Category: Vietnam Travel Guide



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Considering the events discussed in this book, no conclusion can be drawn in the sense of discovering some deep logic governing a presumed destiny of the Vietnamese people. Knowledge of the Vietnamese past in the English language accumulated in the late twentieth century in the shadow of war; academics,  journalists, and politicians accorded the chief privilege of shaping that accumu- lation to the group of Vietnamese fortunate enough to have allies that remained  relatively steadfast until the last battle. What accumulated came from wartime propaganda based on a stridently nationalistic version of Vietnamese history that featured, first, an affirmation of Vietnamese identity pre-dating contact with the ancient Chinese and, second, dominant themes of rebellion against colonial oppression and resistance to foreign aggression; neither of these ideas can be sustained by a study of existing evidence about the past.

More appropriate than a conclusion is a retrospective in the sense of a reappraisal that keeps close to surviving materials from the past and that aims to see the Vietnamese and their ancestors through their own eyes in various times and places. To some extent, what we see is “just one random thing after another”; but this in itself is important because it alerts us to the fallacy of putting faith in a rigid overarching narrative of “the Vietnamese people” or “the Vietnamese nation.” There is no discernible pattern to explain how times of prosperity and well being alternated with times of misery and violence. As this book demonstrates, the Vietnamese past is, among other things, a great swath of failed experiments in social organization and governance.

It is instructive to realize that an event trumpeted by Vietnamese historians as a great moment of glory – defeat of the Mongol invasions in the thirteenth century – was followed by nearly a decade of famine and starvation leading to the enslavement of a large part of the rural population by the warriors who had fought off the Mongols. Similarly, victory over the French at Dien Bien Phu was followed by a homicidal cauterization of the northern rural population into the discipline of obedience to state authority. On the other hand, the French conquest of northern Vietnam ended decades of lawlessness during which the Vietnamese government was powerless to stop women and children from being routinely kidnapped for sale as slaves in China. A serious consideration of what happened in the past makes it difficult to sustain the visions of heroes and villains favored by those who write about the past in service to state authority.

The retrospective that emerges from the narrative constructed in this book  shows three main reconsiderations. These reconsiderations are about the Viet- namese relationship with China, about the relationship between northern and  southern Vietnamese, and about the relationship of the Vietnamese with the non- Chinese world.

It is clear that who and what we call Vietnamese did not exist prior to the centuries during which Vietnamese ancestors lived as inhabitants of Chinese dynastic empires. Every aspect of Vietnamese culture appeared as a result of  being in that empire and from the existence of a large Chinese-speaking popula- tion that developed over several generations and that eventually melted into the  local population when the imperial connection was severed. Vietnamese lan- guage, literature, education, religion, historiography, philosophy, family system,  social and political organization, cuisine, medicine, music, and art: all are deeply imprinted with the marks of what is commonly called East Asian or Sinitic civilization. This occurred differently from the other peripheral members of this civilization: the Japanese and the Koreans.

Relative isolation on islands off the continent enabled a process of picking and choosing that allowed Japanese rulers to keep China at arm’s-length. On the other hand, Koreans absorbed Sinitic influence in a particularly thorough, albeit idiosyncratic way that achieved a countenance of cultural and political  legitimacy enabling survival on a peninsula of pressure between Chinese, Jap- anese, and various powers inhabiting Manchuria. Vietnamese grew from within  the Sinitic imperial world, as the ancient Koreans also initially did; but while Korean kingdoms began an autonomous existence after the fall of the Han dynasty, a similar Vietnamese event did not occur until after the fall of the Tang dynasty.

The Vietnamese did not live on islands or on a peninsula where the power of Chinese dynasties could be either ignored or balanced with other Sinicizing powers. They came from a place where Chinese speakers, during the course of a millennium, were constantly reinforced by immigration from the northern empire; these people were eventually cut off from the north and gradually faded into the local population through a process of mutual absorption that produced what we call Vietnamese. For centuries, this was a strategically and economically important jurisdiction of successive Chinese empires; for centuries thereafter, local rulers posed as vassals of Chinese dynasties. No powers or civilizations other than China have seriously competed for the attention of people living here with the brief exceptions of France, Japan, the USSR, and the US in modern times.

After the tumults of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, a fundamental  long-term pattern in Vietnamese historical experience of being ineluctably con- nected to the Chinese political world has re-emerged. For example, it is difficult  to imagine any significant political change in Vietnam without a prior change in China. For one thing, the Vietnamese cannot avoid living as a neighbor of China, and they understand that they must show to China a visage that does not contradict Chinese interests and that is congruent with Chinese political practice. Any effort to change the Vietnamese political system without Chinese precedent would be likely to create opportunities for Chinese involvement in domestic affairs that could compromise the measure of independence currently exercised.  Vietnamese autonomy with regard to China, now as in the past, remains depend- ent upon a successful practice of mimicry.

At the same time, the temptation to pull away from the Chinese model remains  alive among the Vietnamese, particularly southerners. However, potential balan- cing options involving non-Chinese Asian neighbors and possibly the US are  fraught with uncertainty and doubt. It is easier for most Vietnamese leaders to trust the Chinese than to trust non-Chinese neighbors and allies because they know and understand the Chinese to a much greater degree than they know and understand any other people. Although they have no doubt that a strong China  will never lose a chance to squeeze them, they also know that for many gener- ations with few exceptions Vietnamese leaders have successfully maintained  acceptable relationships with Chinese governments. Vietnamese are culturally familiar, even intimate, with the Chinese. The historic relationship, involving  mixtures of subservience and non-compliance, has existed through the vicissi- tudes of centuries of experience.

The nationalistic conceit of being in a constant state of aggravation with the Chinese has no basis in fact. For centuries, during the first millennium of the Common Era, ancestors of the Vietnamese lived in relative peace and security as residents of the Sinitic empire. Subsequently, Chinese military operations were launched against Vietnamese rulers only five times, and each of these times resulted from unusual circumstances. In the 930s, the Southern Han campaigned in northern Vietnam amidst the post-Tang competition among regional powers. In 980, the rising Northern Song dynasty followed the pattern of previous dynasties in viewing northern Vietnam as an integral part of the empire, albeit after this pattern was no longer feasible; in 1075, border problems became entangled in Song bureaucratic factionalism, emboldening a Vietnamese attack into southern China that provoked a counterattack; in 1407, the ascendant Ming dynasty endeavored to take advantage of dynastic change among the Vietnamese to restore the Han-Tang imperial borders but soon discovered that this was not a realistic policy; in 1979, China attacked Vietnam to prevent Soviet influence from stabilizing in Vietnam and Cambodia after American withdrawal from the region. In each case, Chinese interest in attacking Vietnam arose from specific  and contingent circumstances, and it quickly evaporated once those circum- stances had changed.

On the other hand, refugee Song Chinese armies were allied with the Vietnam- ese during the Mongol Wars of the thirteenth century. In the eighteenth century,  Qing China sent an expedition to support its vassal, the Le dynasty king, against rebels, but had no ambition to take over the country. In the 1880s, China, at great cost and with little prospect of success, honored its obligations to the Vietnamese court by attempting to prevent the French conquest of northern Vietnam. In the early 1950s, China served as the ally of an aspiring Vietnamese protégé. With few and very episodic exceptions, Vietnamese and Chinese have lived in peace and amity.

The controversy over the islands in the South China Sea is more of a regional than a purely Sino-Vietnamese issue. It arises because the future direction of international relations in the region remains in question and the islands have become symbolic of that uncertainty. Should a relatively stable and widely shared understanding of regional security be achieved, there is unlikely to be any insurmountable impediment to working out acceptable accommodations among the disputants and other interested powers. An obstacle to Chinese and Vietnamese governments making such accommodations is the nationalistic enthusiasms with which they have educated their peoples.

The second reconsideration warns against the conceit of a unified Vietnamese people. Any effort to describe the Vietnamese must be alert to the many regional differences among them. For example, even among northerners, people from Thanh Hoa, Nghe An, and Ha Tinh sometimes express disdain toward those who live in the Red River plain, considering them as passive and susceptible to Chinese blandishments. On the other hand, people of the Red River plain resent what they view as the arrogance and pushiness of people from the three coastal provinces immediately to their south, the birthplaces of Le kings, Trinh lords, and of many cadres of the communist party who flooded into Hanoi to occupy positions of authority after 1954. This is a difficult inter-regional relationship that goes back to the wars between the Mac and Le dynasties in the sixteenth century and to the generations of Trinh misgovernment in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

Elsewhere, one cannot ignore Hue’s proud heritage of presiding over the centuries-long process of Vietnamese becoming southerners as well as bringing into existence the country of Vietnam as it now exists with its modern borders. This pride is susceptible to a desire to speak on behalf of the entire country with an air of moral authority, a tendency that remains strong among Buddhist leaders based in Hue. In contrast, the people of the Da Nang region, with a  mixed Cham–Viet heritage, a milder climate, and a good harbor, are less inter- ested in virtue from the past and more interested in wealth from maritime trade.  Further south, the regions between Da Nang and Saigon where the bitter battles of the 1790s and the early 1800s were fought retain distinctive provincial outlooks that in various ways seek to minimize connections with the larger Vietnamese realm, echoes of Nguyen Nhac’s Tay Son perspective.

Above all these differences is the contrast between north and south epitomized by the cities of Hanoi and Saigon. The large stereotypes of northern and southern  Vietnamese mask many regional differences, but nevertheless reflect a fundamen- tal divergence among Vietnamese. Northerners are more disciplined to accept  and to exercise government authority, they are proud of inhabiting what they view as the center of Vietnamese culture, they tend to be cautious about contact with the overseas world, and they are inclined to view what is happening in  China as a model. Southerners are more individualistic, egalitarian, entrepre- neurial, interested in wealth more than in authority, proud of carrying within  themselves their own sense of culture, open to the outside world, and wary of how things are done in China. Northerners, more than southerners, see virtue in poverty, a legacy from three centuries of misgovernment under Vietnamese regimes from the seventeenth to the nineteenth centuries. Southerners, more than northerners, see virtue in having options and possibilities to explore, a legacy  from the frontier experience and the relatively light touch of Nguyen govern- ment. The generally ineffective Nguyen government in the mid nineteenth cen- tury posed few problems for southerners, many of whom by the 1860s were  being governed by the French; but for northerners, after having been inured to the discipline of Confucian administrators and to the authoritarianism of the Trinh regime in Hanoi, the lack of a functioning government produced political, social, and economic chaos that was finally brought to an end by the French. Any discussion of the Vietnamese cannot avoid the ambiguities created by northern and southern viewpoints. These ambiguities can be viewed either as a problem or as an asset, as creating tensions that lead to frustration or to opportunities for mutual benefit.

The emergence of a southern Vietnamese perspective was much more complex than the cliché of “southern advance” (nam tien) implies. There was no single  historical process impelling Vietnamese southward. The movement of Vietnam- ese into the south was fundamentally episodic, reflecting a variety of different  causes and motivations depending upon time and place, over a period of several centuries and from region to region over great distances. Furthermore, this was not a purely Vietnamese phenomenon. Chams, Chinese, Khmers, as well as upland peoples of the Central Highlands all participated significantly in this long historical process, often contributing a willingness to accept the ascendancy of Hue in exchange for peace and security. Many of the actual battles were between Chams serving the Vietnamese and Chams resisting the Vietnamese, or between Chinese and Khmers, or between Khmers allied with the Vietnamese and Khmers  allied with the Siamese. Southerners entered multi-ethnic, multi-cultural, multi- lingual realms open to the outside world as was not possible in the north. This  was reinforced by two and a half centuries of political separation and military confrontation between two rival versions of being Vietnamese, and the legacy of this is still alive.

Finally, the idea that the Vietnamese have preserved an ancient, or at least a  pre-modern, identity through the vicissitudes of the modern age must be recon- sidered. During the last century and a half, the Vietnamese have experienced an  intense engagement with Europe, not only France, but also, from the 1920s through the 1980s, with the Soviet Union and other Soviet Bloc countries, not to mention the brief American involvement in the south during the 1950s, 1960s, and early 1970s. At the same time, the cultural connection with China based on an educational system in Literary Chinese came to an end. Ideas about society, politics, government, education, scholarship, literature, art, and music have all been transformed by ideologies and practices coming from Europe, whether the capitalist and democratic “west” or the communist and totalitarian “east.” In the  1950s and 1960s, the Maoist version of the East European form of moderniza- tion was added to the mix of revolutionary thought and action. In the 1990s and  2000s, the Deng Xiaoping version of market economics inspired efforts to renovate the relationship between government and the production of wealth. The idea of attributing economic success to a Confucian past gained some attention in the late 1980s and early 1990s but quickly faded away.

The search for the “real” Vietnam or for the “cultural core” of being Viet- namese is bound to fail. There is an accumulation of different religious, ideo- logical, and cultural orientations among people who speak Vietnamese. Any  effort to privilege one over the others simply produces arguments without resolution. Being Vietnamese has many forms. The only unifying characteristic is a use of the Vietnamese language and a connection to a particular place on the  planet. What makes this place distinctive is its location between what we com- monly categorize as East Asia and Southeast Asia: on the one hand, the Sinitic  world of Confucianism, Mahayana Buddhism, popular Daoist spirit cults, and imperial administrative procedures of which Vietnamese are unambiguous members; and, on the other hand, the realms of entourage politics, Cham Hinduism, Indo-Malay Islam, Theravada Buddhism, overseas Chinese and South Asian communities, and Catholic Philippines, with which Vietnamese, especially southerners, have some degree of familiarity and a sense of neighborhood. Christianity, the new religions of Cao Dai and Hoa Hao, Marxism-Leninism, and Maoism must also be included in any effort to describe the Vietnamese. Being Vietnamese offers many options.

