United States – Vietnam Relations, 1945–1967: A Study Prepared by the Department of Defense/IV. A. 5. Origins of the Insurgency
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UNITED STATES - VIETNAM RELATIONS
1945 - 1967
VIETNAM TASK FORCE
OFFICE OF THE SECRETARY OF DEFENSE
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IV. A. 5.
EVOLUTION OF THE WAR
ORIGINS OF THE INSURGENCY
1954 – 1960
ORIGINS OF THE INSURGENCY IN SOUTH VIETNAM, 1951–1960
From the perspective of the United States, the origins of the insurgency in South Vietnam raise four principal questions:
- 1. Was the breakdown of the peace of 1954 the fault of the U.S., or of the ambiguities and loopholes of the Geneva Accords?
- 2. Was the insurgency in essence an indigenous rebellion against Ngo Dinh Diem's oppressive government, transformed by the intervention of first the U.S., and then the DRV?
- 3. Or was it, rather, instigated, controlled, and supported from its inception by Hanoi?
- 4. When did the U.S. become aware of the Viet Cong threat to South Vietnam's internal security, and did it attempt to counter it with its aid?
The analysis which follows rests on study of three corpora of evidence:
(a) Intelligence reports and analyses, including the most carefully guarded finished intelligence, and pertinent National Intelligence Estimates.
(b) Unfinished governmental intelligence, field reports, and memoranda such as interrogations of prisoners and translated captured documents, as well as contract studies based on similar evidence.
(c) Open sources, including the works of former U.S. officials, Vietnam correspondents, and the like.
The U.S. has attempted to amplify (c) by publishing White Papers in 1961 and 1965, in which substantial citations were made from (b) and interpretations offered consistent with (a). This study has benefited from further effort during 1967 and early 1968 to identify in (b) evidence which could be publicly released. But, based on the survey of (a), (b), and (c) reported on below, the U.S. can now present no conclusive answers to the questions advanced above.
Tentative answers are possible, and form a continuum: By 1956, peace in Vietnam was plainly less dependent upon the Geneva Settlement than upon power relationships in Southeast Asia — principally upon the role the U.S. elected to play in unfolding events. In 1957 and 1958, a structured rebellion against the government of Ngo Dinh Diem began. While the North Vietnamese played an ill-defined part, most of those who took up arms were South Vietnamese, and the causes for which they fought were by no means contrived in North Vietnam. In 1959 and 1960, Hanoi's involvement in the developing strife became evident. Not until 1960, however, did the U.S. perceive that Diem was in serious danger of being overthrown and devise a Counterinsurgency Plan.
It can be established that there was endemic insurgency in South Vietnam throughout the period 1954–1960. It can also be established — but less surely — that the Diem regime alienated itself from one after another of those elements within Vietnam which might have offered it political support, and was grievously at fault in its rural programs. That these conditions engendered animosity toward the GVN seems almost certain, and they could have underwritten a major resistance movement even without North Vietnamese help.
It is equally clear that North Vietnamese communists operated some form of subordinate apparatus in the South in the years 1954–1960. Nonetheless, the Viet Minh "stay-behinds" were not directed originally to structure an insurgency, and there is no coherent picture of the extent or effectiveness of communist activities in the period 1956–1959. From all indications, this was a period of reorganisation and recruiting by the communist party. No direct links have been established between Hanoi and perpetrators of rural violence. Statements have been found in captured party histories that the communists plotted and controlled the entire insurgency, but these are difficult to take at face value. Bernard Fall ingeniously correlated DRV complaints to the ICC of incidents in South Vietnam in 1957 with GVN reports of the same incidents and found Hanoi suspiciously well informed. He also perceived a pattern in the terrorism of 1957–1959, deducing that a broad, centrally directed strategy was being implemented. However, there is little other corroborative evidence that Hanoi instigated the incidents, much less orchestrated them.
Three interpretations of the available evidence are possible:
Option A — That the DRV intervened in the South in reaction to U.S. escalation, particularly that of President Kennedy in early 1961. Those who advance this argument rest their case principally on open sources to establish the reprehensible character of the Diem regime, examples of forceful resistance to Diem independent of Hanoi, and upon the formation of the National Liberation Front (NLF) alleged to have come into being in South Vietnam in early 1960. These also rely heavily upon DRV official statements of 1960–1961 indicating that the DRV only then proposed to support the NLF.
Option B — The DRV manipulated the entire war. This is the official U.S. position, and can be supported. Nonetheless, the case is not wholly compelling, especially for the years 1955–1959.
Option C — The DRV seized an opportunity to enter an ongoing internal war in 1959 prior to, and independent of, U.S. escalation. This interpretation is more tenable than the previous; still, much of the evidence is circumstantial.
The judgment offered here is that the truth lies somewhere between Option B and C. That is, there was some form of DRV apparatus functioning in the South throughout the years, but it can only be inferred that this apparatus originated and controlled the insurgency which by 1959 posed a serious challenge to the Diem government. Moreover, up until 1958, neither the DRV domestic situation nor its international support was conducive to foreign adventure; by 1959, its prospects were bright in both respects, and it is possible to demonstrate its moving forcefully abroad thereafter. Given the paucity of evidence now, well after the events, U.S. intelligence served policy makers of the day surprisingly well in warning of the developments described below:
Failure of the Geneva Settlement (Tab 1)
The Geneva Settlement of 1954 was inherently flawed as a durable peace for Indochina, since it depended upon France, and since both the U.S. and the Republic of South Vietnam excepted themselves. The common ground from which the nations negotiated at the Geneva Conference was a mutual desire to halt the hostilities between France and the Viet Minh, and to prevent any widening of the war. To achieve concord, they had to override objections of the Saigon government, countenance the disassociation of the U.S. from the Settlement, and accept France as one executor. Even so, Geneva might have wrought an enduring peace for Vietnam if France had remained as a major power in Indochina, if Ngo Dinh Diem had cooperated with the terms of the Settlement, if the U.S. had abstained from further influencing the outcome. No one of these conditions was likely, given France's travail in Algeria, Diem's implacable anti-communism, and the U.S.' determination to block further expansion of the DRV in Southeast Asia.
Therefore, the tragedy staged: partition of Vietnam, the sole negotiable basis found at Geneva for military disengagement, became the prime casus belli. To assuage those parties to Geneva who were reluctant to condone the handing over of territory and people to a communist government, and to reassure the Viet Minh that their southern followers could be preserved en bloc, the Accords provided for regrouping forces to North and South Vietnam and for Vietnamese freely electing residence in either the North or the South; the transmigrations severely disrupted the polity of Vietnam, heated the controversy over reunification, and made it possible for North Vietnam to contemplate subversive aggression. The arms control provisions of the Settlement of 1954 mollified parties of both sides who were fearful that the armistice would be used to conceal construction of military bases or other preparations for aggression; but these provisions depended on a credible international supervision which never materialized. Partition and regroupment pitted North against South Vietnam, and arms control failed patently and soon. Geneva traded on long-run risks to achieve short-run disengagement. France withdrew from Vietnam, leaving the Accords in the hands of Saigon. Lasting peace came between France and the Viet Minh, but the deeper struggle for an independent, united Vietnam remained, its international implications more grave, its dangers heightened.
The Southeast Asia policy of the U.S. in the aftermath of the Geneva Conference was conservative, focused on organizing collective defense against further inroads of communism, not on altering status quo. Status quo was the two Vietnams set up at Geneva, facing each other across a demilitarized zone. Hanoi, more than other powers, had gambled: hedged by the remaining Viet Minh, it waited for either Geneva's general elections or the voracious political forces in the South to topple the Saigon government. In South Vietnam, Diem had begun his attempt to gain control over his people, constantly decried DRV subversion and handling of would-be migrants as violations of the Geneva Accords, and pursued an international and domestic policy of anti-communism. Both Vietnams took the view that partition was, as the Conference Final Declaration stated, only temporary. But statements could not gainsay the practical import of the Accords. The separation of Vietnam at the 17th parallel facilitated military disengagement, but by establishing the principle that two regimes were separately responsible for "civil administration" each in distinct zones; by providing for the regroupment of military forces to the two zones, and for the movement of civilians to the zone of their choice; and by postponing national elections for at least two years, permitting the regimes in Hanoi and Saigon to consolidate power, the Geneva conferees in fact fostered two governments under inimical political philosophies, foreign policies, and socio-economic systems.
The Geneva powers were imprecise — probably deliberately indefinite — concerning who was to carry out the election provisions. France, which was charged with civil administration in the "regrouping zone" of South Vietnam, had granted the State of Vietnam its independence in June 1954, six weeks before the Accords were drawn up. Throughout 1954 and the first half of 1955, France further divested itself of authority in South Vietnam: police, local government, and then the Army of Vietnam were freed of French control, and turned over to the Saigon government. Concurrently, the U.S. began to channel aid directly to South Vietnam, rather than through France. The convolution of French policy then thrust upon the U.S. a choice between supporting Diem or the French presence in Indochina. The U.S. opted for Diem. By the time the deadlines for election consultations fell due in July 1955, South Vietnam was sovereign de facto as well as de jure, waxing strong with U.S. aid, and France was no longer in a position to exert strong influence on Diem's policy or actions.
As early as January 1955, President Diem was stating publicly that he was unlikely to proceed with the Geneva elections:
- "Southern Viet-Nam, since it protested the Geneva Agreement when it was made, does not consider itself a party to that Agreement, nor bound by it.
- "In any event, the clauses providing for the 1956 elections are extremely vague. But at one point they are clear — in stipulating that the elections are to be free. Everything will now depend on how free elections are defined. The President said he would wait to see whether the conditions of freedom would exist in North Viet-Nam at the time scheduled for the elections. He asked what would be the good of an impartial counting of votes if the voting has been preceded in North Viet-Nam by a campaign of ruthless propaganda and terrorism on the part of a police state."
As the deadline for consultations approached (20 July 1955), Diem was increasingly explicit that he did not consider free elections possible in North Vietnam, and had no intention of consulting with the DRV concerning them. The U.S. did not — as is often alleged — connive with Diem to ignore the elections. U.S. State Department records indicate that Diem's refusal to be bound by the Geneva Accords and his opposition to pre-election consultations were at his own initiative. However, the U.S., which had expected elections to be held, and up until May 1955 had fully supported them, shifted its position in the face of Diem's opposition, and of the evidence then accumulated about the oppressive nature of the regime in North Vietnam. "In essence," a State Department historical study found, "our position would be that the whole subject of consultations and elections in Viet-Nam should be left up to the Vietnamese themselves and not dictated by external arrangements which one of the parties never accepted and still rejects." Secretary of State Dulles explained publicly that:
- "Neither the United States Government nor the Government of Viet-Nam is, of course, a party to the Geneva armistice agreements. We did not sign them, and the Government of Viet-Nam did not sign them and, indeed, protested against them. On the other hand, the United States believes, broadly speaking, in the unification of countries which have a historic unity, where the people are akin. We also believe that, if there are conditions of really free elections, there is no serious risk that the Communists would win...."
