Strategic Hamlet Program

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For more information, see: Pacification in South Vietnam.

In the context of the Vietnam War, the Strategic Hamlet Program meant different things to various South Vietnamese and American groups. It was not simply building the hamlet that would carry out a strategy, but the context in which they were built. There was a good deal of agreement that it had to be in phases:

  1. Clearing enemy forces, the responsibility of the regular ARVN, coupled with some level of "holding"
  2. Maintaining security, by various civil guard organizations and regional reaction forces
  3. Hamlet self-defense capability, enabling economic development and strengthened local government

Assessing their success is difficult. They did have some effect on insurgency, but also alienated many villagers against the Ngo Dinh Diem government, which also appears to have used the program to reward loyalists. Unfortunately, there were competing issues of both security and land reform. Diem had a power base in absentee landlords, and also used strategic hamlets to integrate Montagnards with lowland Vietnamese.[1]

William Colby, a CIA executive who operated in Vietnam, said "...strategic hamlets started in 1961, early 1961. Wilfred Burchett says that they had become so effective that in 1962 the year belonged to the government, and that was a communist appraisal of the fact."[2] Strategic Hamlets were principally a Vietnamese program under the fairly tight control of Ngo Dinh Nhu, Diem's brother, which was shut down after the overthrow of Diem. The concept of rural security, however, continued in more joint programs, such as Revolutionary Development and CORDS.

John Paul Vann, in contrast, believed forced relocation was a cruel folly. He strongly rejected a similar program in 1965, on the theory that the allegiance of the peasants could be gained only by keeping the peasants in the land they cherished, and bettering there lives in their villages.[3] It might be noted that bungled land reform was not limited to the South; Truong Chinh lost much power over failed North Vietnamese programs in 1955-1956.

U.S. basic concept

The U.S. political leadership focused on the latter part of the program.[4] The U.S. military somewhat regretfully focused on the first, with concern that the ARVN would bog down in "holding", when the ARVN was needed to take the initiative away from the enemy, so the VC were defending, not attacking. Both, however, did not see long-term success without reforms in the Diem government.

Diem and Ngo's conceptual view

Diem, however, was more concerned with preserving than reforming his government. American appeals to form a "partnership" may not have been seriously considered. See Operation SUNRISE for a representative early attempt to create a hamlet (March 1962).

The role of landlords

Absentee landlords formed a significant part of Diem's power base, in a quasi-feudal system that contained resentments the NLF could exploit. Much of Vietnamese rural culture was tied to the ancestral lands where they were located, yet the villagers did not own their fields and homes.[5] Gibson quotes a landlord interviewed by Samson:
In the past, the relationship between the landlord and his tenants was paternalistic. The landlord considered the tenant as an inferior member of his extended family. When the tenant's father died, it was the duty of the landlord to give money to the tenant for the funeral; if his wife was pregnant, the landlord gave money for the birth; if he was in financial ruin, the landlord gave assistance; therefore, the tenant had to behave as an inferior member of the extended family. The landlord enjoyed great prestige vis-a-vis the tenant. [6]

During this period of paternalism, the landlord also received 40 to 60 percent of the tenants' crops as rent. When the Viet Minh fought the French, they also fought an economic war, and drove large landowners into the cities, or variously lowered or ended rent payments. According to Gibson, when Diem's ARVN forces established security, they put landlords back in control, often demanding back rent. [7]

Village security

Separately from the land reform and economic issues, the Government of Vietnam were unable to provide security for the villages. The Diem government response was to create defensible "strategic hamlets" and forcibly move the villagers to them. The strategic hamlet might have government-appointed or military leaders; the villagers' locally chosen leadership was destroyed. The tombs of ancestors was abandoned, in a culture where it was proper to show ancestral respect.

