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Hanoi's Road to the Vietnam War, 1954-1965

Pierre Asselin (Author)

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Hardcover, 352 pages
ISBN: 9780520276123
August 2013
$55.00, £40.95
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Hanoi's Road to the Vietnam War opens in 1954 with the signing of the Geneva accords that ended the eight-year-long Franco-Indochinese War and created two Vietnams. In agreeing to the accords, Ho Chi Minh and other leaders of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam anticipated a new period of peace leading to national reunification under their rule; they never imagined that within a decade they would be engaged in an even bigger feud with the United States. Basing his work on new and largely inaccessible Vietnamese materials as well as French, British, Canadian, and American documents, Pierre Asselin explores the communist path to war. Specifically, he examines the internal debates and other elements that shaped Hanoi's revolutionary strategy in the decade preceding U.S. military intervention, and resulting domestic and foreign programs. Without exonerating Washington for its role in the advent of hostilities in 1965, Hanoi's Road to the Vietnam War demonstrates that those who directed the effort against the United States and its allies in Saigon were at least equally responsible for creating the circumstances that culminated in arguably the most tragic conflict of the Cold War era.
Foreword by the series editors
Acknowledgments
Glossary of Terms and Acronyms

Introduction
1. Choosing Peace, 1954–1956
2. Changing Course, 1957–1959
3. Treading Cautiously, 1960
4. Buying Time, 1961
5. Exploring Neutralization, 1962
6. Choosing War, 1963
7. Waging War, 1964
Epilogue

Notes
Bibliography
Index
Pierre Asselin is Professor of History at Hawaii Pacific University in Honolulu and the author of A Bitter Peace: Washington, Hanoi, and the Making of the Paris Agreement.
"Highly recommended."—CHOICE
"Excellent new [work] on the Vietnam War."—Geoffrey C. Stewart Cross-Currents
"Outstanding. . . . Illuminating."—Proceedings
"A sophisticated treatment of a complex story."—American Historical Review
"A valuable contribution to any discussion of North Vietnam’s road to war, and the origins of the American stage in the Vietnam War."—Tal Tovy H-Net
"Asselin's excellent study . . . will remain an indispensible source for students of Vietnam, the Cold War, and twentieth-century world history for many years to come."—Jessica Elkind The Journal of American History
“Splendidly researched, chock-full of fascinating new information and insights, Hanoi's Road to the Vietnam War is truly a path-breaking study, far and away the best book to date on that crucial topic.” —George C. Herring, author of America's Longest War: The United States and Vietnam, 1900–1950

“Pierre Asselin has done an admirable job of marshalling French, Canadian, and British records to supplement the available Vietnamese evidence and illuminate Hanoi's road to the Vietnam War. Asselin shows that the conflagration was inevitable not only due to American goals and actions but because North Vietnam specifically chose war. This is an important contribution to lifting the veil that has long prevented an understanding of Hanoi's approach to the war.”—John Prados, author of Vietnam: The History of an Unwinnable War, 1945-1975

“An illuminating account of how North Vietnam's leaders moved from a peaceful reunification strategy to a policy of all-out war. Asselin's stress on Vietnamese agency and on Hanoi's ability to manipulate its Soviet and Chinese allies makes his book a major contribution to the history of Indochina.”—Odd Arne Westad, author of Restless Empire: China and the World Since 1750

Arthur Goodzeit Book Award, New York Military Affairs Symposium

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Pierre Asselin speaks with Thinktech Hawaii's Carlos Juarez about his life, studies, and latest work.

 

1

Choosing Peace, 1954-1956

By the summer of 1954, the world seemed slightly safer than it had been just a few months before, as a "hot" phase in the Cold War came to an end. The Korean and Indochina Wars had done much to increase tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union while marking the emergence of the People's Republic of China (PRC) as an ardent opponent of American "neo-imperialism" and a dynamic player in global politics. But the death of Stalin, the cease-fire in Korea, and the Geneva accords on Indochina offered some reprieve. Specifically, they presented Washington and Moscow with an opportunity to ease tensions between them, for rapprochement.

As Moscow grappled with matters relating to Stalin's succession, Beijing attended to domestic problems, and Washington warily watched events. There was much cause for concern in Washington, including the antics of Senator Joseph McCarthy at home, the French humiliation at Dien Bien Phu followed by the onset of the Algerian war of independence, the advent of the fiercely nationalist and purportedly neutralist regime of Gamal Abdel Nasser in Cairo, and starting in September, Beijing's sustained bombardment of islands controlled by the pro-American regime of Jiang Jieshi (Chiang Kai-shek) in the first Taiwan Strait crisis. Alarmed by developments in Guatemala that year, the administration of U.S. president Dwight Eisenhower resorted to methods employed the previous year in Iran-in removing prime minister Mohammad Mosaddegh from power-to get rid of Jacobo Árbenz Guzmán's leftist government in Guatemala. Shortly thereafter, the administration affirmed its commitment to the containment of communist influence in Southeast Asia by signing the Manila Pact, which provided for the creation of the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization (SEATO). Fatefully, it also began a comprehensive aid program, jointly with the French at first, to prop up the regime of Ngo Dinh Diem in Saigon as a bulwark against communist expansion in Vietnam. Soon Americans were training Diem's fledgling armed forces and becoming otherwise more directly involved in Indochina.

After signing the Geneva accords, the communist leaders of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRVN) did their best to abide by their letter and spirit. The accords, they hoped, would allow them to achieve national reunification under their authority without further bloodshed following countrywide elections to take place within two years. In a September 1954 directive formalizing their intentions, the leaders ordered their troops in the South to repatriate to the North and explicitly prohibited those who stayed from resuming hostilities. Owing largely to Diem, the elections never took place. Although that dimmed the prospect for peaceful reunification, DRVN leaders refused to amend their stance on military struggle in the South. Instead, they rehabilitated and developed the economy in the North, to the dismay of communists who remained in the South and became targets of the Diem regime.

Beginnings

On 2 September 1945, in the immediate aftermath of Japan's surrender in World War II, Ho Chi Minh, a longtime communist and anticolonialist leader, proclaimed the independence of the DRVN from Ba Dinh Square in Hanoi. The proclamation culminated the relatively peaceful process known to Vietnamese as the August Revolution. In that revolution, communist and nationalist forces, who had been amalgamated into the Viet Minh united front in 1941 to resist the Japanese occupation of Indochina (that is, Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos), wrested the reins of power from the defeated occupiers and forced the abdication of the last Nguyen emperor, a figurehead named Bao Dai, thus ending ten centuries of dynastic rule in Vietnam. During the war, the Japanese had effectively ended French colonial control on the peninsula, though France never forswore its mission civilisatrice there and was in fact working to reassert it even as Ho made his proclamation. Unwilling to accept the reimposition of colonial rule, Ho and the DRVN leadership remobilized the Viet Minh to resist it.

Following the gradual reoccupation of most of Indochina by French forces over the next year and a half, full-scale war broke out in December 1946. The conflict became an integral part of the Cold War after the newly formed PRC extended diplomatic recognition to the DRVN government in January 1950, followed by the Soviet Union and the rest of the socialist camp. Having consented to a revolutionary division of labor with Moscow, Beijing thereafter provided massive assistance to the Viet Minh, including hundreds of military advisers. Reeling from the "loss" of China and suddenly alarmed at the possibility of communist domination of Southeast Asia, Washington, until then largely uninvolved in Indochinese affairs, responded in kind, supplying ever increasing aid to the French and to the ostensibly autonomous regime France had established in Saigon and named the State of Vietnam (SOVN), under none other than Bao Dai. The outbreak of the Korean War in June solidified American resolve to prevent a Viet Minh victory.

The internationalization of the Indochina War markedly raised the stakes and intensified the hostilities in Vietnam but failed to tip the scale in favor of either side. Even the Viet Minh's spectacular victory over French forces at Dien Bien Phu did not meaningfully change the balance of forces in the country. In the end, pervasive war weariness among the Vietnamese masses and Viet Minh, as well as the nagging concerns of their Soviet and Chinese allies about prolonging the war and, most importantly, the chilling prospect of American intervention, convinced DRVN decision-makers to suspend their military struggle and try to settle their differences with France diplomatically.

On 21 July 1954, after long and contentious negotiations, French and DRVN authorities agreed to a cease-fire, division of the country into two regroupment zones separated at the seventeenth parallel, mandatory regroupment of all French and SOVN military forces south of that line and all Viet Minh forces north of it, and voluntary migration of civilians between the two zones. Ho Chi Minh and the DRVN government received sanction to administer the northern regroupment zone while France-and by extension the SOVN-remained sovereign in the southern zone. As the division of the country was to be temporary, the "Final Declaration of the Geneva Conference" called for consultations between representatives of the two zonal governments to set terms for national elections to reunify the country under a single government. Ominously, Washington refused to endorse the declaration. Despite reservations of their own, DRVN leaders accepted the Geneva accords because they hoped their implementation would preclude American military intervention while delivering what war could not: reunification of Vietnam under their governance.

Hoping for the Best

After accepting the Geneva accords, DRVN leaders set out to convince their followers on both sides of the seventeenth parallel that suspending hostilities short of complete victory was strategically correct. To that end, they impressed upon their military forces and political operatives the need to respect the cease-fire and trust that national reunification would come in no more than two years, following general elections that their side would surely win. Unless otherwise instructed by the leadership, all troops in the South had to regroup to the North, and communists who stayed behind were to do nothing to undermine the new accords or precipitate hostilities. Violating the accords, DRVN authorities warned, would give the Americans and their allies an excuse to derail the reunification process and sabotage the promised elections. For the time being, the struggle for unification had to be carried out "according to a peaceful approach." "Our people must continue their protracted and arduous struggle by peaceful methods in order to consolidate peace and achieve reunification." It was not just that the leadership wished to preclude American intervention and thought everyone, including its troops, needed a respite from war; it was also that much of the area which fell under its jurisdiction after July 1954 was in ruins, and improving conditions there was imperative. A "North-first" policy was therefore in order.

