Vietnamese historical scholarship died in the late 1960s/early 1970s. It was killed by scholars and members of the ruling elite in the DRV. These men forced historians to write history according to a narrow nationalistic framework, one which was based on the themes of heroism, love of nation, and resistance to foreign aggression.

Vietnamese historians embraced this approach to the past right at a time when nationalist histories were falling out of favor in other parts of the world. Indeed, since that time the nation has come to be seen as one of the greatest obstacles to understanding the past. For years now in the West there has been an effort to move beyond the nation, and to examine all of the aspects of the past (and there are many) which the prism of nationalism occludes.

In Vietnam, however, the nation remains dominant, and nationalist history is the only form of history that is accepted by the powers that be. This is because the approach to the past which was adopted in the late 1960s/early 1970s in the North, was subsequently extended to the rest of the country after 1975, and remains in effect today.

The ideas and actions of the people who killed historical inquiry in the late 1960s/early 1970s are therefore very important, as they have exerted an influence over scholarship Vietnam for decades now. That time period is thus worth revisiting, in order to see what exactly was written. I plan on posting about some representative works from this period as I come across them in a new category for this blog which I am calling “the death of historical inquiry in Vietnam.” We begin here by looking at an article which was written by the person who bears perhaps the greatest responsibility for killing historical inquiry in Vietnam, Trần Huy Liệu.

In July 1967, historian Trần Huy Liệu wrote a short article in Nghiên cứu lịch sử entitled, “Increase Patriotic Ardor While Researching the History of the Nation(ality).” In this article, Trần Huy Liệu noted that historians in the DRV were writing a new history, one which would trace Vietnam’s development from the period of primitive communism to the present. This was a type of history which was “scientific” (khoa học) and which was being executed in accordance with chủ nghĩa Mác Lê-nin, and under the guidance of the Party. And while Trần Huy Liệu was impressed with the progress that historians had made to date, there was one element which they still lacked – patriotic ardor.

Trần Huy Liệu stated that “in writing or compiling a history of the nation(ality), especially that of a heroic nation(ality) like ours, we cannot just relate the historical facts with an objective attitude, but must also pass on ardent sentiments toward the nation(ality), the country, and the history of our nation(ality) and country.”

Trần Huy Liệu then asks rhetorically if there is a contradiction between being scientific and patriotic. His response is that “science and the spirit of patriotism are not only not contradictory, but are essential for a history cadre. If one is not scientific, then one cannot grasp the laws of historical evolution and explain the essential events in history, and if one is not patriotic, then the history of the nation(ality) will just be an indifferent (vô tình) topic of study for the researcher.”

He continues by saying that “Some people erroneously think that in following the perspective of historical materialism, it is sufficient for the person who writes or compiles a history of our country to only need to have a scientific attitude to analyze people and events in an objective manner. I feel that this is not sufficient.”

Trần Huy Liệu explains that a history of the nation(ality) is different from a history of the evolution of human kind or a history of the development of a society for it must “imbue” (thấm nhuần) the reader with a “feeling of love and respect for the land and a spirit of pride in one’s nation(ality).”

He concludes by stating that “At present the history of our nation(ality) is opening a new page. Under the leadership of the Party of the working class, and continuing the tradition of heroism of the nation(ality), we are uniting true patriotism with international communism, and struggling for our fatherland to obtain complete independence and to build socialism.”

“. . . on point which cannot be forgotten is that the people who are writing the history of the nation(ality) must forge in the readers a feeling of love of country, a spirit of pride in the nation(ality), and to love the fatherland as well as the history of their fatherland. As such, those cadres working on historical scholarship must elevate their patriotic ardor. To put it differently, if they do not love the country passionately, then how can they contribute to building the history of a nation(ality), particularly a heroic nation(ality)?”

“Of course in speaking of love of country at this point, we have to combine this with socialism, with the leadership of the Party vanguard. That is also an essential law of the history of our nation(ality) as we enter a new phase.”

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I think that anyone in the West today who reads these comments will immediately observe how overtly political Trần Huy Liệu’s comments were. Serious historians do not try to impart a sense of patriotism to their readers. That might be what some high school history teachers do, but this does not have a place in serious academic scholarship.

That said, it is totally understandable that someone like Trần Huy Liệu felt the need to make this point in 1967. And we can sympathize with and respect the scholars who answered this call and produced patriotic scholarship at that time.

What is incomprehensible, however, is that 43 years after Trần Huy Liệu wrote this short article, and 35 years after the war ended, this approach to the past still dominates the world of scholarship in Vietnam. It may no longer be as explicit as it was here in Trần Huy Liệu’s article, but the exact same imperatives still motivate scholarship in Vietnam. This has been going on for 43 years. 43 years is a very long time, and it is difficult to sympathize with, or to respect, scholars who produce the same type of historical scholarship for 43 years.

Finally, the “scientific” history which scholars in the DRV were working on at that time ended up being much less scientific than they planned. Unable “to grasp the laws of historical evolution” and trace the development of society in Vietnam from primitive communism to the present, they ended up writing a history which relied instead on something much more unscientific but extremely powerful nonetheless, nationalism.