Strategic Hamlet Program
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The Strategic Hamlet Program (Vietnamese: Ấp Chiến lược) was a plan by the governments of South Vietnam and the United States during the Vietnam War to combat the communist insurgency by means of population transfer.
In 1961, US advisors in South Vietnam, along with the Diem regime, began the implementation of a plan attempted to isolate rural peasants from contact with and influence by the National Liberation Front (NLF). The Strategic Hamlet Program, along with its predecessor, the Rural Community Development Program, played an important role in the shaping of events in South Vietnam during the late 1950s and early 1960s. Both of these programs attempted to create new communities of "protected hamlets". The rural peasants would be physically isolated from the communist insurgents and their support services, thereby strengthening ties with the South Vietnamese government (GVN). It was hoped this would lead to increased loyalty by the peasantry towards the government. In the end, the program led to a decrease in support for Diem’s regime and an increase in sympathy for communist efforts.
After Ngo Dinh Diem was overthrown in a coup in November 1963, the program greatly waned and peasants moved back into their native areas. Future counterinsurgency programs focused on accessing peasants in their existing communities rather than through forced relocation.
Background and Precursor Program
It was within the duration of the First Indochina War ( 19 December 1946 — 1 August 1954 ) in 1952 that General François Gonzales Linares, in the area of Tonkin where he commanded the French forces, headed the construction of “protected villages,” which the French later named agrovilles. By constructing quasi-urban amenities, the French designed the agrovilles to attract peasants away from their normal hardships. This policy is known as "pacification by prosperity." In addition to offering social and economic advantages, the French also secured the villages and encouraged villagers to develop their own militias, which the French trained and armed. “Pacification by Prosperity” had some success, but it was never decisive, because the peasant settlers felt insecure, a feeling which the numerous French guard posts along the perimeter could do little to dispel so long as the Viet Minh operated at night, anonymously, and held all village authorities in the same state of dread as ever.
Between 1952 and 1954, French officials transplanted approximately 3 million Vietnamese into agrovilles, but the funding required was high. In order to help offset the cost, the French relied partially on American financial support, which was "one of the earliest objects of American aid to France after the outbreak of the Korean War." According to a private Vietnamese source, the U.S. spent about "200,000 dollars on the 'show' agroville at Dong Quan." After visiting the villages of Khoi Loc in Quang Yen Province and Dong Quan in Ha Dong Province, noted Vietnam War correspondent Bernard Fall stated that, "the French strategic hamlets resembled British [Malayan] prototypes line for line." Though, in contrast to the British, the French were reluctant to grant Vietnam its independence, or allow the Vietnamese a voice in government affairs; therefore, the French agroville programme had little effect.
The First Indochina War terminated and the Geneva Conference (1954) partitioned Vietnam into communist (north) and non-communist (south) parts and the terms North Vietnam and South Vietnam became the common usage.
Starting around 1954, Viet Minh sympathizers in the South were subject to escalating repression by the new Saigon government. By December 1960 the National Liberation Front of Southern Vietnam had been formed and rapidly achieved de facto control over large sections of the South Vietnamese countryside. At the time, it is believed that there were approximately 10,000 Communist insurgents throughout South Vietnam.
In February 1959, recognizing the danger that the guerrillas posed if they had the support of the peasants, President Diem and his brother, Ngo Dinh Nhu made a first attempt of resettlement. A plan was put forth to develop centers of agglomeration. Through direct force and/or incentives, peasants in rural communities were separated and relocated. The primary goal of the centers was to concentrate the villagers, so they were not able to provide aid, comfort, and information to the Viet Cong.
The Government of Vietnam (GVN) developed two types of centers of agglomeration.
- The first type, qui khu, relocated Viet Cong (VC) families, people with relatives in North Vietnam, or people who had been associated with the Viet Minh into new villages; thus, providing easier government surveillance.
- The second type of relocation center, qui ap, relocated families that supported the South Vietnamese government into new villages that lived outside the realm of government protection and were susceptible to Viet Cong attacks.
By 1960, there were twenty-three of these centers, each consisting of many thousands of people.
This mass resettlement created a strong backlash from peasants and forced the central government to rethink its strategy. A report put out by the Caravelle group, consisting of eighteen signers, leaders of the Cao Dai and Hoa Hao sects, the Dai Viet, and dissenting Catholic groups described the situation as follows:
Tens of thousands of people are being mobilized… to take up a life in collectivity, to construct beautiful but useless agrovilles which tire the people, lose their affection, increase their resentment and most of all give an additional terrain for propaganda to the enemy.
