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 misplaced both the cause and the agent of the massacres. In fact it is the Vietnamese who will suffer—not from an American pull-out but from the after-effects of current American war strategies. Because neither hawks nor doves have yet grasped the full consequences of these strategies for the Vietnamese, it is perhaps useful to clear away some of the misapprehensions that most Americans have long held about Vietnam, the most fundamental of which is that there are two sides to the present conflict.

To the Vietnamese the simple American opposition of “Communist” and “anti-Communist” is an arbitrary one. As a glance at the post-Geneva period will show, it is a Manichaean idea applied, indeed imposed, regardless of the Vietnamese reality. When the American military mission first installed itself in Saigon, the southern half of the country was a mosaic of warlord fiefdoms, Viet Minh districts, and regions controlled by various political sects—most of them managed, but by no means governed, by the French and their Vietnamese minions. As soon as the French departed, the thin shell of the administration collapsed, leaving the countryside in the control of autarchic villages, and Saigon an anarchy where for nearly a year the Emperor, the prime minister, the chief of police, and the Binh Xuyen bandits fought for control of the gambling dens with grenades and submachine guns.

Selected, built, and financed by the American mission, the Diem regime was no more than an act of will—a vast artificial bureaucracy, representing no one, governing no one, except perhaps the 800,000 Northern Catholics who had with American help fled South during the period of armistice. Though left-wing journalists have usually argued that the National Liberation Front grew up in response to the Diemist repressions, the truth never adequately emphasized is that the Viet Minh had been ruling various parts of the country during the past decade: the NLF had merely to continue their work of driving out the old village oligarchies and the bureaucrats from Saigon.


After the fall of the Diem government in 1963, the non-Communist regime again disintegrated in the anarchic struggles of Buddhists against Catholics, urban Central Vietnamese against Saigonese, soldiers against civilians, and almost everyone against the central government. In the midst of this confusion the United States continued to pour money and arms into the Vietnamese army in the conviction that because it was an army it was therefore a strong anti-Communist force. To the Vietnamese, however, the army seemed no less divided than the country itself—a group of men, all of whom were carrying weapons. When in the spring of 1965 the US sent its first regular combat troops to Vietnam, it confirmed in power not the army leaders, but those generals who, after a dozen coups and counter-coups, happened to be occupying the Armed Forces Headquarters at that moment.

For the past four years the United States has proceeded systematically to increase the size of the regular Vietnamese armed forces while depriving it of its regular military functions. An army trained with Fort Benning standards of expertise to fight a conventional foreign invasion, the ARVN has had to cope with a domestic political insurgency and to administer everything in the country from cultural exchanges to water works.

Now that the army has proved itself a failure in all of these tasks, the Nixon administration has decided to forget the past and hope for the future. Since the 1968 Têt offensive, and with growing doubt over the future of American troops in the country, the US has equipped the ARVN with everything from jet bombers to M-16s and enlarged it by a third, bringing the sum of GVN soldiers up to 800,000.1 But as General Thieu knows as well as anyone, to enlarge and rearm the ARVN is not necessarily to strengthen it. On the contrary, the larger the ARVN grows, the more difficult it is to control: more men are bearing arms and more men are mobilized with no place to go.

For the past few months Thieu has been attempting both to pacify his own officers with guns and money and to divert the American effort from the ARVN to the regional and popular forces, which, being less mobile, pose less of a threat to him. What he cannot actually tell the Americans is that the ARVN constitutes the most dangerous force in the country. Led by a corrupt and demoralized officer corps and dependent on foreign support, it behaves no better than an undisciplined group of mercenaries, terrorizing the population it is meant to protect. Under the threat of US withdrawal, Thieu has managed to make some improvements in the high command, but he cannot stop the pervasive corruption or heal the antagonisms between the officers, for both are a part of the army’s structure. The product of a mistaken war strategy, it has become the most unstable institution in Vietnam and the most likely to cause chaos when the Americans move out.

Last fall American intelligence uncovered a vast Viet Cong spy ring in Saigon consisting of some hundred members, many of them placed in high positions throughout the Vietnamese government. One of the members, a man called Huynh Van Trong, turned out to be the chief political assistant to General Thieu. While the Americans were congratulating themselves for having removed a viper from the breast of the GVN, many Saigonese indulged in a little Schadenfreude at the expense of both General Thieu and the Americans. Huynh Van Trong’s reputation as an informer was, after all, a matter of common knowledge. With the additional evidence that the Thieu regime gave him a much lighter sentence than it gave any of the Buddhist rebels—a mere two years in jail—they could not help believing that General Thieu had known about the “spy” all along, and had been using him for his own purposes—probably as leverage against his brother-officers.

