Translated from the French by Stephen C. Headley
Copyright © 1972 by Gerard Chaliand
Ideology and Society: The Pentagon Papers and North Vietnam by Gerard Chaliand
Concerning the air war over North Vietnam, the Pentagon Papers acknowledge that:
In the North, the regime battened down and prepared to ride out the storm. With Soviet and Chinese help, it greatly strengthened its air defenses, multiplying the number of AAA guns and radars, expanding the number of jet fighter airfields and the jet fighter force, and introducing an extensive SAM system. Economic development plans were laid aside. Imports were increased to offset production losses. Bomber facilities were in most cases simply abandoned. The large and vulnerable barracks and storage depots were replaced by dispersed and concealed ones. Several hundred thousand workers were mobilized to keep the transportation system operating. Miles of by-pass roads were built around choke-points to make the system redundant. Knocked-out bridges were replaced by fords, ferries, or alternate structures, and methods were adopted to protect them from attack. Traffic shifted to night time, poor weather, and camouflage. Shuttling and transshipment practices were instituted. Construction material, equipment, and workers were prepositioned along key routes in order to effect quick repairs. Imports of railroad cars and trucks were increased to offset equipment losses.
In short, NVN leaders mounted a major effort to withstand the bombing pressure. They had to change their plans and go on a war footing. They had to take drastic measures to shelter the population and cope with the bomb damage. They had to force the people to work harder and find new ways to keep the economy operating. They had to greatly increase imports and their dependence on the USSR and China. There were undoubtedly many difficulties and hardships involved. Yet, NVN had survived. Its economy had continued to function. The regime had not collapsed, and it had not given in. And it still sent men and supplies to SVN (Gravel edition, IV:58).
How and why has North Vietnam been able to resist the American bombardment? Before replying to this question, I would like to summarize the diverse, and over the years often-changing, motives which led to the decision to undertake an air war against North Vietnam. After having pretended that the escalation was simply a reaction to the Maddox incident in the Gulf of Tonkin, then later pretending that it was a reprisal to the attack against the American base at Pleiku, the Johnson administration finally affirmed that the escalation was aimed at stopping the flow of DRV material and troops to the South. In the context of the domino theory, to bomb the North was an effort to show not only the South Vietnamese favorable to the Saigon government, but also China and the other Southeast Asian states the determination of the United States to bar the road to communism.
Many other reasons have been found to minimize circumstantially the failure of the escalation, but even when this failure is recognized, what is lacking—and this is what strikes me about the Pentagon Papers—is a concrete analysis of the causes of the failure. One has the impression from beginning to end that their analysis remains on the edge of the subject.
An analysis of the causes of the failure of the bombardment of North Vietnam can only rest on the understanding of these two fundamentals:
1) The historical and social conditions which shaped the Vietnamese people.
2) The ideology which motivates and supports the will and the actions of the leaders of North Vietnam, and through the mediation of the party, the masses of North Vietnam.
In reading the Pentagon Papers, as well as the writings of other government officials, one ascertained an ignorance of one or the other, if not both, of these two fundamentals. (1) One must remember that before dropping the bombs the American air force (during the Kennedy administration in 1961) dropped tracts to maintain the morale of the North Vietnamese peasants, reassuring them that the United States had not forgotten them and that they would be liberated from their Communist leaders.
I. THE HISTORICAL AND SOCIAL CONDITIONS WHICH SHAPED THE VIETNAMESE PEOPLE
From the beginning of Vietnamese history, several centuries before our era, the fundamental social structure of Vietnam has been the village commune. It has endured down to our times without having been assimilated by the long Chinese occupation which gave many of its institutions to Vietnam. The state exacted tribute and drafted the youth for the army, but the village community, through the mediation of its council of notables, fixed the amount of the tax for each family and designated the recruits.
