The Pentagon Papers
Volume 1, Chapter 5, "Origins of the Insurgency in South Vietnam, 1954-1960"
(Boston: Beacon Press, 1971)
Section 3, pp. 314-346.
E. URBAN POLITICAL ALIENATION
The rigidity of GVN rural political policy was mirrored in the cities: the regime became preoccupied with security to the exclusion of other concerns, with the result that step by step it narrowed its active or potential supporters, aroused increasing fears among its critics, and drove them toward extremism. In a step similar to that he took on village council elections, Diem abolished elections for municipal councils in 1956. The Anti-Communist Denunciation Campaign had its urban counterpart, but communist strength in the French-occupied cities had been less than in the countryside. Opposition to Diem formed around the old nationalist movements, including the pro-Bao Dai groups Diem labeled "feudalists," around intellectual and individual professional politicians, and eventually around military leaders. Diem's policies successively alienated each.
The Civic Action teams which Diem projected into the former Viet Minh areas in 1955 trumpeted against "Communism, Colonialism, and Feudalism," the last inveighing against Bao Dai, who was, at the time, still Head of state. "Feudalist" was one epithet applied sweepingly to the religious sects, and to all those whose position or fortune depended upon Bao Dai, from the Binh Xuyen who had purchased its control over Saigon-Cholon from the Emperor, to civil servants and army officers loyal to Bao Dai. The label was virtually as damning as "Communist" in incurring the ungentle attentions of Nhu or Can. In the early years "feudälists" and "communists" were often tarred by the same brush. For example, the Anti-Communist Denunciation Campaign got underway in Quang Tn Province in 1955, under Ngo Dinh Can. But Can was also in pursuit of the anti-communist Dai Viet (Great Vietnam) Party there, which had armed units and, for a time, an anti-government radio station. As with the communists, many Dai Viet were killed, imprisoned, or driven into exile. Diem's defeat of Bao Dai at the polls in October, 1955, strengthened his hand against pro-Bao Dai groups. With the withdrawal of the French the following spring, it became imprudent for any politician or group who wished to avoid Can Lao and NRM scrutiny to maintain ties with "feudalists" in hiding in Vietnam, or operating from abroad. Despite the fact that opposition Vietnamese nationalist parties had been strongly influenced in their organization and methods by the Kuomintang, they had never developed sufficient internal discipline, cohesion or following to admit of challenging Diem after 1956. Such opposition political forces as developed centered around individuals. (Only two non-Diem, non-communist political parties survived the Diem era: the Nationalist Party of Greater Vietnam (Dai Viet Qhoc Dan Dang, the Dai Viet) and the Vietnamese Nationalist Party (Viet Nam Quoc Dan Dang, the VNQDD)).
2. Dr. Dan
Until November, 1960, Diem's most prominent political opponent was Doctor Phan Quang Dan. Dr. Dan was a northern physician who had been caught up in nationalist politics in 1945, and lived in exile after 1947. He returned to Vietnam in September, 1955, to head up a coalition of opposition to the GVN arrangenents for the March, 1956, elections for the National Assembly. He was arrested on the eve of those elections, accused of communist and colonialist activities, and :hough released, deprived of his position at the University of Saigon Medical School. His subsequent political career underscores the astringent nature of Diem's democracy. In May, 1957 Dr. Dan formed another opposition coalition, the Democratic bloc, which acquired a newspaper called Thoi Luan. Thoi Luan became the best-selling newspaper in South Vietnam (all papers were published in Saigon, except Can's government paper in Hue), with a circulation of about 80,000 copies. After a series of statements critical of the GVN, Thoi Luan was sacked by a mob in September, 1957. Unheeding of that warning, the paper continued an opposition editorial policy until March, 1958, when the GVN closed the paper, and gave the editor a stiff fine and a suspended prison sentence for an article including the following passage:
What about your democratic election?
During the city-council and village council elections under the "medieval and colonialist" Nguyen Van Tam Administration [under Bao-Dai, in 1953], constituents were threatened and compelled to vote; but they were still better than your elections, because nobody brought soldiers into Saigon by the truckload "to help with the voting."
What about your presidential regime?
You are proud for having created for Viet-Nam a regime that you think is similar to that of the United States. If those regimes are similar, then they are as related as a skyscraper is to a tin-roofed shack, in that they both are houses to live in.
In the U.S.A., Congress is a true parliament and Congressmen are legislators, i.e., free and disinterested men who are not afraid of the government, and who know their duties and dare to carry them out. Here the deputies are political functionaries who make laws like an announcer in a radio station, by reading out loud texts that have been prepared [for them] beforehand. . .
A month later, the Democratic Bloc collapsed. Dr. Dan attempted to obtain GVN recognition for another party, the Free Democratic Party, and permission to publish another paper. No GVN action was ever taken on either application, but a number of Dr. Dan's followers in the new party were arrested. When in March, 1959, the newspaper Tin Bac published an article by Dr. Dan, it was closed down. In June, 1959, the newspaper Nguoi Viet Tu Do was similarly indiscreet, and met the same fate. In August, 1959, Dr. Dan ran for a seat in the National Assembly, was elected by a six-to-one margin over Diem's candidate running against him, but was disqualified by court action before he could take his seat. Dr. Dan's career of opposition to Diem ended in November, 1960, when he became the political adviser to the group who attempted a coup d'etat. Dan was arrested and jailed, and remained there until the end of the Diem regime three years later.
3. The Caravelle Group, 1960
But Dr. Dan was an exceptionally bold antagonist of Diem. No other politician dared what he did. Even he, however, was unable to bring any unity to the opposition. Such other leaders as there were distrusted Dan, or feared the GVN. There was, however, one occasion in the spring of 1960 when opposition to Diem did coalesce. There was change in the international political winds that year-a students' revolt in Korea, an army revolt in Turkey, demonstrations in Japan which resulted in cancellation of President Eisenhower's planned visit. Diem remembered 1960 well, as a "treasure chest for the communists."
The United States press and the world press started saying that democracy was needed in the under-developed countries. This came just in time for the communists. Some of the United States press even incited people to rebellion.
That year was the worst we have ever had . . . We had problems on all fronts. On the one hand we had to fight the communists. On the other, we had to deal with the foreign press campaign to incite rebellion vis-a-vis Korea. These were sore anxieties, for some unbalanced people here thought it was time to act. Teachers in the private secondary schools began to incite the students to follow the example of the Korean students. And then there were our amateur politicians who were outdated and thought only of taking revenge.
The last reference was to the Caravelle Group, who issued at the Caravelle Hotel in late April, 1960, a "manifesto" of grievances against the GVN. The eighteen signers were all old-time politicans, leaders of the Cao Dai and Hoa Hao sects, the Dai Viet and the VNQDD parties, and dissenting Catholic groups. Eleven had been Cabinet ministers; four had been in other high government positions. They organized themselves as the Bloc for Liberty and Progress, with a platform of constitutional revision toward greater power for the National Assembly against the Presidency. Dr. Dan could not be induced to join the Caravelle Group, but in the Diem cleanup after the November, 1960 coup attempt, the GVN arrested most of the eighteen, and their Bloc disintegrated. The Caravelle Manifesto is reproduced below:
MANIFESTO OF THE EIGHTEEN
The President of the Republic of Viet-Nam
We the undersigned, representing a group of eminent citizens and personalities, intellectuals of all tendencies, and men of good will, recognize in the
face of the gravity of the present political situation that we can no longer remain indifferent to the realities of life in our country.
Therefore, we officially address to you today an appeal with the aim of exposing to you the whole truth in the hope that the government will accord it all the attention necessary so as to urgently modify its policies, so as to remedy the present situation and lead the people out of danger.
Let us look toward the past, at the time when you were abroad. For eight or nine years, the Vietnamese people suffered many trials due to the war:
They passed from French domination to Japanese occupation, from revolution to resistance, from the nationalist imposture behind which hid communism to a pseudo-independence covering up for colonialism; from terror to terror, from sacrifice to sacrifice-in short, from promise to promise, until finally hope ended in bitter disillusion.
Thus, when you were on the point of returning to the country, the people as a whole entertained the hope that it would find again under your guidance the peace that is necessary to give meaning to existence, to reconstruct the destroyed homes, put to the plow again the abandoned lands. The people hoped no longer to be compelled to pay homage to one regime in the morning and to another at night, not to be the prey of the cruelties and oppression of one faction; no longer to be treated as coolies; no longer to be at the mercy of the monopolies; no longer to have to endure the depredations of corrupt and despotic civil servants. In one word, the people hoped to live in security at last, under a regime which would give them a little bit of justice and liberty. The whole people thought that you would be the man of the situation and that you would implement its hopes.
That is the way it was when you returned. The Geneva Accords of 1954 put an end to combat and to the devastations of war. The French Expeditionary Corps was progressively withdrawn, and total independence of South Viet Nam had become a reality. Furthermore, the country had benefited from moral encouragement and a substantial increase of foreign aid from the free world. With so many favorable political factors, in addition to the blessed geographic conditions of a fertile and rich soil yielding agricultural, forestry, and fishing surpluses, South Viet Nam should have been able to begin a definitive victory in the historical competition with the North, so as to carry out the will of the people and to lead the country on the way to hope, liberty, and happiness. Today, six years later, having benefited from so many undeniable advantages, what has the government been able to do? Where has it led South Viet Nam? What parts of the popular aspirations have been implemented?
Let us try to draw an objective balance of the situation, without flattery or false accusations, strictly following a constructive line which you yourself have so often indicated, in the hope that the government shall modify its policies so as to extricate itself from a situation that is extremely dangerous to the very existence of the nation.
In spite of the fact that the bastard regime created and protected by colonialism has been overthrown and that many of the feudal organizations of factions and parties which oppress the population were destroyed, the people do not know a better life or more freedom under the republican regime which you have created. A constitution has been established in form only; a National Assembly exists whose deliberations always fall into line with the government; antidemocratic elections--all those are methods and "comedies" copied from the dictatorial Communist regimes, which obviously cannot serve as terms of comparison with North Viet Nam.
Continuous arrests fill the jails and prisons to the rafters, as at this precise moment; public opinion and the press are reduced to silence. The same applies to the popular will as translated in certain open elections, in which it is insulted and trampled (as was the case, for example, during the recent elections for the Second Legislature). All these have provoked the discouragement and resentment of the people.
