History and Vietnam’s “National Personality”

  In The Vietnamese and Their Revolution, John McAlister summarizes the writings of Paul Mus, the French sociologist and one-time political  adviser to France’s high commissioner for Indochina. Published toward  the end of the Vietnam War, the book, which made Mus’s writings accessible  to the English-speaking world, should be required reading for anyone interested in the influence of national history on the behavior and mindset of a people. Some of Mus’s thoughts cut to the core of the Vietnamese mentality. Mus writes, “Nearly everyone agrees that the Vietnamese are energetic and tenacious workers when they are motivated, a  situation which is hardly infrequent, especially for the peasants in the  fields. . . . The spirit or mentality of the Vietnamese the three fourths of them who continue to lead the lives rooted in the traditions of the village is the essential untold story about Viet Nam. (1970, 6) Indeed, even most city people in Vietnam retain strong ties to the  countryside and periodically make pilgrimages to the villages where they  or their parents and grandparents were born to pay respects to their ancestors.

   There is one main historical factor that has shaped Vietnam’s character.  The original Vietnamese, people of Mongoloid and Indonesian racialorigin who came from what is now central and southern China, based their economy on wet rice farming,which is highly dependent on weather and on complex systems of irrigation. As a result, Vietnamese communities developed a strong collective spirit. Though administratively autonomous,each village could be quickly mobilized, along with neighboring villages, in the event of foreign invasion. This made military victory over the Vietnamese problematic. Foreign forces would literally have to win the war one village at a time, and gains were often short-lived, in contrast to other countries where the fall of a fortress might mean control of an 28 Vietnam Today: A Guide to a Nation at a Crossroads entire city. Vietnamese history is generally seen as one of nation building and defense.
    The notion of mobilizing autonomous villages to resist foreign invaders is not difficult to imagine when you see the physical layout of villages on the approach to any of the nation’s major airports or while traveling through the countryside. According to the historian Stanley Karnow, Vietnam’s many wars “infused in the Vietnamese a readiness to defend themselves, so that they evolved into a breed of warriors” (1983,99). The desire to defend their country from foreign attack remains as strong as ever, but the Vietnamese are “warriors” not by their nature but only when provoked by foreign aggression. In his monumental work Sketches for a Portrait of Vietnamese Culture, Huu Ngoc, a self-described “cultural worker” and one of Vietnam’s preeminent intellectuals, writes,with understatement, “With questions of ideology fading with the passage of time, perhaps future historians will agree among themselves that,at bottom, all that fighting was for national liberation” (1996, 262).

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