In late 1961, President Kennedy sent Roger Hilsman, then director of the State Department's Bureau of Intelligence and Research, to assess the situation in Vietnam. There Hilsman met Sir Robert Thompson, head of the British Advisory Mission to South Vietnam (BRIAM). Thompson was a veteran of the Malayan counter-insurgency effort and a counter-insurgency advisor to the Diem government. Thompson shared his revised system of resettlement and population security, a system he proposed to Diem later in the year and that would eventually become the Strategic Hamlet Programme. The programme was implemented on the American side by CIA operative (and later CIA director) William Colby.
In Vietnam, strategic hamlets would consist of villages consolidated and reshaped to create a defensible perimeter. Relocation was to be minimal. The peasants themselves would be given weapons and trained in self-defense. Moreover, the strategic hamlets would not be isolated; instead, they would function as a network. The first hamlets would be placed in secure areas, free of the enemy; new hamlets would then be added slowly to create a secure, expanding frontier in what was known as the "oil blot" principle. But, Thompson said, it was important that the strategic hamlets provide more than just physical security. The hamlets should be used as an administrative tool to institute reforms and to improve the peasants’ lives economically, politically, socially, and culturally.
This would strengthen the tie between the peasants and the central government. Hilsman later summarized this theory of the Strategic Hamlet Program in a policy document entitled "A Strategic Concept for South Vietnam", which President Kennedy read and endorsed.
President Diem also liked the idea of Strategic Hamlets. In an April 1962 speech, he outlined his hopes for the Program:
... strategic hamlets represented the basic elements in the war undertaken by our people against our three enemies: communism, discord, and underdevelopment. In this concept they also represent foundation of the Vietnamese society where values are reassessed according the personalist revolution where social, cultural, and economic reform will improve the living conditions of the large working class down to the remotest village.
Although many people in both the U.S. government and the government of South Vietnam (GVN) agreed that the Strategic Hamlet Program was strong in theory, its actual implementation, beginning in early 1962, was criticized on several grounds. Roger Hilsman himself later claimed that the GVN's execution of program constituted a "total misunderstanding of what the [Strategic Hamlet] program should try to do."
The speed of the implementation of the Program is important to note, as it is one of the main causes for its eventual failure. The Pentagon Papers reported that in September 1962, 4.3 million people were housed in 3,225 completed hamlets with more than two thousand still under construction. By July 1963, over eight and a half million people had been settled in 7,205 hamlets according to figures given by the Vietnam Press. In less than a year, both the number of completed hamlets and its population had doubled. Given this rapid rate of construction, the GVN was unable to fully support or protect the hamlets or its residents, despite the immense funding by the United States government. Vietcong insurgents easily sabotaged and overran the poorly defended communities, gaining much sought access to the South Vietnamese peasants. It is estimated that only twenty percent of the hamlets in the Mekong Delta area were controlled by the GVN by the end of 1963. In an interview, a resident of a hamlet in Vinh-Long described the situation: "It is dangerous in my village because the civil guard from the district headquarters cross the river to the village only in the daytime…leaving the village unprotected at night. The village people have no protection from the Viet Cong so they will not inform on them to the authorities."
There are several other important problems that the GVN faced in addition to those created by the failure to provide basic social needs for the peasants and over-extension of its resources. One of these was wide public opposition to the Program stemming partly from an aggressive propaganda campaign by the NLF, but also brought about by the inability of the committee to choose safe and agriculturally sound locations for the development of the hamlets. However, according to the Pentagon Papers, the most important source of failure was the inflexible nature of the Ngo family.
In 1962, Nhu began work on the ambitious Strategic Hamlet Program, an attempt to build fortified villages that would provide security for rural Vietnamese. The objective was to lock the Viet Cong out so that they could not operate among the villagers. Colonel Phạm Ngọc Thảo supervised these efforts, and when told that the peasants resented being forcibly removed from their ancestral lands and put into forts they were compelled to build, he advised Nhu it was imperative to build as many hamlets as fast as possible. The Ngôs were unaware Thảo, ostensibly a Catholic, was in fact a communist double agent acting to turn the rural populace against Saigon. Thảo helped to ruin Nhu's scheme by having strategic hamlets built in communist strongholds. This increased the number of communist sympathisers who were placed inside the hamlets and given identification cards. As a result, the Viet Cong were able to more effectively penetrate the villages to access supplies and personnel.
In the best case scenario, restructuring peasant villages to create a defensible perimeter would require the forced relocation of some of the peasants on the outskirts of the existing villages. To ease the burden, those forced to move were supposed to be financially compensated, but they were not always paid by the GVN forces. To make matters worse, their old homes were often burned before their eyes.
