China on the Offensive
How the Ukraine War Has Changed Beijing’s Strategy
Viewed through Vietnamese lenses, Vietnam has always been the center of the world and Indochina the center of the universe. And in the late 1960s, it seemed as if America shared that peculiar vision of the world. The war in Vietnam became the scar on the national psyche. It dominated our national agenda, flickering into our living rooms each night through television, fueling a series of firestorms of protest, laying the groundwork for the dislocations that still hobble the nation's economy, driving thousands of young Americans into exile and an American President from office. In the end, 2.6 million Americans served in that far-off land and 56,000 died there in what had become, without our quite knowing why, the nation's longest war.
Since the signing of the Vietnam peace agreement in Paris and the return of the last American prisoner of war 21 months ago, however, the war in Vietnam has faded rapidly from the national consciousness. With a few notable exceptions, our newspapers no longer carry stories from Saigon; it has been nearly two years since an American President has even been asked a question about Vietnam at a news conference. To all intents, Vietnam seems to be slipping back into what John Kenneth Galbraith called "the obscurity it so richly deserves."
Yet, in reality, the war in Vietnam is far from being finished. Nor, it seems to me, has the question of American involvement in the war finally been answered. In the 23 months since the ceasefire, nearly 100,000 Vietnamese soldiers and civilians of all political persuasions have been killed. Furthermore, instead of a general decline in the level of hostilities on the battlefield and the slow beginnings of a political dialogue between non-Communists and Communists, the exact opposite appears to be happening. In both Paris and Saigon, political talks between the two sides remain indefinitely suspended while on the battlefield the tempo of combat has begun to accelerate. The number of incidents in August of this year, for example, was nearly twice that of August 1973. That the war goes on should surprise no one-least of all the signatories of the Agreement on Ending the War and Restoring Peace in Vietnam. The drafters of a peace agreement who make careful provision for the resupply of the materials of war can hardly have been persuaded that real peace was a likelihood.
To be sure, the peace agreement did bear fruit for all concerned. For the United States, it brought back the POWs and ended the American air involvement. For the North Vietnamese and the Provisional Revolutionary Government, it removed the remaining American ground forces and ended U.S. air support. For South Vietnam, it left the Saigon government, and President Nguyen Van Thieu personally, in charge of a sizable governmental apparatus. Nonetheless, an agreement that failed to answer the basic question of the war, namely who was to hold political power, could scarcely have been expected to lead to anything but a continuation, and possibly a gradual re-escalation, of the war.
Thus, almost inevitably, President Ford, the Congress and, in the final analysis, the American people will be called upon in the coming months to face once again the agonizing dilemma of Vietnam. Given the fact that U.S. aid is instrumental in providing both the economic underpinnings of political stability and the arms and ammunition for the battlefield, should the United States slightly reduce, maintain, or even increase its aid to Vietnam? Or has the "decent interval" sometimes mentioned by Henry Kissinger already occurred, so that the United States should in the next few years incrementally reduce its aid to Saigon to near zero-a policy of benign neglect that would certainly cause the collapse of South Vietnam as we now know it? Given the fact that neither the South Vietnamese nor the North Vietnamese seem capable of implementing the Paris peace agreements by themselves, does the United States have any residual responsibility for initiating another great-power effort to reimplement or redefine the accords? Or should we not save our limited negotiating assets in dealing with the Russians and Chinese for such other pressing problems as the Middle East, SALT or Taiwan?
Any answers to questions such as these demand a look backward into South Vietnam's most recent past, specifically the Vietnam years of the first Nixon Administration. This is important, I think, because for most Americans the learning process about Vietnam stopped abruptly with the Tet offensive of 1968, frozen on the frame of Saigon's chief of police executing a prisoner or of the American embassy under siege. Many, if not most, Americans view the American involvement in Vietnam as something that went from bad to worse and achieved nothing. As a result, not enough attention has been paid to the rather remarkable degree of success achieved by the Nixon Administration on the ground in Vietnam, a strategy of success largely crafted by the late General Creighton Abrams and, to a lesser extent, by Ambassador Ellsworth Bunker.
This is not an attempt to defend that strategy, but simply an attempt to portray the realities. I thought at the time, and still think, that President Nixon could have negotiated in 1969 a settlement very similar to the one he finally produced in 1973. Had peace come to Vietnam in 1969, it would have saved the lives of nearly 21,000 Americans and of many, if not most, of the estimated 600,000 Vietnamese killed between 1969 and the end of 1972;1 it would have brought the prisoners of war of all sides home four years earlier; and, in the more cold-blooded terms of American interests in Southeast Asia, it would have prevented the extension of the war into Cambodia and the enlargement of the war in Laos. In retrospect, however, it is clear that in choosing to adopt a strategy of first building up Vietnam and then negotiating from a position of strength, the Nixon Administration did, at least in the short run, change the realities of power in South Vietnam. Indeed, in the end many of the things that American governments liked to say about Vietnam actually became true. Economically, the application of billions of dollars created a genuine economic revolution in the countryside and a more artificial, but nonetheless real, boom in the urban areas. Politically, single-minded American support for President Nguyen Van Thieu and Thieu's own political skill brought a period of unparalleled political stability to the country. And militarily, the more sophisticated albeit bloody use of the American and Vietnamese military machines snuffed out the revolution of the National Liberation Front in all but a few areas of the country and drove the major part of the armies of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam out of South Vietnam and back to their own country or into Laos and Cambodia, by mid-1970.
