[Marxism] The Penguin History of Modern Vietnam reviewed

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Wed Dec 7 20:21:01 MST 2016

LRB, Vol. 38 No. 24 · 15 December 2016

This is the new communism
Mark Philip Bradley

The Penguin History of Modern Vietnam by Christopher Goscha
Allen Lane, 634 pp, £30.00, June, ISBN 978 1 84614 310 6

Two exhibitions that opened within blocks of each other in Chicago this 
autumn make clear the continuing challenges involved in writing 
Vietnamese history. One, Hunting Charlie at the Pritzker Military 
Museum, features a collection of North Vietnamese and National 
Liberation Front wartime propaganda posters. The posters themselves, 
seldom seen outside Vietnam, are fascinating. But even Trinh Thi Ngo, 
‘Hanoi Hannah’, the notorious broadcaster for the Voice of Vietnam who 
died in September, might have raised an eyebrow at the exhibition’s own 
propagandistic angle. A caption under a poster celebrating the North 
Vietnamese victory in April 1975 reads: ‘Given the purges, the mass 
killings, re-education camps and refugee crisis it bears asking if Ho 
Chi Minh’s vision of a unified Vietnam for the good of the Vietnamese 
people was achieved.’

Interspersed with what the curator calls the ‘chilling reality’ of 
Vietnamese propaganda, the exhibition offers opinions of its own. Framed 
pull-quotes from interviews with American servicemen remind us that ‘WE 
WON THE TET OFFENSIVE. We decimated the Viet Cong. And our wonderful 
press made us losers.’ The exhibition portrays the United States as the 
real victim of the Vietnam War and sees the North Vietnamese as callous 
and bloodthirsty puppets of international communism. While discredited 
by most (though not all) academic histories, belief in Vietnam as a 
noble war is enjoying a popular resurgence in the US.

Just down the road from Hunting Charlie, at the Chicago Museum of 
Contemporary Art, a very different evocation of the Vietnamese past was 
on display. The Propeller Group, a Saigon-based artists’ collective, was 
showing its film, The Guerrillas of Cu Chi. The tunnels of Cu Chi, built 
by southern Vietnamese communists in a rural area outside Saigon, acted 
as a logistics centre during the war and survived several American 
efforts to destroy them. Now they are a tourist destination; some of the 
tunnels have been enlarged to accommodate Western visitors, who get a 
chance to fire original Soviet-made AK-47s.

The film documents what happens on the shooting range. The camera moves 
back and forth on a track behind the targets, showing the tourists being 
set up with weapons by Vietnamese ‘guards’ dressed in military fatigues. 
It captures their reactions – intense concentration, laughter and 
high-fives recorded by friends wielding cameras and phones – as they 
play soldier. We hear the shots, but only see the reactions of the 
participants. A 1960s English-language propaganda film called Cu Chi 
Guerrillas, projected onto the opposite wall at the same time, 
encapsulates the official Vietnamese narrative of the war: heroic 
soldiers, workers, peasants, mothers and children unselfishly 
confronting ‘the merciless Americans’ who ‘ruthlessly decided to kill 
this gentle and small piece of the countryside’. Visitors could stand 
between the two films, with communist wartime propaganda on one wall and 
tourists inhabiting the neoliberal space of leisure consumption in 
contemporary Vietnam on the other. The tourists were shooting at them.

The complexities of the Vietnamese past are shrouded in myth. One is 
Vietnam as a ‘little China’, the view that anchored Frances FitzGerald’s 
still widely read 1972 Pulitzer Prize-winning Fire in the Lake. 
FitzGerald borrowed from French Orientalists who lamented the 
‘vulgarisation of Chinese civilisation’ in Vietnam. Centuries of what 
they saw as a Confucian-inspired Vietnamese monarchy, and a popular 
belief in the mandate of heaven that legitimated kingship, had 
determined Vietnamese understanding of the challenges of the colonial 
and postcolonial worlds. The success of the North Vietnamese, FitzGerald 
argued, rested on the popular image of Ho Chi Minh as an embodiment of 
the Confucian virtues of an ideal Sinicised Vietnamese emperor. American 
policymakers also used the little China framework, derisively viewing 
the Vietnamese through a set of racialised hierarchies and classing them 
as ‘primitive’, ‘lazy’ and ‘vain’. They worried that the Vietnamese 
postcolonial elite was especially susceptible to outside direction, and 
that Soviet and Chinese influence would have to be countered by American 

