The day after the surrender at Dien Bien Phu, peace talks on Vietnam were taken up at the Geneva Conference, which had begin on April 26 and attended by U.S. Secretary of State John Foster Dulles and representatives from eight states: The Democratic Republic of Vietnam, France, the Soviet Union, Britain, the People's Republic of China, the United States, Cambodia and Laos, plus the Bao Dai government. The principal negotiators were France, Vietnam and China. The US was there primarily to try to sabotage the conference.

According to the terms of the Geneva Accord, which was hammered out 2½ months later in July 1954, there would be: 1) an exchange of prisoners; 2) the temporary division of Vietnam into two zones at the Ben Hai River (near the 17th Parallel) until nationwide elections could be held; 3) the free passage of people across the 17th Parallel for a period of 300 days; and the holding of nationwide elections on July 20, 1956. The accord also set the borders of Southeast Asia, with Laos and Cambodia emerging as independent nations.

The Geneva Accord was a compromise agreement consisting of two documents: a cease-fire and a final declaration. The ceasefire agreement, which was signed only by France and the DRV, established a provisional military demarcation line at about the 17̊N parallel and required the regroupment of all French military forces south of that line and of all Viet Minh military forces north of the line. A demilitarized zone (DMZ), no more than five kilometers wide, was established on either side of the demarcation line. The cease-fire agreement also provided for a 300-day period, during which all civilians were free to move from one zone to the other, and an International Control Commission, consisting of Canada, India, and Poland, to supervise the ceasefire . The final declaration was endorsed through recorded oral assent by the DRV, France, Britain, China, and the Soviet Union. It provided for the holding of national elections in July 1956, under the supervision of the International Control Commission, and stated that the military demarcation line was provisional and "should not in any way be interpreted as constituting a political territorial boundary." Both the United States and the Associated State of Vietnam, which France had recognized on June 4 as a "fully independent and sovereign state," refused to approve the final declaration and submitted separate declarations stating their reservations. [Source: Library of Congress]

The signed agreements included military and political provisions.Militarily, it was decided that the forces from each side would be regrouped into two different zones, north and south of the 17th parallel, so as to separate the armies which, given the special nature of the war, had been interlocked like "two combs". A 300 days deadline was agreed on for achieving this re-groupment. Politically, the agreements recognized the independence, sovereignty, unity and territorial integrity of the three countries of Indochina. [Source: Vietnamtourism. com, Vietnam National Administration of Tourism ~]

Partition of Vietnam Into North and South

Vietnam was divided with a "military demarcation line" at the 17th parallel at the Ben Hai River into north and south. The division was a face-saving measure for the French to stave off total defeat by the Viet Minh. The 17th parallel later became the center of the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ), an area five kilometers on either side of the demarcation line, technically off limits to the military.

The guerilla forces that defeated the French were ordered to move above the line and French-lead forces to were told the stay in the south. Pending reunification, Vietnam's two zones would refrain from joining any military alliance. No foreign military bases could be set up and no new foreign military equipment or personnel could be brought in either.

The demarcation line was not intended to be a political boundary. The division was supposed to be temporary until free elections could be held in 1956 to reunify Vietnam. However, not long after the Geneva Conference North Vietnam and South Vietnam took shape on either side of the 17th parallel with Ho Chi Minh the leader in the north and Ngo Dinh Diem becoming the leader in the south. Neither Vietnam or the United States had signed the accord. Diem, believing that Ho Chi Minh would win a popular vote, refused to agree to elections. The partition became permanent.

Eisenhower supported the division fo North and South Vietnam. There was an exodus of about 1 million northerners, many of them Catholics, to South Vietnam. About 100,000 people moved in the other direction.

Aftermath of the Geneva Conference

The Geneva Agreements were viewed with doubt and dissatisfaction on all sides. Concern over possible United States intervention, should the Geneva talks fail, was probably a major factor in Hanoi's decision to accept the compromise agreement. The United States had dissociated itself from the final declaration, although it had stated that it would refrain from the threat or use of force to disturb the agreements. [Source: Library of Congress]

The North was led by the Democratic Republic of Vietnam where the reconstruction of the nation would start. In the South, the war for national liberation continued for another for 20 years.

There were three definable stages during the period between 1954 when the French were thrown out of Vietnam after Dien Bien Phu and 1975 when the Americans were ousted after the Fall of Saigon: 1) 1954-1965: the establishment of a socialist government in the north, and the southern Vietnamese people's struggle with the confines of the corrupt Diem regime. against repression and the neo-colonialist war; 2) 1965-1973: the Vietnam War, which ended with the signing of the Paris Agreements of January 1973; and 3) 1973-1975 the collapse of the South Vietnam government.

