They Left Their Plows Behind Them

Before the Revolution: The Vietnamese Peasants Under the French By Ngo Vinh Long '64 The MIT Press, 285 pp., $12.50

ONE YEAR AGO tomorrow American B-52 bombers lumbered out of their hangars at air bases in Thailand, rolled down the runways and groaned into the air. Pilots set automatic controls, navigators plotted courses and bombardiers checked their payloads. The crews then settled back for a long, monotonous flight.

All over North Vietnam, radar operators scanned their screens carefully. American bombing had stopped two months earlier, just before the U.S. presidential election, but eight years of air war had taught the North Vietnamese never to relax their vigilance. Furthermore, the Paris negotiations had broken down a few days previous and messages from Washington had grown increasingly menacing.

Suddenly the radar operators leaned forward in amazement. Flocks of giant blips appeared on their screens--blips that could only signify B-52's, the biggest and most awesome weapon in the United States's arsenal. The operators began to calculate coordinates and plot trajectories, and their fears mounted as they did so: the bombers were not heading for the mountainous trails of Laos this time, or for the panhandle villages, or for army camps in the countryside. The operators alerted the air defense crews with special urgency. The B-52's were all heading for Hanoi--the first installment of Richard Nixon's Christmas present to the people of Vietnam.

In Hanoi people were bicycling from work, strolling through parks or relaxing in front of their homes as the evening deepened. Three-fourths of the city's one million people had been evacuated to the countryside the spring before, when the most recent wave of bombing had begun; the rest had remained behind, trying to live under an air war.

Doctors and therapists in Hanoi's Bach Mai Hospital were working, also unaware of the air defense crews' feverish activity. One of the hospital's most important functions was to teach people deafened by bomb concussions to hear and speak again; staff members were leading patients in complex relearning exercises.


ABRUPTLY, air raid sirens wailed through the dusk. Orderlies trundled Bach Mai's patients into underground shelters, and the bicyclers, strollers and loungers retraced familiar steps to their assigned havens. Missile batteries in the city's outskirts rotated into position, and anti-aircraft crews within the city donned helmets and waited patiently. Some riflemen peered skyward, but their efforts were futile: unlike smaller fighter-bombers, B-52's fly too high to be seen by the naked eye. Most of the people of Hanoi crouched in their shelters; they huddled in the dark and waited.

The silence that followed the warning sirens was broken by the dull thud of exploding bombs. Sirens wailed again, this time directing ambulance crews to the wounded. Bach Mai Hospital suffered the first of many direct hits. Homes and schools crumpled under the onslaught, and the night sky lit up with strings of smaller explosions. Rescue teams poked through wrecked buildings, searching for wounded people trapped beneath the rubble. The dead lay silent.

Thirty-five thousand feet above Hanoi bombardiers pressed buttons and bomb-bay doors closed slowly. The first wave of B-52's arched gracefully in a semi-circle. Navigators plotted new courses, pilots fiddled with controls and the warplanes started the long haul back. They would return again and again and again, around the clock for the next two weeks, with a brief respite on Christmas Day. The Vietnamese Revolution--born four decades earlier in the dreams of a scattered group of exiles, nurtured in the mountains and jungles in the seven-year war against the French, and grown to maturity in the resistance to the Americans--was facing another trial by fire and iron.


NEWS IS MADE by kings, prime ministers and diplomats, history by an entire people. In Vietnam, history has been made by peasants. It is they who started to resist the French in the 1930's, joined the Viet Minh in the early 1940's and fought on to partial victory in 1954. Peasants dragged heavy artillery over jungle trails to the mountains overlooking the French garrision in the valley of Dienbienphu.

When the U.S.-sponsored Ngo Dinh Diem regime stepped up its repression in the South in the late 1950's, peasants left their plows and rice paddies and villages and joined the National Liberation Front. In the late 1960's peasants who had never seen a television set or a washing machine, who had never visited a city, successfully resisted the American war machine. They alternately evaded and defeated U.S. ground troops; they shot down American warplanes with rifles and with their bare hands rebuilt bombed-out bridges and roads.

Peasant resistance to foreign or domestic efforts to control their lives is not new in Vietnam. Modern Vietnamese history was inaugurated by the Tay-son rebellion, a convulsive peasant upheaval which began in central Vietnam in 1771. Peasant armies under rebel generals toppled the ruling dynasties and beat back a Chinese invasion force. And although one of the dynasties--the Nguyen--regained control 30 years later, sporadic peasant rebellions on a smaller scale kept the mandarins from ignoring the peasants.

On the eve of the French takeover in the 1860's Vietnam was an integrated traditional society. The basic social unit was the village, which for the most part functioned autonomously, with strict direction from the imperial government in Hue. Peasants tilled their plots of rice land and participated in village affairs in accord with an ancient body of traditions and laws. Land distribution was not equal, but precedent and a sense of community in the villages--along with the possibility of peasant unrest--limited the inequities. Much of the land was owned communally, by the village; the proceeds from it were used to help the poorer peasants pay their taxes, to finance schools and pay teachers, to provide for widows and orphans. There were as yet no classes of wealthy landlords and of landless rural poor. Except during infrequent periods of natural disaster, on one went hungry in rural Vietnam.

THEN THE French came to Southeast Asia. The Vietnamese resisted, but the French seized the southern third of Vietnam in 1864 and extended their control to the center and north by 1885. By the turn of the century, Vietnam was firmly under French control; the imperial court was tolerated merely as an adjunct to the French administration.

Fifty years later the Vietnamese had raised an army, declared themselves independent, defeated the French and thrown them out of Vietnam for good. The Viet Minh was a peasant army and North Vietnam was and is in many ways a government of peasants. What had happened to the Vietnamese under the French? What features of French rule had turned peasants into soldiers, rice farmers into social revolutionaries?