Historian's Corner

This niche of the Vietnam Veterans Home Page is devoted to exploring the history of Vietnam from its ancient past to the current day. The author, Patrick J. McGarvey, (a.k.a. "McGoo" and The Village Elder) earned his degree in history, served with The CIA in Vietnam, and taught a course on Vietnam and one on CIA In The Cold War as an Adjunct Professor of History at Stockton State College in New Jersey. It is hoped that the essays stimulate a serious discussion of the issues raised and readers are encouraged to contact the author with their viewpoints.

Vietnam's Warrior Heritage

By: P.J. McGarvey

Natural Born Guerrillas

"The American War," as the Vietnamese refer to our war in Vietnam, is but a momentary blip on the radar screen of their history. It's significance to the Vietnamese is far less than it is to us. We fought with this warrior nation from 1945 until a stand down in 1973 and ultimate withdrawal to make room for their victory in 1975 - a mere thirty years. By contrast, Vietnam fought with China for their independence for twelve hundred years!

Vietnam's recorded history began 200 years before Christ's time, and for 2,200 years they endured a long and tortuous series of wars, rebellions, revolutions, and accommodations with superior enemy forces that gave the Vietnamese a proud sense of their own identity and a steely, uncompromising national character inured to hardship and quite willing to resist foreign domination.

They developed the art and science of guerrilla warfare to new levels of cunning, patience, battlefield initiative, and the art of the surprise attack over their 2,200 year long chronicle. Their country's frequent wars also infused into the Vietnamese a natural readiness to defend themselves, so that they evolved into a breed of warriors. Vietnamese mothers proudly raise their babies to be soldiers.

The Indochina Peninsula

The Indochina Peninsula is a jumbled terrain of towering peaks and deep valleys reaching down through thick forests to coastal plains. Its earliest inhabitants migrated north from the islands of the South Pacific and settled along the fertile coastal plains. They were later displaced.

The Khmer, as the Cambodians refer to themselves, apparently migrated from Western India. The Lao, ethnically related to the Thai, streamed in from the highlands of China's Yunnan Province. The Vietnamese flowed south as well from the lower Yangtze River Valley in China. They later occupied the rich river deltas and fertile shores, forcing the island aborigines into the mountains, where their descendants still survive uneasily in a mosaic of about 30 diverse clans.

Indochina became the focal point of competition between Asia's two great civilizations - India and China. Merchants and missionaries from both countries converged on the peninsula, promoting commerce, religion, language, art, and customs.

Chronic trouble plagued the area. The Cambodian Empire, known as Champa, stretched from the South China Sea into Burma. An onslaught by the Vietnamese during the thirteenth century wiped out Champa, however, setting the stage for the centuries old animosity between Vietnamese and Cambodians. The Vietnamese advanced their empire to the Gulf of Siam by the middle of the eighteenth century. The Vietnamese also faced recurrent military pressures from China for more than 1,200 years.

India, the other great power in the area, left its lasting mark on Laos, Thailand and Cambodia. Vietnam was insulated from the Indian expansion by the Truong Son Mountain Range.

Two important elements formed Vietnam's character during these centuries. The original Vietnamese brought with them from China their basic economy built around wet rice farming. Rice cultivation, which is dependent on the vagaries of weather and on complex systems of irrigation, requires cooperative labor. Vietnamese communities thus developed a strong collective spirit, and villages could be mobilized as a unified chain of separate links to fight against foreign intruders.

The Chinese Occupation

The Vietnamese were invaded, occupied and colonized by superior Chinese forces for twelve hundred years - from the second century BC to the tenth century AD After countless rebellions against the Chinese, the Vietnamese finally won out and the Chinese withdrew. This 1,200 year struggle and ultimate victory is the proudest period in Vietnam's history, and their national heroes and indomitable warrior spirit emerged and formed during this millennium-plus of resistance to foreign domination.

The first Chinese invasion of Vietnam occurred in 208 BC, when Trieu Da, a turncoat Chinese general, conquered a domain in the northern mountains of Vietnam. He defied the decadent Ch'in dynasty, built his capital at Canton, and declared himself emperor of Nam Viet "Land of the Southern Viet" which reached as far south as the present city of Danang.

The Chinese integrated the territory of Vietnam in the same way the Roman Legions were doing at the time in Europe. They created administrative districts under military governors whose civilian Chinese advisors imported Confucian bureaucratic concepts that underlined respect for authority. They also introduced plow and draft animals - the water buffalo. To exploit Vietnam for themselves, they built roads, ports, canals, dikes, and dams.

