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Vietnamese Political Studies and Debates on Vietnamese Nationalism – by Tuong Vu

Does a Vietnamese nation exist? Is it an ancient entity, or a modern invention? Is national consciousness to be found only among political elites, or do the masses also hold such sentiments? What is the nature of Vietnamese nationalism: is it a psychological sense of patriotism, an anticolonial ideology, or a quest for political power? What is the Vietnamese national character? What is the relationship between Vietnamese nationalism and communism? This review of the state of Vietnamese political studies (1) in the United States since the 1950s finds that these questions have preoccupied scholars of Vietnamese politics and political history more than any other topic.

Over the last fifty years, the field has undergone two growth spurts, one in the mid 1960s and the other since the mid 1980s. The first took place as the United States deepened its involvement in Vietnam, while the second occurred at the end of the Cold War. At both turning points the fieldexpanded rapidly, both in quantitative and qualitative terms, reflecting the profound impact of political events on scholarship. At the same time, the growth spurts foreshadowed shifts in the substantive debates on the Vietnamese nation and nationalism. In particular, before the mid 1960s debates were implicit and mild in tone. Diverse views existed, but pessimism about the Vietnamese nation and doubts about its unifying power and moral character were pervasive. Despite the belief in the modern origins of nations that was prevalent among social scientists at the time, in Vietnamese Studies only a few believers in Vietnam as an ethnic nation existed. At the same time, some adopted an alternative concept that defined the Vietnamese nationality not along the primordial-modern dimension but as a communal identity to be found at the village level. And as for Vietnamese nationalism, most analysts viewed it as contradicting and being threatened by communism.

As the war escalated and the field experienced its first growth spurt after the mid 1960s, the tone of debate became increasingly combative and its character more polemic. The earlier pessimism was replaced in this new, more sophisticated scholarship by an optimism about the Vietnamese nation. This nation was now seen primarily as an ethnic group whose identity had been shaped over the centuries out of repeated resistance to foreign invasions. There was also a new belief in the possible affinity for and benefit of an alliance between nationalism and communism. Reflecting an important trend in the social sciences and the normative concerns of analysts, Vietnamese nationalism was now conceptualized simply as anticolonialism. Overall, the new scholarship of this period made major contributions to the understanding of Vietnamese politics, but it was also highly partisan—that is, its arguments and evidence were often deployed in not-so-subtle ways to justify certain policy positions. While no scholarship can ever be free of ideological biases, these were more pronounced and sometimes explicitly proclaimed in works written during this period.

Since the early 1980s, as the field gathered steam for a second expansive phase, the debates have become less polemic and ideological. New ways to conceptualize the Vietnamese nation have emerged that challenge earlier thinking. The existence and power of the Vietnamese nation are no longer assumed or denied in a simplistic manner, while the processes by which the nation was created or sustained receive a new scrutiny. In sync with developments in social science theory, the Vietnamese nation is now primarily viewed as a modern social construct or cultural artifact. Vietnamese nationalism is treated not only as resistance to foreign rule but also as a cover for power politics. The affinity between communism and nationalism is rejected. A welcome development is the more direct engagement of Vietnam scholarship of this third period with broad theories in the social sciences. By productively applying these theories to old questions or by using Vietnamese cases to criticize them, current scholarship gives the topic a renewed salience and offers new vistas for future exploration.

This review is organized into three parts, corresponding to the three periods the field has experienced. In each part, I will begin by discussing political events, theoretical trends in the social sciences—especially regarding the study of nations and nationalism—and trends in related fields such as Asian or Southeast Asian Studies. The bulk of each section is devoted to the debates on questions about the Vietnamese nation and nationalism. In the conclusion I will speculate about future trends in the field, which appears to be moving away from these questions. Three areas of potential fruitful research are suggested, including changing Vietnamese loyalties in the era of globalization, the ethnic dimension of the modern Vietnamese nation, and the relationship between nationalism, socialism, and state building in the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV) during the war.

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Ref. : Journal of Vietnamese Studies 2: 2 (August 2007), pp. 175-230.

Tuong Vu (Visiting Research Fellow, Project on Democracy and Development; September 2011–June 2012). Vu is an associate professor in the Department of Political Science at the University of Oregon.  His research interests include state formation and development, the politics of nationalism, the role of ideology and identity in domestic and international conflicts, and the role of communist ideology in the Vietnamese revolution.  He is the author of Paths to Development in Asia, South Korea, Vietnam, China, and Indonesia (2010) and coeditor of Dynamics of the Cold War in Asia: Ideology, Identity, and Culture (2009). While at Princeton, Vu will work on two projects: a book that examines the role of ideology in the Vietnamese revolution as a case of radical politics in the periphery, and a paper that examines the role of capital and coercion in the formation of modern East Asian states. Ph.D. University of California, Berkeley.

See Tuong Vu profile