Vietnam Will Win: The Repression-Resistance Spiral

Guerrillas in action, Central Highlands,1963, photo Wilfred Burchett.

When the full history of the struggle in Vietnam comes to be written and analyzed, it will reveal one of the clearest demonstrations of the principle that repression generates resistance, resistance in turn generates more repression, then comes more resistance at a higher level and so on. In this process there is a continuous upward spiral from police repression of political struggle to the highest stage with a foreign expeditionary force trying to protect a satellite government from people’s war. In the light of South Vietnamese experience, the repression-resistance principle must be qualified by the further principle that once the struggle is resolutely engaged there is a developing modification of the relation of forces in favor of the resistance.

Specifically, in South Vietnam one can follow a complete cycle of the repression-resistance principle from August 1, 1954, when police fired on a Saigon crowd demonstrating approval of the Geneva Agreements, to March 8, 1965, when the first detachment of U.S. Marines started disembarking at Da Nang. The expeditionary force is the highest form of repression, while people’s war is the highest form of resistance within a national context.

One can also follow a complete cycle of the changing relation of forces from 1959, when the first sparks of resistance appeared, to the NLF 1968 Lunar New Year general offensive with simultaneous nationwide uprisings by the South Vietnamese people.

Repression of revolutionary movements usually follows a set pattern everywhere. First there are arrests and then increasingly severe punishment is meted out to individual militants as a deterrent for others. If this cannot be done within a legal or constitutional framework, it is done by assassination squads as in Batista’s Cuba or, more commonly today, by CIA Special Forces teams in various third world countries. When terror against individuals fails to intimidate the popular movement, then mass terror, such as the burning of a village or two, is utilized; and if resistance continues the next step is the encirclement and blockading of the “infected areas.” This is followed by “mopping up” operations within those areas, first at company strength, gradually moving up through battalions to the deployment of entire divisions. The resistance forces, always hopelessly outnumbered and out gunned at first, gradually reduce the disparity by the use of primitive arms supplemented by those seized from the adversary.

Sao Nam,[1] a remarkable Vietnamese cadre who had lived in the Central Highlands among the ethnic minorities – whose customs and language he had adopted – and who led the commando team which executed the ear-filing Diem agent Chau,[2] summed up the early developments in the Quang Nam Quang Ngai area as follows:

“Before 1959, when we started to organize our real strength to try to find out where we stood, we asked people to wage a political struggle only around economic questions, living standards, democratic rights; against unpaid labor, conscription and savage beatings. The latter were especially frequent with pregnant women who were beaten until they miscarried and taunted, ‘one Vietcong less in the world.’ In such cases, although we sometimes had arms hidden away, we remained disciplined. We had to put up with it and do nothing. But when people saw that this passive attitude only encouraged the enemy, and when some of the tribes people in the mountains decided to resist with armed struggle, using their rudimentary weapons, we agreed with them. This was not yet a real armed struggle but a legal struggle using rudimentary weapons in self-defense, such as spiked traps to limit the enemy’s attempts to enter their villages.

“The strong faith of the people in our revolutionary leadership due to their experience with us in the anti-French resistance could be seen in their disciplined attitude in the period when armed struggle was not the official line; and then when it was applied partially in self-defense and later when we launched all-out armed struggle. But spiked traps, the method used against wild beasts, were a modest resistance measure to keep troops away from homes and villages.

“The enemy replied by setting up concentration camp villages, the forerunners of ‘strategic hamlets’ to isolate the masses from their political leadership. We opposed this by raising the mass struggle to a higher level. In addition to the passive form of traps around the villages, we started using firearms and moved down into the plains with armed propaganda units, punishing some of the most brutal despots – especially those who were too zealous in trying to move people out of their villages into the camps.

