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Understanding the Vietcong

Le Viet Nam entre deux paix

by Jean Lacouture
Editions du Seuil, 266 pp., 17 N.F.

High strategic themes, bureaucratic interests, intellectual baggage and many other kinds of junk have been piled on to the war in Vietnam. It has been called a fatal test of will between Communism and freedom. It has been described as the critical battle in the struggle between China and the United States. It has also been described as the critical battle in the struggle between China and the Soviet Union. On its outcome there is supposed to rest the future of Southeast Asia; and so it has also been sometimes described as the critical battle between China and India. At a minimum the Dr. Strange-loves of “sublimited war” claim that Vietnam poses the question whether a nuclear power can mobilize the kind of force required to contain guerrilla warfare. And with so much at stake it seems to make sense that the greatest power on earth should send as ambassador to a kind of Asian Ruritania its leading military man and, on two occasions, one of its best-known political figures.

To those who think it does make sense, which seems to include practically everybody in the United States, Jean Lacouture’s new book on Vietnam will come as a kind of revelation. He announces his almost revolutionary theme in the opening sentence: “Vietnam,” he writes, “exists.” His book is about a particular place and a struggle for primacy there. It is, in other words, a political book. It deals with the elements and forces of the conflict, not as if they were apocalyptic and millennial events but as political phenomena. To read Lacouture after a dose of the official and even the journalistic literature which we get in this country is to pass from griffins and unicorns to Darwin and Mendel.

For writing a non-mythological political analysis of Vietnam, Lacouture has the ideal background. As a distinguished correspondent for various journals, including Le Monde, he has been to Vietnam repeatedly since he first went there on the staff of General Leclerc in 1945. He has visited both North and South Vietnam several times. He has written on his subject often and at length, notably in a biographical study of Ho Chi Minh and as co-author of a book on the Geneva truce of 1954. He knows all the leading figures on all sides from way back. Nor is he a narrow specialist. After a particularly baffling encounter with a Buddhist monk, for example, he can write: “Our seminaries also train specialists in verbal equivocation and suave silences, but never, in our climate, has the sacerdotal smile taken on such an evasive efficaciousness.” Moreover, the politics of underdeveloped countries, so mysterious to most of us, and so parochial to those who know only a single country, are familiar stuff to him. With his wife Simone, Lacouture has written the best study to date of Colonel Nasser’s Egypt; and one of the best on Morocco since independence. While obviously a pièce d’occasion, his present book on Vietnam is of the same high quality.

His starting point is the regime of President Ngo Dinh Diem. Just how the United States became connected with Diem has become a matter of controversy. Ramparts magazine has recently published an account purporting to show that a knot of American Catholic politicos and professional anti-Communists, depending largely upon Cardinal Spellman, promoted our support of the Diem regime. Perhaps. But history has a way of demolishing theories that trace large consequences to little groups of men. Far more important is the point urged in a brilliant study of the Vietnamese war by the international lawyer, Victor Bator* . Bator’s argument is that in 1954, for reasons of domestic politics, the Eisen-hower-Dulles regime broke with the policy of moving in concert with Britain and France and tried to establish South Vietnam as a bastion of anti-communist resistance. President Diem was merely the vehicle for that effort.

He had little chance to succeed. Not because, as some say, South Vietnam cannot exist as a separate political entity. In Vietnam too, it is different in the South. South Vietnam in fact is one of the most richly diversified areas in the world. Its topography includes mountainous areas peopled by primitive tribes, arid plateaux, and a great alluvial plain. It is a leading producer of rice—a crop requiring the kind of intense personal cultivation that breeds an independent peasantry. The diversity fostered by occupation is further promoted by religious custom: South Vietnam’s 14 million people include large numbers of Catholics, Buddhists and Confucians, and all of them practice a kind of ancestor worship that places special emphasis on local custom. While Vietnamese political parties in the Western sense have existed only as affiliates of those that had grown up around the old political capital of Hanoi in the North, there remained—and remain—a multitude of local Southern sects (Lacouture likens them to “armed leagues”) that mixed banditry with religion. Thanks to a loose provincial reign, the French, as Lacouture points out, had governed this melange for decades with no more difficulties than those found in the sleepiest of domestic Departments—“Herault and Lot et Garonne.” Painly, any Southern regime that was likely to succeed would have to be pluralistic, offering great scope for local differences—and this was especially true for the regime of President Diem, a Catholic aristocrat from the high plains and thus markedly different from the majority of Vietnamese.

