by Virginia Morris *
|Role model: President Ho meets children, soldiers, and outstanding members from the South at the Presidential Palace in Ha Noi in 1968. His ideology of mobilising all people in the fight helped the Vietnamese defeat the US. — VNA/VNS File Photo
In a picturesque region of Viet Nam a future leader was born. Known by over 170 aliases throughout his life, he is best recognised as Ho Chi Minh. For those who supported his way to gain Vietnam its independence, they viewed him as a hero, but for those who opposed his method-ology, they hunted him down and labelled him their ‘most wanted man'.
Ho was a radical thinker and a highly intelligent man. From an early stage in his life, Ho wanted to use diplomacy as a means to free Viet Nam, in reality he knew that other far more drastic means were needed. He embarked on extensive foreign travels looking for answers, including Britain to Senegal, the USA to Algeria and during this period his revolutionary path was set. His bold journey put him on a course that ultimately led him to design a completely new form of warfare, known by him and those who worked with him, as an All-People's War.
The main strategy within the All-People's War was referred to by the French as, l'infrastructure Clandestine Viet Minh, by the Americans as Viet Cong Infrastructure (VCI) and by the Communist Party as the Revolutionary Infrastructure. So unique was this new tool of war that the American CIA failed to destroy it but it went on to successfully influenced the Mujahedeen, and they adopted the concept to repel the Russians from Afghanistan in the 1980s.
What made the infrastructure the bedrock of the All-People's War is that it became a comprehensive shadow government, with all the associated services there to support, control and expand a shadow nation. The infrastructure was a simple but highly effective concept and generally comprised three key elements: (1) Communist Party cells, which were then linked together by (2) so-called couriers and (3) sympathisers who would guard the courier corridors when needed. Out of the three components Ho said that the couriers were the most important element for victory because they enabled everything else to operate, serving the revolution in much the same way as blood vessels and a nervous system serve the human body.
When looking at these so-called couriers, known as giao thong, for centuries they have been used to repel invading armies from Viet Nam. However, Ho had to change the old-fashioned skill-base of couriers past, which just linked individuals together as communication agents, into something more specialised. Although still referred to as giao thong, the skills required of his new operatives had to include not only those of a traditional courier but also the extra abilities of professional guide, fighter, spy and propagandist.
Ho trained his first couriers in China in 1925. By the time the American Vietnam War was at its peak, in the late 1960s, they fell into two clear well-established section. These two sections actually started to officially emerge in the late 1930s: one comprised illegal operatives and the second had both legal and semi-legal operatives.
Those acting legally out-numbered semi-legal and illegal operatives. They were given the name ‘legal' because they func-tioned using identification permits issued unwittingly by their opponents. A good example of one of these operatives during the Vietnam War was Nguyen Van Lem (alias Lop the Seventh or Tyre the Seventh). He was first regrouped to the North in 1954 due to Geneva Agreement where he was trained to organise covert lines. After returning from the North in 1962, he and his wife traded car tyres, (hence one of his aliases), and he was authorised to do so with a permit issued by the Sai Gon authorities, his enemy. This cover gave him a relatively free hand to smuggle weapons and explosives for the revolutionaries within various shipments of tyres. Nguyen Van Lem is best known from the iconic and unforgettable image captured by the Associated Press photographer, Eddie Adams. Lem is the prisoner photographed wincing just before he was shot in the head at point-blank range with a pistol by the South Vietnamese General, Nguyen Ngoc Loan, at the height of the Tet Offensive in 1968.
The ‘semi-legal' aspect was much less common. These people worked as legal couriers; but what gave them their semi-legal status was that a person or persons with whom they worked knew that they were revolutionaries or had links to them. Their work colleagues used these semi-legals to liaise with the revolutionaries, to pass on or receive information or to help negotiations. It was highly dangerous work because the semi-legal courier could be arrested by their enemy at any time, if their services became surplus to requirements. Their numbers peaked at key times, such as from 1936 to 1939, because the Popular Front came into office or influenced French politics, meaning that the known communists in Viet Nam could operate more openly. The semi-legal courier operated openly again for a short period after the French War had ended, from the end of 1954 to the beginning of 1955, in anticipation of the promised elections to unify North and South Viet Nam. Their numbers increased again during the American Vietnam War. One time period was prior to the start of the Tet Offensive in 1968. The National Liberation Front in South Vietnam sent messengers to the US Embassy in Sai Gon to start negotiations with them. Then semi-legal operatives became important again prior to the fall of Sai Gon in 1975 because they were probing to see the level of US re-intervention.
