An Overwhelming Presence: America in South Vietnam, 1966-1968

The U.S. military presence in rural South Vietnam became so large and so pervasive in 1966 and 1967 that few South Vietnamese peasants could avoid contact with the Americans and their machines. But the interactions between the two peoples rarely fostered cross-cultural understanding. Rather, the contacts were almost always of a military nature or involved some sort of monetary exchange.

Journalist and historian Bernard Fall reported that in mid-1966, the U.S. had 1,700 helicopters, 400 U.S. Navy fighter-bombers (both in-country and off-shore), and about 1,000 Air Force planes at airfields across South Vietnam.[1]

In 1966, U.S. Air Force planes flew 355,904 sorties of all types.[2] A sortie represented one aircraft taking-off, conducting a mission, and then returning to its base. In 1967, the Air Force almost doubled its sortie rate when its planes flew 672,935 sorties.[3] Those numbers did not include U.S. Navy, Marine Corps, and Army aircraft, which flew hundreds of thousands of additional sorties.

By early 1968, the airfields at Danang, Tan Son Nhut, and Bien Hoa had become three of the busiest airports in the world. Aircraft came and went from those airfields twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, without pause. The South Vietnamese living near American airbases experienced excruciating levels of noise pollution from inbound and outbound U.S. jets and helicopters.

National Geographic Magazine reporter Peter T. White visited the airbase at Danang: “I found Da Nang bad for my eardrums, lungs, and eyes. Landing fields throbbed with jet fighters and propeller-driven dive bombers, with tiny artillery spotters and huge planes carrying enormous radar domes on their backs; with reconnaissance craft; with five varieties of helicopters and seven of transports. They made a lot of noise.”[4]

On any given day in 1966 and 1967, the skies above South Vietnam filled with the shrill sound of fighter-bombers and the thump, thump of Hueys and Chinooks. For rural South Vietnamese, the hum of American aircraft represented an intrusion on their previously quiet world. The noises emitted by U.S. aircraft never let them forget that foreigners now occupied their land. But what made the sounds so unbearable was the realization that they could be the harbinger of impending death. The loud, ear-splitting sound of approaching jets could mean an imminent bombing strike on their hamlet. While the pounding of helicopter blades might signal the arrival of American troops.

Helicopters instilled yet another fear. Peasants did not always know how to respond when a helicopter appeared overhead. If they were working in their rice paddies, and a chopper neared their positions, they wondered whether they should stand still or run for cover. A peasant could be shot for running, as a suspected Vietcong, or shot for standing, as a very courageous Vietcong. Rand Corporation analyst Charles Benoit recounted a conversation he had with rural residents of Hau Nghia Province: “Several farmers complained about being harassed by helicopters while farming their fields. One peasant described how a helicopter had ominously circled for several minutes only 10 meters over his head. He asked me what he should do in such a situation. My advice was simply to run.”[5]

It wasn’t unheard of for the pilots of Loaches to take their small, nimble craft down close to groups of South Vietnamese farmers to see if any of them carried weapons. Peasants felt extreme stress when a Loach hovered only feet away from them. Any movement misinterpreted by the pilot could mean instant death from the Loach’s mini-gun. One American GI remembered seeing the pilot of a H-13 helicopter (the predecessor to the Loach) nudge the nose of his tiny chopper up to the doorway of a South Vietnamese hut, so he could “…get a better look.”[6] Such actions terrified the rural populace.

Allied mechanized units created additional problems for the peasantry. Armored vehicles, including the fourteen-ton M-113 and the fifty-ton M-48 tank, frequently traveled off-road to avoid Vietcong land mines. Tanks and APCs tore deep grooves into the soil, especially during the rainy season. A squadron of M-113s, moving in a line across the rice paddies, churned the earth into pulp. When engaged in combat, the drivers of APCs moved forward, backward, and sideways to hone in on targets and to keep from being hit by rocket propelled grenades. As a result, a single M-113 could grind under its tracks in a matter of minutes a rice crop that had taken some peasant family months of back-breaking labor to manicure, plant, and cultivate.

