Christopher Goscha’s new dense and demanding book presents a comprehensive synthesis of Vietnamese politics. It focuses on the period extending from the French conquests of the 1860s and concludes with the emergence of an authoritarian, single-party state. By clarifying the connections between national, regional, and global histories and emphasizing the involvement of Vietnamese in the diaspora, Goscha makes this larger history accessible to general readers. In the process, he challenges scholars who construe Vietnamese history too narrowly. Goscha cites the Neolithic origins of Vietnam (10,000–2,000 BCE) but his treatment of the period before the French arrived is fairly perfunctory. By the end of chapter two (there are fourteen altogether) the French have finished taking, piece by piece, the five parts that, collectively, became Indochina: southern, central, and northern Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos. In chapter three he observes that in the 1860s, “The French naval officers taking over in the Mekong delta knew next to nothing about the 1.5 million people suddenly under their control” (81). Stumped, they turned to French-speaking Vietnamese, including the well-known Catholic Trương Vĩnh Ký. In chapters four and five Goscha analyzes two movements that, in different ways, were both critical of France. For a short time the monarchist-modernist movement in northern Vietnam, centered on Prince Cưò’ng Đê, regarded Japan as the “light of Asia” and encouraged young Vietnamese to “go east.” The Constitutionalist Party in southern Vietnam, over which the wealthy landowner and naturalized French citizen Bùi Quang Chiêu presided, sought to gain more political rights—not generally, but for male Cochinchinese elites. For a variety of reasons, including the effectiveness with which colonial administrators squashed them, both initiatives failed. Chapter six is superb. Goscha skillfully intertwines what seems, at first glance, an odd assortment of historical forces. He begins by describing a brawl between Vietnamese and Lao soccer players at a match in Vientiane. He then lays out how colonial administrators and entrepreneurs transformed the infrastructure of Indochina. To increase agricultural productivity, especially the cultivation of rice, they enlarged an already existing system of dykes, levees, reservoirs, and canals. On newly clear-cut swaths of land in Cochinchina and Cambodia they planted rubber trees; in the mountains of northwestern Tonkin and in the highlands of central Vietnam they planted coffee and tea. To more efficiently extract natural resources—coal, for instance, from the fields of Hồng Gai—they built railways and roads linking various parts of the empire together, often for the first time. Ensuring the integration of local and regional economies into global networks of industrial production and exchange, they dredged the harbors of Hải Phòng and Sài Gòn. Undermining the prevalent impression that the funds for these investments came from France, Goscha clarifies the fact that local peoples footed the bill—mostly through a vastly expanded system of taxation. The colonial government’s three monopolies—of alcohol, salt, and opium even more—also yielded essential revenue. Having systematically depicted the transformations brought about by the French occupation, Goscha explores the most important social dynamics, including the emergence of the Vietnamese working class. He also links these infrastructural changes to cultural dynamics and speaks in a compelling way about the religious distinctiveness of Cochinchina, where, in the period leading up to World War II, unprecedented numbers of rural Vietnamese responded to the appeals of Hòa Hảo Buddhists and the Cao Đài. Finally, Goscha considers the uniformly destructive but regionally specific effects of French security forces, concerned always with suppressing dissent. In the period leading up to the Second World War, they basically obliterated the Communists in southern Vietnam; in northern Vietnam, more or less at the same time, it was the nationalists they wiped out. Is it possible to describe the period 1940–1975 in a way that makes the “savage war of sovereignties” seem open again and indeterminate (221)? In chapters seven through eleven Goscha confirms that it is. He begins with a well-known moment that every writer cites. It is September 2, 1945 in Ba Đình Square in Hà Nội, and Hồ Chí Minh is reciting the Declaration of Independence. But Goscha does what others have not by examining how this event resonated with two distinct groups of southerners: nationalists gathered in Sài Gòn and French settlers who constituted a minuscule part of the population (less than .25 percent), but exerted a powerful influence on politics. Goscha clarifies how their rabid anti-nationalism contributed to the patterns that France, first, then the Americans, tried to preserve, and, in the process, delayed the Communists’ ability to control all of Vietnam. We are accustomed to the opposition between the DRV and the RVN, but these terms mask the stunning instability of Vietnamese politics in the post-World War II period. Goscha’s focus on events in the two main metropoles reminds us that, although these two urban cores remained more or less stable, for a period of thirty years the territories they hoped to control did not. Recalling the “mandalas” of pre-colonial Southeast Asia, Goscha introduces the term “archipelagic” to describe these constantly shifting configurations. The material in these chapters is riveting because of the intrinsic drama of the events taking place but also because Goscha is able to rely on his own rich record of original research. The narrative he constructs is based on a solid grasp of military dynamics, politics, and social conditions throughout Vietnam and in a wider international setting as well. For me the strange beast in this book is chapter twelve, which focuses on Vietnamese culture in the “long twentieth century,” which, strange to say, includes Nguyễn Du’s Tale of Kiều from 1820. Why don’t these comments come up in the earlier chapter devoted to the Nguyễn dynasty? As for the competing systems of transcription—classical Chinese, the demotic script known as nôm, and quốc ngữ, i.e. Romanized Vietnamese—Goscha brought these up in earlier chapters and could have discussed them then in a consolidated rather than fragmentary manner. Ditto: the explosion of print culture in the 1920s and 1930s. I see no good reason to relegate Nhã Ca’s Mourning Headband for Huế to the chapter on “culture,” when it most clearly belongs with the discussion of the Tết Offensive of 1968. In the remaining two chapters, Goscha chronicles the surprising incompetence of Vietnamese Communists following the “great spring victory” of 1975 and the eruption of another war. Coming out on top after thirty years of war, the Communists proceeded to punish actual as well as potential sources of dissent and thoroughly alienate people who probably could have been swayed to support them. Some would characterize these events as a grotesque betrayal of what the revolution promised; others see them as a simple manifestation of the only outcome one could reasonably expect, even if the “bloodbath” predicted by Americans never actually happened. Like every other book, this one is imperfect. Nevertheless, it is an original synthesis that deserves to be widely admired. © The Author(s) 2018. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of the Society for Historians of American Foreign Relations. All rights reserved. For permissions, please e-mail: email@example.com. This article is published and distributed under the terms of the Oxford University Press, Standard Journals Publication Model (https://academic.oup.com/journals/pages/about_us/legal/notices)
Diplomatic History – Oxford University Press
Published: May 14, 2018
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