This paper is based upon a book I am writing about the Phoenix Program and the war against the Viet Cong Infrastructure for the Naval Institute Press, titled Phoenix and Birds of Prey. It is scheduled to appear in early 1997. I first became interested in the issue of villager attitudes while an undergraduate at Harvard University. A prominent Vietnamese professor who knew of my interest in the attack on the Viet Cong Infrastructure suggested that I investigate the extent to which this undertaking alienated the South Vietnamese villagers. Quite possibly, the professor said, its abuses made the rural population unwilling to cooperate with the GVN, and thus prevented the Saigon regime from building the support it needed to fight the North Vietnamese. After I began looking into the matter, I realized that I had come upon a subject crucial to the history of the Vietnam War, and one which no historians had explored properly.
The opinions of the South Vietnamese peasants during the early 1960s have been documented and studied much more thoroughly than those during subsequent years. In an earlier chapter of my book, I analyze the earlier years. I shall recapitulate that interpretation briefly, for it differs significantly from other interpretations and it helps explain later developments. The Viet Cong, I argue, succeeded in obtaining the approval and cooperation of most villagers in many South Vietnamese hamlets between 1960 and 1965. The Viet Cong political cadres helped win the favor of numerous villagers by offering them land and other material benefits, and by promising to eliminate landlords and Government officials, who treated the villagers much worse than the VC normally did. Displays of VC strength and the outstanding leadership and propaganda skills of the cadres helped convince many villagers to follow the Communists. Few villagers sided with the Viet Cong because of political ideologies, such as nationalism or communism. Once villagers joined the VC on a full- time basis, the Communist Party employed additional methods to maintain their loyalty.
In 1965, the attitudes began to change. The villagers began to think less highly of the VC and more highly of the GVN. Yet most Americans did not perceive this change, then or since, and thought that the attitudes of the villagers remained more or less the same. Some believed that the rural populace looked on the VC even more favorably than before. Of these, many thought that destructive Allied military operations in the populated areas, particularly those involving heavy firepower, made villagers more sympathetic to the VC. They reasoned that the villagers blamed the Allies for killing their relatives and neighbors because Allied weapons had inflicted the damage. Some also asserted that harsh or indiscriminate aspects of the Phoenix program had made the people hostile towards the Government of Vietnam in the war's later years. The many idealists among them imagined that the Vietnamese were akin to American heroes, who cherished their political ideals so much that they would not abandon their commitment when confronted by force. A different group of commentators claimed that the VC had become less popular, but that apathy, at best, characterized the prevailing mood towards the GVN. All of these groups believed that the vast bulk of the peasants did not support the Government actively during the war's last decade. Few sought to examine the issue in any serious fashion. Many erred in relying too heavily on evidence from the war's earlier years because it was more plentiful and more accessible. Others based their judgments primarily on the testimony of American soldiers, who regularly sensed an air of hostility in the hamlets; they failed to recognize that the Americans usually operated in the hamlets most likely to support the VC, and that unfriendliness towards the Americans did not necessarily mean sympathy for the VC. Many, moreover, were partisans of the American antiwar movement and had a reason to downplay or ignore shifts in the villagers' moods. They believed or wanted to believe that the attitudes of the earlier period persisted, for one of their main objections to the war was that America's enemy supposedly enjoyed far greater popularity than her ally.
The conditions of village life changed radically in much of Vietnam between 1965 and 1972, and they altered the villagers' outlook on the war immensely. The introduction of American troops led to the most obvious and significant change in village life, a much higher level of violence than before, though this violence decreased after 1968. Many villagers watched Allied forces try to annihilate Communist forces in their hamlets with machine guns, rockets, napalm, and other heavy weapons. In the process, the Allies' fire often destroyed their relatives and their property. The damage changed not just in magnitude, however but in purpose as well. Earlier injury to the populace had consisted of such events as the Government territorial forces beating up or arresting a few local boys, or ARVN (Army of the Republic of Vietnam) soldiers raping village women and stealing chickens. Such acts showed villagers that the Government targeted them and not the VC, for in many cases no Viet Cong were, in fact, present in the hamlet at the time. Allied uses of violence in the subsequent era were aimed primarily at Communist soldiers inside the hamlets, not at the hamlet residents, a fact the villagers appreciated.
Contrary to the expectations of many Americans, the escalating violence of the village war did not turn the villagers against the GVN or endear them to the VC. When powerful Allied attacks commenced in the VC-dominated villages, the populace's willingness to cooperate with the VC usually dropped off rapidly. A former district-level VC cadre recalled how he and the other cadres appraised the situation after high-intensity warfare arrived in their area: "All of us agreed that the people were then very tired of the war and that they were also very afraid of it. That is why all the policies of the Front have run into difficulties. The amount of tax collected and the number of the conscripted youths diminished noticeably, although the cadres did their best to cope with the situation. The increasing intensity of the war, the intensive and frequent shellings and strafings were considered the real causes of the deterioration of the people's enthusiasm." He said that the Communist Party used the destruction for propaganda purposes both inside and outside Vietnam, but he believed its overall effects devastated to the Party's war effort. "From experience, I realized that the Front is most strong in villages which haven't been shelled and that on the contrary, it weakens there where shellings frequently happened. To wage Front propaganda, to sow hatred against the GVN, Front cadres need quietude. In Long Dinh [district] where shellings have greatly affected the people's welfare, it is very difficult for the cadres to win the villagers' support. It is also very difficult to make the villagers carry out activities which are necessary to the Front to launch its phases of offensive activities. These observations of mine made me thing that the Front is very active and harmful in quiet areas, while it is weakening there where the GVN is active. So, if humanitarian considerations are to be discarded, I will say, as a pure military statement, that shellings really serve the final victory of the GVN."(1) Because the Communist forces repeatedly failed to win tangible victories over Allied forces and because Allied activities made life with the VC harder, service with the VC seemed less attractive to young villagers and the parents who heavily influenced their decisions. Unfulfilled promises of quick victory gave the people further cause to look down on the recruiters of the Viet Cong shadow government. The VC, quite simply, had lost face and taken the people down with them. "In the last four years," said a VC deputy company commander who rallied in February 1968, "the people have listened too much to the VC exaggerated propaganda. They have all become disillusioned now."(2) Many villagers, as events would have it, blamed the VC for the destructive battles in and around the hamlets and resented them for it. Some of the villagers criticized the Allies as well for the attacks. A Communist cadre who rallied at the end of 1966 described the public's mood in his village after a destructive helicopter attack: "Seeing that their homes had been burned down, their possessions destroyed and their family members killed, the people cried and cursed loudly both the Nationalists and the Communists.... the Nationalists brought planes there to attack them, killing people and destroying people's homes. Why didn't the Nationalists let their troops fight? As for the Front, the people ridiculed the VC by saying that they called themselves revolutionaries but they only hid among the people and caused them many sufferings. People got killed because of bombs and bullets which were meant primarily for the VC. If the liberation fighters were so brave why didn't they live outside of the village and save people from having to bear the strafings?"(3) Generally, though, the villagers put the largest share of the blame on the VC. If the Communists kept suffering defeat whenever they came under Allied attack in the hamlets, the villagers reasoned, they were not accomplishing anything but adding to the people's woes. "In 1963 and 1964 the VC held [the] upper hand in my village, but since October 1965, the ARVN troops have been winning," testified a former VC guerrilla platoon leader from Quang Tin province. "If the VC had been able to win some battles the people would support them, but they'd not only failed to fight against the ARVN, they'd also dragged the people into the troubles. Therefore, the people became fed up."(4) A former district-level VC cadre from Binh Dinh province said of Allied shelling, strafing, and bombing, "I thought that the attacks were mostly caused by the presence of Front forces in the hamlets, but from time to time they weren't justified. This was perhaps due to wrong information having been given to GVN forces or to the carelessness of some GVN or American leaders. The villagers only blamed the GVN when the attacks weren't justified. With regard to all the attacks resulting from VC activities, they blamed the Front, sometimes openly."(5)
The evidence also shows, contrary to some opinions, that people who fled their hamlets supported the VC less once they became refugees. The Communists lamented that the abandonment of the hamlets hindered them far more than it helped them, for it made the villagers both less accessible and less cooperative. A former village cadre remarked, "The more that people migrated to the Government areas, the less production workers, corve‚ laborers, and informers the Front had. The Front would no longer have the people to support them and with whom they could mingle to hide. Many young men from the village went to the Nationalist areas, enlisted in the Nationalist army and returned to the village to fight against the Front. This fact demoralized and confused the Front cadres the most."(6) Cao Van Luong of the History Institute in Hanoi told me in 1995, "Millions of people left the countryside for the cities because of the American bombing, which weakened the Communist Party."(7) The Party's responses to the exodus demonstrated that it did not believe many refugees would help the VC. The cadres of the Viet Cong shadow government warned villagers not to leave, and threatened or harassed those who attempted to leave. Their protests seldom succeeded. Villagers sneaked out at night if necessary, or left with Allied troops who came to their hamlets, and they seldom returned to VC areas. A VC defector from Kien Giang province observed, "Most of the villagers had left, so those who remained also wanted to leave. Therefore, the cadres were troubled, [and] they tried to stop the villagers from leaving.... There were no people in the hamlet to work for them. I felt that the cadres were also afraid that those who were disappointed with them might bring the GVN soldiers to the hamlet to capture them."(8) The Communists attacked refugee camps and other GVN areas, usually in vain, in order to abduct refugees or convince them that the Government could not keep them safe. Had many refugees wanted to join the VC, the Communists would not have resorted to such attempts at intimidation because they only would have alienated the potential recruits. Bruno Kosheleff and Stan Jorgensen, after studying Quang Nam province in great detail, wrote in early 1970, "The VC have in the past directed numerous attacks against the refugee camps. Captured documents regarding the 1970 Tet offensive, which never materialized, state that refugee camps were to be a primary target. Harassment and abductions were planned toward the end [of] intimidating refugees and forcing them to desert the camps and return to VC controlled areas. This, of course, tends to corroborate the argument that relocating people and clearing areas has hurt the VC/NVA."(9) The VC suspected that the few refugees who chose to attempt joining them might be Government spies and thus did not entrust them with important tasks.
