By the end of the 1954-59 period of peaceful struggle against the Diem repression, former communists who survived were either in hiding in the jungle or were living quite literally underground in holes and tunnels, fed by some devoted peasants, emerging at night to visit a few trusted friends and trying to keep alive some sparks of hope for better days.
Out of 32 members of the former executive committee for the Saigon-Gia Dinh area, only one survived. In Phu Yen out of the 23 members of the provincial committee, there was only one survivor and none at all from the district committees. The situation in Phu Yen was typical, especially for the central provinces controlled by Ngo Dinh Can. The extermination of such a very high proportion of top Communist Party cadres was part of the terrible price paid for loyally observing the line of peaceful political struggle. In leading this struggle, the cadres inevitably exposed themselves and were marked down for eventual extermination.
Once armed resistance started in 1959, surviving communists and other militants of the anti-French resistance war formed an “Association of Former Resistance Fighters,” and after the founding of the NLF in December 1960, the Association was transformed into the People’s Revolutionary Party (PRP), which together with the Democratic Party (founded in 1945) and the Radical Socialist Party (founded in 1960) comprise the three parties that constituted the political backbone of the NLF leadership.
In February 1964 and again in February 1965, I had lengthy discussions with leaders of the PRP, including Tran Nam Trung, assistant secretary general, and Tran Bach Dang, a member of the Central Committee responsible for questions of propaganda. At these meetings the PRP view on the war and how it would develop was set out in detail.
At the first meeting in 1964, Tran Nam Trung pointed out that the United States was “rapidly approaching the fullest development of special war and it is possible that within the next 12 months or so, they will go over to limited war,” using their own troops. We think that even if the Americans put in 500,000 troops we can beat them.
“If we base ourselves on the Algerian experience,” he continued, “we see that even if they put in a million troops we can beat them, though they could cause us plenty of difficulties. There are threats to attack the DRV. It is madness to speak of attacking the DRV, but it would be even greater madness for the Americans to do it. They will never get anywhere with bluff and threats against us. They use threats as an ace card; they ought to throw it away. If the Americans intervene in a small way, a small defeat awaits them; if they intervene in a big way, a big defeat awaits them.
“This is not bluff on our part. We have fought for nearly five years and we get stronger every year. We are ready for a ten-year struggle. If Maxwell Taylor [then chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff] says he is ready for five more years, then we are ready for 15… We will fight as long as necessary until we get peace, independence, neutrality and democracy, the four cardinal points of the NLF program. The leaders not only of the NLF but also of our party support these four points. This is not a propaganda tactic. It is based on scientific analysis of the situation. Communists are preponderant in the armed struggle, but we completely accept and support Front policy, including neutrality. The Front encompasses all parties, including ours, and all of us are for the policy of neutrality. The Front policy on this is also our policy.”
At this time I could not help wondering whether the PRP leaders were not overestimating the resistance potential of the NLF. The idea of a 10 or 15-year struggle and standing up to half a million U.S. troops seemed somewhat far-fetched. But more than four years have passed since then, the Americans already have over half a million troops in the South and it would be a bold man indeed who would say the NLF is not capable of fighting on for another five or ten years. At that time I asked how the PRP leadership saw future developments and also to what extent they considered the experiences in South Vietnam valid for other countries where wars of national liberation might be waged. This is the essence of what each of the half-dozen top leaders had to say on these points:
“We are fighting against a new type of imperialism, neocolonialism. This is the most perfected type of imperialism known till now, the most complete from all points of view. We cannot yet draw final conclusions, but the leadership of our party is convinced that with our own forces and within our own conditions, we can win this struggle.
“A big task has been imposed but if we can solve this, it will be an historic victory. Vital for this is a correct evaluation of the enemy and his intentions. The enemy’s strength – everyone sees this clearly. His weaknesses are not so apparent. The essence of the matter is a correct evaluation of the strength of U.S. imperialism. To see only the might and strength of the enemy is to make an incorrect, unbalanced evaluation. It is not easy for all Vietnamese to evaluate this correctly, but we are convinced that we have now made a correct evaluation, not based on books but on practice; not as seen from the outside but as seen from the inside, based on our day-to-day experiences and struggle we cannot say whether our conclusions are valid elsewhere, but we are now convinced that they are correct for Vietnam.
