The Furtive War by Wilfred Burchett
A month after the abortive officers' coup, a National Liberation Front was formed in South Vietnam from diverse elements which had been driven underground or into armed resistance to the Diem regime. These included former resistance members menaced by the mobile guillotines of Law 10/59, leaders of political parties and social organizations forced underground by Diem's secret police, and intellectuals driven to desperation by suppression of any liberal thought. Peasants who rejected the living death of the concentration camp villages participated, as well as members of the Hoa Hao, Cao Dai, and Binh Xuyen — armed religious sects-who had escaped annihilation by Diem's army or assassination squads. Included also were Buddhist leaders persecuted as a result of Diem's fanatical Catholicism, and representatives of minorities threatened with racial extinction. An Organizing Committee was set up to bring these elements together in the South Vietnam Front of National Liberation (for convenience I refer to it as the National Liberation Front or NLF), founded on December 20, 1960. The Organizing Committee became a provisional Central Committee.
For many months before setting up the NLF there had been a steady crystallization of the forces opposed to Diem. Probably the November officers' coup hastened the process. It had come like a bolt from the blue. There was no organization ready to back such a move, even had the officer leadership been united and politically astute enough to call for popular support.
The formation of the NLF meant, among other things, that in the future there would be an organization to turn to.
Throughout the year of 1960 there had been a whole series of peasants' uprisings, mainly to break out of "strategic" villages, "agrovilles," and other camouflaged concentration camps. In 300 of 493 villages in six provinces of central Cochin-China, for instance, the Diem administration had been kicked out, its representatives either prisoners of the population or done away with altogether, and the military posts destroyed.
The Diemist troops carried out a whole series of "mopping-up" operations in these six provinces (Ben Tre, My Tho, Kien Phong, Kien Tuong, Long An, and An Giang) during 1960, but, according to one of the first statements issued by the NLF, "faced with the fierce resistance of our compatriots, the repression ended in crushing defeats: 6,000 Diemist troops killed, wounded or taken prisoner; 8,000 crossed over to patriotic movement; 73,000 local big-shots, security agents, and police pimps chased out by the people, 70 military posts destroyed." In the western provinces the same story: "In the last three months of 1960 alone, 4,500 Diemist troops put out of action; 3,500 crossed over to the people; 10,000 big shots and police agents chased out, 90 posts destroyed."
The disintegration of the Diem administration in hundreds of villages was another compelling reason for the formation of the NLF. Local administrative committees sprung up as Diem's officials melted away; self-defense forces came into being to protect the liberated villages. Soon after the formation of the NLF, liberated villages were administered by committees linked through district and provincial committees with the Provisional Central Committee of the Front. Throughout 1961, committees were elected at all levels, and the liberated areas grew in size. Preparations were made for a national congress at which basic questions of internal and foreign policy had to be hammered out and a long-term program adopted.
Between February 16 and March 3, 1962, in a large village which must be nameless as long as U.S. bombers patrol South Vietnamese skies, an historic First Congress of the NLF was held, with over 100 delegates elected from all over the country taking part. By coincidence, the congress started work just eight days after the Americans set up their High Command in Saigon and began direct military intervention in South Vietnam.
Plenary sessions were held in a solid, brick building with electric light and a loud-speaker system which broadcast the proceedings not only to the delegates in the hall, but to the local residents as well — a tribute to the security which reigns in the liberated areas where government of and for the people functions.
Three main political parties took part. The Democratic Party, formed in 1945, is a party of intellectuals and small business people, which supported the resistance war against the French from the beginning. The Radical Socialist Party, formed in 1961, represents intellectuals in Saigon and other urban centers and reflects the strong trend towards neutralism among intellectuals, even in the Diem administration and army. The People's Revolutionary Party, formed in December 1961, groups together former resistance members not affiliated to the other two parties. As its name suggests, the latter is further to the Left of the other two, and represents the worker-peasant movement and militant intellectuals.