Most Vietnamese have sought instead to root the country’s origins in an 
imagined thousand-year history. In this telling, Vietnam was forged as 
an ethno-national state as it attempted to beat back Chinese campaigns 
to conquer and control its territory. Vietnamese schoolchildren learn of 
heroes such as Ngo Quyen, who ended a thousand-year Chinese occupation 
in 939 by planting sharp wooden stakes at low tide in the bed of the Red 
River. When the tide rose the stakes became invisible to the 
unsuspecting Chinese and impaled their armada. Heroism and guerrilla 
resistance became second nature to the Vietnamese and shaped their later 
opposition to French colonialism. Examples of patriotic resistance were 
used again to ground the Vietnamese communists’ opposition to the Americans.

Embedded in such accounts is a conception of state formation known to 
Vietnamese historians as Nam Tien, or ‘the march to the south’. As the 
Vietnamese moved south, the story goes, they gradually assumed control 
of what they perceived to be virgin land. In Vietnam this is seen as a 
largely peaceful process, but these territories were home to Khmer, 
Cham, overseas Chinese and a host of ethnic minorities, few of whom were 
especially keen on becoming Vietnamese. Conquest was seldom peaceful, 
and sometimes led to what we may now describe as ethnic cleansing. The 
official Vietnamese story of the country’s origins, in itself not so 
different from what were once the dominant narratives of the settling of 
the American west and the Russian east, demands fealty to the idea of an 
ethnically homogeneous nation.

It’s not quite fair to say that this is where our understanding of 
Vietnamese history sat before the appearance of Christopher Goscha’s 
magnificent volume. Goscha draws on the increasingly sophisticated 
postwar scholarship that wore away at those shibboleths. With the 
country closed to the non-communist world until its embrace of 
market-oriented economic reforms in the mid-1980s, historians turned to 
Vietnamese-language sources held in French libraries and archives. 
Colonial-era French censors had demanded that a copy of all published 
Vietnamese texts be deposited in Paris, inadvertently preserving a rich 
collection of political, philosophical and imaginative works in which 
Vietnamese writers tried to make sense of French rule and colonial 
modernity, reinventing themselves in the process. New forms of political 
thought and practice – republicanism, constitutionalism, socialism, 
communism in its Marxist, Leninist, Stalinist and Trotskyist variants 
and other forms of radical politics – all played a part in these 

Younger Vietnamese in the 1920s and 1930s rethought their relationships 
with their families and adopted an individualism that broke with 
prevailing social constraints. When French colonial censorship eased in 
the 1930s, writers lampooned what was seen as an outdated Confucianism, 
championing the rights of workers, making legible the lives of the urban 
and rural poor, opposing what they increasingly saw as the oppression of 
arranged marriages and even writing approvingly about homosexuality. The 
notion of 20th-century Vietnam as a little China was increasingly 
unsustainable, but the sense of a Vietnamese tradition that collided 
with colonial modernity remained. Indeed, one of the most important 
works in this first wave of historical revisionism was called Vietnamese 
Tradition on Trial. That tradition was still seen as Confucian, and 
there was a lingering conviction that the major subject of modern 
Vietnamese history was the gradual emergence of the nation-state.