But armored vehicles did not just destroy paddy land, they busted through paddy dikes, knocked down hedgerows, pushed over coconut trees and shredded banana groves under their tracks. With the destruction of agricultural land and produce, farmers lost both their investment of labor and a sorely-needed source of cash income. The loss of a year’s rice crop to an M-113 could financially ruin a South Vietnamese farmer, who lived on the narrow margin between bare subsistence and insolvency.

In Quang Nam Province, southwest of Danang, the Marines left highly-visible scars on the land after the passage of their tracked vehicles. Marine W.D. Ehrhart described a scene not far from the picturesque riverside community of Hoi An: “Scruffy trees, hedgerows, and an occasional shallow pool of stagnant water dotted the flats, along with an abandoned hooch here and there. But mostly it was all sand: hard and flat in some places, deep and loose in others, and crisscrossed with thousands of tracks from the treads of tanks and amphibious tractors. Much of the land had once been irrigated and farmed, but it was all abandoned now.”[7]

An aerial photograph likely taken in 1966 by National Geographic Magazine photographer Winfield Parks ten miles outside of Danang showed the damage to rice fields by Marine armored vehicles during one skirmish with the Vietcong. The photograph indicates that Marine tracked vehicles damaged over a dozen separate paddy fields during the engagement. A few rice paddies were completely torn up, while others remained lightly touched. The image also shows a large number of artillery shell craters within the land area encompassed by the photograph’s frame; and it reveals that the Marines, in an effort to enhance the security of the roadway, bulldozed the peasant huts in the three hamlets closest to the road. This one photograph, intended to illustrate the lushness of the South Vietnamese countryside, instead shows the devastation visited on a tiny area of South Vietnam by the U.S. Marines. The photograph is historically significant because it portrays a scene that became common across South Vietnam in 1966 and 1967.[8]

American bulldozers visited another form of destruction on the South Vietnamese countryside. The United States deployed bulldozers to destroy the forest cover in Vietcong base areas. Caterpillar Corporation’s powerful D-7 bulldozer became the Army’s jungle-busting mainstay. The military modified the D-7 for service in Vietnam, equipping it with a Rome Plow (a sharp bladed plow designed to slice through trees and undergrowth) and ringing the D-7’s cabin with steel plating to protect the driver from sniper rounds. By mid-1967, three U.S. clearing teams, equipped with a total of 90 bulldozers, operated in South Vietnam.[9]

Bulldozer crews worked mostly in III Corps northwest of Saigon, where the flat terrain favored the use of the cumbersome machines. The III Corps was also home to significant U.S. and South Vietnamese military assets, including the U.S. bases at Cu Chi and Lai Khe. American military officials believed that land clearing enhanced the security of U.S. forces at those big bases by making it difficult for the Vietcong to move undetected across the countryside.

One clearing team of thirty bulldozers could flatten between 150 and 200 acres of dense jungle in a single day.[10] Toward the end of 1967, the effects of the bulldozers were readily apparent in III Corps. In a brazen display of environmental ignorance and American bravado, First Infantry Division engineers bulldozed a massive divisional shoulder patch, with its numeral “1” into the jungle near the division’s base camp at Lai Khe. As for the Ho Bo Woods near Cu Chi, a reporter expressed surprise when he learned the Americans had completely leveled it with bulldozers.[11]

Large sections of the forested Iron Triangle and the jungles of Tay Ninh Province also fell to American bulldozers. A South Vietnamese resident of Tay Ninh Province recalled, “Tay Ninh used to be dense forest. The Americans came with bulldozers and toxic chemicals and…they destroyed it.”[12]

General William C. Westmoreland’s command headquarters promoted the idea that land clearing saved U.S. lives and opened new lands to agricultural production. Destruction of the jungle near U.S. and South Vietnamese bases, and the removal of vegetation next to heavy-trafficked roadways, certainly enhanced the safety of Allied troops. However, it was questionable whether jungle clearing helped the peasantry. Many of the cleared areas, if they had not already been designated as such, became free fire zones after the end of a clearing operation.[13] With shells and bombs randomly falling on the cleared land, and with the Saigon government’s prohibition against the peasantry resettling in Vietcong areas, the rural population gained little from U.S. land clearing operations.

