The literature on the Vietnam War in the English Language is voluminous and continues to grow. The writings have however focused predominantly on the decisions of the U.S. and its role in the war. Scholarly writings that present the communist perspective(s) of the war are scanty by comparison. But just as the history of a game of chess cannot be fully documented by only recording the moves of one of the players, similarly, any study of the Vietnam War would not be complete without examining the moves of all the players involved.
Therefore, to gain a more balanced and impartial understanding of the Vietnam War, it is imperative that the communist side of the war be documented and described as carefully and as objectively as possible. Only when this task has been satisfactorily accomplished can one proceed to the next step, which is to appraise and evaluate the actions, successes and failures of one side or the other. Too many premature judgements have been passed on American decision-making and conduct of the war without having given adequate consideration to understanding how the war was actually perceived and conducted on the communist side.
This short essay thus tries to reconstruct the evolution of decision-making on the communist side of the Vietnam War from 1954 to April 1975 when the war finally ended, to show the progression of the Vietnamese communists’ struggle from one that was essentially political in nature, to a full-scale war and to its eventual victory. In describing the Vietnam War from the communist perspective, and in order to gain a complete and true picture of the war, one must not focus only on the role of the North Vietnamese, but also consider the other players and events in the arena, namely, the roles of the South Vietnamese communists, the developments in Cambodia and Laos, as well as the decisions and influences of the two principal communist patrons – Beijing and Moscow – with regards to the war. From the beginning, it was an Indochina War rather than just a Vietnam War. If Cambodia seemed to be rather peripheral in the early years of the war, it was because of Sihanouk’s political acumen, and even more so the decisions of both Hanoi and Beijing to cultivate him, although not necessarily for the same reasons. As for Laos, it was definitely of strategic importance to both North Vietnam and China, but for reasons that again were different for Hanoi and for Beijing. All of them that was also shared by the Russians and Chinese.
By mid-1958, Diem’s renewed efforts to exterminate the communists in South Vietnam, which culminated in the passing of Law 10/59 (6 May 1959), was fatally damaging the communist revolutionary struggle in the South. According to a Vietnamese communist source, at the end of 1958 and in early 1959, Diem’s policy of terror in the South had reached its height.1 This period has been described as the “blackest, most hopeless years for the people in South Vietnam”.2 Hanoi understood that it could no longer continue to advocate restraint without losing the control and allegiance of the Southern communists as well as the reunification struggle to Diem who had the support of the United States.
It was against the above background that the difficult decision to renew the military struggle in the South was reluctantly taken at the landmark 15th Plenary Session of the Lao Dong Party held in January 1959. The decision was however not publicised till a week after the promulgation of Law 10/59 in May. Soon after the communiquŽ was issued, work on the Ho Chi Minh Trail (much of which were in Laotian territory) began. Even then, when the January 1959 decision was finally translated into action from September 1960 in South
Vietnam, the political struggle still took precedence. The armed struggle was meant to support and not replace the political struggle as was made clear in the 13 January 1961 directive issued by the Lao Dong Party. This was so because the North, specifically the military, was still far from ready to manage an expansion of the war. Moscow and Beijing –Hanoi’s principal sponsors – were lukewarm to the decision to reactivate the armed struggle. Also, during this time, developments in Laos, which were not necessarily within the control of Hanoi, (or Moscow or Beijing) but which impinge on the situation in Vietnam, consumed much of the Vietnamese communists’ energy and attention in 1960, 1961 up to mid-1962. The Protocol and the Declaration of Neutrality of Laos were finally signed on 23 July in Geneva, finally bringing the International Conference on the Settlement of the Laotian Question (which began on 16 May 1961) to an end. After being overshadowed by Laos for almost two years, South Vietnam returned to the forefront as the former moved out of centre-stage.
The unexpected death of Ngo Dinh Diem in November 1963 led to the next landmark decision taken at the 9th Plenary Session of the Lao Dong Party in November/December 1963. Having considered the new developments in the South, the Hanoi leadership calculated that the Americans would now move into South Vietnam sooner than later given the political uncertainties there following the death of Diem. The communist decision to further escalate the military struggle was therefore to pre-empt the Americans and to gain as much strategic advantage as possible before the anticipated direct American intervention in the fighting. The decision of the 9th Plenary Session can be viewed as a shift of gears in line with the policy adopted at the 15th Plenary Session in 1959.
