The installation of General Nguyen Van Thieu as president of the Republic of Vietnam on October 31 marked the end of the four-year period of constitutional lawlessness that began with the assassination of President Ngo Dinh Diem and Ngo Dinh Nhu, his brother and supreme counselor, on November 1, 1963. Diem’s murder was a sorry affair, and it had equally sorry consequences. Whatever his faults, and those of his family — and they were serious — he was the only man with any claim to real leadership to emerge in the thirteen years of the republic’s existence. To have shot him down with his hands tied behind his back was an act of fear and futility, discreditable to the military junta which gave the orders and damaging to the United States, which had let it be known that almost anything would be better than Diem.
That some sort of change had become inevitable need not be questioned, but the coup as it shaped up was blindly irrational and a wholly negative act. No one had thought the consequences through, or considered what would happen when Diem’s authority was withdrawn and nothing existed with which to replace it. A witch-hunt, inevitable in the circumstances, led to the ferreting out of members of Diem’s Can Lao Party and those who could be smeared by association with it. As a result, the government’s intelligence apparatus collapsed, and with it most of the fragile machinery of government. In three months the Viet Cong were able to make a more rapid advance than they had achieved in the previous three years of war.
While it is easy to write about the fall of Diem with hindsight, it was obvious to many observers, including some of the U.S. Mission in Saigon, that nothing about the military leadership invited any confidence whatsoever in its capacity to run the country or the war more effectively than Diem had run them. In the event, the military resorted to the same police methods, which they pursued less effectively. Corruption had been held within limits during the Diem regime, and Diem himself had been above suspicion; now from top to bottom there was no limit to the military’s appetite for personal enrichment, or for the opportunities for graft provided by the rapidly increasing U.S. commitment to the war.
By the spring of 1965, eighteen months after Diem’s overthrow, the war within the limits of the existing American military commitment had been lost. It was not because the Viet Cong had won any military victories. Rather, the processes of disintegration had accelerated to the stage where the military government could no longer provide effective opposition either to the political forces of the National Liberation Front or to the guerrilla forces of its military arm, the Viet Cong. Five governments had come and gone. Coup had followed coup as the task of government proved beyond the capabilities of those who had arrogated it to themselves and as others plotted to seize power and its perquisites. The new element in 1965 which put an end to Viet Cong expectations of early victory, and to the worst of the political instability, was of course the American military buildup.
It is not necessary to recapitulate in detail all the events that led to the election of President Thieu on September 3. Prime Minister Nguyen Cao Ky’s approval of the elections was designed originally to take some of the heat out of the Buddhist Struggle Movement in the late spring of 1966. Despite the young Air Marshal’s lack of confidence in the democratic processes, the latter worked their own progress through the subsequent elections for the Constituent Assembly, the constitution itself, and the elections for the presidency, the Senate, and the House of Representatives.
By any comparable regional standards, which are, surely, the only appropriate yardstick, the elections were well conducted. General Thieu won the presidency not because the votes were rigged but because ten civilian candidates split the nonmilitary vote, and in fact defeated themselves. From the moment that Ky agreed to run in the vice presidential slot on Thieu’s ticket, the result of the election was not in serious doubt.
Moreover, Thieu himself was probably the most competent candidate. Tran Van Huong, the former mayor of Saigon, and onetime premier, has an engaging personality, but his espousal of southern regionalism was highly suspect in the central provinces of South Vietnam, where, not without cause, there are strong feelings of antipathy to those who believe in CochinChinese exclusivism. In addition, Huong, who is in his mid-sixties, has not been well, and there were doubts whether he was fit enough to stand tip to the demands of the presidency.
Phan Khac Suu, the chairman of the Constituent Assembly, though he had an excellent running mate in Dr. Phan Quang Dan, proved to be weak almost to the point of senility, and few really took Truong Dinh Dzu, the peace candidate, seriously. For the rest, none had any real expectation of wide popular support, and they polled accordingly.
To the extent that the country now has a duly elected constitutional government, it is clear that South Vietnam has come a long way since November, 1963. But how far it has still to go was made plain in the weeks of maneuvering that followed the election. With the appointment of a cabinet in early November, it was evident that Thieu was practicing the same old techniques of government by clique. Of nineteen initial appointments, only two were new faces; the other seventeen were holdover offcials from the preelection Thieu and Ky regimes.
No cabinet representation was given in these early appointments to the voters who supported the ten civilian candidates for President whom the generals defeated. Thieu himself is publicly committed to encourage the development of a loyal opposition; whether these cabinet appointments mean that “opposition” rather than “loyal” will be the operative word remains to be seen. Much of the opposition will form in the Senate and House of Representatives, neither of which will be rubber stamps for the regime. Whatever the appearances of progress toward constitutionalism, it would seem that the political maturation South Vietnam so desperately needs is still far off.
