The Pentagon Papers
Gravel Edition
Volume 1, Chapter 5, "Origins of the Insurgency in South Vietnam, 1954-1960"
(Boston: Beacon Press, 1971)

Section 2, pp. 283-314



The Geneva Conference of 1954 brought only transitory peace to Indochina. Nonetheless, except for the United States, the major powers were, at the time of the Conference, satisfied that with their handiwork: the truce averted a further U.S. military involvement on the Asian mainland, and dampened a heightening crisis between East and West which might readily have led to conflict outside Southeast Asia. So long as these conditions obtained, neither France, the U.K., the U.S.S.R. nor Communist China were seriously disposed to disturb the modus vivendi in Vietnam. U.S. leaders publicly put the best face possible on the Geneva Settlement-about all that might possibly have been obtained from a seriously disadvantaged negotiating position, and no serious impairment to freedom of United States action. But the U.S., within its inner councils immediately after Geneva, viewed the Settlement's provisions for Vietnam as "disaster," and determined to prevent, if it could, the further extension of communist government over the Vietnamese people and territory. U.S. policy adopted in 1954 to this end did not constitute an irrevocable nor "open-ended" commitment to the government of Ngo Dinh Diem. But it did entail a progressively deepening U.S. involvement in the snarl of violence and intrigue within Vietnam, and therefore a direct role in the ultimate breakdown of the Geneva Settlement.

The Settlement of Geneva, though it provided respite from years of political violence, bitterly disappointed Vietnamese of North and South alike who had looked toward a unified and independent Vietnam. For the Viet Minh, the Settlement was a series of disappointing compromises to which they had agreed at the urging of the Soviet Union and China, compromises beyond what hard won military advantage over the French had led them to expect. For the State of Vietnam in the South, granted independence by France while the Geneva Conference was in progress, the Settlement was an arrangement to which it had not been party, and to which it could not subscribe. The truce of 1954, in fact, embodied three serious deficiencies as a basis for stable peace among the Vietnamese:

--It relied upon France as its executor.
--It ignored the opposition of the State of Vietnam.
--It countenanced the disassociation of the United States.

These weaknesses turned partitioned Vietnam into two hostile states, and given the absence of a stabilizing international force and the impotence of the ICC, brought about an environment in which war was likely, perhaps inevitable. A nominally temporary "line of demarcation" between North and South at the 17th parallel was transformed into one of the more forbidding frontiers of the world. A mass displacement of nearly 5% of the population disrupted the polity and heightened tensions in both North and South. And both the Democratic Government of Vietnam (DRV) in the North, and the Government of Vietnam (GVN) n the South armed, with foreign aid, for what each perceived as a coming struggle over reunification. Some of the main roots of the present conflict run to these failures of Geneva.


1. Provisions for Unifying Vietnam

The sole formal instrument of the Geneva Conference was the document signed by the military commanders of the two hostile forces termed "Agreement on the Cessation of Hostilities in Viet-Nam," dealing largely with the disengagement and regroupment of military forces. Article 14 of the Agreement contained one brief--but fateful allusion--to a future political solution:

Article 14a. Pending the general elections which will bring about the unification of Vietnam, the conduct of civil administration in each regrouping zone shall be in the hands of the party whose forces are to be regrouped there in virtue of the present agreement....

A more general expression of the intent of the conferees was the unsigned "Final Declaration of the Geneva Conference," by which the Conference "takes note" of the aforementioned Agreement and several declarations by represented nations and:

recognizes that the essential purpose of the agreement relating to Vietnam is to settle military questions with a view to ending hostilities and that the military demarcation line is provisional and should not in any way be interpreted as constituting a political or territorial boundary . . . declares that, so far as Vietnam is concerned, the settlement of political problems, effected on the basis of respect for the principles of independence, unity, and territorial integrity, shall permit the Vietnamese people to enjoy the fundamental freedoms, guaranteed by democratic institutions established as a result of free general elections by secret ballot. In order to insure that sufficient progress in the restoration of peace has been made, and that all the necessary conditions obtain for free expression of the national will, general elections shall be held in July, 1956, under the supervision of an international commission composed of representatives of the member States of the International Supervisory Commission, referred to in the agreement on the cessation of hostilities. Consultations will be held on this subject between the competent representative authorities of the two zones from 20 July 1955 onwards....

The DRV approved the Final Declaration, and, having failed in its attempts to bring about immediate elections on unification, no doubt did so reluctantly. There has been some authoritative speculation that the Viet Minh accepted this aspect of the Settlement with deep cynicism; Pham Van Dong, the DRV delegate at Geneva is supposed to have expressed conviction that the elections would never be held. But it seems more likely that the communist powers fully expected the nascent GVN, already badly shaken from internal stresses, to collapse, and unification to follow with elections or not. In any event, the public stance of the DRV stressed their expectations that the election would be held. Ho Chi Minh stated unequivocally on 22 July 1954 that: "North, Central and South Vietnam are territories of ours. Our country will surely be unified, our entire people will surely be liberated."

The Saigon Government was no less assertive in calling for unification of Vietnam. In a note to the French of 17 July 1954, the GVN delegate at Geneva protested having been left until then "in complete ignorance" of French intentions regarding the division of the country, which he felt failed to "take any account of the unanimous will for national unity of the Vietnamese people"; he proposed, futilely, United Nations trusteeship of all Vietnam in preference to a nation "dismembered and condemned to slavery." At the final session of the Conference, when called upon to join in the Final Declaration, the GVN delegate announced that his government "reserves its full freedom of action in order to safeguard the sacred right of the Vietnamese people to its territorial unity, national independence and freedom." Thus the Geneva truce confronted from the outset the anomaly of two sovereign Vietnamese states, each calling for unification, but only one, the DRV, committed to achieving it via the terms of the Settlement.

2. France Withdraws, 1954-1956

France, as the third party in Vietnam, then became pivotal to any political settlement, its executor for the West. But France had agreed to full independence for the GVN on June 4, 1954, nearly six weeks before the end of the Geneva Conference. By the terms of that June agreement, the GVN assumed responsibility for international contracts previously made on its behalf by France; but, there having been no reference to subsequent contracts, it was technically free of the Geneva Agreements. It has been argued to the contrary that the GVN was bound by Geneva because it possessed at the time few of the attributes of full sovereignty, and especially because it was dependent on France for defense. But such debates turn on tenuous points of international law regarding the prerogatives of newly independent or partitioned states. France speedily divested itself of responsibilities for "civil administration" in South Vietnam. In February, 1956, the GVN requested France to withdraw its military forces, and on April 26, 1956, the French military command in Vietnam, the signatory of the Geneva Agreement, was dissolved. France, torn by domestic political turbulence in which past disappointments and continued frustrations in Vietnam figured prominently, and tested anew in Algeria, abandoned its position in Southeast Asia. No doubt, an increasingly acerbic relation between its representatives and those of the United States in South Vietnam hastened its departure, where American policy clashed with French over the arming and training of a national army for the GVN, over French military assistance for the religious sects, over French economic policy on repatriating investments, and over general French opposition to Diem. But more fundamentally, France felt itself shouldered aside in South Vietnam by the United States over:

(1) Policy toward the DRV. The French averred initially that Ho was a potential Tito, and that they could through an accommodation with him preserve their economic and cultural interests in Vietnam--in their view, a "coexistence experiment" of world wide significance in the Cold War. As of December, 1954, they were determined to carry out the Geneva elections. Eventually, however, they were obliged to choose between the U.S. and the DRV, so firmly did the U.S. foreclose any adjustment to the DRV's objectives.

(2) Policy toward Diem. France opposed Diem not solely because he was a cally Francophobe Annamite, but because he threatened directly their posiin Vietnam. His nationalism, his strictures against "feudalists," his notions of moral regeneration all conjoined in an enmity against the French nearly as heated as that he harbored against the communists--but to greater effect, for it was far easier for him to muster his countrymen's opinion against the French than against the Viet Minh. By the spring of 1955, the Diem-France controversy acquired military dimensions when French supported sect forces took up arms against the GVN. At that time, while the U.S. construed its policy as aiding "Free Vietnam," the French saw Diem as playing Kerensky's role in Vietnam, with the People's Revolutionary Committee as the Bolsheviks, and Ho, the Viet Minh Lenin, waiting off stage.

(3) Military Policy. By the end of 1954, the French were persuaded that SEATO could never offer security for their citizens and other. interests in Vietnam, and had despaired of receiving U.S. military aid for a French Expeditionary corps of sufficient size to meet the threat. U.S. insistence that it should train RVNAF increased their insecurity. Within the combined U.S.- French headquarters in Saigon thereafter, officers of both nations worked side by side launching countervailing intrigues among the Vietnamese, and among each other. In March of 1956, as France prepared to accede to the GVN request for withdrawal of its remaining military forces, Foreign Minister Pineau, in a Paris speech, took the U.K. and the U.S. to task for disrupting Western unity. While Pineau selected U.S. support of French-hating Diem for particular rancor, he did so in the context of decrying France's isolation in dealing with nationalist rebels in North Africa--and thus generally indicated two powers who had threatened the French empire since the U.K. intervened in Syria in 1941, and President Roosevelt assured the Sultan of Morocco that his sympathies lay with the colonial peoples struggling for independence.

Ultimately, France had to place preservation of its European position ahead of empire, and, hence, cooperation with the U.S. before opposition in Indochina. France's vacating Vietnam in 1956 eased U.S. problems there over the short run, and smoothed Diem's path. But the DRV's hope for a national plebescite were thereby dashed. On January 1, 1955, as the waning of France's power in Vietnam became apparent, Pham Van Dong, DRV Premier, declared that as far as Hanoi was concerned: ". . . it was with you, the French, that we signed the Geneva Agreements, and it is up to you to see that they are respected." Some thirteen months later the Foreign Minster of France stated that:

We are not entirely masters of the situation. The Geneva Accords on the one hand and the pressure of our allies on the other creates a very complex juridical situation. . . . The position in principle is clear: France is the guarantor of the Geneva Accords . . . But we do not have the means alone of making them respected.

But the GVN remained adamantly opposed to elections, and neither the U.S. nor any other western power was disposed to support France's fulfillment of its responsibility to the DRV.

3. Diem Refuses Consultation, 1955

Communist expectations that the Diem government would fall victim to the voracious political forces of South Vietnam were unfulfilled. Diem narrowly escaped such a fate, but with American support-albeit wavering, and accompanied by advice he often ignored-Diem within a year of the Geneva Conference succeeded in defeating the most powerful of his antagonists, the armed sects, and in removing from power Francophile elements within his government, including his disloyal military chiefs. He spoke from comparatively firm political ground when, on July 16, 1955, before the date set for consulting with the DRV on the plebescite, he announced in a radio broadcast that:

We did not sign the Geneva Agreements....

