It may well be the opinion of future historians that the small but fierce engagements which in late 1965 pitted newly-arrived American troops against the Chu-Luc (Main Force) units of the Viet Cong and of North Viet Nam were the First Battle of the Marne of the Vietnamese War. The Battle of the Marne in September 1914 halted the seemingly irresistible onslaught of the Kaiser and thus foreclosed the possibility of an immediate end of the war through a collapse of the French; but the Great War, with its immense human and material losses, still ground on for four years and the enemy would often again come close to victory. The same happened in World War II before Moscow in the winter of 1941, or at Guadalcanal a few months later: no "turning point" as yet, but a halt to the runaway disaster. In South Viet Nam, after being stopped at Chu-Lai, Plei-Mé and the la-Drang, the Communist regulars lost enough of their momentum for the time being not to be able to bring about the military and political collapse of the Saigon government late in 1965-a situation which would have altogether closed out the American "option" of the conflict. But just as at the Marne 52 years ago, or before Moscow a quarter-century ago, nothing had been decided as yet. Years-perhaps a decade-of hard fighting could still be ahead. And the political collapse of the government in Saigon is still a distinct possibility. It is, however, important to assess in detail the military and political elements on which this precarious balance rests and what real possibilities for man?uvre (as against wishful thinking on one side or party rhetoric on the other) exist at present in the Viet Nam situation.


On the American and South Vietnamese side, two main events dominated the scene between the first deployment of major American combat units in September 1965 and the Saigon government's attempt at providing itself with the beginnings of a representative base in September 1966: the government of Air Vice Marshal Nguyen Cao Ky, by surviving for more than one year, provided planners both in Saigon and Washington with a political "peg" on which to hang some of the reform programs deemed essential to any counter- insurgency effort worthy of the name; and also the increasing effort by the United States to shift the whole main burden of the war as far north as possible. The latter was being achieved by committing the bulk of the American forces to the Central Vietnamese mountain and coastal areas under the jurisdiction of the South Vietnamese II Corps, and by "raising," in the words of President Johnson, "the price of aggression" which North Viet Nam would have to pay for her participation in the war. What this meant became clear on June 29, 1966, when American bombers attacked oil storage depots within the city limits of Hanoi and Haiphong and unleashed an air offensive outstripping in intensity most of the bombing operations of World War II.[i]

The decisions which led to this situation were based on the clear realization in Washington that, earlier optimistic predictions to the contrary notwithstanding, the South Vietnamese were in the process of being defeated in an operation which was a carbon copy not of the French defeat of 1954 but of the Chinese Nationalist defeat on the mainland in 1948-49. And exactly as in the case of China, it was American prestige which now was at stake. Opposite views were strong even within the American military, however, where advisory support for friendly local ground troops was considered with favor over the commitment of large American ground forces. As late as August 1964, that viewpoint was clearly expounded as official policy in a pamphlet jointly issued by the State and Defense Departments, which explained the Viet Nam problem in question-and-answer form. The answer to the then hypothetical question as to why no American combat units were committed to Viet Nam reads in full as follows:

The military problem facing the armed forces of South Viet Nam at this time is not primarily one of manpower. Basically it is a problem of acquiring training, equipment, skills, and organization suited to combating the type of aggression that menaces their country. Our assistance is designed to supply these requirements.

The Viet Cong use terrorism and armed attack as well as propaganda. The Government forces must respond decisively on all appropriate levels, tasks that can best be handled by Vietnamese. U.S. combat units would face several obvious disadvantages in a guerrilla war situation of this type in which knowledge of terrain, language, and local customs is especially important. In addition, their introduction would provide ammunition for Communist propaganda which falsely proclaims that the United States is conducting a "white man's war" against Asians.[ii]

That perceptive statement of the basic liabilities involved in using massive numbers of white troops is beyond doubt as true today as it was in 1964. One can, therefore, only guess at the sudden deterioration inside South Viet Nam-or the suddenness with which the worsening situation was finally perceived in Washington-which compelled the Administration to do in 1965 what it felt was unwise only six months earlier. But the decision was made to commit large American forces to the land battle as being the lesser of the two evils: 300,000 were in Viet Nam by September 1966, and another 100,000 could be there by the end of the current year.

