CORDS: Winning Hearts and Minds in Vietnam

By Al Hemingway
9/18/2006 • Vietnam

In May 1967 an organization known as CORDS—Civil Operations and Revolutionary Development Support—was formed to coordinate the U.S. civil and military pacification programs. A unique hybrid civil-military structure directly under general William C. Westmoreland, the COMUSMACV, CORDS was headed by a civilian, Ambassador Robert W. Komer, who was appointed as Westmoreland’s deputy.

CORDS pulled together all the various U.S. military and civilian agencies involved in the pacification effort, including the State Department, the AID, the USIA and the CIA. U.S. military or civilian province senior advisers were appointed, and CORDS civilian/military advisory teams were dispatched throughout South Vietnam’s 44 provinces and 250 districts.

One such senior adviser was then Lt. Col. Philip Bolté, U.S. Army. Upon graduation from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point in October 1950, 2nd Lt. Bolté reported for duty with the 1st Cavalry Division in Korea. That November and December, Bolté participated in the Eighth Army’s retreat from North Korea, where he and his fellow soldiers “went 100 miles north and 200 miles south, for a net loss of 100 miles.” Wounded in action, he was taken to Japan for treatment. Years later, he would tell his soldiers in Vietnam, “If you have a choice to go to a cold war or a hot war, take the hot one!”

Retired from the U.S. Army with the rank of brigadier general, Bolté was interviewed by Al Hemingway in 1994 about his experiences with CORDS.

Vietnam: When did you arrive in Vietnam?

Bolté: In December 1967. I was assigned as a province senior adviser in Quang Tin province, I Corps section of South Vietnam. Tam Ky was the capital.

VN: What were the duties of a province senior adviser?

Bolté: My assignment was to advise the province chief in military operations, pacification efforts and civil affairs, which was virtually everything in that province.

VN: Who was the province chief at that time?

Bolté: My counterpart was Lt. Col. Haung Dinh Tho. He was later promoted to colonel. On my staff, I had a deputy sector adviser who was a lieutenant colonel. In addition, I had a military adviser for each of the staff members in intelligence, logistic, operations, etc. On the civilian side, I had a civilian deputy province senior adviser. Under him were refugee advisers, a Chieu Hoi adviser, two logistics advisers, an engineer adviser, etc. Two American Red Cross representatives were there also, and I supported them, although they were not under my command. We also had a military province hospital assistance team. Although they were a U.S. Navy unit, they were attached to me. In fact, a Seabee detachment located in Tam Ky was building a new province hospital.

VN: Sounds like a real ad hoc group.

Bolté: Oh, it was. We also had Marine Corps CAPs in our AO. Their headquarters were in Da Nang, and they were under the control of the III MAF. However, the RF and PF they worked with were commanded by my province chief.

VN: Talk about confusion.

Bolté: It really was. But things got done. I had a Joint U.S. Public Affairs Office adviser, a Marine lieutenant colonel on loan to the State Department and operating as a civilian involved in province communication efforts—handing out leaflets, coordinating the media, showing films to the public, that sort of thing. There was a bunch of Koreans building a province maintenance shop to maintain province official vehicles. All this was part of the advisory program. The facilities we built are probably being used by the Communists today.

VN: In Quang Tin province how many districts were there?

Bolté: Let me explain: Provinces are like states, and districts are similar to counties in those states. Under the districts were the villages and hamlets. Each district had a headquarters and a district chief. Each of the districts had an advisory team commanded by a major. They were all military personnel because the area was never that pacified. In Quang Tin, we ostensibly had five districts. Three were situated along Highway I and were basically friendly. Another one was a little farther west, and it, too, was friendly. However, it was isolated. This district had been cut off for four years, and it could only be resupplied by air. The adviser there was, in fact, a Special Forces captain not under my command, but we worked well together. The fifth district was farther out to the west, and it was nothing more than an outpost and did not have a permanent advisory team. So you see, nothing was simple.

