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.”
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!
I end each episode with a few requests, and here they are. If you enjoyed this episode and would like to hear more like it, the best way to support the podcast is by making a secure donation through Paypal. Go to the Paypal link at the bottom of the Blubrry.com page hosting this episode, and click on the button that says “Donate,” under the words “Support this podcast!” If you aren’t listening to this on Blubrry, the webpage is spelled like “Blueberry,” but without the “Es.” It’s http://www.B-L-U-B-R-R-Y.com/H-O-S-E-A-S-I-A/.  Once you get there, click on any episode’s link and scroll down, below my description of the episode and any pictures I have included with it, until you reach the donate button.
If you can’t make a donation at this time, that’s all right, you can also write a review. Last week I checked out the reviews on iTunes, where there is a fine collection of them; I counted at least nineteen. Now I would like to see more reviews on the other websites and apps that host this show. If that is where you listen, by all means add a few words. And if you don’t give it five stars, give some constructive advice; that’s helpful, too. “Like” the History of Southeast Asia Podcast Facebook page, so you won’t miss an episode, and anything connected to it, like my recent announcement about going out of town. And keep on spreading the word to your family and friends in the real world; this month I printed up some business cards, to give to anyone I meet who might be interested. That’s all for now, so thank you for listening, and come back when the monsoon winds are blowing right!