Ky Marshall
Ky Marshall; drawing by David Levine

The President keeps asking what alternative there is to his policy in Vietnam, as if there were none except to deepen the war or withdraw ignominiously. But in fact, many of us have for years been advocating another approach. Essentially, this approach is to foster a civilian government in Saigon that could do the one thing the United States cannot do, negotiate with the Vietcong. The possibility of organizing such a government has been the central theme underlying all the recent events in Vietnam: the anti-government demonstrations organized by the Buddhists in Hue and Danang last March; the promise of elections in April; the reimposition of government control by force a few weeks ago; and the dramatic Buddhist reaction.

As these events have shown, the process of setting in motion a government that could negotiate a settlement is exceedingly tricky. It is like those games where you have to shake half-a-dozen steel pellets into small holes all at the same time. That the process is actively opposed by the present military regime in Saigon and only dimly understood by American officials there certainly does not help. Still, I have returned from a trip to Vietnam convinced that the building of such a government is feasible, provided that the United States bends its acts and policies accordingly. In this report, I shall anallyze what could be the constituent elements of a new regime in Saigon—notably the Buddhists and moderate Catholics. I shall then indicate the major obstacles to a turn-about—notably current American policy.

First, however, I must try to describe the tangled background of Vietnamese politics. It is a subject in which the interplay among tiny minority groups—action, reaction, and counteraction—is everything. Indeed, in its basic elements, its geography, its history, its beliefs, South Vietnam is a divided country—“a huddling together,” as Hazlitt once said of Shakespearian tragedy, “of fierce extremes.”

THE BASIC GEOGRAPHICAL DIVISION in South Vietnam is between the Center and the South. The Center, which the French included in the colony of Annam, is the coastal plain stretching from the 17th Parallel down to the outskirts of Saigon. It happens to include (in Danang, Qui Nhon, Cam Ranh Bay, and Nha Trang) the main American air and sea bases. It is a region of tiny parcels of relatively poor land, much subject to salination by repeated incursions of the sea. Though the population is only 3 million and though fish are plentiful, Central Vietnam cannot support itself.

The South, or Cochin China as the French called it, includes Saigon and the delta of the Mekong River and its many mouths. The delta region is one of the great rice-producing areas of the world and Saigon is its enterpot. Though the combined population amounts to perhaps 8 million people in normal times, the South produces a large export surplus.

Historic differences tended to follow geographic lines. Central Vietnam has been the heartland of the country, the site of the Imperial court, a center of Buddhist studies, and the historic seat of strong resistance both to Chinese pressure from the North and to French pressure from the South. Its elite is a traditionalist elite, looking back with nostalgia to the days of complete freedom from foreign presences.

The South was the frontier province of the Center, settled late and, as is common with frontier provinces, in rather large holdings. The French invasion of the last century found easy pickings in the South, notably with the large landholders. The native elite that emerged from the process tended to be relatively well-off economically, civilized in the French manner, and totally divorced from the uneducated peasant masses.

NOT SURPRISINGLY differences in belief are in harmony with the geographical and historical divisions. The harsh, traditionalist xenophobia of the Center has found its purest expression in the Buddhist revial led by the famous Bonze, Tri Quang. A similar Catholic attitude was reflected in the family of the late President Ngo Dinh Diem, although more recently the Catholics of the Center have reverted to the more self-effacing role of a heavily outnumbered minority. Before World War II, some of the same xenophobic spirit was channeled into two parties—the Dai Viet, or Greater Vietnam Party, and the Vietnamese Kuomintang, or Nationalist Party—which still have strength in the Center.

In the South, leadership in the cities tended to fall into the hands of the French-educated local notables. The colonialist atmosphere not only dissolved native Catholicism, but destroyed Buddhism. Among the peasantry there developed several revivalist groups—notably the Hoa Hao and Cao Dai sects. The mixture was further thickened after the Geneva Conference of 1954, when hundreds of thousands of Catholic refugees and some leading Nationalist politicians fled from Communist North Vietnam and settled mainly around Saigon.

The multiplicity of small interests has made it easy for outsiders to divide and rule. That is how the French held sway for so long, and how President Ngo Dinh Diem came so rapidly to ascendancy after the withdrawal of the French in 1954. That is how the military party, backed by the United States, has kept itself in power. Two military strong men in particular—General Nugyen Khanh in 1964 and 1965 and, more recently, Air Vice Marshal Nguyen Cao Ky—have shown themselves adept at the game of playing off Buddhists against Catholics.