Political parties and religious sects have been eliminated. "Groups" or "movements" have replaced them. But this substitution has only brought about new oppressions against the population without protecting it for that matter against Communist enterprises. Here is one example: the fiefs of religious sects, which hitherto were deadly for the Communists, now not only provide no security whatever but have become favored highways for Viet Minh guerrillas, as is, by the way, the case of the rest of the country.
This is proof that the religious sects, though futile, nevertheless constitute effective anti-Communist elements. Their elimination has opened the way to the Viet Cong and unintentionally has prepared the way for the enemy, whereas a more realistic and more flexible policy could have amalgamated them all with a view to reinforcing the anti-Communist front.
Today the people want freedom. You should, Mr. President, liberalize the regime, promote democracy, guarantee minimum civil rights, recognize the opposition so as to permit the citizens to express themselves without fear, thus removing grievances and resentments, opposition to which now constitutes for the people their sole reason for existence. When this occurs, the people of South Viet Nam, in comparing their position with that of the North, will appreciate the value of true liberty and of authentic democracy. It is only at that time that the people will make all the necessary efforts and sacrifices to defend that liberty and democracy.
The size of the territory has shrunk, but the number of civil servants has increased, and still the work doesn't get done. This is because the government, like the Communists, lets the political parties control the population, separate the elite from the lower echelons, and sow distrust between those individuals who are "affiliated with the movement" and those who are "outside the group." Effective power, no longer in the hands of those who are usually responsible, is concentrated in fact in the hands of an irresponsible member of the "family," from whom emanates all orders; this slows down the administrative machinery, paralyzes all initiative, discourages good will. At the same time, not a month goes by without the press being full of stories about graft impossible to hide; this becomes an endless parade of illegal transactions involving millions of piastres.
The administrative machinery, already slowed down, is about to become completely paralyzed. It is in urgent need of reorganization. Competent people should be put back in the proper jobs; discipline must be re-established from the top to the bottom of the hierarchy; authority must go hand in hand with responsibility; efficiency, initiative, honesty, and the economy should be the criteria for promotion; professional qualifications should be respected. Favoritism based on family or party connections should be banished; the selling of influence, corruption and abuse of power must be punished.
Thus, everything still can be saved, human dignity can be reestablished; faith in an honest and just government can be restored.
The French Expeditionary Corps has left the country, and a republican army has been constituted, thanks to American aid, which has equipped it with modern materiel. Nevertheless, even in a group of the proud elite of the youth such as the Vietnamese Army-where the sense of honor should be cultivated, whose blood and arms should be devoted to the defense of the country, where there should be no place for clannishness and factions-the spirit of the "national revolutionary movement" or of the "personalist body" divides the men of one and the same unit, sows distrust between friends of the same rank, and uses as a criterion for promotion fidelity toward the party in blind submission to its leaders. This creates extremely dangerous situations, such as the recent incident of Tay~Ninh.*
* This refers to the penetration of the compound of the 32d ARVN Regiment in January, 1960, when communist forces killed 23 soldiers and captured hundreds of weapons.
The purpose of the army, pillar of the defense of the country, is to stop foreign invasions and to eliminate rebel movements. It is at the service of the country only and should not lend itself to the exploitation of any faction or party. Its total reorganization is necessary. Clannishness and party obedience should be eliminated; its moral base strengthened; a noble tradition of national pride created; and fighting spirit, professional conscience, and bravery should become criteria for promotion. The troops should be encouraged to respect their officers, and the officers should be encouraged to love their men. Distrust, jealousy, rancor among colleagues of the same rank should be eliminated.
Then in case of danger, the nation will have at its disposal a valiant army animated by a single spirit and a single aspiration: to defend the most precious possession-our country, Viet Nam.
Economic and Social Affairs
A rich and fertile country enjoying food surpluses; a budget which does not have to face military expenditures,** important war reparations; substantial profits
* * The military expenditures of the Vietnamese budget are paid out of U.S. economic and military aid.
from Treasury bonds; a colossal foreign-aid program; a developing market capable of receiving foreign capital investments-those are the many favorable conditions which could make Viet Nam a productive and prosperous nation. However, at the present time many people are out of work, have no roof over their heads, and no money. Rice is abundant but does not sell; shop windows are well-stocked but the goods do not move. Sources of revenue are in the hands of speculators-who use the [government] party and group to mask monopolies operating for certain private interests. At the same time, thousands of persons are mobilized for exhausting work, compelled to leave their own jobs, homes and families, to participate in the construction of magnificent but useless "agrovilles" which weary them and provoke their disaffection, thus aggravating popular resentment and creating an ideal terrain for enemy propaganda.
The economy is the very foundation of society, and public opinion ensures the survival of the regime. The government must destroy all the obstacles standing in the way of economic development; must abolish all forms of monopoly and speculation; must create a favorable environment for investments coming from foreign friends as well as from our own citizens; must encourage commercial enterprises, develop industry, and create jobs to reduce unemployment. At the same time, it should put an end to all forms of human exploitation in the work camps of the agrovilles.
Then only the economy will flourish again; the citizen will find again a peaceful life and will enjoy his condition; society will be reconstructed in an atmosphere of freedom and democracy.
Mr. President, this is perhaps the first time that you have heard such severe and disagreeable criticism--so contrary to your own desires. Nevertheless, sir, these words are strictly the truth, a truth that is bitter and hard, that you have never been able to know because, whether this is intended or not, a void has been created around you, and by the very fact of your high position, no one permits you to perceive the critical point at which truth shall burst forth in irresistible waves of hatred on the part of a people subjected for a long time to terrible suffering and a people who shall rise to break the bonds which hold it down. It shall sweep away the ignominy and all the injustices which surround and oppress it.
As we do not wish, in all sincerity, that our Fatherland should have to live through these perilous days, we--without taking into consideration the consequences which our attitude may bring upon us--are ringing today the alarm bell, in view of the imminent danger which threatens the government.
Until now, we have kept silent and preferred to let the Executive act as it wished. But now time is of the essence; we feel that it is our duty-and in the case of a nation in turmoil even the most humble people have their share of responsibility--to speak the truth, to awaken public opinion, to alert the people, and to unify the opposition so as to point the way. We beseech the government to urgently modify its policies so as to remedy the situation, to defend the republican regime, and to safeguard the existence of the nation. We hold firm hope that the Vietnamese people shall know a brilliant future in which it will enjoy peace and prosperity in freedom and progress.
1. TRAN VAN VAN, Diploma of Higher Commercial Studies, former Minister of Economy and Planning
2. PHAN KHAC SUU, Agricultural Engineer, former Minister of Agriculture, former Minister of Labor
3. TRAN VAN HUONG, Professor of Secondary Education, former Prefect of Saigon-Cholon
4. NGUYEN, LUU VIEN, M.D., former Professor at the Medical School, former High Commissioner of Refugees
5. HUYNH-KIM HUU, M.D., former Minister of Public Health
6. PHAN HUY QUAT, M.D., former Minister of National Education, former Minister of Defense
7. TRAN VAN LY, former Governor of Central Viet-Nam
8. NGUYEN TIEN HY, M.D.
9. TRAN VAN DO, M.D., former Minister of Foreign Affairs, Chairman of Vietnamese Delegation to the 1954 Geneva Conference
10. LE NGOC CHAN, Attorney at Law, former Secretary of State for National Defense
11. LE QUANG LUAT, Attorney at Law, former Government Delegate for North Viet-Nam, former Minister of Information and Propaganda
12. LUONG TRONG TUONG, Public Works Engineer, former Secretary of State for National Economy
13. NGUYEN TANG NGUYEN, M.D., former Minister of Labor and Youth
14. PHAM HUU CHUONG, M.D., former Minister of Public Health and Social Action
15. TRAN VAN TUYEN, Attorney at Law, former Secretary of State for Information and Propaganda
16. TA CHUONG PHUNG, former Provincial Governor for Binh-Dinh
17. TRAN LE CHAT, Laureate of the Triennial Mandarin Competition of 1903
18. HO VAN VUI, Reverend, former Parish Priest of Saigon, at present Parish Priest of Tha-La, Province of Tay-Ninh
The November, 1960, coup marked the end of opposition by professional politicians against Diem. In fact, all the Caravelle group were arrested and jailed. Such political activity among them as occurred in 1962 and 1963 was perforce subdued to the point that it captured attention neither from opponents of Diem, nor Diem himself. But 1960 was altogether too late for effective "loyal opposition" to form. By that time the GVN's ability to control the press, to manage demonstrations, to limit travel, and to imprison (and worse) at will, had virtually paralyzed the intellectual elite of Vietnam. Nor were labor unions politically active, despite their power potential. As early as 1956 the GVN had become alarmed over Communist influence in rubber workers' unions in Binh Duong Province, and had arrested union leaders. Farmers' unions were crippled by arrests of union cadre, and the Can Lao proved itself quite capable of engineering elections within the unions as effectively as it rigged those for the National Assembly. The threat to Diem, when it came, arose from more traditional sources of power--the religious sects and the armed forces.
4. Religious Dissenters
Diem's clash with the armed sects in 1954 and 1955 had the unfortunate political consequence of casting his regime in religious overtones which deepened as the Ngo Dinh Catholicism became more widely known. Together with Diem's obvious U.S. backing, these had the effect of accentuating his Occidental, and especially American, identity. The British Catholic writer and commentator on Vietnam, Graham Greene, observed in 1955 that:
It is Catholicism which has helped to ruin the government of Mr. Diem, for his genuine piety has been exploited by his American advisers until the Church is in danger of sharing the unpopularity of the United States. An unfortunate visit by Cardinal Speliman . . . has been followed by those of Cardinal Giliroy and the Archbishop of Canberra. Great sums are spent on organized demonstrations for visitors, and an impression is given that the Catholic Church is occidental and an ally of the United States in the cold war. . .
