Commentary Magazine


Vietnam Background

To the Editor:

While not, like Oscar Gass, an expert on everything from China to Vietnam and Russia, I may stake out a modest claim to being—in spite of my “generally disappointing book” (in its fourth printing in six months)—something of a student of Vietnamese affairs. As such, allow me to point out to you several items, in Mr. Gass’s article [“Vietnam—Resistance or Withdrawal?” May] which appear to be contrary to the facts, or at least would bear additional explanation.

(1) Mr. Gass states that the “Vietnamese comrades” (whose?) dissolved the Indochinese Communist Party “early in 1951” in order to court Laotian and Cambodian national susceptibilities.

In actual fact, the ICP was dissolved on November 11, 1946. (For a full text of the dissolution proclamation, see I. Milton Sacks’s very thorough “Marxism in Vietnam,” in F. N. Trager’s Marxism in Southeast Asia.) And it was dissolved then to assuage the justified worries of the Vietnamese nationalists that the ICP would take over the Hanoi regime, as it eventually did.

(2) Mr. Gass cites my French compatriot Devillers (who had not been to Vietnam since 1946 until he returned there for four days a month ago) to support an assertion of “spontaneous generation” of the South Vietnamese rebellion in 1958 “provoked by the aggravated brutal terrorism of Ngo Dinh Diem.”

It has been my particular merit in this field to have demonstrated as early as 1957 the centralized attack patterns of Communist subversion in South Vietnam (cf. Pacific Affairs, September 1958). While I fully agree with Mr. Gass on his characterization of Diem’s regime, I must also say that his explanation of the origin of the South Vietnamese insurgency is too facile to be correct.

(3) Mr. Gass criticizes my colleague Scigliano for his “penchant for knowing the unknowable” and cites as an example Scigliano’s quotation of a figure of 25,000 Communist guerrillas for 1962.

That statistic is an official American figure, quoted repeatedly by such responsible authorities as Secretary of Defense McNamara. I have available a long list (unclassified) of fully identified Viet-Cong units operating inside South Vietnam, which permits a pretty accurate estimate of Communist numerical strength as far as regular units are concerned. Rather than to chide Scigliano, Mr. Gass should instead have congratulated him on his penchant for thorough research.

The same goes for Mr. Gass’s criticism of Scigliano’s use of a highly competent older source. First of all, the source dates not, as Mr. Gass says, from 1947 but from 1949. Secondly, it involves behavioral patterns which do not change overnight. Unlike automobiles, research models of 1949 may just be as good as 1963 models—or all American research on Red China might as well close up shop, for there has been no American doing research in mainland China since 1949.

(4) To assert, as Mr. Gass does, that the U.S. in Vietnam has “no associates but Vietnamese” is contrary to fact. An Australian army mission under Colonel Serong has been operating in Quang-Tri Province since 1962 side-by-side with U.S. advisers; and a British advisory mission under Mr. R. K. G. Thompson did the key planning on the strategic hamlet program since late 1961. A British colonel was recently killed while flying in a U.S. helicopter in Vietnam. Right now there are Filipino trainers with various U.S. missions in Vietnam, and at least a half-dozen countries (Britain, France, West Germany, Japan, etc.) operate civilian aid programs to help the Saigon regime.

I could go on like this throughout the remainder of Mr. Gass’s article: the French did not lose “all” the Vietnamese provinces along China’s border in 1950; the South Vietnamese may be “numerous,” as Mr. Gass suggests, but does he know that it is officially admitted that about 5 million are outside of government control (and thus cannot be mobilized), and that the Viet Cong did not lose 25,000 guerrillas last year but 23,500 (cf. MAAG’s The Observer, Saigon, March 21, 1964)?

Surely, there is some merit to Mr. Gass’s central point that China cannot be left out of any accommodation on Vietnam—although I wonder whether it would then not be more advantageous to the West to deal with weaker Hanoi than with obstreperous Peking, precisely as General de Gaulle suggests.

And since Mr. Gass is no Vietnam specialist, it would have behooved him to state his case without engaging in oratorical jousts with the authors whose materials he uses so freely.

Bernard B. Fall
Howard University
Washington, D.C.

About the Author