The immediate net result of that American influx was that the brunt of the major encounters was now to be borne by the American troops instead of the South Vietnamese, just as on the other side infiltrated regular units of the People's Army of Viet Nam (PAVN) now assumed the larger part in engagements in the II Corps area and the northern section of III Corps. The argument that South Vietnamese forces still suffered heavy casualties-they suffered 11,000 dead and 21,600 wounded in 1965-must be modified to include the fact that the bulk of the South Vietnamese Army (ARVN) casualties are suffered passively, i.e. by units garrisoned in forts or ambushed on roads rather than engaged in offensive operations.[iii] A 1965 net desertion rate of about 93,000 out of about 600,000 troops, which by all accounts further increased during the first half of 1966, also indicates that the ARVN has yet to become a stabilized force, let alone a diplomatically stabilizing factor in the way the South Korean Army became during the negotiations of 1952-53. How much indeed the war had become "American" is also shown by the relatively high casualties suffered by the U.S. combat forces in the field: out of a total of 240,000 troops in Viet Nam in the spring of 1966, about 50,000 at most were actual combat troops. Yet they had suffered, in less than one year, the bulk of America's 4,000 dead and 21,000 wounded. Losses of combat leaders were even more severe, as shown by statistics covering 1965 only, when it turned out that the officer death rate was 23 percent, as against 5 percent for U.S. Forces during the Korean and Second World Wars,[iv] while the French officer death rate during the Indochina War amounted to about 3 percent.

On the civilian side, a thorough perusal of the testimony given by senior Administration officials before various Congressional committees shows that, like Abbé Sieyès during the French Revolution, the Saigon government had survived but had done little else besides. To be sure, some particularly optimistic observers already felt a year ago, a bare three months after Ky's rise to power, that "there is genuine enthusiasm generated by the imaginative programme worked out by [the government's] civilian advisers," and that "a social, economic, and political revolution" was finally under way.[v] The hard statistics and observed facts paint a somewhat different picture. Economically, the country experienced a 130 percent inflation in less than a year, which finally led to a strong devaluation of the South Vietnamese currency in an effort to keep prices from rising uncontrolledly. And while there are, as in the past, hopes of future improvement, they have as yet to materialize in Viet Nam for anyone who is not in the war-economy circuit-that is, working for the big building contractors who construct runways and bases, or, for instance, serving as a barmaid. Land reform has never gotten off the ground; there have been at least four distinct reforms, all of which stalled, over the past decade or so. While the Diem régime expropriated a total 457,000 hectares (2.47 acres per hectare) and the French Government gave South Viet Nam between 225,000 to 246,000 hectares of formerly privately French-owned land as early as 1958, only some 248,000 hectares have thus far been redistributed, according to a recent A.I.D. report,[vi] i.e. the equivalent of the French- owned land. According to a recent American observer who was an adviser in Viet Nam, much of the unredistributed land was kept under government control and "commonly put up for rent to the highest bidder."[vii]

While it is obvious that the middle of a war is not the best place to start such reforms, it must be realized that in Viet Nam the choice no longer exists, for the reforms are as essential to success as ammunition for the howitzers-in fact, more so, because the failures of land reform create an almost hopeless vicious circle. With only 25 percent of the non-urban population under effective government control, a large mass of landless peasants stands to lose a great deal the day Saigon reestablishes control over the countryside and thus restores the old tenant-landlord relationship, as invariably happened in the past wherever government troops reoccupied a given area. (In fact, in some such areas the landlords arrived in the supply trucks of the troops and some unit commanders could be persuaded to launch a clearing operation in an area where the returning landlords promised to share the proceeds with them.) Hence, the certitude of a genuinely "peasant-oriented" land reform, including a freeze on land holdings already distributed by the Viet Cong, would do more to change the allegiance of the peasantry than probably any other single counter- insurgency measure. And the much graver problem then arises as to whether the landlord-oriented leadership group in Saigon-regardless of whether it is made up of generals or medical doctors, as seems to be alternately the case-is intellectually capable of engineering that kind of revolution.

Finally, South Viet Nam must face up to political problems which, even in the absence of the Viet Cong insurgency, would leave it in the precarious position of the Dominican Republic a year ago. To blame the French colonial legacy for all the present ills has become a sort of ritual to which every writer in this field pays automatic homage. It does not, unfortunately, explain why North Viet Nam, similarly saddled with French colonial holdovers, does not suffer from administrative disintegration; nor does it explain how twelve years of extensive public-administration training in South Viet Nam-staffed and financed by America-has apparently made no dent in the problem. The reason is that South Viet Nam's ills are of a more fundamental nature.