These three parties form the hard core of the Front. Innumerable nuances rounding off sharp edges of difference between them at the congress were represented by delegates from social and religious organizations, and others like the Committee for Afro-Asian Solidarity, the South Vietnam and Saigon-Cholon Peace Committees, associations of writers and journalists, armed religious sects, and others. Most colorful were the delegates from the ethnic minorities in their national costumes. Delegates represented every province and major town in South Vietnam, and a good cross-section of the population.
The opening address was made by Dr. Phung Van Cung, member of the provisional Central Committee of the Front and Chairman of the South Vietnam Peace Council. A well known Paris-trained doctor, in 1946 he evaded French attempts to draft him into the Medical Corps of their invasion troops and supported the resistance instead. In October 1960, he fled Saigon with his family, preferring the hardships of the jungle to the comforts of Saigon under the Diem dictatorship. He summed up the situation which had led to the formation of the NLF.
"Hundreds of thousands of compatriots imprisoned, hundreds of others the victims of Diem's execution squads; famine conditions in the countryside, unemployment in the cities... Because of this, 14 million of our compatriots have resolved to continue the revolutionary traditions of our people and fight by all means to safeguard the right to live."
Following the setting up of the NLF, Dr. Cung said, the people's movement had taken on a much broader scope over the whole country, and in many regions of the Nam Bo and South Trung Bo the people had broken out of the enemy encirclement. Thanks to this, the people in those regions had been able to organize their free, economic life. The main task ahead, he said, was to "wipe out the present Diem regime, form a democratic government of national coalition with a foreign policy of neutrality, and as a final aim the peaceful reunification of the country." There was prolonged applause when he announced that the NLF had become affiliated to the Afro-Asian Solidarity Committee and to the World Peace Council. "This was a great joy and encouragement to us in our extremely difficult and complicated fight," he said. The principal task of the congress, he concluded, was to lay down the main lines of policy "for now and for the future," and to elect a Central Committee which "would reflect all the elements of national solidarity."
Delegates from the various organizations then presented their views on policy. The representatives of the Radical Socialist Party, for instance, presented an eight-point policy demanding an end to the Ngo family dictatorship, the formation of a national coalition government, and the restoration of democratic rights "such as individual liberty, freedom of press, speech, assembly and political activity, amnesty for political prisoners, dissolution of concentration camps and 'prosperity zones,' and the repeal of Law 10/59." The speaker laid stress on social reforms, and entered into detail on questions like pensions for the aged, maternity benefits, and child welfare. In foreign affairs, he urged a policy of neutrality and "diplomatic relations with all countries that recognize South Vietnam's independence and sovereignty."
The delegate from the Democratic Party recalled that for 16 years, his party had worked closely with all other organizations for national liberation, even before the resistance war started. During the last seven years, the delegate said, members had worked underground against the Diem dictatorship. The 1960 officers' uprising he characterized as "popular discontent transformed into a coup." The Democratic Party, he said, was highly interested in working with others for the final overthrow of the Diem dictatorship.
As for the newly-formed People's Revolutionary Party, the chief representative recalled that it had developed from an "Association of Ex-Resistance Members" which had been founded the previous year. It included everyone from professional revolutionaries to members of the armed religious sects and Chinese immigrants. Members supported the setting up of a "coalition government which represents the interests of all classes and political tendencies. This government must pursue a policy of national independence, democratic liberties, an improvement of living standards for the whole people, and the eventual aim of reunification. Foreign policy should be based on neutrality, non-alignment with any military blocs. Economic aid should be accepted from any countries as long as it is free from political conditions."
Following the opening statements in plenary session, delegates split up into committees to hammer out agreements on such questions as land reform, industry and trade, religious affairs, the armed struggle, relations with the North, minority problems, and the like. Elected as Chairman of the minorities' committee was Ybih Aleo, a well-known leader of the Rhade people, one of the most important of the ethnic minorities from the Hants Plateaux. At the time of the August 1945 revolution against the French, he was a non-commissioned officer in the French army (a very rare rank for anyone of minority origin). He had immediately joined the revolution, was captured by the French and after terrible torture was sentenced to death. But the sentence was never carried out because his prestige was high among the minority people and the French were fearful of the consequences. In splendid red and black national costume, he was one of the most colorful figures at the congress; he was subsequently elected to the Central Committee and as a vice-president of the NLF.
