America’s Scorched Earth Policy in Vietnam: Part III, The Consequences

In contrast to artillery gunners and the pilots of high-flying bombers, U.S. infantrymen orchestrated the destruction of rural South Vietnam up close and personal. They carried out the American scorched earth policy with Zippo lighters, flamethrowers, and grenades.

On August 3, 1965, CBS News’ Morley Safer and his camera crew witnessed one of the first instances of U.S. ground troops destroying a South Vietnamese village.  Safer and his team accompanied a U.S. Marine patrol on a search and destroy operation near the Danang airbase.

As soon as the Marines entered the village of Cam Ne, throngs of frightened, confused villagers emerged from their huts. Nervous women, children, and old men mingled with the heavily-armed Marines along the village’s dirt paths. Few of the South Vietnamese standing close to the Marines were men of military age. The absence of young men, and the village’s fortifications, convinced the Marines the residents of Cam Ne were Vietcong sympathizers.

After the Marines searched the huts, their commanding officer ordered them to destroy the village. The Marines accomplished this sordid task with Zippo lighters and flamethrowers. One U.S. Marine, in full combat gear, was caught on film holding a flaming lighter to the brittle, dry thatch of a hut. In an instant, the thatch took to the flame. Other Marines did the same thing to nearby huts.  Soon, the entire village was engulfed in fire and heavy smoke.

While Safer’s camera crew filmed the scene, a frail, elderly South Vietnamese man emerged from the smoke, his hands clasped as if in prayer, pleading with Safer to stop the destruction of his village. Unsure of what to do, and visibly shaken by the man’s wailing, Safer spoke haltingly into the camera while the distraught old man stood off to his side. In the background, the village continued to burn. In the end, the old man’s pleading accomplished nothing. Every one of the village’s 150 huts went up in smoke.

Safer’s televised report on the destruction of Cam Ne brought, for the first time, widespread public attention to the U.S. military’s scorched-earth tactics in South Vietnam.  Not surprisingly, Johnson, the Pentagon, and the Marine Corps wanted to avoid that kind of attention. And the reason was easy to understand.  The sight of U.S. Marines destroying the homes of elderly South Vietnamese civilians raised serious moral questions about U.S. involvement in Vietnam.

When Johnson learned of the newsreel, he expressed outrage, but not at the Marines who destroyed Cam Ne.  Rather, the president criticized Safer for reporting the incident and CBS for airing it.  Johnson even went so far as to question the network’s loyalty to the United States and its mission in Vietnam. As for Safer, a Canadian by birth, the president and his team of advisers wondered whether he held any allegiance to his adopted country.

The destruction of Cam Ne, and Johnson’s reaction to it, suggested that the president was not only aware of the military’s punitive tactics toward South Vietnam’s peasantry, but that he fully supported those tactics.[1]

Despite the televised broadcast of the destruction of Cam Ne, a majority of Americans still trusted the president and his conduct of the war. As a result, Johnson did not feel any political pressure to stop, or curtail, the military’s scorched-earth tactics.  Thus, from 1965 onward, American ground troops cut a path of destruction across rural South Vietnam.

In contrast to Morley Safer, S.L.A. Marshall was a U.S. citizen whose loyalty to the United States and the U.S. military were beyond reproach. In the fall of 1966, sixteen months after the Marines razed Cam Ne, Marshall went along with troops of the 1st Cavalry Division on a search and destroy operation in Binh Dinh Province. He recounted the operation. “Before the sweep was over, troops had grenaded into every hole and burned every hut and shed. By 1230 on 3 October, the thing was finished. Where Hoa Hoi had been there lay only ashes, blackened spans and uprooted filth-covered vegetation, along with bits of stinking flesh.”[2]

Marshall observed another operation by the 1st Cavalry Division in Binh Dinh in which U.S. troops destroyed five hamlets in quick succession. He described the obliteration of these rural communities. “The destruction of Hoi Son 1 began with the firing of an M-79 round into a thatched roof. Then the artillery was called on to work it over with white phosphorous shells, this being done by the eight-inchers of the 13th Field. In the end all five of the Hoi Son villages were wiped out. The cattle were rounded up, 116 head, and a Popular Force unit was dropped near Hoi Son 1 to drive the stock from the valley for disposal by the district chief.”[3]  Marshall never explained what happened to the cattle. But it would not have been surprising if the district chief sold the cattle and pocketed the money.  The financial benefits derived from the destruction of rural hamlets such as Hoi Son encouraged South Vietnamese military officers and government officials to go along with the American policy.

Philip Caputo remembered the burning of Ha Na, west of Danang. When the village went up in flames, Caputo recalled, “One elderly man ran up to me, and, grabbing me by the front of my shirt, asked, “Tai Sao? Tai Sao?” Why? Why? …by the time we started up Hill 52, there was nothing left of Ha Na but a long swath of smoldering ashes, charred tree trunks, their leaves burned off, and heaps of shattered concrete.”[4]

Charles Albridge, with the 25th Infantry Division at Cu Chi, remembered that the burning of hamlets was standard practice throughout his division.  It was just something every unit did.  “When we secured a specifically enemy hamlet,” said Albridge, “or perhaps one declared questionable and moved the people out, especially if we were close to the Ho Bo [Woods] or the Iron Triangle, we would destroy the village. This was a standing order.”[5]

In January 1967, the Americans destroyed the village of Ben Suc, located along a lush stretch of the Saigon River northwest of the South Vietnamese capital. Ben Suc had long been a Vietcong bastion.

