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It is well to be aware of just how much agreement there is about the nature of the war in the specialist literature. The consensus is well illustrated by the detailed and informative province studies. The first of these, and to this day the most important, was the 1969 study of Long An province by Jeffrey Race, a US Army adviser in South Vietnam who compiled one of the most important documentary records. The most recent to appear is a 1991 study of Hau Nghia province by Eric Bergerud. These studies focus on two critically important provinces in the Delta near Saigon, which were typical of much of the areas of insurgency; both studies review the larger context as well, and reach conclusions not seriously questioned elsewhere, apart from tactical judgments.29
Both analysts recognize that the US-imposed regime had no legitimacy in the countryside, where 80 percent of the population lived (and little enough in the urban areas); and that only force could compensate for this lack. Both report that by 1965, when the US war against South Vietnam moved to sheer devastation, the VC had won the war in the provinces they studied, with little external support. Race observes that "the government terrorized far more than did the revolutionary movement -- for example, by liquidations of former Vietminh, by artillery and ground attacks on `communist villages,' and by roundups of `communist sympathizers.' Yet it was just these tactics that led to the constantly increasing strength of the revolutionary movement in Long An from 1960 to 1965." Prior to 1960, the Diem regime enjoyed a near monopoly of violence and pursued the conflict "through its relentless reprisal against any opposition, its use of torture," and other severe repression, while the Communist Party, "at great cost," kept to "an almost entirely defensive role." When violence was authorized in self-defense, the VC quickly took over the province, parts of which were declared a free strike zone in 1964. US troops took over and vastly increased the violence in 1965. The first North Vietnamese units appeared in 1968.
GVN officials were aware that "communist cadres are close to the people, while ours are not," but never understood why. They failed entirely to address the needs of the rural masses, in contrast with the revolutionary forces, who "offered concrete and practical solutions to the daily problems of substantial segments of the rural population..." The only recourse was terror, then the incomparable greater violence of the invaders.
Bergerud's conclusions are similar. The Government "lacked legitimacy with the rural peasantry," while "the great strength of the Communist-led National Liberation Front...which enjoyed widespread support among the peasantry, ... frustrated allied efforts," as did the unwillingness of the GVN or the US to propose any "fundamental change in the social or economic makeup of South Vietnam." The basic problem was the "extremely formidable political apparatus" of the NLF, their "extremely popular" programs that "earned for the Viet Minh the loyalty and gratitude of hundreds of thousands of poor peasants," many of whom had supported the Viet Minh for generations and had "learned from early childhood to view reality through the prism of Viet Cong ideas, beliefs and prejudices," anthropologist-adviser Gerald Hickey observed in 1962. US-GVN terror and violence only increased the "peasantry's deep hatred" for the client regime.
"In harsh reality, activists in rural Vietnam willing `to help build an effective local government system and support and defend that system' [as advocated by US advisors] were almost exclusively on the side of the Front," which had constructive programs that the US and its clients could not emulate without eroding their own power. "There can be no doubt that...the Front had a virtual lock on the `best and brightest' of the rural youth," "the support of the most politically aware and most determined segment of the peasantry," and that only "the Front and not the GVN possessed legitimacy in much of rural Vietnam." By the end of 1965, "the NLF had won the war in Hau Nghia province." The CIA representative there concluded that "98 percent of the insurgents in the province were local and that they neither got nor needed substantial aid from Hanoi," even producing their own weapons locally. When the US 25th Infantry Division took over in January 1966, "Hau Nghia was controlled almost entirely by the NLF and had been for some time."
With the US takeover of the war, the legitimacy of the Front if anything increased. By 1966, its followers "could claim very plausibly that they were defending national sovereignty" -- against US aggressors, though the inference cannot be drawn. "Manpower and food for the Front came from the hamlets themselves," while the US 25th Division, then rampaging through the province, of course "had to import everything." ARVN was hardly more than a mercenary force. "Given the local sentiment," US-run "programs leading toward economic betterment had to come from the outside," and were "an abject failure"; not surprising, given estimates in some of the targeted areas that about 70 percent of the population were pro-NLF, and only 1 percent openly supported the government, the rest being neutral.
The situation in Laos was similar. The problem there, Hilsman writes, was that "the Communist Pathet Lao were busy drumming up popular support in the two northern provinces, and there were some fears that they would launch a military offensive -- although in retrospect the threat seems more likely to have been an expansion of political control based on winning peasant support in the villages." The "threat" was revealed in the 1958 elections. Despite extensive US efforts to subvert them, 9 Pathet Lao (NLHS) candidates and 4 "left-leaning neutralists" were elected (along with 5 right-wingers and 3 non-party delegates), and the leading NLHS figure, Prince Souphanouvong, received more votes than any other candidate. The US was therefore compelled to overthrow the government, placing the ultra-right in power and running elections rigged so crudely that even the most pro-US observers were appalled, while the State Department conceded that the NLHS was "in a position to take over the entire country" by 1961 because of their effective organizing. Hilsman held that "pro-Western, anti-Communist neutrality" -- a revealing concept, standard in the literature -- "might be the most that could be expected from a country like Laos."30
In the face of these bitter realities in South Vietnam, Bergerud continues, the US had only one option: violence. For Kennedy and his circle, violence raised at most tactical problems; the client regime understood that there was no other choice, despite the negative impact on villagers when Diem's agents "beheaded suspects in neighboring hamlets" and otherwise murdered, tortured, and destroyed. "Pacification activities in Hau Nghia were basically coercive in nature from the very beginning, despite `revolutionary' programs or rhetoric coming from CORDS [the "hearts and minds" contingent] or the GVN. Force, much of it coming from the U.S. Army, was always the key component." "Almost all `progress' was coercive," and "essentially negative," aimed merely at "military attrition" of the indigenous resistance. In February 1965, the US began regular bombing of Front zones in Hau Nghia, which "were early and frequent targets of the B-52s," with their massive and indiscriminate destruction. By the time the 25th Division arrived, "most free fire zones had become largely depopulated." Crop destruction and other defoliation operations were undertaken from 1962 in the hope they "would force villagers to leave Front areas and move to regions that had a GVN presence and were thus safe from spraying." From the outset, "anything of importance that was accomplished...was due to coercion and violence, most of it supplied by U.S. forces."
The coercion and violence had their successes. Crop destruction and other atrocities caused peasants to flee to "safety." "The huge number of Front followers killed, wounded, captured, or driven to surrender shook the Front very badly." And the US military campaign did cause "great destruction and much loss of innocent life," removing much of the population to "safety" as "Slowly the hamlets were eaten away by small VC initiated incidents and massive U.S. retaliation" (civilian adviser Ollie Davidson). The post-Tet pacification campaign, with its virtually unrestrained terror, finally produced "favorable trends." ("High Tide for the Allies: 1970" is the chapter heading.)
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29 Race, War; Bergerud, Dilemmas. I am personally indebted to Race for having shared some of his material with me in the late 1960s. Though I could not cite it before publication, it influenced my own understanding of the war.
30 Hilsman, To Move a Nation, 112. See AWWA, ch. 3.