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A Special Supplement: Mayday: The Case for Civil Disobedience

In short, the Nixon Administration is apparently reverting to a more classical pattern of colonial war, relying more on mercenaries and native forces—as the British used Gurkhas and Burmese mountain tribesmen, and the French the Foreign Legion and locally recruited troops—while continuing to employ the fantastic firepower of the air and helicopter forces and the new techniques of surveillance and destruction provided by American technology.

The use of American conscripts is now widely regarded as having been a mistake. The American troops, to their credit, are not eager to fight and the army is becoming demoralized. This is natural enough. It takes professional killers, or technicians who remain sufficiently remote from the blood and gore, to fight a colonial war in which the civilian population is the enemy. Furthermore, the use of American troops has been costly, not only in dollars but in domestic support. And finally, now that Vietnam has been so successfully “urbanized,” with almost half the population driven from the countryside into refugee camps and urban slums, a huge occupying army no longer seems as necessary as it once did.

Thus it would seem more satisfactory to fight the war on the Laotian model, with mercenary forces, heavy bombardment leading to virtual destruction of civil society (as in Northern Laos, which is far from South Vietnam or the “Ho Chi Minh trails”), and effective news suppression.

To carry out this plan, it is necessary to “cool America.” The cynical calculation of the Nixon-Kissinger Administration is that the people of the United States will permit the destruction of Indochina to go on indefinitely, perhaps for the fifteen to twenty years that Vice-President Ky sees as elapsing before South Vietnam is (in his terminology) capable of defending itself.23 Since Washington continues to believe that “South Vietnam is simply not ready in many respects to try to cope with Communist political challenges,” military efforts must continue, perhaps indefinitely, to “give valued time.”24

Apparently the Administration believes that the policy of demoralization, forced urbanization, ecocide, and continued murder may bring about a situation in which the Vietnamese can be controlled. In the short run, the male population will be forced into the one social organization that the US will permit to function, that is, the army, led by a loyal officer corps—by such men as General Pham Van Phu, commander of the First Infantry Division which led the invasion of Southern Laos. General Phu, who fought with the French (like virtually all the top ARVN officers) and parachuted into Dienbienphu in its last days, reports that his Vietnamese battalion was the last to submit in that battle, in which they killed many “Viet Cong.”25

Despite the fairy tales fed to the American public, General Phu understands very well what is happening in Indochina. In 1954, he was killing “Viet Cong” for the French; now he is killing them for the Americans, who are far stronger and, he doubtless hopes, more persistent. Apart from scale, little has changed.

It is presumably hoped that in the long run South Vietnam can be absorbed into the US-Japan Pacific system in the manner of South Korea. Don Luce wrote recently from Saigon:

The basic family unit has been almost destroyed by the war and by American social scientists who believe “profit incentives” are the basic underlying drive in all human beings.26

This is not merely an accidental consequence of war. American economic policies have been designed to flood the urban centers with commodities. The three to four million people of Saigon, which has no public transportation, live in what has been called a “Honda economy.” When American advisers say that the war would be won if only every Vietnamese male could be put on a Honda, they are only half joking. The productive resources of South Vietnam have been severely damaged by the same means as were used in the attempt to break the will of the rural population.

The strength and resilience of the Vietnamese revolution reside not in the genes of the Vietnamese, but in their culture and social structure. If these can be destroyed and an artificial consumer society of atomized individuals erected in their stead, the United States will have achieved its victory. As elsewhere in East Asia, there is an (uneasy) alliance between the United States and Japan to this end.

