“South Vietnam. A Political History 1954-1970” is an anonymous book published in 1970 as “Keesing´s Research Report 5”. The book tries to be as objective as possible (must have been difficult during the Vietnam War!), but is probably anti-war and pro-NLF. Somewhat curiously, it mentions the US role in the war mostly in passing, instead concentrating on internal troubles in South Vietnam, including near-esoteric conflicts between different regime factions.
After the overthrow of “emperor” Bao Dai in 1955, power in South Vietnam (the non-Communist zone of Vietnam) ended up in the hands of Ngo Dinh Diem, whose authoritarian Catholic regime alienated the Buddhist majority of the country (and pretty much everyone else, too). There are still strong suspicions that the United States had foreknowledge of, or even approved, the murder of Diem during a military coup in 1963. After the murder of Diem, the new rulers never quite managed to put their act together, the regime splintering into a myriad factions and competing cliques (including supporters of the ousted Diem). The book becomes more difficult to read as the story progresses through the 1960´s.
South Vietnamese elections were never particularly representative, since Communists and “neutralists” (real or perceived pro-Communists) were excluded from the electoral process. Of course, the Communist-dominated National Liberation Front (the “Viet Cong”) weren´t interested in the elections anyway, preferring to take power through armed struggle. The Buddhist opposition was also largely excluded from the political process, and seems to have become increasingly friendly towards the NLF as a result, making the regime even less willing to make concessions. Interestingly, the National Assembly elected under these highly restrictive conditions *also* proved unruly, and sometimes tried to veto decisions taken by the military-controlled government. Under intense pressure, the Assembly always backed down in the end. The book also confirms that the South Vietnamese state entity probably wouldn´t have survived without American aid. Apart from the US military presence, the United States also gave South Vietnam enormous amounts of financial aid, without which basic government functions wouldn´t have worked. The money was also needed to combat inflation, famine, etc.
The strong support of the NLF is, ironically, visible in official South Vietnamese government statements about the number of Communists killed or otherwise incapacitated, the number of villages “pacified”, etc. Those numbers are always very high, and if taken at face value, therefore show that Uncle Charlie was pretty popular outside Saigon. Otherwise, I must say that this Research Report gives a very rosy picture of the NLF, essentially taking its pronouncements about free elections, broad coalition governments, neutrality and gradual (not immediate) reunification with the Communist North Vietnam at face value. In reality, the southern zone was speedily conquered and incorporated by the Hanoi regime after the US withdrew its troops. No surprise there – study Stalin´s and Mao´s strategy and draw your own conclusions…
The book ends with the South Vietnamese House of Representatives (the local constitution was nominally very similar to that of the United States) approving a Land Reform Bill, apparently at the prodding of one Richard Nixon. The interesting thing to note is that the land reform was de facto a massive expropriation of the landlords, since only 20% of the compensation was in cash, the remaining 80% being given in the form of government bonds (which must have been pretty worthless in South Vietnam during the war). The US pledged 10 million dollars in aid to help implement the land reform. I have no idea what happened to this last-minute proposal to let the Vietnamese peasants eat something more than cake, or if anyone else than “Keesing´s Research Reports” ever noticed. The South Vietnamese regime simply couldn´t be saved by 1970. In hindsight, its downfall looks inevitable. (How peasants in North Vietnam were treated, see my review of “From Colonialism to Communism” by Hoang Van Chi. Not a pretty story either.)
With that, I end my review of “South Vietnam. A Political History 1954-1970”.