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The View from Vietnam

SOE in France

by M.R.D. Foot
Her Majesty's Stationery Office (London), 550 pp., $9.00

Vietnam! Vietnam!

by Felix Greene
Fulton (Palo Alto), 175 pp., $2.95

Vietnam in the Mud

by James Pickerell
Bobbs-Merrill, 129 pp., $2.25

Vietcong: The Organization and Techniques of the National Liberation Front of South Vietnam

by Douglas Pike
M.I.T., 490 pp., $8.95

Vietnam Seen from East and West

edited by Sibnarayan Ray
Praeger, 192 pp., $5.95

The Politics of Escalation in Vietnam

by Franz Schurmann
Fawcett, 160 pp., $.60 (paper)

Danang, South Vietnam

One of the added pleasures of covering the Vietnam war from inside Vietnam is that it is possible to lose track completely of what is going on elsewhere in the world—not only in the world, in fact, but in Vietnam as well. When with the Marines in the northern part of South Vietnam, it is perfectly easy to learn that Private Smith—whose first and middle names, home town and state, age, high school, are supplied on the spot by the ever-helpful PIO’s—wiped out a Viet Cong position with a burst of his trusty M-14; but it is almost impossible to find out whether the landing in the Mekong Delta was really the hopeless botch it seemed to be from eyewitness reports. The reader of a good newspaper at home is likely to find out about this before I do.

Lyndon Johnson
Lyndon Johnson; drawing by David Levine

Furthermore, very few books on Vietnam are available here, because, until a few weeks ago, it was nearly impossible to find one in any Western language that was not heavily critical of either the United States or South Vietnam. As was recently reported, this is also true of the United States Information Agency’s USIS Library, where almost all books dealing with Vietnam (including my Street Without Joy, which does not even deal with post-1954 Vietnam) are locked up on closed shelves. Indeed, the US military forces have a far more liberal policy than the USIS: while uncritical books are more widely displayed, some critical books can be bought without difficulty at the military newsstands. (Whether this means that the US military have an inherently stronger belief in American principles than the USIS is not clear.) As for the Vietnamese themselves, book censorship seems to depend on the caprice and spotty reading of the censors. For instance, there is for open sale at this moment in Saigon a book on the Tri-Continental Conference against Colonialism and Imperialism, held in Havana a year ago. It was issued by an extremely left-wing Paris publisher, and is a running indictment against the United States and its policy here. Apparently the author’s name didn’t appear on somebody’s blacklist, so the book slipped by.

HENCE, TO RECEIVE BOOKS about Vietnam here is suddenly to be confronted with enlarged and different perspectives on a war which, in spite of the best electronic communications in the world, has been distorted by a foxhole view if one is in the field (there are foxholes, by the way, in this jet-propelled war), or into an equally narrow view based on rumor (did Marshal Ky really say he admired Hitler?) if one is in Saigon. Yet Michael Foot’s SOE in France, published by Her Majesty’s Stationery Office, not only fails even to mention Vietnam, but deals with a war that took place a quarter-century ago and ten thousand miles away. It has been virtually ignored by the American press, but in Western Europe it became a best seller much as the Warren Report was in the United States, and brought about what was probably the most unusual interference of a foreign power in the freedom of expression of another country to occur in a democracy in peacetime. And what it says does have a bearing on Vietnam, after all.

On June 3, 1966, a French court bailiff arrived at the offices of the liberal weekly Le Nouvel Observateur in the rue Royale in Paris, escorted by two police commissioners. He presented the astonished editors with a valid injunction by a French court enjoining the magazine from publishing a book review “at the request of Her Britannic Majesty.” On June 6, despite urgent queries at the British Embassy in Paris, and the latter’s consultation with the Foreign Office, the injunction was maintained, thus turning the book from a dull buckram-bound official history into a cause célèbre.

