Can the Vietcong speak?: Opposing the Vietnam War from Paris

In the words of the historian Arthur Marwick, “there can be no study of the sixties without consideration of the complex repercussions of the Vietnam War” – all around the world, the progressive movements that were in full force by 1968 were opposed to the war.

How did they articulate this opposition? At least in popular memory about the anti-war movements, the Vietnamese rarely opposes the war himself. Instead, he takes on one of two silent roles. He is either the stealthy Vietcong guerilla, camouflaged sinisterly in the Southeast Asian jungle, his silhouette barely discernible; or he is the refugee fleeing from napalm in boats across the perilous seas, the object of pity and charity. The Vietnamese voice – a Vietnamese opposition to the war – is rarely heard. Instead,  it is spoken for by young humanitarians and pacifists in the West.

But the Vietnamese voice was far from silent, least of all in Paris, home to a large Vietnamese population. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, as leftist student movements rocked the city and transformed French society, Vietnamese activists found in Paris a progressive environment sympathetic to their anti-colonial cause.  Their voice can be heard through the mouthpiece of two Vietnamese activists. They had been anti-colonial nationalists well before 1968, and articulate an opposition to the Vietnam War in the tradition and language of anticolonialism. Their voices led me to the ways in which the broader 1968 movement recognized the Vietnam War as an extension of France’s colonial project in Vietnam: the specific mode or register of anti-colonial rhetoric found its way to the broader movement of 1968.

1.

We begin our story in 1940, when present-day Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia are a single French colony named French Indochina. Thousands of Vietnamese workers are being recruited and shipped to the metropole to support the war effort, 26-year-old Nguyen Duc Moc (1913-2009) among them.

By 1948, Nguyen is working at the massive Renault factory in Boulogne-Billancourt. He also maintains ties with his country of origin and with his fellow Vietnamese migrants in France: in secret, he mobilizes in favour of Ho Chi Minh’s independence movement, under the nose of a French state wary about Vietnamese anti-colonial claims. He also maintains his cultural links with Vietnam: having mastered the Vietnamese martial art form Vo as a child, he starts a Vo school in Paris in 1957. Till today, many Vo schools in France credit him as a pioneer both in Vo and its internationalization.

Nguyen’s Vo school eventually becomes a site for the expression of Vietnamese nationalist sentiments. Nguyen asserts a kind of Vietnamese cultural pride simply by keeping the martial art tradition alive, and that eventually morphs into something more explicitly political. By the 1960s, the school starts to attract communist activists hoping to learn how to ward off both police batons and the blows of far-right protestors. Nguyen and his associates begin to pitch their Vietnamese cause to this receptive audience of left-wing Vo students, distributing pamphlets, fundraising for the Vietminh, and organizing anti-war demonstrations. When 1968 comes around, striking factory workers, particularly those at Boulogne-Billancourt, attend Vo classes at Nguyen’s school in record numbers. A 2018 profile of Nguyen in Le Monde reports that  attendance grew six-fold over the 1968 era. It also interviews ex-students of Nguyen who established themselves in left-wing activism through the Vo school, picking up a anti-Vietnam War position along the way. Nguyen’s Vietnamese nationalism intersects well with their leftist politics.

Nguyen’s activities eventually attract the attention of the North Vietnamese government, which secretly supports his efforts. They also draw the scrutiny of the French police, who question Nguyen in 1969 and order the closure one of his Vo clubs in 1971. By this point, Nguyen’s political position had transitioned seamlessly from anti-colonial agitation to anti-Vietnam War agitation; through an allegiance to the communism of Ho Chi Minh and the Vietminh, he had gone from opposing French colonization to opposing American military intervention. His communism, anticolonialism, and opposition to the Vietnam War were manifestations of the same quest for Vietnamese independence.

2.

Hoang Khoa Khoi (1917-2009) was another Vietnamese activist in France who, like Nguyen, tried to synthesize these three positions – anticolonialism, communism, and an opposition to the Vietnam War. As is the case for Nguyen, Hoang’s opposition to the Vietnam War follows logically and sequentially from his opposition to French colonial rule.

Hoang arrives in France in 1939 as part of the wave of Vietnamese workers who, like Nguyen, replace Frenchmen fighting in World War II. His political life begins with an awareness of this status, in metropolitan France, as colonial subject. He also becomes involved in left-wing politics, spending a few months of 1942 in prison for spreading communist propaganda. In this manner, in the following decades, he becomes active in both the Vietnamese anti-colonial movement and communism. The two are intertwined for him, to the extent that he recruits French communists to the Vietnamese nationalist cause. Jean-Michel Krivine, a prominent leftist activist, writes in an obituary for Hoang that “it was truly thanks to him that I developed a passion for Vietnam.”

