Vietnamese Intellectuals Against U.S. Aggression
A Book Review
Published in Hanoi in 1966, Vietnamese Intellectuals Against U.S. Aggression is the product of a strategic conference of around 650 Vietnamese delegates in North Vietnam during wartime. This meeting of doctors, engineers, scientists, researchers, and statesmen, including Ho Chi Minh and Pham Van Dong, took place on January 4, 1965, a date that the author notes is exactly 20 years after Ho Chi Minh proclaimed Vietnamese independence. It took place in a Conference hall that overlooked the historic Ba Dinh square, where Ho made his declaration of independence. The task of the conference and the reason for its subsequently published book was equally historic: to publicly establish their goals for peace not war, to evaluate their standing against United States, and to decide how to continue their national struggle for independence.
Firstly, to understand the book and the authors’ perspectives, we must consider the social, military, and political disposition of the North Vietnamese people during war time. In 1966, the United States was escalating their aggression in North Vietnam, and their occupancy in South Vietnam. At the time of the conference, the U.S. had increased the number of G.I.‘s in South Vietnam from 34,000 to 190,000 in the past year. Moreover, the war was extended to more air attacks over North Vietnam, targeting the Government of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam. The intensification of warfare was combined with the takeover of socialism since the August Revolution in 1945. Despite the air bombings, North Vietnam was in a period of industrial, agricultural, educational development, and its leaders were trying to modernize the country. With these developments, the North Vietnamese built momentum in the two years leading up to the Tet Offensive. The book consists of a report by Professor Ta Quang Buu, a declaration against U.S. aggression, and various letters to audiences around the world. No single author is named, so I assume the book’s publication was a collaborative work of multiple writers.
To place the book in the greater scale of global movements, the 20th century in hindsight had been a century of national liberation movements and de-colonialism, and Vietnam was hungry for its independence. The rhetoric of national self-determination and independence rang sweetly in the ears of the Vietnamese people, who have historically been invaded by foreign powers. After having to fight off China, France, Japan, and the United States, the Communist party was almost at the end of their long-fought battle for independence. This book was a show of Communist strength and resolve, a declaration to bring global awareness to their plight against U.S. aggression, and a plea to win the so-called “hearts and minds” of audiences around the world. Vietnam itself was ending its chapter on the war for independence, and they would soon win it in 1975.
About half the book was a thorough, evaluative report, delivered by Professor Ta Quang Buu, who identified the hypocrisy of the United States as saboteurs of the 1954 Geneva Agreements, neo-colonial imperialists, and bellicose aggressors who jeopardize peace in North and South Vietnam, the whole of Indochina, and the world. He says that American leaders hypocritically cover up their occupation in Vietnam with a guise of being peace-makers, liberators, and restorers of the 1954 Geneva Agreements. He quotes Lyndon Johnson’s empty rhetoric about the “goodwill for peace,” “unconditional discussions,” and a “return to the Geneva Agreements.” Although he makes the North and South Vietnamese people seem victimized as if they did not break the agreements themselves, it is true that the U.S. maintained a political and military presence in Vietnam after the Geneva Agreements, with a puppet government of Vietnamese “advisers,” and a puppet army of American-trained Vietnamese soldiers. He said the U.S. dominated South Vietnam through invisible colonialism, pulling the strings to take administrative control of native puppets.
Though it first sounds like a biased and exaggerated critique of U.S. actions, Ta Quang Buu actually makes a rational and well-substantiated case against U.S. aggression. He goes on to explain how the United States had fixed the election of Ngo Dinh Diem, had given him military and financial aid for years, and even prevented the scheduled 1956 election from happening. This is not in compliance with Pham Van Dong’s second provision in the Geneva Agreements, which held that foreign powers would have to stay out of Vietnam, militarily and politically. The report goes on to point out Lyndon Johnson’s escalation of the war into Laos and Cambodia, instead of bringing peace to the area. Ta Quang Buu criticizes U.S. imperialists’ policies of intervention and war, saying it would never lead to peace in Indochina. He makes the argument that the only way for the Vietnamese to have peace is to have independence; consequently, the only way to have independence is to have removal of the foreign presence.
Ta Quang Buu critically analyzed the strong and weak points of U.S. power, and Vietnam’s advantage in the struggle against foreign aggressors. According to him, the U.S. was losing troops and airplanes, and suffered defeats from blows by the Vietnamese guerillas. At the same time, the U.S. lacked global and domestic support for their war, despite having the industrial advantage to overpower North Vietnamese forces. He identified the Vietnamese people’s advantage of having 20 years of experience in revolutionary war against the French, and over 2000 years of struggle against outside powers. Ta Quang Buu also noted that the implementation of socialism boosted North Vietnam’s productive industrial growth, and led to advances in agricultural yield and education (increased literacy and higher education rates). Unable to be free from party bias, Ta Quang Buu neglected to mention Communist losses and atrocities. He optimistically gave his support and all the delegates’ collective support for the Democratic Republic of Vietnam and their Four Points for independence.
After the professor’s report, the book dedicated several chapters to special letters, from the Vietnamese intellectuals, South Vietnamese intellectuals, Vietnamese intellectuals abroad, intellectuals in the United States, and intellectuals of the world. These letters appealed to the moral conscience of its audiences, continually thanking and giving appreciation for their support of the Vietnamese fight for independence, and making a case for the immediate cessation of U.S. aggression. In their letter to the U.S. intellectuals, the authors distinguish the U.S. belligerents from peace-makers and protesters. They distinguished their anti-colonial South Vietnamese compatriots from the ones who are misled by American propaganda. Based on their targeted audience (to whom the letters were addressed), I gather that the Vietnamese intellectuals were quite aware of their global and historical standing, and of the sentiments of other peace-making intellectuals about their situation.
The timing of when Vietnamese Intellectuals Against U.S. Aggression was published is significant when it is placed with other relative events. Written 20 years after Ho Chi Minh’s 1945 declaration of independence, their long-awaited political sovereignty was within reach. The book was published in 1966, as the U.S. sent more troops and dropped more bombs into Indochina. It was written when the anti-war movement was still growing, before it reached its max; in fact, this book may have fueled that movement toward its peak. In 1966, North Vietnamese forces had not yet been decimated by bombs, and they were building up for the Tet Offensive two years later. The Communists and the DRV had reason to believe the momentum was shifting in their favor.
The style of writing in this book was educated, eloquent, and argumentative. I can see the perspective of the book is one-sided, but the authors surely did not intend to present all sides of the argument, but rather to establish their side reasonably, so that others would know where they are coming from. Mentions of national self-determination and political sovereignty point to the fact the authors were aware of the trends of thought in the 20th century. The authors are not free of bias, however, so I would take some of their figures and arguments with a grain of rice. However, they make pleas for help and support, which are backed by logical arguments and evidence, and seem to have a genuine hope for independence. I found some of their arguments personally difficult to take in, because my family’s views are very anti-Communist. In writing this critique, I would not like to be seen as sympathetic to the Communists, but fair to all sides.
Neither side is completely free of fault, but after hearing the Communist side of the war, the United States no longer seem like the peace-making liberators they portray themselves to be. This might have parallels to America’s current campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan. Vietnamese Intellectuals Against U.S. Aggression is a great source for understanding the North Vietnamese perspective and intentions during the American-Vietnamese War period. It is a perspective that, when compared to the American side, is not well-explored in Vietnamese war literature.