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An Ambiguous Relationship: Impressions of the United States in Vietnamese Historical Scholarship, 1986–2009

Wynn W. Gadkar-Wilcox


     A disturbing collage of images from New York and Washington were on the front cover of Ho Chi Minh City's popular magazine aimed at young adults, Sunday Youth (Tuổi trẻ chủ nhật), in their first publication after the 9/11 attacks. Looming above and to the side of small snapshots was a massive image of a hijacked aircraft a split second before it collided with the second tower of the World Trade Center. The first tower, seen in the background, is engulfed in a sea of smoke. The smaller pictures around the side of the main photograph showed the tragic aftereffects of the attack: a body careening out of the towers and toward the ground below; the cloud of smoke darkening the streets of lower Manhattan; pictures of the severely wounded being helped to an ambulance; and shots of exhausted rescue workers covered with soot served to highlight the collage of despair on the cover. Written in bold white type over the smoldering towers were the words "Pearl Harbor in the Heart of America."1 Inside, a long article comparing the 9/11 events to the unprovoked "surprise attack" on Pearl Harbor painted a sympathetic picture of a suffering United States, underscored by a large photograph of a woman and child crying behind a drooping American flag.2

     A glance at even the front cover of the next edition of Sunday Youth tells how much a week can change an impression. This new cover featured a mysterious hooded figure shrouded in darkness in the back, with a picture of the President of the United States, George W. Bush, in the foreground. Bush's brow is furled and his nose is scrunched up in a ball in an expression of hostility and anger, and his hands are spread out wide before him. In between his hands, and in the very front of the picture, is a large black fighter jet, which is placed in such a way that the viewer is given the illusion that Bush is wielding the plane in his bare hands and that he is ready to unleash it upon his foes. The caption that is placed just to the left of Bush's head reads: "Oppose the United States and…'become a ghost': The World Will Be Different from before but how will it be Different?" [Đối đầu Mỹ và...'bóng ma': thế giới sẽ phải khác trước nhưng "khác trước là thế nào?]. The main article in this new issue, which was published less than two weeks after 9/11, opined that the main way in which the world would "never be the same after 9/11" was that the United States would from then on embark on unilateral military invasions such as the invasion of Afghanistan, and that the United States would no longer respect human rights and civil liberties. The article concluded with this harrowing prediction: "and they will be still more changes if this current conflict [in Afghanistan] continues, in that there will be many changes in the lives of Americans when their army and police fill the streets. The United States will never be like before in this sense. In this situation, the world will be left with their relationship with the United States having been torn to shreds. All those who have looked to the United States as a model will do so no more."3

     What caused Sunday Youth's impression of the United States to shift so dramatically within the space of a week? Although such shifting perceptions of the United States after 9/11 are not necessarily unique to Vietnam, they nevertheless suggest a vacillation between two different and related impressions of the United States by historians in Vietnam over the past three decades.4 In the first image, the United States is seen as a model of an economically developed society. It is perceived as a state that acts as a leader in promoting trade around the world. The second image of the United States emphasizes the hypocritical flip side of the first: a perception that the United States is willing to give up its ideas and civil liberties and engage in wanton acts of imperialism and military aggression overseas.

     The coexistence of these two contradictory impressions is nothing particularly new. For example, as Mark Philip Bradley has shown us, one can find the contrast between these two visions in Hồ Chí Minh's writing about the contradiction between the ideals of the American Revolution and the reality of poverty and inequality in the United States in his 1925 Road to Revolution [Đường Cách Mệnh].5 What is new, however, is that in today's political climate neither impression appears to be dominant. It might be argued that this coexistence of impressions, at least in official publications in Vietnam, is largely unprecedented in the past fifty years. Moreover, anthropologists have been in tune with the ambivalent reactions of Vietnamese toward the contemporary relationship between their country and the United States. Christina Schwenkel's recent work, for example, demonstrates that many younger Vietnamese embrace the United States's call for Vietnam to be integrated in the global capitalist system, older Vietnamese, cognizant of the historical memory of the Vietnam War, are concerned with the way in which economic liberalization might affect hard-won Vietnamese sovereignty.6

     At least for historians in Vietnam, the group on whom this paper will focus, impressions of the United States have swung back and forth as if on a pendulum. Historians in the Democratic Republic of Vietnam after 1954 considered building a persuasive case against United States imperialism in South Vietnam to be a central priority of their historical research.7 After the implementation of economic reforms under the renovation policy [chính sách đổi mới] in 1986, the pendulum gradually began to swing back toward the more favorable view of the United States. Historians began to focus their attention on the positive aspects of the long-term relationship between the United States and Vietnam, such as the cooperation between the United States' Office of Strategic Services and the communist-led Việt Minh in the mid-1940s. What the covers of Sunday Youth and similar impressions from the Vietnamese media might indicate is that this pendulum is now coming to a rest, and a tenuous equilibrium between these two points of view is being established.

     This article considers these changes in detail, focusing mostly on the period since the renovation policy, and analyzes the perspectives taken by authors writing on the history and culture of the United States. It contends that each article written on the United States or on the relationship between Vietnam and the United States can be read allegorically as an analogy to the present. When historians wish to emphasize the positive development in contemporary relations between Vietnam and the United States, they discuss periods of good relations in the past, such as the 1941–1945 period. When they wish to criticize the imperialist policies of the United States, they focus on the policies of the United States in Vietnam, especially during the period of the escalation of the "American War" in the mid-1960s. In each of these cases, writing about history provides a baseline for discussing the present.