To keep the reunification process on track in the South, DRVN leaders directed cadres-indoctrinated, "professional" communist revolutionaries responsible for mobilizing public support for DRVN policies-there to court groups friendly to western interests, including Catholics and those who had served in the colonial administration. The purpose of this "political struggle" was to win hearts and minds, to convince such groups and the civilian population generally that DRVN authorities respected ideological, social, and political diversity as well as Vietnamese nationalism in all its guises, and to promote peaceful reunification of the country. Treating the sizeable minority of Catholics, former civil servants, and other civilians solicitously could have a "very big influence" on the result of the upcoming elections, the communist leadership remarked.

Admittedly, DRVN leaders shared "a genuine apprehension" that Paris, Washington, and the SOVN regime in Saigon would not respect the terms of the accords. Early on, defense minister Vo Nguyen Giap warned the Canadian commissioner on the International Commission for Supervision and Control in Vietnam (ICSC) that Ngo Dinh Diem, who had become SOVN premier during the Geneva Conference and had no real hand in forging the accords, "had no intention" of "carrying out the agreement" and "it would be difficult for anyone to force him to do so." Nonetheless, the man hailed as the architect of the victory over the French at Dien Bien Phu and other key DRVN leaders thought it in their best interests, for now, to honor the main provisions of the accords. If the accords were successfully implemented, they would secure the withdrawal of foreign forces and national reunification under their own aegis without further bloodshed and material destruction. DRVN leaders "accepted the Geneva compromise," in the words of a French diplomat, "only because we made them realize that it presented them with a serious chance to achieve, by peaceful means, [their] wartime objectives." For Vietnamese communist authorities, the Canadian commissioner told Ottawa, the outcome of the 1956 national elections on reunification mandated by the Geneva accords was "a foregone conclusion." The only major obstacle to reunification under their auspices was "foreign support of the competing government in the South" and Diem himself. Under the circumstances, it seemed sensible to temporize. DRVN leaders, the Canadian commissioner believed, "expect the worst" but "hope for the best."

Moderates and Militants

Such were the calculations of the Politburo of the Vietnamese Workers' Party (VWP), the main decision-making body in the DRVN. Specifically, they were those of Giap, president Ho Chi Minh, VWP general secretary Truong Chinh, Party Organization Committee chairman and vice minister of the interior Le Van Luong, president of the Federation of Trade Unions Hoang Quoc Viet, and, possibly, prime minister Pham Van Dong, who then doubled as foreign minister. Wary-and weary-of war, these men pinned their hopes on the Geneva accords and political struggle in the South to peacefully bring about national reunification under communist rule. Among the heavyweights, Ho wished to prevent further bloodshed, preempt American intervention, and reconcile with France; Giap wanted to give the forces under his command a chance to rest, reorganize, and modernize; and Truong Chinh, a leading doctrinaire, was eager to complete the party's ambitious land reform program, launched the previous year, and get on with the North's economic modernization and socialist transformation.

The desire of key allies-namely, the Soviet Union and China-to avoid further conflict in Asia with the West reinforced these attitudes. In the aftermath of Stalin's death, a power struggle had ensued in Moscow that kept Soviet leaders largely focused on domestic issues for nearly two years. Meanwhile, in Beijing, chairman Mao Zedong and the rest of the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) were working on a new constitution and envisioning the country's first five-year plan for socialist industrialization and transformation of agriculture. As they awaited Vietnam's peaceful reunification, Ho, Giap, Truong Chinh, and their like-minded comrades in the Politburo agreed that rehabilitating and developing the northern economy while upgrading the armed forces could and should take precedence. On account of their strategic priorities, including caution over adventurism in the South, and the elements that informed them, namely, fear of a war with the United States, these men-with the exclusion of Truong Chinh, who would be demoted in 1956 and would thereafter change his views on reunification-formed the core of the risk-averse and temporizing "moderate" wing of the party that steered DRVN decision-making until 1963.

The other two members of the Politburo, secretary of the Central Office (Directorate) for Southern Vietnam (COSVN) Le Duan and chairman of the General Political Department (GPD) of the People's Army of Vietnam (PAVN) General Nguyen Chi Thanh, dissented. Both had strong ties to the South, having fought there during the Indochina War, and thought that suspending hostilities on current terms wasted communist gains there. Regrouping communist forces to the North was most galling to them. According to historian Stein Tønnesson, Le Duan, who was still in the South when the other members of the Politburo accepted the Geneva accords and ordered the troops to regroup to the North, felt betrayed by the acceptance. The only way to achieve the party's objectives below the seventeenth parallel, he believed, was through military struggle, irrespective of the dangers entailed. While Le Duan and Thanh might have reconciled themselves to a strategic pause in the war, they opposed an extended lull and especially the withdrawal of Viet Minh forces from the South. Also, they did not think the party should prioritize economic recovery and development in the North while waiting on events in the South; Paris, Washington, or Saigon, if not all three, would never allow Vietnam to be reunified under VWP authority without putting up a fight.

On the basis of their convictions, the two men formed the nucleus of the party's hard-line, risk-taking "militant" wing, a minority faction committed to expeditious violent liberation of the South after July 1954, whose influence over decision-making increased slowly but surely over time. That nucleus eventually expanded to include Le Duc Tho, Le Duan's deputy during the Indochina War and his closest ideological ally, and Pham Hung, COSVN's third-in-command. Though unhappy about the strategic line set by the Politburo majority, the militants did their best to conform to it. As every party member knew, once the Politburo reached consensus and ruled on a matter, publicly questioning or opposing its ruling was strictly forbidden. But the militants, and Le Duan in particular, were not about to give up on their ambition to resume military struggle in the South sooner rather than later.

Though he would play a central role in the coming and waging of the Vietnam War, Le Duan remains an obscure, enigmatic figure. He was born Le Van Nhuan on 7 April 1907 in the village of Hau Kien in Quang Tri (now Binh Tri Thien) Province, and as a railway official traveled throughout the country sometime in the 1920s learning what he could about French colonialism and its impact on Vietnam. He joined the radical Revolutionary Youth League in 1928, changed his name to Le Duan, and became a founding member of the Indochinese Communist Party (ICP, the precursor to the VWP) in 1930. A year later he joined the ICP's Bac Ky (Tonkin, the northern third of Vietnam) Committee for Education and Training, which was in charge of ideological indoctrination. He was soon arrested in Haiphong on charges of subversion, for which he was sentenced to twenty years in solitary confinement. His sentence was commuted in late 1936, and shortly thereafter he became secretary of the Trung Ky (Annam, central Vietnam) branch of the ICP. He was arrested again in Saigon in 1940 and sentenced to ten years at the infamous prison on Con Dao (Poulo Condore) Island.

Le Duan's years of incarceration were formative, shaping him into a stern, dogmatic, and stoic revolutionary. Freed in 1945, he then traveled to Hanoi to join the Party Central Committee in the newly proclaimed DRVN under Ho Chi Minh. By the time war with the French broke out in December 1946, Le Duan was back in the South as head of the Nam Bo Executive Committee (Xu uy Nam Bo), tasked with coordinating party and Viet Minh political activities in the southern third of Vietnam, the strategically important area formerly known as Cochinchina. In 1951 he was appointed in absentia to the VWP Politburo, and his Nam Bo Executive Committee was renamed COSVN and granted authority over political as well as military activities. After the partition of Vietnam in 1954, while most of his comrades regrouped to the North, Le Duan stayed in the South. Variously described as "violent," "authoritarian," "tough," and "ruthless," he was fully determined to achieve prompt reunification of Vietnam, whatever the cost.

The New Strategic Line

In September 1954, the Politburo issued an important statement concerning the situation created by the Geneva accords that confirmed and actually formalized the policy line espoused by the party in the days after the signing of the Geneva accords. Entitled "Politburo Resolution: On the New Situation, New Tasks, and New Policy of the Party," the lengthy document detailed official views and listed pressing tasks and fundamental requirements to sustain peace and achieve reunification. According to it, the party and state faced a series of simultaneous transitions in the postwar era: from war to peace, from national unity to political partition, from a rural to an urban base, and from dispersal to centralization. While the North was now "liberated," the struggle in the South was not yet over and would in fact continue as long as the Vietnamese there remained under the "yoke" of Diem and his foreign allies. However, the Geneva accords and the pressing need for peace dictated that the "mode of struggle" to complete the liberation of Vietnam must change. The party and its cadres and other loyalists in the South had to renounce violence and replace military struggle with political struggle to achieve reunification without risking the resumption of war. Henceforth, propaganda would constitute "the main thrust" of communist activities below the seventeenth parallel.

Above the seventeenth parallel, the party and the people had entirely different tasks. There, the need was to work together to rebuild an economy ravaged by years of war and foreign occupation, increase agricultural production as land redistribution continued, and develop industry. It was, in short, imperative to improve standards of living and overall quality of life. This stance would not just satisfy popular demands but also enhance the VWP's and the DRVN's legitimacy during the campaign for national unification. As they sought to rehabilitate the North, DRVN leaders would collaborate closely with friendly political and military elements in Laos and Cambodia for greater regional security and improvement of conditions in those countries. For those leaders, the fate of Vietnam was inextricably linked to that of the peoples of Laos and Cambodia. They "considered Indochina as one geographical entity and a single battlefield," a former party official later noted. In fact, no sooner had the Geneva accords been signed than the VWP set out to support, politically and materially, the creation of a "puppet" state-within-a-state in the area of Laos amenable to its control. Regarding other international matters, the Politburo urged its supporters to work with progressive elements in France and elsewhere to ensure implementation of the accords, and with that the reunification of Vietnam. Mobilizing world opinion on behalf of peaceful unification, the Politburo surmised, was fundamental for its achievement.

The document just summarized remained the basis for the DRVN's domestic and international policy, the foundation of its revolutionary strategy, until 1959. It was thus its most consequential policy statement in the immediate aftermath of the Geneva accords concerning matters related to the coming of the Vietnam War. In its tone and substance, the document reflected the moderate tendencies of the Politburo and Central Committee majority, and quickly became an object of scorn among party militants.

