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From the Vietnam War to an Indochina War

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During the last week of April 1970 the Vietnam war became the Second Indochina War. On April 24 and 25 representatives of the four movements of the Indochinese Left convened at a certain spot in south China to seal an alliance that had been contracted many years before by three of the movements-the North Vietnamese Lao Dong, the Pathet Lao and the South Vietnamese National Liberation Front (NLF)-and to which Prince Sihanouk, overthrown a month earlier by the Cambodian Right, was now adhering in a conspicuously unconditional manner. The Indochinese revolutionary front thus came into being.

Five days later, President Nixon announced the entry into Cambodia of sizable American contingents backed up by South Vietnamese units. This operation, dubbed "Total Victory," was presented in Saigon as an attempt to wind up the war and be done with it. In this manner a strategy was defined which confuses the idea of victory with that of extending the conflict outside Vietnam. In the light of the disclosures made two weeks before by a subcommittee of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee regarding American participation in the fighting in Laos, the conclusion is inescapable that on April 30, 1970, the United States embarked on what is now the Second Indochina War.

Thus Richard Nixon became the first Republican President to increase the responsibilities of the United States on that Asian landmass into which Washington's best strategists have so often insisted that no American army must ever plunge. And the operation was launched under conditions that the worst enemies of the United States might have hoped for. "We must have two or three Vietnams!" Ernesto "Che" Guevara had trumpeted in 1967 in the name of the worldwide revolution. And there they are, from Luang Prabang to Kep: two or three Vietnams, that is to say, the whole of that territory of Indochina which French colonization seems, in retrospect, to have put together to serve as the framework for a revolutionary undertaking-a framework that is more open to Vietnamese energies than the restricted territory of Vietnam alone.

The very word "Indochina" was created by colonization and for colonization; the Danish-born geographer Malte-Brun coined the term in 1852. In 1887, an Indochinese administration was set up, under the authority of a governor general presiding sometimes in Saigon and sometimes in Hanoi, composed of the following elements-the colony of Cochin China in the south; the protectorates of Annam in the east, which retained a ceremonial sovereign residing in Hue, and of Tonkin, in the north, where an "imperial delegate" resided; and the kingdoms of Cambodia and Laos in the west, whose monarchical systems were left intact by the colonizers. This arrangement was a strange combination of three Vietnamese countries strongly marked by Chinese influence and Confucian historical tradition and the little kingdoms of the Mekong, which belong, rather, with the cultural sphere of India and are wholly dominated by the strictest form of Buddhism.

In concocting this amalgam of nations and civilizations, the French colonizers were, like their British rivals in Nigeria, attempting to set up the most economical kind of operation, one by which some of the colonized peoples are made to exploit the others. And to a large extent they succeeded. In Vietnam they managed to maintain a class of mandarins, which enabled them to develop an artful indirect kind of colonization. In Laos and Cambodia, a class made up of Vietnamese petty officials, small businessmen and artisans served as the motor of French colonization. In this way a relatively economical system of exploitation was established, and the three peoples to be dominated were, in appearance, lined up against one another.

In fact, the French colonizers overshot their objective; in spite of themselves they united, in a strange way, these three different peoples, at very dissimilar levels of development, and in so doing imposed on them a single historical framework which the revolutionaries are now making use of for their own purposes. Of course, the Vietnamese intermediaries did inspire ill feeling and hatred of the kind which recently exploded in Cambodia. But this ill-will does not appear to be great enough to deflect the three peoples from developing together on converging courses in the years to come.


This Indochinese concept, intimately bound up with history and with colonial methods, was, indeed, very quickly seized upon by the revolutionaries, who retained the framework imposed by their enemy the better to struggle against him. This was what one of the founders of the Vietminh dubbed one day the strategy of "the glove turned inside out."