Thus, backed by the U.S., Diem obdurately refused to open talks with the Hanoi government. He continued to maintain that the Government of South Vietnam had not signed the Geneva Agreements and thus was not bound by them.
- "Our policy is a policy for peace. But nothing will lead us astray of our goal, the unity of our country, a unity in freedom and not in slavery. Serving the cause of our nation, more than ever we will struggle for the reunification of our homeland.
- "We do not reject the principle of free elections as peaceful and democratic means to achieve that unity. However if elections constitute one of the bases of true democracy they will be meaningful only on the condition that they be absolutely free.
- "Now faced with a regime of oppression as practiced by the Viet Minh, we remain skeptical concerning the possibility of fulfilling the conditions of free elections in the North."
On 1 June 1956, the Assistant Secretary of State for Far Eastern Affairs, Walter Robertson, stated:
- "President Diem and the Government of Free Viet-Nam reaffirmed on April 6 of this year and on other occasions their desire to seek the reunification of Viet-Nam by peaceful means. In this goal, we support them fully. We hope and pray that the partition of Viet-Nam, imposed against the will of the Vietnamese people, will speedily come to an end. For our part we believe in free elections, and we support President Diem fully in his position that if elections are to be held, there first must be conditions which preclude intimidation or coercion of the electorate. Unless such conditions exist there can be no free choice."
President Eisenhower is widely quoted to the effect that in 1954 as many as 80% of the Vietnamese people would have voted for Ho Chi Minh, as the popular hero of their liberation, in an election against Bao Dai. In October 1955, Diem ran against Bao Dai in a referendum and won by a dubiously overwhelming vote, but he plainly won nevertheless. It is almost certain that by 1956 the proportion which might have voted for Ho — in a free election against Diem — would have been much smaller than 80%. Diem's success in the South had been far greater than anyone could have foreseen, while the North Vietnamese regime had been suffering from food scarcity, and low public morale stemming from inept imitation of Chinese Communism — including a harsh agrarian program that reportedly led to the killing of over 50,000 small-scale "landlords." The North Vietnamese themselves furnished damning descriptions of conditions within the DRV in 1955 and 1956. Vo Nguyen Giap, in a public statement to his communist party colleagues, admitted in autumn, 1956, that:
- "We made too many deviations and executed too many honest people. We attacked on too large a front and, seeing enemies everywhere, resorted to terror, which became far too widespread.... Whilst carrying out our land reform program we failed to respect the principles of freedom of faith and worship in many areas... in regions inhabited by minority tribes we have attacked tribal chiefs too strongly, thus injuring, instead of respecting, local customs and manners.... When reorganizing the party, we paid too much importance to the notion of social class instead of adhering firmly to political qualifications alone. Instead of recognizing education to be the first essential, we resorted exclusively to organizational measures such as disciplinary punishments, expulsion from the party, executions, dissolution of party branches and calls. Worse still, torture came to be regarded as a normal practice during party reorganization."
That circumstances in North Vietnam were serious enough to warrant Giap's confiteor was proved by insurrection among Catholic peasants in November 1956, within two weeks of his speech, in which thousands more lives were lost. But the uprisings, though then and since used to validate the U.S.-backed GVN stand, were not foreseen in 1955 or 1956; the basis for the policy of both nations in rejecting the Geneva elections was, rather, convictions that Hanoi would not permit "free general elections by secret ballot," and that the ICC would be impotent in supervising the elections in any case.
The deadlines for the consultations in July 1955, and the date set for elections in July 1956, passed without international action. The DRV repeatedly tried to engage the Geneva machinery, forwarding messages to the Government of South Vietnam in July 1955, May and June 1956, March 1958, July 1959, and July 1960, proposing consultations to negotiate "free general elections by secret ballot," and to liberalize North-South relations in general. Each time the GVN replied with disdain, or with silence. The 17th parallel, with its demilitarized zone on either side, became de facto an international boundary, and — since Ngo Dinh Diem's rigid refusal to traffic with the North excluded all economic exchanges and even an interstate postal agreement — one of the most restricted boundaries in the world. The DRV appealed to the UK and the USSR as co-chairmen of the Geneva Conference to no avail. In January 1956, on DRV urging, Communist China requested another Geneva Conference to deal with the situation. But the Geneva Co-Chairmen, the USSR and the UK, responded only by extending the functions of the International Control Commission beyond its 1956 expiration date. By early 1957, partitioned Vietnam was a generally accepted modus vivendi throughout the international community. For instance, in January 1957, the Soviet Union proposed the admission of both the GVN and the DRV to the United Nations, the USSR delegate to the Security Council declaring that "in Vietnam two separate States existed, which differed from one another in political and economic structure...." Thus, reunification through elections became as remote a prospect in Vietnam as in Korea or Germany. If the political mechanism for reunifying Vietnam in 1956 proved impractical, the blame lies at least in part with the Geneva conferences themselves, who postulated an ideal political settlement incompatible with the physical and psychological dismemberment of Vietnam they themselves undertook in July 1954.
But partition was not, as the examples of Korea and Germany demonstrate, necessarily tantamount to renewed hostilities. The difference was that in Korea and Germany international forces guarded the boundaries. In Vietnam, the withdrawal of the French Expeditionary Corps prior to the date set for elections in 1956 left South Vietnam defenseless except for such forces as it could train and equip with U.S. assistance. The vague extending of the SEATO aegis over Vietnam did not exert the same stabilizing influence as did NATO's Central Army Group in Germany, or the United Nations Command in Korea. Moreover, neither East Germany nor North Korea enjoyed the advantage of a politico-military substructure within the object of its irredentism, as the Viet Minh residue provided North Vietnam. The absence of deterrent force in South Vietnam invited forceful reunification; the southern Viet Minh regroupees in the North and their comrades in the South made it possible.
Pursuant to the "regroupment" provisions of the Geneva Accords, some 190,000 troops of the French Expeditionary Corps, and 900,000 civilians moved from North Vietnam to South Vietnam; more than 100,000 Viet Minh soldiers and civilians moved from South to North. Both nations thereby acquired minorities with vital interests in the outcome of the Geneva Settlement. In both nations, the regroupees exerted an influence over subsequent events well out of proportion to their numbers.
In North Vietnam, the DRV treated the southern regroupees from the outset as strategic assets — the young afforded special schooling, the able assigned to separate military units.
The southerners in the North, and their relatives in the South, formed, with the remnants of the Viet Minh's covert network in South Vietnam, a means through which the DRV might "struggle" toward reunification regardless of Diem's obduracy or U.S. aid for South Vietnam. These people kept open the DRV's option to launch aggression without transcending a "civil war" of southerners against southerners — no doubt an important consideration with the United states as a potential antagonist. The evidence indicates that, at least through 1956, Hanoi did not expect to have to resort to force; thereafter, the regroupees occupied increasing prominence in DRV plans.
For Diem's government, refugees from the North were important for three reasons: firstly, they provided the world the earliest convincing evidence of the undemocratic and oppressive nature of North Vietnam's regime. Though no doubt many migrants fled North Vietnam for vague or spurious reasons, it was plain that Ho's Viet Minh were widely and genuinely feared, and many refugees took flight in understandable terror. There were indications that the DRV forcefully obstructed the migration of other thousands who might also have left the North. In 1955 and 1956, the refugees were the most convincing support for Diem's argument that free elections were impossible in the DRV.
Secondly, the refugees engaged the sympathies of the American people as few developments in Vietnam have before or since, and solidly underwrote the U.S. decision for unstinting support of Diem. The poignancy of hundreds of thousands of people fleeing their homes and fortunes to escape communist tyranny, well journalized, evoked an outpouring of U.S. aid, governmental and private. The U.S. Navy was committed to succor the migrants, lifting over 300,000 persons in "Operation EXODUS" (in which Dr. Tom Dooley — then a naval officer — won fame). U.S. government-to-government aid, amounting to $100 per refugee, more than South Vietnam's annual income per capita, enabled Diem's government to provide homes and food for hundreds of thousands of the destitute, and American charities provided millions of dollars more for their relief. U.S. officials defending American aid programs could point with pride to the refugee episode to demonstrate the special eligibility of the Vietnamese for U.S. help, including an early, convincing demonstration that Diem's government could mount an effective program with U.S. aid.
Thirdly, the predominantly Catholic Tonkinese refugees provided Diem with a claque: a politically malleable, culturally distinct group, wholly distrustful of Ho Chi Minh and the DRV, dependent for subsistence on Diem's government, and attracted to Diem as a co-religionist. Under Diem's mandarinal regime, they were less important as dependable votes than as a source of reliable political and military cadres. Most were kept unassimilated in their own communities, and became prime subjects for Diem's experiments with strategic population relocation. One heritage of Geneva is the present dominance of South Vietnam's government and army by northerner's. The refugees catalyzed Diem's domestic political rigidity, his high-handedness with the U.S., and his unyielding rejection of the DRV and the Geneva Accords.
The Geneva Settlement was further penalized by the early failure of the "International Supervisory Commission" established by the Armistice Agreement (Article 34) and cited in the Conference Declaration (Article 7). While a Joint Commission of French and Viet Minh military officers was set up to deal with the cease-fire and force regroupment, the International Commission for Supervision and Control (ICC), furnished by Poland, India, and Canada, was to oversee the Accords in general. Its inability to cope with violations of the Armistice in the handling of would-be migrants, vociferously proclaimed in both Saigon and Hanoi, impugned its competence to overwatch the general free elections, for which it was also to be responsible.
Equally serious for the Settlement, the ICC was expected to control arms and guarantee against aggression. The armistice agreement signed by the French and the Viet Minh, and affirmed in the several declarations of the Geneva Conference, included four main provisions for arms control: (1) arms, bases, and armed forces were to be fixed at the level existing in Vietnam in July 1954, with allowance for replacement of worn or damaged equipment, and rotation of personnel; (2) further foreign influences were to be excluded, either in the form of alliances, or foreign military bases established in either North or South Vietnam; (3) neither party was to allow its zone to be used for the renewal of aggression; and, (4) all the foregoing were to be overseen by the ICC. As was the case of the regroupment provisions, these arrangements operated in practice to the detriment of the political solution embodied in the Accords, for the ICC, the election guardian, was soon demonstrated to be impotent.
