Lyndon Johnson
Lyndon Johnson; drawing by David Levine

On the screen an old peasant woman stands amidst devastated houses and fields; like twenty-five million men and women in both parts of her country she wears black silk pajamas. Her left sleeve hangs empty. The picture dissolves quickly and those who see her on the television film that James Cameron, an English newspaperman, has brought back from North Vietnam will forget her—unless they have also read his book, Here Is Your Enemy. It is dedicated to the “old lady who lives in the village of Naah Ngang, in the Thanh Hoa province of North Vietnam which is unfortunately near a strategically important bridge.”

The bridge as far as we know still stands, [Cameron writes], but the old lady had her left arm blown off by one of the bombs that went astray, She was more fortunate than her daughter, who was killed. She said: “I suppose there is a reason for all this but I do not understand what it is. It think I am too old now ever to find out.

Most Americans are not too old to understand and are living far enough from the bombed bridges to appraise soberly the Vietnam policy pursued in their name. Indeed they have more information available to them about the war than any other nation that has ever fought in a remote foreign land. Now, at a moment when the war seems to be reaching a turning point, James Cameron’s book and film give us the first perceptive report we have had in years on the lives, reactions, ideas, and leaders of the enemy in the North.

Cameron was the first Western correspondent admitted to Hanoi since the beginning of the bombings. “Why I was selected out of a clamoring multitude of serious newspapermen is an enigma to me,” he writes. “It could have been the fact that I had insisted on going, if I went, on my own terms, uncommitted and unsponsored.” In any case, it was a fortunate choice. Cameron is not a neutral observer—he has been critical of both the Conservative and Labour positions on Vietnam—but he seems less susceptible to the passions and resentment we might have expected from a French or American reporter. An English liberal with long experience in Asia, he is able to distinguish between the totalitarian Communist apparatus which rules in North Vietnam and the authentic drive for national identity and independence which has made the Vietnamese revolution possible.

MUCH OF CAMERON’S BOOK will be familiar to those who read his dispatches in The New York Times and the London Evening Standard last September. What emerges most clearly from the second reading is his sense of the ordinary Vietnamese people he met during the winter of 1965 when American bombs were falling on the transport and communications systems throughout the country. Cameron is not a sentimentalist but he was enormously impressed by the remarkable courage and cheerfulness of the Vietnamese in the face of death. Indeed the most important contribution of his book is to show that the stoicism of the Vietnamese is one of the most important, and most neglected, factors in the debate over Vietnam—as important as the follies of French colonialism, or the calculations of Secretary Rusk. Western leaders have not understood that bombing operations that might produce panic and disruption in their own countries have had remarkably little effect on a people who resisted French “mopping up” operations for eight years and are led by an old man who has spent one third of his life in prison and another third shaking off the agents of various colonial police forces.

So far from terrorizing and disrupting the people [Cameron writes] the bombing seemed to me both stimulated and consolidated them. By the nature of the attacks so far, civilian casualties had not been very great, but they had been great enough to provide the government of the Vietnam republic with the most totally unchallengeable propaganda they could ever have dreamed of. A nation of peasants and manual workers who might have felt restive or dissatisfied under the stress of totalitarian conditions had been obliged to forget all their differences in the common sense of resistance and self-defense. From the moment the United States dropped its first bomb on the North of Vietnam, she welded the nation together unshakably…even in their own interests the U. S. planners failed to recognize the reality of a society like this. A bomb here, a bomb there; a family eliminated here or there;…these were troublesome, infuriating; they were not disabling. The destruction of a bridge or a road—in Western terms it could be disastrous. Here it was a nuisance.

One might add that since the resumption of the bombing, the rate of North Vietnamese infiltration into the South has quadrupled; the number of American casualties has risen; Northern influence in the South has increased along with the prestige of the Communist cadres in the Vietcong. Moreover, the membership of the PRP, the Communist organization within the National Liberation Front, has tripled during the last year.


