H-Diplo Article Review 621 on “Provoking America: Le Duan and the Origins of the Vietnam War.” Journal of Cold War Studies 17:4

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H-Diplo Article Review No. 621


Published on 17 June 2016

Article Review Editors:  Thomas Maddux and Diane Labrosse
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Commissioned for H-Diplo by Thomas Maddux

Zachary Shore.  “Provoking America: Le Duan and the Origins of the Vietnam War.”  Journal of Cold War Studies 17:4 (Fall 2015):  86-108.  DOI:  10.1162/JCWS_a_00598.  http://dx.doi.org/10.1162/JCWS_a_00598

URL:      http://tiny.cc/AR620

Review by Sean Fear, Cornell University

Who really was Lê Duẩn? A central if still relatively obscure architect of the Vietnam War, the long-time General Secretary of the Vietnamese Communist Party shunned the spotlight, preferring to pull strings from behind the scenes. Overshadowed by the more celebrated President Hồ Chí Minh, whose charismatic persona was promoted partly to obscure the Party’s inner workings, Lê Duẩn was for decades the primus inter pares behind Hồ’s more symbolic crown. For a new generation of Vietnamese-language proficient historians, analyzing the secretive leader’s critical if underappreciated contributions is vital to augmenting American-centric Vietnam War scholarship through insights gleaned from neglected Vietnamese perspectives.[1]   

Zachary Shore’s “Provoking America: Le Duan and the Origins of the Vietnam War” is the latest effort to shed light on North Vietnam’s enigmatic executive. Shore focuses on a single turning point in the conflict, when Lê Duẩn condoned attacks against United States forces following the August 1964 Gulf of Tonkin incident, providing President Lyndon Johnson with ample pretext to instigate a dramatic escalation of the war. Within a year, the first 85,000 American troops had been dispatched to the battlefields. Shore identifies two core questions relating to North Vietnam’s provocation of its vastly stronger rival, a decision which, along with German leader Adolf Hitler’s occupation of the Rhineland or Japan’s assault on Pearl Harbor, “makes no sense at first glance” (86). First, Shore inquires, “how well did Hanoi understand its U.S. enemy?” (87). And second, if indeed Lê Duẩn and his colleagues were eager to avoid confronting the United States directly, why did they permit attacks on U.S. troops at Biên Hòa, Saigon’s Brinks Hotel, and the Pleiku airbase, all but ensuring massive American retaliation? Were they hoping to warn the United States against intervening more forcefully? Had they badly misread their adversary’s resolve? Or were the assaults perpetrated by rogue southern Communists, in defiance of northern strategic restraint? 

Shore proceeds with a methodical dissection of Lê Duẩn’s possible intentions and objectives. First, assessing a series of North Vietnamese Politburo directives, he rules out the notion that Lê Duẩn was unprepared for the forceful American response, citing combat readiness instructions issued after Tonkin which “suggest that Hanoi’s leadership had come to see full-scale war with the United States as unavoidable” (90). Subsequent communist operations, Shore concludes, could therefore hardly have been intended to serve as a deterrent. Equally unlikely, he continues, is what he dubs the “lost control hypothesis,” whereby the attacks against U.S. forces resulted from poor communications with the frontlines, or from Hanoi’s inability to curb overeager southern cadres (95). After all, Lê Duẩn loyalist Nguyễn Chí Thanh commanded the southern theatre, and though Lê Duẩn may not have personally ordered the Pleiku strikes, they were consistent with his overall terms of engagement, and he was well-positioned to curb such activities had he so desired. Finally, Shore dismisses the “internal politics hypothesis,” which posits that Lê Duẩn sought to provoke the United States as a means of consolidating his grasp on the Party. Well-established as General Secretary, Shore notes, Lê Duẩn already enjoyed the support of a host of influential officials in the Party over which he had presided since 1960 (96).[2]

How then to account for North Vietnam’s counterintuitive assertiveness after the Gulf of Tonkin encounters? Shore makes the case for what he calls the “inevitable benefits hypothesis” (96). With Lê Duẩn already convinced that American escalation was inescapable, Hanoi’s best course of action was to seize the initiative by striking first. This, Shore speculates, helped Lê Duẩn pursue a number of objectives. Landing the first blow in the forthcoming struggle could boost southern soldiers’ morale by underscoring the Party’s resolve, and by demonstrating that, although formidable, American troops were also far from invincible. A proactive approach might also enhance the stature and prestige of the Party among uncommitted citizens, bolstering its credibility as a guardian against the mounting burdens of American escalation. And even more significant were the potential effects on American public opinion should Hanoi succeed in its efforts to maximize American casualties. 

