Nguyễn Khắc Viện (1913-1997) was a doctor, writer, and propagandist for the Democratic Republic of Vietnam and, after 1976, for the unified Socialist Republic of Vietnam. In the West, Viện is often described in simplistic and kind terms that belie the complexity of his life and ideological positions. Like many of his contemporaries, he lived a complicated life that deserves a more complicated story than the one currently afforded him in Western and Vietnamese scholarship.
Nguyễn Khắc Viện’s political life began ominously. In 1943 he and a group of Vietnamese students studying in France accepted scholarships in Nazi Germany. This was, after all, late in the war. In occupied northern France, the Nazi forces and French authorities had begun the mass deportation of French Jews in early 1942. When Viện traveled to Berlin, there was no ambiguity about the character of the Nazi regime. He was joined in Berlin by another notable future communist, Hoàng Xuân Nhị. Both he and Viện would conceal their connection to Nazi Germany for the rest of their lives.
According to a 1945 report, these Vietnamese were recruited to Berlin by a “Professor Speer” and a “Dr. Goepel” which may be Dr. Erhard Göpel, an academic who the OSS implicated in the looting of Jewish art across occupied Europe.
No information exists on the activities of these Vietnamese during their time in Nazi Germany. But we do know that the experience was meaningful for some of them, including Nguyễn Khắc Viện.
Upon returning to France in 1944, Viện and others opened the Vietnamese language paper Nam Việt. In it Nguyễn Khắc Viện evinced an admiration for the totalitarian systems he had witnessed in Nazi Germany. He praised the “revolutions” [cách mạng] in Germany and Italy that he saw as proof that progress could be engineered by a small set of political and economic elites.
In one article, “Law of the Jungle” [Luật Rừng Xanh] from 1 June 1945, Nguyễn Khắc Viện criticized France’s 1789 Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen. Picking up on Article I (“Men are born and remain free and equal in rights”) he mocked the idea: “The word ‘free’ is like a strong wine poured into the minds of most people, yet how few people can see clearly the distant consequences of their actions or fully understand the needs of a society down to the last detail?” Such a “free” society was therefore nothing more than the “law of the jungle.” [Hai chữ tự-do như một thứ rượu nồng rót vào trí phần đông, mấy ai mà thấy rõ những hiệu quả xa-xôi của một việc làm của mình, hiểu hết những sự nhu yếu của một xã-hội một cách tường-tận?]
Instead, Nguyễn Khắc Viện wrote in favor of “dictatorship” [độc-tài] and argued that it was a far more desirable and effective form of government than “democracy” [dân-chủ]. He explained “dictatorship means that many powers are combined under one leader with the ability to act decisively alone, without suffering a mob of representatives who raise difficulties … . There is no right to criticize the orders of the government.” [Độc-tài nghĩa là bao nhiểu quyền-bính góp vào một người thủ suý đủ tai-trí tự mình quyết đoán, không bị những nghi-viện ô-hợp làm khó dễ … . Không có quyền chỉ-trích những mệnh-lệnh của chính-phủ.]
Part of the appeal for Nguyễn Khắc Viện was the technological prowess of Germany and its command economics. “Most important is economics,” he wrote in defining the attributes of dictatorships, because “private interests must accept the decrees of the government, the economy will operate according to government command” and not the “danger of class interests.”
In his conclusion, Nguyễn Khắc Viện noted that Europe would not be master of the world forever. For Asia to advance, it needed to pay attention to four lessons that Europeans had learned in the years before 1944:
1. They understand that scientific industries are only a weapon. When used by people they can both do wonders or ravage heartlessly.
2. Free-market economics led to an unbalanced and painful state of society.
3. The democratic-republic systems of governance only give rise to chaos, they are incapable of resolving difficulties.
4. The other continents also can become strong like Europe.
After World War II and the fall of Nazi Germany, Nguyễn Khắc Viện joined the Stalinist French Communist Party. Between his fascination with state economic planning and the centralization and personalization of political power, it’s easy to see how Nguyễn Khắc Viện’s ideological tendencies redirected from fascism toward communism.
Nguyễn Khắc Viện would of course change his vocabulary to fit with the democratic image that the Democratic Republic of Vietnam projected to the world. But while he was now championing democracy, it was in a Stalinist conception. When the French journalist Jean Lacouture criticized the reunified Socialist Republic of Vietnam for its suppression of individual rights in southern Vietnam and its party dictatorship, Nguyễn Khắc Viện struck back.
In language that sounded very similar to his 1944 article championing dictatorship, Nguyễn Khắc Viện argued that within Western democracies, the “insistence on systematic opposition can also be a sign of a lack of maturity, if not political naivety.” Vietnam and the Soviet Union’s democracy was simply more mature. “Accepting the leading role of a party,” he went on in reference to Vietnam’s single-party state, “even though one is not a member of it, does not by any means imply resignation.”
He went further, and mockingly asked how France could be a true democracy if the French Communist Party had never controlled the government? (Nguyễn Khắc Viện did not seem to consider the simple answer: the communists’ public support had never reached 30 percent) [Vietnam Courrier, n. 51 August 1976]
Soon Nguyễn Khắc Viện found himself being pushed aside. His star faded as Western academics learned of the Socialists Republic of Vietnam’s repression, ‘re-education camps’, and mounting economic failure that had caused a massive refugee crisis.
In 1991, Nguyễn Khắc Viện experienced a last revival. That year his letter to the Fatherland Front president Nguyễn Hữu Thọ was smuggled abroad. Both critics of Vietnam and those who wanted to claim that its revolution had not always been the racket it now seemed, clung to the letter.
But the letter was not a victory of liberal democracy, as some claimed. It is true that Nguyễn Khắc Viện critiqued corruption in the communist party and proposed a “popular democratic Front”. Westerners interpreted this “popular front” to mean a liberal democratic state. It’s clear though that Nguyễn Khắc Viện wanted a mass-based organization, led hopefully by the communist party he said, which would resist the invidious forces of private economic development and foreign investment that were now infecting a post-Đổi Mới Vietnam. The party was to be at the vanguard defending the party’s revolution, not making a democratic one as Western writers hoped.
While the youth of Vietnam supported market liberalization through the 1990s and 2000s, they did not support his front. Nguyễn Khắc Viện ultimately got the centralized state and economy that he wanted. But it wasn’t one that the Vietnamese themselves wanted.