Peasant opposition to the Strategic Hamlet Program was immediate and widespread. The reasons for that opposition varied from place to place; but more often than not, the strategic hamlets did not offer the peasantry the quality of life they had been told to expect. Rather than a new, modern life in the hamlets, many displaced peasants found a desolate, dirty, isolated existence under strict government control. Official misconduct, and outright abuse, magnified the peasant backlash. Corruption played a role too. Provincial and district officials often stole the money and American amenities originally earmarked for residents of the strategic hamlets, which only deepened peasant hatred for the GVN. The dismal performance of the GVN in implementing the Strategic Hamlet Program was evident all across South Vietnam.
Twenty-five miles south of Saigon, the government forced 500 rural families into a resettlement camp next to the village of Thanh Tam. The original inhabitants of Thanh Tam resented the presence of so many newcomers in their midst, while the relocated population, living in an entirely separate area, felt as though the GVN treated them as second-class citizens. GVN officials failed to provide the relocated peasants with even the most basic of necessities, including well water. Conditions in the camp became so difficult that 100 of the relocated families walked away from the site, never to return. Those who remained in the strategic hamlet seethed with resentment toward the GVN.
Similar circumstances prevailed in Binh Duong. U.S. Army Major Marvin L. Price commented on the program in that province, “This is no Disneyland….” One U.S. official said that to avoid the appearance of a concentration camp, the Americans were advising the South Vietnamese to use less barbed wire around the hamlets. Another American working on the program in Binh Duong admitted that few people wanted to live in the resettlement camps.
Many of the new hamlets lacked vegetation of any kind – in contrast to the lush village environments in the peasantry’s hamlets-of-origin. As a result, the peasants, who were holed up in their small, exposed huts, broiled under the searing mid-day sun. The absence of plant growth between the huts, a common feature present in old hamlets, also meant less privacy for each family. In many areas, hastily erected strategic hamlets sat atop barren, bulldozed slabs of earth. During the dry season, the soil in these hamlets became a fine powder, which blew away during windstorms. The shoddy huts, and their odd assortment of construction materials, did not keep out the dust – it filtered inside and covered eating utensils, furniture, and bedding.
Callous Government officials built new hamlets at some distance from the residents’ original hamlets, which forced the displaced farmers to walk further to reach their fields, adding to the burdens of their already difficult lives. At Thanh Tam, the relocated population had to walk miles to and from their rice paddies. After a grueling day of field labor, the last thing farmers wanted to do was trudge miles back to a strategic hamlet.
Because the peasantry usually refused to voluntarily work on the hamlets, the government saw no alternative but to force people, sometimes at gunpoint, to build trench works, dispensaries, community halls, watch towers, and pillboxes. In the Cu Chi area, the ARVN coerced some local farmers to work for up to eight weeks without pay. These corvee laborers not only had to bring their own food to the work sites, they had to provide the government with bamboo from their own stocks.
Residents complained that life inside the strategic hamlets was too regimented, with too many obligatory meetings, lectures, and propaganda films. Others found it hard to fake their enthusiasm for their new living arrangements under the ever-watchful eyes of GVN officials. Anyone showing a lack of ardor might be accused of being a Vietcong sympathizer or a member of the secretive Vietcong Infrastructure, known as the VCI. Many residents struggled with depression and anxiety disorders – a common psychological response to displacement and the prospect of indefinite detention. In hamlets occupied by a suspect population, villagers could not freely come and go. Everyone over the age of twelve required a government-issued pass to leave to run errands, travel to another village, or visit a nearby market. At night, soldiers or militiamen barred anyone from departing the compounds, fearing that if they left, they would run off and join the Vietcong.
In the spring of 1962, while the Strategic Hamlet Program shifted into high gear, news reports of the Saigon government’s neglect and outright abuse of the relocated population began to be made public. When U.S. Ambassador to India, John Kenneth Galbraith, learned of the reports of GVN official misconduct, he decided to write President Kennedy, warning him of the risks of U.S. support for the program. Galbraith informed the president, “The political effects of some of the measures which pacification requires or is believed to require, including the concentration of the population, relocation of villages, and the burning of old villages, may be damaging to those and especially to Westerners associated with it…We should disassociate ourselves from action, however necessary, which seems to be directed at the villagers, such as the new concentration program.” A few months later, the State Department’s Roger Hilsman cautioned the White House that the GVN could not afford to be perceived by the peasantry as attempting to control them. If that happened, the peasantry would likely turn against the Government. Hilsman’s warning, like Galbraith’s, did nothing to dissuade the president from pushing ahead with the program.
