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 of the peasantry to regions dominated by American and South Vietnamese forces, such as the urban slums located on the environs of every major South Vietnamese city. In those places, the peasantry could be more readily monitored by Allied security units.

The U.S. and GVN had engaged in various forms of area control since the early 1960s. Back then, peasants suspected of being Vietcong sympathizers were forcibly resettled in agrovilles, strategic hamlets, and new life villages. Following the Tet Offensive, 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 program 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 had determined by late 1967 that genuine 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. Consequently, Komer considered the relocation of the rural population to areas under U.S. and South Vietnamese control as the best means of denying the Vietcong manpower, supplies, and intelligence.

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 support provided by rural refugees to the Vietcong and North Vietnamese during the Tet Offensive 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 President 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 the offensive 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 much of 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 had always been 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, rather than flee en masse to the nearest urban centers at the commencement of Tet.

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, offered Komer and Johnson 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 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.”

Holliday and Gurfield went on to recommend that in order to weaken the insurgency, the Allies should strike at the Vietcong’s logistical system and its mass of 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 eighty percent 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 supporters per combat soldier, enough manpower to continue military operations at a moderate level.[5] Thus, in order to significantly reduce Vietcong military capabilities, the Allies needed to evacuate more than eighty percent of the rural population in Vietcong areas.

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 probably would never recover.

The implication of the Fergusen-Owens study was straightforward – the only guaranteed method of denying the Vietcong popular support was to evacuate the countryside.[6] Without area control, the Allies would have to forfeit the countryside and its people to the guerrillas. It was either area control or an Allied admission that rural South Vietnam, and the larger war, was lost.

National Security Advisor Walter W. Rostow brought up the topic of area control with President Johnson in a memorandum dated March 21, 1968. Rostow reminded the president that the generation of rural refugees had been U.S. policy since 1965. And he recommended to Johnson that the U.S. continue with the policy because with it the United States 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 into the countryside.”[7] Both Rostow and Johnson knew that most peasants fled the countryside because of Allied military operations, especially indiscriminate U.S. bombing. After considering Rostow’s recommendation, President Johnson ordered U.S. pacification personnel and the U.S. military to implement a program of area control.

In late May 1968, the U.S. Embassy informed its pacification teams of the new program. The members of CORDs were ordered to emphasize 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 1968, area control was in full swing.

The Americans and South Vietnamese first secured the people living on the edges of the South’s cities and towns  – these were the same places from which the Vietcong had launched its Tet attacks. Once those areas had been placed under military control, the Allies moved further afield, relocating and concentrating the peasants living in Vietcong hamlets and villages.

Defense Secretary Clark Clifford, who Johnson increasingly marginalized in the spring and summer of 1968 because of his advocacy of a U.S. withdrawal from South Vietnam, 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 months earlier.

Area control had catastrophic consequences for South Vietnam’s peasantry. During the years of its implementation, between 1968 and 1972, the United States and GVN drove millions of people from the South Vietnamese countryside.

In the last years of direct U.S. involvement in the war, Quang Nam Province, along the coast of northern South Vietnam, experienced severe depopulation. Commenting on the forced abandonment of the countryside, a long-time resident of that province said, “After 1968 there was nobody left here.”[11]

Further south in Quang Ngai Province, author Tim O’Brien recounted, “I was in Quang Ngai Province…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.”[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 squalid refugee camps, filthy slums, and dilapidated shantytowns, 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 eighty-five percent of South Vietnam’s residents lived in rural areas. In 1968, after three years of relentless U.S. bombing and artillery fire, only sixty-five percent of the South’s total population lived in the countryside.

Between mid-1968 and February 1970, the number of people living in the countryside plummeted. By early 1970, a mere forty percent of South Vietnam’s population lived in the country’s 11,729 hamlets.[14] Not coincidently, at the same time rural South Vietnam experienced severe 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, almost all of that ordnance falling in rural areas. That bomb tonnage was the equivalent of eight million 500-pound bombs (the 500-pound bomb was the most heavily-used bomb in the U.S. arsenal).[15]

In the early 1960s, South Vietnam had an estimated total population of fourteen million people. Of that total, an estimated 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 since 1965. That latter number of new urban residents is consistent with the estimated number of refugees generated since the American commencement of large-scale ground and air operations in 1965.

By early 1970, South Vietnam’s population had risen to 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. But the vast majority of new urban residents had recently 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 refugee centers, slums, and shantytowns as part of the program of area control were solidly within the Allied camp and thus secure – the reality was altogether different. The refugees might have lived close to Allied military bases and cities, but they were hardly secure. The majority of the displaced peasants were, as Vann had acknowledged, “bitter,” and bitter peasants frequently sympathized or actively supported the Vietcong. This bitterness manifested itself during the Easter Offensive of 1972 and three years later during the Communist’s final offensive. In both instances, South Vietnam’s displaced millions either refused to defend the state responsible for their dispossession or actively worked toward 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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