THE "FANATICS" STAND FIRM
With one defector after another cataloguing the Front's mounting difficulties, interview transcripts for 1967 make
grim reading. In their shared misery, cadres and peasants always seem to be either quarreling or eyeing each other with sullen mistrust, and the NLF as a whole appears helpless to resolve the massive problems created by U. S. escalation. But in reading further, we become aware of underlying trends which create a somewhat different, less gloomy impression. The situation is indeed very desperate, but the futility of the NLF is more apparent than real. Beyond the panic and disillusionment of many cadres, we begin to perceive that the organization as a whole maintains a certain cohesion. Badly disrupted, its basic method of operation remains intact in spite of the numerous obstacles thrown up by the war.
The disputes between peasants and cadres during this period have a very distinctive tone. Here is a typical example, a tax collector arguing with one of his neighbors.
I, myself, cannot keep body and soul together and do not know what to tell you about the taxation. My job is to force you to pay-, however, I know perfectly that your income is low, while the taxation is too high. I have to do what I am told and I assure you it is not because I want to do so for my own prestige, I am also a taxpayer like you, Therefore, I hope you understand the position I am in.
Unmollified, the peasant 'grilled" his interlocutor. 'You're a native of the village," he answered, "you are also a farmer, and consequently, you know perfectly well about the crop this year. Do you think that the people can get enough money to pay such taxes ?"
When faced with such questions, the tax collector was at a loss and didn't know how to reply, but begged for the villagers' sympathy, "Please, try to understand my position and try to pay your taxes to feed the fighters in order to help them fight harder for an earlier victory."
Escalation has turned this relationship upside-down, with
the official now in the role of suppliant, while the villager adopts an obdurate, interrogating stance. The cadre is long past the point of threatening or browbeating delinquent taxpayers. Economic problems in the village are so manifest that he cannot plausibly attribute the peasant's stubbornness to ill will or bad politics, All he can do is to plead humbly for sympathy and cooperation. On the other side, the villager voices his criticisms freely. He is deeply exasperated with the NLF, but he does not seem to fear it as he would an arbitrary or dictatorial government bent on using brute force to win compliance with its wishes.
An unmistakable complicity, based on the shared experience of living in the same hamlet and working the same land, binds these two people together. The cadre gets a hearing because he is "also a taxpayer," a "native of the village, a man like his neighbors and not someone with a special stake in his own "prestige." At the same time, his willingness to persist with his assignment serves in some way to make a political point. Tempted to present himself as a low-level official who has to "do what he is told," he nonetheless manages in the end to steer the discussion back to the main point: that taxes must be paid, 'to feed the fighters in order to help them fight harder for an earlier victory.' For his part, the peasant does not turn his back on this importuning official. Indignant, even bitter, he is, almost in spite of himself, drawn into the debate. Molded by the give-and-take of many past study sessions, he somehow cannot find it within himself to refuse to discuss even this latest, apparently unconscionable demand.
If peasants simply refused to pay, we can assume that the tax collector returned soon afterward to broach the matter once again. The interviews present us with a picture of local cadres who in 1967 often did not get anyone to follow instructions, or even to respond to their appeals save with hostile silence or bitter invective. But in spite of setbacks, most cadres did not give up their work of persuasion, With an almost pedantic stubbornness, they clung to practices which from the beginning had given the Front its distinctive political character. For example, though it was by this time apparent that refugees were not going to return to their
villages until bombing and shelling ceased, many interviews indicate that local Front representatives continued to talk whenever possible with the transplanted peasants, "Every day I came to these seven empty houses," remembered one respondent, 'to wait for the house owners who might return for gathering crops or wood, I would talk to them, urging them to come back and relay the message to other refugees."
Whatever else happened, the face-to-face aspect of Front procedure was maintained. In the difficult circumstances of 1967, several cadres were reprimanded for their reliance on written instructions. When meetings were dangerous, and discussion usually unproductive, local cadres may have been tempted simply to circulate memos or to publicize orders on a poster in the center of the village. But such practices were quickly criticized, In a society where many were illiterate and others read only with the greatest difficulty, written orders were almost by definition an authoritarian device, since few of the villagers were comfortable 11 enough with reading to be fully persuaded by arguments presented in written form. Cadres were to continue with the old method, and to bring personally to each peasant the requests of the NLF.
