Pham Van Dong

views updated May 17 2018

Pham Van Dong

Born March 1, 1906
Quang Ngai province, Vietnam

Premier of North Vietnam, 1955–75, and of the reunited Socialist Republic of Vietnam, 1975–86

Pham Van Dong served as the premier of North Vietnam both before and during the Vietnam War. He was recognized as one of three most powerful leaders of North Vietnam during these years, along with Ho Chi Minh (see entry) and General Vo Nguyen Giap (see entry). In fact, these three men were sometimes referred to as the "iron triangle." When Ho died in 1969, Pham Van Dong emerged as the main spokesman for the Communist government of North Vietnam. After North Vietnam defeated South Vietnam and reunited the two halves of the country in 1975, Pham Van Dong served another decade as premier of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam.

Joins the resistance at an early age

Pham Van Dong was born March 1, 1906, in Quang Ngai province in central Vietnam. At the time of his birth, Vietnam was a colony of France known as French Indochina. His father was a wealthy and educated man who served in the cabinet of Emperor Duy Tan. Pham Van Dong attended French schools in Saigon and Hue. One of his classmates was Ngo Dinh Diem (see entry), who went on to become president of South Vietnam. Outside of the classroom, Pham Van Dong was known as a top soccer player.

In 1925 Pham Van Dong entered the University of Hanoi. During his college years, he became an active member of the Thanh Nien youth league and led a student strike against the French colonial government. Under pressure from the French, he fled to China in 1930. There he joined a group of other young revolutionaries, including eventual North Vietnamese leader Ho Chi Minh, in forming the Indochinese Communist Party.

Upon returning to Vietnam, Pham Van Dong was arrested for his anti-French activities and served six years in Con Son prison. After being released in 1939, he returned to China. Two years later, he helped Ho Chi Minh create the Viet Minh, a Communist-led Vietnamese nationalist group. The Viet Minh were determined to fight to gain Vietnam's independence from French colonial rule.

"Uncle Ho's best nephew"

During World War II (1939–45), France was forced to give up some of its control over Vietnam. When the war ended in 1945, the Viet Minh launched a successful revolution to regain control of the country. That September, Ho Chi Minh formally declared Vietnam's independence and named himself president of the country. Pham Van Dong became foreign minister in the new Communist government. In this position, he represented Vietnam in formal negotiations with the French. People began calling him "Uncle Ho's best nephew" because of his close ties to the Vietnamese president.

But the negotiations fell apart when it became clear that France was not willing to give up its former colony. War erupted between the French and the Viet Minh in late 1946. During this conflict, which became known as the Indochina War, Pham Van Dong commanded the Viet Minh forces in Quang Ngai province. After nine years of fighting, the Viet Minh defeated the French in 1954. Once again, Pham Van Dong represented the Communists in negotiations with the French. These talks, held in Geneva, Switzerland, produced an agreement known as the Geneva Accords.

The Geneva Accords, which ended the Indochina War, divided Vietnam into two sections. The northern section, which was led by a Communist government under Ho Chi Minh, was officially known as the Democratic Republic of Vietnam but was usually called North Vietnam. The southern section, which was led by a U.S.-supported government under Ngo Dinh Diem, was known as the Republic of South Vietnam.

The peace agreement also provided for nationwide free elections to be held in 1956, with a goal of reuniting the two sections of Vietnam under one government. But U.S. government officials worried that holding free elections in Vietnam would bring power to the Communists who had led the nation's war for independence from France. They felt that a Communist government in Vietnam would increase the power of China and the Soviet Union and threaten the security of the United States. As a result, South Vietnamese President Diem and his American advisors refused to hold the elections.

Premier of North Vietnam

Shortly after negotiating the Geneva Accords, Pham Van Dong became premier of the North Vietnamese government. In this position, he introduced a series of changes designed to transform North Vietnam into a Communist nation. For example, he established land reform programs to take land away from wealthy landlords and give it to poor farmers.

Pham Van Dong also tried to negotiate an agreement with his old classmate Diem. He proposed that the two sections of Vietnam reduce their levels of troops and begin trading with one another. He also continued to press for free national elections to reunite the country. But Diem and his American advisors refused to compromise with Pham Van Dong. As a result, North Vietnamese leaders became determined to overthrow Diem and reunite the country by force. Within a short time, a new war began between the two sections of Vietnam.

In the late 1950s and early 1960s the U.S. government sent money, weapons, and military advisors to help South Vietnam. Pham Van Dong responded by accusing the United States of violating the Geneva Accords and trying to establish South Vietnam as a separate nation. Still, American involvement in the Vietnam War continued to increase. In 1965 President Lyndon Johnson (see entry) authorized U.S. bombing missions over North Vietnam and sent American combat troops to South Vietnam.

Issues warnings about Communist determination

But deepening U.S. involvement failed to defeat the Communists. Instead, the Vietnam War turned into a bloody stalemate. As the conflict dragged on, Ho Chi Minh became ill and faded from public view. At the same time, Pham Van Dong's power gradually increased. When Ho died in 1969, Pham Van Dong took charge of the North Vietnamese war effort. He consistently refused to consider any negotiated settlement that did not include a complete withdrawal of American forces and Communist participation in a coalition government in South Vietnam.