After 15 days of hard work, a Program and a Declaration of the First Congress of the National Liberation Front of South Vietnam were adopted, and a Central Committee was elected. Decisions adopted reflected the broad nature of the NLF and the real cross-section of the population that the delegates represented. There were trade union leaders and small business people, doctors and lawyers, Catholic priests and Buddhist bonzes, peasants and fisherman, members of the NLF's armed forces, including former officers from Diem's army.
A 10-point policy statement issued a month before the congress by the provisional Central Committee was endorsed and incorporated in the Declaration. It called for an end to Diem's war against the people, the withdrawal of U.S. interventionist forces, election of a new National Assembly and President through "free, non-fraudulent" balloting, the dissolution of concentration camps and the freeing of political prisoners, an end to press-gang conscription methods, the application of various measures to end the economic monopoly of the Diem family, respect for the 1954 Geneva Agreements, and a foreign policy of peace and neutrality. This last point called for "the establishment of a neutral area in Indo-China, comprising South Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos, the three countries to enjoy full sovereignty and independence." Economic aid would be accepted from all countries as long as "no political conditions are attached."
As the NLF already administers a very large proportion of the South Vietnamese countryside, and could easily be transformed into a provisional government, some points of the congress Declaration are of special interest — land reform, for instance:
To recognize the right to land ownership for all landlords who do not work as agents of the imperialists. But they must carry out the present agrarian policy of the Front which is to reduce land rents and guarantee peasants' tenant rights. In the future, the national coalition administration, by negotiation and at fair prices will purchase part of the land from the landlords for distribution to the peasantry. Help will be extended to landlords to enter trade and industry. Membership of the Front is open to patriotic landlords.
As for Diemist troops ("even those who have committed crimes"), if they do not take part in attacks, or come over voluntarily, or do not offer resistance, they "will be released immediately after the battle and helped according to their wishes." Obviously with an eye on the November coup, there is this provision: "To army units and officials who rise up in mutiny or attempt coups directed against the U.S. imperialists and their agents, the NLF will give active support and immediate aid to help them continue the struggle."
The Declaration went into some detail on the question of neutrality, a point which aroused interest abroad, especially in neutralist-conscious Asia.
In particular [it states] Congress had deep discussions on the foreign policy of peace and neutrality. Congress solemnly asserts that South Vietnam will establish diplomatic relations with all countries without distinction of political systems in conformity with the principles of the Bandung Conference... It will not enter into military alliance with any country whatsoever and will accept aid, economic and otherwise, from any country willing to provide such assistance without restrictive conditions.
With regard to North Vietnam, we shall also conform to the spirit of the foreign policy of peace and neutrality. Reunification of the Fatherland will be solved step by step on the basis of the aspirations of all sections of the people of South Vietnam as well as those of North Vietnam, on the principle of freedom and democracy, negotiations and agreement between the two sides.
The statement went on to say that if the people are forced to fight, they will fight and win, but:
We want to avoid unnecessary sacrifices and hardships, to alleviate suffering and avoid further devastation of our country. Having considered the problem from every aspect, the Congress delegates concluded that with a foreign policy of peace and neutrality, South Vietnam will be able to get unconditional aid — economic, technical, cultural, and social — from many countries with differing political systems in order to build up a prosperous and advanced South Vietnam. The experiences of peaceful and neutral Cambodia, which borders on our country, and the experiences of several other countries in Southeast Asia testify to this possibility.
At the time the congress was taking place Diem was laying claim to Cambodian islands a few miles off the Cambodian coast at Kep, and his troops were constantly violating Cambodian frontier areas. This lent added interest to the next point in the Declaration:
Congress solemnly affirms that the policy of the NLF is to respect the sovereignty, independence, unity, and territorial integrity, the policy of peace and neutrality of the neighboring kingdoms of Cambodia and Laos. The Front and its armed forces solemnly undertakes not to encroach upon an inch of the territories of Cambodia and Laos. If U.S. imperialists and their agents attack Cambodia and Laos with troops based on South Vietnam or via South Vietnam, the Front and its armed forces will resolutely fight to oppose and check them. ... At the same time, Congress solemnly confirms the intention of the NLF to press for the formation of a zone of peace and neutrality, comprising Cambodia, Laos, and South Vietnam... Congress warmly welcomes the positive initiative of Prince Norodom Sihanouk concerning the formation of such a zone of peace and neutrality.
