Understanding Vietnam (Philip E. Lilienthal Book.) by Neil L. Jamieson

Its very title, Understanding Vietnam, urged me to rate it anything but five stars. But if any Vietnam book merits five stars, Neil Jamieson’s does. It is not a comprehensive history as much as a comprehensive look into what being Vietnamese meant during that nation’s crucial transformation from a stifling Confucian monarchy under French domination to an autocratic and totalitarian state in the North, at war with an autocratic authoritarian state in the South, and thereafter. His is only book I can remember that makes an honest assessment of Ngo Dien Diem, along with an interesting comparison of both Diem and Ho Chi Minh’s leadership styles.

It is a bit outdated in that he did not have access to Dixee Bartholomew Feis’s The OSS and Ho Chi Minh, or to Brocheux and Hémery’s Indochina: An Ambiguous Colonization; the first of which provides a more detailed view of the relatively minor OSS operational role in Indochina, and the second of which is far more thorough in laying out the contributions and disadvantages of French colonialism. Thus Jamieson overstates OSS assistance to the Viet Minh, but does note that Ho Chi Minh (HCM) himself exploited the appearance of such assistance to back his bid for leadership. He expounds on French involvement in Indochina’s economy, in the hands of a “mere handful” of (presumed) Frenchmen but ignore the equally important Ethnic Chinese role, as well as that of Indian money lenders and Vietnamese landlords in the Mekong Delta rice business.

Some glitches that surprise: He credits HCM with almost single-handedly publishing “Nien Thanh” (Youth) which is really Thanh Nien, and he refers to the “Nghe An Soviet” movement of the early ‘30s, which is properly the Nghe Tinh Soviet. His focused writing style can lead to false conclusions. He states that the French founded University of Hanoi was “abolished” in the first decade of the 20th Century “without completing a single semester.” Shut down would have been a better choice of words, as it reopened as an expanded university in 1917 and Vo Nguyen Giap, Truong Chinh and Pham Van Dong all met there in the 1930s, as Jamieson points out on page 157. These are minor. More serious is his attributing to General LeClerc (sic) a statement that it would take a month to reassert French rule over Indochina by force of arms. Considering the meager forces at Leclerc’s command when he arrived in Indochina, and the level of resistance he encountered, the idea of him making such a simplistic statement boggles the mind. I’ve never seen it in any French sources. Likewise, Jamieson has the U.S. “increasing its aid to France” shortly after the arrival of the Chinese PLA on the border in December 1949. Accepting that October 1950 might be ‘shortly after’ Mao’s victory in China, the fact remains that there was no support to the French in Indochina prior to 1950, when Giap’s Chinese trained regulars destroyed a division’s worth of elite French troops between Cao Bang and That Khe in October. Even then, it took well over eighteen months before any U.S. military aid was forthcoming.

Notwithstanding these and other errors, Jamieson delivers. His history is very good, his insights better than very good, and his use of Vietnamese prose and poetry to frame the Vietnamese dilemma in the face of their perceived history, cultural, regional, and class divisions, modernization, and the subsequent wars is nothing short of brilliant. Yes, he could have trimmed the literature a bit. But the points he makes echoed in everyday Vietnamese life. The tragedy is that a book of this quality was not available to those of us who worked with Vietnamese when it was so desperately needed. But it is available now, and anyone, Westerner or Viet Kieu, contemplating work or residence in Vietnam could do no better than read Jamieson to gain some valuable insights into what makes the country tick.


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