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A Special Supplement: Kennedy’s Private War

The second major program authorized by the 303 Committee was the training of the Montagnards in South Vietnam, who had managed to preserve their ethnic identity over the centuries. These local tribesmen, whose loyalty never extended beyond their own clan, were as opposed to the encroachments of the GVN as they were to the solicitations of the Viet Cong. Because they inhabited an area that bordered an infiltration route from North to South, the CIA believed that they could be trained as a force of warriors to be used in attacks against the Viet Cong.

The CIA felt that the bonds among ethnic minorities could be easily nourished and exploited; that nomadic tribes, rather than landed peasants, could be made into warriors and be moved more easily from one assignment to another. As warriors, the Montagnards took their orders directly from the CIA, in return for which they were liberally paid and promised autonomy from the GVN. The GVN neither consented to nor complied with this promise.

By the end of 1963, 30,000 local tribesmen had been armed and trained. The Special Forces carried out this work for the CIA. Eventually, the Montagnards were formed into units known as the Civilian Irregular Defense Groups (CIDG). They were used for various types of operations, and were noted primarily for their bravery, brutality, and terrorism. CIDG units were used to repress the Southern peasantry as well as for armed incursions into the North. As soon as the program showed some success, the MACV, attempting to break the autonomy of the Special Forces, removed the program from the CIA and placed it under its own jurisdiction.

CIA training of the Montagnards in South Vietnam had its counterpart among the Meo tribesmen in Laos. The Meo, too, were a local clan whose latent warrior tendencies and antipathy toward central rule were carefully nurtured by the CIA. By training and paying the Montagnards and Meo tribesmen, the CIA, in effect, created a force of warriors directly under its command. The conflict between the local tribesmen and the central government, fostered by the CIA, ran parallel to a larger conflict among American officials—a conflict between the Special Forces and the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Just as the local tribesmen were promised their autonomy from the central government by the CIA, so the Special Forces had been established as an autonomous force, to take their commands directly from the President, circumventing the Joint Chiefs. As the Indochina war proceeded, the local tribesmen were eventually reduced to subservience by the central government, and the Special Forces were taken over by the Joint Chiefs. The “guerrillas” within the client state and the “guerrillas” within the American imperial state were broken and absorbed by the client and imperial government, respectively.

But to develop a guerrilla force within the imperial power, an idea originated by the CIA, is a structural change that may prefigure the imperial army of the future. For the conflict between the Special Forces and the Joint Chiefs, on the one hand, and the local tribesmen and the central government, on the other, reflects a larger conflict between the client state and the imperial power. The United States has encountered grave difficulties in developing effective and loyal armies within its client states. Neither the Royal Laotian Army nor the ARVN has been able to hold its own against the people’s army, the Viet Cong, and the Pathet Lao. It was as a direct result of this difficulty that the CIA attempted to build armies of local tribesmen.

These guerrilla armies were an astonishing success when compared to the regular armies of South Vietnam and Laos. When the Joint Chiefs set out to break the autonomy of the Special Forces, they were fortuitously putting under their command a guerrilla army of local tribesmen which they were able to use as the new imperial army. With this one stroke the Joint Chiefs resolved some of the difficulties of relying both upon a client army and upon troops conscripted in the US. Neither American boys nor South Vietnamese boys wished to fight in a people’s war. What could be better cannon fodder to use against the people than a pre-people, that is, clansmen? The courage of the local tribes and the technology of the imperial power were combined to do battle with large numbers of Asian people and the guerrilla organizations they were supporting.

The third program begun by the 303 Committee was the use of DeSoto patrols. Originated in 1962 and approved by the President, this program authorized US destroyers to operate along the border of mainland China and the North Vietnamese mainland, to listen to the “military and civil activity of the Asian Communist bloc.” In addition to listening, the patrols were ordered to stimulate the radar of the enemy so that the position and type of radar could be identified.

After the DeSoto patrols were approved by Kennedy and the detailed policy for using them was formulated by the 303 Committee, the program was submitted for implementation to the Joint Chiefs, who then put the program under the jurisdiction of the Joint Center for Intelligence at their headquarters in Washington. The Ops Center, as it was called, drew up the tentative schedules and forwarded them to CINCPAC in Hawaii. CINCPAC selected the precise dates for the DeSoto patrols and sent orders to the Seventh Fleet. Copies of these orders were also sent to MACV in Saigon. The question of who selected and kept track of the DeSoto patrols was to assume critical importance in the Gulf of Tonkin incident of August, 1964.

