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.
Further Reading on Le Duan
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).