David Hunt,Villagers at War: The National Liberation Front In My Tho Province, 1965-1967.
Originally published as a special issue of Radical America, January-April, 1974, Volume 8, Number 1-2.
Introduction: A Local Study of the NLF, pp. 3 - 5
Village Politics, pp. 5 - 20
The Mechanics of a Protracted War, pp. 20 - 37
Bombardment of the Countryside, pp. 37 - 45
"Generating" Refugees, pp. 45 57
Postponement of the "General Insurrection and Offensive", pp. 58 70
"Rooting Out the Viet Cong Infrastructure", pp. 70 84
"Who Will We Work With, Who Will We Live With"?, pp. 85 94
The "Fanatics" Stand Firm, pp. 94 107
A Vanguard of Poor Peasants, pp. 107 131
The Force of Hatred, pp. 131 139
Women "Without Caution and Care", pp. 139 154
Epilogue: From Tet Offensive To "Rice War", pp. 154 160
RAND and the NLF, pp. 161 171
Footnotes, pp. 171 181
Chronology of Vietnam War, pp. 182 184
Among American opponents of the Vietnam war, there has been a tendency over the past decade to see the Vietnamese people in terms of misleading images. Until the Tet Offensive of 1968, and to some extent after that time, the predominant image was that of a long-suffering people being inexorably pounded into submission by an all-powerful American war machine. After Tet, a sharply different image partially replaced the first one. In the new view, the National Liberation Front consisted of resistance fighters of super-human proportions, enjoying the unwavering support of the people and all but impervious to the effects of American technological warfare.
Both of these images were powerful ones, and in their different ways they helped to give the anti-war protest a continuing impetus over the years. But they were very far from an adequate view of the war. As David Hunt's intensive study of the resistance in one Mekong Delta
province shows, the NLF cadres were neither passive victims of U.S. imperialism nor invincible heroes moving blithely from one victory to the next. They were people with human problems, and some of them defected from the NLF along the way -but they managed to adapt to American terror bombing in a way that minimized physical and political damage and kept the prospect of ultimate victory very much alive.
Naturally the ideological response of American policymakers to the unexpectedly strong resistance they encountered in Vietnam was a racist one. That the Vietnamese persevered after years of mass killings by U. S. forces was explained by the extraordinarily hypocritical notion that "Asians value life cheaply." The anti-war movement has rightly seen and attacked the government's efforts to use this kind of racism as a means of making the war seem acceptable to the American people. At the same time, opponents of the war, who have had no stake in the preservation of stereotyped views of the Vietnamese, have often succumbed to them. Neither pity nor romanticization is a response that allows for a genuine sense of solidarity. It is in the belief that a close look at the Vietnamese resistance will provide a better basis for such solidarity that we are devoting this issue to David Hunt's article.
Our next issue will include several other articles - studies of the GI and anti-war movements, a critical essay on Frances Fitzgerald's Fire In the Lake, and a fuller editorial statement -that were originally planned for this issue but had to be postponed for reasons of space.
Villagers at War:
The National Liberation Front
In My Tho Province, 1965-1967
INTRODUCTION - A LOCAL STUDY OF THE NLF
Our knowledge of a generation of war in Vietnam is strikingly uneven. On the one hand, eye-witness accounts from veterans, books and newspaper reports, Watergaterelated disclosures and the Pentagon Papers , have given us a picture of American involvement in Indochina all the way back to 1946. But at the same time, we still know very little about the other side, the Viet Minh and the National Liberation Front (NLF) of South Vietnam. This is an essay about the NLF in My Tho Province. It deals with the years 1965 to 1967 when the United States tried and failed through large-scale military action to crush the insurgents in the South.
By concentrating on this Mekong Delta Province, I hope
to show what U. S. escalation meant in a specific locale, and how Front cadres (1) resisted the ambitious American campaign to destroy the movement they had built. First, I define the village framework within which NLF and USGVN (Government of Vietnam-Saigon) forces grappled for supremacy, as well as the mode of operation shaping the insurgents' response to U. S. intensification of the war. In the second section, I describe how after 1965 Americans and their Saigon allies made bombardment of rural areas the central feature of the counter- ins urgency effort. The effects of this bombing and shelling are then analyzed, Finally, I consider why it was that cadres were able to cope with U. S, intervention.