On February 3, 1930, in Hong Kong, the Vietnamese Communist Party was founded; Ho Chi Minh (then Nguyen Ai Quoc) immediately became its top leader. But six months later the leader called his comrades together in another conference in the course of which he gave the party a new name, rechristening it the Indochinese Communist Party (ICP). It was after consulting with the leaders of the Third International that the future president of the Democratic Republic of North Vietnam reached this decision, which in his eyes had the merit of giving the revolutionary effort he had just launched a more international character. It is worth noting, moreover, that the program which Nguyen Ai Quoc promulgated at that time included the following aims: (1) to overthrow imperialism, feudalism and the reactionary bourgeoisie in Vietnam, and (2) to achieve the complete independence of Indochina. Thus the first strategist of communism in this region restored a distinction consonant with the inequalities of the three countries in terms of development by calling for a social revolution in Vietnam and a political one in the peninsula as a whole.

It must be admitted that this Indochinese strategy was for a long time quite artificial, since the ICP remained for many years essentially Vietnamese. And it must be noted that when the Laotians and Cambodians truly embarked on revolutionary action they founded their own organizations- the Pathet Lao for the first and the Pracheachon for the second.

It was on an almost exclusively Vietnamese basis that Ho Chi Minh and his comrades launched the revolution in 1945. In the two neighboring countries the independence movement was sparked by very diverse forces: in Cambodia, they were, at first, two traditionally educated intellectuals, Hiem Chieu and Son Ngoc Minh, and in Laos a curious triumvirate of half-brother princes: the feudalist Petsarath, the liberal Souvanna Phouma and the Marxist Souphanouvong. Very quickly, moreover, the Vietnamese revolutionaries were to set up cells within the Laotian movement, while in Cambodia the local revolutionaries were to conserve a much greater degree of autonomy.

In 1951, six years after the outbreak of the colonial war against France, the three Indochinese movements concluded a Viet-Lao-Khmer alliance for the purpose of preparing to extend the fighting to the whole of the peninsula. Two years later, indeed, General Giap, pinned down by the French expeditionary corps in the key zones of the deltas of the Red River and the Mekong, suddenly decided to widen the theater of operations and entice his enemies onto new battlefields. In April 1953 he drew the French general staff toward Laos, encouraging them little by little to think that that was the terrain on which they could smash him. Between November 1953 and May 1954 came the creation, then the resistance, and finally the collapse of the entrenched camp of Dienbienphu. In broadening the First Indochina War, Giap faced the loss of everything. (This was a lesson which American strategists do not seem to have remembered; I shall have more to say on the subject.)

The Geneva Conference in 1954 was to bring the First Indochina War to an end. The Indochinese front was not, indeed, much in evidence at those councils: since the revolutionary parties had not had sufficient time to coördinate their efforts, Laos and Cambodia were represented there by governments whose only wish was to separate their problems from those of Vietnam and to draw a veil over the existence on their territories of groups that were more or less Marxist. But these groups were to grow bigger in the course of the ensuing years, and at the second Geneva Conference, the one devoted to Laos in the summer of 1962, the Indochinese theme was invoked much more often. The delegate from North Vietnam, Ung Van Khiem, hinted that a neutralization of the Indochinese region would be salutary. He specifically excluded the Democratic Republic of North Vietnam from this, but left the door open for the future.

This idea was taken up again in a much more precise and interesting form in various programs promulgated by the National Liberation Front of South Vietnam, founded in December 1960, which went on record as favoring an alliance of neutral nations comprised of Cambodia, Laos and South Vietnam. It seems astonishing today that observers at the time did not take greater note of the very great originality of this program and the audacity it took for those South Vietnamese underground fighters to place their future within a framework in which, at least for a time, Cambodia and Laos would be closer to them than North Vietnam. Of course, for most of the American experts the NLF did not exist except as an echo of hypocritical orders dictated by Hanoi.

