America’s Mandarin 6

When Ho Chi Minh returned to Hanoi in October 1954, after eight years in the jungle, his problems differed from those that faced Diem. There were no fractious sects and gangsters to challenge his authority. The French army was leaving the north in orderly fashion, and the massive flight of the Catholics to the south made his control easier, since their fiery anti-Communism would not nag him. He could also count on the fidelity of his soldiers and civilian cadres, whose loyalty had been tested during the struggle against France. But he was beset by severe economic difficulties.
The war against the French had devastated the north. Railways had been disrupted, bridges blown up, buildings destroyed. On Diem’s orders, departing anti-Communist Vietnamese had dismantled harbor installations, post offices, libraries and hospitals and stripped factories of tools and machinery. Most critically, the separation from the south deprived the north of its traditional source of rice. In 1955, only emergency rice imports from Burma, financed by the Soviet Union, prevented a recurrence of the disastrous famine of a decade before.
Had Ho been as realistic in coping with the economy as he was in waging war, he would have offered incentives to his people to spur production. Instead, motivated by ideology, he proceeded to cate¬gorize peasants in five classes, ranging from “landlord” to “farm worker”; the idea was insane. In contrast to the south, where large holdings were common, very few peasants in the north possessed more than three or four acres. But the Communist leaders concluded that “landlords” and other “feudal” elements represented 5 percent of the rural population, and they dispatched platoons of cadres to liq¬uidate them.
Starting in 1955, cadres set up “agricultural reform tribunals” and zealously began to fulfill their quotas. In a village of two thousand inhabitants, for example, they had to arraign twenty alleged “land¬lords.” The program touched off atrocities throughout the country. Anxious to avoid indictment, peasants trumped up charges against their neighbors, while others accused their rivals of imaginary crimes. Anyone suspected of having worked for the French was executed as a “traitor,” and other victims included those who had shown insuf¬ficient ardor toward the Vietminh. The cadres, under pressure, singled out alleged culprits on no pretext at all. One group of cadres, reporting that it could discover only two “landlords” in a certain village, was ordered back to find six more, which it did by selecting a half dozen peasants at random. Many cadres themselves seized the property of the condemned, or spared their own relatives.
The Communists have never published an official count of those killed in the land reform, but thousands died. And thousands more were interned in forced labor camps. In August 1956, shortly after the campaign, Ho publicly confessed that “errors have been com¬mitted” and promised that “those who have been wrongly classified as landlords and rich peasants will be correctly reclassified. ” The Com¬munists dutifully echoed his admission, disclosing that even loyal Vietminh veterans had been unjustly tried and executed. Thousands of survivors were released and sent back to their villages amid ex¬hortations to the nation to forgive and forget. But tensions continued as victims of the repression took revenge against the cadres who had persecuted them. In several areas, peasants refused to obey directives, and North Vietnam foundered in an atmosphere of suspicion and apprehension. Describing the mood, the official Hanoi newspaper, Nhan Dan, wrote that “brothers no longer dare to visit each other, and people dare not greet each other in the street.”
Ho’s appeal came too late to prevent an eruption of indignation in his native Nhge An province, where peasants had spontaneously defied the French twenty-six years before. The new uprising started on No¬vember 2, 1956, when local peasants presented a protest petition to Canadian members of the International Control Commission, the group created at the Geneva conference to monitor the armistice. Soldiers dispersed the peasants with rifle butts, and by nightfall, vio¬lence was sweeping through the province. Ho responded exactly as the French had to the earlier insurrection. He sent a division of troops out to quell the disorders, and they killed or deported some six thou-sand peasants. The world, then focused on the Hungarian uprising against Soviet domination, paid no attention to the episode. Nor did the International Control Commission, which included Indian and Polish representatives sympathetic to the Communist regime, inves¬tigate the incident thoroughly. But Ho, realizing that his own repu¬tation for moderation was at stake, introduced further liberal measures—conceding, however, that they were inadequate to repair the damage. “One cannot awaken the dead,” he said. Giap made a similar mea culpa: “We attacked on too large a front, and, seeing enemies everywhere, resorted to terror, which became far too wide¬spread. . . . Instead of recognizing education to be the first essential, we relied exclusively on organizational methods such as disciplinary punishments, expulsion from the party, executions. . . . Worse still, torture came to be regarded as normal practice.”
The regime, seeking a scapegoat, placed the blame on a veteran Communist figure, Truong Chinh, and dismissed him from the post of general secretary of the Lao Dong, the Workers party. But he retained his membership in the party’s Politburo; the leadership thus acknowledged obliquely its collective responsibility for the brutal cam¬paign. Years later, the Vietnamese Communists would contend that they had been pushed into the program by Chinese advisers, who had imposed a devastating land reform effort on China a couple of years before.
The Hanoi government, having expected the 1956 nationwide elec¬tions to reunify the country, had transferred about a hundred thousand southern Vietminh activists to the north in conformity with the Ge¬neva accords, leaving others in their native areas. After Diem reneged on the elections, Ho told the southern comrades to be patient. The policy was first to “firmly consolidate the north,” they were informed, which emphasized the Soviet party line: “All conflicts can be resolved by peaceful negotiations. ” So the Vietminh militants in the south were exposed to Diem’s retribution. As early as January 1956, having beaten his adversaries in Saigon, Diem launched » drive against Vietminh remnants in the countryside, his offensiye a mirror image of the repres¬sion then going on in the north.
A “Vietminh suspect” might be anyone who had fought against the French or even counted a relative in the resistance. As in the north, numbers of innocent peasants were denounced by jealous neighbors or arrested by corrupt officials who coveted their property. Prisoners were tried not in formal courts but by “security committees” headed by province chiefs personally appointed by Diem. Denied counsel, the defendants were often tortured.

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