The level of arms in Vietnam in 1954 was unascertainable. The Viet Minh had been surreptitiously armed, principally by the Chinese, from 1950 onward. That Viet Minh forces were acquiring large amount of relatively advanced weaponry was fully evident at Dien Bien Phu, but neither the DRV nor its allies owned to this military assistance. After the 1954 armistice, French, U.S., and British intelligence indicated that the flow of arms into North Vietnam from China continued on a scale far in excess of "replacement" needs. Similarly, while U.S. military materiel had been provided to the French more openly, no one — neither the French, the Vietnamese, the U. S., nor certainly the ICC — knew how, much of this equipment was on hand and serviceable after 1954. The issue of arms levels was further complicated by regroupment, French withdrawals, and the revamping of the national army in South Vietnam. The ICC could determine to no one's satisfaction whether the DRV was within its rights to upgrade the armament of the irregulars it brought out of South Vietnam. Similarly, though the DRV charged repeatedly that the U.S. had no right to be in South Vietnam at all, the ICC had to face the fact that U.S. military advisors and trainers had been present in Vietnam since 1950 under a pentilateral agreement with Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam, and France. If France withdrew its cadres in Vietnamese units, could they not be "replaced" by Americans? And if the French were withdrawing both men and equipment in large quantities, did not Vietnam have a right under the Accords to replace them in kind with its own, American-equipped formations? To DRV charges and GVN countercharges, the ICC could reply with legalistic interpretations, but it found it virtually impossible to collect facts, or exercise more than vague influence over U.S., GVN, or DRV policy. The only major example of U.S. ignoring the ICC was the instance of the U.S. Training and Equipment Recovery Mission (TERM), 350 men ostensibly deployed to Vietnam in 1956 to aid the Vietnamese in recovering equipment left by the French, but also directed to act as an extension of the existing MAAG by training Vietnamese in logistics. TERM was introduced without ICC sanction, although subsequently the ICC accepted its presence.
The question of military bases was similarly occluded. The DRV protested repeatedly that the U.S. was transforming South Vietnam into a military base for the prosecution of aggression in Southeast Asia. In fact, as ICC investigation subsequently established, there was no wholly U.S. base anywhere in South Vietnam. It was evident, however, that the South Vietnamese government had made available to the U.S. some portions of existing air and naval facilities — e.g., at Tan Son Nhut, Bien Hoa, and Nha Be — for the use of MAAG and TERM. ICC access to these facilities was restricted, and the ICC was never able to determine what the U.S. was shipping through them, either personnel or materiel. By the same token, ICC access to DRV airports, rail terminals, and seaports was severely limited, and its ability to confirm or deny allegations concerning the rearming of the People's Army of Vietnam correspondingly circumscribed. International apprehensions over arms levels and potential bases for aggression were heightened by statements anticipating South Vietnam's active participation in SEATO, or pronouncements of DRV solidarity with China and Russia.
Not until 1959 and 1961 did the ICC publish reports attempting to answer directly DRV charges that the U.S. and South Vietnam were flagrantly violating the arms control provisions of the Geneva Accords. Similarly, though in its Tenth and Eleventh Interim Reports (1960 and 1961) the ICC noted "the concern which the Republic of Vietnam has been expressing over the problem of subversion in South Vietnam," it did not mention that those expressions of concern had been continuous since 1954, or attempt to publish a factual study of that problem until June 1962. In both cases, the ICC was overtaken by events: by late 1960, international tensions were beyond any ability of the ICC to provide reassurances, and the U.S. was faced with the decision whether to commit major resources to the conflict in South Vietnam.
The Geneva Settlement thus failed to provide lasting peace because it was, as U.S. National Security Council papers of 1956 and 1958 aptly termed it, "only a truce." It failed to settle the role of the U.S. or of the Saigon government, or, indeed, of France in Vietnam. It failed because it created two antagonist Vietnamese nations. It failed because the Geneva powers were unwilling or unable to concert follow-up action in Vietnam to supervise effectively observance of the Accords, or to damp en the mounting tension. Mutual distrust led to incremental violations by both sides, but on balance, though neither the United States nor South Vietnam was fully cooperative, and though both acted as they felt necessary to protect their interests , both considered themselves constrained by the Accords. There is no evidence that either deliberately undertook to breach the peace. In contrast, the DRV proceeded to mobilize its total societal resources scarcely without pause from the day the peace was signed, as though to substantiate the declaration of its Deputy Premier, Pham Van Dong, at the closing session of the Geneva Conference:
- "We shall achieve unity. We shall achieve it just as we have won the war. No force in the world, internal or external, can make us deviate from our path..."
Diem' s rejection of elections meant that reunification could be achieved in the foreseeable future only by resort to force. Diem's policy, and U.S. support of it, led inevitably to a test of strength with the DRV to determine whether the GVN's cohesiveness, with U.S. support, could offset North Vietnam's drive to satisfy its unrequited nationalism and expansionism.
Revolt Against My-Diem (Tab 2)
By the time President Kennedy came to office in 1961, it was plain that support for the Saigon government among South Vietnam's peasants — 90% of the population — was weak and waning. The Manifesto of the National Liberation Front, published in December 1960, trumpeted the existence of a revolutionary organization which could channel popular discontent into a political program. Increasingly Diem's government proved inept in dealing either through its public administration with the sources of popular discontent, or through its security apparatus with the Viet Cong. Diem's government and his party were by that time manifestly out of touch with the people, and into the gap between the government and the populace the Viet Cong had successfully driven. When and why this gap developed is crucial to an understanding of who the Viet Cong were, and to what extent they represented South as opposed to North Vietnamese interests.
The U.S. Government, in its White Papers on Vietnam of 1961 and 1965, has blamed the insurgency on aggression by Hanoi, holding that the Viet Cong were always tools of the DRV. Critics of U.S. policy in Vietnam usually hold, to the contrary, that the war was started by South Vietnamese; their counterarguments rest on two propositions: (1) that the insurgency began as a rebellion against the oppressive and clumsy government of Ngo Dinh Diem; and (2) that only after it became clear, in late 1960, that the U.S. would commit massive resources to succor Diem in his internal war, was the DRV impelled to unleash the South Vietnamese Viet Minh veterans evacuated to North Vietnam after Geneva. French analysts have long been advancing such interpretations; American protagonists for them often quote, for example, Philippe Devillers, who wrote in 1962 that:
- "...In 1959, responsible elements of the Communist Resistance in Indo-China came to the conclusion that they had to act, whether Hanoi wanted them to or no. They could no longer continue to stand by while their supporters were arrested, thrown into prison and tortured, without attempting to do anything about it as an organization, without giving some lead to the people in the struggle in which it was to be involved. Hanoi preferred diplomatic notes, but it was to find that its hand had been forced."
Devillers related how in March 1960 the "Nambo Veterans of the Resistance Association" issued a declaration appealing for "struggle" to "liberate themselves from submission to America, eliminate all U.S. bases in South Vietnam, expel American military advisors...." and to end "the colonial regime and the fascist dictatorship of the Ngo family." Shortly thereafter, according to Devillers, a People's Liberation Army appeared in Cochinchina and:
- "From this time forward it carried on incessant guerrilla operations against Diem's forces.
- "It was thus by its home policy that the government of the South finally destroyed the confidence of the population, which it had won during the early years, and practically drove them into revolt and desperation. The non-Communist (and even the anti-Communist) opposition had long been aware of the turn events were taking. But at the beginning of 1960 very many elements, both civilian and military, in the Nationalist camp came to a clear realization that things were moving from bad to worse, and that if nothing were done to put an end to the absolute power of Diem, then Communism would end up by gaining power with the aid, or at least with the consent, of the population. If they did not want to allow the Communists to make capital out of the revolt, then they would have to oppose Diem actively...."
Based on a similar analysis, Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., held that:
- "Diem's authoritarianism, which increasingly involved manhunts, political reeducation camps, and the 'regroupment' of population, caused spreading discontent and then armed resistance on the countryside. It is not easy to disentangle the events of these murky years; but few scholars believe that the growing resistance was at the start organized or directed by Hanoi. Indeed, there is some indication that the Communists at first hung back...it was not until September, 1960 that the Communist Party of North Vietnam bestowed its formal blessing and called for the liberation of the south from American imperialism."
Events in Vietnam in the years 1954 to 1960 were indeed murky. The Diem government controlled the press tightly, and discouraged realism in reports from its provincial bureaucracy. Even official U.S. estimates were handicapped by reliance upon GVN sources for inputs from the grass roots of Vietnamese society, the rural villages, since the U.S. advisory effort was then largely confined to top levels of the GVN and its armed forces. But enough evidence has now accumulated to establish that peasant resentment against Diem was extensive and well founded. Moreover, it is clear that dislike of the Diem government was coupled with resentment toward Americans. For many Vietnamese peasants, the War of Resistance against French-Bao Dai rule never ended; France was merely replaced by the U.S. and Bao Dai's mantle was transferred to Ngo Dinh Diem. The Viet Cong's opprobrious catchword "My-Diem" (American-Diem) thus recaptured the nationalist mystique of the First Indochina War, and combined the natural xenophobia of the rural Vietnamese with their mounting dislike of Diem. But Viet Cong slogans aside, in the eyes of many Vietnamese of no particular political persuasion, the United States was reprehensible as a modernizing force in a thoroughly traditional society, as the provider of arms and money for a detested government, and as an alien, disruptive influence upon hopes they held for the Geneva Settlement. As far as attitudes toward Diem were concerned, the prevalence of his picture throughout Vietnam virtually assured his being accepted as the sponsor of the frequently corrupt and cruel local officials of the GVN, and the perpetrator of unpopular GVN programs, especially the population relocation schemes, and the "Communist Denunciation Campaign." Altogether, Diem promised the farmers much, delivered little, and raised not only their expectations, but their fears.
It should be recognized; however, that whatever his people thought of him, Ngo Dinh Diem really did accomplish miracles, just as his American boosters said he did. He took power in 1954 amid political chaos, and within ten months surmounted attempted coups d'etat from within his army and rebellions by disparate irregulars. He consolidated his regime while providing creditably for an influx of nearly one million destitute refugees from North Vietnam; and he did all of this despite active French opposition and vacillating American support. Under his leadership South Vietnam became well established as a sovereign state, by 1955 recognized de jure by 36 other nations. Moreover, by mid-1955 Diem secured the strong backing of the U.S. He conducted a plebiscite in late 1955, in which an overwhelming vote was recorded for him in preference to Bao Dai; during 1956, he installed a government—representative in form, at least—, drafted a new constitution, and extended GVN control to regions that had been under sect or Viet Minh rule for a decade; and he pledged to initiate extensive reforms in land holding, public health, and education. With American help, he established a truly national, modern army, and formed rural security forces to police the countryside. In accomplishing all the foregoing, he confounded those Vietnamese of North and South, and those French, who had looked for his imminent downfall.
