The Suspect Population: South Vietnam’s Peasant Refugees, 1965-1967

Between early 1965 and late 1967, over 1.5 million South Vietnamese refugees entered South Vietnam’s government-run refugee camps. Conditions in the camps varied widely. Catholic refugees received the greatest degree of assistance, from both South Vietnamese officials (many of whom were Catholic) and from the papacy’s Catholic Relief Services, which directed its funds toward the care of its own flock. The refugees from Vietcong areas, who tended to be Buddhists, animists, atheists, or members of one of South Vietnam’s minority sects, faced at best government indifference or at worst government mistreatment.

The Johnson administration decreed early in the war that the Government of South Vietnam (GVN) should take responsibility for refugee relief. The Americans did not want to supervise the care of refugees for the same reason they did not want to do pacification, U.S. officials worried that direct American assistance to the peasantry would result in the rural population granting its loyalties to the United States rather than the GVN. And if South Vietnam was ever to become a viable state, its administrators needed to do two things: 1) learn how to govern, and 2) gain the allegiance of the rural population. American officials concluded that a successful GVN refugee relief program would not only build GVN governance capacity, it would also win the loyalty of the refugees. In order to achieve these twin objectives, the U.S. funneled its refugee aid dollars through the hands of GVN officials. Those officials were then supposed to disperse the aid to the needy. On paper, it all made perfect sense. Unfortunately, the reality on the ground fell far short.[1]

The problems with this scheme became obvious early on. In the second half of 1965, acting Comptroller General Frank H. Weitzel visited South Vietnam to assess the refugee situation. He noted, “…there has been little evidence that the Government of South Vietnam is taking practical steps to participate [in refugee relief]. Without such participation…there is no possibility of a successful refugee program.”[2] Weitzel’s report disclosed that the one million refugees in South Vietnam at the time basically had to fend for themselves.

Senator Edward Kennedy’s Subcommittee on Refugees confirmed Weitzel’s assessment. It noted, “…the refugees at the time of this testimony [July 1965] were not receiving a minimum of care and the belief that the refugee was a burden permeated the thinking of both the United States and Government of South Vietnam.”[3]

U.S. Ambassador to South Vietnam, Maxwell Taylor, did not agree with those who questioned the GVN’s ability to handle the refugee crisis. A month after the Kennedy subcommittee criticized the GVN’s inadequate refugee response, the committee’s members wondered whether it would not be a good idea to have the United Nations (with its long experience in refugee matters) involved in the care of South Vietnam’s displaced population. Ambassador Taylor disagreed, he told the committee, “I would be inclined to stay with the present arrangement, feeling that one of our principal tasks, as the great friend of South Vietnam, is to create something permanent in the governmental, social, and economic structure. For that reason, I think we should be very reluctant to take over a function like this from a government that is not doing badly…this is an area in which the Government has performed quite well. That being the case, I think we ought to leave the problem with them.”[4]

The U.S. military, in possession of vast resources and a sophisticated logistical system, did have the capability to provide immediate relief to the large displaced population. But MACV chose not to help in any significant way because its commander, General William C. Westmoreland, was focused on fighting his big war. Nor did the White House, or Dean Rusk’s State Department, take any significant steps to alleviate the suffering of the refugees.

When large numbers of refugees began streaming out of the countryside in the summer of 1965, the U.S. did not have a single person in South Vietnam working full time on refugee matters.[5] As for financial aid, the administration allocated only $12 million dollars for refugee relief in 1965, a paltry sum in lieu of the needs of the huge number of displaced persons.[6]

When the GVN finally implemented a refugee relief program, it did not meet American expectations. The reasons for its failure were many. Sometimes, GVN officials showed less concern for the health and well-being of the refugees than for their own safety. In several locations, GVN officials used refugees as a means of protection against Vietcong mortar and rocket attacks. For example, at Dak To in the Central Highlands, a district chief forced refugees to live around his headquarters, believing the Vietcong would be reluctant to fire on his position for fear of killing and wounding their wives, children, parents and grandparents who lived in the refugee camp. At Cai Be in the delta’s Dinh Tuong Province, GVN officials spread the refugees out along a strategic roadway, concluding that the displaced population, fearful of being blasted out of their shanties by U.S. or ARVN forces, would alert the South Vietnamese police if and when the Vietcong came down the road.[7]

