Lessons from South Vietnam's Nation-Building Efforts in Its Brief 20-year Existence

Lessons from South Vietnam's Nation-Building Efforts in Its Brief 20-year Existence

The dominant narratives regarding the Vietnam War have consistently been interpreted by two main narrators: the Hanoi leadership and the United States. Meanwhile, the vision and perspectives of the South Vietnamese people have been disregarded when it comes to general discussions about this historical event.

North Vietnamese leaders claimed that they fought the war to drive off foreign intervention, especially from the United States, and to reach their ultimate goal of unifying the country and strengthening socialism all over Vietnam. They described the Saigon government as an “American puppet” that compliantly took orders from Washington. On the other hand, Washington viewed South Vietnam as a strategic anti-communist pawn on its geopolitical chessboard to contain the spread of communism in Asia.

However, these two narratives are facile and insufficient in helping contemporary readers understand the complexities and multifaceted nature of the war. They also ignore the nation-building efforts of the people of South Vietnam, the main eyewitnesses during this conflict, and what they achieved in their brief 20 years of existence.

To fill this gap, multiple researchers and South Vietnamese citizens have spared no effort in preserving and reconstructing the historical image of the Republic of Vietnam (RVN) through the publication of personal memoirs, testimonies, research papers, fictional works, and commentaries.

Among those preservation efforts, “The Republic of Vietnam, 1950-1975: Vietnamese Perspectives on Nation Building,” [1] published in 2020, is an essential read. This book features the viewpoints of diverse historical figures who were central to the nation-building process of South Vietnam from 1954 until its final days in 1975. It is one of the few books illuminating South Vietnam's making as a nation through the diverse voices of RVN government officials, teachers, soldiers, journalists, and artists.

The editors of this book, Tuong Vu and Sean Fear, are well-known researchers with expertise in Vietnamese studies. In the introduction, Vu and Fear explain that the publication of this volume resulted from a two-day symposium at the University of California, Berkeley, in October 2016, which was intended to promote a deeper understanding of the RVN for the general audience.

The first half of this book contains perspectives written by officials who used to work in different sectors of the RVN government. They included former Bank of Vietnam Governor Vu Quoc Thuc, Minister of Economics Pham Kim Ngoc, Agricultural and Rural Development Minister Cao Van Than, and Interior Minister Hoang Duc Nha – a main advisor to President Nguyen Van Thieu during the Paris negotiations.

The other half brings attention to the stories told by various civil figures who lived and worked in the South then. They included former educators Nguyen Huu Phuoc and Vo Kim Son, journalist Trung Duong, frontline war reporter Vu Thanh Thuy, fiction writer Nha Ca, and actress and movie producer Kieu Chinh. These influential individuals continued with their professions even after they resettled in the United States following the collapse of the RVN government in 1975.

The last two articles feature opinions from Nu-Anh Tran and Tuan Hoang, assistant professors of Vietnamese history.

In her section, Nu-Anh Tran points out the lack of South Vietnamese stories and representation in the contemporary American discourse while also offering helpful suggestions on what the next generations of Vietnamese-American refugees can do to reverse this trend to enrich the collective memory of Vietnamese history among its diaspora communities.

Meanwhile, Tuan Hoang elaborates on the limitations of personal memoirs written by those who formerly worked in the RVN government due to their selective memory and personal understanding of historical events. He also provides a collection of selected memoirs, besides the dominant interpretations in Vietnam and the United States, to help readers gain an objective view of this tumultuous period.

The Republic of Vietnam, 1950-1975 offers diverse perspectives on the nation-building policies of the South Vietnamese leadership, beginning with the establishment of the first republic under Ngo Dinh Diem until the final days of the Saigon government in April 1975. These memoirs demonstrate how democratic values and the government’s respect for human rights shaped the development trajectory of the RVN, especially during the second republic.

The essays in this book are told through a reminiscent tone, in which the writers reveal their coming-of-age experiences as South Vietnamese citizens amidst their country's political landscape and social upheavals. Their personal experiences reflect different aspects of South Vietnamese society and politics at the time, ranging from the country’s economic incentives, diplomatic relationship with the United States, domestic policies, the state of press freedom, and the core philosophies behind the formation of its educational system.

Readers can also find in these essays novel insights narrated by living Southerners who were eyewitnesses then.

For example, war correspondent Vu Thanh Thuy explains how the leftwing media’s pro-Communist reportage and the antiwar movement that followed had turned the American public against the involvement of the United States in South Vietnam, which possibly led to the collapse of the Saigon government. Meanwhile, renowned fiction writer Nha Ca and movie producer Kieu Chinh attribute the liberal arts environment to the thriving literature and cinema industry of South Vietnam during their careers. Talking about press freedom, veteran journalist Pham Thanh analyzes the legal provisions that regulated the publication industry during the first and second republics while objectively comparing the legal framework managing the press in South Vietnam before April 1975 and that of the postwar Socialist Republic of Vietnam.

Nonetheless, according to Edward Miller, a Vietnam historian at Dartmouth College, we should be reminded that most of the personal essays in this collection are written by individuals who came of age during the Republican era and affiliated themselves with the “distinctly anticommunist national identity” of the RVN. In his essay published in the Journal of Vietnamese Studies, [2] Miller warned readers against viewing South Vietnamese history mainly, or exclusively, through the binary communist and republican schism. Rather, he emphasized the main role of globalization in driving the adaptation of development models and cultural values that the RVN borrowed from like-minded countries.

But we should not forsake the information this book brings in helping modern-day readers and researchers acknowledge the existence of an alternative development model in Vietnam before the Communist victory in 1975. “The Republic of Vietnam, 1950-1975: Vietnamese Perspectives on Nation Building, also reflects the genuine efforts by researchers and historians to resist the forced erasure of memory carried out by the Hanoi authorities while offering a more comprehensive picture of the Vietnam War. The nation-building ideas introduced in this book may help promote the process of future democratic transition in Vietnam.


[1] The Republic of Vietnam, 1955–1975: Vietnamese Perspectives on Nation Building: Vu, Tuong, Fear, Sean: 9781501745133: Amazon.com: Books. (n.d.). https://www.amazon.com/Republic-Vietnam-1955-1975-Vietnamese-Perspectives/dp/1501745131

[2] Miller, E. (2022). Review: The Republic of Vietnam, 1955–1975: Vietnamese Perspectives on Nation Building, edited by Tuong Vu and Sean Fear. Journal of Vietnamese Studies, 17(4), 152–155. https://doi.org/10.1525/vs.2022.17.4.152

Great! You’ve successfully signed up.

Welcome back! You've successfully signed in.

You've successfully subscribed to The Vietnamese Magazine.

Success! Check your email for magic link to sign-in.

Success! Your billing info has been updated.

Your billing was not updated.