South Vietnam After Partition in 1954

South of the demarcation line after partition in 1954, the social system remained unchanged except that power reverted to a Vietnamese elite. The South's urban-rural network of roles, heavily dependent on the peasant economy, remained intact despite the influx of nearly a million refugees from the North; and land reform, initiated unenthusiastically in 1956, had little socioeconomic impact in the face of obstruction by the landowning class. In contrast to the North, there was no doctrinaire, organized attempt to reorganize the society fundamentally or to implant new cultural values and social sanctions. The regime of Ngo Dinh Diem was more concerned with its own immediate survival than with revolutionary social change, and if it had a vision of sociopolitical reform at all, that vision was diffusive. Furthermore, it lacked a political organization comparable in zeal to the party apparatus of Hanoi in order to achieve its goals. [Source: Library of Congress *]

In the 1960s, prolonged political instability placed social structures in the South under increasing stress. The communist insurgency, which prevented the government from extending its authority to some areas of the countryside, was partially responsible, but even more disruptive were the policies of the government itself. Isolated in Saigon, the Diem regime alienated large parts of the population by acting to suppress Buddhists and other minorities, by forcing the relocation of peasants to areas nominally controlled by the government, and by systematically crushing political opposition. Such policies fueled a growing dissatisfaction with the regime that led to Diem's assassination in November 1963 and his replacement by a series of military strongmen. *

In the urban areas, the small upper class elite continued to be limited to highranking military officers, government officials, people in the professions, absentee landlords, intellectuals, and Catholic and Buddhist religious leaders. The elite retained a strong personal interest in France and French culture; many had been educated in France and many had sons or daughters residing there. In addition to wealth, Western education--particularly French education--was valued highly, and French and English were widely spoken. *

The urban middle class included civil servants, lower and middle-ranking officers in the armed forces, commercial employees, school teachers, shop owners and managers, small merchants, and farm and factory managers. A few were college graduates, although the majority had only a secondary-school education. Very few had been able to study abroad. At the bottom of the urban society were unskilled, largely uneducated wageworkers and petty tradespeople. While semiliterate themselves, they nevertheless were able to send their children to primary school. Secondary education was less common, however, particularly for girls. These children tended not to proceed far enough in school to acquire an elementary knowledge of French or English, and most adults of the lower class knew only Vietnamese unless they had worked as domestics for foreigners. *

Village society, which embraced 80 percent of the population, was composed mostly of farmers, who were ranked in three socioeconomic groups. The elite were the wealthiest landowners. If they farmed, the work was done by hired laborers who planted, irrigated, and harvested under the owner's supervision. In the off-season, landowners engaged in moneylending, rice trading, or rice milling. Usually the well-to-do owners were active in village affairs as members of the village councils. After the mid-1960s, however, interest in seeking such positions waned as village leaders increasingly were targeted by Viet Cong insurgents. *

The less prosperous, middle-level villagers owned or rented enough land to live at a level well above subsistence, but they tended not to acquire a surplus large enough to invest in other ventures. They worked their own fields and hired farm hands only when needed during planting or harvesting. A few supplemented their income as artisans, but never as laborers. Because of their more modest economic circumstances, members of this group tended not to assume as many communal responsibilities as did the wealthier villagers. *

At the bottom of village life were owners of small farming plots and tenant farmers. Forced to spend nearly all of their time eking out a living, they could not afford to engage in village affairs. Because they could not cultivate enough land to support their families, most of them worked also as part-time laborers, and their wives and children assisted with the field work. Their children frequently went to school only long enough to learn the rudiments of reading and writing. This group also included workers in a wide range of other service occupations, such as artisans, practitioners of oriental medicine, and small tradespeople. *

United States Helps Set Up South Vietnam

The Geneva accord stipulated that the southern half of Vietnam would be handed over to a provisional administration after two years at the most, and that general elections in 1956 at the latest, would give a united Vietnam a single government. However, soon after the agreement were signed, Washington, with French government consent, helped Ngo Dinh Diem—the new Prime Minister of the Bao Dai government— set up a government in southern Vietnam.

According to the North Vietnamese the Diem government was a " neo-colonialist regime with specific counter-revolutionary aims: liquidate the national revolutionary movement in southern Vietnam, turn the latter into a military base and colony of the US and set up a military and police apparatus to serve as an instrument for the enslavement of the south and reconquest of the north.

President Dwight D. Eisenhower wrote to Diem in September 1954 promising United States support for a noncommunist Vietnam. Direct United States aid to South Vietnam began in January 1955, and American advisors began arriving the following month to train South Vietnamese army troops. By early 1955, Diem had consolidated his control by moving against lawless elements in the Saigon area and by suppressing the religious sects in the Mekong Delta. He also launched a "denounce the communists" campaign, in which, according to communist accounts, 25,000 communist sympathizers were arrested and more than 1,000 killed.

Ngo Dinh Diem Takes Control in the South and Planned 1956 Elections Don’t Happen

Ngo Dinh Diem, an anti-Communist Catholic, established the Saigon-based Republic of Vietnam in the south with the support of the United States. Diem became prime minister in 1954 and declared himself president in 1955. He and the United States refused to talk to representatives of Ho Chi Minh, and they used this and a rigged referendum as an excuse to make South Vietnam a permanent country when it became clear that Ho Chi Minh would win a general national election.

