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from issue no. 06 - 2005

Thirty years after the ending of the Vietnam war

The lost paths to peace

The unpublished diary of Giovanni D’Orlandi, Italian ambassador to Saigon from 1962 to 1968. The untold story of “operation Marigold”, a secret negotiation that could have stopped the war long before 1975. But there were those who preferred the smell of napalm …

by Roberto Rotondo

Above, B52 bombers in action in Vietnam

Above, B52 bombers in action in Vietnam

«Preceded by our coded signal, Lewandowsky, who had received the detailed report of the Polish military attaché in North Vietnam about the bombing of Hanoi carried out by the Americans on 2 December, came to see me this evening. The terms of the report are frightening: “savage and indiscriminate bombing of the southern suburbs of Hanoi, “shelling and machine-gunning of the center of the city itself”, “the number of victims of that bombing of Hanoi may be over 600 dead and wounded”». On 8 December 1966, Giovanni D’Orlandi, Italian ambassador to Saigon, wrote these notes in his diary. D’Orlandi was distraught, but reported every detail of the incident minutely. The situation was most delicate: he, the United States ambassador Henry Cabot Lodge, and the Polish ambassador Janusz Lewandowsky had opened a «tripartite channel», as D’Orlandi defined it, and since June had been conducting, amidst a thousand difficulties, secret negotiations, called “Operation Marigold” by the Americans, to halt the war in Vietnam. The project of the three was based on a ten-points document that had to be accepted by the North as well as the South Vietnamese, and also by the Americans. Two days earlier, on 6 December, D’Orlandi had been radiant because agreement seemed but a step away. But in the space of forty-eight hours the situation was completely turned upside-down because of people who preferred the smell of napalm to that of the paper of peace treaties. D’Orlandi in fact continues: «this infamous bombing, following immediately on the phase of our tripartite attempt, took place after a period of notable reduction in bombings […]. Lewandowsky has scathing words to stigmatize the bombings of four days ago, following which Hanoi telegraphed him the text of a protest to be released to the civilized world. With great difficulty Lewandowsky succeeded in dissuading Hanoi from publishing this report two days ago (precisely on the 6th!). He goes on to describe to me a desolate picture of destruction, civilian and not military, from the bombing. He tells me that in this way the Warsaw negotiations are going to founder even before they have begun and requests me to point out to Secretary of State Rusk (whom I shall see at dinner tomorrow evening) how greatly mistaken such a provocation is. Everybody knows, he tells me, that if negotiations are taking place reduction in the bombing is expected or at least not an increase in intensity; in our case, serious escalation of the bombing has followed every significant agreement!».
This excerpt from 1966, taken from the more than a thousand type-written pages that make up the Vietnamese diary D’Orlandi kept from July 1962 to December 1968, immediately raises a question. While the Vietnam crisis was proceeding along the highway of intensification of the military confrontation, was there a concrete possibility of diverting it to the narrow path of peace negotiations? D’Orlandi’s diary is evidence that that there was such a possibility, but history tells us that this pathw of peace, opened by the Saigon tripartite initiative, was soon lost, and the war being waged in Vietnam, though never declared, was to end only on 30 April 1975, when the last US helicopters took off from the roof of the American embassy in Saigon, leaving the southern capital definitively to the victorious Vietcong. At that point the balance sheet of the tragedy was drawn up: twenty years of war, seven million tons of bombs (more than all that dropped during the whole of the Second World War) on a territory little bigger than Italy, sixty thousand Americans and six hundred thousand Vietnamese soldiers killed, three million civilians dead, immense devastation of which Vietnam still bears the scars today, thirty years after the end of the war.
The full story of Operation Marigold, which was followed in 1968 by Operation Killy, was never written. The few things published in the papers of the time were often unjustly liquidated as wishful thinking. But the two operations are not the only reason for interest in the entirely unpublished diary that 30Days, in collaboration with the D’Orlandi family, is about to publish unabridged. The diary, in fact, captivating and readable as a historical novel, allows us to reconstruct from an absolutely privileged standpoint the whole period of escalation in the United States military commitment in Vietnam. Sufficient to realize that, at the end of 1962, American soldiers present in Vietnam (in the guise of military advisers) came to 11,000 and in 1968 had reached the record number of 580,000. Those were the years in which «that little pissant country», as it was defined by US president Johnson, who had inherited the problem from Kennedy and who left it as legacy to Nixon, turned from a regional south East Asian crisis centre, on which the United States and Russia exercised their pressure, into a nightmare for the United States, a national shock that was to change the very conception of the American way of life and provide fodder for the 1968 protest demonstrations throughout the world.

