Caught Between Propaganda and History

Shawn McHale

Shawn McHale, "Caught Between Propaganda and History," review of Lịch sử Nam bộ kháng chiến (History of the Southern Resistance), edited by Hội Đồng Chỉ Đạo Biên Soạn Lịch Sử Nam Bộ Kháng Chiến, Cold War International History ProjectJune 2014.

The writing of the history of modern Vietnam that involves the Vietnamese Communist Party is tricky: the Party both wants to write an account of its actions, but also wants to portray itself in a positive light, and its rivals in a negative light. This book, Lịch sử Nam bộ kháng chiến (History of the Southern Resistance), is no exception. In the comments that follow, I will only comment on Volume I, which covers the period from 1945 to 1954.[1] I do this both because I am writing a book on Mekong delta in this period, and because other participants in the roundtable have focus on the later years. My general argument is that this is a significant contribution to understanding the war in the south. Never before has the Resistance War against the French in the South been explored in such detail. This is not, however, a comprehensive or balanced account. Indeed, the book is best understood as an intervention in intra-Party debates, one in which one group of southern communists challenges the orthodoxies of the dominant and northern-centered communists on the history of the southern resistance. Like their Party interlocutors, however, these challengers fail to shake their common prejudices about their non-communist opponents. The rivals of the Việt Minh, such as the dominant Cao Đài and Hòa Hảo sects, are not treated dispassionately. Volume I plays down some of the major errors made by the Việt Minh in this period. Indeed, the volume is silent or circumspect on many issues of pivotal importance in the war. In short, we can see this book as a major contribution, but with significant shortcomings.

Before zeroing in on particular issues, I have two comments to offer, one about language, one about sources. Like the great majority of books from Vietnam on the war, this book uses terms like “reactionary” (phản động), “ploy/trickery” (thủ đoạn), “plot” (am mưu), “lackey” (tay sai),  “hooligans”  (lưu manh), “element” (a slur when use in phrases like “Trotskyist elements”—phần tử Trốtxkít) to describe the actions of opponents, but never similar actions by communists. This is the language of propaganda, not of historical analysis. Why use it?

My second comment is about the sources. Like virtually all Vietnamese books on the First Indochina War, this book draws on a wide range of memoirs and histories, most in Vietnamese, some in French, and a few in English. It uses very few archival sources, judging from the bibliography, and only one dossier from the voluminous records of the French, then the State of Vietnam, found in National Archives Center II in Ho Chi Minh City. In this, it is no different from so many other Vietnamese studies, which also fail to use these records. This is unfortunate, as archival records available in Vietnam shed light on a wide range of issues, including the difficulties of the French in consolidating control over the countryside, and their difficult relationships with the Cao Đài and Hòa Hảo, and the economic consequences of the war on peasants, including massive levels of migration to Saigon.

The book also does not use the voluminous records found in the archives of the Service Historique de la Défense (Vincennes) or in the Archives Nationales d’Outre-Mer (Aix-en-Provence). One might counter that much of this information is available in Vietnam, and that may be true. Foreign scholars can never know, however, as foreign researchers are not allowed in to the military archives in Vietnam or into the archives of the Vietnamese Communist Party. What I can say is that some highly sensitive material is available in France, including that from captured Việt Minh records. This includes important material on Khmer-Vietnamese conflict in the Mekong delta, the virtual collapse of the Party in 1946 in the delta, the problematic choices made by General Nguyễn Bình up to his death, the assassination of the Hòa Hảo leader Huỳnh Phú Sổ, the relationship between the French military and the Cao Đài and Hòa Hảo, the purging of nationalist (but not communist) cadres from the ranks of the Việt Minh from 1948 onwards, the emergence of the State of Vietnam from 1949 onwards, the creation of a Vietnamese National Army to counter the Việt Minh, and so on.[2] Just as one cannot fully understand the history of class struggle by looking only at the records of one class, so one cannot fully understand the Resistance in the South by only looking at Vietnamese records.

In what follows, I want to underline some of the remarkable strengths of the volume, then zero in on several issues with the book that I think are contestable.

Strengths of the Volume

Reading this work, one is constantly impressed by the extent of material covered in the book. Issues of the Party and the Resistance aside, there is a wealth of information, ranging from accounts of particular battles to health issues to economics. There is also a wealth of supplementary material. American audiences, for example, might find the extensive reconstruction of Peter Dewey’s last days in Saigon to be particularly intriguing. But there is all sorts of other material, ranging from an attempt to calculate the American contribution to the war effort to reflections from an intellectual who took part in the Resistance, Trần Bạch Đằng. Much research has gone into this work.