At first they ruled Vietnam lightly by co-opting its feudal chiefs rather than subduing them. But China failed to assimilate the Vietnamese, who retained their ethnic singularity despite their receptivity to Chinese innovations. Chinese colonial officials found themselves gradually absorbed into the Vietnamese culture as their soldiers married Vietnamese and adopted local family lifestyles, customs, and loyalties.

The dynamic Han dynasty, which expanded the Chinese empire across Asia from Turkestan to Korea, annexed Nam Viet as a Chinese province a century later, a hundred years before Christ. The Vietnamese soon rebelled against Chinese troop and labor levies, high taxes, and the interference in their local affairs. Over the coming centuries they would repeatedly challenge Chinese domination. This hostility to the Chinese soon entered the historic consciousness of the Vietnamese and remains there today.

Ho Chi Minh, for example, evoked that memory in 1946 to justify to his own followers a controversial deal he made with France designed to evict the Nationalist Chinese occupation army from northern Vietnam: "Better to sniff a bit of French shit briefly than eat Chinese shit for the rest of our lives," he explained.

The first major Vietnamese insurrection against the Chinese took place in the year 40 AD when a titled lady, Trung Trac, avenging the murder of her dissident husband by a Chinese commander, led the first major revolt against China. She and her sister, Trung Nhi, mustered other restive nobles and their vassals, including another woman, Phung Thi Chinh, who supposedly gave birth to a baby in the middle of the battle but continued to fight with the infant strapped to her back. They vanquished the Chinese in 40 AD and, with the Trung sisters as Queens, set up an independent state which stretched from Hue into southern China.

But, the Chinese crushed it only two years later, and the Trung sisters committed suicide - in aristocratic style - by throwing themselves into a river. The Vietnamese still venerate them at temples in Hanoi and Sontay, and the communists acclaim them as pioneer nationalists. Madame Nhu, the sister-in-law of South Vietnamese President Ngo Dinh Diem from 1955 to 1963, erected a statue in Saigon in 1962 to commemorate the Trung sisters' patriotism - and also to promote herself as their reincarnation.

Another woman, Trieu Au, the Vietnamese version of Joan of Arc, launched a revolt against China in 248 AD wearing golden armor and riding an elephant as she led a thousand men into battle. Gloriously defeated at the age of 23, she committed suicide rather than suffer the shame of surrender. Like the Trung sisters she is remembered by a temple and by her words of defiance: "I want to rail against the wind and the tide, kill the whales in the sea, sweep the whole country to save the people from slavery, and I refuse to be abused."

These feminine exploits, doubtless inflated in popular legend, illustrate the unique status of women in Vietnamese society. In contrast to their counterparts elsewhere in Asia and even in Europe, emancipated only recently, women could traditionally inherit land, serve as trustees of ancestral cults, and share their husband's property.

The Chinese conquerors referred to Vietnam as Annam, the "pacified south." But it was far from peaceful. Resistance against China persisted, often led by Chinese colonists who, like English settlers in America many centuries later, fought to free their adopted country. Revolts recurred chronically, and dissident nobles gradually perceived the need to mobilize peasant support. They broadened their movements and stressed that Vietnam's customs, practices, and interests differed from those of China. Even then a glimmer of Vietnamese nationalism was discernible.

The Vietnamese again struck at the Chinese in the tenth century, this time successfully. Their hero was Ngo Quyen, a provincial mandarin. China had deployed fresh forces in Vietnam, some arriving by sea. In 938 AD, as a large flotilla of armed Chinese junks approached the Bach Dang River - a tidal waterway near Haiphong, Ngo Quyen resorted to a clever strategem. He ordered his men to drive iron-tipped spikes into the riverbed, their points concealed below the water's surface. Then, at high tide, he engaged the Chinese, his own vessels retreating as the tide ebbed. The pursuing Chinese ships became impaled, and Ngo Quyen turned back to destroy them. The maneuver was a variation of the guerrilla tactics that the Vietnamese would use again and again in the future as they faced superior forces.

The nature of Vietnamese resistance against China changed later in the tenth century. A new emperor, Dinh Bo Linh, ascended the throne in 967 AD calling his state Dai Co Viet, "The Kingdom of the Watchful Hawk." The son of an official, he had organized a peasant army commanded by urban intellectuals. His dynasty won recognition of Vietnam's independence from China in exchange for regular payments of tribute. The tributary arrangement, which was typical of Chinese relations with other states of Southeast Asia, endured for centuries.

