National Liberation Front

When it became clear that President Ngo Dinh Diem had no intention of holding elections for a united Vietnam, his political opponents began to consider alternative ways of obtaining their objectives. Some came to the conclusion that violence was the only way to persuade Diem to agree to the terms of the 1954 Geneva Conference. The year following the cancelled elections saw a large increase in the number of people leaving their homes to form armed groups in the forests of Vietnam. At first they were not in a position to take on the South Vietnamese Army and instead concentrated on what became known as 'soft targets'. In 1959, an estimated 1,200 of Diem's government officials were murdered.

Ho Chi Minh was initially against this strategy. He argued that the opposition forces in South Vietnam should concentrate on organising support rather than carrying out acts of terrorism against Diem's government.

In 1959, Ho Chi Minh sent Le Duan, a trusted adviser, to visit South Vietnam. Le Duan returned to inform his leader that Diem's policy of imprisoning the leaders of the opposition was so successful that unless North Vietnam encouraged armed resistance, a united country would never be achieved.

Ho Chi Minh agreed to supply the guerrilla units with aid. He also encouraged the different armed groups to join together and form a more powerful and effective resistance organisation. This they agreed to do and in December, 1960, the National Front for the Liberation of South Vietnam (NLF) was formed. The NLF, or the 'Vietcong', as the Americans were to call them, was made up of over a dozen different political and religious groups. Although the leader of the NLF, Hua Tho, was a non-Marxist, Saigon lawyer, large numbers of the movement were supporters of communism.

The NLF put forward a ten-point programme. It included the replacement of the Catholic dominated Ngo Dinh Diem administration with a government that: "represented all social classes and religions."

The most popular aspect of the NLF programme was the promise to take the land from the rich and to distribute it amongst the peasants. During the Indochina War the Vietminh had taken the land from the large landowners in the territory they controlled and given it to the peasants. After Diem had gained power in South Vietnam, he forced the peasants to pay for the land they had been given. This was often more than the peasants could afford and it caused a considerable amount of suffering amongst the peasant community. The promise of the NLF to give the peasants their land free of charge was an important factor in persuading them to help the guerrillas in their fight against the Diem government.

In 1962, the Strategic Hamlet programme was introduced. For sometime the governments of South Vietnam and the United States had been concerned about the influence of the NLF on the peasants. In an attempt to prevent this they moved the peasants into new villages in areas under the control of the South Vietnamese army. A stockade was built around the village and these were then patrolled by armed guards.

This strategy failed dismally and some observers claimed that it actually increased the number of peasants joining the NLF. As one pointed out: "Peasants resented working without pay to dig moats, implant bamboo stakes, and erect fences against an enemy that did not threaten them but directed its sights against government officials."

In the majority of cases the peasants did not want to move and so the South Vietnamese army often had to apply force. This increased the hostility of the peasants towards the Ngo Dinh Diem government.

The peasants were angry at having to travel longer distances to reach their rice fields. Others were upset for religious reasons for they believed that it was vitally important to live where their ancestors were buried.

Kennedy became worried when he was informed that despite the Strategic Hamlet programme, the membership of the National Liberation Front had grown to over 17,000 - a 300 per cent increase in two years - and that they now controlled over one-fifth of the villages in South Vietnam.

The strategy and tactics of the National Liberation Front were very much based on those used by Mao Zedong in China. This became known as Guerrilla Warfare. The NLF was organised into small groups of between three to ten soldiers. These groups were called cells. These cells worked together but the knowledge they had of each other was kept to the bare minimum. Therefore, when a guerrilla was captured and tortured, his confessions did not do too much damage to the NLF.

The initial objective of the NLF was to gain the support of the peasants living in the rural areas. According to Mao Zedong, the peasants were the sea in which the guerrillas needed to swim: "without the constant and active support of the peasants... failure is inevitable."

When the NLF entered a village they obeyed a strict code of behaviour. All members were issued with a series of 'directives'. These included:" (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.)."

Most peasants in South Vietnam were extremely poor. For centuries, the Vietnamese peasants had accepted this state of affairs because they believed that poverty was a punishment for crimes committed by their ancestors. The NLF educated the peasants in economics and explained how poverty was the result of the landowner's selfishness. They pointed out that fifty per cent of the agricultural land in South Vietnam was owned by only two and a half per cent of the population. Two thirds of the peasants owned no land at all and were therefore forced to work for the rich landlords.

The NLF's solution to this problem was to take the property of the large landowners and distribute it amongst the peasants. In some cases, the landowners were executed as a punishment for the way they had treated the peasants in the past.

