The Birthday Way Out of Vietnam

Hawks, owls, and doves have all offered formulas for ending the Vietnam War based on various artifices to bring the North Vietnamese and National Liberation Front to the conference table. Yet at this moment, when the birds of prey are in the ascendancy, the Thirty Years’ War seems a brief encounter by comparison with the prospects for peace in Vietnam.

The trouble is that diplomats and politicians have proposed only diplomatic and political answers — old doctrinaire ideas based on United Nations goodwill, Geneva conferences, Locarno pacts, or what’s good for dynastic presidents or rival presidential aspirants. The time has come to put forward, in all modesty, a proved method of peacemaking.

What has escaped the attention of honest brokers and otherwise — not to mention the gentlemen of Hanoi — is the fact that only one thing has actually succeeded in ending the shooting and bombing South, DMZ, and North: holidays and birthdays.

The guns have been capped in the past for both Western and Asian holidays — at Christmas, New Year’s, and Tet (their New Year celebration). Some months ago, the South Vietnam government proposed a twenty-four-hour truce to celebrate the anniversary of Buddha’s birth. Not to be outdone in peacemaking, the presidium of the central committee of the NLF upped the ante and declared that it would observe a forty-eight-hour truce. It worked. The United States went along — what else could we do but stop the bombing of (he North when both Asian enemy and ally took away the only war we had?

In this manner, Gautama Buddha (c. 563-483 B.C.) succeeded (“Right action is abstaining from killing, stealing and sexual misconduct” — one of the paths to Nirvana) where Lyndon B. Johnson (“Bring home the coonskin” — one of his paths to Gehenna), U Thant, De Gaulle, and other well-meaning men failed.

But to get down to practical cases: Ho Chi Minh was born on May 19, 1890. If we or he suggests a ceasefire in honor of his birthday, the Buddha anniversary could begin several days ahead and spill over to May 23 (it would make no sense to stop shooting, resume for sixty hours, and start cease-firing all over again).

Such a gesture can pick up speed by another cease-fire next August 27 to prepare for President Johnson s birthday. A bit later, on October 8, a day’s truce can be called to celebrate — or, if that word offends, then observe — the birthday of Flyboy Ky, or whoever is running South Vietnam. By similar antiforce-majeure reasoning that applies to Buddha and Uncle Ho, Christmas and Lady Bird Johnson’s birthday (December 22) could be paired to lengthen the yuletide spirit.

Of course, face would compel the North and South Vietnam wives to insist that their birthdays be declared of equal value with Mrs. Johnson’s. What ceremonial breaking of champagne bottles over the bows of warships or dedications of orphanages can compare in prestige with the socially powerful silencing of mortars, the stilling of napalm canisters, the unarming of punji sticks, and the quieting of birthday machine-gun chatter?

The second bananas in the ministries, who have prosecuted the war so faithfully, should by right have their loyalty rewarded. Next June 9, a one-day halt would honor Secretary McNamara’s birthday, followed, on February 9, by that of Secretary Rusk. Ditto for their opposite numbers in North and South Vietnam. Whether Cabinet wives of this rank would be entitled to birthday truces would depend on conflicting bookings for more important personages or holidays.

Since the Viet Cong rule the country at night, a half-day compromise observance can be worked out in the form of honorable mentions for grandchildren of dignitaries.

Surely the outspoken United States senators who have been less than enthusiastic about the Vietnam charivari would have their birthdays looked upon favorably by the National Liberation Front and Hanoi regime. A peaceful period can be planned next monsoon season between the birthdays of Senator Hatfield (July 12), Senator McGovern (July 19), and Senator Church (July 25), when fighting in the central highlands is a drag anyway.

In this respect, a slice of cake would be handed to Senator Morse, who, in fairness, would get a truce lasting forty-eight hours beyond his birthday blowout on October 20 because of his long anti-Vietnam oratory. Something of an international celebration would commence next April 9 and go on a full seven days (somewhat less in Arkansas) in honor of Fulbright Week.

Since the war has worldwide implications, the holiday and birthday celebrations would not be selfishly confined to the United States and Vietnam. Other nations could contribute. The cease-fire would extend under this plan to whole months. In November, for example, the birthday of Dr. Sun Yat-sen is a day off in Taiwan on the twelfth. Hong Kong the next day celebrates a holiday called the Day Following Remembrance Sunday. Dr. Duvalier’s dictatorship may put a bone in the soup of political prisoners on November 18, a day of feasting to celebrate the Battle of Vertieres, or Army Day, in Haiti; on the same day Iraq observes Revolution Day. And so on for the rest of November through the thirtieth, a big holiday in the Philippines to celebrate Bonifacio Day.

Somewhere in the world there is dancing in the streets for sound holiday reasons almost every day of the year. It may be an inconvenience to turn Vietnam on and off, contingent on birthdays and holidays; and for all I know, the constant cooling and heating of the armament may be harmful to the precious military metals. But, like the theater of the same name, a war of the absurd is a dialogue without end buried in tunnels leading nowhere, and requires a solution as farfetched as Vietnam itself.

So far, neither force of firepower nor realpolitik nor pacification, alone or combined, has succeeded. Therefore, why not escalate birthdays and holidays? For the interminable future, only an overkill of celebrations can turn the trick of causing a 365-day, year-after-year, temporary truce.