The Struggle and the War: The Maze of Vietnamese Politics
We are aware of the Vietnamese War, but what is the Vietnamese Struggle? Frances FitzCerald’s second ATLANTIC article based on her ten months in Saigon slices through the cultural barriers which force most U.S. reporters to view Vietnam through American eyes, to show how deep and dangerous are our misconceptions about the Confucian-based politics and psychology of the Vietnamese.
LATE at night a Vietnamese officer and his American civilian adviser rose from the table and parted in agreement, leaving behind them on the tablecloth two designs. The American had drawn a system of rectangles with arrows leading from one box to another, while on his side of the table die Vietnamese had drawn a scries of ellipses beginning and ending at the same base curve. For the past few hours the two had been engaged in a heated discussion about economic development in Vietnam. They had spoken in terms of a social revolution and a democratization of the administrative structures. Though the Vietnamese, a former Viet Minh commander, had emphasized the political component of the revolution more strongly than had the American, there had seemed to be no reason why the two should keep circling and retarding around the subject, as if in argument, impatiently illustrating their views on the tablecloth. As they used the same words, they had assumed they were speaking the same language.
The United States is fighting a war in Vietnam on the basis of certain assumptions about the nature of Vietnam. That U.S. policy-makers have yearly had to revise their estimates about the course of the war and the need for American intervention raises the question of whether or not these assumptions conform to reality. Policy-makers assume, first, that the 17th parallel dividing North and South Vietnam corresponds to the frontier between Last and West Germany in that it divides Vietnam into two parts, each of which has a separate identity. They assume that South Vietnam is a nationstate, and that with a certain amount of assistance it can develop a non-Communist government which will satisfy the needs and aspirations of its population. In recent months President Johnson has offered to withdraw American troops from South Vietnam on the condition that North Vietnam withdraw its troops, presumably on the assumption that the South Vietnamese government could settle its own domestic problems were it not for Northern aggression. With these simple assertions the United States has drawn a design which does not correspond to the pattern of political forces in Vietnam. In 1962, Defense Secretary Robert McNamara said, “Every quantitative measurement we have shows that we are winning the war.” His remark was a warning signal that the failure of prediction has not stemmed from mere overoptimism.
To discuss solutions to Vietnamese problems it is first of all necessary to understand the problems as they occur to the Vietnamese. What is the relationship between man and society in Vietnam? What are the traditional modes of political expression, and how have they changed under the impact of the West? How do the Vietnamese view American policy and the American military piescnce;
Culturally, as geographically, Vietnam is hall a world away from the United States; an American travels to Vietnam only through a vast eflort of translation.1
AT THE base of Vietnam lies the village. Behind the facade of the cities and deep in the minds of “ Westernized” Vietnamese, the village remains the archetype, the perfect closed circle of the community. As in the design the Vietnamese officer drew on the tablecloth, all political movements in Vietnam arc variations on the theme of the village. In Saigon the theme has grown indistinct under the accretions of Western language, but it remains close to its original form in the real villages of South Vietnam. Though for centuries Vietnam lived under Chinese political and cultural domination, the Vietnamese have a unique world view composed of elements of Confucianism, Taoism, Buddhism, and the animism that is the original relationship between the people and theii land. That the Vietnamese are the only one of the Viet (Southern) tribes of China to retain their cultural identity owes as much to the strength of their village communities as to the geography of Vietnam.
In the world of the villages each gesture has its ritual significance. The gesture is the dot at the center of the concentric circles of the Confucian universe: on the inside ring is man surrounded by his family and the penumbra of ancestral spirits; on the next circle is the clan-village, with its hierarchy of elders and its legendary common ancestor or genies; further out, through ever widening stretches of the imagination, lie the orbits of the Nation and the Emperor-Demigod, and finally, the Earth and the Heavens. The patterns arc perfectly static, yet the same movement and substance pass through all of them as water passes through a design of ripples. Each orbit has its own nature, its own personality, which develops in harmony with all the rest; though it moves in the endless reflections of the others, it is no vacant imitation. As a man’s life is guided by the movement of the stars, so his house bears relation to the whole universe; by astrology and gcomancy a man can put himself in tune with the higher spheres. A man can do nothing by himself, yet he bears responsibility for the total harmony of society. When asked by a Viet Cong agent in 1963 whether or not he supported the Liberation, one villager replied in the old language, “I do not know, for I am the will of heaven.” And heaven had given him no sign, as it had during the Resistance war when a French platoon had defeated a Viet Minh band in the village and set up a permanent outpost. At that time he concluded that the French were the legitimate rulers of Vietnam; now he was not certain. “If I do what you say, then the Diem side will arrest me. If I say things against you, then you will arrest me. So I would father carry both burdens on my two shoulders and stand in the middle.” The peasant is and is not a practical man.
For the villager each regime has its own “virtue,” its own immutable character, which, like that of a human being, combines moral, social, political, and spiritual elements in one indivisible form. In vain have the Buddhists tried to explain themselves to Westerners who insist on separating their “purely political” from their “purely religious” functions — though they half admit the distinction themselves. The leaders of the Cao Dai and Hoa Hao, the two older “theocratic” sects in the South, merely smile and offer no explanation. With Ngo Dinh Diem this spherical Confucian universe occasionally showed through the Hat surfaces ol Western language. The President interpreted the abortive coup of November, 1960, as evidence that heaven approved of his regime; “the hand of Cod, he said, had reached down to protect him. Though in its Catholic manifestation the impersonal Confucian heaven had, for Diem, turned anthropomorphic, earthly and spiritual power remained fully integrated.
In Vietnam a regime is invalid unless it has this confluence with a transcendent design and a moral nature to inhabit its political program. The moral force of the Diem regime — from the official doctrine of “personalism” to Madame Nhu’s ban on dancing — was surpassed only by that of its strongest enemy, the Viet Cong, whose cause, writes Douglas Pike, the leading American expert on the subject, “consisted of moral duties, based on moral absolutes, guided by moral imperatives.” Even for the Vietnamese Communists, who are inheritors of nineteenth-century radical distinctions between church and state and between one class and another, the society retains its moral impulse, its balanced Confucian personality.
For Vietnamese the Mandate of Heaven, which confers legitimacy upon a regime, is not, like Louis XIV’s divine right, a constant. The mandate is timeless, and therefore a regime carries no ennobling historical perspective, but lives naked within its own immediate potential. The Vietnamese word for revolution suggests no image of a mechanical operation, but rather one of an unmotivated flip-flop, the turning over of a page. Each regime marks a unique phase of history; between regimes there is no straight-line progression, no dynamic of opposing forces, no gradual evolution. Revolution is metamorphosis which occurs without cause, for in the seamless Confucian universe man can find no place to insert a lever under one particular world. Within a few weeks of General Nguyen Chanh Thi’s dismissal in March, 1966, the Buddhist Struggle Movement had so changed the city of Hue that the very architecture in its permanence seemed a sham beside the new faces in the government offices and the old faces saying new things; yet there had been no violence. If one regime succeeds in replacing another, it does so by virtue of its own resonance with what Westerners might call “the laws of nature” or “the spirit of the times.” Its success is proof that it has from the very beginning had the appropriate qualities; success confirms its legitimacy. After the defeat of the Buddhist Struggle the Venerable Tri Quang had for a period something like a nervous breakdown from the deep sense that his failure meant he was the wrong instrument for Vietnam, a man out of tune with heaven. To Westerners the government attack on the Danang pagodas seemed an event of small account, a gain for Ky which would not balance out the gains the Buddhists had made over the past three months in taking over the entire administration of Central Vietnam. The country had had two distinct governments. But the Vietnamese, who do not share our account-book mentality, interpreted the pagoda raids as a sign of victory for the Ky government, and accordingly, the Struggle dissolved as rapidly as it had taken shape. In the government offices of Hue yet another group of new faces appeared almost instantaneously.
