Commentary Magazine

Vietnam-Resistance or Withdrawal?

To resist or to withdraw: these are the alternatives. And they are alternatives which can be variously structured. Then they will commend themselves variously to informed, reasonable, fallible men.

Neutralization, unification, independence: these are, I believe, in reference to Vietnam today, false slogans. “The rhetorician would deceive his neighbors, The sentimentalist himself. . .” Neutralization, unification, independence: with respect to Vietnam today, these are the catch-cries of rhetoricians and sentimentalists—deceivers and deceived.



In the winter of 1949-50, the war to expel the French from Indo-China was subjected to a new influence, which seems eventually to have become the decisive one. Already in the latter part of 1949, the Communist forces of Mao Tse-tung had established themselves on the Chinese side of the border. On October 1, in Peking, they proclaimed the People's Republic of China. In November, they invited foreign comrades and fellow-travelers to Peking, for consultation on the further conduct of the world-wide struggle for national liberation and for socialism. There Mao's closest colleague, Liu Shao-ch'i, put forward a strategy of two linked elements: the united front and the insurgent army. First, said Liu, there must be created, in each country, a political united front of all “. . .who are willing to oppose the oppression of imperialism and its lackeys. . .”; this front must be under the de facto leadership of disciplined party Communists. Second, wherever possible, the political struggle for national liberation and socialism should be reinforced by military action: “It is necessary to set up . . . a national army which is led by the Communist party. . . . This way is the way of Mao Tse-tung . . . for winning emancipation by the people of the colonial and semi-colonial areas. . . .” Peking would not then forget its obligations in the common struggle. As Mao himself said “. . . in an era where imperialism still exists, it is impossible for a genuine people's revolution to win its own victory without different kinds of help from the international revolutionary forces.” For these “different kinds of help,” Peking at that time still looked hopefully to Moscow; but the smaller peoples of Asia, Africa, and even Latin America were already encouraged to look also to Peking.

The Vietnamese comrades, led by the old party stalwart who now called himself Ho Chi Minh,1 had already been operating on lines very similar to those now publicly enunciated by Liu Shao-ch'i. The two elements of united front and insurgent army were just their meat. In Peking, they accordingly heard, absorbed, and cooperated. The Chinese comrades reciprocated. In January 1950, while Mao was visiting Stalin, China came forward first to recognize Ho Chi Minh's insurgent forces as the Democratic Republic of Vietnam. The USSR added its recognition before the month was out.

Despite this Russian act of recognition, China seems to have remained the one significant foreign power on the side of the Vietnamese insurgents until the French position in Indochina was destroyed. China became the insurgent Vietnamese base of military supply—as the United States was the military supply base for France. Chinese support guaranteed the ascendancy of the Vietnamese Communists in the resistance. Thousands of Vietnamese cadres were trained in China. The mind-cleansing, confession, and conversion of the Vietnamese intellectuals, behind the insurgent lines in the north, were conducted according to the Chinese model. Yet, for the outer world, Ho Chi Minh successfully maintained the imagery of a Vietnamese political united front, in which Communists—always faithful national militants—merely bore their part. Early in 1951, the Vietnamese comrades even took the initiative of dissolving their Indochinese Communist party, out of tenderness for the national susceptibilities of the party comrades from Laos and Cambodia. Three separate parties were then formed. True, the Vietnamese leadership seems promptly (Nov. 1, 1951) to have informed its cadres, in a confidential circular, that the three would again become one Communist party as soon as world conditions were favorable. But outsiders were encouraged to believe that the Pathet Lao and the Cambodian Communists were independent actors in the most independent of independent national movements. Indeed only rabid anti-Communists would suspect them of being anything else!

After the Geneva agreements (July 1954) partitioning Vietnam at the seventeenth parallel, the influence of China in North Vietnam seems, for some years, to have been diminished or balanced by other influences. This period of about four years was also one of reduced outward militancy. Perhaps initially the North Vietnam government was waiting quietly for the elections which, according to the Geneva “Declaration of Intentions,” were to re-unite Vietnam by July 1956. Perhaps not: my own hunch (and also that of Mr. P. J. Honey, author of Communism in North Vietnam) is that the North Vietnam authorities never believed such elections would occur. More likely, the North Vietnam authorities were restrained by their dependence for advanced economic assistance on the Soviet Union and its East European associates. Twice in these years 1954-58, the USSR failed to support even its great ally, China, in her challenge to the USA over Taiwan; the USSR was not likely to support a challenge which might equally escalate into war with the USA when initiated by the little state of North Vietnam. Also, in some degree, Chinese influence seems to have been undermined by bitter experience with faithful adherence to the Chinese model. Land reform was the critical case. Under Chinese guidance, land reform in North Vietnam pursued two Maoist principles: first, in class war the sins of the fathers must be visited on the children; second, a new agricultural order needs blood to separate past from future. Faithful adherence to these principles, as applied under the participating tutelage of Chinese instructors, apparently brought some hundreds of thousands of executions. The regime of North Vietnam found itself with a population in revolt, no food, and somewhat diminished respect for the Chinese.