An enduring feature of Vietnamese experience is the fundamentally compliant relationship with China enforced by governments modeled on what exists in China. An aspect of this is that government tends to be didactic with weak connections to popular aspirations. Since the fifteenth century, and continuing  to the present time, governments in Hanoi have endeavored to promote particu- lar ideals and practices by enforcing habits of obedience, whether to be good  Confucians, vanguard socialists, or patriotic producers of wealth for the state.  Despite lofty intentions, the undercurrent of corruption, injustice, and oppres- sion remains. Nevertheless, there are countercurrents of thought that flow else- where than to China or to the past and that continue to be refreshed by the  Vietnamese diaspora. Although subordinated and harnessed by an authoritarian regime, and although wounded by a faithless ally in 1975, these countercurrents nevertheless remain alive in dreams of Vietnamese futures.

The Sino-Khmer War and renovation

The Sino-Khmer War and renovation

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Hanoi moved rapidly to unify the country. The Provisional Revolutionary Gov- ernment of South Vietnam was pushed aside and administrators were sent from  the north to establish the new regime in the south. Many Second Republic officials were killed and hundreds of thousands of people were sent to concentration camps, ostensibly to re-educate them to live in a socialist society. A system of registering the population was instituted to ensure that those whose families had  supported the Second Republic were penalized by denial of employment, educa- tion, and food rations. An ambitious plan for economic development was initiated,  but within three years the country was facing political, economic, and diplomatic failures. These failures became parts of a crisis that led to a new war. The harsh official attitude toward the defeated population squandered a potential reservoir of good will among many southerners who were ready to turn their backs on the past and to contribute to building a new united country. The Hanoi government even marginalized southern communists. Many people from urban areas were relocated with a minimum of preparation in relatively remote “new economic zones” in rural areas. Large numbers of these people surreptitiously returned to the cities. Efforts to collectivize southern agriculture were stymied by the resistance of the rural population. In the shadow of a new war, the Hanoi leaders rushed to gain control of the south and to integrate its resources into its militarized economy. The strategic situation after the withdrawal of American power shifted rapidly as China and the Soviet Union competed for influence in Southeast Asia. The pressure point of this confrontation was the Cambodian–Vietnamese border, a border that, while drawn by French colonial administrators in the 1930s, was very close to the border that existed prior to the French arrival in the nineteenth century. This border was based on the Vietnamese acquisition of formerly Cambodian territories in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. While it was considered to be a satisfactory border by Vietnamese authorities, Cambodian nationalists were unreconciled to the loss of the lower Mekong plain, and this was particularly true of the Cambodian communists who gained control of Phnom Penh in 1975 under the leadership of Saloth Sar (1925–1998), also known as Pol Pot. Added to the sense of a historical grievance was the strong resistance of Pol Pot to what he understood as the threat of Vietnam dominating Cambodia in the same way that it dominated Laos. Some Cambodian communists, particularly those in the eastern provinces along the Vietnamese border, were willing to collaborate with the Vietnamese and even to defer to Vietnamese leadership. Pol Pot, full of nationalist fervor and feeling surrounded by enemies, was eager to eliminate what he viewed as colonial residue, whether French, Vietnamese, or Cambodian. He initiated a homicidal policy against urbanites, people with education, and the people of the eastern provinces. By 1977, Pol Pot, with the benefit of Chinese economic and military assistance, initiated attacks across the Vietnamese border to eliminate the Vietnamese population in areas that Phnom Penh claimed as Cambodian. In response, Vietnam briefly campaigned into Cambodia in late 1977. Between two and three hundred thousand Cambodians fled their country and followed the Vietnamese  withdrawal back into Vietnam where they constituted a large refugee popula- tion. Hanoi’s efforts to negotiate a settlement of the border issue were rejected by  Phnom Penh, and it became apparent that Cambodian intransigence on the border issue was tacitly supported by China. The next phase of sliding into war focused on the ethnic Chinese population in Vietnam. This population had developed differently in northern and southern Vietnam. Southern Chinese had been forced to take Vietnamese citizenship in the late 1950s. In the north, however, the relatively smaller Chinese population had been accorded a special status: it was allowed to retain Chinese citizenship with its privilege of travel to China and was exempted from Vietnamese military conscription and from certain tax liabilities. Chinese in the north were experts  in the unofficial Sino-Vietnamese cross-border trade and in the south had accu- mulated wealth from their business skills and international contacts. By early  1978, Vietnamese authorities perceived the Chinese communities as not only threats to their plans for a socialist economy but also a fifth column allied with China in the armed confrontation that was rapidly materializing. When the Vietnamese acted to confiscate the property of Chinese in the south and to force  the southern Chinese population into the socialist economy, thousands of south- ern Chinese fled from the country by sea. At the same time, Hanoi endeavored to  restrict the Chinese population in the north, fearing their vulnerability to being manipulated by China. When China announced that Vietnam was persecuting the Chinese and that it was sending ships to rescue them, there was a stampede of northern Chinese to the Sino-Vietnamese border. By the summer of 1978, the prospect of a Sino-Vietnamese war loomed over the region as China continued to build up the Cambodian army and concentrated troops along the Sino-Vietnamese border. The Vietnamese economy was in shambles with confiscation of private property and the penalization of people with wealth in the south, with the ruin of southern agriculture by the failed collectivization effort, and with plans for industrial development in the north stillborn by lack of investment and the return of wartime priorities.

Added to the turmoil in domestic affairs and in relations with China and Cambodia, Vietnam fell afoul of the Cold War shift from China and the Soviet Union against the US to China and the US against the Soviet Union. Failing in negotiations to normalize relations with the US, Vietnam signed a strategic treaty with the Soviet Union and made plans to strike Cambodia before China could act, thereby initiating a war that for the next ten years kept Vietnam encircled by enemies with a thin lifeline to the Soviet Bloc countries.

After organizing the semblance of an allied Cambodian government from among the Khmer refugees, Vietnam invaded Cambodia at the end of 1978 and within days had defeated the Cambodian army and sent Pol Pot and his associates fleeing to the Thai border. China, having just normalized relations with the US and eager to demonstrate its strategic value as an anti-Soviet ally, briefly invaded Vietnamese border provinces in early 1979 and then withdrew  after destroying the economic and administrative infrastructure there. There- after, Sino-Vietnamese hostilities continued with cross-border shelling and raids  while the main arena of the war was in Cambodia, where Vietnam supervised the establishment of a Cambodian army and government.

Contesting Vietnamese ascendancy in Cambodia were three Cambodian groups operating from bases along the Thai border with the logistical support of the Thai army. China provided supplies primarily to Pol Pot. The neighboring countries that had allied with the US in the 1960s, which included Thailand, Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, and the Philippines (the five ASEAN countries), mainly supported a royalist group led by Sihanouk. The US gave support to a third group espousing parliamentary democracy led by Son Sann (1911–2000), a veteran politician who had been active in politics since the 1940s. Supervised by China, the US, and the ASEAN countries, the three groups were diplomatically organized, presented, and acknowledged in the United Nations as the legitimate coalition government of Cambodia, thereby preventing the government formed in Phnom Penh, supported by Vietnam and the Soviet Bloc countries, from receiving UN recognition.

The three anti-Vietnamese Cambodian groups established bases just inside the Cambodian border from where they launched guerrilla operations. During the 1984–1985 dry season, Vietnamese forces attacked and destroyed all of these bases. Thereafter, Vietnam began to withdraw its army back to Vietnam, handing responsibility for defending the country to its client government in Cambodia, which from 1985 was led by Hun Sen (b. 1952), a former follower of Pol Pot who had defected to Vietnam in 1977.

The collapse of the Soviet Union removed the rationale of the war. Vietnam accordingly completed its withdrawal from Cambodia in 1989. In the early 1990s, the UN sponsored a ceasefire and elections in Cambodia, which led to a brief coalition between the royalists and Hun Sen, yet Hun Sen and his followers continued to dominate Cambodian politics well into the twenty-first century. This superficially appeared to vindicate Vietnam’s war aims. However, regional politics shifted sharply in the 1990s with Vietnam joining ASEAN and making peace with China. Furthermore, the price paid by Vietnam for this war was very high, bringing unprecedented economic distress. It also contributed to an exodus of people fleeing the country by sea, sojourning in regional refugee camps, and emigrating to foreign lands.

In the early years of the Sino-Khmer War, deepening poverty forced Hanoi to acquiesce in a new system of agriculture that restored some incentive for private initiative with contracts for farmers to supply the state with specified amounts of produce and allowing anything beyond that to be freely marketed for private profit. This somewhat alleviated the food supply and led to relative well being in the countryside. During the 1980s, villagers in northern Vietnam began to invest their private earnings in building brick homes to replace their thatched wooden dwellings. Urban populations, however, suffered from a lack of income, a deteriorating infrastructure, a scarcity of consumer goods, and hunger.

The death of Le Duan in the spring of 1986 made possible a shift in domestic policy. Truong Chinh presided over the party for six months during which Nguyen Van Linh (1915–1998) rode the pressures for reform to replace him. Nguyen Van Linh was originally from Hanoi, had joined the party in the 1930s, and spent several years in French prisons. In 1975, he became the leader of the party in the south where he had been assigned since the early 1960s. By the mid 1980s, he was known to be at odds with Le Duan over economic and cultural policy. He favored a loosening of state control over markets, religious and cultural activities, and journalism. During his years as head of the party, from late 1986 to mid 1991, he nurtured a younger generation of party leaders and initiated what became known as the doi moi policy, literally “to change to the new,” commonly rendered in English as “renovation.” As the Sino-Khmer War  ended and the Soviet Bloc disappeared, he restored trade with China and encour- aged foreign investment from Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Singapore, and other  countries. He invited journalists to report on corruption and abuse, allowed publication of literary works critical of party policies, and encouraged the restoration of temples and local festivals.

One aspect of the renovation policy was an effort to create a sense of continu- ity with pre-revolutionary culture by cultivating new versions of traditional art,  music, theater, village festivals, and religious pilgrimage sites. The rebuilding and repair of temples became possible with contributions from a rising class of businesswomen who worked in the urban markets. Many temples in northern Vietnam had been neglected and not a few were even plundered and destroyed by greedy or fanatical officials. Perhaps the most notorious example is the many lavishly furnished temples on Mount Yen Tu, around 125 kilometers east of Hanoi, which dated to the Tran dynasty and were a major pilgrimage destination for centuries. By the time of the renovation policy, they had all been stripped of valuables and burned down under the supervision of local officials. In the early 1990s, a monk returned to the mountain and, with government approbation, began to rebuild one of the temples with contributions of pilgrims. Within a few years, the government had built a new road to the foot of the mountain and a welcoming center for the growing number of pilgrims.

At the party congress in 1991, Nguyen Van Linh stepped down, ostensibly because of poor health, and was replaced by Do Muoi (b. 1917). Do Muoi was born near Hanoi, had joined the party in his youth, and had made his career in the state bureaucracy. During his six years at the head of the party, the doi moi policy was basically preserved. At the same time, there was a stronger emphasis upon internal security measures to affirm the party’s control over public opinion and political activity. In 1997, Do Muoi was succeeded by his protégé Le Kha Phieu (b. 1931). Le Kha Phieu had made his career in the military and was critical  of corruption and factionalism in the party. However, his anti-corruption cam- paigns united virtually all the party factions against him, and, in 2001, he was  forced to retire. Nong Duc Manh (b. 1940), a forestry expert from the mountains north of Hanoi rumored to be a son of Ho Chi Minh, replaced him and remained head of the party for ten years with a policy of economic development and strong party control modeled on the example of China.

One of Le Kha Phieu’s unpopular acts was completing a treaty with China that demarcated the land border and the Gulf of Tonkin sea border. Many Vietnamese considered that this treaty conceded too much to China and represented a proffering of homage to the big northern neighbor. However, with communist parties losing power in many countries during the 1990s, the Chinese and Vietnamese parties gradually built a new version of the close relationship that had existed between the two countries for centuries. But new conditions in the twenty-first century placed limits on this relationship and created a contradiction for party leaders.

On the one hand, by the first decade of the twenty-first century, the Vietnam- ese ruling party’s ability to maintain power depended upon the continued success  of the Chinese ruling party to control China. Any political change in China that displaced the Chinese party would have made it very difficult for the Vietnamese  party to avoid political change as well. A close and mutually supportive relation- ship between the two parties helped to sustain the regime in Vietnam.

On the other hand, the rise of popular nationalism in both countries exacer- bated the underlying tension in the relationship between a China seeking regional  dominance and a Vietnam determined to resist subordination. This tension was concretely expressed in the growing dispute over the islands in the South China Sea. The Hoang Sa (Paracel) archipelago had been inherited from France and occupied by South Vietnam until it was seized by China in 1974. The Truong Sa (Spratley) archipelago was claimed and partly occupied by China but parts of it were also claimed and occupied by Vietnam, the Philippines, and other countries. Hanoi appeared to acknowledge Chinese sovereignty over the islands in the late 1950s when it was dependent upon China for its policy of taking over the south, but from 1975 the Vietnamese government forcefully announced its claim to the islands.

After the Sino-Khmer War, Vietnamese foreign policy experts debated whether to follow China and to prosper as a junior regional partner in what was imagined as an inevitable Chinese hegemony over eastern and southeastern Asia, or whether to follow a multi-directional policy aimed to maximize anti-Chinese leverage in cooperation with the ASEAN countries, Japan, and the US. This debate continued into the twenty-first century, fueled by the island dispute and the fear that China would eventually enforce its claims unless the US remained a balancing presence in the region. At the beginning of the twenty-first century, having weathered the storms of French colonialism, the Japanese Empire, and both phases of the Cold War, the Vietnamese faced the prospect of returning to a Sinic world order, unsure about how feasible for the long term a multi-lateral foreign policy option might be. In general, northerners view such a prospect with less dismay than do southerners.

