Blog post

Nationalism Painted Red

Grant Evans and Kelvin Rowley look at the development of communist movements in Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia and respond to the claims of Western analysts who rooted conflicts between them after 1975 in "traditional" antagonisms. 

Grant Evans, Kelvin Rowley21 July 2017

Pathet Lao soldiers, Vientiane, 1973. via Wikimedia Commons.

First published in 1984 and revised in 1990, Grant Evans' and Kelvin Rowley's Red Brotherhood at War: Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos Since 1975 explores the causes behind inter-communist war in Asia following successful revolutions in Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia.

For some, these events spelled the end of the ideas of socialist internationalism. The New York Times ran an editorial entitled "The Red Brotherhood at War" in which it announced, gloatingly: "They are singing 'the Internationale' on all sides of the Asian battlefields this week as they bury the hopes of the Communist fathers with the bodies of their sons. The "hopes of the Communist fathers" had been that, since war was caused by capitalist imperialism, international socialism would bring peace. These ideals now lay shattered by the new conflicts in Indochina. It is scarcely surprising that many on the western Left were confused and disorientated by these developments.

The late 1970s was the era of what Fred Halliday called the Second Cold War. Everywhere in the West, it was the Right which was in the ascendancy both politically and intellectually. Inevitably, perceptions of developments in Indochina were widely viewed through the ideological spectacles of militant anti-Communism. The anti-Communists saw Moscow as the source of all evil, and seized on the Vietnam-Democratic Kampuchea war as proof of the brutal, expansionist nature of Soviet-backed "socialist internationalism." This also provided a retrospective vindication for the US intervention in Vietnam.

Yet this perspective provided its adherents with more emotional satisfaction than insight. There were many inconvenient facts that did not fit, but the mood of the time was such that these were usually overlooked. In their unthinking zeal, the anti-Communist militants entered an open alliance with the Communism of Deng Xiaoping, and a furtive one with the Communism of Pol Pot, against Vietnamese Communism. Liberals bowed to the prevailing intellectual tide, as can be seen by comparing the two books William Shawcross wrote on Cambodia (the first published in 1979, the second in 1984).

In the excerpt below, Evans and Rowley look at the development of communist movements in the three countries and respond to the claims of Western analysts who rooted conflicts between them in "traditional" antagonisms. 

Two explanations are commonly put forward in the West for the new round of war in Indochina after 1975. One, espoused particularly by the right wing in the United States, is that it was due to the aggressive “internationalism” of the Vietnamese Communists and to the failure of the American intervention. In their view, no sooner had the Communists conquered South Vietnam than they turned their energies to the subjugation of neighbouring Laos and Cambodia, doubtless at the behest of Moscow. The USA, paralysed by misplaced guilt, stood helplessly by and did nothing to save the latest victims of Communist aggression.

Few Indochina experts would agree that things were as simple as this, and we shall show how wrong this interpretation is in chapter 2. In this chapter we will focus on the second explanation, which is more influential among specialists on the region and western liberal commentators. This explains the new conflicts in terms of the triumph of ancient and deep-rooted national antagonisms over the ideological bonds of internationalist Communist solidarity.

Such an interpretation certainly has some basis in the rhetoric of the antagonists themselves, who have not hesitated to find an ancient pedigree for contemporary quarrels. In September 1978 the Pol Pot regime produced a Black Paper depicting the current conflict as the culmination of five centuries of Khmer struggles against relentless expansion by the Vietnamese. Almost devoid of Marxist-Leninist rhetoric, it explained the conflict in purely nationalist — indeed, essentially racist — terms. It was, according to the Black Paper, the “true nature” of Vietnam to be an “aggressor, annexationist and swallower of other people's territory.” This was indignantly rejected by Hanoi as a “crude falsification” of history, but faced with the Chinese invasion of February 1979, the Vietnamese leaders responded by invoking, in less crude but distinctly similar terms, Vietnam's “two thousand years of struggle against Chinese domination.”

Ancient Traditions or Colonial Transformation?

Such a line of explanation is accepted by many commentators who otherwise rarely find themselves in agreement with the Communists. For example, Elizabeth Becker, a leading American commentator on Cambodia, sees the war between Vietnam and Pol Pot's regime as the result of cultural antagonisms rooted in Cambodia's origins as an “Indianic” state and Vietnam's origins as a “Sinitic” state. The Cambodian-Vietnamese border is thus “one of the great cultural divides of Asia, marking the frontiers of Asia's two great cultures, China and India.” This she compares to the divide between the “artistic Latin culture” and the “industrious northern temperament” which supposedly occurs on the Franco-German border.1

Becker proceeds to illustrate this with a discussion of matters such as clothing, cooking, and Khmer dancing. But she does not try to argue that the Vietnamese invaded Cambodia in 1979 because they wanted to stop a fun-loving Pol Pot enjoying his dances. Indeed, she does not succeed in making any connection between the cultural factors she lists and the outbreak of the war. The European parallels she draws surely show only how superficial and far-fetched this line of reasoning is. No serious historian of, let us say, the origins of World War II has wasted time pontificating about the clash between “artistic” and “industrious” temperaments in Alsace-Lorraine. They have found it more useful to analyse the problems, ambitions, and actions of the governments of the time.

Milton Osborne has presented a much more focused and persuasive version of the culture clash argument. Cambodia is an ancient empire which has been whittled down over the centuries by the expansion of states to its east (Vietnam) and to its west (Thailand). As Thailand was also an “Indianic” state, defeat at Thai hands did not bring about any real changes in the Cambodian political system. The Cambodians therefore did not think of the Thai as incorrigible enemies. But defeat at the hands of the Vietnamese meant the imposition of a fundamentally alien system of government. Thus, argues Osborne:

The differences between these cultures had very practical implications. When the Vietnamese absorbed Cambodian territory they sought to transform it into something that was “standard” Vietnamese. They sought to do this behind clearly demarcated frontiers. The Cambodians, even when they had been powerful, had not thought in these terms, neither had the Thais. For the Thais and Cambodians, both beneficiaries of Indian ideas on statecraft, frontiers were regarded as porous and shifting and new populations that might come under the control of the state as the result of conquest were not of necessity to be moulded into some pale imitation of the conqueror.2

The alien methods of rule imposed by Vietnamese conquests meant that the Khmer thought of the Vietnamese, in contrast to the Thai, as “fundamentally and irretrievably racial enemies.” It was, according to Osborne, this deep-rooted traditional conflict that re-emerged after 1975 and destroyed Communist solidarity. With the Vietnamese invasion of 1978, the Pol Pot government experienced “the ultimate proof of their countrymen's traditional fears” of the Vietnamese.

But there are serious problems even with this version of the argument. Despite their common culture, as Khien Theeravit, of Bangkok's Chulalongkorn University, has observed, “the Siamese and the Khmer kingdoms were often at war with one another.”3 As Khien remarks, when the Thai and the Khmer went to war they “observed no rules of warfare and espoused no martial modes of conduct. More often than not, they demonstrated savagery in the conduct of warfare.” Marauding armies sacked and pillaged villages. The victors executed defeated kings, massacred their followers, sacked their capitals, and enslaved their subjects.4

The Cambodian empire lost more territory to the Thai than to the Vietnamese — a fact that is known and resented by many modern Cambodian nationalists (even if those who are in alliance with the Thai against the Vietnamese find it expedient not to dwell on it). The same is true for Laos, despite the much vaunted cultural similarities, while the greatest military threat to the Thai kingdom — its real “historic enemy” — was another Buddhist kingdom, Burma.

Incredible amounts of romantic nonsense have been written about Asia's “gentle Buddhist kingdoms.” If more observers had been aware of the real historical record, they might have been better prepared for what happened when Cambodia came apart in the 1970s. But for the moment, the relevant point is that we think it unlikely that the Khmer found being sacked, pillaged, or executed by the Thai any more congenial than suffering such actions at the hands of the Vietnamese. We suspect that their aspirations were either to be left in peace, or to be the ones doing the sacking, pillaging, and executing. And techniques of administration are more likely to concern officials than peasants.

Anti-Vietnamese Khmer nationalism is a product of the colonial era, rather than of “traditional animosities” stretching back to antiquity. As Benedict Anderson has noted, there is a striking contradiction between the “objective modernity” of nations and their “subjective antiquity” in the eyes of nationalists.5 Osborne is right in saying that in pre-colonial times the boundaries of the Cambodian and Thai states were “porous and shifting.” But this was not because they were “beneficiaries of Indian ideas on statecraft,” in contrast to the Vietnamese and the Chinese. In both cases, states were based on the ability of rulers to command obedience and loyalty from their subjects, rather than sovereignty over fixed territory. The domains of powerful states were separated by “frontier zones” of loose and uncertain loyalties, rather than carefully defined territorial borders. The latter is a concept imported by Europeans in the colonial era, who attempted to impose a legal-bureaucratic rationality on their conquests.

Rhetoric about the “sacred soil” of the nation is thus characteristic of modern times. In pre-colonial Asia as in medieval Europe it was a person (the supreme ruler) rather than soil which was pronounced “sacred.” In any case, as we shall see in chapter 4, Pol Pot's regime did not adopt the rather casual approach to border questions that might be expected from a “beneficiary of Indianic ideas on statecraft.” Moreover, the vicissitudes of politics and war in modern times simply do not coincide with the enduring patterns of cultural differences. Why, for example, did China support “Indianic” Cambodia against “Sinitic” Vietnam in the conflict of 1977-78? To answer this question, we have to analyse the modern political conjuncture, not traditional cultures.

Answers in terms of the latter usually take “tradition” as a kind of historical deus ex machina which explains everything and does not itself need to be explained. However, traditional culture is not the spontaneous emanation of mysterious racial instincts but the product of concrete historical experiences and institutions. It is maintained by constant efforts, and serves the interest of specific groups.

