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Vietnam: After the Debacle

Whether or not Saigon during the coming weeks comes under siege by the PRG guerrillas and their North Vietnamese allies—or whether Thieu attempts to “put it back together again,” as General Weyand predicts—what is now in question is no longer the victory of the revolutionaries in Indochina, but the way they will deal with it.

It is a victory whose size and suddenness have taken the revolutionaries themselves by surprise. Clearly their attacks at the end of January at Phuoc Binh, in the north of old Cochin China, and then, on March 5, in the central highlands, were not part of a “major offensive,” as in February 1968 and April 1972. Their political and military strategy was rather to inflict humiliating defeats on Thieu, shaking his power; and to assure themselves the strongest possible bases from which to launch what they thought would be the decisive operations during the next dry season, starting in October 1975. Such, from all we know, were the plans of General Giap and General Trung.

Early in March, however, Thieu believed that his power was menaced by a putsch of disloyal officers. To save his regime, he suddenly and furtively decided he would have to withdraw to the south his best division—the First Airborne Division stationed around Hue—and then a brigade of rangers. This was the decision that put the garrisons charged with the defense of the northern provinces in a state of anguish and then panic and flight, and cracked apart the deeply militarized society of South Vietnam, where any collapse of troops can unleash a cascade of rumors.

Attempting in effect to barricade himself in the southern part of the South, the general-president opened a moral breach through which poured an avalanche of fear, followed by the forces of the maquis and the North Vietnamese, who literally were sucked into a military vacuum, capturing the strategic prizes they had dreamed of for thirty years: Da Nang, Qui Nhon, Camranh, Phan Thiet. These places contained among them much of the power and riches of South Vietnam, along with immense reserves of American arms, including thousands of artillery pieces, 300 planes, 200 helicopters. All were taken, without serious fighting, by about 200,000 troops.

Why, as this vacuum has been filled, has the dreadful and pathetic movement of refugees of the past few weeks taken place? It is a question that has not been fully confronted or explained, and one that is of greatest concern to the leaders of the revolutionary armies themselves. About one fifth of the inhabitants of the provinces that have come under PRG control—some 1.5 million refugees—have fled south. It is understandable that, among these, the urban bourgeoisie of Hue and Da Nang would want to escape from an administration that sooner or later will be hostile to them, however prudent it may at first be for tactical reasons. But what about the large numbers of villagers who are in flight? What do they have to lose? And don’t they stand to gain much from the kind of social justice the maquis have brought to the rural areas under their control during the last thirty years? Here it must be said that purely psychological explanations are not very satisfactory. When one talks of the phenomenon of collective panic or of the effects of many years of anticommunist propaganda, one hasn’t explained much.

To understand what has happened, we must recognize that the mass exodus was first of all composed of the cadres of the South Vietnamese regime. Of the 1.5 million refugees at least 300,000 people—military or civilian—are, in one way or another, agents of the government and have reasons, both good and bad, to believe the new administration will bring them before “popular tribunals.” Added to this, practically all government functionaries, as well as most soldiers, have with them their families, usually numbering three to five persons. It would be no exaggeration to estimate that over a million of the refugees are fleeing back to the government to which they owed their livings.

If few reports of the exodus have made clear how many of the refugees are tied to the government, some reports, especially in US papers, have at least given us some idea of another factor, showing us that the South Vietnamese army itself has caused terrible disorder, pillaging, extorting, terrorizing helpless local populations. One can imagine the hysteria of people who see turned against them the weapons of their own defenders. We see, moreover, mainly images of such people as they flee, and hardly any of those much larger numbers who stay behind; for practically all the journalists, quite understandably and properly, have chosen to accompany and report on the streams of refugees.

But we must recognize also the deep currents of anticommunist feeling—reasoned and intractable feeling—that exist among large groups in the South. There are those who have been formed by the kind of Catholicism which gave to Vietnam the Ngo family; those who have a horror of adapting themselves to socialist disciplines; those who have heard of the burial pits found outside Hue after it was occupied. And finally there are many who see the revolutionary armies simply as an emanation of the North, which is all the more detested because it remains unknown—the North of the Tonkinese who were historically regarded by the southern Vietnamese much as the northern barons of France were by the Occitans.

However strongly such people are in the grip of mythologies, they represent forces that are not negligible. Both the PRG and its allies in Hanoi have shown themselves aware of the hostility to communism among large numbers of the southern population—their announced political program is indeed based on a tripartite system in which the right-wing and centrist representatives would each have one third of the places. One could say that they propose a “union of the left,” which, in French terms, would have as center not the socialist François Mitterand but someone like Edgar Faure.

But it is certainly wrong to claim, as certain European leftist sympathizers of the PRG tend to do, that the PRG and its army have little to do with communism, that they are a resistance movement as diverse as the one which fought the Nazis in occupied France. Such observations seem to assume that it is somehow criminal to be communist, to imply that there is some truth to be camouflaged. It is true that the revolutionary front includes the followers of diverse political tendencies, among them a large number of non-Marxists, and that it has drawn up a moderate political program. But its strongest and surest cadres, its most effective and disciplined members, especially in the military forces, are pure products of the tradition of patriotic Marxism: the tradition that from Ho Chi Minh to Tran Van Giau, from Giap to Madame Binh, has been that of the “parti avant garde“—i.e., the organizers of the armed forces that have defeated both French colonialism and American imperialism as well as their local clients.

