Vietnam War - Diem Era 1955 - 1963
Accords, concluded between France and the Viet Minh in 1954, partitioned
Vietnam pending national elections (under international supervision) to be held by 20
July 1956. Much as in Korea,
the agreement stipulated that the two military zones were to be separated by a
temporary demarcation line (known as the Demilitarized Zone or DMZ). In
June 1955, Prime Minister Ngo Dinh Diem of the State of Vietnam (South
Vietnam) announced that elections would not be held. South Vietnam had rejected
the agreement from the beginning and was therefore not bound by it, he said.
"How can we expect 'free elections' to be held in the Communist North?" Diem
asked. President Dwight D. Eisenhower echoed senior U.S. experts when he wrote
that, in 1954, "80 per cent of the population would have voted for the Communist
Ho Chi Minh" over Emperor Bao Dai.
The Domino Theory, which argued that if one country
fell to communist forces, then all of the surrounding countries would follow,
was first proposed as policy by the Eisenhower administration. It was, and is
still, commonly hypothesized that it applied to Vietnam. John F. Kennedy, then a
U.S. senator, said in a speech to the American Friends of Vietnam: "Burma,
Thailand, India, Japan, the Philippines and obviously Laos and Cambodia are
among those whose security would be threatened if the Red Tide of Communism overflowed into Vietnam."
Dinh Diem was named premier of South Vietnam in 1954 by former emperor and
Head of State Bao
Dai. A devout Roman Catholic, he was fervently anti-communist
and was "untainted" by any connection to the French. He was one of the few
prominent Vietnamese nationalists who could claim both attributes. Historian Luu
Doan Huynh notes, however, that "Diem represented narrow and extremist
nationalism coupled with autocracy and nepotism."
In April and June 1955, Diem (against U.S. advice) cleared the decks of any
political opposition by launching military operations against the Cao Dai religious sect, the Hoa Hao sect, and the Binh Xuyen organized crime group
(which was allied with members of the secret police and some military elements).
As broad-based opposition to his harsh tactics mounted, Diem increasingly sought
to blame the communists.
Beginning in the summer of 1955, he launched the "Denounce the Communists"
campaign, during which communists and other anti-government elements were
arrested, imprisoned, tortured, or executed. Diem instituted a policy of death
penalty against any activity deemed communist in August 1956. Opponents were labeled Viet Cong
("Vietnamese communist") by the regime to degrade their nationalist credentials.
During this period refugees moved across the demarcation line in both
directions. Around 52,000 Vietnamese civilians moved from south to north.
However, 800,000 people fled north Vietnam to the south, mostly in aircraft and
ships provided by France and the U.S. CIA propaganda
efforts increased the outflow with slogans such as "the Virgin Mary is going
South." The northern, mainly Catholic refugees were meant to give Diem a strong
anti-communist constituency. Diem later went on
to staff his administration's key posts mostly with northern and central
Catholics. As a measure of the level of political repression, about 12,000
suspected opponents of Diem were killed in the years 1955–1957 and by the end of
1958 an estimated 40,000 political prisoners had been jailed.
In a referendum on the future of the monarchy, Diem rigged the poll
supervised by his brother Ngo
Dinh Nhu and was accredited with 98.2 percent of the vote, including 133% in
Saigon. His American advisers had recommended a more modest winning margin of
"60 to 70 percent." Diem, however, viewed the election as a test of
authority. On 26 October
1955, Diem declared the new Republic of Vietnam, with himself as president.
The Republic of
Vietnam was created largely because of the Eisenhower administration's desire
for an anti-communist state in the region.
As a wealthy Catholic, Diem was viewed by many ordinary Vietnamese as part of
the old elite who had helped the French rule Vietnam. The majority of Vietnamese
people were Buddhist, so his attack on the Buddhist community served only to
deepen mistrust. In May, Diem undertook a ten-day state visit to the United States. President
Eisenhower pledged his continued support. A parade in New York City was held in
his honor. Although Diem was openly praised, in private Secretary of State John Foster
Dulles conceded that he had been selected because there were no better
split led to a reduction in the influence of PRC, which had insisted in 1954
that the Viet Minh accept a
division of the country. Trường Chinh, North Vietnam's pro-PRC
party first secretary, was demoted and Hanoi authorized communists in South
Vietnam to begin a low level insurgency in December 1956. This insurgency in the south had begun in response to Diem's Denunciation of
Communists campaign, in which thousands of local Viet Minh cadres and supporters
had been executed or sent to concentration camps, and was in violation of the
Northern Communist party line which had enjoined them not to start an
insurrection, but rather engage in a political campaign, agitating for a free
all-Vietnam election in accordance with the Geneva accords.
Ho Chi Minh stated, "Do
not engage in military operations; that will lead to defeat. Do not take land
from a peasant. Emphasize nationalism rather than communism. Do not antagonize
anyone if you can avoid it. Be selective in your violence. If an assassination
is necessary, use a knife, not a rifle or grenade. It is too easy to kill
innocent bystanders with guns and bombs, and accidental killing of the innocent
bystanders will alienate peasants from the revolution. Once an assassination has
taken place, make sure peasants know why the killing occurred." This strategy
was referred to as "armed propaganda."
Soon afterward, Lê
Duẩn, a communist leader who had been working in the South, returned to
Hanoi to accept the position of acting first secretary, effectively replacing
Trường. Duẩn urged a military line and advocated increased assistance to the
insurgency. Four hundred government officials were assassinated in 1957 alone, and
the violence gradually increased. While the terror was originally aimed at local
government officials, it soon broadened to include other symbols of the
status quo, such as schoolteachers,
health workers, and agricultural
According to one estimate, 20 percent of South Vietnam's village chiefs had
been assassinated by the insurgents by 1958. (The village chiefs were Diem appointees from outside the villages and were
hated by the peasantry for their corruption and abuse.) The insurgency sought to completely destroy government control in South
Vietnam's rural villages and replace it with a shadow government.
In January 1959, the North's Central Committee issued a secret resolution
authorizing an "armed struggle". This authorized the southern communists to
begin large-scale operations against the South Vietnamese military. North
Vietnam supplied troops and supplies in earnest, and the infiltration of men and
weapons from the north began along the Ho Chi Minh Trail.
In May, South Vietnam enacted Law 10/59, which made political violence
punishable by death and property confiscation.
Observing the increasing unpopularity of the Diem regime, on 12 December
1960, Hanoi authorized the creation of the
Front as a common
front controlled by the communist party in the South.
Successive American administrations, as Robert McNamara and others have noted,
overestimated the control that Hanoi had over the NLF. Diem's paranoia, repression, and incompetence progressively angered large
segments of the population of South Vietnam. According to a November 1960 report by the head of the US military advisory
team, Lieutenant General Lionel
C. McGarr, a "significant part" of the population in the south supported the
communists. The communists
thus had a degree of popular support for their campaign to bring down Diem and
reunify the country.