The importance of this categoric emphasis on neutrality can hardly be over-emphasized as showing the most reasonable and realistic way out of the present situation in Southeast Asia in general and South Vietnam in particular. It represents a sacrifice for those who were struggling for immediate reunification with the North, and one can imagine that this was the point which provoked the toughest discussions during the congress. It is a policy which would inevitably delay reunification and implies that reunification in any case will be on the basis of some sort of federation with very wide autonomy for North and South, or reunification on the basis of some measure of neutrality in the North. (It is a fact, incidentally, that North Vietnam, although a member of the socialist camp, does not have any military alliances.) The type of neutrality proposed by the NLF for South Vietnam is one that could be accepted by everyone, by East bloc countries as well as those of the West, without harming the interests of any. It points the way forward, out of the blood-bath that foreign intervention and an obscurantist despot have imposed on the country. It is a proposal which reflects the political maturity and realism of the NLF leadership. There are other points also which demonstrate realism and moderation. In relation to the French, for instance:
Concerning France in particular, if France lives up to her responsibilities towards the Geneva Agreements and in view of the longstanding economic and cultural relations existing between South Vietnam and France, we will have an appropriate regard for that country.
With regard to French nationals in South Vietnam, Congress affirms that the policy of the NLF is to respect the life and property and the legitimate interests and livelihood of all French nationals as long as they do not collaborate with the U.S. imperialists and their agents against the patriotic movement of the South Vietnamese people. 10/59.
Important decisions were taken to safeguard the interests of the minority peoples, with guarantees of complete equality in all fields and the creation of autonomous zones. This was of topical importance as the overwhelming majority of ethnic minorities were already living in liberated areas, and the new policies could immediately be put into practice. Vigorous efforts of the Diemists to win back the minority regions in the summer of 1962 failed. Diemist troops simply refused to enter many of the minority areas, protected as they are with spiked traps, ambushes which automatically discharge salvos of huge boulders, and — if they venture too close to the villages — poisoned arrows fired out of the jungle from deadly accurate cross-bows.
There was a note of warning in one passage of the Declaration which might be branded as "aggressive" by those who accept the myth that if a label like "Viet Cong" can be hung on Vietnamese, they automatically become foreigners in their own country, with no rights except to be annihilated.
Congress affirms that if the imperative and legitimate aspirations of the South Vietnamese people go unheeded, and if the U.S. imperialists and their agents plunge deeper into their bloodthirsty aggression. ... the people of South Vietnam and the National Liberation Front will use all forms of struggle, will take all measures to fight resolutely to the end in order 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 NLF 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, irrespective of political systems, requesting that active support, including material and manpower support, be afforded to the just struggle of the South Vietnamese people. U.S. imperialists and their agents must bear the full responsibility for any disastrous consequences.
Some people sincerely devoted to peace may be disturbed by the militant note of this pronouncement and its implications. One can only recall that if the German and Italian people had been able to rise in revolt against fascism and smash it, the world would have been spared the horror of World War II. The people of South Vietnam are fighting with arms in their hands against an Asian neo-fascism no less dangerous for world peace than was European fascism of the 1930's. Their leaders are quite conscious of this.
They are also conscious of their responsibilities to take every step possible — short of asking their people en masse to lay down their heads on the neck-rest of Diem's mobile guillotines — to secure a peaceful settlement: "We will not miss any chance at all to improve the disastrous situation that has now overtaken South Vietnam, to end the bloodshed there, to promote a settlement which will help relax international tensions."