Of all these accomplishments, the military achievement is in many ways the most extraordinary. As Henry Kissinger has pointed out in these pages,2 the initial employment of American units in the war achieved little because the American army put its emphasis on multi-battalion operations and on fighting battles over remote and usually sparsely inhabited pieces of real estate. By contrast, the enemy put his emphasis on controlling the South Vietnamese people in the heavily populated lowlands, a strategy that during the Tet offensive allowed the North Vietnamese and the Viet Cong to capture Hue temporarily and to come close to overrunning several other major cities, including Saigon.
Taking over the command of American forces after the Tet offensive, and at a time when the American public was effectively committed to an American withdrawal from Vietnam, General Abrams immediately went on the offensive and made control of the population his main objective. In the beginning, almost of necessity because of the Tet offensive, Abrams bunched his forces around the beleaguered cities; but soon he was using his American main force units as his cutting edge, slowly pushing out through the populated areas toward the borders. Moreover, under Abrams, American tactics changed radically. As Abrams perceived it, the logistics system of the North Vietnamese and the Viet Cong was their weakest link; unlike conventional Western armies whose logistics system trailed behind the fighting units, the Communists' logistics system-the supply caches and communications system-was shoved out in front of the advancing units both in order to keep the Viet Cong infrastructure resupplied and to provide the supplies for any North Vietnamese main force attack. Accordingly, in place of massive search-and-destroy operations, Abrams' watchword became "working the system," picking up the caches, the communications runners and the resupply couriers. To do this, the American units were broken down into hundreds of squad and platoon sized units, and instead of being told to compile a high "body count," they were told to get a high cache count.
Behind this protective shield of regular American and South Vietnamese army (ARVN) units, the American and Vietnamese command in effect garrisoned the countryside with militia forces: Regional Forces (RP), Popular Forces (PF), and a People's Self-Defense Force. Within a few months beginning in 1969, the numbers of these forces were vastly increased. While the ARVN increased by 100,000, the regional force units grew by 200,000 between 1969 and 1972. The number of RF/PF outposts grew from 474,900 to 519,800. The People's Self-Defense Force was created from scratch and eventually reached a size of 11/2 million. The RF and PF forces which heretofore had been equipped with World War II-vintage rifles were reequipped with modern weaponry that matched North Vietnamese firing strength and, for the first time, were given full-time American advisors. The massive arming of these forces was a significant sign of new morale on the government side at this time.
Concurrently with this rapid buildup of armed government strength in the countryside, the new "Accelerated Pacification Program" (ACP) added still more elements of governmental strength to the countryside. Originally conceived in the autumn of 1968 (following President Johnson's decision to stop the bombing of North Vietnam) as little more than a land-grabbing operation that would put as many South Vietnamese flags over South Vietnamese villages as possible, the ACP brought a more-or-less effective government presence to the villages for the first time; although it is doubtful whether the ACP won any large number of converts to the Saigon government's side, it did provide a modicum of security and economic development to the villagers. Although the Revolutionary Development teams were not the counter-guerrillas that they were taught to be, they did manage to reopen schools and markets. Although the Phoenix program did undoubtedly kill or incarcerate many innocent civilians, it did also eliminate many members of the Communist infrastructure. And although much of the economic aid given to each village was siphoned off by various Vietnamese officials, at least some of it was used to drill wells, build roads and canals and reopen schools.
Instrumental in the success of the post-Tet strategy of gradually pushing the North Vietnamese main force units out of South Vietnam, of severing their supply and communication links with the local Viet Cong infrastructure and then of either eliminating or allowing that infrastructure to atrophy, was the Cambodian invasion of April 1970. Although the announced purpose of the Cambodian invasion was to capture and destroy the Central Office for South Vietnam (COSVN), in reality the main purpose of the operation was less glamorous but more complex. Traditionally, insurgent armies have rarely lost guerrilla wars in which they had sanctuaries to care for their wounded, to refit and train new recruits and to plan battles. For the North Vietnamese, the Cambodian sanctuary was all these and more. It has long been one of the war's cherished myths (a myth inculcated not only by the North Vietnamese but by the American Air Force and by many American civilians) that the bulk of the enemy's supplies came down the Ho Chi Minh trail on the backs of coolies. In fact, with the exception of the far northern portion of South Vietnam, the great bulk of North Vietnamese supplies were shipped in through Sihanoukville (renamed Kompong Som) and trucked to the front. Thus, the Cambodian invasion offered the U.S. military command an opportunity to attack not just the retail end of the enemy's system, but the vital wholesale link. It was not so much the fact that the American and Vietnamese invaders of Cambodia killed so many enemy or found so many tons of caches that was important; it was that they so disrupted the enemy's system in Cambodia that they bought at least two years of time for Vietnamization and for an American withdrawal.
