Toward a Third Indochina War


On the eve of the new international conference on Vietnam, it is useful to sum up just where we stand with the cease-fire and to try to find some keys to what the future holds for us in Southeast Asia. The first of these keys lies in a paradox: Nixon and our military had to get out in order to stay in.

To understand this paradox one must begin by asking oneself why there had to be a cease-fire agreement. The answer is that the cease-fire agreement was necessary in order to cope with the unforeseen weaknesses of the Vietnamization policy. Under Vietnamization, Thieu’s troops were gradually to take over all combat activity as a worn-down enemy slowly faded away. This scenario furnished the Pentagon with pleasant dreams for many months but turned out to have two drawbacks: one for the US, the other for Thieu and the US.

For the US, it left unsolved the problem of the POWs. If the war—as in Malaysia—were left to “fade away” over an indefinite period of years, so would our POWs.1 Prisoners are not exchanged until hostilities have ended. In the absence of surrender by the other side, some kind of formal end to the fighting had to be negotiated to get the prisoners back. The last illusions to the contrary disappeared with the failure of that giddy Wild West movie attempt at rescue in the Sontay raid.

The other drawback, for both Thieu and the US, was that Vietnamization failed its first big test in battle. When the crunch came in last year’s offensive, US air power and sea power on a vast scale had to come to Thieu’s rescue. It became clear that Thieu’s survival depended on a continued US protectorate, on US air and sea power near at hand for another rescue in the event of another major offensive.

But here Nixon and the US military came up against the unpopularity of the Vietnam war at home. What our military—like the French before them—saw as a collapse of will on the domestic front, public opinion at home—as in France earlier—saw as a failure of the military to win a decision after years of costly combat and glowing promises. Even the idea of a small residual force had become untenable; it was seen as an open invitation to renewed escalations. Only by removing all combat troops from South Vietnam, recovering the POWs in exchange, and making it look as if we were really getting out at last could Nixon obtain popular acquiescence in maintaining offshore and on nearby bases a huge air and sea armada ready for renewed intervention.

A public which was suspicious of a residual force as small as 25,000 on the ground in Vietnam accepted a residual force “next door” of at least four times that number—and with firepower many orders of magnitude greater—on the Thai and Guam bases and in the Seventh Fleet. History will record this as an extraordinary example of gagging on a gnat and swallowing a camel.

In the relief over the withdrawal of the last combat troops and the return of the POWs, the public was also willing to overlook the fresh series of commitments made in Agnew’s recent tour of “reassurance” not only to South Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, and Thailand but to Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, and the Philippines. It may be months before we know the full bill for these widened commitments.

The US, far from withdrawing and disengaging, is now the paramount power in Southeast Asia. That region is now as much an American sphere of influence as the Caribbean, and this expansion of empire will play its part in shaping the future, as it continues to shape the budget.

The new budget for fiscal 1974 allocates $1 billion for support of US forces remaining in Southeast Asia, and almost $2 billion more for military assistance for South Vietnam and Laos. But these are only the tips of the fiscal iceberg. Economic assistance to prop up the Thieu, Lon Nol, and Souvanna Phouma regimes in Southeast Asia, with associated pourboires for Thailand and the new Marcos dictatorship in the Philippines, may add another $2 billion and bring the total up to $5 billion. This does not include the cost of promised reconstruction in the areas we have devastated on both sides of the 17th Parallel.

Nor does this cover all the costs of the US protectorate in East Asia. In the new military budget, $85 billion is asked for obligational authority in fiscal 1974. Of this amount, the strategic deterrent on which the actual defense of the US rests takes only $7.4 billion. The general-purpose forces we maintain at home and all around the world as part of the Pax Americana will consume $26.4 billion, by far the largest slice of the new military spending authority.

How much of that will be spent on the Seventh Fleet, the B-52s in Thailand and Guam, and their backup forces the Pentagon will not say. There the attitude is that “once the cease-fire comes and we stop dropping bombs, it won’t cost any more to maintain this force in Indochina than elsewhere.”2 But the huge size of our military force derives from the cold war doctrine that we have to stand by for “the defense of the free world” not only against communist aggression but against insurrection and rebellion, as in the Philippines, where Agnew completed his tour with a pat on the head for the latest Asian dictatorship under our wing.

The air and sea power deployed on and off the Asian mainland will take up a substantial portion of that $26.4 billion in obligational authority for the Pax Americana in the next fiscal year. While we cut back at home on every domestic need from poverty to pollution, the real cost of our Southeast Asian protectorate may easily run to $10 billion next fiscal year. But this too is overlooked in the general relief that the Vietnam war at last seems to be ending.