We are not bound in any way by these Agreements, signed against the will of the Vietnamese people. . . . We shall not miss any opportunity which would permit the unification of our homeland in freedom, but it is out of the question for us to consider any proposal from the Viet Minh if proof is not given that they put the superior interests of the national community above those of communism.

Moreover, Diem spoke with some assurance of American backing, for the U.S. had never pressed for the elections envisaged by the Settlement. At the final session of Geneva, rather than joining with the Conference delegates in the Final Declaration, the U.S. "observer," Under Secretary of State Walter Bedell Smith, had linked U.S. policy vis-a-vis Vietnam to that for Korea, Taiwan and Germany in these terms:

In the case of nations now divided against their will, we shall continue to seek to achieve unity through free elections supervised by the United Nations to insure that they are conducted fairly.

Although the U.S. opposed elections in 1954 because Ho Chi Minh would have then won them handily, the records of the National Security Council and the Operations Coordinating Board of the summer of 1954 establishes that this government then nonetheless expected elections eventually to be held in Vietnam. But, two major misapprehensions were evident: (1) the U.S. planned through "political action" to ameliorate conditions in Southeast Asia to the point that elections would not jeopardize its objective of survival for a "free" Vietnam; and (2) the U.S. estimated that France would usefully remain in Vietnam. By the spring of 1955, although U.S. diplomacy had brought the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization into being, and although Diem had with U.S. aid weathered a number of severe political storms, the U.S. was less sanguine than its "political action" would suffice, and that further French presence would be helpful. Accordingly, it began to look closely at the conditions under which elections might be held, and urged that Vietnamese do the same. One definition of terms acceptable to the U.S. was set forth in a State Department memorandum of 5 May 1955, approved by Secretary Dulles:

The U.S. believes that the conditions for free elections should be those which Sir Anthony Eden put forward and the three Western Powers supported at Berlin in connection with German reunification. The United States believes that the Free Vietnamese should insist that elections be held under conditions of genuine freedom; that safeguards be agreed to assure this freedom before, after, and during elections and that there be adequate guarantees for, among other things, freedom of movement, freedom of presentation of candidates, immunity of candidates, freedom from arbitrary arrest or victimization, freedom of association or political meetings, freedom of expression for all, freedom of the press, radio, and free circulation of newspapers, secrecy of the vote, and security of polling stations and ballot boxes.

Although the U.S. communicated to Diem its conviction that proposing such conditions to the DRV during pre-plebescite consultations would lead promptly to a fiat rejection, to Diem's marked advantage in world opinion, Diem found it preferable to refuse outright to talk to the North, and the U.S. indorsed his policy.

4. Divided Vietnam: Status Quo Accepted

The deadline for the consultations in July 1955, and the date set for elections in July 1956, passed without further international action to implement those provisions of the Geneva Settlement. The DRV communicated directly with the GVN in July, 1955, and again in May and June of 1956, proposing not only consultative conference to negotiate "free general elections by secret ballot," but to liberalize North-South relations in general. Each time the GVN replied with disdain, or with silence. The 17th parallel, with its demilitarized zone on either side, became de facto an international boundary, and-since Ngo Dinh Diem's rigid refusal to traffic with the North excluded all economic exchanges and even an interstate postal agreement-one of the most restricted boundaries in the world. The DRV appealed to the U.K. and the U.S.S.R. as co-chairmen of the Geneva Conference to no avail. In January, 1956, Communist China requested another Geneva Conference to deal with the situation, but the U.S.S.R. and the U.K. responded only by extending the functions of the International Control Commission beyond its 1956 expiration date. By early 1957 the partition of Vietnam was generally accepted throughout the international community. In January, 1957, the Soviet Union proposed the admission of both the GVN and the DRV to the United Nations, the U.S.S.R. delegate declaring that "in Vietnam two separate States existed, which differed from one another in political and economic structure..."

Professor Hans Morgenthau, writing at the time, and following a visit to South Vietnam, described the political progress of the GVN as a "miracle," but stated that conditions for free elections obtained in neither the North nor the South. He concluded that:

Actually, the provision for free elections which would solve ultimately the problem of Vietnam was a device to hide the incompatibility of the Communist and Western positions, neither of which can admit the domination of all of Vietnam by the other side. It was a device to disguise the fact that the line of military demarcation was bound to be a line of political division as well....

5. The Discontented

However, there were three governments, at least, for which the status quo of a Vietnam divided between communist and non-communist governments was unacceptable. The GNV, while remaining cool to the DRV, pursued an active propaganda campaign prophesying the overturning of communism in the North, and proclaiming its resolve ultimately to reunify the nation in freedom. The United States supported the GVN, having established as national policy in 1956, reaffirmed again in 1958, these guidelines:

Assist Free Viet Nam to develop a strong, stable and constitutional government to enable Free Viet Nam to assert an increasingly attractive contrast to conditions in the present Communist zone. . . . Work toward the weakening of the Communists in North and South Viet Nam in order to bring about the eventual peaceful reunification of a free and independent Viet Nam under anti-Communist leadership. . . . Support the position of the Government of Free Viet Nam that all Viet Nam elections may take place only after it is satisfied that genuinely free elections can be held throughout both zones of Viet Nam. . . . Treat the Viet Minh as not constituting a legitimate government, and discourage other non-Communist states from developing or maintaining relations with the Viet Minh regime....

And the Democratic Republic of Vietnam became increasingly vocal in its calls or "struggle" to end partition. In April, 1956, as the plebescite deadline neared, To Chi Minh declared ominously that:

While recognizing that in certain countries the road to socialism may be a peaceful one, we should be aware of this fact: In countries where the machinery of state, the armed forces, and the police of the bourgeois class are still strong, the proletarian class still has to prepare for armed struggle.

While recognizing the possibility of reunifying Vietnam by peaceful means, we should always remember that our people's principal enemies are the American imperialists and their agents who still occupy half our country and are preparing for war....

In 1956, however, Ho Chi Minh and the DRV faced mounting internal difficulties, and were not yet in a position to translate the partition of Vietnam into casus belli.


1. Provisions for Regroupment

Article 14 of the. "Agreement on the Cessation of Hostilities in Vietnam," which provided for separate political administrations north and south of the 17th parallel, also stated that:

14(d) From the date of entry into force of the present agreement until the movement of troops is completed, any civilians residing in a district controlled by one party who wish to go and live in the zone assigned to the other party shall be permitted and helped to do so by the authorities in that district.

It is probable that none of the conferees foresaw the ramifications of that one sentence, for it put in motion one million Vietnamese refugees, most of them destitute, who became at first heavy burdens on the DRV and the GVN, and ultimately political and military assets for both regimes. For the United States, the plight of these peoples lent humanitarian dimensions to its policy toward Vietnam, and new perspectives to its economic and military assistance.

2. Exodus to South Vietnam

In accordance with Article 1 of the Agreement on Cessation of Hostilities, 190,000 troops of the French Expeditionary Corps were moved from North Vietnam to the South. In addition, some 900,000 civilians exercised their option under Article 14 (d) of the Armistice. While no wholly reliable statistics exist, there is agreement among several authorities that the figures presented by the International Commission for Supervision and Control in Vietnam (ICC), citing chiefly the Saigon Government as its source, are generally correct.


North Zone to South Zone Period Ending
(i) Total Arrivals (Figs. given by the State of Vietnam) 19.5.55 By air 213,635
    By sea 550,824
    Across provisional demarcation line 12,344
    By other means 41,324
    Total 818,127
(ii) Estimate of arrivals not registered (Figs. given by the State of Vietnam in April)     70,000
    Total 888,127
(iii) Figs. given by PAVN 19.5.55   4,749
  Up to 20.7.55 TOTAL 892,876

The uncertainty of statistics concerning total numbers of refugees stems not only from DRV reluctance to report departures, but also the turbulent conditions which then obtained throughout Vietnam, where the French were in the process of turning over public administration to Vietnamese, and wehre Saigon's communicaations with refugee relief operations in the field were at best tenuous. U.S. Department of State analysis in 1957 estimated the following composition and disposition of the refugees.


Category Number (Approximate)
1. Registered with GVN for refugee benefits 640,000 Vietnamese
  15,000 Nungs
  5,000 Chinese
2. Ferench citizens resettled or repatriated by France 40,000
3. Chinese absorbed into Chinese community in South 45,000
  Total 640,000 Vietnamese
(Remainder, 200,000 Vietnamese ansorbed without aid, e.g. dependents of military, civil servants)  

The GVN director of refugee programs that the refugees were composed, by trade, as follows:

Farmers 76%
Fisherman 10%
Artisans, small businessmen, students, government employees, professional 14%

But it was religious orientation which, ultimately assumed the greatest importance in South Vietnam's political life: an estimated 65% of North Vietnam's Catholics moved to the South, more than 600,000 in all; these, with 2,000 northern Protestants, were settled in their own communities.

3. Causes of the Exodus

The flight from North Vietnam reflected apprehension over the coming to power of the Viet Minh. Institutionally, the Viet Minh were further advanced in North Vietnam than the South, and had in areas of the North under their control already conducted several experiments in social revolution.

[Material missing]



World War II and the First Indochina War left the society of South Vietnam severely torn. The Japanese, during the years of their presence from 1940-1945, had encouraged armed factionalism to weaken the French administration and strengthen their own position. The war between the Viet Minh and the French
-which began in South Vietnam in September, 1945-wrought further disunity. Paradoxically, the South suffered political damage compared to the North from having been the secondary theater of both wars. The Japanese had sought during World War II to control it without sizable occupation forces. Similarly, in the First Indochina War, the French had practiced economy of force in the South so that they could concentrate in Tonkin. For conventional forces, both the Japanese and the French substituted irregular warfare and a system of bribes, subversion, arms, military advice, and officially condoned concessions in corruption. From 1945-1954, the fighting in South Vietnam was more sporadic and diffuse than in the North, but in a societal sense, ultimately more destructive. While in Tonkin the Viet Minh flowed in through and behind the French and continued to build a nation and unify the people with surprising efficiency, in the South they were unable to do so. Not only were the Viet Minh centers of power in the North and the China base area too remote to support effectively the southern insurgency, but also the French had imitated the Japanese in arming and supplying certain South Vietnamese factions, fomenting civil war against the southern arm of the Viet Minh. The results approached anarchy: a virtual breakdown in public administration by Franco-Vietnamese central governments and deep cleavages within the Vietnamese body politic. By the summer of 1954, conspiracy had become the primary form of political communication in South Vietnam, and violence the primary mode of political change.