Finally the congress elected 31 members of the Central Committee and other leading officers. Nguyen Huu Tho, a well-known Saigon lawyer, was elected president. His real political career had started, appropriately enough, when he led a demonstration in Saigon, in March 1950, against the visit of three U.S. warships. They had been despatched as an open display of support for the French in the "dirty war." Nguyen Huu Tho had not taken part in the resistance war but this bullying display of force outraged him, as well as several hundred thousand other Saigon residents. They showed their feelings in a great demonstration. The warships left the following day, but Tho, who had marched at the head of the demonstrators, was arrested by the French and deported to Lao Chau, north of Dien Bien Phu, from where he was freed by the VPA in 1952. He took up his law practice in Saigon again after the Geneva Agreements, but because he was active in the Saigon-Cholon peace movement, he was arrested by Diem and imprisoned in Tuy Hoa in Central Vietnam. In October 1961, guerillas attacked Tuy Hoa prison, liberating Nguyen Huu Tho and other political prisoners.
Dr. Phung Van Cung, who made the opening address, was one of five vice-presidents elected. Another was Vo Chi Cong, an old-time revolutionary from Saigon whom the French had condemned to deportation for life in the Poulo Condor "hell prison." He was liberated after the 1945 revolution and played an active part in the resistance war. The other vice-presidents are: Huynh Tan Phat, a Saigon architect, general secretary of the Democratic Party; Ybih Aleo, mentioned earlier, and Dai Due Son Vong, representative of the Cambodian minority or Khmer Krom. Central Committee members included Tien Thien Ngoc, leader of all Cao Dai sects; Tran Huu Trang, a very well-known veteran Saigon actor; Thich Thien Hao, a Buddhist bonze; Huynh Cuong, a Khmer intellectual; and Josef Marie Hohue Ba, representing the Catholic community. Six members are well-known intellectuals working in Saigon and Hue, who could not be present at the congress and who were elected with pseudonyms for obvious reasons. Among those elected were some who had held high posts in the Diem administration. Three of the 21 reserved places on the Central Committee are for vice-presidents to be elected as the vacant places are filled.
Later I was able to interview Professor Nguyen Van Hieu of the Radical Socialist Party, who had been elected secretary-general of the NLF. A man with a calm, reflective face, he was a professor of mathematical sciences before he left the university to take part in the resistance war against the French.
He stressed the complete security in which the 15-day congress had taken place. "Thanks to the good quality radio transmitters the Americans have supplied us," he said with a quiet smile, "we were able to keep in contact with our bureaus all over the country throughout the congress. Communications worked excellently."
I asked about supplies for the Front's armed forces: "In all major actions now," he replied, "we use captured U.S. arms. A great quantity has been brought over to us by deserting troops, often whole units. Others we capture in raids. For instance, in September 1961 we attacked Phuoc Thanh, a provincial capital about 60 miles north of Saigon. In an action that lasted precisely three minutes we were masters of the situation. We bagged 400 arms of all categories, especially recoil-less cannon and Garand rifles that we like very much. Earlier, we carried out a similar action at Trang Sup, in Tay Ninh province. There we had a haul of over 1,000 weapons of all types. I know the Americans like to claim we get our arms from North Vietnam. But that would be stupid even if we could get them. Think of the transport problem. The Americans on the other hand," he said with a laugh, "deliver them right there where we need them. Not only arms but other essential equipment we need."
As to the extent of territory actually administered by the NLF, he said: "It's difficult to ink that in on a map for various reasons. There are large zones, comprising hundreds of villages completely liberated, without a Diem official or military post. There are others completely under our control but where there are islands of military posts and vestiges of Diem's administration who are in effect our prisoners. As long as they behave we leave them there. There are other areas of disputed territory, which we control by night and where they patrol by day. There are smaller areas where the Diem administration has also ceased to function; the people have chased them out, but where front committees have not yet been established. Don't forget we have not been functioning long and in some places the liberation movement goes faster than we can organize administration. By and large you can say that Diem controls the towns and strategic routes, but not all of the latter. We hold the countryside. Moreover, if Diem and the Americans want to move outside Saigon, they can only do so by mounting a military operation. They dare not move even 10 or 15 miles north of the city — another illustration of the lack of popularity, the weakness of the regime.
"How could it be otherwise?" he asked. "The terror and brutal repressions have driven everyone into resistance. According to incomplete figures, over the past eight years, 105,000 of our compatriots have been killed and at the present moment there are over 350,000 held in the 874 prisons and concentration camps. There are over 6,000 children held in the prisons, many of them born in prison. They have known no other world than the four walls of a prison and what they can see through the bars of their cells. Countless others have been born in prison and died there without ever having seen the sun.