This is the meaning of the paradox that Nixon and the military had to “get out” in order to stay in.


A second key to coming events lies in the lopsided character of the cease-fire agreement. It effectively obligates Thieu to nothing at all. A lawyer would risk disbarment who advised a client to buy a house or a horse on such a sales contract; it neither sets a firm date for delivery nor imposes any penalty for failure to transfer the property. But the other side risks heavy penalties should it resort to arms in frustration. The terms and the setting are designed to make Hanoi acquiesce as Thieu strives to maintain his dictatorship in spite of the agreement’s promise of free elections.

Should fighting break out again, Hanoi stands to lose the carrot of US aid in reconstructing what our bombers have destroyed. It also risks the club of renewed bombing and more destruction. Indeed one major reason for the bombing over Christmas was to bring home to Hanoi Nixon’s readiness to bomb again. As Evans and Novak reported on January 18, apparently on the basis of a private White House briefing, “The fact that Mr. Nixon decided to bomb military targets in the most heavily populated cities of the North despite universal world condemnation [italics in original] is likely to have major impact on whether Hanoi lives up to the new agreement.” This is a clear sign that Nixon is ready to bomb again.

A similar view of Administration intention and strategy was given in a New York Times dispatch January 23. This came from the Times’s Pentagon correspondent William Beecher after Secretary Laird’s farewell press conference. Laird had evaded an answer when he was asked, “Do we have a further commitment to reinvoke American air or sea power in Vietnam should things go badly in the next year or two?” Beecher obtained an answer from “other Administration officials in the Pentagon and other departments.” He was informed that Kissinger in the Paris negotiations had constantly made it clear that Nixon would not hesitate to bomb again “if Hanoi should violate any cease-fire agreement in a blatant way.”

Beecher’s “not for attribution” informants lifted the curtain on Kissinger’s talks with Le Duc Tho and said Kissinger’s last warning of this kind came before the renewed December raids. Le Duc Tho is reported to have said that any agreement depended more on good will than on its specific terms and that if there were no good will then Hanoi and the Viet Cong would resort to arms again. At that point Dr. Kissinger reminded him that Nixon had invaded Cambodia in 1970 and Laos in 1971 and begun the heavy bombing and mining of the North last spring even though he knew these actions would “stir an uproar on the home front” and “might upset delicate and important negotiations with both the Soviet Union and China.”

Thieu’s survival is Nixon’s No. 1 priority. Dr. Kissinger in his lengthy interview February 1 with Marvin Kalb of CBS was asked how Nixon had persuaded Moscow and Peking to help bring about a cease-fire in Vietnam. Dr. Kissinger’s reply was skillfully convoluted and diplomatically opaque, but what it boiled down to was that Vietnam took on “a different perspective” when recognized as only “an appendage to the land mass of Asia.” One wishes this were as true in Washington as in Moscow and Peking. For Nixon—emotionally—all Russian and Chinese Eurasia is only an appendage to Vietnam.

For all the talk that Nixon inherited the war from the Democrats, Vietnam has been an overriding concern with him ever since he flew there in the fall of 1953, in an effort to rally the French against negotiating with the Viet Minh. Later, every time Kennedy and Johnson escalated, Nixon asked for more. Vietnam has been more than a priority. It has been an obsession. All his fears about being made to appear “a pitiful, helpless giant,” all his emphasis on “a peace with honor” focus on maintaining Saigon as the last symbol of a containment policy he has breached everywhere else except Cuba. To forget this is to overlook a prime factor in the equation of coming events.

The cease-fire agreement is tailored to this objective. Normally if one side does not show good will in carrying out the terms of an agreement, the other side withdraws from it. But the normal situation was upset when Hanoi agreed to separate the military cease-fire from the political negotiations, and to negotiate politically with Thieu still in power. The result is that Hanoi is obligated to maintain the cease-fire agreement with the US no matter how much Thieu stalls on negotiations. And Thieu must frustrate these if he is to retain power. The setup now gives Thieu a blank check for resumed American bombing if the other side balks. This means that Thieu is encouraged to sabotage the agreement. The Beecher dispatch, read carefully, shows how little Washington expects Thieu to demonstrate good will and carry out the spirit of the agreement.

Once the American POWs have been returned, Thieu can be as tough as he likes. The US expects him to be. As Beecher reported, “senior Washington planners” do not expect the fighting to end with the cease-fire but expect combat to shift “to what one official [Laird?] described as ‘lower intensity struggle involving assassination and political skulduggery on both sides.’ ” Beecher wrote that “many officials” think Thieu’s regime can deal with such a struggle so long as Hanoi does not intervene. To prevent such an intervention “the decision has been made” to keep air power in the region “for at least a few years.” Obviously the new scenario is for Thieu to wipe out his domestic opposition while we keep the military balance in his favor by preventing Hanoi from invading the South again.

