197. Research Memorandum From the Deputy Director of the Bureau of Intelligence and Research (Denney) to the Acting Secretary of State1

RFE-58

SUBTECT

  • Strategic Hamlets

Public misconceptions concerning the strategic hamlet program in the Republic of Vietnam have prompted us to review its aims and development as well as assess its implications for future developments.

ABSTRACT

The basic purpose of the strategic hamlets is to achieve the widest possible popular response to the government’s counterinsurgency effort by (1) providing the peasant with an increasing degree of physical [Page 435]security from Communist intimidation and (2) enacting social, economic and political reforms meaningful to the peasants. In addition to arming volunteer peasant groups, elections, medical facilities, education, and social services provide a community development program within the strategic hamlets that may have favorable long-range social and political effects. Arising out of local initiatives in 1961, the program received full central government support in 1962 and has already proved effective in stemming Communist successes, as evidenced by military actions on the ground as well as Communist propaganda attacks, in Vietnam and abroad, against the strategic hamlets. While the program has moved too rapidly for adequate implementation in some areas, its general accomplishment to date has been highly promising.

Aims and Objectives

The basic purpose of the strategic hamlet program is to achieve the widest possible popular response to the government’s counterinsurgency effort by providing the peasants with an increasing degree of physical security from Communist intimidation and by enacting social, economic, and political reforms meaningful to the peasants in the context of their own traditions and expectations. It should be noted that in a country such as Vietnam, which has emerged only recently from almost a hundred years of colonial rule and where popular concepts of government have long been locally rather than nationally oriented, the very fact that a national government would seek to serve and protect the citizenry might itself be considered revolutionary.

The immediate security objectives of the program are two-fold—first, to sever Communist communication and control lines to the rural populace and thus deny the Communists the local resources (manpower, food, intelligence, and weapons) necessary to their operations; and second, to promote a nationwide self-defense effort at the rice-roots level by providing the peasant with weapons and other defense facilities. The immediate political objectives are to create the desire and will to resist Communist blandishments and, at the same time, strengthen the popular image of the government by providing the peasant with increased social and economic benefits and by improving political and administrative services in the hamlets.

In addition to these immediate objectives, the strategic hamlet program may well have important implications for long-range social and political development in Vietnam. President Diem and other high government officials have repeatedly stated that the strategic hamlet program will create a social, economic, and political revolution in the countryside which will uproot vested economic interests, implant lasting political democracy and efficient and benevolent administration at the local level, and raise the peasant to a new social status.

[Page 436]

What is the Strategic Hamlet?

Although the village formally constitutes the lowest local administrative unit in Vietnam, each village actually consists of several almost self-sustaining settlements or hamlets of varying size, frequently scattered over an appreciable distance. (There are some 2,500 villages in Vietnam, while hamlets number about 14,000.) In an insurgency situation, this distribution pattern very obviously poses major problems for maintaining security and defense and would normally require an extraordinarily large police, security, and military force merely to maintain a presence, much less engage in effective operations. The strategic hamlet approach, therefore, replaces the soldier or policeman with the part-time “civilian volunteer,” or in the American tradition, the “minuteman.”

The strategic hamlet is essentially a fortified hamlet, as shown in Attachment A, a sketch.2 Generally, only hamlets in relatively insecure areas or fairly close to Communist strongholds are selected for fortification. Peasant huts removed from the hamlet concentration pattern are brought closer to the center of the pattern, thus limiting the, distance involved in the regroupment. A fence of bamboo and barbed wire is built around the entire hamlet, and a ditch or moat is dug around the fence; the ditch or moat, in turn, is encircled by an earthen mound. The area immediately around the village is cleared to permit fields of fire and to avoid giving guerrillas and terrorists hiding places close to the hamlet.

[Page 437]

Inside the strategic hamlet, there are one or more observation towers, guardposts, and a defense post for storage of arms. An alarm system, either of the most rudimentary type (a bell, gong, or bamboo drum) or of field telephones, alerts the community to Communist attack. An increasing number of strategic hamlets have also received small radio sets which enable them to maintain direct communication with the government administrative and military-security structure at the district level, and ultimately with the central government complex m Saigon.

Defense is maintained largely by volunteers or recruits from the hamlet population and frequently from among the youth. They are given arms and trained in their use. The hamlet militia can also count on nearby units of the regular security services, the Self Defense Corps and the Civil Guard, and on the army for assistance in case of a major Communist attack. Some of the strategic hamlets, because of their proximity to Communist strongholds, are better fortified and frequently are referred to as “defended” hamlets.

