Vietnam: A Sociopolitical History

The country of Vietnam bears a unique and tragic place in the annals of Western historical consciousness. Wars waged against this nation have brought about significant sociopolitical changes in Western countries, especially in the United States. But even though Vietnam is mostly known for the influence of its major wars on our society, its historical and cultural development is also quite unique. Like the vast majority of Southeast Asian countries, Vietnam has been colonized by numerous empires throughout the duration of its existence. However, it was also one of the earliest Southeast Asian colonies to staunchly oppose and resist colonization, and by 1975, the people of Vietnam had established their own identity that was forged by their struggle for independence and political autonomy. Yet the government that came about after Vietnam gained its autonomy was not democratically based, as its struggle for independence did not follow the same democratic path as Western revolutions. The Vietnamese regime is strikingly authoritarian and Vietnam’s culture, as well as its governmental structure, is deeply indebted to numerous philosophical ideologies, such as the social and ethical philosophy of Confucianism, and the influence of these ideologies took root when Vietnam was colonized by China over 2000 years ago.

CHINESE COLONIALISM: 111 B.C.E - 939 C.E.

The colonization of Vietnam by China was not the most unusual phase of the country’s history. Imperial China spanned over a wide margin of Asia which now consists of a multitude of independent countries. The Chinese military managed to conquer the small Vietnamese civilization in 111 B.C.E. According to Sucheng Chan in Chapter Four of her book, The Vietnamese American, “In 111 B.C.E., China invaded Nam Viet and colonized it. During the next millennium, Chinese officials sent to govern the region divided it into provinces and districts, introduced the plow and the use of water buffalos as draft animals, opened schools to teach the Chinese language and the Chinese classics, erected buildings in the Chinese cultural style, and built roads, canals, and harbors with coerced Vietnamese labor” (4). Chan makes it clear that the primary impacts of Chinese colonization were cultural and economic. Because of the dominance of Chinese cultural values in early Vietnamese schools, Confucian philosophy became widely known among the Vietnamese populace. But even though Confucianism was widely understood by the Vietnamese, its core tenant of obedience to authority was not always observed. The most significant impact of Chinese colonization was the way in which it evoked staunch Vietnamese resistance. Chan states, “The Vietnamese chafed and seethed under the Chinese yoke. Revolts against Chinese rule punctuated the history of Nam Viet” (4).

Ancient Chinese Warrior Sculptures

The natives of Vietnam finally drove out the Chinese in 939 C.E. and established their own dynasties. Once the country gained its independence, the new government sought to expand its territory by colonizing other lands. However, the expansion era wasn’t always grand, as the Vietnamese were forced to defend themselves from numerous invaders, including the Mongols and the Chinese once again. After the army managed to fend off these persistent attacks, Vietnam maintained its independent sovereignty for a few hundred years. “Upon the (second) Chinese departure in 1427, Le Loi established a new dynasty known as the Later Le dynasty, which lasted for three and a half centuries. However, by the latter part of the sixteenth century that dynasty began to decline” (Chan, 8).

FRENCH COLONIALISM: 1600 - 1945

When the Later Le dynasty began to decline, European colonists began to arrive in the Southeast Asian region. The French were the primary European influence in Vietnam, as French Catholic missionaries arrived in the early 17th Century and befriended Nguyen Anh, who would eventually become the head of the Nguyen dynasty. Nguyen seized control of the country by virtue of numerous military campaigns and actually changed the country’s name from Nam Viet to Vietnam in 1802. Over the next 140 years or so, the French would continue to have a profound influence on the Nguyen dynasty and continuously attempt to fully colonize Vietnam. The first decisive and violent attempt to expel French colonialists (as well as any other Western nation which attempted to colonize the country) took place in 1945 during the First Indochina War.

Vietnamese civilians during the First Indochina War: 1945

The irony of the First Indochina War was that it was fully supported by the United States, even though a communist movement primarily led the Vietnamese resistance. According to Huhynh Kim Khanh in his article, “The Vietnamese Communist Movement Revisited,” “In 1945, when the communist-oriented Viet Minh Front promoted Vietnamese independence and a social revolution, it did so with the support of a then idealistic and supposedly anti-imperialist America” (446). Vietnamese communism began to form in the mid-1920s, which was right around the time when the communist ideology had been introduced to Southeast Asia as a result of the Russian Revolution in 1917. However, the Viet Minh movement would not have its complete victory until its war with the United States and the established Vietnamese government ten years later.