This strategy is designed to accomplish what has been the consistent aim of US policy since the Geneva conference of 1954—to maintain the 17th Parallel as a containment line and to keep South Vietnam as a US dependency. Nixon is still out to win politically what he failed to win militarily.


To achieve this strategy, Nixon at home must prevent Congress from tying his hands against renewed intervention, as the Church-Case bill in the Senate and the identical Bingham bill in the House would do. Abroad he must retain the cooperation of Hanoi, Peking, and Moscow. Kissinger’s purpose during his current tour is to display the carrots and remind the communists of the club. Agnew’s trip was to encourage the Southeast Asian states to hold the line under our leadership; Kissinger’s is to get the communist powers to acquiesce.

The peace movement has no more important task than to focus attention on the Church-Case and Bingham bills. Some forty-five members have already co-sponsored the bill in the House and some fifteen others have introduced identical bills. The legislation shows an awakening realization in Congress of the lopsided character of the cease-fire agreement, and of the danger this represents in encouraging Thieu to bring about renewed intervention.

Jonathan Bingham (D., N.Y.), in introducing his bill, told the House on January 24 that he was “profoundly pessimistic” about the future of Vietnam beyond the sixty-day period in which our POWs are to be released. He said he thought it “inconceivable” that the opposing forces could agree on “the procedure of the proposed elections or even on the purpose.” He said that with South Vietnam fragmented by the “leopard skin” cease-fire in place, he feared full-scale fighting again. He declared it “ominous” that the President in his address the night before had said the US would police the agreement to “see to it,” as Nixon said, that the agreement was carried out. “Let’s face it,” Bingham told the House:

…there is only one way for the US to police the agreement, and that is by being prepared to send its forces back into Indochina and its planes back to the bombing runs. This, I am convinced, the American people do not want. And I believe the Congress must take steps to see that it does not happen.

This preventive measure is entitled “A Bill Requiring Congressional Authorization for the Reinvolvement of American Forces in Further Hostilities in Indochina.” It would take effect sixty days after the signing of the cease-fire or the release of all US POWs. The heart of the bill provides that no funds now available or to be appropriated “may be expended to finance the reinvolvement of US military forces in hostilities in or over or from off the shores of North and South Vietnam, Laos, or Cambodia without prior specific appropriation by Congress.”

In the Senate, where the bill was introduced by the liberal Republican Clifford Case of New Jersey and the liberal Democrat Frank Church of Idaho, the sponsors made it clear that they feared a situation in which the Saigonese tail could, so to speak, wag the American dog and force the US into war. Case told the Senate on January 26, when the bill was introduced, that “we want to make clear to the Thieu regime” that only Congress could make the decision of war or peace, so that Thieu could not count on the US “automatically bailing him out.” Church said there was no better way to “weaken whatever prospect the Paris Accords may have for success” than to give Thieu “the impression that we readily will come to his rescue if the agreements break down.”

Griffin of Michigan, the GOP whip, opposed the bill on the ground that its effect would be to give Hanoi notice that it could violate the accords with impunity. To this Church replied:

Nothing could be further from the truth or constitute a greater distortion of the provisions of the bill. If the truce should break down—and who knows under what circumstances this might happen, who on this floor is wise enough to forecast the guilt that might be involved on one side or another—and a renewal of the fighting should occur, this bill would prescribe that the question of our reentry in the war should be taken in accord with our constitutional processes, that the executive and the legislative branches should share in making national policy.

Without such legislation, Thieu has more power than the Congress to decide when the US shall be drawn back into war again. Once the POWs have been returned, Thieu can provoke fresh fighting whenever it suits his purpose in the expectation of renewed US bombardment either in the South or in the North. No one knows what secret understandings are part of the cease-fire agreement. At his press conference of January 24 to explain the cease-fire agreement, Dr. Kissinger, when questioned on the point, first said there were “no secret understandings” but a few moments later amended this, saying, “There are no secret formal obligations” (italics added).

Even this was said only in reference to the cease-fire agreement. We do not know what secret promises Nixon made to Thieu to get him to accept the cease-fire; all we know is that Thieu has several times claimed an American promise to come to his rescue if necessary, presumably with renewed bombing

So, too, in Laos the premier, Prince Souvanna Phouma, “has given many visitors to understand,” according to a New York Times dispatch by Malcolm W. Browne from Vientiane, February 10, “that the Americans have assured him that, after a cease-fire, they would answer major attacks by the other side with “appropriate riposte.’ ” Has Lon Nol similar assurances?

