Why did North Vietnam embrace Communism?

The evolution of Vietnamese culture over the last 4 millennia had facilitated adoption of the concept of nation-state. The notion of a sovereign nation with its own identity had taken shape through these years. Hence, Vietnamese history is “the history of the constitution of the nation, with its clearly delineated territory, its own language, its specific culture, which needed to be protected against all external aggressions” (Nguyen 123). Although such traits do not lead to Communism as the form of government, it nevertheless leaves the field open for scientific political ideas to be applied. And Communism is one such ideology.

Although invaded and occupied through the major part of its recent history, the Vietnamese managed to retain an identity that is uniquely theirs. The common threads that made this possible were the internal and foreign wars, coping with hostile natural elements, etc. During the onset of the 20th century, the country was much exploited and war ravaged. However, it was united and resolute. This proved the perfect climate for the Communist revolution that was to follow. And the conception by many historians that Vietnamese people did not possess a uniform social structure in order to form a national consciousness does not hold up.

After being subject to foreign invaders from time immemorial, the peasant assumed the role of the defender of his land. This elevated him to a warrior. If we look at precedents for Communist revolutions – Russia and China, we can see the undeniable part the populous peasantry played. They, in short, act as the backbone of such revolutions.

“The revolutionary tradition, finding its expression through the continual resurgence of agrarian revolts, has taken root deeply in the very structure of Vietnamese society, as the hardships of the peasants became increasingly acute while they were increasingly deprived of their rice fields. During their fights, the peasants have acquired the knowledge of revolutionary methods, of what should be done in a revolutionary situation, and they have handed down this knowledge from generation to generation. The same process of peasant revolts has repeated itself throughout the centuries, under different forms and different historical circumstances.”(Nguyen 127)

Adding to such a political climate was China’s never ending hostility towards Vietnam. It is in the policy of every traditional ruler to resist the invaders indefatigably. This antagonism helped form a sense of community among the struggling peasants, who were later to turn revolutionary. That such a concept could persist even after 10 centuries of Chinese occupation is quite remarkable indeed.

A comprehensive research project carried out by the Institute of Archaeology describes Vietnamese history as “a brilliant civilization in the basin of the Red River, which developed unceasingly during the whole Bronze Age and climaxed in the Dong-son culture in the last millennium BC” (Kelley 69). This evidence of an endogenous culture helps explain the originality of the Vietnamese culture and their resistance to foreign invasions.

The early decades of the twentieth century were the most tumultuous in the political history of Vietnam. This was a period of introspection and transition. The exploitative nature of the imperial economic systems “gave birth to new social forces, while aggravating the situation of the rural masses.” (Kelley 70) This combination of extreme poverty and the tradition of resistant peasantry set forth the endeavors that addressed these imbalances.

The decisive moment of the national movement came with the founding of the communist party in February 1930. The party was based on sound scientific theory that had the potential to guide the popular masses in their struggle for liberation in a systematic and organized manner. The communist party would eventually seize power fifteen years after its inception. The party’s central committee brought forward “Theses on Vietnamese Culture” in the year 1943. This policy statement called for “a new culture possessing exclusively nationalistic, scientific, and mass traits” (Nguyen 128). All subsequent activities were measured by the magnitude to which such qualities were stimulated. Thus, the foundations were laid for the impending socialist revolution. The document contained the intellectual and cultural policy of the party.

“Vietnamese communism was therefore a product both of the development of the social movement of the workers and the peasants, and of the extension of the national movement. In contrast with the bourgeois parties confined in their powerlessness and their contradictions, the communist movement was the only one to understand that the independence of the country was inseparable from a social and political solution to the misery of the peasant and laboring masses, and to know how to mobilize the vital forces of the nation into the service of the movement of national liberation by linking clearly the land problem to the national question.” (Nguyen 129)

Another critical event in the Vietnamese communist movement was the Geneva Conference of 1954, which led to the Peace Accords. Accordingly, Vietnam was divided into two, north and south of the 17th parallel. China and Russia accepted this compromise, because they were jolted by the Korean War and did not want another confrontation with the United States so soon. Ho Chi Minh, though suspicious of American intentions, signed the accord. Meanwhile, Minh’s popularity was growing across the divide. It was becoming clear to the United States that if an election was conducted, Ho Chi Minh would easily win and thereby establish Communism. For this reason the US refused to reunify the country and created the Republic of South Vietnam, with Ngo Dinh Diem as its head. In fact, Ngo Dinh Diem2 was selected for no other reason than that he was anti-communist.

The United States’ intervention further deepened when it started providing aid to South Vietnam. Diem made unsuported claims that his government was attacked by the Communists and compelled the United States to intervene3. This further escalated the combat operations from both sides. The atrocities of the Diem regime coincided with the ascendancy of the communist movement headed by Ho Chi Minh (Ruane 17).

