Viet Nam: The Bases of Accommodation

(As a public service, the Crimson is reprinting in its entirety this controversial article by Samuel P. Huntington, Thomson Professor Government. It is hoped that the article will add perspective to the Crimson's recent comments on Professor Huntington's work. "Viet Nam: The Bases of Accommodation" is reprinted by permission from Foreign Affairs, July 1968. Copyright held by the Council on Foreign Relations, Inc., New York. Part II will appear in tomorrow's Crimson.)

AVIABLE political settlement in South Viet Nam will reflect and give some legitimacy to the balance of political, military and social forces produced by a decade of internal conflict and five years of large-scale warfare. A successful settlement can also inaugurate a process of political accommodation through which the various elements of Vietnamese society may eventually be brought together into a functioning polity. American objectives and American expectations of what can be achieved at the conference table and on the battlefield should, correspondingly, be based on the realities of power and the opportunities for accommodation.

Much of the discussion of Viet Nam in the United States, however, has been couched in terms of stereotypes and slogans which have little relation to the political forces and social trends in Vietnamese society. Critics of the Administration often tend to glorify the Viet Cong and the National Liberation Front and to magnify the extent of their support. They see the war as a popular uprising against a military-landlord oligarchy dependent upon foreign military support. Hence they see little need for, or basis for, accomodation: if the United States withdrew, it is held, the Saigon regime would quickly collapse, and a new, broadly representative government would come to power under the leadership of the NLF but drawing support from Buddhists, workers, students and other groups.

Spokesmen for the Administration, on the other hand, have in the past underrated the strength of the Viet Cong and have ascribed to the Saigon Government a popularity which had as little basis in fact as that which the critics attributed to the NLF. They have bolstered their case with statistics on kill rates, infiltration rates, chieu hoi (defection) rates, hamlet pacification categories and voting turnouts. These figures may be reasonably accurate but they are also often irrelevant to the conclusions which they are adduced to support. At times key figures in the Administration have made statements which at least seemed to predict the imminent collapse of the Viet Cong. The misplaced moralism of the critics has thus confronted the unwarranted optimism of the advocates.

The realities of the situation in Viet Nam will not please the extremists on either side. If properly perceived and accepted, however, they may provide some basis for accommodation and an eventual compromise settlement. The military strengths and weaknesses of each side are manifest in each day's news reports and will no doubt shape the outcome of the negotiations. The success of that outcome, however, may well depend on the extent to which it reflects the political and social strengths and weaknesses of both sides. These are less obvious but more fundamental than the military factors.


THE OVERALL PROPORTION of the population that is more under Government than Viet Cong control has risen rather strikingly in three years from a little over 40 percent of the total to 60 percent or more. This change, however, has been largely, if not exclusively, the result of the movement of the population into the cities rather than the extension of the Government's control into the countryside. The two most important facts which an accommodation will have to reflect are, first, the continuing role of the Viet Cong in the countryside and, second, the declining role of the countryside in South Viet Nam as a whole.

Viet Nam is a plural society, whose regional, ethnic and religious differences are now widely recognized. But there is another sense in which there are at least four South Viet Nams, each of them present in every geographical region and in almost every province. The first consists of the urban population, which is now perhaps 40 percent of the total and which lives under more or less continuing control by the Government. The other three South Viet Nams divide the rural population in approximately equal shares: the rural communal population, roughly 20 percent of the total, who belong to a religious or ethnic minority and who at present are aligned with the Saigon Government against the Viet Cong; the hard-core Viet Cong, again perhaps 20 percent of the total, who in some rural areas have lived under Viet Cong control for many years; and the remaining 20 percent, which constitutes the population of the most heavily and continuously contested rural areas.

These proportions are very rough and, moreover, they refer to population control, not political support. Discussion of Viet Nam often revolves about the question: "Whom do the majority of the people really support?" This is a reasonable and practical question to ask in a stable Western constitutional democracy. For Viet Nam, however, it is unanswerable and, in large part, irrelevant simply because it is quite clear that no government or political grouping has been able to win widespread popular support--or seems likely to do so. The most one can realistically speak of is the relative ability of the Government and the VC-NLF to exercise authority and to control population. And even here, as the allied sweeps through hardcore Viet Cong areas and the Tet offensive amply demonstrate, each side's authority is nowhere beyond at least temporary challenge by the other side. In addition, an underground Viet Cong organization presumably exists in many areas where Government authority is normally exercised.

