Ngo Dinh Diem and the South Vietnamese Peasantry, Part VI, Prelude to a Coup

The Vietcong did not stand idly by while the Americans and South Vietnamese erected strategic hamlets across South Vietnam.  From the beginning, the guerrillas sought to undermine the program. On June 23, 1962, only two months after the GVN initiated the program in Binh Duong Province, Hanoi radio urged its compatriots in the South to “…destroy the United States-Diem [My-Diem] strategic hamlets and free the people detained therein.”[1] After hearing this radio message, U.S. and GVN officials concluded that the Strategic Hamlet Program must be working, otherwise the Hanoi regime would not have brought attention to it.

In the weeks that followed Hanoi’s exhortation, the Vietcong stepped up its attacks against strategic hamlets, striking at settlements in the provinces of Quang Ngai on the coastal plain and Vinh Binh and Vinh Long in the delta. In all of these operations, the guerrillas seized the weapons of the hamlet defenders, which enabled them to replenish their own stocks and arm new units. In the ten-week period ending July 15, the Vietcong attacked forty-six strategic hamlets, but only overran three.[2]

Although initially ineffective against the hamlets, the Communists, by early 1963, devised a set of military tactics that enabled them to methodically destroy the GVN’s garrisoned communities. On paper, strategic hamlets were supposed to be mutually-supporting, meaning each hamlet’s defenders would come to the assistance, in case of attack, of the population and militiamen in the hamlets closest to it. No single hamlet was supposed to stand alone, isolated from any of the others. However, in its haste to build thousands of hamlets, the Saigon regime erected hamlets willy nilly across the countryside, without concern for the concept of mutual support. The guerrillas took advantage of this obvious weakness; they first targeted the isolated hamlets. After the Vietcong had seized the arms, ammunition, and men from those hamlets, its strengthened units moved against the more heavily-defended settlements.

In areas where the government had actually built mutually-supporting hamlets, the guerrillas sometimes knocked out the most-heavily-defended hamlet first by sending a main force battalion against it. Once the strongest strategic hamlet in the system had been rendered inert, the guerrillas struck at the other, weaker hamlets.  Another tactic involved simultaneous attacks against a group of strategic hamlets.  These simultaneous attacks prevented one hamlet from sending reinforcements to another.

Peasant apathy, and in many cases outright support for the Vietcong, made the job of the guerrillas that much easier. The GVN had hoped the peasantry would assist the Self-Defense Corps (SDC), Civil Guards (CG), and ARVN in defending the hamlets against the Vietcong. But disgruntled peasants all-too-often provided the local Vietcong with intelligence on the layout of each hamlet, its complement of light and heavy weapons, and the morale of its SDC and CG militia. Then, at the moment the Vietcong launched an assault, the peasants, rather than defend their hamlet, rose up instead against the SDC and CG, thereby assisting the Vietcong in overrunning the fortification.

In early April 1963, the Vietcong attacked a cluster of strategic hamlets in An Xuyen Province on the Ca Mau Peninsula. On day one of the operation, the guerrillas hit four of the mutually-supporting hamlets in the group. Once those hamlets had been weakened, and their defenders made gun shy, the Vietcong, on day two, struck the two most isolated hamlets in the cluster. Those two hamlets fell to the Vietcong, with the loss of a regular ARVN company.[3]

By July 1963, the Vietcong’s enhanced strength, apparent in its intensifying counteroffensive against the Strategic Hamlet Program, began to trouble U.S. officials. In the delta, where the Vietcong made some of its greatest gains in 1963, David Halberstam witnessed firsthand the deterioration of the GVN’s position. He stated, “Here [in the delta] the “strategic hamlet” program of gathering the population in stockaded towns is encountering difficulties. A major re-evaluation is taking place.”[4] A little over two weeks later Halberstam wrote, “Americans and other advisers are extremely worried about the hamlet program in the delta.”[5]

The Vietcong did not confine its counterattacks solely to the delta. Its fighters struck at hamlets all across South Vietnam, including the area northwest of Saigon, where the program had begun. On August 19, 1963, in a symbolically-important attack, the Vietcong destroyed the first model strategic hamlet at Ben Tuong in Ben Cat District, not far from the Lai Khe rubber plantation in Binh Duong Province. Moments after urging the residents to return to their old homes, the guerrillas set fire to the hamlet, burning it to the ground.[6]

