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Lacking popular support, the client government established by Eisenhower turned to extensive terror directed against the anti-French resistance (Viet Minh, later relabelled "Viet Cong"). "There can be no doubt," a 1972 study prepared for the Pentagon concludes, "that innumerable crimes and absolutely senseless acts of suppression against both real and suspected Communists and sympathizing villagers were committed. Efficiency took the form of brutality and a total disregard for the difference between determined foes and potential friends." Killing and repression began at once, with over 10,000 killed by 1957. Bernard Fall estimates about 66,000 killed between 1957 and 1961, another 89,000 between 1961 and April 1965, virtually all of them South Vietnamese, victims of state terror or "the crushing weight of American armor, napalm, jet bombers and finally vomiting gases."18
By 1956, military historian Eric Bergerud observes, "Many of the most vulnerable cadres had already been imprisoned or killed." Though Diem's post-Geneva terror "left the [Communist] Party reeling," through 1959 "the Party adhered to the policy of political rather than violent resistance" and "by and large honored the Geneva Accords," having "dismantled the bulk of its military apparatus," leaving its cadres "relatively disarmed." It finally decided "to answer in kind" though with "a small-scale and secret effort" until 1960, a reaction that elicited hysterical outrage in the United States over Communist perfidy.
Having lost its only asset, the monopoly of violence, the GVN faced imminent collapse. As Kennedy took over, the US position seemed desperate in both Laos and Vietnam. By 1961, the Pentagon Papers report,
it had become clear in both Saigon and Washington that the yellow star of the Viet Cong was in the ascendancy... The VC continued to hold the initiative in the countryside, controlling major portions of the populace and drawing an increasingly tight cinch around Saigon. The operative question was not whether the Diem government as it was then moving could defeat the insurgents, but whether it could save itself.Kennedy accepted a diplomatic settlement, at least on paper, in Laos, but chose to respond by military escalation in Vietnam.19
Under Eisenhower, the Pentagon Papers report, US forces had been "strictly advisory," following the norm of the Latin American terror states. But as JFK took over in 1961, "the U.S. had in addition provided military capabilities such as helicopters and tactical air support" by January 1962, following Kennedy's authorization of USAF Farmgate operations in October. On November 22, 1961, the President authorized use of US forces "in a sharply increased effort to avoid a further deterioration of the situation in SVN [South Vietnam]," including "increased airlift to the GVN in the form of helicopters, light aviation and transport aircraft," and both equipment and US personnel "for aerial reconnaissance, instruction in and execution of air-ground support and special intelligence." Included in the "US military units" were three army Helicopter Companies, a Troop Carrier Squadron with 32 planes, combat aircraft, a Reconnaissance Unit, and six C-123 aircraft equipped for defoliation. On November 11, the NSC had authorized dispatch of "Aircraft, personnel and chemical defoliants to kill Viet Cong food crops and defoliate selected border and jungle areas," and by November 27 it was reported that "spraying equipment had been installed on Vietnamese H-34 helicopters, and is ready for use against food crops." US military personnel were increased from 841 to 5576 by June 30, 1962. MAAG [Military Assistance Advisory Group] teams were extended to battalion level and were "beginning to participate more directly in advising Vietnamese unit commanders in the planning and execution of military operations plans." By February 1962, the US Air Force "had already flown hundreds of missions," John Newman writes, citing an army history, often with only a low-ranking Vietnamese enlisted man for show. In one week of May 1962, Vietnamese Air Force and US helicopter units flew about 350 sorties (offensive, airlift, etc.).20
US escalation led to "a noticeable improvement," Hilsman wrote. In particular, "the helicopters were grand... Roaring in over the treetops, they were a terrifying sight to the superstitious Viet Cong peasants," who "simply turned and ran," becoming "easy targets." Kennedy also authorized the use of napalm, which particularly delighted MACV Commander General Paul Harkins; asked about the consequences of napalming villages, he replied that it "really puts the fear of God into the Viet Cong." By mid-1962, the CIA was conducting intelligence and sabotage operations against the North, as well as "counter-terror" (the technical term for "our terror") in the South. The intent of Kennedy's 1961-1962 escalation was "to fight the insurgency by destroying its economic base and disrupting the social fabric of the areas where the Front was strongest" by a variety of means, later extended to "defoliation, air attack, and indiscriminate artillery bombardment of what later were to be called `free fire zones'" (Bergerud).21
As military operations were intensified in 1962, the US military became concerned that "supporting air and artillery were an inducement [to ARVN, the GVN army] to rely on indiscriminate firepower as a substitute for aggressiveness." It was not long before State Department intelligence transmitted reports "that indiscriminate bombing in the countryside is forcing innocent or wavering peasants toward the Viet Cong" and that over 100,000 Montagnards had fled VC-controlled areas, in part because of "The extensive use of artillery and aerial bombardment and other apparently excessive and indiscriminate measures by GVN military and security forces," which have "undoubtedly killed many innocent peasants and made many others more willing than before to cooperate with the Viet Cong." Extensive use of air power and crop destruction might provoke "militant opposition among the peasants and positive identification with the Viet Cong," who were recruiting locally and depended on the local population for concealment and support (December 1962). Superhawk Dennis Duncanson of the British Advisory Mission reported that the policy of random bombardment of villages in "open zones" (where no restrictions applied) was the "principal cause of a huge migration of tribesmen in the summer of 1962," citing estimates from 125,000 to 300,000.
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18 IDA study on pacification by Chester Cooper, et al., cited by Bergerud, Dynamics, 14; Kolko, Anatomy, 89, giving the "conservative estimate" of 12,000 killed for 1955-57; Fall, New Society, April 22, 1965; reprinted in Fall and Raskin, Vietnam Reader. The US Government accepted the 89,000 figure; see minutes of July 1965 meetings cited by Kahin, Intervention, 385.
19 Bergerud, Dynamics, 13f., 18f., 47. PP, II 134. See sec. 3, below. On Laos, see AWWA, FRS, and sources cited.
20 PP, II 360, 656-8, 677. Newman, JFK and Vietnam, 205-6. Crop destruction, Kahin, Intervention, 478.
21 Hilsman, To Move a Nation, 444, 442. Operations against North, see below. Bergerud, Dynamics, 256, 70. For some details on the early stages of JFK's aggression and the "accidental" atrocities, along with a tortured effort to depict the President's initiatives as opposition to escalation, see Newman, JFK and Vietnam, 149ff., 159ff., 201ff.