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[Current Research on Vietnam. Review Essay, Bulletin of Concerned Asian Scholars, Charlemont, Mass., nº10, 4, p.60-9.]


Current Research on Vietnam.

by Serge Thion


Translated by Barbara Mason and Laura Summers

1975 marks the end of an era for Indochina. This fact perhaps justifies our attempt to assess (albeit provisionally) the present situation of research, so as to see what contribution this research has made to the knowledge and outcome of these distressing events. The thoughts which follow deal exclusively with Vietnam, and concern publications which came out between 1974 and 1975 . They cover the broad spectrum of the humanities, but go no further. By nature they are critical, and, some will think, polemical. I hope they will provoke discussion.

Political History

We shall begin with an important book, an historical work without parallel in French works on contemporary Vietnam. The author, Daniel Hémery, assistant lecturer at the University of Paris, sets out to analyze the formation and activities of the group which published the weekly newspaper La Lutte in Saigon in the 1930s . This unique political experiment set up jointly by the Communists, Trotskyists, and Nationalists is often mentioned in works on Vietnam but it had not before been studied in this detail, nor carefully substantiated with documents such as those sought out by D. Hémery in the archives of the Colonial Administration and Sûreté. We will only discuss it briefly here since an account of it is given elsewhere. But the book seems illuminating nonetheless.

The book starts off with an account of Cochinchina in 1931 . (The entire account, in fact, concerns Nam Bo, the South. The events of Annam and Tonkin are mentioned only in passing.) The period was one of uncertainty: the mutiny of Yen Bai, the peasant councils of Nghe-Tinh ended in violent repressions as did rural agitation in Cochinchina. The administration's efforts to "stabilize" the situation--avoiding reforms--were undermined by the initial effects of the world-wide economic crisis.

The author also sketches a picture of colonization as the newspaper understood it. The striking thing here is the new tone of the analyses. The assimilation of Marxism allows a viewpoint which goes beyond nationalist resentment.

Capitalist relations are henceforth presented as hegemonic, the truths of the colonial situation lie in the mechanics of the market, wage earning and surplus value. "Feudal" relations are supra-determined [why "supra"?] by the capitalist structure with which they are bound up and by which they are superseded; they do offer active and passive resistance, conferring upon the capitalist structure the semblance of primitive accumulation without structuring determinism of it. They no longer function except as its particular modalities. (85)

The situation necessitates this type of analysis, especially since Indochina was severely affected by the depression and since political struggles between large interest groups occurred more frequently afterwards.

1935-36 saw the renewal of local peasant and worker strife after a subsidence in 1932-34. The newspaper is highly valuable for the variety and insight of its sociological analyses. Those who supported the newspaper were actively engaged in several movements. One cannot help but be struck by the influence the newspaper had in the countryside, even though it was in French (Vietnamese-language newspapers being subject to stricter censorship) and by the combative spirit prevalent in some regions. It is noted that the communists were already well established there (although this was not the case among the plantation workers)1, nothing could wrench them away. The author then goes on to describe the emergence of the group on the Indochinese scene and notes that "the advent of the Lutte movement to the position of electoral force resulted not only in increasing the means of action of legal and illegal organizations, but also in destabilizing the colonial political superstructure" (263).

The third and final part, "From Popular Front to Schism (June '36-July '37)," is damning for the Popular Front and the socialist ministers led by Marius Moutet who, as Minister of Colonies, controlled the purse-strings.

La Lutte scarcely created any illusions where the Popular Front was concerned. It saw there the opportunity to relax the stronghold of police repression so as to allow greater popular mobilization. The newspaper continued to stress that nothing would be obtained without struggle. In actual fact, the socialists allied to the radicals (who were colonialists par excellence) envisaged nothing more than a renovated, modernized colony where improvement of the economic infrastructure would permit growth in production and exchange while enabling the peasantry to escape from its abject poverty.

With this momentum, social agitation spread and intensified. The newspaper takes account of a whole host of strikes, highly revealing of what has come to be known as the "social climate" We might have hoped that D. Hémery would pause at this point and recapitulate contemporary material so as to bring out the established facts and underlying indications in a clear manner. In the newspaper they are too confused with tactical considerations for the reader not to feel swamped by the accumulation of anecdotal facts.

This is perhaps just the criticism which could be raised against this excellent work: it is not what we might have wanted, i.e., a confrontation between the analysis made by the revolutionary Vietnamese of colonial society and a synthetic vision of the social problems of the period; an exchange between the militant then and the historian of today. Although this was not the aim of the book, the reader is confused because s/he does not have the means to create an independent and sufficiently precise overview which would allow her/him to tell whether comments by the authors of La Lutte and the underground militants were perceptive or illusory .

The end is common knowledge. Poulo Condor, the war, the proclamation of 31 August 1945. A little after, the Viet Minh executed Ta Thu Thau who had just been acquitted by a people's tribunal. The following year, Daniel Guérin alluded to this liquidation to Ho Chi Minh: "'He was a great patriot, and we will mourn him,' Ho Chi Minh said (to me) with real emotion, but then added resolutely, 'But all those who do not follow the line drawn by me will be crushed.'" 2 We can at least add that Ta Thu Thau was not a "patriot" and that it is this sort of refusal to "follow the line" which caused Vietnamese Trotskyists to be violently eliminated.

Even when we have closed the book, we cannot help but remember the interesting discussions held by Vietnamese Marxists at the time of La Lutte. These show a remarkable intellectual vitality, coupled with great finesse in sociological observation. The later period, marked by the two wars of resistance and the emergence of the state, saw this vitality restrained by a form of bureaucratic rigidity. In North Vietnam, it also saw an experiment inspired by the Hundred Flowers Campaign and with the same results. It was perhaps in the South, in the heat of combat, that this vitality in the observation and discussions of social phenomena was renewed. Many internal documents of the N.L.F. (National Front for the Liberation of South Vietnam) carried the mark of it. Let us hope, there again, that the historians dig them out of the archives. D. Hémery has given us the beginnings of this history.

