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Some Clarifications on Lịch sử Nam bộ kháng chiến

Nguyen Trong Xuat, "Some Clarifications on Lịch sử Nam bộ kháng chiến," review of Lịch sử Nam bộ kháng chiến (History of the Southern Resistance), edited by Hội Đồng Chỉ Đạo Biên Soạn Lịch Sử Nam Bộ Kháng Chiến, Cold War International History Project, October 2014.

History is a Continuous Flow of Events

Here I will discuss the 1954-1975 period of the Resistance War in Southern Vietnam (ex-Cochinchina).[1]  History is a continuous flow of events, so if we take the 1954-1975 period out of the flow, we will not understand it. We can say that the 1954-1975 period is an extension of the earlier 1945-1954 period. Here I will just mention two events related to the 1945-1954 period:

First, that is President Truman’s words to the President of the Provisional Government of the Republic of France, General Charles de Gaulle on August 24, 1945, which de Gaulle recorded in his war memoirs: “In all cases, in regard to Indochina, my government doesn’t oppose the return of France's authority and military to this country” (“En tout cas, pour ce qui est de l’Indochine, mon gouvernement ne fait pas opposition au retour de l’autorité et de l’armée francaise dans ce pays”).[2] A few days later, on September 2, 1945, when he met with General Leclerc in Tokyo, General Douglas MacArthur advised: “Bring in troops, more troops, as many as you can.”[3]  We are surprised that many American authors did not mention these words, which, in my opinion, were the American “green light” to the French colonists to reoccupy Indochina (including Vietnam) after World War II despite the fact that the people in Vietnam had successfully carried out a general insurrection to seize power.

The second event is: Not only giving the green light, the United States also provided money and weapons for France to wage an invasion war against Vietnam. The former Defense Secretary Robert McNamara wrote in his diary, “In fact, during the decade just past, we had subsidized French military action against Ho's forces…”[4] However, a number of American authors themselves said that in the years 1945-1949, the US remained “neutral”  in regard to Indochina’s issues. Dr. Daniel Ellsberg has rightly said that “there had been no First and Second Indochina Wars, just one continuous conflict for almost a quarter of a century... it had been an American war almost from its beginning: at first French-American, eventually wholly American.”[5]

To Determine the Nature of a War, We must First Understand the Origins or the Causes of that War.


On September 2, 1945, President Ho Chi Minh read the Declaration of Independence, declaring the establishment of the State of Vietnam which was liberated from the yoke of foreign domination.

But just three weeks later, on September 23, 1945, with the “green light” of the US (as discussed above) and with the help of the British, the French provoked hostilities in Saigon, and began the war in Indochina.

Thus, on the French side, the 1945-1954 war in Vietnam was a colonial re-conquest, but on the Vietnamese side, it was a war to protect the freshly won independence, following the war against the French invasion in 1859.

It should also be recalled that in the fall of 1948 (three years after the war to retake the colony began), the Office of Intelligence and Research of the US Department of State concluded that “it could not find any hard evidence Ho Chi Minh actually took his orders from Moscow.”[6] At that time, Ho Chi Minh did not have any contact with Moscow or Beijing.

But Vice President Richard Nixon announced on January 12, 1953, that “there would be no Indochina War were it not for the existence of Communist China.”[7]  Joseph Buttinger had to remind the vice president that the French colonists had fired their first shots to invade Vietnam on September 23, 1945, four years before the People's Republic of China was born!  Yet until today, some people are still arguing that in 1945, the US supported the French colonists and did not support the resistance of the Vietnamese people because “this war was a part of the cold war between Capitalism and Communism”!

The resistance of the Vietnamese people was a struggle to protect national independence and territorial unity (from 1946 to 1948, the French colonists separated Southern Vietnam from the Vietnamese territory, and founded the so-called “The Autonomous Republic of Cochinchina”).  All the people in Vietnam (except for a minority of collaborators with the invaders) participated in that resistance led by Ho Chi Minh. The US Government called the Vietnamese people who fought against France “the enemy,” but President Eisenhower had to admit that “the enemy had much popular sympathy, and many civilians aided them by providing both shelter and information.”[8] On April 6, 1954, John F. Kennedy (a US Senator then) also commented: “An enemy of the people…has the sympathy and covert support of the people.”[9]  Journalist Joseph Alsop wrote: “The Viet Minh could not possibly have carried on the resistance for one year, let alone nine years, without the people’s strong, united support.”[10]


On July 21, 1954, the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV) and France signed an agreement in Geneva under which the military of both sides—the Vietnamese People’s Army and the French Union Army—would temporarily assemble in two regions while waiting for a general election to unify Vietnam in the summer of 1956.           

