Elizabeth Pond
Elizabeth Pond

Fellowship Title:

Vietnamese Politics: Longer Term

Elizabeth Pond
October 24, 1969

Fellowship Year

Saigon –


After two years of deliberation and maneuvering Nguyen Van Thieu has crossed the Rubicon. He is organizing a new party with its nucleus in the army and giving its formation top priority. All indications are that the South Vietnamese President is no longer equivocating but has finally made his decision. He is turning to military hard-liners and former Diemists as his primary political base.

The move can be compared only with Ngo Dinh Nhu’s formation of the Can Lao party in the mid-fifties. This party gradually became Nhu’s personal intelligence and enforcement agency in asserting Ngo Dinh Diem’s paramilitary control over the country.

With this move a new era has begun.

Thieu is finally shifting away from his long-held negative strategy of dispersing his rivals but not building any political structure of his own.

Two diametrically opposed projections for the future arise from this development. In the optimistic analysis, Thieu now feels himself firm enough in the saddle to control whatever political apparatus he builds. He will be able to use the generals and the Diemists to implement a coherent, operating, mildly beneficial government throughout the country. He will not be the hard-liners, captive but will, if necessary, be able to bend them to his will. If all goes well, Saigon will be able to muddle through by keeping the mass of South Vietnamese benevolently neutral toward the government long enough to contain the Communist insurgency politically. This will allow the U.S. the few years’ breathing space necessary to disengage.

In the pessimistic analysis Thieu is turning to the military and the Catholics out of weakness and a self-centered determination to hold power as long as possible by whatever means are necessary and at whatever ultimate cost. In this view history will repeat its last Diem years but in telescoped timing. Saigon itself will strangle the beginnings of political consensus here and forfeit the one chance to transform its present military advantage over the Communists into a longer-term political superiority.

This newsletter will explore first the circumstances of Thieu’s decision, then draw conclusions.

The Party


The exact shape of Thieu’s new party – tentatively called the Great Masses Force – is not yet clear. Planning has been going on for some three months, but it is being handled with unusual secrecy.

First, it should be very similar to the Can Lao party, as it is being directed by old Diemists, several of whom were Can Lao members. These men include: Nguyen Cao Thang, Thieu’s liaison agent with the legislature and a former lieutenant of Diem’s brother Ngo Dinh Can; Cao Xuan Vy, the original organizer of Diem’s Republican Youth; Maj. Gen. Tran Van Trung, director of armed forces political warfare activities and father-in-law to Nguyen Cao Thang; Le Trung Quat, Undersecretary of State for Information and an official of the Nhan Xa party; and Tran Quoc Buu, South Vietnam’s leading trade union organizer and one of the original organizers of the Can Lao. Prime Minister Tran Thiien Khiem, once considered virtually an adopted son of Diem’s, is also playing an important role in the formation of the new party.

If this is a Can Lao resurgence, the question might logically be asked, why a new party? Why not just use the, existing Nhan Xa as the vehicle? The shortest answer is that Thieu and the organizers of this new party want to be their own leadership and specifically do not want to work under or through the incumbent President of the Nhan Xa.

Part of the background of this lies in internal Can Lao frictions under Diem. Those who worked for Ngo Dinh Can in central Vietnam did not get along well with those who worked for Diem’s more powerful brother Ngo Dinh Nhu (Northerners and Southerners, for the most part). The distinction persisted even after the coup, for Diemists from central Vietnam were generally jailed for only a few months, then released. Other Diemists were interred longer and were accordingly more wary about reentering politics. Central Diemists emerged last year to form the Nhan Xa party, while the Northerners and Southerners are having their day only now.

The distinction between the two is not hard and fast even now, and as the new party accumulates power, it may be expected that more Nhan Xa members will drift over to it.

In any case, the new party has a decided Can Lao coloration.

Second, the vigor with which Thieu is quietly pushing the party indicates a major commitment on his part, not another

trial balloon or decoy effort. Even if Thieu is never officially associated with the party the time and attention he has devoted to it since he named Khiem Prime Minister give ample evidence of the importance he attaches to it. The baffling question of the past year – how Thieu was planning on holding together the non-Communist nationalists in the absence of any organizational bone structure – is now answered.

Third, it appears that the military will form the nucleus of the party – so much so, in fact, that it has already received the nickname of the-Khaki party. The role of army officers in the party is the most sensitive aspect of the whole development, of course, as the Constitution forbids political activity by members of the armed forces. The best information now available, however, would indicate that there will be a secret elite organization within the army anyway, in traditional Can Lao fashion. And it is obvious that a number of Diemist generals will have a close working relationship with the party, whatever the organization charts say. Furthermore, a major shake-up and indoctrination campaign are to occur soon in the army, with the latter to be conducted by Gen. Trung. At the very least the reshuffle and indoctrination should prove to be highly compatible with the aims and development of the new party. It may be assumed that officers who are sympathetic to the party will receive better assignments and promotions then apolitical officers or members of the Tan Dai Viet, the National Progressive Movement, or even the Nhan Xa per se.