In the article cited above, Pierre Brocheux draws several interesting conclusions of which the following is particularly worthy of note. "In work and outside of work, the plantation is a place of identification between national and class membership." Can we therefore speak of the proletariat in the nineteenth-century sense of the term, poles apart from the nationalism characteristic of the bourgeoisie? This debate was of current interest between 1925 and 1940 as Daniel Hémery's book shows. Simplifying, it would be tempting to see in the book the opposition of two lines: that of Nguyên Ai Quoc holding out for the primacy of nationalism and that of Ta Thu Thau, proletarian internationalist. This rift sometimes made itself felt even inside the I.C.P. (Indochina Communist Party).

The world war, rather than the proletarian revolution, came to Europe. Thus, events were more favorable to the old prescribed doctrine. The reply given by the Marxists of Hanoi was predictable. The class struggle, momentarily subordinated to the imperative of national unity necessary for the (local) overthrow of imperialism, reaffirms its rights and gives rise to a new form of state which assumes the hegemony of the most disfavored classes. It will be remarked nonetheless that national unity is maintained after the victory against imperialism, that the social revolution is then taken over by the state, which gives a role to each class, inserting its bureaucracy at the heart of class relations. The problem is unquestionably worth a closer examination which we shall undertake later.

Among the numerous issues which can be raised about these historical studies, the following could be considered: Popular Front and Proletarian Front (Stalin and Trotsky) in the colonies. Whereas in many other contexts popular front policies have on the whole failed, in Vietnam they have been remarkably successful. We can ask what the results of policies of a worker and peasant front would have been if repression had not so severely decimated the Trotskyists (doubtless unable to find refuge in the countryside). From there springs the later embarrassment of the Trotskyists. In 1947, the Fourth International published a text entitled "National movements and class struggles in Vietnam" which argues that the Viet Minh could only betray the workers. In 1949, Pierre Naville did not go into the tactical problems. He saw the Viet Minh as a popular, national emancipation movement and accepted the extremely moderate declarations of the president, Ho Chi Minh. "Communism will perhaps come in fifty years ...but not now. The Vietnamese economic programme is reformist and barely socialist, anti-imperialist but not anticapitalist." 3 The discussion is taken up much more systematically by Pierre Rousset in his work on the Vietnamese Communist Party, in particular in the section entitled "The Programmatic Originality of the V.C.P."

The first edition of the book, published in 1973, unleashed a controversy in the American Trotskyist Journal International Socialist Review (July-August 1973; April 1974 and February 1975). We will not go into that here since the new edition of P. Rousset's book may well give it new impetus. This is, in fact, a new publication, enlarged and restructured. It is the only work in French to treat such a subject so fully.

Although it is not explicitly stated, it may well be useful to know that the author is a leader of the Revolutionary Communist League, one of the Trotskyist movements in France. He is the expert on Indochinese affairs for the newspaper of the movement. From the outset we are warned that the work attempts to answer an "apparent paradox": the Vietnamese C.P. is directing an exemplary revolution while at the same time accepting "praise and compliments from the representatives of the Stalinist parties." "Neither a systematic study of Vietnamese social reality nor a detailed history of the V.C.P.," this work looks for an interpretation of the "line" of the V.C.P. and attempts to "open a discussion" on it. It turns out to be well and truly a history of the C.P. but social reality is effectively absent from the analysis, something which doesn't seem to embarrass this Marxist. Even the concrete nature of the party, its organization, members, real life and workings are ignored. The subject of this study boils down to the different stances taken by the leadership and imposed upon its apparatus. The reader is for the most part unaware of the problems leading up to the application of party decisions and the more or less salutary consequences of adopting such positions.

The criteria for the justness of these stances are not their actual result but their compliance with a doctrine. The proposed discussion belongs to the realm of the abstract strategy of a struggle enacted in the empyrean of eternal political truths. Thus the book must be put into the category of political theology and it is hardly surprising that critical observations do not go beyond those which the Vietnamese Communists formulate about themselves.

The narrowness of the prescribed objective is accentuated by the documents used. These are limited to texts published in French in Hanoi and then only comprise a small number of these. The rare exceptions to this rule concern some standard French works. Foreign studies are ignored. On more delicate questions, this lack of perspective does not allow. the author to escape from rationalizations of the bureaucracy in power, so as to deprecate the real issues concealed by doctrinaire speeches. P. Rousset has not given himself enough scope to avoid "tagging along" which is a little surprising coming from the pen of a follower of Trotsky, the terrible old man of Coyoacan. To be sure, the elimination of the Trotskyist militants is denounced as a "crime against the revolution," but a crime for which liabilities are imprecisely attributed, perhaps only local. We cannot, he says, reasonably impute these trifles to the Political Bureau of the Party at the time. The image of good Uncle Ho obviously inspires more indulgence than Joseph Vissarionovitch's.

Before reviewing some of the problems raised by the book, let us mention some details, such as the map on p.10, riddled with errors, the curious obstinacy in distorting the name of Ngô Van Chieu (the author of Journal d'un Combattant Viet-Minh [Paris, Le Seuil, 1955], not to mention Gandhi or gandhism. What is more serious, and a clear indication of the gaps in documentation, is that the southern branch of the V.C.P., the People's Revolutionary Party (Dong Nhan Cach Mang Viêt Nam), is mentioned only twice, very briefly, and then with a strange set of initials (P.P.R., p. 206 and 292). A book on the Vietnamese C.P. should at least raise the question of and the significance of its southern branch during the war just ended, speculate on the meaning of the disappearance from Hanoi in September 1969 of the number four of the party, the first vice-premier, Pham Hung, and his reappearance in 1975 as the principal leader of the South.