The destruction of remote jungle areas did not have a direct, negative effect on a significant number of South Vietnamese, since the jungle had always been the realm of the Montagnards. But land clearing did have indirect effects on the South Vietnamese peasantry. Removal of forest cover contributed to a rise in local temperatures, which may have adversely affected the ability of farmers to grow rice in areas affected by changes in the climate. Furthermore, tree roots, tree trunks, branches, and leaves hold rainwater. Thus, in removing forests, U.S. land clearing operations made some areas more prone to floods. And flooding diminished South Vietnamese agricultural output and financially harmed the peasantry dependent on that output.

A crop destruction program begun under President John F. Kennedy intensified under President Lyndon B. Johnson. The crews of C-123 cargo planes sprayed Agent Orange on the cropland in Vietcong areas. The crop destruction program sought to deny Communist troops a necessary foodstuff and force Hanoi to truck rice from North Vietnam to South Vietnam, which in-turn would require the Communists to divert men and vehicles from their fighting units to their supply units.[14] Unfortunately for South Vietnamese farmers, instead of bringing more rice down the Ho Chi Minh Trail to compensate for losses to Agent Orange, the Vietcong levied higher rice taxes on the peasantry. Communist troops also acquired more rice from areas untouched by Agent Orange.

U.S. officials knew that South Vietnamese peasants were the real losers in the crop destruction program. In October 1967, the Rand Corporation completed a study that concluded: “The effects of crop spraying were…found to be small. For the area hardest hit in 1966 (approximately 23 percent of the crop was destroyed), the model shows a decrease in average rice ration of approximately 5 percent (from 660 grams per VC per day to 627). On the other hand, losses incurred by civilians are considerable: the analysis indicates that the civilian population seems to carry very nearly the full burden of the results of the crop destruction program; it is estimated that over 500 civilians experience crop loss for every ton of rice denied the VC…The U.S./GVN crop destruction program, then, has an insignificant effect on Viet Cong rice consumption and may be counterproductive.”[15] By “counterproductive” Rand meant the crop destruction program probably turned potential peasant allies into enemies.

The majority of C-123 Agent Orange missions targeted likely Vietcong ambush sites, suspected Vietcong lines of communication, enemy base areas, and the timbered fringes of South Vietnam’s canals, rivers, and roadways. By 1968, the U.S. Air Force had flown 19,000 spray flights as part of Operation Ranch Hand. Each plane carried 950-gallons of the toxic stew, which affected the vegetation across an area 300 feet wide and ten miles long.[16]

According to biologist Arthur Westing, “All told, about 86 per cent of the missions were directed primarily against forest and other woody vegetation and the remaining 14 per cent primarily against crop plants.”[17] In 1966, Daniel Ellsberg saw the effects of Agent Orange in an area near South Vietnam’s Plain of Reeds, “…the defoliation had taken place on one side of the river but not on the other, so from the air you saw a very spectacular contrast. On one side of the river, green, extremely lush countryside – in fact, as beautiful as I had ever seen – on the other side, a desert. Dry, nothing living, no vegetation.”[18]

In 1967, the U.S. sprayed Agent Orange or similar defoliants on 1,570,114 acres (2,453 square miles) of South Vietnam.[19] Operation Ranch Hand, in addition to denuding sizeable areas of South Vietnam and denying peasants sorely needed food, resulted in adverse and often deadly health effects for countless South Vietnamese and Americans exposed to the chemicals through water, vegetation, food, soil, and as an airborne mist.

Garbage became another environmental problem in rural South Vietnam in the years 1966 and 1967. The volume of waste produced by the U.S. war machine was something to behold. America had long been a wasteful society, with its population accustomed to super abundance, but in the 1960s, with the widespread manufacture of plastic consumables, the U.S. became a disposable society, throwing away unimaginable quantities of garbage. The U.S. military brought that disposable society to South Vietnam – a country where frugality and recycling were necessities born of poverty. Not surprisingly, the Americans left their junk everywhere they went. Impoverished South Vietnamese turned some of that junk into treasure. Discarded soda cans, pounded flat with a hammer, became roofing shingles or the siding on a shanty. Wooden shipping pallets became usable lumber. The Styrofoam packaging used to protect iron bombs during shipment were transformed into watercraft.