It was at the beginning of 1965, on the initiative of Prince Sihanouk, that Indochina emerged clearly as the major theme of all struggle against the American intervention and for political and economic reconstruction. On February 14, 1965, a "conference of Indochinese peoples" met in Phnom Penh. For Sihanouk this was most importantly an opportunity to have his country's frontiers guaranteed by the North Vietnamese and the NLF, whom he saw as the eventual victors and thus as his future neighbors. For Hanoi and the Front it was a chance to demonstrate the solidarity against imperialism of the revolution and neutralism, of the national masses and the national bourgeoisies, of the Vietnamese and their neighbors.

Geopolitical front, socio-economic alliance: at Phnom Penh were to be found all the factions opposed to American hegemony, from the intellectuals, mostly bourgeois and Catholic, of Tran Van Huu's "Committee for Peace and for the Renovation of South Vietnam" to the guerrilla fighters of the Pathet Lao and the bureaucrats of the Cambodian Sangkum. The major theme of the Phnom Penh meeting was the search for a formula for the neutralization of the whole of Indochina, the first step toward which might be an international conference like that of 1962, broadened to consider the future of the three countries. But the delegate from Hanoi, Hoang Quoc Viet, opposed this idea of Prince Sihanouk's: the bombardments of the North by the U.S. Air Force had just stiffened Hanoi's attitude still further. The Phnom Penh conference made no advance along the road to peace; but it confirmed and made manifest the "Indochinese" theme, and brought to light aspirations held in common by the most diverse delegations. It was, on this level, a success.

The American bombing of North Vietnam also contributed to the "materialization" of Indochina. It did this in three ways. First, the Vietnamese revolution, attacked at the very center of its strength, sought any and all means of hitting back, and all fronts thereafter became acceptable for striking a blow at the enemy. Secondly, this retaliation, with priority targets in South Vietnam, required a step-up in the transport of men and supplies from North to South by way of the Ho Chi Minh Trail, which goes through Laos for several hundred kilometers and through Cambodia for about a hundred. And finally, this aerial strategy gave an impetus to the increase of flights by American aircraft over the most diverse objectives-including, among others, frontiers; from this across a multiplicity of aerial incursions, in 1965 and 1966, which progressively nudged Cambodia into the war.

It was, however, in Laos that the greatest extension of the war outside the frontiers of Vietnam occurred. Since 1964-that is, since the actual dissociation of the neutralist coalition government formed in 1962, a sort of modus vivendi had been established, dividing the kingdom into two zones: in the west, seven provinces, from Luang Prabang to Savannaket, controlled (less and less) by the Vientiane government of Prince Souvanna Phouma, and to the east, from Sam Neua to the Cambodian frontier, five provinces controlled by the Pathet Lao and traversed by the Ho Chi Minh Trail. The double neutralization, both diplomatic and governmental, imposed by the 14 powers participating in the second Geneva Conference had thus given way to an actual partition.

After the halt of the bombings of North Vietnam in November 1968, however, the American bombers stepped up their raids on the Ho Chi Minh Trail linking North and South Vietnam across Laos and part of Cambodia. The frequency and amplitude of these bombings were described in a report of a Senate Foreign Relations subcommittee published in April 1970. Testifying before this subcommittee, Senator Stuart Symington declared that these raids had practically supplanted the raids over North Vietnam that had been halted, and revealed that the U.S. ambassador in Vientiane had the authority to order these bombings and specify where the bombs were to be dropped, which, according to the Senator from Missouri, made that diplomat virtually a "military proconsul." Directly challenged on this matter, former Ambassador Sullivan declared that since he had been replaced in Vientiane by his colleague Godley these bombing raids had doubled.