The Church-Case and Bingham bills may be seen as a third step in recent years to restore the congressional power to share the decisions which ultimately mean war and peace. The first was the overwhelming passage by the Senate (70 to 16) in June, 1969, of the Fulbright “national commitments” resolution. This resolved that no future commitments of military or financial aid should henceforth be made without specific congressional authorization. The purpose was to prevent secret commitments which might later draw the US into war without congressional knowledge or approval.

In 1972, the Senate took a second step by approving Case’s amendments to the foreign aid bill requiring that military base agreements like those just concluded with Portugal and Bahrain be submitted as treaties and thus be subject under the Constitution to ratification by the Senate. The amendments failed in the House, but the Senate insisted and the result was to block the foreign aid bill. Foreign aid has continued under a temporary resolution expiring February 28 of this year, and the Church-Case bill is expected to be attached to the new foreign aid bill the Administration must submit by that date. All three measures would require the Administration to make public and to debate the wisdom of intervention, instead of leaving it to be triggered by secret agreements, faits accomplis, or even Presidential tantrums.


A congressional veto on reintervention is made all the more necessary by the tricky way the cease-fire agreement is written. Thieu was opposed to US withdrawal, and the terms of the agreement are designed to keep us entangled indefinitely in Vietnamese affairs as his patron, even if we’re lucky enough to avoid overt intervention.

The agreement, as it emerged from the final negotiations after Christmas, is even fuzzier than it was in October. Thieu can stall as long as he pleases. On elections, on the release of political prisoners, and on the establishment of the National Council on National Reconciliation and Concord he is free to haggle and delay or speed up as it suits his purpose.

To make free elections possible, South Vietnam needs first the release of all political prisoners and secondly the convening of a constituent assembly to write a new constitution. Under the current one, Thieu can outlaw any kind of political opposition, and he is even treating the truce control teams as if they were communist outlaws to be kept isolated from the general population, except when he chooses to stage hostile demonstrations against them.

The PRG is asking for a constituent assembly, but the cease-fire agreement sets no firm and definite time limit on the consultations which are to decide “the institutions for which the general elections are to be held,” or on the time to be taken in setting up the National Council to oversee the elections. Thieu seems to want an election for president under the existing constitution as soon as possible, while he still controls most of the population and can get himself re-elected and continue to rule by decree.

The noncommunist opposition that is not part of the NLF cannot begin to function until its militants have been released from Thieu’s prisons—and until that release makes its exiled leaders less fearful than they are now that returning home would only land them in Thieu’s jails. There is an almost racially unpleasant contrast between the emotional outburst over our POWs and our blank disregard for theirs, and especially for Thieu’s political prisoners.

The cease-fire agreement does not even speak of “political prisoners.” It speaks of “civilian personnel captured and detained” by either side, and it says “the question” of their return shall be “resolved” on the basis of the definition in article 21(b) of the 1954 Geneva agreement. But this vague wording and that old provision are not adequate in the current situation to secure the release of many political prisoners, especially those not directly linked with the NLF.

Section 21(b) of the Geneva accords said that by the term “civilian detainees” is “understood to mean all persons who, having in any way contributed to the political and armed struggle between the two parties, have been arrested for that reason and have been kept in detention by either party.”

But the situation in 1973 is far more complicated than it was in 1954. Then there had been a fairly clear-cut struggle between the French on the one side and the Viet Minh on the other. Today among the unknown thousands of political prisoners in Thieu’s jails are many who did not take part in the political and armed struggle “between the two parties,” i.e., Thieu and the NLF, but opposed Thieu on their own—or for movements other than the NLF. The definition in the Geneva accord and the wording in this one are not broad enough to cover the Buddhist opposition, probably the largest of all; or a man like Dzu whose only crime was to have garnered the second largest vote against Thieu in 1967, the only election in which an opposition could be entered; or such editors as the one who was sent to jail for a year merely because he published a report on a Cornell University study of American bombing in South Vietnam.3

The Thieu regime can interpret these provisions to mean that political prisoners who did not take part in the struggle between it and the NLF or who were not arrested “for that reason,” are not covered in the agreement. A Washington Post dispatch from Paris of last January 3 quoted two Frenchmen who recently returned from terms in Thieu’s jails as saying that the Saigon authorities “were reclassifying political prisoners as common criminals to avoid releasing them when a cease-fire comes into effect.”