Other segments of the party are to be organized among trade unionists, businessmen, civil servants, possibly among the People’s Self-Defense Forces, and various other civilian groups. But unlike the Can Lao, it appears that this time the military may form the core of the whole party.

This in turn suggests a further contrast between Thieu’s almost exclusive dependence on the military at this point and Diem’s deliberate use of the Can Lao in the 1950s to subdue the army. The question naturally arises, in Lenin’s succinct phrase, “kto kogo?” – who is doing in whom? Thieu appears to believe that he is operating from a position of strength, not weakness. But he is turning back wholeheartedly to the army and the Northern Catholics who elected him after a year of daring to offend them by his negotiation offers to the Communists. And he is returning to the fold without having found any alternative political base in the meantime. This leaves him dependent on his own party in a way that Diem was never dependent on the Can Lao. It may leave him especially vulnerable to Khiem, who despite his political propriety, is ambitious, increasingly powerful, and in a good position to rally dissident generals and the developing party machinery should he decide to do so.

Fourth, the party will be hard-line on the two major issues in Vietnam, the war and treatment of non-Communist nationalist elements. What is known of Thieu’s private conversations recently with the party organizers and others would confirm the toughness of his public pronouncements.

“The Republic of Vietnam will not stop short of victory no matter what happens in Washington,” Thieu told graduating Revolutionary Development cadres at the end of September.

“If our allies force us to surrender to the Communists or to let our country fall into the Communists’ hands, we will break. up with them; we will make a11-out efforts to fight and will seek assistance from other allies,” he said in mid-September on a television interview show.

To an associate of his Thieu reportedly elaborated that he had just realized the right way to handle the Americans. Before and after his election, he said, he would propose policies (on reorganization of the army, mobilization, the appointment of Tran Van Huong as Prime Minister, etc.) and discuss them with the Americans before pushing ahead. But the Americans would consider such proposals at length and advise one thing and another until the original policy was completely destroyed. So the proper solution, Thieu said, is for the South Vietnamese, once they have decided on a course of action, to inform the Americans and just go ahead. The Americans may object and even bring pressure to bear, but in the end they give up.

And so the new party will be used to counter the Communists, opposition non-Communists, and also any American pressures for a peace displeasing to Saigon. As Vietnamese sources analyze Thieu’s thinking, he is calculating that the U.S. cannot afford to lose the war and is therefore stuck here almost no matter what Saigon does. The U.S. might dare to abandon the Thieu regime within a year or so, but it would never dare to destroy the South Vietnamese army. If Thieu links his destiny inextricably to that of the army, then he may figure that the U.S. cannot depose him.

The relationship of Thieu to the Americans – or, more accurately, the South Vietnamese President’s perception of it – is crucial in his decision to push ahead with the new party. It is extremely difficult for any outsider to unravel this relationship, however. The best that can be offered is a working hypothesis, which may be wrong but might at least cast some light on developments.

A case can be made that until fall of 1969 Thieu leaned politically half on the Americans and half on the army and Northern Catholics who had elected him. In this view, up through some point after Midway Thieu used hard-line pressures in South Vietnam primarily in an attempt to slow down, not to sabotage, the American timetable of troop reduction. He and other Saigon politicians were realistic – at long last – the pressures of public opinion in the U.S., and went along with American troop withdrawals because they had no choice. In this period Thieu had probably not yet made up his mind quite how far to fall in with the Americans and play them against his political rivals, quite how far to use hard-line rivals against American peace pressures. The Americans, after all, had been essential to Thieu’s rise to primacy in favoring him over Ky for the Presidency in 1967, in standing behind Thieu’s invocation of the Constitution in 1968 in reneging on his promise to follow the military committee’s orders, and in forbidding any coups. But the army was his real base within the country, and Thieu ran the danger of turning it against him if he went too far too fast in his peace offers and his reduction of Vice President Nguyen Cao Ky’s position. So Thieu adopted an ambivalent course that was more a delaying action than anything else. It seems the natural conclusion from this indecisiveness that Thieu was motivated more by a desire to maximize his political maneuverability than to guide the polity toward a national goal either of a peace settlement or a last-ditch resistance to any compromise.

At some point Thieu’s fears for his own future at the hands of the Americans crystallized, however, despite all of Ambassador E11sworth Bunker’s assurances. Perhaps the moment of truth came with American enthusiasm for formation of a high-powered advisory council. As Vietnamese analyzed it, a strong and prestigious advisory council could all too easily be substituted for Thieu as the ranking authority if the Americans decided to push some kind of compromise government in the future.

At some point after Khiem’s appointment as Prime Minister, then, the final decision was made to go ahead with the tentative plans for the neo-Can Lao party. And it is this, rather then the naming of a hard-line Cabinet, that marks the real turning point in Vietnam.