"The repression and attempts to force the peasantry into concentration camp villages has had disastrous effects on production. The South used to be one of the great rice-exporting countries of the world, with an average export of 1,500,000 tons a year. By 1960 there was no exportable surplus at all. In 1961, about 100,000 tons were imported and imports will reach over 300,000 tons for 1962 and even with that, there are famine conditions in many of the cities. The cities are full of unemployed, beggars, and prostitutes — thousands of the latter in Saigon alone. It is conditions of this sort that have rallied the most diverse elements into our Liberation Front. All political, social, and religious tendencies, all racial groupings are represented in the Front. Officers and functionaries of the Diem administration have joined in substantial number. Within the first year of its foundation, over 10,000 Diemist soldiers came over to the Front, most of them with their weapons and in many cases complete units, including officers. This is because the Front represents the broadest aspirations of all sections of the population apart from the few really big landlords and a handful of compradore capitalists whose personal fortunes are intimately linked with the Diem regime...
About relations with the French, Professor Hieu said: "Most of the French rubber plantations are in our areas. Whether they like it or not, the French owners and managers have to have good relations with us. They pay their taxes to us. There are several tens of thousands of acres of their plantations in our hands. But the French ought to understand this. If the Americans increase their intervention, we shall fight till the end. We have no other alternative. Life is worth nothing if it has to be lived under a fascist regime. For the French this will mean they will have no interests left at all. If they like to use their influence to halt U.S. intervention, we are ready to safeguard their interests. Not just for now, but later too. But if they support the Americans in their intervention, they will have only themselves to blame for the results. We are ready at any time to sit down and discuss things with them."
He was one of those who believed neutrality was the best, the only realistic solution for South Vietnam. "Since the 1960 November coup, the idea of neutrality has gained much ground," he said. "There is a movement for neutrality in all sections of Diem's army, even among upper cadres in the army and in the administration too. Diem knows this. He is fearful of it. His ideologists have organized courses in the army, in universities and schools against neutrality. He hurls abuse at Prince Sihanouk because he is for neutrality. But the idea is gaining ground everywhere.
"It is the weakness of Diem and his supporters, their utter political bankruptcy, that has given birth to the Front and is responsible for the wide prestige it already enjoys."
Nguyen Van Hieu's remarks about the source of arms was strikingly illustrated some weeks after our conversation by a report in the New York Times of June 7, 1962. It referred to the capture of two train loads of arms and other supplies, "in a bold, daylight raid ninety miles west of Saigon." The despatch also confirmed the lack of control Diem was able to impose even in regions quite close to the capital. "Attacks on the railroad linking Saigon with the northern provinces have become so frequent," reported Bigart from Saigon, "that night movement was abandoned two months ago. The trains run only in daytime and under heavy escort." The two trains in question were sandwiched in between two armored trains for their protection, he reported. One of the escort trains was put out of action by a swift attack, a bridge blown up between the second one and the freight trains. "It was feared the pro-Communists made off with considerable food and arms," Bigart writes. The previous day, the same paper had reported a guerilla raid on a district headquarters in Ba Xuyen province in which "the Viet Cong guerillas made off with considerable plunder, including two mortars, five machine-guns, ten rifles, fifteen carbines, three pistols, a shotgun and several radios."
The American supply system functioned very efficiently indeed — for the guerillas.
A neutralized South Vietnam as provided for in the NLF program is obviously a question of far-reaching implications. It was a matter that I raised with President Ho Chi Minh, whom I had the good fortune to meet in Hanoi, some weeks after the NLF Congress. I asked whether the government of the North, the Democratic Republic of Vietnam, was prepared to accept a neutral South. After all, the Vietminh which President Ho had guided over its long road of national liberation had fought to liberate the whole country. The Geneva Agreements had recognized the Vietminh victory and had provided for the full fruits of that victory to be reaped by July 1956, in the form of general elections for a single government of all Vietnam. The NLF were now quite solemnly committed to a policy that would put South Vietnam in a zone together with Cambodia and Laos, with a policy quite different from that of the government of North Vietnam, especially as concerns home affairs.