“Up to the end of 1959, the main form of struggle was political with some passive defense. Afterward there was a more active form of armed struggle, the enemy forcing us to move up from one level to another because of the heightened scale of their repression. The greater the terror they employed, the more widespread and violent became the resistance. Among the tribes-people in the highlands, for example, it was not only the able-bodied men who took part, but their women and even the aged and quite young children. The younger men used guns and crossbows, the older people made traps and spikes; the women dug pits and planted the spikes; children were posted everywhere as ‘eyes and ears’ and acted as liaison agents between villages. The women also took over food production and if the enemy came, they fought alongside their menfolk, keeping up the supply of poisoned arrows or actually using the crossbows if their husbands were killed or wounded. This was how the tribes people reacted to the type of repression involved in moving them out of their forests and mountains to be concentrated behind barbed wire in the plains.

“Resistance at one level was generated by the threats and attempts at concentration,” explained Sao Nam. “It moved up to a higher level when, by the use of overwhelming force, the enemy succeeded in herding tribes people in some areas into ‘strategic hamlets.’ Then the young men started escaping and with our help they began to organize into armed bands together with young men from their own or kindred tribes who had not yet been concentrated. They formed bands strong enough to attack the defenders and guards of the ‘strategic hamlets’ and release their relatives and fellow tribes people. They no longer thought only in terms of passive defense, but of weapons with which they could ambush the enemy when their troops came on punitive expeditions. Later they started to attack enemy troops in the posts that controlled the concentration camp hamlets.

“The Diem authorities threatened terrible reprisals against any families whose youth disappeared from the camps. They warned they would shoot fathers whose sons ran away. In 1960 they actually did shoot fathers, but we organized mass demonstrations against such reprisals. All the inmates of a camp would pour out to complain to the nearest authorities. ‘You’ve got armed forces, guards, watch towers, barbed wire,’ they would say. ‘But when the Vietcong come to take away our sons where are you? There is never a sign of your armed forces. You’ve got all sorts of weapons, we have only our bare hands. If we were back in our own villages such things would never happen. In the daytime the government forbids us to work in the fields out of sight of the camps; at night we must be inside the stockades. If our sons disappear, how can we know whether it is the Vietcong or the government that has grabbed them? Now you shoot their fathers. You punish us for your own guilt because you couldn’t protect us.’

“If such an argument did not produce an immediate change of heart,” said Sao Nam grimly, “then one of our armed propaganda units would execute the local despot responsible. As for those sons whose fathers were executed, they thought of only one thing – revenge. To kill as many of the enemy as possible. Family feelings and inter tribal solidarity are exceptionally strong among the ethnic minorities. They understood that to fight back it was necessary to use the enemy’s weapons as well as their own and that the heaviest blows could be given only by collective attacks.”

So the tribes people started forming platoons and companies, supplementing their crossbows and traps with modern weapons that fired farther, enabling them to meet the enemy on more than equal terms considering their unsurpassed knowledge of jungle lore and their natural aptitude for ambushes which made them formidable opponents once they learned to operate in disciplined units. After the first actions to liberate the “strategic hamlets,” there were terrible reprisals; in some cases the inmates were mowed down from the air as they fled and villages of the tribal groups involved were napalmed out of existence. But this only broadened the scope of the resistance movement and deepened the conviction that only by widespread armed struggle, coordinated with that of the Vietnamese in the plains and aimed at the overthrow of the regime responsible for such atrocities, could their freedom be assured.

From those provinces in the north all the way down to Ca Mau at the southernmost tip of the Mekong Delta, the story was the same. Repression everywhere had created a flash point at which the people could take it no longer; a point at which suffering and resentment exploded into resistance. There was no coordination of time and place in those first explosions.

In Ca Mau (now An Xuyen Province), an old revolutionary stronghold during the first resistance, the Diem military police machinery went into action earlier and with greater brutality then in most other areas. Diem’s American advisers demanded a quick and complete eradication of any vestiges of revolutionary forces or sentiment remaining there after Vietminh forces regrouped to the North.

