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When recently a couple of dissident South Vietnamese air force officers used two American AC-6 fighter planes to drop American-supplied napalm bombs on Ngo Dinh Diem's presidential palace in Saigon, the incident only dramatized the very uncertain character of United States' involvement with the South Vietnam regime. These pilots were not aberrant malcontents with a history of disloyalty; the leader of the attack was a squadron operations officer known as one of the best pilots in the South Vietnamese air force. The other, who managed to escape to the Cambodian border, described himself as a nationalist, not a Communist, and warned in a press conference that similar attacks would be launched as long as president Ngo Dinh Diem remained in power.
American advisors finally came to grips this fall with the fact of Diem's despotism and his general unpopularity. As a result of missions to survey the situation, Stanford economist Eugene Staley and presidential advisor General Maxwell Taylor strongly recommended political and social reforms as well as increased military assistance. But at this first serious suggestion of reform the government-controlled newspapers (whose front pages are often totally blank to indicate censorship) came out with as scathing an indictment of American "interference" as could ever be heard in a Communist press.
By this time there could be little doubt of Diem's lack of popular support or the sincerity of his allegiance to any kind of democratic ideal. It is amazing how long it took the United States to find this out. But since the Indo-China war the U.S. has stuck rigidly to a line of Cold War opportunism whose ends have even been misguided. Naturally our support of the French in the name of anti-communism antagonized nationalists of every political hue. Somehow we assumed that the Bao Dai regime, instituted by the French in 1949 to divide and weaken the independence movement, had popular support. And after the war was over we continued to support this regime, rather than the nationalists who had temporarily collaborated with the Communist guerrillas in the name of inpendence and were best able to gauge future Communist tactics.
In the chaos of South Vietnam politics after the 1954 armistice it was difficult to distinguish French collaborators from genuine nationalists, and temporary allies of the Viet Minh from real Communists. The only non-communist political groups with any kind of grass roots following were the Cal Dai and Hoa Hao religious sects. But understandably American officials could not stomach any kind of permanent association with these tribes. And anyway they too had a history of collaboration with the French. Americans turned then quite naturally to the certain anti-communism and Western orientation of Catholics who composed a great majority of the million Northern refugees who flooded Saigon during those months. Diem was the most politically viable representative of these. Although placed in power by the unpopular Bao Dai regime, he had long been a nationalist in exile, known to a small minority for his opposition to Bao Dai's cooperation with the French.
It was a Northern Catholic, then, to whom the U.S. decided to tie the survival of predominantly Buddhist South Vietnam. This in a region whose natives traditionally considered Northerners foreign and suspected Catholics of being pro-French. This also at a time when a majority of the population quite openly sympathized with the communist Viet Minh guerrillas who had been leaders of the Independence movement. It was absolutely necessary for Western strategy to create some kind of popular front to challenge the Communists at the general elections which the Geneva Treaty set for 1956 to unify the country. The general elections were never held because the U.S. and Diem refused to participate. And, while the furious North Vietnam and Southern Communists launched a full scale guerrilla campaign, Diem settled down to rule, supported by massive U.S. aid, as if, in true Mandarin style, he held a mandate from heaven.
Against this rebellion which daily looks more like a civil war, Diem's "personalism" can not survive without massive American support. Since the Indo-Chinese war the U.S. has sunk about two billion dollars into his regime. Most of this, even before the recent months, has been for military purposes. Economic aid is almost exclusively oriented to consumers. The 48,000 bottles of Metrecal sent to Saigon may have been an "honest mistake" of the State Department, but it is a dramatic exaggeration of an aid program designed to bolster a flagging regime, without considering the long run development of the country.
Recently, the government initiated a program of transporting peasants from areas of heavy Communist infiltration and settling them in heavily guarded garrison communities. These "agrovilles" supposedly serve the dual purpose of encouraging agricultural reforms and destroying contacts with the Viet Cong guerrillas by limiting the population movements of inhabitants. But recent crop shortages have prompted the government to force labor from peasants on government projects without pay. Peasant resentment of forced labor and the agroville's limitation of their freedom has naturally been great and the Viet Cong reaction, vituperative.
(This article is the first in a series on Vietanm.--Ed. Note.)
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