In order of discussion:

  • Balázs Szalontai, “The ‘Sole Legal Government of Vietnam’: The Bao Dai Factor and Soviet Attitudes toward Vietnam, 1947–1950,” Journal of Cold War Studies 20:3 (2018): 3–56.
  • Phi-Vân Nguyen, “A Secular State for a Religious Nation: The Republic of Vietnam and Religious Nationalism, 1946–1963,” Journal of Asian Studies 77:3 (2018): 741–771.
  • Olga Dror, “Education and Politics in Wartime: School Systems in North and South Vietnam, 1965–1975,” Journal of Cold War Studies 20: 3 (2018): 57–113.
  • John C. Schafer, “Ngô Kha, Vietnam’s Civil Wars, and the Need for Forgiveness.” Journal of Vietnamese Studies 13:1 (2018): 1–41.
  • Duy Lap Nguyen, “Sovereignty, Surveillance, and Spectacle in South Vietnamese Spy Fiction,” positions: east asia cultures critique 26:1 (2018): 111–150.

Reflecting the diversification of scholarship on the Vietnam Conflict, these articles, all published in 2018, are different in emphasis and approach. One is on high diplomacy and another is on educational systems. One focuses on biography and memory while two are about religion and popular fiction, respectively.

The first article reflects the leaping growth of the historiography on the First Indochina War in the last twenty years. Adding to dozens of works on one or another aspect of “the first Vietnam War,” Balázs Szalontai focuses on Stalin’s perspective and policy regarding the recognition of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV): a subject that has drawn much interest for a very long time. Scholarship has generally singled out the role played by the People’s Republic of China in persuading Stalin to recognize the DRV in 1950.  Szalontai certainly notes this so-called “Chinese factor.” He also points out two main interpretations of Stalin’s behavior towards the DRV during the late 1940s. First is Ilya Gaiduk’s argument that Stalin’s aloofness to Ho Chi Minh and the DRV was “one manifestation of an all-encompassing distrust of Asian revolutionary movements.” In contrast is Christopher Goscha’s interpretation that Stalin provided more support to the Indonesian communists than he did the Vietnamese communists because (a) Ho dissolved the Indochinese Communist Part before the war and (b) France was much more important than the Netherlands in Stalin’s strategic calculations. Moreover, Szalontai notes that there is a gap in recent historiography regarding Stalin’s perception of the “Bao Dai solution.” Filling in this gap, he argues, should help to shed light on the larger Soviet policy. 

To make his case, Szalontai mines an old source, the Pravda, to considerable effects. He also looks at several other periodicals, including the French Communist Party’s official organ L’humanity in addition to Hungarian archival sources (which has been a feature in the works of this Hungarian historian). Szatontai’s analysis shows that there was a gradual but decidedly greater attention to Vietnam from 1948 to 1949: a period that coincided with the formulation of the Bao Dai solution and the creation of the State of Vietnam. Except that it was not a coincidence, for evidence suggests that Stalin not only followed closely developments regarding the Bao Dai factor but also allowed it to affect his eventual recognition. That said, Szalontai is careful to maintain the primacy of the Chinese factor. 

The growing attention the USSR paid to the ‘Bao Dai solution’ does not necessarily contradict the narrative that CCP leaders took the first concrete steps towards the recognition of the DRV in December 1949. Still, it does indicate that by that time the Soviet Union had become more-or-less ready to follow suit.

Szalontai concludes that the Chinese factor was probably the most important but only one of three factors. (The second is the “French factor,” which refers to Stalin’s growing dissatisfaction with France’s policy on Europe during 1949-1950.) “The direct impact of [the Chinese and French] factors,” he states, “was insignificant until November 1949, yet Soviet attitudes towards the DRV had undergone a perceptible change as early as the first half of 1948 and particularly in the spring of 1949.”

Szalontai must be commended for demonstrating a painstakingly close reading of the Pravda–and the Journal of Cold War Studies for giving him the space of fifty-three pages of main text and footnotes. Approximately half of these pages are devoted to the analysis of the Soviet mouthpiece in conjunction with other sources. It is like watching new wine being poured out of an old bottle, and it exemplifies the depth of the scholarship about the First Indochina War currently on display.

