- Vietnam’s Southern Revolution: From Peasant Insurrection to Total War
David Hunt promises a great deal at the outset of Vietnam’s Southern Revolution. To date, he suggests, historians of the Vietnamese revolutionary movement during the Second Indochina War have focused almost entirely on the role of political organizations such as the Communist party and the National Liberation Front (NLF). By contrast, Hunt proposes to examine the war at “ground level” by analyzing the “vicissitudes of everyday life” (p. 2) experienced by South Vietnamese peasants. This “different kind of history” (p. 1), Hunt insists, makes it possible to appreciate the crucial role played by ordinary villagers in inspiring, shaping, and waging the struggle against the Saigon government and ultimately the United States.
The challenge of writing this kind of social history, however, is the paucity of sources documenting peasant life. “Political parties leave a paper trail and are therefore easy to research,” Hunt asserts, “while peasants generate few documents and are difficult to research” (p. 2). Hunt overcomes this problem by drawing on a remarkable collection of interview transcripts compiled by the RAND Corporation, the national security think-tank hired by the U.S. Department of Defense during the war to study motivation and morale among NLF loyalists. From 1965 to 1968, RAND employees interviewed 285 South Vietnamese from the province of My Tho in the Mekong Delta—243 defectors from the revolutionary movement and 42 prisoners regarded as criminals by the South Vietnamese government—to obtain information potentially useful to Saigon and Washington as they prosecuted the war. For the latter-day researcher, writes Hunt, the transcripts provide a treasure-trove of information that would otherwise be unrecoverable.
The transcripts have been exploited before, most notably by David Elliott, an original RAND interviewer who later became a political scientist and in 2003 published an exhaustive two-volume study of the war in My Tho. Yet Hunt, who has criticized Elliott for exaggerating the Communist party’s control over revolutionary activity in the South, insists that reading the RAND material with fresh eyes yields important new insights. Above all, Hunt argues that villagers constituted a more or less autonomous “popular movement” (p. 6) distinct from the party and responsible for some of the most creative and visionary revolutionary activity. Revolutionary villagers depended on the party for “strategic perspectives not readily attained at hamlet level,” but the party depended at least as much on the mobilized peasantry, Hunt asserts. Without that popular movement, he adds, the party “would have flailed in a void” (p. 6).
The book’s central chapters describe the rise and disintegration of the revolutionary aspirations that, according to Hunt, spurred the My Tho peasantry to rise up against the South Vietnamese government in 1959 and 1960. This “concerted uprising” [End Page 121] flowed from the everyday grievances and desires of ordinary peasants fed up with the Saigon regime and anxious for meaningful land reform, Hunt argues. Yet he goes beyond these relatively familiar explanations for peasant unrest by suggesting that the revolutionaries were also motivated by a vision of the future that overlapped only partly with the goals of the Communist party. The peasants, Hunt writes, embraced the rural ideals of material abundance, social equality, and communal solidarity and projected them across Vietnamese and even international society in an all-encompassing ideology that he labels “peasant modernism” (p. 152). In the “golden period” of the early 1960s, villagers believed that “the usual constraints fixing limits on action and imagination had been overcome and that felicity was within reach” (p. 116).
The dramatic escalation of the war in 1965 put an end to this “revolutionary dream,” Hunt asserts (p. 116). Intensive bombing and shelling disrupted revolutionary activity in a literal sense by forcing many peasants to flee their villages and demolishing the economic system that had sustained them. Hunt is at least as interested, however, in teasing out the psychic costs that full-scale war exacted. Ubiquitous death and destruction caused peasants to despair about the future and to shelve the...