In the years after 1958, there was a renewal of the militant effort of the North Vietnam regime to gain control over the whole country. A later historian, with access to archives, may give us an exact, connected explanation of how this came about. No contemporary writer has done it. Mr. Philippe Devillers, whose views of Vietnamese matters always merit respectful consideration, sees the fire starting in South Vietnam.2 He believes Ho Chi Minh was provoked into action, late in 1958, by the aggravated brutal terrorism of Ngo Dinh Diem. The economic determinists also have their say. For them, the fire starts in North Vietnam: the North Vietnam regime is compelled, by industrial failure and—more importantly—by hunger, to seek food and glory in national unification under Communism. In still other quarters, an American sense of guilt speaks. There strange visions may be communicated: all the trouble may originate in a United States threat to Chinese security—even through Laos!—constituted by American support, in 1959 and 1960, for the comic-opera pair, Prince Boun Oum and General Phoumi Nosavan.

We must hold fast to the essential. In these years, 1958-63, Chinese policy became increasingly overt in differentiating its militancy in Asia from the comparative passivity of the USSR. The Chinese were prepared to support wars for national liberation and socialism; the Russians, at best, went along in tight-lipped acquiescence. In the conflict between China and the USSR, the government of North Vietnam came down—however slowly and reluctantly—on China's side. China was on their side. Chinese influence in North Vietnam accordingly rose, and Russian influence fell. In December 1963, Le Duan (the First Secretary of the Vietnamese Communist party who has reportedly played a major role in directing the guerrilla warfare in South Vietnam) spoke in Hanoi the language of Peking: “Modern revisionism is a grave evil in the revolutionary movement. . . . We must hate it as we hate imperialism. . . . China's revolutionary tactics are now the model for many Communists in Asia, Africa, and Latin America. . .” Castro may yield to Khrushchev on the nuclear test-ban; Ho Chi Minh stands with Mao. The North Vietnamese retain the high-policy direction of the National Liberation Front in South Vietnam and of the Pathet Lao in Laos. And, back of North Vietnam, stands the great power of China.



North Vietnam's is a representative contemporary Communism. Political authority is concentrated in a Leader and his small, circle of longtime associates. This leadership group consists of former professional revolutionaries, of necessity in some cases professional soldiers, now also political and economic administrators. They are not chosen representatives of a community—or a mass movement—which shares their social and political objectives, albeit in a less sophisticated form. Rather they come self-elected from a society where, in their Leninist terminology, adequate historic “consciousness” is deficient. It is therefore among the first tasks of such a Communist leadership—the self-chosen vanguard of a non-existing proletariat—to disseminate adequate “consciousness.” This means: to create a public mind sharing the leadership's view of history, seeing its own role in history as the leaders do, and having the values, the devotion, and the obedience which these leaders believe appropriate to the new age. The task is pursued with great energy and tenacity. No competing image of good and evil is tolerated. Every persistent opponent is killed. Punishment and reward are employed to a continuing structural purpose: new cadres are to be formed, and a new hierarchy is to be built. And that hierarchy reaches down to control every household. It may honor and promote; it may terrorize and kill. But it does not neglect.


Today, in March 1964, it seems not unlikely that the government of South Vietnam is even more estranged from its people than is the government of North Vietnam. In the North, government while authoritarian is not remote; it may be brutally repressive, but it is not alien or dissociated. In the South, government is also authoritarian. It has never permitted an honest election. It increasingly wears the ugly face of military power. And its officialdom is all made in Saigon. Moreover, especially for the rural countryside—where four-fifths of all South Vietnamese live—government is, at most, intermittently here and dubiously ours.

Ho Chi Minh and his National Liberation Front (formed ostensibly “somewhere in Cochin China,” ostensibly in December 1960) call the government of Saigon an American government—a government which has only exchanged French masters for American. In part, the accusation is correct. South Vietnam survives today, as a separate state, because of American intervention. No informed person can believe anything else. In the absence of American intervention, North Vietnam—backed by the great Communist powers—would certainly hive succeeded in imposing unification (as would have North Korea). To that extent, the Communists are correct in characterizing the Saigon government as an American creation—even if the creature changes faces uncontrolledly and acts in fashions that often mystify the unskillful and inhibited Americans who make its life possible. If the Americans had not stood in the way, Ho Chi Minh's government would certainly by now have succeeded in extending Communist rule over the whole of Vietnam—probably also over Laos and Cambodia. To establish their law and order, the Vietnamese Communist leadership might have had to kill a few hundred thousand South Vietnamese (as well as Laotians and Cambodians). For that requirement, however, Ho Chi Minh and his associates were the correct people; they were prepared for it by doctrines, models, and experience.