Prior to the 1960s, the rubbish produced by the South Vietnamese consisted largely of organic, biodegradable materials. The country was cleaner. But when the Americans came ashore, all of that changed. Every major U.S. base in the country had a huge garbage dump either within its perimeter or immediately outside it. Frederick Downs remembered the dump near the U.S. base at Pleiku, “Off to the side of the road was a gigantic dump. Hundreds of Vietnamese crawled over it. The driver explained that the dump was the one the Americans had built, and the dinks or gooks as he called them, rooted through it every day for items they thought were important. Plastic, cans, magazines, you name it.”[20]

Big bases were not the only sources of garbage. American GIs stationed at fire support bases (FSBs) and temporary night defensive positions (NDPs), which might be occupied by U.S. troops for only one night, resembled garbage dumps after the departure of the Americans. Spent rifle cartridges, C-Ration tins, broken wooden pallets, human waste, pieces of torn clothing, bloody bandages, and destroyed machines, including APCs or Huey helicopters, might be strewn across the ground of an abandoned NDP or FSB. Because FSBs and NDPs shifted constantly across the landscape, the Americans spread their refuse across the entire country, including into some of the country’s most remote, biologically-diverse regions.

Fire Support Bases and NDPs also contributed to extensive land clearing. An American soldier recalled, “The area of grass the guns [artillery] originally sat on had been churned into one large mud hole.”[21] When his unit abandoned a FSB near Lai Khe, a trooper with the Big Red One remembered, “They had hacked it out of a…tangle of trees and vines…then abandoned it…All that remained to show that they had even been there were their buried refuse, their empty dugouts – and spray-painted across one deserted bunker, the single, exasperated word CRAZY.”[22]

Land clearing for FSBs and NDPs fostered soil erosion. As a result, South Vietnamese rivers and streams experienced higher sediment loads, especially during the monsoon season. The increase in suspended sediments likely buried spawning beds, diminished fish populations, and harmed the rural fishing industry. Estuaries and harbors probably experienced higher rates of siltation, effecting the navigability and ecological health of coastal waters.

Toxins, oils, metals, and miscellaneous refuse drained off the FSBs and NDPs toward the populated coastal plain, affecting water quality and human health. How much did U.S.-sourced pollution effect the peasantry? We do not know. The Department of Defense never addressed the issue. However, there can be little doubt that U.S.-sourced pollution diminished the quality of life, and probably shortened the lives, of significant numbers of rural peasants.[23]

U.S. military convoys became another nuisance to the rural population. By late 1967, millions of South Vietnamese lived immediately adjacent to South Vietnam’s roads. That population came into regular contact with U.S. personnel in trucks, jeeps, tanks, and APCs. U.S. convoys traveled at high rates of speed to avoid Vietcong ambushes. These convoys kicked up dust (in the dry season), made a lot of noise while on the move, and occasionally ran down any South Vietnamese unlucky enough to get in the way. Sometimes, the GIs in a convoy purposely killed South Vietnamese in their path. Nguyen Qui Doc recounted, “You would see American GMC trucks go by and soldiers reaching down to whack a girl riding a bicycle. They would yank at her hat and she would get thrown and she would die. You would see Americans do this and feel like they can do anything in your country.”[24]

By the start of 1968, the U.S. had designated millions of acres of South Vietnam as Free Fire Zones (FFZs). Arthur Westing, who studied the effects of U.S. bombing on Indochina’s ecology, estimated that 90 percent of the land area in I Corps had been designated a free-fire zone. Across Indochina, 75 percent of the land area consisted of free-fire zones.[25] In those areas, the Americans and ARVN shot, bombed, strafed, or shelled on sight any South Vietnamese. How many innocent South Vietnamese civilians died in the FFZs, unaware that they were even in a FFZ, will never be known. Don Luce of International Voluntary Services discovered that the peasantry had difficulty knowing the boundaries of the FFZs. He stated, “I think we have to recognize the great fear that Vietnamese have of the bombing and the complete lack of understanding of where the free strike zones are often. Innocent people wander into them and then get killed and then even worse the wild rumors that get spread from person to person after some of these things happen, it makes us look very, very bad as Americans in Vietnam.”[26]

