Operation Passage to Freedom
was the term used by
the United States Navy
describe its transportation in 1954–55 of 310,000 Vietnamese
civilians, soldiers and
non-Vietnamese members of the French Army from communist North Vietnam
(the Democratic Republic of
) to South Vietnam
State of Vietnam
, later to become
the Republic of Vietnam
French military transported a further 500,000. In the wake of the
French defeat at the Battle of Dien Bien Phu, the Geneva
Accords of 1954 decided the fate of French Indochina after eight years of war between French Union forces and the Viet Minh, which sought Vietnamese independence.
The accords resulted in the
partition of Vietnam
17th parallel, with Ho Chi Minh
communist Viet Minh in control of the north and the French-backed
State of Vietnam
in the south. The
agreements allowed a 300-day period of grace, ending on May 18,
1955, in which people could move freely between the two Vietnams
before the border was sealed. The partition was intended to be
temporary, pending elections in 1956 to reunify the country under a
national government. Between 600,000 and one million northerners
fled communist rule, while between 14,000 and 45,000 civilians and
approximately 100,000 Viet Minh fighters moved in the opposite
The mass emigration of northerners was facilitated primarily by the
French Air Force
. American naval vessels supplemented the
French in evacuating northerners to Saigon, the
The operation was accompanied by a large
humanitarian relief effort, bankrolled in the main by the United
States government in an attempt to absorb a large tent city of
refugees that had sprung up outside Saigon. For the US, the
migration was a public relations coup, generating wide coverage of
the flight of Vietnamese from the perceived oppression of communism
to the "free world" in the south under American auspices. The
period was marked by a CIA
campaign on behalf of South Vietnam's Roman Catholic
Prime Minister Ngo Dinh Diem
. The campaign exhorted Catholics
to flee impending religious persecution under communism, and around
60% of the north's 1 million Catholics obliged.
The migration boosted the Catholic power base of Diem; whereas the
majority of Vietnam's Catholics previously lived in the north, they
were now in the south. The campaign was intended to strengthen the
population of the south in preparation for the reunification
elections. Fearing a communist victory, Diem cancelled the
elections. Believing the northern Catholics to be a bastion of
solid anti-communist support, Diem proceeded to treat his new
constituents as a special interest group. In the long run, the
northern Catholics never fully integrated into southern society and
Diem's favoritism toward them caused tension that culminated in the
of 1963, which ended
with the downfall
the South Vietnamese leader.
At the end of World War II
, Ho Chi Minh
and his Viet
under the Democratic Republic of
(DRV) in September 1945. This occurred after
the withdrawal of Imperial
Japan, which had seized control of the French colony
during World War II. The military struggle started in November
1946 when France attempted to reassert control over Indochina with an attack on the northern
Vietnamese port city of Haiphong.
was diplomatically recognised by the Soviet Union and the People's Republic of China (PRC).
the other hand, the western powers recognised the French-backed
State of Vietnam
, nominally led by
Emperor Bao Dai
, but with a French-trained
Vietnamese National Army
(VNA) which was loyal to the French
forces. In May 1954, after eight years of fighting,
the French were surrounded and defeated in a mountainous northern
fortress at the Battle of Dien Bien Phu.
France's withdrawal from Indochina was
finalised in the Geneva
of July 1954, after two months of negotiations between
Ho's DRV, France, the PRC and the Soviet Union. Under the terms of
the agreement, Vietnam was temporarily divided at the
17th parallel pending elections in 1956 to choose a national
government that would administer a reunified country. The communist
Viet Minh were left in control of North Vietnam, while the State of
Vietnam controlled the south. French Union forces would gradually
withdraw from Vietnam as the situation stabilised. Both Vietnamese
sides were unsatisfied with the outcome at Geneva; Ngo Dinh Diem
, Prime Minister of the State of
Vietnam, denounced France's agreement and ordered his delegation
not to sign. He stated "We cannot recognise the seizure by Soviet
China . . . of over half of our national territory" and that "We
can neither concur in the brutal enslavement of millions of
compatriots". North Vietnamese Prime Minister Pham Van Dong
expressed bitterness after his
Soviet and Chinese backers threatened to cut support if he did not
agree to the peace terms; Dong had wanted to press home the Viet
Minh's military advantage so they could lay claim to more territory
at the negotiating table.
