A VANGUARD OF POOR PEASANTS

American escalation rested on assumptions which seemed plausible enough. Amidst the bombing and shelling, with homes and fields in ruins and villages emptied of peasants, with the ranks of the NLF split by defections and its method of operations sabotaged in a thousand ways, surely the insurgents would lose faith in the Front and gradually give up the struggle. But the cadres did not give up. In spite of disappointments and failures, they persisted with their activities and thereby prevented the United States from winning the war. Difficult as it is to explain such intangibles, we must try to account for this stubborn determination. When the American onslaught forced them to make a cruel per-

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sonal choice, why did so many cadres resolve to keep on fighting ?

Remarks from one of the defectors help us come to grips with this question. The interviewee, a very poor peasant, was asked to describe the local cadres he used to work with:

They were all poor people in the village. They were greatly dissatisfied with the GVN administration during the 6 years of peace (1954-1960). They had met with difficulties every time they had contact with the village authorities who had always make light of them and never assisted them. That was why, when the Liberation Front rose up, they joined the Front to struggle against the village authorities.

Poverty thus partially explained the commitment of these insurgents. At the same time, their lowly background was a positive asset in the work the Front asked them to do.

These cadres had many experiences in the class struggle's political activities. Since they belonged to the poor class, they had known many hard experiences of the underprivileged rural people. So they based their political activities on the common thinking of the peasants and adopted methods suitable to the rural people's thought and situation in carrying out these activities. That explained why they enjoyed the sympathy and confidence of the peasants.

Service in the NLF remade these poor peasants, "Enticed by the Party with its proletariat doctrine," they 'acted with their proletarian spirit and not with the thought of a sentimental people. They had lost all sentiment towards their friends, parents and relatives. They only knew the Party and adopted the Communist spirit in all their activities." Within the Front, they performed feats one might not have expected of men and women from the most oppressed strata of the population:

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On the question whether (the village party committee secretary) deserved to assume this position, I may say that he was not qualified to assume such an important position. This was because he had the same low level of education as any other poor peasant. He had never learned any working methods, any laws. In spite of this, he was entrusted with the position and he succeeded in fulfilling his task because there were other members in the village Party committee who contributed their ideas and suggestions on every problem. Thanks to this close cooperation among Party committee members, who met and discussed carefully every problem, the Party secretary could satisfactorily perform his duties. Besides, his enthusiasm and positive effort in every task entrusted to him by his superiors, his devotion to the service of the Party were also reasons why he could assume the most important Party position in the village.

With his 'low level of education," and without having "learned any working methods, and laws," this peasant managed to function effectively for the Front. In "close cooperation" with likeminded cadres, carefully discussing every issue, and bound to comrades by a shared "devotion to the service of the Party," he "succeeded in fulfilling his task."

The Front was an organization primarily of the rural poor. Several witnesses indicate that the Farmers', Women's, and Youth's Associations were reserved for very poor, poor and middle peasants, and the Party gave preferential treatment to these same groups. In recruitment, a respondent explained, "emphasis is put on youth and the right class (i.e., middle farmers, poor farmers, very poor farmers, workers and the poor people in the cities)." Rich farmers and landlords were usually not admitted. The recruits themselves were aware of this situation, and indeed at times seem to have been somewhat bemused by the odd preferences of the Front, which contrasted so sharply with the traditional hierarchy of the countryside. As a defector put it,

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The Party also takes into consideration the capacity and moral behavior of the member so appointed, but his social class origin was the most important factor~ it pays most attention to poor farmers like me; the reason that I have advanced so fast is that I am a poor farmer.

In this very concrete way, the Front gambled its whole existence on a certain kind of class analysis : it would stand or fall with the poor peasants who made up the greater part of its rank and file.

The NLF appealed to peasants to rise up and fight for their rights. One defector stated

I was told by the Front cadres (before I joined) that the Front was fighting to give rights and material benefits to the poor people, and to liberate the people. I was told that the Front was fighting against the landlords and the feudalists to bring rights and material benefits to the poor class.

"You are a very poor farmer," another defector remembered being told; "therefore you have to take part in the present struggle which aims at liberating the country and safeguarding the interests of yourself and of your class." A third respondent related how a cadre

called on me and persuaded me to join the Front. He said that I was poor because, like the other poor, I had been exploited by the GVN which only defended the landowners and the capitalists and allowed them to exploit the poor, (rhe cadre) also accused the GVN of allowing its soldiers to rob the people, thus causing a lot of suffering to the villagers, He boasted that the Front, sympathizing with fhe people's hardships, couldn't help rising up to overthrow Ngo Dinh Diem in order to liberate the country. At that time, I thought that (the cadre) was right and that everything be said was very logical. I guess I thought so because I was poor. I agreed to follow him and to join the Front.

 

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NLF strategy depended on peasants seeing the "logic" of a policy which put the most despised group in society suddenly into a vanguard role.

To get results, the Front had to undermine ideological justifications of poverty and persuade powerless villagers that they did in fact have the means to assert themselves. A defector, who was suspicious of the Front because it "didn't care about religions," remembered how cadres

Often stated that there wasn't any spiritual power and that human beings are their own bosses, They said - "There isn't any power superior to human beings. Human beings can decide on everything. In this war, for instance, it's quite useless to pray either to Jesus or Buddha with a view of winning the war. They cannot do us any good, But if we are determined to fight, we will win." Such statements were repeated very often and although I didn't like them at all, I couldn't help feeling they sounded rather right

There was nothing inevitable about poverty, the people were told. "You are poor because you live under an unjust system," insisted a cadre to his peasant audience. An espe-

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cially pointed critique was directed against religious doctrines of poverty. Here is the account of a female defector

Before, the bourgeois and the rich used to say that the poor were those that were not blessed by heaven. But when the Front came, the cadres told the people, that this was not so, and that the people were poor because they didn't have land to till, and that the well-off farmers were rich because they had land to till. The cadres said their economic conditions weren't due to heavens' blessings orthe lack of it. The people understood that heaven had nothing to do with their life and they stopped going to the pagoda and shrine to pray for a betterment of their conditions. They knew that if they worked hard and if they had land, they would become better off.