Still, it has been less and less of a winning game. Since the departure of the French, each successive regime has been obliged to identify itself more and more openly with one or another faction. The Diem government was largely based on Catholic support. Diem’s successor, General Duong Van Minh, had a Buddhist base. General Khanh started with backing from the Catholics and the Dai Viet party, and then shifted to a position where he was shamelessly courting Buddhist favor. Air Marshal Ky came in on a wave of Catholic opposition to the Buddhist alliance with General Khanh. Thus even beneath the ebb and flow of power among the military, there lie the religious factions—the Buddhists and the Catholics.

WHAT DO THE BUDDHISTS really want? This question is at all times being put by Americans to the militant Buddhist leader, Thich Tri Quang. A skillful politician—far above average in the capacity to develop calculated ambiguities—Tri Quang keeps returning dusty answers. It is thus possible to see him either as a Communist tool or as the potential savior of his country. And therefore the questioning game continues—ad nauseam and ad infinitum.

A more pertinent question, it seems to me, is to ask who the militant Buddhists are. The answer is that the militant Buddhists represent a tiny organizational nucleus which has been growing from crisis to crisis and has strong affinities with far larger groups of Buddhists and others throughout the country. Apart from Thich Tri Quang, a gifted leader in my view, the core of Buddhist militants includes only a few hundred veterans of protest demonstrations. They are mainly drawn from the center of the country and notably from the children of good families—often of royal blood—who attended the University of Hue. Their viewpoint is the viewpoint of narrow, xenophobic traditionalism which, as I have indicated, is common to the educated elite of the central region of South Vietnam.

It happened that this tiny group played a dramatic role in the anti-Catholic protests that ended in the fall of the regime of the late President Ngo Dinh Diem. This (largely accidental) bit of history has combined with the self-consciousness of their small numbers to define what I would call the minimum, and destructive, goal of the militant Buddhists.

THE MINIMUM BUDDHIST GOAL is to prevent power from passing into the hands of any leaders who might try to reverse the events of 1963—who might, to be specific, crush the militant Buddhists as an act of revenge for what happened to President Diem. This minimum goal has largely governed the actions of the militant Buddhist leadership since 1963. Thus when General Nguyen Khannh seemed about to take dictatorial powers after the Tonkin Gulf incident of August 1964, the Buddhists went into the streets to force him to rescind his declaration of oneman rule. Similarly, in May 1966, when Premier Tran Van Houng, a leading personality from the South, moved into a position to crack down, the Buddhists again went into the streets and, with the backing of General Khanh, forced his cabinet from power. More recently the specter of Marshal Nguven Cao Ky using his Honolulu meeting with President Johnson to gain supreme power set in motion the latest set of Buddhist-inspired troubles.

If the Buddhists then settled for free elections, it was again within the perspective of their minimum objectives. For free elections, apart from demonstrating to the world that the Catholics really are a minority, would wipe the slate clean. They would be a new beginning. They would serve to initiate a civilian political process, to ratify the events of 1963, to prevent the purge of revenge that the Buddhists most fear. And thus when elections were once more put in doubt by Marshal Ky’s seizure of Danang in late May, the Buddhists once more went into the streets.

If avoiding a purge is the minimum, destructive goal, the Buddhists also have a larger and more positive aim which has been broadening in the course of time. The constructive goal, as I see it, is to become the nucleus for a popular majority in South Vietnam that might, in time, serve as a means of bringing an honorable peace to their country, and perhaps, even, to all of Buddhist Southeast Asia.


To this end the tiny knot of militant Buddhist leaders has developed a range of techniques for reaching the rest of the population. By emphasizing dislike of Saigon and the central government, they have won over much of the army and civil service of Central Vietnam. Cryptic talk of peace appeals to the war-weariness that, at times at least, afflicts almost everybody in the country. A dash of anti-Americanism, by setting the poor native against the rich foreigner, serves as a substitute for the one thing the Buddhists lack most of all—a social program with appeal to the poor.

My feeling is that the Buddhists hope to combine these tactics with elections to some kind of assembly, in order to organize a popular national majority. Once this majority is attained, I think they believe that they could talk to the other side and arrange a peace that would be neither victory nor defeat for either party.

In the meantime, however, the Buddhists are searching for allies to form the majority. Mindful of their own tiny size, they do not seek to dominate a national assembly. I am told that Tri Quang would like to see an assembly made up of one-third Buddhists, one-third Catholics, and one-third other groups.

In order to establish a footing in the South they have been in touch with leading Southern personalities, notably former General Tran Van Don, the President of the alumni association of Southern High Schools which comprises most of the upper-middle class of Saigon and the delta. But the big hope for the Buddhists, the key to building a majority, is that they can work with the Catholics.

