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The Tran Quang Co Memoir: A Translator’s Introduction

Merle Pribbenow, translator of Tran Quang Co's memoir, introduces the text's background and its historical significance.

During the mid to late 1980s, the Communist regime in Vietnam faced a range of crises that threatened its very existence. 

The country’s economy was in ruins as the result of the regime’s harsh implementation of disastrous hardline socialist economic policies. Vietnam’s sole remaining source of foreign assistance, the Soviet Union, was in the process of collapsing and was drastically cutting back its aid (both military and economic) to Vietnam. The nation was also staggering under the crush of the effort to maintain an army of more than 1.5 million soldiers engaged in three different armed conflicts (in Cambodia, against the Chinese Army along Vietnam’s northern border, and supporting the efforts of its Communist allies in Laos to eliminate a nascent guerrilla insurgency in that country). Hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese citizens were fleeing the country by boat every year.

The Socialist Republic of Vietnam had become a virtual international pariah and it was completely surrounded by hostile neighbors (China and the countries of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) that were backed by the United States. 

In December 1986, desperate to extricate the nation from its desperate straits, the Communist Party’s 7th National Party Congress voted for a radical change of policy, called Doi Moi (or “renovation”), which included instituting a Chinese-style semi-free market economy to replace the country’s socialist government-controlled economic system, ending all three of Vietnam’s armed conflicts, and opening Vietnam up to the outside world in order to seek outside aid and investment. 

These measures would require intense diplomatic efforts, especially to end the war in Cambodia, where more than one hundred thousand Vietnamese troops had been fighting for seven long years, and to normalize Vietnam’s relations with China, which was openly supporting the ouster of the current Vietnamese leadership in order to turn Vietnam into a vassal state totally subservient to China. Vietnamese-Chinese relations had quickly deteriorated after the fall of Saigon in 1975 and had turned from merely bad to all-out hostility after Vietnam’s invasion of Cambodia in December 1978 that ousted Cambodia’s Khmer Rouge government, which was closely allied with China. 

Responsibility for developing and implementing policies aimed ending the Cambodian War and normalizing relations with China was delegated to Vietnamese Deputy Foreign Minister Tran Quang Co. Co recounted his experiences in a memoir that is being published in English for the first time on the Wilson Center’s Digital Archive.

The publication of Co’s memoir has never been officially sanctioned by the Vietnamese Communist Party. Rather, it has circulated online and in grey markets, making it the equivalent of a samizdat publication, or the dissident underground literature that circulated within the Soviet Union.

Tran is not the typical individual one would expect to author a samizdat-style document. Indeed, his memoir, which is an account of his diplomatic career during the period from 1975 to 1991, is clearly not the classic samizdat publication.  The author may well have written it as an internal study document for use in the kind of “review of past experiences to learn lessons for the future” exercises that are so beloved by Vietnamese governmental and Party agencies. 

The Vietnamese government may have even turned a blind eye to the leak of this document, especially since the main villain in Tran Quang Co story is the nefarious Chinese, Vietnam’s traditional enemy since ancient times.  In fact, I have even been told by a knowledgeable third party that Tran Quang Co’s memoir has been used officially as an internal study/reference document inside the Vietnamese Foreign Ministry.

In spite of the natural questions about this memoir’s provenance because of the unofficial nature of its online publication, after careful study and analysis I believe it is clear that the Tran Quang Co memoir can and should be viewed as an important reference source for use in any serious historical study of Vietnamese, Chinese, Cambodian, and US diplomatic activities during the 1975-1991 period.

Who Was Tran Quang Co?

Tran Quang Co died in 2015. He was a Vietnamese Communist Party member for more than half a century.  After serving as a People’s Army Enemy proselyting officer during the war against France, he was transferred to the Vietnamese Foreign Ministry in 1954 and rose steadily through the diplomatic ranks until his retirement in 1997. 

After a two-year assignment as First Secretary of the North Vietnamese Embassy in Jakarta, Indonesia, Tran Quang Co was sent to Paris as an “expert” assigned to the North Vietnamese delegation to the Paris Peace talks, where he served from 1968 until early 1973. After the Vietnam War ended in 1975 Tran Quang Co became the Chief of the Vietnamese Foreign Ministry’s North American Bureau, where he was intimately involved in Vietnam’s failed efforts to normalize relations with the United States from 1976 to 1979. 

Following a four-year tour as the Vietnamese Ambassador to Thailand (1982-1986), Tran Quang Co returned to Vietnam, where he was quickly appointed as Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs and was elected to membership in the Communist Party Central Committee.  One part of the decision made by the 6th Congress of the Vietnamese Communist in December 1986 to institute the economic reforms of the so-called “renovation” program described above was to strive to normalize relations with China and to end Vietnam’s two ongoing wars - its war in Cambodia and Vietnam’s border conflict with China.

