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    Nguyễn Khắc Giang - Politics of Memory in Vietnam: A War Fought Twice


    Hanoi’s silence over a Pulitzer Prize-winning book by a Vietnamese-American author speaks volumes about the country’s treatment of its wartime history.

    The Vietnamese state often prides itself on the achievements of overseas Vietnamese, as shown in the warm reception for mathematician Ngo Bao Chau, who won the Fields Medal, the highest honour in mathematics, in 2010. However, when those achievements touch on sensitive historical and political issues, the state is at a loss for how to handle them.

    When Viet Thanh Nguyen, a Vietnamese-American author, won the Pulitzer Prize for his debut novel The Sympathizer in 2015, the Vietnamese media, including the party’s official website, lavished him with praise. But it is apparent that the censors had not yet read the novel carefully. While the novel centres on the Vietnamese perspective of the Vietnam War, it also delivers some sharp condemnations of post-war Communist rule. This explains why, to date, an official Vietnamese translation of the book has not been released domestically, despite it being translated into a dozen other languages.

    When HBO decided to adapt The Sympathizer into a TV series featuring world-renowned Korean director Park Chan-wook and Hollywood superstar Robert Downey Jr, Vietnamese authorities were less forgiving. Filming was not allowed on Vietnamese soil, and the production had to be relocated to Thailand. When the series premiered last April to worldwide acclaim, viewers in Vietnam were not able to watch it. The domestic media remained silent on the adaptation and quietly removed earlier reports about the project.

    This stance is not particular to Viet Thanh Nguyen. Works by other prominent Vietnamese authors, including Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh’s A Lotus in a Sea of Fire and Huy Duc’s Ben Thang Cuoc, have faced a similar fate. Viet Thanh Nguyen remains popular among Vietnamese readers, and although The Sympathizer has not been published in Vietnam, his less politically contentious book, The Refugees, was translated in 2017. The Vietnamese state does not forget the past; but this has to be according to its interpretation. At the same time as the controversy, Vietnam was busy preparing an epic 70-year anniversary of the Dien Bien Phu battle, where it defeated the colonial French army in a stunning feat of arms. For this event, Hanoi invited French Defence Minister Sébastien Lecornu to attend. A grand military parade was held in Dien Bien Phu. This was broadcast live on television and online, with numerous senior Vietnamese state officials in attendance.  

    There are calls to revisit how the Vietnam War is remembered. Former prime minister Vo Van Kiet once famously said that “millions of people are happy, but also millions who are sad” after the war. But such moderate voices have fallen on deaf ears.

    In Vietnam, acts of remembrance always carry political meaning. They are often used to legitimise Communist rule while delegitimising the “Other” — be they French, Americans, or the former Republic of Vietnam. Despite recent rapprochement with the United States, particularly through the Comprehensive Strategic Partnership established in September 2023, Hanoi continues to view the Vietnam War (known domestically as the War of Resistance Against America, or Kháng chiến chống Mỹ) as a cornerstone of its legitimacy. In so doing, the Communist Party of Vietnam (CPV) portrays itself as the driving force that guided the nation through wars and conflicts towards “independence, freedom, and happiness,” as echoed in the national motto. By contrast, the authorities have avoided commemorating the brief yet bloody 1979 border war with China too publicly, for fear of antagonising Beijing and sparking more anti-China sentiment when China has become one of Vietnam’s key economic and political partners.   

    Political psychologist Vamik Volkan calls this phenomenon “chosen glory”, where regimes invoke a heroic past to foster unity and national pride, as well as to garner popular support. This inevitably involves suppressing unfavourable memories that could tarnish the regime’s image, such as the traumatic post-war re-education campaign and the “boat people” crisis, which was triggered by the new Communist regime’s harsh treatment of the people related to the Republic of Vietnam, as depicted in The Sympathizer.

    Nonetheless, this victor’s narrative also creates various challenges. First, it stiffens the regime’s ability to pivot when necessary. In 2017, when authorities attempted to partly re-legitimise the Republic of Vietnam to bolster its legal stance against China in the South China Sea dispute, it sparked a backlash from war veterans and young ultra-nationalists. These groups even openly celebrated the downfall of President Vo Van Thuong, a rare display of dissent in a tightly controlled political environment, accusing him of enabling the trend of “historical revisionism” and planting the seed of “peaceful revolution” in Vietnam. During his tenure as Head of the Central Propaganda Commission, Vo Van Thuong reportedly directed state media and publishers to remove references to the Republic of Vietnam as the “puppet government” in several publications. These included the documentary series Vietnam – the Ho Chi Minh Era broadcast on state television and the book Gac Ma – the Immortal Circle to commemorate the 1988 Gac Ma (South Johnson Reef) battle with China. This resistance also complicates Hanoi’s ability to deepen cooperation with the US, its former adversary, particularly at a time when regional instability offers a compelling incentive.

    Second, by rejecting any alternative narrative beyond the dichotomous “us versus them”, reconciliation with millions of overseas Vietnamese remains a distant prospect. This is exacerbated by the rise of ultra-nationalist groups mentioned earlier. There are calls to revisit how the Vietnam War is remembered. Former prime minister Vo Van Kiet once famously said that “millions of people are happy, but also millions who are sad” after the war. But such moderate voices have fallen on deaf ears.

    “All wars are fought twice, the first time on the battlefield, the second time in memory”. The opening line in The Sympathizer, quoting Viet Thanh Nguyen’s Nothing Ever Dies, a non-fictional book on Vietnam and its treatment of its wartime history, perfectly captures how memories of the Vietnam War continue to resonate in the minds of some Vietnamese, both at home and abroad. The wounds of the past remain unhealed, leaving millions on both sides scarred nearly 50 years since the fall of Saigon. While the CPV often calls for “national unity and reconciliation”, genuine healing can only happen when both glories and traumas of the past are commemorated equally and thoroughly.


    Nguyen Khac Giang is Visiting Fellow at the Vietnam Studies Programme of the ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute. He was previously Research Fellow at the Vietnam Center for Economic and Strategic Studies.


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