Diem refused to agree to elections. In August 1955, Diem issued a statement formally refusing to participate in consultations with the DRV, which had been called for by the Geneva Agreement to prepare for national elections. In October, he easily defeated Bao Dai in a seriously tainted referendum and became president of the new Republic of Vietnam.

Diem quickly consolidated power and outmaneuvered his rivals, defeating the Binh Xuyen crime syndicate and the private armies of the Hoa Hao and Cao Dai religious sects. During Diem’s 1957 official visit to the U.S. in 1957 he was welcomed by U.S. President Eisenhower as a "miracle man" of Asia.

Diem launched some half hearted attempts at land reform and democracy. Whatever good will Diem had won at home was lost as he increasingly used brutal methods to defuse dissent, appointed incompetent and unpopular family members to high positions, and used land reform as means to enrich his Catholic cronies. As time went on Diem became increasingly harsh in dealing with dissent and his government became increasingly dominated by cronies and family members.

Binh Xuyen When Ngo Dinh Diem Take Power

Among the most pressing problems facing Ngo Dinh Diem when he was called to office by Bao Dai in June 1954 was the existence of the Cao Dai, Hoa Hao, and Binh Xuyen, who held sway over vast quasi-autonomous territories. Charged with the task of unifying southern Vietnam, Diem realized he had to break the power of the sects and the Binh Xuyen, whose interests conflicted with his own. He had two alternatives: he could either eliminate these groups or integrate them into the body politic. In either case, he needed a strong loyal army. [Source: Department of the Army, American University, 1965 +++]

The Army Chief of Staff at the time was Gen. Nguyen Van Hinh, a French citizen, whom Diem suspected of conspiring against him. On September 11, 1954, Diem demanded Hinh's resignation, initiating a 7-week army crisis. Hinh refused to accede to Diem's order and barricaded himself in his headquarters. Fear of a coup d'etat or an attempt on his life forced Diem to withdraw to his palace. Ironically, Diem's guards were under the control of the Binh Xuyen, of whom he strongly disapproved because of its affiliation with gambling and prostitution. The Binh Xuyen, however, were willing to defend Diem, at least temporarily, for two reasons: loyalty to Bao Dai, and therefore to Diem, his appointee; and rivalry with the National Army. General Hinh's father, Nguyen Van Tam, had organized the Security Service and controlled the police. When the Binh Xuyen gained control of the police, many security investigators joined the Vietnamese National Army. +++

During the crisis, Diem's administrative power was reduced to impotence when Hinh demonstrated the strength of his position by ordering troops to patrol the capital. It was evident in the beginning that Hinh could execute a coup d'etat with considerable ease, but he showed reluctance to do so and instead sought to temporize. Less than a week later, the Binh Xuyen switched allegiance and joined the Cao Dai and Hoa Hao in support of Hinh. In a manifesto dated September 16, the sects and the Binh Xuyen officially dissociated themselves from Diem and declared the need for a democratic government, liberation of the country from foreign domination and enactment of measures to eliminate poverty and illiteracy. In order to appease Hinh, Diem appointed Gen. Nguyen Van xuan—one of the Binh Xuyen leaders— to the Ministry of National Defense. Pleased with the appointment, Hinh agreed not to take action and asked Bao Dai to arbitrate the disagreement between the sects, the Binh Xuyen, and Diem. The U.S. Embassy now intervened in Diem's favor and warned Hinh that a military coup d'etat would result in the halting of economic and military aid. Bao Dai, hoping to end the crisis, sent for Le Van Vien and ordered him to form a coalition government with the Cao Dai and Hoa Hao leaders. The sect leaders, however, made demands unacceptable to Le Van Vien, who accused them of selling their services to Prime Minister Diem. +++

The accusation was well founded, for on September 24 Diem persuaded the Cao Dai and Hoa Hao to accept four seats each in his new Cabinet. Nine of Diem's ministers had resigned on September 20, further weakening his position. Cao Dai and Hoa Hao unwillingness to concede leadership in the coalition government to Vien, and the refusal of the latter to finance Cao Dai and Hoa Hao activities after their loss of French subsidies, caused the leaders of the religious sects to defect, at least nominally, to Diem. The Binh Xuyen, however, since they still controlled the National Police, refused to enter the new Government. The army crisis ended when Hinh was finally dismissed, and a temporary calm reigned over the country. +++

Diem dealt another blow to the power of the Binh Xuyen when, in his campaign against vice and corruption, he refused to renew the licenses of the "Grand Monde" and "Cloche d'Or" when they expired on January 15, 1955. The equivalent of over $200 million had changed hands in these establishments over the preceding 8 years. Vien, who personally had received about $14,000 a day in "taxes" from the "Grand Monde" alone, was charged, as head of the police, with the task of closing these gambling and prostitution centers. Vien apparently accepted the decision, regretting only that the Government was willing to lose such an important source of revenue. +++

