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The North Vietnamese in Paris II. What They Don’t Say

The “Talks” in Paris have dragged on for more than twenty sessions and so far as I know Richard Barnet leaves no publicly stated opinion unexamined, including the disillusion of the American team and the confusion of the Vietnamese about our motives. It is by now plain that even Ambassador Harriman is fed up with American intransigence (Times, September 20), and that President Johnson alone holds the key to the locked door—to use Minister Xuan Thuy’s phrase. But although their deeds seem clear enough there is still much confusion about the position of the North Vietnamese. What do they not say, and why can’t they say it?

During thirteen hours of discussion with the Hanoi delegation several weeks ago, George Kahin, Howard Zinn, Marilyn Young, Douglas Dowd, and I listened to detailed analyses of the 1954 Geneva treaty. Several of us had written on this subject, all of us knew it well, and the Vietnamese knew we knew it. They also repeated bombing and casualty figures—usually from published American sources, and easily available. Why tell us yet again?

The language of our informants was passionate, accurate, and undogmatic. It could not fail to move us. But why were they for so long reluctant to state plainly that they have troops in the South, when they claim “Vietnamese have a sacred right to defend their country anywhere they choose”? We had come to their residence at Choisy-le-Roi at their invitation, to try to understand why the talks were stalled and to test our impression that there had been serious Vietnamese efforts to lessen the fighting in order to show good will and to break the impasse in Paris. We did obtain from them—I almost said pry—grudging admission of a number of significant de-escalating actions.

Since President Johnson and Secretary Rusk insist that the “other side” never gives an inch, why are the Vietnamese so unwilling to discuss their own restraint? But it may not occur to the Vietnamese to say something that seems to us very easy for them to say; it is also likely that they cannot say certain things because of problems with their constituencies in both North and South Vietnam. What these underlying considerations are may help to explain the reaction of the North Vietnamese in Paris.

1. Their Assumptions about Our Purposes

The Vietnamese know, as we do, that the United States did not intervene in their affairs out of altruism. They understand expressions like raison d’état, even where the raison may be a bad one. Since the attempt to defeat the NLF and to maintain a puppet government has not succeeded, they are suspicious about US intentions in Paris. Is the US purpose to defuse the Peace Movement? To help elect Humphrey? To prevent the collapse of the Saigon regime? A trick to allow a military build-up? All of these we know to be likely; so do they. Their wariness should not surprise us. At dinner in Paris, a negotiator who had been at Geneva in 1954 told us that, even before the Conference ended, the Vietminh delegation knew that Bedell Smith meant to undo what had been agreed, and that on the long train trip back through China, night after night, they talked of nothing but the impending American betrayal. Many examples of “gaps in credibility” in their relations with the US have confirmed their disillusion.

2. The Special Relationship with the United States

Ho Chi Minh once told Jean Sainteny that Vietnam and France were like an old married couple, bad tempered and quarrelsome, but still married. All educated Vietnamese speak French, and during breaks in our discussions in Paris, Douglas Dowd, Marilyn Young, and I played boules with Nguyen Thanh Le, the delegation’s spokesman. Almost no one in the American delegation speaks French, much less Vietnamese.

We could easily stop at this point and say that in the end the French and the Vietnamese understood each other, and so the war stopped. Indeed, the Vietnamese do not tire of repeating that similar good relations could develop with the Americans. But the problem with the US is deeper and perhaps more tragic than with France. The Vietnamese knew the French, but they had illusions about America. The writings of Abraham Lincoln helped to form Ho Chi Minh’s attitude on racial emancipation. The oss operatives in Indo-China during the war told the Vietminh about Roosevelt’s determination to remove the French from Indochina. In 1945, with a vast communist literature to choose from, Ho Chi Minh began the Vietnamese Declaration of Independence with a verbatim quote from Jefferson’s version, including a reminder that Vietnamese inalienable rights are endowed by a Creator.

When Washington supported French colonialism against communist-style nationalism, the Vietminh must have been shocked. Constant references by Minister Xuan Thuy to American love of liberty and independence may seem to us somewhat odd. No one appealed to the decency and patriotism of the Axis powers during the Second World War—the road to victory lay only through the surrender of an evil enemy. But the Vietnamese struggle with a confusing enemy: one, they believe, who has good intentions but, perhaps because of delusion, commits terrible acts. This view is identical to that of many Americans who also believe we mean well but make mistakes.

The Vietnamese are realistic about the American peace movement; they know it is small and ineffective. They are realistic about American politicians; they see little difference between Nixon and Humphrey. But they are, despite their disillusion, romantic? Quakerish? Buddhist? about human nature, even that of the Americans.

The Vietnamese delegation used the language of moralists; in some sense, they seemed to admire Jefferson, Lincoln, and maybe FDR. They respect French civilization, but they believe that the great American political moralists of the past, inspirational to them, must be so to us, They therefore singled out Senator Edward Kennedy’s August 21st peace plan as especially “positive.” As evidence of his sincerity they point to his expressions of horror at the effects of the war on both sides when he was chairman of the Senate sub-committee on refugees. They took this as proof that Edward Kennedy’s opposition to the war stems from his “humanity,” and not from a mere calculation that the US cannot win.

Perhaps if the Vietnamese became more aware of the moral quality of American public life they would be shattered. Although they do not expect the peace movement to have much effect, or that there will be a peacenik in the White House, they do expect something more unlikely: the libertarian instinct of the American people to reassert itself. Meanwhile, the Vietnamese insist they rely on themselves, and they have good reason to do so. To rely on American good will could lead to further disillusion.

