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The Inside Story of the Guerrilla War - Chapter 12: Frontal Assault

For the next four issues, Word is presenting excerpts from Wilfred Burchett’s seminal account of the American War. A close friend of Ho Chi Minh, Burchett was the only westerner to be embedded with the Viet Cong frontlines in the early 1960s. This work was written in 1964


Land Problem in the Delta


For a short answer as to who formed the National Front of Liberation, one would have to say Diem and Dulles. In a remarkably short time, Ngo Dinh Diem succeeded in alienating the main religious, social, political, national and economic forces in the country. With total U.S. support for every move he made, he violated all the rules. A Catholic in a country overwhelmingly Buddhist, he insisted on installing co-religionists in all key posts down to provincial and district level. Power, it is usually acknowledged, is based on a class, but Diem based it on a faction of a class; on dispossessed landlords who had fled from North Vietnam and his own landlord cronies from the centre, plus what was left of the old Mandarinate.


All political parties, even the most reactionary, were driven underground and only the personal sections of Diem and his more diabolical brother Nhu, were permitted. The national minorities, whom the French in their time had made considerable efforts to win over, were treated by Diem as savages to be liquidated as soon as possible. Local industry and commerce were despised and crushed in favour of goods imported with U.S. dollar aid.


The class on which Diem based his power, was outside the country. All real forces inside the country were driven into opposition. One error, more fatal than all the others, was to try and undo land reform, to seize back from the peasants the land distributed to them during the first resistance war. That the U.S. government — at his elbow all the time — supported and applauded every move, is only evidence of the naïveté of their whole approach to Asian problems. The Dollar and the Bomb for Diem and Dulles were a sufficient substitute for the classical forms of support governments hitherto had needed.


“Although the Front was formed officially on December 20, 1960, it existed in fact before,” said Nguyen Huu Tho, when I asked him about the actual setting up of the NFL. “As an idea it existed from 1954 when the broadest sections of the population were delighted with the Geneva Agreements and our Saigon-Cholon Committee was formed as a sort of watchdog to ensure the strict application of the Agreements.


“When Diem set out to crush the religious sects and large areas of the Saigon suburbs were burnt out in the battle against the Binh Xuyen, committees were set up to give relief to the victims. These represented the broadest section of the population, but were immediately suppressed by Diem, and leading members were arrested and tortured. Once Diem had consolidated his power, he lashed out at all sections of the population, at all the political parties, the religious sects, the minorities and the peasantry. The latter were the most dynamic in resisting, and in return received the heaviest blows at the beginning. Of 500,000 hectares of land distributed during the first resistance, all but 15 percent was taken back by Diem. Sects and political parties that had no mass basis were quickly eliminated. Major minor racial groups like the Chinese and Khmer had to adopt Vietnamese language names and customs. Khmer schools were closed down. For the larger minority groups it was a policy of brutal assimilation; for the lesser groups one of extermination. No class, no religious or racial grouping was spared.”


The assault against the peasantry was the greatest blunder of U.S.-Diemist policy. What happened in Central Vietnam was multiplied on a much larger scale in the South, especially in the Mekong Delta, the richest and most densely populated region of South Vietnam. In the 13 provinces of the Delta area were concentrated 5,700,000 of South Vietnam’s 14,000,000 population.


The Delta was a region of big estates, with absentee landlords on the old European pattern, who lived in luxury in Saigon, with rents paid into their bank accounts by plantation managers, who travelled abroad and sent their children to study in France. At the time of the first resistance, there were 2,700 owners of over 100 hectares, including 244 owners of over 500 hectares. At the other end of the scale there were 86,000 peasant families with less than a hectare and hundreds of thousands of others who had nothing at all.


The Delta is the country’s rice basket. It also had fruit, coconuts, fish and a valuable charcoal industry of a million tons a year, a major source of fuel for Saigon and other urban centres. During the war against the French, the land of absentee landlords — many of whom had acquired French nationality — was taken over and distributed to poor or landless peasants. In cases where landlords stayed on and did not collaborate with the French, rents were substantially reduced and old debts were canceled. About 350,000 of a total of 1,684,000 hectares of rice gelds were distributed. Of the big landowners, only about five percent continued to draw rents.