An essential domestic corollary to this military strategy was, of course, the Nixon Administration's presentational success in buying time for the war with the American electorate. Although the American anti-war movement was a constant reality during President Nixon's first term, it never-with the single exception of the period immediately following the Cambodian invasion-had the effect of forcing the Administration to make decisions either on the battlefield or at the Paris negotiations that it did not really want to make. The reasons for this seem obvious, but nonetheless worth reviewing. Although millions of Americans were sincerely and genuinely outraged by the brutality of the Vietnam War, the Nixon Administration, and particularly Secretary of Defense Melvin Laird, realized that the vast majority of Americans were opposed to the war not because of any moral concern over what was happening to the Vietnamese, but because they did not want their sons to die in the rice fields of Vietnam. Accordingly, the Administration correctly deduced that if it could lower both the draft calls and the weekly American killed-in-action (KIA) casualty figures, they could take much of the steam out of the anti-war movement. Almost automatically, the draft calls were reduced as the American withdrawals began; and the public impression that they would stay low or eventually be done away with completely was reinforced by Secretary Laird's espousal of the all-volunteer army in mid-1972. Draft calls were reduced from 382,010 in 1966 to 162,746 in 1970 to 49,949 in 1972. Similarly, Secretary Laird moved to reduce American casualties by instituting the "protective reaction" strategy-a strategy that worked partially because the enemy was already on the defensive and because Abrams' strategy of working the system had become so successful by 1970 that most offensives were preempted before they actually began; as a result, American weekly KIA figures fell from an average of 279 in 1968 to 81 by 1970 to 26 by 1971. Finally, of course, the Administration discovered that the American people were basically willing to let it set its own timetable and find its own way out of the war-as long as the Administration was seen to be ending American involvement in the war by pulling out troops. Indeed, the only time that public opinion truly exploded was during the Cambodian invasion when that public perception of an American withdrawal was rudely shaken.
While this strategy was being carried out on the battlefield, Ambassador Ellsworth Bunker was also endeavoring to strengthen South Vietnam's political and economic base. Although Thieu had been elected President in September 1967, real power at that time remained in the hands of the Vice President, Air Marshal Nguyen Cao Ky, who controlled the premiership and all four corps commanders. Early on, Bunker clearly realized that if even a modicum of public support for the war was to be maintained in the United States and if a peace agreement was to be negotiated that did not hand over political power to the North Vietnamese, there would have to be an end to the revolving-door governments that had afflicted Saigon since the fall of Diem. Bunker also perceived that Thieu was a far better candidate than Ky to accomplish this task, partly because Thieu had at least been born in South Vietnam and had a wider acceptance among Vietnamese and partly because Thieu presented a more reasonable image to the world than that of Ky and his wife touring the battlefield in their Terry-and-the-Pirates jump suits. Consequently, the Ambassador funnelled all political and economic decisions through Thieu-completely cutting out Ky-and as the Vietnamese began to perceive that Thieu was the man with the American mandate, many of them drifted away from Ky toward Thieu. Simultaneously, Thieu's own formidable skills as a plotter and politician began to emerge as he slowly began to replace Ky men in such crucial jobs as province chief and corps and division commander with Thieu men. Finally, as with most things in Vietnam, luck played a role: in a series of battlefield firefights and accidents around the Tet offensive, nearly a dozen of Ky's closest subordinates were killed or wounded.
In all of this, Saigon's saloon politicians-many of them men of the much mythologized Third Force-became largely irrelevant. Perhaps one day they had counted for something (and might again), but as the war continued, Vietnamese politics became polarized between the ARVN and its civilian supporters and the cadres of North Vietnam's Lao Dong Party. Thieu realized that if he could provide military security and economic growth, the great masses of uneducated peasants and urban dwellers would not actively oppose his rule. Furthermore, the President also realized that if it could be made clear that the Nixon Administration was not engaging in a rapid retreat from South Vietnam, and that he was instrumental in making sure that did not happen, then he could also win to his side the large minority of army officers and men, civil servants and bourgeoisie who in the widest collective sense do exercise real political power in South Vietnam.
If the ensuing stability was a remarkable achievement (when Thieu was re-elected in 1971, many observers did not think he would last out the year, but he is now working on his third American President), the accompanying economic accomplishments were far more crude and, in the urban areas, far more temporary. Basically, the application of billions of dollars in direct aid, the jobs provided by the American expeditionary force, and the huge amounts of money spent by the American forces in Vietnam created an artificial boom that nonetheless gave jobs to people who had previously had none and provided motor bikes and small tractors to people who had previously walked or used an ox. Inevitably, the result of this process was to reinforce the stability of the government in Saigon.
When added to what was happening militarily in the countryside, this application of money was particularly important. Even as late as the autumn of 1967, huge areas of the countryside were under the control of the NLF. For the peasants who lived in those areas, life was little different economically from life on the government side of the fence, and consequently the NLF's revolution was something that one supported as a fact of life; peasants sent their children to NLF schools, paid their taxes to the Viet Cong and rarely saw a government soldier. Beginning with the implementation of the Abrams strategy-with its emphasis on control of the population-all this changed in the most brutal way. Suddenly, bombing, defoliation, Phoenix raids and forays by American and government troops became a daily occurrence. And as a result, supporting the Viet Cong turned from being an almost mindless act to something that was very dangerous.
But if General Abrams was using a stick, the U.S. aid mission was offering a carrot. While agricultural life on the Viet Cong side remained static, the lavish application of U.S. money meant that rural life on the government side had become more modern and far more prosperous; for the first time in their lives, farmers could own or use chemical fertilizers, transistor radios, motor bikes and even small garden tractors. Not surprisingly, faced with this U.S.-orchestrated combination of terror and prosperity, many of the Viet Cong's less committed supporters moved toward the increasingly powerful position of the government. As I interpret the war, by sometime in the late sixties-and certainly by the Tet offensive-whatever valid revolutionary ideas had been transmitted from the Viet Cong cadres to the peasants and urban dwellers of South Vietnam had been deadened in favor of an overpowering concern for their personal welfare. In early 1968, the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong made their great power push; this failed to ignite the people (although, of course, it had a decisive effect on American opinion) and when the tide of power swung heavily to the government side, the ordinary South Vietnamese in both city and countryside went along. In so doing he was far from believing that Nguyen Van Thieu was a new Ho Chi Minh, but he had ceased to care as much about the ideological factor.