Refugees who chose to leave because of Allied attacks usually blamed the VC more than the GVN for their troubles, as did the many who left because the VC demanded too much of them. A VC turncoat from Quang Nam province said in 1967, "The villagers began to hate the VC after so many of them were innocently killed and their standard of living became increasingly difficult. In addition, the VC promised to liberate the villagers, but all the villagers saw around them was killing and starvation. They had to go find freedom for themselves and for their families. They started to move out of their native villages in the beginning of 1967."(10) Those forced to leave by Allied troops and those who left because defoliants had destroyed their crops more often than not attributed their misfortunes to both the VC and the GVN. Many of the refugees also disliked the living conditions where they had to live, and would have preferred a return to farming. Most, nevertheless, had no desire to go back to hamlets under VC control-- where conditions usually were even worse-- or to support the VC, who no longer could offer them a good life. The GVN, moreover, could propagandize and compel them to action, which the VC shadow government could not. Most villagers were easily swayed by good leaders and by propaganda, so this circumstance hurt the Viet Cong tremendously. A former Communist cadre explained why most villagers had left his village and few wanted to return as long as the VC controlled the village: "There are two reasons for the villagers leaving the village for GVN areas. The first and basic reason is the people's fear of the bombing and shooting. The people are afraid for their own lives. The second reason is those who left to go to GVN areas met GVN cadres who educated and explained to them what the opportunities of life in both areas are. The villagers could see for themselves that life in GVN areas brings them freedom and comfort, and so, they passed the word on to others. Thus, a movement started, and the families began to leave, one after another."(11)
The large-scale fighting in the villages also began to increase the standing of the GVN in the villagers' eyes. Allied forces usually defeated or drove away the Communists during engagements in or around the hamlets from 1965 onward. The Americans and Koreans fought more aggressively than the Vietnamese had before, and when in the early 1970s the Vietnamese took back control of the main force war, their performance showed notable improvement over that of the early 1960s. The Americans also had bigger and more accurate weapons and used them more carefully, so they hit the Communists much more often than had the ARVN blunderers who had handled heavy weapons previously. These military encounters usually convinced the villagers that the Allies were strong, and the Communists weak. Allied military triumphs, the Allies' wondrous high-tech weapons, and the strong Allied military presence in the countryside impressed the people enormously. As always, the large majority of villagers favored the side that was most likely to win, so the Allies became more attractive in their eyes. The villagers' growing desire for peace and security gave them further reason to support the strong, for their support meant the strong would win and end the violence more quickly. Sheer military force did help the Allies gain the sympathies of the rural population. "Most of the South Vietnamese had a very simple dream," explained Col. Nguyen Van Dai, who for several years was the Commandant of the GVN's National Police Field Forces. "They wanted to have peaceful lives and to not worry about having food. They didn't want to be afraid of someone capturing them or torturing them or killing them. They supported anyone who could bring peace for them."(12) James Trullinger at the time was more sympathetic to the VC than to the GVN, a position he has since reversed. He found, however, the tendency to support the likely winner even in a village with a history of exceptionally strong VC sympathies, a fact which argued against the contentions of most of the VC's American supporters. Trullinger observed that many people tried to placate the Allies and the Communists by helping each "during the extended periods of political uncertainty about local balance of power, but when that balance clearly shifted in favor of one side, there were corresponding shifts among the uncommitted-- and sometimes among the committed, too. Many began to support the side which appeared stronger, sometimes abandoning support for the seemingly weaker side."(13)
The VC's humiliating defeat during the Tet Offensive seriously damaged VC prestige, and hurt the VC's relations with the villagers in other ways. The shadow government demanded major sacrifices of the villagers and told them that its armed forces, in concert with urban uprisings, would topple the GVN. When the uprisings did not occur and the Allies crushed the Communist attackers, many hamlet dwellers lost faith in them. A district- level Communist defector explained, "Before the Tet events, the VC said that they only needed seven days to achieve the revolution. They needed the support of the population; they collected very heavy contributions arguing that they needed the contributions to bring about peace and prosperity; but after the anticipated seven days they said that this was only a first stage, the first wave. When the second stage came on the 7th of May (1968) they said there was then an almost complete destruction of the enemy, to step up to the third stage which would be in August, 1968, and which was also to be the final stage; but, as a matter of fact, there has been no final stage at all.... These facts have accounted for the cadres' and the general population's losing confidence in the success of the revolution by the Front."(14) The Communists also offended numerous peasants by launching the assaults during the sacred Tet holiday. In his monthly report for February 1968, the senior American adviser in Tay Ninh province wrote, "The change in the attitude of the people during the past month has been dramatic. Many segments that earlier could be described as neutralist or, at best, lacking in full support to the government have now moved into the government camp. The basic cause of this change has been the viciousness of the Viet Cong attack throughout the nation combined with the unsuccessful Viet Cong actions within the province. The fact that the Viet Cong violated the Tet holidays, violated the 'sanctuary' of the area around the Cao Dai temple, and suffered defeats every time they met the GVN/FWMF forces within the province have all contributed to this change in attitude."(15)
Villagers also lost their enthusiasm for the Viet Cong because the level of prosperity in hamlets where the VC had substantial influence began to fall in 1965. Allied heavy weapons and defoliants destroyed crops, and Allied forces confiscated or destroyed rice and farm animals. Loss of family members to the VC and GVN drafts and to Allied firepower reduced the labor supply, and in some cases farmers stopped working when military operations in their area began or appeared imminent. The Viet Cong cadres decreased the villagers' income further by raising taxes and forcing the villagers to perform tasks for them more often. A VC soldier captured in Quang Ngai province during 1967, when asked the most important reason that the villagers had turned against the VC, gave a typical response: "The fact that they had to work for the VC and neglect their work. Because the people could no longer work for themselves, they didn't have the means of subsistence and had to starve and suffer."(16)
Communist coercion also injured and angered many villagers. As their position in the village war became more and more desperate, the Communists used threats and force increasingly often against the villagers. Because the villagers had become less cooperative while the VC simultaneously suffered from scarcities of the hamlets' resources, the shadow government more often had to conscript villagers for military or other purposes and take money or goods without asking. Attempts to threaten, abduct, torture, or kill villagers and GVN officials who got in the VC's way rose in frequency. Less discriminate forms of force turned the people against the VC even more. Killings of GVN sympathizers and people who worked for the GVN in jobs not directly related to the war increased considerably. In rural areas where most of the population supported the GVN, and where the VC as a consequence had little hope of gaining the sympathies of the villagers, the Communists frequently tried to overrun and slaughter the territorial forces, the hamlet and village officials, and their families. They wanted to discourage stout anti-Communism and eliminate hamlets that gave the GVN manpower, food, and intelligence. "I couldn't count the number of cases where the little triangular forts of the Popular Forces were wiped out by Communist main force units," said Brig. Gen. James Herbert, who spent most of the 1960s and early 1970s in Vietnam, primarily as a pacification adviser. "The Communists killed all the soldiers and their families. It happened all over the country."(17)
