Vietnam Will Win: Armed Propaganda

Wilfred Burchett interviews General Giap, Hanoi, May 1966.

A sense of realism is one of the great qualities of the Vietnamese leaders, which impresses all who have come in contact with them in Hanoi or the jungles of the South. This viewing of things as they are, together with their extreme sincerity and modesty, derives from the personality and style of work of President Ho Chi Minh, with whom most senior cadres have been closely associated for 30 or 40 years. Vietnamese leaders, of both the DRV and NLF, have never sought short term results by creating false optimism among the people. Two generations of Vietnamese have been educated to look danger and adversity squarely in the face; and the results are clearly demonstrated by the youths and girls of the defense militia, calmly and unflinchingly aiming their rifle sights at diving, strafing jets, awaiting the precise moment to squeeze the trigger. Although the difficulties to be confronted and the need for sacrifices are never minimized, there is, at the same time, great insistence on the power of the people and inevitability of final victory. To instill these principles in people’s minds, to give them confidence in their own power, has been a primary task of the armed propaganda units.

In comprehending the role of armed propaganda, one gains a fuller understanding of the integrated political-military nature of NLF military strategies in the South, the command structure of their military units and the important role of the political cadres. How should one describe armed propaganda? It is a question Vo Nguyen Giap has answered in his Liberation Army.

“Armed propaganda consists in using the armed forces to carry out political propaganda, to sow confidence among the population so they will be convinced that our forces are powerful. After this confidence is established, it must be transformed into political consciousness. Let our people have confidence in the solidarity of our people. To irresolute or undecided they refuse to mend their ways despite warnings, we must resolutely wipe them out.”

In the actual cases I learned about in the South, except for a few persons like the monstrous Chau, who collected human ears (referred to in an earlier chapter), three warnings were usually given before execution and in 90% of such cases the warnings themselves were sufficient.

“Usually people find the revolutionary forces are well armed,” continues Giap, “and it is when they start paying attention to the weapons that the moment comes to give some simple advice, explaining that the power of weapons is only of secondary importance whereas the power of the whole people is invincible, unbeatable. If we do not succeed in convincing people by such explanations, they will be left with some superstitious belief in the power of weapons alone. In this case we will not have achieved our aim of armed propaganda…”

In most other armies a display of arms, a display of force is always intended to dazzle or intimidate people with the all-powerful nature of weapons and those who hold them. But it was typical of the leaders of Vietnam’s armed forces, even from the first moment they had weapons in their hands, to refrain from any boasting. All of General Giap’s writings reflect the absolute certitude that the people were all potential allies and that the armed forces were really a “people’s army” with aims completely identified with the aspirations of the people.

“When the people find that the revolutionary forces have arms in abundance, they will start to think the revolution will succeed easily. This is the moment to explain in a way that people will understand that the business of revolution is full of dangers and difficulties. The imperialists may undertake very violent, very savage acts of repression. Along the path of our struggle, it is possible that we will have temporary setbacks. It is very necessary also to educate people in the sense that if secrets are revealed, we will immediately be subject to the enemy’s terrorist activities. One must not hesitate to say this,” advises Giap, and he then gives some concrete details of another aspect of armed propaganda work:

“After the propaganda activities, the work of consolidation follows. Certain of the most ardent young people can be selected and given some training. For armed propaganda teams on the move from one place to another, training is not easy. Two methods are necessary, one to support the movement in the given locality, the other to form regional cadres as rapidly as possible, that is to say, to recruit into the ranks certain young people; they will be trained as opportunity presents itself while moving around with the armed forces. If necessary we will send them back to continue their activities in their own villages. This process of consolidation is very effective. It should be followed when one wants to establish extensive bases in as short a term as possible. These are the general principles of armed propaganda among the population. For vacillating elements, armed propaganda skillfully utilized can be a two edge weapon.