For all our talk of giving the poor people of South Vietnam a free choice, the US authorities in Saigon and Washington have shown themselves as indifferent to and even as contemptuous of the democratic anticommunist opposition as Thieu has. We even revised the provisions on the National Council between October and January to take out the reference to neutralists. The version as finally adopted says the council shall be made up of three segments but no longer specifies what elements shall constitute the third segment—so deep is Thieu’s hostility (and ours) to any kind of third force. The cease-fire agreement does say that on elections and on “civilian detainees” the two parties are obligated to “do their utmost to resolve this question within 90 days,” but that is hardly a firm deadline.

It is also true that on elections and civilian detainees either party can appeal to the International Commission of Control and Supervisor But the ICCS, if and when it reaches unanimity among its four members on such complaints, is empowered only to report back “to the two Vietnamese parties.” This ring-around-the-rosy procedure is further complicated by Article 18(e), which says the ICCS “shall carry out its tasks in accordance with the principle of respect for the sovereignty of South Vietnam.” (And not—one may notice—with the principle that there are now two administrations in South Vietnam.) It would take a battalion of lawyers months in any appellate court to determine just what this means. No doubt Thieu and Nixon intend it to mean that no outside powers may interfere with Thieu’s “sovereign” right to interpret his laws as it suits his purpose.

A second type of obligation imposed on Thieu is blocked by blatant and fundamental contradictions, contradictions which the Nixon Administration is already resolving in Thieu’s favor. Article 11 of the cease-fire agreement obligates both “South Vietnamese parties,” i.e., Thieu and the PRG, not to take any “acts of reprisal and discrimination against individuals or organizations that have collaborated with one side or the other,” and sets forth a bill of rights calling on both to—

…insure the democratic liberties of the people: personal freedom, freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom of meeting, freedom of organization, freedom of political activities, freedom of belief, freedom of movement, freedom of residence, freedom of work, right to property ownership and the right to free enterprise.

The last two phrases, especially the cute one about “the right to free enterprise,” may well be used to block socialist or public ownership measures, but the other rights are already a dead letter. Indeed they conflict with the constitution adopted by a South Vietnamese Constituent Assembly in 1967, under pressure from a military junta headed by Thieu.

This constitution recalls the one Diem promulgated in 1956 to facilitate the establishment of his one-man, one-party rule. This, too, had a bill of rights but with loopholes large enough in practice to suppress hostile newspapers and parties. Article 16 of Diem’s recognized “freedom of expression” but only if not used for “incitations to internal disturbances or for the overthrow of the Republican form of government.” Article 12(1) of Thieu’s similarly says, “The State respects freedom of thought, speech, press and publishing, as long as it does not harm personal honor, national security or good morals” (my italics). Both gave the president wide decree powers, and these have been used to outlaw communists and neutralists.

How loosely and broadly these terms are used to hobble all opposition was reported to Nixon as far back as June, 1969, when a distinguished study team cabled him in terms even more urgently applicable today:

Speaking for peace or in any other way opposing the government of South Vietnam easily brings the charge of Communist sympathy and subsequent arrest…. There must be no illusion that this climate of religious and political suppression is compatible with either a representative or a stable government. Members of the Study Team met with leaders of five old-line political parties no longer permitted to function. These men have all been active in the resistance movement against the French and were ardent nationalists. Their parties have been outlawed, their requests to publish a newspaper have gone unanswered. These men reflect a vast middle position. They have known imprisonment and sacrifice. (A retired General present had been in prison eleven times.)4

The newspapers in recent days have been filled with dispatches from Saigon on the step-up in repressive measures by the Thieu regime, including “shoot to kill” orders against anyone suspected of antigovernment activities. These make a bitter joke of the bill of rights in the cease-fire agreement.

Yet Nixon in his TV address announcing the cease-fire on January 23 said, “The United States will continue to recognize the Government of the Republic of Vietnam as the sole legitimate government of South Vietnam,” and the Fact Sheet issued by the White House on the “Basic Elements of Vietnam Agreement” on January 24, just before the Kissinger press briefing, boasted that one of the main political provisions was:

The Government of the Republic of Vietnam continues in existence, recognized by the United States, its constitutional structure and leadership intact and unchanged.

How can that be read by Thieu as anything other than encouragement for a widening repression which makes free elections impossible? How can that be reconciled with our propaganda that we seek only to give the people of South Vietnam a free choice?


Other clues to the evolution of the cease-fire can be found by looking back at 1954. Both the current diplomatic maneuvers in advance of the new international conference and the dynamics of the internal situation in Indochina strongly resemble what happened almost two decades ago.