SOE was Britain’s wartime special Operations Executive, the equivalent of the American OSS, forerunner of the CIA. As all of mainland Europe slipped under Nazi control in late 1940, it became necessary for the hard-pressed British not only to gather far more intelligence than the peacetime Intelligence Service could provide, but also to inflict upon the Germans whatever military harassment was possible under the circumstances. SOE built up networks of local groups and provided them with the basic means of organizing resistance movements which in turn could tie down more German troops and provide the Allies with intelligence. Commissioned by the Foreign Office, Foot, a solid academic specialist on nineteenth-century diplomacy, accepted in 1963 the task of writing this book under restrictions which resemble those of the Kennedy-Manchester arrangements: he was first to work on the documents alone, and only afterward to meet with some of the survivors. Apparently London never gave him permission to request access to French documents or surviving French witnesses. In all likelihood those limitations were the reasons for certain built-in biases which provoked the ire of the Observateur and, in turn, the heavy-handed official attempt by the British to interfere with the book’s reviews in Paris.

For the book, in a readable and understated style, argues that the French Resistance was essentially a creation of the British. By the time the first copies of the book entered France, dozens of French Resistance leaders, authentic heroes to a whole generation of their countrymen, were ready to file libel suits against the hapless Foot. Even the revised versions of the pieces the Observateur finally published were far from tender—for Foot, on the basis of the SOE records, documented what the Nazis and their Vichy collaborators had said all along: the French Resistance was nothing but a tool of the British. It had no life of its own. Its leaders were faceless and of no importance except to their masters in London.

IN FOOT’S WORDS: “Till 1944 the British had a virtual monopoly over all of De Gaulle’s means of communications with France,” and the French “could not introduce a single agent or a single store”—the latter being Anglicism for “supply items”—without Allied permission. While the actual facts were somewhat at variance with this sweeping assertion (De Gaulle’s establishment in Algiers gave him access to the gold reserves of the Bank of Algeria and control of some ships and aircraft that owed nothing to SOE) the main point surely holds. Furthermore, the Americans and British—the former operating only a little more blindly than they do now, and the latter as shortsighted at times as they later were in their attitude toward the Rome Treaty in 1957—were grimly determined to keep aid to the French Resistance “nonpolitical,” i.e., entirely tuned to their objectives rather than to French objectives. “Anything the French planned with marked political implications,” says Foot, was liable to “be vetoed by any of the three major Western allies.” Aside from the slip of three “major Western allies” (which was the third? the Canadians? the Dutch? the London Poles? Or perhaps Stalin?) the general point again is true: Foot describes how the British, contrary to their agreement, broke the Free French code and unleashed extremely costly (to the French) guerrilla uprisings, over the objections of the staff of the French Forces of the Interior (FFI). As a young boy I was in the French Alps among those maquis units offered up for sacrifice. With our SOE and OSS mentors, we were to delay a German mountain division and an elite SS Brigade from reaching the Allied beachheads. The order, given too early and disregarding the pleas of the FFI command, resulted in the Vercors massacre, still a sore subject in Resistance circles.

But Foot is too good a historian to have confused the SOE’s ability to organize an existing French will to resist the Nazis with SOE’s obvious inability to create a widespread popular movement out of whole cloth. As he says (p. 442), “All these victories by and through resistance forces in France had a common basis: overwhelming popular support.” In other words, SOE, like its traditional brother agency, the Intelligence Service, could (and did) recruit a small group of devoted (and paid) intelligence agents, some of whom betrayed them, while others died with their lips sealed, in torture chambers. But SOE could not recruit me, a boy of sixteen, and 30,000 other men and women like me, some younger and many older, to go out and live for a few years in the inclement climate of the Alps or the Pyrenees to face the Wehrmacht with light weapons. I went only because I felt I had to, and I stayed because I knew the cause was right. To the very end, I was part of an “armed minority” led by “faceless leaders” and imposed my will with the help of some Englishmen and Americans who arrived by parachute. And that is where Foot’s book becomes relevant to the Vietnam debate, for it clearly delineates what makes a guerrilla movement genuine—any guerrilla movement, be it left-wing (as here in Vietnam), Moslem nationalist (as in Algeria), Christian Orthodox (as in Cyprus), or Jewish (as in Palestine).

