The Strategic Hamlet Program ( SHP; Vietnamese: Ấp Chiến lược ) was a plan by the governments of South Vietnam and the United States during the Vietnam War to combat the communist insurgency by pacifying the countryside and reducing the influence of the communists among the rural population.
In 1962, the government of South Vietnam, with advice and financing from the United States, began the implementation of the Strategic Hamlet Program. The strategy was to isolate the rural population from contact with and influence by the National Liberation Front (NLF), more commonly known as the Viet Cong. The Strategic Hamlet Program, along with its predecessor, the Rural Community Development Program, played an important role in shaping of events in South Vietnam during the late 1950s and early 1960s. Both of these programs attempted to create new communities of "protected hamlets." The rural peasants would be provided protection, economic support, and aid by the government, thereby strengthening ties with the South Vietnamese government (GVN). It was hoped this would lead to increased loyalty by the peasantry towards the government.
The Strategic Hamlet Program was a failure, alienating more rural Vietnamese than it helped and contributing to the growth in influence of the Viet Cong. After President Ngo Dinh Diem was overthrown in a coup in November 1963, the program was cancelled. Peasants moved back into their old homes or sought refuge from the war in the cities. The failure of the Strategic Hamlet and other counterinsurgency and pacification programs were causes that led the United States to decide to intervene in South Vietnam with air strikes and ground troops.
In 1952, during the First Indochina War ( 19 December 1946 — 1 August 1954 ) French commander François de Linares, in Tonkin began the construction of "protected villages," which the French later named agrovilles. By constructing quasi-urban amenities, the French designed the agrovilles to attract peasants away from their villages. This policy was known as "pacification by prosperity." In addition to offering social and economic benefits, the French also encouraged villagers to develop their own militias, which the French trained and armed. "Pacification by Prosperity" had some success, but it was never decisive, because the settlers felt insecure, a feeling which the numerous French guard posts along the perimeter could do little to dispel so long as the Viet Minh operated at night, anonymously, and intimidated or gained the support of village authorities.
Between 1952 and 1954, French officials transplanted approximately 3 million Vietnamese into agrovilles, but the project was costly. To help offset the cost, the French relied partially on American financial support, which was "one of the earliest objects of American aid to France after the outbreak of the Korean War." According to a private Vietnamese source, the U.S. spent about "200,000 dollars on the 'show' agroville at Dong Quan." After visiting the villages of Khoi Loc in Quang Yen Province and Dong Quan in Ha Dong Province, noted Vietnam War correspondent Bernard Fall stated that, "the French strategic hamlets resembled British [Malayan] prototypes line for line." However, in contrast to the British, the French were reluctant to grant Vietnam its independence, or allow the Vietnamese a voice in government affairs; therefore, the agroville program had little effect.
The First Indochina War terminated and the Geneva Conference (1954) partitioned Vietnam into communist (north) and non-communist (south) parts and the terms North Vietnam and South Vietnam became the common usage.
Beginning in 1954, Viet Minh sympathizers in the South were subject to escalating suppression by the Diem government, but by December 1960 the National Liberation Front of Southern Vietnam had been formed and soon rapidly achieved de facto control over large sections of the South Vietnamese countryside. At the time, it is believed that there were approximately 10,000 Communist insurgents throughout South Vietnam.
In February 1959, recognizing the danger that the guerrillas posed if they had the support of the peasants, President Diem and his brother, Ngo Dinh Nhu, made a first attempt at resettlement. A plan was put forth to develop centers of agglomeration. Through force and/or incentives, peasants in rural communities were separated and relocated. The primary goal of the centers was to concentrate the villagers, so they were not able to provide aid, comfort, and information to the Viet Cong.
The Government of Vietnam (GVN) developed two types of centers of agglomeration.
The second type of relocation center, qui ap, relocated into new villages those families that supported the South Vietnamese government but lived outside the realm of government protection and were susceptible to Viet Cong attacks. By 1960, there were twenty-three of these centers, each consisting of many thousands of people.
This mass resettlement created a strong backlash from peasants and forced the central government to rethink its strategy. A report put out by the Caravelle group, consisting of eighteen signers, leaders of the Cao Dai and Hoa Hao sects, the Dai Viet, and dissenting Catholic groups described the situation as follows:
Tens of thousands of people are being mobilized… to take up a life in collectivity, to construct beautiful but useless agrovilles which tire the people, lose their affection, increase their resentment and most of all give an additional terrain for propaganda to the enemy.