The crux of the matter is not in itself the resurgence of Diemists, many of whom are, after all, capable officials. Nor is it Saigon’s rejection of the pro forma broadening of representation sought by the Americans in an advisory council. It’s not the monopoly of the three top jobs in the country by generals, or even the fact that political organizing in the army contravenes the Constitution. The important thing is not so much the new firmness of the hard-line itself in the immediate period when the North Vietnamese are clearly not yet ready to compromise.

For that matter, the organization of a base party in the army would not of itself dictate the closing to the left that has taken place. The original Young Turks, after all, did liberalize their country. And armies are frequently the most modernized institutions in underdeveloped countries.

But here the military is a decidedly conservatizing force. And it is Thieu’s final exclusive linkage with this force that matters.

Social immobility is the rule in the army, to begin with, in contrast to armies in some other underdeveloped nations. Most of the top command fought for the French against Vietnamese independence. The highest ranking officers were promoted under Diem on a political basis, and many of them are Northern Catholics. Generals and colonels resist changes that would erode their personal positions and prerogatives. And at the village level, even the most anti-military draftee often displays an uncanny quickness at learning the military tradition of chicken stealing.

Even this military conservatism might have been surmounted. Once upon a time Thieu might have established an infrastructure in the army and the civil service that could have carried out village development and linked it with Saigon. But this is clearly not in the cards now. For that Thieu would have had to approach the army from an unequivocal position of strength.

Thieu and his fellow generals are probably too suspicious of each other ever to return to a really chummy arrangement. Each, however, will have an acute sense of the other’s actual power. Both will know that Thieu has now boxed himself in. And that he will be proportionally bound by rigid policies in the coming fluid period of political transition.



The fundamental axiom for any analysis of Vietnam must be that this country consists of a mass of largely neutral peasants (and slightly less neutral urbanites) strung between two political authorities – the Saigon government and the National Liberation Front. While the majority would much prefer anarchy to rule by either side, they feel the government is the stronger of the two at the moment, and they dislike the Viet Cong more then they dislike the government.

There are exceptions, of course. Catholic, Hoa Hao and a few other villages are often staunch anti-VC bastions for ideological reasons of their own. Contrariwise, in a few areas that have been Viet Minh/Viet Cong heartland for 20 years or so, something of the old revolutionary mystique survives and the mystique is still being implanted anew to some degree even in the resistant hearts and minds of Viet Cong conscripts.

For the most part, however, the peasants fall in with whichever power is dominant in an area. Their judgment of dominance can be a fairly sophisticated composite of seeing which side occupies their village to what extent in the daytime, the nighttime, and over the years, and estimating who is the likely end winner.

Nevertheless, within the broad determinants of present security and ultimate victors there are areas of choice. The traditional fatalism – that frail humans exercise as little control over war and governments as they do over the inhospitable elements or life itself – is being broken somewhat by years of politicizing.

Insofar as there is choice, the peasant basically favors the side that presses him the least. At this stage of a messy war that has exhibited more the characteristics of a battering ram then a rapier, that less oppressive side is the government. By now the sheer weight of years of firepower, massive sweeps, and grand forced population shifts have, at least in the short run, reduced the population base of the NLF and made the NLF squeeze its remaining peasants ever harder and less discriminatingly for recruits, porters, and rice taxes. By-contrast, government control over its peasants tends to be much less disciplined and therefore “freer” in the not insignificant sense that one can more easily escape obligations, whether by bribe or evasion.

This is a crude analogue of the earlier stage (which lasted even through the Tet and miniTet attacks of 1968), when the VC would send a few snipers into a hamlet to goad South Vietnamese or American troops into wiping out the hamlet with artillery and airstrikes, thus earning the hostility of the peasants. By now, with more widespread government control established in the countryside with considerable regrouping already accomplished, and with the change of U.S. commander in Vietnam, such wholesale allied retaliation is no longer so prevalent, and it would appear that the onus of peasant oppression falls more on the VC.

At this point too there is for the average citizen on the government side more of that intangible that might be termed a sense of possibility. Villagers who five years ago sought to redress their grievances (and had their grievances articulated and sharpened) by joining the VC have many more channels for change opened up to them now and use them. These include joining the local militia to escape national military service away from home; using civil defense forces to keep marauding South Vietnamese soldiers as well as VC tax collectors off villagers’ backs; increasing harvest incomes by selling watermelons or vegetables in Saigon; getting technical assistance to grow high-yield miracle rice, or doubling crops with water pumps bought with funds from mutual loan associations; drifting to the city for relatively well paying jobs with the Americans; complaining about inequities to American advisers or even occasionally Lower House representatives and village council members; tapping unending American commodities and enthusiasm for wells, schools, and bridges.

NLF capacity to redress grievances has correspondingly diminished as government responsiveness has improved somewhat. The rural poor are able to find a better life in the government run cities now then in NLF villages. And one of the important issues that drew adherents to the NLF in earlier days, land reform, may even be appropriated by the government, if present plans are implemented and implemented fast.

