Sputnik Escalates the Cold War
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Pham Van Dong (1906–2000)

Vietnamese nationalist revolutionary, founder of the Viet Minh, premier of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV, North Vietnam) during 1950–1975, and prime minister of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam (SRV) during 1975–1987. Born in Quang Ngai Province on 1 March 1906, Pham Van Dong became active in nationalist and communist politics as a teenager. Like many other Vietnamese revolutionaries, he spent eight years in prison for his anti-French stance. In 1930 he helped found the Indochinese Communist Party.

Pham Dong was one of the primary leaders of the nationalist Viet Minh in its long struggle against French colonialism and during the Indochina War (1946–1954). Following the decisive Vietnamese victory over the French in the Battle of Dien Bien Phu in 1954, the French agreed to negotiate a peace settlement. Pham Dong served as the Viet Minh's chief negotiator in Geneva, insisting upon immediate Vietnamese independence and elections to reunify the country. He failed to win the support of the Soviet and Chinese delegates to achieve these goals. The resultant Geneva Accords recognized the independence of North Vietnam but temporarily divided Vietnam at the 17th Parallel and postponed elections to reunify the country until 1956. For Pham Dong, the peace talks were a Pyrrhic victory, and he believed with some justification that the Viet Minh had gained less at the peace table than they had won on the battlefield.

Pham Dong served as premier of North Vietnam during 1950–1975. Despite the fact that he was one of the staunchest Cold War opponents of the United States, many within the U.S. government and in the Republic of Vietnam (RVN, South Vietnam) admired his consistent attitude and dealings with the United States. He never wavered in his desire for complete Vietnamese autonomy and a united Vietnam. He also refused to negotiate with Washington until the bombings of North Vietnam ended.

After the death of Ho Chi Minh in 1969, Pham Dong became the most visible public figure in Vietnam. Beginning in 1970 he played a key role, along with Le Duc Tho, at the Paris peace talks. Employing tactics that went back to previous negotiations with France and the United States, Pham Dong demanded an immediate cease-fire and the removal of South Vietnam's President Nguyen Van Thieu. When Le Duc softened North Vietnam's stance in 1972 to allow Thien to remain in office, many believed that it was Pham Dong who had pushed for such an accommodation. Pham Dong eventually advocated a coalition government that would represent officials from both North Vietnam and the SRV. But the SRV and the Provisional Revolutionary Government resisted such an arrangement, ultimately delaying the signing of the peace accords. The final agreement, which ended the war and led to the withdrawal of the last U.S. troops, was signed in January 1973.

Pham Dong continued to play a central role in Vietnam after the U.S. withdrawal. He became prime minister of a united Vietnam (the SRV) after communist forces conquered South Vietnam in April 1975. He was replaced as prime minister in 1987 after Vietnam suffered a series of severe economic dislocations. Nevertheless, he remained an important advisor and revolutionary figure. He wrote several histories of the Vietnam War as well as a biography of Ho Chi Minh. Pham Dong died in Hanoi on 29 April 2000, one day before the twenty-fifth anniversary of the fall of Saigon.

Brian D. Behnken

Further Reading
Young, Marilyn. The Vietnam Wars, 1945–1990. New York: HarperPerennial, 1991.

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