RETURNING home after years of service in Viet Nam, I am nagged by the insistent thought that we have not yet adequately answered a plain question: What is it, exactly, that we seek in Viet Nam?

The question is hardly a new one. It has been asked over and over again and answered as often, in statements by leaders in Viet Nam and by leaders elsewhere, among them several Presidents of the United States and even a number of thoughtful writers in this review. Yet, judging by the nature of the actions undertaken in Viet Nam and by the continuing debates over the issues of the war wherever they can be freely discussed, it is evident that the answers have not satisfied a need and that the question remains still posed, alive, demanding.

We have to answer the question fully. In stopping short of complete answers, we may be compounding the cost of this long struggle in terms of irreplaceable human and spiritual resources as well as in material expenditures. This is most obvious on the battleground in Asia, but at home, too, the probing has gone so deeply that it touches the innermost core of American beliefs, troubling us more perhaps than any issue since the Civil War.

Without a sound answer, the seemingly endless war in Viet Nam becomes just that-seemingly endless. Alternatively, it may be headed for an end that could be dishonorable, with profound consequences. As a people who pride themselves on being pragmatic, we can surely accept the practical idea that when we are all risking so much to get some place, we must agree on the destination, so that all of our efforts will be directed toward it, not dispersed, reversed, tangled or impeded. We need goals that are truly defined, as a constant guide to action, whether for the prosecution of the war or for the founding of a just peace.


About two thousand years ago, Matthew of Capernaum said: "Ye shall know them by their fruits. Do men gather grapes of thorns, or figs of thistles?" Are our actions in Viet Nam such that they will bear grapes and figs, or are we gathering only thorns and thistles? The answer of course is that we have been in an allegorical jungle, mixing up vines, trees, thorns and thistles in grand profusion. Perhaps we have had just too many gardeners, including some with a bent toward the thorns and thistles, as well as those who wanted just vines and trees.

Identifying our goals from the major actions we have undertaken in Viet Nam, they can be described as follows: to eliminate the enemy south of the 17th parallel; to hamper the enemy's supply routes coming into South Viet Nam; to ease the shock of shifting millions of people away from temporary battle areas; to place security forces in the countryside; to start bringing the rudiments of a better life to the people in villages and hamlets; to update the system of the central government into the twentieth century; to institute the forms of a self-governing democracy; and to provide facilities for a vast increase in commerce. These are the thrusts of our major actions and hint at the complexity of the struggle in Viet Nam. Two by-products of these major actions also are worthy of mention: the forced growth of English as a second language for the Vietnamese (how else can they speak with their various allies today?) and-for Americans-the proving of Parkinson's law about bureaucratic proliferation. Perhaps these two by-products will be the ones that will last for centuries.

Admittedly, the statement of our aims as noted above has a righteous sound to it. Yet it bristles with thorns and thistles. For example, we concentrate on eliminating the enemy by physical means and have relied superstitiously on the magic of casualty numbers to reassure ourselves that we are winning, since the enemy's casualties are far heavier than ours; yet the enemy has steadily increased the size of his forces in South Viet Nam. Further, in pursuing this major aim, the people often have been in the way, helplessly, and have suffered. Despite our considerable efforts to prevent it, the people still suffer grievously. Even the remarkable new injunction to Vietnamese troops to love the people becomes a mockery, given the actuality of the battleground. Thus, if one of our stated aims is to help the people of Viet Nam, at least one of our practices is counterproductive. Unfortunately, it is the practice we pursue the most vigorously.

Each of our other demonstrated aims has its thorns and thistles also, along with plenteous grapes and figs. In updating the central Vietnamese government into the twentieth century, we apparently have generated the tv es of official corruption so prevalent in the Western world in the early days of this century, even complete with budding counterparts of Jacob Riis, Lincoln Steffens and other "muckrakers" to expose and right the wrongs. At least one of the major American actions-the providing of facilities, particularly airfields and new harbors, for a vast increase of commerce some day in the future-has led to wondrous speculation by the Vietnamese. I recall a group of Vietnamese villagers looking on in amazement as Americans were building one of the many new airfields on the ground where they had once lived and grown crops. A Vietnamese official blandly explained to them, tongue in cheek, that this was the way Americans built highways secretly; eventually all the new airfields would be linked together in one grand super-super-highway running throughout the country.

