• Email
  • Single Page
  • Print

Report from Vietnam III: Intellectuals

Il faut une REVOLUTION!” Major Be said, letting the r roll like a cannon ball in the school at Vung Tau. The Italian general listened with an air of dawning surprise. The short broadfaced Vietnamese major was not a military chief of the NLF, but the head of the government school for Revolutionary Development, training anti-Communist cadres. The former Italian Chief of Staff and I were being briefed in French by Major Be in a small classroom, while in the next room a group from NBC was being briefed in English by his assistant, Mr. Chau. Thin, slight Mr. Chau, dressed in flowing black calico trousers and a tight black tunic resembling an alb, had taken a degree in English literature at the Sorbonne—he had done his doctoral thesis on Virginia Woolf. Major Be, less at home in foreign languages, wore a black shirt open at the throat and black trousers cut like Army fatigues. Their costumes were symbolic of the aims of the program. The 3000 cadres now in the school (a cadre is one person), when they graduated, would start “constructing” hamlets in teams of fifty-nine, wearing the black-pajama garb of the Viet Cong, which itself had been copied from the dress of the poor peasants. Actually, the peasants today in government-controlled areas wear a medley of clothes, including baseball caps, shorts, and tee-shirts; and the RD get up, I heard from a Vietnamese medical student, was regarded as ludicrous in the hamlets he had been staying in—“If they would only take off those silly pajamas, the people might not laugh at them.”

Vraiment une revolution,” Major Be insisted. The Italian general cast an inquiring look at me. “Qu’est-ce qu’il veut dire par ça?” he murmured. I did not know what Major Be had in mind when he said that his country had to have a revolution, though I agreed with him, whatever he meant. It was monotonous to hear everywhere the same stories of graft and thieving at the expense of the poor; only yesterday an unusually frank OCO man had been telling about what had happened with a distribution of clothing donated through AID—the best clothes had been pilfered by the authorities and never reached the needy. To receive aid at all, he said sadly, poor families had to qualify as needy with the government. “You mean they had to pay to qualify as needy?” He looked at me in silence, by way of an answer.

Still, the briefing I had already had in Saigon on the RD program had hardly prepared me to meet a doctrinaire theoretician of the type of Major Be, who, warming to his subject, was now assuring us that Vietnamese society was “complètement corrompue“: the ruling classes, he said, as the general’s eyes widened, had always used the laws to serve their own interests. Then, glancing at his watch, he switched to facts and figures.

The program had been started in December, ‘65. Twenty-eight thousand cadres were already in the field. The school training-period lasted twelve weeks, during which each cadre accomplished eleven tasks and went through twelve stages. Upon graduation, each cadre team would work with a hamlet to establish or maintain eleven criteria; an additional nine criteria, achieved with cadre support, would turn a constructed or Old Life Hamlet into a New Life Hamlet. Good results had not yet been produced, but the program was on the way—“dans la bonne direction.”

GENERAL LIUZZI was too new in the country to be up on some of the terminology. A “constructed” hamlet meant not a newly built one but a former Viet Cong hamlet that had been worked over politically to the point where it could now be considered pro-government. A “reconstructed” hamlet meant one that had been “constructed” and then backslid and had had to be “constructed” all over again, but this term, for some reason, had fallen into disfavor, and a “reconstructed” hamlet was now called a “consolidated” hamlet. Finally the goal of each was to become a “real New Life Hamlet.”

A “constructed” hamlet backslid because a poor job had been done in rooting out the Viet Cong “infrastructure.” Rooting out the “infrastructure,” i.e., conducting purges, was the main task of Major Be’s cadres. Major Be, to give him credit, did not use the expression, though the American briefers in Saigon had used it, repeatedly. That word, too freshly minted to be in my dictionary, is already a worn slug in American Vietnamese, tirelessly inserted into dinner-table conversations, briefings, newspaper and magazine articles. Its primary meaning is that the person using it (succinctly or sententiously, depending) has an up-to-date scientific grasp of the workings of underground communism—a meaning that could not be conveyed by the word “organization” or even “cells.” It is not restricted to the few—Harvard political science graduates or Princetonian school-of-government captains; it is as democratic as a subway token. One would not be surprised to hear it mumbled by some high-school drop-out as he cleaned his weapon: “Got to get Charlie’s infrastructure.” To our propaganda men, who like to write of “the faceless Viet Cong” (sometimes appending their photographs), “infrastructure,” aside from sounding knowledgeable and hard-headed, probably suggests infra-red—invisible rays just beyond red in the political spectrum.

