Viet Nam: The Bases of Accommodation

(As a public service, the Crimson is reprinting in its entirety this controversial article by Samuel P. Huntington, Thomson Professor Government. It is hoped that the article will add perspective to the Crimson's recent comments on Professor Huntington's work. "Viet Nam: The Bases of Accommodation" is reprinted by permission from Foreign Affairs, July 1968. Copyright held by the Council on Foreign Relations, Inc., New York. Part II will appear in tomorrow's Crimson.)

AVIABLE political settlement in South Viet Nam will reflect and give some legitimacy to the balance of political, military and social forces produced by a decade of internal conflict and five years of large-scale warfare. A successful settlement can also inaugurate a process of political accommodation through which the various elements of Vietnamese society may eventually be brought together into a functioning polity. American objectives and American expectations of what can be achieved at the conference table and on the battlefield should, correspondingly, be based on the realities of power and the opportunities for accommodation.

Much of the discussion of Viet Nam in the United States, however, has been couched in terms of stereotypes and slogans which have little relation to the political forces and social trends in Vietnamese society. Critics of the Administration often tend to glorify the Viet Cong and the National Liberation Front and to magnify the extent of their support. They see the war as a popular uprising against a military-landlord oligarchy dependent upon foreign military support. Hence they see little need for, or basis for, accomodation: if the United States withdrew, it is held, the Saigon regime would quickly collapse, and a new, broadly representative government would come to power under the leadership of the NLF but drawing support from Buddhists, workers, students and other groups.

Spokesmen for the Administration, on the other hand, have in the past underrated the strength of the Viet Cong and have ascribed to the Saigon Government a popularity which had as little basis in fact as that which the critics attributed to the NLF. They have bolstered their case with statistics on kill rates, infiltration rates, chieu hoi (defection) rates, hamlet pacification categories and voting turnouts. These figures may be reasonably accurate but they are also often irrelevant to the conclusions which they are adduced to support. At times key figures in the Administration have made statements which at least seemed to predict the imminent collapse of the Viet Cong. The misplaced moralism of the critics has thus confronted the unwarranted optimism of the advocates.

The realities of the situation in Viet Nam will not please the extremists on either side. If properly perceived and accepted, however, they may provide some basis for accommodation and an eventual compromise settlement. The military strengths and weaknesses of each side are manifest in each day's news reports and will no doubt shape the outcome of the negotiations. The success of that outcome, however, may well depend on the extent to which it reflects the political and social strengths and weaknesses of both sides. These are less obvious but more fundamental than the military factors.


THE OVERALL PROPORTION of the population that is more under Government than Viet Cong control has risen rather strikingly in three years from a little over 40 percent of the total to 60 percent or more. This change, however, has been largely, if not exclusively, the result of the movement of the population into the cities rather than the extension of the Government's control into the countryside. The two most important facts which an accommodation will have to reflect are, first, the continuing role of the Viet Cong in the countryside and, second, the declining role of the countryside in South Viet Nam as a whole.

Viet Nam is a plural society, whose regional, ethnic and religious differences are now widely recognized. But there is another sense in which there are at least four South Viet Nams, each of them present in every geographical region and in almost every province. The first consists of the urban population, which is now perhaps 40 percent of the total and which lives under more or less continuing control by the Government. The other three South Viet Nams divide the rural population in approximately equal shares: the rural communal population, roughly 20 percent of the total, who belong to a religious or ethnic minority and who at present are aligned with the Saigon Government against the Viet Cong; the hard-core Viet Cong, again perhaps 20 percent of the total, who in some rural areas have lived under Viet Cong control for many years; and the remaining 20 percent, which constitutes the population of the most heavily and continuously contested rural areas.

These proportions are very rough and, moreover, they refer to population control, not political support. Discussion of Viet Nam often revolves about the question: "Whom do the majority of the people really support?" This is a reasonable and practical question to ask in a stable Western constitutional democracy. For Viet Nam, however, it is unanswerable and, in large part, irrelevant simply because it is quite clear that no government or political grouping has been able to win widespread popular support--or seems likely to do so. The most one can realistically speak of is the relative ability of the Government and the VC-NLF to exercise authority and to control population. And even here, as the allied sweeps through hardcore Viet Cong areas and the Tet offensive amply demonstrate, each side's authority is nowhere beyond at least temporary challenge by the other side. In addition, an underground Viet Cong organization presumably exists in many areas where Government authority is normally exercised.

The crucial characteristic of the heavily contested rural areas is the absence of effective social and political organization above the village level, if even there. The strength of the Viet Cong is its ability to fill this vacuum of authority; the weakness of the Government has been the failure of its pacification programs to generate self-sustaining local organizations.