The Mongol Invasions

Three hundred years later in the thirteenth century, the Vietnamese were invaded three times by the Mongol hordes of Ghenghis Khan under the leadership of Kublai Khan. He was trying to push south to control the spice routes of the Indonesian Archipelago.

Vietnam boasts of being the only nation to defeat the Mongols, who at their peak swept out of remote northern Asia on horse cavalry and conquered China, much of Southeast Asia, Russia, and on into present day Poland and Germany.

The Vietnamese, commanded by the illustrious Tran Hung Dau, repulsed each offensive. Like outnumbered Vietnamese officers before and since, Tran Hung Dao relied on mobile warfare, abandoning the cities, avoiding frontal attacks, and harassing his enemies until, confused and exhausted, they were ripe for the final attack.

In the last great battle with the Mongols, which took place in the Red River Valley in 1287, the Vietnamese routed 300,000 Mongol troops on horseback by attacking frontally on elephants, which struck terror into the hearts of the Mongol mounts and soldiers alike. They fled in disarray. In a victory poem a Vietnamese general wrote, "This ancient land shall live forever." Seven centuries later, the Vietminh commander Vo Nguyen Giap evoked Tran Hung Dao's memory as he launched an operation against the French hedgehog forts spread out all across the Red River Valley in 1951.

China Invades Again

In the fifteenth century Vietnam again fell prey to China. Their brief rule was the harshest in their history. Chinese forced Vietnamese peasants to mine for gold and other ores, cut rare woods, and grow spices, all to be exported to China along with elephants tusks, rhinoceros horns, pearls, and precious stones. They drastically imposed Chinese culture, confiscated Vietnamese literature, compelled schools to teach in Chinese, suppressed Vietnamese cults, and permitted only the worship of Chinese gods. They ordered Chinese dress for women and prohibited men from cutting their hair. This last rule was to facilitate the beheading of any outspoken Vietnamese male, who could easily be seized by the hair and decapitated. They even outlawed betel nut. They issued identity cards and collected heavy taxes from all.

This harsh occupation inevitably provoked yet another insurrection. Vietnam's savior this time, Le Loi, became its greatest emperor, equal only to Ho Chi Minh in its pantheon of heroes. Not only did he crush the Chinese decisively, but his dynasty, the longest in Vietnamese history, became a model of enlightenment over its four hundred year span.

In 1418, proclaiming himself the Prince of Pacification, Le Loi raised the banner of revolt. He withdrew to the mountains near his home and rallied relatives, friends, villagers, and even local bandits to his cause. He taught them the guerrilla tactics that had worked for Tran Hung Dao, who had vanquished the Mongols.

The Chinese became increasingly insecure as the insurrection spread. They clung to the towns, venturing out only by day, their big battalions sticking only to the roads. Adopting a defense that would fail the French 500 years later, the Chinese built fortified towers along main routes. Gradually, as the balance of forces tilted his way, Le Loi struck at the Chinese directly in 1426, deploying platoons of elephants against their horse cavalry. Fighting in rain and mud west of Hanoi the Vietnamese routed the Chinese. At the surrender, the Chinese recognized Vietnam's independence, and Le Loi generously furnished the Chinese with 500 junks and thousands of horses to get them home.

Apart from a last abortive attempt in 1788, the Chinese never again launched a full-scale attack against Vietnam, until their abortive attempt to punish Vietnam for invading Cambodia in 1978. The Hanoi government had given out uncultivated homestead lands along its border with China to its veterans of The American War on the condition that they organize and form a border militia force. When the Chinese advanced across Vietnam's border they were chewed up in a continuing series of well laid ambushes against their overextended supply trains by veterans of The American War.

Le Loi established his capital at Hanoi. He distributed land to poor peasants, rewarded nobles with large estates, and set up agencies to build dikes, dams, irrigation systems and projects to increase agricultural production. This political structure served Vietnam for the next 400 years until the French disrupted life there in the nineteenth century.

Until the fifteenth century, Vietnamese expansion south of the Sixteenth Parallel was blocked by the Kingdom of Champa. The Vietnamese attacked Champa, slaughtering 40,000 people in its capital and pushed southward. Advancing colonies of Vietnamese peasant-warriors reached the Mekong delta region in the early seventeenth century, about the same time British colonists were settling the Atlantic seaboard of what would become the United States. Vietnam attained its current geographic size by 1757.

Political disunity hampered Vietnamese expansionism during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. During these centuries, Vietnam was ruled by separate, hostile governments, one located in the traditional capital of Hanoi, the other in a new city lying 400 miles to the south, Hue. Their armies clashed repeatedly in civil war between Vietnamese family dynasties, but neither was able to prevail over the other. With much of its energy absorbed in fighting the Hanoi regime, the Hue regime was still developing the relatively under-populated southern frontier region of the Mekong delta as the eighteenth century ended.

