Area Control and the End of Pacification in South Vietnam

In the aftermath of the Tet offensive, the U.S. Mission and the Government of South Vietnam (GVN) re-evaluated the rural pacification program. By mid-1968, the Allies decided to de-emphasize, and in some areas halt altogether, genuine pacification. Instead of winning hearts and minds through civic action (which involved programs in education, health care, land reform, and the construction of small-scale infrastructure projects), the Allies opted for a program of area control.

In simple terms, area control entailed the resettlement and concentration of the peasantry into regions militarily dominated by American and South Vietnamese forces, such as urban slums, shanty towns on the outskirts of U.S. and South Vietnamese bases, and alongside roads frequented by U.S. and ARVN mechanized units. In these areas, the peasantry could be easily monitored; young men could be readily drafted into military service, and the rice harvest could be kept out of the hands of the Vietcong and North Vietnamese.  The U.S. and GVN had engaged in various forms of area control since the early 1960s. Back then, suspect populations were forcibly resettled in Agrovilles, Strategic Hamlets, and New Life Villages. Beginning in 1968, the Allies implemented area control the same way they had always done it – through violence or the threat of violence.

Robert Komer, head of the U.S.’s pacification efforts in South Vietnam in early 1968, favored area control. According to Daniel Ellsberg, who worked with Komer at Civil Operations and Revolutionary Development Support (CORDs), Komer concluded by late 1967 that pacification was “hopeless.” The GVN and U.S. would never win peasant hearts and minds.[1] The Saigon regime was too corrupt, the Vietcong were too deeply embedded amongst the peasantry, and pacified peasants in the countryside were not safe from Vietcong or North Vietnamese retribution.  As a result, Komer considered the dislocation of the rural population to areas under U.S. and South Vietnamese control as the best means of denying the Vietcong manpower and ultimately defeating the insurgency.

Since his appointment as the head of CORDs in May 1967, Komer had viewed the displaced peasants living in GVN areas as “secure” or pacified rather than “contested” or “VC.”  The Tet Offensive and the widespread support offered by rural refugees to the Vietcong and North Vietnamese proved Komer’s “secure” population was in fact far from secure.[2] Yet, even though the support granted to the Vietcong during Tet by a supposedly “secure” refugee population raised doubts about the military and political value of area control, top U.S. officials, including Komer and President Lyndon B. Johnson, saw it as a viable alternative to genuine pacification.[3]

Area control became the emphasis after Tet for several interrelated reasons. First, Communist gains in the countryside during Tet convinced U.S. pacification workers that pacification had failed to take root in areas where it had been attempted. Had pacification been successful, these experts argued, then the people in the pacified villages would have done more to repel the Tet Offensive. As it turned out, the Vietcong easily swept over the South Vietnamese countryside, encountering little to no resistance as they advanced, even in hamlets previously considered pacified. The fact that millions of peasants in contested and pro-GVN areas had either passively or actively supported the Vietcong during Tet proved to many U.S. officials that the pacification program had been a dismal failure and that the peasantry’s hearts and minds were actually with the Vietcong.

Secondly, if the pacified peasants had been solidly behind the GVN, then the pacification teams and Regional and Popular forces in their midst would have been forewarned of the pending offensive and would have been able to hold a larger number of their positions in the countryside.  Instead, at the commencement of Tet, the Revolutionary Development teams, and RFs and PFs were either decimated by Vietcong military action or fled en masse to the nearest urban centers.

Thirdly, the Rand Corporation, so instrumental in the adoption of a program of intense aerial bombing and harassment and interdiction fire across South Vietnam in 1965, presented Komer and Johnson with a justification for a large-scale program of area control. In June 1968, Rand completed a study titled, “Viet Cong Logistics.” Its authors, L.P. Holliday and R.M. Gurfield, stated, “More than three-fourths of the logistic support [of the Vietcong] appears to come from the civilian population…[and] there are immense reserves of support.”  In other words, the Vietcong drew upon a large rural population base to assist it with the logistical side of military operations. The authors continued, “The Viet Cong rely on civilian support for transportation, construction, food production, evacuation of wounded, ordnance work, and purchase of supplies.” The authors went on to recommend that in order to weaken the insurgency, the Allies should strike at the Vietcong’s logistical system and its peasant supporters: “Logistics countermeasures should take these factors into account. They might include combinations of attacks against logistics facilities, crop destruction, evacuation of civilians, [italics added] blockade, and resources control.”[4]

Depriving the Vietcong of rural civilian support through evacuation, a euphemism for resettlement, would harm the insurgent army, increasing its logistical difficulties and ultimately its ability to wage war. However, there was an important caveat in the Rand report.  The authors acknowledged that the Vietcong possessed so many rural supporters that even an 80% reduction in the population residing in Vietcong areas in the delta (which was the study’s regional focus) would still leave the Vietcong with 3.2 civilian labourers per combat soldier, enough manpower to continue military operations at a moderate level.[5]  To be effective, the Allies would have to evacuate more than 80% of the rural population in Vietcong areas to have a significant effect on Vietcong military capabilities.