NLF leaders have always stressed the interdependence of military and political activity within the guerrilla movement. Still, in practice these two facets of the insurgency are clearly distinguishable. There is a great deal of information available on NLF military units, on the strategy and tactics of guerrilla warfare, on problems of supply, fortification, recruitment and training of soldiers. At the same time, many of our informants are peasants who had served the Front in hamlets and villages, and their recollections provide us with a unique opportunity to observe the "civilian" side of the movement at this grassroots level. In the following pages, I am concerned with the work of local cadres who supported the war effort from their posts in the rural communities of My Tho. In other words, our subject is the political aspects of NLF resistance to U. S. intervention.
My analysis rests on material drawn from the RAND Corporation's "Viet Cong Motivation and Morale'" project, conducted in Vietnam from 1964 to 1969. Designed under Pentagon sponsorship to explore strengths and weaknesses of the NLF, the project consisted of interviews with prisoners of war and with defectors from guerrilla ranks who sought refuge in the Chieu Hoi (4'Open Arms") program of the Saigon Government. The interviews are organized by topic, one of which is : "Activities of the Viet Cong Within Dinh Tuong Province." Covering the period from 1965 to January 1968, the "DT" sequence of interviews is the only
series in the RAND project to focus on a single province. It is therefore well-suited to serve as the basis for a local study of the NLF, My discussion of events in My Tho depends almost entirely on evidence drawn from this series of interviews. (2) Readers should keep in mind the specific nature of the RAND materials. Some 85Z of the. respondents (242 out of285)_in the - "DT" sequence were defectors who had decided to leave the Front. Called "ralliers" by Saigon authorities, these witnesses offer us a necessarily biased view, rather than a random sample of opinion, on the NLF. All respondents were interviewed by Vietnamese employees of the RAND Corporation, and records of these discussions were translated and transcribed by other Vietnamese working for the Americans. In a number of ways, these staff members introduced their own anti-NLF prejudice into the data- gathering process. In a broader sense, the very organization of the project was slanted. RAND went to Vietnam because U. S. leaders knew very little about an enemy they were determined to wipe out. Rather than carrying on an independent scholarly study, its consultants and interviewers had a para-military function - they were financed by one of the belligerents in a bloody war to gather intelligence about the other. The distorting effect of these various factors must be kept in mind as we review what the RAND materials have to tell us about the NLF. Readers interested in further discussion of the transcripts as historical sources should consult the accompanying essay, 'RAND and the NLF."
Villagers interviewed by RAND seethe Vietnam war first of all in terms of its effects on their own local communities, and we must proceed from this same starting point if we hope to understand what the transcripts have to tell us. The primary residential unit in the countryside is the "settlement," a cluster of ten to twenty families. Settlements are grouped together to form a hamlet, and a number of hamlets - from four to ten or more - constitute a village. The interview materials make villages seem like big
places, with their populations of as many as ten thousand people and their several hamlets and dozens of settlements scattered far afield. A number of interviewees stated that they were unable to identify the other hamlets in the village, aside from the one in which they lived, and even neighboring settlements seemed far away to some respondents. One peasant reported that he and his neighbors seldom saw village leaders, 'because nobody wanted to go such a long distance to the Village Committee Headquarters." (3) The NLF organizes groups of villages together to form districts, six of which make up the Province of My Tho. In the interview accounts, little importance is attached to district boundaries, they are regarded simply as lines on the map, impersonal administrative divisions which do not seem to have much relation to the daily routines of the villagers. When we discuss districts, we have already moved beyond the sphere of "local" politics, as understood by most peasants.
