This piece is the final excerpt from Wilfred Burchett’s seminal account of the American War. A close friend of Ho Chi Minh, Burchett was the only westerner to be embedded with the Viet Cong frontlines in the early 1960s. This work was written in 1964
Extent of Liberation Front Control
How long will this war go on and how will it end? These were questions that I obviously discussed at length with the most responsible of the Liberation Front’s military and political leaders. Replies varied. “It will go on as long as necessary until the Americans have pulled out or are driven out and a really independent government based on peace and neutrality is formed,” was Nguyen Huu Tho’s first reply. “We are capable of fighting for a very long time,” Ybih Aleo, the leader of the ethnic minorities, emphasized. “If our generation cannot finish the job, then our sons or our grandsons certainly will.”
It is clear that the plans of the Front’s Military Affairs Committee are based on several more years of fighting. But they are completely confident they will win. And the changing colours on the military maps, even during the period in which I had access to them, the gradual expansion of red and corresponding shrinking of the green patches, certainly justifies their confidence. So did everything else I could see and hear during my visit.
The Front claims to control two-thirds of the territory and over a half of the population, as of the beginning of 1964. It is a government in everything but name, with Committees of Military Affairs, External Affairs, Public Health, Culture, Information and Education, Post and Telecommunications, Economic Affairs and others functioning as ministries, with their various departments and sub-departments. The Committee of External Affairs already has its “ambassadors” abroad — in Cairo, Havana, Algiers, Jakarta, Berlin and Prague — and the setting up of more bureaus of the NFL abroad is limited only by a shortage of cadres. Most of the bureaus also have representatives of the Liberation Press, the official news agency, who act as press attachés.
The question of transforming the Front’s Central Committee into a provisional government is obviously only a question of time. It was under study when I was at Nguyen Huu Tho’s headquarters. “It exists already in embryo form,” he said. “We have our own administrative organs. We are starting to work on certain economic problems, improving the technical level of agriculture, opening up virgin lands. Everything is on an absolutely democratic basis. Where conditions permit, and it is almost a general rule today, the villagers elect their own self-management committees. The methods of ensuring public security and putting the economic and cultural life on a sounder basis are improving daily. A big question for us now is to organise life in the liberated zones as it should be — we are starting to have a plan for this. The self-management committees are in line with old resistance traditions and represent a transition to a more rational form of administration. The essential problems of public order and security have already been solved; economic and social life is being organised on a systematic basis.”
Over the greater part of the country, there is in fact a stable administration in the hands of the South Vietnamese people, with social and economic reconstruction already under way. Matters in the Liberation Front-controlled areas will continue to develop this way, even as the war goes on. The really big question mark, however, is what the USA intends to do.
“Special warfare” has been pushed to its fullest development and has failed. The original plan called for the use of 11,000 U.S. “advisers”, but by 1964 these had reached over 25,000 and were operating at company, in some cases, at platoon level. The equivalent of two air divisions was being employed; U.S. personnel were running transport and communications. To go any further, to employ combat troops, would be to move beyond “special war” and engage in “limited war” with U.S. ground troops. But how many troops would they need? And how could they guarantee the war would be “limited”?
In Algeria, the French committed 800,000 troops against a population of 10,000,000 — and had to negotiate a withdrawal. The population of South Vietnam is 14,000,000, vastly more experienced in warfare than the Algerians and with infinitely more favourable geographical conditions — mountains and jungle cover two thirds of the country.
There are another 16,000,000 Vietnamese in the North, including the cream of the fighting forces from the South. And there was nothing in the Geneva Agreements that prevented them continuing their training in modem military techniques after they were regrouped in the North. It is worth noting that in the programme adopted by the NFL congress early in 1962, there is the following paragraph:
“Congress affirms that… if the U.S. imperialists and theft agents plunge deeper into their bloodthirsty aggression, the people of South Vietnam and the NFL will use all forms of struggle, will take all measures to fight resolutely to the end to save themselves and their country — to liberate South Vietnam, to defend independence and democracy, and completely overthrow treacherous dictators. In case of necessity, the people of South Vietnam and the NFL will use their legitimate and effective right to appeal to the people and the government of North Vietnam, to peace-loving and democratic peoples and governments the world over… requesting that active support, inducting material and manpower support, be afforded to the just struggle of the South Vietnamese people. The U.S. imperialism and their agents would have to bear the full responsibility for any disastrous consequences.”
One could hardly doubt that in the event of moving “special war” up to “limited war” this paragraph would be invoked and, at the very least, the USA would find itself involved in a war with 20 million Vietnamese. At the very least!