Krivine and Hoang both become part of the Russell-Sartre Tribunal, a group of academics who attempt to independently investigate allegations of war crimes perpetrated by the US in Vietnam. The pair travel to Vietnam as part of a team put together by the Tribunal to investigate these allegations. In this sense, Hoang’s anticolonialism is inextricable from his opposition to the Vietnam War, which was also inextricable from his Communism. By May 1968, his anticolonialism, anti-war stance, and leftist ideologies achieve a seamless synthesis.

3.

The political lives of Hoang and Nguyen show us how, for Vietnamese people living in France, the Vietnam War was an obstacle to Vietnamese independence that merely followed French colonization – it was, in many senses, the US filling the shoes of the colonizer that France had emptied in 1954. An opposition to the Vietnam War, then, was one and the same as an opposition to French colonial rule. An accompanying loyalty to Ho Chi Minh and the Vietminh also immersed them in left-wing politics: their two-pronged opposition to both colonialism and the Vietnam War found an expression in communism.

Naturally, then, the prominent French leftist movements of the 1960s were also fertile ground for them. The most significant among these was the May 1968 movement, a series of student-led protests and strikes that left an indelible mark on French politics and society for decades to come. In an environment permeated with the global left-wing revolutionary fervour of the 1960s, French activists of May ’68 joined our Vietnamese activists in opposing the Vietnam War. ’68 student protestors, in particular, opposed the war in the same leftist, anti-imperialist terms that Hoang and Nguyen did, bringing what might otherwise have been a fringe concern to the mainstream. In this manner, the anti-war student movements of Paris differed starkly from those that have come to dominate our memory, at least in the Anglophone world. In contrast to the humanitarian and pacifist case against the war made by students at Berkeley, for instance, students in Paris incorporated a strong anti-colonial argument into their anti-war movements.

One of these movements was the Comités Vietnam de Base (CVB), active between 1966 and 1968 and particularly prominent in circles of university students. In its periodical, Victoire Pour le Vietnam, it paints Vietnam as fighting for liberation from American forces, interviewing and profiling stories of Vietcong fighters. It holds up their patriotism and courage as “exemplary,” and then makes it clear the end that they serve: “to drive US imperialism out of Vietnam.” To a large extent, it does not attempt to paint the Vietnamese as peaceful peasants – it indulges in descriptions of grisly violence that they perpetrate against these American aggressors. Instead, it makes clear that the Vietnamese people are engaged in a noble sort of violence, in defence of country and homeland. Quite unlike the anti-war, anti-draft pacifism of Berkeley students, the CVB is willing to condone violence in service of the Vietnamese nationalist, anti-colonial cause. “The people will defeat imperialism,” it proclaims in a sloganistic manner. Importantly, the CVB positions itself as a conduit between the Vietnamese cause and its French supporters: in the third issue, its editorial piece talks at length about the CVB’s efforts at spreading sympathy for the anti-imperialist Vietnamese cause out from their Paris base into the provinces. In this manner, the CVB tried to bring an anticolonial case against the Vietnam war from Vietnam to French students via Paris.

Other student groups engaged with the war in a similar way, painting the war as a case of American imperialist aggression. At the Sorbonne, history students took a particular interest: they formed the Comité Vietnam Histoire (CVH) issuing a call to “fight against American imperialism; long live the heroic fight of the Vietnamese people.” Indeed, at some level, these history students were consciously making a historiographical argument. They were challenging the official American framing of the war as a Cold War proxy conflict meant to contain communism; instead, they were asserting that the “heroic fight” was a liberation movement of the colonial era.

This reframing of the issue – this assertion that the war was not a Cold War conflict but a colonial one – would go on to be fleshed out. On the Nanterre campus in May 1968, as the protest movement was in full swing, there hung a simple banner with a compelling message painted on it: “fascists who have escaped from Dien Bien Phu, you will not escape at Nanterre.” It asserted a clear continuity between the French defeat at Dien Bien Phu in 1954 and the American war taking place in 1968. It also alleges a complicit relationship between colonialism and conservatism: it suggests that the same powerful individuals driving the French colonial system in Vietnam had moved, after 1954, to positions of power in de Gaulle’s government. The students seem to perceive power everywhere, repressing colonial subjects and metropolitan everymen alike. In this manner, the students tie together an opposition to the war, left-wing politics, and anticolonialism – they too arrive at this three-way synthesis alongside our Vietnamese activists Nguyen and Hoang.

