Outside the home of Mrs. Ngo Ba Thanh, behind the now near-empty Hotel Continentale, half a dozen motorcycle policemen sprawl across their machines. Mrs. Thanh is an indomitable proponent of the “Third Force” solution to Vietnam’s problems and periodically one of those political prisoners of President Thieu whose existence the State Department blandly denies.1 She now seems more determined and enthusiastic than ever. “The core of the problem in Vietnam,” she told me, “is the GVN’s suppression of the Third Force.”
That is wishful thinking, but listening to her, and, indeed, to many other Vietnamese and foreigners who talk of a “Third Force” in a Saigon once more free of American uniforms, one is always aware that the earnest plainclothes employees of Nixon and Kissinger, led by Ambassador Graham Martin, are audibly contemptuous of the idea of any political change whatever.
On March 22 the PRG proposed a six-point peace plan. It included: an end to the fighting; the return of all prisoners; guarantees of all democratic liberties; the formation of the National Council of National Conciliation and Concord with participation of the Third Force component; free elections; and a “solution” to the problem of the armed forces. It was immediately rejected by the GVN. On April 14 Thieu declared that “those who pretend to be members of the Third Force [are] traitors and lackeys of North Vietnam.” The GVN then proposed its own four-point peace plan which included the withdrawal of North Vietnamese troops from South Vietnam. It too was not accepted.
The report of the Senate Refugee Subcommittee is based on a visit made to all four countries of Indochina in the spring of 1973, and on hearings held last August in Washington. It is intended, says the chairman of the subcommittee, Senator Kennedy, to show that America’s continuing obligations to Indochina “are less to the governments than to the people—to the millions of war victims and others disadvantaged….”
The World Bank’s report was written after several of its staff visited Saigon in November, 1973. It is supposed to help members of the Bank to determine whether they might make good profits by investing in South Vietnam. The Vietnamese ministry of finance’s short document was written in the fall of 1973 and is a plug for the glorious future of the republic under the rule of President Thieu. So are all of Ambassador Martin’s declarations, threats, and inprecations. US and Indochina is a monthly critical analysis of current US policies; Indochina Today is a collection of the latest articles from the world press which provides invaluable source and reference material. Both are published by what Mr. Martin would call a “remnant” of the peace movement and both are threatened with financial extinction.
In the foreword to his committee’s report Kennedy suggests, perhaps a trifle hopefully, that the January, 1973, cease-fire agreements gave the United States the opportunity “to reorder our priorities in Indochina—to change the character of our involvement, to embark on new policies and to practice some lessons from the failures and frustrations of the past.”2 That opportunity has, of course, not been taken because to the Administration it was an irrelevant by-product of an agreement whose primary purpose was the extrication of uniformed Americans from both sides of the DMZ. US policy has not changed in the slightest since President Nixon declared, four days before the pact was signed, that the GVN was “the sole legitimate government of South Vietnam.”
Since then, all of President Thieu’s efforts to improve his position over the communists have been given at least tacit US approval, whether or not they contravened provisions of a document which has long since served its purpose. From Ambassador Martin, an entirely appropriate choice as the Nixon-Kissinger envoy to Saigon, the approval has been not tacit but boisterously loud. He believes that North Vietnam is committed “to bring the people of South Vietnam under a regime so totalitarian that, in comparison, Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago describes a moderate and liberal regime.”3 It is therefore entirely understandable that he should seize every opportunity to denounce as members of “Hanoi’s well-orchestrated chorus” those who, like Kennedy and his staff, wonder whether the interests of the Vietnamese are identical to those of President Thieu.
Washington’s attitude is perhaps best illustrated by an exchange among Kissinger, Kennedy, and Martin. On March 13 Kennedy sent Kissinger a series of questions about current US policy toward Indochina. On March 21 Martin cabled the State Department, advising, “It would be the height of folly to permit Kennedy, whose staff will spearhead this effort, the tactical advantage of an honest and detailed answer to the questions of substance raised in his letter.” A week later a copy of Martin’s cable was slipped under the door of the Refugee Subcommittee’s office in the Old Senate Office Building, and, on April 2, Kennedy read it into the Congressional Record, along with his own questions about what country Mr. Martin was supposed to represent.
