By Lewis Stern
Despite that Vietnamese military historians began participating in international gatherings such as the Texas Tech Vietnam War Center annual conferences on Vietnamese war history during the late 1990s, the Vietnamese leadership demurred in responding to formal Department of Defense (DoD) invitations to events aimed at making the shared interest in wartime history one of the opening gambits in the normalization of bilateral defense relations in the mid and late 1990s.
It was not until 2008, when the Director of the Military Publishing House proposed a visit to the U.S., that defense policy managers in the Defense Ministry’s External Relations Department (ERD) demonstrated an interest in utilizing history as a means of enhancing bilateral relations. The July 2012 visit to Washington by a six-person delegation headed by Maj. Gen. Vu Quang Dao, Director General of Vietnam’s Institute for Military History (IMH), Ministry of Defense, highlighted a new way of thinking about a dialogue between Vietnamese and American military historians.
Throughout the late 1980s and the 1990s, during which time the U.S. Marine Corps produced its history of the Marines in Vietnam, and the U.S. Army sustained attention to the publication of key books in the series on the U.S. Army in Vietnam, Vietnam undertook its own efforts to publish first tactical and then increasingly strategic assessments of wartime military history looking particularly at the divisions, campaigns and theater operations. However, that was not compelling enough reason for the Vietnamese to bring U.S. and Vietnamese military history writers together as part of the process of military-to-military normalization. Though the ERD allowed itself to be drawn into a meeting with U.S. Army Center of Military during its first visit to Washington, D.C., in March 1997, there was never any constituency on the Vietnamese side for using military history as an ice-breaker.
It is entirely possible that the ERD saw the U.S. military historians as being too wound up with the POW/MIA effort, especially in view of the earliest DoD efforts to wear down Hanoi’s objections to providing access to historical documents from Vietnamese wartime archives. Another part of the reason may have been the limited number of trained professional historians through the mid-1990s, and the paltry resources they were able to bring to bear on research and writing and publication. That seems to have been altered somewhat in the early 2000s, by which time the Military Publishing House, for example, developed a program of research and an effective, professional staff of trained researchers and writers.
The enterprise of writing wartime military history has moved forward in Hanoi, boosted by a quasi-official blog site powered by PAVN veterans seeking a voice, military historians and publishers seeking relationships with external history-writing institutions, and the publication of recent histories that offer explicit information rather than merely boilerplate and ideology. The quality of inquiry and dialogue on Quan Su VN regarding sensitive military operations, China-Vietnam relations, Hanoi’s Paris Peace Talk strategies suggests a level of interest in these memories on the part of PAVN veterans and commissioned officers, a professional interest on the part of the Vietnamese historians, and a new frame of mind about this kind of activity on the part of the MND’s policy managers.
This is now coupled with a more critical use of unique archival resources and government documents, a more adventurous sense of interpretive possibilities, and a more conscientious focus on the craft and responsibilities of modern historical interpretation by Vietnamese historians. “Amateur historians” and retired military officers, part time practitioners of the art of oral history, are documenting aspects of history and making valid, useful, intriguing contributions to discussions of key historical events.
In short, Vietnamese military historians are positioned to ratchet up the level of practical cooperation with American counterparts and enhance bilateral dialogue in a way that can add to efforts to inject strategic depth to the U.S.-Vietnamese defense relationship.
Dr. Lewis M. Stern served 10 years in the Central Intelligence Agency, and for 20 years as a Southeast Asian specialist in the Office of the Secretary of Defense. He now teaches about contemporary Vietnam at James Madison University in Harrisonburg, VA.