America’s Mandarin 8

The movement at that stage was far more clandestine than ever, since Diem’s forces scoured the area more thoroughly than the French had done. Police and informers pervaded every village, and many remembered Bo from his Vietminh days. He assumed an alias, Hai Cao, or “second tall one, ” a reference to his height and to his status as second son in his family, and he operated through an intricate command system for the sake of security. Nobody knew the names of the entire apparatus. Bo’s contact in the village under his supervision was one agent who communicated with another agent, and so forth through the network. Nor did Bo ever meet his superior, who passed him messages through an intermediary. His responsibility, as it had been before, was propaganda. But gradually, as the war intensified, he joined a squad armed with various French, American and German weapons, most of them acquired by ambushing government self- defense units. “Our long-range objective,” Bo told me, “was to lib¬erate South Vietnam. First, however, we had to liberate the nearest hamlet.”
Bo was eventually arrested, along with three other cadres, as they carried two million piasters in Vietcong tax revenues across the Me¬kong Delta to a clandestine headquarters in Tayninh province, adjacent to Cambodia. But Vietminh veterans like him became the nucleus of the National Liberation Front, which the Communists organized at the end of 1960. Diem’s publicists gave it a pejorative label, the Viet¬cong, or Vietnamese Communists, and the name stuck.
In May 1957, Diem paid a state visit to the United States, where President Eisenhower hailed him as the “miracle man” of Asia. The remains of the Vietminh in the south had “disintegrated,” Diem as-serted, and he was not entirely wrong. At that stage, he might have sealed his control over his half of Vietnam had he not made a series of errors that revealed the true nature of his regime and his own lack of understanding of the challenge that confronted him.
His government had become a narrow oligarchy composed of his brothers and other relatives. The brothers rivaled each other for power and influence and operated through separate factions that resembled traditional Vietnamese secret societies. Nhu, for example, ran the Can Lao Nhan Vi Dang, or Personalist Labor party, whose members, many of them Catholics, held key posts in the government bureaucracy. His undercover police were directed by Dr. Tran Kim Tuyen, a northern Catholic who also directed an intelligence network with the guidance of CIA advisers. But Nhu’s men could not intrude into central Viet¬nam, the fiefdom of brother Can, a virtual warlord. The two brothers competed through their business agents for the rice trade and American aid contracts. Nephews, cousins and in-laws, granted special licenses because of family connections, underwrote the Ngo clan with money as well, and Diem’s brother Thuc, the bishop, had a hand in making investments on behalf of the Catholic church. As much as they squab¬bled among themselves, however, the brothers stuck together under pressure, and Diem’s refusal to delegate power beyond his kinship circle limited his popular appeal.
From the outset, Diem sought the support of the affluent land- owners of the Mekong Delta, whose families were influential in Sai¬gon, and he balked at imposing a rigorous agrarian reform program there that might have won him peasant sympathies. He brought in prominent American experts like Wolf Ladejinsky, who had planned successful land reforms in Japan and Taiwan, but he discarded their advice. He permitted landlords to retain large holdings, so that little acreage was available for distribution. In Long An province, adjacent to Saigon, for example, fewer than one thousand out of thirty-five thousand tenants received property. The minister in charge of the program, himself a big landlord, delayed its implementation. Even worse, Diem antagonized peasants by requiring them to pay for land that they had been given free by the Vietminh during the war against the French, and the Communists capitalized on his crude policy.
Another blunder at the time was the creation of Khu Tru Mat, known as agrovilles, farm communities designed mainly to isolate the rural population from the Communists. These centers, like the stra-tegic hamlets later, showed Diem’s conventional misconception of the problem as simply one of security. In any event, they were built and managed in such a way that they alienated peasants, as I learned on a trip during the spring of 1959 to Vi Thanh, in the heart of the Mekong Delta.
Guerrillas were then beginning to snipe at travelers, and I drove into the countryside accompanied by a pair of sleepy South Vietnamese soldiers for protection. The area, as flat as a billiard table, seemed peaceful on that warm morning: peasants tended their rice stalks and children splashed in the irrigation ditches that separated the flooded fields. The agroville near Vi Thanh, when we reached it, looked mag¬nificent compared to the scrubby villages along the road. Flanking a canal, it was enclosed by a bamboo fence, and neat rows of thatched- roof huts had been laid out. Its director, an army major by the name of Tran Cuu Thien, showed me its school, dispensary and power plant, which would furnish peasants with electricity for the first time in their lives, and he described plans to give them incomes between harvests by setting up cottage industries. He boasted that he had com¬pleted the project in fifty days on Diem’s personal instructions, and it was plainly the kind of place to warm the hearts of visiting American congressmen. In reality, it was a disaster.
For one thing, peasants assigned to the agroville had been uprooted from their native villages and ancestral graves, and their traditional social pattern disrupted, for reasons that they could not fathom. Worse still, Major Thien had rushed to comply with Diem’s order by mo¬bilizing twenty thousand peasants to construct a project that could only accommodate six thousand. Thus, fourteen thousand men and women had been compelled to abandon their crops and work without pay for others. Major Thien explained to me that the program would educate peasants in their “civic duties.” In their eyes, however, it was merely forced labor, and though they did not shift their support to the Vietcong immediately, their attitudes toward the Diem regime soured.

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