South Viet Nam: Toward the Showdown?

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fellow he was when he took over six months ago—seems like an ant struggling with a boulder. "All he needs," says an American adviser, "is some competent administration at lower levels"—and this is precisely what Khanh lacks. In a land where colonial France deliberately restricted the Vietnamese participation in government (the French even posted their own traffic cops in Saigon), Viet Nam's civil service is shot through with inefficiency, not to mention graft, favoritism, inexperience, sloth; many ranking military leaders act more like petty politicians than professional soldiers.

Khanh is also handicapped by the fact that his country lacks a sense of nationhood, being a hodgepodge of disparate tribes, clans and religious sects. Fortnight ago, when the Viet Cong slaughtered 40 women and children at a rural compound, other villagers expressed private satisfaction. Reason: the victims were temporary residents, strangers from outside the Delta, who apparently had been lording it over the locals at the marketplace.

Touching Bottom? What with all the handicaps, the large infusion of U.S. aid often shows few immediate concrete results, and any progress made is at an inch at a time. As always in this complex and shadowy war, the question of who is winning is difficult to answer. There are the doom criers and the professional optimists, and as usual the truth lies somewhere in between. But Viet Nam's has not been the kind of war that turns on a single battle or successful ambush, dramatic as it may be.

Things were going downhill sharply toward the end of Diem's regime, and they plunged even more sharply in the confusion that accompanied the two coups afterward. About last April, there were signs that the descent might have halted. Of late, while more aggressive government troops push into areas that had previously been Viet Cong sanctuaries, the overall level of guerrilla attacks has decreased slightly. Air power is being applied with increasing effectiveness. Possibly reacting to the increased pressure, the Reds are turning more and more to terrorism against peasants. There is the feeling among competent observers that for South Viet Nam the situation has bottomed out, possibly at a dangerously low level, but nonetheless bottomed out.

"Talk to My Gun." Yet the Viet Cong still control vast sections of the country (see map): of 43 provinces, the guerrillas have significant control in 22, operate widely in all the others. In their "liberated zones," the Reds fly the yellow-starred Viet Cong flag, collect taxes from local peasants. Near Tanan, south of Saigon, the local Red tax chief is a woman, Kim Luom; when peasants plead that they have nothing with which to pay, she lays her .45 on the table saying: "Don't talk to me; talk to my gun."

Saigon's most pressing concern is the area that includes the capital itself. In eight surrounding provinces, the Communists have tightened what American advisers call a "doughnut" around the capital. To the south, between Saigon and the Mekong Delta, the Viet Cong are so strong that more than 50% of the population there is estimated to be under varying degrees of Communist control. To the north, the Viet Cong are steadily increasing their pressure, last week hit four government battalions in three days. The guerrillas operate right up to

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