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History of the Southern Resistance or History of the Communist Resistance?

Nu-Anh Tran"History of the Southern Resistance or History of the Communist Resistance?: Vietnam’s Official Interpretation of the Resistance War (1945-1954) in the South," 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 ProjectOctober 2014.

Lịch sử Nam bộ kháng chiến (History of the Southern Resistance; herafter HSR) examines four decades of communist-led resistance against foreign domination and invasion in southern Vietnam. Written under the aegis of the Vietnamese state, the project was headed by a steering committee composed of high-ranking cadres and government officials, and a team of historians and party leaders, especially those with backgrounds in propaganda and education (tuyên giáo, tuyên huấn), carried out the research. The book attempts to capture the totality of the southern resistance within a single narrative and currently includes two hefty volumes totaling over 2,600 pages (the project appears to include plans for additional volumes). But the authors are also highly selective in their approach and have produced a history of the communist party during the resistance rather than a history the resistance as such. Readers unfamiliar with Vietnamese state-sponsored research will be surprised to find that the authors often do not appear adhere to familiar scholarly objectives. Indeed, the volumes are more concerned with demonstrating axiomatic truths about Vietnamese history than explaining the past. This review attempts to evaluate HSR on its own terms by examining these truths and how they shape the interpretation of the resistance war (1945-1954).

Foremost among the historical axioms are the following claims: southern Vietnamese people possess an inherent Vietnamese essence as well as a unique regional character, and Vietnamese communists are the legitimate leaders of the resistance. In the foreword (“Lời nói đầu”), former prime minister and chair of the steering committee Võ Văn Kiệt asserts that southerners have always maintained their Vietnamese identity despite their distance from the historical heartland of Vietnamese civilization in the north: “Though far from their native place, all southerners always hear, echoing from the bottom of their hearts, their Vietnamese roots, their origins as ‘the children of Lạc, the grandchildren of Hồng’ and as the descendants of the Hùng kings.’”[1] Võ Văn Kiệt links Vietnamese identity with myths associated with premodern northern Vietnam, including the Hùng kings, Lạc lords, and the Hồng Bàng dynasty, but offers no empirical evidence for southern self-perception or the prevalence of the myths in the south. The former prime minister also avers that the southern character had “taken shape” (định hình) by the late nineteenth century, but only communist leadership enabled southerners to “perfect” (hoàn thiện) their character: “[T]he character of the southerner continued to develop towards perfection, uplifted by the appearance of the Vietnamese working class, beginning in Saigon, and, along with the current of the times, by the spread of Nguyễn Ái Quốc’s patriotism and consciousness of resistance among ordinary southerners, and by the Vietnamese Communist Party’s leadership of the revolution.”[2] Nguyễn Ái Quốc was a pseudonym of Hồ Chí Minh. The southern character reached even greater heights with the August Revolution, the anti-French resistance, and the anti-American resistance, he continues. In short, communist-led resistance allowed southerners to fully develop their Vietnamese-ness. 

The assumption that communist nationalism represented the culmination of southerners’ innate identity translates into a communist-centric narrative that is wide-ranging in time and space. The authors dedicate three entire chapters to survey the role of the south in Vietnamese history prior to the resistance in order to explore the emergence of the southern character. The volume defines “resistance” (kháng chiến) broadly to include not only the resistance war against France (1945-1954) but also the Vietnam War against the anti-communist Republic of Vietnam (RVN) and the US (1954-1975) and the early years of the Cambodian-Vietnamese War (also known as the Third Indochina War). The third episode includes the years from 1975 to 1978 but seems to have been relegated to a third volume that has yet to be published. “Resistance” is an odd term to apply to the Vietnam War, which was in large part a war against other Vietnamese. It is even more inappropriate when used for the border clashes with the Khmer Rouge because this latter “resistance” was quickly followed by the Vietnamese invasion and occupation of Cambodia. The authors do not explain why they subsume such different conflicts under the heading of “resistance,” but what links them appears to be the efforts of Vietnamese communists to expel foreigners and consolidate power domestically.

