Memorandum from the Director of the CIA to Secretary of Defense McNamara on the Strategic Hamlet Program, 13 July 1962

Source: The Pentagon Papers, Gravel Edition, Volume 2, pp. 681-684

Washington 25. D.C.


13 July 1962

MEMORANDUM FOR: The Secretary of Defense

1. Following up the conversation that you had with Mr. McCone on 6 July, he asked our Chief of Station in Saigon for an overall analysis of the situation in South Vietnam, with specific emphasis on the Strategic Hamlet Program, the Montagnard situation, and capabilities of the Armed Forces.

2. Attached herewith is a copy of report from our Chief of Station. Copies have also been furnished to Secretary Gilpatric, General Lemnitzer, General Taylor, Mr. Alexis Johnson, and Mr. Sterling Cottrell, of the SEA Task Force.

Marshall S. Carter
Lieutenant General, USA
Acting Director

Part I.

1. In assessing strategic hamlet program, think it important make distinction between program as generalized national rallying symbol and as specific tactic counterinsurgency campaign. In former sense strategic hamlet program has grown in recent months into government's major ideological and institutional tool in attempting generate popular consensus in support efforts to defeat enemy. This clear in President's double seven message on eighth anniversary his accession to power. He proclaimed this the year of strategic hamlets, describing their establishment as constituting "three-fold political, social and military revolution adapted to under-developed countries. Strategic hamlets bring the solution to our triple struggle against underdevelopment, disunity and Communism." Diem defines strategic hamlet as "militant democracy in underdeveloped countries.....the gaining of liberty, of habeas corpus and social justice by all the people, liberating them from grip of all determinisms."

2. These concepts not new, having been frequently expressed by Ngo Dinh Nhu during past year in his efforts articulate strategic hamlet concept and bring it into sharper focus. It encouraging, however, that President saw fit embrace these ideas and make them main theme double seven message. Hitherto some indication President not entirely sold on program. Nhu and other government spokesmen have been at pains make clear that strategic hamlet program is in mainstream of "personalist" philosophy which they consider South Vietnam's f alternative to Communism on one hand and Western-type liberalism on other. Whatever merits this philosophy, it has suffered from diffuseness and lack discernible application day to day problems. By tying it to strategic hamlets concept it possible they have finally found much needed focus, which may serve to arouse certain amount of support among those intellectuals not irreparably alienated from Diem regime.

3. Nhu and other supporters strategic hamlet program seem quite aware need descend from plain of philosophy in order make program attractive to peasants who are main target. In recent conversation held by the CIA Station Chief with Nhu, Nhu stated heretofore appeal VC had for peasants was in terms private and immediate interests peasants, with latter persuaded or deluded into believing Communists could best look to their material needs. Main purpose f strategic hamlet program to counter this appeal by proving to peasants that GVN can help organize defenses against VC while at same time giving them tangible benefits which will convince them they have stake in support of GVN and defeat of enemy. Extent government can actuate promise of "triple revolution" in countryside may in long run be most important result strategic hamlet program, outweighing immediate tactical advantage.

4. As tactic counterinsurgency program, should be emphasized strategic hamlets constitute only one of number of different approaches being developed to pacify countryside, even though there general tendency, even among Vietnamese, to lump all approaches together under general term strategic hamlet. Under current GVN planning strategic hamlets per se are preventive mechanism aimed at arresting erosion government control and presence in countryside. Strategic hamlets are being constructed in what Nhu calls "A" areas, i.e., areas where VC threat least serious and where government can organize village defenses most quickly and with least expenditure overextended conventional military capability. In these hamlets peasants generally must look after own defense. In "B" areas, where VC strength greater, although some strategic hamlets being built, projected major emphasis will be on construction defended hamlets, as in case Operation Sunrise in Binh Duong Province. In "B" areas provision made, in theory at least, for outside defense help from CG/SDC and in some cases from ARVN elements. In "C" areas, which deep in territory controlled by VC, concept is to establish large settlements reminiscent Diem's earlier agrovilles, into which even VC would be herded and kept pending "reeducation" and improvement security situation. This kind of resettlement must largely await future, and is in our mind most debatable feature current GVN plans. Fourth type of hamlet defense setup now envisaged by Nhu is string of kibbutztype posts to which young, highly motivated families would be sent to live on permanent basis in areas adjacent VC strongholds.

