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Southeast Asian Movement at Yale

Brownbag Insider

Feb 23, 2022

The Unimagined Community: Imperialism and Culture in South Vietnam

by Jonathan Chan

As a scholar, the work of Professor Duy Lap Nguyen rests at a curious intersection, drawing on method of history, literature, critical theory, and philosophy to examine the politics of Vietnam. Dr Erik Harms described him as breaking down the conceptual and disciplinary boundaries that have limited the way scholars have thought about issues in Vietnamese Studies. 

Nguyen’s talk on his book The Unimagined Community: Imperialism and Culture in South Vietnam (2020), amply displayed the reach of his expertise in examining the ideological underpinnings of the First Republic of Vietnam (1955-1963) under President Ngô Đình Diệm, as devised by his political advisor and brother Ngô Đình Nhu. In doing so, Nguyen’s intervention was an attempt at revising perspectives on the Vietnam War through the lenses of the South Vietnamese.

Nguyen began by examining the conventional framing of the First Republic. He described the deterioration of relations between South Vietnam and the United States that accelerated after South Vietnamese soldiers opposed a government ban on the display of Buddhist flags in 1963. This ban led to waves of protest against the Ngô regime and the infamous self-immolation of Buddhist monks. The consequent assassination of Ngô would set in motion a karmic cycle of incompetent leaders in South Vietnam. Nguyen describes this Buddhist crisis as the government’s attempt to crush the Vietnamese social revolution in the name of an ideal of American democracy. The Americans came to be regarded as an obstacle to the revolutionary transformation of Vietnamese society.

Nguyen was quick to point out that despite perceptions that President Ngô, a French-educated Catholic, was a puppet of the US, his actual position was more complex. Ngô positioned his government as resisting both communism and American neo-colonialism, with the ultimate aim of Vietnam’s social revolution being to eradicate capitalism despite American support of his regime. His ideological solution, therefore, was a ‘non-Marxist personal Marxism’, a socialist vision distinct from that espoused by Vietnam’s Communist and Workers’ Parties. This vision shaped Ngô’s strategy of fighting the communist insurgency and resisting the Americans through the Strategic Hamlet Program, an attempt to pacify the countryside and reduce communist influence among the rural population.

Drawing on the first part of his book, Nguyen described the ideology of ‘personalism’ that informed Ngô’s politics. This political philosophy was developed by his brother Ngô Đình Nhu and was influenced primarily by the work of French philosopher Emmanuel Mounier. In Mounier’s view, the person was regarded as the foundation for a philosophical anthropology, an ontological basis for all knowledge and action. Yet, Mounier opposed the concept of the egoistic individual in capitalist society. One finds there to be no contradiction when considering Mounier’s claim that under capitalism, it is not money that serves the economy and people, but the inverse. This depersonalized economy rested on the superstructure of parliamentary government and  Mounier vehemently opposed this type of bourgeois democracy. Moreover, Mounier regarded the USSR as being incapable of completely abolishing capitalism, arguing that the USSR had merely created a centralized form of capitalism where the state exploited proletarian labour. Only socialism could serve to abolish the proletarian condition and create an economy directed to the fulfilment of personal needs.

Having established this framework, Nguyen went on to examine the fundamental clash between the French conception of individualism and existing social structures within Vietnam. Early colonists regarded the imperial project as an extension of the French Revolution of 1789, – implementing French rule abroad was an attempt to limit the political tyranny of the imperial state and the domestic tyranny of the traditional family. However, contrary to being a powerful, centralized state capable of mass surveillance and discipline as the French may have expected, Nguyen described the Vietnamese dynastic state as possessing largely spectacular power, expressed in public events such as coronation or execution. In reality, it was the traditional family structure that preempted the role of the centralized government in each commune. The authority of the emperor and his laws would give way to the custom of the villages. As Nguyen argues, while the French imposition of capitalism and individual rights would liberate people from the rule of the sovereign, it would also break up the previously held autonomy of the communes and subject the peasantry to the impersonal reign of the market.

