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International Socialist Review, Summer 1963


Theodore Edwards

Kennedy’s War in Vietnam


From International Socialist Review, Vol.24 No.3, Summer 1963, pp.84-87.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


LIKE its predecessors, the Kennedy administration continues to support every reactionary or counter-revolutionary ruling clique in the under-developed countries of the world under the guise of fighting “communism.” Economic and military subsidies to these native oppressors continue to be misrepresented to the American taxpayer as “aid” to the colonial masses. Whenever such assistance to kings, sheiks, assorted tyrants and puppet rulers fails to keep the colonial peoples in check, the Kennedy administration has shown no hesitancy in resorting to clandestine CIA maneuvers, military shows-of-force, or outright armed intervention.

Its most flagrant intrusion in Asia is the current military operation in South Vietnam. (Twelve thousand US “advisors” are busily engaged in what the N.Y. Times calls “the secret war.”) The Times editorial of October 17, 1962 observes that “a pall of unnecessary secrecy, which far transcends military requirements, has obscured from the public too much of the progress of a war to which we are now fully committeed.”

“Deliberate policy restrictions by Washington and by the South Vietnamese government in Saigon” are blamed for this lack of information.

The Soviet Policy

The Western imperialists are not the only international force intervening in Southeast Asia. Since World War II, the Soviet bureaucracy has been applying its interpretation of “peaceful co-existence” to the Indo-Chinese revolution.

In World War II, the Japanese occupied Indochina, a colony of the French for 80 years. The collapse of Japan in 1945 swept the Communist Party dominated Viet Minh movement under Ho Chi Minh into control of virtually the entire country. Under pressure of the Kremlin and of the French CP, however, the Ho Chi Minh government agreed to the incorporation of Vietnam into the “French Union.” As soon as the French had landed enough troops, they abrogated all accords with Ho and initiated full scale warfare against the Viet Minh.

UNDER instructions from Moscow, the French Communist deputies voted credits to finance the war in Indochina that was carried on by the various coalition governments in which they participated until they were thrown out of office in May 1947. For nine long years of bloody civil war, the Viet Minn peasant fighters continued to battle the French expeditionary forces, inflicting 172,000 casualties and suffering untold casualties themselves.

Stalin recognized the Ho government – not in 1945 when it had undisputed control – but in 1950 when it was fighting desperately to regain power from the French. The Kremlin’s hand, moreover, had been forced by the arrival of the Chinese Communist armies at the borders of Indochina in 1949, at which time Mao Tse-tung recognized the Ho government.

The Viet Minh fighters defeated the French at Dienbienphu in 1954, despite the $5 billion that the French imperialists had spent to get back their Asian empire (plus another $2 billion contributed by the US). At the Geneva negotiations in 1954, the Kremlin once more succeeded in bargaining away much of the gains won in the civil war by the Viet Minh partisans. The Soviets (and the Chinese) agreed to carve up Indochina into Laos, Cambodia, and North and South Vietnam, all to remain “neutral” in the East-West struggle.

The 1954 Geneva agreements provided also for nation-wide elections in Vietnam in 1956 under the supervision of an International Control Commission (composed of India, Canada, and Poland) to set up a united government for Vietnam. The signatories, including France and Britain, agreed that there should be no foreign bases or foreign troops in any part of Vietnam, limiting the number of foreign advisors to 685 and banning any further shipments of military supplies.

John F. Kennedy

John F. Kennedy

THE US government agreed to abide by these agreements. However, Washington broke its word immediately and attempted to replace the French colonialists in trying to contain the Southeast Asian revolution. Laos became a cold-war battleground. The CIA and the State Department spent over half a billion dollars there in the course of seven years, seeking to destroy the Pathet Lao movement by setting up, not a neutral, but a pro-imperialist landlord regime.

