In January of 1990 I sat in a cold conference room in Hanoi with a group of 30 other Western students awaiting the arrival of Vo Nguyen Giap. The group was in Hanoi for but a week; a brief stop on a nine-month academic tour of 20 countries themed “Peace Studies around the World.”
The Norwegian intellectual Johan Galtung, our escort on this tour, had through his worldwide contacts managed to schedule more than 250 meetings with policy makers, intellectuals, and emminent persons around the world in an experiment in peace education. The assumption underlying this venture was the notion that direct exposure to the world’s varieties of political economy, combined with the above-mentioned discussions, and lectures in conflict and peace studies would generate a unique and valuable educational experience.
Sitting in Hanoi that day my fellow students and I were largely and perhaps even shamefully ignorant of the person we were awaiting. When the General arrived, dressed in his military garb we students stood to form a reception line, each shaking hands with this world historical figure about whom we knew precious little.
We then listened to General Giap deliver a rather long and dry speech about experiences and ideas 20 year-olds such as ourselves could barely grasp. Later that evening Professor Galtung caused great consternation among the American students among us when he appeared to suggest we should offer some form of apology for the acts of our country’s government; acts whose disastrous arc was already decided before we were born.
I had no way of knowing at the time that some two years after that cold day I would take an active interest in Viet Nam and in the country’s process of market-reforms and reintegration into the regional and world economies in particular.
Since 1992 and after 1997 in particular I have remained intensively engaged with ongoing processes of social change in Viet Nam. I have been especially interested in the political economy of well-being, approaching that theme through analysis of the nexus of the country’s political, economic, and welfare institutions.
In so doing, I have gradually grown more familiar with Viet Nam’s history. Though I still possess a very limited understanding of the American War in Viet Nam, I have nonetheless gained some understanding of Viet Nam and even of the significance of General Giap himself.
This week, Viet Nam’s state will stage a state funeral for General Giap. The ceremonies, rare in Viet Nam, are likely to elicit a range of emotions from across the political spectrum. Whether state authorities in Viet Nam desire it or not, the passing of the General marks an inflection point in Viet Nam’s contemporary history.
Long after the funeral of the General has passed we will still have time to contemplate Giap’s significance, his role in defeating the French and American armies, his controversial disposition with respect to the value of human life in the span of great wars, his post-war isolation, and his very late interest in improving the social responsibility and accountability of the Party and state he devoted his life to.
For now, however, his death has caused everyone in Viet Nam and those with connections to the country to pause. For Viet Nam’s authorities the moment is inevitably an awkward one. For while Viet Nam’s political elite will no doubt earnestly reflect on Giap’s death, the reality is that the General’s passing brings their own performance under a microscope.
General Giap and his colleagues’ most impressive achievements were, of course, on the battlefield. After the war Giap was sidelined and elected to remain silent while the likes of Le Duan ran the country’s economy into the ground. By the late 1980s, even figures like Truong Chinh had begun to recognize the necessity of reform.
Since the late 1980s Viet Nam has experienced two decades of rapid economic growth, but has yet to break free from the shackles of a political system in which too often loyalty to Leninist principles (and more recently, personal interest) is placed above the national interest.
In any culture, deaths of major figures provide occasion for reflection. In 1925, the mourning of the death of Phan Chu Trinh was among the most important events in the development of Vietnamese anti-colonialism. Over the next few days we will all reflect further on Giap’s life and its significance for Viet Nam; past, present, and future.