Pause in Vietnam?

[When FRONTIER was launched Vietnam War was in full swing. The first editorial of the first issue of FRONTIER dated 14 April, 1968 (Vol 1 No 1) was on Vietnam—on the prospect of peace. It also speaks about 'Who We Are And What We Stand For'. We reproduce below the first editorial penned by Samar Sen to celebrate 50 years of FRONTIER.]

It would be irresponsible not to welcome any prospect of peace in Vietnam, but it would be premature to conclude that such a prospect has already been opened up. There is a little hope; the aggressor is frustrated and is not
altogether unwilling to explore new ways out of what would always be a frustrating situation. Whether this search will have any bearing on the basic issues in the conflict remains to be seen; much has changed, but to what extent Washington will allow this change to affect its policy aims is not yet clear.

First the nature and extent of the change. The Tet offensive began at the end of journey; at the end of March Mr Johnson announced limitation of the bombing of North Vietnam. What happened in the intervening two months has had consequences whose significance is yet to be fully assessed. One consequence has been realisation even in the hitherto confident American circles that not all the men and aims that the dollar can buy can win the war. The realisation was painful and hence reluctant. Even after the first shock the US Government and its propagandists elsewhere claimed that the offensive had failed to realise any of its objectives. In retrospect, it can be seen that it had succeeded in the area most central to the future of Vietnam; it has shown the futility of even the most massive foreign intervention to suppress the struggle of Vietnamese people.

Far too many people have pretended to know in advance what General Giap's objectives were, presumed to pronounce on his success and failure on the basis of what they thought he intended to do. Almost all such calculations went wrong; he did not even care to oblige the pundits by attempting another Dienbienphu at Khe Sanh. But it is now possible to see what he and the National Liberation Front in South Vietnam, as Mr Robert McNamara once put it, cannot be bombed to the negotiating table. Second, and more important, the NLF has shown that the puppet regime in Saigon and its supporters cannot be protected by the Americans and their allies. Washington and Saigon sought comfort from the thought that the Tet offensive had not inspired a general uprising, in South Vietnam; yet they must have pondered how the Vietcong presence in the country could be so widespread and powerful without the support of the general population.

It will never be the same again in South Vietnam. The Americans had to destroy much of it in order to save it; American bombing had killed thousands of those they had come to protect. Ordinary people will never forget it; even American reports have recorded the fact that after the first thrust of the Tet offensive, most of the destruction and killing was caused by reckless American bombing of populated areas. Yet the Americans have not been able to demonstrate that they can assure security of those who seek their protection.

The US forces could not even ensure their own security. Their casualties reached a level unprecedented in the war, and it was small comfort that the casualties on the other side were reportedly much larger. For weeks, some five thousand Marines were at General Giap's mercy; the psychological effect of the siege, whether on the Marines themselves or on people in the United States, has been no less shattering than the likely impact of another Dienbienphu.

It was the effect in America that must rattled Mr Johnson most. The anti-war campaign spread and powerful voices began to question not only the merits of his war strategy but also fundamental assumptions about the war and its aims. An anti-war candidate for the Presidency severely mauled him at the New Hampshire primary and was on the point of touching him at Wisconsin. His nomination was gravely in doubt, reelection increasingly problematical.

Faced with such a situation, the crafty politician thought up a course that might afford him the only chance of political survival. By simultaneously withdrawing from presidential race and announcing a partial halt to the bombing of North Vietnam, he tried to give himself a new image. If Hanoi refused to respond, he would be free to escalate the war still further without inhabitations over effects on electoral prospects. If Hanoi did respond, he would be able to claim credit for major step to end a particularly unpopular war, and might even emerge as a national hero on the eye of election.

Heavy bombing, over a much larger area than first indicated by Mr Johnson, continued even after his announcement, and now a big land offensive is on, but Hanoi seized the diplomatic initiative by agreeing to discuss a total and unconditional end to the bombing and all over acts of war against North Vietnan. Washington bonafides will now be put on test. It will probably ask for reciprocal de-escalation, but clearly Hanoi cannot be expected to stop all aid to the NLF in South Vietnam.

In fact, Hanoi has made it clear that its readiness to discuss an end to American bombing does not imply any change in its basic stand on political issues. The statement in which it announced its readiness to meet US representatives "to decide on the unconditional cessation of the bombing and other war acts against the DRV" also said: "They (the Americans) must withdraw their troops and the troops of their satellites out of South Vietnam, and leave the internal affairs of Vietnam to the Vietnamese people. The position of peace and independence of the Vietnamese people is the four-point position of the NRV, and NLF political programme. This political programme… must serve as the correct basis for a political solution in South Vietnam".

Getting North Vietnamese representative at the negotiating table will not be the central task for an acceptable settlement; the party more directly concerned is the NLF. Meaningful talks can begin only when the NLF joins them. Despite Saigon's objection, the Americans may eventually agree to the NLF's participation, but what role they will be prepared to allow the NLF in the affairs of South Vietnam is far from clear.

That the internal affairs of South Vietnam must be settled in accordance with the NLF's programme is one of the four points consistently insisted upon by North Vietnam and the NLF in other words, the NLF must control the Government of South Vietnam after a political settlement. To start with, Hanoi and NLF might agree to a coalition Government in South Vietnam, with the NLF as the dominant element. But neither Washington nor Saigon is likely to give the NLF the recognition it deserves. Foreign Ministers of the countries in the American camp in Vietnam, who met recently in Wellington; New Zealand specifically rejected the coalition idea. If this represents unchangeable American position, negotiations can hardly serve any purpose. However, the facial turmoil threatens little Golden America may in turn profoundly influence the course of events in South Vietnam. The chickens are home to roost.

Autumn Number 2018
Vol. 51, No.14 - 17, Oct 7 - Nov 3, 2018