In South Vietnam, the US government helped Ngo Dinh Diem to establish his dictatorial rule. Diem refused to carry through the 1956 plebiscite that he would have lost hands down. In spite of constant har-rassment and expulsions by the Diem government and pressure from Washington, Western correspondents in Saigon have provided an accurate enough picture of the kind of government that Diem represents.

In an article in Newsweek of April 30, 1962, probably written by Francois Scully, who was later expelled by the Diem government, the following is observed:

“All real power in Vietnam still is concentrated in the hands of Diem and his numerous family. One brother, Ngo Dinh Nhu, is official Advisor to the President; another brother, Can, is governor of Central Vietnam. A third brother, Thuc, is a Roman Catholic Archbishop and Vietnam’s ranking prelate; a fourth, Luyen, is the Vietnamese Ambassador to Britain. Nhu’s wife, Madame Nhu, a member of parliament, not only controls the palace but wields enormous economic power. Her father is Vietnamese Ambassador to Washington; her mother is the Vietnamese observer at the UN.”

The Newsweek correspondent continues:

“ ‘I am putting loyalty above competence,’ says Diem when Americans ask why he does not pick the best men to serve Vietnam. And when anyone suggests economic and social reforms – higher taxes, more land for the peasants, monetary reform – Diem literally looks at the ceiling.”

The writer then asks:

“Can the US really win the fight against the Viet Cong with Diem as its standard-bearer? Many US officials, especially military men, are convinced that it can – and will. Unable to see any realistic alternative to Diem, they take the public position ‘don’t knock our man ... he can win’ – a politer version of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s legendary verdict on the Nicaraguan dictator Anastasio Somoza: ‘He’s a bastard, but he’s our bastard.’ “

In another dispatch, written after his expulsion on September 24, 1962, Scully points out that even the most trusted palace officials are searched twice for concealed weapons. The power behind the secret police is a man named Tran Kim Tuyen, whose official title is “Director of Social Studies.” The power behind Tuyen in turn is Diem’s brother Nhu. Scully continues:


Ngo Dinh Diem

“Perhaps the most extraordinary personality in the Ngo dynasty is Ngo Dinh Nhu’s wife. Mme. Nhu is a beautiful, gifted and charming woman; she is also grasping, conceited, and obsessed with a drive for power that far surpasses that of even her husband. Like Diem and his brother, Mme. Ngo Dinh Nhu sees the family as a dynasty rather than as an evanescent political force. It is no exaggeration to say that Madame Nhu is the most detested personality in South Vietnam. This is because though Diem is nominally president, Madam Nhu and her husband have the power, and the Vietnamese know and resent it.”

Scully observes that:

“Ngo Dinh Nhu’s personal brand of nationalism has one aim: to identify the country exclusively with the Ngo family and with the mandarin class into which they were born. Lately, Ngo Dinh Nhu has been making increasing public appearances throughout the country. He travels like a viceroy, and often confuses the southern peasants with his aristocratic, low-keyed Annamese royal-court accent.”

Scully, who lived most of his adult life in Vietnam, reports that one village notable told him after one of these visits:

“If the effect of all this were not so disastrous, it would be hilariously funny.”

OTHER longtime French residents in Saigon note that the regime of President Diem has much of the same paternalistic, authoritarian and adulatory features as the preceding rule of the French puppet emperors. Like Bao Dai, Diem suggests that he rules by a mandate from heaven.

In reality, the Diem government exists by the grace of the US Diem does not control much more of Vietnam than did the French expeditionary force.

Warren Rogers Jr. in May 1962 reports the following for the Herald Tribune News Service:

“At present, the fact is that the Diem regime controls only the major cities and, in general, the China Sea coastline from the 17th Parallel to the northern reaches of the Mekong River delta’s swampy rice bowl. All else is either under effective, well-disciplined, government-like control by the Viet Cong, or it is no man’s land.”