This general point has been made by Barrington Moore in terms that can hardly be bettered:

The assumption that cultural and social continuity do not require explanation, obliterates the fact that both have to be created anew in each generation, often with great pain and suffering. To maintain and transmit a value-system, human beings are punched, sent to jail, thrown into concentration camps, cajoled, bribed, made into heroes, encouraged to read newspapers, stood up against a wall and shot, and sometimes even taught sociology. To speak of cultural inertia is to overlook the concrete interests and privileges that are served by indoctrination, education, and the entire complicated process of transmitting culture from one generation to the next... We cannot do without some conception of how people perceive the world and what they do or do not want to do about what they see. To detach this conception from the way people reach it, to take it out of its historical context and raise it to the level of an independent causal factor in its own right, means that the supposedly impartial investigator succumbs to the justifications that ruling groups generally offer for their most brutal conduct. That, I fear, is exactly what a great deal of academic social science does today.6

These remarks are particularly relevant when we find “tradition” cited to explain the behaviour of the Pol Pot group. Nevertheless this interpretation remains popular. It appeals to the common belief that “nations” are “natural” political communities (based perhaps on race or traditional culture) of great antiquity, yearning for political expression. But it denies the fact that in pre-modern Europe and elsewhere, “nations” did not exist in the contemporary sense at all. Affairs of state were the exclusive preserve of a ruling aristocracy and the mass of the common people were wholly excluded from “the political community.” They were subjects rather than citizens. It was only with the onset of those sweeping changes loosely summed up as “modernization” that a belief in the principle of nationality took root in Europe. As Hans Kohn puts it: “Modern nationalism originated in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries in north-west Europe and its American settlements.... It became a general European movement in the nineteenth century.”7 And, in the twentieth century, it has spread to the non-European world, largely as a result of the disruption of traditional systems of political domination by European expansion.

Nations are political communities created historically by successful nationalist movements. There are two basic elements in the process. The first is the creation of a modern state — a sovereign power with a centralized bureaucracy, uniform and impersonal laws, and a monopoly of the legitimate use of force, ruling a territory and population strictly defined in law. The second element is the incorporation of the lower classes into this system of political domination. This is facilitated by a common language and culture (which may or may not be associated with common racial features). But these ingredients are neither necessary nor sufficient — “actually existing nations” have been shaped as much by political expediency as by theoretical formulae.

We should also add that nationalist changes can be brought about “from above,” as rulers adapt and reform existing states, or “from below,” as revolutionary forces mobilize the population behind their struggle to create a new state. As we shall see in the case of the three nations of Indochina, the disintegration of a traditional system of domination may result in both processes occurring simultaneously. The result is competing nationalisms. Nationalism arises, therefore, not from traditionalism but from its breakdown. Arguments and interpretation based on “antiquity of nations” merely pander to the mythology of modern nationalism, the mythologies by which the rulers of nation-states seek to gain legitimacy and mobilize popular support. There are thus no such things as “true nationalism” and “false nationalism” — though such claims are favourite rhetorical devices among political propagandists of all sides. The reality is just conflicting varieties of nationalism, some of which emerge victorious, and some of which prove unsuccessful.

Triumphant nationalists, as a rule, like to see history written in terms that show the justice and the inevitability of their victory, and the correctness of their political line: in short, successful nationalism uses history as a legitimating myth. Unfortunately, much contemporary scholarship is devoted to elaborating the mythology rather than analysing the anatomy of nationalist politics. Nevertheless, the Indochinese present is conditioned by the past, and an awareness of the historical background is essential to an unravelling of the tangled web of events since 1975.

At the core of the explanation of the Vietnam-Cambodia war in terms of “historical animosities” is the assumption that the conflicts of the postcolonial era are a resumption of the rivalries of the traditional states of pre-modern Indochina.There is no doubt that Angkor (ancient Cambodia), Champa (in what, more recently, was South Vietnam) and Lane Xang (in what is now Laos and northeastern Thailand) were among the main casualties of these conflicts. Nor is there any reason to dispute that the Vietnamese state was one of the most successful participants in these conflicts.

This success reflected the superior ability of Vietnam's centralized bureaucratic state to assess and mobilize resources. It is presumably to the application of legal-bureaucratic norms that Osborne was referring when he spoke of the transformation of conquered territory into “standard” Vietnamese. In the so-called “Indianized” states, political authority was, in Max Weber's terminology, “patrimonial” rather than bureaucratic. Although legitimized by custom and religion (Therevada Buddhism), authority was exercised by dignitaries who depended for their position wholly on the personal favour of an autocratic king. Authority over subordinates was in principle arbitrary at every level, although it was in practice constrained by respect for custom. The system as a whole was held together by chains of patron-client relations.

The most visible sign of the success of the Vietnamese state was the great “march to the south,” begun in the fifteenth century. This movement was a result of a combination of peasant migration precipitated by population pressures in the heartland of Vietnamese civilization, the Red River Delta, and the superior strength of the Confucian state. By the seventeenth century the Vietnamese had destroyed the kingdom of Champa — with, it should be noted, the help of the Cambodians, who also benefited from the destruction of the Cham state. In the wake of this, Vietnamese settlers began moving into the lower Mekong Delta, now a thinly populated area of the Cambodian empire.

Many commentators neglect to mention that the counterpoint to the growth of Vietnamese power in the east was the rise of the kingdom of Thailand in the west. Although Champa lost out principally to the Vietnamese, both Angkor and Lane Xang lost more territory to the Thai than to the Vietnamese. Thus, when it produced a White Paper on Thai–Cambodian relations in 1983, the Heng Samrin government was able to produce a chronicle of “expansionist acts” by the Thai that is every bit as valid and impressive as that produced by Pol Pot to indict the Vietnamese. Such chronicles of past aggressions do much to mobilize nationalist indignation. But they do nothing to explain what contemporary conflicts are about.

By the late eighteenth century both Cambodia and Laos had been reduced to “tributary states” subordinate to both Vietnam and Thailand. The outcome was that, especially as a king's reign drew to a close, ambitious princes would try to strengthen their hand in the local court by seeking Thai or Vietnamese patronage. In the 1840s the Thai king, Rama III, described the consequences: “The Cambodians always fight among themselves in the matter of succession. The losers in these fights go off to ask for help from a neighbouring state; the winner must then ask for forces from the other.”9

The result was a destructive cycle of court intrigue and foreign intervention — in which attempts by individual players in the power game to improve their individual position further weakened the position of the state as a whole. In the light of these shifting alliances, attempts to claim that traditional alignments created “natural enemies” (or “natural allies”) in the region do not stand up to serious examination.

This cycle had its greatest impact on the relatively accessible lowland country. By the mid-nineteenth century the Cambodian kingdom had declined to the point where many observers thought its complete dismemberment by the Thai and the Vietnamese was inevitable. The Lao kingdom lost virtually all its lowland territory to the Thai. Driven into the mountain hinterland, it became little more than a loosely connected collection of principalities which survived more because of their inaccessibility than because of their political capacity.

These developments of the pre-colonial era certainly helped set the stage for more recent developments. But the most important development shaping modern Indochina has been the experience of European colonialism, rather than the pre-colonial heritage. It was French rule that finally shattered traditional patterns of political domination in Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia alike. The French both dismembered Vietnam (into Cochin China, Annam, and Tonkin) and joined it with Laos and Cambodia. The imperium that resulted — France's “Indochina Federation,” was without precedent in the traditional political institutions of the region.

French rule also brought about a major transformation of society in Indochina. Once their control was reasonably secure — in the first decade of the twentieth century — the French embarked on a programme of “rational exploitation” of the colonies that would gladden the heart of any 1980s New Rightist. They shed “white man's burden” rhetoric in favour of a user-pays, export-orientated approach. In the colonies, the “economic rationalists” of the day felt no obligation to pander to claptrap about popular welfare, which was irritatingly persistent in the metropolis (where the common man, but not woman, had won the vote). The result was development in the colonies, but of such a sort as to provoke revolt among its victims.

The most fundamental change was the commercialization of agriculture: under French rule the Mekong Delta became a major exporter of rice. French capital also poured in to establish plantations, mines, and railways. From the statistics that are available, it seems clear that economic development accelerated under the French; but it was a very lopsided process, and its benefits were distributed very unevenly. Few, if any, filtered down to the ordinary people — Vietnamese peasants and coolie labourers were among the poorest in all Asia — but a commercial middle class grew up in the main towns, especially Saigon. A numerically small working class, centred on the towns, the plantations and the mines, also emerged.10

The impact of French colonialism was extraordinarily uneven in its geographic impact. Development was concentrated in Vietnam, where it wrought immense changes, whereas the traditional social and political structure of Cambodia remained basically intact, and Laos was left to stagnate as a backwater of the Federation staffed by no more than a hundred French officials (there were tens of thousands in Vietnam).

French colonialism destroyed the traditional Confucian system of rule in Vietnam. Although the Confucian examination system was allowed to linger on until 1919 as an alternative route into the bureaucracy, the French quickly introduced their own western-style education system to train Vietnamese officials. It need hardly be added that they were assigned to lowly tasks, under the watchful eyes of their French superiors.

Both Cambodia and Laos had been acquired by the French for primarily strategic reasons. They became “protectorates,” intended to serve as a buffer, protecting the more valuable coastal provinces of French Indochina from hostile powers. The French were also competing with the British for a southern route to China, which they hoped control of the Mekong valley would provide. Inevitably, this brought them into conflict with the Thai, outraged by their loss of influence in Cambodia and Laos, and distressed by the success of the French in rolling back the territorial gains Thailand had made in happier times. But the Thai king was also hard pressed by the British in the west, and it took all his skill to juggle the British against the French to avoid an outright annexation of his kingdom.

Thailand lost territory to both the British and the French. Nationalist ideologues would subsequently present this defeat on two fronts as a victory. In relative terms, they do have a point. Thailand came through the colonial era as an independent state, and it was the only country in the region to do so. In Cambodia the traditional social and political structure was still largely intact in 1945. Private titles to land had been established, but French commercial penetration was limited. Rubber plantations were established in the east of the country, but the French preferred to work them with Vietnamese coolie labour. The French also used Vietnamese to staff their colonial bureaucracy. They did little to provide the Khmer with a western-style education. As a result, unlike Vietnam, there was virtually no indigenous working class or intelligentsia until the 1930s.

