Vietnam 2010

A whistle-stop trip from north to south (and a hop next door)

Ho Chi Minh

Reviled by GIs and western, anti-communist politicians, Ho Chi Minh is the hero of the Vietnamese, following his leadership in guerilla resistance again Japanese, French and American occupations over a period of nearly 30 years. A founding member of the French Communist Party, Ho Chi Minh formed the Vietnam Revolutionary League which assisted exiled Vietnamese nationalists on the Chinese border and eventually formed the Viet Minh, a guerilla organization which saw the opportunity to free the country from foreign domination when the Japanese invaded in 1940.

At the end of the war, Ho Chi Minh formed the Democratic Republic of Vietnam. When Japan surrendered after the bombing of Hiroshima, the Viet Minh was in a good position to take control of Vietnam. Unknown to the Vietnamese, the western allies had already decided on the country’s fate. It was to be divided in half, the north under the control of China and the south under British control. Unhappy with its exclusion, France  engaged in political bartering with China that saw it regain control of the north. Refusing to recognize the Democratic Republic of Vietnam, France engaged in military tactics with the Viet Minh. By 1953, France controlled the south of the country while the Viet Minh held fast in the north. Following fierce guerilla warfare, the French were eventually forced to surrender and in May 1954, withdrew from Vietnam.

Terms of the peace agreement included the division of the country along the 17th parallel, the north to be governed by Ho Chi Minh and the south ruled by Ngo Dinh Diem, a strong opponent of communism. Vietnamese citizens could choose to live in the north or south. A general election was to be held in July of 1956. Ho Chi Minh believed that citizens of the south would elect the Viet Minh to power, favouring a united Vietnam. Western powers believed similarly that the south would vote for reunification. But Ngo Dinh Diem had no intention of holding elections in the south. Many people from the south took to the forests to launch guerilla terror attacks on Diem’s government officials. Ho Chi Minh opposed this tactic and encouraged the guerilla forces to organize support rather than commit acts of terror on the Diem government. He offered to assist the resistance forces with aid, encouraging the different groups to unite to form the NLF (National Front for the Liberation of South Vietnam) which later became known as the Viet Cong. The Viet Cong comprised over a dozen different political and religious groups and although its leader, a Saigon lawyer was not Marxist, the majority of the members supported communism.

The Viet Cong relied on the support of peasants in the area, following the guerilla war principles espoused by China’s Mao. When the Viet Cong entered a village, they followed the same strict code of conduct that Ho’s Viet Minh followed years earlier:

  1. Not to do what is likely to damage the land and crops or spoil the houses and belongings of the people;
  2. Not to insist on buying or borrowing what the people are not willing to sell or lend;
  3. Never to break our word;
  4. Not to do or speak what is likely to make people believe that we hold them in contempt;
  5. To help them in their daily work (harvesting, fetching firewood, carrying water, sewing, etc.).
  6. In spare time, to tell amusing, simple, and short stories useful to the Resistance, but not to betray secrets.
  7. Whenever possible to buy commodities for those who live far from the market.
  8. To teach the population the national script and elementary hygiene.

In 1964, Lyndon B Johnson launce Operation Rolling Thunder in an effort to destroy the North Vietnamese economy to prevent it from assisting the resistance in the south. Ho remained in Hanoi, refusing to negotiate with the US and demanding a full withdrawal of foreign troops from South Vietnam. Heavy bombing in the north and on NLF targets in the south was planned to last 8 weeks. After 3 years, the US had dropped over 1 million tons of bombs on Vietnam. The 1968 Tet offensive provided a turning point in the war. Although the Viet Cong suffered enormous losses in a huge tactical failure, it broke the spirit of the US offensive and negotiations to end the war got underway. With the outcome of the war still undecided, Ho passed away in September of 1969, with encouragement to continue fighting until all of Vietnam was reunited under the communist government. Only 6 years after his death were the North Vietnamese successful in conquering Saigon and with it, South Vietnam.

When all factors were taken into consideration it was argued that it cost the United States “ten dollars for every dollar’s worth of damage inflicted.”

Vietnam‘s long road to independence and unification came at a terrible human cost. Around 400,000 killed in the First Indochina War. About three million killed in the Second Indochina War. Tens of thousands of atrocities committed on both sides, including executions and assassinations.

Immediately after the war, and over six years after Ho’s death, about 65,000 were executed by the communists. Over 100,000 died in ‘re-education’ camps. Around 200,000 of the Boat People died during their flight from the communist regime.

Overall, around four million Vietnamese perished as a direct result of the wars and their aftermath. The impact of the wars on neighbouring Cambodia and Laos resulted in the loss of at least one million other lives. That’s a big tally – five million and rising.



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