A Bad Deal that May Not Work

Richard Nixon and Nguyen Van Thieu
Richard Nixon and Nguyen Van Thieu; drawing by David Levine



The pending cease-fire agreement, as so far disclosed by Hanoi and Washington, is like a delicate watch, intricately fabricated to make sure it won’t work. No agreement ever had so many ingenious provisions calculated to keep it from succeeding. If by chance one spring doesn’t break down, there is another in reserve that almost surely will, and if by some unforeseen mishap that one also should work, there is still another which will certainly go blooey sooner or later.

The fragility of the agreement to end the second Indochinese war is put in better focus if one compares it with the cease-fire which ended the first, at Geneva in 1954. The only signed document that emerged from the Geneva conference was a cease-fire agreement between the military commands on both sides. It was accompanied by a final declaration which nobody signed and to which the United States and the separate state the French had created in the south objected; then as now the puppet was more obdurate than the master.

The first Indochinese war ended, as the second seems to be doing, with a cease-fire but no political settlement. The prime defect, the “conceptual” flaw, to borrow a favorite word of Kissinger’s, lay in the effort to end a profoundly political struggle without a political settlement. A cease-fire then, as now, left the political problem unresolved and thus led inevitably to a resumption of the conflict. It will be a miracle if the new cease-fire does not breed another, a third, Indochinese war.

A political solution was left to mañana and “free elections.” But the Geneva cease-fire agreement, disappointing as its results proved to be, was far more precise in its promise of free elections than is the new cease-fire. It set a firm date—July, 1956—for the balloting; specified that the purpose of the elections was “to bring about the unification of Vietnam”; provided for the release within thirty days not only of POWs but of “civilian internees”; and made clear that it meant political prisoners by defining civilian internees as

…all persons who, having in any way contributed to the political and armed struggle between the two parties, have been arrested for that reason and have been kept in detention by either party during the period of hostilities.1

Nobody knows how many thousands of political prisoners are in Thieu’s jails. The most famous is Truong Dinh Dzu, the peace candidate who came in second in the 1967 presidential election, the first and only contested one. Thieu’s most notorious instrument for these round-ups was Operation Phoenix, which the CIA ran for him. A Saigon Ministry of Information pamphlet, Vietnam 1967-71: Toward Peace and Prosperity, boasts that Operation Phoenix killed 40,994 militants and activists during those years.2 These are the opposition’s civilian troops, the cadres without which…

This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:

Print Premium Subscription — $99.95

Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all content on nybooks.com.

Online Subscription — $69.00

Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.

One-Week Access — $4.99

Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.

If you already have one of these subscriptions, please be sure you are logged in to your nybooks.com account. If you subscribe to the print edition, you may also need to link your web site account to your print subscription. Click here to link your account services.