A YEAR AFTER the signing of a Vietnam cease-fire and 20 since Dienbienphu led to Americans' replacing Frenchmen as defenders of free enterprise in Vietnam, it makes sense to reassess the rhetoric people used to try to end the war.
Of course, a couple of million people died as a result of the war, and millions more lost their families or parts of their bodies or saw their houses or farms destroyed. Opponents of the war naturally emphasized these facts in explaining their position, just as American opponents of the war today emphasize the deaths resulting from U.S.-financed attacks on insurgent areas and the reports of the torture of 100,000 South Vietnamese political prisoners. But with the perspective made possible by a year of "peace," it's easy to see that such facts don't explain the fascination Vietnam exerted on people all over the world. People die of hunger in sub-Saharan Africa, brutally and unnecessarily, every day. Portugal's attempts to prevent its African colonies' gaining independence involve warfare as sustained and as all-encompassing as the war that swept Indochina. And torture of political prisoners, even U.S.-financed torture, isn't uncommon enough to cause much of a stir. It goes on more or less indiscriminately and without potent opposition (from Greece to Chile, where the followers of Guru Maharaj Ji joined the list of proscribed last week).
What made Vietnam different?
THE SIMPLEST EXPLANATION--President Nixon's explanation, to judge by his attacks on those who "downgrade" the United States--is that Vietnam provided a convenient occasion for anti-American feeling. The most obvious weakness in such an explanation is also the most obvious omission in most liberal criticisms of America's role in the war; in criticisms that spoke, for example, of its divisive and disruptive effects on Americans' psyche--the failure to attribute importance to the people who did most of the fighting and endured most of the suffering, the Vietnamese.
Yet the Vietnamese people's refusal to accept the governments supported by France and the United States, without which the war would not have happened, remains not just the basis of the war, but the necessary basis for understanding why Vietnam--rather than some other country attacked by a larger power--became the focus of the world's attention. It was the resistance of the Vietnamese people in the face of American troops and American bombers that made the impossibly onesided war continue.
So it makes sense to look at Vietnamese resistance before the American repression which followed it in trying to make sense of the old comparisons with Nazi Germany. And in view of the apparently invincible power the United States brought to Indochina, it makes sense to compare Vietnamese resistance--refusals to acknowledge the superiority of phalanxes of B-52s to a rabble in arms--to the best known previous resistance to apparently invincible power. The world's imagination was caught not by the suffering of the Vietnamese people but by its refusal to surrender in the face of suffering. The Vietnamese were not like those Europeans who resigned themselves to their fascist conquerors. They resembled the members of the French Resistance, shot by believers in nationhood and race, who with their last breaths affirmed their solidarity with the revolutionaries of Germany; or the Jews of the Warsaw ghetto, goaded beyond endurance or hope into a desperate refusal to submit. And that is why--even a year after the cease-fire--the most intemperate attacks on those who forced the Vietnamese to such desperate straits, who called forth such hopeless and inhuman heroism, continue to make sense.
THE MOST RECENT Vietnamese refusal to submit to overweening power appeared last week, shrouded in the six points of the Provisional Revolutionary Government's latest peace proposal. Like the cease-fire, like the proposals of the Saigon government, the PRG's proposal called for the establishment of a Council of National Reconciliation to supervise national elections. The sticking point is the PRG's insistence that the elections be free--its refusal to hold them until Saigon's censorship ends and its permitted press coverage, until it can campaign openly for its candidates, and until communists and non-communist believers in democracy can hold rallies and political meetings. American officials said that the proposal was the most specific peace plan since the cease-fire, but the Saigon government condemned the plan as merely restating the National Liberation Front's previous position.
Like the American officials, the Saigon government was right. The PRG's proposal refused to acknowledge the realities of the situation--the grip the Saigon government continues to maintain on some areas of South Vietnam, and the American aid that lets this grip continue--just as Vietnamese resistance refused to acknowledge all the apparent realities of the last 27 years.