GVN officials often considered the refugees a suspect population. The New York Times reported, “In Government-held areas the refugees only infrequently are made to feel that they are welcome….”[8] Kennedy’s subcommittee observed, “Time and again, witnesses in executive session or in private communication with the subcommittee would point to a total lack of concern, even a total disdain of the refugees on the part of officials of the Saigon Government.”[9]

Many GVN officials thought the refugees deserved to be penalized for having lived in Vietcong areas or for having relatives in the Vietcong. It was true that in many camps a majority of the refugees were women, children, and old men who had sons, brothers, uncles, and husbands fighting for the Vietcong. The guerrillas serving in full-time main forces units occasionally placed their wives and children in Government refugee camps rather than leave them to fend for themselves in the countryside. In Dinh Tuong Province in the spring of 1966, only fifteen percent of the refugee population consisted of adult males. In Dar Lac Province in the Central Highlands, sixty-three percent of the refugees were female, while twenty-seven percent of the refugees there consisted of children below the age of fourteen.[10]

GVN officials regarded the denial of assistance to the refugees as a form of punishment; they wanted to send the message to the refugees’ kinfolk who still resided in Vietcong areas, or who continued to actively support the insurgency, that backing the Vietcong came at a cost. But this mindset had serious negative repercussions for the larger Allied war effort. For instance, the denial of aid to Vietcong sympathizers usually ended up only convincing them of the Saigon regime’s brutality, which in-turn led many of them to strengthen their ties to the Vietcong.

All too often, refugees who had no connection whatsoever to the Vietcong still came under suspicion by GVN officials, with the result that these suspected Vietcong sympathizers were treated as badly as known Vietcong supporters. In consequence, scores of previously loyal or neutral GVN citizens decided to join the Vietcong after experiencing mistreatment in the camps. In the end, the GVN’s suspicion of refugees became self-fulfilling – those suspected of being Vietcong became Vietcong.[11]

Through the years, American refugee aid remained woefully inadequate. In early 1966, the construction of a new house in South Vietnam cost roughly 10,000 piasters, or about $100 dollars. But American aid agencies provided homeless refugees with only 2,000 piasters to cover the cost of building a replacement house.[12]

The majority of refugees were lucky if they received any assistance at all. Corrupt GVN officials stole the lion’s share of U.S. aid. It was common for GVN officials to use building materials slated for the construction of replacement homes for refugees to improve their own homes or the homes of relatives. Some GVN officials sold American construction materials on the black market to enrich themselves. Others established their own construction firms, selling stolen U.S. building materials to their customers. Francis “Bing” West remembered a GVN official in Quang Ngai Province stealing cement destined for a rural development project so he could construct a well at his house. In Binh Son District, Quang Ngai Province, a U.S. official estimated that South Vietnamese officials, who included the district chief, skimmed off fifty percent of U.S. aid for themselves.[13] Barry Zorthian, head of media relations at the U.S. embassy in Saigon, recounted, “Corruption was endemic. Many senior people in the government and the military were involved. Some of the generals were charged with being involved in the drug trade. And as a general statement, the wives of the Vietnamese officials were awful.”[14]

In 1966, Stanley Andrews, an agricultural development expert, witnessed rampant corruption among GVN officials. He said, “Perhaps no more than 10 to 20 per cent of American aid has trickled down to the hamlets…Most of the aid has benefitted the elite and the urban middle class.”[15] Even though he referred to U.S. development aid in general, Andrews’ statement could have been applied to the aid directed toward refugee relief. In 1966, U.S. officials concluded that the high number of refugees across South Vietnam required 28,000 new housing units. Those same officials later learned that the GVN only built 4,347 units; and many of those were substandard, meaning they leaked when it rained, filled with dust in the dry season, and deteriorated prematurely.[16]