“There are people who doubt our revolutionary strength, but they will come over to our side when they see our weapons. They are the consciously vacillating elements. But there are also irresolute elements who hate the revolution; they only want to sabotage it but lack the courage to expose themselves as out-and-out reactionaries. Sometimes, frightened at our armed strength they either improve a bit, or they are horror-struck and become complete reactionaries, even conscious traitors. Therefore, in carrying out armed propaganda toward doubtful elements, we must carefully measure our words. We must come to understand fully the local situation, after which everything must be examined carefully, every possible scrap of information must be collected, in case of incidents. We must always act with restraint.”

Giap then deals with the execution of traitors, one of the most delicate of all questions, the one for which the NLF is most attacked, and the implications of which are used by American congressmen and columnists as a pretext for justifying the indefinite American “presence” in South Vietnam. The Western Armies after World War II had no scruples about trying Nazi and Japanese war criminals and hanging them. It was considered absolutely normal for the Norwegians to execute their Quislings, the French their Lavals and other Western countries their respective traitors, but Vietnamese are supposed to “forget and forgive” their Quislings and Lavals. It was considered a laudatory expression of patriotism in World War II for those living under the Nazi scourge to assassinate with whatever means possible any member of the hated occupation regime or any traitor-collaborators without any legal formalities of peacetime laws. But Vietnamese execution of traitors is labeled “Vietcong terrorism.”

Actually, in the South today as in Vietnam during the period about which Giap writes, grounds for executions have been far more limited than was the case with the West European resistance movements. This is explicable because of the essentially political motivation of the Vietnamese national liberation struggle. The possibility of “mass reprisals,” a blood bath for tens of thousands of those who had collaborated with the Americans in South Vietnam, is only conjured up by those who want to justify perpetual American occupation of South Vietnam.

“Concerning the extermination of traitors,” writes Giap, facing up to things with his habitual frankness, “we should execute them more resolutely and also more discriminatory. If we are not resolute, there will sometimes be disastrous consequences. But if we are not careful, executions may be unjustified and the effects could be no less fatal. The principle must be applied that only those guilty of high treason should be executed, only really incorrigible traitors and even then only after all possibilities of convincing them to mend their end ways have been exhausted. In order that such executions should have a correct influence, great attention must be paid to public opinion towards the traitor; one must be guided by the people’s will. Things must be handled in such a way that the population fully understands all the crimes of the condemned person; that they understand the tolerance and patriotism of revolutionary militants… In the case of execution of traitors, if the indictment is not exact, if the proceedings have not been given due attention because of lack of wisdom, firmness of care, the result will be the opposite to that intended…”

To apply in practice rejection of indiscriminate reprisals against known collaborators and traitors who have harmed the onward march of the resistance forces, implies strong political control at all levels of the armed forces. Thus it is necessary to clarify the nature of this political control before exploring other aspects of armed propaganda.

The armed propaganda units were the precursors of the three types of armed forces: self-defense guerrillas, regional troops and mobile regular troops. Political leadership within these units, as they were set up, was ensured by political cadres who were given parallel status at all levels with military commanders. This system is utilized today by the Vietnam People’s Army in the North and the Liberation Army in the South. This dual control is possible only when political and military aims in a given struggle are completely identical, integrated and coordinated, which in practice means that the political and military strategies must be decided at the same headquarters; and the political and military leadership share the same headquarters.

Régis Debray has justifiably criticized situations in which political cadres interfered in military affairs while the political leaders, as in certain countries in Latin America, were sitting in the cities trying to maintain a legal, political existence while the military leadership was in the mountains enduring the hardships of illegal existence. In such a case military activity is reduced to some sort of weight to be thrown onto the scales whenever the political leadership deems it expedient in its dealings with other political forces. Such a situation, I was told by certain guerrilla leaders from Latin America,[1] leads to a “legal” political leadership ordering all sorts of impractical military activities just to bring pressure to bear on some specific deal in the making; to secure an advantage in some temporary alignment of parliamentary forces, for example; or to bargain over the possibility of a few seats in a government. Armed insurrection is not something that can be switched on and off by a control, especially a control that is out of contact with the whole forward movement.