In Vietnam sudden reversals of political loyalty occur fairly frequently, as the successes of both the NLF and the government defector programs indicate. And yet the Vietnamese are not precisely “opportunists.” Rather they have, as Paul Mus says, a “different intellectual rhythm,” which springs from the contract which they have made with society and with the ghosts of their ancestors. In the villages of Vietnam man is not an “individual” in the Western sense, for he has not quite distinguished himself from the community living and dead, natural and supernatural, to which he belongs. He behaves not as a man of absolute free will, but as a junior partner, the executor of community opinion. Because of this continuity between man and society, between society and the heavens, the Vietnamese does not live within the segmented Western world of cause and effect, of conceptual analysis, of theoretical distinctions between form and substance. A Vietnamese father passes on to his son not a set of definitions of “rightness” and “wrongness” but himself as the incarnation of “rightness.” A child learns by example, by the memorization of maxims; each detail, being a part of the universal order — being, in fact, the universe in microcosm—has its own absolute importance. If he imitates the correct procedures, if he behaves in conformity with established patterns, his reward is the approval of the community around him, and by extension, that of the spiritual community of ancestors and the transcendent heaven.
IN POLITICS as in other fields of activity the goal of a Confucian society is social harmony, for like musical instruments in resonance, the whole of the community is a great deal more than the sum of the individuals who compose it.
For Westerners, who believe in the eternal verity of certain principles and in the society as an aggregate, the notion of brainwashing is shocking and the experience traumatic. In societies such as those in Indonesia, China, or Vietnam, it is in one form or another an activity of every political movement. Its aim is to convince the individual that the community around him has changed and that to win its approval he must, like a child, learn a new style of behavior. A young Vietnamese district chief once told this reporter that he was keeping refugees from a Viet Cong village near his headquarters in order “to change their opinions.” If he were unsuccessful, as the Diem regime was with the student demonstrators and intellectuals in its prisons, it would not mean that he had been unable to change their abstract political ideals but that he could not convince them that the government was stronger than the Viet Cong — that is, that it was the force most likely to re-establish social harmony in the community. One definition of a “hard-core” Viet Cong cadre is a man who understands his community to include not just the village or the district but Vietnam as a whole. Unlike the villager to whom the French outpost meant French sovereignty, he has extended his horizons in both time and space. And at the furthest extreme from village thought, Mao Fsctung and Ho Chi Minh sec the world as their community. For them the precepts of a Communist society approach abstract ideals.
At the end of his scholarly book Viet Cong, Douglas Pike suddenly breaks out of Ids neutral tone to conclude: “The NLF and the people it influenced lived in a muzzy, myth-filled world of blacks and whites, good and evil, a simplistic world quite out of character with the one to which the Vietnamese were accustomed. Here, one felt, was tomorrow’s society, the beginning of 1984, where peace is war, slavery is freedom, the nonorganization is the organization.” Though an American may legitimately criticize the Viet Cong, other Americans may begin to wonder about their commitment in Vietnam if the criticism in question applies to a characteristic which is most essentially and typically Vietnamese. A world where there is no clear air of abstraction, no concepts, no principles, where every gesture and every word have a political, religious, and social significance cannot help but look “muzzy” and “myth-filled” to Westerners. At one time Ngo Dinh Diem insisted upon signing every entry and exit visa for South Vietnam — and yet his purposes might be said to have been clearer than those of his American advisers, who turned him from hero to villain within the space of a few months.
When such Westerners as Pike and Jean Lacouture ask, “What is NLF doctrine?” or “What do the Buddhists want?”, they perhaps expect such answers as “peace,” “socialism,” or “democracy.” But the answer is that the NLF has no abstract doctrine and the Buddhists want nothing; the questions have been badly formulated. When the Buddhists say, “Ninety percent of the Vietnamese people are Buddhists . . . the people are never Communist,” and the NLF say in contrast, “The struggle of religious believers in South Vietnam is not separate from the struggle for national liberation,” each is, in a manner of speaking, “making” those statements the truth. Unlike Westerners, the Vietnamese do not clearly differentiate between what the philosopher Professor J. L. Austin calls “performative” and “constative” utterances, between, for example, the marriage contract “I do” (take this woman to be my lawful wedded wife), and the statement “This is my lawful wedded wife.” With the descriptive statement “This is my lawful wedded wife,” they are actually attempting to perform the marriage ceremony. If the woman is already married, or if the Vietnamese people show themselves to be Communists rather than Buddhists, then the utterance is both untrue and an impossible project. On the other hand, if all the people agree that peace is war, then it is war. As is the case in Vietnam today, the word “peace” has no meaning acceptable to all of the population; as used by Communists and non-Communists, it implies not only the lack of war, but two entirely different projects for the re-establishment of social harmony. The word “peace” is, in effect, the battlefield of the current political struggle.
As the Vietnamese consider the meaning of language to be dependent on social consensus, so they take a normative view of behavior. They speak of “correct actions” and “correct solutions, not of “rightness” or “goodness” per sc. Because of this intimate relation between man and his community, Vietnam is by nature totalitarian. As the regime is identical with its community and its version of correct behavior, all other political movements must be clandestine and revolutionary. A politician cannot oppose the regime without dropping out of the community; to achieve his political purposes he must found a new community and/or subvert the old one. Vietnam may be divided, but it will not be pluralistic while this basic thought construction holds. In Saigon individual members of the Constituent Assembly can speak against the government, but as individuals they are powerless, tolerated as madmen were tolerated in the Middle Ages. It is the group that is important. The revolutionary carries on his proselytization not so much by frontal assault on the individual as by a surrounding movement in the half-conscious world of verbal and behavioral norms. Making this point in his Western conceptual language, Douglas Bike concludes that the NLF follower did not “decide” to enlist in the cause; rather he “was first surrounded by a social organization that he had no hand in creating but to which he somehow belonged. Through a process of insinuation the youth came to realize that he was part of the NLF, never quite sure how this happened and never with any overt choice presented him.” During the Buddhist Struggle of 1966 the government employees in Hue physically gave over the radio station to the students under the pressure of local “public opinion.” Some of them joined the Struggle against the government. Though Americans might be inclined to consider them “unprincipled,” they are no more so than the American network executives who decide which programs should be thrown off the air on the basis of their ratings.