President Diem and his brother Nhu, who oversaw the GVN side of the Program, decided—contrary to Hilsman's and Thompson's theory—that in most cases they would relocate entire villages rather than simply restructuring them. This decision led to unnecessary amounts of forced relocation that was deeply unpopular among the peasantry. The mostly-Buddhist peasantry practiced ancestor worship, an important part of their religion that was disrupted by being forced out of their villages and away from their ancestors' graves. Some who resisted the resettlement were summarily executed by GVN forces.
As stated previously, promised compensation for resettled peasants was not always forthcoming and instead found its way in the pockets of GVN officials. Peasants were also promised money in exchange for working to build the new villages and fortifications; once again some corrupt officials kept the money for themselves. Wealthier peasants sometimes bribed their way out of working on the construction, leaving more labor for the poorer peasants. Although the U.S. provided materials like sheet metal and barbed wire, corrupt officials would force the locals to "buy" the materials intended to provide them with protection.
Perhaps the greatest shortcoming of the Strategic Hamlet Program as implemented on the ground was its failure to provide the basic security envisioned by its proponents. This failure was partly due to poor placement of the hamlets. Ignoring the "oil-blot" principle (establish first in secure areas, then spread out), the GVN began building strategic hamlets as fast as possible and seemingly without considering "geographical priorities," according to a U.S. official. The randomly placed hamlets were isolated, not mutually supporting, and tempting targets for the Vietcong.
Each hamlet was given a radio with which to call for ARVN support, but in fact ARVN forces were unreliable in responding to calls for help, especially when attacks occurred after nightfall. The villagers were also given weapons and training, but were only expected to hold out until conventional reinforcements arrived. Once it became clear those forces could not be relied upon, many villagers proved unwilling to fight even small Vietcong detachments, which could then capture the villagers' weapons. "Why should we die for weapons?" asked one Vietnamese peasant.
Despite the Diem regime's attempt to put a positive spin on its execution of the Strategic Hamlet Program, by mid-1963 it was becoming clear to many that the Program was failing. American military advisors like John Paul Vann started criticizing the Program in their official reports. They also began expressing their concerns to reporters who began to investigate more closely. David Halberstam's coverage of the Program's shortcomings even caught the eye of President Kennedy.
The Strategic Hamlet Program was exposed as an almost complete failure in the aftermath of the November 1, 1963 coup that left Diem and his brother Nhu murdered. US officials discovered, for example, that only 20% of the 8600 hamlets that the Diem regime had reported "Complete" met the minimum American standards of security and readiness. The situation had passed the point of possible recovery. The program officially ended in 1964.
On the ground in Vietnam, the demise of the program was much easier to see. By the end of 1963, empty hamlets lined country roads, stripped of valuable metal by the Vietcong and the fleeing peasants. According to Neil Sheehan, "The rows of roofless houses looked like villages of play huts that children had erected and then whimsically abandoned."
In his book Vietnam: a History (Viking,1983) Stanley Karnow describes his observations:
- In the last week of November . . I drove south from Saigon into Long An, a province in the Mekon Delta, the rice basket of South Vietnam where 40 per cent of the population lived.
- There I found the strategic hamlet program begun during the Diem regime in shambles.
- At a place called Hoa Phu, the strategic hamlet built during the previous summer now looked like it had been hit by a hurricane. The barbed wire fence around the enclosure had been ripped apart, the watchtowers were demolished and only a few of its original thousand residents remained, sheltered in lean-tos... A local guard explained to me that a handful of Vietcong agents had entered the hamlet one night and told the peasants to tear it down and return to their native villages. The peasants complied...
- From the start, in Hoa Phu and elsewhere, they had hated the strategic hamlets, many of which they had been forced to construct by corrupt officials who had pocketed a percentage of the money allocated for the projects. Besides, there were virtually no government troops in the sector to keep them from leaving. If the war was a battle for "hearts and minds,"...the United States and its South Vietnamese clients had certainly lost Long An.
- My cursory impression, I later discovered, was confirmed in a more extensive survey conducted by Earl Young, the senior U. S. representative in the province. He reported in early December that three quarters of the two hundred strategic hamlets in Long An had been destroyed since the summer, either by the Vietcong or by their own occupants, or by a combination of both.
Years later Roger Hilsman stated his belief that the strategic hamlet concept was executed so poorly by the Diem regime and the GVN "that it was useless."
- Population transfer
- Phạm Ngọc Thảo
- Briggs Plan
- New Village
- Operation Ranch Hand
- Tucker, Spencer, The Encyclopedia of the Vietnam War: A Political, Social, and Military History, ABC-CLIO, 2011, p. 1070.
