University of Kentucky professor shows new view of Vietnam War

By Cole Caviston
On February 25, 2014

American historians have thoroughly covered the history of the United States' involvement in the Vietnam War, but there have been few who have appraised the conflict through the perspective of the Vietnamese.

Lien-Hang T. Nguyen, a history professor at the University of Kentucky, has taken a unique approach to the conflict by focusing on North Vietnam's conduct in the war. 

On Feb. 20, Nguyen visited the Memorial Union Building and presented a lecture entitled "Spies, Allies, Murder! The New International History of the Vietnam War." The lecture drew on her book, "Hanoi's War: An International History of the War for Peace in Vietnam," and its focus on North Vietnam's important role in the war. 

What has made Nguyen's work on this subject stand out among the multitudes of Vietnam War literature is the incorporation of her own Vietnamese heritage. 

"I grew up hearing about the Vietnam War all the time, from the South Vietnamese perspective," Nguyen said. "The Vietnamese community is extremely politicized, like the Cuban-Americans, in terms of their relationship to the home country.

"There are many great books on the Vietnamese perspective of the war, but there are not as many books written by [the] Vietnamese," Nguyen said.

The youngest of nine children, Nguyen was only five months old when her family fled South Vietnam in April 1975, when the country fell to North Vietnam. 

After spending time in refugee camps, her family eventually settled in a working-class neighborhood outside of Philadelphia, where her father worked as a train welder for Amtrak and her mother worked a night shift for the postal service. 

It was as an undergraduate at the University of Pennsylvania that Nguyen first took courses about the Vietnam War. But when working to gain a doctorate at Yale in the late 1990s, her initial study was of the American Civil War. 

"I worked with John Lewis Gaddis at Yale, who was the father of Cold War Studies, "Nguyen said. "He was responsible for pushing for multi-lingual, multi-archival research in order to have a greater understanding of the Vietnam War."

Gaddis recommended that Nguyen use her Vietnamese background as an area of study for her dissertation.

Nguyen's research was helped by Vietnam's Doi Moi, or "renovation policies," in the late 1980s, a perestroika and glasnost-modeled policy of opening up Vietnam's social, political and economic systems, though only the latter has been achieved. It allowed Nguyen to gain access to some of the country's archives that contain documentation about the North's policies during the war. 

The project took 10 years to write and research, becoming, by Nguyen's own account, an "adventure all on its own." During the course of her study, Nguyen articulated seven myths about the Vietnam War that her research led her to debunk. 

One idea was that North Vietnam chose to go to war to protect the "Southern Revolution," or the Vietcong insurgency in South Vietnam, which fought against the American-backed regime of Ngo Dinh Diem in the late 1950s. Instead, the growing unpopularity of the North Vietnamese Communist party at the time led the regime to conceive an effective "tail wagging the dog" strategy to unify North Vietnam. 

"North Vietnam was having problems with land reform, state building projects and growing intellectual dissidence," Nguyen said. "The best way to wipe up widespread support was by going to war." 

A popular view of the war that Nguyen hopes will change is that North Vietnamese Ho Chi Minh and military commander General Vo Nguyen Giap were in effective control of the war effort. In reality, Nguyen argues, the grand architect of the Vietnam War was Le Duan, the General Secretary of the Communist Party from 1957 to 1986. Ho and Giap were marginalized and held symbolic roles in the party. 

"Duan lacked the charisma of Ho and Giap, and so purposely stayed behind the scenes," Nguyen said. "In his position, he elevated his own deputies to important portfolios within the party and silenced all opposition within the party, especially in a large scale purge in 1967 on the eve of the Tet Offensive." 

Another myth that Nguyen addressed was that North Vietnam was successful in winning the hearts and minds of the South Vietnamese people. She argues that North Vietnam's greatest victory was winning the sympathy of the world's people.

"North Vietnam's diplomatic efforts proved to be more effective than any of their political and military strategies in South Vietnam," Nguyen said. 

The looming shadow of the Vietnam War over American military intervention today is why Nguyen believes it is important not only to know about the Vietnamese perspective, but also to understand it.

"Because Vietnam has so many current- day ramifications and repercussions, it behooves us to understand the history, but unfortunately history is still written about in a way that takes the Vietnamese out of the picture," Nguyen said. "Without that perspective, we won't be able to understand what to do in whatever area of the world we find ourselves in." 

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