276. Despatch From the Ambassador in Vietnam (Reinhardt) to the Department of State1

No. 156


  • Conversation with President Diem on Village Defense Units

Enclosed for the information of the Department is a memorandum of conversation between President Diem, General O’Daniel, General Williams, and myself on the subject of village auto-defense units, sometimes referred to as rural militia. The development of a system of village auto-defense units, averaging 10 men each for an estimated 6,000 villages, has been much on the minds of high Vietnamese Government officials in the past few months. Embassy telegram 1497, dated September 30,2 reported President Diem’s previous expression of interest in this subject. The recent regrouping of Vietnamese Army units into new divisional organizations, which has given Viet Minh cadres in many sections of the country greater freedom to commit acts of terrorism, has added an extra note of urgency to this problem.

During the past week, [name and title deleted] expounded on the village defense plan at some length to the joint Defense–ICA costing team now in Saigon, headed by Major General William Lawton. In addition to repeating the arguments made by President Diem as reported in the enclosed memorandum of conversation, [name deleted] emphasized the great advantage of having village security protected by local villagers who would be on call twenty four hours a day, and who were thoroughly familiar with local conditions and therefore more likely to be able to detect Viet Minh and dissident sect elements than either the Army or the Garde Civile, [name deleted] also made much of the relative cheapness of this form of protection, pointing out that the members of the rural militia required neither uniforms nor housing and would be paid only 300 piasters a month by the government, plus a rice ration contributed by the village.

The Embassy expects to receive shortly from the Vietnamese Government a written proposal outlining the organization of a village defense corps and asking for US financial support.3

G. Frederick Reinhardt
[Page 582]


Memorandum of a Conversation, Saigon, November 7, 1955


  • President Diem
  • Ambassador Reinhardt
  • General O’Daniel
  • General Williams

When General O’Daniel, General Williams and I called on President Diem the evening of November 7 to discuss US approval of a 150,000 man force level for the Vietnamese Armed Forces, the President took the occasion to make a strong and lengthy plea for US financial support for the immediate development of a system of village auto-defense units. He expounded on the subject for over an hour. His thesis was the urgent need for the development of an adequate defense against continued Viet Minh terrorism and sabotage at the village level in numerous provincial areas of the country. Although this requirement for village defense was one of long standing, as attested by the Ministry of Defense’s study on the subject last March, two recent developments which had rendered the situation critical were the regrouping of VNA units into the new divisional organization and the imminence of elections for a National Assembly. Some of his associates were now insisting that if such a system were not organized shortly, it would not be possible to hold the elections as planned. In reply to my query whether the village defense system had not already been inaugurated in various areas, he admitted it had, but insisted that it was a makeshift effort and was being done in part with funds which the Governors had diverted from their proper use and in part on credit. Even this limited undertaking could not go on for more than a month or two on such a basis. His plan was for village defense units averaging ten men each for an estimated 6,000 villages. The men would be paid 500 piasters by the National Government, and their rice would be provided by the individual village. At a later stage in his presentation, the President said that if US financial support were only to the amount of 300 piasters per man, it would still be possible for him to establish the desired organization.

The President said that, in general, the Viet Minh retained a considerable capacity for terrorism and sabotage throughout the country. They were, however, unwilling to reveal the exact magnitude of their capability at this time. They were limiting their terroristic acts to methodical isolated forays calculated to terrorize the villages and to disrupt administrative and economic progress in the countryside. Until recently, the wide deployment of VNA battalions [Page 583] had kept this activity down to a minimum, but the current withdrawal of these units for regrouping into divisional organizations had left many areas uncovered. Both civil and military officials were pressing him for something to fill the gap, and many unit commanders were reluctant for this reason to withdraw their forces from areas occupied at present. He cited as an example of this problem a recent raid carried out by Viet Minh forces during which they burned fifty-seven houses in a village near Long Xuyen the day following the withdrawal of the VNA battalion which had been stationed in the vicinity. The President said that in some areas this methodical Viet Minh action took the form of assassinating one or two notables of a village. This was an effective way of terrorizing their surviving colleagues on the village council.

General O’Daniel asked whether the territorial battalions were being fully utilized to replace the battalions being moved into the new divisional organizations. The President said they were, and that the civil guard was being used to the maximum. The problem, he said, in its simplest terms, was that the resources available were not adequate to meet the total security requirements.

He mentioned as areas particularly troublesome those which have long been recognized as most subject to Viet Minh influence, namely: the plateau area north of Kontum, the mountains behind Quang Ngai from which a raid had been made against the city by some one hundred armed men at the time of the referendum; the whole area between Baria and Phan Thiet, which he said the French had never been able to occupy nor had his government to date; the Plaine des Joncs where there was collaboration between Ba Cut’s Hoa Hao remnants and Viet Minh; and finally, the Ca Mau Peninsula. In the course of the foregoing exposé, he mentioned incidentally that there was some evidence that certain Binh Xuyen remnants had succeeded in crossing from Phan Thiet to the Plaine des Joncs where they had joined up with the Hoa Hao and Viet Minh elements operating there. He also mentioned that in their joint operations with sect remnants the Viet Minh had so far used the sects as a cover and had not revealed their own true identity in those exercises.

When asked by General Williams why it was not possible to organize village defense units without putting them on the government payroll, the President said that the economic level of the villages as a result of the many years of war was still too low for the villages to support the expense, and that it was necessary to provide a strong nucleus around which to build morale and the will to self-defense in the villages. He agreed with General Williams’ observation that this could only be achieved if the units were properly trained and controlled. Diem went on to say that, traditionally, the villages had had a voluntary police system in which the able bodied men of a village [Page 584] took their turn at serving as night watchmen. This was before the war when there were no firearms in the hands of the people, and the night watchman, who himself was unarmed, had nothing worse to contend with than an occasional sneak thief against whom he could arouse the whole village. During the Indochinese War, on the other hand, a system of auto-defense units in Vietnam had been supported by the French administration. Since they were made up of local personnel who knew the community in which they lived, they had been, in fact, a more effective anti-Communist instrument than the army itself. Unfortunately, these units had been dissolved after Geneva.

I told the President and [title deleted] who was present at the meeting that if they would submit to us a written proposal for US financial support for this project, it would be given the most immediate and sympathetic attention.

G. Frederick Reinhardt
  1. Source: Department of State, Central Files, 751G.00/11–1755. Secret. Drafted by Reinhardt.
  2. Not printed. (Ibid., 751G.00/9–3055)
  3. In telegram 2254 from Saigon, November 26, the Embassy reported that it had received such a proposal and was considering a response. (Ibid., 751G.00/11–2655) For the Embassy’s response, see Document 280.