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A Special Supplement: Vietnam: How Government Became Wolves

The President stated that “the Communists have failed in their efforts to win over the people of South Vietnam politically” (April 26, 1972). That is quite true. He did not add, however, that these efforts were blocked by American force. Because the Communists appeared capable of gaining a political victory, the Diem regime could not tolerate democratic structures in 1954 (as Joseph Buttinger, for one, has pointed out in Vietnam: A Dragon Embattled, Praeger, 1967, vol. 2, p. 856). It was forced to resort to violence and repression. For the same reason, US troops were introduced in support of combat operations in the early 1960s; further escalation was planned in 1964; the US sought to avoid “premature negotiations” until the enemy had been destroyed by force; all of Vietnam was subjected to intensive bombardment, and the South to a direct American invasion, in early 1965.

Programs for deliberately creating refugees (as advocated explicitly by Robert Komer, IV, p. 441), the destruction of the rural society, the Phoenix program of assassination and terror—all these were undertaken to overcome the “clear and growing lack of legitimacy of the GVN,” a constant refrain in the documentary record, and to prevent a Communist political victory. The refusal to accept a political accommodation in the South today derives from the same consideration. It must be emphasized that this is the central issue standing in the way of a negotiated settlement, as it has been throughout the war.

This crucial point was clarified by Henry Kissinger in his comments to the press on the President’s May 8 address announcing the first steps in the blockade of North Vietnam. According to the President, the “North Vietnamese” (now the sole enemy under the conventions of government propaganda to which the mass media generally conform) had presented him with an “ultimatum,” namely, “that the United States impose a Communist regime on 17 million people in South Vietnam who do not want a Communist government.” Since the DRV/PRG position is as much a matter of record as the history of American concern for the wishes of the people of South Vietnam, the President’s listeners could evaluate for themselves the accuracy of his statement, which was worthy of a man who can announce that “the United States has exercised a degree of restraint unprecedented in the annals of war.”

Kissinger explained what the President meant by his claim that the “ultimatum” required him to “join with our enemy to install a Communist regime in South Vietnam.” Aside from Kissinger’s embellishments and speculation, the “ultimatum” amounts to the following plan: Thieu resigns and his “machinery of oppression” is “disbanded”; American military and economic aid ceases; political prisoners are set free; a government is then formed excluding Thieu; a cease-fire follows; and finally, negotiations take place between this government and the PRG.

That is what we have rejected,” Kissinger explains: “That is what we call the imposition, under the thinnest veneer, of a Communist government.” Moreover, “That is the only issue on which negotiations have broken down.” Elaborating further, Kissinger explains that under the terms of the “ultimatum,” “the Communists would be the only organized force, since all the organized non-Communist forces would have been disbanded by definition.” Since the “ultimatum,” as he presents it, speaks only of disbanding Thieu’s “machinery of oppression,” Kissinger is apparently conceding that, in his view, the only organized force opposing the Communists is the military-police apparatus established in the South by the United States.

Thus Kissinger reiterates, perhaps unknowingly, the long-held position of the United States. “It is obvious that [the Vietnamese generals] are all we have got,” Ambassador Lodge stated in January, 1964 (II, p. 304), confirming the Pentagon historians’ analysis that toward the end of the Diem regime, the Army was “the only real alternative source of political power” to the NLF (II, pp. 204-5). As already noted, little has changed. Given the political weakness of the regimes imposed and backed by the United States, and the relative strength of their domestic rivals, the US was compelled to adopt the “semi-genocidal counterinsurgent strategy” that is responsible for such “successes” as it has achieved in its war in South Vietnam, as Peter King points out (see footnote 2).

Kissinger’s alternative to the Communist “ultimatum” is a cease-fire in advance of any political accommodation. Under the terms of a cease-fire, as Kissinger of course understands, the military and police forces of the Saigon regime continue to function in the areas held by the GVN, maintaining law and order by the Phoenix program and other devices for “neutralizing” the political opposition. Any resistance to their reign of terror and oppression is designated as “criminal” or as “a violation of the cease-fire,” which permits a resumption of US military action in “retaliation.”

In short, this plan offers to the resistance forces the opportunity to surrender to the US-imposed regime, in the areas it will regard as under its control. This is what Kissinger calls “leav[ing] the determination of the political future to the Vietnamese.” Perhaps, like their predecessors, Administration officials will announce their willingness to accept a Communist victory in elections, so long as these elections take place within the constitutional framework of the GVN—which outlaws communism—and under laws that provide heavy penalties for activities that the regime designates as pro-communist in intent.

When Kissinger speaks of “the constant delusion that there is just one formula that has somehow eluded us” (press conference, May 9), he is, perhaps, being somewhat disingenuous. Averell Harriman is surely correct in stating, “While negotiations have been going on, this Administration has never accepted the concept of a neutral non-aligned south nor has it given up its futile attempt to maintain a pro-American government in Saigon.”4

The PRG position, reiterated in Paris after the President’s May 8 address, is that the PRG should be one element in a tripartite coalition, excluding Thieu, which would be neither socialist nor collaborationist, but neutralist. Mme. Binh stated that the PRG demand “is only that we should be represented in this government if it is to be completely legitimate.” She added, quite accurately so far as is known, that “this is the very point Nixon opposes.”5 This is, in fact, the fundamental issue on which negotiations have broken down, as is apparent even from Kissinger’s presentation.