According to most of the American intelligence reports, from about August 1963, the combat capability of the southern communists had been improving and they had scored a fair amount of successes. In a 13 December 1963 memorandum, it was reported that the South Vietnamese government had been unable to materially reduce the strength of the communists in spite of the increased number of non-communist offensive operations.3
The death of Diem and the subsequent Gulf of Tonkin incident in August 1964 (like the promulgation of Law 10/59 in May 1959) inadvertently strengthened the voice of the pro-escalation camp. But the decision of the 9th Plenary Session did not mean that the Vietnamese communists had thrown all caution to the wind. Indeed, if one were to study the events following both the 1959 and 1963 decisions, one would find that the Hanoi leadership was extremely hesitant and cautious about the military struggle. Within the leadership, there were those who continued to advocate caution arguing that the targets set out in the 2nd Five-Year Military Plan (1961-1965) had yet to be fully achieved. Compounding that, the North was also experiencing its worst drought since 1954.4
In short, while the objective of the Vietnamese communists was to try to win the reunification struggle before the Americans intervened directly in the war, Hanoi also did not wish to give the U.S. a pretext to attack North Vietnam. The escalation of the military struggle therefore needed to be handled very adroitly. This came across most clearly in a conversation of both Pham Van Dong and Hoang Van Hoan with Mao Zedong on 5 October 1964. According to Dong, Hanoi would try to confine the war within the sphere of a special war, and would try to defeat the enemy within that sphere. It would try not to let the Americans turn the war into a limited war or expand it into North Vietnam.
In early 1965, the Vietnamese communists were still not confident of being able to confront the Americans in a “limited war”. They knew all along that they would never be able to defeat ‘the strongest in the world’ in a straight fight. The strategy was therefore to force the Americans to withdraw through negotiations. In the view of the Hanoi leadership, this was only achievable when they could defeat the U.S. air war, exhaust the U.S. troops in the South and weaken the will of the American politicians and soldiers.5 American troops eventually landed on Danang in March 1965. On hindsight, that event perhaps marked the beginning of American direct military intervention in the reunification struggle, which the Vietnamese communists had predicted in 1954 and had hitherto been trying to delay from happening.
This is perhaps the appropriate point to briefly mention that even while the fighting was going on, there were quite a number of behind-the-scene attempts to arrange secret talks between the two sides during this period, for example, “Marigold”, “Sunflower” and “Pennsylvania”. The various secret negotiations should also be understood in the context of the military struggle. The Vietnamese communists understood very early on that it was not possible to achieve on the diplomatic table that which they could not obtain on the battlefield. Regarding negotiations, Mao commented that the North Vietnamese had “earned the qualification to negotiate”. However, it is another matter whether or not the negotiation would succeed. Zhou reminded his audience that Beijing had been talking to the U.S. for nine years and there had been more than 120 meetings and the Sino-American ambassadorial talks were still continuing in Warsaw.6 We now know that Vietnamese communists were never really prepared to negotiate before end-January 1968, insisting that the Americans must first capitulate. After numerous futile attempts to bring both sides to talk, both the U.S. and North Vietnamese representatives finally met face-to-face in Paris on 13 May 1968. The breakthrough came only when both sides, in their own ways, suffered significant defeats at the 1968 Tet Offensive – the U.S. politically and the Vietnamese communists militarily.
From 1965 to 1967, the war was fought to a stalemate. A stalemate was not good for the communist side because a protracted war, presuming the Americans had the patience, would only lead to a communist defeat. Hanoi therefore had to find ways to break that stalemate and in the spring of 1967, the Vietnamese communist leadership endorsed the plan for the “General Offensive General Uprising” (or more popularly known as the Tet Offensive), which was launched on the Vietnamese New Year or Tet on 31 January 1968.7
The “General Offensive General Uprising” failed to achieve the objectives spelt out by Le Duan in his letter of 18 January 1968. The heavy casualties suffered by the communists during the Tet Offensive compelled the Hanoi leadership to re-examine its strategy and this led to the resumption of the “debate” between the “escalation camp” and the “protracted war camp” within the Vietnamese communist leadership. An added dimension that had to be considered in 1968 was the question of whether it was then the appropriate time to negotiate with the enemy.
