At the end of 1960, American policy in Southeast Asia was in disarray with the Laotian situation threatening a Cold War confrontation and relations with Saigon in turmoil. During the next year, the administration of John Fitzgerald Kennedy developed new policies toward Laos and Vietnam that became the basis of subsequent US involvement in the region. An influential figure in formulating and implementing these policies was William Averell Harriman (1891–1986), a prominent businessman who had served as ambassador to London and to Moscow, as Secretary of Commerce in Harry Truman’s cabinet, and as Gov- ernor of New York State. Kennedy successively appointed him Ambassador at Large (January 1961), Assistant Secretary of State for Far Eastern Affairs (November 1961), and Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs (April 1963). As an elder statesman with extensive diplomatic experience and as a senior member of the President’s political party, Harriman enjoyed Kennedy’s confi- dence. Participation in wartime and post-war diplomacy during the Roosevelt and Truman administrations had inclined Harriman to believe that local conun- drums could be sorted out by understandings reached among the major powers, who would in turn police their respective small-power clients. This perspective led to an international agreement to neutralize Laos and to the policy goal of unseating Ngo Dinh Diem for insufficient compliance with American instruc- tions. Harriman strongly disliked Ngo Dinh Diem because of his resistance to American supervision and his opposition to Harriman’s effort to neutralize Laos. Ngo Dinh Diem saw that the Laos agreement in effect ceded to Hanoi control of South Vietnam’s border with Laos, but Harriman trusted Moscow to keep Hanoi in line and viewed Ngo Dinh Diem as a recalcitrant beneficiary of American Cold War leadership. A group of men highly critical of Ngo Dinh Diem gathered around Harriman in the State Department. At the same time, a different perspective developed in the Department of Defense under Secretary of Defense Robert Strange McNamara (1916–2009), a systems analyst with wartime experience in the 1940s as a logistics expert and with post-war experience in the automobile industry. He excelled at organizing available resources to attain assigned goals and was less concerned with formu- lating policy than with using quantitative methods of evaluation to guide policy implementation to get results. Another important figure in Kennedy’s Depart- ment of Defense was General Maxwell Davenport Taylor (1901–1987), a man with a distinguished wartime record who, as Army Chief of Staff in the late 1950s, dissented from Eisenhower’s defense policy of “massive retaliation,” which threatened use of nuclear weapons and minimized the role of the army. Taylor resigned and, in 1960, published a book that argued the need for an army able to deal with situations short of nuclear war with a policy of “flexible response” to military threats. Kennedy was impressed with this book and made Taylor his military advisor. In October 1962, Kennedy appointed Taylor to be Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. McNamara and Taylor favored maximiz- ing military assistance to Ngo Dinh Diem to deal with the security problem rather than encouraging his critics with demands for political reform. Kennedy replaced Durbrow with Frederick Ernst Nolting (1911–1989), a former naval officer and career diplomat. Nolting arrived in spring 1961, just as Ngo Dinh Diem conducted a presidential election that he overwhelmingly won against two virtually unknown candidates. Nolting established a good relation- ship with the Ngo Dinh brothers, but they never fully trusted the US again. Nolting exercised his diplomatic skills in dealing both with the Ngo Dinh brothers and with his superiors in Washington, DC. He succeeded in minimizing US demands while eliciting small indications of Vietnamese cooperation, thereby restoring a façade of American respect for Vietnamese sovereignty and of Viet- namese compliance with American expectations. However, during 1961, the Americans and the Vietnamese developed diver- gent policies toward the communist threat, not only with little prior consultation but also with the aim of avoiding the need for consultation altogether. By the end of the year, both Ngo Dinh Diem and Kennedy were pushing forward new counterinsurgency policies; but, while the Vietnamese sought to minimize dependence upon American assistance, the Americans sought to mask the scale of their escalating military presence in Vietnam from both the American public and the Vietnamese government. Furthermore, the Ngo Dinh brothers understood that the communist supply lines through Laos into South Vietnam could not be stopped by an international agreement; they saw Kennedy’s decision to support Harriman’s policy on Laos as at best a miscalculation and at worst an indication that the US would eventually abandon them as it seemed to have abandoned the anti-communist Laotians. Nevertheless, while pursuing different paths, the Vietnamese and Americans implemented policies that by 1962 were showing signs of success against the Hanoi-supported insurgency.