Inside the hamlets, the government has taken increasing measures to improve the general lot of the peasant. It has established permanent dispensaries or sent in medical teams, where once modern medical attention was unknown; it has established or rebuilt schools, formerly non-existent or destroyed by the Communists; it has built market places where farmers can bring their produce in order to encourage business; and new roads, wells, and a number of community development projects have been started. Agricultural credit and fertilizer have been provided to the farmer, and agricultural technicians have come to help the farmer improve production. For example, loans by the National Agricultural Credit Office to peasant farmers and repayments of these loans have risen sharply since the beginning of 1963; farmers in strategic hamlets have received more that 50% by value of these loans. In 10 central provinces alone, the government is distributing more than 19,000 tons of fertilizer which will be in time for this season’s planting.

On the political side, the government has drawn up “communal charters” for the hamlets, legalized and developed a formal administrative structure heretofore lacking or very rudimentary, and has accelerated a training program for hamlet officials. Election of these officials by secret ballot, provided by law, has actually begun in many provinces and will be extended to all hamlets. These officials in turn vote for village officials; village elections have also started and are expected to take place in more than half of the 2,500 villages within the next few months.

Origins and Development

The strategic hamlet program in the Republic of Vietnam began during the latter part of 1961. It grew out of a variety of security and political measures adopted by local officials, acting to a considerable extent on their own initiative to defend their areas from the growing Communist campaign of guerrilla warfare, terrorism, and intimidation. The government of President Ngo Dinh Diem, recognizing the effectiveness of these scattered efforts, responded quickly and threw its entire resources behind the development of a national strategic hamlet program, drawing on its knowledge of the Communist insurgencies in Malaya and Indochina and even the Kibbutz program in Israel. In February 1962, a high level government inter-agency committee was established to coordinate, direct, and support the program on a national scale, and the following April, the National Assembly passed a resolution declaring the strategic hamlet program a national policy.

Before the end of 1962, the central government was providing funds, administrative and technical skills, and material through the United States assistance program for the construction of strategic hamlets. Training programs were instituted for hamlet administrative and [Page 438]self-defense personnel. Considerable progress was made in regularizing the procedures for implementing the hamlet program and in informing the public of its objectives. The government promulgated a body of laws and regulations which provide a legal basis for the administrative and governmental organization and internal security of strategic hamlets. As the construction of these hamlets progressed, the government proceeded to implement a variety of economic, social, and political measures within the hamlets, coordinating them with actual military operations against the insurgents. What has since emerged is a nationally directed and supported program, embodying a variety of military and non-military concepts designed to meet the Communist threat at the rice-roots level. Indeed, the strategic hamlet program is now the focal point of the Vietnam Government’s comprehensive counterinsurgency effort.

Despite the national character of the strategic hamlet program, the government continues to recognize that the effectiveness of the program depends largely on local initiative and response. Since July 1962, therefore, direct responsibility for planning and implementing the strategic hamlet program has been placed officially in the hands of local committees composed of civil and military officials and operating within each of Vietnam’s 41 provinces. These committees draw up detailed plans for strategic hamlets, and then submit them for approval by the central government. Since the program is largely locally initiated and directed, it does require local support contributions above those made by the central government. The importance of the strategic hamlet program is reflected in President Diem’s reference to the program in his state-of-the-union message to the National Assembly on October 1. 1962, as shown below:

This vast movement, born in the heat of war, is our preemptory reply to the Communist challenge. It brings us, along with the certainty of victory, the pride to live as free men today and tomorrow … .3 The strategic hamlet is also and primarily the point of impact of a political and social revolution which will serve as a foundation for our economic revolution. On the political level, as security is restored by the defense system of the strategic hamlet and the careful screening of the local enemy elements, democracy and the guarantee of the law can be implemented.

Communist Reaction

Communist reaction to the strategic hamlet program has been intense. North Vietnam and its “National Front for the Liberation of South Vietnam,” as well as Moscow and Peiping, have called strategic hamlets “concentration camps” into which “people are forcibly herded.” North Vietnamese propaganda has charged that the Vietnam [Page 439]Government will “herd 14 million rural, urban, and mountain people” into strategic hamlets which will be used “to trample upon the life, customs, habits, democratic freedom, and the most common sentiments and interest of human beings”—ultimately to “annihilate” the Vietnamese people. Communist propaganda has blatantly called upon the Vietnamese people not only to resist the program but also to destroy hamlets wherever they exist.

On the ground, Communist guerrillas, terrorists, and agents are making a major armed and subversive effort against strategic hamlets. Armed attacks have risen sharply, but the percentage of their success has been very small. Attempts to destroy or burn fences are frequent. Communist agents use bribery, threats, and intimidation to gain entrance into the hamlets and to keep peasants from participating or to entice them to leave. Many local officials who refused to heed Communist threats have been assassinated or kidnapped.