In the whole of Vietnam the proportion of Catholics to the population is roughly the same as in England--one in ten, a ratio insufficient to justify a Catholic government. Mr. Diem's ministers are not all Catholic, but Mr. Diem, justifiably suspicious of many of his supporters, has confined the actual government to himself and members of his family. He undertakes personally the granting of exit and entry visas. . . . The south, instead of confronting the totalitarian north with evidences of freedom, had slipped into an inefficient dictatorship: newspapers suppressed, strict censorship, men exiled by administrative order and not by judgment of the courts. It is unfortunate that a government of this kind should be identified with one faith. Mr. Diem may well leave his tolerant country a legacy of anti-Catholicism...
While Vietnam has an ample record of religious intolerance--especially intolerance for Catholics--calling into question Mr. Greene's contrary characterization, his prediction of Diem's impact proved correct. Open opposition to his government by civilians finally manifested itself on the issue of "religous freedom" in Hue and Saigon in 1963, coalescing around militant Buddhists and students--two groups that were, theretofore, for all practical purposes politically mute. There is no doubt, however, that Diem's Catholicism from 1954 on acted to his disadvantage among the non-Catholic masses, and enhanced the My-Diem image of his government's being an instrument of alien power and purpose.
F. TENSIONS WITH THE ARMED FORCES
The soldiers of Vietnam presented Diem with his first, and his last political challenges. Part of the Army's political involvement stemmed from patent military inefficiency in Diem's tight control, for which RVNAF leaders correctly held Diem responsible. Part also correctly can be attributed to vaulting ambition and venality among certain of Diem's officers. And since the United States paid, schooled, and advised the RVNAF, it would also be correct to consider the U.S. involved, if not responsible. The record of Diem's relations with RVNAF, like his relations with other parts of Vietnamese society, is a history of increasing tensions, and of lowering mutual understanding and support.
1. Clashes with Francophiles, 1954-1955
Diem's first interactions with his army were inauspicious. From September to November, 1954, Army Chief of Staff General Nguyen Van Hinh-a French citizen who held a commission in the French Air Force seemed on the verge of overthrowing Diem. Diem ordered Hinh out of the country; Hinh defied him. An apparent coup d'etat in late October was blocked by adroit maneuvering by Colonel Landsdale, and by assurance from General Collins to Hinh that American support would be promptly withdrawn from Vietnam were his plot to succeed. As Hinh recalled it:
I had only to lift my telephone and the coup d'etat would have been over. . . . Nothing could have opposed the army. But the Americans let me know that if that happened, dollar help would be cut off. That would not matter to the military. If necessary, we soldiers could go barefoot and eat rice but the country cannot survive without American help.
Diem removed Hinh on 29 November 1954. The Acting Chief of Staff, General Nguyen
Van Vy, Diem found "insufficiently submissive," and replaced him on
12 December 1954 with General Le Van Ty, kicking Vy upstairs to be Inspector General. In April 1955, during the turmoil of the sect rebellion, Bao Dai attempted to appoint Vy as Chief of Staff with full military powers, and to recall Diem to France. As Diem committed his army to battle with the sects, Vy announced that, in the name of Bao Dai, and with the backing of all but ten percent of the Army, he had assumed control of the government. However, General Ty, Diem's Chief of Staff, remained loyal, rallied key local commanders around Diem, and Vy fled. Within weeks both Generals Hinh and Vy were afield against Diem in the Mekong Delta, maneuvering a disparate army of Hoa Hao, French "deserters," and others--Diem's forces again beat them, and both then went into exile.
2. Militarizing Public Administration
What Diem remembered from these experiences was that personal loyalty was the prime requisite for high command. As a result, he took an intense and direct interest in the appointments of military officers, and--as in other endeavors--found it easier to place his trust in Northerners and Catholics. Before long, the upper echelons of the officer corps were preponderantly from these groups, and closely netted to the Diem family web of preferment. As GVN demands for loyal civil servants willing to forego the advantages of Saigon multiplied, Diem was impelled to shift trusted military officers into his civil administration. The head of the General Directorate of Police and Security was a military officer from 1956 forward; his subordinates in the police apparatus included a growing number of military officers-for example, all the Saigon district police chiefs appointed in the year 1960 were soldiers. The government in the provinces reflected similar moves toward militarization:
TRENDS TOWARD MILITARY OFFICERS AS PROVINCE CHIEFS
|No. Provinces||No. Military Chiefs||% Military Chiefs|
There was a coextensive militarization of public administration at district and lower levels.
3. Dissatisfaction in the Officer Corps
But if Vietnam's soldiers found the Diem family a way to political power, wealth, and social prominence, they had ample reason to be dissatisfied with Diem's intervention in their professional concerns. The propensity of Ngo Dinh Diem to control his military with a tight rein extended to deciding when and where operations would be conducted, with what forces, and often how they would be used. Moreover, he involved himself with the arming and equipping of the forces, showing a distinct proclivity to heavy military forces of the conventional type, even for the Civil Guard, which reinforced American military leanings in the same direction. There were a few soldiers, like General Duong Van Minh, who sharply disagreed with the President on both points. And there was a growing number of young officers who resented the Catholic-Northern dominant clique within the military, who were dissatisfied with Diem's familial interference in military matters, and who were willing to entertain notions that the GVN had to be substantially modified. Nonetheless, until 1963, there was little apparent willingness to concert action against Diem.
4. The Early Coup Attempts, 1960 and 1962
On November 11, 1960, three paratroop battalions stationed in Saigon-considered by Diem among his most faithful-cooperated in an attempted coup d'etat. The leadership consisted of a small group of civilians and military officers: Hoang Co Thuy, a Saigon Lawyer; Lt Colonel Nguyen Trieu Hong, Thuy's nephew; Lt Colonel Vuong Van Dong, Hong's brother in law; and Colonel Nguyen Chanh Thi, the commander of the paratroops, who was apparently brought into the cabal at the last moment. The coup failed to arouse significant general pro-coup sentiment, either among the armed forces, or among the populace. Troops marched on Saigon, and rebels surrendered. In February, 1962, two Vietnamese air force planes bombed the Presidential palace in an unsuccessful attempt on President Diem and the Nhus--properly, an assassination attempt rather than a coup d'etat.
But the abortive events of 1960 and 1962 had the effect of dramatizing the choices open to those who recognized the insolvency of Diem's political and military policies. When Diem was overthrown in November, 1963, he was attacked by an apparatus that had been months in preparation. Unlike the earlier incident, the 1963 coup was actively supported by virtually all the generals of RVNAF, and was openly condoned by large sectors of the populace.
G. THE VIET CONG
1. Diem and Communists
Ngo Dinh Diem presided over a state which, for all the lip service it paid to individual freedom and American style government, remained a one party, highly centralized familial oligarchy in which neither operating democracy, nor the prerequisites for such existed. On 11 January, 1956, in GVN Ordinance Number 6, President Diem decreed broad governmental measures providing for "the defense of the state and public order," including authority to detain "individuals considered a danger to the state" or to "national defense and common security" at re-education centers. One month after the date of the scheduled Geneva plebescite, on 21 August 1956, the Government of Vietnam proclaimed Ordinance Number 47, which defined as a breach of law punishable by death any deed performed in or for any organization designated as "Communist." Moreover, the GVN was forced to use violence to establish itself in its own rural areas. In July, 1956, the month the Geneva elections were scheduled to have been held, the U.S. Army attache in Saigon noted in his monthly report that:
Orders have reportedly been issued to all Viet Minh cadres in Free Viet Nam to increase their efforts to reorganize and revitalize the military units in their zones of responsibility. These cadres have, however, encountered considerable difficulty in motivating their adherents to work for the Communist cause. The military and political cadres are making little progress due to the Communist Denunciation Campaigns promoted by the Government of the Republic of Viet Nam...
The same report submitted an ARVN estimate of 4,300 armed Viet Minh in all
of Free Viet Nam, and recorded small ARVN skirmishes with Viet Minh
south of Saigon, clashes with 10 Hoa Hao battalions, 8 Cao Dai battalions north and west of Saigon, and incidents of banditry north of Bien Hoa by Binh Xuyen. But, in a relatively short time, the fighting subsided, the Vietnamese Army was withdrawn from the countryside for retraining, reorganization, and modernization under the US MAAG, and South Vietnam ostensibly settled into the first peace it had known in a decade. Peace rested, however, or strong central government. In an article published in the January, 1957, Foreign Affairs, an American analyst stated that:
South Viet Nam is today a quasi-police state characterized by arbitrary arrests and imprisonment, strict censorship of the press and the absence of an effective political opposition. . . . All the techniques of political and psychological warfare, as well as pacification campaigns involving extensive military operations have been brought to bear against the underground.
Police states, efficiently organized and operated, have historically demonstrated much greater ability at countering insurgency than other sorts of governments. South Vietnam in fact succeeded in 1955 and 1956 in quelling rural dissidence through a comprehensive political and military assault on sect forces and other anti-government armed bands using its army, the civic action cadre, the Communist Denunciation campaign, and a broad range of promised reforms. Moreover, at its worst, the Government of South Vietnam compared favorably with other Asian regimes with respect to its degree of repressiveness. Nor did it face endemic violence markedly different from that then prevalent in Burma, Indonesia, South Korea. And its early "counterinsurgency" operations were as sophisticated as any being attempted elsewhere in Asia. In 1957, the Government of Viet Nam claimed that its pacification programs had succeeded:
We believe that with clear, even elementary ideas based upon facts....we can imbue . . . first the youth and ultimately the entire population with the spirit and essential objectives of . . . civic humanism. We believe that this above all is the most effective antidote to Communism (which is but an accident of history)....
We can see that the Viet-Minh authorities have disintegrated and been rendered powerless.
P. J. Honey, the BrIt!sh expert on Vietnam, agreed; his evaluation as of early 1958 was as follows:
The country has enjoyed three years of relative peace and calm in which it has been able to carry on the very necessary work of national reconstruction. The most destructive feature in the national life of Vietnam throughout recent years has been the lack of security in the countryside, which obliged farmers and peasants to abandon the ricefields and to flee to the large cities for safety. Today it is possible to travel all over South Vietnam without any risk. The army and security forces have mopped up most of the armed bands of political opponents of the Government, of Communists and of common bandits. One still hears of an isolated raid, but the old insecurity is fast vanishing. . .