Direct monetary payments rarely found their way to refugees either. Again, GVN officials pocketed the payments rather than disperse them to the needy. In 1967, the Marine Corps conducted an extensive study of the GVN’s refugee relief programs in I Corps. The Marines discovered that fewer than half of the refugees received their authorized temporary relief payments, which were designed to alleviate the hardships experienced immediately after displacement. Less than twenty-five percent of refugees received resettlement assistance, which helped with the establishment of a new home in a new location.[17] And many refugees went without any government assistance of any kind. In 1967, the GVN failed to provide any food or funds to 147,000 refugees in Quang Ngai Province for a whole ten months.[18] Later that same year, U.S. officials discovered that only twenty-five percent of the refugees in I Corps received their resettlement allowance of $42 U.S. dollars. The other two-thirds of the refugee population did not get any money. The money did not simply disappear. GVN officials stole it.[19]

GVN corruption contributed to unimaginably poor living conditions in the refugee camps. In a December 1967 study of eighteen GVN-run refugee camps, American officials learned that Saigon officials had built only three medical clinics of the fifty originally deemed necessary to meet minimum health requirements. Less than one percent of the 940 sanitation facilities considered the essential minimum were actually functioning, and only fourteen of sixty planned schools were up and running. American officials noted, “…few of the refugee children were being given a chance for education.”[20] One American said of conditions in the eighteen camps, “We saw vacant-eyed peasants staring out of dark recesses with nothing but time on their hands.”[21]

In 1966, Daniel Ellsberg described a refugee camp that existed on the outskirts of Saigon, “What I found was a small city of people living under rain tents in fields of mud and shit, indistinguishably mixed…You could see why it took bombs to get people to move into these places.”[22]

Ever the apologist, U.S. Ambassador Maxwell Taylor explained away the criticisms of the GVN’s performance, “Certainly, if you…walked into one of these refugee camps you would say this is very miserable indeed. But the conditions were not as bad, or no worse, I would say, than in the very poor areas of the towns themselves where the camps were located…there is a problem here from the point of view of the Government [of South Vietnam], that they do not want to make the life of a refugee so attractive that people will leave their homes to become professional refugees.”[23]

The neglect and mistreatment of refugees came at a cost to the GVN and United States. Dr. Wesley R. Fishel of Michigan State University, who examined the condition of refugees in South Vietnam in September 1965, warned U.S. government officials at the time, “If this refugee problem is badly handled, these people…could further intensify the political instability of South Vietnam and create even greater problems for the Government than it now faces.”[24] Fishel’s warning went unheeded and his prediction came to pass.

The Rand Corporation, in its interviews of Vietcong POWs, determined that twenty-eight percent of the Vietcong in one sample group joined the insurgent army because of direct, personal mistreatment by GVN officials. That mistreatment included extortion, theft, and actual physical violence. Rand learned that eleven percent of the Vietcong volunteers in their sample volunteered for the Vietcong to redress a perceived societal wrong, such as government corruption. All told, about two-thirds of the Vietcong in the sample joined the Communist army because of GVN inadequacies, injustice, mistreatment, and oppression.[25]

No other cohort in South Vietnam was more aware of, or more exposed to, the GVN’s shortcomings than the refugee population. And it was that population who contributed mightily to the increase in Vietcong military and political strength between early 1965 and late 1967.


Endnotes

[1] U.S. Congress, Senate, Committee on the Judiciary, Subcommittee to Investigate Problems Connected with Refugees and Escapees, “Hearings Before the Subcommittee to Investigate Problems Connected with Refugees and Escapees of the Committee on the Judiciary, United States Senate,” May 10, 18; August 16; September 21; October 9, 10, 11, 13, and 16, 1967, U.S. Senate, 90th Congress, 1st Session, (Washington, D.C.: GPO, 1968), 27.

[2] New York Times, “Report Sees Saigon Lag,” December 19, 1965.

[3] U.S. Congress, Senate, Committee on the Judiciary, Subcommittee on Refugees and Escapees, United States Senate, “Civilian Casualty and Refugee Problems in South Vietnam, Findings and Recommendations of the Subcommittee to Investigate Problems Connected with Refugees and Escapees,” May 9, 1968, 90th Congress, 2d Session, (Washington, D.C.: GPO, 1968), 2.

