In an effort to prevent infiltration, South Vietnamese villagers in areas of guerrilla activity were rounded up and forcibly placed in "strategic hamlets" where they could watched and protected. American troops conducted operations to engage the enemy and drive peasants out of villages and into heavily guarded "strategic hamlets." The goal of these missions was to destroy the old villages to deny the Viet Cong of support, shelter and food.

The Strategic Hamlets Program, which was implemented in 1962, was based on British tactics in Malaya and similar to the French strategy of creating protected enclaves like Dien Bien Phu. Initially the program was deemed a failure. The villages were infiltrated anyway and the program was dropped after the death of Ngo Dinh Diem. But years later the North Vietnamese admitted that the program did cause them major problems. [Source: Lonely Planet =]

According to U.S. Defense Department reports cited in the Pentagon Papers: "A specific strategy by which the U.S. and GVN would attempt to end the insurgency in South Vietnam had never been agreed upon at the time that the U.S. decided, late in 1961, to increase materially its assistance to GVN and to expand its advisory effort into one which would implement a "limited partnership." By early 1962, however, there was apparent consensus among the principal participants that the Strategic Hamlet Program, as it came to be called, represented the unifying concept for a strategy designed to pacify rural Vietnam (the Viet Cong's chosen battleground) and to develop support among the peasants for the central government. [Source: The Pentagon Papers, "The Strategic Hamlet Program, 1961-1963," pp. 128-159, Boston: Beacon Press, 1971, */]

"The Strategic Hamlet Program was much broader than the construction of strategic hamlets per se. It envisioned sequential phases which, beginning with clearing the insurgents from an area and protecting the rural populace, progressed through the establishment of GVN infrastructure and thence to the provision of services which would lead the peasants to identify with their government. The strategic hamlet program was, in short, an attempt to translate the newly articulated theory of counter-insurgency into operational reality. The objective was political though the means to its realization were a mixture of military, social, psychological, economic and political measures. */

"The effect of these sequential steps to pacification was to make it very difficult to make intermediate assessments of progress. One could not really be sure how one was doing until one was done. Physical security by itself (the so-called "clear and hold" initial step) was a necessary condition for pacification, not a sufficient one. The establishment of governmental functions was not, by itself, necessarily conducive to a successful effort; the quality of those functions and their responsiveness to locally felt needs was critical. This inherent difficulty in assessing progress did not simply mean that it was difficult to identify problems and to make improvements as one went along--which it was. It also meant that it was quite possible to conclude that the program as a whole was progressing well (or badly) according to evidence relating only to a single phase or a part of a phase. */

A related problem arose from the uniqueness of this program in American experience-pacification by proxy. The theory of sequential phases could be variously interpreted. This is not the problem of the three blind men describing the elephant; it is the problem of men with different perspectives each moulding his own conception of a proper body to the same skeleton. If the final product were to have some semblance of coherence and mutual satisfaction it was necessary that the shapers came to agreement on substance and operational procedure, not just that they agree on the proper skeleton upon which to work. */

The problem with the apparent consensus which emerged early in 1962 was that the principal participants did view it with different perspectives and expectations. On the U.S. side, military advisors had a set of preferences which affected their approach to the Strategic Hamlet Program. They wanted to make RVNAF more mobile, more aggressive, and better organized to take the offensive against the Viet Cong. They were, consequently, extremely leery of proposals which might lead it to be tied down in strategic defenses ("holding" after "clearing" had been completed) or diverted too much to military civic action undertakings. */

History of the Strategic Hamlets Program

According to U.S. Defense Department reports cited in the Pentagon Papers: "The program, in the form of a plan for pacification of the Delta, was formally proposed to Diem in November 1961 by R. G. K. Thompson, head of the newly arrived British Advisory Mission. U.S. military advisors favored at that time an ARVN penetration of the VC redoubt in War Zone D prior to any operations aimed specifically at pacification. But U.S. political desires to start some local operation which could achieve concrete gains combined with Diem's preference for a pacification effort in an area of strategic importance led to the initial effort in March 1962, "Operation SUNRISE," in Binh Duong Province north of Saigon. This was a heavily VC-influltrated area rather than one of mini-mat penetration, as Thompson had urged. But planning--as distinct from operations--continued on the Delta plan and strategic hamlets were constructed in a variegated, uncoordinated pattern throughout the spring and early summer. The U.S. had little or no influence over these activities; the primary impetus was traceable directly to the President's brother and political counsellor, Ngo Dinh Nhu. [Source: The Pentagon Papers, "The Strategic Hamlet Program, 1961-1963," pp. 128-159, Boston: Beacon Press, 1971, */]

In August 1962, GVN produced its long awaited national pacification plan with four priority areas and specified priorities within each area. At the same time, however, it indicated that over 2,500 strategic hamlets had already been completed and that work was already underway on more than 2,500 more. Although it was not until October 1962, that GVN explicitly announced the Strategic Hamlet Program to be the unifying concept of its pacification and counterinsurgent effort it was clear earlier that the program had assumed this central position. */

Three important implications of this early progress (or, more precisely, reported progress) are also clear in retrospect. These implications seem not to have impressed themselves acutely upon U.S. observers at the time. First, the program was truly one of GVN initiative rather than one embodying priorities and time phasing recommended by the U.S. Diem was running with his own ball in programmatic terms, no matter who articulated the theory of the approach. The geographic dispersion of hamlets already reported to be completed indicated that there was, in fact, a conscious effort to implement this phase almost simultaneously throughout the entire nation rather than to build slowly as Diem's foreign advisors (both U.S. and British) recommended. */

