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Thich Nhat Hanh on Vietnam

Brass Tacks

By Stephen D. Lerner

Thich Nhat Hanh, director of the School of Social Studies at the Buddhist University of Saigon, called Friday night for a U.S. policy of reconstruction in and withdrawal from South Vietnam. The lecture, "Self-Determination in Vietnam," was held before a sympathetic audience in Dunster House.

Often clasping his hands in a gesture of prayer, the Buddhist priest spoke bluntly, but in a soft and hesitant English. "I am a messenger from the suffering peasants in South Vietnam," Nhat Hanh announced, "and I have come here to tell you that the war must stop."

To advocate peace is considered a serious crime in South Vietnam.

The immediacy of Nhat Hanh's experiences in the war turned political cliches into moving arguments for stopping the war: "I was in a village outside of Saigon after the Viet Cong mortar attack on a U.S. airbase. Six Viet Cong passed through the village and retreated into the jungle. Then the bombing began. Many houses were knocked down and innocent people killed; a piece of rocket fell only a meter from me."

Nhat Hanh recounted how he traveled into the jungle for several days to talk with the villagers who were in contact with the National Liberation Front. He said that when asked if their sympathies lie with the government or with the Viet Cong, the peasants reply: "We follow those who keep us alive." If you tell them about Democracy and the evils of Communism, they reply: "How can we use Democracy if we're not alive."

There are few militants left among the people, Nhat Hanh continued, and many South Vietnamese soldiers desert because it is safer in jail than on the battlefield.

When asked what the ideal U.S. policy would be, the Buddhist emphasized that he was not a politician, but was willing to present his opinions. The vast majority of the South Vietnamese want peace, and the U.S. and the South Vietnamese governments could turn this to their tactical advantage, Nhat Hanh implied. By stating plans for reconstruction and a ceasing of the air offensive, the U.S. would gain the sympathy of the South Vietnamese people.

The objection to this reasoning, Nhat Hanh observed, is that the Viet Cong would win by default. But "this is a psychological war and not a military one," Nhat Hanh emphasized, and if the Viet Cong continued to press their attacks they would find themselves deserted by the war-weary people.

"When the Viet Cong have nothing to oppose, they will crumble," Nhat Hanh said, "it is because they have monopolized the spirit of nationalism by telling the peasants that the Americans have come to occupy South Vietnam that they are presently supported."

A unilateral declaration of peace appears to be the only exit out of an unbearable situation, Nhat Hanh continued, because the longer the Americans perpetuate the war, the more peasants will go over to the Viet Cong. The U.S. should make the first move, he said, because it is to their tactical advantage and "because the U.S. is strong and does not have to wait for proposals from Hanoi. It can just stop positive attacks and remain on the defensive to demonstrate that the U.S. wants peace also."

Nhat Hanh called for gradual, not immediate withdrawal of American troops from Vietnam. He mentioned a period of from six months to a year.

Asked whether he thought elections a viable solution, Nhat Hanh replied that they might work under international direction, but that he personally didn't have much faith in elections because of the political pressure and control which would be exerted by each side.

As it is now, Nhat Hanh said, the Viet Cong have a number of effective propaganda weapons in addition to the claim that the U.S. is fighting an imperialist war.

* The Viet Cong can say, and with justification, that the South Vietnamese government is not really working for reconstruction and that the government is only "an extension of the U.S. government."

* The Viet Cong have the advantage of being indistinguishable from the peasants, and as a result there is a very high rate of civilian casualties when the U.S. retaliates after Viet Cong attacks. "When your press reports that 600 Cong were killed in a military operation, that figure may include 590 innocent peasants," Nhat Hanh added.

* The Viet Cong can point to the enormous number of U.S. troops and show how U.S. occupation is more threatening than was the French.

* The South Vietnamese Government is so unstable that it can permit no opposition; any talk of peace is immediately labeled Communist agitation.

* The Viet Cong know the customs of the people, speak their language, and come from the people, while the U.S. soldier is unfamiliar with the culture and bound to make mistakes which can be exaggerated to feed anti-American sentiment.

"The war is not only damaging to human life and property, but also to our morality," Nhat Hanh said. "We rely on the intellectual and religious community in the U.S. to understand our suffering and help us out of a desperate situation."

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