SOE in France
Vietnam in the Mud
Vietcong: The Organization and Techniques of the National Liberation Front of South Vietnam
Vietnam Seen from East and West
The Politics of Escalation in Vietnam
Danang, South Vietnam
One of the added pleasures of covering the Vietnam war from inside Vietnam is that it is possible to lose track completely of what is going on elsewhere in the world—not only in the world, in fact, but in Vietnam as well. When with the Marines in the northern part of South Vietnam, it is perfectly easy to learn that Private Smith—whose first and middle names, home town and state, age, high school, are supplied on the spot by the ever-helpful PIO’s—wiped out a Viet Cong position with a burst of his trusty M-14; but it is almost impossible to find out whether the landing in the Mekong Delta was really the hopeless botch it seemed to be from eyewitness reports. The reader of a good newspaper at home is likely to find out about this before I do.
Furthermore, very few books on Vietnam are available here, because, until a few weeks ago, it was nearly impossible to find one in any Western language that was not heavily critical of either the United States or South Vietnam. As was recently reported, this is also true of the United States Information Agency’s USIS Library, where almost all books dealing with Vietnam (including my Street Without Joy, which does not even deal with post-1954 Vietnam) are locked up on closed shelves. Indeed, the US military forces have a far more liberal policy than the USIS: while uncritical books are more widely displayed, some critical books can be bought without difficulty at the military newsstands. (Whether this means that the US military have an inherently stronger belief in American principles than the USIS is not clear.) As for the Vietnamese themselves, book censorship seems to depend on the caprice and spotty reading of the censors. For instance, there is for open sale at this moment in Saigon a book on the Tri-Continental Conference against Colonialism and Imperialism, held in Havana a year ago. It was issued by an extremely left-wing Paris publisher, and is a running indictment against the United States and its policy here. Apparently the author’s name didn’t appear on somebody’s blacklist, so the book slipped by.
HENCE, TO RECEIVE BOOKS about Vietnam here is suddenly to be confronted with enlarged and different perspectives on a war which, in spite of the best electronic communications in the world, has been distorted by a foxhole view if one is in the field (there are foxholes, by the way, in this jet-propelled war), or into an equally narrow view based on rumor (did Marshal Ky really say he admired Hitler?) if one is in Saigon. Yet Michael Foot’s SOE in France, published by Her Majesty’s Stationery Office, not only fails even to mention Vietnam, but deals with a war that took place a quarter-century ago and ten thousand miles away. It has been virtually ignored by the American press, but in Western Europe it became a best seller much as the Warren Report was in the United States, and brought about what was probably the most unusual interference of a foreign power in the freedom of expression of another country to occur in a democracy in peacetime. And what it says does have a bearing on Vietnam, after all.
On June 3, 1966, a French court bailiff arrived at the offices of the liberal weekly Le Nouvel Observateur in the rue Royale in Paris, escorted by two police commissioners. He presented the astonished editors with a valid injunction by a French court enjoining the magazine from publishing a book review “at the request of Her Britannic Majesty.” On June 6, despite urgent queries at the British Embassy in Paris, and the latter’s consultation with the Foreign Office, the injunction was maintained, thus turning the book from a dull buckram-bound official history into a cause célèbre.
SOE was Britain’s wartime special Operations Executive, the equivalent of the American OSS, forerunner of the CIA. As all of mainland Europe slipped under Nazi control in late 1940, it became necessary for the hard-pressed British not only to gather far more intelligence than the peacetime Intelligence Service could provide, but also to inflict upon the Germans whatever military harassment was possible under the circumstances. SOE built up networks of local groups and provided them with the basic means of organizing resistance movements which in turn could tie down more German troops and provide the Allies with intelligence. Commissioned by the Foreign Office, Foot, a solid academic specialist on nineteenth-century diplomacy, accepted in 1963 the task of writing this book under restrictions which resemble those of the Kennedy-Manchester arrangements: he was first to work on the documents alone, and only afterward to meet with some of the survivors. Apparently London never gave him permission to request access to French documents or surviving French witnesses. In all likelihood those limitations were the reasons for certain built-in biases which provoked the ire of the Observateur and, in turn, the heavy-handed official attempt by the British to interfere with the book’s reviews in Paris.
For the book, in a readable and understated style, argues that the French Resistance was essentially a creation of the British. By the time the first copies of the book entered France, dozens of French Resistance leaders, authentic heroes to a whole generation of their countrymen, were ready to file libel suits against the hapless Foot. Even the revised versions of the pieces the Observateur finally published were far from tender—for Foot, on the basis of the SOE records, documented what the Nazis and their Vichy collaborators had said all along: the French Resistance was nothing but a tool of the British. It had no life of its own. Its leaders were faceless and of no importance except to their masters in London.