Finally, the physical aspects of Diem's program were similar if not identical to earlier population resettlement and control efforts practiced by the French and by Diem. The long history of these efforts was marked by consistency in resuits as well as in techniques: all failed dismally because they ran into resentment if not active resistance on the part of the peasants at whose control and safety, then loyalty, they were aimed. U.S. desires to begin an effective process of pacification had fastened onto security as a necessary precondition and slighted the historic record of rural resistance to resettlement. President Diem and his brother, for their part, had decided to emphasize control of the rural population as the precondition to winning loyalty. The record is inconclusive with respect to their weighing the record of the past but it appears that they, too, paid it scant attention. Thus the early operational efforts indicated a danger of peasant resistance, on one hand, and of divergent approaches between, in the initial steps, the U.S. (focused on security measures) and Diem (concerned more with control measures). Since the physical actions to achieve security and those to impose control are in many respects the same, there was generated yet another area in which assessments of progress would be inconclusive and difficult to make. */

U.S. attention, once an apparent consensus had been forged concentrated on program management efforts in two categories: to convince GVN to proceed at a more measured, coherent pace with a qualitative improvement in the physical construction of strategic hamlets; and to schedule material assistance (fortification materials, etc.) and training for local defense forces to match the rate of desired hamlet construction. */

U.S. assessments, at the same time, concentrated on the physical aspects of the program and on VC activity in areas where strategic hamlets had been constructed. Assessments tended to be favorable from a security (or control) viewpoint and uneven with respect to political development. The general conclusion was almost always one of cautious optimism when security (control) was emphasized, one of hopeful pessimism when political follow-up was stressed. The impression in Washington was typically slanted toward the more optimistic appraisals if for no other reason than that hamlet construction and security arrangements were the first chronological steps in the long process to pacification. Was it not, after all, "progress" to have moved from doing nothing to doing something even though the something was being done imperfectly? */

These U.S. assessments changed only marginally throughout the life of the program. By the time, in 1963, that the hopeful pessimist voices were clearer, it was also much clearer that the Ngo brothers had made the Strategic Hamlet Program into one closely identified with their regime and with Diem's rather esoterically phrased "personalist revolution." Fears grew that Diem was attempting to impose loyalty from the top through control rather than to build it from the bottom by deeds. These fears were not limited to the Strategic Hamlet Program, however; they extended to urban as weB as rural phases of South Vietnamese life and were subsumed, as the Buddhist question moved to the fore, by the general issue of the viability of Diem's regime. */

President Diem grew increasingly unwilling to meet U.S. demands for reform. He believed that to do so would cause his government to fail. U.S. observers held that failure to do so would cause the nation, not just the government to fall. In the event the government fell and the nation's counterinsurgent program took a definite turn for the worse, but the nation did not fall. The Strategic Hamlet Program did. Closely identified with the Ngo brothers, it was almost bound to suffer their fortunes; when they died it died, too. The new government of generals, presumably realizing the extent of peasant displeasure with resettlement and control measures, did nothing to save it. */

Failure of the Strategic Hamlets Program

Diem’s effort to construct strategic hamlets—a program run by his brother Ngo Dinh Nhu—ended up alienating increasing numbers of South Vietnamese, arguably creating more recruits for the Communists instead of isolating them as the program had intended. After the Strategic Hamlets Program failed, the missions of American soldiers in South Vietnam consisted of pacification ("winning hearts and minds"), search and destroy missions, free-fire zones, denuding the countryside, and using lethal firepower in heavily populated areas.

According to U.S. Defense Department reports cited in the Pentagon Papers: "A number of contributory reasons can be cited for the failure of the Strategic Hamlet Program. Over-expansion of construction and poor quality of defenses forms one category. This reason concentrates only on the initial phase of the program, however. While valid, it does little to explain why the entire program collapsed rather than only some hamlets within it. Rural antagonisms which identified the program with its sponsors in the central government are more suggestive of the basis for the complete collapse as Diem and Nhu departed the scene. The reasons why they departed are traceable in part to the different expectations which combined in the apparent consensus at the program's beginning: to Diem's insistence on material assistance and independence, to U.S. willingness to provide assistance only if its advice was heeded, and to the failure to resolve this question either by persuasion or leverage.[Source: The Pentagon Papers, "The Strategic Hamlet Program, 1961-1963," pp. 128-159, Boston: Beacon Press, 1971, */]

"Having said this, it does not automatically follow that the program would have succeeded even if Diem had met U.S. demands for change. To point to the causes of failure is one thing; to assume that changes of style would have led to success is quite another. It may well be that the program was doomed from the outset because of peasant resistance to measures which changed the pattern of rural life--whether aimed at security or control. It might have been possible, on the other hand, for a well-executed program eventually to have achieved some measure of success. The early demise of the program does not permit a conclusive evaluation. The weight of evidence suggests that the Strategic Hamlet Program was fatally flawed in its conception by the unintended consequence of alienating many of those whose loyalty it aimed to win. */

"This inconclusive finding, in turn, suggests that the sequential phases embodied in the doctrine of counterinsurgency may slight some very important problem areas. The evidence is not sufficient for an indictment; still less is one able to validate the counterinsurgent doctrine with reference to a program that failed. The only verdict that may be given at this time with respect to the validity of the doctrine is that used by Scots courts--"case not proved." */

Pacification and Winning Hearts and Minds in Vietnam

In an effort to "win the hearts and minds of the South Vietnamese, the United States launched a "pacification" campaign that included building schools, training teachers and health car workers and building village defense facilities. According to U.S. Defense Department reports cited in the Pentagon Papers: "Pacification--or as it is sometimes called by Americans, Revolutionary Development (RD)--had staged a comeback in priority from the days in 1964 and 1965 when it was a program with little emphasis, guidance, or support. It has by now almost equalled in priority for the Americans the original priority given the Strategic Hamlet program in 1962-1963, although the Vietnamese have not yet convinced many people that they attach the same importance to it as we do. [Source: The Pentagon Papers, Chapter 7, "Re-Emphasis on Pacification: 1965-1967," pp. 515-623, Boston: Beacon Press, 1971, */]

