Reflections on Vietnam, 1963-64: Trying to talk to Gen. Westmoreland about COIN
By LTG John H. Cushman, U.S. Army (Retired) Best Defense guest columnist On 1 July 1963, a lieutenant colonel on my first tour in Vietnam, I became senior advisor to the commander of the 21st Infantry Division of the South Vietnamese Army. His headquarters, and my MAAG Advisory Team 51, were located at Bac Lieu ...
By LTG John H. Cushman, U.S. Army (Retired)
By LTG John H. Cushman, U.S. Army (Retired)
Best Defense guest columnist
On 1 July 1963, a lieutenant colonel on my first tour in Vietnam, I became senior advisor to the commander of the 21st Infantry Division of the South Vietnamese Army. His headquarters, and my MAAG Advisory Team 51, were located at Bac Lieu in Ba Xuyen province, deep in Vietnam’s Delta. As commander of the 42d Division Tactical Area, Colonel Bui Huu Nhon was responsible for the security of Vietnam’s four southernmost provinces. A million and a half people lived there, south of the Mekong River, in a region about the size of Connecticut. Except for the U Minh forest on its west coast the land was mostly rice paddies interlaced by canals.
In 1958 the Viet Minh had begun a campaign, including the intimidation of villagers and the assassination of officials, to take control of this territory. The Government of Vietnam had countered with the strategic hamlet program and a buildup of its own forces. My predecessor and lifetime friend, LTC Jonathan F. Ladd, informed me that the strategic hamlet program had tried to do too much too fast. It was in disarray. At mid-1963 the Viet Cong controlled the majority of the countryside. Government control was limited at best to the outskirts of district towns.
In the next nine months our advisory team provided advice and assistance to the commander of the 21st Division and his four province chiefs as they created and put into place for the first time in Vietnam an effective program of pacification in the countryside. The program was a cooperative American-Vietnamese civil-military effort. It was mounted on the Vietnamese side by the division commander and his staff and by his province chiefs with help from GVN agencies in Saigon. On the American side its civil component was assisted by a US foreign service officer newly graduated from Brown University, assigned to the US Aid mission in Saigon and stationed in Soc Trang, Ba Xuyen province’s capital. His name was Richard Holbrooke.
The chief planner on our advisory team was my deputy senior advisor, LTC Robert M. Montague. Bob Montague was a brilliant officer and a great organizer, first in his 1947 class at West Point. He teamed up with Dick Holbrooke and with a grizzled English-speaking major from the division staff, Major Yi, to develop an approach that would be used throughout the 21st Division area.
Major Yi told us about an idea used by the French in Algeria, known as the "oil spot" concept. It called for a gradual, step-by-step, process that would start from a small populated area, such as one of our hamlets under government control, and would move outward with an organized effort, bringing government control to hamlets one at a time.
The first requirement was to provide security to the hamlet population. At the same time there must be a civil effort to provide good government and win the hearts and minds of the people.
The 21st Division with US advisors’ help created its own "clear and hold" approach. Joint planners developed a civil-military organization that along with a standard operating method would be put into place by the district chief in every district in the 21st Division zone.
The district chief would expand an oil spot with a military-civil pacification force. The military part was a civil guard company and two or three self-defense corps platoons under the chief’s direct command. Their mission would be to provide local security for the hamlet and the operations of the pacification effort.
The pacification effort was the task of an organization under an ARVN captain who was called the district chief’s "deputy in the field." This deputy would work with and assist the village chief and village council in the targeted area who would in turn direct the affairs of the hamlets and their hamlet militia. These latter were farmers by day and fighters by night.
The deputy in the field ran the pacification group; it was the key. It was under a competent militia officer or a village action cadreman especially selected for his leadership qualities and his love of country. He and his cadre would supervise hamlet action teams, whose members had expertise in fields like agriculture, medicine, education, and animal husbandry — all supported by government agencies at district or above.
These teams were to go into the target hamlet, determine the people’s needs, assist in agricultural and economic development, establish intelligence nets, detect and eliminate Viet Cong infrastructure, act as a link between higher governmental agencies and the people, and eventually restore the legitimate government in the hamlet.
Coups in Saigon in November and January brought in the new division commander, Colonel Cao Hao Hon. He supported the pacification concept with enthusiasm. He decided to run a test of the organization and to establish a division training school for pacification groups. The first trained pacification group began operating in early April 1964. By the end of May a pacification group was operating in each province.