Major Be and Mr. Chau are the Vietnamese counterparts of the American political scientists who have stamped their vocabulary and their habits of thought on this loony trial of strength in the Asian arena. Here for the first time, political science, as taught and studied in the big American universities, is being applied to war, where it often seems close to science fiction. Such a thing was scarcely dreamed of in World War II, despite the presence of a few professors and intellectuals in the OWI and OSS—no one thought of “studying” the Nazis and learning from them. Only the physical scientists became an auxiliary of the Defense Department. The present phenomenon, more portentous for the future, if there is one, than Dr. Strangelove—conceivably you can outlaw the Bomb, but what about the Brain?—dates back to the Cold War, when the “science” of Kremlinology was discovered. The behavior of the enemy was studied under university microscopes, with the aid of samples furnished by defectors to the Free World. Practical experiment, however, was not really feasible until the war in Vietnam provided a laboratory for testing the new weapon, an academic B-52 or Lazy Dog. Watching it operate in Vietnam, in conjunction with the sister “disciplines” of sociology and anthropology (“The Vietnamese don’t know how to handle them,” an American evangelical missionary informed Robert Shaplen, speaking of the Montagnard tribes the VC was winning over. “They have no anthropology to guide them.”) you wonder whether this branch of knowledge can ever have been designed for anything but war. The notion of a “pure” political science here seems as remote from actuality as atoms-for-peace.

Right after the Geneva Accords, the para-military professors began moving into Vietnam, the first being Diem’s inventor, Professor Wesley Fishel of Michigan State. But as long as Eisenhower was in office, the academic expertise on Vietnam remained rather old-fogeyish, like the prudent Eisenhower himself. Though the CIA virtually took over Michigan State University to train a Vietnamese police force and to form Vietnamese adepts in Political Science and Public Administration, this, after all, was a classic colonial practice. The CIA alumni and alumnae you still find in Vietnamese government nooks—nearly every Vietnamese who speaks English seems to have attended Michigan State and to be proud of it—have a certain démodé pathos, like the bangled, coquettish Dr. Hue, Professor of Public Administration at Saigon University, who resembles a road-show revival of Madame Nhu. Professor Fishel’s lasting contribution was not Nhu’s MSU-trained Secret Police, now presumably disbanded, but the introduction of the word “semantics” into official discourse about Vietnam. “We do ourselves and our Asian neighbors harm when we insist on stretching or shrinking them into our particular semantic bed,” he wrote in The New Leader, arguing for a “new political vocabulary” in an article wonderfully entitled “Vietnam’s Democratic One-Man Rule”—the Procrustean subject was Diem. A democratic “dictator” or a “democratic” dictator? Words failed Professor Fishel. Diem has gone, but embarrassments of the kind he created have not. Almost daily in the press briefing, whenever a newsman raises his hand to ask for clarification of some mealy-mouthed statement: “I am not going to debate semantics with you,” the spokesman replies. “Next?”

IT TOOK the New Frontier, though, to really update American “thinking” on Vietnam. A fresh look at the situation revealed the need for brand-new tactics with brand-new names: counter-in-surgency, special warfare. The Army created its Special Forces—the Green Berets—whose task was to combine unconventional fighting (counter-guerrilla activity) with political savvy. The Vietnamese, separate but equal, got their Special Forces—the Red Berets—a counter-terror group wearing leopard-spotted uniforms with a tiger’s head on the breast-pocket; they are still in action, bringing the severed heads of guerrillas or putative guerrillas into a pacified hamlet to show the American colonel. Concurrently, a new type of officer appeared in the field, with a traveling library; on the bookshelves in his mountain hideout were the works of Mao, Generals Giap and Grivas, Ho Chi Minh—doubtless in paperback. Young West Pointers were turned into political strategists on the spot by crash courses in Communism and native psychology, and Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary was placed on the desk of an old-style general, for convenient reference. The same year—1961—that the Special Forces were created, the Staley Plan was devised by a Stanford economist, Eugene Staley, whose name is now identified with Strategic Hamlets, though his Plan, in fact, was much more comprehensive and undertook a complete restyling of the Vietnamese economy, the political struggle, and the AID program.

No ordinary desk official in Washington could have imagined the Staley Plan. The idea of Strategic Hamlets was not new in itself; Diem and his brother Nhu had founded agrovilles—basically fortified settlements—which at one time bore the name of Camps of the Just Cause. But Staley perfected the agrovilles.* With a professor’s fondness for the diagram, he divided the country into yellow zones, blue zones, red zones, the yellow zones being governmental (available for US aid), the blue dubious, and the red VC. His plan was to transfer the population, wherever movable, into Prosperity Zones, which were to contain 15,000 model hamlets, for a starter, all heavily fortified and surrounded by barbed wire. With the enthusiastic cooperation of General Maxwell Taylor (who is still testifying before the Senate as an authority on Vietnam), about 2500 Staleyized hamlets were actually built. Life in them was diagrammed down to the last detail. Everyone was obliged to purchase and wear a uniform—four different color combinations, according to age and sex—and to carry two identity cards, one for moving about in the hamlet and the other for leaving it. The gates were closed by a guard every night at seven o’clock and opened at six in the morning. Persons consenting to be resettled in a strategic hamlet had their houses burned and crops sprayed with poison chemicals, so as to leave a razed area behind for the Viet Cong—this was the first wide-spread application of the science of chemistry to the political struggle. The US government paid compensation, of course.

  1. *

    I owe this description of Strategic Hamlets to Kuno Knoebel’s interesting book, Victor Charlie (Praeger, $5.95).

  • Email
  • Single Page
  • Print