What the Viet Minh had not counted on was the extent to which the US would be able to change the situation between 1954 and 1956. The US representative at the Geneva Conference had indicated pretty clearly that the US did not like the Accords and did not feel obliged to obey them. After the conference, the US immediately began building up the strength of the State of Vietnam. Under a new prime minister, Ngo Dinh Diem, this government soon showed remarkable vigor. Diem did not have much administrative experience, but at least he was known to be a patriot; he had not collaborated with the French during the previous eight years of warfare.
When Diem acquired the title of Prime Minister in 1954, it carried no real power. However, during the following months he showed great decisiveness, he had the power of the American dollar behind him, and he had considerable luck. By May of 1955 he at least had full control of his capital city, Saigon; within a few months he controlled most of South Vietnam.
Diem announced, with American approval, that he was not going to carry out national elections as called for by the Geneva Accords. He refused even to hold a conference with the Viet Minh to discuss nationwide elections. Instead he renamed the State of Vietnam as the Republic of Vietnam, and held separate elections in South Vietnam to choose the government of the Republic of Vietnam. These elections had no international supervision, and there was not even a pretence of honesty in the counting of the votes. (In Saigon, which had about 450,000 registered voters, the official vote tally said that there had been about 600,000 votes cast for Diem.) Diem declared that he had gotten more than 98% of the votes, and that he was now President of the Republic of Vietnam.
Thus there came to be two governments in Vietnam. In the North was the Democratic Republic of Vietnam, with its capital at Hanoi, a Communist regime headed by Ho Chi Minh. In the South was the Republic of Vietnam, with its capital at Saigon, headed by Ngo Dinh Diem.
It is not really accurate to think of these as a North Vietnamese government and a South Vietnamese government. Each of them was made up of a mixture of North and South Vietnamese; the Prime Minister of the Communist government in the North, for instance, was a native of South Vietnam. Each of these governments said that Vietnam was basically one nation, not two. (The United States liked to say that South Vietnam should be an independent nation, separate from the North, but Ngo Dinh Diem did not agree.) Each of the two Vietnamese governments considered itself the legitimate government of all of Vietnam.
One might have expected that when the deadline of July 1956 had passed, and elections had still not been held to reunify Vietnam, the Viet Minh would have marched south to reunify the country by force. However, the Viet Minh were not in a position to do this; they had done an astonishingly bad job of ruling North Vietnam during the two years since the Geneva Conference.
The Communist leaders decided in 1953 and 1954 to end the policy of compromising issues of class conflict that they had followed for most of the war, and launch a really radical campaign to take land away from the landlords and give it to the peasants. This would be of considerable benefit to the peasants, many of whom were desperately poor. It was also intended to be politically beneficial to the Communists both because it would win peasant gratitude and because it would destroy the economic power of the landlord class, a class with a natural hostility to Communism. At the same time the landlords' land was being redistributed, landlords and agents of the landlords were supposed to be weeded out of the Communist Party and revolutionary organizations associated with it. Unfortunately for the Communists, they carried out these programs in a remarkably paranoid and unrealistic fashion. Poorly trained cadres were indoctrinated with stories of the fiendish cleverness of the landlords and counter-revolutionaries, and then sent out to the countryside. Many of them became suspicious of everyone; they saw enemies everywhere. Thousands of loyal Communists were falsely accused of being anti-Communist, expelled from revolutionary organizations, and even imprisoned. Tens of thousands of peasants were wrongly classified as landlords. (See Land Reform in China and North Vietnam: Consolidating the Revolution at the Village Level, by Edwin E. Moise.)
In the middle of 1956 the Communist leadership in Hanoi was just realizing the disastrous results of its errors, and starting to clean up the mess it had made. It had no attention to spare for events in the South. The chaos in North Vietnam was so bad, in fact, and the Viet Minh had lost so much of its popularity there, that some US officials began to regret that the US had so strongly opposed carrying out the elections called for by the Geneva Accords. They thought that if elections had been held in 1956 the Viet Minh might not have won after all. By this time, however, it was much too late. The US was firmly committed to a policy of sabotaging the Geneva Accords and trying to make South Vietnam an independent country.
Ngo Dinh Diem had about four years (1955-59) in which he was able to rule South Vietnam without serious interference from the Communists. Unfortunately for him, he did not make good use of this opportunity. For one thing, he established a dictatorship centering on himself and his family rather than trying to win the support of the mass population. The refugees who had taken advantage of the Geneva Accords to move from North to South Vietnam in 1954 and 1955 were generally enthusiastic about Diem, but the native South Vietnamese were not.
The officials of the Republic of Vietnam were not particularly competent, and not particularly honest. Few of them even shared Diem's record as a patriot; most had sided with the French in the war of 1946-54.
