The Hollow Order
Rebuilding an International System That Works
The situation in South Vietnam grew perceptibly more fluid in 1971. With the continuing withdrawal of U.S. forces, the reverses suffered by the South Vietnamese troops in southern Laos in the spring and the political crisis of the autumn, the Saigon régime weakened and "Vietnamization" was dealt a hard blow. The structure which had stood for three years buttressed by American military power revealed its fragility at the very moment when public opinion in Vietnam and in the United States was showing ever- increasing war-weariness. As the American grip gradually loosened, unrest spread in a society overwhelmed by the disorder of the times, for which war had become a way of life. Even before the American military engagement was definitely coming to its end, the rhythm of public life had begun to change. It was as if South Vietnam were preparing to search-with much effort and difficulty, to be sure-for a new balance.
The institutions established in 1967 confronted their first real test in the presidential election of October 1971-a test which they did not pass with any noticeable success. The Constitution was flouted by the adoption of a bill designed to set aside the candidacy of Vice President Ky, who since the beginning of 1971 had acted as a catalyst in the political arena. When General Duong Van Minh withdrew from the contest, however, a fresh manipulation of the law by the Supreme Court was unable to revive Ky's candidacy. At this point, President Thieu preferred-with resigned American acquiescence-to maintain his now unique candidacy for the presidency; thus he was perfectly prepared to offend a majority of the voters, beginning with the Catholics. Perhaps the régime would have fared no better in a genuinely contested election. In any case, the imposing percentage (94.3 percent of the votes cast) to which Thieu treated himself strengthened neither his position nor the credit of a Constitution which the population had hardly been allowed to take seriously. The question, in fact, was not whether or not the South was ready for democracy, but whether political life could make itself felt within the framework of institutions imposed on the generals, nearly five years earlier, by their American protectors.
Once his two adversaries were no longer running for office, President Thieu displayed more concern for the maintenance of order than for the democratic façade of his régime. In September, and indeed up to the day of the balloting, the larger towns witnessed a deployment of police forces which bore no relation to the size of the anti-government and anti-American demonstrations which had begun to occur. The capital had been divided into sectors by a disposition of security forces which easily dispersed the sporadic manifestations organized by students and disabled veterans. More serious incidents took place elsewhere-particularly at Danang on election day-but on the whole, the police maintained their control of the situation without difficulty.
In fact, faced with the arrogance of power, the politicized groups proved indecisive, as if the possibility of challenge had not occurred to them. The Catholic establishment, with its considerable influence, was concerned, above all, to disassociate itself from the candidacy of President Thieu. The Church, with some three million communicants-one of every seven inhabitants of the South-feared that it would be suspected a second time of complicity in an unpopular experiment, as had been the case in 1963 with Ngo Dinh Diem. Originally, the Church had wanted Thieu's reëlection, but only as a result of a genuine contest.
In June, before the promulgation of the electoral law which was to result in the elimination of General Ky, one of the most respected Catholic politicians informed the head of state that the enactment of this law would be disastrous. In August, at the conclusion of the congress of prelates, Monseigneur Pham Ngoc Chi explained to one of the President's advisers that a narrow victory over his two principal rivals would be preferable to a victory with no opponents. However, when the Catholic hierarchy realized that these efforts were pointless, the Archbishop of Saigon invited the faithful to "act according to their conscience" on election day in October. The Church, more divided but less vulnerable than eight years earlier, called for neither participation nor abstention.
The attitude of the Buddhists-particularly those of the An-Quang pagoda-was from the outset one of greater mistrust. After all, the régime in Saigon had only been able to establish itself after the successful repression of the insurrection incited by the bonzes at Hué and at Danang in 1966. The Buddhists, who are generally supposed to number some one million persons, returned to the public arena in the partial senatorial election of 1970 (their list, headed by Vu Van Mau, led the election), and in the election to the House of Representatives of August 1971. With some 25 to 30 sympathizers sitting in the new assembly they control over a sixth of the votes in the legislature. They even seemed ready to support the presidential candidacy of General Minh.
That they congratulated themselves for his withdrawal, and later invited the voters to boycott the presidential ballot, without calling on them for any public demonstration, underlines the marginal role they played at that time. Their following was strong only in the northern provinces of the South. Their miscalculations from 1963 to 1966 seemed to suggest they were afraid of pulling the chestnuts from the fire for someone else, specifically for the Catholics. Finally, their politico-religious apparatus was only slowly rebuilding, and they still felt too feeble to confront a well-established régime which this time was enjoying the benefits of American support.
