Gabriel Kolko, From Anatomy of A War (New York: Pantheon, 1985)

Chapter 10: The War and Rural Vietnam, pp. 126-137.

Land and the Context of Struggle

While the turmoil in Saigon among Diem and his successors only improved the NLF’s prospects, it was the Revolution’s ability to exploit political paralysis to build its own strength which proved most critical. The Revolution’s development in the south after 1960 cannot be separated from its experiences in the 1950s, above all, the relationship of the united front to the class struggle over land. Moreover, the specific conditions of the south, particularly the problems of decentralization and coordination, were just as real after 1960 as before, and continued to express themselves in the problem of local initiatives and tensions with central Party policy.

Divorced from the specific economic and social issues, an analysis of the southern Revolution’s evolving organization is meaningless. As the war proceeded, American experts attached great significance to the NLF structure without, in the main, ever comprehending that it was the Party’s relationship to real problems and immense organizational flexibility that made it indestructible. The relative importance of these problems cannot be fixed in some statistical fashion. Land and security – economic, personal, and community – were fundamental, the struggle for land being the single most important issue not only of the war in the south after 1960 but in the entire history of the Revolution. Political questions, including the desire for peace and national independence, were most meaningful to the masses when linked to material factors.

The Party Central Committee’s southern branch, the Central Office for South Vietnam (COSVN), was in command of the entire struggle in the south. It, in turn, directed the interprovincial, provincial, district, and, / 127 / finally, village branches of the southern Party, called the people’s Revolutionary party (PRP) after January 1962. It played the dominating role in the NLF’s Liberation Committees, which nonetheless had a non-Party majority, and in the mass Liberation Associations, composed of such groups as peasants, students, and women. All of these organizations existed parallel to but autonomously of each other, acting as reinforcement in case one was destroyed. This interlocking system made the Party’s network extremely difficult to uproot. Cadres were, as always, the indispensable motivators and problem solvers wherever and whenever required.

As a highly adaptive organization in constant danger, the Party did not adhere to protocol and rules of a literal sort, and its early advocacy of the need for self-motivating and antibureaucratic Party members made pragmatic effectiveness as well as security and survival much more important. This flexibility was a vital source of strength, and it had in 1959 forced the Politburo to respond to the southern party’s initiative. Highly motivated and disciplined in the ultimate sense of being committed to a revolutionary cause and the party, the men and women who composed the southern movement were not mindless organizational people, because in order to make immense sacrifices they also had to have confidence in themselves.

The Party always understood the crucial role of local initiative and mass participation, particularly as the increasing demands of security reduced the higher level’s quick access to grass-roots organizations, and adaptively strove to overcome any elitist, passive tendencies which existed, all the while defining a broad, common framework for action. The Peasants liberation Association was the largest of the NLF mass groups, and in many older revolutionary areas it was the real local administration. By mid-1965, according to the CIA, the various liberation associations had roughly half a million members. Other U.S. estimates for a later period showed that anywhere from one-half to three-quarters of the rural society in the NLF-controlled regions participated in the many facets of the local administration’s work – compared with one-fifth in "contested" areas and with less in solid RVN regions. The local Party branches, too, were instructed to assume as many key responsibilities and possible and to operate autonomously of the higher Party on local administrative questions. This made local Revolutionary government far move responsible to the masses than was the typically bureaucratic RVN system, as well as capable of surviving on local resources for military and for other functions.

This dependency on the masses in a local context created much more integrated communities in regions of the spacious, frontier south where few had ever existed. The cohesion the NLF imposed made life in the villages less precarious in general because of its land-related policies. It also sought to eliminate gambling and social vices, including usury, efforts a few deplored / 128 / but many benefited from. Moreover, NLF activists used their family relationships with apolitical or even hostile villagers to integrate them. For many, family ties were the most vulnerable political consideration. Ever present was the cadre, sharing the daily lives of the people and meeting with them constantly, keeping the Party in contact with the masses’ concerns and problems. The American who studied the cadres’ role in the villages found them popular and respected both as leaders and as human beings. The flexibility and autonomy of the system meant that the local Revolutionary administration was remarkably sensitive to village needs, and its policies reflected this. Although taxes in solidly controlled liberated zones were by 1963 supposed to be 6 to 10 percent of the rice harvest, the individual rates were to "be made in accordance with their own will and should not be forced to follow above figures." 1 In contested regions rates were lower. By early 1967 only 18 percent of the NLF’s income came from taxes on agricultural production, which the United States correctly viewed as part of a long-term NLF effort to avoid placing any burden on the poorer peasantry. Political mobilization was always the prime consideration.