In early 1987 Tran Quang Co was appointed as chief of an ad hoc Foreign Ministry research cell called CP87.  CP87 was given responsibility for studying and formulating policies aimed normalizing relations with China, ending the war in Cambodia in a manner consistent with Vietnamese interests, establishing friendly relations with the ASEAN countries, and enabling Vietnam to obtain the trade and investment it needed to rescue its collapsing economy and social structure. Ending the war in Cambodia and withdrawing Vietnamese troops from that country was viewed as critical for achieving the goals of normalizing relations with China, ASEAN, and the United States. 

From early 1987 through the signing of the international agreement ending the Cambodian conflict and the normalization of relations between Vietnam and China in 1991, Tran Quang Co was intimately involved in the negotiations with China and in the negotiations with the pro-Vietnamese Cambodian Government and with the other foreign countries that were involved in the negotiations on ending the Cambodian conflict. 

In his role as a policy briefer, Tran Quang Co personally attended key Vietnamese Politburo sessions during which heated arguments between Politburo members broke out over how to resolve the various issues that arose during the course of efforts to resolve these two tendentious problems. 

During Vietnam’s 7th Party Congress in 1991 Vietnamese Foreign Minister Nguyen Co Thach was stripped of all of his senior government and Party posts, including his posts as Deputy Prime Minister, Minister of Foreign Affairs, Member of the Party Politburo, and Member of the Party Central Committee, in large part because (according to Tran Quang Co’s account) China demanded his removal as Foreign Minister as one of their unofficial requirements for agreeing to restore full normal diplomatic relations between Vietnam. Tran Quang Co was offered Thach’s position as Foreign Minister, but Co declined the offer and requested permission to withdraw his name as a candidate for reelection to the Party Central Committee. 

While the latter request was rejected and Co was reelected to the Central Committee, after continuing to serve as First Deputy Foreign Minister and member of the Party Central Committee for another two years, he resigned from both of those positions in 1993 and spent his last four years with the Foreign Ministry, working alongside former Foreign Minister Nguyen Co Thach on preparing studies and historical reviews for “lessons learned” for the Vietnamese Foreign Minister. 

Normalizing Relations with the United States

The first portion of Tran Quang Co’s memoir, covering Vietnam’s diplomatic efforts to normalize relations with United States following North Vietnam’s victory in 1975 and the unification of North and South Vietnam as a single nation called the Socialist Republic of Vietnam (SRV) is of some limited interest. 

This section reveals that Vietnam’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs was opposed to the preconditions imposed on them by the country’s highest leaders for the establishment of diplomatic relations between the SRV and the United States.  Specifically, the Vietnamese leadership demanded as a condition for normalizing relations with the United States that the US must first fulfill the secret promise that President Nixon and his National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger had made to North Vietnam to provide several billion dollars in war reparations to Vietnam as part of the terms of the 1973 Paris Peace Agreement to End War and Restore Peace in Vietnam.  Tran Quang Co writes in this portion of his memoir that:

[O]ur rejection of the American suggestion that we ‘normalize relations without any conditions’ and our arrogance when ASEAN indicated that it wanted Vietnam to join this regional organization resulted in extremely harmful consequences for our people and for our country.  Would China have dared to help the genocidal Pol Pot clique in its provocations against us or have dared to attack us in 1979 if after our victory in 1975 Vietnam had truly followed a strategy of ‘more friends and fewer enemies’? … [T]he fact that we missed an opportunity to normalize relations with the United States at that time left Vietnam virtually isolated and alone as it confronted an ambitious, greedy China.”

Co’s argument, however, neglects two very important factors. 

First, Co’s memoir contains absolutely no mention of the January 1978 arrest of covert Vietnamese intelligence agent  David Truong Dinh Hung and US Foreign Service Officer Ronald Humphrey, a US Information Agency (USIA) employee, for espionage.  Hung and Humphrey were publicly tried and convicted in May 1978, right in the middle of a series of SRV-US diplomatic talks in Paris.[1] The prosecution resulted in the US’s expulsion of the SRV’s Ambassador to the United Nations, Dinh Ba Thi, for his alleged involvement in this espionage operation and made it virtually impossible, because of US domestic political considerations, for the US to agree to normalize relations with Vietnam until a significant time had passed to allow the public furor over this case to die down. 