Kennedy also commended “Secretary Kissinger…for not following the Ambassador’s advice that a member of the Senate should not be given honest answers to questions of substance in a significant area of public policy and concern.” He was being overgenerous, for it is hard to see any way in which Kissinger’s replies, sent to Kennedy on March 25, could be called honest.4
“Our objective in Vietnam,” Kissinger replied, “continues to be to help strengthen the conditions which made possible the Paris Agreement.” But the most important of those conditions no longer exists. Hanoi no longer holds American hostages; there is no longer any visible American troop presence in South Vietnam; there is little or no public concern about the country’s future in America. Neither Dr. Kissinger nor Mr. Nixon has much need (or, indeed, time) to try to force either side to make any further paper concessions. Chou En-lai recently told both Zambian President Kaunda and Algerian President Boumédienne that he was disappointed by Kissinger’s failure to try to end the war in either Vietnam or Cambodia; he should not, however, have been surprised.
The cease-fire agreement which Kissinger negotiated eighteen months ago sanctioned the presence of North Vietnamese troops over large parts of South Vietnam. Now, however, Kissinger, with what one can only call remarkable logic, declares, “The presence of large numbers of North Vietnamese troops in the South demonstrates that the military threat from Hanoi is still very much in existence.” What was fifteen months ago integral to the settlement by which the US regained its POWs has now become an excuse for America’s continuing to pour the matériel of war into Vietnam. Kennedy remarks that Kissinger has merely devised “a new rationalization for our continued heavy involvement in Indochina.”5
Kissinger explains that Administration policy toward Indochina is based on the premises first that “a secure peace” there is an important part of Nixon’s search for “a worldwide structure of peace,” and second that “forcible conquest” of the South by the North would provide only a temporary solution and would also have “serious destabilizing effects which are not limited to the area under immediate threat.” He neglects to explain:
(a) How an agreement which allowed two irredeemably hostile armies both to occupy and to re-arm in the country over which they were fighting could ever lead to a “secure peace”;
(b) Why the “forcible conquest” of South Vietnam by the PRG and the North Vietnamese would provide only a “temporary” solution (would it perhaps bring back the B-52s—months to a flaming Saigon?);
(c) Why a temporary solution should be worse than no solution at all, which is what he is proposing;
(d) Why a communist victory in Vietnam and/or Cambodia would cause serious instability outside Indochina. How often was the subject raised in his negotiations in the Middle East?
Instead, Kissinger claims in extenuation of US policies that “the level of violence is markedly less than it was prior to the cease-fire.” But how markedly? Neither side has yet launched an all-out offensive but during the past sixteen months each has tried continually to increase its holdings of land and people, at the cost of the lives of many thousands of those people. The leopard may be, over all, not much blacker or whiter than it was in January, 1973, but many of its spots have changed and a lot of them are bloodied.
The only casualty figures we now have are those provided by the ARVN and they are not always reliable. But we know from the Refugee Subcommittee’s report that the first year of peace with honor produced enough violence to create 818,700 new refugees in Vietnam.6 This figure is certainly lower than that created by the communists’ spring 1972 offensive (1,320,000) but it is far higher than in any other year since 1968. Before the cease-fire the fighting created an average of 636,375 refugees every year between 1965 and 1973 (excluding “temporary dislocations” in 1968 and 1972).7 Last year’s total of 818,700 does little to justify Kissinger’s self-satisfaction.
During 1973, 43,166 civilian “warrelated casualties” were admitted to GVN hospitals. This means 3,597 a month—down from 4,228 a month in 1971 and 4,491 a month in 1972. Kennedy’s staff points out, “When the 1973 toll of wounded and killed civilians (85,000 by subcommittee estimates) is added to the official statistics on military casualties for 1973, it becomes tragically clear just how violent the cease-fire war has been.”8 Twelve months after the cease-fire was signed, an average of 141 people were being killed every day; by now well over 70,000 Vietnamese have died since January, 1973.
“The Vietnamese have, in short, suffered more in one year of peace with honor than America experienced during a decade of war,” the subcommittee staff reports.9 John Paul Vann, |the legendary US adviser, was not voicing just a personal opinion when, in April, 1972, he explained Vietnamization to reporters in Kontum by declaring, “You and I regard human life as of some value. That’s the difficulty for Western nations fighting Oriental countries. One American life means a lot in America but the North Vietnamese can lose twenty people without worrying. Fortunately standards here are changing as this becomes largely an Oriental ground war.”