One fortunate consequence of this definition is the volume’s impressive breadth. Most accounts of the anti-French resistance tend to focus on the north, while histories of the Vietnam War concentrate on the US. HSR is refreshing in its attempt to provide a comprehensive history of southern Vietnam covering the 1940s to the 1970s. The authors offer basic surveys of many topics that have received limited attention in English-language scholarship, including Việt Minh preparation for the August Revolution in the south, communist attempts to incorporate the sects during the resistance war, opposition politics within the RVN, and communist agitation against Ngô Đình Diệm during the immediate post-Geneva period. The authors are also careful to incorporate developments from throughout the southern provinces. For example, their coverage of Ngô Đình Diệm’s anti-communist denunciation campaigns recounts specific events that took place in the provinces of Bạc Liêu, Rạch Giá, and Sóc Trăng.[3]

Yet the authors’ quest for a comprehensive history is at odds with their belief in the communists’ exclusive legitimacy. The uneven coverage of the resistance war illustrates the contradiction. The south had a unique experience of the resistance compared with the rest of country. It was the only region in Vietnam where non-communists led armed resistance against the French for an extended period of time and successfully competed against the Việt Minh, the communist front organization that came to power in the August Revolution.[4] The most important non-communists were the so-called sects: the Cao Đài religion, the Hòa Hảo Buddhist sect, and a crime syndicate known as the Bình Xuyên, which had no religious affiliation. The sects commanded private armies, and the two religious groups enjoyed a large mass following. Less powerful were the Trotskyists, a small but influential movement including some of Saigon’s leading intellectuals, labor organizers, and workers. The Việt Minh quickly defeated non-communist rivals in the north and central region but was only able to eliminate the unarmed Trotskyists in the south. The communists formed an alliance with the sects, though relations were often violent. The alliance finally broke down in 1947-1948. Substantial factions within each of the sects abandoned the Việt Minh and eventually sided with the French, though splinter groups within the Cao Đài and Hòa Hảo would return to the resistance independently of the communists.[5] This complicated history of non-communist anti-colonialism was integral to the southern resistance and belongs in any full account of the struggle. More broadly, a serious examination of the the “southern character,” as Võ Văn Kiệt describes it, would necessitate research into the conditions and indigeneous traditions that gave rise to the political and politico-religious groups that were unique to the region.

HSR acknowledges that multiple Vietnamese groups competed for power,[6] but the narrative follows the Việt Minh at the expense of non-communists. The authors recount developments within the communist regional leadership in minute detail, including the rivalry between Vanguard Regional Committee (Xứ Ủy Tiền Phong) and Liberation Regional Committee (Xứ Ủy Giải Phóng), the eventual union of the two factions within the Việt Minh Southern Committee (Ủy Ban Việt Minh Nam Bộ), and the changing composition of the Southern People’s Committee (Ủy Ban Nhân Dân Nam Bộ). The volume also examines the Việt Minh takeover on a province-by-province basis and quotes extensively from Trần Văn Giàu’s speech celebrating Vietnamese independence on 2 September 1945.[7] In contrast, the authors discuss non-communists only insofar as they impinge on the activities of the Việt Minh. The volume mentions the Trotskyists when they challenged or criticized the Việt Minh but never explores the Trotskyists’ organizational developments.[8] Similarly, the sects are significant as allies or enemies of the communists but not in their own right. The authors praise Cao Đài factions that allied with the Việt Minh, especially the Minh Chơn sect, but disapprove of Trần Quang Vinh and Phạm Công Tắc, leaders of the faction based in Tây Ninh, for rallying to the French. At times, the volume even lapses into factual errors regarding non-communists.[9]

