Episode 72: The Second Indochina War, Part 2


Today’s episode covers Vietnam during the early years of the Second Indochina War, from 1957 to the end of 1961.  We will see communist guerrillas and their partners stage attacks, with guns and bombs, mostly against South Vietnamese officials, but sometimes even Americans become targets.  At the end of 1960, they will be organized to form the Viet Cong, a major player in the conflict from now on.  We will also see the response of the South Vietnamese president, Ngo Dinh Diem; he enjoyed a string of successes in the previous episode, but begins to falter now.  Finally, the United States sends military advisors to go with the military equipment being sent to South Vietnam.  In that way, the Americans show they are determined to stay until communism is defeated.



Greetings, dear listeners!  The day when this episode went online, August 16, 2019, also marks the 50th anniversary of the most famous rock concert of all time, the Woodstock festival in upstate New York.  I was ten years old at the time, and I will admit that back then, I thought Woodstock was overrated, what with it coming between the Apollo 11 mission to the moon, and the devastating strike by Hurricane Camille, which killed nearly 400 people in the state of Mississippi.  Still, a lot of ex-hippies wanted to celebrate Woodstock again this year, only to hear that the reunion concert had been canceled.  If you’re one of those folks, there are other forms of entertainment available; why don’t you listen to a podcast instead?  (Hint, hint) If it’s the right podcast, you will even learn something from it!

All kidding aside, after the table-setting episode we had last time, we are now ready to get into the narrative for the conflict we usually call the Second Indochina War, or the Vietnam War if you are American, or the American War if you’re Vietnamese.  I am going to be referring to several events that were covered in Episode 71, Part 1 in this series, so if you haven’t listened to Episode 71 yet, by all means pause this episode, and go listen to 71.  It’s available wherever you downloaded this episode.  Don’t worry, I’ll wait for you to come back.


All right, for those of you who are still here, I’ll assume you know what’s going on.  To refresh your memory, in Episode 71 I introduced Ngo Dinh Diem, the first Vietnamese leader after the First Indochina War who didn’t have ties to either the French or the communists.  We chronicled his rise to power, and how he became president of South Vietnam by staging a rigged election that got rid of his predecessor, Bao Dai, the last emperor of Vietnam.  Meanwhile, Diem used the South Vietnamese Army, soon to be called the Army of the Republic of Vietnam, or ARVN, to wage war against the Binh Xuyen mafia, the private armies of the Cao Dai and Hoa Hao, two religious sects based near Saigon, and the communist Viet Minh guerrillas who had stayed in South Vietnam, when the country was divided in 1954.  By the beginning of 1957 Diem had beaten all of his rivals, so the Americans, who had replaced the French as the chief opponents of communism in Vietnam, decided that Diem was their man, and gave him generous amounts of military aid.  Finally, in Episode 70 I pointed out that the minority hill tribes, usually called the Degar or Montagnards, formed a political party called BAJARAKA in 1958, and Diem nipped this potential opposition movement in the bud, by arresting all of its leaders.

Before we go on, I need to apologize for a small mispronunciation in the previous episode.  Over there, I casually mentioned the Australian prime minister during the early 1970s.  One of my Australian listeners pointed out that I said his name was “Go Whitlam,” while they pronounce it “Goff Whitlam.”  Sorry about that, and thanks for the correction.  Maybe I should have used his first name of “Edward,” instead of the middle name he is called by most of the time.  I’ll admit it’s not the first time I messed up an Australian name, and it’s a bit embarrassing when both Australians and Americans speak the same language.  Now where were we?  Oh, yeah . . . 

If there ever was a time when it looked like Ngo Dinh Diem was on top of the game, it was from 1956 to 1958.  According to the historian Gabriel Kolko, 12,000 suspected opponents of Diem were killed between 1955 and 1957, and 40,000 had been jailed by the end of 1958.  But after that he became the Peter Principle in action.  For those not familiar with the term, the Peter Principle was invented by a twentieth century author, Dr. Laurence J. Peter, and it says that everyone rises to his level of incompetence, meaning he will keep getting promoted until he ends up in a job where he cannot perform the duties expected of him.  Accordingly, after becoming president, Diem committed some serious mistakes.  The first mistake happened in the previous episode, when he did not allow the elections that were supposed to choose the government for a reunited Vietnam.  He got away with this because neither South Vietnam nor its American backers had signed the 1954 Geneva Accords.  That gave the handful of communists left in South Vietnam the excuse they needed to launch a low-key campaign of terrorism against the Saigon government.

If you want to keep track of the first acts of violence in the new conflict, the earliest one I could find any information about happened on October 10, 1957, when a bomb was thrown into a Saigon restaurant, injuring 13 people.  On October 21, Major Harry Griffith Cramer, Jr. an American army officer, was killed by a bomb near the port of Nha Trang.  Nha Trang was the site of Cam Ranh Bay, South Vietnam’s main naval base.  I am inclined to call Major Cramer the first American to be killed in action in the Vietnam War, but we don’t know if the bomb explosion was meant for him.  That is probably why most of my sources list two U.S. military advisors, Maj. Dale Buis and Sgt. Chester Ovnand, (I hope I’m pronouncing those names right) as the war’s first American casualties; they were killed by communist guerrillas at Bien Hoa, an air base north of Saigon, on July 8, 1959.  Back in the States, it didn’t matter to Americans who got the dubious honor of being the first killed in Vietnam.  At this date, most Americans couldn’t have found Vietnam on a map if you asked them, and they had other things occupying their attention, like the space race that had begun when the Russians launched the first satellite into orbit.  Then on October 22, thirteen American soldiers and twenty-six civilians were injured in three attacks in Saigon, aimed at installations belonging to the Military Assistance Advisory Group, and the United States Information Service.

By the middle of 1958, the insurgents in the Mekong delta had been organized into 37 armed companies.  However, this was done without Hanoi’s approval; North Vietnam was not ready for an all-out war to conquer the South, nor was it willing to give much aid to the rebels in the South.  For one thing, the rebels were not all true communists; most of them were survivors from the private armies that Diem had defeated in the mid-1950s, and as far as the southern communists were concerned, anyone who opposed the Diem regime was welcome to join them.  Indeed, we have reports that in some of the rebel units at this date, the only real communist was a “political advisor.”  More importantly, the leadership in Hanoi was divided over how to reunite the country.  Pham Van Dong, the prime minister and Ho Chi Minh’s right-hand man, thought it was still possible to do it peacefully through elections, while two senior policy makers, Le Duan and Le Duc Tho, wanted to support the insurgency in South Vietnam, in part because both of them had lived in South Vietnam before 1954.

Le Duan made a brief, secret visit to South Vietnam in 1958.  When he got back, he wrote a report entitled The Path to Revolution in the South, in which he stated that North Vietnam had to do more to assist the southern rebels, or they would soon be wiped out.  Because of arrests, and successful military actions on the part of ARVN, Communist Party membership had declined by two thirds in South Vietnam, and nearly disappeared from some provinces.  Later on, the North Vietnamese admitted that late-1958 and early-1959 was the "darkest period" for communists in South Vietnam, when the forces of South Vietnam, quote, "truly and efficiently destroyed our party."  Unquote.  Because of that report, the Communist Party Central Committee decided to support the rebels in January 1959.  In March Ho Chi Minh declared a People’s War to unite all of Vietnam under his leadership; the revolution was now changing from a political struggle to an armed struggle.