THE world of the revolution is, like the world of the village, complete, spherical. Enclosed within it, the revolutionary cannot envisage another point of view, or therefore, the possibility of a direct confrontation between his community and the regime. If the revolutionaries have adopted the correct attitude — that is, the one that conforms to the will of heaven — then the society is automatically theirs. Among the Cao Dai and the Hoa Hao, who still live in a world beyond the laws of cause and effect, this certainty remains in its original formulation. Though since 1960 they have made arrangements with both the Viet Gong and the government, their leaders believe that when the interregnum is over, Vietnam will enter into a state of social harmony identical to the one that they claim to have found. Here, buried within the old spiritualist language, lies a clue to the strict subordination which the Viet Minh and Viet Cong political commissars hold over the military commanders. Military victories are not only less important than political victories, they are strictly meaningless except as reflections of political reality. For the NLF as for the Buddhists, the vehicle of political change is not the war, or the pitch of force against force, but the Struggle, the attempt to make manifest the statement “All Vietnamese are Buddhists,” or “The people hate the U.S. imperialists and their puppets.” The Struggle may take many forms, from nonviolent demonstrations to armed attacks, but in its broad, generic sense, it is the total work of the revolution. Its aim is to demonstrate convincingly that the page has been turned and that the new order has already replaced the old in all but title.2
For the Viet Minh, the Resistance was primarily a Struggle for Vietnam, and only secondarily a war against the French. The genius of Ho Chi Minh lay in his ability to develop both forms of the revolution simultaneously while maintaining an efficient balance between them. By itself the Struggle was not enough, for it could make no impression on the foreign armies, and vice versa. There was literally “no contact” between them. The guerrilla was ephemeral; he disappeared into the maquis or into peasant clothing in the same manner that the military struggle disappeared inside its political framework, leaving the French battalions to march through a vacuum. Though the Struggle went on throughout Vietnam, the real war took place in the North; the South remained militarily static. Along the Chinese border General Giap built up his army into a formidable weapon capable of dealing with the French battalions. But the Viet Minh victory at Dien Bien Phu corresponded to their defeat at the conference table in Geneva, where they agreed to a disengagement of the two armies and a “temporary” division of Vietnam at the 17th parallel. Having met the French on their own terms, they won the French war and compromised their political Struggle for all of the Vietnamese people. But there was no going back. The progression which had brought them out of the village and into statehood allowed them to plan the Resistance with Western temporal perspective and at the same time condemned them to live with Western spatial relationships— the line at the 17th parallel. In accepting the Geneva arbitration, the Northern leaders showed that they had come West; in rejecting it, the South turned back upon itself into the village with its dreams of a Celestial Empire.
To some extent the Geneva Accords merely confirmed the already existing cleavage between North and South, a difference deeper and older than that between the governments of Ho Chi Minh and Ngo Dinh Diem. Again and again through the confusion of Southern politics, the split re-emerges at an oblique angle to the conflict between Communist and non-Communist. As the Southern politicians have pointed out, the Ky government after two years in office consisted almost entirely of Northerners, the greatest exception being the Southern Catholics. Clearly Ky had chosen to follow the example of Ngo Dinh Diem, the only chief of government who survived longer than Ky and whose civil service had also contained a high percentage of Northerners. He had perhaps little alternative. After twelve years of Southern autonomy, the Northerners remained the largest source of trained, motivated government personnel.
DURING the period of Chinese rule from the third to the tenth centuries A.D., the Viet tribes on the Red River delta adopted the Chinese system of a limited central authority — an Emperor and a mandarinate that took charge of foreign affairs and public works, with its power to mobilize mass labor for the building of the dikes, and, more occasionally, for the defense of the frontier. Underneath the shell of the mandarinate the villages remained selfsupporting and semi-autonomous. As the population along the Red River delta built up, it was they, rather than the state, that began the colonization of the land to the south. Having conquered the Champa kingdom and presided over the settlement of Central Vietnam, the state could no longer contain the territorial expansion; it divided into halves and thirds during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. After a short period of consolidation under the Emperor Gia Long in Hue during the nineteenth century, the Vietnamese nation once more gave way, before the French troops, who began their conquest from the region of Saigon. By the time of the French arrival the Vietnamese villages were just beginning to thicken along the lower Mekong Delta. In 1884 the French took Cochinchina as a colony, Tonkin (North Vietnam) as a direct protectorate, and Annam (or Central Vietnam) as an indirect protectorate. Their pacification efforts, which subdued the South in the 1860s, were not successful in Tonkin until the late 1890s.
Under the weight of the French presence the loose web which had bound the Southern villages together dissolved finally. The French broke down the mandarinate and from Saigon centralized the administration down to the district level in their own hands. As they built up a rationalized system for the exploitation of the rich ricelands, they cut down the corporate personality of the villages with individual taxation, Roman law, and a capitalistic consolidation of the largely virgin Delta land into large estates worked by tenant farmers and laborers. With the establishment of a central Indochinese market, arteries grew out of the villages leading to Saigon, leading to a brain which belonged to the French administrators, the French and Chinese merchants. Faced with this impasse, the Vietnamese elites had the choice of either falling back into the village or adapting themselves to the foreign environment above it. Those who took advantage of the assimilation policy entered French schools, turned Catholic, and grew rich from the manorial estates which they had formed in imitation of their colonizers. In accepting French culture they had to reject or transform certain basic elements ol traditional Vietnamese society and form an original mixture of the two civilizations. Drawn deepei and deeper into the process of assimilation, the elites never pulled away to reintegrate the disparate elements and give them political shape. The French were perhaps too close to them. Before the Second World War the French officials and colons, with the help of the Chinese merchants, had built all that there was of South Vietnam above the villages and rooted themselves into all top echelons of the society. Saigon, the Pearl of the Orient, was for the Vietnamese a foreign city.
Nationalist revolt in Cochinchina came from the backwash of French culture into the lower levels of society beneath the Vietnamese elite. Its leaders were semi-educated, culturally unfocused, the inhabitants of a disputed zone between the village and the city. In 1925 a group of second-rank Vietnamese functionaries in Saigon discovered in their experiments with a ouija board a spirit which revealed himself as the Cao Dai, the Supreme Being. Within a few years the group, under the leadership of a minor businessman, had developed a sect with a hierarchy modeled on that ol the Catholic Church, large land holdings, complex social organizations, and about two million adherents scattered throughout Cochinchina as well as parts of Cambodia and Annam. Little short of miraculous, the growth of the Cao Dai church showed the extent to which the French presence had disturbed traditional society in the villages. The secular foreign bureaucracy had cut into the seamless web radiating out from the family to the Confucian heaven; Cao Daiism healed the resulting aphasia with its largersocial organizations and its claim to direct communication with the deity. Like its cousin sect, the Hoa Hao, the Cao Dai was a state as well as a religion, a total enterprise. Through the Second World War and the Resistance war both sects maintained irregular armies and territorial ambitions. Loyal to no one, they shifted their alliances between the Japanese, the French, and the Viet Minh. To this day they remain partially autonomous, uncommitted to anyone; in the Hoa Hao province of An Giang there are neither NLF cadres nor government officials who are not Hoa Hao.
Traditional, mystical, the sects speak with overtones of Theravada Buddhism and the tropical Indianized cultures of Cambodia and Indonesia. The sects are the real voices of the Delta, of the Viet tribes which moved down from the North and left behind them in Tonkin and Annam the philosophic strain of Mahayana Buddhism and rationalist Chinese social theory.
