Vying for Hearts and Minds: America, the Vietcong and South Vietnam’s Refugees

By late 1967, the scale of the refugee crisis afflicting South Vietnam could no longer be ignored or downplayed by U.S. officials.  In October of that year, a spokesperson with the non-partisan General Accounting Office (GAO) admitted, “…the United States refugee and medical aid programs in South Vietnam had suffered seriously from low priorities and shoddy implementation.”[1] Senator Edward Kennedy concurred with the GAO’s conclusions, “…the refugee program and the medical program in South Vietnam are a scandal.”  Kennedy placed ultimate responsibility for the generation of refugees, and their ill-treatment, squarely on the shoulders of President Johnson. According to Kennedy, the Johnson administration had “…an almost cavalier attitude toward human needs and human concerns in Vietnam.”[2] Kennedy was correct in his condemnation of Johnson. That the president approved of a military policy that created millions of South Vietnamese refugees, and then did little to alleviate the suffering of those millions, ranks as the greatest moral failing of his presidency, and one of the greatest failings of any president in American history.

Johnson could not claim ignorance of U.S. military actions, or of the problems confronting the refugees.  The president knew exactly what his commanders, foot soldiers, and airmen were doing on the ground and in the skies across South Vietnam to generate refugees. He also knew of the GVN’s corruption and its lackadaisical performance in refugee relief. Not only did he receive regular political and military briefings on the situation in South Vietnam, he read the nation’s major papers (including the “New York Times” and “Washington Post”) and watched the Big Three television networks’ reports from South Vietnam. All of those media outlets reported at various times between 1965 and late 1967 on the refugee crisis across South Vietnam.  Through his close contacts in Congress, Johnson was informed of the workings of Kennedy’s Subcommittee on Refugees and its damning conclusions. And yet, despite his thorough knowledge of the refugee crisis, he did nothing to stop, or slow, its root causes – the Allied destruction of hamlets within Vietcong or contested regions of rural South Vietnam.

Johnson displayed his callousness toward the suffering of an Asian people in other ways. In 1967, when the U.S. spent $25 billion on war costs, the administration allocated a meager $80 million for health and refugee programs – this at a time when the war had generated upwards of four million refugees.  The $80 million dollars for health and refugee aid equaled only $10 million dollars more than what the United States spent on one day of military operations in South Vietnam. If the $80 million annual allocation had been evenly divided amongst the four million displaced (which it was not), it would have provided each refugee $20 dollars, a contemptible sum even by South Vietnamese standards. Surprisingly, the administration wanted to cut the medical and refugee budget for 1968 by $20 million, this at a time when refugee numbers were soaring. To add to the woes of the displaced in South Vietnam, the Johnson and his Secretary of State, Dean Rusk, insisted, although fully aware of the extent of GVN corruption, that the South Vietnamese continue to administer the refugee relief program.[3]

Johnson’s well-known vindictiveness does not fully explain why he supported the intense bombing and shelling of South Vietnam and the generation of millions of refugees. The president certainly wanted to punish the Vietcong and its supporters, especially in the wake of the Tet Offensive, when it became apparent to him that the Vietnamese Communists had destroyed his presidency. But the primary reason he never attempted to halt the flow of refugees was that he believed draining the countryside of its people was an effective counter-insurgency tactic. Firepower and the generation of refugees had the possibility, in Johnson’s mind – as well as the minds of Walt Rostow, Dean Rusk, and the Joint Chiefs of Staff, to facilitate a U.S. victory in South Vietnam. From early 1965 until his departure from the White House in January 1969, Johnson never lost the hope that an ever-increasing amount of bombing and shelling would deplete the Vietcong’s rural-based manpower pool, eventually breaking the will of the enemy.

If the president needed an intellectual justification for the overwhelming application of firepower in rural South Vietnam and for the generation of refugees, he could turn to none other than the “respected” Harvard University professor Samuel Huntington, who considered the displacement of the rural population as both a means of defeating the Vietcong’s Maoist-inspired insurgency and as a positive step toward South Vietnam’s modernization.[4] A further intellectual justification for the policy came from the Rand Corporation.

