Hanoi's Road to the Vietnam War opens in 1954 with the signing of the Geneva accords that ended the eight-year-long Franco-Indochinese War and created two Vietnams. In agreeing to the accords, Ho Chi Minh and other leaders of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam anticipated a new period of peace leading to national reunification under their rule; they never imagined that within a decade they would be engaged in an even bigger feud with the United States. Basing his work on new and largely inaccessible Vietnamese materials as well as French, British, Canadian, and American documents, Pierre Asselin explores the communist path to war. Specifically, he examines the internal debates and other elements that shaped Hanoi's revolutionary strategy in the decade preceding U.S. military intervention, and resulting domestic and foreign programs. Without exonerating Washington for its role in the advent of hostilities in 1965, Hanoi's Road to the Vietnam War demonstrates that those who directed the effort against the United States and its allies in Saigon were at least equally responsible for creating the circumstances that culminated in arguably the most tragic conflict of the Cold War era.
Hanoi's Road to the Vietnam War, 1954-1965
Choosing Peace, 1954-1956
By the summer of 1954, the world seemed slightly safer than it had been just a few months before, as a "hot" phase in the Cold War came to an end. The Korean and Indochina Wars had done much to increase tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union while marking the emergence of the People's Republic of China (PRC) as an ardent opponent of American "neo-imperialism" and a dynamic player in global politics. But the death of Stalin, the cease-fire in Korea, and the Geneva accords on Indochina offered some reprieve. Specifically, they presented Washington and Moscow with an opportunity to ease tensions between them, for rapprochement.
As Moscow grappled with matters relating to Stalin's succession, Beijing attended to domestic problems, and Washington warily watched events. There was much cause for concern in Washington, including the antics of Senator Joseph McCarthy at home, the French humiliation at Dien Bien Phu followed by the onset of the Algerian war of independence, the advent of the fiercely nationalist and purportedly neutralist regime of Gamal Abdel Nasser in Cairo, and starting in September, Beijing's sustained bombardment of islands controlled by the pro-American regime of Jiang Jieshi (Chiang Kai-shek) in the first Taiwan Strait crisis. Alarmed by developments in Guatemala that year, the administration of U.S. president Dwight Eisenhower resorted to methods employed the previous year in Iran-in removing prime minister Mohammad Mosaddegh from power-to get rid of Jacobo Árbenz Guzmán's leftist government in Guatemala. Shortly thereafter, the administration affirmed its commitment to the containment of communist influence in Southeast Asia by signing the Manila Pact, which provided for the creation of the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization (SEATO). Fatefully, it also began a comprehensive aid program, jointly with the French at first, to prop up the regime of Ngo Dinh Diem in Saigon as a bulwark against communist expansion in Vietnam. Soon Americans were training Diem's fledgling armed forces and becoming otherwise more directly involved in Indochina.
After signing the Geneva accords, the communist leaders of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRVN) did their best to abide by their letter and spirit. The accords, they hoped, would allow them to achieve national reunification under their authority without further bloodshed following countrywide elections to take place within two years. In a September 1954 directive formalizing their intentions, the leaders ordered their troops in the South to repatriate to the North and explicitly prohibited those who stayed from resuming hostilities. Owing largely to Diem, the elections never took place. Although that dimmed the prospect for peaceful reunification, DRVN leaders refused to amend their stance on military struggle in the South. Instead, they rehabilitated and developed the economy in the North, to the dismay of communists who remained in the South and became targets of the Diem regime.
On 2 September 1945, in the immediate aftermath of Japan's surrender in World War II, Ho Chi Minh, a longtime communist and anticolonialist leader, proclaimed the independence of the DRVN from Ba Dinh Square in Hanoi. The proclamation culminated the relatively peaceful process known to Vietnamese as the August Revolution. In that revolution, communist and nationalist forces, who had been amalgamated into the Viet Minh united front in 1941 to resist the Japanese occupation of Indochina (that is, Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos), wrested the reins of power from the defeated occupiers and forced the abdication of the last Nguyen emperor, a figurehead named Bao Dai, thus ending ten centuries of dynastic rule in Vietnam. During the war, the Japanese had effectively ended French colonial control on the peninsula, though France never forswore its mission civilisatrice there and was in fact working to reassert it even as Ho made his proclamation. Unwilling to accept the reimposition of colonial rule, Ho and the DRVN leadership remobilized the Viet Minh to resist it.
