The National Front for the Liberation of South Vietnam (NLF) was created in December 1960. However a form of the NLF had been in existence from the time when it became clear that Diem would not hold elections for a united Vietnam as had been agreed at the Geneva meeting in 1954. When it became clear to Diem that this was unacceptable to his opponents in South Vietnam, he ordered their arrest. It is thought that over 100,000 people were arrested just because they were thought to be anti-Diem. Before others could be arrested, they moved out of the towns and villages into the jungle. Here they formed disorganised armed bands. They attacked soft targets, as they had no chance of attacking Diem himself. In 1959 alone, an estimated 1,200 known supporters of Diem were killed.
However, each armed band acted independently of the rest as communication between all the groups was impossible and risked giving away their position in the jungle. Basically they lacked overall leadership and therefore organisation. Ho Chi Minh knew that as a cohesive force they would be far more effective and dangerous to Diem’s government. He therefore sent arms and equipment to them – given the geography of the region this was very easy and not risky. Ho also used his influence to form them into one cohesive force – the National Front for the Liberation of South Vietnam. The leader of the NLF was Hua Tho – he was a lawyer by profession but not a communist. However, many of those he led in the NLF were communists.
The NLF had to win the hearts and minds of the many thousands of South Vietnamese who lived in villages and led peasant lifestyles. The NLF made a promise to redistribute the land, taking it from the rich and giving it to the poor. NLF troops had to work for peasants in their villages and no member of the NLF was allowed to abuse peasants – in stark contrast to the troops in the ARVN who served Diem.
The NLF also promised to remove Diem from power and to introduce a government that represented everyone and not just the Catholic elite of South Vietnamese society. Diem had made clear his disdain for the peasant population of South Vietnam. During the Indo-China War, the victorious Vietminh had given land to the peasants. When he got power, Diem ordered that those peasants who had received land in this manner had to pay for it. Many simply could not afford to do so. Therefore, the promise of free land once the NLF had gained power was an attractive one and they worked to win the support of the peasants. One of their tasks was to end the belief that villagers were poor because of the crimes committed by their ancestors – that their poverty was the family punishment.
All NLF units had to follow a very strict code of conduct when they entered a peasant village. They were not allowed to damage houses or crops; they were not allow to buy or borrow anything that a villager did not ant to sell or lend; they were not allowed to talk down to villagers in a contemptuous manner; they were not allowed to break any promise made to a village and they had to help villagers in their daily tasks, be it sewing, harvesting etc.
While operating in South Vietnam, the NLF worked in small cells of between 3 to 10 soldiers. Each cell member had an excellent knowledge of his/her own cell but only a very limited knowledge of other cells. This meant that if any cell member was caught, the only useful information that could be divulged was of their own cell and no other.
The NLF rarely fought the American and ARVN forces head on. They used classic guerrilla tactics. Attacking their enemy and then disappearing into the jungle. Many peasant villages were accused of helping the NLF to hide. The response to this was usually the destruction of the village – with animals being killed and harvested crops destroyed. Such tactics only drove villagers to support the NLF even more.
“Their homes had been wrecked, their chickens killed, their rice confiscated – if they weren’t pro-Vietcong before we got there, they sure as Hell were by the time we left.” William Ehrhart, US Marine