The scholarship on Vietnamese communism has been considerable since the Vietnam War. For a long time, it also involved a good deal of guesswork due to inaccessibility to the majority of important documents from the Vietnamese Communist Party (VCP).

The 1990s, however, saw a small amount of files, especially at the National Archives in Hanoi, being made available to selected researchers, including those based outside of Vietnam. Then in the early 2000s, the VCP began to publish a series of Party documents. (See #11 for more.) 

The publication of this series has enabled a number of new studies about the VCP. They include the second monograph by Tuong Vu, professor of political science at University of Oregon: Vietnam’s Communist Revolution: The Power and Limits of Ideology (Cambridge University Press, 2016). This book is a part of the series “Cambridge Studies in US Foreign Relations” edited by Paul Chamberlain and Lien-Hang Nguyen, the latter an important historian of the Vietnam War.

Between July and September and on and off over email, it was my pleasure to have the following conversation with Prof. Vu about the book. Please note that this blog typically gives Vietnamese names in the original. The book, however, does not include Vietnamese diacritical marks and, for consistency, this post does not include them.

1. ORIGIN OF THIS STUDY. Having cited several of your articles in the last eight or nine years, I am happy to see this book because it includes those chapters and now I just need to cite one title, ha! Kidding aside, it was a delight to read about the origin of the book, which was your participation in a Paris conference organized by Chris Goscha some fourteen years ago.  In which ways was that participation a turning point in your scholarship? 

TUONG VU: It’s hard to believe that the book was the result of so many accidental events. I’m not sure why Chris invited me to his panel in Paris. I had met Chris before but had never collaborated with historians. I accepted the invitation even though I must finish my dissertation in a couple months to start my new job. Fortunately I had collected a massive amount of materials from Vietnam, so writing the paper was easy as all the sources were there in the other room. A free trip to Paris, where I had never been, was just irresistible.

The conference is the first time I was in a room full of historians—and I knew nobody except Chris. What’s surprising to me was that many of them, including the veteran journalist Nayan Chanda, seemed enthusiastic about my paper—something a graduate student rarely encounters. The late historian Ilya Gaiduk even told me that he had never heard anything like what I presented. He certainly overstated but that kind compliment really got me to take my own writing seriously! Of course, I had been unhappy about American scholarship on Vietnamese communism for some time, but I could not have imagined such positive reactions to my revisionist arguments.

Yet the Paris event was not quite a turning point because I did not yet know what to do with my arguments in that paper. I was unfamiliar with and untrained in Cold War scholarship, and might not have written the book without other fortuitous events. One was an invitation to contribute an article to Ab Imperio, the journal specialized in politics and history of the post-Soviet imperial space.

Another opportunity came in 2007 when I applied for a visiting fellowship at the Asian Research Institute (ARI) at the National University of Singapore. In my application I proposed to do research about either North Vietnam’s Cold War policy or the politics of state building in Indonesia during the 1960s. Anthony Reid who directed ARI and who is an Indonesian specialist before gaining prominence as a Southeast Asian historian, actually wanted me to work on Vietnam. When I was a visiting fellow at Princeton University in 2011-12, I was again asked by Atul Kohli to do Vietnam, not Indonesia. It was at Princeton that the bulk of the book was completed.

2. TRAINING & APPROACH. Before we get to any particulars about the book, can you tell us about your professional background and its relationship to this work?  That is, you were trained as a political scientist, and your first book clearly shows that “poly sci” comparative touch.  For this book, however, you employed primary sources much much more than does a typical political scientist. Indeed, I’d wager that the book is reviewed by historians as often as by political scientists, and possibly by more historians.  Does it mean you became a full-fledged historian during the years working on this book?  Or was your training in political science still central to the developments of this book?