So Laos, where almost 40,000 North Vietnamese soldiers are permanently entrenched in a zone which covers almost half the country and against which the U.S. Air Force daily launches from 300 to 400 aerial strikes, has certainly been "in the war" for several years. But operations there took on a new dimension in February 1970, when the Pathet Lao, aided by its Vietnamese allies, overran the Plaine des Jarres, the strategic crossroads of the country, which the tacit partition of Laos had provisionally kept outside its sector. The strategic ascendancy of the communist forces was thus affirmed: it was becoming increasingly obvious that Prince Souphannouvong and his allies held the country in their hands, and that if they did not take either Vientiane or Luang Prabang it was in consequence of a political decision and not a strategic incapacity. (What is more, in spite of the redoubling of operations by the U. S. Air Force after the capture of the Plaine des Jarres, the Pathet Lao's military and political ascendancy grew still more, so that it was able, at the beginning of May, to take an important center in the south, Attopeu.)

But this strategic ascendancy has not been used (or not yet) by the leaders of the Pathet Lao in pursuit of "total victory." After his forces had seized the Plaine des Jarres, Souphanouvong sent his half-brother and rival Souvanna Phouma an offer to negotiate within the framework of the 1962 agreements, to the end of establishing a coalition government, restoring territorial unity and cutting short all foreign intervention. Obviously, the successes it had achieved in the course of the preceding months would enable the Pathet Lao to increase its demands and its share of power. But the situation of the Vientiane government was so bad that it accepted the principle of negotiation, with Washington's approval.

It will be up to future historians to find out whether or not this trend toward "appeasement" in Laos helped to set in motion the operation of March 1970 in Phnom Penh, and whether or not it was to prevent the initiation of a process which might have led to a generalized negotiation of Indochinese problems as a whole that the "ultras"-South Vietnamese, Cambodians, Thais (and perhaps, but not probably, Americans)-prepared and carried out the Phnom Penh coup d'état.


For it is, in any case, the Cambodian episode that has just given the war its true dimensions. We must inquire into the background of it, for the overlapping of strategic combinations and internal intrigue may throw light on the probable future evolution of Indochina as a whole. The affair began in the summer of 1966. Within a few weeks, the Sihanouk régime, which had managed until then to keep the kingdom out of the war and maintain a precarious balance at home between a feudal system adapted to the needs of a nascent capitalism and a progressive intelligentsia (very small in numbers but very active), found itself in a shaky condition at the very moment when the visit in August of General de Gaulle served to shore it up.

One may recall that General de Gaulle's speech at Phnom Penh caused a considerable stir. From then on, Sihanouk became the accomplice in what the entire anti-communist cause in Southeast Asia considered a most troublesome program. In their view, this outpost of Gaullist subversion had to go. In the end it was to be gotten rid of more easily than they imagined because Sihanouk's great ally in Paris was eliminated, and because his successors would turn out to be less attached to the policy General de Gaulle had defined in Phnom Penh.

But Sihanouk found himself on dangerous ground both internationally and at Phnom Penh. He had allowed his relations with Peking to degenerate, thus weakening himself in dealing with the Americans. At home, a few weeks after General de Gaulle's visit, general elections were held-elections which the Prince had wanted to be "freer" than such events had ever been before in Cambodia. The result was to bring a majority of influential landowners into the parliament. Khrner society became represented by those controlled by money and by feudal relationships. Sihanouk had wanted to pay tribute to democracy: instead, he placed the noose of feudalism around his neck.

In the next four years, his personal power was steadily eroded by private interests and those friendly to the Americans. At the same time, neutrality was encouraged and a start was made in establishing state control of the economy. In 1967, one of the leaders of the Left intelligentsia, Chau Seng, who under Sihanouk had held almost all the high offices except the ministries controlling the army and the police, warned the comrade-prince that intrigues were being brought to a boil by the chiefs of the former party of "national renovation," the traditional Right. The names of two of these had already been singled out: Prince Sirik Matak and General Lon Nol. Sihanouk had long been wary of the former and had sent him abroad from one embassy to another. But Lon Nol? He was a soldier, therefore disciplined; and since he was not even a prince, how could he possibly be ambitious enough to think of substituting himself for a descendant of the kings of Angkor?