The NLF’s popularity rested on its social policies, on which its organizational efforts capitalized. Indeed, its organizational policies followed from the logic of its political ideology and were the only successfully adaptive strategy for a vast, often isolated rural society. What is crucial, of course, is that the poorer peasants supported the NLF’s program because they benefited form it. At the same time, its military recruitment was far less burdensome than the RVN’s. To a peasant, the loss of a son was not only an emotional sacrifice but also a tax on his resources and a family-based economy. In 1960 the RVN’s regular military numbered 146,000, a figure that nearly doubled over the next four years, while the NLF forces at the end of 1962 had 23,000 to 34,000 men, according to varying American estimates. The RVN’s compulsory draft risked sending young men to distant areas, for which they would receive noting. Many preferred joining local NLF guerilla forces – a choice that helped their standing in the community as well as their chances of obtaining land. Land was the NLF’s key to recruitment, and it successfully focused a great deal of effort on mobilizing the children of landless and poor peasants, who had the most to gain from the struggle. It was, ultimately, their revolution.

The NLF’s grass-roots effectiveness exposed it to the constant threat of attack. Taking advantage of its local autonomy, it was at times reading to violate Party policy in order to defend itself. On no issue was this more of a problem than on that of the assassination of its enemies. The context of the use of "terrorism," as the Americans called it, was not complex. The control of areas was often changing, and anyone who was with the Revolution had to worry about eventually being denounced – with prison or even / 129 / death as a consequence. Moreover, local RVN officials and landlords tended to be corrupt and hated, and popular enmity towards them was normal. The Party held that terror was, in Douglas Pike’s accurate phrase, "the weapon of the weak." 2 It was discouraged because it alienated some people, though most of those killed were widely hated locally. For this reason the Party established very explicit procedures to prevent arbitrary punishment of real or alleged enemies, and only the provincial-level party could authorize executions. In practice, however, much of the local organization’s work was autonomous or the often distant provincial officials, who were loath to allow excessive use of the punishment anyway. At least two-thirds and possibly four-fifths of the executions were never sanctioned, as local village organizations meted out their own justice. The Party often complained about this, but in fact the local NLF organizations’ settling of accounts with unpopular RVN officials generally made them all the more welcome to the masses.

This local autonomy and power allowed the NLF to reconstitute itself again and again, leaving the United States with the frustrating reality that, no mater how successful the RVN was, it could never destroy the grassroots NLF. The paradox for the Party leadership was that the southern movement was by its very flexibility, autonomy, and community basis often quite ready to take care of its own problems in its own ways, the punishment of enemies being just one example. Another, and more important, was the southern Party’s substantially greater emphasis on land reform, as opposed to a united front against the RVN, than Party leaders in Hanoi deemed wise.

Since the August Revolution the Communists had favored a broad class alliance, and during the early 1960s the Party’s journals repeatedly analyzed what it considered to be land reform excesses and their threat to the united front in South Vietnam. The NLF, however, was struggling for its very existence. The peasants, too, were being called on to make sacrifices in a life-and-death struggle. Events themselves were the context of all policies; abstract formulas were less impressive than what appeared to most to be obvious necessities. This is not to say that actions were not carefully considered, but the NLF’s land policy generally was determined locally and could not be modeled on a priori plans. The Revolution’s power was with the majority of the people, and their desires determined many decisions, which thereby penetrated more deeply into the fabric of society. The result was that the Party’s united-front policy suffered.

By 1961 the RVN’s land reform program had ceased operation, leaving over two-fifths of its expropriated land undistributed and the Saigon authorities as the largest landowners in the country. Legal limits on rent were ignored, and Diemist officials, who were among the major beneficiaries of the distributed lands, were now collecting rent for their own accounts as well as for the RVN’s. All that Diem’s land reform had managed to accomplish / 130 / was to make opposition to the RVN a precondition of justice on land distribution.

