1961 - Strategic Hamlets
The heart of the insurgency problem is found in the Vietnamese majority itself. The most significant prize of the present conflict is the support and control of the ethnic Viethamese rural lowland population, who lived in villages [xa], each comprised of several hamlets [ap]. Although there had been social changes forced by war, there was a continuity of the customs, habits, and world-view common to the traditional village life over several centuries.
In general, the term "Hamlet" designates a geographical and administrative sub-unit of a village. By one account, there were 16,398 hamlets in Vietnam (as compared with more than 3,000 villages). The hamlets ranged in population fromfour persons to almost 17,000. Fifty percent of them had less than 500 inhabitants and 77 had more than 5,000. As of May 1962 the goal was to establish 12,000 strategic hamlets throughout the country in six months, that is, to convert about three-quarters of the total number of hamlets.
The modern practice of counterinsurgency was developed during the Vietnam War, first by the French, who carried these practices from Southeast Asia to North Africa, and then by the Americans, who reinvented everything already known by the French. French agrovilles became "strategic hamlets". The program of fortifying villages to separate the peasants from the insurgents emulated a model the British used successfully in Malaya in the 1950s. The objective of the "strategic hamlet" program was to consolidate governmental authority in pacified areas through a defense system and administrative reorganization at the hamlet level. The strategic hamlet program sought to weed out local conspirators vital to the perpetuation of Vietcong efforts.
Strategic Hamlets were communities in which the Viet Cong infrastructure would be eliminated. In the Delta area, this was done by creating completely new con11uunities. The hamlets would be fortified and guarded by local self-defense forces and perhaps government troops to prevent reinfection. In each hamlet, the military basis of the system comprises a Self-Defense Corps (SDC) unit that may number anywhere from five to twelve men, an auxiliary warning and/or guard force composed of members of the Republican Youth, and more or less extensive fortifications. In addition, the program involves the political and social organization of the inhabitants in a way that permits close surveillance of their political activities, of their social participation in such government-controlled mass movements as the Republican Youth, and of their contribution to labor projects for community development.
At first the enhanced mobility and firepower afforded the South Vietnamese Army by helicopters, armored personnel carriers, and close air support surprised and overwhelmed the Viet Cong. Saigon's forces reacted more quickly to insurgent attacks and penetrated many Viet Cong areas. Even more threatening to the insurgents was Diem's strategic hamlet program, launched in late 1961. The "strategic hamlet" is a key concept in the rural pacification program known as "Operation Sunrise". Planning and cadre training for Operation Sunrise began in August 1961 and actual construction of strategic hamlets soon followed.
Diem and his brother Ngo Dinh Nhu, an ardent sponsor of the program, hoped to create thousands of new, fortified villages, often by moving peasants from their existing homes. Hamlet construction and defense were the responsibility of the new residents, with paramilitary and ARVN forces providing initial security while the peasants were recruited and organized. As security improved, Diem and Nhu hoped to enact social, economic, and political reforms which, when fully carried out, would constitute Saigon's revolutionary response to Viet Cong promises of social and economic betterment. If successful, the program might destroy the insurgency by separating and protecting the rural population from the Viet Cong, threatening the rebellion's base of support.
By early 1963, however, the Viet Cong had learned to cope with the army's new weapons and more aggressive tactics and had begun a campaign to eliminate the strategic hamlets. The insurgents became adept at countering helicopters and slow-flying aircraft and learned the vulnerabilities of armored personnel carriers. In addition, their excellent intelligence, combined with the predictability of ARVN's tactics and pattern of operations, enabled the Viet Cong to evade or ambush government forces. The new weapons the United States had provided the South Vietnamese did not compensate for the stifling influence of poor leadership, dubious tactics, and inexperience. The much publicized defeat of government forces at the Delta village of Ap Bac in January 1963 demonstrated both the Viet Cong's skill in countering ARVN's new capabilities and the latter's inherent weaknesses. Faulty intelligence, poorly planned and executed fire support, and overcautious leadership contributed to the outcome. But Ap Bac's significance transcended a single battle. The defeat was a portent of things to come. Now able to challenge ARVN units of equal strength in quasi-conventional battles, the Viet Cong were moving into a more intense stage of revolutionary war.