The Interpretation of the Book: Selected Issues

In what follows, I discuss three major issues whose interpretation in the book I found contestable.

The August Revolution and the Hunt for “Traitors” (Việt gian)

When we turn to this book’s account of the war from 1945 onwards, one is struck that this is, in many ways, an “orthodox” account of the war, but one that is more substantive than many others. It is well known that the Việt Minh came to power through superb organizational skill and an ability to outfox opponents. In the South in particular, the Communist Party was weak in 1945. So it had to mobilize others to participate with it, which was a difficult task. As the communist leader Trần Văn Giàu said, it was a “race against the clock” (course contre la montre).[3] The book gives extensive attention to the August Revolution in the Mekong delta provinces, which most books do not. At the same time, the interpretation mirrors other accounts in many ways: it accentuates the positive aspects of the August Revolution—the mass uprisings—but does not look pay much attention to the systematic as well as indiscriminate killing of opponents.

Thinking dispassionately, if one wants to seize power, it is a rational act to eliminate or neutralize enemies. This is how revolutions succeed. One way to do this is through killing and imprisoning opponents. The Việt Minh used assassination squads to kill specific opponents. Thus they killed Trotskyists, who were strong in the south, as well as a range of prominent southern leaders (e.g. Bùi Quang Chiêu). But one problem is that they also incited others, who—especially in the early years—took matters into their own hands. While this book blames Trotskyists for being “extremist” (quá khích) towards the French,  the Nam Bộ Resistance Committee makes equally incendiary comments, as when it states on September 2, 1945: “Từ giờ phút này, nhiệm vụ hàng đầu của chúng ta là tiêu diệt giặc Pháp và tay sai của chúng” (From this moment, our foremost task is to wipe out the French enemy and his lackeys).[4]

One side of the revolution was the hunt for “traitors” (Việt gian), a hunt that lasted throughout the war. This would often end up as indiscriminate violence that would hurt the communist party in the long run. Indeed, the communist party is not exempt from criticism for inciting mob violence. After all, On September 29, 1945, the Cứu Quốc newspaper had the following statement: “We call upon our compatriots to denounce dangerous traitors [Việt gian nguy hiểm].”[5] Denounce, and kill, they did, but were all those killed guilty?  Probably not. As the socialist writer Thiến Sơn commented, “Bullets killed many individuals unjustly.”[6]

The Việt Minh also imprisoned large numbers of opponents, as in a prison in or near Cai Lậy, not far from Mỹ Tho, in late 1945. They appear to have held several hundred prisoners there, ranging from landlords to political opponents. Kidnapping and imprisonment of suspects was used throughout the war. Again, this is a reasonable tactic in war. Here, the question is whether or not the indiscriminate jailing of suspects turned many southerners against the Communist Party and the Việt Minh.

The Split between the Việt Minh and the Cao Đài and Hoà Hảo

In my view, the split between the communist-led Việt Minh, on the one hand, and the main Cao Đài and Hòa Hảo factions, on the other, was one of the biggest mistakes the communists made in the First Indochina War. This split affected Vietnamese politics up to 1975, and arguably later. This book correctly notes the French attempts to divide and rule (chia để trị) the Vietnamese. It correctly  notes that the French tried to buy off or bribe some groups, like the Cao Đài. It does not, however, satisfactorily answer the fundamental question: why, if almost all Vietnamese opposed the French return in August 1945, were the French able to get some groups to join them to fight the Việt Minh?

One part of the answer is that the Việt Minh committed a series of grievous mistakes from 1945 to 1947. There was a brutal struggle being carried out at this point by the Việt Minh against recalcitrant Cao Đài politico-religious sect, a struggle that was the primary reason the Cao Đài turned against the Việt Minh. Its first major test was the Việt Minh massacre, in Quảng Ngãi, central Vietnam, of almost three thousand Cao Đài followers in August 1945.[7]  This mistake was soon compounded by the arrest of a major Cao Đài leader, Trần Quang Vinh, who was imprisoned in a Việt Minh prison in the delta for months before he escaped, as well as the arrests and executions of many other Cao Đài members.