Having neither agricultural nor industrial potential, Annam did not interest the French. It remained isolated, alone with its past; the modernizing, “Westernizing” impulse came to it late and indirectly by way of Japan. Hue, the seat of the Emperor, was a refuge for the old mandarin values, for a fierce traditionalism and a concomitant xenophobia. From Annam came the first protests against French rule and a succession of political leaders, including Ho Chi Minh, Ngo Dinh Diem, and General Nguyen Van Thieu. But the political weight lay in Tonkin, the territory closest to China, where the French had displaced the old mandarinate slowly amid outbreaks of violence. Though agriculturally poor, the North contained the only industrial plant in all of Indochina and the beginnings of an urban society.
While the Southern sects had developed in apparent reaction to the Catholic Church and the crisis of religious and social identity, the Northern nationalist movements took a more directly political route to attack the French power structure. They involved both the traditional and the Frencheducated elites, the members of the first having, in many cases, migrated over to the second. During the 1930s Hanoi gave birth to the first mass-based, secular political organizations — the VNQDD (the Vietnamese Kuomintang, called Viet Nam Quoc Dan Dang), the several Communist parties, and finally, the Viet Minh. Both in form and substance the Northern associations resembled French political institutions to a much greater degree than did their Southern counterparts. Their leadership took the West as an inoculation against Westerners, and, it seemed, the heavier the dosage, the more effective was the resistance. Ho Chi Minh spent two decades in France, the Soviet Union, and China; during the 1930s and 40s, he pressured the North to look outward toward the socialist countries while preparing for its own internal revolution. The South had no such perspective; in its long agricultural musings, the images of pantheist empire and the French Union had blurred and fused.
But the Viet Minh could not convert the South. When the French troops and officials embarked from Saigon in 1955 1956, they left their “regroupment zone” beneath the 17th parallel a political jungle of sects, local warlords, Viet Minh cells, partisan troops, and Saigon politicians, all of them rooted in provincial issues and family feuds. The South did not protest the division of the country which it had not recognized. It gazed inward, passive, torn between a hundred “correct solutions.” But the 17th parallel could not preserve this slow, tropical debate in a vacuum. As a line through space, it did not isolate Cochinchina; rather it joined it with half of Annam (Central Vietnam), thereby exposing the South to the larger political passions of such Central Vietnamese as Ho Chi Minh, Ngo Dinh Diem, and Thich Tri Quang. Before the 300 days of regroupment had ended, nearly a million Northerners, most of them Catholics, had with American aid come to settle in the South; on the other side of the line waited the former Viet Minh cadres, who, though Southern, had grown away from the South’s spiritualist imagery under Northern instruction. Communist versus anti-Coramunist, the civil war would begin in language which a large part of the South could not understand.
UNTIL, 1955 the Struggle within Vietnam proceeded according to its own logic. Interested only in the relationship between Vietnam and France, the French did not really interfere in domestic politics. By the terms of the Geneva agreement, the French recognized “that the military demarcation line (the 17th parallel) is provisional and should not in any way be interpreted as constituting a political or territorial boundary” and that the political future of Vietnam was to be settled “on the basis of respect for the principles of independence, unity and territorial integrity” in a general election to be held in July, 1956, under the supervision of the International Control Commission. Alone, the United States, which did not sign the agreement, decided to take on the task of maintaining the Southern zone as an autonomous political unit in opposition to the solidly Viet Minh North. By force of its anti-Communist and anti-colonialist policy, the United States introduced itself into the far-from-concluded Struggle for the South. In 1955, political development in Vietnam began its jerky history of circuit through indigenous elements, and short-circuit along the lines of American policy.
In the context of Southern politics the American vision of a popular, non-Communist government looks today, as it did twelve years ago. as improbable as an air-conditioned motel in the middle of a trackless jungle. Quite oblivious to “government” in its Western formulation, the majority of Southerners still hold to their old loyalties to family, sect, and clandestine protective associations. Under the shell of government, lacquered over by the Americans, the war in the Delta and Southern politics in Saigon continue in the same impropriety as they had in the bad old days when the Prime Minister, the Emperor, the police, and the Binh Xuyen bandits fought for control of the Cholon gambling dens with grenades and submachine guns.
In order to construct a regime that at least in some degree resembled a “non-Communist government,” both Ngo Dinh Diem and Nguyen Cao Ky had to sacrifice the other stated American policy objective for a South Vietnamese regime: popularity. For each had to call on the Northern refugees, the one large group of people who understood the basic principles of administration and ideology. Under the cover of the Diem regime the United States first forged its alliance with this isolated elite. A Northerner himself, Premier Ky was no cover. With its Westernizing — or, in the Vietnamese context, Northernizing — project, the United States might well have been chosen by the Viet Minh North to solve its Southern problem.
By far the biggest elfort the United States made to support a non-Communist regime in the South consisted of aid and services to the Vietnamese military forces. After the last French troops had left Saigon in 1956 a U.S. Military Assistance Advisory Group, consisting of several hundred American officers, took over responsibility for reorganizing and retraining the former French Union forces. Of the total of $2 billion in American economic aid to South Vietnam during the period ol 1955-1960, approximately three quarters ol it paid the military budget, and an additional S85 million a year went for military equipment. Moreover, the United States provided trips to training camps in the United States and a steadily growing stream of American advisers to educate an entire generation of Vietnamese officers. The Military Assistance Group modeled the ARVN closely on the American Army, presumably with the idea that it would one day have to defend the frontiers of South Vietnam from a massive invasion of Northerners marching in formation. That the regular units could not cope with domestic guerrilla warfare was only the superficial aspect of the real problem, which was that this conventional structure bore no relationship to Vietnamese politics, it from the Western point of view the ARVN seemed to be solid, a group of people with the same uniforms ready to do battle against the Communists, it looked in the Vietnamese context more like a collection of individuals, all of whom happened to be carrying weapons.
Yet the military’s role has long been decisive. Protest against the Diem regime in 1963 came first from the Buddhists, from the student groups, and from certain Saigon intellectuals. Divided and powerless, the civilians waited for the military to give the coup de grace. According to Robert Shaplen, the final plot to overthrow Diem, originally planned by a civilian, came close to failure several times as a result of arguments in the top army command. Having executed the coup, the generals were at a loss for what to do next. They were, says Shaplen, “totally insecure in their individual and collective political orientation, and they lacked any sense of dynamic enterprise, let alone revolutionary fervour.” It General Duong Van Minh saw his junta as a stopgap, an interregnum during which the civilians might reorganize political life, General Nguyen Khanh felt that it was his responsibility to create at least a semblance of order before the whole structure of government gave way before the Viet Gong. With the Khanh regime began the real struggle for power, not so much between the army and the civilians, as between various factions of both.