Pham Van Dong often gave interviews to Western journalists during this time. Knowing that the American people were growing tired of the war, he frequently spoke about the Communists' determination to fight as long as necessary to achieve a complete victory. "A national liberation war is by its very nature a people's war, a long war, one that can last for tens of years," he told reporter Wilfred Burchett in 1966. "Our people are fighting for their liberty, their life, their honor."

The following year, a reporter for the New York Times asked the North Vietnamese premier how long he expected the war to last. Pham Van Dong replied, "What I used to tell our friends was that the younger generation will fight better than we—even kids just so high. They are preparing themselves. That's the situation. How many years the war goes on depends on you [the Americans] and not on us."

Government struggles after the war

In 1973 North Vietnam and the United States finally reached an agreement to end American involvement in Vietnam. Under the terms of the Paris Peace Accord, the United States withdrew its troops from Vietnam later that year. But the peace agreement did not end the Vietnam War. Both North Vietnam and South Vietnam began violating the terms of the treaty within a short time.

Once the American troops left, Pham Van Dong worked to reconstruct North Vietnam and strengthen its economy. Then in 1975 he approved a new military offensive designed to overthrow the government of South Vietnam and reunite the two parts of the country once and for all. This coordinated attack swept across the South Vietnamese countryside in the spring of 1975. In April the Communists captured the South Vietnamese capital of Saigon to win the Vietnam War.

After winning the war, the Communist leaders of North Vietnam reunited the two halves of the country to form the Socialist Republic of Vietnam. In 1976 Pham Van Dong became premier of the new country. He then 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. Hunger and poverty became widespread problems. Pham Van Dong admitted that his government was struggling to achieve its goal of bringing peace and prosperity to the Vietnamese people. "Yes, we defeated the United States. But now we are plagued by problems," he stated. "Waging a war is simple, but running a country is very difficult."

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. As Vietnamese leaders recognized the need for reform, they began pressuring some of the early Communist leaders to step down. Pham Van Dong resigned from his position as premier in 1986, after more than thirty years in office.


Current Biography, 1975.

"An Interview with Pham Van Dong." Time, November 11, 1985.

Pham Van Dong. Selected Writings. 1977.

Pham Van Dong. Twenty-Five Years of National Struggle. 1970.

Pham Van Dong

views updated May 18 2018

Pham Van Dong

Pham Van Dong (born 1906) was the longtime Hanoi premier, first in the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV) government and then, after reunification in 1976, of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam (SRV) government. He was considered to be one of the members of the inner "circle of five" top political power holders in Vietnam.

Pham Van Dong, a charter member of the Indochinese Communist Party in 1930, distinguished himself over the years primarily as administrator and organizer of the government bureaucracy (as opposed to the party bureaucracy). Much of his career success was traceable to the fact that he early associated with Ho Chi Minh and served him well, always seeking to emulate Ho's dedication and zeal but in a loyal and self-deprecating manner so as never to upstage Ho. To this Ho reciprocated by publicly calling Dong "my best nephew" and "my alter ego." Indeed, the two did work well as a team, in the marriage of Ho's organizational skill with Dong's managerial ability. They also shared a common philosophic outlook that put pragmatism over ideology.

In many ways Dong was a typical first generation Asian revolutionary: that is, a well-educated member of the upper class who early in life was moved to political activism by nationalist sentiment. His background was Mandarin, which means he was born into affluence and raised in a Confucian tradition of strong cultural value placed on intellectual superiority rather than social origin as the proper basis for government, education, and behavior in life in general. His radicalization was in spite of, not because of, his early years. However, there were alternate political roads that Dong could have traveled, various nationalist movements which were in fact larger and more attractive than Stalinism. Dong apparently chose Marxism-Leninism as the proper outlet for his political energies not because of the inherent appeal of Marxist thought but because of the influence of the personality of Ho Chi Minh.

Dong was born March 1, 1906, in Mo Duc village of Quang Ngai province in Central Vietnam. His father was a high ranking official in the Imperial Court in Hue and served as court secretary to Emperor Duy Tan. The emperor was deposed by the French in 1916 for being too nationalistic, which also resulted in loss of status for Dong's father and probably began his alienation from the existing colonial arrangement.

Student Activist Turned Revolutionary

Dong received a good French lycee education in Hue. In 1925 he enrolled in the University of Hanoi and soon ran into trouble with the authorities by leading a student strike during the funeral of Phan Chu Trinh, a famed nationalist leader. Within a year he was expelled and left for Canton, China, where he spent a year at the Chinese Nationalist run Whampoa Military Academy, met Ho Chi Minh, and joined Ho's proto-communist revolutionary movement, the Vietnam Revolutionary Youth League (Thanh Nien).