     I will examine major books published in Vietnam on aspects of United States history and culture, as well as articles on the United States in Vietnam's two most influential history publications: the long running and more specialized Historical Research (Nghiên cứu lịch sử) and the more recent, popular history journal Past and Present (Xưa & Nay). These publications show a shift, over time, toward increasing interest in publishing articles on the history and culture of the United States. Finally, it will briefly speculate on the future of scholarship on the United States in Vietnam, and suggest that the uncertain political, social, and cultural climate in Vietnam today, coupled with divergent feelings about whether to look to the United States as a model, will continue to produce uncertain, contradictory, and tentative scholarship about the United States in the near future.

Changes in Historical Scholarship on the United States after Renovation (1986-1995)

     The decision by the sixth congress of the Vietnamese communist party to adopt a series of economic and political reforms in December 1986 had a quick and rather profound effect on business and economics in Vietnam.8 Even in the arts, the late 1980s saw a number of bold developments in film and literature, such as the distribution of Trần Văn Thủy's critical The Story of Kindness (Chuyện tử tế) and the publishing of Nguyễn Huy Thiệp's controversial trilogy of stories, with their implicit critique of the government's cult of heroism, in 1987.9 However, the late 1980s only saw a very gradual shift in historical scholarship on sensitive issues such as Vietnam's relationship with the United States. At the end of 1986, while the major changes of renovation were being widely discussed, Historical Research did note the changes with an article discussing the possible implications of new policy.10 But the articles published in the journal remained true to the old themes of praising socialist development and criticizing French and American policies in Vietnam. As such, research on the United States continued to be focused on the critique of American imperialism. This agenda had so focused historical research on the United States in the previous three decades that it had been the subject of over fifty articles in Historical Research. In contrast, only one article had discussed United States history in a context other than U.S. imperialism, and this article only remained uncontroversial because of its subject matter: the role of U.S. history in the works of Chairman Hồ Chí Minh.11

     History played a crucial role in the transformations in Vietnam in the 1990s, since the literature of political protest was often phrased in the language of allegory and historical precedent. The In the late 1980s, historians interested in the United States continued to focus on the critique of imperialism. In the last issue of 1986, for example, Hà Văn Thân wrote a searing critique of United States policy in Nicaragua under the Reagan administration. Thân put what he saw as the continuous failure of United States intervention against the Sandinistas in that country in the context of several decades of antidemocratic interventions by the United States in Latin America, such as in Cuba, Panama, Grenada, and Chile.12

     Slowly but surely, however, scholarship explored the possibility of reexamining the historical relationship between the United States and Vietnam. Initial efforts in the late 1980s were guarded and focused narrowly on historical and cultural analogies to the economic reforms being implemented in the context of renovation. For example, an article by the then–Associate Editor of Historical Research Cao Văn Lương in 1987 explored the problems of socialist and market economies. The bulk of this article seemed to be on a topic that could be integrated into the existing framework of criticizing American imperialism: it purported to discuss the "capitalist system" in South Vietnam under the "American/puppet regime." Yet the article spends as much time focusing on the difficulties presented with the economic transition of the south after 1975 as it does "the capitalist system," suggesting a break with past historical writing. In the end, moreover, the Cao Văn Lương comes to a conclusion about the present:

To be valuable, the actions of all economic classes in the South cannot be mere formalities but above all should be directed at producing a robust economy from doing productive work, at producing goods that more or less benefit society. In the south today, the production of private individual goods in order to help people to earn a living provides such a benefit. This is an issue that we should examine again in preparing for a state-run and collective economy.13

     The article seems to suggest that in the presence of the policy of renovation, the south might return to being a "society of consumers and commerce", that such a society existed during the 1954–1975 period (at least in part because of the encouragement of commerce by the United States) and that, within limits, allowing such a commercial society to flourish in the south in the late 1980s would not be a bad idea and would in fact be consistent with the policies laid out at the sixth party congress.14

     Nevertheless, even this article, while clearly a commentary on those renovation policies that advocated liberalizing the Vietnamese economy, was only tangentially about the United States, and further changes in the direction of historical scholarship in Vietnam would have to wait several years. Only in 1990, perhaps not coincidentally shortly after Cao Văn Lương had succeeded longtime editor Văn Tạo to the head position at Historical Research, did some reevaluation of the role of the historical profession in Vietnam begin to occur. New articles about the United State's role in Vietnam began to appear at the same time. The new thinking was laid out most clearly in the November 1990 issue, which was devoted to re-examining the legacy of Hồ Quý Ly (r. 1400–1407), the emperor of the short-lived Hồ dynasty who had been consistently and roundly criticized by official historians for setting in place the conditions through which Vietnam came to be occupied by Ming China between 1407 and 1427. An editorial at the beginning of the issue noted that the renovation policies should "not only affect today's generation, but also out view of the past."15 The editorial then suggested that the job of historical researchers in carrying out the renovation policies should be to seek out "evidence from history" of analogous reform movements. A corollary to this principle, according to the editorial, is that historians should focus their attention to people who have advocated similar reforms in the past. It is revealing that the reformers the editorial chooses to highlight, such as the King Hồ Quý Ly (r. 1400–1407) and the Catholic reformer Nguyễn Trường Tộ (ca. 1830–1871), had long been controversial figures in Vietnamese historiography.16

     The editorial clearly lays out a philosophy of history in which a central task of the historian is to seek out historical baselines, analogies, or allegories from the past. In articles on the United States, then, the historical baseline seemed to shift after the pro-reformation editorial statement of 1990. For the previous three decades the historical baseline for research on the United States had been the history of US imperialism in general and the US role in South Vietnam in particular. In this previous framework, studying the building of socialism and the fighting of capitalist and imperialist aggression in the past was meant to solidify the continuing struggles of the Vietnamese people to build socialism and fight imperialism in the present. In the post-1990 period, however, the historical baseline for research on the relationship between Vietnam and the United States shifted to reflect the new relationship between Vietnam and the United States in the present.