Intervention from the North
From the moment the big military defeats started, the Americans charged officially that these were due to aggression or intervention from the North and at the time this book goes to press, the threats are mounting to “push the war to the North.” So far there has not been an iota of evidence to support the charge of intervention from the North. There is any amount of evidence to show it is absurd.
If the main military activity were in the upper parts of South Vietnam near the l7th parallel or even close to the frontier regions of Laos where the other side of the border is controlled by the Pathet Lao, then suspicions might be justified. Militarily, this would be shown by the red patches on the maps appearing first there and spreading southwards. But it has never been so; on the contrary, the movement has been in the opposite direction. And there are only two roads leading south from the 17th parallel area, with Saigon forces in solid control of both, except for occasional ambushes. The main military activity from the very beginning has been in the deep South; this has been the major scene of the big defeats for Saigon. The first liberated area, in fact, was the Ca Mau peninsula, the southernmost tip of South Vietnam. This was the area of the big military sweeps made by Diemist forces long before armed resistance was started; the main part of the fighting has gone on there ever since, despite the fact that it lies closest to the greatest concentration of U.S. military power at Saigon.
Perhaps arms come from the North? All western press reports agree that at first the guerrillas’ arms were of a most primitive type. So much so that the Diemist government ordered a special exhibition of ‘Viet Cong’ arms in Saigon to show its own superbly equipped troops that they had nothing to fear. (Certainly Diem omitted to state that these were arms abandoned by the guerillas as new U.S. weapons fell into their hands, but that is beside the point.) All Western press reports also stressed that those “superbly equipped” troops have been, voluntarily or involuntarily, parting with their arms to the Front forces at an increasingly rapid tempo.
When I asked Nguyen Huu Tho about charges made by Secretary of State Dean Rusk a few days previously concerning “intervention” from the North, including supply of arms, he replied: “According to recent statistics published by the Pentagon, during the last three months of 1963, our armed forces seized an average of 234 weapons every week. This rate, taken together with our own arms production, is more than enough to equip the Liberation forces. Besides, the Americans have never furnished the slightest real evidence of their charges.”
It is obvious that on the question of arms supply, even if it were possible to transport weapons in sufficient quantities, no military commander could ever base operations on supplies carried on human backs over a supply line of well over 600 miles of jungle and steep mountain trails, leading across the formidable Annamite Chain. In any case the Front forces need weapons for which there is a constant supply of ammunition on the spot. “Our main arsenals are in the United States itself; our logistics depend on their trucks, helicopters and parachutes,” one of the Front’s military leaders said to me. “They deliver the most excellent weapons and the munitions which fit them, right at our front door, just where we need them.”
The inspiration, leadership and technical know-how — surely this at least comes from the North? It is the one question that perhaps could be argued.
Manpower is clearly not needed; the Mekong Delta is one of the most densely populated areas in the world and in general there is no lack of manpower in the Front-controlled zones. Rank and file troops that I saw — and there were plenty — were in their late teens and very early twenties; officers up to battalion commanders in their late twenties and early thirties. The troops had graduated into the regular forces from their local self-defense units; commanders had graduated during the present fighting and as guerilla leaders in the war against the French. But there is another side to the question of inspiration and leadership.
The Mekong Delta, especially the provinces of My Tho and Ben Tre, are the most revolutionary areas in all of Vietnam, North or South. It was here that in November 1940 the first major revolt against the French was launched. The peasants took advantage of the withdrawal of some French troops from the Delta to Cambodia (to counter a Japanese-Thai threat to the French in Indochina) to launch an uprising against conscription and unbearable taxes.
As for technical know-how, the Delta peasants have been waging almost continuous warfare for nearly a quarter of a century. They are the most experienced and probably the best guerilla fighters the world has ever known. By my own observations I am convinced that every armed unit is capable of handling whatever type of weapon is likely to fall into its hands. A ‘Viet Cong’ guerilla unit is infinitely more sophisticated than his Viet Minh elder brother ever was. And the latter were not bad! The difference is due to technical instructors from the North? I do not believe so and found no evidence of it.
Until some concrete evidence is produced of “aid from the North” one can discount the accusations as a cover-up for very embarrassing and otherwise inexplicable defeats. After all, the U.S. command in Saigon has a complete monopoly of planes, helicopters, tanks, artillery (except for such pieces as can be carried on a man’s back), naval power and motor transport. The Liberation forces have none of these, not even a single motor truck, as far as I could see.
