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Southeast Asian Movement at Yale

Brownbag Insider

Feb 23, 2022

The Unimagined Community: Imperialism and Culture in South Vietnam

Dr Duy Lap Nguyen
with Jonathan Chan and Sharmaine Koh

Transcribed by Law Ee Jean, Edward Nguyen, Sharmaine Koh  

Jonathan Chan (JC): Professor Nguyen, in your book, you point out that the Ngô regime is often characterized as conservative and pro-US. To what extent have questions or discussions about the personalism in Ngô’s regime been obscured, and why do you think it has not received so much attention in most historical accounts?

Duy Lap Nguyen (DLN): I’d say the Ngô’s weren’t exactly hiding their belief in this left-wing philosophy. Ngô Dinh Nhu was approaching several Western newspapers — in France, the US, in Italy — to declare that “we [South Vietnam] are a socialist state”. In fact, the Americans knew this pretty early on. For example, one famous US official named Edward Lansdale argued with other US officials that the US government should not support Ngô Đình Nhu’s organization because they were essentially Leninist. But for some reason, perhaps because of the American press’s representation of the Ngô’s during the war, the Ngô’s leftist leanings didn’t get much attention even though they weren’t very well-disguised. They did, however, make a bunch of ideological compromises to the American government — they didn’t always insist upon these personalist ideals that they had, and that perhaps contributed to the confusion as well.

JC: To circle back to your discussion of Mounier, was personalism ever embraced in any mainstream quarters in French politics as a political philosophy and ideology? Or was it just something that Mounier was grappling with as a philosophical question?

DLN: Indeed, what’s interesting about the South Vietnamese experiment to put these personalist principles into practice, is that there really wasn’t much of a practical side to Marxist Humanism in France. It became influential in French and American intellectual circles, but it wasn’t something that seemed like an important basis for a political movement. Yet, here in South Vietnam in the middle of a war, you have this government taking this principle pretty far. They tried to apply it in practice, and created all sorts of organizations to realize its spirit although there was no conceivable political application of Marxist Humanism in Europe. People sometimes criticize my book for focusing too much on philosophy, but the fact that so little is known about this Marxist Humanism, I think, makes my contribution somewhat significant.

JC: It’s also very interesting how you linked the personalist notion to the idea that Vietnam — or at least the villages, the semi-autonomous communes — had their own culture of democratic organization that the Ngô’s were trying to combine together as a cohesive governing philosophy, with the economy being of service to people. I think you call it a “non-Western path to modernization”, in which the Ngô’s tried to claim the Strategic Hamlet Program is part of Vietnam’s own domestic lineage of social and political organization?

DLN: What’s interesting is that the Ngôs are so often characterized as backwards-looking Mandarins from this centuries-old despotic tradition in Vietnam. It is commonly assumed that Vietnam couldn’t realize liberal democracy because it had this despotic tradition. But in fact, the Ngôs were always trying to say that they believed in democracy, that they had a very long tradition of democracy, just one that was different from the liberal tradition established by the French Revolution. For some reason, they went unheard because in much of the literature on the Vietnam War — in works that both defend the Ngôs and which criticize them — they assume that the Ngôs were authoritarian and didn’t have any sort of democratic ideology.

In so much of postcolonial criticism, there’s a characterization of colonialism as a hypocritical enterprise where you preach the rights of man but deny them in practice; and the idea that a postcolonial modernity is an antidote for that contradiction. But the Ngôs would argue that the contradiction is built into Western liberalism: if you want to realize a non-Western democratic modernity, you can’t just get rid of that contradiction and universally apply the rights of man. Rather, they wanted to achieve a non-Western form of modernity based on a different form of democracy or democratic tradition.

JC: It’s curious that you point that out, because the ‘60s were a time of such ideological ferment and experimentation across Asia. There was the spirit of the 1955 Bandung Conference, where people were trying to articulate a “third way” that combined the best of what they learned from the major powers of the day and the indigenous traditions or political lineages within their own countries. Here, you suggest that although the Ngôs are portrayed as leaning to the Americans, in reality, they were positioning themselves in their own “third way”, just as how all these newly-independent nations were trying to create a form of new political praxis to govern newly sovereign nations.