Second, Tran Quang Co also ignores the worldwide geopolitical considerations that virtually compelled the US to take China’s side in the Sino-Soviet dispute in order to thwart the expansion of Soviet power and influence. Thwarting Soviet expansionism was central to the US’s worldwide national security policies.  Just as Vietnam was forced to seek closer relations and assistance from the Soviet Union as Sino-Vietnamese relations deteriorated post-1975, the US was similarly compelled to take China’s side as tensions between Vietnam and China grew. The US had an overriding strategic imperative to make use of every opportunity available to oppose the Soviet Union.  Even if the US had established diplomatic relations with the SRV during the 1977-1978 period, those geopolitical factors would almost certainly still have forced the US to react exactly the way it actually did when the Sino-Vietnamese conflict finally exploded in early 1979. 

Ambassador to Thailand

The second portion of the Tran Quang Co memoir, the portion covering the four years he spent as SRV Ambassador to Thailand, are the least revealing and least interesting portion of the memoir. It consists largely of recounting publicly-available information and his own statements to the press, some of which, such as his denial of any Vietnamese military violations of Thai territory, are demonstrably false.

Cambodia and China

The heart of this memoir, and its most unique contribution to the history of Southeast Asia during this time period, is the portion describing Tran Quang Co’s work as Deputy Foreign Minister and his participation in the efforts to end the Cambodian conflict and to normalize relations with China. 

The memoir recounts conversations and disputes within the Vietnamese Politburo between Vietnam’s highest leaders, including providing numerous direct quotes from Politburo discussions along with verbatim quotes from his and Vietnamese Foreign Minister’s Nguyen Co Thach’s heated arguments with Chinese representatives during their talks with China on normalizing relations between Vietnam and China. 

One of the most interesting and valuable portions of the Tran Quang Co memoir is its description of the “Red Solution” proposal for resolving the Cambodian problem.

The “Red Solution” was a proposal for a Cambodian settlement that would force the two hostile Cambodian Communist factions involved in the conflict, the Vietnamese-backed Hun Sen regime and the Chinese-backed Khmer Rouge led by Pol Pot, to form a coalition Communist government that would exclude the two non-communist Cambodian factions and would ensure that Cambodia would remain a Communist state.  Word of a Vietnamese proposal for the so-called “red solution” leaked out from the Chengdu summit held between Vietnamese and Chinese leaders in September 1990, but Tran Quang Co’s memoir asserts that the “red solution” was originally proposed to the Cambodian and Vietnamese governments by the Soviet Union in 1987 as part of a greater effort by the Soviet Union reconcile its differences with China and end the Sino-Soviet conflict. 

According to Tran Quang Co, during a meeting with Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen in March 1987 Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze proposed that Hun Sen should seek “Cambodian national reconciliation” and asked Hun Sen to tell him “whom among the Khmer Rouge we would be able to use.”  Then, in late April 1987, during a visit to Phnom Penh by Le Duc Tho and Vietnamese Defense Minister Le Duc Anh, Le Duc Tho tried to persuade Hun Sen and the PRK leadership to agree to try for a “red solution” – a reconciliation with the Khmer Rouge that would exclude the non-communist Cambodian factions. 

Tran Quang Co, who accompanied Le Duc Tho and Le Duc Anh during these talks, says that he and his Foreign Ministry colleagues were blindsided by the proposal, which he and the Foreign Ministry’s leaders fervently believed was a “monstrous idea that is completely unacceptable.” 

This account implicitly contradicts some portions of the account of the March 1987 meeting between Shevardnadze and Hun Sen given in the updated 1998 edition of Elizabeth Becker’s excellent book, When the War Was Over: Cambodia and the Khmer Rouge Revolution (Public Affairs, New York, 1998).  Becker’s account of the meeting (pages 464-465) is based on interviews she conducted with veteran Soviet diplomat Igor Rogachev, who accompanied Shevardnadze during his March 1987 talks with Hun Sen.  Rogachev told Becker that the Shevardnadze talks with Hun Sen were focused on trying to arrange for direct talks between Hun Sen and Cambodia’s Prince Sihanouk. 

However, the 11th meeting of the foreign ministers of the three Indochina nations (Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos) in August 1986 had already offered to open talks with the different Cambodian resistance factions (implicitly including Prince Sihanouk), with the provision that the “genocidal Pol Pot clique” must be excluded from any Cambodian settlement.[2] 

Becker’s book acknowledges that the Soviet pressure on Hun Sen and Vietnam’s leaders to reach a settlement of the Cambodian problem was not the result of concern for Cambodia specifically but instead was aimed primarily at satisfying the burning desire of new Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev to improve the Soviet Union’s relations with China and repair the rift in the Communist bloc.  It is possible that Shevardnadze’s question about “whom among the Khmer Rouge we might be able to use” might have been misinterpreted by Hun Sen as pressure aimed to implementing a “red solution” in Cambodia.