All this is not to say that the ARVN will disintegrate immediately upon an American withdrawal, but merely to show that the Vietnamese situation is a great deal more complicated than most Americans can imagine: for example, the political position of an American-supported government and that of General Thieu himself are entirely different. As Paul Mus once said, “We have our problems and our solutions, but the problems are often not there for the Asians.” His remark was a warning that Americans who wish to understand Vietnam must free themselves not only of their national interests, but occasionally from the bonds of their common sense.

Using their common sense, American officials have recently recommended that General Thieu solve his political problems by “broadening the base” of his government with members of the Saigon opposition groups. When Thieu, after acknowledging their wisdom, refused to do anything of the sort, they were bitterly disappointed. And yet Thieu’s reasons have been most precisely spelled out in another context by Dr. Henry Kissinger. “It is beyond imagination,” wrote Kissinger in his celebrated Foreign Affairs article, “that parties that have been murdering and betraying each other for twenty-five years could work together as a team, giving joint instructions to the entire country.”


Though Kissinger was referring to the prospects for a GVN coalition with the NLF, his argument applies just as well to any Saigonese coalition, even one between men who have no apparent political differences. In Vietnamese politics there is no such thing as a public compromise or an agreement to disagree. For Thieu, or anyone else, to include opposition leaders within his government would mean either chaos or the unconditional surrender of one group to the other. Over the past few months Thieu has worked rather to narrow than to broaden the base of his government in order to achieve what many Americans assumed he already had: some control over his own army.

As an alternative to current American policy, several American dove politicians, including Senator Eugene McCarthy, have proposed that the US withdraw its support from General Thieu and call for a coalition government to include members of the NLF, as well as the Saigon opposition groups. The NLF has favored such a plan because a coalition government would be the most trustworthy pledge of a speedy American withdrawal. But coalition is a solution to the problem of getting the United States out of the war, not a solution to Vietnamese political problems. For the Vietnamese, a coalition government would be a formality—a signal that the US wished to withdraw and to leave the Vietnamese to resolve their own political problems by whatever means they possessed: accommodation or violence. Over the past year many Vietnamese, including perhaps even General Thieu, have been making private efforts to minimize the risks of violence and to prepare a peaceful political settlement.

These efforts have been frustrated by the condition of the ARVN. Given the sheer size of the ARVN and the present reduced strength of the NLF, the Vietnamese politicians hardly need to consult their astrologers to predict that a coalition government, or indeed any government that did not have the support of the American troops in Vietnam, would be overthrown by an army coup. Looking a bit further into the future, they can see that the coup would probably then polarize the army between the “ins” and the “outs,” between the officers who did and those who did not think they could negotiate with the NLF.

The disintegration of the army would then begin, presumably—if the current antagonisms can be taken as guides to the future—with a revolt of the Central Vietnamese divisions against those in Saigon, and with a series of small anarchic battles against, and in defense of, the remaining American forces. Whatever form the disintegration took, the civilians would be the first to suffer from the army’s revanchist reprisals and from sheer banditry.

The condition of the ARVN is, of course, only one manifestation of US policy: what has really prevented the South Vietnamese from coming to a peaceful settlement is the overall effect of that policy. Long before the US troops were ever sent to Vietnam, the US government had decided to combat the NLF with a national police force and regular divisions using semi-conventional tactics. As one American combat officer put it, “It was something like sending an elephant after a large number of mice.” For the past five years the US troops combined with the vast GVN army-bureaucracy have impartially rooted up all of the village oligarchies, the old political parties, the sects, and indeed every Vietnamese-born social or political organization, along with the NLF.

Though Nixon’s war does not have even a Manichaean morality, US officials—and by extension, much of the US press—continue to justify it by implying that only the American presence and the Vietnamese army stand in the way of a limitless Viet Cong massacre of non-Communists. As Nixon recently stated in his message to Congress on foreign policy: “When we assumed the burden of helping defend South Vietnam, millions of South Vietnamese men, women and children placed their trust in us. To abandon them now would risk a massacre that would shock and dismay everyone in the world who values human life.”

