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Can the War End?

There is no end to it. Of course, we should have known that four years ago, for there is a dramatic coherence to the Vietnam conflict. Failure of the war; failure of the peace movement. And the United States will get out of Vietnam the same way it went into it. The process will be slow, painful, full of risks and reversals, or seeming reversals. It will be done, if it is done, by Presidential fiat, accompanied by governmental secrecy, governmental deception, further confusion for the American public and suffering for the Vietnamese. There will be no real end to it, any more than there was a real beginning.

The US government will never finish with Vietnam absolutely. Like the tortoise in the children’s puzzle, it goes half way to the end each time it moves forward, reducing its involvement relatively until progress becomes infinitesimal and the calculation no longer worth making. That is, if the US is to disengage. For the worst part of it is that the American and the Vietnamese people will always live with uncertainty. In spite of the temper of Congress, Nixon has, and will no doubt maintain, the same freedom of action that Eisenhower, Kennedy, and Johnson had in all the years of increasing engagement since 1950—or was it 1947 or 1940?

As a result, Americans will lose interest in the war in the measure that they gained it over a decade, returning to the point where they (or most of them) fondly imagine that they are not participants but merely spectators. The war will be like a film running backward that we are condemned to watch because of our inattention to it the first time around. And those who watch until the end will be too weary or too wary to applaud the turning points. For none of them really marks the end.

The signing of what is called “The Agreement on Ending the War and Restoring the Peace in Vietnam” puts the United States somewhere in the middle of the process that began with the removal of American ground troops from Vietnam. It is a step forward—or backward—that matches the passage of the Tonkin Gulf resolution in the summer of 1964. The accord, like the resolution, is a piece of paper that commits the US to nothing while establishing certain principles. The first sentence reads: “The United States and all other countries respect the independence, sovereignty, unity and territorial integrity of Vietnam….” Subsequent articles state that the “South Vietnamese people shall decide themselves the political future of South Vietnam through genuinely free and democratic general elections,” that the United States “will not continue its military involvement or intervene in the internal affairs of South Vietnam,” and that North and South Vietnam shall achieve reunification step by step through peaceful agreement.

Upon signing this agreement the US, in principle at least, accepted the major provisions of the Geneva Agreement that it refused to sign in 1954, removing the legal basis for the Tonkin Gulf resolution and the moral basis for intervention in Vietnam. In principle the agreement repudiates two decades of American foreign policy in Indochina. Though principles are not practice, they are more than thin air.

What the recent Paris accord does is open a way toward peace while giving no guarantee that way will be followed. In fact, uncertainty is the one predictable feature of the new situation established by the agreement. According to the text, the principal signatories undertake responsibility for no more than the military aspects of the settlement: the United States and North Vietnam agree merely to cease hostilities and to implement a ceasefire in place between two nameless “South Vietnamese parties.” As the ultimate issue of the war is that of political power in Saigon, the agreement represents neither a victory nor a defeat nor a compromise, but rather an attempt to change the nature of the conflict and a postponement of the final issue. It is a truce, but not a stopping point, not even a breathing space within the conflict, for with the best will in the world there is nothing that either side can do to maintain stability, or the status quo.

As the events of the past few days have shown, it is nearly impossible to implement a cease-fire along lines as numerous or as complicated as those drawn across the face of Vietnam. And then, below the military surface, the political, diplomatic, and economic struggle continues: it cannot stop any more than can life itself. As a result, the military truce is terribly fragile, for if one side advances too far, the other side must be tempted to return to hostilities.

Of course, there is no possible way for the United States to make peace in Vietnam (Nixon’s expressed desire for a lasting peace was in this respect ominous since it suggested a complete halt to politics—to life itself). The one thing the US can do is to permit the Vietnamese to settle their own affairs—a process that, after nearly two decades of an American presence, seven years of a major war, cannot be easy under the best of circumstances. But by embalming in the accord the old fiction of American noninvolvement in Vietnamese politics, Nixon has made it as difficult as possible for the Vietnamese—short of a continuation of the American bombing. His negotiating victory consists in leaving the responsibility for a political settlement in the South to two “parties,” neither one of which recognizes the existence of the other, and only one of which can possibly benefit. His artificial distinction between the “military” and the “political” aspects of the war entails a continued US involvement in a real political struggle.