In late 1961, President Kennedy sent Roger Hilsman, then director of the State Department's Bureau of Intelligence and Research, to assess the situation in Vietnam. There Hilsman met Sir Robert Thompson, head of the British Advisory Mission to South Vietnam (BRIAM). Thompson was a veteran of the Malayan counter-insurgency effort and a counter-insurgency advisor to the Diem government. Thompson shared his revised system of resettlement and population security, a system he had proposed to Diem that would eventually become the Strategic Hamlet Program. Thompson's proposal, adopted by Diem, advocated a priority on winning control of the South Vietnamese rural population rather than killing insurgents. The police and local security forces would play an important role coupled with anti-insurgent sweeps by the South Vietnamese army (ARVN).
After his meetings with Thompson, on 2 February 1962 Hilsman described his concepts of a Strategic Hamlet Program in a policy document entitled "A Strategic Concept for South Vietnam", which President Kennedy read and endorsed. Hilsman proposed heavily fortified strategic hamlets. "Each strategic village will be protected by a ditch and a fence of barbed wire. It will include one or more observation towers...the area immediately around the village will be cleared for fields of fire and the area approaching the clearing, including the ditch, will be strewn with booby-traps...and other personal obstacles.
Hilsman proposed that each strategic hamlet be protected by a self-defense group of 75 to 100 armed men. The self-defense group would, in addition to defending the hamlet, be responsible for "enforcing curfews, checking identity cards, and ferreting out hard-core Communists." The objective was to separate, physically and politically, the Viet Cong guerrillas and supporters from the rural population.
The first step in the establishment of a strategic hamlet would be a census carried out by the South Vietnamese government. Next, villagers would be required to build fortifications and the members of the self-defense force identified and trained. The villagers would be registered and be given identity cards and their movements would be monitored. Outside the fortifications would be a free fire zone.
The South Vietnamese government on its part would provide assistance to the strategic hamlet and build an "essential socio-political base" that would break old habits and orient the residents toward identification with the country of South Vietnam.
President Diem in an April 1962 speech outlined his hopes for the Program:
... strategic hamlets represented the basic elements in the war undertaken by our people against our three enemies: communism, discord, and underdevelopment. In this concept they also represent foundation of the Vietnamese society where values are reassessed according to the personalist revolution where social, cultural, and economic reform will improve the living conditions of the large working class down to the remotest village.
The U.S. military commander in Vietnam, General Lionel C. McGarr, was initially skeptical of the Strategic Hamlet Program, especially because it emphasized police and local security forces rather than military action against insurgents. The U.S. military also objected to the proposed focus of the program on the most populated areas of South Vietnam; the U.S. wished to focus on areas where communist influence was greatest. After compromises were made to secure U.S. agreement, the Strategic Hamlet Program began implementation in March 1962.
Operation Sunrise began on 19 March 1962 in Binh Duong province, bordering the city of Saigon on the North. The province was heavily influenced by the Viet Cong, especially in the Iron Triangle, a Viet Cong stronghold. The selection of Binh Duong was contrary to Thompson's advice to choose a more secure area for the initial phase of the Strategic Hamlet Program. The United States Agency for International Development provided $21 per family to compensate farmers for their loss of property when forced to move into a strategic hamlet. Of the first 210 families relocated, 140 were reported to have been moved at gunpoint. South Vietnamese soldiers burned their former villages. By May, South Vietnam's government-owned newspaper reported that only 7 percent of 38,000 rural dwellers in the target area had been relocated either voluntarily or by force.
Although many people in both the U.S. government and the government of South Vietnam (GVN) agreed that the Strategic Hamlet Program was strong in theory, its actual implementation was deficient on several grounds. Roger Hilsman himself later claimed that the GVN's execution of program constituted a "total misunderstanding of what the [Strategic Hamlet] program should try to do."
The speed of the implementation of the Program was one of the main causes for its eventual failure. The Pentagon Papers reported that in September 1962, 4.3 million people were housed in 3,225 completed hamlets with more than two thousand still under construction. By July 1963, over eight and a half million people had been settled in 7,205 hamlets according to figures given by the Vietnam Press. In less than a year, both the number of completed hamlets and its population had doubled. Given this rapid rate of construction, the GVN was unable to fully support or protect the hamlets or its residents, despite funding by the United States government. Vietcong insurgents easily sabotaged and overran the poorly defended communities, gaining access to the South Vietnamese peasants. Only twenty percent of the hamlets in the Mekong Delta area were controlled by the GVN by the end of 1963. In an interview, a resident of a hamlet in Vinh-Long described the situation: "It is dangerous in my village because the civil guard from the district headquarters cross the river to the village only in the daytime…leaving the village unprotected at night. The village people have no protection from the Viet Cong so they will not inform on them to the authorities."