But in looking at maps of My Tho, we are surprised to discover how small these places really are. The average village of Cai Be District is less than ten square miles in area. The District is twelve miles across on the east-west axis, fifteen to twenty miles from north to south. Its approximately 138,000 inhabitants live in an area of about 200 square miles. Respondents often speak of liberated and GVN-controlled zones as if they were separate states, and defectors will say that they are "out here" in a Chieu Hoi Center, while their former homes are 'in there" where the NLF still governs. And yet "out here" and 'in there" may be separated by only an hour's walk. According to a respondent, the Front's position in Cai Lay District was most favorable in Thanh Hoa Village, which turns out to be the one community in the area closest to the District Town, a GVN center of operations. Along the same lines, the Front strongholds of Nhi Binh, Long Dinh and Tam Hiep Villages in Chau Thanh District are only five to ten miles from the Province Capital City of My Tho, and My Tho is one of the most important of Saigon's power centers in the whole Mekong Delta region.
The interview respondents take these distances so seriously because they live in a milieu where roads are poor,
mechanical means of transport rare, mass media and literacy only moderately developed. Almost all communication must be done in person, and except for motorized sampans, travel is by foot. A district headquarters ten miles away therefore is very far away. For the peasant who has grown up in this kind of world and absorbed its particular consciousness of space, attachment to a native place will naturally be strong. Not surprisingly, hamlet and village seem to be the arenas in which interview respondents feel at home and where they are able to function most effectively.
Building a resistance movement in the countryside had to be done within these self -absorbed communities. The people only believed their own eyes and ears," noted a respondent.
They believed what the other people of the village said. There is a great difference in the level of understanding of the villagers. Some could make sound judgments while others couldn't. The majority of them were laborers with a low level of understanding, and only a few had a relatively good education. It is easy to read a newspaper, but it is difficult to understand what the articles say, It always takes me a few hours to read a newspaper, because after reading an article I spend a lot of time pondering what has been said.
Outsiders would have a hard time winning the confidence of cautious peasants. "Only natives of the village understand everything that was going on in the area," observed a respondent, "and they were the only ones who were trusted by the people." Taking into consideration this fierce peasant localism, we can appreciate the importance of the hamlet cadres within the NLF. These activists called meetings, collected taxes, conducted recruitment drives, and supervised the police apparatus in the community. If the Front gained sufficient local strength, popular associations for farmers, women and the youth would be organized, with hamlet cadres serving as leaders. According to the testimony of many respondents, these officials were almost always natives of the hamlets in which they worked.
The duties of village cadres were more complex. Each of the hamlet Women's Associations was responsible to a single Women's Association Executive Committee at village level, and the hamlet officials were closely supervised by the members of this Committee. Similar Executive Committees presided over the hamlet branches of the Farmer's and Liberation Youth's Associations. The Front's village organization also included a variety of specialized branches or sections, for propaganda, finance, military support services, security, and so on. Like their colleagues in the Executive Committees of the popular associations, the members of these sections watched over the implementation of policy at hamlet level. Finally the Village Committee, headed by the Village Secretary, was responsible for coordinating the whole local operation.
District officials exercised jurisdiction over relatively large areas which included anywhere from fifteen to thirty villages and in some cases more than one hundred thousand people. Cadres assigned to this level travelled frequently within their areas and received regular reports from below on the people's 'state of mind." But in general they worked at one remove from local affairs. The district office was the lowest echelon with its own clerical staff of clerks and typists. Its cadres attempted to compare the activities of village officials, so that strong and weak points could be brought to the attention of local committees. For the benefit of village and hamlet personnel, the district also defined policy, organized study sessions to deal with specific problems, and provided training for service in specialized branches. In frequent contact with province officials, district cadres were strategically placed mediators whose activity assured that national programs would be understood and carried out at the local level.
District representatives tried not to linger in any one village. Concerned with general policy, their principal mission was to promote local initiative within the guidelines sent down from above. As one respondent explained,
The directives from the district never stated in detail the method which the village had to follow to carry out some tasks. The directives only stressed
the importance of the tasks, and demanded that they be carried out effectively. The village cadres had to hold meetings to discuss the ways and means to carry out the tasks to satisfy the demands of the district, In special cases, when the district had to furnish more details, it usually sent a cadre down to confer with the village cadres and helped them to carry out the task instead of stating all the details in the directives.
But while district cadres appeared in villages only on special occasions, village cadres were constantly operating in hamlets under their jurisdiction, supporting and directing hamlet officials. These village leaders were vital in the overall design of the Front, because they were the highest ranking cadres to be in daily relations with the people. Maintaining NLF strength at this echelon was always a priority. If necessary an entire hamlet administration would be stripped of personnel to fill suddenly vacated slots at village level, and from the other direction district cadres were sent down to villages in trouble when it appeared that officials on the scene were not equal to their assignments.
