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The Prophecy: Vietnam At War

Mark Philip Bradley is Associate Professor of History at the University of Chicago. His most recent book, Vietnam at War, looks at how the Vietnamese themselves experienced the conflicts, showing how the wars for Vietnam were rooted in fundamentally conflicting visions of what an independent Vietnam should mean that in many ways remain to this day. In the excerpt below, from the introduction, Bradley begins to paint the Vietnamese perspective of the conflict.

In the early 1990 a short story by a young author, Tran Huy Quang, entitled ‘The Prophecy’ (‘Ling Nghiem’), appeared to great interest in Hanoi.  It told the tale of a young man named Hinh, the son of a mandarin, who longed to acquire the magical powers that would one day enable him to lead his countrymen to their destiny.  The destiny itself does not particularly concern Hinh, but he is intent upon leading the Vietnamese people to it.  In a dream one evening, Hinh meets a messenger from the gods, who tells him to seek out a small flower garden.  Once he reaches the garden, Hinh is told, he should walk slowly with his eyes fastened on the ground to ‘look for this’.  It will only take a moment, the messenger tells Hinh, and as a result he will ‘possess the world’.

When he awakens, Hinh finds the flower garden and begins to pace, looking downward.  Slowly a crowd gathers, first children, then the disadvantaged of Vietnamese society: unemployed workers, farmers who had left their poor rural villages to find work in the city, cyclo drivers, prostitutes, beggars, and orphans.  Watching Hinh, they ask in turn, ‘What are you looking for?’  He replies, ‘I am looking for this.’  Hopeful of turning up a bit of good luck, they join him, and soon multitudes of people are crawling around in the garden.  Hinh looks around at the crowd searching with him and believes the prophecy has been fulfilled: he possesses the world.  With that realization Hinh goes home.

To Vietnamese readers the story was immediately recognized as a parable, with Hinh representing Ho Chi Minh, the pre-eminent leader of the twentieth-century Vietnam.  The prophecy was seen as coming from a secular god, Karl Marx.  ‘This’ was the promise of a socialist future, which the author of ‘The Prophecy’ and many of his readers in Hanoi increasingly believed to be a hollow one.  For them, socialist ideals did enable Vietnamese revolutionaries to develop a mass following and establish an independent state, throwing off a century of French colonial rule.  But in the aftermath of some thirty years of war against the French and the Americans, their hopes for a more egalitarian and just society appeared to remain unfulfilled.

…In truth, there were many Vietnam wars, among them an anti-colonial war with France, a cold war turned hot with the United States, a civil war between North and South Vietnam and among southern Vietnamese, and a revolutionary war of ideas over the vision that should guide Vietnamese society into the post-colonial future.  The contest of ideas began long before 1945 and persists to the present day in yet another war, this one of memory over the legacies of the Vietnam wars and the stakes of remembering and forgetting them.

For most Vietnamese, the coming of French colonialism in the late nineteenth century raised profound questions about their very survival as a people and pointed to the need to rethink fundamentally the neo-Confucian political and social order upon which Vietnamese society has rested.  As one young Vietnamese asked in a 1907 poem:

Why is the roof over the Western universe the broad land and skies;

While we cower and confine ourselves to a cranny in our house?

Why can they run straight, leap far,

While we shrink back and cling to each other?

Why do they rule the world,

While we bow our heads as slaves?

Throughout the twentieth century, in both war and at peace, and into the twenty-first century, the Vietnamese have searched for answers to the predicaments posed by colonialism and the struggle for independence.  As they have done so, a variety of Vietnamese actors have appropriate and transformed a fluid repertoire of new modes of thinking about the future – social Darwinism, Marxist-Leninism, social progressivism, Buddhist modernism, constitutional monarchy, democratic republics, illiberal democracies, and market capitalism to name just a few – to articulate and enact visions for the post-colonial transformation of urban and rural Vietnamese society.  But the end of the Vietnam wars did not bring a final resolution to these competing visions.  When North Vietnamese tanks entered Saigon on 30 April 1975 to take the surrender of the American-backed South Vietnamese government, Vietnam was reunified as a socialist state.  The long war for independence was over.  Yet even today, as the searchers in ‘The Prophecy’ suggest, the meanings according to ‘running straight and leaping far’ remain deeply contested.  In one of many present-day paradoxes, the Vietnamese state seeks to develop a market economy as it maintains its commitment to socialism, while an increasingly heterodox Vietnamese civil society simultaneously embraces the global economy, years for the unfulfilled promises of socialist egalitarianism, and reinvents many of the spiritual and familial practices the socialist state spent the war years trying to stamp out.  Indeed, a walk today through a typical city block at the centre of Hanoi or Saigon, a block in which a refurbished Buddhist temple might be flanked by a Seven-Eleven store on one side and the local community party headquarters on the other, quickly reveals these everyday contradictions and tensions…

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