Peasant Revolution

The precise extent of guerrilla control is a matter of dispute, but all reports agree that the peasant revolution dominates the countryside. The guerrillas of South Vietnam (dubbed Viet Cong, i.e. Viet Communists, by the US military) are the authentic armed force of the Viet peasantry. Igor Oganesoff, in the Wall Street Journal of March 20, 1962, estimates that the guerrillas collect money, provisions, recruits and labor from more than half the rural population, instituting land reform in their areas. Denis Warner, in the September 13, 1962, Reporter, judges that the

“Viet Cong is a bigger and better armed force than it was a year ago, dominating three-fifths of the land area and slightly less than a third of the population of fourteen million, with access to an estimated two million potential recruits of military age.”

THE economic effects of the peasant insurrection are striking. In the Wall Street Journal of December 27, 1962, Norman Sklarewitz writes that:

“... by dominating the countryside for almost six years, the Viet Cong ... has been able to break the flow of food products to the government-held cities and cut off consumer markets for manufactured goods. The Communist strategy of attacking lines of transportation and ambushing truck convoys and supply trains between the rice paddy fields of the Mekong Delta and Saigon has reduced the movement of rice by one-fourth in just two years. Overall rice production has sunk by 500,000 tons in one year.”

Sklarewitz points out that in 1960 Vietnam exported $27 million of rice. The 1962 export total will be down to $2 million and Diem will have to receive US-donated rice to feed the city population. The US spent an estimated $200 million in 1962 in direct food and aid grants.

Seeking to crush the revolt in the countryside, the Vietnamese government is pursuing a course of action called (variously) rural reconstruction, province pacification, or the strategic hamlet program. While Diem’s brother, Nhu, is overall director, the US government is the prime inspirer and supporter of this project.

The plan for crushing the peasant insurgency is the brain-child of a 45-year-old Scot named Robert G.K. Thompson, former Defense Minister of Malaya. Thompson’s system of floodlighted, wire-fenced “new villages,” into which 450,000 Malayan peasants were “resettled” is credited with helping the British imperialists crush the guerrilla uprising there in a bloody 12-year war that required half a million troops.

Working directly with Diem and his US advisors, Thompson produced a similar but bigger plan for the pacification of South Vietnam. It calls for control of the peasant population by “resettling” them into a nationwide network of “strategic hamlets” – a polite term, for concentration or slave-labor camps!

HERE is what these settlements are like. Farm families are uprooted, their houses and stores put to the torch, while the people are moved by force into the new fenced in villages. On the doorframes of each hut in the strategic hamlet are nailed census boards giving the names of all occupants. Only those whose names are listed are allowed to work their fields in the morning. Even these are first checked to see that they carry no extra food for the guerrillas. Anyone caught outside the fence after curfew is fair game.

In January 1963, the program was reputed to total 4,077 villages, encompassing 39 percent of the population. It calls for 11,182 “strategic hamlets” by 1964, completing the agglomeration of the South Vietnam peasantry into a series of concentration camps.

In a letter to the N.Y. Times on October 22, 1962, Tran Van Tung, a pro-American Vietnamese exile, asks:

“When will America learn that it is always fatal to the cause of freedom and democracy to support a cynical tyrant as the ‘only alternative’ to Communism?”

Tran concludes that:

“... hated and feared by 80 percent of his people, continuing domestic policies that would shame Hitler, Diem stays in power only because of US support.”

Other leaders of the Vietnamese Democratic Party, an anti-Diem bourgeois grouping, appeal to the Kennedy administration in a similar vein. A letter by Nguyen Thau Binh, appearing in the Los Angeles Times of December 22, 1962, states that “the Vietnamese regard the US simply as the latest of their colonial oppressors, since it is the US which keeps Diem in power – all in the name of ‘anti-Communism’.”

BUT feudal landlordism, propped up by concentration camps, mass arrests, murders, rigged elections, a censored press, and an autocratic regime, do not deter the Kennedy administration from supporting their man in Saigon. Newsweek of September 24, 1962 quotes an unnamed US official in Saigon: “We’re going to win this war, with this government, and as it is.” Newsweek adds: “This is a considered statement of US policy in South Vietnam.”