After a 1959 trip, however, Honey detected dangerous unease in the countryside:
For the overwhelming majority of the Vietnamese, heirs to experience of a century of French colonial rule, the Government is a remote body which passes laws, collects taxes, demands labour corvées, takes away able-bodied men for military service, and generally enriches itself at the expense of the poor peasant. "Government" is associated in the minds of the villagers with exactions, punishments, unpaid labour, and other unpleasant matters. These people are members of families and members of villages, and their loyalties to both are strong. But these loyalties do not extend beyond the village, nor has any past experience taught the peasants why they should. The idea that the peasants should assume any responsibility for the [extra-village] government themselves would be so alien to their thinking as tobe comic. Educated Vietnamese are well aware of this, as many of their actions show....
Such political parties as existed in Vietnam before the advent of independence were all clandestine, so that any political experience acquired from these by the Vietnamese peasants will have been of secret plotting for the overthrow of the Government. Since independence, they will probably have been subjected to attempted Communist indoctrination by the Viet Cong, but this too will have had an anti-Government slant. Since 1954, the peasants have been fed on a diet of puerile, and frequently offensive slogans by the Ministry of Information. These serve, if indeed they serve any purpose at all, to make the peasant distrust the Government of Ngo Dinh Diem. The peasants, for all their naïveté, are far from foolish and they are not deceived by slogans alleging to be true things which they know, from their own personal experience, to be untrue. Any political experience among the peasantry, then, is more likely to prove a liability than an asset to any Government.
Diem knew that his main political dissent was centered not among his fellow mandarins, in his press, or among his military officers, but in the peasantry. And the prime challenge was, as Diem saw it, communism, precisely because it could and did afford the peasants political experience.
Communism was, from the outset of Diem's rule, his bete noire. In 1955, after the victory over the sects, and just before General John W. O'Daniel ended his tour as Chief, MAAG Vietnam, Diem talked to the General about Vietnam's future:
He spoke about the decentralization of government that he had been advised to undertake, but felt that the time was not yet right. He felt that, since his country was involved in a war, warlike control was in order. He remarked that the Vietminh propaganda line never mentioned Communism, but only land reform. . . . Diem wants land reform too....
In his message to the American Friends of Vietnam in June, 1956, Diem acknowledged progress, but warned that:
We have arrived at a critical point. . . . We must now give meaning to our hard sought liberty. . . . To attain that goal we need technicians and machines. Our armed forces which are considerably reduced must however undertake an immense task from the military as well as the cultural and social point of view. It is indispensable that our army have the wherewithal to become increasingly capable of preserving the peace which we seek. There are an infinite number of tasks in all fields to complete before the year's end.
Diem's preoccupation with security paradoxically interfered with his ability to compete with the communists in the countryside. In effect, he decided on a strategy of postponing the politicizing of the peasants until he had expunged his arch-foes. Diem's official biography underscores this point:
The main concern of President Ngo Dinh Diem is therefore to destroy the sources of demoralization, however powerful, before getting down to the problem of endowing Vietnam with a democratic apparatus in the Western sense of the word.
Madame Nhu, his sister-in-law, was vehement that any political liberalization would have operated to Viet Cong advantage: "If we open the window, not only sunlight, but many bad things will fly in, also." To hold a contrary view does not necessarily argue that democratization was the only way Diem could have met his political opposition in the villages; it does seem, however, that in failing to meet aspirations there by some departure from inefficiently repressive course he adopted, Diem erred. In concluding that he did not have to reckon with peasant attitudes, Diem evidently operated from two related misapprehensions: that somehow the peasants would remain politically neutral while he eliminated the communists, and that the Viet Cong were essentially a destructive force. It was not that Diem could not vocalize a sound estimate of the communist political threat; his own description of communist operations to an Australian journalist was quite accurate:
In China, during the Indo-China war and now here, the Communists have always sheltered in open base areas of difficult access, in areas where there are no roads. They have made their headquarters in the jungle. Cautiously, sometimes only one man at a time, they move into a village and establish a contact, then a cell until the village is theirs to command. Having got one village, they move to a second village and from a second to third, until eventually they need not live in any of these villages, but merely visit them periodically. When this stage is reached, they are in a position to build training camps and even start crude factories and produce home-made guns, grenades, mines, and booby traps.
This is all part of the first phase. The second phase is to expand control and link up with Communist groups in other bases. To begin with, they start acts of violence through their underground organizations. They kill village chiefs, headmen, and others working for the government and, by so doing, terrorize the population, not necessarily by acts of violence against the people but by demonstrating that there is no security for them in accepting leadership from those acknowledging the leadership of the government. Even with much smaller numbers of troops than the constituted authority, it is not difficult now for the Communists to seize the initiative. A government has responsibility for maintaining supply to the civil population of keeping railways, rivers, and canals open for traffic, of ensuring that rural crops reach the markets and that in turn commodity goods are distributed throughout the country. The Communists have no such responsibility. They have no roads and bridges to guard, and no goods to distribute.
Diem failed to perceive that the "first phase" was crucial, or that the VC were, from the very outset, constructing while they destroyed, building a state within South Vietnam with more effective local government than his own.
Like many another issue in Vietnam, the problem was in part semantics. "Communists"
during this period formally recanted for the GVN by the thousands; thousands
more "communists" were incarcerated by the GVN for "political
reeducation." But Ordinance 47 of 1956 notwithstanding, "communist"
is a term which has not been used since the 1940's by Vietnamese serving the
Marxist-Leninist Party headed by Ho Chi Minh of the DRV. These referred to themselves
as members of the Vietnam Workers Party (Dang Lao Dong), as members of one Front
or another, or as resistance fighters, or fighters for national liberation.
Nor was "Viet Minh" a useful name, since Viet Minh, a nationalist
front, included numerous non-communist, or at least non-party members. In 1956,
the Saigon press began to distinguish between the Viet Minh and communists by
referring to the latter as "Viet Cong," a fairly precise, and not
necessarily disparaging, rendition of "Viet Nam Cong-San," which means
"Vietnamese Communist." The National Liberation Front of South Vietnam
(NLF) much later condemned the term as "contemptuous," and pointed
out that the GVN had applied it indiscriminately to all persons or groups "who
are lukewarm toward the pro-U.S. policy even on details." There can be
no doubt that Diem and his government applied the term somewhat loosely within
South Vietnam, and meant by it North as well as South Vietnamese communists,
whom they presumed acted
2. The Viet Minh Residue
At the close of the Franco-Viet Minh War, some 60,000 men were serving in organized Viet Minh units in South Viet Nam. For the regroupments to North Vietnam, these units were augmented with large numbers of untrained young men-who were later known among the regroupees in North Vietnam as "soldiers of Geneva." A reported 90,000 soldiers were taken to North Vietnam in the evacuated units, while the U.S. and the GVN estimated that 5,000 to 10,000 trained men were left behind as "cadre." If French estimates are correct that in 1954 the Viet Minh controlled over 60 to 90 percent of South Vietnam's villages outside the Cao Dai and Hoa Hao regions, those 5,000 to 10,000 cadre must have represented only a small fraction of the remaining Viet Minh apparatus-cadre, local workers, sympathizers-in the countryside. GVN figures themselves attest to this. In 1955 and 1956 alone, the GVN claimed 100,000 communist "cadre" rallied or surrendered.
Neither Diem's GVN nor the U.S. knew a great deal about the Viet Minh in the period 1954-1960. By 1967, however, new information had begun to accumulate from interrogations of prisoners and defectors, and captured documents. For example, in March, 1967, a study was published of 23 Viet Minh who stayed behind during the regroupment of 1954-1955. All the men of the sample told consistent stories, and although an admittedly narrow basis for generalization, the stories ring true. Upon departure, the Viet Minh leaders assigned some of these stay-behinds active roles; others were simply told to return to their homes as inactives, and wait for further instructions. It is quite clear that even the activists were not instructed to organize units for guerrilla war, but rather to agitate politically for the promised Geneva elections, and the normalization of relations with the North. They drew much reassurance from the presence of the ICC, and up until mid-1956, most held on to the belief that the elections would take place. They were disappointed in two respects: not only were the promised elections not held, but the amnesty which had been assured by the Geneva Settlement was denied them, and they were hounded by the Anti-Communist campaign. After 1956, for the most part, they went "underground." They were uniformly outraged at Diem's practices, particularly the recurrent GVN attempts to grade the populace into lettered categories according to previous associations with the Viet Minh. Most of them spoke of terror, brutality and torture by GVN rural officials in carrying out the Communist Denunciation campaigns, and of the arrest and slaying of thousands of old comrades from the "resistance." Their venom was expended on these local 'TIcials, rather than on Diem, or the central government, although they were prepared to hold Diem ultimately responsible. A veteran who had been a Party member since 1936 characterized the years 1955-1959 as the most difficult years of the entire revolution.
What these cadre did in those years is revealing. Only four of the 23 were engaged in military tasks. Most spent their time in preparation for a future uprising, in careful recruitment in the villages--concentrating on the very families with Viet Minh ties who were receiving priority in the GVN's attentions-and in constructing base areas in the mountains or jungles. The Viet Minh activists sought out the inactives, brought them back into the organization, and together they formed the framework of an expanding and increasingly intricate network of intelligence and propaganda. Few spoke of carrying weapons, or using violence before 1959, although many boasted of feats of arms in later years. They felt that they lacked the right conditions to strike militarily before 1959; their mission was preparation. In several instances, the Viet Cong used terror to recruit former Viet Minh for the new movement, threatening them with "treason" and elimination; caught between the GVN and the VC, many old Resistance members joined the "New Resistance." But most spoke of making person-to-person persuasion to bring in new members for the movement, relying mainly on two appeals: nationalism and social justice. They stressed that the Americans had merely substituted a new, more pernicious form of tyranny for that of the French, and that the My-Diem combine was the antithesis of humane and honest government. One respondent spoke of this activity in these terms:
From 1957 to 1960 the cadres who had remained in the South had almost all been arrested. Only one or two cadres were left in every three to five villages. What was amazing was how these one or two cadres started the movement so well.
The explanation is not that these cadres were exceptionally gifted but the people they talked to were ready for rebellion. The people were like a mound of straw, ready to be ignited....
If at that time the government in the South had been a good one, if it had not been dictatorial, if the agrarian reforms had worked, if it had established control at the village level, then launching the movement would have been difficult.