The crucial characteristic of the heavily contested rural areas is the absence of effective social and political organization above the village level, if even there. The strength of the Viet Cong is its ability to fill this vacuum of authority; the weakness of the Government has been the failure of its pacification programs to generate self-sustaining local organizations.

IT IS OFTEN SAID that the war in Viet Nam is a "political" war, and that consequently winning the war requires the Government to appeal to "the hearts and minds of the people" by promoting rural development, land reform, education, official honesty and other specific and usually material benefits. In fact, however, there is little evidence to suggest that the appeal of the Viet Cong derives from material poverty or that it can be countered by material benefits. The one systematic study of this question, focusing on land tenure, indeed came to precisely the opposite conclusion. Government control was found to be greatest in those provinces in which "few peasants farm their own land, the distribution of landholdings is unequal, no land redistribution has taken place, large French landholdings existed in the past, population density is high, and the terrain is such that accessibility is poor." This seemingly perverse product of statistical analysis is bolstered by other substantial if less systematic evidence for Viet Nam as well as by much experience elsewhere. The appeal of revolutionaries depends not on economic deprivation but on political deprivation, that is, on the absence of an effective structure of authority. Where the latter exists, even though it be quite hierarchical and undemocratic, the Viet Cong make little progress.

Since the late 1950s successive Saigon governments have attempted to meet this need by a variety of pacification programs. None of these has been successful, with the partial exception of the current program of "Revolutionary Development," which was interrupted by the Tet offensive. Governmental control can be produced either by a massive military and administrative presence or by effective local political organization. In the past, forces have been inadequate to provide a substantial presence in a significant portion of the countryside for a significant portion of the countryside for a significant length of time. The current pacification effort was mounted on a scale which dwarfs the earlier ones, but like them it has attempted to achieve security by the extension into the countryside of the military and administrative apparatus of the Central Government. In some cases, the successes of pacification can be seen in quite striking fashion. Voter turnout in the 1967 presidential election as compared with the 1966 consituent assembly election increased by 50 percent in Binh Dinh province, 23 percent in Phu Yen, 22 percent in Hau Nghia and 20 percent in Binh Duong. These changes were undoubtedly the result of the strong pacification efforts made in those provinces.

YET THESE SAME PROVINCES also illustrate the limits of pacification. When military forces were withdrawn from Binh Dinh and Hau Nghia, security rapidly began to deteriorate. The fragility of the whole pacification effort was reflected by the extent of its at least temporary collapse during the Tet offensive, despite the fact that the offensive was directed at the cities rather than the pacification cadres. The acid test of pacification is whether a locality develops the will and the means to defend itself against Viet Cong attack or infiltration. With a few exceptions, mostly among the communal groups, the current pacification effort has not as yet met this test. In some cases, the intrusion of national governmental authority from the outside may undermine the authority of the local village leaders; when the agents of the national Government move on, they may leave the situation worse than it was before they arrived. In those instances, the Government prepares the way for the Viet Cong.

It thus seems unlikely that the current pacification program will significantly change the pattern of political control--or lack of control--in the contested areas in the immediate future. If a cease-fire led to reductions in either the Government's military-administrative presence or U.S. forces in these areas, the way would be opened for the Viet Cong to move in and extend its control through political means. The only practical alternative, available in some instances, would be for the authority vacuum to be filled by some other social-political group with roots in the locality.

THE SECURITY OF that one-third of the rural population which is under a relatively high degree of Government control is in large part the product of communal--ethnic or religious--organizations. It is commonly assumed that rural security is the product of identification Government the extension of governmental presence into the villages. In much of South Viet Nam, however, the sequence has not been: governmental control, national loyalty, internal security. It has been, instead: communal organization, internal security, governmental control. The exercise of governmental authority has resulted from internal security produced by other factors. Governmental authority is, in fact, most effectively exercised in those rural areas where the Government has come to terms with the local power structure and with ethnic or religious groups.