Winning the ‘hearts and minds’ of the South Vietnamese people was supposedly the goal of the pacification program.

By Colonel Harry G. Summers, Jr., U.S. Army (ret.)

One of the ongoing controversies of the Vietnam War is about the nature of the war itself. Was it primarily a “counterinsurgency,” a new kind of war whose decisive center of gravity–the point of enemy vulnerability toward which all efforts would be directed–was the “hearts and minds” of the South Vietnamese people? Or was it a conventional war, whose center of gravity was the enemy’s armed forces?

As Karl von Clausewitz emphasized more than a century and a half ago, “The first, the supreme, the most far-reaching act of judgment that the statesman and commander have to make is to establish… the kind of war on which they are embarking; neither mistaking it for, nor trying to turn it into, something that is alien to its nature. This is the first of all strategic questions and the most comprehensive.”

Richard A. Hunt examines the nature of the Vietnam War in Pacification: The American Struggle for Vietnam’s Hearts and Minds (Westview Press, Boulder, Colo., $36). After a tour of duty as a U.S. Army captain with Military Assistance Command Vietnam (MACV), Hunt joined the Army’s Center of Military History in Washington, D.C., where he remains today as a Vietnam War historian. A recognized authority on the pacification program, Hunt’s analysis reflects his many years of research, including detailed analysis of the papers of the Civil Operations and Revolutionary Development Support (CORDS) organization. He also interviewed Robert Komer and William Colby, the first two chiefs of CORDS.

“Under Lyndon Johnson,” Hunt notes in his introduction, “the United States enthusiastically embraced a unique nation-building mission in South Vietnam that had its origins in the same presidential impulses that gave birth to the Great Society….How and why pacification programs succeeded or failed, how and why American support of pacification changed, and how the changes affected pacification are the themes of this work….

“Pacification encompassed both military efforts to provide security and programs of economic and social reform,” Hunt says, “and required both the U.S. Army and a number of civilian agencies to support the South Vietnamese.” His analysis of that effort breaks down into three broad areas. The first area, covering the period from 1961 to 1967, encompasses the first third of the book, which details the search for solutions in dealing with what has been called “the other war.”

The bulk of the work is an in-depth examination of the formation of CORDS in 1967 and its successes and failures through the 1968 Tet Offensive, the Phoenix Program, the 1972 North Vietnamese Eastertide Offensive and the Paris Peace Accords in 1973 that brought the pacification program to a close. The final section appraises the effect of the program on the conduct of the war: “CORDS was founded on the assumption that pacification needed better management to succeed, but that assumption, based on good intentions, may have been taken too far….Reducing a complicated and difficult process, the transformation of South Vietnam into a viable nation, to a collection of bureaucratic programs had an insidious effect. It may have kept the Americans from recognizing the intractability of South Vietnam’s political, social and military problems….

“Would the eventual outcome of the war have possibly been different if the United States actually had run pacification programs, directly hired and fired South Vietnamese officials and commanded South Vietnamese paramilitary forces?” Hunt asks. “Given the iron determination of the communists to unite Vietnam, their patience and resilience, their strength and tactical flexibility on one hand, and the systemic problems of the Saigon government on the other, the answer is no….

“The advocates of pacification hoped it would cause a fundamental transformation of South Vietnam,” Hunt concludes. “But even if that transformation had occurred, it would most likely have taken too long and would in any case have exhausted the patience of the American people, inevitably eroding political support in the United States.”

As the State Department’s Norman Hannah pointed out in 1977, “This is the tragedy of Vietnam–we were fighting for time rather than space, and time ran out.” All this having been said, however, the failure of pacification did not lose us the war. Colonel Stuart Herrington, a province adviser in the pacification program, noted: “Like us, Hanoi failed to win the ‘hearts and minds’ of the South Vietnamese peasantry. Unlike us, Hanoi was able to compensate for this failure by playing their trump card–they overwhelmed South Vietnam with a 22-division force.”