The Way Forward

Within the parameters of the policies enunciated in the Politburo document of September, the VWP insisted that Viet Minh military forces below the seventeenth parallel regroup to the North. In violation of the accords, the party instructed some troops, approximately ten thousand of them by one account, to remain in the South. Their assignment, however, was not to fight; it was instead to serve as a "hedge against failure of the unification of Vietnam" and support the work of communist "agents," that is, cadres and regional party leaders, similarly ordered to stay there. The continued presence of political operatives in the South to "look after the population" and implement the Geneva settlement was authorized under the accords. But under no circumstances, the party maintained, could they and the remaining troops engage in activities flagrantly violating the accords, especially fighting. French sources suggest that many Viet Minh troops whom the DRVN leadership ordered to regroup to the North actually remained in the South. In late August, for example, DRVN authorities contacted the French navy for assistance in transporting some seventeen thousand troops and their relatives from Xuyen Moc District on the coast just east of Saigon to the North. To the authorities' evident dismay and embarrassment, less than eleven thousand people showed up for regroupment. Possibly these and other southerners refused to regroup because they disapproved of the terms of the Geneva accords or the decision to suspend hostilities, or simply because they could not bring themselves to leave the places they called home.

The Canadian delegation to the ICSC estimated that 173,900 troops and 86,000 "additional persons," consisting of "military families, administrative cadres, and liberated prisoners of war," regrouped to the North in 1954-55. The number of civilians who relocated there voluntarily is difficult to ascertain but appears to have been negligible. Following their regroupment, southern males of age were integrated into the PAVN, the DRVN's standing army, while their families were granted privileged access to educational, economic, and social services. Many eventually regretted relocating to the North, and some even asked to return to the South. In agreeing to regroup, they had severed ties with friends and relatives and in time developed feelings of homesickness, remorse, or alienation as parochialism made it difficult for them to integrate into northern society. Even within the armed forces, some found it difficult to bond with northern comrades. "The Northerners stayed with Northerners, the Southerners with Southerners," one regroupee later commented; "they didn't mingle easily." To ensure that southern regroupees remained where the government put them and did not return to the South (in violation of the Geneva accords), one or more of their children were sometimes sent to China or other socialist countries for education. Given these constraints, it is remarkable that DRVN authorities succeeded in regrouping as many troops from the South as they did, and in keeping them in the North.

The voluntary migration of northern civilians to the South, permitted under the terms of the accords, proved a thorny issue for the authorities. To their consternation, significant numbers of people sought to join that exodus, so many in fact that the authorities came to believe that French and SOVN officials and supporters were "enticing" or "pressuring" the northern masses, especially Catholics, to emigrate. Petitions to the ICSC from about one hundred persons from the town of Thanh Hoa in March 1955 indicated that indeed "hooligans are spreading panicky rumours which influenced some of their relatives to move to the other zone." According to the petitions, priests from a local church had even told people that "if they did not go South atomic bombs will be dropped in North Vietnam and that God will leave for the South." Other priests allegedly promised people that they would be given land and buffaloes and money for travel if they went south. While the imminence of a nuclear attack on the North was a recurrent theme used by DRVN detractors to incite northerners to move South, other themes, according to ICSC investigators, included assertions that "the souls of Catholics will be lost if they stay in North Vietnam"; "famine and flood will be in North Vietnam"; the "Holy Virgin appeared and ordered all the Catholics to go to the other zone"; and the "pope ordered all Catholics to go to the other zone; otherwise they will lose their souls." "Propaganda in regards to atomic bomb [and] Christ moving South," an ICSC team concluded after visiting Nghe An Province, "appears to be causing an increasing amount of confusion in the population's minds." In and around Hanoi, which became the capital of the DRVN following the French withdrawal in September and October, more than thirty thousand people had signed up for emigration to the South within days after the Geneva accords became effective.

Enticing northerners to the South, DRVN leaders presumed, was part of a strategy devised by their enemies to influence the political situation and gather more votes for the 1956 elections. Thwarting that strategy thus became a "pressing struggle" for the party. To curtail the migration of people to the South, leaders urged cadres to work closely with Catholics and other groups with influence among would-be migrants in the North. The cadres were to publicize party and state policies regarding the protection of religious freedom, particularly among the sizeable Catholic communities of Bui Chu and Phat Diem. Those communities included many loyalists of the old French regime, whom cadres sought to co-opt by rallying sympathetic Catholics to spread among them information favorable to the DRVN. To placate Catholic landowners in areas of high Catholic concentration, the authorities suspended reductions in land rents and land redistribution, central features of the ongoing agrarian reform program. The authorities also allowed the circulation of foreign currencies, including SOVN currency, which was prohibited elsewhere in the DRVN. More significantly, they ordered the return of property earlier seized from Catholic organizations and the release of clergy previously placed under house arrest. These efforts suffered a major setback on 11 November 1954, when DRVN security forces opened fire on a group of three hundred Catholics seeking to emigrate, killing four and wounding several more. On other occasions Catholics provoked incidents, as in December in Tinh Gia District, where a group of approximately one thousand armed Catholics assaulted security and civilian officials while carrying banners reading "Down with Communism."

In the end, Hanoi's efforts to keep Catholics and others from abandoning the North failed dismally, despite the use of both carrot and stick tactics. A majority of Catholics, including almost the entire communities of Bui Chu and Phat Diem, opted to "follow the Virgin Mary" and go south. Historian Seth Jacobs has surmised that the Catholic population in the North declined from 1,133,000 to 457,000 as a result of the migration. Overall, some 930,000 northern civilians left for the South in 1954-55. That outcome dealt a huge blow to Hanoi. Not only were those who resettled below the seventeenth parallel likely to vote against reunification under DRVN governance in 1956, but they-Catholics in particular-became in time dedicated supporters of the Diem regime who were eager to exact revenge on communists, whom they held responsible for their exile from the North.

To offset that blow, Hanoi set out to exploit "contradictions" among the French, the Americans, and their allies in the South, as well as between those parties and the perceived needs and interests of the Vietnamese people. DRVN decision-makers correctly estimated that despite their common goal of maintaining a prowestern, noncommunist state below the seventeenth parallel, Paris and Washington disagreed on important matters of governance. To illustrate, Paris disapproved of Washington's decision to support Diem, who despised France and made no secret of it, as SOVN premier. Indeed, the French were soon urging Washington to reconsider its decision and replace Diem, to "put together ... another team" to preside in Saigon. Having also learned that the chief of staff of the SOVN army, General Nguyen Van Hinh, a "stooge of the French colonial reactionaries," disapproved of the elevation of Diem, a "stooge of the Americans," to the SOVN premiership, Hanoi directed cadres in the South to exploit that enmity and, by extension, the policy differences between the Americans and the French and between Diem and his domestic critics. Specifically, it proposed spreading disinformation about the SOVN regime in Saigon and its armed forces while infiltrating both. Cadres were to "closely coordinate legal and illegal political activities, but make the illegal work principal," and above all to keep everything they did secret.

This was not an unpromising approach. The South was admittedly "deeply splintered" at the time, so much so that the Diem regime teetered on the brink of collapse. The SOVN premier did not control the army, lacked a competent administration, and had little or no authority over sizeable portions of the South, including areas controlled by the powerful Hoa Hao and Cao Dai religious sects. His regime also had to deal with the logistical nightmare of welcoming, housing, feeding, and finding land or jobs for hundreds of thousands of refugees from the North. With sufficient political pressure, Hanoi thought, Diem might be ousted and replaced by someone who "cared relatively little about the Americans." "M. Diem has many of the qualities required by a Nationalist revolutionary leader dedicated to saving his country-courage, integrity, persistence, faith and an implacable hostility to communism," a western assessment noted about this time. He was, however, "incapable of compromise" and had "little administrative capacity."

Southern Skepticism

Southern party leaders-those instructed to stay-did their best to follow Hanoi's prescriptions, repeatedly praising them in pamphlets and public meetings, and ordering cadres under their command to abide by the letter of those prescriptions. Privately, however, meaningful numbers of them and their subordinates shared Le Duan and Nguyen Chi Thanh's sentiments and disapproved of the prescriptions as well as the reasoning behind them. They questioned the leadership's acceptance of the Geneva accords; they could not reconcile themselves to the suspension of military struggle and the turn to political struggle only. Considering the duplicitous history of French colonialism and the mindset of American cold warriors in the mid-1950s, to say nothing of the grim determination of Diem himself, they thought it naive to assume that the other side would permit peaceful reunification under any circumstances. Most upsetting to them was Hanoi's insistence that troops regroup to the North and that those who stayed forswear violence despite the vulnerability of the Diem regime. Vo Chi Cong, a prominent southern communist leader, admitted in a later memoir that he and many other southern party members always felt that regrouping troops and renouncing violence effectively nullified the gains revolutionary forces had theretofore made below the seventeenth parallel, that it crippled the communist movement there and proved detrimental to the long-term prospects for reunification.

Following discussion of the Politburo policy pronouncement in September, the party's Executive Committee of Interzone IV, which straddled the seventeenth parallel, told Hanoi that the new policy violated the best interests of the revolution since it left southern communists unprotected, at the complete mercy of enemy violence. Suddenly sustaining a purely political struggle, the committee explained, was "extremely difficult and complex." While pledging to do the will of the party, the committee made certain that superiors in Hanoi understood the depth of its concern. A month later, the Executive Committee of Interzone V, which encompassed northern South Vietnam and the Central Highlands, voiced similar concerns in even more explicit language. Following a three-day discussion in October, this committee sent Hanoi a lengthy critique detailing the negative effects the party's new strategy had already had. Most notably, the regroupment of Viet Minh troops to the North was decimating southern communist ranks. As a result, reactionary and foreign forces suddenly "enjoy military and political supremacy" in the South, which was sure to create "many difficulties in the task to lead the reunification effort."