Seasoned war correspondent Homer Bigart was another early critic of the program. On April 2, 1962, he wrote in the New York Times, “The United States has assumed moral responsibility for a harsh and drastic military measure that…involves the resettlement – by force if necessary – of thousands of Vietnamese rural families that live in areas susceptible to Communist domination…the Americans were taking on a drastic program that was certain in the initial stages to be bitterly resented by the peasantry….” The president, who daily read the New York Times, and who would become increasingly critical of its reporting on the war, disregarded Bigart’s admonition. He refused to alter the program or slow its implementation.
Others who maintained links to top levels of the U.S. government learned of problems with the program only weeks after its launch. The Rand Corporation, which conducted research in Vietnam for the Department of Defense, sent two of its analysts to South Vietnam in early 1962 to study the Allied counter-insurgency effort. John C. Donnell and Gerald C. Hickey traveled through several South Vietnamese provinces between January and April 1962. In Binh Duong Province, where the GVN first initiated the Strategic Hamlet Program as part of “Operation Sunrise,” the two Rand analysts noted that “…the peasants are paying for the project in the form of obligatory communal labor on digging and construction, through the consequently reduced yield of secondary crops, by the contribution of local materials including bamboo, and by payments for purchase of concrete fence posts and barbed wire. They also have to sacrifice the land put out of cultivation by earthworks.” Donnell and Hickey continued, “…Operation Sunrise…has come closer to arousing peasant dissatisfaction over the program here than elsewhere. Compulsory regrouping within hamlet perimeters also has caused dissatisfaction.”
Hickey and Donnell witnessed firsthand a host of other problems with the Strategic Hamlet Program, such as farmers being forced to work without pay on strategic hamlets located as far as 100 kilometers from their homes; local militiamen abusing hamlet residents; some farmers being required to work up to ninety days on strategic hamlets without any financial remuneration at all; and the Government, although promising to provide resettled peasants with 1,000 piasters (approximately $14.00 USD) to help offset the costs of moving to the strategic hamlets, failing to provide farmers with any resettlement funds whatsoever. American officialdom was well aware of the problems with the strategic hamlets. In mid-1962, the CIA’s Saigon station chief admitted, “…peasants reportedly feel some initial resentment at changes enforced in way of life imposed by program, as well as exactions of money and labor.” It became evident early on that the program, which was supposed to win the peasantry’s loyalties, was instead seriously harming relations between the Government and the rural population.
These early misgivings, articulated by Galbraith, Hilsman, Bigart, the Rand Corporation’s Hickey and Donnell, and the CIA’s Saigon station chief, did nothing to lessen Kennedy’s support for rural resettlement, which raises the question – why did JFK continue to fully back the program? There exist a number of possible explanations. First, Kennedy believed the program offered the best chance of defeating the Communist insurgency. The relocation and concentration of rural residents had helped defeat the Filipino insurgency in the early 20th Century, it had also been successful in Malaya. Kennedy believed the concept could work in South Vietnam. Second, the president understood that the program had had a rough start. But he recognized it was still early, the kinks in the program could be fixed before the GVN applied the concept on a larger scale, and thus, the bulk of the peasantry could still be persuaded, through the proper implementation of the concept, to join with the GVN. Third, Kennedy wanted to militarily defeat, or at a minimum show substantial progress against, the Vietcong’s War of National Liberation before the 1964 presidential election. A successful Strategic Hamlet Program would greatly increase his odds of reelection. Fourth, and most importantly, the president received upbeat assessments of the program from men he considered far better informed about the situation prevailing in South Vietnam than the naysayers.
