Vietnam: A New History by Christopher Goscha (review)
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Vietnam: A New History. By Christopher Goscha. New York: Basic Books, 2016. xiv+ 552 pp.

This book has an interpretive vantage on modern Vietnamese history that sparkles with fresh thought and interesting themes. A salient strength of the book is its critique of the cliché of Vietnam as a unified historical phenomenon. In Goscha's words,

We need to recognize that the history of Vietnam, like any other place in the world, is a series of interlocking forces and people, occurring and acting at specific points in time and space, each generating its own possibilities and eliminating others at the same time.

(p. 6)

The theme of "multiple Vietnams" is a kind of backbone that gives the book its coherence and conceptual force. The importance of this cannot be overestimated, for historical scholarship on Vietnam has until recently been confined to a narrow, linear interpretive path in service to the notion of a united "Vietnam" that has followed a teleological trajectory from ancient times to the present. This book is a strong, cogent, and compelling argument against that point of view. It proposes that contemporary Vietnam contains multiple possibilities that vie with the ruling orthodoxy to define the future of the nation. The presentation of this idea might nevertheless have been stronger if the book had explored the complicating constraints imposed by the close relationship between the ruling elites now in power in China and Vietnam.

A second strength of this book, extending from the above, is its critique not only of a romanticized vision of what are asserted [End Page 405] to be national traditions but also of the clichés that have become embedded in contemporary discourse about the modern history of Vietnam. For example, Goscha writes, "No torch was necessarily passed in late July 1954 from the French to the Americans, no sparks flew from the embers of one empire to light the flames of another" (p. 284). His insistence that the post-colonial wars that pitted Vietnamese against Vietnamese, albeit with the participation of foreign powers, was not a product of the Cold War but were rather episodes in a conflict between Vietnamese that "emerged over a century ago, before communism arrived; and therein lies one of the keys to understanding political change in modern Vietnam today and what lies ahead" (p. 446). Goscha defines this conflict as "the clash between Vietnamese republicans and communists over the future of Vietnam" (p. 448), and he perceptively relates this clash to, among other things, opposing views over the national constitution.

For the communists today, the 1960 constitution is the founding document for their Vietnam, not the 1946 one. And this is why republicans in Vietnam today push so hard for the restoration of the 1946 constitution, which they consider to be the "real" one. It would allow them to roll back the communist confiscation of the state during the First Indochina War.

(p. 451)

Goscha offers an opportunity to escape from simplistic global explanations; he proposes to give Vietnamese history back to the Vietnamese — all of them.

The above highlights a third strength of this book. It posits modern Vietnamese history as a struggle between republican and authoritarian options for organizing a post-colonial polity. Goscha sees this struggle as one that predates the emergence of Vietnamese communists as the leading authoritarians, and to a large extent he sees it as a struggle between reformist and revolutionary responses to the colonial conundrum and the corresponding alternative dreams of a modern Vietnam. This reading powerfully disrupts the propagandistic historical narrative that views communists as the only plausible representatives of a modern post-colonial Vietnam. [End Page 406]

A weakness of the book is that, aside from the period of the First Indochina War upon which Goscha's previous research has been focused, there are many factual errors. For example, despite the interpretive direction indicated above, the book suffers from curious pre-modern slips back into the teleological groove, such as the statement that "The Vietnamese regained their independence in the tenth century" (p. 1). This statement is a mantra of modern Vietnamese historical writing, commonly found in books about Vietnam, but in fact...