No doubt Cameron’s book will be dismissed—as his articles were dismissed by Time—as a “conduit for North Vietnamese propaganda,” naive in its uncritical presentation of talks with North Vietnamese leaders. But Cameron writes, “It seemed to me from the beginning that I of all people was most likely to be handled with circumspection and to receive in official conversations the most distilled official line.” On the other hand, his observation of the effects of the war on the North Vietnamese are his own and they are important. Those who have served as a “conduit”—if not as a source—for official American propaganda justifying the bombings can learn from Cameron’s report how badly this policy has failed.

THE EVENTS OF THE PAST MONTH make Cameron’s book all the more pertinent. The bombings in the North have become even more severe, while the demonstrations in the South seem to have made a political solution more possible. At least some of the more fragile American myths have been exploded and the hard political questions that have been obscured by Washington’s rhetoric are coming into the open. Can the war be justified as a “defense of free men against a foreign invasion” when thousands of people have been openly demanding an end to dictatorial government, not to mention the American presence itself? Do all the non-Communists really want a powerful American army to fight in Vietnam until the last Vietcong is killed or driven North? If not, what is the basis of the American commitment?

These questions can at last be raised largely because of the agitation of the Buddhists in their Northern stronghold of Hué and Danang as well as in Saigon. But the intentions of the Buddhists are not easily discerned, for they have been reluctant to announce their concrete political aims. Tri Quang and his followers have advocated “absolute peace” and “absolute nationalism,” while shrewdly improvising ways to undermine the military dictatorship. If their views seem abstract or contradictory, this is a characteristic of Vietnamese political life. Nationalism and Communism have long been intermingled in the Vietnamese revolution; so have the desires of the South Vietnamese for reunification and their resentment of Northern domination. In much the same way it is extremely difficult to distinguish the religious principles of the Buddhists (and often the Catholics) in the South from their political activism.

But it should be made clear that the Buddhists are a relatively new force in South Vietnamese politics. They did not begin to make their influence felt until the early Sixties when the pagodas and monasteries became centers of resistance to the oppressive (and largely Catholic) Diem government. The recent demonstrations are the Buddhists’ third political offensive. The first created the situation which led the army to bring down Diem in 1963; the second ended in the fall of Khanh in 1964. Their current campaign is a direct reaction to the mounting intensity of the war and the increasing numbers of civilian casualties all over the South. (According to the recent testimony of Representative Zablocki of Wisconsin before the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, it is estimated that at least two civilians, and perhaps as many as six, are being killed for each Vietcong soldier.)

“This cannot go on!” is the Buddhist slogan. It is aimed not only at the war itself but at the recent national humiliation which is summed up by the word “Honolulu.” For the Honolulu meeting exposed the nearly total failure of a great Western power to understand public opinion in a small country, where feelings of oppression and resentment have been smoldering for years. In organizing the conference Washington had hoped not only to strengthen Ky’s position but to encourage him to be more flexible politically and to undertake social reforms. However so far as most Vietnamese were concerned, Washington had already shown unprecedented contempt for their country by imposing Premier Ky on them in the first place; to them, the meeting was no more than a summons from a foreign general to a cocky lieutenant—a glaring example of Saigon’s “abject” dependence on Washington. The following week Tri Quang warned an American visitor that a wave of anti-American agitation was sure to follow; Obviously a considerable part of the population shared his feelings.

THE CRISIS THAT BROKE out on March 10 may well have set a hopeful process in motion. It has shown Washington that the Vietnamese cannot be treated simply as pawns to be managed by native dictators, but that they are in fact a volatile and touchy people with a complex politics of their own. And in South Vietnam itself Washington has begun to act with more political acumen. Although General Ky was foolish enough to claim that Danang was in Communist hands, and the U.S. Airforce was available to help “liberate the city,” no serious reprisal was allowed to take place; and William P. Bundy, the Assistant Secretary of State, was unusually calm in his appraisal of the situation. Furthermore William Komer, the new White House advisor on foreign affairs, met with Tri Quang in Hué soon after the crisis erupted. He listened to his complaints against the Ky government and then forwarded a letter from Tri Quang to Mr. Johnson. In this letter the Buddhist leader requested that the United States support the convening of a Vietnamese national Congress that would settle peacefully the political and military future of Vietnam and would, in particular, decide whether U.S. forces should continue to be present in the country.


