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.
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. 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. 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.
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. 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.
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.
So what if the Land to the Tiller program, which was successful in Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan decades before it was attempted in earnest in South Vietnam, had in fact been tried in Vietnam during the Diem presidency?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."
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".