Viet Nam began as two states, a northern one, Annam, Nam Viet, or Dai Viet, that was strongly under Chinese influence, and for long actually a part of China, and a southern one, Champa, where strong Indian influence can even be seen in the names of its kings (e.g. Rudravarman, much like the names of Cambodian kings). In time, having won its freedom from China, the northern kingdom conquered the southern one, and the Chinese cultural influence overwhelmed the Indian. From the small map, it can also be seen the the Mekong Delta region in the south was not originally part of the Vietnamese states. It was Cambodian and was absorbed by Vietnam as Cambodia declined.
Although powerfully influenced by Chinese vocabulary, the Vietnamese language is unrelated to Chinese. That they both uses tones to differentiate syllables is a character that Chinese itself may have picked up from Vietnamese’s own Austro-Asiatiac language group, or both of them may have gotten it from a neighboring group, the Thai-Lao, where every language is tonal, sometimes with up to 15 tones. It is a little hard to sort this all out in the Sprachbund of Southest Asia, where languages pick up features even from unrelated languages.
After a period of divison starting in the 16th century, Viet Nam was reunited by Gia Long, who proclaimed himself Emperor (Hoàng Ðê, Chinese characters and reading at right) in 1802. This was already with the help of the French, who by the end of the century had reduced Vietnam to a French dependency.
Several long term effects of the French dominion were a substantial Catholic population, a Francophile educated elite, and the abandonment of Chinese characters for a purely Latinized alphabetic system. The multiplicity of accents used for Vietnamese tones makes their reproduction in HTML impossible.
French rule in Indo-China was permanently shaken by Japanese occupation during World War II. The Vichy French regime was first bullied into allowing the Japanese in, and then the Japanese took over completely, allowing the Emperor Bao Dai to stay on as a figurehead. When they left in 1945, a takeover was engineered by the forces of Ho Chi Minh. At first, the United States had been reluctant to support the reimposition of French colonial rule, but the growing Communist threat made President Truman of the opinion that the French were the lesser of two evils. The revisionist argument is that Ho was just a good nationalist and an admirer of George Washington who would have been on our side if we had let him. None of this sort of thing, however, explains the vigor and consistency with which a Soviet style regime, economically and politically, was created. The Vietnamese revolutionaries, indeed, had learned their Leftism well in France itself; and Americian support alone, especially in the 1940’s or 50’s, would not have persuaded anyone that command economics and a police state were not good ideas.
They got their chance to apply their political philosophy by defeating the French, who at Dien Bien Phu in 1954 could not even be saved by the Foreign Legion. An international settlement divided Vietnam the way Germany, China, and Korea had previously been divided between Communists and Nationalists. Plebicites were mandated in both North and South. Never held in the South, in the North they were, of course, run in the typical totalitarian fashion, with predictable results. In pro-Communist propaganda, this put the South uniquely at fault. The Communist North then hardly hesitated in the business of taking over the South.
The subsequent war in Vietnam, with the full force of the United States thrown in, was lost more by defeats in public relations than by defeats on the battlefield. The Waterloo in that repect was the 1968 Têt (Chinese New Year, at the time confusingly called the “lunar new year,” which would apply to Rosh Hashanah just as well) Offensive. Communist units infiltrated South Vietnamese cities and attacked simultaneously across the country. That they were then annihilated, all but destroying Communist forces in the South, was irrelevant. On television it looked like Armageddon, and American military authorites had given everyone the impression that the Communists were already beaten and shouldn’t have been able to do anything of the sort. The fiasco dissuaded President Johnson from seeking reelection. President Nixon tried “Vietnamization” (bringing the South Vietnamese Army up to par) and a face-saving negotiated peace (“Peace with Honor”). After trying an all out invasion of the South 1972, the Communists accepted a peace settlement; but then, once American forces were safely at home, a general offensive in 1975 bagged the country. A weary American public and a defeatist Congress let South Vietnam (with Cambodia and Laos) fall, not even trying to get out all the people who wanted to flee (a peace undoubtedly with dishonor); and the “independent” South Vietnamese Communists quickly assented to the unification of the country under their peers in the North. The typical subsequent rigors of the Communist regime (concentration camps, “reeducation,” etc.) drove thousands of “Boat People” to sea, many finding their way to the United States but others, after years in internment camps in places like Hong Kong, were actually sent back to Vietnam.
