The Tet Offensive and the Media
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Vietnam, Democratic Republic of: 1954–1975

The leaders of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV) never deviated from their goal of unifying the whole of Vietnam under Communist rule. The 1954 Geneva Accords provided that Vietnam was one state temporarily divided at the 17th parallel pending national elections in 1956. The final declaration, however, was unsigned, and neither the United States nor South Vietnam accepted its operative terms. The Geneva compromise was a great disappointment to DRV leaders, who were induced to accept less, for the time being, by their Soviet and Communist Chinese allies in order to prevent the possibility of U.S. entry into the conflict.

In the mid-1950s DRV leaders retained two goals: the Marxist consolidation of strength (political and economic) in the North and the "struggle for national reunification." In a step toward attaining the first goal and eliminating the dissension and factionalism that characterized Vietnamese culture, DRV leaders sought to obtain the loyalty of the masses by carrying out "land reform." This was in spite of the fact that the North, unlike the South, consisted almost entirely of small landholders. In December 1953 the National Assembly of the DRV called for the confiscation of land and property of the entire "landlord" class. Although there were landholders who had abused the poor, the party was not interested in justice as much as it was interested in class warfare.

Following the example of other Communist nations, especially the People's Republic of China, the peasantry was encouraged to denounce and try landholders, with the aim of temporarily redistributing their holdings among landless peasantry. This resulted in execution or death by starvation of up to 100,000 "landlords." This so-called land reform work was temporarily halted during the 300-day period of free movement provided by the Geneva Accords across the 17th parallel in an effort to limit emigration south. The Viet Minh blocked the emigration of approximately 400,000 people, but more than 928,000 civilians made it to South Vietnam nevertheless.

When the 300 days ended, people's courts resumed their ideologically driven work, accusing landholders of being American lackeys or imperialists and denouncing those who committed suicide as "saboteurs." Those who opposed this policy, including party members who refused to participate, were consigned to forced labor camps to study Marxist-Leninist teachings. Many of the condemned landholders had only marginal holdings, and unrest led Ho Chi Minh to admit publicly that cadres had committed errors and excesses. This was followed, as in China, by a campaign to "rectify errors," which ended the terror and led to the release of thousands of survivors. Some victims were also allowed to take revenge on land reform cadres. However, this did not prevent a number of peasant revolts, the most serious of which occurred in Ho's native province of Nghe An on November 2, 1956. Apparently, religious oppression and the party's plans to collectivize land recently awarded to individual peasant farmers sparked the uprising of Catholics in Cem Truong village, Qu?nh Luu District. It was crushed by the 325th People's Army of Vietnam (PAVN) Division, resulting in the death or deportation of thousands of peasants. Several hundred peasants made it on foot to South Vietnam with the intervention of the International Commission for Supervision and Control. Although land reform succeeded in increasing the number of those dependent on the party's power, it adversely affected crop production, and famine was averted only through Soviet assistance.

Economic reconstruction of the DRV was essential to continuing the Vietnamese revolution. Soviet-bloc aid to the DRV was, according to Bernard Fall, comparable to U.S. aid levels for the Republic of Vietnam (RVN). From 1955 to 1961 grants and loans for economic aid exceeded $1 billion. Despite impressive advances in industrial development, agriculture continued to lag behind that of the RVN, which had a smaller population, yet produced more rice. Although many peasants resisted collectivization of the land, the process of forming lower-stage agricultural cooperatives was completed by 1962.

The other preoccupation of the DRV leadership was reunification. In accordance with the 1954 Geneva Conference agreement, Viet Minh soldiers were regrouped into the North, but political cadres remained in the South to prepare for the 1956 elections. But the RVN government of Ngo Dinh Diem, whose brother had been killed by the Communists and whose regime became repressive, rebuffed all demands of DRV Premier Pham Van Dong for national elections.

By the summer of 1956, Diem's "denunciation of Communists" campaign had allegedly eliminated 90 percent of the party's cells in the South. After the Geneva Accords, the DRV left approximately 3,500 armed guerrillas in South Vietnam, in remote locations such as the U Minh Forest of the Mekong Delta, where they received direction from Politburo member Le Duan. But the DRV was constrained by the global strategy of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU), which at their January 1956 Moscow meeting proclaimed a policy of peaceful coexistence with the West. Resistance to this policy was voiced by Truong Chinh, who had attended the CPSU Congress with Le Duc Tho, at the Ninth Plenum of the Central Committee in April 1956. As head of the Regional Committee of the South, Le Duan proposed before the Plenum the organization of 20 main force battalions and guerrilla units in friendly villages. His work, The Path of Revolution in the South, encouraged a more activist approach, with the party leading the masses. This, along with Diem's campaign in the South, undermined the primacy of political struggle and led the Eleventh Plenum in December 1957 to launch a program of assassination of Diem government supporters, ranging from "wicked landlords" to village officials and teachers. This campaign was officially labeled "extermination of traitors."