Following the gradual reoccupation of most of Indochina by French forces over the next year and a half, full-scale war broke out in December 1946. The conflict became an integral part of the Cold War after the newly formed PRC extended diplomatic recognition to the DRVN government in January 1950, followed by the Soviet Union and the rest of the socialist camp. Having consented to a revolutionary division of labor with Moscow, Beijing thereafter provided massive assistance to the Viet Minh, including hundreds of military advisers. Reeling from the "loss" of China and suddenly alarmed at the possibility of communist domination of Southeast Asia, Washington, until then largely uninvolved in Indochinese affairs, responded in kind, supplying ever increasing aid to the French and to the ostensibly autonomous regime France had established in Saigon and named the State of Vietnam (SOVN), under none other than Bao Dai. The outbreak of the Korean War in June solidified American resolve to prevent a Viet Minh victory.
The internationalization of the Indochina War markedly raised the stakes and intensified the hostilities in Vietnam but failed to tip the scale in favor of either side. Even the Viet Minh's spectacular victory over French forces at Dien Bien Phu did not meaningfully change the balance of forces in the country. In the end, pervasive war weariness among the Vietnamese masses and Viet Minh, as well as the nagging concerns of their Soviet and Chinese allies about prolonging the war and, most importantly, the chilling prospect of American intervention, convinced DRVN decision-makers to suspend their military struggle and try to settle their differences with France diplomatically.
On 21 July 1954, after long and contentious negotiations, French and DRVN authorities agreed to a cease-fire, division of the country into two regroupment zones separated at the seventeenth parallel, mandatory regroupment of all French and SOVN military forces south of that line and all Viet Minh forces north of it, and voluntary migration of civilians between the two zones. Ho Chi Minh and the DRVN government received sanction to administer the northern regroupment zone while France-and by extension the SOVN-remained sovereign in the southern zone. As the division of the country was to be temporary, the "Final Declaration of the Geneva Conference" called for consultations between representatives of the two zonal governments to set terms for national elections to reunify the country under a single government. Ominously, Washington refused to endorse the declaration. Despite reservations of their own, DRVN leaders accepted the Geneva accords because they hoped their implementation would preclude American military intervention while delivering what war could not: reunification of Vietnam under their governance.
Hoping for the Best
After accepting the Geneva accords, DRVN leaders set out to convince their followers on both sides of the seventeenth parallel that suspending hostilities short of complete victory was strategically correct. To that end, they impressed upon their military forces and political operatives the need to respect the cease-fire and trust that national reunification would come in no more than two years, following general elections that their side would surely win. Unless otherwise instructed by the leadership, all troops in the South had to regroup to the North, and communists who stayed behind were to do nothing to undermine the new accords or precipitate hostilities. Violating the accords, DRVN authorities warned, would give the Americans and their allies an excuse to derail the reunification process and sabotage the promised elections. For the time being, the struggle for unification had to be carried out "according to a peaceful approach." "Our people must continue their protracted and arduous struggle by peaceful methods in order to consolidate peace and achieve reunification." It was not just that the leadership wished to preclude American intervention and thought everyone, including its troops, needed a respite from war; it was also that much of the area which fell under its jurisdiction after July 1954 was in ruins, and improving conditions there was imperative. A "North-first" policy was therefore in order.
To keep the reunification process on track in the South, DRVN leaders directed cadres-indoctrinated, "professional" communist revolutionaries responsible for mobilizing public support for DRVN policies-there to court groups friendly to western interests, including Catholics and those who had served in the colonial administration. The purpose of this "political struggle" was to win hearts and minds, to convince such groups and the civilian population generally that DRVN authorities respected ideological, social, and political diversity as well as Vietnamese nationalism in all its guises, and to promote peaceful reunification of the country. Treating the sizeable minority of Catholics, former civil servants, and other civilians solicitously could have a "very big influence" on the result of the upcoming elections, the communist leadership remarked.