     After 1990, researchers began to deemphasize the 1954–1975 period in Vietnamese relations with the United States in favor of the 1941–1945 period. During the latter, the United States cooperated with the Việt Minh, and several members of the United States' Office of Strategic Services became personally acquainted with Hồ Chí Minh. There was some indication that this shift was happening even at the beginning of the renovation period, as evidenced by the translation of Peter A. Poole's The United States and Indochina from FDR to Nixon into Vietnamese in 1986, though there were no further substantial publications on the issue until 1990.17

     In 1990, Trần Hữu Dình published an article on the contact between the Vietnamese and Americans in 1945 in which he emphasized how the United States and Vietnam became "friends and allies." In particular, he examined United States President Franklin D. Roosevelt's 1941 statements that the French should not be allowed to re-colonize Indochina. In many ways, Trần Hữu Đình's account of this period goes to lengths to accentuate the positive: when he discusses Roosevelt's somewhat paternalistic notion that Indochina be held as a "trusteeship" he emphasizes that no "grand decision" had been made and implies that trusteeship was a compromise position pushed on Roosevelt by the British.18 He reaches the conclusion that the United States was a "special ally" in the Vietnamese revolution, if only for a brief period.19 Though it was never explicitly stated in Trần Hữu Đình's article, it seems clear that emphasizing a productive relationship between the United States and the Việt Minh, rather than emphasizing the colonialist implications of the capitalist development of the United States, as Vietnamese historians had done in the past, puts the present in a more positive light and provides exactly the kind of example of reform from the past that the Historical Research editorial of 1990 had suggested. Trần Hữu Đình's article, then, suggests that Vietnamese historians were drawn to the 1941–1945 period in Vietnamese-American relations at least in part because they saw allegorical connections between that relationship and the developing relationship between Vietnam and the United States in the 1990s.

     This article was not an isolated case of interest in the 1941–1945 period. During the early- to mid-1990s, Historical Research published two more articles on this subject, including a rare article by an American, Robert K. Brigham, on the role of the OSS in the August Revolution.20 The other article, Nguyễn Văn Hồng's "The Factors of Victory in the Asia-Pacific War (1941–1945)," while crediting the Soviet Union's late entry into the Asian theater with expediting the end to the war, pointed to the strength of the United States military in the victories at the Coral Sea, Saipan, Iwo Jima, and Okinawa as the most important factor in the allied defeat of Japan.21 Another important factor for victory, according to Nguyễn Văn Hồng, was the role of pro-Allied anti-fascist independence movements, not only in Vietnam, but also in the Philippines, Indonesia, and Burma. In these cases, the cooperation between the United States and these anti-fascist movements is also noted as an important element of allied victory.22

     In Nguyễn Văn Hồng's article, one gets a very different view of the consequences of American military power than in articles before the 1990s. Rather than depicting a power-hungry United States attempting to intervene to stop popular socialist movements, as Hà Văn Thân had in 1986, Hồng paints a picture of the United States military using its power and authority to rid the world of Japanese fascism and to foster independence movements in the Philippines and Vietnam. Thus, the new era of reform in political and ideological circles was also bringing a reformed view of a more benevolent United States, a view that seems unlikely to be accidental. Whether intentional or not, Hồng's article suggests a thawed relationship between Vietnam and the United States in the 1990s.

     Another possible historical baseline for analogies with the present could come from a discussion of the increase in trade between the Americas and Asia in the early modern era. In the September 1991 issue of Historical Research, which was devoted entirely to the question of the relationship between reform and historical study, authors took very different points of view on the question of whether history should always be considered scientific and on how history textbooks in Vietnam might be reformed to include more elements of global history.23 One example of such inclusion of global history included a long article on the occasion of the 500th anniversary of Christopher Columbus' first voyage to America. Though the article discusses the usurpation of the "redskin lands of the Mayas, Aztecs, Incas, and Iroquois," it focuses on the formation of "a second Europe" and the importance of Columbus' discovery for world history.24 Trường Hữu Quỳnh makes the point that Columbus set in motion the development of increased trade relations between East and West and that he should be recognized as a man of extraordinary "energy" and "will."25

     One could argue that rather than aiding in developing beneficent commercial relations between East and West, as Trường Hữu Quỳnh seems to imply, Columbus's real legacy with regard to East/West relations lies in facilitating the growth of later colonial empires. But the fact that the article does not focus on that implication is indicative of the larger trend of historical writing in the 1990s away from describing Western imperialisms and toward describing productive economic relationships between East and West. In this sense, Trương Hữu Quỳnh may be constructing an analogy between the global trade of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries and the post-Cold War era. That Vietnam was in the process of entering into such productive economic relationships at the time hardly seems like a coincidence.

Writing about the United States after the Normalization of Relations (1995–2001)

     In July 1995, President of the United States Bill Clinton announced the normalization of relations with Vietnam. This normalization has been followed by a number of developments ensuring economic and military cooperation between Vietnam and the United States, including the development of bilateral trade agreements. It is not surprising to find that since this period information and commentary on the United States, and particularly the relationship between the United States and Vietnam, has increased from a trickle of articles to a veritable flood of books and articles, including a rapidly growing amount of material in Vietnamese written by Americans.26 These books not only reveal a newfound interest in American culture, but they also include revisionist histories of U.S.-Vietnamese relations. The implication of this spike in publication is that by 1995 the pendulum was swinging very strongly toward positive perceptions of the United States.

