Vietnam: The Future

Apart from the symbolic reversal from “escalation” to “de-escalation,” there has been little change in US policy toward Vietnam. During the past year President Nixon has lowered the troop ceiling by 110,000 men, bringing the American forces down to the level they held at the time of the Têt offensive. Though General Abrams, a much abler commander than West-moreland, has stopped sending US troops to storm mountains and destroy large swaths of jungle, the remaining American forces continue to pursue with minor variations the strategies they have been following since 1965: the occupation of bases throughout the country, the search-and-clear operations in populated areas, combined with the usual amount of bombing and shelling of unspecified targets.

As for his policies toward the Saigon government, Nixon has shown respect for an even longer tradition. If “Vietnamization” means anything at all, it means the continued support of an “anti-Communist” government, the enlargement and re-equipment of the Vietnamese army on an American model, the increase in the number of US advisers and support units, and the attempt to create a “really” effective counter-insurgency program. Or precisely the strategies the US adopted after the French withdrawal in 1954.

These strategies do not appear to serve the long-run interests of anyone, President Nixon and General Thieu included. In the first place they do not, any more than they did two years ago, constitute a strategy for winning the war. At least some of the Administration officials recognize that they cannot defeat the NLF and the North Vietnamese. They may have adopted the more limited goal of a slow US disengagement that will keep the NLF out of Saigon for as long as possible. In this case—the case of slow retreat—the “Vietnamization” plan is folly, for it is no more than a return to the strategy which failed in the early 1960s and whose prospects have not improved with the entry of the North Vietnamese into the war and the growth of political awareness among all the South Vietnamese. While Nixon can prolong the current stalemate for an indefinite period, he cannot make the Vietnamese army fight his war for him.

The present strategies do not comprise a plan for peace inside South Vietnam. In fact, quite the opposite. By maintaining the current level of hostilities, the Nixon administration is weakening the prospects for a “Southern solution”—that is, a peaceful settlement among South Vietnamese, independent of the North. Each day as the war goes on, the North Vietnamese go deeper into the South, taking up the responsibilities of the NLF guerrilla units and political cadres until even the village forces become a thick mixture of Northerners and Southerners.

The present war is not only retarding the process of accommodation among the various South Vietnamese political groups, but also creating the conditions for an extended and bloody political conflict after an American withdrawal. Though supporters of the war have usually defended the Administration’s policies by summoning up the specter of a Viet Cong massacre, they have…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your account.