Under the accords, there was to be a 300-day period in which free
civilian movement was allowed between the two zones, whereas
military forces were compelled to relocate to their respective
sides. All French
Far East Expeditionary Corps
and VNA forces in the north were
to be evacuated south of the 17th parallel, while all Viet
Minh fighters had to relocate to the north. The accords stipulated
that civilians were to be given the opportunity to move to their
preferred half of Vietnam. Article 14(d) of the accords stated
Article 14(d) allowed for a 300-day period of free movement
between the two Vietnams, ending on May 18, 1955. The parties had
given little thought to the logistics of the population
resettlement during the negotiations at Geneva, assuming that the
matter would be minor. Despite claiming that his northern
compatriots had been "enslaved", Diem expected no more than
10,000 refugees. General Paul Ely
French Commissioner-General of Indochina, expected that around
30,000 landlords and businessmen would move south and
proclaimed that he would take responsibility for transporting any
Vietnamese who wanted to move to territory controlled by the French
Union, such as South Vietnam. French Prime Minister Pierre Mendes-France
and his government
had planned to provide aid for around 50,000 displaced
persons. Mendes-France was sure that the FFEEC would be able to
handle the work all by itself. The Americans saw the period as an
opportunity to weaken the communist north.
The predictions made by Diem and Ely were extremely inaccurate.
There had been heavy fighting in northern Vietnam, where the
Vietminh were at there strongest, and many people had been forced
to abandon their homes. Although French charities had been
operating in the north, the refugee camps were disorganised and
were unable to provide little more than shelter. As a result, there
was a great number of northerners who wanted to leave and start a
new life in the south.
The French started their evacuation with their pre-conceived notion
that few would want to head south. As knowledge of the migration program
spread through the communist-controlled north, thousands of
predominantly northern Catholic asylum-seekers descended on the
capital Hanoi and the port
of Haiphong, both of
which were still in French control.
This led to anarchy and
confusion as the emigrants fought over limited shelter, food,
medicine and places on the ships and planes that were bound for the
south. By early August, there were over 200,000 evacuees
waiting in Hanoi and Haiphong. Initially the ad hoc camps had
insufficient sanitation and water quality control, leading to the
possibility of outbreaks of disease. Some American representatives
said that they were the worst conditions they had seen. The
conditions continued to poor and chaotic after the evacuation got
into full swing, and did not improve significantly for a month.
There was no organization infrastructure as far as registration or
medical records and immunisation of the waiting evacuees. The
communists thus sent their propaganda activists through the camps
and said that the lack of organisation proved that life for
prospective refugees would be even worse in the south, where they
would be completely under the control of South Vietnam.
The French Navy
and Air Force
had been depleted during World
War II. They were unable to deal with the unexpectedly large number
of refugees. This was exacerbated by their unwillingness to allow
civilian evacuees to travel on trains from outlying districts to
Hanoi and Haiphong, as their priority was evacuating their military
personnel and equipment. France asked Washington for assistance, so
the US Department of Defense ordered the US
Navy to mobilise an evacuation task force.
The American government saw the evacuation as an opportunity to
weaken the communists by providing for and thereby winning the
loyalty of the refugees to the anti-communist cause. The United States Operation
proposed that aside from helping to evacuate refugees
to the south and thereby draining the communist population base,
the Americans should provide healthcare, shelter, food and clothing
in order to help the anti-communists win the fidelity of their
compatriots. Another benefit of participating in the evacuation was
that American personnel would be on the ground in North Vietnam,
allowing them to gather intelligence on communist activities.
Accordingly, Task Force 90
was inaugurated under the command of Rear Admiral Lorenzo Sabin
. US servicemen renovated and
transformed cargo vessels and tank carriers to house the thousands
of Vietnamese who would be evacuated in them. The repairs were
frequently done en route to Haiphong from their bases at Subic Bay in the Philippines.
Sabin had no prior involvement in
humanitarian matters, and he and his staff prepared Operation Order
2–54—the 114-page policy framework for the operation—in the space
of a week during their sea voyage from Japan to Vietnam.
The first US vessel to participate in the mass evacuation was the
, which left
Haiphong on August 17. It carried 1,924 refugees for a
1,600 kilometre, three-day journey to the southern capital. By
this time, there were already 132,000 people registered at the
waiting areas, although very few had any identification. As a
result, there would be more work to be done in identifying their
needs once they arrived in the south. The Montrose
followed on the
next day, with 2,100 passengers. Both were originally built as
attack transport vessels. In August, the US policy was liberalised
so that Vietnamese and French military personnel could also be
evacuated at the discretion of CTF-90 and the Chief Military
Assistance Advisory Group
(CHMAAG). To cope with the
rising volume of southbound sea transport, CHMAAG established a
refugee debarkation site at Vung Tau, a coastal port at the entrance of the Saigon River.
