South Vietnam

THIS is the time of year in South Vietnam when Communist military forces emerge from their monsoon hibernation. The wet season by tradition and by circumstance is devoted to recruiting, retraining, and regrouping. There are also tasks to be performed in the rice and vegetable fields, and, in any event, the tracks through the jungle and swamp are too difficult for the rapid and secret movement which the Communist type of military operation demands.

The Vietnamese armed forces face the tests that lie ahead with reasonable confidence, far more confidence than seemed likely a year ago. With an investment of some 10,000 instructors and a contribution which still falls short of the aid program for the ill-fated French Expeditionary Corps in 1953-1954. the United States has helped in recent months to fill many of the military needs. The large-scale use of helicopters for surprise and follow-up operations and new, fast-moving amphibious troop carriers which skate over the surface of the rice fields has turned the tables on the Viet Cong guerrillas in the open delta areas. They are still much more than a nuisance there, but they can no longer afford to take the risk in open country of concentrating the large forces they need for the heavy and swift attack that is characteristic of their mobile war.

Building up the resistance

Though some Vietnamese officers remain resentful of American advice and accept only reluctantly, if at all, the American concept of long-range aggressive patrolling, results and relations have been excellent with the paramilitary forces — the Civil Guard and the Self-Defense Corps (the home guards). Both used to operate on a shoestring. They received neither American arms nor training. Their pay was 20 percent lower than that of the Vietnamese Army, and, worst of all, the army would not treat their wounded.

In their wretched little mud and bamboo forts scattered at road and railway bridges and other strategic points around the countryside, the Civil Guard lived with their families in lonely isolation from the rest of the community. Because they were a softer target and more vulnerable, they and the Self-Defense Corps took the main weight of Viet Cong attacks. They suffered accordingly. Though their combined strength was lower than that of the army, they lost sixteen hundred of the two thousand men killed in action on the government side during the first six months of 1962.

Against these forces the Viet Cong used a twopronged approach. Those who were prepared to surrender their weapons, it either recruited or reprieved. Those who stood and fought, it marked down to die. It was hard to blame either the men in the forts or the village guards when they hoisted the white flag. Their rifles were sometimes forty or fifty years old. Ammunition was scarce and faulty. Lacking radios and telephones, they had no means of calling for help when attacked.

Though the Viet Cong is still capturing twice as many weapons as it loses, the paramilitary forces are beginning to get the means and the will to fight back. At one time most Viet Cong village intrusions were not resisted. Now there is real resistance. In the High Plateau, where the Vietnamese government under firm American pressure has begun to battle seriously for the friendship and loyalty of 700,000 primitive montagnard tribesmen who live in the largely unexplored jungle fastness of the Annamese chain, the Viet Cong has turned in anger against the people whose interests it once professed to champion. More than two thirds of the montagnards still live with the Viet Cong, but the flow into areas where they can be given some government protection and the means to defend themselves is steadily increasing.

In one village in Kontum province the montagnards even used their crossbows to fight off Viet Cong attackers who were equipped with submachine guns. Some villagers living in areas so heavily infested with the Viet Cong that companysized escorts are needed to maintain their military supplies are beginning to build up resistance. Not only the Self-Defense Corps, who are paid to do the job, but all the villagers join in the fight.

Here, at the very grass roots of the problem, American influence and aid have had returns out of all proportion to the cost of the investment. American teams, usually consisting of an officer and two sergeants, have gone into villages where their presence was the only deterrent to a Viet Cong attack. With their own safety dependent on the loyalty of the men they were teaching, they started a chain reaction of resistance.

In villages which for years have been in the twilight zone of both Viet Cong and government control, initial public response to the appearance of the American teams is studied indifference. The breakthrough almost invariably comes from the children, who find it more difficult than their elders to restrain their curiosity. Candy, jeep rides, and a few words in English and Vietnamese do the trick. Before long the American finds himself trailed by laughing children and exchanging friendly smiles with parents.

In a war where victory, if it is ever won in the field, will go to the side that commands the friendship of the people, this is an object lesson in the value of security. So is the progress of the clear-and-hold operations. They are designed to push the Viet Cong out of the lowlands and deeper into its remote bases in the swamps, jungles, and mountains. This is radically different from early pacification campaigns. Instead of relying solely on the negative use of military force, there is at last some understanding that the army should be used only in support of the civil administration.

Pushing back the Viet Cong

After a fairly grim start with Operation Sunrise on the fringes of a main Viet Cong base north of Saigon, the clear-and-hold operation was extended at the beginning of the wet season to the coastal province of Phu Yen in central southern Vietnam. Before the operation began, the provincial chief lived on the beach in what was almost a fortress. Beyond it his authority was immediately challenged. The Viet Cong came at will into Tuy Hoa, the provincial capital. Now the Viet Cong is back in the hills. Its capability to cause real trouble has not been destroyed, but it has lost a firm political base among the mass of the people.

This is not to suggest that the administration of President Ngo Dinh Diem has suddenly achieved popularity. It has not. “I think we must face it,” said one of President Diem’s earliest, and for a long time most faithful, followers. “This regime is too old to win friends. It cannot hope for more than accomplices.”

Government insecurity

The principal agencies of government are at odds among themselves. Army leaders loyal to Diem watch those who are thought to be too close to his ambitious brother and political counselor, Ngo Dinh Nhu. Potential coup leaders are kept far from Saigon. Everywhere there is an atmosphere of suspicion and doubt. Security arrangements in Saigon are so tight that a coup d’état by senior army officers is probably next to impossible; but there is open and continuing speculation about the possibility of a coup from the dissatisfied middle ranks of the officer corps. Even among the Catholics, who once seemed to form a solid front behind Diem, there are divisive influences at work.

