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A Special Supplement: Vietnam: How Government Became Wolves


Reviewing the record of American intervention in Indochina in the Pentagon Papers, one cannot fail to be struck by the continuity of basic assumptions from one administration to the next. Never has there been the slightest deviation from the principle that a noncommunist regime must be imposed and defended, regardless of popular sentiment. The scope of the principle was narrowed when it was conceded, by about 1960, that North Vietnam was irretrievably “lost.” Otherwise, the principle has been maintained without equivocation. Given this principle, as well as the strength of the Vietnamese resistance, the military power available to the United States, and the lack of effective constraints, one can deduce with precision the strategy of annihilation that was gradually undertaken.

On May 10, 1949, Dean Acheson cabled US officials in Saigon and Paris that “no effort [should] be spared” to assure the success of the Bao Dai government, since there appeared to be “no other alternative to estab [lishment] Commie pattern Vietnam.” He further urged that this government should be “truly representative even to extent including outstanding non-Commie leaders now supporting Ho.”

A State Department policy statement of the preceding September had noted that the Communists under Ho Chi Minh had “captur[ed] control of the nationalist movement,” thus impeding the “long-term objective” of the United States: “to eliminate so far as possible Communist influence in Indochina.” We are unable to suggest any practicable solution to the French, the report continued, “as we are all too well aware of the unpleasant fact that Communist Ho Chi Minh is the strongest and perhaps the ablest figure in Indochina and that any suggested solution which excludes him is an expedient of uncertain outcome.” But to Acheson, Ho’s popularity and ability were of no greater moment than his nationalist credentials: “Question whether Ho as much nationalist as Commie is irrelevant” (May 20, 1949).

In May, 1967, Assistant Secretary of Defense John McNaughton presented a memorandum which the Pentagon historian takes to imply a significant modification of policy toward a more limited and conciliatory position. The Saigon government, McNaughton urged, should be moved “to reach an accommodation with the non-Communist South Vietnamese who are under the VC banner; to accept them as members of an opposition political party, and, if necessary, to accept their individual participation in the national government…” (Gravel Edition, Pentagon Papers, vol. IV, p. 489).1 Exactly Acheson’s proposal of eighteen years earlier, restricted now to South Vietnam.

In a summary of the situation after the Têt offensive of 1968, Leslie Gelb, director of the Pentagon study, asked whether the US can “overcome the apparent fact that the Viet Cong have ‘captured’ the Vietnamese nationalist movement while the GVN has become the refuge of Vietnamese who were allied with the French in the battle against the independence of their nation” (II, p. 414). His question expressed the dilemma of the State Department twenty years before, and properly so. The biographies of Thieu, Ky, and Khiem indicate the continuity of policy; all served with the French forces, as did most of the top ARVN officers. “Studies of peasant attitudes conducted in recent years,” the Pentagon historian informs us, “have demonstrated that for many, the struggle which began in 1945 against colonialism continued uninterrupted throughout Diem’s regime: in 1954, the foes of nationalists were transformed from France and Bao Dai, to Diem and the US…but the issues at stake never changed” (I, p. 295).

Correspondingly, the Pentagon considered its problem to be to “deter the Viet Cong (formerly called Viet Minh)”—May, 1959. The Thieu regime today has a power base remarkably like Diem’s,2 and substantial segments of the urban intelligentsia—“the people who count,” as Ambassador Lodge once put it (II, p. 738)—now speak out against US intervention.

A National Intelligence Estimate of June, 1953, discussed the gloomy prospects for the “Vietnamese government” given “the failure of Vietnamese to rally to [it],” the fact that the population assists the Viet Minh more than the French, the inability of “the Vietnam leadership” to mobilize popular energy and resources, and so on (I, p. 391f.). With hardly more than a change of names, this analysis might be interchanged with the despairing report from US pacification advisers (MACCORDS) on December 31, 1967, deploring the corruption and growing weakness of the GVN, the “ever widening gap of distrust, distaste and disillusionment between the people and the GVN.” With these words, the record of US-GVN relations in the Pentagon Papers ends (II, pp. 406-7).

One may, perhaps, argue that the mood of the South Vietnamese counts for less in the war than it did in earlier years, now that the US has succeeded, partially at least, in “grinding the enemy down by sheer weight and mass” (Robert Komer, II, p. 575), and now that North Vietnamese forces have increasingly been drawn into the war, as a direct and always anticipated consequence of American escalation.

In November, 1964, Ambassador Maxwell Taylor argued that even if we could establish an effective regime in Saigon, to attain US objectives it would not suffice to “drive the DRV out of its reinforcing role.” Rather, we will not succeed unless we also “obtain its cooperation in bringing an end to the Viet Cong insurgency.” We must “persuade or force the DRV to stop its aid to the Viet Cong and to use its directive powers to make the Viet Cong desist from their efforts to overthrow the government of South Vietnam” (III, pp. 668-9).

Replace “DRV” by “USSR” and we have, in essence, the Nixon-Kissinger policy today. In 1964-1965, the indigenous NLF forces had essentially won the war in South Vietnam. Therefore the United States shifted to a larger war, attacking North Vietnam directly. In this larger war, it subjected South Vietnam to intense bombardment and send an occupying army there to destroy the NLF forces. The US government hoped to force the DRV to “make the Viet Cong desist.” Instead, it drew the DRV into the war directly, as, in fact, had been anticipated during the planning (cf. William Bundy, November, 1964, III, p. 616).

