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The Least Bad Alternative

Brass Tacks

By Michael Lerner

The Johnson Administration is sending more bombs and more troops to Vietnam every day. The ground war continues to go badly. That is why it was necessary for Johnson to up the ante again, with incessant air-raids and new waves of Marines, to stay in Vietnam.

The student left, on the other hand, having started from a different premise about what the U.S. should do, arrives now easily at a different conclusion. Stop bombing. Negotiate. Withdraw American troops and let the Vietnamese govern themselves.

There is hypocrisy on both sides of the argument. The Administration cannot convincingly hold that the supplies from the North are comparable in magnitude to the bombings. Nor do the raids show any signs of accomplishing their policy objectives--stopping the flow of supplies, forcing Minh to negotiate, or softening the attitude of the North Vietnamese. The bombings have clearly marked the United States as the aggressor and escalator in one whole sector of the Vietnamese war. Yet they go on.

The struggle in Vietnam neither is nor was, however, the indigenous class war that some have conceived it to be. It has aspects of a class war, but fundamentally it is a political war for reunification under the popular leadership of Ho Chi Minh. The battalion-sized units of regular North Vietnamese troops now operating in the south make it evident that the stakes are higher than the simple aspirations of hungry peasants fighting to rid themselves of a feudal power-structure. As for the disinterested Chinese, they have already told friendly visitors that they are training Thai cadres to lead the indigenous peasant revolt being planned for Thailand.

Can Saigon Win?

Should one simply choose the position that is fashionable with one's friends and accept the parallel set of hypocrisies that each position requires? Or is there some rational way of deciding what the United States should do? There would be no criteria for this decision if Vietnam were, as it often seems, simply an intellectual exercise in international affairs. One could accept the argument of one's choice, and quietly follow wherever its line led. But fortunately or unfortunately, Vietnam is real, and any policy proposed must meet the minimal requirement that its implementation be possible. So one may ask: is a continuing American presence in Vietnam within the realm of the possible? It would be only if Saigon could win the present war. Yet is it conceivable that Saigon can win in an acceptable way?

Air strikes alone, obviously, will not win the war. The strikes create a sense of defiance and unity in the North, and they only marginally impede the flow of cadres South. In jungle war, roads are luxuries for our Asian adversaries; they are not necessities. Everything the soldiers need for jungle war they can carry through the jungle on their backs. The air strikes may put pressure on Ho Chi Minh, but it is not a pressure that is working to American advantage in any significant way.

If the war is to be won it must be won, as every American general admits, in the South on the ground. But by whom? There are three possibilities. One could deploy Saigon soldiers alone, Saigon soldiers with U.S. advisors, or Saigon soldiers and a massive number of American fighting troops. The first two possibilities have failed; Johnson is obviously reluctant to try the third, and with good reason. Such an American offensive would unite practically the entire Vietnamese nation against the United States. America would be fighting alongside a tiny minority of South Vietnamese who would lose everything if Ho Chi Minh took over, and against everyone else.

It is remotely possible that, despite popular opposition, the U.S. Army could do what the French attempted in Algeria. Perhaps one could scorch and terrify the entire population into subservience. But the psychological and physical cost would be immense under the best circumstances, and the policy would risk eliciting open confrontation with the North. In such an event the odds are that Russia could not stand by and watch the United States fight a massive war in Vietnam without intervening. It is true that the Russians and Chinese might well "lose" the ensuing conflict. Nevertheless this entire chain of prospects seems totally repugnant to both American interests and ideals. Following the argument out to its logical conclusion suggests the incredible intellectual poverty of those who have been reduced to believing that America should undertake this course.

The South cannot be held without a heavy commitment of American fighting forces, and such a commitment would turn almost all of the South against the United States. Therefore one cannot hope to control all of South Vietnam without paying an intolerable price.