Administrative charts never tell us much about the functioning of an organization like the NLF. The content of its programs, and not the complexity of its bureaucratic structure, determined what results the Front would achieve. Still, from the purely bureaucratic point of view, NLF local organization is interesting because it was the focal point for such a variety of conflicting pressures. On the one hand, guerrilla war depended absolutely on the effectiveness of hamlet, village and district cadres, who collected the taxes and recruited the troops needed for the war. To perform these tasks, cadres had to be able to operate within the village context, to speak convincingly about the needs of the peasants and to sponsor programs which dealt successfully with the basic problems in their lives. But on the other hand, local cadres also bad to awaken in the villagers a sense of the national and even the international dimensions of the struggle. The revolution could not advance at a uniform pace throughout South Vietnam; a thousand autonomous village guerrilla movements would not add up to a
successful national effort. There were times when the revolutionaries needed to concentrate their efforts in a few strategic areas, while marking time in other regions. Liberated villages had to remain in a state of mobilization in order to help other, still contested areas. When after 1965 many villages were being severely mauled by American military assaults, the Front had to persuade villagers that the sacrifices they were making were balanced by gains in other regions, and that the NLF's position in global terms was improving, even while it suffered serious losses in many locales.
Peasants long accustomed to believing only *their own eyes and ears" were often reluctant to follow this kind of reasoning. In a May 1967 reorientation session, one cadre objected when a district representative presented a favorable survey of war developments. "You said that we defeated the enemy in the dry season," he argued; 'why were we defeated by the enemy in (my village:) ? " The instructor replied that "the battles we won were big and the battles in which we were defeated were small ones; therefore we had to look for and understand so that we could distinguish the common affairs from the important ones." But the questioner remained unconvinced, With his *own eyes," he had witnessed a local battle in which ten guerrillas and five civilians had been killed. Besides, his village had been attacked 'again and again" by aircraft, many villagers had been killed, and living conditions were bad. "Maybe the Front was winning the war in some other places," he concluded, "but not in my village."
Even events very close to home could be misconstrued. The battle at Ap Bac in January 1963 was one of the NLF's most dramatic and widely reported victories. Several American correspondents were caught in the crossfire, and their dispatches carried descriptions of the event over thousands of miles to readers in the United States. Ap Bac is a hamlet in Nhi Binh Village, in the middle of My Tho, not more than a few miles from even the most remote corner of the Province. But one defector nonetheless affirmed that the famous Front victory had really been a disastrous defeat, in which the NLF suffered 120 casualties. His "wife's sister," a native of Nhi Binh, had told him so. (4)
Confronted with this village provincialism, cadres always endeavored to place their own activities in a broader context. One defector recalled that, "As a rule, before introducing the new policy to De people], the village secretary always spoke of the international and home political situation so as to make the villagers become more enthusiastic about paying taxes to help the Front to feed the soldiers and to buy armaments." In these briefings, as they are paraphrased by respondents, Front cadres described military developments in the various parts of South Vietnam and in the other countries of Indochina. They reviewed the troubled state of relations between the United States and its European allies, as well as the situation in satellite countries like South Korea, Thailand, and the Philippines. Much stress was placed on the U. S. anti-war movement and on the support of other Third World countries, especially those whose recent history provided encouraging precedent for the Vietnamese resistance. Here is a typical briefing from the 1967 period.
... Despite their seemingly overwhelming strength, the Americans remain weak in many respects. One of their main weaknesses lies in the ever growing international movement for self-determination in many countries, Taking Cuba and Korea as examples, the instructor showed us that the Americans had failed to vanquish these countries. He stressed the American failure in Cuba, stating that despite their forces, the Americans had been forced to respect the Cuba people's self-determination even though Cuba is quite near American territory. The instructor also stressed the 'Antiwar Movement" which is now spreading throughout the United States, We were told that all the American students tore up their draft cards to manifest their resentment toward the U, S. Government and refused to fight in Vietnam.