The victory of Hanoi

The victory of Hanoi

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When Ho Chi Minh died in mid 1969, Le Duan decided to enshrine public memory of him with the goal of conquering the south, thereby adding an aura of saintliness to the party’s policies and authority. The tightening of domestic social control became increasingly important not only to mitigate war weariness but also to maintain discipline as it became increasingly difficult to dismiss doubts about the Sino-Vietnamese alliance, which had been the cornerstone of victory in the French war. China was uninterested in having a united Vietnam on its southern border and was eager to establish a relationship with the US to give it leverage in relations with the Soviet Union. Although China continued to voice support for Hanoi, it slowly backed away from the war in South Vietnam and instead strengthened its relations with the Cambodian communists who were seeking to overthrow Lon Nol. While the Soviet Union moderated its public support of Hanoi to facilitate relations with the US, it was willing to supply Hanoi with whatever it needed to win the war, gambling on the chance for an alliance with a united Vietnam on the southern border of its Chinese antagonist.

With Nixon’s diplomatic game gathering momentum, Le Duan and Le Duc Tho worried that the time available to achieve their goal in the south was ebbing away. By 1972, there were very few American ground troops in Vietnam, but the Second Republic was looking increasingly formidable. The Paris peace talks were at an impasse. Nixon had conceded the right of the North Vietnamese army to  remain in South Vietnam after an agreement, but he rejected Hanoi’s precondi- tion of dismantling the Second Republic. However, 1972 was an American  presidential election year, and public opinion in the US and internationally was opposed to continued American involvement in Vietnam. This raised communist hopes that Nixon would be as vulnerable to a major offensive as Johnson had been in 1968 and that he would acquiesce in a Hanoi victory.

In the spring of 1972, North Vietnam mobilized virtually its entire military potential, including strategic reserves, to launch a three-prong invasion of South Vietnam with the goal of winning the war immediately. The South Vietnamese  army defeated this invasion with American logistical and air support. Further- more, Nixon mined North Vietnamese harbors and initiated a new bombing  campaign against North Vietnam. His escalation of American involvement did not damage American relations with either China or the Soviet Union. Hanoi’s gamble had failed, and, when it became apparent that Nixon would be re-elected, Le Duc Tho signaled to his American negotiating partner, Heinz Alfred (Henry) Kissinger (b. 1923), Nixon’s National Security Advisor, that he no longer demanded the dismantling of the Second Republic before an agreement could be reached.

Le Duc Tho and Kissinger had been conducting secret negotiations separate from the official four-party peace talks, which had never developed beyond issuing propaganda. After the defeat of Hanoi’s spring offensive of 1972, Le Duc Tho was keen for an agreement that would eliminate the US from the war and compromise the Second Republic. The push for an agreement from the American side came from Kissinger’s personal investment in it and from the election of an anti-war congress in the autumn of 1972 that threatened to legislate an end to American involvement in Vietnam when it convened in January 1973.

The agreement drafted by Kissinger and Le Duc Tho provided for the release of American prisoners of war and the end of American military intervention. It allowed the North Vietnamese army to remain in South Vietnam and provided  for a political process to supersede the Second Republic with a coalition govern- ment that would include communists and neutralists. It abandoned the aim of  preserving a non-communist South Vietnam and discarded the sovereignty of the  Second Republic, which was accorded a status equal with the communist Provi- sional Revolutionary Government of South Vietnam.

There were strong public expressions of opposition to this agreement in South Vietnam. The House of Representatives of the National Assembly rejected the political provisions that nullified the Second Republic’s sovereignty. Nguyen Van Thieu announced that he could not accept the agreement without changes. He wanted to initiate direct Hanoi–Saigon negotiations, but the US, just as France had claimed to negotiate for Saigon in 1954, was determined to avoid direct contact between the Vietnamese sides. Nguyen Van Thieu understood that he was powerless to influence the peace talks and trusted Nixon’s assurance that adjustments would be made and that the US would continue to support the Second Republic regardless of any agreement made.

However, when the US proposed changes, Le Duc Tho withdrew a concession previously made that was particularly important to the Americans: separation of the release of American prisoners of war from the issue of releasing political  prisoners held by the Second Republic. Nixon needed this concession, for with- out it American prisoners would remain hostage to the disposition of Vietnamese  prisoners, which was a difficult and unpredictable issue. With a newly elected Congress that was determined to legislate the end of American involvement in Vietnam scheduled to convene in a matter of weeks, Nixon resorted to a bombing campaign that in a few days destroyed North Vietnam’s air defense capability and persuaded Hanoi to restore the prisoner of war concession, which led to the signing of an agreement in late January 1973 by which the US military presence in Vietnam was terminated within two months.

The political provisions of the Paris Agreement were never implemented, and the war continued in South Vietnam without American participation. After the North Vietnamese defeats in 1972, the Soviet Union provided all that was  necessary to rebuild and supply communist forces in South Vietnam. An all- weather road and a pipeline were constructed from North Vietnam through the  uplands to a point not far from Saigon, and plans were made for offensive operations to destroy the Second Republic.

Within a year of the agreement, South Vietnam began to experience severe economic and military problems as a result of the 1973 oil embargo crisis and the progressive reduction of US aid. The communist military build-up coincided with American disengagement as Nixon’s political problems and eventual resignation ended the prospect of any further US interest in Vietnamese affairs. The military balance shifted in favor of North Vietnam as South Vietnamese forces suffered shortages of petrol, spare parts, and ammunition. Widespread economic distress led to Saigon street demonstrations in the autumn of 1974. Nguyen Van Thieu’s political career had been based on a trust in the American alliance. As it became apparent that this alliance no longer existed, he was unable to think beyond it and was paralyzed by the looming communist threat, vainly hoping that the US would come to the rescue.


In early 1975, North Vietnamese leaders determined that the US would not return and initiated a campaign that within two months obtained total victory. Days later, fighting broke out between the Vietnamese and the Cambodian communists, who had just gained control of Cambodia with Chinese support. These hostilities were quickly halted, but they foreshadowed another war and  demonstrated that American withdrawal had enabled the Sino-Soviet confron- tation to come alive in the region.


The Second Republic

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North Vietnamese leaders worried not only about the diminishing importance of their struggle in the context of world politics but also about the success of the Second Republic in stabilizing South Vietnam. Nguyen Van Thieu was not a very inspiring leader, but neither was he known for either excessive corruption or egregious abuse of power. He was a relatively competent administrator, and he was inclined to avoid violating constitutional formalities. He countenanced opposition in the legislature, a judiciary to some extent beyond his control, and relative freedom of the press without prior censorship. To an extent, his behavior was influenced by American expectations as Ambassador Bunker endeavored to gently coach him about American norms of constitutional practice.

Elections for the National Assembly under the Second Republic elicited par- ticipation by a wide range of groups. The first Senate election was held at the  same time as the presidential election in early September 1967. The sixty-member Senate was elected with a system of ten-member slates; the six slates that received the most votes were elected. Of sixty-four aspiring slates, forty-eight were approved to stand for election. Two slates associated with Thich Tri Quang’s militant Buddhists were among those not approved. A moderate Buddhist slate was approved, but did not win election. Slates associated with the Hoa Hao, with Nguyen Cao Ky, and with Truong Dinh Dzu were approved but were also unsuccessful in the election. The successful slates included people who had both supported and opposed Ngo Dinh Diem but they were generally favorable toward Nguyen Van Thieu. Around 40 percent of those elected were Catholics.  Although Catholics amounted to not much more than 10 percent of the popula- tion, they were more organized than others, and they strongly supported the  Second Republic.

Three years later, half of the senators, who had drawn three-year terms, as opposed to the regular six-year senatorial term, either stood for re-election or stood down from the Senate. In the 1970 senatorial election, sixteen of eighteen aspiring ten-member slates were approved, and a slate supported by the militant Buddhists led by Thich Tri Quang was one of the three slates elected. Among the new senators seated in this election were members of the Hoa Hao and the Cao Dai, a Khmer Theravada Buddhist, and a Cham Muslim. The results of this election significantly increased the number of senators who opposed or were critical of the government.

The last senatorial election was held in August 1973, when the Second Repub- lic was in the early stage of abandonment by the US and beginning to suffer  economic problems. Election rules were changed to make it more difficult for oppositional politicians to be elected. Four fifteen-member slates were allowed to campaign and two were elected. During the Second Republic, the Senate was under strong presidential influence but not control; many senators were critical of the government and forced it to publicly defend its policies. Even more lively debate and opposition to the government was characteristic of the House of Representatives.

In the first House election, held in October 1967, more than 1,150 candidates competed for fewer than 150 seats. About one-third of those elected were Buddhists, including several militant followers of Thich Tri Quang. Other major religious groups represented were Catholics, who made up 25 percent, and Hoa Hao, 10 percent. Among those elected was Ho Huu Tuong, the Trotskyist activist in the 1930s who spent several years in French prisons. In the late 1940s he turned away from communism and worked as a journalist in Saigon. In 1955, he was imprisoned when he supported the sects against Ngo Dinh Diem. After his release from prison in 1964, he returned to journalism. When his slate for the Senate election was disallowed, he ran for the House instead and served there to the end of the Second Republic as a respected critic of the government.

The second and last election for the House, in which members held four-year terms, was in August 1971. Of members seeking re-election, only 40 of 119 were successful; of these 40 about half supported the government and about half were oppositional. The largest single bloc of winners were supporters of Thich Tri Quang’s militant Buddhists, constituting 15 percent of the House, of whom over half were under the age of 40. The new House in comparison with the outgoing House was better educated, less corrupt, and included more independent and oppositional members.

In these elections, voter turnout varied from around 65 percent to 85 percent of registered voters. The relatively high percentage of voters may to some extent be attributed to the importance of demonstrating one’s loyalty to the government in wartime by being able to produce a voter card proving that one had voted. But beyond this, considering the press coverage of the elections and the eagerness of people to run for office, the Second Republic demonstrated a certain plausible success as a government based on relatively free elections. There were many charges of fraud in these elections, but there were procedures for investigating them that came to depend upon an increasingly independent judiciary. Many fraud charges were simply part of the political process as it was understood and practiced at that time; losers charged fraud because they had asserted before the election that they could lose only if there was fraud. The Supreme Court was established in 1968 with justices chosen by the National Assembly. It was generally comprised of highly qualified people and included some who were openly critical of Nguyen Van Thieu’s administration. In dealing with electoral fraud charges, it demonstrated that it had achieved credibility as a relatively neutral interpreter of the law. During the course of its existence, it established the procedure of judicial review and was not shy about declaring legislation and administrative acts to be unconstitutional.

The most controversial election in the history of the Second Republic was the October 1971 presidential election. During the preceding summer, Duong Van Minh, who was living in retirement, and Vice President Nguyen Cao Ky were poised to run against the incumbent. As a man out of power, Duong Van Minh was perceived as an opposition candidate. He believed that he had a chance of winning if Nguyen Cao Ky and Nguyen Van Thieu split the pro-government vote. Conversely, Nguyen Van Thieu believed he could defeat Duong Van Minh if Nguyen Cao Ky was out of the race. In June 1971, after rancorous debate, the National Assembly passed a new law requiring candidates to obtain a certain number of endorsements from elected officials. Nguyen Van Thieu proceeded to gather all available pro-government endorsements, shutting out Nguyen Cao Ky. Duong Van Minh received the necessary endorsements, but when he saw that Nguyen Cao Ky was disqualified he dropped out of the race. Shortly after this, the Supreme Court ruled that it was illegal for Nguyen Van Thieu to accumulate excessive endorsements. Although Nguyen Cao Ky was then approved to run, he nevertheless quit the race, the result being that Nguyen Van Thieu ran for re-election unopposed with Tran Van Huong as his vice presidential candidate. The election further marginalized Nguyen Cao Ky and his followers while consolidating Nguyen Van Thieu’s position, but the election also demonstrated that legislative and judicial acts were accepted as matters of law and were not under executive control. While constitutional development enabled participation in national politics by a relatively diverse range of constituencies, dramatic developments in rural areas were at least as important to the stability of the Second Republic. Southern communists suffered a sharp decline in numbers and influence after the 1968 fighting. Defections to the Second Republic reached an all-time high in 1969. Local government in rural areas experienced a minor revolution with elections for village and hamlet officials. Furthermore, in a move resisted by the army but popular among rural people and strongly pushed by Nguyen Van Thieu, weapons were provided to local self-defense units that were under the control of village officials. The Ngo Dinh dream of strategic hamlets was to some extent realized under the Second Republic.

The most important aspect of rural policy was land reform legislation, which built on prior redistribution laws that had never been fully implemented due to wartime conditions and government weakness. In 1969 and 1970, rural areas became more secure and the legal structure of the Second Republic was able to effectively address agrarian issues. Within three years, redistributed land amounted to two and a half times what had been transferred during the previous decade and a half. The maximum amount of land anyone could own was reduced by 85 percent. While owners were compensated, tenants received land free of charge, as did landless farmers, war veterans, families of war dead, and others. Farmers were allowed to keep land that had been redistributed by communist authorities, and all new owners received permanent deeds, which they were forbidden to sell during fifteen years. In some areas that had been controlled by communists, by 1968 the taxes collected by communist authorities from those to whom they had given land exceeded the rent of tenants in adjacent government-controlled areas. Rural taxation under the Second Republic was comparatively light.