MENTION THE CATHOLICS of South Vietnam and most outsiders think of people who are fervently anti-Communist first, and only next Vietnamese. But that is not even a half-truth. To be sure, about half of the 1 1/2 million Catholics in South Vietnam are refugees who fled their native villages when the Communists took over North Vietnam in 1954. Most of these refugees are settled around Saigon in small, often armed, villages dominated by the local parish priest. Thus cut adrift from their old moorings and isolated in their present surroundings, the refugees represent a potent mass, easy to stir against any regime suspected of being willing to negotiate with the other side—the more so since the fall of their great patron, the late President Ngo Dinh Diem. They are, in the words of a high official in the American embassy, “like medieval fanatics.” They have tended to form the popular backbone of recent military regimes, and to serve as the death weapon against more moderate regimes.

But the other half of the Catholic population—the Catholics native to the southern and central regions of the country—are by no means fanatic. They are used to co-existing as a minority with a large Buddhist majority. Through the Archbishop of Saigon, Nguyen Van Binh, they have felt the impact of the more modern attitudes that have recently prevailed in the Vatican. To some extent, Archbishop Binh has even been able to exert influence on the chief refugee leader, the Rev. Hoang Quynh.

The instrument for this movement of the more moderate Catholics of South Vietnam has been the liaison office of the archbishopric of Saigon. During the past year the office has been issuing a series of communiques on political subjects. And these communiques provide reliable evidence of the moderate thinking of the archbishop, indeed of his tendency to cooperate with the militant Buddhists on many issues. For example, in its fourth communique put out in November of last year, the liaison office made an obvious effort to have all Catholics work to cooperate with the Buddhists. The communique said: “The office calls upon the faithful to pay very careful attention when speaking or writing on matters related to other religions, strictly avoiding any actions which might be harmful to friendly relations.” In its fifth communique, issued on January 7 of this year, the liaison office lined up with the Buddhists in supporting a negotiated compromise to end the war. The communique said, “Peace can only be founded on a balance of military and political forces which would prevent the danger of destruction of either belligerent party.”

Most recently, the more moderate Catholics seem to have been working with the Buddhists against the military government of Air Marshal Nguyen Cao Ky. During the period of active Buddhist demonstrations preceding Ky’s agreement to elections there was not a single counter-demonstration by the Catholics. And the most recent communique of the liaison committee, issued on April 6, said:

The most pressing problem…is the present political vacuum…The political situation in South Vietnam is still a cold emptiness. The authorities are still unable to lay a legal foundation for the country, and they still lack the support of the people.

In short, the Catholics native to South Vietnam, led by the highest authority in the local hierarchy, are not far from the position of the militant Buddhists under Bonze Thich Tri Quang. The possibility of an alliance exists. If such an alliance could be struck, elections could yield a coalition majority dominated by the militant Buddhists of the Center and the moderate Catholics of the South.

A government based on that majority could transform the situation in Vietnam. It would at long last command the loyalties and faith of the most dynamic political forces in the country. It could finally activate the pacification campaign which is now more than ever necessary as a supplement to American military successes. Such a government, when negotions become possible, would be in a strong position to engage the Vietcong rebels in talks that could lead to peace without surrender. And while there is no sign at present of Communist willingness to negotiate, a change in Saigon would strengthen the hand of all those on the other side who favor a negotiated settlement, whether in the Vietcong, in Hanoi, or in Moscow.

TO BE SURE, THE POSSIBILITY of a civilian government ready to consider negotiations with the other side strikes directly, and in a most deadly way, at the interests of the military junta headed by Marshal Ky. But the military junta itself is far more fragile than is usually supposed. Its true character can be understood only against the background of the evolution of military politics in South Vietnam. What has happened is that power has passed to three quiet different groups of South Vietnamese officers during the past few years.

In 1963 the top-ranking military men who took power after the fall of Diem had achieved officer status in the old French army before the outbreak of the struggle with the Vietminh. For the most part, they had come from middle-class families in Cochin China, had been educated at French lycées, and were competent at whatever they did. A typical example is General Le Van Kim, a former student at the Ecole des Chartres in Paris. Another is his brother-in-law, General Tran Van Don, whom the Buddhists are now supporting in the hope that he will win them allies in the south.

This first crowd of generals was swept away by the military coup of January 30, 1964, which brought to the top a younger group of officers from lower-middle class backgrounds who had been trained in French military schools when the war with the Vietminh got under way. For example, the chief beneficiary of the January 30 coup was General Nguyen Khanh, the son of a bar girl and a graduate, along with two other generals prominent in his entourage, of the first class set up by the French to train Vietnamese officers.

General Khanh was unseated by still a third group of officers—the so-called Young Turks of the present regime—in June, 1965. For the most part they were drop-outs from Vietnamese schools who entered the French Army as enlisted men to fight against the Vietminh and then rose rapidly during the later years of the war. Marshal Ky, a former pilot, is a perfect specimen of the type.