There is evidence that ten years ago, when the NLF program proposed the neutralization of South Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia, the NLF saw the 1962 Laos settlement as a model for South Vietnam.6 In essence, the PRG program today is the same. Stripped of exaggeration and distortion of what appears in the public record, the “ultimatum” that Kissinger rejects—coupled with the principle that the DRV forces drawn into the war by American aggression return to the North as they apparently largely did shortly after the negotiations began in November, 19687—would truly leave the determination of the political future of South Vietnam to the South Vietnamese and the future of Vietnam to the Vietnamese. But this formula continues to “somehow elude” Henry Kissinger, because of the unresolved dilemma of 1948. An accommodation based on existing political forces, whether in South Vietnam or throughout Vietnam, is inconsistent with the long-term US objective of maintaining a pro-Western regime in South Vietnam. Therefore the people of Indochina must continue to massacre one another under a hail of American bombs.

On January 6, 1965, William Bundy wrote that “the situation in Vietnam is now likely to come apart more rapidly than we had anticipated in November…the most likely from of coming apart would be a government of key groups starting to negotiate covertly with the Liberation front or Hanoi,” soon asking “that we get out” (III, p. 685). The preceding August, Ambassador Taylor had explained Communist strategy: “To seek a political settlement favorable to the Communists,” passing through neutralism to “the technique of a coalition government” (III, p. 531). The intelligence services concurred, estimating that “it was the Communist intention to seek victory through a ‘neutralist coalition’ rather than by force of arms” (analyst, III, p. 207). The President, in March, 1964, had warned Ambassador Lodge to “knock…down the idea of neutralization wherever it rears its ugly head” (III, p. 511). Neutralism, as Ambassador Taylor noted, “appeared to mean throwing the internal political situation open and thus inviting Communist participation” (III, p. 675), for obvious reasons an intolerable prospect.

The dilemma of 1948 was never resolved. The political weakness of the US-imposed regimes—quisling regimes, in effect—forced the US to take over the war and ultimately to devastate the rural society. On occasion it was even difficult to obtain formal GVN authorization for US escalation. At one crucial moment, the new program of escalation of February, 1965, was received “with enthusiasm” by Ambassador Taylor, who then “explained the difficulties he faced in obtaining authentic GVN concurrence ‘in the condition of virtual non-government’ which existed in Saigon at that moment” (III, p. 323).

The problem was always understood by experts on the scene. John Paul Vann, USOM Field Operations Coordinator, circulated a report in 1965 based on the premise that a social revolution was in process in South Vietnam “primarily identified with the National Liberation Front” and that “a popular political base for the Government of South Vietnam does not now exist.” The US must therefore take over, he concluded. In the early 1960s Bernard Fall raised the question:

Why is it that we must use top-notch elite forces, the cream of the crop of American, British, French, or Australian commando and special warfare schools; armed with the very best that advanced technology can provide; to defeat Viet-Minh, Algerians, or Malay “CT’s” [Chinese terrorists], almost none of whom can lay claim to similar expert training and only in the rarest of cases to equality in fire power?

He then supplied the correct and obvious answer:

The answer is very simple: It takes all the technical proficiency our system can provide to make up for the woeful lack of popular support and political savvy of most of the regimes that the West has thus far sought to prop up. The Americans who are now fighting in South Vietnam have come to appreciate this fact out of first-hand experience. [Street Without Joy, Stackpole, 1964, p. 373]

A decade later, the same analysis holds. There is every reason to suppose that it will continue to apply in the future, and not only in Southeast Asia.


The major premise of the American intervention has always been that we must “build a nation” in the South to counter the Communist Vietnamese, who seemed to be alone in their ability to mobilize the population. The enemy has found “a dangerously clever strategy for licking the United States,” the director of Systems Analysis warned. “Unless we recognize and counter it now, that strategy may become all too popular in the future” (IV, p. 466). The strategy was to wage a war of national liberation based on the aspirations of the Vietnamese peasants for independence and social justice.

  1. 4

    Averell Harriman, “Missed Opportunities: How We Got Where We Are,” Washington Post, May 9, 1972.

  2. 5

    Seymour Hersh, “Vietcong Delegate Turns Down President’s Peace Proposal,” New York Times, May 11, 1972.

  3. 6

    J. L. S. Girling, review of Georges Chaffard, Les deux guerres du Vietnam, 1969, where the matter is discussed, Pacific Affairs (Spring, 1972), p. 143.

  4. 7

    Harriman, in the article cited (see footnote 4), states that at that time North Vietnam withdrew 90 percent of its troops from the northern two provinces, half of them over 200 miles into North Vietnam. “The United States was then in a favorable bargaining position since it had over half a million men in South Vietnam,” not to speak of more than 50,000 Korean mercenaries. For references from the press at the time, see my At War With Asia (Pantheon, 1970), p. 43f.

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