IN A sense the interregnum of coup and countercoup from 1963 to 1965 was the perfect expression of Saigon, the city most curiously ill suited to its role as capital of a new country and headquarters of a political war. In the twelve years of its autonomy Saigon has never had a strong indigenous political community or economic framework. During the Indochina War the French inched its government over to the Vietnamese, but the Emperor Bao Dai would not live there under the shadow of the High Commissioner. “I do not want to be a figurehead,” he protested. Ngo Dinh Diem drew his strength from the outside, from the Americans and the Northern refugees, whom he had settled in a ring around the city; he imposed his rule over the chaos, at least temporarily. When the regime fell, scores of “political tendencies" emerged from the underground. With the exception of the Dai Viet parties and the Southern VNQDD, each consisted of little more than a single individual and his brother-in-law. From the Cao Dai to the NLF, all successful Southern political movements have withdrawn from Saigon to find their mass support in the villages of the interior. None have yet surrounded Saigon and taken it over, for the city has always belonged to the foreigners. In its passivity the South has allowed Saigon to become a cosmopolitan excrescence on a land of peasants.
As an economic enterprise, Saigon is a capon. The French and the Chinese built the city, fed it on francs and Delta rice, then let it loose, a tamed creature, still tied to the strings of their international trade. When in 1965 the Ky government severed trade and diplomatic relations with France, the dollar had replaced the franc as insurance for the piaster; the mercantile system continued to operate as usual through the same Chinese merchants under American aegis. The power structure has not changed, though Saigon now feeds on war instead of peace, on the blood of the country rather than its agriculture. As its economy will not respond to the government, the city develops in anarchy around the centers of foreign power. Unlike Hanoi, Saigon has no industry of any size, and no effective trade unions or other mass organizations to structure its growing labor force. Since the Second World War the population has climbed from a hall million to almost three million people; the majority are recent war refugees who have come in from the countryside with a terrible logic to supply the labor demands of the American military construction projects. Living in bidonvilles around the city proper, the villagers turn into city masses innocent of government as of the basic designs of an urban society.
Socially and politically, Saigon cannot cohere. As the ancestral bonds dissolve and the clans break down into nuclear families, the city offers no replacement for the traditional community, no new definition of correct behavior.
IT HAS always surprised me,” an American official said, “that from the same population base the Viet Gong have been able to mount an organization in almost every respect superior to that of the GVN [government of Vietnam].” With this remark he expressed the common concern of Americans, both military and civilian, in Vietnam. In the United States, by contrast, the debate over the NLF has always turned around the issue of regional origins. The State Department’s White Paper of 1965, entitled “Aggression from the North; the Record of North Vietnam’s Campaign to Conquer the South,” states that “the Liberation Front is Hanoi’s creation, it is neither independent nor Southern. . . .” On the contrary Jean Lacouture, Philippe Devillers, George Kahin, and other Vietnam experts have marshaled evidence to show that the NLF originated in the South among Southerners. From a legal and historical point of view the argument looks somewhat fantastic as, according to the Geneva Accords, North and South belong to the same nation. From a political perspective it is largely irrelevant. Culturally, the North “conquered” great parts of the South both before and during the Resistance war. The fact that the Northerners are Communists is not the only reason why communication of ideas in Vietnam travels from North to South. Whether Northerners or northernized Southerners have been the principal agents of this conversion makes little difference; what matters is the extent to which it has taken place.
Linguistically the two regions of Vietnam have been growing apart for several decades. At least since the 1920s the Vietnamese have been importing Chinese words wholesale to denote such foreign notions as “democracy,” “republic,” and “commune,” as well as a whole range of terms to describe industrial technology and Western cognitive systems. With the breakdown of traditional society the old language began at the same time to loosen and shift. In Vietnamese, intention is so close to description that each political movement interpreted the new terms in accordance with their own vision of society. After the Resistance war the Viet Minh leadership in the North began to develop their language self-consciously in order to surround their society, divorce it from its past, and direct it to new purposes. Though Communist terminology everywhere contains the same project of conversion, it can have only partial success in, for instance, Eastern Europe, where it encounters a culture deriving from the same European sources and strong in its own “eternal” values. In Vietnam as in China the cultural revolution has been fundamental to directed political and social change. Built into the new language of North Vietnam is a degree of “Westernization”; the words for state and citizen imply that the society is the sum of its individuals, and the government a highly centralized secular authority responsible for such things as social welfare and industrialization.
In South Vietnam, by contrast, the Vietnamese language has evolved in a haphazard fashion to reflect the lack of political consensus and the diversities of education. Saigon is the fallen Tower of Babel; there the old spiritualist language of the village mixes with a hundred new languages in a seething flux which has neither coherence nor direction.
The NLF is a legitimate political force in South Vietnam because its language is both coherent and relevant to the current social crisis. Unlike the GVN, the NLF is a regime in the Confucian sense, a total enterprise which offers a single “correct solution.” Unlike the old theocratic sects, it offers a solution to modern problems which Vietnam must face if it is to belong to the twentieth-century world. Though it may not be the best solution, particularly from an American point of view, it nonetheless constitutes a method of filling material needs and bringing the villages into the nation and the city. In the GVN such modernizing programs have tended to come from isolated Northerners or assimilés with no direct access to the villages. The greater success of the NLF is due partly to the fact that the cadres are Southerners who have withdrawn from Saigon or who have never lived there. The paradox, of course, is that were there no Northerners in its high command, the NLF would still remain to some extent an agent of the North. As its language is Northern, so its commitment is to Northern Communist society; and in consequence, to a drive toward reunification.
Under different circumstances it is conceivable that the NLF might have modulated itself to Southern society and drawn away from the North. But it is unlikely, for as the South cannot survive by itself, it must choose between the North and the foreigners. In backing the Diem regime, the United States confirmed the NLF’s commitment to the North. During the last two or three years, as the war has once again taken its place beside the Struggle, the NLf has come to depend mote and more heavily on the North with its legulai ai my, its numbers of trained cadres, and its supply lint s to other sympathetic countries. Given its tendency as a nation-state to conduct the war at the expense of the Struggle, the North, with its experience of the Resistance war, is both the strength and the weakness of the Southern movement. While the United States cannot lose the war, it can lose the Struggle, to which it has committed its prestige.
The NLF has had greater success in the South than the Viet Minh before it, in part because of its more sophisticated organizational techniques, but mainly because of the social change that has taken place in the intervening years. Between the two bureaucracies of the GVN and the NLF, theie is a certain reciprocity, for one profits by the other s successes as well as its failures to bring the villages into a larger framework. In imitation ol the Viet Minh, Ngo Dinh Diem replaced the traditional village notables with executive committees, the chief of which was appointed from Saigon. Fhe NLF began its shift over from a relatively loose political movement into a formalized replacement regime in the summer of 1963 at the same time that the GVN developed its strategic-hamlet program, its first large-scale pacification scheme. But the NLF base in the countryside allowed it to capitalize on Saigon’s programs to an extent which the GVN could not in turn imitate. In the years 1958 -1960 its terror squads assassinated thousands of government officials in the villages and substituted its own cadres. The villagers did not protest very much, for the GVN officials had been strangers to them; that Saigon could not halt the massacre of its servants demonstrated the limits of its power in a dramatic fashion. Though with the downfall of the Diem regime — and its greatest propaganda target — the NLF lost large numbers of its halfhearted supporters and allies, the rapid disorganization of the government forces allowed the NLF to take its giant steps across the country. By the winter of 1964-1965 its irregulars were defeating the ARVN battalions and advancing toward the last government defenses in the cities. Shortly afterward, the United States introduced its own troops into Vietnam, changing the emphasis of its policy from political construction to military destruction of the alternate regime.