Ngo Dinh Diem Defeats Binh Xuyen

Meanwhile the Cao Dai, Hoa Hoa, and Binh Xuyen maintained an uneasy truce, broken by frequent clashes when one group trespassed on another's domain. Fearing that sectarian differences would result in the weakening of their resistance against Diem's demands, Bao Dai urged the three groups to unify. On March 5, 1955, the three groups, totaling 25,000 men, formed a "United Front of National Forces," an anti-Government coalition to promote the formation of a democratic government. The Front requested Bao Dai to dismiss Diem and to turn over the reins of power to them; on March 21, they issued an ultimatum giving Diem 5 days to form a "strong, honest, democratic government of national union." Diem refused and took the precautionary measure of ordering three battalions of militia troops to Saigon. Under U.S. pressure, Bao Dai reaffirmed his support of Diem. At the expiration of the ultimatum, the Cao Dai and Hoa Hao representatives resigned from the Cabinet. [Source: Department of the Army, American University, 1965 +++]

In retaliation for Diem's refusal to comply with the ultimatum, the Hoa Hao held up food supplies for Saigon-Cholon, and the Binh Xuyen established themselves in the police and security headquarters and in other buildings in the twin cities. Diem ordered paratroops to occupy the police and security headquarters. They ousted the Binh Xuyen from the police headquarters without difficulty, but could not force the commandos from the Security Service building. On March 28, Diem ordered Col. Cao Van Tri, the paratroop commander, to attack the building. The French intervened in the attack, causing the postponement of hostilities until the night of March 29-30. Unable to bury their differences, the religious sects soon accused the Binh Xuyen of forcing them into open conflict with Diem. Sensing an impending showdown, the Cao Dai and most of the Hoa Hao backed out of the conflict on March 29, leaving only the Binh Xuyen to confront the National Army. On the night of March 29-30, fighting broke out between the Binh Xuyen and the Army. The French soon arranged a cease-fire, to Diem's annoyance. The Prime Minister accused the French of secretly supporting the religious sects and the Binh Xuyen; rumor was rife that the French had given the Binh Xuyen tactical advice during the affray. It was known that the French obstructed Government forces by denying them fuel, transport, and ammunition. +++

An article which appeared on April 14 in the French newspaper L'Observateur alleged that no attempt had been made by the French to retrieve the arms they had lent the sects during the war against the Viet Minh, though the conditions of the loan stated that the arms must be returned after the hostilities. The increase in the power of the sects and the Binh Xuyen was in large part attributed to the French. +++

By April 1955, Diem was prepared for a showdown with the Binh Xuyen and the remaining dissident Hoa Hao. Meanwhile, the Binh Xuyen commando units under Vien, who now proclaimed himself "Commander in Chief of the Opposition,"still held the Security Service building in Saigon and interrupted the routine examination of passports at the airfield and port. The New York Times (April 1, 1955) reported that Vien had 8,000-10,000 men under arms. The Ministry of Finance (adjacent to the Security Service headquarters), the police headquarters, and the port office were under National Army occupation. At first Diem tried to break the Binh Xuyen power by means of verbal persuasion. On April 3, he made a radio appeal to the members of the Binh Xuyen, encouraging them to desert the armed organization and promising them amnesty. The Binh Xuyen lifted their 3-day food blockade, but they refused to relinquish the Security Service building. When no Binh Xuyen soldiers deserted to the Government, stronger measures were enacted. Plainclothes operatives of the Binh Xuyen were to be searched for illegal arms caches, and a psychological operations program, a "murmuring" campaign, was to be initiated against the Binh Xuyen militia. Binh Xuyen soldiers were to receive 5,000 piasters ($142) if they surrendered to the Government with their arms. Meanwhile, a 6-day truce had been arranged with the Binh Xuyen so that no known Binh Xuyen strongholds would be attacked. The French promised to induce the organization to hand over the Security building to the Government by peaceful means. When none of these measures proved effective, Diem dismissed the Binh Xuyen director-general of the Security Service, Lai Huu Sang, and ordered members of the Service to report to the new director within 48 hours or face court martial. Furthermore, by the end of this same period, Binh Xuyen troops would no longer be permitted free circulation in Saigon-Cholon. +++

The truce ended April 28 and fighting between the Binh Xuyen and the National Army broke out once more. The French Commander urged Diem to call for a cease-fire, but the Prime Minister, who believed that the power of the Binh Xuyen would have been smashed in March had fighting been allowed to continue, refused. In order to ensure the defeat of the Binh Xuyen this time, Diem ordered 4 battalions of paratroops and an armored car squadron into the battle, keeping in reserve 14 battalions plus an unknown number of reinforcements from central Vietnam. The Binh Xuyen, estimated to number 2,000, were entrenched in various buildings throughout Saigon-Cholon. Anticipating French intervention, Le Van Vien refused to call on his 4,000 reserves and failed to organize an effective resistance. Accordingly, the high school, the cinema, and the printing works—the last three centers of Binh Xuyen resistance—fell to the paratroops early on April 29. By midnight the Binh Xuyen resistance had collapsed, paratroops occupied Vien's headquarters, and the Binh Xuyen, including Vien, had fled. The eviction of the Binh Xuyen from Cholon was attributed to their neglect of military training, incompetent officers, outdated arms, and the willingness of the National Army to defend Diem. +++