According to "Pacification is an imprecise term. The Oxford English Dictionary states that to pacify is "to reduce to peaceful submission, to establish peace and tranquility in a country or district." Although the Americans, like the French before them, saw pacification in the broadest sense of those terms, both usually thought of pacification as a specific strategy or program to bring security and political and economic stability to the countryside of Vietnam. But there was never agreement among Americans in Vietnam on just what pacification was and how it might be achieved. Some saw it as controlling the population; others as winning the people's allegiance. Some viewed it as a short-term military operation aimed at quashing opposition; others as a long-term process of bringing, in addition to security, economic, political, and social development to the people. [Source: 1967, Pacification, ]

"A semi-official study of pacification in South Vietnam provided one of the most comprehensive definitions: ". . . an array and combination of action programs designed to extend the presence and influence of the central government and to reduce the presence and influence of those who threaten the survival of the government through propaganda, terror, and subversion. The pacification process incorporates a mix of programs and activities that may vary in composition and relative emphasis from time to time and from place to place . . . The program mix comprises two broad, types of activities. They are designed on the one hand to establish and maintain a significant degree of physical security for the population and, on the other, to increase the communication and ties between the government and the people through a variety of selected non-military programs."

"Was the war primarily military, to be fought with essentially military means, or was it basically a political struggle? Although the U.S. government never formally resolved that question, the resources and emphasis devoted to the military side constituted a de facto policy decision in favor of a military solution. Indeed, such a "security first" approach to pacification may have been, after the first few years of the 1960s, the only realistic path. The South Vietnamese people by that time had seen too many programs and too many governments; they had been prey too often to the ebb and flow of struggle in their villages to put their trust in anybody who was unable first to protect them. Yet despite the emphasis on security, pacification continued to founder for lack of sustained security; and what was in effect two wars, military and political, flowed in parallel but separate streams.

History of the Pacification Program in Vietnam

According to "As Communist insurgency swept the Republic of Vietnam, one of the South Vietnamese government's key responses was a "pacification" program. Along with the military effort to suppress the insurgency, the United States provided advice and support for the pacification effort, but for over ten years that assistance was provided by a number of agencies without central coordination. To remedy this situation, President Lyndon B. Johnson on 9 May 1967 directed formation of an organization, to be composed of both civilian and military members, to provide American advice and support to the South Vietnamese pacification program. The organization's title, Civil Operations and Revolutionary Development Support-CORDS -- combined the names of two separate staffs then providing support for pacification : a civilian Office of Civil Operations and a military Revolutionary Development Support Directorate. (To denote changed emphasis, the title was altered in 1970 to Civil Operations and Rural Development Support.) [Source: 1967, Pacification, ]

"CORDS embraced all American agencies in South Vietnam dealing with pacification and civilian field operations with the exception of covert operations conducted by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). It was an element of the American military headquarters-the United States Military Assistance Command, Vietnam (MACV)--and was thus under the military commander, General William C. Westmoreland and later General Creighton W. Abrams. Ambassador Komer developed the concept for CORDS, but Ambassador William Colby institutionalized it in MACV and synergized its activities with Ambassador Bunker. In doing so, Ambassador Colby prevented major conflicts among civilian and military leaders that might have trickled down and complicated collaboration in the field.

Pacification Missions in South Vietnam

A U.S. Army guidebook for GIs read: "The attitude of both children and adult villagers quickly reveal indifference, friendliness, hostility, etc., as determined by the action of previous Americans or the villager's awareness that Viet Cong agents are present and watching. An awareness of such simple but obvious factors, as well as an understanding of the multiple involved pressures on the villagers, can do much to aid the success of assigned missions. The attitude, reaction and action of every American is a vital consideration as the lowest man may cause the loss of many lives or may promote such rapport that many lives are saved by the simplest acts of kindness, consideration, concern, or interest. The American serviceman benefits many as he reveals interest in other people as human beings even if their language, their culture and their daily life patterns do differ from America." [Source: The Religions of South Vietnam in Faith and Fact, US Navy, Bureau of Naval Personnel, Chaplains Division, 1967 ++]

Explaining in 1966 why his unit had set up a command posts with trenches, barbed wire, bunkers machine guns and artillery emplacements in the middle of lovely South Vietnamese countryside, Lieut Col. Harley Mooney Jr. told the New York Times, "Our operation is an experiment. It is the first time an American battalion has worked closely with a Vietnamese unit. The main-force Viet Cong units have, we think, moved back down to the river. The local guerrillas are still here—pretty much everywhere off the road. But we're not interested in them as in the 80 percent of the people who aren't VC. Can we put them on our side? That's the real purpose of our operation here. To be seen. To make contact with the people."

Describing a Pacification mission, John Pligar wrote, A "company of United States Marines drop by helicopter into the village of Yuylon, west of Danang, with orders to sell 'the basic liberties as outlined on page 233 of the Pacification Programme Handbook." When the arrive they are supposed to make contact with villagers. "They see none: not a child or a chicken. The population has watched them come out from the sky, and most of them have retired to the paddies or stand silent in the corner of their houses."

"'Come on out, we're your friends,' Sergeant Murell shouts through a loudhailer in English...'Come on out, everybody, we got rice and candy and toothbrushes to give you,' he coos in the hot silence...'listen either you gooks come out from wherever you are or we're going to come in there and get you,' he jokes as soldiers of war are given to joke."

"So the people of Tuylon come out from wherever they are and queue to receive packets of bulk supplies of US 'miracle rice,’ Uncle Ben's brand, and Hershey chocolate bars and 7,000 toothbrushes, which come on four soldiers, and comics for the children—“Superman” ...Sergeant Murell notes in his log of the day: at first they did not appear to understand that we had come to help them. However they were persuaded otherwise, and at this time they are secured and on our side."

