Lyndon Johnson
Lyndon Johnson; drawing by David Levine

“On the long thin coast of Vietnam,” wrote John K. Fairbank in the last issue of this paper, “we are sleeping in the same bed the French slept in even though we dream different dreams.”

The dreams of course are very different but so are the beds and the dreamers themselves. Let us compare them and see when the end of the night may come.

Nothing could be more valuable for American leaders at the moment than a close examination of the disastrous errors made by the French in Indo-China from 1945 to 1956. To know the faults of a friend may not cure one’s own, but from France’s experience America might well learn something of what has gone so dreadfully wrong in Vietnam today.

The French had three great dreams for Indo-China and each led them into a different and more ugly phase of the war. At first, in 1946, they clung briefly to the dream of re-establishing their prewar empire in Indo-China. Indeed, for one hopeful moment they seemed to be on the verge of a promising new colonial policy: General Leclerc, sent out to “reconquer” the territory, decided instead to negotiate with the Vietnam revolutionary leader, Ho Chi Minh. Leclerc recognized Ho’s Vietnam as a “free state,” connected with France, but controlling its own diplomacy, army, and finances. This was the first agreement made between a European colonial power and the Asian revolution—and one of the shortest-lived and saddest in retrospect. For within weeks the intrigues of colonialists in Saigon and Paris and extremists among the Vietminh and its nationalist allies succeeded in scraping it. The way was now open for France to plunge into full-scale colonial war. But it soon became clear to everybody that this would have been a hopeless venture, doomed from the start by the half-ruined state of France, the lack of an air force and navy, and the disapproval of the Russians and Americans.

At this point the French conceived their second Indo-Chinese dream which led them into a second war, lasting from 1948 to 1951. Now they would transform their colonial struggle into a Civil War. Against Ho’s Vietminh they would set in opposition the “independent” Emperor Bao Dai, encouraging him to cultivate his own anti-Communist but nationalist leadership—a policy described by the distinguished scholar Paul Mus as “nationalist counter fire.”

Perhaps it might have succeeded if the nationalists had been given a chance to make it work. But their power and prestige and autonomy were always limited. While Vietnamese and French troops died courageously, Bao Dai pre-occupied himself with tiger hunting, his ministers with profiteering. The Vietminh methodically liquidated Bao Dai’s officials, dominated the countryside, and organized its soldiers into divisions soon after the Chinese Communists arrived on the Northern Frontier in 1950.

After this decisive event and the outbreak of the Korean War, France dreamed once again of transforming the nature of the war in Vietnam, this time into an international conflict with Communism. In September 1951 General de Lattre arrived in Washington to argue that France, faced with Vietminh subversion supported by Communist China, now needed and deserved to have its risks shared. He was given both credits and weapons. But later, in 1954, on the eve of Dien Bien Phu, the French government demanded far more: It requested that several hundred American bombers be ordered to attack the enemy from Manila. To these requests Washington finally responded that “Indo-china does not fall within the perimeter of the area vital to the defense of the United States.”

WE CAN NOW admire the wisdom which led President Eisenhower to reject both the agitated appeals of the French and the advice of Admiral Radford and Vice President Nixon, both of whom recommended intervention. But we may well ask why a country not considered of “vital importance” to American interests in 1954 became so in 1965. The Communist camp, after all, is no longer a monolithic force able to exert unified global pressures as had been the case in 1954. In Korea, moreover, Chinese had recently been fighting American soldiers, something they have since refrained from doing; and missile strategy has meanwhile diminished the importance of local airforce bases. One can only conclude that the diplomatic views of American leaders have hardened during these years. In the light of Mr. Rusk’s performance the diplomacy of John Foster Dulles must be reconsidered and credited with an admirable flexibility.

Thus France launched three wars in Indo-China and lost them all. Its allies having refused to provoke a brutal extension of the war in order to avoid a local defeat, France’s dream of an International anti-Communist “crusade” collapsed at Dien Bien Phu in the spring of 1954. General Giap destroyed France’s main combat force; the Vietminh controlled two-thirds of Vietnam; and neither Hanoi nor Saigon were protected from attack.


