Vietnam’s Wars

V.G. Kiernan

  • Vietnam: The Revolutionary Path by Thomas Hodgkin
    Macmillan, 433 pp, £25.00, July 1981, ISBN 0 333 28110 1
  • Death in the Ricefields: Thirty Years of War in Indochina by Peter Scholl-Latour, translated by Faye Carney
    Orbis, 383 pp, £6.95, September 1981, ISBN 0 85613 342 6
  • Hollywood’s Vietnam by Gilbert Adair
    Proteus, 192 pp, £7.95, August 1981, ISBN 0 906071 86 0

It was a happy inspiration for a writer who has spent many years studying Africa to transport himself to the other end of the world and look at the evolution of a totally different society, though one equally in the end herded by Western guns into a new era. Hodgkin brings to his task a mind trained by long observation of pre-modern communities, and sensitive to the divergences and novelties pointing towards a dénouement far removed from anything to be found in Africa, south of Algeria at any rate. He has had the benefit of much expert guidance and counsel, both Western and Vietnamese, but he is conscious of multiple difficulties, and ready to admit puzzlement at many of the things he encounters on his long road, instead of professing to have explanations for them all. It is valuable to have obscurities in the record identified, even if they cannot at present be cleared up. The result is a fine achievement, an outline and analysis of Vietnam history such as Jean Chesneaux’s Contribution à l’Histoire de la Nation Vietnamienne, with a similar viewpoint, provided for French readers a generation ago, but enriched by subsequent research.

It stops at 1945; its keynote is ‘the August 1945 Revolution in the context of four thousand years of Vietnamese history’. This revolution is held up as ‘an extremely important event in world history’, the first overthrow of a colonial regime by a Communistled movement. Hodgkin has been reproached with looking at the country’s history backward, seeing it all as a highroad leading towards socialist revolution. But any attempt at interpreting the past must incur some risk of seeing it too much in the light of the present; and what Hodgkin not unreasonably singles out as dominant features of the past emerge undeniably as contributors at least to the unique performance of Vietnam in our own lifetime. Whether 1945 is quite so significant a moment in itself may be another question. The Japanese were collapsing, the French were not yet in a position to reassert themselves. The real struggle was still to come. Still, it might be said that the fall of the Bastille, or the Bolshevik seizure of power, were also only starting-points.

A useful series of maps, a chronological table and a glossary, help the reader to follow the deciphering of the earlier age, a palimpsest overwritten with Chinese influences yet preserving a sturdily indigenous character throughout. Hodgkin has to wrestle with problems of periodising, but broadly three pre-modern divisions stand out: a semi-legendary pre-history; nine centuries of Chinese rule, from 43 to 939 AD; and a feudal-bureaucratic monarchy, run as China was by a hierarchy of mandarins, a good specimen of an Asian type of state with intriguing likenesses and unlikenesses to European models. At its most energetic it shows affinities with Late Medieval and Early Modern absolutism in Europe about the same time. ‘The long reign of Le Thanh long (1460-97) marked the climax of the development,’ with the central apparatus and the bureaucracy trained on Confucian lines reinforced against ‘the oligarchic element’. There is a further odd parallelism between the troublous times that followed and the crisis of 17th-century Europe. An old speculation about harvests – and therefore everything else – depending on shifts of sunspots offers an appealingly simple key to all such coincidences.

It becomes clearer and clearer that nationalism, and the nation state, did not grow up in Western Europe alone, but had counterparts elsewhere – above all, in the Far East, where they constitute one of that region’s many curious points of kinship with Europe. Vietnam, Korea, Japan were all nations long before they learned to read Western books; so was China, even though its unwieldy bulk left the national idea more amorphous. In Vietnam a national consciousness. Hodgkin writes, ‘was certainly emerging during the early medieval period’, or the tenth to 15th centuries, with roots much deeper. The country’s names for itself were oddly various, and ‘Viet Nam’ seems only to have begun coming into use about 1800, displacing the old Chinese ‘An Nam’, or ‘Pacified South’, a legacy of China’s overlordship.

Nationalism was incubated by prolonged efforts to throw this off, and modes and means of early warfare form one of many interesting strands in the book’s earlier chapters. China had a telling weapon in the crossbow – its invention; Indochina had the elephant. Vietnam often resorted to guerrilla resistance, drawing in the mass of the people and imparting lessons that leaders fighting the French and Americans found it worth while to ponder. As to the size of armies in the field, historians have learned to be suspicious of assertions in old European annals, and numbers quoted by Hodgkin like 150,000 and 300,000 men may call for similar pinches of salt. Kings and their chroniclers everywhere went on something like the same principle as the angler in Three Men in a Boat, who, resolved to be more moderate than others, counted every fish he caught as ten.

In 1285, there was a Mongol invasion, and in the early 15th century renewed attempts by the Chinese, now under the new and expansionist Ming dynasty, to gain control. These further toughened the national fibre. So also, it may be, to an extent not allowed for by Hodgkin, did the long-continuing pressure southward towards the Mekong delta. Vietnam was attacker as well as attacked, and this was in part a species of ‘people’s imperialism’, motivated by land-hunger, much like the earlier flow of the Chinese people southward from the Yellow River. The outcome has been a country with dozens of ethnic minorities, though totalling only 13 per cent of the population – and mostly pushed back into the hills.

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