Politically, as well as geographically, South Vietnam consisted of three distinctive regions: the narrow, coastal plan of Annam, thickly settled by Vietnamese, where was located Hue, the ancient Viet capital and cultural center; the Highlands, sparsely populated by Montagnard tribesmen, in which was situated the summer capital of Dalat; and Cochinchina, the fertile, densely peopled river-delta area in which Saigon stood [maps deleted]. Cochinchina had experienced a political development markedly different from that of Annam. The last area of modern Vietnam to be occupied by the Viet people in their expansion southward (8th Century, A.D.), and the first area to fall to French rule (mid-19th Century), Cochinchina had been administered by the French directly as

a colony, while Annam remained under the Emperor as a French protectorate. While the mandarinal rule of the Annamese court was more a matter of form than substance, Annam's public administration preserved a degree of unity among the Vietnamese despite the impress of French culture. In South Vietnam, the French seemed to be a wholly divisive influence. Though Cochinchina was the site of some of the achievements of which French colonialists were most proud--the chief seat of the rubber industry, and focus of major feats of engineering with canals and railroads--the Cochinchinese seem to recall less the triumphs of French civilization than its burdens: the French rubber plantations, abrasive with their labor, high-handed with local peoples; the oppressive taxes, and the French controlled monopolies on salt, alcohol and opium; recurrent famine in the midst of one of the earth's richest farming regions; socially restrictive schooling; modernizing challenges to familial piety, village centralism, and other cherished fundaments of Viet culture. While Annam--and Tonkin to the north--developed indigenous political movements opposing French rule, these were mainly foreign-based, foreign-oriented parties, such as the Nationalist Party (VNQDD), a Vietnamese copy of the Kuomintang, or the Indochinese Communist Party (ICP) of the Comintern, headed by Russian-trained Ho Chi Minh. In Cochinchina, however, there emerged a number of nationalist movements peculiar to that region, or principally based on that region. Saigon, for example, developed a range of leftist movements competitive with the ICP, including two Trotskyite parties, as well as a number of VNQDD splinter movements, and a politically active gangster fraternity, the Binh Xuyen. But the important differences were in the countryside, where millions of Vietnamese joined wholly Cochinchinese religious sects which propagated xenophobic nationalism, established theocracies, and fielded armed forces. French and Japanese policy had deliberately fostered conflict among these several factions to the extent that Cochinchina was, in 1954, literally fractioned among the religious sects, the Binh Xuyen, and the Viet Minh. While by 1954 the Viet Minh dominated Annam and the Highlands, control of Cochinchina eluded them, for all their ruthless efficiency.

1. The Binh Xuyen

Saigon itself in 1954 was under the rule of the Binh Xuyen, a secret society of brigands evolved from the Black Flag pirates which had for generations preyed on the city's commerce. The Binh Xuyen ethos included a fierce--albeit eclectic--nationalism. They collaborated with the Japanese during World War II, and in September, 1945, led the savage attack against the French in Saigon which marked the start of the Franco-Viet Minh War. The Binh Xuyen leader, Le Van (Bay) Vien, subsequently contracted an alliance with the Viet Minh, allied his 1300 soldiers with their guerrillas, and served for a time as the Viet Minh deputy commander for Cochinchina and one of its chief sources of funds. Bay Vien's refusal to assassinate certain Viet Minh-condemned Vietnamese intellectuals reputedly stirred Viet Minh misgivings, and called the Binh Xuyen favorably to the attention of the National United Front, an anti-communist, Viet nationalist group then operating out of Shanghai. In 1947, Bay Vien was persuaded to cooperate with the National United Front. Informed, the Viet Minh invited him to the Plain of Reeds in an attempt to capture him. Bay Vien escaped, and thereupon threw in his lot with the French and the State of Vietnam, accepting a commission as the first colonel of the Vietnamese National Army. Bay Vien afterwards paid Bao Dai what Colonel Lansdale termed "a staggering sum" for control of gambling and prostitution in Cholon, and of the Saigon-Cholon police. The French accepted the arrangement because Bay Vien offset the Viet Minh threat to Saigon. By 1954, Bay Vien was operating "Grande Monde," a gambling slum in Cholon; "Cloche d'Or," Saigon's preeminent gambling establishment; the "Noveautes Catinat," Saigon's best department store; a hundred smaller shops; a fleet of river boats; and a brothel, spectacular even by Asian standards, known as the Hall of Mirrors. Besides a feudal fief south of Saigon, he owned an opium factory and distribution system, and held substantial interests in fish, charcoal, hotels, and rubber plantations. Besides the police apparatus and other followers numbering 5000 to 8000, he had some 2500 soldiers at his disposal. He ruled Saigon absolutely; not even Viet Minh terrorists were able to operate there. Moreover, he exercised significant influnce over the Cao Dai and the Hoa Hao leaders.

2. The Cao Dai

The Cao Dai were a religious sect founded by a colonial bureaucrat named Ngo Van Chieu, who with one Pham Cong Tac conducted a series of spiritualist seances from which emerged a new religious faith, and in the early 1920's, a "church" with clerical organization similar to Roman Catholicism. The doctrine of the Cao Dai was syncretic, melding veneration of Christ, Buddha, Confucius, and Lao Tze with a curious occultism which deified such diverse figures as Joan of Arc, Victor Hugo, and Sun Yat Sen. With the dissolution of the authority of the central government during the 1940's and early 1950's, the Cao Dai acquired increasing political and military autonomy. The sect's 1,500,000 to 2,000,000 faithful comprised a loose theocracy centered in Tay Ninh, the border province northwest of Saigon.

The Cao Dai, too, cooperated first with the Japanese, and then with the Viet Minh; and the Cao Dai leadership also found the latter uncomfortable allies. In 1947, the Cao Dai realigned with the French, agreeing to secure with their forces specified rural areas against the Viet Minh in return for military assistance. Although plagued throughout its history by minor heresy and factional disputes, the Cao Dai became the largest political movement in Cochinchina; the Cao Dai shared with the Hoa Hao the distinction of being the only important political forces to originate in the Vietnamese peasantry. When Diem came to power in 1954, Pham Cong Tac, the Cao Dai Pope, had declared for Bao Dai, controlled some 15,000 to 20,000 armed followers, and ruled the region northwest of Saigon.

3. The Hoa Hao

Southwest of Saigon there existed the Hoa Hao, a newer sect, similarly endowed with politico-military autonomy, which repeatedly clashed with the Cao Dai and the Binh Xuyen. In 1939, a mystic faith healer named Huynh Phu So, from a village named Hoa Hao, launched a reformed Hinayana Buddhist movement *hich swiftly acquired a wide following. (Among the Vietnamese whom Huynh Phu So favorably impressed was Ngo Dinh Diem.) Huynh Phu So enjoyed Japanese protection, and with their aid, in 1944 the Hoa Hao formed armed bands, among the leaders of which there was one Tran Van Soai. A Viet Minh attempt to gain the assistance of the Hoa Hao failed, and the Viet Minh on 8 September 1945 massacred hundreds of Hoa Hao faithful in the town of Can Tho. Tran Van Soai replied in kind, and in the ensuing weeks Can Tho became the center of extensive slaughter. French intervention stopped the violence, but turned the Hoa Hao against the French. In April, 1947, the Viet Minh executed Huynh Phu So, which caused Tran Van Soai to rally with 2,000 armed men to the French. He was accepted into the French Expeditionary Corps with the rank of general, and assigned the mission of pacifying his own region. The French from that time forward, until 1955, paid the salaries of the Hoa Hao soldiers. At the time Diem came to office in 1954, the sect had some 1,500,000 believers, controlled most of the Mekong Delta region, and had 10,000 to 15,000 men under arms.

4. The Viet Minh

In 1954, the Viet Minh controlled some 60 to 90 percent of South Vietnam's villages (by French estimates) and 30 to 40 percent of its territory (by U.S. estimates). The bulk of organized Viet Minh forces were located in Annam and the Highlands, proximate to Tonkin, and in regions free of competition from the armed sects. In Cochinchina, they were militarily strongest in areas along the Cambodian border and in the Camau peninsula of the extreme south remote from the principal concentrations of people. Nonetheless, their political organization was pervasive, and in some localities, e.g., Quang Ngai province in Annam, the Viet Minh were the only effective government. A hierarchy of Viet Minh committees paralleled the formal government from the village Administrative and Resistance Committee (ARC) through district, province, and what the Viet Minh termed "interzone" or "region." No reliable estimates exist of the numbers of cadres involved in this apparatus, but Viet Minh military forces of all types south of the 17th parallel probably numbered around 100,000. When orders were issued for the Geneva regroupment, the "provisional assembly areas" designated coincided with the areas in which Viet Minh strength had been greatest. During the time allowed for collecting forces for the move north, the Viet Minh evidently undertook to bank the fires of revolution by culling out of their units trained and reliable cadres for "demobilization," "recruiting" youth--forcibly in many instances--to take their place, and caching weapons. Particularly in Annam and the Highlands, then, the Viet Minh posed a significant challenge to Ngo Dinh Diem. His test of strength with the Viet Minh, however, was to be deferred by the Geneva Settlement and DRV policy for some years.

5. Anti-Colonialism

The political prospects of Ngo Dinh Diem when he accepted the premiership from Bao Dai were dimmed not only by Viet Minh residue, and by the existence of the armed sects, but by the taint of colonialism As far as most Cochinchinese peasants were concerned, Diem was linked to Bao Dai, and to the corrupt, French dominated government he headed. Studies of peasant attitudes conducted in recent years have demonstrated that for many, the struggle which began in 1945 against colonialism continued uninterrupted throughout Diem's regime: in 1954, the foes of nationalists were transformed from France and Bao Dai, to Diem and the U.S.--My-Diem, American-Diem, became the universal term of Viet Cong opprobrium--but the issues at stake never changed. There was, moreover, some substance to the belief that Diem represented no change, in that, although Ngo Dinh Diem took office before the Geneva Settlement as prime minister with "full powers civil and military," he did not acquire actual administrative autonomy until September, 1954; proclaim independence until January, 1955; or take command of his army until February, 1955. There was perforce a significant carry-over of civil servants from the pre-Diem days. The national flag and the national anthem remained unchanged. Moreover, the laws remained substantially as they had been: the land-holdings, against which was directed much peasant discontent, were based on pre-Diem law; and old legal proscriptions against nationalist political activities remained on the books during Diem's tenure of office. The onus of colonialism was among the heavy burdens which Ngo Dinh Diem had to shoulder from the outset.