DLN: Yes, and that’s really something that I wanted to recover in the book — to work against the caricature of the Ngôs as being backwards-looking and unwilling to adopt modern democratic procedures.

Sharmaine Koh (SK): To step back a little and help us to contextualize your work,  how would you place the Ngôs in conversation with other prominent Vietnamese political leaders and thinkers, or situate them in relation to the rest of Vietnamese society?

DLN: A big part of this book’s project is to show that, in contrast to conventional critiques of liberalism, personalism wasn’t just some bizarre, wacky Christian ideology that no one else believed in except the Ngôs. It did fit into the intellectual and historical context of that period. In fact, Mounier’s writings on personalism and Catholicism were not just a strange minority idea among the Vietnamese. The personalism of Mounier was actually an influence on non-Catholic Vietnamese poets who would later become Communists. The concept of the person and personalism which  I talked about in the lecture influenced their modern concept of Vietnamese individualism. Personalism wasn’t as strange as it was made out to be. The Ngô’s personalism entailed a rejection of liberalism, and this was something that was fairly common among Vietnamese in the South and North. Of course, there was a Communist critique of liberalism in the North. In the South, however, a lot of people — including opponents to the Ngôs — viewed liberalism as a French ideology that was forced upon them by the Americans.

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

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. That would be the takeaway: the need to fundamentally rethink things, is still an important project today.

JC: It’s great that you mention this, because there seems to be a resonance between the ideas of personalism, and the ideas that we have about “fundamentally rethinking society”. We see this in terms like “human-centered revolution”, “human-centered practice”, “human-centered capitalism”. People are starting to see that so many of the systems that we have established work in favor of the capitalist class or capitalist money, rather than the individual human. There is an attempt to reckon with these systems and instigate a re-orientation today, that I saw as a through-line to today from the personalism you described during your lecture.

DLN: Yeah, and that’s actually one of the strange, unexpected discoveries that I made in the process of researching Vietnamese Marxism. The funny thing is: you find some of the best examples of Marxist thinking in Vietnam on the side that was supposedly anticommunist, because there is a personalist Marxist humanist idea that we live in a society where the powers of the human being are alienated. There are all these structures that we created ourselves which now dominate us, like money and capital. There’s a realization that these things are not actually natural, but instead can be changed. The Ngôs drew this lesson from the Marxist humanism that they were engaging with. I think that that’s still an important lesson to be learned: that we take so many things in society to be natural and unchanging, even though they are really the product of our own social relations. In fact, we can still fundamentally change and re-organize things, to make them less alienating to us.

SK: Do you have a specific example of how we can apply this lesson to our world today? How has working on this book changed the way you look at the world now?

DLN: Sure, there’s that famous line that’s usually attributed to Fredric Jameson: that it’s easier today to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism, because this arrangement seems so natural that it doesn’t feel like it can be changed or altered for the better. It’s much easier to imagine the system that feeds on endless growth — that is completely beyond our control, that is leading to environmental degradation — as something that can’t be altered. And yet, it is actually something that we’ve created. That would be the most important contemporary example for me: why is it so difficult for us to imagine how to get around a system that is leading to endless growth and endless destruction of the environment, even though we created it ourselves?

JC: That brings to mind the work of Mark Fisher and his work on capitalist realism, in terms of thinking about the resignation to capitalism being the only viable economic system. As you said, dismantling it is beyond the grip of the imagination right now.

This is where I make my inelegant segue: as you would know, Mark Fisher also works a lot on film and literature, and that's your training as well. I found that fascinating because that’s how you were introduced at the lecture, and in the Q&A so many people were very appreciative of your work as an intervention in historical studies of the Vietnam War, even though this is not your primary discipline. You work at the intersection of a lot of fields, and at first glance, your training is in comparative literature. How have you been able to move in this flexible interdisciplinary way as an academic and scholar?

