CIA Memo on National Liberation Front Methods Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

One of the largest blunders made by American war planners in the years leading up the war in Vietnam was a near complete lack of understanding of not only Vietnamese culture, but also the deep resentment of the South Vietnamese government among the population. By late 1963, southern Vietnamese revolutionaries had already been for years working in towns and villages across the south to win popular support for their cause to put down the repressive regime of Ngo Dinh Diem. But fearful of the spread of communism, the United States took a position against the majority of the population in support of the Diem regime. In fact, one could argue that by entering what was essentially a civil war, the United States helped hasten the fall of the south to communism. In a memo commissioned by John A. McCone, then director of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), for delivery to Dean Rusk, the secretary of state under both Kennedy and Johnson, American intelligence officers outlined the various methods used by the National Liberation Front (NLF) to ingratiate themselves to the South Vietnamese people. The document stands as a detailed analysis of all the NLF was doing to improve the lives of the people of the south, and serves to demonstrate the eagerness with which American officials sought to link southern revolutionaries to an international communist conspiracy.

Summary Overview

One of the largest blunders made by American war planners in the years leading up the war in Vietnam was a near complete lack of understanding of not only Vietnamese culture, but also the deep resentment of the South Vietnamese government among the population. By late 1963, southern Vietnamese revolutionaries had already been for years working in towns and villages across the south to win popular support for their cause to put down the repressive regime of Ngo Dinh Diem. But fearful of the spread of communism, the United States took a position against the majority of the population in support of the Diem regime. In fact, one could argue that by entering what was essentially a civil war, the United States helped hasten the fall of the south to communism. In a memo commissioned by John A. McCone, then director of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), for delivery to Dean Rusk, the secretary of state under both Kennedy and Johnson, American intelligence officers outlined the various methods used by the National Liberation Front (NLF) to ingratiate themselves to the South Vietnamese people. The document stands as a detailed analysis of all the NLF was doing to improve the lives of the people of the south, and serves to demonstrate the eagerness with which American officials sought to link southern revolutionaries to an international communist conspiracy.

Defining Moment

The strategy of “containment” as developed by American officials at the end of World War II, held that through the careful use of military force the spread of communism could be limited as not to overwhelm any single region. It was this idea that led to American intervention in the Korean Conflict, ultimately resulting in the creation of two distinct Koreas: a communist north and democratic south. After the French withdraw from Vietnam, the same approach was used in that country. Although neither north nor south wanted division, the Western powers meeting in Geneva separated the two along the seventeenth parallel. Vietnam, however, was very different from Korea. The weak, and often repressive regime of Ngo Dinh Diem in the south, standing in contrast to the popular and well-supported communist revolutionary movement of Ho Chi Minh in the north, instilled first resentment and then open revolt. What was in fact a civil and, in part, sectarian war in the south the West came to interpret as an attempted communist coup directed by the Soviet Union and China.

As the violence escalated, southern activists consolidated the various communist and noncommunist anti-Diem forces operating in the south into a single paramilitary force that came to be known as the National Liberation Front, or Viet Cong. These various groups, having operated across the south since the 1940s, had pushed through massive land reforms, seizing farmland from wealthy landlords and redistributing it to the poor. In 1960, the Diem government, in a move it hoped would weaken the Viet Cong, brought back landlords to the farms and villages, often violently ejecting people from land that they had farmed for over a decade. To make matters worse, these landlords then demanded the poor, and now landless farmers, to pay back rent for the years of use. Seeing an opportunity, Ho Chi Minh began to support southern guerrilla fighters and sent North Vietnamese forces into Laos to create supply routes into the south.

With the election of John F. Kennedy, the United States, still badly misunderstanding the realities on the ground, further tied itself to the Diem regime. Vice President Lyndon Johnson even went so far as to declare Diem “the Winston Churchill of Asia.” Among Diem's chief American supporters was John A. McCone, appointed director of the Central Intelligence Agency after the ousting of Allen W. Dulles following the Bay of Pigs. McCone believed, wrongly, that the Viet Cong had been agents of northern communists since the end of World War II and advocated for immediate American military involvement in support of the repressive Diem regime. When Diem was finally overthrown in early November of 1963, McCone bitterly objected to American support for the coup. He continued to advocate for greater American involvement, and although the information he and the CIA provided the Johnson administration did eventually lead to full American military intervention, McCone grew increasingly frustrated over what he considered a weak and feckless response to the communist takeover of Southeast Asia.

Author Biography

John Alexander McCone was born in California in 1902. Heir to an iron fortune, McCone attended the University of California at Berkeley, where he received a degree in mechanical engineering. Rising in private industry, he became an executive vice president at Consolidated Steel Corporation and, as a leading industrialist, served as an advisor for the Atomic Energy Commission. As his profile rose, McCone became ever more involved with the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), until ultimately he was named as director following the resignation of Allen W. Dulles following the disastrous Bay of Pigs invasion of 1961. A proponent of the use of force during the Cuban Missile Crisis, McCone was the mastermind behind numerous covert plots while director of the CIA, including the overthrow of several democratically elected governments. Opposed to the 1963 plot to overthrow Ngo Dinh Diem, McCone became increasingly disillusioned by the Johnson administration's involvement in Vietnam, until he finally resigned as director in 1965. McCone died in 1991.