Finally, the peasant on the government side is simply better off materially than his brother on the NLF side. Morally, economic betterment may be simply a form of buying off the peasants instead of curbing local bullies. And South Vietnam’s new social mobility based on money may be for the hustler and the bar girl rather than more serious citizens. But prosperity is radiating out from Saigon. People are acquiring something at least of a stake in the system, however they may hedge it. And this phenomenon favors the government side.

At this point, then, the peasants and the new proletariat are far from yearning for NLF rule. There is plenty of evidence to support this conclusion. If in Tet 1968 the populace as a whole did not inform on VC caches and infiltration into the cities to inefficient and bribe-ridden police, still there was no general uprising as the NLF had hoped. (And the popular silence itself should not be overdrawn. In some slum sections of Saigon and Cholon where there was good local leadership trusted by the people, advance information did come in – and was discounted by the higher authorities). In Tet of 1968 too numerous neighborhoods organized their own defense spontaneously. In response to public demand – if suspiciously at first – the government formed civil defense units and has been gradually arming them, without any arms being turned against the government.

But this preference for the government is only passive, relative, and fragile. Attentism is increasing, especially as everyone awaits the consequences of U.S. troop reduction. If the government begins to clamp down more on its population in an effort to bring the war to a military conclusion (or for any other reason) it could thoroughly alienate other nationalists and undermine even the negative consensus of dislike of the VC. Especially if such a development were coupled with a dramatic Communist push – an easily mounted North Vietnamese drive in the quiescent provinces just south of the Demilitarized Zone, perhaps – it could set in motion a bandwagon withdrawal of government sympathies.

As for the “sense of possibility,” this is all too easily shriveled when rampant corruption skews daily life and rewards out of all proportion to social contribution. Corruption is no critical psychological problem in time of plenty, but it could become acute in a period of belt-tightening. And today’s prosperity cannot be maintained as the U.S. reduces its manpower and money investment in Vietnam, and with it the capability of keeping inflation in check.

At that point all the longer-term disruptions of war might catch un with Vietnam – the destruction of villages and tearing apart of the social fabric, premature forced urbanization (with the rural population reduced from 85% to 60% in less than a decade), cannibalization of leaders at all levels, rising expectations at a time of increasing unemployment. The middle-class intelligentsia might well shake loose from its passivity and go revolutionary in such a situation. The “Saigon cowboys” who now content themselves with Honda drag races down Nguyen Hue Street might look for more deadly excitement.

In assessing the situation one Westerner observed that politically minded Vietnamese will stand for anything as long as they are on the way up, as they have been until now. His tacit question was: what will happen when Vietnam hits a bad patch? His implication was that it might be another cycle of popular unrest leading to government fear and repression leading to more unrest leading to more repression.

As for the Communist side, it may be too weakened now to take quick advantage of Saigon’s embarrassments. It lost heavily in Tet of 1968 when it surfaced cadres who got wiped out. And the highly successful Accelerated Pacification Campaign of November 1968 to January 1969 crippled NLF political cadres in many areas by depriving them of their military cover. But at the present rate of “neutralization” of political cadres, the NIP infrastructure simply is not going to be rooted out. And as long as the infrastructure exists, VC troops can always be rebuilt.

Furthermore, any trend of a decline in government fortunes and reprieve for the NLP, once set in motion, would only be exacerbated in a ceasefire situation. The inevitable sagging of discipline would hurt the government more than the more tightly organized Communists. The greater ambiguities of a relative peace would blur what is now in many ways an exclusive choice between the government and the NLF. The faults of the government side would loom larger, the harshness of the Communist side fade a bit in memory. The dignity of responsible, purposeful positions that the NLF offer to poor villagers might well again look more attractive than the favoritism of Saigon.

If such a denouement does indeed occur, the tragedy will be that it was far from preordained. Thieu was in a position from the beginning of this year to try constructive action. He (along with Vice President Nguyen Cao Ky) had held things together after the Tet attacks of 1968. He had mobilized the country without stirring up a storm of protest. The accelerated Pacification Campaign had expanded government control even into areas held by the Viet Minh and Viet Cong for 20 years. With his continuous trips around the four corps areas, with the country-wide Revolutionary Development, Popular Forces, Regional Forces, and People’s Self-Defense Forces programs, with training of village officials at Vung Tau and the improvement of province chiefs, Thieu was gradually moving the country away from localism toward a sense of nationhood.

Moreover, in his tenure Thieu had made peace thinkable. The possibility of accommodation may have been accepted only shallowly – and this was understandable after the war passions of a quarter of a century – but it was accepted even by the important stratum of floating politicians who show up again and again under any regime.

Whatever his motives, Thieu did widen the spectrum of the possible in South Vietnamese politics to envision, tentatively, a workable compromise end to the bloodletting that has consumed the men, women, and children of South and North Vietnam for so long. He moved into negotiations without demoralizing the government side into impotence or panic and without straining American-Vietnamese relations intolerably.

