Map, South Vietnam
(Click on Image to View Full Size Resolution)


Prelude to Change

Pacification is an imprecise term. The Oxford English Dictionary states that to pacify is "to reduce to peaceful submission, to establish peace and tranquility in a country or district." Although the Americans, like the French before them, saw pacification in the broadest sense of those terms, both usually thought of pacification as a specific strategy or program to bring security and political and economic stability to the countryside of Vietnam. But there was never agreement among Americans in Vietnam on just what pacification was and how it might be achieved. Some saw it as controlling the population; others as winning the people's allegiance. Some viewed it as a short-term military operation aimed at quashing opposition; others as a long-term process of bringing, in addition to security, economic, political, and social development to the people.

A semi-official study of pacification in South Vietnam provided one of the most comprehensive definitions:
. . . an array and combination of action programs designed to extend the presence and influence of the central government and to reduce the presence and influence of those who threaten the survival of the government through propaganda, terror, and subversion. The pacification process incorporates a mix of programs and activities that may vary in composition and relative emphasis from time to time and from place to place . . . The program mix comprises two broad, types of activities. They are designed on the one hand to establish and maintain a significant degree of physical security for the population and, on the other, to increase the communication and ties between the government and the people through a variety of selected non-military programs.1

Yet even that definition alluded to a fundamental cleavage over priorities that plagued American efforts at pacification in South Vietnam, one that CORDS was set up to eliminate: security versus development or, put another way, military versus civil.

Until the creation of CORDS in 1967, many Americans involved in South Vietnam, depending on their outlook or on which government


agency they worked for, saw pacification as either civil or military but not as a joint civil-military process. Most military men and some civilians believed that there had to be security before economic, political, and social development could proceed, that the people had to be safe before the government could win their allegiance. The converse, to which most civilian officials adhered, was that economic, political, and social development would foster political allegiance and, in time, bring military success, because an insurgency without popular support would wither for lack of roots.

That dichotomy reflected an even more basic conflict in the entire American approach to the war: Was the war primarily military, to be fought with essentially military means, or was it basically a political struggle? Although the U.S. government never formally resolved that question, the resources and emphasis devoted to the military side constituted a de facto policy decision in favor of a military solution. Indeed, such a "security first" approach to pacification may have been, after the first few years of the 1960s, the only realistic path. The South Vietnamese people by that time had seen too many programs and too many governments; they had been prey too often to the ebb and flow of struggle in their villages to put their trust in anybody who was unable first to protect them. Yet despite the emphasis on security, pacification continued to founder for lack of sustained security; and what was in effect two wars, military and political, flowed in parallel but separate streams. By 1966 the separation and degree of emphasis on the military war were so great that President Johnson, to give pacification more attention, began to speak of it as "the other war."

The lack of coordination and centralized direction in the American pacification effort in South Vietnam that CORDS was designed to eliminate was apparent even in the late 1950s when commitments were minuscule in comparison to what they had become by 1967. The lack existed despite a general understanding that an American ambassador headed all US representatives in the country to which he was accredited. That general understanding became formal in 1951 when the Departments of Defense and State and the Economic Cooperation Administration (forerunner of the Agency for International Development) agreed that their representatives in a country were to constitute what came to be known as a "country team" under leadership of the ambassador, who provided coordination, general direction, and leadership for the entire effort. Three years later President Dwight D. Eisenhower strengthened the arrangement by means of an executive order giving the ambassador in each


countrywide authority to manage and coordinate the US mission in all matters involving more than merely internal agency affairs.2

Yet it was a rare ambassador who used fully the authority that order afforded him. The first and probably most important reason was the situation in Washington, where interagency battles and jurisdictional disputes were magnified and interests supporting each agency were solidly entrenched. It followed that representatives of the agencies in South Vietnam failed to consider themselves members of the ambassador's staff but instead looked to their home offices for guidance and direction, particularly in regard to programs and budgets.

Nor were most ambassadors either trained or inclined to be managers. Following years of custom, they tended to view their task as reportorial and representational. Yet even when they tried to exercise more than general coordination, they faced formidable obstacles. By its very nature, the CIA zealously guarded its operational secrets, and military representatives could appeal to a powerful and well-endowed bureaucracy in Washington with institutionalized ties to the Congress and the American public that far outweighed those of the Department of State. The size of the US program further aggravated the ambassador's difficulties in South Vietnam. The AID mission there was one of that agency's biggest, and even in the late 1950s the Military Assistance Advisory Group was the largest advisory group in the world and the only one commanded by a three­star general.