Regionalism in Viet Nam is a fact of life which no amount of centralization can paper over. For some unfathomable reason, the decision was made in 1954 to replace what was on the whole a well-decentralized administrative system[viii] by a truly French-patterned, highly centralized administrative structure. More and more power was heaped on the fragile shoulders of Saigon's central bureaucracy, while such "natural" units of government as the region or the district were either abolished or lost all effective power. The village, which had been the real cradle of a Jeffersonian type of representative government in the country (the French found a well- operating local election system and, like all colonial powers, left village life to its own devices), was deprived of its elected officials by Ngo Dinh Diem's fiat in June 1956 and for the first time felt the full brunt of central arbitrariness and maladministration without the relative compensations of a rapidly improving economic situation. On a broader plane, the Hoa-Hao and Cao-Dai sects were in a state of more or less overt anti-Saigon dissidence until Diem's murder in November 1963, and those two sects number about 3,000,000 people between them and live over a vast area north and west of Saigon. The mountain tribesmen of the vast plateau area which covers almost 65 percent of South Viet Nam were the object of political and economic oppression which American experts as early as 1957 considered tantamount to genocide. They formed an organization known as FULRO (Front Unifié de la Lutte des Races Opprimées) which, like "Black Nationalism" in the United States, has pathetic overtones of a curses-on- both-your-houses attitude, and which resulted in two major rebellions quelled in the nick of time by well-liked American advisers who found themselves in the strange position of being honest brokers between two "Vietnamese" ethnic groups.

But by far the most serious regional problem is that of Buddhism and Catholicism. The term "regionalism" is used advisedly, for in South Viet Nam today Catholicism is largely associated with the North Vietnamese civilian refugees of that faith (almost 600,000 out of a total of 850,000), while Buddhism, though practiced lackadaisically throughout Viet Nam, finds its most fierce and tradition-bound adherents in the Central coastal area around the ancient imperial capital of Hué. People are rarely tolerant about their religion, and the Vietnamese possibly less tolerant than most. This, added to the fact that the Catholics, though only perhaps 11 percent of the population, were in power under Diem for almost a decade and that the ARVN's officers corps is over 50 percent Catholic to this day, would be sufficient to create an explosive situation anywhere. In Viet Nam, in the absence of a broadly accepted government, people of necessity must fall back on the one structure of society they can trust-their religion. It was a foregone conclusion, then, that the Buddhists would attempt to gain power, just as far smaller groups have previously done with great success.

The argument that perhaps the Buddhists are not "ready" to assume the reins of government is by-and-large irrelevant. After all, Buddhists as individuals-including Premier Ky, who is a North Vietnamese Buddhist-have been in positions of power all along. What is, however, true is that the Buddhist political organization in Saigon, grouped around the Vien Hoa Dao (Institute for the Implementation of the Dharma), has yet to find a political program which it can openly proclaim. That is meant in the literal sense of the term, for many of the Buddhists are known to be in favor of a negotiated solution to the war, but under presently-existing legislation any utterance to that effect is likely to earn its maker a prison term of up to five years. Not being able to stand openly on a platform of moderation or neutralism, the Buddhists are condemned to vague utterances about "social revolution," "true democracy" and other similarly noncommittal slogans. But that is not the kind of program likely to rally the war-weary Vietnamese 'round the flag for a supreme effort against the Viet Cong, or, for that matter, against Saigon. And perhaps the supreme refinement of the dilemma came last spring when the Central Vietnamese Buddhists were cornered by ARVN troops into abject surrender: at that time there were better than five North Vietnamese regular regiments in the I Corps area which, had the Buddhists and the mutinous 1st ARVN Division chosen to go over to their side, could have wreaked utter disaster in almost half of Viet Nam, with incalculable consequences in Washington and Saigon, not to speak of the rest of the world. But the Buddhists chose the likelihood of political destruction and the detention of their key political and military leaders by Premier Ky as against the highly speculative possibilities of entering into an alliance with the National Liberation Front (N.L.F.), the political arm of what is commonly called the Viet Cong.

Yet the very extremism which the government of Premier Ky showed late in July 1966 when he suddenly resumed harping on a theme dear in 1964 to one of his predecessors, General Nguyen Khanh, "Bac Tien!" ("Let's March North!") may have a maturing influence not only on the Buddhist leaders but also on the moderate Catholics of Father Hoang Quynh and lead to an alliance between the two religious groups. This in turn could become a base of political power owing nothing either to an alien ideology or to the massive presence of foreign troops.


It is against this South Vietnamese backdrop of frustration and upheaval that the military effort which has been made over the past year now must be measured, and not simply against its own abstract yardsticks of increasing troops present, ammunition expended, enemy killed, "structures" destroyed, rice confiscated, weapons captured and weapons lost or acres of rice fields defoliated. Not that such indicators are wrong per se; but they are simply meaningless in terms of what is going on.