IT IS OFTEN SAID that the war in Viet Nam is a "political" war, and that consequently winning the war requires the Government to appeal to "the hearts and minds of the people" by promoting rural development, land reform, education, official honesty and other specific and usually material benefits. In fact, however, there is little evidence to suggest that the appeal of the Viet Cong derives from material poverty or that it can be countered by material benefits. The one systematic study of this question, focusing on land tenure, indeed came to precisely the opposite conclusion. Government control was found to be greatest in those provinces in which "few peasants farm their own land, the distribution of landholdings is unequal, no land redistribution has taken place, large French landholdings existed in the past, population density is high, and the terrain is such that accessibility is poor." This seemingly perverse product of statistical analysis is bolstered by other substantial if less systematic evidence for Viet Nam as well as by much experience elsewhere. The appeal of revolutionaries depends not on economic deprivation but on political deprivation, that is, on the absence of an effective structure of authority. Where the latter exists, even though it be quite hierarchical and undemocratic, the Viet Cong make little progress.

Since the late 1950s successive Saigon governments have attempted to meet this need by a variety of pacification programs. None of these has been successful, with the partial exception of the current program of "Revolutionary Development," which was interrupted by the Tet offensive. Governmental control can be produced either by a massive military and administrative presence or by effective local political organization. In the past, forces have been inadequate to provide a substantial presence in a significant portion of the countryside for a significant portion of the countryside for a significant length of time. The current pacification effort was mounted on a scale which dwarfs the earlier ones, but like them it has attempted to achieve security by the extension into the countryside of the military and administrative apparatus of the Central Government. In some cases, the successes of pacification can be seen in quite striking fashion. Voter turnout in the 1967 presidential election as compared with the 1966 consituent assembly election increased by 50 percent in Binh Dinh province, 23 percent in Phu Yen, 22 percent in Hau Nghia and 20 percent in Binh Duong. These changes were undoubtedly the result of the strong pacification efforts made in those provinces.

YET THESE SAME PROVINCES also illustrate the limits of pacification. When military forces were withdrawn from Binh Dinh and Hau Nghia, security rapidly began to deteriorate. The fragility of the whole pacification effort was reflected by the extent of its at least temporary collapse during the Tet offensive, despite the fact that the offensive was directed at the cities rather than the pacification cadres. The acid test of pacification is whether a locality develops the will and the means to defend itself against Viet Cong attack or infiltration. With a few exceptions, mostly among the communal groups, the current pacification effort has not as yet met this test. In some cases, the intrusion of national governmental authority from the outside may undermine the authority of the local village leaders; when the agents of the national Government move on, they may leave the situation worse than it was before they arrived. In those instances, the Government prepares the way for the Viet Cong.

It thus seems unlikely that the current pacification program will significantly change the pattern of political control--or lack of control--in the contested areas in the immediate future. If a cease-fire led to reductions in either the Government's military-administrative presence or U.S. forces in these areas, the way would be opened for the Viet Cong to move in and extend its control through political means. The only practical alternative, available in some instances, would be for the authority vacuum to be filled by some other social-political group with roots in the locality.

THE SECURITY OF that one-third of the rural population which is under a relatively high degree of Government control is in large part the product of communal--ethnic or religious--organizations. It is commonly assumed that rural security is the product of identification Government the extension of governmental presence into the villages. In much of South Viet Nam, however, the sequence has not been: governmental control, national loyalty, internal security. It has been, instead: communal organization, internal security, governmental control. The exercise of governmental authority has resulted from internal security produced by other factors. Governmental authority is, in fact, most effectively exercised in those rural areas where the Government has come to terms with the local power structure and with ethnic or religious groups.

The relationships between these communal groups and the Central Government have typically evolved through four phases. First, the group develops social and political consciousness. In due course, the evolution of the group produces a challenge to central authority and a confrontation between the group and the Central Government, as with the Cao Dai and Hoa Hao during the 1950s or the Montagnard uprisings against more recent governments. Defeat by the Central Government leads to the group's withdrawal from the national political scene. Finally, however, there is a renewal of ties and an accommodation is worked out. At present, all of the rural communal groups--Hoa Hao, Cao Dai, Catholic, Khmer and Montagnard--have reached such accommodations with the existing system, stimulated no doubt by shared hostility toward the Viet Cong.

THE RELATIONSHIP between communalism and governmental authority in South Viet Nam today is thus almost precisely the opposite of what it is in most other Southeast Asian countries. In Thailand, Burma, Malaysia and elsewhere the ethnic and religious minorities are the principal sources of opposition to the political system. In South Viet Nam, in contrast, the religious and ethnic minorities are centers of support for the system, and the relatively unorganized rural majority--the ethnic Vietnamese with Confucian, Buddhist and animist religious beliefs--is the principal source of alienation and disaffection.