In the end, there was little doubt that the military, political and economic balance on the ground in South Vietnam had shifted in favor of the U.S.-GVN side for the first time since the beginning of the Second Indochina War. The United States had in effect carved out a new set of realities on the ground in Vietnam, a set of realities that ultimately allowed Secretary of State Henry Kissinger to become far more flexible in allowing a North Vietnamese-National Liberation Front presence within South Vietnam (something that would have caused a government collapse in 1969). By mid-i97o, this domination of the countryside and the cities was complete and could in fact be measured in many different ways. Government pacification statistics, showing the number of relatively safe hamlets rising from 42 percent in December 1967 to 89 percent in February 1971, were at least broadly correct about the direction and scale of the trend.
More impressive than any statistics, however, was what the enemy was not able to achieve. To date the North Vietnamese still have not managed to launch an attack against Saigon, and indeed, from February 1969 until Easter 1972, they were unable to mount any sort of offensive. In many respects, the 1972 Easter offensive, undertaken at a time when there were 40,000 American troops left in Vietnam and underwritten to a great extent by the Soviet Union under strong pressure from Hanoi, was launched because the North Vietnamese realized they were losing the war and had to reinsinuate themselves back into their old sanctuary areas. In adopting a new-and highly conventional-strategy of war heavily based on the armor, artillery and antiaircraft weaponry which they had received from Moscow, Hanoi had in effect written off the Viet Cong as the means of putting the Communists back into the arena in the South. Moreover, although the Communists did achieve their minimum objective of reoccupying their base areas in the north and along the Cambodian and Laotian borders, even with their new Russian equipment and tactics they were unable in the face of American airpower and ARVN resistance to exploit and sustain their initial gains and were ultimately forced back onto the defensive. Largely because they were stymied on the battlefield (and partly, of course, because the Russians were refusing to replace immediately their material losses), Hanoi decided to go into the clinch at the Paris peace table even though this meant accepting Nguyen Van Thieu as the leader of the Republic of Vietnam-something Hanoi had said it never would do.
Thus, at the beginning of the ceasefire in late January 1973, it seemed to me-as one who since 1966 had lived in or frequently travelled to Indochina, and had been for years highly skeptical of the war-that Saigon was in a much more tenable political and military position than I would have conceded or imagined possible a few years earlier, and that there was at least a chance that some of the accomplishments of the American era would stand. At any rate the condition of South Vietnam was much stronger and more resilient than many liberal observers were asserting.
In the 23 months since the ceasefire, it has become clear that all three American achievements in South Vietnam-political, economic and military-have begun to erode and are now in danger. Some of this trend was inevitable, for under the pressure of the American military force and the push of thousands of American civilian and military advisors at all levels of the government apparatus, the situation resembled a frozen river on which the Americans and the South Vietnamese could do almost anything they pleased. Without that sort of pressure, there was never any doubt that the ice would slowly melt, and few people ever really believed that the South Vietnamese alone would be able to do what the Americans and South Vietnamese together had never completely managed, namely to defend the entire geographical border of South Vietnam. The critical question, however, is not one so much of erosion-that had been expected-but whether the erosion will stop at a point where the government in Saigon (whether it is headed by Thieu or by another army man who would almost certainly succeed him) will be sufficiently strong to maintain political and economic stability and whether South Vietnam's armed forces will be able to reach an equilibrium with the opposing Communist forces, an equilibrium that was a tacit understanding of the 1973 peace accords.
Economically, the situation inside South Vietnam has deteriorated at a dangerously rapid rate since the ceasefire, although to a certain extent the agricultural sector of the economy has continued to prosper. Basically, of course, the reasons for the Vietnamese recession are rather simple: South Vietnam's national budget of about $870 million, which includes the funding of a million-man army, costs far more money than the country can possibly hope to generate, so that Saigon is wholly dependent on foreign aid for sustenance. South Vietnam's capacity to generate income has in fact actually declined during the last two years. The 160,000 jobs provided by the American establishment in June 1969 had dropped to only 17,300 by September 1973 and the total is lower today; the $400 million spent annually by American soldiers and American organizations on the Vietnamese economy has disappeared entirely. Compounding the problem, the foreign aid that Saigon has received has declined both in numerical and real terms. American military aid to Saigon, for example, has fallen from $2.3 billion in fiscal 1973 to only $700 million this year. And although American economic aid has remained relatively steady at approximately $600 million a year, its value in real terms has declined because of the reduction in the value of the dollar and the increase in the price of such important Vietnamese imports as fertilizers, petroleum, food grains and machinery. This shortfall in aid plus such uncontrollable factors as worldwide inflation and shortages have combined to cause a 45-percent reduction in per capita income, mass unemployment with nearly one million people out of work, and an inflation rate of nearly 90 percent in two years.
