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Vietnam Divided, The Uneasy Peace

Diem regime, Bao Dai, Geneva Accords, Ngo Dinh Diem, PLAF

For the next five years Indochina experienced a brief interlude of peace. In Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh’s government (known as the Democratic Republic of Vietnam, or DRV) focused attention on laying the foundations of a Communist society while hoping for national reunification by means of elections, which were widely expected to favor Ho. But in the South, Bao Dai was soon replaced by Ngo Dinh Diem, a staunchly anti-Communist Catholic who refused to hold national elections as called for by the Geneva Accords. Sympathetic to his anti-Communist beliefs, the United States supported Diem, who claimed that Vietnam’s colonial oppressors had negotiated the agreements. A constitution was written, and after elections staged only in the South, Diem became president of a new Republic of Vietnam (RVN).

During the next several years the Diem regime vigorously sought to crush lingering support for the Viet Minh in the South, as well as all other forms of domestic opposition. His harsh actions resulted in growing hostility from many South Vietnamese. Meanwhile Diem’s social and economic programs failed to reduce the severe inequality of landholdings in the countryside. In 1959, fearing that the Communist base in the South could be entirely eliminated, the North adopted a policy of revolutionary war intent on toppling Diem’s government and bringing about national reunification. In 1960 the North Vietnamese government ordered the creation of the National Liberation Front (NLF), based on the model of the Viet Minh created two decades earlier. Most members of the NLF were native southerners. Relatively few were members of the Communist Party, but the Communists ruled from behind the scenes. In 1961 the armed wing of the NLF, the People’s Liberation Armed Forces (PLAF, popularly known as the Viet Cong, or “Viet Communists”), was formed.

The United States provided increasing amounts of military assistance to Diem’s government, and U.S. advisers instructed South Vietnamese troops on how to fight a guerrilla war. Diem became increasingly unpopular, however, and conditions throughout the country steadily worsened, allowing the PLAF to gain control of much of the countryside. The South alienated many Vietnamese Buddhists by the government’s alleged favoritism to Catholics. With tacit U.S. approval, dissident elements in the army launched a coup in November 1963 to overthrow Diem, and he was killed in the attack. In the political confusion that followed, the security situation in South Vietnam continued to deteriorate, putting the Communists within reach of total victory. In early 1965, faced with the South’s imminent collapse, U.S. president Lyndon Johnson ordered the intensive bombing of North Vietnam and the dispatch of U.S. combat troops into the South.

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