Hey, Hey, LBJ, How Many Refugees Did You Make Today?

Between March 1965, when the Marines landed at Danang, and late January 1968, when the Vietcong launched the Tet Offensive, millions of peasants fled rural South Vietnam.

U.S. officials knew exactly why so many peasants were leaving their homes and migrating to South Vietnam’s cities, shantytowns, and suburban slums. A U.S. Army study stated that, “U.S.-RVNAF (the Republic of Vietnam Armed Forces) bombing and artillery fire, in conjunction with ground operations are the immediate and prime causes of refugee movement into GVN-controlled urban and coastal areas.”[1]

This honest assessment by the U.S. Army of the situation prevailing in South Vietnam only confirmed what General William C. Westmoreland, Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara, Secretary of State Dean Rusk and President Lyndon Baines Johnson already knew. Refugees were not collateral damage – the unfortunate results of U.S. operations. Rather, they were the actual targets of operations. Displacing South Vietnam’s rural population represented a key component of the U.S.’s counter-insurgency war.

In late 1967, the U.S. Agency for International Development (U.S. AID) estimated that since the end of 1964, the total number of South Vietnamese refugees who either remained in refugee camps or had been resettled (but not necessarily in their hamlets-of-origin) topped two million.[2] Dean Rusk, an unabashed hard-liner on the war, headed the State Department, U.S. AID’s parent organization. During his tenure at State, Rusk had shown no hesitation in fudging the facts to serve his hawkish agenda. For example, on April 23, 1965, he claimed before the American Society of International Law, “There is no evidence that the Viet Cong has any significant popular following in South Viet-Nam. It relies heavily on terror. Most of its reinforcements in recent months have been North Vietnamese from the North Vietnamese Army.”[3] This untruthful assertion came on the heels of a National Security Council Working Group study, (of which Rusk likely read), that reached the exact opposite conclusion only two months earlier. The working group reported that, “The basic elements of Communist strength in South Vietnam remain indigenous: South Vietnamese grievances, war-weariness, defeatism, and political disarray…and [the Vietcong’s] ability to recruit locally; and the fact that the VC enjoys some status as a nationalist movement.”[4]

That Rusk did not challenge or seek to censor the figure of two million refugees indicated that U.S. AID had either made an accurate estimate of the number of displaced persons in South Vietnam or it had grossly under-counted the number of refugees. Evidence points to the later explanation for Rusk’s silence. Informed U.S. officials in South Vietnam believed the actual number of displaced persons in South Vietnam reached four million by the end of 1967. Almost all of those refugees had once resided in rural areas.[5]

In 1966, Bernard Fall calculated that South Vietnam’s total population equaled fifteen million. Neither American nor South Vietnamese officials had the ability to confirm this figure because Communist control of sizable areas of South Vietnam precluded an accurate census count. A year later, South Vietnam’s population was estimated at sixteen million. The total population had not grown by one million in a year. The figure of sixteen million resulted from a reliance on a different data set. South Vietnamese officials believed that approximately eighty to ninety percent of South Vietnam’s total population resided in rural areas. Relying on these figures, it is possible to estimate South Vietnam’s total number of rural residents. If Fall’s fifteen million figure is used, as well as the lower percentage (eighty percent) of rural residents, then the total number of rural residents in the 1966-to-1967 period equaled roughly twelve million people. If four million of the twelve million rural residents had been displaced by the end of 1967; then a total of 33.3 percent of the South’s rural population had been uprooted by the war by early 1968. If the higher overall population number of sixteen million is employed as well as the higher percentage of rural residents (ninety percent), then South Vietnam had 14.4 million rural residents during the early years of the war; and 27.8 percent of the rural population had been made refugees by the start of 1968.[6]

Whatever set of numbers is utilized to estimate the total percentage of displaced rural residents, the conclusion drawn from those numbers is still the same. The United States and GVN pushed a huge number of rural South Vietnamese (between a quarter and a third of them) out of the countryside by the time of the Tet Offensive. One of the largest forced migrations in world history occurred in South Vietnam between 1965 and early 1968.

Although the total number of displaced persons indicated the existence of a deliberate U.S. policy to drive the peasantry from Vietcong areas, U.S. military and political leaders (including General Westmoreland and President Johnson) refused to acknowledge such a policy. Johnson, along with every senior official in his administration, argued that the refugees were merely the unfortunate victims of war. However, an unnamed U.S. civilian official based in South Vietnam who was familiar with the refugee situation stated that it wasn’t necessary for officials to admit American culpability in the refugee crisis. Rather, the facts on the ground provided irrefutable proof that the U.S. and GVN were purposely generating refugees. This official stated, “…policy or not, they’re sure doing it.”[7]

Refugees were not the only victims of U.S. military actions. U.S. forces also killed or wounded an unknown number of South Vietnamese civilians. Some of these civilians were likely serving as Vietcong porters or couriers, either voluntarily or because they had been impressed into service, at the time of their death or wounding.[8] In 1966, National Geographic reporter Peter White visited an American hospital in Danang. He described several patients who had been wounded by Allied fire, “Phan Cai, 70, from Hoa Ninh – picking tea leaves, machine gun shot him in the side. Tran Thi Tam, 60, from Loc An – gathering watercress, helicopter shot off her left hand. A woman in a neighboring bed spoke for Tran Hoai, 5, from Ky Lam. His parents had been killed by bombs from a plane. His legs were in a cast, his face was cut.”[9]