While it is true that his reforms entailed oppressive measures—e.g., his "political reeducation centers" were in fact little more than concentration camps for potential foes of the government—his regime compared favorably with other Asian governments of the same period in its respect for the person and property of citizens. There is much that can be offered in mitigation of Diem's authoritarianism. He began as the most singularly disadvantaged head of state of his era. His political legacy was endemic violence and virulent anti-colonialism. He took office at a time when the government of Vietnam controlled only a few blocks of downtown Saigon; the rest of the capital was the feudal fief of the Binh Xuyen gangster fraternity. Beyond the environs of Saigon, South Vietnam lay divided among the Viet Minh enclaves and the theocratic dominions of the Cao Dai and the Hoa Hao sects. All these powers would have opposed any Saigon government, whatever its composition; in fact, their existence accounts for much of the confidence the DRV then exhibited toward the outcome of the Geneva Settlement. For Diem to have erected any central government in South Vietnam without reckoning resolutely with their several armed forces and clandestine organizations would have been impossible: they were the very stuff of South Vietnam's politics.
Diem's initial political tests reinforced his propensity to inflexibility. The lessons of his first 10 months of rule must have underscored to Diem the value of swift, tough action against dissent, and of demanding absolute personal loyalty of top officials. Also, by May 1955, Ngo Dinh Diem had demonstrated to his satisfaction that the U.S. was sufficiently committed to South Vietnam that he could afford on occasion to resist American pressure, and even to ignore American advice. Diem knew, as surely as did the United States, that he himself represented the only alternative to a communist South Vietnam.
Diem was handicapped in all his attempts to build a nation by his political concepts. He saw himself as a moral reformer; he talked affairs of state with the extravagant expectations of a Rousseau, and he acted with the zeal of a Spanish Inquisitor. Despite extensive travel and education in the West, and despite his revolutionary mien, he remained what he had been raised: a mandarin of Imperial Hue, steeped in filial piety, devoted to Vietnam's past, modern only to the extent of an intense, conservative Catholicism. The political apparatus he created to extend his power and implement his programs reflected his background, personality, and experience: a rigidly organized, over-centralized familial oligarchy. Though his brothers, Ngo Dinh Nhu and Ngo Dinh Can, created extensive personal political organizations of considerable power — Nhu's semi-covert Can Lao party borrowed heavily from communist doctrine and technique — and though a third brother, Ngo Dinh Thuc, was the ranking Catholic bishop, in no sense did they or Diem ever acquire a broad popular base for his government. Diem's personality and his political methods practically assured that he would remain distant, virtually isolated from the peasantry. They also seem to have predetermined that Diem's political history over the long-run would be a chronicle of disaffection: Diem alienated one after another of the key groups Within South Vietnam's society until, by late 1960, his regime rested on the narrow and disintegrating base of its own bureaucracy and the northern refugees.
Such need not have been the case. At least through 1957, Diem and his government enjoyed marked success with fairly sophisticated pacification programs in the countryside. In fact, Diem at first was warmly welcomed in some former Viet Minh domains, and it is probable that a more sensitive and adroit leader could have captured held a significant rural following. Even the failure of the Geneva Accords to eventuate in general elections in 1956 at first had little impact upon GVN pacification. The strident declamations of the DRV notwithstanding, reunification of partitioned Vietnam was not at first a vital political issue for South Vietnam's peasants. By and large, as late as 1961 as Devillers pointed out:
- "For the people of the South reunification is not an essential problem. Peace, security, freedom, their standard of living, the agrarian question — these are far more important questions to them. The stronghold of the sects over certain regions remains one of the factors of the situation, as is also, in a general fashion, the distrustful attitude of the Southerner towards the Northerner, who is suspected of a tendency to want to take charge of affairs."
The initial GVN pacification effort combined promises of governmental level reforms with "civic action" in the hamlets and villages. The latter was carried out by "cadre" clad in black pajamas, implementing the Maoist "three-withs" doctrine (eat with, sleep with, work with the people) to initiate rudimentary improvements in public health, education, and local government, and to propagandize the promises of the central government. Unfortunately for Diem, his civic action teams had to be drawn from the northern refugees, and encountered Cochinchinese–Tonkinese tensions. More importantly, however, they incurred the enmity of the several Saigon ministries upon whose field responsibilities they impinged. Moreover, they became preoccupied with Diem's anti-communist campaign to the detriment of their social service. By the end of 1956, the civic action component of the GVN pacification program had been cut back severely.
But the salesmen were less at fault than their product. Diem's reform package compared unfavorably even in theory with what the Viet Minh had done by way of rural reform. Diem undertook to; (1) resettle refugees and other land destitute Vietnamese on uncultivated land beginning in 1955; (2) expropriate all rice land holdings over 247 acres and redistribute these to tenant farmers beginning in 1956; and (3) regulate landlord–tenant relations beginning in 1957 to fix rents within the range 15–25% of crop yield, and to guarantee tenant land tenure for 3–5 years. Despite invidious comparison with Viet Minh rent-free land, had these programs been honestly and efficiently implemented, they might have satisfied the land-hunger of the peasants. But they suffered, as one American expert put it from "lack of serious, interested administrators and top side command." Government officials, beginning with the Minister for Agrarian Reform, had divided loyalties, being themselves land holders. Moreover, the programs often operated to replace paternalistic landlords with competitive bidding, and thus increased, rather than decreased, tenant insecurity. And even if all Diem's goals had been honestly fulfilled — which they were not — only 20% of the rice land would have passed from large to small farmers. As it turned out, only 10% of all tenant farmers benefited in any sense. By 1959, the land reform program was virtually inoperative. As of 1960, 45% of the land remained concentrated in the hands of 2% of landowners, and 15% of the landlords owned 75% of all the land. Those relatively few farmers who did benefit from the program were more often than not northerners, refugees, Catholics, or Annamese — so that land reform added to the GVN's aura of favoritism which deepened peasant alienation in Cochinchina. Farmer–GVN tensions were further aggravated by rumors of corruption, and the widespread allegation that the Diem family itself had become enriched through the manipulation of land transfers.
Diem's whole rural policy furnish es one example after another of political maladroitness. In June 1956, Diem abolished elections for village councils, apparently out of concern that large numbers of Viet Minh might win office. By replacing the village notables with GVN appointed officials, Diem swept away the traditional administrative autonomy of the village officials, and took upon himself and his government the onus for whatever corruption and injustice subsequently developed at that level. Again, the GVN appointees to village office were outsiders — northerners, Catholics, or other "dependable" persons — and their alien presence in the midst of the close-knit rural communities encouraged revival of the conspiratorial, underground politics to which the villages had become accustomed during the resistance against the French.
But conspiracy was almost a natural defense after Diem launched his Denunciation of Communists Campaign, which included a scheme for classifying the populace into lettered political groups according to their connections with the Viet Minh. This campaign, which featured public confessions reminiscent of the "people's courts" of China and North Vietnam, invited neighbors to inform on each other, and raised further the premium on clandestine political activity. In 1956, the GVN disclosed that some 15–20,000 communists had been detained in its "political reeducation centers," while Devillers put the figure at 50,000. By GVN figures in 1960, nearly 50,000 had been detained. A British expert on Vietnam, P. J. Honey, who was invited by Diem to investigate the reeducation centers in 1959, concluded that, after interviewing a number of rural Vietnamese, "the consensus of the opinion expressed by these peoples is that...the majority of the detainees are neither communists nor pro-communists." Between 1956 and 1960, the GVN claimed that over 100,000 former communist cadres rallied to the GVN, and thousands of other communist agents had surrendered or had been captured. The campaign also allegedly netted over 100,000 weapons and 3,000 arms caches. Whatever it contributed to GVN internal security, however, the Communist Denunciation Campaign thoroughly terrified the Vietnamese peasants, and detracted significantly from the regime's popularity.
Diem's nearly paranoid preoccupation with security influenced his population relocation schemes. Even the refugee relief programs had been executed with an eye to building a "living wall" between the lowland centers of population and the jungle and mountain redoubts of dissidents. Between April 1957 and late 1961, the GVN reported that over 200,000 persons — refugees and landless families from coastal Annam — were resettled in 147 centers carved from 220,000 acres of wilderness. These "strategic" settlements were expensive: although they affected only 2% of South Vietnam's people, they absorbed 50% of U.S. aid for agriculture. They also precipitated unexpected political reactions from the Montagnard peoples of the Highlands. In the long run, by introducing ethnic Vietnamese into traditionally Montagnard areas, and then by concentrating Montagnards into defensible communities, the GVN provided the tribes with a cause and focused their discontent against Diem. The GVN thus facilitated rather than hindered the subsequent subversion of the tribes by the Viet Cong. But of all Diem's relocation experiments, that which occasioned the most widespread and vehement anti-GVN sentiment was the "agroville" program begun in mid-1959. At first, the GVN tried to establish rural communities which segregated families with known Viet Cong or Viet Minh connections from other citizens, but the public outcry caused this approach to be dropped. A few months later, the GVN announced its intent to build 80 "prosperity and density centers" along a "strategic route system." By the end of 1963, each of these 80 agrovilles was to hold some 400 families, and each would have a group of satellite agrovilles of 120 families each. In theory, the agroville master plan was attractive: there were provisions for community defense, schools, dispensary, market center, public garden, and even electricity. Despite these advantages, however, the whole program incurred the wrath of the peasants. They resented the corvee labor the GVN resorted to for agroville construction, and they abhorred abandoning their cherished ancestral homes, tombs, and developed gardens and fields for a strange and desolate community. Passive peasant resistance, and then insurgent attacks on the agrovilles, caused abandonment of the program in early 1961 when it was less than 25% complete.
Yet, for all Diem's preoccupation with rural security, he poorly provided for police and intelligence in the countryside. Most of the American aid the GVN received was used for security, and the bulk of it was lavished on the Army of Vietnam. Security in the villages was relegated to the Self-Defense Corps (SDC) and the Civil Guard (CG) — poorly trained and equipped, miserably led. They could scarcely defend themselves, much less secure the farmers. Indeed, they proved to be an asset to insurgents in two ways: they served as a source of weapons; and their brutality, petty thievery, and disorderliness induced innumerable villagers to join in open revolt against the GVN. The Army of Vietnam, after 1956, was withdrawn from the rural regions to undergo reorganization and modernization under its American advisors. Its interaction with the rural populace through 1959 was relatively slight. The SDC and CG, placed at the disposal of the provincial administrators, were often no more venal nor offensive to the peasants than the local officials themselves, but the corrupt, arrogant and overbearing men the people knew as the GVN were among the greatest disadvantages Diem faced in his rural efforts.
Nor was Ngo Dinh Diem successful in exercising effective leadership over the Vietnamese urban population or its intellectuals. Just as Diem and his brothers made the mistake of considering all former Viet Minh communists, they erred in condemning all non-Diemist nationalists as tools of Bao Dai or the French. The Diem family acted to circumscribe all political activity and even criticism not sanctioned by the oligarchy. In late 1957, newspapers critical of the regime began to be harassed, and in March 1958, after a caustic editorial, the GVN closed down the largest newspaper in Saigon. Attempts to form opposition political parties for participation in the national assembly met vague threats and bureaucratic impediments. In 1958, opposition politicians risked arrest for assaying to form parties unauthorized by Nhu or Can, and by 1959 all opposition political activity had come to a halt. In the spring of 1960, however, a group of non-communist nationalist leaders came together — with more courage than prudence — to issue the Caravelle Manifesto, a recital of grievances against the Diem regime.
