330. Report by the Senate Majority Leader (Mansfield)1

SOUTHEAST ASIA—VIETNAM

We have problems of varying complexity with all of the nations in Southeast Asia. Clearly, however, the critical focus is south Viet Nam. Developments there in the next two or three years may well influence greatly the trends in the whole region for the following ten or twenty.

And at this point it is far from certain what will develop in Viet Nam. One thing is reasonably clear: From somewhere about 1956 or ’57, the unusual combination of factors which had resulted in the establishment of the Republic under Ngo Dinh Diem began to lose its impulse. A drift set in at about that time, responsibility for which is only partially ascribable to the shortcomings of the Vietnamese government. Our aid programs, military and non-military, after all, were one of the principal sources of the origin and the continuance of that governmentʼs power and these were properly open to charges of being ill-conceived and badly administered. They did little with the time which was bought at Geneva in the sense of stimulating the growth of indigenous roots for the political structure in Saigon. That structure is, today, far more dependent on us for its existence than it was five years ago. If Vietnam is the cork in the Southeast Asian bottle then American aid is more than ever the cork in the Vietnamese bottle.

We have now had for some months new concepts and a new American approach in Viet Nam. But the purpose of both remains, in essentials, what the purpose of other approaches have been from the outset. Indeed, it was distressing on this visit to hear the situation described in much the same terms as on my last visit although it is seven years and billions of dollars later. Viet Nam, outside the cities, is still an insecure place which is run at least at night largely by the Vietcong. The government in Saigon is still seeking acceptance by the ordinary people in large areas of the countryside. Out of fear or indifference or hostility the peasants still withhold acquiescence, let alone approval of that government. In short, it would be well to face the fact that we are once again at the beginning of the beginning.

But as noted there are now new concepts and a new American approach. The new concepts, as undoubtedly you are aware, center on the strategic hamlets. The new approach involves the re-oriented and [Page 780]expanded economic aid program and the use of many thousands of supporting American military personnel as well as the special forces which are concentrating their efforts on the tribal people, the Montagnards.

Although the first results have scarcely been registered, the evaluations of the new approach—Vietnamese and American—in Saigon are extremely optimistic. Those bearing responsibility—Vietnamese and American—speak of success in the solution of the problem in terms of a year or two.

Having heard optimistic predictions of this kind, with the introduction of other “new concepts,” beginning with French General Navarre in Hanoi in 1953, certain reservations seem to me to be in order. It is true that Vietminh casualty counts have been rising but the accuracy of these counts is open to question. Moreover, it should be noted that the estimates of Vietcong core strength have also been rising. The total of 20,000 which is now calculated at CINCPAC is the highest which I have ever encountered since the Geneva accords of 1954.

Responsible Americans in Saigon believe that exceptional progress has been made in winning over the Montagnards by the special forces. This is an important achievement because the location of these tribal people has considerable strategic significance in terms of north-south supply trails. But it should also be recognized that in terms of the major struggle the Montagnards are peripheral. In the last analysis, the Saigon government will stand or fall on the basis not of the several hundred thousand primitive Montagnards, but the millions of Vietnamese in the villages, towns and cities.

Apart from these two tangibles—higher Vietminh casualties and progress in winning over the Montagnards—there are also reports of improvements in the security of road travel and in the movement of rice and other commodities out of the countryside into the cities. These are excellent indicators of progress but the reports are not yet conclusive as to trends.

At this point, therefore, the optimistic predictions of success must be regarded as deriving primarily from the development of the theory of the strategic hamlets by Mr. Ngo Dinh Nhu and by the injection of new energy which has been provided by additional American aid and personnel. The real tests are yet to come.

