The war in South Vietnam and the bombings of North Vietnam have precipitated a crisis in United States foreign policy. What direction should future American policy take? The answer must lie in an analysis of the forces in conflict.
The American press maintains that we are fighting against something called the Viet Cong, a small Communist guerilla group. We maintain that the U.S. is fighting against a peasant revolution, a military and political movement supported by the majority of the South Vietnamese peasantry.
From 1902 until the Japanese conquest during World War II, Vietnam was under French colonial rule. The subsistence production of the Vietnamese peasantry was used to support a class of landlords and the French colonial administration. This repression resulted in several unsuccessful peasant uprisings. The biggest, which occured in 1930, was led by Ho Chi Minh, an ardent Vietnamese nationalist who had studied Marxist revolutionary methods in Moscow.
From 1939 to 1943 the Japanese took control of the country. They instituted a hamlet program designed to extract rice from the peasants for war supplies. In the famine produced by the war, two million peasants out of a total of 30 million Vietnamese starved to death.
The result of Japanese control was a major peasant revolt. Ho Chi Minh organized a strong Communist party among the peasants of Vietnam and was able to mobilize over 90,000 guerillas. When the Japanese surrendered on August 14, 1945, the peasant movement controlled enough of the country to call a national congress and to form a new nation-wide government--the Democratic Republic of Vietnam.
A guerilla war cannot be won without a popular base. The repressive governments of the French and the Japanese had created the conditions for revolt. The people who led the revolution were Vietnamese; the people who constituted the base of the movement were the Vietnamese peasantry.
At the time the entire country was solidly behind the revolutionary government. While in power, Ho Chi Minh began extensive programs of land and educational reform. But the new regime was short-lived. In order to re-establish colonial control, the French overthrew Ho Chi Minh's government in the South and reinstated a puppet regime headed by Bao Dai.
French Control Falters
But France was unable to maintain, control over the country-side. Faced with consolidated Communist power backed by the peasantry, they could only have found local support among the disinherited landlords and the remnants of the pre-war colonial administration. Attempts to re-establish the landlords failed, however, and the French were forced to fight a long and increasingly hopeless war against the Viet Minh, the peasant guerilla forces.
With the victory of the Communist movement in China in 1949, the United States became increasingly involved in Southeast Asia. During the Korean War the U.S. expanded its economic and military aid to Laos and Vietnam as a part of the overall "containment" policy against China. By 1954 the Americans were paying 78 percent of the French military budget in Vietnam.
Nevertheless, the French colonial regime continued to lose group to the revolutionary Viet Minh from 1946 to 1954. Once more, a popular revolution, based on peasant discontent, broke out. Production and agriculture had already fallen by half; the peasants liberated by the Viet Minh from the burden of rent and excessive taxes were not prepared politically or economically to accept their return.
U.S. Seeks Wider Involvement
By 1954 the French held little more than the Saigon area and were willing to withdraw. But the United States government did not desire a peaceful solution to the Vietnamese war; rather, it wished to internationalize the fighting. Secretary of State John Foster Dulles even offered nuclear weapons to the French government to use against the Viet Minh, but France refused.
After the defeat of the French at Dien Bien Phu, a conference was called in Geneva in May, 1954. The solution worked out there took no account of the support for the Viet Minh among the peasantry throughout Vietnam: it temporarily divided the country along the 17th parallel and established a Franco-American sphere of influence in the South. This division, supported two distinct objectives: the American intention to keep military and diplomatic pressure on China and the British desire to keep Communist control as far north of Malaya as possible. The U.S., however, refused to sign the agreement, merely promising not to violate its provisions.
In this partition, lies the origin of the present crisis in Vietnam. The Geneva accord promised that nation-wide elections would be held in July, 1956, to reunite the North and the South. But the United States had no intenion of permitting the election. As President Eisenhower stated in his memories. "I have never talked or corresponded with a person knowledgeable in Indochinese affairs who did not agree that had elections been held as of the time of fighting, possible 80 percent of the population would have voted for the Communist Ho Chi Minh as their leader." Some observers have estimated that the Viet Minh was even stronger in the South than in the North.