H-Diplo Roundtable XXI-25 on Making Two Vietnams: War and Youth Identities, 1965-1975

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H-Diplo Roundtable XXI-25

Olga Dror.  Making Two Vietnams: War and Youth Identities, 1965-1975.  Cambridge:  Cambridge University Press, 2018.  ISBN:  9781108470124 (hardback).

20 January 2020 | https://hdiplo.org/to/RT21-25
Roundtable Editors: Thomas Maddux and Diane Labrosse | Production Editor: George Fujii



Introduction by Tuong Vu, University of Oregon

Olga Dror is interested in the education and socialization of youths under the two opposing Vietnamese governments, the Republic of Vietnam (RVN or South Vietnam) and the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV or North Vietnam), during the most intense years of their civil war. As someone who spent half of his childhood in Saigon and the other half in Ho Chi Minh City, I deeply appreciate Making Two Vietnams for illuminating the sharp contrasts between the two systems that I grew up with and experienced first-hand.

The two Vietnams were so dissimilar that one could not help but wonder if they were both lands where Vietnamese lived. In the North, the government not only controlled cultural and educational institutions directly but also regimentally organized youth into mass organizations that were designed for mobilization. Policies there were aimed at indoctrinating and socializing children with the sole goal of producing a new generation of ideologically loyal fighters who deeply hated the enemy and who were willing to die at the call of Chairman Ho Chi Minh and his party. To get a sense of this goal, one need only read this excerpt from the statement by Minister of Education Nguyễn Văn Huyên in 1962 about the choice of authors such as Ho Chi Minh, Lê Duẩn, Karl Marx, Vladimir Lenin, Mao Zedong, and Nikolai Ostrovsky, for the school curriculum. According to Huyên, their works “fostered in children the spirit to fight with stamina and a sense of purpose, with heartfelt love for the proletarian class, with a totally optimistic faith in socialism and communism, and transmitted to them the fierce vital power of Ho Chi Minh’s generation of youth to overcome all difficulties and impediments to move forward to complete their task” (210).

In contrast, culture and education in the South enjoyed much greater autonomy from the government. The Southern government for the most part did not create political organizations for youths, nor did it control cultural and educational institutions as in the North. Most children were left to their natural development and given a normal education without much government effort to indoctrinate them about the causes of the war or the need to defend South Vietnam from the North’s conquest. As a result of government policies, children in the South were at a loss about the nature of the war and the Communist enemy. Some grew up and became supporters of the government. Many joined Communist or other anti-government groups. Most were perhaps apathetic as far as politics was concerned. If all Northern children were programmed to become Communist soldiers, Southern children were largely free to choose their own political belief when they became adults.

Focused on the education and socialization of youths, Making Two Vietnams provides rich evidence about the two opposing political visions in modern Vietnamese history, the republican and Communist visions that, for two decades, existed side by side in separate territories. The former tolerated diversity and civil freedom; the latter championed a coercive unity and homogeneity. The former rejected war and contained the seeds of a liberal democracy; the latter glorified war and martyrdom, and built on the foundation of a Stalinist-Maoist dictatorship. The conflict between the two political visions involved fundamental values, amounting to what can be called a ‘clash of civilizations.’ Despite the Communist military victory in 1975, the Communist vision would prove unsustainable, as Dror notes: “in recent decades, many features of raising younger generations that were so apparent in the defeated [Republic of Vietnam] and despised by the Communists, have very gradually appeared” (14) in contemporary Vietnam. The Communist victory turned out to be not so convincing and inevitable as it seemed in 1975.

Making Two Vietnams has broad implications for many questions about the Vietnam War. North Vietnam’s educational policy indicates that its leaders wanted to create a revolutionary society achieved through class struggle under the leadership of the Communist party. This was the ultimate purpose of the war that it relentlessly pursued at horrifying costs. In contrast, South Vietnam’s educational policy reflected the goal of self-defense against what its leaders viewed as ‘Northern aggression.’ For the most part they did not attempt to force their people to fight beyond what was absolutely needed. Southern children were protected despite an ongoing brutal war directed from Hanoi.

While scholars have long documented how the Stalinist-Maoist state of North Vietnam controlled economic enterprises and the sources of livelihood for most people, Making Two Vietnams is the first work that describes an essentially similar situation for educational institutions and cultural life more broadly.[1] This completes the picture of the Northern state as one with totalitarian ambitions and significant totalitarian achievements. This totalitarian system obviously gave the North a great advantage relative to the South in mobilizing manpower through both indoctrination and coercion and in producing ‘heroic’ soldiers, about a million of whom would sacrifice their lives in the war. However, this does not mean that the North was destined to win, Dror argues, as winning depended on foreign support as much as manpower. The North’s final campaign of the war in fact saw the use of tanks, artillery, and perhaps the world’s most advanced anti-aircraft system.

This brings up the question of Hanoi’s and Saigon’s relationship with their respective patrons. Both were heavily dependent on their patrons for military and economic aid, but there was a crucial difference in the ideological affinity each had toward its patrons. In the North, children were taught, and the whole society was made, to revere Marx, Friedrich Engels, Lenin, and to a lesser extent, Joseph Stalin and Mao. In contrast, Southern children were not taught to worship any foreign gods, and certainly not American leaders. Many Southern intellectuals were openly critical of the corrupting effects of American culture on their society after 1965. Saigon cartoonists were free to make fun of President Richard Nixon and his National Security adviser, Henry Kissinger, whereas those North Vietnamese who dared to criticize anything about China or the Soviet Union in public would soon languish in prison. Hanoi’s ideological loyalty, expressed not just in the public discourse but also in the general emphasis on solidarity in the Communist camp, perhaps contributed to its patrons’ steadfast support until the end, whereas the death of RVN President Ngo Dinh Diem in 1963 signaled the clash of South Vietnamese and American interests and the mistrust between the partners. That mistrust would never go away, contributing to the eventual U.S. withdrawal from South Vietnam and leaving it to confront the entire Communist bloc on its own.

Given how dissimilar the Northern system was from its Southern opponent, how totally the state in North Vietnam controlled its society, and how hatred, revolutionary zeal, and the glorification of war and martyrdom seeped through the whole Northern society during wartime, the postwar tragedies were foretold. With the Northern state’s victory, that hatred was directed in full force at its surrendered enemy, Southerners affiliated with the Southern state and their families. Under marching orders from Hanoi, the proletarian revolution swept throughout the South, seizing property from business owners, forcing farmers to join cooperatives, burning books and banning trade, expelling ethnic Chinese from the country, closing down independent private newspapers and publishing companies, persecuting public intellectuals and religious leaders, and establishing direct Communist Party control in schools and universities. War, this time between Communist Vietnam and its former allies, quickly resumed after a mere four years of peace. Making Two Vietnams does not address the remaking of one Vietnam but does suggest why war did not stop after Vietnam was reunified: the civil war in effect continued between Hanoi and various Southern classes from small-holding farmers to street peddlers to urban middle classes, as did a new war caused by the clash of Vietnamese revolutionary ambitions with those of their Cambodian client and Chinese patron.

All the reviewers acknowledge Dror’s contributions to scholarship. Van Nguyen-Marshall finds Dror’s work “a pioneering effort” that “represents a significant contribution to the historiography of the Vietnam War and Vietnamese history.” Wynn Gadkar-Wilcox praises Dror’s book for its “comparative methodology,” “breadth of knowledge,” and lauds Dror’s “mastery of many languages and of different social science and humanities methodologies.” Dror’s work,” he writes, “features bold but well-supported general arguments that are likely to contribute to the field by sparking a productive debate about the extent to which the DRV’s ideology promoted hatred and the RVN’s ideology anti-Communism.”

The reviewers make two main criticisms of the book. First, Nguyen-Marshall asks whether South Vietnam’s educational policy was actually devoid of state ideology, as Dror claims. She points out community schools and the various civic organizations where children would have been exposed to state propaganda. While she agrees with Dror that the RVN did not explicitly denounce Communism in school textbooks or children’s publications, she argues that “ideological messages regarding nation and politics were not absent [in the government prescribed curriculum that schools followed].” In a similar vein, Gadkar-Wilcox echoes this point by reasoning that “in the context of educational policy, making a claim to be apolitical is a political choice in itself.” He contends that “perhaps what distinguishes [North Vietnam] educational ideology from that of the [South] is not so much that the [North] inculcated youth to hate its enemies and the [South] did not, but that the ideological cultivation of young people was explicit in the [North], while in the [South] it was obscured within a liberal social and political framework.”

