Vietnam: Does the Domino Fall?
For centuries, the world has been dominated by enduring Western influence. A particular country that has been part of the tumultuous upheaval of Western culture is Vietnam. Once an ancient civilization, stemming back to the ways of the Chinese Feudal System, Vietnam first met Western incursion in the form of French colonialism in 1887. From this point forward, the nation of Vietnam has continuously fought for the sovereignty of boundaries and rule. However, despite their individual best efforts to deviate from the ideals set out for them by their Western colonizers, Vietnam has only met constant and concurrent opposition from the same Western culture that has dominated it. Nevertheless, Vietnam has persisted rejected Western ideals of democracy in favor of a communist social structure and government theory. THEREFORE, THROUGH SUCH COLONIAL RULE AND DUE TO MILITARY INTERVENTIONISM, VIETNAM HAS PROVED TO BE A FISSURE POINT FOR THE IDEALS ROOTED IN TYPICAL WESTERN DEMOCRACY.
The ideals of the West were first placed on the modern conception of Vietnam following the defeat of the ruling So’n dynasty by the French-backed Nguyen lords. This was not explicitly the Vietnamese native’s first encounter with the western world. The Portuguese, Dutch, British, and even French had already ventured to the Vietnamese coasts prior.[footnoteRef:1] Further, there were even some small-scale economic ties between the indigenous Vietnamese and their European counterparts, which involved the exportation of goods from the Vietnamese delta. Nevertheless, it was the first concrete step that a Western nation had displayed of directly imposing their will onto Vietnam.[footnoteRef:2] [1: McLeod, Mark W. “Vietnam and the West: New Approaches (Review).” Journal of Colonialism and Colonial History. Johns Hopkins University Press, January 6, 2012. https://muse.jhu.edu/article/463350.] [2: Christopher T Fisher, “Nation Building and the Vietnam War,” Pacific Historical Review 74, no. 3 (August 2005): pp. 441-456, https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.1525/phr.2005.74.3.441, p.450]
While other nations continued their focus elsewhere within the region, more specifically on the developments within China, the French continued to set up and impose their will onto the Vietnamese people. Entering the 19th century, the French made more concerted efforts to define their status in Vietnam by upping the amount of trade they conducted within the region as well as instituting Christian missionaries.[footnoteRef:3] Such insertion of western religion began to create a sense of cultural chafing between the French and the Vietnamese. Vietnam was, and still is, a majority Buddhist nation.[footnoteRef:4] Therefore, when paired against the foreign ideals of Christianity which include total deviations to an already established social hierarchy, the Vietnamese kingdom likely felt susceptible to the French’s cristianianization. Intrusively, the French persisted in their enlightenment, yet the forcible spread of Christianity on a nation that they perceived as xenophobic. In reality, Vietnam’s sovereignty would be gradually worn by France, and in 1887, the final Vietnamese entities would formally become French Indochina.[footnoteRef:5] [3: J. R. Clementine, “The Nationalist Dilemma in Vietnam,” Pacific Affairs 23, no. 3 (1950): pp. 294-310, https://doi.org/10.2307/3035098, p.301)] [4: Grant Evans, “Internal Colonialism in the Central Highlands of Vietnam,” Journal of Social Issues in Southeast Asia 33, no. 5 (1992): pp. 30-60, https://doi.org/10.1355/sj7-2e, p.40)] [5: Ibid.]
