Because of the repression by the Diem regime, there emerged by 1957 the widespread view among the masses and the Party leaders of the South that the continuation of the armed struggle would be necessary. Clandestine networks were formed. Consciousness-raising activities among the people were carried out. Armed self-defense units were organized (García Oliveras 2010:140-44; Duiker 2000:516).
During the campaign of repression against communists by the Diem regime, 120,000 civil leaders and combatants from the South had gone to the North in order to regroup under the protection of the North and to prepare for the continuation of the armed struggle, in the event that the general elections unifying the country were not held. In 1959, the Vietnamese Workers’ Party endorsed a political-military struggle for the liberation of South Vietnam. It called for the creation of units of leaders and combatants, all natives of the South, to be sent to the South, supplied with arms and equipment. In accordance with this recommendation of the Party, the government of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam created in May of 1959 the Office of Studies of Military Aid to the South, under the authority of the General Chief of Staff. As a result, 500 men, all natives of the South, supplied with 7000 arms, were transported to the South (García Oliveras 2010:140-41, 144-45; Duiker 2000:516-17).
In 1960, the armed struggle was renewed. Armed guerrilla groups ambushed and annihilated South Vietnamese Army units, with women and children helping with information and supplies. The first uprising occurred in the Ben Tre province, a rich province of the Mekong Delta with 600,000 inhabitants. The week-long uprising resulted in the destruction or surrender of 20 posts of the South Vietnamese Army, and structures of popular power were developed in many localities. A second uprising in Ben Tre involved an attack on the provincial capital in which 60,000 people participated. Similar uprisings occurred throughout 1960 in many other localities in the South (García Oliveras 2010: 146-48; Duiker 2000:518-19).
By the end of 1960, half the villages and towns of the South were under popular administration. In order to organize this administration, the National Liberation Front of South Vietnam (NLF) was created. The NLF was established on December 20, 1960 at a conference of representatives of various progressive social sectors of the South. The conference was organized by the Vietnamese Workers’ Party, and it was held in a collection of small buildings in a forested area in South Vietnam near the Cambodian border. The conference created committees at the level of the town, district, and province, and it named Nguyen Hu Tho, a lawyer of great prestige in the South, as president. Like the Vietminh (see “The Vietminh and the taking of power” 5/13/2014), the National Liberation Front consisted of progressive groups representing various social classes, political parties, and religions. It proposed universal suffrage, improvement in the standard of living of the population, greater access to education and health care, an independent economy that responds to national interests, and agrarian reform. It proposed the elimination of all foreign influence and the establishment of a democratic, national coalition government. It advocated the overthrow of the Diem regime by means of armed struggle. It directed the formation of popular armed forces, which enabled the peasants to defend themselves and their villages against the government army, using weapons captured from government soldiers (García Oliveras 2010:117, 149; Prina 2008: 24, 54-56, 85, 135; Duiker 2000:525-26).
In addition, in order to manage military operations, the Vietnamese Workers’ Party re-established the Central Office for South Vietnam, which had operated in the South during the war of national independence of 1946-54 and had been closed following the Geneva Conference of 1954. In February 1961, paramilitary units in the Mekong Delta and the Central Highlands were merged to form the People’s Liberation Armed Forces (PLAF), which would function as the military arm of the NLF. The PLAF would be called the “Viet Cong” by the Saigon regime, and so it would be known to the world. Benefitting from hostility to the Diem regime as well as from the return of southern militants from the North, the PLAF grew to 15,000 troops by the end of 1961. It had carved out a liberated base area in the Central Highlands, and it had established roots in villages and towns throughout South Vietnam (Duiker 2000:526-28).
Thus, we see that important dynamics emerged during 1959-60: mass sentiment in support of rebellion; the emergence of popular organizations in the South in preparation for a renewal of armed struggle; a call by the Party, a nationwide organization with most of its leaders in the North, for a retaking of the armed struggle in the South; a decision by the government in the North to provide support for the struggle in the South, sending trained cadres from the South and supplies; popular uprising and the taking of power in localities in the South; and the organization by the Party of political and military structures, giving organization and unity to the spontaneous movement of the people, while including progressive sectors of various political currents. The struggle thus possessed the necessary combination of spontaneous popular movement, providing energy; and leadership by a vanguard party, providing direction. We must keep in mind that the territory of South Vietnam was part of the pre-colonial empire of Vietnam. From the Vietnamese nationalist point of view, North and South Vietnam were not separate nations; all of Vietnam was seen as one nation and one people. In accordance with this nationalist perspective, the people and the Party were retaking the armed struggle in pursuit of the goals of national reunification and national sovereignty, a collective decision taken in light of the evident failure of the Geneva Accords and the violation of the accords by the governments of South Vietnam and the United States.
