Nationalism in Vietnam

Nationalism in the Third World has historically served as a powerfull force in lashing out against colonialism. The aims of third world nationalism are to replace foreign rule with national government. In Asia, Vietnam has fought a long struggle to keep its country independent from foreign domination. Historically, the Vietnamese struggled against the Chinese Empire to maintain their independence. In the twentieth century Vietnamese independence was tried from a new direction, the West. Nationalism in Vietnam gave power to a movement for unification of a country that could not be harnessed by any external force placed upon the Vietnamese people.

Nationalism regardless of geographic location caries a common thread. R.S. Chaven defines nationalism as,

A sentiment loyalty or sympathy which builds a group of people together through common institutions and culture and thus creates a unity among them. It may be taken to mean some particular way or ways of manifesting national spirit and may be defined as the sum of social and political aspirations of the people. In this sense the ideas controlling the life and actions of a people would constitute its nationalism. (Chavan 6)

Vietnamese nationalism had been in existence since its early wars with the Chinese to avoid being incorporated into the mighty Chinese Empire. In 221 BC the Ch'in dynasty in China conquered neighboring states and exercised rule over them. When the mighty emperor died, Shihuangdi the dynasty began to collapse. From the ruins of this empire the Chinese commander built his own kingdom known as Nam Viet. Then in 111 BC Chinese armies conquered Nam Viet and absorbed it into the Han Empire. With the attempt to integrate Vietnam politically and culturally in the Chinese Empire there was fierce but often sporadic resistance. The most famous of these revolts was in AD 39 when the Trung sisters led an uprising leaving the older sister the ruler of an independent state of Vietnam. (Microsoft Encarta Encyclopedia CD-ROM) From this time heroes were formed in Vietnamese culture for their resistance to Chinese rule. Vietnam managed to keep a separate culture and traditions of there own apart from the Chinese. During these centuries efforts of imposed Chinese sinification, the "Vietnamese came into their own as a separate people with political and cultural aspects of their own."(SarDesai17) Opposition to the Chinese Empire helped to solidify Vietnamese nationalism. The people of Vietnam share as Chaven's definition suggest common institutions and culture creating a unity among them. The Vietnamese have a strong history and national identity. Part of this identity came from the winning of independence from China. The more the Chinese tried to sinicize Vietnam the more this effort promoted Vietnamese nationalism. In R.S. Chaven's book Nationalism in Asia this question is raised, "Often it is asked with surprise as to how a small and poor nation like North Vietnam could fight the greatest world power like the United States and still survive the death and destruction caused by the rain of American bombs? Chaven's answer to this question is that it was due to the North Vietnamese "inner strength" that is the force of their unfathomably staunch nationalism. (Chaven 258)

To illustrate the strength of Vietnamese nationalism several arguments will be presented. The first is that the United States miscalculated the motives for a reunified Vietnam. Ho Chi Minh was fueled first and foremost by patriotism. This movement was primarily a nationalist movement in nature above that of a communist. The second point to be examined is how nationalism provided the strength to not only survive but win out over superior American military strength.

Ho Chi Minh who could be regarded as the Vietnamese soul for the revolution and struggle for independence became disillusioned with the West world. In 1919 Ho Chi Minh appeared outside the Versailles peace conference intending to present his eight-point program which he hoped would potential lead to the right for self-determination for his country. However, Ho Chi Minh soon realized that President Wilson's doctrine of self determination was meant to be applied in Europe rather than for the colonies of the French in Southeast Asia. It was after this disillusionment with the West that Ho Chi Min found Marxism. Even though Ho Chi Minh was drawn into the Marxist camp Ho Chi Minh was a nationalist first and communist second. It was patriotism that led him to seek help from the West in establishing an independent Vietnam. Frustrated and rejected Ho Chi Minh's option was to turn to a communist alternative.

When the United States decided to lend its support to France to regain control of its Southeast Asian colony the mistake of seeing Ho Chi Minh as first and foremost a communist led to further miscalculations. The Vietnamese people were fighting a national war for independence against French colonial rule. Recognizing Ho Chi Minh as a communist leader, the west mistook his national struggle as a communist war against French colonialism, rather than a national movement for independence. As R.S. Chaven writes,

The Vietnamese national movement was supported mostly by nationalist who were not communist, but who were prepared to work even under a communist leader for the sake of getting independence from foreign domination. Washington had really failed to appreciate how highly President Ho Chi Minh and the Viet Minh were regarded by the Vietnamese people as their vigorous source of national aspiration and a strong pillar of Vietnamese nationalism. (Chavan 252)