Because of this record, and because he carefully left all his options open until his final decision in September, the Americans gambled on finding something more in Thieu then a super cautious general who was at home only in a command hierarchy. He had turned out to be a better politician than anyone had expected. He was gaining self-confidence after coming to his job, as one Vietnamese politician commented, with “complexes you could touch.” The Americans therefore hoped that Thieu’s doggedness, his penchant for fine-margin calculation, his stubborn ambition, and his demonstrated ability to grow on the Job might substitute for daring, might lead the South Vietnamese President to an enlarged perception of self-interest that would make him reach out politically to the broader strata of the country’s citizens.

On one issue, land reform, this did happen – to the astonishment of a Washington that had itself already chosen a don’t-rock-the-boat conservatism on the matter. On a second major issue, village development, Thieu grasped the larger dimension and put his and then Deputy Prime Minister Tran Thien Khiem’s considerable energies behind the program.

Here was an opportunity, then, prior to Thieu’s decision to concentrate on a neo-Can Lao approach, to prolong the passive pro-government balance. Hopefully, this could have provided a period of incubation for the South Vietnamese government to build something positive – and for the U.S. to disengage from the war without throwing Indochina and the rest of Southeast Asia into turmoil.

Building on this balance would have been extremely difficult, of course. Disorganization and loose control are the government qualities that appeal to the average Vietnamese.

But successful “Vietnamization” of the war effort – an essential precondition for maintenance of the balance – requires a tightening of government control. And even if no question of overt police repression were to arise, any administrative tightening would just freeze corruption and its highly visible injustice.

Maximizing the benevolent neutrality of the South Vietnamese was not a completely impossible dream, however. There were ways to attempt it, including mobilization of the masses, organization of a real cadre structure for national rather than elite purposes, or decentralization and nurturing of strong local governments. One additional approach, reliance on the Americans and a Constitutional legality, could work for Thieu only as a stopgap foil to pressures by the army and Vice President Ky.

At this point in the discussion it would be worthwhile to explore these alternatives briefly.



The constitutional approach is most swiftly treated. American faith in legal forms and elections has always seemed somewhat naive to Vietnamese conditioned to highly personalized authoritarian rule and the mandate of heaven. As one Saigonese summed up the attempted transplant of democracy to Vietnam, “We may have a Lockean body now, but we still have a Confucian brain. You Americans come here with your idea that politics is compromise between different interests, but we Vietnamese don’t look at it like that. We think in moral, not Western political terms.”

It is difficult to know exactly what does constitute legitimacy in Vietnam these days. The cynic might dismiss the mandate of heaven as simply “nothing succeeds like success.” But there is more to it than that. Ho Chi Minh had revolutionary legitimacy because of his uncompromising nationalism, as was evident in the popular mourning in South Vietnam over the North Vietnamese leader’s death. For his part, Thieu has legitimacy in many parts of the country simply because he is in power, and the peasants innately respect authority. But few Vietnamese consider Thieu to have been legitimized by virtue of having been elected. Quite apart from any issue of rigging, Vietnam is too accustomed to elections ratifying existing authority rather than choosing it.

Moreover, while it is useful in political infighting to have the weapon of American support of the Constitution (and especially its corollary prohibition on coups), constitutionality does not build an indigenous political base. There was never any question of Thieu’s placing major dependence on this approach.

Mobilization of the Masses


Political mobilization of the masses might have been a more plausible alternative, at least in the abstract. Something of a mass society is being created willy nilly in the cities, and the wartime atomization of life lends itself to demagogy. Also, the kind of personal factionalized politics that is the mark of South Vietnam often leads to the emergence of a charismatic leader.

Neither charisma nor that other requirement for mass mobilization ideology – is Thieu’s forte, however. At the moment there are in fact no leaders in South Vietnam who show anything of the dramatic appeal , say, of a Magsaysay. Retired General Duong Van Minh probably comes closest, but it is doubtful whether his popularity would outlast any length of time in office. In any case, Thieu would hardly wish to set up a system that would so cater to the strong point of a potential rival.

As for ideology, about the only unifying issue for the diffuse non-Communists is simply opposition to a Communist takeover. This pulls the South Vietnamese together in an emergency like Tet of 1968, but it is no long-term molder of political unity.

If handled correctly, anti-Americanism might prove to be a more fruitful issue, but the Saigon regime is in no position to compete with the NLF on this one. (As the American reduction continues, Saigon might indeed try to play anti-Americanism from a hard-line angle, but that could easily backfire).

In the broader sense, nationalism is likewise effectively monopolized by the NLF (when there is no consideration of any “third force”), for the top Saigon leaders all fought for the French colonial power in the First Indochina War.

Another major issue that could form the basis for mass appeals is peace, but this too is dangerous ground for the Saigon government, which has been striving to keep the population leashed to the war. The popular attractiveness of peace was demonstrated when the relatively unknown Truong Minh Dzu came in second in the presidential election of 1967. He may have been, as supporters of Tran Van Huong allege, a put-up job by the military to split civilian votes and draw them away from Huong. But he performed so successfully with his overt and subliminal peace appeal that the Saigon authorities deemed it necessary to jail him. Significantly, Dzu received the plurality vote in some of the most pacified areas in the countryside, including An Giang Province.