Because so many villagers sought shelter in areas under secure GVN control where they could not help the Communists, the Communists tried to show that villagers could not find a safer life when they moved into GVN areas. They routinely launched mortar attacks into these areas, set off bombs in markets there, mined the roads where these civilians traversed, and committed other terrorist acts that served no direct military purpose. Statistics indicate that from 1968 to 1972, roughly thirty thousand civilians a year went to GVN hospitals with injuries from mines and mortars, weapons with which only the Communists could have harmed civilians. Those with mine and mortar wounds, in fact, greatly exceeded in number those wounded by Allied shelling and bombing.(18) The statistics may not be very accurate, for the hospitals often found it difficult to determine the origin of a wound. Many of the victims, moreover, were urban, not rural, civilians. American doctors, nurses, and advisers nonetheless confirmed that mines and mortars inflicted a very large number of casualties on the Vietnamese villagers, which at times exceeded the number from Allied heavy weaponry. The Communists also tried to draw fire on GVN-controlled hamlets, with some success, by shooting at Allied troops from within them and then bolting off. Slaughter on an even large scale occurred periodically. From time to time, the Communists razed entire hamlets and killed all the inhabitants. John Peterkin, a black veteran of the Korean War who had his doubts about the US war effort, witnessed such slaughter as a District Senior Adviser in Phong Dinh province. The Communists, said Peterkin, "would attack small hamlets at night. They'd just kill, wantonly kill." He described arriving at one hamlet the morning after the North Vietnamese Army (NVA) came in. "A hand here, a leg there. Mothers shot up. It was like a massacre. They killed everyone in the hamlet, except a few who escaped. They did it because there was an outpost there."(19)
Violence against GVN supporters and inhabitants of GVN areas in general did not occur every day in most provinces and seldom occurred at all in some. The annihilation of outposts or hamlets required forces larger than the Communists usually could gather in many places, so the Communists could not and did not conduct such operations on a regular basis. The number of incidents, nevertheless, was still fairly large. Some commentators have argued that even small doses of Communist terrorism paralyzed the village populations, but the history of both the VC and the GVN during their times of strength contradict this assertion. The villagers strongly resented the Communist atrocities in the late 1960s and the 1970s. This sort of killing did not target the enemy, nor did it come in response to enemy provocation, and it failed to change the balance of power. Many who suffered from such misdeeds became devout anti-Communist crusaders, just as many victims of GVN mistreatment in the late 1950s and early 1960s became enthusiastic members of the VC. The Communists undoubtedly appreciated this reality to some extent, which explains in part why they did not use terrorism more often than they did. Contrary to the oft-heard assertion that the Government needed to "protect the population," the GVN only had to protect its leaders and active supporters, and prevent large numbers of enemy cadres from operating overtly among the rest of the population.
The decline of the Viet Cong shadow government, which accelerated in the aftermath of the Tet Offensive, caused more and more problems for the Communist political cause as time went on. The expulsion of the VC political cadres from their areas of operation in the mid- and late 1960s and their declining ability to visit the hamlets, combined with the stronger GVN presence in the hamlets, altered the political landscape tremendously. This change decreased not only the shadow government's ability to take things from the people, but also the willingness of the people to hand those things over. During the VC's heyday in the early 1960s, many cadres had lived in hamlets or visited them frequently. The VC cadres had endeared themselves to the majority of people in many places. They had helped the villagers with their work, treated them kindly, given land to many of them, driven away abusive Government officials and soldiers, and convinced them through propaganda of the VC's superiority. When the members of the shadow government no longer lived in or came very often to the hamlets, they did not have time to help the villagers. They had no more land to give out, and memories of their land distribution were fading. They lacked the power to keep GVN personnel out of the hamlets, and they could not propagandize the people as often as their enemies could. A VC teacher arrested in January 1967 explained, "In the beginning, the villagers liked and appreciated the Front cadres much more than they did later on. After a while, [e]specially recently, since the war in our area has intensified, the people drifted further and further away from the cadres, and vice-versa.... The cadres had their own life to take care of-- since they too were not immune from the bombs and shells-- so the cadres had to neglect their duties towards the villagers.... The villagers, being forgotten, became indifferent to the cadres, and the cadres, being concerned with their own survival, no longer had time for the villagers."(20)
Because the number of South Vietnamese Communists dwindled to a small fraction of previous strength by 1970 and these people visited the hamlets less often, the VC no longer could rely so much on fostering local support through cadres and soldiers native to a locality. The North Vietnamese were taking a much more prominent role in the Communist war effort than before, and the Southern villagers disliked them. Brig. Gen. Stuart Herrington, at the time a junior officer and an adviser to the Vietnamese in Hau Nghia province, recalled, "In Tan My village, the Vietcong appointed a new village secretary and charged him with responsibility for rebuilding the village organization. The new man was given a squad of North Vietnamese soldiers to perform the security tasks normally done by village guerrillas-- a measure that underscored the depth of the revolution's problem in Tan My. The new village secretary was not a Tan My native, and the use of northern troops in the village was bound to alienate the people."(21)
For the South Vietnamese peasant, life was much better in hamlets where the Government had all or most of the political power than in VC-dominated hamlets. People normally obtained a substantially larger amount of wealth in the GVN hamlets than in VC or hotly-contested areas, with which they invested or bought a variety of personal goods. US aid programs brought money, technologically advanced equipment, superior agricultural supplies such as "miracle rice" seeds, and other useful commodities to these areas. Many men who worked for the Government also could spend some of their time helping their families in farming and other economic activities. Rice production increased from 4.3 metric tons in the 1966-1967 crop year to 6.1 million metric tons in 1971-1972.(22) Improved Allied security reduced the ability of the Communists to inflict large- scale destruction on development projects and allowed the villagers' greater freedom of travel, increasing their ability to take their products to markets. American aid also improved public facilities, utilities, and roads. Le Thi Anh, a writer who opposed both the Thieu regime and the Communists, described the Mekong Delta in the early 1970s: "In the countryside... everybody had a motorized sampan [rivercraft]. Everybody was well-dressed and had radios and sewing machines. Everybody was well fed, happy and prosperous.... The rural areas especially enjoyed great benefits from the American presence. Telephones, new roads and bridge-- we never had those kinds of things before."(23) Some areas of South Vietnam did not always match this description, particularly in the northern provinces, but a great many did. During the last year of the war, the South Vietnamese economy experienced a sharp downturn. Many people, in some urban areas and a few rural areas, barely had enough to eat, and in a few cities people starved. The crisis, however, was not severe enough to change the political situation in the countryside dramatically.
An important reason for the health of the rural economy, and itself a very important political development, was an aggressive GVN land reform campaign that increased the income of hundreds of thousands of farming families. During the early 1960s, Diem's ineffectual land reform efforts had come to a halt, and land reform remained a non-issue during the years immediately after his fall because both the Americans and the South Vietnamese feared land reform would destabilize further a ruling class already in turmoil. The fighting had forced the abandonment of some lands in the late 1960s, but a very large number of hectares remained in the hands of landlords who rented the land to tenants or hired laborers to till it, and who did not wish to part with their holdings. Although the tempest of war had torn asunder much of the village world, many landless villagers still considered land ownership a crucial issue.(24) In 1968, Thieu finally revived GVN land reform efforts. Early that year he began distributing Government-owned land to thousands of families. In February 1969 he passed a law allowing farmers to maintain their rents or land holdings for a year, so that landlords could not repossess land or raise rents when Allied forces supplanted the VC in a hamlet. Villagers in these hamlets no longer would have to fear immediate economic losses when Allied forces took over and thus would have less cause to resist the Allies. During 1969 GVN officials usually did let VC-installed farmers keep their land, but in some cases they did not prevent landlords from raising rents.
