Landlessness and Political Violence II:
The Vietnam War
In an earlier posting, I argued that landlessness destabilizes rural regions and produces endemic social conflict, be it class violence, ethnic violence, regional separatist violence or whatever. In doing so, I invoked Jeffery Paige’s theory of Agrarian Revolution which argued how landownership makes peasants conservative, and the lack of same makes rural proletariats politically volatile.
In a past essay on this site, I argued that landlessness was one of the primary causes of both terrorism and internal warfare in the Middle East. (Ecological Decline and Conflict: Environmental Causes of Violence in the Middle East.) I have also provided a mini-review of a book linking land seizures to violence in Latin America. (Business and Organized Violence in Latin America). In a future essay, I will link landlessness to the origins of Arab Spring in Tunisia.
But for now, we are going to do a classic. I recap here Jeffery Paige’s own linkage of the dynamics of landlessness to the origins of the war in Vietnam. This comes from the Vietnam Chapter in Agrarian Revolution. It was arguably the best chapter in the entire book. There is simply no more convincing explanation available for the dynamics of the Vietnamese War.
Vietnam was conquered by the French in 1858. The original hope was that Vietnam would have precious minerals that could be exploited. The French found, to their disappointment, that most of Vietnam is mountainous jungle of relatively little economic value. The exception was the Mekong Delta, in the Southeast of the country. The Mekong Delta, like the Nile Delta, is incredibly fertile. The Mekong River carries soil and nutrients from China, Laos, and Cambodia and deposits them in the vast marshland of the Delta. This makes the Mekong Delta one of the best rice growing ecosystems in the world. Growing rice and selling it to the Chinese could be a very lucrative business. However, the French had little experience with growing rice and did not want to do it themselves. They wanted the Vietnamese to do it for them. They figured out a way to do this.
(Mekong Delta in red)
The French took a set of Vietnamese collaborators and offered to give them enormous estates of riceland in the Mekong Delta. The collaborators would get to participate in the governing of the colony. The collaborators would get gigantic farms they could call their own. They would grow rice and sell it to the French who would in turn market the rice throughout Asia. Both the French and the collaborators would get rich.
The problem was that there were already lots of small peasants on the land in the Mekong Delta. The French colonial authorities forced them off the land so that their collaborators could get the estates. The original residents were allowed to stay – but only as agricultural laborers.
Or as Paige calls them, rural proletariats, landless politically unstable cultivators.
The protests against the new employers and the new colonial authorities started soon. The protests typically took the form of assassinations but there could be strikes or demonstrations as well. Because the French were the military power keeping the new landowners in place, the insurgents quickly turned to a programme of seeking independence for Vietnam and throwing the French out of the country. The primary organization behind this campaign was the Viet Minh.
Fortunately for the French, the Mekong Delta was easy to control militarily. It being a swampy marshland, the Delta was extremely accessible to French gunboats. The gunboats would steam to wherever there were problems, and shell the insurgents into submission.
The solution for the rebels was to retreat into the highlands. These were the mountainous jungles that ran along the border of Vietnam and both Cambodia and Laos. The highlands also covered the northern 80% of Vietnam itself.
The mountains were different from the lowlands. Mountainous jungles are nearly perfect defensive terrain for the guerillas. High positions are ideal for shelling the roads and towns below. Anyone who wants to go after the guerillas has to climb uphill looking for forces that are both hidden and protected by forest.
Worse, from a humanitarian standpoint, the residents of the highlands were landed peasants. The French authorities had not taken away any of the mountainous territory from Vietnamese cultivators. The population in this northern 80% were all conservative trouble avoiders, trying to stay out of trouble and keep their own land. They avoided politics of all types, either pro-French or pro-rebel.
These were innocent peace-lovers who were caught in the middle. The rebels would extort the peasants for support against the French. The peasants did whatever they had to do to avoid being shot. The authorities would come in looking for rebel collaborators. The peasants would be punished and would make peace by helping the government. After the government left, the rebels would return and would take their vengeance on “imperialist allies”. The mountain peasants were caught between the French and the Viet Minh. Later on, the peasants would be caught between the Americans and the Viet Cong. In both situations, they were being slaughtered by all parties, with the violence being much higher in the American/Viet Cong era.
The French got themselves defeated in Dien Bien Phu in 1954. An unwise French general marched his troops into a Custer’s-Last-Stand situation of being surrounded by mountains on three sides, all of which were held by the enemy. The French were assaulted from all sides and above by heavy artillery. They took catastrophic casualties. After that, the French wanted out of the war.
The peace settlement that was negotiated subsequently was as disastrous in its own way as the original battle of Dien Bien Phu. All of the Viet Minh insurgents were stationed in the South, coming from the Mekong Delta. These were the people forces who were against the French and wanted a communist government. The north and central part of Vietnam were inhabited by landed peasants who were neutrals. They could live quite happily with any government, communist or capitalist.
The logical move would have been to give the Viet Minh the Mekong Delta and make that Communist South Vietnam. The northern 80% of the country could have stayed French and allied with the West. North Vietnam would have been capitalist and part of the Free World.
However, the French did not want to give up their rice plantations in the South. This is where they were making all their money. So they got the Americans to agree to let the French have the Mekong Delta and the Southern half of the country. The Viet Minh communists got the Northern half of the country near Hanoi. The French were mostly absolved of the responsibility for defending the Southern half which would now be the responsibility of American troops.
And this is how we got into the Vietnam War.
Now free South Vietnam had the Mekong Delta with all of its radicalized landless insurgents. They just kept fighting and fighting and fighting as before. Previously they had been known as the Viet Minh. Now they were known as the Viet Cong. The tactics stayed the same and the violence stayed the same. Only now the Americans had the job of running up into the mountainous forests when the Viet Cong were escaping gunboats in the Delta.
History repeated itself.
The peasants in the mountains were again caught between two warring forces – who were now more heavily armed and militant than they had been before. These peasants in the middle were slaughtered like flies. The Delta generated lots of militants but naval control of the region sent insurgents fleeing up into the highlands. In the highlands, the guerillas had all the natural advantages; they were inflicting brutal casualties on land troops sent to climb up the mountains after them.
Ultimately, the American will to fight collapsed. South Vietnam fell. Vietnam was unified. The Vietnamese government settled with the insurgents in the Delta. They planted coffee in the mountainous highlands. Twenty years after planting, the Vietnamese coffee crop came on line, and Vietnam became the world’s largest exporter of robusta coffee. The Communist Vietnamese government became a commercial trading partner with most of the world; it is on excellent terms with both France and the United States. Vietnam got rich. Americans and French do business in Vietnam. It is hard to see what the fighting was all about.
But creating those early plantations in the late nineteenth century was profoundly destabilizing. The conflicts that were created from that early dispossession went on for nearly a century of low level or not-so-low-level war.
Currently, land grabs, ecological destruction of land and population growth creating too many people to fit on too little land are all increasing levels of landlessness in the Global South.
Will this lead to conflict?
Just look at the newspapers.