Here, Shore expounds on the United States’ ‘escalation paradox’ in Vietnam, a critical element of North Vietnamese strategic calculations. Although confronting a much-stronger military rival was an ostensibly reckless proposition, the scope of Hanoi’s strategic vision, Shore argues, extended far beyond the battlefield itself. An acute observer of both international diplomatic developments and American domestic affairs, Lê Duẩn reasoned that by enticing the United States to overcommit in Vietnam, Hanoi could hasten the erosion of America’s global defense posture. A 1968 Party report, for instance, somewhat self-servingly attributes American reluctance to intervene in Czechoslovakia and the Middle East to North Vietnam’s ensnaring of U.S. forces in Southeast Asia (107). 

Moreover, American escalation provided the Vietnamese communists with ever more opportunities to inflict casualties, weakening Washington’s political resolve as what Lê Duẩn called the “American people’s movement opposed to the U.S.’s dirty war” intensified (101). To that end, Lê Duẩn set specific annual “kill quotas” in order to accelerate American war-weariness (101). Shore digresses somewhat by describing a critique of a recent study on American war crimes, in effect conflating communist targeting of enemy combatants with alleged systematic U.S. atrocities against civilians, but he mines the North Vietnamese documentary record effectively to illuminate Lê Duẩn’s strategic vision.[3] A 1965 speech reveals the Communist leader shrewdly anticipating the paradoxical waning of the United States’ position even as it redoubled its presence: “the deeper they involve themselves in this war of aggression in the southern half of our country, the deeper they sink into a quagmire (103)” Much as Lê Duẩn had intended, the United States found itself lured into an asymmetrical conflict designed to be “just like punching water – when you pull your fist out, the water flows right back in” (103). A master of what Shore dubs “strategic empathy” – “the ability to discern an enemy’s underlying drivers and constraints” – Lê Duẩn prevailed through a sophisticated understanding of his adversary’s weaknesses, which he skillfully if ruthlessly exploited (88).

One of the lasting challenges of Vietnam War research has been limited access to official Vietnamese primary sources, particularly on matters relating to Communist North Vietnam. In this light, and given that Shore’s previous publications have examined diplomatic strategy in general rather than Vietnam in particular, his efforts to provide a close reading of original Vietnamese-language documents are welcome indeed. He makes especially effective use of Văn kin Đng [Party Documents], a fifty-four volume series of documents released between 1998 and 2007 by the Vietnamese Communist Party.[4] 

But if a rigorous and methodical analysis of Lê Duẩn’s letters and speeches is one of the paper’s many assets, its intensive focus on a narrow time-frame after the Gulf of Tonkin confrontation somewhat obscures the broader trajectory of Lê Duẩn’s evolving strategic thinking. After all, by 1964, Lê Duẩn had championed aggressive intervention in the south for almost a decade. And as scholars like Pierre Asselin have demonstrated, the decision to expand Hanoi’s war had already come the previous year, after bitter intra-Party quarreling concluded with Lê Duẩn and his allies cementing their control during the Party Central Committee’s Ninth Plenum. Capitalizing on the momentum, Lê Duẩn called for the Plenum to endorse “an offensive strategy to smash one by one the war policies of imperialism headed by the United States.” A private addendum to the Party’s subsequent Ninth Resolution clarified that this should consist of targeting “main forces” in order to “attain its highest mission, which is to destroy the enemy’s forces.”[5] In this context, Communist retaliation after Tonkin appears to have been more the continuation of an already well-established policy than the moment when the die was cast. Shore’s concise analysis undoubtedly sheds light on an important moment during the Vietnam War, though attention to the origins and ascent of Lê Duẩn’s ideas would provide a more complete evaluation of how North Vietnamese strategy developed.