This site relieved congestion in the Saigon
refugee camps and decreased the traffic bottlenecks along the
river. A setback occurred when a typhoon
struck the Haiphong area, destroying almost half of the refugee
staging area. Despite the problems, by September 3, the US Navy had
evacuated 47,000 northerners after only two weeks of
operations. The high rate of evacuation caused the South Vietnamese
government to order that only one shipment of at most
2,500 passengers was to arrive in Saigon or Vung Tau per day,
until September 25. The population pressure in the south was eased
as incoming numbers fell due to Viet Minh propaganda campaigns and
forcible detention, combined with the rice harvesting season, which
had prompted some to delay their departure. Some were even waiting
to finish all their business deals before moving in the Lunar New
Year. On October 10, the Viet Minh were given full control of
Hanoi, closing off one point of evacuation for those who wanted
out. Some also decided to stay behind and see how the Viet Minh
would treat the inhabitants of Hanoi before making a decision on
whether to leave their ancestral lands. On October 20, the French
authorities that were still in control of the ports decided to
waive docking fees on US vessels engaged in the evacuation. Because
of the high demand, the naval vessels had to travel quickly; one
ship completed one round trip in a record of only six days. The
record for the most passengers taken in one journey was set by the
‘’USS General Black’’, which sailed on October 29 with 5,224
Vietnamese aboard. In November, the evacuation was further hampered
by another typhoon, while the entire crew of one American vessel
were struck down by a scabies
December, because of Viet Minh obstruction, which prevented people
from rural and regional areas from travelling to Hanoi and Haiphong
to emigrate, the French Navy sent ships to hover just off the coast
near the regional town of Vinh to evacuate
According to COMIGAL, the South Vietnamese government agency
responsible for the migration, French aircraft made
4,280 trips, carrying a total of 213,635 refugees. A
total of 555,037 passengers were recorded on 505 sea
trips. The French Navy accounted for the vast majority of the naval
evacuees, with 388 voyages, while the US Navy made 109.
British, Taiwanese and Polish ships made
two, two and four journeys respectively.
figures reported that a total of 768,672 people had migrated
under military supervision. Of this number around 190,000 were
French and Saigon soldiers and returned prisoners; some 43,000 were
military dependents, "15,000–25,000 Nung tribesmen who were
military auxiliaries, between 25,000 and 40,000 French citizens,
and about 45,000 Chinese residents." It also included several
thousand people who had worked for the French and Vietnamese
administrations in the North. The official figures recorded that
more than 109,000 people journeyed into the south by their own
means, some arriving outside the 300-day period. These people
typically crossed the river that divided the zones on makeshift
rafts, sailed on improvised watercraft into a southern port, or
trekked through Laos. As of 1957, the South Vietnamese government
claimed a total of 928,152 refugees, of whom 98.3% were ethnic
Vietnamese. 85% were engaged in farming or fishing for their
livelihood and 85% were Catholics
the remainder were Buddhists
. In 1959, however, the head of
COMIGAL, Bui Van Luong, admitted that the actual number of refugees
could have been as low as 600,000. The official data excluded
approximately 120,000 anti-communist military-related
personnel and claimed that only 4,358 people moved north,
though no historians consider this number credible. The northward
migration was attributed to itinerant workers from rubber plantation
who returned north for
An independent study by the French historian Bernard B. Fall
determined that the US Navy transported
around 310,000 refugees. The French were credited with around
214,000 airlifted refugees, 270,000 seaborne refugees and
120,000 and 80,000 Vietnamese and French military evacuees
respectively. During the US Navy voyages, 54 people died onboard,
and 111 babies were born. Fall believed that of the
109,000 refugees who went south by their own means, a large
number hitchhiked on southbound French transport vessels that were
not related to the migration operation. Fall felt that the figures
were likely to have been overestimated, due to immigration fraud.
Some refugees would travel south and register themselves, before
smuggling themselves onto vessels returning north for another
shipment of humans. They would then return south and re-register to
claim another aid package. Likewise, with instances of entire
villages moving south, the authorities frequently did not
explicitly count the number of villagers, but simply took the word
of the village leaders. The chiefs would often inflate the
population figures to claim more aid rations. The mass exodus did
not disrupt the north to a great extent because whole villages
often emigrated, instead of half a village moving and leaving the
remainder of the community in disarray. Fall estimated that around
120,000 Viet Minh troops and their dependents went north. Most
of these evacuations were attributed to Viet Minh military
strategy, with some being ordered to stay behind in readiness for
future guerrilla activities. The northward movement was facilitated by
vessels leaving from assembly areas at Qui Nhon and Ca
Mau at the southernmost extremity of Vietnam.