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Bao Dai and the State of Vietnam, of course, were out of the way by 1955 due to the ascension of Ngo Dinh Diem and the Republic of Vietnam (RVN). According to Phi-Vân Nguyen‘s theoretically thought-provoking article, there was a great deal of “religious nationalism” among various groups during the First Indochina War. In return, Diem wanted to channel it towards the Personalist Revolution that he envisioned for a postcolonial and noncommunist Vietnam. Religion and spirituality were to be an integral part of the opposition to atheistic communism. The draft of the 1956 Constitution, for example, affirmed religion to be diverse and independent from the state.

In practice, the First Republic also allowed a considerable degree of freedom regarding religious activities: not only in worship but also education and social associations. The freedom of religion was strikingly different from, say, the state’s authoritarian dealings with journalism. Finally, there was a lot of intellectual effort from both the state and religious figures, including members of the Baha’i religion, on association between religious belief and nationalism, including a Personalist nationalism that opposed communism and also capitalism. (Baha’i, indeed, was against both communism and capitalism.)

As Nguyen argues, however, the lack of a precise policy regarding religion in South Vietnam led, ironically, to a more asserting stand against the state. This stand was most visible among Buddhists but it came from others as well. One reason is that religious nationalism during the First Indochina War was more complicated than Diem might have thought it to be. Among Catholics, for example, anticommunism was common by 1954, but it wasn’t automatic during the First Indochina War. It was in fact uneven among different Catholic areas. Among Buddhists, who were muter in voicing political alliance, the war also helped to grow a stronger political consciousness that connected religion to be a part of Vietnamese nationalism. This situation might have boded well for religious toleration and pluralism on the part of the First Republic, but it also led to a growing division of Vietnamese nationalism along religious lines. During and shortly after the First Indochina War, different religious groups redefined their mission. The combination of the redefinitions and the religious freedom during 1955-1963 also helped explain for the conflict between the state and, say, the Buddhists in 1963.

Although Nguyen touches on different aspects in the historiography about the First Republic, her approach is primarily intellectual history. She builds upon the growing scholarship about Ngo Dinh Diem but also moves beyond the focus on the state to encompass the religious culture and the political culture of South Vietnam. This is a conceptually ambitious article, and I think it calls for narrower investigations about particular religious groups in the RVN.

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Moving from the First Republic to the Second, we return to the same issue of the Journal of Cold War Studies for another long article. In fact, Olga Dror‘s article is a few pages longer than Szalontai’s article. Kudos again to the JCWS for allowing such length! Portions of this article also appear in Dror’s monograph from Cambridge University Press, which was published at the end of 2018 and which I have yet to read. If this article were any indication, the book should be an enormous contribution to the historical scholarship about divided Vietnam. 

For it offers a rare comparison of two Vietnams based on archival and published sources. Notwithstanding common (and commonplace) assertions about differences between North Vietnam and South Vietnam, there aren’t many comparative and in-depth studies on a same subject about both states. This is among the reasons that Neil Jamison’s Understanding Vietnam, dated though it is, remains required reading in graduate studies of twentieth-century Vietnamese history. Fortunately, the subject of education has received attention from historians: Thaveeporn Vasavakul’s 1994 dissertation from Cornell and, now, the monograph from Dror. It is my hope that her book will spur historians and other scholars to spend the time on comparative projects. (And, yes, it will cost more time to do comparative historical studies on divided Vietnam.) On, for example, the subject of music. Or, religion. Or, propaganda. Or, more broadly, cultural relations with their allies. Both the DRV and the RVN, for instance, sent many young people abroad for education and related purposes.  Such studies, I think, would involve a lot of work but should also shed crucial insights about the history of divided Vietnam. 