IN FOOT’S WORDS: “Till 1944 the British had a virtual monopoly over all of De Gaulle’s means of communications with France,” and the French “could not introduce a single agent or a single store”—the latter being Anglicism for “supply items”—without Allied permission. While the actual facts were somewhat at variance with this sweeping assertion (De Gaulle’s establishment in Algiers gave him access to the gold reserves of the Bank of Algeria and control of some ships and aircraft that owed nothing to SOE) the main point surely holds. Furthermore, the Americans and British—the former operating only a little more blindly than they do now, and the latter as shortsighted at times as they later were in their attitude toward the Rome Treaty in 1957—were grimly determined to keep aid to the French Resistance “nonpolitical,” i.e., entirely tuned to their objectives rather than to French objectives. “Anything the French planned with marked political implications,” says Foot, was liable to “be vetoed by any of the three major Western allies.” Aside from the slip of three “major Western allies” (which was the third? the Canadians? the Dutch? the London Poles? Or perhaps Stalin?) the general point again is true: Foot describes how the British, contrary to their agreement, broke the Free French code and unleashed extremely costly (to the French) guerrilla uprisings, over the objections of the staff of the French Forces of the Interior (FFI). As a young boy I was in the French Alps among those maquis units offered up for sacrifice. With our SOE and OSS mentors, we were to delay a German mountain division and an elite SS Brigade from reaching the Allied beachheads. The order, given too early and disregarding the pleas of the FFI command, resulted in the Vercors massacre, still a sore subject in Resistance circles.
But Foot is too good a historian to have confused the SOE’s ability to organize an existing French will to resist the Nazis with SOE’s obvious inability to create a widespread popular movement out of whole cloth. As he says (p. 442), “All these victories by and through resistance forces in France had a common basis: overwhelming popular support.” In other words, SOE, like its traditional brother agency, the Intelligence Service, could (and did) recruit a small group of devoted (and paid) intelligence agents, some of whom betrayed them, while others died with their lips sealed, in torture chambers. But SOE could not recruit me, a boy of sixteen, and 30,000 other men and women like me, some younger and many older, to go out and live for a few years in the inclement climate of the Alps or the Pyrenees to face the Wehrmacht with light weapons. I went only because I felt I had to, and I stayed because I knew the cause was right. To the very end, I was part of an “armed minority” led by “faceless leaders” and imposed my will with the help of some Englishmen and Americans who arrived by parachute. And that is where Foot’s book becomes relevant to the Vietnam debate, for it clearly delineates what makes a guerrilla movement genuine—any guerrilla movement, be it left-wing (as here in Vietnam), Moslem nationalist (as in Algeria), Christian Orthodox (as in Cyprus), or Jewish (as in Palestine).
All of these movements started abroad—General Grivas, in his memoirs, tells us how he decided to liberate Cyprus one day, sitting at a sidewalk cafe in Athens: Masaryk started the Czech Republic in Pittsburgh—and all others had foreign support. Their underground leaders (unless they were candidates for immediate suicide or prompt arrest) had faces which were not reproduced on their country’s postage stamps. An outside specialist can only organize what is willing to be organized, for it is as easy to run away from a guerrilla force (people did so all the time in the FFI, as it is to desert from a regular army, if not easier. Yet, in Vietnam during 1966 a total of 20,242 Chieu-Hoi (“Open Arms” defectors) came out of the jungle, bringing with them a total of only 1,963 weapons—i.e., most of these defectors were unarmed civilians, a fact which is not denied here. Meanwhile the South Vietnamese Army lost, that same year, at least 110,000 men, who simply walked off and out of the war. Apparently, fourteen years of American organization here have yet to match the effectiveness of the Viet Cong’s organizational efforts.
THE THEME of Douglas Pike’s book Viet Cong, is, like Foot’s, Organization. It had also an unexpected notoriety. Its author works for the Joint United State Public Affairs Office (JUSPAO) here as the US Mission’s No. 1 Viet Cong expert. Like the books critical of US policy which are hidden by the USIS but kept by the US military, Pike’s presence is one of those small illustrations of the good side of the American system. No other book is likely to demolish more completely and more seriously all the convenient myths dished out officially about the National Liberation Front (NLF), for this is the work of an “insider.” In his job Pike sees more material than anyone except the Front Leaders themselves. He has read reports from captured Viet Congs, translations of the huge quantities of captured documents (the NLF, like all movements influenced by Communism, is afflicted with such bureaucratism that several wits here have suggested that one way of stopping them completely would be to parachute in to them hundreds of mimeograph machines), and publications from Hanoi or from Front sources abroad. At least eight hundred such documents are cited in this book. That does not exactly make it bedside reading (and an enormous amount of typical M.I.T. pseudoscientific verbiage does not help, such as “externalization” and “proselyting” [sic], but anyone who wishes to discuss intelligently a solution to the Vietnam problem should read his book.