Compounding these problems, the expected infusion of foreign and local Chinese and Vietnamese capital, which in turn was to have given birth to another economic miracle à la South Korea or Taiwan-as predicted by the American mission and the World Bank-has not materialized; the level of violence on the battlefield has remained so high that investors have preferred to put their money in Saigon's more tranquil Southeast Asian neighbors. Nor do such creations as an industrial park in Cantho or the ambitious plans of the American mission for making the country self-sufficient in six years through industrialization seem realistic; for, as we shall see below, one of the main reasons for Hanoi's high level of military activity in the country is to prevent foreign investment and a consolidation of the economy. Thus, despite a rich agricultural heartland and a highly diligent and relatively skilled work force, the economic outlook remains gloomy. The only immediate hope (or perhaps El Dorado) on the horizon is the possibility of finding large deposits of oil on the nation's continental shelf. But even if oil is discovered in commercial quantities it will take a minimum of three years before the South Vietnamese will be able to reap the economic benefit.
More than anything else, it is the economic condition of the country that has created the conditions for political instability in Saigon for the first time since the Buddhist riots of 1966. In early September, the Buddhists-President Thieu's longtime political opponents-began agitating for peace and national reconciliation with the Communists, while a few weeks later a Catholic movement led by Father Tran Huu Thanh began an anti-corruption campaign against the government, an even more serious development since the Catholics have long been Thieu's national political allies. In response to these protests, the President finally fired four of his cabinet ministers (including his nephew and Minister of Information Hoang Duc Nha), transferred three of his four corps commanders on charges of corruption and summarily relieved nearly 400 field grade officers of their commands.
These disturbances should not be overestimated-at no time did they come near to reaching the proportions of the Buddhist or anti-Diem riots or to getting out of control. But they are indicative of the fact that South Vietnam's growing economic problems cannot help but have increasingly serious political consequences. This is particularly true since the South Vietnamese believe that one of President Thieu's unique assets is his ability to manipulate the Americans. If Thieu is unable to provide the necessary amount of aid from the Americans, his support, particularly among his special constituency of civil servants, bourgeois businessmen and the army, will continue to erode as other ambitious generals begin to question openly the wisdom of his policies.
Still, if nothing else, Thieu is a master of the politics of survival (sometimes the only possible politics in Vietnam), who possesses an extraordinarily acute sense of political timing. He has managed to adapt himself to changing conditions and personalities before; because he still has solid control of the country's intelligence-police-army apparatus and is still very much the dominant political personality in the nation, there is no particular reason to think that he will not be able to cope with a political scene that will most likely continue to grow more turbulent. Finally, even if he is toppled from power either through street demonstrations or politics in the army, it is almost certain that in the end he would be replaced by a representative from the only organized non-Communist political force in South Vietnam, the army.
Militarily, the situation since the ceasefire must be examined in far greater detail and in the context of the ceasefire agreements. As envisioned by their creators, the Paris agreements called for a ceasefire in place and the creation of a four-member (North Vietnam, South Vietnam, Provisional Revolutionary Government and United States) Joint Military Commission (JMC). This would give way after the exchange of prisoners of war to a two-member Joint Military Commission (South Vietnam and PRG), whose teams scattered at 26 locations throughout the country would in effect draw the boundary lines separating the territory controlled by South Vietnam from the ink spots and sanctuaries controlled by the PRG and North Vietnam.
Although all four parties involved did manage to exchange prisoners of war, both the agreements to form a JMC and the truce on the battlefield soon broke down. The two-nation JMC was formed but broke up in a year, partly because President Thieu, in an attempt to prevent the Communists from roaming freely around Saigon, effectively quarantined them at a camp near Tan Son Nhut airbase, and partly because the Communists decided that the JMC posts that were to be scattered throughout the countryside would effectively demarcate a Third Vietnam-something that would constitute heresy if acknowledged publicly, since there was only supposed to be one Vietnam. Apportioning blame for the breakdown of the truce is also difficult; two highly respected staff members of the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee found it "nearly impossible." In retrospect, I am inclined to conclude that the South Vietnamese were the more guilty party, since their actions appear to demonstrate that they never really intended to implement the truce. On the other hand, according to diplomats in Saigon at the time, the Communists evidently did think there would be at least a period of peace and were unprepared for-and staggered by-the aggressiveness of the government's operations.
Almost from the moment the agreement was signed, President Thieu took to the offensive in an attempt to eradicate the Communist ink spots and to confine the Communists to their sanctuaries. Realizing that the military balance was in his favor at the moment of the ceasefire, Thieu attempted to apply the Abrams strategy, but without Abrams' assets in men, money or mobility. It was a risky ploy, but at least for a time it worked. In the first phase of the post-ceasefire or Third Vietnamese War, lasting from the ceasefire in January to December 1973, there were few clashes between North and South Vietnamese main force units, but the ARVN was highly active in eliminating smaller PRG ink spots and in spearheading the resettlement of 750,000 refugees into congested areas, mainly in the foothills of Quang Ngai, Quang Tin and Binh Dinh provinces in the north and in Binh Thuan, Long Khanh and Phuoc Tuy provinces further south.
The second phase, which began on January 4, 1974, with a speech by Thieu ordering the ARVN "to hit them in their base areas" and ended in May 1974, resulted in a marked increase in large-scale ARVN offensive operations. Typical of this period were two multi-divisional operations, one by the ARVN 7th and 9th divisions in the Delta which completely cleaned out Base Area 470 (Tri Phap) and another operation by the 5th division which rambled through the Parrot's Beak just as it had during the Cambodian invasion. At the end of this period, Saigon's control of people and land had actually increased from the time of the ceasefire.
