In 1954 the Viet Minh armies had the military capability to crush the French completely and take over the whole of Vietnam, North and South. After the fall of Dien Bien Phu, there was little doubt the Viet Minh had complete and unconditional victory within its grasp. The French would have to accept whatever terms the Viet Minh decided to offer. But at the Geneva truce negotiations the Viet Minh delegation made concessions to France and the West that were surprisingly great, considering their advantageous military position. Although the Viet Minh had originally demanded the 11th parallel as provisional dividing line between the zone of French occupation and that of Viet Minh control, its forces retreated to a compromise at the 17th parallel. And although they had called for an agreement insuring general elections after six months, they finally accepted a two-year interim.
These concessions, naturally, were not made out of the goodness of anyone's heart. The French may have been defeated, but the threat of American intervention in the event of complete French capitulation was enough to prompt the Soviet Union, newly embarked on a somewhat peaceful line in foreign policy, to urge Ho chi Minh, the Viet Minh leader, to accept a compromise with the West. Actually it is unlikely that the United States would have entered the conflict in any event. With the Korean war only recently over, America was in no mood for another long, drawn out campaign. Despite John Foster Dulles's intimations of intervention, several prominant American senators indicated that they would have none of it.
It was under Soviet pressure, then, the Viet Minh gave up its opportunity for total victory. But all concessions made they regarded as temporary. Indeed, the final Geneva Treaty stipulated that "the military demarcation line is provisional and should not in any way be interpreted as constituting a political or military boundary..." General elections were scheduled to be held in 1956 for the unification of the country.
Most non-American observers of the Vietnamese scene in 1954 considered that South Vietnam was doomed. Pres. Ngo Dinh Diem appeared to be a creation of the U.S., pulled out of the hat at the very last minute. In contrast Ho Chi Minh was the revered leader of the Vietnamese independence movement. At the time of the Geneva Treaty, the Viet Minh had considerable popular support. Combining their prestige as leading nationalists with successes at social reform in the parts of Vietnam they controlled, there was little doubt that they would be successful in the general elections to be held. As Communist-controlled North Vietnam had a majority of the population, anyway, neither the Diem government in the South nor the U.S. was willing to risk defeat. And in 1956 they refused to participate in elections.
By this time Diem's grasp on South Vietnam was strong, largely due to American military aid and political support. And now, although constantly threatened by Communist guerilla tactics and occasionally by non-Communist insurgents, Diem's regime continues its autocratic control.
Diem may rule in the day; but by night the Viet Minh guerillas control the countryside. By ingeniously combining social reform and nationalist agitation with terrorist activities, they have managed to gain control of 30% of the villages. Presenting communism as best serving the peasants' interest, the guerillas picture themselves as the safest and most profitable allegience in the long run. Their charges of American imperialism seem, to the peasant, entirely substantiated by the presence of American military personnel in all parts of the country. And in history of American military aid to the French in the Indo-Chinese war prompts many of the Vietnamese to consider America as heir of French colonialism and the unpopular Pres. Diem as its puppet emperor.
Once the majority of people in a village have been won, the Viet Minh use social pressures or terrorist sanction to enlist the support of the rest. By carefully choosing their targets of assassination, the Viet Cong guerillas combine political and military maneuvers. (If the 1500 killed a month by guerillas, a good many are unpopular local officials.
In the past year the Communist-led Viet Cong has amassed enough support for occasional attacks of batallion strength. Of the estimated 20,000 guerillas at least one third are South Vietnamese. The other are either northern "volunteers" or Southern refugees now living in the North. A steady pipeline of military equipment and ammunition comes from the North, smuggled through Laos and Cambodia along the "Ho Chi Minh" trail. Much of this equipment comes to North Vietnam as military aid from Russia and East Europe.
The North Vietnamese justify their involvement quite simply. Always having considered the division of the country temporary, the Communist regime regards the Diem government as a lack of American imperialism. By stressing that it is the duty of North Vietnam to liberate its brethren from the "fascism" of Diem, the nationalist strain of their commitment emerges along-side the Communist. But there is no doubt that Communism for all of Vietnam is the primary goal.
Certainly, unification of Vietnam is a paramount objective on economic as well as ideological grounds. Because the French developed Vietnam as a simple unit, economic progress in both North and South can only be hampered by division. With heaviest industrial concentration in the North, the South suffers from its loss of native manufactured goods. And the North without the rice basket of the South finds itself presently unable to meet its agricultural production needs.
Vietnamese Communism from its inception has been a native movement. It gathered its initial momentum during the World War II resistance, years before the triumph of the Chinese Communists provided a friendly power on Vietnam's northern border. And although the popularity of the Communist regime has been losing support due to its economic austerity measures and suppression of political freedoms, it still offers to an indefinite majority in North Vietnam and many in the South a preferable alternative to its Southern rival.
Economic policy has been intensively geared to the development of heavy industry and agricultural production. But although gains have been made in the industrial sphere--in 1960 industrial growth exceeded the Communists' own expectations--there are often agricultural crises. According to correspondents, Hanoi, the capital, is more drab and more desolate that Saigon in the South; more drab even than before the Communist takeover. But then in South Vietnam American economic aid has been concentrated on providing consumer goods which temporarily make the living standard relatively high. In the North consumer demands are being sacrificed to building heavy industry that will eventually make North Vietnam self-sufficient.
Several features of the regime indicate that liberalism relative to some of the other Communist states exists in certain areas. Policy toward the Catholic Church has softened since harsh treatment provoked the mass exodus of refugees in 1954. A few Churches are still active and religious freedom for all religions has been officially proclaimed and in token cases accepted.
Although most industries are nationalized, a few private enterprises have been permitted to function as part of what the Communists call a popular front with the national, "progressive," bourgeoisie. The regime has also disavowed any plans for communes on the Chinese style. Agricultural cooperatives are being pressed. But some peasants still own their own land.
Considerable economic and military aid has come to the North from the Communist bloc, and most of the North's diplomatic and cultural relations have been with these countries. But the regime has shown interest in cultivating relations with neutral nations. State visits and proclamations of friendship have been exchanged with India and Indonesia.
Much room for movement is open to North Vietnam in the Sino-Soviet dispute. And the regime has by no means committed itself to either side. There may even be an opportunity for Western influence here. North Vietnamese officials have hinted that the country might accept aid from the U.S. "with no strings attached." This is a far cry from Communist China's relentless barrage against anything to do with America.
This is the second of a series of three articles on Vietnam.