“After the Geneva Agreements we had no armed forces, no state power; the enemy held everything in his hands and for five years the position was very unfavorable for us. We were in a precarious position, one of retreat. In 1959, after we had reached our lowest point, we decided to launch an armed struggle, even though this had to be started at first against a powerful, well-armed enemy by people without arms in their hands and mostly locked up behind barbed wire in the concentration camps called strategic hamlets. We realized quite well that U.S. imperialism was very powerful and that this was our real enemy. But we knew that our own strength was with the people, who would never resign themselves to living under U.S. imperialism.
“So we rose up in 1959 and our experience till now has been that though it is very difficult to fight against U.S. imperialism, with correct leadership it is impossible not to win. Today we control two-thirds of the territory and about half the population.
“Our struggle is led exclusively by the people, by the forces we have set up ourselves. None of the leaders of the Front or the PRP has ever left South Vietnam during the past ten years. Outside aid could help us but the efforts of the South Vietnamese people themselves must always be the decisive factor.
“We consider that our struggle must take a political-military form – the most suitable for the South Vietnamese people in the present concrete situation. We don’t say this is good for all people, for all countries, under all conditions. In general, there are two forms of revolutionary struggle:
“Armed insurrection in the towns in which the workers rise up with the help of elements among the bourgeoisie and the existing armed forces. Lenin used this method in the October revolution. After seizing power in the towns, then comes the turn of the countryside. An insurrection of such a type requires a long period of education of the masses, a long period of political struggle in the towns.
“Armed struggle in the countryside, organization of armed forces for a long struggle. Gradual encirclement of the towns and finally their seizure.
“These are the two typical forms. But one must take into account the specific conditions in each country. Our resistance war against the French was of the second type. We had broadly achieved the encirclement of the towns but the Geneva ceasefire was signed before we actually liberated them.
“The fundamental question is the seizure of power and our present armed struggle is one of the ways of seizing power. We have the necessary, basic conditions to wage this new form of struggle. We use the violence of the masses against the violence of the enemy. We use political struggle, as well as other legal forms of struggle, to deepen the contradictions within the enemy ranks.
“How do we conceive overall strategy in our struggle? First, the enemy appears this time in the form of neo-colonialisms, that is imperialism, dominating our country through puppets – a teleguided system of control. They use slogans of democracy, independence, freedom. Thus the puppets have some relative independence if compared to the classical form of colonialism. But this also permits us to wage legal forms of struggle against local government and its organs, and the South Vietnamese people are very experienced in this long, patient form of struggle.
“Second, the South Vietnamese people are politically conscious to a high degree and this is expressed in the form of their organizations and the spirit of their organizations. Ours is not a spontaneous but an organized movement although there were elements of spontaneity in the first acts of armed resistance. We have organized an army of political struggle.
“Third, the South Vietnamese masses and their political leadership see that for final, total victory, we have to modify the relation of forces. We have many troops, how many workers and students? The puppet troops can never be the basis for launching an insurrection. At a certain point, they will not resist us; some will change sides, but we cannot count on them fighting till the end for the revolution. Our political agitation among them is aimed at neutralizing them and encouraging individual desertions to our ranks where we can transform their ideology. But it would be a dangerous illusion to base our strategy on using puppet troops as an instrument of the revolution.
“The above form of political-military struggle is the form we have decided on to carry our fight through to victory. It is based on a sober, scientific analysis of the concrete conditions of South Vietnam. The enemy to a certain extent understands our strategy but can do nothing about it. The Americans and their puppets would have to change the whole nature of the war to neutralize our strategy. They may do this, but then we will develop a new one suitable to the changed conditions.
“To sum up: our Central Committee’s analysis is that if we exert all our efforts we can achieve complete victory in carrying through a democratic revolution. To achieve this, among other things we have to mobilize and educate the masses; increase the effectives in our armed forces to gradually change the balance of forces to the point where we can defeat the enemy, even in his strongholds in the cities.”
