Things are not going well in South Viet Nam
By 1961, the Kennedy administration became alarmed that the 4 year insurgency by the National Liberation Front was taking control of many rural areas in South Viet Nam. The Diem administration had eliminated many of the civil positions and replaced them with officials loyal to Diem and his family. These officials and their military counter parts were frequently moved to different positions due to Diem’s fear that they would organize and turn against him. The National Liberation Front (NLF) was simply filling the vacuum left by this poor system of civil and military administration. Many of the communist cadres had been well trained and approached the people wearing the same black peasant clothing that they wore and addressing them respectfully as, “uncle”, “brother”, etc. They wore no rank, and never addressed each other by rank. In other words, the exact opposite of the GVN officials and soldiers.
Someone needs to come up with a plan
The idea of fortifying villages and hamlets came from the British Army. They had used it successfully in Malaysia. Unfortunately Viet Nam ain’t like Malaysia. The homes and farms, the land plots in the Plain of Jars or Mekong Delta are widely scattered. Usually not in established villages like in Malaysia.
Starting in 1962 the Vietnamese forces and their US advisors began forcefully moving people from their homes and put them to work building fortified “villages.” This was not a good idea, but it had been recommended by Sir Robert Thompson who headed the team of British advisors to Ngo Dinh Diem. Another problem with this idea was unlike the situation in Malaysia, where the Malay villages were fortified against Chinese insurgents, in Viet Nam the hamlets were to be fortified against other Vietnamese who may have grown up in that hamlet.
This ain’t a happy story, but it is referred to frequently in histories of the war, so I decided to learn more about it. Diem and his family, particularily his brother Ngo Dinh Nhu, em- braced this program, seeing it as a way to control the population. As soon as they realized the amount of money the U.S. was willing to spend on the program, there was no turning back.
Change is in the air
In 1961, following a trip to South Viet Nam, Gen. Maxwell Taylor recommended sending 8,000 U.S. troops to Viet Nam. Secretary of Defense, Robert McNamara thought that would be an inadequate force and recommended sending a large force to make a clear commitment to the defense of the country. President Kennedy didn’t send the troops that McNamara wanted but he did double the number of soldiers that Gen. Taylor asked for. By 1963 there were 16,000 U.S. soldiers serving as advisors to the ARVN. In addition, aid was increased and helicopter and fighter/bomber units were sent to reinforce Vietnamese army units. Clandestine operations were undertaken in Laos and North Viet Nam.
“The growing U.S. military investment in Viet Nam was kept secret, partly because it violated the Geneva agreement, and partly to deceive the American public. One morning in December 1961, I was sipping coffee with a U.S. army press officer on the terrace of Saigon’s Majestic Hotel as an American aircraft carrier, the Core, turned a bend in the river and steamed toward us, the first shipment of forty-seven helicopters strapped to its deck. Astonished, I grabbed the officer’s arm, shouting: “Look at that carrier!” He directed a mock squint in the direction of the gigantic vessel and replied: “I don’t see nothing.”
Vietnam A History by Stanley Karnow
So after forcing people from their homes; removing them from their plots and graves of their ancestors, many times at gunpoint, and then forcing them to build fortifications for little or no pay, things weren’t getting any better. The areas outside the fortified villages were declared “free fire” zones. A farmer returning to his fields could be shot on sight. No questions asked.
“The plan purported not to involve the displacement of villagers from their homes and fields, as the other failed resettlement programs had done. But it involved precisely that in most regions of the Mekong Delta.”
Fire in the Lake by Frances Fitzgerald
Hoping to exert more influence on the military and Diem government, the U.S. military changed it’s status from the MAAG to MACV. What the hell does that mean? The Military Assistance Advisory Group became Military Assistance Command, Vietnam. This change meant American and British “advisors” were more heavily involved and had more authority. It was believed that with more aid coming in and changing the status of the advisors, we would have more influence on events. The U.S. thought that Diem would respond better to requests and advice. Haha, that ain’t happenin’ kids.
Gee whiz! What went wrong?
Villages were infiltrated by the NLF cadres, peasants sneaked away from the squalid camps and tried to return to their homes. Some were killed. Worse still, others joined the insurgency.
Diem and his family and close allies all proclaimed themselves part of a Personalist religion. This was a strange mash up of ideas that oddly enough, given the characters that made up the government, stressed sacrifice and humility,. So there were slogans; and if the villagers would just repeat the slogans enough and do as they were told everything would be fine. Eat the bulgur cereal, that’s dry cracked wheat that they had no appetite for and be grateful.
Clearly this program was destined to fail, but the money was still coming in. McNamara had his data. Many more strategic hamlets had been established than this time last year. There were some numbers coming in that showed what great progress was being made. Congressmen and other officials were visiting and briefed on all the progress. They flew out to a strategic hamlet and saw first hand the fortifications. They got upbeat reports from the U.S. officers and met “grateful villagers” who were happy to have the Americans there and keep the ugly Viet Cong at bay. The money didn’t stop even following the overthrow of Diem and his brothers, nor after the assassination of Pres. Kennedy in 1963. With all the money there were many opportunities for embezzlement or theft, bribery and corruption. Bags of cement were ordered, paid for and shipped, but they never arrived at the village. This had a demoralizing effect on people involved in the program. Many were in denial or otherwise figured that was the way the world worked and there was nothing they could do about it.
“Truth is the first casualty of war”
To be fair there was some initial success as the NLF’s efforts were disrupted. The Diem brothers were sold on the plan and rushed ahead, trying to take better control of more villages. They carried this out despite the advice and warnings of the man who recommended the program, the British advisor, Sir Thompson. He had told them to proceed slowly making sure that an area was really secure before entering new ones. This meant that the fortifications were complete, that properly trained regional or popular forces were well armed and had managed to discourage if not eliminate the communist forces. They did not take his advice.
Land and rent reform
To try to summarize, what the peasants and farmers really wanted was land and rent reform. The system in place was the remnants of the French colonial era. The NLF offered change and was actually carrying it out in the areas they controlled. The GVN and the U.S. did not attempt to deal with this issue. American aid was primarily focused on the military and their belief that the issues would be ultimately be resolved with more firepower. That’s what we had and we had a lot of it.
There is a great deal of information available, including the Pentagon Papers that describe all the problems that lead to the failure of this plan. I used Wikipedia of course and also the book by Gabriel Kolko, The Anatomy of a War.