But this specter of “Viet Cong massacres” is no more than a projection of American fantasies. As even the most anti-Communist Vietnamese would insist, the danger of reprisals lies not in a swift victory by the Viet Cong, but in the extended struggles of many weak and divided parties. The American war has created the conditions for just such a struggle. But to understand why this should be so, it is necessary first to understand how the Vietnamese deal with conflict and violence.

In the I Ching or Book of Changes—the source of most of the imagery that lies behind the Vietnamese view of the world—the following verse appears:

Fire in the lake: the image of Revolution
Thus the superior man
Sets the calendar in order
And makes the seasons clear.2

As the commentary to the verse explains, the Chinese character for the hexagram of revolution denotes in its original sense an animal’s pelt which is changed in the course of the year by molting. For the Vietnamese as well as the Chinese, the idea of revolution is associated with the change in seasons, with the necessary transition occurring in the lives of all creatures. As the verse indicates, the duty of a revolutionary leader is merely to prepare men for the inevitable transition so that they may accommodate themselves to it and avoid danger. Clearly, the notion of political change is very different for the Vietnamese from what it is for Westerners: the very image of revolution implies that the individual has no choice but to accept it, and that indeed it is a positive virtue for him to accommodate himself to it as well and as quickly as possible. Furthermore, if the revolution is prepared by a “superior man,” then there will be no conflict and bloodshed.

Reasoning along these lines, a Buddhist bonze once said, “You Americans have peculiar ideas. You think you can kill Communism by killing the people who believe in it. We believe you can destroy it only by changing the idea.” With this perspective in mind it is easy to see why the Vietnamese attach so little stigma to defectors and why even a militant Northern Catholic such as Father Hoang Quynh might say, “If the Communists come, we will try and live and adapt here.” 3 The Vietnamese would not blame Thieu for making an accommodation with the NLF; they would blame him only for doing it in secret, for failing to “make the seasons clear” and providing inadequate guidance to his people.

The Vietnamese, then, do not fear revolutionary change per se; they do fear the absence of strong authority and the accompanying uncertainty and division within the community. Historically the periods of dynastic weakness have held the greatest sufferings for the common people; in these periods, called “the interregnum” or “time of troubles,” the warlords and bandits have ravaged the countryside, pillaging the granaries, allowing the dike systems to fall to ruin, and killing and looting in the very villages that might have supported them. Traditionally these periods have not ended by agreement among the warlords (that is, by treaty such as was made between the Dukes of Burgundy and the Kings of France) but by the restoration of absolutist leadership.

This pattern has repeated itself for thousands of years, and it is still a basic element in Vietnamese society. By contrast with that of the West—and particularly of America today—Vietnamese society has always been hierarchical, the bonds of loyalty and dependence running not between peers but between superior and inferior on the several scales of age, rank, and power. When the leadership of the community fails, the principle of cohesion fails with it, dooming the individual members to conflict without rule or restraint that can end only with the reimposition of authoritarian leadership. As the Vietnamese themselves will explain, the trouble with the present GVN is not that it has bad leadership, but that it has no leadership at all.

During the early years of the Diem regime Government officials in Long An province and Central Vietnam carried out hundreds, perhaps thousands, of tortures, arrests, and assassinations, in a purge whose ostensible purpose was to “root out the Communist infrastructure” in those provinces. Though most people at the time believed that Diem himself commanded this reign of terror, later evidence showed, first, that few arrests had been made in Saigon and, second, that most of the victims in the provinces were not active Viet Minh cadres, but merely former Viet Minh or people who had nothing to do with the Resistance.

What had happened was that the Diemist provincial officials—many of them the “old notables” whom the Viet Minh had driven from the villages—had used Government force for the purposes of revenge against their own enemies or to make fortunes for themselves by means of terror and extortion. In issuing a law against the Communists Diem merely put a sharp instrument into the hands of men who had no loyalty to him and no real commitment to a national government. The Government atrocities of 1957-58 were a warning signal of what would happen when the United States put machine guns, tanks, and artillery pieces into the hands of the ARVN.

Over the years of war both US and GVN officials have done their best to show that the Viet Cong is far more brutal and bloodthirsty than the Allied forces. Their task has been a difficult one because it has involved not only suppressing the countless atrocities committed by the ARVN, Koreans, and Americans, but manufacturing evidence against the Viet Cong. Most recently GVN authorities have been reworking the major propaganda lode they have had in all the years of war—the death of some three to five thousand civilians in Hué during the Têt offensive.