The editor of the Far Eastern Economic Review puts it as follows:

In 1968 the farsighted premier of North Vietnam, Pham Van Dong, reportedly told a visitor that his country, having successfully fought the Chinese, the Japanese, the French and the Americans, would next have to fight the Japanese. The population of the South, he said, had been driven by war into the cities and were there becoming corrupted by the desire for consumer goods, for Sony transistors and Honda motorcycles. Only Japan could supply such urban markets in Asia. Kim Il Sung of North Korea also saw the southern half of the Korean peninsula falling under Japanese economic domination.27

Whether the “workshop of the Pacific” will remain firmly within the American orbit remains, of course, to be seen; but that is another long-term matter. In any event, Japanese government economic experts are now studying potential development projects in South Vietnam to supplement already established Japanese plants. President Thieu, at the opening of one of these, praised it as a first step toward “a solid national economy.”28 Present plans include Japanese-backed factories, the development of the greater Cam Ranh Bay area (which has substantial deposits of first grade silica and limestone) as an integrated industrial port complex, and so on. A Japanese investment team estimated that “it would take two years to repair war damage and build up resources, from four to six years to develop a self-supporting economy and eight years before South Vietnam could participate productively in the overall development of Southeast Asia,”29 in the manner of South Korea, the Philippines, Thailand, and Taiwan.

A recent confidential report sponsored by the Asian Development Bank explores the problems of economic development in South Vietnam on the premise that the US will have gained a Korean-style stalemate by 1973 (with NVA troops withdrawn and the, NLF reduced to a minor nuisance), and will have troops in Vietnam after 1975. Commenting on this report, Jacques Decornoy writes:

In its view, the Southeast Asia of the future appears as a kind of paradise for international bankers and investors, besides providing an inexhaustible supply of wood, petroleum and minerals for Japan’s expanding economy.30

The economies of the region will inevitably be based on the sale of raw materials. Industrialization will be geared to the world marketing facilities of multinational companies that will provide investment for industry. Ambassador Bunker calls for the design of:

…an effective strategy…to further participation in foreign trade and to attract private investment from abroad…. The recent petroleum law and the new investment law now before the upper House indicate the Government’s desire to create a flexible long-term investment policy which will serve Vietnam’s interests while at the same time it creates an economic climate foreign investors will find attractive.31

Needless to say, his notion of “Vietnam’s interests” is a very special one, just as Japanese investment teams have a particular interpretation of “participating productively in the overall development of Southeast Asia.” As Gabriel Kolko has pointed out, the recent flurry of activity concerning oil investment should probably be seen in the light of this need for “economic Vietnamization,” a growing problem if the artificial economy of South Vietnam can no longer be sustained by American military expenditures and a dole from the American taxpayer.32

There is, in short, a fair amount of evidence that the Administration hopes to be able to win a military victory, and that the international financial community takes this intention seriously. Such a victory would require that the urban centers and parts of the countryside be kept under firm military and police control, that the political opposition be “neutralized” (i.e., killed, captured, or terrorized), and that these population centers be separated from main force guerrilla units and NVA forces by rings of fire and destruction. There will probably be a façade of democracy if this is possible, with Philippine- and Korean-style elections—a local power game played among small elites dependent on the dominant industrial societies, with central control so powerful and social chaos so pervasive that no meaningful politics need be feared.33 Analogous programs may be anticipated in other parts of mainland Southeast Asia.

What will be the impact of the defeat of ARVN forces in Southern Laos on these long-range plans? That is unclear. Representative Paul McCloskey is probably correct when he says that one of the goals of the Laos and Cambodian “incursions” was “to kill the maximum number of North Vietnamese possible, wherever they may be found, and despite whatever number of Laotian and Cambodian people and villages may have to be destroyed in the process.”34 We need only add that among those killed there are, surely, large indigenous resistance forces, called “North Vietnamese” in American political language.

In Laos it appears that elite ARVN units were used as bait to compel Pathet Lao and NVA troops to mass, thereby subjecting themselves to American firepower and presumably suffering heavy casualties. No doubt the American command hoped that the ARVN elite units could hold out much longer than they did, and did not anticipate the ensuing rout. Nevertheless, the effect was to weaken all contending forces in Indochina. For the imperial power that hopes to control fractured, demoralized societies, this is not necessarily an unfortunate result, though it is surely less than the US command hoped for. So long as the people of Indochina are slaughtering one another and can be subjected to American firepower, things are not too bad for the US invaders.


