For some weeks now, all the headlines of the world’s press have been concentrating, quite properly, on the Middle East war, the emerging oil crisis and the continuing saga of political corruption and deceit within the United States. We have had, therefore, little or no opportunity to be reminded of the forgotten but unrelenting war in Indochina.
Earlier this month, it was reported that the Thieu forces had lost an entire military post at Bach ma. A few days ago a South Vietnamese military battalion lost 80 men in one of the biggest battles in the Mekong delta since the ceasefire in January of this year. This is the 7th battle in the past 5 weeks to have cost the Saigon government heavy casualties. It is possible that the Communist-led forces have adopted a new strategy of fierce frontal attacks on large government units in order to inflict heavy casualties and cut major highways leading to urban centres. But the fighting at the moment does not indicate a large-scale Communist offensive of the type which occurred around Easter of 1972.
The present continuation of the war in Vietnam, as in Cambodia, is to a large degree the result of the American policy of Vietnamization. The Nixon strategy has been concerned primarily with terminating America’s direct military involvement in the war, which had become so unpopular with the American electorate. The principal function of the ceasefire agreements, therefore, has been to provide the United States with a face-saving device for the withdrawal of its troops and air power from the conflict. However, the agreements have not brought to an end America’s massive military and economic assistance to the Thieu and Lon Nol regimes. And it is precisely this guaranteed support which has led the Saigon government to adopt a completely negative attitude to the ongoing Paris negotiations intended to produce a political settlement. Thus, in the last few months, it has become increasingly clear that President Thieu has little interest in working towards the creation of a National Council of National Reconciliation and Concord as envisaged in the Vietnam peace accords.
The obstructionism of the Saigon government is not difficult to explain. Its interests would be seriously jeopardised if it were to agree to become part of an administration which included not only the Communists but also a representative cross-section of neutral opinion within South Vietnam. It is in fact the inability to agree on the composition of the third segment of the National Council which has been one of the major stumbling blocks of the intermittent negotiation between Saigon and the Provisional Revolutionary Government. Hanoi and the South Vietnamese communist forces appear to have concluded that Thieu is determined to retain his present position even at the cost of violations of the peace agreement and of further domestic repression, as exemplified by his detentions of thousands of political prisoners.
In such circumstances, it is not surprising that both parties should have abandoned any hope of a political solution and should be concentrating their efforts on scoring military victories and recognition from the countries following its most recent successes at the conference of non-aligned countries in Algiers. More and more, the trend is however, towards the establishment of two rival South Vietnamese governments, each seeking to assert its status and legitimacy on the international as well as the home front. For President Thieu, participation in the Paris talks is little more than a public relations exercise. The Communists have thus no alternative but to jockey for greater military and political leverage. In the meantime, peace and independence for the people of Indochina remain the distant dream which it has been for more than two decades.