The second main criticism concerns Dror’s characterization of the Southern and Northern systems. Gadkar-Wilcox believes that Dror “overstates” her case that the RVN was “anti-totalitarian,” noting the significant periods during which the Saigon government “tilted toward authoritarianism.” Harish Mehta expresses skepticism about “Dror’s representation of the RVN as a state that offered freedom to its citizens.” His doubt about the lack of freedom in the RVN is based on such phenomena as “rampant corruption,” President Nguyen Van Thieu’s “election rigging,” and the U.S. concerns “over the misuse of funds.” Sophie Quinn-Judge feels that Dror’s analysis of the RVN is “clinical and distant,” failing to “convey the abnormality of life in that temporary state.” According to Quinn-Judge, the war, rather than American cultural influence, created massive disruption for Southern society and “was the only reality that mattered” for many youths there.

On the DRV, only Mehta takes issues with Dror’s depiction of the DRV as “totalitarian,” noting that many Americans who visited North Vietnam during the war “found much to praise.” Those include antiwar scholars such as Staughton Lynd, Noam Chomsky, and George Wald, and antiwar activists such as Tom Hayden and David Dellinger. Mehta also questions Dror’s statement that “the de facto agenda of the North was not nationalistic.” He believes that it reflected a mixture of nationalist and socialist goals.

By studying a critical period in modern Vietnamese history and going beyond the war to examine the Vietnamese people and their societies, Making Two Vietnams makes a major contribution to Vietnamese studies, provides compelling answers to many questions in the Vietnam War debate, and serves as a model for future scholarship.


Educated in the Soviet Union, Israel, and the United States, Olga Dror is currently an associate professor of history at Texas A&M University and the Henry Luce Fellow at the National Humanities Center (2019-2020). She has authored, translated, and co-edited five books and numerous articles. The focus of her research ranges from Vietnamese and Chinese theistic religions and European missionaries in Asia in early modern times to the study of the civilian experience during the Tet Offensive in Hue, to North and South Vietnamese youth during the Second Indochina War to political religions. Her most recent monograph, Making Two Vietnams: War and Youth Identities, 1965-1975, was published in 2018 by Cambridge University Press. Her articles have appeared in the leading journals of several fields Journal of Asian Studies, Journal of Southeast Asian Studies, Journal of Social History, Journal of Cold War Studies. Among her awards are a National Endowment for Humanities Fellowship and a Dan David International Fellowship. She is currently working on a monograph titled Ho Chi Minh’s Cult in Vietnamese Statehood.

Tuong Vu is professor of Political Science and director of Asian Studies at the University of Oregon. He has held visiting appointments at Princeton University and National University of Singapore and taught at the Naval Postgraduate School. Vu is the author or co-editor of five books, including The Republic of Vietnam, 1955-1975: Vietnamese Perspectives on Nation-Building (Cornell SEAP, forthcoming); Vietnam’s Communist Revolution: The Power and Limits of Ideology (Cambridge University Press, 2017), Paths to Development in Asia: South Korea, Vietnam, China, and Indonesia (Cambridge University Press, 2010), Dynamics of the Cold War in Asia: Ideology, Identity, and Culture (Palgrave, 2009), and Southeast Asia in Political Science: Theory, Region, and Qualitative Analysis (Stanford University Press, 2008). He has also authored numerous articles on the politics of nationalism and state-building in East and Southeast Asia. Currently he is working on a book about the historical processes of imperial and state formations in East Asia.

Wynn Gadkar-Wilcox is Professor of History and Non-Western Cultures at Western Connecticut State University.  He received his Ph.D. in Southeast Asian History from Cornell University in 2002. He is the author of Allegories of the Vietnamese Past (Yale Southeast Asia Studies, 2011), and the editor of Vietnam and the West: New Approaches (Cornell SEAP, 2010). He is currently working on a project on the transformation of Vietnamese Confucianism from 1862 to the present.

Harish C. Mehta holds a Ph.D. (McMaster University, Canada) in the history of American foreign relations and Vietnam, the twentieth-century history of China, and Christian-Muslim encounters in the Early Modern World. He is the author of three books on Cambodian politics and media, and his articles on Vietnamese diplomacy have appeared in the American journals Diplomatic History, Peace and Change, The Historian, and History Compass, and his review articles have appeared on H-Diplo. He has taught history at McMaster, the University of Toronto, and Trent University. He has twice won the Samuel Flagg Bemis research award from the Society for Historians of American Foreign Relations, and has received the Asian Print Media Write Award from the Asian Media Information and Communication Center, Singapore, and a Freedom Forum Fellowship, Washington, DC, among other awards. He is the Editor-in-Chief of The Calcutta Journal of Global Affairs.

Van Nguyen-Marshall is an Associate Professor of the Department of History at Trent University in Ontario, Canada. A specialist on Vietnamese social history, she is working on two book projects, one about associational life in the Republic of Vietnam and the other about society in wartime Vietnam. Some of her publications include, “Appeasing the Spirits along the ‘Highway of Horror’: Civic Life in Wartime South Vietnam,” War and Society 35:3 (2018): 206-222; “Student Activism in Time of War Youth in the Republic of Vietnam, 1960s–1970s,” Journal of Vietnamese Studies 10:2 (Spring 2015): 43-81; “Human Rights in Wartime Vietnam: Unique Perspectives from Duong Thu Huong’s Novel Without a Name,” in Lily Cho and Susan Henders, eds., Human Rights and the Arts: Essays on Global Asia (Lexington Books, 2014), 55-69; Van Nguyen-Marshall, Lisa B. Welch Drummond, and Danièle Bélanger, eds., The Reinvention of Distinction: Modernity and the Middle Class in Urban Vietnam, (Springer-Singapore National University Press, 2012); In Search of Moral Authority: The Discourse on Poverty, Poor Relief, and Charity in French Colonial Vietnam (Peter Lang, 2008).

Sophie Quinn-Judge retired as a full-time professor from Temple University in 2015. She is the author of Ho Chi Minh: The Missing Years (University of California, 2002) and The Third Force in the Vietnam War: The Elusive Search for Peace, 1954-1975 (I.B. Tauris, 2017). She is currently working sporadically on a translation of Le Van Hien’s two-volume diary, The Diary of a Cabinet Minister (Danang Publishing House, 1995).


Review by Wynn Gadkar-Wilcox, Western Connecticut University

Making Two Vietnams is a thoroughly researched and methodologically expansive account of the development of youth culture in the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV) and the Republic of Vietnam (RVN). It examines official educational systems and also social organizations under both regimes. Olga Dror claims that in these two states, which she conventionally labels ‘the North’ and ‘the South’ respectively, two fundamentally different youth cultures emerged. In the north, youth culture was official and state-sponsored. It was carefully managed and cultivated through crafted educational assignments and disseminated through state-run publications. It was normative and highly prescriptive, even to the point of suggesting the particular kinds of enunciation teachers should use in their lessons (197). Finally, it prepared young people to hate their enemies and be enthusiastic about fighting a protracted war to liberate the south from the American interventionists and their lackeys. In the south, Dror claims, youth culture was apolitical and not imposed from the top. Textbooks stressed social and cultural values such as nationalism and obedience to parents, rather than focusing on hating Communists or preparing young people for war. Moreover, in the south, youth culture reflected the emphasis on diversity in the society as a whole. Youth had more freedom to blaze their own path in contradiction to the norms of obedience taught in schools, and were influenced by trends in Western culture to become ‘cowboys’ or ‘hippies.’

Dror’s comparative methodology and breadth of knowledge stand out in this excellent study. Her work offers a comparison between both official and less-official efforts to shape youth culture in the DRV and RVN during the 1965-1975 period. While many new works from have revised our understanding of this period over the course of the last two decades, most of these new studies focus on either the DRV or the RVN, rather than comparing them both.[2] In addition, most of these new studies are political histories and focus on international relations. While Dror’s study reveals a great deal about the politics of the era, it is one of only a few recent studies in English to give us insight into the social and cultural history of this period.

Dror’s mastery of many languages and of different social science and humanities methodologies gives this book its impressive depth. Dror is able to make use of source material in Vietnamese, English, Chinese, French, and Russian to produce uncommon insights. For example, the section on DRV-sponsored schools in China (35-42) contains a wealth of interesting information, including the surprising insight that these schools continued through the Cultural Revolution. Her knowledge of the youth literature of the Soviet Union also gives her an excellent context from which to understand the foundations of literature in the DRV, which was often used Soviet pedagogical techniques as a model and even relied on Soviet literature in translation.

In addition to her mastery over languages, this book demonstrates that Dror has an extraordinary command over social science and humanities methods. One finds in the chapters of this book extensive statistical data on literacy and educational attainment in the DRV and the RVN, showing Dror’s ability to do quantitative social science. At the same time, she also engages in very perceptive close readings of literary texts and comments on literary criticism and philosophy in extensive analyses of such aspects of youth culture as the influence of existentialism and personalism in the RVN. From the Swiss psychoanalyst Carl Jung to the Soviet General Secretary Joseph Stalin, one finds a rich analysis in the tradition of intellectual history in this work as well.