In language intimating a sense of betrayal, the committee's report captured the widespread pessimism enveloping southern revolutionaries, who were convinced that the "imperialists" and their local clients would never give up southern Vietnam without a fight. The Americans were a particularly significant threat, the committee warned, as they clearly intended to "carry out the destruction of peace in Indochina." With Washington's help, Paris and Saigon "will not allow us to achieve peace and national reunification through free general elections." As a result of such circumstances, the committee told Hanoi to prepare for "the subversion of the general elections" and "the resumption of war."

Hanoi ignored these warnings. On the contrary, it directed that the regroupment of forces from the South to the North continue, and that southern communist outfits restructure themselves with local recruits and otherwise adhere to Hanoi's policies and the terms of the Geneva accords. "We must overcome subjective [and] remorseful" as well as "pessimistic" and "faltering" thoughts, the VWP Central Committee decreed. Supporters of the revolution in the South in particular had to overcome their "lack of belief in the triumph of the political struggle." Concerned about the consequences of a possible resort to violence by disgruntled southern elements, the committee repeated its earlier admonitions about the necessity of respecting the cease-fire. "We must give all our attention to protecting the foundation [laid by the accords], avoiding provocations, [and] avoiding manifestations of force," it intoned. Cadres in the South must promote peace actively through the use of such slogans as "Vietnamese Do Not Kill Vietnamese."

But Hanoi had a difficult time persuading southern communists and particularly the militants among them of the merits of its strategy. By its own admission, "the campaign to carry out the [Geneva] agreement" experienced "many shortcomings," most occasioned by organizational problems. Its effort to implement the accords was poorly coordinated, it thought, because local party branches in the South were ineffectively connected to it. As a result, policies and directives were slow to reach lower levels and, when they did, were imperfectly understood. Implementation was thus "oftentimes belated and passive." Such problems were indeed real, symptomatic of the party's chronic weakness in southern Vietnam. Throughout the Indochina War, the party had struggled to develop a solid base there. The number of members and cadres was persistently low, and their training poor. The pitiful state of the party in the South may have been another reason Le Duan and other militants rejected peace and pressed for immediate resumption of hostilities; war would compel Hanoi to suspend the repatriation of troops to the North and allocate more resources to the South, bringing the southern communist movement back from the brink of imminent extinction.

To appease militants whose ideas on reunification imperiled party unity, Hanoi eventually professed that war in the South would resume, if necessary, as soon as the North had been consolidated. The DRVN was a brand-new polity created in fact by the Geneva accords, it maintained, and as such it had to be built economically and otherwise before it could guarantee victory in the coming elections, to say nothing of victory in an extended armed struggle in the South. "Our strength resides in the entire nation," Truong Chinh said in March, but the need for investing resources in the North was "most essential" for the time being. "However much the South might demand the attention of the [DRVN] Government, consolidation of the North was not to take second place," the British Consulate General in Hanoi wrote of this stance. In a public address, Ho Chi Minh maintained that the principal tasks of the party just then included not only implementing the Geneva accords and developing stronger leadership at all levels, but consolidating the North while intensifying political struggle in the South. The militants were unmoved.

The DRVN and the United States

Progress in jump-starting the war-ravaged northern economy was slow. Basic transportation facilities-roads, bridges, and rail lines-had been damaged or destroyed during the war with France, and the production and distribution of food severely disrupted. "In many areas," historian Fredrik Logevall has written of this situation, Hanoi was "starting essentially from scratch," not least because in abandoning the North the French had cannibalized factories, post offices, and even hospitals. In April 1955 rice rations had to be cut from 15 to 13fr1/2/fr kilos (from approximately 33.1 to 29.7 pounds) per household per month. This decline was due partly to domestic problems in the DRVN, but also to the fact that Saigon suspended all economic exchanges with the North, which had traditionally relied on the South's surplus production for a significant portion of its rice. As a result of this suspension, many people in the DRVN now lived a precarious hand-to-mouth existence. Foreign observers reported that the economic situation there deteriorated so much after July 1954 that "the population were not giving the regime full support." Government spokesmen acknowledged that unspecified regions in the North actually experienced famine that year.

The land reform program contributed in no insignificant degree to this situation, meeting as it did with considerable opposition from the rural masses and hindering production. Meanwhile, cadres were "constantly chided" by Hanoi for failing to "unmask the landlords' plots" that encouraged the rice shortages, and for not proceeding "ruthlessly enough" with tax collection. Some cadres had even been charged with "right-wing deviationism"-essentially, weakness and hesitation in enforcing party policies. Nhan dan, the party daily, editorially exhorted those responsible for carrying out land reform to "banish selfish and pacifist doctrines," to be "careful but determined in action," and to "firmly believe in our own forces and resolutely lead the peasantry to crush the whole landlord class." On the basis of these initiatives and priorities, the Indian commissioner on the ICSC wrote of the "indisputably communist character" of Hanoi leaders, whose methods, he suggested, conformed to communist, not nationalist, tradition. In the more cynical view of French cabinet chief Claude Cheysson, the DRVN was clearly "committing itself to the infernal circle of the communist world."

An important factor influencing Hanoi's choice of priorities was fear that the Eisenhower administration might exploit the vulnerability of the DRVN and attempt to "roll back" socialism there. "If our northern region is not consolidated, then not only will unification be impossible," Truong Chinh told the VWP Central Committee, but Washington and its allies "might use the South as a springboard to encroach upon the North." Hanoi was sufficiently concerned about the American threat to fear an attack on the DRVN itself, a potentially devastating scenario that solidified its resolve to abide by the Geneva accords. It was perhaps the feeling that they were dealing with this danger that led party leaders to decide that only after they made the DRVN a viable economic entity would they reconsider their revolutionary strategy, and then only if circumstances dictated. For the time being, the North's need for peace was as absolute as the perils facing it were daunting. As a precautionary measure, in April 1955 Hanoi ordered the creation of local militias throughout the DRVN.

By this time, DRVN leaders unanimously agreed that Washington represented the chief obstacle to Vietnamese reunification. In March the Central Committee determined that the United States was now "the primary and most dangerous enemy" of the Vietnamese people. American "imperialists" were "the number one enemy of the people of the world" as well as the "number one and immediate enemy of the Indochinese people," Ho Chi Minh iterated in a public pronouncement. Washington was compelling Paris to betray the Geneva accords, the Central Committee claimed, and was also determined to "rely on feudalists and the most reactionary bourgeois collaborators headed by Ngo Dinh Diem" to preclude peaceful national reunification. American aid to the French and the Saigon regime, the DRVN National Assembly lamented, was "proof of the deliberate desire of the U.S. ruling circles to deepen their intervention in the internal affairs of Vietnam, prevent the implementation of the Geneva Agreement, and prepare for a definite partition of Vietnam."

The American commitment to Diem's regime was indeed rapidly expanding. The previous October, Washington had instructed its Military Assistance Advisory Group (MAAG) in Vietnam, created in 1950 to marshal U.S. aid to French and allied forces there, to develop a training program for SOVN troops. Immediately thereafter, Eisenhower had informed Diem that he intended to assist the SOVN "in developing and maintaining a strong, viable state, capable of resisting attempted subversion or aggression through military means," and to that end would provide "an intelligent program of American aid given directly to your Government." According to Fredrik Logevall, that pledge marked the actual beginning of the American commitment to South Vietnam. In January 1955 the Americans had begun channeling aid directly to Saigon, bypassing the French, and a month later the U.S. Senate approved the creation of the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization (SEATO). That approval, in Hanoi's eyes, formalized America's commitment to preserving a noncommunist South Vietnam and constituted proof of Washington's intent to replace the French in Indochina and ignore the Geneva accords. Ominously in Hanoi's view, by the end of spring, the United States had taken over the training of SOVN troops from France. American strategic concerns were turning Vietnam into a crucible of the Cold War.

In May, acting chairman of the DRVN National Assembly's Standing Committee Ton Duc Thang publicly stated that "our main task now is to oppose the U.S. imperialists' preparations for the resumption of hostilities in Indo-China and to attain free general elections in order to bring about national unification." Meanwhile, the Politburo referred in the same vein to the Americans as "neo-fascists," and concluded that the United States hoped to keep Vietnam permanently divided, like Korea and Germany. Washington's decision to allow West Germany to join the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and begin to rearm that year, which Moscow answered by creating the Warsaw Pact, informed such thinking. Vietnamese communist policymakers, we now know, were keen observers of international affairs, and the so-called world situation as they saw it conditioned their ruminations on strategic matters to no insignificant degree. They understood that Cold War developments in Europe and elsewhere invariably ratcheted up the international stakes on the Indochinese peninsula. While there is no doubt that Hanoi was genuinely worried about Washington's intentions, its demonization of the United States also created a "useful adversary" that facilitated "gaining and maintaining public support for the core grand strategy," and thus for advancing the Vietnamese revolution.

Diplomatic Struggle

In line with the substance of the September 1954 policy statement, DRVN authorities devised a plan to contain American ambitions in Vietnam by rallying world opinion against Washington. Diplomatically isolated, the Eisenhower administration would be hard-pressed to increase U.S. involvement in the country, they thought, or to interfere in the reunification process. To that end, the authorities instructed diplomats abroad to publicize Hanoi's commitment to peaceful reunification and the obstacles the Americans were raising to the achievement of that goal. The Foreign Ministry generally had to "make ... the people of the world understand clearly that we have always strongly advocated peace," that "the opponents of the [Geneva] agreement are the American imperialists and their puppets." This "diplomatic struggle" essentially amounted to an internationalization of the political struggle for hearts and minds in the South. Like the masses there, the rest of the world had to recognize the "noble" aspirations of Hanoi and the "wicked intentions" of Washington and be made to "feel resentment" toward the latter, the Politburo insisted. Everyone had to accept the slogan "Oppose the Americans, Oppose Diem, for Peace, for Unification."