TUONG VU: I was trained as a political scientist and have broad interests in the historical developments of Asia. Berkeley’s political science department has always been famous for its comparative historical approach to the study of politics. I also had the opportunity to take a seminar on Southeast Asian communism with Peter Zinoman, who served on my committee as an outside member. My dissertation, which would become my first book, involves a comparison of historical development in four countries, including Vietnam. For my dissertation, I spent nearly two years of fieldwork in Indonesia and Vietnam and did research in both Indonesia’s national archive in Jakarta and Vietnam’s national archive in Hanoi. So I was perhaps as familiar with the smell of dusty documents and tattered newspapers as any graduate student in history, even though my formal training was limited.

That helped me to write this book. My approach in the book still has a recognizable social science framework: the first chapter places the Vietnamese revolution in a comparative perspective among radical movements of the world in the twentieth century, for example the Cuban and Iranian revolutions. 

But you are right about the fact that this book is far more rooted in the historical method than a typical book in political science. I did feel like (and enjoyed) being a full-fledged historian during the writing of this book, occasionally attending conferences hosted by the Society for Historians of American Foreign Relations and the American Historical Association.

3. THEMATIC FOCUS.  “Ideology and worldview are the most important concepts in this book”: you wrote in the introduction chapter.  You define them broadly as “a set of systematic beliefs and assumptions about the nature and dynamics of politics” (ideology) or “about the nature and dynamics of world politics” (worldview).  Moreover, “ideology can be influenced by material interests” but “it often defines what those interests are” (pp. 13-14).  

How would you situate this book in the context of current scholarship about ideology and worldview?  To use an example, ideology is prominent in the scholarship of several historians of Chinese communism: Chen Jian’s study of Mao and the Cold War (2001) is the first that comes to mind.  How do you compare, so to speak, your thematic focus on ideology to those scholars of Chinese communism? 

TUONG VU: Scholarship on ideology and worldview on the Soviet Union, China, and North Korea is substantial and sophisticated. Scholarship on Vietnam is an anomaly when it comes to the study of ideology. Vietnam scholars have generally dismissed ideology as unimportant in the Vietnamese communist movement. I told Professor Andrew Nathan of Columbia who reviewed my book in Foreign Affairs that one of my most surprising findings was that Chinese leaders (Deng Xiaoping and the old Mao) were more “realist” in their foreign policy than their Vietnamese counterparts (Le Duan, Pham Van Dong and Nguyen Van Linh).

Ironically, as you correctly note, there are numerous books that show the central role of ideology in the Chinese revolution: Franz Schurmann to Stuart Schram to Maurice Meissner and, more recently, Chen Jian and Cheng Chen. Yet few exist in the Vietnamese case. I hope my book will help correct the pervasive belief in Vietnamese exceptionalism among scholars of Vietnam, and facilitate comparison between Vietnam and other communist countries.

4. FIRST TWO CHAPTERS. In several respects, I think they are the most important chapters of the book. Or, at least, the most fascinating to read. It’s fascinating because they offer some of your most original contributions to the historical scholarship on Vietnamese communism. It’s also fascinating because Ho Chi Minh, then known as Nguyen Ai Quoc, certainly figures large in these chapters, yet by your presentation he is somewhat overshadowed by Tran Phu and Tran Dinh Long. It is a twist of sorts, and I have two questions related to it.  

First, how is your interpretation of Tran Phu compared to previous dominant interpretations of him? Historians have certainly discussed his roles among the early Vietnamese communists, especially in comparison with Ho. In your account, what is significant about him?

TUONG VU: It was not my intention to let Nguyen Ai Quoc overshadowed by Tran Phu and Tran Dinh Long. I did make Quoc a central figure in the narrative even though, as you noticed, I also gave voice to many other leaders. When I wrote the chapters I had far more sources on Quoc than on Phu and Long, and initially thought that I would not have much more to say about Quoc given that so much has been written about him, including two relatively recent biographies by Sophie Quinn-Judge and William Duiker.

It turned out that no historians had systematically traced his thinking through his writing as I did. The man arguably spent as much time in his long career as a journalist as a politician, and left behind volumes of his own writing. It just baffles me that historians mostly ignore them, and I suspect that it is because his writing displays a totally different image of the man from the one they like to project.