Ho Chi Minh had offered negotiations six months before this débacle and had been ignored. Now Moscow and Peking were agreeable to an international détente and Washington seemed prepared to accept the consequences of its failure to intervene. Thus at the Geneva conference table in 1954 the Western powers benefited from a certain complicity on the part of Molotov and Chou En-lai: The West succeeded in wresting from the victors half the territory and the larger part of the material wealth of Vietnam. Ho agreed to fall back to the north in exchange for a promise that elections preparing the way for unification would be held in 1956—elections that he had no doubt of winning.

A great deal of confusion surrounds this Geneva settlement. It must be emphasized that the only texts signed at Geneva were the armistice agreements between the French and the Vietminh. No one at all signed the “final declaration” of the conference—both the United States and South Vietnam had reservations about it—and it carried only the force of suggestion. But apart from the North Vietnamese, the French were the only nation that formally guaranteed to carry out the Geneva accords that provided both for partition at the 17th parallel and for elections.

And now France committed a new error (its last?), dreaming this time that it might finally leave Vietnam and forget it altogether. Diem, now installed as dictator in the South, wanted the French to quit his country as soon as possible. This was not only because certain French interests were intriguing against him—something that helped strengthen his position as a nationalist leader—but also because the French Army was the only force that could compel him to hold elections in 1956. In the event, the French quickly yielded and the last of their army departed in April 1956.

The consequences of this final French error were, and remain, enormous. Diem was now free to declare himself free of all the Geneva obligations and soon did so with American encouragement. The South could now be reorganized as an anti-Communist bastion, from which a reconquest of the North could eventually be launched. The Diem government in fact soon created a Committee for the Liberation of North Vietnam, which, beginning in 1958, parachuted agents into the North, notably into areas such as Vinh, where Ho’s agrarian reform had provoked violent peasant uprisings. But meanwhile the North, considering itself cheated by Saigon and Washington (with France’s cooperation), began preparation to exploit the political and social discontent in the South to establish a base for subversive operations. And Hanoi was to show itself far more adept at this political game than Saigon.

COULD the French have resolved this Vietnam problem? In fact, they were confronted by two immensely volatile forces whose demands would have shaken any Western government, as they are shaking the United States today. First, the demands of a people thirsting to overthrow colonialism and to recover their national identity, their freedom of maneuver, and their unity. But also the demands of a revolutionary group, supported by one of the great power blocs, which claims the right to impose its authority on the entire nation in the name of a Communist doctrine highly suspect to the majority: a group, nonetheless, whose heroism, discipline, and ruthlessly effective methods seem to assure its success.

It is the deep and constant intermingling of these two forces which have made the Vietnam problem seem so hopeless and defeating to the West. How can a Western government successfully sponsor an independent “nationalist counter fire” when the strongest feelings of many Vietnamese have been invested for many years in the local civil war; and when one finds among those who have rallied to the Vietminh, and then the Lao Dong and the NLF, a great many patriots, drawn to the organization because they believe it to be the hope of Vietnamese nationalism, capable of defeating colonialism and Western domination.

Perhaps it might have been possible for the French to disassociate the nationalist inspiration in Vietnam from the Communist organization. But to do this would have been very difficult. For to gain the confidence of the nationalists I believe that French aid to Vietnam would have had to meet three extremely demanding conditions: that the donor of the aid would have no right to intervene directly in the government; that the aid would be given to the most worthy leaders; and that it would not lead to the creation of oligarchies of profiteers and a climate of corruption.

By all these standards the French failed. If they ever had a chance to survive the Asian revolution, they lost it, basically, because they were unwilling to alter their patronizing colonialist attitudes and deal with Asians with some sense of mutual respect or cooperation. For the most part they preferred instead to appoint and then control the manageable, the incompetent, and the operators, many of whom made fortunes out of the corrupt French aid program.


Opposed in Vietnam, then, were a coherent, principled, and implacable revolutionary movement of militants organized in the villages—the country’s fundamental social and economic unit—inspired by an evident nationalism and posing as defenders of stern justice and equality; on the other hand, a regime obviously supported and controlled by foreign powers, partly composed of former colonial officials, disdainful of peasant claims, tolerant of a social order where the influential and successful were frantically engaged in profiteering—preparing for the arrival of the inevitable catastrophe. The only possible result was a catastrophe on the scale of Dien Bien Phu.