Goscha’s book represents the culmination of the last two decades of 
scholarship on Vietnam, years in which the singularity of Vietnamese 
tradition has been challenged and the question raised of what a concern 
with ‘Vietnamese’ history has concealed about the pluralities of its 
past. Rather than writing only about ethnic Vietnamese or kinh, Goscha 
draws attention to the country’s heterogeneity and to the Vietnamese as 
colonisers. Present-day southern Vietnam, for instance, could easily 
have become part of Cambodia: Khmer kings controlled much of the Mekong 
Delta into the 18th century. The cosmopolitan kingdom of Champa ruled 
substantial portions of central Vietnam until the 15th century, 
overseeing a trade in luxury goods between the Indian Ocean and Chinese 
markets in a polity shaped by Islam and Hinduism as well as Buddhism. 
Problematically for those who take the traditional view of Vietnamese 
patriotic resistance to foreign invaders, a powerful Cham king sacked 
and looted Hanoi in 1371. The late 15th century marked the beginning of 
a new imperial project in the southern lands, with Vietnamese emperors 
undertaking increasingly successful military campaigns in these Khmer 
and Cham-dominated territories. By the early 19th century, the Nguyen 
emperors were demanding assimilation from the vanquished Cham and Khmer 
who remained in what had become southern Vietnam. At the same time they 
sought control over the Tai and other minority peoples who populated the 
central highlands. One of the main themes of Goscha’s history is the 
complexity of governance in these areas and the urge to erase their 
multi-ethnic character. The Nguyen dynasty, French empire builders and 
the postcolonial state all struggled to assert administrative control 
and to subordinate the heterogeneous peoples of the highlands and the 
south to what they perceived to be the national interest.

Vietnamese religion occupies a central place in Goscha’s account. He 
demonstrates that Confucianism was only one of many options for the 
Vietnamese: a ‘world of spirits, local cults, deities, soothsayers and 
millenarian beliefs’, he writes, permeated ‘the lives of elites and 
commoners alike’. Buddhism arrived in the third century BCE. Vietnamese 
emperors before the 15th century, many of them educated in Buddhist 
pagoda schools, practised a form of rule that drew simultaneously on 
Chinese statecraft, charismatic familial leadership and Buddhism. The 
move towards Confucian models of governance came very late, most 
intensively under the 19th-century Nguyen dynasty, and were no match for 
the French colonial onslaught.

Like Confucianism, Buddhism in Vietnam was neither monolithic nor 
static. Folk practices and millennial movements challenged 
state-sponsored Buddhism if not the imperial state itself. A Buddhist 
revival in the early 20th century, in part informed by dialogues between 
modernisers in China and Vietnam, offered a powerful alternative way of 
thinking about the way the country was changing under French rule. The 
revival brought an explosion of new Buddhist publications and 
associations in the 1920s and 1930s that urged social action to help 
those whose lives were most at risk in the new colonial economy. 
Catholicism, which first came to Vietnam in the 16th century thanks to 
European missionaries and their local partners, also flourished in the 
colonial period as faith became indigenised. Catholicism was sometimes 
an agent or enabler of French rule, but was just as often in conflict 
with it. Most Vietnamese were (as they still are) at least nominally 
Buddhist, and Catholics never made up more than 10 per cent of the 
population. But Goscha helps make clear the social and political 
significance of all these different religions.

The Buddhist protests of 1963 in southern Vietnam against the government 
led by Ngo Dinh Diem, known at the time thanks to the global circulation 
of photographs of self-immolating monks, are a case in point. The 
majority of Western observers in the 1960s and later, who saw the 
conflict through a Cold War lens, perceived religion as a minor element 
in these protests. Diem’s Catholicism was widely known but seen as a 
component of his anti-communism, while the Buddhists were usually 
depicted as dupes or active agents of Vietnamese communism. Viewing it 
against the backdrop of imperial and colonial history, Goscha shows that 
faith and its complicated relationship with Vietnamese politics should 
be at the centre of the story. The robust organisation that emerged from 
the colonial-era Buddhist revival didn’t need communist backing to 
protest against the excesses of the Diem government. Goscha also notes 
that Diem’s crackdown on the protesters echoed the earlier efforts of 
Vietnamese emperors to rout the Catholics, whom they saw as a threat to 
their state-building projects.

