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Interview with William Duiker


Rarely have we seen our chief founder happier than the day Dr. William Duiker agreed to an interview with Vietnam has always been a subject of interest for us. No small nation has ever pushed its way through modern military history as Vietnam did; it routed some of the world's major players: China, France, Japan, England, and the United States. Unfortunately, Vietnam paid for this honor with millions of lives. Its commitment to independence and firm willingness to pay the price have some resemblance to early America.

At the forefront of twentieth century Vietnam was a leader by the name of Ho Chi Minh -- "He Who Enlightens." He was a man of deception, contradiction, and mystery. He was also a person of great humbleness, patience, and compromise. We would argue that he, unlike many of the people around him, made a sincere effort to attain the highest level of victory for Vietnam: victory without fighting. This is Sun Tzu's main tenet. So what happened? Was Vietnam's struggle Ho Chi Minh's fault? Were his methods proved most effective in the end?

Tough questions. The only person we know who is most qualified to answer them is William Duiker. He is the world-renowned authority on Vietnam, particularly on the life of Ho Chi Minh. In our opinion (along with many other critics), his 600-page biography of Ho Chi Minh published in 2000 is the most balanced and trustworthy portrayal of the immensely important Vietnamese leader to date. The book was named one of the best books of the year by the Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times, and is the finalist for the Mark Lynton History Prize and the Lionel Gelber Prize.

Dr. Duiker is a professor emeritus of East Asian Studies in Penn State's College of the Liberal Arts. We understand you were first fascinated by Ho Chi Minh in the mid-1960s when you were a foreign service officer stationed at the US Embassy in Saigon. Please recount for our readers the spark that led to three decades of research into his life.

Duiker: I first became interested in Ho Chi Minh in 1964-1965 while I was stationed at the U.S. Embassy in South Vietnam as a foreign service officer with the Department of State. At that time the government in Saigon was at the point of collapse and the Johnson administration was preparing to send U.S. combat troops to prevent a communist victory there. I became convinced that the U.S. effort would not succeed because of the lack of conviction in the Saigon government compared to the discipline and sense of self-sacrifice among the Viet Cong. I did not feel - in President Kennedy's words - that we could win the war for them. When I sought the reason for the dedication shown by the enemy, it seemed to me that the leadership and charisma shown by Ho Chi Minh was a major part of the answer. At that time I decided that after returning to the US to pursue an academic career I would eventually study the life of Ho Chi Minh to find the secret of his success. It took over thirty years to amass the necessary information to publish the biography. Some people know the connection between Mao Zedong and Sun Tzu, but few know the connection between Ho Chi Minh and Sun Tzu. For example, the Vietnamese leader translated The Art of War from the Chinese for his Vietnamese officers. Would you share with us the influence Sun Tzu's philosophies had on Ho Chi Minh -- on battle tactics and particularly regarding the concept of victory without violence?

Duiker: Ho Chi Minh rarely wrote about Sun Tzu, but when he did mention the ancient Chinese military strategist, he was always laudatory, and he sometimes cited his ideas as a model for the Vietnamese revolutionary movement to follow. There were various aspects of Sun Tzu's approach that appealed to him: a) to learn to understand both the enemy and yourself, to seek out his weaknesses and your own strengths, and act accordingly, b) to make ample use of subterfuge and stratagem in order to defeat or disarm your adversary, and c) to use outright violence only when absolutely necessary in the belief that political struggle was more effective than military struggle.

Sun Tzu's ideas as expressed above had a profound effect on Ho Chi Minh, who sought to defeat both the French and the Americans without recourse to violence - or at least to conventional battle tactics. He was well aware that the enemy possessed more firepower than did his own forces, and sought to use what he viewed as the superior political and moral position of his own revolutionary movement as a trump card to defeat a well-armed adversary. These ideas were originally generated during his early years as a revolutionary in the 1920s and 1930s, and continued to influence his recommendations in the wars against the French (1946-1954) and the United States (1959-1965). He sought to defeat both adversaries primarily by using diplomatic and political means, combined with paramilitary activities. Truong Chinh, one of "four pillars" of the Party, wrote in 1947, "If the enemy attacks us from above, we will attack him from below. If he attacks us in the north, we will respond in Central or South Vietnam, or in Cambodia or Laos. If the enemy penetrates one of our territorial bases, we will immediately strike hard at his belly or back." As with some of Mao Zedong's writings, most likely Truong Chinh's description here was from The Art of War. Whether or not they were consciously or subconsciously observed, to what extent do you think Sun Tzu's principles permeated the North Vietnamese leadership?

Duiker: The influence of Sun Tzu on other North Vietnamese military strategists is harder to answer. Certainly many of the key leaders in Hanoi were aware of Sun Tzu and made use of his ideas - Vo Nguyen Giap applied many of these ideas in seeking out weak elements in the enemy's defenses, as did Truong Chinh, whose famous treatise, The Resistance Will Win (1947), cited the ideas of Mao Zedong as a model for the North Vietnamese to follow. But none of Ho Chi Minh's colleagues was as dedicated to the use of political struggle, psychological warfare, and diplomatic means as he was. On many occasions in the late 1950s and 1960s, his ideas were apparently ignored by those who felt that his approach was too naive and prone to compromise. The outbreak of open warfare with the French and later with the United States was in effect a sign of the failure of Ho Chi Minh to achieve his objective to fight and win at low cost. Ho Chi Minh and the North Vietnamese leadership had much support from China and the USSR. Strategy-wise, ignoring the political and economic support they received from these two countries, would they still have been successful against France and the United States on their own?

