Ngo Dinh Diem and the South Vietnamese Peasantry, Part VII, Kennedy’s Lost War

No one in 1963, or later, doubted that Ngo Dinh Diem lacked the personality traits and the leadership skills to win the allegiance of the rural peasantry. A CIA report from 1963 stated the following about the Diem regime, “…[it] has been hampered by its lack of confidence in and its inability to engage the understanding and support of a considerable portion of the Vietnamese people – including large segments of the educated classes and the peasantry.”[1] Diem’s monopolization of power, his promotion of Catholics to positions of influence, and his reliance on his brother Nhu isolated him from the majority of South Vietnamese.

Diem certainly had his problems; but it was the Strategic Hamlet Program, and the peasant opposition to it, that caused his government to lose so much ground in 1962 and 1963. And President Kennedy, as much as Diem, held responsibility for the debacle that unfolded across rural South Vietnam in those years.

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Ngo Dinh Diem and the South Vietnamese Peasantry, Part VI, Prelude to a Coup

The Vietcong did not stand idly by while the Americans and South Vietnamese erected strategic hamlets across South Vietnam.  From the beginning, the guerrillas sought to undermine the program. On June 23, 1962, only two months after the GVN initiated the program in Binh Duong Province, Hanoi radio urged its compatriots in the South to “…destroy the United States-Diem [My-Diem] strategic hamlets and free the people detained therein.”[1] After hearing this radio message, U.S. and GVN officials concluded that the Strategic Hamlet Program must be working, otherwise the Hanoi regime would not have brought attention to it.

In the weeks that followed Hanoi’s exhortation, the Vietcong stepped up its attacks against strategic hamlets, striking at settlements in the provinces of Quang Ngai on the coastal plain and Vinh Binh and Vinh Long in the delta. In all of these operations, the guerrillas seized the weapons of the hamlet defenders, which enabled them to replenish their own stocks and arm new units. In the ten-week period ending July 15, the Vietcong attacked forty-six strategic hamlets, but only overran three.[2]

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Ngo Dinh Diem and the South Vietnamese Peasantry, Part V: Concentrating the Population

Peasant opposition to the Strategic Hamlet Program was immediate and widespread.  The reasons for that opposition varied from place to place; but more often than not, the strategic hamlets did not offer the peasantry the quality of life they had been told to expect. Rather than a new, modern life in the hamlets, many displaced peasants found a desolate, dirty, isolated existence under strict government control. Official misconduct, and outright abuse, magnified the peasant backlash. Corruption played a role too. Provincial and district officials often stole the money and American amenities originally earmarked for residents of the strategic hamlets, which only deepened peasant hatred for the GVN.  The dismal performance of the GVN in implementing the Strategic Hamlet Program was evident all across South Vietnam.   Continue Reading »

Ngo Dinh Diem and the South Vietnamese Peasantry, Part IV: The Strategic Hamlet Program

From its hopeful beginning to its inglorious end, the United States was heavily involved in the Strategic Hamlet Program.

In the first months of 1962, U.S. State Department officials working in the American embassy in Saigon, and U.S. military advisers attached to the U.S.’s Military Assistance Advisory Group (MAAG), coordinated with the South Vietnamese to devise a new, large-scale resettlement program. Before the program officially began in late March, U.S. officials, including Secretary of State Dean Rusk, Defense Secretary Robert S. McNamara, Ambassador Frederick Nolting, and JFK’s special adviser on Vietnam, Maxwell Taylor, approved the details of the program.[1] The American role in the program became so pervasive that the U.S. Mission established a Strategic Hamlet Committee, housed in the embassy, to oversee the dispersal of U.S. financial aid, building materials, and technical advice. Continue Reading »

Ngo Dinh Diem and the South Vietnamese Peasantry, Part III: The Agroville Program

Rural resettlement in South Vietnam took many forms in the 1950’s and 1960’s. The names of the various programs changed through time, but the primary goal of each program remained the same – defeat the Communists’ Maoist-inspired war of national liberation by denying the Vietcong access to the peasantry. During his years in office, Ngo Dinh Diem implemented three major resettlement programs.

The Agroville Program began in 1959. Agrovilles were built adjacent to known Vietcong infiltration routes, within long-held Communist areas, and adjacent to the highway approaches to Saigon.  American and South Vietnamese officials visualized the residents inside the fortified agrovilles serving the Allied war effort in a variety of ways. Relocated peasants would disrupt the movement of Vietcong military units, hinder the transfer of Communist supplies, provide intelligence on the local Vietcong, and protect the South Vietnamese capital from Vietcong infiltrators.[1] However, the Agroville Program, like so many other counter-insurgency programs implemented by the Saigon regime, experienced problems right from the start. Continue Reading »

Ngo Dinh Diem and the South Vietnamese Peasantry, Part II: Rural Resettlement

Ngo Dinh Diem and his volatile brother Nhu viewed the rural hamlet, and its residents, as the primary impediment to the integration and modernization of South Vietnam.