HOW RELEVANT is the French experience to Vietnam today? Certainly the American situation is different in important respects, but really how different? For example, the United States has no colonial past in Vietnam, no strictly imperialist drive for economic gain. But its objectives are, curiously, both more altruistic and more imperious than those of its predecessor. After all, a country seeking colonial profits is quite capable of making a compromise to preserve at least some of its endangered wealth. But what of a country that supposes itself to be defending a selfless principle? In fact, the United States does seem to have several fairly concrete motives: e.g., to prove to certain nations that it is faithful to its alliances; to show the underdeveloped peoples of the Southern Hemisphere how costly it can be to chose “Marxism-Leninism.” There would seem to be sufficient elements of calculated self-interest here to make realistic bargaining possible—on the basis of spheres of influence, for example.

A second difference concerns the size and power of the forces involved. General Westmoreland not only commands a good many more troops than General Navarre (750,000 as compared with 500,000) but he is also relatively free from the financial, logistical, and transport problems that plagued the French. A far greater advantage, however, lies in America’s enormous fire power as well as its air force and complete mastery of the sea. It is no exaggeration to say that the United States and South Vietnamese forces are now twenty times more powerful than the army of General Navarre (which had no more than eighty combat planes at its disposal during the battle of Dien Bien Phu). The small size of the present theater of operations in South Vietnam thus becomes a favorable factor of great importance: The French forces were charged with the defense of all Indo-China, a territory four times the present size of South Vietnam.

But given these advantages can it be said that the United States is now succeeding where France was forced to retreat? Of course, one answer must be yes, in the limited sense that it is impossible to imagine the United States suffering a major defeat in the present circumstances. During the past year President Johnson has been able to dispatch enough American troops to Vietnam to avoid another Dien Bien Phu, but beyond this the situation is less than hopeful. The arrival of over 100,000 troops has done no more than stabilize a deteriorating military situation; it did not result in a sharp swing of military advantage to the Western side, as certain observers had expected. The military map published on January 30 in The New York Times showing four-fifths of the South “under Vietcong influence” must be regarded as accurate, notwithstanding contrary claims by officials. (Incidentally, this map recalls the military charts the French press did not dare to publish twelve years ago. The American public has recently been getting far more information on the Vietnam question from the press, television, Senate hearings, etc., than was ever available in France.)

The fact is that American policy in Vietnam, although originally inspired by very different intentions, now resembles all too closely the disastrous policy of the French. The United States has also failed to solve the problem of providing support to genuine local leaders without excessive intervention in the country itself. Indeed, it can be said that the French—perhaps hypocritically—did nevertheless succeed in transferring some responsibilities to the Vietnamese: These were quite feeble ones in military matters, rather more important in politics, and nearly total in such administrative work as tax collecting. By contrast, we are now seeing the progressive Americanization of both the war and the country itself: The influence of the local military headquarters grows weaker; the efficiency of the government in Saigon continues to decay; American experts have taken over a great many local functions. Of course one understands the concern for efficiency, but the psychological effects are hardly calculated to encourage the emergence of authentic nationalist leaders at the present time, as Roger Hilsman forcefully pointed out in his recent testimony before the House Committee on Foreign Affairs.

CERTAINLY the Americans have done no better than the French in finding worthy non-Communist leadership. There is no need to reëxamine now the tragic liquidation of Diemism, an event made inevitable by the sectarian religious isolation and the oligarchic obstinacy of the Ngo family. But since then, what decadence! Sad mandarins from certain conservative milieux in Saigon—courageous and outdated men—are followed in office by juntas composed of young generals-of-fortune who add a new star to their shoulders after each defeat in battle.

As for the moral climate in Saigon, one can only say that the corruption which dominated the life of the city’s elite in 1953 has now been democratized. Shady dealings having to do with aid and military programs are no longer confined to people in high places, but seem to involve every kind of business. Testifying before the Senate on February 4, Mr. David Bell, the Director of Foreign Aid, said that he knew of no black market in Saigon—which only shows that a brilliant and hard-working official has had no time to stroll along the streets of a town where someone begs you to break the law at every step.