In 1972, the “enemy”—the DRV/PRG—is apparently on the verge of winning the war. Once again, the Administration is shifting to a still broader, global confrontation in which it hopes to prevail. The President warns the USSR to stop supporting the DRV/PRG and to cooperate so as to enable him to achieve his objective of a noncommunist South Vietnam, oriented toward the West. As his predecessor did in 1964, he rejects the concept of an accommodation among contending Vietnamese—for obvious reasons—and insists upon a cease-fire which will leave the military and police power of the Saigon regime in place. He seems willing to risk nuclear war to achieve this goal. Whether the USSR and China will cooperate, or whether they will respond as the DRV did in 1965, one cannot predict.

It is likely, however, that once again an American administration will intensify its attack on the people of Indochina. The recent bombing of urban centers in North Vietnam appears to go well beyond the extensive attack on the civilian society during the Johnson air war, which official lies then described as the bombing of military targets, such as the hospital in the center of Thanh Hoa city or the market place of Phu Ly, to mention two of the piles of rubble that I visited two years ago. There are further possibilities. Much more extensive bombing of the irrigation system will probably be considered, as in January, 1966, when John McNaughton remarked that the destruction of locks and dams, by shallow-flooding the rice, might lead to “widespread starvation (more than a million?) unless food is provided—which we could offer to do ‘at the conference table.’ ” (The idea thus “offer[s] promise” and “should be studied”; IV, p. 43.)

Shortly before the B-52 bombing of Haiphong, Admiral Thomas Moorer, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, in testimony before the House Armed Services Committee, suggested amphibious assaults behind North Vietnamese lines as an option.3 If the American position collapses in the South, a marine landing, perhaps at heavily bombed Vinh or Thanh Hoa, might conceivably be attempted, perhaps recalling moments of past glory at Inchon to military leaders intent on fighting the last war. One can easily imagine that a disastrous failure would lead to the use of nuclear weapons to “save American troops” or in “preventive reaction” against “Chinese aggression.” Remote possibilities, perhaps, though at the same session Admiral Moorer also proposed the bombing of Haiphong harbor as a second option. He also identified the “domestic restraints” that stand in the way of the exercise of these options: the activities of the peace movement and of the press. Those who are concerned to save Indochina from further destruction will listen carefully to the Chairman of the JCS when he speaks of the “domestic restraints” that so distress him.

Nixon and Kissinger may or may not be able to achieve their ends in Indochina, but there is no doubt that they are capable of exacting a horrendous price for the injury to their pride and the threat to their power. They can murder and destroy without fear of reprisal. They have immense resources of terror at their command. Under the circumstances, limited and malicious men, trapped in the wreckage of their schemes, may be driven to unimaginable extremes of violence.

The threat of nuclear war, raised once again by the latest American steps to expand the scope of the conflict, has always been inherent in the logic of the American position in Indochina. Because of the political weakness of the US-imposed regimes, successive administrations were compelled to widen and intensify the conflict. The risks were always appreciated. In November, 1964, a National Security Council (NSC) working group argued that the commitment to maintain a noncommunist South Vietnam “would involve high risks of a major conflict in Asia,” leading almost inevitably to “a Korean-scale ground action and possibly even the use of nuclear weapons at some point” (III, p. 217.

In December, 1965, the “intelligence community” estimated an almost 50-50 probability that significant escalation of the war would bring in Chinese forces. With the exception of State’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research (INR), intelligence appeared to favor escalating the bombing, including attacks on petroleum facilities and other targets in the Hanoi-Haiphong area (IV, pp. 64-5). Chinese intervention was always understood to be the trigger for nuclear “retaliation” (for example, II, p. 322).

Even if the present situation stabilizes, we will be driven to the same confrontation again and again, if we stay in Vietnam. Acheson pointed out in 1950 that French success “depends, in the end, on overcoming opposition of indigenous population” (DOD, book 8, p. 301). Little has changed since then, apart from the scale of the destruction in Indochina and the dangers of great power conflict. The dilemma noted almost twenty-five years ago, in 1948, drives us inexorably toward higher levels of destruction and ever-mounting risks. The “Soviet ability to exercise restraint” may not be very great, Henry Kissinger admitted in his press conference of May 9, 1972, but the Russians must nevertheless accept their responsibilities and do what they can to help Nixon and Kissinger achieve their aims in Indochina. Further confrontations are inherent in the attempt to impose a regime of collaborators upon a country in which the resistance has not been destroyed and has the backing of powerful allies that have not been neutralized or terrorized by nuclear brinkmanship.

  1. 1

    Except where otherwise indicated, I will give references throughout to this edition, published by Beacon Press. References to the government offset edition, entitled United States-Vietnam Relations: 1945-67, 12 volumes, Government Printing Office, 1971, will be given as DOD, with volume and page.

  2. 2

    On this matter, see Peter King, “The Political Balance in Saigon,” Pacific Affairs (Fall, 1971).

  3. 3

    Commenting on Moorer’s testimony, Massachusetts Congressman Michael Harrington called for his resignation. Thomas Oliphant, Boston Globe, April 15, 1972.

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