Admittedly, DRVN leaders shared "a genuine apprehension" that Paris, Washington, and the SOVN regime in Saigon would not respect the terms of the accords. Early on, defense minister Vo Nguyen Giap warned the Canadian commissioner on the International Commission for Supervision and Control in Vietnam (ICSC) that Ngo Dinh Diem, who had become SOVN premier during the Geneva Conference and had no real hand in forging the accords, "had no intention" of "carrying out the agreement" and "it would be difficult for anyone to force him to do so." Nonetheless, the man hailed as the architect of the victory over the French at Dien Bien Phu and other key DRVN leaders thought it in their best interests, for now, to honor the main provisions of the accords. If the accords were successfully implemented, they would secure the withdrawal of foreign forces and national reunification under their own aegis without further bloodshed and material destruction. DRVN leaders "accepted the Geneva compromise," in the words of a French diplomat, "only because we made them realize that it presented them with a serious chance to achieve, by peaceful means, [their] wartime objectives." For Vietnamese communist authorities, the Canadian commissioner told Ottawa, the outcome of the 1956 national elections on reunification mandated by the Geneva accords was "a foregone conclusion." The only major obstacle to reunification under their auspices was "foreign support of the competing government in the South" and Diem himself. Under the circumstances, it seemed sensible to temporize. DRVN leaders, the Canadian commissioner believed, "expect the worst" but "hope for the best."
Moderates and Militants
Such were the calculations of the Politburo of the Vietnamese Workers' Party (VWP), the main decision-making body in the DRVN. Specifically, they were those of Giap, president Ho Chi Minh, VWP general secretary Truong Chinh, Party Organization Committee chairman and vice minister of the interior Le Van Luong, president of the Federation of Trade Unions Hoang Quoc Viet, and, possibly, prime minister Pham Van Dong, who then doubled as foreign minister. Wary-and weary-of war, these men pinned their hopes on the Geneva accords and political struggle in the South to peacefully bring about national reunification under communist rule. Among the heavyweights, Ho wished to prevent further bloodshed, preempt American intervention, and reconcile with France; Giap wanted to give the forces under his command a chance to rest, reorganize, and modernize; and Truong Chinh, a leading doctrinaire, was eager to complete the party's ambitious land reform program, launched the previous year, and get on with the North's economic modernization and socialist transformation.
The desire of key allies-namely, the Soviet Union and China-to avoid further conflict in Asia with the West reinforced these attitudes. In the aftermath of Stalin's death, a power struggle had ensued in Moscow that kept Soviet leaders largely focused on domestic issues for nearly two years. Meanwhile, in Beijing, chairman Mao Zedong and the rest of the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) were working on a new constitution and envisioning the country's first five-year plan for socialist industrialization and transformation of agriculture. As they awaited Vietnam's peaceful reunification, Ho, Giap, Truong Chinh, and their like-minded comrades in the Politburo agreed that rehabilitating and developing the northern economy while upgrading the armed forces could and should take precedence. On account of their strategic priorities, including caution over adventurism in the South, and the elements that informed them, namely, fear of a war with the United States, these men-with the exclusion of Truong Chinh, who would be demoted in 1956 and would thereafter change his views on reunification-formed the core of the risk-averse and temporizing "moderate" wing of the party that steered DRVN decision-making until 1963.
The other two members of the Politburo, secretary of the Central Office (Directorate) for Southern Vietnam (COSVN) Le Duan and chairman of the General Political Department (GPD) of the People's Army of Vietnam (PAVN) General Nguyen Chi Thanh, dissented. Both had strong ties to the South, having fought there during the Indochina War, and thought that suspending hostilities on current terms wasted communist gains there. Regrouping communist forces to the North was most galling to them. According to historian Stein Tønnesson, Le Duan, who was still in the South when the other members of the Politburo accepted the Geneva accords and ordered the troops to regroup to the North, felt betrayed by the acceptance. The only way to achieve the party's objectives below the seventeenth parallel, he believed, was through military struggle, irrespective of the dangers entailed. While Le Duan and Thanh might have reconciled themselves to a strategic pause in the war, they opposed an extended lull and especially the withdrawal of Viet Minh forces from the South. Also, they did not think the party should prioritize economic recovery and development in the North while waiting on events in the South; Paris, Washington, or Saigon, if not all three, would never allow Vietnam to be reunified under VWP authority without putting up a fight.