In return for the land they had been given, the peasants agreed to help the NLF by feeding and hiding them. In some cases, the peasants also agreed to take up arms with the NLF and help 'liberate' other villages.

The peasants were motivated by fear as well as a sense of gratitude. The NLF told them that if the United States Marines or ARVN managed to gain control of the village, they would take the land back. Given this situation, it is not surprising that the peasants saw the NLF as their friends and the US Marines/ARVN as the enemy.

This view was re-inforced if the NLF left the village to escape advancing US or South Vietnamese troops. In an effort to discover information about the NLF, the peasants were sometimes tortured. If evidence was found of the NLF being in the village, the people were punished. As William Ehrhart, a US marine explained:"... they'd be beaten pretty badly, maybe tortured. Or they might be hauled off to jail, and God knows what happened to them. At the end of the day, the villagers would be turned loose. Their homes had been wrecked, their chickens killed, their rice confiscated - and if they weren't pro-Vietcong before we got there, they sure as hell were by the time we left."

As well as taking over the running of villages, the NLF would send out patrols into government controlled areas. The tactics they employed have been described by Robert Taber, who fought with the guerrillas in Cuba, as the war of the flea: "The flea bites, hops, and bites again, nimbly avoiding the foot that would crush him. He does not seek to kill his enemy at a blow, but to bleed him and feed on him, to plague and bedevil him... All this requires time. Still more time is required to breed more fleas... the military enemy suffers the dog's disadvantages: too much to defend; too small and agile an enemy to come to grips with."

To defeat the more powerful enemy, the guerrilla needs to dictate the terms of warfare. In the words of Mao Zedong: "The enemy advances, we retreat; the enemy camps, we harass; the enemy tires, we attack; the enemy retreats, we pursue."

The NLF was told not to go into combat unless it outnumbered the enemy and was certain of winning. It therefore concentrated on attacking small patrols or poorly guarded government positions. To increase its advantage, the NLF relied heavily on night attacks.

At first the NLF used hand-made weapons such as spears, daggers and swords. However, over a period of time, it built up a large supply of captured weapons. A US army survey of weapons in 1964 discovered that 90% of weapons taken from the NLF had previously belonged to the ARVN and the US army.

The NLF also employed booby traps against US and South Vietnamese troops. These took the form of sharpened bamboo staves and fragmentation mines. The most feared mine was the 'Bouncing Betty'. As one marine reported, every step created tension. You constantly asked yourself: "Should you put your foot to that flat rock or the clump of weeds to its rear... The moment-to-moment, step-by-step decision-making preys on your mind. The effect is sometimes paralysis." As another pointed out: "The infantryman knows that any moment the ground he is walking on can erupt and kill him; kill him if he's lucky. If he's unlucky, he will be turned into a blind, deaf, emasculated, legless shell."

Ironically, most of the explosives used for these mines came from unexploded bombs dropped by the United States. It has been estimated that 800 tons of bombs dropped on Vietnam every month failed to explode. These materials were then used to make booby traps.

After seeing their comrades killed by booby traps, there was a temptation for the patrol to take it out on the next village they arrived at. By doing so they increased the peasants hostility towards the Americans and made it more difficult for them to support the South Vietnamese government against the communists.

In 1965, General William Westmoreland developed the aggressive strategy of 'search and destroy'. The objective was to find and then kill members of the NLF. The US soldiers found this difficult. As one marine captain explained: "You never knew who was the enemy and who was the friend. They all looked alike. They all dressed alike." Innocent civilians were often killed by mistake. As one Marine officer admitted they "were usually counted as enemy dead, under the unwritten rule 'If he's dead and Vietnamese, he's VC'."

In the villages they controlled, the NLF often built underground tunnels. These tunnels led out of the villages into the jungle. They also contained caverns where they stored their printing presses, surgical instruments and the equipment for making booby traps and land mines. If US patrols arrived in the village unexpectedly, the NLF would hide in these underground caverns. Even if the troops found the entrance to the tunnels, they could not go into the tunnels as they were often too small for the much larger American soldiers.

The overall strategy of guerrilla warfare is to involve the enemy in a long-drawn out war. The aim is to wear down gradually the much larger and stronger enemy. It is only when all the rural areas are under their control and they are convinced that they outnumber the opposition, that the guerrillas come out into the open and take part in conventional warfare. Thus the NLF, who were based in the thick forests of South Vietnam, began by taking control of the villages in the rural areas. As their strength grew and the enemy retreated, they began to take the smaller towns.