Noteworthy in the course of the war were protests by the Vietnamese Buddhist community, whose most influencial figure internationally, until today, has been Thich Nhat Hanh. The protests initially were against anti-Buddhist measures by the Catholic President Ðiem. These included dramatic acts of self-immolation that captured the world’s imagination. Even after Ðiem was overthrown, however, protests continued against the war itself. This reflected what may have been widespread neutralist and pacifist sentiment in Vietnam. Thich Nhat Hanh himself went into exile rather than face arrest for anti-war statements. Unfortunately, while neutralist leaders never came to power in South Vietnam and so never negotiated for any such status with the North, it is obvious that the Communists were consistently never intent on anything but victory, which was achieved after a peace had supposedly been settled. There is a general lesson in this. The neutralist and pacifist movement in South Vietnam never had a counterpart in North Vietnam. This feature of the situation is usually overlooked. The Communists never allowed any protests or criticism of their policies, and when South Vietnam fell, the ideological rigors of Communism were immediately imposed in the South. The Buddhist community was immediately worse off than it had been even under Ðiem. Thich Nhat Hanh was never able to return from exile but today lives in France and the United States. Pacifism, indeed, will never have any attaction except to those who at least consider war an evil. Thus, American and international opinion was moved, and the resolve for war weakened, by the drama of Buddhist protests. But the Communists never considered war an evil and had no sympathy for pacifists, let alone Buddhists, except as psychological allies in pursuing their own goals. Like Hitler and Stalin before them, the Vietnamese Communists were perfect cynics in manipulating the naive.
With the handwriting on the wall about Communism, the Vietnamese Communists have tried the approach of allowing some economic liberalization but holding on to absolute political power — the Chinese “middle way,” rather than the brain dead conservatism of North Korean or Cuba or the complete political collapse in Russia and Eastern Europe. This has given the country, like China, a measure of development, and the young people are eating up Western influences, but the iron fist remains, ready at need. Thus, this site only displays the red and yellow flag of the Republic of Vietnam, not the Communist flag.
Recent American movies have leaned over backward to avoid anti-communist judgments about the war or the Communist regime in Vietnam. A book by Lt.Gen. Harold G. Moore, a Vietnam veteran, and Joseph L. Galloway, a reporter who met Moore at the time, We Were Soldiers Once… And Young [HaperTorch, 1991], has recently been made into a movie, We Were Soldiers , staring Mel Gibson. An excellent movie, largely faithful to the book, We Were Soldiers goes out of its way to portray the (North) Vietnamese solidiers as human, brave, sincere, and dedicated. Nevertheless, the Vietnamese national actor, Don Duong, who played the Vietnamese commanding officer in the movie, has been denounced by the Vietnamese government as a “national traitor” for appearing in the movie, which did “not reflect correctly the truth of history or the just war by the Vietnamese people.” The government denied that he had been arrested, jailed, or barred from traveling, as originally reported, but some punishment is definitely being formulated. Many people are shocked, shocked, that a Communist government should try to silence dissent, crush opposition, or, as in this case, react with hositility to a sympathetic protrayal that is simply not, apparently, sympathetic or politically correct (in terms of Communist propaganda) enough. This would be surprising only to the “useful idiot” liberals upon whom the Vietnamese Communists have always counted. The penalties for failing to toe the ideological line are entirely familiar from Soviet or Vietnamese practice (and now on American college campuses dominated by “tenured radical” Stalinists), and nothing could be more predictable. Don Duong would be well advised to abase himself in whatever way is necessary so that he can just get out of the country and seek asylum.
Many Thanks to: www.friesian.com
to Han China,
111 BC-544 AD
to Sui China,
The lists here are entirely from Bruce R. Gordon’s Regnal Chronologies. Vietnamese language information is from Nguyên Ðình-Hoà’s Vietnamese-English Dictionary [Tuttle Language Library, 1966, 1991] and Essential English-Vietnamese Dictionary [Tuttle Language Library, 1983, 1997].
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