Operatives who worked as couriers ‘illegally' carried out duties that had less everyday contact with their opponents. They were usually couriers who had originally worked legally or semi-legally but been flushed out by the enemy and therefore assigned a new covert task. They could not just move to another region of Viet Nam where their faces were not known or be issued new fake identification papers. They still had to use their knowledge of the local terrain to guide and guard, and in this grouping fight to the death to defend their comrades. Therefore, as a general rule, illegal operatives worked at night to avoid contact with their foe. This group became especially widespread and clearly defined only during the Vietnam War, when the American computer data files on individuals made using multiple identities or working with fake identification harder. An example of their work was after the Tet Offensive, and when they were used to guide units who had arrived from the North to commit combat operations in the South.
Why the Revolutionary Infrastructure was so effective was that the communists had its activities running through every village, district and province. It was as large as their enemy's government but safely hidden amongst the people. They raised taxes, setup schools and hospitals, they had their own currency, police and justice system, and they controlled the land which enable the army to operate in enemy controlled and disputed areas. There was nothing that this parallel administration did not do for the people and the military. However, on top of these duties the infrastructure was also used to administer, for example, espionage activities against the French or the Americans and American-back regime.
American commander Robert McKnight was one man who questioned communist actions within American Studies and Observations (SOG) covert missions. He studied reports of US run insertions into North Viet Nam between April 1964 and October 1967. SOG put in place around 250 agents and prior to this the CIA had inserted a similar number. They were put into an unknown area and then expected to collect intelligence and sabotage bridges or the like. By late 1967 it was estimated that only a handful of teams were still operating, the rest having been either killed or captured shortly after insertion. This was disap-pointing, so an assessment of the remaining teams was made. This found that although these agents were still operating, they were all under communist control.
Key to Robert McKnight's conclusion was that he believed the communists had used the ‘double-cross system', meaning that they had taken control of SOG operations for seven years. This was what British operative John Cecil Masterman had called this type of work during the Second World War. As chairman of the Twenty Committee, Masterman had run such an operation against Nazi Germany. Double Cross was named after the Roman numerals for twenty, ‘XX'. Masterman explained that this double cross system was more than just conducting a few isolated covert incidents. Through his agents, the British had actively run and controlled the entire German espionage setup in Britain.
Double cross system
Like the British before, Ho used the double cross system. Unlike the British Ho manage this process in disputed or enemy controlled areas through his cover parallel administration. How much of the Americans and southern-back regimes systems the communists controlled is unknown, but the infrastructure is believed to have run from the post office to the presidential palace, and even as far as the US.
Both the French and the Americans were aware of the infrastructure but did little to prevent it until it was simply too late. In 1968 the Americans hurried the development of the Phoenix Program. An operation that communist veterans admitted had a severe impact on their ability to operate, because the objectives of which were to identify and neutralise their infrastructure. Although Phoenix had an impact, it did not, or could not, come close to eliminating the problem.
When Sai Gon fell on 30 April 1975, what was aired on TV was a military victory. What was not seen, is that when the communist army swept down from North Vietnam and through the southern countryside, as they did so, the old regime was brushed aside and the infrastructure became overt to freely administer each ‘liberated' region. Even before unconditional surrender had been gained from the President of South Vietnam, the revolutionaries controlled not only Saigon but the whole of Vietnam.
Ho Chi Minh's legacy is that he designed a new form of warfare which gained victory in Vietnam and opened the way for political reform across the region. The unwanted heritage of the All-People's War for the world is that Ho has inadvertently designed a blueprint for fighting what is best described as a protected asymmetric war against a superior power. The infrastructure was key to its success, and sadly because there is no means of destroying it, the All-People's War is still as daunting today as it ever was. — VNS
*Virginia Morris is a researcher on the US War in Viet Nam. She was the first western writer to walk the Ho Chi Minh Trail.