A Vietnam War Reader
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A Vietnam War Reader

A Documentary History from American and Vietnamese Perspectives

Michael H. Hunt

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eBook - ePub

A Vietnam War Reader

A Documentary History from American and Vietnamese Perspectives

Michael H. Hunt

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An essential new resource for students and teachers of the Vietnam War, this concise collection of primary sources opens a valuable window on an extraordinarily complex conflict. The materials gathered here, from both the American and Vietnamese sides, remind readers that the conflict touched the lives of many people in a wide range of social and political situations and spanned a good deal more time than the decade of direct U.S. combat. Indeed, the U.S. war was but one phase in a string of conflicts that varied significantly in character and geography. Michael Hunt brings together the views of the conflict's disparate players--from Communist leaders, Vietnamese peasants, Saigon loyalists, and North Vietnamese soldiers to U.S. policymakers, soldiers, and critics of the war. By allowing the participants to speak, this volume encourages readers to formulate their own historically grounded understanding of a still controversial struggle.

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Vietnam War

1 The Setting Colonialism and the Cold War (to 1954)

The Vietnam War story begins with patriotic ancestors who opened the drama decades before their country had even begun to penetrate American consciousness. Three generations of well-educated, politically engaged Vietnamese faced French colonial control as a force that was penetrating and upending their world. They made liberation from that control their prime concern in life.
The French presence loomed ever larger and more ominous between the 1840s and the 1890s. Naval expeditions and diplomats extended a grip over Vietnam as well as Cambodia and Laos (collectively dubbed Indochina by the French). The rich Mekong Delta of southern Vietnam (known as Cochin China) was the first to fall. It came under direct rule during the 1860s. The rest of Vietnam — Annam and Tonkin — was soon reduced to the status of a protectorate in which a humiliated monarchy remained nominally in charge. But in fact a French governor-general held sway over all of Indochina. The influx of some 40,000 to 50,000 French settlers and of French capital added cultural and economic dimensions to Vietnamese political subordination.
At the outset — across the latter half of the nineteenth century — scholar-officials loyal to the ruling dynasty mounted a desperate but ineffectual resistance to French conquest. Their failure to turn the tide put in question the established order, which was dominated by a monarchy modeled after China’s and by Confucian social values. Vietnamese intellectuals began to explore the sources of their country’s vulnerability and to consider ways to revitalize and liberate their country.
These concerns led the second generation of patriots to nationalist ideas early in the twentieth century. Under the sway of those ideas, they discovered the importance of building popular unity, creating a strong government to lead the people and resist international pressures, and drawing instruction and support from other countries, such as Japan, whose nationalist programs were proving successful. These pioneer nationalists were products of an educational system geared to create officials to staff the state bureaucracy, and so they instinctively assigned themselves a leading role in finding a substitute for the old, failed monarchy and in remaking society along lines they considered modern. In undertaking these tasks, they carried forward a sense of the special obligation of men of talent to play a public, political role. At the same time, their nationalism incorporated a special faith in the capacity of Vietnamese to resist foreign domination. In this they built on widely retailed legends of heroic resistance against Chinese domination and invasion.
The third generation, active in the 1920s and 1930s, faced perplexity and frustration. The old monarchical resistance had sputtered out. French prejudice and self-interest were discrediting moderate nationalists who had embraced the idea of enlightened colonial tutelage. Revolutionary plots repeatedly failed in the face of repressive security forces. Given the formidable obstacles to developing a nationalist consciousness and creating nationalist organizations, the educated class began searching farther and farther afield for models and insights. As they conceived the task of liberation in ever more expansive terms, they took an ever more critical view of the flaws of Vietnamese society — from gender inequality to class exploitation, to servile subordination to the colonial presence, to official corruption, to popular illiteracy.
Ho Chi Minh is the most famous member of this third generation. By the early 1940s, Ho had scored two major achievements that established his reputation and inspired nationalist hopes. The first, effected in the context of Japanese military expansion into Southeast Asia, was to translate broad ideas about revolution and independence into workable policies. In 1941, just as Japanese forces were taking charge in Indochina, Ho returned home at the head of the Viet Minh. This Communist-led organization would win broad popular appeal and spearhead the independence cause. The Viet Minh at first made its target the Japanese occupation army and the French who had acquiesced to Japanese control. With the unexpectedly early end of fighting in the Pacific in mid-1945, Ho and his colleagues seized power and declared Vietnam independent. The “August Revolution” of that year resulted in the creation of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV). Ho became president of the new state. With his close associates Pham Van Dong, Vo Nguyen Giap, and Truong Chinh, he would direct the next phase of the independence struggle against a France determined to reassert its colonial prerogatives. The resulting conflict would last nearly eight years (late 1946 to mid-1954). Ho abandoned the cities in favor of a strategy of broad political mobilization led by the Viet Minh. On the battlefield his forces resorted to a mix of guerrilla and conventional warfare to harass and ultimately exhaust the enemy. Diplomatically Vietnam’s Communists had by 1950 emphatically put themselves on the side of the Soviet-led world communist movement, and they looked hopefully to the new Communist China for practical support.
Ho’s second major achievement was establishing the Communist Party’s legitimacy as the leading resistance force with an effective appeal to a wide range of ordinary Vietnamese. The key to this accomplishment was melding rural with nationalist concerns. Vietnamese Communists had embarked in the 1930s on finding ways to mobilize peasants, far and away the largest part of the population. Along the way they discovered the importance to villagers of land and livelihood.
The same wartime context in which Ho consolidated party control and advanced the independence cause also turned the attention of American policy makers to French Indochina. In 1940 and 1941, President Franklin Roosevelt started worrying about Indochina along with the other tottering European colonial domains in Southeast Asia. The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor drew the U.S. military deeply into the Pacific struggle and raised the question of the postwar status of colonial territories now in Japanese hands. In response Roosevelt offered qualified support for decolonization, but his successors — Harry Truman and Dwight Eisenhower — shifted to full acquiescence to the restoration of French control and then to full-throated support even as the French effort faltered and then collapsed.
This chapter’s documents on the deep roots of the Vietnam War raise some fundamental questions:
‱ What fears, hopes, enmities, and ideals gripped Vietnamese confronted with French domination of their country? How did those concerns vary over time and between politically engaged elites and peasants?
‱ To what extent did Ho Chi Minh’s evolving views emerge from earlier nationalist attitudes, and to what extent were they shaped by communism?
‱ What concerns led Presidents Truman and Eisenhower to a commitment in Vietnam?
‱ Why in the final analysis did Vietnamese and American leaders fail to find common ground on the seemingly shared principle of self-determination?