The Village: U.S. Marine’s Befriend South Vietnamese Villagers

"The Village," by Bing West, first published in 1972, is the story of 15 Marines who spend two years in the remote hamlet of Binh Nghia, protecting villagers and joining with local security forces in trying to thwart a violent insurgency. Seven of the 15 were killed in action. West was a Marine officer. He participated in some patrols but mostly as a junior NCO he led operations in the long term. One of his main assignments was interviewing Marines to pass on lessons learned to commanders.

Tony Perry wrote in the Los Angeles Times, ""The Village" does not underestimate the difficulty of counterinsurgency. In the book, written in novelistic style, the Marines are often suspicious of their Vietnamese partners. One squad member goes berserk and tries to kill villagers. The Marines become complacent and lose several members in an ambush; top brass is too quick to declare victory and move on. "The Village" preaches the principles of constant awareness, persistence, respecting but not fearing the enemy. Among the challenges faced by the Marines are corruption and shifting loyalties among local forces, an enemy that can move undetected among the populace, and villagers afraid that the Americans will desert them. In the book, the villagers slowly begin to trust the Marines and side with them against the Viet Cong. "There was no awe of the unknown in the villagers' dealing with the Marines," West has written. "They were not the anonymous giants of the tanks, jets and helicopters. These Americans lived in their village, ate their food, worked with their men, died in their paddies." [Source: Tony Perry, Los Angeles Times, January 08, 2010]

According to Hidden Unities blog: "Bing West’s "The Village" is an incredible masterwork of war reporting and narrative from the ground-level, eyewitness perspective. Its not scholarly, but it remains deeply informative of the human experience for Marines fighting a very different kind of war from most of their counterparts on their own side and across enemy lines, as well as some fascinating impressions of Vietnamese life at the village level, especially how police work, schools, and political leadership were experienced by the people. [Source: Hidden Unities blog]

" West relates the story of a Marine Combined Action Platoon (CAP), a Marine innovation for the Vietnam War that sharply contrasted with the top-down, impersonal, highly destructive tactics deployed by the Army. A Marine infantry squad (around a dozen or so) would live among the Vietnamese in a given village, patrolling with local militia units also from the village known as PF’s (Popular Forces). Early on, the Marines of this village called in artillery support after making contact with VC (CAP Marines patrolled every night and usually experienced contact with the enemy every other time, a far more active combat experience than the rest of the military), leading to a tragic accident that killed several villagers and burned down several huts. From that moment on, they realized such mistakes could not be repeated and strove to rely on their own evolving wits and training rather than the potentially costly crutch of air and artillery support (aside from Medivacs and illumination).

"Relationships develop between the Marines (around 15 of whom are profiled in unsentimental but compelling details) and the villagers, from the PFs themselves who must overcome barriers of trust and pride to families who have to weigh the consequences of choosing a side by inviting the Marines into their lives. Marines kill and are killed, amid accounts of unsparing heroism and sacrifice by them and some of their Vietnamese brothers in arms. The biggest battle they fight is one without physical violence but instead a moment of grave danger as an enemy battalion is prepared to wipe out the CAP fort and reassume control of the village. Finding the Marines there intend to fight it out rather than flee, their attack is foiled and most importantly, the entire village knows the Marines stood their ground against the VC. Local allegiances then shift appropriately.

"Wouldas, couldas, and shouldas can abound after reading The Village. In the end, Gen. Westmoreland’s common view of Orientals having a cheaper conception of life than Americans won the day (one foolishly held in some variant by generations of colonial and occupying powers across continents, usually to their eventual disaster), and a rich opportunity for a potentially better way to fight the war was cast off in the grand scheme of things. The understanding by the Marines that they eventually became "of the people" rather than "among" or "around" the people was not only a testament to their professionalism and superior execution but a tremendous achievement most counter-insurgents could only dream of attaining.

The Village: Provides a Model for Village Pacification in Afghanistan

Reporting on U.S. Marines using Bing West’s "The Village," in Helmand Province, Afghanistan, Tony Perry wrote in the Los Angeles Times, "For the Marines in this former Taliban stronghold in southern Afghanistan, a book about the war in Vietnam has become a guide for how to wage a counterinsurgency campaign on a small scale. Though the overall U.S. effort in Southeast Asia ultimately failed, the Marines believe that lessons learned there could help in Afghanistan. Although the geopolitical ramifications may be widely different, the missions given those long-ago Marines and the Marines assigned here are roughly similar: Live amid the populace, partner with local forces and together drive a wedge between the populace and the enemy. [Source: Tony Perry, Los Angeles Times, January 08, 2010 }={]

"Marine Gen. James Mattis, who led Marines into Afghanistan in 2001 and Iraq in 2003 and now heads the U.S. Joint Forces Command, says "The Village" is a must-read for troops "to understand the role of the small unit in the sort of war we're fighting in Afghanistan." "Cohesive small units, well trained in more than fire and maneuver, and living among the people, are fundamental to victory," Mattis said. "Today's Marines saw how fast they were able to shatter an enemy in Iraq once the people of Al Anbar [province] turned against Al Qaeda." "The Village" is on the reading list issued annually by Marine Commandant Gen. James Conway. Many commanders also recommended the book to their troops before deploying here; some held group discussions. Dog-eared copies are common in the living quarters at Marine outposts spread among the farming communities of Helmand province. One company named several of its outposts after the Marines killed protecting Binh Nghia. }={

1st Lt. John Schippert commanded a patrol base in Helmand where Marines and Afghan soldiers lived side by side. The outpost was near a village that had been controlled by Taliban fighters until the Marines arrived in the summer. Schippert asked his officers and senior enlisted Marines to read the book in preparation for the counterinsurgency mission. "It helps you get out of the mind-set of conventional war," he said. "In a conflict like this, the center of gravity is the people. When you're neighbors with someone, their problems become your problems."