The promise of elections on August 15 seems to have pacified Tri Quang, at least for the moment, but we may be sure that the continuing presence of American troops will remain the central question of the future. Tri Quang and his colleagues will have more to say on this subject. Their elusive neutralism may turn out to be quite incompatible with any permanent foreign military presence.

THUS THE BASIS of the American commitment in Vietnam has been thrown into doubt. Until now Washington’s professed aim has been to allow the South Vietnamese to choose their future freely. The recent campaign of the Buddhists could finally make such a choice feasible, but it may also mean that the Vietnamese will eventually demand the removal of the American garrison. The question must be raised, however, whether some leaders in Washington are committed not to “self-determination” but to preserving South Vietnam as a military base for the containment of China. In a remarkable essay in the April Commentary, George Lichtheim suggests that the essential American motive is to maintain a strong American presence in Vietnam—particularly the enormous air base now being built at Cam Ranh—in preparation for the day when Communist China will possess a nuclear force. Furthermore, in his interview with a correspondent of Le Monde George Ball defined Washington’s view of an acceptable Vietnamese neutrality as the absence of foreign alliances—but said nothing about foreign bases.

The hypothesis that certain American authorities are anxious to have a large permanent base in Vietnam may help to explain certain aspects of American behavior in the past: its intransigent opposition to direct dealings with the Vietcong, for example. However, the policy has not been publicly stated or defended and it remains unclear why the U. S. should need a base in South Vietnam at all, in view of its other strong installations in the area as well as the Seventh Fleet. But if such a policy were to be adopted, an espousal of neutralism by the Buddhists would make them, for American purposes, the allies of Chinese imperialism and they would soon be swept aside. Tri Quang could easily find himself in the same position as Juan Bosch did last year.

OBVIOUSLY WASHINGTON is about to make vital decisions. The rainy season in the South will start in two months and this will sharply limit air operations and therefore the efficiency of General Westmoreland’s troops. We may also expect that attempts will be made during the next two months to reconvene the Geneva conference—possibly as a result of General de Gaulle’s visit to Moscow. When this happens, the international pressures on Washington to participate will be heavy. President Johnson would be well advised to undertake his own diplomatic efforts first.

In this situation Washington may reckon that it has two months to win the war. As General Ridgway has recently written in Look, the war could be won if the full force of U. S. air and naval power were brought to bear on the enemy. But the price would be genocide: Much of Vietnam would be turned into a desert occupied by Marines, a result the General believes unworthy of American traditions and not justified by the threat of China. Meanwhile another experience observer, J.K. Galbraith, has warned that the country is running an “intolerable risk” of provoking Chinese intervention as it launches heavier and heavier bombing attacks on the North.

At the same time certain hopeful, if little-publicized, diplomatic developments have taken place: Along with the recent negotiations with the Buddhists they may help to provide an alternative to genocide and further escalation. It seems clear, for example, that new and very discreet contacts have been made with the Vietcong. For over a year negotiations have been underway to obtain the release of Mr. Hertz, a U.S. official held prisoner by the Vietcong. First, Paris attempted to intervene with Hanoi on Mr. Hertz’s behalf; then Senator Robert Kennedy stepped in. Four months ago Hanoi let it be known that the National Liberation Front insisted on conducting its own negotiations concerning the prisoner. After some hesitation Washington made contact with the Vietcong and several meetings followed. So far as is known, a dialogue is now secretly taking place somewhere in the South between the U.S. government and the N.L.F. Apparently no results have been achieved so far, but at least a channel of communication has been established.

Official doctrine is also changing. While Vice President Humphrey denounced Vietcong “assassins” in Honolulu, Charles Bohlen and Averell Harriman hinted at a more flexible U.S. position: The Vietcong, they said, might back candidates in the next election and thus participate in a South Vietnamese government. And later, after Senator Kennedy’s statement on Vietnam, Bill Moyers stated that no groups could be denied participation in the public life of South Vietnam, provided its representatives had been duly elected. This “Moyers Compromise” would seem to be the last authoritative word on the subject. Neither Hanoi nor the NLF has as yet rejected Senator Kennedy’s suggestion that the Vietcong might participate in a coalition government (the first “goal of war” of the NLF), although Peking called it a “new imperialist maneuver.” Whether or not this is of any significance remains to be seen.