In his memoir Tran Quang Co states that in spite of the PRK’s adamant rejection of this idea, the Vietnamese side returned to the subject of the “red solution” over and over again. The Vietnamese leadership proposed the “red solution” once again to the Chinese leadership during the September 1990 summit meeting between Vietnamese and Chinese leaders in Chengdu. Tran Quang Co claims that not only did China reject the Vietnamese proposal (because China viewed it as unrealistic and unworkable), but that China then leaked the Vietnamese proposal for to the Western press in a conscious effort to embarrass and denigrate Vietnam’s leaders.[3]

The Tran Quang Co memoir recounts the development of a serious split within the Vietnamese Politburo between Party General Secretary Nguyen Van Linh and then-Defense Minister (and later Vietnamese President) Le Duc Anh on one side and several other members of the Politburo, led by Foreign Minister Nguyen Co Thach. This split finally resulted in Thach’s removal from his posts as Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister as well as from his memberships in the Vietnamese Party Politburo and Party Central Committee. 

The memoir describes how Nguyen Van Linh and Le Duc Anh went behind the Foreign Ministry’s back by conducting private meetings and talks with the Chinese Embassy in Hanoi without informing the Foreign Ministry and then gradually edged the Foreign Ministry completely out of negotiations with China on the issue of normalizing Sino-Vietnamese relations.  This aspect of the memoir is at least partially corroborated by Le Duc Anh’s own memoirs and by another book written about Le Duc Anh, both of which were published by official Vietnamese government and Party publishing houses.[4] 

Tran Quang Co also asserts that the mixed messages that the Hun Sen’s Cambodian government received from the different factions in the Vietnamese leadership and the repeated efforts to push Hun Sen to agree to the “red solution” heightened long-time traditional Cambodian suspicions of Vietnam and seriously damaged Vietnam’s relations with the Hun Sen government. 

As for the Appendix of this memoir, titled “Challenges to Our Interests and Development - A Number of Recommendations,” which Tran Quang Co says he was asked to write for submission to the Politburo in 1993, perhaps the most significant portion of the author’s analysis and recommendations is his conclusion that “currently and for the foreseeable future, China presents the primary challenge and threat to Vietnam’s sovereignty and territorial integrity as well as to Vietnam’s security and development”. 

In addition, the following recommendation that Tran Quang Co makes for Vietnam’s policy toward China in the future appears to be an almost perfect summary of the policy that Vietnam has followed toward China right up to the present day:

Normalizing relations with China is a strategic requirement for Vietnam.  Because China is carrying out a two-faced policy toward us, so our policy in dealing with China should also have two faces, one being cooperation and the other being struggle.  We need to actively work to improve relations with China on the basis of carrying out those agreements with China that we have been able to reach and at the same time we must resolutely protect our territorial integrity while continuing to follow our formula of not allowing Vietnam to return to a state of confrontation with China and to not force other countries to have to make a choice between Vietnam and China.  Our best option would be to work to create a situation in which the other big countries and ASEAN have increasingly greater economic and security interests in their relationships with Vietnam.  That situation, combined with steadily working to increase Vietnam’s own strength, will be the most effective deterrent to every Chinese effort to intrude into and occupy our space.


[1] New York Times, 01 February and 20 May 1978. See also Yung Krall, “A Thousand Tears Falling” (Atlanta, GA: Longstreet Press), 1997, chapters 19-28, and Griffin B. Bell, “Taking Care of the Law” (New York, NY: William Morrow & Company), 1982, pages 108-113.

[2] Lưu Văn Lợi, Fifty Years of Vietnamese Diplomacy (1945-1995), Volume II: 1975-1995 (Hanoi: Thế Giới Publishers), 2002, page 108; Huỳnh Anh Dũng, Ghi chép về Campuchea (1975-1991) [Notes on Cambodia, 1975-1991) (Hanoi: Self-published), 1995, page 32.

[3] “Factions Agree to Partial Demobilization and Defer Tough Issues”, Christian Science Monitor, 04 September 1991.

[4] Le Duc Anh, Cuộc đời và sự nghiệp cách mạng: Hồi ký [My Life and My Revolutionary Cause: A Memoir] (Hanoi: National Political Publishing House), 2015, pages 316-331, and Khuat Bien Hoa, Đại Tướng Lê Đức Anh [Four Star General Le Duc Anh] (Hanoi: People’s Army Publishing House), 2005, pages 316-331.

About the Author

Merle Pribbenow

Merle L. Pribbenow II graduated from the University of Washington in 1968 with a bachelor's degree in political science. After serving in the CIA for 27 years, he retired in 1995 and is now an independent researcher/author specializing in the Vietnam War.

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