The Furtive War by Wilfred Burchett
Under a couple of huge, shady trees in a pagoda courtyard, a few hundred men, women, and children stood around listlessly or squatted on the ground in little groups. They had the lost, hopeless air of the uprooted. The road that led past the pagoda and across a broad fertile valley was lined with decorative sugar palms, straight slim trunks topped with a perfectly round tuft of fronds. They ended abruptly at a bridge beyond which jungle-covered mountains in a light blue haze rose up from the valley.
The road was the main Saigon-Phnom Penh highway. The mountains were in An Giang province of South Vietnam; the pagoda was at Phnom Den, in Cambodia's Takeo province. The people were Khmer Krom (Cambodian minority) refugees from the dictatorship of President Ngo Dinh Diem across the frontier in South Vietnam. They looked at me and my companion, who was the Cambodian governor of Takeo province, with a sad, questioning apathy.
"The new element among the refugees," said Governor In Tam, "is the arrival of many women and children. Before it was almost exclusively men. In this batch of 429, for instance, 284 are women and children."'
One group of about 30 black-clad women sat apart from the others on a low stone wall and the Governor explained they had arrived only a couple of days previously. I asked why, and one woman with close-cropped hair and pinched cheeks was prodded by the others into replying. She looked about 50, but in fact was much younger.
"We are all from Tray Tung village, in An Giang province," she said, indicating the rest of the little group. "We came here to avoid being grabbed for Diem's army. Since last December, the Diemists have started taking women between 18 and 35 years."
"You've left your husbands and families to avoid conscription?" I asked. Some of them began sobbing at this point, but the woman spoke up:
"The Diemists tried to make us move our village. Some army men came a few weeks ago and said we had to regroup with some other villages in a big center a few miles away. We protested. Where would we get water for our rice fields? There was no river where they wanted us to move to. They said we had to go anyway. It was President Diem's order. Finally, they agreed that if every family contributed 1,000 piastres our village would be spared. We didn't all have that much money. But the poor sold some things or borrowed from the better off and we paid the money. The troops went away and we were very relieved.
"A few days later another lot came and told us to move immediately. We explained we had paid to remain where we were. The commander said he knew nothing about that. There was a direct order from President Diem and we must start moving immediately. While we were still protesting, he ordered his troops to start demolishing our houses—and they did, even cutting down the fruit trees. Anyone who protested at this was grabbed and beaten up or tortured. One of my neighbors was given electric torture from an instrument with a handle. The faster they turned the handle, the more terrible were the screams. This was done in front of us all. Another old man who tried to intervene was beaten to death on the spot.
"It was late in the day by then and we said we would move, but only early next morning. The commander seemed relieved about that. But after dark, the whole village left for the forest. We had to abandon everything."
"Where are your men-folk?" I asked.
"They're in the forest, trying to avoid being rounded up by the Diem troops," she replied. "A meeting was held and it was decided to send us over here with the younger children, because if we were captured we would be shoved either into the army or into a concentration camp."
"You see how Diem manufactures 'Viet Cong'?" said the Governor, who was acting as my interpreter.  "What was a peaceful village a few days ago has now become a group of desperate people, pushed into resistance. That's the way it's developing everywhere over there."
The next I spoke to was a Buddhist bonze, a dignified figure in his yellow robes, with a sensitive, intelligent face.
"Our people are being massacred right and left," he said. "Peaceful villages are being uprooted; rice fields and orchards destroyed; the people herded behind barbed wire—their pigs and poultry pillaged by Diem's troops. The peasantry is forced to live under the guns of Diem's military posts."
I asked why he had fled.
"I was chief bonze at our pagoda," he said, "and some months ago I was arrested and accused of having 'ideas' and contacts with the 'Viet Cong.' I was released but warned that if I were arrested again, I would be killed. About a week ago, Diem's militia came to the pagoda to arrest me. I was not there, but they told the other bonzes that unless 15,000 piastres were produced immediately, I would be arrested as soon as I turned up. Of course the pagoda could not raise such a sum. The commander ordered his troops to start firing into the village. They killed two people and everyone else fled into the forest. Then the Diemists burned down the village."
"Did you have contact with the 'Viet Cong'?" I asked.
"Who are the 'Viet Cong'?" he replied, and then added with great dignity: "I will reply to you as I replied to the Diemist militia a few months ago. Those whom they call the 'Viet Cong' are our own people. Some of them have been forced to take to the jungle to defend themselves. Such people have come to our village at night to get food. They pay for what they take—not like the Diemists who loot and kill. If they come to the pagoda—yes, I will talk to them. That is my duty.