According to Nguyen Tu Quang, a member of the NLF’s executive committee for the Ca Mau area, repressive measures which started immediately after the Vietminh withdrawal were greatly intensified in 1957. “Troops would surround a village,” said Quang, “and armed gangs would roam through the streets, shooting down former resistance workers wherever they found them – on the street, in their homes, working in the field without a word spoken, without pretext or charge. If a spectator uttered a word of protest, he was a ‘Vietcong’ and was killed on the spot. Women whose husbands had regrouped to the North were arrested and tortured until they signed printed slips divorcing their husbands. They had to remarry within a stipulated time as proof of their sincerity. On raids such as I have described, the armed gangsters would seek out such women and if they had not remarried within the stated time, they would invariably rape them on the spot. If they did not do it themselves they would just call for volunteers from the troops encircling the village, inviting them to take turns in front of everybody, so the woman’s shame would be greater.

Families whose sons had regrouped to the North were forced to sign petitions demanding their return. Not to sign was proof that the family was ‘Vietcong’ and at least one member would be dragged off for torture and probable execution. To have played a role in the resistance and not to have regrouped to the North was proof of treachery, so you were shot. To have regrouped to the North was proof that you were ‘Vietcong’ so your family members were shot. During such raids, youth were rounded up, given sticks and ordered to beat up anyone designated by the officer-in-charge as ‘Vietcong’ even if the victims were their own fathers and mothers. If they refused, as they mostly did, they were beaten up by the troops and dragged off under arrest. Such youths were rarely seen again.

“By mid-1957,” Quang continued, “about two of every three adults throughout the province had been beaten up, tortured and arrested for varying periods. Resistance staffed from around that time, at first individual and then collective resistance. Two individuals, Dinh Tien Huang and Ngo Van So, organized two resistance battalions in 1957, long before we ever thought of an NLF or Liberation Armed Forces. These men had no particular political or ideological outlook. They were just horrified like everyone else and were desperate to do something. Also they had arms. These two men are now historic figures. They had been with the armed sects,[3] but since their local leaders had sold out to Diem and they could not stand what was going on, Huang and So organized some of the rank-and-file members of the sects and together with some other militants who had fled their villages because of repression, they formed two resistance battalions. They started by killing off some of the worst Diem officials. When punitive forces were sent against them, the people helped them set up ambushes to wipe them out. They also started ambushing troops on their way to raid villages and attacked press gangs to release youths rounded up for military service. In general they did their best to safeguard the people’s interests. These two battalions had immediate and full support from the Ca Mau people. Although we old resistance cadres had no relations with those leaders during the anti-French war – they were in a different area and on the other side – we saw that they were now acting as genuine patriots and we began to think we should be doing the same thing.

“It was the terrible ferocity of the Diemist repression,” Quang insisted, “a repression that struck at the whole people, that brought these men over to the side of the people. The cruelty of the Diem officers, many of them sons of Catholic landlords from the North, made a big impression on Dinh Tien Hoang and Ngo Van So. The enemy started large-scale mopping up operations to deal with these battalions and this brought the people out in a higher form of mass struggle, the embryo of the future NLF. As the enemy’s repression moved to a higher level, there were huge demonstrations and militant political struggles that were transformed into generalized armed struggle.”

In Ca Mau a regional resistance organization was founded several months before the NLF was officially established. Once the NLF was set up, Nguyen Tu Quang went on to explain, from the first moment on, the tactics of the resistance in Ca Mau were to exploit the contradiction between concentration and dispersal of enemy troops.

“When the U.S.-Diem forces concentrated in one area for mopping up operations,” Quang continued, “they had to empty some neighboring areas, and so our forces went into action there, wiping out posts, liberating occupied villages and helping the inhabitants set up self defense forces. Once our peasants experience life behind barbed wire, working under the guns of the Saigon troops, and then break out, they will go to great lengths to prevent being rounded up again. They were forced to band all sorts of fortifications in many of the villages, supposedly against the ‘Vietcong’ but actually against themselves. Once the Saigon troops were chased out, these fortifications were strengthened and the villages were turned into self defense fortresses against the U.S.-Saigon troops.

