Ngo Dinh Diem and the South Vietnamese Peasantry, Part IV: The Strategic Hamlet Program

From its hopeful beginning to its inglorious end, the United States was heavily involved in the Strategic Hamlet Program.

In the first months of 1962, U.S. State Department officials working in the American embassy in Saigon, and U.S. military advisers attached to the U.S.’s Military Assistance Advisory Group (MAAG), coordinated with the South Vietnamese to devise a new, large-scale resettlement program. Before the program officially began in late March, U.S. officials, including Secretary of State Dean Rusk, Defense Secretary Robert S. McNamara, Ambassador Frederick Nolting, and JFK’s special adviser on Vietnam, Maxwell Taylor, approved the details of the program.[1] The American role in the program became so pervasive that the U.S. Mission established a Strategic Hamlet Committee, housed in the embassy, to oversee the dispersal of U.S. financial aid, building materials, and technical advice.

On the advice of the Americans, Diem and Nhu intended on building the first strategic hamlets in the provinces closest to Saigon. These provinces sat astride the major road and water routes into the capital city. Securing those regions would protect the capital complex from the growing Vietcong threat north, west, and south of Saigon. Once these provinces had been made secure, the program would expand outward, encompassing a larger share of the South’s land area and rural population. Diem and Nhu chose to inaugurate the program in Binh Duong Province, north of Saigon. In early 1962, the Vietcong ruled much of Binh Duong – controlling 36 of the province’s 46 villages.[2]

Robert G.K. Thompson, a member of the British Advisory Mission to South Vietnam (BRIAM), considered it ill-advised to begin the program in Binh Duong. Better, he thought, to construct the first strategic hamlets in a province with fewer Vietcong followers and a smaller Vietcong military presence. According to Thompson, the GVN should build the first strategic hamlets amongst a receptive populace, or one with at least a degree of sympathy for the GVN.  Doing so, he believed, would give the regime the necessary experience to succeed in contested areas or areas occupied by a solidly pro-Communist population.

Thompson envisaged each strategic hamlet acting as an “oil spot.”  Once a strategic hamlet and its peasant population had been made secure, the GVN would extend its political and military influence outward into the surrounding countryside, establishing additional strategic hamlets as it went along.  A secured hamlet would serve as a sort of base camp, enabling the GVN to jump-off further afield.  Eventually, the territorial and demographic influence of the hamlets would overlap, making it impossible for the Vietcong to operate in large swaths of the countryside.[3]

Diem and Nhu rejected Thompson’s go-slow, methodical approach. Instead, they wanted to immediately establish strategic hamlets in solidly Vietcong areas. This decision later proved to be a colossal miscalculation, one of the regime’s many mistakes in the period 1962-1963.[4]

The Americans and South Vietnamese planned on building four types of strategic hamlets. The first type did not require extensive fortifications because the GVN dominated the surrounding countryside. Local inhabitants would construct lightly-defended hamlets, which the villagers themselves would defend. The second type of hamlet would be constructed in contested zones. These hamlets would require stronger defensive works and more armed guards. Regular South Vietnamese Army soldiers and local militia units would assist the local population with hamlet defense. In the third type of hamlet, the GVN would construct heavily-fortified strategic hamlets in the midst of Vietcong territory. In this instance, the ARVN would have to force the local residents, likely Vietcong sympathizers or active members of the Vietcong, to relocate into the strategic hamlets. Nhu considered it necessary to forcibly remove the civilians living in these Communist strongholds because he did not believe they could be pacified any other way.[5] Once inside the barbed wire enclosures of the strategic hamlets, the Vietcong’s former supporters would remain under armed guard, experiencing a life little different from that of a prisoner. Diem and Nhu intended on establishing a fourth type of strategic hamlet, but the GVN never achieved the area security necessary for its construction. This strategic hamlet would have been built next to Vietcong base areas. Its residents, who would have been trucked to the site from the cities, would have consisted of patriotic youth whose living arrangements would be modeled on the successful Israeli kibbutz.[6]  The youth would build model communities that would induce the nearby Vietcong to defect to the GVN.