Eleven of the 18 signers had been cabinet members under Diem or Bao Dai; 4 had been in other high government positions, and others represented religious groups. Their manifesto lauded Diem for the progress that he had made in the aftermath of Geneva, but pointed out that his repressions in recent years had "provoked the discouragement and resentment of the people." They noted that "the size of the territory has shrunk, but the number of civil servants has increased and still the work doesn't get done"; they applauded the fact that "the French Expeditionary Corps has left the country and a Republican Army has been constituted, thanks to American aid," but deplored the fact that the Diem influence "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 to the party in blind submission to its leaders"; they described, despairingly, "a rich and fertile country enjoying food surpluses" where "at the present time many people are out of work, have no roof over their heads, and no money." They went on to "beseech the government to urgently modify its policies." While the Caravelle Manifesto thoroughly frightened Diem, coming, as it did, three days after Syngman Rhee was overthrown in Korea, it prompted him only to further measures to quell the loyal opposition. By the fall of 1960, the intellectual elite of South Vietnam was politically mute; labor unions were impotent; loyal opposition in the form of organized parties did not exist. In brief, Diem's policies virtually assured that political challenges to him would have to be extra-legal. Ultimately, these emerged from the traditional sources of power in South Vietnam — the armed forces, the religious sects, and the armed peasantry.
Through 1960, the only serious threats to Diem from inside the GVN were attempted military coups d'etat. In his first 10 months in office, Diem had identified loyalty in his top army commanders as a sine qua non for his survival. Thereafter he took a personal interest in the positioning and promoting of officers, and even in matters of military strategy and tactics. Many of Vietnam's soldiers found Diem's attentions a means to political power, wealth, and social prominence. Many others, however, resented those who rose by favoritism, and objected to Diem's interference in military matters. In November 1960, a serious coup attempt was supported by three elite paratroop battalions in Saigon, but otherwise failed to attract support. In the wake of the coup, mass arrests took place in which the Caravelle Group, among others, were jailed. In February 1962, two Vietnamese air force planes bombed the presidential palace in an unsuccessful assassination attempt on Diem and the Nhus. Again, there was little apparent willingness among military officers for concerted action against Diem. But the abortive attempts of 1960 and 1962 had the effect of dramatizing the choices open to those military officers who recognized the insolvency of Diem's political and military policies.
Diem's handling of his military impinged in two ways on his rural policy. Diem involved himself with the equipping of his military forces, showing a distinct proclivity toward heavy military forces of the conventional type. He wanted the Civil Guard equipped very much like his regular army — possibly with a view to assuring himself a check on army power. There were a few soldiers, like General Duong Van Minh, who sharply disagreed with the President on this point. Nonetheless, Diem persisted. His increasing concern for the loyalty of key officials, moreover, led him to draw upon the military officer corps for civil administrators. From 1956 on his police apparatus was under military officers, and year by year, more of the provincial governments were also placed under military men. By 1958, about 1/3 of the province chiefs were military officers; by 1960, that fraction had increased to nearly 2/3; by 1962, 7/8 of all provinces were headed by soldiers.
Diem's bete noire was communism, and he appealed to threats from communists to justify his concentration on internal security. In August 1956, GVN Ordinance 47 defined being a communist, or working for them, as a capital crime. In May 1959, by GVN Law 10/59, the enforcement of Ordinance 47 was charged to special military tribunals from whose decisions there was no appeal. But "communist" was a term not used by members of the Marxist-Leninist Party headed by Ho Chi Minh, or its southern arms. Beginning in 1956, the Saigon press began to refer to "Viet Cong," a fairly precise and not necessarily disparaging rendition of "Vietnamese Communist." There is little doubt that Diem and his government applied the term Viet Cong somewhat loosely within South Vietnam to mean all persons or groups who resorted to clandestine political activity or armed opposition against his government; and the GVN meant by the term North as well as South Vietnamese communists, who they presumed acted in concert. At the close of the Franco-Viet Minh War in 1954, some 60,000 men were serving in organized Viet Minh units in South Vietnam. For the regroupments to North Vietnam, these units were augmented with large numbers of young recruits; a reported 90,000 armed men were taken to North Vietnam in the regroupment, while the U.S. and the GVN estimated that from 5–10,000 trained men were left behind as "cadre." If French estimates are correct that in 1954 the Viet Minh controlled over 60–90% of rural South Vietnam outside the sect domains, these 5–10,000 stay-behinds must have represented only a fraction of the Viet Minh residue, to which GVN figures on recanting and detained communists in the years through 1960 attest.
From studies of defectors, prisoners of war, and captured documents, it is now possible to assess armed resistance against Diem much better than the facts available at the time permitted. Three distinct periods are discernible. From 1954 through 1957, there was a substantial amount of random dissidence in the countryside, which Diem succeeded in quelling. In early 1957, Vietnam seemed to be enjoying the first peace it had known in over a decade. Beginning, however, in mid-1957 and intensifying through mid-1959, incidents of violence attributed to Viet Cong began to occur in the countryside. While much of this violence appeared to have a political motive, and while there is some evidence to indicate that it was part of a concerted strategy of guerrilla base development in accordance with sound Mao-Giap doctrine, the GVN did not construe it as a campaign, considering the disorders too diffuse to warrant committing major GVN resources. In early 1959, however, Diem perceived that he was under serious attack and reacted strongly. Population relocation was revivified. The Army of Vietnam was committed against the dissidents, and the Communist Denunciation Campaign was reinvigorated. By autumn 1959, however, the VC were in a position to field units of battalion size against regular army formations. By 1960, VC could operate in sufficient strength to seize provincial capitals for periods ranging up to 24 hours, overrun ARVN posts, and cut off entire districts from communication with the GVN-controlled towns. Diem's counter-measures increasingly met with peasant obstructionism and outright hostility. A U.S. Embassy estimate of the situation in January 1960 noted that:
- "While the GVN has made an effort to meet the economic and social needs of the rural populations...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...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."
In December 1960, the National Liberation Front of SVN (NLF) was formally organized. From its inception it was designed to encompass all anti-GVN activists, including communists, and it formulated and articulated objectives for all those opposed to "My-Diem." The NLF placed heavy emphasis on the withdrawal of American advisors and influence, on land reform and liberalization of the GVN, on coalition government and the neutralization of Vietnam; but through 1963, the NLF soft-pedalled references to reunification of Vietnam. The NLF leadership was a shadowy crew of relatively obscure South Vietnamese. Despite their apparent lack of experience and competence, however, the NLF rapidly took on organizational reality from its central committee, down through a web of subordinate and associated groups, to villages all over South Vietnam. Within a few months of its founding, its membership doubled, doubled again by fall 1961, and then redoubled by early 1962. At that time an estimated 300,000 were on its rolls. Numerous administrative and functional "liberation associations" sprang into being, and each member of the NLF normally belong simultaneously to several such organizations.
The key operational components of the NLF were, however, the Liberation Army and the People's Revolutionary Party. 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 military units. The People's Revolutionary Party was explicitly the "Marxist-Leninist Party of South Vietnam" and claimed to be the "vanguard of the NLF, the paramount member." It denied official links with the communist party of North Vietnam beyond "fraternal ties of communism." Although the PRP did not come into existence until 1962, it is evident that communists played a paramount role in forming the NLF, and in its rapid initial growth. The official U.S. view has been that the PRP is merely the southern arm of the DRV's communist party, and a principal instrument through which Hanoi instigated and controlled the revolt against "My-Diem." The organizational genius evident in the NLF, as well as the testimony of Vietnamese communists in interrogations and captured documents supports this interpretation.
But significant doubt remains. Viet Minh stay-behinds testified in 1955 and 1956 that their mission was political agitation for the holding of the general elections promised at Geneva. Captured documents and prisoner interrogations indicate that in 1957 and 1958, although there was some "wildcat" activity by local communists, party efforts appeared to be devoted to the careful construction of an underground apparatus which, though it used assassinations and kidnapping, circumspectly avoided military operations. All evidence points to fall of 1959 as the period in which the Viet Cong made their transition from a clandestine political movement to a more overt military operation. Moreover, throughout the years 1954–1960, a "front" seems to have been active in Vietnam. For example, the periodic report submitted by USMAAG, Vietnam, on 15 July 1957 — a time of ostensible internal peace — noted that:
- "The Viet Cong guerrillas and propagandists, however, are still waging a grim battle for survival. In addition to an accelerated propaganda campaign, the Communists have been forming 'front' organizations to influence portions of anti-government minorities. Some of these organizations are militant, some are political. An example of the former is the 'Vietnamese Peoples' Liberation Movement Forces,' a military unit composed of ex-Cao Dai, ex-Hoa Hao, ex-Binh Xuyen, escaped political prisoners, and Viet Cong cadres. An example of the latter is the 'Vietnam-Cambodian Buddhist Association,' one of several organizations seeking to spread the theory of "Peace and Co-existence.'"
Whether early references to the "front" were to the organizations which subsequently matured as the NLF cannot be determined. Indeed, to shed further light on the truth or falsehood of the proposition that the DRV did not intervene in South Vietnam until after the NLF came into existence, it is necessary to turn to the events in North Vietnam during the years 1954–1960.
Hanoi and the Insurgency in South Vietnam (Tab 3)
The primary question concerning Hanoi's role in the origins of the insurgency is not so much whether it played a role or not — the evidence of direct North Vietnamese participation in subversion against the Government of South Vietnam is now extensive — but when Hanoi intervened in a systematic way. Most attacks on U.S. policy have been based on the proposition that the DRV move on the South came with manifest reluctance, and after massive U.S. intervention in 1961. For example, George McTurnin Kahin and John W. Lewis, in their book The United States in Vietnam, state that:
- "Contrary to United States policy assumptions, all available evidence shows that the revival of the civil war in the South in 1958 was undertaken by Southerners at their own — not Hanoi's — initiative.... Insurgency activity against the Saigon government began in the South under Southern leadership not as a consequence of any dictate from Hanoi, but contrary to Hanoi's injunctions."
As discussed above, so much of this argument as rests on the existence in South Vietnam of genuine rebellion is probably valid. The South Vietnamese had both the means, the Viet Minh residue, and motive to take up arms against Ngo Dinh Diem. Moreover, there were indications that some DRV leaders did attempt to hold back southern rebels on the grounds that "conditions" were not ripe for an uprising. Further, there was apparently division within the Lao Dong Party hierarchy over the question of strategy and tactics in South Vietnam. However, the evidence indicates that the principal strategic debate over this issue took place between 1956 and 1958; all information now available (spring, 1968) points to a decision taken by the DRV leaders not later than spring, 1959, actively to seek the overthrow of Diem. Thereafter, the DRV pressed toward that goal by military force and by subversive aggression, both in Laos and in South Vietnam.
