Following the Cold War dictates of the containment of the spread of communism, the United States (and Great Britain) recognized the government of former emperor Bao Dai in 1949, when the French established it as an alternative to the government of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam, led by the Indochinese Communist Party (see “Indochinese Communist Party” 5/12/2014; “The Vietminh and the taking of power” 5/13/2014; “Vietnam declares independence” 5/14/2014). Direct US economic aid to the Bao Dai government, including the sending of military and civilian advisors, began in 1951. By 1953, US aid to France covered 60% of the costs of the French Indochina War; by 1954, US aid reached 80% of the war costs. US generals participated directly in the development of war strategies, and high US officials, including Secretary of State John Foster Dulles and Vice President Richard Nixon, traveled to Indochina (García Oliveras 2010:80, 91-92).
Prior to the Geneva Accords of 1954, however, the US government was reluctant to involve itself extensively in the conflict. But in 1955, the United States became more actively involved, placing its hopes on Ngo Dinh Diem, who had been named Prime Minister by Bao Dai in 1954. Diem had travelled to the United States from 1950 to 1953, presenting himself as an independent nationalist alternative to the communists led by Ho Chi Minh. After the Geneva Accords, Diem and the United States began to define South Vietnam as a separate and permanent government, and they ignored the Geneva proposal for national elections unifying the northern and southern zones of Vietnam. In November 1954, for example, General J. Lawton Collins, sent to Indochina by President Eisenhower, declared that the United States would give all aid possible to the government of Diem, asserting that it is “the legal government of Vietnam.” In order to try to give some legitimacy to the Diem government, elections of questionable validity were held, with less than 15% of the people participating (Prina 2008:21-23; García Oliveras 2010:105-7; Ho 2007:139-40; Duiker 2000:468-69).
During the Diem regime, popular demonstrations and protests emerged. They represented a wide variety of political organizations and religious groups, and they were harshly repressed (Prina 2008:24; García Oliveras 2010:118).
The government of Diem was a repressive regime (García Oliveras 2010:155). US historian William Duiker writes:
“That summer , Diem launched a ‘denounce the Communists’ campaign to destroy the remnants of the Vietminh movement throughout the South. Thousands were arrested on suspicion of taking part in subversive activities. Some were sent to concentration camps—or incarcerated in the infamous ‘tiger cages’ once used by the French colonial regime on Poulo Condore Island—while others were executed” (2000:472).
“Between 1957 and 1959, more than two thousand suspected Communists were executed, often by guillotine after being convicted by roving tribunals that circulated throughout rural regions of the RVN [Republic of Vietnam, or South Vietnam]; thousands more who were suspected of sympathy with the revolutionary cause were arrested and placed in prison” (2000:510).
In relation to the issue of land distribution in South Vietnam, Duiker writes:
“Perhaps Diem’s worst failing was his inability to comprehend the needs of the peasants, who made up more than 80 percent of the population of the RVN. At U.S. urging, the Saigon regime launched a land reform program of its own to rectify the vast inequalities in the distribution of land (about 1 percent of the population owned half the cultivated acreage in the country and poor peasants often paid up to one third of their annual harvest in rent to absentee landlords). Wealthy landholders or the affluent bourgeoisie in the large cities, who could be expected to oppose a land reform program as inimical to their own interests, were among the government’s most fervent supporters. As a consequence, the land reform legislation was written with loopholes large enough to make it easy for landlords to evade its provisions, and after several years of operation, only about 10 percent of eligible tenant farmers had received any land. In many instances, families living in previously Vietminh-held areas were now forced to return land they had received during the Franco-Vietminh conflict to its previous owners, often at gunpoint. For them, as for many of their compatriots throughout the country, the Diem regime represented little improvement over the colonial era. By the end of the 1950s, much of the countryside in South Vietnam was increasingly receptive to the demand for radical change” (2000:511).
In this context of a repressive government in alliance with the landholding class and supported by the United States, an armed struggle emerged in the South, as we will discuss in the next post.
Duiker, William J. 2000. Ho Chi Minh. New York: Hyperion.
García Oliveras, Julio A. 2010. Ho Chi Minh El Patriota: 60 años de lucha revolucionaria. La Habana: Editorial de Ciencias Sociales.
Prina, Agustín. 2008. La Guerra de Vietnam. Mexico: Ocean Sur.
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