During a visit to Paris in late September we became convinced that the American public is unaware of a number of dramatic new developments in South Vietnam. These developments suggest that the Thieu regime is in the deepest trouble of its five-year history and that it may be on the verge of collapse. They also make it clear why Mr. Nixon’s proposals of October 7, which continue to guarantee US support of that regime, will not lead to a settlement. Our impressions are based on a series of discussions we held in Paris, the most important of which were with the following persons: Madame Nguyen Thi Binh, Foreign Minister of the Provisional Revolutionary Government of South Vietnam and head of its delegation at the Paris peace talks; Minister Xuan Thuy, head of the Paris delegation of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam; Wilfred Burchett, free-lance correspondent who is a knowledgeable observer of the Indochina scene; Jacques Decornoy, Southeast Asia correspondent for Le Monde and an expert on the Indochina war.
From these discussions emerged a high degree of agreement about the political situation in South Vietnam. There have been, all felt, a sharp upsurge of anti-American and anti-Thieu activity in the cities of South Vietnam and, at the same time, an increasing reliance by the Saigon regime upon blatant repression to maintain control. What has become evident in this political crisis is the conviction of South Vietnamese urban groups that President Nixon’s Vietnam policies have failed, either because the military balance is shifting back to the other side or because Vietnamization will not bring the war to an end but will instead merely prolong it.
The present situation in South Vietnam is clearly analyzed by Mr. Ngo Cong Duc in the statement published below, which he made at a press conference in Paris on September 21. Mr. Duc is a well-to-do landholder from the Delta region who in 1967 was elected to the National Assembly from the province of Vinh Binh on an anti-Vietcong platform. A Catholic who is also the editor of Saigon’s leading daily newspaper, Tin Sang, he has close affiliations with many prominent southern political leaders, including General Duong Van Minh (“Big Minh”), who has often been mentioned as a likely leader of a coalition government in Saigon.
For a man in Mr. Duc’s position to make such a sweeping attack on the Saigon government is itself an important political act. His statement is also of great significance because of its indictment of American policies, its proposals for ending the war, and the evidence it provides that a movement of major proportions against the Saigon regime is under way in South Vietnam. According to The New York Times (September 30, 1970, p. 4), Mr. Duc repeated his statement in Saigon on September 29, 1970.
In view of the treatment the Thieu regime has given its critics and opponents, Mr. Duc’s statement is a brave act of self-assertion. As a public figure of stature, Mr. Duc, together with those groups associated with him, has apparently decided that the political situation in South Vietnam has become so grave that it is necessary to speak out at this time, regardless of the personal consequences. Mr. Duc makes it clear, moreover, that he is speaking on behalf of organized public opinion in the cities of South Vietnam. Catholic and Buddhist officials, previously not active in politics, have spoken out in support of Mr. Duc’s proposals, which have also been strongly endorsed, in spite of their treasonous nature, by General Minh and by many newspapers throughout South Vietnam. Others who have endorsed Mr. Duc’s statement—and endorsement is not only a political act but, in view of conditions in South Vietnam, an act of courage—include the Assistant Archbishop of the Catholic Church in Saigon, the Vice President of the National Assembly (Ho Van Minh), the head of the Movement of Women (Ngo Ba Thanh), the heads of the Faculty of Liberal Arts (Vo Ba) and of the Faculty of Sciences at Saigon University (Nguyen Van Thang), several prominent Buddhist leaders, and a variety of student leaders.
Such broad support is convincing evidence that anti-American sentiment, which has long been widespread in South Vietnam, is now taking political form. Clearly, an effort is being made by a variety of political leaders to get themselves on record as anti-Thieu and anti-American, notwithstanding the possibility of brutal retaliation.
In view of the longstanding tacit acceptance of the war in urban circles, these developments are, at the least, a dramatic indication that the non-Communist Vietnamese regard Nixon’s policies as a failure. It is inconceivable that Mr. Duc and those who have associated themselves with him would have spoken out if they felt that Vietnamization was succeeding. It seems reasonable to conclude that this initiative by Mr. Duc provides strong proof that the Thieu regime is governing South Vietnam in an intolerable fashion and that American military policies are failing.
Mr. Duc’s speech is also a symbolic event, and should not be considered in isolation. There are many other indications, including some mentioned by Mr. Duc, that militant activity against the Americans has been spreading throughout South Vietnam, with a corresponding tightening of the repressive control by which Thieu rules. Public demonstrations have been occurring with greater frequency, student leaders have been imprisoned and tortured, and the government has adopted a new set of visa regulations designed to keep unsympathetic visitors out of Vietnam. Marshal Nguyen Cao Ky’s plans to address Reverend Carl McIntire’s “March for Victory” must also be understood as an attempt to grasp at straws by a faltering and degenerate regime, one which may well fear an effort by Washington to re-enact the events of November 1, 1963, when Premier Ngo Dinh Diem was assassinated.
The Thieu regime now seems even more isolated and unpopular in South Vietnam than was Diem in his last months. Thieu’s repeated efforts to form a broader political base have failed. Ky is now reported to lack any civilian power base, and has even lost much of his air force backing. There are some indications that Prime Minister Khiem has independent support in the armed forces and might be in a position to challenge Thieu from within the government. The political situation is fluid and precarious, making it difficult to predict the exact course of events.