"The higher authorities have always encouraged the village cadres to be patient, to stay close to the people, to get them to attend meetings," remembered one defector. Cadres should never "detach themselves from the people," another explained, because in that case, they would "no longer understand the people's problems. Being unacquainted with their problems, the cadres failed in persuading them and consequently, had to resort to out and out orders to carry out their assignments." As we read the transcripts, we see that these down-to-earth instructions mean just what they say, the admonitions are intended to be taken literally - good cadres do not detach themselves from the people, they stay close in an immediate, physical way, Maintaining this closeness was important because the task of explaining, of asking for criticism and attempting to promote discussion, was the essence of the Front's method, even when audiences were small and the response negative. "The Front cadres didn't mind how much time they had to
spend on indoctrinating someone," stated a female defector, and they would do it until the person became self-enlightened." By persisting with this commitment, even when peasants seemed unresponsive, the NLF was in effect saying to people that it was sure its line was right, it knew peasants could not be forced to fight a guerrilla war, but in the meantime it had confidence in the villagers' ability, sooner or later, to analyze the situation, to become 'selfenlightened, " and to respond to the appeals which were so methodically being repeated, The Front was demonstrating its permanence, not just in an impersonal, bureaucratic sense, but also in terms of its loyalty to a particular style of political activity in which a large role would always be reserved for "the people's will."
To back up this commitment, the NLF gradually modified its ambitious draft and tax policies, which had been established in the 1964-1965 period. Since the insurgents necessarily relied on villagers for money, rice and labor power, compromise was possible only within limits, but the transcripts do show unmistakeably that the Front responded to U. S, escalation in part by easing the burden on its beleaguered rural constituency. For example, with American troops pouring into Vietnam by the tens of thousands, cadres in My Tho phased out the NLF draft program - an astonishing step for a political movement to take in the midst of a war which was calling into question its very existence. Recruiters were told that they had to rely entirely on persuasion, and to be content with volunteers, and, as a result, in some villages there were no new recruits at all in 1966 and 1967. (18)
The tax system was also modified, by permitting villagers to pay in installments, to claim more deductions, and by allowing them to bargain individually and collectively with assessors. Here is a POW's report on NLF tax collecting on one district:
This year the Front intends to collect 1,800,000 piasters in taxes, but as of May (1966) it has succeeded in collecting only 700,000 piasters, My guess is that the most the Front could collect this
year is 800,000 piasters because during many heated meetings the cadres had had to either reduce the amount of taxes for many villagers or exempt many of the villagers from tax payment. This year, the villagers have had to attend six indoctrination sessions so far, The Front only started collecting taxes after the people understood this problem and no longer had any questions in mind.
Thus, at a time when the United States was raising annual expenditure on the war up to the $30 billion level, the Front grudgingly consented to decreases in its own tax revenues.
The NLF did not discontinue compulsory military service and lower taxes because it suddenly realized in some abstract way that such compromises were morally appropriate. All accounts make clear that cadres implacably pushed the peasants very hard, and that "many heated meetings 11 were needed to force reductions in their demands. In any case, the peasants' obligations were still painfully high, even with Front concessions taken into account. Nonetheless, modest as they were, these steps required great political courage. Cadres knew perfectly well that the Front armies were suffering high casualties and critical shortages of basic supplies. For months, they had toid peasants that enlisting in the army and paying big tax bills were vital to the survival of the resistance. The temptation must have been very strong to cling to a hard line and hope for the best, especially since the concessions demanded by the villagers threatened to compromise the Front's military position at a time when U. S, escalation showed no signs of slowing down. The Front accepted these dangers and modified draft and tax policies because it saw that the greatest of all pitfalls was the irrevocable loss of popular support. Faced with an agonizing choice, NLF leaders had the clarity and the conviction to hold on to a central insight - the war could not be carried on long in the face of concerted opposition from the peasants.