These interviews underscored three points on which the GVN was apparently in error. First, with respect to the stay-behinds themselves, by no means were all dedicated communists in the doctrinaire sense. Many reported that they resented and feared the communists in the Viet Minh, and apparently might have been willing to serve the GVN faithfully had it not hounded them out of the society. There were several among the group, for example, who had entered Saigon, and there found a degree of freedom which kept them off the Viet Cong roles for years. Second, with regard to the peasants in general, the Viet Minh were widely admired throughout the South as national heroes, and the GVN therefore committed a tactical error of the first magnitude in damning all Viet Minh without qualification as communists. Third, the GVN created by its rural policy a climate of moral indignation which energized the peasants politically, turned them against the government, sustained the Viet Cong, and permitted "communists" to outlast severe GVN repressions and even to recruit during it.
The foregoing precis of the 1967 study presents views which are paralleled in a captured Viet Cong history, written around 1963, which describes the years after 1954 as follows:
EXPERIENCES OF THE SOUTH VIETNAM REVOLUTIONARY MOVEMENT DURING THE PAST SEVERAL YEARS
During the past nine years, under the enlightened leadership of the Party Central Committee, the people and the Party of South Vietnam have experienced many phases along the difficult and complicated path of struggle but they have also gained many victories and experiences while pushing the South Vietnam liberation revolution and creating the conditions for peaceful reunification of the country....
After the armistice, the South Vietnam people reverted to political struggle through peaceful means by demanding personal rights, freedom and negotiations concerning general elections in accordance with the stipulations of the Geneva Agreement so that the country could be peacefully reunified.... The Party [words illegible] party were changed in order to guarantee the leadership and forces of the Party under the new struggle conditions.....
From the end of 1954 until 1956 several important changes occurred in the South Vietnam situation. Imperialist America ousted and replaced imperialist France, turning South Vietnam into a colony (a new type of colony) based on U.S. military power. The Ngo Dinh Diem government was clearly shown to be a government composed of bureaucratic, dictatorial and family-controlled feudalists and capitalists who committed crimes for the American imperialists and massacred the people, massacred revolutionaries and massacred the oppositionists. Both the Americans and Diem made every effort to oppose the implementation of the Geneva Agreement and made every effort to subvert the peaceful reunification of our fatherland.....
Immediately after the re-establishment of peace, the responsibility of South Vietnam was to use the political struggle to demand the implementation of the Geneva Agreement. The struggle responsibilities and procedures were appropriate for the situation at that time and corresponded with the desires of the great majority of the masses who wished for peace after nearly 10 years of difficult resistance.
At that time, although the Americans-Diemists used cruel force to oppose the people and the revolution, and the masses struggled decisively against this repression in many places and at many times, the contradictions had not yet developed to a high degree and the hatred had not yet developed to a point where the use of armed struggle could become an essential and popular struggle tactic. In South Vietnam since 1955, thanks to the armed movement of the sects, we were able to avoid the construction of an armed propaganda force, since we only had a few former bases which were needed in the political struggle and for the creation of a reserve force.
From 1957 to 1958, the situation gradually changed. The enemy persistently sabotaged the implementation of the Geneva Agreement, actively consolidated and strengthened the army, security service, and administrative apparatus from the central to the hamlet level, crudely assassinated the people, and truly and efficiently destroyed our Party. By relying on force, the American-Diemist regime was temporarily able to stabilize the situation and increase the prestige of the counterrevolutionaries. At this time, the political struggle movement of the masses, although not defeated, was encountering increasing difficulty and increasing weakness; the Party bases, although not completely destroyed, were significantly weakened, and in some areas, quite seriously; the prestige of the masses and of the revolution suffered. But in reality, the years during which the enemy increased his terrorism were also the years in which the enemy suffered major political losses [words illegible] The masses became more deep seeded and many individuals who formerly supported the enemy now opposed them. The masses, that is to say, the peasants, now realized that it was impossible to live under such conditions and that it was necessary to rise up in drastic struggle. Faced with the fact that the enemy was using guns, assassinations and imprisonment to oppose the people in their political struggle, many voices among the masses appealed to the Party to establish a program of armed resistance against the enemy. Within the Party, on the one hand, the members were saturated with the responsibility to lead the revolution to a successful overthrow of the enemy, but on the other hand, the majority of the party members and cadres felt that it was necessary to immediately launch an armed struggle in order to preserve the movement and protect the forces. In several areas the party members on their own initiative had organized armed struggle against the enemy....
Up to 1959, in South Vietnam, the Americans-Diemists had fully constructed a large army, equipped with modern weapons, along with a large and well armed administrative, police and security apparatus. During the years in which the masses were only using political struggle, the Americans- Diemists used the military, security and administrative apparatus to launch various campaigns to terrorize, mop up and oppress the movement, no different from during the period of warfare. Because they were determined to crush the revolution and control the people at every moment, they could not avoid using every type of repression.
In opposing such an enemy, simple political struggle was not possible. It was necessary to use additional armed struggle, but not merely low level armed struggle, such as only armed propaganda, which was used to support the political struggle. The enemy would not allow us any peace, and in the face of the enemy operations and destructive pursuit, the armed propaganda teams, even if they wished to avoid losses, would never be able to engage the enemy in warfare and would never be able to become an actual revolutionary army. This is an essential fact of the movement and the actual movement in South Vietnam illustrates this fact. Therefore, at the end of 1959, when we launched an additional armed struggle in coordination with the political struggle against the enemy, it immediately took the form in South Vietnam of revolutionary warfare, a long range revolutionary warfare. Therefore, according to some opinions at the beginning of 1959, we only used heavy armed propaganda and later developed "regional guerrillas. . .
This version of events from 1954 through 1959 is further supported by the report of interrogation of one of the four members of the Civilian Proselyting Section of the Viet Cong Saigon/Gia Dinh Special Zone Committee, captured in November, 1964; the prisoner stated that:
The period from the Armistice of 1954 until 1958 was the darkest time for the VC in South Vietnam. The political agitation policy proposed by the Communist Party could not be carried out due to the arrest of a number of party members by RVN authorities. The people's agitation movement was minimized. However, the organizational system of the party from the highest to the lowest echelons survived, and since the party remained close to the people, its activities were not completely suppressed. In 1959 the party combined its political agitation with its military operations, and by the end of 1959 the combined operations were progressing smoothly.
Viet Cong "political agitation" was a cunning blend of the Viet Minh nationalist charisma, exploitation of GVN shortcomings, xenophobia, and terror. Drawing on the years of Viet Minh experience in subversive government and profiting from Viet Minh errors, the Viet Cong appealed to the peasants not as Marxist revolutionaries proposing a drastic social upheaval, but quite to the contrary, as a conservative, nationalist force wholly compatible with the village-centered traditionalism of most farmers, and as their recourse against "My-Diem" modernization. One American authority summed the Viet Minh experience evident in Viet Cong operations as ten political precepts:
1. Don't try for too much; don't smash the existing social system, use it; don't destroy opposition organizations, take them over.
2. Use the amorphous united front to attack opposition political forces too large or too powerful for you to take over; then fragment their leadership, using terror if necessary, and drown their followers in the front organization.
3. At all times appear outwardly reasonable about the matter of sharing power with rival organizations although secretly working by every means to eliminate them. Don't posture in public.
4. Divide your organization rigidly into overt and covert sections and minimize traffic between the two. The overt group's chief task is to generate broad public support; the covert group seeks to accumulate and manipulate political power.
5. Use communism as dogma, stressing those aspects that are well regarded by the people; don't hesitate to interpret Marxism-Leninism in any way that proves beneficial. Soft-pedal the class-struggle idea except among cadres.
6. Don't antagonize anyone if it can be helped: this avoids the formation of rival blocs.
7. Bearing in mind that in Vietnam altruism is conspicuous by its absence, blend the proper mixture of the materialistic appeals of communism and the endemic feelings of nationalism. Win small but vital gains through communism, large ones through nationalism. Plan to win in the end not as Communists but as nationalists.
8. Use the countryside as the base and carry the struggle to the cities later; in rural areas political opportunities are greater and risks smaller. Avoid the lure of the teahouse.
9. But forge a city alliance. Mobilization of the farmer must create a strong farmer-worker bond.
10. Work from the small to the large, from the specific to the general; work from small safe areas to large liberated areas and then expand the liberated areas; begin with small struggle movements and work toward a General Uprising during which state power will be seized.
The same expert termed General Uprising "a social myth in the Sorelian sense, perhaps traceable back to the Communist myth of the general strike," and cited Viet Cong documents which describe how the 2500 villages of Vietnam will be led toward a spontaneous final and determinant act of revolution:
The Revolution, directed toward the goal of the General Uprising, has these five characteristics: . . . It takes place in a very favorable worldwide setting. . . . It is against the neocolonialism of the U.S.A. . . . The government of Vietnam is unpopular and growing weaker. . . . The people have revolutionary consciousness and are willing to struggle. . . . It is led by the Party, which has great experience.
Ho and Giap thus coated Marx and Mao with French revolutionary romanticism. Diem, the moral reformer, also drew heavily upon the same traditions for "peronalism." One of the tragedies of modern Vietnam is that the political awakening of its peasants was to these, the most virulent, and vicious social theories of the era.
But doctrine was not the sole heritage the Viet Cong received from the Viet Minh. Perhaps more important was the "Resistance" organization: the hierarchy extending upward from hamlet and village through provincial to regional authorities capable of coordinating action on a broad scale. The Viet Minh complied with military regroupments under the Geneva Accords but were not obligated to withdraw the "political" apparatus; in fact, the Settlement provided guarantees for it in its provisions against reprisals (Armistice, Article 14c, and Conference Final Declaration, Article 9), and for liberation of political prisoners (Armistice, Article 21). Knowledge of the techniques of clandestine politics, appreciation for the essentiality of tight discipline, and trained personnel constituting a widespread, basic organizational framework were all conferred on the Viet Cong.
3. Rural Violence and GVN Counters, 1957-1960
By early 1958, Saigon was beginning to sense that pacification had eluded the GVN even as it had the French. In December, 1957, the ill-fated newspaper, Thoi Luan, pointed out that terrorism was on the rise, and that:
Today the menace is heavier than ever, with the terrorists no longer limiting themselves to the notables in charge of security. Everything suits them, village chiefs, chairmen of liaison committees, simple guards, even former notables. . . . In certain areas, the village chiefs spend their nights in the security posts, while the inhabitants organize watches....