With almost complete unanimity, interviewees indicate that the Front practiced a policy of religious freedom. People could "pray to Jesus and Buddha" if they wished, but the Front reserved the right to point out that prayers would not a win the war." No competing ideological elements were allowed to interfere with NLF efforts to persuade peasants that they did indeed have the power to seize control of the countryside.

In explaining to peasants the "unjust system" in which they lived, the NLF emphasized the connection between the villagers' misery and rural property arrangements. A defector recalled that

I also had to learn about landowners' exploitation of the poor. The instructor said that South Vietnam is a rich country, that on the ground, there is rice and fruit, in the water, there are fish and sea products; and under the ground, there are exploitable mines. 'But nevertheless," they said, "The people are still poor because we have been exploited endlessly " As evidence, an old and poor villager was then led into the class, and this old man related how he has been exploited by land-

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owners during his life. In conclusion, the instructors summoned us to follow the Revolution and to take up arms to liberate ourselves from the imperialists and the landowners' yoke.

According to the Front, this exploitation had developed as the result of a historical process.

In the formation of the earth, land didn't belong toanyone. But since there have been people who were shrewder than others, knew how to exploit others, and to seize their land, the man- exploiting- man system was born under these circumstances. The Front, therefore, had to stand up and redistribute land to the poor.

"The Front said that the landlords from whom the poor people rented the ricefields were exploiting the people,~ remembered another respondent, hostile to the NLF. "The Front said that the ricefields were a natural gift and that they were not the products of anyone's making, and that the landlords had relied on the imperialists to acquire their vast land holdings." The peasants' poverty was thus to be explained not in terms of the absence of 'heavens' blessings," but instead as a consequence of a "man- exploitingman system" set up to benefit the landlords.

These arguments paved the way for confiscations and land reform by calling into question the claims of landowners on their property. They rested on the expectation that, like peasants in so many other parts of the world, the rural dwellers of My Tho were prepared to support the redistribution of the land. For such peasants, land reform would not appear to be a drastic break with tradition, but rather as a common sense restoration of the natural arrangements which an inequitable social system had deformed. If 'in the formation of the earth, land didn't belong to anyone," then the landlords were nothing more than usurpers. "Land cannot be private property," asserted a cadre. "Land is given to mankind by Nature and the Front is about to distribute it equally to everyone. There will no longer be rich and poor.' By stressing the goal of economic equality, Front cadres

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presented land reform as part of a larger endeavor: to prevent property ownership from becoming a source of power over other people. A female POW analyzed the land question in these terms

Very poor, poor and middle farmers are considered good elements by the Front, because they are generally industrious people, living on the fruits of their own labor. They are not exploiting anyone. The Front's aim is to improve their welfare and to help all of them to rise to the middle farmer class. But the Front will prevent them from going higher, because if they become rich farmers,, they would then care only for their own interests. They would become selfish, and would forget their civic duties, I think land distribution is really a good deed and that, thanks to it, the poor will get richer and nobody will have to steal and to rob for their living.

Taking land from the rich and giving it to the poor was, in other words, not merely an attempt to turn the social system upside down, so that new owners could oppress their neighbors. On the contrary, the project was designed to change qualitatively the social role of property. One peasant grasped this change in the terms of the abolition of wage labor.

Yes, I did think about the building of a new society where there was no exploitation between man and man, e.g., where I did not have to hire my labor to another person and he did not have to hire his to me, where there were no landlords, and the people were free to work and free to enjoy.

A property system which allowed some free access to the wealth of the land, while condemning others to accept a position of inferiority, and to sell their labor power in order to live, was firmly rejected by the NLF, and by many of the peasants who were attracted to its programs.

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In struggling to create a society where everyone was a "middle farmer," the Front and the peasants of My Tho were evolving an egalitarian principle of social organization. The female POW quoted above sided with the Front because she

liked its aim of building up a just and democratic society in which the people's welfare will be taken care of, and in which the people will love one another and eliminate the exploitation of man by man. I am sure that the Front can bring about this good society.

Another POW stated, "I wanted to see a society in which no one would be exploited, in which men would not kill each other for money, and in which no one could use money or power to oppress others." "The reason why Front cadres were so active and dedicated," explained a defector,

was that the Front had declared that it would bring to the people egalitarianism in every respect, The farmers would become the ' 9wners of the land they were working on now. The workers would own the factories they were working in. Therefore, the cadres had to work hard to keep their land and factories for their children and grand-children to benefit from it.

"Peasants had to struggle against landlords," a POW remembered being told, "in order to be in a position to enjoy their own productions." This respondent's "ideal" was "to struggle for equality among people, to erase all class distinction in society." As we read these affirmations, we can see that narrow self-interest only partially explains the participation of many villagers in the revolution, For them, gaining more land was only part of a broader social transformation. Here is how another POW described his motives.

