Land reform in South Vietnam

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Land reform in South Vietnam refers to reforms proposed by the United States and implemented by South Vietnam. Seeking to undermine the popularity of the communist Việt Minh's policies of land redistribution to poor peasants, the government of South Vietnam implemented their own land-redistribution policies during the Vietnam War.

Early reforms enacted by the South Vietnamese government in the 1950s largely failed, as the ordinances prescribed by the government often attempted to directly undo the already-popular land reforms of the Việt Minh, requiring poor peasants to pay to acquire land that the communists had already given to them. During the 1960s, such programs were rendered defunct and unenforceable due to the South Vietnamese army's inability to control farmland territories against the Viet Cong.

In the 1970s, South Vietnam implemented the "Land to the Tiller" reform with the aid of the United States. This program was more successful than earlier programs, and was almost entirely underwritten by the United States. The reform program was discontinued in 1975 following South Vietnam's defeat in the Vietnam War and the unification of Vietnam.

Following the unification, the government of Vietnam attempted to carry out further land reform in the southern part of the country in order to develop its transformation to a socialist economy. This attempt at reform was met with difficulties, and did not achieve its goals.


Following World War II, the communist Việt Minh (the predecessor of Viet Cong) fought against the French colonialists and their local supporters (mainly landowners) in the First Indochina War. At the time, a large percentage of agricultural land was owned by powerful landowners and the majority of the rural population of Vietnam owned only small plots of land (with little legal assurance) or were simply landless peasants.[1] The early success of the land reform program under the Viet Minh gave the communists a strong base of support among the 80% of the Vietnamese people who lived in rural areas.[2]

Prior to the provisional separation of North and South Vietnam, emperor Bao Dai in 1953 responded to the Viet Minh program of land redistribution and rent reduction with a decree declaring that rents for land should not exceed 15 percent of the crop. The decree was unenforceable and rendered null by a failing colonial government and, in any case, contained loopholes that could have been exploited by landlords.[3]

From 1954 to 1975 land reform in Vietnam was pursued on two separate channels and regions as the country was provisionally divided into two parts: South Vietnam (The Republic of Vietnam) and North Vietnam (the Democratic Republic of Vietnam), resembling the current partition of Korea. Communist North Vietnam and its southern proxies, the Viet Cong, adopted a policy of confiscating the land of landlords and rich peasants by force and redistributing it to poor and landless peasants, thus organizing the rural population into collectives.

Land reform during the Vietnam War[edit]

Capitalist South Vietnam failed in several land reform endeavors before finally achieving some success with the "Land to the Tiller" program in the early 1970s that was almost fully devised and supported by the United States, which considered it to be part of their policy of the Vietnamization of the war.

Early land reform ordinances[edit]

In 1954, South Vietnam's ally, the United States, advised the new government of South Vietnam, headed by Ngo Dinh Diem, to undertake "indispensable reforms" including land reform. In response on 8 January 1955, Diem adopted Ordinance No. 2, which capped rental of land at 25 percent of production. In 1956, Diem adopted Ordinance No. 57 which forbade ownership by an individual of more than 100 hectares (250 acres) of rice land and prescribed the conditions and terms under which the excess land expropriated from the rich could be transferred to less-wealthy farmers.[4] Under the program the government acquired 422,000 hectares (1,040,000 acres) from 1958 to 1961 and distributed 244,000 hectares (600,000 acres).[5] The land redistributed thus comprised less than 10 percent of the 7.5 million acres of cultivated land in South Vietnam.[6]

The land reform program implemented under Ordinance 57 was unpopular in the countryside. The Viet Minh had already divided up the land -- "fairly," in the words of one official.[7] The government's program was less generous to the majority of farmers than had been the Viet Minh redistribution of land in areas which it controlled. The amount of land that individuals were permitted to retain was large, farmers were required to pay for land they acquired under the program, and the program was riddled with corruption and inefficiency.[8] Many rural people believed that the United States army and the government of South Vietnam were on the side of the landlords. Military operations by the U.S. and South Vietnamese armies to clear communist insurgents from an area would often result in landlords reclaiming land previously abandoned or confiscated and redistributed by the Viet Minh or Viet Cong.

Ordinance 57 resulted in the reverse of what was the objective of land reform advocates: large landowners and landlords increased their influence, especially in the important rice-growing area of the Mekong Delta.[9] The ordinance remained in effect until 1970, but was largely unutilized after 1960 as the Viet Cong insurgents took control or disputed government control of most of the rural areas of South Vietnam.[10]

Land to the Tiller[edit]

The Land to the Tiller project carried out in Vietnam from 1970 to 1973 was based on a proposal by Roy Prosterman, a prominent American "land-rights-activist", who the US government of the time recruited within its efforts against Viet Cong in South Vietnam.[11] Drawing on experiences in other countries (particularly in Latin America), Prosterman proposed a "land-to-the-tiller" program to compete with the Viet Cong for the allegiance of the peasants. The plan mimicked the communists' land expropriation strategy, coupled with monetary compensation to the former landowners.[12]