It is hardly contentious to argue that the DRV adopted a state-sanctioned coercive education policy to prepare its young people for war. Nevertheless, the claim that they did so by emphasizing lessons that promoted, or even mandated, hatred for Americans and the RVN is likely to generate some controversy. However, Dror carefully details the evidence for this contention. Similarly, the claim that the RVN’s educational policies were not anti-Communist is likely to generate controversy. Dror’s work, in other words, features bold but well-supported general arguments that are likely to contribute to the field by sparking a productive debate about the extent to which DRV ideology promoted hatred and RVN ideology avoided anti-Communism.

Throughout her chapters on the RVN, Dror uses the word ‘apolitical’ to describe the official educational curriculum. The RVN curriculum “focused on teaching pupils how to be good people in the family, in the community, and in the country, and to introduce them to all the main social institutions and laws” (57). To bolster these claims, she argues that RVN depictions of Communism, including the depictions of the Soviet Union and the People’s Republic of China (PRC), lacked invective and were purely descriptive (57-58). Dror claims that RVN educational officials were interested in raising “non-programmed individuals” who were not ideologically brainwashed (60). This apolitical view was conjoined with an emphasis on students’ ability to choose between a “plurality of narratives” that represented a “society of diversity” (272).

It seems to me, however, that in the context of educational policy, making a claim to be apolitical is a political choice in itself. Framing a nation’s political and educational context through idealizing objective fact, and arguing that many opinions and voices should contend in a marketplace of ideas, are in fact features of classical liberalism. In the RVN as in many other places, the need of the educational system to portray itself as not promoting a political change can be read as an argument in favor of maintaining the status quo.[3]  In fact, since a common critique of Communist societies in the RVN was that they turned all social and cultural functions into political ones, the mere act of claiming an apolitical position was a de facto anti-Communist act.[4] An emphasis on diverse ideas and perspectives and on the availability of many “choices” of how or what to be in a pluralistic society can mask the actual process through which liberal institutions constrain our choices.[5] In the words of Michel de Certeau, “the discourse gives itself credibility in the name of the reality which it is supposed to represent, but this authorized appearance of the ‘real’ serves precisely to camouflage the practice which in fact determines it. Representation thus disguises the praxis that organizes it.”[6] In this sense, perhaps what distinguishes DRV educational ideology from that of the RVN is not so much that the DRV inculcated youth to hate its enemies and the RVN did not, but that the ideological cultivation of young people was explicit in the DRV, while in the RVN it was obscured within a liberal social and political framework.

Finally, Dror’s argument that the RVN was an “anti-totalitarian state in the process of building” (275) requires further qualification. Dror rightly and carefully points out that in the RVN, the possibility of expressing dissent was “incomplete” and that the society experienced only “relative openness” (274).  Even then, describing the RVN as “anti-totalitarian” (rather than “non-totalitarian,” as Dror describes the RVN elsewhere in the book) may be overstating the case. Dror does explain that the RVN never fully curtailed freedom of speech or of the press. However, if we agree with Hannah Arendt’s claim that “totalitarianism” characterizes a situation in which “the ruling party will tolerate no other parties, no opposition, and no freedom of political opinion,” then during significant periods of its existence, the RVN seems to fulfill at least two of these conditions.[7] In 1972, for example, President Nguyễn Văn Thiệu declared martial law, pushed through legislation allowing him to govern by decree, and passed a law that had the effect of severely restricting the number of political parties; in 1974, having already limited access to political decision-making by opposition parties, he pushed through a constitutional amendment to allow himself a third term.[8] Perhaps it is fair to say that there existed within the RVN a subculture that was decidedly anti-totalitarian, and even that its leaders spoke of fighting against totalitarianism, but it is important not to discount the fact that for significant periods of the RVN’s existence, its leaders tilted toward authoritarianism.

That said, Making Two Vietnams is a remarkable work. Dror has made a significant and trailblazing contribution to our understanding of the politics and practice of educating Vietnamese youth in the critical years of the Second Indochina War. Her analyses of Vietnamese schools in China and of hippie culture in the RVN break substantial new ground. One hopes that her work will spark further interest in pursuing the comparative social and cultural history of Vietnam during this critical period.



Review by Harish C. Mehta, Independent Scholar

Olga Dror’s path-breaking exploration of “youth identities” in the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV) and the Republic of Vietnam (RVN) fills a gap in the historical literature by focusing on children and young adults that to some extent have been ignored in academic studies of the Second Indochina War. The author presents several insights into educational systems in the north and south, and supports her conclusions with government data from the Vietnamese archives, as well as publications and popular literature. The author paints a complex and multilayered portrait of youth, and certainly enriches scholarly understanding.

There are a few areas in which this reviewer has reservations about the author’s overarching approach, and some of the book’s hypotheses and arguments. These are: the lack of the ‘voices’ of youth in the early chapters; the fleeting use of theorists in the narrative; the need to nuance the ambivalent identity of the National Liberation Front of South Vietnam (NLF SVN) as both non-communist and communist but not anticommunist; the repeated use of the questionable term ‘Việt Cộng’; the depiction of the DRV as “totalitarian,” and the characterization of the RVN as a state where there was much “freedom” in comparison (275); and in overemphasizing the differences between the north and south.

Ideally, a book exploring the role of education in the creation of youth identity should not lack in the voices of the young people that are its principal concern. Otherwise, it becomes a top-down imposition of narrative. The first two chapters (and a part of the third) lack the voices of youth, who are the main actors, as well as the voices of parents, teachers, and members of the NLF. The chapter, “Education Systems of the DRV and the RVN,” does well to explain the creation of education policies and their implementation, and also covers juvenile crime and correctional education. The author does not, however, present interviews with students, so the reader does not know how students reacted to the education policies, and what they felt about the system. In an interesting discussion on prostitutes, juvenile offenders, and street urchins in the RVN, the voices of these groups are again missing (63-70). The author does not tell us why, in their own words, they turned to crime and what they thought of wartime Vietnam. The chapter, “Social Organizations in the DRV and the RVN,” likewise lacks the voices of the principal actors, the adolescents and children. The narrative to this point gives primacy to decisions taken by the Communist party and the government, and explains the structure of children’s organizations, youth emulation movements, and youth shock brigades, providing an excellent insight. The young people, however, do not get to speak or air their views, and remain bystanders in their own history in the north. The same omissions are seen in the subsections on the NLF in the south and the RVN, and in the chapter, “Publication Policies and Venues in the DRV and the RVN.” The first mention of the role of a child in the north appears on page 116, but in just two lines. The author cites criticism of children’s stories by Communist party cadres and the press, but not by children themselves (132). 

Thereafter, the author does introduce the voice of children, with a poem by a child appearing on page 137. The selection presented does not offer any poems on the broad themes of education, studying, the curricula, and life at school. The missing voices could perhaps be found in other repositories such as provincial archives in Vietnam.

Dror cites three important theorists to explain the divergent approaches of the DRV and RVN to create youth identity, but she deals with them too briefly. She quotes the political theorist Benedict Anderson’s view that the vision of unity is identified with the nation and is built upon comradeship for which people are willing to die, but she deals with Anderson in six lines on page 5, and in seven lines on page 272. Dror then introduces the formulation of French Marxist philosopher Louis Althusser who, in brief, posited that states require workers to submit to the ruling ideology, and that the educational system enables the state to reproduce labor power and to create citizens in the desired mold. Dror explains this complex idea in ten lines on page 6, in four lines on page 12, and in four lines on page 271. The author then introduces French historian and theorist Michel Foucault’s idea that societies seek to create “docile bodies” who submit to the beliefs that govern their societies, and she explains this problematic idea in seven lines on page 81, and that is the only mention of Foucault.[9]

While this discussion of theorists is welcome as it imparts new dimensions and problematizes straightforward arguments, here they could have been used in greater depth instead of merely signposting them in cameo-like appearances and disappearances. Beyond the brief introductions to the three theorists, the author does not engage meaningfully with them. The theories should have been properly unpacked and related to the narrative as it unfolds.

