Third Force Comes to Boston

POLITICS

NGO CONG DUC speaks English haltingly, and he sometimes verges on seeming embarrassed at taking up his listeners' time--as though everything he has to say was obvious long ago, or as though he has said it many times before. He is 39, a social-democrat, the son of a rich canton chief killed by insurgents in 1954, the nephew of the archbishop of Saigon, the former chairman of the anti-corruption and information committees of the House of Representatives of the Republic of Vietnam. He founded, published and edited the Saigon newspaper Tin Sang. He was the chairman of South Vietnam's Association of Newspaper Editors.

In 1971. Time magazine announced that if Ngo Cong Duc failed to win re-election to the assembly, it would cast a shadow of doubt on the election as a whole. He was "the best-known and most outspoken anti-government legislator." Time explained, as well as "far and away the most popular candidate" in his district. Moreover, he had been jailed for attempted murder halfway through the campaign, after he punched the nose of a government candidate who'd spat in his face. And government officials had apparently threatened to reclassify villages he carried as Communist, which meant they could be demolished and their inhabitants driven out. Since February 1972, when Tin Sang was finally closed (by Duc's reckoning it had been suspended eight times, confiscated 285 times, the office bombed twice and burned once) he has been a political exile in Europe. "If I go home they will arrest me again," he says, grinning as though it is all a joke.

Duc was in Boston last week, on his way back from antiwar lobbying in Washington, and the American Friends Service Committee invited Boston reporters to lunch with him. Most of the reporters seemed sympathetic, but politely skeptical. Duc says he is part of a Third Force--an alternative to both the Saigon government and the Provisional Revolutionary Governments.

Any Indochina reporter has heard many such claims before. Indeed, soon it will be 20 years since Graham Greene introduced his Quiet American, convinced that "what the East needs is a Third Force." In Greene's book, the "third force" was a gangster distinguished from the first force (now it is Thieu in Saigon, then it was the French in Hanoi) chiefly by his lack of officially recognized political power.

Duc quickly scotched easy analogies to those half-forgotten days. His people, he says, would not accept power if it were offered to them, because that would mean a direction confrontation with the PRG instead of the conciliatory neutrality they prefer. But he seemed to have some trouble explaining just what his Third Force is and who it speaks for. He says he has a lot of friends in the army--and he laughs, recounting how soldiers used to be sent to stuff ballot-boxes against him, but when the votes were counted it turned out they had voted for him. And he says that the army is starting to turn against the Thieu government. Even if Congress votes the 5,300 million emergency aid President Ford has requested--like all the non-official newspapers in Saigon. Duc says the United States should grant Thieu no aid of any kind, because "he will only use it to continue the war and keep himself in power"--Duc says the army's pro-Thieu elements will remain loyal to Thieu for only a few extra months. But the army isn't the Third Force. The closest Duc came to defining what he claims provides its mass support was probably his explanation that such a base must exist, since many Vietnamese supported neither the Saigon government nor the PRG.

Duc's analysis of what is happening in Vietnam today depends less on negative reasoning, but it, too, stresses the influence of people committed to neither side in the war. National Liberation Front victories forced Thieu to sign the Paris peace agreement, Duc says. But because implementing the peace agreement's call for the release of political prisoners and the restoration of democratic rights would have meant his downfall. Thieu ignored the agreement. After an interregnum of six or eight months. North Vietnamese and NLF troops began to launch counter-attacks. "Democracy in South Vietnam is getting worse and worse," Duc continues: "before they ordered police to release Congressmen, but now they beat Congressmen, they beat Catholic priests." Catholics were the last major group to support Thieu, he concludes: now that even that support is gone, Thieu's replacement by a new government is just a matter of time--though American aid can keep him going a little while longer.

There have been new governments in Saigon before, of course, but Duc insists this one will be different. When Thieu is overthrown, he says, "everyone will go on the streets and show their will for peace." The new government will have to implement the agreement. The PRG will stop attacking, because "they are not so stupid as not to know that with a government that will negotiate with them, they will lose the support of the whole population if they continue." Then it will be time for the United States to resume economic aid--military aid will no longer be necessary, because there will no longer be a war--and the Council of National Reconciliation provided for by the peace agreement will organize a coalition government. The third Force will come out of opposition or out of Thieu's jails, and compete peacefully with the NLF for the loyalty of the South Vietnamese people.

It is a nice vision--certainly a lot nicer than Vietnam's current reality, in which 200 soldiers die each day. With Thieu out of power, maybe it could even come true. Anyway, Ngo Cong Duc explained it patiently. Twice he told the woman from the Christian Science Monitor that the Third Force did not plan on taking power from Thieu, and shook hands with some of the reporters. As the other reporters left, he smiled politely: he verged on seeming embarrassed.