Reservations are in order because in the first place, the rapid success of the concept of the strategic hamlet would seem to depend on the assumption that the Vietminh will remain wedded to their present tactics and will be unable to devise significant and effective revisions to meet the new concepts and the new highly mobile firepower of the American-trained forces. That may be the case but it would be unwise to underestimate the resourcefulness of any group which has managed to survive years of the most rugged kind of [Page 781]warfare. In the second place, rapid success of the new concepts depends upon the assumption that the great bulk of the people in the countryside sustain the Vietminh merely out of fear or, at best, indifference. There is really no effective measure of the accuracy of this assumption. It may indeed contain a good deal of truth but the critical question is how much truth. The temptation to extrapolate our own reactions on to the Vietnamese peasant in this kind of a situation is as obvious as it is dangerous.

The fact is that only experience and the most acute observation and objective reporting will throw real light on the accuracy of this assumption. To date we have not had enough of any of those essential ingredients of sound judgment. If experience should prove that there is less rather than more truth in the assumption that fear or indifference are the keystones of the Vietcong hold over the countryside, the target date for success will be delayed indefinitely beyond the year or two of the present predictions.

This is not to say that even a serious error in this assumption renders success impossible. If we were prepared to increase the commitment of men and military aid to compensate for the error it is not impossible that the concept of the strategic hamlet could still be brought into existence, in time, despite widespread support of the peasants for the Vietcong. And if the Vietnamese government, with more aid, could then turn the secured hamlets into a significantly more satisfactory way of life than the peasants have known, then it is conceivable that a deep disaffection towards the Vietcong could be induced. But it would be well to recognize that any such reorientation involves an immense job of social engineering, dependent on great outlays of aid on our part for many years and a most responsive, alert and enlightened leadership in the government of Vietnam.

Even assuming that aid over a prolonged period would be available, the question still remains as to the capacity of the present Saigon government to carry out the task of social engineering. Ngo Dinh Diem remains a dedicated, sincere, hardworking, incorruptible and patriotic leader. But he is older and the problems which confront him are more complex than those which he faced when he pitted his genuine nationalism against, first, the French and Bao Dai and then against the sects with such effectiveness. The energizing role which he played in the past appears to be passing to other members of his family, particularly to Ngo Dinh Nhu. The latter is a person of great energy and intellect who is fascinated by the operations of political power and has consummate eagerness and ability in organizing and manipulating it. But it is Ngo Dinh Diem, not Ngo Dinh Nhu, who has such popular mandate to exercise power as there is in south Vietnam. In a situation of this kind there is a great danger of the corruption of unbridled power. This has implications far beyond the persistent reports [Page 782]and rumors of fiscal and similar irregularities which are, in any event, undocumented. More important is its effect on the organization of the machinery for carrying out the new concepts. The difficulties in Vietnam are not likely to be overcome by a handful of paid retainers and sycophants. The success of the new approach in Vietnam presupposes a great contribution of initiative and self-sacrifice from a substantial body of Vietnamese with capacities for leadership at all levels. Whether that contribution can be obtained remains to be seen. For in the last analysis it depends upon a diffusion of political power, essentially in a democratic pattern. The trends in the political life of Vietnam have not been until now in that direction despite lip service to the theory of developing democratic and popular institutions “from the bottom up” through the strategic hamlet program.

To summarize, our policies and activities are designed to meet an existing set of internal problems in south Vietnam. North Vietnam infiltrates some supplies and cadres into the south; together with the Vietnamese we are trying to shut off this flow. The Vietcong has had the offensive in guerrilla warfare in the countryside; we are attempting to aid the Vietnamese military in putting them on the defensive with the hope of eventually reducing them at least to ineffectiveness. Finally, the Vietnamese peasants have sustained the Vietcong guerrillas out of fear, indifference or blandishment and we are helping the Vietnamese in an effort to win the peasants away by offering them the security and other benefits which may be provided in the strategic hamlets.

That, in brief, is the present situation. As noted, there is optimism that success will be achieved quickly. My own view is that the problems can be made to yield to present remedies, provided the problems and their magnitude do not change significantly and provided that the remedies are pursued by both Vietnamese and Americans (and particularly the former) with great vigor and self-dedication.

