Pierre Asselin. Hanoi's Road to the Vietnam War, 1954-1965. Berkeley: University of California Press. xix + 319 pp. $55.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-520-27612-3.
Reviewed by Tal Tovy (Bar Ilan University)
Published on H-War (February, 2015)
Commissioned by Margaret Sankey
The majority of Vietnam War studies have been written by American academics using an array of archival resources. A nearly complete vista of the origins of war, the causes for increased American involvement, military and political actions, and the war’s end has thus been laid out. Studies concerning the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV) and the Viet Cong were for the most part written from an American perspective, although some utilized documents seized by American forces during the war. This trend took a turn in the last decade, with newly published studies making use of Vietnamese archival documents. This begs the question: do these studies based on Vietnamese documents truly provide a new understanding of the war and issues pertaining to it? This matter can be demonstrated through a discussion of the historiography of the Korean War.
Until the 1990s, two clashing historiographical schools reigned supreme. The first, and older, was the orthodox school, which attributed the June 1950 North Korean invasion of its southern counterpart to the USSR. During the 1960s, the new revisionist school gained popularity, placing the United States in the role of aggressor in the US-USSR conflict. Most revisionist studies of the Korean War were published during the 1980s; they largely claim that the war was in fact a civil war dating back to 1947, and minimize role played by the USSR in Northern leader Kim Il Sung’s decision to attack the South. The true cause for this war’s inclusion in the Cold War and the inter-bloc struggle, add the revisionists, was the American decision to send out assistive forces to South Korea. Despite this drastic change in historical thinking, use of American archival sources persisted; a few studies did utilize North Korean documents, but they too were ones seized during the war, this time by UN forces.
The end of the Cold War and the fall of the USSR allowed access--though still limited--to Soviet archives, leading to an interesting new historiographical trend. Now the Cold War could be examined from the other side of the hill, so to speak, disclosing how Soviet countries operated in the years prior to the North Korean invasion. The two “veteran” schools each found justifications for their theses, but at the same time, a third, postrevisionist school was born. It criticized orthodox writings for being veiled anticommunist propaganda, and the revisionists for being haunted by the traumas of the Vietnam War. Postrevisionists refrain from searching for a scapegoat; their analysis for the outbreak of the Cold War (and other events) is much more objective. They argue it was a gradual process of escalation in which one superpower responded to the other’s actions. The causes for the Korean War can also be justified by each of the two veteran schools according to the claims they established well before the opening of the Soviet archives. In other words, access to the Soviet archives did not help determine who was to blame for the Korean War. These historiographical trends persist to this day in studies of the Cold War, a major event of which was the Vietnam War.
Modern Vietnamese historiography views the American involvement in Vietnam, namely the direct involvement phase, as another step in a long process dating back to nineteenth-century French imperialism and ending in the unification of Vietnam in the spring of 1975. From a historical perspective, one can see that the period of American involvement--while not the final step in a process of complete independence--was the penultimate stage and the most crucial one. But how?
From 1954 until the final evacuation of American troops from Vietnam in the beginning of 1973, American assistance and military involvement prevented the fall of South Vietnam. While the United States could not prevent Northern forces from invading the South and ending the war, the North itself could not conquer the South and impose a political victory. Simply put, as long as the United States was tied to the South, the political status quo achieved by the Geneva Convention (July 1954) continued. Only as American forces withdrew could North Vietnam run a successful strategic military maneuver (Operation Ho Chi Minh), leading to the occupation of the South and unifying Vietnam. Thus, from a historical perspective, the period of increased American involvement, from 1954 until the signing of the Paris treaty, constituted the most critical period--and greatest political and military challenge--faced by North Vietnam.
Asselin’s book examines in detail the decade which began with the Geneva decisions, leading up to 1964 and the North Vietnamese administrations’ order directed at its military “to prepare a major campaign in the South” (p. 204). The chapters of this book are arranged chronologically according to the unfolding of the events, thereby presenting the process of decision making at the top political tiers of North Vietnam--decisions which eventually led to a large-scale attack, prior to the massive American positioning of ground forces in the south of the country. Yet this well-documented description presented to the reader does not position North Vietnam as the aggressor. Documents show this was a steady process of escalation, resulting in part from the steps initiated by the United States and undoubtedly related to the policies of the North Vietnam administration. It therefore appears that Asselin sides with the postrevisionist school, which states that processes relating to the Cold War were a result of mutual feedback and not the aggression of one side or the other.