One of the distinctive characteristics of the southern resistance was that a prolonged civil war between competing Vietnamese nationalists occured simultaneously with the anti-colonial struggle. But the authors leave out any acknowledgement of the mutual antagonism that caused alliances to shift and shatter. The sects broke with the communists in part because they resented Việt Minh intervention in their internal affairs and feared destruction at the hands of the communists.[10] Việt Minh leaders repeatedly pressured the Cao Đài army to integrate into the Việt Minh military and sent agents to infiltrate the Bình Xuyên.[11] The volume hints at these efforts when it briefly states that cadres were “assigned to work within the Bình Xuyên.”[12] Neither is there any admission that the religious sects switched sides in part because the Việt Minh arrested their leaders. The communists captured Trần Quang Vinh, head of the Cao Đài army, in October 1945, only two months after the August Revolution. He managed to escape but was arrested by the French the following spring. Under threat from both the communists and the French, Trần Quang Vinh chose to accept a truce.[13] The Tây Ninh branch of the Cao Đài subsequently signed an accord with the French in January 1947. Later that year, the Việt Minh arrested Huỳnh Phú Sổ, founder of the Hòa Hảo, and he died under their custody. The outraged Hòa Hảo declared war on the Việt Minh, and their armies later allied with the French. The authors offer more detail on the defection of Bình Xuyên leader Lê Văn Viễn. As the new leader of the gang, he found himself increasingly at odds with the Việt Minh leadership and feared communist encroachment on the group’s traditional independence. He entered into contact with French intelligence, which the communists discovered, and was forced to flee to Saigon in 1948 after narrowly escaping a Việt Minh ambush.[14] The volume euphemistically describes the ambush as a “purge” (thanh lọc).[15] The many omissions and understatements minimize the conflict between Vietnamese to depict the resistance as a communist project that non-communist leaders betrayed.

The volume’s shortcomings are puzzling because producing a more inclusive history would not have been difficult. Numerous sources on non-communists are available in the overseas Vietnamese press and western research libraries, including Trần Quang Vinh’s memoir, various Vietnamese-language accounts of Huỳnh Phú Sổ’s disappearance, recent publications on the Bình Xuyên, the writing of Trotskyist leader Ngô Văn, French intelligence reports on the sects, and western-language scholarship on the sects.[16] The authors certainly did not hesitate to include other relevant English- and French-language scholarship. But in the end, fidelity to political orthodoxy apparently prevented the authors from enlarging the source base. This deficiency is all the more disappointing because government-supported researchers in Vietnam, unlike foreign researchers, have access to documents that are necessary to adjudicate longstanding historical controversies, such as the alleged murder of Huỳnh Phú Sổ by the Việt Minh.

HSR adheres so assiduously to the conviction of communist legitimacy that it explicitly celebrates the Việt Minh’s seizure of power while vilifying other groups for attempting to do the same. The authors praise the communists for assuming political authority during the August Revolution but castigate the Hòa Hảo and Trotskyists for later trying to wrest control of provincial governments in southwestern Vietnam.[17] The volume also ridicules the Democratic Party (Đảng Dân Chủ), a small group that the communists helped create, for asking to share power. Prior to a meeting between the Democratic Party and the communists in early 1948, “a small number of cadres and members of the Democratic Party did not yet accept the leadership of the Communist Party over the revolutionary project in Vietnam; some even demanded to share ‘the power to direct’ the armed forces.”[18] The very idea that the Vietnamese communist party might not monopolize political power is simply absurd, the authors imply.

Some brief comments on the style of writing in HSR are warranted. As with other official histories, the prose is often verbose, overwrought, and dry. The authors employ an unabashedly partisan tone, refer to the communist party as “our party” (đảng ta), and sprinkle the text liberally with political pejoratives. For example, they characterize the colonial government, the Trotkyists, the Hòa Hảo, the Tây Ninh-based branch of the Cao Đài, Bình Xuyên defectors, the Great Việt Nationalist Party (Đại Việt Quốc Dân Đảng), and numerous other non-communist organizations as “reactionary” (phản động).[19] Similarly branded are the government of the RVN, Vietnamese organizations affiliated with the RVN, the Americans, and several political parties active under the RVN, including the Vietnamese Nationalist Party (Việt Nam Quốc Dân Đảng) and the Democratic Socialist Party (Dân Chủ Xã Hội Đảng).[20] The authors never explain what they mean by “reactionary,” but these disparate groups have little in common other than their opposition to Vietnamese communists or independence from the communist party. Thus, usage of the term is not meant to be descriptive but merely to provoke antipathy. It is almost as if the language found in party documents that the volume frequently cites has seeped into the main text.