All of these movements started abroad—General Grivas, in his memoirs, tells us how he decided to liberate Cyprus one day, sitting at a sidewalk cafe in Athens: Masaryk started the Czech Republic in Pittsburgh—and all others had foreign support. Their underground leaders (unless they were candidates for immediate suicide or prompt arrest) had faces which were not reproduced on their country’s postage stamps. An outside specialist can only organize what is willing to be organized, for it is as easy to run away from a guerrilla force (people did so all the time in the FFI, as it is to desert from a regular army, if not easier. Yet, in Vietnam during 1966 a total of 20,242 Chieu-Hoi (“Open Arms” defectors) came out of the jungle, bringing with them a total of only 1,963 weapons—i.e., most of these defectors were unarmed civilians, a fact which is not denied here. Meanwhile the South Vietnamese Army lost, that same year, at least 110,000 men, who simply walked off and out of the war. Apparently, fourteen years of American organization here have yet to match the effectiveness of the Viet Cong’s organizational efforts.

THE THEME of Douglas Pike’s book Viet Cong, is, like Foot’s, Organization. It had also an unexpected notoriety. Its author works for the Joint United State Public Affairs Office (JUSPAO) here as the US Mission’s No. 1 Viet Cong expert. Like the books critical of US policy which are hidden by the USIS but kept by the US military, Pike’s presence is one of those small illustrations of the good side of the American system. No other book is likely to demolish more completely and more seriously all the convenient myths dished out officially about the National Liberation Front (NLF), for this is the work of an “insider.” In his job Pike sees more material than anyone except the Front Leaders themselves. He has read reports from captured Viet Congs, translations of the huge quantities of captured documents (the NLF, like all movements influenced by Communism, is afflicted with such bureaucratism that several wits here have suggested that one way of stopping them completely would be to parachute in to them hundreds of mimeograph machines), and publications from Hanoi or from Front sources abroad. At least eight hundred such documents are cited in this book. That does not exactly make it bedside reading (and an enormous amount of typical M.I.T. pseudoscientific verbiage does not help, such as “externalization” and “proselyting” [sic], but anyone who wishes to discuss intelligently a solution to the Vietnam problem should read his book.

“What struck one most forcibly about the N.L.F.,” Pike writes, “was its totality as a social revolution first and as a war second…. Even more important, it openly communicated its intentions to the Vietnamese population. Such an ambition far exceeded that of the Viet Minh” of earlier days, who, under the leadership of Ho Chi Minh, fought the French. Here is an enemy who, according to Pike, lives by a highly moralistic mystique, “far more moral than ideological. Virtue was the golden word.” An enemy who, supposedly, obeys the tenets of Communism but who, at the same time, can be taxed with “extreme romanticism…Idealistic appeals abounded: the promise of the good life in utopian terms; the opportunity to revolt against all the evil, injustice, and inequity of this world; the chance to be part of a great crusade.” To see how far away we are from that kind of appeal, one has only to look at downtown Saigon, to cast a glance at the kind of ideals Saigon offers the population, or to read some of the leaflets our own psychological warfare uses. The black market here seems to be even more resistant to “sweep-and-destroy” operations than the NLF’s stronghold around Bong-Son, which was “cleared” by large elements of two American divisions four times in 1966, and is still as unsafe as ever.

It would be totally depressing to compare a batch of official handouts of, say, the years 1960-63 with Pike’s statement: “In horror, Americans helplessly watched Diem tear apart the fabric of Vietnamese society more effectively than the Communists had ever been able to do. It was the most efficient act of his entire career.” So much for the golden days of the Diem regime, so eloquently described in past State-Department White Books. As for the origin of the NLF, Pike, more than any other Westerner thus far, has successfully analyzed the Vietnamese cultural proclivity for secret societies, and the also faces up squarely to the fact that an overwhelming number of the original NLF supporters were not necessarily Communist but certainly anti-Diem, simply because they were left with no other choice: “Many of the original participants in the NLF had turned to it because they had been denied participation in South Vietnam’s political process, even in the role of loyal oposition…” (my italics). If there is any illusion in America that the same opposition is being offered any better alternative today, that illusion should be dispelled by what one of the highest civilian officials of the government of Air Vice Marshal Ky told me: “If somebody wants to oppose us,” he said, “let him do it in Hanoi. Not here.” The chances are that nothing that is going to happen in the future will change the views of such men. With such a system in place, any real opposition is going to stay not only disloyal, but underground; permanent instability is almost built in to such a system. In any case, it can be assumed that at some point Hanoi, perhaps even reluctantly, decided to intervene in behalf of the opposition to Diem. After all, a far more alien power had been intervening on Diem’s side ever since 1954.

