Strategic Hamlet Program

The Rural Community Development Program

In late 1950s, the Communists began to increase their activities in the South Vietnam. In December 1960, the National Liberation Front (NLF) was formed and rapidly controlled large sections of South Vietnamese countryside. Realizing that he was losing South Vietnam to the Vietcong village by village, President Diem and his brother, Nhu implemented the Rural Community Development Program in 1959. The program, which modelled the success of a similar program used by the British in Malaya from 1940 to 1960, attempted to relocate peasants in rural communities to protected communities called “Argovilles”, thereby separating them from the Viet Cong’s contact and influence. However, due the mass resettlement, the program received strong opposition from the peasants .

Strategic Hamlet Program

In November 1961, Sir Robert Thompson, a veteran of the Malayan counter-insurgency effort, now was head of the British Advisory Mission to South Vietnam, formally proposed to Diem a plan for pacification of the Delta, later known as the Strategic Hamlet Program. The Program was supported by the U.S. with a desire to achieve concrete results from local operations. “Operation SUNRISE”, the first pacification effort, was conducted in March 1962.

Strategic Hamlets

Strategic hamlets were special villages, which had barbed wire or bamboo fence surrounding the hamlet to keep it away from Vietcong. In the hamlets, the government had built school, hospital, electricity, and some modern conveniences to encourage the peasants to move in. The peasants would be provided with weapons and military training to enable them to defend themselves. If necessary, the South Vietnamese Army, who stationed in the region, would come to aid the hamlets.

The Strategic Hamlets were constructed as a system in which each hamlet was connected to each other. When the first hamlets had been secured from the enemy, the next would be added and secured shortly after, expanding like the “oil blot”. More than just providing physical security, the government’s goal would be using hamlets to improve the peasants’ lives and institute reforms.

According to the Pentagon Paper, in September 1962, just about six month after the first resettlement effort, 3,225 hamlets had already been completed and 4.3 million people were relocated. By July 1963, 8.5 million people had been settled in 7,205 hamlets. However, with this incredible rate of construction, the South Vietnamese government was unable to provide adequate and necessary support for the hamlets and its residents. Problems started to come in.

Implementation Problems

Most of problems, according to the Pentagon Papers, came from the erroneous policies and particularly poor executions by the Diem regime.

Contrary to Thompson’s theory, Diem and Nhu decided to relocate most villages rather than restructuring them. That required a lot of efforts, lost affection and increased resentment from peasants who worshipped their ancestors’ land. Even those who were willing to move did not always receive the promised financial compensation from the government. Most of compensated money fell into pocket of corrupt government officials.

Security shortcomings was another major problem the Program was facing. Ignoring the “oil blot” principle or “geographical priorities”, the South Vietnamese government quickly built strategic hamlets in crazy speed without much consideration. Many hamlets were isolated, not mutually supporting and easy became targets for Vietcong. Military support for the hamlets were another weakness. Provided weapons and training only helps the peasants hold Viet Cong’ attacks while waiting for reinforcements which were unreliable, especially when the attacks occurred after nightfall. Taking the advantage, Vietcong easily trespassed and overran the poorly defended hamlets.

Eventual Failure

Despite all Diem regime’s efforts on the program, the number of Viet Cong had increased significantly 300% to reach 17,000 just in 2 years. By 1963, it was quite obviously that the program was failing as the Viet Cong had already controlled over 1/5 of South Vietnamese villages. Especially after the November 1 coup which led to the assassination of President Diem and his brother Nhu, the Strategic Hamlets Program almost died with them. It was later discovered that only 20% of the reportedly “complete hamlets” met the minimum American standards in terms of readiness and security, which was too terrible for any possible recovery. Although successor government tried to resuscitate the program as “New Life Hamlets”, it still ended early in 1964.

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