Intertwined into the above was the broader debate within the communist bloc between the Soviet strategy of peaceful coexistence (read: no fighting, negotiation) and the Chinese strategy of supporting national liberation struggles in the colonial countries (read: protracted struggle, no negotiation). Although the Vietnamese communists refrained from talking openly about the widening Sino-Soviet rift in public, they were acutely concerned about its negative impact on their struggle. The significance of both Russian and Chinese moral and material support to the Vietnamese communist national liberation struggle is well-known. It was impossible for Hanoi to stand apart, much as they wanted to, from the Sino-Soviet rivalry that had been brewing since 1956 and which worsened as the years went by. Those such as Vo Nguyen Giap, Hoang Minh Chinh and Nguyen Kien Giang who advocated a more cautious pace were crudely labelled as ‘pro-Soviet’ while Le Duan and others who shared his view on speeding up the struggle became known as ‘pro-China’.8 (It is perhaps worth noting that Le Duan was later re-labelled as ‘pro-Soviet’.) Le Duan, in fact had played a moderating role in debate over the pace of the reunification struggle from 1956 till November 1963 before becoming more ‘hawkish’ (than the Chinese would have liked) after the death of Diem and particularly after the Gulf of Tonkin incident. Ho Chi Minh was the only Vietnamese leader who had the stature and the willingness to mediate between the two communist giants. But Ho’s health was declining from 1964 and he no longer oversaw the day-to-day decisions, which were gradually being made by Le Duan and his associates.
Some brief remarks on the historiography of the Vietnam War may be useful here before we continue with our narrative. Although the literature of the Vietnam War in the English language is massive, in most of the accounts of the war, the substantial part of the story ends soon after either the Tet Offensive in 1968, or when the Paris Peace Agreement was finally signed in January 1973. The accounts of the seven-year period following the Tet 1968, or the two years after January 1973 are usually skimpy. One scholar noted that out of the 760 pages in the best-selling Vietnam: A History by Stanley Karnow, the period after March 1968 was told in just 180 pages. This is just one notable example. The tendency to begin the story of the Vietnam War from 1965 and to end it in 1968 or 1973 reflects a very US-centric understanding of the war.
In the last few years, a handful of accounts spanning the years 1968 to 1973 have been published and they are based mainly on newly available U.S. sources of the Nixon administration as well as on some Vietnamese communist sources. Most notable of these include Jeffrey Kimball’s Nixon’ Vietnam War (1998); Lewis Sorley’s A Better War:The Unexamined Victories and Final Tragedy of America’s Last Years in Vietnam (1999); Larry Berman’s No Peace No Honor: Nixon, Kissinger, and Betrayal in Vietnam (2001); and most recently, Pierre Asselin’s A Bitter Peace: Washington, Hanoi, and the Making of the Paris
Agreement (2002). These scholarly and pioneering accounts have undoubtedly contributed to redressing an imbalance in the narratives of the war. However, their focus is primarily on American decision-making, even on occasions when the spotlight was trained on the Vietnamese communists as evident in the accounts of Sorley and Asselin. But even in their accounts, the period after the signing of the Paris Peace Agreement to the end of April 1975 (that is, the period after the U.S. troops have left Vietnam) received scant treatment. Looking ahead, as researchers continue to tap the more readily available non-communist sources, we can expect to see more publications and analyses of the Vietnam War from the non-communist perspective and especially on the decision-making processes during the Nixon administration.
Hanoi’s decision between late March and early April 1968 to accept President Johnson’s proposal to negotiate an end to the Vietnam War is an important turning point of the war. The communist decision to negotiate was not unanimous. But having agreed to negotiations, the Vietnamese communists had to quickly achieve some tangible military victory to bolster its negotiating position. The first round of the Tet Offensive had failed militarily although it led to President Johnson’s decision not to run for the forthcoming U.S. presidential election. The failure explains the controversial decisions to launch a second and then a third round of military offensives that lasted till the end of September 1968, all of which failed to achieve the illusive victory that the communists so badly needed. Not surprisingly, the Vietnamese communists dragged their feet over the pre-conditions and modalities for the peace talks. The Vietnamese communist leadership had evidently not thought through the whole issue of negotiations and this explained their capriciousness in forwarding instructions to the negotiating team in Paris. After almost eight months of wrangling, the Four-Party talks finally convened in Paris in January 1969 but they were mainly for the public eye, the real negotiations took place in private between Le Duc Tho and Averell Harriman (who after 20 January 1969 was succeeded by Cabot Lodge).
