Pacification in South Vietnam

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After partition, and well before the large-scale introduction of U.S. troops, there was a continuing issue to establish better security in the countryside, and gain support of the rural population for the government of the Republic of Vietnam. Land reform had been a political slogan going back to Bao Dai in 1949, and for which inadequate funds had been budgeted by Indochinese Prime Minister Nguyen Van Tam in 1953, at least conceptually was addressed by a French Parliamentary Committee of Inquiry in 1954.[1]

Agrovilles and Ago-Hamlets

Ngo Dinh Diem, in 1956, was advised by Edward Lansdale that land reform had been an important base for the successful counterinsurgency in the Philippines.[2] Lansdale obtained, for South Vietnam, the land reform consultant who had designed the Filipino program, Wolf Ladejinsky.[3] Land reform in South Vietnam, especially in the Mekong Delta, was a greater opportunity than in the Philippines. The particular way in which large-scale agriculture was introduced to the Delta, in the 19th century, had required large capitalization, so there was far more tenant farming than in other parts of Vietnam. The Viet Minh had imposed rent and land redistribution under the French, but that went away after partition. Ladejinsky's program was less ambitious than that of the Viet Minh, applying only to holdings larger than 115 hectares, while the Viet Minh had considered a 5 hectare plot as "large". Central Intelligence Agency and Stanford Research Institute studies, however, indicated that a substantial number of farmers were in worse rent problem than before the land reform program had gone into effect. Government forces evicted farmers to whom the Viet Minh had redistributed land; whether this was legally correct or not, it would tend to generate resentment.

Diem started another program, "Agrovilles" or "Rural Community Development Centers," launched in 1959. Each such village would hold 300-500 families, provide some benefits of urban life, and both secure the villager and the area. Reasons for their not being accepted ranged from "clumsy, dishonest administration to the physical hardship of being too far from their fields and the psychological wrench of being separated from ancestral homes and burial plots." Within a year, the program had both peasant resistance and Viet Cong exploitation of that resistance. [4]

Reporting by an American reporter, Albert Colegrove of the Scripps-Howard chain, led to Congressional review of apparently wasteful use of U.S. aid, focusing on closer supervision of aid than reexamination of policy. Separately from this public review, which did bring questions from Congressional supporters of Diem as to whether the criticism was helping the Communists, the U.S. ran programs to create additional police and security forces for Diem. Under a CIA contract, the University of Michigan School of Police Administration trained three organizations, which were dominated by Diem supporters who were Northern or Central Vietnamese, and members of the Can Lao party. [5]They were: [6]

  • Civil Guard, a paramilitary police
  • An investigative service, the Special Branch
  • Civic Action teams that would "get close to the people", advising them why the Communists were worse than the government

Strategic Hamlet Program

By 1961, Diem recast the Agrovile/Agrohamlet program into a new version, called Ap Chien Luoc or strategic hamlets, although they were seen as essentially the same program at the village level. Conceptually, however, this was a much more extensive, phased program that would include:

  1. clearing the insurgents from an area and protecting the rural populace
  2. establishment of GVN infrastructure
  3. provision of services which would lead the peasants to identify with their government.

"The strategic hamlet program was, in short, an attempt to translate the newly articulated theory of counterinsurgency into operational reality. The objective was political though the means to its realization were a mixture of military, social, psychological, economic and political measures."

The blind men and the elephant

Judging success was difficult, because at least three groups had different goals for the program: The problem with the apparent consensus which emerged early in 1962 was that the principal participants did view it with different perspectives and expectations.

  1. U.S. military advisers had a set of preferences which affected their approach to the Strategic Hamlet Program wanted the Army of the Republic of Vietnam to be mobile and aggressive against the Viet cong, rather than "holding" after "clearing". Various attempts to evolve local defense forces were tried to relieve this concern.
  2. American political leaders were most concerned with the later phases of the program--those in which GVN services were provided, local governments established, and the economy bolstered. They also wanted to see liberalization of the Diem government.
  3. Diem, however, wanted to get the U.S. committed to South Vietnam (and to his administration) without surrendering his autonomy either to his own military or to the U.S. as a patron, simultaneously withstanding Communist encroachment. Diem was unenthused about aggressive pursuit of the VC, preferring control of the peasants as a means of drying up support for the insurgents. [7]

In operational reality, however, assessing progress of the phases was difficult. Simply establishing government services and making a mark on a checklist did not mean much; it was the quality of the services and their perceived relevance to the population that was critical. The stepwise approach made it too easy to assume that progress, against a schedule, into misperceptions of the actual state of the insurgency and the degree to which the populace supported the GVN.