The NLF land reform policy was both aggressively pursued and perfectly adapted to this situation administratively. It left to every village the cumbersome distribution problem, and it used no paperwork in regard to titles. The reform was contingent on the NLF's obtaining and retaining power, which gave those receiving land the incentive to continue to sustain it. Land presented the NLF with a powerful weapon for mobilizing support as needed, and preference went to those who aided the Revolution.

The land the Diemist reform failed to touch as well as the RVN-owned land posed no distribution problems. By fixing a limit of 5 hectares on ownership as compared with the RVN’s 115, the NLF made available most of the landowners’ holdings. This immediately had a far-reaching impact on landholding patterns in the Delta. Five hectares was a highly popular figure, the amount held by middle peasants, and with it the NLF consolidated its political monopoly as the advocate of just land reform. The RVN later had little to give away in vast areas. The NLF’s problem was that in some areas successive land redistributions, dating back to World War Two, and population pressures had eliminated large landlords and that in a substantial number of cases only the land of middle peasants remained available for redistribution. Because the Party’s hamlet and village units retained control over land distribution, and because the poorer peasants were increasingly the backbone of the struggle, reform was often relentlessly implemented in their favor. By 1965, however, the Party perceived the dangers of what it termed the "poor-peasant line" to its united-front policy and belatedly sought to end the divisive conflicts which accompanied the actual process of redistribution. An almost classic dilemma for the Party had reappeared.

Difficulties notwithstanding, the NLF’s land policy was on the whole immensely successful. It mobilized a large part of the peasants to participate directly in the process of distribution, giving them a permanent vested interest in the Revolution’s success. This process was essentially political, and violence was incidental to it, for it evoked a consensus and developed an interest which would protect the NLF throughout all sorts of trials. It was a fundamental factor in the recruiting of soldiers, whose morale and tenacity under the most difficult conditions were never surpassed. It made thousands of villages bases for the NLF and satisfied the most cherished of all peasant goals – land ownership. But even where it was unable to redistribute land or where it chose not to, the whole tenancy system was affected by the mere threat or presence of the NLF. Where RVN control was really "secure," and the NLF not a real challenge, tenants were paying as high as double the legal maximum rent, but elsewhere they never paid in excess of it. The message was clear to every land tenant and unquestionably affected / 131 / the political loyalties of the masses and their willingness to support the NLF. In this way the Revolution from the start grasped the initiative in the war.3

The United States and The Dilemma of Pacification

Throughout its involvement in Vietnam the United States never seriously defined "pacification" of the insurgency in social or economic terms, minimizing explanations that linked the Revolution’s power to the desires and needs of the masses. Whether the ARVN was to fight a conventional or a guerilla war was a more momentous issue to American advisers than the much more important questions why there was a war in the first place, the population’s true loyalties and desires and the consequences of its violence to their political commitments. In essence, the counterinsurgency and pacification efforts became interchangeable conceptions, centering on the military and technical means for physically controlling the population.

The logic of this emphasis was to pit the United States and the RVN against the population and in the long run profoundly to alter the basic demography and social order of the nation. And as this transformation emerged out of explicit policy decisions and the relentless, terrible structural consequences of both conventional and antiguerilla warfare, it because perhaps the most important factor determining how the war was fought as well as its outcome. Although the population’s first response to repression had strengthened the Revolution, the immense social, demographic, and human upheaval that war engendered ultimately created quite different but potentially fatal challenges to both the United States and the Party.

Diem had from the inception sought to keep American away from land and rural social problems preferring to centralize his control over the countryside with the United States’ money but without its advice. His disastrous agroville program during 1959-60, which mobilized peasants for the NLF more effectively than anything else did, had received American backing, but the administration was not interested in the rural areas save insofar as counterinsurgency issues were involved. In 1952 it transferred its economic assistance programs to civilian agencies for the duration of the war. From 1960 to 1965 no U.S. financial or advisory assistance on land reform was given to the RVN, and only in 1966 were the first studies of the question initiated. "The basic reason land reform was not pursued," one of the first American experts to examine the question concluded in 1968, "was that U.S. officials did not believe that land-based grievances were important."4 What was crucial for the United States and / 132 / Saigon was physical control of the population, whose desires and needs were for practical purposes minimized. Whatever the differences between the United States and successive RVN regimes or among Americans on the organization of pacification, ARVN military doctrine, or U.S. counterinsurgency efforts, this consensus on population control made such debates secondary. It was demographic change and social transformation, not military action, that would set the critical context for the outcome of the war.

