Ngo Dinh Diem and the South Vietnamese Peasantry, Part VII, Kennedy’s Lost War

No one in 1963, or later, doubted that Ngo Dinh Diem lacked the personality traits and the leadership skills to win the allegiance of the rural peasantry. A CIA report from 1963 stated the following about the Diem regime, “…[it] has been hampered by its lack of confidence in and its inability to engage the understanding and support of a considerable portion of the Vietnamese people – including large segments of the educated classes and the peasantry.”[1] Diem’s monopolization of power, his promotion of Catholics to positions of influence, and his reliance on his brother Nhu isolated him from the majority of South Vietnamese.

Diem certainly had his problems. But it was the Strategic Hamlet Program and the peasant opposition to it that caused his government to lose so much ground in 1962 and 1963. And President Kennedy, as much as Diem, held responsibility for the debacle that unfolded across rural South Vietnam in those years.

The Americans who backed the coup against Diem hoped his removal from office would stop, and possibly reverse, the downward slide of the GVN’s position in the countryside. They expected the coup to result in better governance in the provinces and in the thousands of strategic hamlets built since early 1962. But the reverse happened. Diem’s removal accelerated the deterioration in the countryside. In late 1963 and early 1964, the U.S. Mission watched helplessly as the Vietcong overran thousands of strategic hamlets. The worsening situation in the countryside resulted in part from the political chaos that descended upon South Vietnam in the wake of Diem’s murder. For instance, the generals who took the reins of government in November 1963 removed those government and military officials appointed by Diem who served at the district and provincial levels. According to Secretary of Defense McNamara, the results of this reshuffling of government officials caused a total break-down in governance.  “The political control structure extending from Saigon down into the hamlets disappeared following the November coup. Of the 41 incumbent province chiefs on November 1 [before the coup], 35 have been replaced…Scores of lesser officials were replaced.”[2] Because those appointees were not immediately replaced with new men, a political vacuum developed in the countryside

In some areas, the government presence simply vanished altogether as officials were recalled to Saigon. In the absence of directives from above, Self-Defense Corps (SDC), Civil Guard (CG), and ARVN units abandoned the field. In Long An Province, on the southwestern fringe of Saigon, the SDC and CG fell apart. Out of a total of 3,000 trained, part-time militiamen present for duty prior to the coup, only 500 still possessed weapons by the start of 1964. The remainder either deserted their posts, forfeited their weapons to the Vietcong, or turned-in their weapons.[3] All across South Vietnam, in the months after Diem’s ouster, the SDC, CG, and ARVN laid down their weapons. In November 1963, South Vietnamese forces lost enough weapons to arm five 300-man Vietcong battalions.[4]

Even the better trained and armed ARVN refused to conduct military operations in the days and weeks after the coup, its commanders fearful of upsetting the new leaders in Saigon. Some commanders simply waited for clear directives from the capital, which never came. With no one defending the strategic hamlets, and with many of the people residing in the settlements sympathetic to the Vietcong, the guerrillas achieved remarkable military gains in the months after Diem’s death.

In the seven days from November 4 to November 10, South Vietnam witnessed 1,021 Vietcong incidents. That figure equaled two-thirds of the total number of incidents for all of October.[5] At the end of November, U.S. intelligence reported 3,100 Vietcong incidents for the month – one of the highest monthly totals ever recorded.  The high number of incidents in the weeks after the coup indicates that the Vietcong recognized that the toppling of Diem, and the political turmoil resulting from it, offered them a unique opportunity to make military and political gains in the countryside.

Many of the Vietcong incidents in November consisted of attacks on strategic hamlets. Hundreds of the fortified settlements disappeared that month. By the third week of November a U.S. advisor labeled the situation in Long An and Dinh Tuong provinces, “desperate.” Only ten to twenty percent of the 213 strategic hamlets in Dinh Tuong and the 219 strategic hamlets in Long An remained under GVN administration. An American civilian stated that both provinces are in “…a state of total insecurity.” With a combined population of 1.5 million, the near loss of the two provinces represented a serious setback for the U.S. and GVN war effort. One U.S. official, referring to the collapse of the GVN’s position in Long An, said, “If we can’t win here…we may as well forget the whole show.”[6] By the turn of the New Year, the rural landscape of Long An looked nothing like it had back in October. From a helicopter, an observer saw scores of vacated strategic hamlets, their defensive works in ruins and their huts nothing more than piles of ash and timber.