DLN: It’s really hard to, actually! I had always assumed that being in the academy meant that you got to try to find the best solution to the problems you were looking at, regardless of the field you were taking those solutions from. I came out of a program that was interdisciplinary, but I also spent a lot of time outside that program looking at other disciplines too. I found that rewarding, but I found out too late that you weren’t supposed to go into disciplines that you weren’t trained in, because there were people who were specialists that didn’t like you going into their territory. But it’s always been the way that I’ve made exciting discoveries and new contributions. I think in this case, the training in critical theory, which is becoming increasingly rare in some of the specialization in history that I work in, is what made it possible for me to recognize this thing that was kind of sitting in plain view: the fact that the Ngos ideology wasn’t conservative or reactionary, but rather radical. But it hasn’t been easy of course, because your work has to be vetted by specialists. If you’re in an area where too many specializations exist, it’s really hard to vet. It’s a difficult space to negotiate even though it’s one that I prefer to work in.

As for literature, the whole second part of my book is really about what happened to Benedict Anderson’s concept of the “Unimagined Community”  during the period of the Vietnam War. He gives us this history towards the end of his book about how the rise of vernacular print media and national script created the conditions for the formation of the modern imagined community of the Vietnamese nation. But then he leaves off the story there. So I try to pick that up and look at what happens in the North and the South of this imagined community in the context of the wars in Vietnam.

It’s a pretty strange story. Because of the conflict, the city is isolated. During the Ngô period, the Ngô regime tried very hard to get print media, newspapers, and government material out to the countryside. They had this whole system set up and linked to the Strategic Hamlet campaign. I guess they recognized that if you want people to feel nationalism, you need print culture. But with the failure of the Strategic Hamlet campaign, and the increasing liberalism of media policy in Vietnam following the collapse of the Ngôs, the media in South Vietnam became increasingly urban-based. It was written and produced largely for the urban population. In the period that Anderson writes about, the countryside was what all the novelists were writing about. It was where the “real Vietnamese” were. Suddenly, as the countryside and cities get cut off from each other because of the lack of circulation of media, all the stories start to become about the cities. The urban dwellers become increasingly indifferent to what’s going on outside the cities. This is a pretty strange situation, given that the war is happening in the countryside, where the majority of the population lives. So the second part of the book looks at the culture that emerged as a product of the American intervention and the liberalization of media after the Ngôs.

SK: It’s fantastic that you brought that up, because one of the questions we wanted to ask was how exactly your book interacts with the idea of Anderson’s imagined and unimagined communities. You mention print culture, and we would like to know if you could share with us some interesting examples of print culture that were fun to work with or that you found particularly interesting?

DLN: After the fall of the First Republic, the post- Ngô Đình Diệm governments was worried that the Americans were going to criticize them for not promoting enough press freedom. For the Americans, that was the barometer of democracy and the mandate of a viable government: lift censorship laws and maintain a free press. At that point, there was an explosion of newspapers. Newspapers can only survive if people read them. But people were only reading them if these newspapers contained serialized fiction. Suddenly, all of these novels, like by Kim Dung (Jin Yong) the martial arts writer, got serialized in these newspapers. I looked at this South Vietnamese copycat of the James Bond novels — the Z.28 novels – which also got serialized in the newspapers. The papers are completely dependent on serialized fiction. People will only buy them if they have serialized fiction, which means newspapers can only get advertisers to pay for ads if they have the serialized fiction. But what ends up happening, is that newspapers in Saigon begin to contain more of this stuff. Stuff like horoscopes, instead of news of the war going on in the countryside.

The communists think that this is some kind of imperialist plot, that the Americans are deliberately putting all of these martial arts novels in popular media to destroy the national spirit during the time of war. Instead of promoting consciousness and so forth, it was assumed that they were dumping mass culture onto the Vietnamese people to dissolve their national spirit. In fact, as the argument I make in the book goes, there was an autonomous effect of the free market for media. The South Vietnamese weren’t lying when they said they were a free society, because they just let the media take on a life of its own. But the unintended effect of all of that was to isolate the imagination of the urban population from the people in the countryside, without anyone trying to deliberately do this.

