(The following represents the opinion of a minority of the Editorial Board of the CRIMSON.)
Long before the recent demonstrations by Buddhists and students in South Vietnam dramatized the brutal nature of President Ngo Dinh Diem's dictatorship, Western news correspondents in Saigon had been filing reports of government police terror, concentration camps, and general political suppression in the Vietnamese corner of the free world.
Each time an incident has highlighted the unpopularity of the Diem regime, the United States has publicly called for reform in South Vietnam. Yet this occasional open U.S. pressure has produced no substantial reforms, as recent events have so clearly illustrated. Still American money--now at the rate of a million a day--has poured in to sustain the Diem regime. And Diem, knowing that the U.S. thinks it needs him as much as he needs the U.S., has managed to maintain himself in the style he wishes.
Active U.S. military participation in the fighting (some G. I. "advisers" are now flying actual combat missions) has dispelled American belief that the guerillas are foreign subversives who terrorize the population into supporting them. General Paul D. Harkins, head of the U.S. military command in South Vietnam, emphasized in a speech last spring that the "guerrillas obviously are not being reinforced or supplied systematically from North Vietnam, China, or any place else. They depend for weapons primarily upon whatever they can capture; many are homemade."
Newsweek reports that guerrillas terrorize only prominent officials and pro-government zealots. According to Newsweek, the Vietcong has a flat rule: no liberation soldier (i.e., guerrilla) may mistreat a peasant. Rape or stealing by a guerrilla is punishable by execution. Food must be paid for. Anything borrowed must be returned or replaced. Time magazine reported a Vietnamese peasant as saying, "The Vietcong come into your fields and work with you . . . the Vietcong live like us, look like us, share our homes. How can we inform on them?"
Only widespread peasant support of the Vietcong could explain how an estimated 20,000 guerrilla regulars have, for some years now, successfully resisted 400,000 South Vietnamese troops and their 18,000 American advisers. In spite of over $2.5 billion and some 100 American lives invested in this jungle land, the guerrillas continue to control two-thirds of the countryside. Peasants in these areas pay taxes to the Vietcong and use Vietcong currency. And now the Diem government seems to be on the verge of losing the cities as well.
As long as Diem remains in power, winning the war in the countryside, if indeed it is possible, would require killing so many Vietnamese people the (Communists and their supporters) that those who remain would lack the strength or will to carry on the fight against what they at least, think is Diem tyranny. Several hundred thousand South Vietnamese troops, now the most modern and well-equipped in South East Asia, have so far failed to do the job.
But if winning the war with Diem in power seems both unlikely and undesirable, winning the war without him would appear equally impossible. As long as America supplies Diem with the military equipment to fight the war, he will be able to suppress any opposition that the U.S. might like to see replace him. Cutting off commercial aid will only make him more unpopular, without destroying the real source of his power.
In what seems to be the absence of a viable alternative, a government that could be both popular and safely anti-Communist, the United States is helping a shaky dictator and his military cronies to suppress the South Vietnamese Communists, peasants, Buddhist priests, and students who oppose him.
Diem's opposition calls for elections with international supervision. But the United States seems to have ignored the issue of free elections, apparently from fear of a Communist victory at the polls. Yet such elections offer America its only graceful way out of a terribly embarrassing position. National self-determination, after all, is supposed to be an American tenet. The rest of the world could only accuse us of upholding one of our best principles.
If the guerrillas would agree to a cease fire contingent upon provision for internationally supervised elections (and their propaganda supports this) American withdrawal of military aid would force Diem either to accept the elections or to leave. In any case this possibility should be at least explored. The status quo is intolerable.
With elections, especially elections with strict international supervision, there would be at lease some hope of success for the moderate, democratic forces. The alternative to election is losing the war militarily long after it has been lost morally.