Meanwhile, the quest for the much-needed military victory continued without any tangible results. On 2 September 1969, Ho Chi Minh passed away a disappointed man. The reunification of the country was nowhere in sight and the relationship of Hanoi’s two patrons – China and the Soviet Union - was at a nadir. Significantly, Ho’s untimely death did not lead to a power struggle in North Vietnam. Neither did it break the resolve of the Vietnamese communists. In the immediate months after Ho’s passing, there was also a noticeable improvement in Sino-Vietnamese relations initiated by the Chinese side. Sino-Vietnamese relation had deteriorated because of Beijing’s disapproval with the strategy adopted in the
Tet Offensive and also because of its unhappiness over Hanoi’s reluctance to take the Chinese side in the on-going Sino-Soviet dispute. Nixon’s ploys – his threat to unleash a massive mining and bombing operation on North Vietnam (Operation Duck Hook) as well as his activation of a secret nuclear alert to threaten the Soviet Union in October 1969 into pressuring the Vietnamese communists to negotiate – failed to unnerve communists.9
While the Paris talks were going on, the Hanoi leadership at the 18th Party Central Committee meeting calculated that the military struggle was becoming an increasingly critical factor to bringing the Vietnam War to a conclusion. The communist leaders anticipated correctly that the fighting in Laos would soon spill over into Cambodia. On 18 March 1970, Sihanouk was ousted in a coup, which might not have been directly instigated by the U.S., but, as George Kahin recalled, the perception was that Lon Nol and Sri Matak could not have made a number of moves without “backup assurances from the United States”.10 Declassified transcripts of the 1970-1971 conversations between Zhou Enlai and Henry Kissinger showed that the Zhou believed that the CIA had a role in the deposition of Sihanouk. The coup essentially derailed the Paris talks, further expanded the war and brought about an uneasy coalition of the communist parties of the three Indochinese countries.
The relations between the Vietnamese and Cambodian communists were particularly troublesome and unstable. The attention of the Vietnamese communists in those months was not focused on the Paris talks but on how to exploit the 1970-1971 dry season to achieve a military advantage. After the 27 September 1970 private meeting between Xuan Thuy and Henry Kissinger, despite the many requests from the U.S. side for another meeting, both parties did not meet again till 31 May 1971.
During the eight-month hiatus, the communists conducted their 1970-1971 dry season military campaigns. Although they were reasonably successful, they were not resounding enough to serve as leverage at the negotiations. Vietnamese communists’ relations with Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge continued to deteriorate. There were also tell-tales signs that Sino-U.S. relation was thawing. All these could possibly explain Hanoi’s decision to resume the secret talks the end of May 1971 even though they did not expect any immediate breakthrough.
On 9 July 1971, Henry Kissinger made his secret visit to Beijing. He left Beijing on 11 July and met Le Duc Tho the next day. The day after, on 13 July, Kissinger’s recent visit to Beijing was officially broadcasted worldwide. Believing that Beijing and Washington was in collusion to pressure Hanoi to concede in Paris, the knee-jerk reaction of the Vietnamese communists was to appear even more intransigent. Another natural response of the Hanoi leadership was to turn to the Soviet Union to counter-balance China but only to learn that Nixon would soon be visiting Moscow. This was clearly a very difficult period for the Vietnamese communists and there was a lot of soul searching on what should be their new game plan in light of all these developments. A decision was only reached between the end of June and early July 1972. Meanwhile, Nixon’s landmark visit to China in February 1972 marked the high point of Sino-U.S. rapprochement. The Vietnamese communists continued to search for the “decisive victory” and began military planning for the 1972 military offensive (Easter Offensive).
At the end of June 1972, four years after the Hanoi leadership agreed to negotiations in April 1968, they finally decided to shift “from a strategy of war to a strategy of peace”. This is a significant turning point. On 21 September 1972, Hanoi instructed their negotiators in Paris to make an all-out effort to obtain a peace agreement before November 1972, (that is, before the U.S. presidential election). They almost managed to achieve that goal. Indeed, when Le Duc Tho and Kissinger met in early October 1972, they both agreed on a timetable leading to the signing of the peace agreement on either 30 or 31 October 1972. But at the last moment,
Nixon decided to launch the controversial Linebacker II (Christmas bombings). This led to another two-month delay. Both Moscow and Beijing publicly condemned the bombings and reaffirmed their support for Hanoi. But in private, the Russians persuaded the Vietnamese communist leadership to continue to negotiate and to see workable compromises. The Chinese were also of the view that the prospect for an agreement was reasonably good and that Hanoi should go ahead to reach a settlement. Negotiations eventually resumed on 8 January 1973 and the Paris Peace Agreement was finally signed on 27 January 1973. Throughout the duration of the negotiations, the Hanoi leadership was determined that there would not be a repeat of Geneva 1954.11