In his memoirs Mandate for Change, President Eisenhower believed that Ho Chi Minh would receive 80-percent of the vote. Therefore, as soon as the Geneva Agreements were signed, Eisenhower declared in a press conference on July 21, 1954 that “we were not a party to or bound by the decisions taken at the conference.”[11]

Nearly one year later, on July 16, 1955, Ngo Dinh Diem repeated almost verbatim this statement of the boss in the White House: “We did not sign the Geneva Agreements. We are not bound in any way by these agreements.”

We here open a parenthesis to affirm what Ngo Dinh Diem said was wrong, because:

- Lieutenant-General Henri Delteil signed the Geneva Agreements on behalf of the French Union Forces that included the National Army of Bao Dai and the French Expeditionary Corps.

- Article 27 of the Geneva Agreements defined: Not only two parties that sign the Geneva Agreements, but “their successors in their functions” also have the task of ensuring the respect of the implementation of these terms of the contract.

The two statements of Eisenhower and Ngo Dinh Diem showed that the US and the government of Saigon had no intention to implement the Geneva Agreements. In fact, they repeatedly violated the Geneva Agreements. And that is the underlying cause for the war flame to erupt back again in Vietnam for twenty years.

Here, we just mention the two most serious violations:

- First, Ngo Dinh Diem—supported by  the U.S. Government—did not organize the election in the summer of 1956 for fear that Ho Chi Minh would win the election, which prolonged the division of the Vietnamese territory for a long time.

- Secondly, Ngo Dinh Diem conducted a so-called “Anti-Communist Denunciation Campaign” from April 11, 1955. It was written on page 71 in The Pentagon Papers: “In the so-called anti-Communist denunciation campaign, which was begun in the summer of 1955, from 50,000 to 100,000 people (in South Vietnam) were put in detention.” The Pentagon Papers did not mention the number of people who were killed, which according to Avro Manhattan, were up to 80,000 people.[12]

The U.S. and Ngo Dinh Diem governments called the patriots in South Vietnam who demanded the implementation of the Geneva Agreements as “Viet Congs” (Vietnamese Communists). But according to the authors of The Pentagon Papers, “Many of the detainees were not Communist at all.[13] P.J. Honey had similar comments: “The majority of the detainees are neither Communist nor pro-Communist.[14]

Lieutenant- General Tran Van Don wrote in his diary: “Their [Diệm and Nhu’s] use of Gestapo-like police raids and tortures were known and decried everywhere.”[15] Did the former  Defense Secretary of the Republic of Vietnam know that the police of Ngo Dinh Diem were trained by Art Brandstatter, the head of the School of Police Administration or not?

The “Anti- Communist Denunciation Campaign” seriously breached Article 14C of the Geneva Agreements, which prohibited both the governments in the North and the South “to take revenge or discriminate against individuals or organizations for their activities during the war.” 

Up until July 20, 1956 (the time scheduled for the election for unification), the former resistance fighters, still abiding by the policy of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam, used peaceful means to demand the government of Ngo Dinh Diem to enforce the Geneva Agreements. They had not carried out any armed actions.     

When the July 20, 1956, deadline passed, seeing Ngo Dinh Diem outright tearing up the Geneva Agreements by imposing 10/59 Law (June 5, 1959), 10/62 Decree (May 16, 1962), and 11/62 Decree (May 21, 1962) to further detain and kill many people, a number of former resistance fighters could no longer sit still. They had to flee to the countryside or to the mountains, regrouped, and armed themselves to protect their comrades and to defend themselves. It was a natural reaction before the atrocities committed by the US-backed government of Ngo Dinh Diem.     

That was the origin of the “second war” in Vietnam.

Two white books, A Threat to the Peace: North Vietnam’s Effort to Conquer South Vietnam— December 1961 under Kennedy—and Aggression from the North— February 1965 under Johnson—blamed the Democratic Republic of Vietnam for causing the war. But The Pentagon Papers reflected reality more truthfully: “The US Government’s official view that the war was imposed on South Vietnam by aggression from Hanoi is not wholly compelling.”  According to US intelligence, in the years after the Geneva Agreements, “the war began largely as a rebellion in South against the increasingly oppressive and corrupt regime of Ngo Dinh Diem…Most of those who took up arms were South Vietnamese and the causes for which they fought were by no means contrived in North Vietnam.”[16]

And what was the Democratic Republic of Vietnam’s stance on the Geneva Agreements?      