Fearing that the Binh Xuyen might reorganize, the Government sought to expel Vien and his remaining battalions from the swamp hideouts in the Rung Sat area south of Saigon-Cholon, where they had retreated after their eviction from the twin cities. In May, Government troops blocked the approaches to the Rung Sat area, and awaited the desertion of soldiers capable of providing information on the military strength and location of the Binh Xuyen. By September 1955, the remaining Binh Xuyen troops were cleared out of the Rung Sat area. Le Van Vien escaped to France with French assistance. Government troops were now free to continue their offensive against the remaining dissident Hoa Hao and Cao Dai groups. By October 1955, the power of the sects and the Binh Xuyen had collapsed. +++

Ngo Dinh Diem’s Anti-Communist Campaign in South Vietnam

Ngo Dinh Diem—the new Prime Minister of the Bao Dai government—was a fiercely anticommunist Catholic. His power base was significantly strengthened by million or so refugees from North Vietnam, many of them Catholics, who also hated the regime in the North. [Source: Lonely Planet =]

The Diem government launched an anticommunist campaign in South Vietnam. Party in response to the North stepped up its terrorist activities in the South, assassinating several hundred officials of the Diem government. This led to the arrest of another 65,000 suspected Communists and the killing of more than 2,000 by the Saigon government in 1957. Diem’s brother and chief adviser, Ngo Dinh Nhu, was identified by regime opponents as the source of many of the government's repressive measures.

Repression by the Diem regime led to the rise of armed rebel self-defense units in various parts of the South, with the units often operating on their own without any party direction. Observing that a potential revolutionary situation had been created by popular resentment of the Diem government and fearing that the government's anticommunist policy would destroy or weaken party organization in the South, the Vietnam Workers Party (VWP) leadership in North Vietnam determined that the time had come to resort to violent struggle. [Source: Library of Congress]

Assassination of Vietnam's JFK

Sergei Blagov wrote in the Asia Times, "A daring young leader slain under mysterious circumstances while riding in an open car...hit by a sniper stationed high above him, shot from the back by carbine bullets that smashed into the victim's head." One would guess this is a description John Fitzgerald Kennedy assassination but such a guess would be wrong. The victim here is Vietnamese General Trinh Minh The "who was struck behind the ear, apparently by a sniper bullet, on May 3, 1955. From the angle at which he was hit, the rifleman appears to have been behind and above Trinh Minh The - just as the sniper would later be when JFK was shot. Officially, The died in a street skirmish in Saigon while riding in his Jeep near Tan Thuan Bridge. [Source: By Sergei Blagov, Asia Times , November 22, 2003 \=\]

Trinh Minh The was widely believed to have been shot from behind, and the wound was powder-blackened, indicating a shot at point-blank range. The bullet reportedly entered Trinh Minh The's right ear, went through his head and blew off the left eye. The discrepancies could have been solved by a routine autopsy, but the authorities never completed one. The Saigon government, headed by Ngo Dinh Diem, was later accused of covering up what was seen as Vietnam's most important unsolved crime. \=\

Trinh Minh The, portrayed in a book and film, The Quiet American, as a main dirty-dog character, had many enemies. Yet his supporters viewed him as a truly independent nationalist, one who might have provided Vietnam with better leadership than Diem, an installed "alternative". In the wake of Trinh Minh The's demise, Diem crushed the opposition as the first step toward monopolizing power in South Vietnam. Some think that the legendary covert operator Edward G Lansdale was behind the assassination. \=\

Edward G Lansdale: the Quiet American and Father of South Vietnam

Edward G Lansdale was legendary covert operator in South Vietnam regarded as a "white-hat hero figure immersed in "dirty tricks", a kingmaker and intriguer, manipulating and crushing the Asians for the greater glory of the American Empire." In "Bright Shining Lie," Neil Sheehan calls Lansdale the "father of South Vietnam", presumably referring to Lansdale's responsibility for swinging US support toward Diem in 1955.

Sergei Blagov wrote in the Asia Times, "When Lansdale arrived in Saigon in 1954 he faced the task of building an alternative to the mosaic of religious armies and criminal gangs that had ruled South Vietnam. By manipulating payments to the armed groups, Lansdale was able to neutralize most of them. Working under cover, Lansdale was widely credited with almost single-handedly maneuvering Diem to the pinnacle of power. [Source: By Sergei Blagov, Asia Times , November 22, 2003 \=\]

Lansdale expounded what he called the "demotic" strategy, an approach similar to what would be called "winning hearts and minds". However, he simultaneously believed that dirty tricks beget dirty tricks. When an order appeared wrong, he simply ignored it and went on doing what he thought was right - and frequently it was. The kind of action designed to reduce corners appealed to Lansdale. Lansdale was also a master of deception. As he used to put it: "It's not true, but was something I started. Mea culpa." As a former advertising executive, Lansdale presented Trinh Minh The as Vietnam's Robin Hood. However, when asked some uncomfortable questions about Trinh Minh The, Lansdale claimed he had "a memory block".