I left my family to fight and bring rights and material benefits to the people, to my family and also to myself. If we achieved success, my family and

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other families in my village would share in the prosperity and happiness. There wouldn't be any more differences between classes - there wouldn't by anyone too rich or anyone too poor - and all social unjustices would be corrected. No one would have to work as servants for others - no one would be insulted and humiliated by their masters. That was my goal.

In the process of combating the destructive effects of an inequitable system of property ownership, peasants were led to imagine the contours of a society in which the common sharing of economic resources would end exploitation once and for all.

Cadres who discussed the matter in detail realized that it would be a long time before the Front could meaningfully contemplate a socialist, let alone a communist transformation of society. One POW saw the issue in these terms:

In order to reach the proletarian society, we have to go step by step through socialism first, and then reach Communism. The South hasn't even set up any cooperatives, so it hasn't reached the socialist stage, In discussion sessions, the cadres said that we were still at the stage of private ownership, and that in the future, we would have to go through socialism before we could have Communism. But this would take a very long time, and no one knew when it could be accomplished.

The interview transcripts offer some evidence that in 1965 the Front did try to press ahead in some areas of My Tho with the development of agricultural cooperatives. A POW reports being told that "starting in 1966, the Front would begin to implement socialist doctrines in the South." He spoke of plans for "collective agricultural sites," managed by local Farmers' Associations, of work exchange teams, wages based on work points, nurseries for children and free medical care. "We were told that the Chinese had accomplished all that, and that the North had been applying this socialist doctrine for 3 years." In fact, some respondents speak of experiments with work exchange programs, but

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almost all indicate that such programs had to be abandoned because of bombing and shelling and the resistance of peasants who still preferred to work individually.

US-GVN bombardment destroyed whatever material base there might have been for the introduction of cooperative methods of agriculture. In China and North Vietnam, the socialization of agriculture took place in stages. Volunteers set up model projects which gradually expandedas theother peasants realized that cooperative methods lead to higher production and a more comfortable standard of living than could be generated by the old family-based economic system. But in My Tho after 1965, no such plan could be implemented, The fruits of collective labor were bombed and shelled, or napalmed, or plowed up by tanks, just as fast as the crops of peasants still engaged in solitary work. Villagers who were dubious about cooperatives therefore had no economic incentive to try the new form of organization. In fact, as we have seen, peasants working in groups were worse off than their individualistic neighbors, since they made better targets for enemy firepower. Escalation thus created a situation where in the short run the socialization of agricultural production actually hurt the people who agreed to participate. Given the circumstances, such plans had to be temporarily set aside.

But if socialism was still something of an abstraction to most peasants, at the same time many believed that the Front program would improve the material conditions of their lives. While they could not offer a sophisticated blueprint for the socialization of the means of production, they knew that there were concrete advances to be made if they followed the NLF and the example of the North. For example, one defector stated that,

In 1964, during a political indoctrination session, the cadre said that class struggle was carried out to improve the lot of the poor farmer's class so that they could have *good food and good clothes." The cadres also said that in order to be able to enjoy such privileges, we should struggle against the landlords, the feudalists, and the imperialists.

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Another respondent, a POW, listed these aspirations:

After I joined the Front, I was indoctrinated and I thought about my future as follows. First of all, I wanted to give myself and other people freedom. Second, I wanted to fight so that my family and the Very Poor Farmers wouldn't be exploited by the landowners any more, and so that there would be no exploiters of the people left. Third, when I married and had children, I would see to it that my children have an easy life-that is to say, that they have enough to eat and to wear, and a house to live in, They must have a good education, I thought that, in order to get all this, I would have to fight for the unification of the country and for peace, In order to get this, we had to win over the foreign army and we had to chase them from Vietnam.

"Why not join the Revolution and fight with us ? " another respondent, a defector, was asked:

When national reunification is achieved Communism will be established. Then we'll advance to universal communism. Your life will be very happy. There will be no rich and no poor, If someone in your family gets sick, he'll be taken care of by the doctors and you won't even have to pay for the medicine, You'll be paid for your work and you'll have enough to eat. After the harvest, everyone will put their paddy together in a common store. When you need paddy to eat, you'll just go to the store to get the grain. You won't have to live in the fear that you might starve one of these days.

In the light of these excerpts, we can see why US-GVN authorities were so overwhelmed on the political plane by their opponents. In competition with Saigon's anti-communist exhortations, the Front put forward its vision of the future, rich in specific details concerning land, subsistence,

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clothing, health and education -the very issues which most preoccupied the peasants in their daily lives.

Within the village, groups responded with varying degrees of enthusiasm to the NLF program. Prosperous peasants were cautious, and in turn the cadres regarded them with suspicion. "I think that the property owners certainly didn't like the revolution," said a POW, "because they knew that this is a proletarian revolution. If this revolution succeeded, their interests would be hurt, because this is a class struggle." In some villages, the insurgency built up so much' momentum that even the rich were swept along, but the quality of their commitment continued to inspire a certain skepticism. "The upper middle farmers and rich farmers that joined the Front were just opportunists," insisted a defector, who was voicing commonly held views:

When the Front was strong, they were very zealous, but when the Front weakened, they joined the other side. Only the poor and very poor farmers who had been exploited by the landlords were staunch supporters of the VC and I'm sure they will fight till the end.

Those of upper class background who made a genuine effort to stay with the Front were put through a prolonged apprenticeship, during which they were carefully watched. A defector explained that

When these representatives (of the intellectuals, bourgeoisie and religious sects) had been with the Front for some time - from seven months to a year -and proven by their enthusiasm that they could be trusted, the VC would start propagandizing them about the class struggle and about the Party. If they responded favorably to this propaganda the VC would push their propaganda further and gradually transform them into Party members.