Looked at in the abstract, the text of the accord would indicate that there are two South Vietnamese parties of relatively equal stature. But that is not the case. The “parties” differ in size, but more important, they do not even belong to a single class, like apples and oranges. They are qualitatively different, like apples and theorems. One of them, the PRG (Provisional Revolutionary Government), is a political party with a relatively small military force, even including the North Vietnamese troops, but with strong roots in the countryside of the South. The other is a product of the American pacification of Vietnam, a vast military administration, containing most of the draft-age men, without a political direction except the vague negative of anti-communism.

Drawing all of its support from the United States, the Saigon regime has no responsibility to its own people and no coherent interest except in maintaining the flow of American aid. It occupies the country rather than governs it. And since the success of this occupation depends largely on the use of its great weaponry to keep the population concentrated in a few places and locked in a state of economic dependency on the United States, any reduction in the use of force must serve only to erode it—and by comparison, at least, to strengthen the PRG.

Since the announcement of the draft accord in October, the Thieu regime has done nothing but resist any agreement that would fall short of establishing its de jure sovereignty over all of South Vietnam. Its acquiescence came only after the US executed a Brobdingnagian carrot-stick-push maneuver composed of the gift of several hundred airplanes, the threat of termination of all aid, and the terror bombing of Hanoi and Haiphong. In the three months’ interval Thieu completed the destruction of his regime’s constitutional façade, promulgating new laws that suspended all civil liberties, including the liberty to buy large pieces of blue cloth that might be used in sewing PRG flags. To date he has done all in his power to undermine the principles of the accord, and particularly those bearing on a political settlement. His administration has continued the series of large-scale arrests it began during last spring’s offensive, filling its already crowded jails with people who, for one reason or another, it suspects might take an independent political position.

Recently Thieu has declared his determination to prevent the mass of refugees from returning to the zones controlled by the PRG, so long made unlivable by the bombing. Since the date of the cease-fire, the energies of his commanders have gone into discovering, provoking, or inventing ceasefire violations by the other side. In the future they—and he—can be counted upon to resist all steps that would lead to a permanent end to the fighting and a US withdrawal from Vietnam.

Unless pressured by the United States, Saigon will refuse to make any form of political agreement that gives the PRG or any other group a share of power; it will resist the demobilization of its troops, and it will oppose every single provision for the achievement of “national reconciliation” contained in the accord. And it will do so not for mysterious Oriental reasons—not irrationally—but because its very survival depends on maintaining the state of hostility. Without that one unifying principle, the regime would burst open like a ripe fruit, releasing people of every political group from Catholics to Cao Daists to Buddhists—but mainly a mass of uncommitted people who might provide recruits to the PRG.

The PRG can be expected to take the opposite position for similarly practical reasons. Its line—already announced to the Vietnamese—is that it favors reconciliation and concord, that it has worked for peace (alongside North Vietnam) while the Thieu government has resisted it. In the next three months it will certainly press for a restitution of all those freedoms spelled out in the accord, most particularly freedom of movement from zone to zone and freedom for political prisoners (most of whom are held by the Saigon regime). It will press for demobilization and for elections to be held within the framework of a Council of National Reconciliation and Concord.

Contrary to the fears expressed by US officials, both the PRG and Hanoi will do their best to prevent truce violations by their own forces. In fact, since the United States can blame any truce violation on them and count on credence from the American public, the PRG and DRV may even attempt to obscure minor violations by the troops of the Saigon government. It will be in the PRG’s interest to avoid violations because, as a political organization with a relatively small military force, the transition from a military to a political conflict can only favor their cause, even if it means the emergence of new political parties or confusion in the short run.

In the near future—that is, for the next several years—the aim of the PRG is not, as Americans and Saigon officials claim, to replace the Thieu regime and take over the government of the South. As Pham Van Dong, the North Vietnamese prime minister, said in a recent interview:

The political situation in the South is such that one must have a government that reflects the realities. You must realize that war in the South has meant that an entire generation has known no other way of life. There has been terrible suffering in every family. No one has been spared. Families are divided, father on one side, son on the other. Those are the realities. One must now try to abolish those divisions and not by imposing our will. That’s why national reconciliation is paramount.