Finally, while Shore’s method of systematically assessing each possible interpretation of Lê Duẩn’s motives is comprehensive and cogent, the impression it imparts of Lê Duẩn is that of a detached, rational pragmatist rather than an impulsive, if not reckless, gambler. Though Shore convincingly outlines Lê Duẩn’s perceptive awareness of American constraints, Washington was hardly Hanoi’s sole adversary. And when it came to his southern counterpart, Le Duan’s strategic empathy proved decidedly wanting. In 1968, convinced that urban South Vietnamese would rise up to support the Communist cause, the General Secretary once again sidelined more cautious colleagues to launch the Tet Offensive. But despite political dividends in the United States, the operation was a military disaster, with some 50,000 communist casualties tipping the balance of power in the rural south. Rather than join the rebels, South Vietnam’s factionalized city-dwellers instead united, albeit fleetingly, behind the Nguyễn Văn Thiệu military regime. Unmoved by the carnage, Lê Duẩn continued to defy the Napoleonic maxim, ‘never reinforce failure,’ with predictably disastrous results, launching costly ‘mini-Tet’ attacks well into 1969. Such efforts served only to further antagonize uncommitted southerners, thin already-depleted communist ranks, and exacerbate regional tensions within the communist movement. Four years later, with most U.S. troops now withdrawn, a second nationwide offensive was again stalled by the South Vietnamese military, assisted by American auxiliary forces.  Although an astute observer of American and global affairs, Lê Duẩn benefitted from luck as much as strategic empathy. And were it not for the chronic unpopularity and corruption of successive South Vietnamese governments, which was an equally critical factor in turning American public opinion against the war, it is debatable to what extent his gambles might have paid off.

On the whole, Shore’s profitable use of Vietnamese-language sources and meticulous analysis of Lê Duẩn’s strategic calculations provides valuable insight into one of the Vietnam War’s most important but elusive personalities. And with Lê Duẩn’s American counterparts professing to have badly misunderstood their Vietnamese adversaries, Shore’s contention that, whatever his flaws, Lê Duẩn bested his enemies by appreciating and exploiting their constraints, is resonant indeed.[6]

Sean Fear is a Ph.D. Candidate in History at Cornell University. His research interests include the global Cold War, United States foreign relations, and modern Vietnamese history. His dissertation, Republican Saigon’s Clash of Constituents: Domestic Politics and Civil Society in US-South Vietnamese Relations, 1967-1971, examines the impact of domestic politics on U.S.-South Vietnamese relations during South Vietnam’s Second Republic (1967-1975).

© 2016 The Authors

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[1] Examples include Lien-Hang T. Nguyen, Hanoi’s War: An International History of the War for Peace in Vietnam (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press): 2012; Pierre Asselin, Hanoi’s Road to the Vietnam War, 1954-1965 (Berkeley: University of California Press): 2013.

[2] Shore implicitly sides with Pierre Asselin, who dates Lê Duẩn’s “supreme authority over Party decision-making” to 1963. Asselin, Hanoi’s Road to the Vietnam War, 173 Other scholars, including Lien-Hang T. Nguyen and Sophie Quinn-Judge, have argued that intra-Party rivalries continued to impact Hanoi’s strategies during the buildup to the 1968 Tet Offensive. Lien-Hang T. Nguyen, “The War Politburo: North Vietnam’s Diplomatic and Political Road to the Tet Offensive,” Journal of Vietnamese Studies, 1:1-2 (February-August 2006); Sophie Quinn-Judge, “The Ideological Debate in the DRV and the Significance of the Anti-Party Affair, 1967-68.” Cold War History, 5:4 (November 2005).  

[3] See Nick Turse, Kill Anything That Moves: The Real American War in Vietnam (New York: Metropolitan Books/Henry Holt and Co.): 2013; Gary Krulik and Peter Zinoman, “Misrepresenting Atrocities: Kill Anything That Moves and the Continuing Distortions of the War in Vietnam,” Cross-Currents 12 (September 2014).

[4] For more on Văn Kiện Đảng see the discussion forum in Journal of Vietnamese Studies 5:2 (Summer 2010).

[5] Asselin, Hanoi’s Road to the Vietnam War, 164, 166.

[6] See for example Robert McNamara, In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam (New York: Times Books, 1995): 33.

[Correction]- The link for the PDF version of this article review is http://tiny.cc/AR621 (and not AR620).

I have read Zachary Shore’s fine article, and Sean Fear’s equally good review of it. Since I am researching this period myself for a book on the war, I find myself much in agreement with the thesis. Yet there are several issues that might be amplified or added that I think will broaden our understanding of this period. My own research is more interested in understanding the American side, but it obviously cannot be done in isolation. 

First, Fear is correct in pointing out that the developments that occurred and included in the article were slightly time-bound, with a concentration on what happened following the August 1964 Gulf incidents. A very important event that Shore deals with, but Fear fails to mention in his review, is the plan (which was foiled) to assassinate Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara on a visit to Vietnam in March 1964. Shore mentions the event but does not, in my view, follow through on what this could mean. It is worth asking: exactly how did the communists think this act, if successful, would affect US policy? If they were really trying desperately to avoid a wider war with the Americans, as they were telling the Soviets, for example, how would this further that goal? It certainly does not appear to display “strategic empathy” of the kind Shore posits. To me this appears as truly reckless risk-taking, and even perhaps irrational behavior, if they wanted to keep the US out of the direct fighting.