The first thing that should have been said about the incident was that if a Viet Cong massacre in fact occurred, it was the exception proving the rule. Any American official with experience in Vietnam would have to agree with the counter-insurgency expert, Sir Robert Thompson, that “normally Communist behavior towards the mass of the population is irreproachable and the use of terror is highly selective.” Even during the confused period of the Têt offensive, the Viet Cong did nothing that the GVN could call a massacre in any of the other 100-odd towns and cities the Viet Cong occupied. Though the Viet Cong cadres and soldiers are perhaps no more humanitarian than their counterparts in the GVN, they have held to the elementary principle that a political movement succeeds by appealing to the people, not by terrorizing them. Moreover, they belong to an organization disciplined enough to enforce that principle.

NLF members have, of course, committed atrocities during the war, but the high command has consistently regarded unnecessary killing as a serious error and has taken pains to structure their organization so that it cannot occur. The NLF assassination is usually cold-blooded and highly calculated. The ranking cadres subject the recommendations of their subordinates to a long bureaucratic scrutiny before passing them on to a specialized unit with instructions on how best to exploit the killing politically. Besides putting its cadres under effective restraints from violence, the NLF has generally used “reeducation” to cope with hostile people. (Though Westerners tend to consider “reeducation,” “brainwashing,” or “thought reform” more threatening than physical violence, they do not realize that these have a very different meaning in a society where it is considered a positive virtue for the individual to make his peace with the dominant political force.)

The success of the NLF as a political organization is in some sense an index of its success in limiting political violence. For the Vietnamese the release of aggression is closely associated with anarchy; it has been violence that has torn most of the other political organizations apart. Just after the French withdrawal in 1955-56, the North Vietnamese Communist Party put itself in the greatest jeopardy of its history by loosing its own restraints upon violence.

In the course of the land reform program high Party officials allowed the lower cadre and the peasants to take the full responsibility for eliminating the local landlords: the results were a reign of terror in which 50,000 or more people were killed and the complete breakdown of the Party in many areas. Statements NLF officials have made suggest that they have taken account of the experience of the North Vietnamese. Certainly they have treated the great landowners of the Mekong Delta with an almost exaggerated delicacy.

Though a massacre may have occurred in Hué during the Têt offensive, the reports by US and GVN officials have obscured rather than clarified the circumstances. For those who were near the city at the time, it was evident that most of the mass graves, carefully unearthed by GVN officials just after the reports of the Songmy massacre, contained the bodies of people killed in the Allied bombing of the city or in the cross-fire between US Marines and the entrenched North Vietnamese troops. As experienced American journalists know very well, the reports were consistent with the tendency of Allied public relations officials to attribute to the Viet Cong all atrocities and civilian deaths—including those committed by their own forces.

What cannot be explained away as mere propaganda, however, is the fact, discovered soon after the Têt offensive, that at least one of the mass graves contained the bound bodies of GVN civil servants. Here indeed is a case to be made for murder, but one that must be investigated within the complex political geography of the city. Since the Diem regime, at least four political factions—the Catholics, the Buddhists, the NLF, and the Vietnamese Kuomintang—have been engaged, now openly, now covertly, in a running political feud in Hué, each episode of which has ground and polished the ancient hatreds to a higher intensity. Hué is in a sense a prism for the conflict throughout the entire country.

In 1966 the Buddhists, along with most of the army officers and civilian officials in the city, staged a full-scale revolt against the Saigon government. After a four-month-long drama of betrayals, arrests, and assassinations, troops from Saigon, commanded by the infamous Colonel Nguyen Ngoc Loan, “liberated” the city, carried out a brutal policy of repression (no doubt with the help of local Kuomintang), and installed a new set of officials and army commanders. Not surprisingly, this new city government collapsed at the very outset of the Têt offensive. The province chief, the same officer who had betrayed the Buddhists in 1966, hid in an attic during the first week of the attack, coming out later only to steal his share of the refugee supplies. Though American officials seem to know little about the period before the Allied counter-offensive, they do know that afterward many people were arrested who had nothing to do with the Viet Cong. Presumably the various political factions chose the moment of anarchy to settle their old political scores.

Did NLF cadres actually take part in the killings? Or were the murders performed by their undisciplined sympathizers or their enemies? These questions will probably remain unanswered, but, according to the head of the Vietnamese special police force in Hué, the NLF cadres who entered one of the most populous precincts carried a list containing the names of only five people—all of them members of the special police.4

Though the question of Viet Cong reprisals may have some importance for the future, it is for the moment academic beside the reality of GVN reprisals against the people of the villages. Just six months before the Têt offensive the US succeeded in pressuring the Vietnamese government to adopt the Phoenix operation, the newest model of its counter-insurgency program designed to “root out the Communist infrastructure.” The eighth or ninth of such projects, the Phoenix program has the originality to centralize all intelligence and all powers of execution in the person of a single army or police officer in each district and province headquarters. In other words the US has cleared away mountains of red tape in order to create another yet more powerful secret police.