The guerrillas realized notable success not only in Long An and Dinh Tuong, they rolled up strategic hamlets across the delta, as well as in the Central Highlands and coastal plain. On December 3, 1963, the “New York Times” reported, “Americans working in rural areas have reported that Vietcong forces have recently been overrunning and infiltrating hamlets in delta provinces at an alarming rate.” The Vietcong made major gains in Kein Phuong and Kein Tuong provinces, west of Saigon near the Cambodian border.[7] The Vietcong’s new near total control of those two provinces allowed them to move largely unopposed from their base camps in the Plain of Reeds toward Saigon.

Just days after Kennedy’s assassination on November 22, the Communists destroyed two sizable strategic hamlets in the Central Highlands at Dak Rode and Polei Kobay, near the tri-border region of Laos, Cambodia, and South Vietnam. The Communists eliminated the hamlets because they stood astride a major infiltration route into South Vietnam. Long-time observers of the Vietnam scene considered these twin defeats to be the single greatest military setback for the GVN since the Battle of Ap Bac in January 1963. Over a thousand Montagnard defenders simply disappeared into the jungle after the two battles. It wasn’t known whether the tribesmen had deserted their posts, joined the enemy, or became POWs. At Dak Rode, at least 57 American-supplied weapons fell into Vietcong hands.[8] The same story unfolded along the coastal plain, where the Communists struck the government’s fortified hamlets and “liberated” their residents.

In December and early January, Vietcong activity slowed, not because of increased Allied effectiveness, but because the Communists had to consolidate their November gains. They needed time to organize the large number of people and vast swaths of territory acquired since Diem’s fall. The Vietcong also curtailed their military operations so their civilian supporters could bring in their rice crops. However, in mid-January, with the rice harvest completed and political consolidation advancing unopposed, the Vietcong renewed their offensive against the strategic hamlets. In the central coast province of Binh Dinh, guerrillas walked into the strategic hamlet of Thuan Dao, executed the hamlet chief, and then ordered the residents to burn many of the hamlet’s houses. The following day, the guerrillas returned to Thuan Dao and ordered the destruction of the remainder of the huts. The Vietcong were also busy in the Central Highlands, where in mid-January they struck at two strategic hamlets near Pleiku. In early February the guerrillas assaulted Hau My (fifty-five miles southwest of Saigon), killing 12 ARVN soldiers, wounding 20 others, and seizing two American-made 81 mm mortars. The next day, the guerrillas overran the strategic hamlet of Thoi Lai, fifteen miles west of the delta town of Can Tho, killing thirty-two ARVN troopers and capturing approximately 100 weapons.[9]

McNamara, testifying before the House Armed Services Committee on January 27, 1964, admitted, “The Viet Cong was quick to take advantage of the growing opposition to the Diem Government and the period of uncertainty following its overthrow…I must report that they [the Vietcong] have made considerable progress since the coup.”[10] In March, the Secretary of Defense reported to JFK’s successor in the White House, Lyndon B. Johnson, “In Binh Dinh province, in the II Corps, 75 hamlets were severely damaged by the Viet Cong…In Quang Ngai province…there were 413 strategic hamlets under government control a year ago. Of that number, 335 have been damaged to varying degrees or fallen into disrepair, and only 275 remain under government control.” McNamara continued, “Security throughout the IV Corps [the delta] has deteriorated badly. The Viet Cong control virtually all facets of peasant life in the southernmost provinces….”[11]

As the Strategic Hamlet Program unraveled and the rural population once again dispersed across the countryside, the Vietcong experienced a further surge in strength. In the early months of 1964, Maxwell Taylor noted, “…there were signs of general deterioration in security throughout the country since the New Year. The Vietcong were boldly attacking the strategic hamlets and in Binh Dinh province alone had severely damaged seventy-five in the first three months after Diem’s fall. Governmental control of rural territory was diminishing and with it the freedom of circulation without armed escort.”[12]

In the first half of 1964, the military initiative clearly shifted in favor of the Vietcong. In March, McNamara reported to President Johnson that the Vietcong controlled or had predominate influence over about 40% of South Vietnam’s territory.[13]  In May, the Secretary of Defense informed LBJ that the Vietcong controlled six million of South Vietnam’s fourteen million residents.[14] The trend lines looked so negative, U.S. officials privately wondered how long South Vietnam could survive.