I don’t think my interpretation of Tran Phu departs significantly from existing accounts as is my interpretation of Ho Chi Minh. My only contribution is about his relationship with Nguyen Ai Quoc. Existing scholarship presents them as rivals; I disagree (emphasis added). For whatever reasons, Quoc did not seek to personally lead the Indochinese communist movement at the time. Phu did not criticize Quoc personally in any available sources. The case for them as rivals rests on very flimsy evidence with historians like Huynh Kim Khanh and Quinn-Judge trying to use Phu and Tap (below) as foils to project Ho Chi Minh as a nationalist, not an internationalist like them.

I also make a similar interpretation about Ha Huy Tap, an important leader who is treated by historians as Quoc’s rival like Tran Phu. Tap left behind far more writings than Phu did, yet historians have also ignored those. His writings show that he was not critical of Quoc personally as we have been led to believe. Tap was also a more sophisticated theorist of revolution than both Quoc and Phu.

A representation of Tran Phu in a Vietnamese park today ~ pc commons.wikimedia.org

5. TRAN DINH LONG. The second question is on the other figure. I’ll have to admit that it wasn’t until reading an article of yours–an earlier version of Chapter 2, I think–that I learned about him. To be sure, I looked up the index of Huynh Kim Khanh’s Vietnamese Communism 1925-1945 (1982) and Bill Duiker’s The Communist Road to Power in Vietnam (second ed., 1996). Both books say a few things about Tran Phu–more from Khanh than Duiker–but neither mentions Tran Dinh Long at all.  Ok, to be fair, Duiker’s biography of Ho Chi Minh (2000) says a good deal more about Tran Phu. Still, it has nothing on Tran Dinh Long. Why is Long so important to your analysis?

TUONG VU: Tran Dinh Long did not play any leadership role in the 1930s and died when the communists just took power in August 1945, so he sadly fell out of memory. I made an exhaustive search of every little pamphlets and books by any known communist figures at the National Library in Hanoi. That was how I found Long’s account which had only recently been edited and republished in Vietnam.  

Tran Dinh Long is so important to my analysis because he told us what it was about the Soviet Union, and Stalin’s revolution in particular, that fascinated Vietnamese revolutionaries at the time. He was there; he saw it; and he wrote about it with the skills of a great journalist. No other account exists that was so lively and meticulous, thus believable. Even though half the memoir had been lost, the remaining makes it hard to deny that some Vietnamese were genuinely attracted to radical ideas and not simply nationalists. Furthermore, Long’s deep admiration for Soviet policy on gender equality and social reform gives us a sense of how the abstract vision of communism appeared so real to Vietnamese communists at the time and later on.

6. CHAPTER 3 ON 1940-1951. Ho Chi Minh is definitely at the center of this chapter, in which you argue that he and other Vietnamese communists “may have possessed little empirical knowledge about the United States, but they never lacked theoretical assumptions about the grave defects of American society and about US behavior as a leading imperialist” (115, emphasis in the original). Among other things, you make this point arguing against the common thesis of “lost opportunity.” How does the evidence that you present in this chapter disapprove that thesis, or, at least, put it in serious doubt? 

TUONG VU: The evidence suggests that Vietnamese communists up to that point were true believers and acted on their belief whenever conditions allowed. Communism meant much more to them than simply a source of foreign aid. They became communists because they believed in a radical vision of social revolution and socialist development.

They made overtures to the U.S. in 1944-1945 to obtain weapons and gain recognition, but their view of the U.S. was so negative and entrenched that it would be naïve to expect such diplomatic talks to reflect their genuine desire for friendship with the U.S. The evidence further indicates that they never neglected displaying their loyalty to the Soviet Union throughout the 1940s when they were ignored by Stalin, and during 1945-1946 while they were still hoping to gain US recognition for their regime.