Diem the “caeseropapist”
On 17 July 1962, under pouring, tropical rain, Giovannni D’Orlandi, Italian ambassador to Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos, landed for the first time in Saigon. Although he was well aware that a difficult job awaited him (he was one of the Foreign Ministry’s most expert diplomats), he cannot have even remotely imagined what lay ahead for him in the years to come. The Vietnam he found was a country split in two at the height of the seventeenth parallel by the Geneva agreements of 1954. Agreements never respected, either in the North by the communist regime of Hô Chi Minh, supported in alternate phases by China and Russia, or in the South by the government of the nationalist Catholic Ngô Dinh Diem, backed since 1954 by the USA because, according to the famous “domino theory”, if the Asian country were to fall into communist hands, all of Indochina and of Southeast Asia would suffer the same fate.
A scenario that, however serious it was, was not top of the agenda for the United States president John F. Kennedy, in 1962. JFK, succeeding Eisenhower in 1961, had in fact quite other things to worry about: in October he had to order a naval blockade to force the Soviets to withdraw their strategic missiles from Cuba. Vietnam, therefore, was only one of the many scenarios of a historical period that has been defined as “competitive coexistence” between the two blocs. A phase in which, throughout the world, the USA and the USSR were trying to limit the influence of their rival.
From the first pages of his Vietnamese diary D’Orlandi, describes a difficult political, economic and military situation. President Diem, a fervent Catholic and an ardent anti-communist nationalist, was not such a favorite in Washington as he had once been, and in South Vietnam also his popularity was plummeting. His regime was a species of “family firm”: his brother Nhu, his political adviser, was the real gray eminence of the government; his sister-in-law, Diem being a bachelor, had become a kind of first lady, his other brother, Thuc, was the Catholic archbishop of Hué, the imperial city of fundamental importance for social and religious equilibrium in Vietnam. All three were distinguished for their extremism. The Catholics, who represented only ten per cent of the population and held the levers of power in every field, were already hated for it by the Buddhist majority, but the trio continually involved the Catholic world in demonstrations and the adoption of intransigent, anti-communist and warmongering positions that have nothing to do with their faith., From the very beginning D’Orlandi was preoccupied by the religious situation in Vietnam: the police repressions of Buddhist demonstrations, the cynicism of Mrs. Nhu, who declared herself willing to provide petrol and matches to the bonzes who set themselves on fire to protest against the regime, the positions of the archbishop of Hué, not only exasperated the political situation, but created infinite problems for the many Catholics who did not identify themselves with the ideas of the Diem family and had to deal, like the rest of the population, with troubles of quite a different sort. One of these was that of the strategic village project then being implemented: the rural population, amidst a thousand difficulties, was being forced to live in villages surrounded by barbed wire and fortifications, to impede the continuous infiltration of Vietcong and North Vietnamese soldiers among the peasants. The same had been done in the quarters of the large cities. But the scheme was unhelpful if not counterproductive. D’Orlandi devotes some very interesting pages to the fortified villages, astonished by the fact that the reasons behind them were not only strategic but also ideological: in fact, as the Diem family saw it, while the Vietminh enemy drew its guerilla tactics from the doctrine of Mao Tse-tung, so the strategic villages, created to defend the peasants from the communists, but transformed into prisons, drew their inspiration from French personalist philosophy. It was a sort of purification for the population. For D’Orlandi, he too a Catholic, it was madness, but it was not the only such folly he noted among the Catholics of the country, divided between fundamentalists and moderates. In those years D’Orlandi constantly sought to help the latter, often protesting against the warmongering speeches about Vietnam by Cardinal Spellman of New York, trying to gain leverage from the appeals of Paul VI against the war, helping Catholic missionaries and religious institutes as much as he could.
In 1963 D’Orlandi struck up a friendship with the US ambassador Henry Cabot Lodge, who informed him of the coup d’état against Diem organized by South Vietnamese generals with the support of the USA. Unfortunately on 3 November Diem was killed by the participants in the coup: «The greatest tragedy of the Vietnam war», the CIA chief William Colby was to comment, reckoning they were getting bogged down in a dangerous swamp.
But the Americans were soon forced to look elsewhere, because, twenty days later, President Kennedy was killed in Dallas and was succeeded, as has been said, by his vice Lyndon Johnson. Strangely D’Orlandi does not report the repercussions on the situation in Southeast Asia in these days.

The ruins of the imperial city of Hué, after the severe bombings by US forces in 1968

The ruins of the imperial city of Hué, after the severe bombings by US forces in 1968

