Agrarian Reform In South Vietnam, 1956–1960

Nghia Mai
17 min readAug 20, 2020

Between 1956 and 1960, the fledgling regime of Ngô Đình Diệm and the United States under the Eisenhower Administration focused on a nation-building project in the newly-proclaimed southern Republic of Việt Nam following the referendum of October 1955, to construct an economically and politically viable anti-communist state below the 17th parallel. A significant part of this project was demonstrated in terms of efforts to transform the South Vietnamese countryside, where the majority of the population lived and worked and were particularly susceptible to Communist subversion, through various grandiose development schemes laid out by the regime, mostly with US backing. These schemes included land reform measures, the Land Development program and the controversial Agroville project. These initiatives were to fulfil socio-economic goals as well as political and security imperatives in combatting Communist infiltration, legitimise rural support for the regime and hopefully lay the foundation for a stable and prosperous South Vietnamese nation-state as envisioned by both Diệm and the United States. However, these projects mostly failed in achieving their short term and long term aims, which contributed to the rise of the communist National Liberation Front (NLF) insurgency, eventual downfall of the regime and deepened US intervention into Việt Nam. Whilst there were similarities in objectives between the regime and their US backer, but there were also notable differences, which would have led to disagreements in the client-patron relationship that resulted in the failure of agrarian reform. It would be important to look at the extent to which agrarian reform failed due to tensions existed between the Sài Gòn regime and their US patron along with other factors through examining existing historiography and evidences from the period. Thus, to further understand the balancing of post-colonial nation building and Cold War strategic imperatives in South Việt Nam in the early days of US involvement through the case study of agrarian reform.

While agrarian reform measures and their outcomes formed a significant portion of the nation-building project in the Republic of Việt Nam (RVN) and served as a microcosm of the modus operandi of the relationship between Ngô Đình Diệm and the United States (US) between the mid-1950s and the early-1960s, there has not been much scholarly attention to this area, compared to other aspects of post-1954 US intervention in Việt Nam despite the fact agrarian reforms covered three extensive and ambitious programs in land redistribution, the Land Development and Agroville projects. However, this did not mean there is no scholarly debate in the light but expanding historiography regarding the failure of agrarian reforms in South Việt Nam. Traditional historians such as George C. Herring have tended to focus on the lack of enthusiasm from the Sài Gòn regime, coupled with corruption and inefficiency, in hindering efforts for land reform to be implemented effectively at the insistence of US efforts.[1] Other more revisionist scholars such as Mark Moyar have a more positive assessment of Diệm’s attitudes toward land reform, which was seen as one of the most significant achievements in the early years of his presidency and attributed the shortcoming of the programs to miniscule funding for land purchases from the US, of which Diệm asked for $30 million but only received $4 million.[2] More contemporary scholarship have paid more attention to the nuances of the programs implemented during this period, such as Land Development and Agroville, of which Phillp E. Catton focused on the differing ideas on nation-building between Sài Gòn and Washington which would have resulted in conflicts and suspicions from both sides, demonstrated by Diệm’s decision for the Agroville to be self-funded by his government.[3] Through further access to Vietnamese archives, there is also emphasis on the agency of the anti-Communist client, particularly the role of Diệm as an independent leader and his vision for a post-colonial state in the Southern half of Việt Nam through the prism of his Personalist ideology, which he inserted in his various schemes and could have come at odds with his US patron, as demonstrated by the works of Geoffrey Stewart.[4] To contribute to the expanding historiography, one could raise the hypothesis that the failure of agrarian reform measures in South Việt Nam was based on a combination of factors, which included conflicting visions of nation-building between Diệm and his US advisors regarding to transformation of the South Vietnamese countryside that was exacerbated by US perception of the Other in development discourse in a Cold War post-colonial state such as the RVN. Moreover, Diệm’s perception, influenced by his regional and cultural background, of the Southern peasantry and ethnic minorities led to drastic measures which eventually alienated a large section of the rural population and legitimised the emerging Communist insurgency. At the same time, demonstrating the difficulties and eventual shortcomings in balancing the objectives of long term socio-economic prosperity and short term security and political consolidation in South Việt Nam during the early years of US involvement.