There are few more blinding contemporary political errors than to regard socialism as the differentiating characteristic. To his shocked American advisers, Ngo Dinh Diem was also a socialist. He despised capitalists, whether merchants or manufacturers. He preferred every large enterprise to be owned by the state. Reluctantly he would agree that the state might hold only a minority interest in some major new enterprises; he would then rely on the government's many direct controls (over materials, imports, credits, etc.) to give the state effective management of these firms too. He was modern: he could speak of “planning.” Marx was a sufficiently capable historian to have understood the filiation of Diem's socialism with that of Ho Chi Minh and, still more perhaps, with the socialisms of Chinese emperors, Russian czars, and Turkish sultans. But we ourselves must be attentive to see contemporary history as it is: where Nasser and Nkrumah and Nehru are socialists, Ngo Dinh Diem was also a socialist.

South Vietnam has more than three million city people (half in Saigon) and twelve million country people. Government is of the cities. The well-wishers of successive South Vietnam governments have urged them to make themselves popular by doing social justice and, less exactingly, by going to the people of the rural countryside. It is not easy. This going to the people is not in local custom and sentiment; nobody knows how to act. Only a few months ago, it was General Minh who was “going to the people” in the Southern countryside. And, on December 27, 1963, the New York Times reported from Tayninh: “Now and again General Minh would ask members of the crowd what they wanted the Government to do for them. But they appeared to be too astonished at being asked such a question to reply.” Moreover, the cities include all the educated and prosperous; they are minded to get, not give. Finally, the cities are full of cultural groups remote from the popular countryside: about a quarter of the city people are Chinese, though long-settled in Vietnam; many are Catholics, though not less Vietnamese for that; many more are post-partition immigrants from the North and Center.

On the left (certainly in the United States—probably also among European intellectuals) the panacea for the popularity of South Vietnam governments is land reform. And indeed South Vietnam's land reform, as accomplished by Diem, left something to be desired. Still, it was arguably as favorable to the peasants as the highly touted land reform of Taiwan. (The rent maximum is 25 per cent in South Vietnam, 37½ per cent in Taiwan.) The Southern peasant might even have come to regard Diem as a great liberator if he had experienced, in his own flesh, Ho Chi Minh's collectivization. But, in the South alone, no government can compete with the National Liberation Front land-reform slogans; there the Communists are free to advise the peasant to pay nothing—except Communist-assessed taxes.

In 1958 or 1959, the United States might have allowed the separate existence of South Vietnam to be extinguished without causing a much greater immediate earth-tremor than resulted from the Russian occupation of Budapest in November 1956 or the Chinese attack on India in October 1962. In 1958 or 1959, the Russians would have been as quick as the Chinese to claim credit for this advance of national liberation and socialism. (The Russians were then as great a power in Hanoi.) Four years later, when the Chinese moved to open polemics against the Russians,3 they said—in everything but words of one syllable—that the Russians had disqualified themselves, as world Communist leaders, by failing to stand forward boldly, against the United States, in support of just such activities as those of the National Liberation Front of South Vietnam. Said the Chinese, contrasting their own militancy with Russian passivity: “The more the national liberation movements and the revolutionary struggles of the people develop, the better for the defense of world peace.” The Russians are effete: they no longer view the future “with revolutionary optimism,” and they falsely “. . . believe that war is no longer the continuation of politics. . .”

How easily the United States might have obviated all this controversy! It need perhaps only have allowed South Vietnam to founder in 1958 or 1959. In that case, the world might have been spared the open Sino-Soviet split, the nuclear test-ban treaty—and so much morel The line of resistance to Communist expansion would then perhaps have been withdrawn initially to Thailand. Subsequently, and by the present day, there might well have followed—it may be with a somewhat greater earth tremor—withdrawal also from Thailand. And so perhaps withdrawal from the whole Southeast Asia mainland—except sea-bound Malaya, or not excepting Malaya?

I am reminded of the invocation with which Arnold Toynbee prefaced his magisterial account of the year 1936:4

Petits moutons, gagnez la plaine,
Fuyez les bois, crainte des loups;
Je ne puis me garder moi-même,
Comment vous garderai—je tons?