This was the gist of the PRP’s outlook in early February 1964, the fundamental strategy of the most revolutionary force within the NLF and which, in a stripped down form, was the strategy adopted by the Front’s own Central Committee. Leading members of the Front told me they were quite content to let PRP experts play a dominant role in formulating the fundamental lines of military strategy, but that in evolving political strategy PRP members within the NLF leadership carried no more weight than any others. At a meeting with almost the same PRP leaders exactly a year later, the discussion centered far more on the PRP attitude toward vital aspects of NLF political strategy, starting with neutrality. The replies which, as at our previous meeting I noted down word for word, were as follows:
“We communists also fight for neutrality. Many think this is a bluff. The enemy says it is a temporary tactic of the NLF, that the communists would never really permit it. But we communists are nothing if not realists. Neutrality is the correct policy for the whole historical period. It has a key place in the NLF program, together with independence, democracy and peace. These four principles are realistic and reasonable and we are determined to attain them. It is around these four points that the broadest unity can be obtained, for all sections of the population can support them. Neutrality is a point for which the PRP fought as firmly as anyone within the NLF Central Committee, because there was some opposition to this from compatriots who understood that neutrality for the South would necessarily retard reunification and place us outside the socialist camp after victory. We have taken all this into account but we are determined to continue to fight for all four aims. There will be no wavering or vacillating on this.
“You can find out for yourself wherever you go in the liberated zones, and even in the enemy-controlled areas if you could get there, that everyone, from all sections of the population, guerrillas, old people, peasants, workers, intellectuals, business people – they all agree with these four points – and most people you speak to are determined to fight to achieve them. But the enemy wants to divide them, to accept peace and independence for instance, but not neutrality and democracy, or some other combinations, peace without independence, for instance, but for us the four terms are inseparable and this is the unanimous view of the NLF and PRP leadership. Peace, yes, but not at any price.
“Neutrality for us means diplomatic relations with all countries that recognize the independence of South Vietnam. It means we accept unconditional aid from whatever quarter it comes, including from western countries, France, England – even the U.S. – if the latter recognizes real South Vietnamese independence, withdraws its troops and offers aid without political strings.
“Democracy for us means a real national, people’s democracy, based on the unity of workers, peasants, intellectuals and patriotic bourgeoisie of all tendencies. We are carrying out a national democratic revolution with the unity of all sections of the population as a basic element. We have to think of it at two levels, the present rather low level based on an alliance between workers, peasants and the lower strata of the bourgeoisie, which we consider as a sort of people’s democracy, and on the higher level of still broader unity which we are aiming at and which we could call a national democratic union to include the upper strata of the bourgeoisie.
“Our present people’s democratic alliance must approve measures acceptable to this upper strata as well. It may seem strange for outsiders to find communists fighting for the interests of the upper class, but we understand the vital necessity for national union at the highest level, not only now during the period of struggle but for the years of the postwar reconstruction as well. But ‘unity’ also has its specific content. It implies mutual concessions; we have elements who accept the word ‘democracy’ but think of it only in terms of bourgeois democracy, that is, exclusively to protect the interests of the capitalists and landlords; there are others who think of it exclusively in the sense of expropriating the capitalists and landlords. ‘Unity’ for us means harmonizing the various concepts.
“We propose the eventual formation of a national, democratic coalition government based on the highest attainable level of national unity. Within such a government there could be elements almost at the opposite end of the political spectrum from us, pro-Gaullist nationalists, for instance, even pro-American nationalists as long as they break with the puppets and are for a genuine national independence. We want a stable government which can be supported by every genuine patriot who rejects selling out the country’s interests for a pocketful of dollars.
