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 on Pham Van Dong

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).