Thirty-seven armed companies were organized in the South by October 1957 on orders from Hanoi. With the insurgency under way, President Diem rebuffed DRV efforts to arrange trade normalization. Le Duan was recalled to Hanoi as acting first secretary of the party and traveled with Ho Chi Minh to Moscow to seek support for the new approach.

In February 1951, Ho had changed the name of the Communist Party to the Dang Lao Dong Viet Nam (Vietnamese Workers' Party), popularly known as the Lao Dong (or Workers' Party), the intention being to mask communism and widen nationalist support throughout Vietnam. In January 1959, the Lao Dong Party's Fifteenth Plenum decided to use armed force to topple the Diem government. In May 1959 the DRV government authorized the formation of Group 559, which began work on enlarging the Ho Chi Minh Trail; meanwhile Group 779 began seaborne infiltration.

In September 1960, the Third Congress of the Lao Dong Party named Le Duan as secretary-general. The Congress also made it clear that the Vietnamese revolution retained "two strategic tasks;" namely to "carry out the socialist revolution in the North" and to "achieve national reunification." In regard to the first, it is worth noting that in 1960 the DRV obtained a long-term loan from the Soviets, which provided for the construction of 43 industrial plants, including eight thermal power stations. The People's Republic of China (PRC) provided a similar loan to enlarge 29 existing plants, including the Thai Nguyen steel mill complex and a large fertilizer factory in Bac Giang, which also produced explosives for the PAVN.

A First Five Year Plan was initiated in 1961 on the Soviet model, with central planning and priority given to heavy industry. Steel and coal production, electric power generation, rolling stock, and other basic industries became the focus. The Soviets also constructed a machine tool plant and a super-phosphate factory. The Chinese built roads and plants, Mongolia provided 100,000 breed cattle, and East Germany sent an ocean fishing fleet and supplies to build a hospital. Only about 10 percent of the DRV's trade was with non-Communist nations. Industrial production as a percentage of the gross national product increased from 31.4 percent in 1957 to 53.4 percent by 1964.

To facilitate the second task of the revolution and recognizing that its operatives in the South were on the verge of open guerrilla war, on December 20, 1960 the party created the National Liberation Front (NLF) and its military branch. This apparently liberal, nationalist front to overthrow the Diem regime was in fact tightly controlled by the DRV through the newly revived Central Office for South Vietnam (COSVN), but the party's success in concealing this linkage gave the NLF insurgency worldwide sympathy. Military units in the Western Highlands and the Mekong Delta were consolidated into the People's Liberation Armed Forces (PLAF), better known to their enemies as the Viet Cong (VC). T he creation of the People's Revolutionary Party in 1962 (in effect, a branch of the Lao Dong Party) was another step toward the takeover of the South.

The DRV accepted the John F. Kennedy administration-initiated Geneva Accords of 1962 on Laos, but failed to live up to its provisions to reduce its advisors with the Pathet Lao and remove its personnel on way stations along the Ho Chi Minh Trail. When the Ninth Plenum of the Central Committee in December 1963 decided to escalate the war effort in South Vietnam, the Communists received crucial support from the PRC, which provided 90,000 rifles and machine guns to the Viet Cong in 1962 alone.

After the August 1964 Tonkin Gulf incidents and the ouster of Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev that October, DRV leaders appealed to the Soviets for more aid, while at the same time working to preserve their ties with the Chinese. This was reflected in the February 1965 visit of Soviet Premier Aleksei Kosygin to Hanoi, which was followed by aid agreements in April and June and a Soviet-bloc conference in Moscow (October 1966) that promised $1 billion in military and financial aid. The Chinese had agreed in July 1965 to provide the DRV with $200 million in "national defense and economic supplies." The DRV decision to move to big unit (conventional) war could not have been made without these pacts.