While it was agreed that the Mekong Delta would be the first target area, there were quite different plans of how it should be carried out. The first formal proposal came, in November 1961, from Sir R. G. K. Thompson, head of the British Advisory Mission who had put down the Malayan insurgency. Thompson wanted to start with moderate steps, in areas not under heavy Communist domination. Palmer also saw elements of earlier and modest French programs in the plan, although he also saw it fail because statistical evaluation had taken the place of understanding of actual progress. [8]

Palmer saw a constant repackaging of old ideas. "Rural reconstruction", or bo xay dung. followed "Strategic Hamlets", but American officials preferred "Revolutionary Development." Nguyen Cao Ky then decreed that Revolutionary Development was henceforth to be translated, bo xay dung.[9]

The U.S. military actually wanted ARVN operations against VC main forces in the Delta, then known as War Zone D, before starting pacification. U.S. civilians, however, wanted some local operation which could achieve concrete gains. Diem's wanted control of a strategic area, again protecting his perceived interests against the Communists, Americans, and his generals.

Operation SUNRISE of March 1962, in Binh Duong Province north of Saigon. It would be directed by Diem's brother, Ngo Dinh Nhu, who would set the schedule without much U.S. control. Nhu exerted local control through the province and district chiefs, not the military. Diem and Nhu consciously separated power between the ARVN and the chiefs under the Ministry of the Interior, which caused command friction, as at the Battle of Ap Bac, but also protected against coups.

U.S. policies in 1965

See also: Foreign internal defense

Lyndon Johnson and Robert McNamara, in selecting a strategy in 1965, had assumed the enemy forces were assumed that much as the defeat of the Axis military had won the Second World War, the Communist military was the center of gravity of the opposition, rather than the political opposition. William Westmoreland, and to a lesser extent Maxwell Taylor, rejected, if they seriously considered, the protracted war doctrine stated by Mao and restated [10] by the DRV leadership, mirror-imaging that they would be reasonable by American standards, and see that they could not prevail against steady escalation. They proposed to defeat an enemy, through attrition of his forces, who guided by the Maoist doctrine of Protracted War, which itself assumed it would attrit the counterinsurgents.

An alternative view, considering overall security as critical, was shared by the Marine leadership and some other U.S. government centers of opinion, including Central Intelligence Agency, Agency for International Development, and United States Army Special Forces. The Marines, with responsibility for I Corps tactical zone, the northern third of the country, had a plan for Phase I. It reflected their historic experience in pacification programs in Haiti and Nicaragua early in the century, in which they had become local authority figures, but gradually trained and handed over power to their indigenous replacements. [11]

Agency for International Development

John Paul Vann had returned to Vietnam in 1965, as a civilian working for the Agency for International Development, starting as a province representative and, as he demonstrated his ability, moving up to the level of director for a corps region. Bureaucratic factors were involved; AID had wanted to keep its more senior positions for career personnel rather than retired military, which is what Vann was considered. COL Sam Wilson, the military corps advisor for the Saigon area, was Vann's sponsor. Vann immediately established a rapport with Vietnamese and American personnel in the province, but soon realized that fundamental security problems interfered with development; military and development activities would have to go together, and the development needed to be credible enough that the populace would cut off support to the VC. [12]

Marine CAP

Marine thinking also reflected the limited capabilities of the units first deployed to Vietnam, principally for airbase defense. They recognized that fighting the guerrillas they could reach would not have a major effect. If there was to be a solution, it was "to win the support of the people, and thereby deny that support to the VC." This civil affairs-driven philosophy also assumed that the people needed to support their own government, not the Marines.[13] The idea of developing popular support contrasted with the situation where Montagnards, hostile to the GVN but bonded to Army Special Forces, were neither pro-Communist nor pro-government.

