THE VICTORY of the Vietnamese National Liberation Front is a victory, first of all, for the people of Vietnam. Americans, who played a crucial role in forcing their government to withdraw from Indochina, should rejoice in the Vietnamese triumph. And it may even turn out--if Americans are watchful--that President Ford was right, that the evacuation of Americans from Saigon closed "a chapter in the American experience." But for all its profound repercussions for the rest of the world, Tuesday's triumph belongs to the Vietnamese, first and foremost. To focus on the repercussions would be perverse, in the way that it was sick to talk of the Vietnam War as an American tragedy, creating turmoil and division in the United States, while Vietnam endured an American onslaught and a barrage of bombs unprecedented in the history of the world.
For the first time in two decades. Vietnam today is free of that onslaught and rid of the fear of that barrage. The thousands of refugees spawned by 30 years of war--seeking escape from bombings, marches and retreats, free-fire zones and protective-reaction strikes; or ripped untimely from their homes by "strategic-hamlet" programs and "forced-draft urbanization's"--will start to go back to their homes now. The Montagnard tribesmen, alternately cajoled and maltreated by a Saigon administration uninterested in their problems or their culture, will begin to live with a government with at least some commitment to fighting traditional Vietnamese varieties of racism.
Vietnam's farmers, and its farmers-turned soldiers, will go back to growing rice and raising pigs, probably on lands no longer owned by large landlords and with the beginnings of co-operative labor. The celebrated Vietnamese orphans--from a country where there was hardly a word for "orphan" until massive American intervention strained Vietnamese families' traditional generosity beyond its capacity for resilience--will grow up peacefully. These children of the war, the "nieces and nephews" to whom Ho Chi Minh directed his last testament, will once again find a secure place in a secure social fabric. And because that fabric is no longer continually frayed by rifle-fire, members of every social class will at last be able to go about their business in peace. City workers, businessmen and shopkeepers, even Saigon government employees (many of them have apparently been kept on by the Provisional Revolutionary Government)--all will benefit from freedom from the specter of bombs and rockets, and from having a government with wide popular support, committed to equality and to industrial and agricultural development.
FOR OVER A decade now. American policy-makers and political commentators have warned of the bloodbath that would follow an NLF victory. It is true that the NLF has on occasion assassinated officials of the Saigon government--generally carefully selected officials, hated outsiders foisted upon villagers by a remote Saigon administration. More rarely, NLF forces have resorted to more indiscriminate terror--as in the nearly legendary and possibly mythical Hue massacre of 1968, or PRG forces' unconscionable shelling of Saigon slums last week. But lacking the unlimited support, up-to-date military equipment, and direct military intervention of a wealthy patron superpower, the PRG--unlike the Saigon government--was never able to make terror its principal strength, even if it had wanted to. The NLF was forced to rely on the support of ordinary villagers, the men and women who brought it so close to victory in the early 1960s that the United States sent half a million troops to stop them--and who then defeated those troops.
We hope and believe that there will be no "bloodbath" in Vietnam. Our belief is strengthened by the indications available so far, such as the PRG's stated program, most Catholic clergy's choosing to remain in NLF-held areas as they did not in 1954, and the reports of newspaper people and refugees about NLF-held cities where life is said to have returned to normal. It seems likely that the PRG will retaliate only against high-ranking Saigon officials personally responsible for large-scale torture and for continuing the war. Most of these people have probably already found well-financed refuge on Taiwan or in the United States. But even if the PRG retaliated also against the thousands of ordinary Vietnamese who had ties of one sort or another to the Saigon government, the PRG victory would still be a good thing, on balance. Even if all the American propagandists' lies were true, the bloodbath they predicted would not be remotely comparable--in scale, in duration, in sheer horror--to the bloodbath these propagandists' masters have been visiting on Vietnam for 20 years.
THE ROOTS OF the Vietnam war go back at least as far as the middle of the 19th century, when French soldiers who had spent 30 years eroding the power of Vietnam's symbol of national unity--the monarchy--took over the country altogether. Effectively undermining an already tenuously unified Vietnamese culture, and supporting a small elite of wealthy Vietnamese landlords at the expense of the peasantry. French actions began to inspire the nationalist resistance that would eventually expel both the French and their American successors.
But it was not until the Second World War that the French colony really began to crumble, and the struggle for Vietnamese independence took on a more violent form. And almost from the time that Ho Chi Minh's Vietnam Independence League--the Viet Minh--liberated Vietnam from its collapsing Japanese occupiers, with a Declaration that began by quoting the American Declaration of Independence, the United States did what it could to hold back this struggle.