 A similar series of early mistakes turned the Hòa Hảo against the Việt Minh, providing an opening for the French to exploit. This view is not novel: the major revolutionary Nguyễn Thanh Sơn, himself from the delta, has given a surprisingly sympathetic portrayal of the Hòa Hảo in late 1945. He has argued that the Việt Minh made some crucial early “mistakes,” that, combined with Hòa Hảo bullheadedness, combined to push the two forces apart at a critical time. Such mistakes included excluding Hòa Hảo leader Hùynh Phú Sổ from the Provisional Committee for the uprising in August 1945,  then selecting him to be a “special member” of a reformed Administrative Committee of Nam Bộ but arresting him for a short period. This “incident hurt Huỳnh Phú Sổ deeply and, obviously, harmed the unity with Hòa Hảo armed forces that already had a complicated internal situation.”[8]  

A catastrophic mistake, not discussed in this book, was the execution of Hòa Hảo leader Huỳnh Phú Sổ. This has sometimes been described as a local decision by lower-ranking Việt Minh. Writing in elliptical language, this is exactly the argument put forth by this volume: that low-level cadres were to blame (p. 670).[9] In fact, it was a decision of the entire Administrative Committee of Nam Bộ, and General Nguyễn Bình, military commander for the south, approved of it.[10]  While trouble had been developing since August 1945 between the Việt Minh and the Hòa Hảo, including armed clashes, the killing of Huỳnh Phú Sổ inflamed the Hòa Hảo, who massacred thousands of Việt Minh in retaliation. It was at this point, and this point only, that the French were able to bring the Hoà Hảo over to their side. The Hòa Hảo would oppose the Việt Minh for the rest of the war.  

If these early mistakes were not enough, the Việt Minh executed nearly a thousand Cao Đài, Hòa Hảo, “traitors,” “spies,” and others from May to November 1947. On October 13, 1947, 300 were executed.[11]  These large-scale executions are not discussed in this book. It is no surprise, given this violence, that the main Cao Đài and Hòa Hảo groupings would never again trust the communists. Importantly, such indiscriminate violence hurt the communist-led Việt Minh, as there were large sections of the delta under the effective control of non-communist forces. Finally, it is worth noting that Catholics, initially sympathetic to the independence cause, were often antagonized by anti-Catholic violence.

It is hard not to conclude that if the French skillfully exploited divisions in southern society, the communist-led Việt Minh made fundamental mistakes that sabotaged their own chances to win the war. But don’t just trust me. Trust Mai Chí Thọ, a high-ranking revoutionary who was no friend of the sects:

in the beginning, we relied heavily on an eye for an eye, impatiently countering [the French and our rivals] with violence. Because of this immaturity, we fell into the traps of the enemy to provoke and divide us. So much blood was spilled, preconceptions hardened, hatred deepened. The front for popular unity and salvation was harmed: we gradually lost people and lost territory. [ . . .] .[12]


The End of the War

What is often puzzling to outside scholars is the gap between what French and State of Vietnam archival sources say about the end of the war in the Mekong delta, and the view presented by Vietnamese communist works. While the book makes strong criticisms of the Resistance in the second half of the war, it ends up celebrating the communist victory. I would argue that, quite the contrary, it was a defeat in Nam Bộ.

This book addresses the severe difficulties faced by the Resistance forces from the beginning of 1951 to mid-1953. The book is candid and unsparing in its evaluation: “In the first period, lasting from mid-1951  to  the end of 1953, the Resistance had to overcome many difficulties and severe challenges, losing land and people, many forces were worn down, some cadres vacillated then abandoned the ranks” (Mốc thời gian thứ nhất từ đầu năm 1951 đến giữa năm 1953, kháng chiến phải vượt qua nhiều khó khăn thử thách ác liệt, mất đất, mất dân, lực lượng bị tiêu hao nhiều, một số cán bộ chiến sĩ dao động bỏ ngữ). [13]  For those of us used to reading Vietnamese histories, this is strong criticism. Multiple reasons are given for these severe setbacks, but the main “subjective errors” are identified as not following the practice of guerrilla war, but in concentrating forces (tập trung quân); errors in the realization of policies in areas temporarily controlled by the French; “right wing deviation” (hữu khuynh)  in the actualization of policies towards religious groups; and finally, the effect in eastern Nam Bộ of the disastrous floods of 1952. [14]

There are some aspects of this analysis that make perfect sense. One of the big mistakes of General Nguyễn Bình was trying to try to shift strategy in the delta from guerrilla to conventional warfare too soon in 1950-51, and the result was the destruction of many Việt Minh armed forces. It also seems clear that the floods of 1952 in eastern Nam Bộ had a catastrophic impact, as people in that zone were starving. But was “right wing deviationism” in religious policy as well as policies towards people in temporarily controlled zones the reason for difficulties as well? The book does not analyze those questions enough.