On the basis of their convictions, the two men formed the nucleus of the party's hard-line, risk-taking "militant" wing, a minority faction committed to expeditious violent liberation of the South after July 1954, whose influence over decision-making increased slowly but surely over time. That nucleus eventually expanded to include Le Duc Tho, Le Duan's deputy during the Indochina War and his closest ideological ally, and Pham Hung, COSVN's third-in-command. Though unhappy about the strategic line set by the Politburo majority, the militants did their best to conform to it. As every party member knew, once the Politburo reached consensus and ruled on a matter, publicly questioning or opposing its ruling was strictly forbidden. But the militants, and Le Duan in particular, were not about to give up on their ambition to resume military struggle in the South sooner rather than later.
Though he would play a central role in the coming and waging of the Vietnam War, Le Duan remains an obscure, enigmatic figure. He was born Le Van Nhuan on 7 April 1907 in the village of Hau Kien in Quang Tri (now Binh Tri Thien) Province, and as a railway official traveled throughout the country sometime in the 1920s learning what he could about French colonialism and its impact on Vietnam. He joined the radical Revolutionary Youth League in 1928, changed his name to Le Duan, and became a founding member of the Indochinese Communist Party (ICP, the precursor to the VWP) in 1930. A year later he joined the ICP's Bac Ky (Tonkin, the northern third of Vietnam) Committee for Education and Training, which was in charge of ideological indoctrination. He was soon arrested in Haiphong on charges of subversion, for which he was sentenced to twenty years in solitary confinement. His sentence was commuted in late 1936, and shortly thereafter he became secretary of the Trung Ky (Annam, central Vietnam) branch of the ICP. He was arrested again in Saigon in 1940 and sentenced to ten years at the infamous prison on Con Dao (Poulo Condore) Island.
Le Duan's years of incarceration were formative, shaping him into a stern, dogmatic, and stoic revolutionary. Freed in 1945, he then traveled to Hanoi to join the Party Central Committee in the newly proclaimed DRVN under Ho Chi Minh. By the time war with the French broke out in December 1946, Le Duan was back in the South as head of the Nam Bo Executive Committee (Xu uy Nam Bo), tasked with coordinating party and Viet Minh political activities in the southern third of Vietnam, the strategically important area formerly known as Cochinchina. In 1951 he was appointed in absentia to the VWP Politburo, and his Nam Bo Executive Committee was renamed COSVN and granted authority over political as well as military activities. After the partition of Vietnam in 1954, while most of his comrades regrouped to the North, Le Duan stayed in the South. Variously described as "violent," "authoritarian," "tough," and "ruthless," he was fully determined to achieve prompt reunification of Vietnam, whatever the cost.
The New Strategic Line
In September 1954, the Politburo issued an important statement concerning the situation created by the Geneva accords that confirmed and actually formalized the policy line espoused by the party in the days after the signing of the Geneva accords. Entitled "Politburo Resolution: On the New Situation, New Tasks, and New Policy of the Party," the lengthy document detailed official views and listed pressing tasks and fundamental requirements to sustain peace and achieve reunification. According to it, the party and state faced a series of simultaneous transitions in the postwar era: from war to peace, from national unity to political partition, from a rural to an urban base, and from dispersal to centralization. While the North was now "liberated," the struggle in the South was not yet over and would in fact continue as long as the Vietnamese there remained under the "yoke" of Diem and his foreign allies. However, the Geneva accords and the pressing need for peace dictated that the "mode of struggle" to complete the liberation of Vietnam must change. The party and its cadres and other loyalists in the South had to renounce violence and replace military struggle with political struggle to achieve reunification without risking the resumption of war. Henceforth, propaganda would constitute "the main thrust" of communist activities below the seventeenth parallel.
Above the seventeenth parallel, the party and the people had entirely different tasks. There, the need was to work together to rebuild an economy ravaged by years of war and foreign occupation, increase agricultural production as land redistribution continued, and develop industry. It was, in short, imperative to improve standards of living and overall quality of life. This stance would not just satisfy popular demands but also enhance the VWP's and the DRVN's legitimacy during the campaign for national unification. As they sought to rehabilitate the North, DRVN leaders would collaborate closely with friendly political and military elements in Laos and Cambodia for greater regional security and improvement of conditions in those countries. For those leaders, the fate of Vietnam was inextricably linked to that of the peoples of Laos and Cambodia. They "considered Indochina as one geographical entity and a single battlefield," a former party official later noted. In fact, no sooner had the Geneva accords been signed than the VWP set out to support, politically and materially, the creation of a "puppet" state-within-a-state in the area of Laos amenable to its control. Regarding other international matters, the Politburo urged its supporters to work with progressive elements in France and elsewhere to ensure implementation of the accords, and with that the reunification of Vietnam. Mobilizing world opinion on behalf of peaceful unification, the Politburo surmised, was fundamental for its achievement.
