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Digital Archive International History Declassified

Essays

Clash of Cultures

Shan McHale

When did the Cold War turn into a conflict between the United States and the communist regime of North Vietnam?

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When did the Cold War turn into a conflict between the United States and the communist regime in the northern half of the country, the Democratic Republic of Vietnam? Most Americans would probably give the date 1965. But it far predates that year. As early as 1948, some Vietnamese communists were noting that the United States was becoming a major enemy of “progressive” countries. In that year, talking to communist cadres assembled from the entire country, a speaker announced that “the United States has taken on the role of the German Fascists. It has become the most bellicose, most likely to invade, and most reactionary country in the world” (Tinh hinh va nhiem vu (de cuong dua ra Dai Hoi toan quoc) (Khu IV, 1948, p. 2).

In 1950, the United States began to fund the French war against the Viet Minh in Indochina. The Workers Party, abandoning any lingering hesitations, launched a widespread campaign against the “American imperialists.” Noting that this campaign was “not a passing fancy,” and concerned that populace was apathetic about the issue, a Southern party newspaper stressed that “hating and opposing Americans is not simply [ a task] for cadres. We have to make the masses hate and oppose Americans [as well].” The Party’s strong convictions were pithily summarized by the title of one of its 1950 propaganda tracts — My quoc la nuoc xau, or “America is bad.” North Vietnamese Propaganda Poster

From this point onwards, suspicion of the United States never left the Party. A 1952 tract aimed at army cadres listed three main enemies: the French, the Americans, and Vietnamese traitors (Khang chien truong ky, 5). While the French were listed as the “main enemy,” the Americans were seen as dangerous opponents: “we need to resolutely defeat them just as the Chinese people and the Chinese [People’s] Liberation Army defeated them.” (Khang chien truong ky, 5). By 1956, antipathy against the Americans mixed with paranoia: the Communist Party warned in a resolution to beware of sabotage and infiltration of their Party apparatus by the Americans and their allies. “They have a comprehensive, villainous, and long-term plan to sabotage us.” (Politburo Resolution number 9, May 9,1956. “On the Repression of Saboteur and Spy Elements That are Active Against the Government and the People.”)

One problem facing the communists was that their anti-American message did not always register with the Vietnamese. The Cold War was a struggle over ideologies, to be sure, but it also played out in the cultural realm. In the realm of popular culture, international and American movies were gradually displacing French ones in Vietnam. Vietnamese audiences were introduced to the Italian classic The Bicycle Thief in these years, as well as to Kurosawa’s Rashomon. French movies were still popular. Audiences even got to see the Soviet movie Sadko. But by the mid-1950s, in the south and in the north, American films dominated the theaters. Vietnamese in the cities — particularly the young — were flocking to American movies like Gone With the Wind, Samson and Dellilah, Ivanhoe, and even older Tarzan movies (like the 1939 film Tarzan Finds a Son.) This popularity of American culture irritated the regime in the north. The situation changed in the north after 1956, as the Democratic Republic of Vietnam clamped down on films and writings from “capitalist” countries. From that point onwards, American cultural influence over the north ebbed quickly.

Massive American military intervention from 1965 onwards had a dramatic impact on the major cities of South Vietnam as well as on areas near large American bases. The increase in American troops and in American economic and military aid distorted the southern economy. On the one hand, Vietnamese found jobs as interpreters, clerical staff, household help, and in selling goods. Bars sprouted up and prostitution increased. As the war pounded the countryside, agricultural production fell – and Vietnamese in the south began to eat rice imported from abroad.

With the increased American military and economic influence over the south came greater cultural influence. In southern cities, American movies continued to be popular throughout the Vietnam War. Young Vietnamese students from the elite began to toy with an idea that had been virtually unheard of in the 1950s: going to the United States for university study. And in more subtle ways, Americans began to try to shape the tastes of Vietnamese, such as through subventions of Vietnamese books on traditional culture and Confucianism. In one of his books, the southern writer Son Nam discussed David Riesman’s sociological classic The Lonely Crowd, showing that contemporary American thought was gaining a limited audience in the country.

American influence was not restricted to the cities. As the war dragged on, American fashions began to reach the villages as well. From rock music to bell-bottom jeans and long hair, Vietnamese selectively adopted American counter-cultural practices. This met with some consternation in the villages. As one young village woman commented, “The youth at the district town are not gross but I thought the youth in Saigon were. They wore long beards and their hair was really long. [ . . . .] I would rather have a husband from the countryside who would till the rice fields and earn a living to support me and my mother” (quoted in Elliott, the Vietnamese War, 1229).

Shan McHale is Associate Professor of History and International Affairs at The George Washington University and Director of the Sigur Center for Asian Studies and of the Asian Studies Program at GWU. Born in Southeast Asia, Professor McHale received his B.A. with honors from Swarthmore College, an M.A. in Asian Studies from the University of Hawaii, and an M.A. and Ph.D. in Southeast Asian history from Cornell University (1995). He has taught courses in East and Southeast Asian history and is a regular lecturer at the Foreign Service Institute for officers going into country training