Contrary to popular belief, the Vietnam war has not ended. Indeed, ever since the beginning of negotiations back in 1968 between the United States and North Vietnam, the war has constantly escalated in so far as it has gradually engulfed Laos and Cambodia as well as the two Vietnams, and involved ever more destructive American fire power. It has been President Nixon’s political master-stroke to have achieved the so-called Vietnamization of the war, that is to say, the continuation of the conflict by other means, thus enabling him to replace American ground troops with aerial bombing. This change in military strategy has been most successful in silencing criticism at home and abroad. The human and material devastation which results from the massive bombing of Laotian and Cambodian territory is, it would seem, much less objectionable provided that American lives are not at risk.
The revival of negotiations in Paris towards the end of last year and the subsequent ceasefire agreement have provided Mr Nixon with further opportunities to propagate the view that peace is his unswerving objective. However, the facts of the matter would suggest otherwise. Since the truce was concluded some five months ago, 2 Americans and 30,000 Vietnamese have been killed. It is true that the agreement has permitted the release of US prisoners from Vietnam and Laos and the withdrawal of US ground forces from South Vietnam. Nevertheless, the American military role has continued and expanded. About 100,000 men in American uniform remain in Southeast Asia, manning military installations, aircraft carriers and gunships in Thailand, the Philippines, Okinawa and Guam. These have been used as the base from which to launch indiscriminate bombing attacks against Communist positions throughout Indochina.
In spite of the cleverness of this military strategy, the failure to produce the desired results, the increasing hostility of Congress and mounting public disenchantment have forced the hand of the Nixon Administration, hence the recent resumption of talks between presidential adviser Dr Kissinger and North Vietnamese representative, Le Duc Tho. Their joint declaration signed in Paris last week has done little more than restate the need for the strict implementation of those articles in the January peace agreement which had called for an end to all military activities in Indochina. In addition, the two opposing governments of South Vietnam pledged themselves to issue identical orders for an immediate and total ceasefire. Moreover, the agreement commits both South Vietnamese parties to refrain from extending their area of control and requires the United States to cease without delay all air reconnaissance over North Vietnam, resume the demining of North Vietnamese ports and conclude talks on aid with Hanoi within two weeks.
Despite superficial differences, close scrutiny shows this agreement to be no more promising than the one signed five months ago. For they are both limited to arrangements for a military truce confined to Vietnam and excluding Laos and Cambodia.* And yet it is only an overall political settlement covering the whole of Indochina which can bring an end to the fighting.
One can only assume that the parties to the dispute, and particularly the Nixon Administration, still refuse to recognize the futility and atrocity of the protracted war. The loopholes in the agreements reached will no doubt be used by American policy-makers to continue the fighting in the hope of achieving a more advantageous position. They are still reluctant to promote a political solution because they know that such a solution would threaten the status quo which they have been seeking to preserve for nearly two decades irrespective of the frightening cost in human and material terms. The American opposition to all revolutionary change derives of course from a narrow conception of economic and political self-interest and from a complete misjudgement of the needs and aspirations of the discontented masses of Southeast Asia and the Third World generally. It is hoped that Australia will wish to dissociate itself from such misconceptions and misjudgements, but also pursue in action as well as words policies which can hasten the genuine neutrality and independence of the entire Southeast Asian region, however disconcerting such policies might be to our so-called great and powerful friends.
* Referring to last week’s agreement, Dr Kissinger is reported to have said, “There is nothing which commits the United States to cease bombing Cambodia.”