To meet the aims of that effort, Hanoi intensified its public denunciations of the United States as an "imperialist aggressor." It even introduced and publicized a kind of "domino theory" of its own according to which the Americans, if unchecked, would "oust the French from Indo-China and turn Indo-China into an American colony, seize the economy and resources of Indo-China, suppress the national and democratic movement of the people of Indo-China, turn Indo-China into a springboard for the conquest of the [other] countries of South East Asia, [and] make out of Indo-China an American military base." A few weeks later, DRVN authorities ordered the American Consulate in Hanoi to close down its diplomatic wireless, a move intended to pressure the United States into abandoning its official presence there and to signal Hanoi's conviction that its differences with Washington were irreconcilable. The move had the desired effect, and by the end of the year Washington had closed the consulate.

Meanwhile, Hanoi solicited political, moral, and other forms of support from the international community. This "line of conduct" was geared toward increasing cooperation with communist countries and strengthening "friendship ties" with neutralist states in Southeast Asia and elsewhere. In the context of the Cold War, the Vietnamese crisis had global ramifications that its leaders clearly understood and exploited to their advantage. This involved them in a systematic effort to use diplomacy to get others to see their situation as they saw it themselves. Besides generating pressure on the Americans to limit their involvement in the South, favorable world opinion would help Hanoi garner material as well as political support. The opposition may have been better equipped, DRVN leaders reasoned, but it had no inherent advantage diplomatically. In fact, Cold War Washington had many enemies and even more critics, and Hanoi's chances of winning the battle for world opinion were far better than those of winning an actual war against American forces in the South.

As the leader of the moderate wing of the party, Ho Chi Minh assumed a central role in the diplomatic struggle. Most notably, he used his worldwide notoriety to cultivate an image of the Vietnamese revolution as a necessity prompted by tragic circumstances over which the Vietnamese had little or no control, and of himself as "Ho the conciliator," who sought merely to satiate the desire for peace of the people of Indochina and elsewhere. The stratagem would pay valuable short- and long-term dividends. After a meeting with him in October, the Indian commissioner on the ICSC reported that Ho was a "patient and tolerant man" bent upon respecting the Geneva accords and "resist[ing] all attempts by Western Powers to draw him into their global conflicts." Over time, Ho's travails helped promote the idea-the myth, it turned out-that all Vietnamese revolutionaries were in fact peace-loving nationalists compelled by "dark forces" to pick up a gun and fight. British diplomats in Hanoi immediately saw through the stratagem and attendant endeavors. DRVN authorities "attribute to their adversaries-the government of Monsieur Diem and his American backers-a desire to avoid elections and to perpetuate the present de facto partition of the country" with all that entailed, they reported of these endeavors. "They know that they must appeal to world opinion, and especially to the Geneva powers, if they are to succeed in getting their point of view accepted in Saigon" and elsewhere. They were thus "careful to phrase their official pronouncements in moderate and restrained language and to hang their desiderata upon the pegs provided in the Geneva agreement and Final Declaration."

With these ends in mind, in April 1955 DRVN representatives attended the conference of Afro-Asian nations in Bandung, Indonesia, where the Cold War-era nonaligned movement originated. There, prime minister Pham Van Dong spoke with "studied moderation" of his government's commitment to the Geneva accords and to the peaceful reunification of his country promised by those accords. A few weeks later, Ho himself led a DRVN delegation to the Soviet Union and China. There, he recycled some of the rhetoric Dong had used in Bandung to obtain pledges for not just moral backing but also "valuable" material advances toward the realization of the DRVN's political and economic objectives. It was the success of such initiatives that the party leadership would assiduously seek to replicate thereafter, on a global scale.

Confronting Diem

As Hanoi concentrated on convincing southern communists to embrace the Geneva accords, on developing the northern economy, and on containing the United States, Diem slowly but effectively consolidated his authority in the SOVN. Having solved his most critical problems with his armed forces, he immediately targeted the rebel armies of the Hoa Hao, an eccentric Buddhist sect, and the Cao Dai, a more eclectic religious denomination, and the forces of the Binh Xuyen criminal syndicate. Collectively, these factions, not communists, represented the most serious internal challenge to Saigon after the DRVN entered into the Geneva accords and started regrouping the bulk of its forces to the North.

In the spring of 1955, SOVN military and security forces began moving systematically against the factions and their armies. Diem "embarked on a campaign of repression and widespread propaganda for the establishment of a hard authoritarian regime, employing ruthless ... methods to root out rebels and establish authority," western observers noted. The campaign was a resounding success. According to historian Jessica Chapman, the outcome of the "sect crisis" was a "key turning point" for Diem. His regime had begun the conflict with the factions "on the brink of collapse," but emerged "with what seemed uncontested control over South Vietnam" and "full support from Washington." If that was not ominous enough for the VWP, in April the deadline for beginning consultations between representative authorities of northern and southern Vietnam to set the terms for the 1956 elections passed with no indication that Saigon or even France intended to respect that crucial provision of the Geneva accords. The French Foreign Ministry itself admitted later that it was a "spectacular violation" of the accords. Suspending military struggle and banking on political struggle and the scheduled elections to prevail in the South now looked more and more like a mistake by DRVN leaders.

Despite these alarming developments and to the consternation of southern militants, the "principal aspirations" of leaders in Hanoi nonetheless remained to fulfill the terms of the Geneva accords and await the promised elections. According to Nhan dan, the effort to implement the Geneva accords entered in the summer of 1955 a new phase, in which the party and the people had to struggle even harder "against the reappearance of new hostilities and realize the 1956 elections." In secret dispatches to its agents in the South, the Party Secretariat reiterated that the plan of action for the South remained political, not armed, struggle. In light of Saigon's growing belligerence and disregard for the terms of the Geneva accords, however, the Secretariat authorized limited indirect support to noncommunist factions fighting Diem's forces. That summer, Hanoi instructed Le Duan to seek a pact on behalf of the VWP with other organizations opposed to Diem in Nam Bo. As previously noted, the Politburo member doubled as head of COSVN, renamed the Nam Bo Executive Committee (Xu uy Nam Bo) in September, and in that capacity directed the activities of three interzonal subcommittees, each responsible for guarding the interests of the revolution in five to seven provinces. In October, Le Duan met with noncommunist rebel leaders, including Nam Lua and Ba Cut of the Hoa Hao. Despite doctrinal differences, the three men agreed to form the Southern Committee of the Patriotic Front, which eventually encompassed surviving members of not just the Hoa Hao but the Cao Dai and Binh Xuyen rebel armies as well. Given its professed commitment to peace and to the Geneva accords, the VWP's ties to the new front remained secret.

While acquiescing in such collaborations, Hanoi publicly followed an accommodationist course vis-à-vis Saigon. It had laid the foundation for this earlier in the year, when it openly called for normalizing relations between the two zones, a process it proposed should begin with talks on restoring postal communications. The approach was sensible and not altogether unpromising. Constructive engagement of the southern regime might improve bilateral relations, save the Geneva accords, and improve the chances for peaceful reunification. At this time, Hanoi considered France, the other signatory to the Geneva agreement on Vietnam, officially responsible for implementing the accords, and therefore for arranging the general elections in the southern half of the country. However, it also understood that its "real interlocutor" in this matter must be the "competent representative authorities" in the South, that is, appropriate officials of the Diem regime, with whom it still hoped soon to begin pre-election consultations. In January Pham Van Dong had confided to a western journalist that Hanoi was "prepared to make large concessions for the sake of reaching agreement" on such talks. Toward that end, DRVN authorities refrained from using the familiar labels of "criminal" and "traitor" in public references to the SOVN regime.

"There is no doubt in my mind," the British consul commented in a revealing cable to London in June, "that [DRVN leaders] are sincere in saying, as they have all along, that they really desire nation-wide elections; I consider that the achievement of this aim has first priority among their political objectives." National reunification "has always been one of their basic slogans," the consul continued, "and the fact that they are ready to work for this through the medium of elections reflects their confidence in the result of the polls." The leaders were "sufficiently sure of their own position in the North, and confident of a sizeable number of votes from the South," the consul believed, "to feel that they can afford to be flexible in their approach to the question and possibly to make certain concessions to democratic practice in electoral procedure." The consul thought it "likely" that DRVN leaders were preparing to come to the conference table for talks on elections "in an apparently conciliatory spirit and to make every effort to avoid a breakdown of the talks." The Canadian ICSC commissioner concurred with that assessment. "Given the dominant role which they exert throughout the whole of the Democratic Republic territory [i.e., North Vietnam], and the strong position which their sympathies occupy in various areas in the South," he felt, "there is little doubt that the mood of [DRVN leaders] is one of confidence." "For this reason, the North is likely to be prepared, at least on paper, and possibly also in fact, to accept electoral arrangements which may surprise the world in their apparent liberality." The DRVN leaders' "most likely tactic," the commissioner concluded, "will be either to prepare or to agree to arrangements for all Vietnam elections, which will incorporate what they hope will be conditions acceptable to and defensible before free world opinion."

During the summer of 1955, the DRVN foreign ministry developed "several alternative plans" for holding elections in Vietnam. Pham Van Dong told a Canadian diplomat that Hanoi thought it "inconceivable" that it should not be able to find some common ground, "some basis of agreement," with the South. It became especially important to placate Diem after he announced on 16 July that as a nonsignatory to the Geneva accords, the SOVN was "not bound in any way by those Agreements signed [between military representatives of France and the DRVN] against the will of the Vietnamese people," and his government would in fact refuse to participate in any political process designed to reunify Vietnam "if proof is not given us that [Hanoi] put the superior interests of the National Community above those of communism."

Another calculation behind Hanoi's pursuit of rapprochement with Saigon despite Diem's intractableness was that any such endeavor might antagonize Washington or render it uneasy over the prospect of elections or any other cooperative process between the two Vietnamese governments. Aid from Washington sustained the Saigon regime, and anything that might pry the two apart was worth trying. Admittedly, any effort to divorce Saigon from Washington by now had little chance of success, as DRVN leaders understood. But that they made the effort anyway attested to their eagerness to save the Geneva accords and keep alive their flickering hope for peaceful reunification.