Dror’s explanation that the NLF comprised southern Communists and Communist sympathizers who opposed the Saigon regime (8) ignores the fact that NLF Chairman Nguyễn Hữu Thọ was a non-Communist, as were several rank and file members.[10] Other scholars have provided a more nuanced image of the NLF, as a nationalist insurgency indigenous to the south, encompassing the People’s Revolutionary Party, the Democratic Party and the Radical Socialist Party. Historians have identified a broad non-Communist element within the NLF.[11] For instance, NLF organizer Trương Như Tảng was a nationalist who was part of a large group of aggrieved and idealistic young men who came from various formations and religious groups (Buddhists and Catholics, as well as the religious sects and the tribals) some of whom had faced the wrath of President Ngo Dinh Diem.[12] Tang, like others in his group, embraced the revolution to liberate the country without ever joining the Communist party, or fully embracing its policies and principles.[13] Article I of the NLF Founding Program called for the creation of “a government of all social classes, of all nationalities, of the various political parties, of all religions.” In the early years, communists were in the minority within the NLF.[14]

Dror’s usage of the label ‘Việt Cộng’ instead of People’s Liberation Armed Forces of South Vietnam (PLAF) is questionable. Many historians have employed the term, even though it originated as a pejorative description used by American forces and journalists. Dror uses Việt Cộng throughout the book and NLF only twice (8 and 92). The author explains that the term ‘Việt Cộng,’ meaning Vietnamese communist, is an abbreviation for the PLAF (8). The PLAF does not translate as Vietnamese communists, and the use of ‘Việt Cộng’ is a mischaracterization of the identity of the NLF leaders who were not enamored of Communism and were struggling against U.S. hegemony.

The author describes the DRV as a “totalitarian” state and contrasts it with the RVN which is portrayed a country that had comparatively more “freedom,” and that the two halves “represented two different possibilities of state formation for Vietnamese people, one of which, the more democratic, lost to the totalitarian” (273-275). There are two issues here. First, the author ignores the struggle of the DRV against U.S. bombardment of civilians, schools, and hospitals in its fight for liberation, while praising the RVN as a diverse society that allowed freedom. The inclusion of data on U.S. bombardment of schools and hospitals in the north (eyewitness accounts and testimonies of victims) would have enriched the study.[15]

Second, depiction of the DRV as “totalitarian” could have been tempered. Many scholars who visited the country during periods of heavy U.S. bombardment found much to praise. The Yale University historian, Staughton Lynd, and Students for a Democratic Society leader, Tom Hayden, visited Hanoi and were convinced that the Vietnamese revolutionaries sought to create a humane socialism, not a ruthless Communist dictatorship.[16] In September 1966, the American peace activist, David Dellinger, met Ho Chi Minh in Hanoi, and found him gentle and sincere.[17] Although Dellinger was a dedicated pacifist, he excused revolutionary violence in this case as necessary for the defense of Vietnam against foreign aggression. The North Vietnamese who were engaged in violent resistance to “tyranny and aggression,” he observed, “were not automatically corrupted, hardened, and desensitized by the struggle.”[18] The American linguist and historian, Noam Chomsky, visited North Vietnam in 1970 and was deeply impressed with the industriousness and resilience of the people who kept their factories and farms running despite American bombardment. He witnessed no starvation and he observed limited participatory democracy. He speculated that if the Vietnamese were unhindered by imperialist intervention, they might even develop a modern industrial society with much popular participation.[19] The Harvard University biotechnology professor, George Wald, visited the DRV in February 1972, and declared: “Vietnamese Communism is much more Vietnamese than Communist. It is highly nationalistic. A Vietnamese Communist is a patriot who has particular ideas about organizing production and distribution so as to provide for the needs of the many, rather than for the greed of the few.”[20] He came to understand the true nature of Vietnamese communism through his conversations in Saigon with anti-communists, Buddhists, and Catholics who did not “feel threatened by communism, either in South Vietnam or the north.”[21] He concluded that it was the Nguyen Van Thieu government in Saigon that constantly harassed Catholics.

At the same time, Dror could have nuanced her representations of the RVN as a state that offered “freedom” to its citizens (275). She does not mention rampant corruption in the RVN, that ruling politicians rigged elections, and that the United States was concerned over the misuse of funds. The author refers to the staging of “multi-party electoral exercises” and acknowledges that the RVN was not an ideal democracy (9), but this is an underestimation of the extent of election rigging. Thieu was able to cling to power till 1975 because he had decimated the opposition by amending the electoral law, erecting cumbersome bureaucratic hurdles that prevented opponents from running in the 1971 election, and due to American support in large measure.[22] The law enacted in June 1971 for the October election made it difficult for his opponents to run because it had a provision requiring presidential candidates to be nominated by at least 40 of the country’s 197 national assemblymen, or by at least 100 of the 554 provincial and city council members. Thieu was the only candidate in that poll. The election law had disqualified his major opponents, Nguyen Cao Ky and General Duong Van Minh. The one-person rule badly hurt his image. Thieu won 100 percent of the vote with more than 87 percent of voters casting their ballots.[23] U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger believed that the uncontested election of Thieu weakened him both in South Vietnam and the United States. Yet, the Saigon regime did not show much interest in these criticisms, believing that its own power was unchallenged. According to a special Central Intelligence Agency report: “the growing American perception of Thieu as indispensable to political stability in South Vietnam gradually reduced the pressure on the Vietnamese for progress toward authentic democracy,” and “as early as 1970, the American focus shifted to the need to ensure a Thieu victory in the 1971 elections while avoiding the appearance of an electoral process manipulated in his favour.”[24]

Dror addresses the big questions of the war, starting with the hypothesis that there were real differences between north and south (6-10). Her contention that “the de facto agenda of the North was not nationalistic” is debatable because there is much evidence of nationalism in the DRV (269). The process of nation building in the north was a blend of Communism, anti-colonialism, and nationalism, as historian Christopher Goscha points out.[25]

Dror could have clarified the theme of nationalism by alluding to the three schools of thought on what the Vietnamese revolution was about. The scholar Tuong Vu demonstrates that there are two long-standing narratives on the revolution.[26] First, many Western writers argue that the revolution since the creation of the DRV in 1945 was a nationalist revolution which was sabotaged by foreign intervention, but it was victorious when the country was reunified in 1975. A second narrative belongs to the Vietnamese Communist Party which asserts that the revolution was conducted by the Party and had undergone two stages: a ‘national democratic’ stage to secure independence and a ‘socialist stage’ to build a state founded on socialist values. The Party explains that the first stage was completed in 1954 in the north and in 1975 in the south, and that the second stage is still continuing.

Tuong Vu argues that in contrast to the above narratives, a new third perspective explains that there was not one but two revolutions in Vietnam between 1945 and 1988—nationalist and socialist, and only the latter was under the Party’s leadership. Both revolutions were defeated or abandoned: the nationalist revolution was defeated in the late 1940s, and the socialist revolution was abandoned four decades later towards the end of the 1980s as the country embraced economic liberalization. The new perspective of Tuong Vu gives greater importance to Vietnamese agency. Yet, as Vu and Goscha separately explain, unification served both nationalist and socialist goals.

Dror argues that differences between north and south were deep rooted since the sixteenth century and that unification in the nineteenth century under the Nguyen dynasty was too brief and unsuccessful (6). It must be remembered, though, that it was not the people that were different as they belonged to the same genetic, linguistic, and cultural stock, but that they were divided by domestic and foreign rulers. The divisions were, of course, artificial constructions. The effort to create a nation state in the south was, at once, an American hegemonic enterprise that was replete with contradictions as Washington oversaw a vast corrupt and dictatorial polity in Saigon, and never really made a serious effort to reform it.

The author has produced a fine study that will enrich our understanding of the construction of youth identities during war. Her inclusion of youth in Vietnam studies certainly removes lacunae in the literature.



Review by Van Nguyen-Marshall, Trent University

In this meticulously researched monograph, Olga Dror provides valuable insights into the societies of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV) and the Republic of Vietnam (RVN). While the book’s main focus is the upbringing and education of children and adolescents in both halves of Vietnam, it also sheds light on wartime mobilization and propaganda, literary and periodical publications, censorship, and social organizations.

Dror convincingly argues that the DRV’s and RVN’s policies toward children’s education and upbringing were dramatically different. In the DRV, the state tightly controlled education and child-oriented extracurricular activities, such as publications of children’s books and magazines. Through its effective control, the DRV state was able to deliver its message of hatred for the enemy and love for the DRV’s first President, Ho Chi Minh, whom children were encouraged to call ‘Uncle Ho.’ The DRV state also inculcated children and teens with the notion that it was both necessary and glorious to perform self-sacrificing acts for the sake of the nation. To this end, the state frequently organized various types of emulation campaigns, during which children could demonstrate their love for Uncle Ho.

Dror presents the RVN’s system and culture of education as a stark contrast to that of the North. Because of ideological plurality and political instability, the state in the southern half could not and did not control children’s education and upbringing to the same extent. Dror goes further to suggest that RVN school textbooks were not politicized and were, in fact, devoid of state propaganda and anti-Communist messages. Instead of messages of hatred for the North, RVN textbooks and publications emphasized the importance of filial piety, family, and Vietnamese cultural heritage. For southern educators and officials, the more pressing concern in raising children was how to counter the growing negative impacts of United States popular culture, particularly the ‘hippy’ counterculture. As a result, school textbooks and children’s publications did not discuss the war or Communism to any significant extent.