The most urgent need for the population today is security-a question to which we have repeatedly drawn the attention of the authorities.
Spectacular assassinations have taken place in the provinces of An Giang and Phong-Dinh [in the Mekong Delta]. In the village of Than-My-Tay, armed men appeared in the dead of night, awakened the inhabitants, read a death sentence, and beheaded four young men whose heads they nailed to the nearest bridge. . .
The security question in the provinces must be given top priority: the regime will be able to consolidate itself only if it succeeds in finding a solution to this problem.
Besides the incidents cited, there had been a mass murder of 17 in Chau-Doc in July, 1957; in September the District Chief at My Tho with his whole family was gunned down in daylight on a main highway; on 10 October a bomb thrown into a Cholon cafe injured 13 persons, and on 22 October, in three bombings in Saigon, 13 Americans were wounded.
Also in October a clandestine radio in Vietnam purporting to speak for the "National Salvation Movement" was backing armed insurgents against Diem. In Washington, U.S. intelligence indicated that the "Viet Minh underground" had been directed to conduct additional attacks on U.S. personnel "whenever conditions are favorable." U.S. intelligence also noted a total of 30 armed "terrorist incidents initiated by Communist guerillas" in the last quarter of 1957, as well as a "large number" of incidents carried out by "Communist-lead [sic] Hoa Hao and Cao Dai dissident elements," and reported "at least" 75 civilians or civil officials assassinated or kidnapped in the same period.
Robert Shaplen wrote that:
By 1958, the Vietminh had fully resumed its campaign of terror in the countryside, kidnapping government officials and threatening villagers....in an average month the local and regional units were becoming involved in a score of engagements. Usually, these were hit-and-run Communist attacks on Self-Defense Corps or Civil Guard headquarters, the purpose of which was both to seize weapons and to heighten the atmosphere of terror.
Guns should have been plentiful in the countryside of Vietnam. The Japanese, the French and even the GVN armed the sect forces. And both the sects and the Viet Minh had operated small arms factories-for instance, General Lansdale visited a Cao Dai weapons factory at Nui Ba Den in Tay Ninh in 1955. The Viet Minh cached arms as they withdrew from their "liberated areas" in 1954 and 1955. ARVN veterans and deserters from the force reductions of 1954 and 1955 carried weapons into the hinterland. The VC attacked for weapons to make up for losses to the GVN, and to equip units with similar types to simplify logistics.
In January, 1958, a "large band" of "communist" guerrillas attacked a plantation north of Saigon, and in February, an ARVN truck was ambushed on the outskirts of the capital. In March, the Saigon newspaper Dan-Cung complained that: "our people are fleeing the villages and returning to the cities for fear of communist guerrillas and feudalistic officials Bernard Fall published an article in July, 1958, in which he mapped the pattern of assassinations and other incidents from April 1957 to April 1958, and announced the onset of a new war: Fall's thesis was challenged by a senior U.S. adviser to the GVN, who argued that the increasing casualty figures represented not a structured attempt to overthrow the GVN, but were simply a product of police reporting in the hinterlands. There can be no doubt that the latter view was partially correct: neither the U.S. nor the GVN knew what was "normal" in the rural areas, and police reporting, with U.S. aid, had been improved. But the deadly figures continued to mount. George A. Carver of the CIA, in his 1966 Foreign Affairs article, agreed with Fall:
A pattern of politically motivated terror began to emerge, directed against the representatives of the Saigon government and concentrated on the very bad and the very good. The former were liquidated to win favor with the peasantry; the latter because their effectiveness was a bar to the achievement of Communist objectives. The terror was directed not only against officials but against all whose operations were essential to the functioning of organized political society, school teachers, health workers, agricultural officials, etc. The scale and scope of this terrorist and insurrectionary activity mounted slowly and steadily. By the end of 1958 the participants in this incipient insurgency, whom Saigon quite accurately termed the "Viet Cong," constituted a serious threat to South Viet Nam's political stability.
Like most other statistics concerning Vietnam, figures on the extent of the
terrorism varied widely. The GVN reported to the ICC that in 1957, 1958, and
the first half of 1959, Viet Cong murdered 65 village officials, 51 civilians,
28 Civil Guardsmen, and 10 soldiers. GVN official reports provided the U.S.
Embassy in Saigon recorded a significantly greater toll of civilians:
CIVILIAN ASSASSINATIONS AND KIDNAPPINGS IN SOUTH VIETNAM
By Quarter, From GVN Reports to U.S. Embassy
|1||2||3||4||Total||1||2||3||4||Total||First 5 months|
Journalists and scholars, studying open sources, put the figures even higher. Douglas Pike reported 1700 assassinations and 2000 abductions in the years 1957- 1960. Bernard Fall estimated murders of low-level GVN officials as follows:
May 1957 to May 1958 to May 1959 to May 1960 to May 1961 700 1200 2500 4000
Fall reported that the GVN lost almost 20% of its village chiefs through 1958, and that by the end of 1959, they were becoming casualties at the rate of more than 2% per month. Through 1963, Fall calculated, 13,000 petty officials were eliminated by the VC. The New York Times estimated that 3,000 local government officials were killed or captured during 1960, and Time magazine reported in the fall of 1960 that the GVN was losing 250 to 300 per month to a "new Communist offensive": The U.S. "White Paper" of 1961 cited losses of 1400 local officials and civilians during 1960. But if there was disparity among numerical estimates, most reports, public or private, concluded that the violence was real, anti-government, rising in intensity, and increasingly organized.
In mid-1958 Bernard Fall correlated the locus of rural violence reported in South Vietnam with complaints lodged with the ICC in Hanoi by the DRV on behalf of "Former Resistance members," alleging GVN violations of the "no reprisals" provisions of the Geneva Accords (Armistice, Article 14c). The detail in these complaints indicated an intelligence apparatus in South Vietnam.
"The conclusion is inescapable," he wrote, "that there must be some coordination between the rebels and the North Vietnamese Government." About that ame time, U.S. intelligence reported that Viet Cong-bandit operations north of aigon seemed to be part of a calculated campaign of economic sabotage. Ac~ording to one description of the village near My Tho which was studied very ritensively around mid-1958:
...For the first time [the village] experienced the activities of a relatively new political movement--Mat Tran Dan Toc Giai Phong Mien Nam Viet Nam (National Front for the Liberation of Vietnam) referred to by the South Vietnamese government as the Viet Cong or Vietnamese Communists . . . and invariably called the Viet Minh by the villagers. In the vicinity of [the village] the initial efforts of the Viet Cong were largely confined to anti-government propaganda.
One VC pamphlet of late 1958 from the Mekong Delta reads as follows:
Support the just struggle of the people to overthrow the government of the Americans and Diem [My-Diem], to establish a democratic regime in the South, and to work for general elections which will unify the country by peaceful means.
But, if "struggle" sounds innocuous enough in English, the word fails to carry the intensity of the Vietnamese equivalent, dau tranh. A VC rallier put it this way:
Dau tranh is all important to a revolutionist. It marks his thinking, his attitudes, his behavior. His life, his revolutionary work, his whole world is dau tranh. The essence of his existence is dau tranh.
And, the term "just struggle of the people" sheathed the terror integral to Viet Cong operations. In Pike's estimate:
Insurgency efforts in the 1958-1960 period involved violence such as assassinations but few actual armed attacks. This was so partly because the cadres had little military capability but chiefly because doctrine counseled against violence....
For the true believers operating throughout the South this was a time of surreptitious meetings, cautious political feelers, the tentative assembling of a leadership group, and the sounding out of potential cadres whose names went into a file for future reference. It meant working mainly with non-Communists and, in many cases, keeping one's Communist identity a secret.....
Diem's own party newspaper, the NRM's Cach Mang Quoc Gia, published an article in February, 1959 which reported that "the situation in the rural areas is rotten," and described communist cells established in the villages collecting taxes and conducting "espionage," supporting local guerrilla forces responsive to a hierarchy of provincial and regional committees.
From mid-1959 onward, there was a definite upsurge in Viet Cong activity, marked not only by the increase in terrorism noted in the statistics presented above, but also by the fielding of large military units which sought, rather than avoided, engagement with units of Diem's regular army. On 26 September 1959 two companies of the ARVN 23d Division were ambushed by a well-organized force of several hundred identified as the "2d Liberation Battalion"; the ARVN units lost 12 killed, 14 wounded, and most of their weapons.
On 25 January 1960 the same Viet Cong battalion launched an attack coordinated with four guerrilla companies-a total force of 300 to 500 men-which penetrated the compound of the 32d Regiment, 21st ARVN Division at Tay Ninh, killed 23 ARVN soldiers, and netted a large haul of arms and ammunition. On 29 January 1960 an insurgent band seized the town of Dong Xoai, some sixty miles north of Saigon, held the place for several hours, and robbed a French citizen of 200,000 piasters. In the same month, large VC forces opened operations in the Camau peninsula and the Mekong Delta. In Kien Hoa province VC units numbering hundreds effectively isolated the province capital from six of its eight districts. Bernard Fall, in his continuing study of Viet Cong operations, detected a new strategy operating: a shift during 1959 and early 1960 from base development in the Delta to isolation of Saigon. Whether or not the incidents plotted by Fall constituted a strategy as he thought, they were patently more coherent. A U.S. intelligence assessment submitted 7 March 1960 described VC plans, confirmed from a variety of U.S. and GVN sources, to launch large scale guerrilla warfare that year "under the flag of the People's Liberation Movement," which was identified as "red, with a blue star." The VC were reportedly moving into position to exercise one or more of three strategic options by the end of 1960: (1) incite an ARVN revolt; (2) set up a popular front government in the lower Delta; (3) force the GVN into such repressive countermeasures that popular uprisings will follow.