The mandarin, representative of the state, did not penetrate the village protected by its high bamboo hedge, described here by Gourou:
At the same time as it provides protection against dangers, the hedge is a kind of sacred boundary to the village community, the sign of its individuality and independence. If in a period of uprisings, the village has participated in the agitation or given shelter to the rebels, the first punishment inflicted on it is to force the village to cut down its bamboo hedge. This is a grave wound for its self-respect, a sign of scandal. The village feels as embarrassed as a human would who has been stripped and abandoned in the middle of a fully dressed crowd. (2)
The cohesion of this rural society stemming from the Vietnamese commune resisted ten centuries of Chinese occupation even as it absorbed Chinese culture. The central authorities were never in direct contact with local individuals, but only with the commune, which thus exercised its autonomy. In its attitude toward the ruling state, as in its attitude toward the natural milieu it sought to control, the inhabitants of the commune maintained solidarity. The success or the opprobrium of one member of the commune reflected on the totality of the village.
The specific factors which constitute the national character of the Vietnamese are determined by the village community, its relative autonomy and its particular solidarity. The unceasing hydraulic work, necessarily collective and of vital importance for the rice fields of the Red River delta, cradle of the Vietnamese nation, reinforced this cohesion and this solidarity, and developed the tenacity and the capacity for painstaking labor which characterize the Vietnamese peasant.
Finally, besides the village and the hydraulic questions, a third factor permits a better understanding of the Vietnamese personality: its military tradition, both of conquest and resistance. From the eleventh to the eighteenth century, stimulated by the shortage of farmland, a slow but uninterrupted movement advanced little by little the network of Vietnamese villages all the way down to the Ca Mau peninsula, destroying on its way the Cham and Khmer empires. In the interim, the Vietnamese people forged for itself a long tradition of resistance against various Chinese dynasties, including the Mongols. This military tradition necessarily rested on a highly developed national consciousness.
These historical and social factors have only been succinctly recalled; a deeper understanding of them (3) permits one to measure to what point the decentralization, the dispersion, the provincial and village autonomy that the bombings have created, coincides with the historical structure of the rural base of Vietnamese society. In a situation where many countries would have been disabled, Vietnam organized itself effectively.
None of these factors by themselves are sufficient to explain why one doesn't find the same behavior in Hanoi that one finds in Saigon. In the contemporary world none of these factors would be sufficient to permit a small, still essentially agricultural nation to successfully resist the pressure of a powerful industrial country. For example, in the Pentagon Papers one reads:
The threat implicit in minimum but increasing amounts of force (“slow squeeze”) would, it was hoped by some, ultimately bring Hanoi to the table on terms favorable to the U.S. Underlying this optimistic view was a significant underestimate of the level of the DRV commitment to victory in the South, and an overestimate of the effectiveness of U.S. pressures in weakening that resolve (Gravel ed., III: 1 12).
One doesn't see where the mistakes in estimations have been made. The rare explanations are incapable of embracing the logic of the adversary. They denote “occidentocentrism,” narrow-mindedness, an incapacity to come to grips with the factors and profound motivations of the adversary. Consider the following passage:
The idea that destroying, or threatening to destroy, NVN's industry would pressure Hanoi into calling its quits seems, in retrospect, a colossal misjudgment. The idea was based, however, on a plausible assumption about the rationality of NVN's leaders, which the U.S. intelligence community as a whole seemed to share. This was that the value of what little industrial plant NVN possessed was disproportionately great. That plant was purchased by an extremely poor nation at the price of considerable sacrifice over many years. Even though it did not amount to much, it no doubt symbolized the regime's hopes and desires for national status, power, and wealth, and was probably a source of considerable pride. It did not seem unreasonable to believe that NVN leaders would not wish to risk the destruction of such assets, especially when that risk seemed (to us) easily avoidable by cutting down the insurgency and deferring the takeover of SVN until another day and perhaps in another manner—which Ho Chi Minh had apparendy decided to do once before, in 1954. (4) After all, an ample supply of oriental patience is precisely what an old oriental revolutionary like Ho Chi Minh was supposed to have (5) (Gravel ed., IV:57; italics are author's).
