The involvement of the United States in the Vietnamese war poses acutely two fundamental issues with which American foreign policy has tried to come to terms elsewhere, and which it is likely to have to face in Vietnam and elsewhere in an even more acute form. These issues are: the unqualified support we are extending to regimes whose political weakness compels us in the end to commit ourselves militarily beyond what our national interest would require; and the peripheral containment of Communist China. In order to understand the nature of the issues as they pose themselves in Vietnam, it is first necessary to take a look at the history of our involvement in the affairs of Vietnam.
That history has been determined by a number of paradoxes. The war which France fought in Indochina until the Geneva agreement ended it in 1954 was for her essentially a colonial war, no different from the wars that France and Spain had fought in Africa in the 1920’s. For the great majority of the Vietnamese, on the other hand, the war was a war for national liberation. However, for the two powers without whose intervention the Indochina war would have taken on a different character and might well have had a different outcome, the United States and Communist China, the war had nothing to do with national liberation or colonialism. As far as Communist China was concerned, the war was an attempt to extend the area of influence and domination of Communism. For the United States, too, the main issue of the war was the expansion of Communism. Certainly the United States did not support France for the purpose of maintaining French power in Indochina. The United States looked at the Indochina war as part and parcel of its over-all strategy of containing Communism throughout the world.
Yet while American interests were directly affected by the outcome of the Indochina war, the United States intervened only to the extent of supporting the French war effort; it did not intervene in the war itself nor did it participate actively in the Geneva settlement. On the one hand, the United States realized that the war was lost for the West, short of American intervention. On the other hand, it did not see fit, recovering as it was from the trauma of the Korean war just ended, to take over the military burden in Indochina which France had shouldered so long, with such enormous liabilities, and such lack of success. While the United States is committed to the containment of Communism everywhere in the world, this commitment is obviously subject to qualifications; the limited involvement of the United States in the Indochina war and its passivity during the Geneva negotiations are cases in point.
The Geneva Conference ratified the military defeat of France and the political bankruptcy of its policy in Indochina. This defeat and bankruptcy having been complete before the conference, one must ask why a conference was held in the first place. From a strictly military point of view, the Vietminh could have marched south and forced the French to evacuate. Why, then, did the Communists agree to hold a conference? Why did the Soviet Union even emphasize at the Berlin Conference of 1954 the necessity for such a conference? And why was it that at the conference itself the Communist powers, for the sake of agreement, made important concessions to the West? The Communists went into the conference proposing the fourteenth parallel as the dividing line between North and South Vietnam, and they retreated to the seventeenth parallel. They originally demanded that elections be held six months after the armistice, and they conceded two years.
We have heard much of negotiating from strength. Certainly at Geneva in 1954, the Communists had strength. Yet they conducted the negotiations in the spirit of compromise, and the political settlement to which they agreed was much more advantageous to the West than was warranted by the actual military situation. It would certainly be absurd to suggest that it was magnanimity which induced the Communists to make these concessions, or that it was simply for the sake of an agreement per se that they were made. It seems to me that a consideration of why those concessions were made, why there was a conference to begin with, with a compromise agreement to terminate it, will give us an inkling of the place that South Vietnam holds today in the over-all world situation, particularly from the point of view of the United States and its interests.
First of all, Communist China pursues in Asia an over-all military and political objective which parallels the objective of the Soviet Union in Europe. It is to remove the power of the United States from the continent of Asia; for American power on the continent of Asia, especially in the form of military strong points, constitutes a permanent challenge to the power of Communist China on that continent. A continuation of the Indochina war, ending foreseeably with a complete military disaster for France, might still have led to the active participation of the United States and established it as a military power within the traditional sphere of influence of China.
Secondly, what the Communists conceded at Geneva, both they and many Western observers viewed as only temporary concessions. It was then generally believed that South Vietnam was doomed; that Ngo Dinh Diem was the creation of the United States, pulled out of a hat by desperate American officials; that he would be unable to master the chaos then prevailing in South Vietnam; and that elections, whenever held, would give an overwhelming majority to the Communists. Thus the Communists expected, and in view of the facts then available had a right to expect, that sooner or later South Vietnam would fall to them.
