Vietnam Is the Place 4

For the missing element in the “quantitative measurement” that guided McNamara and other U.S. policymakers was the qualitative dimension that could not easily be recorded. There was no way to calibrate the motivation of Vietcong guerrillas. Nor could computers be programmed to describe the hopes and fears of Vietnamese peas¬ants. The arcane maneuvers of Diem and his family also baffled U.S. diplomats, who were even less equipped to influence their decisions.
But, as the war intensified, American civilian officials and soldiers were spurred on by a myopic sense of “can-doism”—the conviction that, as Americans, they could achieve anything anywhere. Their belief in their own omnipotence was stimulated, too, by pressures from their superiors in Saigon and Washington. To adopt a negative attitude was defeatism, and there were no promotions for defeatists. In con¬trast, positive reports were rewarded, even if they bore little resem¬blance to the truth.
Yet another impulse that generated Americans in Vietnam was a brand of missionary zeal, not unlike the credo that had inspired early French imperalists. But Americans gave it a different guise. They were not imposing colonialism but rather helping the Vietnamese to perfect their institutions. They called it “nation building,” and they would have been arrogant had they not been utterly sincere in their naive belief that they could really reconstruct Vietnamese society along Western lines. As they sought to teach Diem’s bureaucrats the intri¬cacies of government procedure or economic planning, however, they soon discovered to their chagrin that the Vietnamese marched to a melody alien to Western ears. During the American presidential elec¬tion of November 1960, for instance, the U.S. Information Service tabulated the incoming returns in the window of its Saigon library in an effort to publicize democracy in action. American officials were ecstatic at the turnout—until they learned that the crowd of Vietnam¬ese had assembled solely to lay bets on the numbers appearing on the scoreboard.
But U.S. withdrawal was unthinkable. Beginning in late 1961, the flow of American advisers and materiel increased—along with a rising crescendo of declarations hardening the U.S. commitment. On a trip to Saigon in early 1962, Robert Kennedy affirmed that “we are going to win,” and that theme was echoed at the time by his brother’s political adversary, Richard Nixon, who asserted that the United States ought to allocate “all the resources of which it is capable” to attain victory. Almost every American newspaper agreed with The New York Times, which stated in an editorial that the Vietnam war “is a struggle this country cannot shirk.”
Despite their verbal devotion to a common goal, the Kennedy administration and the Diem regime were proceeding along separate tracks. The U.S. establishment was also split, with one faction stress¬ing the need for a stronger political, economic and social focus to America’s involvement in Southeast Asia, and the other favoring a largely military approach. The discord was evident, in part at least, in divergent attitudes taken toward the “strategic hamlet” program, a vast and expensive enterprise launched in early 1962.
The plan was to corral peasants into armed stockades, thereby de¬priving the Vietcong of their support, which could not survive without the population, just as fish die outside water, at Mao Zedong’s image put it. The agroville scheme, a similar effort three years earlier, had been a botch, yet Diem and his brother Nhu clung to their brainchild, and they were encouraged by Robert Thompson, a British counter¬insurgency specialist who had successfully promoted a similar pro¬gram in the fight against Communist guerrillas in Malaya. But the Malayan experience did not quite fit Vietnam. The insurgents in Ma¬laya had been predominantly ethnic Chinese detested by the Malays, while Vietnamese peasants and Vietcong were indistinguishable from one another. Malaya was chronically short of rice, so that the enemy could be starved into submission, while South Vietnam was a granary in which food could not easily be denied to the Vietcong. And there was the question of objectives.
Diem and Nhu saw the strategic hamlet program as essentially a means to spread their influence rather than a device to infuse peasants with the will to resist the Vietcong. Nhu, personally taking charge, was obsessed by numbers. He tried to build stockades as fast as pos¬sible, and Thompson himself would afterward disavow them: “No attention was paid to their purpose. Their creation became the purpose in itself.”
A pilot project dubbed Operation Sunrise was launched in March 1962 in Binh Duong province, a landscape of jungles and rubber plantations north of Saigon. Vietcong units, strong in the area, melted away as government troops poured in to set up five strategic hamlets in Ben Cat district. The Vietcong stood back, watching the regime fumble. The first stockade, for example, was situated so far from the nearest market that only seventy out of two hundred peasant families moved voluntarily, carrying their meager belongings on bicycles or on their backs. They were soon disappointed when the government withheld the funds promised them until it was sure they would not bolt. The peasants were supposed to defend the hamlet themselves, but most of the able-bodied men had rallied to the Vietcong, per¬haps less out of conviction than in defiance of the regime’s coercive methods.
Two Vietnamese-speaking RAND researchers, John Donnell and Gerald Hickey, concluded after observing the Ben Cat test that it was being bungled. But with U.S. approval and financing, the government continued to commit the same errors elsewhere. Given catchy titles in different sectors, like Operation Sea Swallow or Operation Royal Phoenix, the program surged ahead; the regime announced with du¬bious precision at the end of September 1962 that 4,322,034 people, or 33.39 percent of the population, were in strategic-hamlets—with more scheduled to move. Donnell later called the figure “statistical razzle-dazzle” of the kind that pleased McNamara. It also nourished Nhu’s fantasy that he had sparked a rural revolution that would un¬dermine the Vietcong.
In reality, the program often converted peasants into Vietcong sym¬pathizers. In many places they resented working without pay to dig moats, implant bamboo stakes and erect fences against an enemy that did not threaten them but directed its sights against government of¬ficials. Numbers of strategic hamlets, therefore, were Potemkin vil¬lages mainly designed to impress visiting dignitaries. Even peasants who agreed to join local self-defense groups were disenchanted when the government failed to furnish them with weapons, and many were antagonized by corrupt officials who embezzled money earmarked for seed, fertilizer and irrigation as well as medical care, education and other social benefits.

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