Union. On its outcome there is supposed to rest the future of Southeast Asia; and so it has also been sometimes described as the critical battle between China and India. At a minimum the Dr. Strange-loves of “sublimited war” claim that Vietnam poses the question whether a nuclear power can mobilize the kind of force required to contain guerrilla warfare. And with so much at stake it seems to make sense that the greatest power on earth should send as ambassador to a kind of Asian Ruritania its leading military man and, on two occasions, one of its best-known political figures.

To those who think it does make sense, which seems to include practically everybody in the United States, Jean Lacouture’s new book on Vietnam will come as a kind of revelation. He announces his almost revolutionary theme in the opening sentence: “Vietnam,” he writes, “exists.” His book is about a particular place and a struggle for primacy there. It is, in other words, a political book. It deals with the elements and forces of the conflict, not as if they were apocalyptic and millennial events but as political phenomena. To read Lacouture after a dose of the official and even the journalistic literature which we get in this country is to pass from griffins and unicorns to Darwin and Mendel.

For writing a non-mythological political analysis of Vietnam, Lacouture has the ideal background. As a distinguished correspondent for various journals, including Le Monde, he has been to Vietnam repeatedly since he first went there on the staff of General Leclerc in 1945. He has visited both North and South Vietnam several times. He has written on his subject often and at length, notably in a biographical study of Ho Chi Minh and as co-author of a book on the Geneva truce of 1954. He knows all the leading figures on all sides from way back. Nor is he a narrow specialist. After a particularly baffling encounter with a Buddhist monk, for example, he can write: “Our seminaries also train specialists in verbal equivocation and suave silences, but never, in our climate, has the sacerdotal smile taken on such an evasive efficaciousness.” Moreover, the politics of underdeveloped countries, so mysterious to most of us, and so parochial to those who know only a single country, are familiar stuff to him. With his wife Simone, Lacouture has written the best study to date of Colonel Nasser’s Egypt; and one of the best on Morocco since independence. While obviously a pièce d’occasion, his present book on Vietnam is of the same high quality.

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