As in everything involving Diem, however, the United States found it difficult to work with him on pacification efforts. By late 1961 the U.S. MAAG was convinced that the time had come for Diem to accept new counterinsurgency techniques which overwhelmingly stressed reliance on new weapons and military strategies and required a reorganization of the ARVN command structure. While the U.S. pan proposed some population transfers and anticipated the later search-and-destroy doctrine, Diem believed that it also threatened his control over the army and therefore his political machine. His response was to define his own counterinsurgency alternative, bringing in Robert G.K. Thompson, the prestigious British expert, to help formulate a plan which emphasized static defense and, above all, RVN control over the population. As it emerged, the Diem-Thompson plan for "strategic hamlets" left Diem firmly in command of the military and governmental apparatus, and Thompson managed to persuade the civilians in Washington enthusiastically to fund it rather than the U.S. military’s somewhat different option.

Beginning in spring 1962 the program stressed the placing of fortifications around a majority of South Vietnam’s 11,300 hamlets and the concentrating of people into them. The police, self-defense units, as well as a secret RVN apparatus in each hamlet was strictly to control population movement and destroy the NLF infrastructure, attempting first to create wholly secure clusters of hamlets from which to expand to others. The plan possessed military and administrative dimensions to control and to convert the population, but no one ever claimed it was intended to deal with land and social issues. For Diem it was primarily a means of sidetracking potential threats to his power from within his military.

In its own way, the MAAG option to the strategic-hamlet program placed greater importance on the regular army and firepower, and its plan for population displacement was far more drastic. It involved shifting those in border areas much longer distances than the strategic hamlets required, effectively taking them away from "dead zones" open to what would later be called "free fire."5 What they had in common was an emphasis on physically controlling people in the expectation that the NLF’s influence among them could thereby be neutralized. To the extent that it was not, it / 133 / would still give the RVN ready access to the bulk of the population, depriving the NLF of its mass base.

Diem wanted quick results and mobilized his entire army to create the strategic hamlets by force. In September 1962 Diem could claim that one-quarter of all hamlets were in the program, and one year later about three-quarters were strategic hamlets. Despite warnings from some officials, the United States’ leaders generally accepted most of Diem’s claims at face value, and this colored their growing optimism on the war in 1963, at least regarding its nonpolitical aspects. For Diem the strategic hamlet was "a state of mine," and most American officials were eager to share it.6

The sheer brutality of the program, as the Party admitted in 1969, for a time "reduced significantly regions of importance to us. They caused us many difficulties."7 A senior ARVN strategist later described the strategic hamlet as "a concentration camp of sorts." 8 Peasants were ordered to abandon their homes and lands for new sites in defensible, often quite distant locations. The cash and building materials they were allocated were inadequate, and they were compelled to give much of their labor to build stockades and defense installations. The RVN officials governing them were, as the marine pacification expert Lieutenant Colonel William R. Corson described most of the pacification efforts of that period, there "to loot, collect back taxes, reinstall landlords, and conduct reprisals against the people."9 When the people refused to move into strategic hamlets, the ARVN used artillery and aircraft to compel them to seek refuge in them.

The results were predictable, ranging form military-age men in many places slipping into the country to join the NLF forces to an immense upsurge in popular grievances, which now went beyond land issues to include the entire peasantry’s right to its possessions and the perpetuation of a rural society. At the beginning of 1963 the NLF gave the highest priority to the destruction of the strategic-hamlet program. Since its infrastructure among the people in the hamlets was intact and growing, the effort was crowned with quick success. By September 1963 it had dismantled 2,500 hamlets, the entire populations of which were now outlaws in the eyes of Diem’s government, badly damaged another 1,000, and planted its influence more deeply in many of the remaining 2,500. Diem, on the other hand, shortly before his murder, claimed that 8,500 hamlets were under his firm control, and despite a certain growing skepticism in Washington – sufficient to add one more reason for getting rid of Diem – the official American data still maintained that the NLF in April 1963 dominated only 14 percent of the rural population.