On 26 March 1970, with the war still underway, the government of South Vietnam began implementation of the Land-to-the-Tiller program following Prosterman's model. In total, the United States financed 339 million US dollars of the reform's 441 million dollars of expenses.[13] Individual holdings were limited to 15 hectares. Legal titles were extended to peasants in areas under control of the South Vietnamese government to whom land had previously been distributed by the Viet Cong.[14]


Bernard B. Fall a prominent war correspondent, historian, political scientist, and expert on Indochina during the 1950s and 1960s, claimed that delayed land reform in South Vietnam had played such a fundamental role in the Vietnam War that it was as important as "ammunition for howitzers." South Vietnam's ally and financial supporter, the United States, either failed to realise the importance of land reform in a timely fashion or was not able to persuade the South Vietnamese government of its importance.[15] Andrew Biggs, at researcher at the University of Washington argues that the "Land to the Tiller" program of the early 1970s was too little, too late to swing the war in the favour of the US.[16]

In the words of an American official, Robert Samson "The Americans (lost the war because) they offered the peasant a constitution; the Viet Cong offered him his land and with it the right to survive".[17]

Land reform in southern Vietnam after reunification[edit]

According to Trung Dinh Dang, a scholar at the Cornell School of Government and Politics Of Asia and The Pacific, the Vietnamese Communist Party struggled to carry out the socialist transformation of agriculture in the south of Vietnam following the unification of the country. The contemporary party leaders initially considered land reform initiatives to be a temporary measure toward mass collectivisation.[18]

Dang posits that further land reform initiatives set the grounds for conflict between the party and Southern Vietnamese. Land reform initiatives encountered unexpected difficulty in the southern region and its implementation could not be achieved for many years. According to Dang, agrarian reform in the south failed to benefit the majority of villagers, instead perpetuating inequality, sowing discord, and creating unrest. Instead of eliminating land-based exploitation, it created a new strata of exploiters in the form of local officials that abused their power to secure land for themselves and their relatives instead of impoverished peasants.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "Land reform in Vietnam." Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, 22 Mar. 2017. Web. 19 Apr. 2017.
  2. ^ Prosterman, Roy L. "Land Reform in South Vietnam A Proposal for Turning the Tables on the Viet Cong". Cornell Law Review. Volume 53 Issue 1 November 1967.
  3. ^ Prosterman (1967), p. 27-29
  4. ^ Wurfel, David (Jun 1957), "Agrarian Reform in the Republic of Vietnam," Far Eastern Survey, Vol 26, No. 6, p. 82-83. Downloaded from JSTOR.
  5. ^ Dacy, Douglas C. (1986), Foreign aid, war, and economic development: South Vietnam 1955-1975, Austin: University of Texas Press, p. 112
  6. ^ Prosterman (1967), p. 35; Tyson, James L. (1973), "Land Reform in Vietnam: A Progress Report," Asian Affairs, Vol. l, No. 1, p. 36. Downloaded from JSTOR.
  7. ^ Race, Jeffrey (1972), War Comes to Long An, Berkeley: University of California Press, p. 70
  8. ^ Tucker, Spencer C., Ed. (1998), Encyclopedia of the Vietnam War, Oxford: Oxford University Press, p. 219
  9. ^ Wurfel, pp. 91-92
  10. ^ Dacy, p. 112
  11. ^ Vora, Shivani. "A Conversation With: Landesa Founder Roy Prosterman" date published SEPTEMBER 25, 2012 - New York Times
  12. ^ Prosterman, Roy L. Land reform in Latin America: how to have a revolution without a revolution. Seattle: Washington Law Review Association, 1966. Print.
  13. ^ Prosterman, Roy L. "Land Reform in South Vietnam A Proposal for Turning the Tables on the Viet Cong". Cornell Law Review. Volume 53 Issue 1 November 1967.
  14. ^ Prosterman, Roy L. "Land-to-the-Tiller in South Vietnam : The Tables Turn". Asian Survey. 10 (8): 751-764. August 1970.
  15. ^ FitzGerald, Frances, Noah Rothman, Claire Lehmann, Max Boot, Eric Cohen & Aylana Meisel, Andrew Ferguson, Christine Rosen, Matthew Continetti, Tevi Troy, and Terry Teachout. "Last Reflections on a War, by Bernard B. Fall." Commentary Magazine. N.p., 27 Mar. 2017. Web. 20 Apr. 2017.
  16. ^ Biggs, David. "Quagmire: Nation-Building and Nature in the Mekong Delta". Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2010.
  17. ^ Prosterman, Roy L. "Land Reform in South Vietnam A Proposal for Turning the Tables on the Viet Cong". Cornell Law Review. Volume 53 Issue 1 November 1967.
  18. ^ Dang, Trung Dinh. "Post-1975 Land Reform in Southern Vietnam: How Local Actions and Responses Affected National Land Policy". University of California Press. Journal of Vietnamese Studies, Vol. 5, No. 3 pp. 72-105. Fall 2010.

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