5. Techniques used strategic hamlet program. Operation Sunrise, other programs increasingly being incorporated into overall province pacification programs, of which Operation Hai Yen II in Phu Yen is prototype. Two more plans, for Binh Dinh and Quang Ngai Provinces in central Vietnam, currently in mill and outlook for several more next few months.

6. As of 30 June, there were approximately 2000 strategic hamlets already completed. This represents increase of 1300 since January 1962, indicating monthly construction rate of something over 200. GVN sources claim 7000 are scheduled for completion by end of year. Qualitatively, there is a considerable variation, some being virtual fortresses and others having only token size fences or other defensive devices which could be easily breached by Viet Cong. In past much has depended on degree energy, initiative and resources of province chief, as well as his understanding of what Nhu and other national leaders wanted in terms strategic hamlets. It is hoped some standardization effort will ensue as program becomes more clearly defined, especially through strategic hamlets cadre school, second course of which began 2 July.

7. Geographically, strategic hamlets are widely distributed. As of 30 June, about 950 had been constructed in III Corps, of which over 300 built in single province of Vinh Binh; 858 in II Corps, with highs in Darlac and Binh Dinh with 173 and 164 respectively; and 195 in I Corps, with high of 85 in Quang Nam. Low rate in I Corps may in part reflect Ngo Dinh Can's often reported coolness toward strategic hamlets concept. There have been indications recently, however, that Can has reached at least tacit understanding with brother Nhu exchanging greater support for strategic hamlets for fuller Saigon support Can's cherished Force Populaire program.

8. Generally, present strategic hamlets constructed safer areas away from main concentrations Viet Cong strength. This does not mean, however, that they not within striking distance Viet Cong elements sufficiently strong to attack isolated hamlets with serious effect. To date, there have been only few scattered instances Viet Cong attacks on strategic hamlets, but we expect pace to step up considerably, particularly at end of rainy season. That strategic hamlet program is bothering Viet Cong is well documented in form virulent propaganda attacks by Radio Hanoi and National Liberation Front outlets, in addition captured documents and agent reports, which indicate problem of how to cope with strategic hamlets now one of main Viet Cong preoccupations. This spring there were several instances of Viet Cong attacks on larger agrovilles and land development centers, which may suggest some confusion in Viet Cong minds-as well as western-as to distinction between strategic hamlets and other defended installations.

9. At this stage development strategic hamlet program, one major weakness is hit-and-miss construction with insufficient integration hamlet defenses into overall district and provincial security plans. Hamlets thus vary considerably in vulnerability to Viet Cong attack. Local observers rightly state that until country considerably more saturated with strategic hamlets, many of those already in being will be exposed to Viet Cong destruction. In our view, best way use strategic hamlets as tactic in counterinsurgency program is, when possible, to make their phased construction integral part broader pacification programs extending, where practicable, to province-wide scope. This one of more attractive aspects Hai Yen II in Phu Yen, where construction strategic hamlets carefully phased with other aspects of plan such as availability civic action teams, emplacement village defenders, and gradual displacement of Viet Cong back toward mountains.

10. As to overall popular reaction to strategic hamlet program, must confess that, as in many other aspects situation in South Vietnam, it extremely difficult come up with firm generalizations. Peasant reaction varies from district to district and province to province depending on how question handled by respective authorities. In certain cases where peasants have been directly harassed or attacked by Viet Cong, they often welcome or seek self-defense. In other instances peasants reportedly feel some initial resentment at changes enforced in way of life imposed by program, as well as at exactions of money and labor. In some cases, at least, initial coolness largely disappears as advantages of program become manifest. One of most encouraging developments is trend toward election hamlet councils. Another hopeful sign is the idea USOM now considering under which certain part its funds for direct piaster aid to provinces would be set aside for small economic projects originated by hamlet councils in consultation with district and provincial-level officials. USOM's concept is that such program would help sustain momentum of strategic hamlet idea after initial impetus for construction defenses had been dissipated.

11. In sum, we believe strategic hamlet program definitely moving forward both as organizing principle around which whole GVN counterinsurgency program has fair chance of being sold to people and as specific tactic in preventing spread Viet Cong influence among people. But strategic hamlets in themselves not sufficient to carry day against still strong and determined enemy. Until they supplemented by broader pacification programs involving wide variety of counterinsurgency measures, they remain vulnerable Viet Cong countermeasures.