One of the major problems of the US forces was the detection of the NLF hiding in the forests of Vietnam. In 1962, President John F. Kennedy approved Operation Ranch Hand. This involved the spraying of chemicals from the air in an attempt to destroy the NLF hiding places. In 1969 alone, Operation Ranch Hand destroyed 1,034,300 hectares of forest. 'Agent Orange', the chemical used in this defoliation programme not only destroyed trees but caused chromosomal damage in people.

Chemicals were also sprayed on crops. Between 1962 and 1969, 688,000 agricultural acres were sprayed with a chemical called 'Agent Blue'. The aim of this exercise was to deny food to the NLF. However, research suggests that it was the civilian population who suffered most from the poor rice harvests that followed the spraying.

In economic terms, the bombing hurt the economy of the United States more than North Vietnam. By the beginning of 1968, it was estimated that $300 million of damage had been done to North Vietnam. However, in the process, 700 US aircraft, valued at $900 million had been shot down. 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."

© , September 1997 - April 2014

Primary Sources

(1) Vietminh directives (1948)

(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.

(2) United States Government White Paper (February 1965)

In Vietnam a Communist government has set out deliberately to conquer a sovereign people in a neighbouring state. The evidence shows that the hard core of the Communist forces attacking South Vietnam were trained in the North and ordered into the South by Hanoi. It shows that the key leadership of the Vietcong (VC), the officers and much of the cadre many at the technicians, political organizers, and propagandists have come from.

(3) (3) New York Herald Tribune (25th April,1965)

Other techniques, usually designed to force onlooking prisoners to talk, involve cutting off the fingers, ears, fingernails or sexual organs of another prisoner. Sometimes a string of ears, decorates the wall of a government military installation. Two Viet Cong prisoners were interrogated on an airplane flying toward Saigon. The first refused to answer questions and was thrown out of the airplane at 3,000 feet. The second immediately answered all the questions. But he, too, was thrown out.

(4) Nguyen Thi Anh was a member of the National Liberation Front. In this passage she explains what happened to her when she was captured by the South Vietnamese army.

They tried to force me to confess that I was a member of the Vietcong. I refused to make such a statement and so they stuck needles under the tips of my ten fingers saying that if I did not write down what they wanted and admit to being a member of the Vietcong, they would continue to torture me. I was determined to say nothing. I was extremely angry at the enemy and I loved my country so much. This was because every day bombs and shells were falling and the blood and the bones of my people appeared before my eyes... I was extremely outraged and would never come out with any information. They tied my nipples to an electric wire and they gave me electric shocks, knocking me to the floor every time that they did so. They said that if they did not get the necessary information they would continue with the torture. Two American advisers were always standing on either side of me.

(5) Tim O'Brien served in the Vietnam War as an infantryman. In this passage he describes the dangers of going out on patrol. Over 10,000 US soldiers lost limbs during the war, a considerable number of these injuries were caused by National Liberation Front mines.

The most feared mine was the Bouncing Betty. It was conical shaped, three prongs jutting out of the soil. When your foot hit the prong, a charge went off that shot the mine into the air, a yard high, showering shrapnel everywhere. It's a mine that goes after the lower torso: a terrible mine... On one occasion after my company had encamped and sent out patrols there was a large explosion only 200 yards away... We raced out there and only two men were living out of a patrol of eight or so. Just a mess. It was like a stew, full of meat and flesh and red tissue and white bone.

(6) In her book, Winners and Losers, Gloria Emerson told the story of John Young who was ambushed

by the National Liberation Front when leading a patrol in 1968.

Young was trying to get to a clump of trees when he was hit twice by an AK-47 rifle... He was still lying on his stomach in the gully when he felt the bayonets in his back. It was about nine o'clock in the morning. He had not even noticed how much he was bleeding or the pieces of bone that had been pushed through his skin and were sticking out of his leg like huge toothpicks... North Vietnamese officers interrogated him. He would tell them nothing except his name, rank, serial number, date of birth. They yanked his leg and hit him with the butt of a weapon on the head and in the back. He does not think he screamed when the Vietnamese twisted and bent his shattered leg. He hated them too much. Young said, to do that, so he stayed silent and let the pain shine.

(7) Colonel Robinson Risner spent seven and a half years in a prison in Hanoi. He was one of the 600 members of the US airforce who was shot down and captured by the North Vietnamese. Colonel Risner was

released from captivity after the cease-fire agreement in 1973.