—Chanson Bocagère

But 1964 is not 1958. A nation may disavow commitments; it inherits consequences. Since the acceleration of insurgency in 1958, the involvement of the United States in the survival of South Vietnam has steadily deepened. A new cycle of involvement was opened by Secretary McNamara at the end of /?/ survival of an independent government in South Vietnam is so important . . . that I can conceive of no alternative other than to take all necessary measures within our capability to prevent a Communist victory.”6 Four weeks later, President Johnson himself warned those unnamed external authorities who supply and direct guerrilla warfare in South Vietnam that they were playing a “deeply dangerous game.” Then speculations, threats, and counter-threats. The cycle was closed by an official U.S. statement following a meeting of the National Security Council on March 17, 1964: “. . . there have unquestionably been setbacks.” For the enemy, Hanoi supplies and directs. But, for the present, no word of striking back at Hanoi. Instead, mobilization in the South and further U.S. supply and training: “It will remain the policy of the United States to furnish assistance and support to South Vietnam for as long as it is required to bring Communist aggression and terrorism under control.”

Sweeping words. Nevertheless, the military position in South Vietnam has deteriorated steadily. Apparently now, at night, at least two-thirds of the rural population comes regularly within the reach of the insurgent forces. This population is consequently continuously subjected to the readiness of the insurgents to assassinate any known opponent. In the best months of counteraction by successive Saigon governments, the casualties inflicted on the insurgents have been such as the insurgents could absorb forever. Supply lines to the insurgents, from the North, remain open at innumerable points along 900 miles of sea and 800 miles of land. The South Vietnam government forces have never begun to approach closing these open frontiers. They have therefore never experienced the weight of counter-action (insurgent, North Vietnamese, and ultimately Chinese) that might be provoked by a serious attempt at closure. Major escalation has been avoided. But the progress of the insurgent forces has continued.



1963, a year of one crisis after another, was also a year flooded with books on Vietnam. Three should perhaps be brought to attention, each for a different reason.

Mr. Robert Scigliano's book7 is perhaps the one that should be read alike by those who will not read another book on Vietnam and those who will. It is both packed with information and refreshingly analytical; it is independent in judgment but rides no erratic hobbyhorses. It makes few errors. (The only important one is on page 181, where the author succumbs to Diem propaganda on the progress of the strategic hamlet program; this is an error he shared with most outsiders, at the time he was writing.)

Perhaps the central theme of the book is the fraudulent character of the claim that South Vietnam is a “free world” society. This fraud reached its climax in 1961 when Lyndon Johnson likened Diem to Churchill. South Vietnam is an authoritarian society, with no more representative political institutions than North Vietnam, and where successive rulers have hitherto evidenced only minimal concern for popular welfare. I quote Scigliano, writing before the fall of Diem:

All opposition activity in Vietnam is either suppressed and its participants arrested . . . or watchfully tolerated so long as its scope is restricted to small group discussions and the issuance of mild criticisms. . . .

Only since the fall of 1962 has the Vietnamese government given serious and concerted attention to rural rehabilitation, when it undertook, with the help of American aid, to furnish villages under its control with sizeable amounts of social and economic assistance.

Scigliano does not testify to any continuing, working activity, directed to fostering a free society, on the part of the various American missions:

American missions in Vietnam have devoted no resources or technical personnel to the development of the political instruments of representative government. . . . Much of the American effort in Vietnam, on the other hand, has gone to strengthen the police and security forces and other institutions contributing to a modern police state.

Scigliano also does not testify to any great awareness by the American authorities in Vietnam of what was going on around them. Referring to the position at the end of 1961, he reports:

It is only a slight exaggeration to say that high-level American authorities in Vietnam realized how badly things were going only when they received the new line from Washington.

While he treats only the South systematically, in chapter 6, “North Versus South,” he does give a fair-minded account of the whole insurgent movement. He does not malign the soldiers of the enemy:

The fact is that Communism, in the dress of nationalism and in its advocacy of land to the peasants, represents a powerful force in South Vietnam, and one which receives widespread support from the peasant population. It has little trouble recruiting its partisans from among young villagers and, once recruited, these peasant-soldiers fight bravely and tenaciously and very seldom desert to the other side despite the rigors of guerrilla existence.

Perhaps Scigliano's one weakness is a penchant for knowing the unknowable. He reports the full-time guerrilla force, alike in 1962 and 1963, as “about 25,000.” And he finds these full-timers “. . . supported as in the past by scores of thousands of part-time guerrillas and by much—perhaps a majority—of the rural population.” He even ventures a sentence, so compatible with our popular sociologies, “The peasantry is not so much a pawn or a prize as it is the arbiter in the struggle between Communist and anti-Communist nationalism.” Honor to this rugged arbiter! But how does Scigliano know his sentiments? Where terror and counter-terror are practiced so lavishly, is it easy to know? And I am not reassured when I find Scigliano, writing in 1963, resorting (p. 158) to an informed witness of 1947! Nor does it strengthen the chain of evidence that he there takes sympathy for Viet Minh in 1947 as an indicator for the popular basis of Communist power in 1963.


Mr. P. J. Honey's book8 is also one I would warmly recommend. Albania, Outer Mongolia, North Korea, and North Vietnam—each presents a fascinating sub-plot in the great play of the Sino-Soviet dispute. But North Vietnam's is, for world affairs, distinctly the most important. And, after Mr. Honey's exposition, the movements in this sub-plot are far more intelligible than before.