One reason is the conceptualization about the comparisons themselves. Another reason is the need to foreground any rigorous comparison to the background of colonialism. Indeed, the first portion of Dror’s article after the introduction gives the colonial context to the diverging systems of education in divided Vietnam. She notes, for example, “the relatively meager results of French educational policies in Indochina” that provided “the common point from which the DRV and RVN moved rapidly to build their educational systems.” Although the article (and the book) focuses on 1965-1975, it is not possible to grasp that period without at least some explanation about the colonial background.

The informed lay reader could probably guess the broad differences between the two systems. True, the DRV’s system aimed at creating the socialist citizen that followed the guidance of the communist party. But there was much else. In addition to the main system in the north, for example, there were “a complex of Vietnamese schools in the territory of the [People’s Republic of China]” and another complex in South Vietnam to support the National Liberation Front. Later, a small number attended schools in Eastern Europe.  The system in the RVN was more diverse in organization and ideology. It promoted the values of humanism, nationalism, and liberalism seen to be compatible for life in a postcolonial noncommunist state.

The article illustrates and illuminates these differences by examining textbooks, among other things, from both states. Among the five articles under discussion, it shows, by far, the most amount of statistics and numbers and charts. It notes perhaps as many similarities as it does differences. The conclusion of two-plus pages lays out a fascinating comparison about the two systems and, again, offers a reason for more comparative studies of this kind. 

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Some of the textbooks approved by the Republic of Vietnam for use in public and private schools ~ pc tuoitre.vn

In comparison to the first three articles, the research essay by John Schafer moves past states and systems to the more intimate realm of biography. This article, which (I think) is his third one to be published in the Journal of Vietnamese Studies, tells the story of Ngô Kha, who was a Buddhist and a poet from Hue. Also a close friend of the musician Trịnh Công Sơn, Kha was among the RVN military officers to have led the 1966 Buddhist opposition in central Vietnam. In one respect, Schafer’s is the most fascinating of the five articles because it attempts to find the truth about (a) the disappearance of Ngô Kha in 1973 and, separately, (b) the alleged involvement of two other NLF members, Hoàng Phủ Ngọc Tường and Nguyễn Đắc Xuân, in the deaths of thousands of South Vietnamese during the Tet Offensive five years earlier. The article offers a lot of details about Ngô Kha’s life, about Tường and Xuân, and about Liên Thành, a former police chief in Hue arrested Ngô Kha and who has been among the most vocal in the diaspora about “communist crimes” during the Tet Offensive.

There are so many details in the article that a summary of two or three paragraphs does not do justice to its richness of information and thoughtful consideration of these figures. Having published a book about the South Vietnamese and diasporic writer Võ Phiến, Schafer is working on another monograph about Trịnh Công Sơn. But he also felt compelled to write about the much less remembered friend (and one-time brother-in-law) of the famous musician. Hence, this more or less biographical article on Kha. 

In another respect, however, the article is disappointing because it focuses on a specific person then generalizes too broadly, briefly, and, ultimately, unconvincingly about the problems of–and solutions to–past violence. In my opinion, Schafer overreaches and ends up simplifying the complexity that he strives to explain as much as possible in the middle bulk of the article. He takes a pair of starting (and ending) points from Viet Thanh Nguyen’s book Nothing Ever Dies: that there should not be “unjust forgetting” and that there should be “pure forgiveness.” (The second notion comes originally from Derrida.) Both notions may sound noble on the surface. In application to a conflict such as the Vietnam War, however, they more or less ignore different levels of positionality among different people involved since the end of the war. They end up sounding hollow, partially because they paper over the reality of uneven power between the communist party and Vietnamese under their rule, especially people closely associated to the former RVN. 