In Vietnam the French conquest dismembered a powerful state, apparently in a phase of regional, ascendancy. In Cambodia they proclaimed a protectorate over a kingdom already in decline. The standing of the traditional monarchy probably suffered in both countries as a result. But the blow was heavier in Vietnam. Vietnamese nationalists would soon turn against a humiliated emperor as a “puppet” of France. In Cambodia the traditional monarch survived as a diminished, but credible, focus of political life. As nationalism developed in Vietnam, its cadres had no doubts that the French were responsible for national humiliation.

Their Cambodian counterparts took a more ambiguous position from the start, both on the monarchy and on the French. They reflected not only on the humiliation of their king at the hands of the French, but also on the losses Cambodia suffered at the hands of its immediate neighbours before French intervention. French rule disrupted life even less in Laos than it did in Cambodia. Since the break-up of Lane Xang, Laos was really a confederation of small principalities, with regionally based aristocratic families wielding political power. The king, based in the royal capital of Luang Prabang, exercised little real power; symptomatically, the French established their administrative capital elsewhere, in Vientiane. Peasant life was barely touched. Only the merest handful of Lao aristocrats were given any education by the French. The principal headache of the French in colonial Laos was fractious hill tribes who resented French attempts to bring them under the control of lowland authorities.

French rule also brought an end to Chinese hegemony over the states of Indochina. In the face of French annexations, Tu Duc, the last traditional ruler of Vietnam (more strictly, of its surviving northern rump, Tonkin) had turned increasingly to the Chinese for support. But when, in keeping with long-established precedent, he sent a formal mission of tribute to Beijing in 1880, the French seized on this as an intolerable act of defiance and used it as their excuse for the conquest of Tonkin. In 1885 the French forced the Vietnamese ceremonially to melt down the seal of investiture granted by the Chinese emperors to the rulers of Vietnam. The Chinese invaded in protest, but were quickly defeated, and in 1885 signed a treaty with the French by which they formally renounced suzerainty over Vietnam. This was a dramatic instance of the general process by which European imperialism shattered the traditional Sinocentric pattern of relations between states in Southeast Asia.

The various borders of Indochina were for the first time given precise legal demarcation as a result of the assertion of French power. The borders of Laos and Cambodia with Thailand were determined in various treaties between the French and the Thai from 1867 to 1925. The borders between China and Vietnam and Laos were laid down in Sino-French negotiations in the 1880s and 1890s. On the other hand, the boundaries between Laos, Vietnam, and Cambodia were decided simply as internal administrative divisions within French Indochina, and they were adjusted on several occasions for official convenience; only after World War II were they accorded the status of international borders. As a result of the colonial experience, therefore, the Indochinese countries found themselves with borders to whose determination none of them had been a party. This was to prove an explosive legacy in the era of victorious nationalism.

Vietnam: Anatomy of Nationalist Revolution

Modern nationalism emerged in the Indochinese countries as a response to colonial rule. The earliest and the strongest movement emerged in Vietnam. There was already in Vietnam that loose sense of national identity that could be termed proto-nationalism': and it was here that the transforming impact of colonialism was greatest. The basic anatomy of modern nationalism can be seen most clearly in Vietnam.11

Vietnamese resistance to French rule went through several distinct stages of evolution. With some variations, a similar pattern can be found in many colonial nationalist movements. Opposition began immediately after conquest, as a movement of traditionalist royalism. Members of the old ruling class felt the immediate impact of French conquest most fully, for it was they and not the common people who experienced political dispossession. Many of them sought salvation through a restoration of the full power of the Vietnamese throne, a vigorous reassertion of traditional Confucian values, and the expulsion of disruptive foreign influences. From the 1860s onwards, local mandarins organized military resistance to the French in many parts of the country. At times they succeeded in tying up tens of thousands of French troops, but by 1895 the movement had basically been beaten.

The second phase was one of westernization. As early as the 1870s, some members of the Vietnamese upper class were consciously rejecting the Confucian tradition in favour of western culture. This trend was strengthened by the defeat of traditionalists, which seemed to prove conclusively the practical superiority of European civilization, and by the growth of a semi-westernized merchant class in the port towns. Educated Vietnamese drank deeply of western culture, looked to western political models for the future of their own country and, at least before 1914, submitted to western tutelage. Those who sought reforms couched their demands in moderate and respectful terms, and accepted the timetable decided on by the French.

This phase ended with World War I. Within Europe and beyond it, the war shattered the confidence in the superiority of European civilization that had provided the intellectual and emotional underpinning of imperialism. After the war, the colonial reformers turned in more radical directions. In Vietnam, fewer and fewer were willing to follow French timetables.

Vietnamese opposition to French rule entered its third phase with the birth of modern nationalist movements after World War I. These were at first narrowly based, drawing their support from the urban, educated classes, and they were profoundly influenced by events outside Vietnam — not only World War I, but also the Chinese (1910) and Russian (1917) revolutions. The Russian revolution, in particular, seemed to offer a way forward to those who wished for the benefits of modernization but opposed western imperialism. By the 1930s the two main groups contending for the leadership of the Vietnamese nationalist movement were the Vietnam Quoc Dan Dang (VNQDD), which modelled itself on Chiang Kai-shek's Guomindang in China, and the Indochinese Communist Party (ICP), which was led by Ho Chi Minh and looked to the Soviet Union for its political model.

This third stage can be termed that of “elite nationalism.” Subjection to alien rule had implanted the idea that the Vietnamese were one people, a nation with a common past and a common destiny — and that it should take this destiny into its own hands, against French resistance if need be. Greg Lochart has recently emphasized that the crucial linguistic shifts — from terms denoting people as “subjects of the king” to denoting them as citizens, and from patriotism as loyalty to the person of the king to loyalty to the cause of the people — took place only in the twentieth century.12 But this idea remained restricted for the time being to the better off classes. In terms of their social backgrounds, there was little to choose between the leaderships of the Communists and the anti-Communist nationalists. Both drew heavily on the children of middle- and lower-ranking Confucian officials, educated and westernized by the French, and usually employed as minor civil servants or school teachers until they became professional political agitators. The social gulf between them and the peasant majority remained vast, and their mass following minimal.

Attempts by these elite groups to pressure the French into granting independence by means of propaganda and persuasion failed dismally, and by the end of the 1920s many of their members were in prison. When persuasion failed, the nationalists tried force, the VNQDD in particular proving adept at terrorist tactics. But while the nationalist groups were small and politically isolated they could be dealt with effectively by police repression. Vietnamese elite nationalism, even when it took a violent turn, presented no serious immediate threat to French rule in Indochina.

Given the intransigence of the French, the only way the nationalists could defeat them was by rallying wide popular support. Here again, European experience provided the model for those out to overthrow European rule. The nineteenth and early twentieth centuries in Europe witnessed the emergence of mass political movements and the democratization of political life. Whereas previously the only opinions that had counted in politics were those of various groups in the ruling classes, now the views and interests of the common people — the peasants, the working class, and the middle classes — had to be taken into account as well. Liberal democracy, Communism, and fascism all emerged in Europe as different responses to this entry of the common people on to the political stage. And despite their divergences, they all seemed to point to one fact of central importance — success in the new arena of mass politics depended on building an effective party organization propagating an ideology with popular appeal. The era of mass politics has been one of party politics and ideology, and this has proved as true in the colonies as in Europe itself.

Thus the fourth stage in the development of nationalism in Vietnam was the transition from elite nationalism to “mass nationalism.” It was a stage of party-building and popular mobilization against colonial rule, which took place in the 1930s and 1940s against the background of the Great Depression and World War II. It also witnessed the development of a struggle between the Communists and the non-Communists for the loyalties of the common people.

The anti-Communists won a sizeable following among the mercantile classes in the port towns, particularly Saigon, and among the commercial landlords who dominated the rural economy of Cochin China, closely interconnected as they were with mercantile interests in Saigon. While they succeeded in attracting many prominent Vietnamese into their ranks, the anti-Communists remained essentially a conservative party of the well-to-do minority. Their great failure was that they made little effort to win the support of the peasantry, the largest class in Vietnamese society. It is not unreasonable to describe these groups as “bourgeois nationalists.” If their social base was narrow, they also lacked a coherent ideology and the organizational discipline necessary for success in modern mass politics. The political ideas of the bourgeois nationalists ranged from liberal democracy to overt fascism. Most wanted the French to go, or at least to hand over power to them, but beyond that they basically wanted to change the status quo as little as possible. Even their anti-French stance underwent revision as conflict with the Communists intensified, and by the 1950s many of them were looking to the French for protection from the Communists, while the French found them a congenially moderate alternative to Communism. But this rapprochement with the French in the middle of the war of independence only served to weaken further the already dubious patriotic credentials of the bourgeois nationalists. They also suffered from chronic factionalism, and were unable to establish a stable political organization that could sink enduring roots. In many ways, they simply did not progress beyond the amateurish politics of the elite nationalism of the 1920s.

Their Communist rivals, on the other hand, did make this transition. They succeeded in building and maintaining a disciplined organizational structure of cells and branches, which effectively linked the rank-and-file members in villages and factories to the national party leadership. They also possessed the advantage of having a leader of outstanding personal capabilities, Ho Chi Minh. And unlike the traditional Confucian state, to which it is sometimes compared, Communist organization penetrated deep into the lowest levels of the social structure. The Communists were also notable in the ruthlessness with which they dealt with rivals and opponents. In the state to which this movement gave eventual birth, a highly centralized government would be linked to a strong grassroots organization by a tightly disciplined party apparatus.

The Communists had considerable success in mobilizing working-class support. But, in terms of its social composition, the Indochinese Communist Party was hardly the “party of the proletariat” it claimed to be. The industrial working class was still very much a minority group in Vietnamese society; and the Communists achieved their key success where the bourgeois nationalists failed, in the countryside. By exploiting agrarian grievances — landlordism, usurious moneylenders, corruption and the abuse of power by local officials — they succeeded in gaining a following among the peasants in many areas of the Vietnamese countryside: while in many others they were, if not supported, at least feared and respected. While the urban working class did play some role, the Communist revolution in Vietnam was basically a peasant uprising organized by intellectuals from a middle-class (and even aristocratic) background.