In 1961 President John F. Kennedy made two decisions that perpetuated the lack of centralized control in South Vietnam. In May of that year, rather than appoint single managers in the field and Washington to oversee all US operations related to the war in South Vietnam, he reserved responsibility for coordination and direction to himself, his White House staff, and ad hoc interagency task forces that turned out to exercise little real control. Later in the year he sharply increased the size of the American military commitment in South Vietnam and super­imposed over the existing Military Assistance Advisory Group a full military assistance command headed by a four-star general who was equal in rank to the ambassador, actions which made it more difficult than ever for the ambassador to manage the military.

The years 1964 and 1965 provided the seedbed for the formation of CORDS. In those two years there was a veritable stream of suggestions


for improved organization for the overall American effort and for pacification. Those suggestions, and in some cases concrete experiments, came from every agency involved in South Vietnam and from the White House. Although the president took some part in those proposals and experiments, they were for the most part the province of government agencies which fought over them with little apparent intervention or influence from the president. The agencies groped in vain for a solution. Their failure was to be the catalyst for a presidentially imposed solution in 1966 and 1967.

Several factors were responsible for the interest in reorganization that arose during 1964 and 1965: The war was expanding in size and intensity; the South Vietnamese government was marked by weakness and instability; that government also adopted a new organization for pacification; and the commitment of American resources was rapidly growing.

The expanding war, soon involving not only the insurgent Viet Cong but also the North Vietnamese Army, dictated an increased American and South Vietnamese military response, which reinforced the perception of the struggle as basically military. Although many officials still maintained that pacification was the key to the war, the assignment of priorities and resources favored the military more than ever. In the face of enemy forces that had grown from small bands of insurgents to regular divisions, it was hard to argue otherwise.

Although South Vietnam had experienced eight years of relatively stable, if authoritarian, rule under President Ngo Dinh Diem, that changed suddenly in November 1963 when a coup d'etat and Diem's death in the course of it turned the government over to inexperienced generals. Amid changing and unstable governments, Americans found themselves involved in internal South Vietnamese politics and administration in a way Diem never would have countenanced. Although eventually rejected, joint American-South Vietnamese command and infusion of American advisers directly into the South Vietnamese government were seriously discussed both at the US mission in Saigon and in Washington.

In addition, with Diem's death, the South Vietnamese abandoned the primary feature of their pacification program, the Strategic Hamlet Program, whereby the rural population was to be relocated in fortified hamlets, and turned pacification over to their military high command. That prompted more than one suggestion from the American military that the same should be done on the American side. Yet in 1965 the South Vietnamese put pacification under a Ministry of Rural Construc-


tion (later called Revolutionary Development); and that produced similar contentions from American civilian officials that either the embassy or the United States Operations Mission, as the Saigon Office of the Agency for International Development was then known, should manage the American pacification program.

Probably the greatest impetus for organizational change was generated by the growing commitment of American resources. During 1964 and 1965, the American military strength in South Vietnam grew from less than 20,000 to nine times that figure, and civilian representation increased correspondingly. A major increase in the American advisory program started in early 1964 when the American military headquarters, the Military Assistance Command, Vietnam (MACV), began to place small advisory teams in South Vietnamese districts (similar to counties in the United States). Within a year almost all of the 243 districts had them, and military advisory teams at the province (state) level expanded as well. American civilian agencies also placed their own representatives in provinces and many districts, so that the advisory effort was soon too large and too remote for any Saigon-based ambassador to control. It was no rarity for several American agencies to present conflicting advice to South Vietnamese officials at various administrative levels.

In Washington, President Johnson clearly was the man in charge on Vietnam, but only on those issues of high policy or immediate necessity that he chose or found time to deal with. There was still no individual, committee, or task force below the presidential level in charge of either the war as a whole or pacification. Although in 1964 Johnson created an interagency Vietnam Coordinating Committee within the Department of State to manage policy and operations, that committee failed to deal in major policy decisions or to manage operations.

In Saigon the situation was little better than in Washington. Ambassador Henry Cabot Lodge appeared to have no wish to manage the US mission, yet he was unwilling to turn the task over to anybody else. In 1964 when his deputy, David Nes, attempted to improve coordination by creating a "pacification committee," chaired by Nes himself with the deputy chiefs of the other American agencies as members, Lodge ordered it disbanded soon after it was formed.3

The US mission received an unusual opportunity for achieving unity when in July 1964 President Johnson appointed General Maxwell D. Taylor as ambassador. Former chairman of the joint Chiefs of Staff,


Photo:  Ambassador Lodge


Taylor commanded great respect within the military. He was apparently the ideal man to mesh the military effort with the civil and political aspects of the war.
Lest there be any question as to Taylor's authority, he himself elicited from President Johnson the strongest possible terms of reference. On the basis of a draft that Taylor prepared, the president ordered that he would "have and exercise full responsibility for the effort of the United States Government in South Vietnam." He wanted it "clearly understood," the president went on, "that this overall responsibility includes the whole military effort in South Vietnam and authorizes the degree of command and control that you consider appropriate." 4

Few if any American ambassadors have entered on their assignments with such a formidable combination of personal respect and presidential authority and backing. Yet at the end of Taylor's tenure a year later, the US mission had larger, more fragmented bureaucratic fiefdoms than ever.