"That there exists what are called 'Viet Cong' is due to the crimes of the Diemists. With Khmer minority people the repression is doubly severe. Although the villages where we come from are 90 percent Khmer, we are forbidden to use our own tongue. Our schools have all been closed—even the Pali language school at Tra Vinh. The Diemists try and force us even to change our names. With the slaughter of our people, the destruction of our villages, the repression of our culture and language, it seems our people are to be exterminated."
It was impossible not to be moved by the grave words of this bonze. His clear depthless brown eyes, the sad somber tones as he spoke of the sufferings of his people, his dignity and quiet voice made an even deeper impression on me than what he had to say. It was clear from the hushed silence as he spoke that he had great authority among the rest of the refugees.
The Governor addressed a few words to a fragile wisp of a man who was nursing his left arm. "His arm was paralyzed when he arrived," said the Governor. The man had a terrible story to tell.
"The Diemists tortured me very badly," he said. "First they tied my hands behind my back and left me hanging from a tree by my bound wrists. For several hours they left me there, swinging in the sun. Then they cut the rope so I fell to the ground. They forced water down my nostrils till my stomach swelled up and then kicked and trampled on my stomach to pump the water out of me. Then they used the electric torture—on my genitals. After that I was unconscious for hours. When I came to, they tied me up to a branch again, this time my bound hands straight above my head and a stool under my feet that I could just touch with the tips of my toes. Later they kicked the stool away and started to beat me as I swung from the tree. It was after that, that my arm got paralyzed. And all the time questions and questions."
"What did they want to know? Why did they torture you?" I asked.
"They wanted me to confess that I was chief of the village 'Viet Cong.' And to disclose where I had hidden my weapons."
Governor In Tarn looked at this hollow-cheeked wreck of a man and turned to me: "Do you think a man like that could be a 'Viet Cong' chief?"
"Were you?" I asked. "Even if not the chief, were you with the 'Viet Cong? You're safe over here and can speak freely." "I was not a chief of anything nor a member of anything," he replied. "They promised to stop the torture as soon as I confessed and told them where I had hidden the weapons. But how could I find a weapon, even to stop the torture, when I had none. They can call anyone a 'Viet Cong' and who can prove you're not. But who could produce a weapon when you don't have any." "How did it all start?" I asked.
"The Diem militia came and demanded we move our village to be near one of their military posts. We objected and they said it was to protect us from the 'Viet Cong'. We said the 'Viet Cong' never bothered us and that if the government wanted to help us, the best thing was just let us stay in our old villages and till the land we had always tilled. The commander ordered the troops to encircle the village and then without warning they started firing. Everyone that could tried to flee into the jungle, but a lot of us were caught. Then they started killing the buffalo and pigs and looting the houses. One of my old friends who couldn't leave his house was bayoneted in the stomach. Then they burned the village down. Because I was one of the first to explain that we didn't want to leave the village and the 'Viet Cong' had never harmed us, they decided I was the 'Viet Cong' chief. All I did was try to explain to them what was right."
Relatives of the unfortunate peasant raised the tremendous sum for any small village, 20,000 piastres, to get him released.
He was warned that if he were ever again arrested, he would be executed immediately.
"So I came here," he said, and concluded: "If they want 'Viet Cong', they've got them now from our village. All the younger men are in the forest making arms."
There were many more similar stories. Those present came from over 30 villages in An Giang province, all of which had to be uprooted as part of the insane "resettlement" plan which Diem and the Americans were trying to impose on South Vietnam in early 1962.
I left this sad-faced group of people, wondering as I often did during my visit to Southeast Asia, what all my good decent American friends would think if they could sit down and talk with such people and learn what was going on in the name of "freedom" and "justice" with U.S. arms and dollars.
That U.S. policy was to black out as far as possible what it is up to in South Vietnam is obvious. In this respect there was an interesting Associated Press despatch from Saigon, carried in the New York Times of March 24, 1962, which said in part:
One of the battles being fought in South Vietnam involves the problem of finding out what is going on and reporting it to the people of the United States. Many correspondents here feel that they are losing. One put it this way:
"The Vietnamese government is against us. They figure we are all spies or Communist propagandists. The United States will not tell us much beyond the broad outlines of their policy and we cannot even be sure of that. After prying for weeks to get a story from unofficial sources, we may end up being blocked by the censors."
Underlying the efforts of correspondents is the belief, among some at least, that Vietnam could become the cradle of a more widespread war.