Did you catch that?  We now have three dates for the beginning of the Second Indochina War.  In Episode 71, I told you that the US Department of Defense picked November 1, 1955 as the start date for its record-keeping purposes, while I have gone with October 1957 because the fighting started then.  But from the communist point of view, the Second Indochina War began in 1959, because that is when Hanoi declared itself on the side of the rebels in the south.  I will let you decide which date works best for you.  In the past I have said that wars in Southeast Asia have indefinite ending dates; now here is one with a fuzzy beginning date, too.

Over the course of 1959, North Vietnam created three important military units, to support the war effort.  The first unit, Group 559, was established in May to smuggle troops, weapons and supplies into South Vietnam.  To do this they constructed the famous Ho Chi Minh Trail, a network of roads and trails that ran through eastern Laos and ended in the highlands of South Vietnam, avoiding the guarded Demilitarized Zone by going around it.  By July enough of it had been completed to send 4,000 Viet Minh guerrillas, natives of South Vietnam who had been in the North since 1954, back into South Vietnam.  Later on, in the second half of the 1960s, the Ho Chi Minh Trail would be extended through eastern Cambodia, giving the communists direct access to the Mekong Delta.  In 1959, it took six months to travel from one end of the trail to the other, but by 1968 it will take only six weeks, due to road improvements on the way.  In the 1970s they even added a fuel pipeline, which ran parallel to the trail.  The second new unit, Group 759, was organized in July to send supplies to the south by sea.  In September the third unit, Group 959, was created to send supplies to the Pathet Lao, the communists in Laos.  The Pathet Lao had launched their campaign to take over Laos in 1959; we will cover that in a future episode, devoted to the Second Indochina War in Laos.   Finally, in April 1960 North Vietnam imposed universal military conscription on its population, with an indefinite tour of duty.  This meant Ho Chi Minh and his associates expected the new war would last a good long time.  In response to all this, Diem promoted a new law in May 1959 that made collaboration with the communists a capital crime.


If Diem had been a popular leader, he might have eventually overcome the communists.  This is a good place to mention Diem’s second mistake.  While the Americans wanted South Vietnam to develop into a true democracy, Diem’s government was an oligarchy, meaning all the important positions were held by his family and friends.  And by “friends,” I mean members of the country’s Catholic minority.  As a result, only friends, relatives and Catholics gave him their unquestioned support.  Instead of seeking the goodwill of everyone else, he lorded over them like an emperor, refusing to give them a voice in government or even to meet with them.  For example, he only made trips outside of Saigon when his American advisors told him it was good politics to do so.

Diem’s third mistake was his preoccupation with security.  When the government had money to burn, he usually spent it on protecting himself, his family, or the country.  Although he did build a number of new schools, otherwise he neglected the things the people really wanted, like infrastructure projects, economic improvements and better social services.  And land reform worked in the opposite fashion from what the peasants wanted.  In the parts of South Vietnam they had occupied during the First Indochina War, the Viet Minh took land from the landlords and gave it to the peasants for free.  Now the Diem administration told the peasants they had to pay for the land they intended to keep – and if they didn’t, the land was given back to the landlords.

Ngo Dinh Diem’s closest advisor was his half-mad younger brother, Ngo Dinh Nhu.  In his early years, Nhu had been the bookworm type; unlike his brothers, he wasn’t interested in becoming either a politician or a priest.  He went to college in France, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in literature, and returned to Vietnam as World War II began.  This got him a job in Hanoi’s National Library, but later the French fired him, due to the nationalist activities of his brother.  By then he was married, and Nhu moved to Da Lat, the same resort town in the Central Highlands that Bao Dai used as a home away from home.  There he stayed until 1955, when he played a key role in rigging the 1955 election that made Diem president.  After the election Nhu, his wife and his elder brother, Ngo Dinh Thuc, all moved into the presidential palace with Diem.

Although Nhu held no executive position in the government, he wielded considerable power, as the founder and general secretary of Diem’s political party, the Personalist Labor Revolutionary Party.  We will call it by its Vietnamese name, the Can Lao Nhan Vi Dang, Can Lao for short.  Nhu also invented the party’s philosophy, called the Person Dignity Theory or just Personalism.  This was an authoritarian ideology, which taught that Western-style capitalism and communism were not suitable for Vietnam, so a state that emphasized man’s spiritual nature should be in charge, and that submission to the head of state was the solution to every problem.  Most people found this ideology unappealing, and few could even understand it.  Nhu also commanded the ARVN Special Forces, a paramilitary unit that the First Family used as their private army, and organized members of the Can Lao Party as a secret police force.

Ngo Dinh Nhu’s beautiful, venomous wife was another key family member who did not hold a title.  Her birth name was Tran Le Xuan, but most people simply called her Madame Nhu.  Her family was among the rich elite that lived in Hanoi and got along well with the French, so much so that French was the official language in the household; she was fluent in French, but never learned to write in Vietnamese.  Later on, when she made speeches in public, she would write the drafts in French and someone would translate them into Vietnamese.  She married Nhu in 1943, when she was nineteen years old, and Nhu was 33.  Previously, Nhu had a short affair with her mother, and because she was born a Buddhist, she converted to her husband’s religion.  Since the president was a bachelor, Madame Nhu came to be seen as South Vietnam’s unofficial first lady.  In this role Madame Nhu became a champion for women’s rights in South Vietnam, but otherwise she would have made a good villain in a movie or TV show.  More interested in power than in anything else, Madame Nhu once said, quote, “Power is wonderful.  Total power is totally wonderful.”  Unquote.  Another time, she told a group of American congressmen, quote, "I’m not exactly afraid of death.  I love power and in the next life I have a chance to be even more powerful than I am."  Unquote.  Likewise, Robert McNamara, the US Secretary of Defense under the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, described Madame Nhu this way.  Quote: “I saw Madame Nhu as bright, forceful, and beautiful, but also diabolical and scheming  —  a true sorceress.”  Unquote.  Her father, Tran Van Chuong, was South Vietnam’s ambassador to the United States until 1963, when he resigned to protest the government’s anti-Buddhist policies.

In 1958 Hilaire du Berrier, an American pilot and spy, published an article in the conservative magazine The American Mercury that was highly critical of the Diem government and its American supporters.  Du Berrier said that Diem, quote, "was imposed on a people who never wanted him," unquote, and that the American public had "not been told the truth."  He went on to call U.S. policy, quote, "misguided meddling," unquote, and the Diem government a, "police state."

In August 1959 Diem held a parliamentary election, mainly to fool the Americans into thinking that the political progress they wanted was taking place.  Although the government promised to honor secret ballots, officials in the countryside either told the peasants which candidates to vote for, or simply stuffed the ballot boxes.  It was harder to rig the election in Saigon, but the authorities managed to do it by removing opposition candidates from the ballot, claiming that various “irregularities” disqualified them, and by bringing soldiers into the capital to vote on Election Day.  The result was that only two of the 123 seats in the National Assembly went to opposition candidates; pro-government candidates won the rest.

The ongoing border dispute between Vietnam and Cambodia reappeared in the late 1950s.  This is an issue I have mentioned in the past, concerning the Mekong delta; Vietnam had taken the delta in the years around 1700, and Cambodia wanted it back.  If you don’t remember the details of that annexation, go back and re-listen to Episode 19 of this podcast.  Anyway, in June 1958 ARVN troops crossed over into Cambodia’s Stung Treng province, and clashed with Cambodian troops.  This led first to a war of words between Ngo Dinh Diem and the Cambodian prime minister, Prince Norodom Sihanouk, and then on August 31, 1959, Ngo Dinh Nhu tried to assassinate the Cambodian royal family by sending two suitcases containing parcel bombs to the royal palace.  The packages came with a note saying they were a gift from an American engineering firm that had recently built a 134-mile-long highway running from Phnom Penh to Sihanoukville, Cambodia’s seaport.  Prince Norodom Vakrivan, the royal family’s chief of protocol, opened the packages; he and a servant were killed instantly when the bomb in one of them exploded.  Sihanouk’s parents, the king and queen, were not hurt, though they were in a room adjacent to the one where the explosion took place.  An investigation traced the origin of the parcel bombs to an American military base in Saigon.  Sihanouk publicly accused Ngo Dinh Nhu of masterminding the bomb attack, while at the same time he suspected that the US was involved as well.  Because of this incident, Cambodia gave refuge to the South Vietnamese officers who plotted unsuccessfully against Diem in 1960 and 1962.

