“For more than twenty years we have been on the emotional jag of messianic anti-communism.”
“Much of our present difficulty in Vietnam still derives from the fact that the Vietnamese people continue to reject the idea that the NLF is Communist.”
“Escalation and its ramifications have corrupted the people of the United States and South Vietnam …”
“The terrorism of the enemy has been equally matched by our own.”
“This is not war—it is genocide.”
“At some time in the predictable future the quest for victory will produce a grievous military defeat for American forces.”
It is little wonder that the writer of the above, Lt.-Colonel William B. Corson of the Marines, Ph. D., master of half a dozen Asian languages, who had spent twenty-five years in the Corps, found himself in June, when the Marines read the manuscript of this book, on the verge of a court-martial. The New York Times and other papers picked up the story, and The Betrayal, an “exposé” of our intervention in Vietnam was published ahead of schedule. Colonel Corson escaped into civilian life, and now lectures at Howard University in Washington, where the late Bernard Fall used to teach.
Probably everyone who visits Vietnam meets American military officers who are fiercely critical of US policy in Vietnam, sometimes because of the tactics used (which have lost us the war, they say), occasionally on moral grounds. Few are as intelligent as Colonel Corson, but he is not unique. I know another official in Vietnam, also a Ph. D., who has similar views: we should not have come to Vietnam, we should not be there now. We are destroying the country and propping up a corrupt clique of former collaborators: The generals in the ARVN and all but two or three of the colonels were on the French side. He asserts that if he were a Vietnamese he would fight with the National Liberation Front. Even humble infantrymen can be heard to say, “By God, if we had the Viet Cong on our side we would win this war in a month.”
Corson’s account of our involvement is reasonably accurate, lucid, and brutal. He tells the shabby story of the early American support of France, the betrayal of the Vietminh after Geneva, the origins of the NLF (“The Vietcong originated…as a popular revolt directed against the…repression of the Diem-Nhu regime”), the growing intervention sponsored by Kennedy and his advisers, the murder of Diem, Johnson’s decision to bomb North Vietnam before the 1964 election, the scandal of Tonkin, the phony “infiltration” figures (there were 400 known North Vietnamese regulars in the South before 1965 despite Rusk’s claims of “a division”), and the brutality of pacification, which more than once he calls “genocide.” Many of those who sneer at information from such experts as Philippe Devillers, Jean Lacouture, Georges Chaffard, Bernard Fall, George Kahin, and John Lewis, or even from Walter Cronkite, may be willing to listen to Corson, because he is a well-informed defector. In view of this, Corson’s analysis of the war and the implications of that analysis for American policy need to be taken seriously.
Mary McCarthy met Colonel Corson in South Vietnam in 1967 and described him in her book, Vietnam. He baffled her, “playing God and the Devil up there in the hills,” building a dollar sign for “his” villagers to admire or worship, and making statements like: “Lenin said, ‘if you scratch a peasant you will find a petit bourgeois.’ Well, I’m scratching and scratching” (In The Betrayal he adds: “We scratched the Vietnamese peasant and found this to be true”) or “I don’t send a man into civic action until he has killed.”
Colonel Corson is stating here the paradoxical and well-known truth which many liberals prefer to ignore or treat as an abberation, like adultery or drunkenness in a small academic community: American benevolence abroad disguises a potential for terrible violence. Corson is concerned for “his” villagers but he advocates killing as a preparation for constructive social work. In this he resembles those Americans who view the murderous warmheartedness of our foreign involvement as an irritating but inevitable form of life-saving. They combine a missionary attitude with a primitive Marxist faith that “economic development” will bring anyone to our side. According to them, no one willingly chooses communism.
One quickly discovers such attitudes when one hears field operatives in Vietnam discussing their South Vietnamese “counterparts.” Corson quotes Marine Sergeant Ashe, age 20, from Milford, Maine. “These people want the same thing we want, to beat the Cong, and make this land free so they can go about their business.” Sergeant Ashe, unaware of Vietnamese sensitivity to foreign invaders, should have read the eighteenth-century Chinese Emperor Ch’ien Lung:
The Vietnamese are indeed not a reliable people. An occupation does not last very long before they raise their arms against us and expel us from their country. The history of past dynasties has proved this fact.
Where convictions are so lofty—and so unreal—frustration is bound to follow. When the language of conciliation and harmony proves ineffective, violence is the next step. Colonel Corson wants killers in his civic action teams, to take care of situations where liberal ideals won’t work. While he claims to stand for revolution and social change, these goals must take place on his terms. Manipulation is the key, and those who won’t play are killed.