French domination provoked a class of Vietnamese trained in the Confucian classics and oriented toward political service to engage in an ever deeper and more desperate search for a way to end Vietnam’s humiliating condition. Open resistance to the French had failed by the turn of the century and planted grim doubts about the capacity of Vietnamese to liberate themselves or even to survive as a society in a world of rapacious powers. Dealing with this grim realization fell to a new set of nationalist intellectuals and activists who emerged at the start of the twentieth century. Some among them favored revolutionary struggle, while others preferred a nonviolent reformist program as the more realistic course.

1.1 Nguyen Dinh Chieu, funeral oration honoring peasants who fought the French, 1861

This well-known southern writer (1822–1888) represents the proto-nationalist resistance directed against the French and a collaboration-minded royal court. In the poem that follows, Chieu champions popular armed struggle. But, however defiant, he and like-minded advocates of resistance failed to create a peasant army strong and durable enough to drive out the French.
The only things you knew were ricefields and water buffaloes. You lived according to the village’s customs.
Digging, plowing, harrowing, replanting were your usual occupations. 

You were not professional soldiers 
 experienced in military life and training. You were but inhabitants of villages and hamlets turned partisans to serve the cause of righteousness. 

In your hands, a pointed stick; you did not ask for knives or helmets.
The match for your gunpowder was made of straw; but this did not prevent you from successfully burning the missionary house.
For a sword, you used your kitchen knife; yet you were able to behead the enemies’ lieutenant.
Your officers were not compelled to beat the drums in order to urge you forward. You advanced on your own, clambering onto the barricades. You looked upon the enemy as if he did not exist.
You were not frightened by the French who shot large and small bullets at you. You forced your way into their camp, risking your life as if you had no material body.
Some of you stabbed, some struck so eagerly that the French soldiers and their mercenaries lost heart.
You screamed in the forefront, you shouted at the rear regardless of the enemies’ gunboats, their ships, or their rifles. 

You preferred to die fighting the enemy, and return to our ancestors in glory rather than survive in submission to the Occidentals and share your miserable life with barbarians. 

O, the smoke of your battle has already dissipated, but your right conduct shall be recorded for a thousand years.

1.2 Phan Boi Chau, call for Vietnamese to awaken, 1907

Chau (1867–1940) was a leading proponent of revolutionary nationalism. He was trained in the Confucian classics and passed the qualifying exam to become an official. Instead he became a voice for anticolonial resistance. He held up Japan (where he lived for a time in exile) as a model for Vietnamese modernization and a potential source of support for Vietnamese independence. The extract included here comes from The New Vietnam, one of Chau’s many works. The French authorities banned the book and in 1925 arrested, tried, and convicted the defiant Chau of subversion. He spent the rest of his life under confinement.
Our soil is fertile, our mountains and rivers beautiful. Compared with other powers in the five continents, our country is inferior only to a few. Why, then, do we suffer French protection? Alas, that is simply because of our deep-rooted slave mentality; it is because of our inveterate habit of depending on others for over two thousand years. We gladly accepted the colonization of the Han, the Tang, the Song, the Yuan, the Ming [all powerful Chinese dynasties]. As slaves, we served them; we lacked human dignity. Today our enemy the French are very ingenious. They despise us, claiming that we are weak; they lie to us, because they consider us stupid. 
 They trample over our people; they hold our fathers and brothers in contempt; they treat us like buffaloes and horses; they suck the sweat and blood from our people; and yet they dare broadcast loudly to the rest of the world that France is here to protect the Indochinese country. Oh! Compatriots, the country is ours; the people are ours. What interest does France have here for her to come and protect our country?
Ever since France came to protect us, Frenchmen hold every lever of power; they hold the power of life and death over everyone. The life of thousands of Vietnamese people is not worth that of a French dog; the moral prestige of hundreds of our officials does not prevail over that of a French woman. Look at those men with blue eyes and yellow beard. They are not our fathers, nor are they our brothers. How can they squat here, defecating on our heads? Are the men from Vietnam not ashamed of that situation? 

