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Vietnam: The Future

Apart from the symbolic reversal from “escalation” to “de-escalation,” there has been little change in US policy toward Vietnam. During the past year President Nixon has lowered the troop ceiling by 110,000 men, bringing the American forces down to the level they held at the time of the Têt offensive. Though General Abrams, a much abler commander than West-moreland, has stopped sending US troops to storm mountains and destroy large swaths of jungle, the remaining American forces continue to pursue with minor variations the strategies they have been following since 1965: the occupation of bases throughout the country, the search-and-clear operations in populated areas, combined with the usual amount of bombing and shelling of unspecified targets.

As for his policies toward the Saigon government, Nixon has shown respect for an even longer tradition. If “Vietnamization” means anything at all, it means the continued support of an “anti-Communist” government, the enlargement and re-equipment of the Vietnamese army on an American model, the increase in the number of US advisers and support units, and the attempt to create a “really” effective counter-insurgency program. Or precisely the strategies the US adopted after the French withdrawal in 1954.

These strategies do not appear to serve the long-run interests of anyone, President Nixon and General Thieu included. In the first place they do not, any more than they did two years ago, constitute a strategy for winning the war. At least some of the Administration officials recognize that they cannot defeat the NLF and the North Vietnamese. They may have adopted the more limited goal of a slow US disengagement that will keep the NLF out of Saigon for as long as possible. In this case—the case of slow retreat—the “Vietnamization” plan is folly, for it is no more than a return to the strategy which failed in the early 1960s and whose prospects have not improved with the entry of the North Vietnamese into the war and the growth of political awareness among all the South Vietnamese. While Nixon can prolong the current stalemate for an indefinite period, he cannot make the Vietnamese army fight his war for him.

The present strategies do not comprise a plan for peace inside South Vietnam. In fact, quite the opposite. By maintaining the current level of hostilities, the Nixon administration is weakening the prospects for a “Southern solution”—that is, a peaceful settlement among South Vietnamese, independent of the North. Each day as the war goes on, the North Vietnamese go deeper into the South, taking up the responsibilities of the NLF guerrilla units and political cadres until even the village forces become a thick mixture of Northerners and Southerners.

The present war is not only retarding the process of accommodation among the various South Vietnamese political groups, but also creating the conditions for an extended and bloody political conflict after an American withdrawal. Though supporters of the war have usually defended the Administration’s policies by summoning up the specter of a Viet Cong massacre, they have misplaced both the cause and the agent of the massacres. In fact it is the Vietnamese who will suffer—not from an American pull-out but from the after-effects of current American war strategies. Because neither hawks nor doves have yet grasped the full consequences of these strategies for the Vietnamese, it is perhaps useful to clear away some of the misapprehensions that most Americans have long held about Vietnam, the most fundamental of which is that there are two sides to the present conflict.

To the Vietnamese the simple American opposition of “Communist” and “anti-Communist” is an arbitrary one. As a glance at the post-Geneva period will show, it is a Manichaean idea applied, indeed imposed, regardless of the Vietnamese reality. When the American military mission first installed itself in Saigon, the southern half of the country was a mosaic of warlord fiefdoms, Viet Minh districts, and regions controlled by various political sects—most of them managed, but by no means governed, by the French and their Vietnamese minions. As soon as the French departed, the thin shell of the administration collapsed, leaving the countryside in the control of autarchic villages, and Saigon an anarchy where for nearly a year the Emperor, the prime minister, the chief of police, and the Binh Xuyen bandits fought for control of the gambling dens with grenades and submachine guns.

Selected, built, and financed by the American mission, the Diem regime was no more than an act of will—a vast artificial bureaucracy, representing no one, governing no one, except perhaps the 800,000 Northern Catholics who had with American help fled South during the period of armistice. Though left-wing journalists have usually argued that the National Liberation Front grew up in response to the Diemist repressions, the truth never adequately emphasized is that the Viet Minh had been ruling various parts of the country during the past decade: the NLF had merely to continue their work of driving out the old village oligarchies and the bureaucrats from Saigon.

After the fall of the Diem government in 1963, the non-Communist regime again disintegrated in the anarchic struggles of Buddhists against Catholics, urban Central Vietnamese against Saigonese, soldiers against civilians, and almost everyone against the central government. In the midst of this confusion the United States continued to pour money and arms into the Vietnamese army in the conviction that because it was an army it was therefore a strong anti-Communist force. To the Vietnamese, however, the army seemed no less divided than the country itself—a group of men, all of whom were carrying weapons. When in the spring of 1965 the US sent its first regular combat troops to Vietnam, it confirmed in power not the army leaders, but those generals who, after a dozen coups and counter-coups, happened to be occupying the Armed Forces Headquarters at that moment.