In order to disseminate the roots of the failures of agrarian reform measures, it is important to understand the rationale and imperative behind implementing such measures in the context of post-1954 South Việt Nam, particularly in the rural area. According to Vietnam scholar Bernard B. Fall, in South Việt Nam, particularly the area that encompassed the Mekong Delta, of a total of 250,000 landowners, 6300, with the majority being absentee landlords, owned 1,035,000 hectares of rice land or 45 percent and another 183,000 smaller holders owned 345,000 hectares or 15 percent.[5] As the lands were owned by absentee landlords, they were worked on by tenant farmers, which often gave up 50 to 70 percent of their crops in rent and were constantly in debt.[6] Therefore, land redistribution was important in securing popular support for any regime in power or revolutionary movements. In the United States, by the mid-1950s, agricultural distribution was widely distributed amongst foreign policy establishment as policy makers and academics believed that landowners were more productive than tenants and there were fears of the revolutionary potential of landless peasants. This was done through ambitious land reform programs being implemented in other Asian countries such as post-World War II Japan, which eliminated tenancy by 1949, and Taiwan that legitimised and solidified Chiang Kai-shek’s regime.[7] Thus, this also helped to deter the growth of communist agitation in these countries, which tended to exploit popular rural grievances. Based on the successes regarding land reform in Japan and Taiwan, it would have made sense to replicate a similar program in South Việt Nam as a part of the nation-building project that was underway once Ngô Đình Diệm came to power and proclaimed the Republic of Việt Nam following the referendum of October 1955.

Both the Diệm regime and its US patron agreed there was a need for a significant transformation of the South Vietnamese countryside in order to secure popular support for the fledgling regime and build toward a viable anti-communist state below the 17th parallel. This was seen in Diệm’s public rhetoric on agrarian reform, as stated in a memorandum to Richard Nixon, then vice president, in July 1956 in which he described changes in the rural area “as the pre-condition of meeting the threat of Communism, of broadening the base of our political power, and of increasing the productivity.”[8] The memorandum demonstrates the point of agreement between both parties on the matter. However, there would also be significant differences between the two parties, in terms of visions and perceptions of each other, which would have led to tensions and disagreements. Land reform was one particular area, in which according to Edward Miller, while the US through economist Wolf Ladejinsky was championing a sweeping program of land reform similar to the ones that had been the implemented in Japan and Taiwan, Diệm was traditionally viewed as unenthusiastic about land reform. However, this did not prevented him from promulgated Ordinance 57 in the autumn of 1956, which was to expropriate land from Vietnamese and French landlords in the Mekong Delta and redistribute them to landless tenant farmers through ‘breaking up’ estates of over 300 acres which were to be transferred to the government and allowing peasants to purchase land from the government over a period of six years.[9] Furthermore, the Ordinance promised to lay the foundation for industrialisation through a compensation package for individuals whose property was to be expropriated in the form of cash and mostly government bonds that could be invested in state-run industries.[10] According to the Sài Gòn government, this was considered to be successful, in which the government of the RVN was able to expropriate nearly half a million of hectares of land, at 415,843 hectares during the period between 1954 and 1960.[11] However, this is only government propaganda, particularly for an international audience, whilst in actual fact, the Ordinance failed to achieve its objectives and only benefitted a small number of peasant farmers. Differences between Diệm and US advisors played a role as this was due to the fact that the Ordinance restricted individual land holdings to 100 hectares per person, which was significantly higher than what it had been in Japan and Taiwan.[12] According to Moyar, the US advised Diệm to lower the landholding limits to give more to the peasants but the latter refused on the ground of the need to maintain a middle class in the Mekong Delta, which proved costly as the middle class was already too small to sustain the government’s position in the countryside.[13] However, this would to suggest that Diệm was inclined to protect the rural status quo in South Việt Nam due to his fragile political base being based around the landholding elite, which included members of his cabinet, including the vice president, and his conservative nature. Therefore, he was only willing to give minimal concession to US demands for reform, shown by the limited nature of the Ordinance, as seen by most scholars previously.

