Vietnam: After the Debacle

Whether or not Saigon during the coming weeks comes under siege by the PRG guerrillas and their North Vietnamese allies—or whether Thieu attempts to “put it back together again,” as General Weyand predicts—what is now in question is no longer the victory of the revolutionaries in Indochina, but the way they will deal with it.

It is a victory whose size and suddenness have taken the revolutionaries themselves by surprise. Clearly their attacks at the end of January at Phuoc Binh, in the north of old Cochin China, and then, on March 5, in the central highlands, were not part of a “major offensive,” as in February 1968 and April 1972. Their political and military strategy was rather to inflict humiliating defeats on Thieu, shaking his power; and to assure themselves the strongest possible bases from which to launch what they thought would be the decisive operations during the next dry season, starting in October 1975. Such, from all we know, were the plans of General Giap and General Trung.

Early in March, however, Thieu believed that his power was menaced by a putsch of disloyal officers. To save his regime, he suddenly and furtively decided he would have to withdraw to the south his best division—the First Airborne Division stationed around Hue—and then a brigade of rangers. This was the decision that put the garrisons charged with the defense of the northern provinces in a state of anguish and then panic and flight, and cracked apart the deeply militarized society of South Vietnam, where any collapse of troops can unleash a cascade of rumors.

Attempting in effect to barricade himself in the southern part of the South, the general-president opened a moral breach through which poured an avalanche of fear, followed by the forces of the maquis and the North Vietnamese, who literally were sucked into a military vacuum, capturing the strategic prizes they had dreamed of for thirty years: Da Nang, Qui Nhon, Camranh, Phan Thiet. These places contained among them much of the power and riches of South Vietnam, along with immense reserves of American arms, including thousands of artillery pieces, 300 planes, 200 helicopters. All were taken, without serious fighting, by about 200,000 troops.

Why, as this vacuum has been filled, has the dreadful and pathetic movement of refugees of the past few weeks taken place? It is a question that has not been fully confronted or explained, and one that is of greatest concern to the leaders of the revolutionary armies themselves. About one fifth of the inhabitants of the provinces that have come under PRG control—some 1.5 million refugees—have fled south. It is understandable that, among these, the urban bourgeoisie of Hue and Da Nang would want to escape from an administration that sooner or later will be hostile to them, however prudent it may at first be for tactical reasons. But what about the large numbers of villagers who are in flight? What do they have to lose? And don’t they stand…

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