VietnamFollowing is the first in a series of personal reminiscences by U.S. Foreign Service personnel who served in Vietnam, primarily during the United States’ heavy involvement in the war.
by Carl R. Fritz*
IN JANUARY 1969, AS A CIVILIAN WITH MISGIVINGS about U. S. war aims and uneasy about working hand in hand with military forces, I reported dutifully to Danang, the largest city in the First Combat Tactical Zone of Vietnam and the headquarters of the joint Vietnamese-U.S. military I Corps.
The Agency for International Development (AID) had sent me to be the assistant deputy for the Civil Operations and Rural Development Support (CORDS) program in the five provinces that comprised the I Corps area of operations. As U.S. involvement in the war intensified, Washington had created CORDS, an integrated civilian-military organization, to further what we and our South Vietnamese allies called the Pacification Program, an effort to support and strengthen grassroots opposition to the Viet Cong among the peasantry. Although an American three-star general commanded CORDS in Danang, it was a largely civilian operation. The second in command, Alex Firfer, and the third, myself, were AID civilians. Of the 2,000 CORDS personnel in the I Corps area, only 750 were military. These civilians and soldiers worked as integrated teams providing advice to Vietnamese and American unit commanders at the provincial and district levels throughout I Corps.
The Pacification Program was a sound idea, born of the perception that our efforts to defeat the Viet Cong by fire and armor were alienating the rural population we were seeking to protect. Soon after my arrival, I saw clear evidence of the demoralizing effect of our military tactics on traditional peasant life. On an orientation trip to the five I Corps provinces, I noted with growing dismay the proliferation of refugee camps throughout the area. The misery of their inhabitants was palpable. These were mainly farmers, accustomed to hard work on a daily basis. Now they were stuck, idle, with nothing to do but sit. These souls had not been driven off their land by the Viet Cong or the North Vietnamese; their displacement was a by-product of America’s entry into Vietnam’s civil war. Our artillery units wanted free-fire zones in order to target reported Viet Cong concentrations. Not wishing to kill innocent farmers and their families in these areas, our forces had the South Vietnamese remove them to camps where we fed and maintained them, while our big guns devastated the countryside, destroying the abandoned homes and gradually making the land unfit for cultivation.
If we wanted the hearts and minds of these people — the goal of pacification — this clearly was not the way to go. Hadn’t we learned anything from herding Native Americans into Indian reservations?
An opportunity soon arose for Firfer and me to help redress the refugee situation. The commanding general of the First Marine Division became disgusted after his troops had, for the second time, cleared an area of central Quang Nam province of Viet Cong. He remarked that he had had to rout them from tunnels lined with American cement. How was he to prevent their return? We suggested that the refugees be restored to their hamlets — now gutted by shelling — where they would perhaps see that their own interests lay in defending themselves from the VC.
Shortly thereafter a man named Jones, in his early thirties, appeared in my office. He had been sent to Danang by the CORDS office in Saigon. He was a former Marine who earlier had fought in that same central part of Quang Nam province. Subsequently he had earned a university degree and had now returned to Vietnam as an AID employee.
After we had a long chat, I recommended that he be assigned to the office of Province Senior Advisor in Hoi An, the capital of Quang Nam. He was to assume responsibility for moving refugees from the camps back to the area west of Hoi An known as Go Noi Island — not really an island, but so labeled because it was nearly surrounded by large rivers. With his knowledge of the area and his popularity with the province team and the Vietnamese, Jones was perfect for the job.
Day by day refugees crossed one of the rivers to build new houses with cement and tin furnished by CORDS. Each night they returned to the camps. Finally they moved into their new homes. Nearby was a watch tower with a Vietnamese Regional Force guard who could signal the villagers and the provincial military force in case of trouble. One night the VC came. Old men, women, and children, armed with shotguns and grenades, met them at the perimeter of the hamlet and drove them off.
One Sunday I visited Hoi An and ate lunch with Jones and other members of the Quang Nam advisory team. Jones intended that afternoon to scout out the area west of the newly inhabited hamlet to locate the site for a second hamlet. I told him I was quite encouraged and then returned to Danang.
Tragically, Jones was killed by a mine soon after. The triumph at Go Noi was not only a validation of the CORDS philosophy, but also a tribute to a brave officer. What could I possibly say to his widow living in Taiwan during his assignment to Vietnam? His dedication and skill are not forgotten, however. Jones’ name is engraved in the foyer of the Department of State among those of other Foreign Service personnel who have given their lives for their country.
I N AN EFFORT TO LIMIT THE ABILITY of North Vietnamese guerrillas to live off the land, our military forces carried out herbicide operations during the war. One of my CORDS duties was to authorize such operations.
One day an order for a strike that had been carried out repeatedly in the past reached my desk for signature.