Lansdale, who died in 1987, has often been referred to as the driving force and the idea man behind psywar action. "You can ... get away with almost anything so long as it's for the right thing and you do it for the right reasons," Lansdale once said. His other trademark piece of wisdom was, "Don't let the little formalities of life stop you."

According to his New York Times obituary: Lansdale was "an Air Force officer whose influential theories of counterinsurgent warfare proved successful in the Philippines after World War II but failed to bring victory in South Vietnam. A dashing Californian, Mr. Lansdale is widely thought to have been the model for characters in two novels involving guerrilla warfare in Southeast Asia: ''The Quiet American'' by Graham Greene and ''The Ugly American'' by Eugene Burdick and William J. Lederer. [Source: Eric Pace, New York Times, February 24, 1987]

Early in his Vietnam service, Colonel Lansdale was head of a team of agents that carried out undercover operations against North Vietnam. The team turned in a vivid report of its actions shortly before pulling out of Hanoi in October 1954. The team's report said it ''spent the last days of Hanoi in contaminating the oil supply of the bus company for a gradual wreckage of engines in the buses,'' and ''in taking actions for delayed sabotage of the railroad.'' ''The team had a bad moment when contaminating the oil,'' it went on. ''They had to work quickly at night in an enclosed storage room. Fumes from the contaminant came close to knocking them out. Dizzy and weak-kneed, they masked their faces with handkerchiefs and completed the job.''

North Vietnam

The Viet Minh established the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV) after World War II in the northern Vietnam. The DRV became North Vietnam after the French were ousted after Dien Bien Phu in 1954. The Viet Minh by influenced by Maoism before Dien Boen Phu and by Soviet Communism afterwards.

The Geneva Accords allowed the leadership of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam to return to Hanoi and assert control of all territory north of the 17th Parallel. After it became clear that national elections to unify Vietnam would not be held, the communist leadership in Hanoi decided for the time being to continue to concentrate its efforts on the political struggle. Several factors led to this decision, including the weakness of the party apparatus in the South, the need to concentrate on strengthening the war-weakened North, and pressure from the communist leadership of the Soviet Union, which, under General Secretary Nikita Khrushchev, had inaugurated its policy of peaceful coexistence with the West.

Ho Chi Minh originally pleaded with the United States and the West for support but these pleas were rejected. This gave the North Vietnam little choice but to fall into the open arms of he Soviet Union and Communist China. By 1957, a shift to a more militant approach to the reunification of the country was apparent. Partly in response to Diem's anticommunist campaign, the Party stepped up terrorist activities in the South, assassinating several hundred officials of the Diem government.

North Vietnam Society During the 1954-75 Period

At the time of the 1954 partition, Vietnam was overwhelmingly a rural society; peasants accounted for nearly 90 percent of the total population. During the ensuing 20 years of political separation, however, the North and the South developed into two very different societies. In the North the communists had embarked on a program intended to revolutionize the socioeconomic structure. The focus of change was ostensibly economic, but its underlying motivation was both political and social as well. Based on the Marxist principle of class struggle, it involved no less than the creation of a totally new social structure. Propertied classes were eliminated, and a proletarian dictatorship was established in which workers and peasants emerged as the nominal new masters of a socialist and ultimately classless state. [Source: Library of Congress *]

As a prelude to the socialist revolution, a land reform campaign and a harsh, systematic campaign to liquidate "feudal landlords" from rural society were launched concurrently in 1955. Reminiscent of the campaign undertaken by communists in China in earlier years, the liquidation of landlords cost the lives of an estimated 50,000 people and prompted the party to acknowledge and redress "a number of serious errors" committed by its zealous cadres. *

In urban sectors the party's intervention was less direct, initially at least, because large numbers of the bourgeoisie had fled the North in anticipation of the communists' coming to power. Many had fled to the South before the party gained full control. Those who remained were verbally assailed as exploiters of the people, but, because the regime needed their administrative and technical skills and experience, they were otherwise treated tolerantly and allowed to retain private property. *

In 1958 the regime stepped up the pace of "socialist transformation," mindful that even though the foundations of a socialist society were basically in place, the economy remained for the most part still in the hands of the private, capitalist sector. By 1960 all but a small number of peasants, artisans, handicraft workers, industrialists, traders, and merchants had been forced to join cooperatives of various kinds. *

