Discuss the impact of Diem's and Ho Chi Minh's policies on Vietnam from 1954 until 1970?

Essay by GottoHigh School, 11th gradeA, August 2004

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In the region collectively known as Vietnam, over 25 years of hostilities had been endured by the Vietnamese people, culminating in the midst of this conflict, the division of Vietnam into North and South as stated in the Geneva Accords. These now independent territories each had their own system of administration, vastly different in their beliefs, governing each of their 'nations' population. Between 1954 and 1970, the North's Ho Chi Minh, a communist, and the South's Ngo Dinh Diem, 'a pro-democratic nationalist', were both leaders of their respective nations for periods within this time, implementing many political, social and economic policies that would have a lasting impact on their nations.

For a quarter of a century North Vietnam was a politically stable nation with the same leaders, headed by Ho Chi Minh, remaining in positions of power. These leaders shaped and changed the North Vietnamese ideals, making national independence and eventual reunification of Vietnam the common cause of both the state and the people.

In 1960 a new constitution, derived by Ho and the remainder of the leadership, outlined the control of the state in which Marxism-Leninism would be followed. The following of this impacted on society, giving cohesion and stability to the state. All citizens regardless of age, sex or qualifications were incorporated into state run programs. The formation of the Lao Dong (Vietnamese Workers Party) established a 'peoples democracy', ensuring a large proportion of the population were involved in political activity. The people were the priority. This communist belief system would remain the foundation of North Vietnam throughout the Second Indochina War, allowing the nation to resist the onslaught of the Democratic South, while uniting the people for their own attacks, such as the Tet Offensive in 1968, turning the war in the North's favour.

In stark contrast, South Vietnam's political administration was in tatters with heavy handed tactics against opposition and corruption rampant. Ngo Dinh Diem became President of South Vietnam in 1955, replacing Emperor Bao Dai. With the backing of the United States, Diem was the answer to the North; an anti-Communist, pro-democratic leader. In an effort to consolidate power, Diem appointed members of his family to permanent positions within the government. These nepotistic appointments resulted in a Catholic family, now government, controlling a population whose faith was a blend of Buddhism, Confucianism and Taoism. Unlike the Communist North, the Diem government refused to take into account their peoples beliefs and ideals. This clash of cultures came to the fore in 1963 when the Diem regime incited a major crisis by trying to discipline and repress the South Vietnamese Buddhists in an effort to make Catholicism the dominant religion of the country. The Buddhists began to stage enormous antigovernment demonstrations and after Diem's brother Ngo Dinh Nhu launched a number of military actions attacking the Buddhists, several Buddhist monks' died of self-immolation in protest. Madam Nhu's unsympathetic reference to 'Buddhist Barbeques' further discredited the Diem regime. The government's repression of Buddhist's was to be a major contributing factor in its downfall later that year, with the South Vietnamese people and the United States unhappy with the handling of the situation.

Whilst Diem was ignoring his own people, concentrating on his own beliefs and philosophy, Ho Chi Minh was gaining the support of the people, re-establishing the North socially and economically before attempting to unify the country. North Vietnam was left in economic and social disarray after the First Indochina War. The only solution to the situation was through massive reforms to rebuild the country. A land reform campaign began in early 1954 with the redistribution of land, seized from landlords, to the peasants. A policy of collectivisation was now formed, implemented and followed for the remainder of the war in which the means of production and distribution of goods and services were controlled by the people as a group. Women now emerged from their traditional status as the homemaker in society, now "indispensable as economic producers" for the nation. In 1955 the Viet Minh established Agricultural Reform Tribunals to supervise this redistribution of land. But, as a result of this reform period, 'North Vietnam floundered in an atmosphere of suspicion and apprehension'. Several uprisings occurred resulting in the deaths of thousands of people. Yet as a result of the reforms North Vietnam had achieved self-sufficiency, predominantly through the production of rice, allowing the economy to grow and create a foundation for expansion. "Ho Chi Minh led a well-fed population, politically educated with an industrial base suitable for a war economy".

Diem similarly attempted to introduce land reforms, but contrary to Ho, he generally sided with the landlords against the peasants. Many of the villages in the South had been controlled by the Viet Minh up to 1954, where the peasants had been accustomed to paying little or no rent. But now under the Diem regime, peasants who could not pay were evicted and landlords reclaimed their former estates, eventually giving Diem control of the Mekong Delta once again. Diem was becoming an increasingly repressive and authoritarian ruler and unlike Ho, was extremely unpopular with the majority of the people. He now appointed all positions of power to trusted anti-Communist, usually Catholic officials. In addition to this, decrees were issued, including one in 1956 making it illegal to associate with communists. By the end of 1958, 40000 people had been imprisoned and 12000 killed. The governments increasing unpopularity resulted in several factions uprising including the National Liberation Front (NLF) or the 'Viet Cong' as Diem referred to them, who targeted all South Vietnamese, either communist or non-communist, to help it overthrow American influences in South Vietnam. Diem's downfall and eventual assassination in 1963 is strongly linked to his inability to combat this opponent and his increasingly poor treatment of the population, as it was becoming clear that a new leader was required.

The North's eventual victory in the war, due largely to Ho Chi Minh's legacy, and Diem's eventual demise on account of his own indiscretions and mistakes ultimately determine the success of their polices. But the impact, both positive and negative, that the respective government's policies had on Vietnam, in which Ho Chi Minh created and maintained a economically and socially stable nation contrasted with the volatile environment of the Diem government, is undeniable.