The Vietnamese viewpoint is that political control is necessary. But a political leadership divorced from the armed struggle, using the latter as only one of many forms of temporary pressure devices, is diametrically opposed to Vietnamese concepts and experiences.

At zonal headquarters and at command levels from the divisional and regimental right down to platoon level, there is a political officer or representative of equal rank to the various levels of military command. It is he who has the decisive voice in deciding when and where specific actions are launched. His decisions are obviously not based on military considerations alone. For instance, in a certain area there may be an excellent chance for striking a devastating blow at the enemy, a surprise attack which could wipe out an entire unit and yield a rich booty of captured weapons with a perfect chance of a getaway before the enemy could react. The political officer might veto the proposal. Why? “It’s a Catholic area,” he could reply, “where we have done insufficient explanatory work. If there are reprisals, the blame would be put on us and we might set all the Catholics against us, not only in this but also in adjoining provinces. Our main task here is to win over, not alienate the Catholics.”

Troops on their way to or from a battle, to cite another possibility, may be desperately hungry. There is a village on their line of march known to be rich in rice and fish. The temptation to send in some men to buy enough for a good meal is overwhelming. “No,” says the political cadre, “no preparatory work was done in this village. Better go hungry for another 24 hours, than to risk some misunderstandings and perhaps a breach of secrecy.” His word is accepted, as I have seen in dozens of different situations. For NLF forces in South Vietnam, the political officer is the life and soul of the unit in which he works. There is no equivalent in Western armies.

The status of political officers in the NLF armed forces, as explained to me by Truong Ky,[2] is a reflection of an axiom of Lenin’s that political violence is at least as important as military violence. (I do not know if Lenin ever said precisely that, but in any case, Truong Ky was guided by that principle, whatever its source.) “It is the political officer who decides strategy,” explained Truong Ky, in the first discussion I had with any high-ranking NLF officer on this subject. “The military commander applies this political-military strategy in combat. But the decisive role is that of the political officer: whether to fight or not, whether conditions are ripe to ensure the overall aims. Military technique is up to the military commander.”

In the North, a political cadre is always the secretary of his cell of the Lao Dong Party. Overall instructions come down through the various echelons from the Central Committee of the Lao Dong Party which formulates military strategy. Concretely speaking, in North Vietnam General Vo Nguyen Giap, the commander in chief, decides overall military strategy in accordance with the political decisions of the Central Committee. Party committees at the various levels discuss the general line and decide how best to apply it at their level. The political cadre is responsible for seeing that those decisions are rigorously enforced.

“We must avoid any smacking of ‘militarism,’ ” said Truong Ky, “or ‘short cut’ methods which could result in losing the confidence of the people, as all our hopes are based on them. Sometimes we know that a certain course of only ‘military’ action could bring off spectacular victories, and this may seem to many comrades easier than to exert great patience and even suffer sacrifices. But we know that by ‘short cut’ methods we would only pile up problems for the future.”

The Vietnamese terms for the political cadres are chink uy for political delegate at all echelons down to company level and chink tri vien for political representative from company level down. They have “external” and “internal” functions; that is, they must know as much as possible about the political and social conditions in the area in which their unit functions, the morale of enemy troops, in short, all the factors necessary for deciding how best to fulfill the overall tasks. Their “internal” tasks are related to maintaining solidarity and high morale within the unit for which they are responsible, seeking out sources of tension or dissatisfaction with an aim to solving them; delving right down into individual problems of unit members. By my own observations among the NLF troops the political cadres – all of whom had to prove their merits in combat – were looked up to with respect and affection by their fellow combatants and obviously enjoyed great prestige. The political cadres personify, in effect, the pioneer role of the armed propaganda groups. In fact, during the evolution and speedy build-up of the armed forces used against the French, the political cadres from battalion level upward in many cases had been rank-and-file members of the armed propaganda units. The same was true in the South with the rapid expansion of the regular forces Army. The tasks of the armed propaganda units which were the vanguard elements at the start of the armed struggle and the qualities of their members corresponded to those required for effective political cadres.