Even so, this would derive Diệm of his agency and own vision for rural South Việt Nam. One major difference between the visions of Diệm and the US would be that while the US advocated land distribution on their notion of liberal democracy based on the right to own property, which would be farmland for a predominantly agrarian country like the RVN. On the other hand, Diệm laid more emphasis on rural resettlement of people as key to transforming the countryside. Therefore, this would explain why land reform was not pursued with as much vigour by the Sài Gòn regime despite the urging of US advisors such as Ladejinsky. This led to another rural scheme, which could be considered Diệm’s pet project, the Land Development program (Dinh điền) by early 1957. This was a large-scale resettlement program, which was to relocate sections of the rural population such as inhabitants of the central lowland, highland indigenous tribes onto abandoned or underutilised land, thus resolving the problem of overpopulation in the areas mentioned above.[14] The nature of the program to achieve a range of strategic, economic and political goals, which demonstrated the imperative for balancing short-term political and security consolidation and long-term socio-economic cohesion in nation-building in South Việt Nam. While the purpose of the program was to use science and technology to transform the landscapes, living patterns and agricultural practices in the South Vietnamese countryside, it also had to fulfil security objectives through the development of Land Development Centers, especially along South Việt Nam’s borders with Cambodia and Laos in the Central Highlands and Plain of Reeds in the Mekong Delta to form a ‘human wall’ against communist infiltration.[15] Furthermore, in order to foster nation-building qualities, the program was on Diệm’s Personalist ideal of Community Development, in which inhabitants contributed to the new centers by constructing infrastructure, cultivated crops on a communal basis and participated in the civic associations and self-defense units in order to encourage as sense of civic responsibility through hard work and sacrifices in a communal spirit without compensation, necessary for constructing a nation.[16] The program was considered to be a success according to the regime, which it reported 146 centres were constructed by July 1961 and 210,460 people were transferred to them, including more than 7000 tribal minorities at seven centres reserved for them.[17] However, these statistics masked the problems that the program that it did not ensure its longevity, including tensions between the regime and their US patron. Similar with the earlier attempt at land reform, the main points of tension between the two parties were based on differing priorities for the program regarding the relationship between land and labour. For the US side, the emphasis was on economic and security progress in the countryside through the ability for peasants to own and work on their own land whilst seeing opportunities for socio-economic advancement. In particular, the viability of new settlements and economic well-being of the inhabitants.[18] Whereas for Diệm, the insistence was on peasants earning the right to ownership of land through demonstrating their willingness for self-sacrifice in the cultivation of the wilderness on a communal basis via Community Development, which was at the core of his Personalist revolution and nation-building vision.[19]

It is important to understand the basics of the Personalist ideology which influenced Diệm’s rationale, which aimed toward a social order where both individual material needs and collective prosperity were to be fulfilled without either one becoming the sole focus of policy.[20] Therefore, one could argue disagreements between Diệm and the US over Land Development occurred because the latter was not able to comprehend the former’s ideological persuasion and overall long-term vision. At the same time, the US interpreted the solutions in terms of a common prescription for common problems in the decolonising world. Therefore, this resulted in the criticism by Diệm’s brother, Ngô Đình Nhu, that the US only supported projects that ‘which can return 100 per cent the first year.”[21] Furthermore, according to Catton, the disagreement surrounding the program also reflected the conflicting perspectives of the client and the patron over the use of foreign aid, in which the former, South Việt Nam in this case, believed the preconditions for aid hindered its ability to pursue their own nation-building programs and meeting the urgent requirement of a state that was virtually sieged.[22] Thus, arguably, the disagreements between the regime and the US would have led Diệm to have the Agroville project, which was to resettle peasants in the Mekong Delta in fortified communities to protect them from rising Communist insurgency, to be self-funded by his government by 1959.[23] Another factor that contributed to the shortcomings of agrarian transformation was Diệm’s own perception of the Southern peasantry and other groups such as the highland tribal minorities based on pre-existing stereotypes and shaped by his background when implementing the various schemes.