First of all, the war must be judged against its progress toward its initial objectives. If the objective was-as was contemplated in 1961-to "pacify" South Viet Nam with the help of an eighteen-month counter- insurgency plan, then the operation already has failed. This is also true if Viet Nam is judged against Secretary McNamara's target date, announced on October 2, 1963: "The major part of the United States military task [in Viet Nam] can be completed by the end of 1965." If the next set of objectives was to nip the rising insurgency in South Viet Nam merely with an increased American advisory effort and perhaps with the "antiseptic" help of American-manned airplanes and naval craft, that policy failed in 1964. The same can be said of such tactical measures as the bombing of North Viet Nam. It first was explained as a retaliatory measure against a guerrilla attack on the American base at Pleiku, then as a measure designed to cut off the flow of North Vietnamese manpower and supplies to the insurgents, and, finally, as simply a political measure designed to bring the North Vietnamese to the conference table.[ix] Since it was clearly admitted that the retaliatory aspect of the raids was at best a temporary rationale, only the two other criteria need to be judged. Secretary McNamara, in explaining the bombing of the storage depots near the former Hanoi and Haiphong "sanctuaries," stated that during the previous year of bombing Communist supply deliveries had increased by 150 percent and troop infiltration by 120 percent, and President Johnson, two days later at Omaha, stated that what hitherto had been jungle trails had in many places become fully motorable "boulevards."

Obviously, then, as with operations "Strangle" and "Choke" in Korea 15 years ago, air operations failed to effect decisive results in spite of a 1965 bomb tonnage (255,000 tons) far exceeding what had ever been used before on so small a target area. As for the political effectiveness of the air operations, the record is plain: more intransigence from Hanoi and a gradual increase in the Russian commitments to Hanoi, at least in the field of air defense.

All this could well delineate the conditions for a stalemate, were it not for the fact that, contrary to what happened in Korea, the American build- up in Viet Nam is at the present moment open-ended. Neither budgetary nor manpower ceilings seem to have been arrived at and whatever limitations there are appear to be imposed more by the difficulties of finding suitable deployment areas and logistical support facilities than by a lack of will in Washington to provide massive reinforcements. Even so, manpower requirements are likely to become extensive this autumn: by late September, about 165,000 men now in Viet Nam will have fulfilled their one-year tour; that, added to the 400,000-man strength considered desirable for the end of 1966, would mean that at least a quarter-million new troops must be moved to Southeast Asia fairly rapidly.

All this, of course, is perfectly feasible for the United States, and so are the many "search-and-destroy" and spoiling operations which are said to have prevented the Viet Cong from launching a "monsoon offensive." (Ironically enough, the North Vietnamese claim that the American "dry- season 'counteroffensive' " had likewise met with failure.)[x] Enemy losses are heavy, and may well reach 60,000 dead this year; but the present infiltration rate may match this, and local recruitment inside South Viet Nam still amounts to 3,500 men a month, while the total number of Viet Cong and PAVN forces rose over the past year from 110,000 men to 270,000. The present American pincer operations, with their net results of a few hundred enemy killed in return for a commitment of often more than 10,000 troops for ten days, are by and large no more efficient than similarly large French operations were (the French using paratroop battalions where the United States uses helicopter-borne units). They are unlikely to achieve gains of strategic importance until a troop saturation ratio is attained which permits the permanent reoccupation of cleared areas in strengths which deter attack. Expert advocates of such tactics, notably Hanson W. Baldwin, feel that they can be the only logical conclusion of present policies and estimate that one million American troops would provide for an adequate saturation ratio. Interestingly enough, that view is likewise shared by the opposition. In an interview granted in January 1965 by the Chairman of the Liberation Front, Nguyen Huu Tho, he made the cogent point that "it is not bombs and artillery that win wars; it is infantry that can occupy territory."[xi]

Let us then reconstruct the military-political landscape which the Communist planners in Hanoi or in the N.L.F.'s jungle headquarters might see before them. In spite of severe casualties, their troops and underground administrative structure have held on to much of what they held last year and, with minor tactical adjustments, they are still capable of attacking. Aerial bombardment, north as well as south, hurts but has yet to cut deeply into their supply and replacement system (they have Secretary McNamara's word for it). The American ground effort has foreclosed the chances of a headlong rush to victory, but is not yet of a size to make a Communist defeat certain. Saigon, for all the beautiful plans on paper, has yet to come through with effective reforms. And abroad, the dark outlines of more massive Soviet help (with a concomitant Russo-American worsening of relations) appear discernible.