After ending the failed agroville experiment in 1960, the Ngo Dinh brothers put their authority behind a new plan to build strategic hamlets. The strategic hamlet idea emerged by mid 1961 from local initiatives in Tay Ninh, Quang Ngai, and Vinh Long Provinces. It was elaborated by Ngo Dinh Nhu’s person- alist philosophy of modernizing rural communities by fostering collective effort and self-reliance. It aimed to bring revolutionary change to the countryside by fostering an attitude of “struggle” for a better life with a new generation of leaders unspoiled by the corruption and passivity associated with habits remaining from the French colonial experience. The idea of strategic hamlets was to minimize relocating people as much as possible and to reorganize com- munities for self-defense, self-government, a more egalitarian society, and a more dynamic economy.
The personalism of the Ngo Dinh brothers was a relatively abstract and idealized formulation, but no more vague and incomprehensible to Vietnamese peasants than was Marxism-Leninism. The critical factors in comparing the two Vietnams at this time are that the Ngo Dinh regime, unlike the rulers in Hanoi, did not have the benefit of a disciplined one-party totalitarian state to enforce its version of modernism and that it was challenged at every turn by an active and externally directed enemy. In the Vietnams of that time, both north and south, the effective exercise of power was the first step to obtain popular obedience or, at least, compliance. In the north, this was achieved with the land reform and the disciplining of intellectuals during the 1950s. In the south, Ngo Dinh Diem strove to modernize rural society while at the same time protecting it from an externally directed and supplied enemy. The strategic hamlet program was his final experi- ment for achieving this goal.
An important role in implementing strategic hamlets was assigned to the Republican Youth Movement, which had been organized in 1960 to mobilize young people to be activists in moving the country out of the colonial mentality that remained strong among the older generation. Within two years, over a million and a half young people were trained and assigned to participate in the strategic hamlet program. Their task was to revolutionize rural communities by propagating an attitude of self-reliance and by helping to prepare and organize elections for local leaders, thereby releasing latent talent and energy inhibited by the existing structure of authority. In the larger scheme of Ngo Dinh Nhu’s thought, this would ideally be the beginning of a self-generating form of Viet- namese democracy that, spreading from the countryside, would eventually over- come the poisonous residue of French colonialism that was still strong among urban intellectuals.
Strategic hamlets were designed not only as a response to the communist insurgency but also as a response to the threat of American interference in Vietnamese domestic affairs, for the Ngo Dinh brothers feared that American largess and instruction would destroy the self-reliance and national pride that they understood to be the key to building up a social and administrative structure that could withstand the challenge from the north. As the Americans gradually became aware of the program and saw the merit of it, they instinctively wanted to support it with their resources and expertise, and to the extent that this was done without compromising Vietnamese aims and authority it was welcomed. But Americans quickly developed ideas about how the program should be conceptualized and implemented as an extension of their aid and advisory mission, and these ideas diverged from the aims of the Vietnamese government.
The Ngo Dinh brothers pressed for urgent speed in implementing the program, seeing it as a way to foster local initiative, on which they wished to rely rather than waiting for American money and supervision. There were around five hundred strategic hamlets by the end of 1961. By the end of 1962, the number was up to four thousand. Americans got involved by providing material resources and advisory assistance in certain areas, but they were dismayed by what they saw as undue haste and lack of systematic planning. While the Ngo Dinh brothers were counting on a release of energy among the people to gain sufficient momentum to overcome obstacles, American critics could not see beyond the apparent confusion and friction produced by this effort to revolution- ize rural society. Americans viewed the pace of implementation as unrealistic and argued that the program should be slowed down to consolidate success in one place before extending the process to adjacent localities. On the other hand, the Ngo Dinh brothers believed that a rapid pace of implementation was necessary to preclude being overwhelmed by the insurgency.
