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How Hanoi Sees Nixon

I

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.”

The political and military analysis of US strategy I heard in Hanoi was in almost every case subsequently confirmed by some of the highest officials of our government. The Vietnamese are avid readers of US News and World Report and The New York Times. They make it their business to know the current Washington analysis of the war and they try to understand the popular mood. Washington’s political intelligence on North Vietnam, on the other hand, seemed of a much lower order. While State Department and CIA analysts are handicapped by the lack of published sources and personal contacts in Hanoi, US officials compound their problem by failing to read carefully what the North Vietnamese do publish. What the Vietnamese say in their official communications is subjected to a variety of tortured interpretations. Washington analysts appear to pay more attention to Alsopian readings of captured documents, diplomatic gossip, and historical analogy than to what the other side is actually saying.

II

I had a long talk about the war with Pham Van Dong. The North Vietnamese Premier has seen many American visitors, but I was the first to meet with him since the death of Ho Chi Minh. When I asked him what would be the effect of this loss on morale, he said that the sense of duty everyone felt toward “Uncle Ho” would cause the population to “close ranks.” As he talked he seemed patient, one might almost say serene, but extraordinarily tough. From time to time he raised his voice in anger when talking about President Nixon. Occasionally he would smile with contempt at the wiles of his “foxy” antagonist, but the dominant tone was one of sadness. I saw nothing in my brief stay to confirm or deny the speculations of Hanoi-ologists that there is a struggle for leadership. Pham Van Dong looked and acted very much like the man in charge.

The Premier told me what he has told many visitors before. The North Vietnamese and the NLF have one principal political objective. The United States must withdraw politically and militarily from Vietnam and permit a political evolution among the Vietnamese without outside interference. They have no interest in humiliating the United States. Indeed, they are prepared to go to great lengths to make the United States as happy about the settlement as possible, not because they feel any obligation to make life easy for a country that has dropped 2.5 million tons of bombs on their country, but because they do not want the United States to return.

North Vietnamese officials are aware that if Nixon “cuts and runs,” without a diplomatic resolution of the war, someone like George Wallace will cry for revenge, and the Vietnamese may still have to keep paying for the madness of American politics. It would in their view be far more desirable if the US could leave with a pretense of dignity and under a firm obligation never to return. One Hanoi official noted that when the Vietnamese threw out the Sung invaders in the seventeenth century, they waited a decent interval and then, when it would no longer look like tribute, presented the Sung king with an elephant. “We’ll be happy to give Nixon an elephant too,” he said.

The NLF delegation in Paris includes a former captain in the Saigon army who defected in 1960. The final humiliation that brought him to the point of joining the resistance, he said, occurred when Diem ordered a statue of General O’Daniel, the chief American military advisor, erected on the parade ground of the base where he was stationed. The background of other Front officials I met in Hanoi was equally “middle class.” Before joining the resistance most of them had no communist connections or even Marxist sympathies. Their analysis of the war is much the same as that of DRV officials, but at points their emphasis differed. For example, they seemed even more open to working with prominent non-communist South Vietnamese politicians like General Duong Van Minh and Senator Tran Van Don than did senior Hanoi officials, who expressed “interest” in such men but showed some concern that “Uncle Sam is pulling the strings.”

In the old days,” one cabinet minister said to me, “they could change horses in midstream. The present situation is much more difficult for that, but perhaps even now they are readying a new horse.” On a number of specific political questions affecting the future of South Vietnam Hanoi officials would make a point of deferring to the Front. “That is a matter to discuss with our comrades from the south.”

Both DRV and NLF officials are unshakeable in their basic war aim, which is national independence and freedom from US presence or control of every inch of Vietnamese territory. On the other hand, they are reasonably flexible as to the choice of means for achieving these objectives. The United States delegate in Paris, Henry Cabot Lodge, has consistently misstated two of their chief demands. Contrary to repeated assertions by American officials, the North Vietnamese do not insist and have not insisted for many months that all US troops be withdrawn in advance of political negotiations on the political future of South Vietnam. But they do insist that the US make a credible commitment to leave. Such a commitment would include a pledge to withdraw all troops, not just combat troops, and the removal of 100,000 at once as a sign of seriousness.