On June 8, 1964, a newspaper piece appeared in the Washington Star, with Scripps-Howard dateline and the byline of Jim Lucas. He had visited the district town of O Min in Phong Dinh province:
Nguyen Van Dieu, 45, the father of six children ranging from six to 21 in age, is a little old to be enlisting in a war. But Mr. Dieu has joined a village action team as part of Vietnam’s ‘oil spot" pacification program. He was a member of the first class to complete the three week course… Nguyen Van Dieu will lead a hamlet action team. It will follow the civil guard after it has driven the Viet Cong from a hamlet and will attempt to reestablish local government… Until now, he says, the hamlets have had no protection. If the pacification plan works out, they will…
I had been describing our effort In letters that I wrote my wife. An excerpt:
"The troubles over here are very basic and we are going to try to solve them in a very simple, basic, way – by starting where the people are – in the small hamlets…
"Protection is important – perhaps the first prerequisite. The Viet Cong come in and terrorize the hamlet officials – threaten them with assassination if they continue to serve. Then they do kill them – or enough of them to make their threats believable. One fine village chief was murdered four days ago – a very good man whom we had been relying on to recruit more militia in his area. The communist movement feeds on this sort of tactic – combined with promises of a better life to the peasants and a way of achieving the fanaticism and dedication among its cadres and workers that we do not yet understand.
"Our hope is to offer the farmer hope in two ways – protection, and a better deal for the little guy. The national government is not yet sure what its program will be. We intend to start a program of our own down here – write it into our lesson plans that we are preparing for the courses we will conduct and deliver on the program in our execution of the oil spot concept – and hope that the government will allow us to do so. It is not an easy thing to do. But we have a lot of Americans backing us and I think it will develop into something very good if we are lucky. I say again – there is no other way in my opinion for us to pacify this country."
In late January 1964 Lieutenant General William C. Westmoreland arrived in-country as presumptive COMUSMACV. A month later I wrote my wife:
"Today we will have a visit by General Westmoreland. We will explain our plan to him, and hope that he will agree with what we say we need and will carry the message back to Saigon so that we can get what we need."
"We impressed General Westmoreland with the quality of our plan and the thinking that went into it. Whether he will be able to gain approval of his financial features – we don’t know…"
I did not tell my wife that General Westmoreland gave the impression that his mind was on something else. I was not sure that he really understood the significance of what we were trying to do. He may have heard the words, but I didn’t believe he heard the music.
On March 16 I wrote my wife: "One thing about this situation is the lack of communication between Saigon and the field. Before I leave I will ask for an audience with General Westmoreland and tell him that and a few other concrete suggestions as to how we can do this job better over here. I am sure he will be delighted to hear all about it!"
I called General Westmoreland’s office to say that I wanted to talk to him before leaving Vietnam. He told me that his schedule was busy, but invited me to accompany him as he drove to Tan Son Nhut to welcome visiting National War College students.
In the car, letting General Westmoreland know of my belief that we had come up with the solution to pacification, I said that if he could find the right thirteen senior advisers for the four ARVN corps and the nine ARVN divisions, and that if they put into place something like what we were now doing in the 21st Division, he could win back the countryside.
I told General Westmoreland that the thirteen advisors should each be assigned for a two year tour and that they should have their families stationed at Clark Field in the Philippines if they desired.
I said all of this expecting that General Westmoreland might well ask me to extend my own tour. I knew that I was taking that chance. I had not prepared my reply. It was a reckless move.
He listened and that was it. Passivity. No reaction, no questions, no exploration, no curiosity. I went home two weeks later.
We in the 21st ARVN Division advisory team had shown General Westmoreland the right approach to regaining control of South Vietnam’s countryside. He did not grasp it. His next four years were search and destroy.
I see that as a profound moment in the story of Vietnam.
Colonel Hon and my successor as division senior advisor continued with the program. Bob Montague kept me informed by mail until he was transferred to Saigon to work on pacification, as was Dick Holbrooke. In 1965 Bob went to the Army War College and after that to work under Bob Komer in the Johnson White House. There he was joined by Dick Holbrooke to develop with Komer the program known as CORDS. In 1967 CORDS was put into place in Vietnam under Komer as Deputy COMUSMACV with rank as ambassador. Bob Montague was his assistant. It was essentially a Cadillac version of our Model T 21st Division effort, years earlier. Vietnam’s president Nguyen Van Thieu appointed Cao Hao Hon, who had been our division commander and was now a major general, to work alongside Ambassador Komer as chief of his government’s nationwide pacification effort.
By the time CORDS really got rolling, after Tet 1968, it was too late.
General Cushman commanded the 101st Airborne Division, the Army Combined Arms Center, and the ROK/US field army defending Korea’s Western Sector. He served three tours in Vietnam.
 Described in more detail in my article "Pacification Concepts Developed in the Field by the 21st RVN Division," published in ARMY magazine March 1966. See also pp 108-117 of Harry Maurer?s Strange Ground; Americans in Vietnam 1945-1975, An Oral History, Henry Holt & Co, 1989
Thomas E. Ricks is a former contributing editor to Foreign Policy. Twitter: @tomricks1
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