     As a whole, these publications were not only more numerous, but also more diverse in their subject matter. They ranged from a variety of book length studies on the economics, history, or culture of the United States to articles on United States contact with Vietnam in the nineteenth century to mildly revisionist histories of the Vietnam war. Perhaps the least surprising of these was the publication of a major official work on the United States economic and trade policy, A Survey of How to Cooperate and Do Business with the United States.27 Predictably, this publication discussed recent levels of investment by U.S. corporations in Vietnam, economic relations between the United States and other ASEAN nations, and the complexities of acquiring Most Favored Nation trading status with the United States. Perhaps more surprising, however, is the amount of detail the book provides on issues such as the history of the American work ethic (such as a substantial discussion of Henry Ford's assembly line), distribution of television shows such as Matlock and Sesame Street, women's fashions, and the financial wizardry of auto industry executive Lee Iacocca, and sage advice on avoiding frostbite in the United States.28

     What initially seems like a rather dull book about foreign investment, then, is really more like a combination travel guide and cultural introduction. Moreover, this book is not an isolated example of a "potpourri" book on the United States, but one of several similar books that came out in the mid- to late-1990s. Other examples of work from a similar genre include Ten Thousand Faces of America, a disorganized compendia of translations from American magazines and brief articles from Vietnamese writers about topics related to the Untied States, such as the desire of U.S.-Vietnam war veterans to visit Vietnam, biographies of sports stars such as Michael Jordan and major historical and literary figures such as Mark Twain, and brief descriptions of important tourist destinations such as the Statue of Liberty and the Washington Monument.29

     Similar reflections on American culture came out of another new and related genre of Vietnamese writing about the United States: the travel narrative. Representative of this genre is Trần Quân Ngọc's Around the United States, in which the author marvels at the important historical sites of Washington during the cherry blossom festival and writes poetry about his experience of viewing a centerfold in Playboy magazine.30 That this sort of writing became a trend in the late-1990s is indicative not only of the increased travel of Vietnamese to the United States but also, perhaps, of an increasing generalized interest in American culture.

     These omnibus publications continued to offer more positive reassements of the history of the United States, and of Vietnamese/US relations in particular. In discussing U.S.-Vietnamese relations, for example, Ten Thousand Faces of America focuses far more time on the post-1975 era than on the U.S.-Vietnam war. It spends time discussing the antiwar movement in the United States and prominently displays a poster for a New York party celebrating Hồ Chi Minh's birthday in 1988.31 Similarly, Phi Bằng's Twenty Years of Seeing the United States, a book combining academic sources on U.S. history and culture with the author's own experience living in the United States, includes a long section praising the American revolution and, while noting that with the exception of Vietnam the United States has not lost a war in the twentieth century, does not discuss the United States role in Vietnam any further.32 Phi Bằng's treatment of United States history is consistent with a popular Vietnamese history of the United States during the mid-1990s, which devotes the bulk of its discussion on the Vietnam War to the topic of the burning of draft cards during protests at the University of California.33

     Professional historians also discussed more diverse issues in the history and culture of the United States, and they praised the United States throughout the late 1990s. In this new political climate, even old subjects such as the defeat of the United States in 1975 were subject to some revision. For example, Bùi Đình Thang's article on the twentieth anniversary of the unification of Vietnam, which discussed reasons for the American defeat in Vietnam, spent a considerable amount of time on United States President Richard Nixon's books Real Peace and No More Vietnams.34 In these books, Nixon claims that his realization that Hồ Chí Minh had considerable support and admiration in South Vietnam led him to decide to negotiate a peace settlement.35 Though in many ways the article discusses this very orthodox issue in traditional and doctrinaire terms, its lack of emphasis on the revolutionary spirit of the people and its use of critical reevaluations of US policy during the Vietnam War by important Americans such as Senator William Fulbright and former Ambassador to Vietnam Maxwell Taylor indicates that Vietnamese historians were becoming more open to including American evidence and perspectives on this important subject in the official commemorations of the Vietnamese state.

     Historians also expanded the scope of discussions of the United States in Historical Research to cover the years before 1945. For example Phạm Xanh discussed a number of important episodes in United States relations with Vietnam in the nineteenth century. Relying extensively on Robert Hopkins Miller's compilation of documents entitled The United States and Vietnam, 1787–1941, Phạm Xanh emphasized United States President Thomas Jefferson's interest in the Southern Vietnamese rice crop, as well as a number of expeditions by the United States to Vietnam in the early nineteenth century. After surveying these unsuccessful efforts at forging a long-term historical relationship between the United States and Vietnam, Phạm Xanh drew a conclusion about the present:

     From the first unexpected commercial encounter between Thomas Jefferson and Prince Cảnh in 1787 to the planned encounters later on, at the very least on the American side the Vietnamese-American relationship developed well. But for many different reasons, for both sides, the opportunity that had presented itself passed by, and this fact proves that for the Vietnamese-American relationship to develop advantageously, it is important that both the Vietnamese and American people work even harder and make even more efforts in the future.36

     What Phạm Xanh's conclusion makes clear is that, at least to him, the relationship between Vietnam and the United States in the nineteenth century is analogous to Vietnam's relationship to the United States in the present. While in the nineteenth century, this relationship was cut short because of the Nguyễn Emperor Minh Mạng (1820–1840) and his strict restrictions on trade with Western nations, both sides need to develop a strong commercial relationship in the present. What one sees in this article, then is the emergence of the same sort of allegorical baseline in US relations in the nineteenth century as was constructed by historians earlier in the 1990s about relations between the United States and Vietnam in 1945.