Cultural and intellectual life under the Second Republic was to some extent an echo of the lively debates and diversity of views that had characterized Saigon in the 1920s and 1930s. The experience of the heavy American military presence during the late 1960s stimulated extensive discussion about negative American influences and the importance of a Vietnamese cultural identity. As the American presence rapidly declined in the early 1970s, a southern Vietnamese perspective on national culture focused on issues larger than the war. This was different from North Vietnam, where thought and culture were entirely subordinated to the war and to politics. Southerners enjoyed the freedom to speak and to write about matters not directly related to the war or to politics. Journalism, literary works, magazines, and academic journals reflected a wide range of interests, ideologies, and opinions about culture, politics, religion, science, youth, gender, family relations, international trends, and personal life. Compared with cultural life in North Vietnam, this sometimes appeared chaotic and disconnected from the wartime situation, but it was a typical expression of southern openness to new ideas and to the outside world. Furthermore, it demonstrated why the war was being fought.

US redeployment out of Vietnam

US redeployment out of Vietnam

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When the two-sided four-party Paris peace talks began in early 1969, it was quickly apparent that they were little more than a propaganda platform. Hanoi was occupied with rebuilding its military capability in the south without the large southern component that had been sacrificed in 1968 and was content to delay serious negotiations until it had gained a stronger position on the battlefield. Under strong political pressure to end American involvement in the war and with the Paris negotiations at an impasse, the new administration of Richard Milhous Nixon (1913–1994) shifted to a strategy of removing American forces from Vietnam and giving responsibility for the anti-communist struggle back to the South Vietnamese. This was possible because the Second Republic government in Saigon was stable and enjoyed a relatively high measure of popular support, and also because the communist defeats in 1968 had temporarily, but significantly, reduced the battlefield threat.

Secretary of Defense Melvin Robert Laird (b. 1922) made plans to redeploy nearly all American military forces out of Vietnam by the end of 1972. The first redeployment was announced in the summer of 1969 and the drawdown continued thereafter on schedule. General Creighton Williams Abrams, Jr. (1914–1974), who replaced Westmoreland in 1968, espoused a new strategy of “one war,” which aimed to integrate the operations of the Vietnamese and American armies and also to integrate civilian and military operations.

Under Westmoreland’s command, the Vietnamese army was for the most part pushed aside from battlefield responsibilities as American forces conducted search and destroy operations. Furthermore, the equipment provided by the  Americans to the Vietnamese was generally inferior to that available to commun- ist forces, particularly in the quality of small arms and individual weapons.  Under Abrams, the South Vietnamese army was equipped with up-to-date weapons that were equivalent to the quality of arms used by its enemy. Abrams organized joint Vietnamese–American operations that were to some extent  designed as training exercises. As American redeployment progressed, the Viet- namese increasingly assumed responsibility for defending the country. At the  same time, American programs for assisting civilians in battle zones that from 1967 had begun to be integrated into American military operations were turned  over to the Vietnamese. These policies, commonly referred to as “Vietnamiza- tion,” needed time for implementation, and major campaigns in Cambodia and  Laos during 1970 and 1971 aimed to gain time by keeping communist forces off balance and away from South Vietnamese cities

. In early 1970, the Cambodian army commander, Lon Nol, who opposed the arrangements that had allowed the Vietnamese communists to use Cambodian territory, deposed Sihanouk. Sihanouk then joined a Chinese-sponsored alliance between the Vietnamese and Cambodian communists as Lon Nol appealed to the  US for assistance. South Vietnamese and American forces advanced into Cam- bodia, forcing the Vietnamese communists to evacuate their headquarters and  supply bases. These events were accompanied by widespread massacres of Viet- namese residing in Cambodia, victims of Cambodian resentment against the  dominance of Vietnamese communists that Sihanouk had allowed in the eastern  part of the country. Americans and South Vietnamese believed that this oper- ation, which continued into the summer of 1970, helped to keep Vietnamese  battlefields relatively quiet for a year, enabling the Vietnamization process to gain momentum. Opposition to this operation in the US Congress, however, resulted in a law prohibiting American ground troops from thereafter entering Cambodia or Laos.

War continued between Lon Nol and the Cambodian and Vietnamese com- munist forces, but the port of Sihanoukville was thereafter closed to the com- munists, and North Vietnam became more dependent upon its supply lines  through southern Laos. In early 1971, South Vietnamese forces entered southern Laos in an operation designed to sever the communist supply lines during the winter dry season. In a series of battles, North and South Vietnamese forces both suffered heavy casualties. Although the initial aim of the operation was not fully reached, North Vietnamese plans were sufficiently disrupted to give the Vietnamization policy another year of relative calm. By early 1972, the number of US ground troops in Vietnam was insignificant and the American presence had become more like the Kennedy phase of advising with logistical and air support.

At the international level, Nixon endeavored to exploit the deepening Sino- Soviet dispute by diplomatically engaging each of these major communist powers  and persuading them that they had more to gain from strengthening relations with the US than from supporting the North Vietnamese. Nixon understood that the Cold War was shifting from a bipolar confrontation toward a three-corner game with possibilities for prying one or both of the communist powers away from Hanoi. China had begun to withdraw its troops from North Vietnam after the end of American bombing and the beginning of American redeployment, and it began to be apparent that the Chinese were not in favor of Hanoi gaining control of South Vietnam. While China had supported Hanoi so long as the American presence in South Vietnam was on a threatening scale, it was not keen to have a united Vietnam on its southern border. On the other hand, the Soviet Union was ready to provide Hanoi with all that it needed to conquer the south and thereby gain a potential ally in the increasingly rancorous confrontations that were characterizing Sino-Soviet relations.

The troubled state of Sino-Soviet relations made both powers want to strengthen ties with the US in order to isolate the other. Nixon enjoyed the  benefit of China and of the Soviet Union competing to build strategic relation- ships with the US. There were plans for Nixon to visit both countries during the  first half of 1972. Le Duan understood that the international situation was changing in a direction that threatened to downgrade the importance of North Vietnam to its allies and decided to try for a quick military victory.

US redeployment out of Vietnam

The communist offensive of 1968

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Between the 1959 decision to force a military solution upon the southern question and the death of Ngo Dinh Diem in 1963, Le Duan and his associates in Hanoi were constrained by party members who believed that economic development was a higher priority than military confrontation with the south and that, in fact, developing a strong economy was an essential first step toward overcoming the south. The Le Duan leadership group tightened its control over the party, the army, and intellectuals during the third party congress in late 1960, but internal resistance and the indifference of China and the Soviet Union continued to inhibit policy toward Saigon. By late 1962, after the strategic  hamlet program was launched and Kennedy escalated American military involve- ment, there was much uncertainty and vacillation in the party. After the agree- ment to neutralize Laos was completed in the summer of 1962, the Soviet Union  lost interest in Southeast Asia. China continued to support the Laotian and Vietnamese communists but was distracted by mass starvation and by border tensions with India, Taiwan, and the Soviet Union. Party leadership in Hanoi was divided over the relative importance of the Soviet model of a centralized bureaucratic state and the Chinese model of mass mobilization and permanent revolution.

The November 1963 coup in Saigon awakened the Hanoi leadership from the  conundrums of socialist internationalism and its manifestations within the Viet- namese party. The sudden, dramatic dismantling of the Ngo Dinh Diem regime  opened the prospect of victory in the south much sooner than it had been thought possible. Within weeks of Ngo Dinh Diem’s death, the central committee of the party resolved upon an aggressive policy of “general offensive and general uprising” to take over the south. Dissenting party members were demoted, marginalized, put under house arrest, or imprisoned. Students in the Soviet Bloc countries were recalled for re-education. A campaign to enforce intellectual conformity among writers and artists was launched. North Vietnamese army units began to move into South Vietnam through Laos and Cambodia.

By the time of the 1965 Johnson escalation, Khrushchev had been deposed, and the new Soviet leadership challenged the expansion of American military action in Vietnam by giving strong support to Hanoi. China followed suit and within two years stationed nearly two hundred thousand troops between the Chinese border and Hanoi. The Chinese troops handled air defense, logistics,  and construction. Their presence enabled the Vietnamese to allocate more man- power to the south.

Nguyen Chi Thanh, the commander of communist forces in South Vietnam, believed that the Vietnamese disadvantage in battlefield technology could be overcome by high morale. He aimed to break the will of Americans to fight in Vietnam by seeking direct engagement with American units to inflict maximum casualties. The high cost of this strategy provoked dissent within the North Vietnamese army. In 1966 and the first half of 1967, Vo Nguyen Giap spoke out against what he considered to be the wasting of the army in high casualty engagements. He advocated an emphasis on guerrilla operations and protracted warfare to minimize the damage suffered from superior US firepower. In reply, Nguyen Chi Thanh argued that the US strategy of limited war and attrition could be overcome by an aggressive strategy that prevented Americans from becoming comfortable in Vietnam and that a shift to guerrilla warfare would damage the morale of the communist soldiers.

Voices of moderation within the party began to rise as the human and material cost of the war became increasingly apparent. US bombing disrupted and degraded the country’s industrial and transportation infrastructure and forced major relocations of population. Many party members were dismayed to see plans for economic development sacrificed to a war they considered unnecessary. They called for peace talks to end the war, believing that a better way to unify the country was through economic development, confident that a vibrant socialist economy would eventually overwhelm southern resistance. These people were encouraged by the growing involvement of the Soviet Union in the war effort. They admired the Soviet model of state building, being repelled by the chaos of China’s Cultural Revolution, and they supported the Soviet Union’s call for a negotiated settlement.

By 1967, the rising involvement of both the Soviet Union and China in the war brought the Sino-Soviet conflict into the center of party politics. The Soviet  Union provided military material for conventional war but advocated negoti- ations with the Americans. China advocated a protracted guerrilla war and  opposed negotiations. In mid 1967, disagreements within the army about battle- field strategy and pressures from rival allies about diplomatic strategy became  entangled with the problem of party leadership. The death of Nguyen Chi Thanh and the declining health of Ho Chi Minh raised the profile of Vo Nguyen Giap and the prospect of a challenge to Le Duan’s position at the head of the party. Le Duan felt the need to reassert his authority by distancing himself from his foreign allies and silencing his domestic critics.

Prior to his death in July 1967, Nguyen Chi Thanh proposed a major offensive in 1968 to break the seeming stalemate on the battlefield, to rally  the southern population behind the party, and to turn back the tide of Ameri- can intervention. The virtue of this proposal was that it asserted a Vietnamese  strategy for victory that rebuffed both the Chinese advocacy of protracted guerrilla warfare and the Soviet advocacy for a negotiated peace settlement. This would enable Le Duan to separate himself from both allies, thereby avoiding the morass of their rivalry

. The debate about battlefield strategy ended with Nguyen Chi Thanh’s death. Without him, Le Duan’s control of the army was threatened. Le Duan countered opposition to Nguyen Chi Thanh’s plans by purging party members inclined toward a guerrilla strategy and peace talks; these people viewed Vo Nguyen Giap, now the dominant military figure, as their leading spokesman. During the last half of 1967 as plans for the 1968 offensive were completed and negotiating possibilities were rejected, several hundred people were disciplined or arrested, including members of Vo Nguyen Giap’s personal staff; this series of purges was called the “revisionist anti-party affair.” Plans for the offensive of 1968 were closely related to Le Duan countering threats to his authority both from his foreign allies and from within the ruling party. Beginning in the late 1950s, Le Duan and Le Duc Tho repeatedly renewed their ascendancy in the party by enforcing their policy of war to conquer the south. The purges of late 1967 brought an end to debates that had begun with the decision to accelerate this policy that had been prompted by Ngo Dinh Diem’s death. At the end of January 1968, Hanoi initiated the first phase of its offensive. Six cities, thirty-six provincial capitals, and sixty-four district capitals were attacked, primarily by the People’s Liberation Armed Forces, commonly called the Viet Cong, the military arm of the communist movement in the south. The attacks were rapidly defeated everywhere except in Hue. The communists held Hue for  about a month, during which time people from Hue who had joined the com- munists after the revolt in spring 1966 returned and attempted to establish a  revolutionary regime. The communists arrested around three thousand people in Hue; most of these were later found massacred in shallow graves outside the city.  A second wave of attacks in May and a third wave in August were on a much- reduced scale and were no more successful.

One result of the offensive was that the southern communists were virtually wiped out as a military force and thereafter the North Vietnamese army was forced to assume a defensive pose; the communists lost control of much of the territory that they had previously taken. On the other side, the new government of the Second Republic in Saigon benefited from a rise of popular support as people rallied against the attackers with a new sense of appreciation for what was at stake. For many people in relatively protected urban areas, what had been a war in the countryside was suddenly in their streets and homes. The fighting of 1968 strengthened the Saigon government and stimulated a surge of volunteers into its armed forces.

What anti-communist Vietnamese experienced as a victory, American report- ers, opinion makers, and politicians perceived as a defeat. The reason for this was  that Johnson’s limited war strategy did not account for the vital connection between Le Duan’s leadership and Hanoi’s uncompromising pursuit of victory in the south. There was no way to persuade Le Duan to renounce his war policy in the south because his authority depended upon it. Yielding to American pressure would have meant the downfall of Le Duan and his associates, which they were determined to prevent. American public opinion turned away from the war when the 1968 offensive revealed that the enemy was far from giving up. Johnson saw that he was politically vulnerable and decided against running for re-election. At the same time, at the end of March 1968, he responded to criticism of his policy in Vietnam by unilaterally restricting US bombing of North Vietnam to an area on its southern border and by calling for negotiations to end the war.

Seeing the effect of the offensive on American politics and sensing that the American will to continue the war had been broken, Hanoi agreed to peace talks, which opened in Paris at the beginning of May 1968. From the beginning, the peace talks served the non-negotiable American desire to disengage from the war and the non-negotiable Hanoi determination to gain control of South Vietnam. On the other hand, the survival of an independent non-communist South Viet- nam was negotiable. In June, the National Assembly in Saigon protested the US  negotiating matters related to South Vietnamese sovereignty without its partici- pation, but Ambassador Bunker failed to obtain assurances from the State  Department that the Saigon government would be fully informed and consulted.