This brings up another question and possible explanation for Duan's behavior: what if the North was trying to get the US to react in order to get further support from the USSR and PRC? This may not be as far-fetched as it seems. Americans and others routinely made such charges against their own client states such as South Korea and Taiwan, and controlled the military aid spigot accordingly.

As both authors note, citing Asselin and others, the decision to go for a communist military victory had been made in 1963. I have found circumstantial evidence that the decision had been made, at least for an escalation, in May-June 1963, which correlates with the onset of the “Buddhist Crisis” in the latter month and the appearance of a whole new generation of much more powerful Chinese-made weapons in the South the following month, July 1963. These weapons began arriving following a formal visit to Hanoi by Chinese leader Liu Shaoqi (Liu Shao-chi) in April-May 1963. In its post-Diem evaluation of the situation in South Vietnam, US intelligence discovered that the military situation in the countryside began a serious setback due to a communist offensive. The insurgents may have outfought the government troops in this period largely because they outgunned them. (The Southern soldiers did not receive M-16s for the most part until during the Tet Offensive of 1968.)

In any event, by December 1963, following Diem’s overthrow, the decision to escalate was finalized. It is also worth noting that the Chinese, newly militant and looking to discredit “peaceful coexistence,” [See Niu Jin, “1962: The Eve of the Left Turn in China’s Foreign Policy” (Washington: CWIHP, 2011), Working Paper 48 for an analysis that emphasizes domestic and external causation for China’s radicalization] were promising the Vietnamese they would give them any support they requested. Liu Shaoqi [Liu Shao-chi] did the same once again after the beginning of the “Rolling Thunder” bombing program:

7. LIU SHAOQI AND LE DUAN Beijing, (8 April 1965) Le Duan: We want some volunteer pilots, volunteers (sic) soldiers…and other volunteers, including road and bridge engineering units. Liu Shaoqi: It is our policy that we will do our best to support you. We will offer whatever you are in need of and we are in a position to offer…If you do not invite us, we will not come; and if you invite one unit of our troops, we will send that unit to you. The initiative will be completely yours. Le Duan: We want the Chinese volunteer pilots to play a role in four respects: (1) to restrict American bombing to areas south of the 20th or 19th parallels; (2) to defend the safety of Hanoi; (3) to defend several main transportation lines; and (4) to raise the morale of the Vietnamese people. [Odd Arne Westad, et. al., eds., “77 Conversations Between Chinese and Foreign Leaders on the Wars in Indochina, 1964-1975,” (Washington: CWIHP, 1998), Working Paper 22, p. 83.]

The Chinese ended up reneging on the pilots, but eventually sent a total of some 320,000 road and bridge engineering troops, and some antiaircraft units that actively participated in the fighting. But it seems that during 1963-65 the Vietnamese expectations of aid from the Chinese were running high. It is also interesting to note that the Vietnamese wanted Chinese pilots and aircraft to raise the morale of their public. Improvement in morale in the South was a major reason for “Rolling Thunder.”

Nor was China the only possible target of this lobbying effort. Even before Khrushchev was overthrown in October 1964, the USSR began supplying Vietnam with military aid in the immediate aftermath of the Tonkin incidents, responding to a specific request from the Vietnamese. In the face of charges from the North Koreans that the Soviets had "betrayed" Vietnam by not responding to the Gulf crisis, Kosygin told North Korea's Deputy Premier, Kim Il in November 1964:

The Korean leaders once again turned out to be ill-informed, for instance, they did not know that right after the Tonkin provocation, the leaders of the Soviet state, having received a request from the government of the DRV, paid particular attention to the situation in Vietnam, and resolved that efficient modern arms should be urgently provided to the Vietnamese comrades as aid. As a consequence of this decision, an adequate quantity of various military equipment was sent to Vietnam. . . . To his knowledge, Comrade Kosygin said, the airborne units had already arrived in Vietnam, while the trains transporting other military equipment were on their way. Then he enumerated everything that had been sent to Vietnam in recent weeks. After that, Comrade Kosygin said that he was sorry to see that the Korean comrades, ill-informed as they were, raised the issue of distrusting the Soviet Union for no reason. [Quoted in Balázs Szalontai, "In the Shadow of Vietnam: A New Look at North Korea’s Militant Strategy, 1962–1970," Journal of Cold War Studies, Vol. 14, No. 4, (Fall 2012), pp. 130-131.]