For another respondent, a POW, the issue was clear-cut: "If the higher classes dare to live and die with the lower classes against the higher classes," then they could be in-

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tegrated into the Front.

The position of the middle peasants was more ambiguous. People of some means (when compared with most of thevillagers), and perhaps even employing the labor power ofothers, middle peasants might in fact be owners of no morethan two or three acres of land apiece. Better off than theirneighbors, they were still far from economically secure.CNot surprisingly, the political character of this intermediate group tended to be equivocal, No solid majority in thecountryside could be created without their participation,rand the Front never ceased to reserve for them a place ofhonor within its ranks.'At the same time, the frankly classoriented politics of the NLF did not appeal to the middleCpeasants quite as strongly as it did to their poorer neigh-Ibors. Some observers thought that middle peasants wereno more trustworthy than the rich. They too falsely alignedrthemselves with the NLF, in the hope "that the Front wouldrprotect their property and forgive their crime of 'exploitingtthe people,"' as one defector put it. Another defector, amiddle peasant, frankly told the interviewer that "under theFront's control, it was better for me to be a Front,cadrerin order to keep intact my position in the village -that ofa man with a little property and a certain reputation amongChis peers." Ready enough to participate in good times, suchCrecruits were naturally inclined to desert as soon as thetrend of the war seemed to be swinging against the NLF.

The cadres had to move with care because, as we haveseen, the thrust of land reform policy was to create a village full of "middle farmers." According to NLF plans,land reform was only a stage, and new landowners were tobe persuaded to join cooperatives before they became entrenched in private ownership. But any kind of delay couldundermine the whole program. In the first Indochina War,the Viet Minh had also carried out land reform in variousareas of My Tho, but when the United States violated theGeneva Accords of 1954 and set up the Diem dictatorshipin the South, the benefits of this redistribution were to someextent negated. The Diem regime helped landlords regainpart of what they had lost, and at the same time the inherent dynamics of a village economy based on private ownership also promoted the return of inequality. The more

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energetic peasants competed successfully with their less industrious neighbors and gradually bought up their lands. Middle peasants with many children found that, when they subdivided their modest holdings, there was only a poor peasant's legacy for each of their various offspring, The beneficiaries of land reform who prospered tended to become conservatives with a stake in the status quo, and insurgents of one generation thus turned into passive observers, if not outright opponents of the resistance, during the next. To grasp this delicate situation more firmly, the Front in some areas slightly modified its usual_practicee-of appealing to all the middle peasants-. Instead it refined its classification system, distinguishing -old -and new -middle peasants. The old middle peasants had been prosperous for sometime, and they were to be treated with the same wariness which cadres usually reserved for the rich. The new middle peasants were those who recently had been promoted' to this status, and the Front continued to urge them to side with their natural allies among the poor.

Including middle peasants in the vanguard category was not a mere formal device, for cadres bad solid arguments designed to win their support. To some extent, the dynamics of the revolution were enough to pull them along, A female defector noted that

As time passed by, the children of more and more of (the middle farmers) joined the Front. When a youth joined the Front, he also pushed his friends to do likewise, and the number of youths who joined the Front became very large, With their children in the Front, these people changed their attitude toward the Front. They supported the Front and had a lot of confidence in it. After the youths joined the Front and learned about the Front's line and policy, they came back and indoctrinated their own parents and the latter became very confident in the Front.

The NLF was also able to offer the prospect of material improvement to the middle peasant, although in this area the situation was not quite as clear cut as it was with the

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poor. Here is the way one middle peasant, a defector, sized up the NLF program.

I was much better off than the Poor and Very Poor Farmers in the village, but my life wasn't easy. Our land was located on high and dry ground and the harvests were poor. Besides, when I looked around me I saw many poor people, and I didn't have the heart to sit at home and enjoy my relatively comfortable life -compared to that of the poor. I couldn't take my land and give it to the poor, because my family wouldn't have let me. When (the cadre) told me that after victory was achieved the poor would lead a very happy life I felt enthusiastic, (He) also told me, 'You are a Middle Farmer now, but will your children be Middle Farmers too? Where will you get the money to buy enough land to distribute to them so they can earn enough to eat ? I saw the poor people around me and I felt that I didn't want my children to lead the same kind of life, Where would I get the money to buy land so that each of them could have at least 3 or 4 cong of land? The 10 cong of land my family had didn't all belong to me. So I decided to join the Front to ensure the future of my children.

This line of argument was sufficient to hold the loyalty of some middle peasants. Indeed, a number of witnesses claimed that middle farmers made the best cadres, Their somewhat more secure economic position meant that they were not distracted by problems of providing for their families -a constant and often demoralizing worry among poor cadres and fighters.

The interviews show that poor peasants were the most ardent supporters,of the NLF, "Everyone in the village", noted a defector,

has to support the Front. The rich farmers' contributions to the Front are the most considerable, but the poor people of the village support the Front

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more wholeheartedly, and also carry out more assignments because they hope that the Front will bring them a beter life.

To some of these peasants, the emergence of the NLF meant an incrased dignity and self-respect. According to a female defector:

After the Front came, the people … no longer had to live in constant fear of the rich, they no longer had to kowtow to them, and they no longer had to offer the rich the choicest food they had on the anniversaries of the deaths of their ancestors. They now were able to treat the rich like their equals and they could maintain their prestige vis--vis the rich.

