by Peter B. Zinoman, University of California, Berkeley
I this forum on Tuong Vu’s Vietnam’s Communist Revolution: The Power and Limits of Ideology, four distinguished historians address critical questions raised in the book about the history of Vietnamese Communism. They include Christopher Goscha (the most important historian of Vietnam writing today in English), Sophie-Quinn Judge (author of the best biographical study of Ho Chi Minh in any language), Stein Tønnesson (a prolific scholar of the ‘international’ history of Vietnam in the 1940s) and Alec Holcombe, (a brilliant young historian of Vietnamese Communism). The four participants sort themselves into two factions, a war-era faction (Quinn-Judge and Tønnesson) who reject Tuong Vu’s central claims, and a post-war faction (Goscha and Holcombe) who endorse them. The division on exhibit here confirms that, despite the passage of over four decades, old disputes over interpretations of the Vietnam War remain unresolved.
While many Western-language studies have explored discrete periods in the history of Vietnamese Communism, Vietnam’s Communist Revolution is the first sweeping examination of the movement from its origins in the 1920s through the post-Vietnam War era. Based on a trove of vernacular-language sources of unparalleled scope and depth, it proposes a novel and interesting periodization of Vietnamese Communism (1917-1930, 1931-1940, 1940-1951, 1953-1960, 1957-1963, 1964-1975, 1976-1979, 1980-1991, 1991-2010) and offers a wide-ranging account of its evolution over time. The historical insight featured in the book is especially impressive given Tuong Vu’s disciplinary background in political science. Supplementing his arguments about continuity and change, Tuong Vu advances the straightforward thesis that the most influential factor in the history of Vietnamese communism has been its leaders’ unwavering devotion to the political ideas of Karl Marx, Vladimir Lenin, Joseph Stalin, and Mao Zedong. This thesis makes a modest contribution to the political science scholarship, Tuong Vu notes, by adding “another case to the comparative literature, demonstrating the salience of revolutionary ideology in world politics” (13). In the context of Vietnam War studies, on the other hand, Tuong Vu’s thesis represents a forceful intervention into one of the oldest and most contentious debates in the field.
During the Vietnam conflict, ‘hawks’ and ‘doves’ disagreed about the fundamental political orientation of America’s enemy. For hawks, both the northern Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV) and the guerilla insurgency that it supported in the southern Republic of Vietnam (RVN) were principally motivated by a version of Communist internationalism. As evidence, hawks pointed to Ho Chi Minh’s long career as a Comintern agent, the integration of the DRV into the Eastern bloc, the violent social revolution (including the land reform and collectivization) that the Party spearheaded in the North, and the Vietnamese movement’s formal veneration of Mao and Stalin. For hawks, the Communist leadership’s relentless and ultimately successful drive to conquer South Vietnam derived from a quasi-religious desire to liberate countrymen oppressed by capitalism and imperialism.
For doves, on the other hand, the Vietnamese Communist leadership’s core motivation was nationalism. As evidence, they pointed out that the two great causes animating the movement between 1925 and 1975 were freedom from colonial rule and territorial unification. They also found an intense nationalism in the trope of ‘resistance to foreign invasion’ that saturated the historical narratives and political culture promoted by Vietnamese Communism. For doves, the critical nationalist agenda of the Vietnamese Communists was an important reason why the containment doctrine should never have been applied to the country and why the American intervention was misguided from the start.
Tuong Vu’s argument about the devotion of Vietnamese Communist elites to a radical leftist ideology reprises the hawkish position but he fortifies it significantly by mobilizing a massive new body of corroborating evidence. “In researching his topic,” Holcombe points out, “Tuong Vu took advantage of thousands of Party resolutions, orders, circulars, and general policy statements made public by the Vietnamese government in its 2001 Party Documents series. He appears to have read, cover to cover, every one of this series’ fifty-nine volumes, along with a variety of newspapers, archival materials, memoirs, and secondary scholarship.” Tuong Vu’s exceptionally wide reading impresses even his toughest critics. Tønnesson praises his “thorough research and impressive erudition” while Quinn-Judge, in an otherwise unsympathetic review, acknowledges that the “author has gone farther and deeper into this topic than any previous writer in English.”