COMPARED TO PIKE’S BOOK, the small book, Vietnam Seen from East and West, edited by Ray and first published in Australia, is, in its antiquated way, almost funny. The Anglo-American hawks have managed to find a few like-minded Vietnamese, Laotians, Koreans, and Filipinos to justify its title, but the authors really look at Vietnam from the Right to the Far Right, and all that they can see is a proxy war with Red China. Nothing else, certainly not the Vietnamese people, seems to count. Once the Vietnam problem is posed in those Ruskian terms, anything goes. To paraphrase Samuel Johnson’s observation that patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel, grand strategy seems to have become the last refuge of some pretty strange people.

It would be pointless to recite all the factual errors (let alone weird views) of most of the authors. One Vietnamese writer escalates the number of people killed during North Vietnam’s botched 1956 land reform from the commonly accepted figure of between fifty and a hundred thousand to a half million; another gives false, far-too-low desertion figures for his country’s army; a British hawk still describes Bonze Tri Quang as a “Communist”—in spite of the fact that in May, 1966, when faced with the choice of being captured by Ky in rebellious Hué or joining the NLF he opted for capture and house arrest. Ho Chi Minh is said to be “surrounded by Stalinists” (!) and North Vietnam fights this war “under the aegis of China.” Even such responsible journalists as Brian Crozier produce undocumented non-facts, for example, the statement that General Giap led, in 1955, an “extreme” wing in Hanoi which wished to invade South Vietnam even before the election deadline of 1956. Only Maximo V. Soliven, a Filipino drawing on the Huk example, and Arnold Beichman, who quotes General Lansdale as saying that “the Communists have let loose a revolutionary idea in Vietnam and it will not die by being ignored, bombed, or smothered by us,” at least make some valid points. The Australians sound like Bulgarians trying to explain Russia’s viewpoint on NATO. And when they call themselves “a part of Asia” they sound as convincing as Rhodesia’s Ian Smith when he refers to himself as an “African.” I’m sure I shall soon find this book on the “open” bookshelves of USIS

FRANZ SCHURMANN’S BOOK is probably the best single investment anyone can make in the literature on Vietnam (it costs sixty cents). It is a work which I would like to see seriously and thoughtfully debated by Administration advocates. Like any book written by a committee (the book also has a foreword by Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.), it won’t win high marks for style, but it presents clearly much of the story of the failure of the American government to pursue a diplomacy that would lead to a negotiated settlement: the peace-feelers that were missed, the ignored appeals, the “cues” that were not given, the tendency of the US to escalate the war when chances for détente were most hopeful.

Not that it is by any means complete, because it falls into the common ethnocentric error of American scholarship of quoting mainly Anglo-American sources. Yet, this is, unfortunately, understandable: they are the only sources the US believes. Reliable first-hand observers have reported for more than a year that some North Vietnamese cities had been demolished: after all, there are Frenchmen, Canadians, Indians, and Britons stationed there, and the French pilots of the International Control Commission who have flown over North Vietnam every week for the past fourteen years have seen a great deal. Several American travelers had been to Nam-Dinh—but it took The New York Times’s reporter Harrison Salisbury to make it “official” that the city was in ruins. The same seems true of peace feelers. Schurmann could have interviewed Philippe Devillers to confirm the disappearance of the 325th North Vietnamese Division from combat in the South in 1965 after Secretary Rusk called for a “sign.” The American response was, as a senior North Vietnamese official pointed out, more air raids. It is now clearly established that there was a slow-down in infiltration during last year’s bombing halt. On this side, about 30,000 reinforcements arrived. I spent Christmas with US Marines on the 17th parallel; according to the available information, American patrols found few, if any, infiltrators, and the same was true at New Year. But according to official announcements, the better part of an American division went ashore during the truce. We all can look forward to new enlarged editions of The Politics of Escalation as more peace feelers get muffed all over the map.