FROM November of 1963 to the summer of 1965 the GVN hardly existed as a government. As coup succeeded coup and demicoup, Saigon, like a compass beyond a magnetic field, swung between meteorites—General Khanli, the “Young lurk’ officers, and the hurriedly assembled civilian cabinets, all of them powerless to control the fierce street riots and the constant high-level plotting. As, with an infusion of Southerners and Buddhists, the civil service grew more “representative,” it split apart into factions which competed within the military hierarchy and the political/religious organizations tor influence and a share in the spoils. At the same time, the army lost a number of its older, more respectable generals into exile as the political pointer swung by. Then suddenly the pointer stopped (though no one knew it, of course, at the time). It stopped at a tenmember military junta, which resembled its predecessors in almost every particular except for its figurehead. a young pilot whom the Vietnamese referred to as “that cowboy” and the American journalists called “Captain Midnight.” There were forced smiles at his reception at the American Embassy: the then ambassador, General Maxwell Taylor. knew little more about Air Vice-Marshal Nguyen Cao Ky than that twice during the coup attempts he had threatened to bomb Saigon.
If the formation of a viable non-Communist government in South Vietnam had been the pioblem, then the solution overwhelmed it. The American troop commitment to V ietnam in the winter ot 1964-1965 set up its own field of gravity outside the compass of Saigon. As through 1965 and 1966 the military force increased, so did its influence over the GVN grow heavier and heavier. The needle stopped on its own accord at a point that in relation to the interior circle of political alternatives was absolutely arbitrary. But the Americans did not perceive the connection. They had not chosen the young Air Vice-Marshal; on the contrary, they called him “immature” and “irresponsible” and worried that he did not look like any Vietnamese leader they had ever seen before. They had merely wanted “stability,” and they had gotten it. (This distinction between stability and the man who controls it will always puzzle the Vietnamese.) From then on the country, which by that time the Viet Cong had rolled up to the very gates of Saigon, would fall into three concentric circles: the Viet Cong on the outside, the Ky government on the inside, and the American troops in the middle; it made absolutely no difference to the Vietnamese that the Americans faced outward toward the Viet Cong rather than inward toward Saigon. A Directory of ten incompatible generals, ministries full of tangled, struggling civil servants — the formei political chaos was caught and preserved within the ice floe of American troops.
It is clear that today the United States has an influence over Vietnamese politics, an influence which contains an element beyond force levels and diplomatic understandings, and which resides in the meeting between two races, two disparate cultures. The roots of anti-Americanism, like those of proAmericanism in Vietnam, go far deeper than they do in Europe. In the villages, where the natural world moves imperceptibly into the supernatural, the Americans are “white devils,” or the inhabitants of a territory between middle earth in Vietnam and the edge of the heavenly void. In the cities, “Westernized” Vietnamese assume that the Americans dictate everything, from the power failures that black out whole districts to the careers of under-under ministers.
To the Vietnamese the Americans, like the French before them, partake to some extent of the supernatural. If Westerners take on the task of educating the traditional society in the mysteries of their superior power, they must also take on the role of Ancestor or enhanced authority figure. As practical and impractical people, the Vietnamese sec the Americans and not the GVN as the Regime, in its quasi-metaphysical sense, as the primary political reality.
DURING the last Christmas truce Air ViceMarshal Ky remarked in an offhand manner that he was quite willing to negotiate with Hanoi whenever Hanoi would consent to it. Americans in Saigon were taken aback at this sudden switch in policy: the General’s previous statements about his homeland had been confined to suggestions that the Americans follow up the bombing of Hanoi with a land invasion of North Vietnam. Returning from Australia after the Tet truce, the General consented to clarify his position. “Well,” he said, “negotiations are a fashionable subject these days_so I talk about them too.” Though the General is no typical Vietnamese politician —• his sense of style is that of the dashing French pilots who trained him his reactions come from far below the foreign language he uses. As during the winter truces Saigon felt that the United States might go to the conference table, Southern politicians began to scurry among their “neutralist” and NLF contacts (to the GVN, a “neutralist” is someone who has French backing). Premier Ky responded to the general loosening not out of “opportunism,” but out of obedience to the changed atmosphere of the political macrocosm. He put himself “in fashion” with heaven. When he realized that the United States would not negotiate in the immediate future, he moved quickly to tidy up the political strings that had fallen away from the government position during the period of uncertainty. At the end of February, government-sponsored demonstrators attacked the French consulate shouting anti-Gaullist, anti-neutralist slogans. A day or so later government supporters — most of them Catholic — introduced into the Constituent Assembly a resolution to “oppose strongly” any peace “harmful to the Vietnamese people.” The delegates known to favor negotiations with the NLF offered no opposition to this formula, which was understood to be “hard-line.” But at the show of GVN force, the opposition went underground — as the Buddhists had after the Danang incident — not to reappear until the omens looked more favorable.
For its own part the United States has had to deny its duect influence over the Vietnamese political process, whose supposed autonomy is both the justification of the U.S. presence in Vietnam and the GVN’s claim to legitimacy. “The United States was not involved in the overthrow of the Diem regime. . . . [It] was a purely Vietnamese affair,” said Ambassador Henry Cabot Lodge just after the coup in November, 1963. He neglected to mention that in the preceding months the United States had withdrawn financial support from the Diem regime, changed its ambassador to Saigon, and made no great effort to quell the rumor that its highest officials thought a “change of personnel” was indicated. In public the American Embassy in Saigon tends to take the same posture as the coy girl in Sartre’s description who refuses to acknowledge that her escort has begun to make a pass at her when he takes her hand under the table; she transcends her situation by speaking of spiritual matters and leaves her hand as an object, a thing with no relation to herself. In a like manner U.S. officials “transcend” their relationship with the American Army and the American aid program. Their behavior is harmless, a diplomatic white lie, up to the point that they come to believe in it themselves and thus lose control over the objective situation. In the last two years the Johnson Administration, impelled by its desire for progress in “the other war,” entered this state of self-deception with respect to the Ky government.
Though Westerners tend to consider military “dictatorships,” as a class, monolithic, the Ky government, even after two years of “stability,” remained divided and unsure of itself to such a degree that one distinguished Saigon intellectual declared after his election to the Constituent Assembly, “I ran for the Assembly to oppose the government, and now I find that there is nothing to oppose.” Precisely because it is not monolithic, not a total political enterprise such as the Diem regime or the NLF, the GVN lacks the primary qualification for legitimacy, as understood by the Vietnamese. At its inception in the summer of 1965 the new military Directory was a scale model of Saigon itself, with all its contradictions and all its cliques, From that time on General Ky cautiously proceeded to eliminate some of the more independentminded and/or undesirable members, and to substitute his own men. Though the government gained in efficiency, it did not gain in political weight. If the Northerners have no local power bastions to defend, neither have they any links to the Southern villages. A superstructure consisting of talented men such as General Nguyen Ngoc Thang, chief of the Revolutionary Development program, and Dr. Nguyen Phuc Que, the Special Commissioner for Refugees, hangs over a political vacuum. Seen in this context, General Ky’s notorious remark that South Vietnam needed a leadership like Adolf Hitler’s becomes more understandable — and takes on a pathetic quality. Ky’s explanation was that he wanted “to infuse in our youth the same fanaticism, the same dedication, the same fighting spirit that Hitler infused into his people,” To the horror of his Western audience Ky referred to Hitler because he could not refer to Ho Chi Minh. What he meant was quite simply that South Vietnam needed an anti-Communist community as powerful as that of the Communists.