Compared to the above, even the Jason Report, which was highly critical and recognized the failure of the bombardments, was able to single out only one aspect, certainly important, but by itself insufficient to explain the resistance of North Vietnam: nationalism. Compare this passage:
The bombing campaign against NVN has not discemibly weakened the determination of the North Vietnamese leaders to continue to direct and support the insurgency in the South. Shortages of food and clothing, travel restrictions, separations of families, lack of adequate medical and educational facilities, and heavy work loads have tended to affect adversely civilian morale. However, there are few if any reliable reports on a breakdown of the commitment of the people to support the war. Unlike the situation in the South, there are no reports of marked increases of absenteeism, draft dodging, black market operations or prostitution. There is no evidence that possible war weariness among the people has shaken the leadership's belief that they can continue to endure the bombing and outlast the U.S. and SVN in a protracted war of attrition....
The expectation that bombing would erode the determination of Hanoi and its people clearly overestimated the persuasion and disruptive effects of the bombing and, correspondingly, underestimated the tenacity and recuperative capabilities of the North Vietnamese. That the bombing has not achieved anticipated goals reflects a general failure to appreciate the fact, well-documented in the historical and social scientific literature, that a direct, frontal attack on a society tends to strengthen the social fabric of the nation, to increase popular support of the existing government, to improve the determination of both the leadership and the populace to fight back, to induce a variety of protective measures that reduces the society's vulnerability to future attack and to develop an increased capacity for quick repairs and restoration of essential functions. The great variety of physical and social countermeasures that North Vietnam has taken in response to the bombing is now well documented, but the potential effectiveness of these countermeasures has not been adequately considered in previous planning or assessment studies (Gravel ed., IV: 224).
II. THE IDEOLOGY
It is not simple to explain the role of ideology, especially if one begins with the prejudice that your yourself, and consequently the society to which you belong, think rationally, whereas the adversary alone is “ideologized.” This pro cedure is more common in the United States than in other Western countries, especially since the Cold War began. American society, despite the changes which occurred in it during the 1960s, is, without clearly realizing it, a profoundly ideologized society in several ways, among them anticommunism. After the war and in the 1950s, there has not been, for example, a political thinker of the power and clairvoyance of Raymond Aron, (6) capable of combating the Communists using Marxism itself, knowing how to choose between what Maxime Rodinson judiciously calls “Marxist sociology” and “Marxist ideology.” (7) Thus in general, the American government's approach to the political realities of North Vietnam is vitiated by ideological a priori assumptions which obscure the assessments made of the enemy. This is essentially what is reflected in the Pentagon Papers.
“Anti-Communist ideology,” conscious or unconscious, fed by ignorance of the enemy's ideology (i.e., the tool which motivates his behavior and his actions) explains, I feel, how the U.S. experts and decisionmakers failed to understand the capacities of the enemy. To fail to understand the logic of the enemy does not prove his irrationality, but rather the limits of one's own system of thought. A serious study of revolutionary phenomena must not underestimate the role of ideology. In Vietnam not only did the ideology disseminated by the cadres of the Viet Minh permit them to forge the means to victoriously end colonialism at Dien Bien Phu, thus bringing a solution to the crisis of Vietnamese society as a whole; but also, in the North, it permitted them to reinforce that national independence and to lay the basis for the construction of a modern industry.