VIETNAM! VIETNAM!, biased though it is, is still likely to go down as The Disasters of War of this conflict. As to the bias of this collection of photographs of the Vietnam War: just as it must be acknowledged that the French Resistance killed more Frenchmen in two years than the French Revolution’s terror in six—many of whom were not collaborators—it must be clearly realized that the Liberation Front does not fight its share of the war with snowballs. Whatever the provocation, and however genuine the NLF’s hatred of the largely avoidable barbarisms of the other side, it is nonetheless true that the NLF also kills innocent people and that photographs to that effect are also available and should have found their way into the final selection. With that caveat in mind, Greene’s book tells a story that is sickening. It has by now been clearly established that American troops at least witness tortures, if nothing more than that. On one page, an Army officer, identified by name (was his head cropped off by UPI, which took the picture, or by Greene?) stands by with a radio-telephone as a man is being slowly garrotted. There is an unforgettable shot of an American M-113 armored personnel carrier (its markings identify it as vehicle 21, “B” Squadron, 12th Cavalry, presumably), with part of its American crew looking on unconcernedly as a dead (one hopes) enemy is being dragged behind the vehicle like Hector behind Achilles’ chariot. The picture, again by UPI, won an international photography prize.

With that picture a problem arises: it shows, according to US Army Field Manual 27-10, issued over the signature of General Maxwell D. Taylor, and entitled The Law of Land Warfare, prima facie evidence of what the Manual calls a “war crime.” Indeed, Paragraph 499 of the Manual reads in full:

The term “war crime” is the technical expression for a violation of the law of war by any person or persons, military or civilian. Every violation of the law of war is a war crime.

FM 27-10 also says under Paragraph 504: “Other Types of War Crimes.”

In addition to the “grave breaches” of the Geneva Conventions of 1949, the following acts are representative of violations of the law of war (“war crimes”):


c. Maltreatment of dead bodies.

The American Unified Code of Military Justice (UCMJ, Article 18) provides for trial by general courts-martial of war crimes “if committed by persons subject to United States military law,” under Paragraph 506 (c) of the Field Manual; and Paragraph 507 makes it mandatory that “Commanding officers of United States troops must insure that war crimes committed by members of their forces against enemy personnel are promptly and adequately published.”

That is what the Law says. But perhaps that UPI picture is a fake, and all the other pictures of similar types are anti-American fakes, and what I am being told happens here is all nasty anti-war propaganda. I haven’t heard of anybody in this whole conflict who has yet been prosecuted for violation of the Laws of War. But I will keep looking.

JAMES PICKERELL’S BOOK is of the same type as Greene’s: lots of photographs, since he is a photographer, and some text. At first glance, this looks like just another one of those Vietnam quickies which are beginning to flood the market. The photographs, though they too depict torture at one point, and violence throughout, are of the kind which we have seen before on TV and in the newspapers. But—there is the text, and Pickerell, who now has his own photo studio in Saigon, suddenly turns out to be more than just an eye behind a lens. He has a conscience, and like Pike he speaks out, but with a quiet emphasis which perhaps carries more weight than the sometimes strident approach of Greene. Like many of the other journalists here, he is, as Neil Sheehan recently said in The New York Times, “A Dove Not Yet, A Hawk No More.”

Pickerell sees the war far more closely, and in many more places, than the Washington pundits who honor us with their presence here for a few weeks and go from high-level briefing to a carefully stage-managed pacification operation without ever seeing the real, bleeding Vietnam. In Pickerell’s view, the war will escalate and it will extend beyond 1968 at the least. In the best of circumstances he believes it would take at least three years to set in motion the programs of reform that might conclusively reshape the war. But, he says:

We will lose in Vietnam, not because it was inevitable from the start, but because we failed to think and change with the times…. We will always place military action above economic and political development. It is for these reasons that we will lose….

The years will go by and the public will begin to wonder why, if we are always winning, the situation never seems to improve. This more than anything defeated the French, and it will probably defeat us too.

But Pickerell, like all of us who are here, is too close to his subject, and loses sight of the big picture which is perceived so clearly ten thousand miles away. He can’t see the Grand Strategy of it, the Containment of China—soon there will be tens of thousands more troops “containing” the same threat in Thailand, and the deterrent example this quagmire is supposed to offer other peoples elsewhere. At the end of his book Pickerell warns his readers of the fate of Goliath. Yet the duel between David and Goliath was recorded in the Bible precisely because David’s victory was so unlikely. Here, a massive military effort is deployed to show that the strong will prevail over the weak. And never mind the Laws of War.