Legacies of the Cold War: Regime Security and Coercive Forces in Vietnam

Eva Hansson

Vietnam Eve Hanson KRSEA

The political reality in Vietnam today is a result of the superpowers that collided through the leaders in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City. … [I]t was a collision with a very unfortunate result.

(Dr Nguyễn Đan Quế, interview, August 11, 2015)

Forty years after the end of the war, Dr Quế, a high-profile pro-democracy activist in today’s Vietnam, offered his view on how authoritarianism, and the opposition against it, evolved in his country. His own activism for human rights and democracy started in the early 1970s, before the unification of Vietnam, when he along with other intellectuals spoke out about conditions of detention in the then-Republic of Vietnam in the south. Several of today’s democracy and human rights activists trace their activism back to the time before unification, or see their lineage as in these earlier movements and groups that organized against southern dictatorships.

In Vietnam, as elsewhere in the colonized world, struggles for national independence mixed with and slid almost seamlessly into a cold war conflict with decisive international involvement. Here, as elsewhere in Asia, mass killings, political persecution and mass atrocities took place at an almost unimaginable scale – more than three million dead, including more than two million civilians, from 1955–75 (Bellamy 2018). Armed with social-science theory, ideology, money and guns, the two cold war blocks, along with domestic governments, co-shaped the dictatorships that evolved on both sides, leaving political legacies for generations. The direct involvement of the US and its allies, on the one hand, and the Soviet bloc and China, on the other, were instrumental in crafting exclusionary political regimes that did not need to seek support from their citizens, but were protected by vast external financial and operational support. Both sides carried out programs of political cleansing to eliminate opposition that might sympathize with the other side of the ideological divide. They assisted in establishing and modernizing coercive institutions for internal political control. These actions combined sharply limited political space for all types of political actors, including civil-society groups, organizations and movements that were emerging in the period and were starting to ask for political and civil rights.

The political science literature on democratization, authoritarianism and regime-development suffers from a bias towards domestic factors in explaining everything from the resilience of authoritarian political regimes to their democratization, despite the massive direct involvement of foreign actors in engineering dictatorships and subsequently protecting them from unsupportive citizens. Scholarship addressing international effects has tended to see links to the west and western leverage as contributing to the development of democratic regimes, and not to post-cold war authoritarianism (see e.g. Levitsky and Way 2002; 2010). In Vietnam, the US and its allies exerted both linkages and leverage, but clearly used these to buttress a reliable anti-communist regime in the southern Republic of Vietnam. The Vietnamese example suggests the political legacies of the cold war are complex and include a brutally tilted power relationship between state and civil society, to the detriment of citizens and groups seeking political rights and representation. Coercive institutions that aimed to protect political regimes and governments from their own citizens benefited from active support by foreign actors. But as Dr. Quế suggests above, foreign-supported dictatorships also bred their own opposition.

Division of Vietnam, Political Cleansing and Coercion

After Communist forces claimed victory over the Kuomintang in 1949 and Mao Zedong proclaimed the founding of the People’s Republic of China, the US dispatched survey missions to Southeast Asia. CIA officers with experience in ‘counterinsurgency’ techniques from elsewhere in Southeast Asia were engaged once Vietnam came to be regarded as a part of the global Cold War and key in the fight against the expansion of international communism. The Geneva Agreement that ended the first Indochina War six years later divided the territory today known as the Socialist Republic of Vietnam into two temporary ‘re-grouping zones’, divided at the 17th parallel. It was an ideological division made geographic, which both sides soon treated as a state border (Devillers 1962). On neither side of the border were the governments in control of their territory; both saw themselves, rather, as islands in archipelagos of competing political forces over which they needed somehow to assume control.

The Geneva Agreement promised national elections, but they were never carried out because neither the US nor Prime Minister Ngô Đình Diệm’s US-installed government thought they could win. Instead, on March 4, 1956, a constituent assembly was elected for the southern Republic of Vietnam and with CIA help, a constitution was drawn up giving Diệm ‘virtually unlimited authority’ (Boot 2018).

While the northern Democratic Republic of Vietnam sought support and inspiration from the Soviet Union and China, the US, through the CIA and other organizations, was heavily involved in crafting the dictatorial South Vietnamese government (Boot 2018; Chapman 2013). Lacking either control over territory or reliable popular support, both governments and their external allies initiated radical programs aiming to weed out political opposition. Efforts at political purification on both sides of the 17th parallel amounted outright politicide.

Original unissued patch from the Phoenix Program, a terror campaign led by the CIA.