Certainly, if these remedies do not work, it is difficult to conceive of alternatives, with the possible exception of a truly massive commitment of American military personnel and other resources—in short going to war fully ourselves against the guerrillas—and the establishment of some form of neocolonial rule in south Vietnam. That is an alternative which I most emphatically do not recommend. On the contrary, it seems to me most essential that we make crystal clear to the Vietnamese government and to our own people that while we will go to great lengths to help, the primary responsibility rests with the Vietnamese. Our role is and must remain secondary in present circumstances. It is their country, their future which is most at stake, not ours.

To ignore that reality will not only be immensely costly in terms of American lives and resources but it may also draw us inexorably into some variation of the unenviable position in Vietnam which was [Page 783]formerly occupied by the French. We are not, of course, at that point at this time. But the great increase in American military commitment this year has tended to point us in that general direction and we may well begin to slide rapidly toward it if any of the present remedies begin to falter in practice.

As indicated, our planning appears to be predicated on the assumption that existing internal problems in south Vietnam will remain about the same and can be overcome by greater effort and better techniques. But what if the problems do not remain the same? To all outward appearances, little if any thought has been given in Saigon, at least, to the possibilities of a change in the nature of the problems themselves. Nevertheless, they are very real possibilities and the initiative for instituting change rests in enemy hands largely because of the weakness of the Saigon government. The range of possible change includes a step-up in the infiltration of cadres and supplies by land or sea. It includes the use of part or all of the regular armed forces of north Vietnam, reported to be about 300,000 strong, under Vo Nguyen Giap. It includes, in the last analysis, the possibility of a major increase in any of many possible forms of Chinese Communist support for the Vietcong.

None of these possibilities may materialize. It would be folly, however, not to recognize their existence and to have as much clarification in advance of what our response to them will be if they do.

This sort of anticipatory thinking cannot be undertaken with respect to the situation in Vietnam alone. The problem there can be grasped, it seems to me, only as we have clearly in mind our interests with respect to all of Southeast Asia. If it is essential in our interests to maintain a quasi-permanent position of power on the Asian mainland as against the Chinese then we must be prepared to continue to pay the present cost in Vietnam indefinitely and to meet any escalation on the other side with at least a commensurate escalation of commitment of our own. This can go very far, indeed, in terms of lives and resources. Yet if it is essential to our interests then we would have no choice.

But if on the other hand it is, at best, only desirable rather than essential that a position of power be maintained on the mainland, then other courses are indicated. We would, then, properly view such improvement as may be obtained by the new approach in Vietnam primarily in terms of what it might contribute to strengthening our diplomatic hand in the Southeast Asian region. And we would use that hand as vigorously as possible and in every way possible not to deepen our costly involvement on the Asian mainland but to lighten it.

It is uncertain what the prospects for doing so may be, even if we were inclined to the latter course. The experience in Laos which, in effect, is an essay in that direction is not cause for sanguine expectation. [Page 784]On the one hand, there are the anticipated difficulties with the Pathet Lao. Their leader in Vientiane, Prince Souphanovong, is brilliant and capable but he is also hard-bitten and relentless. His relations with Souvanna Phouma are delicate and uncertain and there are reports that even the limited degree of cooperation which he has extended has come under attack from his own faction. The cooperation with Souvanna Phouma from the other Laotian group headed by Phoumi Nosavan has also been circumscribed and uncertain.

These difficulties, of course, were to be anticipated and much depends on Souvanna Phouma if they are to be surmounted. It is our policy to support him fully and the American Ambassador is making a noble effort to carry out that policy. The latter needs and must have the cooperation of all departments in this effort. Moreover, his views as to what is necessary should be most carefully regarded in the design of his instructions. This point needs stressing, for one has the distinct impression in Laos that a great deal of executive branch energy is going into the preparation for contingencies in anticipation of the failure of the policy of neutralization under Souvanna Phouma and not enough into making the policy work. The job will be sufficiently difficult even in the best of circumstances and it is not at all unlikely that Souvanna Phouma may tire of it and abandon it unless the efforts of every department and agency of our own government which may be involved are bent energetically to the achievement of our policy under the direction of the Ambassador.