This outburst of rare frankness from AP went on to describe attacks on the press by Madame Ngo Dinh Nhu—the publicity-seeking sister-in-law and official hostess of dictator Diem: "You all act as if you were spectators here. Don't you realize you are with us?" The despatch then makes its most telling point:
The United States Government is eager to avoid alienating the South Vietnamese Government, and its official sources are closely coordinated with official Vietnamese sources. For various reasons, the United States also is seeking to avoid press emphasis on the role it is playing here. . . . United States officials are reluctant to show newsmen military operations in which United States servicemen are performing combat duties. (Author's italics).
The date on this revealing despatch is not accidental. On the day it was written, two correspondents of conservative American journals were ordered expelled from Saigon by the Diem regime for having dared expose something of what was going on in the country. One was Newsweek correspondent, Francois Sully; the other was Homer Bigart of the New York Times, twice winner of the Pulitzer Prize, America's most coveted award in journalism. While it is certain that the expulsion of any journalists who were not entirely conformist was something devoutly desired by the U.S. military and CIA (Central Intelligence Agency) chief in Saigon, the expulsion of someone of Bigart's standing —even leaving aside his New York Times connection—would be something more than the U.S. State Department could cope with. The U.S. Embassy was instructed to make it clear to Diem that the expulsion of Bigart would do more harm to the U.S.-Diem cause than any articles he might write. The expulsion order was withdrawn against him and subsequently also against Sully, after the latter's colleagues had created a scandal so big that the State Department was forced to support him as well.
Sully was in fact expelled some months later, in early September 1962, by which time U.S. State Department pressures on the New York Times resulted in Bigart also being recalled from Saigon. Newsweek, owned by the Washington Post, commenting on the expulsion of Sully in its September 17 issue, reported:
Six U.S. correspondents covering South Vietnam's war against the Viet Cong Communist guerillas were haled before Assistant Defense Minister Nguyen Dinh Thuan one day last week for a polite but pointed lecture. Reporting the war, the Defense Minister stressed, would henceforth mean concentrating on Vietnamese victories over the Communists, not defeats by them. He left no doubt in the newsmen's minds, as one later said, that they were to "shape up or ship out." The American newsmen had been called on the Nguyen carpet for one simple reason: They had all sent identical protests to President Kennedy and Vietnamese President Ngo Dinh Diem expressing "deep concern" over the expulsion last week of Newsweek's Francois Sully. . . .
For their part, Sully's fellow newsmen protested that since "the United States alone is spending here more than 11,000,000 a day and had stationed 10,000 of its finest young me in Vietnam" to aid in the anti-Communist struggle, "the American people cannot be denied access to any views or information concerning the war here."
The correspondents and Newsweek could have gone one step further and pointed out that as the U.S. government at that time was footing 80 percent of Diem's military budget and a U.S. Command was directing military operations, Bigart could not have been recalled or Sully expelled unless the real instructions came from Washington.
In any case this incident lent all the more interest to Bigart's despatches, many of which are factual and objective —and under the circumstance courageous.
When the publicity-conscious U.S Army and officialdom suddenly become coy and shy of publicizing what they are doing, it is time to get suspicious and probe around for what is really happening. One of the operations the United States is not anxious to publicize is the "Staley Plan" (described in further detail in Chapter III), a part of which was hinted at in a communique (issued July 11, 1961) about recommendations "for a series of actions in the military-internal security and economic-social fields, to be undertaken jointly by the Vietnamese and U.S. governments."
The "series of actions" were aimed at carving South Vietnam up into huge concentration camps, isolated from each other by "white zones" in which every village and hut and every plot of food crops would be destroyed. South Vietnam itself would be isolated from its neighbors by a mile-wide swath of emptiness, stretching from the 17th parallel to the Gulf of Thailand, along the frontiers with Laos and Cambodia. All forest and villages within this no man's land would be destroyed by napalm on the villages and chemicals on forest and crops. Within so-called "prosperity zones," the poetic term coined for the major units of concentration, would be established "strategic villages"—groups of hamlets surrounded by a series of high bamboo palisades separated by mine-filled moats, mud walls around the outer fence, and barbed wire around the mud walls. Pill-boxes are to be set up at the only authorized entry and exits. The Staley Plan was a hotch-potch of similar Japanese schemes in North China; British efforts in Kenya and Malaya; U.S.-sponsored attempts by General Henri-Eugene Navarre to set up concentration camp settlements in North Vietnam, and Diem's own unsuccessful attempts at fortified "agrovilles" in the South.
One of Diem's first attempts had been in the regions just south of the 17th parallel. By massing his armed forces and police, he succeeded in uprooting villages in the area south of the demarcation line and setting up some "strategic villages"—to serve as models later for Dr. Staley.
