Vietnam Is the Place 5

Nhu, an unleavened intellectual who was more at home in the Latin Quarter than in Vietnam, neither understood the countryside nor really cared about the peasants. He issued instructions based on his theories, and the South Vietnamese bureaucracy, much of it composed of remnants from the French colonial period, routinely obeyed. An¬cient patterns were wantonly disrupted in many areas. In the Mekong Delta, for instance, where communities were traditionally strung out along canals, sometimes for miles, villagers were concentrated, often under duress, in barbed wire enclosures from which they had to walk long distances to their fields. Frequently, strategic hamlets were thrown together in such slapdash fashion that Vietcong agents re¬mained inside, acting as informers for their comrades.
Interestingly, Nhu’s chief lieutenant in carrying out the strategic hamlet program was Colonel Pham Ngoc Thao, the secret Com¬munist operative. Years afterward, Communist sources would dis¬close to me that Thao had deliberately propelled the program ahead at breakneck speed in order to estrange South Vietnam’s peasants and drive them into the arms of the Vietcong. Nhu had been duped.
At the working level, American soldiers and civilians in Vietnam decried the strategic hamlet scheme. One U.S. officer in the Mekong Delta criticized Diem’s lopsided priorities, saying that he was “try¬ing to hold everything and thus holding very little.” Another asserted that the strategic hamlets were paralyzing South Vietnamese forces that ought to be fighting the Vietcong, and yet another pointed out that Diem’s officials totally misconstrued the program. “They only want to please the regime. They haven’t the faintest idea what makes peas¬ants tick—and how can they? They’re city boys who earned pro¬motions by kissing the asses of their bosses, and all they care about is getting back to Saigon to get promoted again.” Diem predictably dismissed such misgivings, describing the strategic hamlets as “a means to institute basic democracy” in Vietnam, and Nhu termed them “an enthusiastic movement of solidarity and self-sufficiency.”
Despite negative appraisals from the field, senior Kennedy admin¬istrative figures hailed the program. Roger Hilsman, then the State Department intelligence director, called it “an effective strategic con¬cept,” and McNamara praised its progress in “countering subversion.” But these accolades mainly reflected a yearning for positive signs at the upper echelons of the U.S. establishment. General Paul Harkins, head of the American military assistance command in South Vietnam, fed Washington rosy reports, saying openly that “I am optimistic, and I am not going to allow my staff to be pessimistic.”
Hopes were no substitute for reality, however, and the strategic hamlets soon crumbled. In late 1962, though, the introduction of U.S. helicopters and other equipment into Vietnam did seem to make a difference—for a while.
The U.S. helicopters, piloted by Americans, had two tasks. Some ferried South Vietnamese troops into action, while others, bristling with machine guns and rockets, flanked the airlift to attack the bat¬tlefield before the landing. I participated in such an operation at the time aboard a UH 1-B, or “Huey,” one of a fleet of six armed choppers accompanying three South Vietnamese battalions in an assault against suspected Vietcong positions in the Camau peninsula, at the south¬ernmost tip of the Mekong Delta.
We took off in a cloud of dust from Saigon’s Tonsonhut airport at sunrise, the crew consisting of two American officers, one at the controls and the other directing fire, and two enlisted men as spotters. We wore bulletproof vests and sat on heavy flak jackets. This heli¬copter mission, like others I later experienced, would be hours of boredom punctuated by a few minutes of fright.
The Mekong Delta lay below us, an intricate tapestry of canals and irrigation ditches. The crew members chatted casually, one of them snapping photos as if he were a tourist on an excursion. Soon we observed the target ahead, an area already bombed and strafed by artillery and fighter aircraft. We circled over the site as the troop carriers descended like giant birds to a landing zone. Peering out the open helicopter door, I could discern figures in black pajamas on the ground, scurrying in different directions. It was impossible to deter¬mine whether they were guerrillas or ordinary peasants, but the Viet¬cong was certainly in the vicinity. Tracer bullets came toward us, rising in arcs, and the chopper shook as the crew replied with a salvo of rockets and the rattle of machine guns. I held my breath, fearful of a hit. But we were spared, and we soon cruised lazily back to Saigon as the crew consumed box lunches of fried chicken and lemonade. When we landed at Tonsonhut, one of the officers relieved the tension with a quip: “Now how much do you suppose that outing cost the American taxpayers?”
Television screens and publications in the United States were then already portraying Americans in combat, but the public at home had not yet grasped the implications of the phenomenon, perhaps because casualties were small. The country was also prepared to trust the president, even though he blatantly dissembled. For example, there was no further inquiry when Kennedy, asked at a news conference on January 15, 1962, if U.S. troops were engaged in fighting in Viet- nam, delivered a one-word answer: “No.”
The heliborne deployments initially lacerated the Vietcong, whose remote sanctuaries could now be penetrated, but the guerrillas grad¬ually adapted to the new challenge. They dug trenches and tunnels as shelters against helicopter raids, and they methodically practiced as¬saults against full-scale mock-ups of choppers constructed in jungle clearings. They also acquired more sophisticated weapons, either in¬filtrated from North Vietnam or by ambushing South Vietnamese units. Soon they were able to mortar helicopters on the ground or pepper them aloft with automatic fire. As we nursed our beers at a Saigon officers’ club, one American chopper pilot was still shaking after a night flight back from the Mekong Delta. Bad weather had forced him to cruise at low altitude, and he said: “Man, it was the Fourth of July—tracers coming up everywhere.”

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