Ngo Dinh Diem and the South Vietnamese Peasantry, Part II: Rural Resettlement

Ngo Dinh Diem and his volatile brother Nhu viewed the rural hamlet, and its residents, as the primary impediment to the integration and modernization of South Vietnam.

In the early 1960s, the South Vietnamese countryside contained 16,398 hamlets ranging in size from four residents to 17,000 residents; fifty- percent of the hamlets had 500 inhabitants or less. Demographers believed that between eighty and eighty-five percent of the South’s population lived in one of the countryside’s thousands of hamlets.[1]

Diem and Nhu wanted to break down the physical and political barriers between the hamlet and the central government; doing so, they believed, would eliminate the peasantry’s parochialism, xenophobia, and conservatism – all the factors preventing South Vietnam’s modernization.

The Ngo brothers envisioned resettlement camps as incubators of modernism, places where the peasantry would be exposed to amenities such as electricity, Western medicine, radio, and television. Government-run schools would educate rural children. The health, education, and living standards of the peasantry would increase in the camps. Founded on scientific principals, resettlement camps would rapidly elevate South Vietnam’s people from feudalism to modernism. What took Europe 500 years to achieve, South Vietnam would accomplish in a few years. In the end, resettlement would strengthen the South Vietnamese state and its ruling class.

At its most basic, rural resettlement entailed the movement of the peasantry to areas under Government of Vietnam (GVN) control. Although both American and GVN officials often referred to the various resettlement schemes of the 1950’s and 1960’s as part of the GVN’s pacification program, pacification was in fact something altogether different. Genuine pacification depended on winning hearts and minds. It involved convincing the peasantry to throw in its lot with the GVN. Pacification experts agreed that winning the loyalty of the peasantry required political, economic, and social reforms, specifically land redistribution and a lowering of land rental rates. It also necessitated an end to the blatant corruption of provincial and district officials. But because of Diem’s unwillingness to implement the necessary reforms, true pacification of the countryside never took place during his time in office. Thus, in lieu of actual reform, Diem opted for resettlement to check the Vietcong’s rising influence.

British counter-insurgency expert Sir Robert G. K. Thompson, whose ideas served as the basis for what would become the Strategic Hamlet Program, argued that the concentration of the rural population in “secure” hamlets would go a long way toward the defeat of the Vietcong. In GVN-controlled hamlets, the Vietcong would lose access to the rural peasantry. Deprived of military inductees, porters, rice, taxes, intelligence, and safe haven, the Vietcong insurgency would eventually fade away. In the parlance of counter-insurgency, placing the rural population in areas under GVN supervision would dry up the sea through which the Communist fish swam.

Most importantly for the Ngos, rural resettlement promised to reinforce the established order because it would not require the reform of the economic or political system, nor would it threaten the standing of the Church, absentee landlords, or merchant class. In resettlement camps, the regime would be in a position to ensure the payment of taxes and land rents. Recalcitrant peasants and Vietcong sympathizers would be monitored, harassed, and jailed; and the rural populace would be fed a daily dose of Diemist propaganda. David Halberstam, who witnessed the implementation of the Strategic Hamlet Program, believed the program had little to do with modernization and reform, “It was…clear that Nhu planned to…separate the peasants from the Vietcong, as a means of controlling the population….”[2]

The many American proponents of resettlement assumed a number of things about the South Vietnamese peasantry and the GVN; all of which later proved to be incorrect. First, American officials trusted that the U.S. and GVN would do a better job at resettlement than the French, who had tried it repeatedly in the 1940’s and 1950’s and failed dismally at it.[3] Second, U.S. officialdom thought the South Vietnamese rural population wanted security from the Vietcong more than anything else. Thus, once provided security in strategic hamlets, the peasantry would be grateful to the GVN and in consequence grant their political allegiance to the Republic of Vietnam. Third, American officials convinced themselves that the GVN would actually deliver on its promises to the people. Government representatives would provide the people with a higher standard of living, better schools, and modern amenities. Fourth, U.S. officials concluded that resettlement would weaken the Vietcong and contribute to the eventual defeat of the insurgency.

Michael V. Forrestal, one of Kennedy’s most forthright and perceptive advisers, questioned every one of these assumptions. In early 1963, he told Kennedy that no one in the American government really knew the thinking of South Vietnam’s peasantry. According to Forrestal, the disconnect between the Americans and the South Vietnamese peasantry stemmed in part from the language barrier. Few Americans serving in Vietnam actually spoke Vietnamese and almost no peasants spoke English. Forrestal believed the inability of the Americans to understand the peasantry was compounded by the assignment of most American aid workers and advisers to South Vietnam’s cities, where they daily interacted with the educated elite and urban middle class.

Forrestal felt the U.S. wasn’t in a position to accurately gauge how the peasantry would react to a resettlement program. He thought the outcome of any resettlement scheme could go either way – it might garner widespread peasant support for the GVN or it might lead to widespread peasant anger and outright opposition. Only weeks after the disastrous Battle of Ap Bac in January 1963, Forrestal informed the president, “…the basic question of the whole war – is again the attitude of the villagers. It is difficult, if not impossible, to assess how the villagers really feel and the only straws in the wind point in different directions.”[4]

In due course the peasantry would reveal its attitudes toward resettlement, but by the time U.S. officials discerned those attitudes, it was too late to contain the political and military damage to the Allied position in South Vietnam.


Endnotes

[1] John C. Donnell and Gerald C. Hickey, “The Vietnamese Strategic Hamlets: A Preliminary Report,” (Santa Monica, CA: Rand Corporation, September 1962), 2; New York Times, “Changes in Asia: Growth of Cities and Food Output,” July 31, 1968.

[2] David Halberstam, The Making of a Quagmire: America and Vietnam During the Kennedy Era, Revised Edition, (Lanham, Maryland: Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 2008), 32.

[3] The Senate Gravel Edition, The Pentagon Papers, The Defense Department History of United States Decisionmaking on Vietnam, Volume II, (Boston: Beacon Press, 1971), 130.

[4] Ibid., “Document 120, Memorandum for President, A Report on South Vietnam,” undated, 718.

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