The document just summarized remained the basis for the DRVN's domestic and international policy, the foundation of its revolutionary strategy, until 1959. It was thus its most consequential policy statement in the immediate aftermath of the Geneva accords concerning matters related to the coming of the Vietnam War. In its tone and substance, the document reflected the moderate tendencies of the Politburo and Central Committee majority, and quickly became an object of scorn among party militants.
The Way Forward
Within the parameters of the policies enunciated in the Politburo document of September, the VWP insisted that Viet Minh military forces below the seventeenth parallel regroup to the North. In violation of the accords, the party instructed some troops, approximately ten thousand of them by one account, to remain in the South. Their assignment, however, was not to fight; it was instead to serve as a "hedge against failure of the unification of Vietnam" and support the work of communist "agents," that is, cadres and regional party leaders, similarly ordered to stay there. The continued presence of political operatives in the South to "look after the population" and implement the Geneva settlement was authorized under the accords. But under no circumstances, the party maintained, could they and the remaining troops engage in activities flagrantly violating the accords, especially fighting. French sources suggest that many Viet Minh troops whom the DRVN leadership ordered to regroup to the North actually remained in the South. In late August, for example, DRVN authorities contacted the French navy for assistance in transporting some seventeen thousand troops and their relatives from Xuyen Moc District on the coast just east of Saigon to the North. To the authorities' evident dismay and embarrassment, less than eleven thousand people showed up for regroupment. Possibly these and other southerners refused to regroup because they disapproved of the terms of the Geneva accords or the decision to suspend hostilities, or simply because they could not bring themselves to leave the places they called home.
The Canadian delegation to the ICSC estimated that 173,900 troops and 86,000 "additional persons," consisting of "military families, administrative cadres, and liberated prisoners of war," regrouped to the North in 1954-55. The number of civilians who relocated there voluntarily is difficult to ascertain but appears to have been negligible. Following their regroupment, southern males of age were integrated into the PAVN, the DRVN's standing army, while their families were granted privileged access to educational, economic, and social services. Many eventually regretted relocating to the North, and some even asked to return to the South. In agreeing to regroup, they had severed ties with friends and relatives and in time developed feelings of homesickness, remorse, or alienation as parochialism made it difficult for them to integrate into northern society. Even within the armed forces, some found it difficult to bond with northern comrades. "The Northerners stayed with Northerners, the Southerners with Southerners," one regroupee later commented; "they didn't mingle easily." To ensure that southern regroupees remained where the government put them and did not return to the South (in violation of the Geneva accords), one or more of their children were sometimes sent to China or other socialist countries for education. Given these constraints, it is remarkable that DRVN authorities succeeded in regrouping as many troops from the South as they did, and in keeping them in the North.
The voluntary migration of northern civilians to the South, permitted under the terms of the accords, proved a thorny issue for the authorities. To their consternation, significant numbers of people sought to join that exodus, so many in fact that the authorities came to believe that French and SOVN officials and supporters were "enticing" or "pressuring" the northern masses, especially Catholics, to emigrate. Petitions to the ICSC from about one hundred persons from the town of Thanh Hoa in March 1955 indicated that indeed "hooligans are spreading panicky rumours which influenced some of their relatives to move to the other zone." According to the petitions, priests from a local church had even told people that "if they did not go South atomic bombs will be dropped in North Vietnam and that God will leave for the South." Other priests allegedly promised people that they would be given land and buffaloes and money for travel if they went south. While the imminence of a nuclear attack on the North was a recurrent theme used by DRVN detractors to incite northerners to move South, other themes, according to ICSC investigators, included assertions that "the souls of Catholics will be lost if they stay in North Vietnam"; "famine and flood will be in North Vietnam"; the "Holy Virgin appeared and ordered all the Catholics to go to the other zone"; and the "pope ordered all Catholics to go to the other zone; otherwise they will lose their souls." "Propaganda in regards to atomic bomb [and] Christ moving South," an ICSC team concluded after visiting Nghe An Province, "appears to be causing an increasing amount of confusion in the population's minds." In and around Hanoi, which became the capital of the DRVN following the French withdrawal in September and October, more than thirty thousand people had signed up for emigration to the South within days after the Geneva accords became effective.