The research for this monograph is commendable. Dror uses archival material from Vietnam National Archives (II & III), but the bulk of her primary sources are wartime publications, including school textbooks and children’s periodicals and books. Tracking down these publications from both the DRV and RVN must have been a challenging task, not to mention the work involved in analyzing their contents. Dror also interviewed prominent intellectuals, writers, and publishers of children’s books and magazines. In addition, she also interviewed sixty-five people who had been children during the war, though I wish more demographic information had been offered about these informants.

While the book provides solid evidence for the differences in the DRV’s and RVN’s approaches to raising children, there are a few inconsistencies and questions with the monograph’s overarching argument regarding the applicability of Louis Althusser’s ideological state theory to the RVN’s case. Dror suggests that Althusser’s “idea about the state shaping society does not apply to the RVN. Only if the state has been able to seize total control of a society, as with the DRV in the North, can we imagine that it is able to shape society as Althusser proposes.” (271) While school in the RVN did not explicitly politicize the curricula, it was not, however, devoid of state ideology. Althusser contends that the effectiveness of schools as an ‘ideological state apparatus’ is that schools could inculcate the ruling elite’s ideology without appearing to be doing so. Notions of nationalism, citizenship, and moralism while appearing neutral and apolitical, are able to reproduce the next generation of workers for the state.[27] In fact Dror herself notes that although RVN education was not constrained by politics and propaganda, it “was still contained within systems or structure” and that schools “still followed…the government-prescribed curriculum” (138). This is an important acknowledgement, because while the RVN did not explicitly denounce communism in school textbooks or children’s publications, ideological messages regarding nation and politics were not absent. By emphasizing the importance of family and a homogenous Vietnamese cultural heritage, the state was clearly outlining what it meant to be Vietnamese. While not as forcefully emphasized as in the DRV’s case, these were clearly ideological messages.

Furthermore, the existence of community schools needs to be reconciled with Dror’s argument that RVN education was free of ideology. Established with success in 1963 in the hamlets, the community schools were sites of overt political indoctrination. As Dror states, RVN educators conceived of them as a way to introduce ideas of democracy and freedom to children: “These schools were also supposed to contribute more effectively to the counterinsurgency effort by involving both pupils and adults in village development and by isolating youths from the Việt Cộng.” (62) Because of their success, the government began building community schools in urban areas in 1969. The Ministry of Education even decreed that “all elementary schools had to become community schools” (62). This raises the question of how community schools fit into the larger southern education landscape. In other words, why was it possible and desirable for educators to openly include politics in community schools and not in the regular education system?

Finally, while the RVN school curricula might have been light on information about the war and communism, children and youth’s involvement in civic activities would have exposed them to the state’s political views and its wartime objectives. As the book details, the RVN state recruited children and teens for various organizations, such as self-defense, rural development units, Ancillary People’s Self-Defense units, and Boy Scout People Defense Force (103-106). One-third of the People’s Self-Defense Units were adolescents, and some boys as young as 12 were mobilized for the Boy Scouts People Defense Forces, whose purpose included keeping “an eye on communist underground activities.” (105) Involvement in these groups would have imparted upon children and teens to some extent the state’s view about the war and propaganda about the enemy.

As my comments and queries suggest, this is an engaging book that raises stimulating questions in an under-researched area. Indeed, this book is a pioneering effort in comparative social histories of both North and South. As such, it represents a significant contribution to the historiography of the Vietnam War and Vietnamese history. I learned a great deal from it and I thank the author for her excellent work.



Review by Sophie Quinn-Judge, Temple University, retired

The molding of youth in Vietnam’s war-torn society, officially divided in two by the 1954 Geneva Conference, is the theme of this study. The author undertakes a detailed comparison of the attitudes and discourses that shaped education in the two parts of divided Vietnam, the Communist Democratic Republic (DRV) in the north and the southern Republic of Vietnam (RVN). In 1975 the latter ceased to exist, but as Olga Dror shows, until then RVN policies on education were based on radically different premises from those in the Hanoi-controlled zone. Above the 17th parallel, youth were raised in a spirit of self-sacrifice to prepare them to defend the fatherland. The Communist Party controlled the curriculum and went so far as to censor children’s literature that they felt conveyed the wrong spirit. The greater diversity of southern society, “fractured and stratified during the French colonial period and the Japanese occupation” (7-8), led to a wide variety of political views that made it difficult to create a unified perspective on contemporary national history. Private schools, including religious and ethnic education, combined with the lack of educational opportunities in the countryside to create a mix of ideologies. Thus in 1958 the Ministry of Education opted for three broad principles to guide education: ‘humanism, nation, and liberalism.’ Education in public schools was relatively a-political, skirting discussion of the war and events after 1945.

Educated in the former Soviet Union, Olga Dror has a deep experience of Communist youth culture. So her explanation of the phases and goals of youth organization in the DRV, as developed in the 1950s-1960s, is both well documented and personal. The Communist Party’s goal of creating a collectivist, disciplined society required the formation of organizations to incorporate children from age six. In 1960 the Pioneers youth organization was divided in two, with the August movement including children from six to nine, and Pioneers covering children from nine to fifteen. After that adolescents were recruited for the Youth Labor League, which eventually became known as the ‘Ho Chi Minh Communist Youth League.’ This organization was the gateway to Communist Party membership.

By 1968, the percentage of children who had been enrolled in the August movement and the Pioneers had risen to 80-90, while the Communist Party hoped to increase this to 100 percent for the Pioneers. They believed that these children’s organizations were the best method to create “adherence to the Party’s and the government’s goals” (78). The author cites a 1971 Party decree that demonstrates the values they sought to inculcate:

“We see a lot of precious virtues that have been established in adolescents from the time of being preschoolers. The most evident features that we clearly see are burning patriotism, early entering into politics, hatred for colonialists and imperialists, love for socialism, extreme love and respect for Uncle Ho, valuing fellow citizens and friends in the South, feeling close to children and adolescents around the world, the spirit of fondness for learning, courage to serve in the struggle, industriousness in productive labor...” (78).

I found the sections on the RVN to be more interesting than those on the DRV because the author uncovers much that is surprising in overall educational policy, for example the relative lack of anti-DRV propaganda. Yet Dror’s chapters on the RVN feel somewhat clinical and distant. Based on articles in specialized journals, youth magazines, documents from the Ministry of Education, and numerous interviews, her depiction of southern youth fails to convey the abnormality of life in that temporary state. She relies on the press for discussions of youth escapism, the counterculture (hippies and rock and roll), drugs, and juvenile delinquency. The presence of large numbers of American troops after 1965 is raised as one influence on these developments, but the war itself stays in the background. Dror’s book seems to accept the view of one cultural critic (Cao Huy Khanh) Dror cites, that after 1963, “literature in the South metamorphosed into a constant, highly destructive obsession: obsession with the war and everything surrounding the war” (147). So we do not learn about the number of families with children who drifted into urban areas as the countryside was engulfed in violence, or the young hustlers known as “the dust of life” who shined shoes, peddled bread, soup, newspapers and pilfered gasoline. Private secondary schools proliferated in this chaotic situation, increasing to 500 in 1970 from fifty-five in 1955 (51). Education in South Vietnam was far from uniform or monolithic.

Her dissection of the RVN’s hippy counterculture disregards the political resistance that many more youth were actually part of. These were the student activists who joined the Buddhists to demonstrate against Diem, demonstrated against the successive military governments after the fall of Diem, joined the Buddhists in struggle against the Ky regime in Central Vietnam in 1966, and were prepared to join in demonstrations at the time of the Tet Offensive in Saigon until the date of the offensive was changed to preclude their plans. A hint of the nature of student leadership is revealed in the attitude of the Saigon High School Student Association towards a government-sponsored music festival held in 1971. Intended to appeal to youth, the festival was criticized by Le Van Nuoi, President of the Student Association, as “dirtying” the country (254). Government-sponsored youth events, whether hip or not, could not distract the youth from their goal of disposing of the Nguyễn Văn Thiệu government. These politicized youth had gone far beyond the apolitical world offered by formal education—many did time in prison and visited the zones controlled by the National Liberation Front. The artificial separation of Vietnam at the 17th parallel in 1954 did not create two hermetically sealed zones.

Dror concludes that, “On both sides, as in any society, it was recognized that children were the future. But while in the South youth were given space to consider options and possibilities for their futures, the communists saw youth as future combatants in a protracted war and spared no effort to prepare children and adolescents for their assigned tasks” (270). But we are left to ask how many of the RVN’s youth enjoyed the “space to consider options” that the author describes. For many, the war was the only reality that mattered.