A more serious aspect of the pace of implementation is that, in their haste to meet assigned deadlines, provincial authorities sometimes resorted to coercion and intimidation. This compromised the revolutionary goal of nurturing a Viet- namese version of grass-roots democracy espoused by the Republican Youth Movement. It also provided fuel for communist propaganda, which denounced the program as a form of exploitation and oppression. The great outcry of communist propaganda, however, came not simply from whatever popular resentment the program produced in some places. It was more directly an indication that the program, however poorly implemented, created serious prob- lems for the insurgency by disrupting its links to the rural population. In 1962, the insurgency suffered serious setbacks and appeared to lose the initiative that it seemed to have had in 1961. South Vietnamese and American authorities were tempted to think that the strategic hamlet program might be the answer to turn back communist influence in the countryside.
While the strategic hamlet program was the central focus of the Ngo Dinh brothers, it was but a minor aspect of what the Americans were doing in 1962. In late 1961, Kennedy decided to increase by many thousands the number of US military advisors, to send bombers and helicopters, and to delegate direct super- vision of this escalating American presence in Vietnam to Robert McNamara. Kennedy temporarily shelved criticism of Ngo Dinh Diem in favor of a major escalation in training, advising, and providing support to the Vietnamese army. In early 1962, a new command system was established for the US army in Vietnam. The MAAG was absorbed into the Military Assistance Command, Vietnam (MACV) under General Paul Donald Harkins (1904–1984). During the next two and a half years, Harkins presided over a steady increase of US military personnel from less than one thousand to over sixteen thousand.
Characteristically, this new American policy was decided with a minimum of consultation with the Vietnamese government. Within months, the thousands of Americans entering the country “without passports” were a source of dismay to Ngo Dinh Diem, who began to worry that the sovereignty of his country was being compromised. While grateful for American assistance, he did not trust American advisors to resist the temptation to take command of military and civil operations, thereby pushing aside his government. While the combination of the strategic hamlet program and the American military escalation dealt the com- munist insurgents major setbacks, it also exacerbated the tensions between the US and the Republic of Vietnam.
With the dramatic increase of American advisors came greater scrutiny from the American press. The official position of the Kennedy administration was that Americans were advising the Vietnamese army but were not directly involved in combat. American news reporters soon learned otherwise, and a pattern of dissimulation by Harkins and of skepticism by American reporters created sharp tension in MACV news briefings. Even more ominous for the US–Vietnamese relationship was the clash of cultural values produced by many thousands of American advisors with limited or no Vietnamese language ability attempting to work with their Vietnamese counterparts. The result was a critical mass of frustrated American advisors who did not understand Vietnamese culture and were alienated by what they imagined that they had learned about it. A “frustrated advisor” syndrome was combined with a “critical reporter” syn- drome, and the two groups of young Americans, soldiers and reporters, shared information and opinions that were reflected in the American press as charges of corruption and incompetence against Ngo Dinh Diem’s government. American reporters were given freedom to gather information and to file reports without any limitations, which soon became a factor in internal Vietnamese politics as their reports critical of the Vietnamese government were recycled back into the Vietnamese press and widely understood as representative of official US govern- ment views. In fact, Kennedy was particularly solicitous of the press, and press reports came to play a prominent role in how he understood events in Vietnam and in how he responded to those events.
Seeing this, Ngo Dinh Diem felt increasingly cornered and diminished by an overwhelming American presence that threatened to deprive him of legitimacy among Vietnamese nationalists. He was also concerned that the host of Ameri- can advisors was instilling a colonial mentality in the new generation of Viet- namese officers. But, as long as the counterinsurgency efforts appeared to bear fruit, he chose to trust Nolting’s assurances that the situation was temporary and that the number of American advisors would be reduced as soon as possible. He was also comforted by the hope that success of the strategic hamlet program would eventually make such intensive American involvement in his country unnecessary.
The Kennedy escalation produced a dramatic growth in the American military and civilian bureaucracy in Vietnam. This upsurge of activity was initially funded by purchase of local currency with dollars, but after a year these funds were expended, and the US wanted the Vietnamese government to contribute directly to a “counterinsurgency fund” that was under American control. Ngo Dinh Diem resisted this as a loss of authority over his national budget and a dimin- ution of Vietnamese sovereignty. In the spring of 1963, after weeks of negoti- ations, Nolting eventually arranged a compromise acceptable to both sides.