It would be wrong to predict a priori that President Johnson’s new “counter-insurgency” and “pacification” programs, based on plans for economic and social development in the Southern villages, will fail as totally as did the quite similar plans sponsored by the French and later by the Diem regime. Can they produce a qualitative change in Vietnamese attitudes toward the present government and the United States? What can be said is that any efforts by political and army leaders in the South, however doubtful their results, will surely be more effective than the current bombing of the North. I will not take up the moral aspects of these attacks. It should be sufficient to examine their diplomatic and military results thus far. According to predictions made in January 1965, several weeks of daily raids would bring the North to its knees and thence to the negotiating table. In fact, Messrs. Ho and Dong have since toughened their demands, passing from the relatively flexible “four points” of March 8th to the recent letter of January 31, which refers to the NLF as the “only representative of South Vietnam”; until then, Ho had mentioned only the NLF “program.”

As for military results, we must realize that the bombing of the North has no overwhelming impact on a people who only recently emerged from a resistance movement and are now being trained to return to one; for the most part their lives are not greatly affected by the destruction of a bridge or a truck depot. On the other hand, in January 1965 there were two Northern regiments in the South, while now in February 1966 there are eight. Furthermore, the combat reserve forces in the North are numerous enough o permit the dispatch of more Northern troops to General Giap in the South every time the United States escalates the bombing. The American public has been told that the North is being bombed to save American lives. But, on the contrary, it seems clear that the bombing in the North only increases the pressure on General Westmoreland’s troops: The American foot soldier must pay for the destruction caused by the American Air Force. And if Hanoi itself is bombed, we may be sure that the Vietcong forces have well-laid plans to take atrocious vengeance on Saigon, a city they have both infiltrated and surrounded. The adversaries have now sunk their claws into each other and so long as the ground fighting continues, we may expect that each blow will be followed by damaging reprisals.

Thus a political solution becomes all the more urgent—although unlike the settlement of 1954, it will not be preceded by a military disaster. But here American diplomacy is the victim of its own myths. Because the United States government has decreed from the first that the war in the South was originally provoked by invasion from the North, it has insisted that a solution must be negotiated with Hanoi, and only Hanoi.

A FALSE historical analysis had led to a political impasse. For a careful study of the history of South Vietnam over the last ten years will show that from 1956 onward, strong resistance groups, the surviving members of political-religious sects crushed by Diem, were in active opposition to the regime in the South; they were in fact already called “Vietcong;” by the Diem regime at that time. Furthermore, this essentially nationalist dissident movement gained added support as a result of the rural discontent which led Diem to suppress the elected municipal councils in 1957; it spread further after the promulgation of the terrible law of 1959 which prescribed the death penalty for all “accomplices of Communists”—and Communism comes cheap in South Vietnam. At this time the resistance was composed of nothing more than Southern groups organized in self-defense against Diem. Hanoi had made no connection with them. The North Vietnamese did not begin to exploit this situation and infiltrate agents until 1959; and it was only after pressure from a Southern congress of “former Vietminh resistants” in March of 1960 that they prepared to intervene. At the Northern Communist Party Congress in September of the same year the Hanoi government gave direct encouragement to the revolutionary activities in the South. Still, it was not until November 11, 1960, following an attempted military Putsch against Diem, that the Vietcong—feeling the pressure of competition from military nationalist—gave itself formal identity and established a political headquarters by creating the National Liberation Front.

Today it is clear that the NLF leaders are closely linked to Hanoi, on which they depend for much of their supplies and arms. But anyone concerned with a peaceful settlement in Vietnam should be aware of both the local origins of the Front and its strong persisting regionalism—its attachments to the milieux, traditions, economy, and countryside of the South which give it a fundamental autonomy.

And yet, notwithstanding the fact that the Southern origins of the Vietcong insurrection have been carefully confirmed, no element of the Vietnam problem has been so neglected, especially in American official circles. We may be astonished, for example, that the immense, spectacular, and probably sincere efforts of recent American diplomacy to persuade Hanoi to negotiate finally produced, after thirty days of pause in bombing, a single defiant letter. Yet America is dealing here with a small and poorly armed country; its allies are reluctant to give it aid too openly, fearing a crushing American response. Certainly it is a Communist government, but one presided over by a man who in 1946 and 1954 was able to prove to the French his willingness to accept compromise. And of the four points posed as conditions by Hanoi last year, Washington now accepts three. Why then doesn’t Ho play Lyndon Johnson’s game? In a conference the North Vietnamese would hold so many trumps that their present position is hard to understand.

