85th Annual Meeting of the Society for Military History
Landscapes of War and Peace
April 5 - 8, 2018, Louisville, Kentucky
David Johnson explores the role of refugees from northern Vietnam, sometimes seen as a "claque" or group of zealous supporters, was far from guaranteed. Shared bonds of religious (Catholic) faith, and anti-communism did not directly translate to support for the government of South Vietnam. Qingfei Yin examines the region along the North Vietnam-People Republic of China border, which marked a division between two newly emerged Communist states that both sought to control the lives of their populations through social and political mobilization. Robert Thompson focuses on the area of Cung Son, a vital town in the province of Phu Yen. Contested by the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese, South Vietnamese forces prevailed at the Battle of Cung Son in 1971, yet the victory proved hollow, and the government was unable to fully integrate the area into the national economy and society.
Through this panel, we hope to reveal how the civilian population and state structures interacted during a time of conflict. All sides in the conflict; U.S., Chinese, South and North Vietnamese struggled to provide comprehensive security or ideological appeals to population, leading to complications on the battlefield and impacting the long-term development of these new states.
American and southern Vietnamese officials recognized that such loyalty was conditional. Although southern Vietnam had abundant uncultivated land, much of which had been abandoned during the French Indochina War, on which to settle the northern refugees, security concerns delayed resettlement. Viet Minh cadre remained in former Viet Minh strongholds in the south and three so-called politico-religious sects, each with their own private armies, maintained control over key territories in southern Vietnam. To defeat the insurgency, the Diem administration not only had to provide land and security for the refugees, but also to demonstrate the southern government could improve their standard of living by providing access to water, medical care, schools, and other amenities. The allegiance of this "claque" was not guaranteed. The proposed paper will examine the extent to which these early pacification efforts succeeded in winning and maintaining support for Diem amongst northern refugees and how the pacification of northern refugees presaged, paralleled, and influenced later endeavors to pacify other elements in southern Vietnam.
This paper makes two historiographical interventions. First, it complicates existing scholarship on Sino-Vietnamese relations during the Vietnam War by revealing that the increasing border skirmishes since the 1970s were not just unavoidable byproducts of the grand strategies of Beijing and Hanoi but the consequence of the obstructed state-building since the mid-1960s. Second, contrary to the conventional wisdom that the Communist regimes were especially effective in wartime mobilization, this paper demonstrates that due to the strained state-society relations caused by political movements since the 1950s, the local states had significant difficulty in putting the border society onto a war machine.
South Vietnamese forces prevailed at the Battle of Cung Son, yet the victory proved hollow. House to house fighting, with aerial bombardment in support, both ejected the PLAF from Cung Son and rendered much of the village uninhabitable. Although province officials quickly dispatched supplies to Cung Son, such devastation meant rebuilding, not advancing, pacification. Worse, within days of the battle, the PLAF demolished a bridge near the province capital of Tuy Hoa City, one recently re-opened by South Vietnam's President Nguyễn Văn Thiệu himself. In sinking bridge spans, the PLAF struck a visceral and symbolic blow to the very soul of the province, negating any sense of progress towards victory claimed by the GVN. By late 1972, instead of capturing Cung Son, the PLAF simply cut the highway linking the village with the rest of the province. Consequently, the Battle of Cung Son is emblematic of the Vietnam War itself-temporary short-term victories that failed to advance Saigon's control over contested space.