From Revolutionary Prisoner to Guerrilla Warrior

Ho sent Dong back to Hanoi in 1927 to do revolutionary organizational work. Dong was subsequently arrested by the French and jailed at Poulo Condore, Vietnam's famed prison island. He remained there from 1929 to 1936 when a new government in France ordered general amnesty for political prisoners in French colonial jails. Dong resumed organizational work in Hanoi and Saigon for three years, then fled to China to escape the 1939 roundup of Vietnamese leftists came with the start of World War II. In 1941 he joined Ho and others at the China border for the conference which created the Viet Minh league, the united front organization (and guerrilla force) that was to lead the struggle against French colonialism.

When the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV) was formed in 1945 Dong was named its first finance minister. In the late 1950s he returned to his home province of Quang Ngai and took field command of a guerrilla force about which little is known. Also during this time he was involved in the bloody purge of non-communist nationalists from Viet Minh ranks, a dark episode for which he was never forgiven by many early Vietnamese nationalist revolutionaries. In 1951 he was named vice premier. In 1954 he became acting foreign minister and was sent to Geneva as the head of the DRV delegation to the Geneva Conference that ended the Viet Minh war. In 1955 he was named premier, a post he continued to hold until December 1986. Over the years Dong held other important governmental posts such as vice chairman of the National Defense Council, member of the National Assembly, and, within party ranks, member of the all-powerful Politburo.

International Negotiator and Party Organizer

During the Vietnam War Dong's central task was to mobilize material support for the war effort. This involved organization of the general population of North Vietnam, working through the mechanism of the National Assembly, and efforts abroad to assure the necessary flow of arms from socialist countries. He made frequent trips outside the country and is said to have been particularly effective in dealing with the former U.S.S.R.

After the end of the war in 1975 Dong concentrated his energies on the nation-building task, particularly on the vastly ambitious "district building" reorganizational effort that sought to eliminate the village in Vietnam and replace it with the giant agroville at the district level. He continued to pursue tirelessly a heavy schedule of public events. For months on end he averaged a speech or more a week, chiefly involving education or technical training activities, in between attending a variety of semisocial activities such as diplomatic receptions and tree planting ceremonies.

Dong also continued trips abroad. He was probably the most travelled member of the ruling Politburo and certainly had longer experience in diplomatic negotiations than any other Socialist Republic of Vietnam (SRV) official. In later years his external activities in the international arena tended to be goodwill visits rather than tough negotiations. He was believed by many to have remained the dominant influence on SRV foreign policy, superior to Foreign Minister Nguyen Co Thach.

Dong's personality was described by those who knew him or worked closely with him as sophisticated, self-assured, and somewhat imperious. He was said to have been highly articulate and a smooth diplomatic negotiator.

Defeated by Poor Health and Economy

Dong was known to have suffered from tuberculosis in early life. In the 1980s his health began to deteriorate. He was not seen in public as often as he once was, and his travel abroad was curtailed. Reportedly he had a heart pacemaker implanted in mid-1979 by surgeons in Moscow, and he returned there again in 1982 for extensive medical treatment of an unknown nature. In late December, 1986, at the Sixth Party Congress in Hanoi, Dong resigned as premier because of "advanced age and bad health." He was one of the last top members of the Politburo to have led the Communist defeat of the Japanese, the French, and finally the United States' soldiers in war.

In addition to his failing health, growing impatience over the country's long economic crisis was felt to have prompted his resignation along with two other top officicals, General Secretary Truong Chinh (79) and Politburo member Le Duc Tho (76). In an interview with Time magazine in November 1985, Dong emphasized that economic development to rebuild the country was the government's primary task. Newsweek also later quoted him as saying, "Waging war is simple, but running a country is very difficult." His war record was far more impressive than his success in improving economic conditions, which had reached a crisis stage when he stepped down. Vietnam could ill afford its invasion of Cambodia in 1978, and the continued engagement had adversely affected the already strained economy. Some speculated that Dong's willingness (in 1985) to discuss the long unresolved MIA dispute with the United States was prompted by the economic turmoil.

Little is known about Dong's private life. He was married late, when he was about 40, to a 20-year-old girl who, according to some reports, was later confined to an institution with mental illness, or, according to other reports, died. They are believed to have had two children, a boy and a girl. Dong was never known to have discussed his personal life with foreigners.

Further Reading

There are no full length biographies of Pham Van Dong available in English. His various writings make autobiographical references from which the facts of his life can be pieced together. A short biographical sketch was written by the French scholar Jean Lacouture in The New York Times Sunday Magazine (May 19, 1968). See also a short biography in the Baltimore Sun (September 12, 1967). The basic collection of his writings in English, published by the Foreign Languages Publishing House, Hanoi, in 1977, is titled Pham Van Dong: Selected Writings and contains six of his major articles written between 1954 and 1977. He also published a biography in English, President Ho Chi Minh (Hanoi, 1960). Dong published at least nine other books in Vietnamese between 1945 and 1985, which are mostly collections of his articles, speeches, and interviews. Periodical articles including information on Pham Van Dong are: Newsweek (December 29, 1986), Time (November 11 and 25, 1985), Scholastic Update (March 29, 1985), and The New Yorker (November 1985). □