General Minh withdrew from the presidential contest to avoid "window- dressing," lending his presence to an exercise he characterized as an "odious farce" organized by President Thieu's "giant machine." General Ky acted much as General Minh had, advancing almost identical arguments. But once these positions were established, the two men found themselves somewhat beyond their depth. "Big Minh" is no politician; he had acquired his popular credit as president of the military junta which, in 1963, disposed of Diem's dictatorship. Furthermore, he felt paralyzed by the mistrust his personality had aroused in many Catholic circles, and feared that one day he might be accused of fomenting disorder. Vice-President Ky, on the other hand, had assured himself of support among the Catholics and from the Army. President Thieu undoubtedly expected this rival to take a false step. But Ky was wise enough to avoid making any before polling day.
In South Vietnam, when an "élite" refuses to play its assigned role-both as a link and as a buffer between the power at the top and the aspirations of the people-public life immediately feels the change. With the beginning of the government crisis in August 1971, the Saigonese public-almost unanimous in its condemnation of President Thieu-none the less proved that it had "no common denominator." This reality had been perceptible much earlier, but final recognition of it came as rather a shock to public opinion even though it had been aware, since the unfortunate Laotian expedition, that the system was showing signs of exhaustion. In Vietnam, public consciousness is ready to let a great deal go unchallenged, but it also possesses a very acute awareness of even the slightest change. It is no accident that since last September, President Thieu has adopted a sharply defensive tone, as if he were trying to justify political man?uvres or a military undertaking.
When one considers the decade of American military intervention in Vietnam, 1969 and 1970 stand out as its two most successful years. In 1968, having repulsed the Vietcong attacks on cities and towns during the first six months of that year, the Americans and South Vietnamese continued their push. Prepared to risk considerable destruction, they managed to reestablish their control over the productive countryside. From that time it became possible to install an administration, to strengthen the South Vietnamese army, to begin the first withdrawals of American troops, and, somewhat later, in the spring of 1970, to mount an expedition against the North Vietnamese and Vietcong "sanctuaries" in eastern Cambodia. Despite its flaws-particularly in the economic and social spheres-the system at that time seemed to be moving along under its own impetus.
In 1971, the picture was somewhat modified. Operation Lam-Son 719 in southern Laos and the simultaneous expedition into northeastern Cambodia had undoubtedly forced the Indo-chinese revolutionaries to defend their lines of communications and "sanctuaries" in the heart of the peninsula as a matter of priority. They were forced to pay a high price for this. But on the South Vietnamese side, these large-scale operations beyond the frontiers undoubtedly dealt a blow to the morale of the army. Saigon had lent its general reserves to the Laotian operation (paratroops, marines and rangers) as well as its first infantry division and several additional units. All of these were seriously hurt on the Ho Chi Minh trail. Before the end of the rainy season, elements of five other divisions had been engaged in heavy fighting on the Highlands in the regions of Snoul and Krek in Cambodia, and on the edge of the forest of U-Minh in the extreme south of Vietnam. In other words, ten large units, four of them élite units, suffered relatively heavy losses within a period of nine months.
The decline of morale was not reflected in a sudden increase in the desertion rate, or in gestures of revolt, but rather in growing demoralization of the spirit. For example, the paratroop division, several of whose battalions were broken up in Laos, has since regained its strength, both in men and equipment. But some of its officers feel that if they had to leave Saigon and the third military region today to fight in the area of Khesanh a high percentage of troops would melt away.
Last August, a regiment of the ninth light infantry division stationed in the Delta, between two branches of the Mekong, was scheduled to be sent as reinforcements to the demilitarized zone. This prospect was so badly received that the General Staff gave it up. Many soldiers who had settled their families in this relatively calm sector and had, in many cases, set up small businesses near the military camps, would have gone into hiding for the necessary period of time rather than to be flown to the North, which was thought of as hell.
After the marines too had suffered losses on the Ho Chi Minh trail, they were not allowed to recuperate in Saigon, undoubtedly because this division was commanded by an ally of Marshal Ky. In fact, these marines were used repeatedly in operations near the demilitarized zone. If one can believe South Vietnamese sources, their actual strength was reduced by one-half in October, and their morale was certainly not very high.