If the Communist interpretation of the situation is anywhere near this estimate, as it is very likely to be, then it can be easily seen why both Hanoi and the N.L.F. would be highly reluctant to accept negotiations which offer them literally nothing but the complete and permanent dismantling of the whole South Vietnamese Communist apparatus in exchange for a minor share in an economic development plan which contemplates a total expenditure equivalent to the cost to the United States of fifteen days of war in South Viet Nam. Much depends, then, on whether Hanoi and the guerrillas in the south view the development of the war exactly in the same light, for the sacrifices they are expected to make at the conference table, as well as, for the time being, on the firing line, are of an entirely different nature.


A major part of the whole Viet Nam argument revolves around a clear identification of the character of the enemy-for it is that identification which pins the label of "aggressor" on North Viet Nam (and thus justifies military action against it) or, conversely, makes the conflict largely a civil war, with the United States as the major foreign "interventionist."

A recent issue of Foreign Affairs presented an unusually well-argued and sophisticated case for the first view.[xii] But precisely because it is so well argued, it unconsciously presents some of the arguments for the opposite viewpoint as well. And since it is almost impossible to discuss the possible rational outcomes of the Viet Nam situation as long as the true character of the adversary is in doubt-it is this writer's own belief that it lies somewhere between the two extremes presented above-the nature of the Viet Cong must be explored further before it can be definitively dismissed as "faceless."

It can be conceded in advance that any Communist member of the National Liberation Front in South Viet Nam is likewise a member of the Lao Dong, the Vietnamese Communist Party, and that North Viet Nam, which had without a shred of doubt won the war against France in 1954, fully expected to gain control of South Viet Nam as well either by the elections slated for July 1956 or at a later date. I am, however, inclined to doubt that Hanoi's decision to intervene in South Vietnamese affairs was prompted by any "increasing disparity between political life north and south." For it became obvious even to the blindest of optimists that, unfortunately, the political lives of both Viet Nams, far from becoming "disparate," began to resemble each other as only two extremes can, with their gradual falsification of representative processes and, finally, with their concentration camps and persecution of religious groups. The existence of a "Central Reunification Department" in Hanoi of which much is made is surely revelatory of something-until one becomes aware that West Germany, for example, has a Ministry for All-German Affairs to which, of course, East Germany and the Soviets ascribe equally sinister motives, even though it can be safely assumed that the Ministerium für Gesamtdeutsche Fragen is more innocuous than any Hanoi committee with the same purpose.

It is likewise very much open to question that the intervention of Hanoi was first evidenced by a terror campaign directed against small South Vietnamese officials. In actual fact, Diem began to become oppressive as early as January 1956, when a concentration camp ordinance (No. 6 of January 11, 1956) gave the régime almost unchecked power to deal with the opposition-and the non-Communist opposition, least inured to clandestine operations, was hit hardest. It took until May 1966 for a U.S. Government agency, the Public Affairs Office in Saigon, to state candidly what was a well-known fact all along-to wit, that some of the so-called "political- religious" sects provided the hard core of the early opposition:

. . . Ten of the eleven [Cao-Dai] sub-sects had opposed Diem, and their leadership fled to Cambodia or went into hiding. . . . The members of the other ten sects made up the bulk of the early NLF support, although the alliance was at all times an uneasy one . . .

. . . The [Hoa-Hao] sect in 1952 formed the Social Democratic Party as its political arm. It too challenged Diem, and its armies were smashed by ARVN in 1956. Like the Cao Dai, it was an early and major participant in the NLF,...

. . . The third of the esoteric sects of Viet Nam, the Binh Xuyen, which was also smashed by Diem, also worked with the NLF in its early days.[xiii]

The decision by Diem-probably his most pregnant in terms of its future consequences-to abolish elected village government in June 1956 (again before the July 1956 election deadline, at a time when the Communists were on their best behavior) did the rest. The hated appointees became a prime target for local resentment and by March 1958 over 400 had been murdered by guerrillas who indeed, as Carver points out, "harped on local issues and avoided preaching Marxist doctrine." When it is remembered that there were enough "local issues" around to cause the South Vietnamese Army itself to try at least three times to murder Diem, it becomes understandable why South Viet Nam appeared to Hanoi ripe for plucking. In other words, there can be no doubt but that Hanoi, or even South Vietnamese stay-behind Communist elements, took advantage of Saigon's glaring weaknesses after 1959. But the Communists can hardly be held responsible for the incredible stupidity of the Diem régime and the somewhat surprising blindness to its faults of its American advisers. And it is equally hard to deny that there was plenty of motivation inside South Viet Nam, on the left as well as on the right, for a revolutionary explosion.