When larger forces became available, limitations were still recognized. The operational concept was for the III Marine Amphibious Force[14] to work outward from the bases. In their interpretation of countering Mao's dictum that the guerrilla must swim in the people as the fish swims in the sea, they hoped to turn the sea against the fish.

Their main device was the Combined Action Platoon, with a 15-man rifle squad and 34 local militia. Rather than having separate "advisory" units, the bulk of the CAP members served alongside the local militia, building personal relationships. It would "capture and hold" hamlets and villages. The Marines put heavy stress on honesty in local government, land reform (giving more to the peasants) and MEDCAP patrols that offered immediate medical assistance to villagers. [13] In some respects, the CAP volunteers had assignments similar to the much more highly trained United States Army Special Forces, but they would make use of whatever skills they had. One young Marine, for example, was a graduate of a high school in an agricultural area in the U.S., came from a family hog farm that went back several generations, and won competitions for teenagers who raised prized hogs. While he was no military expert, he was recognized as helping enormously with the critical pork production in villages.

Marines in CAP had the highest proportion of volunteering for successive Vietnam tours of any branch of the Marine Corps. Many villages considered the CAP personnel part of their extended family. Westmoreland distrusted the Marine village-oriented policy as too defensive for Phase II--only offense can win a war, he insisted. The official slogan about "winning hearts and minds" gave way to the Army's "Get the people by the balls, and their hearts and minds will follow." Ambassador Taylor welcomed the Marine strategy as the best solution for a basically political problem; it would also minimize American casualties.[15]

Special Forces and CIA

Another came from a joint project of the CIA and United States Army Special Forces. The CIDG (Civilian Irregular Defense Groups) program was created for the Montagnard peoples in the sparsely populated mountainous areas of the Central Highlands. The Montagnards disliked all Vietnamese, and had supported first the French, then the Americans. About 45,000 were enrolled in militias whose main role was defending their villages from the Communists. In 1970 the CIDG became part of the ARVN Rangers.

In 1967, CIA had organized Provisional Reconnaissance Units (PRU) for quick response to Viet Cong Infrastructure targets. These were U.S.-led groups of local militia or traditional mercenaries, intended to be more responsive to local officials than regular forces. [16] They could be very effective when they used their own intelligence resources for quick-reaction strikes. Intelligence, however, was the limiting factor, when they could not generate their own. COL (USMC ret.) Andrew Finlayson, who commanded a PRU, said the PRUs were more a special police than a military unit, although they unquestionably used lethal military methods. The subsequent Phoenix program was based on the local PRUs, but was not as successful when scaled to national command, including national bureaucracy. Even when local, "Petty jealousies between the Vietnamese National Police, the Vietnamese Special Branch Police, and district chiefs often prevented the transmission of good operational leads to the PRU."[17]


Civil Operational and Revolutionary Development Support (CORDS) was a fundamentally different U.S. pacification operation, directed by Deputy Ambassador Robert Komer, a protege of Lyndon Johnson. Komer, with advice from John Paul Vann, created it over objections from GEN William Westmoreland. Johnson personally authorized it in NSAM 362.[18]Komer, who had been a White House aide with considerable bureaucratic capital; Westmoreland felt it a battle not worth fighting.[19] CORDS redefined the organizational structure of U.S. advice to the South Vietnamese, but did not change the advisory relationship. While it consolidated most, but not all, U.S. military and civilian activities, it sought, but did not necessarily obtain, improved intelligence, more U.S. control over the GVN's operations, and better GVN performance.[20]

Vann, as a post-Diem adviser to the U.S. mission in 1966, wrote a proposal, called "Harnessing the Revolution in South Vietnam", which he saw as having short and long term goals. The short term goal was to gain peasant support for counterinsurgency, but the long-term goal was to create a responsive national government that the U.S. could leave in working order. "Apparently, for fear of tarnishing our own image, we have refused to become overtly involved in the internal affairs of governing to the extent necessary to insure the emergence of a government responsive to a majority of people...we have sat idly by when many patriotic and non-Communist Vietnamese saw [a Communist movement as] their only change to secure a better government." He proposed that three province be selected and put into a separate chain of command, bypassing the military corps commanders. The province chiefs would be supreme, having operational control of military units stationed in the province. [21]

In 1967, CORDS arranged to have 2,000 military advisors to Regional and Popular Forces, under the Ministry of the Interior rather than the ARVN. They had previously had no significant advisory component; there was a MACV assumption that assigning advisors would automatically improve their effectiveness.[20] Still, well-led locals, in many circumstances, did well in providing local security.

