Saturday, 19 April 2014

South Vietnam 1956 to 1962

Heading for a new life in the South, refugees board
one of the U.S. Navy vessels employed in 'Operation
Passage to Freedom' in 1955.
Following the partition of Vietnam at the 17th Parallel, the French steadily reduced the numbers of troops in Vietnam, with the last leaving in April 1956. For a short 300 day period Vietnamese people were free to travel to the North and South sectors of the country, so as to be able to preserve familial ties, or to live under their preferred system of government, once the transit period ended. The U.S.A. assisted the French by provided transport ships under its 'Operation Passage to Freedom' to allow Vietnamese in the North to travel to the South, but offered no such assistance to those wishing to go North.

For the Diệm regime in the South this provided a massive influx of support from the North in the form of 600,000 Vietnamese Catholics, within which were a substantial portion of the North's French-speaking middle class, who Diệm believed would provide a significant base of support. Their arrival boosted Diệm's confidence and in the belief that they would provide a solid core of support, but that any referendum would support re-unification under the communist North, the referendum was cancelled.

The exodus from the North created a number of problems however. Firstly there was the problem of integrating them into the population, as land distribution was a major issue in some areas, while others were unsuitable for the farming methods the refugees were used to. Cultural differences were also a problem too. While some camps had been constructed to deal with the initial surge in population, many refugee communities established themselves on the roads leading out of Saigon, were thousands of former-city dwellers lived in shanty towns, while seeking work in the capital itself. The same was also true in other major population centres.

Besides those communists who remained in the South, others used the refugee exodus as a means of infiltrating the South, where they agitated within the camps and sought converts in the now de-stabilised rural areas. A new insurgency movement, the Viet Cong, was established, which carried out an initially very low-key insurgency, largely consisting of assassinations and bombings. They were hampered by there being no useful supply route from the North at this time however, but where able to begin the process of recruiting members and converting the loyalties of the rural population.

U.S. President Eisenhower greets President Ngô Đình Diệm on arrival in the U.S. in 1957. At this stage the Americans were still wholly behind Diệm's regime.

Prevarication on the part of the Diệm regime and the almost certain lack of free elections in the northern part of Vietnam, eventually resulted in the declaration of the independent Republic of South Vietnam in 1955, the North retaining the title of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam, as well as the professed goal of unifying North and South into a single state. North Vietnam supported the Viet Cong as best as it was able, but also began to construct a supply route to the South through neighbouring Laos and Cambodia and sent trained personnel (many of them former residents of the South) to assist in building the insurgency.

American involvement in Vietnam was somewhat subtle at first, especially as relations between the U.S.A. and France suffered a series of setbacks during the mid-50s, largely surrounding both their and Britain's apparently inadequate support of France in Indochina and latterly due to American anger of the Suez Crisis. Nevertheless as the French left, the U.S. began increasing the scale of its involvement in Vietnam and newly independent Laos and Campodia, who themselves were somewhat destabilised due to communist infiltration stemming from North Vietnam.

The Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) were the most active arm of America's overseas policies initially and their tireless efforts to support the Diệm regime and their equivalents in Vietnam's neighbours were initially successful. Certainly they forced the Viet Cong to go underground, but this also prompted the North to bring the VC under its wing and to the merging of their activities with those of the North, creating a unified command centre in 1958.

Trần Lệ Xuân (with pistol), more popularly known as 'Madame Nhu' or 'The Dragon Lady', 'Queen Bee' and other less printable nicknames, was Vietnam's de facto 'First Lady', even though she was sister-in-law to President Diệm and not married to him. She was even more vehemently anti-communist (albeit with good reason) than Diệm. An ardent Catholic, she championed the regime's severe 'morality laws'. Her manipulation of the President and his brother, as well as her outspoken, and often blunt or undiplomatic remarks and violent rages, in front of, or aimed at, government officials, or even foreign dignitaries, led her to be identified as 'the one with the balls' when speaking cryptically about South Vietnam's leadership.

The War Begins

1959 saw the first overt military action as the '2nd Liberation Battalion' ambushed two South Vietnamese Army (ARVN) companies and in the following year armed activity led to the creation of VC 'liberated zones' in the Mekong Delta's Bến Tre province, which was followed by several student demonstrations in Saigon and an attempted coup in November. To distance North Vietnam from these events (a breach of the Geneva Accords of 1954), it was continuously stressed that this new activity was a spontaneous and separate desire for freedom from within the South and this was formalised by the creation of the National Liberation Front (NLF), as the principal focus of activity in the South in 1960.

Early Viet Cong fighters. They are exclusively equipped with American or French weapons and accoutrements with largely civilian dress.

The switch from 'economic war' to a more aggressive policy, the "People's War", was signalled by a concentrated assassination campaign, along with other overt insurgent actions (urban machine gun attacks and bombings) and it became clear that a new war had begun. North Vietnam was now also playing their formerly allied friends, the Soviets and the Chinese, against each other, prompting each that the other was being more supportive to their cause than they were, which elicited more than usual levels of support from each.

The supply route from the North, named the 'Ho Chi Minh Trail' had also been improved and was no longer a six month trek across Laos's mountains and reinforcements and weapon supplies began to arrive in the South from 1959. What was not fully appreciated at the time, was that the Viet Cong and later the North Vietnamese Army (NVA) regular units sent South were wholly supplied, at least as far as food was concerned, entirely from within South Vietnam.

From the North came weapons and ammunition in increasing quantities, and more importantly men; 40,000 are believed to have made the journey South between 1960 and 1963. The VC as an organisation began with a ratio of one man per ten government soldiers in 1962, but by 1963 this ratio had increased to 1:5, with 300,000 members across the various 'liberation associations' (local VC formations) which formed the NLF by 1962.

Aftermath of a bomb attack in Saigon. The VC targeted bars and restaurants known to be used by either employees of the 'Puppet Government' or their 'American Imperialist' masters. 

Clashes between VC and ARVN were also steadily increasing and from 180 clashes in January 1960, there were 545 in September the same year. Following a lull early in the following year activity once again increased, with 50 attacks in September and 150 in October, which while reduced from those of the previous year, had increased in the size of the forces conducting them. More importantly 'victory' in these engagements was increasingly going to the VC, even if the ARVN had forced them to disengage and to regroup elsewhere. Effectively the ARVN was being bled dry in a war on VC terms and without any significant gains to show for it.

The American president John F. Kennedy decided to reinforce South Vietnam's efforts against the VC. Aircraft were sent to establish a South Vietnamese Air Force, along with the personnel to operate the aircraft initially and to train local pilots for them and finally a U.S. Army transport helicopter squadron was despatched to South Vietnam in December 1961. The numbers of U.S. Military advisors was to increase to 12,000 by mid-1962 and to control their activities Military Assistance Command Vietnam (MACV) was established in 1962. America was now formally committed to what was to become its biggest and most controversial foreign military involvement from WWII to date.

A U.S. Advisor, with translator, speaks to South Vietnamese troops before they embark on a mission in 1962. In the background is one of a number of U.S. Army H-21 Workhorse helicopters sent to Vietnam. The ARVN troops are wholly equipped with U.S. weapons, at this stage M1 Rifles, M1 Carbines and BARs. Some still wear French M.51 helmets however.