Before President Johnson officially dispatched the first U.S. combat troops to Da Nang in March, 1965, the U.S. government had prepared the country for the war in Vietnam for a long time. The “Domino theory” coined by President Eisenhower in 1954 could be seen as the first propaganda effort to justify U.S. assistance for South Vietnamese government.
The theory emphasized on the strategic importance of South Vietnam in the effort to prevent the spread of communism throughout the world. It assumed that if South Vietnam fell to communism, Southeast Asia then New Zealand, Australia and even Japan would follow and thus Communism would soon become a threat to the national security1.
At a time when the Cold War tensions were high, the theory was perfectly fit in the situation. The picture of “democratic” South Vietnam was threatened by the aggression of Northern communists quickly dominated the public perspective. As a matter of fact, the “domino theory” laid the foundation for U.S. involvement in Vietnam as both President Kennedy and Johnson used it to justify their increasing assistance for South Vietnam and eventually the commitment of U.S. armed forces in 1965.
Passage to Freedom
Along with the domestic efforts to gain support for the war, the U.S. government soon began many psychological operations to assist the new government of South Vietnam.
In 1954, Col. Edward Lansdale, chief of covert action in the U.S. Saigon Military Mission, was assigned to oversee the early U.S. propaganda effort in Vietnam2. Initially, he began the “Passage to Freedom” Operation, a cooperative operation between the U.S. and French forces, in order to relocate as many persons as possible to South Vietnam under the protection of Diem regime.
In that operation, Lansdale’s “psy war” team used a number of gimmicks to swell the ranks of the refugees. South Vietnamese soldiers dressed in civilian clothes were sent North to spread unfavorable rumors such as two Chinese divisions allowed by Viet Minh had circulated throughout North Vietnam and Washington intended to launch an offensive to liberate the North after the last anti-communist Vietnamese had moved south3. These rumors were aimed at all Vietnamese north of the parallel.
Lansdale also paid a special attention to Northern Vietnamese Catholics who were opposed to communism. In fact, many propaganda efforts made use of religious sentiments to impress them. Thousands of fliers advertising that “The Virgin Mary Has Gone to the South” were distributed by Lansdale’s men throughout North Vietnam. In addition, large numbers of posters were pasted in Hanoi and Haiphong depicting communists closing a cathedral and forcing people to pray under a picture of Ho Chi Minh4.
Under extensive U.S. propaganda efforts & Diem’s encouragement, most North Vietnamese priests were keen to comply. They preached that a possible communist government would mean an end to freedom of worship and the only choice they had was to escape to the South where Diem – a fellow Catholic were running a prosperous regime. As a result, more than 60 percent of 1.5 million North Vietnamese Catholics joined the refugees5. The propaganda campaign and the exodus came as a godsend to Diem as it provided him with hundreds of thousands of people who trusted and were willing to support his government.
Chieu Hoi Program
In 1961, as President Kennedy decided to escalate the U.S. role in Vietnam, they also increased their involvement in Saigon’s propaganda operations. In early 1963, Ngo Dinh Diem, in cooperation with the U.S., launched a major initiative to encourage defections from the Viet Cong to the side of the government called “Chieu Hoi” (Open Arms). Defections were often urged by leaflets dropped by aircraft over Viet Cong territories. These leaflets would serve as “safe conduct pass” to return back to government. According to a ballpark estimate conducted by The Fourth Psychological Warfare Group at Bien Hoa, a total of 10 billion leaflets were dropped in South Vietnam6.
When a Viet Cong returned to the government, he was offered amnesty, cash, medical treatment, food, education. An estimated 20 percent of the returnees then volunteered for military service and regularly operated in the same area where they had operated as Viet Cong. The others, tired of the rigors of military life, just tried to reintegrate into the normal life of the country7.
In short, the Chieu Hoi program achieved positive results. The average cost to cause one Viet Cong defection was $125 which was significantly lower than the average cost of $400,000 to kill one. From 1963 to 1971, it was estimated that some 150,000 Viet Cong and NVA defected to South Vietnamese government8.