Rand’s Leon Goure continued to argue in 1966, as he had done in late 1964 and early 1965, that aerial bombing and indiscriminate artillery barrages across rural South Vietnam were highly effective Allied military tactics. Although he admitted in a February 1966 study that, “The intensified [Allied] military activities have exposed the Vietnamese villagers to more frequent air, artillery, and ground attacks, and have greatly increased insecurity in the rural areas…neither air strikes nor the more frequent artillery bombardments were of major importance in inducing the villagers to join or give more active support to the Vietcong.”[5] Goure believed Allied aerial and artillery bombardments induced a sort of benign apathy, rather than a fervent pro-Communism, amongst the peasantry exposed to it. He declared, “The data indicate that air and ground harassment of VC forces is having a considerable effect on VC morale and operations. It seems to us that, where possible, harassment should be further intensified….”[6]

Goure’s conclusions contradicted those of other Rand analysts. In a March 1965 Rand study, John C. Donnell and two of his colleagues wrote, “…artillery and air attacks on villages, as those in “free bombing zones,” [free fire zones] are not made in a political vacuum. The VC is on the spot, ready to exploit the damage and casualties for its own purposes.” Donnell and his fellow analysts also observed, “Some VC interviewees maintain that when a village suffers artillery or aerial bombardment, it becomes a locus of hatred against the ARVN and the Americans.”[7]

From 1965 to 1968, Rand collected a growing body of evidence pointing to a severe peasant backlash against the U.S. and GVN for the widespread application of firepower across rural South Vietnam. Confronted with such evidence, the White House, the JCS, and MACV dug in their heels, rejecting the contradictory data and its implications for the ultimate outcome of the war. Both Johnson and MACV Commander Westmoreland looked to Rand’s Goure and Harvard’s Huntington for the intellectual justification for the intense bombardment of the countryside. At no time between 1965 and the end of his presidency in January 1969 did the air war or the use of H and I fire slacken across South Vietnam. On the contrary, air sorties and artillery munitions expenditure rates continually rose during those years. In the aftermath of the Tet Offensive, Johnson ordered Westmoreland to put still greater military pressure on the southern guerrillas and their supporters.

What’s truly surprising about the U.S.’s purposeful generation of refugees was that U.S. officials, including Westmoreland, assumed that the refugees, after the destruction of their hamlets and homes and their migration to urban slums, roadside shantytowns, and refugee camps, could still be persuaded to support the GVN.

Top U.S. commanders believed the first step in winning the rural population’s hearts and minds was to remove them from Vietcong influence. So long as the Vietcong had access to the population, and could poison their minds with Communist propaganda, the U.S. and GVN would lose the war for hearts and minds. Separate the people from the Vietcong and the U.S. and GVN could then pacify the peasants through indoctrination and material aid. Former State Department official Roger Hilsman, who criticized Westmoreland’s over reliance on firepower, still felt that bombing the peasantry out of the countryside could produce benefits for the U.S. war effort. He too believed the refugees could be made into loyal GVN citizens who would fight for the Allied cause, “…they [the refugees] offer a positive opportunity for furthering an effective counter-insurgency program…a program to train them for the tasks they will face when they return [home], can be the framework of the longrun [sic] counterinsurgency program…the refugee program should not be just to feed, house, and care for these people, but to train them for the job of making their vilages [sic] guerrillaproof [sic] when they return – to train them as village defenders….”[8]

To the Americans, the peasants were a malleable population easily manipulated by misinformation and U.S. consumables. Such thinking reflected the American and South Vietnamese leadership’s disrespect for, and ignorance of, the Vietnamese peasantry. Top officials actually thought the peasants could be transformed into loyal GVN citizens regardless of all the past wrongs committed against them, including the Strategic Hamlet Program, the air war, U.S. ground operations, and GVN official neglect. A U.S. Government report remarked on this Allied misperception, “Because these are essentially simple people, whose needs and aspirations are not expansive, we and their own government have deluded ourselves into thinking that so long as they receive any help at all, we must be winning their hearts and minds. This is an entirely erroneous view of them.”[9]

It is not surprising that the U.S. and GVN failed to pacify the refugees. The displaced neither forgot nor forgave. In fact, many became fervent enemies of the U.S. and GVN. In 1966, a U.S. official, referring to the U.S. and GVN effort to win peasant hearts and minds said, “The truth is, we are not offering these people any very good reason to switch sides….”[10]  In mid-1967, the U.S. Marines discovered that among the refugees in I Corps, there is “widespread disillusionment” with the GVN.[11]  Edward Kennedy’s subcommittee, “…found a great deal of resentment toward the United States among the refugees…In January 1968, immediately prior to Tet, the subcommittee staff found that the Vietcong had made sharp inroads in the refugee camps.”[12]