The next point which requires clarification is not whether the insurgency in South Viet Nam is abetted, directed and aided from North Viet Nam (it is to a large extent), but whether such outside controls preclude the existence of real objectives which are specifically those of the insurgents rather than of their external sponsors. Here, the recent British revelations as to the truly enormous extent of the control of the French Resistance in France by the Special Operations Executive (S.O.E.)-the 1940- 1946 British equivalent of the Central Intelligence Agency-shows what is meant. According to the now-published official history of S.O.E. in France, "till 1944 the British had a virtual monopoly over all of de Gaulle's means of communications with France," and the French "could not introduce a single agent or a single store" without Allied permission and help, and "anything [they] planned with marked political implications was liable to be vetoed by any of the three major Western allies." Yet, having substantiated exactly what both the Vichy French and the Nazis had said all along, i.e. that the French Resistance was nothing but an "Anglo-Saxon conspiracy" and the resisters (this writer included) nothing but foreign agents, the official history makes the key point: "All these victories by and through resistance forces in France had a common basis: overwhelming popular support."[xiv]

The hard historical facts which emerge from the French Resistance and which appear to apply to the Viet Cong are (a) that in spite of overwhelming technical control by the Allies, de Gaulle succeeded in winning political and military loyalty among the diverse guerrilla forces in France, and (b) that even de Gaulle's own views and desires had to accommodate themselves to those developed by the internal resistance in its four-year fight, in which it bore the brunt of the struggle and suffered the bulk of the losses. The differences of view between Viet Cong leaders who have now been in the fight for six years (and some of them for twenty!) and the Hanoi theoreticians and conventional military commanders go in many cases far beyond normal internecine party struggles or mere tactical disagreements.

A glance at factual examples is interesting: there have been three changes of N.L.F. secretaries-general at times when Hanoi was in the throes of no purge whatsoever. There was the N.L.F. five-point manifesto of March 22, 1965, whose "jungle version" was rebroadcast later by Hanoi with 39 extensive amendments or text changes, softening some of the N.L.F. statements. There were the spontaneous reactions of N.L.F. leaders when faced with respected Western observers on neutral ground, openly explaining why they disagreed with the "narrow-minded commissars in Hanoi." And there is the fact that while the United States and Hanoi are now officially wedded to a return to a Geneva-type conference (and, presumably, its two- year election clause), the N.L.F. has thus far left Geneva out of its program, preferring a flexible formula of eventual reunification in negotiated stages.

It is easy to dismiss those differences as being mere camouflage (after all, some people believe that the Sino-Soviet split is nothing but a grand deception foisted on the easily-fooled West) and to believe the N.L.F. is indeed nothing but "a contrived political mechanism with no indigenous roots," as Carver avers. But in that case, the 220,000 Viet Cong who fight side-by-side with 50,000 PAVN regulars, and who over the past three years are said to have suffered almost 100,000 dead and 182,000 wounded, fight rather well for what must be a vast mass of remote-controlled and force- drafted recruits. Otherwise, desertion would be just as easy on the Viet Cong side as it is on the ARVN side, but thus far the V.C. desertion rate simply seems to keep pace with the increase of manpower on the Communist side.

That leaves, lastly, the argument of "facelessness": the N.L.F. leaders are men of little stature in their own society; they are unknowns. But four years ago only a few Vietnamese military men knew who General Ky was, and no one thought of him even two years ago as being of presidential timber. Clandestineness is not attractive to the sort of men who are national figures: aside from Jugoslavia's Marshal Tito, it takes real expertise to recall the names of European resistance leaders. In any case, N.L.F. propaganda has seen to it that its leaders should not remain anonymous: at least forty senior leaders' biographies have been published, along with their photos.[xv] Their background shows the normal social background of Vietnamese leadership in general, from medical doctors and pharmacists, to lawyers and even army officers (though the sprinkling of Montagnards and women is more typical of the likewise classic "united front" picture). And they have one remarkable common characteristic which thus far no Saigon government has been able to match: they are all from south of the seventeenth parallel.

None of the foregoing justifies Hanoi's claim that the N.L.F. should be the "sole legitimate voice of the South Vietnamese people." But nothing justifies the opposite claim either, to the effect that without Hanoi's full support, the N.L.F. would disappear into thin air like a desert mirage. There can indeed be no quarrel with Carver's statement that "the Viet Cong organization is unquestionably a major factor in the South Vietnamese political scene." In that case, however, it must be treated as what it is-a political force in South Viet Nam which cannot be simply blasted off the surface of the earth with B-52 saturation raids, or told to pack up and go into exile to North Viet Nam.