     Regardless of the historical baseline involved, throughout the late 1990s and into the first two years of the twenty-first century, the pendulum of historical scholars continued to swing toward the side of emphasizing the positive aspects of the relationship between Vietnam and the United States. One reason for this new positive emphasis is the inauguration in 1993 of a new and daring history journal that is less ideologically beholden to the Vietnamese Communist Party: Past & Present [Xưa & Nay]. Past & Present is edited by non-party members and is responsible to the reformist Historical Association in Vietnam. As David Marr has noted, this unusual arrangement gives Past & Present "a national reputation for energetic exploration of the shifting boundary between what can be written about Vietnam's past and what remains forbidden by Vietnam's party leadership."37

     Past & Present frequently publishes articles and translated excepts of books on the United States, and many of these articles are written by American scholars, such as Stanley Karnow, Keith Taylor, and Cecil B. Currey, something that continues to be rare in more traditional publications such as Historical Research.38 Nor does Past & Present shy away from controversy. In May 2002, it published a summary of the revelations about Hồ Chí Minh's life contained in William J. Duiker's pathbreaking biography, Ho Chi Minh: A Life.39 Since the commemoration of Hồ Chí Minh is crucial to the Vietnamese Communist Party's legitimacy, and book on their leader and longtime President that departed from the Party line was bound to be controversial, and since Duiker's biography included revelations about tabooed subjects such as whether Hồ Chí Minh was married or had children, it was bound to create a firestorm. Only a few months after Past & Present's summary was published, for example, an issue of Far Eastern Economic Review that included an article on Duiker's discussion of Hồ Chí Minh's love affairs was pulled from its shelves in Vietnam by the Vietnamese distribution agency Xunhasaba, the state-supervised corporation that controls the importing and distribution of foreign books and periodicals in Vietnam.40

     Though Past & Present is bolder and more daring in the material it publishes, it emphasizes the same kinds of materials and continues the same trends established by books published on the United States and articles in Historical Research from the 1990s until recently. The most important events discussed, and perhaps then the most important historical information to be known about the United States in the 1990s, seem to be the role of the OSS in the 1941–1945 period and the American revolution.41

A Pendulum Reaching Equilibrium? Writing on the United States in the Aftermath of 9/11

     As the covers of Sunday Youth in September 2001 clearly show, the 9/11 attacks and the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan that followed in the fall of 2001 had a profound effect on the perception of the United States by the Vietnamese media and by Vietnamese scholars. The Vietnamese press and Vietnamese academics initially joined the world in expressing their sorrow for the loss of life at the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Consistent with other foreign presses, however, coverage moved very quickly in the weeks and months after 9/11 to expressing concern about United States unilateralism, the status of civil liberties in the United States, and the perceived flaunting of international law.42 This criticism became more strident during the first few weeks of the Iraq war in 2003. An article in the Sunday edition of the official newspaper The People emphasized the circumvention of the United Nations by the United States and praised antiwar protests around the world.43 The following week, The People condemned the attack on "the people of Iraq" as being carried out "with total disregard for the opposition of all the people of the entire world" and emphasized the strength of antiwar protests in cities such as Washington, New York, Boston, and San Francisco.44 Though The People is well-known for its party line coverage of international events, news stories in other Vietnamese newspapers and periodicals were also consistent with The People's opinions. Sunday Youth for example, published articles criticizing the United States for its failure to get approval for military action from the United Nations and mocking Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld's lack of a timetable for the war.45

     Both Vietnamese historical impressions of the United States and Vietnamese cultural impressions more generally appear to be continuing the path of ambivalence. In 2005, two major political events concerning Vietnamese relations with the United States received extensive coverage in the Vietnamese press: the visit of former Vice-President of the Republic of Vietnam, Nguyễn Cao Ký, to Saigon in January 2005 and the visit of Vietnamese Prime Minister Phan Văn Khải. Both of these received very positive coverage in the press, which generally saw both as indicative of improved Vietnamese relations with the United States.

     It is too early to tell what the implications of these journalistic perceptions of the United States will mean for the study of United States history and culture by Vietnamese scholars. However, based on the evidence so far, it seems reasonable to suggest that discussions about the United States among scholars in Vietnam are reaching a balance between admiration for the United States and wariness of it. Even in the anti-imperialist articles in The People or Sunday Youth, there is a balance between the perceptions of the imperialist policies of the United States government and an enthusiastic approval of the actions of antiwar protestors, actions that are perceived as representative of the United States as a people.46

     There is some evidence that in historical research on the United States, such an equilibrium is being reached. Since the invasion of Afghanistan by the United States in 2001, articles in Historical Research on the United States have been balanced between those conveying positive impressions of American resourcefulness and democracy and those conveying negative messages about United States imperialism. Two articles by Nguyễn Thái Yên Hương of Vietnam's Institute for International Relations focus on the resourcefulness of average Americans in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries as seen in Letters from an American Farmer and Democracy in America.47 But other articles show a renewed interest in United States imperialism in Vietnam, and in particular the perceived connection between imperialism and capitalism. It might by argued that this trend began before 9/11 with Hoàng Văn Lân's fascinating portrait of the extensive investments of the Standard Oil Company in French Colonial Indochina,48 but it has continued since 2002 with a number of articles in Historical Research whose topics are reminiscent of the pre-1986 period, such as a discussion of the campaigns against the United States in South Vietnam in the late 1960s and a critique of the use of strategic hamlets by the South Vietnamese governments and the United States.49 While none of these articles have the ideological fervor of the pre-1986 period, they do indicate a change in the chosen analogy to the present. As United States unilaterialism around the world becomes more apparent, so do historical analogies that connect the present relations between Vietnam and the United States to the colonialist role of the United States in the past.

To the Present Day: Historians' Views of the United States, 2005–present

     The dual and ambiguous impression of the United States can also be seen in the coverage of political and historical events concerning U.S.-Vietnamese relations in recent years. As one might expect, Vietnamese newspapers provided extensive and enthusiastic coverage of the visit of Vietnamese Prime Minister Phan Văn Khải to the United States in June 2005.

