America’s Mandarin 12

But disregard for them imposed severe hardships on the Communist activists in the south, thousands of whom were being arrested and, in many instances, executed by Diem’s troops and police. They ap¬pealed for help, and their case was supported in Hanoi by Le Duan, general secretary of the Lao Dong party and a native of central Viet¬nam. He had covertly gone south to analyze the situation, and he returned to argue that the already tattered Vietcong structure would be completely wiped out unless it resorted to violence. Indeed, Viet¬cong groups in parts of the Mekong Delta were then assaulting gov¬ernment units in defiance of Hanoi’s orders. As a result, the northern leaders issued new instructions, authorizing limited “armed struggle” in the south as a way of intensifying the “political struggle.” The directive did not yet call for guerrilla warfare. It signified, in simple language, that the Vietcong could now terrorize Diem’s officials and other “traitors”—the assassination campaign to focus particularly on honest hamlet chiefs and schoolteachers whose popularity represented a threat to the Communists.
Statistics reflected the toll of Vietcong terrorism. Between 1959 and 1961, the number of South Vietnamese government officials assassi¬nated soared from twelve hundred to four thousand a year, and the murders evoked precisely the reaction from Diem that the Vietcong wanted. Predictably perceiving the problem in security terms, Diem appointed army officers to manage the rural bureaucracy, so that by 1962 thirty-six out of forty-one province chiefs were military men; soldiers pervaded the administration down to the district level. Many of them, northern Catholics or natives of central Vietnam whom Diem could trust, were alien to their areas of responsibility. Not only did they neglect the economic and social needs of the local population, they operated as if they were in enemy territory—living in fortified garrisons protected by blockhouses and barbed wire, venturing into the countryside only under heavy guard, often accompanied by Amer¬ican advisers whose presence lent substance to Vietcong denunciations of the “My-Diem clique,” a slogan standing for the “neocolonial” collaboration between America and Diem. The villages, open to Diem’s troops by day, were run by the Vietcong at night, which meant that the regime could not rely on their loyalty. One of Diem’s aides confessed at the time: “Except for the color of our skin, we are no different from the French.”
In December 1960, Hanoi decided that the moment had arrived to announce a new organization in the south, the National Liberation Front. The classic Communist ploy was reminiscent of the formation of the Vietminh twenty years before. As a “front,” its aim was to bring together a disparate collection of elements opposed to Diem: various peasant, youth, religious, cultural and other associations founded by the Vietminh during the war against the French; and remnants of the Cao Dai, Hoa Hao and Binh Xuyen, which had retreated into their sanctuaries in the Mekong delta after their defeat by Diem five years earlier. As a southern movement, it was intended to serve to underpin Hanoi’s claim that North Vietnam was not vi¬olating the Geneva agreement by sending forces into the south. Its chairman, Nguyen Huu Tho, was a French-educated Saigon lawyer who had demonstrated against France during the early 1950s and had later been jailed by Diem for mildly left-wing activities. His benign middle-class credentials were supposed to attract a wide spectrum of supporters, but he was merely a figurehead. The front’s real leadership resided in the People’s Revolutionary party and the Liberation army, its Communist components, which took their orders from the polit- buro in Hanoi.
But to label the National Liberation Front as simply a satellite of Ho Chi Minh’s regime, as American spokesmen were to do, was to miss a key point. For there were serious divergences between the northern and southern Communists in a society as pluralistic as Viet¬nam, and perhaps they could have been exploited. Following the re¬unification of Vietnam in 1975, the southerners became increasingly antagonized by northern carpetbaggers—an indication that Vietnam¬ese regionalism was strong. But the entire history of Vietnam is a series of lost opportunities that might have averted the worst.

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