Even though the NLF included various political and social sectors of the South, and even though it was supported by the majority of the people in the South, the program of the NLF was unacceptable to the United States, because it was incompatible with the neocolonial world-system. It called for agrarian reform, which, if implemented in a radical rather than limited form, would dislodge the landowning bourgeoisie and break the peripheral role of the nation in the world-economy. And it envisioned national unity, which, given prevailing political tendencies in the North, would strengthen the political dynamics in favor of radical agrarian reform and true independence.
During the period of 1961 to 1964, in response to the rapid growth of the PLAF and the success of the nationalist guerrilla struggle, the United States began to utilize Special Forces known as the Green Berets, which were heterodox military forces that had been trained in counter-guerrilla activities. The Special Forces trained South Vietnamese troops, and they took direct part in combat in coordination with South Vietnamese troops. Operating principally in the Mekong Delta and in a zone of ethnic minorities near the Laotian frontier, the Special Forces carried out a pacification program, involving forced relocation of the people to “strategic hamlets,” which were enclosed by bamboo fences of 2.5 meters in height, and where the people were required to present identification cards and could leave and enter only at fixed hours. Some have described the strategic hamlets as concentration camps, whereas others have called them self-defense communities. They were hampered by inefficiency, and US Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara was persistently frustrated by the slow rate in which they were established. Ultimately, most were infiltrated or dismantled by the PLAF (García Oliveras 2010: 116, 117, 143-44, 149-55; Duiker 509, 518, 528-31; McNamara 1996).
US strategy included clandestine activities in North Vietnam. Sabotage directed against the transportation, electrical, and water systems began in July 1954, several weeks prior to the signing of the Geneva Accords. Clandestine activities directed against the Democratic Republic of Vietnam were expanded during the period of 1961-63. These activities were carried out by principally by South Vietnamese operatives, following plans developed by the US Joint Chiefs of Staff and authorized by the President. From the point of view of the Kennedy administration, clandestine activities had the advantage of communicating to North Vietnam the seriousness of US commitment and intentions, without having to submit them to public debate in the United States (García Oliveras 2010:139-40, 190-92; McNamara 1996:103-5, 129-30).
As a result of widespread popular discontent, the failure of the pacification program, and equivocating US support for Diem, there was a coup d’état, to some extent encouraged by the United States, that deposed and murdered Diem in 1963. But this worsened the political situation. For the next two years there was a succession of 10 governments, until there was established in 1965 the National Directory Council, headed jointly by Nguyen Van Thieu and Nguyen Cao Ky (Prina 2008: 28; García Oliveras 2010:119-22; McNamara 1996:52-61, 75-85).
Neither the Special Forces in the South, nor the clandestine activities in the North, nor changes in the government of South Vietnam could turn the tide of the political-military popular struggle directed by the NLF. By 1964, the NLF controlled 80% of the territory of South Vietnam, dismantling strategic hamlets in areas under its control. And the NLF had the support of the great majority of the population of the South. By 1965, it was clear that the US war carried out by US Special Forces in cooperation with the South Vietnamese army had been lost, a fact that was confirmed thirty years later by Robert McNamara (García Oliveras 2010:155-63; Prina 2008: 54-56, 135; McNamara 1996:166, 187).
Given the failure of the US war, and given the refusal of US leaders to accept what they understood as the fall of South Vietnam and possibly Southeast Asia to communism, the stage was sent for US escalation, involving the commitment of US ground troops and the bombing of the North Vietnam. Meanwhile, in the North, the Democratic Republic of Vietnam was seeking to construct socialism. We continue this unfolding story in subsequent posts.
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.
McNamara, Robert S., with Brian VanDeMark. 1996. In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam. New York: Random House, Vintage Books.
Prina, Agustín. 2008. La Guerra de Vietnam. Mexico: Ocean Sur.
Key words: Third World, revolution, colonialism, neocolonialism, imperialism, democracy, national liberation, sovereignty, self-determination, socialism, Marxism, Leninism, Cuba, Latin America, world-system, world-economy, development, underdevelopment, colonial, neocolonial, blog Third World perspective, Vietnam, Ho Chi Minh, Ngo Dinh Diem, Republic of Vietnam, South Vietnam, strategic hamlets, Special Forces, Green Berets