The third phase of the war, publicly heralded in a North Vietnamese document on March 22 of this year calling on the Communist armed forces to regain the land and people lost since the ceasefire and to undermine the fighting capabilities of the ARVN, actually began on May 17 when a large North Vietnamese force lured the 18th ARVN division into battle at Ben Cat in the Iron Triangle and succeeded in killing or wounding 2,600 ARVN soldiers and destroying 40 armored vehicles. In rapid succession, this was followed by a series of North Vietnamese-initiated engagements in the Central Highlands and the area south of the Demilitarized Zone in which the North Vietnamese recaptured almost all of the territory lost since the ceasefire and forced many of the recently resettled refugees to flee. As a result, the present battlefield picture is one of declining ARVN strength. Furthermore, because President Thieu has committed his strategic reserve, the Vietnamese airborne and marine forces, to holding static positions against the enemy in northern South Vietnam, it would seem that the ARVN would have virtually no chance of regaining the strategic offensive in the near future. Despite this fact, however, the South Vietnamese military predicament should not be portrayed as gloomier than it really is. Although it has been badly bloodied in the last few months, American and third-country observers agree that the ARVN has generally fought well, and the government still controls more than 93 percent of the people and essentially the same amount of territory it did at the time of the ceasefire.
What is extraordinarily important in this military picture is, of course, the degree of restraint shown by the North Vietnamese forces. For in the 23 months since the ceasefire, the North Vietnamese have improved their base areas and modernized their army to an unprecedented extent, yet have not used this newly acquired muscle against the South Vietnamese. Within their base areas, they have constructed a modern road and pipeline network that allows them to move men from the north to the south in 21 days, compared to 70 days in 1968, and they have accumulated enough supplies to fight without resupply for one year at a general offensive level or for several years at the present level. Under the direction of North Vietnam's de facto Army Commander-in-Chief Van Tien Dung (who has replaced the gravely ill General Giap), Hanoi's traditional guerrilla war doctrine has been officially abandoned for a conventional war strategy and a modernized and mechanized military machine completely equipped both in its southern sanctuaries and in the northern homeland with an array of tanks, artillery pieces and sophisticated guided missiles. In at least a few respects, the North Vietnamese Army has become a more modern army than the U.S.-equipped ARVN.
Given this fact, Hanoi's caution has been remarkable. Although in some areas, particularly in northern South Vietnam, they possess overwhelming strength, the North Vietnamese have chosen to stay inside the perimeters of the Paris peace agreements by generally not attempting to take land that was firmly under the control of the South Vietnamese at the time of the ceasefire. And despite the fact that the North Vietnamese have scores of tanks and 130 artillery pieces clustered near most of South Vietnam's largest cities, they have not used these weapons against the cities. Even on the battlefield, their employment has been extremely limited. Finally, the North Vietnamese have even occasionally practiced a policy of limited accommodation in the midst of battle. During a battle at Dak Pek this spring, an ARVN unit which was completely surrounded was allowed to walk out unscathed.
The reasons for Hanoi's reticence are complex, but in them lie the best answers to America's future relationship with both Vietnams. While it is always hard, even for specialists on the Communist world, to fathom the intentions of the small band of men in North Vietnam's politburo, it does appear to most analysts that they have, at least for the next two to three years, opted for a period of reconstruction in the North and a moderately intense war of attrition in the South that stops well short of a general offensive. While this does not mean that they have settled on a policy of peace, it does mean that there will be more of an equal balance between the war and the domestic economy in the North than before 1973.
The evidence for this judgment, while not overwhelming, is substantial. In the North, the politburo has just begun drafting another five-year plan while the government has recently created three new super-ministries to deal with the problems of reconstruction. Both decisions indicate a drift toward a more bureaucratic government that is heading increasingly in the direction of the technocrats; given Hanoi's small pool of managers, it is hard to conceive either decision being taken if Hanoi had opted for a policy of all-out war within the near future. Meanwhile, militarily the indications also point to a decision to pursue a limited military policy. The most recent COSVN resolution, number 12, acknowledges that the Communists do not plan to launch a major offensive through the end of 1975, and military intelligence findings tend to support that statement. None of the seven North Vietnamese divisions in the North shows any signs of future deployment, and indeed new recruits in the North are still being trained and briefed on the Paris agreements, again a doubtful exercise if all-out war were actively being considered.
More persuasive, however, is the pattern of North Vietnamese infiltration in the South. Although the North has sent approximately 145,000 men to the South since the ceasefire, they have also exfiltrated nearly 115,000 men back to North Vietnam. The resulting net increase of 30,000 men basically accounts for casualties and other routine replacements and indicates no new massive buildup of men in the South, a buildup that would be a prerequisite for any massive offensive. Indeed, with ARVN forces now standing at 372,000 (plus another 625,000 RF and PF) the force of 184,000 North Vietnamese now within South Vietnam does not appear overwhelming except perhaps in northern I Corps where shorter supply lines and terrain are in Hanoi's favor.