The voyages to North Vietnam were provided by empty French ships
heading back north to fetch more southbound anti-communists, as
well vessels from communist nations such as Poland. The Viet Minh
also actively cultivated the Montagnard
indigenous people of
Vietnam, whose land in the central
was encroached upon by incoming northern settlers.
The communists spread propaganda via broadcasts in tribal languages
and infiltrated the highland areas. According to a study by the
, some 6,000 tribespeople went north with
the communists, accompanied by some Viet Minh who had adopted the
The US provided emergency food, medical care, clothing and shelter
at reception centres in Saigon and elsewhere in the south. American
sources donating through the United States Operations
(USOM) were responsible for 97% of the aid. The USOM
sent public health professionals to help with sanitation in an
attempt to prevent the spread of disease. Doctors and nurses were
sent to help train local workers in healthcare procedures, so that
they would eventually be able to take care of the medical needs
refugees. In order of contributions to the aid
efforts, the US were followed by France, United Kingdom, Australia,
Zealand and The Netherlands.
Australian sent farming equipment and
accompanying technical instructors under the Colombo Plan
With most of the refugees being Catholic, the voluntary agencies
most prominent in helping the US and French governments with
humanitarian relief efforts were Catholic. The National Catholic Welfare
contributed over USD35 million and sent
hundreds of aid workers to South Vietnam. US clerics such as
spent more than a year
supervising the establishment of humanitarian and religious
projects in Saigon. These included the establishment and
maintenance of orphanages, hospitals, schools and churches.
Harnett's volunteers fed rice and warm milk to
100,000 refugees on a daily basis. Tens of thousands of
blankets donated by the American Catholic organisations served as
beds, makeshift roofs against monsoonal downpours and as temporary
walls in mass housing facilities. This prompted one historian to
call the migration "primarily a Catholic operation". The United Nations Children's
contributed technical assistance and helped to distribute
merchandise, foodstuffs and various other gifts.
The US ran a propaganda campaign through the Central Intelligence Agency
(CIA) to enhance the size of the southward exodus. The program was
directed by Colonel Edward Lansdale
who masqueraded as the assistant US air attaché in Saigon while
leading a covert group that specialised in psychological warfare.
Lansdale had advised Diem that it was imperative to maximise the
population in the south in preparation for the national
reunification elections. When Diem noted the limited ability of the
south to absorb refugees, Lansdale assured him that the US would
bear the burden. Diem thus authorised Lansdale to launch the
propaganda campaign. According to the historian Seth Jacobs, the
campaign "ranked with the most audacious enterprises in the history
of covert action". Lansdale recollected that "U.S. officials wanted
to make sure that as many persons as possible, particularly the
strongly anti-communist Catholics, relocated in the South". While
many Diem supporters claimed that the mass exodus was proof of the
popularity of Diem and the people's hatred of communism, the CIA
operative Chester Cooper said "the vast movement of Catholics to
South Vietnam was not spontaneous".
Lansdale employed a variety of stunts in order to compel more
northerners to move south. South Vietnamese soldiers in civilian
clothing infiltrated the north, spreading rumours of impending
doom. One story was that the communists had a deal with Vietnam's
traditional enemy China, allowing two communist Chinese divisions
to invade the north. The story reported that the Chinese were
raping and pillaging with the tacit approval of the communists.
Lansdale hired counterfeiters to produce bogus Viet Minh leaflets
on how to behave under communist rule, advising them to create a
list of their material possessions so that the communists would be
able to confiscate them more easily, thereby fomenting peasant
Lansdale's men forged documents allegedly issued by the Vietminh
that promised to seize all private property. He claimed that "The
day following distribution of these leatlets, refugee registration
tripled". The Central Evacuation Committee in Haiphong, an
American-funded group, issued pamphlets claiming that "the cost of
living is three times less", welfare payments and free ricelands,
the latter two of which were not true. It said that "By remaining
in the North you will experience famine and will damn your souls.
Set out now, brothers and sisters!"
The most inflammatory rumour was that Washington would launch an
attack to liberate the north as soon as all anti-communists had
fled south. It claimed that the Americans would use atomic bombs
and that the only way of avoiding
death in a nuclear holocaust was to move south. Lansdale's team
disseminated pamphlets that depicted Hanoi with three circles of
nuclear destruction superimposed on it. Lansdale's saboteurs also
poured sugar into the petrol tanks of Vietminh vehicles.
Soothsayers were bribed to predict disaster under communism, and
prosperity for those who went south.