This is demonstrated during the implementation of the Land Development projects, where the Diệm government resettled ethnic Vietnamese on lands claimed by tribal groups, referred under French colonial rule as the Montagnards, as their own and seen as vital to their pattern of slash-and-burn agriculture and subjected to forced resettlement themselves in specially reserved Land Development Centers. Considering the purpose of Land Development was to construct a sense of nationhood amongst different communities in South Việt Nam at this time, it was vital to integrate the Montagnards into mainstream (South) Vietnamese society. Diệm and his officials, reinforced by traditional and colonial civilisation discourse, viewed these groups as ‘savages’ and saw it was their mission to assimilate this section of the population into Vietnamese culture.[24] In the official government report from the Commissariat General for Land Development, it can be seen it employed terms such as ‘backward’ to describe the highland tribes and that one of the benefits of resettlement would include ‘cultural improvement’ for them, thus implying a combination of traditional view of cultural supremacy and racial discourse as a legacy of colonial rule being applied over an indigenous group in a post-colonial context to justify government policies and derived groups such as the Montagnards of individual agency.[25] Thus, this would have resulted in alienation and popular resentment against the regime in Sài Gòn and created obstacles for agrarian reform measures to be successful. Not only the Montagnards, Diệm’s perception of the Southern Vietnamese peasantry, based on regional cultural constructs, also had a significant impact on the outcome of agrarian reform in South Việt Nam during this period.

As Land Development was centred around the Personalist notion of Community Development, where the peasantry would self-reliantly participate in the building of their respective communities and from there, foster a sense of unity whilst their rights as individual citizens. According to Geoffrey Stewart, this was consistent with Diệm’s perception of Việt Nam’s precolonial structure of autonomous villages that formed the foundation of traditional rural society.[26] However, this was more true with village communities in Northern Việt Nam, as a result of high population density and due to the fact that 98.2 per cent of all land in that region comprised of 5 hectares or less.[27] This differed with the Southern peasantry, which benefitted from abundant land as they migrated southward at different points in Vietnamese history. Thus, villages and communities were not as cohesive as their Northern counterparts. Traits of the Southern peasantry fitted Samuel Popkin’s theory of the “rational peasant”, which possesses a sense of self-interest that contrasted with Diệm’s historical conception of the peasantry.[28] Therefore, it can be seen that Diệm’s vision for agrarian transformation was founded on a premise based on a romantic ideal of the historical Vietnamese village which did not match the reality of South Việt Nam, a concept that was created as a result of historical patterns of southward expansion. Therefore, initiatives that infringed on the self-interests of the peasantry would have resulted in popular discontent. It is important to be aware that Diệm and his family was originally from the Northern Central region, and his exposure to the peasantry was limited by his locality before becoming the leader of South Việt Nam. Moreover, stereotypes also played into the formulation of other projects, particularly the Agroville scheme. The scheme was purposed to solve the low population density in the Mekong Delta with scattered and isolated settlements on open territories, which could be exploited by Communist insurgents. Here, the Diệm regime’s stereotyped misconception of the Southern peasantry came into play, as it viewed rural Southerners as “more thinly spread geographically and more naïve politically”, vulnerable to Communist infiltration and subsequently reinforced the colonial-era notion of the Mekong Delta as a region of ignorance, backwardness and hardship.[29] Thus, according to the regime, the project would concentrate on regrouping the peasant population and isolate them from Communist insurgents while improving their socio-economic well-being, to correct the perceived backwardness associated with the Mekong Delta, in self-contained extended villages that were equipped with amenities such as schools, medical clinics, agricultural and industrial centres.[30] Similar to Land Development, members of the population were expected to contribute to the building of settlements through participating in collective work projects in the spirit of Community Development but with more intensity, due to the absence of US financial support.