If Laos does not yet offer much hope of an eventual lightening of our burdens throughout Southeast Asia, Cambodia stands in stark contrast. Its internal stability is exceptional for contemporary Southeast Asia. It is led by Prince Sihanouk with dedication, energy and astuteness. And it has made steady and most impressive social and economic progress in the past few years. It is an illustration of what can be achieved in the lush lands of the region in conditions of peace, with a vigorous and progressive indigenous leadership and a judicious and limited use of outside aid. It is also an experience which can shed light on the possibilities of eventually lightening our burdens in Southeast Asia.

For that reason if for no other, it seems to me essential that we go very far in attempting to find practicable solutions which will meet the Cambodian desire for reassurance that it will not be overwhelmed from either Vietnam on the east or Thailand on the west. Cambodian fears exist. They are probably excessive fears at least in present circumstances. Nevertheless, they are powerful and deeply felt fears based in part on history and it would be most unwise to underestimate their potential influence on Cambodian policy. It would be most unfortunate if they pushed Cambodia further in the direction of China.

[Page 785]

Our relations with this little country have been, to say the least, erratic from the outset and, it seems to me, largely unnecessarily so. There have been unfortunate clashes of personality, lack of understanding and even more serious matters involved. Official relations now seem to me to be well-handled and insofar as we may be responsible for such strains as exist, they would appear ascribable to policy as it is formulated in Washington not as it is administered in Phnom Penh.

The Cambodians are apparently prepared for a further reduction in the remaining one-sided aid commitment which has already been reduced considerably. We should welcome this opportunity and at the same time seek to broaden mutually advantageous relationships. The key to bringing about this transition without alienating Cambodia is to be found in its interrelationships and ours with its neighbors, Thailand and Vietnam. It is, in my opinion, clearly desirable to search vigorously for this key.

It is apparent that in Thailand, the bent of our policy with respect not only to Cambodia but to Laos as well is not appreciated and, at best, enjoys only a grudging tolerance. Cambodia is held in low esteem and the resentments over the recent adverse International Court decision still smolder.

With respect to Laos, the Thais have either not wanted the policy of neutralization to work or have not believed that it would work from the outset. They are still clearly skeptical. It is probable that once it became clear that we would not commit ourselves militarily to the recapture of all of Laos, the Thais preferred a solution by military partition rather than the attempt at neutralization, with the United States committed to the defense of at least southern Laos. This may still be their expectation.

American actions in Thailand appear to support the Thai skepticism at least to the point of providing heavily for contingencies in the event neutralization fails in Laos. Several new jet-ports have been built in eastern Thailand. In the recent withdrawal of the American combat unit, a great deal of heavy transport equipment, particularly for fuel, has been left behind. And, finally, the United States military command intends to put back into Thailand in the near future, a contingent of forces about equal in number to those being withdrawn for the purpose of constructing a fuel pipe line across that country.

The cost of these various operations when added to the already immense and continuing input of aid of various kinds is cause for serious concern. Thailand is relatively prosperous. It has a very substantial foreign trade from which other nations such as Japan and Western Germany profit greatly along with Thailand. There is talk of aid from other sources but it is almost entirely talk of aid on a loan or trade basis, with a clear expectation of direct and tangible returns to [Page 786]the donors. At the same time, we are carrying, virtually, the entire burden of aid for Thailandʼs defense and other purposes which carry little in the way of tangible return. This sort of an arrangement leaves us with the onerous burdens while others reap the fruits.

It is an arrangement that will probably be continued as long as we are prepared to countenance it. Sudden changes in our willingness to sustain these burdens might produce serious adverse consequences. But it seems to me that a constant pressure must be maintained to bring about a progressive reduction in our commitment by having the Thais themselves and others take on more of the onerous burdens. That pressure is not in evidence in our policies and their administration at the present time.

