On this date in 1960, the former French colony of Vietnam made its last use of that most characteristically Gallic killing-machine: the guillotine.
Communist cadre Hoang Le Kha of the Vietnam People’s Army — the insurgent force also known at different times, in different manifestations, and through different eyes as the Viet Minh, the North Vietnamese Army (NVA) and the Vietcong* — earned the unpleasant distinction. According to a disappointingly truncated article (.pdf) from the Texas Tech University Vietnam Archive, the beheading took place notwithstanding an appeal pending before the International Control Commission, the multinational body charged with overseeing the supposedly temporary partition of Vietnam.
So, six years after Dien Bien Phu, what was independent Vietnam using this hated machine for?
Why, the same thing the French used it for: Terror.
The demonstrative device was redeployed in 1959 by Ngo Dinh Diem — a man whose obliviousness to blowback would soon land him in these pages — for exacting frightful, visible justice on subversive types.
According to that troubled former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara,
On May 6, 1959, Diem signed Law 10/59, which, in an ironic bow to the former French colonial masters, inaugurated the era of death by beheading, as Diem’s lieutenants traveled the countryside with mobile guillotines and platforms, looking for “communists.” Article 1 of Law 10/59 called for “sentence of death, and confiscation of the whole or part of his property” for anyone convicted of crimes ranging from murder to stealing farm implements and water buffalo. Article 3 proclaimed that anyone belonging to “an organization designed to help to prepare or to perpetrate” such crimes “will be subjected to the sentences provided for” — that is, they will also be beheaded. … Article 16 announced: “The decisions of the special military court are not subject to appeal, and no appeal is allowed to the High Court.”
He then cites Hanoi historian Tran Van Giau’s recollection of the period.
“In 1959, the most difficult period of the revolution in South Vietnam, the Ngo Dinh Diem puppet regime dragged the guillotine everywhere and carried out a bloody fascist repression.”
Though officially downplayed overseas, all-but-summary beheadings were intentionally publicized in Vietnam in an effort to cow rebels.
The Diem government had many public executions. A lot of people in the West denied that it happened but Diem made no bones about it. They advertised the executions and there were pictures in the paper of people getting their heads chopped off by a guillotine. … In 1959, when I went around with the map teams there were many military outposts where they summarily chopped off the heads of people they thought were Communists. They put the heads on stakes right in front of their outposts, sometimes with two cigarettes up the nostrils. They even invited people to take pictures of it. They were very proud of themselves.
It didn’t work.
Right alongside it is a picture of Hoang Le Kha.
(Many images — some of them graphic or disturbing — available at this Vietnamese page.)
* This is a very hasty lumping-together; the terms are not synonymous.