During the Vietnam War, the US ran a propaganda campaign through the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) to enhance the
size of the southward exodus. This program was directed by Colonel Edward Lansdale, who masqueraded as the assistant US air attaché in Saigon while leading a covert group that specialised in psychological warfare. Lansdale had advised Diem that it was imperative to maximise the population in the south in preparation for the national reunification elections. When Diem noted the limited ability of the south to absorb refugees, Lansdale assured him that the US would bear the burden. Diem thus authorised Lansdale to launch the propaganda campaign.
According to the historian Seth Jacobs, the campaign “ranked with the most audacious enterprises in the history of covert action”.Lansdale recollected that “U.S. officials wanted to make sure that as many persons as possible, particularly the strongly anti-communist Catholics, relocated in the South”. While many Diem supporters claimed that the mass exodus was proof of the popularity of Diem and the people’s hatred of communism, the CIA operative Chester Cooper said “the vast movement of Catholics to South Vietnam was not spontaneous”. However, while Lansdale is often credited by historians—usually those critical of his influence—with the large exodus of refugees due to superstition, he rejected the notion that his campaign had much effect on popular sentiment, saying in later years: “People don’t just pull up their roots and transplant themselves because of slogans. They honestly feared what might happen to them, and their emotion was strong enough to overcome their attachment to their land, their homes, and their ancestral graves. So the initiative was very much theirs—and we mainly made the transportation possible.” Some northerners who stayed behind and were interviewed half a century later said that they had not come across any pro-migration propaganda and said that their decisions were based on discussions with fellow locals. They said that concerns over the possible effects of communist rule were discussed among themselves independent of outside information.
Lansdale employed a variety of stunts to compel more northerners to move south. South Vietnamese soldiers in civilian clothing infiltrated the north, spreading rumours of impending doom. One story was that the communists had a deal with Vietnam’s traditional enemy China, allowing two communist Chinese divisions to invade the north. The story reported that the Chinese were raping and pillaging with the tacit approval of the communists. Lansdale hired counterfeiters to produce bogus Viet Minh leaflets on how to behave under communist rule, advising them to create a list of their material possessions so that the communists would be able to confiscate them more easily, thereby fomenting peasant discontent.
Lansdale’s men forged documents allegedly issued by the Vietminh that promised to seize all private property. He claimed that “The day following distribution of these leatlets, refugee registration tripled”. The Central Evacuation Committee in Haiphong, an American-funded group, issued pamphlets claiming that in South Vietnam, “the cost of living is three times less”, and that there would be welfare payments and free ricelands, the latter two of which were false. It said that “By remaining in the North you will experience famine and will damn your souls. Set out now, brothers and sisters!”
The most inflammatory rumour was that Washington would launch an attack to liberate the north when all anti-communists had fled south. It claimed that the Americans would use atomic bombs and that the only way of avoiding death in a nuclear holocaust was to move south. Lansdale’s team disseminated pamphlets that depicted Hanoi with three circles of nuclear destruction superimposed on it. Lansdale’s saboteurs also poured sugar into the petrol tanks of Viet Minh vehicles.Soothsayers were bribed to predict disaster under communism, and prosperity for those who went south.
Lansdale’s campaign focused on northern Catholics, who were known for their strongly anti-communist tendencies. His staff printed tens of thousands of pamphlets with slogans such as “Christ has gone south” and “the Virgin Mary has departed from the North”, alleging anti-Catholic persecution under Ho Chi Minh. Posters depicting communists closing a cathedral and forcing the congregation to pray in front of Ho, adorned with a caption “make your choice”, were pasted around Hanoi and Haiphong. Diem himself went to Hanoi several times in 1954 while the French were still garrisoned there to encourage Catholics to move, portraying himself as a savior of Catholics. The campaign resonated with northern Catholic priests, who told their disciples that Ho would end freedom of worship, that sacraments would no longer be given and that anyone who stayed behind would endanger their souls. A survey of refugees some five decades later confirmed that they felt their interests would be best served under a Catholic leader and that Diem had substantial personal appeal due to his religion. Some have argued that the Catholics would have left regardless of Lansdale’s activities, as they had first-hand experiences of their priests and co-religionists being captured and executed for resisting the communist revolution.
Regardless of the impact of the propaganda campaigns, the Catholic immigrants helped to strengthen Diem’s support base. Before the partition, most of Vietnam’s Catholic population lived in the north. After the borders were sealed, the majority were now under Diem’s rule. The Catholics implicitly trusted Diem due to their common faith and were a source of loyal political support. One of Diem’s main objections to the Geneva Accords—which the State of Vietnam refused to sign—was that it deprived him of the Catholic regions of North Vietnam, and he had unsuccessfully called for Bui Chu and Phat Diem to be omitted from the communist zone. With entire Catholic provinces moving south en masse, in 1956 the Diocese of Saigon had more Catholics than Paris and Rome. Of Vietnam’s 1.45 million Catholics, over a million lived in the south, 55% of whom were northern refugees. Prior to this, only 520,000 Catholics lived in the Dioceses of Saigon and Hue combined.
Apart from anti-communist campaigning, economics was another factor in moving south. The US gave handouts of US$89 for each refugee who moved; the per capita income in Vietnam at the time was only $85 per year. Others have pointed to natural geographic factors unrelated to and uncontrollable by political regimes. They point to the fact that the land in the south was seen as being more productive, and memories of the Great Vietnamese Famine of 1945, which killed millions in the north, as reasons independent of politics that motivated migrants. In the mid 1950s, northern Vietnam again suffered food shortages, and some migrants have cited food security as motive for relocation. Adding to this was a general perception that Saigon was a more modern city with more economic vibrancy. Earlier in the 20th century, there had also been instances of campaigns by Catholics to encourage southerly migration to exploit underdeveloped land in the south, so it was not a new concept for them.
The Viet Minh engaged in counter-propaganda campaigns in an attempt to deter the exodus from the north. They moved through the neighbourhoods of Hanoi and Haiphong on a daily basis, passing out their pamphlets. Evacuees reported being ridiculed by the Viet Minh, who claimed that they would be sadistically tortured before being killed by the French and American authorities in Haiphong. The communists depicted the personnel of Task Force 90 as cannibals who would eat their babies, predicting disaster in the jungles, beaches and mountains of South Vietnam. They further said that the Americans would throw them overboard to drown in the ocean. The Viet Minh boasted to the emigrants that it was a high and futile risk, asserting that the 1956 reunification elections would result in a decisive communist victory. The communist efforts were helped by the fact that many French or State of Vietnam offices in the north evacuated their personnel and sold or otherwise left behind their printing facilities, many of which fell into Viet Minh hands.