Born April 7, 1908
Quang Tri Province, Vietnam
Died July 10, 1986
North Vietnamese political leader
Le Duan was one of the leaders of the Communist Party in Vietnam for nearly thirty years. He first joined the Communist rebels as a young man during their fight for independence from French rule. In 1930 he joined Ho Chi Minh (see entry) and other future North Vietnamese leaders in forming the Indochinese Communist Party. Le Duan rose through the ranks to become secretary general of the party, which had become known as the Vietnamese Workers' Party, in 1957. During the Vietnam War, he convinced Ho Chi Minh to support the South Vietnamese guerrilla fighters known as the Viet Cong. Le Duan remained in charge of the Vietnamese Communist Party until his death in 1986, although some younger members had begun to view his ideas as outdated by that time.
Keeps identity and background secret
Le Duan was born on April 7, 1908, in Quang Tri province in central Vietnam. Little is known about his early life. In fact, even his true identity is uncertain. He adopted the name Le Duan when he began his career as a revolutionary leader. Le Duan often claimed that he grew up in poverty in a rural village. But historians suspect that he actually came from a middle-class family, since it was clear that he had received a good education in French-speaking schools.
After completing his education, Le Duan took a job as a clerk for a railway company. At this time, Vietnam was a colony of France. Le Duan's job brought him into contact with Vietnamese Communists who wanted to gain Vietnam's independence from French rule. He eagerly joined other railway workers in demonstrations against the French colonial government. By the mid-1920s French forces began to crack down on protestors. Fearing for his safety, Le Duan fled to China, where he joined a growing number of Vietnamese Communists. In 1928 he joined the Revolutionary Youth League led by future North Vietnamese leader Ho Chi Minh. Two years later, Le Duan became a founding member of the Indochinese Communist Party.
After returning to Vietnam in 1931, Le Duan was arrested for his political activities against the French colonial government. He was sentenced to twenty years in prison, but he was released in 1936 when a more tolerant government came to power in France. Le Duan then continued his revolutionary activities, mostly in the southern provinces of Vietnam. In 1939 he was elected to the central committee that led the Communist Party. But the following year French forces once again began arresting their political opponents. Le Duan spent the next five years in a French prison on Con Son island. While in captivity, he met a number of fellow Communist revolutionaries and exchanged ideas and strategies with them.
Favors an active role in reuniting North and South
In the meantime, France suffered a series of military defeats during World War II (1939–45) and surrendered to Germany. Unable to protect its colonies in Indochina, the French government allowed Japan to occupy Vietnam and build military bases there. Ho Chi Minh and the Vietnamese Communists known as the Viet Minh viewed the Japanese occupation as an opportunity to break free from French rule. In 1945 the Allied Forces (which mainly consisted of the United States, Great Britain, and the Soviet Union) defeated both Germany and Japan to win World War II. A short time later, Ho Chi Minh declared Vietnam's independence from both the French and the Japanese.
But it soon became clear that France was not willing to give up control of its former colony. In 1946 a new war began between the French and the Viet Minh. Le Duan was released from prison in 1945 and went to Hanoi, where he served in the Communist Party leadership. In 1950 he was sent to the southern provinces of Vietnam as the main representative of the Communists. He did not play a major role in the war against the French, but he did build a political following in the South that would become important later.
In 1954 the Viet Minh defeated the French after nine years of fighting. The Geneva Peace Accords, which formally ended the war, divided Vietnam into two parts: Communistled North Vietnam under Ho Chi Minh, and U.S.-supported South Vietnam under Ngo Dinh Diem (see entry). The peace agreement also provided for nationwide free elections to be held in 1956 to reunite the two parts of the country under one government. But American leaders worried that free elections would bring power to the Communists. They felt that a Communist government in Vietnam would increase the strength of China and the Soviet Union and threaten the security of the United States. As a result, Diem and his American advisors refused to hold the elections.
North Vietnamese leaders became angry when Diem failed to hold the elections as scheduled. They were determined to reunite the country, by force if necessary. Le Duan remained in South Vietnam after the peace agreement was signed. He organized opposition to the Diem government among his political followers. Le Duan believed that the Communist Party should take an active role in reuniting the two parts of Vietnam. He argued that North Vietnam should use a combination of political and military strategies to overcome resistance in the South. In 1956 Le Duan explained his views in an influential pamphlet called The Path of Revolution in the South.
Elected leader of the Communist Party
Later that year, Le Duan returned to Hanoi and became acting secretary general of the Vietnamese Workers' Party, which was the new name of the Indochinese Communist Party. Ho Chi Minh held the official title, but he left the actual job to Le Duan. Le Duan replaced Truong Chinh, whose attempts to combine North Vietnam's family farms into large, government-run collectives had resulted in peasant revolts. Le Duan had more success in mobilizing the farmers and increasing food production, but his methods sometimes included intimidation and violence.
