Diem Takes Over
Normally one can pinpoint a war, even a civil war, with precision; the firing of the first shots are recorded in time and place. To my ceaseless probing as to how and when this war in South Vietnam started, I got as many differing replies as questions put. Replies always related to the firing in the particular village, district or province of the person questioned. The most authoritative person to whom I put this question was Nguyen Huu Tho, president of the National Front of Liberation.
He himself was not regarded as a leftist when he practiced law in Saigon and he did not take part in the anti-French war. But in March 1950, he did walk at the head of a demonstration protesting against the arrival of three U.S. warships in Saigon as a display of solidarity with France’s “dirty war”. Tho and a few hundred thousand Saigon residents were very angry at this and he headed a group of intellectuals who took part in the protest. The following day the warships pulled up their anchors and left.
Nguyen Huu Tho was arrested by the French authorities and imprisoned in Lai Chau, a remote town north of Dien Bien Phu. He was released a couple of years later by Viet Minh troops. When the Geneva Agreements were signed he resumed his law practice in Saigon. So it was to him that I put as one of my first questions: “How did it all start? When and where were the first shots fired?”
“As far as Saigon is concerned, we had our first great shock on August 1, 1954, twelve days after the Ceasefire Agreements were signed. I can tell you that people in Saigon were overjoyed when the word was flashed through that the Geneva Conference had succeeded. There were mixed feelings about the two years’ delay over reunification but the general sentiment was that this was a small price to pay for a return to peace and a normal life, free of foreign rule.
“On August 1, there was a monster demonstration of gay, cheering people in Saigon, mainly to hail and celebrate the signing of the Geneva Agreements, but resolutions were passed asking for the immediate release of political and military prisoners, as provided for in the Agreements. The reply came in a volley of rifle fire. Several people were wounded and a pregnant woman was shot through the stomach. That this, the first demonstration in peace and freedom, as we thought, should be brutally suppressed, acted as a cold douche on the most ardent spirits. The same day we set up a Committee of Defense of Peace and the Geneva Agreements, and I was elected president.” It became better known in the West as the Saigon-Cholon Peace Committee and included among its leaders the seam of Saigon’s intellectual life.
“For us,” continued Nguyen Huu Tho, “this was a sign that the new regime of Ngo Dinh Diem was only a puppet government, like that of Bao Dai, and was out to suppress the people from the first days of its power. We had not expected this and we had many bitter reflections on that night of August 1 and the days that followed.
“In Saigon the first shots of repression were fired 12 days after the Ceasefire Agreements were signed.”
Reports started trickling in and soon they began to flood in from the countryside telling of wholesale arrests and massacres in areas from which the Viet Minh troops were withdrawing to regroup north of the 17th parallel, in accordance with the Geneva Agreements. “Within a couple of months of setting up of our committee,” Nguyen Huu Tho said, “we started getting delegations from the provinces, begging us to set up similar committees all over the countryside. We started organising them when — on November 11, four months after Geneva — the police suddenly swooped down, dissolved our committee and arrested a number of leading members, including myself.
We had no idea at that time, but in forming the Saigon Committee and its various branches we had seated the embryo for the National Front of Liberation, set up more than six years later.”
Terror in the Countryside
As for what was happening in the countryside, some faint glimpses appeared through the cautious reports of the International Commission. I remembered one early reference to the Cho Duoc incident, so when I was in Central Vietnam — fief of the medieval monster Ngo Dinh Can (a brother of Ngo Dinh Diem) — I sought out the full details from Dinh Chau, a member of the Liberation Front’s executive committee of Quang Nam province. A former peasant, with a cheerful face hewn from granite, he had lost a leg in one of his first military actions, but continued to direct activities from a secret mountain base. Chau, like most of the cadres I met in the provinces, had been more skeptical from the start than those in Saigon as to how the Agreements would be applied.
“We received news of them with very mixed feelings here. Of course there was relief that peace would be established over the whole country and we resistance workers pledged ourselves as an act of discipline to do everything to respect the agreements and do everything possible to prevent violations by friend or foe. But we doubted that our opponents would really respect them.