Taylor apparently saw no need for major organizational changes, but he did make one innovation; he formalized the country team con­


Photo: Ambassador Taylor


cept by setting up what he called the Mission Council, in his mind a miniature National Security Council. The members were the ambassador, his deputy, the embassy's political and economic counselors, and the heads of the other American agencies, including the military commander. An executive secretary known as the Mission Coordinator prepared the agenda, recorded decisions, and followed them up. The council met weekly by itself and also held periodic meetings with the South Vietnamese National Security Council. Interagency subcommittees, chaired by the agency having primary interest, dealt with special areas of concern. Although the ambassador retained final authority, the object was to achieve a consensus, especially among staff officers, before issues even reached the formal meetings.5 Despite the existence of this council, agencies were allowed to appeal council decisions to Washington, which reinforced the concept of the ultimate independence of each agency.

The existence of the Mission Council did relieve some pressure from Washington for tighter organization, for on paper the council arrangement looked effective. It also increased the interchange of information among the agencies. Taylor's deputy, U. Alexis Johnson, took pride in


Photo: General Westmoreland


the work of the Mission Council on the theory that it "established the habit" of components of the mission working together and also of their working with the South Vietnamese government. Yet a hands-off philosophy was still evident, for the deputy ambassador noted that "the Mission Council and the Joint [American-South Vietnamese] Council were important not so much for what was in fact decided at the meetings but for the fact that their existence, and the necessity of reporting to them, acted as a spur to the staff people to get things done and to resolve issues on their level."6

Yet coordination failed to flow downward from the council to representatives of the agencies working in the field. No member of the council was willing to subordinate the operations of his particular program to the council as a whole, and staff work for that body was accomplished by the agencies, not by a separate group serving the council. Perhaps the most glaring operational failure was that the council failed to reduce competition among agencies for resources. In the end even General West­


moreland, who had helped create it, observed in retrospect that "the Mission Council failed to provide the tight management needed for pacification."7
Despite the broad powers Ambassador Taylor had elicited from the president, he was reluctant to interfere with the military chain of command. To the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the Commander-in-Chief, Pacific, and General Westmoreland, he specifically promised no interference; he had no wish to put Westmoreland" in the unhappy position of having two military masters." Although he asked Westmoreland to clear with him all policy cables going to Washington by military channels, he did that only so that he might dissent, if necessary, through the Department of State. Both Ambassador Taylor and General Westmoreland thought the arrangement worked well, Taylor "because the parties involved were reasonable people," Westmoreland because he deemed it the ambassador's prerogative "to keep abreast of military matters."8

There was no open defiance of the ambassador, either by Westmoreland or the heads of any of the other agencies; for Taylor was unquestionably the figure of authority in the US mission. It was merely that in the absence of firm direction to pull the mission together, something Taylor apparently saw as unnecessary,9 the agencies continued to go their respective ways. And the beginning of the massive American build-up during this period aggravated the problems of disunity.

During Ambassador Taylor's tenure, one pacification operation showed that it was possible to pull together US and Vietnamese resources, civil and military, to work on pacification.. Hop TAC was launched in September 1964 as the major Vietnamese pacification operation of the year. It grew out of a desire to concentrate Vietnamese efforts in a few critical provinces. The concept envisaged starting from a core of four provinces immediately adjacent to Saigon and then moving pacification out in a series of concentric rings. Central to the concept was military/civilian and US/Vietnamese unity. Hop TAC was run by a joint US/Vietnamese council with a secretariat. A US Army colonel,


the senior adviser to the III Vietnamese Corps, led the interagency US component of this council. The Hop TAC operation made no lasting impact on the Viet Cong, but the organizational structure it spawned did provide an early example of the Vietnamese military running pacification, as well as a demonstration of disparate US agencies working together under military supervision in advising a pacification operation.10

During the same period (1964-65), however, the beginning of what was later known as the Revolutionary Development Cadre Program sharpened the dichotomy between military and civilian operations. Considering that neither the American nor South Vietnamese military was devoting sufficient emphasis and resources to pacification, American civilian agencies threw their support behind an expansion of the People's Action Teams. Started under CIA sponsorship, the teams were local­defense platoons, trained extensively in political indoctrination and motivation, that lived and worked among the people. Vastly expanding the number of teams, the South Vietnamese absorbed some members of existing programs run by separate government ministries but also gathered new recruits. Requirements for scarce South Vietnamese manpower conflicted with military needs, and the program became a major point of contention between American civilian agencies and General Westmoreland's command.