“In order to properly fulfill the above tasks,” wrote Giap in on armed propaganda from Liberation Army, quoted earlier, “the armed propaganda units must be outstanding in their initiatives, planning and operations. Members of the units must be alert and courageous. They must be well behaved, politically conscious, well armed so that the people have confidence in our forces… Whoever is in charge of armed propaganda must pay attention to the most minute details. He should be properly dressed, his weapon must always be in first class order, his songs in perfect rhythm. His words should be simple but gay or moving, the slogans he puts forth should also be eloquent. In all his activities, he must adapt himself to circumstances, courageously put up with all difficulties…

“Thanks to the ability of the group to carry out propaganda in an imaginative way, thanks to the political discipline of the group in establishing contact with the population, in helping them in such matters as education, cutting firewood, lending a hand with plowing, etc., the people in remote regions eagerly await their arrival. When they leave an area the local inhabitants regret their departure.”

In his discussion of the predominantly military aspects of the armed propaganda units, Giap presented some principles which he later applied in all military activities and which subsequently have been adopted by the NLF forces in the South, thus confirming Ho Chi Minh’s prediction, made at the time of establishment of the first armed propaganda unit, that it was the future Liberation Army in embryo.

“In meeting up with the enemy, the armed propaganda unit fights or not according to the circumstances. As has been proved by the activities of the Liberation Army’s propaganda groups, if combat conditions exist for extending its influence and establishing political bases the armed propaganda unit should accept combat. As for units isolated from other groups and able to engage the enemy in battle, they must know how to create suitable conditions (sometimes one has to be patient and make lengthy preparations) or find a suitable occasion to fight. But they should not be too eager for battles at the cost of neglecting direct propaganda among the masses, all the more so, because one must avoid adventures which risk a setback for the armed forces. There is always one condition regarding starting an operation that must be thoroughly taken into consideration. It should result not only in a military victory but also in a political victory. To express this more clearly, you have to be certain that after the fight, our bases among the population are still further strengthened, still further enlarged. It is precisely with this aim in mind that one wages battles.”

Every NLF military action must have its clearly defined political goal; this is an absolute law which the adversary has difficulty in understanding, making it very difficult for him to predict what or where will be the next move. It is one of the reasons why the Americans are continually being taken by surprise; especially since they rely on computerized statistics for making their analyzes of any given political situation.

In concluding his section on armed propaganda, Giap writes: “In the above, I have set forth the principle of armed propaganda in cases where we have already certain political bases. If these bases are not yet set up – as in zones entirely controlled by the enemy and reactionary authorities – the local population is not yet disabused regarding enemy strength. Thus, in the beginning, armed propaganda work must be highly secret. It is not possible at the start to operate at platoon level for carrying on the work, but small groups and even individuals must try to mix in with the population. In such cases the propaganda group must disperse a certain number of its members. The latter must identify themselves completely with the inhabitants, adapt themselves to local conditions, not only in language and behavior but also in dress and appearance. For this, it is essential to enlist a certain number of local people in the propaganda group. Starting from individual activities, as circumstances permit, a higher level of activity is reached where a more concentrated unit is formed, and from there we can go over to the use of arms.

“To sum up, armed propaganda should be adapted to the localities and circumstances; to the state of our own forces and those of the enemy so that form and procedure should be appropriate and effective.”