Colby said that the southerners, in the early to mid fifties, were dubious about the Diem government, overcome for a time in the late fifties by Diem's vigorous social and economic programs. THe fear came back with a psychological (political dau tranh) of 1960, the recruiting from which was reversed by Strategic Hamlets in 1961-1962. [8]

Operations under Diem and Ngo

Diem's first purpose was not to the villages per se, but was to get U.S. help to his country and administration, without losing control. He understood that he would fail without the source, but "feared that his government would fall if he either appeared to toady to U.S. wishes or allowed any single group too much potential power-particularly coercive power. The Strategic Hamlet Program offered a vehicle by which he could direct the counterinsurgent effort as he thought it should be directed and without giving up either his prerogatives to the U.S. or his mantle to his restless generals.[4]

Initial plan

Little known is that the first proposal to Diem came, in November 1961, from Sir Robert Thompson, who had headed the successful British counterinsurgency in Malaya, and now headed a British Advisory Mission to South Vietnam. Thompson recommended pacification in reasonably contested but winnable areas and spreading from there, rather than head-on confrontation with guerrillas.

In contrast, the U.S. MAAG preferenfe was for an ARVN penetration of the VC redoubt in War Zone D prior to any operations aimed specifically at pacification. But U.S. political desires to start some local operation which could achieve concrete gains combined with Diem's preference for a pacification effort in an area of strategic importance led to the initial effort in March 1962, "Operation SUNRISE," in Binh Duong Province north of Saigon.

This was a heavily VC-infiltrated area rather than one of minimal penetration, as Thompson had urged. But planning--as distinct from operations--continued on the Delta plan and strategic hamlets were constructed in a variegated, uncoordinated pattern throughout the spring and early summer. The U.S. had little or no influence over these activities; the primary impetus was traceable directly to the President's brother and political counsellor, Ngo Dinh Nhu.

First GVN plan

In August 1962, GVN produced its long awaited national pacification plan with four priority areas and specified priorities within each area. At the same time, however, it indicated that over 2,500 strategic hamlets had already been completed and that work was already underway on more than 2,500 more. Although it was not until October 1962, that GVN explicitly announced the Strategic Hamlet Program to be the unifying concept of its pacification and counterinsurgent effort it was clear earlier that the program had assumed this central position.

Only in retrospect did three things become clear:

  1. the program was truly one of GVN initiative rather than one embodying priorities and time phasing recommended by the U.S., U.K., or prior French experience
  2. The geographic dispersion of hamlets already reported to be completed indicated that there was, in fact, a conscious GVN effort to implement this phase almost simultaneously throughout the entire nation.
  3. The geographic dispersion of hamlets already reported to be completed indicated that there was, in fact, a conscious effort to implement this phase almost simultaneously throughout the entire nation rather than to build slowly as Diem's foreign advisors (both U.S. and British) recommended.

Assessment

Diem's program were similar if not identical to earlier population resettlement and control efforts practiced by the French and by Diem, rather than U.K. or U.S. methods. The long history of these efforts was marked by consistency in results as well as in techniques: all failed dismally because they ran into resentment if not active resistance on the part of the peasants at whose control and safety, then loyalty, they were aimed. U.S. desires to begin an effective process of pacification had fastened onto security as a necessary precondition and slighted the historic record of rural resistance to resettlement. [4] As a practical matter, many U.S. leaders based their support of the Diem government on it, including Ambassadors Frederick Nolting and Elbridge Durbrow.

Both in the short term for U.S. dealing with the Diem government (e.g., the Mendenhall-Krulak mission and McNamara-Taylor mission), the broader development of U.S. grand strategy involving the Vietnam War, and the general understanding of counterinsurgency and foreign internal defense, study of the Strategic Hamlet Program is critical.

References

  1. Human Rights Watch (April 2002), III. A History of Resistance to Central Government Control, Repression of Montagnards: Conflicts over Land and Religion in Vietnam's Central Highlands
  2. William Colby (March 1, 1982), Oral History interview by Ted Gittinger, Lyndon Baines Johnson Presidential Library, p. I-6
  3. Sheehan, Neil. (1988), A bright shining lie: John Paul Vann and America in Vietnam, New Random House, p. 540
  4. 4.0 4.1 4.2 , Chapter 2, "The Strategic Hamlet Program, 1961-1963," pp. 128-159, The Pentagon Papers, Gravel Edition, Volume 2
  5. Gibbs, James William (1986), The Perfect War: Technolwar in Vietnam, Atlantic Monthly Presspp. 70-71
  6. Samson, Robert L. (1970), The Economics of Insurgency in the Mekong Delta of Vietnam, MIT Press p. 29
  7. Gibson, pp. 71-72
  8. Colby, p. I-22