Diem worked out a scheme with his American adviser on land reform, Ladejinsky, to get this land back again. At a landlords-peasants conference in Saigon in September 1956, the landlords demanded reinstatement, with rents fixed at 33 percent of crops. The plan, subsequently approved, was to force peasants on the distributed land to sign contracts under which they would pay amounts ranging from 15 to 25 percent of their crops in rent, but as the pro-Diem Saigon paper Tu Do (Liberty) reported on March 3, 1960: “The contracts fixed rents at 25 percent, but in fact the landlords were levying 45 to 50 percent as in the old days with no reduction even when the crops were bad.” Moreover, they tried to squeeze out back payments for all those years when no rent had been paid.


Naturally the peasants resisted this, so the tax and rent collectors were escorted by police and army units. Among other schemes adopted was one to force owners to sell land in excess of 100 hectares — which did not affect Diem’s land-owning friends in Central Vietnam — to make a pool of land available for sale to the landless peasantry. But this was at exorbitant prices. By July 1960, four years after the decree on forced sale of property over 100 hectares was signed, only 90,000 hectares of land had been purchased by 41,000 peasant families.


For the peasants — whether the extortions were in the form of rents, part payments, interest payments or back debts — the results were the same. The bad old days were there again, the rent and tax collectors with the police and army at their beck and call. The seeds for the classic form of a peasants’ uprising, resistance to the rent and tax collectors, were sown.


Nguyen Tu Quang, a member of the Liberation Front’s Executive Committee for An Xuyen province (formerly Ca Mau, the extreme southern tip of the Mekong Delta) gave me some details of how the Front was formed in his area.


“People were desperate by 1959,” he explained. “They had tried all forms of legal struggle, individual petitions to the National Assembly as well as to provincial and district organs. Everything fell on deaf ears. As individual actions failed, they started collective struggle, deputations of a whole hamlet or group of hamlets to local authorities, but the more the protests the severer the repression. It came to the point where patriotic elements could no longer remain at home; they fled to the forest to find other means of carrying on the struggle. There in the forests a national front of patriots fleeing persecution came into being spontaneously. We put our heads together as to how to fight back.”


Nguyen Tu Quang himself was a tailor and also had to flee to the forest.


“At 3am on February 13, 1960,” he continued, “junks and sampans started converging on the market at the Cai Nuoc. They were laden not only with the usual pigs, chickens and goats, but with people from all over the district. Khue, the district commissioner, a real brute of a man, had his offices overlooking the market, but he fled when he saw the big crowd that had assembled. The police commissioner mobilised all the police and with batons drawn, they ordered the crowd to disperse. We refused — we were around 4,000 by then — and locked arms when the police tried to lash out and arrest people. A couple of hundred soldiers were called out and together with the police they started making arrests. The whole crowd, together with the local market people, marched to the jail with the arrested people, kicked in the doors and released those arrested and others held from previous arrests. The troops were ordered to fix bayonets and charge. They couldn’t charge because the crowd was too thick, but they stabbed at the legs of the women in the front ranks; some were badly stabbed, but they continued marching, blood streaming down their legs. The police commissioner ordered the troops to fire on the crowd, but the soldiers shouted to us: “Keep your heads down and we’ll fire high.” So we lay down and they fired over our heads. There was a stalemate for a while; Chinese merchants and restaurant owners brought us tea and food. We kept shouting our demands to see Khue and eventually he had to appear. Furious as he was, Khue had to promise in front of the whole crowd that he would forward our petition to the government.


“We doubted he would do it, but as a morale-builder for the people it was highly successful. We had some wounded, but we had freed people from the jail, humiliated Khue and staged a demonstration that we knew would soon become known all over the province. It had a big effect on the troops. A couple of dozen deserted on the spot.


“It was the beginning of political-military warfare.”


The Religious Sects


An important factor in the formation of the Front was the existence of the armed religious sects. After Diem drove the Binh Xuyen out of Saigon, he turned on the Cao Daists, using military pressures and U.S.-financed bribes to win over the military chiefs. Later he used the chief Cao Daist general, Tran Minh The, to make a treacherous attack on the Binh Xuyen in their jungle hideout. During the action, Diemist agents shot The in the back of the head.


The main Hoa Hao military leaders, Ba Cut and Nam Lua, after their forces had been defeated in battle, agreed to rally to Diem. On their way to a rendezvous to arrange this, they were captured by Diemist agents and beheaded.


Diem thought he had been very clever, but for the rank and file in all the sects these were very sharp lessons. They were not very well up on politics, but treachery was something they understood. They had not been consulted about mergers with the Diem forces, but the manner in which their leaders had betrayed them and been betrayed themselves turned the rank and file of the sects against their traditional chiefs and Diem at the same time.