Kennedy Support

The Kennedy administration has dropped any pretense of “reforming” Diem’s regime. With a sure class instinct, the US monopolists show only contempt for the advice of liberal dreamers on how best to organize “democratic” counter-revolutions. Recognizing that any “democratic” middle-ground between revolution and counter-revolution has long since vanished in Southeast Asia, the Kennedy administration has thrown its full weight behind Diem’s reign of terror.

The US government spent $2 billion from 1954 to 1961 to prop up Diem. In the past year, the expenditures rose to $400 million a year, or over $1 million a day. In flagrant violation of the 1954 Geneva accord, 12,000 US military personnel now help Diem pursue his war against his own people.

“Kill-Ratio” Experiments

The US military have taken enthusiastically to the Vietnam operation. An article in the Wall Street Journal of November 9, 1962 explains how “Pentagon Experts Use Vietnam War to Test New Tactics, Weapons.” The Pentagon is using Vietnam as a convenient proving ground for assault boats, amphibious personnel carriers, night-vision instruments, wire-lasso guns, squirt-message radios, defoliation sprays, flashlight-operated land mines, pocket flamethrowers, new rapid-fire rifles, napalm-bombing techniques, troop-carrying helicopters, armed helicopters, and other sky cavalry concepts, as well as war dogs to hunt down guerrillas.

THE fight against the peasant guerrillas waged with this latest technology is incredibly cruel. Men, women and children are hunted down like wild beasts. Prisoners are habitually tortured and summarily executed, while US advisors watch. Entire villages are incinerated by napalm bombs dropped by US pilots. So are guerrilla hospitals.

The ghouls in the Pentagon who feed the gruesome statistics into their war-games computers report gleefully that the “kill-ratio” is favorable to the Diem regime. For 1962, the official estimates are 13,000 Diem casualties against 30,000 peasants killed, wounded or captured. US casualties are reported as 30 killed in action.

Despite these New Frontier experiments in military technology, the South Vietnamese guerrillas refuse to be crushed. Guerrilla units, estimated to number 20,000 in April 1962, are now said by the US military to number 23,000 full-time guerrillas (even after 30,000 presumably were killed), plus another 100-200,000 part-time guerrillas.

The Diem government and the Kennedy administration would like to blame the South Vietnamese revolt on Ho Chi Minh. They charge that the guerrillas are being augmented and supplied by North Vietnamese slipping into South Vietnam over the Cambodian and Laotian borders. The role of their own savage repressions in driving the peasantry into armed struggle is glossed over in silence by the stalwart New Frontiersmen and their puppet-autocrat.

Jerry A. Rose, in the May 10, 1962 Reporter, points out that “numerous munitions factories, set up in straw huts, produce a steady flow of crude rifles and pistols, mortars and mines, grenades and bullets for the guerrilla fighters. The materials are purchased on the local market by peasant women; the work is done by the peasant men.”

“Expropriate” US Arms

In addition, the guerrillas capture and use the latest American arms, including non-recoiling artillery. A UPI dispatch from Saigon, dated January 8, 1963, reports: “US military advisors Tuesday said Communist guerrillas, who have boasted they will win the war with captured American weapons, seized enough new arms in the past week to equip at least two companies.” Other reports say that the guerrillas are capturing “sampan-loads” of modern American equipment.

On January 2, 1963, at the village of Ap Bac, only 30 miles from Saigon, 200 determined guerrilla fighters with automatic weapons mauled 2,000 Diem troops, killing 100, including three Americans, and downed five US helicopters. The Diem forces outnumbered the guerrillas by 10 to 1 and were supported by planes, artillery and armor. A UPI dispatch from Saigon, dated January 7, 1963, reported that “angry US advisors charged Sunday that Vietnamese infantrymen refused direct orders to advance during Wednesday’s battle at Ap Bac and that an American Army captain was killed while out front pleading with them to attack.”