Throughout 1962 and 1963, Robert McNamara and Maxwell Taylor, two men JFK held in high esteem, spoke glowingly to the president and to the press, about the “successes” of the Strategic Hamlet Program. A little over a month after the program started, McNamara visited a resettlement project in An Xuyen Province, on the Ca Mau Peninsula, where 11,000 peasants had been relocated to GVN camps. McNamara learned from his South Vietnamese hosts that Vietcong activity in the area surrounding the camp had fallen off dramatically since the people had been resettled. Believing the U.S. and GVN may have finally found the formula for success in the war against the Vietcong, McNamara told the press that in South Vietnam there is “…nothing but progress and hope for the future.” Referring to the time period since the start of the Strategic Hamlet Program, the Defense Secretary declared, “Progress in the last eight to ten weeks has been great….” After returning to Washington from his trip to South Vietnam, McNamara passed on the good news from An Xuyen to the president.
On July 25, 1962, McNamara, again with the Strategic Hamlet Program in mind, told the American press that the South Vietnamese are “…beginning to hit the Viet Cong insurgents where it hurts most – in winning the people to the side of the Government.” He continued, “Our military assistance to Vietnam is paying off.” Then, in mid-September, Maxwell Taylor admitted publicly that, “…he was particularly pleased with the progress in building strategic hamlets.” The president’s special adviser on Vietnam remarked, “This [resettlement] plan…has grown far beyond our hopes of a few months ago.” When told that the Saigon regime was then building, or planning to build, 5,000 strategic hamlets, Taylor declared the figure “very impressive.”
British counter-insurgency expert Robert G. K. Thompson, who had achieved a sort of guru status by 1963 and who visited with Kennedy in the White House in April of that year, shared McNamara and Taylor’s optimism. He believed the U.S. and GVN had seized the initiative in 1962 and were on a path toward eventual victory. According to Thompson, the combination of U.S. military technology (particularly H-34 and UH-1 helicopters and M-113 armored personnel carriers) and the Strategic Hamlet Program had turned things around for the Allies. Thompson remained upbeat about U.S. prospects in the South well into 1963.
Although the CIA Saigon station chief had warned the administration about early problems with the hamlet program, others in the CIA believed the United States may have recently seized the initiative from the Vietcong. New U.S. equipment and tactics, including the strategic hamlet concept, introduced into the conflict since the Taylor-Rostow mission of October 1961 had led to a significant drop-off in Vietcong incidents in 1962.
With the war apparently going so well, Kennedy had no reason to alter course. Instead, he had every reason to reinforce the apparent success of his Vietnam policies.
Ngo Dinh Diem’s confidence in the Strategic Hamlet Program may have had an effect on Kennedy’s thinking as well. Speaking to the National Assembly in Saigon on October 1, 1962, Diem claimed that the GVN had turned a corner in the war. It was now winning, largely because of the strategic hamlets. The South Vietnamese president declared, “I can affirm today that the situation is reversed. Everywhere we are taking the initiative…Everywhere we are passing to the offensive, sowing insecurity in the Communists’ reputedly impregnable strongholds, smashing their units one after another.”
Having concluded that the Strategic Hamlet Program had shifted the momentum of the war toward the Allies, the Americans and the South Vietnamese decided to rapidly expand the program across South Vietnam.
The decision to move forward as rapidly as possible with the construction of new strategic hamlets appears to have originated with Robert McNamara. It is not known exactly why McNamara wanted to hurry the program. He, in consultation with the president, may have decided a successful resettlement program would defeat the Vietcong, or significantly diminish the level of violence in the South, by the fall of 1964, when Kennedy went up for reelection. No one in the administration doubted that progress in Vietnam would boost Kennedy’s chances of regaining the presidency for a second term. There was also a degree of collective impatience influencing the decision to rush the program’s implementation. Kennedy’s people wanted to get the seemingly intractable war in Southeast Asia over with as soon as possible, so the administration could move on to other policy priorities. McNamara’s mechanistic world view may have come into play as well. The Secretary of Defense may have persuaded himself that a higher volume of American inputs (money and supplies) would produce a higher volume of positive South Vietnamese outputs (pacified peasants).
