Vietnam-Centrism as Historiographical Intervention
Beginning in the 1990s post Cold War and Vietnamese doi moi reforms, a sizeable body of scholarship on the Vietnam War has emerged with the goal of reintroducing the ‘Vietnamese’ back into the history of the war. As if part of the long shadow cast by the first ‘Southeast Asianists’ of J.C. Van Leur, D.G.E. Hall, and John Smail, the initiative to center the autonomous history of the region responds to the decades of Vietnam War histories defined by foreign relations and geopolitics. A similar historiographical challenge arises when we think about ‘Vietnam-centrism’: does this imply a shift in the relative importance of certain aspects in the narrative or a complete shift in viewpoint?
Mark Bradley’s Vietnam at War (2009) is one such an attempt of ‘Vietnamizing’ the Vietnam War history. An impressively concise yet ambitious work, Vietnam at War sets out to interrupt the orthodox-revisionist binary that structures the study of this period. Mark Bradley begins his work with strong methodological interventions such as the recognition of American-centric writing of the war, the reduction of global actors, and the existence of multiple Vietnam Wars (anti-colonial, Cold War, hot war, civil war, ideological war). In the first chapters, Bradley provides a succinct summary of centuries of foreign rule and geopolitical influence (China, Portugal, France, neighboring Southeast Asian polities). Like most chronologies, this narrative carries a certain thematic focus, in this case, directed towards the historical struggle to define and imagine a Vietnamese future. ‘Visions’ of a post-colonial Vietnam form the backdrop and explanation, it seems even, for the Vietnam Wars that consume the second half of the twentieth century. The ability for a scholar to even make this overarching claim requires an extensive understanding of early modern and colonial Vietnamese history, which Bradley has demonstrated in his other works.
However, the underlying stake of such a claim can lend itself to a presentist view where nationalism acts as the prime mover. Peter Zinoman’s exhaustive review in H-Diplo underlines Bradley’s loyalty to orthodox interpretations of the war. In particular, Zinoman highlights orthodox interpretations such as the local origins of the Southern insurgency, the elision between communism and nationalism, and the downplaying of DRV repression. Such analyses of the war severely inhibit Bradley from seriously reevaluating the ‘Vietnamese’ experience and agency in the war. It seems that while Bradley’s intention to localize and Vietnamize the history of the war is a good idea, his execution perpetuates the anonymity of key Vietnamese actors, namely, DRV and RVN political leaders.
Circling back to the historiographical intervention of Vietnam-centrism, I continue to wonder how in practice, we can prioritize certain elements as crucial to the movement of history, (for example, the agency of the RVN in political matters), without reducing other factors? Tuong Vu and Edward Miller’s reflective journal issue confirms that it is indeed possible to incorporate multiple elements without provincializing another, where “the study of international affairs can incorporate both the national and he transnational, and the local along with the translocal.” (Miller and Vu, p. 11) But does there really exist a good model of this in Vietnamese studies yet? Furthermore, is it ever possible for American historians to write a history of the Vietnam War without casting a value judgment of US involvement?
 Bradley engages in a similar holistic argument and shows how Vietnamese intellectuals led reflexive debates on a modern, postcolonial Vietnamese future from the beginning of French colonial rule. Bradley, Mark Philip. “Becoming ‘Van Minh’: Civilizational Discourse and Visions of the Self in Twentieth-Century Vietnam.” Journal of World History 15, no. 1 (March 1, 2004): 65–83.