In the South, in parallel with the conventional war, the CIA initiated Phượng hoàng, the Phoenix Program, in 1967 (CIA 1975). The effort stepped up and consolidated the counterinsurgency programs, intended to bolster the government and disrupt and defeat its opponents, that had been part of the US effort, albeit on a smaller scale, from at least the early 1960s (e.g., CIA 1963). Those targeted included civilians who might be part of support networks for the communists, as well as civilians opposed to the dictatorship in the South and other organizations, such as trade unions, that might harbor communist sympathies (Wherle 2005). Carrying out the Phoenix Program’s terror campaign were the CIA, American special forces, allied soldiers from other Asian counties, and the South Vietnamese military, under CIA supervision. William Colby, who headed the operation from 1968–71, testified to a US House Subcommittee that in that three-year period, 20,589 people had been hunted down and killed (Ward 1972). Captured enemies endured interrogation and torture in interrogation centers across south Vietnam’s provinces. Others were killed immediately, without due process, in accordance with CIA lists and dutifully reported back to headquarters in the US. The Phoenix aimed to gain control over citizens through terror; many of those killed had no connection with communism at all. But the terror also neutralized moderate voices, triggering political opposition against the southern dictatorship. Memories of these struggles in civil society still today affect how social and political actors perceive their opportunities, and lead both protest movements and pro-democracy activists to are gravitate strongly toward the south.

Regime Security, Ideology, and legacies of the Cold War

On the winning side, the cold war left an enduring institutional legacy in the development of the politically powerful People’s Public Security (Bộ Công An). Tasked with “fighting counter-revolutionary and hostile organizations, maintaining social order and security, protecting the Party, the revolutionary government and the people” (Ministry of Public Security 2018), and modelled on Soviet and Chinese counterparts, the People’s Public Security was institutionalized in 1953, when the Ministry of Public Security was formally established (Goscha 2007). It continues today to organize both the police and internal intelligence and security services.

Less well-known are the intimate relations between the East German Ministry of State Security (Stasi) and Vietnam’s Ministry of Public Security, particularly from the mid-1960s, amid Vietnam’s drive to consolidate the party-state and weed out ‘dangerous’ elements (Grossheim 2014). In 1961, the Ministry of Public Security was granted “comprehensive authority to oversee the internal security of the DRV and to proceed against all counterrevolutionary suspects” (ibid.). Its collaboration with Stasi lasted for 25 years, until shortly before the Berlin Wall fell; the Stasi office in Hanoi closed in 1989. Stasi assisted Vietnam in modernizing the security apparatus and becoming a party-loyal “instrument of dictatorship”. It provided technical equipment such as listening devices and phone tapping equipment; advised on building a network of secret informers; suggested methods to secure mass media and for the fight against ‘Political-Ideological Diversion’ among cultural workers, students, and doctors; punish and suppress enemy influences and subversive groups; provided methods to infiltrate educational, entertainment and educational institutions; and more (East German State Security 1977; 1989).

A new Police Law, enacted in 2018, confirms that the People’s Police continues to be under the absolute and direct leadership of the Vietnam Communist Party. The police maintain a wide mandate to fight ‘political crimes’, protect the party, ensure political security and security in the fields of ideology, culture, education and economy. They enforce strict party loyalty. This law is one of several recently that indicate an unbroken chain from cold war binary thinking of citizens as friends and foes, and continuation of an ultimate goal of protecting the party in power and the political regime from counterrevolutionary actors.

Prior scholarly assessments have explored the Vietnam state repressive security capacity after Đổi Mới, including its arrests of ‘dissidents’ and the length of prison sentences handed down for ‘political crimes’ (Kerkvliet 2014), as well as its institutional structure (Thayer 2014). Carlyle Thayer has estimated that the country’s security agencies employ up to 6.7 million people, including uniformed police and so-called ‘self-defence forces’ (Thayer 2017); other analysts have questioned that number – if correct, it would far exceed the number of personnel tied to the East German Stasi. Regardless, it is a huge enterprise.


The political legacy of the cold war in today’s Vietnam is complex. Cold-war era binary thinking remains evident in party documents and regulations, which refer to peaceful opponents as ‘reactionary forces’ suspected of being supported by foreign forces. More direct a legacy still is the fact that in January 2018, the People’s Police celebrated the erection in Hanoi of a monument to Felix Dzerzhinsky, the founder of Cheka, the predecessor to the KGB. Preceding and accompanying the event were celebratory articles in state-police and other party-state journals. More broadly, the legacy of the cold war is manifest in both ideology and institutions that protect the authoritarian political regime and the party in power, and that limit the political space for voice in today’s Vietnam. But the cold war has also left other traces in civil society, evident in the way that several of today’s rights and justice organizations and movements, as well as pro-democracy proponents, situate their own agency in a historical lineage of peaceful activism against authoritarian rule.

Eva Hansson 
Department of Political Science, Stockholm University

Banner: Hanoi, Vietnam – Communist troops marching. February 2014. Photo: Arne Beruldsen / Shutterstock.com


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