In September, Halberstam interviewed a U.S. official who told him that the Vietcong had become so pernicious in the Ca Mau Peninsula that, “…attempts to build hamlets have without exception failed.” This same source admitted, “Even when we have hamlets the Vietcong continue to control them…so there are repeated instances of treachery and defection. At best we baby-sit for Vietcong families.” In An Xuyen Province, where the government had erected a total of 65 hamlets since early 1962, South Vietnamese ground forces so feared the Vietcong and its peasant followers that they no longer patrolled the countryside. Instead, government troops remained ensconced in the strategic hamlets; or as one American declared with contempt, “[they] …sit there waiting for the executioner.” Another exasperated American told Halberstam, “We know the situation is terrible, we know it’s deteriorating, and yet the Government is taking no steps whatsoever to correct it…[the Vietcong] get stronger all the time.”[7]

Concerns for the program, and fears that it was turning the peasantry against the GVN, were greatest among mid-level State Department officials working directly in the field. These men determined, after speaking with Vietnamese of all stripes, that the program had become grossly overextended and was now experiencing a severe peasant backlash. In the summer of 1963, field reports reached the Embassy and MACV recommending that the construction of new hamlets stop immediately.  Rather than continue to build new hamlets, the U.S. and GVN should focus instead on securing existing hamlets and delivering the promised services to the inhabitants.[8]

But top U.S. officials in Saigon and Washington reacted slowly to these mid-level recommendations because they continued to believe the program was a resounding success. In mid-August, while the situation spiraled out of control in the delta, Secretary of State Dean Rusk publicly credited the Strategic Hamlet Program for bringing former Vietcong areas under GVN control.[9] A month later, MACV’s Paul Harkins asserted that the U.S. and GVN were winning the war in the delta. However, he did acknowledge that, “There is some overextension of the hamlet program in the delta, but not by much.”[10]

The effective Communist campaign against the Strategic Hamlet Program reflected the Vietcong’s increased popular support, its larger recruitment base in the countryside, and its concomitant rise in military power. Vietcong military strength rose steadily from 1961 to mid-1963. In March 1961, the CIA estimated the Vietcong guerrilla and terrorist apparatus at 8,000 to 10,000 men and women.[11] At the end of 1961, regular, full-time Vietcong strength stood at 18,000. Fifteen months later, in April 1963, the CIA revised upward its estimate of Vietcong strength. The Vietcong had between 22,000 and 25,000 main-force troops and 100,000  irregulars.[12] These increases in the Communist army resulted in large part from the failures of the GVN’s resettlement programs. Thousands upon thousands of peasants flocked to the Vietcong banner in response to the repression, administrative incompetence, physical abuse, and official corruption experienced in government-run agrovilles and strategic hamlets.

In mid-summer 1963, JFK began to seriously reconsider U.S. support for Diem. The Buddhist Crisis, and Diem’s inept response to it, acted as the catalyst for the president’s reevaluation of the U.S.-South Vietnamese relationship. But it was the regime’s deteriorating position in the countryside – and specifically in the delta – that eventually led to Kennedy’s approval of a coup against Diem.

Some historians have argued that the administration’s policy reassessment in the late summer and early fall of 1963 reflected Kennedy’s desire to find a way out of the Vietnam morass; and that had Kennedy not died in Dallas in November, he would have withdrawn the U.S. from South Vietnam. This historical interpretation reinforces the argument that Kennedy was less of a hardliner and more prescient than the evidence permits. In his public statements and actions in the months preceding his death, Kennedy repeatedly signaled he had no intention of pulling the U.S. out of Vietnam. On July 28, 1963, he asserted, “For us to withdraw…would mean a collapse, not only of South Vietnam, but of Southeast Asia, so we’re going to stay.”[13] In mid-September, two months before his death, he told NBC Television’s Chet Huntley and David Brinkley, “I think we should stay [in South Vietnam]. We should use our influence in as effective a way as we can…we should not withdraw.”[14] A U.S. defeat in South Vietnam worried Kennedy far more than a U.S. military escalation. His policy toward Diem rested on one paramount consideration – whether Diem could win the war. If Diem could not, then he had to go.

Although Kennedy approved a coup against Diem on August 29, 1963, he remained unsure about whether to proceed with it.[15] To allay his doubts and help him make up his mind about whether to depose Diem, Kennedy, in late September, sent Maxwell Taylor and Robert McNamara to Saigon to meet with the South Vietnamese leader. Kennedy wanted Taylor and McNamara to achieve two objectives during their mission to Vietnam.  First, he wanted his two key advisers to pressure Diem to reform his regime.  And second, he wanted to know what was really happening in the countryside. Specifically, the president hoped to find out whether things were as bad in rural South Vietnam as reported in the New York Times.