For the most part, guarding the frontiers became the responsibility of the South Vietnamese army. In many areas there was a noticeable slackening of effort. Night patrols were abandoned and soldiers increasingly avoided contact with the enemy. As the enemy took pains to remain hidden, information about their movements became even less precise than before. Far from American eyes, junior officers displayed less dynamism and fell more easily into routine performance. As for the leadership of the army, it was certainly not improved by political promotions.
The military cliques which had fought each other for power for nearly four years (1964-1967) seemed no closer to self-reform. But divisions were now commanded for the most part by colonels or anonymous acting generals who felt somewhat left to themselves by the political powers. With neither the faults nor the positive qualities of their better-known predecessors, they tended, for better or worse, to stick to well-worn paths. This became clear during the dry season of 1970-71, when the army, repeating an earlier error, began resettling the Montagnard population of the Central Highlands against the counsel of their American advisers. The operation was halted before it was finished, but the harm was already done.
If the incursion into the Ho Chi Minh trail resulted in the loss of precious time for the insurgents, the blow to the South Vietnamese army's head seemed to shake its entire body. Since then, regular South Vietnamese units have found themselves fighting hard in widely spaced but murderous attacks by small communist commando units operating under cover of a mortar or rocket barrage. The avowed objective of the insurgents is to damage the morale of the best units, attacking them when the occasion presents itself.
Through attacks of sappers and by using long-range fire, the Vietcong kept to their tactics of conserving their forces. But if, on the military plane, they were still far from having regained the upper hand, 1971 had brought them advances which would be valuable in the future. From Saigon's viewpoint, the most optimistic assessment is that the Americans will probably repatriate in 1972 at least half of their fighter planes, helicopters and heavy artillery. And, in the event of a heavy blow, these are precisely the elements which make a difference, i.e. by assuring the mobility and security of the Saigon forces, as was seen in October during the battle of Krek. Increasingly deprived of these assets-even if Washington decides to maintain a residual force in the South-Saigon could be forced to abandon not only northeast Cambodia, which was done in 1971, but equally a large part of the Central Highlands of South Vietnam. The war has become for Saigon what it has long been for the Vietcong, a matter of priority within an increasingly limited choice of investments. When will Saigon abandon large-scale operations in the mountains or in uninhabited areas?
The situation in the inhabited countryside will no doubt remain ambiguous. Official "pacification" statistics probably never reflected the reality of daily life, whether in the flooded rice-paddies of the Mekong Delta or in the small enclosed valleys of the central Vietnamese Highlands. However, after the heavy fighting of 1968, life in those areas was reorganized around a military administration which was not always competent but which at least had the advantage of a presence and its own methods of coercion. Notably in the Mekong Delta, the peasants have gradually grown accustomed- in a universe of barbed wire replacing the bamboo stakes of former times-to sending their children to the self-defense militia, sometimes planting Philippine "miracle rice," negotiating with the village chief, who was more often than not "elected," and paying somewhat less heed than they had done before to Vietcong tax collectors and American air raids.
The Vietcong, however, have never been reduced to wandering bands continuously harried by the forces of order. And they have since proved that "pacification" remains, at least in certain sectors, a fragile experience. On March 28, for example, they suddenly struck Cang-Long, one of the principal towns in the relatively tranquil Delta province of Vinh- Binh. This lightning night attack resulted in 74 dead and hundreds wounded among the military, the police, civil servants and their families. The 300 men of the Ninth South Vietnamese Division, who usually contributed to the protection of Cang-Long, were at that moment in Cambodia. A few other attacks have been launched since then, illustrating equally the permanence and the limitations of the Vietcong in populated regions.
The most equivocal situation is still that of the first military region, which has been most affected by the war. If the régime has been able to impose its military administration, reopen the principal roads and even the railway (Hué-Danang) and start a certain amount of cultivation once again in the countryside, this has all happened in the shelter of the powerful American military shield. It is in fact in the five northernmost provinces of South Vietnam that the United States has made its major war effort.
But this support has not been enough for the political power to take root even in the larger towns. Last September, in Danang as in Hué, the pagodas once again became central rallying points. Whatever their sentiments toward communism may be, the general population of these towns seems to have remained mistrustful of Saigon and hostile toward the Americans. These two large urban centers, like other towns on the coast-particularly Qui-Nhon- are forbidden to U.S. personnel because the smallest incident could set off an explosion of hatred. With the withdrawal of the last U.S. combat troops, probably before next summer, the urban centers will once again begin to withdraw into themselves, as the Vietcong slowly reëstablishes itself in the coastal plains of central Vietnam, especially the plain of Binh-Dinh.
