The President keeps asking what alternative there is to his policy in Vietnam, as if there were none except to deepen the war or withdraw ignominiously. But in fact, many of us have for years been advocating another approach. Essentially, this approach is to foster a civilian government in Saigon that could do the one thing the United States cannot do, negotiate with the Vietcong. The possibility of organizing such a government has been the central theme underlying all the recent events in Vietnam: the anti-government demonstrations organized by the Buddhists in Hue and Danang last March; the promise of elections in April; the reimposition of government control by force a few weeks ago; and the dramatic Buddhist reaction.
As these events have shown, the process of setting in motion a government that could negotiate a settlement is exceedingly tricky. It is like those games where you have to shake half-a-dozen steel pellets into small holes all at the same time. That the process is actively opposed by the present military regime in Saigon and only dimly understood by American officials there certainly does not help. Still, I have returned from a trip to Vietnam convinced that the building of such a government is feasible, provided that the United States bends its acts and policies accordingly. In this report, I shall anallyze what could be the constituent elements of a new regime in Saigon—notably the Buddhists and moderate Catholics. I shall then indicate the major obstacles to a turn-about—notably current American policy.
First, however, I must try to describe the tangled background of Vietnamese politics. It is a subject in which the interplay among tiny minority groups—action, reaction, and counteraction—is everything. Indeed, in its basic elements, its geography, its history, its beliefs, South Vietnam is a divided country—“a huddling together,” as Hazlitt once said of Shakespearian tragedy, “of fierce extremes.”
THE BASIC GEOGRAPHICAL DIVISION in South Vietnam is between the Center and the South. The Center, which the French included in the colony of Annam, is the coastal plain stretching from the 17th Parallel down to the outskirts of Saigon. It happens to include (in Danang, Qui Nhon, Cam Ranh Bay, and Nha Trang) the main American air and sea bases. It is a region of tiny parcels of relatively poor land, much subject to salination by repeated incursions of the sea. Though the population is only 3 million and though fish are plentiful, Central Vietnam cannot support itself.
The South, or Cochin China as the French called it, includes Saigon and the delta of the Mekong River and its many mouths. The delta region is one of the great rice-producing areas of the world and Saigon is its enterpot. Though the combined population amounts to perhaps 8 million people in normal times, the South produces a large export surplus.
Historic differences tended to follow geographic lines. Central Vietnam has been the heartland of the country, the site of the Imperial court, a center of …