116. Letter From the Officer in Charge of Vietnam Affairs (Heavner) to the Deputy Director of the Vietnam Task Force (Wood)1

Dear Ben: You will no doubt get a copy of the Hickey-Donnell report2 in due time. I think, however, that you may be interested now [Page 248]in some of the things they said Friday3 in a debriefing session at MAAG. Their work is not finished, so some of the ideas may be changed by future observations as well as by being filtered through Heavner.

The outstanding conclusion seemed to be that strategic hamlets do make for better security, that relocation of the people in strategic hamlets is feasible in general, but that the GVN is still making many of the errors which characterized the agroville program, i.e. implementing the plan with no regard for the hardships imposed on the local population. Another conclusion was that the people very much need and hope for more agricultural extension assistance from the GVN. Both Hickey and Donnell seemed to feel that increased agricultural assistance in the form of credit, fertilizer, improved seeds, stock and expert advice are essential to winning over the peasantry.

They reported that at Cu Chi in Binh Duong province they found the people openly resentful over the labor and material demands made on them to construct the strategic hamlets there. They learned that although the laborers were supposed to get nominal pay (10 piasters a day), none actually received any money or food, that some had worked as long as 49 consecutive days on the project, that many laborers will not live in the hamlet and so derive no personal benefit from the project, that building the hamlet cut deeply into the second crop (tobacco) because they did not have time to plant and water it, and that many were facing genuine economic distress as a result. Hickey and Donnell felt these gripes were quite legitimate.

A simple solution here of course is to pay the workers. But this requires piaster resources. Another solution to the Cu Chi problem is suggested by the fact that one area visited is hiring a bulldozer from a nearby plantation to construct the earthworks around the village. In part at least, this could be done with dollars.4

Still another idea is suggested by the fact that Hickey and Donnell saw several variants on the strategic hamlet, some of which are much easier and much less expensive than the Cu Chi model (which is apparently pretty much on the lines of the Hilsman prototype). In Vinh Long they found strategic hamlets with no encircling fortifications but a “defensive bloc” at or near the center of the hamlet. This bloc was fortified by spike boards and mines made from hand grenades. These could be taken up in the day time. In Kien Hoa, no fortifications are built by the famous Colonel Thao, who thinks they are generally unnecessary. He builds a hamlet office, information post, and guard post and calls it done. He concedes, however, that in some [Page 249]areas earthworks may be required. His approach is in general much slower than that used at Cu Chi; he is not paying the peasants either, but neither is he applying great pressure.

While the rather unhappy picture at Cu Chi is almost certainly quite accurate, I should say I think much of the discontent will wear off if security really improves. (Donnell tentatively agrees.) The Vietnamese are wonderful gripers, and let off steam in the same way our GIʼs do whenever they catch a sympathetic ear. Also Hickey and Donnell found that in Vinh Long the people generally seemed to like the idea of strategic hamlets, particularly because the better security made it possible for relatives to visit during Tet. And in the Hoa Hao area around Sadec, people seemed almost enthusiastic about the strategic hamlets. This was the only area visited where the people were quite vocal about the hamlets being useful in keeping the VC out. (This suggests to me that there may be more validity than I had supposed in the idea that the Hoa Hao are still an untapped source of GVN support.) And even in Cu Chi people liked the fact that the strategic hamlets keep the “agitators” out.

Among other interesting observations that emerged is the fact that the NRM and other mass organizations have virtually disappeared in the countryside. The only active GVN organization at the rice roots seems to be the Republican Youth and various auto-defense groups. This is perhaps not altogether bad. The five-family system is not working well because the heads of the family groups often refuse any responsibility (which is not surprising, given the security situation and the rewards of heading the group).

A point stressed by the team is the immediate importance of agricultural assistance at hamlet level. In this connection, it is worth repeating Hickeyʼs observation that the peasants do not think in terms of future benefits. Saving is rare in the villages; a good crop simply means larger feasts on the suitable occasions. This means, as Warren has been saying, that plans for long-range economic development, however well conceived, are far less important in this struggle than rural impact programs.5 (It is difficult to convince people of this. The fact that a mobile medical team in a hamlet will be talked about for months even though it helps fewer people less efficiently than building up provincial hospitals is difficult to sell. Medical teams in the villages would have impact. And they would reach people who will never venture near the provincial hospitals for political or financial reasons.)

Few peasants actually stated they want increased security and one peasant engaged in constructing a strategic hamlet told the team that she was carrying bamboo to build a fence around “Mr. Communist.”[Page 250]This seems to point up a failure on the information side. Hickey and Donnell said in response to a question that the population got a week of advance information in Cu Chi before construction started. Colonel Thao generally works them over for three or four weeks, by his own account at least, before setting up a strategic hamlet. This could make quite a difference.

Among the teamʼs tentative recommendations is better training and organization for hamlet and village level defense forces and increased salaries (paid on time) for the SDC and for village and hamlet chiefs. (Although they did not mention the need for more training of hamlet and village officials, the team did note that no training programs were in evidence except in Kien Hoa, where the wonderful Colonel Thao runs a continuous course for his people which lasts for three and a half months.) They stressed agricultural extension, as noted above, and also approved Colonel Thaoʼs idea of using the old Council of Notables to backstop the village administrative councils in terms of advice, some control, and by lending their prestige to council actions. (Thao is also using the Cult Committees in some way not entirely clear to me.) One idea, also Thaoʼs, that does not seem very convincing is the suggestion that we are overstressing the hamlet at the expense of the village, and that we must decide whether we are going to focus on strengthening the hamlets or the village administrative structure. Thao thinks we are now tending to overstress the hamlet.

The team also reported that they never encountered any anti-American feeling. The role of the U.S. is not well understood, however, and the Commie line that we have replaced the French is perhaps making some headway.

I am champing at the bit somewhat here in Saigon. While Hickey and Donnell sound very right to me now, I would like to check it out, and hope that Thuan will soon name the GVN team members so we can get on with the surveys.

My best to all there,

Sincerely,

Ted
  1. Source: Department of State, Central Files, 751K.S/3-1962. Secret; Official-Informal. Heavner was in Vietnam to assist with provincial surveys. Two handwritten notations were on the source text, one requesting that a copy be sent to Stoneman, the other indicating that it had been done. Stoneman was the AID officer responsible for Vietnam.
  2. Not found.
  3. March 16.
  4. At this point in the source text, a note in an unidentified hand reads: “How about using some of the SDP bulldozers sitting in Saigon?”
  5. At this point in the source text, a note reads: “Hear, hear.”