But if there was one thing the Diem regime lacked, it was sympathy for pluralism. The ruling family was imbued “with an extra touch of fervor, something of the absolute.” The President bad an “attachment to the ancient society of Annam—high aristocracy, closed castes, intellectual hierarchies…he wanted to revive the old order, the morality of the fathers, the respect for the master.” His brother and political counselor Ngo Dinh Nhu saw in the “strategic hamlets” a re-creation of the fortified towns of the Middle Ages that he had studied as a budding medievalist at the Ecole des Chartres. Another brother, Ngo Dinh Can, who ruled the northern provinces, lived in the old family mansion, dressed in the ancient Vietnamese style, and slept on the floor. Madame Nhu’s war on night life and dancing was thus not a personal aberration, but a true expression of the absolute traditionalism that typified the regime.

Confronting a diversity of political factions, however, single-minded dogmatism can prevail only in a climate of strife—real or contrived. In the beginning the Diem regime had to fight against the sects and the remnants of French influence. In the course of this struggle President Diem evicted the former Emporor, Bao Dai, and became President “in a plebiscite as honest as could be expected.” But having taken the sects and the crown, the Diem regime did not know how to use its victory to develop harmony. “Having won a battle, it preferred war to peace…In 1955 any opponent was denounced as a relic of the sects of feudal rebels supported by colonialism. Beginning in 1956, any opponent is called a Communist.” It was in this context that the regime initiated in 1956 a campaign against the Vietcong—a name manufactured by the regime and supposed to mean Vietnamese Communists, but actually embracing a far wider spectrum of political opinion. In the same spirit the Saigon regime, against the advice of the American Ambassador, publicly abrogated the clause of the 1954 Geneva Agreement calling for re-unification of Vietnam through free elections—a clause that Hanoi could certainly not have accepted at the time. But in the process of fighting the Vietcong, the regime called forth the two forces that were to prove its undoing.

One of these was the army of the Republic of Vietnam, or ARVIN as it came to be called. In connection with ARVIN, it is worth noting one of the intellectual sleights-of-hand common to Americans who believe it is good for this country to support reactionary governments abroad. After all, they say in the Montesquieu manner, democracy cannot be exported; the conditions that promote free institutions in the United States do not exist elsewhere, and one should not impose American mores uncritically. True enough. But this is not a creature the American liberal. On the contrary, the group that most uncritically projects American ways, that is most ready to overlook and override local custom, and to ignore the tradition of centuries, is the American military. And nothing proves it better than ARVIN.

It is an army created in the image of our own. It wears American parade dress and American fatigues. It rides around in jeeps and helicopters and jet planes. It is organized in corps, divisions, and companies and has special forces and ranger battalions. It has most of the weaponry available to American forces. It is full of keen young officers, trained at staff schools in the United States, bursting with energy and with clear answers to cloudy questions. What it does not have, of course, is the cultural base of the American army. It does not, to be specific, have a strong sense of discipline, nor does it have a tradition that discourages meddling in political affairs. On the contrary, ARVIN was called into being by political affairs; and the younger the officers the more ardently political they tend to be. How could anyone imagine that a force so modern in its outlook, so uninhibited and unrestricted in its background, would for long yield pride of place to a regime as old-fashioned and backward-looking as the Diem government? As Lacouture points out, military plotting against the government got under way as soon as the army was organized. In 1960 and again in 1962 attempted military coups came very close to toppling the regime. Only by fantastic juggling, only by setting unit against unit and commander against commander and by planting spies and rumors everywhere was the regime able to maintain its hold over the army at all. It is typical that on the eve of the coup that succeeded, the regime itself was planning a fake coup to discover which of its generals were loyal. Sooner or later, in short, a military coup would have unseated Diem. As much as anything in history can be, his undoing by his own praetorian guard was inevitable—a consideration to bear in mind when there develops in Washington a hunt for scapegoats who will be charged with having lost Vietnam by causing the downfall of the Diem regime.

