Escalation 8

Thieu’s astonishingly poor performance was compounded by an unusually strong showing on the part of an obscure civilian, Truong Dinh Dzu, whom nobody had taken seriously. An unsavory lawyer who had once put his wife up as collateral for a loan, Dzu slipped through the net barring proponents of peace by keeping his mouth shut until his candidacy had been validated. He then campaigned with a dove as his emblem, urging negotiations with the Vietcong. He came in second with 17 percent of the vote—more a protest against military rule, it seemed at the time, than positive support for his platform. Embarrassed to have had such a runner-up, Thieu promptly arrested him on charges of illicit currency transactions, a felony for which half the Saigon population could have been indicted. Thieu also jailed a number of other dissident political figures—some of whom he reluctantly released at the behest of the U. S. embassy.
It was plain even then that the elections would do nothing to alter the course of the war. But Lyndon Johnson had his birthday gift in the form of a Saigon regime that could be displayed to the American public and to the world as a legal government. And his South Vietnamese allies, who had done their best to please him, could continue to count on lavish U.S. aid.
While the South Vietnamese generals squabbled among themselves, the Communists were also engaged in an internal controversy. And just as the Saigon regime’s bickering affected its relations with the United States, so the dispute in the Hanoi hierarchy strained North Vietnam’s relations with China. The quarrels differed vastly, however. The South Vietnamese were scrapping for personal power, while the Communist debate concerned the formulation of a strategy to cope with the immense American military commitment in Vietnam. And while internecine rivalries had virtually paralyzed the Saigon govern¬ment, the wrangling in Hanoi scarcely diminished the ability of the North Vietnamese regime and the Vietcong to withstand the American challenge.
The key issue for the Vietnamese Communists was whether to match the American escalation by continuing to infiltrate big units into South Vietnam or to wage a less conventional conflict over a longer period. The Chinese, on whom they relied heavily for air, were pressing them to follow the slower and more modest course, mainly for reasons related to China’s own policies.
Though American officials repeatedly portrayed Mao Zedong as the guiding spirit behind the Communist “aggression” in Vietnam, Mao actually took a cautious approach to the war. He did not favor a peaceful settlement and, consistent with his hostility to U.S. “im¬perialism,” exhorted the Vietnamese Communists to keep fighting. But his principal preoccupation was to prevent the war from expand¬ing to the point where it might require direct Chinese intervention.
For one thing, Mao was then preparing to launch the Great Pro¬letarian Cultural Revolution, his devastating purge of the Chinese Communist party, and he needed his army to help him carry out the political campaign at home. Also, a big war in Southeast Asia would compound the threat to Chinese national security at a time when the Soviet Union was building up its forces along China’s northern bor¬ders. He wanted to avoid a conflict like the one in Korea, in which China had sustained horrendous casualties. And, as Vietnamese Com¬munists later claimed, he wanted as well to use, them as proxies in a war that would bleed the United States and leave them too exhausted to resist Chinese domination. In September 1965, his defense minister, Lin Biao, published a long article urging Hanoi to minimize its risks by conducting a prudent protracted war: “Revolutionary armed forces should not fight with reckless disregard for the consequences when there is a great disparity between their own strength and the enemy’s. If they do, they will suffer serious losses and bring heavy setbacks to the revolution. Guerrilla warfare is the only way to mobilize and apply the whole strength of the people against the enemy.”
The Vietnamese Communists rebuffed the advice. “We cannot au¬tomatically apply the revolutionary experiences of other countries in our country,” declared Le Duan, their party secretary-general, re¬calling that “each time we rose up to oppose foreign aggression, we took the offensive and not the defensive.” So in late 1965 they decided on a conventional war designed “to win a decisive victory on the -southern battlefield in a relatively short period. ” Spelling out the plan, General Nguyen Chi Thanh, the Communist commander in the south, emphasized that the first objective would be to annihilate the South Vietnamese army swiftly and hasten a U.S. withdrawal.
General Thanh died in the summer of 1967—killed not by American bombs, as was rumored at the time, but by cancer, in a Hanoi hospital. By then, with the enormous American military machine inflicting a murderous toll on their troops, his colleagues had begun to have second thoughts about the profligate expenditure of manpower. Gen¬eral Vo Nguyen Giap, who had paid a heavy price for his premature Red River offensive against the French in 1951, now argued for a less costly and more realistic timetable, estimating that success might take another fifteen or twenty years. The North Vietnamese leaders started to explore alternatives. Doubts also afflicted many senior American soldiers and civilians, as they observed the tenacity of the Commu¬nists, both in response to the U.S. bombing of the north and in their combat conduct on the ground in the south.
Operation Rolling Thunder, the American air strikes against North Vietnam, went on almost daily from March 1965 until November 1968, dropping a million tons of bombs, rockets and missiles— roughly eight hundred tons per day for three and a half years. During 1966 alone, according to an official Pentagon tabulation, the United States staged seven thousand air raids against roads, five thousand against vehicles and more than a thousand against railway lines and yards in North Vietnam, hitting many of the same targets several times. One objective of Operation Rolling Thunder was to crack the morale of the Hanoi leaders and compel them to call off the southern insurgency; the other was to weaken the Communists’ fighting ca¬pacity by impeding the flow of their men and supplies to the south. But neither goal was even remotely achieved. In August 1966, General Westmoreland conceded that he saw “no indication that the resolve of the leadership in Hanoi has been reduced.” Secretary of Defense McNamara, an architect of the air offensive, expressed the same con¬clusion more incisively a year later at a closed-door session of a sub-committee of the Senate Armed Services Committee. He asserted that “enemy operations in the south cannot, on the basis of any reports I have seen, be stopped by air bombardment—short, that is, of the virtual annihilation of North Vietnam and its people.” McNamara antagonized the generals and their congressional supporters by speak¬ing the unpalatable truth, and President Johnson was soon to ease him out of office.

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