Revisiting COIN Strategies in Vietnam

That “Generals are always fighting the last war” may be true, but this is often because they are fighting a different war from their opponent. According to Clausewitz, it is key to military strategy to find the “center of gravity” in any war. If one does not, or focuses on the wrong ‘center’, the battles and ultimately the war will be lost. In Vietnam, the United States did not come to recognize the people of Indochina as the center of gravity and focused on them too little and too late. Many post-mortems on the Vietnam War have recognized this fact. Yet in recent conflicts such as Afghanistan and Iraq—despite the battle cry of “hearts and minds”—America still believed it could win through “thunder runs”, “economy of force”, “dynamic maneuver warfare”, and remote or walled combat fortresses. Arguably, these tactics won battles, but they have not won the wars.


Maos Teachings

The goal and strategy of indigenous communist forces was related directly to winning over the people of Southeast Asia. They wanted to change society, not just change governments. They sought to communicate this goal to the people and mobilise them to support it, not just build a government and centrally-controlled army to fight pitched battles, though they did show ability to do so against the French and, in later stages, against the United States.

Communist forces devised effective tactics to further their strategy of revolutionary guerrilla warfare largely based upon the teachings of China’s Mao Zedong and Vietnam’s General Vo Nguyen Giap. They viewed the wars as a “struggle”—dau tranh—broken further into the “military struggle”—dau tranh vu trang—and the “political struggle”—dau tranh chinh tri. Included in the political struggle was “action among the enemy”—dich van. “Action among the enemy” referred to actions behind enemy lines taken by communist forces among the local population in areas controlled or contested by anti-communist forces. Almost all communist actions conducted in South Vietnam included detailed plans and directives for propagandizing and re-training “liberated citizens”.

The primary and most effective vehicle through which communist forces undertook these actions was the “Agit-Prop Team”, also referred to as the “Armed Propaganda Team” (APT). These teams were first used by the Viet Minh to quickly disseminate news of the 1945 Japanese surrender and standing up of the communist government throughout the countryside—quickly pushed aside by British troops. They continued to be employed by communist forces throughout the conflict. Travelling minstrels and drama troupes had been part of Southeast Asian culture for centuries. As retired Army Sergeant Major and veteran of psychological operations in Vietnam, Herb Friedman explains: “Because of the widespread familiarity of the peasant with culture-drama teams and the wide acceptance of this traditional culture form, the communists seized upon the concept and developed it as a PSYOP weapon.”

APTs were a non-violent, culturally-attuned and effective way of communicating the communist message and mobilizing rural South Vietnamese to their cause. As a 1968 article in Military Review puts it: “If the United States had given a higher priority to finding out precisely what the Communists were doing psychologically in remote areas of South Vietnam between 1955 and 1959, and to urging the government of [South] Vietnam to develop and use a counter-psychological operation strategy, the Viet Cong would have been less able to exploit peasant resentments and to get them organized to support a guerrilla war the people did not want.”


Hearts & Minds in Saigon 

Perhaps the greatest testament to the success of the communist Armed Propaganda Teams is the fact that South Vietnamese and U.S. forces adopted the same tactics after coming to understand their effectiveness. These and similar missions were referred to as ‘psychological operations’—PSYOPS—by the U.S. military. Anti-communist APTs conducted operations similar to their communist counterparts and consisted of South Vietnamese cadre accompanied by U.S. troops.

The first two Anti-communist APT companies were organised in 1964 and many of the cadre were former communists who could speak with credibility of the actions and conditions on both sides of the fight. The program grew to 75 companies by 1969. Anti-communist forces also employed entertainment through ‘Culture-Drama Teams’. Their tactics were similar to the communists. They would engage villagers in singing, including teaching the people the South Vietnamese national anthem, teaching them the positive goals of the Saigon government, and giving news of government successes, programs and improvements.

In the cases of Afghanistan and Iraq, the U.S. does not seem to have fully taken these lessons from the Vietnam War on board.

American efforts to combat communism and win hearts and minds in Southeast Asia, and those of the French before them, were referred to generally as “pacification”. For most rural South Vietnamese in 1954, the newly independent government in Saigon was far away and not very relevant to their lives. Many government bureaucrats adopted the hands-off approach French colonial administrators had taken, remaining remote from citizens and more concerned with forms than people.

However, with the 1954 Geneva Accords dividing of the nation along the 17th parallel,  Ngo Dinh Diem’s government had to gain support from its citizens, not least of all because within two years there would—supposedly—be national elections encompassing both North and South Vietnam  in which Vietnamese would decide between communism and democracy. Saigon would have two years to reach the people outside of the provincial capitals before the July 1956 elections and do it better than the communists.

The Special Commissariat for Civic Action (CDV)—Cong Dan Vu—was the brainchild of Kieu Cong Cung, a nationalist former soldier and police chief. He had also been Viet Minh in the fight against the French return in 1945, so knew the communist’s tactics first-hand. The idea was to get the government out of offices and into villages, showing it could improve lives. It “attempted to place the resources of the South Vietnamese state behind an effort to duplicate the tactics of the communists at the village level and beat them at their own game”.

