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The American war in Vietnam was officially divided into two halves: the military war and “the other war: the war to win the hearts and minds of the people,” which gives Peter Davis’s 1974 documentary its title.
Whereas the aim of the military war was to kill large numbers of the enemy through “search-and-destroy operations,” the goal of the War to Win Hearts and Minds (as it was colloquially known) was to force villagers to move into areas controlled by the South Vietnamese government, depriving the National Liberation Front (NLF) of popular support. In congressional testimony in January 1966, Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara introduced evidence on the success of air and artillery attacks, including “the most devastating and frightening” B-52 raids, in forcing the villagers “to move where they will be safe from such attacks . . . regardless of their attitude to the GVN [government of the Republic of Vietnam].” This, McNamara continued, not only disrupted Vietcong (VC) guerrillas’ activities but also threatened “a major deterioration of their economic base.” McNamara later explained that it “has been our task all along” to “root out the VC infrastructure and establish the GVN presence.” In the hope that hunger would force the rural population to stop supporting the NLF and move to the U.S.- and Saigon-controlled areas, by the end of 1966 more than half of the chemicals sprayed were admittedly directed at crops. In February 1967, Donald Hornig, President Johnson’s chief scientific adviser, explained to a group of scientists that “the anticrop program was aimed chiefly at moving the people.”
The effect, however, was the destruction of nearly one-third of the cropland and more than half of the hamlets of South Vietnam. By 1972, two years before Hearts and Minds was completed, a U.S. Senate subcommittee report revealed that U.S. artillery attacks were responsible for the bulk of the ten million refugees (out of a total population of less than eighteen million) and most of the civilian casualties (estimated at 1,350,000 in the report).
“Refugee generation,” in fact, became a central goal of the U.S. war efforts in Vietnam. In 1966, Robert “Blowtorch Bob” Komer, who directed the pacification program—another name for the War to Win Hearts and Minds—stated that refugee generation helped to “deprive VC of recruiting potential rice growers.” In April 1967, he again recommended that the United States “step up refugee programs deliberately aimed at depriving the VC of a recruiting base.” In actuality, by the beginning of 1967, some 40,000 “pacification cadres,” about 10 percent of all U.S. troops and 90 percent of the South Vietnamese Army regulars, were already being used exclusively for pacification efforts, which included the destruction of villages and wholesale resettlement of the rural population in “new life hamlets” and “camps for refugees fleeing from Communism” in order to “secure” them. The pacification program created such enormous resentment, and consequently resistance, from the Vietnamese that, by mid-1967, U.S. Operation Mission (USOM) data reported that only 168 hamlets (out of a total of 12,537) in South Vietnam were controlled by the Saigon government. On the other hand, the NLF controlled 3,978. The remainder were listed as “contested” or controlled by both sides. Significantly, the official U.S. Hamlet Evaluation System (HES) admitted in an overall analysis of the 1967 pacification results that the NLF dominated the countryside. Clearly, the program had failed to win the hearts and minds of the people in South Vietnam.
To escape the effects of combat and bombing in the rural areas, tens of thousands of peasants fled to district and provincial towns or to Saigon. Others were resettled. Thus, although more than 90 percent of the population of South Vietnam had lived in the countryside before the arrival of the Americans, by 1972 about 60 percent of the total population had been “urbanized.”
Life became increasingly hard for people in the urban areas of South Vietnam. By 1972, approximately 800,000 orphans were roaming the streets of Saigon and other cities, begging, shining shoes, washing cars, picking pockets, and pimping for their sisters or mothers. There were reportedly some 500,000 bar girls and prostitutes, many married to South Vietnamese soldiers whose salaries were inadequate to buy rice to feed even one person. In addition, there were two to three million Vietnamese, many of them older people or disabled Saigon army veterans, who could not find work at all. Widespread hunger and unemployment resulted in increases in crime, suicides, and protests throughout the areas under South Vietnamese control. It is important to note that the latter were not spontaneous resistances by desperate people but planned protests conducted by the urban opposition of nonaligned “neutralist” or “Third Force” organizations. This group would later be officially recognized by the January 1973 Paris Agreement as one of three equal political segments of a coalition government called the National Council of National Reconciliation and Concord.
Despite brutal repression by the Saigon government, the Third Force managed to make itself heard. On July 25, 1970, a thousand members of the Women’s Movement for the Right to Life (led by a Columbia University–trained lawyer, Ngo Ba Thanh, whose interview in Hearts and Minds shows that she may have been roughed up by Saigon police) issued a manifesto declaring that: (1) the dignity of Vietnamese in general, and of Vietnamese women in particular, should be respected and protected; (2) women would struggle for peace and the right to life; (3) all U.S. soldiers must be withdrawn from Vietnam as a necessary condition to end the war; and (4) a coalition government should be formed to represent the Vietnamese people.
At this meeting, women from various parts of the country also testified about the wanton killing, rape, and other criminal acts committed by the Americans everywhere. Subsequently, hundreds of members of the Women’s Movement were arrested and tortured. Standard tortures included “chain raping,” electric shocks administered by attaching electrodes to the reproductive organs; insertion of live nonpoisonous snakes, soft-drink bottles, sticks, and electric bulbs into the vagina; branding and burning of the inner thighs or the vulva with lit cigarettes or heated iron; and hanging up by the thumbs or toes. In 1972, the Committee for the Reform of the Prison System in South Vietnam, headed by South Vietnamese Catholic priests and intellectuals, claimed that the government held 350,000 political prisoners. Political prisoners were, according to the government’s definition, anyone who was suspected of having an antiwar or neutral position or who was a relative of such a person. On November 10, 1972, the Washington Post reported that 40,000 new political prisoners had been picked up just in the first two weeks after the final draft of the Paris Agreement was announced.