When I got out of my plane I found myself looking right down a gun bore... I had to make a decision. Was I going to make a fight of it. I already had a gun aimed right at my head. And I changed my mind. I remember telling the guys that I would never be captured but I changed my mind.

My wrists and arms were tied behind my back. The two arms were close together which pulled my shoulders out of joint. They did some similar things to my legs... During the night I heard someone screaming in the distance. I thought they were torturing another prisoner. And I felt so sorry for him. And then I came more closely to consciousness and found out it was me. I was the one who was doing the screaming. They tortured me all night and by daylight they had reduced me to such a state I gave them more than my name, rank and date of birth... I tried to endure the pain knowing that an American military man should endure torture until he dies. I tried my best but my best was not good enough... I found I was not as strong as I thought I was. I found I could not be tortured to death. My will would give before my heart stopped

beating. It was very disconcerting. I lived in abject misery for the rest of the time I was a prisoner in Vietnam.

(8) Bruce joined the United States Navy at seventeen. He was trained for secret undercover work in Vietnam. He now lives on his own in a house in the forests of the Washington Olympic Peninsula.

I had to destroy villages, kill everybody there and then leave communist arms there. I realised what we were doing. It made sense then... You don't take a person's life and not have guilt feelings about it. Anyone who says they can and not feel guilty about it is lying.

One chap got a chest wound, we had to go into the bush. The Vietcong were there. The chap with the chest wound was making a hell of a noise. I did away with him myself. I had to to save me and the other fellow... I did not want to die... Every means that I had to survive I used. The gun played a real big part in that. A man with a gun can do anything. Anything. Its the awesome power that you have in your hands. It's a real feeling of power. I love it. These guns are my life, they really are.

When I first got back I spent time in the penitentiary in California. I killed a man right here in the United States... I do not trust anyone now. I would rather trust a dog than a person. A person is a vicious animal. I'm not normal by any means. A normal person can handle society. I can't. I do not like people... I'll be pleased when its done. When death comes I think I'll welcome it.

(9) After the Vietnam War was over some American soldiers admitted acts of atrocities against the Vietnamese people. In the book Prevent the Crime of Silence, a former American intelligence officer described what happened to people suspected of being members of the National Liberation Front.

I never knew an individual to be detained as a VC suspect who ever lived through an interrogation... and that included quite a number of individuals... They all died. There was never any reasonable establishment of the fact that any of those individuals was, in fact, cooperating with the Vietcong, but they all died and the majority were either tortured to death or things like thrown from helicopters.

(10) In villages where the population was suspected of helping the National Liberation Front, torture and executions of civilians sometimes took place. On 16 March, 1968, American troops killed more than 500 people from the village of My Lai. A young helicopter gunner, Ronald Ridenhour who saw the massacre wrote to President Nixon about the incident. Attempts by the army to cover-up what had taken place were undermined by the journalist, Seymour Hersh, who managed to persuade several soldiers involved in the massacre to talk about what taken place at My Lai.

Some of Calley's men thought it was breakfast time as they walked in; a few families were gathered in front of their homes cooking rice over a small fire. Without a direct order, the first platoon also began rounding up the villagers... Sledge remembered thinking that "if there were VC around, they had plenty of time to leave before we came in. We didn't tiptoe in there."

The killings began without warning... Stanley saw "some old women and some little children - fifteen or twenty of them - in a group around a temple where some incense was burning. They were kneeling and crying and praying, and various soldiers... walked by and executed these women and children by shooting them in the head with their rifles.

There were few physical protests from the people; about eighty of them were taken quietly from their homes and herded together in the plaza area. A few hollered out, "No VC, No VC,"... Women were huddled against children, vainly trying to save them. Some continued to chant, "No VC." Others simply said, "No. No. No."

Carter recalled that some GIs were shouting and yelling during the massacre: "The boys enjoyed it. When someone laughs and jokes about what they're doing, they have to be enjoying it." A GI said, "Hey, I got me another one." Another said, "Chalk up one for me." Even Captain Medina was having a good time. Carter thought: "You can tell when someone enjoys their work." Few members of Charlie Company protested that day. For the most part, those who didn't like what was going on kept their thoughts to themselves.

By nightfall the Viet Cong were back in My Lai, helping the survivors bury the dead. It took five days. Most of the funeral speeches were made by the Communist guerrillas. Nguyen Bat was not a communist at the time of the massacre, but the incident changed his mind. "After the shooting," he said, "all the villagers became Communists."