Let us first look at the diplomacy. The blueprint Nixon and Kissinger seem to be following is an elaboration of that pursued by Mendès-France in obtaining the 1954 agreement. The US, like France, resorted to diplomacy when its military action failed. Essentially Mendès-France won far better terms than the military situation in Indochina warranted by trading on the then united Sino-Soviet bloc’s opposition to German rearmament and its desire, in the wake of Stalin’s death, for “peaceful coexistence.” In 1954, as now—so close is the parallel—the Soviet Union was ready to curb Vietnamese military action in return for a European Security Conference.5 The price Molotov asked in 1954—which Bidault refused and Mendès-France granted (after Eisenhower over-ruled Nixon and Dulles and refused to intervene)—was French scuttling of the European Defense Community, an early formula for German rearmament which the Soviet Union feared, as did many in Western Europe.

Today there are different carrots for each of the three communist capitals. The principal carrot Kissinger will offer Hanoi is reconstruction aid, which (as he said on January 24) we promised to “discuss” but “only after the signature of the agreements. And after the implementation is well advanced” (italics added). The implementation would include withdrawal of North Vietnamese troops from Cambodia and Laos, from their supply routes and bases, and joint demobilization of their forces with those of South Vietnam on some formula to be negotiated by both sides, a face-saving way to get Hanoi’s troops out of the South.

Reconstruction funds for Hanoi will encounter difficulties in Congress. The White House can “impound” funds Congress has voted, but there is still no way for it to vote funds on its own. Congressional authorization and appropriation will be required. Nixon’s “humanitarianism” in North Vietnam is only a lever for imperial purposes, i.e., for maintaining US power elsewhere in Indochina. But Congress is showing hostility to voting humanitarian funds in Indochina for any purpose when Nixon is cutting back on humanitarian funds at home. Many of our inner cities are devastated, too. It is easier for members of Congress to take out their anger on North Vietnam than to shift funds from the military budget to meet the moral obligations our B-52s have created.

For Peking the main carrot is the promise, in the joint Nixon-Chou Enlai communiqué of February 28 last year, that the US would “progressively reduce its forces and military installations on Taiwan as the tension in the area [i.e., Indochina] diminishes.” The corollary is that if fighting flares up again in Indochina, forces on Taiwan will not be reduced and the task of reuniting Taiwan with the mainland by negotiation or force or both will be delayed. For China, as the communiqué said, this (and not Indochina) is “the crucial question obstructing the normalization of relations between China and the United States.”

For the Soviet Union there is a whole basket of carrots. Resumption of the fighting would endanger the current détente, including the talks on SALT II, US grain supplies, trade expansion, credits, Siberian natural gas, European security, and mutual reduction of forces. What Nixon and Kissinger want above all in return is that Moscow and Peking cut back on arms supplies to North Vietnam and the Viet Cong. As Dr. Kissinger phrased it January 24, with characteristic unction,

…peace in Indochina requires the self-restraint of all of the major countries. And especially of those countries which on all sides have supplied the wherewithal for this conflict. We on our part are prepared to exercise such restraint. We believe that the other countries—the Soviet Union and the People’s Republic of China—can make a very major contribution to peace in Indochina by exercising similar restraint.

This is another instance of Kissinger’s genius for comedy. Having just equipped Thieu with what is probably the largest air force in the world outside those of the Big Three and perhaps India, and given him the largest and best equipped army in the world next to those of the US, USSR, China, and India; having mobilized some 5,000 or more “civilian” technicians to enable him to maintain this aerial and other equipment, and promised one-for-one replacement as it wears out, we now ask the suppliers of the other side to restrain themselves!

Part of the “restraint,” too, must be to look the other way—as the Russians and Chinese did in 1956 when the promise of elections was never kept. This is Nixon’s scenario for keeping the Thieu dictatorship in power.


The basic weakness of the US position now, as then, is the attempt to solve a political problem by military means. The US thought after 1954 that it could keep the Diem regime in power by a huge infusion of funds and arms, that it could successfully ignore the promise of elections to reunify the country and maintain South Vietnam as a separate state within the American empire. It thought, as it still does, that military hardware could take the place of motivation.

Now after almost two decades of huge expenditure in lives and funds, the US has had to withdraw its own troops from Vietnam in a moral, psychological, and military defeat. Yet it still hopes by chicanery and over-whelming supply of hardware, buttressed by the threat of renewed bombing, to keep a similar dictatorship in power.