At the heart of the HSR is a contradiction which its authors cannot reconcile: a scholarly desire for a comprehensive and accurate account of the southern resistance, on the one hand, and the political need for a history that justifies single-party rule, on the other. Ultimately, the achievements and shortcomings of HSR provide a window into understanding the possibilities and limitations of historical research in contemporary Vietnam.

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[1] “Dù xa nơi chôn nhau cắt rốn hàng ngàn dặm, người Nam Bộ nào cũng nghe vang vọng trong tâm khảm cội nguồn Việt Nam, cội nguồn ‘con Lạc, cháu Hồng,’ những hậu duệ của các vua Hùng”: Võ Văn Kiệt, foreword to 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), 1, 25-34, citation on 28.

[2] “tính cách con người Việt Nam ở Nam Bộ tiếp tục hoàn thiện, được nâng chất với giai cấp công nhân Việt Nam xuất hiện sớm nhất ở Sài Gòn, khi tư tưởng yêu nước và cứu nước theo dòng chảy thời đại của Nguyễn Ái Quốc thâm nhập vào đông đảo con người Nam Bộ bình thường, khi Đảng Cộng sản Việt Nam giữ vai trò lãnh đạo cách mạng”: Võ Văn Kiệt, foreword to Lịch sử Nam bộ kháng chiến, vol. 1, 29.

[3]Lịch sử Nam bộ kháng chiến, vol. 2, 55, 67.

[4] “Non-communists” refers to individuals and groups that did not belong to and did not support the Vietnamese communist party, including Vietnamese Trotskyists.

[5] Hòa Hảo general Lê Quang Vinh returned to the resistance several times after 1947, and Cao Đài general Trình Minh Thế broke with the Cao Đài army in 1951 to fight both the French and the Việt Minh. For more on Lê Quang Vinh, see Lê Văn Dương, Quân lực Việt Nam Cộng hòa trong giai đoạn hình thành, 1946-1955 (The Army of the Republic of Vietnam during its Formative Period, 1946-1955) (Saigon: Bộ Tổng tham mưu, 1972), 433.

[6]Lịch sử Nam bộ kháng chiến, vol. 1, 130, 336-337.

[7]Lịch sử Nam bộ kháng chiến, vol. 1, 222-223.

[8]HSR states that the Trotskyists formed an anti-Việt Minh front after the Japanese coup of 9 March 1945, attempted to seize power in Châu Đốc province after the Việt Minh takeover, and criticized the policies of the Việt Minh government in Saigon. See Lịch sử Nam bộ kháng chiến, vol. 1, 132, 179, 228.

[9] For example, Huỳnh Phú Sổ, the founder Hòa Hảo sect, established the Democratic Socialist Party (Dân Chủ Xã Hội Đảng, or Dân Xã), but HSR incorrectly attributes it to Hòa Hảo generals Trần Văn Soái, Lâm Thành Nguyên, Lê Quang Vinh, and Nguyễn Giác Ngộ. See Lịch sử Nam bộ kháng chiến, vol. 1, 336; Trần Mỹ Vân, “Beneath the Japanese Umbrella: Vietnam’s Hòa Hảo During and After the Pacific War,” Crossroads 17, no.1 (2003): 60-107, reference to 99;

A.M. Savani, Notes sur la secte PGHH (Notes on the Phật Giáo Hòa Hảo sect) (Saigon: 1951), 31.

[10] The point here is not to suggest that the Việt Minh instigated the civil war, which there is insufficient research to determine. Nor is it to claim that the communists were the only group to wield weapons against its rivals. Indeed, all of the sects engaged in violence. It should also be noted that a similar but much briefer civil war broke out in northern Vietnam in the spring and summer of 1946 between the communists and non-communists.

