Richard Nixon and Nguyen Van Thieu
Richard Nixon and Nguyen Van Thieu; drawing by David Levine



The pending cease-fire agreement, as so far disclosed by Hanoi and Washington, is like a delicate watch, intricately fabricated to make sure it won’t work. No agreement ever had so many ingenious provisions calculated to keep it from succeeding. If by chance one spring doesn’t break down, there is another in reserve that almost surely will, and if by some unforeseen mishap that one also should work, there is still another which will certainly go blooey sooner or later.

The fragility of the agreement to end the second Indochinese war is put in better focus if one compares it with the cease-fire which ended the first, at Geneva in 1954. The only signed document that emerged from the Geneva conference was a cease-fire agreement between the military commands on both sides. It was accompanied by a final declaration which nobody signed and to which the United States and the separate state the French had created in the south objected; then as now the puppet was more obdurate than the master.

The first Indochinese war ended, as the second seems to be doing, with a cease-fire but no political settlement. The prime defect, the “conceptual” flaw, to borrow a favorite word of Kissinger’s, lay in the effort to end a profoundly political struggle without a political settlement. A cease-fire then, as now, left the political problem unresolved and thus led inevitably to a resumption of the conflict. It will be a miracle if the new cease-fire does not breed another, a third, Indochinese war.

A political solution was left to mañana and “free elections.” But the Geneva cease-fire agreement, disappointing as its results proved to be, was far more precise in its promise of free elections than is the new cease-fire. It set a firm date—July, 1956—for the balloting; specified that the purpose of the elections was “to bring about the unification of Vietnam”; provided for the release within thirty days not only of POWs but of “civilian internees”; and made clear that it meant political prisoners by defining civilian internees as

…all persons who, having in any way contributed to the political and armed struggle between the two parties, have been arrested for that reason and have been kept in detention by either party during the period of hostilities.1

Nobody knows how many thousands of political prisoners are in Thieu’s jails. The most famous is Truong Dinh Dzu, the peace candidate who came in second in the 1967 presidential election, the first and only contested one. Thieu’s most notorious instrument for these round-ups was Operation Phoenix, which the CIA ran for him. A Saigon Ministry of Information pamphlet, Vietnam 1967-71: Toward Peace and Prosperity, boasts that Operation Phoenix killed 40,994 militants and activists during those years.2 These are the opposition’s civilian troops, the cadres without which organizational effort in any free election would be crippled. Arrests have been intensified in preparation for a cease-fire.

The fate of the political prisoners figured prominently in the peace negotiations. The seven-point program put forward by the other side in July of last year called for the dismantling of Thieu’s concentration camps and the release of all political prisoners. The eight-point proposal put forward by Washington and Saigon last January left their fate in doubt. It called for the simultaneous release of all POWs and “innocent civilians captured throughout Indochina.” The ambiguous phrasing seemed designed to exclude politicals since these were neither “captured” nor, in the eyes of the Thieu regime, “innocent.”

The new cease-fire terms do not bother with such ambiguity. Dr. Kissinger in his press conference of October 26 seemed to take satisfaction in the fact that the return of US POWs “is not conditional on the disposition of Vietnamese prisoners in Vietnamese jails.” Their future, he explained, will be determined “through negotiations among the South Vietnamese parties,” i.e., between Thieu and the PRG. So the politicals will stay in jail until Thieu agrees to let them out. This may easily coincide with the Second Coming.

This is only one of the many built-in vetoes by which Thieu can block free elections and a political settlement. The new cease-fire agreement gives him far more power than he would have had under the proposals he and Nixon made jointly in January. Under Point 3 of those proposals, there was to have been “a free and democratic presidential [my italics] election” in South Vietnam within six months. One month before the election, Thieu and his vice president were to resign. The president of the senate was to head a caretaker government which would “assume administrative responsibilities except for those pertaining to the elections” (my italics).

Administrative responsibility for the election, according to those Nixon-Thieu terms, was to be taken out of the hands of the Saigon regime and put in those of a specially created electoral commission “organized and run by an independent body representing all political forces in South Vietnam which will assume its responsibilities on the date of the agreement.”3


Finally the joint proposals of last January indicated that the electoral commission would be free from the inhibitions of the Thieu constitution, under which communist and neutralist candidates can be declared ineligible. According to those proposals, “All political forces in South Vietnam can participate in the election and present candidates.”

How much weaker is the setup under the new cease-fire agreement. There is no provision for Thieu’s resignation before the election. The existing government is no longer excluded from responsibility in holding the elections; no clear line is drawn between what the Thieu government can do and what an electoral commission will do: what happens if the latter is reduced to observing the irregularities of the former? Thieu will continue to be in control of the army and the police, and there is no way to keep him from using them to harass the opposition and herd the voters.

