Hanoi’s War: An International History of the War for Peace in Vietnam

November 27, 2012

After being introduced by Strauss Center Distinguished Scholar Mark Lawrence, Lien-Hang T. Nguyen presented a fascinating look at the Vietnam War by providing new insights into the mind of the North Vietnamese. As detailed in her new book, Hanoi’s War: An International History of the War for Peace in Vietnam, Professor Nguyen’s research challenges the common view of the leadership of North Vietnam, guided by Ho Chi Minh, and tells a story of a Le Duan. She argues that Le Duan actually controlled the North Vietnamese government and that his views on South Vietnam and the war lead to a situation where peace never had a chance. Nguyen is the first and only foreign scholar who has been allowed access to the Vietnamese Foreign Ministry archives. Professor Nguyen explained that elite interviews in Vietnam and new access to these historical documents allowed her to gain an unprecedented view into North Vietnamese thinking during the war.

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After pointing to the gap in Vietnam War literature that she has contributed to, Nguyen explained that while current wisdom focuses on Ho Chi Minh as the leader and key actor in North Vietnam the real power was held by Le Duan. According to her research, Le Duan understood that he was not charismatic, so he allowed others to be the face of North Vietnam. Le Duan started as an anti-colonial activist against the French occupation and as a result spent several years in prison. This prison time ensured Le Duan a high position in the political organization of North Vietnam. After disastrous efforts at land reform, Le Duan became General Secretary because he was untainted by involvement with the land reform program. Once in the position of General Secretary he strengthened his control of the police and intelligence services and rerouted policy decisions through the office of the General Secretary to control the levers of power in North Vietnam. Le Duan also brow beat Ho Chi Minh to silence his opposition to Le Duan’s aggressive policies.

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Nguyen finished by analyzing Le Duan’s strategy for the war. Le Duan looked at the military strategies of the Chinese, Soviets, and Cubans to plan his strategy. Nguyen then discussed how these strategies lead to actions like the Tet Offensive and the Easter Offensive, which were actually detrimental to the North’s efforts to win the war. Not withstanding these failures, the North Vietnamese were successful in the end mainly because they were able to shield themselves from the betrayal of their superpower communist sponsors due to their close relationships with Cuba and Eastern Europe. Her presentation was followed by a Q&A session where she discussed how she carried out her research, the nature of the relationship between communist party in the North and in the South, and the reception of her work in Vietnam.

Watch the full presentation here:

 

Lien-Hang T. Nguyen is Associate Professor of History at the University of Kentucky and has held fellowships at the Center for International Security and Cooperation at Stanford University, the former John M. Olin Institute for Strategic Studies at Harvard University, and International Security Studies at Yale University. Hanoi’s War: An International History of the War for Peace (UNC Press, 2012) won the 2012 Edward M. Coffman Prize for best military history manuscript from the Society for Military History. Nguyen has also published numerous peer-reviewed articles and scholarly essays on the wars for Vietnam, and has written pieces for The New York Times, BBC, and San Jose Mercury News.

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