Vietnam Table of Contents
Vietnam's past is characterized by a strongly martial spirit tempered by war, invasion, rebellion, insurgency, dissidence, and social sabotage. In their view, the Vietnamese have always lived in an armed camp. The first "deities" of Vietnam, before the time of recorded history, were not gods but generals. Vietnam's naval fleet in the ninth century supposedly was the largest on earth. In the tenth century, when its population could not have numbered more than 2 million, its army purportedly stood at 1 million. Asia's first military academy was founded in Hanoi in the thirteenth century. The fourteenth century produced Tran Hung Dao (1230-1300), the greatest of all Vietnam's many military geniuses, who was consistently able to win battles against vastly superior forces. According to tradition Nguyen Hue (also known as Emperor Quan Trung, 1742-92), another great military leader, fielded an army so disciplined that for the battle of Dong Da in 1789 he forced-marched his troops 600 kilometers to fight an uninterrupted five-day battle that left "mountains of enemy dead." Vietnamese of all political views take pride in these figures from antiquity and seem particularly fond of those most clever in combat, such as the general who persuaded his opponent that he had two armies when the second was only a phantom. Those who sacrificed themselves on some grand battlefield are also fondly remembered. For instance, the Hai Ba Trung legend, reminiscent of the story of Jeanne D'Arc, originated early in the first century A.D. It tells of the two Trung sisters, who led their army in a futile effort against a vastly superior Chinese force. Defeated, they drowned themselves in a Hanoi lake. Members of a thriving mystic cult continued to worship the lake in the 1980s despite official disapproval. Vietnam's standard histories depict the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries as times of continual rebellion predating the rise of post-World War II Asian nationalism. The century of French colonialism is described as one long, unbroken battle involving virtually all Vietnamese.
Contemporary Hanoi historians describe Vietnam's national tradition as one in which every Vietnamese is a soldier. They cite the famed historical record, Annam Chu Luoc (Description of Annam, by Le Tac, circa 1340): "During the Tran dynasty all the people fought the enemy. Everyone was a soldier, which is why they were able to defeat the savage enemy. This is the general experience throughout the people's entire history." This tradition is said to arise not from militarism, but rather from a spirit of chinh nghia (just cause), which connotes highly moral behavior rooted in rationality, compassion, and responsibility. The historians assert that the spirit of chinh nghia sustained the Vietnamese in their long struggle against the Sinicization (Han-hwa) efforts of the Han Chinese, and later against French colonialism and American neocolonialism. Drawn from this, then, is a special kind of martial spirit, both ferocious and virtuous. It is because of chinh nghia that the Vietnamese have been victorious, while usually outnumbered and outgunned. Chinh nghia is the mystique that imparts unique fighting capabilities to the Vietnamese: first, it mobilizes the people and turns every inhabitant into a soldier; second, it applies the principles of "knowing how to fight the strong by the weak, the great numbers by the small numbers, the large by the small."
Just as Prussia has been Europe's most fought-over ground, Vietnam is Asia's. For centuries the Vietnamese battled the Chinese, the French, the Americans, the Khmer, and again the Chinese. In between they battled the Thai, the Burmans, the Lao, the Cham, the montagnards, and each other in regional and dynastic combat. In the view of Vietnam's neighbors, Vietnamese campaigns since the fifteenth century have been offensive rather than defensive. But Vietnamese school children are taught that in these wars the Vietnamese always were the victim, never the aggressor. With respect to Vietnam's national security, the point is not whether Vietnamese perceptions are factually correct, but that the Vietnamese act on them.
In Hanoi's view, Vietnam faced an extraordinarily difficult and complex geopolitical scene in the 1980s, one that was filled with both external and internal dangers; in meeting these threats the country suffered from some strategic weaknesses and enjoyed certain strategic strengths. The conclusion appeared to be that Vietnam could deal with these dangers because of its confidence that its strengths outweighed its weaknesses and that, regardless of the threat presented, the Vietnamese cause, as in the past, would prove triumphant. The ruling Political Bureau and the People's Army of Vietnam ( PAVN--see Glossary) High Command long ago developed several firm policies to achieve this end: that Vietnam must remain more or less permanently mobilized for war; that it must maintain as large a standing army as the system can support; that, as far as it is able, it must be self-sufficient in protecting itself and not rely on outside assistance or alliance; and that internally it must maintain a tightly organized, highly disciplined society capable of maintaining a high level of militant spirit among the general population.
This threat perception, and the leadership's response to it, have had the net effect of creating in Vietnam a praetorian society dedicated to the preservation of the existing order. It makes the Vietnamese, as Premier Pham Van Dong observed to a Western journalist, "incurable romantics." The society in the 1980s looked back at the First Indochina War (also known as the Viet Minh War--see Glossary) and Second Indochina War (see Glossary) as an era of high deeds and heroism contrasting unfavorably with humdrum postwar life.
Data as of December 1987
Vietnam Table of Contents