Thus, Nguyen illustrates that Ngô’s Strategic Hamlet Program was an attempt to instigate a personalist, communitarian revolution. It aimed at transforming South Vietnamese society into a series of self-governing communes aligned with Vietnam’s political traditions. Nguyen’s reading of the Strategic Hamlet Program is therefore as a form of rural democratization, one that would decentralize the war to local militias to wean off the military’s financial support on American imported goods. This democratization was regarded as being as important as Ngô‘s attempts to suppress political opposition, particularly as Ngô belonged to an elite urban minority that needed to shore up support from the majority of the rural Vietnamese. Nguyen concludes that it was the increasing success of the Strategic Hamlet Program that was behind Ngô’s refusal to liberalise politically.

The Q&A section that followed Nguyen’s talk was spirited and vigorous – audience members noted their appreciation for Nguyen’s ambitious study. The questions that followed examined various themes: how the theory of communal democracy at the village-level extended into Vietnamese cities; the utility of an ideological interpretation of the First Republic or even to talk about South Vietnam as a unit at all; how Ngô described personalism as combining the best of Christianity and Confucianism; and the impact of the Great Depression in hollowing out leadership in the villages.

Nguyen has elsewhere articulated a wish for his book to be regarded as ‘the most significant book on the Vietnam War that has been written in a long time.’ Judging by the responses that he received from his audience, Nguyen’s weaving of the cultural, political, historical, and theoretical has clearly incited interest in new research directions for his attendees. One waits to see the impact that his careful study of Ngô Đình Diệm’s theory of personalism will have in reshaping views of his regime as fundamentally conservative in Vietnam War scholarship. ︎


After Professor Nguyen’s talk, Jonathan and SEAM Co-President Sharmaine Koh interviewed him about his book. In excerpts from the interview below, Professor Nguyen provides additional thoughts on his work and recommendations for scholarly sources and music. Read the full interview here.

What is one thing you would like students to take away from your book?

Duy Lap Nguyen (DLN): That the Ngôs were trying to imagine a better society than the colonial society they were coming out of and the existing one that they were living in. This vision of an alternative society, this non-Western form of modernity that they wanted to realize, was different from the vision that the communists were proposing. I think that kind of vision is still really important today, when people tend to assume that there are fundamental things about our society that are beyond our power to change. Personalism and their politics are inspiring to me — as an experiment from the past — that tried to fundamentally criticize the institutions of liberal democracy and capitalism that we still have today. And to do so in a responsible manner, which was very difficult then because they were trying to realize their goals in the context of a major military engagement in the 20th century. So I guess that would be the takeaway: the need to fundamentally rethink things, is still an important project today.

Do you have any additional resources for students who are interested to learn more about the issues that you discuss in your book?

DLN: It’s hard to say because my book covers so many different topics! There’s a lot of books that I drew on that were really important to my research. They include Philip Catton’s Diệm‘s Final Failure (2002), Edward Miller’s Misalliance: Ngô Đình Diệm, the United States, and the Fate of South Vietnam (2013), and some of Pham Duy’s work on cultural developments in South Vietnam at the time.

What is your favourite Vietnamese work of popular culture?

DLN: That’s kind of easy. There’s this one singer who’s known as the Bob Dylan of Vietnam, Trinh Cong Son. He was huge. He used to be in all of these movies because he was so famous. The philosopher that I was working on, Trần Đức Thảo, was living in North Vietnam during the period when Trinh Cong Son songs were banned because he had a reputation of paralyzing people with how sad his songs about the war were. Listening to Trinh for the first time, Trần Đức Thảo said that he was utterly paralyzed and couldn’t believe that the South Vietnamese government would allow this type of music to be written during the war, because it just sapped the desire to fight.  I really like that music  — he’s got a lot of songs, especially from his period of collaboration with the singer Khánh Ly, who sang a lot of his most famous songs. So check that out! I think it’s all available on YouTube.

Questions? Email the author:

Jonathan Chan