The unimagined community proposes a reexamination of the Vietnam War from a perspective that has been largely excluded from historical accounts of the conflict, that of the South Vietnamese. Challenging the conventional view that the war was a struggle between the Vietnamese people and US imperialism, the study presents a wide-ranging investigation of South Vietnamese culture, from political philosophy and psychological warfare to popular culture and film. Beginning with a genealogy of the concept of a Vietnamese “culture,” as the latter emerged during the colonial period, the book concludes with a reflection on the rise of popular culture during the American intervention. Reexamining the war from the South Vietnamese perspective, The unimagined community pursues the provocative thesis that the conflict, in this early stage, was not an anti-communist crusade, but a struggle between two competing versions of anticolonial communism.
As a background to the arguments in the book, the introduction provides an overview of Vietnamese history and a critical account of the representation of South Vietnam that has dominated much of the historiography on the Vietnam War. In this representation, the South is portrayed as a political puppet in a war between US imperialism and the Vietnamese people, who are identified with the communist forces. This representation has not only resulted in a lack of attention to the South Vietnamese side in the scholarship, but it has also served to conceal the radical character of the political project pursued by the early South Vietnamese state. Unlike their allies, South Vietnamese leaders did not conceive of the war as an anti-communist crusade, but as a struggle against Stalinism as well as capitalism and liberal democracy. The introduction, therefore, proposes a more careful examination of this political project as a point of departure for rethinking the representation of the South Vietnamese within the historiography of the Vietnam War.
Chapter 1 examines the development of a Vietnamese national culture. This culture was a result of the advent of mass reproduction and print capitalism, which were introduced in the colonial era as instruments of surveillance, used by the French in order to monitor the political activity of their colonial subjects. In deploying modern print media as a means of surveillance, however, the state would also create the conditions for a new “imagined community” of the nation. During the 1920s and ’30s, the new media would be instrumental in spreading the modern mythology of a 2,000-year history of resistance to foreign invaders. This modern tradition was the result of an anti-colonial interpretation of the precolonial past, based on a European conception of sovereignty as the right of a “people” (dân tộc) possessing a distinct national culture. In the new national history, the Vietnamese people (who had previously appeared in the old imperial records only as subjects (dân) of the emperor) would become the foundation of a new “sovereignty of the people” (dân quyền). Projecting this modern conception of sovereignty into the precolonial past, writers working in the vernacular media produced a new national history of the Vietnamese people.
Chapter 2 examines the intellectual origins of the philosophy of Personalism, which was adopted as the official state doctrine of the first South Vietnamese state, or the First Republic (Đệ Nhất Cộng Hòa Việt Nam, 1954–63). Contrary to the caricature of this doctrine as an incoherent and reactionary religious ideology, Personalism was in fact a theoretically rigorous form of Marxist humanist theology, one that appealed, moreover, to anti-colonial leaders from throughout the developing world. The reading of Personalism proposed in the chapter, which focuses on the French philosopher Emmanuel Mounier’s Marxist critique of capitalism and liberal democracy, will provide the broader theoretical framework for this study and its attempt to reinterpret the war from a South Vietnamese perspective.
Chapter 3 examines the influence of Personalism on the development of the Strategic Hamlet Campaign, which served, during the First Republic, as one of the primary instruments in the struggle against the insurgency. Contrary to conventional account of the latter, the program was not simply a totalitarian technique of mass repression. Rather, it was devised as a radical program of “social revolution” (cách mạng xã hội), aimed at transforming the entire economic and political structure of South Vietnamese society. This social revolution, moreover, was not only directed against the insurgency, but also against capitalism and liberal democracy, as Western institutions that the leaders of the First Republic regarded as a legacy of colonialism. In light of the anti-capitalist character of the early South Vietnamese state, the chapter contends that the war, in this early phase, was not simply a conflict between communism and democracy, but as a contest between two different forms of anti-colonial communism.