Whatever the case, in early May 1962, the Secretary of Defense flew to South Vietnam to discuss with top South Vietnamese officials the acceleration of the resettlement program. On May 10, accompanied by Joint Chiefs of Staff Chair Lyman L. Lemnitzer, Commander-in-Chief Pacific Command (CINCPAC) Admiral Harry Felt, Military Assistance Command – Vietnam (MACV) head General Paul Harkins, and U.S. Ambassador to South Vietnam Frederick E. Nolting, Jr., McNamara met with Diem in the former French hill station of Dalat. During the course of the discussions, the Defense Secretary urged Diem to push the construction of new strategic hamlets, especially in the Mekong Delta. McNamara told Diem that if the GVN followed the Secretary of Defense’s advice, the United States would guarantee the delivery of the money and materials for such an expansion. To man the increased number of strategic hamlets, McNamara wanted the Self Defense Corps (SDC) and Civil Guard (CG) expanded from 65,000 men each to 80,000 SDCs and 72,000 CGs. Seeing little reason to oppose McNamara’s suggestions, and recognizing that he and his cabal of Catholics would receive millions of additional dollars in aid, Diem agreed to both requests. In the months that followed, and with the Americans fully backing him, Diem pursued relocation with a fervor matched only by his religious convictions.
Throughout the remainder of 1962, the Diem regime constructed strategic hamlets at a dizzying rate, relocating a far larger portion of the rural populace in a matter of months than had been displaced during all the years of the agroville and agro-hamlet programs. In June, the Saigon government was building dozens of hamlets a week. By July 1, a little over three months since the program’s start date; the GVN had completed 2,000 strategic hamlets. The CIA reported at that time that the Strategic Hamlet Program had become the GVN’s, and by implication the U.S.’s, primary weapon against the Vietcong insurgency. Its analysts wrote, “… [the] strategic hamlet program has grown in recent months into government’s major ideological and institutional tool in attempting [to] generate popular consensus in support [of] efforts to defeat enemy.” At the end of the summer of 1962, the GVN claimed that thirty-three percent of South Vietnam’s population, or 4,322,034 people, lived in strategic hamlets. In mid-October, the GVN reported that South Vietnam possessed 3,000 strategic hamlets.
Quickly constructing strategic hamlets, and hurriedly pushing the peasantry out of their original homes, was exactly the wrong thing to do. Reporter David Halberstam, who supported U.S. involvement in Vietnam, but who opposed some of the methods used to fight the war, commented, “…the success of the [strategic hamlet] program in the Delta rested largely on the strategy of building hamlets slowly, starting with one secure area and then slowly branching out and gathering other villages into a protective umbrella, thus creating a sense of mutual protection through interlocking units. But this type of construction never took place. Instead, hamlets went up helter-skelter, lacking any overall, Delta-wide plan of priorities.”
Kennedy adviser Michael V. Forrestal agreed with Halberstam’s assessment. He believed that the Strategic Hamlet Program became quickly overextended. Specifically, the GVN was building hamlets too far from military support. Forrestal observed, “One result of the lack of an overall plan is the proliferation of strategic hamlets that are inadequately equipped and defended or that are built prematurely in exposed areas.” The GVN’s geographical overreach risked an eventual retrenchment or collapse of the program as soon as the Vietcong began attacking the vulnerable hamlets.
The program’s hurried pace of construction, and its harmful effects on the peasantry, alarmed not only Halberstam, but also Stanley Karnow, Neil Sheehan, and Bernard Fall – three keen observers of the Vietnam scene. Karnow, who served as a reporter for the Washington Post wrote, “Ancient [settlement] patterns were wantonly disrupted in many areas. In the Mekong Delta, for instance, where communities were traditionally strung out along canals, sometimes for miles, villagers were concentrated, often under duress, in barbed wire enclosures from which they had to walk long distances to the fields.” Sheehan, at the New York Times, seconded Karnow. He noted that in order to squeeze a village’s population into a more defensible strategic hamlet, the huts not fitting inside the smaller perimeter were destroyed. This action not only compressed the size of the strategic hamlet, it established clear fields of fire for the defenders of the new, smaller hamlet. Bernard Fall noticed that toward the end of 1962, the GVN had built 3,074 strategic hamlets. Another 2,679 hamlets were slated for construction in the next few months. After completion of those additional hamlets, almost 7.3 million people would be living in strategic hamlets, a number Fall found shocking.