After modernization we shall determine the domestic as well as foreign affairs of our country. The work of civilization will go on, day after day, and our country’s status in the world will be heightened. We shall have three million infantrymen, as fierce as tigers, looking into the four corners of the universe. Five hundred thousand of our navy men, as terrifying as crocodiles, will swim freely in the boundless ocean. We shall send ambassadors into every country of Europe, America, Japan, the United States, Germany, England. These countries will make ours their first ally. Siam [Thailand], India, and other countries of the South Seas will look up to our land as an enlightened example. Even the big countries of Asia, such as China, will be brother countries to ours. The enemy, France, will be afraid of us; she will listen to us, ask us for protection. Our flag will fly over the city of Paris, and our colors will brighten the entire globe. At that time the only fear we shall have is that we won’t have enough time to protect other countries. All the shame and humiliation we have suffered previously, which resulted from being protected by others, will have become potent medicine to help us build up this feat of modernization. Commemorative monuments will be erected; a thousand torches will illuminate the entire world. The wind of freedom will blow fiercely, refreshing in one single sweep the entire five continents. Such will be the victory of our race. How pleasant that will be!

1.3 Phan Chu Trinh, open letter to French governor-general Paul Beau, 1907

Trinh (1872–1926) was Phan Boi Chau’s equal in fame among the early-twentieth-century nationalists. He too was trained in the classics, passed the qualifying exam for royal service, but veered off into nationalist dissent. But unlike Chau, Trinh was skeptical about seeking outside support, whether from Japan or anywhere else. And rather than promote resistance, he looked to enlightened French tutelage to bring his troubled country into the modern world. His involvement in a peasant uprising in 1908 led to his arrest and left him politically sidelined until his death.
Since Vietnam was placed under their protection, the French have built roads and bridges; they have improved communication through the construction of railroads and steamships; they have established post offices and telegraph lines: all these works are indeed very useful to Vietnam. 

 [Y]et how is it that [the Vietnamese people] all have reached the lowest level of their subsistence, that they are about to witness the destruction of their race? What are the causes of this predicament? 

 The first one, as I see it, resides in the fact that the Protecting Power [France] gave too great a liberty to the Vietnamese mandarins [officials in the bureaucracy]. 

Knowing, for some time, that the Protecting Power favors and never punishes them, the Vietnamese mandarins 
 who are greedy become more so, counting on their corruption to climb up the hierarchical ladder. Those who are lazy become even lazier, counting only on their apathy to remain in their position. 
 They paid no attention whatsoever to the people’s complaints. 

The second cause resides in the fact that the Protectorate has always regarded with contempt the people of Vietnam, resulting in a segregation syndrome. 
 Seeing that our mandarins are corrupt, our people unintelligent, our customs in decay, the French despise our people, who, in their judgment, have no national dignity. Therefore, in their newspapers, books, conversations, or discussions, they usually express the contemptuous opinion that the Vietnamese are barbarians and comparatively not much different from pigs. 

If France is really interested in changing her policy, she should employ only those mandarins who have talent; give them authority and power; treat them with propriety; show them sincerity; deliberate with them over the best means to promote the good and eradicate the evil; open up new ways for the people to earn their living; provide the scholar-students with the freedom of discussion; widen the freedom of the press so as to know the people’s sentiments; put an end to the abuses of the mandarinate by resorting to just punishments and fair rewards. Furthermore, if, little by little, the legal system is improved, the mandarinal examinations abolished, the educational system renovated, libraries built, teachers trained, commercial and industrial knowledge encouraged, the taxes and corvĂ©e [required labor] systems ameliorated, then the people will quietly devote their efforts to do their work well. The scholar-students will discharge their duties with joy. At that time people will only fear that France will abandon Vietnam. Who would and could see her as an enemy?

 The only way for us to keep our territory and to allow our race to survive on this globe is to have a capable teacher to educate us and regard us as his pupils; to find a good mother who would treat us like her own children, raise us and take good care of us, with confidence and with affection.


The following items trace the rise of the leading figure in the Vietnamese liberation struggle from obscurity to national prominence. Ho Chi Minh was born in 1890 in a northern province noted for its anti-French resistance into a distinctly patriotic family. He knew personally the leading nationalists. Educated at first in Vietnam, Ho went abroad in 1911 to learn the secrets of Western power. During his development as a political leader between the late 1910s and the 1940s, he time and again invoked in his writings the proud resistance of earlier generations.

1.4 Recollections of discovering Communist anticolonialism in July 1920

Ho settled in Paris in the late 1910s and hit his political stride, recapitulating as he went the views of an older generation. Un...

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