Books on Vietnam

Vietnam: A New History

By Christopher Goscha, 2016

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

“In the great power account, Vietnam is the victim of colonization and domination, never a colonizer or conqueror itself. Its own internal divisions, ethnic diversity, and conflicts are obscured.”

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I’ve been looking for a while for a book on the history of Vietnam that focuses on what happened in Indochina before the French showed up in the mid-1800s.

I had so many questions on Vietnam. What was Vietnam like before the French came? Was Vietnam really a part of China? Who were some of its important rulers? How did it get its independence from China? What were the borders of Vietnam before the French came? Where did it gets its distinct culture? What makes the Vietnamese so passionate about their independence and freedom?

I didn’t get exactly what I wanted from Vietnam: A New History. But I did get something much better: a new and different way of looking at the Vietnam War.

If you’re like me and you have pretty strong views on the Vietnam War, this is a great book to pick up.

A Summary of Vietnam: A New History

Let’s look at what is covered in each chapter. It’s the best way for you to see if this book is for you.

Introduction – Goscha explains his approach to telling the history of Vietnam. Don’t skip this part!

Chapter 1 Northern Configurations – The history of Vietnam from its very beginnings to 1802; fascinating chapter

Chapter 2 A Divided House and a French Imperial Meridian – (1802 – 1862) Vietnam under the Nguyen Dynasty until the conquest of Vietnam by the French; lots of good info in this chapter

Chapter 3 Altered States – (1862 – 1896) The French occupation of Indochina; again fascinating

Chapter 4 Rethinking Vietnam – (early 1900s) – The Vietnamese attempts to work with the French colonial government to have a voice in the running of their country; very dense chapter

Chapter 5 The Failure of Colonial Republicanism – The failed reforms of the French colonial government and the rise of nationalist movements and the communist party under Ho Chi Minh; another dense chapter but also eye-opening

Chapter 6 Colonial Society and Economy – The economy of Indochina; the ethnic makeup of colonial Vietnam, and the different religions; the sections on the different classes and religions are interesting

Chapter 7 Contesting Empires and Nationalities – (1940 – 1947) World War II and Vietnam under Vichy France and the Japanese; the beginning of the civil war between Vietnamese Republicans (anti-communists) and Vietnamese communists (1945-1947); very interesting

Chapter 8 States of War – (1945 – 1947)  The beginning of First Indochina War – The French try to hold onto its colonial Empire and the communists and republicans try to work together; this chapter was confusing–hard to keep the different actors straight

Chapter 9 Internationalized States of War – (1947 – 1954) The Frist Indochina War; good chapter

Chapter 10 A Tale of Two Republics – (1954 – 1956) What North Vietnam was like under Ho Chi Minh and what South Vietnam was like under Ngo Dinh Diem; fascinating

Chapter 11 Toward One Vietnam – (1956 – 1975) The Second Indochina War; some new info on the war here

Chapter 12 Cultural Change in the Long Twentieth Century – ( until 1975) Cultural changes Vietnam went through during the colonial and post-colonial periods; ok chapter

Chapter 13 The Tragedy and the Rise of Modern Vietnam – (1975 – 1995) How the communists united with and transformed the South; how the Vietnamese fled Vietnam; the conflict between Vietnam, Cambodia, China, and the Soviet Union (Eurasian Communism); and the impact of the collapse of the Soviet Union on Vietnam; fascinating chapter

Chapter 14 Vietnam from Beyond the Red River – (8,000 BCE -1975) How the Vietnamese colonized the Linyi, Chams, Khmers, and the people of the Northern and Central Highlands from Vietnam’s earliest history to 1975; how the French manipulated the various Highland groups against the Vietnamese; the North and South Vietnam relationship with the Highland people; loved how Goscha wraps up the book by going back to Vietnam’s earliest history–a great way to conclude the book’s main point

My Thoughts on Vietnam: A New History

You can see from the chapter outline that only three chapters cover pre-colonial history. Seven of the fourteen chapters focus on the French colonization of Indochina. Not exactly what I originally wanted from this book.

That being said, I ended up not minding at all because Vietnam: A New History is such a FABULOUS and mind-changing book. It gave me a lot to think about. I’m still processing a lot of what Goscha had to say about Vietnam and the Second Indochina War.

If you’re looking for a book on the war between Vietnam and the United States, I think you’ll get a lot out of this book. If you just want to learn more about Vietnam, you cannot go wrong with Vietnam: A New History. Or if you’re planning on traveling to Vietnam some day, this is a great book on Vietnamese history.

Here’s what I loved about the book:

First, Goscha’s book is very Vietnamese-centric. He tells us the history of Vietnam from the perspective of the Vietnamese and not just as a victim of someone else’s history. So many books cover Vietnam in terms of the history of France or the United States. This one doesn’t do that at all!