The fragility of some of the programs launched by Saigon three years ago can be illustrated by the recent evolution of an experiment of considerable importance-the people's self-defense force. Those who have contributed most are supposed to enjoy military deferment once they reach the draft age of 18. The idea is not to keep persons too young or too old to stand guard alone at night in their villages and incorporated into the militia. These men can enjoy the advantages of continuing their work and remaining with their families, without running the risks attendant on serving in the regular army.
But, in certain locations, reality has diverged considerably from theory, with officers selling deferments to militia men. If members of the militia do not have the means to buy these deferments-which is often the case-they must then join the army or the regional forces. Sometimes, particularly in the Mekong Delta, some of these militia men prefer to join the Vietcong-a solution which seems to them to have a triple advantage: the risks are lower (free-fire zones have practically disappeared), they do not have to go so far from their homes and families, and they retain the possibility of revenge on the officials who abused their powers.
In the urban centers, the people's self-defense forces have never been very popular. Parents dislike seeing their children escape from their control for part of the night to play at soldier with real guns and undoubtedly to be exposed to pernicious influences. These young militia also receive a poor press. Rather than see this arrangement as a flexible form of civilian participation in an armed struggle, the general population is inclined to view it as an additional source of disorder and of government interference with family life.
The only militia properly organized are those with a religious base, in sections of the country which are predominantly Catholic, Buddhist, Cao- daist or Hoa-Hao. But the government would probably be wrong to see a guarantee for the future in the size of the enrollment in these areas. In these particular cases, in periods of crisis, religious adherence counts for more than submission to the central power.
As time goes on, the administration of the provinces is being turned over to officials produced by the Vung-Tau School of Rural Development, and by the National Institute of Administration (INA) in Saigon. These men were placed under the command of higher officers personally chosen by President Thieu, with more regard for their political allegiance than to their competence. According to its own officials, the School of Rural Development has not reached the level set when it was founded. As for the INA, it is run by former members of the Dai-Viet (the party of Greater Vietnam), which has since formed a "progressive party," the Cap-Tien, and which holds rather rigid views on public life. Also, however well these government programs may have been conceived, the mediocrity of their administration has often slowed down their execution or distorted their aims. As the American advisers play a decreasingly prominent role, accommodation with the Vietcong has become more frequent than it was two years ago.
For example, last August, during the campaign for the legislative elections, the chief of one of the provinces in the Mekong Delta let his subordinates know that he was more interested in defeating the opposition candidates than in the methods they might employ to assure the security and calm of their respective districts. The opposition candidates were effectively trounced. Another type of accommodation with the enemy seems to be taking shape in the marginal provinces, where economic progress is in singular contrast to the absence of security, at least for the Americans. Observers agree that this phenomenon has become more and more frequent. As a sector reconstructs itself and commerce develops once again, the risk for the Americans of moving about unprotected grows accordingly, even along the principal highways. And this is true even in provinces where refugees from the North, most often Catholics, make up a large part of the population.
The Vietcong and the North Vietnamese certainly understood very well the benefits they might reap from this evolution when they invited their adherents to fill the void left by the withdrawal of U.S. troops, to reinforce local guerrillas, to recruit deserters, to reconstruct the political infrastructure and to increase the number of "legal cadres," i.e. those who had infiltrated the ranks of the Saigon administration and army.
The communists estimate that since 1968 the U.S. military intervention in Indochina has been passing from the phase of "regional warfare" to that of "expanded special warfare": the withdrawal of American troops has begun, the air raids on the North are now only occasional, and the South Vietnamese Army has undertaken incursions into Cambodia and Laos under U.S. aerial protection and with U.S. logistical support. In their eyes, the struggle is far from over but is gradually changing its character, and their own strategy must reflect this change. It is the art of guerrilla warfare, which has been a Vietnamese tradition for several centuries and which draws its strength from its flexibility, which has allowed them to survive, ready to abandon a schema of classic revolutionary warfare, to disperse their large units for better protection, and to plan others which are smaller and have precise tasks-in short, to conceive of ways to counter this "expanded special warfare" which, in default of a Dien Bien Phu, Washington is imposing on them.