Another defector remembered joining the Front in search of "glory," which he defined as the ability "to make a revolution in order to liberate the people, and to prevent landlords and wealthy farmers from crushing me down. That’s what I liked." Another reported that, "I felt much encouraged when the Front emerged because under the Front’s control, poor farmers aren’t despised by the rich as they were before." A fourth defector stated that

I liked most of all the distribution of wealth to the poor people. I saw that the poor people were the slaves of the rich, they had to work as servants and hired laborers for the rich. I loved the poor people and was convinced that the rich class was exploiting the poor class.

Greater self-respect seemed to lead to a more profound class consciousness. "I loved the poor people," this peasant affirms. And in fact, a major theme of Front propaganda addressed to poor peasants was that victories "were due to their patriotism and to their love of their social class."

Another theme, often stressed, was that the poor, once the most downtrodden group, were to become the vanguard

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of the revolution, This point was noted by a defector who recalled that

with regard to the Very Poor Farmers, they supported the Front wholeheartedly, because the Front declared that their class was the main class in society and the leading class in the country, The Front, therefore, satisfied the pride of the Very Poor Farmers who had always been despised by everyone.

"The poor farmers wholeheartedly backed the Front because they were the ones the Front took the greatest care of," said another defector. "The cadres promised them: 'The poor farmers will have the glory of assuming the leadership of the countryside, and of returning the land to the farmers"', 'The Front used the land question to egg the farmers on," a third defector stated,

The Front declared that it would give rights and benefits to the poor and that it would make the farmers the owners of the land they till and the masters of the countryside, and for this reason most of the Poor and Very Poor Farmers supported it wholeheartedly.

Still another defector called attention to the same theme.

The cadres spoke highly of the Poor Farmers' class, promised to give them land and make their class the leading one once the Revolution was accomplished. So one or two months after harping on such propaganda, the Front succeeded in gaining the wholehearted support of the poor farmers and sharecroppers in the village.

By "harping on" this message, by using "the land question to egg the farmers on,"the Front was counting on the readiness of the poor peasants to fight for their own interests within the framework of the guerrilla movement.

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A number of peasants testified to the power of these appeals. For example, a defector stated that

Among the lessons, the principal one that taught that socialism could bring happiness to man pleased me most. It also said that poor farmers would become the masters of their land and orchards, and the workers the masters of their factories, etc. I like these most.

Along the same lines, another defector offered this view.,

I must admit that when the Communists talked about the policy and line of the Party, it all sounded so good, They said that they were fighting to give land to the farmers and to make the farmers the owners of the land they till and the workers the owners of the mills, When I heard this, I thought that this was exactly the right policy to be carried out.

The Party analysis involved a total change in the social role of poor peasants and yet the respondent affirms that awhen I heard this, I though that this was exactly the right policy to be carried out." In such matter-of-fact declarations, we can measure the enormous impact of the NLF on a society where for centuries poor peasants had been confined to the bottom of the social hierarchy.

Other witnesses were even more enthusiastic, imagining that the liberation of their class would form part of a universal revolution. Here is the testimony of a POW:

When I heard that socialism would grant rights and material benefits to everyone, and would bring material well-being to the people, I was bowled over and thought that socialism was a right doctrine. I found it very appealing because I wanted to see the world living under universal Communism. When universal Communism was achieved, there would no longer be any national boundaries, and all

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people in the world would live as brothers. I liked this very much. I was poor, and I liked the idea of bringing material well-being to all the people all the poor liked this idea.

Reading these affirmations, scattered throughout the transcripts and expressed with fervor and a striking lack of self-consciousness, we begin to sense what kind of force the NLF had created. "All the poor liked the idea," notes this respondent in speaking of the Front's program of "bringing material well being to all the people." The NLFhad succeeded in imbuing a social class with its revolutionary vision.

Many of these declarations were made by defectors. Those who deserted, because of illness, a loss of faith in final victory, mounting family concerns or internecine quarrels, did not all forget the NLF program. One defector stated that the Front's political theory "was great yet it could not be implemented." Another respondent, a POW who was trying to persuade GVN authorities that he should really be classified as a "rallier," remembered that at one time, "the people and I longed for the Front to win because

 

Saigon Students Protest ARVN Troop Presence in Cambodia

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it stated it was fighting for social justice and for erasing all class distinctions." He offered the opinion that, "If the GVN wins the war, there will not he any changes in the society. If the Front wins there would not be any class distinction, and men would not be exploited by men." But then, reminding himself that he is supposed to be a "rallier," the POW somewhat lamely added, "I think I could enjoy my life no matter how the war turns out."

The most poignant interview in this respect is one of the last in the series. "At first, I didn't pay much credit to the contents of the (Chieu Hoi) leaflets," this defector reports.

I was a poor farmer who had been given land and I felt indebted to the Front for having assisted me by giving me land. I must say that during the previous years my annual income increased noticeably and life became easier for me. So I did support the Front wholeheartedly, I wished it success because it would bring more profits to a poor farmer like me.

But faced with the prospect of being drafted by the Front, he decided to defect, "If I was drafted," he says to the interviewer, 'I might perhaps be killed and then land would be of no use to me. Since there was no hope for me to safeguard the land, I thought I had better give it up and rally to the GVN."

Interviewer : Did you ever expect that the GVN might defend your interests against the landlords after it wins over the Front ?

Respondent : I never expected this, If the GVN wins, I will certainly lose the land. But now, it doesn't matter any more.

Interviewer : Do you ever hear of any GVN land reform projects ?

Respondent : Never.

Interviewer : How would you feel if the GVN allows you to keep the land after it wins over the Front ?

Respondent :That would be marvelous. But what about the landlords, then ?