Much more was involved here than some glib or abstract notion of "winning popular support." In 1967 more than ever before, the Front's ability to keep in touch with its own
constituency depended on the steadiness and humanity of its local officials, Cadres had to maintain a delicate position : to require contributions from the peasants which were generous enough to keep the NLF alive, but not so great that they drove people over the edge into outright opposition, We have seen examples of cadres who could not cope with this complex political situation. Unused to the lack of responsiveness they found among the villagers, and convinced that their future and the future of the NLF were at stake, such officials "screamed at" the peasants when the latter refused to cooperate, 'they behaved exactly like the mandarins." This loss of self-control only made matters worse in that it "isolated them further from the people." Others became convinced that the Front was being defeated. Their perfunctory appeals were ignored by the villagers, and a number of them defected to the other side.
What sustained the NLF was the inner strength and moral authority of those cadres who persisted with their old routines, making the rounds to " motivate the people" in spite of all the obstacles they encountered. These officials stayed close to the peasants though the latter no longer held them in awe and did not respond enthusiastically to their appeals. They remained loyal to a mode of operation based on persuasion when lack of response made this method appear ineffectual and even foolish. Refusing to be provoked when peasants boldly declined to consider their requests, they patiently continued to present the point of view of the NLF. Most of all, they maintained a sense of confidence during the bad times in 1967 after the Front had lost considerable ground and bad been forced to change tax and draft policies which it once had uncompromisingly insisted were vital to its own survival. While some peasants jumped to the conclusion that the movement was falling apart, they continued to affirm that in spite of everything the NLF would win in the end. The Front owed everything to these cadres who did not panic, even when the resistance endeavor seemed to be collapsing all around them.
The ability of many cadres "to stay close to the people" saved the NLF. The Front had staked everything on its assertion that the people of the countryside had no choice but armed resistance. At the same time, its leaders knew that
all peasants in every hamlet were not likely to recognize and act on this conclusion at the same time. For each villager, the war was an ebb and flow, an endless series of inconveniences, of regular brushes with disaster, and, sooner or later, of stunning personal tragedy, Peasants who were exasperated by frequent labor details and bitter over high taxes would suddenly be shocked into a rage by the death of a loved one or the loss of their crops, Cadres had to be close by throughout this process, to bear with the irritation and the criticism so that when the moment came, when peasants were ready to fight back, there would be a way for them to make contact with the NLF.
The transcripts contain several illustrations of this "repression-resistance spiral." (19) A woman POW remembered that
it was difficult to wage face-to-face struggles. The people were afraid and they did not want to go on demonstrations. But in the last months before I was arrested, the people sustained excessive damage and this stirred them up to such an extent that they couldn't care less about being arrested. Back then, they wanted to meet with the District Chief to ask him to stop shelling their village. Many villagers wept profusely when they saw their harvests wiped out. In June, July and August 1965, about 20 hectares of paddy were damaged.
The Saigon regime itself often inadvertently pushed villagers into the ranks of the NLF, "Many times, the GVN soldiers arrested, jailed and beat up innocent people whom they accused of being VC," noted a respondent.
So the innocent people who had been arrested and beaten up all said: "We're not VC, and yet we have been arrested and accused of being VC. It would be better, then, for us to become VC." The VC took advantage of the situation to make propaganda. They told the men that whether they worked for the revolution or not, they would be arrested, jailed
and beaten up by the enemy, and that, therefore, they had better join the Front to help fight against the enemy.
The parents of another interviewee had been killed by GVN artillery. A cadre said to him - "Why don't you do something to avenge your parents' death ? You have to do something, you will be killed anyway even if you do nothing against the GVN." The Front could not force people to accept this perception. Its cadres were schooled to be patient, to hold out the option of resistance until the war itself persuaded peasants that they had no choice but to join the NLF.
