“Vietcong” – what’s in a word?

Recently, as I was doing a rare spot of ironing, I caught part of a TV discussion between John Simpson and a BBC anchor about, amongst other things, the US government decision to open negotiations with the Taliban. In the context of this discussion, Simpson mentioned the “Vietcong”, or “Viet Cong”, on several occasions, as an example of – inevitably – an “enemy” with whom the US was eventually forced to negotiate.

Recalling from my university days that the term “Viet Cong” was anything but neutral, I decided to write to Professor Ngo Vinh Long (of the University of Maine) to establish the facts concerning the term’s origins…

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Dear Professor Ngo Vinh Long,

Please excuse the unsolicited mail, but I wondered if you might be able to shed some light on the origins of the label “Vietcong”, which has entered the (western) vernacular as a descriptor for the Vietnamese who fought against the US during the “Vietnam war”?

My current understanding is that the label derives from a longer phrase “Viet Gian Cong San”, originally used by the US-backed Diem regime to tar all those within, or sympathetic to, the NLF as “communists”. But is this accurate?

With best wishes,

Joe Sucksmith

Dear Mr Sucksmith,

The term Việt Cộng was invented by Colonel Nguyễn Văn Châu, director of the Central Psychological War Service of the South Vietnamese Armed forces from 1956 to 1962. I knew him personally because from 1959 to late 1962 I was also a military map maker, making 1/25,000 military maps of the entire South Vietnam and parts of Cambodia and Laos. At that time there was also a “Communist Denunciation Campaign” (Phong trào Tố Cộng) and Colonel Châu intentionally coined the term as a homonym for “Diệt Cộng” (Annihilate the Communists) since the D and V are pronounced like a Y in Southern accent. He was very proud of this play on words and kept on repeating it to me and others many times.

Colonel Châu gave a detailed interview on this and other psychological warfare techniques that he and the Saigon regime used to Richard Dudman, known as the dean of American journalism (St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Sept. 24, 1972.)

From what I know, I don’t think the term comes from Việt Gian Cộng Sản, which is certainly never used in any official documents from South Vietnam.

Regards,

Ngô Vĩnh

Dear Ngo Vinh,

Many thanks for the response, which I find fascinating. Perhaps I could ask a brief follow-up…

What term is used most often within Vietnamese literature to describe the South Vietnamese who resisted the US-backed Diem regime, and later invading US forces?

Joe

The term “quân kháng chiến” (resistance fighters) and “quân giải phóng” (liberation fighters) were used the most.

Ngô Vĩnh

Many thanks. Does it follow from this that most Vietnamese would consider the term “Viet Cong” to be essentially pejorative? Or just merely inaccurate?

Joe

Pejorative. The majority of the people fighting with the Front for the National Liberation of Vietnam did not consider themselves communists in anyway. They considered themselves nationalists or patriots. That was one of the reasons why Hanoi disbanded the PRG (Provisional Revolutionary Government, which composed of the “NLF” and other groups) almost immediately after “Liberation.”

Ngô Vĩnh

———-

So there you have it: “Viet Cong” – a pejorative term, coined by the propaganda wing of the US-backed Diem regime, and designed to characterise those resisting US-backed aggression as “communists”.

Small wonder its use is so widespread at the BBC… 😉

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