Party Control in the Military
It is a fundamental tenet of any Marxist-Leninist system that
the communist party must dominate the system's military. Lenin,
it is said, coined the slogan, "the party controls the gun,"
reflecting a deep and abiding fear that political power can be
lost to the armed forces.
The party's relationship with PAVN in Vietnam is one of
neither coercion nor repression. Instead, the VCP and the armed
forces are integrated and mutually dependent. Control is
exercised by means of parallel military and party hierarchies
that are both part of the overall political system. These
parallel hierarchies may best be depicted by two pyramids: the
VCP organization within PAVN, represented by the smaller pyramid,
enclosed within the organization of the armed forces, represented
by the larger pyramid. These two hierarchical pyramids may also
be divided horizontally into levels of command. At each level,
from the Ministry of National Defense to the infantry company,
there is a military command structure and a corresponding party
apparatus consisting of a political officer and party committee.
VCP control of the military thus is not from the outside, but
PAVN and the VCP worked together harmoniously over the years,
more so perhaps than their counterpart institutions in China or
the Soviet Union. Party-military relations in the early days of
the First Indochina War were clear and unequivocal. Indochinese
patriots faced a highly visible, commonly hated enemy, and the
single goal that united all--to expel the French--was something
each could understand and approve. Party representatives led the
cause because they seemed to possess an inherent superiority.
Young Viet Minh recruits, mostly from the villages, willingly
deferred to the well-traveled, more experienced, better educated
party cadres, who understood the complicated relationship between
war and politics and always seemed to know what to do.
Eventually, however, these perceptions changed, and by the 1980s
the unquestioned acceptance of VCP superiority by the PAVN rank
and file had dissipated. In its place there emerged a growing
ambivalence fueled by resentment, not only of the party's postwar
failures, but also of the privileged status enjoyed by party
cadres and the party's exclusive authority over both the military
leadership in place and the manpower pool from which future
officers were drawn. To some degree the PAVN high command shared
this ambivalence, but senior PAVN leaders were in a difficult
position. Although permitted to exercise great influence within
the party, preservation of their privileged status at times
required them to put party interests over those of the armed
forces. In the postwar years, relations with the party
increasingly placed a severe strain on the high command.
Factionalism, however, a condition that existed both within the
ranks of PAVN's military leadership and within PAVN's party
apparat, apparently did not create a problem between the two.
Data as of December 1987