Second, I know now what to properly call the war between Vietnam and the United States. Americans call it the Vietnam War, Vietnamese call it the American War. Historians who specialize in the region refer to the war as the Second Indochina War. The war between the French and Vietnam is the First Indochina War and Vietnam’s war against Cambodia and China is the Third Indochina War. Makes sense to me because the war included Laos and Cambodia as well as Vietnam.

The best part of this book is that Goscha opened my eyes to a different way of looking at the Second Indochina War. Before reading his book, I viewed the Americans as the instigator of the war. They were preventing the Vietnamese from doing what they were destined to do, what they had a right to do, and what ALL Vietnamese wanted to happen—to be united once again as one independent country.

But Goscha dispels this myth.

According to Goscha, the second Indochina War wasn’t a war created by the Americans. Instead, it was a civil war created by the North.

One side consisted of the communists in the North backed by China and the Soviet Union. The North wanted both the North and South united as one country under a communist government–just like what the North Koreans and China did to South Korea in the 1950s.

The other side was the republicans in the South who were backed by the Americans (as well as Australia and several countries in Asia). They wanted the South to be independent, and free of any western colonial power, but NOT necessarily to unite with the North. That last part is key. Southerners were wary of northerners and fearful of communists.

“As long as both Vietnams were content to focus on consolidating the south, then the ceasefire of 1954 could have held and could have easily produced two separate Vietnamese nationstates today, as in the case of the two Koreas and China.”

Another idea that I had of Vietnam that Goscha showed I was wrong was that Vietnam was fighting a war to bring Vietnam back together again as if Vietnam had always been the S-shaped unified country as we know it as today. In fact, the present-day territory of Vietnam does not have a very long history.

“In its entire history, Vietnam has only existed in its present national form for about eighty-three years and some month as of 2016)—never before 1802, for forty-three years in the nineteenth century, six months in 1945, and for forty years since 1976. The ‘great power’ take on the Vietnamese past tends to overlook this multiplicity.”

For most of the history of the area (before 900s it was a province in China), the Vietnamese ruled over only the area around Hanoi (Red River delta). The regions south of the Red River delta were ruled and inhabited by Chams and Khmers. It wasn’t until the 1400s and again in the 1600s that the Vietnamese started pushing into central Vietnam and pushing out the Chams. Not until the 1700s did they do the same to the Khmers and Chams in the Mekong River delta region. Vietnamese were also colonizers.

Another belief that Goscha refutes is the one purported by Francis FitzGerald in her critically acclaimed book Fire in the Lake. FitzGerald portrays Ngo Dinh Diem as only a puppet of the Americans and Ho Chi Minh as the only true patriot of Vietnam. According to Goscha, this is not true.

Goscha writes that the leader of South Vietnam, Ngo Dinh Diem, loved Vietnam and desired it to be independent and free just as much as Ho Chi Minh did. Ngo frustrated the Americans during the war BECAUSE he was such a poor and unpopular leader but more importantly BECAUSE they couldn’t get him to do what they wanted. And then the Americans okayed his assassination and put in someone who would listen to them.

I’m not letting the Americans off the hook. They were incompetent, ignorant, and cruel in how they conducted the war. Vietnam was a proxy war between the U.S. and China and the Soviet Union, and the Vietnamese suffered for it more than anyone else. Goscha puts the suffering into perspective perfectly:

“In all, according to statistics published recently in Hanoi, the war that started in 1965 and ended ten years later took the lives of 3.1 million of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam’s PAVN and its National Liberation Front’s PLAF people, civilians and military personnel combined. Two hundred thousand ARVN troops perished. While every single life is precious, only 58,000 Americans died in the conflict, that’s 1.7 percent of the 3.3 million total number of those who died. At 98.3 percent, death was a profoundly Vietnamese experience.”

That last sentence is quite profound for me. It’s so easy as an American to overemphasize the cost of the war to America and forget about how much it cost the Vietnamese.

I cannot praise this book enough.

Even though only two chapters are devoted to the Second Indochina War, if you’re someone who’s fascinated by the history of that war, you’ll get a lot out of the book. Goscha uses Vietnam’s earlier history to prove his thesis about that war.

You can read about their failures in The Best and the Brightest and A Bright Shining Lie. I list these books in my article on the best books on Vietnam.

How readable is it?

Vietnam: A New History is very readable. What I most love about the book is that he uses tons of signposts (firstly, secondly, thirdly). I have difficulty focusing on what I’m reading so these signposts help me keep my focus on what I’m reading.

Sometimes, though, the history is rightfully so filled with lots and lots of names of Vietnamese and French personalities you might have never heard of before. It’s hard to keep all the names straight. I recommend keeping a notebook with you and jot these names down.

About the Author – Christopher Goscha

Christopher Goscha is a professor in the history department at the University of Quebec in Montreal. He specializes in the history of the cold war in Asia and the colonization and decolonization in Africa and Asia.

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