Historical Document

Memorandum Prepared for the Director of Central Intelligence

Washington, November 29, 1963.

SUBJECT

Viet Cong Quasi-Governmental Activities

In the “armed liberation” strategy of both Mao Tse-Tung and Ho Chi Minh, the establishment and gradual extension of “secure” base areas is a primary objective in the struggle. Within such secure areas, the Viet Cong have, since the beginning of resistance against the French in 1945–46, attempted to carry out quasi-governmental functions. Their purpose is two-fold and sometimes contradictory. They seek to win the voluntary support of the population by various activities of a welfare or civic-action nature. By example they try to show that they are more efficient, honest, and humane as administrators than the enemy regime. At the same time, they are concerned with exercising control and extracting support in the form of manpower, food and labor; these requirements frequently take priority and undo any favorable effects from their psychological operations.

In areas still not “secure” or not under strong Viet Cong influence, the guerrilla forces must live a hit-and-run existence and have little opportunity to act as the effective local administration. In these areas they must nonetheless rely upon support, shelter, and supply from the civilian populace, which is obtained not only by force but by positive steps to convince the population that its aspirations are those of the Viet Cong.

Much of our detailed knowledge with respect to Viet Cong activities in these directions comes from the period of Viet Minh resistance against the French. There is sufficient current reporting, however, to leave little doubt that the same pattern of activity is still being followed.

Viet Minh documents captured during the Indochina war frequently dealt with a program to raise rural living standards—the “new life” program. Such documents often contained statistics on the establishment of schools, numbers of children and adults in school, medical dispensaries, numbers of trained medical aides and midwives, sanitation efforts including numbers of wells and latrines dug, and food and livestock production. This effort and various other governmental activities were carried out under the authority of Administrative-Resistance Councils set up at the regional, provincial, district, and town levels.

A similar Viet Cong hierarchy of military, politico-administrative, and Liberation Front Committees now exists in South Vietnam, but Viet Cong troops themselves are frequently the agents of both governmental and civic-action tasks. While force and terrorism remain a major Viet Cong instrument against local officials of the South Vietnamese Government and recalcitrant villagers, recently captured Viet Cong documents clearly show that Viet Cong troops and agents are ordered to provide assistance to peasants and to avoid antagonisms and abuses, such as looting or violation of churches and pagodas.

A Communist land reform program in South Vietnam, begun by the Viet Minh, is still being carried out under the Viet Cong, but some difficulties have been encountered. This is reflected in the attitude of the Liberation Front, which watered down its initial emphasis on land reform, although free and unconditional distribution of land to poor peasants is still a part of its platform. Informants and Viet Cong prisoners indicate that early attempts by the Viet Cong to force “middle-class” peasants to give land to the poor were too harsh, caused peasant disputes and loss of production, and depleted the source of funds available for peasant loans and for support of Viet Cong troops. As a result, there appears to have been some modification of Viet Cong land reform activities to lessen pressure on “middle-class” peasants and encourage higher production. Although there are some references to communal farms, the Viet Cong do not appear to have stressed land collectivization in South Vietnam, where popular reaction to North Vietnam's brutal agrarian reform policies has been adverse.

Current reports also indicate that the Viet Cong provide assistance to peasants in land clearance, seed distribution, and harvesting, and in turn persuade or force peasants to store rice in excess of their own needs for the use of guerrilla troops. Controls are apparently imposed in Viet Cong zones to prevent shipments for commercial marketing in Saigon, or to collect taxes on such shipments. The Viet Cong themselves often pay cash or give promissory notes for the food they acquire.

Little detailed information is available on current Communist health and sanitation activities. Captured Viet Cong doctors or medical personnel indicate that dispensaries for treatment of Viet Cong wounded often are scattered inconspicuously among several peasant homes in a village, and that civilians are treated as facilities and supplies permit. Civilians as well as guerrilla forces are almost certainly instructed in methods of sanitation and disease prevention, but apparent shortages of medical personnel and medicines in some areas suggest that medical care for civilians in Viet Cong-dominated areas may be spotty.

There are also references to primary and adult education, much of it in the form of indoctrination, and to Viet Cong-run schools operating almost side by side with government schools, under the excuse that peasants lack the necessary documentation required to enter government schools. A Liberation Front broadcast of 19 November 1963 claimed that there were some 1,000 schools with 2 million pupils in “freed areas” of South Vietnam. These figures are doubtless exaggerated, but may be a gauge of a fairly extensive Communist educational effort.

A standard Viet Cong technique of gaining a foothold among tribal minorities in the highland areas of South Vietnam—where Communist encouragement of tribal autonomy gives them a political appeal—has been to select promising tribesmen, take them to North Vietnam for training in welfare activities as well as for political indoctrination, and return them to tribal villages where their new skills tend to assure them positions of prestige and leadership.