In the list of peculiarities we can include false erudition (for example, mixing up the pseudonyms of the militants who studied in Moscow, p. 33), the religion jargon (the "transgrowth," p. 53 et. passim), activist obscurantism (the C.I.A. using psychoanalysis to torture, p. 175), the dream (the occupation of the American Embassy at the time of Tet, 1968, p. 207), and most often, dogmatic assertion (for example, on the proletarian character of the C.V.P., p. 162). Without fail, he falls energetically into line: "The fundamental feature of Vietnamese military strategy is probably its eminently political nature. This, for example, accounts for the place assigned to self-defense and to the mass uprising in the theory of warfare" (210). He does not see that this is a political discourse on the subject of war and that theories cannot replace good tanks.

It is obvious that real logistic problems which clearly have a decisive place in practice are seriously devalued in this kind of discourse. How do we arrange for the concentration of a dozen or so divisions around Saigon at a moment's notice, with trucks or with concepts? A major part of what has happened in Vietnam is taken at least as much from the classic schools of warfare as from political theory. Marx and Engels, who did not have the chance to possess the "ready-made" theory, were very interested in military questions and especially the matter of supplies. As for the popular uprisings. it must be noted that they did not occur anywhere, neither at the Tet of 1968 nor in April 1975, in spite of the theory forecasting them and the speeches which attempted to bring them about. It is this gulf between observable facts and self-congratulation which still makes it difficult today to judge, for example, the success or failure of the Tet offensive. We probably need insights which we cannot formulate because of our ignorance concerning the real objectives of the offensive. The version given by the Front will no doubt be put into history textbooks, but it is difficult to see what P. Rousset has to gain by blindly adhering to it.

It is amusing to find the Trotskyist good old days in his emphatic statement "A worker-state is awakening in South Vietnam" (46). He then goes on:

The determination of the optimum rhythms of socialisation [we shall pass over this strange language] of the economy depends on political chance, thus, on concrete analysis. But it does not, for all that, authorize us to avoid characterizing the current State in South Viet-Nam (247).

What better proof of dogmatism? The inspired page which follows proves that the Vietnamese C.P. has correctly applied Trotsky's ideas on the Permanent Revolution. We can then "characterize" freely. We find in the end the classic delirium over the rise of regional class struggles (261) where the Philippine guerrillas (no distinction of color is made), the South Korean repression, the agitations of Indonesian students, etc., are all lumped together.

P. Rousset holds back as a delicacy the chapter on bureaucracy near the end of his book. From October 1945 (Ho Chi Minh) to April 1976 (Pham Van Dong), the Vietnamese Communist leaders never ceased hammering away at the bureaucratic outlook in their speeches. The author subtly weighs up the components: a taste of Stalinism here, a pinch of Soviet democracy there. His disquiet increases:

The problem is not so much the attainment of Soviet-style democracy, but the goals which Vietnamese leaders have set in this domain. The disturbing factor in the analyses of Truong Chinh who limits his study to the "three forms" of the dictatorship of the proletariat which the state has experienced, is that nowhere does he put forth an overall strategy for the creation of a Soviet system of power, unlike the Bolshevik Party before Stalinisation. (329-30)

If only nostalgically, P. Rousset does see the problem: "The worker's party must, to some extent, take the place of the class party in order to lead a revolutionary peasant army on the struggle for socialism." This assertion, which some people might consider critical and powerful enough to call into question all the analyses preceding it, is treated only in passing at the end of the work (331). It is true that Leninism itself and not only its exotic variations deserve this pointed criticism, but P. Rousset prefers to stop there.

Having made these criticisms, it remains to be said that the book is interesting in that it presents a skillful synthesis of the ideas of leading Vietnamese Communists. We cannot go into detail about these important points except to say that anyone interested in this subject will enjoy it. There is also an account of some essential aspects of Vietnamese policy, complemented by a judicious choice of texts which allows us to judge Party documents with a certain economy of means. However, the author's interpretation is doubtful and will be cause for debate.

From Hanoi, we have a History of Vietnam. This book comprises essays from Vietnamese Studies and is written by Vietnamese Studies' editor, Nguyên Khac Viên. His wide education, political involvement and long-standing familiarity with Parisian life make Nguyên Khac Viên the best possible intermediary between Western intellectuals and Socialist Vietnam. We cannot forget his film on people and the land on French television, his excellent collection of rich and penetrating essays, Expériences Vietnamiennes (Paris Editions Sociales, 1970), 4 his Vietnam, patrie retrouvée (Paris: Editions Sociales, 1977), and above all, his extraordinary translation of Kim Van Kieu (Hanoi, 2nd edition, 1974). His astonishing combination of mandarinal culture, Marxist materialism and the spark of a richly poetic sensitivity is well and truly Vietnamese, but Nguyên Khac Viên brings it to a level rarely equalled .

The title is thus very promising, since apart from Lê Thanh Khôi's book Le Vietnam (Paris Editions de Minuit, 1955), which has long been impossible to find, there is, curiously enough, no good textbook on Vietnamese history in French or English. One was published in Hanoi in 1975 in Vietnamese, but it is not likely to come up to our expectations. And, unfortunately, Nguyên Khac Viên's book can hardly meet them either. He offers in eleven pages a short résumé of prehistory in which we sense the urge to exaggerate the present territory of (North) Viet Nam more clearly than, all things considered, accepted regional archaeology does. (Let us mention here a special issue of the review Arts Asiatiques, no xxxi, on Vietnamese archaeology.)

