Hanoi's Road to the Vietnam War, 1954-1965

Hanoi's Road to the Vietnam War, 1954-1965

by Pierre Asselin

Paperback(First Edition)

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Hanoi's Road to the Vietnam War opens in 1954 with the signing of the Geneva accords that ended the eight-year-long Franco-
Indochinese War and created two Vietnams.
In agreeing to the accords, Ho Chi Minh and other leaders of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam anticipated a new period of peace leading to national reunification under their rule; they never imagined that within a decade they would be engaged in an even bigger feud with the United States. Basing his work on new and largely inaccessible Vietnamese materials as well as French, British, Canadian, and American documents, Pierre Asselin explores the communist path to war. Specifically, he examines the internal debates and other elements that shaped Hanoi's revolutionary strategy in the decade preceding U.S. military intervention, and resulting domestic and foreign programs. Without exonerating Washington for its role in the advent of hostilities in 1965, Hanoi's Road to the Vietnam War demonstrates that those who directed the effort against the United States and its allies in Saigon were at least equally responsible for creating the circumstances that culminated in arguably the most tragic conflict of the Cold War era.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780520287495
Publisher: University of California Press
Publication date: 08/18/2015
Series: From Indochina to Vietnam: Revolution and War in a Global Perspective , #7
Edition description: First Edition
Pages: 352
Sales rank: 1,208,369
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.90(d)

About the Author

Pierre Asselin is Professor of History at Hawaii Pacific University in Honolulu and the author of A Bitter Peace: Washington, Hanoi, and the Making of the Paris Agreement.

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Hanoi's Road to the Vietnam War, 1954â"1965

By Pierre Asselin


Copyright © 2013 The Regents of the University of California
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-520-95655-1


Choosing Peace, 1954–1956

By the summer of 1954, the world seemed slightly safer than it had been just a few months before, as a "hot" phase in the Cold War came to an end. The Korean and Indochina Wars had done much to increase tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union while marking the emergence of the People's Republic of China (PRC) as an ardent opponent of American "neo-imperialism" and a dynamic player in global politics. But the death of Stalin, the cease-fire in Korea, and the Geneva accords on Indochina offered some reprieve. Specifically, they presented Washington and Moscow with an opportunity to ease tensions between them, for rapprochement.

As Moscow grappled with matters relating to Stalin's succession, Beijing attended to domestic problems, and Washington warily watched events. There was much cause for concern in Washington, including the antics of Senator Joseph McCarthy at home, the French humiliation at Dien Bien Phu followed by the onset of the Algerian war of independence, the advent of the fiercely nationalist and purportedly neutralist regime of Gamal Abdel Nasser in Cairo, and starting in September, Beijing's sustained bombardment of islands controlled by the pro-American regime of Jiang Jieshi (Chiang Kai-shek) in the first Taiwan Strait crisis. Alarmed by developments in Guatemala that year, the administration of U.S. president Dwight Eisenhower resorted to methods employed the previous year in Iran—in removing prime minister Mohammad Mosaddegh from power—to get rid of Jacobo Árbenz Guzmán's leftist and "touchy" government. Shortly thereafter, the administration affirmed its commitment to the containment of communist influence in Southeast Asia by signing the Manila Pact, which provided for the creation of the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization (SEATO). Fatefully, it also began a comprehensive aid program, jointly with the French at first, to prop up the regime of Ngo Dinh Diem in Saigon as a bulwark against communist expansion in Vietnam. Soon Americans were training Diem's fledgling armed forces and becoming otherwise more directly involved in Indochina.

After signing the Geneva accords, the communist leaders of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRVN) did their best to abide by their letter and spirit. The accords, they hoped, would allow them to achieve national reunification under their authority without further bloodshed following countrywide elections to take place within two years. In a September 1954 directive formalizing their intentions, the leaders ordered most of their troops in the South to repatriate to the North and explicitly prohibited those who stayed from resuming hostilities. Owing largely to Diem, the elections never took place. Although that dimmed the prospect for peaceful reunification, DRVN leaders refused to amend their stance on military struggle in the South. Instead, they rehabilitated and developed the economy in the North, to the dismay of communists who remained in the South and became targets of the Diem regime.


