Amid the tumult of Saigon falling on April 30, 1975, Tran Thi Lien clung to her infant daughter as her husband, Nguyen Thanh Quang, desperately navigated his family, including nine children, out of a country that in a matter of hours would no longer exist. While their youngest child Lien-Hang T. Nguyen was too young to recall her harrowing experience as the Vietnam War ground to an ignoble end, her in-depth insights into that war’s final chapter is turning much of what is known about the war on its head. Through her perseverance and extraordinary access to Vietnamese archives, the former refugee, a Yale scholar and historian, crafted the groundbreaking Hanoi’s War: An International History of the War for Peace in Vietnam, which challenges many long-held assumptions about North Vietnam’s leadership and military and diplomatic strategies. Now an associate professor of history at the University of Kentucky, Nguyen recently spoke with Vietnam magazine about her life and her work.
When did you first come to know of your family’s escape from Vietnam?
I have no recollections myself of course, as I was about five months old in April 1975. My earliest memories are of when we resettled in Pennsylvania. I remember helping my mother sew Republic of Vietnam flags to give to those attending a reunion at Fort Indiantown Gap for refugees who were there in 1975. I think that was the first time I learned my family had been in a refugee camp.
As you grew up, did you learn much about the war?
My parents didn’t share much of that experience with me as a child. I think they were reluctant because it was too painful for them. They were much more focused on our future in the United States, and they just generally don’t like to talk about their personal past. My dad and uncles and cousins on my father’s side, on the other hand, used to like to talk among themselves about the war.
When did you begin to learn about your harrowing experience in 1975?
The first time I heard about what actually happened to my family was when my parents were forced to tell me about it for a high school homework assignment—and that was only because they wanted me to get a good grade. Even then, though, they just answered questions, and really didn’t share the whole story. It wasn’t until we revisted the story, this time for a paper I wrote in college, that I learned details about my family’s journey to the United States. I interviewed several family members, including my uncle who got us passage aboard a boat on the Saigon River to escape. I also wrote about those in my family who left the North in 1954. That paper was for my very first course on the Vietnam War at the University of Pennsylvania. It was in 1991 and Dr. Walter McDougal, who is a Vietnam veteran, had just started talking about his own war experiences in Vietnam and it prompted him to offer a seminar on the war. He had taught all different aspects of U.S. foreign policy, but had stayed away from the Vietnam War. Then, the first time I went to Vietnam in 1994, I was able to talk to aunts and uncles who weren’t able to make it over to the United States, and more stories were coming out.
And even more recently you’ve learned more about your personal story?
When preparing to talk at the National Book Festival this past summer, I again discussed leaving Vietnam with my parents and they were saying, “No, we remember things differently.” When I first interviewed my uncle, it was 20 years from when we left. When I interviewed my parents, it was 38 years out, so they had different memories of some of the details. It definitely took a while for everyone to be able to just talk about what happened. I still I can’t believe we were able to make it to the United States, based on everything I’ve garnered from family members.
Was your family all on the Southern side?
My father’s side of the family was originally from near Hanoi and they all left in 1954. My father and uncles were in the armed forces. On my mother’s side, there were people who joined the revolution, but the majority didn’t. The nomitive narrative that I grew up with was from the Republic of Vietnam side, not so much the Communist side.
So was it at the University of Pennsylvania that you decided to become a historian and specialize in Vietnam?
No, I was initially focused on the American Civil War and I worked with the historian Drew Gilpin Faust, now the president of Harvard, while an undergrad at Penn. The Civil War was my first love in terms of military history. That’s what I wanted to pursue when I applied to graduate school. But then I ended up working with John Lewis Gaddis at Yale, who was focusing on the Cold War era. He was accepting students who had area studies expertise and requisite languages to be able to do research in Communist or former Communist countries. So it wasn’t until my Cold War studies that I began focusing on Vietnam.
What were you most interested in as a historian?
The 1968 to 1973 period really interested me because I was trained in diplomatic history and wanted to focus on the peace negotiations in Paris. One of the big questions of the day was the extent of the Chinese and Soviet roles in the war and whether they had pressured North Vietnam to settle. At that time, since all the Vietnam archives were closed to outsiders, and Beijing and Moscow were not very forthcoming, finding those answers would be like finding the Holy Grail.
Your work, however, reaches back into the 1950s.
I soon realized I couldn’t just jump into the story in 1968, I had to explain a lot of what took place before that. So that was how Hanoi’s War came about.
"What was surprising was how Le Duan was able to so dominate the decision making in Hanoi"
You are challenging some basic understandings of the North Vietnamese leadership. How surprised were you?
I went in with an open mind. Now, I was not thinking that Ho Chi Minh had not been in charge, but I knew the reality was much more complex, so it wasn’t that surprising to learn that Le Duan had more control than was previously understood. What was unexpected was how he was able to so dominate the decision making, and the extent of the police state he created. He used the party apparatchiks to pretty much control all levers of decision making in Hanoi and formed an alliance with the minister of security to firmly clamp down on any antiwar dissent. I had thought, prior to my research, perhaps there was some form of collective leadership and decision making and, even if there was a first among equals, it wouldn’t be so similar to other systems I had studied as a historian, where one person was able to control everything.