Thirdly, the Vietminh wanted to take over the Red River delta intact rather than to have to conquer it.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the Soviet Union had just embarked upon its new policy of transforming the cold war of position into a cold war of maneuver, which was to be decided not in Southeast Asia but Europe. At that time, France occupied a key position in the over-all struggle for power in Europe. Its attitude was decisive for the success of the European Defense Community. By making a concession to France, by not humiliating France to the limit of its ability, the Soviet Union must have hoped to prevent France from ratifying EDC. For whatever reasons, France did not ratify EDC, and in that measure the expectations of the Soviet Union were justified.
However, the expectations of friend and foe alike, which anticipated the absorption of South Vietnam into the Communist orbit as inevitable, were belied by the vigor and success with which South Vietnam set about creating a new state from the ruins of a French colony. The vigor and at least temporary success of this seemingly hopeless experiment were due to three factors: American support, the qualities of the Vietnamese people, especially of the refugees from the north, and the personality of President Diem.
The United States, once the danger of getting involved in another Korean-type war had passed, recovered the ability to correlate its commitments to the objective of its foreign policy. That objective being the containment of Communism, the United States embarked upon a concerted policy of political, military, and economic assistance to President Diem’s regime. Without that assistance, President Diem could not have achieved his initial successes.
Yet these successes owe a great deal also to the extraordinary qualities of the Vietnamese people. Anybody who has traveled in Asia with his eyes open, beholding the different degrees of decay and backwardness, must have been impressed with the vitality and intelligence of the Vietnamese people. The order, vigor, and productivity of the refugee camps were—to take only one example—monuments to these qualities.
But the qualities of the Vietnamese people and American aid would not have been enough by themselves; they needed the fulcrum of President Diem’s extraordinary personality in order to become effective as raw material in the building of a temporary political order in South Vietnam. In little more than a year Diem managed to get rid of the Emperor and make himself President; to establish his control over the army; to purge the police of the gangster element; to push back, and in part eliminate, the independent power of the religious sects and of the Communists; and thus to establish something approaching efficient administration in a considerable part of the territory of Vietnam. All this was done entirely by totalitarian means—suppression of political opposition, muzzling of the press, arbitrary executions, and so on. Nor were the positive—puritanical and ideological—elements of totalitarianism missing. Diem embarked upon a successful “Anti-Loose Living” campaign which soon transformed Saigon, the former Paris of Southeast Asia, into the dullest of French colonial towns, and he also set up a most intricate and elaborate system of propaganda and control in the villages.1
It was obvious to me when I visited Vietnam in 1955—and I told President Diem so to his evident displeasure—that these policies would inevitably lead to a bipolarization of politics in South Vietnam. Supported by an oligarchy whose interests were tied to the regime, he would have to govern a politically frustrated and hence indifferent population, while the Communist underground would provide the only organized opportunity for political opposition. By equating all opposition with Communism, he would force the popular aspirations for change into Communist channels. This is in fact what happened. Having to choose between President Diem’s personal totalitarianism and the totalitarianism of Communism, which at least can justify itself by a forward-looking philosophy, the Vietnamese people at best have abstained from choosing and at worst have chosen Communism.
The extent of popular disaffection with the Diem regime is not known to American public opinion, which, following the example of the government, prefers to think of the problem of South Vietnam in terms of Communist aggression versus the defense of freedom. This disaffection is particularly widespread among those classes which are the natural supporters of a democratic regime or else its indispensable allies, such as business and professional men, university teachers and students, civil servants, and army officers. It is especially strong among the refugees from the North, who, after fleeing from Communist totalitarianism, are disappointed and embittered at the discovery that they have exchanged one totalitarianism for another. Their disaffection extends to the Kennedy administration from which they expected support for their aspirations. It is significant and bodes ill for the future of the regime, moreover, that the intensity of disaffection increases with the degree of education and political sophistication.
The attitude of the great mass of the peasants, on the other hand, is marked by indifference to the ideological positions of either side. They tend to look at Diem as a kind of American puppet, the successor to Bao Dai, the French puppet, and at the Americans as the successors to French colonial rule. Communism means nothing to them one way or the other. What interests them and determines their attitude are the benefits and disadvantages to be expected from either side. Thus they will submit to, and cooperate with, whoever happens to exercise authority at a particular time, and prisoners will join the other side almost as a matter of course, only to rejoin their former friends if the fortunes of guerrilla war should change.