Speaking of coup attempts, pressure on the Diem regime increased as 1960 went on.  April saw eighteen distinguished South Vietnamese individuals send a petition to President Diem, asking him to reform his government, because it was rigid, family-run, and growing more corrupt.  Diem saw the petition as a personal attack; instead of complying, he closed several opposition newspapers and arrested journalists and intellectuals.  Then on November 11, three crack paratrooper battalions and a marine unit surrounded the palace, not to overthrow Diem, but to again force him to make reforms.  The operation was badly planned: it did not do the things required in any coup, such as seize radio stations, block the roads going into Saigon, or cut the telephone lines connecting the palace with the outside world.  Diem outwitted his opponents by making a speech that agreed to their demands like free elections; that gave him time to call in army units that were still loyal.  For thirty-six hours there was a standoff; instead of attacking the palace, the coup plotters waited to see if Diem would keep his promises.  When the loyalist troops arrived, there was a brief but bloody clash that left four hundred soldiers and civilians dead.  As mentioned a minute ago, the coup leaders fled to Cambodia, and Diem promptly renounced the promises he had made under pressure.  A harsh crackdown against all perceived “enemies of the state” followed, with more than 50,000 arrested by the police, including harmless critics and former members of Diem’s cabinet; many innocent civilians were tortured and executed.  This made sure that the first plot against Diem would not be the last, and US officials started saying out loud that they might enjoy more success in Vietnam if somebody else was in charge, besides Diem.


North of the 17th Parallel, the Communist Party of North Vietnam, the Lao Dong, held its Third Party Congress in September 1960.  Here the main topics covered were a formalization of the tasks of constructing socialism in North Vietnam, and a commitment of the party to liberation in the South.   In communist countries, party congresses are the time when major policy changes are most likely to be announced.  For example, it was at the 1956 Communist Party Congress in the Soviet Union, where Nikita Khrushchev made his speech denouncing Joseph Stalin, thereby ending the cult of personality for the late Soviet dictator.  Vietnamese communists would not hold another party congress until 1976, after the war was over and Vietnam was reunited.

From 1959 onward, the rebels in South Vietnam did better, now that they were getting help from the North.  Do you remember when I said that they killed 400 South Vietnamese officials in 1957?  Well, the number of assassinated officials increased to 1,200 in 1959, and 4,000 in 1961.  In addition, the number of violent clashes between the rebels and South Vietnamese government forces increased from 180 in January 1960, to 545 in September.  On December 20, 1960, North Vietnam announced the reorganization of the southern rebels into one force, henceforth to be called the National Front for the Liberation of the South, or simply the National Liberation Front, NLF for short.  Nguyen Huu Tho, a lawyer from Saigon who had been jailed by Diem for mildly left-wing activities, became the new movement’s chairman.  For most of the war the NLF’s headquarters would be located a few miles north or northwest of Saigon, conveniently close to both the capital and the Cambodian border.  The North Vietnamese insisted this was an independent organization with the same goals as they had, pointing to the members who weren’t communists, including Tho, but ultimately the NLF was controlled by the Lao Dong, making it Hanoi’s shadow government for South Vietnam.  Saigon called the NLF the Viet Nam Cong-san, meaning Vietnamese Communists, and soon shortened this to Viet Cong.  That name stuck; if you have only heard one name for the communists in South Vietnam, Viet Cong is it, and that is the name we will use from now on.

By the end of the 1950s, there were 900 US government and military personnel in South Vietnam.  Most of the time President Eisenhower ignored Vietnam.  He thought Laos was more important, because of its strategic location in the middle of the Southeast Asian mainland.  However, Eisenhower retired in January 1961, and was succeeded by the first US president born in the twentieth century, John Fitzgerald Kennedy.  Kennedy and his incoming administration were inexperienced where Southeast Asia was concerned, but in his inaugural address, Kennedy promised this much.  Quote: “We shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, to insure the survival and the success of liberty.”  Unquote.  However, outgoing President Eisenhower privately told him, quote, “I think you’re going to have to send troops…"  Unquote.

Though the Laotian civil war was now fully underway, Kennedy and his advisors quickly decided that Laos was not for them, because as I have mentioned several times in past episodes, the country is too rugged to give ground troops an easy time.  Instead, Kennedy was motivated by the Domino Theory, promoted previously by both the French and the Eisenhower administration, which said that if communism wasn’t stopped, all of Southeast Asia would fall to it, one country at a time.  Vietnam was the place where communism had taken root, so the Americans would make their stand here.  The new vice president, Lyndon Baines Johnson, visited South Vietnam in May 1961, and hailed Diem as a reincarnation of Winston Churchill, which technically couldn’t have been true because Winston Churchill was still alive at that time.  But it was also clear that South Vietnam was going to need more help.  Diem said that he didn’t want American soldiers in South Vietnam; what he wanted was the money, arms and supplies needed to enlarge the South Vietnamese army, from 150,000 to 270,000 men.  Still, some Americans would be needed to show their allies how to use the new equipment they were receiving, so before May 1961 was over, Kennedy sent 400 American Green Beret “Special Advisors,” to train South Vietnamese soldiers in methods of “counter-insurgency” for their fight against Viet Cong guerrillas.  And that wasn’t all the Green Berets did.  Soon they also established Civilian Irregular Defense Groups, or CIDGs, made up of Montagnards.  These fierce mountain men, with American assistance, built a string of mountain camps in the highlands to thwart infiltration by North Vietnamese.

The Viet Cong force increased from less than 3,000 in 1959 to 26,000 in late 1961.  This allowed them to spread across South Vietnam’s countryside and launch several successful attacks on South Vietnamese troops, prompting Diem to request more military aid from the Americans.  Accordingly, in October President Kennedy sent two of his top aides, Walt Rostow from the State Department, and General Maxwell Taylor, on a tour of Vietnam.  When they returned, Taylor reported, quote, "If Vietnam goes, it will be exceedingly difficult to hold Southeast Asia."  Unquote.  Taylor went on to recommend that Kennedy increase the number of U.S. military advisors, and to send 8,000 combat soldiers as well.  However, Defense Secretary McNamara and the Joint Chiefs of Staff didn’t think 8,000 soldiers was enough to make a difference.  They wanted a massive show of force like what the United States had sent to Korea, eleven years earlier, and suggested sending six divisions, or 200,000 men, to Vietnam.

The president didn’t like the idea of sending any combat troops.  On October 24, 1961, the sixth anniversary of Diem becoming president of South Vietnam, President Kennedy sent a letter to President Diem that promised, quote, “the United States is determined to help Vietnam preserve its independence…”  Unquote.  After that Kennedy did not send troops, but he sent additional military advisors, along with American helicopters to transport and direct South Vietnamese troops in battle.  The helicopter was fairly new to both transportation and warfare.  The first practical helicopter had been designed and flown by Igor Sikorsky in 1939, but it wasn’t until the Second Indochina War that it saw much action.  Although the Geneva Accords prohibited foreign troops from fighting in Vietnam, the use of helicopters meant Americans would now go into areas where fighting was taking place.  Kennedy justified the expanded U.S. military role by saying it was a means, quote, “…to prevent a Communist takeover of Vietnam which is in accordance with a policy our government has followed since 1954.”  Unquote.  By the end of 1961, the cost the United States was paying, to prop up South Vietnam’s sagging army and to manage its own military effort in Vietnam, had risen to a million dollars per day.

