Chris Harman



(Autumn 1968)

From International Socialism (1st series), No.34, Autumn 1968, pp.36-37.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

The Quicksand War
Lucien Bodard
Faber, 45s

North Vietnam: A Documentary
John Gerassi
Allen & Unwin, 45s

Ho Chi Minh
Jean Lacouture
Allen Lane, the Penguin Press, 35s

Government and Revolution in Vietnam
D.J. Duncanson
Chatham House/Oxford, 63s

The first three of these books about Vietnam are by journalists. This has the advantage that they are readable and full of information, but leave much in the way of analysis to be desired. The fourth is not even readable. It is a collection of often irrelevant (and often unfactual) facts on the history of the Vietnamese conflict to justify the author’s beliefs – in Ngo Dinh Diem as the best leader the Vietnamese have had, and in ‘America’s unprecedentedly altruistic help.’ The author was, it should be added, an advisor to the Americans in Vietnam for four years. If the advice he gave them stems from the same level of understanding as he shows in this book, it is probably the NLF that owe him thanks.

Bodard’s book is an account of the war waged by the French in Indo-China up to 1950. Its earlier sections deal with life in Saigon on the French side – the corruption, the intrigues, the authorities and the various groups to differing extents parasitic upon their presence – the puppet emperor, the gangsters, the sects, and even the same Nam Bo Vietminh that was fighting them in the countryside. The war is shown as only intruding on to this scene occasionally – in particular for a brief period of mass demonstrations and near insurrection that all but brought the Vietminh to power. The later sections go on to describe the gradual wearing down and piecemeal destruction of the occupying forces in the far north. The trouble is it is all looked at from the French side. Any real appreciation of either the aspirations of the Vietminh or the decades of oppression that had nourished these is lacking. At points the author even accepts the glib, and more or less racist, rationalisations of the colonising community.

Gerassi provides an account of some of the atrocities he witnessed during a stay in North Vietnam together with a number of Vietnamese analyses and descriptions of what is taking place. Important for anyone who still believes in the benevolence of the Americans; useless (one hopes!) for IS readers.

Lacouture is a French liberal with a good deal of sympathy for the NLF and North Vietnam. He does not hide his revulsion from American policies. But neither does his biography of Ho Chi Minn operate at the level of idolatry. It is an account of a lifetime of activities, from the early years of the French CP through the Stalinist Comintern to the two anti-imperialist wars. The trouble with it basically is that it does not begin to come to grips with the sorts of social forces embodied in first the Vietminh and now the NLF. For instance, he does not see that to talk about Ho-the-Nationalist as against Ho-the-old-Stalinist is facile in a world in which increasingly the only future for nationalist regimes built by indigenous intellectuals and petty officials on a peasant base is a state capitalist one. The result is that there is page after page of more or less superficial discussion.

But there are also useful outlines of the major events of the Vietnamese struggle. Although, for instance, the author himself refers to Ho’s ‘masterly helmsmanship’ his account makes it clear that Ho was remarkably naive in taking French negotiators at their face-value in 1945-6 and ignoring the other forces that were bound to intervene, betray his trust, and force the yietnamese to fight again from less favourable positions. The importance of the Vietnamese Communists was not due to their ability at analysing situations (an ability which Stalin had effaced from virtually the entire international Communist movement) or even their initiation of struggles, but rather from their capacity at organising and giving cohesion to forces that were going to struggle anyway.

It is worth noting that as an introduction to what is happening in Vietnam none of these books compares with the Penguin edited by Marvin Gettleman two or three years ago and still available ...

Last updated on 16 November 2009