Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam — During the war his enemies probably called him a hard-liner. Vo Van Kiet was a Communist Party chief in the guerrilla zones of the far south of Vietnam. Vietnamese officials now say he devised the attack on the United States Embassy in Saigon during the Tet offensive of 1968, striking into the ''tiger's den,'' as he reportedly called it. In 1973 he was openly skeptical about the Paris agreements negotiated with the US.
Now he would have to be called a moderate. As both a member of the ruling Politburo and a deputy prime minister in charge of planning, Kiet has spearheaded new economic policies that have given peasants and workers big financial incentives and greater initiative to factory managers and local planners.
The policies have worked in a number of ways: agricultural production is up, and next year, if the weather holds, Vietnam hopes to become self-sufficient in grain for the first time since World War II. The policies also have cut through some of Hanoi's red tape that strangled past initiatives.
But these policies have generated considerable opposition. Critics fear that they represent a dilution of socialism; they encourage rather than eliminate the private sector, and, the critics say, the reforms have gotten out of hand - local governments are taking too much initiative. In some places they are trying to bypass the central government altogether.
Kiet's answer to most of these objections is simple: ''If you don't have enough food to eat,'' he told a Vietnamese interviewer earlier this year,''you can't work.''
''Compared to most Politburo members,'' an official said with some awe, ''Kiet is very unorthodox.'' Some of his unorthodoxy comes from his age (he is 15 years younger than most of the other top leaders), and also probably from his background.
The most senior Politburo members have worked together in the north since the 1930s. Kiet was not part of that group, and most of his revolutionary career has been spent in the deep south of Vietnam.
Born in the Mekong Delta in 1922, his revolutionary career is said to have begun with the abortive 1940 communist uprising in Saigon. He spent the majority of both wars against the French and the Americans in the Mekong Delta. Southern guerrilla cadres tended to develop a certain independence from the Hanoi leadership.
From 1975 until 1981 Kiet was in Ho Chi Minh City, formerly Saigon, first as head of the People's Committee (mayor), then as party chief. His independent approach was then transferred to economics. As party chief he presided over the totally unsuccessful attempt ordered by Hanoi to ''abolish capitalist trading'' in the city. Shortly after the campaign collapsed he started to gather a small group of economic advisers - mostly noncommunists, and including several prominent figures from the defeated Saigon regime. Thus were the new economic policies born.
Until recently there was some doubt about Kiet's exact role in formulating the policies. But a source recently confirmed that Kiet was quite literally their author. ''The blueprint for the policies was a Ho Chi Minh City party resolution No. 9,'' said the source. ''The final Central Committee resolution on the reforms was simply a more concrete version of the Ho Chi Minh City resolution.''
The success of Kiet's policies led to his appointment in 1982 as a full Politburo member and deputy premier in charge of planning. For the time being Kiet seems secure. His policies are reportedly supported by the party chief, Le Duan, and Prime Minister Pham Van Dong. His most important opponent is Truong Chinh, who inspired the policies of rapid socialist transformation which were abandoned and discredited in the late '70s.
Kiet is probably aware of the risks of his position. Diplomats in Hanoi often remark upon his infrequent appearances. They speculate he is trying to preserve his position with a low profile. Informed sources here have another explanation: Kiet is constantly traveling throughout the country, something most of the elderly leaders are no longer able to do.
''He would be a good politician in any system,'' one observer noted. ''He doesn't put on airs, and he has a way of winning people over to his point of view.''