In the meantime, American bombing of North Vietnam beginning in February 1965 and arrival of American ground troops starting the next month and their commitment later in the year against the enemy's main-force units, produced more and more emphasis on military action and thus less and less American military attention to pacification. Immersed in their own expanding pacification program, American civilian agencies felt a widening conceptual gulf between the military war and what they were trying to achieve. While admitting that organization for pacification support might be tightened, they believed it should be achieved under civilian direction. Contributing most of the advisers and materiel and responsible for security, the American military command preferred to leave the organization as it was rather than see its resources put under civilian management.


Officials at the highest level of the US government were aware of the lack of unity in the US effort. In February, for example, in advocating reprisal bombing against North Vietnam, President Johnson's Special Assistant for National Security Affairs, McGeorge Bundy, told the president that if the reprisal program raised new hopes and if some improvement in the South Vietnamese government followed, "the most urgent order for business will then be the improvement and broadening of the pacification program, especially in its nonmilitary elements." He advocated strengthening at what he called "the margin between military advice and economic development." The military, he noted, needed to pay more attention to supporting civilian programs while the United States Operations Mission, which advised the South Vietnamese police, needed to focus more on security.11

Numerous proposals during 1965 for reorganizing the US mission and the American pacification effort reflected continuing concern in Washington over disunity in the mission. In February, for example, the Special Assistant for Counterinsurgency and Special Activities in the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Maj. Gen. Rollen Anthis, recommended a single chain of command for the pacification program under General Westmoreland.12

In Saigon, in an effort to coordinate the advice given South Vietnamese province chiefs, the US mission tried an experiment in three provinces, designating three "team chiefs," from AID, MACV, and the embassy. Although the test worked well in at least one province, it was abandoned after three months because of inconclusive results. The idea of unified advice for each province nevertheless became a part of nearly every reorganization subsequently proposed and eventually was to be incorporated as an important principle in the final structure for CORDS.

That unified interagency action for a particular aspect of the struggle in Vietnam was not necessarily impossible was demonstrated in May when Ambassador Taylor established the Joint United States Public Affairs Office (JUSPAO) under the head of the United States Information Agency's office in South Vietnam, Barry Zorthian.13 He was given


ministerial rank and made responsible for the entire mission's psychological warfare operations and press relations. For those matters the joint office was made the central point of contact with the South Vietnamese government. Zorthian's powers were directive and included seeing that his orders were carried out; he was not merely a coordinator. Officers from his agency and from all US agencies in South Vietnam served under him. The Joint Public Affairs Office was a successful smaller pre­cursor to CORDS for the management of programs that cut across agency lines.

When Henry Cabot Lodge returned for a second tour as ambassador in July 1965, he came armed with a letter of authority from President Johnson as powerful as that earlier given to Taylor.14 Yet Lodge continued to see himself primarily as the president's personal representative, and his earlier reluctance to interject himself in a managerial role continued.

Ambassador Lodge did bring with him to Saigon a small, hand­picked team of specialists to serve as an informal political staff for his use and to provide liaison with South Vietnamese officials responsible for pacification. The head of the group, Maj. Gen. Edward G. Lansdale, US Air Force, had helped defeat an insurgency in the Philippines soon after World War II and had headed a staff advising President Diem on pacification. Lodge made Lansdale chairman of an interagency mission liaison group, which Ambassador Taylor had earlier created to provide coordination with the South Vietnamese Director General of Rural Reconstruction (pacification).

Yet neither in that post nor later as the US mission's senior liaison officer to the South Vietnamese government was Lansdale able to accomplish much in terms of bringing unity and direction to the US pacification support effort. The political contacts he had established in his earlier tour and his ability to gain the trust and confidence of South Vietnamese officials were valuable, but otherwise his stay was frustrating. Key South Vietnamese leaders quickly discerned that his power was limited and chose to deal instead with the agencies themselves, which had large staffs and access to funding and other resources. The agencies resented Lansdale's efforts to deal with Lodge on issues cutting across agency responsibilities and frequently frustrated those efforts; for Lans­


dale had no independent operating authority, no funds, and--an extremely important factor-no Washington constituency to back him

The year 1965 ended with little change in the management of the American program of pacification support. Despite a greatly expanded war, a vastly increased American effort, an enormous commitment of military and civilian resources, and a change of ambassadors arid commanders in Saigon (Westmoreland had become commander in mid­1964 ), the organization at the end of the year was basically the same as it had been two years earlier. At all levels American officials appreciated the problems of organization and made numerous proposals for change, and the president had given his ambassadors unprecedented authority. Yet the situation remained basically the same. It was not to stay that way much longer.


Next Chapter


Return to Table of Contents

Search CMH Online
Last updated 3 January 2006