By the end of 1962, over half of South Vietnam’s rural population had either been relocated to a strategic hamlet or faced imminent relocation. The implications of this program for South Vietnam’s peasantry cannot be underestimated. Rural South Vietnam was being turned upside down. Granted, not all villagers were moved far from their original hamlets, and some actually stayed in their old hamlets but in a more confined space. But the results of the relocations for millions of peasants were similar to any mass migration: loss of social cohesion as residents from different villages and hamlets were bunched together in the same strategic hamlet; disruption of economic activity as peasants moved further away from rice plots and markets; disorientation resulting from a strange, unfamiliar place of residence; and difficulty adjusting to new work schedules and living arrangements. One disgruntled resident of a strategic hamlet declared, “We have no solidarity here, no cooperation. And so, if the Viet Cong come, no matter where we are, they can take advantage of us.” And take advantage they did. Viet Cong recruitment in the countryside skyrocketed in 1962 and 1963, coinciding with the Strategic Hamlet Program’s most intense period of construction.
In spite of the Strategic Hamlet Program’s obvious shortcomings, the Kennedy administration never wavered in its support of it. A key reason had to do with the CIA’s continued rosy assessments of the program. Langley convinced the president the program was working. In mid-April 1963, the CIA provided the president with a National Intelligence Estimate that stated, “We believe that Communist progress has been blunted and the situation is improving…the Viet Cong can be contained militarily and that further progress can be made in expanding the area of government control and in creating greater security in the countryside.” According to the CIA, the military and political initiative in South Vietnam had clearly passed to the United States and the GVN. The CIA’s reportage, along with the continued positive reports from McNamara and others in the president’s immediate circle, persuaded Kennedy to stay the course. The administration’s persistent support for resettlement was apparent through its financial assistance. In fiscal year 1963 (from July 1, 1962 to June 30, 1963) the U.S. spent up to $70 million on strategic hamlets – or nearly $600 million in 2019 dollars.
Nineteen sixty-three saw the program swing into overdrive. “On April 11, 1963, almost a year after the program’s debut, it was reported that 5,917…hamlets had been built, housing 8,150,187 inhabitants out of a total [South Vietnamese] population given as 13,813,066.” Fifty-nine percent of South Vietnam’s population now lived in some sort of strategic hamlet. By the middle of June 1963, the GVN had erected…6,800 hamlets – a nearly 900 hamlets increase since mid-April.” In the month of August 1963, the GVN claimed to have completed 875 new strategic hamlets – or over 200 per week. In Long An Province alone, the GVN had constructed 70 strategic hamlets by the end of 1962. In the first six months of 1963, the GVN doubled the number of strategic hamlets. By September of that year, the GVN had built over 200 strategic hamlets in Long An.
On October 31, 1963, the Diem regime boasted that ten million South Vietnamese lived in strategic hamlets. U.S. officials put the figure at eight million – or seventy percent of South Vietnam’s rural population. It was then, just as the program reached its zenith, that Diem’s hold on the countryside, and South Vietnam, slipped away.
 New York Times, “Hamlet in Vietnam is at Mercy of Red Guerrillas,” January 10, 1964.
 New York Times, “U.S. Role in Vietnam,” Homer Bigart, April 2, 1962.
 New York Times, “U.S. Role in Vietnam,” Homer Bigart, April 2, 1962; New York Times, “Strategic Hamlet in Vietnam,” May 20, 1962.
 New York Times, “Vietnam Sets Up Fortified Towns,” Homer Bigart, April 1, 1962.
 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, (Boston: Beacon Press, 1971), 670.
 The Senate Gravel Edition, The Pentagon Papers, Volume II, The Defense Department History of United States Decisionmaking on Vietnam, “Document 115, Department of State, Bureau of Intelligence and Research, Progress Report on South Vietnam,” June 18, 1962, 680.
 New York Times, “U.S. Role in Vietnam,” Homer Bigart, April 2, 1962.
 John C. Donnell and Gerald C. Hickey, “The Vietnamese Strategic Hamlets: A Preliminary Report,” RM-3208-ARPA, (Santa Monica, California: Rand Corporation, September 1962), vii.
 Ibid., 11, 12, 13, 26.