The Americans also directed a great deal of harassment and interdiction fire and airstrikes into the FFZs. U.S. planes pounded the FFZs located outside every major U.S. airbase, particularly the FFZs north and northwest of Saigon in III Corps, such as the 300-square mile FFZ around War Zone D. The pilots of fighter-bombers returning from missions to the airfields at Bien Hoa or Tan Son Nhut with bombs still under their wings jettisoned those bombs before landing. It was too dangerous to land with ordnance still attached to the fuselage or wings. Consequently, incoming planes pickled their excess bombs in the FFZs. Carrier-based Navy planes were even more likely to drop any leftover bombs on FFZs, since landing with ordnance on a carrier was far more dangerous than landing on a 10,000-foot runway.[27] South Vietnamese peasants were also barred from entering large segments of rural South Vietnam because of the presence of FFZs.

U.S. troop levels in South Vietnam continued to rise throughout 1966 and 1967. More U.S. boots on the ground in South Vietnam meant more jets and helicopters, more tanks and APCs, more FSBs and NDPs, more bulldozers and garbage, and more destruction and disruption of rural life. At the end of 1965, the U.S. had close to 185,000 GIs in-country. That number jumped to 389,000 at the end of 1966. In 1967, U.S. troop numbers rose even higher, reaching 463,000 by the close of the year.[28]

Harry McPherson, special counsel to President Lyndon Johnson, visited South Vietnam in late May and early June 1967. What impressed him most during his two-week trip was the magnitude of the U.S. presence. Upon his return to Washington, McPherson informed the President, “At 1500 feet in a Huey on any given afternoon, you look out on two or three Eagle flights of choppers going in to chase VCs; an air strike in progress; artillery “prepping” another area; a division camp here, a battalion forward area there; trucks moving on a dozen roads. Flying north along the road to Danang, you see why the highway is secure: great areas have been scraped off the hilltops every five miles or so, ringed by 105’s and covered with tanks and tents. We have just about paved the road-side for a hundred miles.”[29] McPherson believed the American imprint on South Vietnam had for better or worse become overwhelming.

David Halberstam, who reported on Vietnam for the New York Times during the Kennedy Administration, and who earned the ire of Camelot for his reportage on the war, returned to South Vietnam in late 1967, “Before I came back I was assured again and again by people who had been in Vietnam more recently that I would not recognize it, that it was not the same country. The American presence was so great.”[30] When Halberstam arrived in South Vietnam, the overwhelming American boot print indeed surprised him.

Whether Halberstam recognized it or not, the American presence, and the turmoil that accompanied it, drove millions of South Vietnamese peasants from their homes and into the shantytowns and slums ringing South Vietnam’s town and cities. Not coincidentally, one of the largest mass migrations in world history corresponded to the years of heaviest U.S. military involvement in South Vietnam. The causes of that migration were not difficult to discern. Free Fire Zones, land clearing operations, the crop destruction program, pollution, and American machines had made the South Vietnamese countryside an inhospitable place for its native inhabitants.


[1] Bernard B. Fall, Hell in a Very Small Place: The Siege of Dien Bien Phu, 1966, Reprint, (New York: Da Capo Press, 2002), 458-459.

[2] John Schlight, The War in South Vietnam, The Years of the Offensive, 1965-1968, (Washington, D.C.: Air Force History and Museums Program, 1999) 136.

[3] Ibid., Appendix 5.

[4] Peter T. White, National Geographic Magazine, “Behind the Headlines in Viet Nam,” Vol. 131, No. 2, February, 1967 (Washington, D.C.: National Geographic Society), pp. 149-189, 172.

[5] Charles Benoit, “Conversations with Rural Vietnamese, (Santa Monica: Rand Corporation, April 1970), 13.