     Historians too, have maintained the same ambivalent perception of the United States as a sometime haven of liberty to be attained through economic reform and a sometime threat to sovereignty. Turning to history to explicate this dual image of the United States, recent Vietnamese scholarship on the United States has concentrated on several important themes. First, it has examined the theoretical basis of United States hegemony, from the Turner thesis to the Horatio Alger image of the self-made man. Second, they have increasingly been interested in examining the Vietnam War in a global context. Finally, and probably most importantly, it has examined aspects of the Vietnam War that neither are incorporated into the dominant Vietnamese master narrative of Vietnamese national resistance to American aggression nor paint the United States in a positive light. In particular, articles of this third category have analyzed the gap between ideology and practice in the American war.

     Finally, in recent years, historians in Vietnam have discussed the gap between ideology and practice in the American war with increasing sophistication. One example of this is Bùi Thị Thu Hà's research on the ways that the Diệm regime and its American patrons constructed theories to justify the building of strategic hamlets. She points out that both Diệm and the Americans embarked on a significant propaganda campaign to place the strategic hamlet program as part of an overall theory of "national revolution" According to Bùi Thị Thu Hà, both the Diệm administration and Americans such as Edward Lansdale sought to convince the rural population that strategic hamlets were part of the regime's personalist theory of modernization, in which the needs of the population are supposed to be met by the state in exchange for their loyalty. In these propaganda campaigns, American advisors argued that strategic hamlets had brought Malaysians new, productive villages set apart from the scourge of communism, and that the same could happen for villagers in South Vietnam.50 Ultimately, however, the author is clear to state that this effort to justify strategic hamlets based on broader theories of modernization and personalism did not work, since in the end "the defeat of the 'theories' of the American/Diệm regime were a part of the more important defeat of their entire 'national policy.'"51 Bùi Thị Thu Hà's position on strategic hamlets may have resonance for contemporary Vietnamese, who increasingly see efforts of the United States to "forge a benevolent image of responsible U.S. capitalism" as questionable, in part because of its eliding of "moral accountability" for the actions of the United States during the American war.52

     As part of examining this gap between ideology and practice, Vietnamese historians have increasingly turned to issues that are outside of the traditional frame of Vietnamese resistance to foreign aggression but still project a negative image of the projects of the American government during the American war. One aspect of this new emphasis has been a renewed interest among professional Vietnamese historians in the so-called "third force" in South Vietnam. In particular, new research on the Buddhist movement of the mid-1960s, which opposed and protested against the Saigon regimes without necessarily endorsing reunification under communist auspices, has proliferated in recent years.

     One interesting controversy concerning the Buddhist movement involves a push among historians to get an account of the movement included in the students in Vietnam. Appealing to the criteria typically used to determine such significance, Lê Cung claims that the movement was a "people's movement with wide-reaching significance" and that it "resonated widely in world public opinion."53 But more innovatively, Lê Cung stresses that students should learn about the movement because of its use of principles of satyagraha and other nonviolent tactics. This seems a more novel argument, since most official accounts of Vietnamese history during the American war focus on the justified use of force by the NLF and the North Vietnamese Army to expel foreign aggressors from the country.54


     Today, Vietnam is politically and socially at a crossroads, and this view is reflected in Vietnamese scholars' perceptions of the United States. In the years of economic boom in the early 1990s following the collapse of the Soviet Union and the apparent success of the policy of renovation, looking to the United States as a model rather than an adversary made sense. On a cultural as well as a political level, from American rock-and-roll music to the watching of Forrest Gump to the mass production of apparel and accessories inspired by the film Titanic, references to American culture were everywhere to see.55 A decade later, however, the situation is much more complex. While the Vietnamese economy is still growing, it is made unstable and unpredictable by rampant political corruption and a growing gap between rich and poor, and it is becoming clear that economic liberalization may not solve all of Vietnam's problems.56 As the successes of the recent past, such as the normalization of relations between the United States and Vietnam, recede into memory, the advisability to the United States as a model may shrink as well, and the missed opportunity of US-Vietnamese relations in 1945 perceived by so many Vietnamese historians may have its parallel in the twenty-first century. While there is no clear indication that such an eventuality is in the near future, one thing seems clear: historians will continue to fight over the analogies that connect Vietnam to the United States and the past to the present.

Wynn W. Gadkar-Wilcox is Associate Professor of History in the Department of History and Non-Western Cultures, Western Connecticut State University. He can be contacted at


1 Tuổi trẻ chủ nhật, 37 (16 September 2001), front cover.

2 A.V., Ngọc Trọng, and Mạnh Kim, "Trân Châu Cảng trong lòng nước Mỹ," [Pearl Harbor in the Heart of America], Tuổi trẻ chủ nhật 37 (September 16, 2001), 10–11, 42.

3 Hoàng Ngọc, "Thế giới sẽ không bao giờ như cũ..." [The World Will Never Be the SameTuổi trẻ chủ nhật 37 (23 September 2001), 10.

4 A survey of post-9/11 coverage among the world press indicates a similar shift to a more ambivalent attitude toward the United States after the invasion of Afghanistan in many other foreign presses, including those in France and Germany, due to their hesitation to endorse U.S.-led military action. See World Press Review, "September 11, 2002: One Year Later," September 11, 2002,

5 Mark Philip Bradley, Imagining Vietnam and America: The Making of Postcolonial Vietnam, 1919–1950 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2000), 34–35. On the history and purposes of this text, see William Duiker, "What is to be done? Hồ Chí Minh's Đường Kách Mệnh," in K.W. Taylor and John K. Whitmore (eds.), Essays into Vietnamese Pasts (Ithaca, NY: Cornell Southeast Asia Program Publications, 1995), 207–220

6 Christina Schwenkel, The American War in Contemporary Vietnam. (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2009), 2–18.

