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Politics in Vietnam

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 Buddhist studies, and the historic seat of strong resistance both to Chinese pressure from the North and to French pressure from the South. Its elite is a traditionalist elite, looking back with nostalgia to the days of complete freedom from foreign presences.

The South was the frontier province of the Center, settled late and, as is common with frontier provinces, in rather large holdings. The French invasion of the last century found easy pickings in the South, notably with the large landholders. The native elite that emerged from the process tended to be relatively well-off economically, civilized in the French manner, and totally divorced from the uneducated peasant masses.

NOT SURPRISINGLY differences in belief are in harmony with the geographical and historical divisions. The harsh, traditionalist xenophobia of the Center has found its purest expression in the Buddhist revial led by the famous Bonze, Tri Quang. A similar Catholic attitude was reflected in the family of the late President Ngo Dinh Diem, although more recently the Catholics of the Center have reverted to the more self-effacing role of a heavily outnumbered minority. Before World War II, some of the same xenophobic spirit was channeled into two parties—the Dai Viet, or Greater Vietnam Party, and the Vietnamese Kuomintang, or Nationalist Party—which still have strength in the Center.

In the South, leadership in the cities tended to fall into the hands of the French-educated local notables. The colonialist atmosphere not only dissolved native Catholicism, but destroyed Buddhism. Among the peasantry there developed several revivalist groups—notably the Hoa Hao and Cao Dai sects. The mixture was further thickened after the Geneva Conference of 1954, when hundreds of thousands of Catholic refugees and some leading Nationalist politicians fled from Communist North Vietnam and settled mainly around Saigon.

The multiplicity of small interests has made it easy for outsiders to divide and rule. That is how the French held sway for so long, and how President Ngo Dinh Diem came so rapidly to ascendancy after the withdrawal of the French in 1954. That is how the military party, backed by the United States, has kept itself in power. Two military strong men in particular—General Nugyen Khanh in 1964 and 1965 and, more recently, Air Vice Marshal Nguyen Cao Ky—have shown themselves adept at the game of playing off Buddhists against Catholics.

Still, it has been less and less of a winning game. Since the departure of the French, each successive regime has been obliged to identify itself more and more openly with one or another faction. The Diem government was largely based on Catholic support. Diem’s successor, General Duong Van Minh, had a Buddhist base. General Khanh started with backing from the Catholics and the Dai Viet party, and then shifted to a position where he was shamelessly courting Buddhist favor. Air Marshal Ky came in on a wave of Catholic opposition to the Buddhist alliance with General Khanh. Thus even beneath the ebb and flow of power among the military, there lie the religious factions—the Buddhists and the Catholics.

WHAT DO THE BUDDHISTS really want? This question is at all times being put by Americans to the militant Buddhist leader, Thich Tri Quang. A skillful politician—far above average in the capacity to develop calculated ambiguities—Tri Quang keeps returning dusty answers. It is thus possible to see him either as a Communist tool or as the potential savior of his country. And therefore the questioning game continues—ad nauseam and ad infinitum.

A more pertinent question, it seems to me, is to ask who the militant Buddhists are. The answer is that the militant Buddhists represent a tiny organizational nucleus which has been growing from crisis to crisis and has strong affinities with far larger groups of Buddhists and others throughout the country. Apart from Thich Tri Quang, a gifted leader in my view, the core of Buddhist militants includes only a few hundred veterans of protest demonstrations. They are mainly drawn from the center of the country and notably from the children of good families—often of royal blood—who attended the University of Hue. Their viewpoint is the viewpoint of narrow, xenophobic traditionalism which, as I have indicated, is common to the educated elite of the central region of South Vietnam.

It happened that this tiny group played a dramatic role in the anti-Catholic protests that ended in the fall of the regime of the late President Ngo Dinh Diem. This (largely accidental) bit of history has combined with the self-consciousness of their small numbers to define what I would call the minimum, and destructive, goal of the militant Buddhists.

THE MINIMUM BUDDHIST GOAL is to prevent power from passing into the hands of any leaders who might try to reverse the events of 1963—who might, to be specific, crush the militant Buddhists as an act of revenge for what happened to President Diem. This minimum goal has largely governed the actions of the militant Buddhist leadership since 1963. Thus when General Nguyen Khannh seemed about to take dictatorial powers after the Tonkin Gulf incident of August 1964, the Buddhists went into the streets to force him to rescind his declaration of oneman rule. Similarly, in May 1966, when Premier Tran Van Houng, a leading personality from the South, moved into a position to crack down, the Buddhists again went into the streets and, with the backing of General Khanh, forced his cabinet from power. More recently the specter of Marshal Nguven Cao Ky using his Honolulu meeting with President Johnson to gain supreme power set in motion the latest set of Buddhist-inspired troubles.

If the Buddhists then settled for free elections, it was again within the perspective of their minimum objectives. For free elections, apart from demonstrating to the world that the Catholics really are a minority, would wipe the slate clean. They would be a new beginning. They would serve to initiate a civilian political process, to ratify the events of 1963, to prevent the purge of revenge that the Buddhists most fear. And thus when elections were once more put in doubt by Marshal Ky’s seizure of Danang in late May, the Buddhists once more went into the streets.

If avoiding a purge is the minimum, destructive goal, the Buddhists also have a larger and more positive aim which has been broadening in the course of time. The constructive goal, as I see it, is to become the nucleus for a popular majority in South Vietnam that might, in time, serve as a means of bringing an honorable peace to their country, and perhaps, even, to all of Buddhist Southeast Asia.

To this end the tiny knot of militant Buddhist leaders has developed a range of techniques for reaching the rest of the population. By emphasizing dislike of Saigon and the central government, they have won over much of the army and civil service of Central Vietnam. Cryptic talk of peace appeals to the war-weariness that, at times at least, afflicts almost everybody in the country. A dash of anti-Americanism, by setting the poor native against the rich foreigner, serves as a substitute for the one thing the Buddhists lack most of all—a social program with appeal to the poor.

My feeling is that the Buddhists hope to combine these tactics with elections to some kind of assembly, in order to organize a popular national majority. Once this majority is attained, I think they believe that they could talk to the other side and arrange a peace that would be neither victory nor defeat for either party.

In the meantime, however, the Buddhists are searching for allies to form the majority. Mindful of their own tiny size, they do not seek to dominate a national assembly. I am told that Tri Quang would like to see an assembly made up of one-third Buddhists, one-third Catholics, and one-third other groups.

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