"The Marines at Binh Nghia faced some of the same challenges Marines encounter in Helmand: corruption and shifting loyalties among local forces, an enemy that can move undetected among the populace, and villagers afraid that the Americans will desert them. In the book, the villagers slowly begin to trust the Marines and side with them against the Viet Cong, much as today's Marine command wants rural Afghans to turn against the Taliban. Generals and other visitors have come to Helmand to evaluate the Marines' success. Among the visitors was West, who as a Marine captain in Vietnam was sent to evaluate efforts at Binh Nghia. A former assistant secretary of Defense, West has written three books about Marines in Iraq. On the verge of a return trip to the front lines in Afghanistan, West said recently that when he wrote "The Village" he thought that "no one would read — or care — about what we had accomplished. "It's gratifying to know that grunts in faraway hamlets today have 'The Village' in their rucksacks." }={

Battle for the Hearts and Minds of South Vietnamese Villagers

In his paper "Villager Attitudes During The Final Decade Of The Vietnam War,"Mark Moyar wrote: "The Viet Cong (VC), I argue, succeeded in obtaining the approval and cooperation of most villagers in many South Vietnamese hamlets between 1960 and 1965. The Viet Cong political cadres helped win the favor of numerous villagers by offering them land and other material benefits, and by promising to eliminate landlords and Government officials, who treated the villagers much worse than the VC normally did. Displays of VC strength and the outstanding leadership and propaganda skills of the cadres helped convince many villagers to follow the Communists. Few villagers sided with the Viet Cong because of political ideologies, such as nationalism or communism. Once villagers joined the VC on a full- time basis, the Communist Party employed additional methods to maintain their loyalty. [Source: Mark Moyar, Villager Attitudes During The Final Decade Of The Vietnam, Naval Institute Press, 1997, ++]

During the VC's heyday in the early 1960s, many cadres had lived in hamlets or visited them frequently. The VC cadres had endeared themselves to the majority of people in many places. They had helped the villagers with their work, treated them kindly, given land to many of them, driven away abusive Government officials and soldiers, and convinced them through propaganda of the VC's superiority. Brig. Gen. Tran Van Nhut, a South Vietnamese Army officer who held the position of province chief in Binh Long from 1970 to 1972 and later commanded a division in I Corps, commented, "After the Geneva Conference of 1954, all the Communist cadres concentrated in Quang Ngai, before they went to North Vietnam. Every girl was married to one of those cadres. Then the cadres moved to North Vietnam. After the National Liberation Front was created, they came back. They came to the village where they had been about six or seven years before, where their children and wives were. So there was more sympathy for the Communists than for us, because of family relationships, in the central area, mainly Quang Nam, Quang Tin, Quang Ngai and Binh Dinh. ++

"In 1965, the attitudes began to change. The villagers began to think less highly of the VC and more highly of the government of South Vietnam (GVN). Yet most Americans did not perceive this change, then or since, and thought that the attitudes of the villagers remained more or less the same. Some believed that the rural populace looked on the VC even more favorably than before. Of these, many thought that destructive Allied military operations in the populated areas, particularly those involving heavy firepower, made villagers more sympathetic to the VC. They reasoned that the villagers blamed the Allies for killing their relatives and neighbors because Allied weapons had inflicted the damage. Some also asserted that harsh or indiscriminate aspects of the Phoenix program had made the people hostile towards the Government of Vietnam in the war's later years. ++

"The conditions of village life changed radically in much of Vietnam between 1965 and 1972, and they altered the villagers' outlook on the war immensely. The introduction of American troops led to the most obvious and significant change in village life, a much higher level of violence than before, though this violence decreased after 1968. Many villagers watched Allied forces try to annihilate Communist forces in their hamlets with machine guns, rockets, napalm, and other heavy weapons. In the process, the Allies' fire often destroyed their relatives and their property. The damage changed not just in magnitude, however but in purpose as well. Earlier injury to the populace had consisted of such events as the Government territorial forces beating up or arresting a few local boys, or ARVN (Army of the Republic of Vietnam) soldiers raping village women and stealing chickens. Such acts showed villagers that the Government targeted them and not the VC, for in many cases no Viet Cong were, in fact, present in the hamlet at the time. Allied uses of violence in the subsequent era were aimed primarily at Communist soldiers inside the hamlets, not at the hamlet residents, a fact the villagers appreciated. ++

Impact of Fighting between Americans and Viet Cong on South Vietnamese Villagers

Mark Moyar wrote: " Contrary to the expectations of many Americans, the escalating violence of the village war did not turn the villagers against the government of South Vietnam or endear them to the VC. When powerful Allied attacks commenced in the VC-dominated villages, the populace's willingness to cooperate with the VC usually dropped off rapidly. A former district-level VC cadre recalled how he and the other cadres appraised the situation after high-intensity warfare arrived in their area: "All of us agreed that the people were then very tired of the war and that they were also very afraid of it. That is why all the policies of the Front have run into difficulties. The amount of tax collected and the number of the conscripted youths diminished noticeably, although the cadres did their best to cope with the situation. The increasing intensity of the war, the intensive and frequent shellings and strafings were considered the real causes of the deterioration of the people's enthusiasm." He said that the Communist Party used the destruction for propaganda purposes both inside and outside Vietnam, but he believed its overall effects devastated to the Party's war effort. "From experience, I realized that the Front is most strong in villages which haven't been shelled and that on the contrary, it weakens there where shellings frequently happened. To wage Front propaganda, to sow hatred against the government of South Vietnam, Front cadres need quietude. In Long Dinh [district] where shellings have greatly affected the people's welfare, it is very difficult for the cadres to win the villagers' support. It is also very difficult to make the villagers carry out activities which are necessary to the Front to launch its phases of offensive activities. These observations of mine made me thing that the Front is very active and harmful in quiet areas, while it is weakening there where the government of South Vietnam is active. So, if humanitarian considerations are to be discarded, I will say, as a pure military statement, that shellings really serve the final victory of the government of South Vietnam."[Source: Mark Moyar, Villager Attitudes During The Final Decade Of The Vietnam, Naval Institute Press, 1997,


