The United States in Vietnam (review)

Review by David Wurfel in Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, February 1968.
The United States in Vietnam. By George McTurnan Kahin and John W. Lewis. New York: Dial Press, 1967. pp. 342. $5.95.

Ever since the spring of 1965 George Kahin, director of the Southeast Asia Program at Cornell University, has been the leading scholarly critic of the Administration’s Vietnam policy. Though he gained his reputation primarily as an Indonesian specialist, Kahin — together with a Cornell “China hand,” John Lewis — has now provided the serious student of Vietnam with the most carefully documented analysis of American involvement in that unfortunate land. Nor is this just a summary of previous published sources; it includes the results of some new research into primary materials. The dilemmas of United States policy are placed in the contexts of Vietnam history, of Asian attitudes, and of global conflict, though there is no attempt to delve into the American policymaking process.

The United States in Vietnam certainly has a point of view, but even unorthodox interpretations are well buttressed. The authors make the strongest case yet for the thesis that the insurgency was originally indigenous to the South. Using records of radio broadcasts, presumably those compiled by the Foreign Broadcast Information Service, a U.S. government agency, they establish that a “South Vietnam National Liberation Front” (NLF) had its own clandestine transmitter as early as mid-1958, more than two years before the formation of the NLF was announced in Hanoi. General Nguyen Chanh Thi is quoted as reporting that he captured the NLF flag from guerrilla units in 1959. Curiously, this early NLF was denounced by Radio Hanoi for “distorting Marxist-Leninist theories,” for putting too much emphasis on class struggle and “socialist” (communist) goals. The authors suggest that an end to these broadcasts may have been a major purpose of Le Duan’s secret trip South in late 1958. The broadcasts could have been, in fact, the work of Trotskyist remnants which were strong in the South before 1947 and always hostile to Northern communist orthodoxy.

In May 1959 a resolution of the Lao Dong Party Central Committee in Hanoi defined the “goal of the revolution” as “consolidating” the North, while it offered “the compatriots of the South” only a “heartfelt salute” for their sufferings. While this might be marked off to misleading propaganda, designed to shield a militant thrust into the South, it is more difficult to so dismiss the substantial reduction of Hanoi’s defense budget in September 1960, the same time that the Lao Dong Party decided to support the NLF verbally.

No one can today provide conclusive proof of the combination of factors which produced the “second Indochina war”; this is a task for future historians. But Professors Kahin and Lewis have demonstrated that the evidence so far available, contrary to the conclusions of official Washington, contributes substantially to the presumption of primarily Southern origins. The authors certainly do not deny that Hanoi wanted reunification, but believe that the timing of armed struggle was determined essentially by events in the South.

The tone in which Kahin and Lewis assess communist leaders and communist policy is so devoid of “free world” jargon that some readers have mistakenly associated the authors’ approach with that of naive China-watchers of the 1940s who saw in Mao and his associates only “high-minded agrarian reformers.” This volume makes no bones about the role of Marxism-Leninism and the Lao Dong, or Workers (communist) Party, in the affairs of Vietnam for more than two decades. Nor does it gainsay the repressiveness which is often characteristic of a communist regime. What it does make clear, however, is that repression is not a communist monopoly, and, even more importantly, that communist ideology in no sense displaces nationalist sentiment. Unless these points are well understood, the unrealistic expectations of U .S. policy will persist.

Kahin and Lewis have already been criticized for not including a lengthy exposition of Administration views in their dissection of the “domino theory.” Chapter XII would probably have been more convincing as a result. However, both the simplistic argument and its more sophisticated variations are widely known. The authors here elaborate on the most potent rebuttal: “Throughout Asia … communism has been obliged to come to terms with indigenous nationalism or else remain politically impotent. … Where communism takes root in Asia its strength arises, not through subversion directed from China or Russia, but because of locally generated social, economic, and political factors.”

Kahin and Lewis have written straightforwardly, usually in a style appropriate for lay readership. However, in an attempt to appeal to both schol. ar and layman the book’s format has fallen between two stools. Pages of text are cluttered with asterisks and corresponding footnotes, which sometimes contain the volume’s juiciest morsels and thus should not be ignored. Numbers lead the reader to additional footnotes at the end of each chapter, which usually constitute only reference to sources. However, substantive material is also included in numbered footnotes, and basic documents — a few not easily available elsewhere — fill a hundred pages of appendix. The index is also very useful. Thus, the conscientious reader becomes an accomplished page flipper. Having jumped such hurdles, however, he will eventually feel that he has delved into the most authoritative single volume on the Vietnam crisis, with the most exhaustive bibliography. This volume will be widely used in college classrooms.

The treatment of China’s role, presumably Lewis’s major contribution, is concise and persuasive. We are reminded that China’s moves have “accorded with its capabilities and not with its more strident pronouncements.” For instance, in January 1961, several months before the United States greatly increased our “advisory” force in South Vietnam, Peking cut her assistance to North Vietnam in half.

Lewis’s assessment of Lin Piao is not novel, but as an antidote to the ranting of the Secretary of State it certainly needs repetition. The 1965 “Long Live the Victory of the People’s War,” cited in Washington to bolster the image of “aggressive Asian Communism,” is explained as a moderation, not a hardening, of the Chinese position. Lin argues, says Lewis, that popular insurrections can not succeed if they rely too heavily on foreign assistance — Chinese included. Though written before the Great Cultural Revolution, Chapter XI is not dated.