[6] Tom A. Johnson, To the Limit: An Air Cav Huey Pilot in Vietnam, 2006, Reprint, (New York: NAL Caliber, 2007), 153-154.

[7] W.D. Ehrhart, Vietnam-Perkasie: A Combat Marine Memoir, (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1995), 37.

[8] National Geographic Society Editor(s), National Geographic Magazine, “New Geographic Wall Map Spotlights Strife-Torn Viet Nam and Its Neighbors,” Vol. 131, No. 2, February, 1967 (Washington, D.C.: National Geographic Society), pp. 190-193, photograph on pages 192-193.

[9] Robert R. Ploger, Vietnam Studies, U.S. Army Engineers, 1965-1970, (Washington, D.C.: Department of the Army, 1989), 99.

[10] Ibid., 102.

[11] Michael Herr, Dispatches, (New York: Vintage International, 1991), 4.

[12] Martha Hess, Then the Americans Came: Voices from Vietnam, (New Brunswick, New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 1994), 107.

[13] Ploger, U.S. Army Engineers, 103.

[14] New York Times, “U.S. Spray Planes Destroy Rice in Vietcong Territory,” Charles Mohr, December 21, 1965; New York Times, “Food Reaches Vietnamese Town Over Highway Wrested from Reds,” August 29, 1965.

[15] Anthony J. Russo, “A Statistical Analysis of the U.S. Crop Spraying Program in South Vietnam,” Memorandum RM-5450-1-ISA/ARPA, (Santa Monica, California: RAND Corporation, October 1967), ix-x.

[16] Marvin E. Gettleman, Jane Franklin, Marilyn B. Young and Bruce H. Franklin, eds., Vietnam and America: The Most Comprehensive Documented History of the Vietnam War, (New York: Grove Press, 1995), 466.

[17] Arthur H. Westing, Ecological Consequences of the Second Indochina War, (Stockholm: Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, 1976), 27.

[18] Daniel Ellsberg, Secrets: A Memoir of Vietnam and the Pentagon Papers, (New York: Penguin Books, 2002), 136.

[19] Andrew Krepinevich, The Army and Vietnam, (Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 1988), 210.

[20] Frederick Downs, The Killing Zone: My Life in the Vietnam War, (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2007), 194.

[21] Ibid., 103.

[22] Peter Goldman and Tony Fuller, Charlie Company: What Vietnam Did to Us, (New York: William Morrow and Company, Inc., 1983), 122.

[23] John Laurence, The Cat from Hue: A Vietnam War Story, (New York: Public Affairs, 2002), 270; Arthur H. Westing, Ecological Consequences, 65-66.

[24] Christian G. Appy, Patriots: The Vietnam War Remembered from All Sides, (New York: Viking Penguin, 2003), 297.

[25] Westing, Ecological Consequences, 13.

[26] U.S. Congress, Senate, Committee on the Judiciary, Subcommittee to Investigate Problems Connected with Refugees and Escapees, “Hearings Before the Subcommittee to Investigate Problems Connected with Refugees and Escapees of the Committee on the Judiciary, United States Senate,” May 10, 18; August 16; September 21; October 9, 10, 11, 13, and 16, 1967, U.S. Senate, 90th Congress, 1st Session. (Washington, D.C.: GPO, 1968), 66.

[27] Bernard Fall, Last Reflections on a War: Bernard B. Fall’s Last Comments on Vietnam, (Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania: 2000), 230; Schlight, The War in South Vietnam, 118.

[28] James William Gibson, The Perfect War: Technowar in Vietnam, 1986, Reprint, (New York: Atlantic Monthly Press, 2000), 95.

[29] Foreign Relations of the United States, 1964-1968, Volume V, Vietnam 1967, “Document 197, Memorandum from the President’s Special Counsel (McPherson) to President Johnson, June 13, 1967,” (Washington, D.C.: GPO, 2002), 490.

[30] David Halberstam, The Making of a Quagmire: America and Vietnam During the Kennedy Era, Revised Edition, (Lanham, Maryland: Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 2008), 208.

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