South Vietnam

SOUTH from the twin city of Saigon-Cholon, Route 4 runs like a ribbon of asphalt through the rice and vegetable lands of the Mekong delta. It is the trunk road south from the capital to the granary of South Vietnam with its eight million to nine million peasant farmers. For the first few miles billboards by the roadside advertise cigarettes, liquor, clothing, and automobiles.

On either side the peasants in their black homespun pajamas and conical straw hats work through the daylight hours in the bordering fields. Small boys ride back and forth on gray and lumberingwater buffalo and splash with joy in the mud. A heron stands poised daintily on one leg. The effect, in short, is of peace. Only the palisades of sharpened bamboo and the barbed wire which girdle the wayside villages give so much as a hint that the peace is less complete than it seems.

Yet along this road, close to the compound of the Joint General Staff and the Advisory Group headquarters, with its squads of American brass, the Communist Viet Gong hold almost undisputed sway. They make no effort to halt the daytime commerce that flows along Route 4; for Communists and anti-Communists alike, the marketplaces of Saigon and the godowns of Cholon meet a common need. But by night beyond the cities and main towns nothing is safe. The Viet Cong take over. South Vietnam is theirs.

Spotted through the delta at strategic points are concentrations of regular government forces, Civil Guards, and Self-Defense Corps units. The villages and hamlets have, in principle, a firstline defense of Combat Youth. Their task is to return fire when they are attacked and to radio for help. But so often in the past have their appeals gone unheeded that fire today is seldom returned by the Viet Cong. They have torn down the fences around the strategic hamlets, disbanded government councils and set up their own. There are few villages into which the Viet Cong do not dare to go. In many more than half, no government official is ever seen. When government troops do come in force to defend a village, they often plunder and loot—and swell the number of Viet Cong sympathizers.

This is the background against which the coups of recent months must be evaluated. South Vietnam is not in its death throes. A decade ago the Viet Minh delivered a coup de grace to the French at Dienbienphu. Today, pitted against helicopters and amphibious troop carriers, their Viet Cong successors cannot concentrate in sufficient strength to wipe out the elite Vietnamese battle corps at a single throw. Yet their tactics are perhaps more skillful and better coordinated.

Simultaneous attacks against widespread targets leave the Vietnamese generals floundering. They commit their air support and reserves only to find that these are needed more urgently elsewhere. “The Communists are the fish and the peasants the ocean in which they swim,” Mao Tse-tung once laid down in guides to revolutionary war. The Viet Cong follow his instructions faithfully.

War by attrition

In the days following the coup d’etat of January 30, when General Nguyen Khanh was busy trying to form a civil government, a Viet Cong force of five hundred men approached a group of strategic hamlets not far from the Cambodian border. The peasant population of the hamlets was about four thousand. After knocking out one of the two Self-Defense Corps posts and isolating the second, the Viet Cong dug in behind the deep moat surrounding the hamlets and invited the government forces to come and fight.

All day long they fought off attacks by forces of at least equivalent size, withdrawing at nightfall from the blazing villages set alight by napalm canisters dropped by the air force. Villagers saw the Viet Cong carry off two cartloads of their own dead. But in the wreckage of the hamlets there were at least two hundred charred peasant bodies. Next time, an American predicted, there would be no call for help from these villages, or from any others nearby in the western regions of the Mekong delta.

The strategic-hamlet program, around which the design for fighting the Viet Cong was built, has collapsed. Two years ago. when the Vietnamese and their U.S. advisers decided to adapt the “new village” concept which had won victory in Malaya over the Communist insurgents there, Ngo Dinh Nhu, the late President Diem’s brother, took personal command. The British advice, which the Americans accepted, was to start in “white,” or relatively Communist-free, areas and to work out progressively into regions more heavily under Communist control. Nhu argued that the Vietnamese did not have enough time to make such a conservative approach. Instead he informed all province chiefs that their hamlets had to be made “strategic” as soon as possible.

Officials won praise and promotion by the number of hamlets they claimed to have fenced in. Little attention was paid to security, and almost none to the welfare of the inhabitants of the hamlets. Peasants living in isolated areas or along the wooded serpentine canals in the delta were uprooted, sometimes at bayonet point, and relocated behind the perimeter wire of the hamlets. At best, they were paid twentyfive dollars in compensation for the house they had abandoned and the new one they were obliged to build. Many times they got nothing. Despite its basic soundness, the strategic-hamlet program undoubtedly helped the Communists more than it hindered them. Two years of bitter effort had been in vain.

Weariness and frustration

Coming on top of the grave and divisive crises that led ultimately to the assassination of Diem and Nhu on November 2, the recognition that the war, far from being won, was being lost has caused a sense of disillusion, frustration, and bitterness not only among the Vietnamese people and their leaders but also in the ranks of the Americans. Inevitably, morale has suffered. The resolute few seem ready to start over again. But too many have taken to bickering among themselves.

