Last week I spent two days at a rather amazing workshop here at Cornell on the Republic of Vietnam under the Second Republic. The Second Republic (1967-1975) was the regime under President Nguyễn Văn Thiệu that presided over the difficult period of U.S. involvement and eventually fell to the invading North Vietnamese forces in April 1975.
Many Americans of my generation and one generation older are fascinated by the Vietnam War (or, as my students know to call it, the Second Indochina War). The basic question that motivates this fascination, I think, is that we want to know how to evaluate U.S. involvement in the war—good, bad, if bad how bad, necessary or not, and so on. So many Americans on both sides of these debates think that they know the answers to these question, as if the answers are obvious or simple to anyone. I want to make the case in this post that these questions do not have easy answers.
Why not? Because the answers to these questions depend on factual answers to basic questions about the Republic of Vietnam, and we know so little about it. (Let us set aside the question of whether or not the U.S. government ought to send Americans to fight in wars like Second Indochina War, which is a separate but no less compelling question.) Consider various perspectives on South Vietnam.
- The Ngô Đình Diệm regime was really popular
- The Diệm regime really was not popular
- Thiệu could never have built a stable political regime
- Thiệu could have built a stable political regime if he had the right kind of foreign support
- A stable and coherent Thiệu regime could have been the foundation for an independent Republic of Vietnam
- A stable and coherent Thiệu regime would have been insufficient for the foundation of an independent Republic of Vietnam—for that, something like legitimacy is needed too
- The Republic of Vietnam was conquered by an invading foreign force without substantial support from the people living in South Vietnam
- The Second Republic was unseated with the support of the majority of the Vietnamese people by a nationalist force that happened to be led by Worker’s Party of Vietnam which controlled the northern part of the Vietnamese state
- The Republic of Vietnam was a state
- The Republic of Vietnam was not a state; at most, it was a puppet regime occupying part of the Vietnamese state
Let me underscore two things. First, this is not a political Rashomon effect. Some of these things just cannot be true at the same time. Second, it is possible to uncover experts who are incredibly certain that each of these positions is correct—like, of course Thiệu could have built a coherent regime if he had the right support.
These aforementioned statements revolve around three central fault lines in the political history of the Second Indochina War.
- The war was “about” (a) communism, (b) nationalism, or (c) modernity
- South Vietnam was either (a) viable or (b) not viable as a state (not as a regime, as a state)
- Politics in South Vietnam was fundamentally (a) autonomous or (b) dependent on foreign support
When taking positions on the Vietnam war, observers tend to take “all (a)” or “all (b)” positions: if you think that the war was about nationalism, you think that South Vietnam was not a viable state and that its politics were utterly dependent on foreign support. The same in reverse. But here’s the thing: these various positions don’t all have to go together. The war could have been about nationalism and South Vietnam could have been a viable state anyway.
If we entertain this possibility, then we can see a more fundamental theoretical point about South Vietnam. It is possible to approach South Vietnam as a nation, as a regime, and as a state. These are not the same things.
- A nation is a “community of people who share a common language, culture, ethnicity, descent, or history.” It is fashionable to assume that there is “a Vietnamese nation,” and that is indeed true today. But this is an modern development. Look back before the French colonial period and you have all sorts of overlapping cultural and political entities. Until relatively recently, the people living in the Mekong delta would not have considered themselves Vietnamese. Indeed, the French never ruled Vietnam as a single entity. If modern developments created a single Vietnamese nation, then they also could have created more than one, in the same way that the closely related people on one side of the Straits of Malacca today are Indonesians, and on the other sides they are Malaysians. A “South Vietnamese” nation is no less artificial and constructed a concept than the Vietnamese nation.
- A regime refers to the organizational form and structure of government in a country. The Republic of Vietnam had two, maybe three regimes, depending on how you think of the period after the assassination of Diem.
- A state is the highest sovereign entity in international politics which “maintains a monopoly of the legitimate use of force within a certain territory.” The debate here comes down to “legitimate.” Before assuming that the continuous presence of the NLF insurgency rules out the possibility that any political entity in South Vietnam ever had a monopoly over the legitimate use of violence, it is important to remember that (1) at various points (the late 1950s, and by some accounts the early 1970s) the southern insurgency had been nearly eliminated as an effective organization and (2) contested legitimacy is the rule, not the exception, in modern states. The Second Republic did not fall to the NLF. It fell to the NVA.
Armed with these concepts, let’s return to the factual disagreements identified above. Could a stable Thiệu regime ever have taken root? The participants in this workshop were clear that it could have, despite whatever flaws that his regime actually had. Was the Republic of Vietnam a nation? Was it a state? Again, the consensus answer was yes, to both questions. We shouldn’t simple accept the participants’ opinions as facts—they have personal biases and incentives to portray themselves in a positive light, and they hardly represent the run-of-the-mill southerners. But they highlight perspectives that have been almost entirely omitted from the American historiography of the Second Indochina War. And they remind us that, for example, opposition to the Thiệu regime is a conceptually different thing than doubting the existence of a South Vietnamese nation, and that the state of South Vietnam existed independently of any one person’s opinion of its historical origins.
If you want to think further about how these points relate to the broader issue of U.S. involvement in Vietnam, read this remarkable essay by my colleague Keith Taylor. Keith’s essay didn’t convince me of anything, except for one important point: everything that seems self-evident in the historiography of the Second Indochina War deserves critical scrutiny.