Mobile groups of CDV cadre, with support from local government, would connect with the people by living alongside them while working with them on civil projects to improve local living conditions. The first groups deployed in 1955 and began working in villages on information campaigns, attitude surveys and distributing medical aid. Their role expanded to holding classes on government services, ensuring each village had a school, a council, a village hall and a medical station, helping locals to build whichever they did not have. Once they achieved some success in an area, they moved on to another. Initial reports were optimistic.

Unfortunately, the CDV program met with resistance from the beginning. The provincial governors resisted it as encroaching on their power and budgets. Provincial administrators felt the work below their status. Village chiefs did not like the intrusion of outsiders from Saigon. Language and dialects proved to be a barrier. Often when CDV teams left, things would return to their previous state without support to maintain improvements. CDV cadres were being targeted for assassination by communist insurgents. U.S. advisers thought the program too ambitious and costly for Diem’s budget.

Despite its great promise, there simply was not enough support, time, money or cadres. In the end, the July 1956 elections which the CDV was envisioned to help Diem win never took place. It became clear the communists would win them by a wide margin. On the advice of the U.S., the South claimed it had not been party to the Geneva Accords and could therefore ignore them. The temporary split of Vietnam became permanent and set the stage for the Vietnam War.

Early on anti-communist forces recognized the need to control the population to prevent communist communication and weed out communists. One of the tenets of revolutionary guerrilla warfare was Mao’s exhortation that “the guerrilla must move among the people as a fish swims the sea.” Communist guerrillas depended upon the local population for information, shelter, money, food, and new recruits. Separating the guerrilla “fish” from their “sea” of people would do them harm.

During the Malayan Emergency, British forces experienced some success with the “Briggs Plan”, which saw rural populations relocated to fortified, defensible “New Villages” with controlled entry and exit, separating the insurgents from the people and drawing them into the open to find support. As part of his effort to install democracy in Vietnam “from the bottom up”, Ngo Dinh Diem instituted the Agroville Programme in 1959—later Strategic Hamlet Program or New Life Hamlets—in an effort to isolate communists from the people.

The fortified, controlled villages—guarded, moated, barbed-wired and bamboo-fenced—prevented communists from entering to exploit them for supplies and recruits. Residents gave up their ID card upon exiting the village to work the fields and their identity was checked upon return. The program was incentivized by providing electricity, schools and medical facilities. A network of roads linked the hamlets. Hamlet councils linked residents to the government for the first time and the government felt the villages safe enough to extend credit to farmers. Villagers were organised into a self-defense force and devoted one day a week to maintaining defenses. Communication between villages and news awareness improved with the installation of radios. By 1962, the Diem government claimed 39% of South Vietnamese lived in such communities .

The program created as many problems as it solved. Thousands were uprooted from their farms and made to build new homes—unpaid—within controlled villages, often far from their ancestral homes. For Vietnamese, veneration of ancestors is important and leaving behind graves caused great social disruption. In its zeal to complete the project, initially the government uprooted 20,000 people to build a village for that could only hold 6,000, leaving 14,000 angry peasants. Many of those forced to move and into labor held smoldering resentment against the U.S. and the Diem government for uprooting them, something the communists exploited. Communist propaganda against the hamlets pictured them as concentration camps or prisons and they made great efforts to infiltrate the hamlets to agitate against the South from inside.

To America, the program was a way to isolate and starve communists. To the communists, it created further propaganda opportunities to show the repression suffered under the U.S. and Diem. To Ngo Dinh Diem, it was a way for his government to reach and control the people.


Lessons For Counterinsurgents Today

  • For government to gain the support of the people, the government must reach the people positively. The newly-independent democratic government was a wholly new beast to its people who had only lived under French colonial administration and had to convince them of its worth. Insurgent forces were more effective at reaching even the most rural of communities. U.S. and government efforts were too little, too late despite their potential to deliver tangible public benefits to rural populations insurgent forces could not have. American and local government efforts were less successful at reaching and convincing the people of their worth than insurgent forces.
  • Barriers keep bad things out, but they also keep them in. While barriers separated insurgents from the population they depended upon for support, their use also reinforced the propaganda image of local government and U.S. oppression. It disrupted social cohesion and fostered resentment among the people. The government reached the people in a negative way. Walls can keep people out, but not ideas. People frustrated by the obstacles to normal life constructed by COIN forces presented fertile ground for the insurgent’s ideology—the center of gravity and the focus of their effort to win the war.

In the cases of Afghanistan and Iraq, the U.S. does not seem to have fully taken these lessons from the Vietnam War on board. America’s effort to establish governments that have positive reach outside of Baghdad and Kabul has returned mixed results at best despite billions of dollars and thousands of lives invested in building them. Local governments have been unable to prove their value to their people—or at least no better than their opponents have—despite the claimed importance of winning “hearts and minds” to the American effort. Perhaps it is indeed true that our Generals were still fighting the last war.


Chris Miller is a U.S. Army veteran and Purple Heart recipient following two tours in Baghdad, Iraq and has worked as a military contractor in the Middle East. His work currently focuses on strategic studies. His interests are CBRN, military and veterans issues, the Cold War, and international security affairs.




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