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Southeast Asian Movement at Yale

Brownbag Insider

January 26, 2022

Disunion: Anticommunist Nationalism and the Making of the Republic of Vietnam

by Sharmaine Koh and Al Lim

Nu-Anh Tran is Assistant Professor at the University of Connecticut with joint appointment in the Department of History and the Asian and Asian American Studies Institute. She is the author of Disunion: Anticommunist Nationalism and the Making of the Republic of Vietnam (2022) and coeditor of Building a Republican Nation in Postcolonial Vietnam, 1920-1963 (forthcoming). She has contributed to the Journal of Vietnamese Studies and Diplomatic History.

Professor Nu-Anh Tran kicked off the Council of Southeast Asian Studies Spring 2022 Brownbag series with a talk attended by 60 participants. Presenting on her forthcoming book, Disunion: Anticommunist Nationalism and the Making of the Republic of Vietnam (2022), Tran, a historian, guided the audience through the complex political landscape of the Republic of Vietnam (RVN) during the early 1950s and 60s.

External observers may be more familiar with dominant historical narratives that present the political instability in the RVN as a function of personality clashes, or criticize RVN President Ngô Đình Diệm’s disingenuous treatment of democracy. However, this version of history tells a limited story, especially since the historians who have espoused this view tend to work with a limited body of elite and Francophone sources. With incredible nuance and attention to detail, Tran makes an important contribution to an existing body of scholarship that has historically struggled with amnesia toward South Vietnam.

In presenting the third chapter of her book, Tran complicated these dominant narratives of the RVN’s instability. Drawing on historical archives, memoirs, and party newspapers written in vernacular Vietnamese, her work animates the political debates between anticommunist factions of the RVN. Audience members were drawn into Tran’s vivid snapshot of the RVN’s 1955 Constitutional transition. She laid out the interactions between the competing visions of a new government that were espoused by three key anticommunist groups: the Diemist faction, the Cao Đài and Hòa Hảo sects, as well as that of opposition politician Phan Quang Đán, a leading critic of Diệm’s rule. In doing so, Tran illustrated South Vietnamese politics as a spectrum of anticommunist views, showing how opposition sects negotiated with the dominant Diệm regime to determine how much democracy was suitable for a stable, efficient, and secure RVN government.

Although the Diemists and other anticommunist opposition groups disagreed on the extent of influence the executive should hold, the degree of civil liberties that should be accorded to citizens, and the complexion of representative institutions, Tran surmised that the groups might have been more similar than they were different. Ultimately, the members of these factions were pragmatists. Despite their public preference for parliamentary democracy, the Cao Đài and Hòa Hảo groups would eventually work with the Diemists to support a rigged plebiscite that removed Emperor Bảo Đại, an unpopular French puppet, from power. Diệm eventually opted for a presidential system, one that retained some trappings of democracy with a popularly elected head of state but kept influence in the hands of the executive branch. Eventually, he would silence the disagreements among the anticommunist factions by brute force, eliminating opposition and staffing the constitution assembly with his own supporters.

In light of these contradictions between the anticommunists’ democratic ideals and their apparently antidemocratic actions, what can be made of the sincerity of their beliefs? Tran believes they were genuine, at least with regard to their own versions of democracy. South Vietnamese anticommunists likely did not view “antidemocratic” actions as incompatible with democratic ideals. Rather, Tran’s work reveals that Diệm and the various anticommunist sects envisioned something more hybridized: they were cautious about the weakness of Western-style democracies amidst their anxieties toward communist subversion, and sought mediating solutions by limiting civil liberties and expanding executive control.

In closing, Tran explained that the Democratic-Authoritarian binaries common in political science are not particularly useful in understanding Southeast Asian regimes like that of the RVN. Scholars can make more useful comparative analyses with other regimes in Southeast Asia by moving analysis of the RVN beyond these reductive frameworks and understanding South Vietnamese anticommunist views as a spectrum of hybrid systems. Tran also compared this moment in Vietnamese history to Southeast Asian postcolonial hybrid regimes that championed and rejected democracy. In particular, she pointed out notable resonances with King and Prime Minister Sihanouk’s Cambodia and President Sukarno’s “Guided Democracy” in Indonesia. Politicians and parties grappled with the role and suitability of democracy in creating a state that was stable, efficient, and secure. Thus, Diệm and the anticommunist sects found themselves part of a larger political debate and postcolonial struggle, one shared by many other Southeast Asian nations.

The robust Q&A section revolved around themes of regional Vietnamese politics and its connections to other Southeast Asian contexts. Audience members asked about the role of Saigon-centered politics, factionalism, the origins of “sects,” as well as the complex and violent interactions between communists and anticommunists. Reflecting on the way that Diệm’s politics was undergirded by an assumption of an intellectual deficiency of the rural masses, anthropologist Erik Harms pointed out that there are interesting structural resonances in Southeast Asian urban “centers.” He noted that certain conditions of power emboldened postcolonial urban elites to extract great resources from the rural peripheries. This, alongside the many important points raised during the discussion, raises a host of interesting questions and connections for Vietnamese historiography and postcolonial Southeast Asian politics. ︎

Questions? Email the authors:

Sharmaine Koh

Al Lim