With the direct insertion of French influence coupled with a dominating sense of Social Darwinism, the French would construct and implement new systems of western education, political practices, and continued propagation of Catholicism.[footnoteRef:6] Many of these ideals were foreign to the native Vietnamese people; in turn, they openly rejected them by rising up against their French occupiers in nationalist political movements. However, the through constant quelling of Vietnamese independence movements, the French would become numb to the growing demands for increased civil rights and governmental autonomy. Moreover, due to such detachment from the desires of the Vietnamese, the French colonizers would cause the Vietnamese to seek other means of support for reaching Vietnamese independence, such as aligning with the growing communist movement of the East. These changes to political ideologies occurred while France was drained of resources and tired from the First World War. Communist leaders like Ho Chi Mihn publically called for independence from French colonization at the Versailles peace talks following WWI.[footnoteRef:7] Although Minh was classically French-educated, a sense of racial and cultural superiority would yet again prevail as the Western international community would dismiss Ho Chi Minh’s call for a sovereign Vietnamese state. Such dismissal would only serve to fuel the Vietnamese people in their discontent with western idealism and push them further away from democracy. [6: Nguyen Quan and Duong Tuong, “Western Culture in Vietnam,” The Journal of Decorative and Propaganda Arts 20 (1994): pp. 224-235, https://www.jstor.org/stable/1504124, p.226)] [7: J. R. Clementine, “The Nationalist Dilemma in Vietnam,” Pacific Affairs 23, no. 3 (1950): pp. 294-310, https://doi.org/10.2307/3035098, p.303)]
Western culture further failed the people of Vietnam regarding the allied commitment to protect Vietnam during WWII. Upon the commencement of WWII, Germany invaded France. Germany’s invasion left Vietnam (then still part of French Indochina) in the clutches of the Japanese Empire. During the five years of Japanese occupation in Vietnam, Ho Chi Minh and his nationalist liberation movement, the Viet Minh, were rallying support amongst fellow Vietnamese for a communist ideological movement that would counter Western neglect.[footnoteRef:8] When Vietnam had cried for independence following the peace talks of WWI, they were met with silence. However, facing the impending doom of yet another foreign country’s occupation, they were abandoned and left to fight unaided. Not only had the West blatantly neglected the wishes of the Vietnamese people, but they had also proved they could no longer protect their colonial holdings in a time of war.[footnoteRef:9] It is clear to see why Vietnam turned to communist ideology in the hope that a deviation from Western norms would lead to a free, independent Vietnam. [8: Ibid, 306.] [9: J. R. Clementine, “The Nationalist Dilemma in Vietnam,” Pacific Affairs 23, no. 3 (1950): pp. 294-310, https://doi.org/10.2307/3035098, p.297)]
Nevertheless, for the individuals of Vietnam, who were starting to recuperate from five years of merciless monetary abuse by the Japanese, the end of World War II vowed to conclude eighty years of French control. Vietnamese patriots had battled against the Japanese trespassers. Aided by the help of rich and poor laborers, specialists, proprietors, undergraduates, and other educated members of the populous, the Viet Minh had extended all throughout northern Vietnam. There it set up new governments, redistributed land, and opened businesses to ease the rampant starvation. On September 2, 1945, Ho Chi Minh broadcasted the free Democratic Republic of Vietnam to the world.[footnoteRef:10] Ho Chi Minh, while still deviating from Western norms, states in the first line of the Vietnamese declaration of independence, “All men are created equal. They are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, among them are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.'[footnoteRef:11] Minh copies the United States Declaration of Independence to show that Vietnam is independent of the tyranny of the French and will be deviating from Western idealism. However, they are a nation that also recognizes the same individual rights and liberties afforded by the pinnacle of the West. This duplication displays how Vietnam operates as an independent nation today, mirroring the opportunity and liberty of the West while being compounded with the once-expanding communism. [10: “Declaration of Independence of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam,” HISTORY MATTERS - The U.S. Survey Course on the Web, accessed November 24, 2019, http://historymatters.gmu.edu/d/5139/)] [11: Ibid.]