At a refugee reception center near the 17th parallel, Le Thi Mien, a wan-faced, attractive young woman who had arrived a few days previously from Hai Chieu village, only a few kilometres south of the demarcation line, told me something of life in a prototype Staley Plan village.
"There are 140 families in our village," she said. "Round the outside, we were forced to build five rows of bamboo fences. Each is about two yards above the ground and the bamboos are pointed into sharp spikes at the top. In between the fences are deep ditches and in some of these the Diemists laid mines. Outside the fifth fence there is barbed wire. Inside, three to five houses are grouped together, each group surrounded by another, single palisade. But if a group of houses has 'Viet Cong' suspects then the fence has to be doubled or trebled, according to the category of suspect. No one can move outside these groups at night, except the guards.
"Each of the grouped families must pay 60 piastres for a gong and a lamp on a stick. If a suspected 'Viet Cong' arrives to visit anyone, or there are any visits between the groups, this must immediately be reported to the group chief, appointed by the Diemists. He must then sound the gong and if it is at night, he must hoist the lighted lamp over the house where the suspected 'Viet Cong' is. Everybody must rush out and try and grab him.
"During the daytime, the women must do guard duty. At night, it is the youth and older men. They all have to sleep around the house of the village chief as best they can, and take turns to guard the village and especially the chief's house. Each of the family groups has to take turns to do guard duty in the daytime—they must report any stranger approaching or visiting the village. At night, the women are concentrated in one of the houses of the group. At a certain moment, the gong is struck and we must move immediately. We are given only a few minutes to concentrate till dawn. This is supposedly because many of us have husbands who regrouped in the North and the Diemists fear they might try to visit us at night. Of course there are often alerts at night, with people rushing everywhere they think a light is burning. Usually it's a false alarm...
As to why she had risked a bullet in the back by flight and an illegal frontier crossing, the melancholy-faced young woman said: "I just could not stand it any longer. What with being locked up behind barbed wire, with forced labor, no freedom to earn or even to live—I preferred the risk of death. Eight of us, all from one group of houses, decided to make a break for it. We just didn't come back from the fields one day. We hid in the forest till late at night, then managed to cross the Ben Hai." (The Ben Hai river acts as the demarcation line between North and South Vietnam, along the 17th parallel.)
In one of a series of supplementary U.S.-Diem agreements relating to the Staley Plan, published on January 4, 1962, it was stated that "special efforts will also be taken to enable the Montagnard population in the high plateau, to share progress in this region with their Vietnamese compatriots. Resettlement will be accelerated where necessary to remove the population from 'Viet Cong' pressures."
To the uninitiated, this is merely another innocent-sounding provision.
Along Cambodia's northeastern borders which are adjacent to the Hants Plateaux, where most of the South Vietnamese ethnic minorities live, I met a group of refugees of the Jarai minority. They were from Hung Dien district of Cong Turn province. Nyao Hlung, a round-faced girl with lively, coal-black eyes, wearing the national dress of her people—white blouse and almost ankle-length, black skirt—told me how the people from her hamlet were forced to leave their mountain home and together with three other minority hamlets, concentrate with a Vietnamese village in the valley.
"We protested," she said. "We pointed out that our health suffers in the valley. We are used to the clearer air of the plateau. Also our customs are different from the Khin (Viet-namese) people. They have irrigated paddy fields. We cultivate the 'ray' for our rice and maize. But the Diemists insisted we move. A delegation was sent to the district chief, but he said: 'This is an order from President Diem himself. If you resist you'll be guillotined on the spot or sent to prison for life.' So we had to move.
"The new village was surrounded by bamboo hedges and barbed wire. Every now and again, Diem troops came to raid the villages, taking young men for the army and girls for their brothels.
"Those who resisted were tortured publicly. My brother and his friend were taken. They tried to flee, but the Diemists caught them, tied them up and burned their hands in front of everyone. Then they dragged them off, hitting them with their guns as they went. No one knows what happened to them."
On one occasion when the village was tipped off that a raid was to be made, pretty Nyao Hlung covered her face with dirt, matted her hair, and made herself sick by swallowing certain leaves. She pretended to be very ill when the press-gang started searching the houses, and was spared. The next time she heard a press-gang was on its way, she fled, wandering for weeks in the jungle before she finally crossed into Cambodia.