Duiker: Could the DRV have won the war without relying on Sun Tzu's ideas - or those provided by the USSR and China? That is not an easy question to answer, because many of the ideas of Sun Tzu and Mao Zedong came naturally to the young Ho Chi Minh, who would probably have applied the same strategy even had he not been aware of them. From the outset, when he became a member of the French Communist Party in 1920, he was an independent thinker who adjusted Marxist-Leninist ideas and tactics to what he perceived to be the concrete situation in Indochina. When the advice of Moscow ran counter to his own ideas - as in the 1930s - he kept his head down and waited until the situation changed in his favor with the beginning of the Pacific War. When he served in China during World War II, he learned about Mao Zedong's tactics of guerrilla war against the Japanese (and later against Chiang Kai-shek's forces), and he translated some of Mao's works into Vietnamese. But it is clear that his own ideas on how to counter the enemy ran along the same lines.

When China began to provide major assistance and advice to the DRV in the 1950s, Ho Chi Minh was generally receptive to such advice, but was always conscious that conditions in China and Vietnam were not always the same. He "kowtowed" to the Chinese - as he had to the Soviet Union - in order to receive their assistance, but he quietly worked to limit those forms of influence of which he did not approve (such as the harsh forms of land reform and the Great Leap Forward). Unfortunately, he was not always successful in fending off those forms of external advice that he didn't agree with. In your book, you expressed the moderating effect Ho Chi Minh had on some North Vietnamese leaders' proclivity for warfare. (Truong Chinh and Vo Nguyen Giap were certainly more combative than Ho Chi Minh.) It seems Ho Chi Minh's strength was in negotiation and compromise -- accomplishing objectives through political means. Do you think if Ho Chi Minh had carte blanche decision making in Vietnam, would the Vietnamese struggle be different? If so, do you think America's Vietnam War would still happen?

Duiker: Ho Chi Minh preferred to use the tactics of negotiation and compromise, primarily because of his recognition that the revolutionary movement was militarily weaker than its adversaries. If he had had carte blanche over his movement, would the results of the war have been different? That is difficult to say. In some cases - as in 1945 and 1946, he appeared to overestimate the possibility that the United States might decide to recognize his government and the independence of the DRV (although to be fair, from the outset he had warned that Washington might eventually decide to align with the French because of the Cold War). In the spring of 1946 he signed a provisional agreement with the French representative on a compromise solution to the dispute over Vietnamese independence. Once again, he might have been naive in hoping that a compromise was really possible. Finally, in 1954 he agreed to the Geneva Agreement, which divided the country temporarily into two zones, in the hope that national elections might unify the country under his leadership. Once again, his hopes were dashed. In the end, many of his more militant colleagues began to feel that Ho's tendency to compromise, and his reluctance to confront the enemy directly, was a sign of weakness. The decision to confront the United States in 1963-1965 was a tacit recognition that Ho's approach had failed.

Was that failure a sign that Ho Chi Minh's understanding of the dynamics of the Vietnamese revolution was faulty, or should the bulk of the responsibility be assigned to U.S. policymakers in Washington, who refused to see the writing on the wall in Vietnam and refused all overtures to find a compromise solution that would limit the damage of a communist victory in the region? What would Sun Tzu have said about that question? Whatever the case, I would hazard the statement that in the broad sense Ho's ideas had triumphed, since the communist victory in Vietnam was a consequence of political, diplomatic, and psychological factors more than military ones. That is a tribute to the ideas that he introduced in his life and thought. You recently written books on world history (with Jackson Spielvogel), and in fact, quoted Sun Tzu in them. From your overall research and analysis, how has Sun Tzu influenced the world, directly and indirectly?

Duiker: What is the influence of Sun Tzu in the world today? Perhaps there are others who are better qualified than I to speculate about that question. Sun Tzu's ideas, as expressed in his famous treatise, have undoubtedly influenced the nature of many revolutionary movements that are arrayed against more powerful forces, and in some cases - as in Vietnam - have played a useful role in bringing about success. But such ideas are always in conflict with other deepseated emotional factors, which propel dissident movements into the rampant use of terrorism and other forms of anarchistic struggle. Ho Chi Minh opposed such ideas from the beginning of his career as a revolutionary agent, and it is a result of his success that the movement triumphed half a century later. Today such ideas are not widely applied, at least among Islamic dissidents, whose profligate use of indiscriminate terrorism appears to limit the appeal of their ideas rather than to "win hearts and minds," as the Vietminh and the National Liberation Front did in Vietnam so many decades ago. I can only believe that such groups would benefit enormously from learning about Ho Chi Minh's ideas on how to defeat a more popular enemy. We strongly believe that to understand where we are and where we might want to go in the future, we need to understand our history. Going back to Vietnam, how do you think Vietnam will fare in the future, e.g., in the political arena and in world markets?

Duiker: How will Vietnam evolve in the future? In the near term, I see no reason to believe that the Vietnamese Communist Party will lose control over the reins of power in Vietnam. There is no organized force in the country that is capable of competing with the VCP for power. And the party still believes that it must rule by intimidation and by dominating the political scene In effect, it has abandoned that part of Ho Chi Minh's legacy that the people must be won over by persuasion rather than by force - a dictum that Ho Chi Minh did not always follow himself. In the longer term, I hope that as Vietnam evolves into a more prosperous society with active ties to the international marketplace, it will lose its inherent suspicion of the outside world and begin to develop along the lines of what has recently been happening in Thailand and Malaysia.

[End of interview]

Below is Ho Chi Minh: A Life, the aforementioned biography. This is a must-read for students and scholars of Asian or military history. Sacred War is our other recommendation

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