Hanoi Central

Review of Hanoi's War: An International History of the War for Peace in Vietnam, by Lien-Hang T. Nguyen Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2012

Lien-Hang Nguyen's new book Hanoi's War: An International History of the War for Peace in Vietnam is primarily a political and diplomatic history of the Vietnam War, centered on Hanoi and the North Vietnamese government. This is the story of the political rise of two of North Vietnam's most powerful leaders, Le Duan and Le Duc Tho, the police state they and their comrades built in the North to solidify their power and suppress dissent, and the diplomatic and military strategies they pursued to win the war and reunify Vietnam.

While Hanoi's War focuses primarily on the North, it evolves into a true international history as other participants enter the war. By the end, Nguyen has spun a diplomatic web that includes North Vietnam, South Vietnam, China, the Soviet Union, the United States, Laos, Cambodia, France, and the Provisional Revolutionary Government in South Vietnam (PRG). Hanoi was at the center of that web.

The book is divided into four parts, with two chapters per part. Part One, "The Path to Revolutionary War," follows the early careers of the "Comrades Le" and their effort to build a police state in North Vietnam to cement their own power and to control the war effort. Part Two, "Breaking the Stalemate," discusses the North Vietnamese efforts to court China and the Soviet Union. Part Two also discusses the failure of Le Duan's 1964 and 1968 offensives, which resulted in greater American intervention. Part Three, "The Pursuit of a Chimeric Victory," shows how "Le Duan and Nixon sought to find each other's breaking points in the battlegrounds of Cambodia and Laos rather than order their deputies, Tho and Kissinger, to compromise in Paris" (10). Part Four, "The Making of a Faulty Peace," traces the complicated negotiations between Kissinger and Tho, and the influences on those negotiations of other players such as South Vietnam, which was fighting for its very existence; China, which was anxious to reopen relations with the United States and counter the Soviets; the Soviet Union, which believed the war was a disaster for both sides; and global public opinion, which tended to favor Vietnamese sovereignty and oppose American imperialism.

Besides illuminating the internal workings and diplomacy of the North Vietnamese government, one of Nguyen's goals is to demonstrate the influence that third-world actors, particularly the North Vietnamese, had over global affairs during the Cold War. The North Vietnamese prolonged the war against the Americans in a continuing effort to negotiate for peace from a position of strength. They exploited the Sino-Soviet split by playing the Soviet Union and China off each other. They also complicated American President Richard Nixon's efforts to thaw relations with the Soviet Union and China. Nguyen shows that the North Vietnamese were not isolated or marginalized; they were active players in global diplomacy.

Reunification was not the primary goal of all North Vietnamese intellectuals, politicians, military strategists, or the public, as Nguyen demonstrates. Le Duan and Le Duc Tho, however, both of whom had made their names in the South fighting the French after World War II, were the most influential "South-firsters." "South-firsters" believed that reunification with the South should be a higher priority than modernizing the North, and accepted the loss of northern blood and treasure toward that goal. They believed that the insurgent South Vietnamese government and its American allies prevented the Vietnamese people from reaching their full potential.

After assuming control of the Vietnamese Worker's Party, and de facto control of the entire North Vietnamese government, Le Duan and his political allies built a police state in the North that marginalized and arrested political opponents and "North-firsters."

After purging "North-firsters" from the government during the mid- to late-1960s, Le Duan enjoyed a relatively free hand in expanding and prolonging the war against the South and the Americans. He believed that the South Vietnamese people were waiting for the chance to rise up and overthrow the Saigon regime, and he planned a series of large-scale attacks on the South to provide an opportunity for the people to do so. Each of those attacks, in 1964, 1968 (the Tet Offensive), and 1972 (the Easter Offensive), failed to inspire popular uprisings. Those failures eventually forced Le Duan to negotiate for peace.

While Le Duan was planning and implementing attacks on Southern cities, his deputy Le Duc Tho was meeting with the Americans in Paris. Because Le Duan preferred a battlefield victory to a negotiated peace, he ordered Le Duc Tho to drag out the negotiations as long as possible. Only after his attacks on the South failed did Le Duan allow Tho to begin negotiating in good faith. The last two chapters of the book lay out the agonizing, lengthy, public and private negotiation process, meeting by meeting.

This book is political history but is not a polemic. It does not lambast the United States for engaging in a war of colonialism and imperialism. Nor does it glorify the Vietnamese freedom fighter. Nguyen's sympathies seem to lie instead with the "North-first" intellectuals and politicians who were victims of Le Duan's repressive police state, and with the people of North Vietnam who suffered continuous bombings from American B-52s and the diversion of precious resources toward the war effort.

Hanoi's War is an important book. It benefits from a wealth of newly declassified American documents and from the author's access to a variety of Vietnamese archives, including the Vietnam National Archives, the previously closed Archives of the Vietnam Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and others. Nguyen interviewed numerous officials from both North and South Vietnam. She also relies on archival sources from Britain, France, China, the Soviet Union, and various Eastern European nations. This international history was the result of a truly international research program.

While historians have long understood that the North Vietnamese government was riven by ideological differences and political infighting, this gives the most detailed description of the construction of Le Duan's police state and the disposal of his political rivals. This will also be the starting point for numerous other studies on international diplomacy during the Cold War. Nguyen has provided a blueprint for international histories on other topics. Hopefully other historians will be brave enough to follow her lead.