The refugee crisis, and the destruction inflicted on rural South, had another serious effect on South Vietnam, an effect that threatened the fledging nation’s long-term viability. The U.S. was destroying South Vietnam’s already tenuous social and territorial cohesion. Roger Hilsman summarized the thinking on this issue, “…bombing the North has been a bad mistake, bombing the South a tragic one…The bombs that destroy South Vietnam’s villages are smashing the social structure of the country.”[13] Rural settlement patterns, (characterized by a peasantry rooted in thousands of well-established, interconnected hamlets), was being replaced by a mobile population living in makeshift camps and unplanned shantytowns. The displaced population in these new settlements had no connection to the land or to one another. Millions lost their links to extended family, friends, and local governance. They were a population adrift, moving from place to place, concerned with survival and little else. Rand noticed that some of the most dedicated Vietcong guerrillas came from what it termed “broken families” or from households in which one or both of the parents had died. It stated, “Subjects who had lost one parent tended to volunteer more often than those who had not; subjects who were orphans had an even higher rate of volunteering.”[14] By late 1967, thousands upon thousands of families within South Vietnam had been “broken.”

The displacement of the rural population shattered any remaining sense that the South Vietnamese refugees may have had toward community. Poor, destitute, mobile individuals do not make good, socially conscious citizens; they are too busy trying to survive to think of the needs of their fellow countrymen. And so it was with millions of South Vietnamese, they developed after 1965 a pathological self-interestedness, which undermined attempts at fostering a national consciousness. Such a national consciousness was vital to the functioning of a secure, durable society. In South Vietnam, there was a total breakdown in the bonds that tie people together. Refugees trusted neither government institutions nor their fellow South Vietnamese.

In fighting the war, the U.S. had tried to establish a unified society in the South, but its military actions thwarted the achievement of that goal. Don Luce, who had worked in rural South Vietnam since the 1950s, lamented the effect of the war on southern social cohesion. In September 1967, he observed, “What’s going on here is changing these people and it’s overwhelming…It’s become unbearable to witness the destruction of Vietnamese family life, the home, the agricultural system, the transportation [system].” Luce then stated the ultimate consequence of the all of the American bombing, shelling, and ground operations. “…We’re defeating ourselves here.”[15]

James Dumpson of Fordham University’s School of Social Service shared Luce’s views. He declared, “…failure to deal promptly, efficiently, and humanely with displaced persons in Vietnam is destroying the effort of nation building, is supporting the efforts of the Vietcong to weaken the will of the Vietnamese and their faith and confidence in the GVN, in their own Government, and is contributing to defeat the goals sought by all of our military activity.”[16]

Other Americans with an intimate knowledge of Vietnamese society agreed with Luce and Dumpson. U.S. anthropologist Gerald Hickey, who had done work for the Rand Corporation in Vietnam, and who developed a particular interest in the lifeways of the Montagnards, expressed concern that the U.S. military was destroying what little social cohesion remained in South Vietnam. Hickey argued that a strong, anti-Communist South Vietnam depended on a viable agricultural sector and a secure, prosperous rural population living in established hamlets. Specifically, a stable rural geographical system translated into an enduring society, meaning people who daily worked the land and then had a secure place to go home to in the evening were the foundation of a socially and politically stable country.   By late 1967, according to Hickey, the conditions necessary for such societal stability in South Vietnam were being rapidly worn away, “Nothing less than a rootless urban proletariat is being created [in South Vietnam]….”[17] And that proletariat did not care about the U.S.’s lofty goals for the South, it cared about the basics – food, shelter, and safety from gunfire, rockets, and bombs.

German psychiatrist Dr. Erich Wolf, who studied the psychological condition of South Vietnamese refugees, believed that a sense of place, particularly the idea of a homeland, with its known history, its connections to one’s ancestors, it’s intimate interpersonal relationships, and its familiar sights, sounds, and smells gave people a feeling of continuity, security, and hope. Place, according to Wolf, could assist a person in coping with adversity, including the hardships induced by war. But U.S. military operations destroyed the sense of place of millions of South Vietnamese. Bombs, bulldozers, APCs, shells, and Zippo lighters transformed hamlets into wastelands – inhospitable places with little resemblance to old, comforting places. Wolf observed that the displaced in South Vietnam exhibited confusion and a sort of stupefaction or what he called “apathy” and “disorientation.”[18]

The solution to this “disorientation” and social disintegration involved the return of the displaced to their original homelands. Yet, neither the U.S. nor the GVN wanted to pursue that course of action, fearing that once back in their hamlets-of-origin, the peasants would again fall under the sway of the Vietcong, who would acquire new recruits, taxes, and supplies – all the ingredients necessary to prolong the insurgency. So the refugees were forced to remain in “secure” GVN areas. If any of them tried to return home, ARVN and U.S. units forced them back to the camps and shantytowns.