Response by Olga Dror, Texas A&M University

Thousands upon thousands of books have been written on the war in Vietnam, which is called the ‘Vietnam War’ in the United States and the ‘American War’ in the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV), or North Vietnam. Most of the studies have been written by historians of the United States or of American foreign relations, which meant that most looked at the war only from the American side. Fortunately, the number of the works written by specialists in Vietnam has significantly grown and, even more fortunately, more and more of them study not only the DRV but also the Republic of Vietnam (RVN), or South Vietnam. It was mostly omitted in the historical narratives, which were primarily constructed to feature a war between Communist forces represented by the DRV and anti-Communist forces represented by the Americans. Disregarding the RVN eliminated the necessity of considering the war in Vietnam not only as part of the global Cold War, which involved the Soviet Union, China, and the United States, but also as a civil war between the people who wanted to build a socialist, and eventually a Communist, state and those who were strongly opposed to this.

Unfortunately, children and youth remained overlooked in studies of that war. The omission is especially significant when we recall that the two Vietnams fought to bequest different futures to posterity. That is why I decided to make a first step in the direction of reclaiming the young people in our understanding of the war. Moreover, I wanted to write a comparative study of the position of youth in the DRV and the RVN, and, incidentally, seems to have written the first comparative study of the two Vietnams. Given the enormity of the task, I decided to concentrate only on young people under the age of seventeen and to focus on the agendas and methods that the adults employed in raising their children since these aspects tell us a lot about the two societies. On the basis of archival sources, publications, and interviews, I explored the nature of the two societies and concluded that the tightly controlled society of North Vietnam was more able to mobilize its members and to suppress dissent. This approach seemed  to have been be better fitted to the war. In contrast, South Vietnamese society, because of its diversity and the attempt to construct an antipode to a tightly controlled Communist society, did not form a unified policy towards raising youth. Unlike the North, the South was raising its youth in a manner that was better suited to a pluralistic society in a time of peace, which never came for the RVN. My main goal was to gather and process as much information as possible on the both sides of the conflict and offer a fair consideration.

I would like to thank Thomas Maddux, Diane Labrosse, and the editors of H-Diplo for making this roundtable possible.  I thank Tuong Vu for chairing the roundtable, and all the reviewers for spending time reading and commenting on the book. I am very grateful to them, and it seems that for the most part they had a positive experience with the book, praising its choice of topic, my language skills, and my ability to acquire and interpret textual and oral sources, and my presentation of solid evidence with valuable insights from a comparative perspective. Obviously, the reviewers offer some critical comments and I would like to respond to a few of them.

Two of the four reviews, Van Nguyen-Marshall and Wynn Gadkar-Wilcox, follow a similar trajectory in identifying what they believe are theoretical flaws in the book. While I understand that Louis Althusser’s “ideological state theory” to be applicable to the DRV, where the state “has been able to seize total control of a society,” I fail to see its relevance to the RVN, where a great diversity of social, cultural, religious, political, and ideological groups and currents continued to be active throughout the war. Nguyen-Marshall argues that Althusser’s theory applies to both the DRV and the RVN; she suggests that DRV indoctrination of children to love Uncle Ho and the Party and to be ready to die for the state and to kill “Americans and puppets” is commensurate with RVN promotion of “nationalism, citizenship, and moralism.” This equates honing youth into weapons with encouraging youth to be good members of society; I do not agree that mobilizing youth to fight and kill an enemy can be equated with teaching youth to respect parents, to contribute positively to society, and to aspire toward ethical behavior. Nguyen-Marshall writes that RVN’s failure to indoctrinate its children against Communism and the DRV was also an Althusserian-style “state ideology.” This seems to be a blanket application of Althusser’s theories that does not consider the specific nature of each society. She notes that “community schools were sites of overt political indoctrination …  to introduce ideas of democracy and freedom to children.” I wonder whether this means that total ideological indoctrination and advocating “democracy and freedom” are all the same. The implication here is that the diversity of agendas in the RVN, with multiple organizations promoting a variety of religious and intellectual positions, was the same as the imposition of a single state ideology in the DRV; this suggests that enforcing a political doctrine without any option for citizens to be apolitical is no different from a state which entertains a diversity of opinions. The many sources that I used in the book make such a one-dimensional interpretation impossible. I was, and still am, surprised by the fact that many young people grew up in South Vietnam with an apolitical attitude.

Gadkar-Wilcox pushes deeper into theoretical territory by affirming that “the mere act of claiming an apolitical position was a de facto anti-Communist act”—in other words one was either a Communist or an anti-Communist; there was no other option. He is responding the evidence I present in the book that indicates a trend among some people in the RVN to avoid explicitly identifying with either side of the conflict. Wilcox claims that “making a claim to be apolitical is a political choice in itself” that reflects “classical liberalism”; he cites the RVN historian Nguyễn Phương to imply that resisting “Marxist historiography” to enable a larger field of interpretive options constituted an ideological position equal to the mono-interpretive DRV regime. He cites Slavoj Žižek and Michel de Certeau for the fashionable inside-out argument that freedom is the same as bondage, that hidden behind the façade of “freedom” and “diversity” is the coercive force by which “liberal institutions constrain our choices,” which is a more exuberant way of expressing Nguyen-Marshall’s argument. Gadkar-Wilcox cites Hannah Arendt’s definition of ‘totalitarian’ in objection to my characterization of the RVN as ‘anti-totalitarian’; he writes that “during significant periods of its [the RVN’s] existence … the ruling party will tolerate no other parties, no opposition, and no freedom of political opinion.” On the contrary, there definitely were “other parties,” “opposition,” and, relative to the DRV, “freedom of political opinion” in the RVN. His examples are all open to argument from the sources. He discusses the RVN as if it were a single thing, as if there was no trajectory of change from the First Republic through the Interregnum to the Second Republic. I think it is important to keep in mind that we are talking about a comparison between the DRV and the RVN; it is a fundamental misunderstanding to think they were essentially the same. He argues that it is more correct to identify the RVN as “non-totalitarian” rather than “anti-totalitarian.” Maybe this distinction is important in theory, but considering that we are talking about a time of war and that the RVN was fighting to prevent being absorbed into the “totalitarian” DRV, it is insufficient to characterize this as simply “non-totalitarian” when its raison d’être was to be “against totalitarianism” as a matter of survival.

Sophie Quinn-Judge confines herself to one argument, that I ignore the youth in the RVN that were mobilized by the Communist side of the conflict. In fact, I do not ignore them. I write at length about the use of Southern youth in DRV propaganda and about the extensive efforts made by the DRV in cooperation with the National Liberation Front (NLF) to establish a school system for children in territories under its control in the RVN, to write suitable textbooks and procure plausible teachers, and to address worries about competing with RVN schools. I also discuss the dilemma the DRV and the NLF had in the development of their own educational system in Vietnam on the territories controlled by the NLF—on the one hand, they wanted to extend the education to higher grades so that parents would not consider sending their children to junior high schools in the RVN; on the other, they wanted these children to join the war and not to study. Quinn-Judge writes that “politicized youth had gone far beyond the apolitical world offered by formal education.” This may be true in some cases, but the evidence I have seen raises serious questions about the agency of “politicized youth” who were mobilized to enter the military effort against the RVN. Perhaps “politicized” was often closer to indoctrination or even coercion. This is not to say that there were no young people who, despite or because of the lack of political education at schools, became strongly anti-war, and even were neither Communist nor pro-Communist. When I discuss this diversity I point out that it is actually what distinguishes South Vietnamese society from North Vietnamese society, where such open dissent was absolutely impossible. In my conversations with these non-Communist anti-war young people, I discovered that many of them fled from the South after 1975, I asked them what they thought would have happened if, in accordance with their anti-war stance, the war ended. All of them said that they did not think in the long run at that time but simply, and understandably, wanted the war to end and also wanted to exercise their right to express their opinions. Moreover, most of those who participated in the political movements were older than the youth on whom I focus in the book. Like Quinn-Judge, I would like to know more about how many were indoctrinated and how many had freedom to exercise choice, but in terms of a quantitative answer the issue remains, and I believe will remain, open.

Harish Mehta’s review presents a special case. I highly appreciate his assessment of my work as a “path-breaking exploration of ‘youth identities’” that presents “a complex and multilayered portrait of youth … certainly enriches scholarly understanding … a fine study that will enrich our understanding of the construction of youth identities during war.”

However, I have a number of serious reservations about his critical comments that are based on ideology rather than historical understanding. The most striking aspect of Mehta’s review is his reliance on the testimonies of American celebrities, anti-war activists, and non-specialists, which is a common phenomenon in writings about the war. His experts are Staughton Lynd, Tom Hayden, David Dellinger, Noam Chomsky, and George Wald. These people are his authorities on the DRV because, as prominent figures in the anti-war movement, they visited the DRV during the war; some were Communists or were sympathetic with Communists, and all were devotees of Hồ Chí Minh. They were given guided tours and saw what the DRV wanted them to see. On the basis of their testimonies, Mehta affirms that the DRV was not totalitarian despite the fact that these people had no basis or expertise on which to objectively evaluate the DRV.  He further cites Wald for the claim that Nguyễn Văn Thiệu “constantly harassed Catholics,” ignoring the fact that Thiệu was a Catholic.

