Review of Ben Kiernan’s ‘Việt Nam: A History from Earliest Times to the Present’


Journal of Vietnamese Studies, 14, n. 1 (2019), 97-113.

The author of Việt Nam: A History from Earliest Times to the Present credits the Vietnamese writer and Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV) propagandist Nguyễn Khắc Viện as a foundational influence for his study and a research collaborator during long-past trips to Europe and Vietnam. In the historical narrative here, Nguyễn Khắc Viện is portrayed as a dissident democracy advocate and voice of reform in the communist state. This is the same Nguyễn Khắc Viện who, as a medical doctor in his thirties, took a Nazi scholarship in Berlin late in World War II. He returned to France enamored with command economics and authoritarianism, propagating those ideas in the Vietnamese language journal Nam Việt. His support then gravitated — not far ideologically — to the Stalinist French Communist Party and the DRV. Contrary to the narrative here, among his later critiques of the DRV was that it had not followed the Soviet path with more fidelity. And the grandiose “popular democracy” he proposed in 1991 was ideally, he wrote, to be led by the communist party to resist what he saw as the invidious forces of private economic development following the Đổi Mới economic liberalization (479). He moreover defend the DRV’s party dictatorship and use of concentration camps, calling international criticism nothing more than “abstract humanism.”[1]

The treatment of Nguyễn Khắc Viện encapsulates the limits of Việt Nam. Unlike other Cambridge University Press general histories of Asia, this book is not authored by a specialist in the country’s history nor one capable of using Vietnamese as a specialist’s research tool — though the author’s prominent use of diacritics implies those skills to general readers.[2] Nguyễn Khắc Viện’s original writings were therefore inaccessible and the author must be unaware of the archival documents and Vietnamese histories that reference this event.[3] Nguyễn Khắc was and is favored by anti-war academics of the 1970s-80s who took a romantic view of Vietnamese or Khmer communism, dismissed its opponents as French and American puppets, or who saw Vietnamese history stretch teleological toward the communist party’s leadership and model of modernity. The author’s study of the modern era is characterized by these same traits. The reader thus encounters a Vietnam that, like Nguyễn Khắc Viện, is dated, curated, and denied its complexity.

Việt Nam‘s treatment of the early modern era and Nguyễn dynasty does not include the new generation of scholarship that recasts it as a dynamic state project with its own vision of modernization. The mandarinate is stultified and powerless, overwhelmed by a modern patriotism. Of the first 45 citations in chapter eight, 25 contain references to Trương Bửu Lâm’s 1967 monograph, Patterns of Vietnamese Response to Foreign Intervention or a 1971 Australian National University undergraduate thesis. Conversely, recent authoritative studies like Emmanuel Poisson’s Mandarin et Subalternes au Nord Viêt Nam are absent.

Working from 1960s English-language translations, which were curated to present a nationalist history, Việt Nam presents an outdated narrative that scholars of Vietnam have since corrected. Nguyễn Đình Chiểu’s poem Eulogy for the Righteous People of Cần Giuộc is cited as showing:

Obedience to the emperor, in Chiểu’s eyes, was now apparently a lesser virtue than what he called “patriotism” in defense of a “united and sumptuous kingdom.” Chiểu wrote his eulogy in nôm, disdaining the court’s preference for Chinese. … Later the French tried to win Chiểu over and offered him back his family’s land, which had been confiscated. He replied: “You took my whole country, why do you trouble to give back my land?” (303)

When compared to an accurate translation of the nôm poem, each argument is invalidated. First, the poet did not write the word “patriotism,” but rather “righteousness” [nghĩa, 義], one of the Confucian values that this scholar-poet cherished. Second, he did not portray obedience to the emperor as a lesser value, but the utmost. Third, Nguyễn Đình Chiểu himself composed poems in Chinese. Fourth, the cited sentence “You took my whole country, why do you trouble to give back my land?” was also tampered with by the translator to achieve the desired nationalist perspective. The actual statement attributed to Nguyễn Đình Chiểu shows his Confucian worldview: “The king’s land is still lost, what does my land matter? [Đất vua còn mất, đất tôi sá gì?]