Intellectuals, many of whom had earlier been supporters of the Viet Minh, were first conciliated by the government, then stifled. Opposition to the government, expressed openly during and after the peasant uprisings of 1956, prompted the imposition of controls that graduated to complete suppression by 1958. Writers and artists who had established their reputations in the pre-communist era were excluded from taking any effective role in national affairs. Many were sent to the countryside to perform manual labor and to help educate a new corps of socialist intellectuals among the peasants. *

Social Stratification in North Vietnam During the 1954-75 Period

The dominant group in the new social order were the high level party officials, who constituted a new ruling class. They owed their standing more to demonstrations of political acumen and devotion to nationalism or Marxism-Leninism than to educational or professional achievements. Years of resistance against the French in the rural areas had inured them to hardship and at the same time given them valuable experience in organization and guerrilla warfare. Resistance work had also brought them into close touch with many different segments of the population. [Source: Library of Congress *]

At the apex of the new ruling class were select members of the Political Bureau of the communist Vietnamese Workers Party (VWP, Dang Lao Dong Viet Nam), and a somewhat larger body of Central Committee members holding key posts in the party, the government, the military, and various party-supported organizations. Below the top echelon were the rank and file party members (500,000 by 1960), including a number of women and members of ethnic minorities. Party cadres who possessed special knowledge and experience in technical, financial, administrative, or managerial matters were posted in all social institutions to supervise the implementation of party decisions. *

Occupying an intermediate position between the party and the citizenry were those persons who did not belong to the party but who, nevertheless, had professional skills or other talents needed by the regime. Noncommunists were found in various technical posts, in the school system, and in the mass organizations to which most citizens were required to belong. A few even occupied high, though politically marginal, posts in the government. The bulk of the population remained farmers, workers, soldiers, miners, porters, stevedores, clerks, tradespeople, teachers, and artisans. *

Land Reform and Village Cooperatives in North Vietnam

After the end of the French Indochina War in 1954 the government in North Vietnam acted quickly to put down dissent and assert control by brutally initiating radical land reform policies that took land out of the hands of landlords and distributed it among peasants. Power was transferred from village elites to revolutionary councils, in many cases made of people from the poorest families.

Villages were organized into cooperatives that shared tools and used more advanced technologies than had been previously used. Groups were encouraged to breed animals and grow cash crops such as tea. Government-sponsored mass organizations for women, farmers, war veterans and youth replaced traditional village groups. Villages were merged into administrative units that shared clinics and schools.

It has long been argued that North Vietnamese revolutionary movement was more of nationalist movement than a repressive Communist one. But the facts do not always support this. Ho Chi Minh—who once said "nothing is more precious than independence and freedom"—embraced a Stalinist political and economic model for Vietnam: heavy industrialization, forced collectivization, nationalized industry, the elimination of the bourgeoisie, repression of intellectuals and the establishment of gulag-like concentration camps—all of which proved to be horrible failures,

The Vietnamese also were influenced Chinese style Communism. Chinese Communist officials directly presided over the disastrous land reform campaign of 1953-1956 in which thousands of innocents peasants were killed on trumped up charges of being "landlord exploiters." The Vietnamese also established a People’ Army and Public Security Bureau, and "reform through labor" prison camps—all of which were copied from China.

Repression in North Vietnam

As part of its "building socialism" initiative the North Vietnam government banned traditional customs and rites and the festivals that accompanied them. The worship of ancestors and local guardian spirits was condemned as backward and superstitious. Instead celebrations were held to honor Stalin’s birthday.

The new government was equally keen on eliminating those segments of the population that threatened its power. Tens of thousands of ‘landlords’, some with only tiny holding who were turned in by envious neighbors, were arrested. Tribunals were held for landowners. People who didn't go along with the plan were rounded by "security committees" and put on trial in kangaroo courts. By the time the initiative was brought to a halt with "the Campaign for Rectification of Errors" in 1956, 10,000 to 15,000 people had been executed and 50,000 to 100,000 had been arrested.

There were reports of torture by the Communists. The New York Times reported in January 1955: "Among the more than 4,500 refugees were some Vietnamese priests and sister who said they suffered at the hands of the Communists in Vietnam. They had been jailed on charges of ‘spying for the French.’ The Rev. L Hong Thanh of Thanh-Hoa Province was arrested in July 1952. He was suspended by his wrists for 30 minutes while police tried to get him to admit spying. When he refused he was trussed up, thrown on a bunk and beaten. Police forced water into his mouth and nose."

The Viet Minh captured 11,721 men at Dien Bien Phu. The Red Cross looked after the badly wounded but 10,863 were held as prisoners. Only 3,290 were ever repatriated. There is no record as to what happened to the Indochinese who helped the French at Dien Bien Phu.

