Review of Sophie Quinn-Judge’s The Third Force in the Vietnam War: The Elusive Search for Peace 1954-75

During the Vietnam War, the “Third Force” was a term assigned to individuals and groups in South Vietnamese politics who were presumably neither communist nor anti-communist and who advocated a peaceful solution to the civil war between communist North and anti-communist South Vietnam.

Individuals associated with this political tendency were ideologically diverse: some rejected the polarization of politics based on humanitarian, nationalist, or religious values; others were simply against war and foreign intervention. Some were sympathetic to, or even closet members of the Communist Party. A significant number was religious figures and university students. Many others were professionals who had thriving careers. Many were ambitious who would have made successful politicians in a democracy.

And yet they did not succeed and some paid a steep price for their political activism. Many were physically harassed or even persecuted by the Saigon government, which suspected them of being communist agents (Huynh Tan Mam, a prominent student and “Third Force” leader, was an example of a communist agent under cover). Most perhaps were not card-carrying Party members. During the war, the Hanoi-directed National Liberation Front worked hard to court their sympathies and provided some support for their activities. After the war, most were quickly cast aside as cadres sent in from Hanoi ran the government in the South. Some were even imprisoned or placed under house arrest if they expressed any criticisms, like the case of Father Chan Tin. Many fled the country to the West like Doan Van Toai, another student leader, only to be denounced by the overseas Vietnamese community, which is predominantly composed of refugees and victims of communism and which blames them for the loss of South Vietnam.

Thus, the story of the Third Force is one of dashed hopes, ruined lives and careers, unrealized ideals and ambitions, betrayals and perfidy by all sides, and other similarly terrible consequences. For all their activism, these individuals did not bring peace or development to Vietnam. (Peace and development for Vietnam began only when Hanoi leaders abandoned their revolutionary ambitions in the late 1980s just as world communism collapsed around them). Their greatest historical achievement seems to be, in hindsight, their help in the last days of the war to bring about a quick end with President Duong Van Minh’s order for the South Vietnamese army to surrender rather than keep on fighting. Duong Van Minh was a prominent, if mediocre, politician associated with the Third Force, and his two-day cabinet was staffed with men of similar affiliations such as Ly Qui Chung. To the extent that the activities of Third Force associates are known, they also serve as inspiring, if tragic, evidence and reminder of a vibrant civil society under the Republic of Vietnam that was crushed after 1975 but that is reviving today.

Sophie Quinn-Judge must be commended for her effort to write about these long-forgotten individuals as a significant force in South Vietnamese politics during the war. This study is perhaps the first scholarly work in English that focuses on them, four decades after they were forced to disband or denied any political role by the victorious communists in 1975. For all the tragedies that befell them, they deserve sympathies and understanding, which Quinn-Judge clearly displays throughout the book.

A major strength of the book is its sources, which include archived documents in France, the United Kingdom, the U.S., and Vietnam (and occasional documents from the Hungarian and Soviet archives); interviews with Third Force individuals such as Ho Ngoc Nhuan, Nguyen Huu Thai, Ly Chanh Trung, and Doan Thanh Liem; memoirs by those individuals and other participants; and many publications that have been published in Vietnam since the end of the war.

She correctly argues that “we need to look at the Vietnamese and their politics as something more complex than the story of communists versus nationalists; or American puppets versus pawns of the communist bloc.” (p. 3). In contrast with other studies that have focused on peace-making activities by foreigners, Quinn-Judge aims to “search for local forces that supported these moves toward peace.”

These claims are only partially met, however. Readers do encounter many South Vietnamese activists of the Third Force throughout the book with their brief biographies given and certain activities discussed—which is good. At the same time, they do not get a sense of the social, cultural, and political milieu in which these activists emerged and operated: for example, what was the social and political environment in Saigon’s universities and Hue’s pagodas? What attracted them to activism? What were the major groups and their political tendencies, and how they were linked or interacted with each other? The lack of any deep analysis of their society in the study makes the peace activists appear disconnected and their stories sporadic.