When the Front was forced out of an area, the GVN might be tempted to rebuild its own local presence, But as soon as thebalance of forces tipped in its favor, the people would be exposed to the full weight of Saigon dictatorship, Peasants who had been complaining about NLF taxes and labor duties were then face to face with a qualitatively different kind of political authority. In 1967, when the Front seemed weaker than ever before, the rigorous logic of this'orepression-resistance spiral" kept the movement alive. For example, one respondent described "the recent enlistment movement of the youths" which took place in that year.
During previous years, that is, in 1963, 1964 and 1965, volunteers for the Front's armed forces were very scarce. There were, at most, about ten volunteers every year. In 1966, despite tremendous mobilizing efforts, none of the youths agreed to join the Front. But this year, while the Front had stopped waging propaganda in favor of its conscription policy, the youths took the initiative on their own to volunteer. This was the consequence of the ill-treatment they had received from the ARVN soldiers. Among the volunteers, there were those who were fathers of two or three children.
"The recent enlistment movement of the youths" was not an entirely spontaneous development. Much apparently unf ruitful work had created a political climate in which angry young people were able to join the Front. We should not overlook the many study sessions of 1963-1965 when re-
cruits "were very scarce," or the campaigns of 1966 when, 'despite tremendous mobilizing efforts, none of the youths agreed to join the Front."
The repression-resistance spiral benefitted the NLF because its organizational core outlasted U. S. escalation. Bombing and shelling demolished schools and hospitals and broke up the popular associations. It drove people out of the countryside, killed many villagers and coerced others into defecting to the GVN. But with a nucleus of dedicated cadres standing firm, two key institutions managed to hold together, the Party and the armed forces. Communist organization not only endured, in some respects it became even more rigorous and painstaking in its operations. For example, one POW noted that in spite of mounting recruitment difficulties, the Party was tightening procedures for inducting new members, "The reason is that careless admission of people to the Party will cause much harm to the Party itself," he explained, 'especially when the war is getting more and more atrocious, Party members without character and conviction can't put up with hardships and may surrender to the enemy easily." At the same time, the regime of stringent criticism among local cadres was toned down. A defector observed that
When the village didn't obtain the desired results, the district sent a cadre down to criticizethe Party Secretary, then the Party Secretary criticized all the Party members in the village. But now, there was less emphasis on criticism and more emphasis on indoctrination. Starting in the middle of 1966 the cadres were indoctrinated more than before to consolidate their morale, In order to do so, we were told about the situation in the region and about the victories won by the Front all over the country -the victories won in the Center, in the region and in the various villages in the province and so on.
Every precaution was taken to preserve local personnel. As a POW put it in late 1967, 'If the war gets more and more atrocious, the Party will go underground even in 'lib-
erated areas' in order to safeguard its members. Party members are a precious capital for the Party." The survival of this "precious capital" cannot be overstressed. So long as there were villagers still anxious to fight, the Party provided them with a framework within which to carry on the struggle.
To the cadres who stuck with the Front, the situation in 1967 looked like this. Imagine a village in which a few peasants and cadres continued to cling to their homes and orchards, and to carry on as best they could the activities of the NLF. Around them, in concentric circles, were the refugees. The first group was scattered across the ricefields living in makeshift huts. Others clustered in temporary dwellings along nearby highways and canals, in new life hamlets, or next to GVN military posts in the area. In the outer circle, refugees in district towns, My Tho and Saigon tried to adjust to urban life.
A few of the refugees had given up hope of returning home and were resolved to make the best of their new lives. But most of the displaced people still thought of the village, tried to visit as often as possible, and looked forward to the day when circumstances would allow them to go back to their native places. Some refugees "buried their belongings or entrusted them to their acquaintances" before setting out. Many times, a family would leave one member behind to watch over the land. Others might be content to send a representative back periodically "in order to gather wood, fruit, or to catch fish." Still others, gone for months, reappeared during the "farming season" to lay down a new crop, or at the Tet holiday to visit with relatives and old friends. "Living integrated with the enemy" facilitated this process. The refugee could find relative security in a new life hamlet or even in a district toWn which need not be more than a few miles from home, The departure was traumatic for many, but in terms of physical space, they were in a position to return quickly to their homes if circumstances permitted.