With Diem’s death the hamlet program fell into abeyance, despite several successor projects, and until February 1966 comparable efforts to control the rural population ceased to interested the United States or any / 134 / of the Saigon juntas. As the successive RNV regimes’ compounded failures in all domains confronted Washington with defeat, it turned to reliance on its own, massive military power.

While the strategic hamlet program was from its inception a total failure politically, ample data on its success existed to bewilder American officials, almost none of who comprehended the politics of the upheaval they were attempting to suppress. By March 1964, one set of data argued, over 6,000 of nearly 11,000 targeted hamlets had been integrated. By mid-August the number had climbed to 7,600, and Diem added 1,000 to that figure the following month. When the Diem regime’s collapse required revision of the data, the U.S. Operations Mission reduced the number of strategic hamlets to about 4,000 in June 1964. Another official u.s. estimate put it at 6,500 at the same time, and finally at 3,800 at the end of 1965. Data notwithstanding, all those whose opinions mattered knew that, as General William C. Westmoreland, the new commander of the MACV, put it in November 1964, pacification was "not going well."10 Using real control as a criterion, the RVN in 1964 estimated that it did not have more than 1,200 hamlets, with the remaining 90 percent indefensible or NLF penetrated. Preparing to argue for greater commitment to the war, Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara drafted a memo for the President on march 13, 1964, attributing to the NLF domination of about 30 percent of South Vietnam’s territory, but a final version three days later increased it to 40 percent. From the start the statistical hamlet-evaluation systems on the control of people and villages, which were to play such an important part in assessing the war’s progress, were subjected to the greatest distortions and doubts, not merely for bureaucratic reasons but also out of genuine ignorance. In policy analyses data immediately became a means both of comprehension and of obfuscation.


Uprooting A Rural Society

Poor peasants initially saw the conflict in terms of land distribution and rent, but by 1963-64 a large and growing portion of all peasants also experienced it in terms of security and their very social existence. The peasant wanted land and peace, but staying on the land was far more important to many peasants regardless or whether they desired more to till. Distinctions between poor and middle peasants were eroding. This primal attitude, which was, not surprisingly, one of the major findings of a combined U.S.-RVN study in 1967, when the refusal to move was even more dangerous than in 1964, transcended all other aspirations among the rural population. It was worth fighting in order to own or hold land, and the United States and its dependents directly flouted this deep-seated goal. The effort to put the peasants in strategic hamlets threatened this even when increasing ARVN / 135 / and American use of firepower did not, and became a challenge of immense magnitude. The NLF did not yet have heavy artillery, much less air power. Even pro-RVN peasants were now suffering from both the military and the population-control dimensions of pacification. To add to their woes, the ARVN continued taking far larger numbers of their sons.

Everything that peasants, whatever else their class, held precious was now being threatened, including the very existence of the family system and the traditional culture. The NLF menaced large landowners, but the sheer magnitude of the assault on a peasant society from the United States and the RVN was much more fundamental. Patriotism and hatred of the foreign invader and all he stood for thus increasingly merged with class issues; as a result the NLF tried to push its united-front position more prominently, after championing the poor peasants’ interests between 1960 and 1964. The violence enlarged the peasantry’s mutual needs and interdependence and created a collective basis of social life as well as, for some, responses to new common challenges.

