Vietnamese Struggle With Their Past: History of the Southern Resistance
The temptation to fracture history by suppressing the past—whether by silly redactions (or even outright denial) of documents or by other means—seems to be a universal constant. It is at least as widespread as the public’s thirst for knowledge of its history. It exists in many countries. Freedom of information remains a work in progress. The latest example comes from Vietnam, where, for six years now, the National Security Archive’s Vietnam Documentation Project has been involved in an effort to open up some of the history of the long conflict in that land. The Archive and the Wilson Center’s Cold War International History Project cooperated to assist a semi-official group of Vietnamese in reconstructing some of the story of their wars. The result, published in Vietnam in 2010, is a multi-volume History of the Southern Resistance. On its website the Cold War project recently posted the results of the symposium we held on the new work. The Archive and the Cold War Project assembled a panel of experts to evaluate the findings of the Vietnamese historians. Once all the participants had delivered the written versions of their commentaries we assembled the symposium’s results.
The Vietnamese account was crafted by a group, the Council of Direction for the History of the Southern Resistance. That was the National Front for the Liberation of South Vietnam, the guerrilla movement which formed the mainstay of the war in the southern part of Vietnam from its inception until 1968, and which also played a critical role in the Franco-Vietnamese war of 1945-1954. At the time many Americans and others called the Resistance the Viet Cong. So, what has really been at issue in Vietnam today, is the relative roles of southern Vietnamese versus northern Vietnamese in the war that finally unified Vietnam and ended in 1975. This is important to note in judging the History of the Southern Resistance. Not only was there a danger of self-censorship among participants in drafting the account, the final product had to undergo an approval process prior to publication as a semi-official history. To make things worse, powerful Vietnamese political figures who had championed the project passed away during its elaboration.
The Archive and the Cold War International History Project were approached relatively late in the compilation of the Vietnamese history. Intermediaries spoke to us of opening the archives of the Liberation Front, an exciting prospect for any group dedicated to freedom of information. Representatives of our groups attended a conference in Ho Chi Minh City in 2008 that was built around this history. Unfortunately the goal of opening archives proved elusive. For guerrillas in the bush many things were done without anything being put on paper. No doubt there were records destroyed in the course of the war as well. And for other records the typical reticence of government bureaucracies to the release of real documents applied as well. In the special case of Vietnam there was also the issue of what the documents might say about the relationship between the Liberation Front and the figures in Hanoi who were calling the shots in the war. The net result is that “opening archives” contracted to become helping publicize a “documentation” of the Southern Resistance, and in turn that shrank to whatever survived the South-North vetting process in Hanoi’s approval for publication.
Commentators at our symposium focused on the Southern Resistance history exhibit and the ambivalence that is a natural product of the Vietnamese censorship. The value the Vietnamese documentation might have had has been reduced by its dilution to meet the objections of the powers that be. On the other hand our expert panelists all found valuable material in the newly available Vietnamese history. Read the posting on the symposium at the Cold War Project website to see for yourself. Our disappointment in the result so far is matched by our hope that the Vietnamese will see their way to a more open discussion of this history.