One final issue that Thieu may still play to the public in grandstand fashion – there would be little point to it if he doesn’t – is land reform. Thieu obviously hopes to get major profit politically from this program, but it is not yet clear specifically how. The present delay in legislative passage is puzzling. A majority of Senators present in Saigon this past summer would have been willing to push Thieu’s bill to passage in their special session, but Thieu did not press for this – possibly because he was otherwise occupied in planning the non-Can Lao party. Now the bill will not be passed until late October at the earliest – too late to get fall propaganda benefit by the time of the main December harvest in the Mekong delta.

At one point it did appear that Thieu might aim for a concerted riceroots appeal to anti-intellectual sentiments of peasants and village leaders, thus by-passing the urban intelligentsia. Beyond the land reform concept itself and one anti-intellectual speech to assembled local leaders, however, such a campaign never materialized.

From every angle, then, Thieu has obviously felt he could not capitalize on any mobilization of the masses.



Barring some direct visceral appeal to the broad public – and in fact even with it – Saigon would have to create some real organizational infrastructure if it hoped to hold this traditionally fragmented country together.

The army and the civil service would be the logical place to start. Thieu’s hesitancy about turning this existing bureaucracy to organizational advantage before this is remarkable and may probably be attributed to a desire to plan thoroughly before embarking on this move. In the year and a half since Tet of 1968 the People’s Self-Defense Forces have never been whipped into something resembling a combat youth organization, despite the obvious potential. Information cadres, who are spread throughout the country down to district level, have not been used for any intensive political indoctrination campaign as they may be expected to be used now under the new information minister. Revolutionary Development cadres have turned out to be useful more or less as service, intelligence, and paramilitary functionaries, but they have not turned out to be cadres in the Communist organizational sense. Nor has Thieu so far made any discoverable political use of the law providing for appointment of well-salaried assistants to village chiefs. Most notably, until this October, Thieu had even let vacancies for general officer go unfilled without promoting his own selected colonels.

Now Thieu is moving to fill this overall organizational vacuum. With the neo-Can Lao party, however, he has opted for tightening of his own administrative grip rather than for using the army and the civil service for community development or structural political development. They are not to be used to rally patriots of differing stripes to the national cause or to provide the linkage between the macropolitics of Saigon and the micropolitics of the village but to maintain the narrow interests and power of the existing military oligarchy as long as possible.

One organizational possibility other than the military and civilian bureaucracies might have been based on coalescence of the major existing political parties. The Americans at least were eager to pursue this idea and pushed Thieu to form the six-party National Social Democratic Front bloc last Spring.

Without going into excessive detail here, it is sufficient to say that-a major stumbling block to realization of this hope is South Vietnam’s political underdevelopment. South Vietnam is devoid of the political structure that one would normally expect in a country with this degree of modernization and urbanization. Instead, parties here continue to be factional and semi-clandestine cliques rather than either vehicles for mass participation or interest resolvers and policy advocates. The very name for party in Vietnamese incorporates the meaning of secret. The practice has been and continues to be for parties to recruit conspiratorially from officials on the rise in order to exert behind-the-scenes influence through these officials. Especially in Central Vietnam – and especially within factions of the Dai Viet and the VNQDD (nationalist parties from the 1920s and 1930s, both of which now belong to the NSDF)–party membership typically has committed whole families and made them liable to blood feuds rather than setting up intermediaries for political compromise.

The one party that has been trying some modern recruitment in the provinces is the official opposition party, the National Progressist Movement. This party, which is led by a member of the South Vietnamese delegation to the Paris peace talks and the director of the National Institute of Administration, has as its core one branch of the Tan Dai Viet, which is in turn one branch of the Dai Viet. The NPM, however, is the partial exception that proves the rule.

It has been the American hope that even such artificial confederations as the NSDF – in which each party maintains its own identity – could in time lead to amalgamations of the hundred-plus South Vietnamese “parties” down to perhaps four or five comprehensive parties. Attempts at this, like the National Alliance for Social Revolution of Nguyen Van Huong and the National Salvation Front of Tran Van Don have been sporadic rather than cumulative, however. There is something of an Arkansas-Traveler syndrome at work. In moments of acute crisis there is never enough time to pull people together, and at times of only chronic crisis there is no need to mend the roof. The U.S. reduction and the threat of the tightly organized Communist apparatus simply do not create enough of a continuing sense of urgency to push a real union of the sp1inter non-Communist groups. The majority Southerners (from south of Saigon) are as individualistic as Sun Yat-sen feared his people were in comparing the Chinese with sand. Some observers like Rand sociologist Gerald Hickey contend that this is the natural result of the salami tactics of the French, Diem, Ky, and now Thieu, and that if given a chance the Southerners would unite. Most observers are less optimistic, however, and see any effective Southern unity as requiring more time than Saigon has in its competition with the NLF.