Next, the Chinese period is totally ignored. We are simply told that "the Vietnamese people succeeded in reconquering their independence in the 10th Century" (25). Isn't it an insult to Vietnamese nationalism to simply ask whether something like a nation existed before the thousand years of Chinese domination or whether it was not more precisely forged in the process of assimilation and then the rejection of it (i.e., a dialectic movement)? Another proof of the narrowness of the outlook which determines this method of presenting history is the total absence of the Chams, Khmers and Montagnards. This is important, not because some of them are to be found in contemporary Vietnamese frontier regions, but because they have obviously contributed in different ways to the molding of the society of the Kinh, an untranslatable term (like han for the Chinese), designating Vietnamese/mongoloids/sinicized rice-growers of the plain (but meaning "higher place, residence of the court"). Let us hope that the revival of the ethnographical studies taking place in the North will be transferred into the field of history.

The account of the "feudal" period suffers a little from over-simplification. A movement led by "x" is constantly set against a movement led by "y," without either of the movements being clearly defined. They are implicitly treated as simple precursors of contemporary "movements," deemed imperfect because they do not combine all the characteristics of orthodoxy which alone ensures a lasting success. This is about as simple as saying that Spartacus is the precursor of Jesus Christ. Thus, history is easy to write. He pauses at the Tây Son episode, better treated than other movements, and the first part of the nineteenth century is entirely summed up in the following sentence: "With Gia Long, Vietnam enters a gloomy period" (93). This is why the work does not justify its title.

The merit in the book lies in the last part dealing with the colonial period and what follows it. The account is more complex and more vigorous, even if it only makes use of the most well-known facts. When he turns to the political problems linked with the emergence of the communist movement, he skilfully avoids difficult questions. The episode of La Lutte only takes up a few lines and he does not mention the role of the Trotskyists. Nguyên Khac Viên everywhere proves himself a shrewd rationalizer and his conclusion is remarkably concise and elegant in its résumé of the political goals of the revolutionary movement. For its last and longest part, this book is worth reading because it fits itself into the wake of history in the making.

The American Presence

More than Vietnam itself, the presence of the Americans has provoked a flood of literature of every description. In the first place we can note the publication in French of a pamphlet by Noam Chomsky and Edward S. Herman (author of Atrocities in Vietnam, Boston, 1970), entitled Bains de Sang, which deals for the most part with American policy in Vietnam. The book is a co-production of Marie-Odile Faye, the translator, and Jean-Pierre Faye, who, apart from helping with the translation, has written a foreword and appendices and published the whole in his series, Change. The foreword, entitled "L'Archipel Bloodbath," is unbelievably cultish. For example, it informs us that Noam Chomsky "is the decisive manifestation of an altogether different dimension--to the train of thought which is coming into being and which undoubtedly can only exist in a collective situation-- synthesizing the Kant and the Marx or the Rousseau and the Nietzsche of the age in the making and coming, and from which forms and change will take shape and crystallise instantaneously" (19). What better way to congratulate yourself than to tell the credulous that the edited book is extraordinarily important and that the silence of the press concerning the original edition (Warner Modular Publication, 1973) makes the French publication "practically the first edition... in the contemporary world"! (1 94).

To support this pretension, the translation at least should have been correct. But it is absolutely deplorable and often falls off into nonsense. The reader has to wade through weighty and hyperbolic phrases from the translator's pen. As we might expect, the mountain turns out to be a molehill. We learn that there are massacres in history and that governments do not all see these in the same way, either because they do not know about them or because they condemn them, or because they provoke them. Press files, more or less substantial (but very poor on Indonesia, for example), are used to support this tremendously naive and mechanical thesis. We are accustomed to more subtlety from Chomsky. 5 He makes good use of D. Gareth Porter's study, The Myth of the Bloodbath; North Vietnam's Land Reform Reconsidered, which certainly deserves to be better known 6. Some stock phrases which are found absolutely everywhere are carefully scrutinized and reduced to nothing. In Chomsky's text, the only point of some interest is the discussion of the realities of the Huê massacres in 1968 attributed to the N.L.F. (108-15). But this debate is doubtless not closed. As regards the rest, the references are very well known and very incomplete. If he is attempting to show that American policy can be both brutal and hypocritical, it is too much. If he wishes to say that all violence is not the same, it is not enough.

The book Femmes du Vietnam, poorly translated by Iona Wilder and Claude Lefèvre, comes from American "Women's Lib," from the California meeting ground between the University and the Vietnamese anti-war movement. Published in the U.S. in 1974, it is a vast collection of humorous and serious anecdotes, short stories, little peeks at customs, linked one to the other without any precise order. Employing snatches of eyewitness information and press cuttings, the work attempts to give an account of the position of women in Vietnam. Such as it is, it would be called a work of propaganda: it selects tiny bits of history which all have the same significance. In this way, the oppression of women seems to have remained the same from "feudal" times to those of the American presence. This kind of study inevitably carries with it a fair number of inaccuracies, the misspelling of proper names, and, above all, naive statements, some of which are delightful, others stupid, such as: "the experience of shooting down a B-52 or an F- 111 makes a woman feel less inferior" [original English: "... helps her to overcome the sense of inferiority a woman felt"] (194). The idea is amusing, except for the fact that F-111s were not shot down in Vietnam; a few prototypes simply crashed. Sometimes the book engages in ridiculous exaggeration, such as the story of a commando of women who "occupied five of the seven floors of the (American) Embassy, [during the Tet offensive] killed 2000 U.S. personnel and forced the Ambassador to flee in a helicopter" (254). True, the U.S. edition mentions only 200 U.S. personnel, but all the same the story is sheer invention. Mythology enthusiasts could observe there various stages in the launching of a modern myth.