In March 1970, President Thieu enacted the momentous "Land to the Tiller" law. To all tenant farmers and to all villagers farming on land distributed by the VC, it gave legal ownership of the land they cultivated. The cultivators merely had to submit an application to the GVN to receive title to the land. Saigon paid the original owner a certain amount of money, and the compensation generally was large enough to satisfy most landowners. Land to the Tiller reduced the maximum allowable land holdings of an individual to 15 hectares, and anyone holding that much land could do so only if he and his family farmed the land themselves. By the end of 1973, the GVN had issued approximately 1.2 million hectares to roughly 950,000 titleholders, exceeding its redistribution goal of one million hectares.(25) In the Mekong Delta and the provinces around Saigon, the program worked extremely well. It redistributed about one half of all riceland in the Delta. In most of I Corps and II Corps, however, the Government distributed relatively few parcels of land. In the highlands, the Government did not make a serious attempt to institute these reforms. In the lowlands, stiff opposition from village officials and landlords, along with the scarcity of arable land and non-agricultural employment opportunities, prevented the redistribution. Significant segments of the population in coastal I Corps and II Corps remained tenants or wage laborers. The populations of the I Corps and II Corps provinces, though, were considerably smaller than those in III Corps and IV Corps, so land reform did affect the large majority of peasants. It reduced the percentage of total cropland cultivated by tenants from sixty percent to ten percent in three years.(26)
Some villagers complained that Land to the Tiller committed injustices against them. The diminished number of expropriated landlords still residing in the hamlets often had to wait for a year or longer to receive compensation for their land. Some soldiers who served away from their villages and rented their land temporarily to others had to surrender their land. On occasion, landlords and village officials in III Corps and IV Corps used tricks to prevent the distribution of land. Most observers, nevertheless, including many of those skeptical about the program, acknowledged that Land to the Tiller improved the material well-being of millions of peasants. Land to the Tiller title recipients watched their incomes rise sharply now that they no longer had to pay rents or work for others. Farmers generally received adequate payment for their toils. Allegations often surfaced that rice merchants formed cartels to cheat the farmers, and some of the charges may very well have been true, but if so their existence did not hurt the farmers very much. Charles Callison, who studied four fairly secure Delta villages in great detail, concluded, "Most farmers expressed satisfaction with the fairness of the prices they received on the farm, compared with the going wholesale prices in the local markets."(27) The credit system in the villages also improved considerably during the late 1960s. Many villagers received loans for agricultural purposes at relatively low rates from the Government. Most others could obtain the loans they needed from relatives, friends, or neighbors. Villagers who had received land through the Land to the Tiller program often obtained credit more easily than they had as tenants, because lenders considered landowners less risky customers. As a result of better credit and higher income, the new landowners could buy more and better agricultural supplies and machinery. Agricultural production, in turn, increased, thereby raising income further. Henry Bush and several other researchers from the Control Data Corporation conducted a thorough study of Land to the Tiller in forty-four secure and contested villages in the Delta during the first half of 1972, and found that eighty-nine percent of new landowners surveyed said that life in their hamlets had improved since the program's implementation. Only two percent said it had become worse.(28)
The old landlords, who in some cases had treated tenants poorly, no longer played a large role in the peasants' lives. Many had lost their influence after the Viet Minh or the Viet Cong had driven them from the villages, but some retained substantial power until Land to the Tiller took away much or most of it. "The landlords once had an awful lot of power," said one farmer. "Tenants were merely their slaves and had to work from dawn to dusk... For every ceremonial feast the tenants had to come work and to bring rice or poultry to put on the altar... They were afraid if they did not do so the landlord would be angry and might take back his land... Now they are no longer afraid."(29) Title recipients' status did not increase so much that they could move into the ranks of GVN officialdom above the village level, but social mobility of that magnitude never became a major concern of the masses. Prosperity, safety, and freedom from oppressive authorities remained much more important issues for them. Most also preferred living in their native villages, surrounded by family and friends and ancestral spirits, to living in district or province capitals.
Analysts of Land to the Tiller disputed the program's impact on village political opinion in areas where redistribution occurred. A few of the VC's American supporters doubted that it affected attitudes in the countryside at all. More moderate critics believed that Land to the Tiller probably caused villagers to look more favorably on the Government, but downplayed the program's influence because it was only a response to the VC's pressure and it essentially sanctioned revolutionary changes implemented by the VC. This complaint, however, actually embodied the sentiments of Westerners still bitter at the GVN for its earlier policies, not of the South Vietnamese peasants. As occurred time again during the course of the Vietnam War, Western observers projected their own beliefs onto the peasants. South Vietnamese villagers did not let old grudges, or gratitude for past services, obstruct their present well-being. Most of them leaned towards whichever group could best serve their interests in the present. Charles Callison wrote, "As far as the [Land to the Tiller] Program was concerned, very few farmers in our sample seemed inclined to give the NLF much credit for 'forcing' the Thieu government into it, as a more sophisticated view might well do.... That the government was trying to 'buy the hearts of the farmers' and win greater rural support was unquestioned, but this was perceived as a good thing for the government to do and an excellent way to do it."(30) The higher incomes and the permanent control over ancestral lands afforded by Land to the Tiller boosted the villagers' opinions of the Government to at least a moderate extent. Henry Bush concluded in 1971, on the basis of 550 interviews with VC prisoners and ralliers in Long An province, that "The psychological impact of GVN land distribution on villagers is such that if they subsequently come under Viet Cong control it acts as a barrier to developing allegiance to the Viet Cong."(31) Many observers also noticed that the general prosperity in Government areas made the Government more popular. "Areas that became more firmly under GVN control over time became more prosperous," said Ed Brady, a Vietnamese-speaking American adviser to the GVN armed forces and the Phoenix Program from 1965 to 1971. "On the average, people realized they were better off under the GVN, and certainly they realized they became more prosperous. Prosperity meant the world to them. They tended, therefore, to favor the GVN over the VC."(32)
Villagers could feel safer in the towns and cities, GVN refugee camps, and hamlets under GVN control than in most hamlets where the Communists wielded considerable power. The expansion of pacification allowed many villagers to return to their hamlets or other hamlets where they could resume agricultural pursuits. Because safety from the perils of war had become a primary objective of villagers, this GVN advantage helped the Government's political cause enormously. The Communists attacked the GVN areas and at times inflicted significant damage, but the senselessness of the attacks and the absence of relatively safe VC areas to which the people could escape caused the people to resent the Communists more.
In the late 1960s, the Government built up its political apparatus in the countryside. While the shadow government's problems mounted and its recruitment in the hamlets sagged, the Government recruited more and more villagers for the territorial forces and other organizations that operated in the countryside. President Thieu's belated decision to implement universal conscription after the Tet Offensive bolstered the GVN recruitment drive. The People's Self-Defense Forces also engaged many villagers, though the members' commitment was considerably weaker in many cases. By bringing so many villagers into the Government ranks and keeping them in their native areas, the GVN dramatically improved its popularity among the villagers. ARVN and other national organizations grabbed most of the other eligible males. Almost all hamlet residents now had relatives in the GVN, while much fewer had VC relatives than before, and they tended to endorse the side for whom their relatives served. If they had relatives on both sides, they usually helped both sides but contributed more to the side that employed more of their relatives in their immediate vicinity, which in most cases was the GVN. Skeptics complained that the Government's recruitment policies were coercive. Oftentimes they were indeed coercive to some extent, but that fact did not alienate the villagers. Coercion often aided both sides in the Vietnam War, particularly the stronger side, and it proved necessary to keep people fighting. In this case, it had some highly beneficial political consequences.
Elections for hamlet and village councils formed another part of the GVN's rural political program. President Diem had abolished elections of hamlet and village officials, and his henchmen appointed the officials instead. After Diem, the elections returned in some areas, though district and province chiefs frequently manipulated them. In the years following the Tet Offensive, the GVN-- with prodding from the Americans-- extended the elections to almost all hamlets and villages. These councils selected hamlet and village chiefs and other executive officers, many thousands of whom took month-long training courses from the CIA and Vietnamese instructors at Vung Tau and in the provinces. Many US officials and other Americans who did not appreciate the cultural gulf separating the Vietnamese from the Americans believed that the democratic character of the election process by itself would make villagers more sympathetic towards the GVN. It did not. The villagers lacked the Americans' admiration of democracy and clung to their authoritarian traditions. Some Americans also thought that democratic elections for politicians above the village level would improve the Government's image in the countryside and help the Saigon leadership develop a "political base" there. Thieu, therefore, held such elections. That Thieu manipulated these elections to help gain victory for his allies, that he gave little power to the elections' winners, and that he arrested or silenced some segments of the national non-Communist opposition parties are largely irrelevant. These elections simply did not stimulate the villagers, who cared and knew as little about higher levels of government as they did about democracy. Even when higher authorities interfered excessively with village life, few villagers viewed elections as a means to improving the situation. In most of Asia, in fact, where political and cultural traditions are authoritarian and not democratic, the suppression of political opposition occurs regularly at times of peace as well as at times of war. The practice does not arouse much indignation among the population. The destruction of one's opposition is often viewed as a sign of a leader's strength, not of weakness or depravity. A good example is North Vietnam during the Vietnam War. The North Vietnamese leaders routinely locked up or executed dissenters, yet almost all North Vietnamese citizens obeyed these leaders and carried out their orders in a highly efficient manner.