An ARVN coup d'etat did ensue, although it was neither VC incited nor successful; nor was there any general revolt in the ranks. No popular front government was set up. But the GVN was prompted to a succession of repressive countermeasures which may have aided the Viet Cong much as they had expected. Prodded by the rural violence, Diem began his "counterinsurgency" in early 1959 with the reintensification of population classification and relocation programs. On 6 May 1959, the GVN promulgated Law 10/59, which set up three military tribunals which could, without appeal, adjudge death for crimes under Ordinance 47 of 1956-the anti-communist law. In actuality, these tribunals were used sparingly, usually for show-case trials of terrorists. But the existence of Law 10/59 furnished grist for VC propaganda mills for years.
On 7 July, 1959, the GVN launched its "prosperity and density centers"-the "agroville" program-and Ngo Dinh Nhu and his wife plunged into organizing rural youth, women, and farmers' organizations. However, just as the VC Tet offensive of 1968 attenuated ~'Revolutionary Development," the VC upsurge of late 1959 and early 1960 disrupted the new GVN organizational efforts, and reinforced Diem's conviction that security was the paramount consideration. The U.S. assessment of March 1960 cited widespread abuse of police powers by local officials for extortion and vendetta, and pointed out that arbitrary and corrupt local officials compromised GVN efforts to root out the VC "undercover cadres." Moreover:
....While the GVN has made an effort to meet the economic and social needs of the rural populations through community development, the construction of schools, hospitals, roads, etc., these projects appear to have enjoyed only a measure of success in creating support for the government and, in fact, in many instances have resulted in resentment. Basically, the problem appears to be that such projects have been imposed on the people without adequate psychological preparation in terms of the benefits to be gained. Since most of these projects call for sacrifice on the part of the population (in the form of allegedly "volunteer" labor in the case of construction, time away from jobs or school labor in the case of rural youth groups, leaving homes and lands in the case of regrouping isolated peasants), they are bound to be opposed unless they represent a partnership effort for mutual benefit on the part of the population and the government....
The situation may be summed up in the fact that the government has tended to treat the population with suspicion or to coerce it and has been rewarded with an attitude of apathy or resentment.
4. The Founding of the National Liberation Front
Despite their expanding military effort, the Viet Cong remained a formless, "faceless" foe until late in 1960, when the National Liberation Front was announced as the superstructure of the insurgent apparatus, and the political voice of the rebellion. Thereafter, the Viet Cong sought publicity, and thereby acquired identity as a South Vietnam-wide organization of three major components: the NLF itself, the Liberation Army of South Vietnam, and the People's Revolutionary Party.
a. Organization and Objectives
The precise dates of the forming of the NLF constitutes one of the puzzles of the war. As mentioned above, in the years 1954 to 1960, peasants, captured documents and prisoners referred frequently to "the Front," meaning the insurgent movement, and "Front" flags had been captured as early as 1959. These were probably references to Viet Minh carry-over organizations, such as they were, rather than a specific leadership group or structure, with a set of defined objectives. Nguyen Huu Tho, the first Chairman of the NLF, stated in a 1964 interview over Radio Hanoi that:
Although formally established in December 1960, the Front had existed as a means of action without by-laws or program since 1954 when we founded the Saigon-Cholon Peace Committee. . . . Many of the members of the [NLF] Central Committee were also members of the Peace Committee.....
Huynh Tan Phat, Tho's Vice Chairman in the NLF, was reported in late 1955 serving on the "Executive Committee of the Fatherland Front" (Mat Tren To Quoc), controlling joint Viet Minh-Hoa Hoa operations against the GVN in the plain of Reeds. Communists have been joining front organizations linking anti-government minorities. . . . [Examples are] the 'Vietnamese Peoples' Liberation Movement Forces' [and] . . . , the 'Vietnam-Cambodian Buddhist Association.'
A number of authorities, mainly French, have lent credence to an assertion that the NLF was formed by a group of Viet Minh veterans in March, 1960, somewhere in Cochinchina; but the NLF, as such, received no international publicity until after December 20, 1960. On January 29, 1961, Hanoi Radio broadcast in English to Europe and Asia its first announcement concerning the NLF:
A "National Front for the Liberation of South Vietnam" was recently formed in South Vietnam by various forces opposing the fascist Ngo Dinh Diem regime. This was revealed by Reuters in Saigon and by different papers published in . . . Phnom Penh, capital of Cambodia. This Front was created after a period of preparation and after a conference of representatives of various forces opposing the fascist regime in South Vietnam. According to these forces, the "National Front for the Liberation of South Vietnam" on December 20, 1960, issued a political program and a manifesto....[the manifesto] reads: "For a period of nearly a hundred years, the Vietnamese people repeatedly rose up to fight against foreign aggression for national independence and freedom. . . . When the French colonialists invaded our country for the second time, our compatriots-determined not to return to the former slavery-made tremendous sacrifices to defend national sovereignty and independence. The solidarity and heroic struggle of our compatriots during nine years led the resistance war to victory. The 1954 Geneva Agreements reinstalled peace in our country and recognized the sovereignty, independence, unity and territorial integrity of Vietnam. Under these circumstances, our compatriots in South Vietnam would have been able to live in peace, earn their livelihood in security and build a life of plenty and happiness. However, American imperialists who had in the past helped the French colonialists massacre our people have now replaced the French in subjugating the southern part of our country through a disguised colonial regime. . . . The National Front for the Liberation of South Vietnam calls on the entire people to unite and heroically rise up and struggle with the following program of action:
"Jan. 31, 1961
'1. To overthrow the disguised colonial regime of the imperialists and the dictatorial administration, and to form a national and democratic coalition administration.
'2. To carry out a broad and progressive democracy, promulgate the freedom of expression, of the press, of belief, reunion, association and of movement and other democratic freedoms; to carry out general amnesty of political detainees, dissolve the concentration camps dubbed "prosperity zones" and "resettlement centers," abolish the fascist law 10-59 and other anti-democratic laws.
'3. Abolish the economic monopoly of the United States and its henchmen, protect homemade products, encourage the home industry, expand agriculture, and build an independent and sovereign economy; to provide jobs to unemployed people, increase wages for workers, armymen, and office employees; to abolish arbitrary fines and apply an equitable and rational tax system; to help forced evacuees from North Vietnam who now desire to rejoin their native places; and to provide jobs to those who want to remain.
'4. To carry out land rent reduction, guarantee the peasants' right to till their present plots of land, and redistribute communal land in preparation for land reform.
'5. To eliminate the U.S.-style culture of enslavement and depravation; to build a national and progressive culture and education, eliminate illiteracy, open more schools, and carry out reform in the educational and examination system.
'6. To abolish the system of American military advisers, eliminate foreign military bases in Vietnam, and to build a national army defending the fatherland and the people.
'7. To realize equality between men and women, and among different nationalities, and realize the right to autonomy of the national minorities in the country; to protect the legitimate interests of foreign residents in Vietnam; to protect and take care of the interests of overseas Vietnamese.
'8. To carry out a foreign policy of peace and neutrality; to establish diplomatic relations with all the countries which respect the independence and sovereignty of Vietnam.
'9. To reestablish normal relations between the two zones of Vietnam for the attainment of peaceful reunification of the country.
'10. To oppose aggressive wars, actively defend world peace.
"The manifesto concludes by calling on various strata of the people to close their ranks and to carry out the above program. The appeal was addressed to the workers, peasants, and other working people, to the intellectuals, the industrialists, and trades, national minorities, religious communities, democratic personalities, patriotic armymen, and young men and women in South Vietnam.
"Addressing the Vietnamese living abroad, the manifesto called on them 'to turn their thoughts to the beloved motherland and actively contribute to the sacred struggle for national emancipation.'"
It is clear that the NLF was not intended as an exclusively communist enterprise. Rather it was designed to encompass anti-GVN activists, and to exploit the bi-polar nature of politics within South Vietnam. In the period 1954-1960, prior to the NLF's "creation," the objectives of insurgents in the South, other than overthrow of My-Diem, were vague. Communists in the South no doubt shared the overall objectives of the DRV, and were aiming at unification of all Vietnam under the Hanoi government. Some rebel nationalists were no doubt aware of the communists' ambitions, but would have regarded such an outcome as acceptable, if not desirable. Others, disillusioned by the actions of the Diem regime after 1956, simply looked toward the establishment of a genuine democratic government in the South. Some peasants may have been fighting to rid themselves of government, or to oppose modernization, looking only to village autonomy. The sects, if not struggling for a democratic regime, were fighting for their independence, as were some of the tribal groups who chose to join the NLF. The National Liberation Front formulated and publicly articulated objectives for all these.
George Carver reported that:
On February 11, 1961, Hanoi devoted a second broadcast to the N.L.F.'s manifesto and program, blandly changing the language of both to tone down the more blatant Communist terminology of the initial version. However, even the milder second version (which became the "official" text) borrowed extensively from Le Duan's September speech [at the Third National Congress of the Lao Dong Party in Hanoi] and left little doubt about the Front's true sponsors or objectives.
The "tone down" of communism was fairly subtle, if Hanoi so intended its revision, since the alterations consisted mainly in additions to the Ten Points of phraseology drawn from the preamble of the Manifesto; references to "agrarian reform," in those terms, were, however, cut. There was a marked increase in condemnatory citations of "My-Diem," so that, in eight of ten points in the action program, expelling the U.S. was clearly identified as the way the desired goal would be reached.
Pike refers to an "organizing congress" of the NLF held in December, 1960, of 60 participants, at which plans were announced for convening the first regular NLF congress within a year. Several postponements obtruded, and the meeting did not take place until February-March 1962. Nonetheless, a Central Committee continued in the interim to further define NLF purposes; the subsequent statements differed from the 1960 Manifesto mainly on points of emphasis. For example, "reunification of the country" (Point 9 of the Manifesto) was downplayed from 1960 through 1962. On the first anniversary of the NLF Manifesto, 20 December 1961, its leaders issued a supplementary series of interim or "immediate action" demands. These called for:
1. Withdrawal of all U.S. military personnel and weapons from South Vietnam
and abolition of the Staley Plan.
