In the nine years which have followed France's defeat in the Indo-Chinese war, the United States has poured three billion dollars into South Vietnam to make that country a bulwark against Communism. If American aid had succeeded in its goal, Cold War expediency might have justified President Ngo Dinh Diem's nepotism, his thousands of political prisoners, censorship of the press, and concentration camps, where peasants who may be Viet Cong guerillas are quarantined from guerillas who may be peasants.
But although recent direct military participation by U.S. advisors has temporarily stemmed a fairly steady increase in Viet Cong strength, political conditions in South Vietnam remain unstable. They will continue to be unstable even if the United States is willing to pour money and men into this area for decades and to keep large portions of the population under constant military guard. To achieve any kind of lasting peace, there would have to be major political and economic reforms.
Unfortunately President Diem, a Northern Catholic aristocrat who was backed by John Foster Dulles as an anti-Communist, has been unwilling even under considerable American pressure to make the necessary reforms. He has arrogantly gambled on the assumption that the U.S. thinks it needs him as much as he needs it, and he has gambled well.
As long as Diem stays in power Vietnam will remain a bottomless pit for American money and lives. While American aid sustains him against the guerillas in the name of anti-Communism, Diem--by refusing to institute reforms--perpetuates and aggravates the conditions that feed rebellion.
Vietnam is not vital enough to U. S. security to justify the sacrifices that America will have to continue making to keep Diem in power. Nor is the alternative to Diem--a Communist government in Vietnam--so dangerous as to warrant these sacrifices.
The Communists in both North and South Vietnam seem to be strongly nationalistic. They have been struggling to remain neutral in the Sino-Soviet dispute. Some representatives of the North Vietnamese government have even dropped hints about accepting U. S. aid, in Titoist fashion, much to the dismay of the rabidly anti-American Chinese.
If indeed the only alternative to President Diem's incompetency is a unified, Communist Vietnam (and according to American intelligence there is no anti-Communist group that the CIA could help to replace Diem), then the U.S. should withdraw as gracefully as possible. Negotiations for free elections to unify the country (which is what Vietamese of all complexions say they ultimately want) might be a good step. The Geneva Treaty which ended the Indo-Chinese War stipulated that such elections be held in 1956; by supporting the treaty now, the U.S. might repair much of the damage of its past violations.
Chinese expansion and dominance in South East Asia, not a native, nationalist communism, poses the greater threat to American security. A unified Vietnam--even if it were Communist--could be far more stable and better suited to the long-run interests of the U.S. than a neutralist Laos trembling in the shadow of its Chinese neighbor.