Some veteran Vietnamese and American officials therefore put their hope in the final alternative that will be considered here – a combination of decentralization and strong village development. This, they contend, is the only chance when the maximum that can reasonably be hoped for is tolerance of the Saigon regime rather than commitment to it. The aim would be to make a strength out of South Vietnam’s very diversity.

In this analysis, meaningful intermediate organizations to which the Saigon regime could expand a centralized Government do not exist in a South Vietnam that has been traditionally wracked by fragmentation. The only workable arrangement would be a tacit coalition between the central government and those who are in effective control over particular areas. Saigon would grant to local authorities funds and a fair degree of autonomy, including selection of or veto over area province and district chiefs, control over local police and militia, cultural guarantees to ethnic minorities, and general immunity from incursions by the national army. Local authorities, finding loose arrangements with Saigon more beneficial than the manpower and ideological demands of the NLF, would, with minimal national assistance as requested, defend their own areas against the Viet Cong.

Potentially, such deals could be worked out with the Hoa Hao sect in the central Mekong delta, the Cao Dai sect in the strategic border province of Tay Ninh, Chams, Cambodians, and southern montagnards.

In general, such a strategy would give more voice to the majority Buddhists and majority Southerners, numbers of whom feel disenfranchised at the present time. It would give vastly more South Vietnamese more of a stake in the system than now feel allegiance to Saigon.

The Saigon government would not run local affairs, but by patronage, money, and general permissiveness would try to promote a single non-Communist organization to dominance in each rural area. Eventually, in the most optimistic projection, such a development could even attract non-Communist elements within the NLF to the government side by offering them significant positions and autonomy commensurate with their local control.

Decentralization of this sort could lead to reversion to the warlordism of the 1950s, when the Hoa Hao and the Cao Dai had their own private armies. In some important national programs it might mean a deterioration of performance with loosening of central supervision. It could encourage more divisiveness along religious lines.

Proponents of decentralization admit these liabilities but argue that fragmentation of this sort would be fragmentation of units which would themselves be strengthened and thus become more resistant to Communist subversion.

Whatever the arguments for decentralization, Thieu has now decided against this route to political development. In the abstract it might be argued that formation of a strong military-Northern Catholic party is not incompatible with decentralization. Thieu has already initiated at least the prerequisites for decentralization in upgrading village chiefs, subordinating Revolutionary Development cadres and Popular Forces to them (in theory), donating one million American-funded piasters for development to each village that has elections and decides on worthy projects, and delegating administration of the land reform to local authorities.

Thieu’s priority has never been clear in village development, however. He may have dabbled with decentralization only because it helped disperse the power of would-be rivals in a period before Thieu was ready to centralize his own power. In crucial cases – appointment of the province chiefs of Thua Thien (surrounding Hue), Tay Ninh., and An Giang – Thieu chose men who were specifically not adherents of the dominant religious (and therefore social and political) group in the area. Predictable hard feelings and suspicion have resulted to greater or lesser degree between Thieu and the Hue Buddhists, the Cao Dai and the Hoa Hao respectively. Nor has Thieu. allowed the Cao Dai and Hoa Hao to recreate their own armies in the form of exclusively Cao Dai or Hoa Hao officered and manned Regional Forces or People’s Self-Defense Forces.

In general, too, it may be said that any move that strengthens the military hierarchy – which in many cases at district chief, province chief, and division level means fighting any increase in the political powers of villages – tends to undermine village development.

As for the Buddhists (nominally three-quarters of the population), Thieu has made no attempt at reconciliation. Given the history of Buddhist-government relations since 1964 any reconciliation is highly unlikely in any case. The government sees the loosely organized Buddhists as infiltrated by Communists. The An Quang Buddhists consider the government an implacable enemy.

But a mutual truce was never even explored. And a grudging temporary arrangement might have been possible. The An Quang leaders soured on the Communists after the Hue murders in Tet of 1968, and this disenchantment might have given the government at least a negative opportunity. Instead of seizing this chance, however, the government has tried to exploit the Buddhists in a partisan sense while insulting them tactically and ignoring them strategically. No major attempt has ever been made, for example, to develop an alternate Buddhist political leadership among the Southern laity who might incline more to accommodation with the government.

More specifically, Thieu might have maneuvered some deal politically, for the minority pro-government Thich Tam Chau Buddhists are linked with Vice President Ky rather than President Thieu. Thieu could easily have stopped favoring the Thich Tam Chau group to the advantage of the more representative An Quang Buddhists.

Thieu has proved very shrewd in his estimate of the weaknesses and splits in the Buddhist leadership. He arrested Thich Thien Minh last March without serious fallout. He achieved the desired effect in damping down the peace movement among Buddhist youth without making a galvanizing martyr out of Thich Thien Minh.

