Nguyen Van Linh (born 1914) was one of the most clandestine figures in the entire hierarchy of the Vietnamese Communist Party, itself famed for its clandestine character. He was virtually unknown until emerging from his shadowy jungle warfare duty in 1975. His postwar political fortunes hit a peak when he served as his party's secretary-general from 1986 to 1991.
During the first 35 years of his career of service to the Vietnamese Communist Party, Nguyen Van Linh lived and operated in the hostile political environment of South Vietnam. These years displayed his wily ability to devise and lead covert operations against North Vietnam's enemies. His skill was not simply revolve around his being a revolutionary insurgent or even a spy and secret police agent; rather, covert persona was so brilliant and complex that it propogated a disinformation campaign about him which, with the exception of a few top officials in Hanoi, meant no one ever knew exactly who he was. For example, during the war with the United States, American intelligence files in Saigon carried biographical data gathered from penetration agents and defector interrogations on five separate individuals—Nguyen Van Linh, Nguyen Van Cuc, and Nguyen Van Muoi, plus two code-named figures, Muoi Ut and Muoi Cuc. Only after the war, when Nguyen Van Linh appeared on the platform at the Saigon victory parade, did inquiring reporters discover, from Linh himself, that all five names were his.
After being elected party secretary-general in 1986, Linh was obliged to reverse roles and move into the limelight. He became a public figure charged with pushing through major reforms of the party cadre system and the state's economic institutions. However, Linh was ill equipped to perform this task well due to the fact that it required mobilization and motivational skills of quite a different kind from those that he had developed during years of warfare.
By the 1990s, his leadership increasingly had come under attack from conservative elements in the Politburo, triggered by fears and anxieties largely growing out of the upheaval in the Leninist political systems of Eastern Europe, the U.S.S.R., and China. Finally, he retired June 27, 1991, "due to advanced age and declining health" and was replaced by Do Muoi.
Linh was born Nguyen Van Cuc on July 1, 1914, in what is now Hai Hung province, south of Hanoi. Little is known about his family, although it is probable that he came from a bourgeois background. His official biography tells nothing about his education except to note that he was a student at the time he was jailed by the French in 1930 at the age of 16. Linh joined the Communist Party during the Popular Front era, in 1936, and was assigned to recruitment duties in Saigon where he served until his second incarceration by the French (1941-1945). During the Vietnam war, Linh was the party's chief agent in Saigon and the surrounding provinces, heading a structure called Central Office in South Vietnam (COSVN). Most of his work was organizational rather than guerrilla warfare since the South was a distinct military backwater during the Vietnam war.
When the party decided to resume armed struggle in the South in 1959, Linh was a natural candidate to head the newly reconstituted COSVN. However, in the next three years, as party leader in the South, he was judged by Hanoi to have failed to defeat the Republic of Vietnam's counterinsurgency strategic hamlet program and was demoted to a deputy post under his replacement, General Nguyen Chi Thanh. After Thanh was killed, the assignment went to Pham Hung, and Linh stayed on as his deputy.
After the forced unification of North and South Vietnam in 1975, Linh, as secretary of the Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon) Party Central Committee, became Hanoi's chief instrument in developing the institutions known as the reeducation camps and the New Economic Zone in the city and surrounding region. He also supervised the "Cholon coup d'état" in 1978 which emasculated the southern capitalist trade and consumer goods distribution systems. All of these programs were part of the Communist Party's effort to "break the Saigon machine"—that is, to destroy and then restructure the city's social and economic relationships. Southerners have never forgiven Linh for his part in these traumatic events.
Linh was named to the Politburo by the Fourth Party Congress in December 1976. For reasons never made clear, without announcement, he was dropped from the Politburo in March 1982. Until 1985, he was something of a non-person within the party. Then, also without announcement, he was returned to the Politburo sometime between April and July 1985.
Much of Linh's day-to-day work over the years was associated with the mass organizations which act as the chief instruments for mobilization and motivation of the general Vietnamese population. This involved supervising the continuing campaign to purge the party of the slack, the incompetent, and the corrupt.
In personality, Linh struck outsiders as a serious yet mild-mannered man, one who always expressed himself carefully, and one possessed of a sardonic wit. There is virtually no reliable information about his private life.
There are no full-length biographies of Nguyen Van Linh. A biographical sketch of him is found in the Year-book of International Communist Affairs 1987, Richard F. Staar, editor. His official biography was carried in the January 1987 issue of Vietnam Courier (Hanoi). See also New York Times, February 3, 1988. Linh published virtually nothing before 1975. He made several speeches and gave a few interviews in the first decade after the end of the war. After 1986, he published numerous short articles, chiefly in Vietnamese periodicals, as well as two full length works: Ho Chi Minh City: Ten Years (Hanoi: 1988); and Renovation of Our National Defense (Hanoi: 1990). The Cambridge Biographical Encyclopedia (1994) contains much of the same data already collected.