President Ho received me at his residence, the former servants' quarters behind the French Governor-General's palace (now the Presidential palace) in Hanoi. He was bronzed, more relaxed and robust than when I had first met him eight years ago as he emerged from the jungle shadows in his bamboo hut headquarters in the Viet Bac.
He did not ponder long over my question, blunt as it was. "It is up to the people in South Vietnam," he said, "to decide whether South Vietnam is to have a neutral regime or any other regime. Nobody can go counter to the people's aspirations." He recalled something that I had long forgotten — the Program of the Fatherland Front (successor to the Vietminh), as worked out in 1955. "The program lays down," continued President Ho, "that in every respect — historical, geographical, economic, cultural, social, and national — our country is a united country which definitely no force can partition... But today, the social and political situation in the North and South are different... We should take into due consideration the practical situation in both zones, the legitimate interests and aspirations of all sections of the population and at the same time, by negotiations, we should arrive at the holding of free general elections in order to achieve unity, without any coercion or annexation of one side by the other." But, he pointed out, the program also stated that: "On account of the present situation in both the North and the South, popularly-elected councils and administrative organs with wide powers shall be set up in each locality."
It was not President Ho's job to go into detail. But what he was clearly saying was that, as far back as 1955, the Vietminh leadership recognized that it was not inevitable that South Vietnam would take the same socialist road taken by North Vietnam. Accordingly, at that time provisions were made in the Fatherland Front program for South Vietnam to have a great deal of autonomy.
When I put the question as to what he considered a minimum arrangement, pending eventual reunification, he replied: "A normalization of relations between the two zones in the economic and cultural field, as well as trade and travel between the two zones and free postal exchange."
I put similar questions to Prime Minister Pham Van Dong of North Vietnam, and he was even more categoric. "This is really a question for our compatriots in the South to decide. Only they can make this decision. They are in the middle of a fierce struggle. Only they can decide on the basis of the actual situation. But we will support them, now and in the future. If neutrality is their decision, we will support that. There is no hypocrisy in this. If the compatriots in the South believe this is the best way to end the bloodshed, to restore a normal life in the South, we will back them. We have faith in their judgement."
"Even if this delays reunification?" I asked.
"They are on the spot," he replied. "It is their judgment that counts. We can accept their program for a neutral regime in the South, not just as some tactic, but as a long term solution. We are sure they have carefully weighed all the factors in the light of the actual situation in the South and the aspirations of our compatriots there. Of course we believe-and it is also in their program — that the final aim must be reunification, but this can come about by a long, step-by-step process. What the final form of reunification will be no one can predict today."
Later, in Cambodia, I sought the views of Chief of State Prince Norodom Sihanouk on this question: "First of all," he said, "the dangerous development of the situation in certain countries of Southeast Asia justifies our anxiety. Foreign intervention is more and more open, more and more direct, and this greatly endangers peace in this part of the world. I am absolutely convinced that if the proposal to create a neutral zone in Southeast Asia which I presented to the General Assembly of the United Nations in 1960 had been accepted, it would have been possible to avoid the present impasse. I believe today that the only correct and peaceful solution to the conflicts that ravage Laos and South Vietnam today is in a neutralization, accepted, controlled, and guaranteed by the great powers of the two camps."
The considered opinion of those leaders most concerned with the problem of South Vietnam in thus very clear. Only dictator Diem and the U.S. State Department still cling to John Foster Dulles' definition of neutrality as "immoral and dangerous." Such a definition can only be accepted by people of bad consciences, and bad intentions. Most people in Southeast Asia see in neutralism the way to rid themselves of foreign interference and live the lives they want to live.
1. In this connection, it is worth recalling that in North Vietnam, after the Geneva Agreements, the government was perfectly willing to safeguard French economic interests and even more specifically to run certain enterprises like the Hongay Coal Mines in partnership with the French owners. The latter wanted to do this, but very strong American pressures aimed against any form of "coexistence with communism" forced the French to abandon their own interests.