Academic journal article Journal of Southeast Asian Studies

Triumphs or Tragedies: A New Perspective on the Vietnamese Revolution

Academic journal article Journal of Southeast Asian Studies

Triumphs or Tragedies: A New Perspective on the Vietnamese Revolution

Article excerpt

For much of the twentieth century Vietnam was embroiled in revolution. A colony of France, Vietnam witnessed the rise of nationalism in the 1900s with the Free School and Eastern Travel movements led by intellectuals such as Luong Van Can, Phan Boi Chau and Phan Chau Trinh. The core agenda of these movements was cultural reform and national independence. By the late 1920s, communist groups trained in the Soviet Union or influenced by the French left came on the scene. These groups were distinguished from others by their radical program, which included not only national independence but also socialism. At the end of the Second World War, the communists rode to power on the back of a popular movement, in an event known in Vietnam as the 'August Revolution' of 1945. If history up to this point was relatively straightforward, what took place during and since August 1945 has been mired in controversy.

This essay presents an emerging perspective that challenges two long-standing narratives on revolution in Vietnam. The first narrative emanates from Western writers and presents the Vietnamese revolution since 1945 as essentially a nationalist revolution. This revolution was frustrated by foreign intervention, but eventually triumphed in 1975 when Vietnam was reunified. The second narrative is constructed and propagated by the Vietnamese Communist Party (VCP) to legitimise its rule. In this narrative, the revolution has been under the leadership of the VCP throughout and has deliberately undergone two stages: the 'national democratic' stage to secure independence and the 'socialist stage' to build a socialist system in Vietnam. The first stage was completed in 1954 in the North and in 1975 in the South. The second stage is still ongoing.

In contrast with the long-standing narratives above, the new perspective counts not one but two distinct revolutions in Vietnam between 1945 and 1988. One revolution was nationalist and the other socialist, and only the latter was under the VCP's leadership. The two revolutions overlapped, but were fundamentally different in key aspects, from goals to class bases and from causes to processes. Yet both suffered eventual defeat: the nationalist revolution in the late 1940s and the socialist revolution four decades later towards the end of the 1980s. The new perspective pays greater attention to Vietnamese agency, while portraying Vietnam's modern history in a more complex and less triumphal way. Although the new perspective is not yet firmly established, I will argue that it is closer to what we now know about events in Vietnam.

The main body of this essay is divided into three parts. The first part reviews the two dominant narratives and discusses issues associated with the new perspective, including sources and ambiguities. In the second part, the nationalist revolution will be reinterpreted according to the new perspective. The third part will focus on the socialist revolution with an emphasis on the ways it was different from the nationalist one. In the conclusion I will touch briefly on the politics of forgetting and remembering revolutions in contemporary Vietnam. The two revolutions, both defeated, must be viewed not as triumphs, but as tragedies. As will be seen, this is in fact how many Vietnamese today think about these events.

Two dominant narratives versus a new perspective on revolution

Until recently there were two dominant narratives about the Vietnamese revolution. In the conventional portrayal based on Western scholarship, twentieth-century Vietnam experienced a protracted nationalist revolution to achieve national independence and unity. The revolution was primarily nationalist in character even though it was led by a communist party. It achieved its initial success in 1945 with Ho Chi Minh's proclamation of independence, and scored its greatest triumph in 1975 when Vietnam was reunified. Prior to 2000 or so, the majority of scholarly works on this topic viewed Vietnamese modern history and politics through the lenses of anticolonialism and nationalism. …

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