“The Cho Duoc incident proved our skepticism justified. Most of Quang Nam, except for the Tourane naval base, had been a liberated area in the latter years of the resistance. But in September 1954, a regiment commanded by Le Van Kim [later a leading member of the military junta which overthrew Diem] came to the area. A unit was sent to Cho Duoc in the central part of the province and without a word to anyone, the troops started cutting down fruit trees and bamboos in private gardens to build their barracks.
“People gathered together and protested about this. There was no violence, not as much as a stick in anyone’s hands. People demanded only one thing, that their property be respected. The unit commander rapped out an order and before anyone could grasp what was happening, the troops started firing repeatedly into the crowd. Terrible cries and screams mingled with the crashing volleys of rifle fire; when the firing stopped the ground was covered with the dead and dying and groaning wounded. There were 40 killed, almost all women and children because most of the men were away in the fields. But the survivors closed in on the soldiers like a great human wave and they ran.
“What first-aid was available was given to the wounded; those that could be moved were placed on rough stretchers, the dead also, and a grim procession set out for the battalion headquarters. Word spread to neighbouring villagers and long before the stretcher-bearers arrived a great crowd had assembled around battalion headquarters. People swept in and, with their bare hands, disarmed the soldiers and poured sand down their rifle barrels and into the artillery pieces.
“The stretcher-bearers arrived and the bodies were laid out in the barracks square, friends of the victims demanding punishment for those responsible, medical help for the wounded, compensation for bereaved families. The crowd continually built up, completely surrounding the barracks and preventing any troops leaving.
“For three days there was a permanent crowed of about 15,000 camped around the barracks, some leaving and others coming in a sort of spontaneous relay system; those from nearby villages bringing rice and cooking it for the others. Banners and slogans were rigged up, connected with the specific outrage, ranging from demands of punishment to denunciations of the U.S.-Diem regime for an outrageous violation of the Geneva Agreements. The battalion could not link up or even communicate with the other two battalions of the regiment. People discussed things with the soldiers, especially those who had not taken part in the shooting, and a number deserted on the spot. The 15,000 were disciplined, elected their spokesmen, divided the food up equally and showed that they were prepared to keep up the protest indefinitely.
“Eventually the battalion commander had to agree with the demands; to bury the dead at government expense, free medical treatment for the wounded, compensation for the bereaved, an end to destruction of people’s property and an International Commission investigation. An ICC team actually came but they were very passive and the authorities managed to prevent them having any contact with the people. Three months later, there were two similar incidents with troops from the same regiment, in which 30 people were killed at Chien Dan and 40 at Cam Coc. People’s hopes that peace had come began to disappear altogether.”
From what I could discover, the Cho Duoc incident was typical for most areas which had been completely controlled by the Viet Minh during the war, “liberated areas” as they designated them. The idea seems to have been to paralyse the population by deliberate terror within the first weeks or months of the ceasefire, as soon, in fact as the Vietnam People’s Army forces and cadres had withdrawn. In compliance with the Geneva Agreements, 140,000 troops and cadres, including a handful of wives and families, had regrouped to the north under International Commission control, taking their arms with them. Repression intensified in proportion to the agitation for the Consultative Conference and the July 1956 elections, which people still hoped would take place and relieve their immediate suffering.
In another area, distinct from that where I had met Dinh Chau, I was able to talk with Huynh Thanh, also a member of the Quang Nam provincial committee of the Front, a doctor with a sensitive aquiline face who had left his practice in Tourane to take part in the anti-French war and, after a few weeks of peace, had fled back into the mountains again. He spoke of conditions in the mainly mountainous district of Tam Ky which includes part of the Annamite mountain chain and borders on Quang Ngai province to the south.
“We consider that the repression was even worse in Tam Ky than in other districts, because it had been a completely liberated area,” Huynh Thanh said. “First order of the day for the Saigon command was to eliminate anyone who had taken part in the resistance administration and to install the Diemist one. Violence was used to affect this and was stepped up as soon as the new administration was in office. Puppet troops who had been defeated in the anti-French war now came as victors, occupied homes and temples, threw the inmates out into the streets.