"Because the Communist forces repeatedly failed to win tangible victories over Allied forces and because Allied activities made life with the VC harder, service with the VC seemed less attractive to young villagers and the parents who heavily influenced their decisions. Unfulfilled promises of quick victory gave the people further cause to look down on the recruiters of the Viet Cong shadow government. The VC, quite simply, had lost face and taken the people down with them. "In the last four years," said a VC deputy company commander who rallied in February 1968, "the people have listened too much to the VC exaggerated propaganda. They have all become disillusioned now." ++

"Many villagers, as events would have it, blamed the VC for the destructive battles in and around the hamlets and resented them for it. Some of the villagers criticized the Allies as well for the attacks. A Communist cadre who rallied at the end of 1966 described the public's mood in his village after a destructive helicopter attack: "Seeing that their homes had been burned down, their possessions destroyed and their family members killed, the people cried and cursed loudly both the Nationalists and the Communists.... the Nationalists brought planes there to attack them, killing people and destroying people's homes. Why didn't the Nationalists let their troops fight? As for the Front, the people ridiculed the VC by saying that they called themselves revolutionaries but they only hid among the people and caused them many sufferings. People got killed because of bombs and bullets which were meant primarily for the VC. If the liberation fighters were so brave why didn't they live outside of the village and save people from having to bear the strafings?"

Villagers Tended to Blame the Viet Cong for the Attacks

Mark Moyar wrote: " Generally, though, the villagers put the largest share of the blame on the VC. If the Communists kept suffering defeat whenever they came under Allied attack in the hamlets, the villagers reasoned, they were not accomplishing anything but adding to the people's woes. "In 1963 and 1964 the VC held [the] upper hand in my village, but since October 1965, the ARVN troops have been winning," testified a former VC guerrilla platoon leader from Quang Tin province. "If the VC had been able to win some battles the people would support them, but they'd not only failed to fight against the ARVN, they'd also dragged the people into the troubles. Therefore, the people became fed up." A former district-level VC cadre from Binh Dinh province said of Allied shelling, strafing, and bombing, "I thought that the attacks were mostly caused by the presence of Front forces in the hamlets, but from time to time they weren't justified. This was perhaps due to wrong information having been given to government of South Vietnam forces or to the carelessness of some government of South Vietnam or American leaders. The villagers only blamed the government of South Vietnam when the attacks weren't justified. With regard to all the attacks resulting from VC activities, they blamed the Front, sometimes openly." [Source: Mark Moyar, Villager Attitudes During The Final Decade Of The Vietnam, Naval Institute Press, 1997 ++]

The evidence also shows, contrary to some opinions, that people who fled their hamlets supported the VC less once they became refugees. The Communists lamented that the abandonment of the hamlets hindered them far more than it helped them, for it made the villagers both less accessible and less cooperative. A former village cadre remarked, "The more that people migrated to the Government areas, the less production workers, corve‚ laborers, and informers the Front had. The Front would no longer have the people to support them and with whom they could mingle to hide. Many young men from the village went to the Nationalist areas, enlisted in the Nationalist army and returned to the village to fight against the Front. This fact demoralized and confused the Front cadres the most." Cao Van Luong of the History Institute in Hanoi told me in 1995, "Millions of people left the countryside for the cities because of the American bombing, which weakened the Communist Party." ++

Refugees who chose to leave because of Allied attacks usually blamed the VC more than the GVN for their troubles, as did the many who left because the VC demanded too much of them. A VC turncoat from Quang Nam province said in 1967, "The villagers began to hate the VC after so many of them were innocently killed and their standard of living became increasingly difficult. In addition, the VC promised to liberate the villagers, but all the villagers saw around them was killing and starvation. They had to go find freedom for themselves and for their families. They started to move out of their native villages in the beginning of 1967." Those forced to leave by Allied troops and those who left because defoliants had destroyed their crops more often than not attributed their misfortunes to both the VC and the GVN. ++

The large-scale fighting in the villages also began to increase the standing of the GVN in the villagers' eyes. Allied forces usually defeated or drove away the Communists during engagements in or around the hamlets from 1965 onward. The Americans and Koreans fought more aggressively than the Vietnamese had before, and when in the early 1970s the Vietnamese took back control of the main force war, their performance showed notable improvement over that of the early 1960s. The Americans also had bigger and more accurate weapons and used them more carefully, so they hit the Communists much more often than had the ARVN blunderers who had handled heavy weapons previously. These military encounters usually convinced the villagers that the Allies were strong, and the Communists weak. Allied military triumphs, the Allies' wondrous high-tech weapons, and the strong Allied military presence in the countryside impressed the people enormously. As always, the large majority of villagers favored the side that was most likely to win, so the Allies became more attractive in their eyes. The villagers' growing desire for peace and security gave them further reason to support the strong, for their support meant the strong would win and end the violence more quickly. Sheer military force did help the Allies gain the sympathies of the rural population. "Most of the South Vietnamese had a very simple dream," explained Col. Nguyen Van Dai, who for several years was the Commandant of the GVN's National Police Field Forces. "They wanted to have peaceful lives and to not worry about having food. They didn't want to be afraid of someone capturing them or torturing them or killing them. They supported anyone who could bring peace for them." ++