There appear to be three main reasons behind Hanoi's switch to its present lower-keyed strategy. First of all, it no doubt reflects a genuine belief on the part of a large percentage, perhaps even a majority, of the politburo and the Party, that Hanoi must pause a few years to repair the damage and destruction from years of war. The objective of unifying Vietnam has not been abandoned, but it can, these cadres must argue, be postponed. Partially, too, Hanoi's present course has been adopted because the North Vietnamese sincerely believe that the South's internal contradictions, as they would describe President Thieu's matrix of economic, political and military problems, will eventually cause the regime to crumble and collapse from within. But the most critical, and perhaps even the determining, factor in Hanoi's reticence is the fact that while the North may be able to afford an all-out war militarily, it cannot afford to do so diplomatically. For although North Vietnam has enough war materiel to sustain the first round of a major offensive, it has no guarantee from either the People's Republic of China or the Soviet Union that those supplies would be replaced. Indeed, since the ceasefire the Soviet Union and China have been most circumspect, and although both powers have increased their level of economic aid, they have actually decreased their military aid to Hanoi. The buildup of the North Vietnamese sanctuaries since the ceasefire was largely accomplished with supplies Hanoi already had on hand at the end of the ceasefire; since then the weapons that China and the Soviet Union have shipped to Hanoi have been largely defensive, including, however, most of Hanoi's antiaircraft weaponry.
All this suggests that a temporary new reality has emerged in Vietnam: the North, although it has created a military machine inside South Vietnam powerful enough to inflict great damage (particularly in the northern part of the country) is apparently restrained from fully using this military might by its own belief in the South's weakness, by its own economic priorities in the North and by an absence of diplomatic support from its two Communist patrons. On the other hand, the South, having been forced to relinquish the military gains made in the immediate aftermath of the ceasefire, has also been forced into an inherently conservative and basically defensive strategy in an attempt to protect the minimum achievements of the American era. As a result of these inhibiting factors on both sides, a clear-cut victory for either side seems probably unobtainable in the immediate future. And that in turn suggests to me that the war may once again be reaching the point when it will be profitable for the United States to work toward a policy of both official and tacitly acknowledged accommodation in Vietnam. Three main avenues of diplomatic approach seem open to the United States.
First, since it is clear that neither the North nor South will constrain themselves from making war if left to their own devices, it would seem that the United States must once again engage the Soviet Union and China in an attempt to effect an asymmetrical reduction in the level of supplies to their respective allies, thus cooling off the war and bringing hostilities down to a level resembling peace. Great powers do not act irresponsibly without paying for the consequences, and to allow North and South Vietnam to continue to engage in a slow escalation of the fighting, even if it does stop short of an all-out war, is about as responsible as it would be for two sets of parents to lock their quarrelling children in a room and pretend not to hear the subsequent smashing of furniture. As Henry Kissinger discovered during his initial Vietnam peace negotiations, both China and the Soviet Union have substantive reasons for not wanting to see the war in Vietnam escalate to a level where it threatens superpower détente. Although she would never say so publicly, China has traditionally preferred to have weak powers on her borders, and the thought of 40 million armed and unified Vietnamese can hardly cause joy in Peking. Similarly, the Soviet Union does not want its blossoming détente with the United States to bog down in the jungles of Vietnam. Thus, the United States can and should press both Communist powers to lower still further their support to Hanoi, with the corresponding acknowledgement that we will restrain Thieu from going on the offensive as a result and additionally will reduce our level of military aid-though asymmetrically since it does require a greater expenditure of military supplies for the South to defend its defense perimeter than it does for the North to attack a section of that perimeter at a time and place of its choosing.
While the present state of relations between Moscow and Washington appears sufficiently warm to make such a task possible, the cooling or plateauing of relations between Washington and Peking, particularly if taken together with the unknown outcome of the present power struggle between moderates and radicals inside China, suggests a renewed Washington effort to put the Sino-American rapprochement back on course, with one objective a tacit understanding from the Chinese to maintain their present policy of restraint vis-à-vis Hanoi.
Finally, as a corollary to this policy of superpower diplomacy toward the two warring Indochinese states, the United States should encourage the nations of Southeast Asia, such as Thailand and Malaysia, which have made several attempts during the past few years to bring Hanoi into some sort of association with the ASEAN group of countries, to continue their diplomatic efforts. For any successful regional effort to give North Vietnam a window on the world and a participatory role, however limited, in the thriving economic and diplomatic life of the non-Indochinese part of Southeast Asia would be yet another entry on the side of Hanoi's ledger that favors a policy of reconstruction and limited war.
Secondly, although it is unclear whether Washington-or perhaps more precisely, the American mission in Saigon-encouraged or merely tolerated the offensive push of President Thieu from the ceasefire to May of this year, it is clear that the time has come to encourage the President, or his successor if Thieu should fall from office, to accept a de facto accommodation with the Communists-something that he has not yet done in reality even though he did sign a peace treaty acknowledging the fact that the Communists had a legal right to exist within South Vietnam.
Basically, such an accommodation would mean that President Thieu and the Provisional Revolutionary Government would finally meet and form the National Council of Unity and Concord. To do this, Thieu would have to provide diplomatic immunity to the Communists and give at least a number of designated Communist leaders the right to move freely through South Vietnamese society. Although he has often talked of the time when South Vietnam could "take a little of the (Communist) bacteria into its system," he has long refrained from doing this out of a fear of political unrest. Yet if ever there was a time for Thieu to take this risk, it is now. For one thing, the South Vietnamese people have never shown any particular sign of wanting to join a Communist bandwagon; if the great majority of South Vietnamese had wanted the country to come under the control of the NLF or PRG, this would have happened long ago despite everything that the Americans and a series of South Vietnamese administrations have done. Such a move would also, I think, be far less risky than it might appear, because the eradication of much of the Viet Cong infrastructure in 1968-1970 is one of the accomplishments of that era that has not yet eroded to any great extent.