Building NLF strength at the "grassroots" level was not and could not be done without struggling against peasant localism, Repeated discussion of events outside the village
was designed to ease the strain on a local organization which was asked to win the trust of wary villagers suspicious of outsiders, and at the same time to carry out directives received from far away.
Village relations with the outside world were also important because the NLF had to recruit substantial numbers of peasants to serve in the district, province, region and national offices of the Front, and to persuade thousands of others to join Main and Local Force units where they would fight far from their own settlements. One of the strengths 1 of the NLF organization was that poor peasants could easily i rise through its ranks. In the rigid, semi-feudal society of the countryside, this meritocratic practice had a liberating impact, and many a villager soon outgrew feelings of homesickness when presented with the opportunity to develop skills and potentials in a milieu which seemed more open and exciting than the typical hamlet or village. "I liked to move around," affirmed a defector. "I knew I might get killed if I kept fooling around with weapons. But each day I remained alive meant that my knowledge was furthered by what I saw on that day." Keeping open channels of advancement was a vital necessity not only because large numbers of people bad to be found to perform essential tasks in the
higher echelons, but also because hope for promotion was a significant factor in maintaining the morale of local cadres, "I wasn't struggling and making sacrifices to stay forever in the village," stated an ambitious defector, from a village where these channels were temporarily blocked:
If this practice was maintained, all the efforts, labor, and sacrifices of the village cadres would come to nothing and wouldn't lead them anywhere. What would be the point of continuing the struggle then ? Most of the village cadres were disappointed and discouraged, and neglected their work. They used to say during party meetings : "No matter how zealous we are in our tasks, when we die there will only be a few joss sticks on our tombs, and the commemorative ceremony will last for a few minutes."
For this cadre and others like him, service in the Front was valued precisely because it provided access to the world outside the narrow boundaries of the village. (5)
At the same time, there were peasants who found it difficult to leave behind the reassuringly familiar contours of the native hamlet. We glibly speak of village personnel as 'local" officials, but from the perspective of an inexperienced hamlet cadre, the village, with its thousands of inhabitants, its religious and ethnic minorities, its economic and political ties with neighboring communities, presented an intimidating challenge. Stepping up to district level involved an even more drastic adjustment. Here, for example, are the reflections of one modest defector
[The cadre] promised me that if I tried to do my best to carry out Front work, I would receive the honor to lead and to serve the people according to my capacity. Because of this encouragement I worked very hard. After I came back from the training course for cadres of the Youth Group Chapter, I worked even harder than before. But when I was called up to the district, I lost all my
enthusiasm. I only wanted to work in my hamlet or village, near my family, and I never wanted to go away. I had a wife, a child, and my parents to take care of. I thought it was about right for me to work in the Youth Group Chapter of the village, because it suited my capacity and I could stay near my family. However, if I had to serve in a higher position, it would be beyond my capacity, I did not even have the capacity to serve as a Party cell leader and I had to go away from my family.
NLF local organization had to perform a complex task in this area as well as in others. For every 'buffalo" trying to "wear down his horns," there were others who quickly arrived at a level which seemed 'about right," and who were very reluctant to go any further from home. Relying on mass participation, the Front had to push people out of their accustomed slots in society, but without completely uprooting them. It had to satisfy both the peasants who liked to "move around," and those who "never wanted to go away" from their native hamlet.
NLF success in dealing with these and other problems and in building a local base is massively documented by the interview transcripts. At first glance, it appears that NLF and GVN forces are fighting more or less on equal terms all over the countryside, but as we read on, we begin to see that the two antagonists in fact have very different kinds of relations with the villages of My Tho. It would be misleading to say that one side is more effective in the villages than the other. The Front has a local organization, from district down to hamlet, and the GVN does not.
Take, for example, the observation of one respondent who noted that, "The Front's maps are made by the Front, and are not like the maps out here (in the GVN area:). They show every creek, trail and path going through the orchards." Another villager commented
The maps (the Front) used are printed with colours somewhat like the maps used by the ARVN. But they bear no foreign words. Everything was
written in Vietnamese. The place names were also those used by the people, and it was easier to spot the various locations on them.
