• U.S.

VIET NAM: Test at Camau

3 minute read
TIME

Under the terms of Geneva, the Viet Minh Communists must get out of their old positions in South Viet Nam in phased withdrawals just as the French are gradually pulling out in the north. A fortnight ago the time came for the Communists to leave Camau (pop. 900,000), an area the size of Connecticut on the southern tip of free South Viet Nam. The Communists had ruled Camau since 1945, and when their 30,000 troops moved off north in Russian and Polish transports, they left a sharp test for South Viet Nam’s Premier Ngo Dinh Diem. Premier Diem’s 12,000 incoming Nationalist troops had to get effective control of a remote swampland, criss-crossed by bayous, devastated by war, undermined by Communist stay-behind agents, infiltrated by hostile troops of the Hoa Hao, a religious sect. Diem’s Nationalists also had to start making convincing democratic answers to Camau’s ten years of Communist indoctrination.

Tension in the Village. In Bahoi, a Camau community of 150 thatched huts beside a canal, it took an incoming Vietnamese lieutenant half an hour to muster up 150 villagers. The men stood impassively around him; the women peered out from shadows. “Among you are people friendly to the Viet Minh,” the lieutenant said, “but look at the poverty and disease around you . . . The Viet Minh do nothing for the people. The Viet Minh are only interested in themselves and in bloodshed.” The lieutenant’s men began to hand out paper Vietnamese flags. Filipino doctors showed off wonder drugs and offered treatment. Loudspeakers blared out lively Vietnamese songs.

“Our history begins a new chapter,” the Nationalist leaflets asserted. “Alt for People, All for Country, under Premier Diem!” TIME Correspondent John Mecklin asked one Camau villager, however, who Diem was. “Don’t know.” Had he heard of Communist Ho Chi Minh? “He’s President.” Had he heard of the U.S.? “The Viet Minh say you’re all capitalists.” What’s a capitalist? “They make people poor.” Wreath on the Monument. Gingerly Diem’s young Nationalist army moved step by step more deeply into Camau—the towns first, then the villages, then out by powered boats along the bayous. They had been carefully briefed (with U.S. assistance). No French were anywhere to be seen, and no mention was made of the absentee chief of state, Bao Dai. Communist agents had urged villagers not to listen to Diem’s Nationalist talk, not to accept his food parcels, not to put their fish on the market, thereby forcing prices up. Yet Diem’s confident beginning soon showed remarkable gains. The Hoa Hao sect, outnumbered, lay quiet. Out of the swamps came 1,000 deserters from the Communist army, to join Diem.

“We are here to bring you something better than the oppression you have suffered,” Diem kept repeating as he toured Camau in person at week’s end. “You have many needs; I shall do my best.” Gradually the indoctrinated and indifferent villagers grew more receptive. Premier Diem, however, did not underrate the ingrained tenacity of Viet Minh Communism. One day one of Diem’s Nationalist soldiers accidentally kicked over a wreath the Viet Minh had left behind on a monument to their dead. A young Camau kid quietly stepped out from a group of passers-by and, unafraid, laid the wreath back in its place.

More Must-Reads from TIME

Contact us at letters@time.com