Hanoi, Peking, and Moscow kept their part of the bargain for many years after Geneva. The failure to hold the 1956 elections passed without real protest. The reprisals against political opponents, forbidden by the Geneva pact as they are by the new cease-fire, were openly carried out by Diem without reaction from the communist capitals. It was Diem, a narrow-minded Catholic dictator in a Buddhist country (in this, too, Thieu is his exact counterpart), who stirred up the revolt, and that revolt came not because of but against the communist party line.

The classic account by the French historian Philippe Devillers of how the revolt started should be required reading now because it sounds like a preview of what is beginning to happen again. From 1957 onward, i.e., from the year after Diem had successfully broken the promise of elections, Devillers wrote:

The Diem government…launched out in 1957 into what amounted to a series of man-hunts…. A considerable number of people were arrested in this way and sent to concentration camps, or political re-education camps, as they were euphemistically called…. This repression was in theory aimed at the Communists. In fact it affected all those, and they were many—democrats, socialists, liberals, adherents of the sects—who were bold enough to express their disagreement….

In 1958 the situation grew worse. Round-ups of “dissidents” became more frequent and more brutal…. The Communists, finding themselves hunted down, began to fight back. Informers were sought out and shot in increasing numbers…. It was in such a climate of feeling that, in 1959, responsible elements of the Communist Resistance in Indochina came to the conclusion that they had to act, whether Hanoi wanted them to or no…. Hanoi preferred diplomatic notes, but it was to find that its hand had been forced.6

Even in the early Sixties, the communist capitals played a detached role in the struggle. Not until US combat troops entered the South in 1965 did Hanoi take any substantial military part. Not until we began to bomb the North did it begin to get sizable military supplies from the Soviet Union, most of them defensive. Until 1965, the guerrillas in the South were pretty much on their own as far as supplies were concerned. Most of their weapons seem to have been captured from our side.7 Nevertheless these outnumbered and underequipped guerrillas were able to set forces in motion which led first to the overthrow of Diem and finally to the withdrawal of US combat troops. A similar process may be expected to repeat itself for similar reasons: these are political, moral, and psychological.

If this were merely a legal problem, Thieu could feel secure: the cease-fire agreement obligates him to nothing he does not wish to concede. If this were merely a normal military problem, he could be sure of victory: the size of his forces and the huge supplies given him in the past few months would assure victory in conventional fixed battle confrontations. But the contradictions in which Thieu is trapped must bring him into conflict with ever larger sectors of his war-weary people and troops. Most are peasants. The war did not really “urbanize” them, as overly clever CIA theoreticians exulted; it only pauperized them. They are anxious to get back to their native villages and the graves of their ancestors. The longing is beyond our Western conception.

But Thieu fears that to let the refugees in their miserable camps and city slums return home would be to give the PRG, with more territory than people, additional constituents in any election. To forbid their return, as Thieu is now doing, is to precipitate new tension and clashes between him and these homeless masses. In effect he is trying to turn the refugee camps into enlarged “strategic hamlets”—once so highly touted by Diem and his US supporters—where the peasantry can be held virtual prisoners of the regime. Thieu like Diem can ignore the freedom of the press and the free political activity to which the cease-fire agreement pledges him; these affect the minority elite only. But in denying the freedom of movement—movement home to the villages—promised in that new “bill of rights,” his regime may come apart at the seams.

A second negative factor is the huge air force we have given Thieu. He had already begun to use it last year to destroy villages held by the other side. In a clumsier and probably even more brutal fashion, Thieu will seek victory by air power just as we have done and make himself hated, as we are, by the peasantry. This is the shortest path to the recruiting of a new resistance movement no matter how clever Kissinger is in wooing the communist capitals.

A new resistance, dependent on low-level warfare, operating through small hit-and-run units, can—as events have so often demonstrated elsewhere in the world—drive armed forces many times their size up the wall with frustration. To the drain that such a resistance would impose economically on the Thieu regime one must add the economic loss created by the US troop withdrawal—the disappearance of all those jobs created by their needs and vices—which it will take millions in aid to replace.

So much for the parallels with the period after 1954. Now we must come to the differences. These, when added to the political dynamics set in motion by the cease-fire, make it easier to understand why the PRG is optimistic about its longer-range prospects. The first and main difference is that the cease-fire in place, in effect, constitutes a second partition of Vietnam. The first, at the 17th Parallel, ceded North Vietnam to the communists. The second has left a sizable army of North Vietnamese and Viet Cong in possession of about one third of the South. If the fighting starts up again, the Southern guerrillas are no longer alone.