THE RISE OF COMMUNISM AND WAR WITH THE UNITED STATES: 1945-1975

After the First Indochina War, Vietnam was divided into two separate countries: North Vietnam and South Vietnam. The communists, headed by Ho Chi Minh, controlled the northern country and democratic republicans, headed by Ngo Dinh Diem, controlled the southern country. But the coexistence of these two nations did not last long, as the North Vietnamese government perceived its southern neighbor as an outlet for Western imperialists to continue colonizing Southeast Asia, and the Southern Vietnamese government feared the communist authoritarianism of the north. As a result of these strikingly different political outlooks, a total war broke out in 1955. The Second Indochina War, or, as it is commonly called, the Vietnam War, also involved numerous actors outside the sphere of Vietnam, including the United States, the Soviet Union, China, Thailand, Cuba, South Korea, and Australia. According to Leslie Gelb and Richard Betts in Chapter 3 of their book, The Irony of Vietnam, “It was as if destiny had been suspended that day in 1945 when French forces returned to Indochina to reclaim their colonies. The French and the Americans would be driven out; the strongest of the Vietnamese factions would face each other undisturbed by outsiders and one would win” (325). In 1975, after the Americans and other outside actors abandoned the conflict, Ho Chi Minh’s communist movement was victorious and claimed sovereignty over all of Vietnam. From their perspective, communism had successfully brought about a completely independent and free Vietnam which would operate under a new social order.

Vietnamese Government
1975 Vietnamese Postcard

Upon the unification of Vietnam, the nation became a single-party, socialist political state.

Vietnam became dedicated to the establishment of socialism, a transitional social state between capitalism and the realization of communism through Marxism–Leninism.

Vietnam’s government is led by the Communist Party of Vietnam. The National Assembly of Vietnam is then entrusted with all legislative responsibilities, and membership in the unicameral legislative body is met through elections. The National Assembly elects the President of Vietnam, and the president appoints the Prime Minister of Vietnam; together the president and prime minister are vested executive powers. Distinctive from the United States’ bicameral legislature, Vietnam’s unicameral system allows for more efficient law-making as there is no possibility for deadlock.

While Western societies consider single-party, socialist states as communist, and while the establishment and ascent of communism is interpreted by Western societies as threatening, Vietnam has challenged the meta-narrative of democracy’s superiority.

Ho Chi Minh City

Vietnam adheres to “Asian Values” that emphasize “national integration, collectivism, the priority of the community over the individual, and the organic nature of the state as the representative of all society.”

Vietnam’s one-party state tradition, the Communist Party of Vietnam’s lack of support for the expression of collective interests outside of the party framework, and the presence of “Asian Values” all contribute to the pronounced absence of independent civil society in Vietnam.

Vietnamese citizens, much like citizens of other Southeast Asian states, are completely willing to forfeit civil liberties, such as the freedoms of expression and religion, to secure social cohesion and pro-growth political system. There is a substantial amount of trust in the state.

Economic growth achieved in pro-market stances is beneficial to a nation’s citizenry and, according to Clifford J. Shultz’s entry, Vietnam: Political Economy, Marketing System in the Journal of Macromarketing, since the Communist Party of Vietnam’s implementation of the Doi Moi, or economic reforms, in the late 1980s, the country has made extraordinary progress on several socioeconomic factors. The reason for the effectiveness of the pro-growth state and progressing social prosperity in Vietnam is not related to civil society, but in the state’s competent use of policy.

While economic reforms and pro-market stances have brought great prosperity to Vietnam; Vietnam contradicts their value of prioritizing the "community over the individual". This may be recognized in governmental land seizures.

There is no legal concept of private land ownership.

The legitimate ownership of the land belongs to the government and, all the while, farmers situate their livelihoods on the possession and access to their granted lands. Land acquisition refers to the government officials’ process of re-acquiring previously allocated land for the purpose of industrialization and the expectation to provide compensation to the affected “landowners”. The pressing demand for industrialization, urbanization, and modernization in Vietnam alongside the “prioritization of the community” justifies the government seizures of farmlands to establish public interest infrastructure projects, such as public roadways and trading ports.

Government officials in Vietnam can forcibly acquire land from farmers, not just for public interest projects, but on the behalf of private investors building housing estates and recreational facilities. Investors bribe government officials to approve their own development projects, such as a condominium complex, in lieu of previously approved plans, such as the public interest projects.

Simultaneously, government officials compensate the village farmers for land at rates drastically below market value. The monopoly of power that government officials have over the power to decide these compensation rates contributes to farmers’ senses of uncertainty and instability for their futures; private investors and officials receive individual gain at the expense of a larger community.

Economic Advancement, Environmental Disaster: 1986-2017

It is not as if the Vietnamese bureaucracy did not recognize the potential impact of manufacturing on the country’s landscape. Nor did the government officially turn a blind eye to the problem of pollution. In 2001, the state released its “State of the Environment” doctrine, which identified the country’s primary environmental problems as deforestation, land degradation, loss of biodiversity, water pollution, air pollution, and solid waste management. As a result of these environmental issues, the government responded by adding another branch to its immense bureaucracy. The Vietnam Environment Administration was established in 2008 as an extension of the Ministry of Science, Technology and Environment, which was established in 1992. The bureaucracy, therefore, has full control over environmental regulation and policy in the country. However, numerous scholars, Vietnamese journalists, and protestors argue that the state has not adequately responded to the severe pollution problems.

Grassroots civilian groups which tend to evoke democratic tendencies have been the primary voice for regulating industrial pollution in Vietnam. If the Vietnamese government is going to uphold its legitimacy in future years, it is clear that laws which protect the environment must be on their agenda. If the “pro growth” ideology of rapid industrialization continues, the authoritarian state is likely to face fierce resistance from its people.

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