This is the new communism

Mark Philip Bradley

  • The Penguin History of Modern Vietnam by Christopher Goscha
    Allen Lane, 634 pp, £30.00, June 2016, ISBN 978 1 84614 310 6

Two exhibitions that opened within blocks of each other in Chicago this autumn make clear the continuing challenges involved in writing Vietnamese history. One, Hunting Charlie at the Pritzker Military Museum, features a collection of North Vietnamese and National Liberation Front wartime propaganda posters. The posters themselves, seldom seen outside Vietnam, are fascinating. But even Trinh Thi Ngo, ‘Hanoi Hannah’, the notorious broadcaster for the Voice of Vietnam who died in September, might have raised an eyebrow at the exhibition’s own propagandistic angle. A caption under a poster celebrating the North Vietnamese victory in April 1975 reads: ‘Given the purges, the mass killings, re-education camps and refugee crisis it bears asking if Ho Chi Minh’s vision of a unified Vietnam for the good of the Vietnamese people was achieved.’

‘This is the United States Air Force’ (1968) by Văn Tho, at the Pritzker Military Museum
‘This is the United States Air Force’ (1968) by Văn Tho, at the Pritzker Military Museum

Interspersed with what the curator calls the ‘chilling reality’ of Vietnamese propaganda, the exhibition offers opinions of its own. Framed pull-quotes from interviews with American servicemen remind us that ‘We won the Tet offensive. We decimated the Viet Cong. And our wonderful press made us losers.’ The exhibition portrays the United States as the real victim of the Vietnam War and sees the North Vietnamese as callous and bloodthirsty puppets of international communism. While discredited by most (though not all) academic histories, belief in Vietnam as a noble war is enjoying a popular resurgence in the US.

Just down the road from Hunting Charlie, at the Chicago Museum of Contemporary Art, a very different evocation of the Vietnamese past was on display. The Propeller Group, a Saigon-based artists’ collective, was showing its film, The Guerrillas of Cu Chi. The tunnels of Cu Chi, built by southern Vietnamese communists in a rural area outside Saigon, acted as a logistics centre during the war and survived several American efforts to destroy them. Now they are a tourist destination; some of the tunnels have been enlarged to accommodate Western visitors, who get a chance to fire original Soviet-made AK-47s.

The film documents what happens on the shooting range. The camera moves back and forth on a track behind the targets, showing the tourists being set up with weapons by Vietnamese ‘guards’ dressed in military fatigues. It captures their reactions – intense concentration, laughter and high-fives recorded by friends wielding cameras and phones – as they play soldier. We hear the shots, but only see the reactions of the participants. A 1960s English-language propaganda film called Cu Chi Guerrillas, projected onto the opposite wall at the same time, encapsulates the official Vietnamese narrative of the war: heroic soldiers, workers, peasants, mothers and children unselfishly confronting ‘the merciless Americans’ who ‘ruthlessly decided to kill this gentle and small piece of the countryside’. Visitors could stand between the two films, with communist wartime propaganda on one wall and tourists inhabiting the neoliberal space of leisure consumption in contemporary Vietnam on the other. The tourists were shooting at them.

The complexities of the Vietnamese past are shrouded in myth. One is Vietnam as a ‘little China’, the view that anchored Frances FitzGerald’s still widely read 1972 Pulitzer Prize-winning Fire in the Lake. FitzGerald borrowed from French Orientalists who lamented the ‘vulgarisation of Chinese civilisation’ in Vietnam. Centuries of what they saw as a Confucian-inspired Vietnamese monarchy, and a popular belief in the mandate of heaven that legitimated kingship, had determined Vietnamese understanding of the challenges of the colonial and postcolonial worlds. The success of the North Vietnamese, FitzGerald argued, rested on the popular image of Ho Chi Minh as an embodiment of the Confucian virtues of an ideal Sinicised Vietnamese emperor. American policymakers also used the little China framework, derisively viewing the Vietnamese through a set of racialised hierarchies and classing them as ‘primitive’, ‘lazy’ and ‘vain’. They worried that the Vietnamese postcolonial elite was especially susceptible to outside direction, and that Soviet and Chinese influence would have to be countered by American tutelage.

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