America’s Scorched Earth Policy in Vietnam: Part I, The Justification

In 1965, the United States began the wholesale destruction of rural South Vietnam. The destruction came in many forms. U.S. airplanes bombed hamlets, infantrymen set fire to the houses of peasants, U.S. Army artillery batteries indiscriminately shelled patches of forest, U.S. Air Force C-123’s dropped chemical defoliants on crops, and U.S. troops forcibly removed peasants to refugee camps. These actions were not the unintentional and unfortunate consequences of war. Rather, the United States military, with the full-backing of the President of the United States, Lyndon Baines Johnson, and the head of Military Assistance Command – Vietnam (MACV), General William C. Westmoreland, purposely carried out a scorched earth policy across the South Vietnamese countryside.

Johnson and Westmoreland were not the only American leaders to favor a scorched earth policy in South Vietnam. Other top officials at the White House, Pentagon and State Department supported the policy too, including National Security Adviser McGeorge Bundy, Presidential Advisor Maxwell Taylor, Secretary of State Dean Rusk, Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara, and Deputy Secretary of Defense John McNaughton.

All of these men approved of the scorched earth policy because they believed that the bombing, shelling, spraying, and burning of rural South Vietnam would separate, at least temporarily, the guerrillas from their civilian supporters. And once the Vietcong’s peasant sympathizers were forced into refugee camps, the Vietcong would have greater difficulty acquiring food, new recruits, intelligence, and sanctuary, all of the prerequisites for a successful insurgency. Put simply, Johnson and his advisers believed the destruction of rural South Vietnam would defeat the Vietcong.

American and British counter-insurgency experts, such as Edward Lansdale and Robert G.K. Thompson, understood that true pacification was the surest way of persuading the peasantry to abandon its allegiance to the Vietcong. But genuine pacification was hard work. It not only took a long time, it also required a redistribution of South Vietnam’s wealth and political power. The White House and MACV actually agreed with Lansdale and Thompson. Nevertheless, Johnson and Westmoreland still opted for a scorched earth policy. The reason for their apparently contradictory thinking had a lot to do with the South Vietnamese government’s (GVN) poor track record in pacification.

Between 1955 and 1965, the GVN had tried several different pacification schemes, including the Highlands Resettlement Program, the Caisan Project, the Agroville Program, the Strategic Hamlet Program, and the Hop Tac Pacification Plan. All of these various programs failed to pacify the peasantry.

Thus, Johnson and Westmoreland recognized that the GVN stood little chance of ever winning peasant hearts and minds, especially in long-held Vietcong territory. So in lieu of geniune pacification, the two men decided to devastate Vietcong territory and drive the Vietcong’s supporters into GVN-controlled refugee camps.[1]

Soon after MACV began implementing the scorched earth policy in the South Vietnamese countryside, journalist Neil Sheehan asked General Westmoreland about the Allied targeting of villages and hamlets in Vietcong territory and the killing and wounding of civilians. In a rare moment of candor, the general responded, “Yes, Neil, it is a problem, but it does deprive the enemy of the population, doesn’t it?”[2]

In his memoir, Westmoreland recounted a meeting he had with retired General Douglas MacArthur just before his June 1964 posting to South Vietnam. In an hour-and-a-half conversation, the two men discussed how the United States might defeat the insurgents. MacArthur gave Westmoreland the following, chilling advice, “Do not overlook the possibility…that in order to defeat the guerrilla, you may have to resort to a scorched earth policy.”[3] MacArther, by the way, had done just that in Korea in 1950 and early 1951.

Although Westmoreland never admitted that he ordered the implementation of a scorched earth policy across South Vietnam, his statement to Neil Sheehan and his recollection of the conversation with MacArthur came close to an admission.

Comments by other U.S. officials lend further credence to the existence of such a policy. In November 1964, months before the deployment of U.S. combat troops to South Vietnam, Maxwell Taylor recommended to Johnson that should it become apparent that the U.S. would lose the war in South Vietnam, the United States must severely punish the Communists for defying the will of the United States. Taylor told the president, “Never let the DRV [North Vietnam] gain a victory in South Vietnam without [them] having paid a disproportionate price.”[4] Bombing the North and destroying large segments of rural South Vietnam (the core area of Communist strength in the South) would ensure the Communists paid a “disproportionate price.”

Deputy Secretary of Defense John McNaughton recommended the same course of action as Taylor. In late March 1965, soon after the Marines landed at Danang, he wrote his boss, Robert S. McNamara, “It is essential – however badly SEA [Southeast Asia] may go over the next 1-3 years – that US emerge as a “good doctor.” We must have kept promises, been tough, taken risks, gotten bloodied, and hurt the enemy very badly…The relevant audiences are the Communists (who must feel strong pressures) ….”[5] Those pressures would be applied through bombing, shelling, and ground operations across Indochina, particularly in South Vietnam.

In his memo to McNamara, McNaughton acknowledged what every influential U.S. official at the White House, Pentagon, and State Department in 1965 knew to be true – the U.S. stood a good chance of losing the war in South Vietnam. And since the U.S. might ultimately be humiliated by the lowly Vietcong and North Vietnamese, the Communists had “to feel strong pressures.” A scorched earth policy would not only separate the peasantry from the Vietcong, it would put pressure on the Communists and punish them for their defiance of the world’s pre-eminent power.


[1] New York Times, “Saigon: The Tragic Paradox of Vietnam,” James Reston, August 29, 1965.

[2] James S. Olson and Randy Roberts, Where the Domino Fell: America and Vietnam, 1945-1990, (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1991), 161.

[3] William C. Westmoreland, A Soldier Reports, (Garden City, New York: Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1976), 40.

[4] The Senator Gravel Edition, The Pentagon Papers, The Defense Department History of United States Decisionmaking on Vietnam, Volume III, “Document 242, Taylor Briefing, The Current Situation in South Vietnam – November 1964, November 27, 1964,” (Boston: Beacon Press, 1971), 672.

[5] The Senator Gravel Edition, The Pentagon Papers, The Defense Department History of United States Decisionmaking on Vietnam, Volume III, “Document 253, JTM [McNaughton] to MCN [McNamara], Proposed Course of Action RE Vietnam, March 24, 1965,” (Boston: Beacon Press, 1971), 700.

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