Critique

It is still early to make definitive and detailed evaluations of the strategic hamlet program. It must be remembered that it has been in existence as a national program for just over one year. However impressive the claim by the Vietnam Government that more than 5,000 strategic hamlets have been constructed, many problems have arisen during this period requiring modification and readjustment in procedures. The Vietnam Government has recognized that this is a bold new effort and that mistakes will be made and has reacted quickly to remedy and improve the situation. For example, the physical defenses of strategic hamlets admittedly vary in quality and, in some cases, leave much to be desired. Since many hamlets are still in the early stage of development, defense and security measures as well as various political, social, and economic projects are still somewhat deficient. Finally, a program of this magnitude requires a large pool of administrative and technical personnel and a considerable effort by the government to educate and train such personnel in both the conceptual and practical requirements of a revolutionary program.

On balance, however, the strategic hamlet has been a success. Much of the concern and hesitation originally shown by the peasants has disappeared, partly because of the Vietnam Government’s improved public information program but also because of the security and other benefits the peasants have received once they moved into the hamlets. The hamlet militia is exhibiting both the desire and capability to fight, and there are increasing reports of peasants volunteering intelligence on the Communists and of welcoming the strategic hamlet program because it has freed them from Communist intimidation and “taxation.” Commerce has been considerably revived in the countryside, and there has even been a spurt in the construction and reconstruction [Page 440]of dwellings. More than one hundred thousand Montagnards or tribesmen have voluntarily left the Communist-controlled mountain areas in large groups and have asked for asylum in strategic hamlets. Finally, the strategic hamlet program has already reduced the total area and population under Communist control or influence and has weakened Communist strength and logistics capabilities. Communist guerrillas are reportedly experiencing morale problems and shortages of food and supplies in many areas, and have resorted increasingly to outright theft and harassment of the peasant in order to gain supplies and recruits. These tactics will only serve to decrease still further the Communist base of operations.

The conclusion that the strategic hamlet program has been successful is further supported by the very efforts the Communists are making to subvert it. Intelligence reports clearly indicate that the Communist insurgents regard the program as constituting one of the most serious threats to their continued operations and are now attempting to develop a strategy of their own to counter the strategic hamlet. The Communist propaganda line that the hamlets are “concentration camps” is obviously part of this strategy. Of course, the Communists fail to note that the “internees” are provided weapons. Admittedly, bamboo and barbed wire fences exist, but these are to keep Communist guerrillas and terrorists out rather than the villagers in. Identity cards have been issued to hamlet inhabitants, but these are to identify Communist agents rather than to control the peasants. There is thus a degree of regimentation, but the Vietnam Government is faced with a grim, prolonged war. Thus some form of regimentation is unavoidable and indeed desirable.

Strategic Hamlet: Citadel or Concentration Camp?

Communist charges from Moscow, Peiping, and Hanoi to the effect that strategic hamlets are “concentration camps” ignore one basic fact: the residents are armed. The barbed wire, bamboo spike barricades, and watch towers protect the hamlet and are manned by peasants. The immediate purpose of the strategic hamlet is to permit the peasant to protect himself. This purpose is already achieved throughout much of the countryside. Communist intimidation and recruitment of guerrillas through terrorization cannot succeed where effective strategic hamlets exist. Communist attempts to seize local food supplies fail when volunteer militia can provide a prompt and organized response.

Beyond this minimum purpose of security, however, the strategic hamlets have a much more fundamental and important purpose. They represent an experiment in community self-development on a nationwide basis, unprecedented in Vietnamese rural life. Local initiative and local choice prevails but with provincial and central government support. [Page 441]Medical and educational services advance under the direction of locally elected officials, with funds and teams provided by higher levels of government. Agricultural credits and technical services, particularly in fertilizer distribution, give outside assistance to the isolated and scattered hamlets. Over time, these measures should provide a greater sense of loyalty and positive identification between countryside and capital, as well as substantive improvements in local well-being.

Open to any visitor from any country at any time, and under constant review, the strategic hamlet program in Vietnam is moving from infancy to solid growth in a relatively short time and against determined Communist opposition. As the opposition is defeated, the negative aspects, manifested in regimentation and military defenses, should give way to increasing freedom and self-rule. This can lay the foundation for new political relationships in Vietnam extending from peasant to presidency. Whether, indeed, this will happen depends largely upon the environment within which the strategic hamlet program develops, not only in Vietnam but throughout the entire Indochina peninsula.

  1. Source: Department of State,S/P Files: Lot 70 D 199. Vietnam 1963. Unclassified.
  2. Not printed.
  3. Ellipsis in the source text.