Dateline: Vietnam

Catholic rally in Can Tho
 Anti-corruption movement rally on a rainy October day in Can Tho

PRG Counterattacks, Fall of Nixon Create New Pressures on Thieu

Published in American Report, September 16, 1974

By John Spragens, Jr.
Special to American Report

SAIGON — The surprising thing about current attacks on Saigon positions is not that they are happening, but that they did not come sooner. The importance of the fighting is that it occurs in combination with the fall of Richard Nixon and with the rise of new anti-Thieu forces in Saigon.

Under constant pressure from Saigon's ARVN (Army of the Republic of Viet Nam) troops in the year and a half since the signing of the Paris Agreement, the PRG (Provisional Revolutionary Government) has seen a significant portion of its zone of control eroded. Estimates vary, ranging from 5 to 15 per cent.

Almost a year ago, on Oct. 15, 1973, the PRG issued a warning to Saigon against trying for a military solution. On that date the PRG high command sent out a general order authorizing units to strike “at any time and at any place” against Saigon bases and units involved in raids against the liberated zone.

For months now there have been reports of battalion-size losses by ARVN units, attacked at dinner time after a day’s uneventful thrust into a PRG area. But the current series of attacks — one group concentrated in Quang Nam and Quang Ngai provinces in central Viet Nam, another in the central highlands, and a third in the provinces northwest of Saigon — is the first large-scale implementation of last year’s order.

Although Saigon is once again sounding the alarm for the long-heralded “general offensive,” the PRG insists that the objective of the attacks is much more modest. The PRG says it wants to convince Saigon that war won’t work, and that the only practical course is to adopt a serious attitude towards the now suspended negotiations for the implementation of the Paris Agreement.

In principle the PRG seems to have demonstrated its point. All Saigon’s main forces are already in the fight, while U.S./Saigon intelligence reports say the PRG and the North Vietnamese still have at least half their main force units in reserve. And the formidable anti-aircraft defenses now reported to be set up in several parts of the liberated zone have remained quietly under camouflage.

Vietnamese journalists report that ARVN morale — never exceptionally high — is sagging further. The military police have, in their way, confirmed the situation by stepping up their patrols in the city, checking streets and alleys for deserters.

Saigon, however, doesn’t seem to have got the message. There have been no signs that Thieu is willing to permit resumption of the stalled cease-fire talks in Saigon, and the negotiations on political issues in France.

It is reported that the PRG military thrusts have taken pressure off a number of the liberated areas, such as some of those I visited in the Que Son valley (AR, July 8).

Messages reaching Saigon through people with friends and relatives in the area say that in one village which used to be a contested area, constantly harassed by ARVN sweeps and artillery fire, there is now a large open-air “liberated market.” People from the Saigon zone cross over to sell cloth, canned milk, batteries and other light industrial products. People from the PRG zone sell them agricultural produce in return.

In other areas the fighting rages over regions which had been relatively stable. The papers in Saigon are filled with the all-too-familiar photographs of farmers fleeing battle with what few possessions they can manage to carry.

Scattered reports indicate that a significant number of people are moving from refugee camps in Saigon controlled areas into secure parts of the PRG zone. In at least one case, the PRG provided transportation for returning farmers in a convoy of trucks captured from an ARVN resupply column. In other cases transportation has been arranged by relays of Hondas or sampans.

The PRG policy is to enable people to return to their lands, and to give them security there. Typically, PLAF troopers come to a refugee village at night and set houses afire to give Saigon troops the impression that what is happening is big stuff which they (the ARVN) would be advised to avoid. Meanwhile the truck convoy or Honda drivers go to work.

Tragically some of the operations, at least in Quang Ngai, are half-way jobs. Already impoverished refugees have more than once been left with their huts in ashes and no way to get back to their native villages. The transportation was not there. And walking is out of the question because so many of the refugees are old women and young children.

Those fortunate enough to get back to their old homes will receive help in building houses and getting land back into production. There is no vast foreign aid fund to provide money. On my visit to the PRG zone, however, I was told that help is given in constructing a house from local materials. Farm implements are supplied or shared. And arrangements arc made for seed and for a six-month supply of food to tide returning families over until the first harvest.

Conveniently — though not by design as some might like to suggest — the PRG military strikes have come at the same time as Nixon’s resignation and significant Congressional cuts in administration requests for aid to Saigon. As if this were not trouble enough for Nguyen Van Thieu (he called an all-day National Security Council meeting when Nixon announced his resignation, and placed his troops on special alert), he is now being attacked from both right and left in Saigon itself.

The attack from the right comes from conservative Catholics, former supporters of Ngo Dinh Diem who are forming an anti-corruption movement. Recently they have added a call to peace to their platform.

Behind the scenes of this development is a secret letter from an anti-communist Italian priest, Father Piero Gheddo, to an undersecretary in the Vatican’s State Secretariat, commenting on a visit Gheddo made to Viet Nam last December. The gist of his report is that Thieu is a lost cause, and the Church had better get itself squared away so it will have some ground to stand on when the PRG-dominated government comes to power.

When Father Huynh Van Nghi, a moderate who recently organized a seminar on national reconciliation at his church in Saigon, was named one of South Viet Nam’s three new bishops, many saw a sign that Father Gheddo’s recommendations were being implemented.

Meanwhile, cautiously, An Quang pagoda is beginning to sound like its old self. In spite of still significant divisions within the leadership of the “Unified” Buddhist Church, in a succession of meetings and declarations they have been setting the stage for a full scale peace campaign, which will call for peace in the spirit of national reconciliation.

Two important personalities who have stayed quietly in the wings for years have been prominently visible at meetings held at An Quang. One is Gen. Duong Van Minh, a participant in the coup against Diem who headed one of the several governments which followed. His role is by now largely symbolic. But his presence is significant because of his previous caution. He appears to believe this budding movement may succeed.

Thich Tri Quang, a Buddhist monk whose name and face became known to Americans during the Buddhist Struggle Movement of the mid-60s has also been publicly involved. He has been far out of sight in recent years, but no one doubts that he remains a potent leader.

Other well known Buddhist figures, such as Vu Van Mau, a scholarly pacifist senator in Saigon’s National Assembly, seem prepared to play active parts in the campaign, too.

In all, it is an extraordinarily promising convergence of pressures on Thieu to make peace. If a settlement is not reached in the next several months, the chances are that much greater that Thieu's continuing belligerence will lead the PRG to conclude a military solution is the only option.

Copyright John Spragens, Jr.

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