In the early and mid-1960s, GVN village council members typically were wealthy landlords, political appointees foreign to the village, and others who were not necessarily concerned about the villagers' welfare. Many observers believed that the district chiefs in most cases continued to rig the elections in the years after the Tet Offensive to allow such people to win. They also thought the higher GVN authorities tried particularly hard to minimize the electoral victories of organized political parties independent of the GVN. These charges in many cases were accurate, but the elections did improve the quality of hamlet and village leaders significantly in some places. In these locales, hamlet and village council members most often were small landowners living in their native villages who enjoyed the respect of many local citizens. Donald Colin, a Vietnamese- speaking Foreign Service Officer, witnessed the change during his time as a IV Corps Phoenix adviser and as Vinh Binh Deputy Province Senior Adviser. Colin asserted in August 1971 that the election of low-level administrations "is the area that [has] shown the greatest improvement during the time I have been in Vietnam, and also the area in which the most work remains to be done. The second go-around of real village elections in the spring of 1970 saw many examples of people 'throwing the rascals out' and bringing in new Village Councils and Village Chairmen. Out of 52 elected village governments in Vinh-Binh, there are about a dozen really outstanding village chiefs and a dozen really poor village chiefs with the bulk of them being merely adequate. While this indicates a long way to go, it is also a lot better than the totally grim picture of village administration two years ago."(33) Other factors besides the elections contributed to this improvement in low-level leadership, most notably the departure of the wealthiest villagers and their gradual drifting away from village affairs, and the growing political involvement of farmers who received land through the Land to the Tiller program. The Control Data study concluded, "Village and hamlet government officials are more representative of the people they govern because of LTTT [Land to the Tiller].... We find that a large percentage of village and hamlet officials found in our random sample are new owner-farmers under LTTT and we know that before LTTT a high percentage were tenants or not farming."(34) Good hamlet and village leaders, together with other GVN pacification leaders, strengthened the popular image of the GVN, just as strong leaders had done for the VC in the past.
Thieu abolished the hamlet elections in September 1972 because he believed that too few of the elected officials had served the GVN effectively and loyally. The district and province chiefs thereafter selected all hamlet officials and many of the village officials themselves. The peasants continued to elect village chiefs, though these chiefs lost what control they had possessed over local defense forces. In 1973, Thieu introduced what he called the "Administrative Revolution," which put more and better GVN officials and soldiers into the hamlets and villages. It gave more autonomy to these individuals and to the province chiefs. Despite the disappearance of democracy, the grassroots administrations did not become less effective. If anything, they became better. James Trullinger described how the local administration in My Thuy Phuong village improved in leadership, strength, and discipline-- and thus became more popular-- from 1973 onward: "An Army captain came to the village to coordinate all local security activities. Many Government soldiers and villagers noted that the arrival of the captain brought improvements to the provincial forces patrols, operations, and static guarding assignments. Government soldiers became more alert on duty and improved marksmanship. Discipline tightened. Soldiers engaged in little looting. And desertion became infrequent."(35)
Village councils received funds from Saigon for use on the public projects of their choice, though they often lacked the knowledge and administrative skills necessary for the task. Through this program the Allies tried to encourage village autonomy and convince villagers that the GVN could provide the things they needed. As village administrations became more effective, they began collecting more and more taxes from the villagers, which actually improved the people's opinion of the GVN in many cases. Because the village budget came from the villagers' money, not just from Saigon's purse, the villagers took a greater interest in helping make sure that the money was spent wisely.
The behavior of Allied personnel often worked to the disadvantage of the villagers from 1965 onward, an issue I treat at considerable length in my book. Operational forces arrested large numbers of villagers whose ties to the Communists were tenuous at best, though few of them spent much time in jail. Some units also beat villagers or stole from them regularly. Corrupt Government officials employed a wide variety of schemes to cheat the population. The frequency of these problems, however, declined in the late 1960s and the early 1970s. As the pacification program expanded, Vietnamese forces operating in their native areas increasingly often assumed responsibility for fending off the Communists, and these people were less likely than troops from elsewhere to mistreat the population. The leadership of the Government's pacification organizations improved, which also reduced abuses. Contrary to popular myth, the Phoenix program did not cause a rise in abuses of the population. Allied mistreatment of the population continued, but it had much less impact on the villagers' opinions than the unattractiveness of the VC and the improvement of the GVN.
By 1968, most of the villagers who once had supported the VC without hesitation no longer looked favorably on the Communists, and their opinions of the Allies were marginally better than they had been during the early 1960s. From 1965 to 1968, countless VC prisoners and ralliers echoed the comments of this former cadre and Party member: "Most people became resentful of the VC. Before, the VC promised victory and peace. The people believed them because they were living under VC control. As time went on, the people didn't see the peace they were wishing for and they realized that the VC had lied. I think that the people liked to live with the GVN because they could specifically enjoy some freedom and some tranquility."(36) The popularity of the VC did not decline so rapidly in parts of a few provinces after 1965, primarily the central Vietnamese coastal provinces and unimportant provinces like An Xuyen. The Communists retained some popularity in a few areas even into the 1970s. North Vietnamese military forces tended to be stronger than usual in these areas. The population remained fairly poor in some of these places because of land scarcity or the absence of Land to the Tiller redistribution. Families, furthermore, typically had been committed to the VC for a longer time and in greater numbers than elsewhere. Brig. Gen. Tran Van Nhut, a South Vietnamese Army officer who held the position of province chief in Binh Long from 1970 to 1972 and later commanded a division in I Corps, commented, "After the Geneva Conference of 1954, all the Communist cadres concentrated in Quang Ngai, before they went to North Vietnam. Every girl was married to one of those cadres. Then the cadres moved to North Vietnam. After the National Liberation Front was created, they came back. They came to the village where they had been about six or seven years before, where their children and wives were. So there was more sympathy for the Communists than for us, because of family relationships, in the central area, mainly Quang Nam, Quang Tin, Quang Ngai and Binh Dinh. Later in the war, the Communists were less popular, but when I was Commander of the 2nd ARVN Division at Chu Lai, I knew that in some places even the RF and PF (militia forces) were sympathetic to the VC."(37)
From 1968 onward, VC popularity in most rural areas continued to decline, and the popularity of the GVN increased considerably.(38) By 1972, in all but a few places, the large majority of hamlet dwellers had decided that they preferred the GVN to the Communists. The popular standing the GVN enjoyed after 1968 was similar to that of the Viet Cong in the early 1960s in many areas. Likewise, the VC's popularity in the later period resembled that of the GVN in the war's early years. Most of the perceptive Americans, along with the Vietnamese, noticed this change. "In 1971 and 1972," said Col. Walter Clark, the Vinh Binh Province Senior Adviser at the time, "as the GVN presence became stronger and the Viet Cong became weaker in my province, there was considerable evidence that the villagers believed the mandate of heaven indicated they should support the GVN. There were many instances when people provided intelligence information voluntarily. Some cooperation still came as a result of pressure from local GVN commanders on the peasants, but by that time I think harsh coercion was not as prevalent as it once was."(39)
Popularity seemed to help the GVN mobilize the masses on its behalf after the Tet Offensive. Many observers noted that the popular economic benefits the GVN offered, such as Land to the Tiller and the overall rise in income, increased the villagers' willingness to join the GVN, give it intelligence, and support it actively in other ways. The Control Data study concluded that the Land to the Tiller program was "helping turn a once-disaffected, politically neutral mass of potential and sometimes actual revolutionaries (formerly providing rice, information, labor and military manpower to the enemy) into middle-class farmers in support of the regime."(40) Witnesses also said that building up the territorial forces and the hamlet and village administrations with indigenous manpower helped stimulate the civilian population, as well as these new GVN employees. The economic boom strengthened the bonds of community because more people believed they had a stake in the affairs of the village. The new title- holders no longer feared or resented landlords or village officials, for their higher status ensured more respect from and hence better relations with these groups. They participated in village affairs to a greater extent than before. Charles Callison reported that most village leaders told him, "Since the distribution of wealth is more equal, village society is more egalitarian; the new owners are more enthusiastic about things and take a more active part in community affairs."(41)
The Communist leadership knew that the GVN's programs at the hamlet and village levels were increasing support for the GVN. Communist documents repeatedly demanded the elimination of hamlet and village officials, and of people serving in the territorial forces, the RD Cadres, and the People's Self-Defense Forces. Many members of these targeted groups did indeed perish at the hands of the Communists. COSVN Resolution 9, an extremely important Party document written in July 1969 before most of the land reform occurred, admitted that GVN political initiatives were hurting the VC seriously: "The enemy constantly uses economic measures, psychological warfare, decadent culture, etc., to influence and dominate all political, economic and cultural aspects in the rural areas. Therefore, the key problem now in the liberated zone is that we must motivate and unify the peasant bloc."(42) Communist recognition of the Government's political successes in the villages also came from important defectors such as Nguyen Van Thanh, who at one time had been a high-ranking Communist commander. Thanh told Jeffrey Race that in the middle of 1969, the VC cadres in Long An province began experiencing great difficulties in travelling to hamlets to conduct their normal functions. Recruitment declined drastically, and by the end of 1970 the military units had lost most of their strength. Thanh attributed these developments to several Government initiatives, as recounted by Race: "One of these changes had been a partial reconstitution of the government's village apparatus. A second had been the psychological impact of the government's land- reform proposals, widely propagandized at the time. A third important change had been the considerable expansion of the Popular Force and People's Self-Defense Force organizations."(43)
Popularity, however, did not cause the rural populace to assist the GVN. It did not provide the driving force for the GVN's pacification or military efforts. Nor did a lack of popularity in certain areas necessarily thwart these efforts, though it could slow them down. The relationship between popularity and support was more complex than most Americans thought. Most villagers had reasons to remain apathetic even if they looked favorably on the GVN. In many areas the Communists still could harm villagers who cooperated too much with GVN personnel. The villagers also were not overly enthusiastic about giving up their children or their possessions to the GVN or anyone else. Having as little to do with either side, therefore, often seemed the ideal course of action. Many, if not most villagers indeed really wished that both sides would leave them alone.