The second force brought into being by the absolutism of the regime was the Vietcong. In keeping with the Geneva Accords, almost all the guerilla forces, and especially their leaders, who had fought for Ho Chi Minh against the French moved above the 17th parallel to North Vietnam. There remained, however, in scattered areas of the South, Communists loyal to the North Vietnamese government in Hanoi. Precisely because they were disciplined Communists, loyal to the party line, they did not initiate trouble against the Diem regime. For Hanoi had troubles of its own—first the re-settlement; then construction of new industry; and at all times a chronic food shortage and great difficulties with the peasantry. Feeling itself far more vulnerable than the Saigon regime, the last thing Hanoi wanted to do was to give the Diem government an excuse for intervention. For that reason, Hanoi protested in only the most perfunctory way when the clause providing for re-unification through free elections was unilaterally abrogated by Saigon. For the same reason, Hanoi tried repeatedly (and unsuccessfully) to make deals with the Saigon regime, offering to trade its manufactures for foodstuffs. And for exactly the same reason, Hanoi kept the Communists in the South under wraps. As one Communist quoted by Lacouture said later: “Between 1954 and 1958 we were pacifist opportunists. We hesitated to draw conclusions from the Diemist dictatorship and its excesses.”

But, as Lacouture shows, other victims of the Diem regime were under no such discipline. Tribal leaders, local notables, independent peasants and smallholders, not to mention intellectuals and professional men in Saigon, found themselves threatened by the militancy of the regime. Many were thrown into prison—for example, the present chief of state, Phan Khac Suu, and one of the more recent Premiers, Phan Huy Quat. Others resisted, and inevitably they looked to the Communists for support. Thus local pressure for the Communists to start things began to build up. As one Vietcong leader told Lacouture: “There was pressure at the base. An old peasant said to me: ‘If you don’t join the fight we’re through with you.”’ (I have heard very similar explanations in my own talks with Vietcong officials.) In short, like almost all rebellions, the Vietcong revolt was not set off by some master planner working from the outside. It was generated by local conditions.

The course of events outlined by Lacouture follows this pattern exactly. The formal establishment of the National Liberation Front, or political arm of the Vietcong, was initiated at a meeting held in the U Minh forest of southeast South Vietnam in March, 1960. According to Lacouture, the chief document before the meeting was a letter urging the establishment of the Liberation Front written from a Saigon prison by a non-Communist who is now head of the Front, Nguyen Huu Tho. While at least two of those at the March meeting seem to have been Communists, most of those on the spot were not. The chief items in the declaration that was then put out were purely local grievances. And it was only after the Front was already in motion, in September. 1960, that Hanoi gave it explicit support. As Lacouture puts it: “The leaders in Hanoi did not take this turn [toward backing revolt in the south] except under the express demand and the moral pressure of the local militants.”

Once Hanoi had formally supported the Front, there was no backing down. With the United States supporting the Saigon regime, there came about the famous build-up of military operations. In failing to see the complexity of the domestic pressures that drove the United States to underwrite Saigon, Lacouture misses a vital point—the only flaw in his book. But how little of the underlying political situation has really been changed by this build-up! The confrontation, to be sure, has become more dangerous. The American role as backer of the Saigon regime, and especially its army, is now more exposed. So is Hanoi’s role as supplier of men and weapons to the Vietcong. Still, there remains some independence in Saigon—witness, the Buddhists’ maneuverings and the government crises that regularly catch American officials by surprise. The National Liberation Front retains a Central Committee that seems to be less than a third Communist, and that is, as it always was, especially oriented toward the problems of South Vietnam. While it is true that more Communists are to be found on the intermediary levels of the N.L.F., neither Lacouture nor others who know the Vietcong leaders well believe that they are fighting in order to impose a North Vietnamese Communist dictatorship on the South. The chief problem remains what it always was—how to find a political means of reconciling the great diversity of interest and opinion in South Vietnam.

Official apologists for our present policy, while acknowledging its dangers, often insist that there is no alternative. This is a little like the peddlar selling pills during the Lisbon earthquake who replied, when asked whether the pills would do any good: No, but what do you have that’s better? The comparison would be even more apt if the peddlar had had a hand in starting the earthquake. Certainly it is true that the alternatives have been obscured by the resolute refusal of most of the American press to study carefully the politics of the war, including the politics of the Vietcong. But in fact there remains an alternative well known to all politically alert Vietnamese (though it is difficult to voice because of increasingly harsh American policy.) It is the alternative of negotiations between the Saigon government and the Vietcong. Such talks are an absolute pre-condition to any reconciling of local differences. However difficult to arrange they may now appear, direct discussions with the Vietcong will sooner or later have to take place if there is to be a settlement in Vietnam. For a struggle that began locally—and this is the central point to emerge from Lacouture’s book—can also best be settled locally.


Wolf August 26, 1965

  1. *

    Vietnam: A Diplomatic Tragedy, Oceana Publications, N. Y.

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