Although both sides are grappling for supremacy in the countryside, the maps tell us that the Front operates from within the rural community. Its cartographers know the names of 'every creek, trail and path going through the orchards," and they employ the terminology "used by the people" themselves. By contrast, GVN officials chart these battlefields from the vantage point of outsiders, who do not even call features of the landscape by their proper names. They come to the fight as aliens, their maps covered with "foreign words".
This contrast is also apparent in interview discussions of 'control" of the countryside. According to one respondent, the goal of the Front is "tight control over the village from all points of view-economic, political, social and military." He explained that, "A village is said to be completely liberated when the GVN troops are no longer able to set foot there, when there are no shellings or bombings, and when the Front has complete control over the people," The terminology offers no problems: the NLF "controls W a village when it has achieved complete hegemony and when GVN influence in all its forms has been rigorously excluded.
By contrast, here is the situation in a village described as "controlled" by the GVN
(GVN officials) only came into the hamlets when it was convenient for them to do so, for example when the Armed Propaganda Team or the GVN troops entered the hamlets. Rural Reconstruction cadres also came into the GVN-controlled hamlets, but they only did it during the day -at night they went back to the market place. As for the VC cadres they also went into the GVN-controlled hamlets to operate, but before they came in they had to check the situation. If the cadres who operated openly told them that the situation was favor
able, then armed VC took up positions at the roads leading to the hamlet, and the cadres entered the hamlet to operate. They only stayed a short time there, however, about 20 minutes. Usually, they collected taxes, or indoctrinated the people, or recruited new cadres when they were in these hamlets.
In this village, Saigon's putative "control" has little political significance. Even here, in one of its strong areas, the GVN does not maintain a permanent political base, as does the NLF. GVN cadres "only came into the hamlets when it was convenient for them to do so," while Front cadres "who operated openly" -that is, who possess legal papers, whose NLF affiliation is secret -seem to live within the community. The situation in the village is relatively favorable to the Saigon regime in that the local Front organization cannot function above ground during the day, and Saigon 'Armed Propaganda Teams" (the idea for such teams, including the name itself, is borrowed directly from the NLF) and regular troops can move around without fear of being hit hard by guerrillas or other NLF units. But by no means does this position entail "tight control over the village from all points of view."
Beyond notions of "controlled or of "contested" areas, the Saigon authorities have no vocabulary to describe the political situation at village level. By contrast, Front cadres speak of "strong" and *weak" villages. A "strong" area is one where the local Front organizations are flourishing and where people support the NLF. A village may be &strong" in this political sense, while it is "contested" from the military point of view. On the other hand, villages where GVN military intervention is no longer a threat (which are, in one sense, "liberated") may be "weak" because the NLF - still has not mobilized a lot of popular support. The GVN; has no corresponding set of categories. In these terms, all the areas it controls are 'weak." The asymmetry of the two points of view is evident if we examine the situation in 'contested" villages. To a varying degree, the Front maintains schools, collects taxes, drafts
the youth, and organizes labor teams in contested areas; see the above passage for signs of such political activity even in so-called GVN zones. If possible, land reform measures may be put into effect, with the decision on this kind of issue often depending more on internal political considerations than on the threat of GVN intervention. As one cadre reported, "We kept the present (land) status unchanged, because my hamlet is still a contested area. Furthermore, the land distribution policy has not yet permeated the villagers' minds." In fact, as one respondent indicated, the best cadres were often sent into contested areas because,
it has been realized that if the cadres who are assigned to the contested areas are demoralized, passive, afraid of hardships and death, and are always obsessed with defeatism, they will never carry out their duties enthusiastically in order to elevate the movement in those hamlets.
Even in villages regarded by the GVN as completely "pacified," NLF cadres with "a high struggling spirit" remained behind, to carry on with campaigns of sabotage and political assassination and to maintain contact with local sympathizers. In other words, for the Front political struggle goes on everywhere, regardless of who has the upper hand militarily.