There is one further consideration which argues against the likelihood of Hanoi being able (assuming it were willing, and it does not seem to be) to turn off the southern guerrilla movement like a water tap: Hanoi has, since March 1946, made four separate deals with the West at the expense of the South Vietnamese. The French-Vietnamese accords of March 6, 1946, provided for a Vietnamese "free state with its own government, armed forces and foreign relations" but left South Viet Nam proper (i.e. Cochin China) under French control and, as it turned out, severe anti-Viet Minh repression. The French-Vietnamese modus vivendi signed by Ho Chi Minh in Paris, September 14, 1946, further confirmed this seeming "abandonment" of the South. In the Geneva Accords of July 1954, it was South Viet Nam which was left to the tender mercies of the Diem régime for at least two years, and we have Nguyen Huu Tho's own word in an interview with Wilfred Burchett to the effect that "there were mixed feelings about the two-years' delay over reunification." And when neither Hanoi nor Peking (nor the Soviet Union) made strong representations against dropping elections in 1956, it must have become obvious to even the most obtuse pro-Hanoi elements south of the seventeenth parallel that the North Vietnamese Communists are somewhat unreliable allies.

These are simple historical facts, not extrapolations of obscure paragraphs in three-hour speeches of Communist leaders. They make it somewhat difficult to explain by the tenets of the all-out "aggression" theory why the same Communist leaders (in Hanoi and at least Peking) should have chosen in 1958 to fight a highly risky guerrilla war in preference to trying to win South Viet Nam by a bitter political fight in 1956 (a call to the U.N. or for the reconvening of the 1954 Geneva Conference, or for the interpretation of the Agreements by the International Court of Justice; or simply by a vast propaganda offensive).[xvi] The fact of repeated abandonment goes a long way to explain why North Viet Nam is somewhat reluctant to come to the conference table: Washington has sometimes seemed to feel that a sudden convening at a conference table might well bring about the collapse of the South Vietnamese government's spirit of resistance, for the South Vietnamese as a people know only too well what their military posture would be without all-out American help. But, vice versa, in view of past performance, any peace conference in which Hanoi would once more speak for the southern insurgent elements and in the absence of their own full representation would raise among the Viet Cong the spectre of yet a fifth sellout of the southern guerrillas. Other countries too have "credibility gaps."

Yet it is precisely that symmetrical weakness which, in this writer's view, opens new perspectives on how to approach the Viet Nam problem as a whole. And while lapidary formulations have in the past been more confusing than helpful, it would perhaps be useful to say that a major attempt must be made to "politicize" rather than to further "militarize" the Vietnamese conflict and to treat it as what it really is-a local conflict with outside support which has gotten out of hand, not the Stalingrad or El-Alamein of a worldwide cold-war confrontation.

There is no more reason to believe that a free-world "victory" in Viet Nam is going to deter other revolutionary guerrilla wars than there was to have hoped that the Kaiser's defeat in World War I would teach Nazism a useful lesson in 1938; or to have expected that Communist guerrilla setbacks in Greece, Azerbaijan, the Philippines, Malaya or the Congo would "teach" guerrillas something in Cuba, Venezuela, Laos, Burma, Thailand or South Viet Nam. If it "teaches" them anything at all, it may well be this: that unless the local régime undertakes a measure of true reforms, even the hugest military power in the world can be successfully stalemated for a long period of time by lightly-armed peasant guerrillas and the infantry of a tiny underdeveloped country. That point might well be left somewhat less substantiated than it has recently been.

In that case, the present balance, including the American and PAVN forces in South Viet Nam, can be used to establish a political starting point from which to approach the whole problem anew, perhaps along the following lines:

1. Make the Saigon government and the Liberation Front leaders the center of all future negotiations, with the United States and North Viet Nam in a back-up position, just as was the case with the Laotian factions and third powers at the Geneva Conference of 1961-62. (It will be recalled that the 1954 Geneva Conference on Indochina was a military cease-fire conference, like Panmunjom in Korea.)

2. Have the United States restate in less prolix language the promises contained in the State Department's 14-Point Declaration of January 1966, notably with regard to the non-permanence of American bases in South Viet Nam and the disengagement of both Viet Nams; and have this declaration filed with the United Nations as proof of good faith.

3. Prepare the Saigon government forcefully and publicly-just as Premier Ky informed the United States of his desire to carry the ground war to North Viet Nam-for the coming political contest with a well-organized native left- wing minority which can neither be evacuated nor exterminated. (Vide, France and Italy in 1945-47 having to face the stark fact of heavily-armed Communist ex-partisan forces, which to this day in 1966 have not really surrendered all their weapons.)

