Top positive review
Le Duan's War
on August 23, 2017
This is a very important work that tells the story of the Vietnam War from the Northern Communist point of view and introduces the true leaders and architects of the communist war against the Republic of Vietnam. After years of unprecedented and unique research in the Vietnamese archives Lien-Hang Nguyen has produced a fascinating never before told story of “…who was in charge of the communist war effort, what were their war aims and strategies, and how did they manage to defeat the United States and the RVN…” (p 4). The author says, “This book reveals that in fact the war and its outcome were shaped as much by individuals in Hanoi and by historical structures.” “Historical structures” – read, the communist war for reunification was unstoppable, inevitable, preordained, morally correct and desired by the vast majority of the population, north and south.
In her introduction (page 2) the author asks, “How did Hanoi’s struggle, which began as a limited armed conflict against the RVN in 1960, lead it to become the target of America’s heaviest bombing campaign in history a mere dozen years later? Under what conditions did the local Vietnamese communist war for national liberation transform into a major international contest in the Cold War?” She says, “Questions endure over the configuration of the Hanoi leadership, its strategies during the ‘anti-American resistance struggle for reunification and national salvation,’ and the nature of its victory.” She goes on to say, “The key to unlocking these puzzles lies with one individual who has managed to escape scrutiny: Le Duan. Despite being the architect, main strategist, and commander-in-chief of communist Vietnam’s war effort, [he] somehow resides on the historical margins.” Lien-Hang Nguyen brings Le Duan to the forefront of the story where he belongs. He is responsible for all of the Communist’s efforts to destroy the Republic of Vietnam and defeat the American military effort.
But Nguyen’s story is much broader than simply following Le Duan to power. She introduces Le Duc Tho as Le Duan’s right-hand man and chronicles their dominance over communist political thought. She documents a little known purge prior to the planning for the Tet offensive in order to eliminate opposition and she explains how they established a police state to control descent among their fellow politicians and among the population, as the war became unpopular in the north after Tet. With the purge Ho and Giap were now completely marginalized. For all of the American War Giap was no longer calling the military shots. She spends a good deal of time covering the peace talks and all of their Machiavellian twists. Her story ends with the signing of the peace agreement but in the Epilogue she carries the story forward to the second decade of the 21st century.
Nguyen has produced a very well written narrative informed by voluminous research “Based on unprecedented access to Vietnamese archival collections and texts [she reads and speaks Vietnamese]…” (p 5). “I managed to become the first scholar – Vietnamese citizen or otherwise – to gain access to the Archives of the Vietnam Ministry of Foreign Affairs.”
This wonderful book contains many kernels of strikingly significant facts that I still cannot get over. Of one of these, on page 75, the author says, “Mao encouraged the Vietnamese war with the Americans and placed China on military alert after the Tonkin Gulf incidents, he sought to contain the war in Vietnam and exhorted Hanoi to fight a protracted war against the Americans [insurgency]. Mao signaled to Washington that Beijing would only enter the war if Chinese territory were attacked.” I guess Washington did not receive the signal or did not believe it came from Mao because Johnson’s actions and choices and his acceptance of McNamara’s graduated response was precisely because he feared Chinese intervention. He did not want another Korea. He did not want to fight against the Chinese again and he did not want an open-ended continuing commitment as in Korea.
In the penultimate paragraph to the story Lien-Hang Nguyen says, “Although Washington possessed its own internal and geostrategic reasons to intervene and stay in the Vietnamese conflict, it was leaders in Hanoi and Saigon who dictated the nature and pace of US intervention. Domestic and Cold War pressures indeed played significant roles throughout American involvement in Vietnam, but Vietnamese elite actors created the context in which US leaders operated. Hanoi and Saigon were not only active agents in their own destinies, but they also heavily influenced the terms of American intervention and ultimately the outcome of their war.” I think that is a very generous conclusion given the terrible totality of the conflict that many are happy to pin solely to American intervention.
I think Nguyen’s text is well worth the journey.
I would like to say that there is one author I am aware of who identified Le Duan as the leader calling the shots during America’s War in Vietnam and published his book about 24 years before Lien-Hang Nguyen. If you would like to get a better picture of the military side, without ignoring the political, and read an author who correctly identifies the North Vietnamese leaders involved, you might like to read Lt General Phillip B. Davidson’s Vietnam at War: The History: 1946-1975.