On the one hand, there is national independence, and it should be remembered that Vietnam is one. There are few nations in Asia or elsewhere as homogeneous. Moreover, this independence is also maintained vis a vis the USSR and China. On the other hand there is the effort to modernize the country through economic construction. This transformation aims at modifying the condition of the whole population and not at favoring exclusively one social class as is the case in most Third World countries. To hasten this transformation, the ideology disseminated among the masses by the cadres relying on the notions of national dignity and social justice, tends to change the traditional relationships between time and work by rationalizing them, i.e., by stressing efficiency. By a constant pressure, (8) which should not be characterized as violent coercion, for North Vietnam is not the USSR of Stalin's era, the cadres push the peasants to modify their traditional behavior. This effort, which is not directed simply at the propensity toward small family property, is necessary in order to make up for the historical delay which currently characterizes the so-called developing countries. This mobilizing ideology can obviously only get results, in any given phase, if the reality experienced by the masses shows no noticeable discrepancy with the reflections of it to be found in the reformers' slogans. The failure of numerous socialist experiments is explained by just such discrepancies. It is because the ideology is shared, to different degrees, by the masses, that it becomes possible to accomplish that which the traditional society of the past, stagnant, disrupted and submissive, did not seem capable of in its own eyes, as well as in the eyes of Western observers.
In North Vietnam, the ideology communicated by the party is deeply rooted in nationalism on the one hand and in Marxism-Leninism on the other. This means that the emphasis is placed on political and economic independence, class struggle, management in the hands of the controlling bureaucracy, the necessity for construction and modernization, and a more equitable distribution of wealth.
On the other hand it is important to note that since the twenties, and especially since the thirties, the Vietnamese Communist party, which was to become the Viet Minh, was the only party to take responsibility, not only for the aspirations for social justice, but also and above all, for the national independence movement. When the French eliminated in 1930 the “Viet Nam Quoc Dan Dang” (modeled after the Chinese Kuomintang) following their having organized a military uprising, the only other surviving Vietnamese party capable of directing the national movement was the Communists. It was these leaders and the middlelevel cadres of the party who crystallized the idea of a revolution against the humiliation caused by the colonial oppression, and who patiently forced the means to end it.
The Geneva Accords were, in the eyes of the Vietnamese leaders, only a temporary compromise imposed as much by Soviet pressure as by circumstance. The legitimate objective of eventual reunification of Vietnam was never abandoned. Thus to underestimate, as the authors of the Pentagon Papers generally have, the nationalism of the leaders of North Vietnam shows as much ignorance of their history as it does of their motivations.
Thus, if the social distance between the party cadres was not very accentuated, and it never has been in Vietnam, and if the accomplishments which the masses can measure in their daily lives can be added to the regime's dynamism, then the morality which the party spreads, composed of discipline, civic spirit, austerity —in sum the puritanism of primitive accumulation—tends to give the society a cohesion and a capacity for resistance which the experts of the Pentagon Papers incorrectly attribute to nationalism alone. Certainly the bombardments reinforced the popularity of the Hanoi regime, but there can be strong national feeling without its providing the material and moral means to face the enemy.
Even with an exacerbated nationalism, the Saigon regime, if it had undergone the same bombardments as the North (even supposing that the NLF no longer existed), could not have held out. Without mentioning the problems of infrastructure, the Saigon regime lacks the social cohesion and the accomplishments which make it worthwhile for the people to sacrifice themselves in its defense. This is all the more true as the traditional social structure of Vietnam has nothing whatsoever to do with the ideology of free enterprise.
On the one hand North Vietnam was able to resist the bombing because the regime had demonstrated in 1964-1965 that it could materially improve the daily life of the North Vietnamese peasants.
On the other hand, the regime even before it proceeded with the dispersion (decentralization) necessary to parry the bombing, had managed to create at the village, district, and provincial level an infrastructure unequaled in Asia (with the exception of China, North Korea, and naturally Japan). This resistance cannot be explained without an appreciation of the transformations which the regime was able to institute, especially in the countryside. Certainly important errors were committed during the agricultural reform of 1954-1956. Inspired in a mechanical way by the Chinese model, the Vietnamese agricultural reform was tainted by “leftism.” In all the villages a certain percentage of the landlords were sought out; well-to-do and even middle peasants were equally dispossessed of their lands. Even patriotic landowners were treated as collaborators of the colonial administration. It is true that these errors were facilitated by the structure of Vietnamese landholdings where there were very few large landowners and no public land register. Land was scarce (three times less land per inhabitant than in India). Those who employed hired hands were considered landlords, even if they only owned seven and a half acres. Generally divided into plots, these paddy fields were distributed by the landowners among the members of their families. The first land reform, due to its Stalinist techniques, provoked in 1956 an upHsing in the province of Nghe An which was repressed by the army. But unlike the Soviet Union under Stalin, collectivization and agricultural questions were not solved from beginning to end against the wishes of the peasant. In 1957, at least those errors which could be repaired were publicly rectified by the personal intervention of Ho Chi Minh, and those responsible all the way up to the top, including the general secretary of the party, Truong Chinh, were given other jobs. Meanwhile, the cultivated areas had been augmented by a fourth in comparison to 1 939, the total production by 68 percent, and the individual consumption by 13 percent.
