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After Pinkville

On October 15, 1965, an estimated 70,000 people took part in large-scale anti-war demonstrations. The demonstrators heard pleas for an end to the bombing of North Vietnam and for a serious commitment to negotiations, in response to the negotiation offers from North Vietnam and UN efforts to settle the war. To be more precise, this is what they heard if they heard anything at all. On the Boston Common, for example, they heard not a word from the speakers, who were drowned out by hecklers and counter-demonstrators.

On the Senate floor, Senator Mans-field denounced the “sense of utter irresponsibility” shown by the demonstrators, while Everett Dirksen said the demonstrations were “enough to make any person loyal to his country weep.” Richard Nixon wrote, in a letter to The New York Times, that “…victory for the Viet Cong…would mean ultimately the destruction of freedom of speech for all men for all time not only in Asia but in the United States as well”—nothing less.

In a sense, Senator Mansfield was right in speaking of the sense of utter irresponsibility shown by demonstrators. They should have been demanding not an end to the bombing of North Vietnam and negotiations, but a complete and immediate withdrawal of all American troops and materiel—an end to any forceful interference in the internal affairs of Vietnam or any other nation. They should have been demanding not merely that the US adhere to international law and its own treaty obligations—thus removing itself forthwith from Vietnam; but they should also have exercised their right and duty to resist the violence of the State, which was as vicious in practice as it was illegal in principle.

In October, 1967, there were, once again, mass demonstrations against the war, this time in Washington and at the Pentagon. A few months earlier, still larger, though less militant, demonstrations had taken place in New York. The Têt offensive, shortly after, revealed that American military strategy was “foolish to the point of insanity.” 1 It also revealed to the public that government propaganda was either an illusion or a fraud. Moreover, an international monetary crisis threatened, attributable in part to Vietnam.

In retrospect, it seems possible that the war could have been ended if popular pressure had been maintained. But many radicals felt that the war was over, that it had become, in any case, a “liberal issue,” and they turned to other concerns. Those who had demanded no more than an end to the bombing of North Vietnam and a commitment to negotiations saw their demands being realized, and lapsed into silence.

These demands, however, had always been beside the point. As to negotiations, there is, in fact, very little to negotiate. As long as an American army of occupation remains in Vietnam, the war will continue. Withdrawal of American troops must be a unilateral act, as the invasion of Vietnam by the American government was a unilateral act in the first place. Those who had been calling for “negotiations now” were deluding themselves and others, just as those who now call for a cease-fire that will leave an American expeditionary force in Vietnam are not facing reality.

As to the bombing of North Vietnam, this had always been a side-show, in large measure a propaganda cover for the American invasion of the South. The US government could not admit that it was invading South Vietnam to protect from its own population a government that we had installed. Therefore it was rescuing the South Vietnamese from “aggression.” But then surely it must strike at the “source of aggression.” Hence the bombing of North Vietnam. This, at least, seems the most rational explanation for the bombing of North Vietnam in February 1965, at a time when no North Vietnamese troops were in the South, so far as was known, and there was a bare trickle of supplies.

To be sure, those who are “in the know” have different explanations for the bombing of North Vietnam. Consider, for example, the explanation offered by Sir Robert Thompson, the British counter-insurgency expert who has been for many years a close adviser of the American army in South Vietnam—a man who is, incidentally, much admired by American social scientists who like to consider themselves “tough minded, hard-nosed realists,” no doubt because of his utter contempt for democracy and his relatively pure colonialist attitudes. In the British newspaper The Guardian, May 19, 1969, his views are explained as follows:

He also condemns the bombing of the North. The US Air Force in 1965 was having great budgetary problems, because the army was the only one that had a war on its hands and was thus getting all the money. “So the Air Force had to get in, and you had the bombing of North Vietnam…the budgetary problems of the Air Force were then solved.”

In his No Exit from Vietnam (1969), he explains more graphically the attractiveness of air power:

One can so easily imagine the Commander of the Strategic Air Command striding up and down his operations room wondering how he could get in on the act. With all that power available and an enormous investment doing nothing, it is not surprising that reasons and means had to be found for their engagement. The war was therefore waged in a manner which enabled this massive air armada to be used round the clock…. In this way the war could be fought as an American war without the previous frustrations of cooperating with the Vietnamese.

Or consider the explanation for the bombing of the North offered by Adam Yarmolinsky, Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs, 1965-66, previous Special Assistant to the Secretary of Defense. According to his analysis, the strategic bombing of North Vietnam “produced no military advantages except for its putative favorable impact on morale in the south. But [this step] was taken, at least in part, because it was one of the things that the US military forces were best prepared to do.”2

So North Vietnam was flattened and impelled to send troops to the South, as it did a few months after the bombing began, if the Department of Defense can be believed.