1961 became 1962, and even with the increased American assistance, victory was no closer than it had been before.  But there could be no turning back now.  The United States had announced in no uncertain terms that it would stop the spread of communism, and now was committed to do that, no matter what the cost.  Withdrawal was unthinkable – it would cost the US too much prestige – and no American president wanted to be the first president to lose a war.  Already Americans were getting involved in firefights between South Vietnamese and the Viet Cong, but it was rarely reported in the news; the casualty counts were too low for the average American to care anyway.


On that note, I’m going to break off for today.  Join me next time as we look at both an increase in the American commitment, and the downfall of the Diem government.  And then if we have time, we will go to the Gulf of Tonkin incident, which gave the United States an excuse to send combat troops to Vietnam.  It’s going to be an exciting time for our narrative, and I’m sure you won’t want to miss it!  Fortunately this is a podcast, not a radio or TV program.  When I was a kid, if I missed a TV show, I didn’t have video recorders to catch the show for viewing later, nor did I have DVDs or videotapes.  If the show didn’t have a rerun on another day, it was gone.  Forever.  But while I may jokingly tell you to tune in at the “same bat-time, same bat-channel,” you don’t have to catch this podcast at a particular time.  Once the next episode goes up, it’s on the same website or app where you found this one, all ready for your listening pleasure.  So I’ll see you later!  Or as another TV show from my childhood used to say:

“See you real soon!”
“Why?  Because we like you!”

But seriously, I have been paying for this podcast from the start, and now it’s time for you to help.  Wars are expensive, as you heard today, and it costs money to put up podcasts about wars, too.  So if you enjoyed this episode and would like to give me a hand, make a donation through Paypal.  It’s a secure donation, with no danger of identity theft, and you can do it by going to the Paypal link at the bottom of the Blubrry.com page hosting any History of Southeast Asia Podcast episode.  Go below whatever content I have shared, and click on the gold button that says, “Donate.”  If you get your episodes from iTunes or any other source, I haven’t found a way to put the Donate button there, so you will have to visit Blubrry.  It is spelled like “blueberry” without the “Es,” so the URL or Internet address is http://www.B-L-U-B-R-R-Y.com/H-O-S-E-A-S-I-A/.&#160; If you think this episode was worth a dollar, go for it!


But wait, there’s more you can do!  Write a review and give the podcast some stars, if you haven’t done so already!  And in the name of keeping a presence in social media, this podcast has a Facebook page.  Currently the page has 470 “likes,” but I know there are many times that number of listeners, so if you’re on Facebook and you haven’t liked the page yet, that’s your assignment before we meet again.  And continue to spread the news about this podcast in the real world, to family, friends and acquaintances.  Since our current topic is the Indochina Wars, this podcast will be interesting to anyone who wants to know more Asian history, military history, and twentieth-century American history.  Now get to it.  Thank you for listening, and come back when the monsoon winds are blowing right!


Episode 71: The Second Indochina War, Part 1



Happy New Month, if you are listening on the day this episode was uploaded!  Here the podcast narrative will begin covering the Second Indochina War, or as Americans call it, the Vietnam War.  This is the table-setting episode for the conflict, describing Vietnam in the mid-1950s, the events that caused the war to begin, and the motivations for the United States to get involved.



Greetings, dear listeners!  And if you’re listening around the time I recorded this, I am back!  At the end of the previous episode, and on Facebook, I announced that this episode would be late, because I expected to be out of town.  Don’t worry, nothing was wrong.  My wife and I went on a short summer vacation to visit our daughter’s family.  I have two grandchildren, and because I don’t live in the same state as them, it’s my duty as a grandfather to go see them from time to time.  I am now sixty years old, and after listening to several other podcasts, I have gotten the impression that I am one of the oldest podcasters in the business.  Heck, I have listened to some very good podcasts done by people who are only half my age!

But enough with that, let’s get on with the show.  Now it is time to say good morning, Vietnam!  After a three-year progression from the stone age to the present, this podcast has finally reached what my American listeners will probably consider the climax of the whole series – the Second Indochina War, or as they call it, the Vietnam War.  Yes, it goes by more than one name; recently I learned that my Vietnamese listeners call it the “American War.”  And when I was in school some of my professors insisted on calling it the “Vietnam Conflict,” because the US Congress has not declared war on anybody since World War II.

This will be a difficult topic to cover; I will admit it here at the start.  First, it was a longer, more complicated struggle than the two World Wars, especially if you include the five episodes I have already devoted to the First Indochina War.  And because it was not a conventional war until the 1970s, I cannot explain it simply by presenting maps that show where the front lines were, and who controlled which pieces of territory.  As long as one side mainly relied on guerrillas to do most of the fighting, there weren’t really any front lines – all of South Vietnam was a battleground, as the 1968 Tet Offensive will show you.

Another factor is the emotional baggage.  In the 1990s I heard some young people complain that my generation doesn’t talk much about the Vietnam War.  Well, we had a good reason not to talk about Vietnam – we lost, sir!  Along that line, in 1998 and 1999 I posted what I knew about Southeast Asian history, in an online history club that no longer exists, Ancientsites.com.  Most of the time there weren’t any comments on what I wrote.  I think the first comment came when I wrote about the city-state of Malacca, which this podcast covered in Episode 11; somebody posted a message saying, “There’s a state I have heard of.”  Even World War II did not generate many comments, but when I got to the Vietnam War, a veritable flame war erupted, in which every participant was attacked except me!  It involved arguments over the war you might have heard before, like whether or not the war was winnable for the Americans, who caused the Americans to lose, and the disrespectful treatment given to returning veterans.  I thought 24 years was enough time to heal the psychological wounds caused by the fighting in Vietnam; the argument in that forum showed how wrong I was.  Now another 20 years have gone by, but with a lot of people still alive who remember the war, besides myself, if you’ll pardon the technical terms, the metabolic residue could encounter the air circulation system again.  I’ll give you a few seconds to think about what I meant by that.

Anyway, this episode will be what history podcasters call a table-setting episode.  Despite the title, we won’t be covering the actual Second Indochina War; I’m saving that for future episodes.  What we will cover are the events between 1954 and 1957, the three years from the end of the First Indochina War to the first acts of violence in the second war.  In that way we will see what caused the second war, and how the Americans were enticed to get involved in it.

For this episode, the main theater will be South Vietnam, but we will also go over to Europe and the United States to catch some key events happening there, and there will be one extraordinary interview in Hanoi, between the Vietnamese communist leader, Ho Chi Minh, and the protagonist of today’s story, Ngo Dinh Diem.  Finally, we will take a look at North Vietnam in the mid-to-late 1950s.  Are we ready?


Good, let’s resume the narrative!


Three countries were divided by the Cold War:  Germany, Korea, and Vietnam.  Each of them had two governments, one communist and the other non-communist.  In one way the United States treated Vietnam like the others; the Americans hoped that the Vietnamese would compare the two halves of their country, and realize they were better off in the part that wasn’t communist.  With Germany, this strategy was a complete success; even after the infamous Berlin Wall was built, the East Germans could look over the wall and see the brilliant lights, and the hustle and bustle, of West Berlin.  Eventually the people of East and West Germany got together, knocked down the Berlin Wall, and reunited their country as a capitalist state.  The wall stood for twenty-eight years, and I am recording this nearly thirty years after it came down; the wall has been down longer than it was up.  The American strategy has worked to a lesser extent in Korea; although Korea is still divided today, in the 1980s South Korea transformed itself from a military dictatorship into a true democracy.  I’m sure none of you will deny that South Korea is the successful half of the peninsula; North Korea has only survived because for most of the past seventy-one years, it kept itself hermetically sealed from the rest of the world, except for the two countries that gave it aid, China and Russia.