Lansdale's campaign focused on northern Catholics, who were known
for their strongly anti-communist tendencies. His staff printed
tens of thousands of pamphlets with slogans such as "Christ has
gone south" and "the Virgin Mary
departed from the North", alleging anti-Catholic persecution under
Ho Chi Minh
. Posters depicting
communists closing a cathedral and forcing the congregation to pray
in front of Ho, adorned with a caption "make your choice", were
pasted around Hanoi and Haiphong. Diem himself went to Hanoi while
the French were still garrisoned there to encourage Catholics to
move. The campaign resonated with northern Catholic priests, who
told their disciples that Ho would end freedom of worship, that
sacraments would no longer be given and that anyone who stayed
behind would endanger their souls. The Catholic immigrants helped
to strengthen Diem's support base. Before the partition, most of
Vietnam's Catholic population lived in the north. After the borders
were sealed, the majority were now under Diem's rule. The Catholics
implicitly trusted Diem due to their common faith and were a source
of loyal political support. One of Diem's main objections to the
Geneva Accords—which the State of Vietnam refused to sign—was that
it deprived him of the Catholic regions of North Vietnam. With
entire Catholic provinces moving south en masse, in 1956 the
Diocese of Saigon had more Catholics than Paris and Rome. Of
Vietnam's 1.45 million Catholics, over a million lived in the
south, 55% of whom were northern refugees.
Aside from anti-communist campaigning, money was another factor in
moving south. The US gave handouts of USD89 for each refugee who
moved; the per capita income in Vietnam at the time was only $85
The Viet Minh engaged in counter-propaganda campaigns in an attempt
to deter the exodus from the north. They moved through the
neighbourhoods of Hanoi and Haiphong on a daily basis, passing out
their pamphlets. Evacuees reported being ridiculed by the Viet
Minh, who claimed that they would be sadistically tortured before
being killed by the French and American authorities in Haiphong.
The communists depicted the personnel of Task Force 90
as cannibals who would eat their
babies, predicting disaster in the jungles, beaches and mountains
of South Vietnam. They further said that the Americans would throw
them overboard to drown in the ocean. The Viet Minh boasted to the
emigrants that it was a high and futile risk, asserting that the
1956 reunification elections would result in a decisive communist
victory. The communist efforts were helped by the fact that many
French or State of Vietnam offices in the north evacuated their
personnel and sold or otherwise left behind their printing
facilities, many of which fell into Viet Minh hands.
Communist prevention of emigration
Aside from counter-propaganda, the Viet Minh also sought to detain
or otherwise prevent would-be refugees from leaving.
As the American and French military personnel were only present in
the major cities and at air bases and on the waterfront, the
communists tried to stop people from trying to leave through a
military presence in the ruralside to interdict the flow of
would-be refugees. In parts of the Red River Delta, ferry services
and other water traffic were shut down so that refugees would not
be able to travel to Haiphong. In some cases there were reports of
thousands-strong groups of refugees being forced back by similar
numbers of armed communist cadres. As a result, many refugees
headed directly for the nearest coastal point to wait for passing
vessels. In one sweep of the coast near the Catholic stronghold of
, the French Navy picked up
42,000 stranded refugees in two days. In some rural coastal areas
where it was common for refugees to converge before boarding
vessels to connect to the long-distance naval vessels taking them
south, the Viet Minh installed mortars on the beaches to deter
They prohibited mass gatherings in an attempt to stop entire
villages or other large groups of people from emigrating together,
and also isolated people who sold their water buffalo and other
belongings, as this was a clear sign that they intended to end
their farming. Both the Americans and the South Vietnamese lodged
complaints to the International Control
about the violations of the Geneva Accords, but
little action was taken.
Media and public relations
The United States reaped substantial public relations benefits from
the mass exodus, which was used to depict the allure of the "free
world". This was enhanced by the comparatively negligible number of
people who voluntarily moved into the communist north. The event
generated unprecedented press coverage of Vietnam. Initially
however, the press coverage was scant, and Admiral Sabin bemoaned
the lack of promotional work done by the US Navy to publicise the
evacuation among the American media. At one point, a
journalist from the Associated
Press travelled from Manila to Haiphong,
but was ordered back by superiors on the grounds that Americans
were not interested in the subject.
However, over time, the media interest grew. Many prominent news
agencies sent highly decorated reporters to cover the event.