In an effort to exploit Viet Cong successes, the leadership also decided in 1964 to send regular PAVN troops down the Ho Chi Minh Trail to the South. Up to this point, most of those sent to the South were native Viet Minh southern veterans who had been regrouped in the North in accordance with the 1954 Geneva Agreements. By 1964 the Trail had been prepared to accommodate greater infiltration and, as a result of Soviet and Chinese assistance, it could now handle trucks and other vehicles. However, the attempt of the PAVN and VC to cut South Vietnam in two from the Central Highlands to the coast was frustrated by the 1965 entry of U.S. ground troops into the conflict. The U.S. 1st Cavalry Division (Airmobile) defeated three PAVN regiments in the Ia Drang Valley late that year.

The commitment of 200,000 U.S. troops to the Republic of Vietnam led the Twelfth Plenum of the Central Committee in December 1965 to decide upon protracted war. Big-unit war proved costly in the face of a continuing U.S. troop buildup. By 1967 declining volunteers and heavy casualties forced more PAVN and VC units to seek refuge in sanctuaries in "neutral" Laos and Cambodia. When the Fourteenth Plenum of the Central Committee met in late 1967, it finalized plans for a "general offensive, general uprising" (the Tet Offensive), despite the presence of 500,000 U.S. troops. Reportedly, Defense Minister General Vo Nguyen Giap opposed risking so much, but he accepted the decision when the party shifted the brunt of the fighting to VC units. Although the party's hopes for a general uprising of the South Vietnamese populace proved illusory, the shock of a countrywide offensive was sufficient to persuade the Lyndon B. Johnson administration to seek a negotiated end to the conflict, including a halt to bombing above the 20th parallel.

The 1968 Tet Offensive would not have been possible without massive Soviet and Chinese aid. Moscow had begun operating some North Vietnamese air defense missile batteries in July 1965, and until March 1968 the Chinese had up to 170,000 troops in the DRV, staffing air defenses (three antiaircraft divisions), building the logistic system, and repairing roads and bridges. Chinese reports indicate that they suffered 20,000 casualties in U.S. bombing. The DRV Air Force was forced by the destruction of its airfields to operate out of bases in southern China that were off limits to U.S. aircraft.

Nonetheless, according to British Consul General in Hanoi John Colvin, the United States had won the air war by the end of 1967 because DRV ports and rails were out of action. Factories, schools, and hospitals, along with most of the civilians in Hanoi, Hai Phong, Nam Dinh, Viet Tri, and Thanh Hûa, were moved outside city limits, leaving the former bustling inner cities nearly empty. This slowed and changed the focus of industrial production as well. The Tet Offensive had also failed to such an extent that the Viet Cong never recovered its former strength, and North Vietnamization of its forces became necessary.

Seeking an end to all bombing of the North, the DRV agreed to talks in Paris, but adopted the tactic of "fighting and talking," which was designed to exacerbate differences between the United States and the RVN and to intensify antiwar pressures in the United States. Not surprisingly, these talks achieved little. There was an understanding, however, that, in return for a complete bombing halt over the North, the Communists would refrain from attacks on the cities. When the latter was violated by an offensive in February 1969, the Richard M. Nixon administration initiated the secret bombing of Communist sanctuaries in Cambodia and announced its Vietnamization policy. The DRV leadership could not protest because it denied having troops in Cambodia, but the bombing of Cambodia prompted them to agree to secret talks in Paris.

Ho Chi Minh's death in September 1969 temporarily resolved the debate in Hanoi in favor of those who wanted a guerrilla war. U.S. and Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) pacification efforts achieved successes between 1970 and 1971, but intensive efforts to rebuild Communist forces were under way. The U.S. incursion into Cambodia to support the forces of Lon Nol in 1970 and the U.S. encouragement of the ARVN effort to destroy Communist bases and cut the Ho Chi Minh Trail in southern Laos (Operation LAM SON 719) probably forced the North Vietnamese to postpone by one year the great offensive approved by the Nineteenth Plenum. By 1971, the U.S.S.R. had provided the DRV some $3 billion in economic and military assistance, while the PRC had provided an additional $1 billion. Both governments gave additional aid increases for the upcoming offensive.

The Nixon administration had arranged summits with both Beijing and Moscow in 1972 to obtain Chinese and Soviet cooperation in bringing about a negotiated settlement in Vietnam. Nonetheless, the DRV launched an all-out offensive with 14 PAVN divisions in a conventional attack that employed Soviet-supplied tanks and artillery. The Nguyen Hue (or Easter Offensive) was timed to impact the 1972 U.S. presidential election and was launched when there were only 6,000 U.S. combat troops in Vietnam. But President Nixon's decision to escalate the air war, resume the bombing of the North, target PAVN forces in the South, and mine Hai Phong Harbor resulted in a crushing PAVN defeat, with losses estimated at 100,000 troops.