Mr. Duc’s proposals are also of importance in themselves. His suggestions seem compatible with Madame Nguyen Thi Binh’s eight-point proposal of September 17, 1970, which outlines the prospect of a rapidly negotiated settlement between the National Liberation Front and the anti-regime forces which Mr. Duc represents. It is particularly important to keep in mind Mr. Duc’s two main points: immediate withdrawal of American and foreign troops from South Vietnam and a settlement of political affairs by negotiations among the Vietnamese. There is, we think, an intentional ambiguity in the reference to “foreign” troops, which can be construed either as including or excluding the armed forces of North Vietnam. But it is clear that Mr. Duc, like the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV) and the Provisional Revolutionary Government of South Vietnam (PRG), refuses to adopt the American language of “mutual withdrawal,” which equates the invaders of Vietnam with Vietnamese engaged in civil war.
Mr. Duc also calls for a delegation at the Paris talks representing his approach to peace, and, in his words, reflecting the wishes of “the overwhelming majority of the South Vietnamese population demanding peace, independence, democracy, freedom, and national reconciliation.” In effect, Mr. Duc is saying that the Thieu regime is not capable of representing the South Vietnamese people at the Paris talks. To reinforce the seriousness of his position, Mr. Duc has recently opened an office in Paris. (His position is in fact similar to the contention of some antiwar forces in this country that the Nixon Administration is not capable of representing the American people at the Paris talks. Indeed the Gallup Poll reported in The New York Times, September 27, 1970, that a large majority of Americans favor the kind of scheduled total withdrawal proposed both by the McGovern-Hatfield initiative in the United States and by Madame Binh in Paris.)
In view of the similarities in the positions taken in the latest PRG/DRV proposals, the McGovern-Hatfield approach, and the proposals of Mr. Duc, there is every reason to believe that successful negotiations could proceed if these three views were put forward by the respective parties in Paris. The continuation of death and destruction in Vietnam thus seems especially cruel and gratuitous; and the willingness of American officials to send Americans into further battles even more reprehensible than it has been in the past.
Madame Binh’s proposals of September 17 were formulated as a response to earlier American arguments and objections. She proposed, first, that scheduled withdrawal of American and allied forces could proceed over a period of nine months, until June 30, 1971. Second, that steps could be taken, most likely a standstill ceasefire, to assure the safety of withdrawing forces. Third, that arrangements for the release of American prisoners of war could take place before the withdrawal process had been completed. Fourth, that a provisional government committed to principles of neutrality and independence could be drawn from members of the present Saigon government, apart from Thieu, Ky, and Khiem, from persons in exile or living in South Vietnam who are neither part of the regime nor members of the PRG, as well as from the PRG. Fifth, that a permanent government could be selected by free and open elections organized by the provisional government. Sixth, reunification of Vietnam could be achieved “step by step…without coercion or annexation by either side” through agreements reached by the representatives of the two zones of Vietnam. Seventh, South Vietnam could establish normal cultural, diplomatic, and economic relations with North Vietnam, and, on the basis of neutrality and equality, with the United States as well.
These proposals provide a reasonable basis for a negotiated settlement. Ambassador David Bruce, who was sent to Paris on President Nixon’s behalf, supposedly to move negotiations forward, responded to these PRG proposals with the phrase “old wine in new bottles.” The Vietnamese response to this has been: “Just taste it.” Indeed, Ambassador Bruce has not as yet made a detailed or serious response to Madame Binh’s September 17 proposals (just as Ambassador Lodge never responded to Madame Binh’s ten-point program of May, 1969), nor has he advanced any proposals on behalf of the United States. Furthermore, the PRG and DRV delegations and the journalists on the scene confirmed to us that no secret talks have been held since Ambassador Bruce’s arrival in Paris.
Mr. Nixon’s proposal of October 7 for a cease-fire without any accompanying political compromise has little prospect of acceptance since it leaves the Thieu regime as the only legitimate governmental authority in South Vietnam, virtually nullifying more than twenty-five years of bloody struggle by the PRG. As Madame Binh emphasized when she described the limited character of the PRG demands, “The NLF has been fighting for twenty-five years just to exclude three men from the Saigon regime.”
In fact, Mr. Nixon’s speech of October 7 entirely omits consideration of the views of Mr. Duc and the strong forces that are allied with him against Thieu. It seems clear to us, however, that the US Administration has sensed that its commitment to the Thieu regime is threatened by the developments we have described; and this, along with the unpopularity of the war and the impending elections at home, is among the reasons why Nixon felt it necessary to make his futile proposals. These proposals do not, in fact, move at all in the direction of translating the battlefield stalemate into a political compromise. So understood, this “peace initiative” amounts to “no wine in new bottles.” It is thus particularly disheartening to note the affirmative response to Nixon’s speech by such respected antiwar figures as Governor Harriman and Senators Muskie and Church. Their reaction only deepens our sense that liberal American opinion has never fully grasped the basic issue in the Vietnam war—the struggle for political control of the Saigon government. Without compromise on that issue, US peace proposals are no more than domestic political gestures.
In these circumstances it is of the greatest importance to appreciate the convergence of the anti-Thieu position in South Vietnam with the PRG/DRV position in Paris and the moderate antiwar position in the United States, a development made even more significant by the mounting activity against the Saigon regime in the cities of South Vietnam and by the increasingly repressive response of Thieu-Ky-Khiem. Mr. Duc’s speech can be taken as a signal to the outside world of an opportunity for settlement, one which the Nixon Administration is willfully ignoring.
In our judgment, Mr. Duc’s interpretation of the situation in South Vietnam is urgent and convincing: it should provide a new orientation for antiwar activities in the United States. The weeks and months ahead are likely to be crucial.
November 5, 1970