In the early 1930s the Communist movement was ravaged by police repression, and it was their leading role in the resistance to the Japanese occupation of Indochina during World War II that brought the Communists to the forefront of the nationalist movement. A similar pattern can be detected in a number of European countries that underwent fascist occupation, with the result that this was the period of fastest growth in the history of the international Communist movement. In May 1941, the Communist Party formed the “Vietnam Doc Lap Dong Minh” (League for the Independence of Vietnam), better known as the Viet Minh, whose objective was Vietnamese independence, and launched an armed struggle against the Japanese — in other words, it was aiming at the expulsion of the French as well as the Japanese. As the most effective anti-Japanese force in Indochina during World War II, the Viet Minh managed to attract the support not only of many Vietnamese nationalists, but also of Free French forces and even the American Office of Strategic Services (OSS), who at one point provided Ho Chi Minh's forces with weapons.

When the Japanese surrendered in August 1945 the Viet Minh seized power in Hanoi and proclaimed the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV). The puppet emperor retained by the French, Bao Dai, agreed to abdicate in favour of the DRV. The French, however, were unwilling to accept the loss of Indochina. They returned in force in 1946, and the First Indochina War began. The French aimed at securing all of Indochina, and tried to rally anti-Communist forces in Cambodia and Laos as well as Vietnam to their cause. The war between the French and the Viet Minh thus ranged through all of Indochina until the French defeat at Dien Bien Phu in May 1954.

The French had been by no means alone in their struggle against the Communist-led nationalist movement in Indochina. While there were many Vietnamese who supported the Viet Minh, there were many others who were mortally afraid of them. Thus the remaining traditional monarchists, many bourgeois nationalists and most Catholics rallied to the French-sponsored Bao Dai government. The “war of national liberation” between the Viet Minh and the French was also, to a significant degree, a civil war between left-wing and right-wing Vietnamese; and when the French left Indochina that conflict had not been resolved.

The French had another ally in the United States of America. Alarmed at the spread of Communist influence in Asia, the USA had early turned against the Viet Minh. Immediately after the outbreak of the war in Korea in 1950, it began providing large-scale military assistance to the French forces in Indochina, and from then until 1954 the US Treasury paid 80 per cent of the cost of France's war in Indochina.

The battle of Dien Bien Phu took place on the eve of a minor international conference at Geneva to settle the Indochina and Korea crises. All the major powers, including the USA and Communist China, attended. The Viet Minh delegation, led by Pham Van Dong, was eager to taste the fruits of victory, but was persuaded to accept a compromise by its Soviet and Chinese allies. Instead of the authority of the DRV being accepted throughout the whole of Vietnam, the Viet Minh accepted the 17th parallel as a temporary demarcation line, Viet Minh forces regrouping to the north and pro-French forces to the south. Elections were to be held within two years to decide the future of the country. But the elections were never held; the reunification of Vietnam was delayed twenty years, and only achieved by war.

The Second Indochina War

The origins and nature of this Second Indochina War are often misunderstood.14 It was certainly not, as the US government claimed in the 1960s, an external attack by Communist forces on the “independent state of South Vietnam” established at the Geneva Conference, for no such state was established at Geneva. Although they had withdrawn their military forces to the north of the 17th parallel, the Viet Minh had been a genuinely nation-wide movement, and many of its civilian cadres and supporters had remained behind in the south.

Nor was it simply a popular uprising against an unrepresentative and repressive government in South Vietnam, as many liberal critics of the Americans argued. The insurgency in the south was not autonomous, but fully supported by the Communist north. In reality, the war was a struggle between the two streams of nationalism that had developed in Vietnam, under the French-bourgeois nationalism centred on Saigon, and the mass nationalism of the Viet Minh, which had created the regime in Hanoi.

From 1954 to 1959 the leadership in Hanoi had looked to peaceful methods of reunification, but these were spurned by the government in Saigon. This led to some tension with the Communist cadres in the south, who were faced with a mounting campaign of repression by the Saigon regime and wanted to go over to a policy of armed opposition. In 1959, the Hanoi leadership decided to back armed struggle in the south. At the 3rd National Congress of the Vietnam Workers' Party — the name then being used by the Communist Party — in 1960, a number of southern cadres were promoted to leading positions. Among them was Le Duan, who had been pushing the southerners' case for a change of tactics since 1957. He was elected to the crucial position of general secretary of the party.

The National Liberation Front of South Vietnam (NLF) was formed in December 1960 to lead the struggle. A popular front organization modelled on the Viet Minh, it became popularly known to western readers as the Viet Cong. From that point on the fighting in the south escalated rapidly into full-scale war.

The creation of a separate state in the south was primarily an American strategy to prevent the Communists from consolidating the gains they had won on the battlefield at Dien Bien Phu and at the negotiating table at Geneva. Recognizing that Bao Dai was a discredited figure, the Americans threw their weight behind his last prime minister, Ngo Dinh Diem. A conservative Catholic of Confucian background, he was an elitist of strongly authoritarian convictions. He disliked the disorder of liberal democracy and rejected in principle the idea of government based on “mere numbers.” “Society,” he told Bernard Fall, “functions through personal relations among men at the top.”15 This was not the man to lead bourgeois nationalism successfully into the era of mass politics.

At first, Diem had surprising success. In the first two years of his rule, he succeeded in breaking the power of the Cao Dai and Hoa Hao sects, which controlled much of Saigon and the southern countryside. Then he turned to the more difficult task of eradicating the Viet Minh infrastructure. In doing this he relied on straightforward police-state methods, for which he was roundly criticized by western liberals. But Diem's real problem was not his reliance on dictatorial methods — the Vietnamese Communists were not squeamish about the methods they used — but the fact that his dictatorship had a precariously narrow base of support. It was a dictatorship of Catholics, many of them pro-French refugees from the north, over a predominantly Buddhist population. Even within the Catholic community, all effective power lay within one family clique. Even more importantly, it began as and remained an urban-based regime, closely tied to commercial interests in Saigon: as time went on, and much of the southern countryside effectively passed into the hands of the NLF, it became more and more dependent on external economic, political and military support.

The Americans were caught in an insurmountable dilemma in Vietnam in the early 1960s. Their presence in the country was already more blatant than the French presence had ever been, and Communist propaganda was tellingly exploiting this to depict Diem as a “puppet” of American imperialism. To deepen their involvement would be to undercut further the credentials of the “nationalist alternative” to Communism. But when they gave Diem his head, he pursued policies based on such narrow interests that he actively alienated support and drove people into the Communist camp. After a wave of Buddhist demonstrations against his regime, with American collusion, Diem was murdered in a military coup in 1963. But the subsequent military regimes in Saigon were never able to overcome the heritage bequeathed by Diem.

The rapid deterioration of the military situation in South Vietnam after Diem's death led to an escalation of the American involvement. This wrought immense destruction in both North and South Vietnam, but it did nothing to solve the fundamental political problems of the Saigon regime and in key ways it compounded them. Massive reliance on the USA undermined its nationalist credibility, and the torrent of dollars led to spreading corruption that sapped the morale of government supporters. The rise of the “PX millionaires,” as one-time President Nguyen Cao Ky called them, made the war into a blatantly self-serving enterprise for the wealthy in Saigon. The result was that many people who loathed the Communists were simply unwilling to fight for the southern regime when it came to the crunch.

And, of course, the crunch did come, in the early 1970s. The illusion that American military power would smash the Communists and bring about a quick and easy victory was shattered by the Tet offensive in 1968.16 After that, the Americans began to negotiate seriously for a withdrawal: having undermined the nationalist credentials of their Vietnamese allies by massive intervention, they now gambled everything on “Vietnamization” of the war. The American presence was scaled down progressively, and a complete withdrawal of their forces was negotiated in 1973 — an agreement hailed as “peace with honour” in Washington and “treachery” in Saigon. Once the Americans were out, the ceasefire in South Vietnam collapsed almost immediately, and in early 1975 the whole political-military structure of the Saigon regime was unravelled with such speed and completeness that even the Communists were taken by surprise.17 Essentially, the bourgeois nationalists of Saigon had never been able to progress beyond the elite politics of the 1920s. In 1975 they were finally overwhelmed by the mass nationalism forged by the Viet Minh in the 1940s.

Cambodia: Royalists versus Republicans

In Vietnam, the development of a modern nationalist movement in response to colonialism can be seen in relatively “pure” form. It took place over a lengthy period of time and, though overlapping to some extent, the different phases stand out as chronologically distinct. In Cambodia and Laos, the impact of colonialism was milder, and modern nationalism emerged later. When it did develop, the different phases of the process were “telescoped” together in a confusing fashion, and heavily influenced by the course of events in Vietnam.

In Cambodia, the French were initially content to declare a protectorate over the throne, and set up a skeletal colonial administration. Since few Cambodians had the education or clerical skills needed to fill the bottom ranks of the colonial bureaucracy, the French brought in Vietnamese to fill these positions. By the early twentieth century, they had imposed French property laws and taxes, and expanded corvée labour. But Cambodia was peripheral to France’s colonial venture in Indochina and traditional patterns of life and political authority were relatively undisturbed. Subordination to the French probably reduced the status of the king, but until World War II the country's political life consisted almost exclusively of court intrigue in Phnom Penh.

In 1941 the king died, and the French installed the youthful Prince Norodom Sihanouk on the throne. An only child, Sihanouk was shy and introverted, and thus presumed to be suitably malleable by French officials. In appointing him they passed over the Sisowath branch of the royal family, which had expected to inherit the throne. Norodom–Sisowath rivalry continued for decades after this.

The French made little effort to educate the Cambodians. In the racialist doctrines that guided colonial practice, they thought that there was little point. It was easier to bring in “superior” Vietnamese to do the job. It was not until 1933 that the first high school in Cambodia was opened. Even in the 1950s there were only a couple of thousand Cambodians with a secondary education. Educated Cambodians found their path to influence and status blocked as much by the Vietnamese the French appointed to the colonial bureaucracy as by the French themselves.

The first stirrings of Cambodian nationalism appeared in the late 1930s. Given the intimate relation between the monarchy and the French, the first nationalists were of necessity also anti-monarchist. And given French policies favouring the Vietnamese, they were anti-Vietnamese as well. When the Japanese decided to eliminate French rule in 1945, they installed a prominent nationalist, Son Ngoc Thanh, as prime minister. A bitter rivalry soon broke out between the new king and the new prime minister. But, with the help of the returning French, Sihanouk was able to depose Thanh and send him into exile.