Rural areas which have been continuously secure are those organized by religious or ethnic communities. The most secure province in South Viet Nam is An Giang, in which there have been no major U.S. or Government combat units. The security of An Giang results from the political control of the Hoa Hao. The Hoa Hao in the surrounding provinces have achieved similar areas of security, as have the Cambodians elsewhere in the Delta. Catholic and Cao Dai villages tend to be more scattered to relatively secure in otherwise highly insecure areas, simply because the Viet Cong know that they will be tough nuts to crack.

The ethnic and religious communities have thus played a crucial role in extending Government control into rural areas. They have done this despite the suspicion and hostility of at least some elements in the Government. After a cease-fire, these are the principal groups which will be able to compete with the Viet Cong in the political organization of the peasantry.

The remaining third of the rural population

The appeal of the revolutionaries depends not on economic deprivation but on political deprivation, that is, on the absence of an effective structure of authority. lives in "hard-core" Viet Cong areas, some of which have been almost continuously under Viet Minh and Viet Cong control since the 1940s. They include the Camau peninsula, much of the Delta coast, the Plain of Reeds, War Zones "C" and "D" north and west of Saigon, and portions of Binh Dinh and Quang Ngai in the central part of the country. In some villages an entire generation has grown up under communist rule. In some of these areas the VC-NLF has been able to develop a well-organized structure of government at the village and even district level.

TO ELIMINATE Viet Cong control in these areas would be an expensive, time-consuming and frustrating task. It would require a much larger and more intense military and pacification efort than is currently contemplated by Saigon and Washington. Consequently, effective Viet Cong control of these areas is a political fact which does not seem likely to change for some while, if indeed it ever does. In a politically reintegrated South Viet Nam, there would probably be a fairly steady population drain from them into more prosperous rural and urban localities. The achievement of such political reintegration clearly will depend, however, upon the recognition and acceptance of Viet Cong control of local government in these areas. It is here that accommodation in the most specific sense of the word is a political necessity.

The most striking feature of these varied patterns of rural political control--contested, communal and Viet Cong--has been their resistance to change. The French, Diem, the post-Diem regimes, the Viet Minh and Viet Cong have all tried, without significant success, to produce permanent changes in them. The huge current pacification program has been another effort to bring about a political revolution in the relations between the Government and the countryside. It may succeed where the others have failed, but as yet there is no conclusive evidence of this. On the other hand, the massive American effort is producing a social revolution in the Vietnamese way of life which will be of far greater consequence to the future of the country.


THE MOST DRAMATIC and far-reaching impact of the war in South Viet Nam has been the tremendous shift in population from the countryside to the cities. In the early 1960s it was still accurate to speak of South Viet Nam as 80 to 85 per cent rural. Today, no one knows for certain the size of the urban population, but it is undoubtedly more than double and perhaps triple what it was a few years ago. A reasonable current estimate of people in cities of 20,000 or more would be about 40 per cent of the total, or 6,800,000 of a total of 17,200,000. By this standard South Viet Nam is now more urban than Sweden, Canada, the Soviet Union, Poland, Austria, Switzerland and Italy (according to early 1960s data). Apart from Singapore, it is easily the most urban country in Southeast Asia. The image of South Viet Nam as a country composed largely of landlords and peasants--an image still prevalent among many Vietnamese intellectuals who continue to quote the 85 per cent rural figure--has little relationship to reality.

The movement of people into the cities during the past four years is a nationwide phenomenon. In 1962 Saigon's population was estimated at 1,400,000. Today it is at least twice that, and the population of the Saigon metropolitan area is probably about 4,000,000 more than 20 per cent of the entire country. The increases in population of cities like Danang, Nha Trang, Qui Nhon, Pleiku, Kontum and Ban Me Thuot have been even more spectacular. Smaller cities and towns have also had extraordinary growth rates, with many provincial capitals doubling or tripling their population in two or three years. The principal reason for this massive influx of population into the urban areas is, of course, the intensification of the war following the commitment of American combat troops in 1965. About 1,500,000 of the total increase in urban population is accounted for by refugees, half still in refugee camps and others settled in new areas. At least an equal number of people have moved into the cities without passing through refugee camps. The social costs of this change have been dramatic and often heartrending. The conditions in the refugee camps, particularly in I Corps, have at times been horrendous, although some significant improvements are now taking place. Urban welfare and developmental programs require increasing priority from the United States and Vietnamese Governments.