Though the United States government did not use direct methods to maintain the Saigon regime, it did behave, perhaps from wishful thinking, as though the Ky government were legitimate, on a par with itself. In February, 1966, President Johnson and Premier Ky, meeting in Honolulu, pledged their common commitment to “the work of social revolution . . . the goal of free self-government . . . the attack on hunger, ignorance and disease.” While the American public might have assumed that the Honolulu conference, beyond its exalted language, served as pressure for reform in the GVN, the Vietnamese understood it only as a renewed American commitment to the military regime. The generals, of course, understood their situation just as well as any other Vietnamese; they went to Honolulu (as they went to Guam) to associate themselves with the Americans in their outer sphere above Vietnam. Having done so, they had not the slightest quiver of a doubt about last fall’s Constituent Assembly election results. To the Vietnamese all the programs and principles which the GVN advocates are a matter of utter indifference beside the crucial question of the U.S. weight in the political balance. The American claims to uninvolvement and neutrality in the election for chief of state this fall are totally invalid, for the Vietnamese cannot understand them. If Generals Thieu and Ky manage to lose the election, despite their control over the mass media and the airways, it will be because the Southerners have become convinced that the United States desires a political settlement to the war in the South.
Vietnam has had a government of Northerners because the Northerners understand the United States better than most of their Southern relatives. They understand the Western concept of nationhood and administration just as they understand the importance Americans attach to principles and programs which from a political point of view have no substance. If a program exceeds their interest or ability to carry out, they will merely agree to it enthusiastically and then do nothing about it: land reform and the reconciliation program for high-level Viet Cong defectors have long existed in a state of suspended animation. That many of these Northerners in the GVN are genuinely “principled” men in the Western tradition does not preclude a strong element of manipulation in their dealings with the Americans. Indeed, they must manipulate us in order to survive. A strong Southern political movement, though it be anti-Communist, would threaten their control. Their interest therefore lies in maintaining political incoherence and reducing the chances for a “Southern solution.” That the Viet Cong still remain the strongest single political force is perhaps not entirely an accident. With the United States behind it, the Ky government in 1966 managed to break up one significant new non-Communist movement, the Buddhists, by forcing them into a quasi-anti-American position.
In part because the United States has in the past two years needed to view the GYN as a strong, cohesive unit, many Americans have concluded that political Buddhism implies disorder and a softening before the Viet Cong. But the reverse is true. The essence of the movement is order, the traditional moral order reasserting itself in a time of social dislocation and political splintering. Insofar as geography bears relation to politics, the Buddhist movement is the cri de coeur of Central Vietnam against Saigon and its solt, loose Delta. The real leader of the movement, the brilliant and charismatic Venerable Tri Quang, is, like Ngo Dinh Diem, his compatriot from Central Vietnam, a strong nationalist, and a traditionalist with something of the same moral fervor and the same ambivalence toward the West. For him and for the Struggle committees, the real enemy —the disease which had attacked the land —came from that Saigon which was corrupted by Western influence. Though Western journalists were inclined to take it lightly, their puritanism coincided closely with that of the Dicmist Catholics and the NLF, the two other political movements of any weight in the South.
In the spring of 1966 the Buddhist Struggle Movement swept over the whole of Central Vietnam, displacing most of the government infrastructure as it went; the Delta, as usual, remained politically inert. The test, of course, was Saigon, and there the demonstrations went on for weeks without meeting any resistance. The Ky junta was too divided to give the order to call out the shock police; had it not been for the Americans, it would in all probability have collapsed. Finally, when the demonstrations boiled over into spurts of violence, the police chief, Colonel Nguyen Ngoc Loan, called out the police on his own authority. The Buddhist Struggle had worn itself out on the inertia of Saigon.
Though it is not at all clear that Thich Tri Quang could have built a regime immune to Viet Cong pressures, his movement was nonetheless the strongest in the non-Communist political spectrum. Today the political strength and direction of the Buddhist movement are to some extent imponderables. As a result of their defeat in Saigon and the military raid on the Danang pagodas, several hundred of the activists are now in jail, while the rest have turned to clandestine activity. Though the Buddhist Unified Church in Saigon is now more divided than ever, Thich Tri Quang, according to one report, has taken a definite antiAmerican stance, and it is likely that he has given up his project of playing the Americans off against the Viet Cong — at least for the moment. Though with the Danang raid General Ky strengthened his own position, he created at the same time a dangerous situation by driving the militant Buddhist and student organizations into the underground shared by the NLF cadres, the Frenchsponsored “neutralists,” and the other disalfectcd elements in Saigon. From his own point ol view he had little choice, for the country, including its armed forces, had split in half. His action was no more to be condemned than any other political action in a country without any legal political process for changing governments. If there is an economic crisis or some other form ol disturbance, it is within the realm of possibility that a coalition of such elements will rise to overthrow the government and the American presence.
Left above ground as supporters of the American presence are now only the minority groups, reluctant allies, caught in the frail bureaucratic structure of the government. Unlike the Buddhists, none of them have what a stockbroker might call growth potential. While they remain powerful in certain areas, the Cao Dai and the Hoa Hao have reached the limits of their strength in the isolated rural communities of the South. The Catholics have their one powerful, tightly organized community in Saigon, yet they are too distinct from the rest of the population, too deeply associated with the foreigners and the Diem regime to gain national acceptance. As for the political parties, they are, with one exception, small protective societies with no mass support; the exception, the VNQDD, has a popular following in certain parts of Central Vietnam, but its chances of success are just about as great as those of Ghiang Kai-shek in Mainland China.
Given the present political circumstances, the United States cannot “nation-build” — that is, assist in the construction of a Southern alternative to the Viet Cong, for it has no materials to work with. “Ky is one single man,” say the Southerners, he is neither good nor bad; he is nothing. While the United States can pour into South Vietnam tons of cement, mile upon mile of tin roofing sheets, and troops upon troops, it cannot so quickly deliver a pattern of “correct behavior.” If in the ministries civil servants spend their days putting painstaking signatures to one piece of paper after another, fulfilling the bureaucratic rituals as they once fulfilled the rites of ancestor worship, they persist in their meaningless formalities because they know no other security. If an ARVN battalion prefers to sleep or eat rather than to search out the Viet Cong, it is not because “the soldiers are tired after twenty years of war,” as their American advisers patiently explain, it is because they see no reason to fight. If the soldiers steal food from the villagers and the Revolutionary Development cadre teams grow long fingernails as a mark of officialdom, it is because they, unlike the Viet Cong, live for themselves rather than for the larger community. A thousand teachers and a thousand agricultural extension workers can dot i’s and plant seed without teaching the villagers a new language or a new relation between themselves and nature, between themselves and the economy of Vietnam.