After assembling the troops in the North of Vietnam, the DRV repeatedly suggested to the government of Ngo Dinh Diem to re-establish correspondence, cultural exchanges, and commercial trades between the two regions, and particularly to conduct negotiations in the preparation of the general election for re-unification.     

In parallel with diplomacy, the DRV asked the patriots in the South not to use weapons, but only peaceful means to demand the Ngo Dinh Diem administration to fully implement the provisions of the Geneva Agreements.   

 After July 21, 1956 (date scheduled for the general election), while Ngo Dinh Diem increasingly carried out fierce repressions against the nationalists in the South, the DRV, renouncing armed conflicts, continued its peaceful political struggle with Ngo Dinh Diem.

It was not until May 1959 that the DRV, which could no longer sit and watch the compatriots in South Vietnam slowly die under the brutal rule of Ngo Dinh Diem, agreed with their requests, and decided to wage war against the regime of Ngo Dinh Diem.[17]

According to US intelligence, “until 1964, almost all the infiltrators [into the South] were native southerners who went to the North in 1954.”[18]     

Thus, the armed conflicts started only five years after the Geneva Agreements had been signed and three years after Diem had torn up these agreements.     

We are presenting the lengthy causes of the war to affirm its nature as a war for independence and freedom (against the US-built and protected Ngo Dinh Diem’s tyranny). It was not an “ideological war,” a “proxy war,” or “a part of the Cold War.” It is necessary to remember, when the southerners’ insurrection began in 1959, both the Soviet Union and China did not approve it.    

Perhaps we have not forgotten the words from Vice President Richard Nixon on April 11, 1953, before the French Union officers calling for an prolonged war: “It is impossible to lay down arms until victory is completely won.”[19] A month before the Geneva Conference began, the Special Committee stated: “[1] It be U.S. policy to accept nothing short of a military victory in Indo-China; [2] It be the U.S. position to obtain French support of this position; and that failing this, the U.S. actively oppose any negotiated settlement in Indo-China at Geneva.”[20] Despite the negative attitude of the United States, the parties involved in the war have reached a truce agreement and have committed to the general election, which would be held two years later. Unable to undermine the Geneva Conference, the US actively sabotaged the Geneva Agreements as just described above. In other words, the United States went against the desire of peace, independence and unity of the three Indochinese peoples who were the victims of the war and the yoke of foreign invaders for almost a century. 

I intend to stop here, but since reviews have raised the issue of “regroupment/ regrouping” and migration in 1954, I would like to add some clarifications:

Article 1 (Chapter I) of the Geneva Agreements consented that the two parties (Vietnam and the French Union) have to regroup their armies on one side or the other of the provisional  military demarcation  line (i.e. the 17th parallel). Article 1 did not require civilians to be regrouped along with the military. Who wanted to go, could do so of his free will. Hence thousands of civilians, who were natives of the South and joined the resistance against the French or lived in the regions governed by the DRV, migrated to the North and 85,000 others decided to remain in the South. That was a normal thing, and that was not contrary to the Geneva Agreements. There were many reasons for them to remain in the South:

- They were southerners, so they preferred to live in the South because they were familiar with the climate, food, customs, and habits in the South.

- They thought that two years after the Geneva Conference there would be a general election. The country would be unified, so there was no need to go anywhere, etc.

The DRV did not encourage nor discourage civilians in the South to migrate to the North.

Meanwhile, there were 850,000 military personnel, civil servants, and civilians migrated from the North to the South. Who were they?

- They were collaborators with the colonialist French and Bao Dai governments, having worked in the administration and arm of France and Bao Dai, and relatives of those people.

- They were landlords and rich merchants who enriched themselves during the war.

- And most of them were the Catholics (the official figures went up to 794,000, according to Joseph Buttinger.[21]

Why were there so many Catholics who migrated to the south? That was because of three people:

- First, Pope Pius XII said in 1951 to General de Lattre de Tassigny, High Commissioner and commander in chief of the French expeditionary forces in Indochina: “I bless the French army, of which you are the commander and representative, because that army is protecting the Catholic civilization in Indochina.”[22] Now that “army that was protecting the Catholic civilization” had lost and drawn into the south, hence many Catholics migrated to the South, which was normal.