But perhaps that were not in a position to negotiate at all. If we look back over the history of the NLF we find support for the view that Hanoi is not able to speak for the Front. First for psychological reasons: The published program of the NLF expressly mentions the possibility of an independent South Vietnam; and it looks forward to forming an alliance with Laos and Cambodia only. Thus it seems most unlikely that the Front would consider itself adequately represented by the Northern government. Finally, there may be a purely practical reason. Combat conditions in the South are such that it is by no means certain that a decision or an agreement even if approved by the NLF would be supported by all the fighters in the field.

If we are to undertake a serious and credible search for peace in Vietnam, we must take account of this diversity of the Southern resistance; we must recognize that it is in fact a federation of maquis of different ages and differing inspiration, and that it is not as yet completely unified.

There is not as much geographic and psychological distance between the typical Southern military chief and Ho Chi Minh as there is between Ho Chi Minh and Mr. Kosygin. But to be effective now in Vietnam diplomacy must certainly take account of the maquisard and his part in the war. It must also attempt to understand the role of the Central Committee of the NLF, where Maoist influence is strong but where all tendencies coexist; of the Lao Dong party in Hanoi, with its pro-Chinese and pro-Russian factions; and the Political Bureau in Peaking, with its cast of performers, both civilian and military. And finally we must comprehend the very complex position of the Soviet Union, which is quite unwilling to sacrifice either it policy of peaceful coexistence or its commanding position as leader of the Communist world. If the diversity of governmental levels, alliances, and forces involved in the war presents difficulties, it also offers many more chances for an alert diplomacy than were available during the monolithic conflict of the Cold War.

IT IS TRUE that American leaders now argue that to recognize the Vietcong is to admit defeat. A curious intellectual position indeed—to refuse to recognize your adversary for what he is. Perhaps it is worth recalling that in December 1953, after Ho Chi Minh had first announced himself ready to negotiate, the French Socialist, Alain Savary, suggested to Georges Bidault (then Foreign Minister, now living in Brazil) that he seek Ho out for talks. “You only make them bigger by talking to them,” said Bidault—who did finally talk with Ho’s delegate at Geneva, but after the fall of Dien Bien Phu.

“Recognizing” the Vietcong certainly will not solve the problem of peace-making in Vietnam at a stroke. It would nevertheless be an extremely constructive idea to focus diplomatic attention firmly on the South at the present time—without meanwhile ceasing efforts both to make contact with Hanoi and to assess Communist Chinese intentions.

But to bring about peace it will not suffice simply to recognize the existence of a powerful revolutionary organization supported by the North and already in control of the largest part of the national territory. More important is the task of reestablishing the constitutional legitimacy which Diem embodied for a brief period—reactionary as he was—and which has since vanished. The NLF is an essential element of this legitimacy because it is the heir to the revolt against Diem’s totalitarianism as well as the principle force of resistance to foreign intervention. But there are others who make up the social and political society as well—the Buddhists, the Catholics, and also the Army, a bourgeoisie in uniform.

An effective policy to bring about a peaceful settlement begin by making it possible for each of these groups to return to an active political role, While General Ky, after having won his sole victory of the war at Honolulu, occupies the stage, we may be sure that the other groups are ready in the wings, waiting for the protection and encouragement the U.S. could still supply. And from such a revived political life we could expect an authoritative leadership to emerge whose lot it would be to debate with the NLF on the future of the South and to establish a coalition government to represent South Vietnam in future peace conferences. While the NLF is the largest force in the South it recognizes that it is obviously not the only force, reserving a large fraction of the seats on its Central Committee for groups who do not belong to the NLF. The democratization of power in South Vietnam is not a fantasy. The destruction of the small democratic movements struggling to survive under Diem was among the factors that led to the Civil War.

French colonial policy was only to familiar with these very diverse political factions and brilliantly played them off, one against the other. But to divide and rule became a pathetic policy as France’s control became more feeble. An American policy which seeks a peaceful settlement must take account of both the socio-political pluralism of South Vietnam and its extraordinary capacity for finding original—and local—solutions to its problems. Surely it is time for American leaders at last to confront the people with whom they have become so inextricably involved.

This Issue

March 3, 1966