American anti-war activists were certainly not alone in choosing how to see and represent reality and to support dictatorial regimes. Lion Feuchtwanger, a German-Jewish writer and one of the most important figures of the German literary scene before WWII, went to visit the Soviet Union at the end of 1936 and stayed there for several months. It was the time of the show trials that followed the ruinous economic and political reforms that took lives of millions of people. When Feuchtwanger came back, he published Moskau 1937[28] in which he highly praised life under Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin. André Gide, Henri Barbusse, Romain Rolland, Paul Eluard, Louis Aragon, and other French intellectuals were unable and/or unwilling to see the failures of the Soviet Stalinist policies and certainly contributed to the creation and maintainance of Stalin’s cult of personality and approval of the Soviet policies among intellectuals in the West.[29]

Mehta has a problem with my usage of the term “Việt Cộng” instead of People’s Liberation Armed Forces of South Vietnam (PLAF). He claims that “[m]any historians have employed the term, even though it originated as a pejorative description used by American forces and journalists.” First of all, in the majority of cases in my book this term appears when I use South Vietnamese sources that use the expression. Moreover, Mehta’s statement ignores how the term originated and how it was used in Vietnam, information that can even be located in American scholarship. The pejorative sense claimed by some historians came originally not from American forces and journalists but from Ngô Đình Diệm, the first president of the RVN (1954-1963). William Turley noted that “the term Việt Cộng, originally a contraction of Viet gian cong san (Communist Traitor to Vietnam), was a pejorative label that the Saigon government’s first premier, Ngo Dinh Diem, affixed to his opponents, Communist or not.” He continues that “[w]ith the passage of time, the term came also to be understood among supporters of Saigon as a contraction of Viet nam cong san, meaning Vietnamese Communist. Even inhabitants of villages under Communist control might use the term, though clearly not in Diem’s sense, and party propaganda twisted it into a badge of honor for people who refused to buckle under the oppression of “American imperialism and its lackeys.”[30] Thus, the usage was widespread and was not necessarily pejorative. The Americans, in turn, were hardly aware of the original meaning. Moreover, even the term ‘Việt cộng’ was in use long before Ngô Đình Diệm’s time in documents as early as 1948 and there is no indication that it originated from the term Traitors to Vietnam and not Vietnam Communists.[31]

As for the reference to the opponents as “Traitors to Vietnam," it was widely in circulation long before that time among the Communists and repeatedly used by Hồ Chí Minh himself as early as 1940, obviously without the second part “cộng sản” [communist]. It was applied to the various opponents of the Communists in various contexts.[32] Later, the pejorative rhetoric applied by Communists to their opponents developed into the ‘American puppets’ or ‘American lackeys.’ But, as I have said, in the South there is no evidence that as a widespread term it had a pejorative meaning and signified those who fought against the Saigon authorities. The term was used by many in the United States—not only the government sources but those who defended and praised the Communist regime, as for example, among many others, Noam Chomsky, on whose opinion Mehta relies, and Gareth Porter, a political scientist who worked extensively on Vietnam and Southeast Asia and who refuted the communist massacre in Hue that took place in 1968 and supported the Khmer Rouge.[33] It is also employed in the recent works on the Vietnam War.[34]

In addition, and very unfortunately, Mehta misrepresents what I write. He says: “The author explains that the term ‘Việt Cộng,’ meaning Vietnamese Communist, is an abbreviation for the PLAF (8).” Then, Mehta elaborates that “The PLAF does not translate as Vietnamese Communists, and the use of ‘Việt Cộng’ is a mischaracterization of the identity of the NLF leaders who were not enamored of Communism and were struggling against U.S. hegemony.” In fact, I did not assert that Việt Cộng is an abbreviation of the NLF or the PLAF. On page 8, to which Mehta refers, I wrote: “The military arm of the front was called the People’s Liberation Armed Forces of South Vietnam, commonly known to their enemies as Việt Cộng, an abbreviation meaning Vietnamese communists.” Moreover, on the same page I clarify that the National Liberation Front “united Southern communists and communist sympathizers in the struggle against the RVN government.” The word sympathizer here means someone who is not a member but a person who embraces some of the goals and/or means.

Thus, contrary to what Mehta claims, I do not ignore the fact that NLF Chairman Nguyễn Hữu Thọ was a non-Communist, as were several rank and file members. Nevertheless, after the war, Nguyễn Hữu Thọ became vice-president of the country and occupied other positions in the highest hierarchy, which clearly demonstrates his affinity to the Communist regime as the fate of those who disagreed with its policies was much less fortunate. Many of them were put into re-education camps, sent to the New Economic Zones, or fled the country to avoid living under the new regime.

Mehta thinks the National Liberation Front had an “ambivalent identity” that was also “anti-Communist”; he emphasizes the fellow travelers in the NLF (“in the early years, Communists were in the minority within the NLF”) and does not acknowledge that the NLF was from the start a “front organization” for the ruling party in Hanoi and completely controlled by it.[35] He describes the RVN as “an American hegemonic enterprise,” and objects to characterizing the RVN as a state where there was more freedom in comparison with the DRV. He cites corruption and election rigging in the RVN, ignoring the fact that there was also much corruption and no elections at all in the DRV. He mentions the notorious “law enacted in June 1971 for the October election” that gave Nguyễn Văn Thiệu an unfair advantage, but he fails to mention that within weeks it was ruled unconstitutional by the RVN Supreme Court and annulled; his narrative of the 1971 presidential election is simplistic and incorrect. He cites Tuong Vu and Christopher Goscha in a convoluted argument to defend the DRV’s “nationalist” credentials; Tuong Vu’s work has in fact emphasized the “internationalist” character of the DRV’s leadership.[36] Mehta thinks I “overemphasize the differences between the north and the south”; he writes that historic divisions among Vietnamese are “superficial constructions” and affirms the historic unity of all Vietnamese. This was one of the main points of DRV wartime propaganda, and it ignored centuries of Vietnamese historical experience.[37]

While Mehta affords the North the right to pursue its own goals and policies, he denies the right of the South not to live according to the rules of the North; this desire was evident not only during the war but also from the exodus of southerners across the sea after the end of the war in 1975. Indiscriminately labeling the RVN as “a vast corrupt and dictatorial polity,” despite all the progress that had been made in the South before 1975, his argument disregards the dictatorial and corrupt nature of the regime in the North, while there is plenty of evidence of this both during and after the war. Mehta mistakenly claims that I ignore the struggle of the DRV against U.S. bombardment of civilians, schools, and hospitals in its fight for liberation, while praising the RVN as a diverse society that allowed freedom. In fact, I repeatedly mention the disastrous consequences of the war on the North. Moreover, I also consider at length how youth were mobilized to fight against Americans.[38] But Mehta’s suggestion begs the question as to why his review does he not consider the disruptive, to say the least, activities of the Communist guerillas and their sympathizers, assassinating local officials and school teachers and social workers in the RVN.

Mehta makes other unsupported claims in his review, for example, that the differences between northern and southern Vietnamese were superficial: “It must be remembered, though, that it was not the people that were different as they belonged to the same genetic, linguistic, and cultural stock, but that they were divided by domestic and foreign rulers. The divisions were, of course, artificial constructions.” Given that the country was divided from the sixteenth century until the beginning of the nineteenth century under different rulers (without the foreign intervention) and that Vietnamese interacted with (or eliminated) other peoples, as for example Chams and Khmers, on different territories as the Vietnamese from the north moved south, conquering neighboring polities, and that Vietnam in the mid-nineteenth century was colonized by the French and re-divided into three different parts, how can one be so sure that the divisions were “of course” artificial? Such a thesis implies that centuries of separate development between north and south while being governed by different, often warring rulers, had no influence or effect upon the people; we know that government, society, culture, and economy developed very differently in the two Vietnamese realms during the centuries of separation.[39]

I am sure that a more nuanced and lengthy consideration of policies in South Vietnam would help to put the book in a broader context. The same can be said about a more detailed consideration of policies in the North. However, given that the focus of the book was on young people and how they were raised during the war in the North and in the South, this seemed to be well beyond of the scope of the book

I would certainly like to include more voices of the young Vietnamese from that time, although I included as much as I could given the word limit for the book (and Cambridge University Press ultimately accorded me more words than we had initially agreed upon). I chose to rely heavily on the documents because memories are exceptionally valuable but they also can have changed during the experience of lives being influenced by a variety of factors. Moreover, in this book, as I specified, I wanted to look at how adults constructed childhood and youth. It is a first step in the study of constructing childhood and youth from a comparative perspective in the two Vietnams during the war.