The proponents of area control received a further boost for their position from another 1968 study on pacification by Ben R. Fergusen and Edgar Owens. These two researchers concluded that the previous Allied pacification program suffered such a thorough setback during the Tet Offensive that it might never recover. The implication of the Fergusen-Owens study was straightforward – the only guaranteed method of diminishing Vietcong popular support, and the recruits derived from that that support, was to evacuate the countryside.[6]

Vietcong gains amongst the peasantry during Tet, and the studies done by Rand and Fergusen-Owens, all pointed to the same conclusion – in lieu of genuine pacification, only area control would deny the Vietcong access to the peasantry.  And if the Allies chose not to pursue area control, they would have to forfeit the countryside and its people to the guerrillas.  Policymakers had a stark choice: opt for a program of area control or admit that that rural South Vietnam, and the larger war, was lost.

Likely aware of Rand’s research on the topic, National Security Advisor Walter W. Rostow, brought up the issue of area control to the president in late March 1968. In a memo addressed to Johnson, Rostow acknowledged that the generation of refugees had been U.S. policy since 1965. He recommended the continuance of that policy because it was, “…grinding along on the basis of slowly reducing the VC manpower base in the South, which we are doing at the rate of about one million per year through movement to the cities, plus refugees from VC areas, plus extended control in to the countryside.”[7] Both Rostow and Johnson knew that the majority of rural peasants fled the countryside because of Allied military operations, especially aerial bombing and artillery fire.

In spring 1968, Johnson authorized a shift in focus away from pacification to area control. The U.S. and GVN would do away with the charade of pacification. The new emphasis on area control would begin by securing the population next to South Vietnam’s urban centers, military bases, and lines of communication – these were the same places from which the Vietcong had launched their Tet attacks in January and February. Once those areas had been secured, the Allies would impose area control on the population in Vietcong areas further afield. In late May, the U.S. Embassy informed pacification personnel across South Vietnam that they should now stress the “…build-up of security in each hamlet, instead of the development of schools, dispensaries, roads, and agriculture.”[8] A U.S. official, reviewing the end of authentic pacification said, “…the focus is now on security.”[9] By July, area control was in full-swing.

Defense Secretary Clark Clifford, who was being increasingly marginalized by Johnson because of his belief that the U.S needed to pull-out of South Vietnam as quickly as possible, expressed surprise when he learned of the end of rural pacification. On July 18, 1968, he wrote the president: “There is apparent and obvious shift in emphasis on and importance of the pacification program…Both President Thieu and Ambassador Komer stressed the desirability of cutting down on the number of tasks required of the pacification people in order to place the major emphasis on territorial security.”[10] Territorial security was another term for area control. Clifford’s remarks did not alarm the president because Johnson had authorized the change in emphasis weeks earlier.

The consequences of area control for South Vietnam’s peasantry was nothing short of catastrophic. Between 1968 and 1972, the United States, through aerial and artillery bombardment, drove millions of people from the countryside. The northern province of Quang Nam was a case in point.  Its rural districts experienced severe depopulation. A long-time resident of that province said, “After 1968 there was nobody left here.”[11] Further south in Quang Ngai, author Tim O’Brien recounted, “I was in Quang Ngai Province, out in the middle of this bombed out mess. The whole province was wasted…By the time I got there in 1969 our bombing and artillery fire had destroyed basically ninety percent of the dwellings. The villages were sometimes almost deserted…We were really hated. It was just so patent. You see [sic] the hostility in everybody’s eyes.”[12]

The refugees of 1968 and 1969 joined the millions who had been compelled to leave their homes between 1965 and late 1967. They, like their predecessors, ended up in refugee camps, slums, and shanty towns, where they eked out a miserable existence under the guns of the ARVN and U.S. military. The masses of rural refugees became nothing more than a subjugated, captive populace. John Paul Vann confessed as much to presidential advisor Harry McPherson: “…to be ruthlessly candid, the people in the urban centers have no place to go; many are bitter, but they do not become assets for the enemy because the government controls the urban areas.”[13] Vann was incorrect in one important respect. The refugees in the urban centers remained assets for the enemy because the Vietcong still had access to them.