Besides, pure and radical forgiveness is probably most possible from religious traditions such as Buddhism and Christianity. There are reasons that the classic Latin phrase “To err is human, to forgive is divine” invokes the supernatural. There are reasons that large-scale attempts at reconciliation have often involved religious figures. (Bishop Desmond Tutu and the Commission on Truth and Reconciliation are probably the most prominent example in the last quarter-century.) Finally, there are a host of reasons that the Tet Offensive in Hue has been controversial for half a century that the article does not account for. They include the persistent refusal of the Vietnamese state to look into the issue of civilian deaths and acknowledge any kind of wrong-doing on the part of the communist forces. It is this sort of action that goes a long way towards reconciliation and forgiveness. It is not to discount the problems of memory among anticommunists such as Liên Thành, but their agency is significantly less potent than that of the Vietnamese state. Forgiveness and reconciliation are demanding of all parties, but the demands vary to allow for the reduction of distrust. In the end, this reader found most of Schafer’s article wonderful but its framing problematic and unsatisfying.

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Ngô Kha

Written by Duy Luat Nguyen, the last article takes us to a different category all together: popular fiction in the form of a series of novels about a South Vietnamese superspy whose code name is Z.28. Prior to this article, the most important piece of scholarship about this series had been Nguyễn Nguyệt Cầm’s 2002 master thesis at UC Berkeley. Focusing on one novel in the series, this article raises the sophistication of interpretation. The author of the Z.28 series is Bùi Anh Tuấn, who went by the pen name Người Thứ Tám (which literally means “The Eighth Person” but is better translated as “The Eighth Man” in this context). Inspired by the fictional James Bond, Tuấn began his own series in serialized form during the late 1950s and compiled them into books later. During my first few years in the U.S., I read several titles that were reprinted (or copied) in the diaspora. Of course, I couldn’t understand the historical significance at the time. But I could easily see the character’s resemblance to Ian Fleming’s creation. 

If Schafer’s article studies a South Vietnamese story from the perspective of a civil conflict, Nguyen’s article interprets another story according to the perspective of the global Cold War. There are two connected threads to the South Vietnamese experience. First, South Vietnam existed amidst nuclear deterrence like the rest of the world. Z.28’s exploits therefore occur within a “fictional cold war universe in which the combined security apparatus of the United States, the Soviet Union, and the Republic of Vietnam are deployed to prevent other countries from using atomic weapons in actual warfare, thereby preserving their use fo the purpose of nuclear deterrence.” Nuclear deterrence further justifies surveillance on the part of these states, which elevate the roles played by spies like Z.28. Surveillance therefore makes up the first thread. The second thread is the “spectacle” of consumption. Frequently, Z.28 references and interprets foes and friends (and himself) through the lens of consumption and consumerism. The novels mentions brand names and includes many passages on automobiles, food, drinks, clothes, footwear, restaurants, hotels, and so on. For one mission, the spy poses as an advertising executive, a symbol of power during the Cold War. 

Duy Lap Nguyen is a scholar of literature and his article is expectedly heavy in references to and quotations from cultural and literary theorists. There is a lot more to the article than I describe above. Historians will find some of his interpretations helpful and some not quite applicable. Among the most helpful ones to this historian is the comparison between Z.28 and Lương Bằng, a fictional detective from the late colonial era. The comparison shows a shift in cultural perception due to the larger shift to consumerism that alters the meaning of “free time.” Another is Nguyen’s dissection of the phrase “avenging the nation” (trả thù dân tộc) through description of sex between Z.28 and white women. It is the first time that I saw this once-popular phrase in a scholarly work, and I think Nguyen’s discussion gives a terrific insight on the subject of masculinity in South Vietnam. Maybe even during the first years of resettlement in the U.S. among refugee men. In one of the memoirs published for the series Viết Về Nước Mỹ [Writing about America], the male writer uses the same phrase when recalling sex between Vietnamese young men and American women.

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Two titles in the series: The Poisonous Queen and Paris: Blue Eyes, Red Lips

In closing, these five articles show very different topics, sources, methods, and approaches. But they also show important commonalities, especially an ongoing interest about the complexities of the history and culture of South Vietnam. In a couple of months, the University of Oregon will host a workshop on the theme “Republican Vietnam” that draws a large number of participants. (The final schedule and list of participants will be released in the fall.) The Republic of Vietnam ceased to exist forty-four years ago. Yet there was so much going on during its existence, and not just warfare, that historians and other scholars still invest their time and funds to study and research about it.