Unfortunately, South Vietnam turned out to be more like China under Chiang Kai-shek, than like South Korea or West Germany.  For all of its existence, the South Vietnamese government was corrupt, undemocratic, and totally ineffective when it came to defending itself or improving the lives of the people it ruled.  When the Americans chose to support the Saigon regime, they figured they could do a better job than the French because, after all, the French haven’t won too many wars since Napoleon surrendered at Waterloo.  In Episode 66, we saw that the French did win their battles, when they had the right general in command, but more people remembered the poor performance of France in both World Wars: France only came out on the winning side in those conflicts because it got help from Britain and the United States.  And right after the French left Indochina, they got involved in a war with another one of their colonies, this time Algeria.  Not only did they lose this war, it brought down their government, too, and forced France to bring back Charles de Gaulle as president, so the Algerian war has been called “the grave of the Fourth Republic.”

Anyway, the United States was not only stronger than France, it was also richer.  That was shown when the Americans paid the cost of rebuilding Western Europe, under the Marshall Plan.  In the next few episodes we will see how backing South Vietnam worked for the Americans.  Hint: it will not be too good!.

But let’s not get ahead of ourselves.  The last time our narrative looked at Vietnam was in 1954, when the First Indochina War ended.  For Vietnam, the Americans wanted a government that was both respectable and anticommunist.  But true nationalists who were not also communists were hard to find in 1954.  Many had been killed by the communists or the French.  Others withdrew from politics completely.  Still others moved to France, where they could express their ideas freely, but they could no longer get things done.  Into this vacuum stepped Ngo Dinh Diem, and Americans saw him as the savior Vietnam needed.

To start with, Diem had an appealing life story.  Born on January 3, 1901, he was the third of six sons, and he came from an upper-class family, what foreigners called mandarins in those days.  His father, Ngo Dinh Kha, was a counselor to the emperor Thanh Thai.  We mentioned this emperor in Episode 34; the French deposed him in 1907 because they thought he was insane.  Disgusted, Kha quit; because he had refused to sign a petition calling for the emperor’s abdication, he was subsequently stripped of all ranks, functions and honors, and not even given the pension which was entitled to him.  Afterwards he divided his time between meditating, farming a few rented acres, and running the school he had founded in Hue in 1896.  This school, the Quoc Hoc, combined Eastern and Western studies, and is the second oldest high school in Vietnam.  We have mentioned the school previously, because several future communists attended here: Ho Chi Minh, Pham Van Dong, and Vo Nguyen Giap.  Ngo Dinh Diem attended here too, because his father was the principal, after all.  If you ever visit Hue, drop in for a visit; the school is still open today.  In 1919, a few years before Kha’s death, the imperial court rehabilitated him, restoring his titles and rank, and paid him what he was owed on his pension.

Diem’s noble background gave him an air of sophistication that would someday appeal to many important Americans, as we will soon see.  Equally important, he was a devout Roman Catholic.  When French Catholic missionaries began coming to Vietnam in the seventeenth century, Diem’s ancestors were one of the first families to convert.  An elder brother, Ngo Dinh Thuc, was Archbishop of Hue from 1960 to 1968.  Thus, Catholic Vietnamese looked to Diem for leadership and protection; he responded by trusting few others.

For a while Diem considered becoming a priest like his brother Thuc, so he made a vow of celibacy, which he kept after he decided that the discipline required for the priesthood was too tough for him.  As a result, there were never any important women in his life.  An old acquaintance of his once remarked, quote: “A woman might have tempered his character.”  Unquote.  He followed his eldest brother, Ngo Dinh Khoi, into law school, went into the civil service immediately after graduation, and was appointed a provincial governor of Binh Thuan Province, when he was twenty-eight years old.  When comparing this step in his career with what happened later, this was probably the happiest time of his life.  At this job he rode on horseback through rice fields and mountains, and when he encountered communist agents spreading propaganda in the territory, he wrote anti-communist pamphlets, and worked hard at fighting corruption and improving the lives of peasants.  Political ideology had never mattered to the peasants before, so Diem described the experience with these words.  Quote: “I was working with advanced ideas in very small dimensions.”  Unquote.

Diem did such a good job as governor, that in 1933 the French recommended that Emperor Bao Dai appoint him to a Cabinet post, as Minister of the Interior.  They also put him on a commission to examine administrative reforms, but when the French refused his demand to establish a Vietnamese legislature with real influence, he resigned, after serving for only three months.  The French took away his decorations and titles, threatened to arrest him, and later fired his brother Khoi, who was also a governor by this time.  Realizing that the French would never willingly grant what he and the Vietnamese people wanted, Diem made this prediction.  Quote: “The Communists will defeat us, not by virtue of their strength, but because of our weakness.  They will win by default.”  Unquote.  After that Diem moved to Hue, and stayed there with his relatives for the next twelve years, quietly promoting the cause of Vietnamese independence.

When World War II arrived, the Japanese occupied Vietnam, as we saw in previous episodes, and they offered to make Diem prime minister in 1942.  He rejected the offer, after they turned down his request to make Vietnam independent at the same time; he would not serve in a government where he was a puppet of the Vichy French, who in turn were puppets of the Japanese.  Then in March 1945, when the Japanese kicked out the French, they offered Diem the job of prime minister again, but changed their minds at the last minute, because they realized they couldn’t control a prime minister with a personality as strong as Diem’s.  That move saved Diem’s career; from then on both friends and enemies admitted he was a certified patriot, who had never collaborated with either the French or the Japanese.

However, Diem ran foul of the communists.  In September 1945, right after World War II ended, Diem warned Bao Dai against cooperating with the Viet Minh, and on his way back to Hue from that trip, the Viet Minh kidnaped him.  They held him prisoner for six months.  For most of that time, Diem was sick with malaria and dysentery, while in a separate incident, the Viet Minh shot his brother Khoi, and Khoi’s son.  In February 1946, they took Diem to Hanoi to meet with Ho Chi Minh.  Ho offered Diem the same position he had held in Bao Dai’s government; this time he would be the Viet Minh Minister of the Interior.  Ho’s thinking was that if Diem was on his team, Catholics would come around to support the Viet Minh.  Later on, in 1961, Diem recalled the conversation they had.  This is a long quote, and I want you to keep in mind that we only have Diem’s side of the story, so we cannot be sure these are the words they actually exchanged.  Diem spoke first.

<Read conversation between Ngo Dinh Diem and Ho Chi Minh>

That was when Diem walked out.  Soon after the meeting, Ho released Diem.  Later on, Ho’s associates would admit that letting Diem go was a mistake.  They sentenced him to death in absentia, and tried at least once to kill him, when he made a trip to the Mekong delta, to visit his brother Thuc.  Taking the hint, Diem stayed abroad from 1950 to 1954.  This time it looked like he would become a priest, or at least a monk.  First he went to the Vatican, then to the Maryknoll seminary in Lakewood, New Jersey.  Here he lived humbly for two years, scrubbing floors, washing dishes, and praying.  But he also made friends with some powerful Americans: Francis Spellman, the cardinal of New York; Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas; and two senators, Mike Mansfield of Montana and John F. Kennedy of Massachusetts.