Corson strongly believes in the power of the enemy’s technique and organization: “The very foundation of the enemy’s strength in Vietnam is his extraordinary power of organization.” Like Douglas Pike in Vietcong, Corson implies that if we could only out-organize them, we could win. This illusion lies behind the wish that the Viet Cong were on our side; it lies behind the creation of the Special Forces, indeed behind the illusion of “counter-insurgency.”
Certainly no one doubts that an American can be trained to speak Vietnamese, to run silently through the jungle all day on rubber sandals, eat the grubs under tree bark, and strangle the opposition with home-woven vines. But can he sleep alone in a village at night and wake up in the morning with his throat unslit? I remember going to a staff meeting in III Corps where a CIA operative tried to persuade his superior officer, on the basis of computer analysis, that a certain number of villages were “secure.” He revised his figures sharply downward when asked in how many he would spend the night by himself. The fantasy that “technique” and “organization” will help to achieve “security” remains strong as recent estimates on the millions of peasants supposedly “under Saigon’s control” demonstrate. It is similar to the illusion that the NLF (like the North Koreans and the Japanese in previous wars) fight while they are drugged—which is not only wishful thinking but also makes it unnecessary to consider our adversaries as humans.
Still, it is easy for Corson to admit that the NLF has strong appeal to the Vietnamese.
To attempt to discredit the Vietnamese hamlet-nationalism mobilized by the Vietcong is a waste of time and energy—The ideological approach of the Vietcong meets the need for affirmation and group worth and solidarity—we [Corson’s Marines] acknowledged and accepted as a fact that the peasant gave tacit approval to the Vietcong.
But Corson simply abstracts the element of nationalism from the argument. His solution to the Viet Cong’s appeal in the hamlets is as follows.
…we concentrated on the peasants’ need for money. This approach was far enough removed from the hamlet-centered nationalism so that the peasant was unaware of our ulterior objectives and felt no guilt about his support of the Vietcong. As the possession of money became a positive attainable value, the peasant became more and more inclined to view informing on the Vietcong as a necessary exception of his behavior pattern…the pitch was made to remove our prosecution of the war from our relations with the people and to concentrate on making money.
In order to maintain interest in his program Corson set up a “Community Chest Fund type of thermometer” in the market place to record the hamlet’s profits showing an ascending series of Buddhist symbols with each of the steps along the way “indicated as 1000-piastre increments.”
We showed the peasant how the trick was done and then left him to practice the “magic” of money making.
These incentives produce collaborators who inform on their countrymen—“What is required,” he says, “is an informer or several informers, and our business activities produced them.” There are other ways to produce them, too. For example, although Colonel Corson finds America’s squashing of the Filipino insurrection of 1898-1903 brutal, the school system it produced could, he feels, be a model for Vietnam. For this system, like other institutions he mentions, can be used effectively against an internal “enemy.” Fifty years ago one thousand teachers came to the Philippines, to teach in “rural schools built on private initiative with private funds.” As a result, says Corson, in 1946 the Philippine government could put down a “Communist-inspired insurgency.” He suggests that “stateside dissenters” might provide a Teachers Corps for Vietnam which would undertake a similar worthy task.
Before they take the boat for Saigon, however, these dissenters might well look hard at Corson’s educational plan and the assumptions behind it: “As in the Philippines, the medium of instruction should be English—American English. It is the language of commerce, the language of capitalism, and, more important, the language of free political institutions.” Despite Corson’s optimism, intelligent dissenters may not be eager to educate hamlet children who
would literally become “hostages to fortune.” The peasant parents…would incur a feeling of obligation, not by any demand on our part but due to the cultural code of their society…. This feeling of obligation could be exploited to provide us with intelligence about the enemy.
As to whether the US should leave Vietnam or stay, Corson supplies a carefully worked out method for both, each involving the removal of our support from the Saigon government. If we stay, we must take ultimate responsibility for military decisions. Corson has nothing good to say for the Advisory system, refugee care, civilian medical attention, and the commercial development of civic pacification efforts. “If we are to remain in Vietnam we can no longer tolerate the ineptness, corruption, and rot of the GVN or the non-performance of the ARVN.” If we decide to leave, the same applies: The ARVN high command is the GVN and vice versa. “Once that corrupt, cowardly, and incompetent element is eliminated the possibility of ending the Vietnam war will be at hand.”
After two hundred and eighty pages in which Corson has referred to the communists as “the enemy,” he suddenly reverses himself:
Notwithstanding our ambivalent attitude about a coalition government in South Vietnam, the non-GVN political leaders do not fear such an end to the conflict…a government in South Vietnam with communist participation will reflect a variety of political viewpoints. This is because of the composition of the NLF and the People’s Revolutionary Party in South Vietnam. The membership of both these organizations is strongly dominated by persons who are native to the South….
a coalition government would politely thank us for our help and suggest we leave. Make no mistake about who wants us to stay in Vietnam.
