Hanoi’s Road to the Vietnam War by Pierre Asselin

If you have any doubt that the war waged by North Vietnam against the Republic of (South) Vietnam and the United States was, above all, a political one, Pierre Asselin’s Hanoi’s Road to the Vietnam War, 1954-1965 (University of California Press, 319 pp., $55), should change your mind.

Asselin, a Hawaii Pacific University history professor who specializes in the Vietnam War, has come up with a well-researched, in-depth look at the decision-making process in Hanoi from the signing of the Geneva Accords in 1954 to the start of the American war in 1965. He makes a strong case that North Vietnam’s communist leaders—led by the General Secretary of the Vietnamese Communist Party, Le Duan, who wrested real power away from the slightly less doctrinaire nationalist/communist Ho Chi Minh—were dogmatic revolutionaries who shaped their war against the Americans in three “separate but related modes of struggle”: the political, diplomatic and military.

Several Vietnam War historians, including Lien-Hang T. Nguyen of the University of Kentucky in her book Hanoi’s War, have recently uncovered new evidence showing the prominent role of Le Duan (1907-2013) in the North Vietnamese hierarchy. Asselin, who also delved deeply into communist Vietnamese archives, comes to the came conclusion.

              Le Duan (left) and Ho Chi Minh in 1960

Asselin describes Le Duan (born Le Van Nhuan) as “a stern, dogmatic, and stoic revolutionary,” and writes that “other observers are more blunt, characterizing him variously as ‘violent,’ ‘authoritarian,’ ‘tough,’ and ‘ruthless.’” Le Duan was “fully determined,” Asselin notes, “to achieve reunification of Vietnam whatever the cost.”

That cost included sacrificing what turned out to be an almost unfathomable number of North Vietnamese lives in the American war. As the Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, and Ford administrations learned, fighting “relentlessly, sacrificing selflessly, and winning totally became the hallmarks of [Le Duan and the other communist bosses’] worldview, which shaped both the course and the outcome of the Vietnam War.”

—Marc Leepson

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