Credibility is the key issue. Nixon’s withdrawal plan is seen in Hanoi as evidence of an intention to stay, not leave. The North Vietnamese have made their position on this point clear not only to me but in interviews with Harrison Salisbury, Joseph Starobin, and others. Negotiators from the Johnson Administration now confirm that the North Vietnamese were saying the same thing over a year ago. It is evident that Hanoi’s flexibility on this point is a message which the Nixon Administration does not wish to receive.

The other false characterization of the Vietnamese negotiating position is the official US assertion that Hanoi is demanding the “overthrow” of the South Vietnamese government as a precondition of negotiations. In view of the nature and history of the Saigon regime, that demand would not be particularly unreasonable, but Hanoi has not made it. The North Vietnamese are asking for the appointment of a “peace cabinet” in Saigon on the grounds that they find it less than promising to deal with a group of generals who look upon such negotiations as treason.

Several officials in Washington asked me, straight-faced, why the North Vietnamese refuse to negotiate with Thieu. With an equally straight face I repeated the obvious: Hanoi has no incentive to negotiate with a politician who has said publicly again and again that he will never accept a coalition government with the communists. Such negotiations would be a ratification of a defeat on the battlefield, an event which has not happened and seems most unlikely to happen. Nor are they enticed by the prospect that “something interesting might develop” in the course of such negotiations. As they see it, Thieu’s only interest is to block negotiations, and so long as he is in control, that is precisely what he will do. The mere act of negotiating with Thieu would help to prop up the regime at a moment when more and more Vietnamese moderates and nationalists are publicly challenging its legitimacy.

For the men in Hanoi the litmus test of a South Vietnamese politician is whether he has a political base independent of the Americans. If he does not, they correctly assume that he is a “puppet” whose only function is to preserve American influence in Vietnam. Several NLF leaders told me that there are men “in the present Saigon administration” who would be acceptable to them as members of a “peace cabinet” to arrange elections and coalition government. Contrary to what the Nixon Administration asserts, Hanoi is not seeking a weaker government in Saigon with which to negotiate but a stronger one. They are willing to accept a government composed of men they consider authentic Vietnamese patriots even if they are anti-communist. (The captured document called “Resolution 9” circulated by the State Department strongly suggests that the NLF expect coalitions to be formed.)

The Hanoi officials I spoke to indicated that such men as Tran Van Don, Duong Van Minh, Tran Ngoc Lien, whom Ky refused to let run as candidate for Vice President with Minh in the last election, and Au Truong Thanh, Ky’s former economics minister now in exile, would be acceptable leaders of a “peace cabinet,” provided they did not agree to become stand-ins for the US.

The officials in Hanoi attached considerable significance to the fact that such Saigon figures as Minh and Don have launched open attacks on Thieu. They suggested that Thieu’s recent hesitation to repress such opponents, which he has not displayed in the past, shows not only that he is losing ground but that he is hedging his bets. “He has his bags packed,” a cabinet minister said, as if reporting the obvious.

Pham Van Dong calls “Vietnamization” America’s “Grand Design” to win the war. The strategy, as he sees it, is calculated to convince Hanoi that the US is prepared to outlast them in a long war of attrition. In his view, Nixon is giving the following signal: “I will reduce US forces in Vietnam to a level which the American people will accept and these forces will be used to keep the present South Vietnamese regime in power for years to come.” When I related this to a high State Department official, he replied, “Well, they got the message.”

In Hanoi the Premier and others had listed the basic elements of the Nixon program that were supposed to put Nixon in a position to avoid changing Johnson’s policy. Combat troops will be withdrawn over a two-year period. Fewer draftees and more volunteers will be used. The negotiating process will be downgraded. Popular support will be solicited by appeals to preserve America’s honor and by the specter of a bloodbath if the US troops leave. On the battlefield US ground forces will move into defensive enclaves, but offensive operations against the VC will be stepped up by B-52 attacks using napalm, magnesium, cluster bombs, and other indiscriminate anti-personnel weapons.