Finally, of course, there is the question of American aid to Indochina. Throughout the past two decades, the American people have carried an agonizing burden in Vietnam and they are no doubt bone-tired and weary of that burden. Nonetheless, it would seem only prudent to continue to give a modicum of aid to South Vietnam, while at the same time re-opening the question of aid to the North.
The projected multi-million dollar aid program for reconstruction that Secretary Kissinger proposed and came close to negotiating successfully with Hanoi during the latter stages of the Paris peace talks was aborted for two reasons, an unwillingness on the part of Hanoi to account for how the aid money would be spent, in a way acceptable to the United States, and an unwillingness on the part of the U.S. Congress to provide any aid money to a former enemy of the United States. While admittedly there is always the possibility that the North will only use American aid to strengthen its economy to the point where it can launch a sustained, full-scale attack on the South, it seems to me that this is a risk that on balance is probably worth taking and that Washington should therefore once again attempt to reinstitute economic (and eventually diplomatic) contacts with the North as a part of any overall diplomatic endeavor concerning Vietnam. For an aid program to North Vietnam would invariably involve many of the brightest and most able men in Vietnam-thus taking them away from the war effort-and at the same time, it would inevitably reinforce the hands of those in Hanoi who want to continue on a track of reconstruction and development. Moreover, no matter how committed any nation is to an objective, once peace comes it is always hard to gear up the public emotions and energy for resuming war.
In South Vietnam, the United States should continue to provide a reasonable level of military and economic aid. Militarily, I think a reasonable amount of aid can be defined as enough to keep ARVN from collapsing on the battlefield due to a lack of ammunition, fuel and food and clothing for their troops. Most military experts familiar with South Vietnam suggest that a proper amount of aid would be approximately one billion dollars a year; less would not provide the ARVN with the materials it needs to defend the territory it now holds; more would only encourage it to revert to a more aggressive military strategy. In addition, while most observers agree that ARVN must be weaned from its American-taught over-reliance on mobility and firepower and must adopt a military strategy that it can come closer to affording, to attempt to accomplish this within six months-as the American Congress seems to be suggesting with its grant of $800 million in military aid-is not only foolish, but would simply doom such an ARVN adjustment to a disastrous failure. Such a transition should be phased over a period of two to three years, and this incremental reduction of aid should be spelled out to the ARVN at the beginning of the three-year period involved.
Similarly, a reasonable level of economic aid should be defined as a level which prevents the economy from becoming the primary cause of political instability it is now. Given the fluctuating price of such basic South Vietnamese imports as fertilizer and petroleum, it is difficult to arrive at a precise amount of aid, except that it should be marginally higher than the $400 million the United States gave South Vietnam last year, but sharply lower than the $750 million aid package the U.S. mission requested for this fiscal year, which contained wildly optimistic proposals for making Vietnam self-sufficient economically in a limited number of years-something that is flatly impossible given the present level of hostilities. Moreover, since it has become apparent, not only to people outside the government but to President Thieu and his associates, that American aid is vital if South Vietnam is to survive, Washington should be able to insist, after many years of fruitless effort, that the aid be tied to definite, measurable standards of performance. In addition, if as a result of big-power and intra-Vietnamese diplomacy and negotiation, some sort of reduction in the tempo of the war is achieved, then further economic American aid should be closely tied to a reduction in the South Vietnamese armed forces so that Saigon will be able to put a greater share of its economic resources into the nonmilitary sector of its economy.
If such a policy were to be followed, the United States would be committing itself to continuing military and economic aid, but as part of a total effort aimed at a substantial period of peace, accommodation within South Vietnam, a recovered South Vietnamese society-and in the end, one must hope, lasting reconciliation between North and South, or unification if both should so choose. Such an American course would not be easy, and it is vital that such a qualified commitment to the South should not in any circumstances turn into something that involved American military action. If, despite a reasonable amount of military aid, the nerve of the ARVN should fail and South Vietnam should begin to crack militarily, the United States should not attempt to stave off such a defeat by the reentry of American air or naval power, still less ground forces. If, despite a slightly increased level of economic aid, the Saigon government should dissolve in political turmoil, we should not attempt to put things right, but accept whatever reality finally emerges.
But if this policy would be hard, what alternative is there? To cut American aid substantially-as many especially in the new American Congress may be inclined to do-would mean collapse in South Vietnam and in all probability a takeover by Communist forces. "They deserve it," some may say. But to me, tortured like all Americans by the whole story, there is something deeply wrong with America choking off South Vietnam's lifeline and thus condemning the South Vietnamese people to a fate they obviously do not want. The possibility does exist of bringing something better out of a situation we have done so much to bring to its present pass. To forego that possibility, to abandon in the end an American commitment now reduced to one of relatively limited amounts of money alone, seems to me a doubly inglorious-and avoidable-way to end the most traumatic experience in our recent national history.
1 According to Defense Department figures, 15,553 Americans died in combat between 1969 and the ceasefire, and there were 5,176 non-combat deaths. The Defense Department estimates there were 107,504 South Vietnamese and 490,635 North Vietnamese and Viet Cong killed in the same period as a direct result of military operations.
2 Henry A. Kissinger, "The Viet Nam Negotiations," Foreign Affairs, January 1969.