VN: Explain the function of the CORDS program.

Bolté: At the top of the command structure was the ambassador to South Vietnam, who at that time was Ellsworth Bunker. General William Westmoreland worked for him. Now Westmoreland headed MACV, and he had two deputies: a military one and another for CORDS. So the structure was integrated from the top. In I Corps, where Quang Tin province was located, there was the III MAF commander. When I arrived there it was Marine Lt. Gen. Robert Cushman. His civilian deputy at the time, who just happened to be a former ambassador, was my immediate superior.

VN: You fell under a Marine command. Sounds a bit strange.

Bolté: Well, Cushman, in addition to being in charge of all the Marines in Vietnam, was also responsible for all the advisers in the III MAF area, which coincided with the Vietnamese I Corps—the northern five provinces. In fact, he was the adviser to his Vietnamese counterpart, Lt. Gen. Hoang Xuan Lam, the I Corps commander.

VN: Did each corps in Vietnam have the same type of structure as you just described?

Bolté: Yes, with the exception of IV Corps, because we did not have that many American troops stationed down there. It came under II Field Force, which also was responsible for III Corps.

VN: So CORDS successfully integrated the command structure.

Bolté: Pretty much, with the exception of the CIA. I don’t think they ever got them under their wing. Ambassador Komer had told me I was in charge of everything that was not Americal Division in Quang Tin province. Well…I started pushing the CIA around, and the next thing I knew the CIA representative from III MAF and my immediate superior came down to meet with me. The CIA representative accused me of trying to run the CIA. I said yes, because Komer told me I was to run everything. With the obvious acquiescence of my boss, he told me in no uncertain terms, “You’re not to run the CIA.” It was then I realized that I had been playing baseball using football rules. We were never able to solve the CIA problem; although the Tam Ky team was generally easy to get along with.

VN: Because of the many clandestine activities the CIA became involved in, the agency just ignored your chain of command?

Bolté: That’s right. For example, I wanted to pool our helicopters and airplanes, but they were against it. But I got back at them…I broke their motorcycle.

VN: That must have been frustrating. Say, for example, you were conducting an operation or program, and you didn’t realize they were operating in the same area.

Bolté: It was really more of an administrative problem than anything else. I simply tried to streamline things, as with the helicopters. They, of course, had Air America, and my military helicopter support came from Da Nang. They wanted to remain separate.

VN: Robert Komer had a unique nickname, “The Blowtorch.” I take it he had an aggressive personality. What kind of person was he?

Bolté: He did have an aggressive personality, no doubt about that. He was a hard charger. My only criticism of him was that he tended to sometimes wish away problems. For example, if he couldn’t get the people in Saigon, say the Vietnamese Joint Chiefs of Staff, to issue some order to the province chief, he would try to get it done through the advisory chain. Well, there wasn’t anything that province chief was going to do, no matter what I told him, if he didn’t get the word from Saigon. He just would not do it. This notwithstanding, Komer had a difficult task to perform, and he did it well.

VN: There were 44 provinces in South Vietnam. That had to be quite an arduous job?

Bolté: The overall job was certainly tough. How difficult it was in any one province depended upon how pacified the province was. In some, there would be a civilian running it with a military deputy. In I Corps, however, to the best of my memory, there was only one civilian province senior adviser.

VN: I take it then Quang Tin province was not pacified?

Bolté: Oh, Lordy, no! You took a chance when you drove across Tam Ky at night. And this was the capital! All the bridges along Route I had PF/RF guard detachments on them. The enemy would sneak in periodically, kill and wound the PFs and RFs, and try to blow the bridges. In fact, on three occasions while I was there, we had serious assaults on Tam Ky itself. During the 1968 Tet Offensive, the VC actually entered the province capital complex. We even killed a couple of them in the province chief’s office! That was only a few weeks after I arrived there.

VN: What a welcome to Vietnam!