The Nixon Administration’s fundamental war aim, as Hanoi officials see it, is to establish a subservient, stable regime in South Vietnam that can permanently maintain itself with no more than 50,000 or 100,000 American “advisors.” The “victory scenario” modeled on the Greek intervention of 1948-9 having eluded them when the Viet Cong refused to fade away as predicted, the war managers are now hoping for a “Korean solution,” i.e., a political victory based on a military stalemate.

The North Vietnamese are certain that the Vietnamization strategy cannot work. When enough US combat troops leave, the NLF will rout the South Vietnamese army just as it did before the US troops arrived. In spite of heavy losses, which they admit, the North Vietnamese seem convinced that the general trend of political and military events favors their cause. Nixon has been forced to start withdrawing troops and to abandon military victory. Hundreds of thousands of troops are on alert in the north, ready to replace losses in the south. I saw long lines of soldiers, trucks, and artillery moving toward the 17th parallel.

But the leaders in Hanoi pin most of their hopes on political developments. They note that Thieu has been unable to obtain the support of moderate elements in Saigon and that his government now has a narrower political base than it had a year ago. The censorship, the jailing of political opponents, and the strident right-wing rhetoric that characterize his regime are signs of weakness, not of strength. Thieu, they believe, is foolishly counting on the US Embassy to guarantee him a political victory at the very moment when American forces are beginning to disengage themselves. Meanwhile, they point out, every shipload of troops that sets sail for San Francisco is a signal to the growing peace forces in Saigon that Thieu’s days are numbered.

Hanoi officials allude to the deposits of almost 2 billion dollars in European banks from South Vietnamese sources, much of it in recent weeks (as Allessandro Cassella of Die Weltwoche in Zurich has independently reported). They are convinced that more nominal supporters of the regime will leave. Others will grow bolder in condemning Thieu and demanding peace. Still others may launch a coup. NLF officials hinted to me, as they have in the past, that some of their secret members now hold high posts in the Saigon government. According to a captured document distributed by the State Department, “in the event of a coup d’état or revolt” an attack on Saigon is planned. When US troops in large numbers actually do go home, the North Vietnamese believe that the political troubles of the Saigon regime will be insurmountable.

Pham Van Dong is quite prepared, therefore, for re-escalation of the war by the US when the Vietnamization strategy produces a political crisis in Saigon, as he thinks it inevitably will. Other officials in Hanoi predict that Nixon will resume the bombing. Some suggested to me that the November 3 speech was an elaborate stage setting for a final victory push. One official even tried his hand at drafting the Nixon speech announcing re-escalation: “We have tried restraint. Look how they have repaid us. Therefore with regret….”

The Hanoi officials are well aware that while Nixon is publicly threatening “strong and effective measures” if the Vietnamese step up the battle, he is also quietly spreading the word in Washington that NLF military restraint is a sign that the Viet Cong is “out of breath.” It was made very clear to me while I was in Hanoi that the NLF and North Vietnam will go to great lengths to prove to the world and particularly to the US public that they have considerable breath left. They have already stepped up the infiltration rate and have concentrated attacks on military positions which have been “Vietnamized.” There will be major new offensives.

III

How did the President, only a year after his predecessor had been turned out of office, become wedded to Johnson’s war aims and Johnson’s strategy? Nixon has of course a long history as a Vietnam hawk. There is a picture of him in the Hanoi museum taken in 1953 when as Vice President he came to Hanoi to advise General Navarre on how to win the war. In 1953, speaking in the East Room of the White House, Nixon urged sending a US expeditionary force to help the French. There is some evidence that he was sympathetic to Admiral Radford’s final solution to the Dienbienphu problem, the dropping of “tactical” nuclear weapons. His analysis of US war aims in the November 3 speech was not dramatically different from his Reader’s Digest articles on the subject written in the late Fifties and early Sixties.

