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Vietnam's Southern Revolution

From Peasant Insurrection to Total War, 1959-1968

David Hunt

Publication Year: 2009

In Vietnam, the American government vowed to win the “hearts and minds” of the people. On the other side, among those who led and sympathized with the insurgents, the term “people’s war” gained a wide currency. Yet while much has been written about those who professed to speak for the Vietnamese population, we know surprisingly little about the everyday life of the peasants who made up the bulk of the country’s inhabitants. This book illuminates that subject. Drawing on a wide range of sources, including interviews conducted by the Rand Corporation with informants from My Tho Province in the Mekong Delta, David Hunt brings to light the daily experience of villagers in the midst of war and revolution.The peasants of southern Vietnam were neither onlookers nor mere victims as fighting raged throughout their country. From the “concerted uprising” in 1959–1960 to the Tet Offensive of 1968, the revolutionary movement they created was in fact the driving force within the war. Known as the “Viet Cong” to their adversaries, the rebels called themselves the “Liberation Front.” They demanded an end to landlordism and an egalitarian distribution of the means of subsistence as well as a democratization of relations between town and countryside, parents and children, men and women. They hoped the Vietnamese people would achieve a fuller sense of their place in the world and of the power they possessed to fashion their own destinies, without reliance on supernatural forces.In the first half of the book, Hunt analyzes this cultural revolution. As fighting spread and became more destructive, especially after the U.S. escalation in 1965, villagers were driven from their homes, the rural infrastructure collapsed, and customary notions of space and time lost purchase on an increasingly chaotic world. In the second half of the book, Hunt shows how peasants, who earlier had aspired to a kind of revolutionary modernism, now found themselves struggling to survive and to cope with the American intruders who poured into My Tho, and how they managed to regroup and spearhead the Tet Offensive that irrevocably altered the course of the war.

Published by: University of Massachusetts Press

Title Page

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Copyright Page

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Dedication

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Table of Contents

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pp. vii-

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Acknowledgments

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pp. ix-x

Not long after I started teaching at the University of Massachusetts Boston, Linda Gordon and others on the editorial board of Radical America called my attention to a collection of interviews with “Viet Cong” defectors and prisoners of war, which the Rand Corporation had just released to the public. I wrote an essay for Radical America and then an article for Past & Present on the...

Abbreviations

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pp. xi-

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Chapter 1: A Social History of the Vietnam War

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pp. 1-9

Regime changes, military campaigns, and big-power politics hold center stage in the literature on the Vietnam War. Accounts begin with the August Revolution of 1945, which brought the Viet Minh and the Communist Party to power and led to the formation of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV) and then to the First Indochina War, pitting the Viet Minh against French...

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Chapter 2: An Itinerant Peasantry

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pp. 10-28

In the years leading up to the Second Indochina War, rural dwellers in My Tho often traveled back and forth between the countryside and the towns, and many were familiar with Saigon, by far the largest agglomeration in the South. In the context of the social transformation, one might assume a state of dependency in the hamlets and attribute this movement of peoples to the...

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Chapter 3: The Peasant Revolt of 1959–60

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pp. 29-46

In 1959–60 a movement arose against the Saigon government of South Vietnam. Washington blamed the Hanoi-based Communist Party for fomenting the insurgency, and party leaders in the DRV, who at first feigned noninvolvement, in the end claimed credit for what they called the “concerted uprising.” Scholarly treatments have developed a more complex picture of what...

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Chapter 4: Contested Unities of the Golden Period

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pp. 47-67

Fresh from its triumphs in 1959–60, the movement entered a “golden period.” According to an informant from Thanh Phu (CL), “revolutionary fervor increased every day, and the Front was winning everywhere.” Contributions from the population obviated the need for a formal tax system, and volunteers competed for selection to newly formed military units. “Students left...

