While reading Christopher Goscha’s new survey of Vietnamese history, Vietnam: A New History, I decided to go back and read the first survey of Vietnamese history in English, Joseph Buttinger’s 1958 work The Smaller Dragon: A Political History of Vietnam.

Buttinger was an interesting person. Born in Austria, he quit school at age 13 and got involved in underground politics. During World War II he started to work for the International Rescue Committee (IRC), an organization that at that time was helping war refugees.

In 1954, Buttinger worked for the IRC where hundreds of thousands of refugees were arriving from the North. He became interested in Vietnam at that time and start reading about.

Four year later he published The Smaller Dragon.


The Smaller Dragon is based primarily on writings that had been produced by French scholars, and Buttinger makes the following remarks about that body of scholarship:

“French scholars have done extensive research on Indochina but concentrated on prehistory, archaeology, and art. They were dependent, morally and financially, on the French administration.

“In accordance with French colonial policy they consistently ignored the reality of Vietnamese nationalism. Therefore the French historians never produced a study of the peasant revolts in ancient Vietnamese history, or of the progress of the merchant class before the conquest, the economic and social repercussions of the colonization, the evolution of the peasantry, the decadence of the artisans, the difficulties of the middle class, the birth of the proletariat, or the development of nationalism under the colonial administration.

“In short, they ignored the development of the forces that they had to fight after 1945. The historians of the young Republic of Vietnam will have to fill this gap.” (61)


While there were some historians in the Republic of Vietnam who tried to fill this gap, in the English-speaking world a generation emerged that looked at some of these issues, and they were particularly interested in knowing about the forces that the US fought against and the ideas that motivated them.

It is therefore not surprising to note that a large body of scholarship emerged that was devoted to the study of Vietnamese nationalism, communism and revolution.

Alexander Woodside (Vietnam and the Chinese Model, 1971) and Keith Taylor (The Birth of Vietnam, 1982) looked for signs of Vietnamese nationalism in the premodern period. William Duiker (The Rise of Nationalism in Vietnam, 1900-1941, 1976; The Communist Road to Power in Vietnam, 1981) Huỳnh Kim Khánh (Vietnamese Communism, 1925-1945, 1982), David Marr (Vietnamese Anticolonialism, 1885-1925, 1971; Vietnamese Tradition on Trial, 1920-1945, 1981; , Vietnam 1945: The Quest for Power, 1995), Alexander Woodside (Community and Revolution in Modern Vietnam, 1976), Hue-Tam Ho Tai (Radicalism and the Origins of the Vietnamese Revolution, 1992) and others documented the political and social transformations that led to revolution in 1945.

As such, by the mid 1990s English-language scholarship had definitely filled an important part of the gap that Buttinger pointed out in 1958.


However, surrounding this solid body of scholarship were many other issues that historians had not addressed. There were therefore still many other gaps, and in the two decades since the mid 1990s there are many scholars who have sought to fill some of these gaps.

There has been solid work produced on various aspects of colonial society (Micheline Lessard Peter Zinoman, Shawn McHale, Christina Firpo, Nora Taylor, Charles Keith, Martina Nguyen) and South Vietnam (Edward Miller, Jessica Chapman, Nu-Anh Tran), to name two of many possible topics that could be mentioned (and to name a few of the many scholars who have worked on these topics).

One difference between this newer body of scholarship and the body of scholarship that preceded it is that there isn’t a clear narrative that it can be used to construct. The works that were produced in the 1970s-1990s helped to tell a single story about “the road to revolution and war.” They each added complexity to that story, but they all helped explain it.

What’s wonderful about Christopher Goscha’s new survey of Vietnamese history is that it makes a serious effort to integrate all of this scholarship together. This requires telling a slightly different story about modern Vietnamese history, but it’s ultimately a more inclusive and comprehensive story than any we’ve had before.

There are still many gaps to fill but I suspect that Joseph Buttinger would be pretty impressed to see what Vietnamese history looks like in English 59 years after he published his book.