Five days after President Nixon’s November 3 speech I arrived in Hanoi for a series of discussions on the war, including a long interview with Premier Pham Van Dong. Several days after my return I met with the main Vietnam advisors of the US Government, including Henry Kissinger. After my talks with the strategists on both sides it became clear to me that Hanoi and Washington are not fighting the same war.
The analysis of the enemy is completely different in the two capitals. The North Vietnamese do not judge how well or how badly they are doing by counting bodies or comparing this month’s statistics with those of last month. They look at trends on the battlefield and always concentrate on their long-term political consequences. They note that from 1965 to the present the US Government tried to win a military victory with 500,000 troops, that it failed, and that it had to move its forces into defensive positions and to begin withdrawing them. The leaders of the Nixon Administration are optimistic because after the continual aerial pounding of Viet Cong positions it is now possible to drive safely in parts of South Vietnam where formerly it was risky.
The North Vietnamese do not use travel but the ability to govern as a criterion of political success. They admit that they have taken serious losses in the South. In a recent captured document distributed by the State Department they allude to the higher desertion rate by conceding that “a number of Party members have gone so far as to surrender to the enemy and betray the nation.” In North Vietnam itself there is evidence of hardship brought by the bombing, including shortages of power, fuel, and, above all, housing.
Nevertheless, I was struck by the mood of confidence in the North Vietnamese capital. The leader of the NLF in Hanoi told me, “We are gaining in the cities.” It is now possible, they say, to obtain NLF literature anywhere in Saigon. More and more members of the middle class are making accommodations with the NLF. Officials of the Front also told me that they have a large military headquarters in Saigon itself. It is true that, under sustained B-52 attacks, the NLF had to withdraw from areas long under its control. But this development hardly bears out the optimistic prediction of a “secure” Vietnam by 1972 now being made in Washington by Sir Robert Thompson and other pacification experts. Even the most optimistic reports do not claim that the Thieu regime is now able to establish a legitimate order in former Viet Cong areas or to attract the loyalty of the people. The North Vietnamese are convinced that a pacification program which depends upon sustained American bombing is a strategy for prolonging the war rather than ending it. They know that the bombing further alienates the people from the Americans and they believe that when enough US troops withdraw, “the puppet government and army will collapse …