LET US SUPPOSE that the American leadership finally rejects the course of escalation and decides to bring the war to an end. The logical objectives of such a policy would be: (a) to restore the moral prestige of the United States in Asia and in the world; (b) to allow the South Vietnamese to create their own independent state which can prepare a future merger with North Vietnam and co-exist with China; (c) to promote the development in South East Asia of a broad movement based on both neutralism and nationalism—a movement that would include the political tendencies of both India and Indonesia and would establish friendly relations with Japan.

IS it possible to suggest precisely what steps should be taken to implement such a policy? A peaceful settlement might be pursued in three stages. At first, every effort must be made to encourage the local forces in South Vietnam to come forward and take their place in the political life of the country. If democracy has any chance in Vietnam it will succeed only by the vigorous political activity of the groups that genuinely represent Vietnamese society—the Buddhists, Catholics, trade unions, students, army, Cao-Dai, and “Hoa-Hao” among others. These are the famous “chickens” that Mr. Humphrey wants to protect from the hungry “fox.” But if they are bold enough to challenge a regime supported by the U.S. army there is good reason to believe they will be able to resist threats to their integrity in the future. Tri Quang may favor neutralism and negotiations, but he is not a man inclined to yield power to any competing group.

Recently there has been a tendency in the United States to make glib jokes about Vietnam’s political “instability.” But it remains to be seen whether people who have refused to support a series of despicable dictatorships openly backed by foreigners—the regimes of Bao Dai, Diem, Khanh, and Ky—have proven their instability or their desire for identity and freedom. Should the Vietnamese be called “irresponsible” and “ungovernable” because they reject the rule of an unknown jet pilot trained by the French at the height of the Algerian war?

We can now say that the first step toward a peaceful settlement of the was was taken this Spring, although many questions remain in doubt. Will elections be held on August 15 to form a National Congress? Will this assembly meet only to write a South Vietnamese constitution and decide on the form of a future civilian government? Is it possible to arrange reasonably fair elections under present conditions? In any case, a Constitutional Convention might be able to work out procedures to form a more permanent congress made up of delegates representing all the significant groups in the South. Until the signing of a cease fire, a number of seats could be held open for the representatives of the NLF. Meanwhile the Congress would set up a caretaker government that would eventually deal with the NLF and prepare the way for its return to legitimate political life.

DURING THE SECOND PHASE the military leaders on both sides would meet to work out a cease fire: Representatives of the American and South Vietnamese armies would negotiate with leaders of the Vietcong and their Northern Allies. But this will be a harder task than the first because there is no evidence that the Vietcong have abandoned the theory that a long struggle will bring them total victory as the U.S. grows weary of the war. Indeed one of the great tragedies of the conflict is that both sides are so badly informed about the firmness of the other’s intentions. Undoubtedly the hard-line Communists in the Vietcong want a long war. For one thing it brings them new recruits. Communist membership has grown from ten thousand since 1951 to almost a hundred thousand at the present time.

The principal effort of American policy must therefore be to provide political opportunities to those revolutionaries who have not become “professional warriors.” Unlike the guerrilla fighters who enjoy the adventure and power of warfare, many of the Vietcong followers are exhausted. Senator Kennedy’s proposal is therefore sound, because it may strengthen the position of those revolutionaries who would like to convert a military into a political struggle. However while the Vietcong is a most efficient machine of war, its political and psychological skill may not match its fighting power. This is probably one reason why its chiefs prefer war.

The only chance of persuading the guerrillas in the South to accept a cease fire is to speak to them directly and not through Hanoi or at an international conference. They have not forgotten the 1954 Geneva conference when their interests were submerged in a deal among the great powers (and the less-than-great Vietminh). The Southern combat forces were sent off to the North while the country remained in “reactionary” hands.

Many of the same guerrillas have now returned to the “Maquis” in the South and have resumed fighting. It is true that they now depend on the North and the nations of the Communist bloc for much of their support; and any agreement with the guerrillas would eventually have to involve Hanoi as well as the great powers. But since the guerrilla chiefs are wary of being duped again by an international deal—and are enjoying the prestige of battle—they are quite capable of sabotaging an agreement made without their full consent. Therefore any efforts to make peace must start with them—if peace is the goal.