Villagers inclined towards inertia, however, usually supported one or both sides to some extent because they seldom were left alone. In contested areas, where the desire to be left alone was strongest, the GVN and the Communists tried to make peasants help them through a combination of compulsion and persuasion. Both sides normally enjoyed some success, for the villagers would still act if prodded. In June 1968, when much of the countryside could be considered contested, an insightful CIA report stated that "The predominant sentiment... is probably one of increasing concern to avoid the hazards of war.... Left to themselves [the South Vietnamese] are likely to remain uncommitted and disengaged until a decisive break in the struggle becomes obvious." It also observed, however, that "Most of the people respond to power and authority, whether that of the Viet Cong or the GVN."(44)
The most important factor in obtaining villager support was leadership. As the rise of the Viet Cong demonstrated, only a competent and devoted elite of leaders could organize large numbers of villagers to act. The second most useful tool in getting the villagers to cooperate was strength, which often was the product of good leadership. Hamlet dwellers liked success and wanted to be a part of it. The GVN's strength advantages after 1968 contributed significantly to its ability to obtain support. While offers of benefits to the peasants by themselves never roused them to action, popular policies gave leaders valuable ammunition for propaganda battles when they competed with leaders of another powerful political movement for active villager support. By promising new and obtainable benefits or pointing out existing benefits to the villagers, leaders could gain the cooperation of some villagers who otherwise would have ignored their pleas. Herein lay the means of turning the movement's popular political undertakings into active support. At times, one side had much more to give than the other. The VC had better advantages to offer during the early 1960s, principally the possession of land and the removal of bad GVN officials. During the war's latter years, the GVN had a great deal more to offer than the Communists, including economic prosperity, Land to the Tiller titles, relative freedom from destructive military encounters, and the possibility of serving in the territorial forces near one's family. Leadership and strength often took precedence over the benefits offered through propaganda because of the Vietnamese respect for authority and concern for obtaining good standing with a winner, especially where the adversaries differed substantially in leadership or power. Good leaders without significant rivals did not even need benefits to mobilize the people, though in most cases benefits increased the villagers' capacity for enthusiastic obedience.
Some observers have argued that the GVN's popularity could not engender much support among the population because the GVN did not try to trade popularity for support. They emphasized that the beneficiaries of Land to the Tiller and other Government programs which improved village life did not have to support the Government to receive those benefits. The GVN, they contended, at least should have made the distribution of Land to the Tiller titles contingent on support for the GVN, as the VC presumably had with their land reform program, so that the villagers had a tangible incentive to assist the GVN. This criticism, however, was based on a misinterpretation of villager behavior. The proposed policy would not have increased popular support significantly in areas under Government control because the villagers there did not need such an incentive. It might even have caused some VC supporters to strengthen their commitment to the VC out of fear that they would lose their land if vindictive GVN officials took control of their hamlet. Throughout the war, as long as the Government or the Communists actively demanded the villagers' support, the villagers would give it. If both sides courted them, they would support one or the other, or both. When faced with only one political force that had any power, they supported it to some extent, and if the ruler offered more benefits, they tended to give their support more willingly. Under no circumstances, however, would they not support anyone when authorities called for their assistance. The leaders' charisma, power, and propaganda drove them to act. A good leader could obtain supporters simply by saying he would give land or other benefits to everyone. He did not need to say that he would give it only to those who helped him, for the people did not drive such a hard bargain. The words of a Government village chief are instructive: "About 50 percent of the tenants in this village were Viet Cong or VC sympathizers before the [Land to the Tiller] Program; but now, due in large part to this program, they are beginning to believe the government is trying to help them and they are much more cooperative and responsive than before."(45) Note that the chief emphasized that the villagers' beliefs about what the GVN was doing for them made them more "cooperative and responsive," in other words, more willing to serve leaders when asked to do so. Cherished benefits did not cause them to champion the GVN cause actively without stimulus. Nor did they fail to have any effect on the villagers' political behavior, as long as adequate leaders were present to provide the necessary stimulus.
The years after the Tet Offensive demonstrated that the GVN did not need to make its benefits contingent on support to obtain the cooperation it needed. Once the Government eliminated most of the VC's power in the hamlets and assigned passable leaders to control those hamlets, it brought most of the young male villagers into its service, in part through compulsion and in part through persuasion. Even in the increasingly small number of areas where the VC exerted substantial influence over the people and continued to enjoy the sympathies of many villagers, strong Government leaders could build effective opposition to the Communists with rural manpower. The GVN, when it installed capable leaders, succeeded in forming village governments and strong territorial forces from the hamlet populations in every single province, including the troublesome coastal provinces from Phu Yen to Quang Nam.(46) These entities in turn co-opted the continued support of the hamlet populations.
Some critics claimed that the villagers had become so apathetic towards the Allies that the GVN could not find people suitable for service in hamlet and village administrative roles, thus rendering attempts at mobilizing the villagers futile. Aside from the fact that some villagers were more sympathetic to the GVN cause than this argument suggests, success in the village war did not depend on the willingness of villagers to organize opposition to the enemy by themselves. In the VC's case, the high quality of the top leadership in Hanoi ensured the excellence of VC leadership all the way down to the hamlet and village levels. Leadership qualities in the GVN system had a similar trickle-down effect. Thieu picked and motivated the GVN's district and province chiefs, whose leadership largely determined how well the pacification effort would function. The district and province chiefs controlled the territorial forces, the forces most crucial to pacification. They also could appoint hamlet and village officials of at least adequate ability or help get them elected, and then motivate them. A good district or province chief could get all of these people to work very effectively, and steadily improve the Government's position in the countryside. The district and province chiefs did not come from the peasant classes, and the GVN did not need to put villagers into these positions. Thieu's impressive overhaul of the district and province chiefs showed that he had plenty of good officers he could assign to these jobs.
