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Interview with Nguyen Huu Tho, 1981

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Nguyen Huu Tho was the acting president of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam from March 30, 1981 until July 4, 1981. Nguyen Huu Tho discusses his recollections of Ngo Dinh Diem and refers to him as an American puppet. He talks about the founding of the National Liberation Front (NLF) and his arrest by the Diem regime. Nguyen Huu Tho contends that the Diem government did not want to implement the Geneva Agreement but rather suppress the revolutionaries. He also argues that Diem’s goal was to create fear and panic among the revolutionaries and began to resort to terror-like activities.
Vietnam War, 1961-1975, Vietnam War, 1961-1975--Personal narratives, North Vietnamese, Political persecution, Revolutionaries, Presidents
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Birth of the National Liberation Front in resistance to Diem

SR 2056
426, Take 1
Interview with Nguyen Huu Tho, acting President of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam.
What were your recollections of the Diem period and the needs for founding the National Liberation Front of Vietnam?
Nguyen Huu Tho:
The United States and its puppet, Diem, connived to turn the southern part of our country into a neo-colonial state and an American military base. They sabotaged the implementation of the 1954 Geneva Agreement and installed in the South a fascistic, dictatorial and extremely tyrannical regime. During the period when Diem was in power, he ordered many massacres in Ngan Son, Chi Thanh, Cho Duoc, Mo Cay, Cu Chi, Binh Thanh and many other places. Diem continually mounted the so-called anti-Communist Denunciation Campaigns and Kill-the-Communist Campaigns in which he carried out all-out repressions against patriotic struggles of the population in the South.
Diem did this with a fanatic zeal and a fierce sense of class revenge. Let me give you a few examples and a few statistics to illustrate this. On December 1, 1958, they poisoned and killed about a thousand revolutionary combatants and patriotic persons in the concentration camp at Phu Loi. In May 1959, they issued a law code called Law Code 10/59 which aimed at publicly decapitating all patriotic people.
And Diem massacred the southern population with barbaric means of the Middle Ages. From 1954 to 1959, more than 460,000 communists or patriots were arrested by Diem in the South. About 400,000 persons were exiled and imprisoned and 68,000 persons murdered. Therefore, at that time the revolution in the South was confronted by extremely critical trials.
But under the perceptive leadership of the Party and the National Liberation Front, the Vietnamese people in the South were able to surmount all these difficulties. The bases of the revolution were maintained and developed. Side by side with the military attacks on the strategic hamlets, there were widespread and decisive political struggles which attracted people from all strata of the society. The strong political forces of the population did succeed in stopping many search-and-destroy military operations by the enemy and in protecting the lives and property of the people.
After two years of carrying out the Special War, the strategy of accelerated pacification of the South by the United States and the puppet regime went totally bankrupt. In the meantime, the National Liberation Front was the rallying point and the organizer of all patriotic forces in the South. The Liberation Armed Forces grew by leaps and bounds and instilled with an extremely high combat spirit. Our forces were able to maintain their own positions in all of the key strategic areas. The tragic death of Ngo Dinh Diem marked the first stage of failure of the American neo-colonial system and a new dark and shameful period for their puppets.
427 Take 1
When was the decision to found the National Liberation Front made? And how was it possible to do so given the conditions confronting you at the time?
Nguyen Huu Tho:
It must be stated that although they were under tight control, the population in southern Vietnam never accepted the aggression of the United States and the oppression of the Ngo Dinh Diem regime. In order to protect themselves, in December 1960 the people in southern Vietnam established the National Liberation Front, an umbrella organization under which all political parties, all popular organizations and all nationalists of all political tendencies and racial backgrounds could come together to struggle for national independence, freedom and peace.
As soon as it came into being, the Front gained tremendous prestige among the fourteen million inhabitants of the South as well as widespread support from the world community. The birth of the Front and its prestige really created a lot of fear among the American aggressors and shook the very foundation of the corrupt regime which the United States had installed in the South.
With the determination of the inhabitants in the South to liberate their country and the unreserved support from the Northern rear area, the revolutionary bases and the liberated areas in the South became increasingly enlarged and strengthened. In this situation and under the enlightened leadership of the Party, on February 6, 1962 the Front convened its first Congress, electing its official Central Committee in which I had the honor of getting elected as the chairman.
The Congress declared four urgent policies for national salvation aiming at: one, making the United States stop its war of aggression in the South; two, dismantling all the strategic hamlets; three, establishing a national coalition government in the South; and four, conducting a foreign policy of peace and neutrality. These four policies for national salvation, acting as a unit, represented our overall basic outlook.
At the same time, however, we were employing creative and flexible tactics in order to rally all nationalistic elements to struggle against the United States and the Diem regime, to isolate the enemy – that is to say, the American aggressors and their puppets – to the extreme, and to carry out the strategy of defeating the United States in stages and dismantling the puppet regime piece by piece.
These four policies represented the transitional period to the liberation of the South the unification of the country and the eventual establishment of socialism in the whole country. The National Liberation Front of South Vietnam did accomplish its glorious tasks and did contribute significantly to the unification of the country.
