VIET NAM: The Battle of the Dikes

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IS the U.S. deliberately bombing the dikes of North Viet Nam? That was clearly the most perplexing question of the week about the war in Viet Nam, where the rival armies remained locked in a bitter, seesaw battle for Quang Tri city. The accusation was serious, since nearly 15 million peasants live in the Red River Delta, whose floodwaters are controlled by a centuries-old, 2,500-mile labyrinth of earthen dikes (TIME, July 31). In the virtual absence of uncontestable firsthand information, however, the shouting of partisans all but drowned out the testimony of witnesses.

The fusillade of charges began in late June, when a North Vietnamese diplomat in Paris alleged that the U.S. was systematically bombing the dikes —"purposefully creating disaster for millions of people during the coming flood season," as Hanoi's chief negotiator in Paris, Xuan Thuy, said later. Systematic bombing of the dikes could, in fact, result in the death by drowning and famine of millions of people—as occurred in the floods of 1945. Hanoi's allegations were soon taken up by several Europeans who had recently been in North Viet Nam. Jean Thoraval, Hanoi correspondent for Agence France-Presse, told of a U.S. bombing raid that he had witnessed on the morning of July 11. Describing how a dozen planes had dropped bombs and fired rockets on a nearby dike, he concluded that "the attack was aimed at a whole system of dikes." Another eyewitness was Sweden's Ambassador to Hanoi, Jean-Christophe Öberg, who said he had seen bomb-damaged dikes in early June and described the attacks as "methodic."

Two Swedish journalists backed up his charge with their own testimony that they had seen the results of apparently deliberate aerial attacks on the dikes.

More recently, Hanoi's charges have been endorsed by several prominent individuals, whose accusations Washington found difficult to ignore. Though claiming to have no special information, Dr. Eugene Carson Blake, General Secretary of the World Council of Churches, appealed to President Nixon to stop bombing the dikes. Last week he was joined by United Nations Secretary-General Kurt Waldheim, who had just returned from a trip to Moscow. Announcing that he had received word of U.S. damage to the dikes through "private unofficial channels," Waldheim declared that he was "deeply concerned" and pleaded for an end to "this kind of bombing."

The outcry was joined by Actress-Activist Jane Fonda. Returning from a two-week trip to Hanoi, where among other things she interviewed several American prisoners of war, she presented a 20-minute film of the visit at a New York press conference that purported to show several recent bomb craters in dikes near Nam Sach, 40 miles southeast of Hanoi, and further damage near the provincial capital of Nam Dinh. Hardly a dispassionate witness, she said: "I believe in my heart, profoundly, that the dikes are being bombed on purpose." From firsthand observation and from pictures shown her by the North Vietnamese, she concluded: "Not only the dikes are being bombed, but hydraulic systems, sluice gates, pumping stations and dams as well. The worst damage is done by bombs that fall on both sides of the dikes, causing deep fissures that weaken the base of the dikes."

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