- Secondly, the dignitaries of the Roman Catholic Church in Vietnam held in Hanoi on January 9, 1951, issued a general clerical letter prohibiting Vietnamese Catholics to cooperate with Vietnamese communists [i.e. Viet Minh] fighting for independence and freedom, or to do anything that might contribute to bring these people to power. Now these people came to power in the North, so the fact many Catholics migrated to the South was also normal.

- The third person who contributed to the migration of many Catholics to the South was CIA colonel Edward Lansdale, head of the Saigon Military Mission. He launched all sorts of psychological warfare rumors, such as “the US were going to drop atomic bombs aimed at destroying the North,” and “our Virgin Mary who appeared in Ba Long (Thanh Hoa) ordered the Catholics to leave the North for the South.”

These things were not secrets at all. Everyone in our country has known them for a long time. And if I'm not mistaken, many Western historians such as George McTurnan Kahin, Stanley Karnow, Michael Maclear, Philippe Devillers, and Joseph Buttinger, have mentioned it in their works.

I would like to raise three questions that we haven’t found the perfect answers:    

(1) Why did the US, with all the military forces and the enormous financial investment for the Vietnam War against the uprising of a smaller and poorer nation, not succeed?    

(2) Why was there a division of the American people who did not see the people of Vietnam as “enemies,” and actively supported this resistance war instead, during the intervention of five consecutive Presidents (Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon)—directly and indirectly—against the resistance of the people of Vietnam? I still remember the image of the National Front for the Liberation of South Vietnam’s flag flying at the center of Washington, DC, and of millions of Americans down in the streets crying out slogans that the National Front of Liberation would win. We don’t see that same staunch anti-war movement in any other American wars, from the Korean War to the war in Afghanistan.

(3) In the history of the relations between the two countries, there were at least three missed opportunities:

1. After Vietnam gained the independence (September 2, 1945), before the risk of an invasion from the French colonists, President Ho Chi Minh had sent letters and telegrams to Harry S. Truman and his Secretaries of State. In the letter dated February 16, 1946, Ho Chi Minh said: “Our goal is a complete independence and full cooperation with the United States.”[23] All the letters and telegrams from Vietnam were not answered.

2. After 1954, if the Geneva Agreements were seriously and fully implemented, peace would have been restored. Independence and unity would have been reinstated in Vietnam two years later.

3. After 1973, if the Paris Peace Agreements were respected, war would have been terminated two years earlier.

(4) What lessons do we all need to draw from the past war for the relationship between the U.S. and Vietnam in the future?

Click Here to Return to the Symposium on the History of Vietnam's Southern Resistance

[1] This essay was originally presented as a speech by Nguyen Trong Xuat on September 29, 2013.

[2] Charles de Gaulle, Mémoires de Guerre, tome III, 249-250.

[3] Philippe Devillers, Histoire du Vietnam de 1940 à 1952, 150.

[4] Robert McNamara, In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam, 31.

[5] D. Ellsberg, Secrets: A Memoir of Vietnam and the Pentagon Papers, 255.

[6]The Pentagon Papers as published by The New York Times, 8.

[7] Joseph Buttinger, Vietnam: A Dragon Embattled, tome II, 823.

[8] Dwight D. Eisenhower, Mandate for Change, 433.

[9] quoted by Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., A Thousand Days, 301.

[10] “ A Reporter at Large,” The New Yorker, June 25, 1955, 48.

[11]Mandate for Change, 448.

[12]Vietnam - Why Did We Go?,  89.

[13]The Pentagon Papers, 71.

[14] “The Problem of Democracy in Vietnam”, The World Today, February 16, 1960, 73.

[15] Tran Van Don, Our Endless War, 66.

[16]The Pentagon Papers, 67.

[17]The Pentagon Papers, 76.

[18]The Pentagon Papers, 77.

[19]The New York Times, November 5, 1953.

[20]The Pentagon Papers, 36.

[21]Vietnam, a Dragon Embattled, tome II, 900.

[22] Rev. Tran Tam Tinh, César et Dieu, Sudestasie Publishing House, Paris, 1978.

[23] U.S. Department of Defense, United States - Vietnam Relations, 1945-1967, Volume I, p. C-96.


About the Author

Nguyen Trong Xuat

Secretary-General of the Editorial Board of Lịch sử Nam bộ kháng chiến (History of the Southern Resistance)
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