Recent developments in Vietnam have drawn public attention away from the battlefield and focussed it on two questions that are not so much military as political and moral:
(1) What are we fighting for in Vietnam?
(2) Can we achieve our objective by a continuing build-up of American forces when our South Vietnamese ally is torn by internal political strife combined with a growing war weariness, if not a growing resentment against the United States? What kind of society are we fighting to preserve, and what sort of an end to our own military commitment are we prepared to accept?
Ordinary warfare has its own military logic geared to a military objective—destruction of the enemy’s capacity to fight. This is not the case in Vietnam. The Vietcong has no hope of destroying our capacity to fight, and short of turning North and South Vietnam into a wasteland, we have no chance of destroying their capacity to fight. It is as though an elephant and a hornet were engaged in combat.
In Vietnam, both sides are trying to destroy the opponent’s will. This fact tends to result in a vicious circle: Neither side can be physically defeated, but to withdraw from the conflict appears to be a loss of face. We and the Vietcong, as well as Hanoi, have shown every symptom of this phenomenon in the last year. Escalation, for both sides, has a momentum of its own. The only hope of escape from this vicious circle is the recognition by one side or the other of a change in the circumstances which first drew them into the conflict. I believe that recent events have highlighted a change of this sort for us in South Vietnam.
There are many answers given to the question: “Why are we fighting in Vietnam?” One answer is “to preserve democracy.” This answer is paradoxical for two reasons: First, there never has been real democracy in South Vietnam; and second, it is impossible to achieve a democratic society while the fighting escalates. It might be more reasonable to say: “We are fighting to give democracy a chance.” How true is this? The Geneva Accords provided vaguely for “general elections which will bring about the unification of Vietnam” by July 1956. At that time, the only grass-roots political force in the South was the residual presence of the Vietminh, controlled by the Vietnamese Workers Party which had governed North Vietnam since 1951 and which by the time of the Geneva Accords had moved into the first stages of a Communist agrarian revolution. Elections at that stage might very well have extended Communism to the South; so we decided to support a supposedly benevolent nationalist regime instead. This is the commitment that brought us into conflict with the Vietcong, both during the Diem regime and more directly in the chaos which followed. But even to say. “We are fighting to give democracy a chance” is paradoxical when the only way we have been able to avoid a probable Communist dictatorship has been by avoiding the election of 1956, a form of self-determination, and by supporting another kind of dictatorship in Saigon. This is the sort of paradox that feeds Communist propaganda and confuses the American people and our friends. When we become trapped in such a paradoxical commitment, just as when we are caught up in a vicious circle militarily, we should ask: “Are the circumstances still the same?” In other words, “Are we still advancing the cause of self-determination, or are we fighting and bombing in a self-defeating effort to cover the political nakedness of Saigon?”
CIRCUMSTANCES HAVE CHANGED because a considerable evolution has taken place in the political life of South Vietnam since 1954. Twelve years might seem a short time for any significant political development, unless we remember that we are dealing with a relatively sophisticated people whose political development was arrested by colonialism. The only political party that could exist under the French was a clandestine revolutionary movement, and this, of course, was taken over by the Communists. That was why political democracy was unlikely in 1954. But since then, a variety of political forces has emerged. In the first place, there was Diem’s party (The National Revolutionary Movement) and its subsidiary Civil Servants’ League. In name, of course, this group is discredited, but most of its members and organizers are still alive (in the case of the Civil Servants’ League, still in the same hierarchical framework) and its ideology is not forgotten. The ideology was unconnected with the oppressive character of the regime, and would still appeal as an anti-Communist, Christian-Democratic program to the 1 1/2 million Catholics in the South who were Diem’s principal supporters. In different ways, the Diem regime promoted two further political groupings. A nationalist army inevitably came to demand a voice in the management of the war, and the Buddhists were impelled to political action by the heavy-handed tactics of the Catholic minority. All three of these political forces—the Catholics, the Army, and the Buddhists—are influenced by regionalisms rooted deeply in the history of the area. Regionalism divides the Catholics, it divides the Buddhists, and it divides the Army. And there are, further, the purely regional groups of the million Cao-Dai, the 2 million Hoa-Hao, and the Montagnard tribesmen. In addition to regionalism, the Army as a political force is compromised by the Buddhist-Catholic division, the officers being at present about equally divided. Many of these political forces have been seen in operation in the I Corps crisis of the last two months.
