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Looking Back at Vietnam

April 26, 1987

As a former correspondent in Saigon and a fellow writer on Indochina, I must take exception to the view of the events of 1963 expressed by Douglas Pike in his review of Ellen J. Hammer's "A Death in November" (The Book Review, March 8).

The Vietnam War was a tragedy for all Americans and for many Vietnamese, but as a believer in free will, Pike should know that the reason things happened as they did was that human beings made them happen that way. Without engaging at all in might-have-beens, let me point out some of the errors in his analysis.

The reason Saigon gave the impression in the summer of 1963 of a society disintegrating beyond control was that it was a society being subjected to tremendous outside forces. Chief among these was the growing American presence and influence, a response to what was perceived in Washington to be a growing communist challenge. The perception was correct, but the response was not, and fatally not as it turned out. It is perhaps hard for us to recall at this distance to what extent the Americans had become the main actors, already in 1963. President (Ngo Dinh) Diem could not make a move without calculating the likely effect on the United States, whose support he desperately needed but whose presence was a huge political liability to him in his efforts to govern.

Diem was already in battle against the Viet Cong in 1956, and reading the reporting from the American Embassy in that year contained in the State Department foreign relations volumes, one is struck again and again by the lucidity with which he saw the Viet Cong challenge and talked about it to American visitors to his palace like Ambassador G. Frederick Reinhardt, Adm. Arthur W. Radford, and acting Secretary of Defense Reuben B. Robertson Jr., to name a few. He knew where the Viet Cong were, what their movements were, and far from having no true strategy of his own, believed he knew how to meet the challenge. His theme was that out in the countryside, far from Saigon and its politics, the challenge had to be met by a local defense force, the civil guard. He pleaded for American support to give these civil guard members a modicum of 300 piasters a month. His American interlocutors demurred, saying that people carrying arms should come under the Ministry of Defense rather than the Ministry of Interior. This argument went on for years.

Another pet project of his was road-building. Could the Americans give his army some bulldozers so he could build roads along the border of Laos to control infiltration from North Vietnam? The idea got mired in American red tape, and never got off the ground.

While Diem concentrated on building a conventional South Vietnamese army, Hanoi was already escalating the war, opening the Ho Chi Minh Trail in 1959. From then on, the Army of the Republic of Viet Nam (ARVN) would have increasing difficulty.

The plain fact was indeed that by the summer of 1963, Diem could no longer control events, as Pike points out. But this was because he did not have control. By then, it was the Americans who controlled events. He had managed to control his army very well until the Americans started to encourage the officer corps to plot against his government. Who can control events in those circumstances? He could not control corruption because the massive American presence, and particularly the aid program, corrupted almost all the Vietnamese who came in touch with it. We are not talking here about some ideal society on Mars; we are talking about a society facing the very real impact of a foreign power used randomly and wantonly, and ultimately destructively.

So there were decisions that were made and people who made them. Some of these people had drastically false perceptions. Some acted on the basis of intuition. Some who had the facts, like Ambassador Frederick Nolting, were ignored or even derided. And some, like President Kennedy in Hyannisport on the weekend the fatal "August 29" telegram was drafted by his subordinates, were simply not paying attention when paying attention--and understanding--would have changed history.

Diem was a principal actor, and not merely a puppet as one school of thought has tiresomely argued for so many years, and continues to argue even now, more than a decade after North Vietnam won the war. Hammer's book on the events of 1963 is one of those rare books that will force people to reexamine opinions and beliefs, as Pike correctly states.


Bethesda, Md.

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