“The latter launched operations on an ever larger scale, but this only resulted in our coordinating our actions with neighboring areas and fusing our forces into larger units. We knew that Harkins’ tactics were aimed at achieving a high degree of concentration and mobility by abandoning smaller posts. Thus he also hoped to stop us from getting arms when we seized such posts. But this was a dangerous policy for the enemy. We correctly estimated that it would expose him to destruction on a still greater scale. Instead of helping ourselves to arms from the posts, we would pick up even more of them on the battlefield this is how we saw it and this is how it worked out.

“After Diem was overthrown, Harkins got his way. In our part of the Mekong Delta alone, Harkins withdrew Saigon troops from 64 outposts which had garrisons of less than 150 men, most of them from our Ca Mau area. His aim was to accumulate 15,000 men and create three or more mobile brigades as striking forces to encircle and wipe out our units. In the first half of 1964, two very big attacks were launched into Ca Mau, each with five battalions.

“The troops burned down some villages, rounded up young people in the fields for military service, shooting down any who resisted. But in the main aim of destroying our forces, Harkins failed. The result of the mass brutality was to drive many more people into our forces. Every able-bodied man and woman saw that the only road to survival was to get hold of a weapon and fight back We got more recruits than we could handle after those attacks and we had no difficulty in expanding our units into battalions and soon we were able to fuse these into a regiment. This was in addition to our regional forces and self-defense guerrillas.

“When the enemy sent his multi-battalion force, the puppet commanders were astounded to find they had to deal with our regular battalions, operating in coordination with our local forces. We hit them very hard, at places and times of our own choosing.

“We think,” continued Nguyen Tu Quang, “that it is not feasible for the enemy to achieve a higher degree of concentration and accumulate large mobile reserves. Harkins will be forced to disperse his troops to try to bring more territory under his control in so called ‘pacification.’ Otherwise he loses his sources of manpower – not to speak of Delta rice. But this will also be dangerous for Harkins because even posts reestablished at battalion level will be wiped out just as we wiped out those at platoon and company level before. Our forces have developed much more quickly than those of the enemy. We think that the contradiction between dispersal and concentration will continue to frustrate the enemy at no matter what level the U.S.-Saigon Command decides to operate, even if U.S. combat troops are brought in. Our forces will continue to expand and develop in a rhythm necessary to handle whatever tactics the enemy employs.

“With the growth of the people’s movement, the enemy will have to withdraw from more and more outposts. The intensification of the mass movement is a vital factor in the demoralization of enemy troops. The fact is, the greater the atrocities carried out against the people by the Saigon forces, the lower the morale of these troops sinks because, apart from their own consciences, they feel themselves enveloped by hatred and contempt. The best of them are disgusted at the sort of things they have to do and they all realize that other units of their army are almost certainly committing the same sort of atrocities against their own families, in their own villages.

“The morale of our troops, on the contrary, grows higher because of the enemy’s atrocities. They realize more than ever that they are really the protectors of the people, the avengers of the people. They are surrounded by affection and confidence; they hear pleas from everyone to punish and exterminate the enemy, to avenge their relatives, friends and compatriots who have been massacred, to free those who have been arrested. They feel themselves to be liberators in the truest sense. If the Americans send their own troops, such feelings will increase still further.

“At this moment,” concluded Nguyen Tu Quang, “as General Harking tries to form his new mobile striking forces, the demoralized Saigon troops are the poorest raw material he could find. They have little fight left in them in the Delta area, at least. This is linked to the fact that for years they have felt guilty for their part in the repression of their own people at the orders of traitors and their U.S. bosses. They have provoked powerful, well-organized resistance among our Ca Mau people and throughout the whole Mekong Delta. By what we hear, this is true for the whole country. This will eventually lead to the total defeat of the U.S.-Saigon forces. Low morale among their troops is already a decisive factor in the failure of all the schemes dreamed up so far by the U.S. generals and their Saigon puppets. This will continue to be the case because they always appear in the role of oppressors of the people; our forces always appear in the role of the defenders and avengers of the people.”