Elsewhere in Southeast Asia, in Burma and in Malaya, we have a minimum of commitment. In the case of Burma, this fortuitous state of affairs would appear to be largely one of Burmese choice. The Burmese have settled the border question with China along the McCarthy line (an extension of the McMahon line) and to their satisfaction. They are fumed inward in their attitudes, seeking only to stay clear of the India-China dispute. They are also fearful of antagonizing China by too dose dealings with us. But there is no assurance that in the future a Burmese government, hard-pressed to maintain itself in an internal political situation which is never far from chaos, will not seek substantial aid from the United States. It seems to me that we must steel ourselves against that day. And, in all honesty, it seems to me that the key to staying clear of still another costly commitment on the Asian mainland is to be found in restraining our own bureaucratic eagerness to help.

In the case of Malaya, except for a large and expanding Peace Corps, we are maintaining relatively orthodox and inexpensive relationships with a minimum of commitment on our part. However, this excellent state of affairs may be strained by the effort to bring Malaysia into existence. It is probable that the British hope, by the unification of Malaya, Singapore, Brunei, Sarawak, and North Borneo, to lighten their burdens in that region while retaining as much as possible of their influence and their highly profitable economic position.

Without criticizing this attempt, it should be noted that our approach must be one of the greatest delicacy, primarily because of the attitudes of the Philippines. There are already indications of a measure of collaboration developing between the Philippines and Indonesia in resisting the formation of Malaysia. It is a collaboration which we should do nothing to stimulate by inadvertent statements or actions.

It is likely that Malaysia will come into existence some time next year. There are already feelers being put out for the establishment of an aid program from the United States. It seems to me, again, that we must resist this effort to deepen our commitment and, again, the key is [Page 787]to put restraints on our own bureaucratic eagernesses. It is one thing to provide loans to a nation such as Malaysia which is clearly a good risk or to send Peace Corpsmen to the remote areas of Brunei, Sarawak and North Borneo where a little technical knowledge can go a long way. But it is quite another thing to take on major and continuing tasks of military organization and supply and the internal development of still one more country in Southeast Asia, responsibilities which we assume in name at least and also to some degree in fact, every time we establish these aid-missions. It would seem appropriate that any continuing aid to Malaysia should remain the responsibility of the U.K. and the Commonwealth rather than being shifted to the United States.

Viewing Southeast Asia as a whole, the situation is one of varying conditions of stability. The future of freedom in the area is far from certain. Except for some significant and effective French efforts in Cambodia and Commonwealth efforts in the Malayan situation, the principal externally borne burdens fall upon us.

If we were to withdraw abruptly from beneath these burdens, there would be a major collapse in many places and what would follow is by no means certain. Obviously, much would depend upon the capacity and urge of the Chinese to move into the vacuum.

We cannot afford to withdraw suddenly from these burdens. While we must make every effort to have others share them, we would, I believe, be deluding ourselves if we expected very much help from other outside sources in the near future.

The real question which confronts us, therefore, is how much are we ourselves prepared to put into Southeast Asia and for how long in order to serve such interests as we may have in that region? Before we can answer this question, we must reassess our interests, using the words “vital” or “essential” with the greatest realism and restraint in the reassessment. When that has been done, we will be in a better position to estimate what we must, in fact, expend in the way of scarce resources, energy and lives in order to preserve those interests. We may well discover that it is in our interests to do less rather than more than we are now doing. If that is the case, we will do well to concentrate on a vigorous diplomacy which would be designed to lighten our commitments without bringing about sudden and catastrophic upheavals in Southeast Asia.

  1. Source: Senate Document 93 11. Printed in U.S. Senate 93d Congress, 1st session, Two Reports on Vietnam and Southeast Asia to the President of the United States by Senator Mike Mansfield (Washington, April 1973), pp. 7-14. For Mansfieldʼs report to the Foreign Relations Committee, see U.S. Senate, Vietnam and Southeast Asia, Report of Senator Mike Mansfield … to the Committee on Foreign Relations (Washington, 1963).