The nub is the prolonged effort of Ho Chi Minh to hold on to both China and the USSR, while pursuing an activist policy for the unification of Indochina under his own rule. Albania came down easily on the Chinese side, Outer Mongolia as easily on the Russian, North Korea perhaps not so readily but still unequivocally on the Chinese. But North Vietnam did not wish to make an exclusive choice, and even today, when North Vietnam is more committed on the Chinese side than when Honey finished his book, Ho Chi Minh endeavors to keep up some relations with Moscow. Clearly the prospect of being alone with the Chinese gives Vietnamese the shivers.

Stories of the greed, the duplicity, and the terrible cruelty of the Chinese rulers during the two periods of Chinese domination abound in Vietnam and are recounted as though the events of history had taken place only recently.

The role of North Vietnam in the conflict between China and the USSR is Honey's major theme. But he also sketches the outline of several other large issues: the manner of work and personalities of the North Vietnam leaders; North Vietnam's direction of the insurgency in the South and in Laos; Ho Chi Minh's conception of the future of Laos and Cambodia. The presentation is made carefully, with appropriate reserve for gaps in knowledge. Characteristic phrases are: “It is impossible to say which, if any, of these three [alternatives] is correct.” and “It is very probable, although not a scrap of evidence has so far come to light which would corroborate it.” How welcome this tone! How often it is missing in contemporary Sino-Soviet studies!

Yet Honey has no doubts concerning the long-term objectives of Ho Chi Minh:

Thus the ultimate aim of the Vietnamese Communist leadership is to install Communist regimes in the whole of Vietnam, in Laos and in Cambodia, after which they will re-form a single Communist party. This one party will then rule the three countries.

And, signing his book July 1963, Honey states the aims of North Vietnamese neutralization proposals:

Better still, a neutral zone might be negotiated to cover Laos, South Vietnam and Cambodia. Later on possibly Thailand and Burma might be added to it. Settlements of this kind would get rid of the only element capable of resisting Communist expansion—the United States—and the neutrality of the countries concerned could easily be left intact until the moment was judged opportune for their annexation, one by one, by the Communist bloc.

Mr. W. G. Burchett's is a book9 of popular Communist propaganda—coarse, mechanical, and sentimental. Its tone is suggested by the following passage:

. . . in Asia at least it is only such anti-national elements that can be relied on to serve U.S. interests. An unholy bargain seems to be made in which the price exacted by collaborators for unlimited subservience to U.S. policies is an unlimited free hand to suck the last drop of blood out of their own people.

I recommend this book to those who seek acquaintance with the imagery in which Communism conducts its propaganda mission in regard to Indochina.



Withdraw from vietnam? Why not? Unless we reach out to Tibet, we shall hardly, in this decade, find a conflict which fits better the time-tested formulation of the occasion for withdrawal, “. . . a quarrel in a far-away country between people of whom we know nothing.”10

In Vietnam, Americans have no associates but Vietnamese. The alphabet—UN, NATO, SEATO, ANZUS, etc.—counts for nothing. At best, a few kind words from the British. (After all, they are still involved in Malaya and India. Stand-offish-ness might come home to roost very quickly.) No other NATO ally so much as speaks a friendly word. Japan assumes no general Asian responsibilities. India cannot yet afford a foreign policy. Other friends are equally unparticipating bystanders. The United States stands quite alone.

But it would surely be self-deception to see American aloneness in Vietnam as quite unique. What then is the position in South Korea, or in Taiwan, or in Thailand? And is it evidence of a special wisdom that we here make a total disjunction between isolation and pre-eminent responsibility? Is Asia really the one case where the United States acts the unpleasant role of an alien and solitary policeman, or do we have similar situations even in the Americas? And—if loneness be accepted as the limiting case in a series which includes pre-eminence—who is it that carries pre-eminent responsibility for the defense even o£ Western Europe?

Again. Surely Vietnam is a poor place to fight, for a nation with the characteristic strengths and weaknesses of the United States. Taiwan is an island, where naval power and air power can be decisive; South Korea has at least a relatively closed frontier. South Vietnam is largely flood-land and hill country, with hundreds of miles of open frontiers, and a guerrilla force living partly amidst a peasantry with which it has close ties.

But there is here an obvious misunderstanding. If one is to fight Vietnamese—South or North—one must fight them in Vietnam. However, if the unfortunate day should ever come that the United States found it necessary to counter-attack against Chinese, it is unlikely that any one would be so inane as to fight them, on a large scale, in Vietnam. (One Korea does not lead easily to another.) The counter-attack might be, by air, against the Chinese border provinces of Yunnan and Kwangsi but also, by sea and air, against more distant targets—perhaps around Canton or Amoy, or even Shanghai. It seems improbable (though not impossible) that American involvement in Vietnam will ever mean masses of American infantry slogging through rice paddies.