The stunning increase in Communist strength, population control, and territorial reach did not occur in a contextual vacuum. Vietcong success resulted from a number of factors, but none so much as the failure of U.S. and GVN policy. The Kennedy administration, and the Diem regime, had helped make the Vietcong dominant in the countryside.

Kennedy never lived to see the disastrous consequences of his policies. The president certainly knew in the three weeks prior to his death that the Allied military position in the South was in precipitous decline and the Strategic Hamlet Program was in free fall. But Kennedy died before the full extent of the catastrophe became known. Had JFK lived into 1964, Congress, the media, and the public would have almost certainly criticized his mismanagement of the war and seriously questioned the long-term prospects for U.S. success in South Vietnam. And Vietnam would have become a major impediment to JFK’s reelection that fall.  But following Kennedy’s assassination, few in the media or Congress had the courage to challenge the late president’s track record. The myth of Camelot, promoted so astutely by the late president’s widow with the help of well-known author Theodore White, stifled a thorough, critical examination of all that had gone wrong in South Vietnam during the Kennedy years. In death, Kennedy, and by extension his Vietnam policies, became incontrovertible.

Surprisingly, the group of generals that replaced Diem did not end the Strategic Hamlet Program; it simply morphed into a “new” resettlement scheme. In March 1964, the government of General Nguyen Khanh implemented a modified rural pacification plan. It differed somewhat from the Strategic Hamlet Program. The GVN no longer forced the peasantry to live in small, barbed-wire compounds. And GVN officials quit employing corvee labor in the construction of hamlets. The GVN also attempted to better administer the settlements. One American pacification worker said of this new, unnamed program, “These people want to live along the rivers and canals…We can’t fence them in physically, so we are trying to do it psychologically.”[15] But this latest resettlement scheme, like all the others before it, made little headway. GVN corruption, ARVN abuse, and peasant resentment ultimately undermined it.

In June 1964, the new MACV chief, General William C. Westmoreland, flew to Kuala Lumpur for a three-day visit with British counter-insurgency experts. He returned to Saigon determined to give rural pacification another go. By September 1964, he had Operation Hop Tac up and running in a few hamlets on the environs of Saigon.

Hop Tac was basically Robert G. K. Thompson’s “oil spot” approach to pacification. Like its predecessor, the Strategic Hamlet Program, Hop Tac was supposed to proceed through a series of counter-insurgency stages. In the first stage, ARVN battalions would clear the Vietcong main force and local guerrillas from an area.  In stage two, GVN pacification teams would move in and register the residents, scrutinize the population for Vietcong connections, and detect and arrest Vietcong agitators, remnant local guerrillas, and sympathizers. Once the Vietcong had been eliminated from a hamlet, the GVN would, in stage three, further cement its ties to the peasantry through civic reform and economic development. As pacification took hold in the initial “oil spot” – the GVN and ARVN, with U.S. advice and material support, would move outward – in stage four – pacifying an ever-larger number of hamlets in a series of concentric circles around the capital complex.

Westmoreland saw Hop Tac as his highest priority counter-insurgency project.  He wrote later, “I saw HOP TAC – as one of my staff, Brigadier General James L. Collins, later put it – as “a laboratory experiment in pacification.” If we were unable to succeed in pacification “in the shadow of the flagpole [Saigon],” in Collins’ words, how could we expect to succeed in the farther reaches of the country.”[16] But as one senior U.S. official confessed, Hop Tac “…got off to a very, very slow start.”[17] And it never recovered from that “slow start.”

In mid-July 1965, Deputy Secretary of Defense John McNaughton summed up the situation then prevailing in South Vietnam, “…the government is able to provide security to fewer and fewer people in less and less territory, fewer roads and railroads are usable, the economy is deteriorating, and the government in Saigon continues to turn over. Pacification even in the Hop Tac area is making no progress.”[18] Hop Tac failed for the same set of reasons all the other pacification and resettlement programs had failed.  Later in 1965, Westmoreland quietly shelved Hop Tac. There would be no pacification in the shadow of Saigon.

Hop Tac’s dismal results had a profound influence on Westmoreland’s thinking in 1965 and thereafter. Specifically, the general doubted whether true pacification – the winning of hearts and minds – would ever work in rural South Vietnam. In lieu of pacification, Westmoreland concluded that only the destruction of the Vietcong’s military power, especially its main force battalions, would dampen the ardor of the rural peasantry for the Communist cause.