“Our NLF leaders are very reasonable but also very determined men, true patriots in the fullest sense of the term. We know the masses are behind us and that the basic policies adopted after very long and completely democratic procedures are such that not only the masses but city intellectuals and business people, even officials in the puppet administration and army, can support them. We think that within a short time, the United States will adopt one of two courses: aggression with a U.S. expeditionary force, or to push their puppets into demanding an end to the war. In case they adopt the latter course, they will try to divide the Front. All sorts of formulas are already being peddled around: ‘Peace but without the NLF,’ ‘Peace with the NLF but excluding the communists,’ ‘Peace but with U.S. bases and garrisons,’ ‘Peace but an alliance with the West.’ We consider it more likely that the Americans will intervene directly, but should they push the second course, they will never succeed in dividing the Front. They will never succeed in setting up a coalition government with the NLF from which the PRP would be excluded. And as long as the enemy tries such tricks, we will have only one course, to fight on for a clear-cut, decisive victory.
“Just as we consider ‘peace at any price’ unacceptable, we also reject ‘unity at any price.’ Land reform, for instance, is a question we have to tackle now, within our concept of the national democratic alliance which the Front is now creating. It is a question to which we and other leading NLF organs are devoting great attention right now.
“We must tackle land reform and establish a unified policy. There is a limited land reform policy now in the liberated areas, but we need a national democratic resolution on this matter. Land was distributed during the anti-French resistance war, but the Diemists took most of it back. We think that for a certain number of landlords we will buy their land at decent prices, not for cash payments but in NLF administration bonds which we will be scrupulous in honoring later. The peasants are the main force of the revolution, so we have to satisfy their needs now. It is where land reform has been most energetically tackled that we have the firmest support from the peasants. When the Saigon authorities round them up at gun point and drive them off their newly gained lands to herd them into ‘strategic hamlets,’ their hostility to the regime is total and all the able-bodied want is a gun in their hands to win the right to be free on their own lands again.
“For foreigners, plantation owners and others, we propose that their property rights be respected as long as they respect our four points and our laws. They can continue their economic activities after the war and even extend them. We can also accept foreign investments where these do not conflict with our sovereignty.
“Peace and independence we do not think need defining. They are obviously inseparable. Independence must be total and there can be no peace without independence. Such a peace would be a contradiction in terms, the surest way to restart the war.”
This ended the clarification of policies, but a few days earlier systematic air attacks against North Vietnam had been started and I asked for comments on this:
“At the moment,” replied Tran Bach Dang, “all sorts of special laws are in force in Saigon and other enemy-controlled territory, a state of emergency, martial law, curfew, etc. The main reason is the wave of indignation that has swept the country. Even those who are anticommunist have turned against the Americans because their national sentiments have been outraged. What sort of a nationalist must one be to rub his hands with glee over the bombing of peaceful fishing villages? Even the majority of the Catholic refugees from the North are angry about this… Their villages were the first to be hit and they all have relatives still in those villages.
“We consider this is probably a prelude to sending U.S. combat troops here in the near future. The puppet regime is crumbling due to very heavy blows we dealt their mobile reserves in the past couple of months.
“They will create a lot of difficulties for us, but the enemy’s difficulties are still greater. To wage war you must have troops; and troops that can do something have to have morale. The Americans have lots of dollars but you can’t buy morale with dollars. We still think the most the Americans can put in of their own troops is half a million. But if they put in a million we can handle them. If they put in more – and the Algerian experience shows they would need more – would the DRV remain inactive? Or China? Or the Soviet Union and other socialist countries?”
To my question as to how long the war was likely to last, the reply was the following:
“We consider that by the beginning of this year we had decisively defeated the American ‘special war.’ If they want to try us out in ‘limited war,’ then let them come. It will only hasten the final defeat of U.S. imperialism. We are not seeking war with the U.S., but we aren’t afraid of the outcome. They will also be defeated in ‘limited war’ and their prestige will suffer accordingly. We know the Americans have plenty of strength in reserve and are capable of all sorts of tricks. Our difficulties are great but they are getting less. Their difficulties are great and they are getting bigger. It is only because we have prepared ourselves and the people for a long war that we can shorten the road to victory. We cannot fix any dates but the final outcome for us is clear – we will win. We are not in a hurry and the war is not costing us $20 million a day [a reference to the $7 billion a year the war was costing the U.S. about that time] . We can continue for as long as it takes.”
