In Vietnam, the Pentagon Papers Are History Written by the Defeated

This article is part of a special report on the 50th anniversary of the Pentagon Papers.

The Pentagon Papers may have been all over the front pages of U.S. newspapers 50 years ago, but they were barely noticed in Hanoi. Communist leaders were too busy fighting their war in the present to look at its history.

Besides, the contents of the papers only served to confirm their longstanding notions.

By the time “Vietnam Archive: Pentagon Study Traces Three Decades of Growing U.S. Involvement” appeared on the front page of The New York Times on June 13, 1971, the North Vietnamese government had been claiming for years that American military involvement was illegitimate.

“What shocked Americans at the time was nothing new to the Vietnamese,” said Dr. Vu Minh Hoang, a historian at Fulbright University Vietnam in Ho Chi Minh City.

Not until August of 1971 — and then buried on page six by the Vietnam News Agency — did the state-run media finally see fit to report the news.

That would change dramatically in the decades that followed.

This little-noticed report would go on to have a seismic impact in Vietnam — fortifying the country’s military and public with evidence that their cause had been just. It supplied an exhaustive accounting of the U.S. prosecution of the war, which helped shape Vietnam’s own history and sense of identity for decades.

The saying goes that history is written by the victors, but in the case of the Vietnam War, the losing side has held sway over the narrative. And the Pentagon Papers — even as they narrate the United States’ own defeat almost in real time — have become a key piece of that sway. Since the Communist Party of Vietnam has been steadfast in its refusal to release its own unvarnished accounting of the war, Vietnamese historians have far less to use in writing their own histories. And thus far, no Vietnamese counterpart to Daniel Ellsberg has emerged to leak such documents.

With Mr. Ellsberg’s leak, rather than having to wait decades for declassification, scholars on both sides of the Pacific could analyze U.S. policy in Vietnam before the archival dust could accumulate.

After war’s end, the very first Communist Party-approved histories of the war published in Hanoi copiously cited the Pentagon Papers in their footnotes. From these early histories to the current versions, the argument has remained consistent: According to the U.S. government’s own internal study, America had no right to get involved and no means to win the war once it did.

“Our victory reflects the extraordinary achievements of a small, poor nation, that knew how to fight and defeat an American invasion,” reads the most recent version of “History of the Anti-American Struggle for National Salvation, 1954-1975,” published in 2015.

This narrative particularly suited Vietnamese authorities in the years after the war. As Communist leaders struggled to govern the reunified country, the party needed to rally the people behind the flag. In the late 1970s, Hanoi adopted controversial policies, including the hasty transformation to socialism of the southern economy; warring with Cambodia and China; and generally poor state planning. Celebrating the past, then, served Communist leaders in the present, who used history to justify one-party rule during desperate times. The present and future looked bleak while the past glowed bright — at least the state sanctioned version of the past.

Not only did the Vietnamese government watch over how historians wrote about the American war effort, but more important, how they represented their own country’s war effort. Just as opposition to the war was stifled at the time, criticism in history books was verboten.

The Pentagon Papers underscore this documentation imbalance. While historians could assess the paper trail out of Washington, the Vietnamese equivalent in the historical record remains under lock and key to this day. The Communist Party, Ministry of Defense and Ministry of Foreign Affairs do not have their holdings systematically reviewed and deposited in the Vietnamese National Archives as other governmental agencies do. Instead, that troika operates its own closed archival systems where only officials enjoy access and, even then, are closely monitored. The doors are firmly shut to Vietnamese academics, scholars and students or, more plainly put, they are closed to the Vietnamese people.

So, in a historical irony, because the Hanoi government will not declassify its own narrative of the war, the official American narrative is much better known.

A retired officer in the Vietnamese Army and official scholar of Vietnam’s wars in the post-1945 era, Col. Nguyen Manh Ha recalled reading the Vietnamese translation of portions of the Pentagon Papers in the news during his senior year of high school in early 1972. The papers, Colonel Ha remembers, reinforced the conviction of young North Vietnamese men like himself to enlist and serve his country.

“Reading it made me understand why the United States was wrong to be in the war and why our side had to keep fighting,” he said.

After the war, he rose up the official party ranks to become one of Vietnam’s leading military historians. As deputy director of the Institute of Military History, Colonel Ha and his editorial team would revisit the Pentagon Papers as they compiled the Ministry of Defense’s official military history of the war.