- In a river valley between Kontum Province and the western side of Quang Ngai lived a tribe of Montagnards. Our forces had destroyed their rice every year since 1965, yet our Special Forces traveling through the area had reported on the friendly nature of these Montagnards. Why did we want to destroy their rice? The Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) feared it would be stolen by a VC regiment holed up in the mountainous jungles of Quang Ngai to the east of the river valley.
- I studied the numbers attached to that particular VC regiment; there were only about 900 men. Since it was theirs, why didn’t we let the Montagnards defend the rice?
When the Vietnamese commander of I Corps learned of my refusal to sign the strike order, he was not happy. What was it I wanted him to do, go in and liberate the area? I knew what that meant; he would herd all of the Montagnards into refugee camps. My earlier distrust of such camps had recently been ratified by an able American sociologist; reports prepared under his guidance showed that forcing villagers to move into these camps had turned many of them into communists or VC sympathizers. “No, General Lam,” I said, “let the Montagnards defend their rice.”
Needless to say, neither the Vietnamese nor the American military commanders were charmed by my refusal to budge. Some solution to the impasse had to be found. I sent our chief agriculturist with and assistant by helicopter over the area to survey that year’s rice supply. They reported back that the rice exceeded the Montagnard’s needs. Moreover, the rice was planted not only in the river valley, but also in adjacent valleys between mountains to the east. I asked if the rice in the river valley alone was sufficient to people’s needs. It was.
I then had the agriculturists compose an order, which I signed, authorizing our forces to hit the rice in the areas between the mountains to the east. These were the areas closest to the VC regiment; the rice most accessible to them would be destroyed. This proved to be a more difficult operation; our aircraft would have to fly in and out of tight mountain passes, not down a relatively straight river valley. Further, I insisted the aircraft not be armed — I didn’t want some nervous airman firing at the reflection of the sun off a Montagnard’s wrist watch.
To their credit, my military colleagues saw the wisdom of the plan. They carried it out without mishap.
AS THE MONTHS IN VIETNAM PASSED, whatever earlier fears I might have had about the ability to work together of our predominantly civilian CORDS team and the military increasingly were allayed.
- One day, for example, I received an urgent message from the province senior advisor in Thua Thien. The citizens there were throwing rocks at the trucks arriving to pick up garbage and trash in the area. Farmers in refugee camps could not produce crops and distribute foodstuffs by traditional means. The United States had to provide much of the province’s food supply. This came in plastic and tins, thereby creating a serious trash problem.
The American solution was to let trash-collection contracts, usually arranged by the U.S. Navy. In Thua Thien, the people were incensed because the Navy had contracted with an outsider, a firm in Danang, to provide the service. When I mentioned the matter to Alex Firfer, he said the Navy should have known better. It was a lesson that municipal authorities in the United States had learned long ago. But when I telephoned the vice admiral commanding the local Navy unit about the matter, he said the contract was a done deal, and he didn’t want to talk about it. I told him I was sending him a memo in any case. I must have written a pretty good one, because when I saw the officer a week later, he commented that I would be glad to know that he had canceled the Danang contract and had let a new one in Thua Thien.
I am remiss if I have led the reader to think that our CORDS successes in Vietnam were typically the result of civilian-military confrontations or that the military accepted our CORDS advice only grudgingly. Indeed, the strongest impression I took away from my Vietnam experience was how effectively civilian and allied military agencies can work together in a combat environment.
- For some years, for example, farmers from eastern parts of Thua Thien had been living in miserable camps along one of the main Vietnamese highways. Their land had become hard as a rock and unfit for tilling using traditional methods. Our CORDS office arranged to send Minneapolis Moline tractors into the area to break the ground; the 101st Airborne Division sent troops to drive them. Provincial Vietnamese military forces were assigned to the project to guard the tractors.
- On another occasion, a U.S. Navy LST brought us a load of hand tractors from Japan ordered through AID financing to distribute to farm communities. I remember yet the look of surprise on the ship captain’s face — no one had told him what his cargo was — at the sight of the bevy of Vietnamese beauties waiting at the port to festoon him with leis as a token of their gratitude. Later, the 101st assigned mechanics to assure that the tractors were properly assembled and in working order. Further, the division trained members of a local cooperative in their maintenance.
- Another time, the commanding general of the 5th Army Mechanized Brigade was quick to respond to my request that his brigade furnish materials for revetments to use in resettling refugees in Quang Tri.
WHATEVER REGRETS ONE MAY HAVE REGARDING AMERICA’S INVOLVEMENT in the Vietnam War, there remain positive memories of the CORDS experience. I believe the military commanders with whom we worked share those memories. After two years in Vietnam, I had seen that civilians had “educated” the military on many aspects of the special problems involved in a low intensity conflict. I myself had learned how indispensable the military’s assistance was in helping to achieve our civilian agency’s objectives. There was great value in working together. Perhaps my story has some value for future wars, as many experts believe that they are increasingly likely to involve indigenous populations directly, rather than to engage large, modern armies and navies in conflict.