The time for conventional warfare is perhaps over now. Increasingly deprived of their American "motor," the South Vietnamese army will have fewer and fewer means for mounting large operations against "sanctuaries" and enemy infiltration routes. On the other hand, in so far as U.S. air power will intervene, the Indochinese revolutionaries will be forced to select their objectives with great care. They will probably turn once again to their commando units of gunners and sappers. And they will place greater emphasis on "exacerbating the internal contradictions of the Saigon administration," that is to say, on the political, economic and social aspects of their struggle.
Since 1970, they have been more and more openly sanctioning the action of anti-government movements in towns, and certain broadcasts of Radio Liberation, their clandestine station, are reminiscent of aspects of the Saigon press. In December 1970, the Prime Minister of North Vietnam, Pham Van Dong, had outlined an analysis of the struggle, which he considered a parallel struggle, led by the Vietcong on the one hand and certain non- communist urban pressure groups on the other "Everyone is fighting," he stated, "according to the slogans which are essentially those of the provisional government. It is no accident if we coincide."
In this spirit, and if the isolation of President Thieu continues, soon we may well be hearing again of an organization like the Lien Minh, the alliance of national, democratic forces for peace, created by a handful of intellectuals originating for the most part in Hué and Saigon, who joined the insurgents during the Tet offensive of 1968, and who have had their representatives inside the provisional government since its formation in June 1969. In a phase of military withdrawal, the Lien Minh could act only as a supplementary instrument of the National Liberation Front (NLF). But in a period of confusion or of repression, it could become what it should have been at its inception : an organ of communication between the insurgents and the urban intelligentsia. In this capacity it could advance a dialogue between the Vietcong and part of the Saigon political community. Some contacts have already taken place; but it is hard to judge their importance.
In any case, the summons launched by Nguyen Huu Tho on the eve on the presidential election of October 3 indicates that some thought had been given to moving in this direction. The President of the N.L.F. called for the "immediate" formation of a "unified anti-imperialist and anti-Thieu front." Even if this still seems premature, the division among the Saigon political types opposing Thieu could, if they persist, contribute to the growth of the present political void. Such a situation would, no doubt, incite the most radical factions of certain movements (including the Buddhists and the Catholics) to seek future guarantees-no longer from the retiring Americans, but from the Vietcong, who have certainly been weakened but who remain.
In any predictions concerning postwar life-and the fighting is far from over-economic factors will play a determinant role. During the first six months of 1972, the American presence will change not only its dimensions but also its character. The presence of such a weight, superimposed on an essentially agricultural economy, has fatally produced an economy controlled by the Americans and condemned to failure should U.S. support be suddenly withdrawn. After six years of heavy fighting and extensive destruction, a series of urban ghettos have sprung up. They now contain at least half the population, whereas in 1960 the country was still 85 percent rural. By 1968-69, the U.S. expeditionary force resembled a trunk whose sap was feeding millions of parasites, for the most part refugees. The sap is now circulating less and less freely, the trunk is drying out, and the parasites are threatened with the necessity of going to seek nourishment elsewhere.
The state, whose budget is more than half covered by American aid, finds itself burdened with an imposing load. In a country of less than 18 million inhabitants it has to pay a million military salaries, and 200,000 salaries to civil servants. The Veterans' Ministry-whose expenses this year are second after defense-administered 700,000 pensions in the autumn of 1971 to incapacitated veterans, war widows and orphans, and relatives of soldiers killed in combat. During the current fiscal year (1971-72), the national budget in principle should not exceed 300 billion piastres. In fact, once the necessary adjustments have been made, it will probably exceed 350 billion.
Without adequate means (taxes produce very little; exports are insignificant; and with the repatriation of American soldiers a source of income is drying up) the state has, for several years, been obliged to neglect important sectors such as education and health. There are, however, two gleams on the horizon: in 1971, inflation was less severe than in previous years, and the output of rice increased sufficiently so that within a year or two rice imports can be stopped, if the means of distribution can be somewhat reorganized.