CINCPAC plan 34a, drawn up in the fall of 1963 as an annex to the entire CINPAC plan for Southeast Asia, was the covert plan directed against the North. It consisted of two parts: psychological operations and hit-and-run attacks. The latter included amphibious raids by the Vietnamese in areas “south of the Tonkin Delta having little or no security.” This was subsequently expanded to include the use of Swift torpedo boats to shell the Northern mainland and kidnap Northern personnel. Plan 34a, too, was assigned by the 303 Committee to the Joint Chiefs for implementation.

The Special Group for Counter-Insurgency

The second agency in Washington that managed the private war between 1961 and 1963 was the Special Group Counter-Insurgency (SGCI). Organized in response to Khrushchev’s speech on wars of national liberation, the SGCI was created by President Kennedy in NSAM 124, issued in late 1961. The SGCI, like the 303 Committee, met once a week. In fact, its members included those on the 303 Committee, or their delegates, and met in Room 303 at the Executive Office Building immediately after the Committee adjourned its meetings. Members of the 303 Committee would complete their discussions, sign the orders for the covert programs, and then call the SGCI to order, invite in additional deputies, and turn their attention to the problems of counterinsurgency.

Nevertheless, there were substantial differences between the 303 Committee and the SGCI. The 303 Committee managed the covert operations of the United States government in every area of the world. The programs themselves generally originated with the CIA, although other agencies of government, such as the Defense Department, the Joint Chiefs, and the State Department, did submit proposals, many of which were put into operation. The only requirement for a 303 hearing was that the program be significant and covert. When a program was put into operation, it generally used the services of the Special Forces.

The SGCI, on the contrary, never managed covert operations, had only a limited relation to the CIA, and did not employ the services of the Special Forces. It dealt exclusively with the overt programs of the US government in any nation around the globe that was deemed to be threatened by insurgency. These programs were under the special jurisdiction of the several national security agencies, including the Defense Department, AID, the State Department, USIA, and the CIA. The purposes of SGCI were to coordinate the overseas programs of the national security agencies, eliminate duplication of effort, and ensure that those programs relating to counter-insurgency were completed. The SGCI supervised the overseas programs of each of the national security agencies.

A counterinsurgency doctrine technically known as “The Overseas Internal Defense Policy of the USA” was written in 1962. President Kennedy adopted it as the official policy of the US government in NSAM 182. The main premise of the doctrine was that the counterinsurgents should help themselves, but a saving clause was added to the doctrine instructing: “where necessary, introduce US troops.”

Thus the 303 Committee was largely responsible for the unofficial policy of the US government toward Vietnam during the private war—the covert activities in North Vietnam and Laos, and the disguised use of US combat troops within South Vietnam. The SGCI, on the other hand, was in charge of the official policy—the policy that was reported in the press and otherwise made known to the American public.

The official policy consisted of a strategic plan which, consistent with the counterinsurgency doctrine, called upon the GVN to defend itself, to win its own war, and to employ Americans as teachers. There were three parts to the plan:

1) The US government officially accepted Diem as the premier of South Vietnam, and all aid was channeled through him.

2) The strategic hamlet program was devised as the principal means of defending the South against further encroachments by the Viet Cong. Strategic hamlets were supposed to help organize the rural peasants into larger territorial units in order to increase their capacity to defend themselves and to weed out Viet Cong.

As envisioned by the planners, the hamlets were to expand like an oil blot, dense in the center, blurred at the perimeter. Ideally, a second hamlet would not be built until the first was satisfactorily organized and properly defensible. Diem’s brother, Nhu, was placed in charge of the program and built the hamlets in total disregard of the oil blot theory. Instead of securing one hamlet before proceeding to the next, Nhu was interested in increasing the number of hamlets, with the result that none was secure. When Diem was assassinated in 1963, thousands of strategic hamlets collapsed overnight.

3) The ARVN was to be built into a powerful army that could take the offensive against the Viet Cong and regain the territory then held by the Communists. The ARVN, trained by MACV and working in conjunction with the strategic hamlet program under the charismatic leadership of Diem, would, it was anticipated, extend the national sovereignty of the GVN throughout South Vietnam.

The national security agencies of the US government devoted all their efforts to this strategic plan. Their programs were supervised by the SGCI and their projects were completed under the direction of a special agency, which ostensibly possessed a blueprint of victory.

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