1. Political Origins

Why amid the military disasters of spring 1954, Bao Dai, head of the State of Vietnam, chose Ngo Dinh Diem from among other Vietnamese nationalists to form a government, has long been debated. Diem was an Annamese Catholic who in his youth had some experience in public administration, first as governor of Phan Thiet province, and then Minister of Interior at Bao Dai's Imperial Court in Hue. In 1933 Diem discovered, after a year in the latter office, that reforms he had been promised were being blocked by high French and Annamite officials. He promptly resigned his office and went into political retirement-an act which earned him modest fame for integrity. Through the years of war and distress in his homeland thereafter, Diem had hewed to attentisme, and by refusing public office, had avoided the political discoloration which besmirched more involved Viet nationalists. Bao Dai had sought him for his premier in 1945, Ho Chi Minh for the DRV government in 1946, the French for their "solutions" in 1947 and 1949-all unsuccessfully. Hence, Diem's reputation for incorruptible nationalism, to the extent that he enjoyed one in 1954, was based on an event 20 years old and a long period of political aloofness. He did come from a prominent family; a brother, Ngo Dinh Thuc was a leading Catholic clergyman with countrywide connections, and the family proper retained some considerable influence in Annam. But his personal handicaps were considerable: bachelor, ascetic, shy, inexperienced, he seemed ill-fit for the seething intrigues of Saigon.

One school of conjecture holds that the French pressed him upon Bao Dai in the belief that under him the newly independent State of Vietnam would founder; another that Bao Dai advanced him to power convinced that his inevitable failure would eliminate him as a political competitor. There are those who believe that Diem was foisted upon the Vietnamese and the French by a cabal of prominent American Catholics and a CIA agent. It can be said that Diem was relatively well acquainted among leading Americans, and that Bao Dai might correctly have regarded Diem's contacts in the United States as a possible source of support for Vietnam. Whatever the reasons for his selection, however, at the time he took office there were few who regarded Diem as promising, and fewer still openly willing to back him. Indeed, from the time he took office on 7 July 1954, until the following May, he was virtually alone. Unaided by Bao Dai, opposed by the French, and proferred by Americans mainly advice, criticism, and promises-but scant material assistance-Ngo Dinh Diem in ten months surmounted the partition of his nation by the Geneva powers, two threatened military coups by his Army Chiefs of Staff, frenetic clashes with the Binh Xuyen armed sects, the withdrawal of the Viet Minh, and the influx of 900,000 refugees from North Vietnam.

2. Early U.S.-Diem Relations

Diem's durability was one of those surprises in Vietnam which prompted Americans thereafter to refer to the "miracle in Vietnam." On 7 December 1954, Senator Mansfield judged that U.S. "prospects for helping Diem strengthen and uphold South Vietnam look very dim." U.S. Ambassador Heath reported from Saigon on 17 December 1954 a dim view of Diem's chances since "there is every evidence that the French do not want Diem to succeed." In a January, 1955, report to the National Security Council, General J. Lawton Collins agreed with both analyses. On 7 April 1955, Collins cabled from Saigon that: ". . . it is ny considered judgment that the man lacks the personal qualities of leadership md the executive ability successfully to head a government that must compete with the unity of purpose and efficiency of the Viet Minh under Ho Chi Minh." On 19 April, Collins again cabled: "I see no alternative to the early replacement of Diem."

On 26 April 1955, U.S. National Intelligence Estimate 63.1-2-55, "Possible Developments in South Vietnam," took the view that:

A political impasse exists in Saigon where the legally constituted government of Premier Diem is being challenged by a venal special interest group, the Binh Xuyen, which controls the National Security Police, and is temporarily allied with some elements of the religious sects....

Even if the present impasse were resolved, we believe that it would be extremely difficult, at best, for a Vietnamese government, regardless of its composition, to make progress toward developing a strong, stable anti-Communist government capable of resolving the basic social, economic, and political problems of Vietnam, the special problems arising from the Geneva agreement, and capable of meeting the long-range challenge of the Communists.....

But opinion in Washington swung sharply when, in late April, Diem managed to survive a severe test of arms with his army and the sects. Senators Mansfield and
Knowland issued strong statements of support for him, and on May 2 Senator Hubert Humphrey told the Senate that:

Premier Diem is the best hope that we have in South Vietnam. He is the leader of his people. He deserves and must have the wholehearted support of the American Government and our foreign policy. This is no time for uncertainty or half-hearted measures. . . . He is the only man on the political horizon of Vietnam who can rally a substantial degree of support of his people. . . . If we have any comments about the leadership in Vietnam let it be directed against Bao Dai. . . . If the Government of South Vietnam has not room for both these men, it is Bao Dai who must go....

On 9 May 1955, the Joint Chiefs of Staff judged that "the government of Prime Minister Ngo Dinh Diem shows the greatest promise of achieving the internal stability essential for the future security of Vietnam." Five months later, on 11 October, 1955, the National Intelligence Estimate was revised. In NIE 63.1-3-55, 'Probable Developments in Vietnam to July 1956," the U.S. Intelligence Advisory Committee found it possible to be more sanguine concerning Diem's prospects:

Diem has made considerable progress toward establishing the first fully independent Vietnamese government. . . . He faced a basically unstable and deteriorating situation. . . . The most significant articulate political sentiments of the bulk of the population was an antipathy for the French combined with a personal regard for Ho Chi Minh as the symbol of Vietnamese nationalism....

Diem was forced to move slowly. Although possessing considerable national prestige as a patriot, he was inexperienced in administration and was confronted at the outset by the intrigues of Bao Dai and other self-interested individuals and groups, who in many cases benefited from French support....

Diem concentrated on eliminating or neutralizing the most important groups and individuals challenging the authority of his government....By bribery, persuasion, and finally force, Diem virtually eliminated the Binh Xuyen and the most important elements of the Hoa Hao sects as threats to his authority. At the same time, he maneuvered the Cao Dai--the strongest of the sects--into an uneasy alliance. As a result of these successful actions, Diem gained prestige and increased popularity as a symbol of Diem's efforts to establish a viable anti-communist government are still in doubt....

Provided the Communists do not exercise their capabilities to attack across the 17th Parallel or to initiate large-scale guerrilla warfare in South Vietnam, Diem will probably make further progress in developing a more effective government. His position will probably be strengthened as a result of increased popular support, the continued loyalty of the VNA, and a deterioration in the strength and cohesiveness of his non-Communist opposition. The national government will probably increase the number of rural communities under its control, particularly in areas now held by the sects....

It is likely that Diem's stormy first 10 months in office, June, 1954 to May, 1955, strongly conditioned his behavior in later years. He must have been impressed almost at once with the political importance of the army, and the essentiality of personally loyal ranking officers. He chose openly to oppose the armed sects against the advice of both his American and French advisers, and his success no doubt instilled confidence in his own judgments. The same events probably gave him reason thereafter to value head-on confrontation with a foe over conciliation or compromise. And in his adamant stand against consultations with the DRV on plebescite, again contrary to initial American advice, he no doubt learned that on major issues the U.S. stake in his future was sufficiently high that he could lead, and American policy would follow. In any event, he moved with new assurance from mid-1955 forward. In many respects his first 300 days were his finest hours, when he was moving alone, rapidly, and with determination against great odds.

3. Political Concepts: Family Centralism and Personalism

But Diem's early victories were essentially negative, in eliminating or bypassing obstacles. It remained for him to provide programs for finding homes and occupations for the refugees, for solving the politically crucial problems of rural land distribution and taxation, for installing capable and incorrupt public administrators, for stimulating the economy, for improving the education system-in short, for coping with the whole broad range of problems of governing a developing nation, each rendered especially acute by South Vietnam's war trauma, internal dissention, and partition from North Vietnam. To cite but a few: 600,000 refugees were dependent on his government for subsistence; 85,000 people were jobless as a result of the French troop withdrawal; inter-provincial communications were impaired-700 miles of main road were war-damaged, one third of the railway trackage lay destroyed, 68 concrete bridges on 860 miles of track lay blown. In devising programs to meet these challenges, Diem worked from two primal concepts: family centralism, and "personalism" as a state philosophy.

Diem was raised in a Mandarinal family, born to a tradition of high position in the social hierarchy and governmental bureaucracy. It was also a Catholic family, and Diem received a heritage of obdurate devotion to Christianity under intense persecution-within a century of his birth one hundred relatives had been burned to death by Buddhists in central Annam. His rearing developed his reverence for the past, a capacity for hard work, and a deep seated piety. Two French authors believed that his outlook on life was "born of a profound, of an immense nostalgia for the Vietnamese past, of a desperate filial respect for the society of ancient Annam." There was some thought of his becoming a priest, but he elected public administration; his elder brother Thuc, the cleric, is said to have speculated that Diem found himself too inflexible, too willful, too severe for the priesthood. But above all else, Diem's early years impressed upon him the importance of family in performing the duties of station: the family was the first means of extending personal power, the essential mode of political expression. It is possible that Diem resorted to nepotism simply because he lacked a personal political apparatus which would have permitted him to operate otherwise, but nepotism became the style of his rule, and it was quite consistent with his upbringing.

"Society," said Diem, "functions through personal relations among men at the top." One brother, Ngo Dinh Nhu, received the title of Advisor to the President, and controlled the semi-covert Personalist Labor Revolutionary Party. His wife, Madame Nhu, became the President's official hostess, a deputy in the National Assembly, and the founder-chairman of the Woman's Solidarity Movement. Her father became one of Diem's ambassadors, and his wife the GVN observer at the UN. A second brother of Diem, Ngo Dinh Can, became the virtual overlord of Annam, holding no official position, but ruling the region in all respects. A third brother, Ngo Dinh Thuc, the Archbishop of Hue and Primate of Vietnam, also held no office, but functioned as Presidential advisor, and levered Catholic opinion on behalf of Diem. A fourth brother, Ngo Dinh Luyen, became an Ambassador. Three family members--Tran Van Chuong, Tran Van Do, and Tran Van Bac--served in Diem's first cabinet, and two other in-laws, Nguyen Huu Chau and Tran Trung Dung, held the key portfolios of Secretary of State at the Presidency and Assistant Secretary of State for National Defense. One of the reasons General Collins opposed Diem may be a letter he received in April, 1955, from a group of nationalists headed by former Premier Nguyen Phan Long, urging the United States to withdraw its support of Diem on the grounds that his brothers were effectively isolating Diem politically. The observation proved to be correct: Ngo Dinh Nhu and Ngo Dinh Can increasingly gathered power into their own hands, and non-family politicians found themselves quietly shunted aside. Gradually, a concentration of power also occurred within the family circle, again toward Nhu, Mme Nhu and Can, and at the expense of the more remotely related. The President's family thus became an entirely extra-legal elite which in class and geographic origin, as well as religion, was distinct from the South Vietnamese as a whole.