I shall not consider here the chances for success in the effort to achieve a military victory in Indochina. Rather, I shall return to the question of “the cooling of America,” an essential component in US strategy. There are several segments of American society that must be pacified if the Nixon-Kissinger plan is to succeed. There is, first of all, “the system.” It is reasonably clear that the courts will not consider the question of the legality of the Indochina war, at least so long as it is in progress. In that case, the judicial branch of “the system” imposes no constraint on executive power.

But what of Congress? During the past months there has been much talk, but little action. The mass protests and other kinds of pressure may lead to some efforts in Congress to stop the war as some knowledgeable commentators believe. Richard L. Strout, for example, writes that “a peace group in a restive Congress is going, in effect, to take up where the anti-war demonstrators left off, and it looks like the big issue for 1971.” It surely didn’t look like a “big issue” before the demonstrations, and it will not again, if popular pressures decrease. As Strout observes: “The mood of the country is crucial in this developing battle.” Although critics of the “noisy disturbances” claim that they impede Congressional action, nevertheless “the tumult that filled headlines and TV emphasized the new state of the drama,” and there are some indications now that “the pressure on the White House will increase, not diminish.”35

  1. 23

    AP, New York Times, April 19, 1971.

  2. 24

    Italics mine. George Ashworth, Christian Science Monitor, November 25, 1970. This is the general view. To mention one other example, Robert Shaplen quotes an “experienced Western analyst,” Brian Jenkins, who wrote in July, 1969, that “the most damaging indictment of our concept of warfare is that our military superiority and successes on the battlefield do not challenge the enemy’s political control of the people…” (New Yorker, April 24, 1971).

    The American command has always been aware of this “problem.” To cite one example, a document written by USOM Field Coordinator John Paul Vann (Lt. Colonel, retired) in 1965 recognizes that a social revolution is under way in South Vietnam under Communist leadership, and that the GVN has little popular appeal. But he concludes that all of this is irrelevant, now that American forces have been committed—and, besides, the US is surely capable of leading the Vietnamese social revolution more successfully than the Vietnamese Communists. See E.S. Herman, American Report (weekly of Clergy and Laymen Concerned), May 7, 1971, for further documentation.

  3. 25

    Gloria Emerson, New York Times, February 17, 1971.

  4. 26

    New York Times, April 6, 1971. Luce, formerly head of IVS in Vietnam, has now been expelled after thirteen years of work as a volunteer and (after his resignation in protest against the war) as a journalist.

  5. 27

    Far Eastern Economic Review, 1971 Yearbook, p. 28.

  6. 28

    AP, Christian Science Monitor, March 30, 1971.

  7. 29

    Phi Bang, Far Eastern Economic Review, March 27, 1971. Ever cautious, the Japanese are thinking of postwar development, after proper conditions for investment have been established. See François Nivolon, Far Eastern Economic Review, April 24, 1971.

  8. 30

    Le Monde weekly edition, February 27. Presumably this refers to the report by Professor Emile Benoit of Columbia mentioned by David Francis, Christian Science Monitor, January 12, 1971. See M. Morrow, Dispatch News Service International, May 4, 1971, for further details.

  9. 31

    Speech to (Saigon) American Chamber of Commerce, Department of State Bulletin, February 15, 1971.

  10. 32

    There is no space for discussion here, but the US government involvement in opium traffic can be understood in the same context. See Frank Browning and Banning Garrett, “The New Opium War,” Ramparts, May, 1971; also David Feingold, “Opium and Politics in Laos,” in N.S. Adams and A.W. McCoy, eds., Laos: War and Revolution (Harper & Row, 1970).

  11. 33

    On the recent Korean election, see the informative analysis by Selig S. Harrison, Washington Post, May 5, 1971.

  12. 34

    Congressional Record, February 18, 1971.

  13. 35

    Christian Science Monitor, May 8, 1971.

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