In all of this immense activity, we seem to be struggling toward some day when the long war will end with a whimper instead of a bang. The whimper is apt to be a prolonged one. Not enough of our aims are focused sharply on what most want for Viet Nam when an honest peace has been established. We surely must hope for something better than mere surcease from current agonies, something far beyond an enemy turned into corpses, a massive central governmental structure, lip-service to democracy or millions of once self-reliant people in a welfare status. If we do hope for something more or better or far beyond these things, we still have time-barely-to spell it out plainly and to make use of our magnificent capabilities to attain it.

The enemy, despite his pretensions, has been sorely hurt. This "war of national liberation" has not gone according to script for him any more than our counterefforts have for us. There are even some among the enemy leaders who retain a spark of feeling for humanity, for the "masses" mentioned so casually these days in their dialectics, and who must be desperately fed up with the ambitions of the handful of cold, humorless men who still hunger to gain control of all the people of Viet Nam for their own ends. It is even possible that, given some plainly spoken and understandable goals to be sought in Viet Nam, many among the enemy might awaken to the fact that they have been seeking much the same goals-and that they have small reason left for fighting us.


Then, what is it exactly that we Americans should be seeking in Viet Nam? Our paramount desire, undoubtedly, is to achieve peace. Yet, we also want some fairness about this peace, and scarcely any thoughtful person among us really believes that the leaders on the other side have the same concept of fairness as we do. Somehow, the peace must be such that the free Vietnamese can speak out in the same spirit as Lincoln in 1865 as our Civil War drew to a close.1

However, when we speak of a "free choice" for the Vietnamese, we are immediately in semantic trouble. Laudable as it seems to us, to the Vietnamese it raises a vision of a plebiscite, presumably one held under international auspices, with supervision by an international commission which could be no more effective than that established by the Geneva Accords of 1954, or the international supervision of the agreement on Laos. Mistrust comes from witnessing circumvention of the intent of solemn pledges, when one's "life, fortune and sacred honor" are placed in jeopardy by such circumvention. The true Vietnamese nationalists have a deep-seated suspicion that the Vietnamese communists would use coercion and other forms of cheating, unseen or unrecognized by any international commission. Perhaps the communists feel the same way about the nationalists.

This American precept of a "free choice" could be carried out in a way more familiar to the Vietnamese. The way could be to permit the Vietnamese "to vote with their feet," as millions of Vietnamese have been doing in escaping from enemy-controlled areas or from combat zones these past years, and as nearly a million Vietnamese did in moving out of communist North Viet Nam in 1954-55 under the Geneva Accords. It is by now a way of voting familiar to the Vietnamese. A Vietnamese philosopher has suggested that a peace settlement might provide for the division of Viet Nam into three parts: a communist North, a free South and a coalition Center. The people throughout Viet Nam would be given an appropriate period to move to the area governed by the régime of their choice. The new coalition region in the Center would be formed by taking land from both north and south of the present DMZ at the I7th parallel; its size would depend on the number of people who opted to live there under a coalition government. Those in North Viet Nam who want to live in freedom would be given a new chance to move to the South; those who want a communist régime could move to the North. The concept is an attractive one, since it involves all of Viet Nam, has face- saving features for all Vietnamese leaders and offers a "free choice" with real substance.

When we Americans speak of "freedom" for the Vietnamese, we mean the opposite of "slavery," which we see as the status of people living under communist authoritarian rule, where the few dictate how the many shall exist. Thus, we would be untrue to our own definition if, having sacrificed so much in the long struggle in Viet Nam, we ended up by giving the people a choice between living under a Leninist system of authoritarian rule or living under another set of masters over whom they have little control. The whims of men with guns-military, police or paramilitary forces-are hardly sound foundations for "freedom." It becomes imperative, therefore, that constitutional government in South Viet Nam be helped to evolve fully and rapidly in ways that make sense to, and are workable by, the Vietnamese- both for the prosecution of the war and the preparations for peace. A start has been made: a Constitution has been written and adopted, and some of the institutions described in it have already been created; others still await birth and must come alive soon, for the health of the whole body politic depends upon them. All of the constitutional provisions would benefit-would grow more sturdily-with our understanding encouragement.