Even if the U.S. had offered recognition and assistance at that time, they would have joined the Soviet camp in 1948-1949, when the Cold War began in Europe and when the revolutionary tide surged throughout East Asia. One must understand that alignment with the Soviet camp was not only to help them to fight for independence but also to realize their radical vision for which they had risked their lives up to that point. Proponents of the “lost opportunity” thesis typically deny that Vietnamese communists ever held such a vision and were concerned only about national independence. This condescending view is simply wrong given the evidence we have.

7. LE DUAN IN CHAPTERS 4 & 5. There are at least two points in Chapter 4, one larger than the other. This chapter is on the period 1953-1960, whose framing has to do partially with Stalin’s death in 1953. The smaller point is the reaction of Ho Chi Minh and the Vietnamese communist leadership to Khrushchev’s denunciation of Stalin’s cult of personality. They eventually agreed with Khrushchev, but justified themselves by saying that it didn’t happen in Vietnam. The larger point is that they placed socialism over patriotism, arguing for national unification albeit always in the context of the socialist revolution. 

Amidst these developments stood the figure of Le Duan, who, as you wrote, “viewed the southern revolution primarily in doctrinal class-struggle terms” (145). His prominence led to the following question that isn’t completely addressed in the book. Unlike Ho, Tran Phu, Tran Dinh Long, and many of the earlier prominent communists, Le Duan neither lived abroad nor received training in Moscow. I understand that this book isn’t biographical, but in your opinion, what factors were there to shape him into a most ideologically Marxist-Leninist believer, one that advocated fervently for the socialist revolution?

TUONG VU: First, there were many radical Vietnamese communists similar to Le Duan who had never lived abroad or been trained in Moscow. I would count among them: Nguyen Van Cu, Truong Chinh, Le Duc Tho, Pham Van Dong, Hoang Quoc Viet, Le Van Luong, Vo Nguyen Giap, Pham Hung, Nguyen Chi Thanh, To Huu, Nguyen Van Linh, etc. I consider these to be Marxist-Leninist believers even though most did not engage extensively in theoretical debates. I do not believe that living abroad or training in Moscow was a necessary condition for becoming a fervent Marxist-Leninist believer. For these men, imprisonment seemed to be the capstone experience.

For Le Duan in particular, three factors stand out. First is his lack of education and lower social class background. With an elementary school education and from a petty merchant family, he was less educated and from a lower social class than most other leaders of his cohort. Only Nguyen Chi Thanh was perhaps similar. 

Second is his lengthy time in prison: he perhaps spent more time in Poulo Condore than most other communist leaders. Perhaps only Pham Hung, Le Van Luong and Nguyen Van Linh were imprisoned for that long.

Third, he operated in southern Vietnam for nearly all his career up to that point, and class conflict in southern Vietnam, with higher inequality in land ownership, was likely more pronounced than in the rest of the country. Unlike the others who watched from afar, he also witnessed first-hand the first few years of Ngo Dinh Diem’s rule, where the Saigon government was very effective in destroying communist infrastructure in the countryside.  

8. MOSCOW CONFERENCE OF 1960. By the late 1950s, the Le Duan-led radical wing of the Vietnamese Communist Party prevailed over the more “moderate” one. Khrushchev’s revisionism, however, presented a challenge of a sort to them. In your interpretation, Le Duan and his cohort worked around this revisionism and maintained the charted directions of radicalism. How did they do that?

TUONG VU: They bode their time but were willing to defend a radical line if necessary, whether at home or at the Moscow Conference. Domestically, they sought to limit the influence of revisionism by criticizing it wherever they could in meetings or in the media. In that Moscow conference, they broke ranks with Soviet policy and sided with China and Albania. Nevertheless, they did not seek to withdraw from the Soviet bloc (as Tito had done earlier), nor to join Beijing in creating a new bloc centered on China (as the Indonesian communist party apparently did). This allowed them to restore good relations with Moscow after Khrushchev was ousted.