The maneuvering that led up to the cabinet appointments revolved around one fact: of the many problems which the Thieu regime government faced, few were potentially more serious than those within its own ranks. In agreeing under pressure to stand down as a presidential candidate in the interests of the unity of the armed forces, Ky did not agree also to relinquish power. Yet as vice president, he may hold neither cabinet nor military office. His hopes that the Senate and representatives would be amenable to constitutional changes permitting the vice president to take office as prime minister have proved illusory, since amendments to the constitution must be approved by two thirds of the total number of representatives and senators, a vote that Ky will never get.
Ky was required to step down constitutionally as head of the air force, and as a result his military power has also been eroded. But his former air force colleague and classmate, General Nguyen Ngoc Loan, remains as chief of the National Police, and Ky continues to command support among some of the Corps commanders, and the possibility that he may one day be tempted to seek authority by extraconstitutional methods cannot be entirely ruled out. Long before the elections, Ky had gone on record to define what sort of government he would and would not accept. Not least because of his suspected restlessness, there was more talk about the possibility of a coup d’etat in the month following the elections than there had been in the twelve months preceding them.
For weeks, Thieu and Ky agreed on almost nothing, and such positive acts as the government took were scarcely calculated to rally popular support. The prosecution of peace candidate Dzu, and the arrest of Ky’s former economic minister, Au Truong Thanh (who had been eliminated from the presidential race on the grounds that he was a neutralist), were highly impolitic.
Against all external advice, Thieu from the start showed little interest in going beyond the technicians to create a broader-based government of national union. As a gesture, he did offer the prime ministership to Tran Van Huong, who finished fourth in the presidential campaign. Not unexpectedly, however, Huong declined, thus opening the way for at least a temporary patching up of the Thieu-Ky partnership.
For Nguyen Van Loc, who was then offered, and accepted, the prime ministership, read Nguyen Cao Ky; the riddle of the new distribution of political power then becomes a little clearer. Forty-fiveyear-old Loc, a personally agreeable and unassuming Saigon lawyer, was born in the Mekong Delta; thus he gives the government the proper regional balance. President Thieu is from Central Vietnam, and Ky was born in the North.
But in the prevailing political climate, where Loc was born matters less than where his loyalties lie. No one pretends that he possesses either great political talent or experience, or that he has the charisma to rally the people of his native delta provinces to the government side. But no one doubts that he is a Ky man through and through. When Ky planned to run for the presidency, Loc was to have been his running mate. Then, when Ky stepped down and agreed to run on Thieu’s ticket as the vice presidential candidate, Loc became their campaign manager. He is not a strong prime minister. But he is most certainly Ky’s prime minister.
Since President Thieu presides at cabinet meetings, which Ky, as vice president, does not attend, it will not be easy for Loc to oppose the will of the chief executive, and real power is likely to remain in the hands of Thieu, a fact of life that may rest uneasily with the ambitious Ky.
More conventional opposition to the government has polarized around two groups, one led by the disgruntled Dzu, who finished second in the presidential election, and Phan Khac Suu, who finished third; and the other based on Tran Van Don’s victorious Peasant-WorkerSoldier Senate team of ten.
Dzu and Suu are as unlikely a pair of partners as Vietnam has ever seen. They came together not because they had plans for effective opposition, but simply because they could not accept defeat. Their “Front for the Defense of Democracy” had as its sole raison d’être the denigration of the elections and the new government. It offered nothing but street agitation of the type that has consistently served as a substitute for genuine political activity in Saigon.
Predictably, the militant Buddhists, patiently rebuilding their organization after their crushing defeat during the Struggle Movement in 1966, were eager to exploit the situation. They were helped by an earlier and serious official miscalculation about the respective strengths of the moderate and extremist wings of the Unified Buddhist Church.
The moderate leader, Thich Tam Chau, known irreverently, if aptly, as Thich Dollar, with five of his followers met in May to revise the Buddhist Charter, under which the church is permitted by law to operrate. Since the effect of the new charter was to make Tri Quang’s extremist group illegal, Thieu, as chief of state, cheerfully signed the new charter, whereupon Tri Quang rallied almost the entire Buddhist hierarchy to his side, effectively isolating Tam Chau and gravely embarrassing Thieu.