"The Government as presented to the poor farmers

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through VC propaganda was a coalition of landlords and reactionaries," the interviewer informs us in his postscript. The propaganda stuck with this defector and with many others, long after they had lost hope in the ultimate victory of the Front. 'It doesn't matter any more," says the respondent, of his lost land. Though he has defected to what he expects to be the winning side, his mood is gloomy, The transcript suggests that he experiences the decline of the Front as a personal defeat.

We can sense that this defector did not take lightly the decision to leave home. NLF strategy was based on the hope that other poor peasants would be even more steadfast. They were a vanguard not as a consequence of some doctrianl peculiarity, or because Front leaders liked them better than the rich. Reliance on poor peasants was a practical necessity. As one defector noted, the Party "always said that the members of the well-off classes wouldn't be as faithful and wouldn't fight as long as the members of the poor classes." While 'fighters from the middle farmer class would be afraid of death," in the words of another respondent, 'and would think of saving their skins first when they came face to face with danger," peasants of the poor and very poor categories "wouldn't hesitate to die for the right cause."

The pressure of events drove Front cadres to appeal to the poor. Here is a defector's analysis.

If you tried to appeal to everyone you couldn't really appeal deeply to anyone. If you tried to do this, in every indoctrination session you would have the poor farmers, the rich farmers, the notables, the landlords all together, and they felt that this wouldn't work. For example, if you had an indoctrination session to denounce the landlords, and you had the landlords sitting over there, the-rich farmers over here, the poor farmers over there, and the notables over there, it would make it rather difficult to carry out the denunciation, so that if you tried to win them all over together like this, you would not do very well. They felt that if you

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made a special appeal to the middle, poor and very poor farmers who were in the large majority, you would get better results, and that if they shunted the others aside it wouldn't be very harmful.

Along the same lines, numerous respondents explained the resilience of the Front by pointing to the class background of its members. For example, a POW described the Party Chapter Secretary in his village as "an effective cadre with a good sense of ideology, a high fighting spirit and a deep loyalty to his class, which is the proletarian class." In spite of their lack of education, their ignorance of 'any working methods, any laws, " these poor peasants were supremely qualified in one key area ! having the most to gain by the destruction of the old society, they could be counted on to fight long after other, more prosperous peasants had been persuaded to abandon the struggle.

Class-oriented politics enabled the Front to maintain its position in many villages even during the worst of US-GVN bombing and shelling. Viet Minh land reform in the early fifties, and NLF land reform ten years later, gave many people that stake in the countryside which made them so determined to cling to their fields, and which drew them back to the village whenever the bombing and shelling abated. The Front could count peasant feeling for the land among its political assets precisely because it had identified itself with the aspirations of the villagers and had taken concrete steps to multiply the number of small holders.

Throughout the escalation, cadres kept coming back to this basic issue. If the NLF won, land reform would be consolidated and extended, if the GVN won, peasants would lose all the fields they had acquired. This was what the war was all about. (20) As one cadre argued,

Our gardens, our land and our prosperous economic income are the results of many years of endurance and hardships of our ancestors. It is our duty to guard this land and not to let it fall in the hands of our enemy who will exploit us as much as they can. We don't care how much blood we have

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to shed when dealing with our enemy, we will fight until the end for our right and for all that our enemy conspires to usurp.

Those who remained in the villages did so because they were moved by such appeals. "One always takes care of the tree that gives one fruit," explained a respondent in analyzing peasant loyalty to the Front. "What about your personal prestige ? " a POW was asked. "Don't you think you will be glorious if the Front wins ? " "I couldn't care less about glory," was the blunt reply, "because glory is not so important as land." After all, "For a peasant, being able to participate in controlling the countryside is the highest aspiration," another POW affirmed. "All of them longed to have land to till." Along these lines, a defector noted that

Most of (the people) like (land distribution) very much. They didn't have any land to till, so when the Front gave them land, they naturally were very happy about it. Some liked it so much that they kept clinging to their land, in spite of the insecurity in the village.

These peasants held on to their fields not because they were too miserable to make a living anywhere else, but because of an unshakeable political commitment, According to another defector –

As the war is growing in intensity and spreading everywhere and as the Front cannot protect its rear areas, the people no longer believe in the Front's final victory. They have evacuated to government areas in large numbers leaving all their property behind, Only the very poor farmers who have profited from the land redistribution still believe in the Front and are determined to stay on in the village despite bombings and shellings. They said, "Why don't we stay on in the village to farm the land the Front has given us ? Isn't it better to

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die with a full stomach? If we go and settle in government-held areas, we may avoid being killed by bombings and shellings but we will surely die of hunger. Such a death will be, of course, much more shameful."

This depth of conviction served to vindicate the NLF strategy of relying on poor peasants, 'Fanatic" determination and an unbroken faith in "the Front's final victory" held together a nucleus of poor peasants in spite of massive USGVN efforts to dislodge them.

THE FORCE OF HATRED

The decision of cadres to stay with the Front did not rest alone on visions of a better society after liberation. Driving them on with at least an equal urgency was the force of hatred. (21) For many, resentment against those responsible for their poverty, as well as indignation aimed at an enemy who conducted the war with extreme brutality, fueled a rage which not even the frustrations of a protracted war could quench. The first objects of this hatred were the landlords, who refused to "share" the land and 'exploited endlessly" those less powerful than they were. 'I, myself, hate the landowners, bullies and wicked persons," confessed a POW, who then added, "As a matter of fact, I hate my own landowner." A defector voiced similar sentiments. "What I liked best about the political indoctrination was the hate campaign against the landlords and class struggle because I wanted to struggle for the rights and privileges for my class, and I wanted to be the master of the countryside."