But it is American standards that have changed. The Refugee Subcommittee’s report shows clearly that while Nixon and Kissinger were managing to Vietnamize the killing and the wounding, official American concern for the casualties of war just faded away. For example, there are—according to the subcommittee’s estimates—between 300 and 600 million pounds of explosives still littering the villages, fields, and forests of Vietnam. “Mines and unexploded ordnance are today among the principal causes of civilian casualty admissions to South Vietnamese hospitals,” according to the subcommittee report. Yet last August, USAID officials admitted that the US was doing absolutely nothing to help clear them. The excuse given was that “no US assistance has been requested by the Government of Vietnam.”10 No such request was necessary, for article five of the second protocol of the cease-fire agreement states that
within fifteen days after the ceasefire comes into effect each Party shall do its utmost to complete the removal or deactivation of all demolition objects, minefields, traps, obstacles, or other dangerous objects placed previously, so as not to hamper the population’s movement and work, in the first place on waterways, roads and railroads in South Vietnam.
This has not been done.
As American casualties have fallen, so has USAID’s contribution to South Vietnam’s public health system. In fiscal 1968 the US gave $27.6 million to public health in Vietnam. In fiscal 1974 it gave $5.5 million. This decline is rather sharper than that in most other USAID programs. In fiscal 1974, 76 percent of all US aid to Vietnam was military. One half of one percent was for public health. For fiscal 1975 Nixon has requested, in all, $2.51 billion for South Vietnam. Of this, $1.6 billion is for military programs, and $911 million is split between “economic assistance,” “reconstruction and development,” and humanitarian assistance. Humanitarian assistance, at $136 million, makes up 5.4 percent of the total.
In his painstaking and revealing article in Foreign Policy analyzing Kissinger’s duplicities in negotiating the January, 1973, cease-fire (an analysis which has increased GVN distaste for Kissinger), Tad Szulc points out that much the same sort of settlement could probably have been reached three years before. “Other than the effort at Vietnamization, therefore, there is no satisfactory reason for Kissinger to have refused to recognize reality for three years.” 11 But the relative success of Vietnamization provides a more than adequate reason; it bought the “decent interval” that Kissinger was demanding for Nixon’s honor. The war continues now in part because of the US military aid which fuels it; but even Washington’s generosity would not have been able to sustain the hopeless army Thieu had in 1970.
One reality Kissinger still refuses to recognize, however, is that South Vietnam cannot both run this war and control its economy. There are many in Saigon now who consider that if Thieu is destroyed the reason is just as likely to be economic and social collapse as military defeat.
The South Vietnamese economy is suffering as a result of the enormous rise in world commodity prices (the GVN imports 60 percent of all commodities consumed), the US troop withdrawal, and especially the economic and human costs of the continuing war. South Vietnam has a population of 19.3 million, a work force of about 7.2 million. At the moment 1.1 million men, 15 percent of the work force, are in the armed services, and another 4 percent in the civil service. According to the GVN’s minister for social affairs, the respected Dr. Phan Quang Dan, another 3.5 million people, or 49 percent of the work force, are unemployed.12 So even before you take into account the 150,000 who are still officially listed in refugee camps or temporary resettlement sites, 68 percent of the work force is not engaged in any productive work at all.
In 1973 prices in South Vietnam rose by an average of 65 percent, so far this year by another 22 percent. In the last twelve months chicken has gone up by 60 percent, fish by 40 percent, nuoc mam, the Vietnamese fish sauce, by 43 percent, and most important of all, rice by 95 percent. Last year the Government gave soldiers and civil servants an average pay rise of 17 percent. It wasn’t much help to them and none at all to the millions of those—ranging from bar girls to Honda salesmen—who were inducted into service industries that supported the Americans while they occupied the country, and who now have no work, no land, no food at all.