Henry Kissinger in his account of the peace negotiations recollected that both Nixon and he “had no illusions that Hanoi’s fanatical leaders had abandoned their lifetime struggle” and that he had warned Nixon in late-1972 that “Hanoi would press against the edges of any agreement and that the peace could only be preserved by constant vigilance”.12 But nobody, not even the Vietnamese communists themselves expected that they would be able to reunify the country that soon after the Paris Peace Agreement. In his recently published memoir13, Robert Hopkins Miller recalled his visit to South Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos in October 1974 in his capacity as the officer in charge of those three countries in the State Department’s Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs. He left with the impression that the situation in Cambodia was fast deteriorating, “on the ragged edge” and that “if friendly forces were deprived of ammunition, they could not survive for long”. In contrast, he found that Laos “resembled nothing so much as a peaceful, mythical kingdom of the mysterious East”. The Neo Lao Hak Xat (NLHX) and the Royal Laotian Government had signed the Vientiane Agreement on Restoring Peace and Achieving National Concord on 21 February 1973, about a month after the Paris Peace Agreement was signed.15 As for the situation in South Vietnam, Miller reported that it “appeared to be salvageable” and “tenable even though some territory was likely to be lost to Hanoi’s forces in the anticipated spring offensive of 1975”. Indeed, the Hanoi leadership had initially projected that the struggle would continue till 1976-1977 and no specific date was set for reunification. It was only around July 1974 that a decision was taken to aim for a victory in 1975-1976. Tran Van Tra, then commander of the B2 Front, recalled that it was not easy to reach that decision and that there were long debates over the communists’ strengths and weaknesses vis-ˆ-vis the South Vietnamese military (which were still being supplied by the U.S.). By December 1974, the general sense was that the U.S. was unlikely to re-intervene in the Vietnam War. Nixon had resigned four months earlier on 9 August 1974 and the U.S. House of Representatives had also in that month slashed U.S. military aid to South Vietnam. Still, most were only cautiously optimistic of an early victory.
When the communists 1974-1975 dry season offensive began with the Tay Nguyen campaign on 4 March 1975, no one, not even the most optimistic, (and neither did the Russians nor the Chinese), expected the Saigon administration to capitulate so easily within two months. In fact, the Hanoi leadership only gave the green light to attack Saigon on 22 April 1975. Saigon fell on 30 April 1975 marking the end of the Vietnam War.
1 “How Armed Struggle Began in South Vietnam” in Vietnam Courier, Number 22, March 1974, pp19-24.
2 Wilfred Burchett, My Visit to the Zones of South Vietnam, (Hanoi: Foreign Languages Publishing House, 1966), p17.
3 Memorandum from the Director of the Defence Intelligence Agency (Carroll) to the Secretary of Defence (McNamara), 13 December 1963, Foreign Relations of the United States (hereafter cited as FRUS), Vietnam 1961-1963, Volume IV, pp707-710.
4 PRO: FO 371/170097, Hanoi to FO, 1 March 1963; PRO: FO 371/1/170107, Saigon to FO, 5 September 1963 cited in Fredrik Logevall, Choosing War: The Lost Chance for Peace and the Escalation of War in Vietnam, (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999), p10, 426, ftn. 24; “The DRV in 1962” in China News Analysis, Number 460, 15 March 1963.
5 Robert S. McNamara, Argument Without End: In Search of Answers to the Vietnam Tragedy, (New York: Public Affairs, 1999), pp226-227.
6 Mao Zedong and Pham Van Dong, Hoang Van Hoan, (Beijing, 5 October 1964) in New Evidence on the Vietnam/IndoChina Wars, (Cold War International History Project).
7 See Ang Cheng Guan, “Decision-making Leading to the Tet Offensive (1968) – The Vietnamese Communist Perspective” in Journal of Contemporary History, Volume 33, Number 3, July 1998, pp341-353.
8 For details of the in-fighting within the Hanoi leadership, see Bui Tin, op.cit., pp44-46, 54-56.
9 William Burr & Jeffrey Kimball, “Nixon’s nuclear ploy” in Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, Volume 59, Number 1, January/February 2003, pp28-37, 72-73.
10 George McT. Kahin, Southeast Asia: A Testament, (London: RoutledgeCurzon, 2003), p294.
11 See Hoang Nguyen, “The Paris Agreement on Vietnam – Its Political and Juridical Implications”, Vietnamese Studies, Issue 39, 1974, pp23-60.
12 Henry Kissinger, Ending the Vietnam War A History of America’s Involvement in and Extrication from the
Vietnam War, (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2003), p456.
13 Robert Hopkins Miller, Vietnam and beyond: A Diplomat’s Cold War Education (Lubbock: Texas Tech University Press, 2002), pp143-144, 148-149.
14 To assert their independence from the Vietnamese communists, the Khmer Rouge deliberately took control of Phnom Penh on 17 April 1975 while the fighting in South Vietnam was still going on.
15 In contrast to the Khmer Rouge, the Pathet Lao only took full control of Laos on 2 December 1975.