American Foreign Policy and International Law
By Dean Rusk*

South Vietnam's Right of Self Defense:

Vietnam presents a clear current case of the lawful versus the unlawful use of force. I would agree with General Giap and other communists that it is a test case for "wars of national liberation". We intend to meet that test.

Were the insurgency in South Vietnam truly indigenous and self-sustained, international law would not be involved. But the fact is that it receives vital external support - in organization and direction, in training, in men, in weapons and other supplies. That external support is unlawful for a double reason. First, it contravenes general international law, which the United Nations Charter here expresses. Second, it contravenes particular international law: The 1954 Geneva accords on Vietnam and the 1962 agreements on Laos.

In resisting the agression against it, the Republic of Vietnam is exercising its right of self defense. It called upon us and other states for assistance. And in the exercise of the right of collective self defense under the United Nations Charter, we and other nations are providing such assistance.

The American policy of assisting South Vietnam to maintain its freedom was inaugurated under President Eisenhower and continued under Presidents Kennedy and Johnson. Our assistance has been increased because the agression from the North has been augmented. Our assistance now encompasses the bombing of North Vietnam. The bombing is designed to interdict, as far as possible, and to inhibit, as far as may be necessary, continued agression against the Republic of Vietnam.

When that aggression ceases, collective measures in defense against it will cease. As President Johnson has declared: ...if that aggression is stopped, the people and Government of South Vietnam will be free to settle their own future, and the need for supporting American military action there will end...

Nature of struggle in Vietnam:

I continue to hear and see nonsense about the nature of the struggle there. I sometimes wonder at the gullibility of educated men and the stubborn disregard of plain facts by men who are supposed to be helping our young men learn - especially to learn how to think.

Hanoi has never made a secret of its designs. It publicly proclaimed in 1960 a renewal of the assault on South Vietnam. Quite obviously its hopes of taking over South Vietnam from within had withered to close to zero - and the remarkable economic and social progress of South Vietnam contrasted, most disagreeably for the North Vietnamese Communists, with their own miserable economic performance.

The facts about the external involvement have been documented in white papers and other publications of the Department of State. The International Control Commision has held that there is evidence "beyond reasonable doubt" of North Vietnamese intervention.

There is no evidence that the Viet Cong has any significant popular following in South Vietnam. It relies heavily on terror. Most of its reinforcements in recent months have been North Vietnamese from the North Vietnamese Army.

Let us be clear about what is involved today in Southeast Asia. We are not involved with empty phrases or conceptions that ride upon the clouds. We are talking about the national interests of the United States in the peace of the Pacific. We are talking about the appetite for aggression - an appetite that grows upon feeding and that is proclaimed to be insatiable. We are talking about the safety of nations with whom we are allied - and in the integrity of the American committment to join in meeting attack.

It is true that we also believe that every small state has a right to be unmolested by its neighbors even though it is within reach of a great power. It is true that we are committed to general principles of law and procedure that reject the idea that men and arms can be sent freely across frontiers to absorb a neighbor. But underlying the general principles is the harsh reality that our own security is threatened by those who would embark upon a course of aggression whose announced ultimate purpose is our own destruction.

Once again we hear expressed the views that cost the men of my generation a terrible price in World War II. We are told that Southeast Asia is far away - but so were Manchuria and Ethiopia. We are told that, if we insist that someone stop shooting, that is asking them for unconditional surrender. We are told that perhaps the aggrresor will be content with just one more bite. We are told that, if we prove faithless on one commitment, perhaps others would believe us about commitments in other places. We are told that, if we stop resisting, perhaps the other side will have a change of heart. We are told to stop hitting bridges and radar sites and ammunition depots without requiring that the other side stop its slaughter of thousands of civilians and its bombings of schools and hotels and hospitals and railways and buses.

Surely we have learned over the past three decades that the acceptance of aggression leads only to a sure catastrophe. Surely we have learned that the aggressor must face the consequences of his action and be saved from the frightful miscalculation that brings all to ruin. It is the purpose of law to guide men away from such events, to establish rules of conduct which are deeply rooted in the reality of experience...

*United States Secretary of State, former President of the Rockefeller Foundation. This selection is part of an address to the American Society of International Law (April 23, 1965), in Department of State Bulletin, LII (May 10, 1965), pp 694-700.

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Added 10/19/96