9. IDEOLOGY DURING AMERICANIZATION IN CHAPTER 6. Khrushchev, of course, didn’t last long. Even better, the beginning of the next Soviet era proved enormously auspicious for the Vietnamese communists because the Brezhnev-led leadership gave a lot of military aid to the DRV to counter US intervention. China remained the leading supporter of the Vietnamese communists, but Soviet aid was also crucial. 

I’d wager that this chapter draws the most interest from scholars, students, and veterans of the Vietnam War…  Will you provide a summary of your argument regarding the contours of Vietnamese communist ideology during 1964-1975?

TUONG VU: After deciding in late 1963 to send main forces into South Vietnam to aim for a quick victory, Hanoi leaders were busy in the first couple years to manage the escalation of war. That quick victory did not materialize. Over time, and especially after the Tet Offensive, they became emboldened by the antiwar movement around the world and in the U.S., and by the outpouring of support from Third World countries for their daring confrontation with American “imperialism.”

At the same time, they were deeply concerned about the Prague Spring and the border clashes between China and the Soviet Union. As the two communist giants turned against each other and left them to lead the charge against the imperialist gang, as leftists around the world were touting Vietnam as “the conscience of humanity,” they began to imagine themselves as the vanguard of world revolution. They became arrogant, expressing contempt for Beijing and to a lesser extent, Moscow, both of whom had been courting the U.S. as an ally against the other. Their victory in 1975 was when they felt fully vindicated in their status as the vanguard of world revolution.

Man in black: Le Duan in 1972 ~ pc vietnammoi.vn

10. THE POSTWAR ERA. The book’s subtitle is about “the power and limits of ideology.”  Most of the book thus far is about “power.” The last three chapters, however, reveal a lot about “limits.”  There’s a lot in these chapters, but let me focus on three important points that you make.

First, the Vietnamese communists had a good deal of independence and flexibility during the first few years after the Vietnam War. Having aspired to vanguard internationalism, they now considered themselves a leading vanguard revolutionary. Yet they lost that independence and became a Soviet client in a matter of years, thanks to their ideological view regarding the Soviet Union.

Second, the VCP dealt with the disastrous economy in part by relaxing some economic policies during the early 1980s. All the same, Le Duan and the hardliners, who dominated the party apparatus, rigorously defended socialism and attacked the bourgeoisie during this time, in 1983.

Third, ideologues continued to enjoy dominance even after Le Duan’s death. In the late 1980s, as Gorbachev’s perestroika was gaining support, then VCP leader Nguyen Van Linh visited Eastern Europe and proposed a conference among communist countries to save socialism. 

What do these and other examples in the last three chapters say about the “limits” of ideology regarding the Vietnamese communist revolution?

TUONG VU: In broad terms, the communist ideology was limited by its lack of relevance to Vietnamese society, its grandiose vision of a utopia, and its sanction of violent means (such as class struggle) to achieve revolutionary goals. Ironically, the latter two limits were what made communism attractive to many radical activists.

These limits were clearly demonstrated in the policies of communist leaders like Truong Chinh and Le Duan:

  • Their impatience for making radical social changes in the shortest time possible
  • Their fanatical devotion to building a communist utopia
  • Their excessive dependence on the Soviet Union and China for guidance
  • The violent wars that they took Vietnam into
  • And the highly coercive character of the regime under their leadership 

The revolution did become a beacon for radical movements around the world for a brief time, outshining even the Soviet Union and China. It did defeat foreign intervention and domestic opposition. But these accomplishments were made at staggering costs in terms of human lives and liberty. And the revolution’s failure in creating a better society than the one it destroyed is a profound tragedy that still haunts Vietnamese today.

11. PRIMARY SOURCES. Let’s turn to sources for a minute… I was quite impressed by your use of primary sources for this book. They include fifty periodicals, two dozens of memoirs, and a very large amount of published and archival documents.