The question of leadership is obviously a crucial one when operating in the conditions Giap describes, where everything depends on quick adaptation to the unexpected. The following passage from People’s War, People’s Army,[3] reveals the qualities he demands of the officers under his command: “An officer of the People’s Army should set an example from all viewpoints. He must show himself to be determined, courageous; able to combine discipline with internal democracy, able to bring about complete unity between the men under his command. He should behave as a real leader in respect to the members of his unit. The basis of relations between men and officers, as between officers and between the soldiers themselves, is one of combat solidarity, the mutual affection of comrades-in-arms, pure and lofty affection tested and tried in battle for the defense of the Motherland and the people…”

Relations of exactly that sort between officers and men within the NLF armed forces had impressed me during my visits to the NLF-controlled areas, as noted in an earlier chapter. It was not necessary for Vo Nguyen Giap to be on the spot personally for his ideas to be applied wherever Vietnamese took to arms. As the creator of the Vietnam People’s Army, which grew out of that first 34-man platoon he commanded, Giap’s ideas on military theory and practice in a people’s war had long ago permeated every revolutionary cell throughout the country. This is something very difficult for a Maxwell Taylor, Harkins, Westmoreland or Abrams to understand. The “Vietcong” for them are an amorphous mass of peasants in black pajamas who should have been exterminated by the superior technique of a “superior” society. It is very difficult for the Pentagon generals and their commander in chief to understand that the men in the black pajamas are integral parts of a highly scientific apparatus which reposes on the mobilization and organization of the most fundamental human qualities and highest aspirations of mankind. Likewise the Liberation Army in the South and the People’s Army in the North are an inextricable put of Vietnamese historical development. Vietnam, an age old civilization, which has fought for 2,000 years to defend, or regain its right to, an independent existence, has found in General Giap’s concept of “people’s war,” developed and enriched by a new generation in the South, the most effective means to counter the West’s most highly perfected military machine.

The Pentagon is extremely efficient in methods of destruction. Much that this generation of Vietnamese inherited from their ancestors, such as ancient temples and monuments, has been reduced to dust by American bombs; virgin forests have been turned to ashes by napalm and phosphorous bombs. Most cities in the North have been destroyed. The bombing of Saigon, Hué, My Tho and other cities after the Têt offensive, the “destruction of cities to save them,” as one U.S. general expressed it, indicates that the cities of the South may well share the same fate. The Pentagon, by its ruthless and indiscriminate use of air power, is making for America a reputation like the Goths and the Vandals and others, whose names have been handed down by history as synonymous with destroyers of civilization. But, however great the destruction, however long the war may last, the Vietnamese people will win.

They will see the departure of the last American soldier from the South just as they saw the departure of the last French soldier from Vietnam. The Americans will have to get out like the French, Japanese, Chinese and Mongols had to get out in their time. This time, and every Vietnamese north and south of the 17th parallel with whom I have spoken is convinced of this, is the last time. Once the mightiest of all imperialisms is forced to give up and get out, no other power will ever dare lay hands on Vietnam again. Not, at least, in the foreseeable future.

But anyone who thinks that a revolutionary struggle is something to be undertaken lightly would do well to study the Vietnamese experience: the long years of infinitely patient organizational work, the sufferings and sacrifices while the long step-by-step process of building up the political bases proceeded, the years of cruelly unequal combat. And only when objective conditions are ripe can the first steps be undertaken. Only when the masses of the people are convinced that the situation is ripe can bolder steps be taken. Giap’s armed propaganda groups could not have survived even a few days, had not the political basis for such activity been created through years of infinitely long, painstaking work. But when the situation is ripe, when there is a people completely united under a determined leadership with clear goals, strong nerves and a scientific outlook, then nothing can stand in their way. That is the lesson of Vietnam.


[1] Whom I met during the Organization of Latin American Solidarity (OLAS) conference in Havana in August 1967. [Wilfred Burchett became known among Latin American revolutionaries as El hombre del libro, (The man of the book), because of his Vietnam: Inside Story of the Guerilla War. – GB]

[2] A high-ranking staff officer at NLF headquarters, a former Saigon history teacher mentioned in Chapter 1.

[3] Guerre du Peuple, Armée du Peuple, page 61.

NEXT: Chapter 16 – End of an Illusion

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.