[1] Benoit de Treglode’s Heroes and Revolution in Vietnam (Singapore: National University of Singapore Press, 2002) focuses mostly on the political discourse but not the system of control and mobilization.

[2] See, for example, 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, A Bitter Peace: Washington, Hanoi, and the Making of the Paris Agreement (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2002); Pierre Asselin, Hanoi’s Road to the Vietnam War, 1954-1965 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2013); Pierre Journoud, De Gaulle et le Vietnam, 1945-1969 (Paris: Tallandier, 2011); K.W. Taylor (ed.), Voices from the Second Republic of South Vietnam (1967-1975) (Ithaca: Cornell SEAP, 2014).

[3] I am reminded of Peter Novick’s contention that Leopold van Ranke’s “abstention from moral judgment, rather than manifesting disinterested neutrality, was, in its context, a profoundly conservative political judgment.” Peter Novick, That Noble Dream: The Objectivity Question and the American Historical Profession (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988), 27.

[4] For example, the influential RVN historian Nguyễn Phương argued that one of the reasons why historians had to adhere to objectivity, which he defined as “saying the whole truth” was to resist Marxist historiography, which in his mind was a method which precluded the possibility of objective truth. Nguyễn Phương, Phương pháp sử học [Historical Method] (Huế: Đại Học Sự Phạm, 1964), 5.

[5] Slavoj Žižek has argued that “freedom of choice is something which actually functions only if a complex network of legal, educational, ethical, economic, and other conditions exists as the invisible thick background of the exercise of our freedom.” Slavoj Žižek, Trouble in Paradise: From the End of History to the End of Capitalism (Brooklyn: Melville House, 2017): 39.

[6] Michel de Certeau, “History: Science and Fiction,” in Heterologies: Discourse on the Other, trans. Brian Massumi (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1986), 203, Quoted in Joan W. Scott, “The Evidence of Experience,” Critical Inquiry 17:4 (Summer 1991): 777.

[7] Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1973), 419.

[8] Tran Van Son, “Testimony of a Former Representative of the Republic of Vietnam National Assembly, 1971-75,” in K.W. Taylor, ed., Voices from the Second Republic of Vietnam (1967-1975) (Ithaca: Cornell SEAP, 2014), 132-33; George Veith, Black April: The Fall of South Vietnam, 1973-75 (New York: Encounter Books, 2013), 27-28.

[9] The Spectre of Comparisons: Nationalism, Southeast Asia and the World (London: Verso, 1998); W. V. Spanos, “‘Althusser’s ‘Problematic’ in the Context of the Vietnam War: Toward a Spectral Politics,” Rethinking Marxism 10:3 (1998): 1-21; Stephen J. Ball, ed., Foucault and Education: Disciplines and Knowledge (London: Routledge, 1990); and Roger Deacon, “Michel Foucault on Education: A Preliminary Theoretical Overview,” South African Journal of Education 26:2 (2006): 177-187.

[10] Kevin Ruane, War and Revolution in Vietnam, 1930-75 (London: Routledge, 1998), 51; Wilfred Burchett, The Furtive War (New York: International Publishers, 1963); and Stanley Karnow, Vietnam: A History (New York: Penguin, 1991). 

[11] Robert S. McNamara, et al, Argument without End: In Search for Answers to the Vietnam Tragedy (New York: Public Affairs, 1999), 36-37.

[12] William J. Duiker, A Sacred War: Nationalism and Revolution in a Divided Vietnam (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1995), 132.

[13] Michael Hunt, ed., A Vietnam War Reader (London: Penguin, 2010), 17-18.

[14] Hunt, 119.

[15] See, John Duffet, ed., Against the Crime of Silence: Proceedings of the Russell International War Crimes Tribunal (New York: O’Hare, 1968). Also see, Laurent Schwartz, A Mathematician Grappling with His Century (Basel: BirkhauserVerlag, 2001).

[16] Staughton Lynd and Thomas Hayden, The Other Side (New York: The New American Library, 1966), 58.

[17] David Dellinger, From Yale to Jail: The Life Story of a Moral Dissenter (New York: Pantheon, 1993), 247-248.

[18] Revolutionary Nonviolence, Essays by Dave Dellinger (New York: Anchor, 1972), xxvi.

[19] Noam Chomsky, “A Special Supplement: In North Vietnam,” New York Review of Books 15 (13 August 1970).

[20] George Wald, To Re-possess America (Kent: Kent State University Center of Peaceful Change, 1972), 13.

[21] Wald, 14.

[22] Karnow, Vietnam: A History.

[23] Dieter Nohlen, Florian Grotz, and Christof Hartmann, Elections in Asia and the Pacific: A Data Handbook, Volume II, South East Asia, East Asia, and the South Pacific (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001), 331; and James H. Willbanks, ed., Vietnam War (Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO, 2013).

[23] Foreign Relations of the United States, 1969-1976, Volume VII, Vietnam, July 1970-January 1972, document 257 (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 2010).

[24] Thomas L. Ahern, Jr., ‘CIA and the Generals: Covert support to Military Government in South Vietnam’, CIA, Center for the Study of Intelligence, October 1998, https://nsarchive2.gwu.edu/NSAEBB/NSAEBB284/1-CIA_AND_THE_GENERALS.pdf. See also, John Prados, ‘The CIA’s Vietnam Story’, National Security Archive, https://nsarchive2.gwu.edu/NSAEBB/NSAEBB284/index.htm.

[25] Christopher Goscha, Thailand and the Southeast Asian Networks of the Vietnamese Revolution, 1885-1954 (Richmond: Curzon, 1999), 281.

[26] Tuong Vu, “Triumphs or tragedies: A new perspective on the Vietnamese revolution, Journal of Southeast Asian Studies 45:2 (2014): 236-257.

[27] Louis Althusser, Lenin and Philosophy (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1971), 156-157.

[28] Lion Feuchtwanger, Moscow, 1937 (New York: Viking, 1937).

[29] Andrew Sobanet, Generation Stalin: French Writers, the Fatherland, and the Cult of Personality (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2018).

[30] Hong Dieu, “Việt Cộng là ai? [Who Are the Việt Cộng?]” (Saigon-Gia Dinh Zone: NXB Giai-phong, March 1966) as cited in Turley, William S. The Second Indochina War: A Concise Political and Military History (New York: Rowman & Littlefield, 2008), xiv.

[31] For example, it was used in Đoàn kết newspaper, 8 September 1948, 1, and it does not seem to have been a new term at the time.

[32] For example, among many others, Bình Sơn (Hồ Chí Minh), “Mắt cá giả ngọc trai,” Cứu vọng nhật báo (published in China), 5 December 1940, published in Hồ Chí Minh toàn tập (Hanoi: Nxb chính trị quốc gia, 2000), 181-182; Hồ Chi Minh, “Cách tổ chức Ủy ban nhân dân,” Cứu quốc, 11 September 1945, or brochure Kháng  chiên trường kỳ gian kổ nhất đính thắng lợi  (Phòng chính trị Liên khu 3, 1952), 10.

[33] Noam Chomsky, American Power and the New Mandarins (New York: Pantheon, 1969), 38-39 and passim (sometimes Chomsky uses the sources that have the term Việt Cộng incorporated, other times he uses it in his own narrative). Gareth Porter, “Iraq is not Vietnam—it is far worse,” The Center for War, Peace and the News Media, 1 November 2004 https://www.bu.edu/globalbeat/syndicate/porter110104.html; Gareth Porter, “My Lai Probe Hid Policy that Led to Massacre,” 16 March 2008, https://original.antiwar.com/porter/2008/03/16/my-lai-probe-hid-policy-that-led-to-massacre/.

[34] For example, in Lien-Hang Nguyen’s Hanoi’s War: An International History of the War for Peace in Vietnam (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2012), 169, 172, 176.

[35] Pierre Asselin, Vietnam’s American War: A History (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2018), 101-103.

[36] Tuong Vu, Vietnam’s Communist Revolution. The Power and Limits of Ideology (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2017), 20-23, 169-177, 209, 289-291.

[37] Keith W. Taylor, A History of the Vietnamese (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2013), chapters 6-8.

[38] See, for example, 22, 85, 91, 115, and passim throughout the book on mobilization.

[39] Li Tana, Nguyen Cochinchina: Southern Vietnam in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries (Ithaca: Cornell Southeast Asia Publications, 1998). Christoforo Borri and Samuel Baron, Views of Seventeenth-Century Vietnam: Christoforo Borri on Cochinchina and Samuel Baron on Tonkin (Ithaca: Cornell Southeast Asia Publications, 2006).

Categories: Roundtable, H-DiploPub
Keywords: Vietnam, identity