As a conclusion to this discussion the PRP leaders expressed the view that the PRP strategy of waging a political military struggle had been correct up to that time and that this was proven by the complete military-political bankruptcy of the Saigon regime, which was on the verge of total collapse. If the Americans sent in an expeditionary force, as seemed most likely, the basic line would not change. It would still be a political military struggle. Thought was already being given to reforming the Liberation Army to cope with U.S. combat divisions. Temporary advantages for the Americans because of their overwhelming material superiority would be offset in the long run by political factors, chief of which was that the entire Vietnamese people would now see that the NLF had been right from the beginning, that the real enemy was U.S. imperialism; the PRP position within the NLF would be still further strengthened because of the accuracy of their analyzes. Even the first rumors of an American expeditionary force (the first elements started arriving less than three weeks later) had produced the opposite effect of that which the Americans surely intended, which was tighter unity than ever within the leading organs of the Front. The government of Tran Van Huong (it was the eighth in the 15 months since the overthrow of Diem; Huong at that time had just been kicked out and was hiding in the British Embassy) had pretended it wanted to create civilian government and tried to delude people into thinking it was “democratic” but it was seen by the people for what it really was – just another U.S. puppet government which continued the war.
The real face of the Huong government and that of Nguyen Xuan Oanh which succeeded it, in the PRP view, was the manhunts, the press gangs, martial law, chaos and dictatorship, a complete denial of democracy, nothing but grief and suffering with economic difficulties growing every day, inflation running wild and business at zero point. The masses in the cities, including the Buddhists, wanted radical changes because all the various coups brought no changes for them at all. A year previous the NLF slogan of “peace and neutrality” had been popular but no one dared speak of it openly. Now people in the cities, among them the Buddhists, were beginning to fight openly for this. A certain number of prominent intellectuals and elements within the bourgeoisie had also started to speak up openly about “peace and neutrality.”
The present situation was a result of the Front’s military successes on the battlefield and unremitting work on the political front. The PRP line had been right until now, but the leadership was ready to reexamine tactics in the light of American intentions which should soon become clear.
This was the situation as the PRP leadership saw it in February 1965. Our discussions took place in a small hut in the center of about a dozen bamboo frame, barracks-type buildings with roofs of pleated palm leaves, spaced among clearings hacked out of a dense patch of rain forest. I had cycled for almost a week on end from one of the NLF’s base headquarters, emerging only rarely from the dense forest to cross clearings a few hundred yards long, to plunge again into the jungle – impenetrable except for the narrow cycle tracks which had been slashed out. The buildings, actually roofs supported by bamboo frames with open walls, were classrooms for PRP cadres who had been pulled back from all the NLF’s operational zones, some of them having traveled months to reach the spot. They were attending study classes for the coming battle of the cities; their lecturers being none other than the top leadership of the PRP, despite the fact that this was at the height of the 1964-65 operational season, with the NLF forces in the midst of their biggest offensive till that time.
“It is no problem for us to take over the rest of the countryside,” explained Tran Bach Dang, “but we have to prepare for the final round in the cities. This involves new and complicated tasks, including careful organizational work within the cities themselves and new battle tactics. We have withdrawn a large proportion of our best cadres from the countryside to prepare them for the new task. They will go back into the cities themselves.”
The assault on the cities would not take place until three years later, for the American decision to intervene directly with its expeditionary force required the NLF to regroup its forces, and the PRP military experts to concentrate on strategies and tactics appropriate to the new situation. Although the commitment of U.S. forces delayed by three years the actual timing of the attacks, long-range planning had already started at the time of my first discussions with PRP leaders, and the tactics worked out in the jungle schools in February 1965 were applied during the series of offensives against the towns and major military bases which started at the 1968 Lunar New Year.
 Tran Nam Trung was, and is at the time of writing, the NLF’s “Minister of Defense” as chairman of the Military Affairs Commission.
NEXT: Chapter 14 – The Long Hard Road