So long as a Northern army divides South Vietnam with Thieu, and especially because of the indeterminate and probably indeterminable frontiers of a guerrilla cease-fire in place, the Thieu regime cannot move forward with reconstruction. It cannot attract foreign investment in so unstable and unpredictable a situation. It can stall and cheat on the cease-fire, but only at the expense of prolonging this occupation. In this sense, even though much of the territory held is unpopulated, the other side is right in claiming that the agreement implicitly recognizes two administrations and two armies facing each other in South Vietnam. The South Vietnamese rebels have been hurt badly in the last few years but still are not as helpless as they were in 1954.

Last time Diem welshed on his promises two years after the Geneva conference was over. This time the Paris conference will be in session and the Canadians are threatening to pull out of truce enforcement unless the conference sets up a permanent body which can supervise the cease-fire agreement. This could give greater leverage to the PRG in dealing with its own communist allies, and strain the delicate net of diplomacy Kissinger has been weaving between Washington and the communist capitals.

In so precarious a situation, resumed bombing may destroy the hope of converting a cease-fire into a permanent peace. But Nixon in frustration may resort to it should the Thieu regime begin to crumble, unless Congress firmly says no in advance. The signs point toward a third Indochina war. They have done so ever since we forced the other side to accept the Thieu regime. We are back to 1954, and the tragedy begins its replay, like something out of a Hindu legend about eternal recurrence.


Clandestine commercial groups are forming in both the US and Europe to facilitate the theft and resale of defense materiel given to the South Vietnamese by the US prior to the Vietnamese peace agreement. Materiel is expected to start reaching revolutionary groups in Africa, Asia, and the Middle East as early as mid-March, or soon after the US withdrawal is complete. Highest demand is for night-vision and communications gear stripped from aircraft and helicopters.”

Aviation Week & Space Technology, February 5, p. 11—IFS

  1. 1

    Britain, fortunately, was unable to stand the expense—or see the wisdom—of pursuing fleas with sledgehammers. It used little air power and had no skilled pilots in captivity. By this simile we mean no affront to the brave men who fought against such odds in Malaysia and Indochina.

  2. 2

    Unnamed Pentagon official quoted in William Beecher’s dispatch, “Aircraft Pullout To Be Slow, US Says,” New York Times, January 23.

  3. 3

    See page 2 of Hostages of War: Saigon’s Political Prisoners by Holmes Brown and Don Luce, just published by the American Friends Service Committee (109 pp., $1.50), 160 North 15th Street, Philadelphia, Pa. 19102, by far the best survey on this question.

  4. 4

    Abridged from the report by a US Study Team on Religious and Political Freedom in Vietnam which included Bishop James Armstrong of the United Methodist Church; Robert F. Drinan, SJ, now a congressman from Massachusetts; Rear Admiral Arnold E. True, retired, US Navy; and Congressman Conyers of Detroit. Full text begins on page H4984, Congressional Record of June 18, 1969.

  5. 5

    See Donald Lancaster’s “Power Politics at the Geneva Conference” in Vietnam: History, Documents and Opinions, edited by Marvin E. Gettleman, (Fawcett Publications, 1965), p. 129. The excerpt is taken from Lancaster’s authoritative The Emancipation of French Indochina (Oxford University Press and the London Royal Institute of International Affairs, 1961).

  6. 6

    See pages 35 to 38 of North Vietnam Today, Portrait of a Communist Satellite edited by P.J. Honey (Praeger, 1962). This is in book form a special issue of the China Quarterly, which Honey then edited. Devillers contributed an article called “The Struggle for the Unification of Vietnam” that is still the best description of how and why the revolt in the South began in the years after the Geneva accord of 1954.

  7. 7

    As I showed many years ago in my “Reply to the [February, 1965] White Paper.” The State Department’s White Paper was intended to set the stage for escalating US aerial and ground intervention. It is worth recalling the key statistics. The White Paper claimed that in the eighteen months ending January 29, 1964, the Saigon regime had turned over 179 captured Soviet-made weapons to the Control Commission and termed this “incontrovertible evidence” of Hanoi’s complicity in the Southern revolt. But figures I obtained from the Pentagon at the time showed that in the three years, 1962-1964, 15,100 weapons had been captured from the guerrillas and 27,400 lost to them, a net gain for the guerrillas of 12,300. If the guerrillas had been mainly supplied by the other side, how come in eighteen months we had been able to find only 179 Soviet-made weapons among the thousands captured from them? This analysis was published in I. F. Stone’s Weekly, March 8, 1965, and may be found reprinted in Raskin and Fall’s Vietnam Reader (Random House, 1965) and Gettleman’s Vietnam, cited earlier.