The results have been predictable. In one village in An Giang province a woman came to the GVN officials in the village with the story that her brother-in-law had tried to persuade her husband to pay taxes to the Viet Cong. Though her brother-in-law turned out to be an old man with heart disease whom the woman disliked, the district intelligence cadre had within the week arrested and tortured him as a “Viet Cong tax collector.” In another village a conscientious village official discovered that many of the peasants were selling whatever gold and jewelry they had to pay blood money to the local Phoenix agent. When he attempted to tell the district chief about it, the agent fingered him as a “Viet Cong suspect” and had him fired.

The Phoenix program has succeeded in fashioning much the same instrument of civilian terror that the Diemist laws created in 1957-58; the only difference being that now terror is authorized and encouraged throughout the country by the statistics-hungry US intelligence services.5 Free of any effective restraint, the intelligence agents have been able to indulge in all the classical practices of an irresponsible secret police, terrorizing everyone including their fellow-officers. But the terror does not entirely arise from the corruption of individual officers: it is produced also by the structure of the program itself. Like any stranger to the village, the district intelligence officer, even if he is a model of probity and discipline, must have difficulty distinguishing between the “hard core” Viet Cong cadres, the marginal Viet Cong supporters, and the people who have gone along with the Viet Cong for the sake of survival. Inclined by the nature of his position to arrest anyone with Viet Cong contacts, the officer introduces legalistic notions of justice into what is essentially a family affair. Rather than eliminate Viet Cong cadres, he actually creates new ones—both on paper and in the flesh as new recruits. The statistics of the Phoenix program are analogous to the “body count” of the US military.

Quite apart from the present injustices it inflicts on individuals, the Phoenix program tends to destroy whatever order and accommodation the local people have evolved. A stone thrown into the placid pool of the village, it increases the element of chaos and widens the circle of violence, making the superstructure of the GVN more unstable than ever. That it is the civilians who suffer from these local conflicts serves as a reminder that the issue here is not whether the Viet Cong is stronger than the GVN, but whether violent means prevail over nonviolent ones. By continuing their self-destructive chase after Viet Cong cadres, the United States and the GVN are threatening the security of all Vietnamese, including those they claim to protect.

If the Nixon administration wishes to further the cause of peace in Vietnam, it must end this vast, artificial conflict and return Vietnamese politics to the Vietnamese. The first step is to make an unequivocal decision to withdraw all American troops within a definite period of time—let us say, eighteen months. The second step is to reverse the present “Vietnamization” policy by halting the Phoenix program and breaking down the huge cancerous growth of the ARVN. During the past year President Thieu, backed by the Americans, has moved toward giving the elected councils some control over their own budgets and their local defense forces. While the reform has not resulted in a real transfer of power, it has indicated a method by which the United States could reduce the ARVN without major social or economic dislocations.6

Because they are small and can therefore respond to local problems, the village governments are potentially the most stable institutions in the GVN. Given some control over their own affairs and some bargaining power, the villagers could make their own arrangements with the military bureaucracies—NLF or GVN—and try to integrate the members of all the various political groups back into the community. (To give an example of the complicated forms this process may take, one village council, composed largely of ex-ARVN soldiers, has used its local defense forces to throw out both the Viet Cong and the GVN officials.) In a time of anarchy when all political groups are exhausted by the war and when almost every able-bodied man is either a soldier or an ex-soldier, this capacity for local accommodation is essential to the security of all Vietnamese. Though the creation of strong village governments would not end the political conflict, it would restore at least a part of it to its proper dimension and reduce the level of violence throughout the countryside.

Though the US military will see the reduction of the Vietnamese army as a move toward capitulation to the Viet Cong, it does not imply a political decision of any sort. It does mean that US control over the GVN would be relinquished in small stages rather than all at once. To decentralize the Saigon regime is simply to turn the inverted pyramid of government right side up and to prevent the present top-heavy structure from collapsing once its American support is withdrawn. It is to remove the oppressive burden that the current US war strategy imposes on all Vietnamese—including the ARVN officers.

This Issue

March 26, 1970