The motives for the leadership in Vietnam were first and foremost an independent Vietnam free for foreign domination. These motives found their basis in nationalism. Historically, Vietnam had led a struggle against the Chinese Empire for the very same reasons it would later wage war against the French and the United States. To understand this twentieth century movement for independence a historical linkage must be placed to past struggles for independence. Similar to centuries before the Vietnamese strove to be a separate people with their own political and cultural aspects. Robert S. McNamara US Secretary of Defense under the Kennedy and Johnson administration in his book In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of the Vietnam War said the following about the movement under Ho Chi Minh,

We also totally underestimated the nationalist aspect of Ho Chi Minh's movement. We saw him first as a communist and only second as a Vietnamese nationalist. (McNamara 46)

McNamara attributed the failure of the Vietnam War on a lack of knowledge that the government had access to concerning Southeast Asia. There were no experts who had relevant information to compensate for the ignorance of the decision-makers in the regarding American involvement in Vietnam. Ironically all the China experts who would have had relevant information regarding this region had been purged out of the State Department for allegedly being pro communist in the 1950's. McNamara himself admits, " I had never visited Indochina, nor did I understand or appreciate its history, language, culture, or values."(Newsweek 46) The United States directed its war effort against Vietnam based on the premise that if South Vietnam were to fall to Communism it would not just endanger the security of Asia but the Western world as well. U.S. foreign policy operated under a doctrine of containment articulated by George F. Kennan in 1947. The basic idea of containment was that a line would be drawn between the communist and non-communistic world. Spreading of communism into the non-communist world would be deemed intolerable and result in resistance by the West. Stemming from this spawned the Truman Doctrine that would lend support to any countries in the world threatened by communist hegemony by the means of economic as well as military force. (Snow 73) For the U.S. Ho Chi Minhs government in North Vietnam was seen as a product of Soviet communist expansion. Following the precepts of the Truman Doctrine the U.S. gradually increased its involvement in hopes to prevent a communist Vietnam from emerging. If Vietnam were to be a casualty of communism it was feared that other Asian states would then follow suit constituting a threat to U.S. foreign policy objectives. From these miscalculation the United States failed to see the nationalist movement of Vietnam as it really was. That being to drive what it considered to be the last vestiges of foreign colonization. Ho Chi Minh's vision for Vietnam was a free and independent country. Vietnam would no longer be subject to the humiliation of foreign rule.

It was this fear of a communist Vietnam that led to eventual American military involvement. Those involved in the decision making process seriously underestimated the will that nationalism inspired. During the course of the Vietnam War the Johnson administration gradually escalated the violence against North Vietnam. The means of which was an aerial bombardment known as "Rolling Thunder." Those in charge of the American war effort had the idea that at some point the amount of suffering brought upon by the bombing would exceed the amount the aggressors were willing to endure. Therefore, resulting in the end the North's aggression on South Vietnam. (Snow 46) However, the North Vietnamese fueled by nationalism were willing to make extreme sacrifices. Even with United States military power to hurt and destroy the 'inner strength' of Ho Chi Minh's inspired nationalist movement could not be broken. Superior military technology is left irrelevant if the enemy is willing to make extreme sacrifices for their national cause. The strength of the North Vietnamese lies in Ho Chi Minh's claim "that he would lose ten people to every one American but in the end would still prevail, and they were willing to do so because national reunification was their ultimate goal."(Steigerwald 90)

Where America relied on superior military technology the North Vietnamese relied on their inner strength. Major-General Van Tien Dung wrote that,

…the political and moral strength of our army and the people is the decisive force in achieving victories in our fight against the war of destruction and defeat of enemy troops equipped with up to date weapons. The victories further test the correctness of the consistent viewpoint of our party that no matter what modern weapons we are equipped with, the fundamental factor that determines our final victory over the US marauders remains the political and moral strength of our army and people. (Post 9)