In the early 1960s, the South Vietnamese countryside contained 16,398 hamlets ranging in size from four residents to 17,000 residents; fifty- percent of the hamlets had 500 inhabitants or less. Demographers believed that between eighty and eighty-five percent of the South’s population lived in one of the countryside’s thousands of hamlets.[1]

Diem and Nhu wanted to break down the physical and political barriers between the hamlet and the central government; doing so, they believed, would eliminate the peasantry’s parochialism, xenophobia, and conservatism – all the factors preventing South Vietnam’s modernization. Continue Reading »

Ngo Dinh Diem and the South Vietnamese Peasantry, Part I: The Modern Mandarin

Ngo Dinh Diem’s political base consisted of South Vietnam’s minority Catholic population, the Catholic Church hierarchy, the military’s officer corps (which was also heavily Catholic), landlords, the country’s business elite, and the urban middle class. In a very real sense, the American Catholic Church, as well as the presidential administrations of Dwight D. Eisenhower and John F. Kennedy, represented another important segment of Diem’s base. Without the backing of these groups, he risked losing his hold on power. Because his political influence did not derive from the peasantry, Diem, during his nine years as the leader of South Vietnam, largely ignored the interests and aspirations of South Vietnam’s rural population. He did not believe he needed the peasantry to remain in office. Continue Reading »

Vietnam 1965: Mission Creep, the Marines, and the Danang Airbase

Following the Vietcong attacks at Pleiku in the Central Highlands and Qui Nhon on the central coast of South Vietnam, President Johnson authorized U.S. retaliatory air raids against military targets in North Vietnam. These airstrikes marked the last of the tit-for-tat retaliatory raids against the North.

On February 13, 1965, Johnson approved the systematic, continuous bombing of North Vietnam. A little over two weeks later, the United States began Operation Rolling Thunder – later dubbed the most intensive aerial bombardment campaign in world history. Only days before the start of the air campaign, the president expressed an odd mixture of relief and pessimism at the likelihood that Rolling Thunder would force the Hanoi regime to abandon its support of the insurgency in South Vietnam. In a conversation with Defense Secretary Robert S. McNamara, Johnson remarked, “Now we’re off to bombing these people. We’re over that hurdle. I don’t think anything is going to be as bad as losing, and I don’t see any way of winning.”[1] Continue Reading »

Home Away From Home: Vietnam, Big Bases, and the American Way of War

During and after the Vietnam War, journalists, historians, and military personnel criticized General William Westmoreland for approving the construction of big U.S. military bases across South Vietnam. The critics, who included the decorated and controversial Lieutenant Colonel David Hackworth, argued that the bases were unnecessarily large, provided too many amenities to soldiers, exposed American troops to enemy fire, reduced the combat effectiveness of U.S. units by providing soldiers an all-too luxurious life in the rear, and increased the overall financial cost of the war without any discernible benefits. Hackworth described the 9th Infantry Division base at Dong Tam, and the soldiers stationed there, as “four hundred acres of sitting ducks.”[1] But Westmoreland’s detractors, such as Hackworth, failed to recognize the political and military reasons Westmoreland chose to construct large bases in South Vietnam. Continue Reading »

Vietnam 1965: LBJ Rejects the Prospect of People’s War

Bien Hoa airbase lay a scant twelve miles northeast of Saigon, in an area of scrub brush, elephant grass, and marshland. On its tarmac stood one of the largest concentrations of U.S. military aircraft in South Vietnam, including B-57 bombers, UH-1 helicopters, and A-1H ground attack planes.

Just after midnight on November 1, 1964, a 100-man company of Vietcong guerrillas set up a battery of six U.S.-made 81-mm mortars in a meadow on the south side of the base.  U.S. investigators later concluded that the Vietcong had likely acquired the American mortars from French stockpiles during the Franco-Vietnamese War.  The guerrillas came within a half a mile of the base’s perimeter without being detected by the South Vietnamese battalion charged with the base’s defense. Once the guerrillas attached the mortar tubes to their base plates and sighted the weapons, they started lobbing one shell after another over the airbase’s perimeter fence. The high-arching mortar rounds first fell down on the B-57s, setting several ablaze. After blasting through a row of B-57s, the mortar crews walked the explosions back toward the barracks housing U.S. personnel. As the exploding rounds came within range of the barracks, hot shrapnel tore through the building, wounding several Americans who only moments before had been in peaceful slumber. Other GI’s were cut down by shell fragments as they exited the building. Continue Reading »

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