Since the Allies had never been able to pacify the villagers of Ben Suc, who were contemptuous of the blatantly corrupt Saigon regime, Westmoreland decided to forcibly remove all of Ben Suc’s residents and then burn and bulldoze every building in the village. Laying waste to Ben Suc and transporting its residents to a refugee camp was supposed to pacify that area of the Saigon River Valley.

On January 8, 1967, Westmoreland travelled out from his Saigon headquarters to Ben Suc to view the progress of the operation. While in the village he politely greeted its residents. In a photo taken on that day, the general is shown tipping his hat in a gesture of respect to two of Ben Suc’s female inhabitants. The image was deceptive in that the viewer would never have suspected that the apparently genial general was about to turn the lives of these two women upside down.

To further deceive the U.S. public and conceal the true purpose for destroying Ben Suc, Westmoreland’s headquarters claimed the village had fallen into disrepair; its residents supposedly risked disease and premature death if they remained in Ben Suc’s dilapidated structures.  The U.S. Command in Saigon asserted that that the destruction of the village and the removal of its residents to a new refugee camp would improve the lives of the inhabitants.  But a U.S. colonel, who admitted the past failures of the U.S. and GVN to break the Vietcong’s hold on Ben Suc, was more honest. Referring to the demolition of Ben Suc, he said, “This is probably the only military or political solution for this place.” He then added, “I imagine there will be a lot of wailing and gnashing of teeth, but they’ll do what they’re told.”[6]

Since the Americans threatened to kill anyone who attempted to flee Ben Suc, the majority of peasants at Ben Suc did as they were told. About 3,800 villagers, almost all women, children, and old men, boarded big CH-47 Chinooks or riverboats for the move to the GVN refugee camp.[7]  Once the people had been taken from the village, U.S. troops went in and flattened it. Reporter Jonathan Schell was there. He wrote, “…infantrymen ducked in an out of the palm groves behind them, some pouring gasoline on the grass roofs of the houses and others going from house to house setting them afire.”[8] At the end of the operation, Ben Suc was gone.

The demolition of hamlets by U.S. infantry units never once slowed during Westmoreland’s tenure at MACV. Frederick Downs, with the U.S. Army in Quang Ngai Province, recalled an operation by his unit west of Duc Pho in late 1967.  “It was a search and destroy operation,” remarked Downs, “which meant we searched all the hooches we found and then burned them down. Whether a single farmer’s hooch or a whole village – all were burnt…We didn’t harm the people, but the orders were to destroy all the dwellings, so we did.”[9] Downs and his men may not have physically harmed the villagers, but he and his troopers did harm them – by making them homeless and destitute.

In ordering U.S. troops to carry out a scorched earth policy in South Vietnam, the American military command, and ultimately President Johnson, dishonoured U.S. Army and Marine infantrymen, U.S. air crews, and U.S. artillerymen. Large numbers of American troops, trained and indoctrinated as elite soldiers, pilots, and gunners, became in South Vietnam something akin to medieval vandals.

Vietnam service members grew up watching a heavy dose of movies and documentaries that condemned the Japanese and Germans for attacking the civilian populations of Asia and Europe. These young American servicemen had also heard their grandfathers, fathers, uncles, and neighbours, who had served in World War I or World War II; vilify the Germans and Japanese for war crimes against civilians. And yet, in South Vietnam, General Westmoreland ordered American troops to lay waste to the countryside and displace a civilian population, actions they had been taught to be morally and militarily reprehensible. Contrary to popular belief, it was not the absence of a strategy in Vietnam or the limitations placed on U.S. military actions that had the greatest negative effect on the morale of U.S. forces.  Rather, it was Johnson’s and Westmoreland’s scorched earth policy – it devastated troop morale.[10]

Endnotes

[1] Foreign Relations of the United States, Volume III, 1964-1968, Vietnam, June – December 1965, Document 117, “Memorandum of Conversation,” August 10, 1965, 323; New York Times, “Village Burnings Disturb Marines,” Charles Mohr, August 9, 1965.

[2] S.L.A. Marshall, The Fields of Bamboo: Dong Tre, Trung Luong and Hoa Hoi, Three Battles Just Beyond the South China Sea, (New York: The Dial Press, 1971), 215.

[3] Ibid., 221.

[4] Philip Caputo, A Rumor of War, (New York: Owl Books, 1996), 304.

[5] Eric M. Bergerud, Red Thunder, Tropic Lightning: The World of a Combat Division in Vietnam, 1993, Reprint, (New York: Penguin Books, 1994), 234.

[6] New York Times, “Vietcong Village to be Bulldozed: 3,800 People in Hostile Town to be Resettled,” January 11, 1967.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Jonathan Schell, The Village of Ben Suc, (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1967), 70.

[9] Frederick Downs, The Killing Zone: My Life in the Vietnam War, (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2007), 31.

[10] Jonathan Shay, Achilles in Vietnam: Combat Trauma and the Undoing of Character, (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1995).

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