North Vietnam

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The humiliation of a landlord during North Vietnam’s land reform program.

In mid 1954 the Geneva Accords created two transitional Vietnamese states, north and south of the 17th parallel. The northern state adopted a name first chosen in September 1945, the Democratic Republic of Vietnam, though the world knew it as North Vietnam. Government in North Vietnam was in the hands of the Lao Dong (Vietnamese Workers’ Party). The Lao Dong was a communist party and shared features with similar parties around the world: a large party membership, a Politburo and Secretariat, a Central Committee and party branches at provincial and village levels. Ho Chi Minh was the Lao Dong’s figurehead and ideological mentor. The official party ideology was ‘Ho Chi Minh Thought’, an amalgam of Marxism, Leninism and Chinese communism, applied to the situation in Vietnam. During the mid-1950s the Lao Dong began transforming North Vietnam into a communist society. Though the development of North Vietnam is sometimes romanticised, the changes imposed there brought oppression and suffering for many of its citizens.

One of the hardest challenges for the North Vietnamese government was economic reform and food production. With its mountainous terrain and chronic shortage of arable land, northern Vietnam had never been self-sufficient; historically, it relied on imports of rice and other foodstuffs from the south. Lao Dong policies were strongly influenced by the five-year economic plans in the Soviet Union and communist China. In 1957 Ho Chi Minh announced a “three-year plan for the development and reorganisation of the economy” This three-year plan (1958-60) would begin implementing socialist policies in North Vietnam. The Lao Dong initiated land reforms that closely followed the Chinese model. All land, individual enterprises and privately owned wealth were seized; land was first redistributed to landless peasants, then reorganised into large agricultural co-operatives.

“North Vietnam now faces the tremendous problems of having to rebuild its part of the country practically from the ground up. The Red River Delta, far from being a rice bowl, must import 250,000 tons yearly to meet its own minimum needs. The Viet Minh must rebuild the communications system (canals, power stations and lines, roads, bridges and railroads) it had so efficiently sabotaged and destroyed for eights years. And it must make good on its promises of land reform. This Ho Chi Minh will find difficult to do.”
Bernard Fall, writer

The process of land reform was overseen by Lao Dong cadres (professional revolutionaries). It began with cadres entering a village, gathering records and speaking to locals about village life, previous land ownership and the treatment of workers by landlords. The cadres identified those who made their living from rents and the labour of others, rather than by working themselves. These individuals were publicly denounced as dia chu (landlords). Their land was confiscated and their homes raided and ransacked; personal property was seized and redistributed to the needy people in the village; landlord homes were confiscated or given to the village for communal use. Many landlords were permitted to remain in the village but were forced to dress humbly and perform humiliating jobs. Villagers were forbidden from showing marks of respect, such as bowing or calling former landlords “Mister” or “Sir”. Some landowners were condemned as dia chu cuong hao gian ac (cruel and barbaric landlords) because they had committed acts of murder, rape, assault or gross cruelty against others. These landlords were paraded in front of the entire village and publicly denounced, abused and beaten, often for hours at a time. As many as 50,000 landlords were executed, either by Lao Dong cadres or by the villagers themselves.

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A North Vietnamese landlord is reprimanded by a Lao Dong cadre

This process was not only about justice or retribution; it was also a means of asserting political control. The old ways of rural Vietnam had to be destroyed and swept away before they could be replaced by communist values and ideology. The landlords were not the only targets. In 1955 and 1956 the Lao Dong targeted other ideological opponents: Catholic priests and missionaries, Buddhist monks, the urban wealthy and middle classes, Francophiles, academics and intellectuals. Some suspects were whisked away by Lao Dong agents in the middle of the night. Some of those arrested were immediately executed but most were sent to “re-education camps” in the far north and north-west of the country. They remained in these camps indefinitely, without trial, sentence or hope of release. Thousands would die from years of beatings, malnutrition, hard labour and exhaustion. According to Vietnamese writer Hoang Van Chi, as many as half a million people perished during the Lao Dong’s campaign of land reform and “re-education”. Even Ho Chi Minh himself, speaking in 1956, acknowledged that the anti-landlord campaign had gone too far and punished many people too severely. November 1956 saw a mass uprising of around 20,000 peasants in Nam Dan, not far from Ho’s own birthplace. It was soon crushed by communist troops – but not before 6,000 peasants were killed.

By the end of 1960 the Lao Dong’s economic reforms were yielding results. North Vietnam had more than 40,000 agricultural co-operatives, spanning almost nine-tenths of the country’s farmland. Rice production reached 5.4 million tons, more than double pre-war figures. There was growth in the production of other foods, including corn, sweet potatoes and beans. The three-year plan set ambitious targets in other parts of the economy, such as 86 percent growth in traditional manufacturing and almost 170 percent in heavy industry. These targets were not met, nevertheless, North Vietnam made considerable progress towards them, largely due to assistance from its socialist allies. North Vietnam inherited 28 factories from the French; with Chinese and Soviet materials and advice, they constructed more than 100 new factories. By 1960 the North was able to mine its own coal, manufacture its own farm machinery, produce its own bricks and building supplies, build its own barges and ferries and generate its own electricity. Industrialisation was not without its problems. North Vietnam was desperately short of skilled technicians and experts, such as engineers, architects and metallurgists to oversee its larger projects. The country was also chronically short of cash, which was needed to fund imports of raw materials.

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Stamps from North Vietnam, 1958, hailing the nation’s military strength

The Lao Dong leadership also had plans for military expansion. Hanoi believed that military confrontation with South Vietnam and its Western backers was inevitable. The People’s Army of North Vietnam (PAVN), formed back in December 1944, was in dire need of expansion and modernisation. With the support of Chinese and Soviet advisors, the PAVN grew and reformed through the 1950s. In April 1960 Hanoi introduced conscription in North Vietnam, and by the end of the year, the PAVN contained more than 160,000 men. The PAVN also embraced standard Western military practices, such as a system of ranks, uniforms, training and regimental organisation. PAVN troops were trained in both conventional and guerrilla warfare. It also began preparations for a ‘war of reunification’ with South Vietnam. In 1959 the PAVN began preparing roads and supply lines to allow the movement of troops and equipment into South Vietnam. These lines included the famous ‘Ho Chi Minh trail’, a jungle track running south through Laos and Cambodia, as well as night time shipping runs to southern coastal cities.

1. North Vietnam was formed as a transitional state, by the Geneva Accords of 1954. It became a communist state, ruled by one party (the Lao Dong) and governed by a Soviet-style Politburo.
2. The Lao Dong government in North Vietnam commenced a program of socialist land reforms in 1957. This involved a process of land seizures and redistribution, collectivisation and brutality against former landlords.
3. Lao Dong cadres became active in the rural and cultural life of North Vietnam, replacing traditional sources of power like landlords, officials and priests – and replacing traditional values with communist ideology.
4. Those who resisted or provided ideological opposition to the communist regime were arrested, executed or detained indefinitely in “re-education camps”. This process caused up to half a million deaths.
5. North Vietnam also underwent significant industrial growth, military expansion and modernisation. These developments took place under a three year economic plan (1958-60) and with the support of China and the Soviet Union.

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