In the minds of peasants, big landowners were closely linked to "feudalists," who in turn were perfectly epitomized by the dictator Diem. As one defector asserted:

The Front called upon the people's patriotism and meanwhile promised that it would overthrow Diem's regime in a very short time. This was exactly what the people were longing for because Diem

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had made their blood boil for a long time with the forced labor that had been impsed on everyone of them,

In another transcript, a dramatic exchange brings out the same point, 'Who has started the class struggle? Who has invaded South Vietnam ? " demanded an irate interviewer; "The Front has acted as a war criminal, and an invader, has it not ? " The respondent, a POW, cautiously replied, 'I cannot determine who is the true war criminal because I don't know who has started the war first?" But under persistent hostile questioning, he gradually revealed his true thoughts

... It might be that the Front started the war first. However, I still have some misgivings about this matter, for I have seen so many cadres arrested and detained by the Diem government in 1957-1958. Although a peace advocate myself, I could not help feeling suspicious, the question that has kept bothering me is why the Government did not give the ex Viet Minh cadres a chance to live in peace and happiness, but instead sought to apprehend them. To me, this is an act of provocation, And it is this very act that has forced the former VC cadres to side with the Front, to save their own lives.

To these fugitives, "he uprising meant survival," argued the POW. Warming to his subject, he went on to affirm

I like best the class struggle objective (of the Front) because I belong to the poor farmer class. The next thing I like is the liberation f the people. I am for peace also. But in order to have peace, there has to be fighting and killing.

This "pce advocate" ended on a grim note: "Peace can only be achieved when one participant in the war is completely defeated." Cadres like this man believed that they were involved in a war to the death with an enemy who did not give people " chance to live in peace and happiness."

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They would not stop until the Saigon regime had been "completely defeated."

According to the Front, hating landlords and feudalists led directly to anti-imperialism. The real enemy, the one which gave substance to the threats of landlords and kept the Saigon regime afloat, was the United States. Before 1965, few peasants had ever seen an American, but some were ready to believe the worst. Like the Japanese and French before, these foreigners were rich, and it seemed logical that they "would never want to liberate the poor. (The U.S.) would be just like France and Japan." After 1965, of course, the Vietnamese image of the United States took on more substance. In analyzing atrocities, the cadres argued

That the aims of the Americans were to annihilate the Vietnamese nation and send their own people to colonize this land, These killings constituted the very policy of the American government, and were not misdeeds committed by undisciplined soldiers.

Another defector remembered a similar speech, made by a Front cadre to the assembled peasants:

They should not hesitate to fight because the Americans were invading the country, and because the Americans' aim was to take over the country and to transform it into a colony and a military base. The troops hated the Americans as much as they did the French before, It angered them to hear that the GVN had invited the Americans to come to Vietnam to sow death and destruction.

In discussions with villagers, the cadres attempted to locate American intervention within their class analysis of the Vietnamese situation: "Speaking of imperialism," they

said that the Party represented the poor farmers class, So long as the imperialists, e.g., capitalists, still existed, the workers would never become

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the masters of the factories; therefore we should fight the imperialists to seize the factories in order to promote our interests. If the imperialists survived, the factories would be in the hands of the Americans and the interests of the working class would not be served, In the Front, the working class was always cited in every effort to stir up the fighting spirit of Party members.

In this way, U. S. escalation was seen as a new phase in the struggle "to make the farmers the owners of the land they till and the workers the owners of the mills." As a respondent noted, "In short, everything the Front said aimed at fostering the people's hatred against the Americans." The invaders would have to be defeated, along with the landlords and Saigon officials they supported, before peasants could lay down their arms.

The Front placed American intervention within the context of Vietnamese history. Speaking of the early sixties, a defector explained:

It's true that the people haven't yet witnessed the Americans doing anything wrong and in reality, anti-American slogans weren't as appealing as anti-Diem slogans. But the Front has cleverly associated the Americans with Diem's misdeeds such as forced labor for the construction of Agrovilles, and arbitrary arrests of former resistance cadres, The Front has also charged them with imperialist aims. In the people's eyes, the imperialists are regarded as the defenders of the native landlords' interests. Since most of the people hate landlords, they abhor the Americans, Front propaganda repeatedly stated that it was the Americans who started this special war, incited Diem to misbehave toward the people, and ordered helicopter crews to kill the innocent and ARVN soldiers to take the gall bladders from human bodies, So far, this malicious propaganda has penetrated the villagers'minds so deeply that the latter, even though

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they haven't come across any Americans yet, have a preconceived opinion about them and regard the Americans as even more cruel than the French. On the other hand, the Front continuously appeals to the national consciousness, and inspires the people by reminding them of the recent victory over the French and the past heroic struggles against the Chinese so that the people reach the point that they wouldn't tolerate anyone who fears the enemy.

When the war escalated in t965, the American people were taken by surprise, But for the peasants of My Tho, the appearance of U. S. forces confirmed a line of analysis to which they had been exposed for many years.

For the NLF, hatred was a vital resource which cadres should work to intensify, According to a defector,

Before carrying out its land distribution at the beginning of 1965, the Front had the people study this policy in order to instill hatred in the minds of the Farmers against the landlords and the Rich Farmers. During indoctrination sessions, the cadres emphasized the exploitation of the rich farmers and landlords who 'stayed idle in the shade but ate from golden bowls." It was the farmers who had to labor to till the land. The landlords and the rich farmers acted as henchmen of the colonialists and feudalists in order to be able to clear forest land and transfer it into rice fields, but they themselves had never farmed the land.

