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Beyond the Book: Background information when reading The Father of All Things

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The Father of All Things

A Marine, His Son, and the Legacy of Vietnam

by Tom Bissell

The Father of All Things by Tom Bissell X
The Father of All Things by Tom Bissell
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  • First Published:
    Mar 2007, 432 pages
    Mar 2008, 432 pages


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A Short History of Vietnam

Vietnam's history has been one of repeated invasions and resistance (historic maps). For the millennium up to the early 10th century, Vietnam was controlled by the Chinese, until a final rebellion in 938 led to Vietnam achieving independence. Over the following centuries it repelled a number of Chinese invasion attempts, including three during the Yuan (Mongol) dynasty (1271-1368) while also expanding its own borders substantially south (map).

In the 19th century, the French colonized Vietnam, bringing with them the Catholic religion. The few Vietnamese who held positions of influence during the this period were almost exclusively converts to Catholicism. During World War II the Japanese occupied Vietnam but kept the French administrators.

After WWII, the French tried to re-establish its colonial rule but, after a brutal nine-year-war, were defeated in 1954 by the Communist-nationalists, known as the Viet Minh. The Geneva Accords (April-July 1954) produced a set of treaties intended to bring peace to French Indochina (Vietnam) and Korea, which saw Vietnam partitioned into northern and southern zones pending unification on the basis of free elections to be held in 1956. Against the advice of the French, the USA proposed Ngo Dinh Diem as President of South Vietnam.

The partition led to a massive migration, with an estimated 1 million people (mainly Catholics) moving from North to South, and a smaller number moving South to North. In 1955, Ngo Dinh Diem gained power in a rigged election. Backed by the USA, his government refused to consult with the North Vietnamese on the matter of general elections, which were never held.

Between 1955 and 1963, Ngo Dinh Diem presided over an increasingly corrupt, nepotistic and repressive regime. Communist guerrillas backed by North Vietnam launched a rebellion, but a civil disobedience campaign led by the country's Buddhist monks contributed more directly to his downfall (it is estimated that 70% of the population were Buddhists at the time). The Buddhists protested against the government's refusal to repeal the anti-Buddhist laws passed by the French (Ngo Dinh Diem and most of his ministers were Catholic and the largest landowner in the country at the time was the Catholic church).

Brutal persecution of the dissident monks in 1963 damaged the regime's already shaky international reputation, convincing President Kennedy that Ngo Dinh Diem could not unite the Vietnamese against communism, so he ordered the CIA to carry out a coup to oust Ngo Dinh Diem. Guerilla activity escalated, resulting in the Second Indochina War that formally broke out in 1964. The war is known to the Vietnamese as the American War and to the USA as the Vietnam War.

In 1973, the USA withdrew its troops following a cease-fire agreement, and in 1975 the southern capital of Saigon fell to the North. The next 10 years saw the country reunited, but many in the South suffered considerable political oppression and the country experienced little economic growth. In 1986 the government enacted the "doi moi" (renovation) policy which led to increased economic liberalization and modernization of the economy. With the end of the Cold War, western powers reestablished relations with Vietnam; the USA were the last to do so in 1995.

Today, Vietnam is a densely-populated country of about 84 million people in a landmass about the size of New Mexico, of which only about 20% is level ground. The government recognizes more than 50 ethnic groups, with the largest group being the Kinh (Viet) making up 86% of the population. According to a 1999 census, 9% claim to be Buddhists, 7% Catholic and 81% claim no religion. The country's economy is expanding rapidly (exports to the USA doubled in 2002 and again in 2003) with the government targeting growth rates of about 8% year on year for the next five years. Agriculture's share of economic output has shrunk from 25% in 2000 to 20% in 2006, and the percentage living in deep poverty (defined as less than $1/day) has declined significantly to a level below China, India and the Philippines.

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This "beyond the book article" relates to The Father of All Things. It originally ran in March 2007 and has been updated for the March 2008 paperback edition. Go to magazine.

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