Ngo Dinh Diem and the South Vietnamese Peasantry, Part III: The Agroville Program

Rural resettlement took many forms in the 1950s and 1960s. The names of the various programs changed through time, but the primary goal of each program remained the same – defeat the Communists’ Maoist-inspired war of national liberation by denying the Vietcong access to the peasantry. During his years in office, Ngo Dinh Diem implemented three major resettlement programs.

The Agroville Program began in 1959. Agrovilles arose along known Vietcong infiltration routes, in long-held Communist districts, and adjacent to the highway approaches to Saigon. U.S. and GVN officials visualized the residents inside the new, fortified agrovilles serving the Allied war effort in a variety of ways. Relocated peasants would disrupt the movement of Vietcong military units, hinder the transfer of Communist supplies, provide intelligence on the local Vietcong, and protect the South Vietnamese capital from Vietcong infiltrators.[1] Yet, the program, like so many implemented by the Saigon regime, experienced problems from its start.

Plans called for the agrovilles to be constructed by volunteer labor. The peasants, persuaded of the benefits to be derived from living in agrovilles, were supposed to freely participate in the construction of their new homes and hamlets. Unfortunately for the peasants, it often did not work out that way. A significant, but indeterminate, number of participants did not want to vacate their hamlets-of-origin. Others refused to partake in the construction of the agrovilles. In consequence, GVN officials frequently used violence, or the threat of violence, to force peasants from their original homes and to erect the agrovilles. Rural resident Nguyen Thi Dinh remembered, “As Tet [1959] drew near the Americans and Diem intensified their pressure to have the agroville completed. They even brought in conscripted laborers from all six provinces in central Nam Bo [southern Vietnam] to work on the agroville. Every day, more than 10,000 people lived at the site in extremely crowded conditions.”[2] Such heavy-handedness by the Saigon regime did nothing to endear the peasantry toward the GVN and the Americans.

The conscripted labor associated with the Agroville Program reminded the peasants of the hated French corvee labor system. When the French ruled Vietnam, colonial administrators required adult Vietnamese peasants to provide the private or public sector a certain number of days each year of unpaid labor. Corvee laborers frequently worked under horrendous conditions. Some French plantation owners, intent on minimizing their production costs, denied their corvee workers adequate food, shelter, and health care, which resulted in needless deaths. Corvee labor symbolized one of the worst examples of French colonial exploitation and the peasantry deeply resented it. Because Diem employed corvee labor to construct his agrovilles, those subjected to this system of slave labor readily made the connection between the Diem regime and the unpopular former French colonial administration. Adding to the anger felt by the peasantry toward the GVN – South Vietnamese troops regularly destroyed the peasantry’s original hamlets to foreclose any possibility of the peasantry returning home. In the Mekong Delta’s Mo Cay District, Kien Hoa Province, Mrs. Thi Dinh observed “Every day, they [Government troops] set fire to houses, cut down trees and crushed lush rice fields with tractors.”[3] Without homes to return to, the peasants were compelled to remain in the agrovilles, further alienating them from the GVN.

Once inside the agrovilles, the peasantry experienced a whole host of new problems, made worse by the people responsible for their care. Corrupt GVN officials frequently diverted the program’s construction materials for their own personal use or for sale on the black market. Concrete, sand, timber, corrugated steel sheeting, and American-made tools went missing. As a result, agrovilles that had been planned as model villages ended up looking like dilapidated shantytowns. Occasionally, displaced peasants had to hastily construct their new homes from the tattered remnants of their burned-out former huts. Others, prevented by ARVN troops from returning to their hamlets-of-origin, had to build their new homes with whatever materials they could find on the spot.

From the program’s inception in 1959, the National Liberation Front (NLF), the political arm of the Vietcong, preached an end to the agrovilles and the return of the people to their original hamlets. This policy stance added to the Vietcong’s popularity across rural South Vietnam.[4] Vietcong military units, operating in the vicinity of the agrovilles, gave the disenchanted peasantry who joined them the opportunity to channel their anger toward the program and the GVN. U.S. and South Vietnamese officials should have been alarmed by the fact that few agrovilles contained men of military age. Adult males frequently fled the re-concentration camps to enlist in the Vietcong. Later, these same men returned to the resettlement camps as armed guerrillas intent on liberating their families.

A combination of government corruption, peasant resistance, Vietcong attacks, and a lackadaisical ARVN defense of completed agrovilles resulted in the abandonment of the program in 1961. A member of the Vietcong at the time recalled, “In 1959 Diem attempted to implement a homegrown version [of resettlement] through an ambitious, countrywide plan to construct self-contained, modern villages called agrovilles. From the start the peasants reacted angrily…. After a year or so, peasant outrage reached such a pitch that the government was forced to abandon the project. None of the objectives were achieved, and a great many country people were alienated [from the Saigon regime].”[5]

The Agroville Program, rather than win the loyalty of the resettled peasantry, destroyed any allegiance, however weak, the affected peasants may have had for the Diem regime. The program’s only saving grace, for both the peasantry and the political prospects of the Diem regime, was its limited scope. The regime built the majority of agrovilles in the immediate vicinity of Saigon. There were some agrovilles constructed in the Central Highlands and Mekong Delta, but the vast majority of peasants in South Vietnam remained untouched by the program.

It is difficult to quantify the effects of the agrovilles on the Communist insurgency. The program doesn’t appear to have hurt the Vietcong. Rather, in all likelihood, the mismanaged agrovilles, in conjunction with the Diem regime’s many other shortcomings, spurred Vietcong recruitment. During the years of the program from 1959 to 1961, the Vietcong experienced a noticeable increase in military power; its armed forces jumping from 4,000 in April 1960 to 18,000 by the end of 1961. In 1962, the State Department’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research reported, “Vietcong capabilities have increased considerably during the past three years. In 1959 a relatively small but effective military-political apparatus operating largely in the Mekong delta provinces, the Viet Cong has since grown into a formidable force operating throughout the countryside….”[6] Diem and his American backers were fueling the insurrection.

Despite the failings of the Agroville Program, neither Diem nor the Americans gave up on the goal of resettling South Vietnam’s rural population. In the absence of lower land rents, a land redistribution program, and greater political inclusiveness for rural residents, resettlement offered Diem the best means of diminishing the strength of the Vietcong in the countryside. In 1961, the GVN renamed the agrovilles as agro-hamlets and thus was born a “new” program. Later that same year, the U.S. Mission and the GVN began to plan for one of the most ambitious resettlement schemes in modern history – the Strategic Hamlet Program.[7]


Endnotes

[1] Ronald H. Spector, Advice and Support: The Early Years of the U.S. Army in Vietnam,1941-1960, (New York: The Free Press, 1985), 332-333.

[2] Marvin E. Gettleman, Jane Franklin, and Marilyn B. Young, eds., Vietnam and America: The Most Comprehensive Documented History of the Vietnam War, (New York: Grove Press, 1995), 176.

[3] Ibid., 174.

[4] Ibid., 189.

[5] Nhu Truong Tang, David Chanoff, and Van Doan Toai, A Viet Cong Memoir: An Inside Account of the Vietnam War and Its Aftermath, (New York: Vintage Books, 1985), 47.

[6] 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, 694; New York Times, “Picture is Cloudy in Vietnam’s War,” David Halberstam, July 28, 1963.

[7] The Senate Gravel Edition, The Pentagon Papers, The Defense Department History of United States Decisionmaking on Vietnam, Volume II, 132-134.

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