Is this not, Alsop and other columnists ask, the very kind of logic that made the West accede to Hitler's first demands? But there is no fruitful comparison between Ho Chi Minh and Hitler, or even between Mao Tse-tung and Hitler. The old-line liberals who argue this way, who talk hard to expiate past errors of softness, are committing the opposite error of rigid adherence to an old standard that has no application here. There are valid reasons for the North Vietnamese to want the reunification promised at the Geneva Conference to take place, and it is obviously in China's interest to back them in this struggle. China may some day turn into the insatiable monster Germany was in the 1930s, but it has not yet, and without proof the United States is not justified in assuming that it will. Like the other super-powers, it wants friendly governments on its borders. Yet there is a difference between this imperialism and the crazed policy of aggrandizement that sent German divisions smashing across Europe.

The American Dream

Then what should the United States do? Should negotiations start tomorrow and should all American troops be out of the country at the end of a month? Should there be a vast reversal in American foreign policy? Should Lyndon Johnson go on television and say "My fellow countrymen, we have been entirely wrong in Vietnam. We must withdraw our troops from Vietnam and from the other nations of the world where our presence is obstructing progress, and concentrate our attention on the problems of our own country and the vast natural difficulties that afflict the world."

No. It is not that this is an unattractive vision, but rather that those who propose it are dreaming as much as those who think a Saigon government could hold all of South Vietnam. First, such a speech would be impossible for Johnson to make and for most of the country to accept. Second, the Russians and the Chinese have no intention of initiating a similar withdrawal. Johnson would be leaving them to carve up the world, and they are no more tender about it than the U.S. has been. They would be just as anxious to protect the rest of the world from each other's neo-colonialism as they have been to replace Western influence whereever that has flagged. Pending effective world government, the only way that any super-power will be kept from completely dominating the globe is by the effective pressure against it of the others.

Another Strategy Proposed

Is there an alternative to withdrawal or commitment of U.S. fighting forces to Vietnam? There is no easy answer. But two Harvard professors, Stanley Hoffmann and John Kenneth Galbraith, have suggested a strategy that may have less wrong with it than any other. It is to stop the bombing, strengthen land forces, clear and hold the cities and provinces still friendly with the Saigon government, and open negotiations for a settlement. This way Saigon could threaten the continued disunity of the country until a solution satisfactory to the Catholics, city-dwellers, and others who have been America's allies is reached. The guerrillas could not threaten the cities and friendly provincial areas because guerrilla warfare requires a friendly environment. The United States could promise to retaliate for any frontal assault on the cities.

Negotiations under such a strategy would undoubtedly be drawn out, but this would also allow time for American public opinion to cool on Vietnam as it did on Laos. Then President Johnson could accept whatever accord was reached without endangering his own position. Moreover the American build-up now taking place in Thailand could continue. This would minimize the blow to American prestige if the U.S. had to leave Vietnam completely.

What form the American build-up in Thailand will take has been in no way predetermined, and one thing one can hope is that the President will have learned from the Vietnam experience. Perhaps the U.S. should support the Thai government only insofar as its own military strength is sufficient to support it. There is no necessity for the United States to repeat all of the steps it took in Vietnam.

Many radicals will not be satisfied with such a solution. It will seem that the United States is moving from the support of one unviable feudal regime in Vietnam to the support of another in Thailand. They are right. But the solution was not designed to appeal to the aesthetic sense of American radicals: it was designed to provide a real possibility of escape from continued escalation of the war on the one hand and an unrealizable total reversal in American policy on the other.

This is not an attempt to pass judgment on the vision of a complete policy reversal: Such a reversal might quite conceivably be a very refreshing thing. But it will not take place during the time remaining for solving the Vietnam crisis, while continued escalation will take place unless President Johnson finds an honorable alternative. One can fight in the long run for a situation in which the United States no longer supports rotten governments. Right now it may be more fruitful to try to discover a way to preserve traditional American interests while avoiding the unpleasant prospects that seem to face the U.S. in Vietnam. The question is not what should happen, but what is the least bad alternative.

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