Diem's government generally sided with the landlords against the peasants. This was especially important in the area southwest of Saigon, the Mekong Delta, where most of the land was owned by quite wealthy absentee landlords. Many villages had been controlled by the Viet Minh up to 1954; in those villages, the peasants had gotten accustomed to paying little or no rent. In 1955 and 1956, when Diem's government in Saigon established its control over such villages, the landlords resumed collection of rent. The usual level was about 25% of the crop. After a short time Diem's American advisors persuaded him to carry out a land reform program to win greater peasant support, but even in theory Diem's program was not as generous toward the peasants as the program the Viet Minh had carried out up to 1954, and in practice Diem's officials did not always carry out the land reform program properly. This inspired much peasant resentment.
Finally, Diem made what may have been a mistake by hunting down and attacking people in the countryside who had supported the Viet Minh during the war. These people had lost much of their faith in the Viet Minh; some felt it had betrayed and abandoned them between 1954 and 1956. They might have been willing to forget politics if the government had been willing to let them alone. However, when Diem's police began arresting them, often beating and killing them, they began to think of resistance.
By the late 1950's, Diem's government had become so corrupt and brutal that many South Vietnamese were eager to overthrow it. However, the natural leadership for any armed uprising was the Viet Minh leadership, and most of the South Vietnamese who had held important positions in the Viet Minh had gone to North Vietnam after the Geneva Accords. From 1956 to early 1959, the Viet Minh leaders allowed their followers in the South to assassinate a few officials of the Saigon government, but they were firmly forbidden to go beyond this and launch a guerrilla war to overthrow the government. The excuse the Viet Minh leaders in Hanoi gave for this policy was that the Saigon government was cutting its own throat by making enemies in the countryside, and that nobody should interfere with it while it was doing so. In fact, the main reason may have been that the authorities in North Vietnam could not afford to get involved in South Vietnamese problems until they had finished cleaning up the mess they had made in North Vietnam from 1954 to 1956.
By 1959, the brutality and corruption of the Saigon government had made it so many enemies that much of the South Vietnamese countryside was ripe for revolt. The Communist leaders in Hanoi had finished repairing the damage they had done to their political organizations in North Vietnam in 1955-56, and they decided it was time to do something about the situation in the South. Hanoi gave permission for Communists and Communist sympathizers in the South to start a guerrilla war against the Saigon government, and South Vietnamese Communists who had gone North in 1954 and 1955 started filtering southward again.
Guerrilla warfare began to break out around the beginning of 1960. Diem's army, the ARVN (Army of the Republic of Vietnam), was badly trained and badly led; its leaders did not have much enthusiasm for fighting. The number of officials assassinated by the guerrillas increased dramatically; thousands of officials fled from the countryside into the cities for fear of being assassinated. The guerrillas quickly won control in large areas of the South Vietnamese countryside. At the end of 1960 the National Liberation Front (NLF) was established to lead the guerrilla war against Diem. The NLF was under Communist leadership, but many non-Communists who hated the Saigon government also joined the NLF.
In the early years of the war, 1961 to 1963, the basic makeup of the two sides was as follows:
One of the great advantages of the NLF was that in most areas of the South Vietnamese countryside, the peasants regarded the NLF as a more local organization, a more purely South Vietnamese organization, than the Saigon government. This was natural. The Saigon government used foreigners in combat; the NLF did not. The Saigon government had large numbers of North Vietnamese among its combat troops; the NLF did not. The Saigon government obtained virtually all its guns and ammunition from external sources; the NLF obtained a significant portion of its guns and ammunition within South Vietnam. Many of the people who set policy for the NLF were North Vietnamese, but the same was true of the Saigon government. In any case, the only NLF officials that the peasants ever met were South Vietnamese; the northerners in the Communist apparatus stayed far away from the actual areas of warfare. The Saigon government, on the other hand, actually used large numbers of North Vietnamese, conspicuous by their regional accents and sometimes by their lack of sympathy for the problems of southern peasants, as tax collectors and provincial administrators in the countryside of South Vietnam.
Communist propaganda generally protrayed the war in South Vietnam as a struggle by the people of South Vietnam, and portrayed the NLF and the Communists as the leaders chosen by the South Vietnamese people in their struggle. In short, NLF propaganda painted a picture of almost perfect unity between the NLF and the South Vietnamese people. The NLF often claimed, in fact, simply to be struggling for democracy against the dictatorship of Saigon. These claims were of course outrageously exaggerated; the guerrillas did not always have the voluntary cooperation of the peasants, and often used brutal coercion to get their way. However, the fact that these claims were not totally true, or even close to totally true, does not mean that we can afford to ignore them.
If even a tenth of what the Communists said about the close and intimate relationship between themselves and the South Vietnamese peasants had been true, that would have been enough to have an important effect on the military situation, and in fact much more than a tenth of it was true. In most of South Vietnam the NLF had genuine roots in the villages; it had a much closer relationship with the people than the Saigon Government did. One of the main reasons that the guerrillas were so much more effective than the ARVN soldiers, man for man, was that during military operations the guerrillas could generally count on more cooperation from local civilians than the ARVN could.
Next section: The Fall of Ngo Dinh Diem
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Copyright © 1998 Edwin E. Moise. Opinions expressed in this page are my own. They could not very well be the opinions of Clemson University, which does not have opinions on the subjects involved. Revised July 20, 2014.