These efforts were concentrated especially on the personal experience of the peasants, Here are the recollections of a defector.

(The cadres) told me that our people had been oppressed, exploited, and stripped of all their rights by the American imperialists and their henchmen, in their scheme to impoverish the people. He used

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as an example, my family, my father and mother who slaved all year round, selling their labor, their sweat, and their tears yet they achieved nothing but poverty.

The expression of hatred was not just a device to make people feel better. As one high level cadre stated to a group of subordinates, whose latest assignment had not been fully carried out: "Comrades, you didn't succeed, because you didn't give enough indoctrination, and haven't brought the hatred to the proper level, That's why all the political and military missions didn't get good results." In this sense, underlining the peasants' hatred of their enemies was integral to the task of "motivating the people."

Anti-imperialists hate campaigns were similar to those directed against landlords and feudalists in that they focused on the individual's personal experience. One defector remembered a 'speak bitterness" session for Party members in which participants took turns describing the hardships of friends and relatives during the war. "I witnessed many of (the cadres) crying. The atmosphere of hatred was terrible, The degree of hatred, in my opinion, was noticeably increased, Everyone swore that he would die for the Party's sake." These cadres, and others like them, were not naive idealists playing with a blueprint for utopia. On the contrary, they were driven people whose experience had left them deeply scarred, Dreaming of revenge, they longed to square accounts with enemies for whom they felt a terrible hatred.

Knowing how to mobilize the peasants' hatred was not as simple as one might assume. For example, dwelling on atrocities committed by the other side did not always serve a useful purpose, The United States was, after all, an antagonist of apparently unlimited power, and its brutal methods tended to inspire as much fear as anger, Within the ranks of the NLF, firm measures had to be taken to contain the natural reactions of cadres who were intimidated by the enemy. According to a defector,

anyone who is accused of fear of the Americans

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always reacts strongly against it. The District Committee member who wants to accuse a minor cadre of having this fear has to move slowly to this ultimate criticism by presenting evidence before he comes out with it. The usual reaction of the cadres, after they acknowledged being subdued by this fear, is to make greater and bolder efforts in order to prove they no longer fear the Americans. In fact, within the Front-controlled area, anyone who is considered afraid of the Americans is regarded as an outcast, like a woman accused of illicit affairs.

Among villagers, the problem was even more delicate, and hate campaigns directed against the United States could easily backfire. In one village, after a particularly violent anti-imperialist speech, many people simply packed up and left, 'because they are doubtful of the capacity of the few guerrillas and cadres to protect them from the cruel and strong Americans."

Panic, however, was not the only danger. Explosions of rage were no more valuable to the Front than fearful timidity. With their fire-power, the Americans always did best against a reckless enemy, and in fact U.S. military leaders regularly complained about the refusal of the guerrillas to Owstand up and fight." Within the framework of a protracted war strategy, cadres cautioned followers to control their feelings, to avoid impulsive actions, to discipline themselves within the restrictions of an approach which stressed patience and the careful husbanding of resources.

In line with this strategy, cadres asked the peasants to do something quite special with the spontaneous anger they felt. The anti-American campaigns were not so simple as they might appear at first glance. Take, for example, the following anecdote concerning a military unit which had just been caught out in the open during an American bombing raid

Some of the fighters even went so far as to underestimate the effectiveness of the jets. They said

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'The Americans who piloted the L-19 and the jets were not very clever. Our whole battalion was here and yet they killed only a few." But they were criticized at once for saying that, The political officer scolded them right away and said: "Do you wish that the Americans had killed more people ? Are you happy because a few of our brothers got killed ? You should instead hate the Americans with all your heart and translate this hatred into action by fighting harder against the Americans."

This cadre has something very precise in mind when he tells soldiers to hate the Americans "with all your heart." Blind rage is not his goal, since incensed fighters who challenged U. S. planes would quickly be wiped out. On a more subtle level, he is disturbed by the note of contempt inthe fighter's remarks. In fact, U. S. pilots were not in competent, and soldiers were wasting energy, as well as slipping into a dangerous overconfidence, by adopting an attitude of derision toward their adversaries. What the ca dre wants is neither uncontrolled fury nor cynical con tempt, but a measured, constant hatred kept under tight rein inorder to sustain people over a prolonged period of fight ing a more powerful enemy. As one respondent noticed, the most resolute cadres had "harbored their hatred towards the U. S." In a movement without factories and modern tech nology, this hatred was one of the people's few resources, making possible the sustained effort of a guerrilla war.

The classic peasant revolt is a sudden, violent affair. Long simmering rage explodes, crowds of angry people form, mansions burn and enemies are often cruelly muti lated. Then, sooner or later, the bands are dispersed, lead ers punished, and the survivors go home. Fury subsides, and a sullen silence settles over the countryside, Volcanic eruptions, these rebellions quickly seem to build up a for midable striking power, but the intense concentration of feeling thus achiev ' ed cannot be maintained for long. Inevi tably, the peasants become exhausted, while the passage of time brings other preoccupations, like planting or harvest ing, back to the fore.

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The NLF has asked peasants to act in a different way, to develop a highly complex relationship to their feelings. They must trust in their own fury, indeed seek it out and bring it to the surface, but at the same time they have to control this hatred under an unbending self-discipline, to store it up against the rigors of a protracted war, The Front has taught villagers to read and write, to blow up bridges and shoot down airplanes, The sophisticated selfawareness it has cultivated among its followers is perhaps an even more noteworthy achievement, The partisans of the NLF understand themselves, they see what they can and cannot do, they know how they must deal with themselves if they hope to achieve their long sought goals.

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