Fifty years ago the southern Vietnamese revolutionary forces together with regular army units of the northern Vietnamese military launched a military offensive against the forces of the southern Vietnamese and US militaries. This offensive, known as the TET offensive because it took place during the TET holiday, involved hundreds of thousands of fighters on both sides and resulted in thousands of casualties. Residents of the United States, many of whom had relatives in their nation’s military, watched as the US Embassy in Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City) came under attack. Meanwhile, closer to the imaginary line on the 17th parallel that divided northern Vietnam from southern Vietnam, a battle raged in the town of Khe Sanh. US and southern Vietnamese forces (ARVN) would finally declare victory, blow up their base and leave in early July of 1968.
The intention of the anti-imperialist forces in this offensive was to spark a popular uprising amongst the civilian population of southern Vietnam. Communist political cadre had been educating and organizing among the Vietnamese south of the seventeenth parallel since well before the independence forces defeated the French colonial military at Dien Bien Phu. Although there was no popular uprising in 1968, the effect of the revolutionary forces offensive in the United States was one that ultimately turned the population against the war. In other words, it was the beginning of the end to the popular belief among Americans that a US/ARVN military victory was possible. Indeed, within three months, President Lyndon Johnson had declared he would not run for re-election and instituted a halt to the bombing by US warplanes. Unfortunately, US involvement would continue at a murderous pace for five more years. After the departure of most US forces by 1973, US aid to its client regime in Saigon continued until that regime’s surrender in May 1975.
The paragraphs above summarize a common understanding of the US war against the Vietnamese. This understanding tends to diminish the primary actors in the war: the Vietnamese people. This in turn, has rendered the history of the war incomplete. Although various individuals who fought against the US military and its Vietnamese accomplices have written personal histories—General Giap probably foremost among them—to my knowledge here has been no history written in English that attempts objectivity and a Vietnamese perspective. In addition, there has been no such history written where the author had access to previously classified archives of the Hanoi government. The 2017 publication of Hanoi’s War: An International History of the War for Peace in Vietnam should change this.
Lien-Hang T. Nguyen, the author of this new work, is a professor of history. She was born in Vietnam in 1974. Her parents left the country in 1975. Her interest seems to be inspired both by her personal history and the desire to present the Vietnamese “war for peace” in terms that re-defines the role of the Vietnamese; transforming them into a people intent on determining their own fate, not merely as a people fighting an aggressor whose presence in the country is perceived by so many as a foreign policy “mistake.” Like any history, this one is not complete. It is however a detailed look at the complexities in the Vietnamese revolutionary effort and its utilization of military, public relations and diplomacy in the long struggle to achieve its goal of independence.
Crucial to Nguyen’s telling is what might be considered a sort of revisionism. This is most obvious in her conclusion that it was two men whose roles were the most important in the Vietnamese war
against Washington and Saigon. Despite what could be considered the common understanding, the reader discovers their names were not Giap or Ho Chi Minh, but Le Duan and Le Duc Tho. For those who remember (and those who have studied this period of history) the name Le Duc Tho is probably familiar. After all, he was awarded (along with Henry Kissinger) the 1973 Nobel Peace Prize for his work in the Paris negotiations for peace in Vietnam. He also refused the prize because the war continued, in large part because the US refused to uphold parts of the agreement. Le Duan, however, is less known to the western reader. He was born in southern Vietnam and rose to the top of the Vietnamese Communist Party, becoming General Secretary in 1960.
According to author Nguyen, it was Le Duan and Le Duc Tho who insisted that the primary goal of the party and the Vietnamese after the Geneva Accords of 1954 should be the liberation of the South. This conflicted with those who considered the primary objective should be the industrialization of the northern part of the country while waging a protracted guerrilla war in the south. It was this debate that underlined many of the twists and turns in the Vietnamese conduct of the war, especially before the US began its escalation in 1965. After that turn of events, Nguyen argues that the debates became less about industrialization in the north and more about various military strategies.
This is not an overtly anti-imperialist history. Nor is it the opposite of one. It is a comprehensive look at the methods used by the Hanoi government to keep forging ahead in its goal of reunifying Vietnam. In relating her history, the author provides a detailed look at how Hanoi used its military, its diplomatic corps and international public opinion to win the Vietnamese struggle for independence. Although she occasionally diminishes certain aspects of the bloodthirsty and genocidal campaign Washington carried on against Vietnam and the rest of Indochina, her focus on the Hanoi government and individuals within it give the reader a much needed perspective that puts the Vietnamese role front and center. It is a text that avoids the US hubris common in most English language histories of the war. There is a familiar truism that history is written by the victors. This has not been the case in most English language histories of what Nguyen calls the Vietnamese war for peace. Hanoi’s War could well be the first.