Vietnam Table of Contents
During the postwar years, a number of nettlesome issues arose to trouble the generally symbiotic relationship between the armed forces and the party. A point of major contention was the dual command system, in which responsibility for a military unit was shared between its commander and political officer. During the First Indochina War, the military had been directed entirely by the party. What had counted chiefly in a leader was not military knowledge but political acumen, organizational skills, and the ability to persuade and motivate. However, as the war had increased in intensity, a need had developed for experienced combat officers. When the demand soon exhausted manpower pools, the party had been obliged to turn to large numbers of officers with military rather than party credentials to fill PAVN officer ranks. Fearing it would lose control, the party in 1952 introduced in PAVN the position of political commissar or political officer (borrowed from the Soviet Union and China), thereby creating the so-called two-commander system. It was dogma at the time, however, that even with two commanders neither was a purely military officer. A large part of officer training consisted of political orientation to military activity. Nevertheless, the division of power between the two officers was not clearly defined. In theory, they shared authority in tactical matters, but in reality they competed for power over the years. The system generated party-military friction, bitter jurisdictional disputes, sharp personality clashes, and confusion in authority. Despite its many flaws it endured for nearly three decades, surviving the Second Indochina War. As that conflict intensified in the early 1960s, however, the balance of power between the two figures began to favor the military officer.
Pressure to revise the role of the political officer and to end the dual command structure developed only after the Second Indochina War. Selected PAVN units were experimentally restructured in 1977 in such a way that the functions of military commander and political officer were combined in a single officer. Gradually, this system was extended throughout PAVN, but as a concession to the party, PAVN agreed that the authority formerly wielded by the political officer in company-, battalion- , and regimental-level units should be vested in the party committee at each level. The chief difficulty encountered in this plan was that a dual command became a multiple command. Party committees sending orders directly to specific military, logistic, or technical officers in a unit could bypass the military commander, with the result that PAVN units were run by committee. When this system was taken into Cambodia, it proved totally unworkable. In 1980 the arrangement was supplanted by a "one-man-command system." Authority was vested in the unit commander, who was responsible to higher authorities, including the party committee at his level, but who exercised actual control of his unit. A March 1982 party resolution endorsed this change but added a new arrangement that supported retaining the position of political officer as an institution but spelled out its subordinate status to the military commander. Still in the developmental stage in 1987, this new arrangement clearly established the authority of the military commander over the political officer, but left his authority with respect to the party committee somewhat ambiguous. The military commander was permitted greater latitude in initiating decisions, but remained ultimately accountable to the party for whatever actions he took.
A second major divisive issue between the party and PAVN was commonly termed the "red versus expert" argument. This doctrine, imported from China and reflective of Mao Zedong's thinking about the conduct of war, began with the assumption that warfare was a test of all adversarial strengths--ideological, economic, psychological, and spiritual, as well as military. It then asked successively which ranked higher in such a test--the material or the immaterial, men or weapons, and whether it was more important for the individual soldier to be ideologically motivated ("red") or technologically skilled in combat ("expert"). As expressed, the choice raised a false dichotomy, but it was an argument that raged within PAVN for decades. It was not simply a philosophical question, but a question that manifested itself in party-PAVN personnel relations, in strategic and tactical military planning, in officer selection, assignment, and promotion, and in training programs designed to produce the ideal soldier. The debate surfaced in Vietnam after the First Indochina War when a PAVN modernization program was launched. Part of that effort involved creating a series of specialized military schools and academies. Planning the course work for these new institutions triggered a spirited dispute over the relative value and importance of military expertise and revolutionary consciousness. In 1987 an easy resolution of this dichotomy was still beyond reach. Even in a politicized military organization such as PAVN, nonprofessional influences, whether political, ideological, or social, were limited by the demands of the work itself. New technology, requiring the mastery of complicated weapons and military processes, increasingly demanded the soldier's attention and time.
Data as of December 1987
Vietnam Table of Contents