Having for all intents and purposes eradicated the main threats to his authority-namely, the rebel armies of the Hoa Hao, Cao Dai, and Binh Xuyen-Diem was completely unresponsive to Hanoi's overtures and in fact moved to annihilate what remained of the communist presence in the South starting that summer. On 20 July, one day before the first anniversary of the Geneva accords, he launched a vigorous, violent campaign called "Denounce the Communists" (To Cong) to root out communists and "pro-Communist attitudes" among the population in the South. Soon thereafter his government gave carte blanche to SOVN military and security forces to incarcerate or exterminate all known or suspected communists below the seventeenth parallel. The resulting campaign dealt a crushing blow to the southern communist movement, already enfeebled by repatriations to the North. It severely damaged most remaining party organizations and "succeeded in inducing a considerable proportion of the population to view that the authority of the [SOVN] Government had come to stay." Diem's security initiatives in 1955, historian Mark Moyar writes, "created far more problems for the stay-behind Communists than Hanoi had anticipated." Yet the sheer ruthlessness of the campaign may have had some collateral benefits for the revolutionary movement, as political scientist David Elliott maintains, for it alienated many nationalists from Diem's government and produced a pool of new recruits.

In a desperate effort to encourage rapprochement with the SOVN, DRVN authorities developed a plan calling for a modus vivendi between Saigon and Hanoi, leading to a normalization of relations between the two governments as a prelude to reunification. According to the plan, following consultative talks between the two sides, a weak central government would be established, making Vietnam a confederation of two "zonal" governments. From there, each zone would organize its own "amalgamation" into a unitary central government. "The problem of unification should be solved by electing two separate chambers of an all-Viet Nam National Assembly, one each for the North and the South," a revised draft of the plan urged. All political parties and organizations would be free to present candidates. After the elections, the two chambers would work together to elect a "joint Government." Although formally united under that government, "North and South would [each] retain a large measure of autonomy." The armed forces of the two zones would remain separate and independent until fused into one army by negotiation. The Vietnam Fatherland Front (VFF), a broad-based organization formed in September 1955 in the North, circulated and publicized the first complete draft of the plan. The new organization's mandate was to promote national reconciliation according to popular shibboleths of independence, unity, and democracy, and to demonstrate the DRVN's repudiation of violence as a means of unifying the country. Western observers cynically saw the VFF as essentially "a step designed to provide a policy to meet M. Diem's refusal to accept the Geneva Settlement."

Unsurprisingly, Saigon promptly rejected the plan. In fact, none of Hanoi's efforts to mollify Diem bore fruit in the end, as he obdurately refused to cooperate with any of them and insisted that South Vietnam would have nothing to do with the 1956 elections. In October, Diem actually held a referendum of his own asking the southern population to elect him head of state as well as chief of government in a new, democratic, and fully sovereign Vietnamese state. Officially, 98.2 percent of the resulting vote favored him. Despite claims that the result was rigged, the referendum enhanced Diem's legitimacy as well as that of his regime, as it in effect abolished the French-sponsored SOVN and paved the way for creation of the Republic of Vietnam (RVN). Unlike its previous incarnation, the new state had no colonial past, no ties to France, and therefore even less reason to honor the terms of the Geneva accords. The "obvious purpose" of the referendum, thought Pham Van Dong, was "creating a separate state in the Southern part of Vietnam, in stark contradiction with both the letter and spirit of the Geneva Agreements." On the other hand, a western observer believed, "the success of the plebiscite was a measure of the success of the policies pursued by the [Saigon] Government and the extent to which the people had been successfully conditioned not merely to reject [Bao Dai, the ousted head of the SOVN,] but to accept M. Diem as leader." To be sure, "the methods employed undoubtedly increased the opposition and particularly intellectual opposition to M. Diem in South Vietnam," this observer noted, "but they also secured for the time being at least that that opposition was ineffective."

DRVN leaders had grossly underestimated Diem, it seemed, and overplayed their hand by opting to pursue their revolutionary objectives politically and diplomatically while suspending military operations. To Le Duan and other VWP militants, developments in the South since the Geneva accords reinforced the conviction that the moderates in the Politburo had erred in assuming that they could meet the main goals of the Vietnamese revolution without armed struggle. "As they had done in 1946, during the negotiations that preceded the outbreak of [the Indochina War]," Fredrik Logevall writes, Ho and like-minded leaders had "overestimated the power of what they like[d] to call 'democratic elements'" in enemy circles. For all its heavy-handedness, Diem's rule in the South had quelled dissidence and established him as the sole vector of power there. As Diem's success continued unabated, many in the VWP came to see that the revolutionary movement in the South was in dire straits, as the "old-style French colonial society" there was transformed into "a new-style American colonial society," with Diem at its helm.

Sustaining Peaceful Struggle

In 1956 Hanoi openly acknowledged for the first time that the prospects for peaceful national reunification were dim and the struggle for reunification would probably be longer and more difficult than anticipated. But because the moderate consensus prevailed in the Politburo and the Central Committee, the communist revolutionary strategy remained unchanged. Instead of arming and fighting, Hanoi advised its followers in the South to continue infiltrating the Saigon regime and subverting it from within. It also urged them to broaden their popular support by earning the trust and sympathy of "neutral" or indifferent southerners, to infiltrate labor unions, women's and youth organizations, and other such groups, and to try to integrate large numbers of rural and urban youths into mass-based revolutionary organizations similar to the VFF in the North. The party also initiated a major effort in both halves of the country to silence detractors of its revolutionary line inside and outside the VWP, and to "make cadres and the masses believe in the line of political struggle of the party at present," to convince them that that was "the most effective means" of achieving national reunification.

DRVN decision-makers stuck to the current line for various reasons. Ideologically, Ho and other decision-makers still strongly objected to a military solution; realistically, the success of Diem's "Denounce the Communists" campaign had "render[ed] very doubtful the issue of a recourse to force, at least in the short term." Owing to the decimation of communist forces and their sympathizers in the South, Hanoi could not at that time launch an effective guerrilla struggle, even if it wanted to. The PAVN, for its part, was unprepared for war. In 1955 Hanoi had initiated, at Giap's urging, a five-year plan to modernize the northern armed forces. But since then the government had reduced defense spending in the interests of the North's socialist transformation. To that end, thousands of experienced soldiers had been demobilized and assigned to nonmilitary units and duties. In June 1956 the government began demobilizing no less than eighty thousand additional soldiers to "strengthen the labor potential." Also, the PAVN still had no armored units and no air force, indispensable assets in the event of a resumption of hostilities with possible American involvement.

Satisfying allies' aspirations for peace was another incentive to wage only political struggle in the South. Both Beijing and Moscow opposed resumption of hostilities in Vietnam after the signing of the Geneva accords. Instead of fighting in the South, they advised, Hanoi should concentrate on rehabilitating the economy in the North and wait on events below the seventeenth parallel. Each had been emphatic about its desire to not see war start anew in Indochina; acting against their wishes therefore might jeopardize the aid they provided, a risk Hanoi simply could not afford to take at the time. More than 13 million people lived in the North in 1956. Yet among them were only thirty engineers and technical experts with the kind of training and expertise needed to improve the industrial base, the centerpiece of the economic development the party wanted to achieve. Early in the year, the government launched a program of economic modernization centering around consolidation and expansion of the industrial base and production of manufactured goods for export. "Healthy [foreign] trade will stimulate the development of industry and agriculture," the program's originators promised, "contribute to raising the standard of living of the people, stabilize commodity prices, stabilize currency, consolidate state finances, [and] make the national economy thrive." Without the support of its two biggest allies, Hanoi would never achieve the goals of the program. In fact, to help its neighbor meet their economic objectives, China dispatched the first of what eventually became thousands of technical and other advisers to North Vietnam. To sustain this flow of support, it was necessary for Hanoi to exercise caution in the South and at least pretend to heed the desires of its Soviet and Chinese allies "counseling moderation."

The insistence on respecting the Geneva accords and the continuing effort to influence domestic and world opinion encouraged the same conclusion. As part of the effort to win hearts and minds abroad, Hanoi dispatched urgent pleas to the British and Soviet governments, cochairs of the 1954 Geneva Conference, to convene "a new Geneva Conference on the Question of Indochina." A new conference, it affirmed, was "necessary and urgent" to put an end to the accruing military commitment of the Americans to Saigon. It might also lead to better relations between the two halves of Vietnam, a necessary prelude to peaceful unification. "It is clearly on the diplomatic front that DRVN political leaders have chosen for the time being to deal with their differences with the South," French diplomats in Hanoi reported in March in light of recent DRVN endeavors. Above all, Hanoi sought to "present itself before the eyes of world opinion as embracing pacifism at all costs," and to that end had "gotten into gear" its entire propaganda machine. It was also pressing the French government to accept a permanent DRVN representation in Paris, which it planned to use to rally the Franco-Vietnamese community against Saigon and foreign interference in Indochina.

Peaceful Coexistence

In late February 1956 Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev stunned the socialist camp during the Twentieth Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU) by denouncing Stalin, condemning his "crimes," and detailing the errors of the personality cult he had cultivated. Without previously consulting or even informing allies, Khrushchev also proffered on behalf of the CPSU, the Soviet Union, and the rest of the socialist camp a commitment to "peaceful coexistence" with the West. This concept had first been voiced at the Soviet-sponsored World Peace Council in 1949, then codified in a treaty between China and India in 1954, and eventually adopted by the movement of nonaligned states. In the future, Khrushchev announced, Moscow and other members of the socialist camp would forswear violent struggle against capitalism and its proponents in favor of constructive diplomatic engagement and economic competition, all with the aim of reducing Cold War tensions.

Khrushchev's pronouncements had serious implications for Vietnam. According to historian Galia Golan, from that moment Moscow operated "under Khrushchev's doctrinal tenet that local wars would inevitably escalate to global, nuclear proportions"; as a result, it opposed even more determinedly the resumption of hostilities in Indochina. "As one of the nuclear superpowers," a western assessment noted, the Soviet Union "had the same interest as the United States in avoiding any disturbance of the lines which have been gradually built up between the Communist and Western powers" since 1954, especially in Vietnam. To impress upon DRVN leaders the seriousness of its commitment to peaceful coexistence and the attenuation of Cold War tensions, Moscow sent deputy premier Anastas Mikoyan to Hanoi in early April. Mikoyan informed his hosts that "they were always assured of the support of his government and of communist bloc countries," but they had to "demonstrate patience and prudence in the pursuit of their final objective" of national reunification under communist authority.