Such a solution “eliminates the necessity for a ‘peace conference’ or United States involvement in negotiations.” As to staying or going, “either course is feasible…there is more than one way to ‘win’ in Vietnam besides massive escalation.”
The model for what he has in mind came into being in 1967. The village of Phuong Bac underwent Corson-style pacification, with financial “incentives” and a progress thermometer. “Today neither the GVN nor the Vietcong can claim Phuong Bac for its own. The people of Phuong Bac are in control of their own destiny.” One wonders what will happen to Corson’s capitalist informers when the Marines leave Phuong Bac.
Corson’s attitude is an example of what Stanley Hoffmann calls “skill-thinking” in action: make your analysis, separate the elements so that no connections remain, convince yourself that the targets of your skill can be manipulated, and then choose between the “feasible” alternatives. To argue against the bombing of the North on humanitarian grounds, for instance, is “admirable but not really relevant.” The national agony over Vietnam arises, according to Colonel Corson, primarily from frustration…”with the exception of that felt by ‘liberals’ like Mary McCarthy who can conceive of no reason for our presence in Vietnam.”
Colonel Corson may try to offer advice on our Vietnamese adversaries to policy makers during the next months. It is useful, therefore, to remember that Corson doesn’t hate the “enemy.” Indeed, he often shows genuine affection for him. He tells us of Oong Van Truong, “An eager intelligent non-commissioned officer in the ARVN” who joined the NLF. Corson had trained Troung twelve years ago and now found him commanding a “main force Vietcong unit” in the same area. The two held on neutral ground a series of conversations which may be unique in the Vietnamese war. Corson describes Truong as honorable, filled with “pride and affection for his work”; he “cared for his wife and children.” Although Corson can forsee a partially Communist coalition for Vietnam, in which America plays no part, he offers as one of the solutions for dealing with such people as Oong Van Truong the following:
Truong was a Vietnamese, and how good a Communist he was I’ll never know because we finally killed him. He had fought with the Vietminh against the French. From a purely professional view he was a most competent soldier.
Such is the inevitable outcome of revolutionary development. Colonel Corson’s publisher boasts on the dust jacket that this group of Marines pulled off “the only meaningful victory” of the entire war. What did Colonel Corson actually do? He took over a Vietnamese village whose inhabitants were (he admits) filled with well-justified antagonism to a corrupt central government and a brutal foreign invader. His hand-picked killers (“I don’t send a man into civic action until he has killed”) seized on the peasants’ poverty, and turned them, children and all, into informers. In the course of these activities the Marines killed an NLF commander who fought against the old American ally, France. Finally, Phuong Bac Village was left floating in political limbo between Saigon and the Front.
What was the point of all this? Corson himself doesn’t know. He admits that American hostility to Communism in general and to the NLF in particular is no longer shared by most Vietnamese except our clients. He provides, moreover, a plausible scheme for disengaging ourselves—one paragraph after describing how we can stay. From this mixture of clearly perceived history, generosity, murderousness, and “pragmatism” there emerges a familiar figure. Probably all of us know such men here at home: “public spirited” enthusiasts, organizing the Community Chest, helping at the Boys Club, leading scouts on hikes, and working out down at the Y. Often men with political ambition, they galvanize towns into frantic “community action,” winning potential votes for future elections.
In Vietnam, these bouncy boy-men really operate; untroubled by normal restraints, they can mow down their opposition, such as the Oong Van Truongs, when persuasion fails; whereas back home they would have to take defeat with a smile. Their ebullient optimism which conceives of mammoth dollar signs and progress thermometers impresses visiting congressmen. My closest American contact in Vietnam always dressed in natty suburban clothes, including spotless white bucks, even in the most perilous circumstances. He carried candy in his pockets for children, took everyone’s picture and remembered to send them prints, and unobtrusively carried a .45 in a battered cigar box which never left his hand.
Corson must be aware of the success of ex-guerrillas like Roger Hilsman, now snug in important chairs at major universities. He can perceive, too, the movement of intellectuals like Walt Rostow from University to White House and back again. Indeed, Corson and Rostow may even envy each other. But Corson will probably never teach at a major university, nor will Rostow ever get a chance to campaign with the Green Berets.
The Harvard, MIT, and Rand political scientists speculate about “levels of force,” “restoring order,” “discriminating response.” Hilsman’s “own preference would be for covert or at least deniable operations…pinpricks.” Unfortunately for Corson, he is more honest than they: he actually mentions killing. He therefore probably embarrasses his academic colleagues while they, dull dogs, sigh a little at his exploits.
His advice, however, if not his style, may be taken seriously. It is for the Thais, Guatamalans, and Greeks to wait for the next move. Rostow may have left Washington, but Kissinger has moved in. Corson already lives there.
April 10, 1969