ONCE A CEASE-FIRE AGREEMENT is in prospect, the third stage—preparation for self-determination—should begin. The opposing forces must agree on the procedurs for a nationwide referendum. It should be pointed out that, unlike the FLN in Algeria, the NLF leaders have unequivocally admitted that their movement cannot fully represent the South Vietnamese people. This has been made clear not only in public statements but in the allotment of public seats on the National Council to volunteers—who are not volunteering. Is it possible that the two incomplete assemblies—the National Congress and the NLF committee—might merge to form a fully representative parliament for South Vietnam?

No matter how it is organized, a referendum would reveal the full diversity of South Vietnamese society. It is entirely possible that the NLF will appear as a “major factor of the South Vietnamese political scene,” as George Carver has recently written in Foreign Affairs. It is also quite likely that the Congress will reflect the various zones of influence in South Vietnam, with Buddhists predominating in the Hué and Danang areas, the Catholics around Saigon, Cai Daiists in the West, and Hoa-Hao in the South West. The Vietcong may be expected to predominate in the East (Zone D), the South, and the Quang Ngai area, which lies between the strongholds of the Buddhists in the North and the Catholics in the center of South Vietnam. In Vietnam, as in most countries, men have a stronger political appeal than ideas: The referendum might therefore be more effective if it were to choose a head of state rather than a cabinet government drawn from different factions or parties—but this would require the non-Communist groups to agree upon a common candidate, something that seems highly unlikely at the moment. The key to the political situation and to a workable balance of power among the forces in the South will be the possibility of cooperation between the Buddhists and the Catholics. The Vatican is now trying to bring this about with the help of the new liberal Catholic groups which center around Mgr. Binh and the Archbishop of Saigon, and are now providing a counterforce to the reactionary traditions of Vietnamese Catholicism.

It should be clear that no solution will be acceptable to Hanoi unless there are guarantees of close ties between the two Vietnams before the country can be reunited. It is far from clear how long reunification itself might take. Ho Chi Minh estimated that it might take ten years when I spoke to him in 1962, while in 1965 an NLF spokesman in Algiers thought fifteen years more likely. It could take a long time indeed.

FINALLY, IT WILL REMAIN for international negotiation to guarantee the results of the peace talks, perhaps making use of an enlarged version of the International Control Commission of 1956 (India, Poland, Canada) to supervise the referendum and protect Vietnamese neutrality. As a matter of fact, international negotiations among the Great Powers have secretly been taking place since 1964. It is rumored that Secretary General U Thant now plans to request a leave of absence from the United Nations in order to concentrate on the Vietnam question. This will put him in a better position to deal with the Asian Communists who distrust his organization but trust him personally. Something may also come of General de Gaulle’s trip to Moscow, as well as new interventions by Pope Paul VI. Harold Wilson may at last choose to display his diplomatic talents by assuming his position as co-chairman at a reconvened Geneva conference. He could then count on the assistance of Canada (whose delegate at the International Control Commission has kept in close touch with Hanoi).

The next two months will be decisive. The United States can certainly hold South Vietnam and impose a military government simply by threat of force; it can retain a firm grip on its “enclaves” and bases without worrying about popular feelings. The Vietnamese have been subjected to treatment of this kind for many years. Even if this Spring’s uprising has demolished some of the myths on which American intervention has been based, it can not be expected to end power politics.

Washington has intervened in Vietnam four times: first, from 1950 to 1954 it supported France in her fight against Asian Communism; second, from 1954 to 1963 it supported Mr. Diem, “the defender of freedom”; third, from 1963 to 1965 it sent American troops to fight in the South; fourth, since 1963 it has extended the war to all of Vietnam. There is no reason why there should not be a fifth stage during which it holds on to the large base of Cam Ranh, in case there is to be a sixth stage—a great war against China.

We can only hope that it is not too late to attempt a different policy, one that would place reliance on the Vietnamese themselves—all the Vietnamese—to maintain their integrity in the face of whatever forces may threaten it.

This Issue

May 12, 1966