But few Administration critics have had access to the classified information upon which the foregoing judgments are based. Such intelligence as the U.S. has been able to make available to the public bearing on the period 1954–1960 has been sketchy and not very convincing: a few captured documents, and a few prisoner interrogations. Indeed, up until 1961 the Administration itself publicly held that Ngo Dinh Diem was firmly in control in South Vietnam, and that the United States aid programs were succeeding in meeting such threat to GVN security as existed both within South Vietnam and from the North. Too, the vigorous publicizing of "wars of national liberation" by N. S. Khrushchev and the "discovery" of counterinsurgency by the Kennedy Administration in early 1961 tended to reinforce the overall public impression that North Vietnam's aggression was news in that year. Khrushchev's speech of 6 January 1961, made, according to Kennedy biographer Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., "a conspicuous impression on the new President, who took it as an authoritative exposition of Soviet intentions, discussed it with his staff and read excerpts from it aloud to the National Security Council." Thereafter, Administration leaders, by their frequently identifying that Khrushchev declamation as a milestone in the development of communist world strategy, lent credence to the supposition that the Soviet Union had approved aggression by its satellite in North Vietnam only in December 1960 — the month the NLF was formed.
American Kremlinologists had been preoccupied, since Khrushchev's "de-Stalinzation" speech at the 20th Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union in February 1956, with the possibilities of a genuine detente with the USSR. They were also bemused by the prospect of a deep strategic division with the "Communist Bloc" between the Soviets and the Chinese. Yet, despite evidences of disunity in the Bloc — in Yugoslavia, Albania, Hungary, Poland, and East Germany — virtually all experts regarded North Vietnamese national strategy, to the extent that they considered it at all, as a simple derivative of that of either the USSR or the CPR. P. J. Honey, the British authority on North Vietnam, tends to the view that Hanoi remained subservient to the dictates of Moscow from 1956 through 1961, albeit carefully paying lip service to continue solidarity with Peking. More recently, a differing interpretation has been offered, which holds that the Hanoi leaders were in those years motivated primarily by their concern for internal development, and that they, therefore, turned to the Soviet Union as the only nation willing and able to furnish the wherewithal for rapid economic advancement. Both interpretations assume that through 1960 the DRV followed the Soviet line, accepted "peaceful coexistence," concentrated on internal development, and took action in South Vietnam only after Moscow gave the go-ahead in late 1960.
But it is also possible that the colloquy over strategy among the communist nations in the late 1950's followed a pattern almost exactly the reverse of that usually depicted: that North Vietnam persuaded the Soviets and the Chinese to accept its strategic view, and to support simultaneous drives for economic advancement and forceful reunification. Ho Chi Minh was an old Stalinist, trained in Russia in the early '20's, Comintern colleague of Borodin in Canton, and for three decades leading exponent of the Marxist-Leninist canon on anti-colonial war. Presumably, Ho spoke with authority within the upper echelons of the communist party of the Soviet Union. What he said to them privately was, no doubt, quite similar to what he proclaimed publicly from 1956 onward: the circumstances of North Vietnam were not comparable to those of the Soviet Union, or even those of the CPR, and North Vietnam's policy had to reflect the differences.
Khrushchev's de-Stalinization bombshell burst in February 1956 at a dramatically bad time for the DRV. It overrode the Chinese call for reconvening of the Geneva Conference on Vietnam, and it interfered with the concerting of communist policy on what to do about Ngo Dinh Diem's refusal to proceed toward the general elections scheduled for July 1956.
Although the Soviets issued in March 1956 a demand for GVN observance of the Accords, its diplomacy not only failed to bring about any action on behalf of the DRV, but elicited, in April 1956, a sharp British note condemning Hanoi for grave violations of the Accords. Hanoi received the British note about the time that Khrushchev proclaimed that the Soviet was committed to a policy of "peaceful coexistence." At the Ninth Plenum of the Central Committee of the Lao Dong Party, held in Hanoi that month, Ho Chi Minh lauded "de-Stalinization," but unequivocally rejected "peaceful coexistence" as irrelevant to the DRV. In November 1957, after more than a year of upheavals and evident internal political distress in North Vietnam, Ho Chi Minh and Le Duan journeyed to Moscow for the Conference of Communist and Workers' Parties of Socialist Countries. That conference issued a declaration admitting the possibility of "non-peaceful transition to socialism" remarkably similar in thrust to Ho's 1956 speech. Further, Khrushchev's famous January 1961 speech was simply a precis of the Declaration of the November 1960 Conference of Communist and Workers' Parties of Socialist Countries. That 1960 Declaration, which formed the basis for Khrushchev's pronouncements on wars of national liberation in turn explicitly reaffirmed the 1957 Declaration. The parallelism of the texts is remarkable:
HO CHI MINH
SPEECH CLOSING NINTH PLENUM OF THE CENTRAL COMMITTEE OF THE LAO DONG PARTY
"...We have grasped the great significance of the Twentieth Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. This Congress has:
Analyzed the new situation prevailing in the world, and pointed out the new conditions favorable to the preservation of peace and the advance toward socialism by the Revolutionary Parties of the working class and the laboring people.
Clearly shown the Soviet Union's victorious road, giving us still greater enthusiasm and making us believe still more strongly in the invincible forces of the Soviet Union, the bastion of revolution and of world peace;
Pointed out the tasks of the Communist Party in the ideological and organizational fields. The Congress particularly emphasized the application of Marxist-Leninist principles to collective leadership and opposed the cult of the individual.
While recognizing that war may be averted, we must be vigilant to detect the warmongers' schemes; for as long as imperialism exists, the danger of war still exists.
While recognizing that in certain countries the road to socialism may be a peaceful one, we should be aware of this fact: In countries where the machinery of state, the armed forces and the police of the bourgeois class are still strong, the proletarian class still has to prepare for armed struggle.
While recognizing the possibility of reunifying Vietnam by peaceful means, we should always remember that our people's principal energies are the American imperialists and their agents who still occupy half our country and are preparing for war; therefore, we should firmly hold aloft the banner of peace and enhance our vigilance..."
DECLARATION OF THE CONFERENCE OF COMMUNIST AND WORKERS PARTIES OF SOCIALIST COUNTRIES
"The communist and worker's parties are faced with great historic tasks...In present day conditions in a number of capitalist countries, the working class has the possibility to unite the majority of the people, when state power without civil war can ensure the transfer of basic means of production to the hands of the people...
In conditions in which the exploiting classes resort to violence against the people, it is necessary to bear in mind another possibility—nonpeaceful transition to socialism. Leninism teaches and history confirms that the ruling classes never relinquish power voluntarily. In these conditions the severity and forms of class struggle will depend not so much on the proletariat as on the resistance of the reactionary circles to the will of the overwhelming majority of the people, on the use of force by these circles at one or another stage of the struggle for socialism."
DECLARATION OF THE CONFERENCE OF COMMUNIST AND WORKERS PARTIES OF SOCIALIST COUNTRIES
"...The Communist Parties reaffirm the propositions of the 1957 Declaration concerning the question of the forms of transition of various countries from capitalism to socialism.
The Declaration states that the working class and its vanguard—the Marxist-Leninist party—seek to achieve socialist revolution by peaceful means. Realization of this possibility would accord with the interests of the working class and all the people and with the national interests of the country...
...In conditions when the exploiting classes resort to the use of force against the people, it is necessary to bear in mind. another possibility—that of nonpeaceful transition to socialism. Leninism teaches and historical experience confirms that ruling classes do not relinquish power voluntarily. In these conditions the degree of bitterness and the forms of the class struggle will depend not so much on the proletariat as on the extent of the resistance of the reactionary circles to the will of the overwhelming majority of the people, on the use of force by these circles at one or another stage of the struggle for socialism.In each country the actual possibility of one or another means of transition to socialism is determined by the specific historical conditions..."
Other evidence supports the foregoing hypothesis. The DRV was, in 1960, an orthodoxically constituted communist state. Both the government and the society were dominated by the Lao Dong (Communist) Party, and power within the party concentrated in a small elite—Ho Chi Minh and his lieutenants from the old-time Indochinese Communist Party. This group of leaders were unique in the communist world for their homogeneity and for their harmony—there has been little evidence of the kind of turbulence which has splintered the leadership of most communist parties. While experts have detected disputes within the Lao Dong hierarchy—1957 appears to be a critical year in that regard—the facts are that there has been no blood-purge of the Lao Dong leadership, and except for changes occasioned by apparently natural deaths, the leadership in 1960 was virtually identical to what it had been in 1954 or 1946. This remarkably dedicated and purposeful group of men apparently agreed among themselves as to what the national interests of the DRV required, what goals should be set for the nation, and what strategy they should pursue in attaining them.
These leaders have been explicit in setting forth DRV national goals in their public statements and official documents. For example, Ho Chi Minh and his colleagues placed a premium on "land reform"–by which they meant a communization of rural society along Maoist lines. Moreover, they clearly considered a disciplined society essential for victory in war and success in peace. It was also evident that they were committed to bring about an independent, reunified Vietnam capable of exerting significant influence throughout Southeast Asia, and particularly over the neighboring states of Laos and Cambodia. What is not known with certainty is how they determined the relative priority among these objectives.
In the immediate aftermath of Geneva, the DRV deferred to the Geneva Accords for the achievement of reunification, and turned inward, concentrating its energies on land reform and rehabilitation of the war-torn economy. By the summer of 1956, this strategy was bankrupt: the Geneva Settlement manifestly would not eventuate in reunification, and the land reform campaign foundered from such serious abuses by Lao Dong cadre that popular disaffection imperiled DRV internal security. In August 1956, the Lao Dong leadership was compelled to "rectify" its programs, to postpone land reform, and to purge low echelon cadre to mollify popular resentment. Even these measures, however, proved insufficient to forestall insurrection; in November 1956, the peasant rebellions broke out, followed by urban unrest. Nonetheless, the DRV leadership survived these internal crises intact, and by 1958 appears to have solved most of the problems of economic efficiency and political organization which occasioned the 1956–1957 outbursts.
But domestic difficulty was not the only crisis to confront the Lao Dong leaders in early 1957. In January, when the Soviet Union proposed to the United Nations the admitting of North and South Vietnam as separate states, it signalled that the USSR might be prepared in the interests of "peaceful coexistence," to make a great power deal which would have lent permanency to the partition of Vietnam. Ho Chi Minh, in evident surprise, violently dissented. When in February 1957 Khrushchev went further in affirming his intention to "coexist" with the United States, the DRV quickly moved to realign its own and Soviet policies. In May 1957, the Soviet head of state, Voroshilov, visited Hanoi, and in July and August 1957, Ho Chi Minh traveled extensively in Eastern Europe, spending several days in Moscow. The Voroshilov visit was given top billing by the Hanoi Press and Ho, upon his return from Moscow, indicated that important decisions had been reached. Thereafter, Hanoi and Moscow marched more in step.