Bolté: On the morning of January 2, when I arrived to assume my duties as the senior adviser, the Ly Tin District capital near Chu Lai had just been hit pretty hard. That was a precursor to Tet. Four weeks later, we were attacked.

VN: What happened the night the VC hit Tam Ky?

Bolté: We held. The Seabee detachment’s lines were assaulted because they were located near the province capital complex. The province chief remained in my command bunker throughout the night. I later heard through the grapevine that he was criticized for this. However, it made sense to me to stay there because we were able to maintain good communications throughout the battle. The province chief’s home was located right near the capital complex; if he had stayed there he would have been run out of it for sure.

VN: You mentioned earlier that you had a Chieu Hoi adviser. Did you get many enemy soldiers surrendering?

Bolté: We had a steady stream of them. There was a nearby camp where they were kept and trained. When the Chieu Hoi program director felt that they were “re-educated” enough, he’d release them sometimes to be assigned to military or paramilitary units. We also had a big prison in Tam Ky where the bad guys were incarcerated.

VN: What were some of the success stories of the advisory effort?

Bolté: We made progress in feeding refugees, building schools, improving roads, etc., but providing security was critical. We were able to expand the area under government control and establish defensive positions and, quite often, obtained help from the Americal Division’s 1st Squadron, 1st Cavalry, in whose area of operation we operated. We conducted cooperative operations, such as placing one of the squadron’s platoons in support of ARVN infantry in a particular area we felt was a high risk. I mentioned earlier that Tam Ky was attacked three times while I was there. Once was, of course, Tet. Another was in the early fall of 1968. I happened to be with the province ARVN cav unit when we ran right into a major NVA force. We engaged them, and I called for assistance from the 1st Squadron, 1st Cav. Later, when I was commanding the 1st Squadron, 1st Cav, we fought another large enemy force. I committed a bunch of ACAVs and tanks, and together with ARVN infantry, we clobbered them. When the battle was over, we counted 110 confirmed kills. This was on the outskirts of Tam Ky. It appeared as if the NVA were preparing to mount an assault on the capital itself.

VN: Luckily you were able to discover it.

Bolté: That’s because we had the 1st Cav operating in our province as well as ARVN, RF, and PF units. The 1st Squadron, 1st Cav, was an overwhelming force. Any enemy infantry battalion that ventured out of the mountains to fight them was crazy. They were extremely mobile. And their firepower was awesome! Just one platoon consisted of seven ACAVs (these ACAVs normally had two M-60 and one .50-caliber machine gun) and three M-48 tanks (equipped with a 90mm main gun, plus an M-60 and a .50-caliber machine gun). The squadron had nine of these platoons in the troops, plus an air cavalry troop of 27 helicopters.

VN: How did you get along with your counterpart, Lt. Col. Tho?

Bolté: Fairly well, although we did have arguments occasionally. For example, at one point, the assistant division commander (ADC) of the Americal Division was offering Tho all kinds of support without my knowledge.

VN: What kind of support?

Bolté: The ADC would respond to Colonel Tho’s request for, say, a couple of truckloads of barbed wire. However, the Vietnamese had plenty of barbed wire. Well, it was my job to make certain that my counterpart’s logistic system worked properly, and not have him bumming supplies from the Americal. Part of the problem was that some of the Vietnamese were selling all the extra supplies.

VN: On the black market?

Bolté: Yeah! Also, we had an ARVN engineer unit assigned to Tam Ky whose duties included maintaining Highway I. However, they didn’t do anything! There was a U.S. unit already doing that. Instead, this ARVN engineer unit was selling its services to the highest bidder. It was very frustrating. So…I would lean on the province chief and push him to get his people to function properly. Then, when he learned I was telling the Americal not to give him any more supplies, he got angry with me. Another part of this particular problem was the fact that the U.S. military chain of command was urging U.S. units to help the Vietnamese with supplies.

VN: There were allegations that the South Vietnamese government was riddled with corruption. How much of it did you encounter in Quang Tin province?