Apart from these faults which make the work totally useless as a source of new information, some parts deal with agonizing atrocities--who can get accustomed to the horrors of the war?--and there is a very brief conclusion which leads us to think that even in the North everything is not settled. Equality in law is still not equality in practice. One senses a more flexible reality away from naive and rigid imageries. There is no doubt that the second war of resistance allowed women to expand their economic and social roles very quickly. War has this effect, as can be seen in Europe after 1918. Peace and the demobilizations which will follow it should create an interesting situation in this respect. But what can be gained by heaping up outlandish over-simplifications?


Paul Berman and Jeffrey Milstein signal the turn of American sociology. It is particularly American, not only because of the authors' nationality, but because it bears the stamp of a university tradition which reveres behavioralism and quantification and is unable to do anything without a computer. They are two products of similar molds which might well be regarded as complementary: Rand Corporation, M.I.T. and Yale in Berman's case; Michigan, Stanford and Yale in Milstein's. Milstein analyzes the American side and Berman the Vietnamese.

J. Milstein sets out to study the dynamics of the war, i.e., the factors which affect its development. He is writing at the beginning of 1973. The essential fact of the problem lies in the confrontation between the theory of the "doves" and that of the "hawks." Once involved in a limited war, the "hawk" theory predicts that escalation will reduce the hostile actions of an enemy. The "dove" theory predicts that escalating one's own hostile actions will increase those of the enemy (4). Then he delineates the psychological make-up of these theories and finds that they rest on three fundamental elements, the theoretical foundations of which he reiterates: stress, learning and exchange.

Upon this, Milstein attempts to construct the two models of alternative policy. To do it, he first has to formulate the indices and variables which are representative of his theoretical concepts. These fall into several groups: military effort, consequences of military actions, political support, public declarations (of American policy), not to mention an index of seasonal variations. These indices are affected by co-efficients which, we are told (28), are to be the object of a "subjective" choice made by the researchers. We will only take one example of this surprising "subjectivity." American losses are measured by the number of people killed, multiplied by ten, to which are added the number of hospitalized wounded and half of the number of wounded who were not hospitalized. The North Vietnamese and Viet Cong losses represent twice the number of arms seized, plus the number of communists taken prisoner. South Vietnamese losses are indicated by four times the total soldiers killed, plus the number seriously wounded. No explanation of the rationality of these indices is offered.

In the political domain, the approach is even more outrageous. It is indeed quite difficult to quantify the confidence citizens have in the Saigon government. But their confidence can be measured in their currency, thanks to the black market rate for the piastre. We have only to take this rate and to weigh it against the index of retail prices and money in circulation. The trick works. The author admits that these indexes probably do not mean much; but it was to them that American public opinion "reacted."

We will pass over the way these models are manipulated, the explanations being accessible only to experienced statisticians. The evolution of each variable is presented in a series of diagrams which undoubtedly make up the most interesting part of the book.

Using the initial values of January, February and March 1965, the simulation of the model made predictions for the month from April 1965 on. In general, the simulation predicted the major trends of the escalation of the war from April 1965 through December 1967. (81)

Clearly the forecast was predictable, American policies being constant. The model did not anticipate the unforeseeable, such as the Tet offensive of January-February, 1968. After this the model then allows the simulation of a totally "dove" policy and a totally "hawk" policy. The conclusion is expressed as follows:

More dovish policies would have achieved fewer military casualties and greater political support for the President at a cost of a greater risk that South Vietnam would be "lost" to the Communists. More hawkish policies, on the other hand, would have been more likely to defeat the Communists, but at a cost of more American casualties and political disaster for the President of the United States. (111)

One wonders if a close reading of the Pentagon Papers did not show us that much and more.

The same type of proof is then applied to the period dating from Tet 1968 to the invasion of Cambodia (May 1970). The book ends with the question of whether American policy was the product of a true or false calculation. And he concludes--that it was a bit of both (185).

P. Berman studies the People's Liberation Armed Forces (PLF), which is the military apparatus of the NLF. He wanted to analyze the process of institutionalization: how and why individuals join an organization which becomes an institution and in turn transforms its members into working elements of that same institution. That at least seems to me the probable interpretation of the term used by the author. He gives his own interpretations: why do peasants submit to a new authority? His response makes use of the mass of interviews conducted by the Rand Corporation with approximately 1,200 prisoners and with Viet Cong deserters. These comprise some 40,000 pages of which Berman uses only a selection.

Drumming up different theoretists of psychology, the author draws out three aspects of institutionalization: mobilization, integration, maintenance. This is called a "microstructural approach." In order to establish the "dimensions of receptivity" of the Vietnamese peasantry to recruitment, a "model Vietnamese peasant personality" must be constructed. We must admit that this conceptual arsenal is impressive. Such reliance upon sound general theories, rigor in the articulation and definition of essential concepts makes us reconceive our somewhat philistine perception of these political processes. As this new image is progressively revealed it surprisingly gives the impression of deja-vu: the chief characteristic of the Vietnamese peasant is fatalism (but a pragmatic fatalism): for them, to die is just to enter a different state. The feeling of Vietnamese identity borders on xenophobia; the family more than the individual is the basis for society, etc... These, applied just as readily to the Arabs and Africans, are all old colonialist clichés which emerge completely clad in the shining armor of scientific theory. Let us say simply that this is fraudulent. The pretentious jargon only serves to camouflage a total poverty of thought. Instead of producing meaning from the internal organization of the sentence, words and phrases totally devoid of any general sense are created (pragmatic fatalism, purposive behavior).