In arriving at this synthesis – in bringing Vietnam and Vietnamese voices into the discourse – these student movements were able to build momentum towards May ’68. The works of historians Laurent Jalabert and Nicolas Pas document extensively how organizing against the Vietnam War in the years and months before May 1968 helped to activate and politicize these student movements. In terms of their ideological foundations, organizing methods, and activist networks, anti-Vietnam-war mobilization was in many ways a ‘dress rehearsal’ for May 1968.

Perhaps the final step to this rhetorical synthesis of positions – this reframing of the history from Cold War proxy conflict to anti-colonial liberation struggle – took place as student movements linked Vietnam to Algeria. In other words, activists in France began to recognize how American intervention in Vietnam resembled the French war in Algeria a decade earlier: both were an attempt at asserting colonial power against an independence movement. Jalabert, the historian, discusses how, for the prominent Union Nationale des Étudiants de France (UNEF), “there existed an incontestable link between opposition to the Algerian war and opposition to the Vietnam war;” he writes that “from the anticolonialism of the Algerian war, the students of UNEF moved on to anti-American-imperialism.” This was a damning condemnation of the Vietnam war. Framed this way, it was not, as claimed by American officials, a bid to contain communism. Instead, it was a last-ditch attempt to assert imperial control over the global south, an anachronism in the style of 19th-century empires.

In the official American narrative, the Vietnam War entirely derives from a ‘domino theory’ and was, as such, an effort at containing communism. In the countercultural narrative that has come to dominate in the Anglophone world, the Vietnam War was an act of American aggression. Even in the countercultural narrative, the colonial angle is lost. However, as we have seen, if we let the Vietnamese speak for themselves, we realize that we need to call a spade a spade: it was not only an act of American aggression in which the US tries to step into the shoes of the old imperial powers of Europe. The synthesis reached by Nguyen, Hoang, and many of the anti-war student movements in Paris – between communism, anticolonialism, and an opposition to the war –succeeded in implicating the US as such.




Works Cited

Aime, Gerard. Photograph, 21 February 1968. URL: http://gerard-aime.com/manif-vietnam-paris/.

Comités Vietnam de Base. “Victoire Pour le Vietnam.” 1967. Accessed at https://www.biblio.com/book/victoire-vietnam-journal-comites-vietnam-base/d/1012507429?aid=vialibri&t=1&utm_source=vialibri&utm_medium=archive&utm_campaign=vialibri.

École Française de Vo Dan Toc. Photograph, n.d. URL: http://www.vodantoc.com/histoire/nguyen-duc-moc/.

Jalabert, Robert. “Aux origines de la génération 1968 : les étudiants français et la guerre du Vietnam.” Vingtième Siècle, revue d’histoire (1997): 69-81.

Kagan, Elie. Archives de la Bibliotheque de documentation international contemporain. Photograph, 1968.

Kalman, Ghislaine. Le Monde. 18 May 2018. URL: https://www.lemonde.fr/m-actu/article/2018/05/18/1968-l-annee-du-dragon_5301160_4497186.html.

Krivine, Jean-Michel. “Hoang Khoa Khoi (Robert) – 1917/200.” Inprecor May-June 2009. URL: http://www.inprecor.fr/article-VIETNAM%2022%20avril%202009-HOANG%20KHOA%20KHOI%20(Robert)%20%E2%80%93%201917%202009?id=712.

Marwick, Arthur. The Sixties Cultural Revolution in Britain France Italy and the United States, c.1958-c.1974. London: Oxford University Press, 1998.

Pas, Nicolas. “« Six Heures pour le Vietnam » Histoire des Comités Vietnam français 1965-1968.” Revue Historique (2000): 157-185.

Sweeny, Nadia. “Nguyen Duc Moc incarne un petit bout de la grande histoire de la fièvre de Mai 68.” Le Monde 18 May 2018.

Unknown. Photograph, n.d. URL: http://www.internationalviewpoint.org/spip.php?article1652.

Unknown. Photograph, 20 March 1968. URL: https://blogs.mediapart.fr/jean-marc-b/blog/210318/22-mars-68-nanterre-allume-la-meche.

Unknown. Poster, 1968. URL: http://catalogue.moniteur.net/lot/584930–AFFICHE-DE-MAI-1968-%2522INTERDIT-DE-SEJOUR-POUR-CRIME-D-IMPERIALISME%2522-%2528IMPRIMERIE-SP?max=50.

Unknown. Posters, 1968. Archives de la Bibliotheque de la documentation international contemporain.a