“Vietnam: A New History” by Christopher Goscha; Basic Books (240 pages, $35).
Published in September 2016, Vietnam: A New History is a widely acclaimed deep dive into the history of Vietnam from antiquity to the modern day. It was written by Christopher Goscha, renowned American-Canadian historian and professor at the University of Quebec at Montreal. Many Americans may not know much about the Socialist Republic of Vietnam beyond where it is on the globe and America’s involvement in the Vietnam War, but the country didn’t just not exist prior to the Vietnam War and it didn’t cease existing afterwards, the country continued to be of great importance to Southeast Asia as well as the rest of the world.
The Cold War conflict between Ho Chi Minh’s Communist-backed Democratic Republic of North Vietnam and the American-backed Republic of South Vietnam was only the most recent instance of war dividing and transforming their nation. Numerous kingdoms, dynasties, and states have ruled over the territory now called Vietnam. Generations of emperors, rebels, priests, and colonizers have all left complicated legacies alongside periods of Chinese, French, and Japanese rule. Everyone mentioned hitherto have each played a role in reshaping and modernizing Vietnam, but so too have the colonial enterprises of the Vietnamese themselves as they continue to extend influence southward from the Red River Delta (a.k.a. the Hong River Delta).
As a fan of international history, I enjoyed learning about the various cultures and international histories enveloping Vietnam, and seeing how the Vietnamese people persevered and adapted through both the good times and the bad as Vietnam evolved. Goscha has a wonderful flow to his writing, contextually connecting each topic to the next in a way that keeps the flow of history and the relation of events easy to follow and comprehend. I never knew what happened after the Vietnam War, and so discovering what unfolded certainly stuck with me.
Following the end of the Vietnam War in 1975, the Vietnamese were subjected to a combination of economic sanctions, destruction left by the war, further conflicts with neighboring countries, and the inhumane policies of Vietnam’s newly unified Communist government under President Ho Chi Minh. At least 300,000 Vietnamese, especially Southern Vietnamese associated with the former Republic of Vietnam, were sent to prison-camps for “re-education”, where they endured torture, starvation, and disease as they were forced to perform hard labor. One million Vietnamese city dwellers were “volunteered” to relocate to “New Economic Zones” where they were forced to survive by reclaiming land and clearing jungle to grow crops for the starving Vietnamese population.
Government-enforced repression was particularly severe for Hoa citizens, the ethnic Chinese population of Vietnam. Increasing tensions between Vietnam and China, ultimately resulting in China’s 1979 invasion of Vietnam, lead to the Hoa being seen as a security threat by the Vietnamese government. The Hoa controlled much of the retail trade in South Vietnam, and so Ho Chi Minh’s Communist government purposefully levied them with heavy taxes, restricted their trade, and confiscated their businesses among other discriminatory practices.
Southern Vietnamese refugees were taken to America by retreating American forces up until the last airfields and ports were secured by North Vietnam. As Southeast Asian countries became increasingly unwilling to accept fleeing migrants, some one million Vietnamese tried their luck fleeing by dangerously overloaded boats instead, causing an international humanitarian crisis. Between 200,000 and 400,000 Vietnamese boat people died at sea.
In 1986, reformist politicians led by Nguyễn Văn Linh replaced the “old guard” government. Their free-market reforms managed the transition from a planned economy to a “socialist-oriented market economy”. State authority remained unchallenged, but the government encouraged private ownership of farms and factories, economic deregulation, and foreign investment, while maintaining control over key industries. Vietnam’s economic shift transformed the country from one of the poorest in the world into a lower middle-income country still on the rise.
Professor Goscha has done the people of Vietnam a great justice by presenting us outsiders a comprehensive narrative of the country’s complicated history, as well as catching the reader up to speed on what day-to-day life is like in modern Vietnam. From ancient rice-farming Phung Nguyen culture, to warring feudal dynasties, to global superpowers fighting proxy wars to usurp their influence, to Vietnam’s free-market resurgence, Goscha grants his readers a thorough history lesson impartially framed in the perspective of the Vietnamese people alongside insightful analysis on the causes and effects of various internal and external forces affecting Vietnam throughout its vibrant and sometimes bloody history. If you enjoy learning about other cultures, Vietnam: A New History will prove just as insightful and enjoyable as any documentary you’d catch on the Smithsonian Channel!
Donavon Anderson is a reference assistant at May Memorial Library. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.