The pretense of science continues with the selection of 344 interviews, according to mysterious criteria, and with a maximum of statistical guarantees, attempts are made to draw from these something other than what the interviewees said. Two decisive questions are left unanswered: why not publish, in part at least, the Rand interviews? Why not go and question the Vietnamese peasants directly if you are asking about their attitudes? When this book was written there were several tens (or hundreds) of thousands of prisoners and deserters. If they had been asked the right questions they would have given the right answers. Mathematical reduction and a computer produce only the most unspeakable trivialities. We have but to refer to the conclusions to prove the point:

Broadly speaking the communist revolution in Vietnam is a special and extreme type of institution--building by what we call a mobilizing organization--a modernizing political system that seeks a new order based upon high levels of mass participation and high levels of integration of people into a centralized organizational structure. (197)

And further on

In short the bonds tying the conforming individual to the revolutionary organization in Vietnam were based upon the satisfaction of personal needs within an institutional framework that was accepted as legitimate and correct. (202)

Undoubtedly, there is a lesson to be drawn from the trivialities. The Indochinese conflict could be described as two different applications of sociology. The NLF cadres in their villages could only act in accordance with more or less extended knowledge of the mechanisms of their society. Any error of judgement quickly became for them a matter of life or death. On their side, the Americans based their action on an extensive use of the social sciences: from 1954 onwards the big battalions from Michigan State University descended on Saigon. Many others were to follow. On the one hand are the practitioners of group psychology buried in their shelter, on the other the quantifier analysts of the institutions mopping their brows in air-conditioned offices. Arms and soldiers on both sides. The judgement has been made in favor of those who were closer to reality.7 One last word on Berman--he claims an intellectual debt to Paul Mus, yet he does not seem to know his French-language works (210). There you have an assertion totally devoid of foundation.

Some books are premature. Gareth Porter's work, written to prove that the American authorities did not seek to apply the Paris Accords and continued to engage in a policy of force, sticks far too much to the events of the years 1968-74 to be capable of responding to all the questions one could ask. The fall of Saigon appears only as an epilogue which Porter's thesis did not foresee. To be sure, he shows how to write an American book, relying for most of his sources on American facts and figures, which strictly follows the Hanoi line. But when he says that the Vietnamese Communists were still ready to apply the Paris Accords in April 1975, he leaves out an essential point. There obviously was a moment in time when Hanoi changed policy and prepared for a decisive military confrontation to secure American disengagement. Hanoi's policy cannot be judged solely by what is published in Hanoi. There are considerations which are clearly lodged in the secrecy of deliberations, and we must often imagine what these were, even at the risk of making a mistake. The Vietnamese would be welcome to erase these uncertainties and to elaborate upon the choices they made. But the volcano is still active and it may well be a long time before the lava cools.

The treatment of the Tet offensive is thus much too brief. So, too, is the one on the Geneva negotiations, which after all form the base supporting all subsequent Indochinese events. It seems to me from this essential turning point and up to the Paris Accords, we can ask whether the strategy of the Vietnamese leaders was the only possible one, and if not, whether it was the best one. That would be a true contribution to political understanding of our time. Porter's description is too close to the events to allow for any evaluative, still less critical judgement to be made of them. American policy, for example, is barely analyzed, not even characterized in its integrity. We can perhaps hope that Porter will back up and return to these problems with greater force of synthesis.


There exists an interesting document entitled The Peasant Question to be studied from the dossier of the discussions of Vietnamese Marxists between the two world wars. This book was written by two Vietnamese activists of the '30s. They were young nationalists who converted to Marxism and trailed between clandestine politics and prison. Having changed their names, they subsequently acquired some fame under the names of Truong Chinh and Vo Nguyên Giap. They are friends of long standing although public rumors attribute differences of opinion to them. Their study of the Vietnamese peasantry was originally published in two parts in 1937 and 1938. A third part was lost before it was edited. The text apparently was not well known, so Su That Editions of Hanoi reissued it in 1959, using a unique copy with pages missing. Unfortunately the Vietnamese editors indicate that "at our request," the authors reread their text and made some revisions "on essential points" which are not indicated. We know that this is a current practice (cf. the Peking edition of the Selected Works of Mao Zedong and Stuart Schram's "restorations"), but it seems that the original cannot be found. There remains a hope perhaps in certain archives of the Colonial Sûreté which have not--and one wonders why not--been placed at the disposal of the researchers.

The English-language translation, from the expert pen of Christine Pelzer White, is divided into two parts: the first deals with the position of the peasants in society (and this is the most interesting part, since from this analysis we can deduce the revolutionaries' position towards them). The second is a detailed description of the conditions of peasants and their technical, social and intellectual backwardness. Many of the facts used in this work seem to be taken from the classic works of Yves Henry and Pierre Gourou.

How can we define the peasants as a class? To begin with, it can be said that the peasants are members of the rural petty bourgeoisie, i.e., a class of people who possess the means of production to ensure their own subsistence. From a general point of view, the peasants are not members of the proletariat because they always have some land, farming implements, draft animals, buildings, orchards, vegetable gardens, etc. Only the workers who possess nothing but their bare hands and who sell their labor power to the capitalists in order to live are truly proletarian. The peasants do not belong to the bourgeoisie either, because they work for their living; they do not sit around and do nothing, exploiting the labor of the workers as the factory owners do. The peasants are a class between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie (16). This "neither one nor the other" view fails to resemble, we note, Lenin's belated analysis which argues that peasants are "both."

