U.S. interest in Vietnamese history surged during the zenith of American involvement in the Second Indochina War in the late 1960s and early 1970s, and again with the normalization of U.S.-Vietnamese relations in the 1990s. Surprisingly, these periods did not produce a comprehensive and widely available scholarly volume on Vietnamese history in English. With the publication of K. W. Taylor’s A History of the Vietnamese (2013), Ben Kiernan’s Việt Nam: A History from Earliest Times to the Present (2017), and now Christopher Goscha’s Vietnam: A New History, historians suddenly have three such books from which to choose, each with its own points of emphasis, strengths, and weaknesses. Goscha’s book argues that it is now possible, based on “a flood of new research on Vietnam in recent years,” to write “a new history” of Vietnam (3). It corrects for the flaws in Cold War–era “great power” scholarship, in which “Vietnam was acted upon by the big powers; it was not quite an actor itself” (3). Goscha claims that in earlier scholarship “Vietnam is the victim of colonization and domination, never a colonizer and a conqueror itself,” and “its own internal divisions, ethnic diversity, and conflicts are obscured” (3). By locating processes of modernity within Vietnamese history prior to French colonization, Goscha’s approach replaces a colonialist historiography in which Vietnamese modernity is inextricably linked to French colonization. Goscha suggests that French imperialism borrowed from Vietnamese imperialism, as the French construction of Indochina was based on patterns of previous Vietnamese aggression against highlanders, Khmers, and Lao. The author replaces a teleological version of Vietnamese history as the development of resistance to foreign aggression with a narrative that recognizes the “multiple Vietnams” to be found in republican, noncommunist, and highlander visions of the Vietnamese past. Goscha has produced a unique and valuable narrative of the last two centuries of Vietnamese history. His book demonstrates how French colonial administrators repeated patterns of territorial expansion set by the Nguyen dynasty. Goscha’s discussion of the stillborn efforts to imagine a postcolonial Indochinese nation, rather than the three separate nations of Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam that exist today, is lucid and enlightening. Goscha is at his best when describing the efforts of Vietnamese constitutionalists, anarchists, and nationalists to create a Vietnam different from the communist one that ultimately prevailed after 1975, and when describing unsuccessful efforts at Franco-Vietnamese collaboration. His discussion of the Second Indochina War and of developments in the Democratic Republic of Vietnam and the Republic of Vietnam in the 1950s and 1960s are remarkably evenhanded. The book’s accounts of the influence of Indian anticolonial discourse on Vietnam and of the importance of the Third Indochina War in the collapse of global communism are but two examples of the ways in which this book will change standard narratives of Vietnamese history (396). Goscha’s text is deeply analytical. The author includes a variety of recent, cutting-edge scholarship in his analysis, and his thorough knowledge of French-language secondary sources adds to the depth of the book. Yet Goscha has also managed to write a highly accessible book that is well organized and appropriate for general readers. Despite the multiple and complex stories the author is trying to tell, he still manages to keep the book to a manageable length. Most importantly, more than any other work does, this book recovers a sense of the contingency of the Vietnamese past, and accordingly an appreciation for alternative narratives of Vietnam in the present day. The ambitious aims of this book require Goscha to abbreviate his discussions of many historical events. On occasion, as with all sweeping histories of this kind, the need for brevity results in a few misleading or erroneous statements. Goscha says that after defeating the Chinese, the Quang Trung Emperor “ruled Dai Viet from Hanoi until his death in 1792” (43), whereas in fact he ruled from Phú Xuân. He refers to the Cao Đài and the Hòa Hảo together as “Buddhist ‘sects,’” an oversimplification that might surprise many Cao Đài practitioners (317). He refers to General Trình Minh Thế as being “the leader of the Cao Dai” in 1955 (288), despite his having broken with Cao Đài leadership in 1951. These are representative samples of the oversimplifications and minor errors that punctuate the text and occasionally distract the reader from Goscha’s main arguments. Goscha’s goals of freeing Vietnamese history from the colonial mantle and introducing narratives of “multiple Vietnams” are in philosophical tension with one another. To locate a specific Vietnamese, pre-French “modernity” in the distant past, one needs to locate a particular indigenous Vietnamese narrative. But Goscha has already conceded that no such single dominant narrative of Vietnamese history is legitimate, and instead he embraces “multiple Vietnams.” The incommensurability of these two goals leads Goscha to awkward and anachronistic discussions of Vietnamese “independence” in the tenth century and of Le Loi’s “anticolonialism” with respect to the Chinese occupation in the fifteenth century, both of which are logically impossible unless Goscha has a predetermined and singular notion of who “the Vietnamese” actually are (13, 30). Nineteenth- and twentieth-century conceptions of imperialism are premised on post-Enlightenment nationalism; a nation can be called imperialist only if there is an a priori understanding of its natural domestic territory. Goscha is unwittingly reifying a teleological view of the natural territory belonging to ethnically Vietnamese people that he explicitly rejects in other sections of the text. This inconsistency is related to a contradiction inherent in the notion that an autochthonous modernity can be found in the precolonial Vietnamese past: the historiographical desire to search for the origins of Vietnamese modernity, and to discover an indigenous modernity equivalent to its Western counterpart, is unmistakably itself a product of the European Enlightenment, and would be incoherent without it. Goscha can thus only find a particularistic Vietnamese modernity (defined by colonial expansion) in a world in which he tacitly accepts the principles of a Eurocentric version of modernity. Finally, out of 461 pages of text, approximately 334 are devoted to an international political history of colonial and postcolonial modern Vietnam. Rather than providing a comprehensive history of Vietnam, then, what this book offers is a detailed and outstanding account of Vietnamese encounters with the French, Americans, and Chinese. Three chapters provide surveys on premodern Vietnam, cultural and social history, and ethnic minorities; these chapters are not well integrated into the themes of the rest of the text. The chapter on precolonial Vietnam covers more than two thousand years of history in about thirty pages, and its narrative function is primarily to set up arguments in the colonial chapters. Similarly, the other two essays exist outside of the chronological narrative of the book, making them function almost as appendixes. This is not in itself a criticism of the book, as there is nothing wrong with writing a political history of recent Vietnam. The only issue is the lacuna between the way this book is framed and what it actually provides. Those caveats aside, Goscha has provided us with a readable, thoughtful, accessible, and engaging work of scholarship that is an excellent classroom tool. The author’s project to locate in the past a multiplicity of Vietnams, to bring a variety of political and ideological views to the fore, and to simultaneously analyze Vietnamese history at an international and local level has produced an invaluable and significant work. © The Author 2018. Published by Oxford University Press.
The American Historical Review – Oxford University Press
Published: Feb 1, 2018
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