Vietnam: Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow

By Suter, Keith | Contemporary Review, June 2005 | Go to article overview

Vietnam: Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow

Suter, Keith, Contemporary Review

IN March 2005 I returned to Vietnam for the first time since I was there doing research for a doctorate during the war in South Vietnam in 1974. The purpose of this article is to recall the country's history, to look at the state of Vietnam today, and to provide two contrasting speculations on how it could progress into the future.


Vietnam is the only country to have beaten off three of the five Permanent Members of the UN Security Council: China, France and the United States. No other country has this record. It has a formidable tradition of resistance.

China has been the longest-running enemy of Vietnam. Most of the heroes in Vietnamese history have been people who have fought against China. This line of fighters goes all the way back to at least AD 39 and the Truong Sisters. Even the name 'Viet Nam' probably has Chinese origins and means 'land south of China'. In 111 BC, Vietnam was conquered by China. In AD 939 at long last Vietnam obtained its independence from China. But the Chinese and the Mongols remained a threat for many centuries. Relations with China to this day--despite both being 'communist' regimes--remain tense: history is more resilient than political ideology.

In the nineteenth century, France was looking for a land or River Mekong route to get into China (which was then in a state of decay), as well as to hinder British expansion into East Asia through Burma. The Mekong is the world's twelfth longest river but it never did become a major commercial artery. However the Delta in the south was agriculturally very rich and France did well from its colonization. The French invasion began in 1858 and was completed by 1884. French rule was resisted but unsuccessfully.

The Nationalist leader, Ho Chi Minh declared the independence of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam on 2 September 1945. He was one of Asia's most colourful leaders in the twentieth century and there is a continuing debate on some of his early history. During World War II, when Japan overran French Indochina, he became by default an ally of the US. At one point, when he was sick in the jungle, the Office for Strategic Services (OSS), the forerunner of the CIA, saved his life by dropping in some medicine for him.

After the war, France tried to regain control of the country. The French complained that the Viet Minh would not fight a conventional battle and instead waged a guerrilla struggle (as they had done so well against the Japanese). With the height of arrogance, the French created a fort at Dien Bien Phu in a valley, west of Hanoi. When questioned about the risk of being attacked from the surrounding hills, a French officer remarked that the Viet Minh had no artillery; even if they did they would not be able to transport it to this valley; and even if they could do that, they would not know how to use it. When the first artillery round landed in the camp, he committed suicide because he knew that the French had lost. The Viet Minh had managed to transport disassembled parts of the artillery on the back of bicycles through the jungles and then reassembled them on the ridges around the valley. The French got their set piece battle and lost it.

At the 1954 Geneva Conference, the resulting Peace Accords meant that Vietnam was divided temporarily along the 17th Parallel to permit the French to leave the south. The Soviet Union and China both pressured the reluctant and suspicious Ho Chi Minh into accepting the deal so that they could avoid another Cold War confrontation with the US.

Just as Ho Chin Minh feared, the US refused to have the country reunited. It feared that Ho Chi Minh would come to power in a reunited country in a free election. In 1955 the US created the Republic of South Vietnam, headed by the anti-communist Ngo Dinh Diem. The 'temporary' division of the country had become permanent--at least for two decades. In 1957 the insurgency began in the South. …

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