How has American policy tried to cope with this situation? It has done so by two simple expedients, which have recommended themselves here as elsewhere exactly because of their simplicity: support for the domestic political status quo and military defense against the foreign enemy. Both policies are simple, as compared with the alternatives, in terms of the intellectual effort to be expended and the short-term political risks to be taken. But they also contradict each other in that the domestic political status quo is the greatest single impediment to successful military defense, short of commitments in men and material on the part of the United States out of all proportion to the American interests at stake. Nothing could be simpler than to see in President Diem’s regime the only viable anti-Communist government of South Vietnam, which therefore must be supported come what may, despite one’s misgivings about its philosophy and policies. Nothing could be simpler than to reduce the political and military instability of South Vietnam to the result of Communist aggression from without, to be countered by military action. But the very simplicity of these conceptions distorts a complex reality, and in consequence, policies based upon them are bound to be unsuccessful or can be made successful only at disproportionate costs and at inordinate risks.
If it was obvious to a casual observer like myself in 1955, it could not have been lost upon the experts six years later, that the main source of the political and military instability of South Vietnam must be sought in the very status quo which our policy is committed to maintain. If South Vietnam had a government which could count upon the loyalty of its civil service and armed forces and the support of the peasants, guerrillas would not be able to control whole provinces and penetrate to the very outskirts of the capital. Guerrilla warfare is a political problem before it is a military one. Both in Malaya and Greece, military action against the guerrillas remained ineffective until drastic political reforms removed the causes for popular indifference and hostility. The case of Greece is particularly instructive in this respect; for here the United States in the late 40’s had to cope with a situation not dissimilar from that which confronts it today in South Vietnam. The United States was able to restore peace and order in Greece through a coordinated political, economic, and military campaign which required the commitment of limited American resources because it gave priority to political and economic reforms. The arguments advanced on behalf of the inevitability of the existing political and economic status quo were as specious in the case of Greece as they are now in the case of South Vietnam.
The idea that there is no alternative to Diem is in the nature of a self-fulfilling prophecy. There appears to be no alternative to Diem only because we have placed all our bets on him. Six years ago, I was impressed with both the number and quality of public figures who took a passionate and intelligent interest in establishing a free and decent political order in South Vietnam. It is of course impossible to say from a distance whether such men are still available today. But certainly the United States could, if it had a mind to, find a general who could take over the reins of government and through whom the necessary political, economic, and social reforms could be effected.
The United States has two alternative policies to choose from: political reforms as a precondition for the restoration of peace and order in South Vietnam, or purely military means. The former policy requires the elimination of Diem and demands of American officials in the field great manipulative skills and exposes them to considerable short-term political risks, while it is likely to require of the United States but a limited military commitment. On the highest level at least, the government of the United States seems to have recognized the need for such political reforms, but there is no indication that this intellectual recognition has been transformed into effective political action in Saigon. Thus we have been forced to choose, half-heartedly and almost by default, the other alternative of a purely military solution.
This policy is a legacy from the Dulles era. It was then widely held that the acquisition by a Communist power of any piece of territory, regardless of its size and location, was a calamity which signaled the beginning of the end for the free world. Vietnam, for instance, was considered to be the “cork in the bottle,” the “first in a row of dominoes”; if it fell all of Indochina would fall, too. In fact, of course, North Vietnam went Communist, but South Vietnam did not, nor did the other states of Indochina. This unexpectedly favorable outcome of the Indochina war provides empirical proof for the proposition that Communist territorial gains can be localized and affect the interests of the United States adversely in differing degrees.
The misconception that each Communist territorial gain constitutes for the United States a calamity of the first magnitude has as its corollary the proposition that the United States must commit its military power to the defense of any territory that might be threatened by Communist subversion or aggression. The indiscriminate policy of alliances, offering our military support to whatever nation was willing to accept it (i.e. SEATO and the Eisenhower Doctrine) reflects that conviction. However, when the chips were down we were fortunately capable of distinguishing among interests which did not require any American military commitment at all, those which required a limited military commitment, and those which might require an all-out military commitment. Thus we did not intervene in the Indochina war, risking thereby, and reconciling ourselves to, the loss of all of Vietnam to the Communists. We did not commit our military strength to the liberation of the countries of Eastern Europe, of Cuba, and of Tibet. We were very careful in limiting the Korean war, and it was Mr. Dulles himself, the most consistent proponent of a militarily oriented foreign policy, who liquidated the Korean war on the basis of the status quo ante bellum.