The VWP Central Committee convened shortly after Mikoyan's visit to discuss the meaning for Vietnam of Moscow's turn to peaceful coexistence. Though Khrushchev's position validated Hanoi's current strategy, including the "North-first" policy, many who spoke at the plenum voiced dismay at the apparent meaning of peaceful coexistence both for the socialist world generally and for Vietnam and its reunification struggle specifically. These speakers interpreted Khrushchev's move as a unilateral concession to the United States that constrained the freedom of action of communist parties, threatened the unity of the socialist camp, and set back the prospects for world revolution and for their own effort to reunify Vietnam should peaceful reunification on their terms fail to materialize. As much as socialist countries loved peace, they reasoned, it was not always a viable option because of the implacable nature of capitalism and imperialism and of the structural forces that determined American Cold War policy. The enemies of socialism "have aggressive designs," the committee reported in summarizing the discussions. Thus revolutionary forces in Vietnam and elsewhere must always be prepared to meet any challenge by any means. Unfortunately, henceforth the VWP and other communist parties would be unable to resort to military struggle to meet their revolutionary goals without running the risk of alienating Khrushchev and losing Soviet political and material support. This severely undercut their autonomy.

According to Ho Chi Minh, Hanoi's current strategy did satisfy the tenets of peaceful coexistence. However, even he, a force behind the decision to suspend military struggle in favor of political struggle in the South after July 1954, recognized that disavowing war altogether was unsound and potentially dangerous. "We must always remember that the enemies of our people are the American imperialists and their puppets," and "they are preparing for war." The refusal of Saigon and Washington to comply with the Geneva accords proved that blind faith in peaceful coexistence was problematic concerning the future of the Vietnamese revolution. Ho acknowledged that military action in the South might be warranted if the Americans and their lackeys continued their campaign of oppression, but he pointedly failed to specify at what point that warrant should be implemented. Other speakers at the plenum objected to Khrushchev's attack on Stalin, whom Vietnamese communists generally held in high regard despite his flaws and errors. The denunciation of Stalin's personality cult was especially galling, since it could be read as a criticism of the VWP's cult of Ho Chi Minh, whose image was practically everywhere in Hanoi and whose every major public utterance was treated as an article of revolutionary faith. Equally offending was the fact that Khrushchev had presented Hanoi with a fait accompli, scoffing at the congeniality supposed to govern relations among "fraternal" world communist parties.

Despite these criticisms and reservations, the plenum's final resolution endorsed the outcome of the CPSU's Twentieth Congress. To do otherwise would have been an unthinkable breach of socialist etiquette and could have compromised Soviet-DRVN relations as well as the unity of the socialist camp more broadly. For the same reasons, after the plenum, DRVN leaders publicly praised the correctness of the views espoused by Khrushchev. "The collapse of the Stalin myth," a western assessment of this plenum and its aftermath noted, "has not, on the surface at least, embarrassed the leaders nor given rise to any [public] criticism of the Kremlin's leadership." Interestingly, within days of the plenum's conclusion, a large portrait of Ho was removed from the façade of the municipal theater in Hanoi, where the National Assembly convened. DRVN authorities also ceased to make official pronouncements in the name of the VWP and the DRVN government in addition to "President Ho Chi Minh." Given the dependence on Moscow's political and material backing, French diplomats believed, Hanoi "cannot hesitate in conforming in all circumstances its attitude" to "Soviet theses," or in expressing its ideological loyalty to the Kremlin. At a minimum, it had to pretend to be loyal.

In an address to the nation shortly after the plenum, Ho Chi Minh reiterated that "resolutely implementing the Geneva accords by peaceful means on the basis of the unification of the North and the South ... of the fatherland" was the "sacred mission" of the Vietnamese people. But there were limits as to how far Hanoi would go to mollify Moscow. Most notably, the party continued to give precedence to its own concerns in decision-making and to exploit the personal prestige of Ho Chi Minh, of his personality cult. This exaltation of the DRVN president was a part of North Vietnamese cultural reality, not just an act of propaganda. Ho's prestige was "far too great an asset" to dispense with for the VWP posing as "champio[n] of a united and independent Vietnam." Ho remained "a benign hero and father figure to the masses," another assessment of this phenomenon noted. "He is an exemplar of the Vietnamese virtues-'l'homme vietnamien réussi' [the accomplished Vietnamese man]-in the fullest sense, and not merely a material one."

The Death of the Geneva Accords and Democratization in the North

In July 1956, the deadline for the promised elections on Vietnamese reunification passed. That outcome satisfied the United States. Fearful of a communist victory in those elections and thus of "losing" Vietnam, even while insisting publicly that free elections were impossible in a totalitarian state such as the DRVN, Washington had never supported elections or even reunification, just as it had never failed to impress those views upon Diem and his government. "Neither the United States nor Free Vietnam," Senator John F. Kennedy, a prominent Democrat, had argued, "is ever going to be a party to an election obviously stacked and subverted in advance." Reassuringly for Hanoi in light of their recent endorsement of peaceful coexistence, the Soviets were quick to excoriate Washington for this lapse of the Geneva accords. The Eisenhower administration's expressed opposition to the elections and other aspects of the Geneva accords and its perceived leverage over Saigon have convinced many scholars that Washington was indeed responsible for the collapse of the accords. The decision, it is now clear, was made by Ngo Dinh Diem, who needed no American pressure or even advice to prevent the elections by refusing to arrange for them in the South. Diem was certain the DRVN would never permit free choice or an honest count in elections so vital to its interests. More significantly, he felt that he had worked too hard to consolidate his authority in the South to risk everything in elections in which his opponent would be Ho Chi Minh. Indeed, considering Diem's personal characteristics, "the hope of unifying the nation by peaceful methods may never have been capable of achievement."

This outcome was a "grave disappointment" for DRVN leaders, but it was hardly shocking in light of developments in the South. Only recently, Diem had further solidified his position by successfully staging another election, this one for a Constituent Assembly mandated to draft a constitution for the newly established RVN. He had also ordered the withdrawal of all remaining French forces from the South and the closure of the French High Command, the organ charged with carrying out France's obligations under the Geneva accords. Western observers took the latter action, effective on 28 April, to signal the "death" of the Geneva accords. Still, Hanoi reacted to these events with surprising passiveness, suggesting that key leaders, such as Ho and Giap, still thought peaceful reunification was ideologically sound and realistically achievable, or else that armed struggle remained an impossible choice.

Instead of going to war in the South, in late July 1956 the North actually "entered a period of calm" during which its leaders concerned themselves almost exclusively with domestic, northern matters. There were new initiatives of political and social liberalization, a domestic "détente" characterized by relaxation of personal controls and travel restrictions, reduction of mandatory political meetings, release of political prisoners and others arbitrarily arrested, and "remarkable" extensions of free speech. By November, the Council of Ministers and the National Assembly were jointly working on legislation to "guarantee democratic liberties and the individual rights of the population," return the northern population to a "freer" life, end much of the arbitrary authority exercised by party cadres, and "reject all errors committed owing to 'stalinism.'"

Why did Hanoi respond so passively to the "killing" of the Geneva accords? Why did it not resume military struggle at that point, choosing instead to loosen its control in the DRVN? Beyond the litany of reasons previously discussed that militated against resumption of war, including the state of the armed forces, the wishes of allies, and the fear of American intervention, a main reason for those decisions was the general state of affairs in the North. Even if other circumstances had been more favorable, by mid-1956 DRVN authorities had too much on their plate at home to effectively support and sustain hostilities in the South. During Hanoi's Municipal Party Congress in July and August, "grumbles" about party policies on such issues as security restrictions and tax collection were widely and aggressively pressed. These episodes, combined with similar ones a month later during the Eighth National Congress of the CCP, which concluded with a call for greater measures of conciliation on the part of the party with the people of China, played a meaningful role in precluding Hanoi from resuming hostilities in the South and spurred détente in the DRVN.

Most consequential, however, was the fallout from the bungled handling of land reform. The party had so poorly managed that program that it caused both widespread hardship and resentment throughout the North. It distributed land to some eight million previously landless or poor peasants but created almost universal discontent due to the arbitrary methods used by cadres to classify households and reallocate land. Following party condemnation of the lack of zeal and forcefulness among cadres tasked with implementing the redistribution, many cadres had overreacted, manifesting "too much of the ruthlessness that was necessary and successful during the war" but which alienated people when applied indiscriminately in peacetime. At Quynh Luu in crisis-prone Nghe An Province, the political alienation and economic dislocation occasioned by the land reform campaign precipitated a rebellion. The denouement of that episode was bloody enough to compound the more general problems facing DRVN leaders trying to accomplish other basic social changes. Many of the rebels at Quynh Luu were Catholics, and many of the PAVN troops sent to suppress them were embittered southern regroupees. So serious were the problems caused by this and other, less serious crises provoked by the land redistribution program that Hanoi suspended it that summer, and Ho Chi Minh publicly apologized for its shortcomings.

At its Tenth Plenum, which exceptionally lasted for forty days, in September and October, the VWP Central Committee confirmed the party's commitment to the "democratization" these aforementioned actions represented, to the "North-first" policy that they amounted to, and to the current strategy in the South. "In our struggle to reunify the country, the consolidation of the North is the fundamental task," the committee decreed. A subsequent official communiqué repeated the line that the struggle for national reunification would be "long, difficult, complex." A British assessment noted that after the July 1956 deadline for elections passed, the party had not only failed to react but actually had "relegated the struggle for peaceful reunification to third place behind democratization and improving the conditions of workers, soldiers, cadres and functionaries" in the North.