It would be appropriate, too, for us to turn to the preamble of our own Constitution for some guidance on what it is that should be sought in Viet Nam. Although the Vietnamese Constitution is Vietnamese and not American, it shares the fundamental principles subscribed to by free people, and is compatible with the spirit of ours. (These shared beliefs are the true basis of comradeship amongst the free people on earth-our common ideology.) The preamble of the U.S. Constitution sets forth our goals in terms understandable to all: "... establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity. . . ." These goals have great pertinency to the efforts of Americans in Viet Nam today.

Like ourselves, the Vietnamese people place a high value on "justice." (The Vietnamese who participated in the overthrow of Diem in 1963 spoke yearningly of their desires for "social justice." The American Declaration of Independence is devoted largely to the detailing of injustices as the motives for the American action.) The Vietnamese Constitution provides the means to establish a "rule of law" in Viet Nam, yet its realization still awaits birth through the legislative processes of the National Assembly. Even when these means are activated, there will be gigantic tasks ahead to achieve equal justice for all citizens and to obtain laws appropriate to representative government instead of a jumble of colonial and mandarinal dictates. Despite rudimentary efforts, there has been too little American help and encouragement to the Vietnamese in establishing justice for all.

To "provide for the common defense" surely means the provision of better protection for the people in villages and hamlets rather than an overemphasis on the security of a few ranking military commanders, of province and district chiefs, and of military posts, camps and stations. In so doing, the Vietnamese armed forces would rediscover a form of "people's warfare" that long predates the form postulated by the communist strategists, a form toward which the South Vietnamese have made only the barest start.

Insuring "domestic tranquility" and promoting "the general welfare" are two goals that already have high places on the agenda of American efforts in Viet Nam. Many of our programs, such as those involving the national police, public health, agriculture, public works, trade and refugees, are devoted to these objectives. Most of the criticisms of our endeavors in Viet Nam are aimed not at these laudable goals themselves but at how well- or badly-we have been achieving them. A more pertinent criticism might be that a reëvaluation of our total effort would show that, while we are being so generous with material aid to attain these goals, we are being too skimpy with our help toward other goals, such as establishing justice.

Perhaps the most difficult goal of all would be for Americans to help the Vietnamese "secure the blessings of liberty." In modern social studies and governmental practices, such a goal seems quaint, too vaguely worded. Yet it is the essence of what the Vietnamese yearn for, and some practical steps have been taken by the Vietnamese to achieve it. More realistic help and encouragement from us would give them a better chance of success. For example, one of the most significant and far-reaching events in Viet Nam during the past few years was the initiation in the spring of 1967 of elected councils having executive powers in villages deemed "secure" enough to make elections feasible. This offers at least the chance to win "the blessings of liberty" and places responsibility in the hands of the people- in a modern adaptation of an ancient Vietnamese custom. In practice, progress has been slow. The number of villages and hamlets having their own elected officials must be steadily increased and the scope of authority of these elected officials should be enlarged. To one who believes in democracy, the fair implementation of laws for land reform and the means to attain redress would seem to fare best if made a responsibility of the elected village council.

The Vietnamese Constitution provides for the elective system to extend up through the villages and through the provinces until it reaches the national level. Some believe that, due to the contingencies of the war, bringing these provisions into practice can be delayed. Such timidity is not necessary. A start can be made. It would be feasible now to elect the Province Chief in a province as "secure" as An Giang, extending the selection of governors by the consent of the governed to other provinces and to "secure" cities as rapidly as possible. The incentive of self- government would give demonstrable meaning to the whole political change taking place in the midst of war in Viet Nam, add immeasurably to the sense of nationhood, provide an attainable public instrument for curbing the corruption of officials, and greatly increase the people's sense of participation and involvement as the war is prosecuted and the peace planned. The time for such an incentive is now, not later. Many of the younger Vietnamese leaders feel this urgently; they are close enough to the people to appraise correctly their great resiliency. They want to move ahead faster; they deserve our steady support.

We have concentrated on killing the enemy and bringing our material resources to bear on the outcome of the war. These actions have had some success in teaching the communists the costly folly of adventuring into "wars of national liberation." The same actions, though, have taught us that the American tendency to rely mostly on muscle and material wealth is not good enough to achieve the goals to which we and the Vietnamese aspire. Our greatest strength lies in our belief in precepts that "we, the people" cherish. Surely it is time to make fuller use of this strength. In so doing, we can lead the way to a true people's peace, not war. 1 "With malice towards none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation's wounds; to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan-to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves, and with all nations."

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