 The Senate Gravel Edition, The Pentagon Papers, Volume II, The Defense Department History of United States Decisionmaking on Vietnam, “Document 117, Central Intelligence Agency, Memorandum for the Secretary of Defense,” July 13, 1962, 687.
 New York Times, “McNamara Asks Vietnam Chief to Alter Tactics in Struggle: U.S. is Showing Impatience Over Lag on Mekong Delta Pacification Plan….” Homer Bigart, May 11, 1962; New York Times, “M’Namara Terms Saigon Aid Ample,” Homer Bigart, May 12, 1962.
 New York Times, “Vietnam Victory Remote Despite U.S. Aid to Diem,” Homer Bigart, July 25, 1962.
 New York Times, “Taylor Hopeful on Vietnam Fight,” David Halberstam, September 14, 1962.
 Fredrik Logevall, Choosing War: The Lost Chance for Peace and the Escalation of War in Vietnam, (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999), 18, 20.
 New York Times, “Diem Asserts Red Guerrillas Are On Defensive,” David Halberstam, October 2, 1962.
 New York Times, “Vietnam Victory Remote Despite U.S. Aid to Diem,” Homer Bigart, July 25, 1962; New York Times, “Vietnam Sets Up Fortified Towns,” Homer Bigart, April 1, 1962.
 The Senate Gravel Edition, The Pentagon Papers, Volume II, The Defense Department History of United States Decisionmaking on Vietnam, 142-143, 152.
 New York Times, “Vietnam Reds to Step Up Drive on Regime’s Strategic Hamlets,” Homer Bigart, June 24, 1962.
 The Senate Gravel Edition, The Pentagon Papers, Volume II, The Defense Department History of United States Decisionmaking on Vietnam, “Document 117, Central Intelligence Agency, Memorandum for the Secretary of Defense,” July 13, 1962, 686.
 New York Times, “U.S. Program Reported to Halt Red Advance in Vietnam in ’62,” David Binder, December 15, 1962; The Senate Gravel Edition, The Pentagon Papers, Volume II, The Defense Department History of United States Decisionmaking on Vietnam, 150-151; The Senate Gravel Edition, The Pentagon Papers, Volume II, The Defense Department History of United States Decisionmaking on Vietnam, “Document 119, Department of State, Bureau of Intelligence and Research, The Situation and Short-Term Prospects in South Vietnam,” December 3, 1962, 700-701.
 Halberstam, Quagmire, 105-106.
 The Senate Gravel Edition, The Pentagon Papers, Volume II, The Defense Department History of United States Decisionmaking on Vietnam,” “Document 120, Memorandum for the President,” Undated, 720.
 Stanley Karnow, Vietnam: A History, 1983, Reprint, (New York: Penguin Books, 1997), 274.
 Neil Sheehan, A Bright Shining Lie: John Paul Vann and America in Vietnam, (New York: Random House, 1988), 309.
 Bernard B. Fall, The Two Vietnams: A Political and Military Analysis, (New York: Frederick A. Praeger, 1963), 376.
 Frances Fitzgerald, Fire in the Lake: The Vietnamese and the Americans in Vietnam, 1972, Reprint, (New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2002), 125.
 James S. Olson and Randy Roberts, Where the Domino Fell: America and Vietnam, 1945-1990, (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1991), 97.
 National Intelligence Council, Estimative Products on Vietnam, 1948-1975, Director of Central Intelligence, “National Intelligence Estimate, Number 53-63, Prospects in South Vietnam,” 17 April 1963, (Washington, DC: GPO, 2005) 186.
 New York Times, “U.S. and Vietnam Agree on Costs,” Felix Belair Jr., May 10, 1963; New York Times, “U.S. Investment in Vietnam Nearing 3 Billion,” August 28, 1963.
 Fall, Two Vietnams, 376.
 Sheehan, Bright Shining Lie, 338.
 Dave R. Palmer, Summons of the Trumpet: U.S.-Vietnam in Perspective, (Novato, California: Presidio Press, Inc., 1978), 41; New York Times, “Viet Cong Terrorism Sweeping the Mekong Delta as Saigon’s Control Wanes,” Hedrick Smith, January 12, 1964.