2. An end to hostilities.
3. Establishment of political freedoms.
4. Release of political prisoners.
5. Dissolution of the National Assembly and election of a new assembly and president.
6. Ending the resettlement program.
7. Solution of Vietnam's economic problems.
8. Establishment of a foreign policy of non-alignment.
Although "immediate action" was probably intended to open the way toward formation of a coalition government and thence to ties with Hanoi, there was no mention of reunification; nonetheless, Hanoi in December, 1961, listed NLF objectives as "peace, independence, democracy, a comfortable life, and the peaceful unification of the Fatherland." One likely reason for the NLF's omission of reunification from "immediate action" was its desire to broaden its base on anti-Diem, anti-U.S. grounds-without alienating anti-Communists who might otherwise support the movement. Again, when the first regular NLF congress met from February 16 to March 3, 1962, the earlier basic objectives of the Front were endorsed, excepting reunification. The Radio Hanoi broadcast on the congress added "advancing to peaceful unification of the Fatherland" to a list from which this objective was conspicuously absent in the NLF releases. On July 20, 1962, the anniversary of the Geneva Accords, the NLF issued a declaration that:
The Central Committee of the National Liberation Front of South Vietnam believes that in the spirit of Vietnamese dealing with Vietnamese solving their own internal affairs, with the determination to put the Fatherland's interest above all else, the forces that oppose U.S. imperialism in South Vietnam will, through mutual concessions, be able to reach a common agreement for united action to serve the people.
The same statement contained a new "four point manifesto":
1. The U.S. government must end its armed aggression against South Vietnam, abolish its military command, withdraw all its troops and personnel, as well as the troops and personnel of U.S. satellites and allies, and withdraw all weapons and other war equipment from South Vietnam.
2. Concerned parties in South Vietnam must stop the war, re-establish peace, and establish conditions throughout South Vietnam to enable the South Vietnamese to solve their own internal affairs. The South Vietnam authority [that is, government] must end its terror operations.
3. There must be established a national coalition government, to include representatives of all political parties, cliques, groups, all political tendencies, social strata, members of all religions. This government must guarantee peace. It must organize free general elections in South Vietnam to choose a democratic National Assembly that will carry out the urgently needed policies. It must promulgate democratic liberties to all political parties, groups, religions; it must release all political prisoners, abolish all internment camps and all other forms of concentration [camps], and stop the forced draft of soldiers and the military training of youth, women, public servants, and enterprise, economic independence. It must abolish monopolies and improve the living conditions of all people.
4. South Vietnam must carry out a foreign policy of peace and neutrality. It must establish friendly relations with all nations, especially with her neighbors. It must not enter any military bloc or agree to let any country establish military bases on her soil. It must accept aid from all countries [if] free of political conditions. A necessary international agreement must be signed in which the big powers of all blocs pledge to respect the sovereignty, independence, territorial integrity, and neutrality of South Vietnam. South Vietnam, together with Cambodia and Laos, will form a neutral area, all three countries retaining full sovereignty.
As the anticipated fall of the Diem government drew near in 1963, NLF statements
of goals increasingly stressed the anti-American, probably to shift the
focus of NLF attack away from a disappearing objective--the defeat of Diem, and possibly because the NLF could not manipulate or adapt to the Buddhist
struggle movement. Demands issued by the NLF five days following Diem's fall in November, 1963, were probably intended to take credit for changes in GVN policy then underway, since, except for halting conscription, the Duong Van Minh government was undertaking every reform the NLF called for. However, the first extensive official statement of the NLF Central Committee following Diem's downfall, issued November 17, 1963, did reassert the reunification objective:
Concerning the reunification of Vietnam, as was expounded many times by the South Vietnam National Liberation Front, the Vietnam Fatherland Front and the DRV government, it will be realized step by step on a voluntary basis, with consideration given to the characteristics of each zone, with equality, and without annexation of one zone by the other.
Concerning coalition government there was less vacillation in NLF emphasis, although there was some detectable variation in the welcome extended from time to time to anti-communist political movements. Similarly, the objective of "neutralization" was constant. Cambodia was held up as a model, and there was some implication in early NLF statements that it would accept international supervision of "neutralization." Beginning in 1963 NLF statements were couched to convey the notion that "reunification" and "neutralization" were distinct one from the other, apparently out of deference to DRV reaction against proposals to neutralize North Vietnam.
The NLF founders were shadowy figures most of whom had earned modest repute on the murky fringes of Vietnamese politics. They seem to have been chosen with an eye to avoiding known Communists, and to obtaining wide representation from South Vietnam's complicated society. Although the NLF Central Committee reserved places for 52 members, only 31 names were publicized as founding members, indicating either a large covert membership, or, more likely, simple inability to find eligible persons to fill the posts. A U.S. study of 73 NLF leaders in 1965 indicated that almost all were born in South Vietnam, and almost all were highly educated. Most had histories of anti-French political activity, or identification with religious movements, and it appears that if many were not themselves crypto-communists, they had known and worked with communists for years. The prime example of the group is Nguyen Huu Tho, who was the first formally elected chairman of the Presidium of the Central Committee of the NLF. Tho was a Cochinchinese lawyer, once a socialist, who spent some months with the Viet Minh in the Mekong Delta in 1947. He thereafter led anti-French and anti-US demonstrations, defended a number of Vietnamese before Saigon courts for crimes related to the "Resistance," and served some time in French jails. He also edited a clandestine Viet Minh newspaper aimed at Saigon intellectuals. In August, 1954, he became vice chairman of the leftist Saigon Peace Committee, or Movement for the Defense of Peace (MDP). In November, 1954, according to CIA information, Tho and others in the MDP were arrested, and Tho spent the next seven years in Diem's detention centers. Mysteriously released in December, 1961, the CIA reported him elected to NLF office at the congress of March, 1962. Douglas Pike's information has Tho active in Saigon politics through 1958, at which time he was jailed. His NLF biography states that "he was liberated by a daring guerrilla raid on the jail in 1961," but Pike, unable to find any record of such a raid, concludes that Tho was provisional chairman and was selected Central Committee Chairman at the organizing meeting.
The NLF rapidly took on organizational reality from the Central Committee down through a web of subordinate and associated groups to villages all over Vietnam. Pike estimates that within a few months of its founding in December, 1960, its membership doubled, doubled again by autumn, 1961, and then redoubled by early 1962, at which time 300,000 Vietnamese were on its roles. These were members of the "liberation associations," NLF per se, of which there were administrative associations (e.g., provincial headquarters) and functional associations (e.g., Youth Liberation Association); or, they belonged to one of several political parties, including the communist party, affiliated with the NLF; or, they served in the Liberation Army. Normally, each man, woman and child belonged to many organizations simultaneously. A French analysis of Viet Minh organization aptly described the NLF:
The individual is enchained in several networks of independent hierarchies.... a territorial hierarchy.... running from the family and the block to the interprovincial government, and associations that incorporate male and female youth groups, groups of mothers, of farmers, factory, and plantation workers' syndicates . . . they could just as well include clubs of flute players or bicycle racers; the essential thing is that no one escapes from this enrollment and that the territorial hierarchy is crossed by another one, which supervises the first and is in turn supervised by it, both being overseen by police organizations and the [Communist] Party.
The key operational components of the NLF were the Liberation Army and the People's Revolutionary Party, as the communists within the NLF termed themselves. The former had a lien on the services of every NLF member, man, woman or child, although functionally its missions were usually carried out by formally organized and trained paramilitary or full-time units. All "Viet Cong" units were, from 1961 on, regarded as part of the Liberation Army.
There can be little doubt that communists played a major role in organizing the NLF. Although Diem's Communist Denunciation campaign had foreclosed "Front" activity, the communists of South Vietnam possessed the leadership, tight subordination and conspiratorial doctrine necessary for them to survive; moreover, they were, as Milton Sacks characterized them, "the most persevering, most cohesive, best-disciplined, and most experienced political group in Vietnam. The People's Revolutionary Party was not formed until January, 1962; it was explicitly the "Marxist-Leninist Party of South Vietnam," and it purported to be the "vanguard of the NLF, the paramount member." In 1962, it had some 35,000 members. The Lao Dong Party had continued low level overt activity, as well as covert operations, in South Vietnam throughout the years 1955 to 1962. For example, leaflets were distributed over the Lao Dong imprimatur. But the PRP denied official links with the Lao Dong Party of the DRV beyond "fraternal ties of communism." The denial implies the question: What roles did the DRV and the Lao Dong Party play in the years of patient work necessary to bring the NLF to flower in so short a time after 1960? What role did they play in the insurgency overall?
The official U.S. view has been that the PRP is merely the southern arm of the Lao Dong Party, and one instrument by which Hanoi instigated and controlled the revolt against "My-Diem." Douglas Pike's analysis led him to concur, with reservations:
The Viet Minh elements in South Vietnam during the struggle against the French had of course included many non-Communist elements. . . . After 1954 many Viet Minh entered the ranks of the new Diem government, and even a decade later many of the top military and civilian governmental figures in Saigon were former Viet Minh. Nevertheless the Viet Minh elements, made up chiefly but not entirely of Communists, continued to offer resistance to the Diem government. . . . In terms of overt activity such as armed incidents of the distribution of propaganda leaflets the period was quiet and the Communists within the remnant Viet Minh organization relatively inactive. In addition, much of the activity that did take place apparently was the work of impatient cadres operating in the South independently of Hanoi's orders....
Such action on their part and the religious sects is understandable, and the
emergence of a clandestine militant opposition group could be expected....such
an effort would be in complete harmony with Vietnamese social tradition and
individual psychology. But there is a vast difference between a collection of
clandestine opposition political groups and the organizational weapon that emerged,
a difference in kind and not just degree. The National Liberation Front was
not simply another indigenous covert group, or even a coalition of such groups.
It was an organizational steamroller, nationally conceived and nationally organized,
endowed with ample cadres and funds, crashing out of the jungle to flatten the
GVN. It was not an ordinary secret society of the kind that had dotted the Vietnamese
political landscape for decades. It projected a social construction program
of such scope and ambition that of necessity it must have been created in Hanoi
had imported. A revolutionary organization must build; it begins with persons
suffering genuine grievances, who are slowly organized and whose militancy gradually
increases until a critical mass is reached and the revolution explodes. Exactly
the reverse was the case with the NLF. It sprang full-blown into existence and
then was fleshed out. The grievances were developed or manufactured almost as
a necessary afterthought. The creation of the NLF was an accomplishment of such
skill, precision, and refinement that when one thinks of who the master planner
must have been, only one name comes to mind: Vietnam's organizational genius,
Ho Chi Minh.
Go Back to the previous 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
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.
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