The military escalation
The plot against Diem was only the first of a series of coups and maneuvers that brought to power people such as Minh, General Khanh and General Cao Ky, who all had as devastating an effect on the destiny of South Vietnam as Vietcong guerilla warfare. In those years D’Orlandi was not only an intelligent witness - and hence skeptical about the possibility of a South Vietnam victory - but was on occasion asked by more moderate Vietnamese elements to insure that the USA did not support the rise to power of the more violent and extremist members of the armed forces. D’Orlandi could in fact count on the trust of Ambassador Cabot Lodge (who in 1964 was replaced, only to be then reinstated the following year) even if he had also to take into consideration the pressure of two such hawks as Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara (who had in reality begun to nurture strong doubts about the conduct of the war since 1966) and Secretary of State Dean Rusk. The two were among the principal architects of US military escalation in Vietnam.
A process that was followed and analyzed in every detail in the diary: the North Vietnamese attack on two US ships in the Gulf of Tonkin (an incident in 1964 about which D’Orlandi was greatly puzzled and which he, along with many others, feared has been provoked to persuade the American Congress to give carte blanche to president Johnson on Vietnam); the landing in force of the marines in 1965, that led to US army land operations on a vast scale in an attempt to regain control of a territory, South Vietnam, that was slipping out of the grip of Saigon government, infiltrated as it was by the troops of Hô Chi Minh and the Vietcong, who controlled unevenly large areas of the delta of the Mekong river; the operation Rolling Thunder in 1965, the first of many massive bombings of North Vietnam which the US thought would force the North Vietnamese to surrender, but which never produced the hoped for effects. D’Orlandi in fact wrote in his diary: «Who knows why the Americans persist so obstinately in continuing the bombing when the infiltrations of the North Vetnamese instead of diminishing have quadrupled. I learned from a trustworthy source that in the last month alone they haven’t been less than 22,000 men». But it was not the only thing that D’Orlandi could not explain to himself because, taking account of the economic element, which for him was not secondary to the military one, he wrote on 29 May 1966: «If the American aid so far allocated had been distributed per capita, every Vietnamese family today would have a house, a fridge, a television and a garden. I’d like to know in what civilian sector a solid infrastructure has been created or what economic problem has been solved. In this country alongside shameless profiteering, and shady dealing, everything proceeds without any preconceived plan. When the flood caused the exodus of hundreds of thousands of people, among them 200,000 Catholics, nothing was given them except a handful of rice and some blankets. The man in the street does not see any concrete help from the US and is convinced that a large part of the money spent has returned to America, Switzerland or Hong Kong. How is it possible in the current politico-economic-military chaos to refute the arguments of those Vietnamese (and they are increasingly more numerous) who sustain that amid so much Vietnamese and foreign corruption the only honest ones are the Vietcong? Much could have been done, and perhaps one could still try to do something to avoid this state of things, and very little has been done. As far as I’m concerned, I’ve always believed that I must state with frankness to American friends everything that I’ve learned and everything that has worried me. When a thorough enquiry has to be opened, in Senate and Congress, into the errors and faults that caused the Vietnamese situation to plummet, I wouldn’t like to be in the shoes of the various administrators of American economic aid in Washington or in Vietnam».
A month after this bitter analysis, on 27 June 1966, D’Orlandi received a visit from Janusz Lewandowsky, the Polish delegate to the Geneva Peace Talks. He represented an Iron Curtain country with stable relations with Hanoi and was the bearer of a message that left D’Orlandi speechless: Hanoi was disposed to compromise for the settlement of the Vietnam conflict, it demanded neither immediate reunification of the country, nor wanted to impose a socialist system on South Vietnam. It would not however accept solutions that could be read as a surrender and demanded, along with total secrecy for the operation, the end of the bombing also. In the following days, along with the US ambassador Cabot Lodge, ten points were drawn up called “steps” because they had to be accepted one after the other until final agreement be arrived at. The tone of the diary becomes urgent, shining through these pages one sees the passion with which D’Orlandi (supported in Italy by the Minister for Foreign Affairs Amintore Fanfani and by part of the DC that feared that protests against the US in Vietnam would end by favoring the Italian Communist Party) experienced the most important and exhilarating moment of his career. US President Johnson was informed from the very first moment of the negotiations and all the prerequisites seemed to be there for proceeding. But the hawks in the US administration, among them Rusk and McNamara, buried the agreement under a hail of bombs. After the umpteenth raid on Hanoi of 13 December everything collapsed, and the North Vietnamese closed all negotiations. A dark period follows, the Poles were also accused by the Americans of bluffing and D’Orlandi branded naive.

But half way through 1967 President Johnson began to speak about a cessation of the bombing in exchange for “productive discussions” even if the US high command was nonetheless convinced of being only a step away from military victory. But the Tet offensive in January 1968, with simultaneous attacks on the major south Vietnamese cities, was a severe dampener. The Vietcong were everywhere and, as D’Orlandi recounts in the diary, the US reaction was furious. Thousands of civilians died in the retaking of Hué at the end of February and the monuments of the ancient imperial city were reduced to rubble. Cabot Lodge had already been replaced and D’Orlandi, not least for reasons of health, prepared to leave his post. Fanfani, instead, gave him the task in February 1968 of making a new attempt that was to lead him to meet the North Vietnamese, first in Rome, then in Czechoslovakia. The ten steps still represented the best worked out platform of agreement, and Fanfani was firmly decided to propose himself as mediator. The US refused again and operation Killy was shelved. But the Johnson period was ending. The president did not present himself for re-election because of the situation in Vietnam. The Richard Nixon era opens and that of his adviser for national security Henry Kissinger. From Paris new peace negotiations began again, but they proceeded parallel to another seven years of war.
Paradoxically, precisely in 1968, when the conflict in Vietnam went through one of its most dramatic moments – with Brezhnev assuring entire military support for North Vietnam and Rusk declaring that recourse to the atomic bomb was not excluded – the US, USSR and England signed the agreement on non-nuclear proliferation, a cornerstone of world equilibrium in the second half of the twentieth century. The proof that the USSR, despite the domino theory, helped Vietnam not in order to grab Southeast Asia but to wear down its rival and “soften it” on other fronts.

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