210. Despatch From the Ambassador in Vietnam (Reinhardt) to the Department of State 1

No. 453

SUBJECT

  • Conversation with Diem Concerning Agrarian Reform Program and Related Matters.

There is enclosed, for the Department’s information, a memorandum of conversation held on June 1, 1955, between Prime Minister Ngo Dinh Diem and USOM consultant, W. I. Ladejinsky.2 Mr. Ladejinsky has been following closely the agrarian reform program in Vietnam and had come to see the Prime Minister, at the latter’s invitation, to discuss recent developments in the program.

In addition to the question of land reform, the conversation touched on the problem of the resettlement of refugees, the ineffectiveness of the local civil administration, and recent political developments including the sect problem. As in earlier conversations, Diem continued to give the impression of viewing the various economic, social, and administrative programs discussed as subordinate to the immediate political and military problems with which he was engaged. The Prime Minister appeared serene and confident, and expressed his conviction that the Hoa Hao rebellion would be successfully dealt with. His attitude toward the French continued to be critical, but he appeared considerably less bitter than in the past.

Randolph A. Kidder
for G. Frederick Reinhardt
[Page 456]

[Enclosure]

Memorandum From the Land Reform Adviser in the United States Operations Mission in Vietnam (Ladejinsky) to the Ambassador in Vietnam (Reinhardt)3

SUBJECT

  • Visit with President Ngo Dinh Diem

. . . . . . .

(4) The nature of my report was three-fold: The sad state of the agrarian reform; the poor progress of settling refugees on land, and the problems presented by local administration.

As to the agrarian reform, I told the President that the appointment of a Minister for Agrarian Reform4 was certainly a step in the right direction but that, to date, the reform is not off the ground, and that there are no indications that the situation will undergo a favorable change in the immediate future. I pointed out why the tenants show no interest in his program; the potent influence of the Communists in this connection; the preference for land ownership to rent reduction; and the political and administrative vacuum in the countryside which prevents the enforcement of most measures sponsored by the National Government. I took the liberty of suggesting to the President that, if his government is to make any political capital of the agrarian reform, then the time has come to reexamine the entire problem in the light of the current state of affairs. More specifically, I suggested (1) that as long as the program is in being the Chiefs of the Provinces in the non-sect areas be held responsible for the implementation of the program, and (2) a national conference of the interested parties with an eye to determining whether (a) the existing program can be implemented, (b) whether it should be abandoned altogether and a land ownership and land distribution program devised in its stead.

The President did not dispute the impasse reached by his program, but he does not intend to give the land reform question a national hearing. He has confidence in his new Minister of Agrarian Reform and is evidently willing to let him try his hand at it for a while longer. The President’s reluctance to review the issue with all the care it deserves may be traced also to, what appears to me, a lack [Page 457] on his part of a truly abiding concern with this matter. I am not prepared to say whether the President’s attitude stems from the fact that he is not a “land reformer”, or that the more pressing day-to-day issues bordering on the very survival of his government have primacy in his thinking and his effort to the exclusion of much else, including agrarian reform. Whatever the real reason, this much can be said with certainty: on the occasion of this talk, as during all previous talks, the land reform problems did not appear to loom large in his scheme of things.

(5) As to the settlement of refugees on land, the President was informed that as of the end of May few refugees had been settled on land; by this is meant settlement in the sense that a refugee willing to farm has more than shelter and a garden patch, namely, well-demarcated holdings of their own, with farm tools and animal power to put the land to use. I pointed out to him that most of the farming by the refugees in this crop season, commencing with the rains, will have to be delayed until the crop season of 1956. The refugee problem being close to the heart of the President, he was visibly disturbed by the account and prospects. It is my impression that he had not been fully aware of these developments. I explained to him that I have not been too close to the problem and that I do not know all the reasons for the delay; I did point out that perhaps the basic one, a firm evaluation of the total acreage available for settlement, its location and quality has not been made, and that this is the first order of business if the program is to be successfully implemented. With that in view, I suggested to the President that he immediately appoint a small commission with instructions and powers to determine the land availability, based on the commission’s first hand observations in the field. I suggested a time limit of one month, and assured him that the Mission (FOA) will be happy to render its technical assistance to this urgently needed survey. The President responded favorably. Whether he will act accordingly, or, having discussed the matter with appropriate agencies, will act in favor of another method of moving refugees on land, remains to be seen. Whatever his future course of action, he is fully cognizant’ that the permanent solution of the refugee problem is yet to take shape, and that further delays may postpone the solution indefinitely.

(6) As to local administration, I stated that, with few exceptions, it is ineffective and that no application of any national legislation is possible unless the administrators themselves become conscious of the fact that a free and independent Vietnam demands of them a zeal and zest of performance over and beyond the customary. I expressed the view that the real difficulty with the administrators is not their lack of formal public administration training, but rather the lassitude, disinterestness and seeming failure to sense or comprehend the critical [Page 458] transitional period Vietnam is passing through. I made the point that just as the National Army is in need of political training, the administrators are surely in the same need. The President countered by saying that this problem has been on his mind, that he ordered the Delegate for South Vietnam to prepare a secret report on local administration, and that the findings justified his worst fears. However, he did not believe he can deal with the problem outside of the overall issues relating to the country’s pacification and stabilization. Serious though the administration question is, for the time being he intended to leave it in the hands of the three Delegates of Vietnam.

The visitor did not argue the Presidential preference, nor did he tell him of his most recent experience in one of the most important provinces of South Vietnam, where a new Chief of Province appointed by the Delegate is unmistakenly anti-Diem, anti-reform, and pretty much anti-everything that spells deviating from the current state of inaction.

I did tell the President that the standoffish attitude of the farmers vis-à-vis the Government is not unrelated to the local administration; above all, I suggested that it is closely related to the weak link between the National Government and the farmers. I elaborated on an earlier statement under somewhat similar circumstances and suggested that the President himself might devote some time to help create among the farmers a sense of freedom of participation, a sense of belonging with the Government in the business of creating a new State, basing this approach on the Government’s convincing appreciation of the people’s fundamental needs. I attempted to impress upon him that he more than any other Vietnamese is in a position to articulate these ideas, which in the long run should prove to be the effective weapon against the Viet Minh and for the stability of Vietnam. But now, as in the past, the President pleaded extreme pre-occupation with urgent matters.

. . . . . . .

  1. Source: Department of State, Central Files, 751G.00/6–1555. Confidential. Drafted by John A. McKesson III, Second Secretary of Embassy.
  2. Wolf I. Ladejinsky had the title of Land Reform Adviser.
  3. Extract. Confidential. Omitted subjects include, besides those mentioned by Reinhardt in the covering despatch, the U.S. position vis-à-vis France and Vietnam and the question of Japanese reparations to Vietnam.
  4. Nguyen Van Thoi.