American debate over what the Vietnam War was really about has continued into the twenty-first century. Three positions dominate the debate. One position, represented by Rory Kennedy’s film Last Days in Vietnam (2014), is that the war was a civil war into which the United States was invited by the South Vietnamese government of President Ngo Dinh Diem to aid its fight against communist North Vietnam. The second positon, favored by U.S. anti-war groups and known as the neo-colonialist/imperialist thesis is that the war resulted from uninvited U.S. endeavors to fill the role of colonial power left vacant with the departure of the French after its defeat at Dien Bien Phu in 1954. The third, known as the Cold War thesis and held by mainstream historians is that the war was a collaborative effort between the Saigon government of South Vietnam and the United States to stem the expansion of Soviet and Chinese communism into Southeast Asia. Lines in the debate are seldom so crisply drawn, however, because the ideological leanings of participants have them borrowing from each of the three positions. It is not unusual, for example, for leftwing scholars sympathetic to the antiwar movement of those years to borrow from the neo-colonialist/imperialist and Cold War positions, nor for mainstream scholars to borrow from the civil war and Cold War positons. Recent American scholarship on the war attempts to go beyond the three dominant positions by introducing the discourse of development theory and the subset of modernization theory within it. The new studies lower the profile of those standard paradigms without discarding them, enabling, thereby, the early years of the war, 1955–1963, to be understood as conflicts over Vietnam’s paths to national independence and modernity. Geoffrey C. Stewart’s book is the best-yet effort to forge a new and inclusive approach with the potential to reignite interest in the history of the war. Stewart’s Diem was a modernizer poised, from the outset of his government in 1955, against what he deigned the “three enemies” of Vietnam’s development: the legacy of colonialism, the persistence of feudalism in rural areas, and communism. While the French had largely departed Vietnam, they left behind a governmental apparatus that was bureaucratic and dominated by the comprador class of Vietnamese that had served colonial interests for decades; feudalism had kept the peasantry mystified by religious superstition and locked in poverty and illiteracy while its landlord and warlord classes resisted the notion of central government in Saigon or anywhere else; and the communists whom Diem viewed as a threat to his dream of an independent Vietnam. The Geneva Accords that ended French presence in Vietnam also left administrative vacuums that were particularly debilitating in rural areas. Fearing that those lacunae would be filled by communist-influenced followers of the Viet Minh that had led the national liberation movement against the French, Diem turned to Kieu Cong Cung to formulate a plan for the pacification of the countryside that would win the Saigon government enough votes in the 1956 election to unify Vietnam under its authority. Cung was a former non-communist member of the Viet Minh who won over Diem’s American advisors, including Edward Lansdale, to the idea of a civil service project in the villages and hamlets that would improve social and economic conditions for the peasantry while fostering within it a culture of village independence and self-management. The plan, which had all the trappings of a civilian Peace Corp (as Americans might view it), was designed in Stewart’s words to, “Duplicate the tactics of the communist agents at the village level and beat them at their own game”—that game being Vietnam’s post-colonial community and economic development (26). Cung’s plan was formalized as Civic Action in 1955 and from there became the foundation for the establishment of model villages in which cadres recruited and dispatched from Saigon would assist local development projects while promulgating Diem’s “personalist philosophy” of individual responsibility for the collective good. There was a transformative and progressive energy with a socialist hue at the core of his vision that warrants its characterization as “revolutionary”—as proclaimed in the book’s title. His Civic Action cadres were assigned to repairing roads and improving sanitation; his land reform measures reduced rents to peasants by over half and redistributed ownership to free-holders whom he hoped would comprise a new middle class. The Communists, however, were out ahead on the land issue having expropriated large agricultural partials during the Viet Minh years and provided them rent-free to peasants. And the communist cadres were often welcomed in the villages as undercover “left-behinds” of the Viet Minh that had regrouped to the North as per the Geneva Accords, while others, returning to the South after the 1956 elections were scuttled, were indigenous to the communities to which they now returned to work as organizers. By contrast, the community organizers recruited by Diem were often anti-communist Catholics, born and raised in the North who fled to the South after 1954 and spoke an accented Vietnamese that was foreign to the people with whom they were trying to build community. The tension between the two forces make up some of the most interesting reading in the book. The core chapters of Vietnam’s Lost Revolution chart the descent of Civic Action from Diem’s utopian vision of it into an increasingly defensive strategy to fend off communist advances. Unwilling to compromise national sovereignty by inviting greater U.S. military involvement to counter the Communists, Diem first doubled-down on the model village concept by forming “Agrovilles” that offered greater social services supportive of local self-reliance, and coupled that with an aggressive “denunciation of communism” campaign that was waged at the local level. American advisors, however, made a distinction between the “low modernist” approach favored by Diem and the “high modernist” path favored by the Kennedy administration for Third World development that called for tighter bonds between a strong central government and local entities. The formation of the communist National Liberation Front in 1960 raised new challenges to the Saigon government which it met by transforming its Civic Action plan yet again, this time into the Strategic Hamlet Program. Strategic hamlets required a greater U.S. military presence which further alienated peasants, nudging them closer to the NLF and “channeling,” in Stewart’s words, “the forces of modernization in Vietnam in a direction more conducive to wider American Cold War interests” (218). Befitting the “failure” in his title, Stewart ends with an autopsy of the Diem years, concluding that Diem’s faith that his personalist values would take root in a pre-colonial organic village corporatism was misplaced; his assumption that peasants drawn to the NLF were dupes of the Communists was flawed; and American commitment to his regime only eroded his legitimacy as a leader. The importance of Vietnam’s Lost Revolution lies in its restoration of the Vietnamese as agents of history in the years during which U.S. involvement there escalates, and in its incorporation of civil war, Cold War, and neo-colonialist/imperialist narratives into the discourse of modernization theory. Stewart speculates that the mid-twentieth century wars in Vietnam can be likened to the wars that wracked Europe during its transition from feudalism to capitalism from the sixteenth to eighteenth centuries. We can’t know if that speculation will hold up to additional scholarship. Still, this book brings some new vitality to the studies of Vietnam’s struggles for independence between 1955 and 1963. © 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: Feb 10, 2018
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