(11) Philip Caputo volunteered for the United States Marines after hearing a speech by President John F. Kennedy on the dangers of communism. After serving a year in Vietnam he was court-martialled for the murder of two Vietnamese civilians. He was found not guilty but received a reprimand for making false statements to his senior officers. In his book, A Rumour of War, Caputo attempts to explain how the Vietnam War turned some US soldiers into people who could commit atrocities.

The war was mostly a matter of enduring weeks of expectant waiting and, at random intervals, of conducting vicious manhunts through jungles and swamps where snipers harassed us constantly and booby traps cut us down one by one... At times, the comradeship that was the war's only redeeeming quality caused some of the worst crimes - acts of retribution for friends who had been killed. Some men could not withstand the stress of guerrilla-fighting: the hair-

trigger alertness constantly demanded of them, the feeling that the enemy was everywhere, the inability to distinguish civilians from combatants created emotional pressures which built to such a point that a trivial provocation could make these men explode and the blind destructiveness of a mortar shell... I felt sorry for those children (soldiers arriving in Vietnam for the first time) knowing that they would all grow old in the land of endless dying. I pitied them, knowing that out of every ten, one would die, two would be maimed for life, another two would be less seriously wounded and sent out to fight again, and all the rest would be wounded in other, more hidden ways.

(12) Jeff Needle, Please Read This (1970)

A very sad thing happened while we were there - to everyone. It happened slowly and gradually so no one noticed when it happened. We began slowly with each death and every casualty until there were so many deaths and so many wounded, we started to treat death and loss of limbs with callousness, and it happens because the human mind can't hold that much suffering and survive . . . And when they came out of My Lai, I heard the stories they came back with. I didn't know whether they were true because I wasn't there. If they were true, it meant my company had murdered people ... it meant because of lies I had been told I was sitting in the middle of a useless war, it meant if I died in Vietnam my life would have been used and wasted ... It meant if I decided not to do my job anymore I would be sent to jail and court-martialed. It meant a lot of people would think I was a traitor to my country because I didn't believe in the war anymore ... It meant a lot of bad things I didn't want to think about, based on stories I wasn't sure were true. So I decided to forget about it.

(13) Daniel Ellsberg, The Guardian (27th January, 2004)

After 17 months observing pacification efforts in Vietnam as a state department official, I laid eyes upon an unmistakable enemy for the first time on New Year's Day in 1967. I was walking point with three members of a company from the US army's 25th Division, moving through tall rice, the water over our ankles, when we heard firing close behind us. We spun around, ready to fire. I saw a boy of about 15, wearing nothing but ragged black shorts, crouching and firing an AK-47 at the troops behind us. I could see two others, heads just above the top of the rice, firing as well.

They had lain there, letting us four pass so as to get a better shot at the main body of troops. We couldn't fire at them, because we would have been firing into our own platoon. But a lot of its fire came back right at us. Dropping to the ground, I watched this kid firing away for 10 seconds, till he disappeared with his buddies into the rice. After a minute the platoon ceased fire in our direction and we got up and moved on.

About an hour later, the same thing happened again; this time I only saw a glimpse of a black jersey through the rice. I was very impressed, not only by their tactics but by their performance.

One thing was clear: these were local boys. They had the advantage of knowing every ditch and dyke, every tree and blade of rice and piece of cover, like it was their own backyard. Because it was their backyard. No doubt (I thought later) that was why they had the nerve to pop up in the midst of a reinforced battalion and fire away with American troops on all sides. They thought they were shooting at trespassers, occupiers, that they had a right to be there and we didn't. This would have been a good moment to ask myself if they were wrong, and if we had a good enough reason to be in their backyard to be fired at.

(14) John Kerry, a naval officer who was awarded several medals for his efforts in Vietnam became active in the 'Vietnam Veterans Against the War' organisation in the late 1960s. On 22nd April, 1971, Kerry gave evidence to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

Several months ago in Detroit we had an investigation at which over 150 honorably discharged, and many very highly decorated, veterans testified to war crimes committed in South-East Asia. These were not isolated incidents but crimes committed on a day to day basis with a full awareness of officers at all levels of command.

They told stories that at times they had personally raped, cut-off ears, cutoff heads, taped wires from portable telephones to human genitals and turned up the power, cutoff limbs, blown up bodies, randomly shot at civilians, razed villages in a fashion reminiscent of Genghis Khan, shot cattle and dogs for fun, poisoned food stocks, and generally ravaged the countryside of South Vietnam...

I would like to talk to you a little bit about what the result is of the feelings these men carry with them after coming back from Vietnam. The country doesn't know it yet but it has created a monster, a monster in the form of millions of men who have been taught to deal and trade in violence.