You also say failures in socialist construction played a significant role in North Vietnam. To what extent did domestic issues impact North Vietnam’s war policy?
The question of why Hanoi gave a green light to war has long intrigued scholars, and there hadn’t been a really satisfying answer, except that of course the revolution was on the right side of history and that the war was inevitable. But when we look closer at what was going on within North Vietnam, we see there were many domestic problems, just as in the South. The difference was, we knew all about those problems in the South, They were very apparent because the international media was more focused, and able to focus, on the problem of nation building in the South. But the situation in the North was always a big question mark. At the time, there was a general awareness of the land reform failures, but not much was made of it. What has been gleaned out of some of the eastern European archives was the extent of the problems with the North Vietnam state planning. So, piecing these factors together, it makes sense to me why Le Duan was recalled from the South in 1957 to take over the Politburo. Revolutionary war was an effective means to deflect attention from domestic problems. This is one of my arguments that has really angered some people.
Who is angry with your notions?
In terms of this argument, many inside Vietnam and many who were aligned more with the antiwar movement in the West are offended because it portrays the North’s motivations as less heroic.
And your portrayal of Ho and General Bo Nguyen Giap as moderates has also drawn heat.
They were the moderates. This is the reason I think I get the “She must be a Communist” treatment from many in the Vietnam diaspora community—because in certain ways Ho and Giap come out as the heroes in the story. They would have, I think, probably exerted a moderating influence on how the war would have been waged. But they weren’t listened to as Le Duan advanced full-scale war at the expense of the North socialist revolution. I think I pretty much angered all sides with the book, which is a good thing.
How was it that Le Duan came to determined the war strategy?
From my understanding, what Le Duan wanted to do was win the war quickly through exerting the strategy of the General Offensive/General Uprising. He came up with that strategy in his reading of recent Vietnam history that included the 1945 August Revolution, or General Uprising, and the 1954 siege of Dien Bien Phu. He did not believe the North could win by strictly adhering to Mao Zedong’s three phases of people’s war. He thought they could bypass that by doing these large-scale attacks against cities and towns in South Vietnam, which would spur an uprising that would have the power to topple the Saigon machine. Ho and Giap were never quite ready to attack the cities, as they believed it would put their strength in the countryside at risk. They were always sort of hedging their bets, you can argue, in terms of how effective their military offensives were going to be. They were more realistic and they pretty much foresaw what would happen in 1964 and 1968.
Was Le Duan a true believer or was he misled by bad intelligence?
Le Duan saw what happened to Giap after focusing on the cities and towns in the August Revolution, and the power of the masses that were unleashed to defeat the French at Dien Bien Phu. He believed he could really harness that power in the cities and towns of the South and live on as this heroic leader who had the foresight to combine these tactics, which Ho and Giap regarded as huge gambles in which they could really lose big. In terms of intelligence, I would say that in the reading of the materials that have been coming out from Hanoi, he kind of ignored it. In 1968 he ignored all of the dissenting voices in the military and those who said the General Uprising was not going to work. He did try, in 1972, to learn from some of the mistakes and lessons of 1968.
Did Le Duan understand what was playing out during Tet ’68?
Le Duan had sent his right hand man Le Duc Tho to the south, so when the attacks began in January and February, he did have his eyes and ears on the ground, and the sources are very revealing about what was being relayed in real time. But Le Duan was convinced that it would work even though the chance of success grew dimmer and dimmer with each wave. I’m not quite sure why he didn’t stop. But, until more sources are revealed that could answer these questions, if they do exist, I fall back on human nature. We see military and political leaders make mistakes, yet stay the course, often a result of hubris or their blindness to the realities because they stake their reputation on a certain policy or strategy and have to see it go to the end. That’s what I argue was the case with Le Duan, the same way we can describe President Lyndon Johnson’s decision to pursue war because he saw his personal credibility and his nation’s credibility on the line. In Le Duan’s case, he also saw that the revolution was on the line.
You’ve also documented significant antiwar sentiment among the Communists, North and South.
We long suspected that there was antiwar sentiment among the masses, north and south of the 17th parallel. I found that there was a lot of resistance to Party Central’s control of the situation. In the North and South, many wanted the war to end, and in the South they wanted to wage the war as they saw fit. They constantly had to deal with Hanoi’s demands. Although I only had a handful of one-on-one interviews, I was able to participate in a closed conference on the National Liberation Front. But I couldn’t cite any of those former NLF members and their stories of how they tried to resist orders from Hanoi. But some of those assertions have since been confirmed through other sources and documents and books coming out of Ho Chi Minh City. They are now coming forth and admitting that they didn’t like certain directives.
How was it that the West was unaware of Le Duan’s hold on power?