The Diem family circle was promptly targeted by gossipers. In Saigon, rumors were the political medium, and stories were soon rampant that members of the family were looting the government. By 1957, the whispering campaign against the Nhus mounted to such proportions that they issued a public statement denying that they had ever removed money from the country, engaged in financial or commercial speculation, or accepted bribes. But the impression remained, fed by numerous credible reports of official graft at lower levels, that whether or not the Diem family took for personal gain, they took.

Another disadvantage proceeded from the Diem's familial concentration of power: bureaucratic overcentralization; Diem himself seems to have been peculiarly at fault in this instance, reserving for himself the power of decision in minute matters, and refusing to delegate authority to subordinates who might have relieved him of a crushing administrative burden. In part, this may have been simply inexperience in handling a large enterprise, but there seems to have been deeper, philosophical reasons--a passion for perfection, a distrust of other men, a conviction that all subordinates required his paternalistic guidance. The result was an impairment of an administrative system already crippled by the absence of French civil servants. Subordinate officials, incapable of making decisions, fearful of making them, or forbidden to make them, passed upward even minute matters on paper to the brothers Ngo, glutting the communications of government, and imposing long delays on all, even important actions.

Personalism, as Diem called his personal political philosophy, was a melange of Asian and European notions which resembled the French Catholic personnalisme of Emmanuel Mounier, or the Encyclicals of Popes Leo XIII and Pius XI. More accurately, it was a blend of Christianity, Marxism, and Confucianism which stressed the development of each individual's moral character as the basis for community progress toward democracy. Diem saw himself as a reformer, even a revolutionary, in the moral realm. His central social message was that each citizen achieved moral fulfillment or harmony only if he applied himself energetically to his civic duties, avoiding on the one hand the selfishness of capitalism, and on the other, the selflessness of Marxist collectivism. "The basis for democracy can only be a spiritual one," said Diem in his Message to the National Assembly on the Constitution of 1956, and in New Delhi in 1957, he took Asians to task for losing sight of the spiritual essence of their political traditions:

...Does not our spirituality of which we are so proud, simply conceal a narrow conservatism and a form of escapism from concrete responsibility? . . . Has not Buddhist compassion become a pretext for not practicing justice . . . And is not tolerance, which so many can mistake for freedom, the result of paternalistic indulgence?

And the same year, in Korea, he spoke of his hopes for restoring the spiritual strength of Vietnam after "the tremendous material and political difficulties which assailed Vietnam after Geneva had plunged even the best of her sons into a state of apprehension colored with despair....."

We pursue two aims.

First we want to rearm the Vietnamese citizen morally and to make him impervious to all tyranny whatever its origin.

Second, we want to reinforce the spiritual cohesion of the Vietnamese people, cohesion which accounts for capacity to enjoy a largely decentralized system without falling into anarchy. Yet this cohesion has been largely shaken by the impact of the west.

Yet man does not live only by the idea of liberty. He must be given a minimum of material support which will guarantee that liberty .

A GVN approved biography of Diem explained that he recognized in communism the antithesis of true freedom, precisely because communism denied the existence of God and the immortality of the soul. Personalism was the answer therefore to communism, since:

Personalism is a system based on the divine, therefore spiritual law, which . . . extols man's transcendent value . . . The practice of Personalism is symbolic of good citizenship with a highly developed civic spirit....

Late in Diem's reign, when his combat with the communists had been fully joined, these vague precepts were elaborated by his brother, Nhu, but hardly clarified:

The personalist conception holds that freedom in an underdeveloped society is not something that is simply given or bestowed. It can only be achieved through militancy and vigilance, by doing away with all pretentions and pretexts for not realistically applying ourselves to our goals. In a situation of underdevelopment, and during a bleeding war of internal division, it may be argued that there is reason enough not to seek to develop democracy, but our personalist approach is precisely militant in denying this. Human rights and human dignity are not static phenomenons. They are only possibilities which men must actively seek and deserve, not just beg for. In this sense, of believing in the process of constantly perfecting of oneself in moral as well as practical ways our personalist approach is similar to Confucianism. Personalism stresses hard work, and it is the working class, the peasants, who are better able to understand the concept than the intellectuals. We must use Personalist methods to realize democracy at the level where people are fighting and working, and in our new scale of values it is those who participate physically and selflessly in the fight against communism who are most privileged, then those who courageously serve the villages without profit, and finally those who engage diligently in productive labor for their own as well as for their villages' benefit....

Some American observers found these ideas with their emphasis on "democicy" reassuring. Others, including General Edward Lansdale, urged on Diem broader ideological strategem of forming a "front" embracing the concepts of more traditional Viet nationalist parties.

"Personalism," like Diem's Spanish-style Catholicism, harbored little tolerance; merely different political theories were interpreted as competitive, and even dangerous. Personalism thus limited Diem's political horizons, and almost certainly impaired his government's ability to communicate with the peasantry. "Personalism" became the official philosophy of the state, and though government employees were required to attend weekly sessions on its tenets, it never succeeded in becoming much more than the cant of Diem's administration, and the credo of the two political parties organized and directly controlled by his family.

4. Political Parties

The latter were peculiarly Diemist: paternally authoritarian, organized as an extension of family power. The pivotal organization was the Personalist Labor Revolutionary Party (Can Lao Nhan Vi Cach Mang Dang), an apparatus devised and controlled by Ngo Dinh Nhu, semi-covert, self-effacing, but with members stationed at all the levers of power within Saigon, and a web of informants everywhere in the country. Nhu envisaged the Can Lao as the vanguard of Diem's undertakings, and it became in fact the backbone of the regime. Drawing intelligence from agents at all echelons of government in the village, in factories, schools, military units, the Can Lao sought to detect the corrupt or disloyal citizen, and was empowered to bring him to arrest and trial. The Can Lao, unfortunately for Diem's political flexibility, concentrated on disloyalty. Ngo Dinh Nhu, who admitted that the Can Lao closely resembled the communists in organization and technique, used it to stifle all political sentiment competitive or opposed to Ngo Dinh Diem.

The other Diemist party was an open, "mass party," the National Revolutionary Movement (Phong Trao Cach Mang Quoc Gia). Diem himself was the honorary leader of the Party, and it was the official vehicle for his political movement. The Party claimed to have grown from 10,000 members in 1955 to 1,500,000 in 1959. In that time it acquired a majority in the National Assembly, and amassed strong voting records for Diem and NRM candidates in elections at all levels. The Party claims to have originated in "clandestine struggle for the revolution of national independence and human emancipation" at the time Diem resigned from Bao Dai's government in 1933, but properly it came into being in October, 1954. The NRM was closely associated with the National Revolutionary Civil Servants League (Lien Doan Cong Chuc Mang Quoc Gia), and since membership in the latter was a concomitant of government employment, the civil service became the core of the NRM. The relationship also established a NRM-League hierarchy parallel to, and in most instances identical with, the government hierarchy down to the village level. Obviously, too, the arrangement equated a party membership with distinct advantages in dealing with the government. NRM strength figures were probably exaggerated, and its active members--those who attended party functions and political indoctrination sessions--were those in the League; the NRM was, in effect, a party of government employees or dependents.

Diem did not involve himself directly in the managing of either the Can Lao or the NRM. The former, as mentioned, was always the creature of Nhu. Nhu also controlled the southern branches of the NRM, but in Annam and portions of the Central Highlands the NRM was the tightly held instrument of Ngo Dinh Can. Can brooked no opposition whatsoever; Nhu, more confident in the regions where the Can Lao was most efficient, occasionally permitted some political activity by minority groups, such as the Cao Dai and Hoa Hao sects, and the Socialists. But that activity was tolerated only so long as it was pro-Diem and supporting, rather than opposing, GVN policy.

These were the ideas and the political apparatus by which Ngo Dinh Diem sought to weld together a nation in the aftermath of Geneva. Their narrowness, their inappropriateness for most Cochinchinese and Annamites, virtually assured that the history of his regime, after its initial successes, would become an almost unbroken record of alienation of one portion after another of the Vietnamese body politic. This process of alienation accentuated the failures of the Geneva Settlement, and ultimately led to Ngo Dinh Diem's assassination.


1. Defeat of the Binh Xuyen

At the time he took office, Diem controlled scarcely a few blocks of Saigon, the capital remaining firmly in the control of Bay Vien and the Binh Xuyen. Beginning in September, 1954, Diem tried to divide and conquer the sects. Four leaders from each of the religious sects were brought into his cabinet in an effort to isolate the Binh Xuyen, and with U.S. assistance he sought to integrate the sect forces into the national army. He enjoyed some initial success in rallying Cao Dai forces, and confident from assurances of direct American aid, he shut down, in January, 1955, the Binh Xuyen concessions in Saigon and Cholon. In the ensuing confrontation, the Binh Xuyen swung the Cao Dai and the Hoa Hao into a United Front of Nationalist Forces, and, although French aid for their forces had formally been withdrawn, continued to draw on French funds and advice. On March 29, 1955, fighting broke in Saigon in which sections of the city were burned. Although a truce was struck, the affair polarized relations between Diem and the sects; between Diem and General Collins, whose advice to conciliate he elected not to follow; and between the Americans and the French, over the viability of Diem. Washington apparently decided at that juncture to temporize with the sects, and to find an alternative to Diem. Before the instructions could be sent to Saigon, however, fighting was renewed. Even as the battle was joined, Bao Dai telegraphed orders to Diem to travel to France. Diem disobeyed, and, convinced of his moral grounds in attacking the Binh Xuyen, committed his forces to combat. His brother, Nhu, coopted a "Revolutionary Committee" to confer emergency authority on Diem. They were immediately successful, and by mid-May, 1955, the Binh Xuyen had been driven into the Rung Sat swamp east of Saigon, and their power in Saigon was broken. Bay Vien escaped to Paris.

2. Victory over the Sects

Diem's forces then ranged out after the other armed factions. Tran Van Soai of the Hoa Hao surrendered, and was given asylum. Another Hoa Hao leader, Ba Cut--who had cut off a finger to remind himself to fight the French, and had sworn not to cut his hair until Vietnam was reunited--was captured while negotiating surrender in return for a commission as lieutenant general in the ARVN. Other leaders were bribed, and the remainder fled or rallied to the GVN. By the end of 1955, Diem appeared to have dealt finally with the challenge of the sects.

It was this apparent success which enabled Diem to survive successfully pressures from an even more powerful set of opponents: those among his Western allies who were determined to replace him. The dimensions of his victory in Vietnam were just becoming evident when in May, 1955, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization convened. There promptly developed a sharp division of view between the French and the Americans. Bao Dai made known his opposition to Diem, and the French threatened to pull out of Vietnam unless Diem were removed. From Paris, Secretary Dulles reported that the French held that:

...Time something to be done to avoid civil war. France warned that armed conflict--first civil war, then guerrilla warfare, then terrorism--would result if we failed to take action . . . New Revolutionary Committee . . . is strongly under Viet Minh influence . . . There is violent campaign against French and French Expeditionary Corps. Viet Minh agents make good use of it and certain Americans do not seem sufficiently aware of this. French Govt does not wish to have its army act as platform for Viet Minh propaganda. Army will not be maintained in Vietnam at any cost . . . Continuing with Diem would have three disastrous results:

(1) . . . Viet Minh victory
(2) . . . focus hostility of everyone on the French, and
(3) . . . begin a Franco-U.S. breach...