Bolté: It was everywhere. I had a Vietnamese assigned to me as an interpreter-driver. I discovered that when I was away, he would sell rides in my jeep. In essence, he provided a taxi service in town using my jeep! Quite a few Vietnamese officials were crooked.

VN: In your experiences, was this practice unusual?

Bolté: It was accepted. They felt that skimming 10 percent off of the top was all right. I was told once that the position of province chief cost 16,000 U.S. dollars. So if someone wanted to be one, he had to pay the Vietnamese corps commander that sum to get the job. Then, to get a return on his investment, he had to be involved in corruption somehow.

VN: Did you ever ask your counterpart if he had to pay to get his job?

Bolté: No. He probably would have laughed and told me that’s the way life is. Why else would someone want to be a province chief? It’s their way of operating. Maybe they just have it more structured than we do in this country.

VN: After nearly a year of advisory duty, you were offered the command of a unit. However, you had to extend your tour of duty six months in Vietnam. Why?

Bolté: At that time, I had spent nearly 20 years learning how to be a battalion commander. Now that my opportunity had arrived, I didn’t want to lose it. That’s why I accepted command of the 1st Squadron, 1st Cavalry, and extended my tour. I also thought I could do a better job because of my advisory experience. Fortunately, as I have mentioned before, the 1st Squadron, 1st Cavalry, operated in my AP. I felt I had a better understanding of the war and knew the Vietnamese in Quang Tin. When I was squadron commander, the province chief wouldn’t hesitate to call and suggest a joint operation.

VN: Maybe if other battalion commanders in South Vietnam had had the opportunities you had, it might have proved beneficial.

Bolté: If we ever had to fight a war like that again, and I was in a position of authority, that’s the first thing I’d do. Before anyone got to command a U.S. unit, I’d have him wallow around as an adviser to learn what the war was all about.

VN: What kinds of operations did you conduct with the Cav?

Bolté: The typical ops. Everyday I would send two or three platoons out on a sweep to see if the NVA were coming out of the mountains to steal rice or if we could uncover a Viet Cong operation or obtain intelligence from the villagers. They probably would have done this more often if not for these sweeps. Unfortunately, we found nothing most of the time and lost some people to mines. We had an attrition problem.

VN: Were the villagers classified as pro-VC?

Bolté: I think most of the villagers in Quang Tin province were just indifferent to the politics of the war around them. They merely wanted to be left alone. The VC would enter their villages at night to steal their food and proselyte them. Once you left the flatlands and headed west toward the mountains, there were very few villages there. The isolated district town I spoke of earlier had been cut off for four years was finally accessible when we ran an operation to open the road. As I said earlier, the adviser there was a Special Forces captain. We had worked well together when I was the senior adviser until, sadly, he was killed when the town was attacked one night. The other remote outpost district southwest of Tam Ky would get assaulted periodically. It was one of these political situations in which we didn’t want to concede another district.

VN: What are your feelings when you reflect on Vietnam today?

Bolté: I don’t think we fought the war well; it just was not managed properly, and most of our people did not understand it. I think what we did in the Korean War was much better. That is, the Korean army was put under direct command of U.S. officers, and they were ordered what to do. If we had done this with the South Vietnamese, showed them how to organize and run an army, it might have made a big difference. I’m sure people would have hollered and screamed for a couple of years, but in the long run, it would have been done correctly. I really believe that someday history will show that Vietnam was a noble gesture on the part of the United States. We did not have any territorial ambitions. We went to south Vietnam to help the government fight Communism, although we didn’t help them as well as we should have.


Al Hemingway is a former senior editor of Vietnam Magazine. For further reading, see: Vietnam At War: The History 1946-1975, by Philip B. Davidson; The United States in the Vietnam War, by Don Lawson; and The American Experience in Vietnam, by Clark Dougan and Stephan Weiss.

This article was originally published in the February 1994 issue of Vietnam Magazine. For more great articles be sure to subscribe to Vietnam Magazine today.

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