A Time for Stoicism
From DAVID WATT
AtERICANS do not normally take gracefully to adversity—which is perhaps one reason why they so often win:--but there's no denying that they have bitten the bullet bravely enough throughout the latest calamities in south-east Asia. Not many have been able to aspire to the saintly stoicism of Mr William Bundy, the Assistant Secretary of State for the Far East, who smiled, as it were, through his tears and described the anti-American riots in Hue, Danang and Saigon as 'healthy and indeed understandable.' But his spirit has been widely approved and even copied.
Again, outbursts of rage and a general search for scapegoats and excuses would be the normal Washington practice in these circumstances. But denunciations of the ungrateful Vietnamese and suggestions that the United States should take over the country have been confined to the usual lunatic fringe of the military; and apart from mild regrets over one or two errors of American tactics —the Honolulu meeting or the decision last week to supply transport aircraft to help with the con- genial task of shooting the Mayor of Danang- no one has been crying verrioudly for blood.
All this forbearance is as significant as it is unusual, for it is the proof that the administration has realised it is face to face not with an unfor- tunate twist of fate or the consequences of minor errors of judgment, but is up against the funda- mental dilemmas of the war. Everyone in Wash- ington has .known from the start what these diffi- culties were. In the first place, the resources of the South Vietnamese fell so far short of what was required to save the country's independence that it was always possible that the weight of American effort needed to turn the scale might crush the precarious structure it was supposed to save. Secondly, the country is so torn with regional and religious faction that any unity that could be achieved in the face of the Vietcong would be apt to vanish as soon as the danger appeared to be receding.
So far as the second danger was concerned. there was never much to be done but hope for the best. The fall of the Diem regime, and indeed most of the subsequent upheavals, have demon- strated that the Buddhists have the ability to make the existence of almost any government intoler- able if they choose to do so. As for the first diffi- culty, it was supposed to be met by keeping the American commitment within reasonable bounds and, when that was found to be impossible, by try- ing to preserve the notion that the American troops were mere auxiliaries. In the event, of course, this has proved.to be a quite hopeless task. Not only have the Americans been forced to take the initiative in the prosecution of the war, but, more important still, their vast expenditures and the demands of an army of nearly a quarter of a million have imported roaring inflation, corrup- tion and the dislocation of the rural economy, and the wake of these ills comes anti-Americanism.
These shortcomings are freely admitted in
Washington, but the point made by the adminis- tration's apologists is that once the United States was embarked upon the task of saving the war, it was almost impossible to see how the rest could be avoided, If there has been a mistake, it has been no less an error than that of having committed Americans originally to Vietnam; if there is a blunderer, he is no less a person than President
Johnson, or President Kennedy before him, and since the Government cannot accept these hor- rendous premises, it must now put up with the consequences of its decisions in silence.
None of these consequences looks particularly alluring, as things stand now. The worst possibil- ity from the American point of view—that in which a neutralist government demands the imme- diate withdrawal of American troops and makes its own surrender to the Vietcong--is admittedly the least likely. For one thing the warlords of the Vietnamese army have too much to lose by it and for another, whoever negotiates with the Com- munists will need an American presence to bar- gain with.
But there are at least two other unpleasant eventualities to be considered. Perhaps the most
probable is a long and inconclusive continuation of the present power struggle, in which the Ameri- cans dare not intervene for fear of making matters worse, in which the effectiveness of the war against the Vietcong is seriously impaired and in which the chief outlet for the frustrations of each side and the sufferings of the ordinary man will be a further increase of anti-Americanism.
The best outcome that can be hoped for is that the rival generals will succeed in patching up a truce with each other, thus restoring the unity and authority of the military directorate. But even if this can be achieved, it is obvious that some understanding will now have to be reached with the Buddhists on the subject of representative government in which they are clearly determined to have the dominant share. This presumably entails a promise of national elections at an early date—a possibility that introduces yet another vertiginous uncertainty into the situation.
The powers that be are a long way from grace- fully accepting either of these alternative chains of events. but one can now detect a faint breath of speculation about them in Washington. The point is that officialdom has constantly vacillated on the question of what is really required to achieve the basic objective of. American policy—the strategic denial of South Vietnam to Communist China.
At some moments (when the war has been going well), it has been assumed that nothing less than complete victory over the Vietcong will make absolutely certain that the Communists will not take over the country. At other times, the argu- ment in the ascendant has been that one could rely on the antagonism of the Vietnamese for China and that considerable risks could be taken to achieve peace— including the admission of the National Liberation Front to a provisional government—provided that reasonable safeguards were written into the treaty. After the military successes of the winter and until three weeks ago, the tough line was in vogue. The political crisis has forced officials to look once more at the other side and to wonder whether there might not be considerably less risk in accepting a 'neutralist' settlement (if political events in Vietnam move strongly in that direction) than in following the urgings of the military to `take over the war' and install an unashamed puppet government in Saigon.
The greatest obstacle to this line of thought is, of course, the state of public opinion in the United States. It is true that the war is unpopular and that the election year dilemma of whether to cut welfare expenditures or raise taxes to pay for it is
producing mild hysteria on Capitol Hill. Never- theless, Vietnam has not yet cost the man in the street so much that he will avoid taking a high moral line about it if the President appears to be knuckling under to the Reds. It is this considera- tion above all which makes it certain that the administration will not use the crisis as an excuse to cut and run. It would be child's play for a politician of Lyndon Johnson's attainments to sell his countrymen a `neutralist' peace treaty hedged round, after protracted negotiations, with mean- ingless safeguards. But even he could not explain the sudden spectacle of 225,000 GIs creeping home with their tails between their legs on the orders of a Buddhist monk.