All of these forces existed in a sense in 1954, but none of them had any collective identity, none of them had any political self-consciousness; they had no recognized political leaders, no articulated political ambitions. None of them shared the feelings, noble or ignoble, that enable groups to pursue ends within a political framework. That is why elections within the time limits of the Geneva Accords might have been meaningless, and that is an important reason that we did not sign the Accords, though we committed ourselves in principle to elections—without time limit.
Now different competing political forces in South Vietnam are beginning to feel their strength. That is why this year is crucial for the United States. For in every case where one power has taken a very protective or colonial role towards another, there is a moment, just after indigenous political forces become strong enough to survive unprotected, and, hopefully, just before they turn impatiently on their protector, when the protecting power has to take the gamble of withdrawal or face the consequences of increasingly unified resentment of its presence. I believe that for us this moment is near in South Vietnam.
WHAT I THINK we should do about it in practical terms embraces the following five points:
(1) We should try to make credible to all parties our commitment to holding elections as has been promised by Premier Ky. We should make this commitment clear to the Vietnamese military, to the different civilian factions, and to the rest of the world. The greatest danger is that of a new army coup to forestall the elections, or a move by Ky to constrict the elections to such a degree that they lose all appeal to the civilian leaders, and especially the Buddhist groups. We should try to maintain the momentum of Ky’s promise, whether or not Ky himself survives or is replaced by a new military coup or by the sort of military-civilian panel contemplated in the last few weeks. Only elections can produce the sort of balance that will reassure jealous factions of a voice in the government and protection against persecution. All significant political groups including the National Liberation Front must be invited to participate in the elections and in the arrangements for the elections.
(2) I suggest no further US military build-up in Vietnam pending elections. I would urge that we end the bombing operations and that we curtail our offensive operations on the ground.
(3) I suggest that we or Saigon seriously attempt to negotiate directly with the National Liberation Front for a ceasefire before the elections. I have always found it difficult to understand the rationality of refusing to negotiate with the NLF. If it is true that the NLF as a fighting force is controlled by Hanoi as a subsidiary of the northern Communist Party, then it makes no difference whether we deal with them or with the Hanoi Government. As far as northern elements are concerned, dealing with them admits no more than that they are in the South, and as far as southern elements are concerned, dealing with them could not be objectionable unless it amounted to a recognition of their belligerency in a legal sense, which would be quite unnecessary. If, on the other hand, the NLF is, as it claims to be, a fully representative independent southern organization, we must talk with them directly one day. To quibble over the implications of recognizing the existence of the NLF when so many lives are being lost every day in warfare with them is a nightmarish absurdity.
As to the participation of the NLF in the election and the arrangements for such an election, it seems to me that those are the only terms they could accept for a ceasefire. A ceasefire is important to the success of the election process. Furthermore, the objections to NLF participation that were valid ten years ago no longer apply. As previously stated, they are by no means the only organized national political force any longer; their program is no longer without competitors, their leaders’ names are unknown to the mass of the people compared with those of other political leaders, and although their control is effective in large areas of the countryside, it is minimal in the population centers; it may very well be that they would get a minor fraction of the vote in an authentic election.
(4) I suggest the introduction of an effective international presence in South Vietnam to help assure the validity and integrity of the electoral process. It should remain during an interim period to help stabilize the political scene. This would rectify to some degree our initial mistake of intervening unilaterally in a complex struggle that calls for action by the international community. It now seems unlikely that the Security Council will undertake this task, but the members of the International Control Commission have given signs of a willingness to do so.
(5) I suggest immediate reaffirmation by the United States Government of its readiness to abide by the results of free elections, readiness to withdraw US military troops and bases from South Vietnam, and readiness to observe the essential provisions of the Geneva Accords, including the possibility of peaceful reunification of North and South Vietnam.
THE NLF MAY REJECT this proposal. Perhaps the most likely response is a demand for the prior withdrawal of American troops, harking back again to the Geneva Accords. In that case, the demonstrable presence of North Vietnamese formations in the South in the last year or two would give us a bargaining point. We could agree to the withdrawal of our troops in return for the withdrawal of North Vietnamese forces. But whatever the initial reply from the other side, I think that the cessation of our bombing and offensive ground actions combined with a proposal for a ceasefire, open elections, and direct negotiations is the right policy for the United States. It is the right policy if the proposal succeeds. It is the right policy if it starts a dialogue with the enemy, no matter how protracted. And it is the right policy even if the NLF rejects it for a time, because it will show the non-Communist political forces in Vietnam and the rest of the world that the United States desires peace and self-determination for Southeast Asia.
July 7, 1966