While in its sovereign infancy, Vietnam never found itself too far from the clutches of Western, and more specifically, US military interventionism. Following the French-Indochina War, Vietnam was granted its independence, but subdivided into two distinct states. The United States observed the region of Southeast Asia with fear as their primary concern was the spread of communism throughout the region. British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, following WWII, detailed the Soviet Union's social and militaristic influence when saying, “An iron curtain has descended across the continent.”[footnoteRef:12] Knowing that an extension of that very same curtain may be headed toward Southeast Asia, US President Dwight Eisenhower went on to describe the situation as a “falling domino,” stating that if Vietnam fell to Marxist-Leninist communism, the rest of the region would fall as well.[footnoteRef:13] Thus under the devised strategy of what would come to be called “containment,” the United States intervened militarily in an attempt to maintain political, cultural, and military superiority within the region as well as to reduce the likelihood that communism would take hold. [12: “The Sinews of Peace ('Iron Curtain Speech'),” The International Churchill Society, April 13, 2017, https://winstonchurchill.org/resources/speeches/1946-1963-elder-statesman/the-sinews-of-peace/)] [13: “Quotes of President Dwight D. Eisenhower,” National Parks Service (U.S. Department of the Interior), accessed November 25, 2019, https://www.nps.gov/features/eise/jrranger/quotes2.htm)]
Despite US efforts to quell the spread of communism, by 1963 Vietnam faced a religious crisis due to the US-backed, pro-Catholic South Vietnamese government. The Catholic regime headed by the Archbishop of Hue, Ngo Dinh Thuc, discriminated against the Buddhist majority by banning their flag, killing protestors, and raiding pagodas. Protests would intensify to an all-time high when Buddhist Monk, Thich Quang Duc, conducted self-immolation to push back against the cruel Catholic tyranny.[footnoteRef:14] Due to the propped-up government, which yet again forced western ideals of Christianity onto an unwilling populous, modern-day Vietnam has aligned itself to contain a Buddhist majority that is deeply intertwined in the facets of the Vietnamese state. [14: J. R. Clementine, “The Nationalist Dilemma in Vietnam,” Pacific Affairs 23, no. 3 (1950): pp. 294-310, https://doi.org/10.2307/3035098, p.299)]
While well-intentioned, the US military intervention in South Vietnam during the Vietnam War proved to be adversarial in containing communism’s inherent growth. Support for Ho Chi Minh and his communist National Liberation Front (NLF or “Viet Cong”) forces in Vietnam lay strongest in the countryside with rural farmers and peasants. However, the US and South Vietnamese forces participated in the creation of strategic hamlet programs in which the people were relocated forcibly in order to avoid North Vietnamese influence via the Ho Chi Minh trail.[footnoteRef:15] These forced settlements not so shockingly failed and thus strengthened the support for the NLF forces. Due to such intervention on behalf of the United States, many of Vietnam’s cultural aspects such as the media and communication networkings are now explicitly state-controlled and regulated.[footnoteRef:16] Thus, the ability to disseminate ideas that could be deemed as “harmful” to the Vietnamese people is significantly reduced. [15: Christopher T Fisher, “Nation Building and the Vietnam War,” Pacific Historical Review 74, no. 3 (August 2005): pp. 441-456, https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.1525/phr.2005.74.3.441, p.445)] [16: “The World Factbook: Vietnam,” Central Intelligence Agency (Central Intelligence Agency, February 1, 2018), https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/geos/vm.html)]
Further, the United States pushed the Vietnamese away from the ideals of western democracy through the escalation of their military intervention. US President Lyndon Johnson would formally escalate the US presence to include ground and air forces along with the CIA-trained South Vietnamese following the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution.[footnoteRef:17] This resolution ceded an unwieldy amount of military autonomy to the President without officially needing a declaration of war. Nonetheless, it became apparent that it was difficult to win over the hearts and minds of the people when they were being bombed. Therefore, the escalation of President Johnson's and later President Nixon’s military affairs in Vietnam pushed the Vietnamese people further towards Soviet-sponsored communism in which the state still regulates many of the aspects of their citizens’ lives. [17: Christopher T Fisher, “Nation Building and the Vietnam War,” Pacific Historical Review 74, no. 3 (August 2005): pp. 441-456, https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.1525/phr.2005.74.3.441, p.448)]
Conclusively, Vietnam is not dissimilar to many other countries as the Vietnamese people have felt the incursion of Western society for hundreds of years. However, they are different when viewed in their resilience to the such incursion. Following French colonialism and American military intervention, the Vietnamese people stood firm against the West’s desire to shape their nation. At the time of the Vietnam War, it appeared as though a nation had to be either fully democratic or fully communist. However, while Vietnam ultimately rejected the ideals of Western democracy and remains a communist state today, their economic policies in particular have shown trends of increasingly capitalist tendencies that deviate from Soviet-era theory.[footnoteRef:18] Thus, today the world enjoys a Vietnam that stood firm against the rise of the West but can still embrace some aspects for all to enjoy. [18: “The World Factbook: Vietnam,” Central Intelligence Agency (Central Intelligence Agency, February 1, 2018), https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/geos/vm.html)]