Special Report: Vietnam: Vale Pham Van Dong


Professor Carlyle A. Thayer

Pham Van Dong, one of the trio of lieutenants who supported Ho Chi Minh in his quest to free Vietnam from foreign domination, died at 94 on 29 April, on the eve of celebrations to mark the twenty-fifth anniversary of the reunification of Vietnam. Dong is remembered as the communist foreign minister who was forced to accept the partition of Vietnam at the 1954 Geneva conference, and as one of the world's longest serving prime ministers. He held office for over three decades from 1955-87.

Pham Van Dong was brought up in a privileged environment in Hue, the son of a Confucian official. He joined the nationalist anti-colonial student movement that swept French Indochina in the mid-1920s. In 1926 he went to Guangzhou in southern China for training under the direction of Ho Chi Minh. There Dong became a member of the Revolutionary Youth League, one of the precursors to the Vietnam Communist Party.

On his return to Vietnam as a revolutionary activist in 1929 he was arrested by the French and sentenced to imprisonment on the island penal colony Poulo Condore.After his release in 1936, he resumed his underground career and was forced to flee to southern China in 1939. In 1940 he joined the Indochina Communist Party and in 1941 became a founding member of the Viet Minh. In 1945 he was appointed Minister of Finance in Ho Chi Minh;s provisional government.

During the Resistance War (1946-54) Dong rose steadily up the party hierarchy. After the battle of Dien Bien Phu, Pham Van Dong represented Ho's government as Foreign Minister at the Geneva Conference. In 1955, after partition, Dong was appointed concurrently foreign minister and prime minister. In 1981 he was named chairman of the Council of Ministers, and served in this post until his retirement in mid-1987.

Dong later admitted Vietnam had made mistakes: 'In the years following reunification, we thought we could move straight ahead with socialism.' But he was an ardent supporter of Vietnam's unification under communist leadership. In 1966, for example, he rhetorically asked one visiting reporter, 'And how long do you Americans want to fight? One year? Two years? Five years? Ten years? Twenty years? We will be glad to accommodate you.'

As a member of the Politburo Pham Van Dong also bears responsibility for the decision to intervene in Cambodia in late 1978. But as a respected elder statesman and 'the favorite nephew of Uncle Ho', Pham Van Dong used his prestige to both encourage reform and to criticize its excesses. In 1992, for example, in an interview with Kathleen Callo of Reuters, Dong said 'We've got to learn from others, including from capitalist countries.'

In May 1999, on the 109th anniversary of Ho Chi Minh's birth, Pham Van Dong wrote a trenchant critique in the party's newspaper, Nhan Dan. Dong expressed his misgiving about the reform effort, especially growing graft, corruption and the single-minded pursuit of money by some officials, including high-level ones. Dong warned that Vietnam faced four dangers: corruption, poverty, deviation from socialism and 'peaceful evolution' from within.

Pham Van Dong's articles to the press, late in his life, reveal that he remained as committed as ever to the ideology of communism and Vietnamese nationalism. Only the present generation can confirm whether these twin ideals are suitable for Vietnam in the contemporary period.



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