So after these difficulties, it was only very prudently, solely with volunteers, that the cooperatives were instituted in 1959. These were only generalized three years later when the state and the party could prove to the peasants that it was more profitable to belong to a cooperative than to remain an individual farmer. Increasing the number of hydraulic works permitted the cooperatives from one, to two, or even three harvests a year. Improving agricultural tools and techniques, limiting the free market where small landholders placed a part of their production, and increasing the amount of agricultural produce by about 4 percent were some of the proofs given the farmers.
The regime did not try to destroy the village structure, its cohesion or its solidarity. The commune served as the immediate point of departure for the cooperative. The notables were eliminated as a class, the landlords were dispossessed, but the members of the Party who directed the cooperatives all came from the village, and were not sent in from Hanoi or elsewhere. The economic improvements which the large majority of Vietnamese peasants experienced on the eve of the bombing, are indisputable: the per hectare (2.4 acres) output had reached four tons; and with the wells, the septic tanks, the threshing floors, etc., daily life itself had changed. The peasants were very far away from the years 1945-1946, when 2 million farmers died of starvation.
From 1954-1964, an educational and sanitary infrastructure was created which was widely dispersed throughout the countryside. In fact North Vietnam did not hold out because it was an agricultural country without great needs, as some experts have pretended. It held out because it had a modern, if modest, infrastructure at the level of the village and the district. Each village had a sanitary station, each district had several hospitals equipped with qualified personnel, each province had its hospital with specialized personnel and equipment. The bombing only further strengthened this infrastructure in order to respond to the problems which the air war posed: aid no matter where, no matter when. Corresponding to the medical infrastructure was the network of schools which had been extended to all the villages before the bombing began. All children from seven to ten years old followed the first course-cycle. The second and third cycles were dispensed at the district and province level. The air war does not seem to have noticeably slowed down educational activities in North Vietnam. In fact it was their medical and educational infrastructures that enabled the regime to create the conditions for resistance among the North Vietnamese peasantry.
Relying on these accomplishments, the North Vietnamese regime, facing the bombing, was thus able to implement and carry out the following three actions:
—facing aerial aggression, it capitalized on Vietnamese nationalism
—it mobilized the masses around the accomplishments from which they had benefited, and which were the immediate foundation of the regime and its ideology. By so doing, the regime underlined the fact that any sub mission to American pressures could only lead to a deterioration of these accomplishments, including the level of daily life
—in order to further strengthen this mobilization, the regime democratized to a certain extent the political structures; this encouraged the emergence of new cadres at all levels and thus reinforced the Party.
This third point is worth expanding, for it shows the vitality of the regime and its ability to adapt. Because of the bombing, North Vietnam, through the mediation of the Party, encouraged the youth, boys and girls, to occupy a more important place in Vietnamese society, namely by taking responsibilities in the militia and the cooperatives, as well as in the Party itself. Because of the decentralization instigated by the bombardments, beginning in April 1967, local planning was elaborated with much more real participation on the part of the members of the cooperatives. They could control the distribution of manufactured objects coming from the towns, check the accountants' books, elect their representatives to the Popular Council (where the proportion of Party members was not to exceed 40 percent). In 1967 a campaign was launched to eliminate the excessively bureaucratic cadres, the dishonest and the lazy, in order to promote a more democratic management. Currently every official is required to appear once a month to hear possible criticisms by the members of the cooperative. Since the institution of these democratic improvements in income distribution, the one-hectare plots previously reserved for the Administrative Committees have been abolished.