Enticing northerners to the South, DRVN leaders presumed, was part of a strategy devised by their enemies to influence the political situation and gather more votes for the 1956 elections. Thwarting that strategy thus became a "pressing struggle" for the party. To curtail the migration of people to the South, leaders urged cadres to work closely with Catholics and other groups with influence among would-be migrants in the North. The cadres were to publicize party and state policies regarding the protection of religious freedom, particularly among the sizeable Catholic communities of Bui Chu and Phat Diem. Those communities included many loyalists of the old French regime, whom cadres sought to co-opt by rallying sympathetic Catholics to spread among them information favorable to the DRVN. To placate Catholic landowners in areas of high Catholic concentration, the authorities suspended reductions in land rents and land redistribution, central features of the ongoing agrarian reform program. The authorities also allowed the circulation of foreign currencies, including SOVN currency, which was prohibited elsewhere in the DRVN. More significantly, they ordered the return of property earlier seized from Catholic organizations and the release of clergy previously placed under house arrest. These efforts suffered a major setback on 11 November 1954, when DRVN security forces opened fire on a group of three hundred Catholics seeking to emigrate, killing four and wounding several more. On other occasions Catholics provoked incidents, as in December in Tinh Gia District, where a group of approximately one thousand armed Catholics assaulted security and civilian officials while carrying banners reading "Down with Communism."
In the end, Hanoi's efforts to keep Catholics and others from abandoning the North failed dismally, despite the use of both carrot and stick tactics. A majority of Catholics, including almost the entire communities of Bui Chu and Phat Diem, opted to "follow the Virgin Mary" and go south. Historian Seth Jacobs has surmised that the Catholic population in the North declined from 1,133,000 to 457,000 as a result of the migration. Overall, some 930,000 northern civilians left for the South in 1954-55. That outcome dealt a huge blow to Hanoi. Not only were those who resettled below the seventeenth parallel likely to vote against reunification under DRVN governance in 1956, but they-Catholics in particular-became in time dedicated supporters of the Diem regime who were eager to exact revenge on communists, whom they held responsible for their exile from the North.
To offset that blow, Hanoi set out to exploit "contradictions" among the French, the Americans, and their allies in the South, as well as between those parties and the perceived needs and interests of the Vietnamese people. DRVN decision-makers correctly estimated that despite their common goal of maintaining a prowestern, noncommunist state below the seventeenth parallel, Paris and Washington disagreed on important matters of governance. To illustrate, Paris disapproved of Washington's decision to support Diem, who despised France and made no secret of it, as SOVN premier. Indeed, the French were soon urging Washington to reconsider its decision and replace Diem, to "put together ... another team" to preside in Saigon. Having also learned that the chief of staff of the SOVN army, General Nguyen Van Hinh, a "stooge of the French colonial reactionaries," disapproved of the elevation of Diem, a "stooge of the Americans," to the SOVN premiership, Hanoi directed cadres in the South to exploit that enmity and, by extension, the policy differences between the Americans and the French and between Diem and his domestic critics. Specifically, it proposed spreading disinformation about the SOVN regime in Saigon and its armed forces while infiltrating both. Cadres were to "closely coordinate legal and illegal political activities, but make the illegal work principal," and above all to keep everything they did secret.
This was not an unpromising approach. The South was admittedly "deeply splintered" at the time, so much so that the Diem regime teetered on the brink of collapse. The SOVN premier did not control the army, lacked a competent administration, and had little or no authority over sizeable portions of the South, including areas controlled by the powerful Hoa Hao and Cao Dai religious sects. His regime also had to deal with the logistical nightmare of welcoming, housing, feeding, and finding land or jobs for hundreds of thousands of refugees from the North. With sufficient political pressure, Hanoi thought, Diem might be ousted and replaced by someone who "cared relatively little about the Americans." "M. Diem has many of the qualities required by a Nationalist revolutionary leader dedicated to saving his country-courage, integrity, persistence, faith and an implacable hostility to communism," a western assessment noted about this time. He was, however, "incapable of compromise" and had "little administrative capacity."