As a result of this continual turnover in leadership, there is no active military figure in South Vietnam who commands general respect in the country at large, or even in the army itself. Rather the army is a loose network of rival groups, where service is set against service, grade against grade, and region against region. The Army is now divided into four Corps, each in a different region. The III Corps, based around Saigon, has tended to support the central command of Marshal Ky. But the IV Corps, in the rich delta region, and the II Corps, in the highlands (where most American troops have been fighting), have both been run by their Corps Commanders as little more than rackets. Jobs, houses, supplies, and virtually everything else are sold off to the highest bidders, while Ky’s control is very weak indeed. The I Corps, around Danang, has been deeply influenced by the local Buddhists.

Thus what looks like a military regime is really a fragile mechanism for sharing power—“a little like a Calder mobile,” as one well-informed young American diplomat put it to me. The delicate balance among the Corps might well have been upset when Ky tried to displace the IV Corps Commander over a year ago, or when he attempted to remove the II Corps Commander last winter; but both these efforts failed. As it happened, the inevitable crisis was touched off in March when Ky, in a fit of temper, fired the I Corps Commander General Nguyen Chanh Thi, thus opening the way for the Buddhists to threaten the future of the military regime itself.

BUT IF THE KY REGIME has been unable to govern it has been still less willing to stop governing. For some of the generals the pickings are too profitable to be abandoned easily. The power struggles of the past have made others too vulnerable to revenge if any change takes place. Finally, all the generals now in power rose to the top while fighting with the French against the Vietminh: they would have no future in the kind of nationalist regime that could come to terms with the Vietcong.

In this situation, the Ky regime has worked steadily to head off the possibility of a civilian government ready to explore the chances for peace. Marshal Ky, indeed, came to power by replacing just such a government, the regime of former Premier Pham Huy Quat. It is true that Ky had to give in to demands for elections in order to quiet the unrest set in motion by the removal of General Thi. But immediately afterwards he bent every effort to dilute, if not prevent, the voting. The date of the election had not even been set before groups friendly to the Marshal began to warn of the dangers. Vo Long Trieu, the Minister of Youth and a close friend of Ky, encouraged Catholic refugee groups to protest against the elections. Marshal Ky himself disparaged the electoral process by stating that he would continue to stay in office no matter what the results of the poll. He then attempted to crush the group that was counting most on elections when he seized Danang by force.

THE STRANGE ELEMENT in all this is that the American government has gone every step of the way with Marshal Ky. Ambassador Henry Cabot Lodge never gave the elections unambiguous support. When Marshall Ky asserted that he would stay in office for at least a year, the demurring comments from Secretary of State Dean Rusk were notably feeble—even for Mr. Rusk. Though virtually everyone in Saigon expected something like Marshal Ky’s assault on Danang, the American Mission and the State Department professed to be surprised. Certainly they did nothing to discourage the attack, although the United States had full control over the oil supplies used to fly Ky’s troops to Danang, and American forces have complete control over the Danang airbase.

It would seem, then, that the highest American officials really believe that the future lies with Marshal Ky and that, accordingly, they have done all they could to prop him up. This may well be the case, but I do not think so. On the contrary, I believe that the American position has not been the result of a deliberate policy but of the absence of one. The fact is that Washington has never had a comprehensive and long term political program for developing a suitable government in Saigon. The US Mission has concentrated almost exclusively on the minute-to-minute and day-to-day business of fighting the war. The main concern has been to establish contacts with people who seemed able to get things done—with people in power who proclaimed their intention to carry on the war. That is why the United States gave almost unconditional support first to President Diem, and then to General Khanh. And that, it seems to me, is why the United States has so far backed Marshal Ky every step of the way.

Perhaps there is no way of changing this attitude. And if so, the United States will be tied to a government that can neither fight the war nor negotiate a peace. The President will have no alternative but to throw in even more men and more planes. But precisely because US support for the Ky regime seems to have been so much a matter of reflex action, so little a result of considered judgment, it seems to me that it can be changed. The United States could, for once, intervene deliberately, rather than by default, in Vietnamese political affairs. In that case the line to follow would be quite clear. The American interest would be to promote a reshuffling of military leadership that would set up one of the older and more widely respected generals—presumably Tran Van Don—as the temporary head of a new regime. The only purpose of that regime would be to organize fair elections. The elections would, hopefully, result in an alliance of moderate Catholics, militant Buddhists, and notables from the South. On this basis a government could be constructed that would take hold in South Vietnam and would, in time, negotiate with the Vietcong. The way would at last be open for an honorable end to the war.

This Issue

June 23, 1966