Receiving pressure from both the Soviets and the Chinese, Hanoi sought a settlement through the secret Henry Kissinger-Le Duc Tho talks in Paris. The breakthrough came on October 8, 1972, with agreement to an immediate cease-fire in place, followed by a completion of the U.S. troop withdrawal and an exchange of prisoners. But key to the agreement was the concession that North Vietnamese troops did not have to leave territory they occupied inside South Vietnam. This and other substantive problems caused RVN President Nguyen Van Thieu to balk, delaying the final agreement. Hanoi agreed to reopen the negotiations but stalled, hoping the Nixon administration would be compelled to make further concessions based on congressional deadlines or anti-war pressures. When the DRV discontinued the talks on December 13, President Nixon ordered the intense LINEBACKER II bombing, which convinced the DRV to settle, since its air defenses were devastated and its economy was in ruins. DRV leaders claimed that the bombing had produced suffering akin to a holocaust. DRV claims to the contrary, U.S. newsman Michael W. Browne of the New York Times on visiting Hanoi observed that "the damage caused by American bombing was grossly overstated by North Vietnamese propaganda."

In return for an end to the bombing, DRV leaders agreed to return to the Kissinger-Le Duc Tho talks and ultimately agreed to the cease-fire agreement, privately assuring the United States that they would arrange a cease-fire in Laos as well, but claiming that they could not do the same in Cambodia. The DRV was left in control of about 20 percent of the South and redeployed troops in Cambodia to their former jungle sanctuaries on the RVN border.

With the removal of U.S. combat troops and advisors, the DRV concentrated on rebuilding its own forces. Soviet heavy artillery, air defense missiles, and armored vehicles were moved south during the next two years. A captured COSVN directive describing the post cease-fire period stated, "This period will be a great opportunity for revolutionary violence, for gaining power in South Vietnam. . . ."

The third Indo-China War began almost immediately. The Canadians, representatives on the International Commission of Supervision and Control, withdrew in frustration as they were being arrested and treated as prisoners by the PLAF. They reported that the most serious violations were North Vietnamese disregard for Lao and Cambodian neutrality and continuing infiltration into the RVN.

Secretary of State Kissinger visited Hanoi in February 1973 to confront the Communists with a report of more than 200 ceasefire violations, but DRV leaders wanted only to discuss the money promised them for reconstruction. Saigon's effort to regain lost territory and the passage of the Case-Church Amendment that ended funding for U.S. forces in Southeast Asia prompted the Twenty-First Plenum of the Central Committee in October 1973 to approve "strategic raids" on isolated ARVN bases in order to clear their "logistics corridor," cut key communication with Saigon, regain lost territory, and begin preparation for a culminating offensive to win the war. Critical to PAVN's success was the movement of troops and materiel down the Ho Chi Minh Trail, the construction of an oil pipeline, and a paved highway from Quang Tri in the north through the Central Highlands to Loc Ninh in the South. Also key was the aggressive initiative of theater commander General Tran Van Tra, who persuaded Le Duan to back his plan for attacking Phuoc Long Province, despite concerns over the level of war materiels and the U.S. reaction.

When the United States did not react to the seizing of Phuoc Long Province in December 1974, the DRV, confident that the Ford administration would not send in airpower, pushed ahead with an all-out invasion of the South (the Ho Chi Minh Campaign), which they anticipated would take two years to complete. But RVN President Nguyen Van Thieu's precipitous abandonment of the Central Highlands was the beginning of a rout as PAVN forces, led by General Van Tien Dung and reequipped with modern Soviet tanks and other weapons, completed the conquest of the RVN well ahead of schedule. Saigon fell on April 30, 1975. The DRV also celebrated the victories of its allies in Cambodia and in Laos, where PAVN divisions were instrumental in the Pathet Lao victory.

Chief of the Soviet Armed Forces General Viktor Kulikov had hurried to Hanoi after the capture of Phuoc Long Province to offer an estimated 400 percent increase in military aid to complete the destruction of the RVN. The Communist Chinese, who had assumed the aid burden for the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, also provided critical military aid. During the war years, they provided about 500,000 tons of grain per year to help feed the urban population of the North.

During the second and third Indo-China Wars, the combined losses of the DRV and the RVN were at least 1 million troops. The DRV suffered heavy bomb damage in six industrial cities, and 32 towns required major rebuilding. Another challenge facing Vietnam was trying to feed the 49 million people of the reunified country, especially considering that the Socialist transformation of the South was made a high priority.

Claude R. Sasso

 

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