These tensions remain in present-day Vietnam, where a nominally 
socialist one-party state overseeing the construction of a market 
economy confronts a resurgence of religious expression. As well as 
Buddhism and Catholicism, local cults operating outside the reach of the 
state claim millions of adherents. More than a million people have 
visited the shrine of the Lady of the Realm, Ba Chua Xu, in southern 
Vietnam every year since the early 1990s: religion seems to offer the 
solace that the state can no longer provide, given the economic, social 
and cultural dislocations of the market economy. Buddhist monks in Hue 
recently sat down in the street at major intersections to protest 
against growing social inequality. The political tensions between 
religious groups and the Vietnamese imperial, colonial and postcolonial 
state, invisible in older narratives of the country’s history, allow us 
to make sense of its more recent past.


The attention Goscha gives to these continuities allows him to place the 
American war in Vietnamese history without indulging in the usual 
polemics. American historians of the war have produced thousands of 
books and articles, but historians of Vietnam have been comparatively 
slow to discuss the war, partly because Vietnamese-language sources have 
only become available over the last couple of decades. Even now the 
Vietnamese state strictly controls what researchers can and can’t see. 
But shopworn portrayals of northern and southern Vietnam at war are 
being challenged. South Vietnam, largely dismissed by wartime critics as 
a creature of the Americans, is now treated in more depth. Diem is no 
longer an American puppet but a stubbornly independent figure with his 
own vision of a postcolonial future. The history of North Vietnam, too, 
is treated more critically than it was during and immediately after the 
war. There has been a focus on the increasingly authoritarian character 
of the state as the war progressed, on the schisms within the Communist 
Party and between northern and southern communists. These developments 
are welcome, but the new histories can still sometimes seem restricted 
by a Cold War framework: earlier interpretations that demonised the 
south and lionised the north are reversed to make a retrospective case 
for American support of the south against the northern communists.

Goscha resists these inclinations. The American war gets two of his 14 
chapters, while late imperial Vietnam and the French colonial era get 
eight. The war is set in context. As Goscha writes, ‘territorial 
integration, state centralisation, bureaucratic rationalisation, 
economic development and ideological homogenisation’ in Vietnam didn’t 
start with the Americans, or with the coming of French colonial rule in 
1858. Projects of ethnic homogenisation didn’t begin with them either. 
Such processes, glossed by the French and Americans as ‘modern’, were 
embedded in an earlier imperial state-building project, one that 
influenced the development of the French colonial order and helped to 
form postcolonial Vietnam.

Since his driving concern is the history of state-making across 
imperial, colonial and postcolonial divides, Goscha has less to say 
about social history. The textures of urban or rural lives, inside or 
outside the family, wealthy or poor, male or female, kinh, Khmer or 
Cham, straight or gay, are largely put to one side. Beyond a quick 
glance at the marvellously ribald forms of colonial-era Vietnamese 
satire, we don’t get much sense of the sly humour through which many 
Vietnamese make sense of the world around them. How might Vietnamese 
people see their past and its relevance to the present? In 2011, the 
Propeller Group commissioned the best-known advertising agency in 
Vietnam to rebrand communism in the wake of more than three decades of 
market economic reform. A new communism, they were told, required a new 
look. To start with, a new typeface and colour palette were required – 
the agency recommended the ‘more inclusive’ Gotham Rounded Book and an 
‘open, friendly, approachable and welcoming’ gradient of communist red – 
for redesigned flags, official publications, TV commercials and a 
vigorous online and social media presence. Banners with the hammer and 
sickle and the omnipresent images of Ho Chi Minh in Vietnam’s streets 
were to be replaced with a ‘communist smile’ and the hashtag 
‘#communist’. In the words of their proposed new communist manifesto:

Share the world
Live as one and speak the language of smiles
This is the new Communism
Everyone’s Equal

Goscha’s book helps us to see that ‘imperial’, ‘colonial’ and 
‘postcolonial’ need some reworking too.

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