But even the maintenance of a relatively high level of U.S. economic aid, direct as well as indirect, does not constitute a sufficient guarantee for the future. There is the risk that in 1972 inflation will become even more rapid, affecting first those with fixed incomes, soldiers and civil servants, which explains in part the high percentage of desertions and the bad conduct of the army, as well as administrative corruption. The withdrawal of U.S. troops, like the progressive closing of repair yards and other centers of activity stimulated by the American presence, will continue to affect many sources of supplementary income and nourish hidden unemployment. It remains to be seen whether or not this will exacerbate political and social tensions and bring society dangerously close to the breaking point.
This accumulation of political, economic and military difficulties could easily confront the country with a threat of anarchy. Premonitions of this abound. Rarely attending school and deprived of the security of their homes, young people in towns often join gangs led by deserters. The police, to a large degree, are recruited from those who have the means to avoid military service. Corruption in the army and in the public services is rampant. Schoolboys speak of going down into the street to "fight the cops" (the most commonly heard expression during the September demonstrations). Pressure groups are multiplying-invalids, unions, various associations-and, with the distribution of hundreds of thousands of firearms, many of which are available on the black market, their actions often approach the edge of banditry. Last October, for example, crippled war veterans with guns in their hands held nine American soldiers hostage following an incident near Danang. Finally, perhaps even more disquieting, certain rumors are becoming uncontrollable. While imposing a quasi-unanimity, the reflected President is obliged to face up to a triple process of disintegration, demoralization and disaffection.
The Vietnamese do not judge a man by his ideas alone but first of all by the possibilities inherent in his policies. If Generals Ky and Minh cannot free them of President Thieu, one of them asked, why should people entrust their fate to them when confronting the Vietcong? This question applies equally well to the head of state. If his production of last October is a parade in order to prepare for a new act, he will have a chance to preserve some influence. But if it is simply a question of succeeding himself, or of consolidating his power, he will be just one more condemned man with a temporary stay of execution. More precisely, if this last hypothesis is correct he will be a man of the past, and his remaining in power will be regarded as an anachronism which must be removed when the opportunity presents itself.
The South Vietnamese have adapted themselves to the American presence. Some even approved and requested it. But public opinion has never accepted it, and that is what counts. Since the outset, the misunderstanding has been that where the Americans saw commitments on the part of their Vietnamese collaborators there were at best loose arrangements. The U.S. presence has always been felt as a mortgage on the national sovereignty rather than its guarantee, whatever any declared intentions might be, and, as was underscored by Paul Mus, history teaches that "no race has been able to resist the thrust of the Vietnamese, any more than any force has been able to exhaust their tenacious grasp of land." In addition, the Vietnamese people by war have traditionally proved themselves to themselves as well as to others. The refusal to give up, like the nonacceptance of a foreign body or a body felt to be foreign, explains why the U.S. intervention could not force the alternative which was its objective, but could only create-to borrow another expression from Paul Mus-a "suspension" which would doubtless last as long as the Americans had the means to refuse to recognize their mistaken game.
The misunderstanding became envenomed with the divergence of political behavior. A Saigonese with a thorough understanding of his countrymen recently remarked, "In the innermost being of every Vietnamese, even the purest, lurks a devious, lying Annamite." But the counterpart to this exists clearly and precisely too. As Ho Chi Minh said, "In Vietnam, even traitors are patriots." When the climate is not favorable to change, when confused popular aspirations lack a guide or a spokesman, or when the existing system has not yet exhausted its vitality, it is the "lying Annamite," a soft, accommodating personage, who carries the day in an atmosphere of apparent passivity. But when a page of history seems to be turning-and the signs of American withdrawal are an everyday reality-the "lying Annamite" withdraws in favor of another Vietnamese who is sharp and intransigent. What one might take for excessive versatility is in fact simply the reflection of this transformation. As an extreme case, it is perhaps in this way that one should explain the transformation of a man like General Ky.
"It is not opportunism," Paul Mus explains, "but rather a different intellectual rhythm." And he added this fundamental interpretation: "The moment a virtue-or we could say system-appears to be exhausted, and one can see that another is about to be substituted, earlier abuses, which had until then seemed tolerable, appear in an entirely new light. Then and only then the moment arrives when, with the help of the new principles, one must try to remedy those abuses. Thus, an attitude of intolerance succeeds extreme patience. Formerly, everything had been tolerated; now, nothing is. This is so because, very precisely, former values are no longer relevant."[i]
We are not yet quite at this stage. The "intellectual rhythm" is undoubtedly changing, but the other "system" about to "be substituted," in place of the preceding one cannot yet be clearly distinguished. The populace still prefers a "wait and see" attitude to a directionless activism. However, the apparent calm is no longer the expression of a genuine torpor, but rather of a suppressed anger, an accumulating tension, a growing repression of instinct (the introverted Vietnamese world can maintain a façade for a long time). The public attitude passes into a depressive phase-which is probably the most fitting word to describe the atmosphere prevalent in Saigon during the past September and October. This explains why public life is so subject to outbursts, which mark the end of a cycle and forecast the renewed cohesion of a world which can only be conceived as a whole.