SR 5057
Nguyen Huu Tho
Beep tone
Roll 57, Vietnam Project, February 23rd, 1981.
Interview with Nguyen Huu Tho continues.
428, Take 1
Could you tell us more about those dark years before armed struggles took place and also the circumstances which led to your own arrest by the Diem regime?
Nguyen Huu Tho:
In order to answer your question, I must stress these two special characteristics of our people: The first is that we have the tradition of always honoring our own signature. Once we have signed an agreement, we would do everything possible to strictly implement that agreement. And the second is our tradition of really desiring peace. Therefore, once the Geneva agreement was signed, our entire people only wanted to have the agreement strictly implemented and the unification of the country brought about by peaceful means.
For these reasons, even in Saigon, as soon as the Geneva agreement was signed many nationalists, among them there were many intellectuals, founded an organization called "The Movement to Defend Peace of Saigon and Cholon." We began with Saigon and Cholon and after that extended into the provinces.
The aim of this movement was to struggle to demand the implementation of the Geneva agreement. That is to say, by 1956 there had to be a conference to bring about national unification and that, in the interim period before this conference was going to take place, democratic freedoms had to be carried out. And one of the things you had to do to carry out democratic freedoms was to release all those people who had been arrested during the war.
Therefore, with the aim just stated and the peace-loving tradition and spirit of our people, this movement which we founded was able to rally many forces, among them there were many intellectuals and bourgeois. This was because after many years of war the population really wanted to have peace and, as a result, really supported the aims of the "Movement to Defend Peace." This was precisely the reason why the Ngo Dinh Diem regime did not want to implement the Geneva agreement.
Their aim was only to repress all of the opposition movements in the South and to use this as a stepping stone for attacking the North. Hence, it was simply unthinkable for them to tolerate the kind of organization like ours, with the kind of aims it had. After two months of activities, people from the provinces came to us and asked us to allow them to form chapters in the provinces. Hence, we had a strong movement demanding the implementation of the Geneva agreement.
Faced with this situation, on November 15, 1954 Ngo Dinh Diem had me and a number of members of the Movement to Defend Peace arrested. It should be noted again that in the administrative committee of this Movement to Defend Peace there were intellectuals, workers, bourgeois and other elements in the society. Our arrest came about quite simply. On November 15 the regime summoned us to the Secret Police Headquarters, saying that there were a few questions they would like to pose to us.
Pham Huy Thong, Tran Kim Quang and I arrived at the Police headquarters and waited there for a while. While we were waiting, we saw that three cots were brought in. We asked what the cots were for, and they said that we would find that out soon. When the director of the Secret Police returned after a meeting with Ngo Dinh Diem, he told us that we were under arrest.
They then took us to the Gia Dinh prison along with the three cots which they had reserved for us. So you can see that while we really wanted to implement the Geneva agreement, the Ngo Dinh Diem clique clearly wanted to destroy that agreement and to do away with all patriotic forces in order to... (Pause because tape is squeaking)
429 Take 1
Would you please repeat the last sentence since we were interrupted?
Nguyen Huu Tho:
From what I have just told you, it is clear that the patriotic and revolutionary people were determined to implement the Geneva Agreement. But the Ngo Dinh Diem regime, to the contrary, used force to repress the population so that the Geneva Agreement would not be implemented. And one of Diem's intentions was to use the South, after he had already pacified it, as a stepping stone for attacking the North.
Given the degree of repression, one could be regarded that the armed struggles started kind of late. What were the reasons for this belatedness?
Nguyen Huu Tho:
As I said a while ago, we have the tradition of respecting our signature to agreements and of desiring peace. Therefore, from 1954 to 1956 our policy was only to use the means of political struggle. Although by 1956 it became clear that the Diem regime did not want to implement the Geneva Agreement and that they refused to convene the conference for discussing national unification, we were still very firm in our belief of getting the agreement implemented.
Hence, our policy at that time was not to use force under any circumstances, even when attacked by the enemy by force. That was the policy of the Movement and the Party at that time. Therefore, sometimes when our revolutionary fighters were confronted by the repressive forces of the enemy they would run away even though they had guns in their hands and could fight back effectively. But we had to act according to the policy of our leaders and hence we did not shoot back at the enemy.
And we continued with this policy until late 1958 and early 1959. And so, as you've just stated, it was really true that we were indeed overly patient. But by the end of 1958 and early 1959, they became extremely tyrannical. They actually started a unilateral war against us. To oppose our political struggle, they carried out a real war. Furthermore, they carried out a systematic and barbaric massacre of nationalistic people.
They issued that very fascistic Law Code 10/59, aiming at terrorizing the population by having nationalistic people decapitated in public. Whenever there was some kind of incident in some place, they would take their special court to that place, put on a trial and decapitate their prisoners immediately on the spot in full view of the local inhabitants. Confronted by this situation, we then decided that we had to fight back. We did this at first only with our self-defense forces and our armed propaganda forces. But by the end of 1959 and the beginning of 1960, our decision was to couple our political struggles with armed struggles.