As the Viet Cong became stronger and bolder, the South Vietnamese Army became more cautious and less offensive-minded. Government forces became reluctant to respond to Viet Cong depredations in the countryside, avoided night operations, and resorted to ponderous sweeps against vague military objectives, rarely making contact with their enemies. Meanwhile, the Viet Cong concentrated on destroying strategic hamlets, showing that they considered the settlements, rather than ARVN forces, the greater danger to the insurgency. Poorly defended hamlets and outposts were overrun or subverted by enemy agents who infiltrated with peasants arriving from the countryside.
The Viet Cong's campaign was aided by Saigon's failures. The government built too many hamlets to defend. Hamlet militia varied from those who were poorly trained and armed to those who were not trained or armed at all. Fearing that weapons given to the militia would fall to the Viet Cong, local officials often withheld arms. Forced relocation, use of forced peasant labor to construct hamlets, and tardy payment of compensation for relocation were but a few reasons why peasants turned against the program. Few meaningful reforms took place. Accurate information on the program's true condition and on the decline in rural security was hidden from Diem by officials eager to please him with reports of progress. False statistics and reports misled U.S. officials, too, about the progress of the counterinsurgency effort.
The South Vietnamese improved spectacularly in 1962 because the national government installed a large number of dynamic leaders into key command slots. South Vietnamese forces were more active in patrolling, they operated more often at night, and they collected intelligence more effectively. Some of the best South Vietnamese leaders were assigned to the strategic hamlet program, and the hamlets drew heavily on local manpower, giving them the natural advantages in intelligence collection enjoyed by indigenous forces. The strategic hamlets included public works programs, but the most important reason for their success was the vigor and skill of their personnel in organizing the population and fending off the enemy.
On 01 November 1963, with American encouragement, a group of reform-minded generals ousted Diem, who was murdered along with his brother. The critical state of rural security that came to light after Diem's death again prompted the United States to expand its military aid to Saigon. General Harkins and his successor General William C. Westmoreland urgently strove to revitalize pacification and counterinsurgency. Army advisers helped their Vietnamese counterparts to revise national and provincial pacification plans. They retained the concept of fortified hamlets as the heart of a new national counterinsurgency program, but corrected the old abuses, at least in theory.
Poorly defended hamlets and outposts were overrun or subverted by enemy agents who infiltrated with peasants arriving from the countryside. The Viet Cong's campaign profited from the government's failures. The government built too many hamlets to defend and scattered them around the countryside, often outside of range for mutual support. Hamlet militia varied from those who were poorly trained and armed to those who were not trained or armed at all. Fearing that weapons given to the militia would fall to the Viet Cong, local officials often withheld arms. Forced relocation, use of forced peasant labor to construct hamlets, and tardy payment of compensation for relocation were but a few reasons why peasants turned against the program. Few meaningful reforms took place. Accurate information on the program's true condition and on the decline in rural security was hidden from Diem by officials eager to please him with reports of progress. False statistics and reports misled U.S. officials, too, about the progress of the counterinsurgency effort.
The Strategic Hamlet Program could claim some successes in Vietnam, and it survived to a degree under the name Revolutionary Development. The program affected nearly one-third of South Vietnam's 14,000 hamlets; but when the government abandoned it in early 1964, only a small percentage of the hamlets remained in friendly hands. Diem's over-ambitious program created too many such hamlets, widely scattered and often indefensible, thus dooming the initiative to failure. The Viet Cong concentrated on destroying strategic hamlets, showing that they considered the settlements, rather than the South Vietnamese Army, the greater danger to the insurgency.
There were two specific reasons for the failure of this program. The first was the forced removal of peasants from their ancestral lands and family graves. The second was the rapidity of the implementation of the Strategic Hamlet Program, in an attempt to prove to the Americans the viability of the program. Proof was required for continued flow of United States dollars and support.
After Diem was assassinated the program became the New Life Hamlet Program. The major difference from the previous program was that the villagers remained in their ancestral villages with a trained cadre of Popular Forces (PFS) and the Army of the Republic of Vietnam Forces (ARVN) as their protection. Since the PFS were neither sufficiently armed nor adequately trained, and the ARVN forces were in constant movement, the people were deprived of local security. The only way to increase security would be to clear and hold. Clear the vicinity of VC, and hold the area so the VC could not rebuild a viable support apparatus.
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