On September 29, 1963, soon after arriving in South Vietnam, McNamara and Taylor, along with U.S. Ambassador to South Vietnam Henry Cabot Lodge, met with Diem to discuss the deteriorating situation in the countryside.  During the course of the meeting, the South Vietnamese leader told the Americans, “…The war was going well, thanks in large measure to the strategic hamlets’ [sic] program. Due to that program the VC enemy was having increasing difficulties in finding food and recruits, and was being steadily forced into increasingly difficult and unrewarding tactical situations….”[16] Diem went so far as to claim that the formation of big Vietcong units, of company size and larger, indicated the Strategic Hamlet Program was working. According to the South Vietnamese president, the Communists had to form larger-sized units because the countryside had become so hostile to their presence.[17] Diem’s interpretation of the situation then prevailing across rural South Vietnam could not have been further from the truth.

What was surprising about these statements wasn’t that Diem made them. He had a reputation for self-delusion. What was shocking was that two top U.S. officials believed them. After returning to Washington, Taylor and McNamara informed Kennedy that, “…the strategic hamlet program is sound in concept, and generally effective in execution….” The two men even went so far as to claim that the insurgency could be reduced to nothing more than “sporadic banditry” by the end of 1964 in all the Corps areas except the delta. “Victory in IV [the delta] will take longer – at least well into 1965.”[18] The conclusions submitted by McNamara and Taylor to the president caused Kennedy to doubt whether Diem should be removed from power.

Three weeks later, the State Department’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research provided the White House with a very different assessment of the situation in South Vietnam than the one proffered by McNamara and Taylor. The State Department had determined that, “Statistics show that the Viet Cong have accelerated their military and subversive effort since July 1963.”[19] The report continued, “On the basis of available statistical trends, there appear to have been a number of significant and unfavorable changes in the military situation in South Vietnam since July of this year…Large Viet Cong attacks (company size or larger) have also increased appreciably since July of this year, and if the trend continues, could exceed by almost 30% the level for July-December 1962.”[20] The Buddhist Crisis had not brought on these “unfavorable changes.” The majority of peasants across rural South Vietnam knew little about the Buddhist protests in Saigon and elsewhere. Rather, the Buddhist Crisis was a mere symptom of a far larger, longer-running crisis – one with its roots in the countryside.  Out in the paddy lands beyond the cities, millions of peasants had swung their allegiance to the Vietcong because of the disastrous execution of the Strategic Hamlet Program.[21]

A second report, prepared by the U.S. Embassy’s Strategic Hamlet Committee, and which was made public on October 23, reinforced the conclusions of the Bureau of Intelligence and Research. This second report admitted that the Strategic Hamlet Program had become overextended. In consequence, the committee recommended that all new hamlet construction should be halted immediately. Otherwise, the GVN risked further alienating a sizable segment of the South Vietnamese peasantry.[22]

At the same time that the State Department’s two negative reports reached the president, the CIA reported that in the third week of October there occurred 138 Vietcong “incidents” in the delta alone, and a total of 338 incidents countrywide.[23] Incidents varied in size and complexity from the detonation of a Vietcong mine to a battalion-sized assault. An estimated 1,500 incidents occurred in October, a clear indication that the insurgency was gaining a dangerous momentum. The increasingly grim news out of South Vietnam in October provided Kennedy with the hard facts he needed to support a coup against Diem.

While the Allied position in rural South Vietnam spiraled downward, U.S. officials, including the president, refused to accept responsibility for the decline in the GVN’s position. Neither the president nor his advisers publicly admitted that the botched Strategic Hamlet Program had been the primary reason for the decrease in popular support for the Diem government. Instead, the administration placed the blame for the dismal situation in rural South Vietnam solidly on the shoulders of Diem and his brother Nhu.  The Americans argued that the Nhus had become dictatorial, unpopular, and insular.  All of these claims were true in 1963, but they were also true back in 1954 and 1955, when the U.S. first propped up the Diem regime.

Kennedy’s attempt to distance himself from his failing Vietnam policy, and from Diem in particular, became apparent in an interview with CBS Nightly News anchor Walter Cronkite on September 2, 1963, at the Kennedy property at Hyannis Port, Massachusetts. Sitting on a lawn chair beneath a bright blue sky, Kennedy, who began the interview squinting into the sun and then later put on a pair of fashionable sunglasses, told Cronkite, “I don’t think that unless a greater effort is made by the Government to win popular support that the war can be won out there. In the final analysis, it is their war. They are the ones who have to win it or lose it.[24] Essentially, the president said the war was not his. It was Diem’s war. Diem was responsible for the flagging fortunes of the U.S. in South Vietnam. If that line of reasoning was to be believed by the media and the American public than all of the U.S. economic and military aid provided to Diem up to that point in time, and which equaled about $3 billion, had to be utterly discounted.