Komer, whose nickname was "the blowtorch", intended to ensure that he would have real power. On his first day on duty, he insisted on having an insignia, on his official car, that gave him the authority of a four-star general. A MACV general sent to the scene argued that only four-star military officers were entitled to our star plates, to which Komer responded, "Those regulations were written before anyone ever thought we'd be fighting a war like this. Put four stars on my car." Winning the apparently symbolic fight, Komer positioned himself in senior military and diplomatic chains of command in the United States Mission to the Republic of Vietnam:

Ambassador and Chief of Mission



CORDS created a common command structure for the Office of Civil Operations and field activities of CIA, USIA, and AID.

Each American unit in an ARVN Corps tactical zone, received a Deputy Commander for CORDS (Dep/CORDS), either as a deputy to a combat force such as I Field Force Vietnam or to the senior adviser to the CTZ. Within the CTZ, the Regional Force, Popular Force, and other military advisors were merged with the civilian advisers under a Province Senior Advisor (PSA). The PSA reported to the Dep/CORDS.

Komer was able to avoid some of the past problems with jurisdictional and budgetary alignments of Washington agencies. He saw it as futile to separate of civil and military programs. With support from McNamara and Bunker, he successfully resisted AID Administrator Gaud's proposal. Given he had clear backing from the President, he could also afford to offend people in the military chain of command, where he had established his own high status. For example, he believed the CIA understood the intelligence requirements of pacification better than MACV's intelligence directorate.


Komer, a protege of Lyndon Johnson, promised that pacification would not be an issue in the 1968 election. [22] His plan was to fight the Viet Cong with their own methods, creating what were termed Revolutionary Development Cadres, who would go after "VC infrastructure" (VCI) in the field.[23] Their operations, which drew from the 1965 CIA counterterror units and became the Provisional Reconnaissance Units in 1967, formed the Phung Hoang. The Vietnamese name was of a legendary bird with supernatural powers; Komer mapped it to the English equivalent of the Phoenix.[17]

While William Colby directed Phoenix operations, he did so not in a specific CIA role, but as an senior American official detailed to CORDS.[24]

The exact scope of Phoenix remains controversial. Gibson and Young say it included assassination; Finlayson denies it. In this matter, truth is probably somewhere in between; the units did engage in combat, which did include ambushes.

Young cites a military intelligence officer, K. Barton Osborne, who challenged the assumption that the Phoenix body count were all VCI. She puts this into the context that Komer had set a figure of "neutralizing" 3,000 VCI per month, and the field personnel needed to meet that numerical objective. To do so, he claims that the Phoenix program targets were often the targets of personal vendettas rather than accurate intelligence, and that some targets were simply Vietnamese that would not pay for extortionate "protection". Colby, however, insisted that most targets were legitimate. Other analysts simply say the issue remains controversial. [25]

Post-Tet reconstruction

Komer ignored Washington, and worked directly with Bunker and Westmoreland. He also interacted directly with multiple levels of the South Vietnamese government, after the Tet offensive when CORDS played a major role in a nationwide recovery comfort, to include setting up a special US office in the president's palace.[26] Nevertheless, when Westmoreland left and Clifford replaced McNamara, he lost his patrons. He had, however, prepared a replacement, William Colby.

Race indicates that the PRU/Phoenix units, in 1968, were the most effective in his region, even though they were small and poorly paid compared to the ARVN. He attributes part of this to the PRU being focused on truly significant targets, and also being local. While the ARVN were better paid and had less hazardous duty, they had an extremely high desertion rate, which was a non-obvious cost. He emphasized that well-trained and -led locals are the best local security force, but the security model was preemptive. [27] The original PRUs, ironically given their title, operated more as guerrillas and less as the reconnaissance function for the subsequent Phoenix reaction forces. He considered the 1967 PRUs more effective than the PRUs that were part of the 1968 Phoenix program, although they remained the most effective among the ARVN, Regional Forces, Popular Forces, and PRU.