The U.S. command has an over-whelming superiority in effectives. And yet they have been pushed back to the gates of Saigon. It is very embarrassing, but the answer will not be found by either blaming or bombing Hanoi or by U.S. air attacks in the Gulf of Tonkin. There are no railway networks, bridges, factories or anything else to bomb in the Front-controlled areas. If the Americans really want to bomb the Front’s source of supplies they would have to bomb their own arms factories; but it would be much more effective to pull out of South Vietnam and take their arms with them.
Although there has been no case of a soldier from the North having been found in the South, there have been innumerable cases of the contrary. In the seven months between June 1964 and the end of January 1965, thirteen U.S. trained commando and sabotage groups, parachuted from planes or landed from craft, were rounded up in North Vietnam and tried by military tribunals. On one occasion a U.S. plane was brought down north of the 17th parallel, complete with its commando group and parachutes. General Vo Nguyen Giap, North Vietnam’s Minister of Defense and commander-in-chief of the armed forces, told me that such activities had been stepped up since Nguyen Khanh took over in Saigon. In general they are sent in squad-sized groups he said, adding:
“I can assure you that all such sabotage groups have been wiped out, in the vast majority of cases being dealt with by our civilian population or local self-defense forces. They aim at acts of sabotage, collecting military information but also at organizing ‘discontented elements’ which exist only in the imagination of those that sent them.” General Giap said that Saigon was planning the use of Kuomintang agents and some from Laos also, but he was confident they would also have short shrift. In most cases the groups had been rounded up within a matter of hours.
The U.S. threat of taking the war to the North, however, was being taken seriously in Hanoi. The incidents in the Gulf of Tonkin and the U.S. air attacks against North Vietnamese oil storage depots and coastal installations in the first week of August 1964, showed how well justified Hanoi was in its reaction. It also demonstrated how far Washington was prepared to go in testing a policy of extending the war. As a means of affecting the struggle in the South, however, the effect was the opposite to that intended. The first direct reaction was a great upsurge of popular wrath culminating in the wave of student demonstrations in Saigon, Hue and other cities which forced Nguyen Khanh to step down, even if only temporarily.
If the USA takes the initiative of “unifying” the war, of creating a single military front by pushing the war to the North, it seems the first logical consequence would be the military unification of the country. And certainly not on Washington or Saigon terms! And in so far as U.S. planes based in Laos take part in attacks on North Vietnam, the Americans would have taken the initiative of seating a single war front in Indochina.
Prospects for Negotiated Peace
In short, having failed with the “special war,” Washington has to make up its mind what to do next. The series of top-level conferences that took place in the first half of 1964 were evidence that Washington was having difficulty in making up its mind. And they do not have all that many choices. High-level voices were being raised in the United States warning that no U.S. security or any other interests would justify a “second Korea” in South Vietnam, which is what moving up from “special war” to the stage of “limited war” would mean. And how to guarantee that “limited war” would not automatically lead to the stage of “global nuclear” war? In talks with Liberation Front leaders, I was interested to what extent they were prepared to make it “easy” for the Americans to leave without too much loss of face. I also wanted to know to what extent they felt the war might be shortened by some sort of coup in Saigon which, although not engineered by the Front, might bring to power a regime with which they could negotiate. What would be the basis for negotiations? What role could an international conference play in bringing about a solution?
Nguyen Huu Tho said that with the way things were developing in Saigon — the demoralisation in the army, the contradictions between the generals, the general dissatisfaction of the population, and the ease with which Khanh made his own coup — the possibility of another one, or even a series of coups, could not be rejected, even including one not to the taste of Washington.
“As far as the Front is concerned,” he said, “we are prepared to negotiate with all parties, groups, sects, patriots, without considering their political tendencies or their past activities, if we can bring about a peaceful solution based on national independence, democracy and neutrality. But we consider that the internal affairs of South Vietnam should be settled by the South Vietnamese themselves without any foreign interference. The basis of any eventual agreement mast be the withdrawal of all American troops, with all their arms and equipment. The Front is not opposed to an international conference to help find a solution, but the role of the foreign powers taking part should be limited to submitting proposals and recording any agreement reached between the South Vietnamese parties concerned and guaranteeing the execution of such agreements.”
He explained that under the Alliance for Unity of Action, which was being developed the Front, they were prepared to work with all groups, including those who were hostile to various parts of its programme. “We do not claim the exclusive right either to win the war or form the government afterwards,” he said. “We are prepared to forget the past and even the present. We say: ‘It is enough that you want to end the war and foreign intervention. We will march shoulder to shoulder with you.’ And what we say we do. When we define a policy, we apply it. This is not just a propaganda stunt. To officers serving now in the U.S.-Saigon armed forces, we say: ‘Even if you have killed our compatriots, even if you have committed crimes, if you regret and return to the patriotic path, we accept you.’” Nguyen Huu Tho went on to explain that the Front recognised that those within the ranks of the adversary were there for a variety of reasons. The rank and file soldiers were mainly press-ganged conscripts. Many officers were forced because of financial reasons into the army when all other avenues of making a living were deliberately closed to them, leaving the army the only way out.