To a visitor, Saigon without American troops and without the constant jam of Hondas is far more beautiful now than it has been in years. To most residents, their departure is an economic disaster. Relief officials throughout the country report that villagers and refugees are turning from rice to cassava, from cassava to other roots. On the night in April that Nixon took to the television screens to point out that even ten angels swearing he was right about Watergate would make no difference, Vo Van Nam, an unemployed one-time Saigon cyclo driver, set himself on fire in the square by the cathedral. He was in despair that he could ever feed his family again.
Thieu’s ministry of finance, in its bid for foreign investment, tries to make the best of the rampant unemployment by declaring,
An abundant supply of industrious and low-cost labor is one of the great attractions for investment in Vietnam. The Vietnamese armed forces currently number about 1.1 million men. As this force is gradually reduced, consistent with progress in establishing a general peace in Indochina, the demobilized soldiers will add to the pool of disciplined and technically trained labor. Likewise the millions of refugees, though now viewed as a “problem,” will, in time, contribute to the enlargement of Vietnam’s inexpensive, often skilled and industrious labor supply.
Unfortunately for the ministry there is little sign either that Thieu considers he can much reduce the size of his military machine or that a general peace in Indochina is about to be established. And unless both those things happen, Vietnam’s economy will remain unproductive, inflationary, and in decline. Graham Martin’s continual declarations that after just two more years of substantial US aid Vietnam’s economy will begin to have a Korea-Taiwan type boom13 are rubbish.
Martin, who is fond of pointing out that he is the son of a clergyman and that his wife describes him as a “completely honest man,”14 has frequently maintained in his campaign for US aid that it is essential to offset Sino-Soviet help to Hanoi.15 In fact representative Les Aspin has now managed to extract from the Defense Intelligence Agency (was he given the figures in order to undermine Kissinger?) the admission that the United States spent twenty-nine times more on arms to Vietnam between 1966 and 1973 than the Russians and the Chinese.16 Economic aid showed similar disparities. The Soviet and Chinese contributions, even at their highest before 1969 and in 1972, do not show nearly such a commitment to the political future of Vietnam as Washington has always claimed. And still the villagers under PRG control can, it seems, get enough to eat; an increasing number of those under the GVN cannot.
As the World Bank report shows, Saigon’s allies will have to continue investing at least $700 million a year, at current prices, in its economy until beyond 1980 if the social structure of South Vietnam is not to collapse totally under the weight of the war. And even that generosity will only slow the rate of decline. It will not halt it, let alone produce the gentlest of booms. In fact the World Bank’s report is rather more optimistic than the Bank officials one talks to in Washington now profess themselves to be. It is, nonetheless, almost as depressing as Air Vietnam’s latest travel brochure which touts an “Enchantment Holiday Tour,” at $162 per person, of “the battlefields of Quang Tri via the Highway of Horrors” from Hue.
In Washington itself Bank officials now admit they see no chance of peace while Thieu remains. So long as he does, Saigon will get no Bank loans. Unless the consortium of companies now drilling for offshore oil strike very lucky, aid from outside the US and commercial investment are likely to trickle in no faster than they do right now. In 1973 $22.6 million was invested in Vietnam. In fiscal 1975 the GVN will need to spend at least $600 million on fuel, fertilizer, and rice imports alone. It can be provided only by the United States. Which is why Ambassador Martin is working so hard to counter what he calls “Hanoi’s marvelously clever, ingeniously sophisticated and frighteningly pervasive propaganda campaign to force the American Congress to immediately and drastically reduce American aid.”17
So far he seems to be doing reasonably well. On May 6, it is true, the Senate approved by 43-38 a Kennedy amendment to prevent further US military commitments to Indochina during fiscal 1974. With eleven Republicans voting for the measure and Goldwater already having suggested “We can scratch Vietnam,” the fiscal 1975 requests seemed to be headed for trouble. But on May 22, the House voted $1.126 billion in military aid (only about $500 million less than Nixon had requested). On June 11, Kennedy failed by one vote in the Senate to cut the Armed Service Committee’s recommendation of $900 million to $750 million. (Seven “liberals” were out of town.) So the worst cut in military aid Saigon is likely to have to face in fiscal 1975 is about $100 million from last year’s figure, unless Kennedy succeeds in his new plan to cut the appropriation to $600 million. This would force the Pentagon to make up the difference from other military aid funds.
