Vietnam Notebook: Essential Context

Map of Vietnam, scalable format

Image via Wikipedia

Essential contextual information for understanding events in Vietnamese history:

China’s Influence:

Over a thousand years passed between the Chinese conquest of Vietnam in 111 BC and the establishment of an independent Vietnam in 938AD. The period is conventionally portrayed in Vietnam history as an unrelenting struggle against the Chinese. But in fact, much of the struggle took the form of civil war between pro- and anti-Chinese factions within Viet society. The times were characterized by the ebb and flow between periods of strong Chinese rule and those times when the Viets were ascendant. During stretches of instability when there was no strong central Chinese government, Vietnam was often ruled by what the Chinese termed “frontier barbarians.”

China has had the single most profound influence on Vietnamese culture. Both are Confucian on the surface and look very similar to outsiders. But at a deeper cultural level there are profound fissures. One important split concerns the role of the soldier in the national psyche. Remember that soldiers sit near the bottom in the Confucian social order of things, but the Vietnamese embrace the importance of warfare and those who wage it far more directly than the Chinese. Therefore the soldier occupies a more prominent place in Vietnamese culture. Consider this: the greatest Chinese national heroes (pre-Mao) are all philosophers: Confucius, Mencius, Lao Tze. The great Vietnamese national heroes on the other hand are all warrior kings… and queens! In fact one of the most important foundation myths for all Vietnamese is that of the warring Trung sisters who led an insurrection against the Chinese in the first century AD. That tells us something!

The limits of Chinese influence: the Vietnamese adopted the chu nôm system of writing, based on Chinese ideographs, but it still relies on Vietnamese phonetic values. Confucian values became dominant and Buddhism became a major religious force in Vietnam, but animism and ancestor worship continued to have strong influence. The Chinese occupied Vietnam for so long that the Vietnamese borrowed tones from Chinese and incorporated them into their language but the language itself remained defiantly Vietnamese. All of these things point to the complex relationship that the Vietnamese have with Chinese culture. On one hand, many Vietnamese resented their Chinese occupiers and wanted them out. On the other hand, many Vietnamese, particularly those who wanted to get ahead, developed a deep respect for Chinese culture and language. They learned to write in Chinese, they emulated Chinese behavior in many respects, like dress, cuisine, Confucianism, and so on.

The Gia Long Emperor (the Nguyen dynasty in the form of Prince Nguyen Anh) came to power with French assistance in 1802. The new government was very traditional, and very Confucian. The Chinese influence was striking. In fact the Vietnamese model was even more Confucian than its Chinese prototype. For example the Vietnamese polis was suffocatingly hierarchal and centralized. Minh Mang was the most conservative of Gia Long’s successors. He assumed the throne on Gia Long’s death in 1820 and one of his first official acts was to prohibit the use of the chu nom Vietnamese script in official documents. From then on, all government correspondence, edicts, laws were in Chinese. But Chinese learning was practically unknown to anyone in Vietnam outside of the Mandarins. The decision to use Chinese as the sole instrument of governance effectively severed the relationship between the people and the government. This situation of alienation left the Vietnamese in a vulnerable position. Because there was little social cohesion they failed to effectively resist the French when the time came to do so. All that has come since, everything that makes up contemporary Vietnam, is rooted in that failure to turn back the French.

The Village:

Historically the village has been the primary political unit in Vietnamese society. Even more importantly perhaps, the village may be the the single most important cultural entity– it ties the people together through the ages by cradling the links between the people and their ancestors. This point cannot be over-emphasized when looking at Vietnamese culture and history. If you do not want your soul to wander forever after you die, you must be buried in your ancestral village. That has been a powerful motivating factor. The French and American Indochina wars were no exceptions. Some of the greatest miscalculations in those wars, by both sides, involved the forced relocation of villagers away from their ancestral real estate. The Americans made the tactical mistake of forcing large numbers of South Vietnamese villagers to relocate in the name of security as part of the strategic hamlet program; for their part, after the 1968 Tet Offensive, the Viet Cong saw an erosion of their support among many formerly sympathetic South Vietnamese families when so many of their sons killed by the Americans were not returned home to their villages for burial.

Mao Tse Tung’s Theory of Revolutionary War:

Revolutionary war, not guerrilla war. Clearly guerrilla operations are an important component of revolutionary war, but the underlying principle and fundamental objective is social revolution. So how to get there?…

Lenin came up with the notion of the vanguard party, a revolutionary elite that would work to create the conditions for revolution. Marxist theory held that capitalism contained the seeds of its own destruction, it was only a matter of time until the conditions would be right for the workers to rise in revolution and take over. But you had to let events run their proper course. Lenin decided he could kick-start the process by adding a brain that, rather than letting fate take its course, would act to force its hand. That was Lenin’s first great contribution to the theory and practice of revolution.