The New York Times
and Peggy Durdin
, while the New York Herald Tribune
the Pulitzer Prize
reporters Marguerite Higgins
. Future US embassy
official John Mecklin
covered the event
for Time Life
. The press reports
presented highly laudatory and emotional accounts of the mass
exodus of Vietnamese away from the communist north. Time
called the mass migration "a tragedy of almost
nightmarish proportions ...Many [refugees] went without food or
water or medicine for days, sustained only by the faith in their
The hyperbole used in the mainstream media reports paled in
comparison to the outpouring by the American Catholic press. The
migration was given front page coverage in America's diocesan
newspapers. The accounts were often sensationalist, demonizing the
communist Viet Minh as religious persecutors who committed barbaric
atrocities against Catholics. Our
called the "persecution" in Vietnam "the
worst in history", alleging that the Viet Minh engaged in "child
murder and cannibalism". San Francisco's Monitor told of a priest whom the Viet
Minh "beat with guns until insensible and then buried alive in a
The Advocate posted
an editorial cartoon titled "Let Our People Go!", depicting mobs of
Vietnamese refugees attempting to break through a blood-laced fence
of barbed wire. Milwaukee's Catholic Herald Citizen described two
priests who had been chained together and "suffered atrocious and
Other papers depicted the Viet Minh blowing
up churches, torturing children and gunning down elderly Catholics.
One paper proclaimed that "the people of Vietnam became a crucified
people and their homeland a national Golgotha". The Catholic media
also ran stories about Buddhist refugees who converted, hailing it
as proof of their religion's superiority.
Promotion and proselytizing of Catholicism
The Catholic Diem also used the refugees as a means of
proselytizing for his religion. He organized well-publicized visits
from Catholic cardinals and bishops to visit the refugees. When
Cardinal Norman Gilroy
and other high-ranking Catholic clerics arrived in the capital, the
streets were festooned with government erected banners reading
"Long Live the Catholic Church" in French, Latin, and
Then came the arrival of Cardinal Francis Spellman
, the most powerful
Catholic cleric from the United States, who had organised Catholic
support and lobbied the US government to install Diem in the
According to Harnett, "Vietnam has never seen anything quite like
the visit of Cardinal Spellman to this country".
Diem organized for Spellman to be greeted at the airport with full
military honors by the VNA. After a formal reception at Diem at the
palace, Spellman announced that he would donate USD50,000,
accessible only to Catholic refugees. Diem hosted a lavish dinner
for Spellman, acclaiming him as "the foremost friend of
Politicians from opposition groups and members of South Vietnam's
non-Catholic majority felt strongly alienated by Diem's overt use
of government authority in fervently endorsing and promoting his
religion. One Binh Xuyen
said that Diem would cause religious conflict within the country.
At the same time, many complained that Diem's mixing of state and
church coincided with the emergence of Catholic militias that
attacked the places of worship of other groups. US envoy General
J Lawton Collins
asked Diem to stop
scale back the government pageantry for the Catholic clerics, and
to separate church and state, but the Vietnamese leader ignored
The mass influx of refugees presented various social issues for
South Vietnam. The new arrivals needed to be integrated into
society with jobs and housing, as long periods in tents and
temporary housing would sap morale and possibly foster
pro-communist sympathies. Diem had to devise programs to ease his
new citizens into the economic system.
Diem appointed Bui Van Luong
friend and devout Catholic—as the head of COMIGAL, the government
resettlement agency. COMIGAL worked in cooperation with the United
States Operations Mission, the non-military wing of the American
presence and the Military Assistance Advisory
. Although COMIGAL was purely dedicated to refugee issues,
there was a constant turnover of public servants through their
staff, and the benefits of continuity did not materialize. After
only a few months in the job, Luong was replaced by Pham Van Huyen
on December 7 1954. COMIGAL were supplemented by American Catholic
aid agencies and an advisory group
from Michigan State University
, where Diem had stayed while in
self-imposed exile in the early 1950s. With more than
4,000 new arrivals per day, the northerners were housed in
tents at a hippodrome, before buildings such as schools, hospitals,
warehouses, places of worship were built for them. Temporary
villages were later built and by mid-1955, most of the one million
refugees were living in rows of temporary housing along highways
leading out of Saigon. Only a minority could be sent to the fertile
, as the area was already
overcrowded. It was also restive, so the most of the military
evacuees were sent there.
Overcrowding was a serious problem in many of the ad hoc camps set
up in the Saigon region, and led to public health issues.
Hoa region on the northeastern outskirts of Saigon was
scheduled to have a capacity of 100,000 refugees, but this was soon
In the Ho Nai camp near Bien Hoa, which was
supposed to hold only 10,000 refugees, more than 41,000 were
present by the end of 1954. The area surrounding Thu Dau Mot north of the southern capital had initially been
allocated a quota of 20,000 even though there was no rice paddies
in the area. The area near Tay Ninh was to accommodate 30,000 people, although the
locals thought that 100,000 could fit in.