The failure of the Agroville scheme was due to the fact the regime misperceived the peasantry’s willingness to partake in communal work, not to take into account of the distinct self-interest of the Southern peasantry as the regime was demanding labour without any form of compensation. This combined with coercive measures, which was noticed by US officials, to move local residents into new settlements from their ancestral homes would have resulted in high level of popular resentment against the regime and fuelled support for the emerging insurgency.[31] The advantages of the shortcomings of the project for the insurgency was demonstrated by the use of propaganda, which encouraged popular resistance through non-cooperation in construction works and harassment, which would have hindered implementation.[32] As the project seriously hampered Diệm’s legitimacy, this eventually led to Diệm’s decision to abandon the project before the South Vietnamese national elections of April 1961.[33] Therefore, it can be seen that misconception of the realities of rural South Việt Nam, shaped by racism, romantic notion of history and pre-existing stereotypes, contributed to the failure of the various agrarian reform schemes and encouraged popular dissatisfaction against the regime whilst intensified the communist insurgency.

To conclude, attempts at agrarian reform in South Việt Nam between 1956 and 1960 by the regime of Ngô Đình Diệm and its US patron, as part of a wider nation-building endeavour in the fledgling state, failed due to several factors. This included disagreements between the regime and the US over their respective visions for transforming rural South Việt Nam despite agreeing on constructing a politically and economically viable anti-communist state below the 17th parallel. The former laid emphasis on community development to build strong, cohesive village communities as microcosm of the South Vietnamese nation, while the latter viewed the problem and solution in terms of the immediate socio-economic progress of the peasantry through access to the right to own and make a living from their own piece of land. Moreover, the various schemes also failed to achieve their objectives due to Diệm and his regime’s misconception of the realities and nuances of rural South Việt Nam, which shaped by pre-conceived stereotypes and romantic notion of historical traditions of rural Vietnamese society. This misconception resulted in government interference on the self-interests of the peasantry, which led to popular resentment against the regime and intensified the communist insurgency by the early 1960s. Furthermore, the case study of agrarian reform and their shortcomings also demonstrated the difficulties for both parties, Diệm and the US, in balancing strategic and political consolidation and socio-economic fulfilment in the wider context of Cold War post-colonial nation-building.

[1] George C. Herring, America’s Longest War: The United States and Vietnam War 1950–1975 (New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1979), p.64.

[2] Mark Moyar, Triumph Forsaken: The Vietnam War, 1954–1965 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006), p. 73.

[3] Phillp E. Catton, Diem’s Final Failure: Prelude to America’s War in Vietnam (Lawrence, Kansas: University Press of Kansas, 2002), p. 71.

[4] Geoffrey Stewart, Vietnam’s Lost Revolution: Ngô Đình Diệm’s Failure to Build An Independent Nation, 1955–1963 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2017), p. 8.

[5] Bernard B. Fall, The Two Viet-Nams: A Political and Military Analysis (New York: Frederick A. Praeger, 1966), p. 308.

[6] Seth Jacobs, Cold War Mandarin: Ngo Dinh Diem and the Origins of America’s War in Vietnam, 1950–1963 (Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2006), p.93.

[7] David A. Conrad, “’Before It Is Too Late’: Land Reform in South Vietnam, 1956–1968,” Journal of American-East Asian Relations 21 (2014): p. 35.

[8] Catton, Diem’s Final Failure, p.52.

[9] Memorandum for Director of Intelligence, “Agrarian Reform and Internal Security in South Vietnam,” April 30, 1957, Freedom of Information Act Electronic Reading Room, Central Intelligence Agency, https://www.cia.gov/library/readingroom/docs/DOC_0001167501.pdf.

[10] Catton, Diem’s Final Failure, p.53.

[11] Seven Years of the Ngo Dinh Diem Administration, 1954–1961 (Saigon, 1961), p.352.

[12] Moyar, Triumph Forsaken, pp.72–73.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Edward Miller, Misalliance: Ngo Dinh Diem, the United States, and the Fate of South Vietnam (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2013), p. 171.

