In my reading of Pentagon Papers up to this point it has been all about the blunders of the French and Americans. However, I have now come to a reference to some problems on the North Vietnam side.
It starts with something that Eisenhower said.
President Eisenhower is widely quoted to the effect that in 1954 as many as 80% of the Vietnamese people would have voted for Ho Chi Minh, as the popular hero of their liberation, in an election against Bao Dai. In October 1955, Diem ran against Bao Dai in a referendum and won—by a dubiously overwhelming vote, but he plainly won nevertheless. It is almost certain that by 1956 the proportion which might have voted for Ho—in a free election against Diem—would have been much smaller than 80%.
The explanation for the smaller vote for Ho Chi Minh comes in this excerpt.
The North Vietnamese themselves furnished damning descriptions of conditions within the DRV in 1955 and 1956. Vo Nguyen Giap, in a public statement to his communist party colleagues, admitted in autumn, 1956, that:
“We made too many deviations and executed too many honest people. We attacked on too large a front and, seeing enemies everywhere, resorted to terror, which became far too widespread. . . . Whilst carrying out our land reform program we failed to respect the principles of freedom of faith and worship in many areas . . . in regions inhabited by minority tribes we have attacked tribal chiefs too strongly, thus injuring, instead of respecting, local customs and manners. . . . When reorganizing the party, we paid too much importance to the notion of social class instead of adhering firmly to political qualifications alone. Instead of recognizing education to be the first essential, we resorted exclusively to organizational measures such as disciplinary punishments, expulsion from the party, executions, dissolution of party branches and calls. Worse still, torture came to be regarded as a normal practice during party reorganization.”
I remember back to a book that I had read around 2009. (See my previous post War Fever at the Times: A Five-Day Log). In this post, I talk about the book Perfect Spy: The Incredible Double Life of Pham Xuan An, Time Magazine Reporter and Vietnamese Communist Agent.
Another thing that I learned from this book. When you see a local government figure carrying out policies that are clearly antithetical to the cause, maybe you don’t understand what cause the person is working for.
On page 148, “… Thao operated as one of the most trusted aides to Diem and was generally hailed as one of the South’s most successful anti-Communist crusaders. …”
On page 149, “Thao became one of the strongest advocates for agrovilles, self-contained modern villages aimed at separating insurgents from the rural population by moving peasants into large, well-defended villages that would allow the government to protect them. Thao knew the program would alienate peasants, and that is why he became its strongest proponent. The peasants hated agrovilles for many reasons, beginning with the fact that they were required to help build them and then move from their homes. The program produced protests and alienation toward Diem. When it was disbanded, Thao focused on strategic hamlets, convincing Diem to move quickly rather than slowly, which would elevate hostility and alienate the peasants. …”
How could Thao do that, you ask? Here is the part that I left out. On page 148, “Perhaps the most intriguing case of espionage involved Colonel Pham Ngoc Thao, whose mission was to destabilize the anti-Communist government of South Vietnam. …”
What I didn’t know about when I read this book was the quote above from General Giap from the Pentagon Papers. Perhaps the idea for the use of agrovilles by Diem in the south was born of what the spy learned from mistakes that were made in the north. By the way, I do not think that the authors of the Pentagon Papers had access to the information about the spy Colonel Pham Ngoc Thao.