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Nation: Nixon’s New Signals in Viet Nam

6 minute read
TIME

RICHARD NIXON’S strategy of Vietnamization faces a new period of peril and testing. The President has declared that he will have ended active U.S. participation in the war by Election Day 1972; indeed, public opinion in the U.S. leaves him no alternative if he is to survive politically. The catch is that as fewer and fewer American soldiers remain, they become more and more vulnerable—as does the survival of South Viet Nam.

The U.S. has not spelled it out officially, but it is clear enough what the President is up to with the recent blitz of air operations against North Viet Nam and the implicit threat of more. U.S. troops have been coming out of Viet Nam at the rate of about 12,500 a month. By mid-1971, according to public pronouncements by both Defense Secretary Melvin Laird and Secretary of State William Rogers, nearly all U.S. troops will be out of combat. North Vietnamese infiltration into the South totaled 50,000 men in the first seven months of 1970, according to the U.S. command in Saigon. Enemy troops are now infiltrating into South Viet Nam,

Laos and Cambodia at an estimated rate of 12,000 monthly.

With the North Vietnamese evidently going in as fast as the Americans are clearing out, a new enemy offensive could catch the U.S. off balance; in any case, the South Vietnamese will have to bear the brunt of any such concerted attack. Predictions of a big enemy offensive bloom perennially at this time of year, though none has taken place since Tet of 1968. Now intelligence experts point to the enemy’s buildup of men and materiel and expect a major offensive early in 1971. The U.S. air attacks are meant to blunt that offensive before it comes. There is every reason to believe that what is already known in Washington jargon as “periodic re-escalation” will continue to cover the American exodus. Like the invasion of Cambodia, the air assaults are designed to buy enough time to make Vietnamization work.

Stretched Limits. The U.S. has been emitting a concentrated barrage of warnings to Hanoi to desist from launching an offensive and to stop shooting down U.S. planes. The daring raid on the Son Tay P.O.W. camp near Hanoi showed that the U.S. could mount a landing deep in North Viet Nam with near impunity. The bombing attacks the same night, involving some 250 U.S. jets, went beyond North Vietnamese antiaircraft defenses to include large concentrations of troops and supplies massed just inside North Viet Nam near the Laotian border. Early last week a lone U.S. F-105 fighter-bomber attacked an antiaircraft-missile base in North Viet Nam. To justify the pre-emptive strike, the Pentagon came up with still another coinage in the air-war vocabulary: the pilot had exercised “the inherent right of self-defense,” even though he had not been fired upon.

Partly offsetting the latest news on Communist infiltration, President Nixon received a reassuring report on the progress of Vietnamization from Sir Robert Thompson, the retired British officer who helped put down Communist insurgents in Malaya in the 1950s. Thompson has made regular visits to Viet Nam since he headed the British advisory mission there from 1961 to 1965; the latest, a secret five-week tour in September and October, came to light last week. Sir Robert said in London that he was “cautiously optimistic” a year ago. Now he concludes: “The Vietnamization and pacification programs are no longer fragile. They are no longer vulnerable to any enemy action.” The balance of power has shifted, Thompson said. While the Viet Cong are not a military threat, he added, “we have still got to deal with their political underground structure.” North Vietnamese soldiers are no longer able to roam freely in South Viet Nam or rely on the Viet Cong for supplies, Thompson reports. Consequently, the North Vietnamese army is much more like a conventional force than before.

Meanwhile the new style of American operations in and over North Viet Nam stretches the limits of the supposed “understandings” that Washington insists it had with Hanoi at the time all bombing of the North stopped on Nov. 1, 1968. Those understandings, which Hanoi disputes, were that there would be no more bombing 1) if the U.S. could continue aerial reconnaissance, 2) if the North Vietnamese stayed out of the DMZ and 3) if enemy shelling of South Vietnamese cities stopped. Last week the Communists stepped up rocket barrages on towns and military installations. At the same time, policymakers in Washington were pressing the argument that the understandings with Hanoi also included a stipulation that the North Vietnamese should negotiate in a “substantive or productive way” at the Paris peace talks. David K.E. Bruce, the chief U.S. representative in Paris, said flatly last week: “There never has been any negotiation.”

Rigid Way. The renewed U.S. air attacks, coupled with the fresh assertions in Washington about the “understandings,” strongly suggested that the Administration is laying a foundation to justify periodic raids on the North. If the enemy indeed plans a major offensive to test how well the South Vietnamese will stand up with diminished help from the U.S. on the ground, the Americans are plainly trying to signal that any such move will bring a repetition of the widespread strikes of three weeks ago. “We hope they will get the message,” says a White House adviser. They may well not. Even full-scale bombing of the North before the formal halt two years ago made no decisive dent in Hanoi’s determination.

The President is taking a gamble. He can only hope that his threats to the enemy will allow him to get U.S. troops out without great difficulty. One Eastern European diplomat thinks that if the North Vietnamese were smart, they would lie doggo for a while “because it could force President Nixon to step up his withdrawal schedule, and you would have a very difficult time finding an excuse to bomb them.” He believes, however, that Hanoi will not do that. “They go on in their rigid way,” he says. “They have been fighting so long that it is a way of life. If they are not fighting, they are uncomfortable.They feel naked “

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