Finally, to complete the picture, one must not forget that in the days of French colonization, "popular expectations were always ready to turn into insurrectionary movements."[ii] This seems an equally valid characterization of the public attitude toward the present insurrection.
At the moment, when the U.S. military phase seems to be ending-it is no longer a question of principle but of method-these elements assume more importance. South Vietnam will undoubtedly appear for a time to be ungovernable, to be heading toward a period of fresh political and social turmoil. But this period will have a sense of direction and permanent, well- founded values, particularly the society's desire to cohere, and thus to shed the skin of the "lying Annamite." The social whole will reform with increasing momentum. Already, society is beginning to listen to political poets, tellers of tales, unemployed intellectuals like Trinh Cong Son: people who celebrate "yellow skin" (the Vietnamese), "the motherland" or, more simply, peace. It is as if, when the crisis arrives, the masses need to understand, to seek the real culprit, the cause of the unrest.
The outline of a settlement even seems to be in the cards and generally accepted. In return for their military withdrawal, the United States will obtain from Hanoi the liberation of its prisoners. The government, almost any government claiming "national unity," will succeed President Thieu, and will be charged, in the South, with working out a compromise with the Vietcong. On this basis, President Nixon will be able to continue postponing a negotiated settlement, but it is difficult to see how he will be able to evade that fact indefinitely.
This second Indochina war has not produced any heroes, an observation which applies equally to the Vietnamese and to the Americans. But for the former it was mainly a question of survival. In the South, those who are currently playing leading roles on both sides, are, for the most part, transitional men. The future-in five or ten years-lies with a new generation which is already partially engaged in the political apparatus, but whose members are not yet well known: political commissioners, Vietcong cadres on the intermediate level, bonzes, priests, and young Saigonese politicians and technocrats.
Whether President Thieu clings to power or renounces it, whether he succeeds in negotiating his departure (for example, in return for a ceasefire), or if he is turned out-in short, whether or not he is party to the negotiations-is more a matter of form than of substance. In return, the police and military personnel of Saigon will soon find themselves once again faced with responsibility. If they wish to play the leading role to which they claim to aspire, they must simultaneously channel and express popular sentiment Such a victory over self is the price for achieving a leading role in the new cycle which will soon begin, and in which the élite will be able to justify its existence. If this does not happen, the current "popular expectation," which is still more or less passive, will turn toward those who will be left after such a failure, i.e. the only coherent rallying point: the Vietcong and their fellow travelers.
History, for the South Vietnamese, was not stopped by the intervention of the United States, and is not, therefore, preparing to resume its course. It is simply that the U.S. interference, and hence its failure, suspended the normal tempo. In reaction, the South Vietnamese will probably not explode; rather, a certain form of equilibrium will be established among themselves. Meanwhile, they will suddenly have such need of this Vietnam which is their inheritance, and will feel so frustrated and guilty at not yet repossessing it, that they will take it back in a spirit of rage, which could translate itself for a time-but only for a time-into a blaze of anti- Americanism.
As for the time it will take and the new trials that must be endured and the political system that must be conceived-these are important considerations, but are no longer in their eyes vital. One should, perhaps, turn again to Paul Mus. As early as 1952, looking at a Vietnamese household- an old man, his daughter, and his two grandsons-he remarked: "Look at that group, which in itself forms a nest. Look at these people, living at the lowest poverty level, at this old man who, despite his poverty, has the face of an Aesop, and at this little boy, with the face of a prince. . . . Can one say that these people have no sense of their nationality? That is all they have. But what have we done for them? And what will we do?"
Who has been to Vietnam and has not felt this strongly, at least once? And how can one fail to add, 20 years later: but what have we done since then to understand and respect them?
[i] Paul Mus, "Viêt-Nam: Sociologie d'une Guerre," Paris: Seuil, 1952.