The book’s greatest contribution is its analysis of North Vietnamese policy leading up to a renewed military struggle aimed at unifying Vietnam. The majority of studies examining this decade focus on American policy and the actions of the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, essentially presenting the events in Southeast Asia, and specifically Vietnam, from an American perspective which viewed reality in Cold War terms, such as President Truman’s containment policy and President Eisenhower’s domino theory. Asselin, however, suggests an analysis which follows the decision-making process and political rationale in Hanoi, and not only the elementary quest for unity, considering that in 1956 the superpowers failed to honor the provision of the 1954 Geneva treaty calling for a referendum on the subject of unification within two years. The documents Asselin analyzes reveal complex debates among the top political tiers in North Vietnam; despite the eventual decision to go to war, other options were apparently considered.
But archival document analysis is far from satisfactory. Even if all relevant and desired documents are accessible, one should keep in mind that they were composed by persons with a certain political agenda, in hopes of progress. At times, these very writers understood quite well that their texts would be studied by historians at a future date. An objective historical reality is therefore undefinable, if it even exists. Asselin is aware of this fact, and his study thus analyzes the given texts with admirable caution. The reader is left with an impressive study of ten critical years, crucial in understanding the process that led to the military clash between North Vietnam and the American forces.
While this study adds an important aspect to the Vietnam War body of research, it is also of great value to researchers of the relationships between communist countries. The book unveils the complexity of the relationships between the USSR and other, nonsubordinate communist countries. Thus it provides a fascinating case study regarding the dynamic process of internal relationships within the communist world. Despite the USSR’s immense political power, North Vietnam was run according to its own national interests--even when they contradicted Soviet interests. Incidentally, a similar trend arises from the documented meetings between the leaders of North Korea, China, and the USSR in the months leading up to the Korean War. Therefore, in addition to an in-depth view of intercommunist relationships, the book proves that the communist world cannot be described as monolithic and controlled solely by the USSR. In that respect, the book is meaningful to historians of communist parties worldwide, specifically the North Vietnamese one. This important test case confirms that although outwardly communism presented unanimity, rival forces operated internally. Here lies another of the book’s strongest points.
At the outset of the Cold War, American foreign policy maintained that the USSR dictated the actions of all other communist countries, and therefore any and every communist act of aggression was a result of a Kremlin-based decision. This thinking, in part, led to the containment policy of the Truman administration and the refusal to view communist-oriented countries such as China, Yugoslavia, Vietnam, and Cuba as anything but Moscow-driven. In this regard, the book becomes a case study of the Cold War, aiding in our understanding of the complex political cocktail that was East-West relations. Furthermore, since the book also examines the ties between North Vietnam and China and the USSR, it provides insight to the nature of the deteriorating China-USSR relationship.
Here is a study which, while not advancing a new thesis, provides a valuable contribution to any discussion of North Vietnam’s road to war, and the origins of the American stage in the Vietnam War. The meticulous examination of the interparty process in North Vietnam, ties with the Communist superpowers, and the steps taken by South Vietnam and the United States creates a comprehensive narrative of the global history of the causes for the Vietnam War. We are presented with a new aspect in the debate regarding the essence of the Vietnamese conflict: was it a civil war between two Vietnamese political entities, or was it a central conflict in the grand scheme of the Cold War? Certainly, the gradual American intervention in Vietnam brought this conflict into the Cold War, but whether or not this conflict began as such remains to be determined.
The accessibility of the Vietnamese archives, though still limited compared to their American counterpart, truly enriches the body of research concerning the Vietnam War. Studies from recent years--Asselin’s included--produce a much more well-rounded historical view by comparing and contrasting the political steps and decision-making processes of the American administration at the time. Surely further studies based on the Vietnamese archives are in order, specifically in the fields of military and comparative history, such as that of decision making in North Korea as compared with North Vietnam, or in Hanoi and Washington. Such research would be valuable in explaining the political developments which led to a military clash between the US army and the North Vietnamese army in 1965; Asselin’s book contributes much to our understanding of the complexity of this riveting war.
. In this review, the phrase “Vietnam War” relates to the American portion of the war (1965-73).
. For example: Ang Cheng Guan, The Vietnam War from the Other Side (London: RoutledgeCurzon, 2002); Lien-Hang T. Nguyen, Hanoi's War: An International History of the War for Peace in Vietnam (Chapel Hill: North Carolina University Press, 2012); and James Waite, The End of the First Indochina War: A Global History (London: Routledge, 2012).
. Odd A. Wested, “The Cold War and the International History of the Twentieth Century,” in The Cambridge History of the Cold War: Vol. 1: Origins, ed. Melvyn P. Leffler and Odd A. Wested (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010), 1-19.
. For instance, a comparison with Mark Moyar’s fascinating work on the same period. See Mark Moyar, Triumph Forsaken: The Vietnam War, 1954-1965 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006).
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Tal Tovy. Review of Asselin, Pierre, Hanoi's Road to the Vietnam War, 1954-1965.
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