Early battles against the Americans

430 TAKE 1
Could you say something about the importance of two battles, the battle of Ap Bac and the battle of Binh Gia?
Nguyen Huu Tho:
These were two battles which we consider as decisive in character during that period, the period of the Special War. As for the battle of Ap Bac, it should be frankly stated that our soldiers were somewhat confused in face of the systematic and large-scale deployment of helicopters and amphibious tanks by the Americans. This kind of deployment was new to us. They used that tactic only for the first time and in such a systematic and large-scale manner. At Ap Bac we had only 200 soldiers.
And we were surrounded on the ground and in the air by an enemy force of several hundred soldiers. But because of the intelligence and the fighting spirit of our men, we were able to reap a very significant victory. This is to say, we solved the problem of how to deal with helicopters and tanks. In this battle, although we were surrounded by a force many times larger than ours, we were able to kill more enemy soldiers than the total number of our soldiers and were able to... I can't remember the exact figure now... destroy many tanks and helicopters.
After that, these American weapons lost their effectiveness against us. We learned how to cope with them. Hence, the battle was a significant turning point. As far as Binh Gia was concerned, this was a battle that the Americans deployed a very large force with the intention of wiping out one of our important units. This was the first time that two large forces met with each other. This was also within the sphere of the Special War. It happened at the end of 1964.
Although our force was smaller in number and means, we were able to reap a very significant victory by wiping out many enemy troops and destroying many enemy's war-making gadgets. This victory proved that the puppet forces could not deal with us by themselves. After Binh Gia, there was another significant battle in Ba Gia in the central part of Vietnam which also served to prove that the Special War had become bankrupt.
Naturally, after that the United States turned this war into the so-called Limited War. But during a most important period of our struggle, during the period of the Special War, we were able to achieve victory and to prove to our soldiers that although the puppet troops were given much support by the Americans, they were still unable to withstand the revolutionary forces.

Diem's brutality encouraged resistance rather than suppressing it

431, Take 1
(Problem with the taping. Pause)
432 Take 1
What were the impacts of the terror of the Diem regime and also the consequences for the cadres of the Phoenix Program?
Nguyen Huu Tho:
I should say that Diem's intention was to create fear and panic among us so that we would not continue with our struggle. But his intention was completely misconstrued. They had to resort to terrorism. Decapitating people in public was a terroristic act. Murdering people during their mopping-up operations was a terroristic policy. But you must know that only people who are still politically weak would resort to terroristic activities.
Therefore, our conclusion was that since Diem has to resort to terroristic acts, he was actually weak and not strong. From this analysis, we realized that we could defeat Diem. This was especially so in the countryside where the Diem regime was really at a loss as to its activities. Hence, when we first started our struggle, we used unarmed forces.
We used popular pressures and the rising momentum among the population to put enemy military posts under siege, force them to surrender and capture their weapons to fight against the regime. It must be said that the use of terrorism by the Diem regime, instead of dampening the spirit of the population, only roiled the fighting sentiment of the people. Therefore, during 1959-1960 the population fought without any weapons at all.
Of course, there were some weapons left behind since the Resistance period against the French, but they had been largely rusted. Hence we used mainly the strength and momentum of the people and only a few crude weapons. This shows that the use of terrorism by Ngo Dinh Diem was a complete failure. We were correct in thinking that because he was using terrorism, he was weak.
We also used this to rally the population. Therefore it can be said that when the National Liberation Front was established, this was not a beginning but the end result, a very logical end result, of the uprisings of all strata of the society against the Ngo Dinh Diem regime. The Front was only a demand of this mass movement for bringing all these forces together to give it some coordination and clear-cut program for political and military activities.
This was the reason for the birth of the Front. It came into being in order to organize the struggle in a logical manner. Therefore, it was not the Front that pushed the struggles. But it was the struggles that led to the creation of the Front. All this shows that the population fought courageously and that they had identified correctly the weakness of the Ngo Dinh Diem regime. As a result, they were able to gain victory.
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