Hearts and Minds estimates that there were 100,000 to 200,000 of these political prisoners—and has several scenes and interviews with former political prisoners who were injured by the torture methods mentioned above. It also includes an interview with Father Chan Tin, a Dominican priest, who says: “People can be arrested at any moment by any organization and then tortured in inhumane ways . . . and then imprisoned for years just because they dare to tell the truth, to ask for peace, for national reconciliation. And all that is considered a crime by the [President Nguyen Van] Thieu regime.” Another interviewee, Diem Chau, editor of a Saigon magazine called Trinh Bay, asks the filmmakers: “What kind of freedom can you [Americans] give us here in Vietnam when you throw so many of our compatriots into prisons without charge? Why? Just because you want to give us freedom? What kind of freedom could you give us?”
Hearts and Minds goes a long way in showing its audience why the United States could not have won any support in Vietnam, despite all its efforts. For almost a quarter century after the end of the war, American policymakers blamed the American press and the American antiwar movement for preventing the United States from delivering sufficient military and economic aid to South Vietnam. It was already clear to most Saigon observers, however, that more aid would only expedite the collapse of the Saigon government. Huynh Trung Chanh, a deputy in the Lower House, wrote the following in an editorial in the January 17, 1975, issue of the newspaper Dien tin:
The leaders of the Republic of Vietnam are now spreading the view that the present deteriorating situation is due to the lack of aid. But the reality of the situation is that the difficulty is not because of a lack of aid but because of lack of support of the people. In previous years, aid was overabundant, and yet what was ever solved? Now, if there is supplemental aid in order to meet this military situation, then the difficult period will only be prolonged, and in the end, nothing will be solved.
Even Father Nguyen Quang Lam, an ultraconservative Catholic priest known by the pen name of Thien Ho (Heaven’s Tiger), wrote the following in the February 10, 1975, issue of the paper Dai dan toc:
Yesterday I wrote that, whether there is an additional $300 million or $3 billion in aid, South Vietnam will still not be able to avoid collapse . . . In the afternoon, a reader called me up and said that I should have put it more strongly. I must say that the greater the aid, the quicker the collapse of South Vietnam. All I had to do was to take a look at our society . . . Come to think of it, the reader has a point there. The American dollars have really changed our way of thinking. People compete with each other to become prostitutes—that is to say, to get rich in the quickest and most exploitative manner possible . . . No wonder whenever our soldiers see the enemy, they run for their lives, even though they might have a basement full of ammunition that they could presumably fire till kingdom come.
It is clear from such statements that the Saigon regime was on the verge of collapse and that there was no longer a mood for military confrontation. When the Communist forces finally carried out their offensive, beginning in March 1975, one province after another fell with hardly a fight.
The focus by Hearts and Minds on the nature of political repression in South Vietnam is indeed prescient about the eventual demise of the Saigon regime. To Vietnamese viewers, it serves as a painful reminder of the prospect of a democratic Vietnam that was cruelly denied them after the signing of the Paris Agreement. The agreement established two parallel and equal parties in South Vietnam—the Saigon government and the Provisional Revolutionary Government (PRG)—and directed the two parties to reach a political settlement under conditions of full democratic rights, without U.S. interference (Articles 1, 4, 9, and 11). It was Article 12 of the Paris Agreement that stipulated the creation of the National Council of National Reconciliation and Concord, with its three equal segments. But as soon as the agreement was signed, President Thieu reiterated, with American acquiescence—not to say outright support—his Four Nos policy: no recognition of the enemy, no coalition government, no neutralization of the southern region of Vietnam, and no concession of territory.
In an interview published in the July 15, 1973, issue of Vietnam Report, an English-language publication of the Saigon Council on Foreign Relations, Thieu stated: “In the first place, we have to do our best so that the NLF cannot build itself into a state, a second state within the South.” In the same interview, Thieu also ruled out any role for the neutralist third segment, branding all Third Force people as pro-PRG. In a November 13, 1974, speech, Thieu was still insisting that all government means had to be used to prevent the creation of a Third Force. Hence, the brutal repression of the urban opposition in South Vietnam not only led to the easy victory by the Communists in 1975 but also weakened the Third Force to such a degree that it could never again play any meaningful role in Vietnamese political life. The authoritarian nature of a one-party system in Vietnam since 1975 has served the United States well in its postwar justification of its roles in Vietnam and its effort at “nation building” there through wanton firepower. But the blow to the Vietnamese social, economic, and political fabric will last for decades to come.
In the meantime, however, Hearts and Minds has been able to contribute much to the reconciliation between the Vietnamese people and the American people. Vietnamese audiences of this documentary that this writer has witnessed have never failed to be moved by the sight of Americans crying while describing their experiences in Vietnam—and especially by the last interviewee, who says: “Americans don’t understand that these people are fighting for their freedom.” This shows understanding and compassion. This is perhaps the reason why Vietnam has welcomed American veterans back by the thousands—and why most Americans who have visited Vietnam since 1975 have been very much impressed by the genuine hospitality of the Vietnamese people.
Ngo Vinh Long is a professor of history at the University of Maine. He is also a research associate at Duy Tan University, Da Nang City, Vietnam. He has contributed to the Journal of Contemporary Asia, American Historical Review, and other publications, and is a frequent commentator on Asian affairs on the Vietnamese-language broadcasts of Radio France Internationale, the BBC, and Radio Free Asia. This piece originally appeared in the Criterion Collection’s 2002 DVD edition of Hearts and Minds.