In reading the dry words of these descriptions of resettlement techniques and their results, a dispassionate reader could perhaps discount them as exaggerated tales of malcontents who have fled the country. It is impossible to put down on paper all the circumstances and the atmosphere, the thousand and one details and nuances that lent a terrible authenticity to these accounts. Nyao Hlung's story did not come out in the lucid, connected way I have presented it. She is an illiterate tribal girl, naturally intelligent and with a sharp eye for detail. Her story, however, had to be pieced together from hundreds of answers to my questions, questions based a little on previous accounts I had heard which gave a general picture. I have chosen a few of the "average" ones to write about, not the "horror" stories; not the most dramatic ones which might have been colored by too recent association with events; or where facts might have been distorted by translation difficulties—often through three or more languages.
I interviewed several scores of people from all over South Vietnam. The notes on this one subject of concentration camp villages, alone, would fill a much larger book than this one. Typing up these notes later, I did have an occasional doubt, mainly, because like most people, I have a built-in resistance to accepting facts about man's inhumanity to man. But in the quiet of my office, seven or eight thousand miles removed from the emotional atmosphere inevitably present in interviews with people so close to the events they described, I was able to compare what I had learned from people on the receiving end of these policies and what experienced observers on the spot, on the other side of the frontier, had seen and heard without benefit of the intimate interviews I had made. The two versions fitted each other as a hand fits into a well-tailored glove. It was the final confirmation that what I learned was only too horribly correct.
As a source completely free of any sympathy towards "Viet Cong" or of any suspicion of "Leftism," the New York Times must be considered impeccable. A series of reports from their Saigon correspondent, Homer Bigart, one of America's most experienced foreign reporters, which cover precisely the same period as my own investigations, show the same picture.
On March 28, 1962, for instance, Bigart sent a report on "Operation Sunrise," a typically cynical label the Americans put on their first great operation to form concentration camp villages. His story is from Ben Cat in Binh Duong province, north of Saigon:
Deep in a rubber plantation four miles north of here, South Vietnamese and Americans are engaged in an important test in isolating the rural population from the Viet Cong Communist guerillas.
This experiment is crucial to the success of Operation Sunrise, the first comprehensive plan to pacify South Vietnam... This operation is subsidized directly with United States money, military planning and technical aid. In this region, 1,200 families are to be moved voluntarily or forcibly from the forests controlled by the Viet Cong and resettled in new strategic villages. The abandoned villages will be burned to deprive the Viet Cong of shelter and food...
The first step in Operation Sunrise involved encirclement of a half dozen settlements. Government forces failed to make the manoeuvre a complete surprise; a hundred guerillas were able to flee the forest before the ring was closed. The troops met slight resistance. Two guerillas were killed...
The Government was able to persuade only seventy families to volunteer for resettlement. The 135 other families in the half dozen settlements were herded forcibly from their homes…
Some families had been allowed to carry away beds, tables and benches before their homes were burned. Others had almost nothing but the clothes on their backs. A young woman stood expressionless as she recounted how the troops burned the families' two tons of rice. She was overheard by a man in black peasant garb. He had identified himself as an army psychological warfare lieutenant. He cautioned the woman's listeners that she was "very bad" and that the burned rice was probably Viet Cong stores.
Bigart did not say, probably could not say, what happened to the "very bad" young woman. By all the accounts I heard, she would have been tortured near to death and either finished off with a bullet or thrown into prison for a few years.
Some New York Times readers understood the point quite clearly. A letter signed by a Mr. Richard B. Du Boff of Philadelphia appeared in the April 5 number of the same paper:
Thanks to the Times and Homer Bigart's reporting, we now learn that our U.S. "advisory" group in South Vietnam is attempting the first "comprehensive plan to pacify" this nation—by forcibly removing families, burning their livestock and crops and "resettling" these families themselves.
The deadly parallel between this plan and "la pacification de l'Algerie" indicates that the Pentagon has apparently learned nothing from the French experience.
But what of our civilian leaders? Does this "liberal" administration realize that no amount of advertising publicity can mask the fact that we are used to totalitarian philosophy, concentration camps ("camps de regroupement," the French army called them), and sheer terror to shore up a moribund regime. Not even the President can maintain that the responsibility is not ours.
Bigart's was an honest report and the reaction of Du Boff was that of any ordinary, decent citizen outraged at his country's involvement in such a dirty business as imposing by force of arms a fascist regime on the peasantry of a country 10,000 miles away. With barely disguised irony, Bigart followed up this first report with another from Saigon on April 3.
The United States, besides subsidizing compensation for the Vietnamese peasants uprooted in Operation Sunrise, will give them a free weekly newspaper, telling why they were forced to move. It will also include news briefs and latest soccer results.