- Vietnam Center and Archive, Texas Tech University; 2002_Symposium Paper | http://www.vietnam.ttu.edu/events/2002_Symposium/2002Papers_files/peoples.php
- The Encyclopedia of the Vietnam War: A Political, Social, and Military ... edited by Spencer C. Tucker : Dong Quan Pacification Project : 1953 (Google_books extract)>| http://books.google.com.au/books?id=qh5lffww-KsC&pg=PA307&lpg=PA307&dq=dong+quan+Pacification+Project&source=bl&ots=jBI-H6yxSA&sig=zqaqzPlKmrWACMFDlTpHOIPVjNE&hl=en&sa=X&ei=PtPVUrjlM8aZiAfW14GwBg&ved=0CC0Q6AEwAA#v=onepage&q=dong%20quan%20Pacification%20Project&f=false
- Zasloff, J.J. "Rural Resettlements in South Vietnam: The Agroville Programme", Pacific Affairs, Vol. XXXV, No. 4, Winter 1962-1963, p. 332.
- Osborne, Milton E. Strategic Hamlets in South Viet-nam: A Survey and Comparison, Ithaca, NY: Cornell University, 1965, p. 25.
- Wikipedia article the Caravelle Manifesto
- Carl Colby (director) (September 2011). The Man Nobody Knew: In Search of My Father, CIA Spymaster William Colby (Motion picture). New York City: Act 4 Entertainment. Retrieved 2011.
- Hilsman, Roger, To Move a Nation, New York: Doubleday and Company, 1967, pp. 427-438; The Pentagon Papers: Senator Gravel Edition, 5 vols. Boston: Beacon Press, 1971, 2:139ff; Thompson, Robert, No Exit From Vietnam, London: Chatto & Windus, 1969.
- Osborne, Milton E. Strategic Hamlets in South Viet-nam: A Survey and Comparison. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University, 1965, p. 28.
- Hilsman, Roger, To Move a Nation, p. 440.
- "The Pentagon Papers v.2". Gravel ed. Boston, MA: Beacon Press. p. 151.
- Osborne, Milton E. Strategic Hamlets in South Viet-nam: A Survey and Comparison, p. 33.
- Osborne, Milton E. Strategic Hamlets in South Viet-nam: A Survey and Comparison, p. 38.
- Osborne, Milton E. Strategic Hamlets in South Viet-nam: A Survey and Comparison, p. 6.
- Osborne, Milton E. Strategic Hamlets in South Viet-nam: A Survey and Comparison, p. 25.
- "The Pentagon Papers v.2." Gravel ed. Boston, MA: Beacon Press, p. 158.
- Pentagon Papers, 2:149; Sully, Francois, "South Vietnam: New Strategy", Newsweek (9 April 1962), pp. 45-46.
- Sheehan, Neil, A Bright Shining Lie: John Paul Vann and America in Vietnam, New York: Random House, 1988, pp. 309-310; Castan, Sam, "Vietnam’s Two Wars", Look (28 Jan. 1964), pp. 32-36; Kuno Knoebl, Victor Charlie, New York: Frederick A. Praegar Publishers, 1967, p. 257.
- Sheehan, Neil, Bright Shining Lie, p. 310.
- Foreign Relations of the United States: 1961-1963: Vietnam, 4 vols. (Washington D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1991), 2:429; Hilsman, Roger, To Move a Nation, p. 441.
- Foreign Relations, 4:688; Castan, "Vietnam’s Two Wars", p. 35; Knoebl, Victor Charlie, p. 261.
- Newman, John M., JFK and Vietnam: Deception, Intrigue, and the Struggle for Power, New York: Time Warner Books, 1992, pp. 316-330; Halberstam, David, "Rift With Vietnam on Strategy Underlined by 2 Red Attacks", New York Times (16 Sept. 1963), p. 2; Halberstam, David, "Vietnamese Reds Gain in Key Area", New York Times (15 Aug. 1963), 1; Foreign Relations, 4:237.
- Hilsman, Roger, To Move a Nation, pp. 522-523; Foreign Relations, 4:687, 4:715; Sheehan, Neil, Bright Shining Lie, p. 365.
- Vietnam: A History –Stanley Karnow Penguin Books, 1997 — Chapter 9 The Commitments Deepen pp.335,336 (first published: Viking, 1983) | http://www.polsci.wvu.edu/faculty/hauser/ps493origins/ps493vietnam/karnowvietnamhistory.pdf
- Episode 11: Vietnam, "An interview with Roger Hilsman," from the National Security Archive.