In 1960 Le Duan was formally elevated to secretary general of the Communist Party. This position made him one of the most powerful men in North Vietnam during the Vietnam War. One of his main contributions to the war effort was to convince Ho Chi Minh and other party leaders to support the South Vietnamese Communists known as the Viet Cong. The Viet Cong fought against the Diem government using tactics of guerilla warfare. As Diem became more and more unpopular among the people, the Viet Cong gained control of large areas of the South Vietnamese countryside. Le Duan believed that the Viet Cong could eventually take over South Vietnam.
But the United States began sending money, weapons, and military advisors to help South Vietnam defend itself against North Vietnam and the Viet Cong. In 1965 President Lyndon Johnson (see entry) sent American combat troops to join the fight on the side of South Vietnam. But deepening U.S. involvement in the war failed to defeat the Communists. Instead, the war turned into a bloody stalemate. As the conflict dragged on, Ho Chi Minh became ill and faded from public view. When Ho died in 1969, Le Duan became the main political figure in North Vietnam. He continued to lead the Communist Party through the remainder of the Vietnam War.
Encounters problems in peacetime
In 1975 North Vietnam captured the South Vietnamese capital of Saigon to win the Vietnam War. After winning the war, Le Duan and the Communist leaders of North Vietnam reunited the two halves of the country to form the Socialist Republic of Vietnam. Then they introduced a series of changes designed to transform Vietnam into a socialist society. For example, the government took control of all farmland and business activities and placed restrictions on the lives of the Vietnamese people. These changes created terrible hardships for the Vietnamese. Before long, hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese people decided that they could not live under the new government and began fleeing the country as refugees.
Over the next few years, the economic situation in Vietnam continued to deteriorate. Le Duan and the other Communist Party leaders struggled to lead the reunited country during peacetime. By the 1980s the situation had become so desperate that the Communist government was forced to make a series of economic reforms. These reforms restored some private property and free-market business incentives in Vietnam. During this time, Le Duan's health began to fail. He traveled to Moscow several times to receive treatment for liver disease. On July 10, 1986, the Communist Party newspaper reported that he had died.
During his thirty years as secretary general of the Communist Party in Vietnam, Le Duan developed a reputation as a rigid and secretive man. He published ten books and more than a hundred articles outlining his Communist philosophy during his lifetime. Upon his death, younger and more progressive members of the party discarded many of his ideas in an attempt to breathe new life into the Vietnamese economy and society.
Contemporary Newsmakers. Detroit: Gale Research, 1986.
Le Duan. On the Right of Collective Mastery. 1980.
Le Duan. The Vietnamese Revolution: Fundamental Problems, Essential Tasks. 1971.
Le Duan (1908-1986) was a major figure in North Vietnam during the Vietnam War and the principal leader of all Vietnam in the postwar era. He proved to be a good wartime ruler, but was less successful as a leader dealing with the problems of peace.
Le Duan was a veteran Vietnamese communist, one of the original founding (1930) members of the Vietnam Communist Party (at the time it was called the Indo-chinese Communist Party), who climbed steadily upwards on the ladder of power. He became, with the death of Ho Chi Minh in 1969, the major political figure in North Vietnam and then, after victory in the Vietnam War, in all of Vietnam.
Political power in Vietnam is vested in the Vietnam Communist Party rather than in the state or government, which is called the Socialist Republic of Vietnam. Within the party power is concentrated at the top, in the Politburo (short for Political Bureau), of which Le Duan was first secretary. Among the Politburo members, however, decision making is collective or shared. In this Le Duan had significant political influence and was more than simply primus inter pares (first among equals). But he was not the towering political figure that Ho Chi Minh was. Le Duan, unlike most of the other members of the Politburo, had always been a party man only and had not held state positions; thus he lacked governmental administrative experience. This fact, coupled with a decade of postwar leadership failure, served to delimit his status somewhat among his peers.
Little is known about Le Duan's family or early life. He never wrote much about his background or discussed it with such outsiders as foreign journalists. "Le Duan" was not his given name but was a "revolutionary name," and there were conflicting stories about his true identity. P. J. Honey, the famed British expert on Vietnam, believed that Le Duan was part Chinese, which would explain his reticence about discussing his early life.
Living under French Rule
Le Duan was born April 7, 1908, in Quang Tri province in what was once called Annam or Central Vietnam (the other two parts of Vietnam being the North or Tonkin and the South or Cochin China). Since geographic regionalism is an important political heritage in Vietnam, the fact that he was a Centerite had profound meaning in his political career.