Since the bombing of North Vietnam “produced no military advantages” and was extremely costly, it could be stopped with little difficulty and little effect on the American war in South Vietnam. And so it was, in two steps: on April 1, 1968, when the regular bombing was restricted to the southern part of North Vietnam, and on November 1, when it was halted. At the same time, the total American bombing, now restricted to Laos and South Vietnam, was increased in April and increased again in November. By March 1969 the total level of bombardment had reached 130,000 tons a month—nearly two Hiroshimas a week in South Vietnam and Laos, defenseless countries. And Melvin Laird’s projection for the next twelve to eighteen months was the same.3 The redistribution (and intensification) of bombing and the largely empty negotiations stilled domestic protest for a time and permitted the war to go on as before.

We can now look back over the failure of the “peace movement” to sustain and intensify its protest over the past four years. By now, defoliation has been carried out over an area the size of Massachusetts, with what effect no one has any real idea. The bombardment of Vietnam far exceeds the bombardment of Korea or anything in World War II. The number of Vietnamese killed or driven from their homes cannot be seriously estimated.

It is important to understand that the massacre of the rural population of Vietnam and their forced evacuation is not an accidental by-product of the war. Rather it is of the very essence of American strategy. The theory behind it has been explained with great clarity and explicitness; for example by Professor Samuel Huntington, Chairman of the Government Department at Harvard and at the time (1968) Chairman of the Council on Vietnamese Studies of the Southeast Asia Development Advisory Group, in effect the State Department task force on Vietnam. Writing in Foreign Affairs, he explains that the Viet Cong is “a powerful force which cannot be dislodged from its constituency so long as the constituency continues to exist.” The conclusion is obvious, and he does not shrink from it. We can ensure that the constituency ceases to exist by “direct application of mechanical and conventional power…on such a massive scale as to produce a massive migration from countryside to city,” where the Viet Cong constituency—the rural population—can, it is hoped, be controlled in refugee camps and suburban slums around Saigon.

Technically, the process is known as “urbanization” or “modernization.” It is described, with the proper contempt, by Daniel Ellsberg, a Department of Defense consultant on pacification in South Vietnam, who concludes, from his extensive on-the-spot observations, that “we have, of course, demolished the society of Vietnam,” that “the bombing of the South has gone on long enough to disrupt the society of South Vietnam enormously and probably permanently”; he speaks of the “people who have been driven to Saigon by what Huntington regards as our ‘modernizing instruments’ in Vietnam, bombs and artillery.”4 Reporters have long been aware of the nature of these tactics, aware that “by now the sheer weight of years of firepower, massive sweeps, and grand forced population shifts have reduced the population base of the NLF…”5 so that conceivably, by brute force, we may still hope to “win.”

One thing is clear: so long as an organized social life can be maintained in South Vietnam, the NLF will be a powerful, probably dominant, force. This is the dilemma which has always plagued American policy, and which has made it impossible for us to permit even the most rudimentary democratic institutions in South Vietnam. For these reasons we have been forced to the solution outlined by Professor Huntington: to crush the people’s war, we must eliminate the people.

A second thing is tolerably clear: there has been no modification in this policy. Once again, as two years ago, there is mounting popular protest against the war. Once again, a tactical adjustment is being devised that will permit Washington to pursue its dual goal, to pacify the people of South Vietnam while pacifying the American people also. The first of these tasks has not been accomplished too well. The second, to our shame, has been managed quite successfully, for the most part. Now we hear that the burden of fighting the war is to be shifted away from the American infantry to the B-52s and fighter-bombers and a mercenary force of Vietnamese. Only a token force of between 200,000 and 300,000 men, backed by the Pacific Naval and Air command, will be retained, indefinitely, to ensure that the Vietnamese have the right of self-determination.

  1. 1

    Assistant Secretary of Defense Paul Warnke—as quoted by Townsend Hoopes, see New York Times, Sept. 28, 1969.

  2. 2

    No More Vietnams?, R. Pfeffer, ed., Harper & Row, 1968.

  3. 3

    For detailed analysis based largely on Defense Department sources, see Gabriel Kolko, London Bulletin, August, 1969.

  4. 4

    No More Vietnams?. For further discussion, see my article in The New York Review, Jan. 2, 1969.

  5. 5

    Elizabeth Pond, Christian Science Monitor, Nov. 8, 1969.

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