Most important among them must be the collection of fifty-four volumes of Party documents called Van Kien Dang Toan Tap (VKDTT). Back in 2010, you organized a forum on this collection for the Journal of Vietnamese Studies. While you and other participants certainly point out the limits of this collection, the consensus among the forum participants is that it is an unprecedented and invaluable source for researchers. What would this book be without the VKDTT?

TUONG VU: This book would not have been possible without that collection. For example, nowhere else can one obtain all the political reports at Central Committee’s Plenums from the 1930s to the 1980s. Only a few such reports are available from other sources. These meetings were where major policies were discussed if not decided. For some periods the Politburo or the few top leaders decided policies by themselves even though they allowed discussion and debate in Central Committee plenums.

Some reports by Le Duan delivered in the 1960s and early 1970s were transcribed from tapes [boc bang] for publication in the collection, meaning they had not existed in paper before even in the Party’s archive! I suspect that Le Duan wanted to keep those reports from being leaked to the Chinese or Soviets, and made only one or a few hard copies that were destroyed after he read them at Central Committee meetings.

But those Plenum reports were not the only kind of documents that were useful. There were numerous other kinds of documents involving policy decisions, policy implementation, or general policy directions that are kept in the Party archive and simply off-limits. The arguments in the book would have been far less convincing without these documents.

12. ADDITIONAL COMMENTS. Is there anything you wish to add to the things said above?

TUONG VU:  Since the book was published, it has received mixed reviews by Vietnam-based scholars and analysts. One of the most interesting criticisms is that there is nothing new in my main finding that Vietnamese communist leaders were true believers, and that Vietnamese who had lived during the revolution decades ago already knew that.  In a strange way I felt vindicated rather than disappointed by this criticism: my finding may not be new but I am neither wrong nor alone.

Moreover, I wrote the book primarily for an English readership, and as long as non-Vietnamese (or younger Vietnamese who do not have the experience of living under Le Duan) can understand what older Vietnamese had long known, unlike what they find in most other accounts in English, the book has done its job.

I have been vindicated by another finding after the publication of the book. In an interview with a Vietnamese official in a top research institute in Vietnam in December 2017, it was disclosed to me that Vietnam did embark on a serious and secret program from around 1975 to 1982 to develop nuclear weapons, like what North Korea has been doing since the late 1980s. This was during the period of what I label “vanguard internationalism” in the book. I have checked and found no sources that mention this program, so this was a major finding. The program suggests that Vietnamese communists were very ambitious just like what I argue about them.

The book will not be the final word on the topic, and I expect scholars with access to the communist party’s archive will challenge many of my arguments. It is my hope that the book has opened up new topics and questions for other scholars to explore such as:

  • The biographies of communist leaders other than Ho and Giap and the relationship among them.
  • The methods and institutions by which ideology exerted its influence throughout the system.
  • The efforts of communist leaders at developing new ideological concepts such as “collective mastery” [lam chu tap the]. Not that these concepts were sophisticated or interesting in themselves—the interesting thing about them is the intense but ultimately futile struggle to formulate and apply them.
  • The role of diplomacy in the foreign relations of communist Vietnam. Was it a spectacular success as the regime claims, or was it only a partial success or even a total failure?

By a happy coincidence, this interview was published on the same day as the H-Diplo roundtable on the book. Introduced by Peter Zinoman, it presents very different takes on the book from four historians—Chris Goscha, Alec Holcombe, Sophie Quinn-Judge, and Stein Tønnesson—plus the author’s response to their reviews. In Zinoman’s words, the reviewers “sort themselves into two factions, a war-era faction (Quinn-Judge and Tønnesson) who reject Tuong Vu’s central claims, and a post-war faction (Goscha and Holcombe) who endorse them.”

Click here to read the roundtable, and here to download the PDF version

March 2015 in Garden Grove, California: Tuong Vu (right) and I had a chance to visit the late Vietnamese historian Tạ Chí Đại Trường, who was animated even in the middle of cancer treatment.