One chapter is devoted to internal South Vietnamese politics since the ascendancy of Ky, with special reference to the weight of the American hand. Since neither of the authors has spent an extended period on the ground in Vietnam, one is not surprised that they had to rely so heavily on the New York Times. Those who lived through the crisis of 1966 might therefore be moved to add or subtract details of the account. What is remarkable, however, is the high degree of consensus that Kahin and Lewis would evoke among unofficial observers in Saigon today. The chapter concludes: “The United States [has] planted itself … firmly behind the army leadership. … But if this could be considered stability, it was an artificial one and in all probability would collapse as soon as American power had withdrawn. For that power was being applied in a way that obstructed internal evolution toward a government capable of winning popular support.”

The authors’ assessment of the 1966 Constituent Assembly election could have been written yesterday-about the elections of 1967: “However . . . viewed in the United States, for the cynical and apathetic Vietnamese public, dragooned into going through the motions of participating in them [the elections], evoked no enthusiasm and were seen as a politically irrelevant gesture made in compliance with the demands of local officials acting for Saigon.” And it might have been added that Saigon was likewise viewed as acting for Washington.

The elections were criticized primarily from the standpoint of the inadequacies of the election law and the severity of candidate screening. With the advantage of field research a year later this reviewer can report that there was also widespread use of an ingenious variant of proxy voting. Local officials regaled the peasant with the danger of going out on election day because of “VC terror.’‘’ The peasant was then delighted to follow the officials’ suggestion that he deposit his voting card for “safe-keeping” at the village or hamlet office and leave the onerous task of voting-for what or whom he was entirely unawareto the obliging officials. And the fraud was so sophisticated that in most cases hamlet and village chiefs returned only modest majorities for the government candidate. Schoolteachers who served at polling places were willing to talk about such shenanigans only a year after the fact.

On the role of the Buddhists, Kahin and Lewis need to be updated. After extensive interviewing with Buddhist spokesmen in the United States, in addition to a review of documentation, the authors stress the ambiguous relationship between the Buddhists and the United States Embassy ever since Ambassador Lodge offered sanctuary to Thich Tri Quang in 1963. While “long-run Buddhist-nationalist objectives contradict American policies; … the exigencies of their shortrun survival often lead them calculatedly to obscure this contradiction in order to appease Washington and the military leaders in Saigon.”

But this pattern is changing. While some monks may continue to play this game, by late 1967 their support among the youth had fallen away. Buddhist students, the hard core of demonstrators, seem to have become so embittered against the United States that they have lost interest in demonstrating for short-run demands and risking arrest. The more determined seem to have shifted to clandestine activity directed toward fundamental change. Most are now willing to accept any alternative to war and “American puppets.” As in America, the growing intensity of frustration over the war leads the Vietnamese to more radical positions. An elderly official in a delta town told this reviewer: “If the war continues for another two years with the destruction and inconclusiveness of the last two, many people who today would never dream of such a thing will be in the NLF.” The comment had an autobiographical ring.

In the final chapter, “Limits of Power,” Professors Kahin and Lewis have emphasized the consistent failure of the American government to assess accurately the strength of nationalism in Vietnam and the staying power of a communist movement which appeals increasingly to this sentiment. A recent very detailed account of the structure and strategy of the Vietcong by Douglas Pike, whose expertise is highly regarded in Washington, is renewed evidence of this fatal gap in American understanding.

In conclusion, the authors insist that any negotiated settlement that is to become reality must admit the participation of all Southern political forces in the institutions which will function after the war, a statement of probabilities with which no well-informed person could quarrel. But the communists are the most dynamic and well-organized of those political forces. Thus it requires a strong dash of euphemism to observe that: “It is improbable that such a settlement would mirror the pattern most congenial to the United States or that it would be attuned to the exigencies of American domestic politics.” Those exigencies are certainly less hostile to such a settlement today than when this book was written, but they are not yet, on balance, favorable.

Are we to conclude, therefore, that what is politically possible in Vietnam is not so in the United States, and vice versa? Not necessarily, I should think. One more year of frustrating “stalemate” — another euphemism, which tends to ignore declining non-communist morale — will open the eyes of millions of Americans to Vietnamese realities. Furthermore, it should be possible to justify American withdrawal from South Vietnam and ultimate communist takeover there to a larger segment of opinion if the overall settlement included provisions for the protection of Laos and Cambodia from subsequent Vietnamese infiltration, as it certainly could. For it is only as part of a negotiated settlement for Indochina that the preservation of a non-communist Laos and Cambodia can be assured. The 1954 Geneva Accords recognized this, while U.S. policy has attempted ever since, without success, to deny it. Communist activity in both countries in the last five years has been primarily a consequence of expanding conflict in South Vietnam.

It is now most unlikely that Hanoi will withdraw its thousands of troops from northern Laos for any reason other than to provide a quid pro quo for complete and guaranteed U.S. withdrawal from South Vietnam. Nor are the Vietnamese communists likely to agree to a border settlement with Cambodia unless the United States offers them a sizable enticement, such as withdrawal. Both Hanoi and the NLF are increasingly resistant to compromise on any point which might prevent the eventual unification of their homeland. But they have much less reason to be adamant on questions touching their neighbors. The gratifyingly large number of American statesmen who are now genuinely committed to peace—of whom Senator McCarthy is the most courageous-might well expand their appeal if they backed a policy which not only faced up to reality in Vietnam but also offered a good prospect of containing Vietnamese communism within its own borders.

David Wurfel is associate prolessor of political science, University of Missouri; he has spent several years living in Asia and has visited Vietnam a number of times, including a trip in September 1967 as an observer of the Vietnamese elections.

Categories Vietnam, The War Years