The Tet Offensive and the Media
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Pham Van Dong

One of the three most influential leaders of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV) and its most public figure. Born in Quang Ngai Province on March 1, 1906 to an educated, mandarin family, Pham Van Dong attended the Lycée Nationale in Hue, where his classmates included Vo Nguyen Giap and Ngo Dinh Diem. During his student years he was actively involved in nationalist organizations. This eventually led to his revolutionary attitude toward the expulsion of the French from Vietnam. In 1930 French authorities arrested him for sedition. He then served eight years on the prison island of Poulo Condore, where he kept up his morale by studying languages, literature, and science.

After the French government outlawed the Communist Party on September 26, 1939, its Central Committee ordered Dong and Giap to China, there to be trained in guerrilla warfare. In June 1940 in Kuming they met Ho Chi Minh. He instructed them to go to Yenan and learn military techniques and politics. This was soon interrupted by the defeat of the French by Germany, whereupon Ho instructed Dong and Giap and other Vietnamese Communists in China to return to Vietnam and set up an organization to fight for independence.

They soon formed the Viet Minh and organized camps in the mountains along the Vietnamese-Chinese border. From this base, the Viet Minh conducted training and propaganda as well as minor ambushes and assassinations. The French and Japanese saw them as only a minor annoyance.

Dong played a leading role in the Viet Minh during the fight against both the Japanese and the French. He also headed the Viet Minh delegation to the 1954 Geneva Conference. He initially took a hard line by demanding that the Vietnamese be allowed to settle their own differences. When the French rejected this demand, the conference ground to a halt. From this point on, Zhou Enlai, head of the People's Republic of China delegation; Vyacheslav Molotov, foreign minister of the Soviet Union; and Pierre Mendès-France, French premier, took over the negotiations; Dong's role declined to that of accepting or denying proposals.

Dong sought during the Geneva Conference to maintain the momentum gained by the Viet Minh on the battlefield, but he was largely unsuccessful. He also wanted the demarcation line drawn at the 13th parallel and a six-months' cease-fire. Dong came away from the conference believing that Zhou had sold out the Viet Minh as the division was moved to the 17th parallel and the cease-fire was set at two years. As a result, the Viet Minh ended up with less than they had won on the battlefield.

From 1950 to 1975 Dong served as the DRV's premier. Throughout the period of U.S. involvement in Vietnam, he maintained a consistent attitude toward the American presence and negotiations. He refused any discussions until U.S. bombing of the DRV ended. He also required that any settlement include the creation of a neutral coalition government in Saigon with Viet Cong representatives. Dong's negative attitude toward negotiations with the Americans had everything to do with his experience with the French and the failure of the Geneva Accords.

After the death of Ho on September 2, 1969, Dong became the most public figure in the DRV. He skillfully used the American press to encourage antiwar protestors in the United States by issuing statements that the Vietnamese appreciated their support. In other statements he claimed that the Vietnamese believed that the only viable alternative for President Richard Nixon was the honorable exit they were offering to him. Many of Dong's speeches carried humorous elements, such as when he referred to RVN leaders as puppets. When a reporter asked how he could refer to them as puppets when they acted so consistently against American policy, he replied that they were just "bad puppets."

Dong also played a key role in the secret peace negotiations in Paris between Henry Kissinger and Le nuc Tho that began in February 1970. His influence was evident in Tho's initial demands for nothing less than a simultaneous armistice and coalition government to include the removal of President Nguyen Van Thieu. Negotiations were deadlocked until August 1972, when Dong came to believe that temporary compromise on the matter of Thieu would allow for a settlement. On August 1, Tho no longer demanded that military and political issues be resolved at one time. He also hinted that the DRV would no longer require Thieu's withdrawal.

The resolution of final problems in the talks was delayed when, in an October 18 interview with Arnaud de Borchgrave, Dong made reference to the National Council of National Reconciliation and Concord as a "coalition of transition." This again raised the specter of coalition government and temporarily halted the agreement until things could be worked out. The final agreement was signed on January 27, 1973.

Dong continued in office after the capitulation of the Republic of Vietnam on April 30, 1975. He remained as chairman of the Council of Ministers of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam until a series of economic setbacks forced his resignation in December 1986. He then became advisor for the Central Committee of the VCP, although without actual power. Many North Vietnamese regarded Dong as one of their few incorruptible leaders though never, despite his many years as prime minister, a skillful administrator. He died on April 29, 2000 in Hanoi.

Michael R. Nichols


Further Reading
Bain, Chester A. Vietnam: The Roots of Conflict. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1967.; Davidson, Phillip B. Vietnam at War, the History: 1946-1975. Novato, CA: Presidio Press, 1988.; Duncanson, Dennis J. Government and Revolution in Vietnam. New York: Oxford University Press, 1968.; Fishel, Wesley R. Vietnam: Anatomy of a Conflict. Itasca, IL: F. E. Peacock Publishers, 1968.; Karnow, Stanley. Vietnam: A History. Rev. ed. New York: Penguin Books, 1991.; Olson, James S., ed. Dictionary of the Vietnam War. New York: Peter Bedrick Books, 1987.
 

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