4. Encourage Liberation Front leaders to commit themselves to specifically South Vietnamese political and economic options in preference to North Vietnamese desires (again as was the case of the West European Communists in the early 1950s, in relation to Moscow) in exchange for a legal participation in the political life of the country.

5. Encourage the eventual creation of a "piastre common market" (as advocated two years ago by Prince Norodom Sihanouk of Cambodia) which would include North Viet Nam and thus satisfy its legitimate desire for contacts outside the Communist world, but which would include 26,000,000 people from non-Communist states as against North Viet Nam's 19,000,000. Postwar international organizations-even the War saw Pact-have shown that small strong-willed countries succeed far better in holding their own within such organizations, even when they include a large predatory country, than they can individually.

6. On the basis of President Johnson's Baltimore speech, re state and expand the idea of a flexible area-wide rehabilitation program, taking into account the immensely increased destruction which has taken place since last year. Include proposals for political normalization, such as those which the United States implemented in Germany and Japan, Britain in Israel, and France in Algeria. In that case, Viet Nam could set the pattern of a détente applicable to other divided countries as well.

None of the above is likely to produce a miracle cure for South Viet Nam's ills. If Saigon is still grimly determined to botch its land reform or to falsify its elections, not even a million American troops can stop it from doing so. Of course those troops at least could crush the opposition even if it were at the price of which Tacitus spoke when he said of the Romans in Britain, "You have made this a desolation and you call it peace."

It would indeed be a pity if so much ingenuity, diplomacy, blood and treasure should have been spent on trying to persuade Hanoi to abandon the insurgents in South Viet Nam, without a solid attempt ever having been made at getting the insurgents to modify their relationship with Hanoi in return for a specifically South Vietnamese solution that could be as honorable all around as it would be realistic. The only alternative to such an approach would be a further escalation both in terms of battleground and participating countries. And if Munich is not a good example of how to settle the Vietnamese conflict, neither is Guernica, or Sarajevo.

[i] According to Secretary of Defense McNamara, the 1966 "bombing plan" for Viet Nam involves an expenditure of 638,000 tons of aerial munitions. In comparison, the whole Pacific theater expended 600,000 tons throughout all of World War II.

[ii] Department of State Publication 7724 (Dept. of Defense, Gen.-8), Viet Nam: The Struggle for Freedom. Washington: Government Printing Office, 1964, p. 21.

[iii] According to the Weekly Summaries prepared by the Department of Defense, the average number of ARVN-initiated battalion-size operations has slightly decreased over the past year while the number of Vietnamese under arms went from 493,000 to 640,000. At the same time, the number of U.S.- initiated battalion-size operations has trebled.

[iv] The New York Times, January 19, 1966.

[v] P. J. Honey, "Viet Nam Argument," Encounter, November 1965, p. 69.

[vi] Congressional Record, March 10, 1966, p. 5328.

[vii] Stanley Andrews, "Red Tape and Broken Promises," The Reporter, May 5, 1966.

[viii] Cf. the little-known but excellent study by Vu Quoc Thong, "La décentralisation administrative au Viet-Nam" Hanoi: Presses Universitaires, 1952.

[ix] Secretary McNamara's press conference of June 29, 1966.

[x] Viet Nam Courier (Hanoi), Nos. 60 and 61, May 26 and June 2, 1966.

[xi] Wilfred Burchett, "Viet Nam: Inside Story of the Guerrilla War." New York: International Publishers, 1965, p. 240.

[xii] George A. Carver, Jr., "The Faceless Viet Cong," Foreign Affairs, April 1966.

[xiii] U.S. Mission in Viet Nam, JUSPAO Planning Office, A Note on the Vietnamese Sects, May 1966, p. 2-3.

[xiv] M.R.D. Foot, "SOE in France." London: Her Majesty's Stationery Office, 1966, p. xix, 33, and 442-443, passim.

[xvi] It is totally forgotten today by those who support the "unilateral- aggression" theory that North Viet Nam on March 7 and December 22, 1958, addressed two long notes to President Diem conceding the temporary division of the country and offering a 4-point program involving interzonal trade, travel and nonaggression. Saigon refused to reply to the notes.

You are reading a free article.

Subscribe to Foreign Affairs to get unlimited access.

  • Paywall-free reading of new articles and a century of archives
  • Unlock access to iOS/Android apps to save editions for offline reading
  • Six issues a year in print, online, and audio editions
Subscribe Now