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Vietnam: An Exercise in Self-Delusion

The New Face of War

by Malcolm W. Browne
Bobbs-Merrill, 284 pp., $5.00

The Making of a Quagmire

by David Halberstam
Random House, 312 pp., $4.95

The morning I sat down to write this review, the Washington Post (March 25) carried the news that Malcolm W. Browne had been arrested and held for two hours by South Vietnamese Air Force officers at the big U. S. air and missile base at Da Nang. The incident is symbol and symptom of the steady degeneration in the conduct of the Vietnamese war. These two books by two newspapermen who won Pulitzer Prizes last year for their coverage of the war, Browne for the Associated Press, David Halberstam for The New York Times, record the agony of trying to report the war truthfully against the opposition of the higher-ups, military and civilian. The books appear just as the war is entering a new stage when honest reporting is more essential than ever, but now restriction and censorship are applied to black it out. Da Nang, the main base from which the war is being escalated to the North, was officially declared “off limits” the day before Browne’s arrest and newsmen were told they could not enter without a pass obtainable only in Saigon, 385 miles to the south. “Newsmen,” the dispatch on Browne’s arrest said, “doubted such a pass existed.” The incident occurred only a few days after the highest information officer at the Pentagon claimed that its policy on coverage of the war was “complete candor.”

What makes these books so timely, their message so urgent, is that they show the Vietnamese war in that aspect which is most fundamental for our own people—as a challenge to freedom of information and therefore freedom of decision. They appear at a time when all the errors on which they throw light are being intensified. Instead of correcting policy in the light of the record, the light itself is being shut down. Access to news sources in Vietnam and in Washington is being limited, censorship in the field is becoming more severe. Diem is dead but what might be termed Diemism has become the basic policy of the American government. For years our best advisers, military and civilian, tried desperately to make him understand that the war was a political problem which could only be solved in South Vietnam. Three years ago the head of the U. S. Mission spoke of the war as a battle for the “hearts and minds” of the people, and primarily the villagers, whose disaffection had made the rebellion possible against superior forces and equipment. To win that battle it was then proposed to spend $200,000,000 to bolster the Vietnamese economy and raise living standards. Though much of this money seems to have been frittered away, it was at least recognized that the military effort was only one aspect of the problem. Now we have adopted Diem’s simple-minded theory that the war is merely a product of Communist conspiracy, that it is purely an invasion and not a rebellion or a civil war, and that all would be well—in Secretary Rusk’s fatuous phrase—if only the North let its neighbors alone. This is the theory of the White Paper and this is the excuse for bombing North Vietnam.

While the war expands, the theory on which it proceeds has narrowed. Washington’s “party line” on the war has been shrunk to rid it of those annoying complexities imposed by contact with reality. The change becomes evident if one compares the White Paper of 1965 with the Blue Book of 1961, The Blue Book was issued by the Kennedy Administration to explain its decision to step up the scale of our aid and the number of our “military advisers” in South Vietnam. The White Paper was issued by the Johnson Administration to prepare the public mind to accept its decision to bomb the North and risk a wider war. The change of policy required that rewriting of history we find so amusing when we watch it being done on the other side.

Four years ago the Blue Book told us that the basic pattern of Viet Cong activity was “not new, of course.” It said this followed the tactics applied and the theories worked out by Mao Tse-tung in China. It said much the same methods were used “in Malaya, in Greece, in the Philippines, in Cuba and in Laos.” If there is “anything peculiar to the Viet-Nam situation,” the Blue Book said, “it is that the country is divided and one-half provides a safe sanctuary from which subversion in the other half is supported with both personnel and materiel.” This implied a conflict which was doubly a civil war, first between the two halves of a divided country and then between the government and Communist-led guerrillas in one-half of that country.

The White Paper disagrees. It abandons complexity to make possible simple-minded slogans and policy. It declares the conflict “a new kind of war…a totally new brand of aggression…not another Greece…not another Malaya…not another Philippines…Above all…not a spontaneous and local rebellion against the established government.” (Italics in the original.) The “fundamental difference,” the White Paper says, is that in Vietnam “a Communist government has set out deliberately to conquer a sovereign people in a neighboring state.” This implies that there is no popular discontent in the South to be allayed, no need to negotiate with the rebels. The war is merely a case of international aggression and the aggressor is to be punished by bombardment until he agrees to call off the invasion. The rebellion can be shut off, all this implies, as if by spigot from Hanoi. The truth about the war has been tailored to suit the Air Force faith in “victory by airpower.” This was Goldwater’s theory and this has become Johnson’s policy.