The French then proposed to the U.S. that the French Expeditionary Corps be withdrawn, and asked if the U.S. were willing to guarantee French civilians, and the refugees. From Washington, the following instructions to Dulles were returned promptly:

President's only comment on Vietnam section of (your telegram) was to reiterate position that U.S. could not afford to have forces committed in such undesirable areas as Vietnam. This, of course, is JCS view in past. Am asking Defense and JCS views...

Asked, the JCS took the position that the question was fundamentally beyond their purview, that neither the ARVN nor the French Expeditionary Corps seemed capable of preserving the integrity of South Vietnam against a Viet Minh onslaught, and that being debarred from furnishing arms by the Geneva Agreement, the U.S. was in no position to protect French nationals. They suggested that Secretary Dulles be advised that:

a. The government of Prime Minister Ngo Dinh Diem shows the greatest promise of achieving the internal stability essential for the future security of Vietnam.

b. The U.S. could not guarantee the security of the French nationals should the French Expeditionary Corps be withdrawn.

c. Possible United States actions under the Southeast Asia Collective Defense Treaty could ultimately afford security to Vietnam equal to that provided by the continued presence of the French Expeditionary Corps.

In Paris, Secretary Dulles managed to mollify the French. A key development was a message from Malcolm MacDonald, the British representative in Southeast Asia, urging against Diem's replacement at that time. MacDonald, who was among Diem's severest critics-he once remarked of Diem that "He's the worst prime minister I have ever seen"-aligned the British with Dulles, and eventually the French acquiesced in further support of Diem.

The defeat of the sects also opened a domestic political opportunity for Diem. The Popular Revolutionary Committee his brother Nhu had formed during the height of the sect crisis was a "front" of broad political complexion-the membership included prominent nationalists and, as the French had pointed out, two former Viet Minh leaders; it therefore had some substance as what Nhu termed the "democratic revolutionary forces of the nation." The Revolutionary Committee urged the dissolution of the Bao Dai government, and the organizing of general elections for a National Assembly. Nhu acted under its mandate, setting up a popular referendum in which, on October 23, 1955, an overwhelming vote for Diem in preference to Bao Dai was recorded. The Revolutionary Committee dissolved itself on 31 October, apparently under some pressure from Diem and his brother.

3. The Triumph Reappraised

But it is important to note that Diem's military victory over the sects, while impressive, was by no means complete, and was certainly not as decisive as some Americans were led to believe. For example, an NSC report of 1958 mentioned that the Vietnamese Armed Forces were still operating against the sects, and had "succeeded in practically eliminating the Binh Xuyen and Cao Dai forces..." The Deputy Chief, MAAG, Vietnam, stated in April, 1959, that: "The Binh Xuyen group was completely eliminated as a menace. The Cao Dai group was pacified or reoriented. . . . The Hoa Hao had been reduced to a handful of the diehards..." These estimates notwithstanding, Binh Xuyen remnants fought off an ARVN force north of Bien Hoa, in 1956, and marauded along the Saigon River north of Saigon in Binh Duong province throughout 1957 and 1958. In 1958, an insurgent force, among whom Binh Xuyen were identified, sacked the Michelin rubber plantations near Dau Tieng, and in March, 1959, ARVN had a number of encounters with Binh Xuyen elements in the Binh Duong-Bien Hoa area. There is evidence, though scanty, which indicates that the Binh Xuyen survivors joined with "communist" groups for their depredations; for example, in the 1958 Michelin attack the combined gangster-communist strength was reported to be 300-400. ARVN General Nguyen Chanh Thi, who fought these particular forces, has told of capturing a Binh Xuyen soldier who died under torture without admitting more than that his band had been communicating with communist forces from Tay Ninh province. The general also described capturing in March, 1959, in the same operations, flags identical to that raised in late 1960 by the "National Liberation Front."

In 1956, the Cao Dai Pope, Pham Cong Tac, crossed the frontier of Tay Ninh into Cambodia with a number of his followers, thence to remain in opposition to Diem. Bay Dom, who had been the deputy of the captured Hoa Hao leader, Ba Cut, also took his forces to the Cambodian border. In 1956, Diem sent Ba Cut, his hair still uncut, to the guillotine. Bay Dom and another Hoa Hao leader, Muoi Tn, then took an oath to avenge Ba Cut, and opened guerrilla warfare against Diem. Some four Hoa Hao battalions are reported to have conducted operations against the GVN continuously through 1962. Muoi Tn in later years openly embraced the Viet Cong cause.

In brief, while Diem's victory over the sects was impressive, it was not wholly conclusive, and the very obduracy and determination which won him early tactical success seemed to impede his inducing the remaining sect dissidents to perform a constructive role in the nation. Rather, his policy invited a Viet Cong- sect alliance against him. That some of the more startling early defeats of Diem's ARVN forces by Viet Cong in 1959 and 1960 occurred in the regions north of Saigon, where lurked Cao Dai and Binh Xuyen remnants, is more than coincidental.


1. Strategy

Americans tended to look at Diem's skein of military and political successes in 1955 with satisfaction, and to regard thereafter Vietnam's internal security with growing complacency. But Ngo Dinh Diem did not. To the contrary, Diem seemed, if anything, over-conscious of the fact that his test with the Viet Minh lay ahead, and that they posed a threat more dangerous than the sects could ever have been, not only because they were politically more pervasive, and not only because they had taught a generation of Vietnamese peasants the techniques of armed conspiracy, but also because their tenets offered competing solutions to the most pressing problems of the Vietnamese people: land and livelihood. Diem's counter is difficult to fault as a broad concept: ARVN forces would reclaim for the GVN regions formerly held by the Viet Minh; political indoctrination teams moving with the troops would carry the message of Diem's revolution to the people; and then a broad follow-up program of Civic Action- political and social development, land reform, and agricultural improvements would be inaugurated to meet fully the aspirations of the people. That these plans miscarried was due in part to the resistance of the farmers they were intended to benefit, reacting sometimes under Viet Cong leadership, sometimes simply out of peasant conservatism. But a principal portion of the blame for failure must be attributed to Diem's inept, overbearing, or corrupt officials, to Diem's own unremitting anti-communist zeal, and to the failure of both he and his American advisers to appreciate the magnitude of the tasks they set for themselves, or the time required to enact meaningful reform.

2. Reoccupying Viet Minh Territory

The first steps were faltering. In early 1955, ARVN units were sent to establish the GVN in the Camau Peninsula in the southernmost part of the country. Poorly led, ill-trained, and heavy-handed, the troops behaved towards the people very much as the Viet Minh had led the farmers to expect. Accompanying GVN propaganda teams were more effective, assailing communism, colonialism, and feudalism--meaning the rule of Francophile Vietnamese, such as Bao Dai's--and distributing pictures of Diem to replace the omnipresent tattered portraits of Ho. A subsequent operation in Quang Nai and Binh Dinh, Operation Giai Phong, reportedly went off more smoothly. Under ARVN Colonel Le Van Kim, the troops behaved well toward the people, and the propagandists exploited Viet Minh errors to the extent that, as the last Viet Minh soldiers marched down toward their ships, the populace jeered them. American advisers were active, and Diem himself visited this operation a week after the last Viet Minh had left, receiving what the Americans present considered a spontaneous welcome by the peasants. Nonetheless, the Cau Mau experience became more typical of the ARVN than the Binh Dinh affair. Foreign observers frequently expressed opinion of the ARVN in terms similar to the 1957 view of correspondent David Hotham, who wrote that "far from giving security, there is every reason to suppose that the army, buttressed by the Civil Guard . . . is regarded by the Southern peasant as a symbol of insecurity and repression."

3. Civic Action

Nor were the follow-up Civic Action teams significantly more effective. These were patterned after the GAM's (Groupes Administratifs Mobiles) with which the French had experimented, modified to incorporate U.S.-Filipino experience. In theory, they were to have been drawn from the urban elite, to help the government establish communications with the rural folk. Acting on the doctrine of "Three Withs: eat, sleep, and work with the people"--some 1400 to 1800 "cadre" undertook: census and surveys of the physical needs of villages; building schools, maternity hospitals, information halls; repairing and enlarging local roads; digging wells and irrigation canals; teaching personal and public hygiene; distributing medicine; teaching children by day, and anti-illiteracy classes by night; forming village militia; conducting political meetings; and publicizing agrarian reform legislation.

Colonel Lansdale described their origins and operations as follows:

One of the most promising ideas of this period came from Kieu Cong Cung, who was sponsored by Defense Minister Minh. Cung's idea was to place civil service personnel out among the people, in simple dress, where they would help initially by working alongside the people, getting their hands dirty when necessary. The Vietnamese functionaries were aghast, since they cherished their desk work in Saigon and their dignified white-collar authority, and they fought hard within the government machine to kill the idea. It took some months, with the personal intervention and insistence of President Diem, to get a pilot Civic Action program initiated. It was given administrative support by the Ministry of Defense, at first, simply because no other Ministry would help, although it was established as an entity of the Presidency and its policy decisions were made in Cabinet meetings.

With 80% of the civil service personnel stationed in the national capital, provincial administrators were so under-staffed that few of them could function with even minimum effectiveness. A French colonial administrative system, super-imposed upon the odd Vietnamese imperial system was still the model for government administration. It left many gaps and led to unusually complex bureaucratic practices. There was no uniform legal code, no uniform procedures for the most basic functions of government. The Communists continued their political dominance of many villages, secretly.

Cung established a training center in Saigon and asked for civil service volunteers, for field duty. With none forthcoming, he then selected a small group of young university trained men from among the . . . refugees from Communist North Vietnam after security screening. His training had added realism in the form of rough living quarters, outdoor classes, and students learning to work with their hands by constructing school facilities. All students had to dress in the "calico noir" of farmers and laborers, which became their "uniform" later in the villages. (Provincial authorities originally refused to recognize Civic Action personnel as government officials, due to the plebian dress; Cung, dressed in the same manner, and as a high functionary close to the President, made a rapid tour of the provinces and gained grudging acceptance of this new style of government employee.)

Originally, four-man teams were formed; during training, the members of each team were closely observed, to judge their abilities, with the weak and unwilling being weeded out. After graduation, each team was assigned to a district of a province, with responsibility for a number of villages. When the team finished its work in the first village, it would move to a second village, revisiting the first village periodically to check on local progress. This would continue until all villages in a district were covered, at which time the civic action team directly under the government in the provincial capital would take over district work, now organized and ready for administration.