Thanh had a considerable following in Phnom Penh, among the students in particular. When the French introduced reforms establishing an elected National Assembly in Cambodia, they formed a Democratic Party. Its opponents were little more than cliques of conservative bureaucrats and landowners, who wanted little or no change. The Democrats wanted to drive the French out and establish a Cambodian government.

To Sihanouk's dismay, the Democrats won a majority of the seats in the National Assembly in the first elections, in 1946. Control of the National Assembly gave the Democratic Party position and status but not real power, as it soon discovered when it tried to restrict royal and French power. The Democratic Party began to splinter into factions. It could still rally huge crowds to greet Thanh when he returned triumphantly from exile in 1951. But it was unable to protect its hero, and within six months Thanh was forced to flee the capital.18

The Democratic Party was essentially an urban phenomenon, the Cambodian version of bourgeois nationalism. Given the French assumption of the inferiority of even educated Cambodians to the Vietnamese, it was fuelled by anti-Vietnamese resentment, as well as by hostility to French rule. It was these French attitudes and policies which created the “traditional hostility” towards the Vietnamese, about which so much was written in the 1970s and 1980s.

As soon as they returned, the French tried to restore their control over rural Cambodia, but by 1946 disorganized armed resistance had developed in many rural areas. Many of the Khmer Issaraks (“Independent Khmer”) looked to Thanh for leadership. When Son Ngoc Thanh fled Phnom Penh in 1951, it was to areas on the Thai-Cambodian border under the control of pro-Thanh Issaraks. From there he directed anti-French and anti-Sihanouk guerrilla warfare for several years.

By this time the Issarak movement had grown considerably. But it was divided. As the war in the Vietnamese parts of French Indochina intensified, the French, through Sihanouk, recruited Cambodians to fight against the Viet Minh; and the Viet Minh began to encourage and organize Issarak groups in Cambodia. By the early 1950s one wing of the Issaraks, led by Son Ngoc Minh, was strongly pro-Viet Minh. The other wing, which looked to Son Ngoc Thanh, became increasingly antagonistic to the Vietnamese. They were united only in their hostility to Sihanouk and his French masters.

As the military situation in Indochina turned in favour of the Viet Minh, the strength of their Issarak allies grew rapidly. By 1954 they had about 5,000 men under arms, supported by some 2,200 Viet Minh troops, and controlled large areas of the countryside. They faced 6,000 French troops and a Royal Khmer Army which had been built up by the French to a total strength of 33,000, but which still depended on the command of French officers.19

By this time the pro-Thanhist Issarak movement had collapsed, its followers going to either the Sihanouk side or the pro-Vietnamese side. Sihanouk rallied many of the anti-Vietnamese Issaraks, and many urban Democratic Party supporters, by making a dramatic reversal. Although earlier an opponent of Cambodian independence, in 1953 he launched himself as the champion of a “Crusade for Independence.” He quickly became a master of the arts of manipulating the international mass media and outmanoeuvring his domestic opponents. After some hesitation, the French decided that he was a more congenial prospect than the Issaraks, and hastened to grant independence to his government.

At the Geneva Conference of 1954, Son Ngoc Minh's followers, not to mention the Thanhists, were denied representation. Most were forced to go into exile in Vietnam. Sihanouk, originally appointed to the throne because of his pliability, thus emerged as the man who had won Cambodian independence from the French. In contrast to Bao Dai in Vietnam, he succeeded in focusing emergent Cambodian nationalism on the throne and the traditional political system.

Sihanouk consolidated his dominance in 1955 by holding the elections promised at Geneva. He formally abdicated from the throne in favour of his father. Sihanouk then established his own political party, the Sangkum. To conservative Cambodians, he was still the god-king. To radical Cambodians, he was the democrat who had won independence and given up the throne.

The chief opposition to Sihanouk came from the Democratic Party. The surviving rump of Son Ngoc Minh's movement formed the Pracheachon. Several Democratic Party and Pracheachon candidates were jailed, and some were killed, during the election campaign. Shortly afterwards the leading Democrats fled the country, and Sihanouk's police began hunting down the remaining left-wing Issaraks (the “Khmer Viet Minh,” as he called them) in the countryside. Despite this, the International Control Commission (established at Geneva to oversee the implementation of the agreements) certified the 1955 elections in Cambodia as “correct.”20

Following this triumph, Sihanouk re-established an effective monopoly over Cambodian political life, and systematically inculcated monarchist sentiments into his subjects. As Elizabeth Becker summed up the period that followed:

Sihanouk put his royal stamp on everything. The monarchy remained one of the pillars of the country in the constitution. The royal palace remained the center of society. . . . And Sihanouk heavily subsidized the symbols of the throne — the royal palace and court, the royal museum and antiquities, the heavy royal hand at every turn. The prince enjoyed a status that would have been the envy of his immediate royal predecessors — total control over the country without the domineering protection of a foreign power.21

Sihanouk had outmanoeuvred the early leaders of both bourgeois nationalism and radical mass nationalism in Cambodia. But these forces went underground, or were absorbed into Sihanouk's own Sangkum (“People's Community”) party. Sihanouk began espousing a “Buddhist socialism” so vague that both religious conservatives like Lon Noland young radicals like Khieu Samphan were able to find something in it that they could support.

The continuity of traditional monarchic political and religious institutions linked pre- and post-colonial Cambodia, and after the departure of the French Sihanouk interpreted regional politics in terms of the rivalries between the old kingdoms. He pointed to the contrast between the glories of Angkor and the sad state into which Cambodia had fallen in modern times. This he explained, not in terms of the socio-economic or political weaknesses of the Khmer Empire, but in terms of its geographic position and the evil designs of its enemies. As proof of this analysis, he took border disputes with both Thailand and South Vietnam.

Immediately after the Geneva Conference, Sihanouk had flirted with the idea of aligning himself with the West. But this effectively meant joining the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization (SEATO). He feared that this would mean the subordination of Cambodia to its more powerful anti-Communist neighbours with (as he saw it) designs on Cambodian territory — South Vietnam and Thailand. The USA was willing to defend Cambodia's territorial integrity against Communist forces but not against right-wing regimes. On the other hand, Sihanouk found that the Communist bloc was willing to give him unequivocal assurances on this point, Communist China in particular coming to the support of his government. Sihanouk therefore opted for a policy of neutralism, and found that, while the USA was not willing to tolerate such a policy, especially in the light of its growing commitment to South Vietnam, it was positively welcomed by the Communist countries. Sihanouk thus found himself pushed in a “pro-Communist” direction in his foreign policy, although he feared and detested Communism.

Combined with the populist trappings he adopted, this had led to much confusion about the basic nature of Sihanouk's regime. Sihanouk's main purpose was to perpetuate the monarchy that had ruled his country for centuries, and the ideological and socio-economic forces that sustained it.

Analysis of Cambodian politics has been hopelessly confused by the widespread notion that Sihanouk was (and still is) a “charismatic” figure. The term derives from the writings of Max Weber, but is grossly misused in this context. Many commentators seem to use it as a synonym for “enjoying popular support.” But Weber used the term to refer to the extraordinary characteristics of a leader who gathers disciples, by force of character and conviction, to overthrow traditional or legal-bureaucratic rulers. The charismatic leader is a revolutionary, a popular demagogue, or a military hero — not a traditional monarch. Under Weber's typology, Sihanouk's regime should be classified as one based on patrimonial traditionalism.22 The basis of his popular support was not personal magnetism but the strength of royal institutions in a strongly traditionalist society. Sihanouk clung to the ideal of the benevolent despot worshipped by the peasants (to whom he liked to refer as “my little people”). Bureaucrats, businessmen, generals and politicians always filled him with suspicion; they represented “vested interests,” not “the people.” Their existence was tolerated, as a rule, but Sihanouk took every opportunity to restrict their influence in Cambodian politics.

To see Sihanouk's rule in perspective, it may be useful to compare it with the reign of King Chulalongkorn in Thailand (1868-1910). Chulalongkorn was basically successful in carrying through a “revolution from above.” He transformed a traditional patrimonial regime, essentially similar to Sihanouk's, into a centralized bureaucratic state, taking the British colonial administration in Burma as his model. Of course, this transformation was by no means total, and even today the Thai bureaucracy is riddled with networks of patronage rooted in the traditional pattern — but this should not obscure the central reality of the transformation he brought about.

Chulalongkorn also actively promoted commerce and capitalist development within his kingdom. Ultimately, the modernization of state and society in Thailand proved incompatible with the patrimonial regime that initiated it. The autocratic power of the monarchy was destroyed in the revolution of 1932. This gave military, bureaucratic and business groups in Bangkok a strong voice in the government, while the monarchy, with vastly diminished powers, was retained to integrate the traditionalist peasantry into the new political system. This arrangement proved durable enough to service all the subsequent political upheavals in the region.

Aware of the dangers of backwardness, Sihanouk made considerable efforts to modernize Cambodian society. Making up for the neglect of the French, he oversaw the development of a modern educational system. By the end of the 1960s, primary school enrolments had reached one million, secondary school enrolments more than 100,000 and tertiary enrolments 10,000. He sought foreign aid to foster urbanization and the growth of commerce. This led to considerable growth of the middle class in Phnom Penh. By the late 1960s 10 per cent of the population of the whole kingdom lived in Phnom Penh.

But Sihanouk did not bring about a political “revolution from above” in Cambodia. After 1954 he continued to deal with the new bourgeois politicians in Phnom Penh in the way absolute kings usually deal with court intrigue — by a judicious combination of patronage, manipulation, espionage, and repression. At first he favoured the Right, and persecuted the Left; then, in 1963, when he thought that the Right was growing strong, he turned to the Left; and then in 1966, just when the Left appeared to be consolidating its position, he dropped it to reinstate the Right once more.

Furthermore, as Michael Vickery emphasizes, much of the demand for education was fuelled by a desire for status and privilege rather than by the country's economic needs. By the mid-1960s, most of the available positions in the public service had been filled. Nor could the growing pool of educated Khmer youths be absorbed into an expanding business sector. Business was largely in the hands of ethnic Chinese and Vietnamese, and after 1963 the economy was in recession anyway. The result was an expanding stratum of restless and frustrated young would-be bourgeois, the driving force behind many nationalist and radical movements.