Instead of an electoral commission, the new agreement would set up a tripartite Council of National Reconciliation and Concord for much the same purpose; indeed this council looks like the wan remains of a proposal for a coalition government, but so whittled down and dependent on what powers Thieu consents to give it in negotiations as to make its future dubious. The council, first of all, is in danger of being a head without a body, an “administrative apparatus” with no way to administer. It requires a network of subordinate bodies throughout the country, but on this vital organizational matter the Hanoi broadcast says only that “the two South Vietnamese parties will consult about the formation of councils at lower levels.” They will have to consult a long time before Thieu agrees to the establishment of what might become a rival administration.

The Hanoi broadcast of October 26 said that the council would have two functions. The first would be “to promote the implementation of the signed agreements by the Provisional Revolutionary Government of South Vietnam [the PRG] and the Government of the Republic of South Vietnam.” But until Thieu negotiates and signs any such agreements, there will be nothing for it to implement, indeed there will be no council until he is ready to name his representatives so that it can begin to function.

The other purpose of the council, according to the Hanoi broadcast, would be “to organize the general elections.” This is all Hanoi said on the subject. But Kissinger at his press conference phrased this differently. He said its task would be “to supervise the elections on which the parties might agree.” What this means, Kissinger went on to explain, is that “the two parties in Vietnam would negotiate about the timing of the elections, the nature of the elections, and the offices for which these elections were to be held.” This description was not contradicted in the press conference which Nguyen Thanh Le, the North Vietnamese spokesman, held in Paris next day in reply to Kissinger.

Now we can see how regressive the new agreement is. Instead of elections within six months, the timing depends on negotiations with Thieu. He can delay them as long as he chooses. The key office is that of the president but the offices for which elections are to be held again depend on Thieu; under South Vietnam’s constitution he can claim that his mandate does not expire until 1976. Most important of all is Kissinger’s phrase about the need to negotiate with Thieu on “the nature of the elections.” For under this Thieu can block a new constitution.

To understand this last point fully it is useful to go back and look at the PRG statement of last February rejecting the Nixon-Thieu proposals of January. The PRG felt that free elections would be impossible unless Thieu resigned and his repressive apparatus was “dismantled.” The PRG proposed the establishment of a tripartite coalition “to organize general elections to name a constituent assembly which will write a new constitution and set up a definitive government in the South.”4

Without a new constitution free elections are impossible. Under Thieu’s constitution, as under Diem’s, communists and neutralists have been outlawed, freedom of the press severely curtailed, rule by decree instituted, thousands of oppositionists interned on trumped-up charges or none at all. To leave the nature of the elections to be determined by negotiation between Thieu and the PRG is to give him the power to block any election for a constituent assembly.

The noncommunist opposition is a stepchild of the cease-fire, as it has always been the stepchild of US policy. There are no guarantees of democratic liberties in the agreement and no provision for an independent third party in the three-tiered council. Each side will pick its own quota of “neutralists,” so one half will be beholden to Thieu and one half to Hanoi. This is a sour commentary on our long struggle to make South Vietnam “safe for democracy.”


To top it all, if the council should be set up, it can operate only by unanimous decision. Each side thus has a built-in veto as a last resort. This is a machine built for deadlock. And the deadlock would maintain Thieu in power.


If such are the terms, why does Thieu balk at them and the other side insist that we sign? The answer I believe is that the Vietnam war has been bypassed by the detente among Washington, Peking, and Moscow. Peking has been promised US troop withdrawal from Taiwan once Southeast Asia is “stabilized.” Moscow is being bailed out of the worst food crisis in years by Nixon. Hanoi’s patrons are tired of the war, and each seems somewhat miffed by the much too independent Vietnamese. In short, Nixon can pretty much write his own terms and has. Mme Binh told a visitor during the period when these latest terms were being negotiated, “Every time we take a step forward, the United States takes a step backward and the same gap remains between us.” The terms disclosed on October 26 were the outcome of a tight squeeze on Hanoi.

But Saigon feels—and Hanoi fears—that the US can exact even more favorable terms if the signing is put off and negotiations are resumed after the elections are over. It is essential to keep in mind that Nixon did not disclose the pending agreement. It was made public by Hanoi as a means of pressure, and the maneuver was cleverly turned around by Kissinger.

The disclosure from Hanoi was intended to produce headlines here that Nixon had thwarted an agreement for a cease-fire, that his broken promise to sign had set up a last minute block to a POW release. Instead, by quick and clever action the White House blanketed the country with headlines that peace was near—all except a few little details that needed to be ironed out. This was the greatest PR coup in years. It made it look as if Nixon had delivered on his promise of peace in four years when, in fact, he was again gambling with more lives and the POWs for better terms for Thieu, i.e., the “honorable”—the Korean—solution so long sought by Johnson to keep our satellite regime in power in the South.