From the beginning, Hanoi demanded that the US cease all bombing of North Vietnam as a precondition for continuing the talks. Johnson acceded to this demand just before the presidential election in November 1968. In late 1968, the US forced Nguyen Van Thieu to accept a negotiating formula of “two sides, four parties” that compromised his government’s claim of sovereignty over South Vietnam. The US and the Republic of Vietnam formed one side while North Vietnam and the National Liberation Front were the other side. This acknowledgment of equal status between the Republic of Vietnam and the National Liberation Front as two governments each claiming to rule all of South Vietnam became even more explicit a year later when the National Liberation Front was redesigned as the Provisional Revolutionary Government of South  Vietnam. Despite the battlefield victories of 1968, American eagerness to negoti- ate an exit from the war forced the Republic of Vietnam into a negotiating stance  that threatened its continued existence.

Formation of the Second Republic of Vietnam

Formation of the Second Republic of Vietnam

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Lyndon Johnson accepted the American commitment to defeat the communist attempt to take over South Vietnam, but he subordinated the implementation of this commitment to the presidential election of 1964 and to his ambitious domestic legislative agenda, which occupied him during the first half of 1965. Consequently, when, in March 1965, he opened direct American participation in  the war, he endeavored to minimize drawing attention to it. The Hanoi govern- ment had been rapidly increasing its military involvement in the south ever since  the death of Ngo Dinh Diem, hoping to gain victory before the US could react. By early 1965, the military position of the Saigon government was deteriorating so quickly that direct American intervention was needed to avoid a debacle. Phan Huy Quat was not enthusiastic about American intervention but had no way of resisting it. The generals understood that American intervention ensured the survival of their armed forces and would fundamentally change the context of Vietnamese politics in their favor. After four months of a US bombing campaign against North Vietnam and of  piecemeal deployments of thousands of American ground troops to South Viet- nam, in July of 1965 Johnson finally announced his policy toward Vietnam. He  proposed an open-ended increase in US troops, the amount to be determined by the number necessary to obtain his aim, which was to persuade Hanoi to abandon its policy of seizing the south. His approach followed a “limited war” theory that had been developed by some academics, which proposed that one could persuade an enemy to renounce its goal through a limited application of military action; it was not necessary to actually force defeat upon an enemy in order to obtain one’s own goal but merely to convince an opponent that it was in its best interest to stop fighting. This theory was combined with the “flexible response” idea that Kennedy had ostensibly embraced to produce the concept of “graduated pressure,” according to which the US would apply increasing levels of military action in Vietnam until Hanoi decided to give up. Ambassador Taylor had argued against the deployment of ground troops, fearing that it would destroy the nationalist credentials of the anti-communist Vietnamese. Johnson replaced him with Lodge, who for the next two years watched from the embassy as more and more American troops arrived. Without a clear strategy for defeating the enemy and gaining victory, American forces concentrated upon logistics, at which they excelled, moving men and material halfway around the world to Vietnam. Westmoreland was tasked with using his  increasing resources to cause maximum battlefield damage to the enemy. Handi- capped by being unable to control the movement of men and materials through  Laos and Cambodia into Vietnam, Westmoreland resorted to a policy of “search and destroy” in which American forces endeavored to locate and apply their superior firepower to communist forces. The result was that communist forces  learned how to be “found” in ways that maximized their advantages and conse- quently they were able to initiate around 80 percent of all combat encounters. It  began to look like a war of attrition by 1966 and 1967. The momentum of American escalation pushed aside the South Vietnamese army and it was relegated to so-called “pacification duties,” dealing with local insurgents and the chaos in civilian life caused by the increase in warfare.  Meanwhile, American forces attempted to engage the units of the North Viet- namese army that increasingly appeared from across the Laotian and Cambo- dian borders. In addition to the land route from North Vietnam through  southern Laos, supplies also reached communist forces by ship to the Cambodian port of Sihanoukville. Sihanouk allowed the movement of military supplies through Cambodia to the Vietnamese border in exchange for a percentage of the shipments. The first major battle between American and North Vietnamese army units occurred in autumn 1965 at what became known as the Battle of Ia Drang, in the Central Highlands near the Cambodian border, in which US airmobile units, recently arrived from the US, endeavored to destroy a large concentration of North Vietnamese soldiers. The North Vietnamese considered the battle a victory because, after inflicting significant casualties upon the Americans, they were able to withdraw in good order across the Cambodian border where they enjoyed immunity from American attack. Although Americans officially claimed the battle as a victory because their casualties were fewer than those of the North Vietnamese, McNamara’s analysis of the battle was the beginning of his doubts about the war. He concluded that the bombing campaign could not sufficiently diminish the movement of men and materials into the south nor could US search and destroy operations disable North Vietnamese units fast enough for any discernible scenario leading to success. Although McNamara persuaded Johnson  to order a brief bombing halt in early 1966 to explore the possibility of negoti- ations, the basic war policy remained unchanged with continued bombing and  ever-increasing numbers of US troops being sent to South Vietnam. By early 1966, the activist monks based in Hue were pressing for the election of a constituent assembly to write a constitution and to re-establish a civilian government. The Americans also endorsed this agenda. Ambassador Lodge, who in 1963 had established a good relationship with Thich Tri Quang, endeavored to keep the Buddhists calm while nudging the Nguyen Cao Ky government in this direction. Complicating this issue was the personal falling out between Nguyen Chanh Thi, who was closely associated with Thich Tri Quang, and the Saigon generals, which exacerbated the alienation of the Buddhist population in the northern part of the country from the government in Saigon. After Nguyen Cao Ky was publicly insulted during a visit to Hue and Da Nang in early March, the Saigon generals decided to relieve Nguyen Chanh Thi of his  command. In response to this, Thich Tri Quang began to broadcast anti- government messages from the Hue radio station and a resistance movement  led by monks and students spread to major cities along the central coast and in the Central Highlands, and also to Saigon. In addition to calling for an end to the military government, the demonstrators also aired anti-American slogans. They  expressed a Buddhist fear that the military government was bringing back offi- cials who had worked for the Ngo Dinh brothers as well as a more general  dismay at the increasing numbers of US combat troops in the country and the expansion of warfare.  During the following three months, two important developments simultan- eously occurred. Soldiers, teachers, students, and others in the Hue–Da Nang  region joined Buddhist activists in resistance against the Saigon government. This  was eventually suppressed by force, and many of the most militantly anti- government people fled to join the communists in the mountains. At the same  time, and to some extent as a political response to the revolt, a committee was formed to draft laws for electing and administering a constituent assembly that would write a constitution. The work of this committee was completed and approved in June 1966, just as the revolt was coming to an end. The election for the constituent assembly was held in September 1966 with 401 candidates standing for 117 seats and around 80 percent of the electorate participating. The election revealed strong regional and sectarian differences. Initially, the largest bloc was mainly comprised of people from north and central Vietnam and included Dai Viet politicians, some Catholics and a few people associated with the military. This bloc was eventually equaled in size by the combination of a Catholic group and a group of southerners led by Hoa Hao leaders that attracted some independents and formed a bloc that supported Nguyen Cao Ky’s efforts to mediate between the assembly and the generals. There was a smaller bloc of militant southern regionalists, an echo of the old Cochinchinese separatist movement of the late 1940s. The Buddhist activists had been discredited by the revolt and consequently there was no significant bloc of people representing their agenda. In October, as the constituent assembly was organizing itself, a crisis erupted when southerners in Nguyen Cao Ky’s cabinet threatened to resign over what they viewed as discriminatory treatment of southerners in favor of northerners. This crisis resonated with the formation of regional blocks in the constituent assembly. Nguyen Cao Ky, a northerner, succeeded in calming the matter and maintaining the unity of his cabinet. He thereafter gave much attention to negotiating compromises between the constituent assembly and the generals. The constitution that was finally completed and approved in March 1967 was the result of significant concessions from both groups. It provided for a strong presidency, a bicameral legislature, and an independent judiciary. After a complex series of procedures and maneuvers in the summer of 1967, eleven men were officially approved to run for president. Although Nguyen Cao Ky was keen to run for president, his military colleagues forced him to run for vice president under Nguyen Van Thieu, who was his senior in rank; the generals feared that without a united military ticket they could lose the election. Of the ten  civilian candidates, Phan Khac Suu and Tran Van Huong were the most prom- inent. Thich Tri Quang called on his followers to boycott the election.  The election was held under the gaze of dozens of American and other international observers. Despite many problems, it was generally evaluated as an accomplishment on the road toward building a democratic political system in wartime. Despite the advantage of holding power, the military ticket received only around 35 percent of the votes. Phan Khac Suu and Tran Van Huong polled well in the cities with each receiving around 10 percent of the votes. Two other candidates received between 5 and 10 percent, and five candidates received less than 5 percent. The surprise of the election was that a man named Truong Dinh Dzu came in second with around 17 percent of the votes. Truong Dinh Dzu (1917–1980s), originally from Binh Dinh Province, studied law in Hanoi and from 1945 practiced law in Saigon. He was rumored to have communist acquaintances, but he also had business relations with people related to Ngo Dinh Diem. He was an active member of the Rotary Club, becoming the  head of the Rotary Club organization in Southeast Asia. He had been investi- gated for bribery, illegally transferring funds abroad, and tax irregularities, but  nevertheless managed to gain approval to run for president. He was an effective speaker and attracted attention with his platform of peace and of negotiation with the communists. He ran well in contested rural areas that were susceptible to communist influence. After the election he was jailed on a currency transaction charge. The Second Republic of Vietnam was inaugurated at the end of October 1967 after completion of National Assembly elections. The government was a civilian–  military hybrid, a structure inhabited by military authority with built-in demo- cratic tendencies that required ongoing negotiation and compromise with civilian  constituents. During the year and a half of preparing and bringing into operation the new constitution, American intervention rose to half a million troops in the country. This dominating American presence had a stabilizing influence on the country’s politics. In 1967, Ellsworth Bunker (1894–1984) was named US ambassador. He was an experienced, competent, and effective career diplomat who, during his six years in Saigon, preserved a predominantly cooperative relationship between the US government and Nguyen Van Thieu. Nguyen Van Thieu’s lack of ability as a political leader was to some extent offset by his caution, his consistency, his mastery of military politics, and his ability to work with Americans. During the four years between the end of the Ngo Dinh regime and the beginning of the Second Republic, the politics of South Vietnam developed amidst an externally supported insurgency and a massive American intervention. A large theme was competition for ascendancy between the two groups that had brought down Ngo Dinh Diem: the Buddhist activists and the military officers. Eventually, the Buddhists were forced to yield. Within the military, a junior cohort relatively susceptible to American influence came to the fore. A large and varied population of civilian politicians, often with strong sectarian and  regional affiliations, actively participated in the many experiments in govern- ment. After a year of negotiation and compromise, a constitutional structure was  adopted that provided a legal framework for politics and administration until dismantled by the communists seven and a half years later.