To believe Pham Van Dong it is not necessary to believe that the PRG and the North Vietnamese are more humanitarian than any other group in their country. It is merely necessary to believe that they understand their country. After thirteen years of a major war, South Vietnam has become ungovernable—a mass of refugees, an ecological disaster, and a catalogue of social and economic ills. Those who rush—or are rushed—into taking responsibility for this anarchy are bound to be repudiated in the long run, be they as wise and well-intentioned as the angel Gabriel. At the moment, therefore, the PRG wishes merely to call into question the dominance of the Thieu regime and to set into motion the political process which, as Marxists, they are confident will end with the victory of their particular revolution. Since Hanoi will back the PRG in this endeavor, there remains only one party to the accord whose intentions are not entirely predictable, and that is the United States government.

What does Mr. Nixon want? Is this truce agreement the strategy for a “decent interval” or for an attempt to “win the peace”? To put it in more concrete terms, how long does he intend to support the Saigon government, “its constitutional structure and its leadership intact and unchanged”?* One year? Four years? Or has he a definite plan? If not, then his freedom of maneuver is only the freedom to make more hard choices, for, broadly speaking, he has only three possible courses of action. If he wishes to ensure the continued existence of the Saigon regime, he must, sooner or later, order a direct intervention by the US armed forces—a step that the very fact of the Paris agreements and the truce will make difficult, since, in all likelihood, the threat to Saigon will not come from a direct military offensive.

Alternatively, he may try to maintain the Saigon regime for as long as possible with only the props of money and military equipment. But such an undertaking would be hazardous, as it would involve an attempt to control all the byways of Vietnamese politics (Where do the loyalties of the nth regimental commander lie? Who controls the route from My Tho?) that proved uncontrollable by, and furthermore almost incomprehensible to, the Administration officials of a decade ago.

The third possibility is that Nixon wants to make peace, or rather, to create the conditions for a political settlement among Vietnamese. If so, then the terms of the accords will force him into a long-term confrontation with his South Vietnamese “allies.” For in order to ground the new conflict in the realities of Vietnam, he must relinquish the traditional fictions of US policy and force the Saigon government to dissolve itself. The first step was difficult enough. What of the next? And the one after that? The situation will become less and less manageable as the United States withdraws.

In addition there is the problem of Laos and Cambodia. As the past few weeks have indicated, the settlement of the Vietnam conflict will not necessarily bring peace to the rest of Indochina. The withdrawal of North Vietnamese troops from Laos and Cambodia (would it be accompanied by the withdrawal of Thai troops and US advisers?) may serve to complicate rather than simplify the situation. The US has after all managed to maintain an almost totally artificial conflict in Laos for over a decade—a fiction that is difficult to undo—while Nixon’s export of the war to Cambodia has created near anarchy in that country. By making an accord that postpones the important questions of politics and American disengagement, the Nixon Administration may force the United States to drag the Indochina conflict, as its predecessors dragged the postwar Chinese conflict, like a sea anchor into the future.

Map

Strictly speaking it is impossible to make a map of the areas controlled by the PRG and the Saigon government since the word “control” is so difficult to define in a people’s war. Who, for instance, “controls” a village that is occupied by one side and is politically sympathetic (to a greater or lesser degree) to the other? And who “controls” uninhabited regions that neither army enters because they have no strategic significance?

The above map is merely an attempt to show the rough outlines of the current struggle and to correct some of the more flagrant inaccuracies in the maps recently published by newspapers and news magazines.

  1. *

    The phrase comes from the White House Fact Sheet entitled “Basic Elements of the Vietnam Agreement” and dated January 24. It appears in what is apparently a list of American negotiating victories in the accords. But like most of the rest of these victories, the point is perfectly ambiguous. After all, the old government of China is still intact, its leadership unchanged. Only Chiang Kai-shek has not been to the mainland for the past quarter of a century.

    Since the White House talks of the “constitutional structure” of the Republic of Vietnam, it must be remembered that Article 4 of the Saigon government’s constitution prohibits “every activity designed to propagate or implement [sic] Communism.” In view of the wide range of activities the Thieu regime considers “communist,” the constitution contradicts all the agreements on future political action stated in the accords.

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