Statistics paint a grim picture of the United States’ program of area control and rural depopulation. In 1965, approximately 85% of South Vietnam’s residents lived in rural areas. After three years of relentless U.S. bombing, artillery fire, and ground combat, the rural population totalled 65% of South Vietnam’s overall population. Then, between mid-1968 and February 1970, with area control being implemented countrywide, the rural population plummeted. By early 1970, a mere 40% of South Vietnam’s population lived in the country’s 11,729 hamlets.[14] Not coincidentally, at the same time rural South Vietnam experienced its highest levels of population flight, the air war in South Vietnam reached its peak. In 1968 and 1969, the U.S. dropped two million tons of bombs across South Vietnam, with the bulk of that ordnance falling in rural areas. [15] That bomb tonnage equalled eight million 500-pound bombs – the most common bomb in the U.S. arsenal.

In the early 1960s, South Vietnam had an estimated total population of 14 million. Of that total, 11.9 million lived in the countryside and 2.1 million lived in towns and cities. In mid-1968, South Vietnam possessed approximately 16.5 million residents. At that time it had an estimated urban population of 5,775,000, an increase of 3,675,000 million since 1965. That latter number of new urban residents is consistent with the estimated number of refugees and displaced persons generated since the commencement of major U.S. air operations, harassment and interdiction fire, and ground combat. In early 1970, South Vietnam possessed roughly 17.3 million people. By then the urban population had swelled to about 10.4 million and the rural population had shrunk to an estimated 6.9 million.  The increase of 4.6 million in the urban population between mid-1968 and early 1970 had partly been the result of a high birth rate. However, the majority of new urban residents were former peasants who had fled to the cities from the countryside.[16]

Although John Paul Vann, Robert Komer and President Johnson wanted to believe that the peasants relocated to South Vietnam’s roadways, slums and shanty towns were solidly under Allied control and thus “secure,” – the reality was altogether different.  The refugees might have lived and worked in close proximity to Allied military bases, but they were hardly secure. Rather, the majority of the displaced peasants were, as Vann had acknowledged, “bitter,” and bitter peasants, as Vann well knew, frequently sympathized or actively supported the Vietcong. Eventually, the peasantry’s bitterness manifested itself.  During the Easter Offensive of 1972 and three years later during the Communist’s final offensive, South Vietnam’s displaced millions either refused to defend the state responsible for their dispossession or actively sought its destruction.

[1] Daniel Ellsberg, Secrets: A Memoir of Vietnam and the Pentagon Papers, (New York: Penguin Books, 2002), 178.

[2] New York Times, “Pacification Gains Reported by Komer,” January 25, 1968.

[3] James Williams Gibson, The Perfect War: Technowar in Vietnam, (New York: The Atlantic Monthly Press, 2000) 311.

[4] L.P.Holliday and R.M. Gurfield, “Viet Cong Logistics,” (Santa Monica, CA: Rand Corporation, June 1968), ix-x.

[5] Ibid., 89.

[6] New York Times, “U.S. Study Assails Pacification Plan,” Thomas A. Johnson.

[7] Foreign Relations of the United States, 1964-1968, Volume VI, Vietnam, January-August 1968,  “Document 148, Information Memorandum From the President’s Special Assistant (Rostow) to President Johnson, March 21, 1968,” (Washington, D.C.: GPO, 2002), 442.

[8] New York Times, “Pacification Role Shifts in Vietnam,” Bernard Weinraub, June 2, 1968.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Foreign Relations of the United States, 1964-1968, Volume VI, Vietnam, January-August 1968, “Document 302, Memorandum From Secretary of Defense Clifford to President Johnson, July 18, 1968,” (Washington, D.C.: GPO, 2002), 876.

[11] Martha Hess, Then the Americans Came: Voices From Vietnam, (New Brunswick, New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 1994), 161.

[12] Christian G. Appy, Patriots: The Vietnam War Remembered From All Sides, (New York: Viking, 2003), 543.

[13] Foreign Relations of the United States, 1964-1968, Volume VI, Vietnam, January-August 1968, “Document 290, Memorandum From the President’s Special Counsel (McPherson) to President Johnson, July 3, 1968,” (Washington, D.C.: GPO, 2002), 836.

[14] Lewis Sorley, ed., Vietnam Chronicles, The Abrams Tapes, 1968-1972, (Lubbock, Texas: Texas Tech University Press, 2004), 454.

[15] New York Times, “Changing the Color of the Corpses: Air War: The American Bombing of Indochina,” Herbert Mitgang, November 21, 1971.

[16] New York Times, “Refugees Pose Urban Crisis in Saigon, Terrace Smith, February 16, 1970; New York Times, “America’s Impact on Vietnam is Profound,” Bernard Weinraub, July 6, 1968; New York Times, “And This Should Outrage the Conscience of All Americans,” Edward M. Kennedy, December 27, 1972; New York Times, “Pacification in Rural South Vietnam Making Big But Fragile Gains,” October 16, 1969; Foreign Relations of the United States, 1964-1968, Volume VI, Vietnam, January-August 1968, “Document 263, Special National Intelligence Estimate, June 6, 1968,” (Washington, D.C.: GPO, 2002), 763.

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