Start of a new war

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The ascendance of Le Duan brought the southern question into the center of party policy. His request to shift from political to military action in the south was rejected by the party’s Central Committee when it met in April 1956. Instead this meeting subscribed to the “peaceful coexistence” line of Khrushchev’s speech and focused on domestic economic problems such as food shortages and the lack of skilled labor. However, in December 1956, after Truong Chinh had stepped down as party leader, the Central Committee approved a clandestine policy of gradually rebuilding the party structure in the south and initiating selective terrorism to kill and kidnap southern government officials and community leaders. In fact, by this time, Le Duan had already begun to do this. Accordingly,  during 1957, there was an upsurge of armed action against the Saigon govern- ment, a significant part of which was initially conducted by remnants of sect  armies that had been defeated by Ngo Dinh Diem in 1955 and had subsequently allied with the communists. Le Duan spent 1957 and 1958 consolidating his grip on party leadership. In 1957, the launching of a three-year economic plan absorbed the attention of the party. In November 1957, Le Duan went with Ho Chi Minh to a conference of communist parties in Moscow, gaining first-hand familiarity with the world of international communism that was vital to the survival of his government. This came after several uneasy months during which the Soviet Union had proposed United Nations membership for both the Saigon and Hanoi governments in a diplomatic gambit aimed at the German situation. During 1958, Le Duc Tho quietly reshuffled personnel in the party hierarchy to advance Le Duan’s supporters. Disturbing news from the south prompted Le Duan to make an inspection trip in December 1958. Upon his return in January 1959, he reported that the situation was dire. According to him, the Saigon government had successfully countered the communist policy approved two years before and was destroying the party’s organizational infrastructure in the south; two thousand cadres had been killed during 1957–1958, and party membership had plummeted. Faced with what appeared to be an urgent situation, the Central Committee of the party approved what came to be known as Resolution Fifteen, which authorized a policy of war to unify the south with the north.  Although Ho Chi Minh immediately went to Beijing and Moscow for consult- ations and made two additional trips to those capitals during the course of 1959,  there are no indications that either ally was enthusiastic about Hanoi’s new policy toward Saigon. Mao Zedong was dealing with the disaster of his “great  leap forward,” and Khrushchev was planning a trip to the United States. Never- theless, Le Duan’s leadership would not have survived failure in the south.  Furthermore, unification had been a cardinal tenet of communist policy since 1954. It could not be abandoned without serious damage to party discipline. In May 1959, the Central Committee ratified Resolution Fifteen. Within months, communication and transportation routes into the south by land and sea were established and thousands of southerners who had regrouped to the north after Geneva and had since then received training were sent back south. Hanoi’s war policy gained momentum in the south just as the Sino-Soviet dispute over leadership of the communist world was breaking into the open. Ho Chi Minh’s main contribution to the new policy was to maximize its insulation from this dispute by maintaining good, if sometimes tense, relations with both powers. The importance of Resolution Fifteen and its implications for the future of the  country prompted the convening of the third national party congress in Septem- ber 1960. The second congress had been held in 1951 to mobilize for war with  France after the arrival of Chinese aid. The agenda of this third congress was related to economic and political aspects of the decision to authorize war in the south. A five-year industrialization plan was adopted to be the basis for a wartime economy. Le Duan, who since 1957 had been the “acting” leader, was officially ratified as the head of the party and his followers obtained key positions. Most immediately significant for policy in the south was adoption of a plan to create a front organization in the south to emphasize nationalism, democracy, and prosperity, but without any mention of communism. The United States at this time appeared passive and vulnerable. After the death of John Foster Dulles in 1959, foreign policy drifted as Eisenhower was in poor health and the 1960 presidential election preoccupied the country. During the last months of 1960, a coup in Laos led to a government in Vientiane that was sustained by a Soviet airlift from Hanoi, prompting a Cold War crisis that led to another Geneva conference in 1961–1962. The Democratic Republic of Vietnam took a major role in the Laotian situation to protect its western border and to ensure that it had access to the western border of the Republic of Vietnam through southern Laos. An effort to open a supply route directly into the south through the mountains within Vietnamese borders at the seventeenth parallel had been defeated in 1959 by the southern army. The 1959 legislative elections in the Republic of Vietnam encouraged public discussion of government policy in Saigon and relatively open dissent. The divergence of opinion among Americans in the military and civilian aid programs gave an impression of confusion and lack of commitment. By late 1960, trust between Ngo Dinh Diem and the American ambassador, Elbridge Durbrow, had been broken. It was a propitious moment for the communists to mobilize alienated southerners against the government. In December 1960, the Communist Party’s Central Office for the Southern Region (COSVN) established the People’s Liberation Front for South Vietnam (Mat Tran Dan Toc Giai Phong Mien Nam Viet Nam). This front eventually  included representatives of organizations that aimed to mobilize artists, Bud- dhists, Catholics, doctors, journalists, minorities, nurses, peasants, students,  teachers, women, workers, writers, youth, and even Americans. It became widely known in English as the National Liberation Front (NLF). In early 1961, the Southern Region Liberation Army (Quan Giai Phong Mien Nam) was organized to create a command system for armed units in the south. In English this army became commonly known as the People’s Liberation Armed Forces (PLAF) or as the Viet Cong, an abbreviation of Viet Nam and “communist” (cong san). The Hanoi government developed its policy of war in the south at a time when the Eisenhower administration was losing focus and contradictions among American officials and between them and Ngo Dinh Diem were becoming serious. Ngo Dinh Diem endeavored to defeat the threat from the north while resisting American pressure to force him into a position of subordination that he believed would ruin his nationalist credentials. But the drumbeat of American criticism directed at Ngo Dinh Diem’s government aroused expectations of opportunities among aspiring politicians in Saigon who were dissatisfied with how Ngo Dinh Nhu had controlled the National Assembly elections held in August 1959.

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