His second was the concept of the popular front. In many cases, early on, when the vanguard group has not yet gained broad powers and authority, the tactic defined by Lenin is to form a coalition, a front, with other parties to oppose a common enemy. For Lenin enemy was the capitalist regime. Then, once in the good graces of the other front parties, the revolutionary elite—the vanguard party—move to infiltrate them from within, insidiously, the vanguard party then takes over and rules in its own right. History shows us that violent purges frequently follow. Mao and Ho would become masters of the execution of the popular front strategy.

Both Mao’s theory and its Vietnamese offshoot, Dau Tranh, are revolutionary in that they are both based on the Marxist-Leninist theory of class struggle. Mao’s great contribution to the theory of revolutionary struggle was the realization that social revolution didn’t have to start with the proletariat—industrial workers—as Marx believed. In the 1930s, you had a basic problem: Orthodox Marxist theory said the revolution would start with the proletariat—period. Yet they were such a small minority in China that they hardly mattered. Like all craftsman and builders in history, Mao worked with the materials available at hand– peasants. It wasn’t the crisis of overproduction, or the alienation of the worker, that mattered to them. No, what a Chinese peasant dreamed of was land; Mao understood this well and was enterprising enough to bend his Marxism to fit that reality. Its no surpries then that Mao’s rallying cry was for land reform. The problem is: how do you turn that into a social revolution? The result was Mao’s three stage theory of revolutionary war.

Mao Tse Tung’s
Three Phase Theory of
Revolutionary War

1. Organization, consolidation and preservation of base areas,
usually in difficult and isolated terrain.

2. Progressive expansion by terror and attacks on isolated enemy units
to obtain arms, supplies and political support.

3. Decision, or destruction of the enemy in battle.

What does this mean in detail?

The revolutionary cadres begin their work in remote rural areas. It’s easier to hide there and governments tend to ignore remote areas or, even better, discriminate against their inhabitants. That serves to helps with recruiting. Cadres come to villages to live and work and socialize with the locals. Over time they become trusted. In that newly fertile ground they develop a program, the party line, and recruit followers. The government on the other hand has the constant task of rooting out and apprehending the revolutionary cadres. That was usually a losing battle for them. In remote areas the peasant population is small; they all know and keep tabs on one another, but you can still move among them as long as you make friends with them. By contrast, strangers immediately stand out, so it’s harder for the government to infiltrate, to get intelligence. The Communists did not always co-mingle with the locals in such a benign way, sometimes they coerced villagers, but the track record (in China, Vietnam and elsewhere) reveals a trend toward cooperation rather than intimidation as the primary characteristic of the relations between revolutionaries and peasants. At least at this early stage. That’s phase one.

Next, the transition to phase two, guerrilla warfare, armed struggle. In guerrilla warfare, attacks are carefully planned for heightened effect, but usually not for military purposes per se. Instead phase two revolutionaries are interested in using military force for political purposes. What or who is the first target? This is low-intensity warfare at this point so the target will likely be an individual or a small group, a police chief for example, or a village chief, or maybe even a province chief or council. Kidnapping and assassination are the tools of the trade, not so much because they want to get rid of that person but rather to make a resounding point. To what effect? To demonstrate to the populace that the insurgents can get to the enemy, that their force is a real factor to be respected. It also induces fear in the ranks. The first attacks may do little physical damage to the enemy, but psychologically, fears of possible mayhem just around the corner get stoked. Suddenly, formerly comfortable officials begin to fear for their safety. They may then pull their forces further inward for personal protection, which usually made the villagers happy.

Another primary reason behind these first attacks is to get attention. Basically, when people read about the attack in the newspaper or hear about it on the radio or by word of mouth, they’re going to be curious about what is happening. Even if they’ve never heard of the revolutionary movement they may start thinking about it and seek to learn more. Engaging in that initial act of violence, or terrorism, demonstrates to the people that the revolution is real, that its agents are here and they mean business. And they can win. For villagers already opposed to the government, or even for those who were neutral, this represented a development worth watching, and maybe hope for something new and better.

From that initial purely political statement, progress toward the third and final stage is constantly evolving. In the third stage military objectives rise to the fore. Getting there involves the constant escalation of fear through violence. For example, an ambush of a patrol might net a weapons cache. Then a police station is overrun in the night, netting more weapons and ammunition, and perhaps information like names of informants. Then, finally, enough weapons, and money, are accumulated to encourage supporters to help. They begin to give information on government officials, and local families grow more willing to hide communist troops. Over time, more and more locals actually take up arms and join in the combat operations. Insurgent military operations become bigger and deadlier. Ultimately a regular military force emerges that can engage government forces on the field of battle. That’s the third phase. As we’ll see, the Vietnamese Communists put their own gloss on the theory and practice.

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