The book then argues that from mid-1953 to July 1954, the Resistance then rectified these errors and contributed to the “decisive victory.” But it does not substantiate this view. In fact, this view seems completely implausible—how could the Resistance go from losing badly to winning a war in one year?

In fact, the Resistance did not win the war by 1954. One can put forth a far different and plausible argument: that the French and the new State of Vietnam, aided in particular by the Cao Đài and the Hòa Hảo, defeated the communist-led Việt Minh in the Mekong delta by 1953, and held on to most of their gains in 1954. In 1954, the Việt Minh made a limited comeback, but could not regain lost ground. For all intents and purposes, the Việt Minh had lost the war. It was precisely because of its weak position in the south that the Democratic Republic of Vietnam was compelled to accept the Geneva Accords that divided the country.

By 1954, the chief threat to the State of Vietnam (in the south) was no longer the Việt Minh. Instead, the Cao Đài, Hòa Hảo, Binh Xuyên, and a variety of other forces posed the greatest challenge to the weak State of Vietnam.

[1] Hội đồng chỉ đạo biện soạn Lịch sử Nam bộ kháng chiến, ed., Lịch sử Nam bộ kháng chiến (History of the Southern Resistance), vol. 1 (Hanoi: Nhà xuất bản Chính trị quốc gia, 2010)

[2] For examples of recent works in English and French looking at Nam Bộ during the First Indochina War that have relied on such sources, see the voluminous writings of Christopher Goscha, including his “A ‘Popular’ Side of the Vietnamese Army: General Nguyen Binh and the War in the South,” in Christopher Goscha and Benoit de Treglode, eds., Naissance d’un État-Parti (Paris: Indes Savantes, 2004). as well as his pathbreaking Vietnam: Un État né de la guerre (Paris: Armand Colin, 2011);  Francois Guillemot, “Autopsy of a Massacre: On a Political Purge in the Early Days of the Indochina War (Nam Bo 1947),” European Journal of East Asian Studies 9:2 (210): 225-265; Shawn McHale, “Understanding the Fanatic Mind? The Việt Minh and Race Hatred in the First Indochina War,” Journal of Vietnamese Studies 4(3) (2009):  98-138, Shawn McHale, “Ethnicity, Violence, and Khmer-Vietnamese Relations, 1757-1954,” Journal of Asian Studies (May 2013): XX.  David Marr’s new book Vietnam: State, War, and Revolution (1945-1946) (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2013) is, unfortunately, too sketchy on the war in Nam Bộ.

[4] Lịch sử Nam bộ kháng chiến, vol. 1, 237.

[5] This is from a Cứu Quốc [Salvation] newspaper article quoted in Nam Bộ và Nam Phần Trung Bộ (1957), 32.

[6] Thiếu Sơn, “Sau ngày 9-3-1945,” in Thiếu Sơn,  Nghệ thuật và nhân sinh,  447.

[7] Janet Hoskins, citing a Cao Đài source, writes that these killings, which began in August 1945,”eventually claimed 2,791 victims----dignitaries and disciples, women and children---- and the site where many of these killings occurred was commemorated in 1956 as the “graveyard of Caodai martyrs” (Hoskins, “Colonial Caodaists” (Hoskins, unpublished paper, 21).  Given that the names of the killed were given on a Cao Dai memorial, Hoskins’s number would seem to be the most accurate.

[8] Nguyễn Thanh Sơn, Trọn đời theo Bác Hồ, 158-9, 162.  

[9] My thanks to Merle Pribbenow for pointing out this particular passage.

[10] I found a photograph of the order, signed by General Nguyễn Bình, this past summer in the French archives in Aix-en-Provence. See Indochine. Haut Commisariat de l’Indochine. Service de Protection du Corps Expéditionnaire dossier 385.  BO CAO CUA UY BAN HANH CHANH NAM BO. “VU AN HUYNH PHU SO.” Ngay 27 thang 5 nam 1947. [Signed:] NGUYEN BINH.

[11] On this, see Guillemot, “Autopsy of a Massacre.” This essay is based heavily on captured Việt Minh documents.

[12] Mai Chí Thọ, “Những buổi ban đầu lưu luyến ấy,” pp. 8-15, in Kỷ niệm sâu sắc trong đời Công An (HCMC: NXB Công An Nhân Dân, 1995) , 12.

[13] Lịch sử Nam bộ kháng chiến, vol. 1, 525.

[14] Lịch sử Nam bộ kháng chiến, vol. 1, 525.


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