II. Montagnard Situation.

12. A mixed US-GVN team currently making systematic survey 18 provinces in which montagnards live. Until survey completed and results made available, cannot provide full statistical exposition of problem. In first four provinces visited (Darlac, Tuyen Duc, Lam Dong, and Ninh Thuan) some 18,000 out of total montagnard population of about 165,000 have moved away from their normal living areas in past few months.

On basis these provinces and some subsequently visited, team has reached conclusion that there has been extensive relocation Montagnards during past six months stemming from combination of factors, including fear Viet Cong, resentment enemy confiscation of much of food supply, and new found respect for power GVN has manifested bombing attacks and use helicopters. In some instances, however, movement has been at invitation GVN in accordance with long-term plans resettle tribesmen. Thus movement 4,500 of 11,000 Montagnards in Tuyen Due made at invitation provincial officials to areas prepared in advance. With exception Tuyen Due Province (Dalat), where there 10,000 refugees, many of whom seem in need immediate provision food and other essentials, most provinces visited to date not considered have emergency situations in terms Montagnards needs. Becoming increasingly apparent, however, that GVN and U.S. faced with long term problem looking after uprooted Montagnards, either by making settlement in present locations palatable to them or preferably in creating conditions security necessary inspire them return to original locales. Whatever inspiration their movement toward GVN-controlled centers, GVN faced with opportunity and challenge forge new and better relationships with tribal people. Failure do so could conceivably mean loss entire plateau and mountain areas to Communists. As soon as we have results of survey now being undertaken, a summary of salient points will be provided.

13. Station has for some time felt GVN and U.S. agencies moving too slowly in meeting challenge of Montagnard problem, but hopes that when current survey completed situation will clarify and more expeditious action will be possible. USOM now negotiating project agreement with Lt. Colonel Cao, Chief GVN agency responsible Montagnard affairs, providing for allocation 500 million piastres directly to province chiefs for use mutually approved projects. Rationale this approach is to give greater flexibility in dealing with varying problems in connection with Montagnards in different provinces.

III. SVN Armed Forces Capabilities.

14. South Vietnam's armed forces, with about 175,000 men, have demonstrated their willingness stand up and fight enemy, and given proper tactical circumstances, have on occasion inflicted severe defeats on Viet Cong. No question RVNAF's capabilities fight at least conventional warfare have increased measurably as result long period training by MAAG. Still not convinced, however, that regular forces properly geared fight kind of war needed defeat Viet Cong, or that commanders, either by training or temperament, possess sufficient tactical flexibility and imagination seek out elusive enemy and destroy him.

15. One of major weaknesses to date has in our view been RVNAF tendency organize too large-scale operations which serve to tip off enemy giving him opportunity melt into countryside. Even when some element surprise achieved, ARVN sweep forces seem inadequately prepared with detailed tactical planning to make thorough job of it. These operations, on other hand, do serve keep Viet Cong off balance and tend prevent them from concentrating forces. In recent weeks, moreover, ARVN sweep forces have been systematically destroying VC installations and rice and ammo stocks, which inevitably will begin have serious effect on enemy supply position. Nevertheless, we feel RVNAF capabilities could be used with much more telling effect if smaller-scale operations conducted.

16. Where RVNAF have had greatest success is in blundering into sizeable concentrations Viet Cong and in responding calls for help from besieged civil guard and SDC posts. In this connection USOM-supported village radio installation program very important, as well as availability of helicopters in reserve to enable RVNAF respond rapidly to targets opportunity. When spread of strategic hamlets forces VC into larger attacking units, ARVN's capability of locating and attacking VC is expected to improve. British advisor Thompson recently pointed out, however, that it took three years after beginning of emergency in Malaya before British and Malayans really began operate effectively against Commie terrorists in various aspects of counterinsurgency program. Turning point comes when increasing numbers of villagers begin to volunteer information against Communists.

17. Vietnamese Airforce appears slowly be working its way out of political cloud it came under as result palace bombing incident last February. According air attache, performance in flying pre-planned interdiction missions and responding to calls for close-in air support improving considerably. One of main reasons for this is increasing effectiveness joint US-GVN Operations Center (JOC) in developing targets and in scheduling missions. Ambassador has frequently expressed concern whether targets being selected with proper care, fearing adverse political impact of bombing non-VC installations and concentrations of people. We share this concern but feel only remedy is steady refinement criteria for target selection utilized by JOC.

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