None of those Americans were part of the Eisenhower administration, though, and the US government was not yet ready to support someone like Diem, because it was already committed to the French.  So in 1953 he moved to Europe, where he bounced between a Benedictine monastery in Belgium and Paris; in Paris his youngest brother, Luyen, was working as an engineer.  He finally got the break he needed, when the battle of Dien Bien Phu, which we covered in Episode 68, persuaded the French to leave Vietnam for good.  It just so happened that Bao Dai, the former emperor and now first president of South Vietnam, was in France, too.  Bao Dai, his wife, and five children were staying at a chateau in Cannes, the beach resort that is now famous for its film festival, but he also kept a Vietnamese mistress in Paris, and his aides could provide him with French girls if he asked for them.  Like Diem, he had gone to France out of concern for his safety, but with the First Indochina War winding down and real independence coming to Vietnam, he realized he would now have to act like a real head of state.  To do this successfully he would need all the friends he could get, and he thought if he had Diem on his side, the Americans would keep sending him military and economic aid, so he summoned Diem.  On June 18, 1954, he made Diem swear before a crucifix that he would defend Vietnam, quote, “against the Communists and, if necessary, against the French.”  Unquote.  With that, Diem became Bao Dai’s prime minster.  Little did Bao Dai know, he had just elevated the man who would soon end his own career.

Meanwhile, as the French withdrew from Indochina, the American Secretary of State, John Foster Dulles, conceived a plan for a military alliance to keep communism from spreading in Southeast Asia.  This was SEATO, the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization.  In September 1954, two months after the Geneva Accords ending the First Indochina War were signed, representatives from eight nations met in Manila to sign a treaty of alliance, called the Southeast Asia Collective Defense Treaty, or Manila Pact.  A follow-up meeting was held in Bangkok in February 1955, and Bangkok was the organization’s headquarters thereafter.

Because another anti-communist alliance, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, or NATO, had been a success, SEATO was modeled after it.  However, SEATO had shortcomings that limited its effectiveness.  To start with, the name was inaccurate.  Of the eight member nations, only two of them were in Southeast Asia: the Philippines and Thailand.  If you have listened to the past few episodes, that shouldn’t surprise you; those are the two most pro-American countries in the region.  Although the Philippines were now independent, they tended to do whatever the United States did, when it came to foreign policy; the US bases in the Philippines also created thousands of jobs for Filipinos.  As for the Thais, the United States had been good to them, even though Thailand was on the side of the Japanese in World War II, and we saw in Episode 61 that the current Thai leader, Field Marshal Phibun Songgram, was definitely anti-communist.

The other six members of SEATO were countries that had interests in Southeast Asia:  the United Kingdom, New Zealand, Australia, France, Pakistan and of course, the United States.  Malaya was not independent yet, and Burma and Indonesia were not interested in joining, because they wanted to stay neutral in the Cold War; later on, both Burma and Indonesia would become important players in the Non-Aligned Movement.  The four countries in Indochina (Cambodia, Laos, North Vietnam and South Vietnam) were prohibited from joining by the Geneva Accords, since their status was likely to change, after the promised elections to reunite Vietnam.

Worst of all, SEATO’s members were only required to act if communism presented a “common danger” to all of them, and members were expected to deal with a guerrilla insurgency by themselves.  This meant the alliance only worked if there was an invasion by conventional forces, like what the Japanese did in 1941.  Long-time listeners will know that most wars in Southeast Asia involve guerrillas; the jungles and mountains make conventional warfare unfeasible in most places.  In World War II, for example, the only part of Southeast Asia that saw much action with tanks was Luzon, the largest island of the Philippines.  Like too many generals, Dulles was preparing for the last, rather than the next war.  Because no invader marched in with banners and bugles, SEATO sat mostly inert in one of the world’s most troubled areas.

SEATO’s only contribution came during the Second Indochina War, when it sent soldiers from five nations to fight alongside the Americans in Vietnam.  Here are the nations and the number of troops they committed:

The United States sent 2,709,918 personnel during the war years, 1961 to 1975.  American involvement peaked in April 1969, when there were 543,000 American troops in Vietnam.  More about them in future episodes of this podcast.

South Korea sent 320,000; the most in Vietnam at any time was 48,000.  Although South Korea was not a member of SEATO, it owed the Americans a favor after the Korean War.

Australia sent 50,190; the most in Vietnam at any time was 7,192.  Normally Australia and the United States are the best of friends, but the involvement of both in Vietnam seriously strained their relationship.  The troops were pulled out by Gough Whitlam, the most anti-American prime minister Australia has had so far.

Thailand contributed 32,000, and unlike the other nations, it sent some of them into Laos, which is just across the Mekong River.

New Zealand sent 3,500, of which no more than 552 were in Vietnam at any time, and the Philippines sent 2,061.

Despite all this, the only member of the multinational coalition that the news media paid attention to was the United States; since then the world has forgotten the participation of the others.  Even before the war ended, Pakistan quit SEATO, because the Pakistanis were expecting the other members to help them in their 1971 war against India, and that didn’t happen.  That war was fought over Bangladesh, then called East Pakistan, and if you will look at a map, Bangladesh is on the edge of Southeast Asia, next to Burma/Myanmar.  After the Second Indochina War ended, SEATO no longer had a reason to exist, and on June 30, 1977, it was dissolved by the mutual consent of its members.


Now let’s get back to what was happening in South Vietnam.  With the French out of the game, the United States could now commit itself to Diem, and even before Diem returned, some Americans came to Saigon to check out the situation for themselves.  In the long run, the most important of these agents was an Air Force officer, Colonel Edward Lansdale.  We met him in Episode 62.  Lansdale was an OSS agent during World War II; after the war he found a superb Filipino leader, Ramon Magsaysay, helped him get elected president of the Philippines, and then helped him suppress the communist insurgency in those islands, the Hukbalahap Rebellion.  Now he worked with the CIA, the Central Intelligence Agency, and because his activities in the Philippines went so well, the CIA sent him to South Vietnam to do the same thing there.  Thus, from 1954 to 1957 he was stationed in Saigon, acting as Diem’s chief American advisor, and working to train and organize the fledgling South Vietnamese armed forces.

For a year the playboy and the puritan made an odd couple. Bao Dai thought he was using Ngo Dinh Diem, but the tail was strong enough to wag the dog.  Three months after his arrival in Saigon, Diem launched a pacification campaign to get rid of his rivals in the capital, feeling that would prove himself worthy of American support.  The first to go was Nguyen Van Hinh, the pro-French Vietnamese general from the First Indochina War.  Bao Dai had put him in charge of the Vietnamese National Army, but he refused to recognize Diem’s authority, declaring that South Vietnam needed a “strong and popular” leader like himself.  Of course.  Diem ordered him to leave the country, but still acting defiant, Hinh drove around the city on a motorcycle, displaying his expulsion notice, and then barricaded himself in his headquarters with tanks.  This could have been the beginning of a coup, but Bao Dai defused it by inviting Hinh to France for “consultations,” in November 1954, and subsequently relieved Hinh of his command, while Lansdale cut off the general from his base of support by moving Hinh’s top lieutenants to Manila.

When it came to winning over the Americans, Diem’s strategy worked.  The United States government made its first pledge to Diem at the beginning of 1955:  $300 million in military aid.  Later in the same year, they also overhauled the Vietnamese National Army, making so many changes that it needed a new name, the Army of the Republic of Vietnam, or A-R-V-N.  In future episodes you will hear me call it ARVN for short.