The nine-volume 2015 history showcases the importance of the papers on Vietnam’s official narrative of the war. The study appears all over the early volumes devoted to the origins of America’s war in Vietnam, as well as in the final volume, which puts forward the historical lessons for Vietnamese readers.

“Just as reading the Pentagon Papers in 1971 allowed Vietnamese leaders and soldiers to grasp the policies and actions of the U.S. government,” Colonel Ha said, “its unorthodox release revealed the extent to which antiwar sentiments were held by politicians, activists and the general public.”

Prof. Pham Quang Minh was only 9 when the Pentagon Papers first appeared in Vietnam and, without access to Communist Party records, he can only speculate that the study had an “indirect effect” on the North Vietnamese leadership preoccupied with peace negotiations.

“Nonetheless, the Pentagon Papers must have revealed to them America’s weaknesses and how they could capitalize on those weaknesses,” he said.

Professor Minh spoke with more authority regarding the leaked study’s importance on the Vietnamese academy today. As one-time rector and head of faculty at the University of Social Sciences and Humanities in Hanoi, Professor Minh credits the Pentagon Papers more than any other document with educating him and his colleagues about America’s war in Vietnam. No other original source compares.

“That the Pentagon compiled a ‘top secret’ study during the war and that it was sensationally leaked to and published by the most important newspaper in the United States was not lost on Vietnamese historians. It helped us ground our histories, freeing them from being just polemics,” he said.

Professor Minh was especially surprised to discover that U.S. policymakers were largely ignorant of, or cared very little about, tensions in Vietnam’s relations with China and the Soviet Union. The papers showed him that American leaders saw only a monolithic red menace in Vietnam. This kept them from seeing differences among Vietnamese, Chinese and Soviets Communists during the Vietnam War — and potentially exploiting them.

While the Pentagon Papers were invaluable to the first generations of Vietnamese historians studying the war period, they may not remain so for subsequent ones. A rising star in the Vietnamese historical profession. Vu Minh Hoang, recently joined the faculty at Fulbright University Vietnam after earning his doctorate from Cornell University.

“The Pentagon Papers aren’t mentioned in school textbooks,” he said.

Perhaps most revealing to Dr. Hoang, a millennial who grew up in Hanoi long after war’s end, is that no complete Vietnamese translation of the Pentagon Papers exists. Even after 2011 when the U.S. government released all 7,000 pages of the study, publishing houses in Vietnam did not produce a version. Instead, they translated and published Daniel Ellsberg’s “Secrets: A Memoir of Vietnam and the Pentagon Papers” in 2006, and then reprinted it in 2018 — even though the Vietnamese publishers of “Secrets” billed the book as a reference work.

“While history is a compulsory subject in Vietnamese education, the younger generation does not seem to care as much about the past,” Dr. Hoang said. “If you ask them about the Pentagon Papers and their significance during the war, they wouldn’t know.”

If Colonel Ha and Professor Minh can stand in for the past and present of historians writing on the war and if Dr. Hoang could augur its future, then the erasure of the Pentagon Papers in the writing of Vietnamese history is potentially revealing.

This neglect of history is in part generational and a sign that the state authorities succeeded in promoting a single, unquestioned narrative. The Pentagon Papers, and the history of the war in general, could just be old news to the Vietnamese.

Or read a different way, it could point to a radical shift in how history is written in Vietnam.

Fifty years after the publication of the Pentagon Papers, Vietnam is in a much better place, with the country’s surging economy, rising position in the region and global recognition for its handling of the Covid-19 pandemic. Given those factors, and the strong partnership between the United States and Vietnam today, the Communist leadership may be more open to loosening their grip on history.

Indeed, we might be seeing signs of that loosening now. Thanks to recent histories of Hanoi’s war, we now know that power struggles existed within the Politburo, that intense intraparty debate unfolded over Hanoi’s relations with Beijing and Moscow, and that a large-scale purge of government officials and urban professionals (all deemed saboteurs) occurred in Hanoi in 1967. All of this was kept secret from the North Vietnamese public at the time.

Is it too much to hope that a dramatic transparency event similar to the Pentagon Papers could happen in Vietnam one day? Check back at the centennial.

Lien-Hang T. Nguyen is Dorothy Borg Associate Professor in the History of the United States and East Asia at Columbia University and the author most recently of “Hanoi’s War: An International History of the War for Peace in Vietnam.”

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