The Viet Cong also promote cultural activities-heavily flavored with propaganda—through press, radio and film media, as well as live drama and festivals. A student informant reported attending dramatic performances in a Viet Cong-held area, where plays, song, and dances provided entertainment and a dose of propaganda—often enthusiastically received.

There is little firm information about the Viet Cong effort to develop “combat hamlets.” They appear to exist in areas where control by either side is missing or tenuous, and sometimes are located near government “strategic hamlets.” Reports indicate that, like strategic hamlets, they are fortified externally, and their inhabitants are carefully trained in defensive procedures and escape routes, often interrelated with other nearby hamlets. Similar defensive systems have long prevailed in Viet Cong-controlled areas, although Viet Cong installations themselves may be innocent looking and easily evacuated buildings or huts.

A Viet Cong document discussing the successful construction of a “combat hamlet” indicates that primary stress is laid on determining the basic wants and needs of the inhabitants—frequently their concern for their own land. Propaganda is directed at convincing them that the government is threatening their interests, that defensive measures must be taken, and finally that offensive actions against government officials and troops are needed. The peasants presumably come to regard the Viet Cong as their protectors and to cooperate voluntarily with the Viet Cong military effort.

Glossary

propaganda: biased or misleading information used to promote a political point of view

Viet Cong: South Vietnamese communist guerrillas

Viet Minh: North Vietnamese communists

Document Analysis

The memo, titled “Viet Cong Quasi-Governmental Activities,” is laid out into thirteen points, documenting the various ways in which forces of the National Liberation Front are trying to win the hearts and minds of the South Vietnamese people. From the beginning, the memo makes clear that the strategy of the NLF is one of “armed liberation,” harking back to Mao Tse-Tung and Ho Chi Minh, the leaders of China and North Vietnam, respectively. These are communist tactics, at work since the 1940s, meant to win the support of South Vietnam's population, and take control of the region. The authority of the Viet Cong is limited, as in many regions where the NLF does not have complete control, communist forces can only conduct “hit and run” attacks.

Much of the intelligence, the memo continues, derives from captured Viet Minh documents, which outline efforts to improve the quality of life for the population, including education, medical care, and infrastructure. The Viet Cong are careful to treat the populace well in order to win them to their side. This is all done for propaganda purposes, by improving conditions for the peasantry of South Vietnam, the Viet Cong hope to turn the people against their government. As an example, the memo cites the NLF land reform program in which, the memo charges, middle-class farmers were forced to give their land to the poor. Perhaps aware that the evidence of such allegations is weak, the writer concedes that some modification to the policy must have occurred as many middle-class farmers have remained on their land and there appears to be little evidence of collectivization.

Food distribution, seed collecting, and sanitation improvements have all been implemented to turn the population. The Viet Cong has even set up schools to educate the poor, but, the writer assures their audience, the numbers of this programs success are surely exaggerated and used, it assumes, to spread communist propaganda. The writer does admit that many tribes in the region have been allowed autonomy, but this too, the writer assures their audience, is part of the same communist strategy. Most alarmingly, the Viet Cong appear to be setting up defenses and training the population in combat. The result is that the population now, mistakenly, considers the Viet Cong their protectors and cooperates with them in their efforts.

Essential Themes

The November 1963 memo commissioned by John McCone on Viet Cong activities in South Vietnam, is a clear example of the colossal misalignment in American understanding of the situation in Vietnam. Contorting the facts to try and fit the narrative of a communist conspiracy to spread an insidious ideology across the globe, the memo paints a cynical picture of communist agents using medicine, education, and food to trick the people into resenting their government. Despite evidence of local autonomy, fair land distribution policies, and a lack of a strong NLF political-military establishment, the memo tells a tale of a south on the brink of hostile takeover, of a poor, naive population, being tricked into supporting an insidious enemy.

It is astounding to consider that at no point did American intelligence analysts stop to consider the repressive policies of the South Vietnamese government, that NLF forces could actually be working to better the lives of the South Vietnamese people, or that the general consensus of the population had swung wildly toward regime change. It was an attitude born out of a kind of colonial arrogance. Surely the United States, the most powerful, most sophisticated country in the world, knew what was best for Vietnam, even better than the Vietnamese. It was this lack of understanding—born out of notions of cultural superiority that propelled American strategy in Southeast Asia for two decades—that ultimately led to American military intervention in what was essentially a civil war.

As the conflict escalated, as more and more American soldiers lost their lives, military planners would continue to grow ever more frustrated by a lack of support from the local population. In time, the very people that the United States claimed it was fighting to liberate, would be come to be seen as the enemy. Atrocities committed by American troops and indiscriminant killing started to become more common, and the very nature of the war took on an ever darker turn. Before long the entire region was destabilized as the American war against a nation's own people spread to Laos and Cambodia, and at every step, American political and military leaders viewed events not for what they were, but for what they in some sense wanted them to be.

Bibliography and Additional Reading
  • Herring, George. America's Longest War. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1996. Print.
  • McNamara, Robert & Brian VanDeMark. In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam. New York: Random House, 1995. Print.
  • VanDeMark, Brian. Into the Quagmire: Lyndon Johnson and the Escalation of the Vietnam War. New York: Oxford University Press, 1995. Print.
Categories: History