While their parents remained attached to the pomp and ceremony of royalty and the consolations of traditional religion, many of these young people had become, as one observer put it, “de-tribalized.” They "no longer identified with their cultural context, their hierarchy and their political symbolism', and were increasingly alienated from Sihanouk's government. Furthermore, as Vickery also points out, this whole process of urban expansion imposed increasing burdens on the rural sector. Even if Vickery's account exaggerates the parasitical character of urban expansion, this must have put serious strains on the agricultural sector. Cambodia had one of the most backward, low-productivity agricultural sectors in Asia.23

By the late 1960s attempts at both capitalist and socialist modernization had been enveloped in a system of royal patronage, favour-swapping, and increasingly blatant corruption. But the frustrations of the would-be modernizing elites were concealed beneath a veneer of obligatory king-worship, and thick layers of tourist brochure clichés about the “kingdom of smiles” from romantic western observers. The world was, therefore, quite unprepared for the ferocity with which these frustrations finally erupted after the Sihanoukist system collapsed in 1970.

In the end, Sihanouk's position was undermined by the escalation of the war in Vietnam, rather than by indigenous social forces. One of his main concerns in the 1960s, amply justified by what followed in the 1970s, had been to keep his country out of the war. To this end, Sihanouk had been willing to turn a blind eye to the Communist infiltration of troops and supplies into South Vietnam via the “Ho Chi Minh trail” through the forests of Laos and eastern Cambodia, provided that the Vietnamese kept away from populated regions. He also allowed them to purchase rice supplies in Cambodia. Sihanouk was also willing to turn a blind eye when the Americans began secretly bombing Vietnamese forces in eastern Cambodia in 1969, but publicly protested when they began bombing Khmer villages as well.

However, this destabilized Sihanouk's government internally. In 1966, Sihanouk had reinstated the Right, and driven the Left out of government. Lon Nol, a right-wing general who Sihanouk had long entrusted with the suppression of Cambodian Communism, became prime minister. Leftwing politicians and students disappeared from Phnom Penh, and joined the small bands of Communist guerrillas in the mountains. Sihanouk denounced the “Khmers Rouges,” and sought to crush their movement.

The right wing in Phnom Penh applauded this, but were thoroughly alarmed by what they saw as Sihanouk's pro-Communist and pro-Vietnamese foreign policy. Then when American bombing of their border sanctuaries pushed the Vietnamese deeper into Cambodia in 1969, the Right was panic-stricken. In any case, the right wing had its own agenda, and Sihanouk was not part of it. Lon Nol joined with Sirik Matik, a prince in the Sisowath line of the royal family, to organize a coup against Sihanouk in March 1970. They proclaimed a Khmer Republic.

This was greeted with enthusiasm in Phnom Penh, but it caused consternation in the provinces. Traditional loyalty to the monarchy remained strong in rural Cambodia in 1970, and where it had broken down the peasants had turned to alternatives more radical than the bourgeois republican nationalism that was in the ascendancy in Phnom Penh.

Lon Nol's coup of March 1970 was analogous with the 1932 revolution in Thailand. But Sihanouk's “enlightened despotism” had been weaker and less effective than that of Chulalongkorn. The weakness of both state and bourgeoisie meant that the outcome was very different. The backwardness of Cambodia virtually ensured that bourgeois nationalism would be a débâcle.

Sihanouk, furious at his “betrayal” by Lon Nol and Sirik Matik, joined with his erstwhile enemies on the Left to form the National United Front of Kampuchea (NUFK). This sealed the fate of the Lon Nol regime. A bourgeois revolution was opposed by an alliance, ideologically implausible but effective in practice, between monarchism and radicalism. It was a war between town and countryside in an overwhelmingly agrarian society.

Lon Nol tried to build support for his government by encouraging an anti-Vietnamese frenzy. In Phnom Penh and other towns, many Vietnamese residents were slaughtered in brutal pogroms. Lon Nol dispatched his army to drive the Vietnamese Communists out of their sanctuaries. They responded by inflicting a series of devastating defeats on the ill-prepared army of the Khmer Republic, from which it never recovered. Then, to make matters worse, attacks by the South Vietnamese and US armies drove the Vietnamese Communists deep inside Cambodia. This relieved Communist pressure on South Vietnam, but only temporarily. Years later, an American ex-army officer explained US actions by saying that they had had to draw the wolves of South Vietnam by throwing them another carcass. Lon Nol's Cambodia was that carcass.

The Lon Nol government thus started out badly, and soon went on to much worse. Within a matter of months it controlled only enclaves around Phnom Penh and the provincial capitals, and territory along the main roads linking these enclaves. By 1972 it was already clear that the government was doomed unless major changes took place. Lon Nol was driven by what one of his own military commanders later characterized as “fairyland ambitions to see the [Cambodian army] transformed into a grand armed force, made in the image ... of the US armed forces, bypassing all of the fundamental principles of development and operation.”24 As his dreams collapsed Lon Nol withdrew increasingly into mystical reveries. And as the Khmer Republic turned into a chaotic and incompetent military dictatorship, many middle-class Cambodians who had welcomed Sihanouk's downfall now waited apprehensively for the inevitable fall of the new regime.

As in the First Indochina War, the policy of the Vietnamese Communists in the areas they occupied in Cambodia was to keep a low profile, to encourage and arm local insurgents, and to withdraw when these groups appeared capable of standing on their own. In 1970-71, much of the main-force fighting against Lon Nol's army was carried out by the Vietnamese, but from 1972 it was mainly in the hands of the Khmer Rouge. The Vietnamese happily assumed that because of their shared “anti-imperialist” objectives and the “fraternal bonds” between Communists in Vietnam and Communists in Cambodia, there would be no serious conflict between their interests and those of the national liberation movement they were encouraging in Cambodia.

Sihanouk soon found out that the Khmer Rouge leaders of the 1970s were not as easy to manipulate and outmanoeuvre as their predecessors had been in the days of Son Ngoc Thanh and Son Ngoc Minh. The Khmer Rouge leaders welcomed Sihanouk's followers into the ranks of the NUFK, but they kept Sihanouk out of the country as head of a “government in exile” in Beijing, and progressively stripped him of his political influence inside Cambodia. By 1974-75, Pol Pot was organizing purges of active Sihanoukists from the ranks of the NUFK. Between them, Lon Nol and Pol Pot smashed the institutional structure of the traditional monarchy and wiped out many of its key personnel. Stripped of power, Sihanouk lost his divine status and much of his popular support as well.

The overthrow of Lon Nol's government in 1973 was only averted by American saturation bombing of Khmer Rouge forces closing in on Phnom Penh. However, with US disengagement from Indochina from 1973, aid to the Phnom Penh regime was scaled down in 1974. The final downfall came in April 1975, and the NUFK came to power in Phnom Penh. The exiled Sihanouk was head of state, but power lay in the hands of the Khmer Rouge.

Laos: The Paradox of Extreme Backwardness

For all its backwardness, Cambodia had both a centralized state and a relatively homogeneous population living in an area with a distinct geographical identity as a basis for nationalism. By contrast, in Laos the population consisted of a diversity of ethnic groups scattered across a rugged mountain terrain. Even today, less than half the population are Lao; the majority of the population thus consists of “national minorities.” The mountainous topography tends to divide Laos into a number of separate geographical (and economic) zones, and internal communications were largely non-existent until recently. On the eve of the French conquest, the royal family in Luang Prabang exercised little real control and effective political power lay in the hands of regionally based aristocratic families. This “feudal” fragmentation of power in Laos was preserved by the French, and gave rise in due course to the most anarchic of the modern nationalist movements. If in Cambodia the Khmer race seemed to provide a “natural” basis for the nation, in Laos the central problem was that the construction of a nation required the integration of the most diverse ethnic groups, and Lao nationalism had to avoid at all costs the xenophobic inflection taken on by Khmer nationalism.

As in Cambodia, the growth of nationalism in Laos stems from 1945, when the Japanese overthrew the French and installed a Lao government.25 Here, even more than in Cambodia, politics still consisted exclusively of the rivalries between members of aristocratic families. Only a handful of Lao (mostly from the aristocracy) received any higher education, even in the post-independence period, and the middle-class intellectuals who played such an important role in the Vietnamese and Cambodian revolutions were almost non-existent.

But Laos too soon found itself a battleground for the French and Viet Minh forces during the First Indochina War. As a consequence, it underwent the whole evolution from a traditionalist royalism to a mass nationalism modelled on the Viet Minh within a single generation. This resulted in a situation where the competing streams of nationalism, primarily royalists and Communists (bourgeois nationalism being for all practical purposes non-existent in Laos), were all lead by rival members of the royal family. The mystique of royalty in a Therevada Buddhist society, monopolized by Sihanouk in Cambodia, was in Laos shared among different groups, including the Communists.

The main problems they confronted did not arise out of the modernization of Lao society — that process lying almost wholly in the future — but out of the traditional dilemma faced by Lao rulers (and other rulers of weak states with more powerful neighbours). The question was whether to turn to Vietnam for support and some kind of political model, or to Thailand, or to opt for a neutralist course of balancing one carefully against the other. But with the Communists gaining control of North Vietnam and Thailand aligned with the United States, these questions turned Laos into a battleground of the Cold War.

The first nationalist movement was the Lao Issara (“Free Lao”) movement created in August 1945 by the premier of the Japanese-installed government, Prince Phet Sarath, along with his brother, Prince Souvanna Phouma, and their half-brother, Prince Souphannavong. In September, in the wake of the “August Revolution” in Hanoi, they declared the complete independence of Laos from the French, and placed the king under house arrest when he objected. But the Lao Issara were capable of putting up only scattered resistance when the French returned, and its leaders were soon forced to go into exile in Bangkok. But Souphannavong tried to rebuild his forces, and he soon developed contacts with the Viet Minh.

In 1949, the French granted nominal independence to the royal Lao government. Many of the exiles were satisfied with this, and returned to Vientiane. But Souphannavong and the more radical members of the nationalist movement retreated into the mountains of Laos to continue armed resistance. In August 1950 Souphannavong, along with a number of hill-tribe leaders, such as the Hmong chief Faydang Lobliyao, formed what came to be called the Pathet Lao (“Nation of Laos”) to fight for complete independence, and in the following year they formalized their alliance with the Viet Minh.