South Vietnamese Villages Get Fed Up with the Viet Cong

Mark Moyar wrote: "Villagers also lost their enthusiasm for the Viet Cong because the level of prosperity in hamlets where the VC had substantial influence began to fall in 1965. Allied heavy weapons and defoliants destroyed crops, and Allied forces confiscated or destroyed rice and farm animals. Loss of family members to the VC and GVN drafts and to Allied firepower reduced the labor supply, and in some cases farmers stopped working when military operations in their area began or appeared imminent. The Viet Cong cadres decreased the villagers' income further by raising taxes and forcing the villagers to perform tasks for them more often. A VC soldier captured in Quang Ngai province during 1967, when asked the most important reason that the villagers had turned against the VC, gave a typical response: "The fact that they had to work for the VC and neglect their work. Because the people could no longer work for themselves, they didn't have the means of subsistence and had to starve and suffer." [Source: Mark Moyar, Villager Attitudes During The Final Decade Of The Vietnam, Naval Institute Press, 1997 ++]

Communist coercion also injured and angered many villagers. As their position in the village war became more and more desperate, the Communists used threats and force increasingly often against the villagers. Because the villagers had become less cooperative while the VC simultaneously suffered from scarcities of the hamlets' resources, the shadow government more often had to conscript villagers for military or other purposes and take money or goods without asking. Attempts to threaten, abduct, torture, or kill villagers and GVN officials who got in the VC's way rose in frequency. Less discriminate forms of force turned the people against the VC even more. Killings of GVN sympathizers and people who worked for the GVN in jobs not directly related to the war increased considerably. In rural areas where most of the population supported the GVN, and where the VC as a consequence had little hope of gaining the sympathies of the villagers, the Communists frequently tried to overrun and slaughter the territorial forces, the hamlet and village officials, and their families. They wanted to discourage stout anti-Communism and eliminate hamlets that gave the GVN manpower, food, and intelligence. "I couldn't count the number of cases where the little triangular forts of the Popular Forces were wiped out by Communist main force units," said Brig. Gen. James Herbert, who spent most of the 1960s and early 1970s in Vietnam, primarily as a pacification adviser. "The Communists killed all the soldiers and their families. It happened all over the country." ++

Because so many villagers sought shelter in areas under secure GVN control where they could not help the Communists, the Communists tried to show that villagers could not find a safer life when they moved into GVN areas. They routinely launched mortar attacks into these areas, set off bombs in markets there, mined the roads where these civilians traversed, and committed other terrorist acts that served no direct military purpose. Statistics indicate that from 1968 to 1972, roughly thirty thousand civilians a year went to GVN hospitals with injuries from mines and mortars, weapons with which only the Communists could have harmed civilians. Those with mine and mortar wounds, in fact, greatly exceeded in number those wounded by Allied shelling and bombing. The statistics may not be very accurate, for the hospitals often found it difficult to determine the origin of a wound. Many of the victims, moreover, were urban, not rural, civilians. American doctors, nurses, and advisers nonetheless confirmed that mines and mortars inflicted a very large number of casualties on the Vietnamese villagers, which at times exceeded the number from Allied heavy weaponry. ++

The Communists also tried to draw fire on GVN-controlled hamlets, with some success, by shooting at Allied troops from within them and then bolting off. Slaughter on an even large scale occurred periodically. From time to time, the Communists razed entire hamlets and killed all the inhabitants. John Peterkin, a black veteran of the Korean War who had his doubts about the US war effort, witnessed such slaughter as a District Senior Adviser in Phong Dinh province. The Communists, said Peterkin, "would attack small hamlets at night. They'd just kill, wantonly kill." He described arriving at one hamlet the morning after the North Vietnamese Army (NVA) came in. "A hand here, a leg there. Mothers shot up. It was like a massacre. They killed everyone in the hamlet, except a few who escaped. They did it because there was an outpost there."

Violence against GVN supporters and inhabitants of GVN areas in general did not occur every day in most provinces and seldom occurred at all in some. The annihilation of outposts or hamlets required forces larger than the Communists usually could gather in many places, so the Communists could not and did not conduct such operations on a regular basis. The number of incidents, nevertheless, was still fairly large. Some commentators have argued that even small doses of Communist terrorism paralyzed the village populations, but the history of both the VC and the GVN during their times of strength contradict this assertion. The villagers strongly resented the Communist atrocities in the late 1960s and the 1970s. This sort of killing did not target the enemy, nor did it come in response to enemy provocation, and it failed to change the balance of power. Many who suffered from such misdeeds became devout anti-Communist crusaders, just as many victims of GVN mistreatment in the late 1950s and early 1960s became enthusiastic members of the VC. The Communists undoubtedly appreciated this reality to some extent, which explains in part why they did not use terrorism more often than they did. Contrary to the oft-heard assertion that the Government needed to "protect the population," the GVN only had to protect its leaders and active supporters, and prevent large numbers of enemy cadres from operating overtly among the rest of the population. ++

Life Better in Non-Viet Cong Villages

Mark Moyar wrote: "For the South Vietnamese peasant, life was much better in hamlets where the Government had all or most of the political power than in VC-dominated hamlets. People normally obtained a substantially larger amount of wealth in the GVN hamlets than in VC or hotly-contested areas, with which they invested or bought a variety of personal goods. US aid programs brought money, technologically advanced equipment, superior agricultural supplies such as "miracle rice" seeds, and other useful commodities to these areas. Many men who worked for the Government also could spend some of their time helping their families in farming and other economic activities. Rice production increased from 4.3 metric tons in the 1966-1967 crop year to 6.1 million metric tons in 1971-1972. Improved Allied security reduced the ability of the Communists to inflict large- scale destruction on development projects and allowed the villagers' greater freedom of travel, increasing their ability to take their products to markets. American aid also improved public facilities, utilities, and roads. Le Thi Anh, a writer who opposed both the Thieu regime and the Communists, described the Mekong Delta in the early 1970s: "In the countryside... everybody had a motorized sampan [rivercraft]. Everybody was well-dressed and had radios and sewing machines. Everybody was well fed, happy and prosperous.... The rural areas especially enjoyed great benefits from the American presence. Telephones, new roads and bridge-- we never had those kinds of things before." Some areas of South Vietnam did not always match this description, particularly in the northern provinces, but a great many did. During the last year of the war, the South Vietnamese economy experienced a sharp downturn. Many people, in some urban areas and a few rural areas, barely had enough to eat, and in a few cities people starved. The crisis, however, was not severe enough to change the political situation in the countryside dramatically. [Source: Mark Moyar, Villager Attitudes During The Final Decade Of The Vietnam, Naval Institute Press, 1997 ++]