The cycle of repression-resistance was modified only by its intensification once U.S. combat troops were committed. Scruples which the Saigon troops felt in shooting down their own countrymen and burning their villages and rice stocks, thus destroying the villagers’ means of subsistence, were thrown to the winds by the invaders. Repression took on a new quality and so did resistance. Added to repression by a class and a regime came repression by a foreign state, applied with overtones of racism.

“Normally the soldiers going over there are given a short orientation on things you should and shouldn’t do in Vietnam… Don’t pat people on the back and things like that. But the soldiers generally ignore this because to the soldiers the Vietnamese people are whores to sleep with and servants to supply the cold beer and Coca Cola. They’re the people who make the beds and sweep the floors and shine the boots. But they aren’t thought of as real people. Their status is that of a Negro in the United States, in say 1850…

“I’d rather torture one Vietcong than have one of my friends die because we didn’t get some vital information” – this was a very common rationalization… [of American soldiers taking part in interrogation by torture].

“It’s so horrifying to recall an interrogation where you beat the fellow to get an effect, then you beat him out of anger and then you beat him out of pleasure…”

This was how Peter Martinsen,[4] at the 2nd session of the International War Crimes Tribunal, described the typical attitude of American troops towards the Vietnamese. As an example, Martinsen told of a helicopter gunner who “liked to kill people on the ground, but only after playing with them like a cat plays with a mouse, chasing them ’round…”

Dr. Erik Wulff,[5] who followed Martinsen on the witness stand, told of how American helicopter pilots took nurses from the West German hospital ship, Heligoland, on weekend man-hunting flights, amusing the girls by shooting down Vietnamese peasants like rabbits, until a new commander of the hospital ship banned such “sport” for his ship’s nurses. Dr. Wulff, from his wealth of experience, summed up the evolution of the outlook of American troops as follows:

“Humiliated by their setbacks, there is a changed attitude of the American troops at the end of their third or fourth month in Vietnam. When they arrive, they are often full of goodwill, their heads still full of phrases they have learned – they are here to protect the Vietnamese people from a Communist takeover. But at the end of a certain time, they realize they have no friends, except among a thin layer of profiteers and collaborators. No one wants them. No one responds to this abstract affection they have brought with them to Vietnam. The paternalism which they wanted to bestow on the Vietnamese is transformed into aggressive racism. They start to call every Vietnamese a ‘gook,’ a racist epithet invented for slant eyed people. There is a sort of cob apse of the structure of theoretical justification which the Americans took upon themselves and which is translated into acts of blind fury.

“Prisoners are slaughtered… Another technique of which Americans have boasted in my presence consists of throwing live prisoners out of helicopters – obviously without parachutes…

“More and more of such acts of blind rage are committed, entire villages are burned… During these past two years it has become obvious to almost everyone that what is happening in Vietnam is no longer, in fact it never has been, a civil war amongst Vietnamese, but a war of invasion waged by the Americans against Vietnam. This is not a new element, but with the presence of 500,000 Americans it has become a visible and incontrovertible fact for everybody…”

David Tuck[6] gave evidence of an American gunner throwing a bound Vietnamese prisoner out of a helicopter in which he was travelling and said that standard orders in his [25th] Division were to kill all prisoners. He described the outlook of U.S. troops toward Vietnamese as follows:

“Shortly after we heard we were going to Vietnam, we were given orientation – little pamphlets saying we were fighting to save the Vietnamese from Communism. We should always treat the Vietnamese as equals… Everyone went along with that, but then when we got to Vietnam, it was quite a different story. All at once officers referred to the Vietnamese as ‘gooks.’ We were told not to associate with Vietnamese, whereas before we got over there we were told to make friends, because unless we win the minds of the people we’ll lose the war. But once we were there, our officers told us otherwise – the only good Vietnamese was a dead one; they were no good, they wouldn’t fight. So on March 23 [1967] when we went into our first real combat operation, our commander, Lt. Colonel Saul A. Jackson, gave us what he considered an inspiring speech. He said: ‘I want you to keep those Vietnamese on the run so much, so hard that I want to see the earth running with Vietnamese blood.’ Everyone was surprised because before then we thought we should distinguish between Vietnamese and Vietcong. We were supposed to be saving the Vietnamese from the Vietcong. So everyone remarked how bloodthirsty that man was. The officers referred to them as ‘gooks’ and we were told to consider all of them as no good and the only good one was a dead one…”