The immediate economic effects of urbanization are somewhat more mixed. Those who were well-off in the countryside often suffer serious losses in the move to the city. The rural poor, on the other hand, may well find life in the city more attractive and comfortable than their previous existence in the countryside. The urban slum, which seems so horrible to middle-class Americans, often becomes for the poor peasant a gateway to a new and better way of life. For some poor migrants, the wartime urban boom has made possible incomes five times those which they had in the countryside. In one Saigon slum, Xom Chua, in early 1965 before the American build-up, the people lived at a depressed level, with 33 per cent of the adult males unemployed. Eighteen months later, as a result of the military escalation, the total population of the slum had increased by 30 per cent, but the unemployment rate had dropped to 5 per cent and average incomes had doubled. In several cases urban refugees from the war refused to return to their villages once security was restored because of the higher level of economic well-being which they could attain in the city. The pull of urban prosperity has been a secondary but not insignificant factor in attracting people into the city.

IN THE LONG RUN urbanization will create major political problems. Typically, the second generation--the children of the slums, not the migrants to the slums--provides participants for urban riots and insurrections. After the war, massive government programs will be required either to resettle migrants in rural areas or to rebuild the cities and promote peacetime urban employment. In the meantime, while the war continues, urbanization is significantly altering the balance of power between the Saigon Government and the Viet Cong.

More than anything else urbanization has been responsible for the striking increase in the proportion of the population living under Government control between 1964 and 1968. The depopulation of the countryside struck directly at the strength and potential appeal of the Viet Cong. For ten years the Viet Cong has waged a rural revolution against the Central Government, with the good Maoist expectation that by winning the support of the rural population it could eventually isolate and overwhelm the cities. The "first outstanding feature...of People's Revolutionary War, as developed by Mao Tse-tung and refined by the North Vietnamese in the two Indochina wars." Sir Robert Thompson argued in a recent issue of this journal, "is its immunity to the direct application of mechanical and conventional power." In the light of recent events, this statement needs to be seriously qualified. For if the "direct application of mechanical and conventional power" takes place on such a massive scale as to produce a massive migration from countryside to city, the basic assumptions underlying the Maoist doctrine of revolutionary war no longer operate. The Maoist-inspired rural revolution is undercut by the American-sponsored urban revolution.

The full significance of the Tet offensive becomes clear against this background. This attack on the cities, like the subsequent attacks in May, was less of an offensive than it was a 'counter-offensive against the fundamental social change taking place in Vietnamese society. The war in Viet Nam is a war for the control of the population. If the Viet Cong are to compete effectively with the Government, they must be able to assert their power in the cities. If they can assert their control over the newly urbanized population in the cities as easily as they were able to assert their control over the rural population and win their support in the countryside, the movement of population will have been only a Trojan horse.

The Tet offensive produced several clear gains for the Viet Cong in Viet Nam, apart from the impact abroad. For the first time they significantly disrupted, albeit very temporarily in all cities but Hue, the security of the urban population, thus diminishing the principal attraction of the city to the country dwellers. With a decline in the differences in the sense of security provided by city and countryside, there may well be a decline in the rate of movement from one to the other. Secondly, before Tet relatively few military forces were committed primarily to urban defense. Most Vietnamese cities were virtually open cities with traffic moving in and out of them freely. The Viet Cong have now compelled the redeployment of U.S. and South Vietnamese forces from other tasks, such as rural pacification, to city protection. Thirdly, the Viet Cong cut many of the transportation and communication routes into the cities in an apparent effort to isolate urban areas from each other and from the surrounding countryside. The most notable action here concerned road and water communication routes between the relatives secure areas of the Delta and Saigon. The weeks following the offensive saw a sharp drop in the previous level of supplies moving over these routes. This caused some economic dislocation in both the farmlands and the cities, but not of either a prolonged or highly threatening character.

THESE WERE SIGNIFICANT achievements for the Viet Cong, and their impact was notably heightened by their surprise. The real test of their urban offensive, however, is whether they can mobilize and organize sufficient popular support in the cities to substitute their authority for that of the Government. To invade the cities to stealth or by fronted assault is a relatively easy task. To seize and hold urban areas is something else again. It is reasonably clear that this was an objective of the Tet offensive. Viet Cong units moving in from the countryside appealed for a "general uprising" of the urban populace and brought with them the political cadres to set up block committees and a political structure in urban areas. In several cities such as Pleiku and Nisa Trang the Viet Cong infrastructure within the city surfaced and was substantially destroyed.

No general uprising took place, however, and the invaders were quickly driven out of all cities except Hue. In several cities the people, in spontaneous and unprecedented fashion, organized themselves to defend their neighborhoods against the Viet Cong.

In an absent-minded way the United States in Viet Nam may well have stumbled upon the answer to "wars of national liberation." The effective response lies neither in the quest for conventional military victory nor in the esoteric doctrines and gimmicks of counter-insurgency warfare. It is instead forced-draft urbanization and modernization which rapidly brings the country in question out of the phase in which a rural revolutionary movement can hope to generate sufficient strength to come to power