In Laos, the Geneva Conference provided for a neutralist government under Prince Souvanna Phouma, for regroupment zones for the Pathet Lao forces in Phong Saly and Sam Neua provinces, and for the peaceful reunification of the country along lines similar to that envisaged for Vietnam. The agreement ran into difficulties because of the antipathy between the rightists in the Royal Lao Government (RLG) army, who had fought with the French, and the Pathet Lao, but the general expectation was that, notwithstanding the Pathet Lao, these could be integrated into a national coalition government.

But Laos was by now a battlefield in the Cold War. As with South Vietnam and Cambodia, the USA wanted Laos to become part of its anti-Communist SEATO alliance. There were anti-Communists in Laos who wished for the same thing, and the Americans were soon given the opportunity they wanted. Shortly after the formation of SEATO, Souvanna Phouma's defence minister was assassinated, precipitating a cabinet crisis that led to the government's resignation. This was followed by a right-wing government which quickly opened the door to American economic and military aid for the RLG. Under these circumstances, negotiations with the Pathet Lao stalled, and armed clashes between the RLG and Pathet Lao forces became common.

In the teeth of American opposition, Souvanna Phouma returned to power in 1956, committed to a policy of neutralism and reconciliation with the Pathet Lao. After long negotiations he formed a coalition government in 1957. But the USA was adamantly opposed to this coalition, viewing it as a thinly disguised Communist takeover (along the lines of Eastern Europe in the late 1940s). It forced Souvanna Phouma to resign by withholding the economic assistance on which the RLG had become dependent, and by instigating the closure of the Thai border. A new rightist government was formed, but it proved unable to consolidate its position in the face of opposition from the neutralists and the Pathet Lao.

A period of political chaos ensued, ended by a reconvened Geneva Conference in 1961. This bought Souvanna Phouma back as the head of a tripartite coalition. But the USA refused to stop supplying the CIA-funded “Secret Army” of Hmong leader “General” Wang Pao, which continued to operate behind Pathet Lao lines. The neutralists split over the issue, the Pathet Lao leaders abandoned Vientiane, and Souvanna Phouma and the other neutralists who remained in Vientiane became the captives of the Right, led by Phoumi Nosovan. From 1963, after teetering on the brink on many occasions, Laos slid into full-scale civil war.

The extreme backwardness of Laos did not provide Phoumi Nosovan with a bourgeois social base enabling him to play the role of a Ngo Dinh Diem, or even a Lon Nol, in Laos. Nor was it possible for the RLG to exploit traditional religious loyalties to the throne in the manner of Sihanouk. Whereas the appeals of sanctified royalty covered the great majority of Cambodians, the political reach of specifically Lao culture hardly extended beyond the lowland population. Over half the population fell outside this cultural universe and were hostile to its encroachments. Such narrowly based nationalism only served to perpetuate the alienation of the hill tribes from the Lao government. Nosovan thus found himself as little more than a local strong-arm man whose power was dependent on external patronage.

The USA threw its weight solidly behind the right wing controlling the RLG from 1963. Secret bombing of Pathet Lao areas commenced in 1964, and over the next decade, every town, and most villages, in the Pathet Lao-controlled zone were destroyed. But the extreme factionalism and disunity of the rightists meant that the USA took over more and more RLG administrative functions, to the point where the American ambassador was popularly known as the “second prime minister,” and there were many who thought that in reality he was the first prime minister. But this did not transform the RLG into an operational government; it simply undermined its legitimacy, to the point where its own military commanders refused to accept the “interference” of the central authorities in their regional domains. The RLG thus reproduced the fragmentation of power characteristic of traditional Laos.

Unlike the Lao Right, the Pathet Lao had been operating in the mountains since 1949. Since they had no chance of building up a broad movement in this environment unless they transcended narrow tribal loyalties, they appreciated the vital importance of ethnic integration for nation-building in Laos. Since at least 1950 they had been at pains to incorporate a wide spectrum of tribal leaders into their power structure and in the end this foresight paid off handsomely. While the top leadership of the Pathet Lao always consisted predominantly of lowland ethnic Lao, the majority of their troops were recruited from minority groups. It makes sense to say that the Pathet Lao leaders finally defeated their opponents by forging a Lao national coalition to overwhelm an ethnically Lao government.

This, of course, would be an oversimplification. Naturally, control of tribal groups did not always fall the Pathet Lao's way. The Hmong around the Plain of Jars, under Touby Ly Fong, for example, supported the French and later provided the main recruitment base for Wang Pao's “secret army.” But his traditional Hmong rival, Faydang, became a founder of the Pathet Lao. And the way they incorporated their Hmong followers was a good practical illustration of the differences between the two sides. Wang Pao's followers gave their loyalties to him and the Hmong people; few of them cared less what happened to the RLG. On the other hand, Faydang's followers became members of ethnically mixed Pathet Lao regular units, where much energy was devoted to building up a multi-racial “national” spirit.

While the Lao Right turned to Thailand and the USA for support in the civil war, the Pathet Lao turned to Hanoi and the Communist bloc. The main Pathet Lao base areas were close to the Vietnamese border, and they were given both logistic and political support by the Vietnamese. While they were under the protection of the North Vietnamese army, these bases could never be militarily destroyed by the RLG. The Viet Minh also provided an organizational and ideological model for the Pathet Lao. Since the Vientiane regime had done little to establish a national educational system, many Pathet Lao cadres received their first education in party schools, and if they went on to higher education, they went to Hanoi, Beijing, or Eastern Europe. Pathet Lao nationalism was thus not bred of the extreme isolation that one might at first expect. It was always tempered by a degree of Communist cosmopolitanism, and never degenerated into the backwoods chauvinism that was soon to emerge in Cambodia.

In one sense, it is impossible to overstate Vietnamese influence on the Pathet Lao; yet, in another sense, this is done all the time. The Pathet Lao modelled itself on the Viet Minh, and accepted Vietnamese assistance, but it was a Lao national movement under the leadership of a member of the Lao royal family. For all its failings, the Pathet Lao administrative apparatus was run by Lao nationals for Lao nationals, which was more than could be said for the RLG. It was never an instrument of Vietnamese “colonialism” in Laos, as is often alleged. If the Vietnamese had really wanted to colonize Laos, the best way would have been to annex it militarily and administer it directly — most of the population, after all, probably objected to lowland Lao control as much as they would have to Vietnamese control. Instead, the Vietnamese provided support and encouragement, and waited patiently while the Pathet Lao movement got off the ground.

While it took the Pathet Lao many years to build up a fighting force capable of seriously threatening the RLG, it could never topple it as long as the USA was fully committed to the RLG. The outcome of the war in Laos thus depended less on success in the battlefield — although the war was increasingly going the way of the Pathet Lao after 1968 — than on the ability of the Vietnamese to negotiate an American withdrawal from Indochina. As soon as this was achieved, the civil war in Laos came to an end, and as the USA scaled down its assistance the anti-Pathet Lao forces disintegrated.

While international political forces have played a vital role in all three Indochinese countries, this has been especially the case in the weakest of them. The forces of modernization that produced a revolutionary upheaval in Vietnam and a collapse of the traditional political order in Cambodia had hardly been felt in Laos. The civil war that resulted from the collapse of Souvanna Phouma's second coalition government was almost wholly the result of external forces rather than of any internal social and political explosion. The lowland peasantry remained largely indifferent to both sides, and it was the Pathet Lao's ability to mobilize more successfully among the minority groups that was finally decisive.

When a ceasefire was signed in 1973, the Pathet Lao controlled 80 per cent of the countryside. A new coalition was formed under Souvanna Phouma, and in 1974 Souphannavong returned to the capital to take up his government post. From this point on the Pathet Lao steadily assumed control of the government as the right wing disintegrated. Wang Pao's “secret army” continued the war against the Pathet Lao in the countryside, but suffered a major defeat in April 1975. Coinciding with the fall of Phnom Penh and Saigon, this threw the remaining rightists in Vientiane into a panic, and many fled the country. By June, almost the entire wartime RLG leadership had debarked to Thailand. The RLG army, which had still been controlled by the Right, disintegrated, and was officially disbanded in June, followed by the complete demise of the RLG in December 1975, when King Savang Watthana signed a letter of abdication in favour of “the people's democratic system.”

At Souphannavong's suggestion, both the ex-king and Souvanna Phouma were appointed as advisers to the government — a conciliatory gesture designed to promote national accord that was in striking contrast to the policies being pursued in Cambodia. But then, in Laos the leap into political modernity had been so compressed that the transition from monarchism to Communist mass nationalism had taken place under the leadership of a member of the traditional royal family. The unification of the country under the Pathet Lao was thus in a real sense a family reunion as well.

Nation-building and Communism in Indochina

Liberals in nineteenth-century Europe believed that when oppressed nationalities were freed from foreign domination, when the principles of national self-determination were applied throughout the world, sovereign nation-states would live in peace and harmony. This optimistic vision of international peace has been badly battered by the bloody torrent of imperialism, chauvinism, and militarism that has so far constituted the international politics of the twentieth century — so much so that one recent historian of nationalism has likened it to a fairy-tale in which the Sleeping Beauty is transformed into Frankenstein's monster.26 However, this optimistic vision has lived on in socialist and Communist theories of international relations. According to Marxist theorists, the clash of sovereign nation-states is due to the competitiveness and the imperialism of capitalism. It is a product of the self-interest of ruling classes, not of the working classes. When socialism replaces capitalism, therefore, the promise of international harmony will be realized. In Indochina, the promised day arrived in 1975.

Ultimately, this view rests on the premiss that states are essentially instruments of class rule. It neglects the extent to which state power is actually used to create political communities, and to defend them against external attack, irrespective of the class nature of the state. We have argued here that nationalism is essentially a movement for the creation of a modern state based on such a community. It aspires to a government based on notions of popular sovereignty rather than authority sanctified by time and tradition, or divine will.