What was the consequence of all this? According to Wulff, there was “… a growing realization, especially among the youth, that the NLF is the only organization existing in Vietnam capable of waging the resistance struggle. The most important thing is… that the Americans are now producing conscious nationalists ready to fight against them.”

The sadistic rage of Americans toward the “Vietcong” spread over into contempt for the Saigon troops, who were considered cowards. Such attitudes developed into blind and violent hatred for everything having to do with Vietnam and its people. A foretaste of things to come and the logical development of such an outlook was American helicopter gunners hovering over the rooftops in Saigon, Hué and a dozen other cities, causing the wholesale slaughter of Vietnamese civilians; dive bombers blasting residential quarters in Saigon-Cholon and artillery gunners reducing whole city blocks to ruins in Hué; U.S. Marines and parachutists fighting within major Vietnamese cities, shooting at everything that moved, massacring entire households in what was supposed to be “their” territory, turning all of Vietnam and its people into targets for American bombs and bullets. This, the ultimate expression of the repression-resistance principle, could only generate intensified Vietnamese armed struggle against the U.S. expeditionary force.

The 1968 Lunar New Year attacks ensured that the relation of forces would continue to change in favor of the NLF. Unprecedented numbers of Saigon troops deserted following the attacks, some coming over to the NLF, others going back to their villages. Indiscriminate American bombing, shelling and strafing of the civilian population inspired young people by the thousands to join the ranks of the revolutionary armed forces. This was an irreversible process, decisively speeding up the changing balance of forces. Battlefield losses in the first phase of the attack were more than compensated by numbers of urban youth who flocked to the NLF colors, armed with modern weapons which had just been seized by NLF commando groups.

The relation of forces was not only a question of troops and arms, but also of political forces. For the first time millions of urban dwellers saw the face of war with their own eyes: ferocious repression by a government that bombed its own capital on the one hand and heroic resistance on the other. Those who had hesitated and vacillated for years now began to make their choice or to change their position.[7] They took a stand for U.S. withdrawal, for a really independent South Vietnam, for peace by negotiations with the NLF and for a coalition government with the NLF.

Politically, too, the scale was tilted heavily in favor of the NLF, which has proven it was the only force capable of defeating the invaders and their quislings. While the forces of repression and resistance confronted each other at the highest level, it was possible to visualize the end of the long hard road of resistance.


[1] See Vietnam, Inside Story of the Guerrilla War.

[2] See Chapter 5.

[3] The Binh Xuyen, Cao Dai and Hoa Hao sects, originally armed by the French to fight against the Vietminh, were later crushed by Diem as part of his plan to consolidate his regime and eliminate French influence. Survivors of the Diem attacks fled to areas west and south of Saigon. As part of the French forces they had obviously not been required to regroup to the North. They still had their arms with them and later on they were valuable recruits for the NLF’s armed forces.

[4] American interrogation expert, referred to in Chapter 8.

[5] West German doctor with six years’ service in Hué mentioned in Chapter 9.

[6] Private (first class) David Tuck.

[7] The Alliance of National, Democratic and Peace Forces, for example, included persons who had served in high government posts in the years just previous to the events of early 1968.

NEXT: Chapter 11 – Unity and the Minorities

Wilfred Burchett was an Australian journalist, who covered World War II, the Korean War and the war in Vietnam. His many books include Shadows of Hiroshima, Memoirs of a Rebel Journalist and Vietnam Will Win. Burchett died in 1983.