When a team entered a village, they would call a village meeting, explain their presence and plans. The following morning, they would set to work to build three community buildings with local materials; if they had been successful in winning over the population, the villagers pitched in and helped. One building was a village hail, for meetings of village officials. Another was a primary school. The third was a combination information hail (news, information about the government, etc.) and dispensary (using the village medical kits developed by ICA). Following up was the building of roads or paths to link the village with provincial roads, if in a remote area, build pit latrines, undertake malaria control, put in drainage, and undertake similar community projects. Villagers were trained to take over these tasks, including primary education and first aid.

The work of Civic Action teams, at the same grass-roots level as that of Communist workers, proved effective. They became the targets of Communist agents, with political attacks (such as stirring up local Cochin-Chinese against Tonkinese Civic Action personnel) and then murders. Even while the field work was in its early development stage, President Diem ordered the teams to start working directly with Army commands in pacification campaigns, as the civil government "troops" in what were essentially combat zones. As Civic Action proved itself, it was extended to all provinces south of the 17th Parallel.

Had the cadres been able to confine themselves to these missions, and had the several Saigon ministries, whose field responsibilities they had assumed, been content to have them continue to represent them, matters might have developed differently. As it happened, the cadres became preoccupied with Diem's Anti-Communist campaign, and their operations came under bureaucratic attack from Saigon agencies unwilling to allow the Civic Action teams to carry their programs to the people. Both influences converted the cadre into exclusively propagandistic and political instruments, and drew them away from economic or social activities; in late 1956, Civic Action was cut back severely. In 1957, Kieu Cong Cung died, and Nhu absorbed the remnants into his organization.

4. Land Reform

But the salesmen were less at fault than the product. Diem had to promise much and deliver well to best the Viet Minh. However, his promises were moderate, his delivery on them both slow and incomplete. The anarchy prevalent in the countryside during the First Indochina War had benefited the peasant by driving off the French and Vietnamese large landlords. When the Viet Minh "liberated" an area, they distributed these lands free to the farmers, and generally won their allegiance thereby. Columnist Joseph Alsop visited one such Viet Minh controlled region in December, 1954, just before they withdrew their military forces, and reported that:

It was difficult for me, as it is for any Westerner, to conceive of a Communist government's genuinely "serving the people." I could hardly imagine a Communist government that was also a popular government and almost a democratic government. But this was just the sort of government the palmhut state actually was while the struggle with the French continued. The Viet Minh could not possibly have carried on the resistance for one year, let alone nine years, without the people's strong, untied support.

One of Diem's primary failures lay in his inability similarly to capture loyalties among his 90 percent agricultural people. The core of rural discontent was the large land holdings: in 1954 one quarter of one percent of the population owned forty percent of the rice growing land. The Diem program to ameliorate this situation for the land-hungry peasants took the form of: (1) resettlement of refugees and others on uncultivated land, begun in 1955; (2) expropriation of all rice land holdings above 247 acres, and redistribution of these to tenant f armers, a program announced in 1956, but delayed in starting until 1958; and (3) regulation of landlord-tenant relations, effected in 1957, which fixed rents within the range 15-25 percent of crop yield, and guaranteed tenant tenure for 3 to 5 years. Both the resettlement and redistribution programs guaranteed payments to former owners of the appropriated land; although the land was reasonably priced, and payment allowed over an extended period, the farmers faced payments, and these immediately aroused opposition. Settlers moved into a wilderness, required to clear and irrigate theretofore unused land, could not see why they should pay for their holdings. Tenant farmers were also disaffected, for though rents of 40 percent of crop had been common before the way, many farmers, after eight or so rent-free years, could see no justice in resuming payments to a long absent owner, particularly since the Viet Minh had assured them the land was theirs by right. Nor were many mollified by redistributed land. Land redistribution suffered according to one American expert, from a "lack of serious, interested administrators and topside command. Government officials, beginning with the Minister for Agrarian Reform, had divided loyalties, being themselves landholders." But even if the goals of the program had been honestly fulfilled--which they were not--only 20% of rice land would have passed from large to small farmers. Ultimately only 10% of all tenant farmers benefited. A bolder program, with a maximum holding of 124 acres, could have put 33 percent of rice land up for transfer. As it happened, however, the distribution program was not only of limited scope, but, by 1958 or 1959, it was virtually inoperative. Bernard Fall has reported that despite Diem's land reforms, 45% of the land remained concentrated in the hands of 2% of landowners, and 75% in the hands of 15%. Moreover, since the immediate beneficiaries were more often than not Northerners, refugees, and Catholics, the programs acquired an aura of GVN favoritism, and deepened peasant alienation. In time there were also rumors of corruption, with widespread allegations that the Diem family had enriched itself through the manipulation of the land transfers.

As an example of Diem's rural programs in action at the village level which serves to demonstrate how they fell wide of the mark of meeting rural expectations, that of the village communal land is instructive. After the long period of disrupted public administration during the Franco-Viet Minh War, land records were chaotic. Under Diem, the GVN seized outright nearly half a million acres of land whose title was unclear. Some of this land was rented, the GVN acting as the landlord; some was farmed by ARVN units; and some was converted into communal land and the title passed to village councils. The village councils were then supposed to hold an annual auction of communal land, in which farmers wishing to use certain plots submitted sealed bids. Although this seemed to the casual western observer an equitable system, in actuality it was quite vicious. The bidding farmers were usually seeking to rent land they had been farming free for years. Whether this were the case or not, however, rice growing is a labor intensive process which requires of the farmer a substantial capital investment year by year to build up dikes and ditches. To assure himself that he would not lose this investment, a man farming a plot declared communal land felt compelled to raise his bid each succeeding year to avoid loss of that capital, and to preclude losing his hard work. The consequent competition, however modern, shook the roots of traditional Asian farming communities, for the arrangement had the major disadvantage of creating uncertainty over land from year to year-the antithesis of security for the rice-growing peasant. To cap these disadvantages, village councils were often less than honest, and tended to be considerably less willing than a paternal landlord to tide the farmer over after a bad crop year; if his subsequent bid were low, he lost his land.

There is another chapter in the history of GVN-farmer relationships which illustrates similar clumsiness. In 1956, as the GVN launched its land reform program, Ngo Dinh Nhu enlisted the aid of the Confederation of Vietnamese Labor, which had been organizing tenant farmers in promoting the government's policies through its rural representatives. The GVN then proceeded to form its own, NRM-connected, Farmers' Associations. The latter, interconnected with province officials and with landowners, actively opposed the union organizers, with the result that many of the latter were jailed. Within a year or two, the union was destroyed for all practical purposes. Few of the NRM Farmers' Associations ever did function on behalf of the farmers; of 288 associations reported in-being by the GVN, a USOM study in 1961 could find only 35 which represented peasant interersts in any active sense.

5. Village Government

A further example of Diem's maladroitness was his abolishing elections for village councils, a step he took in June, 1956, apparently out of concern that large numbers of former Viet Minh might win office at the village level. The Vietnamese village had traditionally, even under the French, enjoyed administrative autonomy, and the village council was a coterie of prominent residents who were the government in most simple civic matters, adjudicating disputes, collecting taxes, and managing public funds. Under the national regulation of 1956, members of council and the village chief became appointive officials, and their offices subject to scrutiny by the Diemist apparatus. The results were again a thrusting forward of Northern Catholics, city dwellers, or other non-local trustees of the GVN, to assume control at the key political level of South Vietnam, to handle fiscal matters, and to manage the communal lands. For the same reasons that the villagers had mistrusted the Civic Action cadre, they found the GVN officials strange, and not a little incomprehensible. Also, since these officials were the creatures of the province chiefs, corruption at the province level-then, as in recent years, not uncommon-was transmitted directly to the village. Dang Duc Khoi, a young nationalist who rose to become Diem's press officer, and then turned against him, regarded Diem's decision to abolish the village councils his vital error:

Even if the Viet Minh had won some elections, the danger of doing away with the traditional system of village election was even greater. This was something that was part of the Vietnamese way of life, and the concept should have been retained without interfering with Diem's legitimate desire--indeed, his need--for a strong central government. The security problem existed, but it wouldn't have made much difference if the Viet Minh had elected some village chiefs-they soon established their own underground governments anyway. Diem's mistake was in paralyzing himself. He should have adopted a more intelligent and persuasive policy and concentrated at the outset on obtaining the support of the people. In that way, he could have properly challenged the Viet Minh.

Thus, Ngo Dinh began, in 1956, to place the "security problem" ahead of rural revolution.

6. The Anti-Communist Campaign

Indeed, vocal anti-communism became more central to Diem's rural programs than land reform. Like the Can Lao Party, the GVN borrowed heavily from communist technique in combating the Viet Minh and their residual influence- urged on, in some instances at least, by their American advisers. In the summer of 1955, the government launched an Anti-Communist Denunciation Campaign, which included a scheme for classifying the populace into lettered political groups according to attitude toward the Viet Minh, and village ceremonies similar to community self-criticism sessions. Viet Minh cadres and sympathizers would appear before the audience to swear their disavowal of communism. The penitents would tell tales of Viet Minh atrocities, and rip or trample a suitable Viet Minh symbol. In February, 1956, tens of thousands of Saigon citizens assembled to witness the "conversion" of 2,000 former Viet Minh cadres. Tran Chanh Tanh, head of the GVN Department of Information and Youth, announced in May, 1956, that the campaign had "entirely destroyed the predominant communist influence of the previous nine years." According to his figures, 94,041 former communist cadres had rallied to the GVN, 5,613 other cadres had surrendered to government forces, 119,954 weapons had been captured, 75 tons of documents, and 707 underground arms caches had been discovered. One Saigon newspaper boldly referred to Tanh's proceedings as a "puppet show"--for which it was closed down. What relationship GVN statistics bore to reality is not known.

However, for many peasants the Anti-Communist Campaign was considerably more than theatrics. Diem, in a Presidential Ordinance of January 11, 1956, expanded upon an existing system of political re-education centers for communists and active communist supporters. The 1956 order authorized the arrest and detention of anyone deemed dangerous to the safety of the state, and their incarceration in one of several concentration camps. The Secretary of State for Information disclosed in 1956 that 15,000 to 20,000 communists had been in these centers since 1954, a figure probably low at the time, and undoubtedly raised thereafter. On May 6, 1959, the GVN promulgated Law 10/59, which stiffened penalties for communist affiliations, and permitted trial of accused by special military tribunals. That year Anti-Communist Denunciation was also stepped up. In 1960, a GVN Ministry of Information release stated that 48,250 persons had been jailed between 1954 and 1960, but a French observer estimates the numbers in jail at the end of 1956 alone at 50,000. P. J. Honey, who was invited by Diem to investigate certain of the reeducation centers in 1959, reported that on the basis of his talks with former inmates, "the consensus of the opinions expressed by these people is that . . . the majority of the detainees are neither communists nor pro-communists."