South Vietnamese village politics often escapes Americans, because it differs so greatly from their own political experience. The American political system gives authority to individuals whom large masses of people elect. Americans distrust authority, so they scrutinize electoral candidates and their ideas carefully before voting for them. Elected leaders receive only temporary and rather limited powers in order to minimize the misuses of power. A great many Americans also subscribe to the egalitarian belief that every person's political views are important, not just those of the most talented or successful, so they are liable to believe that all segments of society influence the political situation that shapes their lives. Too many Americans, therefore, mistakenly assume that foreigners also will examine the character or the ideology of would-be leaders before supporting them, and that the masses will end up selecting the people best able to meet their needs. In reality, as we have seen before, the Vietnamese masses generally chose to follow the charismatic and strong elites whose propaganda was persuasive, without assessing the political programs of these elites thoughtfully. The foundation and success of would-be rulers in South Vietnam depended almost entirely on the elites at the top who guided the masses, not on the masses themselves.
By 1972, the war's outcome would hinge on the struggle between ARVN and the North Vietnamese main force units for South Vietnam's towns and cities. The GVN's victories in the war for control of the villages put ARVN in a better position, but did not determine who would win the war. When the North Vietnamese Army launched its two major offensives on South Vietnam's urban centers, in 1972 and 1975, the GVN's pacification forces provided some useful intelligence about enemy troop movements, and some Regional Forces units and other pacification forces contributed substantially to the defense of certain areas. ARVN, nevertheless, bore most of the burden of defending against the big NVA attacks. Given ARVN's central role, popular attitudes really could have affected the war's outcome only by influencing ARVN's performance.
Leadership, not surprisingly, usually determined the effectiveness of ARVN units far more than anything else. Good ARVN junior officers and NCOs generally motivated the enlisted men to fight aggressively and not desert. They gave the troops most of the training they needed; that task did not require Americans if the leadership was adequate. As long as the GVN could bring men into the Army-- which it did quite well-- and put them in units with good leaders and sufficient supplies, those men performed well. The attitudes of the peasants before they entered the Army had little effect on their performance. As with the territorial forces, strong high-level leadership produced strong leadership at the lower levels. Superior senior officers picked able subordinates and stimulated them, who in turn did the same at the echelon below them. They also minimized their units' involvement in distractions such as corruption and looting, and made sure that their soldiers received enough pay to take care of their families. Defense Department analyst Thomas Thayer, for example, explained the transformation of the 7th ARVN Division in 1969-1970 after US units left its area and the division proved incapable of taking over the Americans' work: "Recognizing the problem, President Thieu relieved the division's commander and appointed an aggressive brigade commander from the ARVN airborne division to the job. No other measures were taken nor was additional support furnished. The new commander quickly turned the division into an effective fighting unit, furnishing strong evidence that replacing a poor commander with a good one was the best way to improve a poor ARVN Division."(47)
Some have suggested that ARVN needed to let peasants serve in important leadership positions, in order to draw leaders from a larger pool and to keep potential leaders who longed for upward social mobility away from the Viet Cong. This argument not only exaggerates the peasants' desire for social mobility but also underestimates the difficulty inherent in extending the privileges of the poorer villagers while shrinking those of the upper classes. Such a drastic move might have turned some of the senior ARVN officers-- Thieu's most important supporters-- against Thieu. It most likely would have encountered the sort of fierce resistance one might expect if someone tried to abolish private schools and universities in America in order to eliminate the advantages those institutions confer. In any case, the ARVN officer corps had enough capable and motivated men from the wealthier segments of the South Vietnamese population that it did not need to draw men from the reservoir of peasants. The wealthier people, and most others who lived in towns and cities, strongly preferred the GVN to the VC throughout the war, and some of them were highly motivated and good leaders. The overall quality of the ARVN officer corps did not match that of the Communists because ARVN did not break down the selfish and familial impulses of its men as well as the Communist system did, but it had enough good men to fill the top positions in the army command that largely determined ARVN's fighting capabilities. Pervasive apathy among the GVN elite was not the main problem. Col. William Le Gro, who remained in Vietnam until the very end of the war as the Army's chief intelligence officer, remarked, "The required leadership was certainly available in the South Vietnamese armed forces, but it was not allowed to surface and take charge in enough situations."(48)
The problem, then, lay in the selection of ARVN leaders. Nguyen Van Thieu was a moderately capable commander-in-chief leader who knew how to choose competent and motivated subordinate commanders when he wanted to. Thieu's improvement of the district and province chiefs in the years after the Tet Offensive was perhaps the best example of his ability to select and lead well. Unfortunately for the GVN, Thieu too often appointed men to key ARVN positions for their political loyalty rather than their abilities, for fear that subordinates might try to overthrow him. Thieu, indeed, had cause to choose generals who were ineffective on purpose, for the effective generals were more capable of marshalling the support of others in ARVN for a coup against him than were the weaker and less charismatic. While American pacification advisers succeeded in getting Thieu to replace many poor district and province chiefs with better people, the US military command seldom attempted to get Thieu to sack many of the generals who controlled the main force units. ARVN's high- level leadership deficiencies grew worse after most of the Americans left in early 1973. Thieu became increasingly worried that some ARVN officers were scheming to overthrow him because he no longer could deliver as much American aid as before. He underestimated ARVN's leadership needs because he overestimated the strength of ARVN's military position. American advisers no longer made even minimal efforts to influence ARVN leadership selection. The Catholics and other influential groups urged Thieu to fire some of the poorer leaders in the war's last years, and he did fire some, but few of their replacements were much better. Some excellent commanders remained in important positions, and ARVN's leadership was good by the standards of a third-world country, but it did not stack up well against the North Vietnamese commanders. Robert Komer, who headed the US pacification advisory effort in 1967 and 1968, said after the war, "I started out looking at Vietnam as a problem in resource allocation, and ended up looking at Vietnam as a problem in getting the right Vietnamese in the right jobs.... It was much less a question of the size of the ARVN or the size of the Vietnamese Civil Service than of the qualities of leadership.... The problem we never solved was how to get the right people in the right jobs doing the right thing at the right time."(49)
The inability of the commander-in-chief to gain the allegiance of most of the officer corps, which caused Thieu to put his cronies into key offices, may well have been an immutable characteristic of the Saigon political system. Thieu's predecessors all had encountered the same problem. The Communists succeeded in forging a unity of the elite in North Vietnam and had built a loyal following in the South, but the GVN's position differed in a couple of respects from that of the Communists which made the task much more difficult. Because of cultural traditions, the urban elite of the South tended to be more individualistic and conspiratorial than that of the North. They did not submit as easily to the will of a supreme leader as the Northerners did. Secondly, GVN leaders could not eliminate their rivals nearly as easily as Communist leaders could. They had to restrain themselves to some extent because Western journalists in South Vietnam might find out about political repression and publicize it, which would undermine American support for the guilty GVN premier as it had in Diem's case. By contrast, reporters did not circulate regularly in North Vietnam and document the jailings and killings, nor did they pay close attention to the VC's abduction and killing of its enemies in the South. Even if they had publicized these events, Hanoi's communist benefactors would not have withdrawn their assistance. During the Thieu era, a better ARVN leader was unlikely to attempt overthrowing Thieu, for the Americans discouraged potential coup leaders. The Americans, especially William Colby, believed Thieu's overthrow probably would destabilize the GVN rather than improve it. They may have been correct, but one cannot say for certain that no one could have built the same type of powerful leadership in South Vietnam that Ho Chi Minh built in the North. Perhaps a man of great capabilities and charisma could have achieved it, and several of these existed in the ARVN officer corps. Had such a transformation of power occurred in Saigon in the 1960s or the early 1970s, the GVN almost certainly could have obtained more support from the US and could have fought off the North Vietnamese Army indefinitely.
The weakness of ARVN's top leaders was one of the most important reasons that the GVN failed to halt the 1975 North Vietnamese offensive. Their mismanagement and corruption in the preceding years had helped deplete ARVN's military supplies and equipment, leaving many units short of vital items in the war's last months. Poor leaders had allowed high desertion rates to erode many units. The deployment of South Vietnamese Army units also put them at a serious disadvantage. Thieu had spread his forces over a large area in order to thwart Communist attempts to retake the populated areas through political activity and low- intensity guerrilla warfare. He had established the sort of population control system in the countryside which so many American critics had advocated, and it did enable the Government to make use of the village resources and largely kept the Communists from doing so. Thieu also tried to defend remote province capitals in the highlands. He expected that American bombers would help his dispersed forces fight off the North Vietnamese, but the political situation in Washington prevented President Gerald Ford from coming to the rescue as Nixon had promised, leaving the GVN highly vulnerable to a conventional military attack, as American military men had long feared.