Looked at from one angle, nationalism is an empty rhetorical vessel, given a concrete social and political content by the successful nationalists themselves. The institutions of the nation-state can serve a variety of social ends, and nationalists have conflicting visions of the national community they attempt to build. Nationalism thus comes in a variety of forms — left-wing and right-wing, pluralistic, dictatorial, and totalitarian. Thus, paradoxically, we have seen that in Indochina the spread of the ideal of “national unity” ushered in a period of civil war. Both sides insisted that they alone were the “true” nationalists; it was a matter of which side was able to mobilize the population and, finally, impose its particular view. In Indochina, the groups capable of doing this were the Communists.

Communism did not come to power in Indochina as a party of working-class socialism but as the radical wing of the nationalist reaction to colonial rule, as a movement of middle-class and peasant nationalism. This was typical of the successes Communism experienced elsewhere in Asia (and other Third World countries as well). The Indian ex-Communist M.N. Roy wrote in 1951:

Communism in Asia is essentially nationalism painted red. ... The Leninist program was to regard nationalism as an ally; now communism plays the role of nationalism, and appears in its most extreme form, having a corresponding share of all its vices - racism, cultural revivalism, intolerance, jingoism and resistance to western bourgeois influence. This nationalist degeneration is a general feature of postwar communism, and assumes its most pronounced form in Asia.28

Roy is in error here only in describing nationalism as a “degeneration” of Communism. In Asia, Communism was rooted in nationalism from the start. And since nationalism meant above all the political mobilization of the masses for purposes of state, it is not surprising that the triumph of nationalism has added a further element of popular passion to clashes between states. In this regard, there is no good reason to expect that Communist states would be basically different from non-Communist ones. Events in the Indochinese countries since 1975 seem to bear out such pessimistic reflections.


1. Elizabeth Becker, When the War Was Over, New York 1986, p. 337.

2. Milton Osborne, Before Kampuchea. Preludes to Tragedy, Sydney 1979, pp. 165-6; see also his article “Cambodia and Vietnam: A Historical Perspective,” Pacific Community, vol. 9, 1978.

3. Khien Theeravit, "Thai-Kampuchean Relations: Problems and Prospects,” Asian Survey, vol. 22, 1982, p. 562. Despite these pertinent observations, Khien’s overali perspective is closer to Osborne's than to ours.

4. Of the Khmer kingdom in the early nineteenth century, David Chandler has written: "It would be difficult to overstress the atmosphere of threat, physical danger, and random violence.... The sources are filled with references to torture, executions, ambushes, massacres, village burnings, and the forced movement of populations.... Invaders and defenders destroyed the villages they came to, killed or uprooted anyone they met, and ruined the landscape they moved across” (A History of Cambodia, Boulder 1983, p. 122). See also Trevor Ling, Buddhism, Imperialism and War, London 1979, which focuses on the military contest between Burma and Thailand.

5. Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities. Reflections on the Origins and Spread of Nationalism, London 1983, p. 14.

6. Barrington Moore, Jr, Social Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy, London 1967, pp. 486-7.

7. Quoted in K.R. Minogue, Nationalism, Baltimore 1970, p. 17. In a recent survey Corneilia Navari writes: “The pre-nineteenth century state did not serve nations; it did not even serve ‘communities.’ It served God, the Heavenly Mandate, the Law of Allah; it served hereditary rulers — the dynasts and the dynasties who were portrayed as God's vicars and whose appointed task was to carry out that mandate. ... The fact of what language any dynast's subjects spoke was irrelevant to that task, and the particular cultures of his people only mattered to the degree to which they impeded that mandate.” Navari emphasizes that it was not until the nineteenth century that the idea that states ought to be based on nations was widely accepted in Europe and "it was only in 1918 that any government made being a nation-state the basic criterion of political legitimacy and the basic condition of treating with other governments” (“The Origins of the Nation-State,” in Leonard Tivey, ed. The Nation-State. The Formation of Modern Politics, Oxford 1981, p. 14). For recent Marxist and anti-Marxist essays see respectively Anderson, Imagined Communities, and Ernest Gellner, Nations and Nationalism, London 1983.

8. For a serious discussion of a topic that has provoked much overheated rhetoric, see M.G. Cotter, “Towards a Social History of the Vietnamese Southward Movement,” Journal of Southeast Asian History, vol. 9, 1968.

9. Quoted by Chandler, p. 116.

10. The most recent account of the economic and social impact of colonialism on Indochina is Martin J. Murray, Development of Capitalism in Colonial Indochina 1870-1940, Berkeley 1980. Murray tries to show — rather unconvincingly in our opinion — that French exploitation led to the stagnation rather than the development of the Indochinese colonies. We would also note that it is a book about Vietnam rather than Indochina as a whole — Cambodia and Laos are hardly mentioned. For an earlier account, painted in rose-coloured hues that contrast sharply with Murray's account, see Charles Robequain, The Economic Development of French Indochina, London 1941.

11. The best overall account is William J. Duiker, The Rise of Nationalism in Vietnam 1900-1941, Ithaca 1976.

12. Greg Lochart, Nation in Arms: Origins of the People's Army of Vietnam, Sydney 1989, pp. 41-51.

13. The head of the OSS’s Indochina mission has provided an informative account of these events: Archimedes Patti, Why Vietnam? Prelude to America's Albatross, Berkeley 1980.

14. The literature on this period is immense. Much of it deals with American experiences and American problems. William J. Duiker, The Communist Road to Power in Vietnam, Boulder 1981, focuses on the other side. Gabriel Kolko's Vietnam. Anatomy of a War, 1940-1975, London 1985, seeks systematically to cover both sides.

15. Bernard B. Fall, The Two Vietnams: A Political and Military Analysis, London 1963, p. 237.

16. This is a judgement hotly disputed by many supporters of the US intervention, who argue that Tet was a victory for the US and Saigon. But Nguyen Van Loc, Prime Minister in the Saigon government at the time, later said: “We lost the battle for the South in 1968.... By 1975 the Communists had to push only in a few chosen areas to gain total victoryz” (quoted by W.G. Kulkarni, Far Eastern Economic Review, 2 June 1983).

17. For a detailed account, cf. Arnold R. Isaacs, Without Honor: Defeat in Vietnam and Cambodia, Baltimore 1983.

18. Chandler, pp. 175-82.

19. Ben Kiernan, How Pol Pot Came to Power, London 1985, pp. 130—34.

20. Ibid., pp. 157-62.

21. Becker, p. 99.

22. Cf. "The Social Psychology of the World Religions,” in Hans H. Gerth and C. Wright Mills, eds, From Max Weber: Essays in Sociology, New York 1958, pp. 296-9. Those who hope to salvage the conventional wisdom may also care to peruse Section 3 of Weber's essay on "The Sociology of Charismatic Authority” (Gerth and Mills, pp. 251-2). Here he discusses "charismatic kingship.” But this relates to the early phase of kingship, when "the king is everywhere primarily a warlord.”

23. Cf. Michael Vickery, Cambodia 1975-1982, Sydney 1984, pp. 19-24. The quote comes from Jacques Nepote, in Kiernan, p. xiv.

24. General Sak Sutsakhan, quoted by Becker, p. 138.

25. The best account is MacAlister Brown and Joseph J. Zasloff, Apprentice Revolutionaries. The Communist Movement in Laos 1935-1985, Stanford 1986.

26. Minogue, pp.7-8.

27. See, for example, the Second International's famous Stuttgart Declaration of 1907 on “Militarism and International Conflicts”: "Wars are... inherent in the nature of capitalism; they will cease only when the capitalist economy is abolished, or when the magnitude of the sacrifice of human beings and money, neccessitated by the technological development of warfare, and popular disgust with armaments, leads to the abolition of this system. That is why the working classes, which have primarily to furnish the soldiers and make the greatest material sacrifices, are the natural enemies of war, which is opposed to their aim: the creation of an economic system based on socialist foundations, and which will make a reality out of the solidarity of nations” (quoted by James Joll, The Second International 1889-1914, 2nd edin, London 1974, pp. 206-7).

28. Quoted by Rupert Emerson, From Empire to Nation. The Rise to Self-Determination of Asian and African Peoples, Cambridge, Mass. 1960, pp. 373-4.

[book-strip index="1" style="display"]


Red Brotherhood at War
This fully updated edition of Red Brotherhood at War – the most comprehensive account of events since 1975 in Indochina – explains why communist victory did not usher in a period of peace based on ...
Down with Colonialism!
Ho Chi Minh, the founder of the Vietminh and President of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam, having defeated Japanese and French colonialist became a hate figure of the USA during the Vietnam War....
Imagined Communities
What are the imagined communities that compel men to kill or to die for an idea of a nation? This notion of nationhood had its origins in the founding of the Americas, but was then adopted and tran...
Feminism and Nationalism in the Third World
For twenty-five years, Feminism and Nationalism in the Third World has been an essential primer on the late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century history of women’s movements in Asia and the Midd...
Faces of Nationalism
Over the past few decades, Tom Nairn has become one of the most respected and provocative writers on questions of nationalism, British politics and the constitution. In his seminal essay, “The Mode...
Ernest Gellner
Ernest Gellner was a multilingual polymath who set the agenda in the study of nationalism and the sociology of Islam for an entire generation of academics and students. This definitive biography fo...
The Spectre of Comparisons
“‘Come, let us build a Third Kingdom, and in this Third Reich, hey, sisters, you will live happily; hey, brothers, you will live happily; hey, kids, you will live happily; hey, you German patriots,...
Ever since the First World War, socialists have considered imperialism a calamity: responsible for militarism, economic stagnation, and assaults on democracy in metropolitan countries, an impedimen...
Mapping the Nation

Mapping the Nation

In nearly two decades since Samuel P. Huntington proposed his influential and troubling ‘clash of civilizations’ thesis, nationalism has only continued to puzzle and frustrate commentators, policy ...
The Poorer Nations
In The Darker Nations, Vijay Prashad provided an intellectual history of the Third World and traced the rise and fall of the Non-Aligned Movement. With The Poorer Nations, Prashad takes up the st...
The Making of the Second Cold War
We are living through the Second Cold War, yet what is it? Millions in East and West now fear a nuclear conflict, yet confrontation and panic continue to obscure understanding of the processes that...

Filed under: asia, history, nationalism, weekend-read