The attention of these refugees was drawn to the small group which continued to occupy the original village site. To some observers, these survivors seemed pitiful indeed. A defector noted that:
At present, houses are all dismantled, weeds grow everywhere, the inhabitants are living an unstable life hiding themselves in ricefields all day long. They are unable to work to earn their living. Their jobs have become more difficult, also, they could be killed or wounded by mines and booby-traps which are planted throughout the village, Almost all the people have left the village and those who remain are poverty-stricken beyond your imagination.
The impressions of another defector were equally bleak.
Those who stayed in the liberated areas - either because of family reasons, or because they couldn't earn their living elsewhere, or because they were fanatic Front followers - are now living like a people who have lost their spirits" -they are frightened and haggard ~ they live in hiding to avoid bombing and shelling, and then when there is no bombing and shelling they have to slave to earn enough to live from day to day. I didn't expect to find the situation so different after living four years away from home and from the people. My family reached the bottom of poverty and the liberated areas were in ruins and deserted-there were only a few people left. They were scattered in the village, and lived in shelters, and their ricefields and orchards were destroyed.
Other accounts convey a similar impression : a handful of "fanatic" NLF cadres and their relatives, a few poor peasants clinging to their lands, a remnant of the thriving communities in which the Front had taken root only a few years before.
Those who stayed were not shell-shocked peasants who did not know any better. The men and women who had entrenched themselves in their homes were very special people. According to a defector,
There are a very small number of cadres who are still remaining in the village or in higher headquarters to carry out their activities. Perhaps it is they are high ranking cadres and they have such absolute confidence in the NLF that they have become fanatics with high morale and an everlasting endurance of hardships. They are very aggressive to carry out NLF activities, awaiting a final victory.
The Front had been weakened, but not defeated. Bombing and shelling had driven many people away from their hamlets, but with some "very aggressive" local cadres still carrying out NLF activities and "awaiting a final victory," escalation had not gained the strategic objective which it had been intended to achieve.
The Front presence in the villages was not just symbolic, In the first place, local organization, even when reduced to skeletal form, was of considerable importance to the regular armed forces of the Front. By 1967, NLF Main and Local Force battalions were finding it increasingly difficult to move around in the countryside, to find food, shelter, and support services among the peasants, But so long as some sort of village organization remained, these units were able to function in the classic guerrilla manner, without being compelled to undertake a strategy of complete self-sufficiency and independence from the civilian population. By enabling these regular units to stay in touch with the peasants, even in a marginal way, local cadres helped to keep alive their potential striking power -as the Tet Offensive of the next year was to demonstrate.
The tenacity of cadres and backbone elements was important in another respect as well. Bombing and shelling could drive away the people and disorganize the popular associations in a village. Once proud institutions enrolling hundreds of peasants were effectively redu ' ced to a handful of cadres operating more or less in a political void. But so long as this handful remained, the possibility of rebuilding the associations was still alive. As one respondent put it, "In case the hostilities calm down, it will be easy for the Front to reorganize them." US-GVN authorities could bomb
and shell for years at a time, but if they did not succeed in wiping out the core of NLF strength, they had not gained a lasting advantage over the insurgents. As soon as the bombardment stopped, the refugees, who, as we have seen, were for the most part eagerly awaiting just such an eventuality, would stream back to their villages, In that case, cadres would begin once again to build up their "infrastructure," and within a matter of time the Front would once more have the countryside fully mobilized.
If bombing and shelling had completely emptied a significant number of villages, if the hard core of NLF strength in many communities had been pulverized once and for all, the Americans would have won the war, By their persistence, these revolutionaries demonstrated that US-GVNfirepower could damage but could not break the bond between the peasants and their land. If even the "fanatics," with their "high morale and an everlasting endurance of hardships," had given up and left home, thoughts of someday returning might have died out among the refugees. The effect of such a loss of hope on morale throughout the countryside would certainly have been very damaging to the cohesion of Vietnamese society. By standing fast, cadres and peasants kept alive, both for themselves and for the refugees who had departed, the reality of a community living in the midst of its own orchards and fields.