Le Duan said he was born of a poor peasant family, and in writings and interviews he stressed that his childhood was one of poverty and despair and that that was the main reason why he early became committed to communism. However, it is more likely that Le Duan's family was what roughly could be called Vietnamese village gentry, the equivalent of a middle class in a traditional/colonial society. This is evidenced by the fact of his education. He received a French colonial education, probably through the entire lycee (or high school) system. Such education was open only to upper class youths or those with special French connections, and even then perhaps only one out of a hundred Vietnamese youth were ever admitted, virtually none of them poor village youths.
After finishing his education Le Duan went to work for the Vietnam Railway Company as a clerk. He soon encountered communist and nationalist organizers working among railway employees and through them became first politicized and then radicalized. His activities called him to the attention of French authorities, and Le Duan, threatened with arrest, fled the country—to China, Moscow, or Paris according to conflicting accounts. This was in the mid-1920s, when he was 18. Probably he spent at least some time in China at the famed Whampoa Military Academy, which was run by the Chinese Nationalists and which trained Vietnamese revolutionaries in the strategy and tactics of revolutionary warfare.
Le Duan joined the Indochinese Communist Party when it was formed in 1930. A year later, back in Vietnam, he was arrested, tried, and convicted of "conspiracy against national security" and sentenced to 20 years on the prison island of Poulo Condore (Con Son). In 1936 what was called the Popular Front government came to power in Paris and ordered political amnesty to thousands of prisoners in French colonies, and Le Duan was released. He returned to party organizational work, mostly in the South. In 1940, after the outbreak of World War II, the French colonialists rounded up and jailed all known leftists, and Le Duan was returned to Poulo Condore prison. Here he stayed until the end of World War II when he was released by the departing Japanese who had occupied French Indochina. As was the case with so many revolutionaries in the early part of this century, Le Duan's education as a revolutionary came in prison. He encountered well educated Marxists and experienced revolutionaries and spent long hours with them discussing theory and strategy.
During the Viet Minh War (1945-1954) which ousted the French, Le Duan did organizational and propaganda work for the party in the South, which was a relatively unimportant military front. Thus Le Duan could not contribute much to victory, but these years did enable him to build a political constituency among Southerners that stood him in good stead later.
In the post Viet Minh War years Le Duan gained prominence by undertaking the task of increasing agricultural production in North Vietnam, working through the party cadre system. He took on the mobilization work in the countryside after a disastrous initial effort under Truong Chinh to collectivize agriculture, and he pushed collectivization through to successful conclusion by 1960. Le Duan became party secretary-general, with Ho as party chairman, at the Third Party Congress in 1960.
The War for Vietnam
In the early years of the Vietnam War Le Duan was deeply involved in party organization building in the South and to some extent with the strategy being employed there by the National Liberation Front (or Viet Cong). Many of the early Hanoi military commanders in the South, such as Gen. Nguyen Chi Thanh, were members of Le Duan's political faction and were identified with what was called the Chinese strategic approach to guerrilla war (in opposition to the faction led by Gen. Vo Nguyen Giap which advocated what was called "high technology" warfare). Le Duan was somewhat discredited because the strategy he advocated did not succeed; but the Giap strategy did not prove entirely successful either, the matter being something of a doctrinal stand-off.
After the end of the Vietnam War with Hanoi in firm control Le Duan took the lead in the nation building effort which involved social restructure of the South and the "transformation to socialism." He tried to recreate for himself the role held by Ho Chi Minh of being aloof from day to day political in-fighting and was reasonably successful in doing this.
People who knew Le Duan personally described him as having a rigid personality, secretive in manner, with few intimate friends. He was married twice, his first wife having died, and was the father of several children by both marriages. Reportedly he was treated several times in Moscow for a liver ailment in the 1980s. On July 10, 1986, the Voice of Vietnam radio announced his death. He was succeeded as party secretary by Truong Chinh (born 1907), who had held the position during the late 1950s only to be replaced by Le Duan because of his disastrous agricultural program.
There are no full scale biographies of Le Duan either written by outsiders or issued from Hanoi. Over the years he wrote voluminously, and these writings contain autobiographical references. He published in Vietnamese at least ten books, most of which are collections of his speeches and shorter writings, and at least 100 articles for the Vietnamese Communist Party's theoretical journal, Tap Chi Cong San. The most famous of his works are his threevolume On the Socialist Revolution (Hanoi, 1965) and Le Duan Selected Writings (1977). These are relatively difficult to obtain. Two collections of his works published abroad are The Vietnamese Revolution (1971) and This Nation and Socialism Are One, Tran Van Dinh, editor (1976). The 1983 Yearbook of International Communist Affairs (1984) contains a short biography of Le Duan. Periodical sources for biographical data are: Time Magazine (January 31, 1966); New Leader Magazine (September 15, 1969); The Washington Star (February 25, 1973); The New York Times (June 19, 1978); and The Washington Post (July 11, 1986). □