THIS moved Hanson W. Baldwin, military expert of the N.Y. Times, to observe that “some helicopter enthusiasts” tended to forget “that it is men, not machines, that win wars.” He observed further that Diem’s troops “displayed some of the same basic faults they had demonstrated in other operations; they showed little inclination to use their legs and little desire to attack.”

On January 7, 1963, Arthur Krock, his fellow commentator of the N.Y. Times, called for “fundamental administration review of its current policy of military aid in South Vietnam.” He concludes, however, that “it will be very difficult for the President to find an alternative to the US policy that has proved ineffectual, and trends to deeper and deeper involment in Southeast Asia.”

No End In Sight

The Kennedy administration shows no disposition to veer from its fatal course. Admiral Harry P. Felt, commander of US forces in the Pacific, said this January that “the war in South Vietnam is going fine.” He added that the “South Vietnamese are killing more Viet Cong than the government of South Vietnam is losing in battle” and that “the kill-ratio is running from three to six in favor of the forces of Premier Ngo Dinh Diem.”

However, Diem’s troops are untrustworthy. On November 11, 1961, five paratroop battalions tried unsuccessfully to depose Diem. On February 27, 1962, two Diem pilots, sent on a mission against guerrilla fighters, bombed and strafed the palace of President Diem instead. Afterwards, only US pilots were sent on air strikes.

The Kennedy administration is following a plan of operations decided upon a year or so ago when the decision was made to crush the peasants of South Vietnam at all costs. At that time, the Wall Street Journal published a revealing article by Henry Gemmill with the dateline of March 26, 1962. It is headed: US Leaders Are Determined on Victory, Even If It Means Invading Red Territory. Gemmill writes:

“Determined on victory in South Vietnam, the makers of US policy must be willing to elevate the plane of warfare if low-level fighting isn’t producing results ... Suppose, for instance, that Ngo Dinh Diem’s government, already lacking in solid support through the countryside, suffers further grave erosion, while the Red guerrillas gain. Suppose, too, that the American public becomes disturbed by slowly mounting casualty lists ...”

According to Gemmill, “doctrine now circulating would call for turning to more vigorous war.”

As outlined by the reporter, “the first move would likely be an ultimatum to Ho Chi Minh that unless hostilities ceased in South Vietnam the war would be carried directly to its source, North Vietnam. If this went unheeded, US bombers would go to work on the airfields, ports, and rail lines of North Vietnam. If army divisions poured in, they’d be thrown into North Vietnam, not South Vietnam.”

The North Vietnamese aid that is successfully smuggled in could account for only a small fraction of the strength of the guerrilla forces. But facts are unimportant when the Cold War blazes up into a hot war against a colonial revolution.

There seems little doubt that the “National Liberation Front” set up in Hanoi in January 1961 tends to control the political aims and leadership of the South Vietnam guerrilla fighters. There are indications that the North Vietnamese are split in the Moscow-Peking dispute, with Ho Chi Minh inclining towards the Russian and others towards the Chinese views on the tactics and strategy of colonial revolutions.

A CAPTURED guerrilla document dated September 25, 1962, published in the N.Y. Times (Western Edition), January 20, 1963, would indicate that the Ho government favors a settlement along the lines of the Laotian formula. The document talks of forcing the Americans and Diem to the conference table, where they will be compelled to compromise. It emphasizes that the guerrillas must understand “transitional steps” on the way to victory.

An end to the blood-bath now drenching the South Vietnam countryside would certainly be a relief to the long-suffering Vietnam peasantry. However, the Indochinese peoples have borne immense sacrifices in their 20-year-long struggle for liberation. Their revolution should not be short-changed again, as it was in 1945 and 1954.

As of now, US imperialism seems little disposed to any kind of compromise. Moreover, its flagrant violations of the 1954 Geneva deal are on record for all to see and learn from. The real face that the Kennedy administration presents to the masses of Asia can be seen in the brutal war it is conducting in South Vietnam without any authorization from the American people.

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