Produced by the United States Information Service, the paper, named Towards the Good Life, is being distributed to families in the Ben Cat district of Binh Duong Province, north of Saigon. About 200 families have been escorted there from isolated hamlets... Thousands more face compulsory relocation in ten provinces surrounding Saigon...
Any village, hut, man, buffalo, or food crop outside the concentration camp villages in fact becomes a target for American napalm or chemical spraying. Those who refuse to be concentrated or who even protest are automatically marked down as "Viet Cong," for eventual extermination under Law 10/59. Lest there be any doubt that the U.S. government is primarily responsible for this atrocious attempt to uproot a whole nation, there is another revealing despatch from Bigart, dated April 6, 1962, from Saigon.
General Paul D. Harkins, head of the U.S. military command here, said today that president Ngo Dinh Diem had adopted two concepts of major importance in the struggle against the Communist guerillas.
General Harkins said Mr. Ngo Dinh Diem had approved the so-called delta plan for pacification of the ten provinces surrounding Saigon and had also agreed that a single military chain of command, divorced from political interference, was essential to the smooth running of the South Vietnamese military force.
The second point meant in effect that the American staff headquarters had taken over operational command of the South Vietnamese military forces and were not accountable to any South Vietnamese civilian body. Diem's armed forces had become an appendage of a foreign invasion force, removed from any vestige of Vietnamese control.
What emerged from every one of Bigart's despatches was that the whole population resisted being moved. Who can speak of "voluntary" resettlement, even by the few families which did not have to be removed forcibly, with the display of armed force described by those with whom I spoke and confirmed in the despatches of Bigart and others? The whole population opposed the action and the majority resisted it physically despite the display and brutal employ of armed force. One can be sure that on the few operations that Bigart and other correspondents were permitted to witness, restraint was ordered to avoid too much unfavorable publicity. When there were no such witnesses around, people were shot down like dogs.
Those described as guerillas and "Viet Cong" were simply people resorting to mankind's oldest privilege—the right to defend home and family. All despatches agree that their weapons at first were the most primitive—hoes, bamboo spears, sickles. Later these were supplemented by mines, grenades, rough bazookas, etc. made in jungle arsenals, and as the struggle developed, these in turn were supplemented by American weapons, wrested from the enemy in desperate hand-to-hand combat or captured in ambush attacks. What was taking place was the classical beginnings of a people's war, something the South Vietnamese people were forced to wage. They had no alternative but to live as concentration camp slaves, die under the guillotine, or fight back. What people worthy the name would not choose the latter?
The theory behind the formation of "strategic villages" and "prosperity zones" was simple. Guerillas and people were one. The Americans and the Diemists could not fight a guerilla war because the people were not with them. When Saigon radio commented on the despatch of U.S. "guerilla experts" to Vietnam, a French colonel who happened to be at my side, remarked drily: "I hope they're bringing their own population with them, their own eyes and ears. Otherwise they'll soon find out what real guerilla warfare means." By concentrating the peasants in "strategic villages," the Americans hoped to isolate the guerillas from the people, the people from the guerillas. They would then force the latter to fight their sort of war; to come out into the open and oppose American artillery, tanks, and planes with their primitive weapons. This was the heart and soul of the Staley Plan and the reason why Diem rushed a bill through the National Assembly setting as an "urgent national task" the formation of some 16,000 "strategic villages." In a population of 14,000,000, this means nothing less than dividing the whole country into concentration camps, each containing about 900 people. This has nothing to do with protecting them from "Viet Cong"; it is tacit acceptance that those who are called "Viet Cong" are in fact the entire population, each small unit of which must be isolated from each other unit.
It is an attempt to turn the country back into the Middle Ages by employing the most terrifying of modern techniques. It is a scheme worthy perhaps of the obscurantist fanatic that is Ngo Dinh Diem but monstrous as a conception of a country like the United States.
How right were the Melbourne dockers who, in June 1962, refused to load barbed wire when they found it was bound for South Vietnam. "Barbed wire! Concentration camps!" said the first docker who noticed the destination. How correct his suspicions! The shipment was destined to help put an entire country behind barbed wire, something unparalleled in history. The protest act was in keeping with the great progressive traditions of the Australian dockers, dating back from the days when they smuggled Communards ashore from French transports in the 1870's, saving dozens of them from slow death in the convict colony of New Caledonia. This new gesture will not be forgotten in South Vietnam, where it was taken as the first act of international solidarity with the South Vietnamese people in their desperate struggle. It will long be remembered, just as was the unswerving support given by Australian dockers and other trade unions for the Indonesian people in their war of liberation against the Dutch.