Political turmoil in Saigon

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Despite filling the role of “first among equals” during the planning and execution of the coup, Duong Van Minh was indolent and without ideas aside from removing Ngo Dinh Diem’s officials and abandoning his policies. In a matter of days, the structure of authority created by the Ngo Dinh brothers was dismantled and the strategic hamlet program came to a halt. During the three months of Duong Van Minh’s regime, most government activity had to do with sorting out a shifting pecking order among military officers and allotting the spoils of power. Duong Van Minh was susceptible to the views of the Buddhist activists, and to the extent that a general policy for his government could be discerned, his rivals and the increasingly appalled Americans accused him of favoring the neutralism touted by the French and by Sihanouk. Sihanouk ended his relationship with American foreign aid after Ngo Dinh Diem’s death, fearing that it could have a similar effect in Cambodia, and he called for a neutralization of Indochina. Duong Van Minh resisted extension of the US advisory program and appeared to encourage the activist monks to believe that their anti-war and anti-American views were important for national policy. Duong Van Minh failed to establish successful working relations with civilian politicians, with his fellow generals, and with the Americans. The cabinet appointed by the generals to administer the country excluded some groups, such as the Dai Viet and the Hoa Hao, who instinctively began to work to bring down the government. There was also a falling out into factions among the generals themselves. General Tran Thien Khiem (b. 1925), a Catholic and godson of Ngo Dinh Diem, had joined the coup plot but resented Duong Van Minh’s decision to kill the Ngo Dinh brothers. He and other military officers were dissatisfied with how authority was apportioned after the coup. The Americans soon decided that the results of the coup were a step backwards in terms of government stability and battlefield performance. The military situation had begun to shift in late summer when the attention of the commanding generals was diverted from fighting to plotting. In the wake of the coup, many experienced and competent officers and officials were discarded, the battlefield situation became grim, and Duong Van Minh had no plans. Under the new American President, Lyndon Baines Johnson (1908–1973), initiative for policy shifted from the embassy of Ambassador Lodge to the MACV command of General Harkins. Harkins had never agreed with the scheme for removing Ngo Dinh Diem, and he had little esteem for the group of opportunistic generals gathered around Duong Van Minh. He identified General Nguyen Khanh (b. 1927) as someone more likely to share the American concern to fight communists and encouraged him to take power. Nguyen Khanh, like Duong Van Minh, was the son of a wealthy Cochinchina landlord. He had received military training in France in the late 1940s and in the US in the late 1950s. He had helped to foil the 1960 coup plot. In 1963, with a command just north of Saigon, he had remained aloof from the plotters until joining the coup as it occurred. Duong Van Minh then reassigned him to command the northern part of the country, which made him very dissatisfied. His new second-in-command was Nguyen Chanh Thi (1923–2007), who had been a prominent member of the 1960 coup attempt against Ngo Dinh Diem and had gone into Cambodian exile until rehabilitated in November 1963. Nguyen Khanh, along with Nguyen Chanh Thi, Tran Thien Khiem, and other officers who were alienated by Duong Van Minh’s lack of initiative, his vulnerability to the Buddhist activists, and his inability to maximize benefits from the American relationship staged a mostly bloodless coup at the end of January 1964 with the active encouragement and support of the Americans. Nguyen Khanh was the pre-eminent figure in the Saigon government for the next year. He was opportunistic and he lacked political ability, but he was indebted to the fact that American policy was in an era of passivity as Johnson waited for the election of 1964 to give him the political clout to respond to what under Khanh’s wavering leadership became an increasingly chaotic situation. Nguyen Khanh initially turned to the Dai Viet politicians who had been excluded from power by both Ngo Dinh Diem and Duong Van Minh. But political parties  in Vietnam had arisen during French colonial rule and consequently were oppos- itional, conspiratorial, and unwilling to take responsibility for governing. Fur- thermore, the Dai Viet politicians did not form a coherent party organization but  rather had become groups vaguely allied as opponents of Ngo Dinh Diem. There were at least four groups of Dai Viet politicians, three of them aligned in factions associated with the three parts of Vietnam – north, center, and south. The most prominent Dai Viet figure was Phan Huy Quat (1908–1979), whom Nguyen Khanh made his Foreign Minister. Phan Huy Quat, a medical doctor, was from the northern Dai Viet faction. He had served as Minister of Education under Bao Dai in 1949 and as Minster of Defense during the brief Nguyen Phan Long government of 1950, and again in the Nguyen Van Tam government of 1953–1954. He briefly served as acting Prime Minister in 1954 between Buu Loc and Ngo Dinh Diem and was touted by some as an alternative to Ngo Dinh Diem in 1954. He was a signer of the Caravelle Manifesto in 1960. In February 1964, he refused to join some Dai Viet figures who were plotting to seize control of Nguyen Khanh’s government. This plot disabused Nguyen Khanh of relying on civilian politicians associated with “parties.” Because he had overthrown those who had eliminated Ngo Dinh Diem, Nguyen Khanh was vulnerable to accusations of wanting to re-establish the Catholic regime of the Ngo Dinh family. His support of the Dai Viet politicians was intended to negate this accusation because the Dai Viet politicians had the reputation of being opponents of Ngo Dinh Diem. However, when he realized that the non-sectarian political parties, including the Dai Viet, were incoherent and untrustworthy because of their lack of organization and their conspiratorial culture of opposition, he began to look elsewhere for a political base. During the  spring and summer of 1964, he attempted to cultivate the support of the Bud- dhist monks and of the younger generation of military officers.  After the overthrow of Ngo Dinh Diem, activist Buddhist leaders reorgan- ized themselves into the Vietnamese Buddhist United Church, which included  around three thousand monks and six hundred nuns and claimed three million lay adherents. They became experts at pressuring Saigon governments with street demonstrations. Student groups, particularly in Saigon, being inspired and influenced by the Buddhists, had developed their own style of street politics beginning in the late summer of 1963, and they continued their efforts to affect national policy during 1964. In May 1964, the Buddhists and students successfully demanded that Nguyen Khanh kill Ngo Dinh Can to prove that he had repudiated Ngo Dinh Diem’s political heritage. From this,  they understood that Nguyen Khanh was a weak leader who could be pres- sured from the streets. More important than the civilian politicians or the Buddhists and students were the junior colleagues of Nguyen Khanh in the military. He was a relatively lonely generational figure between the Francophile senior generals who had gathered around Duong Van Minh and junior officers who represented a more pro-American and anti-communist perspective. During the first half of 1964, Nguyen Khanh made sure to recognize the loyalty of his junior colleagues with promotions. Aside from Nguyen Chanh Thi, two other prominent figures in this group of so-called “Young Turks” were Nguyen Van Thieu (1923–2001) and Nguyen Cao Ky (1930–2011). Nguyen Van Thieu, from a coastal region not far north of Saigon, had converted to Catholicism during Ngo Dinh Diem’s rule. In 1963, he was the commander of a key unit near Saigon and had joined the coup against Ngo Dinh Diem when it became clear that it was going to succeed. He subsequently joined the plot led by Nguyen Khanh. He was a cautious man, determined to be on the winning side of military politics and convinced that the exercise of power depended upon American support. Nguyen Cao Ky, a pilot who had become the commander of the air force, was also alert to the winds of change. However, unlike Nguyen Van Thieu, who was introverted and secretive, Nguyen Cao Ky was open, outspoken, transparent, and with no hint of corruption. As Nguyen Khanh endeavored to keep his position atop the shifting sands of Saigon politics, American policy prepared for greater intervention as it became clear that the battlefield situation had turned dramatically against Saigon after the death of Ngo Dinh Diem. No major initiative was politically possible until after the presidential election of November 1964. Until then, US policy in Vietnam was subordinated to electoral politics. Nevertheless, early in his  presidency, Johnson had authorized sabotage and intelligence gathering oper- ations by Taiwanese and Vietnamese commandos along the coast of North  Vietnam in the Gulf of Tonkin. In August 1964, this resulted in an attack by North Vietnamese patrol boats upon a US destroyer, just at a time when Johnson needed to demonstrate his anti-communist resolve to silence criticisms from his presidential opponent. He ordered a retaliatory air strike against North Vietnam  and obtained congressional approval of the so-called “Gulf of Tonkin Reso- lution” that authorized him to wage war in Southeast Asia. This helped Johnson  to silence his militant critics, but it also had an effect upon Saigon politics.  During the summer of 1964, Buddhist militants organized the National Salva- tion Council with provincial committees to stage demonstrations against what  they continued to view as the danger of a return to power of Ngo Dinh Diem’s people. Many public confrontations with Catholics turned violent, and Catholics began to denounce what they viewed as religious persecution. Activists on both sides influenced student groups, who began to stage demonstrations in Saigon not directly related to religion. In late July, students led a large demonstration in Saigon denouncing what they saw as French interference in Vietnamese affairs. Nguyen Khanh appeared irresolute amidst the clamor of street politics. The Gulf of Tonkin episode with retaliatory US air strikes on North Vietnam and a warlike congressional resolution inspired Nguyen Khanh  to try some similarly dramatic initiative to overcome his reputation for vacil- lation. He declared a national emergency, imposed press censorship, and  persuaded his military colleagues to issue the Vung Tau Charter, giving him near-dictatorial powers. After ten days of public demonstrations in which Buddhists denounced these moves and mobs of Buddhist and Catholic youth brawled in the streets, Nguyen Khanh backed down and rescinded the Vung Tau Charter. Nguyen Khanh’s military colleagues were losing confidence in him, yet no one else was in a position to push him aside. Maxwell Taylor had just replaced Lodge as US ambassador and, at the same time, General William Childs Westmoreland  (1914–2005) replaced Harkins as MACV commander. Taylor and Westmore- land wanted to avoid any dramatic political change while rebuilding a civilian  government. By the end of August, Nguyen Khanh entered a kind of triumvirate with Duong Van Minh and Tran Thien Khiem. In mid September, Tran Thien Khiem was implicated in a coup attempt plotted by two other Catholic generals and, consequently, sent out of the country to be ambassador to the US. The Young Turks thwarted the coup and their influence accordingly grew. In November, Duong Van Minh was eased out and sent abroad as a “roving ambassador.” Meanwhile, in early September the High National Council was formed of sixteen civilians with responsibility to write a constitution, to function as a temporary national assembly, and to restore a civilian administration. Phan Khac Suu (1893–1970) was chosen as Chairman of the High National Council. He was an agricultural engineer and a member of the Cao Dai who had served in Bao Dai’s cabinets. He had signed the Caravelle Manifesto in 1960 and was subsequently jailed by Ngo Dinh Diem. Under his leadership, at the end of October, the High National Council promulgated a “provisional charter” to serve as a temporary constitution. He was elevated to serve as Chief of State, and he chose Tran Van Huong (1902–1982) to be the prime minister. Tran Van Huong had a reputation for honesty and competence. A secondary school teacher, he spent most of the French war working for the Vietnamese Red Cross in southern Vietnam. Under Ngo Dinh Diem, he was the mayor of Saigon for several months and then became Secretary General of the Vietnamese Red Cross Society, a position he held when he signed the Caravelle Manifesto in 1960. Duong Van Minh made him a member of his powerless Council of Notables after the coup against Ngo Dinh Diem. He was once again the mayor of Saigon when Phan Khac Suu called on him to be Prime Minister. Tran Van Huong stood for establishing public order against the street politics  of the student and Buddhist activists. He sponsored a Buddhist church organiza- tion of monks opposed to the militancy of Thich Tri Quang and insisted that  politics and religion should not be mixed. Although his ability to exercise strong leadership was hindered by controversy over his selection of cabinet ministers in the High National Council, now functioning as a legislative body, he forcefully responded to Saigon street disturbances in late November by declaring a state of emergency, closing schools, banning public meetings, and authorizing the local military commander, General Pham Van Dong (1919–2008), to search and arrest without warrant. These measures were popular in Saigon where street politics had been disrupting life for months, but Nguyen Khanh and the Young Turks viewed Pham Van Dong as a potential rival. Pham Van Dong had a long record of service in the French and Vietnamese armies. Americans praised his competence on the battlefield, and he had a reputation for being politically astute and personally honest. He kept a small private army of men from a northern upland ethnic minority, into which he had married, and accordingly enjoyed a measure of independence in relation to other military officers. Tran Van Huong’s reliance upon him to restore a semblance of public order raised the profiles of both men as effective leaders. However, the Buddhist activists, whose influence on government depended upon their skill in street politics, were unhappy. Nguyen Khanh, who remained susceptible to the idea of increasing his authority in alliance with the militant Buddhists, was also unhappy. Neither were the Young Turks happy with the ascendancy of Pham Van Dong, which threatened to intercept their path to power. Nguyen Chanh Thi, a prominent Young Turk, was closely associated with both Nguyen Khanh and the militant monks based at Hue. When the High  National Council resisted pressure to expand its membership to include support- ers of Thich Tri Quang, the young generals demanded that it pass a law to retire  military officers after twenty-five years of service. This measure was aimed at Pham Van Dong, who had enlisted in 1939, a year earlier than Duong Van Minh. When this demand was refused, Nguyen Khanh and his young colleagues dissolved the High National Council and arrested some of its members along with other political figures. They nevertheless continued to express support for the Tran Van Huong government and pretended that the powers of the High National Council had passed to Phan Khac Suu. This action weakened Tran Van Huong while strengthening Nguyen Khanh and the Buddhist activists.  Taylor reacted angrily to the apparent reassertion of Nguyen Khanh’s author- ity and to the setback in building a civilian government. The two men fell out, each demanding that the other leave the country. Tran Van Huong managed to defuse the situation and by mid January 1965 had restored a measure of calm to  Vietnamese–American relations. Taylor’s reaction was to some extent aggra- vated by American plans to escalate involvement in Vietnam, which after the  US presidential election were now rising in priority. The Americans wanted a stable civilian Vietnamese government to facilitate and legitimize an increase in US involvement. Nevertheless, political turmoil in Saigon continued during the next two months as dry-season battlefield activity intensified and American military intervention began to materialize. In late January, Tran Van Huong aimed to strengthen his government by proposing a new cabinet that included four generals. This prompted Buddhist militants led by Thich Tri Quang to call for Tran Van Houng’s resignation and to  mobilize violent anti-American demonstrations in Saigon and in Hue. Respond- ing to this, Nguyen Khanh solicited Buddhist support by persuading the generals  to remove Tran Van Huong from office. By mid February, Nguyen Khanh had named Phan Huy Quat to be prime minister. Phan Huy Quat, a Dai Viet leader who had been in Nguyen Khanh’s first cabinet, was a Buddhist from the north widely considered to be a political enemy of those who had supported Ngo Dinh Diem. Most of the men he appointed to his cabinet were from the north or center of the country. He was acceptable to the Buddhist militants, but Catholics and southerners distrusted him. In late February, southern Catholic officers attempted to stage a coup that was suppressed by Nguyen Chanh Thi and other generals who took the occasion to send Nguyen Khanh into exile. Thereafter, as American bombing of North Vietnam started and American troops began to arrive, Nguyen Chanh Thi established himself in the Hue/Da Nang region of the central coast with strong Buddhist support. Meanwhile, the Phan Huy Quat government limped along in Saigon, handicapped by its unpopularity among Catholics and southerners, which prompted another unsuccessful coup attempt in late May. By early June, the government was paralyzed by a dispute between Phan Huy Quat and Chief of State Phan Khac Suu over the composition of the cabinet. The National Legislative Council, which had been formed in February to  replace the High National Council, was too weak to solve the problem. Conse- quently, Phan Huy Quat resigned and handed the government back to the  generals, who decided on Nguyen Van Thieu as Chief of State and Nguyen Cao Ky as Prime Minister. These two generals, along with Nguyen Chanh Thi, had emerged as the most influential among the military officers after Nguyen Khanh’s departure. Nguyen Chanh Thi preferred to establish his personal bailiwick in the northern part of the country rather than to enter the politics of the Saigon-based generals. In mid June, Nguyen Cao Ky formed a war cabinet as American intervention accelerated.

