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In spite of 350,000 South Vietnamese troops by now the most modern and well-equipped in South-East Asia, in spite, even, of the 10,000 American servicemen and $2 billion American dollars invested in this jungle land, the fight against Communist led guerrillas, at most 25,000 full-time soldiers, goes on and on.
To some extent, the Viet Cong guerrillas have lost ground in the past year and a half; they are no longer steadily gaining strength. The war at the moment seems to be pretty much of a stalemate. But this has been accomplished by active American military participation in the fighting. Already at least fifty-three American servicemen have been killed. American air force pilots, stationed in south Vietnam as technical advisers under orders to shoot only if shot at, are now flying actual combat missions. Until recently these U.S. air force personnel had been limited to transporting soldiers and supplies in helicopters--bananas, the natives call them--to the front. But apparently there just aren't enough South Vietnamese pilots around to do all the fire-bombing and strafing missions themselves.
For diplomatic and political reasons most of this active American participation has been subrosa in an attempt to maintain some kind of symbolic recognition of the 1954 Geneva Treaty which ended the French-Indochinese war. Actually the treaty which America never signed but did agree to respect has been violated almost from its inception. Temporarily dividing Vietnam along the 17th parallel, it stipulated that elections for reunification should be held in 1956. Before that time no more than 675 foreign military personnel were to be permitted in either half of the country. Largely because of American intransigence, the reunification elections never took place, although the Communist regime in the North agreed to international inspection. And the number of foreign military "advisers" in both North and South has remained well over the proscribed limits.
As long as American intervention remains limited, however, military success will be encumbered by the problems of a divided command. In January five American helicopters were downed in the biggest defeat the South Vietnamese army had suffered in over a year. The South Vietnamese regulars began action by zeroing in on their own troops, killing three, wounding twelve, and sending an American brigadier general scurrying for shelter in the mud before they actually took a shot at the guerrillas. By retreating before necessary, they ignored the advice of the American advisers, disobeyed the orders of some of their own officers and opened an escape route for the enemy whom one of them had tipped of in advance about the surprise attack and this was the Seventh Vietnam Division, generally considered the best in the country.
Defection from the army has occurred frequently since the war began, although the most dramatic army revolts have been merely attempts to unseat President Ngo Dinh Diem, not necessarily to replace him with the Viet Cong guerrillas. Last year two well-known air force heroes bombed the President's palace and escaped to the Cambodian border claiming to be anti-Communist nationalists and warning of more attacks in the future.
Indeed, Diem's very close association with the American government has alienated Vietnamese nationalists almost as much as his dictactorial political control has alienated the intellectuals. Because the Viet Minn, the political organ of the Viet Cong guerrillas, claims to be a popular front, including the "progressive" bourgeoisie, peasants, and workers and attempts to appeal to nationalist as much as Communist sentiment, it has some common ground with the most dissatisfied of the urban middle class. But most of its strength comes from that part of the peasantry whose support the guerrillas have gained by combination of persuasion and terror. These peasants provide the Viet Cong with a good part of their manpower, as well as the food and shelter necessary for their survival. Diem, having lost the control of much of the country-side and fast losing the support of the urban middle classes, maintains his power through American military assistance. In effect he has a vested interest in the war. As long as it continues, the American government will probably be too afraid of a Communist take-over to withdraw the aid that sustains him.
As active American military participation has increased, the fighting G.I.'s have begun to catch on to some of the subtleties of the political situation. "It's pretty hard to tell the peasants from the guerrillas," said one American, surveying the large supplies of rice and other food, including American canned beer, left in a Viet Cong village after it was bombed. Said guerrilla leader Mao Tse Tung once upon a time, "The enemy is our supply line."
Optimistic American military advisers have based their expectation of victory on "Operation Sunrise," the artificial village, surrounded by barbed wire and moats, where peasants are forcibly concentrated to prevent their contact with the Viet Cong fighters. By now there are six million people living in four thousand of these hamlets. But all are not docilely accepting this situation. Recently, in such a settlement where several hundred carefully selected mountain folk being trained in anti-guerrilla tactics, some of the inhabitants cut through the barbed wire from the inside, to admit a Viet Cong battalion.
Continued stalemate will mean continuing large-scale American financial expenditure and occasional loss of Americans. But the status quo may not last forever. As yet, said General Paul D. Harkins, head of the U.S. military assistance command in South Vietnam, the "guerrillas obviously are not being reinforced or supplied systematically from North Vietnam, china or anyplace else-they depend for weapons primarily upon whatever they can capture--many are home-made." But the North Vietnamese, even the Chinese, may step up the pressure if it looks like the southern movement will fail on its own steam. Needless to say, this could escalate into a Korean War situation.
Actually, President Kennedy, in 1954 when he was still a Senator was making much more pessimistic appraisals of American intervention in Vietnam than he apparently is now. He said then, "I am frankly of the belief that no amount of American military assistance in Indochina can conquer an enemy which is everywhere and at the same time nowhere, 'an enemy of the people' which has the sympathy and covert support of the people."
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