By now, the remnants of the armed sects were in the Mekong Delta; the Cao Daists and Binh Xuyen in the Plain of Reeds near the Cambodian frontier, the Hoa Hao further south. Former resistance cadres made contact with them. The sects often lived on semi-banditry; they had no money and supplies, only arms, and used these to pillage the peasantry. The resistance people started to help them with shelter and food, and later with clothes, and brought their dispersed forces together, always stressing the prime importance of being at one with the people and never opposed to them. The Liberation Army was eventually formed partly on the basis of a merger of the rank and file of the forces from the three sects under the leadership of reliable, proven cadres of the first resistance war.


An important step in forging a National Front, was the section in early 1960 of the Association of Ex-Resistance Members, formed by those who had survived the Diemist extermination machine. The association later developed into the People’s Revolutionary Party. I met one of the founders of this association, a burly, middle-aged veteran revolutionary, Tran Nam Trung.


“When we were not using force to resist the unrestrained violence of the enemy,” he said, “the U.S.-puppets showed all their ferocity and inflicted enormous losses on us. But once we found a correct form of struggle, we learnt they were not as strong as they seemed. After we took the decision to form the National Front, to stand up and fight back, our losses were less.


“We realised we had to face up to something new, the ‘special warfare’ as laid down by the U.S. No. 1 military theoretician, General Maxwell Taylor, and we soon came to the conclusion that we needed a combined military-political form of struggle. The great majority of people by the end of 1959 were united in wanting to overthrow the U.S.-Diemist regime. And while we couldn’t try and overthrow power at the centre, the peasants did rise up in 1960-61 and in armed struggle seized power in the countryside.


“We use the term ‘armed struggle’,” Trung said, a smile fleeting over his powerful, rather somber face, “but when the people rose up, they had no arms; they used hoes, knives, agricultural implements, jungle weapons, even billets of wood-but. In 1960, there were less than 1,000 firearms at our disposal in the whole of South Vietnam. But planes, tanks and artillery were powerless to suppress the uprising. Although it was the peasants who rose up, they had the support of other sections of the population.”


At the time, the Buddhists were suffering considerable persecution, as were Catholic peasants and fishermen who had been tricked into leaving the North in 1954-55 under a Diem-created impression that the Virgin Mary had deserted North Vietnam for the South, and the ‘infidels’ that remained would be wiped out by nuclear bombs. The Catholic émigrés were being shot down and imprisoned for demanding either repatriation to the North again or fulfillment of pledges to provide them with homes and land or jobs. Buddhists and émigré Catholics were enthusiastic supporters of forming a broad front to fight for basic democratic rights, as were the religious sects, the Khmer and other ethnic minority groups, and the various associations that had mushroomed into existence.


The Nature of the Front


So a Front was formed that reflected all the forces in South Vietnamese society that Diem and Dulles had alienated.


Among the leaders with Nguyen Huu Tho when we had our first meeting, were a Catholic priest and high dignitaries of the Buddhist and Cao Dai religions, an architect, a pharmaceutical chemist, a journalist, the commander-in-chief of the Binh Xuyen armed forces, and a peasant. Among those I met elsewhere were another lawyer — apart from Nguyen Huu Tho — a radio engineer, a writer and dramatist, a journalist, a woman schoolteacher, a professional revolutionary, and a chief of the Rhade ethnic minority who represented the tribespeople of the Tay Nguyen.


The common factor that united them was a determination to overthrow the regime in Saigon and to set up one that would end foreign intervention and guarantee a minimum of democratic liberties. A detailed programme was worked out when the NFL held its first congress in February to March 1962. It provided for independence and neutrality in foreign affairs, diplomatic relations with all states, and foreign aid from all who would give it without strings, and moderate reform policies in internal affairs.


“Our programme reflects the broad nature of the Front and the forces represented in it,” said Nguyen Huu Tho. “We are in favour of land to the peasants for instance, but not systematic confiscation; we are for reduction of rents but for the maintenance of present property rights except in the case of traitors. Landlords who have not supported the U.S. puppets have nothing to fear. We respect the economic liberty of industrial and economic enterprises, legitimate property rights of foreigners and to a certain extent we are not opposed to foreign investments. Above all, the Front stands for democratic liberties, freedom of speech, assembly and movement, and in our liberated areas these basic freedoms do really exist.”