Unable to interrogate the primary sources, the book is drawn to anachronistic ‘patriotisms’. The reader is told that in 1918 “French authorities shut down [Sương] Nguyệt Anh’s quốc ng magazine after it published a ‘subversive’ piece alluding to the patriotism of the first-century Trưng sisters” (340). Yet reading the original magazine’s Vietnamese text we see the article only noted that secondary schools’ history books focused too much on world history. While the books included the names of past emperors and the Trưng Sisters, they did not educate students on their achievements. There was no allusion to “patriotism.”[1] Nor was the appearance of the Trưng Sisters the cause of the shut-down. From the very first issue, five months earlier, Sương Nguyệt Anh’s paper featured poems heralding the Trưng sisters.[2] Other newspapers did the same. Sương Nguyệt Anh, the socially conservative Confucian, instead saw her paper close due to its flagging readership and her failing health.

One of the central arguments of the book is that Vietnam has a timeless, distinctive aquatic culture. In attempting to cite linguistic evidence, the narrative wanders into troubled waters once again (7-10). Nguyễn Trường Tộ’s proposed reforms to the Nguyễn court are cited both as proof of the mandarinate’s futility but also of water as a defining Vietnamese attribute, and the author seeks to highlight the use of certain terms.

[Nguyễn Trường Tộ] defined “our territory” as a modern geo-body while using traditional Vietnamese terms in which water (nước) remained a motif as predominant as land: “Our mountains and our rivers [non nước] our borders and our frontiers, our seas and our lakes, our military posts and our citadels” (306).

The English-language translation cited by Việt Nam contains a footnote that Vietnamese historians would expect: “The original is in Chinese.”[3] Nguyễn Trường Tộ did not write this court missive “using traditional Vietnamese terms” where “water” was significant — Chinese was the language of the mandarinate. Non nước does not mean “mountains and rivers” and the cited text has no Vietnamese translation, raising questions about how the mistranslation made its way into Kiernan’s text. Authentic Vietnamese translations of this text state những non sông [the mountains and rivers]. More important, the Chinese original was likely shanhe [山河] or jiangshan [江山], both of which literally translate to ‘mountains and rivers’ but symbolically represent ‘country’ — as does non nước. Another guesswork water translation is noticeable in a Trần Tế Xương poem (295-96).

These may appear trivial flaws in the grand scheme. Yet it bears examination here because this grand aquatic argument rests on nothing more than such trivia. While Việt Nam proclaims it uses a regional framework, the unique aquatic character of the Vietnamese could not persist in such a study. The linguistic device employed by Nguyễn Trường Tộ is evidence of a preexisting Chinese concept and thus an inadvertent challenge to the book’s argument. And what of Southeast Asia? In Indonesia “my homeland” is rendered as tanah airku, meaning “my land of water” or “my land and water.” This term holds the same dual significance in Malaysian culture. They are far from the only linguistic dichotomies in Asia that invoke land and water to signify the country or community. But in emphasizing this concept, Việt Nam can proclaim a new Vietnamese exceptional identity, supplanting the now outdated ‘timeless resistance to invaders’, with this more appealing timeless aquatic character.

As Việt Nam transitions into the 1940s and onward, the aquatic theme disappears. The narrative reverts to a more conventional ‘Orthodox’ history of the Indochina Wars that romanticizes elements of Vietnamese communism as the country’s driving political force and excludes a great many important Vietnamese actors. Việt Nam often fails to be a history of its namesake, instead focusing on foreign actors. The book asserts that the former emperor Bảo Đại’s return to government and “his participation in the creation in Cochinchina of a dependent ‘State of Vietnam,’ made little difference” (386). It goes unmentioned thereafter. Yet this state contained roughly half the Vietnamese population and the Bảo Đại solution generated qualified support from Vietnamese through 1946-1955. Most startling is that the book mischaracterizes the State of Vietnam as confined to Cochinchina. It spanned all of Vietnam.