Kennedy’s words to Cronkite must have been difficult for the proud Diem to hear. Diem knew that the Kennedy administration had not only crafted South Vietnam’s overall counter-insurgency plan (of which the Strategic Hamlet Program was a key component) back in 1961, it had provided the funding and guidance to carry it out. The American people may have been fooled by Kennedy’s disassembling, but those Americans out in the field in South Vietnam were not. One U.S. official, who refused to be identified, stated, “Let’s face it…A lot of the blame for the situation is ours. We financed most of those programs, and we signed off on them. The situation was going badly for months and someone wasn’t checking up on it for our side.”[25]

The Buddhist Crisis played a part in Kennedy’s decision to overthrow Diem, but more than anything else it was the regime’s loss of support in the countryside that convinced Kennedy to oust the South Vietnamese leader. The cities might have been restive, but the urban population was likely to remain allied to the United States, come hell or high water, because its economic and political interests lay with the United States. Kennedy understood that the Vietnam War would be won or lost out beyond the cities. Rural South Vietnam was the contested zone – the conflict’s center of gravity. By the third week of October 1963, it was clear to Kennedy that Diem could not win where it mattered most. So, on November 2, a group of South Vietnamese generals, with Kennedy’s backing, overthrew Diem.


Endnotes

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

[2] New York Times, “Vietcong Presses Village Attacks,” Robert Trumball, July 12, 1962; New York Times, “Glimmer of Hope Seen in Vietnam,” Robert Trumball, August 12, 1962.

[3] New York Times, “2 Vietnam Towns Overrun By Reds,” David Halberstam, April 24, 1962.

[4] New York Times, “Picture is Cloudy in Vietnam’s War,” David Halberstam, July 28, 1963.

[5] New York Times, Vietnamese Reds Gain in Key Area,” David Halberstam, August 15, 1963.

[6] The Senate Gravel Edition, The Pentagon Papers, The Defense Department History of United States Decisionmaking on Vietnam, Volume II, (Boston: Beacon Press, 1971), 149.

[7] New York Times, “Rift With Vietnam on Strategy Underlined By 2 Red Attacks,” David Halberstam, September 16, 1963.

[8] Ibid., New York Times, September 16, 1963.

[9] Ibid., New York Times, September 16, 1963.

[10] New York Times, “Kennedy Sending Mission to Assess Vietnamese War,” Marjorie Hunter, September 22, 1963; New York Times, “Mansfield Assails U.S. Rift on Saigon,” Tad Szulc, September 21, 1963.

[11] National Intelligence Council, Estimative Products on Vietnam, 1948-1975, Director of Central Intelligence, “National Intelligence Estimate, 50-61, Outlook in Mainland Southeast Asia,” 28 March 1961, CD-ROM, 7.

[12] James William Gibson, The Perfect War: Technowar in Vietnam, 1986, Reprint, (New York: Atlantic Monthly Press, 2000), 332; The Senate Gravel Edition, The Pentagon Papers, The Defense Department History of United States Decisionmaking on Vietnam, Volume II, “Document 119, Department of State, Bureau of Intelligence and Research, The Situation and Short-Term Prospects in South Vietnam,” December 3, 1962, (Boston: Beacon Press, 1971), 690; National Intelligence Council, Estimative Products on Vietnam, 1948-1975, Director of Central Intelligence, “National Intelligence Estimate, 53-63, Prospects in South Vietnam,” 17 April 1963, (Washington, DC: GPO, 2005), 190.

[13] New York Times, “Vietnam’s Two Battles,” July 28, 1963.

[14] Robert S. McNamara, In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam, (New York: Time Books, 1995), 87.

[15] Fredrik Logevall, Choosing War: The Lost Chance for Peace and the Escalation of War in Vietnam, (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999), 3.

[16] 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, (Boston: Beacon Press, 1971), 749.

[17] Ibid., 749-750.

[18] Ibid., 757.

[19] The Senate Gravel Edition, The Pentagon Papers, The Defense Department History of United States Decisionmaking on Vietnam, Volume II, “Document 147, Department of State, Bureau of Intelligence and Research, Research Memorandum, Statistics on the War Effort in South Vietnam Show Unfavorable Trends,” October 22, 1963, (Boston: Beacon Press, 1971), 771.

[20] Ibid., 780.

[21] New York Times, “Picture is Cloudy in Vietnam’s War,” David Halberstam, July 28, 1963.

[22] New York Times, “U.S. Aides, Critical of Vietnam Hamlet Program,” David Halberstam, October 23, 1963.

[23] New York Times, “U.S. Trains Corps in Mekong Delta,” Seth S. King, October 27, 1963.

[24] William Appleman Williams, Thomas McCormick, Lloyd Gardner, and Walter Lafeber, eds., America in Vietnam: A Documentary History, (Garden City, New York: Anchor Press/Doubleday, 1985), 198-199.

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

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