We have met the other rivals before.  They included Saigon’s mafia, called Binh Xuyen, and two new religious sects I introduced in Episode 35, the Cao Dai and Hoa Hao.  All of them had private armies; the Binh Xuyen force had 40,000 men, the Cao Dai had 25,000, and the Hoa Hao had 30,000.  In addition, the religious sects gained control over several districts near Saigon and in the Mekong delta, after the Geneva Accords forced the Viet Minh to evacuate these areas in 1954.  Against these groups, Diem had 151,000 troops of his own, but only 10,000 were deployed around Saigon, and he could not be sure of their loyalty.  He realized that the other groups were a real threat during the crisis with General Hinh; first the Binh Xuyen guarded Diem’s palace with armed men, then they switched their allegiance to Hinh.  Afterwards, Diem called the Binh Xuyen, quote, “gangsters of the worst sort,” unquote, and in January 1955 he revoked their license to operate the Grand Monde casino, a major source of income.  Then in March the armies of the Binh Xuyen, Cao Dai and Hoa Hao all assembled in Saigon.  They formed what they called a “United Front” to oppose Diem, but they could not agree on who would replace him.  There was a clash on the night of March 29-30, but the French, who had not yet finished evacuating Saigon, kept their troops and tanks between the two sides long enough to persuade them to accept a cease-fire.  This lasted for a month, the Cao Dai forces withdrew from Saigon, and then at the end of April, Diem attacked the now-isolated Binh Xuyen.  In a brief but violent urban battle that left between 500 and 1,000 people dead, 2,000 wounded, and about 20,000 homeless, the Vietnamese National Army crushed the Binh Xuyen gang.

Diem felt he could make a deal with the Cao Dai and Hoa Hao armies, because they had fought the communists during the recent war.  Late in 1954 he sent Lansdale and his younger brother, Ngo Dinh Nhu, to negotiate with the sectarian army commanders.  These generals were persuaded, usually by bribes, to join the South Vietnamese army, and bring their troops with them.  Some of the bribe money came from the CIA, but my sources disagree on how much the CIA spent; estimates range from $3 million to $12 million.  Lansdale contacted a renegade Cao Dai commander, twenty-four-year-old Colonel Trinh Minh Thé, who led 2,500 troops and had fought both the French and the communists.  They got along great, and it didn’t take much persuasion on Lansdale’s part to make the Colonel join the  official army.  Thus, for the battle against the Binh Xuyen gang, Thé fought on Diem’s side.  But just a few days later, on May 3, Thé was shot in the back of the head by a sniper.  To this day we don’t know who ordered Thé’s assassination, or if he would have stayed loyal to the government had he lived.

Four Hoa Hao units had refused offers to join Diem’s army; they declared that they recognized Bao Dai as the only leader of Vietnam, and fought on the side of the Binh Xuyen in Saigon.  In the Mekong delta they staged several attacks, the main one being a mortar bombardment into the city of Can Tho.  Diem’s army, led by General Duong Van Minh, launched a counterattack in the delta in June, that drove the Hoa Hao forces to the Cambodian border by the end of the month.  Duong Van Minh was nicknamed “Big Minh” because he stood six feet tall, a rare height in Vietnam.  Remember him; we will see him again in future episodes of this podcast.  Anyway, three of the Hoa Hao units surrendered, leaving 3,000 men under the command of Ba Cut, a cruel, fanatical guerrilla who claimed Diem was trying to turn Vietnam into a Catholic country.

Next, Diem turned on Bao Dai.  Bao Dai had tried to remove Diem from office during the Saigon battle, by summoning him to France.  Diem not only ignored the summons, he also announced an election for October 23, 1955, in which the voters would choose whether they wanted a monarchy under Bao Dai, or a republic under Diem.  Because Bao Dai had never returned to Vietnam, and many Vietnamese still saw him as a French puppet, Diem had all the advantages in this campaign.  He banned campaigning for Bao Dai, and used the police and army to enforce the ban.  Meanwhile, the Diem campaign portrayed Diem as the morally straight hero of the Vietnamese people, while emphasizing Bao Dai’s decadent lifestyle, especially his gambling habit and his endless appetite for women.  Lansdale, who always preferred psychological warfare, made up red ballots bearing Diem’s name and green ballots with Bao Dai’s name; in Vietnamese culture, red is a symbol of good luck, while green represents bad luck.  There were also some goons in the polling stations, and they beat up the voters they caught casting green ballots.  However, this was Diem’s idea, not Lansdale’s; Lansdale knew that dirty tricks should not be obvious.  He told Diem not to rig the vote, because he would probably win anyway, with a 60-70% majority.  But Diem didn’t want a majority victory, he wanted a unanimous one.  Therefore, the vote counters reported that Diem won with 98.2% of the vote; in Saigon they reported 600,000 ballots cast for Diem, though there were only 450,000 registered voters!

With that overwhelming victory, Diem deposed Bao Dai, proclaimed the creation of the Republic of Vietnam, and named himself as president.  Bao Dai has appeared several times in this narrative, since Episode 34, but now we are done with him.  For the rest of his life, Bao Dai’s home was in France; he died there in 1997, at the age of 83.


In October 1955 Diem also sent troops to take back Tay Ninh, the province just northwest of Saigon that was the Cao Dai headquarters.  Pham Cong Tac, the Cao Dai pope, fled to Cambodia, and the remaining Cao Dai leaders were incorporated into the South Vietnamese bureaucracy and military.  As for the Hoa Hao, their resistance ended with the capture of Ba Cut in April 1956.  He was put on trial, accused of both treason and collaboration with the communists (the latter charge was probably false), and sentenced to death.  For the sentence, Diem showed what he had learned from the French; instead of sending Ba Cut to a firing squad, he had him publicly guillotined.


Ooooh.  Then to finish up the pacification campaign, Diem went after the 10,000 or so communists that had stayed south of the Demilitarized Zone, when Vietnam was divided in 1954.  Those arrested were denied counsel and hauled before "security committees," with many suspects tortured or sent to Pulo Condore Island, modern Con Son, the same island where the French used to imprison Vietnamese nationalists.  Often the police executed prisoners, and reported they were, quote, “shot while attempting escape.”  Unquote.  By the end of 1956, the army could claim it had smashed 90 percent of the Viet Minh cells in the Mekong delta; the remaining communists had to move constantly to avoid capture.

Ngo Dinh Diem had brought stability and security to South Vietnam, and this gained him praise and admiration from American officials.  In May 1957 he visited Washington D.C., where President Eisenhower hailed him as the "miracle man" of Asia, and reaffirmed the US commitment with these words.  Quote:  "The cost of defending freedom, of defending America, must be paid in many forms and in many places…military as well as economic help is currently needed in Vietnam."  Unquote.  Even those Americans who didn’t like Diem gave their support, because he was the only Vietnamese leader they had on their side.  At this stage Diem was at the peak of his career; afterwards his many failings would cause him to make grave errors, with violent consequences.

The first error was probably unavoidable, in view of the circumstances.  The 1954 Geneva Accords called for elections to reunify Vietnam by July 1956.  Diem rejected the accords, and announced in the middle of 1955 that he would not allow the elections to be held.  He had his reasons.  He said the elections could not be “absolutely free,” if part of the voting took place in communist-ruled territory.  Though this was true, he also knew that he didn’t have much chance of winning, because of simple demographics.  The population of North Vietnam was larger than that of South Vietnam, and Diem had no control over the voting that took place north of the 17th parallel, so the communists were likely to win a nationwide vote.  A few years earlier in Eastern Europe, the Soviet Union had imposed communist governments on the countries the Red Army “liberated” at the end of World War II, and then the Soviets staged rigged elections to make those governments look legitimate, so everybody knew that Ho Chi Minh could stuff ballot boxes, too.  Thus, the July 1956 deadline came and went with no voting.  In January 1957 the Soviet Union proposed that North and South Vietnam be admitted into the United Nations as, quote, “two separate states . . . which differ from one another in political and economic structure.”  Unquote.  The United States rejected this proposal, because it would have meant recognizing a communist government.  That was a mistake, and another missed opportunity regarding Vietnam, because future wars might have been avoided if there had been a place where the North and South Vietnamese governments could talk.  Indeed, North and South Korea both joined the UN in 1991 for that reason.  As Winston Churchill reportedly once said, quote, “To jaw-jaw is always better than to war-war.”  Unquote.