Nevertheless. Conceded that American loneness in Vietnam is not quite unique and even that the fighting terrain is what it must be: is it not a military dictatorship that rules in Saigon? Is not this dictatorship held oppressive and alien by many Vietnamese? Why do Americans go halfway around the world to support such a wretched government? Could not Vietnam have a more popular regime?

Probably. And as American power in Saigon is large, so is American responsibility. But we must guard against those who speak and write of the oppressions of Saigon and are silent concerning the more systematic and foreclosing oppressions of Hanoi and Peking. South Vietnam is today the one fluid combat front of Communist expansion. The pressure for that expansion will not be relaxed if Saigon shows greater concern for popular welfare. Ho Chi Minh's boys were not less zealous in assassinating Trotskyites (once the strongest political group in Cochin China) than they were in killing Diem's rural officials. A more democratic, liberal, or even socialist regime in Saigon would not, so far as we have grounds for judgment, be any more to Ho Chi Minh's taste than is the present regime—unless the new government were controlled by his party comrades. The Communists would equally call any new government an American puppet unless they knew it to be their puppet. The Communists also would probably accept, even as a transitional regime, only a Communist-controlled “fatherland front,” after the pattern of the post-1945 transitional regimes of Eastern Europe. (In Vietnam that interim regime already has its name: National Liberation Front.) Only in the presence of such a regime, dominated by their men, would the Communists willingly cease insurgency. But they have played this identical front game over and over again, in various countries. How does it come about that there is such an inexhaustible supply of innocents—always ready to be deceived once again by the same trick?

Still. Surely it makes sense, in the long run, in any region, for outsiders who are distinguishably outsiders to withdraw and to allow a regional equilibrium to be established among the forces recognized to be at home in that place? Is not a regional Concert of Power to be preferred to the constant interference of a self-appointed policeman?

Certainly. If there are regions so separate. And if these regions contain forces to make up a Concert. But in East Asia there is only one regional power which is militant and outward-reaching—Communist China. (The USSR, like the USA, is to be accounted a world power, not a regional one, despite Siberia.) The other large nations—Japan and India—absent themselves from every matter beyond their own frontiers. The survival, up to now, of a Burma as an “unaligned” power can afford no reasoned confidence. We have less than one year (Oct. 1, 1949 to June 27, 1950) of experience with a Communist China free of United States “containment.” During those months, the Korean war was initiated, and the Viet Minh went over to the heavy, mobile attack on French military positions which, by October 1950, drove the French out of all the Vietnam provinces along the China border. American withdrawal would reopen this short chapter of non-containment.

In East Asia, there is no regional Concert to shield the weak. The smallest states—Nepal, Cambodia—have already recognized that China is the one power they must conciliate. After an American withdrawal, Burma and Thailand—or even Malaya and Indonesia—would have no greater range of choice.

To withdraw is a reasoned policy when one knows three things: why one is withdrawing; to what depth one is withdrawing; and what one will do beyond that depth. To withdraw may be not only rational but also honorable—when withdrawal does not reflect disregard of expectations long nurtured in others, who may be the more affected by the withdrawal. (Withdrawal sent decent German Social-Democrats of the Sudetenland to Nazi concentration camps.) To withdraw from Vietnam in 1964 is not the same as to withdraw after the Geneva accords of July 1954.

A great essay in advocacy of withdrawal was written twenty-five years ago by Alfred North Whitehead.11 At issue for him was the withdrawal of the West European democracies from the defense of Czechoslovakia. He was eloquent:

. . . neither France nor Great Britain can directly reach the Czech State, to secure its immediate defense . . . To have a world war in opposition to this Pan-German movement would be madness . . . English policy should be basically non-European. In England excited intellectuals are focused on Europe. . . .

It will never do to be an excited intellectual. But one needs also to be a cool and consequent withdrawer. To withdraw from support of Czechoslovakia in September 1938 might have been part of a rational policy. But to follow the withdrawal of September 1938 by offering to guarantee Poland and Rumania in March 1939—instead of again withdrawing—this was to convert the whole sequence into an idiocy. Advocates of withdrawal from Vietnam should take counsel. Up to where will they withdraw? Thailand? Malaya? Indonesia? India? Japan? Or will they also convert an initial (possibly rational) withdrawal into an idiocy by feverishly rushing forward to give undertakings for a romantic riposte six months later?



Resist the fighting advance of Communism in Vietnam? Why of course. For those who can, it is one episode, and not the least important, in living as politically responsible human beings in this time. But please, Mr. American, no romanticism and no extravagant goals.