In the meantime, the needs and desires of communist rebels in South Vietnam had been communicated directly to Hanoi in the person of Le Duan, who is known to have been in South Vietnam in 1955 and 1956, and to have returned to Hanoi sometime before the fall of 1957. In September of that year, upon Ho's return from Europe, Le Duan surfaced as one of the members of the Lao Dong Politburo; it is possible that he was already at that time de facto the First Secretary of the Lao Dong Party, to which position he was formally promoted in September 1960. In 1955 and 1956, Le Duan, from the testimony of prisoners and captured documents, had been expressing conviction that Diem would stamp out the communist movement in South Vietnam unless the DRV were to reinforce the party there. Presumably, he carried these views into the inner councils of the DRV. In November 1957, Le Duan and Ho traveled to Moscow to attend the Conference of Communist and Workers' Parties of Socialist Countries. The Declaration of that conference, quoted above, has since been cited repeatedly by both North and South Vietnamese communists, as one of the strategic turning points in their modern history. Le Duan, upon his return to Hanoi from Moscow, issued a statement to the effect that the DRV's way was now clear. Taking Le Duan literally, it could be construed that the DRV deemed the Moscow Declaration of 1957 the "go ahead" signal from Moscow and Peking for forceful pursuit of its objectives.There is some sparse evidence that the DRV actually did begin moving in 1958 to set up a mechanism for supporting the insurgency in South Vietnam. But even had the decision been taken, as suggested above, in late 1957, it is unlikely that there would have been much manifestation of it in 1958. The Lao Dong leadership had for years stressed the lessons that they had learned from experience on the essentiality of carefully preparing a party infrastructure and building guerrilla bases before proceeding with an insurgency. Viet Minh doctrine would have dictated priority concern to refurbishing the communist party apparatus in South Vietnam, and it is possible that such a process was set in motion during 1958. Orders were captured from Hanoi which directed guerrilla bases be prepared in South Vietnam in early 1959.
There is, however, other evidence that questioning among the DRV hierarchy concerning strategy and tactics for South Vietnam continued throughout 1958 and into 1959. Captured reports from party headquarters in South Vietnam betrayed doubt and indecisions among party leaders there and reflected the absence of clear guidance from Hanoi. Moreover, in 1958, and in 1959, the DRV did concentrate much of its resources on agricultural and industrial improvement; extensive loans were obtained from the Soviet Union and from the Chinese Peoples Republic, and ambitious uplift programs were launched in both sectors. It is possible, therefore, to accept the view that through 1958 the DRV still accorded priority to butter over guns, as part of its base development strategy.
In the larger sense, domestic progress, "consolidation of the North," was fundamental to that strategy. As General Vo Nguyen Giap put it in the Lao Dong Party journal Hoc Tap of January 1960:
"The North has become a large rear echelon of our army...The North is the revolutionary base for the whole country."
Up until 1959, the economy of North Vietnam was scarcely providing subsistence for its people, let alone support for. foreign military undertakings; by that year, substantial progress in both agriculture and industry was evident;
Due mainly, however, to industrial growth, the Gross National Product reached a growth rate of 6% per annum in 1958, and sustained that rate thereafter. Both 1958 and 1959 were extraordinarily good years in both industry and agriculture. A long-range development plan launched in 1958 achieved an annual industrial expansion of 21% per year through 1960, chiefly in heavy industry. Foreign aid—both Chinese and Soviet—was readily obtained, the USSR supplanting the CPR as prime donor. Foreign trade stepped up markedly. Compared with 1955, the DRV's foreign commerce doubled by 1959, and nearly tripled by 1960.
By 1959, it seems likely that the DRV had elected to pursue a "guns and butter" strategy, and obtained requisite Soviet and Chinese aid. While pressing forward with its economic improvement programs—which were showing definite progress—the DRV prepared with word and deed for large-scale intervention in South Vietnam. In May 1959, at the Fifteenth Plenum of the Central Committee of the Lao Dong Party, a Resolution was adopted identifying the United States as the main obstacle to the realization of the hopes of the Vietnamese people, and as an enemy of peace. The Resolution of the Fifteenth Plenum called for a strong North Vietnam as a base for helping the South Vietnamese to overthrow Diem and eject the United States. A Communist Party history captured in South Vietnam in 1966, and the testimony of high-ranking captives, indicate that South Vietnamese communists still regard the resolution of the Fifteenth Plenum as the point of departure for DRV intervention.
Within a month of the Fifteenth Plenum, the DRV began to commit its armed forces in Laos, and steadily escalated its aid to the Pathet Lao. By the time the National Liberation Front issued its manifesto in December 1960, the conflict in Laos had matured to the point that Pathet Lao–NVA troops controlled most of NE Laos and the Laotian panhandle; moreover, by that time, the Soviet Union had entered the fray, and was participating in airlift operations from North Vietnam direct to Pathet Lao–NVA units in Laos. Also, by the fall of 1959, the insurgency in South Vietnam took a definite upsurge. Viet Cong units for the first time offered a direct challenge to the Army of Vietnam. Large VC formations seized and held district and province capitals for short periods of time, and assassinations and kidnappings proliferated markedly. The Preamble of the Constitution of the DRV, promulgated on 1 January 1960, was distinctly bellicose, condemning the United States, and establishing the reunification of Vietnam as a DRV national objective. During 1959 and 1960, the relatively undeveloped intelligence apparatus of the U.S. and the GVN confirmed that over 4,000 infiltrators were sent from North Vietnam southward—most of them military or political cadre, trained to raise and lead insurgent forces.
In September 1960, the Lao Dong Party convened its Third National Congress. There Ho Chi Minh, Le Duan, Giap, and others presented speeches further committing the DRV to support of the insurgency in the South, demanding the U.S. stop its aid to Diem, and calling for the formation of a unified front to lead the struggle against "My-Diem." The Resolution of the Third Congress, reflecting these statements, is another of those historic benchmarks referred to in captured party documents and prisoner interrogations.In November 1960, the Moscow Conference of Communist and Workers' Parties of Socialist Countries once again declared its support of the sort of "just" war the DRV intended to prosecute. The United States was identified as the principal colonial power, and the right and obligation of communist parties to lead struggles against colonial powers was detailed. By the time Khrushchev cited that Declaration in his "wars of national liberation" speech, the "liberation war" for South Vietnam was nearly a year and a half old.
The evidence supports the conclusion, therefore, that whether or not the rebellion against Diem in South Vietnam proceeded independently of, or even contrary to directions from Hanoi through 1958, Hanoi moved thereafter to capture the revolution. There is little doubt that Hanoi exerted some influence over certain insurgents in the South throughout the years following Geneva, and there is evidence which points to its preparing for active support of large-scale insurgency as early as 1958. Whatever differences in strategy may have existed among Moscow, Peking, and Hanoi, it appears that at each critical juncture Hanoi obtained concurrence in Moscow with an aggressive course of action. Accordingly, it was not "peaceful coexistence," or concern over leadership of the "socialist camp" which governed Hanoi's policy. What appeared to matter to Hanoi was its abiding national interests: domestic consolidation in independence, reunification, and Vietnamese hegemony in Southeast Asia. Both Soviet and Chinese policy seems to have bent to these ends rather than the contrary. If Hanoi applied brakes to eager insurgents in South Vietnam, it did so not from lack of purpose or because of Soviet restraints, but from concern over launching one more premature uprising in the South. Ngo Dinh Diem was entirely correct when he stated that his was a nation at war in early 1959; South Vietnam was at war with both the Viet Cong insurgents and with the DRV, in that the latter then undertook to provide strategic direction and leadership cadres to build systematically a base system in Laos and South Vietnam for subsequent, large-scale guerrilla warfare. Persuasive evidence exists that by 1960 DRV support of the insurgency in South Vietnam included materiel as well as personnel. In any event, by late 1959, it seems clear that Hanoi considered the time ripe to take the military offensive in South Vietnam, and that by 1960 circumstances were propitious for more overt political action. A recently captured high-ranking member of the National Liberation Front has confirmed that in mid-1960 he and other Lao Dong Party leaders in South Vietnam were instructed by Hanoi to begin organizing the National Liberation Front, which was formally founded upon the issuance of its Manifesto on 20 December 1960. The rapid growth of the NLF thereafter—it quadrupled its strength in about one year—is a further indication that the Hanoi-directed communist party apparatus had been engaged to the fullest in the initial organization and subsequent development of the NLF.
U.S. Perceptions of the Insurgency, 1954–1960 (Tab 4)
Much of what the U.S. knows now about the origins of the insurgency in South Vietnam rests on information it has acquired since 1963, approximately the span of time that an extensive and effective American intelligence apparatus had been functioning in Vietnam. Before then, our intelligence was drawn from a significantly more narrow and less reliable range of sources, chiefly Vietnamese, and could not have supported analysis in depth of insurgent organization and intentions. The U.S. was particularly deprived of dependable information concerning events in South Vietnam's countryside in the years 1954 through 1959. Nonetheless, U.S. intelligence estimates through 1960 correctly and consistently estimated that the threat to GVN internal security was greater than the danger from overt invasion. The intelligence estimates provided to policy makers in Washington pegged the Viet Cong military offensive as beginning in late 1959, with preparations noted as early as 1957, and a definite campaign perceived as of early 1959. Throughout the years, they were critical of Diem, consistently expressing skepticism that he could deal successfully with his internal political problems. These same estimates miscalculated the numerical and political strength of the Viet Cong, misjudged the extent of rural disaffection, and overrated the military capabilities of the GVN. But as strategic intelligence they were remarkably sound.
Indeed, given the generally bleak appraisals of Diem's prospects, they who made U.S. policy could only have done so by assuming a significant measure of risk. For example, on 3 August 1954, an NIE took the position that:
"Although it is possible that the French and Vietnamese, even with firm support from the U.S. and other powers, may be able to establish a strong regime in South Vietnam, we believe that the chances for this development are poor and, moreover, that the situation is more likely to continue to deteriorate progressively over the next year..."
This estimate notwithstanding, the U.S. moved promptly to convene the Manila Conference, bring SEATO into being with its protocol aegis over Vietnam, and eliminate France as the recipient of U.S. aid for Vietnam. Again on 26 April 1955, an NIE charged that:
"Even if the present empasse [with the sects] were resolved, we believe that it would be extremely difficult, at best, for a Vietnamese government, regardless of its composition, to make progress towards developing a strong, stable, anti-Communist government capable of resolving the basic social, economic, and political problems of Vietnam, the special problems arising from the Geneva Agreement and capable of meeting the long-range challenge of the Communists..."