For the past four years the United States has proceeded systematically to increase the size of the regular Vietnamese armed forces while depriving it of its regular military functions. An army trained with Fort Benning standards of expertise to fight a conventional foreign invasion, the ARVN has had to cope with a domestic political insurgency and to administer everything in the country from cultural exchanges to water works.

Now that the army has proved itself a failure in all of these tasks, the Nixon administration has decided to forget the past and hope for the future. Since the 1968 Têt offensive, and with growing doubt over the future of American troops in the country, the US has equipped the ARVN with everything from jet bombers to M-16s and enlarged it by a third, bringing the sum of GVN soldiers up to 800,000.1 But as General Thieu knows as well as anyone, to enlarge and rearm the ARVN is not necessarily to strengthen it. On the contrary, the larger the ARVN grows, the more difficult it is to control: more men are bearing arms and more men are mobilized with no place to go.

For the past few months Thieu has been attempting both to pacify his own officers with guns and money and to divert the American effort from the ARVN to the regional and popular forces, which, being less mobile, pose less of a threat to him. What he cannot actually tell the Americans is that the ARVN constitutes the most dangerous force in the country. Led by a corrupt and demoralized officer corps and dependent on foreign support, it behaves no better than an undisciplined group of mercenaries, terrorizing the population it is meant to protect. Under the threat of US withdrawal, Thieu has managed to make some improvements in the high command, but he cannot stop the pervasive corruption or heal the antagonisms between the officers, for both are a part of the army’s structure. The product of a mistaken war strategy, it has become the most unstable institution in Vietnam and the most likely to cause chaos when the Americans move out.

Last fall American intelligence uncovered a vast Viet Cong spy ring in Saigon consisting of some hundred members, many of them placed in high positions throughout the Vietnamese government. One of the members, a man called Huynh Van Trong, turned out to be the chief political assistant to General Thieu. While the Americans were congratulating themselves for having removed a viper from the breast of the GVN, many Saigonese indulged in a little Schadenfreude at the expense of both General Thieu and the Americans. Huynh Van Trong’s reputation as an informer was, after all, a matter of common knowledge. With the additional evidence that the Thieu regime gave him a much lighter sentence than it gave any of the Buddhist rebels—a mere two years in jail—they could not help believing that General Thieu had known about the “spy” all along, and had been using him for his own purposes—probably as leverage against his brother-officers.

All this is not to say that the ARVN will disintegrate immediately upon an American withdrawal, but merely to show that the Vietnamese situation is a great deal more complicated than most Americans can imagine: for example, the political position of an American-supported government and that of General Thieu himself are entirely different. As Paul Mus once said, “We have our problems and our solutions, but the problems are often not there for the Asians.” His remark was a warning that Americans who wish to understand Vietnam must free themselves not only of their national interests, but occasionally from the bonds of their common sense.

Using their common sense, American officials have recently recommended that General Thieu solve his political problems by “broadening the base” of his government with members of the Saigon opposition groups. When Thieu, after acknowledging their wisdom, refused to do anything of the sort, they were bitterly disappointed. And yet Thieu’s reasons have been most precisely spelled out in another context by Dr. Henry Kissinger. “It is beyond imagination,” wrote Kissinger in his celebrated Foreign Affairs article, “that parties that have been murdering and betraying each other for twenty-five years could work together as a team, giving joint instructions to the entire country.”

Though Kissinger was referring to the prospects for a GVN coalition with the NLF, his argument applies just as well to any Saigonese coalition, even one between men who have no apparent political differences. In Vietnamese politics there is no such thing as a public compromise or an agreement to disagree. For Thieu, or anyone else, to include opposition leaders within his government would mean either chaos or the unconditional surrender of one group to the other. Over the past few months Thieu has worked rather to narrow than to broaden the base of his government in order to achieve what many Americans assumed he already had: some control over his own army.

As an alternative to current American policy, several American dove politicians, including Senator Eugene McCarthy, have proposed that the US withdraw its support from General Thieu and call for a coalition government to include members of the NLF, as well as the Saigon opposition groups. The NLF has favored such a plan because a coalition government would be the most trustworthy pledge of a speedy American withdrawal. But coalition is a solution to the problem of getting the United States out of the war, not a solution to Vietnamese political problems. For the Vietnamese, a coalition government would be a formality—a signal that the US wished to withdraw and to leave the Vietnamese to resolve their own political problems by whatever means they possessed: accommodation or violence. Over the past year many Vietnamese, including perhaps even General Thieu, have been making private efforts to minimize the risks of violence and to prepare a peaceful political settlement.

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    Recently the GVN decided to add 100,000 more men to the Regional and Popular Forces, bringing the total number of its men under arms up to 1,000,000. As the population of South Vietnam is roughly 15,000,000, of whom at least 50 percent are under fifteen years old, while at least 50 percent of the remainder are women, that means that almost half the male population will be in the GVN armed services. As the term of ARVN service is usually four years, the United States is planning to pay and arm the entire male population of South Vietnam within four years.

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