Việt Nam spends ample space discussing Phạm Hữu Chương’s victorious coalition with Indochinese Communist Party (ICP) candidates in the 1938-1939 Hanoi municipal elections (370-371). However, the text conflates the popular front candidates as being members of the ICP or that the success of front tickets was solely attributable to their ICP elements. The author uses this an as example of how anticolonial movements had drifted to the ICP and implies that Phan Bội Châu supported the ICP (372). This is not only incorrect, but backward. During the 1930s, Phan Bội Châu criticized communism and denounced class-based revolution — this is information censored from Vietnamese histories but which can be found in original sources.[4] Nor mentioned is that Phạm Hựu Chương and a great many others later fled the ICP-dominated Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV) and chose to support the State of Vietnam.

As it moves into the 1950s, the book’s simple narrative demands the simplification of the studies it cites. Việt Nam fixates on the CIA’s peripheral role, summoning misleading quotes from CIA historical studies to claim that the United States “chose” Ngô Đình Diệm (402) to lead the State of Vietnam. What the CIA historian Thomas Ahern actually concluded was that the records “suggest, at most, a peripheral CIA role.”[5] This line of inquiry is of little significance anyhow. Bảo Đại had himself entreated Ngô Đình Diệm to lead the forthcoming State of Vietnam, beginning in 1947-48 and again in 1950. The author also misleadingly quotes Edward Miller’s study of Ngô Đình Diệm to heighten Việt Nam‘s indictment of this non-communist figure.[6]

This reflects a broader issue in the section: Việt Nam loses sight of its subject. Vietnamese voices are absent and the proffered history is too often one of American opinions rather than of the Vietnamese. Focus is given to figures like Joseph Alsop, in particular when he spoke favorably, but mistakenly, about the “democratic government” of the DRV (397). The first sentence of the section “The Rise of Ngô Đình Diệm” cites the Pentagon Papers to describe “‘South Vietnam’ as ‘essentially the creation of the United States'” (400). Given the excellent scholarship produced on South Vietnam by Edward Miller, François Guillemot, Geoffrey Stewart, Jason Picard, Kevin Li, Olga Dror, Phi-Vân Nguyen, Philip Catton, Sean Fear, Simon Toner, and Van Nguyen-Marshall, among others, among others, the reader is done a disservice through Việt Nam‘s reliance on the Pentagon Papers for its framework, a long-outdated text based entirely in U.S. government sources, and authored for explicit political and policy purposes by government analysts without knowledge of Vietnamese history.

In a sweeping two-thousand year history of Vietnam, it is inexcusable to place such non-Vietnamese actors at the forefront, privileging their ill-informed and sweeping generalizations, when they knew little of the country. Certainly the Vietnamese themselves should be there at the forefront. Despite the great many important Vietnamese actors absent from this book, it gives prominent coverage to minor figures like a CIA contract employee named Virginia Spence (400-401). Why, the reader may wonder, are Alsop, Virginia Spence, and the Pentagon Papers so important in this study? It’s because their comments contradicted the official White House position of the 1960s-70s. Anti-war academics found trophies for their cause in such admissions, ones that Việt Nam cannot resist mounting above the mantle once again, regardless if they misinform the reader about Vietnam itself.

In the chapters covering 1955-1975, the DRV receives less attention than South Vietnam. In stark contrast to Việt Nam‘s fixation on the peripheral role of the CIA in 1953-54, it makes no mention of the central role Chinese advisors played in designing the DRV land reform campaign at that same moment. Contrary to recent studies of the campaign, this book accepts the official DRV version of events which were designed to quell dissent and absolve Hồ Chí Minh and Võ Nguyên Giáp of blame, instead shifting it onto Trường Chinh. The books asserts, without any real evidence, a “sharp break” between the former two men and Trường Chinh (425). This break allows Việt Nam, as was intended, to insulate part of the DRV and its two founders from opposition to the policies they championed.