But the cost has been a cumulative desperation on the part of the An Quang Buddhists (representing the large majority of central Buddhists and some Southern Buddhist segments as well). An Quang leaders reportedly had orders out for 36 hours to their bonzes following Tran Thien Khiem’s appointment as Prime Minister to be ready to demonstrate and, if government retaliation necessitated it, even to burn their pagodas and take to the jungle – not to join the NLF, but as a last futile protest against the Saigon government. These orders were rescinded after a day and a half. But it may be expected that as Thieu’s attempted tightening and military centralization take hold, the An Quang Buddhists will become more frustrated. They already feel threatened by the restoration of some 40 former Can Lao members to high and middle level provincial offices in Quang Tri and Thua Thien following Khiem’s accession. These two provinces have been the proudest examples of government progress and pacification for almost a year, and this slap in the face of the Buddhists in this historical center of Buddhist-government conflict is seen as a harbinger of what may be expected elsewhere as government control is consolidated.

Now it is again conceivable, for the first time since Tet of 1968, that the Buddhists might come to think of the NLF as the lesser of two evils. Alternatively – and this is the future some of the An Quang leaders predict for themselves – the present anti-Communist officials might flee to Swiss bank accounts if the NLF gains momentum, leaving the Buddhists as the only nationalists resisting the Communists.

Within the Cao Dai too there is growing disaffection with the government, manifested in growing pressures for neutralism as between the government and the NLF. More autocratic rule by Thieu could push the Cao Dai, who have until now kept southern Tay Ninh a showcase of pacification, over the brink of neutralism.

There is no Buddhist Soka Gakkai looming on the horizon here. But in the long run any government would have to depend on Buddhist (and Hoa Hao and Cao Dai) nationalism and tolerance of the regime if it were to achieve more than a military and political holding action. Khiem gave a nod in this direction when after his appointment as Prime Minister, he made presentation to the An Quang Buddhists that he himself is really Buddhist.

Apart from the “outs” who believe that because virtue is on their side everyone would rally to them once they acquired power, most Vietnamese name a time span of at least five years – if there is real progress – as necessary to glue the non-Communist nationalists together. But even this projection assumes constant cohesive pressure of one sort or another. And Thieu has now chosen the contrary strategy of dispersal of other nationalists in favor of a power concentration in the inward-looking elite of the army and the Catholics. He would appear to have forfeited conclusively the option of decentralization and accommodation of 1ocal interests, in much the same way that Saigon squandered the voluntary grass-roots youth leadership following Tet of 1968 and over the years in districts 6, 7, and 8 in Saigon.



The unexpected could happen. An outbreak of major warfare between China and the Soviet Union could halt delivery of materiel to North Vietnam and. cripple Hanoi’s war effort. A succession struggle in Hanoi might lead to crucial indecision on the war.

Such dei ex machina are highly unlikely, however. Military deliveries to North Vietnam could be kept up even if there were prolonged fighting in Sinkiang and Inner Mongolia – and Vietnam is so important to Communist ideology that they probably would be. And instability in leadership, if one may judge from the Kremlin decision to invade Czechoslovakia last year, can as easily lead to extremist actions as to vacillation. Furthermore, it might well take someone of the stature of Ho Chi Minh in North Vietnam to be able to agree to peace terms without sacrificing himself politically.

In the absence of any such historical accidents, however, as the course is now set, it would appear to be only a matter of time before Saigon itself strangles the beginnings of political consensus here and leaves the field to superior Communist organization, discipline, and staying power.

In the negative political sense it won’t even matter if the new army party turns out to be relatively weak. Perhaps especially if it is weak handing its members capricious privileges but little discipline, it will effectively serve to alienate other nationalist groups that would have had to unite, everyone agrees, in order to survive the Communist threat.

The Thieu government is no Chiang Kai-shek postwar regime ready to collapse under its own decadence and irrelevance. But Thieu’s decision to organize an army/Catholic party at this time and in this manner sets the course for increasing isolation of the Saigon regime. This step is politically irrevocable in a way that naming of a hard-line Cabinet, for instance, was not.

The Cabinet was and is an instrument to execute the President’s policies, but it was not clear at first just what those policies might be. Thieu’s return, however, to dependence on the army and the generals that he has been studiously whittling down for over a year – especially in the absence of any second power base that Thieu might play off against the army – means that the South Vietnamese President has finally foreclosed his other options.

It will be argued by doves that the history of U.S. involvement in Vietnam has decreed this outcome from the start with the inexorability of a Greek tragedy. They will contend that the U.S. repeatedly made shortsighted decisions: in picking up the French mantle at all; in supporting Diem with combatant advisers while he was stifling any possible development of social democracy; in sending U.S. combat troops to Vietnam in 1965 in an effort to counter what was basically a political decay that had escalated into mobile warfare; in valuing stability above reform from then on; in supporting the military over civilian candidates in the 1967 Presidential election.

Perhaps the doves are right. But politically, until September 1969, there was a chance of salvaging something from the deaths of 90,000 South Victnamcse, 40,000 Americans, and over half a million North Vietnamese casualties. After September 1969 this chance seemed remote.

Received in New York on October 24, 1969.

©1969 Elizabeth Pond

Miss Pond is an Alicia Patterson Fund award winner on leave from the Christian Science Monitor. This article may be published with credit to Miss Pond, the Christian Science Monitor, and the Alicia Patterson Fund.