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Last Updated: Friday, 14 July 2006, 18:26 GMT 19:26 UK
Vietnam ambivalent on Le Duan's legacy
By Quynh Le
BBC Vietnamese Service

Le Duan
Le Duan led the Communist Party for 26 years
Le Duan, who died 20 years ago this month, was arguably the second most powerful Vietnamese leader in the 20th century, although less known to the West than Ho Chi Minh or Vo Nguyen Giap.

As general secretary of the Vietnamese Communist Party for nearly three decades, he was one of the principal architects of the communist victory in the Vietnam War.

His post-war spell in power was characterised by crisis on the economic front, a strong pro-Soviet shift in foreign policy, and diplomatic isolation following Vietnam's occupation of Cambodia.

His death in July 1986 opened the door for the enactment of doi moi (renovation) policy, which signalled the country's departure from the old Stalinist-Maoist model.

Twenty years on, the memory of this enigmatic figure still creates ambivalence among the wider population.


Born in 1907 in Quang Tri province, Le Duan was a founding member of the Indochinese Communist Party (ICP) in 1930.

His formative years were spent in colonial jails, which served to shape him into a determined and implacable revolutionary. Released in 1945 when Vietnam regained formal independence, Le Duan quickly rose through the party ranks.

In 1960 he was elected general secretary of the Communist Party, the post he would hold until his death.

From the outset, Le Duan believed that a policy of armed struggle in the South was the only way to achieve national unification.

Initially the party leadership refused to agree a shift to a militant policy. However, the anti-communist campaign in the South intensified, bringing heavy consequences for the revolutionary movement there.

As a result, Hanoi endorsed the policy of more aggressive action, agreeing to send troops and supplies to the South.

The decision - which was passed against the wishes of many in the party who thought the move was premature - reflected the prevailing pressures of southern revolutionary leaders, including Le Duan, who felt it was their duty to defeat the US and its South Vietnamese allies.

It was Le Duan's first major victory within the party, and it would not be his last.

Pushed aside

Within the first few years of his role as general secretary, Le Duan became the most powerful figure in Hanoi, enlisting support from many allies.

Le Duan (right) with Ho Chi Minh
Some felt Ho Chi Minh was marginalised by Le Duan

According to the biographer William Duiker, from the late 1950s Ho Chi Minh's role was largely ceremonial, with him increasingly delegating authority to his senior colleagues in the party and the government.

Although Ho's international prestige and experience meant that he became Hanoi's chief diplomat, real power at home rested with Le Duan and his trusted deputies.

Other veterans of the revolution were pushed aside as well.

Pham Van Dong, prime minister for more than 30 years, is said to have remarked that he was probably the longest-serving prime minister in the world, but also the most powerless. Vo Nguyen Giap, the architect of the Dien Bien Phu victory over the French, was also sidelined.

By the late 1960s, Le Duan and his allies were able to establish ultimate authority in the party.


There are different assessments of how that power was put to use.

A Vietnamese woman walks past a sign advertising electrical appliances
After Le Duan's death, the doi moi policy brought economic growth

The official rhetoric about Le Duan as "a bright example in revolutionary virtues for everyone to follow" does not satisfy those who blamed his clique's disastrous policies for severe post-war conditions and the flight of hundreds of thousands of "boat people".

Even the communist leaders did not find it easy to deal with the memory of Le Duan.

In the 1990s, a memoir written by Tran Quynh, former secretary for Le Duan and later vice-prime minister, was circulated underground in Hanoi.

In it, the author said that after Le Duan's death, "many of the country's leaders, who had applauded the general secretary and never dared to criticise him, now turn a blind eye to the smear campaign against Le Duan".

There is a reason for such a level of ambivalence. Le Duan's ambitious programmes intensified divisions within the leadership and alienated segments of the population.

During his tenure, Le Duan found enemies almost everywhere and power became centred in his hands and among few of his confidants.

The general feeling was that political power should have been more evenly shared.

It is no coincidence that since 1986, the country's top three posts have been divided among the North, Central and South regions - although last month, for the first time since unification, two southerners were chosen to lead the country.

Despite, or perhaps because of, this ambivalence, Vietnam has not seen a critical reassessment of Le Duan and of the pre-reform decades.

The state, in seeking to maintain political stability, does not encourage it. Nor does it seem that at the moment there is strong social demand to bring the past into public debate.

At school, students are not taught about some uncomfortable episodes in the country's recent history. But sooner or later, Vietnam will have to come to terms with the past by re-examining the enduring effects of Le Duan's regime.

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