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Hilsman favored counterinsurgency over World War II-style operations. He therefore supported British adviser Sir Robert Thompson's concept of strategic hamlets, into which South Vietnamese were to be herded by force or random bombardment. These concentration camps, Hilsman explains, were to "create the physical security the villager must have before he could make a free choice between the Vietcong and the government," a "free choice" denied him in his native village. But the plan failed. Citing Thompson, Hilsman notes that "there had been no real effort to isolate the population from the Viet Cong by eliminating Viet Cong agents and supporters inside the strategic hamlets and by imposing controls on the movement of people and supplies." "Vietcong agents remained in place" and "some Viet Cong supporters and agents...had no difficulty repenetrating the hamlet and continuing subversion." The correct strategy would have been to ensure that all such supporters and agents were "eliminated before the troops and civic action teams moved on to the next" area. "It seemed obvious that putting defenses around a village would do no good if the defenses enclosed Viet Cong agents," still free to talk to their brothers or cousins. "Free choice" is available only under armed guard by an occupying army in an encampment surrounded by barbed wire, with the political opposition "eliminated." The Pentagon Papers analyst adds that it was not easy to gain the loyalty of people who had to be "herded forcibly from their homes," or bombed out of them, and who, for some reason, showed "resentment if not active resistance" to these forthcoming efforts to offer them a "free choice," American-style.26
Hilsman's views mark the dovish end of the Camelot spectrum. At the other extreme, Walt Rostow, General Curtis LeMay, and others called for US force to get on with the job.
In his moral-historical tract, Guenter Lewy, who departs from the official Party Line only in that he recognizes no category of "innocent peasants," reports that by the end of 1962, the US had deployed 149 helicopters and 73 fixed-wing aircraft, which had carried out 2048 attack sorties. "Areas which could not be penetrated by government forces were declared `open zones,' and villages in them were subjected to random bombardment by artillery and aircraft so as to drive the inhabitants into the safety of the strategic hamlets," the idea being "to concentrate the rural population in fortified villages so as to provide them with physical security against the VC," who most supported, according to US government studies. The only problem is that "these measures of coercion further alienated the population," and were therefore unwise. The Wehrmacht officers who helped write the counterinsurgency manuals doubtless appreciated his sentiments.
Noted humanitarians took much the same position, for example, Leo Cherne, chairman of the executive committee of Freedom House and of the board of directors of the International Rescue Committee. This respected advocate of the rights of (certain) refugees wrote in December 1965 that "There are more than 700,000 additional refugees who have recently fled the countryside dominated by the Vietcong and with their act of flight have chosen the meager sanctuary provided by the government of South Vietnam." As he wrote, a US government-sponsored study observed that US air and artillery bombardment impel the villagers "to move where they will be safe from such attacks...regardless of their attitude to the GVN," facts hardly obscure to any person of minimal literacy at the time.27
And well before. It is worth noting that the US attack on South Vietnam, and the mounting atrocities, aroused no detectable interest or concern, just as the US-run terror campaign of the 1950s had passed with scarcely a raised eyebrow. And the more humane ideas of Hilsman and other doves, who preferred concentration camps and extermination of the political opposition to indiscriminate bombardment, were highly praised, criticized only for the incompetence of these efforts to provide a "free choice" to the South Vietnamese peasants we "protected." One of the more striking revelations in the Pentagon Papers was the utterly casual attitude towards terror and slaughter in the South, questioned only because of problems it might cause us among the targeted population and the embarrassment if B-52 raids "do not show significant results," which might make us "look silly and arouse criticism" (William Bundy). The decisions to bomb the North and to send US combat troops receive extensive deliberation. Virtually no attention is given to what Bernard Fall recognized at once as the fundamental policy decision of early 1965: "what changed the character of the Vietnam war," he wrote, "was not the decision to bomb North Vietnam; not the decision to use American ground troops in South Vietnam; but the decision to wage unlimited aerial warfare inside the country at the price of literally pounding the place to bits." In general, the population of the South was considered fair game for whatever the US chose to do.
This understanding was largely shared in the intellectual culture at home. The bombing of the North and the dispatch of US combat forces were controversial. Bombing of the South and other atrocities were not, until much later. The astonishing disparity of planning revealed in the Pentagon Papers also passed without notice, presumably being taken as obvious.28
The reasons are clear. The bombing of the North and the dispatch of US combat troops might be harmful to us. Slaughter in the South could be conducted with complete impunity, at least until popular opposition finally began to take shape. A comparison to Reagan's wars in Central America in the 1980s gives a useful measure of the cultural change brought about by the popular movements that finally arose, and explains why they have evoked such horror in many circles.
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26 Hilsman, To Move a Nation, 437-56, 524; "Two American Counterstrategies to Guerrilla Warfare," in Tsou, China. PP, II 149, 130. See FRS, ch. 1.VI.5.2, for more on the concept of "democracy" and "free choice" as understood by the planners.
27 Lewy, America in Vietnam, 24f.; TNCW, 404-5. On the Nazi model for counterinsurgency, see McClintock, Instruments, 58ff., 207ff. 501, ch 10.3.
28 For review, see FRS, ch. 1.VI.1. Fall, New Republic, Oct. 9, 1965.