This device operates in subsequent descriptions of the DRV. The author does cover the government’s negative aspects, like the suppression of academic and artistic freedom or escalation of war. But those attributes are either impersonalized and attributed to “the DRV” or sloughed off on certain unsympathetic characters like Lê Duẩn. While there is a discussion of Ngô Đình Diem’s concept of personalism and how the ideology lent itself to authoritarianism, there is no discussion of communist ideology in the colonial or post-colonial era and how it drove the authoritarianism that endures to today. Instead, Việt Nam again produces a dichotomy between moderate reformers like Nguyễn Văn Linh, who are supposedly willing to undertake political democratization, only to be stymied by vague “conservative” elements (478-79). This is deficient, given that Nguyễn Văn Linh was himself in Eastern Europe and China trying to organize a coalition to save the socialist party-states, only to be rebuffed by Moscow and Beijing.

To be sure, an invalid page or paragraph does not necessarily invalidate an entire work. It does indicate that the book which cannot critically utilize Vietnamese sources to tell the history of Vietnam will face a systemic issue that goes beyond any page or paragraph. Instructors will almost certainly find that Keith Taylor’s A History of the Vietnamese (2013) and Christopher Goscha’s Vietnam: A New History (2016) — each of which brought new frameworks to conceptualize Vietnamese history gleaned from decades of original research in relevant materials and archives — to be more useful resources for a general history of Vietnam.

[1] The writer noted that the texts used by students cover world history, and while they include figures like “emperor Hồng-Bàng, Trương-Trắc, Triệu-Ầu, emperor Định-tiên-Hoàng, emperor Lý-nam Đế, emperor Lê-Thái-Tổ, emperor Nguyễn-quang-Trung – we want to know not only their names, we want to know about their achievements moreover.” In “Việc nữ học,” Nữ-Giới-Chung n. 22, 19 July 1919.

[2] On the poetry, see “Thơ vịnh Bà Triều-Ầu,” and “Thơ vịnh Bà Trưng-Nhị,” Nữ-Giới-Chung n. 1, 1 February 1918;

[3] Truong Buu Lam, Patterns of Vietnamese Response to Foreign Intervention: 1858-1900 (New Haven: Yale University Southeast Asia Studies, 1967), 103n4.

[4] For example see Agathe Larcher, “La légitimation française en Indochine: Mythes et Réalités de la ‘collaboration franco-vietnamienne’ et du réformisme colonial (1905-1945)” [French Legitimation in Indochina: Myths and Realities of ‘Franco-Vietnamese Collaboration’ and Colonial Reformism], PhD Dissertation, Université Paris VII, 2000.

[5] Thomas Ahern, CIA and the House of Ngo: Covert Action in South Vietnam, 1954-63 (Center for the Study of Intelligence, 2000), 24.

[6] Quoting from Ed Miller’s study of Ngô Đình Diệm, the author describes the future president of South Vietnam as prescribing “fear is the beginning of discipline” and to employ “ruthless, fast arrests” after the Nghe-Tinh uprising. The author omits the rest of Miller’s description: the arrest of communist organizers was one part of a broader plan that saw Ngô Đình Diệm travel to villages and hear out their complaints as well as an effort to favor poor farmers in land disputes. This two-pronged approach is typical of counterinsurgency practice.

[1] Nguyễn Khắc Viện, “Writing About Vietnam,” Vietnam Courrier (August: 1976), 8-9, 27-28.

[2] The author has written elsewhere that they “took daily Vietnamese classes for a year.” Two semesters of introductory Vietnamese, or even a full calendar year, would not be sufficient to gain the proficiency needed to undertake this study. It would also fall well short of any graduate department’s PhD language qualification. H-France Review Vol. 17 (December 2017), No. 243.

[3] This information can be found, in part, in François Guillemot’s study Dai Viêt – indépendance et révolution au Viêt-Nam: l’échec de la troisième voie (1938-1955). See Letter n. 11322, 4 Sept 1945, Dossier 1305, Indochine – Nouveau Fonds, Archives nationales d’outre-mer (Aix-en-Provence); for an example of his writings see Nguyễn Khắc Viện, “Luật Rừng Xanh” [Law of the Jungle], 1 June 1945.