[11] Jayne Werner, Peasant Politics and Religious Sectarianism: Peasant and Priest in the Cao Dai in Vietnam (New Haven: Yale University Southeast Asian Studies, 1981), 43, 49; A.M. Savani, Notes sur les Binh Xuyen (Notes on the Bình Xuyên) (Saigon: 1954), 17, 111; Alfred McCoy with Cathleen Read and Leonard Adams, The Politics of Heroin in Southeast Asia (New York: Harper and Row, 1972), 115; Liêm Anh, Bảy Viễn: Một đời ngang dọc (Bảy Viễn: A Fearless Life) (West Germany: Nguồn Việt, [1986?]), 377, 381, 412.

[12] “được cử vào công tác trong lực lượng Bình Xuyên”: Lịch sử Nam bộ kháng chiến, vol. 1, 332.

[13] For an account of Trần Quang Vinh’s decision, see Đại Đạo Tam Kỳ Phổ Độ Tòa Thánh Tây Ninh, Hồi ký Trần Quang Vinh và lịch sử quân đội Cao Đài (The Memoir of Trần Quang Vinh and the History of the Cao Đài Armed Forces) (Washington, DC: Thánh thất vùng Hoa Thịnh Đốn, 1996), 42-50, 273-275; Sergei Blagov, Honest Mistakes: The Life and Death of Trình Minh Thế, 1922-1955, South Vietnam’s Alternative Leader (Huntington, NY: Nova Science Publishers, 2001), 18; Trần Mỹ Vân, “Japan and Vietnam’s Caodaists: A Wartime Relationship, 1939-45,” Journal of Southeast Asian Studies 27, no. 1 (Mar 1996): 179-193, reference to 192.

[14] For more on the troubled relationship between the Bình Xuyên and the Việt Minh, see A.M. Savani, Visage et images du Sud Viet-Nam (The Face and Images of South Vietnam) (Saigon: Imprimerie Francaise d'Outre-mer, 1955), 101-102; Savani, Notes sur les Binh Xuyen, 34-36, 70, 82, 91-92, 102; Lê Văn Dương, Quân lực Việt Nam Cộng hòa, 410; Liêm Anh, Bảy Viễn, 359-362. For more on Lê Văn Viễn’s contact with the French and his break with the Việt Minh, see Savani, Visage et images, 102; Savani, Notes sur les Binh-Xuyen, 111; McCoy, The Politics of Heroin in Southeast Asia, 115; Lucien Bodard, The Quicksand War: Prelude to Vietnam, trans. Patrick O’Brian (Boston: Little, Brown, 1967); Christopher Goscha, “A ‘Popular’ Side of the Vietnamese Army: General Nguyễn Bình and War in the South,” in Naissance d'un État-Parti: Le Viêt Nam depuis 1945 (The Birth of a Party-State: Vietnam since 1945), ed. Christopher Goscha and Benoit de Tréglodé (Paris: Les Indes Savantes, 2004), 325-353, reference to 335. There are even accusations that the Việt Minh were responsible for the death of Dương Văn Dương, the first leader of the Bình Xuyên. See Trần Kim Trúc, Tôi giết Nguyễn Bình: hồi ký Tham mưu trưởng Trung đoàn 25 Bình Xuyên (I killed Nguyễn Bình: The Memoir of the Chief of Staff of Bình Xuyên Regiment 25) (Saigon: Đồng Nai, 1972), 106.

[15]Lịch sử Nam bộ kháng chiến, vol. 1, 331-334.