7 Patricia Pelley, Postcolonial Vietnam: New Histories of the National Past (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2002), 4. Southern historians were also polarized during this period; but their central task in relation to the United States was to show how collaboration with a powerful Western ally was desirable. Wynn Wilcox, "Allegories of the U.S.-Vietnam War: Nguyễn Ánh, Nguyễn Huệ, and the 'Unification Debates,'" Crossroads: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Southeast Asian Studies 17:1 (2003), 129–60.

8 For a brief account of some of these developments, see Charles A. Joiner, "The Vietnam Communist Party Strives to Remain the 'Only Force,'" Asian Survey 30 (November 1990), 1054–1055.

9 See Mark Philip Bradley, "Contests of Memory," in Hue-Tam Ho Tai (ed.), The Country of Memory: Remaking the Past in Late Socialist Vietnam (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001), 208–209; John Charlot, "Vietnamese Cinema: First Views," Journal of Southeast Asian Studies 22:1 (March 1991), 39; Peter Zinoman, "Nguyễn Huy Thiệp's 'Vàng Lửa' and the Nature of Intellectual Dissent in Contemporary Vietnam," Viet Nam Generation 3:4 (1992). Of course, not all of these post-renovation materials met with government approval.

10 Hồng Thái, "Đại hội lần thứ VI của Đảng—Đại hội dựng nước, một trong những nấc thang của thời kỳ quá độ" (The sixth party congress—a congress to develop the country, one of many steps in this period of transition), Nghiên cứu lịch sử (Historical research, hereafter NCLS) 6:231 (November 1986), 1–8.

11 See Nguyen Ba Khoach, Allen J. Riedy, and Truong Buu Lam, An Annotated Index of the Journals Van Su Dia (1954–1959) and Nghien Cuu Lich Su (1960–1981), (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Center for Asian and Pacific Studies, 1984), 225, 405.

12 Hà Văn Thân, "Vài nét về những hoạt động chống cách mạng Nicaragoa của đế quốc Mỹ" [Some Comments about the American Imperialist Effort against the Nicaraguan Revolution], NCLS 231:6 (November 1986), 74–79.

13 Cao Văn Lương, "Tìm hiểu chủ nghĩa tư bản ở miền nam Việt nam dưới thời Mỹ—Ngụy (1954–1975)" [An investigation into capitalism in South Vietnam during the time of the Americans and their lackeys], NCLS 236:5 (November 1987), 17.

14 Ibid., 16.

15"Nghiên cứu về cải cách, canh tân đất nước trong lịch sử" [Research about reform and renovation in history], NCLS 253:6 (November 1990), 1.

16 On the controversies surrounding these figures, see Pelley, Postcolonial Vietnam, 26.

17 Peter A. Poole, Nước Mỹ và Đông Dương tư Ru-dơ-ven dên Ních-xơn (Hanoi: Thông tin lý luận, 1986).

18 Trần Hữu Đính, "Tiếp Xúc Việt-Mỹ 1945" (The Vietnamese American Contact 1945), NCLS 251:4 (July 1990), 44. On the paternalism of Roosevelt's view of trusteeship, see Bradley, Imagining Vietnam and America, 76–79; David Marr, Vietnam 1945: The Quest for Power (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995), 261–263.

19 Ibid., 43.

20 Robert K. Brigham, "Những đồng minh thận trọng: mặt trận Việt Minh—Người Mỹ và cách mạng tháng tám" [Prudent Allies: The Vietnamese Front and the Americans in the August Revolution], NCLS 269:4 (July 1993), 74–76.

21 Nguyễn Văn Hồng, "Những nhân tố thắng lợi trong chiến tranh Châu Á—Thái Bình Dương" [The Factors of Victory in the Asia-Pacific War], NCLS 280:3 (May 1995), 5–6.

22 Ibid., 10–11.

23 Phạm Xuân Hãng, "Sử học—Một khoa học, một thực trạng" [History: A Science, A Reality], NCLS 258:5 (September 1991), 20–23; Nguyễn Quốc Hùng, "Lịch sử thế giới và việc chúng ta 'muốn là bạn với tất cả các nước" [World History and the Issue of Our 'Wanting to be Friends with All Nations'], NCLS 258:5 (September 1991), 31–34.

24 Trương Hữu Quýnh, "Christôphôrô Côlômbô và việc phát kiến châu Mỹ" [Christopher Columbus and the Discovery of America], NCLS 263:4 (July 1992), 54, 56.

25 Ibid., 56.

26 Interestingly, this flood of foreign articles seems impervious to the fits and starts in Vietnamese economic and political restrictions, such as those of the campaign against "social evils" in 1996.

27 Ủy ban kế hoạch nhà nước, Tìm hiều đề hợp tác & kinh doanh với Mỷ (Hanoi: Trung tâm thong tin, 1995).

28 Ibid., pages 118, 128, 134, 152–153.

29 Hữu Khánh (ed.), Muôn mặt nước Mỷ: Những điều chủ yếu cần biết về nước Mỷ ngày nay (A Thousand Faces of America: The Important Things to Know About the United States Today), (Ho Chi Minh City: Nhà Xuất Bản TPHCM, 1993), 120, 158, 164, 170. Particularly amusing is the description of the musical group New Kids on the Block as the "American version of the Beatles" on page 139.

30 Trần Quân Ngọc, Vòng Quanh Nước Mỹ (Ho Chi Minh City: Nhà xuất bản TPHCM, 1995), 39, 86–87.

31 Hữu Khánh, Muôn mặt, 184–186.

32 Phi Bằng, 20 năm tham quan nước Mỹ (Ho Chi Minh City: Nhà xuất bản trẻ, 1999), 29-31, 42-43.

33 Lê Minh Đức and Nguyễn Nghị, Lịch sử nước Mỹ [A History of the United States] (Hanoi: Văn hóa, 1994), 353-355.

34 Bùi Đình Thanh, "Vì sao ta thắng, Mỹ thua?" [Why Did We Win and the United States Lose?], NCLS 279:2 (March 1995), 1.

35 Richard M. Nixon, Real Peace (New York: Little, Brown and Co., 1984); Richard M. Nixon, No More Vietnams (New York: Arbor House, 1985).