On 2 September 1945, in the immediate aftermath of Japan's surrender in World War II, Ho Chi Minh, a longtime communist and anticolonialist leader, proclaimed the independence of the DRVN from Ba Dinh Square in Hanoi. The proclamation culminated the relatively peaceful process known to Vietnamese as the August Revolution. In that revolution, communist and nationalist forces, who had been amalgamated into the Viet Minh united front in 1941 to resist the Japanese occupation of Indochina (that is, Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos), wrested the reins of power from the defeated occupiers and forced the abdication of the last Nguyen emperor, a figurehead named Bao Dai, thus ending ten centuries of dynastic rule in Vietnam. During the war, the Japanese had effectively ended French colonial control on the peninsula, though France never forswore its mission civilisatrice there and was in fact working to reassert it even as Ho made his proclamation. Unwilling to accept the reimposition of colonial rule, Ho and the DRVN leadership remobilized the Viet Minh to resist it.

Following the gradual reoccupation of most of Indochina by French forces over the next year and a half, full-scale war broke out in December 1946. The conflict became an integral part of the Cold War after the newly formed PRC extended diplomatic recognition to the DRVN government in January 1950, followed by the Soviet Union and the rest of the socialist camp. Having consented to a revolutionary division of labor with Moscow, Beijing thereafter provided massive assistance to the Viet Minh, including hundreds of military advisers. Reeling from the "loss" of China and suddenly alarmed at the possibility of communist domination of Southeast Asia, Washington, until then largely uninvolved in Indochinese affairs, responded in kind, supplying ever increasing aid to the French and to the ostensibly autonomous regime France had established in Saigon and named the State of Vietnam (SOVN), under none other than Bao Dai. The outbreak of the Korean War in June solidified American resolve to prevent a Viet Minh victory.

The internationalization of the Indochina War markedly raised the stakes and intensified the hostilities in Vietnam but failed to tip the scale in favor of either side. Even the Viet Minh's spectacular victory over French forces at Dien Bien Phu did not meaningfully change the balance of forces in the country. In the end, pervasive war weariness among the Vietnamese masses and Viet Minh, as well as the nagging concerns of their Soviet and Chinese allies about prolonging the war and, most importantly, the chilling prospect of American intervention, convinced DRVN decision-makers to suspend their military struggle and try to settle their differences with France diplomatically.

On 21 July 1954, after long and contentious negotiations, French and DRVN authorities agreed to a cease-fire, division of the country into two regroupment zones separated at the seventeenth parallel, mandatory regroupment of all French and SOVN military forces south of that line and all Viet Minh forces north of it, and voluntary migration of civilians between the two zones. Ho Chi Minh and the DRVN government received sanction to administer the northern regroupment zone while France—and by extension the SOVN—remained sovereign in the southern zone. As the division of the country was to be temporary, the "Final Declaration of the Geneva Conference" called for consultations between representatives of the two zonal governments to set terms for national elections to reunify the country under a single government. Ominously, Washington refused to endorse the declaration. Despite reservations of their own, DRVN leaders accepted the Geneva accords because they hoped their implementation would preclude American military intervention while delivering what war could not: reunification of Vietnam under their governance.