The Tenth Plenum convened specifically to address and find remedies to the disastrous consequences of land reform and their debilitating effects on party morale. Among the policy innovations included in what foreign observers variously called détente, democratization, or "de-Stalinization" were a special review of land reform, new limits on police powers, suspension of special courts for arbitrary trials, reinstatement of party members who had been punished for lack of enthusiasm in enforcing land reform, and disciplining of members guilty of committing grave errors as a result of too much enthusiasm for enforcing party reforms. The massiveness of the land reform program's excesses is hinted at by the stature of the leading men who became casualties of this disciplining process. Chief among them was Truong Chinh, who had to resign his post as general secretary of the party. His closest associates, who, like him, had been zealous supporters of modeling Vietnam's land reform program after China's, were also demoted. They included Le Van Luong, who stepped down as both head of the powerful Party Organization Committee and vice minister of the interior; Hoang Quoc Viet, who lost his seat in the Politburo; and Ho Viet Thang, who was expelled from the Central Committee and compelled to give up his posts as vice minister of agriculture and vice chairman of the Land Reform Committee.

Possibly, the four men were scapegoats sacrificed for the serious errors of the leadership and its agents during the land reform campaign, and possibly, too, for the decision to suspend military struggle and accept the Geneva accords. Also, it is not improbable that the sacking of Truong Chinh, Luong, Viet, and Thang had to do with a tug-of-war among DRVN leaders pitting those who thought the party should move as slowly and cautiously in the North as it was in the South on the one hand, against their more doctrinaire comrades committed to the rapid socialist transformation of the North in accordance with orthodox Marxist-Leninist principles on the other. In May the British Consulate had speculated about the possible emergence of a cleavage dividing "ideologists" headed by Truong Chinh and unnamed "responsible ministers and administrators" led by Ho and Giap. "The former group might wish to press ahead with the 'revolution' [in the North] too fast for the taste of the latter, and, in the name of communist solidarity, might be willing to yield greater influence to China than nationalist sentiment would welcome," the consulate hypothesized. During the Tenth Plenum, the Central Committee in fact condemned "leftist deviations"-that is, dogmatism, a perversion typically associated with Chinese radical communism.

In the wake of the purges, Nguyen Duy Trinh, Le Thanh Nghi, Pham Hung, and Hoang Van Hoan were promoted to the Politburo, and Le Duc Tho replaced Le Van Luong as head of the Organization Committee. Until a suitable candidate for the position could be found and vetted, Ho Chi Minh took over as acting general secretary. Overall, these outcomes boded well for VWP militants. Trinh, Hung, and Hoan were no fans of the current strategic line. Tho, Le Duan's former deputy in the South and most trusted ally in the party, had joined the Politburo after his repatriation to the North in 1955. As Organization Committee head, he would become instrumental in facilitating the appointment of like-minded individuals to the Central Committee and the Politburo, setting the stage for the hijacking of party decision-making by militants in 1963-64. For the time being, however, Ho, Giap, and other supporters of strategic peace continued to hold sway over VWP policymaking.

In assessing the latest Central Committee plenum, French diplomats concluded quite correctly that the tendency toward détente in the North and caution in the South had not ceased. Immediately following the reshuffling in the Politburo, northern society actually experienced its most "democratic" period. The new, more liberal atmosphere encouraged freedom of thought and expression in all realms, a consequential result of which was the appearance of two new periodicals, Nhan van (Humanities) and Tham hoa (Hundred Flowers, a title borrowed from the Chinese movement of the same name, which encouraged criticism of leftist deviations by CCP leaders and cadres). Both periodicals featured items critical of the DRVN leadership and calling for reformist change. To illustrate, in Nhan van, Tran Duc Thao, a university professor, denounced bureaucratism, cliques, and the personality cult in the North. Until the state withered away, Thao suggested, only individual liberty and the freedoms of press, speech, and association could ensure popular democracy. "Following in the footsteps of Soviet and Eastern European revisionist thinkers," historian Peter Zinoman has written of this episode, Thao and other writers "contrasted the virtues of Leninism with the evils of Stalinism and advocated a fundamentalist return to the humanistic origins of Communist thought." This criticism of the VWP actually represented a "relatively mild manifestation of [a] global phenomenon."

As in China, it was not long before the criticism proved too much for party leaders. Under the supervision of To Huu, a dogmatic, rising member of the Central Committee who oversaw ideological conformity in cultural affairs, DRVN authorities suppressed the offending periodicals and jailed their contributors. Eventually, the Politburo reversed the entire democratization project. Possibly, the anticommunist revolt in Hungary in October and November influenced the about-face. Whatever its origins, the reversal underscored the pitfalls of flexible and conciliatory-essentially, moderate-policymaking, and put all its adherents, including Ho and Giap, on notice.

Le Duan and Southerners Agitate

That Hanoi refused to modify its revolutionary strategy after the July 1956 deadline passed validated the rather cynical belief of many below the seventeenth parallel that the primary function of the war against the French had been to further the hidden agenda of northern-based revolutionaries. That is, its real purpose all along had been to bring about the liberation of northern Vietnam only, and the fighting in the South was never more than "diversionary mischief for the French." Whether this was ever in fact the view of southern revolutionary leaders, many of them were "less than happy with the strategy thrust upon them by the Hanoi leadership" after 1954. Few in the South were more disappointed and frustrated with Hanoi at this point than Le Duan. Since joining the revolution, he had committed himself to national-not zonal, sectional, or partial-liberation. He also believed not only that violence constituted the most effective tool for combatting imperialism and its lackeys, but that the bloodshed it caused sanctified the revolutionary process. Thus the Politburo majority's decision to eschew armed struggle starting in July 1954 remained "inconceivable" to Le Duan, who had "made of the unity of the country" one of his reasons "to fight and to live." He, in fact, drafted his own fourteen-point "action plan" outlining a forward strategy of revolutionary militancy to support political struggle in the South and produce national reunification without further delay. Other southern party leaders with whom he conferred and shared his plan endorsed it, but Hanoi rejected it.

Undeterred, Le Duan privately challenged Hanoi's stance, telling other southern party leaders and members that "the enemy will not implement the Geneva Agreement," and that they should all prepare to "wrest back power through violence." According to historian Lien-Hang Nguyen, this member of the Politburo actually flouted the party's strategic line by mobilizing troops in preparation for a resumption of hostilities. Though he never publicly denounced the party line, Le Duan "fanned the revolutionary flames" in the South to "force his reluctant comrades in the North to go to war" against Saigon, she writes. Unless Hanoi acted decisively and soon, Le Duan thought, the communist movement in the South would vanish. Southerners had taken the struggle as far as they could under Hanoi's constraints. VWP membership in the South was now down to perhaps fifteen thousand and dwindling.

A few weeks before the next Central Committee plenum, scheduled for December, Le Duan sent a missive to Hanoi entitled De cuong cach mang mien Nam (Directions of the Southern Revolution). A revised version of his fourteen-point plan, the document proposed a reassessment of VWP strategy and a bold new course of action in the conduct of the revolution in the South. Its conclusions rested on Le Duan's analysis as well as the substance of recent discussions with other southern revolutionaries. His proposals had been vetted and revised at a conference of Nam Bo communist leaders in Phnom Penh before he submitted them to the party leadership. Le Duan's main hope was to "nudg[e] his comrades [in the North] to do more to support the revolution below the seventeenth parallel."

In his missive, Le Duan made the case for abandoning the party's current line and at once resuming armed struggle in the South, with comprehensive northern backing. Since he understood that key leaders in the North opposed this course of action, he worded his proposals carefully. He refrained from explicit denunciation of the passive response to Diem's violent assault on communists and noncommunist former members of the Viet Minh. Similarly, he did not attack Khrushchev's doctrine of peaceful coexistence, though he thought it deeply misguided and altogether unsuitable for Vietnam. Instead, Le Duan shared his thinking on revolutionary policy and the urgency of the situation in the South. "As long as the [global] capitalist economy survives, it will always scheme to provoke war, and there will still remain the danger of war," he wrote. In Vietnam, the Americans had schemed to partition the nation politically and were now prepared to maintain the status quo with violence. The "fundamental" problem facing the party was "how to smash the U.S.-Diem scheme of division and war-provocation." Economic competition, coexistence, and even negotiations were all well and good in certain settings, but none was viable in a situation in which the imperatives that drove the United States and Saigon defied the will of the South Vietnamese people. Those imperatives could not be accommodated without sacrificing the South and surrendering the aims of the revolution.

In view of those circumstances, Le Duan affirmed his position that there was "no other path" but armed struggle for the party and the people of the South. The "line of the revolutionary movement must be in accord with the inclinations and aspirations of the people. Only in that way can a revolutionary movement be mobilized and succeed." According to Le Duan, now was an "opportune moment" to unleash a wave of revolutionary violence because the Americans and their Saigon allies faced a window of vulnerability before the rising tide of U.S. military assistance became overwhelming. The "vile and brutal" character of the imperialists and their lackeys alienated southerners and isolated Washington internationally. Given the demonstrated willingness of the Vietnamese people properly led and inspired to fight, victory would not take long and the human and material costs would be tolerable. "Any revolutionary movement has times when it falls and times when it rises," he told Hanoi; "any revolutionary movement has times that are favorable for development and times that are unfavorable." The French had tried for years to eradicate the communist movement in Vietnam, he claimed, and failed. "It was not the Communists but the French imperialists themselves and their feudal lackeys who were destroyed on our soil." Now, the United States and its lackeys were trying to annihilate what was left of the revolutionary movement in the South. But communists could prevail again with a new strategy that incorporated a military component.

Le Duan's appeal struck a somewhat positive note in Hanoi. After lengthy deliberation, the Central Committee authorized southern communists to conduct targeted assassinations of "reactionary traitors" as well as terror bombings of institutions and locations associated with the Diem regime and the American presence. That fell far short of what Le Duan wanted, leading Ang Cheng Guan to conclude that after December 1956 Hanoi's revolutionary strategy remained "essentially unchanged." Still, the authorization to use violence, even on a very limited scale, represented a victory for Le Duan and other militants, as it constituted a tacit acknowledgment by Hanoi, the first of its kind, that political struggle alone was not working and armed struggle might be the answer to the party's challenges in the South.

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