Assassination of Ngo Dinh Diem

Assassination of Ngo Dinh Diem

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The Vietnamese–American relationship unraveled in 1963 as a result of several factors. The flawed Laotian agreement of 1962 facilitated North Vietnamese use of southern Laos to supply communist forces in South Vietnam. This assisted Hanoi’s response to the challenge of strategic hamlets and of escalating American advisory, logistical, and air support activities. Harriman, the chief architect of the Laos agreement, bitterly resented Ngo Dinh Diem’s criticism of it. Harriman was the most influential among a group of officials in the State Department and the National Security Council that pressed for Ngo Dinh Diem’s removal from power. These officials were emboldened when he began to appear increasingly vulnerable during the course of 1963. This vulnerability developed from at least five sources: French foreign policy, which aimed to extend to South Vietnam the neutralization scheme that had been imposed on Laos; disenchanted erstwhile American supporters; the response of American public opinion to critical news reports from Saigon; a movement to overthrow him led by Buddhist monks; and military officers susceptible to signs of American encouragement for them to organize a coup. President de Gaulle imagined a role for France in Southeast Asia as the patron of neutral countries who desired to avoid the bipolar Cold War alternatives. Norodom Sihanouk (1922–2012), the leader of Cambodia, was an enthusiastic supporter of this, and the Laotian agreement of 1962 appeared to offer an example of power sharing between communists and non-communists. The Hanoi government professed to see benefit in this French initiative. In the south, some Vietnamese saw it as a way to avoid war and to reverse the tide of American advisors. Officially, the Saigon government and the US considered neutralism as simply a step toward surrender. However, as the Ngo Dinh brothers became increasingly alienated from the Americans during 1963, this path out of the American shadow acquired some plausibility, and rumors of contact between the two Vietnamese governments added to the rising tension between Saigon and Washington, DC.  In 1961, some American academics who had participated in an aid and advis- ory program in Vietnam sponsored by Michigan State University published  articles denouncing Ngo Dinh Diem as a dictator. With the dramatic escalation of American assistance to Saigon during 1962, a dissenting view that American aid was being wasted on behalf of an unworthy tyrant gained traction among some American intellectuals. The most influential of these critics was Michael Joseph Mansfield (1903–2001), a former Professor of Latin American and Far Eastern History who in 1961 became the majority leader of the US Senate. Mansfield was a senior member of Kennedy’s political party who, like Kennedy, had voiced strong support for Ngo Dinh Diem in the 1950s. However, after a visit to Saigon in late 1962, he advised Kennedy that Ngo Dinh Diem was unworthy of continued American assistance. Mansfield was widely respected for his expertise on Asia and for his thoughtful, considered manner. The official report of his trip to Vietnam was published in February 1963. It asserted that continued support of the Saigon government was a waste, and it recommended that the US should withdraw from the Vietnamese situation. The Mansfield report raised doubts about Vietnamese policy in the minds of some American politicians and officials, and it damaged Ngo Dinh Diem’s confidence in the future of Vietnamese–American relations. Meanwhile, a group of young American reporters had become advocates of overthrowing the Ngo Dinh brothers. In January 1963, a small battle in which communist forces inflicted disproportionate damage on South Vietnamese forces was reported from the vantage of an American advisor who had participated in the battle and who blamed its outcome on the corruption and incompetence of the Vietnamese government. This battle, which the Americans called the Battle of Ap Bac, was not representative of military activity in the country at that time, but it was reported in American newspapers as a major defeat for Saigon, a turning point in favor of the communists, and an indictment of Vietnamese leadership. Reports of this event in the US cast doubt on the efficacy of American efforts in Vietnam so long as the Ngo Dinh brothers remained in power. Despite the negativity generated against the Ngo Dinh brothers in the American press and among American officials, Kennedy remained confident in McNamara’s positive evaluation of progress on the battlefield and in the importance of Ngo Dinh Diem for maintaining political stability in Saigon. This changed with the eruption of the Buddhist movement in the summer of 1963. Although the Ngo Dinh brothers had successfully asserted their ascendancy over the religious sects in the Mekong River plain and over rival urban-based political parties such as the Nationalists and the Dai Viet, and although they had shown an ability to compete with communists for control of the rural population, they were relatively oblivious to the vulnerability created by their adherence to Roman Catholicism, and particularly to how this vulnerability was exacerbated by Ngo Dinh Thuc (1897–1984), the eldest living brother who, after serving more than twenty years as a bishop at Vinh Long in the Mekong plain, had been appointed Archbishop of Hue in late 1960. The great infusion of Catholic refugees from northern Vietnam in 1954, added to southern Catholics, was a ready source of support for the Ngo Dinh brothers, who tended to rely upon Catholics not only because of their relatively high level of education, economic prowess, and community discipline, but also because of the role of the Church in recommending and guaranteeing the behavior of loyal people. Catholic refugees contributed to the larger tension between northerners and southerners, between immigrants benefiting from government assistance and local inhabitants struggling for a livelihood. But beyond this, many southerners converted to Catholicism as a step closer to the center of power, and advantages gained thereby were resented and viewed as discriminatory by those who chose not to take that path.  Ngo Dinh Diem had no discernible intention to discriminate against non- Catholics, and he labored to establish good relations with the Buddhist monkhood. He subsidized the building and repair of Buddhist temples and guaranteed freedom of religion. Yet, the undercurrent of incipient favoritism toward Catholics remained. This may never have broken into the open as it did in 1963 without the destabilizing activities of Ngo Dinh Thuc as Archbishop of Hue, for Hue also happened to be the center of a Buddhist leadership disposed to challenge Ngo Dinh Diem on both religious and political grounds. Ever since the “Buddhist revival” led by Vien Chieu in the 1920s and 1930s, there was a strong tendency toward radical political activism among some Buddhist monks with nationalist inclinations. By the 1940s, Vien Chieu and others had gone so far as to leave the monkhood and to join the Indochinese Communist Party. In the early 1950s, many young Vietnamese circulated between the monkhood and the Viet Minh struggle against French colonialism. After 1954, some monks continued to maintain contact with one another across the demilitarized zone. In the early 1960s, many monks supported the idea of neutralism as a way to avoid civil war. In their opinion, the Ngo Dinh regime discriminated against Buddhists in favor of Catholics and had furthermore  opened the country to American domination and civil war. The Kennedy admin- istration’s military escalation produced a sense of urgency among monks to stop  the slide into a war. Young Vietnamese monks were encouraged to take an active part in public affairs by the larger movement of Asian Buddhists that had arisen in the 1950s from nationalist struggles against colonialism and in reaction to the Cold War clash of non-Asian ideologies. This was in contrast to older, more conservative, monks who tended to be based in rural areas and who preferred to avoid the vicissitudes of politics. Hue was a former royal capital and colonial cultural center. Monks there tended to be politically alert with a sense of responsibility for the country. Until the appointment of Ngo Dinh Thuc as Archbishop of Hue, Ngo Dinh Can (1911–1964), a younger Ngo Dinh brother, had effectively governed the northern part of South Vietnam and maintained good relations with the local Buddhist monks, including Thich Tri Quang (b. 1924), a leader among the younger, more politically inclined monks based at Hue. However, Ngo Dinh Thuc overshadowed his younger brother and destabilized the situation by mixing  his efforts to promote Catholicism with his influence over government adminis- tration. He demonstrated a high-profile arrogance and insensitivity toward non- Catholics that alienated many Buddhists from the Saigon government. Buddhist  leaders accused him of aggressive proselytizing with the weight of the govern- ment behind him. Ngo Dinh Diem could not bring himself to acknowledge that  his elder brother, to whom he had given respect and deference throughout his life, was creating a problem. In early May 1963, uproar broke out in Hue over the discriminatory enforce- ment of regulations about the flying of religious flags. The twenty-fifth anniver- sary observance of Ngo Dinh Thuc’s ordination as a bishop had flourished  Catholic flags, but shortly after this some local officials tried to prevent the flying of Buddhist flags during the observance of Vesakha, commonly referred to in English as Vesak or “the Buddha’s birthday.” Vesak was a relatively new Buddhist holiday that had been established in 1950 at the inaugural conference of the World Fellowship of Buddhists in Colombo, Sri Lanka, which thereafter encouraged the promotion of Buddhism in national cultures. Thich Tri Quang had studied in Sri Lanka and became active in the Vietnam General Buddhist Association that was founded in 1951 by monks who were inspired by the Colombo meeting. After 1954, this organization was abolished in North Vietnam when the communist authorities implemented a policy to control and discourage religion, but it continued to exist in South Vietnam, based at Hue, where by 1963 Thich Tri Quang had become one of its leaders. A French colonial law that permitted the term “church” to be used only by Catholics had produced the term “association” in the organization’s name. That this law had never been revoked is an indication of Ngo Dinh Diem’s lack of awareness or concern about the resentment it produced and about the danger of allowing his elder brother to flaunt Catholicism in the region most committed to a Buddhist version of nationalism. Thich Tri Quang was prominent in organizing the 1963 Vesak observance as a response to Ngo Dinh Thuc’s activities. He was determined to use the occasion to rally public resentment against the archbishop and against the official policy of discrimination that the archbishop seemed to promote. Although government officials quickly disowned and reversed the effort to prevent display of Buddhist flags, Thich Tri Quang and his followers aroused a campaign of protest against religious discrimination of which the flag controversy was symbolic. Thich Tri Quang led a demonstration to the Hue radio station with the intention of broadcasting his complaints against the government. After soldiers arrived on the scene, explosions killed several demonstrators. According to various theories, the soldiers, or the communists, or even the Americans had set off the explosions, but evidence for assigning culpability remains inconclusive and controversial. Nevertheless, Thich Tri Quang took the most plausible and expedient line of blaming the government, which was widely believed. He presented the government with five demands: freedom to fly Buddhist flags, revocation of the law forbidding Buddhist organizations the legal status of a “church,” indemnification for the families of those who died at the radio station, punishment of those responsible for the deaths, and the end of all discrimination against Buddhists. Ngo Dinh Diem was slow to respond to these demands. He was reluctant to acknowledge any official policy of religious discrimination, and he blamed the radio station deaths on the communists. He preferred to deal with older, less radical monks, but did not arrive at an agreement with them until mid June, by  which time Thich Tri Quang and his activist followers had expanded their anti- government activities to Saigon and staged the public immolation of a monk to  protest what was reported in the American press as “religious persecution.” This event provoked widespread outrage against Ngo Dinh Diem’s government in the US and turned the Kennedy administration against him. Kennedy replaced Nolting with Henry Cabot Lodge, Jr. (1902–1985), a former senator, ambassador to the UN, and candidate for vice president who came from a social background similar to Kennedy and Harriman and who shared Harriman’s disdain for uncooperative leaders of client states. By the time Lodge arrived in Saigon in August, the Vietnamese government had ended a summer of Buddhist street demonstrations by declaring martial law, seizing temples, and removing activist monks to prison or to the custody of senior monks in rural areas. Thich Tri Quang took refuge in the US embassy where Lodge treated him as an honored guest and where he acknowledged that his aim was to bring down the government. Buddhists and foreign newsmen charged that the suppression of the Buddhist movement during the raids on temples had been excessively violent and that many people had been killed. Ngo Dinh Diem subsequently requested and obtained a UN “fact-finding team” that arrived in October and was permitted to investigate without restrictions. The UN report, made public after Ngo Dinh Diem’s downfall, claimed that there had been no deaths and that those imprisoned had all been released. Meanwhile, Ngo Dinh Diem held elections for the National Assembly that had been scheduled at the end of August but were postponed due to the imposition of martial law. Martial law was lifted in mid September and the election was held at the end of the month. This was the most open and least manipulated national election held under Ngo Dinh Diem. The number of elected members affiliated with the National Revolutionary Movement that served as the front organization  for the Ngo Dinh brothers fell from seventy-six to fifty-five while those unaffili- ated with the regime increased from thirty-six to sixty-six. Ngo Dinh Diem  accepted the election results and opened the new, albeit relatively powerless, legislature shortly before his death. By this time, US policymakers were no longer interested in electoral reform, having already decided the fate of Ngo Dinh Diem’s regime. In late August, Lodge endeavored to promote a military coup against Ngo Dinh Diem in response to instructions from the State Department drafted by Harriman and his collaborators, which Kennedy subsequently approved. The senior generals on whom the Americans began to place their hopes had begun their careers with the French army; some had been French citizens. The leading figure among them was Duong Van Minh (1916–2001), the son of a wealthy Cochinchina landowner whom Ngo Dinh Diem had retired from active service. The catalyst for the flurry of plotting in late August was the arrival of Lodge and his clandestine contacts with disgruntled officers. On the other hand, Harkins made no secret of his lack of enthusiasm for a coup, which, along with a lack of mutual trust among the generals, initially stymied efforts to organize a conspiracy. In July, at the peak of the Buddhist demonstrations, Ngo Dinh Diem staged trials of civilians who had been arrested in connection with the coup attempt of  November 1960, and other former political figures were summoned for ques- tioning as well. This was a warning to aspiring politicians tempted to support  Thich Tri Quang’s call for a change of government. Ngo Dinh Diem had excluded from his government people associated with the Nationalist and Dai Viet Parties, ostensibly because of their past status as clients of China and Japan and their participation in Bao Dai’s governments in the early 1950s. They also represented rival networks of men with political and administrative experience. In February 1962, two air force pilots had bombed the presidential mansion; one of them was the son of a Nationalist Party leader who had been briefly jailed in 1960. The plotting military officers had no ability to govern, but there were many doctors, lawyers, former administrators, and other professional people who were alienated from the Ngo Dinh regime and were ready to serve if given an opportunity. During September and October 1963, Kennedy leaned toward the State Department view of Ngo Dinh Diem and waited on Lodge’s efforts to encourage the generals to seize the government. The plotters asked that the Commodity Import Program be suspended as a signal that the US government fully supported them; this was done in mid October. After a final face-to-face meeting between Lodge and one of the generals to convey assurance that the US approved the conspiracy, Ngo Dinh Diem and Ngo Dinh Nhu were seized and killed at the beginning of November. Ngo Dinh Thuc was out of the country at the time and never returned. Ngo Dinh Can was killed six months later. The overthrow of  Ngo Dinh Diem was Kennedy’s most fateful achievement in Vietnam. It funda- mentally changed the Vietnamese–American relationship and set US involvement  in Vietnam in a new direction. Ngo Dinh Diem had stabilized a government in South Vietnam that resisted Hanoi’s efforts to destroy it by means of political agitation, terrorism, and  insurgency. His strength lay in the desire of various groups to maintain a non- communist option for the future of the country, in his reputation as a nationalist, and in his ability to elicit American aid. However, when Hanoi resorted to military means to overthrow his government in 1959, each of these strengths became a weakness. His strict attitude toward national sovereignty, a vestige of his disgust with French colonialism, also extended toward critics and potential allies, and he withdrew into the inner circle of his family and personal entourage. The widespread desire for an effective anti-communist leader had benefited him in the mid 1950s, but he alienated many public-spirited people who were disappointed at being denied an opportunity to contribute to national affairs. His blindness to the seriousness of his elder brother stirring up religious resentment in the northern part of the country made him vulnerable to both his Vietnamese and his American critics. Increasingly  concerned about the double threat of communist insurgency and American intru- sion, he allowed the monk-led demonstrations against his government to continue  for nearly four months, undermining his control of the military and his relationship  with the United States. American support became the poison he feared; it over- whelmed and finally discarded him. Without American encouragement, the army  generals would never have moved against him. The generals were united not so much against Ngo Dinh Diem as by the opportunity offered by the Americans.