After accepting the Geneva accords, DRVN leaders set out to convince their followers on both sides of the seventeenth parallel that suspending hostilities short of complete victory was strategically correct. To that end, they impressed upon their military forces and political operatives the need to respect the cease-fire and trust that national reunification would come in no more than two years, following general elections that their side would surely win. Unless otherwise instructed by the leadership, all troops in the South had to regroup to the North, and communists who stayed behind were to do nothing to undermine the new accords or precipitate hostilities. Violating the accords, DRVN authorities warned, would give the Americans and their allies an excuse to derail the reunification process and sabotage the promised elections. For the time being, the struggle for unification had to be carried out "according to a peaceful approach." "Our people must continue their protracted and arduous struggle by peaceful methods in order to consolidate peace and achieve reunification." It was not just that the leadership wished to preclude American intervention and thought everyone, including its troops, needed a respite from war; it was also that much of the area which fell under its jurisdiction after July 1954 was in ruins, and improving conditions there was imperative. A "North-first" policy was therefore in order.

To keep the reunification process on track in the South, DRVN leaders directed cadres—indoctrinated, "professional" communist revolutionaries responsible for mobilizing public support for DRVN policies—there to court groups friendly to western interests, including Catholics and those who had served in the colonial administration. The purpose of this "political struggle" was to win hearts and minds, to convince such groups and the civilian population generally that DRVN authorities respected ideological, social, and political diversity as well as Vietnamese nationalism in all its guises, and to promote peaceful reunification of the country. Treating the sizeable minority of Catholics, former civil servants, and other civilians solicitously could have a "very big influence" on the result of the upcoming elections, the communist leadership remarked.

Admittedly, DRVN leaders shared "a genuine apprehension" that Paris, Washington, and the SOVN regime in Saigon would not respect the terms of the accords. Early on, defense minister Vo Nguyen Giap warned the Canadian commissioner on the International Commission for Supervision and Control in Vietnam (ICSC) that Ngo Dinh Diem, who had become SOVN premier during the Geneva Conference and had no real hand in forging the accords, "had no intention" of "carrying out the agreement" and "it would be difficult for anyone to force him to do so." Nonetheless, the man hailed as the architect of the victory over the French at Dien Bien Phu and other key DRVN leaders thought it in their best interests, for now, to honor the main provisions of the accords. If the accords were successfully implemented, they would secure the withdrawal of foreign forces and national reunification under their own aegis without further bloodshed and material destruction. DRVN leaders "accepted the Geneva compromise," in the words of a French diplomat, "only because we made them realize that it presented them with a serious chance to achieve, by peaceful means, [their] wartime objectives." For Vietnamese communist authorities, the Canadian commissioner told Ottawa, the outcome of the 1956 national elections on reunification mandated by the Geneva accords was "a foregone conclusion." The only major obstacle to reunification under their auspices was "foreign support of the competing government in the South" and Diem himself. Under the circumstances, it seemed sensible to temporize. DRVN leaders, the Canadian commissioner believed, "expect the worst" but "hope for the best."


Such were the calculations of the Politburo of the Vietnamese Workers' Party (VWP), the main decision-making body in the DRVN. Specifically, they were those of Giap, president Ho Chi Minh, VWP general secretary Truong Chinh, Party Organization Committee chairman and vice minister of the interior Le Van Luong, president of the Federation of Trade Unions Hoang Quoc Viet, and, possibly, prime minister Pham Van Dong, who then doubled as foreign minister. Wary—and weary—of war, these men pinned their hopes on the Geneva accords and political struggle in the South to peacefully bring about national reunification under communist rule. Among the heavyweights, Ho wished to prevent further bloodshed, preempt American intervention, and reconcile with France; Giap wanted to give the forces under his command a chance to rest, reorganize, and modernize; and Truong Chinh, a leading doctrinaire, was eager to complete the party's ambitious land reform program, launched the previous year, and get on with the North's economic modernization and socialist transformation.