Plans however remain plans until they are fulfilled. General Harkins may have been satisfied when Diem "approved" his pacification plan, but the only approval that really counted was that of the people. And they wholeheartedly disapproved. Three weeks after the start of Operation Sunrise, another despatch (April 20, 1962) from Bigart made this clearer than ever.
Vietnamese peasants in Binh Duong province remain fearful of Government plans to resettle them. During the last three days, 142 more families have been removed, voluntarily or forcibly, from several isolated settlements in the forests north of Ben Cat. Their houses were burned by government troops… They have been promised compensation [the equivalent of $21.00 for those who moved voluntarily] and new land at the village of Ben Ding So, where the Government says they must live…
Failure to spread sufficient information on the reasons for the removals have been blamed for the passive resistance encountered by Vietnamese troops when they surrounded the settlements. Few men of fighting age were taken. Apparently they had slipped into the forest on the approach of Government forces.
It was clear, in fact, from this account and the stories I heard at the frontier, that each action by the U.S.-Diem troops produces a fresh crop of young men of fighting age who take to the forest—and armed resistance. Bigart goes on to report that Americans who inquired why "explanation leaflets" had not been dropped to reassure the population before the action, were told: "It was feared the families might bolt into the woods if they suspected troops were coming and that leaflets might forewarn them." So much for the confidence the people felt towards the Diem regime.
Another three weeks elapsed and U.S. Defense Secretary Robert McNamara was in Saigon, according to Bigart (the New York Times, May 10, 1962), expressing "impatience over the slow application of an approved plan for the pacification of the Mekong River delta provinces and vexation over political interference with the military chain of command." There was more than a touch of arrogance in this U.S. irritability that "approved plans" had not been carried out. However in compensation and as a promise of better things in the future, the report says Mr. McNamara was entertained at a Civil Guard training center where he watched "a platoon of girls shoot at bottles and balloons. Drums in the village beat a mock alarm and from the top of an earthen parapet, Mr. McNamara observed fighter planes dropping napalm bombs and firing rockets at imagined enemy forces on a near-by hill."
Before counting too much on the loyalty of the press-ganged girls shooting at balloons and bottles or the authenticity of any model "strategic villages" he was shown, the Defense Secretary would have done well to study a statement from some of the officers of the elite American-trained para-troop regiment which revolted and seized Saigon in a short-lived coup in November 1961. They were referring to a situation which existed before the Staley "acceleration" plan went into operation, but the situation remained much the same.
Ngo Dinh Diem has often staged a lying propaganda farce about the concentration camp "agrovilles" to deceive foreign observers and visitors [said the officers, now in exile in Cambodia]. Before each visit, this trickery is prepared scientifically and down to the minutest detail by Diem's most faithful agents. The people, the animals, goods in the shops and even fruit trees and food crops, have been transported from one place to another to be used as stage props for the "prosperity" farce of flourishing "agrovilles"—a constant theme of Diemist propaganda. People are escorted there by armed Civil Guards and rehearsed to applaud the President. Immediately after these official visits, there remains only the miserable, deserted face of the "agroville." The people, exhausted and disgusted are escorted back to their homes under the black eyes of Diemist rifles.
No "approval" by Diem, McNamara, Harkins or anyone else could change the fact that the people themselves, resisted —refused to be concentrated. American official attempts to prove this was due to "subversion" or "infiltration" from North Vietnam were absurd. No one needed any outside instructions to resist the sort of regime U.S. arms were trying to impose. Apart from any other factors, the area where the main U.S.-Diem drive was taking place was in the extreme south of the country, the area furthest removed from any possible contact with Hanoi, capital of North Vietnam.
The provinces where the main action was taking place had been the most solidly-liberated zones in South Vietnam during the latter years of the resistance war against the French. When Diem started his all-out onslaught against former resistance members, from 1955 onwards, the people turned back to their old self-defense organizations. The Diem administration virtually ceased to function in the Mekong delta area. From 1959, Diem's troops—even at that time with U.S. advisers helping to run the show—carried out raids and "mopping up" operations on an ever bigger scale. They cut great swaths through the population wherever they went by indiscriminate massacres and arrests, but the people's organizations closed in again behind them as they passed. They never succeeded in breaking the spirit, or the organization, of the delta people. In some areas, sectors were split up into series of squares, each containing one or two hundred families. Diem's "pacification" teams swept square after square, killing and arresting former resistance members as they went. But neither troops nor officials dared stay in the area. Raids could be made with massive concentration of forces; Diem's troops could murder and pillage—but never occupy. They always liked to be back in a safe base by nightfall!