When he appointed as top negotiators in Saigon and Paris the two men of the Johnson Administration most committed to victory in Vietnam, Ellsworth Bunker and Henry Cabot Lodge, Washington optimists concluded that such appointments were a clever cover for a change of policy. The optimists are making the same sort of analysis now. “Nixon is talking tough,” one of the more astute liberal Congressmen told me, “but he is sneaking out the back door. Let’s give him a chance.” There are many people in Washington who believe that the President has a “secret timetable” to pull out all troops. They think he plans to prop up the Saigon regime long enough after the bulk of US forces leave so that Thieu and Ky, rather than the Nixon Administration, will bear the blame for their inevitable defeat.

The Nixon Administration has encouraged such thinking. Secretary of Defense Melvin Laird, who is becoming known in Washington as the Administration’s “secret dove,” gives comforting assurances about withdrawal to Senate critics like Mike Mansfield and George Aiken who want the US out of Vietnam. But this is only part of Nixon’s public relations campaign to make it appear that the war is fading away. Administration spokesmen have different things to say to other constituencies. More hawkish critics are told that the President’s plan brilliantly “preserves the options.” The US can move in a number of directions, depending upon the reaction of the other side. Henry Kissinger has been telling members of the press that he expects Hanoi to accept our negotiating position before long.

Other White House officials, campaigning with charts and statistics, are attempting to convince skeptics that Operation Phoenix, the CIA assassination program to pick off Viet Cong cadre, has “yielded such impressive results” that the NLF may soon decide to call off the fight. Others are once again selling a new, improved pacification effort. But nobody explains how these murder programs are supposed to achieve America’s war aims so long as the Thieu regime is unable to govern effectively and Hanoi is willing to commit more forces to the struggle.

There is official silence on the real options Nixon is likely to face if he carries out his announced withdrawal program. Suppose that when there remain no more than 150,000 US troops in well-protected enclaves, the North Vietnamese launch another Têt offensive. It is highly probable that these forces will overrun the South Vietnamese Army. The US commander in Vietnam will then have the following choices. He can either defend his troops in the enclaves while the allies they are supposed to be protecting are decimated, or he can execute a costly and humiliating Dunkirk-like evacuation. There is nothing in Nixon’s personal history or character to suggest that he will accept a military debacle when he has refused political extrication.

However, high Pentagon officials from the last administration pointed out to me that the President’s repeated threat to take “strong and effective measures” would have little credibility in such a situation. The Air Force “escalation shopping list” includes dropping more bombs on the South, resumption of the bombing of the North, and the mining of Haiphong. The opinion of US military experts with whom I have spoken confirms what seems obvious. None of these measures would stop a full scale attack in the South. Nor would the Marine-Army plan to launch an amphibious invasion of North Vietnam do anything but hasten an American defeat. If US commanders complain about conducting a war in South Vietnam where many of the people are secret members of the enemy’s fighting forces, they can hardly expect to do better in North Vietnam where literally everybody is a member of the People’s Army.

No, there is only one escalation measure which has credibility and that is the use of nuclear weapons. It is not hard to imagine the Joint Chiefs of Staff exerting enormous pressure on the President to authorize the use of a small nuclear weapon to relieve the pressure on the American garrisons of a full scale Viet Cong and North Vietnamese attack. During the siege of Khe Sanh three years ago there was considerable support among the military for such a step. There is a Republican view of history, which Nixon appears to believe, that Eisenhower ended the Korean war by threatening to use the atomic bomb. If nuclear weapons are used, “we are in an entirely new war,” to use General MacArthur’s characterization of the Korean conflict the day after the Chinese Army crossed the Yalu in force. The North Vietnamese have hinted that they have agreements with the Soviets and the Chinese that in the event nuclear weapons are used by the US, “it will no longer be a Vietnamese war.” The war in Vietnam is not dribbling to an end. It is moving steadily toward its most dangerous crisis.

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