JC: The Communists are not unfounded in their fears that this is a kind of capitalist encroachment, because this is literally a market mechanism at work for the press in South Vietnam. So that’s really interesting and as well as how there are these distortions, I guess, in the national communal imaginary of only certain kinds of stories being privileged, especially if they privilege urban subjects as you pointed out. But the base of this revolution is these profound changes and transformations that are going on in the countryside that are increasingly beyond the reach of print media. In terms of the kind of revolutionary literature that was being distributed, I assume the Communist Party and the Workers Party had their own respective chains of distribution that were bypassing what the regular press was doing?

DLN: Yeah, the Communists are claiming that all of this popular fiction is destroying the will of the Vietnamese people to fight, but it’s also backfiring on the Americans because the Americans want to promote nationalism, so they want more content on television that makes people want to fight. But it turns out that most people want to buy things that are not nationalistic because nationalism is boring. But it also has an interesting effect on Communist propaganda, so the Communists try to find ways to combat this popular culture. There is one document that I found that was detailing all these urban propagandistic strategies that the Communists had, and one was to take these novels by Kim Dung (Jin Yong), these martial arts novels, and take out the pages and insert Communist propaganda inside, which as you can imagine, would be totally ineffective. Because you go out to these stores and buy one of these martial arts novels, and you open it up and it’s a bunch of propaganda on how bad the USA is - you probably won’t continue reading. So it seemed like it was difficult for them to develop an effective strategy against this kind of consumerist culture that was beginning to emerge in the South in this period.

JC: I’m reminded of the Chinese case, where all these modernist Chinese language writers were trying to figure out this new way of invigorating a revolutionary consciousness that was recognized by the Communist Party as a kind of instrumental tool to cultivate a kind of myth-making. By way of bringing this back to your own professional experience, you teach at the University of Houston, and there is a big Vietnamese community in Houston. What has your experience of teaching Vietnamese popular culture been at the university? I imagine that your courses draw a lot of students from the city, some of whom have Vietnamese heritage?

DLN: It’s a little bit complicated because there are Vietnamese Americans and Vietnamese students, and they have different points of view about the war. But there’s also a generational divide, where a lot of students who come into my classes don’t have a lot of knowledge about the war, and their parents don’t really have memories about the war anymore, except ones that are mediated by American television. It’s kind of a strange situation. Before, you had this really strongly opinionated group of Vietnamese or Vietnamese Americans. Now, it’s becoming fragmented, and it’s becoming more challenging to figure out how to approach this topic, whose toes not to step on and so forth, because the opinions have gotten so much more diverse.

However, there is also a freedom to it, because you no longer two monolithic viewpoints. The space has really opened up for more neutral discussions about the topic than before. Because so much time has passed, you can now talk about the Vietnam War more freely. You no longer have to avoid certain topics because it will make people angry.

JC: The generational difference is interesting to consider in relation to the historical memories and stories that are transmitted from the older generation to the younger generation at home. People like Viet Thanh Nguyen or Ocean Vuong, who really made a mark on the literary scene in the US,  have also opened up this new interest. Ocean Vuong was raised in Connecticut and Viet Thanh Nguyen in Northern California, so I imagine that their experiences as writers are also mediated through this intergenerational transmission of traumas and stories from their parents. In some ways, Vietnam itself has kind of grown and changed after the war, and that’s also reflected in how historical memory among the diaspora has changed too.

DLN: Yeah and I don’t really have any good answers on how to approach to address all these different audiences now. I remember a couple of months ago when I got this email from someone who had read my book and said they were a white American married to a Vietnamese person, and that part of the family was super anti-communist. They were asking me how to teach the war to their children and I had no answer to it. There are so many different perspectives on it and it’s difficult to know how to navigate something like that, especially when it’s a familial situation as well.

SK: As we near the end of our conversation, 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 are a lot of books that I drew on that were really important to my research. They include Philip Catton’s Diem’s Final Failure (2002), Edward Miller’s Misalliance: Ngo Dinh Diem, 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.

SK: What is your favorite 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