These "pacification" attempts were often large-scale military operations. According to evidence submitted to the International Control Commission (comprising India, Poland, and Canada and set up to check on the application of the Geneva Agreements) troops at divisional strength had been employed at least ten times; at regimental strength at least 30 times and at battalion strength a least 50 times in "pacification" drives up till 1959. The Times of Saigon on October 3, 1959, quoted General Meyers, deputy chief of MAAG (Military Aid and Advisory Group) at the time, summing up operations during the previous year, as follows: "If I remember well, out of ten divisions, six were thrown into the fighting, 13 local regiments were put into action to a greater or lesser extent, over half the logistics services participated with the support of the entire river services of the Navy."
All-out warfare in others words, not against a foreign invader but against patriots specifically for having taken part in the resistance movement which liberated their country from the French and—incidentally—made it possible for Diem to be where he is today. The failure in those years to wipe out the former resistance members or break their spirit is the real background to the attempt in 1962 to force them all into concentration camps.
Since direct U.S. intervention started at the end of 1961, operations have been stepped up with the use of fighter-escorted, helicopter-borne troops dropped suddenly on a target area to deprive the villagers of their natural warning system.
In mid-May, it was announced that Operation Sea Swallow had been started in Phu Yen, a coastal province about 300 miles northeast of Saigon. It was to be a sister project to Operation Sunrise, and would receive the same U.S. financial and military support. The whole province had been split up into yellow, blue, and red zones: red for "Viet Cong" controlled areas; blue for those under dispute, and yellow for Diem controlled. The first $70,000 was to be spent on fortifying villages in the yellow zone. Then an attempt would be made to bring the blue zone under control and finally an all-out assault would be launched to "pacify" the red zone. To help achieve this, a special "Sea Swallow" unit of the most bloodthirsty cut-throats from Chiang Kai-shek remnant troops, who had been living from banditry in Burma and Thailand, was set up under a Chinese Catholic priest, Nguyen Lac Hao, with a detachment of U.S. marines at their disposal. This unit has outdone all others in ferocity and the technique of terror.
Such plans as "Sea Swallow" look fine on paper and doubtless delight the hearts of "guerilla experts" sitting in a Pentagon office, but as the French discovered years ago and the Americans in South Vietnam were beginning to discover, the inevitable result of such operations is that the map soon shows only a red zone.
Despite all the blood that had been spilt and the hundreds of millions of dollars invested, the overall plan for concentration camp villages looked a bleak failure by mid-1962. The Staley Plan, incidentally, called for "pacification" within 18 months. Time was running out and so was territory—from the hands of the Diem administration. The original U.S.-Diem project which the Staley Plan was to "accelerate" called for setting up 116 "prosperity zones"—but the maximum number formed was only 29 and by mid-1962 the figure had been reduced to 13, shrinking monthly. In the rest, the peasants had revolted, burned their prison barracks, and returned either to their former villages or set up new homes in the forest and mountains. Diem's administration by this time did not function in more than about 12 percent of the villages in the Nam Bo. In the Hants Plateaux area which comprises| most of the western part of South Vietnam, Diem controlled less than eight percent of the villages. This is the homeland of the ethnic minorities and one thing that surprised French observers, who knew Vietnam well, was that Diem had lost control of these regions.
"At least we had some roots and loyalties among the minority peoples," said the French colonel, referred to earlier. "But Diem and the Americans between them have pushed them all into the arms of the 'Viet Cong.' Our policy, in general, was to keep the minorities divided. Diem at least has succeeded in uniting them. But," he added with an ironic laugh, "against himself." The colonel could have gone further and said that Diem and his U.S. mentors had succeeded in uniting the whole people of South Vietnam—against the Americans.
1. About $14.00, American. Since devaluation in 1961, one U.S. dollar equals 72 South Vietnam piastres.
2. "Viet Cong" is a term used by Diem and the Americans to denote anyone in opposition to the regime. There is no such organization, nor any group of people who call themselves by this name. The words are a shortened version for Vietnamese Communists.
3. Hillside patches, where seed is dropped into holes in the ground, after the undergrowth has been cleared by burning.
4. This law adopted in October, 1959, provides for death or life imprisonment as the only two punishments for those tried within its scope. It is dealt with at greater length in a subsequent chapter.
5. Nam Bo is the lower part of South Vietnam, formerly known as Cochin China. Trung Bo, which is now divided by the demarcation line at the 17th parallel, is the former Annam, and with Bac Bo, the former Tonking in the upper part of North Vietnam, these three zones comprise all of Vietnam.