The Front’s armed forces were of three types: self-defense guerillas, regional guerillas and regular army. Self-defense guerillas are local village units, usually peasants by day and guerillas by night. Their primary task is to defend their own villages but also to carry out road destruction and neutralize enemy forces in the immediate vicinity of their villages. They usually rely a good deal on rudimentary arms, including a great variety of traps. Regional troops are on a more permanent basis, drawn from the region, perhaps a province or several provinces, which they are assigned to defend. Their job is to deal with enemy forces stationed in their region; to pin them down, harass or frustrate their operations. The regular army, based largely at first on the fusion of the remnants of the forces of the armed sects but which grew rapidly later with generous infusions of new blood from the peasantry, was to deal with the enemy’s mobile reserves and carry out military operations of their own, destruction of posts, counter “mopping up” operations, and so on.


Throughout 1961, there were peasant uprisings all over the country, mainly taking the form of cleaning the Diemist officials out of their villages and setting up local, elected bodies. “The great thing,” said Tran Nam Trung, “was that the peasants rose up and became the real masters of the countryside; they could end for all time the type of repression suffered in the preceding years. The greater part of Saigon authority was disrupted.


“In 1961, before Diem started the ‘strategic hamlets’ scheme inside the liberated areas, we had approached Saigon and other urban centres; our forces were right alongside the strategic highways.”


By that time, Diem was in very great danger. It was because of this that the USA decided to intervene by launching ‘special warfare’ within the framework of the Staley-Taylor plan. The principal points of the plan were:


1) To create a no-man’s land along the l7th parallel, and along the frontiers with Laos and Cambodia, by destroying all villages there and using air-sprayed chemicals to destroy the jungle, and thus isolate the liberated areas from the outside world.


2) To set up 16,000 ‘strategic hamlets’ into which two thirds of the whole population of the South would be concentrated. By doing that, they calculated to isolate all the resistance forces from the population.


3) Once the above two measures were completed, there would be a general military offensive to wipe out all organised resistance forces.


The first part of the plan was to have been completed by the end of 1962, but things worked out somewhat differently, despite the setting up of a U.S. military command in Saigon under General Paul Harkins and the gradual build-up of some 25,000 U.S. military ‘advisers’ and ‘instructors’ in South Vietnam.


Tug of War


If 1961 was a Front year, 1962 however must be largely credited to Saigon. With U.S. aid in men and materials pouring in from the end of 1961, a major effort was made to re-install Diemist power in the countryside. The use of helicopters and amphibious tanks to increase rapidity of movement and to avoid the devastating ambushes that the Diemist troops invariably fell into when they moved by road or river, caught the guerillas off balance at first. High mobility is something new in guerilla warfare — America’s only ‘special warfare’ tactical innovation. The drive to set up ‘strategic hamlets’ was also a problem for NFL organizers and an additional hardship for the population.


Set up under the guns of military posts, swathed in several rows of barbed wire or bamboo palisades with mine-filled moats in between and a fantastic system of espionage and controls inside, the ‘strategic hamlet’ represented Diem’s maximum hope of re-imposing his control in the countryside. It was a scheme that had total U.S. support and billions of dollars were spent.


The ‘strategic hamlet’ scheme looked very efficient on paper, as a means of preventing contact between villagers and resistance leaders. One fatal weakness was that it turned even the most passive and resigned among the population against Saigon. People were forced to abandon villages and soil they had tilled for generations, and to abandon the graves of their ancestors — a very serious thing in Asia. They had to watch while Diemist troops hacked down their fruit trees, filled in their fishponds and burned their homes. Freedom of movement was ended; peasants could only move outside the barbed wire to till fields immediately around the perimeter of the compounds and only in daylight hours; controlled and searched as they left the heavily guarded gateway, they were always at the mercy of armed hoodlums.


Although it was difficult for Front organizers to penetrate them, the ‘strategic hamlets’ were rich soil in which to sow seeds of resistance. One of the very first ‘strategic hamlets’ in Central Vietnam was set up at Ky-Lô in the Dong Xuan District of Phu Yen. Le Van Chien, a high cadre of the NFL, told me that the Front attached great importance to dismantling this particular hamlet because of the effect it would have on morale, “the enemy’s and ours,” as he put it.


