In 2015, on October 16 and 17, two days out of my life (two days out of the last several decades of my life since I arrived in the United States to be more exact), I attended a one of a kind symposium at the University of California, Berkeley, titled “Symposium Nation Building in War: The Experience of Republican Vietnam, 1955-1975.” There, 15 prominent South Vietnamese administrators, politicians, military officers, educators, writers, artists, and journalists were slated to speak. I can tell you, quite honestly, that in my own nerdy way I was trembling with excitement. Moreover, I have been steadfast in the belief that those two days were simply not enough. In The Republic of Vietnam, 1955-1975: Vietnamese Perspectives on Nation Building, edited by Tuong Vu and Sean Fear, at least, I have the memorializations of the essays and presentations of that day.
As a 1.5 generation refugee, I was old enough at the Fall of Saigon to remember the turmoil and torment of that desperate flight out of Vietnam so that, to this day, I long for a Republic of Vietnam that I never knew. In the same instance, I was too young to grasp the political, cultural, economic, educational, or societal factors that all went into nation building.
Growing up in a family in which the past was to be left behind, where there was little time made for historical musings, I have long harbored a hunger to learn more than what was being dictated to us through the highbrow American-centered analysis of the Vietnam War (all of which fail to engage nation building at all). The same can be said of the raw and extremely intimate accounts by Vietnam veterans of the war, all of which focus heavily on trauma and the overall messiness of the war, rather than the dreams that the war stood for.
At that symposium, for the first time in my life I heard how my elders—the dreamers of my parents’ generation—had implemented their design for the building of a postcolonial Republic of Vietnam, founded in October of 1955 in the visage of democracy and freedom. There, I heard the voices of South Vietnam’s leaders who were young men and women at the time, who imagined a different Vietnam. These leaders have since fanned out into the diaspora, taking with them their longing and their dedication for nation building like black and white snapshots in a dusty photo album, shelved and untouched by human hands. Some have transferred that passion into their work in the United States, like Nhã Ca (pen name for Trần Thị Thu Vân which means “Little Anthem”) who penned the critical work, Mourning Headband for Hué, that brought the stories of those who suffered through the 1968 massacre in Hué.
Many others have moved on, bringing their talents to their lives in America and other countries, such as Australia, France, and Canada. The two day symposium brought together voices that are largely exiled from history, both in America and in Vietnam, despite playing important roles in the efforts to gather and build the nation that would have been South Vietnam had history not played out the way that it did.
It was hard not to become emotional as I listened to Vũ Quốc Thúc, the former deputy prime minister in charge of reconstruction and development, and Cao Văn Thân, former minister of land reform and agricultural development and minister of rural development, send warm wishes from their hospital beds over Skype, breathing tubes and IV bags in sight. Both of their papers appear in the volume. Vũ’s paper details the efforts to establish a banking and financial sector during the postcolonial transition from a French colony to an independent state. In Cao’s paper, you will learn about the “Land to Tiller Program” that sought to transform the countryside of South Vietnam as a means of setting the stage for economic development. It was touching to me that these men had waited so long to be heard and that nothing, not illness nor bedpans, would keep them from video conferencing in even if all they could do was wave.
It was at this symposium that I met Nathalie Huynh Chau Nguyen, whose book, South Vietnamese Soldiers: Memories of the Vietnam War and After, I have previously reviewed. (Ms. Nguyen was a special guest academic and her work does not appear in the volume). Here, too, I met female war correspondent Vũ Thanh Thủy, whose translated memoir, Surviving the Vietnam War and Its Aftermath, I waited for anxiously and later reviewed, the long wait well worth it.
The volume, The Republic of Vietnam, 1955-1975, compiled and published three years after the symposium, gathers all of the presentations and organizes them into five key themes: economic development; politics and security; education; journalism and media; and cultures and the arts. In the essays, writers discuss aspects of politics, economic development, educational advancement, public security, frontline battles, war correspondence, the campaign for press freedom, and artistic and cultural life in South Vietnam prior to the Fall of Saigon. Though heady and leaning on the academic side, the volume of 16 essays is extremely diverse featuring pieces by former Republic of Vietnam (RVN) military and civilian officials including actors, war correspondents, writers, soldiers, and dignitaries.