Vietnam was unified early in the nineteenth century following decades of rebellions against both ruling houses. Eventually, Nguyen Anh, a nephew of the deposed ruler of the Hue kingdom, after a long series of military campaigns, defeated all foes, and emerged as the ruler of all of Vietnam in 1802.

He proclaimed himself emperor, made Hue his imperial capital, and called his nation Vietnam. He took the name Gia Long, founding the last Vietnamese imperial dynasty. Nguyen emperors were reduced to ruling in name only after 1883 because of the French conquest of Vietnam. Vietnam's last dynasty came to its end in 1955 when the Emperor Bao Dai was defeated in an election rigged by The CIA to place Ngo Dinh Diem in power as the President of South Vietnam.


What emerges as significant from this early period of Vietnamese history is the fact that they maintained their independence for over 900 years, after a 1,200 year struggle with the Chinese. They successfully fought off Chinese invaders in the thirteenth century and, thereafter, stayed free of foreign rule except for a brief period during the fifteenth century, when the Chinese, taking advantage of Vietnamese disunity, re-established a colonial regime of brief duration.

For centuries it remained a constant of Vietnamese statecraft to be aware of the colossus to the north, to guard against Chinese intrusions upon their sovereign independence. In modern times, this theme of Vietnamese independence from foreign conquerors has reasserted itself following the defeat of the French in 1954 and again following the withdrawal of the Americans in 1973.

In Hanoi's Historical Museum today, a large room is devoted to celebrating the 1,200 year old struggles of the Vietnamese people against Chinese invaders.


As the United States trudged slowly into the big muddy quagmire of Vietnam, American policy makers under Truman in 1945, Eisenhower in 1955, Kennedy in 1961, Johnson in 1965, and Nixon in 1969 were largely ignorant of the history of Vietnam's struggles, their victories, their pride in being able to wear down a superior military force with guerrilla tactics, and their unwillingness to compromise in their decades old revolution to oust foreigners from control of their country and destiny.

Instead, Vietnam was seen simplistically by America through "Cold War" black-and-white lenses as a battleground between the so-called Free World and Communist World. State Department officials by 1947 were positively appalled at the prospect of an independent Vietnamese nation under the control of the Communist revolutionary Ho Chi Minh. They had no evidence linking Ho to Moscow nor any sign that he was carrying out Soviet policies in Indochina. They knew he was both the leader and the personification of the powerful Vietnamese drive for independence and self-determination. State Department officials operated on the false assumption that Communism and nationalism were incompatible ideological forces.

The Truman Administration, by intervening with substantial military aid on the side of French Imperialism in Vietnam committed serious errors in geo-political judgment. Erroneously elevating a minor concern - the dream of Vietnamese for independence - to a vital interest, they exaggerated the strategic significance of Vietnam to fit their skewed world view.

They also consistently misread the nature of Vietnamese revolutionary nationalism. They failed to understand that its causes were indigenous reactions to French brutality, betrayal, and economic exploitation. They failed to understand that Ho Chi Minh and his Communist associates represented the cause of Vietnamese nationalism. They failed to understand the powerful and widespread appeal that the drive to regain independence from European colonialism had with nearly all Vietnamese regardless of their politics. They also failed to understand that Ho Chi Minh was not controlled by either the Soviet Union or China. Truman and his Secretary of State Dean Acheson's flawed Indochina policies, based on false premises and faulty judgments, laid the groundwork for the American ordeal in Vietnam.

America arrogantly rated Vietnam as a fourth rate military power with a rag-tag army of shoeless peasants, and we deluded ourselves about the true nature of the war. We saw Hanoi's military offensives after 1945 against the French to unify Vietnam as a case of the spread of monolithic Communism directed by Moscow, or after 1955 when we picked up France's mantle in Vietnam, as aggression from the North. Neither was an accurate view. Rather, "The American War" was really all about the Post-WWII historical wave of former colonial nations in Asia and Africa throwing off the yoke of their Imperial European masters and achieving independence.

The author accepts responsibility for the views expressed in this essay. The primary historical sources for the facts in this article are: the best selling companion book to the PBS television series on Vietnam by Stanley Karnow, Vietnam: A History, The First Complete Account of Vietnam at War, published by Viking Press in 1983 and Penguin Books in 1984 and Vietnam: An American Ordeal by George D. Moss published in 1990 by Prentice-Hall Inc.