Because of the
excessive number of inhabitants, the infrastructure at many camps
could not cope and the promises made to the refugees were not kept.
American military doctors travelled around the south in groups of
three, and because of the paucity of health professionals, saw
around 150–450 patients per day. They were also hampered by customs
law, which only allowed charities to bring medicine into the
country without taxation. This forced them to turn to charitable
organisations as a conduit, creating another layer of bureaucracy.
This was exacerbated by the fact that some corrupt Vietnamese
officials pocketed the medical aid.
The organisational level of the government agencies charged with
overseeing the integration of the refugees into society was
frequently criticised by American officials for being chaotic. By
the end of September, the shortage of funds and equipment had
eased, but their distribution was not organised or coordinated
effectively. At the same time, some Viet Minh cadres who stayed in
the south after the partition pretended to be refugees and stirred
up trouble inside the camps. Aside from disruption by communists,
other non-communist movements such as the Viet Nam Quoc Dan Dang
were strong in
areas of central Vietnam, were opponents of Diem and some of them
were military personnel. This sometimes caused hindrance in
civilian-military cooperation in the resettlement program, as some
of Diem’s public servants were suspicious of the military’s
reliability as a working partner.
At the time, much of the rural ricelands had been abandoned due to
war and lay fallow. The Americans pressured Diem to assume control
of such lands and distribute it to the new settlers and to allow
them to start their new lives and ease the overcrowding in the
camps, but no action was taken in 1954. At the time, there was a
severe wastage of human resources due to the placement of refugees
in land that was inappropriate to them. Vietnamese officials had
resolved to place the settlers in land similar to their northern
origins so that they could be productive, but bureaucratic
difficulties hampered COMIGAL and no plan was produced. Throughout
1954, 60% of the new arrivals identified themselves as having an
agrarian background, but only 20% of the total refugees were placed
in arable farming areas, meaning that at least 40% of the
northerners were in areas not appropriate for their skill set.
There were also severe problems in finding and then distributing
farming equipment to the northerners so that they could get to work
and resuscitate the agricultural sector that was hindered by the
The next objective was to integrate the refugees into South
Vietnamese society. At the time, there was a lack of arable land in
secure areas. In early-1955, the Viet Minh still controlled much of
the Mekong Delta
, while other parts
were controlled by the private armies of the Cao
and Hoa Hao
religious sects. The
organised crime gang
controlled the streets of Saigon, having purchased the operating
license for the national police from Emperor Bao
. The new arrivals could not be safely sent to the
countryside until the Viet Minh had moved north and Diem had
dispersed the sects and gangs. The urban areas were secured when
the VNA defeated the Binh Xuyen in the Battle for Saigon
in late April and early
May. Lansdale managed to bribe many of the Hoa Hao and Cao Dai
military commanders to integrate into Diem's VNA, but some
commanders fought on. It was not until early 1956 that the last Hoa
Hao commander, Ba Cut
, was captured in an
Army of the Republic of
campaign by General Duong Van
. This allowed COMIGAL to send expeditions to survey the
rural land for settlement.
COMIGAL dispatched inspection teams throughout South Vietnam to
identify areas that were suitable for accommodating the new
arrivals according to their professional skills. This required a
search for arable land for farmers, favourable coastal areas for
fishing and areas near large population centres for industrially
oriented arrivals. Having identified the relevant areas, COMIGAL
would set up plans for settlement subprojects, sending proposals to
the USOM or the French
Technical and Economic Cooperation Bureau
to gain approval and
funding. The bureaucracy was relatively low, with most applications
taking less than a fortnight for finalising paperwork and receiving
approval. Each subproject was given a nine-month deadline for
When suitable areas were found, groups of refugees usually
numbering between one and three thousand were trucked to the site
and began creating the new settlement. This involved digging wells,
building roads and bridges, clearing forests, bushes and swamps and
constructing fishing vessels. Village elections were held to select
members for committees that would liaise with COMIGAL on behalf of
the new settlement.
COMIGAL provided the settlers with agrarian implements, fertilisers
and farm animals. By mid-1957, 319 villages had been built. Of
these, 288 were for farmers and 26 for fishermen. The refugees
settled predominantly in the Mekong
, where 207 villages were built. 50 were created
further north near the border with North Vietnam, while 62 were
built in the central highlands. In the central highlands town of Ban Me Thuot, the local sawmill was inundated with lumber to
build houses and much of the surrounding forest was cleared for
In total, 92,443 housing units were
constructed, serviced by 317 and 18 elementary and secondary
schools respectively. 38,192 hectares of land were cleared and
some 2.4 million tons of potassium sulfate
distributed. At the end of 1957, Diem dissolved COMIGAL, declaring
that its mission had been accomplished.