From 1967 to 1969 Sihanouk, more and more responsive to pressures from the Right, seemed to be letting his relations with Peking become strained, allowing private interests to regain complete control over foreign commerce and banking, and launching a "red hunt" and an anti-Vietnamese campaign.

But why, in the fall of 1969, did Prince Sihanouk go so far as to entrust General Lon Nol with power three months before setting off on a long sojourn in France? Why did he thus entrust his régime to a man he had been warned against, and whose friendly relations with the West had long been known? This can be seen as an overestimation of his own charismatic power, which he believed to be so vast that he could wield it from afar. Or it can be seen as a sign of lassitude. Or it may be considered a Machiavellian trick. Like everyone else, Sihanouk was aware of the growth of the Vietnamese presence in his country. It is possible that in order to avoid having a direct confrontation with his associates, who were beginning to threaten his neutrality, he wanted to stand aside, leaving to General Lon Nol the chore of "cleaning out" Cambodia of the Vietnamese presence, to come back later with his hands clean and his country freer. This is only an hypothesis, but it cannot be completely discounted. One can be too subtle and be mistaken, not so much as to the objective as to the means used. Sihanouk underestimated either the ambition or the convictions of Lon Nol, and the influence of the general's friends in Saigon, if not in Washington.

Sihanouk, who was on the point of slipping into the Western camp, thus found himself abruptly recaptured by the party of revolution. This did not come about wholly by chance. With all his sudden changes of fortune and his diplomatic acrobatics, Norodom Sihanouk had fought almost constantly for over 15 years for peace and neutrality-a neutrality frankly oriented to the East and much more favorable to the interests of Peking and Hanoi than to those of the West. So it was not altogether surprising to find him at the opening of that curious conference of Indochinese revolutionaries which, as I said, was one of the two most obvious signs of the extension of the conflict, both ideologically and strategically, to the entire peninsula.


The inspiration for the Indochinese conference which convened on April 24, 1970, in a little village in southern China about a hundred kilometers south of Canton came as in 1965 from Norodom Sihanouk. But it was no longer 1965. And it was no longer the colorful, laughing leader, the "star" of Phnom Penh loaded down with unshared powers, the ironic virtuoso of diplomatic tightrope-walking between East and West, who met with the "serious" revolutionary chieftains of Vietnam and Laos. This was now an exile struggling to throw his rivals out of Phnom Penh, a leader flung back by a Rightist coup into the arms of the very same Khmers Rouges he had been hunting down three months before. He was now a revolutionary, and as such all the more radical for having been recently converted.

It was in a barracks guarded by soldiers in coarse blue uniforms and surrounded by barbed wire emplacements, a barracks which the Chinese hosts entered only to find out whether the visitors needed anything, that the four groups of Indochinese leaders met for two days. The atmosphere of these sessions, one of the participants informed me, was "brotherly." The chosen language was French, which is spoken perfectly by the lawyer Nguyen Huu Tho, president of the NLF, by the engineer Souphanouvong, the leader of the Pathet Lao, by the militant Marxist Pham Van Dong (the son of a mandarin) and by Prince Sihanouk. It was, another witness said, a meeting of "old Indochina hands," a phrase that is all the more colorful for being the same one used by aging French ex-colonials when they get together in some dusty, sunny café in Marseilles or Nice for nostalgic chats about the good old days.

The greater part of the conference was given over to drafting the final communiqué, a mixture of threats to the United States and its "lackeys," optimistic proclamations of "final victory," and rather prudent or moderate reminders of the concluding texts of the Geneva conferences, denounced long since by Peking as null and void. An amusing (or significant) incident occurred at the last session. Prince Souphanouvong was in the chair: he called in turn upon his Cambodian and South Vietnamese colleagues to speak. He was preparing to wind up the proceedings himself when Pham Van Dong protested: "You've forgotten me!" "Our friend has anticipated the unification of Vietnam," Prince Sihanouk remarked, making everybody laugh except the delegate from the NLF.