"Villagers could feel safer in the towns and cities, GVN refugee camps, and hamlets under GVN control than in most hamlets where the Communists wielded considerable power. The expansion of pacification allowed many villagers to return to their hamlets or other hamlets where they could resume agricultural pursuits. Because safety from the perils of war had become a primary objective of villagers, this GVN advantage helped the Government's political cause enormously. The Communists attacked the GVN areas and at times inflicted significant damage, but the senselessness of the attacks and the absence of relatively safe VC areas to which the people could escape caused the people to resent the Communists more. [Source: Mark Moyar, Villager Attitudes During The Final Decade Of The Vietnam, Naval Institute Press, 1997 ++]

In the late 1960s, the Government built up its political apparatus in the countryside. While the shadow government's problems mounted and its recruitment in the hamlets sagged, the Government recruited more and more villagers for the territorial forces and other organizations that operated in the countryside. President Thieu's belated decision to implement universal conscription after the Tet Offensive bolstered the GVN recruitment drive. The People's Self-Defense Forces also engaged many villagers, though the members' commitment was considerably weaker in many cases. By bringing so many villagers into the Government ranks and keeping them in their native areas, the GVN dramatically improved its popularity among the villagers. ARVN and other national organizations grabbed most of the other eligible males. Almost all hamlet residents now had relatives in the GVN, while much fewer had VC relatives than before, and they tended to endorse the side for whom their relatives served. If they had relatives on both sides, they usually helped both sides but contributed more to the side that employed more of their relatives in their immediate vicinity, which in most cases was the GVN. Skeptics complained that the Government's recruitment policies were coercive. Oftentimes they were indeed coercive to some extent, but that fact did not alienate the villagers. Coercion often aided both sides in the Vietnam War, particularly the stronger side, and it proved necessary to keep people fighting. In this case, it had some highly beneficial political consequences. ++

Dislike of the Viet Cong Fails to Translates to Support for South Vietnam

Mark Moyar wrote: "Popularity, however, did not cause the rural populace to assist the GVN. It did not provide the driving force for the GVN's pacification or military efforts. Nor did a lack of popularity in certain areas necessarily thwart these efforts, though it could slow them down. The relationship between popularity and support was more complex than most Americans thought. Most villagers had reasons to remain apathetic even if they looked favorably on the GVN. In many areas the Communists still could harm villagers who cooperated too much with GVN personnel. The villagers also were not overly enthusiastic about giving up their children or their possessions to the GVN or anyone else. Having as little to do with either side, therefore, often seemed the ideal course of action. Many, if not most villagers indeed really wished that both sides would leave them alone. [Source: Mark Moyar, Villager Attitudes During The Final Decade Of The Vietnam, Naval Institute Press, 1997 ++]

"Villagers inclined towards inertia, however, usually supported one or both sides to some extent because they seldom were left alone. In contested areas, where the desire to be left alone was strongest, the GVN and the Communists tried to make peasants help them through a combination of compulsion and persuasion. Both sides normally enjoyed some success, for the villagers would still act if prodded. In June 1968, when much of the countryside could be considered contested, an insightful CIA report stated that "The predominant sentiment... is probably one of increasing concern to avoid the hazards of war.... Left to themselves [the South Vietnamese] are likely to remain uncommitted and disengaged until a decisive break in the struggle becomes obvious." It also observed, however, that "Most of the people respond to power and authority, whether that of the Viet Cong or the GVN." ++

"The most important factor in obtaining villager support was leadership. As the rise of the Viet Cong demonstrated, only a competent and devoted elite of leaders could organize large numbers of villagers to act. The second most useful tool in getting the villagers to cooperate was strength, which often was the product of good leadership. Hamlet dwellers liked success and wanted to be a part of it. The GVN's strength advantages after 1968 contributed significantly to its ability to obtain support. ++

"The years after the Tet Offensive demonstrated that the GVN did not need to make its benefits contingent on support to obtain the cooperation it needed. Once the Government eliminated most of the VC's power in the hamlets and assigned passable leaders to control those hamlets, it brought most of the young male villagers into its service, in part through compulsion and in part through persuasion. Even in the increasingly small number of areas where the VC exerted substantial influence over the people and continued to enjoy the sympathies of many villagers, strong Government leaders could build effective opposition to the Communists with rural manpower. The GVN, when it installed capable leaders, succeeded in forming village governments and strong territorial forces from the hamlet populations in every single province. ++

Image Sources:

Text Sources: Pentagon Papers, Gravel Edition, (Boston: Beacon Press, 1971) Volume 2, Chapter 2, "The Strategic Hamlet Program, 1961-1963," pp. 128-159 and Chapter 7, "Re-Emphasis on Pacification: 1965-1967," pp.;
“Villager Attitudes During the Final Decade Of the Vietnam War” by Mark Moyar, Vietnam Center and Sam Johnson Vietnam Archive, Texas Tech University New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Vietnamtourism. com, Vietnam National Administration of Tourism, CIA World Factbook, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Global Viewpoint (Christian Science Monitor), Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, Fox News and various websites, books and other publications identified in the text.

Last updated May 2014

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