The Administration’s request for economic aid ($750 million) will probably not come out of committee until sometime in July. Kennedy will try to reduce it to about $400 million, which would be very serious for the GVN. The consensus among GVN and US officials in Saigon is that Thieu needs about $1.5 billion over fiscal 1975-1976 just to slow the rate of decline.
If no substantial cut is made, the GVN will probably be able to limp through next year’s war, the standard of living of the people declining fast and inexorably, malnutrition figures rising, war casualties at least as high as now. Large-scale cuts in economic assistance, however, could cause a collapse of the straining economy. Critical food shortages could lead to a high rate of desertion from the ARVN and eventually to the “forcible conquest” by the communists that Kissinger has been warning us about. Or they might precipitate a Saigon putsch in which Thieu was replaced by a leadership willing to enter serious political negotiations with the “Third Force” and the PRG.
Equally, Thieu, who is more skilled than most in the art of survival, might himself realize that in order to stave off total collapse he must cut back his army, getting some of his troops into rice production, and that a political settlement is now far more urgent than before.
It could be, as the GVN claims, that the PRG is insincere in the reasonable sounding peace suggestions it has made. But insincerity, as Szulc’s article on Kissinger shows, is not necessarily incompatible with successful negotiations. Perhaps congressmen will now actually read that article along with Kissinger’s own quicksilver rationalizations for the continued bloodshed, the State Department’s illogical, if not devious, replies to Kennedy,18 and Martin’s frantic hyperbole. If they did, they just might finally decide to try to find an alternative to Kissinger’s continued brutalizing of Vietnam. For the logic of Kissinger’s and Martin’s demands requires Congress to ensure that for yet another fiscal year tens of thousands of Vietnamese be sacrificed on the altar of Nixon’s honor.
July 18, 1974
In a letter to Kennedy of May 17, the State Department announced that it “cannot agree with the assertion that ‘the record is clear that political prisoners exist in South Vietnam.’ ” It was, said the department, all a problem of definition. No one disagrees with that. Most people, however, consider President Thieu’s definition rather broad. ↩
Preface to the Report of the Senate Refugee Subcommittee, p. vii. ↩
Letter to the Reverend George W. Webber, President of the New York Theological Seminary, published in American Report, April 15, 1974. ↩
For texts of Kennedy and Kissinger letters see Congressional Record, April 1, 1974. ↩
Kennedy press release, April 1, 1974. ↩
Report of the Senate Refugee Subcommittee, pp. 6-10. ↩
See Table I, Report of the Senate Refugee Subcommittee, p. 6. The official USAID/GVN figures for new refugees are: 1965—772,000; 1966—906,000; 1967—463,000; 1968—494,000; 1969—590,000; 1970—129,000; 1971—136,000; 1972—1,320,000; 1973—818,000. ↩
Report of the Senate Refugee Subcommittee, p. 10. ↩
Ibid, p. 10. ↩
Ibid, p. 23. ↩
Tad Szulc, Foreign Policy, Summer, 1974, p. 68. ↩
Interview on BBC, April 6. See Indochina Today, April, 1974. ↩
See, for example, The Washington Post, March 15, 1974; US News and World Report, April 29, 1974. ↩
US News and World Report, April 29. Mr. Martin sometimes in fact exhibits a somewhat quixotic attitude toward truth. In his denunciation of David Shipler’s analysis of the continued US presence in Vietnam (The New York Times, February 25, 1974), he declared, “According to the Kennedy committee 10 million have voted with their feet, preferring to accept refugee status rather than live under NVA/VC control.” This is not true. The Refugee Subcommittee report details the number of refugees created by the fighting each year—amounting to a total of 10,469,000 between 1965 and December, 1973—but nowhere suggests that they were more concerned to avoid communist control than American bombs. ↩
See, for example, Congressional Record, April 4, 1974, E2116 ff. ↩
Aspin press release, June 3, 1974. ↩
US News and World Report, April 29, 1974. ↩
For example, in its letter to Kennedy of May 17, the State Department opposed larger US contributions to such international aid bodies as the ICRC. Its argument was that “a larger USG donation to the total planned would almost certainly reduce the pressure on the ICRC to successfully pursue donations from other potential donors, thus diluting the international character of the ICRC program.” ↩