The Anti-Communist Campaigns targeted city-dwellers, but it was in the rural areas, where the Viet Minh had been most strong, that it was applied most energetically. For example, in 1959 the Information Chief of An Xuyen Province (Cau Mau region) reported that a five week Anti-Communist Campaign by the National Revolutionary Movement had resulted in the surrender of 8,125 communist agents, and the denunciation of 9,806 other agents and 29,978 sympathizers. To furnish the organization and spark enthusiasm for such undertakings, Ngo Dinh Nhu organized in 1958 the Republican Youth, which with Madame Nhu's Solidarity Movement, became a vehicle for rural paramilitary training, political, and intelligence activities. Nhu saw the Republican Youth as a means for bringing "controlled liberty" to the countryside, and it seems certainly to have assisted in extending his control.

The GVN also tried to reorganize rural society from the family level up on the communist cellular model. Each family was grouped with two to six others into a Mutual Aid Family Group (lien gia), and a like number of lien gia comprised a khom. There was an appointed chief for both, serving as a chain of command for the community, empowered to settle petty disputes, and obligated to pass orders and information down from the authorities. Each lien gia was held responsible for the political behavior of its members, and was expected to report suspicious behavior (the presence of strangers, unusual departures, and like events). Each house was required to display on a board outside a listing of the number and sex of its inhabitants. These population control measures were combined with improved systems of provincial police identification cards and fingerprinting. The central government thus became visible--and resented--at the village level as it had never been before in Vietnam.

7. Population Relocation

Security and control of the populace also figured in GVN resettlement plans. Even the refugee relief programs had been executed with an eye to national security. Diem visualized a "living wall" of settlers between the lowland populace and the jungle and mountain redoubts of dissidents. From flying trips, or from military maps, he personally selected the sites for resettlement projects (Khu Dinh Dien)--often in locales deprived of adequate water or fertile soil--to which were moved pioneering communities of Northern refugees, or settlers from the over-crowded Annam coast. Between April 1957 and late 1961, one GVN report showed 210,000 persons resettled in 147 centers carved from 220,000 acres of wilderness. Some of the resentments over payments for resettled virgin land were mentioned above. More importantly, however, these "strategic" programs drew a disproportionate share of foreign aid for agriculture; by U.S. estimates, the 2% of total population affected by resettlement received 50% of total aid.

The resettlements precipitated unexpected political reactions from the Montagnard peoples of the Central Vietnam Highlands. The tribes were traditionally hostile to the Vietnamese, and proved to be easily mobilized against the GVN. In 1959 the GVN began to regroup and consolidate the tribes into defensible communities to decrease their vulnerability to anti-government agents, and to ease the applying of cultural uplift programs. By late 1961 these relocations were being executed on a large scale. In Kontum Province, for instance, 35,000 tribesmen were regrouped in autumn 1961, about 50 percent of its total Montagnard population. Some of the hill people refused to remain in their new communities, but the majority stayed. In the long run, the relocations probably had the effect of focusing Montagnard discontent against the GVN, and facilitating, rather than hindering, the subversion of the tribes.

But the relocations which catalyzed the most widespread and dangerous antiGVN sentiment were those attempted among the South Vietnamese farmers beginning in 1959. In February, 1959, a pilot program of political bifurcation was quietly launched in the areas southwest of Saigon which had been controlled by the Viet Minh. Its objective was to resettle peasants out of areas where GVN police or military forces could not operate routinely, into new, policed communities of two distinct political colorations. Into one type of these "rural agglomerations," called qui khu, where grouped families with relatives among the Viet Minh or Viet Cong, or suspected of harboring pro-Viet Cong sentiments. Into another type, called qui ap, where grouped GVN-oriented families. Security was the primary reason for selecting the sites of these communities, which meant that in many instances the peasants were forced to move some distance from thieir land. The French had attempted, on a small scale, such peasant relocations in 1953 in Tonkin; Diem encountered in 1959, as had they, stiff resistance from the farmers over separation from their livelihood and ancestral landhold. But Diem's plan also aroused apprehensions during qui khu designates over the Anti-Communist Campaign. With a rare sensitivity to rural protest, the GVN suspended the program in March, 1959, after only a month.

In July, 1959, however, Diem announced that the GVN was undertaking to improve rural standards of living through establishing some 80 "prosperity and density centers" (khu tru mat). These "agrovilles" were to be located along a "strategic route system"--key roads, protected by the new towns. Some 80 agrovilles were to be built by the end of 1963, each designed for 400 families (2,000 to 3,000 people), and each with a surrounding cluster of smaller agrovilles for 120 families. The GVN master plan provided for each community defense, schools, dispensary, market center, public garden--even electricity. The new communities seemed to offer the farmers many advantages, and the GVN expected warm support. But the peasants objected to the agrovilles even more sharply than they had the earlier experiment. The agrovilles were supposed to be constructed by peasants themselves; Corvee labor was resorted to, and thousands of Republican routh were imported to help. For example, at one site--Vi Thanh near Can Tho--20,000 peasants were assembled from four districts, many more than the number who could expect to profit directly from the undertaking. Moreover, even most of those who were selected to move into agrovilles they had helped build, did so unwillingly, for it often meant abandoning a cherished ancestral home, tombs, and developed gardens and fields for a strange and desolate place. The settler was expected to tear down his old house to obtain materials for the new, and received GVN aid to the extent of a grant of $5.50, and an agricultural loan to assist him in paying for his allotted 1.5 acres of land near the agroville. Peasant resistance, and then insurgent attacks on the agrovilles, caused abandonment of the program, with only 22 out of 80 communities completed.

The agroville program was eventually superseded by the GVN strategic hamlet program, formally launched by President Diem in February, 1962, which avoided the mistake of trying to erect whole new communities from the ground up. Rather, the plan aimed at fortifying existing villages, but did include provisions for destroying indefensible hamlets, and relocation of the inhabitants into more secure communities. The strategic hamlet, ap chien luoc, also eschewed elaborate social or economic development schemes, concentrating on civil defense through crude fortifications and organizing the populace to improve its military capability and political cohesiveness. In some exposed sites, "combat hamlets" were established, with a wholly militarized population. High goals were established, the GVN announcing that by 1963 some 11,000 of the country's 16,000-17,000 hamlets would be fortified. In this instance, as before, the GVN encountered opposition from the peasants, and as before, the insurgents attacked it vigorously. Despite its relative sophistication, the strategic hamlet program, like its predecessors, drove a wedge not between the insurgents and the farmers but between the farmers and the GVN, and eventuated in less rather than more security in the countryside.

8. Rural Security Forces

Security was the foremost consideration of the GVN's rural programs, and American aid was lavished on the GVN security apparatus in general. It is surprising, therefore, that the GVN tolerated so ineffective a security apparatus at the village level. The Self-Defense Corps (SDC) and the Civil Guard (CG), charged with rural security, were poorly trained and equipped, miserably led, and incapable of coping with insurgents; they could scarcely defend themselves, much less the peasantry. Indeed, they proved to be an asset to insurgents in two respects: they served as a source of weapons; and their brutality, petty thievery, and disorderliness induced innumerable villagers to join in open revolt against the GVN. Nor was the ARVN much better, although its conduct improved over the years; in any event, the ARVN seldom was afield, and its interaction with the rural populace through 1959 was relatively slight. It should be noted that the SDC and the CG, the security forces at the disposal of the provincial administration, were often no more venal nor offensive to the peasants than the local officials themselves. Corrupt, arrogant, and overbearing, the men the people knew as the GVN were among the greatest disadvantages of the GVN in its rural efforts.

Go Forward to the next Section of Volume 1, Chapter 5 of the Pentagon Papers

Glossary of Acronyms and Terms

Go to Volume 1, Chapter 1 of the Pentagon Papers, "Background to the Conflict, 1940-1950." pp. 1-52

Go to Volume 1, Chapter 2 of the Pentagon Papers, "U.S. Involvement in the Franco-Viet Minh War, 1950-1954," pp. 53-107

Go to Volume 1, Chapter 3 of the Pentagon Papers, "The Geneva Conference, May-July, 1954," pp. 108-178.

Go to Volume 1, Chapter 4 of the Pentagon Papers, "U.S. and France in Indochina, 1950-56," pp. 179-241

Go to Volume 1, Chapter 5 of the Pentagon Papers, "Origins of the Insurgency in South Vietnam, 1954-1960," pp. 242-314

Go to Volume 2, Chapter 1 of the Pentagon Papers, "The Kennedy Commitments and Programs, 1961,"pp. 1-127

Go to Volume 2, Chapter 2 of the Pentagon Papers, "The Strategic Hamlet Program, 1961-1963," pp. 128-159.

Go to Volume 2, Chapter 3, of the Pentagon Papers, "Phased Withdrawal of U.S. Forces, 1962-1964," pp. 160-200.

Go to Volume 2, Chapter 4, of the Pentagon Papers, "The Overthrow of Ngo Dinh Diem, May-November, 1963," pp. 201-276.

Go to Volume 2, Chapter 5 of the Pentagon Papers, "US-GVN Relations, 1964-1967," pp. 277-407.

Go to Volume 2, Chapter 6 of the Pentagon Papers, "The Advisory Build-up, 1961-67," pp. 408-514

Go to Volume 2, Chapter 7 of the Pentagon Papers, "Re-Emphasis on Pacification: 1965-1967," pp. 515-623.

Go to Volume 3, Chapter 1 of the Pentagon Papers, "U.S. Programs in South Vietnam, Nov. 1963-Apr. 1965," pp. 1-105.

Go to Volume 3, Chapter 2 of the Pentagon Papers, "Military Pressures Against North Vietnam, February 1964-January 1965," pp. 106-268.

Go to Volume 3, Chapter 3, of the Pentagon Papers, "The Air War in North Vietnam: Rolling Thunder Begins, February-June, 1965," pp. 269-388

Go to Volume 3, Chapter 4, of the Pentagon Papers, "American Troops Enter the Ground War, March-July 1965," pp. 389-485

Go to Volume 4, Chapter 1, of the Pentagon Papers, "The Air War in North Vietnam, 1965-1968," pp. 1-276.

Go to Volume 4, Chapter 2, of the Pentagon Papers, "U.S. Ground Strategy and Force Deployments, 1965-1968," pp. 277-604.

Return to Vinnie's Home Page

Return to Vietnam War Page