[16] For more on the Trotskyists, see Ngô Văn, Au pays de la cloche fêlée: tribulations d’un Cochinchinois à l’époque coloniale (In the Land of the Cracked Bell: Tribulations of a Cochinchinese during the Colonial Period) (Montreuil: Insomiaque, 2000). For primary sources on the sects from mid-century, see Đại Đạo Tam Kỳ Phổ Độ Tòa Thánh Tây Ninh, Hồi ký Trần Quang Vinh; A.M. Savani, Notes sur le Caodaisme (Notes on Caodaism) (Saigon: 1954); Dật Sĩ and Nguyễn Văn Hầu, Thất sơn mầu nhiệm (The Miraculous Seven Mountains) (Saigon: Liên Chính, 1955), 276-292; Savani, Notes sur la secte PGHH; Savani, Notes sur les Binh Xuyen; Trần Kim Trúc, Tôi giết Nguyễn Bình; Savani, Visage et images, 71-108. For recent Vietnamese-language publications on the sects, see Nhị Lang, Phong trào kháng chiến Trình Minh Thế (The Revolutionary movement of Trình Minh Thế) (Boulder, CO: Lion Press, 1985); Nguyễn Long Thành Nam, Phật giáo Hòa Hảo trong dòng lịch sử dân tộc (Hòa Hảo Buddhism in the Current of National History) (Santa Fe Springs, CA: Đuốc Từ bi, 1991); Liêm Anh, Bảy Viễn; Hồ Sơn Đài, Đỗ Tầm Chương, and Hồ Khang, Bộ đội Bình Xuyên (Bình Xuyên Soldiers) (Ho Chi Minh City: NXB Thành phố Hồ Chí Minh, 1991). For western-language scholarship on the Cao Đài, see Victor Oliver, Caodai Spiritism: A Study of Religion in Vietnamese Society (Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1976); R.B. Smith, “An Introduction to Caodaism: Origins and Early History,” Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies 33, no. 2 (1970): 335-349; R.B. Smith, “An Introduction to Caodaism: Beliefs and Organization,” Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies 33, no. 3 (1970): 573-589; Werner, Peasant Politics and Religious Sectarianism; Sergei Blagov, Caodaism: Vietnamese Traditionalism and its Leap into Modernity (New York: Nova Science Publishers, 2001); Blagov, Honest Mistakes; Jérémy Jammes, “Le Saint-Siège Caodaïste de Tây Ninh et le médium Phạm Công Tắc (1890-1959): Millénarisme, prosélytisme et oracles politiques en Cochinchine” (The Cao Đài Holy See of Tây Ninh and the Medium Phạm Công Tắc (1890-1959): Millenarianism, Proselytism, and Political Oracles in Cochinchina), Outre-Mers: Revue d'Histoire 93, no. 352-353 (2006): 209-248; Trần Mỹ Vân, Vietnam’s Caodaism, Independence, and Peace: The Life and Work of Pham Cong Tac, 1890-1959, PROSEA Research Paper 38 (Taipei: Academica Sinica, 2000); Trần Mỹ Vân, “Japan and Vietnam’s Caodaists,” Journal of Southeast Asian Studies. For western-language scholarship on the Hòa Hảo, see Hue Tam Ho Tai, Millenarianism and Peasant Politics in Vietnam (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1983); Frisco Short, “The Influence of Religious/Political/Military Growth on National Politics: A Case Study, the Phat Gia Hoa Hao, Republic of Vietnam” (unpublished manuscript, 1974), accessed 4 Oct 2012,; Trần Mỹ Vân, “Beneath the Japanese Umbrella,” Crossroads, 60-107. For a useful overview of the Hòa Hảo and Cao Đài, see Bernard Fall, “The Political-Religious Sects of Viet-Nam,” Pacific Affairs 28, no. 3 (Sep 1955): 235-253. For western-language scholarship on the Bình Xuyên, see McCoy, Politics of Heroin in Southeast Asia, 109-126.

[17]Lịch sử Nam bộ kháng chiến, vol. 1, 179, 229.

[18] “một số ít cán bộ, đảng viên Dân chủ chưa chấp nhận vai trò lãnh đạo của Đảng Cộng sản đối với sự nghiệp cách mạng ở Việt Nam, thậm chí có người đòi chia sẻ ‘quyền chỉ huy’ trong lực lượng vũ trang”: Lịch sử Nam bộ kháng chiến, vol. 1, 331.

[19]Lịch sử Nam bộ kháng chiến, vol. 1, 95, 99, 179, 229, 312, 312n1-2, 333.

[20]Lịch sử Nam bộ kháng chiến, vol. 2, 150, 202, 216, 564.


About the Author

Nu-Anh Tran

Assistant Professor, History, University of Connecticut
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