The Vietnamese Communist movement and the enigmatic leader Ho Chi Minh were intricately linked. Born in a small village Kim Lien in Nghe An Province in May 1890, Ho was the son of a poor Scholar from a peasant background. Minh’s early education was about the classical Confucian tradition. When he was in his late teens, he worked as a teacher and then went to Saigon to take a course in navigation. On successful completion, he joined a French ship crew as a kitchen assistant. The ship traveled across continents and this gave Minh a broad perspective of the world. In 1919, he tried unsuccessfully to meet President Woodrow Wilson at the Versailles Peace Conference, so that he could present a proposal. During this period, Minh was particularly impressed by Marxist-Leninist literature and this led to his becoming a member of the French Communist Party. He also read, wrote, and spoke widely on the difficulties ailing Indochina. In 1925, he formed the Revolutionary Youth League in Guangzhou. Here, he was involved in training Vietnamese cadres in revolutionary techniques. He incorporated the ideas of such leaders as Marx, Lenin, Sun Yat-Sen and Gandhi in his instructions. He published Duong Cach Menh (The Revolutionary Path) in 1926, which is regarded by many as a masterpiece on revolutionary methods. Later on, he also formed the Communist Youth League (Thanh Nien Cong San Doan). The league’s main activity was the printing and distribution of the journal Thanh Nien. The publication brought “communist theory into the Vietnamese independence movement” (Brigham). Ho Chi Minh had to flee to Moscow after the 1927 coup by Chiang Kai-shek as it led to the suppression of Communists in south China.

Subsequently in December of the same year the Vietnamese Nationalist Party4 was formed in Hanoi. This is another landmark event in the communist movement. Its activists were largely students, factory workers and soldiers. The party received financial aid from the Chinese Nationalist Party. The party adopted putschist-style activities to unsettle and topple the French. Various uprisings by these independent groups were promptly crushed by the imperialist forces. These groups also suffered due to poor preparation and communication. Most notably, the Yen Bai uprising was a complete disaster. This resulted in the execution of most of the top leaders. The villages harboring party workers were also shelled and destroyed.

At the beginning of 1930, there were actually three communist parties in French Indochina, all competing for the same members. The formation of Indochinese Communist Party urged the rest of the Thanh Nien members to transform the Communist Youth League into a full-fledged party – the Annam Communist Party. The Tan Viet Party members made a similar change by renaming their group the Indochinese Communist League (Dong Duong Cong San Lien Doan). These developments concerned the Comintern, which “issued a highly critical indictment of the factionalism in the Vietnamese revolutionary movement and urged the Vietnamese to form a united communist party” (Suter 352). Later, the Comintern leadership sent a message to Ho Chi Minh, asking him to make endeavors in unifying all the groups. Minh’s first action was a speech he delivered to the delegates from various factions. This meeting culminated in the formation of the unified Vietnamese Communist Party (VCP) or the Viet Nam Cong San Dang. It was subsequently renamed Indochinese Communist Party, thus reclaiming the name of the first party of that name founded in 1929. Various community based organizations like unions, peasants’ associations, women’s associations, etc were to be organized under the banner of the new party.

“Minh drew up a program of party objectives, which were approved by the conference. The main points included overthrow of the French; establishment of Vietnamese independence; establishment of a workers’, peasants’, and soldiers’ government; organization of a workers’ militia; cancellation of public debts; confiscation of means of production and their transfer to the proletarian government; distribution of French-owned lands to the peasants; suppression of taxes; establishment of an eight-hour work day; development of crafts and agriculture; institution of freedom of organization; and establishment of education for all.” (Suter 354)

The founding of the Indochinese Communist Party came at a crucial phase in the country’s history. It coincided with the declining economic conditions and general civil unrest. Factory workers were going on strikes and wages were falling sharply. Due to the economic depression around the world rice exports came to a grinding halt. Of all those who suffered these conditions, the peasants were the most unfortunate. Adding to their woes were famines, floods and riots. In such an atmosphere the Communist ideology was perceived as a blessing. It brought hope amid all pervading gloom. The protracted U.S. led Vietnam War only consolidated the resolve of the Communist groups and further alienated the masses from the Diem regime. And when the United States finally withdrew its forces, it had already suffered heavy losses, human and economic. After the war, Vietnam became a Socialist Republic embracing Communism.

Works Cited:

Ambrose, Stephen E. “Trapped by Success: The Eisenhower Administration and Vietnam, 1953-61.” Foreign Affairs 72.n4 (Sept-Oct 1993): 160(2).

Brigham, Robert K. “BattleField Vietnam: A Brief History.” Public Broadcasting Service. Retrieved: 9th March 2006.

“Ho Chi Minh and the Communist Movement.” U.S. Library of Congress. Retrieved: 7th March 2006

Kelley, Liam. “Vietnam as a ‘domain of manifest civility’ (Van Hien chi Bang).” Journal of Southeast Asian Studies 34.1 (Feb 2003): 63(14). 

Nguyen The Anh. “Historical research in Vietnam: a tentative survey.” Journal of Southeast Asian Studies 26.n1 (March 1995): 121(12).

Ruane, Kevin. “The USA in Asia Vietnam: America’s allies kept out and President Johnson wanted to concentrate on reform at home. So why did America let itself get sucked into an agonising war it could not win?.” Modern History Review 14.4 (April 2003): 13(4). 

Suter, Keith. “Vietnam: yesterday, today and tomorrow.” Contemporary Review 286.1673 (June 2005): 351(6).