This class is divided into several strata according to the system originating in the Soviet Union which the Chinese Communists have adopted: peasants without land, poor peasants, middle peasants, rich peasants. 8 This last stratum is divided into rich peasants and landlords. The criterion for classification is the relationship between the land owned and the degree to which family needs are satisfied by the application of individual labor on that area of land. The strata are differentiated by their place in the process of production rather than by wealth. Therein lies an ambiguity. In this text, there are clearly different strata because of the attempt to characterize the peasant class as a whole. But twenty years later, at the time of the land reform in the North, these are viewed as classes, and their conflicting interests are seen as class struggles. And, in fact, the authors conclude

The peasants belong to the petite bourgeoisie, between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat. As the interests of the rich peasants are quite similar to those of the bourgeoisie, they tend to align themselves with the bourgeoisie. The interests of poor and landless peasants are rather similar to those of the proletariat and they tend therefore to align themselves with that class. In so far as the interests of the different strata of the peasants diverge, peasant opinion is not unified. Its attitude is unstable particularly in the case of middle peasants. Looking at history we see that at different times, peasants joined one class or another.

Issuing from interesting changes in the peasant mentality which lead to the following conclusion, the practical validity is measurable:


When they become aware that they are organized and have a leader, they are an invincible force. When they are prepared they can cast aside any obstacle to their progress and the nation's progress. The problem is one of consciousness, organization and leadership. (22)


Thus, the main positions are already laid out. In spite of the detailed account in the second part, there is no thorough analysis of the economic structure of agricultural production. Fairly superficial notations are presented in what is a truly gripping view of rural poverty. No attempt is made at a proper economic analysis, as the authors are well aware:

Although the peasants live off the land, the land does not provide an adequate subsistence. This problem which is crucial in the discussion of the peasant question is vast and complex. As we have not collected enough evidence, we will only deal with the question of land distribution, and in particular, communal lands. We regard this as the key to the present-day agrarian question. (66)

This was a mistaken point of view as events have subsequently proven.

The value of this text, even in revised form, is that it gives a rather primitive version of the doctrine which explains what party impact on the peasantry should be. This is a very difficult problem now coming up in a new way in the south and which continually presents problems in the North, as we shall see later. 9


Few problems have found such wide unanimity among the American actors in the Vietnamese drama--politicians, sociologists, servicemen, newspaper reporters--as has the need for agrarian reform. The idea is simple: abolish landed estates and you will have a class of small rural landowners devoted to order and stability who will uphold an anticommunist government. Also from 1954 onwards, experts in agrarian reform were dispatched to meet President Diem and help him set up a coherent program. Resistance and opposition within the regime were soon to dash the hopes of successive experts in Saigon. It was not until 1970 that a law called "Land to the Tiller" essentially abolished tenant farming and reallocated property and land of up to 15 hectares to those who worked it. The American press heralded this event as the beginning of a new era which could well lead to the political and military defeat of the Communists.

The political results were not easy to detect. Officials at USAID asked Control Data in 1972 for a report on the impact of the law in the Delta (10 )while one of its attaches, Stuart Callison, carried out a more intensive survey in four villages. This work, which was the subject of a Ph.D. thesis (Cornell University, August 1976), yielded an initial summary publication. It records that in three years, one million hectares were allotted, or approximately one-half of the Delta land. The effect of this was to alter the ratio of tenants to cultivators from 60 to 15 percent, most of the latter working on land belonging to religious institutions. The abolition of tenancy meant an increase in peasant income and a possibility of new investments. Callison's survey allows him to say that "the title-recipient group enjoyed a 30% growth in gross paddy production between 1969-70 and 1971-72, compared with an

1896 increase in production by the tenants and a 36% growth rate for the owner-cultivators." (19) The author goes on to consider the other data he has collected and concludes that although the reform allowed many cultivators to try new technology, it was not always available and the reform alone could not prevent the quantity of rice being put on the market from diminishing. This measurable amount was certainly a valid indication of the political situation in the Delta.


We will conclude with a text looking toward the future. The pamphlet entitled Towards Large-Scale Socialist Agricultural Production from Hanoi brings together several statements made at a national conference held in August 1974 on the problems of agricultural development. It comprises three texts by Le Duan, Pham Van Dong and Hoang Anh, secretary of the Central Committee and deputy prime-minister. This last text, included as an appendix, lists the tasks to be undertaken to improve production, a viewpoint that is rather conventional: we must do better and ways of doing this will be published. The conclusion reflects the best bureaucratic style:

The above policies, once decreed and seriously observed, will effectively encourage the peasants and production establisbments to engage enthusiastically in labour and practise economy and will also help everybody realize the need to work with technical skill and in a planned way and to ensure proper management of production. (114)

The first two texts clearly present the problem of the transition of North Vietnamese agriculture to a new stage in its development. The prime minister's speech emphasizes the inadequacy of the point of view which has always prevailed, that of irrigated rice cultivation: modern stock farming and industrial crops could play a large part in exportation. Thus he offers as a universal law the idea that the value of the production provided by stock farming must equal, and do better than, agricultural production which is continually on the increase. How can production be increased? By concentration, mechanization, electrification, ''chemicalization," etc. A new administrative unit, the district, will play a crucial role in the coordination of tasks involving an increasing complexity.

The most important questions are raised in the contribution by the First Secretary, Le Duan. His are also the clearest criticisms:

At this conference you have said that the price problem is one of the causes for the cooperatives' lack of enthusiasm in production. It is true that some State purchasing prices of agricultural products are irrational. The State must resolutely readjust them. (11)

In certain rural cells, a good proportion of activists are "average" or even "mediocre," i.e., inactive.

However, in the movement of cooperation and agricultural production there now appear negative manifestations as illegal encroachment and wasteful use of land, failure to put into practice the principles and system of socialist management and to carry out distribution in a just and rational way, according to the work done. (23)

His assessment is severe, and, without actually pointing it out, reveals stubborn resistance to collectivism. Nonetheless we can see that things have come a long way if comparisons are made with the account of the Tonkinese countryside given by Truong Chinh and Vo Nguyên Giap.

