Hanoi’s War: An International History of the War for Peace in Vietnam
by Lien-Hang T. Nguyen, The University of North Carolina Press, 2012
For years the manner in which Hanoi waged its war—militarily, politically, diplomatically—and the leaders of that war have confounded historians. Lien-Hang T. Nguyen, however, offers a compellingly fresh response to those oft-considered questions in her fascinating book, Hanoi’s War: An International History of the War for Peace in Vietnam.
Whereas some studies ascribe a more prominent role to Ho Chi Minh and General Vo Nguyen Giap in running the North Vietnamese war effort, Nguyen, an Ivy League–educated scholar and the daughter of Vietnamese émigrés, argues persuasively that it was actually Party First Secretary Le Duan, ably abetted by his right-hand man, Le Duc Tho, who dictated party policy during the war.
Following the Geneva Conference in 1954, Ho and his victorious Vietnamese Worker’s Party (VWP) in the North confronted the next challenge to “national liberation”—national reunification. Initially the VWP Politburo espoused reunification through political support for the Communist insurgency in the South. Le Duan, though, lobbied for political agitation and armed struggle to reunify the two Vietnams. Inducted into the Politburo in the early 1950s, Le Duan believed that if the North refrained from supporting the armed struggle in South Vietnam, the Party would risk losing control of the southern insurgency.
Detailing the VWP’s internal squabbles over how to reunify the country, Nguyen shatters the carefully crafted image of a unified Party marching toward war.“North-firsters,” Nguyen writes, preferred committing resources to domestic state-building and endorsed a policy of reunification through political struggle and economic competition. The “Southfirsters,” led by Le Duan and Le Duc Tho, pushed reunification via war and appropriating Northern resources to support the armed struggle in the South.
Domestic policy failures in the mid- 1950s damaged the reputations of party officials, including Ho and Giap, and swept Le Duan and Le Duc Tho into power. Untainted by a disastrous land reform program, Le Duan and Tho were tasked in 1959 to lead the “rectification of errors campaign.” They also secured passage of Resolution 15, authorizing limited armed struggle in support of the political struggle in the South.
Ascending to the rank of party first secretary in 1960, Le Duan consolidated power quickly while promoting a policy of all-out war and decisive victory over the South. Party moderates, Northfirsters and political rivals were silenced through blackmail and intimidation. The Ministry of Public Security in Le Duan’s burgeoning police state targeted those who opposed state policy. The first secretary, moreover, solidified Hanoi’s control over the southern revolution.“Le Duan,” wrote Nguyen, “steamrolled over his adversaries in the North as well as the South.” Thereafter, in 1964-65 and then again in 1968, Le Duan and the militants—not General Giap—advanced the “General Offensive-General Uprising” main force war strategy that Hanoi expected to topple the Saigon regime. Both failed to conclude the war militarily.
Hanoi’s War skillfully contextualizes Northern decision-making within the ideological divides of the Cold War, particularly the Sino-Soviet split. Dependent on the largesse of its superpower patrons, China and the Soviet Union, North Vietnam received conflicting strategic advice from each. Moscow, despite supplying the armaments required for main force war and rapid military conquest, frequently advised Hanoi to negotiate with the United States; China, alternatively, counseled against negotiations and recommended a protracted guerrilla war.
Nguyen also delves into the “talking while fighting”phase of the war. Le Duan, prompted by the Tet Offensive defeat, begrudgingly consented to negotiations in 1968. Marshalling a dizzying array of heretofore classified Communist cables, telegrams and other correspondence, Nguyen reconstructs in intimate detail the diplomatic strategy Hanoi embraced during the peace talks in Paris and in private meetings between Le Duc Tho and Henry Kissinger. Confronted with an equally obstinate foe in Kissinger, Tho stonewalled when possible and insisted on the withdrawal of U.S. troops and the removal of South Vietnamese President Nguyen Van Thieu.
Meanwhile Nixon’s “triangular offensive,” consisting of rapprochement with China and détente with the Soviets, did succeed in inducing Beijing and Moscow to exert pressure on Hanoi to settle the war diplomatically. That pressure in part prompted Le Duan and the hardliners to launch the 1972 Easter Offensive. Buoyed by the defeat of South Vietnamese forces in Laos in 1971, and fearful that Beijing and Moscow would sacrifice the Vietnamese cause for better relations with Washington, Le Duan attempted again to win the war militarily.
Extraordinarily edifying, Hanoi’s War reveals that a determined clique of Vietnamese decision-makers, acting with uncommon agency and perseverance, thwarted domestic dissent, party rivals, superpower diplomacy and the intervention of the world’s premier military force to alter the course of Cold War history.
Originally published in the April 2013 issue of Vietnam. To subscribe, click here.