“The Front pays great attention to trying to win such elements back to the side of the people,” he continued, “individually or in groups. When enemy units are prepared to break away from the Saigon command, we are ready to support them. If they need material aid, we will supply it. They can keep their own formations, operate independently; they need not join the Front. They can retain their political, ideological tendencies, we will not interfere. Our only condition is they oppose the U.S. interventionists and their puppets in Saigon. As for the higher administrative officials, we oppose only those whose hands are really drenched in the blood of our compatriots, but there are only a few of these. With the others we are prepared to cooperate. This policy has received wide support from elements within the Saigon army and administration, from rank and file elements up to senior officers and officials.”
He revealed that as military victories piled up and the prestige of the Front grew, many in the Saigon administration felt the way the wind was blowing and began to make adjustments accordingly. Feelers “at quite a high level,” he said, were constantly being put out for contact with the Front. He gave me as an instance the fact that the Front ran courses to educate civil servants, ostensibly to staff public administration in their own zones. “But officials now serving the Saigon administration find ways and means of attending these courses quietly. They have their eye on the future.”
The commander-in-chief of the Binh Xuyen forces, Lt. Col. Vo Van Mon, several times reported killed by Saigon, happened to be with Nguyen Huu Tho during this conversation. I asked him about the relations between his forces and those of the Front. “After the Diemist forces gave us a bad beating due to all-round treachery,” he said, “what was left of us regrouped and continued to fight independently until the Front was formed. Then we affiliated with it. The enemy propaganda machine warned us that it would be impossible to remain independent, we would be swallowed up by the Communists. In fact we still have our own organisation, our own cadres at all levels, but we fight under the unified command of the Front. After several years of cooperating with these people (and he indicated Nguyen Huu Tho and some other members of the Presidium who happened to be there), I was convinced they were on the right track. We had a meeting and decided to affiliate with the Front. But we still retain our independent character and it was just a big lie that we would be swallowed up by the Communists. What is true is that the Front grows in strength and popular support every day.”
I brought the conversation back to the question of how to end the war and make it not too hard for the Americans to execute a face-saving withdrawal. It was clear the Front attracted support from a very broad cross-section of the population, and its antennae were probing out way beyond the main body of its influence. Was it not possible that a quite unknown personality might emerge from the coups and countercoups, possibly any day in Saigon, with a programme the Front could support? Would they throw their Saigon machine into action in such an event?
The reply was that certainly they would; that the Front leadership worked day and night to create favourable conditions for such an eventuality, and was in a position to give effective and immediate support to any “favourable coup”. But it was explained also that long-range political and military planning could not be based on this possibility, only on the “relation of forces”. They had to think in terms of a long-range politico-military struggle, then possibly a military uprising at a higher political level than anything so far. But if the Americans wanted a face-saving way out, they had already staged two coups. Why not a third, with someone prepared to negotiate on the basis of peace, democracy, independence and neutrality? The latter was thrown out as a joke, but Washington could have done worse than to think it over. In general, Nguyen Huu Tho thought Washington would probably try out a few more personalities and have to suffer some more defeats before they would be willing to permit negotiations on any realistic basis.
If U.S. policy-makers were motivated by a grain of realism, it seems, they could find a solution along these lines. It is the optimum solution they can have in South Vietnam and Southeast Asia as a whole. Absurd talk of continuing the war “until all the Communists are driven out of South Vietnam,” as repeated with wearisome monotony from Washington, is a bankrupt, hopeless business. Nguyen Huu Tho pointed out that in the American context of what represented “communism” in South Vietnam, “this threat means they intend to continue this war until all South Vietnamese are expelled from their own territory. Vietnamese patriots will give a fitting reply to this sort of braggadocio.”
Short of using the H-bomb and wiping out all Vietnamese and many of their neighbours, the Americans will never succeed in South Vietnam by trying to impose a military solution.
Wilfred Burchett was an Australian reporter often described at the ‘rebel journalist’ for his stories about the American War ‘from the other side’. After years of being at odds with the Australian government, last year the Melbourne Press Club inducted him into their Hall of Fame. Burchett was also the journalist to break the scoop of the 20th century — the devastation caused by dropping nuclear bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Special thanks to George Burchett for allowing us to republish this work. Please note that some of the language in this piece has been changed to reflect its modern-day spelling.