[15] Miller, Misalliance, pp.171–172.

[16]Catton, Diem’s Final Failure, p.59.

[17] Seven Years, pp. 360–363.

[18] Catton, Diem’s Final Failure, p.61.

[19] Miller, Misalliance, p. 176.

[20] Edward Miller, “Vision, Power, and Agency: The Ascent of Ngo Dinh Diem, 1945–1954,” in Making Sense of the Vietnam Wars: Local, National, and Transnational Perspectives, ed. Mark Philip Bradley & Marilyn B. Young (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), p.151.

[21]Miller, Misalliance, p. 176.

[22] Catton, Diem’s Final Failure, pp. 62–63.

[23] Miller, Misalliance, p. 181.

[24] George McT. Kahin, Intervention: How America Became Involved in Vietnam (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1986), p. 99.

[25] Seven Years, p. 359.

[26] Stewart, Vietnam’s Lost Revolution, p. 234

[27] Fall, The Two Viet-Nams, p. 308

[28] Stewart, Vietnam’s Lost Revolution, p. 235

[29] Miller, Misalliance, p. 179

[30] Robin B. Frankum Jr., “Vietnam during the Rule of Ngo Dinh Diem, 1954–63,” in The War That Never Ends: New Perspective on the Vietnam War, ed. David L. Anderson and John Ernst (Lexington, Kentucky: The University Press of Kentucky, 2014), p. 130.

[31] Miller, Misalliance, p. 183.

[32] Catton, Diem’s Final Failure, p. 69

[33] Frankum Jr., “Vietnam,” p. 130.

Bibliography:

- Primary sources:

Memorandum for Director of Intelligence. “Agrarian Reform and Internal Security in South Vietnam.” April 30, 1957. Freedom of Information Act Electronic Reading, Central Intelligence Agency.

https://www.cia.gov/library/readingroom/docs/DOC_0001167501.pdf.

Seven Years of the Ngo Dinh Diem Administration, 1954–1961. Saigon: 1961.

- Secondary sources:

Bernald B. Fall. The Two Vietnams: A Political and Military Analysis. New York: Frederick A. Praeger, 1966.

Catton, Phillip E. Diem’s Final Failure: Prelude to America’s War in Vietnam. Lawrence, Kansas: the University Press of Kansas, 2002.

Conrad, David A. “’Before It Is Too Late’: Land Reform in South Vietnam, 1956–1968.” Journal of American-East Asian Relations 21 (2014): 34–57.

Frankum Jr., Ronald B. “Vietnam during the Rule of Ngo Dinh Diem, 1954–63.” In The War That Never Ends: New Perspective on the Vietnam War, edited by David L. Anderson and John Ernst, 121–142. Lexington, Kentucky: The University Press of Kentucky, 2014.

Kahin, George Mc T. Intervention: How America Became Involved in Vietnam. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1986.

Herring, George C. America’s Longest War: The United States and Vietnam 1950–1975. New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1979.

Jacobs, Seth. Cold War Mandarin: Ngo Dinh Diem and the Origins of America’s War in Vietnam, 1950–1963. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2006.

Miller, Edward. Misalliance: Ngo Dinh Diem, the United States, and the Fate of South Vietnam. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2013.

Miller, Edward. “Vision, Power, and Agency: The Ascent of Ngo Dinh Diem, 1945–1954.” In Making Sense of the Vietnam Wars: Local, National, and Transnational Perspectives, edited by Mark Phillip Bradley & Marilyn B. Young, 135- 169. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008.

Moyar, Mark. Triumph Forsaken: The Vietnam War, 1954–1965. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006.

Stewart, Geoffrey. Vietnam’s Lost Revolution: Ngô Đình Diệm’s Failure to Build An Independent Nation, 1955–1963. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2017.

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Nghia Mai

Ireland-based Vietnamese humorist interested in making people of all creeds and species laugh and think. Cultural Ambassador (Whatever that means).