The high classic expression of the spirit of resistance is, quite naturally, Jewish or Judean. It occurs, among other places, in I Maccabees, Chapter 9. There Jonathan says:

Let us stand up now and fight for our lives, for today is not like yesterday nor the day before. Here the battle is before us and behind us . . . There is no place to turn away.

I cite this expression to reject it. It is inappropriate to our case. For every separate person, the day of birth and death is, of course, unique. But, for the American community generally, Vietnam has no uniqueness. Today is like yesterday. We can lose this engagement and recover. This resistance is not a game of dominoes.

Heroics are the more out of place because it is Vietnamese who are doing the fighting. American casualties in a decade are less than from one week-end of motor-car accidents. American supply may now be in the range of $550 million a year, and it might rise to $750 million. So what? Except by the measure of our American official “war against poverty,” such amounts are trifling in relation to any great object.

South Vietnam has over 15 million people (and North Vietnam over 17 million). It would be a matter for profound concern—as an indication that resistance had little popular support—if a people so numerous could not provide the combat personnel for local fighting on the present scale. It must be a counsel of desperation that American soldiers, and not Vietnamese soldiers, should fight where guerrilla fighters operate in the midst of a civilian Vietnamese population. But making Vietnam clean of American combat personnel cannot be a matter of high principle. Many thousands of North Vietnam cadres were trained in China; it is no issue of principle that American specialists instead go to the trainees. In earlier years, for which we have more witnesses, Chinese specialist personnel were observed in North Vietnam in a great variety of activities, military and non-military. If—as seems unlikely—guerrilla operations were to be followed by a frontal attack, North Vietnamese but not Chinese, some Americans might find themselves fighting in a combat role not totally different from that of Korea. The range of activities of Americans in Vietnam must be a matter of prudence, judgment, and tactics. This range cannot wisely be fixed once and for all, while the determining political and military considerations remain variable.

The romanticism of resistance remains a danger. No crushing military victory is to be achieved in Vietnam. The purpose of resistance there is preventive, not offensive. As a base for escalated warfare, Vietnam has no value. As a theater of insurgent and guerrilla warfare, it burdens the defense greatly and the attackers little. The South Vietnam authorities claim an attrition of about 25,000 guerrillas in 1963. Even if true, this number is of minor importance to North Vietnam and of trifling significance to China. Most of the guerrillas come from the South anyway, and attrition has not visibly shrunk their number. In view of China's general commitment to national liberation and socialism, in view of the drive of the North Vietnam regime to achieve unification under Communism, both of these high directing centers might well be prepared, if necessary, to sustain the present level of insurgent operations forever. Indeed, they may prefer a higher level of engagement.


What then is, for the United States, the rational object of resistance in Vietnam? Why, of course, peace. Peace without deserting those who have placed their reliance in us. Peace, therefore, without Communist victory. Peace without having to be engaged again, a few months later, in some slightly withdrawn place, against the same enemy (but now wearing a different mask), and this next time having to fight back in the company of more demoralized associates. Peace without encouraging those forces in world Communism who have been contending, in these very years, that the opponents of Communist expansion are paper tigers—that it needs only a breath of optimism and a display of leadership militancy for national liberation and socialism, à la Mao, to triumph everywhere.

But it is not at all certain that resistance can bring peace without Communist victory in South Vietnam in the next years. Insurgency and guerrilla warfare may continue—now retreating, now advancing—year after year. Internally, no one can be certain that, even with large American assistance, conditions will be created in the countryside which will halt the recruitment of guerrillas. Externally, the fighting in South Vietnam simply does not now burden Hanoi or Peking enough to induce them to accept peace without victory. Why should they stop? Perhaps the Americans will lose patience and go home. Perhaps President de Gaulle will help achieve this departure.

It is possible, of course, for the United States deliberately to escalate the level of warfare, so as to increase the burden on Hanoi and Peking. But to raise the level of damage is to raise the level of risk. At the present risk level, there is no calculable break-out point. One can only resist, be patient, strive for better social relations, try to improve fighting efficiency, and hope for that break on which one can not count.

Perhaps this circle can be broken only by widening it. To widen means to take major forward steps in general relations between China and the United States.12 Those steps are not to be had by the will of one party. Until wills are joined, in much greater degree than at present, prospects cannot be very cheerful. Resistance alone will probably not suffice to achieve an acceptable peace in Vietnam.



Neither Hanoi nor Peking has acknowledged publicly that their objective, in sustaining the insurgency of the National Liberation Front, is to annex the South to a unified, Communist Vietnam. That public expression was left to the erratic and garrulous Prince Sihanouk of Cambodia. Sihanouk has explained13 that (since he is not accepted at his own valuation in other capitals) he will go to Peking, there to seek influence over “. . . the ultimate masters of South Vietnam—that is, the Government of North Vietnam.” Prince Souvanna Phouma of Laos has also said publicly that it is apparently only in Peking, and not in Moscow, that one can achieve important influence over Hanoi (and so restraint of his own disrupters of the peace, the insurgent Pathet Lao). But Souvanna Phouma distinguishes himself in the more important matter: unlike Sihanouk, he does not concede that Hanoi need be victorious over all resistance.

