New Series Looks Back at Vietnam War’s Causes and Events

professor of history explores rise of viet cong

By Jonny Lupsha, Wondrium Staff Writer

In the 1950s, Vietnam was a partitioned and volatile country. Communism ruled the north while the U.S.-backed president Ngô Đình Diệm consolidated power in the south. Where did North Vietnam’s Viet Cong come from?

Viet Cong soldier stands beneath a Viet Cong flag carrying his AK-47 rifle
The Viet Cong, the fighting force of the National Liberation Front (NLF), led guerrilla warfare attacks against government officials and key targets. Photo by SSgt. Herman Kokojan / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

The United States formally entered combat in Vietnam in March 1965 when President Lyndon B. Johnson sent the first combat troops, who were U.S. Marines, to land at Da Nang. However, the Southeast Asian country had already spent years embroiled in its own civil war, by that point. Communist leaders in the north, such as Hồ Chí Minh, sought to crush a rebelling South Vietnam and its U.S.-backed leader, President Ngô Đình Diệm.

With tensions escalating and an insurgency of communists disrupting life in the south, both sides of the Vietnam civil war tried to consolidate power and resources. In his video series The Vietnam War, Dr. John C. McManus, the Curators’ Distinguished Professor of History at Missouri University of Science and Technology, pinpoints the origins of the group that would come to be known as the Viet Cong.

What Led to the Creation of the Viet Cong?

“In January of 1959, Hồ Chí Minh and the Central Committee of the Vietnamese Communist Party, the highest political authority in North Vietnam, gathered for the 15th Party Plenum in Hanoi,” Dr. McManus said. “The main issue on the agenda was the question of what to do about the continued partition of Vietnam.”

The committee debated over whether or not to fully commit to taking the south by force. Two factions emerged in the committee: The interventionists, also known as the South First faction, saw it as their duty to take direct action and perform an all-out military campaign to retake the south; while the North First faction focused on winning hearts and minds in the south by developing a flourishing communist state in the north.

“The most prominent and persuasive interventionist was Lê Duẩn, a fiery party stalwart who by now had logged many years on the ground in the south, carrying on the struggle,” Dr. McManus said. “His wealth of practical real-world experience as an insurgent leader and his uncompromising personality made him a formidable figure.”

Hồ went along with the pro-war majority but preferred a limited, grassroots guerrilla war, ordering his operatives to build insurgent-level organizations throughout the south. He hoped these would gradually weaken President Diệm’s government in South Vietnam.

Lê Duẩn had other plans.

Who Created the Viet Cong?

“Hồ envisioned a gradual, long-term conflict that would lead to victory years in the future, perhaps even after he was gone,” Dr. McManus said. “Nonetheless, the decision to embrace a violent path to reunification further empowered the South First faction. The next year, Lê Duẩn became secretary-general of the party—a likely disappointment for Hồ, who would have preferred a moderate in the post.”

In December 1960, a new communist force had formed: Vietnam’s National Liberation Front (NLF), organized by the communist leaders in North Vietnam. The NLF was a political face for the north’s growing insurgency throughout the south and it openly called for a violent overthrow of South Vietnam’s government.

“The military arm of the NLF became known as the Liberation Army of South Vietnam, or LASV,” Dr. McManus said. “President Diệm dubbed them Viet Cong, or VC, a term that basically meant ‘Vietnamese communist,’ and one that has remained predominant in historical posterity to describe both the political organization and its guerrilla forces.”

Despite portraying itself as a broad collection of Vietnamese nationalists, the NLF was controlled by rigid communist leaders like Lê Duẩn and gave no quarter to opposing viewpoints.

When American troops landed at Da Nang in South Vietnam in 1965, they faced North Vietnam’s Viet Cong insurgency in battle.

The Vietnam War is now available to stream on Wondrium.

Edited by Angela Shoemaker, Wondrium Daily