WHAT IS HAPPENING in Vietnam? The liberal press reports for the most part that the January cease-fire is being rocked by continuous violations by "the Communists." The impression given is that "the other side" is slyly attempting to expand the territory under its control by waging small-scale, clandestine attacks, bolstered by a continual infiltration from the North.
This analysis presupposes that continual fighting is in the interest of the National Liberation Front and the North Vietnamese, who, many people still believe, use terrorism to hold rural Vietnamese in thrall. The opposite is in fact the case. The NLF achieved success because it effectively translated the aspirations of Vietnamese peasants for land reform and national unity into a program of revolutionary armed struggle. But now the time for fighting is over, and the liberation forces, unlike the Thieu regime, will profit from peace.
Arrayed against the NLF in its early days was the corrupt administrative apparatus of the Ngo Dinh Diem regime, whose power was increasingly based on terror. The NLF-planned assassinations of government bureaucrats in the countryside were intended to remove the repressive Saigonese presence from rural areas so land and other reforms could be implemented.
This revolutionary formula brought potent results. Saigon withdrew at the first upsurge in NLF militancy, and wide tracts of rural South Vietnam began to implement massive reforms under liberation force leadership. Diem and his handful of allies, trapped in the cities, began to totter.
With the overthrow of the Diem regime in 1963 and the ensuing series of coups and counter-coups over the following two years, the NLF continued to increase its power--to the point where by early 1965 most of rural South Vietnam was under liberation force control. The NLF expected to control the country and press for reunification with the North in a matter of months.
Then the Americans entered Vietnam in force and dramatically altered the NLF calculations. American Marines flooded ashore at Da Nang and U.S. warplanes aimed northward, freezing the political situation temporarily. By endorsing Thieu and Ky, the generals then in power in Saigon, and pouring millions of dollars into the country, distorting the economy into a dependence on the American presence, the U.S. involvement forced a stalemate. In order to reduce the NLF's social base, the U.S. terror-bombed the countryside and herded the villagers into cities.
The peasants lived on the edge of existence in the swollen urban areas. The Vietnamese villager feels an almost natural bond to his land. These historic ties severed, a cohesive social system based on the family fell apart in the festering urban slums. Young people turned to delinquency, and gangs roamed the streets looking for people to roll.
THE NLF was temporarily stymied. Thieu's police watched over the urban areas, minimizing overt NLF organizing activities. The countryside was continually swept bare by saturation bombing and search-and-destroy operations.
Both the 1968 Tet Offensive and the 1972 North Vietnamese onslaught failed to topple the Thieu regime. Outside the cities, Thieu had no power, but within them his police held sway. His jails and tiger cages continued to fill with political prisoners, many of whom were charged only with being "neutralists." A stalemate reigned. Thieu could never eliminate the NLF and the North Vietnamese from the countryside. They had failed to eject him from the cities.
The Vietnamese liberation forces decided to change tactics, as they had so many times before in their three-decade struggle to free their country. They would shift the focus of the struggle and compete with Thieu peacefully, on political terrain.
The January peace agreement signaled their shift in tactics. The liberation forces hoped that with the renunciation of force called for in the agreement, the repressive atmosphere in which the Thieu regime thrived would disappear. The urbanized peasants, no longer fearful of American bombing raids in the countryside, would eagerly return to their ancestral lands. The NLF could return to its time-honored goals of answering peasant needs with land reform and participatory local government. Thieu's urban social base would erode, adding continually to NLF support.
The strategy of the liberation force depends on a real end to the fighting and a sincere attempt by both sides to move toward reconciliation. Thieu's aims, on the other hand, are diametrically opposed. His power rests on the American aid that has drafted one of every five South Vietnamese youths into his giant army and turned the urban areas of South Vietnam into a garrison state.
Thieu needs continuing fighting to keep the peasants in the cities and the American aid flowing into his country. That is why he balked at signing the peace agreement when it was first presented last October. That is why he will continually attempt to sabotage the agreement. That is why peace in Vietnam will only be achieved over his strenuous objections.
THE OVERWHELMING MAJORITY of the cease-fire violations are being instigated by the Thieu regime in hopes of retaining a maximum American presence in Vietnam to continue propping it up. Either the conflict will continue or the Thieu regime will gradually deflate. Americans who either support the NLF or simply want the fighting to end should share the same tactic: both groups should call for all parties to the peace agreement to abide scrupulously by its provisions. Additionally antiwar forces should press the American government to cut off financial aid to Thieu. Only in this way can the biggest obstacle to a meaningful Vietnamese peace be removed.