It is no secret in Saigon that Henry Cabot Lodge, the American ambassador, disagrees openly with the optimistic war picture still being painted by the head of the American military command. General Paul D. Harkins. The diplomats insist that social progress and economic improvement in the countryside are the most important factors in winning the war. Some of the military, like the French before them, fail to comprehend that a war of this nature can be lost without ever really having been fought. How can the Viet Cong win, they ask, when they have no aircraft, artillery, helicopters, trucks, troop carriers, and other paraphernalia of modern war?

The Viet Cong pick their targets, strike hard, and immediately disperse. Their losses are high — up to 1500 a month — but the size of their regular, uniformed forces continues to increase at the rate of about 500 men a month.

Many of the troubles that blighted Big Minh’s military junta between the November coup and General Nguyen Khanh’s seizure of power on January 30 had their origin in the chaos inherited from the Diem regime. Although some of the generals were aware that the situation was much more serious than Diem and Nhu had admitted, they were totally unprepared for the shocks that came when new teams of provincial chiefs reported honestly on conditions in their areas. United in their opposition to Diem, the generals divided again when they found themselves confronted with the need to take Draconian decisions. Some of them, notably Le Van Kim, the Chief of Staff, and Mai Huu Xuan, chief of the National Police, were much more sympathetic to the French than to the American view. Neutralization, or some sort of negotiated deal with the Viet Cong, seemed the easy way out.

General Nguyen Khanh was made of much tougher stuff. Left out of the inner circles of the coup d’etat group, eliminated subsequently from Big Minh’s military junta, and posted to the command of the remote First Corps near the relatively quiet border of North Vietnam, he had time to think and time to plot. He believed that any negotiation with the Viet Cong at this stage would lead inevitably to a Communist take-over. For several members of the junta he had nothing but contempt.

With the assistance of the commander of the Third Corps, strategically adjacent to Saigon, and of two air force colonels, Khanh laid his plans for the take-over. It was swift, painless, and effective. The corps commanders swung in behind him, and the only fatality was that of the unlamented major credited with having assassinated Diem and Nhu. He was shot by one of the new coup leaders. General Duong Van Due. Khanh placed the neutralist group of generals under detention. Big Minh he persuaded to stay on as head of state.

The new Prime Minister

Unfortunately for South Vietnam, the forces that bring men together to stage a coup d’etat do not often persist when revolutionary fervor fades and the humdrum work of administration has to be faced. Within a day or two of the coup, General Khanh had two struggles on his hands: to fight the war against the Viet Cong and to survive.

Among his fellow soldiers his reputation was high. But the people knew little of him. The politicians and civil servants were wary of him. Political and religious forces pulled against each other, and in the end, to form a government at all, he was obliged to take the prime ministership himself. By trying to please everyone, he formed a government that in fact pleased very few.

Even among the army leaders who had helped to put Khanh into power there was open talk that if he failed they could try again. General Khanh, at thirty-seven, was said to be too young. There were several who felt that they might better fill the role. Of this, General Khanh seemed to be well aware. He assured Lodge that he would not be caught napping. But he will be judged by his success, which, if it is possible at all, will of necessity be extremely slow.

In the northern provinces, and where clear-and-hold operations have been carried out effectively along the central coast, the general situation is satisfactory enough. In the delta the need is urgent and the time short. Little remains of the dry season. Instead of taking the initiative in the aftermath of the November coup, the regime of Big Minh seemed benumbed by the magnitude of the problem, and the Viet Cong exploited with great success during a period when conditions should have been heavily against them.

Making a fresh start

For General Khanh the task now is to start all over again. The strategic-hamlet program failed by the way it was implemented, not because the concept was basically wrong. By starting again in areas adjacent to Saigon and working slowly outward through the delta, it may be possible to recover the ground that has been lost. Recent surveys revealing the deplorable state of the strategic hamlets also suggest that there is still time to change the government’s policies and to win the war. To have any chance of success, however, there must be a realistic appreciation by the Vietnamese and their American backers of just how formidable and costly and difficult the task will be. An example of cost is provided by the relocation of peasants in strategic hamlets. The cheapest peasant cottage costs about seventy dollars to build, and the average is about four times that much. Compensation will have to be paid to tens of thousands of families. The provision of medical facilities, schools, wells, and food supplies for resettled peasants will be even more expensive.

Even if the funds are available, the problem of administration remains. New provincial and district chiefs appointed since the fall of the Diem regime are more dedicated, and apparently more able, than most of their predecessors seemed to be. But the reserves of talent for such tasks are alarmingly thin.

“Can we really expect that the best of intentions will be proof against what we know must be certain adversity?” asked one American. Today no one has the answer. Given time and the support he must have, General Khanh seems likely to make a real effort.