Though President Eisenhower, rejecting his vice president's advice, decided not to give the resurgent French a couple of nuclear bombs, shortly before the fall of Dien Bien Phu, it was the United States that encouraged Ngo Dinh Diem to cancel the nation wide elections to reunite a divided Vietnam that had been called for in the Geneva agreement of 1954. After helping Diem wrest control of the South Vietnamese army, the United States continued to support him as he used it to break up and destroy competing religious-political sects, disband traditional village councils, and force peasants to leave their homes and enter stockades. Meanwhile, the Viet Minh continued to work in the villages in small groups called Chi bo or "party branches," implementing land reforms, limiting taxation, and continuing to win support from rural farmers.
When the repressive character and ineffectiveness of Diem's government became apparent to American liberals, the United States became the main support of a series of equally repressive and ineffective Saigon governments. That the repression and ineffectiveness were more than accidents--that they were two necessary consequences of the popular support and increasing strength of the NLF--was a secret carefully kept from the American people, just as their government's massive bombing of neutral Cambodia would be kept a secret at a later stage of the war. But just as the Cambodians would know they were being bombed, the real nature of the American intervention was no secret to the Vietnamese. At the end of a decade, over a million people throughout Indochina would be dead as a result of this intervention, and its failure would testify, more eloquently than any polemic against those who denounced the PRG, to the inadequacy of terror as a political weapon.
THOUGH MANY American liberals eventually managed to learn this lesson--and a smaller number went so far as to question the ends that required killing on such scale as a means--the rulers of the United States were not among them. Henry A. Kissinger '50 never got over his disappointment at his loss of authority to try to bomb the Vietnamese into submission. In April 1973, Time magazine reports. Richard Nixon gave orders to resume the bombing of North Vietnam, rescinding them when he learned that John W. Dean III had been talking to the Watergate prosecutors. Gerald Ford continued to plead for more military aid to the Saigon government that had signed a peace agreement providing for civil and political rights for all Vietnamese, then continued to hold tens of thousands of political prisoners in its jails, while stepping up its attacks on PRG-held areas until counter-offensives compelled it to stop.
As recently as last week, there was evidence of the endlessly ingenious uses of the military aid for which Ford asked. Saigon troops had a new type of American-supplied bomb, the Defense Department acknowledged--an "asphyxiation bomb." Officially called canister bomb, the units, or CBUs, and originally intended as a device for exploding mines in front of advancing troops, these bombs absorbed all the oxygen within a 200-yard radius. At Xuan Loc, last week's main battlefield, hundreds of PRG soldiers were said to have died of suffocation.
THE OFFICIAL American response to the events of the last week--to the gratuitous criminality of inventing new methods of destruction for a cause whose hopelessness was clear, as well as to the NLF's triumph over everything the United States had hurled against it--was to call for forgetfulness, for a moratorium on recriminations, for an end to the story of Vietnam Kissinger simply said that the United States should not help to rebuild North Vietnam--a country he did as much as anyone to destroy--and went on to the next subject.
Such a response is unacceptable, both because it is reprehensible to destroy a country and then blame it for the destruction and because it is calculated to enable officials to sucker the ordinary Americans who pay for their plans--55,000 of them paid with their lives, in Indochina--into paying for similar plans again, somewhere else.
To ask people to remember Vietnam is hardly to call for unwarranted "recriminations," as administration spokesmen have been suggesting in the last few days. If, as they seem to believe, American involvement in Vietnam was an accident, a mistake that unfortunately killed hundreds of thousands of people without achieving a discernible political effect-except, perhaps, for promoting the victory of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia-then it is reasonable to continue to ask how a democratic, rational system of government could permit such an accident and such a mistake. And if American involvement in Vietnam was not simply an "accident"-if it had deeper roots, in the economic and political structure of the United States and in the ideas to which this structure gave rise-then it is reasonable to try to identify these roots, before they bring forth new flowers somewhere else.
In the meantime, the Provisional Revolutionary Government of South Vietnam, faced with governing a country devastated by two decades of war, has asked for help from anyone who will offer it--especially food, medicines, and cloth. The United States should respond to the PRG's call. It is not a matter of discharging America's debt to Vietnam--too many Vietnamese, like many of the Americans sent to stop their revolution, are beyond the reach of debtors and creditors alike. It is more a matter of earning the astonishing friendship so many Vietnamese have expressed towards an American people that let its government commit barbarities in its name, or of recovering the self-respect endangered by 15 years in which politicians appealed instead to national pride in order to justify the war.
And it is a way of celebrating the victory of the Vietnamese people Tuesday. For whatever our presidents and Congressmen may say, that victory is ours as well.