“The difficulty was how to get in,” said Chien, a stocky, grey-haired veteran in his early 60s, one of the oldest Front cadres I met. “We had no guerilla base in that district and it was heavily fortified and guarded. Because it was a pilot project, the Diemists had also selected the toughest, roughest hoodlums to run it. We knew the gate opened at 7am and the buffalo were taken out first, boys on their backs in the traditional way. After taking the beasts to pasture, the boys returned to the compound for their early morning meal. We selected the youngest looking of our lads and when the buffalo boys came outside, we persuaded them to change clothes and it was our lads who went back in, in units of ten. The sleepy-eyed guards paid no attention; our lads went straight to the administrative headquarters, where the Diemist big shots were still asleep and rounded them all up; we had a fairly complete dossier on every one of them. They were really a prize lot, 13 altogether. People started tumbling out of their houses and could hardly believe it when they saw their oppressors tied up and very meek and begging the chance to apologise to the people and ask their mercy.


“The villagers wanted us to kill all 13, but we executed four. Another five we sentenced to prison terms and four who freely admitted their crimes on the spot and promised to repent, we set free. The local Diemist garrison, which had no stomach for a fight, surrendered and we took their arms.


“Our calculations were correct and news of this soon spread. People in 13 other ‘strategic hamlets’ in the same district rose up, dismantled the barbed wire and palisades, went back to their original villages and set up self-defense units. That was early in 1962. In March of that year, the Diemists launched their first famous Sea Swallow operation with a whole division and boasted they would wipe out the Viet Cong within a month. They did succeed in herding people back into some of the hamlets. But the people destroyed them again as soon as they withdrew.


The struggle could not develop everywhere as in Phu Yen. Although it had the most unfavourable conditions for guerilla warfare in Central Vietnam, it was a paradise compared to the flat Mekong Delta, which had no mountains and only forest in the unpopulated mangrove swamps bordering the coastal areas. During 1962, helicopter-borne troops took a fairly heavy toll of resistance fighters and there was a period when Front leadership almost decided the price was too high, that resistance in the Delta should cease and regular Front armed forces should withdraw to bases in the mountains.


“But when we discussed this,” one of the military leaders told me, “we realised in the bottom of our hearts that to withdraw from the Delta would mean never to return. It would mean to abandon the most revolutionary region, the foyer of the first uprising against the French in November 1940 and of the first resistance war in 1945. Millions of Delta peasants had vested their confidence in us: to desert them would be a terrible defeat.”


By the end of 1962, Diem had not been able to set up his 16,000 strategic hamlets, but he had set up many thousands and re-established some sort of nominal control in regions which a year previously had been solidly Front-controlled.


The tug-of-war struggle never ceased. Sometimes the outer fortifications were never completed, sometimes they were destroyed by the peasants themselves the very night on which they were completed. The blame always placed on the Viet Cong and with a complaint to the local Diemist authorities: “Why were you not here to protect us.”


In terms of territory and population, Diem made a considerable comeback in 1962; in terms of winning popular support, he lost out heavily. In strictly military terms, the U.S.-Diemist forces registered a number of successes and held the strategic and tactical initiative. But this situation was dramatically reversed in the very first days of 1963. In planning their anti-insurgency tactics, the American Saigon command was able to pool experiences from worldwide anti-guerilla operations since World War II — from General Van Fleet’s experiences in Greece in 1946 to those of American advisers in the Philippines against the Hukbalahap; the British in Kenya and Malaya; the Kuomintang in China, not to mention those of the French in Indo-China and in Algeria, where helicopters were used in anti-guerilla operations for the first time. But the Liberation Front, through the representatives it was able to get abroad in a remarkably short time, was also able to draw on experience from China and Korea to Cuba and Algeria.


If British experiments with concentration camp villages in Malaya and the French use of centres de regroupement and helicopter-borne troops in Algeria were valuable for the U.S. command, the development of anti-helicopter tactics by the FLN in Algeria was no less precious for the Liberation Front. So a world pooling of guerilla and anti-guerilla experiences went into operation in this very special war in South Vietnam.


If 1961 could be considered a Front year and 1962 was Diem’s year, in the tug-of-war for power, the Ap Bac battle was a good auger for the Front as to whose year 1963 was to be. That battle, proved to be a turning point; by the time 1963 was over, there was no longer a Diemist regime.


Wilfred Burchett was an Australian reporter often described at the ‘rebel journalist’ for his stories about the American War ‘from the other side’. After years of being at odds with the Australian government, last year the Melbourne Press Club inducted him into their Hall of Fame. Burchett was also the journalist to break the scoop of the 20th century — the devastation caused by dropping nuclear bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.


Special thanks to George Burchett for allowing us to republish this work. Please note that some of the language in this piece has been changed to reflect its modern-day spelling



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