It is therefore incumbent upon the government of the United States to determine with all possible precision the extent of the American interest in South Vietnam. The extent of our military commitment must depend upon that political determination. Is South Vietnam as important to us, or more or less so, than Korea or Cuba? Or is it as important as Berlin? The answer to political questions such as these must determine the extent of our military commitment.
Once South Vietnam is assigned its place in the hierarchy of American interests throughout the world, the government of the United States can profitably raise the question of a diplomatic solution to the problem of South Vietnam. Such a solution could be envisaged after the model of the diplomatic solution of the Geneva agreement of 1954, to which South Vietnam after all owes its very existence as an independent state. The United States is not the only country that has interests in Vietnam. So do the Soviet Union and Communist China, and so do our allies. The possibility of a negotiated settlement within the context of the over-all interests of the major parties concerned is certainly worth exploring, and it is an open question whether the chances for such a settlement are greater now than they would be at the conclusion of a drawn-out, inconclusive war.
A purely military policy is popular with the officials in the field because it frees them from the burden of political manipulation to which they are unaccustomed and from which they almost instinctively shy away because of the political risks involved. It is also popular with large segments of the American people because it promises a clear-cut solution to an irksome problem in the form of victory. Yet in truth, this purely military policy is fraught with enormous risks and dangers for the United States. For it raises acutely the fundamental issue of our Asian policy: the peripheral containment of Communist China by military means. It conjures up the possibility, if not the likelihood, of a repetition of the Korean war, perhaps even more drawn-out and less conclusive in its results than that war was. It should not be forgotten that, fought under much more favorable political conditions, the guerrilla war in Greece lasted five years and the one in Malaya lasted twelve.
It is an illusion to think that Communist China is being contained today by the military power which the United States can bring to bear locally in Laos, Thailand, South Vietnam, or Taiwan, or that it has thus been contained in the past. Communist China can if it wishes increase the challenges locally with little cost to itself and thereby force the United States to increase its military commitments far beyond its own. It will stop, as it has stopped in the past, at the point where the escalation of American conventional military commitments conjures up the possibility of an all-out war initiated by the United States. It is at that point that containment becomes effective. In other words, what contains Communist China is its over-all weakness vis-à-vis the United States. Yet barring a catastrophe within Communist China, this weakness is likely to be replaced in the foreseeable future by a strength which will make Communist China the foremost military power in Asia. It is from the perspective of this actual source of the containment of Communist China and of the prospect of China’s future military strength that the current military policy of the United States in South Vietnam must be viewed.
If the present primarily military approach is persisted in, we are likely to be drawn ever more deeply into a Korean-type war, fought under political and military conditions much more unfavorable than those that prevailed in Korea and in the world a decade ago. Such a war cannot be won quickly, if it can be won at all, and may well last, like its Greek and Malayan counterparts, five or ten years, perhaps only to end again in a stalemate, as did the Korean war. Aside from the military risks to which it will give rise in view of the distribution of military power which exists today and is likely to exist five or ten years hence, such a war would certainly have a profound impact upon the political health of the nation. McCarthyism and the change in the political complexion of the nation which the elections of 1952 brought about resulted directly from the frustrations of the Korean war. The American people are bound to be at least as deeply affected by the frustrations of a Vietnamese war.
The present primarily military approach has been undertaken without sufficient regard for its own military implications and its likely impact upon American politics at home and the American position in the world. The only viable alternative to that approach is the subordination of our military commitments to, and thus their limitation by, our political objectives in South Vietnam. These objectives must be defined as the restoration of a viable political order, which constitutes the only effective defense against Communist subversion. It is obvious that such a political order can be established only through American intervention. It would be infantile to argue against such a policy on the ground that it is intervention; for if we had not intervened consistently since 1954 in the affairs of South Vietnam, Mr. Diem would not be its President today and South Vietnam itself would not exist. The choices before us are not between intervention and non-intervention, but between an intervention which serves our political interests and thereby limits our military commitments, and an intervention which supports to the bitter end the powers-that-be, even if their policies, by being counterproductive, jeopardize the interests of the United States.
1 See my report in the Washington Post, February 26, 1956.