Southern party leaders-those instructed to stay-did their best to follow Hanoi's prescriptions, repeatedly praising them in pamphlets and public meetings, and ordering cadres under their command to abide by the letter of those prescriptions. Privately, however, meaningful numbers of them and their subordinates shared Le Duan and Nguyen Chi Thanh's sentiments and disapproved of the prescriptions as well as the reasoning behind them. They questioned the leadership's acceptance of the Geneva accords; they could not reconcile themselves to the suspension of military struggle and the turn to political struggle only. Considering the duplicitous history of French colonialism and the mindset of American cold warriors in the mid-1950s, to say nothing of the grim determination of Diem himself, they thought it naive to assume that the other side would permit peaceful reunification under any circumstances. Most upsetting to them was Hanoi's insistence that troops regroup to the North and that those who stayed forswear violence despite the vulnerability of the Diem regime. Vo Chi Cong, a prominent southern communist leader, admitted in a later memoir that he and many other southern party members always felt that regrouping troops and renouncing violence effectively nullified the gains revolutionary forces had theretofore made below the seventeenth parallel, that it crippled the communist movement there and proved detrimental to the long-term prospects for reunification.
Following discussion of the Politburo policy pronouncement in September, the party's Executive Committee of Interzone IV, which straddled the seventeenth parallel, told Hanoi that the new policy violated the best interests of the revolution since it left southern communists unprotected, at the complete mercy of enemy violence. Suddenly sustaining a purely political struggle, the committee explained, was "extremely difficult and complex." While pledging to do the will of the party, the committee made certain that superiors in Hanoi understood the depth of its concern. A month later, the Executive Committee of Interzone V, which encompassed northern South Vietnam and the Central Highlands, voiced similar concerns in even more explicit language. Following a three-day discussion in October, this committee sent Hanoi a lengthy critique detailing the negative effects the party's new
About the Book
"Excellent new [work] on the Vietnam War."—Geoffrey C. Stewart Cross-Currents
"Outstanding. . . . Illuminating."—Proceedings
"A sophisticated treatment of a complex story."—American Historical Review
"A valuable contribution to any discussion of North Vietnam’s road to war, and the origins of the American stage in the Vietnam War."—Tal Tovy H-Net
"Asselin's excellent study . . . will remain an indispensible source for students of Vietnam, the Cold War, and twentieth-century world history for many years to come."—Jessica Elkind The Journal of American History
"This authoritative and compelling book fills a long-felt need for a scholarly treatment of policy making in Hanoi during the Vietnam War. Pierre Asselin has conducted careful and exhaustive research into available Vietnamese and Western archival sources and consulted widely secondary writings on his topic. The result is a meticulously researched, lucidly written, and highly revealing volume on a previously obscure aspect of the Indochina conflict.... Asselin pushes the frontier of our knowledge about Hanoi’s strategic thinking and diplomatic maneuver during the Indochina conflict further than anyone else."—Journal of American-East Asian Relations
“Pierre Asselin has done an admirable job of marshalling French, Canadian, and British records to supplement the available Vietnamese evidence and illuminate Hanoi's road to the Vietnam War. Asselin shows that the conflagration was inevitable not only due to American goals and actions but because North Vietnam specifically chose war. This is an important contribution to lifting the veil that has long prevented an understanding of Hanoi's approach to the war.”—John Prados, author of Vietnam: The History of an Unwinnable War, 1945-1975
“An illuminating account of how North Vietnam's leaders moved from a peaceful reunification strategy to a policy of all-out war. Asselin's stress on Vietnamese agency and on Hanoi's ability to manipulate its Soviet and Chinese allies makes his book a major contribution to the history of Indochina.”—Odd Arne Westad, author of Restless Empire: China and the World Since 1750
Table of Contents
Foreword by the series editors
Glossary of Terms and Acronyms
1. Choosing Peace, 1954–1956
2. Changing Course, 1957–1959
3. Treading Cautiously, 1960
4. Buying Time, 1961
5. Exploring Neutralization, 1962
6. Choosing War, 1963
7. Waging War, 1964
- Arthur Goodzeit Book Award, New York Military Affairs Symposium
Pierre Asselin speaks with Thinktech Hawaii's Carlos Juarez about his life, studies, and latest work.