- In the Service of World RevolutionVietnamese Communists' Radical Ambitions through the Three Indochina Wars
The end of World War II witnessed the rise of many anti-colonial movements in Asia and Africa that fueled a global trend of decolonization. Soon this process became entangled in the Cold War between the Soviet Union and the United States. The connection between the Cold War and decolonization was complex and shaped not only by the superpowers.1 As the United States and USSR sought allies around the world to strengthen their global positions, elites in newly independent countries or those still struggling for independence pursued their own visions and found ways to make the Cold War serve their interests.
In Vietnam more than anywhere else in the postcolonial world, the Cold War and the struggle for national independence became deeply intertwined, with devastating consequence. A Communist-led movement in Vietnam took advantage of the power vacuum in the wake of the Japanese surrender to form a government in late 1945. As the Vietnamese Communists fought a protracted war with France (the "First Indochina War"), they found support in the Soviet bloc, whereas the French and other Western powers embraced anti-Communist nationalists. After about fifteen years of fierce warfare [End Page 4] (the "Second Indochina War") Vietnam was reunified in 1975 under Communist rule. The peace proved to be elusive, however. Just four years later, in 1979, a new war broke out involving three former Communist allies: Cambodia, Vietnam, and China (the "Third Indochina War"). Not until the early 1990s did a lasting peace finally arrive. The length and complexity of the conflicts engulfing Vietnam are puzzling. Why did the First Indochina War become a front in the Cold War? Was the Third Indochina War related to the previous two? Why did Vietnam become entangled in so much conflict?
Building on a book published in 2017, this article shows that the radical worldview of Vietnamese Communists was largely responsible for the course taken by postcolonial Vietnam.2 Unlike much existing scholarship, I consider Marxist-Leninist ideology to have been a critical factor shaping the thinking and decisions of Ho Chi Minh and his comrades. These men and women imagined their revolution as a proletarian revolution first and as forming an integral component of world revolution second. They entrusted the destiny of their country to the Communist camp and in some periods even claimed to be the vanguard of world revolution, wanting to set an example for other countries to follow. Based on archival research and published sources that have rarely been used before, I argue that the ambitious revolutionary vision of the Vietnamese Communists, their persistent desire to live up to that vision, and the overblown pride in their revolutionary accomplishments were central factors in all three Indochina wars.
The article first reviews the literature and presents the ambitious vision espoused by Vietnamese Communist leaders. I then illustrate the argument with four episodes that reveal the loyalty of Vietnamese Communist leaders to that vision. The land revolution, the first episode, was launched with much fanfare and bloodshed in the middle of the war against the French. From conception to execution this revolution demonstrated that Vietnamese Communists were as serious about social revolution as they were about national independence. The second episode involved propaganda materials produced by Communist Party founder and president Ho Chi Minh in the 1940s and 1950s that revealed his deep belief in the two-camp worldview during a period when that worldview held no use for the goal of winning national independence and unification. This episode indicated that Vietnamese Communists did not view their revolution as separate from world revolution.
The third episode comprises the evolving thoughts of Vietnamese Communist Party (VCP) First Secretary Le Duan, who opposed Nikita [End Page 5] Khrushchev's policy of peaceful coexistence in the early 1960s. The VCP leader's opposition stemmed from his belief that Soviet policy deviated not only from the mission of the Vietnamese revolution but from that of world revolution. His stand indicated a firm loyalty to world revolution and a willingness to challenge Moscow on doctrinal matters despite the risk of offending Soviet leaders...