The book is in fact not structured around these activists but follows a chronological order that begins with the colonial period and includes a chapter on Hanoi politics during the war. The chapter on Vietnamese response to colonialism contains some useful discussion about religious, intellectual, and nationalist movements under French colonialism but is written more to criticize the U.S. failure to help Ho Chi Minh in 1919 and 1945 (pp. 9-10) than to analyze the origins of the Third Force. Readers may be confused as Ho was, in 1945 if not yet in 1919, hardly a Third Force associate.

Readers may be even more confused when reading chapter 3, titled “Hanoi: Between Mao and Khrushchev, 1956-65.” This chapter, unsuccessfully in my view, tries to show that Le Duan was more peace-loving than commonly thought to be. It is perplexing that a book about the Third Force even devotes attention to, not to say portrays in such a benign way, the mastermind of the war in the South who has been blamed by many of his own subordinates for the wasteful sacrifice of tens of thousands of communist troops in the Tet Offensive’s successive waves of attacks.

If Hanoi leaders can even be considered as part of the Third Force, as Quinn-Judge seems to suggest, why did they order the war in the South in which Vietnamese killed each other (for the most part) with Soviet, Chinese, and American weapons? Her answer is: they were pushed to take up arms in 1959 and escalate the war in late 1963 because of American opposition to peace and Chinese pressure for war. Le Duan’s purge of “revisionists” and Hanoi’s decision to launch the Tet Offensive in 1967-1968 were both also blamed on China (pp. 111-121). This position denies any agency and responsibility for the war on Hanoi’s part and places Quinn-Judge against many recent studies, including my own.[1]

Quinn-Judge declares that “rather than engaging in a counterfactual exercise [about the missed opportunities for peace]…, I would like to record as objectively as possible the dilemmas of the leaders in the middle ground [who advocated peace]” (p. 5). Yet the book is full of such counterfactual questions, and here are a few examples:

[O]ne could posit that a war-weary DRV would not have intervened militarily in the South, if the communists there had been allowed access to a democratic political process after 1954. (p. 5)

If we could have foreseen the huge price that our Vietnamese allies would pay, not to mention the sacrifices of so many young Americans, the chances are that we would have examined options for peace more carefully. And had we stopped … (p.7)

Had [American leaders] looked a little bit more deeply, we might have had more faith in the Vietnamese capacity to settle their affairs (p. 10).

The [draconian] communist policies implemented after 1975 were in my view not inevitable; had a peaceful political solution be implemented earlier, had there been a serious effort to make the Paris Agreement work, the end of the Vietnam War might have been much different. (p. 190)

Given so many counterfactuals, I can’t help making my own: had Quinn-Judge written just about counterfactuals, readers might have liked the study even though it is subjective.

Indeed, Quinn-Judge’s claim to be “objective” is dubious once a comparison is made of how she treats the Saigon and Hanoi governments. The Saigon government was dismissed right on page 2 of the book as a creation of the U.S., and the implication is that they had no independent agency and not to be taken seriously. On page 156, Quinn-Judge leaves no ambiguity about her attitude by calling Saigon leaders “the dependent child of US policymakers.”  The denial of agency for the Republic of Vietnam and the caricature of its government as an American puppet are old antiwar arguments that can no longer be defended given the recent careful studies by Edward Miller, Lien-Hang Nguyen, Geoffrey Stewart, among others.[2]

Whereas Saigon was caricaturally described and summarily dismissed, Quinn-Judge insists on a nuanced treatment of Hanoi: “To honestly examine the chances for success of such proposals, one has to accept the premise that the communist side was an evolving entity whose capabilities and goals changed over the years. Hanoi’s attitude towards a negotiated peace fluctuated over the course of the war, depending on the views of their allies and their own evaluation of their chances for rapid success.” (p. 4). One cannot help asking: Were there members of the Saigon government or elites who wanted to pursue peace too, or were they all mindless minions of the Americans? Didn’t Duong Van Minh evolve from a Ngo Dinh Diem loyalist to his opponent? Wasn’t Ho Ngoc Nhuan a popularly elected Assembly member in the Saigon government? Did the U.S. “create” Duong Van Minh and Ho Ngoc Nhuan? Did Hanoi’s “depending on the views of their allies” (to the extent that they went to war under Chinese pressure, as mentioned above, leading to the deaths of millions of North and South Vietnamese) also make them “dependent children”?