Chapter 4 contends that the communism of the early Republic would put it directly odds with the aims of its American ally. This “misalliance” would ultimately compromise both the counterinsurgency strategy in the South (which the Republic conceived as a social revolution as opposed to a mere pacification program), as well as the psychological warfare campaign carried out in the North. For the South Vietnamese, the campaign was to be an extension of the Marxist humanist strategy of social revolution, aimed at transforming the whole of Vietnamese society. For the Americans, on the other hand, the goal of the program was to discredit the Communist government by exposing its lack of democracy. In the end, this misalliance would lead to the collapse of the First Republic. In 1963, the regime was overthrown in a coup supported by US officials in a misguided attempt to uphold the image of the Republic as a liberal democracy. The coup would create a profound political crisis, compelling the USA to dramatically expand its military presence. Having undermined the Marxist humanist program of the early Republic, Washington policymakers would come to rely on a high-tech war of attrition in order to overcome the insurgency.
The violence of the war of attrition would result in widespread rural depopulation. Following the collapse of the First Republic, the program of social revolution in the countryside would be replaced by an “urban revolution,” aimed at isolating the insurgency by displacing the rural population en masse. In the cities, moreover, the policies implemented by the later Republican regimes would help to precipitate the emergence of an enormous consumer society, dependent on American aid. Chapter 5 looks at the rise of a new popular culture, which would become an increasingly pervasive phenomenon in South Vietnamese cities in the mid-1960s as the violence continued to escalate in the countryside. Contrary to Communist accounts, this mass culture was not a product of US cultural imperialism. Rather, it was an unintended effect of policies implemented by the later Republic governments, in accordance with the American aim of establishing a bastion of liberal democracy and free market capitalism. Freed from the censorship imposed by the early Republic, the market for media would increasingly divert the efforts of South Vietnamese intellectuals away from the creation of high culture and art toward the production of mass entertainment.
Chapter 6 proposes a reading of one of the most successful examples of South Vietnamese popular culture: Bùi Anh Tuấn’s Ian Fleming-inspired Z.28 novels. The novels’ primary source of appeal was the language of advertising employed in the prose, a phenomenon that became pervasive during the war. The novels consist of narratives of surveillance modelled on commercials for name-brand commodities. In the series, however, the character of the spy also appears as a symbol for the Republic. The frivolous tales of high mass consumption also suggest a reflection on the place of the nation within the Cold War balance of power. In the Z.28 series, the Republic appears as a state that is undermined by its ally, a nation threatened by its dependence upon its superpower patron. The American government is portrayed as both an ally and an object of political enmity. The Vietnamese spy, then, appears as a figure who opposes an ambivalent ally through the act of consuming American aid in the form of brand-named commodities. In the novels, therefore, the celebration of consumerism implies both an endorsement of US neo-colonial consumer culture, as well as a repudiation of the dependence on American aid that created this culture.
Sovereignty, surveillance and spectacle in the Vietnam War
Duy Lap Nguyen
Turning to the American perspective, Chapter 7 examines the role of modern mass media and information technology in American foreign policy during the Vietnam War. The conflict was not only the first television war; it was also defined by the application of high-tech surveillance, used to detect and contain an unconventional enemy fighting an irregular style of warfare. These modern techniques of mass surveillance and spectacle defined both the reach and limits of American power. If policymakers could employ spectacular means to deceive the American people, their decisions were also subordinated to the power of public opinion, which was increasingly shaped by mass communications and culture. In such events as the Tết Offensive in 1968, a military defeat for the Communist forces that would become their greatest spectacular victory, the image of the war in the media would become more decisive than its reality in determining American policy. On the other hand, the deployment of high-tech surveillance in the war of attrition would result in a “quagmire of quantification.” Based upon the reduction of reality to statistical data, the figures compiled on the rates of attrition yielded a distorted representation of the war on the ground, misleading policymakers and analysts.
The conclusion explores the broader implications of the book’s principal thesis in terms of rethinking the historiography on the Vietnam War, as well as the history of communism, capitalism, democracy and imperialism. If the war, in its early phase, was not a conflict between communism and democracy, but a contest between two different forms of anti-colonialist communism, then the South Vietnamese state was simply a failed experiment in liberal democracy, as it has often been characterized. Instead, the conclusion contends that the project of the First Republic could perhaps be better described as an aborted attempt to establish an alternative version of communism. If this project was ultimately compromised by its complicity with US imperialism, its Personalist ideology, nevertheless, was perhaps more radical than that of the Vietnamese Communist Party in its critique of capitalism and bourgeois democracy. Whereas the early Republic was undermined with the aid of US officials, who denounced its lack of democracy, the Party, after winning the war, would employ the power of the communist state to implement a program of capitalist modernization.