Also included is an excellent introduction penned by Tuong Vu, director of Asian studies and professor of political science at the University of Oregon, and Sean Fear, a lecturer in international history at the University of Leeds. The introduction walks us through many of the challenges of postcolonial nation building. Comparing the young South Vietnamese government to postcolonial states in Africa and Asia, Vu and Fear write: “National building may take place over centuries in tandem with other processes such as war, state formation, urbanization, an industrialization…The importance of the postcolonial context for any discussion of post-1945 nation building cannot be overstated. As newly formed states emerged in Asian and Africa following the end of World War II, most faced extraordinary challenges, including wide-spread illiteracy, deep social divisions, economic dependency, and political instability. Given these obstacles, it is perhaps unsurprising that many struggled to establish cohesive politics, sustained economic prosperity, or social equality.”
Essays of note include Bùi Quyền’s “Reflections of a Frontline Soldier,” which provides Bùi’s perspective of South Vietnam as a migrant from North Vietnam and a sweeping overview of the South’s development of their military forces. Bùi also gives his personal opinions about the effect of American intervention in the South’s war effort. Kiều Chinh’s essay, “The Cinema Industry,” shares her observations about the history and evolution of cinema in Vietnam. Nhã Ca’s “Writers of the Republic of Vietnam” is a sobering look at the terrorism that played out through a series of assassinations that ultimately lead to the events of 1968 after the Việt Minh (the predecessors of the Communist) took power in North Vietnam. As a struggling writer, I particularly appreciated learning more about how Nhã Ca came to writing. Finally, Hoàng Đức Nhã, who was only in his late twenties (can you imagine?) when he served as the private secretary and main advisor to the President of South Vietnam, Nguyễn Văn Thiệu, discusses the political climate surrounding the controversial negotiation process for the Paris Peace Agreement.
Overall The Republic of Vietnam, which only promises to publish and amplify the voices represented at the symposium, is a call to action. It was widely acknowledged by both speakers, attendees, and the coordinators that the symposium had come several decades too late. The cost of the delay was felt at the conference as news was shared that two of the confirmed speakers, Võ Long Triều, editor of Saigon newspaper, Ðại Dân Tộc, and Nguyễn Thanh Liêm, former vice minister of education in the Republic of Vietnam, had both passed away before the symposium. When the family member of one of these men shared with us that he had been struggling to live long enough to make the trip, I teared up, unable to hold my emotions.
For whatever it is worth, the amazing efforts to coordinate the symposium which featured speakers from all across the globe in many different time zones and the resulting collection of work from the speakers is phenomenal. For many of us in the diaspora who have lost so many years to the minutia of life, falling victim to the “model minority myth,” struggling so hard to ensure that the traumatic plight of our family members that brought us to this new and safer home produced success; the cost is the lost of our history.
That is not to say that I am being idealistic about the endeavors of nation building. The essays and testimony shared at the symposium spoke of foibles, failures, corruption, and ideologies gone awry, consumed by the sheer stress, personally, politically, and economically of the war on the people that had to survive within it day in and day out. Postcolonial nation building the world over has not been without its failures—whether the end result was ultimately successful or not. South Vietnam was no exception, but the point is that we never really had a chance.
For us, more than anything, The Republic of Vietnam is a primer and a demand for a more comprehensive, Vietnamese-written works of history. We have already seen works such as this from Nghĩa M. Vo’s Saigon: A History. Perhaps the future holds works that will highlight and quote from the writings showcased in the symposium. Thanks to Tuong Vu and Sean Fear’s efforts, the thoughts, impressions, and words of these pivotal individuals in South Vietnamese history have been preserved. We have somewhere to begin.
The Republic of Vietnam, 1955–1975: Vietnamese Perspectives on Nation Building
edited by Tuong Vu and Sean Fear
Southeast Asia Program Publications, $24.95
Z.M. Quỳnh is currently working on a novel that highlights the experiences of ARVN soldiers. You can visit her at zmquynh.com.