William Duiker addresses the Vietnam War from the neglected Vietnamese perspective in Sacred War: Nationalism and Revolution in a Divided Vietnam. By focusing on the Vietnamese, he attempts to answer the question of why Vietnamese Communists were able to defeat France, the United States, and the Republic of Vietnam in succession. Duiker argues that Vietnamese Communists won the war by creating a popular front focused on nationalism acceptable to a broad spectrum of the Vietnamese populace, by their ability to meld political and military struggles to gain control of Vietnam, and by modifying Mao Tse Dong’s doctrine of people’s war to combine political and diplomatic action with graduated levels of force. The crusade for independence became a sacred war for Vietnamese nationalists.
The historical roots of nationalism and revolution in Vietnam were deep ones. Vietnamese cultural heroes were those like Ngo Quyen who fought for independence against China, and drove out the Chinese invaders in the tenth century A.D. The Vietnamese tradition of resisting invaders combined with V.I. Lenin’s 1920 call for Communists to join the national liberation struggle attracted Vietnamese radicals like Ho Chi Minh. Soon after becoming a Communist, Ho traveled to China to organize a Marxist revolutionary party to liberate Indochina. His infant revolutionary group preached a doctrine of national liberation and egalitarian reform that appealed to many Vietnamese, allowing it to grow into the Viet Minh Front.
Duiker claims that the Viet Minh’s superior preparations and organization allowed it to seize control of northern Vietnam at the end of World War II, and to establish the Democratic Republic of Vietnam. Although Ho Chi Minh sought to avoid war with France, militants in his new government forced the issue in the face of aggressive French actions. The DRV adopted a modified version of Mao’s people’s war, which avoided the use of static liberated areas and relied on diplomatic stratagems to weaken the French resolve. This strategy allowed the Viet Minh to survive long enough to defeat the French in the battle at Dien Bien Phu, resulting in the temporary partition of an independent Vietnam.
The DRV turned to rebuilding the northern economy and civil government. Duiker contends that Ho Chi Minh initially moved slowly to reform the economy and prepare for peaceful reunification with the south. When Ngo Dinh Diem refused to allow reunification under the terms of the 1954 Geneva Conference, the DRV chose to wait for his regime’s collapse. Diem’s repressive policies led to the growth of a guerilla movement dedicated to his overthrow. Because Ho Chi Minh prevented the DRV from becoming involved in the south, Duiker argues that the insurgency was a civil war, not an invasion. DRV forces were not directly involved in the south until after the introduction of American combat forces.
Sacred War focuses on the Communist perspective of Vietnam’s wars for independence, a viewpoint missing from most works on the conflict. However, Duiker ignores the experience of non-Communist Vietnamese. This oversight is defensible in that Communist-led Vietnamese nationalists were successful in liberating and uniting their nation. Duiker relies on newly available Vietnamese documents to support his claims that Ho Chi Minh’s strategy was to allow the Diem regime to collapse on its own, and that the American introduction of ground forces in South Vietnam led the North to involve its own forces. In contrast to the cruelty shown by many American depictions of Communist forces, Duiker glosses over the issues of treatment of prisoners, terrorist acts, and intimidation of villagers. This approach weakens his argument in the same way American refusal to acknowledge incidents such as the My Lai Massacre does – by calling his objectivity into question.