Difficulties and criticism
The program had some loose ends that manifested themselves later.
Many refugees were not economically integrated and lived from
government handouts. Critics noted that the refugees had become a
special interest group that fostered resentment. The COMIGAL
officials often decided not to split up refugees belonging to the
same village, hoping to maintain social continuity. In some cases,
Catholic priests refused to obey government directives to settle in
certain areas. Many of the refugees also refused to relocate from
the camps on the outskirts of the capital, wanting to live an urban
lifestyle. Many Catholic villages were effectively transplanted
into southern territory. This was efficient in the short run but
meant that they would never assimilate into southern society. They
had little contact with the Buddhist majority and often held them
in contempt, sometimes flying the Vatican flag instead of the
national flag. Diem, who had a reputation for heavily favouring
Catholics, granted his new constituents a disproportionately high
number of government and military posts on religious grounds rather
than merit. He continued the French practice of defining
Catholicism as a "religion" and Buddhism
an "association", which restricted their activities. This fostered
a social divide between the new arrivals and their compatriots.
While on a visit to Saigon in 1955, the British journalist and
novelist Graham Greene
Diem's religious favouritism "may well leave his tolerant country a
legacy of anti-Catholicism". In 1963, simmering discontent over
Diem's religious bias exploded into mass civil unrest during the
. After the Buddhist flag
was prohibited from public
display for the Vesak
commemorating the birth of Gautama
, Diem's forces opened fire and killed nine protesters.
As demonstrations continued through the summer, the Army of the
Republic of Vietnam Special Forces
ransacked pagodas across the
country, killing hundreds and jailing thousands of Buddhists. The
tension culminated in Diem being overthrown and assassinated
The indigenous population in the central highlands complained
bitterly about the intrusion of ethnic Catholic Vietnamese onto
their land. As a result of their discontent with the southern
government, communist propagandists in the highlands found it
easier to win them over.
- Lindholm, p. 49.
- Jacobs (2006), p. 45
- Jacobs (2006), p. 23.
- Karnow, pp. 210–214.
- Karnow, p. 218.
- Jacobs (2006), pp. 41–42.
- Jacobs (2004), p. 130.
- Jacobs (2006), pp. 43–44.
- Frankum, p. 38.
- Frankum, p. 39.
- Frankum, p. 109.
- Frankum, p. 114.
- Frankum, p. 110.
- Frankum, pp. 38–39.
- Frankum, p. 40.
- Frankum, p. 110.
- Lindholm, p. 63.
- Lindholm, p. 64.
- Frankum, p. 158.
- Lindholm, pp. 65–67.
- Frankum, p. 172.
- Frankum, pp. 188–189.
- Formally known as the Commissariat of Refugees, COMIGAL was the
acronym in French.
- Lindholm, pp. 48–50.
- Lindholm, pp. 55–57.
- Lindholm, p. 50.
- Jacobs (2006), p. 45.
- Jacobs (2004), p. 131.
- Jacobs (2006), p. 52.
- Jacobs (2004), p. 133.
- Jacobs (2004), p. 132.
- Jacobs (2006), p. 53.
- Frankum, p. 112.
- Lindholm, p. 78.
- Frankum, p. 159.
- Frankum, p. 160.
- Frankum, p. 162.
- Frankum, p. 190.
- Frankum, p. 167.
- Frankum, pp. 167–168.
- Frankum, p. 168.
- Jacobs (2006), p. 46.
- Jacobs (2004), pp. 191–192.
- Jacobs (2004), p. 185.
- Jacobs (2006), pp. 28–45.
- Jacobs (2004), p. 188.
- Jacobs (2004), p. 187.
- Jacobs (2004), p. 186.
- Jacobs (2006), p. 54.
- Frankum, p. 149.
- Frankum, p. 192.
- Frankum, pp. 171–172.
- Frankum, p. 183.
- Frankum, p. 150.
- Frankum, p. 185.
- Frankum, p. 193.
- Lindholm, p. 51.
- Lindholm, pp. 52–53.
- Jacobs (2006), p. 55.
- Frankum, p. 191.
- Frankum, p. 151.
- Jacobs (2006), p. 56.
- Jacobs (2006), p. 143.
- Jacobs (2006), p. 153.
- Jones, p. 429.
- Lindholm, p. 94.