Diem’s decision not to hold the elections may have been sound, and his American advisors agreed with it, but it was the spark that touched off the Second Indochina War.  At the end of 1956, the communists south of the Demilitarized Zone received their first orders from Hanoi since 1954 – they were now authorized to begin a low-level insurgency, a campaign of terrorism with bombings and assassinations.  The first acts of violence took place in October 1957; by the end of the year, they had killed more than 400 minor officials of the Saigon Regime.  Soon, the remnants of the Binh Xuyen, Cao Dai and Hoa Hao forces that had escaped the South Vietnamese army would join them.  Together they would become the first Viet Cong guerrillas.

Podcast footnote: According to the US Department of Defense, the official date for the beginning of the Second Indochina War is November 1, 1955.  On that day, the Military Assistance Advisory Group, or MAAG Vietnam, was created to support South Vietnam in its war against the North Vietnamese communists.  It replaced MAAG Indochina, which had been established by President Harry Truman in 1950.  Of course this is a purely arbitrary date.  As you just saw, Ngo Dinh Diem did not go after the communists until 1956, and the communists did not begin to fight back until October 1957, almost two years after that date.  The DoD picked that date so it could define who was a Vietnam War casualty; the definition is now any American killed in Vietnam between November 1, 1955 and April 30, 1975.  The first American to fit those criteria was Air Force Technical Sergeant Richard B. Fitzgibbon Jr., who was murdered by another American airman in Saigon on June 8, 1956.  And yes, his name is included on the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington, D.C.  End footnote.


Now what was happening in North Vietnam, while Diem was consolidating his control over the South?   Well, Ho Chi Minh did not have to worry about armed religious sects or gangsters; the people who stayed in North Vietnam after 1954 were overall loyal.  The problems he faced were economic ones.  Railroads, bridges and buildings had been destroyed, so a major infrastructure building program was required.  And while the Red River delta was a major rice-growing area, it did not produce enough to feed the north’s population; in the past, northern Vietnam had depended on the south to make up for the shortfall.  It took emergency rice imports from Burma, paid for by the Soviet Union, to prevent a famine like the one that afflicted northern Vietnam in 1945.  Here is how the war correspondent Bernard Fall explained the situation in his 1954 article The Cease-Fire in Indochina–An Appraisal.  Quote:

“North Vietnam now faces the tremendous problems of having to rebuild its part of the country practically from the ground up.  The Red River Delta, far from being a rice bowl, must import 250,000 tons yearly to meet its own minimum needs.  The Viet Minh must rebuild the communications system (canals, power stations and lines, roads, bridges and railroads) it had so efficiently sabotaged and destroyed for eight years.  And it must make good on its promises of land reform.  This Ho Chi Minh will find difficult to do.”

End quote.

Ho Chi Minh visited first Beijing, and then Moscow, in 1955, where he met the Chinese and Soviet leaders and accepted aid packages from them.  Both governments probably also reminded him that it was time to carry out the radical reforms that communist governments are known for.  In the Soviet Union, the Bolshevik Revolution had been followed by a devastating civil war, and after the war Vladimir Lenin had left the economy alone so it could recover, from 1921 to 1928.  By the end of the recovery period, Joseph Stalin had replaced Lenin as the top Soviet leader, and he launched his first five-year plan to restructure both agriculture and industry.  In the case of agriculture, that meant replacing private farms with collectives; those farmers who had gotten rich over the past few years, who the Russians called Kulaks, were plundered and sent to the Gulag, Stalin’s network of prison camps.

Accordingly, in 1955 the North Vietnamese Communist Party, the Lao Dong, launched its own collectivization program, without first allowing a period of recovery.  Peasants were grouped into five categories; the richest five percent were called “landlords” and the poorest were called “farm workers.”  Landlords were forced to give up their land to peasants who had little or no land, and in an effort to reorganize society, the landlords were made to do menial work, and other peasants were not allowed to call them “mister,” “sir” or any other title of respect.  Peasants were given quotas on how many landlords they had to turn in; a community of two thousand people, for example, was expected to have twenty landlords.  One of my sources tells a story about a group of Lao Dong cadres who went to a village and only found two “landlords”; they were told to go back and find six more, and they did it by grabbing six random peasants.  Suspected enemies like Catholic priests and missionaries, Buddhist monks, upper and middle class city-dwellers, Francophiles, academics and intellectuals were denounced to “security committees” and arrested; hasty “trials” led to between 10,000 and 15,000 executions and the sending of thousands more to forced labor camps.  Those in the camps were kept indefinitely, not knowing if they would ever be released.

In August 1956 Ho Chi Minh had to admit that the ideological campaign had gotten out of control; by now even some Viet Minh veterans of the previous war had been executed.  The secretary-general of the Communist Party, Truong Chinh, was dismissed from that job, but since he remained a member of the Politburo, the party’s senior committee, this was only a slight punishment.  Now a “Campaign for the Rectification of Errors” was launched, but while the peasants were told to forgive and forget, not all were willing to do so.  November 1956 saw a major peasant revolt in Nghe An, the province where Ho Chi Minh was born.  Ho responded exactly the same way the French had responded, when that province experienced another revolt back in 1930 – he sent in one division of troops, and they killed or deported an estimated 6,000 peasants.  The communists got away with this atrocity because the world was paying attention to two other news stories at the same time: the 1956 Suez Canal crisis, and the Soviet Union’s use of tanks to suppress an uprising in Hungary.

After a brief time out, Ho Chi Minh announced the launching of a “three-year plan for the development and reorganization of the economy,” which would run from 1958 to 1960.  As with similar programs in the Soviet Union and China, this meant all land, individual enterprises and privately owned wealth were seized; land was first redistributed to landless peasants, then reorganized into large collective farms.  When the three-year plan ended, the Lao Dong was able to claim significant progress had been made.  North Vietnam had more than 40,000 agricultural co-operatives, spanning almost nine-tenths of the country’s farmland.  Rice production reached 5.4 million tons, more than twice the amount of harvests in the 1930s, and there was also increased production of corn, sweet potatoes and beans.  The three-year plan also set goals of 86 percent growth in traditional manufacturing and almost 170 percent in heavy industry, but these were not met.  Still, with a helping hand from other communist countries, North Vietnam was able to build new factories, power plants, and coal mines.  The main challenges to the development of industry were a shortage of skilled workers, and a lack of cash to pay for raw materials that needed to be imported.


Okay, that’s enough for today!  We covered a lot of material, and I don’t like to record episodes that run for more than an hour, so I’d better break off here.  Join me next time as we continue the narrative.  In the next episode we will see a new conflict blaze up in South Vietnam, and a new administration take charge in the United States, under newly elected President Kennedy.  The new American leaders will decide that just sending money and military equipment to South Vietnam isn’t enough – they will send American advisors as well.  As one popular saying puts it, if you want something done right, you have to do it yourself.  Now that I’m back, take your summer vacation, if you haven’t already, or a winter vacation if you’re in the southern hemisphere, and I hope to see you again afterwards!

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