Only a part of this growing alienation from the RVN was reflected in the size of the NLF military forces, which, including guerillas, went from 34,000 in 1963, according to one set of U.S. data, to 51,000 in 1964. And though the RVN had 250,000 men in its regular military by 1964, their effectiveness had dropped enormously, and the military balance, in conjunction with political instability, had swung decisively against them. Such mass alienation also possessed more intangible aspects and created a bloc of shifting opinion among the rural population which became increasingly important. For it in reality the war’s traumatizing effects, with the extremely hard choices they presented to or imposed on every individual caught up in them, evoked radicalization and commitment from some and prudent, self-oriented caution as well as exhaustion from others, this was no more or no less true in Vietnam than in occupied Europe throughout the Second World War – or in all other times and places. Most of those who are disinclined to become either heroes or unconscionable opportunists are often not free to make a choice. In the ambiguous stages of history when there are no clear losers or winners to whom such survival-oriented people relate, their role is not crucial, for war and peace, victory and defeat, may often be determined by social processes as well as by the weight of the opinion and actions of those prepared to take the risks of leading in the belief that they can create the context in which the lives of others will be defined. For while the war’s growing horrors produced those who attempted to withdraw, it also created those ready to join the resistance, and these were the people who counted most. Suffice it to say, the absence of any American equivalent to the NLF meant that whatever consolation some experts were obtaining from their specious assertions about the existence of a floating population, let alone one / 136 / that supported the RVN it was not to get help where and when it really counted. Only the NLF, whose members were ready to take personal risks for a common cause, was able to address the complex human as well as material conditions emerging in the Vietnamese countryside. For it was a characteristic of many of those who became attentistes that they were neither politically neutral nor apathetic but, essentially, more concerned with their personal survival and unwilling to take chances – and therefore often passive. Some were simply exhausted, if only temporarily. However troublesome they were to prove to the NLF, for the United States and the RVN their existence was far more menacing – indeed, potentially fatal – since the Revolution could continue, albeit less effectively, among them.

The need for the majority of peasants to decide whom to support presented itself less often than the daily need to choose ways of surviving, which had their own logic and led to the apolitical pursuit of private interests. The NLF had responded to the class interests of the majority of the rural inhabitants, and they had fought all foreign invaders for decades. Now the immensely larger U.S. and RVN firepower presented them with much greater risks. Caught between life and death, many peasants were willing passively to maintain a private life in RVN-controlled zones if they had that option, but they could have no illusions after the first decade of U.S.-sponsored dependency about who stood for their very existence on the land and who threatened it. Nor were U.S. experts ever in doubt about the core of the peasants’ real aspirations and values. "The Vietnamese peasant has a strong desire to survive," Lieutenant Colonel Corson ruefully observed about his experience, "and more often than not hopes the Vietcong will win because he imagines a Vietcong victory will eradicate the conditions he currently faces. Our experience showed that the Vietnamese peasant will help the Vietcong when there is no too much risk in doing so and that in the great majority of cases the peasant considers it unthinkable to betray the Vietcong to the enemy."11 Most peasants had by 1965 experienced the RVN’s pacification efforts, some as many as three times, and their land outside the RVN-created villages to some extent was theirs only because of the Revolution’s land reform and rent control programs. Even those whose true loyalties did not lie with the Revolution nonetheless were often ready to cooperate with and support it. Family pressures also often required them to do so. These questions of identity and mobilization in rural South Vietnam were to become the most enduring ones confronting the United States and the RVN.

Beginning in 1962 the strategic-hamlet program claimed to have moved 2 million people, or a majority of the nation, by the time Diem fell. A number of them, however, had been uprooted by earlier programs as well. For some it involved moving a short distance, indeed often nothing substantial. For others it meant important changes in a stable, traditional order, and / 137 / no figures on proportions have any meaning. Suffice it to say that it was a major disturbance in the lives of the peasantry, full of personal anguish and disorientation. But this was only the beginning. None of these people were considered refugees, about which we have more information.

As pacification failed in its nonmilitary aspects and as the programs that Diem sponsored capsized, the United States increasingly returned to its initial desire to rely primarily on firepower to fill a growing political, social, and ideological vacuum. In 1971 the best-informed American expert on refugees, Ambassador William E. Colby, then head of pacification and later director of the CIA, estimated that 25 to 30 percent of the south’s entire population had been refugees sometimes during the preceding seven years, not to mention since 1954. This profound displacement of the population, due mainly to firepower, created about 720,000 refugees in 1964 and about 2.4 million during 1964-66.12

Ultimately, the question was whether arms and foreign intervention could compensate for the RVN’s fundamental weaknesses or only further aggravate them. | | 20 Sep 99