Since the ARVN saw a need to provide static security to towns and roads, they could not be diverted to Phoenix operations, even if the local versus nonlocal troop issue was addressed. Race saw the chief problem with Phoenix, as opposed to the original PRU, suffered from overcentralization in obtaining intelligence support. The second problem was its dependence on reaction forces that involved at least somewhat conventional, non-local forces. [28]


  1. Hammer, Ellen J. (1955), The Struggle for Indochina 1940-1955: Vietnam and the French Experience, Stanford University Press, p. 3508
  2. Marilyn B. Young (1991), The Vietnam Wars 1945-1990, HarperCollins, pp. 56-57
  3. Alfred McCoy, "Land Reform as Counter-Revolution: U.S. Foreign Policy and the Tenant Farmers of Asia," Bulletin of Concerned Asian Scholars, 3:1 (Winter-Spring 1971), quoted in Young, pp. 56-57
  4. , Volume 2, Chapter 2, "The Strategic Hamlet Program, 1961-1963," pp. 128-159, The Pentagon Papers, Gravel Edition
  5. Jeffrey Race (1973), War Comes to Long An: Revolutionary Conflict in a Vietnamese Province, University of California Press, p. 18
  6. Young, p. 61
  7. Sheehan, Neil (1988), A bright shining lie: John Paul Vann and America in Vietnam, New Random House, p.124
  8. Palmer, Dave R. (1978), Summons of the Trumpet, Presidio Press, pp. 25-26
  9. Palmer, p. 221
  10. Mao Tse-tung (1967), On Protracted War, Foreign Languages Press, pp. 175-176
  11. United States Marine Corps, Small Wars Manual (Reprint of 1940 Edition)
  12. Sheehan, pp. 502-520
  13. 13.0 13.1 Evans, D.L. Jr. (1974), USMC Civil Affairs in Vietnam: A Philosophical History, The Marines in Vietnam, 1954-1973: An Anthology and Annotated Bibliography (Second Printing, 1985 ed.), History and Museums Division, United States Marine Corps, p. 316
  14. The normal Marine term is "Marine Expeditionary Force", but "Expeditionary" had unfortunate colonialist connotations in Vietnam. Current USMC terminology is MEF.
  15. Berman, David M. (2000), Civic Action, in Tucker, Spencer, Encyclopedia of the Vietnam War, Oxford University Press, at . 73-74
  16. William Colby, Lost Victory, Beaverbooks, Ltd., p. 216
  17. 17.0 17.1 Andrew R. Finlayson (2007), "A Retrospective on Counterinsurgency Operations: The Tay Ninh Provincial Reconnaissance Unit and Its Role in the Phoenix Program, 1969-70", Studies in Intelligence, Central Intelligence Agency
  18. Lyndon B. Johnson (May 9, 1967), National Security Action Memorandum 362: Responsibility for U.S. Role in Pacification (Revolutionary Development)
  19. Sheehan, pp. 653-647
  20. 20.0 20.1 , Volume 2, Chapter 2, Chapter 6, "The Advisory Build-Up, 1961-1967," Section 1, pp. 408-457, The Pentagon Papers, Gravel Edition
  21. Sheehan, pp. 537-539
  22. Halberstam, David (1972), The Best and the Brightest, Random House, p. 648
  23. Gibbs, James William (1986), The Perfect War: Technowar in Vietnam, Atlantic Monthly Press, pp. 290-291
  24. Langguth, A J (2000), Our Vietnam: The War 1954-1975, Simon & Schuster, pp. 536-537
  25. Shultz, Richard H., Jr. (2000), the Secret War against Hanoi: the untold story of spies, saboteurs, and covert warriors in North Vietnam, Harper Collins Perennial, p. 200
  26. Scoville, Thomas W., Chapter 6: Making CORDS Work, Reorganizing for pacification support, Office of the Chief of Military History, U.S. Department of the Army
  27. Race, pp. 231-232
  28. Race, pp. 239-242