In this brief sketch, I hope I have been able to demonstrate to what extent a certain number of prejudices account for the misunderstandings of numerous American experts: systematic anticommunism; the conviction that they alone possess “rational” thought applicable to any situation; the consequent impossibility of understanding the adversary's motivations; the temptation to explain different, even if coherent, behavior by racial or religious reasons; the underestimation of the enemy due to an underestimation of his ideology. As far as North Vietnam is concerned, such are, I believe, the roots of the failure of America's politics.
1. Townsend Hoopes (Undersecretary of the Air Force) in his book The Limits of Intervention (David McKay and Co., New York, 1969): “We believe the enemy can be forced to be 'reasonable,' i.e., to compromise or even capitulate, because we assume he wants to avoid pain, death and material destruction. We assume that if these are inflicted on him with increasing severity, then at some point in the process he will want to stop the suffering. Ours is a plausible strategy—for those who are rich, who love life and fear pain. But happiness, wealth and power are expectations that constitute a dimension far beyond the experience, and probably beyond the emotional comprehension of the Asian poor. For them there may be little difference between the condition of death and the condition of unrelieved suffering in life. Indeed the Buddhist belief in reincarnation tends to create a positive impetus toward honorable death, because the faithful discharge of moral and civic duties in this life are the understood passports to a higher station, greater comfort, and less suffering when one next returns to earth. And it is through such a series of trials on earth that the soul makes its slow and painful advance toward eventual unity with God. The strategy of the weak is therefore the natural choice of ideologues in Asia, for it converts Asia's capacity for endurance in suffering into an instrument for exploiting a basic vulnerability of the Christian West. It does it, in effect, by inviting the West, which possesses unanswerable military power, to carry its strategic logic to the final conclusion, which is genocide . . .” pp. 128-129.
2. Pierre Gourou, Les paysans du Delta Tonkinois (Paris, 1936; second edition, Paris-The Hague, 1965).
3. It is surprising that a country embroiled directly or indirectly in a war since the end of the 1950s has not found it useful to translate the basic literature in French on Vietnam. For example: Pierre Gourou's fundamental book on the peasants of the Tonkin delta cited above (pirated and badly translated in the Human Relations Area Files); Paul Mus's Vietnam, sociologie d'une guerre appeared abridged in English only in 1970; basic works like Charles Robequain's L'Evolution economique de I'lndochine frangaise (Paris, 1939; English edition, London, Oxford Univ. Press, 1944) and his province study, Le Thanh Hoa, remain unknown and/or untranslated, not to mention the more recent economic studies such as: Doan Trong Truyen and Pham Thanh Vinh, L'Edification d'une economie nationale independente au Vietnam (Editions en Langues Etransgeres, Hanoi, 1967); Le Chau, Le Vietnam socialiste (Maspero, Paris, 1966); Vo Nhan Tri, Croissance economique de la Republique Democratique du Vietnam, 1945-1965 (Editions en Langues Etrangeres, Hanoi, 1967); Leon Lavallee, Françoise Direr and Edith Bouche, L'Economie du Nord Vietnam, 1960-1970 (Cahiers du C.E.R.M. #94 and #94 bis, Paris, 1971).
4. Correct; under pressure from the USSR. But the conditions in what had been the “Socialist camp” have since changed.
5. Another quality attributed to Ho Chi Minh is to have known how to choose and exploit the “favorable moment.”
6. Raymond Aron, Peace & War (Praeger, New York, 1967).
7. Maxime Rodinson, “Sociologie marxiste et ideologic marxiste,” Diogene (#64, Oct.-Dec. 1968), pp. 70-104.
8. This does not infer a kind of police coercion, but rather a social pressure grounded in the traditions of the rural communities where the individual holds a very secondary place compared with the collective interests.