NORTH VIET NAM: Land of the Mourning Widows

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The sky had turned steely grey with the approach of the monsoon, but in the laced paddies of North Viet Nam's Red River delta last week, the rice still stood thick and unharvested. The Communists' vaunted land-reform program had gone badly wrong. In some areas it had created such chaos that no peasant knew whose land he was to harvest, and whole villages had turned savagely on their Communist mentors and run them out of town.

The botched situation is largely the work of a small, fierce-eyed man with a bulging forehead named Truong Chinh—called "Little Uncle" in recognition of his role as heir apparent to "Great Uncle" Ho Chi Minh. Back in 1951 Truong Chinh was named secretary-general of the Lao Dong (Communist) Party, and launched a ferocious campaign of land reform. His slogan: "Better kill ten innocent people than let one enemy escape." Son of a landlord mandarin himself, Truong let his own parents die at the hands of his land reformers, declaring coldly: "The people's court was right."

"Landlord Mentality." The prestige of each Communist cadre was made dependent on the number of landlords sent to the gallows. But in the overpopulated delta, the richest landowners had no more than two or three acres and a couple of water buffaloes. Even one-acre landlords became hard to find, and the cadres coined a new phrase—"landlord mentality." A peasant married to a girl whose ancestors had owned a dozen cows had landlord mentality. In a final purge last fall, even this stratagem was exhausted, and old cadres resorted to accusing new cadres of "landlordism." Jails became filled with men in the olive-green suits and pith helmets of the Communist administrators.

By then Truong had gone too far. The land had been so thoroughly redistributed that 1,325,000 peasant families now had roughly one-fifth of an acre apiece—a painful contrast to free South Viet Nam, heavily U.S.-subsidized, where any peasant can get seven acres of fertile ground from the government for the asking. Outright rebellion flared in the predominantly Catholic province of Nghean (TIME, Nov. 26), and China's Premier Chou En-lai paid a hurried trip to Hanoi, obviously on a troubleshooting errand like the Russians' trips to Warsaw and Budapest at about the same time. To the Central Committee, Truong confessed "many mistakes and shortcomings committed with disastrous effects." and was downgraded to vice chairman of the reparations campaign.

Righting the Wrongs. Reviewing the disaster, Hanoi newspapers confessed: "We have killed friends, struck comrades. The countryside was full of funeral altars and mourning widows wearing white turbans around their heads." Twelve thousand "falsely accused" peasants were freed; rehabilitated landlords were promised their land back. For some 15,000 men who had been tortured and flung into common graves, the regime offered decent graves and public funerals. Comrades executed by "mistake" were posthumously declared "national heroes."

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