Browne’s book sheds some sharp light on the White Paper’s thesis. The White Paper says the war is “inspired, directed, supplied and controlled” by Hanoi. But Browne reports that “intelligence experts feel less than 10 per cent and probably more like 2 per cent of the Viet Cong’s stock of modern weapons is Communist made.” He also reports that “only a small part of Viet Cong increase in strength has resulted from infiltration of North Vietnamese Communist troops into South Vietnam.” An astringent examination of the White Paper and its supporting appendices will show that it really proves little more than this, despite the sweeping headline impressions it was intended to generate. Browne also tells us that “Western intelligence experts believe the proportion of Communists [in the National Liberation Front] is probably extremely small.” He describes it as “a true ‘front’ organization appealing for the support of every social class.” Browne declares the Front a “creature” of the Vietnamese Communist Party and says it has “strong but subtle ties” to the Hanoi regime. For many Vietnamese, nevertheless “the Front is exactly what it purports to be—the people’s struggle for independence.” This is what our best advisers tried to tell Diem. This is what our bureaucracy now refuses to see rather than admit past error and defeat, preferring to gamble on a wider war.

The really terrible message in these books is not that the bureaucrats have tried to deceive the public but that they have insisted on deceiving themselves. The Vietnamese war has been an exercise in self-delusion. David Halberstam tells us in The Making of a Quagmire that when the first Buddhist burned himself to death, Ngo Dinh Diem was convinced that this act had been staged by an American television team. The Buddhist crisis, as Halberstam describes it, “was to encompass all the problems of the Government: its inability to rule its own people; the failure of the American mission to influence Diem…Observing the government during those four months was like watching a government trying to commit suicide.” The stubborn insistence of the South Vietnamese dictator on insulating himself from reality spread into our own government. The most important revelation these two books make is the unwillingness of the higher-ups in Saigon and Washington to hear the truth from their subordinates in the field.

South Vietnam swarmed with spies, but apparently they were only listened to when they reported what their paymasters wanted to hear. Halberstam says that at one time Diem had thirteen different secret police organizations. Browne provides a vivid picture of how our own intelligence agencies proliferated. The CIA, Special Forces, the Aid Mission, the Army, the Provost Marshal, the Navy, and the U. S. Embassy each had its own operatives. But they were not, in Browne’s words, “one big happy family.” On the contrary they “very often closely concealed” their findings from other agencies “because of the danger that the competitors may pirate the material and report it to headquarters first, getting the credit.”

All this fierce application of free enterprise to the collection of information seems to have been of little use because of a top level political decision. “Ever since Vietnamese independence” (i.e., 1954), Browne reveals, “American intelligence officials had relied on the Vietnamese intelligence system for most of their information.” This was “because of Diem’s touchiness about American spooks wandering around on their own.” In the interest of preserving harmony, “somehow the intelligence reports always had it that the war was going well.” We circulated faithfully in orbit around our own satellite. Diem’s men told him what he wanted to hear, and ours passed on what he wanted us to believe. Halberstam confirms this. In those final months before Diem’s overthrow, “CIA agents were telling me that their superiors in Vietnam were still so optimistic that they were not taking the turmoil and unrest very seriously.” John Richardson, then CIA chief in Vietnam, displayed a kind of infatuation with Diem’s brother Nhu and his wife. Halberstam describes a lunch with Richardson in 1962, shortly after The New York Times sent him to Saigon, in which the CIA chief dismissed Nhu’s notorious anti-American remarks as simply those of “a proud Asian.” As for the tigerish Mme. Nhu, Richardson thought her “sometimes a little emotional, but that was typical of women who entered politics—look at Mrs. Roosevelt.”

A persistent Panglossianism marked our entire bureaucracy up to and including the White House. General Harkins, our military commander in South Vietnam, said “I am an optimist and I am not going to allow my staff to be pessimistic.” Halberstam describes a briefing at his command post after the battle of Ap Bac in January, 1963, the kind of set-piece battle for which our military had long hoped and which they first described as a victory though it turned out to be a disastrous defeat. With “the government troops so completely disorganized that they would not even carry out their own dead,” “a province chief shelling his own men” and “the enemy long gone,” General Harkins told the press a trap was about to be sprung on the enemy!

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