Because the Department of Defense did not keep statistics on civilian casualties, estimates of the number killed or wounded had to be compiled through the interviewing of American, South Vietnamese, and foreign medical personnel working in hospitals and clinics in the South. Hospital admission records served as another source of information on civilian casualties. Nevertheless, not all civilian wounded went to the hospital. Frequently, civilians suffered wounds in remote areas, far from medical facilities; thus, their deaths, or wounding, went unrecorded by anyone. Journalist Neil Sheehan reported that, “Officials believe a majority of the civilian war wounded never get to the hospital….”[10]

Senator Edward Kennedy’s Senate Subcommittee on Refugees estimated that in spring 1967 South Vietnamese civilians were being killed or wounded at the rate of 100,000 per year. At the end of 1967, the subcommittee revised upward its estimate of annual civilian casualties; it concluded that ground combat, as well as Allied airstrikes and artillery barrages, had killed or wounded 150,000 South Vietnamese during the preceding year.[11]

A U.S. doctor working in South Vietnam remembered the U.S. Embassy staff’s utter disregard for the civilians wounded by U.S. operations. Between 1965 and 1967 he had repeatedly requested a few airplanes in order to evacuate civilian wounded from remote battlefields. To his astonishment, the U.S. Mission denied his appeals, claiming the planes were needed for other priorities.[12] In late 1967, the U.S.’s non-partisan Government Accounting Office concluded that the U.S. Mission and GVN, “…do not consider the present overcrowding of hospitals or limited access to medical treatment in remote areas critical to our success in the political psychological side of the war effort.”[13]

The American high command had decided that civilian casualties, and the generation of refugees, had nothing to do with winning peasant hearts and minds, or with South Vietnam’s future political stability. The Mission’s rationale for ignoring civilian wounded, and the refugee crisis, was based on a Rand Corporation study that had concluded that the U.S. could bomb and shell the peasantry without fear of negative political repercussions. Viewed from the perspective of that Rand report, caring for the wounded, or for refugees, was an unnecessary waste of American resources.[14]

Yet, the death and wounding of civilians, and the forced removal of the peasantry from the countryside, did have a negative affect on the military balance of power in South Vietnam. Specifically, individuals who had lost loved ones in Allied attacks, or lost their homes to airstrikes or artillery barrages, were far more likely than other rural South Vietnamese to join the Vietcong.

Frank Denton, another Rand analyst, discovered that, “Subjects who…had relatives killed as the result of action ascribed to the GVN [American military activities were considered part of the overall GVN war effort]…showed an above average frequency of volunteering [for the Vietcong].”[15]

Denton also learned that those peasants who had no land, no job opportunities in the cities of South Vietnam, and who lived a hand-to-mouth existence, (in other words, the refugees), joined the Vietcong in larger numbers than those who had even a tiny stake in South Vietnamese society.[16]

American political and military leaders believed the forced removal of the Vietnamese peasantry from the countryside would drain the Vietcong’s available manpower pool and help the United States defeat the Communist insurgency. But between 1965 and 1968, that policy had the reverse effect: it spurred Vietcong recruitment, enhanced the Vietcong’s popularity across rural South Vietnam, and ultimately made it possible for the Vietcong to launch the Tet Offensive.


[1] Andrew F. Krepinevich, Jr., The Army and Vietnam, (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1986), 226.

[2] New York Times, “U.S. Agency Scores 2 War Programs,” Neil Sheehan, October 12, 1967.

[3] The Senator Gravel Edition, The Pentagon Papers: The Defense Department History of United States Decisionmaking on Vietnam, Volume III, Public Statement 26, “Address by Secretary Rusk, Made before the American Society of International Law on April 23, 1965, The Control of Force in International Relations,” (Boston: Beacon Press, 1971), 735.

[4] The Pentagon Papers, Volume III, “Document 240, Intelligence Assessment: The Situation in Vietnam, November 24, 1964,” 653.

[5] New York, Times, “Still the Problem of the Uprooted,” December 31, 1967.

[6] New York Times, “Refugee Crisis in Vietnam,” Howard A. Rusk, September 12, 1965; New York Times, “Before Escalation,” Bernard Fall, March 13, 1966; New York Times, “Ky Regime is Slow in Pushing Agrarian Reform,” Tom Buckley, July 17, 1967; New York Times, “Vietnam: The Facts Behind the War, Jack Raymond, February 6, 1966.

[7] New York Times, “Rural Vietnamese Swept Up By War Into Refugee Camps,” Tom Buckley, October 28, 1967.

[8] Vietnam Task Force, The Pentagon Papers, Parts IV.C.6 through IV.C.8, Volume I, U.S. Ground Strategy and Force Deployments, 1965-1967, (Nimble Books, LLC, 2011), 112.

[9] Peter White, National Geographic Magazine, “Behind the Headlines in Viet Nam,” Volume 131, Numberr 2, February, 1967, (Washington, D.C.: National Geographic Society), 149-189, page 178.

[10] New York Times, “Rubble Depicts the Agony of a Town in Vietnam,” Neil Sheehan, November 30, 1965.

[11] New York Times, Edward Kennedy Finds Vietnam Toll on Civilians High,” Neil Sheehan, May 8, 1967; New York Times, “War Refugees Show First Drop,” December 29, 1967.

[12] 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, 90the Congress, 1st Session, (Washington, D.C.: GPO, 1968), 3, 13.

[13] Ibid., 14.

[14] Leon Goure, “Southeast Asia Trip Report, Part I, The Impact of Air Power in South Vietnam,” Memorandum RM-4400/1, (Santa Monica, California: Rand Corporation, December 1964), v-vi, 3-5.

[15] Frank Denton, “Volunteers for the Viet Cong,” (Santa Monica, CA: Rand Corporation, September, 1968), x.

[16] Ibid., xiv.

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