These questions point to the study’s failure in understanding the fundamental differences between the socio-political system and foreign relations of the Republic of Vietnam and those of the communist North. In the former, the socio-political system was relatively open and fluid, whereas in the latter it was closed and repressive. RVN citizens were relatively free to criticize their government and the U.S. despite the country’s deep dependence on American aid. In the communist North, freedom of speech did not exist, and even private criticisms of the leadership or the “socialist brethren” could be reported, leading to harsh imprisonment. Foreign dependence in the North was not just material but mental: if Johnson or Nixon was frequently targets of satire in the Saigon media, Lenin, Stalin, and Mao (until the mid-1960s) were Gods to North Vietnamese. An opponent to the Saigon government like Duong Van Minh or Ngo Cong Duc, if living in the North, would have died in obscurity in some remote re-education camp, not being allowed to play any political role. To understand the emergence and political role of the Third Force in South Vietnamese politics, one needs a nuanced understanding of its society and political system, including the Ngo Dinh Diem and Nguyen Van Thieu governments. These governments tolerated internal dissent and criticism far more than their Northern counterpart did, and it is ironical that the book dismisses the former entirely as an American creation while insisting on a nuanced treatment of the latter.

A final weakness of the book concerns the tendency to make wild speculations given what we know and the lack of new evidence. On page 36, for example, Quinn-Judge asserts, without providing any source, that Ho Chi Minh “may have been hoping that the French role [in 1954] would decrease the DRV’s dependence on Chinese advisers.” Yet Ho had written to Chinese leaders in 1950 to ask not only for Chinese military advisors at division level, but also Chinese military commanders of Vietnamese units at the regimental and battalion levels.[3] That this request was extravagant is demonstrated by the fact that Mao approved only the former part but not the latter.

On the excessive killings during the land reform cum political purge of 1953-1956 that led to Ho Chi Minh assuming the position of General Secretary of the VWP for a brief period, Quinn-Judge claims, again without evidence, that “this added power allowed Ho Chi Minh to carry out a reasonably thorough correction of errors…” (p. 65). She later raises the question “whether one faction within the Party was aiming this purge of the Viet Minh at Ho Chi Minh and General [Vo Nguyen] Giap, the two leaders who along with Prime Minister Pham Van Dong were most closely identified with the Viet Minh coalition, as opposed to the old [Indochinese Communist Party] hierarchy” (p. 66). If the claim about Ho carrying out a thorough correction of errors simply lacks evidence, the speculation that he, Giap, and Dong were possibly targets of the purge is laughable.

In conclusion, The Third Force in the Vietnam War deserves much praise for addressing an important topic. One hopes that it will soon be followed by another study that truly places the Third Force at the center, that goes more deeply into the socio-political milieu of South Vietnam in which they lived and struggled, that is not obsessed by a sense of guilt about American intervention, and that treats all sides in the Vietnam conflict fairly.

[1] Lien-Hang T. Nguyen, Hanoi’s War: An International History of the War for Peace in Vietnam. (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2012); Pierre Asselin, Hanoi’s Road to the Vietnam War, 1954-1965 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2013); Tuong Vu, Vietnam’s Communist Revolution: The Power and Limits of Ideology (New York NY: Cambridge University Press, 2017).

[2] Nguyen, Hanoi’s War; Edward Miller, Misalliance: Ngo Dinh Diem, the United States, and the Fate of South Vietnam (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2013); Geoffrey Stewart, Vietnam’s Lost Revolution: Ngô Đình Diệm’s Failure to Build an Independent Nation, 1955-1963 (New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 2017).

[3] Qiang Zhai, China and the Vietnam Wars, 1950-1975 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2000), 18-19.

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