North Vietnam Had an Antiwar Movement, Too

The North Vietnamese Communist Party leader Le Duan strengthened the “counter counterrevolutionary” campaign to quell dissent against the war. Credit Nehon Denpa News/Associated Press

When we think back to the signal events of the antiwar movement in 1967, we recall the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s powerful April 4 speech denouncing the war, the thousands of returned registration cards during the “Stop the Draft” week, and the March on the Pentagon that brought record numbers of demonstrators to the nation’s capital.

That year also witnessed global protests condemning the war, as demonstrations in European capitals and the International War Crimes Tribunal issued powerful rebukes against American intervention in Southeast Asia. News coverage of the war also shifted that year, including the first call by The New York Times for a halt to the bombing and the initiation of peace talks.

Less well known, but just as significant, was the antiwar “movement” in North Vietnam. Less a movement than a heterogenous array of voices, it included a wide swath of North Vietnamese society, within the government and among the general public.

Some had never wanted to go to war to liberate the South in the first place, and had sought instead to build the North and reunify the country through political means. Educated in the Soviet Union, some of these individuals even occupied prominent positions in the Vietnamese Communist Party. By 1967, these officials were calling on their government to begin negotiations to put an end to the devastating war. When one such party member, Hoang Minh Chinh, disseminated his political views in an essay he called “Dogmatism in Vietnam,” he became the ruling clique’s No. 1 enemy.

Party members were not the only people who expressed criticism of the war. Artists and writers had long used their talents to make political statements, placing them directly in the cross hairs of the ideological police. The doctrines of socialist realism, as strong in North Vietnam as it was in Communist Europe, demanded that all art glorify the party’s policies. When film directors, writers and poets portrayed the horrors of wars or presented nuanced depictions of battle, their art became subversive as the anti-American struggle for liberation and national salvation raged on. When Vu Thu Hien, a screenwriter and the son of Ho Chi Minh’s personal secretary, wrote an ambiguous scene of camaraderie between Vietnamese cadre and French colonial troops in his script for “Last Night and First Day,” he blurred the line between “friend and foe.”

While some artists stridently bucked socialist realism dictates, others merely denied having a political agenda when they refused to toe the ideological line. In Hanoi’s music scene, the only acceptable form of song or ballad was government-sanctioned revolutionary or martial music; playing anything else was illegal in times of war. So-called yellow music (as opposed to revolutionary red) was banned for being retrograde, sentimental or foreign-inspired. When the musicians Nguyen Van Loc, Phan Thang Toan (who went by the name Hairy Toan) and Tran Van Thanh formed a band and began playing prewar love songs and other romantic music at weddings and parties, they knew they were breaking the law. But in their view, they were not “doing politics”; they were simply playing music they liked.

Just like the Johnson administration, the party under General Secretary Le Duan did not tolerate overt manifestation of dissent. While Washington unleashed Operation Chaos, a secret campaign to undermine antiwar activism in the United States, Hanoi carried out its own repressive effort to stamp out domestic dissension. Starting in the summer of 1967, Le Duc Tho, the party’s organizational chief, and Tran Quoc Hoan, the minister of public security, carried out mass arrests of supposed “traitors” and “treasonous elements,” whom they labeled “revisionists.”

The dreaded security police rounded up hundreds of North Vietnamese citizens, including party officials, senior military officers, journalists, lawyers, writers and artists. Once they were detained, Tho and Hoan found them guilty of trying “to sabotage the foreign policies of our Party and our Party’s policy of fighting the Americans to save our nation,” and “ instead supported a policy of rightist compromise and conciliation.” The “Revisionist Anti-Party Affair,” as the 1967 campaign came to be known, would also be known as the “Hoang Minh Chinh Affair,” named after its first arrestee.

Artists and “yellow musicians” were deemed no less dangerous. The filming of Hien’s “Last Night and First Day” never began; the screenwriter was accused of “shamelessly propagating the idea of general humanism [and] of a general human character beyond class affiliation.” Hien was arrested in late December 1967.

The yellow musicians were likewise found guilty of “poisoning the young generation with pessimistic and reactionary songs, promoting a retrogressive and sex-oriented lifestyle.” Nguyen Van Loc and his self-professed apolitical band members were arrested in 1968.

The silencing of these North Vietnamese “antiwar” voices was intimately connected to the strategy deliberation for the upcoming 1968 military campaign. In an attempt to break the stalemate and win the war, Le Duan called for Communist forces to launch coordinated surprise attacks across the cities and towns in South Vietnam, powerful enough to incite a mass insurrection to topple the Saigon government. President Ho Chi Minh and Minister of Defense Vo Nguyen Giap opposed Le Duan’s ambitious Tet Offensive, stating that Communist forces lacked the requisite strength to incite a nation-wide general insurrection. They paid dearly for their dissent.

While Ho and Giap were exiled to Beijing and Hungary, respectively, security forces rounded up and imprisoned their personal assistants and deputies, all under the guise of cracking down on antiwar dissenters. In total, 30 party and senior military officers aligned with Ho and Giap were arrested, even those who were actively involved in the planning for the Tet Offensive. When Senior Col. Le Trong Nghia, who was part of the planning for the Tet attacks but loyal to Giap, was detained in early 1968, he worried what his absence would mean for the success of the upcoming offensive. His captors, on the other hand, were consumed with another matter: finding the link between Ho, Giap and the other “treasonous elements” on the Revisionist Anti-Party Affair that threatened Le Duan’s war.

The antiwar movements in the United States and North Vietnam were not identical, but there were commonalities. Both antiwar scenes possessed a diverse array of actors. While historians are beginning to appreciate the heterogeneity of and understand the intersections between the various groups and organizations on the American side, we have not begun to unearth the multiplicity of voices and their interconnections on the Vietnamese sides.

The other striking comparison is the governments’ response to the antiwar scenes in their countries. Both Hanoi and Washington resorted to extralegal measures to undermine and silence dissent.

While Johnson expanded the powers of the C.I.A. to carry out a domestic espionage campaign, Le Duan strengthened the “counter counterrevolutionary” campaign under the Party Organizational Committee and the Ministry of Public Security. In the eyes of both governments, there was no such thing as healthy dissent in times of war.

Lien-Hang Nguyen is a professor of history at Columbia and the author of the forthcoming Tet 1968: The Battles That Changed the Vietnam War and the Global Cold War.

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