The Saigon regime functions according to exactly the opposite principle. For the GVN, a village often begins to be classified as contested only after its local cadres have been forced out. "The Saigon) hamlet chief has fled," said one respondent of his village, "and since then there have been no GVN officials in my hamlet which thereby became contested." In the interview accounts, the reader does not find GVN tax collectors and military recruiters maintaining permanent offices in the villages. Officials barricaded themselves up in nearby military outposts or even in the district capital and waited for the peasants to come to them with tax payments, while the army "drafted" youths during sweeps. As a result, the best way to describe a contested
village would be to say that it is an area in which the Front attempts to put its program into effect from the inside, while the GVN endeavors to disrupt such activities from the outside, by bombing, shelling and periodic ARVN sweeps.
In other words, NLF influence in its various forms blankets the countryside of My Tho, while GVN influence is spotted here and there in strips and pockets. The fundamentally political power of the Front is fluid and omnipresent, It exists wherever cadres can gather a few peasants together for political discussion, The fundamentally military power of the GVN is, by contrast, relatively unwieldy and inert, It exists only where cumbersome GVN armed units can make their presence felt, Saigon strength is centered in the capital city and district towns, and also in a handful of pacified villages where large contingents of troops are permanently stationed. It also is a factor around the military posts dotting the rural areas and along road and water ways on which GVN military units can move swiftly, but which are denied to the NLF because in these open spaces its fighters and cadres would be vulnerable to sudden attack.
Hemmed in though it may be, the GVN presence is still widely felt. Because the area being fought over is so small, with roads and especially canals reaching into every corner of the Province, the Front must live "integrated with the enemy." (6) We exaggerate, but perhaps in an illuminating way, if we imagine a situation in which NLF cadres would seldom be outside hearing range, or out of sight of the nearest GVN authorities. Operating within this crowded scene, cadres had to attend to the smallest details, For example, the Front threatened to 'kill right away anyone who did not comply with their orders and let their dogs bark." Why ? "The dogs would bark when Front members on mission approached and this would give away their presence to the GVN which would shell them." Shelling might also occur if a cadre moved around too freely in daylight and was spotted by a GVN artillery unit looking over from a neighboring hamlet
Given the fact that the two sides were always virtually within shouting distance of one another and that by 1967 the
Front did not, in its own terms, fully control any areas in My Tho (since the GVN was shelling villages from one end of the Province to the other), it is remarkable how isolated the Saigon authorities continued to be. When it came to political struggle, these officials might as well have been a thousand miles away. As one peasant observed, "I have only been indoctrinated by the NLF. Nobody from the GVN ever gave me any indoctrination." A defector from a contested village observed that the 'Front's people are always there, they only leave the village when the ARVN comes." Another respondent commented:
The people are still following the VC because they have been doing so for a long time. The voice of the government has never really reached them, while the cadres of the Front are always there to speak to them, to inform them of everything they want them to know.
The 'voice" of the GVN was not heard because its officials did not live with the peasants, not even in many villages controlled" by Saigon armed forces.
Here is another summary - which also shows the tactful but unmistakable way some defectors attempted to inform anti-NLF interviewers of realities which the latter did not want to acknowledge:
In my opinion, the people living in the liberated area do not understand very much, They have been only propagandized by the Front and they have not been affected by GVN propaganda. They are people who trust only what they see, and when GVN soldiers come through their hamlets, they only saw death and sadness around them, They have witnessed the civil guards seize their chickens and their belongings and therefore they thought that the GVN has been on the wrong path. The peasants only trust those who remain close to them, talk with them frequently, and help them in their everyday life, In short, whichever side is able to take care
of their security and to help them, would win their support whether it is the Front or the GVN.
According to one respondent, NLF cadres carried no identification papers, When there was a question about someone's identity, people had only to ask around the neighborhood, 'If you are a cadre, someone will know you." Front personnel moved about so easily because they were right at home in the village, As a POW recalled
In an emergency cadres could contact the (village) Secretary at any time, because it was a small area and the people knew the cadres and could tell the cadres where the Secretary was. All the cadres had to do was to ask the people if they had seen the secretary and pretty soon they could track him down. Since the people knew all the cadres, they only told them where the secretary was, if someone they knew wasn't a cadre asked them, they wouldn't tell him.
In this, and in so many other respects, the transcripts_ hammer home a basic point - Front cadres belonged to the villages in which they worked, and NLF local organization was an integral part of the social order of the countryside.