The Sino-Khmer War and renovation

The Kennedy escalation

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At the end of 1960, American policy in Southeast Asia was in disarray with the Laotian situation threatening a Cold War confrontation and relations with Saigon in turmoil. During the next year, the administration of John Fitzgerald Kennedy developed new policies toward Laos and Vietnam that became the basis of subsequent US involvement in the region. An influential figure in formulating and implementing these policies was William Averell Harriman (1891–1986), a prominent businessman who had served as ambassador to London and to  Moscow, as Secretary of Commerce in Harry Truman’s cabinet, and as Gov- ernor of New York State. Kennedy successively appointed him Ambassador at  Large (January 1961), Assistant Secretary of State for Far Eastern Affairs (November 1961), and Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs (April 1963). As an elder statesman with extensive diplomatic experience and as a senior  member of the President’s political party, Harriman enjoyed Kennedy’s confi- dence. Participation in wartime and post-war diplomacy during the Roosevelt  and Truman administrations had inclined Harriman to believe that local conun- drums could be sorted out by understandings reached among the major powers,  who would in turn police their respective small-power clients. This perspective led to an international agreement to neutralize Laos and to the policy goal of  unseating Ngo Dinh Diem for insufficient compliance with American instruc- tions. Harriman strongly disliked Ngo Dinh Diem because of his resistance to American supervision and his opposition to Harriman’s effort to neutralize Laos. Ngo Dinh Diem saw that the Laos agreement in effect ceded to Hanoi control of South Vietnam’s border with Laos, but Harriman trusted Moscow to keep Hanoi in line and viewed Ngo Dinh Diem as a recalcitrant beneficiary of American Cold War leadership. A group of men highly critical of Ngo Dinh Diem gathered around Harriman in the State Department. At the same time, a different perspective developed in the Department of Defense under Secretary of Defense Robert Strange McNamara (1916–2009), a systems analyst with wartime experience in the 1940s as a logistics expert and with post-war experience in the automobile industry. He excelled at organizing  available resources to attain assigned goals and was less concerned with formu- lating policy than with using quantitative methods of evaluation to guide policy  implementation to get results. Another important figure in Kennedy’s Depart- ment of Defense was General Maxwell Davenport Taylor (1901–1987), a man  with a distinguished wartime record who, as Army Chief of Staff in the late 1950s, dissented from Eisenhower’s defense policy of “massive retaliation,” which threatened use of nuclear weapons and minimized the role of the army. Taylor resigned and, in 1960, published a book that argued the need for an army able to deal with situations short of nuclear war with a policy of “flexible response” to military threats. Kennedy was impressed with this book and made Taylor his military advisor. In October 1962, Kennedy appointed Taylor to be  Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. McNamara and Taylor favored maximiz- ing military assistance to Ngo Dinh Diem to deal with the security problem  rather than encouraging his critics with demands for political reform. Kennedy replaced Durbrow with Frederick Ernst Nolting (1911–1989), a former naval officer and career diplomat. Nolting arrived in spring 1961, just as Ngo Dinh Diem conducted a presidential election that he overwhelmingly won  against two virtually unknown candidates. Nolting established a good relation- ship with the Ngo Dinh brothers, but they never fully trusted the US again.  Nolting exercised his diplomatic skills in dealing both with the Ngo Dinh brothers and with his superiors in Washington, DC. He succeeded in minimizing US demands while eliciting small indications of Vietnamese cooperation, thereby  restoring a façade of American respect for Vietnamese sovereignty and of Viet- namese compliance with American expectations.  However, during 1961, the Americans and the Vietnamese developed diver- gent policies toward the communist threat, not only with little prior consultation  but also with the aim of avoiding the need for consultation altogether. By the end of the year, both Ngo Dinh Diem and Kennedy were pushing forward new counterinsurgency policies; but, while the Vietnamese sought to minimize dependence upon American assistance, the Americans sought to mask the scale of their escalating military presence in Vietnam from both the American public and the Vietnamese government. Furthermore, the Ngo Dinh brothers understood that the communist supply lines through Laos into South Vietnam could not be stopped by an international agreement; they saw Kennedy’s decision to support Harriman’s policy on Laos as at best a miscalculation and at worst an indication that the US would eventually abandon them as it seemed to have abandoned the anti-communist Laotians. Nevertheless, while pursuing different paths, the Vietnamese and Americans implemented policies that by 1962 were showing signs of success against the Hanoi-supported insurgency.

After ending the failed agroville experiment in 1960, the Ngo Dinh brothers put their authority behind a new plan to build strategic hamlets. The strategic hamlet idea emerged by mid 1961 from local initiatives in Tay Ninh, Quang  Ngai, and Vinh Long Provinces. It was elaborated by Ngo Dinh Nhu’s person- alist philosophy of modernizing rural communities by fostering collective effort  and self-reliance. It aimed to bring revolutionary change to the countryside by fostering an attitude of “struggle” for a better life with a new generation of leaders unspoiled by the corruption and passivity associated with habits remaining from the French colonial experience. The idea of strategic hamlets  was to minimize relocating people as much as possible and to reorganize com- munities for self-defense, self-government, a more egalitarian society, and a more  dynamic economy.

The personalism of the Ngo Dinh brothers was a relatively abstract and idealized formulation, but no more vague and incomprehensible to Vietnamese peasants than was Marxism-Leninism. The critical factors in comparing the two Vietnams at this time are that the Ngo Dinh regime, unlike the rulers in Hanoi, did not have the benefit of a disciplined one-party totalitarian state to enforce its version of modernism and that it was challenged at every turn by an active and externally directed enemy. In the Vietnams of that time, both north and south, the effective exercise of power was the first step to obtain popular obedience or, at least, compliance. In the north, this was achieved with the land reform and the disciplining of intellectuals during the 1950s. In the south, Ngo Dinh Diem strove to modernize rural society while at the same time protecting it from an externally  directed and supplied enemy. The strategic hamlet program was his final experi- ment for achieving this goal.

An important role in implementing strategic hamlets was assigned to the Republican Youth Movement, which had been organized in 1960 to mobilize young people to be activists in moving the country out of the colonial mentality that remained strong among the older generation. Within two years, over a million and a half young people were trained and assigned to participate in the strategic hamlet program. Their task was to revolutionize rural communities by propagating an attitude of self-reliance and by helping to prepare and organize elections for local leaders, thereby releasing latent talent and energy inhibited by the existing structure of authority. In the larger scheme of Ngo Dinh Nhu’s  thought, this would ideally be the beginning of a self-generating form of Viet- namese democracy that, spreading from the countryside, would eventually over- come the poisonous residue of French colonialism that was still strong among  urban intellectuals.

Strategic hamlets were designed not only as a response to the communist insurgency but also as a response to the threat of American interference in Vietnamese domestic affairs, for the Ngo Dinh brothers feared that American largess and instruction would destroy the self-reliance and national pride that they understood to be the key to building up a social and administrative structure that could withstand the challenge from the north. As the Americans gradually became aware of the program and saw the merit of it, they instinctively wanted to support it with their resources and expertise, and to the extent that this was done without compromising Vietnamese aims and authority it was welcomed. But Americans quickly developed ideas about how the program should be conceptualized and implemented as an extension of their aid and advisory mission, and these ideas diverged from the aims of the Vietnamese government.

The Ngo Dinh brothers pressed for urgent speed in implementing the program, seeing it as a way to foster local initiative, on which they wished to rely rather than waiting for American money and supervision. There were around five hundred strategic hamlets by the end of 1961. By the end of 1962, the number was up to four thousand. Americans got involved by providing material resources and advisory assistance in certain areas, but they were dismayed by what they saw as undue haste and lack of systematic planning. While the Ngo Dinh brothers were counting on a release of energy among the people to gain sufficient momentum to overcome obstacles, American critics could not see  beyond the apparent confusion and friction produced by this effort to revolution- ize rural society. Americans viewed the pace of implementation as unrealistic and  argued that the program should be slowed down to consolidate success in one place before extending the process to adjacent localities. On the other hand, the Ngo Dinh brothers believed that a rapid pace of implementation was necessary to preclude being overwhelmed by the insurgency.

A more serious aspect of the pace of implementation is that, in their haste to meet assigned deadlines, provincial authorities sometimes resorted to coercion  and intimidation. This compromised the revolutionary goal of nurturing a Viet- namese version of grass-roots democracy espoused by the Republican Youth  Movement. It also provided fuel for communist propaganda, which denounced the program as a form of exploitation and oppression. The great outcry of communist propaganda, however, came not simply from whatever popular resentment the program produced in some places. It was more directly an  indication that the program, however poorly implemented, created serious prob- lems for the insurgency by disrupting its links to the rural population. In 1962,  the insurgency suffered serious setbacks and appeared to lose the initiative that it seemed to have had in 1961. South Vietnamese and American authorities were tempted to think that the strategic hamlet program might be the answer to turn back communist influence in the countryside.

While the strategic hamlet program was the central focus of the Ngo Dinh brothers, it was but a minor aspect of what the Americans were doing in 1962. In late 1961, Kennedy decided to increase by many thousands the number of US  military advisors, to send bombers and helicopters, and to delegate direct super- vision of this escalating American presence in Vietnam to Robert McNamara.  Kennedy temporarily shelved criticism of Ngo Dinh Diem in favor of a major escalation in training, advising, and providing support to the Vietnamese army. In early 1962, a new command system was established for the US army in Vietnam. The MAAG was absorbed into the Military Assistance Command, Vietnam (MACV) under General Paul Donald Harkins (1904–1984). During the next two and a half years, Harkins presided over a steady increase of US military personnel from less than one thousand to over sixteen thousand.

Characteristically, this new American policy was decided with a minimum of consultation with the Vietnamese government. Within months, the thousands of Americans entering the country “without passports” were a source of dismay to Ngo Dinh Diem, who began to worry that the sovereignty of his country was being compromised. While grateful for American assistance, he did not trust American advisors to resist the temptation to take command of military and civil operations, thereby pushing aside his government. While the combination of the  strategic hamlet program and the American military escalation dealt the com- munist insurgents major setbacks, it also exacerbated the tensions between the  US and the Republic of Vietnam.

With the dramatic increase of American advisors came greater scrutiny from the American press. The official position of the Kennedy administration was that Americans were advising the Vietnamese army but were not directly involved in combat. American news reporters soon learned otherwise, and a pattern of dissimulation by Harkins and of skepticism by American reporters created sharp tension in MACV news briefings. Even more ominous for the US–Vietnamese relationship was the clash of cultural values produced by many thousands of American advisors with limited or no Vietnamese language ability attempting to work with their Vietnamese counterparts. The result was a critical mass of frustrated American advisors who did not understand Vietnamese culture and were alienated by what they imagined that they had learned about it.  A “frustrated advisor” syndrome was combined with a “critical reporter” syn- drome, and the two groups of young Americans, soldiers and reporters, shared  information and opinions that were reflected in the American press as charges of corruption and incompetence against Ngo Dinh Diem’s government. American reporters were given freedom to gather information and to file reports without any limitations, which soon became a factor in internal Vietnamese politics as their reports critical of the Vietnamese government were recycled back into the  Vietnamese press and widely understood as representative of official US govern- ment views. In fact, Kennedy was particularly solicitous of the press, and press  reports came to play a prominent role in how he understood events in Vietnam and in how he responded to those events.

Seeing this, Ngo Dinh Diem felt increasingly cornered and diminished by an overwhelming American presence that threatened to deprive him of legitimacy  among Vietnamese nationalists. He was also concerned that the host of Ameri- can advisors was instilling a colonial mentality in the new generation of Viet- namese officers. But, as long as the counterinsurgency efforts appeared to bear  fruit, he chose to trust Nolting’s assurances that the situation was temporary and that the number of American advisors would be reduced as soon as possible. He was also comforted by the hope that success of the strategic hamlet program would eventually make such intensive American involvement in his country unnecessary.

The Kennedy escalation produced a dramatic growth in the American military and civilian bureaucracy in Vietnam. This upsurge of activity was initially funded by purchase of local currency with dollars, but after a year these funds were expended, and the US wanted the Vietnamese government to contribute directly to a “counterinsurgency fund” that was under American control. Ngo Dinh  Diem resisted this as a loss of authority over his national budget and a dimin- ution of Vietnamese sovereignty. In the spring of 1963, after weeks of negoti- ations, Nolting eventually arranged a compromise acceptable to both sides.