A renewed wave of suicides by Buddhist nuns and a sit-down hunger strike by Tri Quang outside the presidential palace, and finally, an attempted march from the extremists’ headquarters in An Quang pagoda to the Vien Hoa Dao, where Tam Chau is in occupation of the Buddhist institute, led to clashes between Tri Quang’s followers and the police, which is precisely what Tri Quang had planned. With a Catholic president and with the Catholics holding a disproportionate share of the seats in both the Senate and the House of Representatives, he has explosive politico-religious material with which to develop his campaign against the government.
“The only way to work...”
The success of General Tran Van Don’s Senate team on September 3 encouraged this latter group to attempt the formation of a formal party, which hoped to poll well in the election for the House of Representatives. Without the charismatic figure of Don himself, who has always had a big personal following in Vietnam, the voters were unenthusiastic, and support for the party was meager.
Its sponsors hope to keep the organization alive and to build it into a more significant political force four years hence. If the intention is laudable, the prospects are indifferent. Many politically conscious Vietnamese are frankly skeptical of party politics in the Western tradition. A day or two after the presidential campaign, two of the more notable political leaders sat down over lunch with a Western friend to discuss the plans for the future. The Westerner suggested that their failure had been due in part to the proliferation of civilian candidates and in part to the lack of an effective national organization, and that the only hope for the future was to organize a genuine political party in company with like-minded leaders.
Both men disagreed. “We have considered everything very carefully,” said the more senior of the two. “There is no tradition of party politics in this country, and we doubt whether there will ever be such a tradition. The only way to work is with existing organizations, with one of the old nationalist organizations like the Dai Viet, or the VNQDD [Vietnamese Kuomintang Party], with the sects [the Hoa Hao and Cao Dai], or with the religions, either the Catholics or the Buddhists.
“The sects are too limited in their appeal. As the elections have shown, the old nationalist organizations have served their purpose. This eliminates all but the Catholics and the Buddhists. We have no chance of working in with the Catholics, so that leaves only the Buddhists. Tam Chau is finished. He’s not worth thinking about. So that leaves only Tri Quang. But who in the world could work with Tri Quang?” And with that he threw his hands in the air in a gesture of utter hopelessness.
None of this would matter so much if the war were not so very much a political war. When Ho Chi Minh formed the first platoon of the Liberation Army in December, 1944, he named it the Vietnam Propaganda and Liberation Unit. It had a fighting role, but its primary task was to proselytize. The essential difference between the late “Che” Guevara, who believed that he could organize a successful war of national liberation in any country in the Latin Americas with twentyfive to thirty guerrillas, and Ho Chi Minh was Ho’s insistence on putting politics first and guerrilla warfare second. Because the Viet Cong have always thought in terms of people and the Saigon government mostly in terms of terrain, progress in the “struggle for the hearts and minds of the people” has been slow and sometimes one-sided.
The pressures of war have recently cost the NLF friends in the countryside. Time no longer permits the luxury of having the youth volunteer to serve in the Viet Cong. Taxes have grown increasingly heavy, and the quality of Front cadres has deteriorated. To assume, however, that the Front is primarily a terrorist organization and that those who work for it do so out of fear, or because of coercion, is to misunderstand the nature of the war.
It is obviously impossible to attempt to estimate the size of the Front’s popular following and the votes its candidates might expect if at the peace table Washington and Saigon are ever challenged to a free and democratic vote between the Front and its opponents. Nevertheless, a rough sampling in the wake of the September 3 poll among Vietnamese qualified to make an educated guess produced some surprising responses. Among the Vietnamese bureaucrats, former cabinet ministers, teachers, students, and businessmen, the minimum figure anyone ventured about the Front’s popular following was 25 percent. Several thought it might be about 35 percent, which is the proportion of the popular vote which went to Thieu on September 3. Others put the figure even higher.
All of these estimates may be grossly inflated, but it is at least reasonable to assume that the Front’s following would be larger than that of the Catholics, who, though numbering only about 10 percent of the population, won 27 out of the 60 seats in the Senate, and despite many withdrawals to avoid a repetition of this landslide, picked up 35 seats out of 137 in the House of Representatives.
For the immediate future, there is little prospect that the issue will be put to the test, In anticipation, no doubt, of an erosion in the U.S. position before and after the presidential campaign, both Hanoi and the Front are taking an uncompromising stand on negotiations.
But looking forward to the day when some negotiated settlement must be found, there is some reason for optimism. It is not too much to expect that the Senate and the Representatives will prove useful sounding boards for the people’s aspirations and grievances and that out of this there will develop greater political maturity and responsibility. There are times, however, when the spectacle of an incandescent Buddhist nun seeking nirvana in a blaze of gasoline on a street corner seems, in its own macabre way, a fitting symbol for the state of Vietnamese politics.