“Once the administration was set up, the next thing was to try and list the population according to their roles in the resistance. At first they wanted to list all those who had taken any part at all. But this was impossible because every able-bodied man and woman had taken part and also any child big enough to carry a parcel or message. So they started listing everyone according to what they considered their importance. Cadres who were exposed — those still in the administration when they arrived — were imprisoned without any hope of ever coming out again. None of them have ever been seen since. Others had to pack enough food for three or six months or more, and take off for ‘anti-Communist indoctrination courses.’
“In the villages, barracks were set up and the young men and women were herded into separate huts where they had to spend the night, subject to endless harangues against the Viet Minh, Ho Chi Minh and everything to do with the North. The main idea was to root out every bit of patriotism, any memories of the resistance period or even political thinking. Nothing must be left to hang on to.”
In 1957, the ‘Denounce Communists’ campaign started. And by this time Diem had informed the International Commission that he would no longer tolerate any investigations under Article 14c of the Geneva Conference [prohibiting “reprisals or discrimination against persons or organisations on account of their activities during the hostilities”].
In its report, dated November 4, 1957, the ICC informed the co-presidents of the Geneva Conference that: “The government of the Vietnam Republic has decided not to reply further to complaints relative to this clause and not to permit any activities by enquiry groups provided for in the Geneva Agreements to carry out enquiries relative to these complaints.”
It was Le Quang Binh, a veteran resistance worker, and a member of the Front’s Quang Ngai provincial committee, with iron grey hair and skin so tightly stretched over his face that one felt the bones might poke through any moment, who gave me a graphic account of the ‘Denounce Communists’ campaign.
“It started just because we had given no pretext for repression during the earlier provocations in our area,” he explained. “It was a long drawn-out campaign that cut down many of our best resistance cadres and their families. Children of former resistance workers were banned from going to school; wives of those regrouped to the north were forced to divorce and then remarry to prove they were ‘sincere.’ Land which had been distributed under the resistance administration’s reform project was taken back and given to former landlords if they were still around, or to some of Ngo Can’s cronies if they were not... Thousands of former resistance members and peasants who were now dispossessed were rounded up and sent off to the so-called ‘agricultural settlements’ in the mountains; irrigation projects built by the peasants during the war years were either destroyed or enormous taxes were levied for the right to use the water.
“Economically things went to pot. Even within a year of the Diemists arriving, there was starvation and famine, especially in the coastal areas where people actually died from hunger in 1955.”
If things were bad for the Vietnamese they were ten times worse for the minority peoples. There are — or were — about 80,000 in Quang Ngai, mostly Hre, but with smaller tribes of B’Nam, K’Dong and Kor.
“We have fairly accurate round figures for that period,” continued Le Quang Binh, “because the four mountainous districts are now liberated, solidly this time. In one year, from around mid-1955 to mid-1956, 2,000 tribal people died of epidemics without a finger raised by the Diemists to help them; 600 were killed in mass slaughters, usually buried alive, or hands and feet tied and hurled into rivers or ravines; 450 died in prisons, 500 were either... liquidated by agents or disappeared without a trace after arrests, and another 500 died of starvation. In many hamlets one in every ten died.”
This was only the beginning of the agony of the minority peoples and I had it described by chiefs and ordinary tribes people of a score of different minorities — a story of unrelieved horror that recalls the wholesale wiping out of the Native Americans in the U.S., and of the Australian aborigines in the first years of white settlement.
As for that first question I had put to Nguyen Huu Tho, I knew the answer long before I met him — but it was interesting to have confirmation from Saigon, too. The war in South Vietnam has no starting point in time and space because it never started. It never started because it never stopped. All that happened was that after the withdrawal of the 140,000 Viet Minh and cadres to the north, a one-sided war continued against an unarmed people.
A large part of the same military machine built up to serve the French with U.S. arms and dollars was turned loose over vast areas of South Vietnam to wipe out the political resistance the French had never been able to crush — and thus suppress at birth any potential resistance to the reactionary policies Diem was committed to pursue.
Wilfred Burchett was an Australian reporter often described at the ‘rebel journalist’ for his stories about the American War ‘from the other side’. After years of being at odds with the Australian government, last year the Melbourne Press Club inducted him into their Hall of Fame. Burchett was also the journalist who broke the scoop of the 20th century — the devastation caused by dropping nuclear bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Special thanks to George Burchett for allowing us to republish this work. Please note that some place names in this piece have been changed to reflect their modern-day spelling