The most interesting themes developed at that conference seem to have been three. First came the affirmation of a very firm solidarity among the four movements-but a solidarity sufficiently flexible not to have led the chiefs of "red Indochina" (or those who aspire to being such) into creating a common combat structure. Second, there was the proclamation of the original nature of the different struggles and their diversity, from Hanoi to Phnom Penh and from Saigon to Vientiane. Clearly, Pham Van Dong and his delegation wanted to avoid the impression of being imperialists, or even excessively forceful federators. "They were very diplomatic," a witness told me, thinking perhaps that this diplomacy was not necessarily, in the long run, disinterested. And third, there was the reminder of the "neutralist" themes explicitly or implicitly formulated in the Geneva texts of 1954 and 1962, and in the political platforms of the NLF and the Pathet Lao (not to mention, of course, the Sihanouk "line")-theses which could be of use in later negotiations. So in proclaiming themselves certain of military victory the Indochinese leaders were careful to leave out any form of political settlement. Militant Indochina is, then, not just a war cry: it can also be a program for peace.


In the meantime, the war is spreading and wreaking havoc. What is most startling in President Nixon's decision of April 30 is its suicidal aspect. I am not speaking here about the consequences of this move for internal American politics, or about the effects it will have on relations between Washington and Moscow. I do not even wish to comment on the obvious contradiction between the two aspects of a strategy which claims that it will rapidly reduce the number of men fighting in the Asian war while it enlarges the field of battle. I prefer to confine myself to a more specifically Indochinese aspect of the question.

There is, first of all, what might be called the gift that has been made to General Giap. In all his steady stream of writings over the last 10 years or so, Hanoi's commander-in-chief has never ceased to assert that every extension of the field of battle serves the revolutionary interests. This is so, he explains, for two reasons: (1) because it is to the advantage of the side with the greater firepower and superior heavy equipment on the ground to concentrate the fighting, while it is obviously in the interest of the side with the greater mobility and lighter armament to break up the fighting and seek to enlarge the combat zone; and (2) because the revolutionaries basically count on the complicity and support of the people, whereas a foreign force has to devote a great deal of time and effort to winning over or controlling by force the people among whom the fighting is going on.

For months, observers had been wondering whether Giap would dare apply his own doctrine and himself extend the front and the battle-zones outside the areas of Vietnam within which he had been more or less held in check since the counterblow that stopped the Tet offensive of February 1968. Now it is his enemies who are spreading the fighting to all of Indochina, under conditions which, in Cambodia, are uniting the masses behind a prestigious political chief who is entering the fray against these enemies. Thus, the operation launched on April 30 seems to me to be contributing to the revolutionary unification of the old colonial Indochina.

Will such a united Indochina become the satellite of China? Mao's speech of May 20 gave many observers the impression that Peking was finally ripping off the mask and proclaiming China's right to control the Indochinese area, much as the Soviet Union held Eastern Europe in thrall after World War II. In my view, this interpretation is wrong. Of course the Chinese leader took the opportunity the Cambodian operation afforded him to attack in the harshest terms the American role of world policeman, and to rejoice in seeing American power entrapped in the Asian rice paddies. But it is noteworthy that his speech did not mention any precise threat or specific action. His appeal was to world revolution, for moral aid and approval, not a call for military escalation. It was a song of triumph rather than a warlike gesture.

The evolution of the Indochina war is the fulfillment of Peking's hopes. The character of the conflict more and more clearly illustrates the validity of the warning of Lin Piao regarding the strategy of countryside versus cities, i.e. what is happening in Laos and Cambodia is as it was in Vietnam. The Chinese strategists do not predict complete victory. Revolution in Indochina does not mean Chinese domination. But while a united Indochina, more or less inspired by Hanoi, cannot oppose China, it can limit Chinese expansion. At present, Indochina is fighting under a Chinese banner but its aim is to survive under its own colors.

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