BOOK/ARTICLE REVIEWS: First Indochina War & its Aftermath (Christopher Goscha, Tuong Vu, Peter Hansen, and Pierre Asselin)

The historical dictionary of the Indochina War on-line Interdisicplinary Tool
The historical dictionary of the Indochina War on-line Interdisicplinary Tool

Christopher Goscha, “A ‘Total War’ of Decolonization? Social Mobilization and State- Building in Communist Vietnam (1949-54),” War & Society, Vol. 31, No.2, (October 2012).

Christopher Goscha, “’Hell in a Very Small Place’ Cold War and Decolonisation in the Assault on the Vietnamese Body at Dien Bien Phu,” European Journal of East Asian Studies 9.2 (2010).

Christopher Goscha, “Colonial Hanoi and Saigon at War: Social Dynamics of the Viet Minh’s ‘Underground City,” 1945-1954,” War in History, 20(2) 2013.

Tuong Vu, “’To be Patriotic is to Build Socialism’: Communist Ideology in Vietnam’s Civil War,” Dynamics of the Cold War in Asia: Ideology, Identity and Culture edited by Tuong Vu and Wasana Wongsurawat (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009).

Peter Hansen, “Bac Di Cu: Catholic Refugees from the North of Vietnam, and Their Role in the Southern Republic, 1954-1959,” Journal of Vietnamese Studies, Vol. 4 no.3 (Fall, 2009).

Pierre Asselin, “The Democratic Republic of Vietnam and the 1954 Geneva Conference: a revisionist critique,” Cold War History vol. 11, no.2 (May, 2011).

The articles this week address the cultural, ideological, and political dimensions of the First Indochina War, the Geneva Conference, the aftermath, and its historiography. While these articles address a range of topics, all attempt to reinstate a level of autonomy for the DRV or northern Vietnamese in their personal and political decision-making. Pierre Asselin’s “The Democratic Republic of Vietnam and the 1954 Geneva Conference” challenges the conventional wisdom of the DRV as passive participants in the Geneva negotiations. Christopher Goscha’s articles reveal the impact of social mobilization for war upon popular morale and everyday life. Rather than depicting northern Vietnamese porters, intellectuals, and soldiers  as a complacent patriotic mass, he provides them with a complex human face. Tuong Vu’s chapter in Dynamics of the Cold War in Asia (2009) gives credence to DRV ideological loyalty to socialism during the key period of decisions of the civil war (1953-1960). Challenging a historiography that depicts Vietnamese Catholics as a powerless and gullible mass manipulated by American propaganda campaigns or Diem’s political strategies, Peter Hansen closely examines the push and pull factors that motivated Bac Di Cu Catholic refugees to  transmigrate. Employing Vietnam-centric approaches to understanding history, these authors directly challenge the existing historiography as simplistic, orthodox, and devoid of Vietnamese voices and autonomy. The authors analyze sources such as medical records, governmental decrees, and documentary party records (Van Kien Dang: Toan Tap), to gain deeperf insight into Vietnamese state and diplomatic strategy. However, besides the few memoirs and newspaper articles that Goscha mentions, the current examination of Indochina War sources slant towards military and diplomatic interpretations rather than cultural.

In his examination of the Geneva Conference, Pierre Asselin rejects  the “standard total view” that portrays s the DRV as a diplomatic pawn of the Soviet Union and China. Asselin closely examines recently released documentary records (party documents Van Kien Dang: Toan tap) and research bycontemporary Vietnamese scholars and government officials. Rather than attribute peace negotiations merely to war-weariness, Asselin reveals evidence of judicious DRV diplomatic strategy to use their military victory at Dien Bien Phu and willingness to negotiate to improve DRV diplomatic position and reputation. In contrast, Tuong Vu claims that Vietnamese communists accepted Soviet and Chinese advice regarding Geneva, but pursued a strict ideological war against the United States. Tuong Vu argues that Vietnamese communists crafted a binary between socialism/patriotism and capitalism/imperialism and remained committed to  to an understanding of class struggle as a form of national struggle even through the period of Destalinization. Both articles illustrate the autonomy of the DRV in the international realm, yet skirt over popular social reception of the DRV’s ‘deliberate’ diplomatic and ideological strategy.

Christopher Goscha humanizes the First Indochina War by looking directly at the real material and human costs of war. Rather than disregard ideological discourse and political strategy, Goscha argues that the war produced the party state. In other words, the need to mobilize the entire population and society (nhan luc, vat luc, tai luc) for war necessitated the building of state ideological and administrative infrastructure. In “A ‘Total War’ of Decolonization?”, Goscha examines the totalizing impact of mass mobilization (emulation campaigns, rectification classes, cult of personality, new hero veneration, and land reform) upon Northern and Central Vietnamese society. Goscha effectively demonstrates an interdependent, two-way relationship between state and society; state campaigns to “build communism”, patriotism, and a social psychology of civilian as soldier were often limited by ideological rejection or widespread social exhaustion. Goscha’s three articles provide the rare and important perspective of civilian life during the war. From porters to women vendors, medics to infantry, civilian labor and life made up for the immense technological power difference between the French and the Vietnamese. Goscha makes a tremendous and commendable effort to humanize the northern and central masses and to write a social history of  ‘ordinary people’ whose role, support, and involvement was crucial to the DRV victory.

At the same time, the lives of the ‘ordinary masses’ seem to be shaped powerfully by  the whims of an anonymous Politburo. Goscha’s articles provide the (often silenced) Vietnamese perspective and experience of war; yet his topic and approach do not necessarily reinstate a sense of Vietnamese autonomy. In Goscha’s narrative, Vietnamese civilians are crucial to the war cause, yet powerless and subjected to state and military decisions. In his discussion of rectification campaigns, Goscha briefly addresses the population who ‘valued their freedom’ and fled, but quickly passes over these individuals. In contrast, Peter Hansen’s approach to understand Bac Di Cu Catholics more seriously considers the rationales, fears, and costs of transmigration. Colonel Lansdale makes an important comment on the individual and social factors that determine migration: “People don’t just pull up their roots and transplant themselves because of slogans. They honestly feared what might happen to them, and their emotion was strong enough to overcome their attachment to their land, their homes, and their ancestral graves…” In this way, nuanced analyses of decisions to resist, leave, and remain offer a possible model to center Vietnamese experience and self-determination without complete disregard of socio-political factors.


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