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The communist leadership of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV) officially began land reform in December 1953 – at the height of the Indochina War. Vietnamese communists adopted this radical measure in order to transform both society and state into the communist mold, enter the internationalist communist bloc, and mobilize peasants in the war against the French for national independence.

In 1945, more than 80% of the population lived in the countryside, precisely where the government and army had been operating since 1947. Until 1950, however, Vietnamese communists had stressed national unity over social revolution. Ho Chi Minh had been central to this shift in policy when he presided over the creation of the Viet Minh in 1941. And whatever the internal, theoretical credo, the Indochinese Communist Party leadership continued to stress national solidarity throughout the first half of the war. The party had already confiscated and distributed enemy land in its possession. It had also approved rent and interest rate reductions. Following Sino-Soviet diplomatic recognition of the DRV in Jan-uary 1950, Vietnamese communists adopted more communist-minded policies in social, state, intellectual, and diplomatic affairs.

Most ranking Vietnamese communists saw the implementation of land reform in 1953 as a powerful source for mobilizing the countryside against the French (peasants would serve more ardently in exchange for land) and indispensable to breaking the hold of the landlord class in order to promote eventual communist revolution such as agricultural collectivization. Adopting land reform would also be an important part of joining the internationalist communist movement led by Joseph Stalin at the top and Mao Zedong in Asia. No sooner had they taken power than Chinese communists began sending specialists to Vietnam to help the Vietnamese Worker’s Party (VWP) devise and implement land reform based largely upon the Chinese model (which the Chinese themselves were enthusiastically applying on a national basis between 1950 and 1953).

Although the VWP officially implemented land reform in December 1953, preparations had been underway since early 1953 following Ho Chi Minh’s return from Beijing and Moscow in 1952. Full-scale land reform was limited mainly to areas in northern and central Vietnam under DRV control. Little occurred in southern DRV areas. The VWP organized special land reform cadre teams, which investigated and classified the population as landlords, rich peasants, middle peasants, poor peasants, or agricultural laborers. These teams penetrated villages and, with the backing of the police and the military, organized mobilization and hate sessions against landlords and rich peasants, and tried many of them in hastily convened “people’s courts”, before proceeding to expropriate and redistribute their land as the Chinese were doing to the north. This social revolution in the countryside continued until 1956, when its disastrous results finally forced the party to end it and apologize publicly for its excesses, errors, and executions. Ho Chi Minh replaced Truong Chinh as general secretary of the party.

While the exact numbers killed because of the land reform remain contested, hundreds of Vietnamese perished during this time, many of whom had supported the DRV’s nationalist cause since the outset of the Indochina War. Many “bourgeois” nationalists also left the DRV at this point. The start of land reform in late 1953 was also connected to the need to mobilize the peasant population in favor of modern war and set-piece battles requiring unprecedented levels of manpower both for fighting and running logistics. By promising to distribute land to the peasants, the party sought to mobilize the manpower vital to ensuring victory at Dien Bien Phu as negotiations began at the international level to end the war diplomatically. See also DIEN BIEN PHU, BATTLE PREPARATION AND CONTEXT.