These realities are as perceptible to the peasants of Binh Dinh as they are to the bourgeoisie of Saigon. And they help to explain why fearful reactions are so current in a population that has been horribly traumatized and that tends to invent demons to justify its fears. We may expect that a more reflective period will follow the present one of sauve qui peut that has been set in motion by the South Vietnamese armies. A rough sorting-out process will likely take place, in which most of the peasants who can do so will return to their villages, as opposed to those who have so profited from the war that peace, at first, can only seem to them the start of a settlement of accounts.

Here the changed role of the Catholic Church will be of importance. In 1954, after the communist regime was installed in the North, the Church systematically organized the movement of Christians to the South, where they became one of the main supports of the Diemist state. Today the clergy takes a completely different attitude: practically all the bishops in the newly occupied areas have chosen to remain where they are, and are urging all Christians to do the same. Some, like the bishop of Dalat, have even left Saigon to return to dioceses that are under the control of the PRG.

While it would be rash to predict what the victors will do with their victory, it is not, I think, naïve to believe they are capable of arranging a series of compromises, not only in the towns and villages of central South Vietnam, but around and inside Saigon itself. American sources reported from Da Nang in early April that hanging side by side on some of the public buildings there were the flags of “the Saigon administration,” of the PRG, and of the “Committee for National Reconciliation.” This image of tripartism appears to represent a fundamental policy—one might say a “password”—of the PRG. And if this is the case, then one can doubt that its armies will want to make the kind of frontal assault on Saigon that the Khmer Rouge are mounting against Phnom Penh.

All the talks I have had with leading Vietnamese revolutionaries turn on this policy of compromise. Madame Binh, on arriving in Paris, made it clear that the aim of the PRG was to set up at last the political structures envisaged in the Paris accords of 1973, which called for the “two South Vietnamese parties” to consult to set up a “National Council…of three equal segments.” “We spent five years negotiating them,” she said, “and they are all the more valuable to us.”

Whatever reservations one has about the strict application of the accords by the PRG during the last two years, one must still take this kind of statement seriously. Once Thieu is eliminated—whether by a military junta (of the sort that created him) or under pressure from the Saigon Senate, which has nearly unanimously asked him to leave, or even by a popular uprising—we can expect that the new government in Saigon will ipso facto become the negotiator with the PRG.

No doubt such a government would be hostage to the maquis, in an encircled Saigon, forced to accept a cease-fire under conditions dictated by its adversaries. The steps General Thieu and his US backers could have taken after the accords of 1973—allowing them to move from a military conflict to a political process that might have stabilized the South according to the existing pattern of forces—can now be no more than a facade behind which there is a new reality. That reality is the triumph of the revolution, but a triumph in which the victors seem concerned to avoid revolutionary gluttony: they will probably find it wiser to allow the monstrous and indigestible economic entity of Saigon to remain for some time under “bourgeois” administration. Such a plan would above all avoid a battle for Saigon, a battle which could be the most horrible of all those that have bloodied Vietnam during the last thirty years.

To avoid such a battle, which should be the major concern of all parties, three steps will be necessary. First, the deposition of Thieu; second, the formation of a “moderate” cabinet of transition; and third, the opening of negotiations with the PRG to create, at last, the coalition government that seems the only stabilizing apparatus that could keep Vietnam from falling once again into civil war.

Some observers doubt that this course of events would be possible, citing the precedent of Phnom Penh, where the departure of Lon Nol has not as yet produced serious negotiations. But this is to forget that the Khmer Rouge leaders have mainly talked of total victory and have shown little interest in negotiation. In fact a transition of the kind I have outlined appears all the more possible in Saigon because those who favor it can now count on the all-important leverage of the Catholic hierarchy (General Thieu himself is a Catholic). And they can count as well on a number of leaders who could serve as the instruments of such a policy, among them General Minh, Senator Vu Van Mau, Father Thanh, and the Buddhist movement centering around the An Quang pagoda.

There is much talk now of a political “void” in Saigon; and it is true that the generals who are Thieu’s presumptive heirs are not eager to be saddled with the terrible responsibilities of disaster. But if it becomes clear that gestures toward negotiation can lead to a braking of the revolutionary offensive, we can expect that there will perhaps be an overabundance of politicians willing to play a part. There would be no lack of candidates either for the “right-wing” bloc of a new council or for the famous and still undefined “third segment” of the three I have referred to. From the brilliant Ton That Thien to the untiring Tran Van Tuyen, one could expect to see a flow of politicians presenting themselves as “valuable interlocutors” with Nguyen Huu Tho and his fellow leaders of the Front.

This at least is the sequence of events that seems not only plausible but necessary if Vietnam is not to be plunged into an even deeper pit of blood and destruction.

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