As the thrusts of North Vietnam's 1975 offensive cut into the South, many South Vietnamese units fought poorly or simply collapsed because of bad leadership. With the North Vietnamese Army piling up victories, ARVN running out of supplies, and American help not coming, ARVN leaders grew increasingly demoralized. Some leaders even abandoned their units in order to save themselves or their families. The GVN high command made some major strategic blunders during the offensive which ensured a rapid defeat. When the North Vietnamese captured Ban Me Thuot, Thieu unwisely ordered a retreat from Kontum and Pleiku for which no one had planned, and the ARVN II Corps Commander, Maj. Gen. Pham Van Phu, fled the scene. These actions led to the disintegration and destruction of most of the units involved. Thieu also critically undermined the defense of I Corps as the NVA moved towards it by transferring the Airborne Division from I Corps to the Saigon area. In both I Corps and II Corps, The South Vietnamese Army also suffered tremendous losses to desertion because it had allowed soldiers' families to live in the same areas as the soldiers; when ARVN units retreated or panicked civilians fled, the soldiers frequently left their units to help their families. The roads became clogged with civilians and deserters, which impeded the movement of the remaining ARVN units.
The South Vietnamese Army faced other difficulties in its last months that made its defeat much more likely, none of which had anything to do with villager attitudes. Heavy fighting between ARVN and the NVA in the war's last years and reductions in US aid contributed to the shortages of military supplies and equipment. Because of scarce equipment and supplies, the ground and air mobility of ARVN units declined drastically, as did their access to air and artillery strikes. As mentioned earlier, the US no longer supported ARVN with its air power as it had during the Easter Offensive of 1972. These developments severely curtailed ARVN's capability for attacking enemy main forces and defending the GVN against enemy attacks. The departure of most of the Americans and the aid reductions led to massive unemployment and high inflation in the South, so numerous ARVN soldiers no longer had enough money to provide their families with the bare essentials. Many soldiers, as a consequence, left duty temporarily or deserted to help their families. Where leadership was poor, economic woes also led to declines in discipline and morale. The North Vietnamese, in the meantime, had built up their logistical lines to the South after the Paris Agreement without interference from the US. They eventually sent enough men and Chinese and Soviet materi‚l to the South to give their main forces decided advantages over ARVN in firepower and mobility.
The North Vietnamese offensive lasted for most of March and all of April 1975. Although some of the outmanned and outgunned ARVN units repelled the attackers with heavy losses thanks to good leadership, the NVA had too many strong, well-led, and well-supplied main force units for the weakened and dispersed South Vietnamese Army to handle. Villagers and Government pacification troops stood by as the North Vietnamese raced through the countryside towards the cities, powerless to stop them. The Government of Vietnam had won the struggle for control over rural South Vietnam and the allegiance of its inhabitants, but it lost the war.
1. Rand Vietnam Interviews, Series DT, No. 135, pp. 5, 138-139.
2. Rand Vietnam Interviews, Series Tet-VC, No. 00, p. 7.
3. Rand Vietnam Interviews, Series AG, No. 545, p. 12.
4. Rand Vietnam Interviews, Series AG, No. 372, p. 28.
5. Rand Vietnam Interviews, Series AG, No. 573, p. 3.
6. Rand Vietnam Interviews, Series AG, No. 545, p. 30.
7. Interview with Cao Van Luong.
8. Rand Vietnam Interviews, Series V, No. 48, p. 7.
9. Bruno Kosheleff and Stan Jorgenson, "The Situation in the Countryside, Quang Nam Province," 16 March 1970 (National Archives, Suitland Branch, Records Group 472, Records of the United States Army Vietnam, MACCORDS, Information Center, Command Information, Folder 101986), p. 44.
10. Rand Vietnam Interviews, Series V, No. 22, p. 4.
11. Rand Vietnam Interviews, Series V, No. 72, p. 29.
12. Interview with Col. Nguyen Van Dai.
13. James Trullinger, Village at War: An Account of Conflict in Vietnam (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1994), p. 110.
14. Samuel Popkin, "Pacification: Politics and the Village," Asian Survey 10, no. 8 (August 1970): p. 664. Parentheses in original.
15. Tay Ninh Province Report, February 1968, p. 1. The US Army Center of Military History in Washington, DC has a complete collection of these reports.
16. Rand Vietnam Interviews, Series V, No. 28, p. 5.
17. Interview with Brig. Gen. James Herbert.
18. Louis Wiesner, Victims and Survivors: Displaced Persons and Other War Victims in Viet-Nam, 1954-1975 (New York: Greenwood Press, 1988), p. 229.
19. Harry Maurer, Strange Ground: An Oral History of Americans in Vietnam, 1945-1975 (New York: Henry Holt, 1989), p. 311.
20. Rand Vietnam Interviews, Series AG, No. 622 Supplement, pp. 15-16.
21. Stuart Herrington, Silence was a Weapon: The Vietnam War in the Villages (Novato, CA: Presidio Press, 1982), p. 67.
22. USAID, United States Economic Assistance to South Vietnam, 1954-75, 31 December 1975, vol. 1, p. 56.
23. Al Santoli, To Bear Any Burden: The Vietnam War and Its Aftermath in the Words of Americans and Southeast Asians (New York: E.P. Dutton, 1985), p. 215.
24. Stanford Research Institute, Land Reform in Vietnam, vol. 4 (Menlo Park, CA: SRI, 1968), pp. 82-92.
25. USAID, United States Economic Assistance to South Vietnam, 1954-75, vol. II, p. 257.
26. Thomas Thayer, War Without Fronts: The American Experience in Vietnam (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1985), p. 242.
27. Charles Stuart Callison, Land-to-the-Tiller in the Mekong Delta: Economic, Social, and Political Effects of Land Reform in Four Villages of South Vietnam (Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 1983), p. 215.
28. Henry Bush, Gordon Messegee, and Roger Russell, The Impact of the Land to the Tiller Program in the Mekong Delta (Saigon: Control Data Corporation, 1972), p. 43.
29. Callison, Land-to-the-Tiller in the Mekong Delta, p. 224.
31. Jewett Burr, "Land to the Tiller: Land Redistribution in South Viet Nam, 1970- 1973" (Ph.D. diss., University of Oregon, 1976), p. 302.
32. Interview with Ed Brady.
33. Donald Colin, End of Tour Report, 19 August 1971 (US Army Center of Military History ["CMH" hereafter]), p. 13.
34. Bush, Messegee, and Russell, The Impact of the Land to the Tiller Program in the Mekong Delta, pp. 61, 62.
35. Trullinger, Village At War, pp. 184-185.
36. Rand Vietnam Interviews, Series V, No. 77, p. 6.
37. Interview with Brig. Gen. Tran Van Nhut.
38. The Americans conducted some large surveys of villagers to determine their attitudes, including the Pacification Attitude Analysis System. These surveys generally confirm my own conclusions, but I have not cited them to support my arguments. I consider them inappropriate for use as hard evidence, for I believe that both the methods of collection and the questions the studies tried to answer contained too many flaws. For a good description of the surveys, see Thayer, War Without Fronts, pp. 173-193.
39. Interview with Col. Walter Clark.
40. Bush, Messegee, and Russell, The Impact of the Land to the Tiller Program in the Mekong Delta, p. 88. Parentheses in original.
41. Callison, Land-to-the-Tiller in the Mekong Delta, p. 277.
42. "COSVN Resolution No. 9," July 1969 (US Military History Institute), p. 46.
43. Jeffrey Race, War Comes to Long An: Revolutionary Conflict in a Vietnamese Province (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1972), p. 270.
44. CIA, Special National Intelligence Estimate, "The Vietnam Situation," 6 June 1968 (LBJ, NSF, National Intelligence Estimates, Box 7, Folder: "53, South Vietnam"), pp. 8, 9.
45. Callison, Land-to-the-Tiller in the Mekong Delta, p. 277.
46. See, for example, Kevin Boylan, "The Red Queen's Race: The 173rd Airborne Brigade and Pacification in Binh Dinh Province, 1969-1970" (Ph.D. diss., Temple University, 1994), pp. 474-476.
47. Thayer, War Without Fronts, p. 63.
48. William Le Gro, Vietnam from Cease-Fire to Capitulation (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1981), p. 179.
49. W. Scott Thompson and Donaldson Frizzell, eds., The Lessons of Vietnam (New York: Crane, Russak & Co., 1977), p. 229.
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