The construction of the third type of strategic hamlet – the heavily fortified hamlet in Vietcong territory – followed a standardized construction schedule. First, residents excavated a trench around their living quarters. The trench possessed a uniform width of ten feet and a depth of five feet. Construction workers then placed closely spaced bamboo spikes in the trench, with the sharp ends pointing outward toward the hamlet perimeter. An earthen rampart (also five feet high by ten feet wide) stood just inside the trench line. It too had a system of bamboo spikes placed along the entire length of its outside wall. The defenders hoped these medieval fortifications would keep the Vietcong at bay. Along the outermost perimeter, work crews erected a barbed wire fence – or in some cases a bamboo or wooden fence. If the site lacked construction materials, thorn hedgerows served as a substitute. Concrete pillboxes and watchtowers often complemented the defensive works.[7] The “New York Times” described one of the earliest strategic hamlets built in Vietcong territory near the village of Cu Chi, “It is situated on a dusty plain about twenty miles northwest of Saigon. It has an elaborate complex of defenses – miles of walls commanding an encircling ditch and dozens of watch towers protected by barbed wire and bamboo stakes.”[8]

Like the agrovilles, the GVN erected strategic hamlets at militarily-vital locations. Hamlets often overlooked well-trodden footpaths, highway intersections, canal junctures, heavily-trafficked waterways, the mouths of rivers, bridges, and the roads entering the South’s towns and cities. The GVN wanted its militiamen and loyal citizens to monitor all cross-country traffic from the strategic hamlets, interdicting any guerrillas who dared to travel on a road, trail, or waterway. In the Mekong Delta, the Government built strategic hamlets in concentric circles around the main urban centers. These hamlets were supposed to act as buffers, protecting the pro-GVN urban population from the openly-hostile peasantry living beyond the cities.[9] A key reason for building hamlets atop the existing road and water network had to do with the ARVN’s reliance on roadways and canals to move troops. If a hamlet came under attack, the ARVN needed to rapidly reach the battle site atop armored personnel carriers or gunboats.[10]

In the first half of 1962, Dean Rusk’s State Department, through the U.S. Agency for International Development, supervised the Strategic Hamlet Program. Then, in the summer of 1962, McNamara’s Department of Defense assumed primary responsibility.[11]

McNamara became a firm believer in rural resettlement as a counter-insurgency tool. In 1962 and 1963, the Department of Defense provided the Saigon regime with ample American assistance, including compensation funds for the displaced peasantry (each peasant was supposed to receive $21 USD to help with resettlement costs), hamlet construction kits, communications equipment (radios), loud speakers, propaganda materials, medicines, and school supplies. Diem, Nhu, and the GVN may have been the public face of the Strategic Hamlet Program, but the Americans, and especially Robert S. McNamara, were the real movers and shakers behind the scenes.


Endnotes

[1] New York Times, “U.S. Aides Critical of Vietnam Hamlet Program,” David Halberstam, October 23, 1963; New York Times, “U.S. Role in Vietnam,” Homer Bigart, April 2, 1962.

[2] The Senate Gravel Edition, The Pentagon Papers, The Defense Department History of United States Decisionmaking on Vietnam, Volume II, (Boston: Beacon Press, 1971), 144; New York Times, “U.S. Role in Vietnam,” Homer Bigart, April 2, 1962.

[3] The Senate Gravel Edition, The Pentagon Papers, The Defense Department History of United States Decisionmaking on Vietnam, Volume II, 129.

[4] The Senate Gravel Edition, The Pentagon Papers, The Defense Department History of United States Decisionmaking on Vietnam, Volume II, “Document 115, Department of State, Bureau of Intelligence and Research, Progress Report on South Vietnam,” June 18, 1962, (Boston: Beacon Press, 1971), 674.

[5] New York Times, “Vietnam Reds to Step Up Drive on Regime’s Strategic Hamlets,” Homer Bigart, June 24, 1962.

[6] The Senate Gravel Edition, The Pentagon Papers, The Defense Department History of United States Decisionmaking on Vietnam, Volume II, “Document 117, Central Intelligence Agency, Memorandum for the Secretary of Defense,” July 13, 1962, 684-685.

[7] John C. Donnell and Gerald C. Hickey, “The Vietnamese Strategic Hamlets: A Preliminary Report,” RM-3208-ARPA, (Santa Monica, California: Rand Corporation, September 1962), 4-5.

[8] New York Times, “Vietnam Steps Up Fortified Towns,” Homer Bigart, April 1, 1962.

[9] New York Times, “Vietcong Terrorism Sweeping the Mekong Delta as Saigon’s Control Wanes, Hedrick Smith, January 12, 1964.

[10] The Senate Gravel Edition, The Pentagon Papers, The Defense Department History of United States Decisionmaking on Vietnam, Volume II, “Document 141, Memorandum of Conversation, Diem, Thuan, Lodge, McNamara, Taylor, Parkins, Flott,” September 29, 1963, 750.

[11] The Senate Gravel Edition, The Pentagon Papers, The Defense Department History of United States Decisionmaking on Vietnam, Volume II, “Document 112, Memorandum for the President,” April 4, 1962, 670-671.

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