3. America as an Intruder

Richard Barnet found the Hanoi delegation puzzled about American purposes in Vietnam. He also found Marxist rhetoric unsuitable to the Vietnamese. Ever since Ho Chi Minh was a young man in Paris, he has had little interest in the squabblings of the various Internationals and concerned himself chiefly with distinguishing who would stand with the colonialized countries. Leftist Vietnamese, as Barnet notes, are uneasy with doctrinal formulas and try to stick to the central problem: independence.

When the North Vietnamese spoke disapprovingly to Barnet of the habits of big nations, they were revealing a good deal about themselves. The Vietnamese have endured great powers occupying their country for centuries: the Chinese from the Han through the T’ang dynasty, Mongols, the Chinese again, France, Japan, France, and now America. Paul Mus points out that as inheritors of the Buddhist tradition, even Communist Vietnamese believe not in evil but in error, in misconception, in the confusion of values. Foreigners arrive not as aggressors, but as intruders who have stumbled into a place where they should not be, and they must be convinced of their error.

If foreign error and confusion are brought to account for the bad action of foreigners, then certain Vietnamese attitudes become clearer; it helps to explain why Hanoi’s delegation feels it important to tell Americans who oppose the war what Americans think they know already. One American negotiator in Paris refers to the Vietnamese insistent refusal of reciprocity as “a theological point” as if this somehow explains everything. From the Vietnamese standpoint, to allow the American bombing to be interpreted as anything less than intrusion into their country would be to compound moral error. After all, they ask, who is the victim anyway? The continuing violence is understood by these descendants of Buddhists, who are capable of a determinism as firm as that of Marxists, to be part of a situation working itself out to an inevitable conclusion. When the intruders get the message they will leave.

4. The Problem of Constituencies

Last year in Saigon, Thich Tri Quang, principle abbot of the Unified Buddhist Church, explained to me why the Buddhists no longer publicly attacked the NLF. The peasantry had come to rely on the Front, he said, to protect them from the Americans, and if the Church is to retain credibility as a powerful spiritual force (not organization) it can no longer appear to share the American preoccupation with Communism.

But the Communists’ negotiators in Paris must also be aware of the peasantry and of other non-Party nationalists. In 1946 at Fontainebleau and in 1954 at Geneva, Ho Chi Minh made heavy concessions to the West in exchange for ultimate sovereignty. What resulted in both cases was further violence by the West. Southerners, let us remember, have been twice before urged by Ho Chi Minh to endure temporary foreign rule for the national welfare. From all accounts, the NLF, veterans and successors of the Vietminh, will not be quickly persuaded again. Nor is it likely that the population of North Vietnam, on whom more bombs have fallen since 1965 than fell on the entire Pacific area during World War II, and who have borne this agony because they feel they must answer “When the South calls,” will accept a cease-fire if intrusion or aggression continues. Moreover, although this remains unclear no matter what Hanoi-watchers may say, North Vietnamese hawks may be another factor, and if they are like our hawks, they don’t believe in negotiations except as a prelude to the surrender of the other side.

There is also the large, non-Vietnamese population of the Third World. The outcome of the war will affect those countries, and Hanoi is no less conscious of them than Walt Rostow is. The North Vietnamese believe their revolution has been the loneliest in the twentieth century, and that only since 1966 have the socialist powers made decisive moves to give help; they believe their solitary struggle to be both an inspiration and a responsibility.

5. Honor

This raises the final question of American and Vietnamese honor. The Vietnamese, obviously, concern themselves seriously with their own honor—and their sense of honor must be understood as involving the independence, integrity, and unity of their homeland. But they know that Americans talk a lot about honor too, and the Vietnamese take this seriously. It comes as no surprise to them that most Americans polled do not want to apologize to North Korea to retrieve the Pueblo crew. Xuan Thuy said to us several times that the United States is a great power, Vietnam a small one; and that Vietnam cannot be said to be attacking us. Nguyen Thanh Le added: “Our desire for independence does you no harm.” They insisted that America is doing itself harm; they reminded us that France almost became a fascist state during the Indochina war, and pointed to the savagery of the police and the assassinations in America as a sign of what was happening to us. The “natural desire” of the American people for peace, and the lies of the government necessary to dull this desire were considered by the Vietnamese to be a sad “contradiction.” Thus, while they could not agree to reciprocity, they said they have willingly made unilateral gestures to appeal to our better nature. As a result, they said, the Khe Sanh seige was raised, the rocketing of Saigon stopped, American casualties were reduced, all to save American lives and to give us a chance to restore our honor, or, to use the bald expression they never used, “to save face.”

They have become increasingly unwilling to discuss these gestures, however, because the Americans turn every such act into a sign of weakness. The US command claimed, for instance, that the cessation of the rocketing had been forced by B-52 raids around Saigon, although just previously General West-moreland admitted the rockets could not be stopped. If further violence seemed necessary to dispel this error, they said they would not shirk it, and they predicted a new wave of attacks on the southern capital. A source close to the delegation told us that during 1967 they waited for the Americans to “exhaust themselves” by escalating the war. For a period, he added, the Hanoi leaders worried that the population might not endure the added suffering, “but the Americans doubled the dose and we survived.” Their survival over the millennia confirms the Vietnamese sense of honor. While they are dying under the bombs they cannot yield. But, they feel, sooner or later every foreigner comes to his senses.

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