Horror and Irrationality of North Vietnam's Land Reform

The Asian Pacific Post reported: In "a little-known political campaign known by the innocuous-sounding name of "land reform"...hundreds of thousands of people accused of being landlords were summarily executed or tortured and starved in prison. The land reform was a massacre of innocent, honest people, and using contemporary terms we must say that it was a genocide triggered by class discrimination. More than 172,000 people died during the North Vietnam campaign after being classified as landowners and wealthy farmers, official records of the time show. Former Hanoi government official Nguyen Minh Can, who was part of the campaign to change direction following the terror, said it amounted to "genocide." "The land reform was a massacre of innocent, honest people, and using contemporary terms we must say that it was a genocide triggered by class discrimination," he told Radio Free Asia’s Vietnamese service. [Source: Asian Pacific Post, July 5, 2006 >>]

"Suddenly they implemented a land reform by sending groups of officials to the countryside, and giving them the freedom to classify and accuse people as landowners at will. An additional number of 172,000 people became victims," he said. "I am talking about the number of wrongly tried victims that were seriously depressed and furious to the extent that they had to commit suicide. This number was in fact not small. In my opinion this consequence was very serious. It has given a terrible fright to the people," Can added. But official figures leave out summary executions of those accused of membership of the National People’s Party, however. Unofficial estimates of those killed by Ho Chi Minh’s Vietnam Labor Party, which later become the Vietnamese Communist Party, range from 200,000 to 900,000. >>

"The History of the Vietnamese Economy, Vol. 2, edited by Dang Phong of the Institute of Economy, Vietnamese Institute of Social Sciences, and published in 2005 describes eight phases of mass mobilizing and five phases of land reform launched in 3,314 communes with a total population of 10 million. It says 700,000 hectares were confiscated from landowners and distributed to about 4 million farmers: a total of 44.6 percent of total cultivated land. It says 71.66 percent of victims were wrongly classified. "But at that time, the frenzy seemed to become uncontrollable in the countryside…and too many leftist measures were implemented." >>

"Vu Thu Hien, a self-described idealistic youth at the time, said he later tried to find out the political rationale behind the land reform campaign but failed. "After a thorough study and investigation we found something wrong. It was the fact that the land reform had not been a real one because if it had been a real one, there would have been a survey of the people’s cultivated lands in advance. "I still remember that at that time I could not read any official survey of the situation of cultivated lands in Vietnam at all," he told RFA. "This meant that the communists did not actually need a real land reform, that is, they did not want to re-distribute the lands in reasonable and legitimate ways. Instead they wanted a form of political struggle." >>

"Others who lived through that time described arbitrary methods of classification, such as "multiplication," which was used to arrive at abstract numbers of landlords for a given area, regardless of whether the families concerned met the criteria. Apart from a hasty correctional campaign organized by the Communist Party in the late 1950s, which referred to the land reforms as "horrible," little is now said or written on this period of intensive mass killing in Vietnam’s history, according to former Party official Can. >>

Eyewitness Accounts of the Horrors of Vietnam's Land Reform

The Asian Pacific Post reported: "In the political rhetoric of the time, the victims were "dug to the core and destroyed to the root," as enemies of the people. Some were committed communists, who cried out "Long Live the Communist Party" before being killed. Writer Tran Manh Hao witnessed the land reforms, which prompted the evacuation of most of his family to South Vietnam. "I saw the extreme horror, and I wondered what kind of regime this was, that had no other method than to repress and annihilate people," he said. "It took them to 'people’s courts' and shot them on the scene without a fair trial and even without any evidence." "The land reform campaign was a crime of genocide like that of Pol Pot," Hao said. >> [Source: Asian Pacific Post, July 5, 2006 >>]

"And another writer, Duong Thu Huong, recalls seeing bodies as a child of eight when he went out to water vegetables. "Right in front of my house was a hanged man in the year of the land reform. When I was eight years old, I had to accompany the students to public locations where landowners were dishonored and tortured," he said. "In the back of my house lay another dead man who had been wrongly classified as a landowner. He cut his own throat by laying it on the railway track. At my age of eight when I went to water the vegetables, I witnessed such tragic deaths with my own eyes. They greatly horrified and scared me," he said. >>

"Tran Kim Anh’s father, uncle, and grandfather were all staunch supporters of the revolution in the northern province of Thai Binh. They belonged to the National People’s Party, which became a designated enemy organization during the land reform period. "My father was determined to deny his being a member of the National People’s Party. He was then tortured by having his two toes tied by two ropes that hung him to the ceiling. The ropes were pulled up. This hurt him badly, so he cried hard and asked them to pull down the ropes. Down he was pulled. However, he still cried wildly due to his great pain. They then stuffed cloth into his mouth," Anh said. Later, he took food and water for his father and grandfather. >>

"I used a makeshift scoop made of a coconut crust hung by two wires to give some drinking water to my father. A soldier spilled half of the water. Then he urinated into it and shouted: "We give this shit for you to drink so that you will open your eyes, and get rid of ideas of exploiting and bullying the people." The official history of the time characterized the period from 1952-56 as having committed serious leftist errors, as the number of wrongly classified landowners was "too high." >>

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Vietnamtourism. com, Vietnam National Administration of Tourism. CIA World Factbook, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Global Viewpoint (Christian Science Monitor), Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, Fox News and various websites, books and other publications identified in the text.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated May 2014

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