Vietnamese Tradition on Trial, 1920-1945

Vietnamese Tradition on Trial, 1920-1945

Vietnamese Tradition on Trial, 1920-1945

Vietnamese Tradition on Trial, 1920-1945


Despite the historical importance of the Vietnam War, we know very little about what the Vietnamese people thought and felt prior to the conflict. Americans have tended to treat Vietnam as an extension of their own hopes and fears, successes and failures, rather than addressing the Vietnamese record. In this volume, David Marr offers the first serious intellectual history of Vietnam, focusing on the period just prior to full-scale revolutionary upheaval and protracted military conflict. He argues that changes in political and social consciousness between 1920 and 1945 were a necessary precondition to the mass mobilization and people's war strategies employed subsequently against the French and the Americans. Thus he rejects the prevailing notion that Vietnamese success was primarily due to communist techniques of organization.

However, Vietnamese Tradition on Trial goes beyond simply accounting for anyone's victory or defeat to an informed description of intellectual currents in general. Replying for his information on a previously ignored corpus of books, pamphlets, periodicals, and leaflets, the author isolates eight issues of central concern to twentieth-century Vietnamese. The new intelligentsia--indubitably the product of a peculiar French colonial milieu, yet never divorced from the Vietnamese past and always looking to a brilliant Vietnamese future--spearheaded every debate beginning ini 1925.

After 1945, Vietnamese intellectuals either placed themselves under ruthless battlefield discipline or withdrew to private meditation. David Marr suggests that the new problems facing Vietnamese today make both of these approaches anachronistic. Whether the Vietnam Communist Party will allow citizens to subject received wisdom to critical debate, to formulate new explanations of reality, to test those explanations in practice, is the essential question lingering at the end of this study.


As a U.S. Marine Corps intelligence officer in Vietnam in 1962-1963 I could not help but be struck by the ability of the National Liberation Front (more properly the National Front for the Liberation of South Vietnam) to conduct complex political and military operations amidst some of the most difficult conditions imaginable. Although scattered in a hundred different locations, hounded from air, sea, and ground, seemingly short on everything except tenacity, the nlf managed to avoid being fragmented and destroyed piecemeal. Moreover, by 1963 it was clear that the nlf was reaching the point where it could directly challenge and perhaps overcome the U.S.-supported regime headquartered in Saigon.

My attention was caught by one piece in this intelligence puzzle. We knew that the nlf had an extremely primitive communications system, yet we also observed that even the lowest units in the organization generally understood what was expected of them and tried to act accordingly Then, too, there were times when all the nlf leaders in a specific village or district were killed, captured, or forced to flee to another area, yet ‘anti-government’ activity did not cease entirely Indeed, after a period of several months or a year, such activity had a tendency to build up again. Links were reestablished with higher nlf echelons and the U.S.-Saigon apparatus was in a worse situation than before.

There were other times when I noticed that two nlf unit leaders miles from each other, facing identical new situations that could not await guidance from above, tended to react in essentially the same manner. They did not always make the right choice, but apparently they did share some vision, some approach to reality that was not dependent in the first instance on organizational hierarchy Among other things, this suggested that those counter-insurgency specialists who planned to beat the nlf by pursuing a ‘leopard-spot’ strategy, i.e., isolating areas and attempting to promote contradictions within the enemy ranks, were doomed to fail. the nlf might still lose, but not because of a U.S.-Saigon policy of divide and rule.

In short, I began to suspect that there was enough ideological consensus among nlf members to enable local cadres to function for weeks or even months without specific orders from higher echelons. Moreover, when the local leadership was eliminated as the result of U.S.-Saigon actions, there often remained enough . . .

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