There are several other important problems that the GVN faced in addition to those created by the failure to provide basic social needs for the peasants and over-extension of its resources. One of these was wide public opposition to the Program stemming partly from an aggressive propaganda campaign by the Viet Cong, but also brought about by the inability of the committee to choose safe and agriculturally sound locations for the hamlets. However, according to the Pentagon Papers, the most important source of failure was the inflexible nature of the ruling Ngo family.
In 1962, Ngo Dinh Nhu, President Diem's brother, headed the Strategic Hamlet Program, attempting to build fortified villages that would provide security for rural Vietnamese. The objective was to lock the Viet Cong out so that they could not operate among the villagers. Colonel Phạm Ngọc Thảo supervised these efforts, and when told that the peasants resented being forcibly removed from their ancestral lands and put into forts they were compelled to build, he advised Nhu it was imperative to build as many hamlets as fast as possible. The Ngôs were unaware Thảo, ostensibly a Catholic, was in fact a communist double agent acting to turn the rural populace against Saigon. Thảo helped to ruin Nhu's scheme by having strategic hamlets built in communist strongholds. This increased the number of communist sympathizers who were placed inside the hamlets and given identification cards. As a result, the Viet Cong were able to more effectively penetrate the villages to access supplies and personnel.
In the best case scenario, restructuring peasant villages to create a defensible perimeter would require the forced relocation of some of the peasants on the outskirts of the existing villages. To ease the burden, those forced to move were supposed to be financially compensated, but they were not always paid by the GVN forces. To make matters worse, their old homes were often burned before their eyes. These people were forced to build new ones with their own labor and at their own expense. Compounding these traumas were the long days of compulsory labor the South Vietnamese government forced on the peasants, leading Noam Chomsky to compare the hamlets to "virtual concentration camps."
President Diem and his brother Nhu, who oversaw the program, decided -— contrary to Hilsman's and Thompson's theory—that in most cases they would relocate entire villages rather than simply restructuring them. This decision led to large-scale forced relocation that was deeply unpopular among the peasantry. The mostly-Buddhist peasantry practiced ancestor worship, an important part of their religion that was disrupted by being forced out of their villages and away from their ancestors' graves and their ancestral homes. Some who resisted resettlement were summarily executed by GVN forces.
Promised compensation for resettled peasants was not always forthcoming and instead found its way in the pockets of South Vietnamese government officials. Peasants were promised wages for their labor building the new villages and fortifications; some corrupt officials kept the money for themselves. Wealthier peasants sometimes bribed their way out of working on construction, leaving more labor for the poorer peasants. Although the U.S. provided materials like sheet metal and barbed wire, corrupt officials sometimes forced the locals to buy the materials intended to provide them with protection.
Perhaps the greatest shortcoming of the Strategic Hamlet Program was its failure to provide the basic security envisioned by its proponents. This failure was partly due to poor placement of the hamlets. Ignoring the "oil-blot" principle (establish first in secure areas, then spread out), the South Vietnamese government began building strategic hamlets as quickly as possible and seemingly without considering "geographical priorities," according to a U.S. official. The randomly placed hamlets were isolated, not mutually supporting, and tempting targets for the Vietcong.
Each hamlet was given a radio with which to call for South Vietnamese army ARVN support, but in fact ARVN forces were unreliable in responding to calls for help, especially when attacks occurred after nightfall. The villagers were also given weapons and training, but were only expected to hold out until conventional reinforcements arrived. Once it became clear that ARVN could not be relied upon, many villagers proved unwilling to fight even small Vietcong detachments, which could then capture the villagers' weapons. "Why should we die for weapons?" asked one Vietnamese peasant.
Despite the Diem government's attempt to put a positive spin on the Strategic Hamlet Program, by mid-1963 it was clear to many that the program was failing. American military advisors such as John Paul Vann criticized the program in their official reports. They also expressed concerns to reporters who began to investigate more closely. David Halberstam's coverage of the Strategic Hamlet Program's shortcomings caught the eye of President Kennedy.
The Strategic Hamlet Program was exposed as an almost complete failure in the aftermath of the November 1, 1963 coup that left Diem and his brother Nhu murdered. US officials discovered, for example, that only 20% of the 8600 hamlets that the Diem regime had reported "Complete" met the minimum American standards of security and readiness. The situation had passed the point of possible recovery. The program officially ended in 1964.
On the ground in Vietnam, the demise of the program was visible. By the end of 1963, empty hamlets lined country roads, stripped of valuable metal by the Vietcong and the fleeing peasants. According to Neil Sheehan, "The rows of roofless houses looked like villages of play huts that children had erected and then whimsically abandoned."
In his book Vietnam: a History (Viking,1983) Stanley Karnow describes his observations:
Years later Roger Hilsman stated his belief that the strategic hamlet concept was executed so poorly by the Diem regime and the GVN "that it was useless."