Academic journal article The Historian

"Moonshiners, Black Marketers, and Thieves among Us": Economic Crime in Wartime North Vietnam

Academic journal article The Historian

"Moonshiners, Black Marketers, and Thieves among Us": Economic Crime in Wartime North Vietnam

Article excerpt

President Ho Chi Minh (1890-1969) often worried that widespread corruption was sabotaging the struggle to build the new nation of the Democratic Republic of Viet Nam (DRV or North Vietnam) he had founded as an independent state in 1945. (1) During the 1940s, corruption threatened to throw off the rails the economic reforms to strengthen the north at a particularly grueling time when Ho and the Indochinese Communist Party (ICP or the Dang Cong San Dong Duong) were devising ways to fight French colonizers who had tightened control over the country. Decades later, in the 1960s and 1970s, DRV officials still feared corruption was destabilizing not only wartime economic policy, but also the national resolve to fight a long war of resistance against the United States.

Many peasants disobeyed the government's rationing policy forbidding the "extravagant" consumption of rice and other foods, and they flouted the ban on the production of rice wine. They clandestinely transported their produce to the black market, hiding rice wine inside balloons, while "peanut smugglers" carried their peanuts concealed ingeniously within ornate mandolin cases, inside pumpkins, and hidden in women's turbans. The state banned excessive consumption and private trade because it aimed to purchase the food at below market price in order to redistribute to the masses. Some peasants, however, collaborated with errant officials to break the law. Throughout, it appears, the state had limited success in rooting out economic crime despite putting in place regulations, reform campaigns, and relentless surveillance of the people.

President Ho warned officials at the provincial, district, and village levels in October 1945 not to abuse their power, as the French had done before them. (2) In his ideological book, Rectification of Bad Working Habits, published the following year, Ho listed a few "bad habits" afflicting state administrators during French colonial rule: "corruption, nepotism, sycophancy towards superiors, arrogance towards inferiors," and "mandarin" attitudes towards the people. (3) Such colonial-era behaviors were commonly exhibited by many officials who governed the newly created DRV. Temporarily, and partially, eradicated as a result of self-improvement campaigns, the aberrations reappeared soon afterwards, causing Ho and his colleagues to periodically deliver stern admonitions. Ho warned the cadres of the Vietnam Workers' Party (VWP or Dang Lao Dong Viet Nam) in 1947 that they should not become "new mandarins," chiding them that "the Party is not an organization to be used as a mandarin would to line his nest," and urging them to develop "revolutionary ethics." (4) To eradicate these shortcomings, the DRV conducted a series of "thought-reform" campaigns running from 1946 to 1954 that exhorted people to adhere to the Party line and reject French cultural influences such as "idealism, skepticism, romanticism, individualism, and the Western idea of art for art's sake." (5)

To combat French colonial forces, the Vietnamese revolutionaries conducted a restructuring of their assorted parties and resistance groups, bringing them under a united front. This process had begun with the dissolution of the ICP in 1945 and the absorption of its activities by the predominant communist independence front, the Viet Minh, founded in 1941. The communist VWP was formally launched at the Second Congress of the Party in 1951 to carry forward the unfinished task of seeking independence begun by the Vietnamese Communist Party in 1930, and continued by the Viet Minh. At this Party Congress, the Lien Viet Front--created in 1946 by grouping communist organizations, unions of women and youth, and even two right-wing bourgeoisie nationalist parties that remained within the front for a short period--merged with the overtly communist Viet Minh in order to win wider support from non-communists within Vietnam for the liberation struggle. (6)

Already before the Second World War, Ho Chi Minh began mobilizing his forces against French colonial rule in Vietnam, which started when France conquered Indochina in 1887. …

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