The United States, working through the government of Ngo Dinh Diem, carried out three major rural resettlement programs in South Vietnam in the period 1959 to 1963. American officials, including President Kennedy, believed agrovilles, agro-hamlets, and strategic hamlets would pacify the countryside and defeat the Vietcong insurgency. But as U.S. Army General Douglas Kinnard admitted, “For a variety of reasons…these efforts failed.”[19] The single greatest reason for their failure was the people’s resistance to resettlement. Resettlement turned millions of peasants against the U.S. and GVN. Or as one of the authors of the Pentagon Papers noted, “The weight of evidence suggests that the Strategic Hamlet Program was fatally flawed in its conception by the unintended consequence of alienating many of those whose loyalty it aimed to win.”[20]

The alienation of millions of South Vietnamese peasants during the years of the Strategic Hamlet Program made it doubtful whether the U.S. and GVN could ever win the peasantry’s loyalties. And since victory in the war, and the establishment of a viable nation-state in the South, depended on whether the U.S. and GVN won the peasantry’s devotion, the U.S. may have lost the Vietnam War during the presidency of John F. Kennedy.


Endnotes

[1] The Senate Gravel Edition, The Pentagon Papers, The Defense Department History of United States Decisionmaking on Vietnam, Volume II, “Document 125, Central Intelligence Agency, SNIE 52-2-63, The Situation in South Vietnam,” July 10, 1963, (Boston: Beacon Press, 1971), 730.

[2] The Senate Gravel Edition, The Pentagon Papers, The Defense Department History of United States Decisionmaking on Vietnam, Volume III, “Document 158, The Secretary of Defense, Memorandum for the President,” March 16, 1964, (Boston: Beacon Press, 1971), 501.

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

[4] New York Times, “Vietnam Casualties Heavy in November,” Hedrick Smith, December 15, 1963.

[5] New York Times, “U.S. Taking More Critical Look at How the War is Being Fought,” Jack Raymond, December 23, 1963.

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

[7] New York Times, “Vietnam Curtailing Hamlets Program; Acts to End Abuses,” Hedrick Smith, December 3, 1963; New York Times, “Vietnam Casualties Heavy in November,” Hedrick Smith, December 15, 1963.

[8] New York Times, “Reds in Vietnam Crush 2 Villages,” November 26, 1963.

[9] New York Times, “Vietnam Reds Stage Heaviest Attack Since Fall,” Hedrick Smith, February 5, 1964; New York Times, Vietnamese Reds Win New Victory,” Hedrick Smith, February 7, 1964.

[10] New York Times, “Text of McNamara’s Testimony on Southeast Asia,” January 30, 1964.

[11] The Senate Gravel Edition, The Pentagon Papers, The Defense Department History of United States Decisionmaking on Vietnam, Volume III, “Document 158, The Secretary of Defense, Memorandum for the President,” March 16, 1964, (Boston: Beacon Press, 1971), 501.

[12] Maxwell D. Taylor, Swords and Plowshares: A Memoir, 1972, Reprint, (New York: Da Capo Press, 1990), 309.

[13] Foreign Relations of the United States, 1964-1968, Volume I, Vietnam, 1964, “Document 84, Memorandum from the Secretary of Defense (McNamara) to the President,” March 16, 1964, (Washington, DC: GPO, 1992), 155.

[14] Foreign Relations of the United States, 1964-1968, Volume I, Vietnam, 1964, “Document 154, Notes Prepared by the Secretary of Defense (McNamara),” May 14, 1964, (Washington, DC: GPO, 1992), 323.

[15] New York Times, “Drive on Vietcong Put Off in Wake of Uprising,” Jack Langguth, September 15, 1964.

[16] William C. Westmoreland, A Soldier Reports, (Garden City, New York: Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1976), 85.

[17] New York Times, “Vietnam Tries the Tactics That Halted Malaya Reds,” Peter Grose, October 10, 1964.

[18] The Senate Gravel Edition, The Pentagon Papers, The Defense Department History of United States Decisionmaking on Vietnam, Volume IV, (Boston: Beacon Press, 1971), 21.

[19] Douglas Kinnard, The War Managers: American Generals Reflect on Vietnam, (New York: Da Capo Press, 1991), 100.

[20] The Senate Gravel Edition, The Pentagon Papers, The Defense Department History of United States Decisionmaking on Vietnam, Volume II, (Boston: Beacon Press, 1971), 131.

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