All along, since the beginning of their accelerated insurgency in 1958, but especially since the announcement of a National Liberation Front in December 1960, the Communist propaganda line has been of a distinctly interim character. With all local differences, how it rings in one's ears with the tones of the post-1945 East European fatherland fronts! Give the land to the peasants. Unite all Vietnamese in brotherly concord, with exclusion only of a few especially guilty people. Establish democratic government as a coalition of all progressive parties. Punish the corrupt, oppressive officials of former governments. Then two distinctly local notes: throw out the Americans; unify North and South through free general elections.

What a joy to the National Liberation Front to hear President de Gaulle—first vaguely in the summer of 1963, then explicitly early in 1964—speak of Vietnam in the Front's own language. (Just so I recall the delight of pro-Nazis in the Britain of the middle 1930's on hearing Lord Lothian speak of Czechoslovakia in the Englished Gleichberechtigung of Hitler and Henlein.) Foreign Minister Couve de Murville did his best (in February 1964) to reassure French senators that the neutralization which the French government was advocating for Southeast Asia could never be transferred to Central Europe. No one spoke of transfer to France. What an example of Europe-centered myopia!

Perhaps, however, an interpretation of these French pronouncements that is at once more cynical and more generous may be the correct one. The Chinese, perhaps the French say to themselves, are in any case going to make a clean sweep of Southeast Asia. (It is difficult to believe, said M. Couve de Murville, that the Americans can win in Vietnam with 20,000 men, where France failed with 200,000.) But the Americans are naive people. They are trapped by their own rhetorical fine sentiments. Resistance to Communist aggression, indeed! Let us give them some other fine words—neutralization, independence, unification. When the Americans have absorbed enough beatings, they will change. Then they will drop their own fine words, and borrow ours. “Withdrawal” is a naked word. In politics, it does not do to go naked. One day, when they are sadder and wiser, the Americans will be grateful to us for covering their nakedness.

Had such wisdom prevailed uniformly on other occasions, there might today be no France. But the leadership of France is not, at this time, of the character of mind to judge and value the problems of others as France would herself be judged and valued.

In any case, France is powerless in Asia. Avoiding involvements and responsibilities, she can influence events only by acting upon others. But these French pronouncements have already sharply narrowed the range of her action and influence. A French mediating role is discredited among all those in Southeast Asia who are concerned to resist Communist penetration. Perhaps in the end, therefore, the French positive contribution will have been only to recall one simple fact: one facet of the Vietnam problem is the role of Peking. No general peace can be achieved in East Asia except by measures of restraint, balance, or accommodation directed toward China.


1 A valuable essay, in a generally disappointing book, is Chapter 6, “The Rise of Ho Chi Minh,” in The Two Viet-Nams, by Bernard B. Fall (Praeger, 493 pp., $7.95).

2 “The Struggle for the Unification of Vietnam” in The China Quarterly, January-March 1962.

3 “Workers of All Countries, Unite, Oppose Our Common Enemy 1” (December 15, 1962) and “The Differences Between Comrade Togliatti and Us” (December 31, 1962).

4 Survey of International Affairs, 1936, London, 1937.

5 “Little lambs, get to the plain,/ Flee the woods, beware the wolves:/ I cannot protect myself/ Then how shall I protect you?”

6 Statement of Secretary . . . McNamara . . . On The Defense Program . . . . January 27, 1964. Well worth reading as a general exposition of U.S. defense policy.

7 South Vietnam: Nation Under Stress, Houghton Mifflin, 227 pp., $1.95 (paperback).

8 Communism in North Vietnam: Its Role in the Sino-Soviet Dispute, M.I.T. Press, 207 pp., $4.95.

9 The Furtive War, International Publishers, 224 pp., $3.95 (paperback: $1.85) .

10 Neville Chamberlain, September 28, 1938. For context, see most recently The Appeasers (Houghton Mifflin, 444 pp., $6.50) by Martin Gilbert and Richard Gott, especially Chapter 9. This is a valuable book with one great deficiency: it fails to weigh the large role of the British Left of the 1930's in the support of wish-fancy, defenselessness, and appeasement.

11 “An Appeal To Sanity,” March 1939. Reprinted in Essays In Science and Philosophy, 1947.

12 I have given some account of my views on accommodation between China and the United States in COMMENTARY of November 1962. The subsequent fifteen months have brought a modest forward step by the United States, none by China.

13 New York Times, March 1964. For a perceptive vignette, see “The Wayward Prince” in the New Statesman of December 27, 1963.

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