Inevitably, the Vietcong found fertile recruiting grounds in the refugee camps, urban slums, and roadside shantytowns. Vietcong cadre won the hearts and minds of their listeners not by preaching Communist dogma or complex Maoist theory, but by speaking the language of the peasantry. Communist recruiters portrayed themselves as the protectors of rural life. Ironically, the Communist revolutionaries became conservatives, who would fight to ensure the return of the refugees to their former homes. This was something the GVN would not and could not promise. The appeal of this one, simple Communist pledge was profound. The desire to return home was the single greatest aspiration of the majority of South Vietnamese refugees.[19] One refugee said to an American interviewer, “Our most ardent wish is to be able to go back to the village.”[20] A 68-year old former farmer confided to a Rand interviewer that he did not care who won the war, “I just want peace, so I can move back to my village….”[21] A 75-year-old male refugee told an American reporter, “American soldiers burned down everything I had…my house, my haystack, my garden, 46 coconut trees, I miss my home very much….”[22]

The Vietcong assured the refugees that with their support they would put a stop to the peasantry’s exploitation by GVN officials and the urban elite. On a more personal level, the Vietcong promised that when the Front won the war – the hated Americans would leave the country, sons drafted into the ARVN would return home, daughters forced into prostitution would no longer have to sell their bodies, and the peasants would receive land – free land. The Vietcong told the refugees that the victorious Resistance would end the disorder gripping the South, restore the country’s social and political unity, and bring an end to government corruption. Communist agitators portrayed the U.S. and GVN as agents of disunity and disintegration, which the refugees knew to be true. They had experienced the disintegration of their own lives as a result of U.S. or GVN military actions. Ultimately, the Vietcong suggested that if the refugees joined their movement, they would be able to strike back at those who had overturned their lives. This last pledge tapped into a huge reservoir of peasant anger – an anger no power could contain.[23]

Endnotes

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

[2] New York Times, “Edward Kennedy Deplores Vietnam Refugee Situation,” October 9, 1967; New York Times, “Medical-Aid to Saigon Scored,” October 10, 1967.

[3] New York Times, “Edward Kennedy Deplores Vietnam Refugee Situation,” October 9, 1967; New York Times, “Medical-Aid to Saigon Scored,” October 10, 1967; 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, 26.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Leon Goure, A.J. Russo, and D. Scott, “Some Findings of the Viet Cong Motivation and Morale Study: June-December 1965,” (Santa Monica, CA: Rand Corporation, February 1966), 8-9.

[6] Ibid., 33.

[7] John C. Donnell, Guy J. Pauker, and Joseph J. Zastoff, “Viet Cong Motivation and Morale in 1964: A Preliminary Report,” (Santa Monica, CA: Rand Corporation, March 1965), 33-34.

[8] 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), 321.

[9] 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), 14.

[10] New York Times, “Saigon Social Ills Worry U.S. Aides,” Charles Mohr, February 21, 1966; New York Times, “Vietcong Village to be Bulldozed,” January 11, 1967.

[11] New York Times, “Edward Kennedy Finds Vietnam Toll of Civilians High,” Neil Sheehan, May 8, 1967.

[12] 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), 13.

[13] New York Times, “Bombing South Vietnam,” November 21, 1965.

[14] Frank Denton, “Volunteers for the Viet Cong,” (Santa Monica, CA: Rand Corporation, September 1968), xi, xiv.

[15] New York Times, “I Have Seen the Destruction of a People I Love,” Don Luce, September 24, 1967.

[16] 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), 97.

[17] New York Times, “Rural Vietnamese Swept Up by War into Refugee Camps,” October 28, 1967.

[18] New York Times, “Rural Vietnamese Swept Up By War Into Refugee Camps,” Tom Buckley, October 28, 1967; New York Times, “Still the Problem of the Uprooted,” December 31, 1967.

[19] 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), 63, 78.

[20] Goure, et.al., “Some Findings of the Viet Cong Motivation and Morale Study, 43.

[21] Ibid., 44.

[22] New York Times, “Rural Vietnamese Swept Up By War Into Refugee Camps,” Tom Buckley, October 28, 1967.

[23] Konrad Keller, “Conversations with Enemy Soldiers in Late 1968/Early 1969: A Study of Motivation and Morale,” (Santa Monica, CA: Rand Corporation, September 1970), 92-96; 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), 76.

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