The Vietnamese, probably even more so than the Chinese, were really able to keep things under wraps from foreign observers. Now, you can read in the documents that at the time there were some Vietnam experts who did think that Ho Chi Minh wasn’t all powerful and that others were really in charge of the Politburo. Some even thought it was Le Duan. But information was so sporadic and sketchy, and the situation was very uncertain. But it wasn’t making a difference as I don’t think it really mattered to Johnson or Nixon, and their advisers. Within Vietnam, of course Le Duan was well known, but not really until 1970, I argue, does he really go all out. Before that he was just considered one among many important leaders among the Politburo. I argue that he knew he wasn’t very charismatic and that it was more effective to allow more charismatic leaders, like Ho and Giap, to stand forward, while he controlled things behind the scenes. The Politburo had chosen to create this cult of personality around Ho Chi Minh, and to good effect as Ho really was good at rallying the people.
And that image of Ho remains strong today?
There hasn’t been really that much of an effort to dismantle Ho’s image, although stories are coming out that Ho was under attack from rivals and that he really didn’t wield real power, but that is not something the Party is promoting. It still maintains that Ho Chi Minh was the leader, and the party leadership was, and is, guided by his teachings. The war legacy is very important for the legitimacy and credibility of the Party today, because that was Hanoi’s greatest victory.
How important was the byzantine Hanoi-Moscow-Beijing relationship to the course of the war?
This is the Holy Grail. The conventional wisdom was that Vietnam was able to balance China and the Soviet Union during the war. But I found it was much more complicated. They did exert a lot of pressure and forced North Vietnam to do a lot that they would not have done if not for these bickering allies. It was a very important to grasp the extent this ideological rift impacted the war and revolution to understand the war.
How effective was Nixon’s “triangular offensive” in exploiting the Sino-Soviet-Vietnam entanglement?
I think the Nixon strategy actually worked. Most argue that Nixon’s triangular offensive failed, but I argue that it worked because the Soviets and Chinese exerted pressure on North Vietnam and North Vietnam yielded to that pressure. At the same time North Vietnam was able to maneuver to be protected from the full effect of what could have happened. By 1972 they were able to sort of shield themselves from the big-power machinations.
Could there have been peace earlier?
No. Neither Nixon nor Le Duan intended to reach peace earlier. Now, perhaps if Hubert Humphrey had won election in 1968, or Le Duan was no longer general secretary after 1968, and then only if Nguyen Van Thieu were no longer president of South Vietnam, as he exerted a lot of pressure on the United States to not negotiate and compromise in Paris.
You say there were no clear winners in the war, but what about North Vietnam?
Yes, North Vietnam won, but it was not black and white. The North Vietnamese people in the end lost, even those who joined the Party and those who were in the North Vietnamese Army. They sacrificed so much in a war that, if different leaders had been in charge, could have ended sooner. Le Duan was the victor but at what cost?
How is it a young Vietnamese American woman gained access to records so long denied to others?
I was in the right place at right time. When I first began going to Vietnam, there was a stigma attached to Vietnamese Americans or Vietnamese who left. We were viewed as traitors. So everything was much more difficult for us than even for foreign visitors. But there were policy changes in the late 1990s as Vietnam started trying to entice Vietnamese to come home or invest in the country. Things were changing rapidly, and I think I benefited from it when I began my research there in 1998. But I remember they were still telling me, “You need to be someone famous for us to let you in the archives.” And I would say, “But I can’t write a book and be anyone famous without getting into the archives.” It was a sort of chicken and egg thing. And when I interviewed folks at Vietnam’s Military Institute, I don’t think they took me too seriously. Why would a young Vietnamese American girl be interested in this and what can she do with what she finds anyway?
Did that attitude surprise you?
It’s understandable if you consider most scholars in Vietnam are typically old men. But I probably did benefit in that people were likely more willing to talk to me because I was a young Vietnamese American woman. I do think that helped in getting stories from former southern revolutionaries.
Should we expect more of the archives in Vietnam to open up?
I want to say yes, but there have been some steps in the opposite direction. They haven’t allowed as many researchers in certain archives and they continue to restrict access to certain files. It is still complicated. There has been a very good two-volume work by a journalist who had access to high-level party members on the period right after 1975 leading up to the Third Indochina War. The fact that he could publish is an important opening. But the problem is the archives. It’s all about opening them so anyone can gain access—not just a famous journalist. But I’m not sure when that will happen.
In your research effort, what was your biggest disappointment?
That I didn’t hear more voices from below. I wish I’d had better access to the sort of materials that related to what the people thought and felt during the war, like when the folks in Hanoi were forced to flee the bombing and move out to the countryside. I also wish I had learned more about those who were arrested or who were under survellience for opposing the war. All the material I gathered about them came from the perspective of those who arrested them.
How has your book been received in Vietnam?
I really have no idea. I sent some copies to friends at the Military History Institute and and in the diplomatic academy but I haven’t heard from them. I haven’t tried to go to Vietnam since the book was released.
What is the most intriguing question you would have liked to have gotten an answer to but couldn’t?
It would be something about Giap, like how much did he hate Le Duan. I tried to interview him in 2003 and was denied. But I think I’d like to ask Giap what he was thinking and feeling in 1967, when his closest friends and deputies were being arrested. Could he have saved them? What were his feelings as he watched, unable to protect them or the war effort itself.
Is there more to come from you about Vietnam?
I would really like to write a complete history of the war next, and this time pay more attention to Saigon.