Within a matter of weeks, however, the U.S. firmly and finally committed itself to unstinting support of Ngo Dinh Diem, accepted his refusal to comply with the political settlement of Geneva, and acceded to withdrawal of French military power and political influence from South Vietnam. Even at the zenith of Diem's success, an NIE of July 1956 noted adverse political trends stemming from Diem's "authoritarian role" and predicted that, while no short-term opposition was in prospect:
"Over a longer period, the accumulation of grievances among various groups and individuals may lead to development of a national opposition movement..."
There was no NIE published between 1956 and 1959 on South Vietnam: an NIE of May 1959 took the position that Diem had a serious military problem on his hands:
"The [GVN] internal security forces will not be able to eradicate DRV supported guerrilla or subversive activity in the foreseeable future. Army units will probably have to be diverted to special internal security assignments..."
The same NIE noted a waning of popular enthusiasm for Diem, the existence of some disillusionment, "particularly among the educated elite," some "dissatisfaction among military officer," but detected little "identifiable public unrest":
"The growth of dissatisfaction is inhibited by South Vietnam's continuing high standard of living relative to that of its neighbors, the paternalistic attitude of Diem's government towards the people, and the lack of any feasible alternative to the present regime."
The 1959 NIE again expressed serious reservations about Diem's leadership and flatly stated that:
"The prospects for continued political stability in South Vietnam hang heavily upon President Diem and his ability to maintain firm control of the army and police. The regime's efforts to assure internal security and its belief that an authoritarian government is necessary to handle the country's problems will result in a continued repression of potential opposition elements. This policy of repression will inhibit the growth of popularity of the regime and we believe that dissatisfaction will grow, particularly among those who are politically conscious..."
Despite these reservations, U.S. policy remained staunchly and fairly uncritically behind Diem through 1959.
The National Intelligence Estimates reservations re Diem do not appear to have restrained the National Security Council in its two major reviews of U.S. policy between 1954 and 1960. In 1956, the NSC (in policy directive NSC 5612) directed that U.S. agencies would:
"Assist Free Vietnam to develop a strong, stable, and constitutional government to enable Free Vietnam to assert an increasingly attractive contrast to conditions in the present Communist zone...[and] work toward the weakening of the Communists in North and South Vietnam in order to bring about the eventual peaceful reunification of a free and independent Vietnam under anti-Communist leadership."
In 1958 (in NSC 5809) this policy, with its "roll-back" overtones, was reiterated, although revisions were proposed indicating an awareness of the necessity to adapt the army of Vietnam for anti-guerrilla warfare. Operations Coordinating Board Progress Reports on the implementation of the policies laid out in NSC 5612 and 5809 revealed awareness that Vietnam was under internal attack, and that "in spite of substantial U.S. assistance, economic development, though progressing, is below that which is politically desirable."
While classified policy papers through 1959 thus dealt with risks, public statements of U.S. officials did not refer to the jeopardy. To the contrary, the picture presented the public and Congress by Ambassador Durbrow, General Williams, and other Administration spokesmen was of continuing progress, virtually miraculous improvement, year-in and year-out. Diem was depicted as a strong and capable leader, firmly in command of his own house, leading his people into modern nationhood at a remarkable pace. As late as the summer of 1959, Ambassador Durbrow and General Williams assured the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that Vietnam's internal security was in no serious danger, and that Vietnam was in a better position to cope with invasion from the North than it had ever been. In the fall of 1959, in fact, General Williams expressed the opinion that by 1961 GVN defense budgets could be reduced, and in the spring of 1960, he wrote to Senator Mansfield that American military advisors could begin a phased withdrawal from MAAG, Vietnam the following year.
Whatever adverse judgment may be deserved by such statements or by the quality of U.S. assistance to Vietnam on behalf of its internal security, the American aid program cannot be faulted for failing to provide Diem funds in plenty. The U.S. aid program—economic and military—for South Vietnam was among the largest in the world. From FY 1946 through FY 1961, Vietnam was the third ranking non-NATO recipient of aid, and the seventh worldwide. In FY 1961, the last program of President Eisenhower’s Administration, South Vietnam was the fifth ranking recipient overall. MAAG, Vietnam, was the only military aid mission anywhere in the world commanded by a lieutenant general, and the economic aid mission there was by 1958 the largest anywhere.
Security was the focus of U.S. aid; although military grants comprised only 25% of the total program in the years 1955 through 1961, more than 75% of the economic aid the U.S . provided in the same period went into the GVN military budget; thus at least $8 out of every $10 of aid provided Vietnam went directly toward security. In addition, other amounts of nominally economic aid (e.g., that for public administration) went toward security forces, and aid for agriculture and transportation principally funded projects with strategic purposes and with an explicit military rationale. For example, a 20-mile stretch of highway from Saigon to Bien Hoa, built at General Williams' instance for specifically military purposes, received more U.S. economic aid than all funds provided for labor, community development, social welfare, health, and education in the years 1954–1961.
In March 1960, Washington became aware that despite this impressive outpouring of treasure, material, and advice, the Viet Cong were making significant headway against Diem, and that U.S. aid programs ought to be reconfigured. In March, the JCS initiated action to devise a Counter-insurgency Plan (CIP), intended to coordinate the several U.S. agencies providing assistance to the GVN, and rationalize the GVN's own rural programs. The CIP was worked out among the several U.S. agencies in Washington and Saigon during the summer and fall of 1960.
The heightened awareness of problems in Vietnam did not, however, precipitate changes in NSC policy statements on Vietnam. Objectives set forth in NSC 6012 (25 July 1960) were virtually identical to those of NSC 5809.
Planning proceeded against a background of developing divergence of view between the Departments of State and Defense. As Ambassador Durbrow and his colleagues of State saw the problem on the one hand, Diem's security problems stemmed from his political insolvency. They argued that the main line of U.S. action should take the form of pressures on Diem to reform his government and his party, liberalizing his handling of political dissenters and the rural populace. Department of Defense officials, on the other hand, usually deprecated the significance of non-communist political dissent in South Vietnam, and regarded Diem's difficulties as proceeding from military inadequacy. In this view, what was needed was a more efficient internal defense, and, therefore, the Pentagon tended to oppose U.S. leverage on Diem because it might jeopardize his confidence in the U.S., and his cooperation in improving his military posture. Communist machination, as Defense saw it, had created the crisis; the U.S. response should be "unswerving support" for Diem.
While the CIP was being developed, Department of Defense moved to adapt the U.S. military assistance program to the exigencies of the situation. On 30 March 1960 the JCS took the position that the Army of Vietnam should develop an anti-guerrilla capability within the regular force structure, thus reversing an antithetical position taken by General Williams. During 1959 Diem had attempted to form a number of special "commando" units from his regular forces, and the MAAG had opposed him on the grounds that these would deplete his conventional strength. In May, MAAG was authorized to place advisers down to battalion level. In June, 1960, additional U.S. Army special forces arrived in Vietnam, and during the summer a number of Ranger battalions, with the express mission of counter-guerrilla operations, were activated. In September, General Williams was replaced by General McGarr who, consistent with the directives of the JCS, promptly began to press the training of RVNAF to produce the "anti-guerrilla guerrilla." General McGarr's desire for an RVNAF capable of meeting and defeating the Viet Cong at their own game was evident in the CIP when it was forwarded to Washington, in January, 1961, just before John F. Kennedy took office.
The CIP had been well coordinated within the U.S. mission in Vietnam, but only partially with the Vietnamese. The plan, as forwarded, incorporated one major point of difference between the Embassy and MAAG. General McGarr desired to increase the RVNAF force level by some 20,000 troops, while Ambassador Durbrow maintained reservations concerning the necessity or the wisdom of additional forces. The Ambassador's position rested on the premise that Diem wanted the force level increase, and that the United States should not provide funds for that purpose until Diem was patently prepared to take those unpalatable political measures the Ambassador had proposed aimed at liberalizing the GVN. The Ambassador held out little hope that either the political or even military portions of the CIP could be successfully accomplished without some such leverage: "Consideration should, therefore, be given to what actions we are prepared to take to encourage, or if necessary to force, acceptance of all essential elements of the plan." In the staff reviews of the CIP in Washington, the divergence between State and Defense noted above came once more to the fore. Those (chiefly within DOD) who considered the VC threat as most important, and who therefore regarded military measures against this threat as most urgent, advocated approval and any other measures which would induce Diem's acceptance of the CIP, and his cooperation with MAAG. They were impatient with Ambassador Durbrow's proposed "pressure tactics" since they saw in them the possibility of GVN delay on vital military matters, and the prospect of little profit other than minor concessions from Diem in political areas they deemed peripheral or trivial in countering the VC. Tipping the scales toward what might be called the Diem/MAAG/DOD priorities was the coincident and increasing need to "reassure" Diem of U.S. support for the GVN and for him personally. The fall of President Syngman Rhee of Korea in April, the abortive November 1960 coup d'etat in Saigon, Ambassador Durbrow's persistent overtures for reform, and above all, uncertainties over U.S. support for the Royal Laotian Government. This requirement to reassure Diem was plainly at cross purposes with the use of pressure tactics.
Ten days after President Kennedy came to office, he authorized a $41 million increase in aid for Vietnam to underwrite the RVNAF force level increase and improvements in the Civil Guard—a complete buy of the CIP. In March, Ambassador Durbrow was replaced by Frederick E. Nolting. Ambassador Durbrow's closing interview with Diem in mid-March was not reassuring. While Diem stated that he was prepared to carry out the military aspects of the CIP, he dodged Durbrow's questions on the political action prescribed. It was on this disquieting note that the Kennedy Administration began its efforts to counter the insurgency in South Vietnam.
- Interview with Max Lerner, transcript in OSD files, dated 24 Jan 55. Cf., "Vietnam Demands a Time Extension," New York Times, 23 Jan 55.
- U.S. Department of State, "The Shift in the United States Position Toward Vietnamese Elections Under the Geneva Accords" (RM-765), 1 Sep 65.
- Press Conference, 28 June 55.
- Radio Broadcast by Premier Diem, 16 July 1955.
- American Friends of Vietnam, America's Stake in Vietnam (New York: Carnegie Press, 1956), 15 ff.
- General Vo Nguyen Giap, speaking to the 10th Congress of the Lao Dong Party Central Committee, October 1956.
- U.S. Department of State, "A Threat to the Peace: North Vietnam's Effort to Conquer South Vietnam" (Publication 7308, Far Eastern Series 110, December 1961) and "Aggression from the North: The Record of North Vietnam's Campaign to Conquer South Vietnam" (Publication 7839, Far Eastern Series 130, February 1965).
- Philippe Devillers, "The Struggle for the Unification of Vietnam," China Quarterly, No. 9, January–March 1962, 15–16.
- "Declaration of Former Resistance Fighters," excerpts in Kahin and Levis, op. cit., Appendix 5, 384–387.
- Devillers, loc. cit.
- The Bitter Heritage, pp. 34–35.
- Devillers, p. 19.
- The United States in Vietnam, pp. 119–120.
- The Washington Post, April 13, 1968, A8.