Once the election is over—so all sides must have estimated—Nixon would be under less pressure to end the bombing, to remove the residual force, to bring the POWs home. So Hanoi gave as much as it felt it could—and more—to get a deal before the election. Nixon figured he didn’t need the October 31 signing to win the election. He took the concessions and decided to wait and ask for more. The other reason Thieu balked and Hanoi wanted these terms signed is that Thieu has little confidence in his regime and fears a US withdrawal, while Hanoi may hope that if the US really withdraws, Hanoi’s forces will ultimately force Thieu out of office and install a neutralist or coalition regime.

One cynical way to look at the provisions of the cease-fire agreement we have just been analyzing is to dismiss them as legalistic eyewash designed to keep Thieu happy while Nixon brings the POWs home and after “a decent interval” stands by and lets the other side take over. Hanoi may comfort itself with the thought that this agreement, unlike the one in 1954, leaves some 100,000 of its forces in the South, instead of regrouping them to the North, and that—on paper—the PRG is given recognition as a rival government. The nose is in the tent, and if Nixon really intends to get out of Southeast Asia, the chances of a takeover sooner or later would be good.

But this rests, in my opinion, on a serious misreading of Nixon. His main problem in maintaining Thieu in power with the threat of renewed bombing was the POWs. A protracted war, even if it ultimately “faded away,” would still leave him without a cease-fire or peace agreement, and without these he could not hope to get the prisoners back. By this agreement he gets the prisoners back and his hands are freed for further action if the cease-fire breaks down. If bombing then resumes, a new crop of US POWs may begin to turn up in Hanoi’s jails.

When Kissinger was asked at his press conference of October 26 what recourse the other side had “if the negotiations for the elections break down,” he replied cryptically, “The agreement provides that the cease-fire is without limit.” The cease-fire stays in effect even if the promise of new elections and a new regime is never fulfilled; the other side cannot take recourse in renewed war without the prospect of renewed bombing and shelling from the Seventh Fleet and our bases in Thailand and Guam.

There is, in this as in Nixon’s dealings with Moscow and Peking, a carrot as well as a stick. The carrot for Hanoi is the $2.5 billion in reconstruction aid which Nixon first suggested last January. Renewed war would mean the end of hope for that aid, and the likelihood of fresh destruction.

Kissinger’s siren song to Hanoi of “a decent interval” before Saigon falls was for the birds. There is no sign that Nixon is preparing to get out of Southeast Asia. The latest reports seeping out of the State Department on its current Cambodian and Laotian negotiations indicate that we hope to keep both Lon Nol and Souvanna Phouma under our wing; the cease-fire agreement limits neither military nor economic aid to either regime.

As for aid to Thieu, no limit is set on economic aid. Military aid will continue to be substantial under the provisions allowing replacement of “armaments, munitions and war matériel that have been worn out or damaged after the cease-fire on the basis of piece for piece of similar characteristics and properties.” What military metaphysics we shall see in that little comedy!

This is the Nixon Doctrine in action, the old Dulles dream of letting Asians fight Asians on the ground while we, the supermen, maintain the Pax Americana from the skies. A glimpse of just how extensive is our planning for ground support to Thieu was afforded in the press conference Secretary Laird held at Norfolk on October 31. Laird was asked whether “the planning for Vietnamization was based on a peace agreement that would allow 150,000 or 200,000 North Vietnamese to remain in the South?” Laird replied, “The Vietnamization planning was based upon a larger [North] Vietnam force than is presently in country at this time.”

That indicates how substantial is the volume of arms Thieu is getting before the cease-fire—and the dimension of the supplies we will keep replacing after they wear out. He is being rushed planes in such quantities that he may soon have one of the largest air forces in the world, aside from the big powers. And in the background, already becoming visible, are plans to do in South Vietnam on a large scale what we have done for so many years in Laos in violation of the agreements there. That is, the CIA “civilianization” of military advisers and technicians to keep this big military establishment—and especially its air force—going.

Nixon, I think, would feel like a fool to pay so high a price to Moscow and Peking in trade and political favors and then let South Vietnam go down the drain. There is no reason to believe that he has any intention whatsoever of doing so. On the contrary the chances are that he will now use the threat of heavier bombing to exact new concessions, mainly the removal of a sizable number of North Vietnamese troops as the price of a cease-fire agreement.

The POWs may have to wait. The pending cease-fire, if signed, seems almost bound to breed recriminations and outbreaks of fighting. The experiment of a cease-fire “in place” in a guerrilla war promises to be bloody and destabilizing. What is shaping up threatens years of US involvement. This is neither disengagement for us nor peace for the people of Southeast Asia. It is a continuation of the same effort which began more than a quarter century ago under the French to stifle by force a political struggle for independence. We are imposing a new period of foreign-supported dictatorship on South Vietnam in the name of “self-determination.” We enter a new period of blatant contradiction between the ideals our government invokes and the ugly realities it imposes. This contradiction will mean more suffering in Southeast Asia and more alienation here. And this is what Kissinger advertises as “an act of healing rather than a source of new division.”

November 6

This Issue

November 30, 1972