While they do not map on to each other with complete precision, the dovish and hawkish positions dovetail with contending schools of historical interpretation of the Vietnam War known as orthodoxy and revisionism. The persistence of these tendencies in the field may be seen in two issues raised in the Forum about which reviewers express conflicting views. The first is the so-called ‘lost opportunity thesis’ which argues that an irrationally anti-Communist United States rejected friendly overtures from Ho Chi Minh during the 1940s and 50s thus driving the Vietnamese Communists into the arms of Beijing and Moscow. Citing copious textual evidence, Tuong Vu rejects this thesis, arguing that the zealous ideological partisanship of the Vietnamese leadership at the time made an alliance with America unlikely in the extreme. Goscha and Holcombe support Tuong’s Vu’s rejection of the ‘lost opportunity thesis,’ with Goscha noting that a similar argument about a lost American opportunity in communist China has been called convincingly into question by scholars such as Chen Jian. Quinn-Judge and Tønnesson, on the other hand, continue to endorse ‘the lost opportunity thesis,’ with Quinn-Judge arguing that it was American intransience that radicalized the DRV.
A second issue over which reviewers disagree is Tuong Vu’s argument about internal factionalism within the Communist leadership. For Tuong Vu, factionalism in the Party has been overrated, as has a theory that the leadership was split between a moderate nationalist wing headed by Ho Chi Minh and a radical, internationalist wing led by Le Duan. Calling into question the characterization of Ho Chi Minh as a moderate nationalist, Tuong Vu suggests that what is most striking about the Vietnamese Communists was their shared commitment to the same overarching ideological project. With some minor caveats, Holcombe endorses this interpretation adding that doves inflate the significance of factionalism within the Vietnamese Communist leadership for two instrumental reasons: it evokes the presence of moderate Communist elites who deserved American support and it heightens a contrast between a flexible, moderate Ho Chi Minh and a rigid extremist United States. Quinn-Judge and Tønnesson remain unconvinced by this revisionist argument. The former argues that Ho Chi Minh was a moderate pragmatist with a strong nationalist streak. The latter attempts to resuscitate the fifty-year old interpretive scheme advanced by Huynh Kim Khanh which highlighted a conflict between ‘national patriots’ (led by Ho Chi Minh) and ‘proletarian internationalists’ (ultimately the Le Duan and Le Duc Tho faction).
Contributors to the Forum raise additional questions and concerns. In response to Tuong Vu’s analysis of ‘factional divides within the party’ during the latter stages of the War, Goscha requests more historiography through additional engagement with the work of scholars who hold differing views. Holcombe attributes greater significance to Ho Chi Minh’s struggles with rivals in the 1930s and he disputes Tuong Vu’s optimistic speculation that the War was ‘winnable’ for the RVN. He also questions Tuong Vu’s conclusions about the ‘rationality’ of Hanoi’s post-war foreign policy. Quinn-Judge and Tønnesson question the book more aggressively. Quinn-Judge challenges its mono-causal explanatory framework and its static portrayal of Communist ideology. She restates her essentially sympathetic interpretation of Ho Chi Minh as a moderate, pragmatic nationalist, an argument of Tønnesson’s as well. Tønnesson rejects Tuong Vu’s overly rigid view of Communist ideology which, he claims, changed over time and included space for the expression of diverse positions. He also argues that patriotism, not Communism, “carried the greatest normative weight for Vietnam’s Communist leaders.”
The critiques of Quinn-Judge and Tønnesson affirm the durability of divisions that date back fifty years. But they also introduce little new concrete evidence to back up their claims. This contrasts with the massive excavation of primary source material carried by Tuong Vu. Owing to his prodigious labors, the weight of the empirical record tips significantly in favor of his revisionist thesis.