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Historical Dictionary

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CULTURE, DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC OF VIETNAM

Culture was a weapon of war and part of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam’s (DRV) national and social project throughout the Indochina conflict. Betting that World War II would provide them with the propitious moment to take power and opposed to Japan and Vichy’s patriotic propaganda and youth drives on the cultural front, communist leaders of the Viet Minh began developing their own cultural strategy before the new nation-state had even materialized. Most importantly, DRV culture would be a national as well as a communist driven one. Spearheading this project was the acting general secretary of the Indochinese Communist Party (ICP), Truong Chinh. In 1943, in a landmark document, he developed an Outline Cultural Program for Vietnam (De Cuong Van Hoa Viet Nam). This master plan served as the foundation for the ICP’s nationalist and communist culture. Culture had to serve the Party; it could not exist independently, even if the party was willing to remain flexible in order to maintain the support of non-party intellectuals in the bid for national independence.

With the advent of the new Vietnamese nation-state in September 1945, Vietnamese cultural strategists placed the emphasis on building the nation, promoting independence, and opposing the restoration of French colonialism. The outbreak of war in southern Vietnam in September 1945 meant that from the outset the DRV’s cultural policies had to serve above all the national resistance rather than stress radical social revolution that could undermine internal social cohesion at such a crucial point in time. In November 1946, Truong Chinh presided over the ICP’s “First All-Country Cultural Congress”, reminding his party listeners that “culture had to lead the people to reach independence, self strength, and reliance”. In 1945–1946, cultural national salvation associations and papers appeared to rally artists, singers, and intellectuals around the independence cause, many of whom were not necessarily party members.

The ICP’s cultural policy began to adopt a more communist orientation in 1948. While the exact reasons for the timing of this shift remain unclear, it was no doubt related to the intensification of the Cold War (Jdanov’s 1947 division of the world into two opposing ideological camps for example) and the ICP/DRV’s renewed attempts to obtain support from the communist camp. In any case, during the Second All-Country Cultural Congress held in July 1948, Truong Chinh announced the party’s new cultural line, entitled Marxism and Vietnamese Culture. Besides stressing the continued importance of building national culture, he added that it was now time to begin developing a culture opposed to “outlooks and tendencies of a colonial, feudal, and reactionary bourgeois type” and to use Marxism-Leninism as the new cultural “compass” (kim chi). Truong Chinh also looked to Chinese communist cultural policies for guidance, announcing that the ICP had recently dispatched a cultural fact-finding mission to China, led by Nguyen Khanh Toan and Ly Ban among others. They were “to study Chinese experiences” in the cultural domain. Truong Chinh explained that the Vietnamese would also rely on the experiences of the Soviet Union, having recently received Soviet documents via China. The general secretary announced that the ICP was moving to create a “Research Committee on History, Geography, and Letters” to spearhead such revolutionary cultural transformations. On 2 December 1953, as the French and the Vietnamese prepared for a showdown at Dien Bien Phu, the ICP finally established the Research Commission for History, Geography, and Letters (Ban Nghien Cuu Lich Su, Dia Ly, Van Hoc). Tran Huy Lieu became its first director in 1953, joined by Ton Quang Phiet and the philosopher, Tran Duc Thao. The new commission was designed “to raise the patriotic and internationalist proletarian spirit of our people” (Gop Phan Nang Cao Tinh Than Yeu Nuoc Va Tinh Than Quoc Te Vo San Cua Nhan Dan Ta). During the Indochina War, the DRV’s cultural project was as nationalist as it was communist.