Criticism has often been mounted that if the United States had tried to hurt the enemy more through the ariel bombardments the enemy's capacity to endure the pain would have been exceeded. In other words if an attack were made on civilian targets and the enemies capacity to fight a war the North Vietnamese could have be coerced into surrender. This accusation is deemed invalid for several reasons. The first is that Vietnam being an agrarian based economy lacked targets of any real strategic importance. Most of its strategic military equipment came from Chinese or Russian sources. The North Vietnamese excelling in guerrilla warfare tactics managed to gain most of the ammunition from capturing South Vietnamese and American arms depots. Another reason is that the extent of the American bombing was unprecedented. The United States dropped more bombs in the Vietnam War than in the history of warfare. The effect of this bombing was that it united the people of the North being more determined than ever to fight the enemy. (SarDesai 117) Carpet B-52 carpet bombers were capable of carrying up to twenty-seven tons of bombs. One guerrilla leader described the carpet bombings more terrifying than the torture he received at the hands of the South Vietnamese police. Although it is said that American bombers did not target civilian targets regularly, engaging in this type of campaign would certainly inflict collateral damage. The Defense Departments estimates in 1966 accounted for 1,000 civilian casualties a week, while the CIA estimates ran double that figure. With these numbers in mind civilian casualties may have run as high as 300,00 annually by 1968. Even though claims are made that civilians were not targets U.S. pilots may not have always exercise the best judgments in choosing where to drop the bombs. (Steigerwald 84)

In 1967 Ho Chi Minh wrote a letter to President Johnson in reply to find a diplomatic solution to end the war in Vietnam. In this letter Ho Chi Minh speaks out against U.S. actions in this conflict. He writes,

…The U.S. government has committed war crimes, crimes against peace and against mankind. In South Vietnam, half a million U.S. and satellite troops have resorted to the most inhumane weapons and most barbaric methods of warfare … In North Vietnam, thousands of U.S. aircraft have dropped hundreds of thousands of tons of bombs, destroying towns, villages, factories, schools.

Even under such inhumane means of aggression Ho Chi Minh contends that his people still have the spirit to endure such suffering.

The Vietnamese people deeply love independence, freedom, and peace. But in the face of U.S. aggression, they have risen up, united as one man, fearless of sacrifices and hardships. They are determined to carry on their resistance until they have won genuine independence and freedom and true peace. (CNN.COM Ho Chi Minh letter)

In this statement the revolutionary leader Ho Chi Minh capitulizes his peoples national struggle for independence. The Vietnamese have truly "risen up, united as one man, and were fearless of sacrifices and hardships. Those decision-makers in the U.S. government totally underestimated the national spirit the people of North Vietnamese. Ho Chi Minh envisioned that if his people possessed this spirit eventually they would prevail over foreign aggression. America could drop all the bombs it wanted but like the French they would one day leave Vietnam. Ho Chi Minh did not live to see his vision fulfilled for an independent Vietnam. As history has shown the power of Vietnamese nationalism proved greater than any fear or destruction the U.S. war effort could unleash. Following the words of Mao Tse-tung, Troung Son made the following statement, which was published in both South and North Vietnam. 'Man and his spirit are the decisive factors for victory in war and not weapons.'(Post 10) Ho Chi Minh's success as a revolutionary leader lies in the ability to direct the loyalties and sympathies of the Vietnamese people into a national movement for reunification and independence. Vietnam's struggle for independence was not only a twentieth century movement. The roots of this movement lie much deeper. Understanding Vietnamese nationalism requires understanding the cultural context of the people. One of the main factors for the U.S. losing of the war in Vietnam did not understand either nationalism or the power it gave the Vietnamese. Nationalism was the force that empowered the Vietnamese. The statement by Ho Chi Minh that he was willing to loose ten people to every one American should have been seen as a warning to the West. When the Vietnamese people took up arms they were fighting for what the saw as a just cause. It was more than a war for a communist Vietnam. The North Vietnamese were in continuation of a historical fight. They were fighting for their land, culture, traditions, values and history. When foreign aggression placed the countries national spirit in jeopardy no amount of terror would be able to break the movement for a reunified and independent Vietnam.

Works Cited

Chaven, R.S. Nationalism in Asia. New Delhi : Sterling Publishers, 1973

CNN, Episode 11 : Vietnam. On-line. Internet

McNamara, Roberts S. We Were Wrong, Terribly Wrong. Newsweek, 17 April 1995: 45-54

Post, Ken. Revolution, socialism, and nationalism in Vietnam : Winning the war and losing the peace. Aldershot, Hants, England; Brooksfield, Vermont : Dartmouth, 1994

"Microsoft Encarta." Vietnam. Microsoft Corporation, 1993-1997

Sardesia, D.R. Vietnam : The struggle for national identity. Boulder, Colorado : Westview Press, 1992

--- . Vietnam : Trials and tribulation of a nation. California : Long Beach Publications, 1988


Steigerwald, David. The sixties and the end of modern America. New York : Saint Martin's Press, 1995

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