- Hanoi’s Road to the Vietnam War, 1954–1965 by Pierre Asselin
During the Vietnam War, decision-making by the Politburo of the North Vietnamese Communist Party was shrouded in secrecy, its plans barely discernible except by a handful of specialists attempting to divine policy through the propaganda fog discharged [End Page 221] by Communist media. For years, we have known the details of the U.S. government’s deliberations during the long war but only vague sketches of North Vietnam’s internal policy debates. Within the last decade, however, Hanoi has published a modicum of primary documents, mainly via a series of books known as Van Kien Dang (Collected Party Documents). A few historians have attempted to mine these records, but the language barrier and large gaps in the released information have prevented the emergence of a comprehensive examination of Hanoi’s policies.
Now that is no longer true. Armed with this data, Pierre Asselin has split the Bamboo Curtain with a thunderous crack. His book reveals how North Vietnam elected to use “revolutionary violence” to unify the country and that it was as culpable as the United States in “choosing war.” Many will undoubtedly cite Asselin’s conclusion as the preeminent aspect of his book: that the North Vietnamese, and not just the U.S. government, consciously decided to expand the war. Such a conclusion, even when strongly backed by Communist Vietnamese sources, may well meet resistance because it upends the generally accepted historiography of the war. Certain circles still cling to the fairy tale that the Communists were simple peasants and Vietnam’s true nationalists, forced into war to protect their country from the overbearing U.S. military. Asselin, though, has forever punctured that fable.
Yet insightful as Asselin’s scholarship is regarding Hanoi’s responsibility, the more important aspect of his work is his brilliant integration of Vietnamese and Western sources to provide a compelling examination of how Hanoi chose the path to war. In doing so, he illuminates the hitherto much-discussed but little-understood intra-party split. Asselin labels those who wanted to concentrate on building the North Vietnamese economy rather than waging war in the South as “moderates,” and those who sought reunification through “revolutionary violence” as “militants.”
This internal debate takes center stage throughout Hanoi’s Road to the Vietnam War. Asselin places the events and choices made in Vietnam and elsewhere within the context of wider Cold War entanglements. He astutely clarifies how outside events heavily influenced the growing divergence within the North Vietnamese leadership over how to achieve unification. Nikita Khrushchev’s pronouncement of the Soviet Union’s new policy of peaceful coexistence between the capitalist and Communist camps, the ensuing bitter Sino-Soviet split, and other critical world events all had weight. However, these external stimuli were only one part of the equation. Asselin further cites how the sway of Marxist ideology highly influenced the militants’ view that Vietnam was the central front in a global struggle against the imperialists. This fanatical worldview fed the militants’ desire to achieve unification through military action.
Asselin further shows how internal factors, mainly economic, also critically affected the moderate/militant factionalism in Hanoi. The moderates possessed a more pragmatic view than their militant comrades did. They believed that achieving unification peacefully instead of through war would prevent a destructive conflict with the United States. Just as important, it would avoid alienating either the Soviet Union or China and thus would not threaten badly needed aid from both countries. They [End Page 222] would convince the southern population to join their northern brethren by showcasing socialist economic prosperity. First, though, North Vietnam’s economy needed considerable time to achieve socialist affluence. The disastrous land reform efforts in the 1950s had roiled northern society, heightening economic failures. War would only exacerbate northern economic problems.
Despite these economic concerns, the militants eventually achieved supremacy over the moderates. That success was embodied in the ascent of Le Duan to the pinnacle of power. However, ideology and international stimuli were not...