In September 1945, after the Japanese had surrendered to the Allies, U.S. Army Major Allison Thomas turned to the leader of the Vietnamese guerrillas he had led in training with one question: was he a communist? “Yes,” replied Ho Chi Minh, “but we can still be friends, can’t we?” Unfortunately for the Vietnamese people, the answer to that query turned out to be a resounding no.
Sophie Quinn-Judge in her book, The Third Force in the Vietnam War: The Elusive Search for Peace, 1954-1975 (I.B. Tauris, 336 pp., $110, hardcover; $29, Kindle) probes an often overlooked aspect of the Vietnam War: Was there a neutral coalition of Vietnamese citizens that could have brought peace to that country?
Quinn-Judge, the author Ho Chi Minh: The Missing Years, concludes that a neutral coalition was active in South Vietnam and would have been able to either avoid the war, or bring it to a peaceful conclusion once the violence had started—if it had been given legitimacy. t best, members of this Third Force were ignored or marginalized by autocratic South Vietnamese political leaders and American policy makers; at worst, they were exiled or imprisoned as communists or communist sympathizers.
Quinn-Judge rejects the claim made by both sides that war was inevitable. The Vietnamese had a legitimate stake in their nation; they were not mere pawns in a global war between Sino-Soviet communism and American democracy. She introduces a myriad of South Vietnamese political and religious leaders who organized around the idea of a neutral South Vietnam, and a peaceful conclusion to the war. Though the American public—and most American policymakers—viewed communism as an evil monolith, Quinn-Judge reveals the evolutionary nature of North Vietnamese communism and the varying degrees of Soviet and Chinese influence over the long course of the conflict.
She uses utilizes state archives from more than eight countries and draws upon her own experience as a volunteer in Vietnam with the American Friends Service Committee from 1973-75. The early history of French colonialism in Vietnam, the rise of the communist party in North Vietnam, and the split of the country in 1954 as a result of the Geneva Accords, are summarized succinctly. The book then follows two parallel narratives, that of the Republic of (South) Vietnam, and the Democratic Republic of (North) Vietnam, concluding with North Vietnamese tanks rolling into Saigon in April 1975.
Although the book is entitled “The Third Force” implying a military solution, Quinn-Judge quickly discards that term for “Third Way” or “Third Segment,” reasoning that a military solution for peace was disabused as early as 1956. It is curious for the book’s title to be discarded so early in the narrative.
In South Vietnam, Quinn-Judge focuses on the “non-violent political and social forces that attempted to play the role of intermediaries.” However, she admits that this group is difficult to define, because a tactic of the North Vietnamese communists was infiltration into South Vietnamese political, social, and religious groups. Though Quinn-Judge describes individuals espousing South Vietnamese neutralism, she struggles with a definition for neutralism, before defining it as the embodiment of “a concept of Third World spiritual exceptionalism.”
It is uncertain if “neutralism” here meant an independent, Democratic South Vietnam, or an eventual reunification with the North Vietnamese. It is clear what many neutralists were advocating against; at times, it is unclear what they were fighting for.
Quinn-Judge does a skillful job summarizing the transforming Vietnamese nationalism in the first half of the twentieth century. She cites communism as an aspect of the quest for change and identity, but only a facet of the broader cultural, political ,and religious shifts in society.
Ho Chi Minh, who is mainly a figurehead in Quinn-Judge’s telling of the tale, led the formation of the Viet Minh during World War I, and received help from the precursor to the CIA, the Office of Strategic Services. Though Quinn-Judge points out that the relationship was severed as a result of the United States’ backing of France’s colonial aspirations after the war, Ho’s unapologetic allegiance to communism was at least as responsible.
Ho Chi Minh in 1951
She correctly discloses the fluctuating nature and influence of the Chinese and Soviets on the North Vietnamese. China aggressively espoused an armed a revolt against the West, while the Soviets believed in revisionism, or the peaceful co-existence with capitalism and an eventual end to the class struggle.
In the summer of 1963, the Americans seemingly listened to what the South Vietnamese people were telling them. They replaced Ambassador Frederick Nolting, who was sympathetic to President Ngo Dinh Diem and his brother Ngo Dinh Nhu, with Henry Cabot Lodge, Jr. Lodge wimmediately distanced himself from Diem, demanded that Nhu be removed from power, and openly sided with the oppressed Buddhists. Diem was soon replaced in a violent coup by the moderate and popular Duong Van Minh.
However, in this critical time period, the North Vietnamese were most influenced by the Chinese, and advocating for peace or revisionism was a crime. That left any Third Segment in the South without a partner in the North. But the North as a peace partner is discounted, as Quinn-Judge argues that by 1964, “the decisions leading to war had already been made in Washington.”
Though they have a minor role in her book, Quinn-Judge saves most of her vitriol for American politicians and policymakers, saying that “crushed” peace campaigns. She sympathizes with some of the communists, whom she believes were closer in their “ideological outlook” to a Third Segment than to Stalinism or Maoism.
However, even if some Vietnamese communists desired peace, neither their rhetoric nor their actions matched that sentiment. She notes, for example, that as early as January 1959, the 15th Plenum of the Communist Party espoused a “violent struggle” as the path to revolution in South Vietnam.
Quinn-Judge places great importance in the 1968 Paris Peace Accords, which were perhaps known best for the long argument over the shape of the conference table. She blames Presidential candidate Richard Nixon for illegally interfering with the talks, though historian Robert Dallek wrote Nixon’s actions “probably made no difference.”
She also points out that the majority of the scholarship on the “missed opportunities” for peace in Vietnam is from a Western perspective. n that regard, Quinn-Judge’s work—along with recent scholarship from Jessica Chapman, Philip Caton, and Edward Miller—is an important one in understanding the efforts of the Vietnamese people who desired peace.
Nguyen Manh Ha, a noncommunist Catholic who served in Ho Chi Minh’s government; Ngo Ba Thanh, an attorney educated in America; and Tran Ngoc Chan, the Secretary General of the Lower House, are among the many leaders that are too briefly portrayed. Duong Van Minh, the leader of 1963 coup, is the veritable Forest Gump of South Vietnamese society—present at most every important event, including assuming leadership before the unconditional surrender of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam in 1975.
Was he a leader or a survivor? A patriot or an opportunist? Quinn-Judge does not explore those questions.
It is disheartening that Quinn-Judge believes that by the 1966, just over a year after the entry of American ground forces, the Third Segment had eroded. Quinn-Judge does not analyze the apparent lack of leadership or organizing principle among the Third Segment, and she laments that neutralists had no Western sponsor, which belies the central tenet of her work.
Nevertheless, The Third Force in Vietnam is a worthwhile contribution to the field, providing an understanding of the desire for peace of many Vietnamese.