[4] U.S. Congress, Senate, Committee on the Judiciary, Subcommittee to Investigate Problems Connected with Refugees and Escapees, “Hearings Before the Subcommittee to Investigate Problems Connected with Refugees and Escapees of the Committee on the Judiciary, United States Senate,”  July 13, 14, 20, 27; August 4, 5, 10, 18; September 17, 21, 28, 29, 30, 1965, U.S. Senate, 89th Congress, 1st Session, (Washington D.C.: GPO, 1965), 177; U.S. Congress, Senate, Committee on the Judiciary, Subcommittee to Investigate Problems Connected with Refugees and Escapees, “Refugee Problems in South Vietnam, Report of the Committee of the Judiciary, United States Senate, Made by its Subcommittee to Investigate Problems Connected with Refugees and Escapees, Pursuant to S. RES. 49, Eighty-Ninth Congress, First Session, Together with Individual Views,” U.S. Senate, 89th Congress, 2nd Session, Washington: GPO, 1966, 4.

[5] Subcommittee on Refugees and Escapees, “Findings and Recommendations of the Subcommittee,” 90th Congress, 2d Session, 1968, 2; Subcommittee on Refugees and Escapees, “Refugee Problems in South Vietnam,” U.S. Senate, 89th Congress, 2nd Session, 1966, 7.

[6] New York Times, “U.S. Refugee Plan for Vietnam Set,” August 31, 1965; U.S. Congress, “Hearings Before the Subcommittee,” U.S. Senate, 89th Congress, 1st Session, 1965, 195.

[7] Subcommittee to Investigate Problems Connected with Refugees and Escapees, “Hearings Before the Subcommittee,” U.S. Senate, 90th Congress, 1st Session, 1967, 67.

[8] New York Times, “Refugee Problem Acute in Vietnam,” August 6, 1965.

[9] Subcommittee on Refugees and Escapees, “Findings and Recommendations of the Subcommittee,” 90th Congress, 2d Session, 1968, 3-4.

[10] L.P. Holliday and R.M. Gurfield, “Viet Cong Logistics,” (Santa Monica, California: Rand Corporation, June 1968), 11.

[11] Subcommittee to Investigate Problems Connected with Refugees and Escapees, “Hearings Before the Subcommittee,” U.S. Senate, 90th Congress, 1st Session, 1967, 68.

[12] New York Times, “Saigon Social Ills Worry U.S. Aides,” Charles Mohr, February 21, 1966.

[13] Francis J. West, The Village, (New York: Pocket Books, 2003), 210, 277, 326.

[14] Christian G. Appy, Patriots: The Vietnam War Remembered From All Sides, (New York: Viking Penguin, 2003), 293.

[15] New York Times, “Aid Held Lagging in Rural Vietnam,” April 30, 1966.

[16] New York Times, “U.S. Agency Scores 2 War Programs,” Neil Sheehan, October 12, 1967.

[17] Subcommittee to Investigate Problems Connected with Refugees and Escapees, “Hearings Before the Subcommittee,” U.S. Senate, 90th Congress, 1st Session, 1967, 300.

[18] Subcommittee on Refugees and Escapees, “Findings and Recommendations of the Subcommittee,” 90th Congress, 2d Session, 1968, 12.

[19] New York Times, “Edward Kennedy Finds Vietnam Toll of Civilians High,” Neil Sheehan, May 8, 1967; New York Times, “U.S. Agency Scores 2 War Programs,” Neil Sheehan, October 12, 1967.

[20] Subcommittee on Refugees and Escapees, “Findings and Recommendations of the Subcommittee,” 90th Congress, 2d Session 1968, 6.

[21] Ibid., 11.

[22] Daniel Ellsberg, Secrets: A Memoir of Vietnam and the Pentagon Papers, (New York: Penguin Books, 2002), 140.

[23] U.S. Congress, “Hearings Before the Subcommittee,” U.S. Senate, 89th Congress, 1st Session, 1965, 171.

[24] Subcommittee on Refugees and Escapees, “Refugee Problems in South Vietnam,” U.S. Senate, 89th Congress, 2nd Session, 1966, 9.

[25] Frank Denton, “Volunteers for the Viet Cong,” (Santa Monica, CA: Rand Corporation, September 1968), 19-20.

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