36 Phạm Xanh, "Những cuộc tiếp xúc Việt-Mỹ đầu tiên dưới triều Nguyễn nửa đầu thế kỷ XIX," [The First Encounters between Vietnam and the United States under the Nguyễn dynasty in the first half of the Nineteenth Century], NCLS 307:6 (1999).

37 David Marr, "History and Memory in Vietnam Today: The Journal Xưa & Nay," Journal of Southeast Asian Studies 31:1 (March 2000), 3.

38 Stanley Karnow, "Không bao giờ tái phạm," [Never Again], Xưa & Nay 114 (April 2002), 8-10;

39 William J. Duiker, "Hồ Chí Minh với những bí ẩn cuộc đời," [Ho Chi Minh's Mysterious Life], Xưa & Nay 115 (May 2002), 4-6; William J. Duiker, Ho Chi Minh: A Life (New York, Hyperion, 2001).

40 "Far Eastern Economic Review not for Sale in Vietnam," Agence France-Presse (August 8, 2002).

41 The exceptions to this rule include some rare articles on US domestic politics during the US-Vietnam war era, such as the Watergate scandal. See "Vụ bê bối Watergate, những điều chưa nói đến," [On the Watergate Scandal: An Issue Rarely Discussed], Xưa & Nay 125 (October 2002), 40.

42 For a discussion of similar shifts among both liberal and conservative media abroad in fall 2001 and spring 2002, see World Press Review, "September 11, 2002: One Year Later," September 11, 2002, <> (February 20, 2004).

43 Hoàng Liên, "Tối hậu thư của phe chủ chiến," [The Time Has Come for the Pro-War Camp], Nhân dân cuối tuần 738:12 (March 23, 2003), 14.

44 Phương Ha, "Nhân dân thế giới chấm dứt ngay cuộc chiến tranh chống nhân dân I-rắc," [The People of the World Try to Head Off the War against the People of Iraq," Nhân dân cuối tuần 739:13 (30 March 2003), 14.

45. Danh Đức, "Trật tự nào cho thế giới?" [What is the state of world order?], Tuổi trẻ chủ nhật (March 30, 2003), 6; "Thực tế chiến trường thế nào?" [What is the true theater of war?], Tuổi trẻ chủ nhật ̣March 30, 2003), 7.

46 There is, of course, nothing new about distinguishing between an oppressive government and the people who are perceived to be struggling against an oppressive government, either in Vietnamese perceptions of the United States or in perceptions of nations by foreign scholars and presses generally. This equilibrium, however, does represent a significant change from Vietnamese scholarly discourse about the United States in the 1990s, which rarely focused on United States imperialism and rarely discussed the perceived opposition of the American people to their government.

47 Nguyễn Thái Yên Hương, "Nước Mỹ trong Tác Phẩm 'Những bức thư của người nông dân Mỹ,'" [The United States in the Book 'Letters from American Farmers'], NCLS 318:5 (September 2001), 89-92; Nguyễn Thái Yên Hương, "Nền dân chủ Mỹ qua tác phẩm 'Democracy in America,'" [Democracy in America in the Book 'Democracy in America'], NCLS 322:2 (May 2002), 83-88.

48 Hoàng Văn Lân, "Sự xâm nhập của tập đoàn dầu mỏ Mỹ Rockefeller vào Việt nam trước cách mạng tháng 8-1945," [The Penetration of the Rockefeller Oil Corporation in Vietnam before the August Revolution], 320:4 NCLS (November 2000), 57-68.

49 Hồ Khang and Nguyễn Văn Trí, "Vành đai diệt Mỹ—Nhân tố quan trọng góp phần đánh bại nỗ lực quân sự cao nhất của Mỹ trong cuộc chiến Việt nam thời kỳ 1965-1968," [The American Extermination Campaign: Important Factors Contributing to the Greatest Defeats of the Americans in the Vietnam War between 1965 and 1968] NCLS 324:5 (September 2002), 43-50; Trần Thị Thu Hương, "'Quốc sách' Áp chiến lược—Chính sách bình định điển hình của Mỹ và chính quyền Sài gòn ở miền nam Việt nam (1961-1965)," [The Strategic Hamlet 'National Policy': The Shape of the Policy of the United States and the Saigon Government in southern Vietnam], NCLS 323:4 (July 2002), 11-19.

50 Bùi Thị Thu Hà, "Cơ sở 'lý thuyét' về xây dựng 'ấp chiến lược' của chính quyền Sài gòn trong chiến lược 'chiến tranh đặc biệt' (1961-1965), [On the Role of "Theory" in the Establishment of the 'Strategic Hamlets' of the Saigon Government during the 'Special War'], NCLS 359:3 (March 2006): 49.

51 Ibid., 53.

52 Schwenkel, 201.

53 Lê Cung, "Bàn về 'Phong trào phật giáo miền nam năm 1963' trong giáo trình Lịch sử Việt nam hiện đại ở Bậc Đại Học và Cao Đẳng," NCLS 369: 1 (January 2007): 55-6.

54 See Nguyen Khac Vien, Vietnam: A Long History (Hanoi: The Gioi, 1993).

55 For some of these trends, see Stanley Rosen and David Marr, "Chinese and Vietnamese Youth in the 1990s," China Journal 40 (July 1998), esp. 147-149.

56 Adam Fforde, "Vietnam in 2003: The Road to Ungovernability?" Asian Survey 44 (February 2004), 1-29.


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