“Do not be hasty,” Paul Mus counsels his American audience, “and do not believe that such a thing as the right to vote is the solution. It is the problem. It is a solution only in the long run.” At present the American design for a democratic government lends to look somewhat surreal when placed in a Vietnamese context. When he announced his candidacy in this fall’s presidential elections, General Ky declared that he would respond “militarily” if a civilian whose policies he disagreed with won the post. “In any democratic country you have the right to disagree with the views of others,” he explained. Though the word “democracy” is well known throughout Vietnam, it has, as the Premier indicated, no precise meaning as abstract principle. In North Vietnam “democracy means the present relationship between the people and their government. In the South it means the results — direct or indirect — of the elections. “I cannot tell you whether the elections will be good or bad, ‘ said one hamlet schoolteacher just previous to the 1966 vote. “If the candidates are good men who will work for the people, then they will be good, for the Assembly will bring peace.” In other words, if after several years of “democracy” the war is still going on, then “democracy” will be a bad system in the eyes of the schoolteacher. In the short run it is the results that arc important, and the results are determined by the realities of power.
Though the United States has changed Vietnam, it has done so less through conscious attempts at “nation-budding” than tangentially, through the war rather than the Struggle. To date, the war has “generated” (to use the impersonal U.S. military phrase) between two and three million refugees, a total which represents about 15 percent of the population of South Vietnam. When the war is over, there will probably be very little left of the orderly pattern of village society and its mirror in the Confucian heaven. Though to American military commanders the evacuation of villagers has definite military advantages, the proliferation ol refugees builds a heavy threat to South Vietnam’s political future. When traditional Southern society first began to break down under the French administration, its released energies produced the Hoa Hao and the Cao Dai, social and political organizations which dealt with new needs within new temporal and spatial perspectives. If then the process of social change was gradual and limited, the present war has accelerated and extended it to such a degree that the solutions required are immediate and national. Ripped away from the old authority of the village, and often the religious community, the refugees look for the first time to a government, any government, for protection and sustenance. Though the United States can feed them, it cannot provide them with a new community. In Saigon and around the other American bases prostitution, delinquency, and crime — the signs of political as well as moral and social disorganization —• occur more generally than they do elsewhere in the country. That the Saigon government cannot cope with sheer administrative problems of the camps and cities is the confirmation of its political incapacity
AT THE Guam conference Premier Ky said that he could not under any circumstances consider negotiations with the NLF. In the absence of any American interest in the problem, he did not perhaps make his point quite clearly enough. Though Westerners often tend to regard the Hanoi government and the NLF as members of the same species, to the South Vietnamese the difference between them is the difference between the war and the Struggle. On the basis of concepts of nationhood and diplomacy Ky could negotiate with Hanoi (indeed he would have been glad to, for it would have put him for the first time on a par with Ho Chi Minh), but he could not accept such Western solutions for the domestic Struggle as the inclusion of NLF members in the Cabinet or free elections under international controls.
In the Gonfucian universe, as in the heart of revolutionary Communism, the words ‘’representation” and “compromise” have no meaning within a given community. Except on a tactical, temporary basis, neither the Saigon regime nor the NLF will hold to a contractual agreement, an agreement to disagree. In April, Foreign Minister Fran Van Do said of the possibility of a coalition with the Viet Cong, “We will accept the Viet Cong as individuals but not as a political party or a unit. That’s definite. That’s clear. We won’t accept the Viet Cong as a body.” When on his way to Guam, General Thang called the proposal of coalition “suicide . . . a disguise for surrender,” he was making a prediction about the balance of forces. Were the GVN a viable political enterprise, his prediction might conceivably have been different; the proposal might have been a disguise for the surrender of the NLF.
Though a regime cannot compromise, it can, rather than surrender, change its pitch to accord with the dictates of heaven — or the dominant political reality. In the business of accommodation the Vietnamese politician is a good deal more versatile than even his American counterpart, for he sees a man as a man and not a bundle of principles to be carried around in all kinds of weather. For the “hard-core” Viet Cong, as for most of the Northerners and the Catholics, such an accommodation may be impossible now, after all these years, but it remains open to most of the South Vietnamese. The question, of course, is Who will have to reconcile themselves to whom after the departure of the American troops? At the moment the answer is clear, and the secret voices of the Assembly have recorded it, as they will record any changes that may take place in the future. Though the Assembly does not represent the political forces in the country, its members, or the majority that are Southern and non-Catholic, as individuals represent all the contested villages of the South. As landlords they may vote against land reform today, but tomorrow, if it is necessary, they will search out their not-so-distant relatives in the NLF with business proposals. As executors of the will of heaven, the Southerners have it within their powers to mediate, and perhaps soften the decisions made in the cold and distant climates of Hanoi and Washington.
If the United States should achieve the “limited objectives” sought by the Johnson Administration of securing the withdrawal of Northern troops from below the 17th parallel, it will once again have to face the problem of South Vietnam.3 Today the South is still a questionable political unit. Since the Geneva conference in 1954 it has been united under a single administration for only the three years 1955-1958; both before and since, its territories have been parceled out among factions whose political views are so diverse that they have not been able to achieve consensus on the terms of the debate between Communism and anti-Communism. Today a government in South Vietnam, held in place by the U.S. military presence, presides over a muted struggle between antiCommunist elements, which retain practically autonomous enclaves in the countryside. The Southerners have never been able to manage the central administration with any success; a short tour through Saigon reveals to what extent the United States has become its parallel government. If the South Vietnamese had ever been able to contain their society within a nationstate, the U.S. military activity has compounded the inherent difficulties.
The intractable problem for the United States is not the war but the peace — or the continuation of the struggle in a vacuum of foreign military power. Short of destroying the Northern regime entirely, the U.S. military cannot extirpate Communist influence from South Vietnam; the obstacle is not so much the Northerners in the South as the Southerners who have defected to the cause of the North. In the absence of a coherent, nationalist regime in Saigon, pacification operates by force alone and not by conversion. Though regimes may change before the departure of American troops, they will in the event of their departure have to face the probability of a deep xenophobic reaction throughout the country which will allow the NLF, like the Viet Minh before it, to lay claim to the title of the only true nationalists.
- In attempting to give some notion of the categories of Vietnamese political thought, I am deeply indebted to Paul Mus, the French historian and anthropologist, born in Hanoi, who has done what I believe to be the only significant work on the subject. His Sociologie d’une guerre was published in 1952 during the Indochina War.↩
- Pike, page 85. “The English word ‘struggle,’ a pale translation of the Vietnamese term dau tranh fails to convey the drama, the awesomeness, the totality of the original.”↩
- Neither President Johnson nor Secretary of State Dean Rusk has clarified the terms of these “limited ob jectives.” The conditions for a bombing halt in North Vietnam and for negotiations seem to range from a demand that the North “stop sending troops into South Vietnam” (Johnson) to a demand that the North “stop doing what it is doing” (Rusk). As the Administration has always considered that tire NLF is controlled by Hanoi (see the White Paper of 1960), the latter interpretation might mean a unilateral cessation of hostilities by the Viet Gong. In a guerrilla war the difficulties of disengagement are such that a cessation would be difficult to achieve even after an unconditional surrender by the central committee of the NLF.↩