Further on, the First Secretary notes that for Marx socialism can only be conceived as resting on a powerful industrial base. Lenin took the question further by giving the cooperatives the role of "leading the peasants toward socialism" until heavy industry could consolidate them in turn. Le Duan states that the "brother countries" had "a certain industrial infrastructure bequeathed by capitalism" and that it was possible for them to "accelerate the development of heavy industry." Now this was not the case in Vietnam, he says:

It seems that no country so far in history has been in a situation such as ours. We must lead the peasantry and agriculture immediately to socialism, without waiting for a developed industry, though we know very well that without the strong impact of industry, agriculture cannot achieve large-scale production and new relations of agricultural production cannot be considered. (29)

But is this consistent with economic laws? To know these laws, action and study must go hand in hand, for "one cannot grasp all problems at a time." (30) The way forward is "The system of socialist collective ownership, the science of labour organisation, economic management, water control, the use of fertilizers, seeds, new implements and so on." (31) According to the author it would be enough to progressively master what he calls the "heights" of contemporary progress.

To sum up, we see that the law of transition from one economic stage to another springs at one and the same time from a social system and a level of technology. The party view is clarified in the following lines

Thus, the above-mentioned social relations (proletarian dictatorship and collective ownership) which are normally the products of large-scale industry, in our country are the natural outcome of the process of national democratic revolution and of the initial stage of socialist transformation in the absence of large-scale industry. We therefore cannot sit idly by waiting for the creation of heavy industry before establishing these relations. History enables and compels us to go forward to these relations immediately. What Engels felt was very difficult to realize in many countries [hence his recommendation to "wait"] can be done in ours. We cannot miss this historic opportunity, we must seize it, carry out agricultural cooperation without delay, and use the worker-peasant power and the cooperative regime as a motive force to push ahead with other evolutionary transformation in agriculture and quicken the birth of a large-scale production and industry. To start the process of socialist construction by establishing the system of collective ownership--this is a peculiarity of our country's historical development, and an important theoretical point of social sciences in Viet Nam. (32)

This could not be put more clearly. The contradiction with classic theory is recognized and dismissed as an historical "peculiarity." But contrary to what Le Duan says, this does not yield any theory. Despite its light Marxist attire, the point of issue emerges from the purest form of political pragmatism. Whether good or bad, this fact is not without consequences in practice. Since those who produce do not seem able to give themselves any momentum, the district level of administration has to be reinforced--approximately 10,000 hectares, 40,000 workers--and bureaucracy takes the place once more, ad infinitum, of the defaulting class. Thus we can foresee that it will soon be necessary to denounce bureaucracy, squandering and corruption in certain districts. It is an economic system of some real but poor effectiveness.

There are no reasons to believe that the new directives will be much modified by reunification. For a while a sort of imperviousness will remain between production zones in the North and South. It remains to be seen how the desire for homogenization will manifest itself.




Can we draw any common elements out of such diverse works? We will mention--but we would wear ourselves out criticizing--the overwhelming predominance of political ideology and scientism. Both of these bear witness to the dark depths in which the quest for knowledge still stirs, perhaps forever. Impressionism and poetry often accord better with the lived experience of a society such as that of Vietnam than all the powerful, often hollow, constructs derived from manifestly usurping sciences. It must be recognized that some of the ideas presented here only appear self-evident and acceptable because of the pattern of historical events. Let us think of all the unfortunate ones who have erected grand theories in the course of the years, and who, in the secrecy of their study, have seen them swept away by the debacle of April 1975--the debacle, that is, for those who threw their lot in the American war effort. Their writings remain. To my knowledge, not one of these hundreds of scholars has yet publicly asked: why were we mistaken? For science to deserve the title of "social," it should seize this kind of opportunity to question itself.


  • Révolutionnaires viêtnamiens et pouvoir colonial en Indochine: communistes, trotskystes, nationalistes à Saigon de 1932 à 1937 by Daniel Hémery, Paris: Maspero, 1975. 526pages.
  • Le parti communiste vietnamien by Pierre Rousset. Paris: Maspero, première édition, 1973,142pages. 2 e . edition, 1975, 363pages.
  • Histoire du Vietnam by Nguyên Khac Viên. Paris: Editions sociales, 1974, 288pages.
  • Bains de Sang by Noam Chomsky et E. S. Herman. Paris: Seghers-Laffont, 1974. 196pages.
  • Femmes du Vietnam by Arlene Eisen Bergman. Paris: Ed. des Femmes, 1975. 399pages.
  • Dynamics of the Vietnam War; A Quantitative Analysis and Predictive Computer Simulation by Jeffrey S. Milstein. Columbia: Ohio State University Press, 1974. XV-254 pages.
  • Revolutionary Organization; Institution-Building Within the People's Liberation Armed Forces by Paul Berman. Lexington, Mass.: D.C. Health, 1974. XVI-249 pages.
  • A Peace Denied; The United States, Vietnam and the Paris Agreement by Gareth Porter. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1975. 357 pages.
  • The Peasant Question (1937-1938) by Truong Chinh and Vo Nguyên Giap. Edited, translated and introduced by Christine Pelzer White. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell Southeast Asia Program Data Papers, 1974. 102pages.
  • The Land-to-the-Tiller Program and Rural Resource Mobilization in the Mekong Delta of South Vietnam by Stuart C. Callison. Athens: Ohio University Press, 1974. 41pages.
  • Towards Large-Scale Socialist Agricultural Production by Le Duan and Pham Van Dong. Hanoi: Foreign Languages Publishing House, 1975. 114pages.

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