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Party Control in the Military

It is a fundamental tenet of any Marxist-Leninist system that the communist party must dominate the system's military. Lenin, it is said, coined the slogan, "the party controls the gun," reflecting a deep and abiding fear that political power can be lost to the armed forces.

The party's relationship with PAVN in Vietnam is one of neither coercion nor repression. Instead, the VCP and the armed forces are integrated and mutually dependent. Control is exercised by means of parallel military and party hierarchies that are both part of the overall political system. These parallel hierarchies may best be depicted by two pyramids: the VCP organization within PAVN, represented by the smaller pyramid, enclosed within the organization of the armed forces, represented by the larger pyramid. These two hierarchical pyramids may also be divided horizontally into levels of command. At each level, from the Ministry of National Defense to the infantry company, there is a military command structure and a corresponding party apparatus consisting of a political officer and party committee. VCP control of the military thus is not from the outside, but from within.

PAVN and the VCP worked together harmoniously over the years, more so perhaps than their counterpart institutions in China or the Soviet Union. Party-military relations in the early days of the First Indochina War were clear and unequivocal. Indochinese patriots faced a highly visible, commonly hated enemy, and the single goal that united all--to expel the French--was something each could understand and approve. Party representatives led the cause because they seemed to possess an inherent superiority. Young Viet Minh recruits, mostly from the villages, willingly deferred to the well-traveled, more experienced, better educated party cadres, who understood the complicated relationship between war and politics and always seemed to know what to do. Eventually, however, these perceptions changed, and by the 1980s the unquestioned acceptance of VCP superiority by the PAVN rank and file had dissipated. In its place there emerged a growing ambivalence fueled by resentment, not only of the party's postwar failures, but also of the privileged status enjoyed by party cadres and the party's exclusive authority over both the military leadership in place and the manpower pool from which future officers were drawn. To some degree the PAVN high command shared this ambivalence, but senior PAVN leaders were in a difficult position. Although permitted to exercise great influence within the party, preservation of their privileged status at times required them to put party interests over those of the armed forces. In the postwar years, relations with the party increasingly placed a severe strain on the high command. Factionalism, however, a condition that existed both within the ranks of PAVN's military leadership and within PAVN's party apparat, apparently did not create a problem between the two.

Data as of December 1987