Secrets of the Vietnamese Archives

Norwich Pro

January 29, 2020

Secrets of the Vietnamese Archives

When I first entered the gated grounds of National Archives III in Hanoi, armed with letters of introduction and a Fulbright grant. I was eager. Access to Vietnam's archives meant that secrets could be bared, battles of interpretation resolved. With the hubris of an ambitious graduate student, I went in hoping to find evidence that would revolutionize the field. As with any such institution, the archive would hold more questions than answers.

(Note: Vietnam has established several archives, divided by time period and topic, located in cities around the country. I worked mainly in National Archives III (Trung tâm Lưu trữ Quốc gia III) in Hanoi, which holds North Vietnamese documents)

Every effort was made to welcome me. The archival staff are very willing to assist researchers, as long as they follow the rules and do not present any "difficulties." Once approved for entry (a rather lengthy process), scholars can use finding aids, submit file requests, and spend weeks happily pouring over materials.

The archive does not hold everything. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA) keeps a separate archive at a different site, I learned upon arrival. I was told foreign researchers were not allowed in the MOFA archives (they have since occasionally accepted foreigners). My dreams of digging through policy plans dissolved as I stared at finding aids for every ministry but the one I needed.

Once my research began, I was told that any file requests that did not correspond to my approved study plan would be denied. When I asked about Cuba (out of curiosity), for instance, the staff politely let me know that my topic did not include that region. Later, I asked about Edward Lansdale and to my surprise they brought me a file of hardline anti-communist propaganda leaflets. The logic behind approvals and denials never became clear to me. Fellow researchers and I puzzled over the unpublished rules, but none of us discovered the secrets of the review process at that time.

Additionally, the government had edited the collections, in sometimes unexpected ways. Admittedly, the archive does not use American-style redactions. None of the documents suffered the Yossarian treatment (lines of black that go on for paragraphs or pages). Instead, some files lie empty; others are unbelievably thin. The most obvious secrets, the paper trail that might lead directly to answers, has been removed.

Some of the file editing is to be expected. Famous proclamations and signatures have been pulled from circulation, a practice common to archives everywhere. When I ran across the real signatures of Pham Van Dong and later Vo Nguyen Giap, each time the staff took the page and carefully carried it out of the room.

This turned out to be an important discovery. The fact that the files may not have been curated carefully led me to my greatest secret from Vietnam's archives.

Let me explain. Most historians realize they are part-detective, as I tell my Norwich students. As such, creativity in our investigations can be just as important as strong analysis. In Vietnam's archives, I had no way to pursue my topic directly. As such, I had to come up with new tactics. Using files from other ministries as well as the Prime Minister's office, I discovered important foreign policy documents by aligning dates, signatures, and other clues. The ministries' files possessed copies of diplomatic directives and correspondence with MOFA. I silently thanked the office worker who had filed the paperwork years ago.

Are there secrets Vietnam's archives? The answer is both yes and no. The primary secret to Vietnam's archives is the need to develop creative approaches in the research process.

For more information on archival research in Vietnam, email coldwarvietnam@gmail.com

by Ginger R. Davis, Ph.D. , Senior Instructor, Master of Arts in History

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