The spigot may have been turned on further following Khrushchev's overthrow, but this statement suggests the decision to aid had already been made. Nor was it a pro forma commitment. North Korean leader Kim Il-sung told a visiting group of Cuban "journalists" in July 1965:

...he [i.e., Kim Il-sung] had asked a Vietnamese delegation visiting Korea whether the assistance the DRV received from the Soviet Union and the other European socialist countries was sufficient or not. The Vietnamese replied that this assistance was actually more than the amount they had asked for. Kim Il Sung added that he also thought that the Soviet Union gave sufficient support to Vietnam. [Quoted in ibid., p. 131]

The evidence is too weak to make an empirical claim, but perhaps the possibility of gaining support from China and the USSR might explain some of the aggressiveness on the part of the North Vietnamese in 1963-65. If so, it certainly worked after the Gulf crisis. But the provocations continued even after the aid began arriving.

This brings me to another point: the number of incidents aimed specifically at Americans in South Vietnam, including non-military targets. Most accounts tend to mention the incidents from the diplomatic archives, but it is important to realize that there was a string of incidents that began well before the August, 1964 Gulf incidents, or the attack on Pleiku in early 1965. An Air Force report from 1967 listed some of the major ones:

  • February 9, 1964: Two Americans are killed and 41 wounded, including four women and five children, when a communist bomb is set off in a sports stadium during a softball game. A second portion of the bomb fails to explode. Officials estimate that if it had, fifty persons would have died.
  • February 16, 1964: Three Americans are killed and 32 injured, most of them U.S. civilian dependents, when terrorists bomb the Kinh Do movie theater in Saigon.
  • March, 1964: Plot foiled against McNamara
  • May 1, 1964: a ferry is sunk and the next day 8 Americans are injured in a grenade attack at the site as they worked to clean up the debris. 
  • Contingency operational planning for bombing NVN begins in June, 1964, primarily because of the downing of a US reconnaissance airplane shot down in Laos. The plane was monitoring Northern infiltration into South Vietnam through Eastern Laos in violation of the 1962 Geneva agreement on Laotian neutrality.
  • August 2 & 4, 1964: Gulf of Tonkin incidents. 
  • Shore covers 8/64-2/65 well in his article (Brinks Hotel, etc.), with one exception. Though orthodox analysts such as the late George McT. Kahin always claimed that regular Northern troops (PAVN) did not arrive in the South until July, 1965, that is, after “Rolling Thunder” had begun, and in reaction to it, recently released US intelligence histories show that PAVN plans for infiltration were first detected in September, 1964, and the first units arrived in December, 1964, well before "Rolling Thunder" began. After the war, it was disclosed that battle-tested PAVN units were removed from Laos and put into training for fighting the war in the South as early as March, 1964. American intelligence discovered this later from captured insurgents from the North. The presence of PAVN soldiers in the South was a major factor in President Johnson’s decision-making. It does not appear in earlier sources, e.g., the “Pentagon Papers,” apparently because of the need to protect the signals intelligence sources that discovered them.
  • February 6, 1965: Radio Liberation announces that the communists have shot two American prisoners of war as reprisals against the Vietnamese government, which had sentenced two insurgents to death.
  • Feb 7., 1965: Pleiku and “Flaming Dart” retaliation air raids
  • Feb 10, 1965: 23 Americans killed in Qui Nhon attack on housing billet
  • March 2, 1965: “Rolling Thunder” begins.
  • March 20, 1965: - A plot to blow up the US Embassy in Saigon is foiled.
  • March 27 1965: US Navy LST blown up in Da Nang
  • Mar 30, 1965: US Embassy Saigon bombing – two Americans killed, 10 “gravely wounded,” 20 more wounded, a total of more than 160 Americans and Vietnamese were seriously wounded or killed in the car blast, ignited at the outside gate with 250 lbs. of explosive in a car bomb.

From the American side, it was a string of attacks specifically against Americans, including civilians, infiltration of regular troops from the North, and a general atmosphere of escalation that determined their views.

As noted, it is not yet clear whether Le Duan wanted a war to gain external support or not, but if he had wanted to goad the Americans into escalation (especially if the assassination of McNamara had succeeded,) he couldn’t have done a better job of it.


Doug Macdonald
Colgate University, Emeritus