An undue proportion of Diem’s effort is therefore directed toward his own survival rather than toward the defeat of the Viet Cong. His appointment of handpicked military officers as provincial chiefs is merely the exercise of control through de facto warlords and serves primarily as a check on actual or imagined army disloyalties to himself.

Since the provincial chief is responsible for the defense of his province and has tactical control of troops stationed there, the regular army commanders tend to become frozen out while the President retains his personal links and personal control of all but the biggest counter-insurgence operations. Even then he cannot always resist the temptation to intervene. One major operation in Quang Ngai province, where the Viet Cong threat is most acute, was called off by the President against the advice of his corps commander.

The Cabinet meets rarely and then only when Diem calls a half dozen ministers together to be lectured. The French left very little in the way of a civil service, and Diem bypasses what there is. Preoccupied with trivia, with abstract political philosophies, with survival, and with the conduct of the war, he has had little time for the tedious business of creating an effective system of government. “The fundamental fact about Vietnam, which is not generally well understood, is that historically our political system has been based not on the concept of the management of the public affairs by the people or their representatives but by an enlightened sovereign and an enlightened government,” says his official biography.

In rigid application of this theory that Father knows best, Diem will neither countenance opposition nor broaden the government’s base. His standards are inflexible to the point of his accusing those who served under the French of lacking in patriotic sense. This view lends some validity to the Viet Cong propaganda that Diem represents a clique rather than a government.

Strategic hamlets

In his efforts to create a mass base of popular support which will serve as a counter to the army and bypass the intellectuals, Diem’s principal ideological efforts are directed at the peasantry. The idea of separating them from the Viet Cong by building fortified “strategic hamlets” was not original, but it was sound and, thanks to the rapidly improved standards in the Civil Guard and Self-Defense Corps, is producing some excellent results.

A major weakness in the scheme, however, is the bull-at-the-gate manner in which it has been applied. This is of much concern to those who wanted to proceed on an orderly basis, starting with the areas controlled by Diem and progressing through the twilight zones into the zones dominated by the Viet Cong.

Instead, the Vietnamese government has gone into mass production. Strategic hamlets must be everywhere. even in regions where they can neither be defended nor seriously hope to defend themselves. Built with negligible government aid by corvée labor, most are unlikely to inspire the peasants to think that their well-being is a matter of concern to the government.

While the hamlets often do provide more security, they are also used as a means of control. They facilitate the gathering of taxes, the keeping of dossiers, the squeezing of those whose loyalties are suspect, and the distribution of patronage to those who collaborate. Controls are necessary and even acceptable when their application is limited to the requirements of security. But regimentation for regimentation’s sake and controls for the sake of control win few hearts and minds. Especially in areas where the Viet Cong underground apparatus is maintained intact, the hamlets are likely to pave the way for a takeover by an opposition whose methods are not readily distinguishable from the government’s but whose propaganda may well have a greater appeal to the people.

Target: the minds of the peasants

Instead of the difference between the rival administrations being unmistakable to the peasant and patently to the Communists’ disadvantage, the unsophisticated find it difficult to discriminate between the two groups.

The Viet Cong conceived the idea of a “combat village” surrounded by booby-trapped ditches and fences. Diem borrowed the idea for strategic hamlets. Communists use their combat villages as the basis for political control. The peasants are organized into cells and front groups. lectured and indoctrinated. Diem hammers his personalism into rival cells and front groups. Marxism calls for social revolution. Personalism also calls for social revolution. The Communists refer to their officials as cadres. Diem uses the same term. And so it goes on. The choice is not between regimentation and freedom but between regimentation and regimentation.

The usual picture of the Viet Cong soldier as a brutal terrorist who will commit the most hideous crimes in pursuit of his goal is accurate enough as far as it goes. But the average Vietnamese is probably troubled less by the Viet Cong than he is by the government.

Though the Viet Cong errs often enough, it uses terror for specific purposes and usually is far from indiscriminate. At wayside checkpoints where Vietnamese civilians are stopped and required to show identification papers, the Viet Cong molests only those on its wanted lists. The others, after an hour or so of indoctrination and propaganda, are allowed to go on their way.

Peace propaganda

The Viet Cong propaganda is not overtly Communist. It is anti-Diem, anti-American, and in favor of peace and neutrality. The idea of peace strikes a responsive chord among many who, after more than twenty years of war, yearn only for stability. No one can do more than guess how many people would cast their lot in favor of peace at almost any price if they got the chance. That agents manage to distribute such propaganda in Saigon despite the security controls suggests that their numbers are appreciable.

In pursuit of his goal Diem labors under the handicap that nothing less than the total destruction of the Viet Cong will suffice. The Viet Cong’s task is much lighter. It has no cities, towns, roads, railways, or bridges to maintain and no need to expose isolated garrisons to attack. Since its tactic is to fight only when it thinks it can win and to run away when it cannot, the prospect of Diem’s ever engaging it in decisive battle is remote.

Almost inevitably, therefore, the victories that make the headlines, the captured posts and major ambushes, will be Viet Cong victories. With the strength it has now, it will not need to make a very great effort to keep such a war simmering while it steps up its campaign for “peace.” Its aim is not a military march on Saigon but a political march on Geneva. And as a senior American official in Saigon puts it, “We are committed to helping these people win the war. But if they prefer peace to victory, what on earth can we do?”