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. 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 »
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. 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 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.
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’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 »
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.” Continue Reading »
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.” 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 »
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 »
In the 1960’s and early 1970’s, Indochina’s weather, insects, and animals posed serious problems for American troops deployed across South Vietnam.
South Vietnam’s heat plagued the Americans. During the dry season, which lasts from early February to the end of April, daytime temperatures along the south central coast, in the lowlands around Saigon, and across the Mekong Delta regularly rose into the 90’s Fahrenheit. American troops, who had been acclimatized to the temperate climate of North America, had difficulty patrolling in such extreme heat. Heavy cotton fatigues (issued in the early years of the war), cumbersome rucksacks, steel-plated flak jackets, and steel helmets only worsened the effects of the heat. Under South Vietnam’s unbearable mid-day sun, G.I.’s became lethargic and dangerously overheated. Trooper Bill Brocksieker remembered his unit’s first month in-country, “We didn’t have no jungle boots or no utilities. Everybody, we drank a lot of water. We were dehydrated easy trying to get adjusted to the heat, a lot of people fainting, a lot of confusion that first thirty days or so.” Continue Reading »
The Vietcong excelled in tunnel construction. The guerrillas dug impressive tunnel complexes under villages, between villages, and beneath their base camps. Some tunnel systems, including the famous Cu Chi tunnels northwest of Saigon, were decades old by the time American troops landed in South Vietnam in mid-1965.
Large tunnel complexes, such as the one below the timbered Iron Triangle, became something akin to a massive underground base camp, with storage areas, ammunition dumps, hospitals, and sleeping quarters. A U.S. Army study noted, “Generally, enemy tunnels were of two kinds: simple, shallow structures, hastily built and used primarily by local Viet Cong and guerrillas, or well-constructed systems used by large forces and usually found in uninhabited areas.” Continue Reading »
The U.S.’s scorched earth tactics, in conjunction with the Allied mistreatment of rural residents and refugees, spurred Vietcong recruitment during the period from early 1965 to late 1967. At the beginning of 1965, Communist main force and guerrilla strength stood at 103,000. In March 1965, the month the Marines landed at Danang and U.S. air operations in South Vietnam ratcheted up, the number of Vietcong was reported to have reached 137,000. The March estimate represented a 33% increase in Communist strength in just a matter of months.
By July 1965, the U.S. revised upward its figures on enemy strength to 153,000 main forces and guerrillas. Enemy strength jumped still higher later in the year (a period that coincided with a further intensification of U.S. air and ground combat operations across South Vietnam). In the second half of 1965, U.S. intelligence estimated Vietcong in-country recruitment at 9,000 new foot soldiers per month. By the close of 1965, the Vietcong fielded an army of 230,000 regulars and part-time guerrillas. U.S. air and ground operations in 1965 failed to weaken the Vietcong. Instead, the U.S. presence did the exact opposite; it spurred a Vietcong recruitment bonanza. The Vietcong became stronger and more menacing as the U.S. build up progressed into 1966 and 1967. Continue Reading »