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Chapter 5: The Popular Movement and the Generational Divide

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pp. 68-89

In 1964, at the age of twenty, interviewee no. 182 joined the Front. Her mother was shot during an ARVN sweep, her father died of typhoid fever, her fiancé was killed in combat, and two younger siblings “had to make their living by themselves” and had “moved elsewhere.” After serving as a liaison agent, a first aid specialist, and a clerk typist, she rallied to the GVN in...

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Chapter 6: Modern Girls and New Women

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pp. 90-114

Undaunted by rising violence, interviewee no. 253, a woman I will call the Feminist, joined the movement in 1965. The transcript reveals her as a person of exceptional discipline and ambition. Unschooled and self-educated (“I learned to read and write by myself at home”), she looked forward to a time when a woman no longer “blindly” followed “the desires of her husband...

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Chapter 7: Escalation at Ground Level

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pp. 115-135

The Soldier was a man of force and intelligence. Attracted by the Front’s promise to “help the Poor Farmer class” and to provide education and a better life for young people like himself, he joined the movement in 1961, served as a village guerrilla, and in 1964 was invited to participate in a six-month course for medics, a coveted posting and a signal that he was held in high esteem. In...

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Chapter 8: Mapping the Exodus

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pp. 136-152

In the years before escalation, rural dwellers were on the move. During the Resistance many rose to higher echelons of the Viet Minh, and the guerrilla army and the French both drafted young people away from their homes and assigned them to distant battlefields. After 1960 the Front promoted a number of village activists out of their native hamlets, and as war intensified, the...

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Chapter 9 : The American Other

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pp. 153-170

During the golden period, internationalist perspectives inspired the Vietnamese to think that their revolutionary dream was more than a parochial fancy and gave them warrant to imagine the future in a global, a utopian, register. “As a rule,” an informant recalled, before introducing new policies “the village secretary always spoke of the international and home political...

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Chapter 10: Fate of the Liberated Zone

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pp. 171-192

Themes of displacement and precipitancy impart to this account an unsettling aura. People have been obliged to move, the speaker affirms. They live in “new houses,” and one is given the impression that these dwellings are temporary and may at any moment be abandoned as occupants scramble to a more advantageous perch. They are close to the highway and therefore to...

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Chapter 11: "Live Hour, Live Minute"

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pp. 193-211

In My Tho, the evolution of temporal as well as spatial categories was marked by abrupt and confusing shifts. The starting point was hardly tranquil, as revolutionary and government clock times diverged, the co-belligerents imposed time disciplines that were out of step with the agrarian cycle, and solar and lunar calendars uneasily coexisted. Just as it had done with space...

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Chapter 12: The Tet Offensive

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pp. 212-223

By 1967 the armed forces of the two sides had arrived at a stalemate on the battlefield, and the same might be said of the competition between the modernization of the Americans and the modernism of the popular movement. As warfare made a shambles of the countryside, many fled from their homes. Some of the refugees settled in urban areas and never came back, but people...

Appendix: The Uses of a Source

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pp. 225-234

Notes

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pp. 235-263

Index

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pp. 265-272

Back Cover

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E-ISBN-13: 9781613761137
E-ISBN-10: 1613761139
Print-ISBN-13: 9781558496910
Print-ISBN-10: 1558496912

Page Count: 296
Illustrations: 2 illus.
Publication Year: 2009

Series Title: Culture, Politics, and the Cold War
Series Editor Byline: Christian Appy

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Subject Headings

  • Mỹ Tho (Vietnam) -- Social conditions -- 20th century.
  • Peasants -- Vietnam -- Mỹ Tho -- Interviews.
  • Mỹ Tho (Vietnam) -- Biography.
  • War and society -- Vietnam -- History -- 20th century.
  • Vietnam War, 1961-1975 -- Social aspects.
  • Vietnam -- Social conditions -- 20th century.
  • Vietnam -- Politics and government -- 1945-1975.
  • Peasants -- Vietnam -- Mỹ Tho -- History -- 20th century.
  • Civil-military relations -- Vietnam -- History -- 20th century.
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