The desire of key allies—namely, the Soviet Union and China—to avoid further conflict in Asia with the West reinforced these attitudes. In the aftermath of Stalin's death, a power struggle had ensued in Moscow that kept Soviet leaders largely focused on domestic issues for nearly two years. Meanwhile, in Beijing, chairman Mao Zedong and the rest of the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) were working on a new constitution and envisioning the country's first five-year plan for socialist industrialization and transformation of agriculture. As they awaited Vietnam's peaceful reunification, Ho, Giap, Truong Chinh, and their likeminded comrades in the Politburo agreed that rehabilitating and developing the northern economy while upgrading the armed forces could and should take precedence. On account of their strategic priorities, including caution over adventurism in the South, and the elements that informed them, namely, fear of a war with the United States, these men—with the exclusion of Truong Chinh, who would be demoted in 1956 and would thereafter change his views on reunification—formed the core of the risk-averse and temporizing "moderate" wing of the party that steered DRVN decision-making until 1963.

The other two members of the Politburo, secretary of the Central Office (Directorate) for Southern Vietnam (COSVN) Le Duan and chairman of the General Political Department (GPD) of the People's Army of Vietnam (PAVN) General Nguyen Chi Thanh, dissented. Both had strong ties to the South, having fought there during the Indochina War, and thought that suspending hostilities on current terms wasted communist gains there. Regrouping communist forces to the North was most galling to them. According to historian Stein Tønnesson, Le Duan, who was still in the South when the other members of the Politburo accepted the Geneva accords and ordered the troops to regroup to the North, felt betrayed by the acceptance. The only way to achieve the party's objectives below the seventeenth parallel, he believed, was through military struggle, irrespective of the dangers entailed. While Le Duan and Thanh might have reconciled themselves to a strategic pause in the war, they opposed an extended lull and especially the withdrawal of Viet Minh forces from the South. Also, they did not think the party should prioritize economic recovery and development in the North while waiting on events in the South; Paris, Washington, or Saigon, if not all three, would never allow Vietnam to be reunified under VWP authority without putting up a fight.

On the basis of their convictions, the two men formed the nucleus of the party's hard-line, risk-taking "militant" wing, a minority faction committed to expeditious violent liberation of the South after July 1954, whose influence over decision-making increased slowly but surely over time. That nucleus eventually expanded to include Le Duc Tho, Le Duan's deputy during the Indochina War and his closest ideological ally, and Pham Hung, COSVN's third-in-command. Though unhappy about the strategic line set by the Politburo majority, the militants did their best to conform to it. As every party member knew, once the Politburo reached consensus and ruled on a matter, publicly questioning or opposing its ruling was strictly forbidden. But the militants, and Le Duan in particular, were not about to give up on their ambition to resume military struggle in the South sooner rather than later.

Though he would play a central role in the coming and waging of the Vietnam War, Le Duan remains an obscure, enigmatic figure. He was born Le Van Nhuan on 7 April 1907 in the village of Hau Kien in Quang Tri (now Binh Tri Thien) Province, and as a railway official traveled throughout the country sometime in the 1920s learning what he could about French colonialism and its impact on Vietnam. He joined the radical Revolutionary Youth League in 1928, changed his name to Le Duan, and became a founding member of the Indochinese Communist Party (ICP, the precursor to the VWP) in 1930. A year later he joined the ICP's Bac Ky (Tonkin, the northern third of Vietnam) Committee for Education and Training, which was in charge of ideological indoctrination. He was soon arrested in Haiphong on charges of subversion, for which he was sentenced to twenty years in solitary confinement. His sentence was commuted in late 1936, and shortly thereafter he became secretary of the Trung Ky (Annam, central Vietnam) branch of the ICP. He was arrested again in Saigon in 1940 and sentenced to ten years at the infamous prison on Con Dao (Poulo Condore) Island.


Excerpted from Hanoi's Road to the Vietnam War, 1954â"1965 by Pierre Asselin. Copyright © 2013 The Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
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Table of Contents

Foreword by the series editors


Glossary of Terms and Acronyms


1. Choosing Peace, 1954–1956

2. Changing Course, 1957–1959

3. Treading Cautiously, 1960

4. Buying Time, 1961

5. Exploring Neutralization, 1962

6. Choosing War, 1963

7. Waging War, 1964





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